EDITOR’S NOTE: Today marks the 95th birthday of Ray Bradbury. In remembrance, here’s an updated version of a story Entertainment Weekly published when he died four years ago…
Ray Bradbury will be remembered forever as one of America’s greatest authors, but the truth is he never wrote anything. At least, that’s how he told it.
Whenever the storyteller, who died Tuesday at age 91, was asked about the creation of his most iconic tales — like the novels Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, and Something Wicked This Way Comes — Bradbury tended to say it was a mystery to him too. Bradbury said he sat down to do the typing, and the “demon” who lived inside him would start to speak.
“Everything comes to me,” he told Fox News in 2004. “Everything is my demon muse. I have a muse which whispers in my ear and says, ‘Do this, do that,’ but it’s my demon who provokes me.”
The 20th century was full of iconic writers who explored deeper parts of who we are through the genres of sci-fi and fantasy, but Bradbury stood out among them as the optimist. While many writers in these genres sent out warnings, Bradbury sent out hope. The one major dystopian exception was his most famous work — Fahrenheit 451, the story of a society where books are outlawed, and burned when found.
In an interview with The Paris Review, Bradbury acknowledged he was the happy outcast among these contemporaries. “I’m glad Kurt Vonnegut didn’t like me either,” Bradbury said of the Slaughterhouse-5 author. “He couldn’t see the world the way I see it. I suppose I’m too much Pollyanna, he was too much Cassandra.”
Although his work certainly explored darkness, he strained toward the light. He wrote in nearly every format — plays, television, and even some movies, most notably John Huston’s adaptation of Moby Dick. He was a friend of Walt Disney’s and helped design Spaceship Earth at Walt Disney World’s EPCOT center.
What he’ll be most remembered for are the words he committed to the page, an old-fashioned legacy he would surely love. Here’s a sampling of great moments from those classic stories — as told to Ray Bradbury by the demon who lived inside him.
- “The Rocket”
- “A Sound of Thunder”
- Dandelion Wine
- Fahrenheit 451
- “I Sing the Body Electric”
- Something Wicked This Way Comes
- The Martian Chronicles
- “The Illustrated Man”
- The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit
- From the Dust Returned
- NEXT PAGE: Venture to another world via Bradbury’s ‘The Rocket’
In his 1950 short story “The Rocket,” Bradbury imagined a world where the wealthy traveled regularly into space via luxury rockets, while the poor and working class could only watch dreamily as the machines passed by overhead. A struggling father, Fiorello Bodoni, begins to build his own rocket from a scrapped model, so his children could experience that magic, and what follows is less a story about space exploration than the power of imagination.
The 10-page tale is likely to bring a happy tear to even the most hardened cynic’s eye.
There was a moon. The rocket was white and big in the junkyard. It held the whiteness of the moon and the blueness of the stars. Bodoni looked at it and loved all of it. He wanted to pet it and lie against it, pressing it with his cheek, telling it all the secret wants of his heart.
He stared up at it. “You are all mine,” he said. “Even if you never move or spit fire, and just sit there and rust for fifty years, you are mine.”
The rocket smelled of time and distance. It was like walking into a clock. It was finished with Swiss delicacy. One might wear it on one’s watch fob. “I might even sleep here tonight,” Bodoni whispered excitedly.
He sat in the pilot’s seat.
He touched a lever.
He hummed in his shut mouth, his eyes closed.
Bradbury was not one for prognostication. Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke were far more astute with their predictions about how society would evolve as technology came to dominate our world, but Bradbury was actually more of a throwback, savoring bygone ideals and longing for a world that was perhaps a little less interconnected, but more present.
While other sci-fi writers were preoccupied with grandiose stories that altered pivotal moments from the past, his 1952 short story “A Sound of Thunder” put forth the idea that even tiny changes — like an insect crushed accidentally during prehistoric times — could have profound and unforeseeable ripples in the future. This was classic Bradbury: Little things mattered, because life was made up mostly of little things.
In the story, first published in Colliers magazine, time-travel is a kind of tourism. Visitors must stay on elevated paths to avoid touching anything, and hunters venture back to kill dinosaurs — but only those who are facing imminent death anyway.
First a day and then a night and then a day and then a night, then it was day-night-day-night. A week, a month, a year, a decade! A.D. 2055. A.D. 2019. 1999! 1957! Gone! The Machine roared. They put on their oxygen helmets and tested the intercoms.
Eckels swayed on the padded seat, his face pale, his jaw stiff. He felt the trembling in his arms and he looked down and found his hands tight on the new rifle. There were four other men in the Machine. Travis, the Safari Leader, his assistant, Lesperance, and two other hunters, Billings and Kramer. They sat looking at each other, and the years blazed around them.
