Ray Bradbury Wrote Me Back

About 11 insufferably blazing East Coast summers ago, I spent my days repairing industrial coffee machines and pushing pallets around a large, sprawling warehouse. Before I ever considered that writing or editing would be a part of my life, I worked for a gourmet coffee distributor and supply company stationed in the Philadelphia suburb where I grew up. It was one of those labor-intensive, character-building jobs, but it subsequently proved part of a string of unsatisfying employment that I stumbled through on my way back to college. It’s a familiar tale — I took a once-harmless “semester break” that eventually lasted six years.

On one afternoon that summer, while hunched over the big stainless steel sinks where we hosed off coffee grounds and grit from weathered machines that had returned for refurbishing, I got a phone call at the workbench. It was my mother, phoning about mail that arrived for me at my parents’ house. An envelope was waiting for me on their kitchen table, and across the top left corner in childish red marker scrawl, Ray Bradbury had written his name and home address.

I’d only been reading Bradbury intently for a few years by then, but what I did get around to read, I’ve never managed to forget. Whether he is cataloging oddities born at seedy, late-night carnivals or merely reflecting upon his boyhood summers in typically luminous prose, Ray Bradbury’s fiction offers a wealth of ideas both weird and heartbreaking. The award-winning author, screenwriter, playwright, and poet likely played a role in my decision to finish school as a literature major, during which I began seeking work as a writer and editor. For better or for worse, Bradbury’s stories helped steer me toward finishing my education and nudged me to write.

In my pre-college years, I wandered in and out of aimless employment, finding paychecks in office temp work as well as in other various locales. Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine, The Illustrated Man, and The Martian Chronicles were the books I read during my lunch hour, or pored over when I was working on a mundane project. These books, which the author has branded “accidental novels”, are built generally of short stories bound by a single theme or place. The genres run the gamut from horror to what people at the time deemed science fiction, and more, with Bradbury’s dazzling craftsmanship lighting every page. My affinity is rooted in these accidental novels, as well as in the collections that plunder what is seemingly a limitless vault of manuscripts.

Before the coffee service job, I wasted a bit of my early 20s in a blue Mobil jacket. As an attendant at a gas station, I had plenty of time to sift through paperbacks, particularly Bradbury’s work. His stories floored and sometimes terrified me. My shifts at the Mobil station started early, and on those frigid mornings I would stand out in the first, brisk air of the day and stick the gas tanks via portals in the concrete. Shivering steadily, I took measurements of the petroleum levels with a long wooden pole before hurrying back inside the station’s market. The lot was cold and blacked-out between five and six A.M., and long before the mechanics had clocked in next-door, there was little more than the glow of adjacent traffic lights behind me. I worked out there by myself, mulling over what I’d read through the previous night shift — about a horde of people that would race down the street at 30 seconds’ notice, simply to admire death and catastrophe when an accident had just taken place, and sometimes take part in it. I’d read about a man who’d become so aware of the skeleton beneath his flesh — prodding himself and running his fingers over his “protuberant bones” — that it overtook everything else of importance in his life, with disastrous results. These were the subjects of The October Country, a 1955-era repackaged assortment of some of Ray Bradbury’s earliest short stories. It was the first book I purchased with the author’s name on the spine.

Fifteen works in The October Country first saw the light of day when they were culled in 1947 for a larger collection called Dark Carnival. As the latter was Ray Bradbury’s first published book, the bulk of Dark Carnival‘s tales were printed previously in magazines, only they weren’t in New York glossies. In fact, Bradbury had considerable difficulty breaking into that set. When the author needed cash to go to Mexico in 1945, he tried publishing under a pseudonym to sell his work.

“Since I had been appearing regularly in the pulps, I was afraid that the slick magazine editors would be prejudiced against using my real name,” Bradbury told writer William F. Nolan for an interview in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1963. Collier‘s, Mademoiselle, and Charm accepted and paid for three stories of Bradbury’s that he submitted under the name “William Elliott.” When he promptly told them of his real name, the editors hadn’t heard of him anyway, and were happy to amend his byline. Incidentally, a story called “Bright Phoenix” follows Nolan’s interview in that issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It had been rejected by Harper’s Bazaar and The Atlantic Monthly, and would serve as the blueprint for Fahrenheit 451, the critically lauded novel that Bradbury wrote in a UCLA basement typing room.

The October Country triggered my fascination, but I was already familiar with comic book adaptations of Ray Bradbury’s work, specifically those that appeared in reprints of the classic E.C. horror and crime series (Tales from the Crypt, True Crime). I can trace the seeds of my relationship with the author’s books to these comic versions as well as to a short story I read as a kid.

During my years in a Catholic grade school book discussion group, where I endured unspeakable terrors that even Ray Bradbury couldn’t dream up, I’d been assigned his 1950 tale about an automated home, complete with a room that that virtually recreated an African veldt, with lions “so startlingly real that you could feel the prickling fur on your hand, and your mouth was stuffed with the dusty upholstery smell of their heated pelts.”

“The Veldt”, which appears in Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man, is a masterwork. Amid the other stunning pieces in the collection, “The Veldt” prominently showcases perhaps what he does best — exploring and amplifying our fears and sense of wonder relating to The Unknown, while retaining a tangible and realistic view of human emotion. Even in grade school, “The Veldt” had a considerable impact on me. It whisked me out of colorless suburbia for a couple of days, and I immediately decided it was worlds better than all of the other mediocrity I’d been asked to read.

In his introduction to 1980’s The Stories of Ray Bradbury, a voluminous tome that packs 100 stories into one place, the author recounts seeing lions at the circus, and reading about them in the libraries he would hole himself up in as a child. When he saw lions on the big screen in a 1924 Lon Chaney film, he envisioned them at the terrifying center of “The Veldt”. Further along in the Stories introduction, Bradbury refers to himself as “the man with the child inside who remembers all.” The author discusses his reliable memory and the brainstorming powers of listing nouns in the insightful Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews (Stop Smiling Books, 2010), writer and teacher Sam Weller‘s second book on the subject.

“…When you get the list down, that’s when you begin to word associate around it,” Bradbury explains. “You ask, ‘Why did I put this word down? What does it mean to me? Why did I instantly put this noun down, and not some other word?’ Do this, and you’re on your way to being a good writer. You must pour everything out that’s in your subconscious.”

When I began reading Ray Bradbury’s work regularly in my early 20s — long after my experience with “The Veldt” — I couldn’t stop. I checked into used bookstores in Philadelphia and in nearby neighborhoods to see what I could dig up that I hadn’t already taken home. The older and dustier the book jackets, the better. I plunked down cash for duplicates, too — if there was an edition of The Illustrated Man that aesthetically differed from the one I had on my desk, if in even the most trivial manner, I bought it. More collections, too. The Toynbee Convector. Long After Midnight. I Sing the Body Electric! Around the same time, I learned that our birthdays were a day apart, his on August 22nd, so I sent off a greeting card that merely thanked the author for his superb stories and wished him a happy birthday. Not long after my correspondence to him, Ray Bradbury wrote me back.

On his personalized stationary (yellow cardstock with his address and a space-scape image in the margin), my mail from the author was handwritten, hopefully by him. It was a “thanks for the kind words,” and an excited pronouncement: “Onward, to 2000!”

I still have the envelope and the note.

Some of Ray Bradbury’s books sit on my shelf, unread — while I’m ashamed to admit that, I’ll say that I’m glad to have a small section of my bookcase set aside for the author. I feel fortunate that there are Bradbury stories that go unexplored in my bedroom, waiting for me to dust off their jackets and settle into them for the first time.