Each year when autumn arrives, I’m drawn by a kind of inner gravity to revisit the work of Ray Bradbury, and to recharge his fictional vision within me. This is always inextricably intertwined with the transcendent longing that I mentioned in my previous (just-published) column, Fantasy, Horror, and Infinite Longing.
There I talked about the sense of transcendent yearning that I’ve experienced intermittently since childhood, and that often comes to me as a companion to the autumn season. I speculated about its profound significance for both human consciousness and the fantasy and horror genres, and I talked about some of the authors — C.S. Lewis, H.P. Lovecraft, Colin Wilson — who have known it and focused directly on it in their work.
Here I focus on the fact that Bradbury is a master at both arousing and confirming this experience of heightened inner intensity. My first readings of The October Country, The Illustrated Man and Something Wicked This Way Comes as an early adolescent left a permanent mark on me, both intellectually and emotionally. More than just the sum of their parts, his books and stories conveyed to me then, and convey to me now, an entire vision of the world in which darkness and light both intensify to new heights and depths of vividness, and all the daily details of life assume a kind of mythic numinosity. Which is to say that his work exemplified then, and still exemplifies now, what I take to be the deep raison d’être of fantasy and horror.
Right now, in the heart of the October and Halloween season, is the time of year with which Bradbury’s name and persona are perhaps most strongly associated in the minds of his readers. His classic The October Country is a canonical fantasy-horror text, and it’s one of those vibrant books that doesn’t just subsist on its reputation but continues to be read and reread by those who adore it, and discovered anew those who are astonished by it. For my money, it channels the emotional essence of the month with profound power, just as one would hope from its title. Pair it with his short novel The Halloween Tree, not to mention its Emmy-winning cartoon adaptation, and you have a double confirmation of his rootedness in the season. Then there’s the fact that he has publicly identified Halloween as his favorite day of the year since at least the 1970s.
Bradbury turned 90 years old two months ago, on August 22. The event was marked by a week of celebratory activities in Los Angeles, where he has lived since 1934, when he moved there with his family at the age of 13. A brilliant graphic novel adaptation of his Fahrenheit 451 was released just last year to widespread acclaim. Multiple new movie adaptations of his books and stories are in development. New editions of his work, and also new work fresh from his hand, continue to appear each year. June of this year saw the publication of Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews, a collection of conversations between him and his biographer, Sam Weller. Weller also interviewed him this year for The Paris Review. Bradbury is as hot as ever, if not more so. He continues to be not just legendary but pressingly relevant.
Maybe this is why I find that in his case, I really don’t want to think of the longing as sehnsucht. It’s a wonderful word, but I feel that the version of the experience he arouses deserves it own special name. So I hereby coin “the October Mystique” as the preferred term for referring to Bradbury’s signature inflection on this crucial emotional-affective experience of longing-and-terror that’s so very central to the speculative genres. In his hands, it serves as a kind of spiritual solvent that he’s been using for over six decades to cleanse our inner eye.
When I conceived the idea to write about all of this, I also decided to invite some of my writer friends and colleagues to contribute their own thoughts about Bradbury and his significance for them personally. Below are the responses I received: six additional appreciations to add to my own, for a symbolically pleasing total of seven. Not all of them focus on Bradbury’s role as an inciter of spiritual longing, but all illuminate some aspect of the man and his work. Taken together, they paint a portrait that I hope you’ll agree is perfect for gazing into on cold, dark October nights, when reality elongates and convolutes outside the window, and we need a guide to help us make sense of the encroaching shadows and their paradoxical light-and-dark meanings.
Bradbury has the ability to create a sense of longing in a reader that resonates with the iconography of our childhoods. It’s as if he has an electric line into that part of our souls which holds the desire to return to the sun-drenched days and shadow-cloaked nights of our youth, when fields of dandelions, warm night winds, and curtains of fireflies lit the night. The act of opening each of his books is like flipping a switch. It electrifies us as we journey through page after page of his signature coming-of-age wonder. Something Wicked This Way Comes and Dandelion Wine are flipsides of this longing, and although they both share elements of light and dark, Wicked is the darker of the pair, shining gloomily in the midnight hours of our youth, evoking many of the fears that served to create us, and forcing us to relive them as we reforge ourselves anew.