“Can these guns get a dinosaur cold?” Eckels felt his mouth saying.
“If you hit them right,” said Travis on the helmet radio. “Some dinosaurs have two brains, one in the head, another far down the spinal column. We stay away from those. That’s stretching luck. Put your first two shots into the eyes, if you can, blind them, and go back into the brain.”
The Machine howled. Time was a film run backward. Suns fled and ten million moons fled after them.
“Think,” said Eckels. “Every hunter that ever lived would envy us today. This makes Africa seem like Illinois.”
One of his most beloved novels was not science fiction at all, but its opposite: an old-fashioned yarn about the past. Dandelion Wine was a semi-autobiographical account of his own early years, set in the idyllic Green Town, Ill. — a stand-in for his own hometown of Waukegan, Ill.
This coming of age story is set during the summer of 1928, as 12-year-old Douglas Spaulding desires to run fast in his worn-out sneakers, and lends a hand to his bootlegging grandfather who crafts alcohol out of common garden weeds. Although based on Bradbury’s own experiences, it is more a nostalgic portrait of how he wished those days had been. As Douglas embraces the idea of growing up and finding his destiny, he also must face the idea of letting go — because all things that get older also die.
Dandelion wine is the metaphor for saving those happy memories, preserving them as insurance against more painful times.
So, plucked carefully, in sacks, the dandelions were carried below. The cellar dark glowed with their arrival. The wine press stood open, cold. A rush of flowers warmed it. The press, replaced, its screw rotated, twirled by Grandfather, squeezed gently on the crop.
“There … so …”
The golden tide, the essence of this fine fair month ran, then gushed from the spout below, to be crocked, skimmed of ferment, and bottled in clean ketchup shakers, then ranked in sparkling rows in cellar gloom.
The words were summer on the tongue. The wine was summer caught and stopped. And now that Douglas Knew, he really knew he was alive, and moved turning through the world to touch and see it all, it was only right and proper that some of his new knowledge, some of this special vintage day would be sealed away for opening on a January day with snow falling fast and the sun unseen for weeks or months and perhaps some of the miracle by then forgotten and in need of renewal. Since this was going to be a summer of unguessed wonders, he wanted it all salvaged and labeled so that any time he wished, he might tiptoe down in this dank twilight and reach up his fingertips.
Bradbury’s 1953 novel stands alongside George Orwell’s 1984 as an iconic work about the control of ideas. In the story, firemen aren’t concerned with putting out accidental blazes. Their job is to purposefully destroy all books, which are a crime in this society, using flame-throwing hoses to reduce all written ideas to ashes.
The story focuses on Guy Montag, a fireman who begins to doubt his duty when he sees a woman choose to be burned alive with her books rather than leave them. As the story begins, however, with one of the great opening lines of any novel, he is a man who relishes his work.
It was a pleasure to burn.
It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black.
This line from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass takes on a more literal meaning in this Bradbury short story, which was turned into a classic episode of The Twilight Zone. After the death of their mother, three young children are taken by their father to pick out their new caregiver — a robot who operates in the guise of an old, grandmotherly woman.
It is notable for combining Bradbury’s nostalgia with his vision of the future, and testifies to his notion that although our human beings are fragile and sometimes fraught with pain, technology cannot fill the voids that occur naturally in our lives. At least, not without a cost. What becomes of the mechanical grandmother, who learns to love this family, when they grow up and no longer need her? And does something need to have a biological heart instead of a tin one to be alive, have a soul?
I remember her birth.
Wait, you say, no man remembers his own grandma’s birth.
But, yes, we remember the day that she was born.
For we, her grandchildren, slapped her to life.
A line spoken by the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth serves as the title for this supernatural saga involving two young boys who encounter an evil carnival, with a merry-go-round that runs in reverse and can turn the old young again. The price, of course, is steeper than most people are willing to pay, though the townsfolk are tempted by the promises of Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show, and not thinking about what they’re putting on credit for a peek behind the curtain.
Set in the same town as Dandelion Wine, this 1962 novel is a far more sinister take on growing up and growing old.
First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys. Not that all months aren’t rare. But there be bad and good, as the pirates say. Take September, a bad month: school begins. Consider August, a good month: school hasn’t begun yet. July, well, July’s really fine: there’s no chance in the world for school. June, no doubting it, June’s best of all, for the school doors spring wide and September’s a billion years away.
But you take October, now. School’s been on a month and you’re riding easier in the reins, jogging along. You got time to think of the garbage you’ll dump on old man Prickett’s porch, or the hairy-ape costume you’ll wear to the YMCA the last night of the month. And if it’s around October twentieth and everything smoky-smelling and the sky orange and ash gray at twilight, it seems Halloween will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.
