R is for Ray

I grew up on Ray Bradbury. Each raven-winged October, I would sneak off to my school library and promptly vanish into the pages of The Halloween Tree and Something Wicked This Way Comes. Ray was born in the month of August, but his soul surely hatched around jack-o’-lanterns and black cats, hot cider and the sugar skulls of the Festival of the Dead. As a child of September, I was even closer to my favorite holiday, and I remember riding my bike around my childhood neighborhood, thinking of the haunted worlds I had discovered in the pages of a good Bradbury novel.

Ray’s first book was published by Arkham House, which had been founded to bring the work of another fantasist — H.P. Lovecraft — to widespread publication. And like Lovecraft, Ray stoked the engines of fear, frost, and fire. At times it was strictly the stuff of phantasmagorical nightmares like the ageless devils of Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show. Other times it stepped hauntingly closer to reality; he wrote Fahrenheit 451 in the ’50s as the shadow of censorship, paranoia, and exploited fear was drawing itself like a funeral pall over American society.

But Bradbury’s love was not politics. It was words, books, and libraries. It was imagination, set loose like unbridled horses over a mysterious country.

In 1932 at twelve years old, Bradbury attended a carnival in which one of the entertainers, Mr. Electrico, tapped him on the head with an electrified sword that made his hair stand up. “Live forever!” Electrico told him. The incident had a profound effect on the imaginative child, who from that moment dedicated himself to writing every single day, for all the days of his life. Something Wicked This Way Comes was born in that moment, even if it was only a seedling at the time, and I have to believe he smilingly recalled the episode during the writing of I Sing the Body Electric!

It was Bradbury who took us to Mars. And it hardly matters that science has disproved his notions of gold-eyed Martians strolling by glittering canals. Ray established a mythos that burns bright enough to eclipse — even for a dreamy moment — the colder, lonelier facts of Mars as it really is.

Bradbury was the warrior-poet of green childhoods, worn tennis shoes, and dazzling fireworks bursting like fire balloons over dark carnivals. He is the only writer I know whose prose is as magical as poetry. He didn’t write to hammer messages at us — he wrote because he loved to write and needed to write — and yet truths are to be found in his work, like secrets in the mythic depths of old caves. Ray Bradbury wielded the torch, winked at us, and beckoned us to follow him. Ray Bradbury was the illustrated man.

The outward appearance of him as a bespectacled grandfather clacking away on a typewriter is strangely incongruous to the Merlin-like visions he was able to produce: worlds in which people lived entire lifespans in just eight days; a lonely sea-beast who swims the cold miles to sing to a foghorn; a deserted city counting the centuries to its bloodchilling revenge; time-traveling hunters who sought a Tyrannosaurus Rex only to step on a butterfly and destroy a world.

Upon hearing of Ray’s death last night, I gazed up at my bookshelf and saw the volumes of his work. The titles stared back from faded spines, the pages smelling of autumn and time. And I realize with tremendous sorrow that this is it. No more books will be coming from him. No more worlds to be explored with him as travel guide.

The closest I came to meeting him in person was when a story of mine, written in my own adolescence, appeared in an edition of Elements of Literature right alongside his own story “The Pedestrian.” The lesson plan following our tales asked students to compare and contrast the themes of dystopia that Ray and I explored. When the book was closed, the stories touched.

Ray has left us now. He climbed into the cockpit of his own Toynbee Convector and went traveling… to far distant shores and the million-year-picnic.

Now and forever, R is for Ray.
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