Ray Bradbury: Author of the sci-fi classics Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles

 

In 1987, a major poll was held of more than 200 contemporary writers of fantastic fiction. The work of Ray Bradbury received the following accolades: first in fantasy novels; second in fantasy short fiction; and fourth in favourite science-fiction novels. A resulting list of recommended reading featured no less than 31 of Bradbury's short stories, and his books received high ratings in other related polls.

There are few who could claim such an enormous following and respect – not only from the general public, but from fellow writers. Several fantasy writers have dedicated their books to him. The mainstream literary style which Bradbury brought to a genre of fiction that has always struggled to achieve a "respectable" status, earned him an immediate and enviable reputation.

He will be remembered as the science-fiction writer who wrote with a lyrical, poetic style; a horror writer whose chills came from far darker places than those of most of his mainstream peers. His fiction was underpinned with a sense of "boyhood" wonder, where the circus always crept into town at the break of day; but Bradbury's circus held extraordinary secrets. He shares a special relationship with 19th century American gothic writers: Hawthorne, Poe and Melville. The film director John Huston approached Bradbury to write the screenplay of Moby Dick because he "smelled the ghost of Melville" in one of his short stories, "The Fog Horn".

He is also remembered as the creator of The Illustrated Man, The Martian Chronicles and of what is arguably one of the most remarkable dark fantasy novels of the 20th century: Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Ray Douglas Bradbury was born on 22 August 1920 in the small town of Waukegan, Illinois. He often spoke of having had a particularly happy childhood, with his relatives – aunts, uncles and grandparents – all living on the same block. His father, Leonard Bradbury, descended from a line of English ancestors, had a job title that seemed ironically appropriate given the style of image that eventually haunted his son's work. He was a linesman with the Waukegan Bureau of Power and Light. One ancestor, Mary Bradbury, was tried for alleged witchcraft during the Salem trials.

Being an exceptionally imaginative child, Bradbury's nightmares and fantasy recreations haunted him throughout his boyhood. His mother often read Grimm's fairy tales to him and his aunt, Neva Bradbury, a dressmaker and theatrical designer, read Edgar Allen Poe whilst making masks and marionettes for his entertainment. Halloween, and the month of October in particular, seemed to obsess him (one of his first collections of short stories was entitled The October Country). He often expressed the wish that he had been born on Halloween night.

With parents who encouraged his developing imagination, his hunger for books (visiting the library every Friday) and the movies (when he could afford it) nurtured this preoccupation with wonder. He viewed the passing of everyday events through a different kind of glass. The travelling fairs and tent shows that stopped at Waukegan brought many strange characters to his doorstep. He claimed that an encounter with a magician, Mr Electrico, sealed his decision to create his own fantasies. The present of a toy typewriter from his parents, at the age of 12, started him on the road with a writing regime of four hours a day.

As with most poor American families, the Depression affected the Bradburys to the point of their having to leave Waukegan permanently. After spending time in Arizona, they moved to Los Angeles in 1934. In public high school, Bradbury could develop his love of theatre, an affection that may well have been instilled by his Aunt and which was to remain with him. Few realise the depth of his involvement and interest in theatre. He formed his stage company, The Pandemonium Theatre Company, in 1964, adapting and writing librettos for Dandelion Wine with Billy Goldenberg, and in 1969, a cantata – Christus Apollo, with film music composer Jerry Goldsmith.

His first story, "Pendulum", appeared in Super Science Stories in 1941. Poor eyesight kept him out of the army. He earned his living by selling newspapers and from 1943 to 1945 by the traditional path often taken by sci-fi and horror writers, selling to pulp magazines: Weird Tales, Amazing Stories, Astounding Science Fiction and others.

He claimed that he got "all of (his) night-sweats and terrors down on paper" with the publication of his first book of stories, Dark Carnival (1947). This was published by fellow fantasy writer and publisher August Derleth, on the specialist H P Lovecraft-inspired list Arkham House.

His famous Martian short story collection, The Martian Chronicles, published in 1950, was reviewed by Christopher Isherwood. Isherwood stated that Bradbury's was a "very great and unusual talent".

As with several of Bradbury's other works, The Martian Chronicles was unsatisfactorily filmed, appearing as a TV movie featuring Rock Hudson. Bradbury was never very happy with most adaptations of his work, but he did like Truffaut's version of Farenheit 451. Strangely (with one "near exception"), he was denied the opportunity to write his own screenplays. This was somewhat ironical considering that his script for Huston's Moby Dick was acclaimed as one of the finest things about the film. When Disney produced a long-awaited version of Something Wicked This Way Comes, director Jackie Clayton commissioned John Mortimer to write the script without Bradbury's knowledge. Bradbury (who wanted to script it himself) fought to get his way and not only managed to get his screenplay used, but persuaded the studios to allow him to re-edit the final part of the film at his own expense.

In his later years, Bradbury devoted more of his time to writing poetry. This was to limited acclaim, although his use of language could be startlingly beautiful, economic and perceptive.

Not that the prose dried up completely. In 2002 he published the mystery novel Let's All Kill Constance, a sequel to 1985's Death Is a Lonely Business, about an ageing actress and a string of mysterious deaths. Farewell Summer (2006) was his final novel, a semi-autobiographical tale of sexual awakening which followed on from Dandelion Wine (1957). Throughout the past decade, Bradbury also continued to publish collections of his much-loved short stories.

He was a man of ideas, frequently basking in the light of his own range. Often asked to provide designs for futuristic projects, in 1964 he was invited to conceptualise the upper floor of the United States Pavilion for the New York World's Fair. For Walt Disney, he helped plan Spaceship Earth at Disney World in Florida. He was even consulted on the construction of shopping malls.

He was involved in many projects in the later part of his life, and was regularly seen at fantasy writer's conventions, usually as a guest of honour.

Ray Bradbury described himself as a "magic realist", as well as "an SF writer most of the time", but also "a disciple of Poe". He was a humanitarian, an exceptionally warm and kind man who wrote about rocket ships to Mars, but would never fly or even drive a car himself.

In an interview given in 1976 to Writer's Digest he said: "I'm not afraid of machines... I don't think the robots are taking over. I think the men who play with the toys have taken over. And if we don't take the toys out of their hands, we're fools."

Among Bradbury's numerous awards, he received the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2000; the 2004 National Medal of Arts; and a 2007 Pulitzer Prize Special Citation. He died peacefully at home in Los Angeles after a lengthy illness.

Laurence Staig

Ray Bradbury, author: born Waukegan, Illinois 22 August 1920; married 1947 Marguerite Susan McClure (died 2003, four daughters); died Los Angeles 5 June 2012.

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