The Saga of Ray Bradbury -- SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES pt. 1
Something Wicked This Way Comes is a special book. For that reason I am splitting this into a series of several parts. Part 1 herein covers Bradbury. This is the most extensive article I will cover for this series. Yes. It’s that important -- it’s that mandatory.
Like any kid I was first introduced to Ray Bradbury via the TV series Ray Bradbury theater. No surprise, it was my mother who loved the show. If you’ve been reading these articles by now you know she loved to watch her boys getting scared by watching all things creepy and then laughing like the Wicked Witch. Good times.
By the time I was in high school I knew the name Bradbury but, I’m ashamed to admit, I had not yet read his work. The Martian Chronicles was having a resurgence in popularity due in part to the television mini-series, but at that time in my life what informed my sense of all things sci-fi was (yes, of course) Star Wars. And to a lesser degree Star Trek.
I don’t want to confuse the reader, as I am all about books, but let’s be honest. Books and television (and movies) have always had a close relation. Today people no longer ask the question that if a book is successful will it be adapted for film. The question is, “When can I see the movie?”
As a kid, for a sci-fi book to grab my attention it had to compete with Star Wars. It’s weird, I know. But that’s how strong an influence George Lucas had on a generation. He’s been blamed for much less.
I was not a good student in school. At any level. I struggled with every class. Not because I lacked scruples. No. My problem was the lack of ambition to please others in doing what they told me to do. For me classes were boring and unimaginative. Nothing honestly challenged me. I learned well enough. I scraped by. And so, when I was first met with Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and its controversial history, I refused to read it and failed the class.
That’s a hard truth for me to admit. It’s now one of my all-time favorite books. Tied with Something Wicked This Way Comes for the top spot.
I don’t want to go too far off track but I feel the need to let you know that my love for Something Wicked started with the Walt Disney film, when a teacher played us VHS movies (often based on books -- such as Tuck Everlasting) instead of teaching the curriculum. I so wish I could write that I saw the movie in the theaters after I read the book, but no. In fact, I probably watched it on cable every time it was broadcast in a month.
It wasn’t until many years after school that I fell in love with Bradbury. And when I read Something Wicked This Way Comes, as a grown adult-type-person, I did so in one sitting. If you count from the bookstore to the bus stop, to the bus ride to the walk home, to the living-room couch as one sitting.
There was nothing like it in literature then and nothing now. When I read an author who is influenced by Bradbury, and Something Wicked directly, it is obvious. Its structure and poetic rhythm is unmistakable. Not to make an accusation, but Stephen King himself often lets its influence bleed through in his work. No, it’s not an exact model, and I can’t say that King has done this intentionally (I don’t believe he has), but it’s there.
It bleeds through in my own work. If I had to analyze my own writing style I would guess my main influences are Bradbury, King, and Rice. Possibly others. When I was much younger Robert E. Howard’s style worked as my own style structure.
Let me give you an example of how effective the book’s poetic structure is:
The boys slept.
Those three words are an entire chapter. Should that work as a chapter? Anyone teaching classes on creative writing may tell you no. Does it work as an entire chapter? In that book, yes. Absolutely.
I could go on praising the book. Better writers have already done so and I encourage you to seek them out. Better yet, read the damn book. There’s a good reason it’s mandatory.
Of all his works Ray Bradbury may be remembered best for Fahrenheit 451, but Something Wicked This Way Comes is an underappreciated masterwork of horror. To understand why we need to take a look back at the author’s life. Specifically, a certain event that occured in his boyhood*.
Bradbury was born in 1920, in Waukegan, Illinois. He was given the middle name "Douglas" after the actor Douglas Fairbanks. Bradbury was related to the U.S. Shakespeare scholar Douglas Spaulding and descended from Mary Bradbury, who was tried at one of the Salem witch trials in 1692. Yes, really.
Bradbury was surrounded by an extended family during his early childhood and formative years in Waukegan. An aunt read him short stories when he was a child. This period provided foundations for both the author and his stories. In Bradbury's works of fiction, 1920s Waukegan becomes "Green Town", Illinois.
The Bradbury family lived in Tucson, Arizona, during 1926–1927 and 1932–1933 while their father pursued employment, each time returning to Waukegan. They eventually settled in Los Angeles in 1934 when Bradbury was 14 years old. The family arrived with only $40 (equivalent to $764 in 2019), which paid for rent and food until his father finally found a job making wire at a cable company for $14 a week (equivalent to $268 in 2019). This meant that they could stay, and Bradbury, who was in love with Hollywood, was ecstatic.