This 1950 book is made up of short stories about a fantastical life on our neighboring red planet. Although it seems more dated than some of Bradbury’s other work — mostly because the habitable climate of a populated Mars runs counter to the barren, airless wasteland we now see on the planet — the stories remain popular as allegories for mankind’s ambition and short-sightedness. A thriving Martian civilization begins to collapse as Earthling explorers venture to the planet, paralleling the experiences of European conquerors as they ventured across North America, claiming Indian lands for their own.
This collection of stories is far from a utopian manifest, though it is fully infused with Bradbury’s sense of wonder. Instead it is a lament about good intentions going astray, and losing our way in search of something greater.
They had a house of crystal pillars on the planet Mars by the edge of an empty sea, and every morning you could see Mrs. K eating the golden fruits that grew from the crystal walls, or cleaning the house with handfuls of magnetic dust which, taking all the dirt with it, blew away on the hot wind. Afternoons, when the fossil sea was warm and motionless, and the wine trees stood stiff in the yard, and the little distant Martian bone town was all enclosed, and no one drifted out their doors, you could see Mr. K himself in his room, reading from a metal book with raised hieroglyphs over which he brushed his hand, as one might play a harp. And from the book, as his fingers stroked, a voice sang, a soft ancient voice, which told tales of when the sea was red steam on the shore and ancient men had carried clouds of metal insects and electric spiders into battle.
This 1951 collection of short stories is tied together by the device of its title story — “The Illustrated Man,” about a person whose entire body is covered with living tattoos, each one telling a different story. His own is equally compelling. William Philippus Phelps works at a carnival, which could use a Tattooed Man (since the last one died). When Phelps ventures to see a strange old woman who can paint him to suit his new job, she shows him some ink she already has — his face on her palm.
The tattoos are portraits of “the Deep Past and the Clear Present and the even Deeper Future,” she tells him. It all sounds pretty good, until one of those tattoos on his back evolves to show him committing murder.
The stories were turned into a 1969 anthology movie starring Bradbury’s friend Rod Steiger as the title character.
He was an entire civilization. In the Main Country, his chest, the Vasties lived — nipple-eyed dragons swirling over his fleshpot, his almost feminine breasts. His navel was the mouth of a slit-eyed monster — an obscene, in-sucked mouth, toothless as a witch. And there were secret caves where the Darklings, eyes jealously ablaze, peered out through rank creeper and hanging vine.
THE WONDERFUL ICE CREAM SUIT
Although his family originated in Illinois, and that was the setting of some of his most famous stories, Bradbury considered himself first and foremost a Los Angeleno, and his early adulthood was forever marked by witnessing a sprawling megalopolis spring up from this spartan desert town. His 1957 Saturday Evening Post short story about a group of Mexican-American guys who pool their money to purchase a bright white suit that would go on to change each of their lives in different ways, was inspired by fellows he knew from East L.A. and the Boyle Heights neighborhood.
He would go on to turn the story into a play, and wrote the screenplay for the 1998 movie, which was released direct to video, although he was always very fond of its tough-guy fairytale style.
Although it’s not sci-fi, it is fantasy, and it’s part of a tradition in Bradbury’s writing about how luck, and perseverance, and a little help from one tiny, unforeseen detail can forever transform a person’s life.
Instead of an excerpt from the story, here is the trailer to the movie he loved, which starred Edward James Olmos (as the world’s filthiest vagrant), Joe Mantegna, Esai Morales, Clifton Collins Jr., Gregory Sierra, Howard Morris and Sid Caesar:
This long-gestating novel, more than 50 years in the making, was also among Bradbury’s last. It is also a collection of linked short stories about a weird family of ghouls, ghosts and beasts and their various dark adventures.
As seen through the eyes of Timothy, a foundling human son, he longs to be like the adults in this “Eternal Family.” Again, even in his old age, Bradbury visits the themes of an innocent child, longing for experience, though growing up no longer means having to let go. A mummified grandmother, and assorted vampire and shapeshifter relatives brings a promise of immortality.
The supernatural, however, is not the only way to live forever. Bradbury did it with words on a page.
In the attic where the rain touched the roof softly on spring days and where you could feel the mantle of snow outside, a few inches away, on December nights, A Thousand Times Great Grandmère existed. She did not live, nor was she eternally dead, she … existed.
And now with the Great Event about to happen, the Great Night arriving, the Homecoming about to explode, she must be visited!
“Ready? Here I come!” Timothy’s voice cried faintly beneath a trapdoor that trembled. “Yes!?”
Silence. The Egyptian mummy did not twitch.
(Special thanks: Libraries and librarians were two of Ray Bradbury’s favorite things, and this story could not have been put together as quickly without the help of one in particular: Susanna Eng-Ziskin of the Oviatt Library at California State University, Northridge.)