I discovered Ray Bradbury’s The October Country twice. The first time, I think I was twelve or thirteen — the perfect age to discover him. There was a magical quality in those stories that caught hold of me and grew like a beautiful flower in my mind. My love of horror was born right there, during that first reading. Three decades went by. I read a lot more books. I even wrote a few. So, when I discovered The October Country a second time, it was as a grown man, and as a writer. The editor in me noticed his prose sometimes tried too hard to sound like poetry, and his vision of childhood was sometimes too sweet, too sentimental. But oddly, I loved the book even more for those small faults. Great books, I think, are born out of small, almost insignificant faults, and The October Country is a great book. Perfect, in other words, is boring . . . and Bradbury never bores.
I grew up in a small town with two churches, a pond where we fished with bamboo poles in summer and skated in the winter, a main street lined with post office, Watry’s gas station right across from our house (where I’d go to get bottles of white soda from the vending machine. “You got the flu over there?” one of the Watry’s would ask) a hardware store (my sisters would send me there to buy candy and chips, and pay me a dime to do so) and several taverns. There was no library, or bookstore. I wish I could remember my first Ray Bradbury story, but the memory is lost to the memories that replaced it, the eternal bonfire of life. Yet, as I paged through some old books, and read some of his old stories, I remembered the girl who was not a very good fisherman (she hated the hooks) and an even worse skater, who found in Bradbury’s stories not the enchantment of someplace else, but the enchantment of Fredonia, Wisconsin, a town so small, someone once joked that it didn’t have a department of public works, only a cleaning lady. The writing life is populated by figments, ghosts, imagination and that burning memory. When I think of the fire of my youth, the smoky scent of October, Ray Bradbury is there holding the match. For a little girl growing up in a small Midwestern town, his magic was not in creating what didn’t exist, but in honoring what did, even as he warned of its passing.
Ray Bradbury’s impact on the weird fiction genre has been revolutionary. If Machen is the apostle of High Church horror, and Lovecraft extends the same sensibility to a secular worldview, then Bradbury is horror’s Martin Luther. He reclaims horror for ordinary people and universal experiences: birth, childhood, disease, madness, mortality and grief. In the polemical “The Next in Line,” a young couple called Joseph and Maria witness the dead being robbed of their dignity by human greed. This revelation of the horror of everyday life destroys their hope of a life together. Other early Bradbury stories such as “The Scythe” and “The Emissary” update classic supernatural myths, placing them at the heart of modern experience. The impact of Bradbury’s work has been a profound humanisation of the weird fiction genre. Bradbury transformed the creative franchise of horror writers, freeing them to speak and imagine for themselves.
If Bradbury owned a particular branch of science, it was sociology. He could see the direction Western Civilization was headed, and dealt with it in very humanistic ways. Cautionaries like Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles taught us that excessive consumption leaves us vulnerable to totalitarianism in the name of freedom. But in stories like “The Toynbee Convector,” he also offered us the possibilities for a better future. The first time I read 451, I was in high school, and stayed up all night after I’d finished, stunned. So I think it worked: he inspired me, and a whole generation.
Although no stranger to the dark side of our field (look no further than “The Small Assassin” or “The Jar” or “The Whole Town’s Sleeping” amongst scores of tales for proof of that), it’s pure goodness–in his myriad short stories particularly–that, for me, exemplifies Ray Bradbury’s work. That and the sheer sing-song poetry (some say “purpleness”) of his prose. The father aching for his lost youth (Something Wicked This Way Comes); the old man who, on discovering his grandson’s true sexuality, has a quiet word with the boy’s lover and asks that his grandson be well looked after (“The Better Part of Wisdom”); and the endless line of lost and bedraggled people in a post-apocalyptic society who queue to see, captured in an old painting, something that they had almost forgotten (“The Smile”). Bradbury has long been the custodian of humanity’s heart and soul: his contribution to literature will still be championed — at least by those amongst our descendants who are prepared to recognize the affection that Bradbury has for them — when, at long last, the silver locusts do finally leave our world and its dying sun bound for new adventures elsewhere. And so should it be. Forever and always.