Bradbury attended Los Angeles High School and was active in the drama club. He often roller-skated through Hollywood in hopes of meeting celebrities. Among the creative and talented people Bradbury met were special-effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen and radio star George Burns. Bradbury's first pay as a writer, at age 14, was for a joke he sold to George Burns to use on the Burns and Allen radio show.
Throughout his youth Bradbury was an avid reader and writer and knew at a young age that he was "going into one of the arts." Bradbury began writing his own stories at age 11 (1931), during the Great Depression — sometimes writing on the only available paper, butcher paper.
In his youth he spent much time in the Carnegie library in Waukegan, reading such authors as H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Edgar Allan Poe. At 12 Bradbury began writing traditional horror stories and said he tried to imitate Poe until he was about 18. Not a bad model to aspire to. In addition to comics he loved Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan of the Apes, especially Burroughs' John Carter of Mars series. The Warlord of Mars impressed him so much that at the age of 12 he wrote his own sequel. The young Bradbury was also a cartoonist and loved to illustrate. He wrote about Tarzan and drew his own Sunday panels. He listened to the radio show Chandu the Magician, and every night when the show went off the air, he would sit and write the entire script from memory.
As a teen in Beverly Hills he often visited his mentor and friend science-fiction writer Bob Olsen, sharing ideas and maintaining contact. In 1936, at a secondhand bookstore in Hollywood, Bradbury discovered a handbill promoting meetings of the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society. Excited to find there were others sharing his interest Bradbury joined a weekly Thursday-night conclave at age 16.
Bradbury cited H. G. Wells and Jules Verne as his primary science-fiction influences. Bradbury identified with Verne, saying, "He believes the human being is in a strange situation in a very strange world, and he believes that we can triumph by behaving morally". Bradbury admitted that he stopped reading science-fiction books in his 20s and embraced a broad field of literature that included Alexander Pope and poet John Donne. Bradbury had just graduated from high school when he met Robert Heinlein, then 31 years old. Bradbury recalled, "He was well known, and he wrote humanistic science fiction, which influenced me to dare to be human instead of mechanical."
In young adulthood Bradbury read stories published in Astounding Science Fiction, and read everything by Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and the early writings of Theodore Sturgeon and A. E. van Vogt.
The family lived about four blocks from the Fox Uptown Theatre on Western Avenue in Los Angeles, the flagship theater for MGM and Fox. There Bradbury learned how to sneak in and watched previews almost every week. He rollerskated there, as well as all over town, as he put it, "hell-bent on getting autographs from glamorous stars. It was glorious." Among stars the young Bradbury was thrilled to encounter were Norma Shearer, Laurel and Hardy, and Ronald Colman. Sometimes he spent all day in front of Paramount Pictures or Columbia Pictures and then skated to the Brown Derby to watch the stars who came and went for meals. He recounted seeing Cary Grant, Marlene Dietrich, and Mae West, whom he learned made a regular appearance every Friday night, bodyguard in tow.
Bradbury relates the following meeting with Sergei Bondarchuk, director of Soviet epic film series War and Peace, at a Hollywood award ceremony in Bondarchuk's honor:
They formed a long queue and as Bondarchuk was walking along it he recognized several people: "Oh Mr. Ford, I like your film." He recognized the director, Greta Garbo, and someone else. I was standing at the very end of the queue and silently watched this. Bondarchuk shouted to me; "Ray Bradbury, is that you?" He rushed up to me, embraced me, dragged me inside, grabbed a bottle of Stolichnaya, sat down at his table where his closest friends were sitting. All the famous Hollywood directors in the queue were bewildered. They stared at me and asked each other "Who is this Bradbury?" And, swearing, they left, leaving me alone with Bondarchuk.
Bradbury's first published story was "Hollerbochen's Dilemma", which appeared in the January 1938 issue of Forrest J. Ackerman's fanzine Imagination!. In July 1939 Ackerman and his then-girlfriend Morojo gave 19-year-old Bradbury the money to head to New York for the First World Science Fiction Convention in New York City and funded Bradbury's fanzine titled Futuria Fantasia. Bradbury wrote most of its four issues, each limited to under 100 copies. Between 1940 and 1947 he was a contributor to Rob Wagner's film magazine Script.
