Do you hear it? The world is a little quieter today. A great, loud, rambunctious, exhortative voice has been stilled.
A room that contained Ray Bradbury was seldom quiet. He was given to enthusiastic outbursts, often just one or two words: “Thrive!” “Write!” “Live!”
He could, of course, talk for longer than that. He was one of those rare beasts, a writer who’s as good, as entertaining and inspiring and important, in person, one-on-one or in a small group or in front of a packed auditorium, with people leaning against the walls and sitting in the aisles, as he is on the page. If Ray had never set fingers to a keyboard but delivered the same lectures, he would still be a seminal figure in American culture.
But he did, of course, write. All the time. Every day, for eighty-some years. He started making money at it in 1941, and he didn’t stop until he had published something like 600 stories and a couple dozen novels.
Much has been written about Ray these past couple of days, since his passing at the age of 91. That’s good—Ray needs to be remembered, and appreciated. And some, perhaps many, of those writers knew Ray better than I did.
Doesn’t matter. Ray was important to me, and I have stories to tell, too.
Ray loved stories. And when Ray Bradbury loved something, he LOVED it. His enthusiasms were many and they were huge. He loved stories, and he loved characters. He loved books and movies and plays and comics and architecture. He loved toys and pop culture. One year, at the San Diego Comic-Con, I saw an amazing Quickdraw McGraw lamp. I wanted it, a lot, but I couldn’t afford it. The next time I saw it was at Ray’s house. He could afford it.
But the predominant theme of Ray’s life, the thing that made him who he was, that kept him getting up in the morning and going to the typewriter, was story.
So shh! Listen. I’ve got some stories to tell.
I wish I could remember the first of his stories that I read, but I can’t. It was probably when I picked up a paperback copy of The Martian Chronicles or Dandelion Wine, but I have no specific memory of that. Truffaut’s film version of Fahrenheit 451 was an early encounter, as well. Ray was always there, in his stories, part of the background of my life. We both came from Illinois. He wrote wonderful stories that thrummed with life. I read them.
Those of you who know me, who know that before I was a professional writer I was a bookseller, and that I am part owner of a specialty science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and horror bookstore called Mysterious Galaxy, will perhaps understand the many ways that Ray’s example steered my life when I tell you this: In early 1973, my senior class trip went to London (from Germany—not as far as you might be thinking). While exploring Soho, I came across a bookstore called Dark They Were and Golden Eyed. It was the first specialty sf and fantasy and comic book store I had ever been in, and it was a little like falling out of the closet into Narnia, and a little like looking out the window at Mars and seeing home. I never wanted to leave. But I had to, so I spent as much there as I could and loaded my suitcase with Moorcock and Howard and other current enthusiasms.
The shop was named after “Dark They Were, And Golden Eyed,” a Ray Bradbury story, published in Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1949 and later collected in both A Medicine for Melancholy and S is for Space.
The next specialty sf/fantasy bookstore I found, a couple of years later, was Dark Carnival in Berkeley, CA. Unlike Dark They Were, Dark Carnival is still there, still owned by my longtime pals Jack Rems and Jay Sheckley.
The shop was named after Dark Carnival, Ray’s first published book (a short story collection published by Arkham House in 1947).
Two specialty bookstores—and great ones—named after Bradbury works. There are various forces that have pushed my life down the path it has taken, but it’s obvious that Ray is one that cannot be understated.
The first time I saw Ray in person was as part of a lecture series sponsored by the San Jose Mercury-News in the late 1970s. I saw him and western author Louis L’Amour, and while they were both interesting, inspiring speakers, Ray was the one whose words have stayed with me all these years. If you want to write, he said, you have to write! All the time! If you must get a job, get one that won’t drain your energy and enthusiasm. If you must get married, marry someone who’ll be able to support you while you write. If you let anything get in the way of writing, you’ll never do it. So make your choices—but if you want to write, that choice had better include writing.
The first time I met Ray, I almost watched him die.
He had come to San Jose, where I was living and working at the big Books Inc. store, to do a signing. As always when Ray signs, he had an enormous line, and he met every fan with great good cheer and double helpings of grace. After the signing, he was tired, as were we humble employees who had been kept hopping by the size of the crowd.
In the back of the store, we had a large back room area for stock, receiving, shipping, and so on. The back room had very high ceilings, and in order to save floor space, the manager had developed a system of ropes and pulleys, so employees who rode bikes to work could suspend them near the ceiling. One of the bike-pulleys was right in front of the men’s bathroom, so if you were in the bathroom and you heard the sounds of someone putting up or taking down a bike, you knew to be careful coming out.
Except Ray didn’t work there, so he didn’t know that rule. And Doug didn’t know that Ray was in the men’s room. Neither did I. Doug was retrieving his bike and talking to me, when suddenly the men’s room door flew open and Ray stepped briskly out, startling Doug, who let go of the rope.
The bike plummeted toward Ray’s head.
Doug managed to snag it with a couple of feet to spare (suffering rope burns in the process, I seem to recall). Ray’s life, and dignity, were saved.
When I was promoted and moved south to manage the Hunter’s Books in La Jolla, I became one of Ray’s “local” booksellers, and he signed regularly for me. He always seemed to enjoy himself—but then, he did everywhere, letting loose that great bark of a laugh of his and enjoying the crowds, the interaction with his fans and fellow human beings.
At one of those signings, a confused patron brought up a book by Arthur C. Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey, I think, but I’m no longer certain). Ray looked at it, laughed, and said, “I didn’t write that, but I’ll sign it. Arthur’s my son!” The patron, still confused, allowed Ray to sign the book, and bought it. He might own the only copy of 2001 signed by Ray Bradbury instead of Arthur Clarke.
On August 22, 1988, Ray celebrated his 68th birthday with an event at the store. We had a cake made with a representation of the cover of Something Wicked This Way Comes. My daughter Holly, not yet 4 years old, sang Happy Birthday to him. He loved it.
The first time Ray called me at home—how many people can begin a sentence that way?—I made it through the conversation, barely. I’d met Ray many times by then, and a lot of other authors, too. Some of them had even called my home. But this was Ray Bradbury! He said something on that call, I’m sure. I must have, as well. I don’t remember what, though. I just remember hanging up the phone and saying, “Ray Bradbury called me at home!”
We knew we would lose Ray sometime. He’s been fading, especially since he lost Maggie, his beloved wife. It seemed impossible—he was always so vital, so energetic, he must have been an immortal. But the evidence was before our eyes. Ray was shrinking, weakening. His smile still beamed, but frailty was setting in.
On one occasion, the first time I realized he was growing weaker, he was giving yet another speech. When he was introduced, he stepped up onto the stage and then walked, slowly, with almost shuffling steps, what seemed an interminable distance to the microphone at center stage. The applause died down and the room was silent, expectant. He reached the microphone, turned toward us, and said, “Did you ever get the feeling you were being watched?”
You might not see much of Ray’s inspiration in my writing, but it’s there just the same. There is not a living fantasist—maybe not a living writer—who has not been influenced by Ray, and by the others Ray has influenced over the years. Ray’s presence will live on, in and out of the genre, forever. His books will be read as long as people have eyes and ears and memories.
Losing him is like losing a second father, a storyfather who gave birth to so many of us, through his abundance of talent and his generosity of spirit, his friendship, his love.
But in a way that’s more true of Ray Bradbury than of most writers, every time I open one of his books, his voice is there, strong. Booming.
That voice, that Ray, will never fade.