Bradbury was free to start a career in writing when, owing to his bad eyesight, he was rejected for admission into the military during World War II. Having been inspired by science-fiction heroes such as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, Bradbury began to publish science-fiction stories in fanzines in 1938. Bradbury was invited by Forrest J. Ackerman to attend the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society, which at the time met at Clifton's Cafeteria in downtown Los Angeles. This was where he met the writers Robert A. Heinlein, Emil Petaja, Fredric Brown, Henry Kuttner, Leigh Brackett, and Jack Williamson.
In 1939 Bradbury joined Laraine Day's Wilshire Players Guild, where for two years, he wrote and acted in several plays. They were, as Bradbury later described, "so incredibly bad" that he gave up playwriting for two decades. Bradbury's first paid piece, "Pendulum", written with Henry Hasse, was published in the pulp magazine Super Science Stories in November 1941, for which he earned $15.
Bradbury sold his first story, "The Lake", for $13.75 at 22, and became a full-time writer by 24. His first collection of short stories, Dark Carnival, was published in 1947 by Arkham House, a small press in Sauk City, Wisconsin, owned by writer August Derleth. Reviewing Dark Carnival for the New York Herald Tribune, Will Cuppy proclaimed Bradbury "suitable for general consumption" and predicted that he would become a writer of the caliber of British fantasy author John Collier.
After a rejection notice from the pulp Weird Tales, Bradbury submitted "Homecoming" to Mademoiselle, which was spotted by a young editorial assistant named Truman Capote. Capote picked the Bradbury manuscript from a slush pile, which led to its publication. Homecoming won a place in the O. Henry Award Stories of 1947. And it’s every author’s wish to be saved from the slush pile.
In UCLA's Powell Library, in a study room with typewriters for rent, Bradbury wrote his classic story of a book burning future, The Fireman, which was about 25,000 words long. It was later published at about 50,000 words under the name Fahrenheit 451, for a total cost of $9.80, due to the library's typewriter-rental fees of ten cents per half-hour. No one knows whatever became of that book. Right.
A chance encounter in a Los Angeles bookstore with the British expatriate writer Christopher Isherwood gave Bradbury the opportunity to put The Martian Chronicles into the hands of a respected critic. Isherwood's glowing review followed.
*Bradbury attributed his lifelong habit of writing every day to two incidents. The first of these, occurring when he was three years old, was his mother's taking him to see Lon Chaney's performance in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The second incident occurred in 1932, when a carnival entertainer, one Mr. Electrico, touched the young man on the nose with an electrified sword, made his hair stand on end, and shouted, "Live forever!" Bradbury remarked, "I felt that something strange and wonderful had happened to me because of my encounter with Mr. Electrico...[he] gave me a future...I began to write, full-time. I have written every single day of my life since that day 69 years ago." At that age Bradbury first started to do magic, which was his first great love. If he had not discovered writing, he would have become a magician. I’ll cover more of his encounter with Mr. Electro in part 2.
Bradbury claimed a wide variety of influences and described discussions he might have with his favorite poets and writers Robert Frost, William Shakespeare, John Steinbeck, Aldous Huxley, and Thomas Wolfe. From Steinbeck he said he learned "how to write objectively and yet insert all of the insights without too much extra comment". He studied Eudora Welty for her "remarkable ability to give you atmosphere, character, and motion in a single line". Bradbury's favorite writers growing up included Katherine Anne Porter, who wrote about the American South, Edith Wharton, and Jessamyn West.
Bradbury was once described as a "Midwest surrealist" and is often labeled a science-fiction writer, which he described as "the art of the possible." Bradbury resisted that categorization, however:
First of all, I don't write science fiction. I've only done one science fiction book and that's Fahrenheit 451, based on reality. Science fiction is a depiction of the real. Fantasy is a depiction of the unreal. So Martian Chronicles is not science fiction, it's fantasy. It couldn't happen, you see? That's the reason it's going to be around a long time—because it's a Greek myth, and myths have staying power.
Bradbury recounted when he came into his own as a writer the afternoon he wrote a short story about his first encounter with death. When he was a boy he met a young girl at the beach and she went out into the water and never came back. Years later, as he wrote about it, tears flowed from him. He recognized he had taken the leap from emulating the many writers he admired to connecting with his voice as a writer.
When later asked about the lyrical power of his prose, Bradbury replied, "From reading so much poetry every day of my life. My favorite writers have been those who've said things well." He is quoted, "If you're reluctant to weep, you won't live a full and complete life."
In high school Bradbury was active in both the poetry club and the drama club, continuing plans to become an actor, but becoming serious about his writing as his high school years progressed. Bradbury graduated from Los Angeles High School, where he took poetry classes with Snow Longley Housh, and short-story writing courses taught by Jeannet Johnson. The teachers recognized his talent and furthered his interest in writing, but he did not attend college. Instead, he sold newspapers at the corner of South Norton Avenue and Olympic Boulevard. In regard to his education, Bradbury said:
Libraries raised me. I don't believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don't have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn't go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.
He told The Paris Review, "You can't learn to write in college. It's a very bad place for writers because the teachers always think they know more than you do – and they don't." And he’s right.
Bradbury described his inspiration as, "My stories run up and bite me in the leg—I respond by writing them down—everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go and runs off".
A reinvention of Waukegan, Green Town is a symbol of safety and home, which is often juxtaposed as a contrasting backdrop to tales of fantasy or menace. It serves as the setting of his semi-autobiographical classics Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Farewell Summer, as well as in many of his short stories. In Green Town, Bradbury's favorite uncle sprouts wings, traveling carnivals conceal supernatural powers, and his grandparents provide room and board to Charles Dickens. Perhaps the most definitive usage of the pseudonym for his hometown, in Summer Morning, Summer Night, a collection of short stories and vignettes exclusively about Green Town, Bradbury returns to the signature locale as a look back at the rapidly disappearing small-town world of the American heartland, which was the foundation of his roots.
Personal note: if there are any producers looking to make the next big Netflix series Green Town is it.
Late in life Bradbury retained his dedication and passion despite what he described as the "devastation of illnesses and deaths of many good friends." Among the losses that deeply grieved Bradbury was the death of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, who was an intimate friend for many years. They remained close friends for nearly three decades after Roddenberry asked him to write for Star Trek, which Bradbury never did, objecting that he "never had the ability to adapt other people's ideas into any sensible form."
Bradbury suffered a stroke in 1999 that left him partially dependent on a wheelchair for mobility. Despite this he continued to write, and had even written an essay for The New Yorker about his inspiration for writing, published only a week prior to his death. Bradbury made regular appearances at science-fiction conventions until 2009, when he retired from the circuit.
Bradbury died in Los Angeles, California, on June 5, 2012, at the age of 91, after a lengthy illness. Bradbury's personal library was willed to the Waukegan Public Library, where he had many of his formative reading experiences.
The New York Times called Bradbury "the writer most responsible for bringing modern science fiction into the literary mainstream." The Los Angeles Times credited Bradbury with the ability "to write lyrically and evocatively of lands an imagination away, worlds he anchored in the here and now with a sense of visual clarity and small-town familiarity". Bradbury's grandson, Danny Karapetian, said Bradbury's works had "influenced so many artists, writers, teachers, scientists, and it's always really touching and comforting to hear their stories". The Washington Post noted several modern day technologies that Bradbury had envisioned much earlier in his writing, such as the idea of banking ATMs and earbuds and Bluetooth headsets from Fahrenheit 451, and the concepts of artificial intelligence within I Sing the Body Electric.
On June 6, 2012, in an official public statement from the White House Press Office, President Barack Obama said:
For many Americans, the news of Ray Bradbury's death immediately brought to mind images from his work, imprinted in our minds, often from a young age. His gift for storytelling reshaped our culture and expanded our world. But Ray also understood that our imaginations could be used as a tool for better understanding, a vehicle for change, and an expression of our most cherished values. There is no doubt that Ray will continue to inspire many more generations with his writing, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends.
Numerous Bradbury fans paid tribute to the author, noting the influence of his works on their own careers and creations. Filmmaker Steven Spielberg stated that Bradbury was "[his] muse for the better part of [his] sci-fi career.... On the world of science fiction and fantasy and imagination he is immortal". Writer Neil Gaiman felt that "the landscape of the world we live in would have been diminished if we had not had him in our world".
Author Stephen King released a statement on his website saying:
Ray Bradbury wrote three great novels and three hundred great stories. One of the latter was called 'A Sound of Thunder'. The sound I hear today is the thunder of a giant's footsteps fading away. But the novels and stories remain, in all their resonance and strange beauty.
Next: SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES pt. 2 - The Book