I try to leave myself out of the news stories I write, but it's impossible to write about Ray Bradbury's importance to genre fiction, and American culture in general, without explaining what the grandmaster's work means to me. It's probably that way for most of Bradbury's admirers. And there are few lovers of horror, science fiction, and fantasy who don't admire the man's work.
I discovered Bradbury when I first watched the film version of Something Wicked This Way Comes on VHS back in the ‘80s. As the film's credits rolled, my father commented on a name that appeared – "Oh, this is based on a Ray Bradbury story…" It was the first time I can recall my father mentioning a writer's name while watching a film. After watching Wicked I was curious to see what else this Bradbury guy had written. As I soon discovered, his stories were always much better than the movies based upon them, including those in The Illustrated Man and The Martian Chronicles, and his dystopian science-fiction masterpiece Fahrenheit 451 (which even Francois Truffaut couldn't quite pull off on screen). That's because Bradbury's work was not about the stories themselves, but the way he wrote them. He could make a chill autumn night come alive even if one was reading about it in the dead heat of summer. He could make lifelong urban dwellers long for the pastures of the American Midwest. He could make the simplest things – a wind, a ravine, an empty street – as exciting as the biggest blockbuster Hollywood can conjure. His metaphors were the fuel that made his stories run, staccato bursts of fire that seared into the reader's brain. As only the best art can, his tales of Martian colonists, October carnivals, and lovelorn sea monsters could convince you they were written just for you. Which is part of why it's so hard to accept that Bradbury is gone today at the age of 91. For if the boy who lived forever (he was, at twelve years old, told to do so by a carnival performer named Mr. Electrico) can die, then… anyone can. Mortality has rarely seemed so close to me as it does today.
But mortality is one of the key themes Bradbury explored in his art, especially in his early horror shorts, first published in pulps like Weird Tales (for which he wrote before moving on to slicker magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Playboy) and collected in The October Country and A Memory of Murder. His stories were often adapted for TV anthologies – like The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents – and comics like Tales from the Crypt, Weird Science, and his own Ray Bradbury Comics. Bradbury was also given that rarest of pop culture tributes, his own TV show, with the half-hour series Ray Bradbury Theater, sixty-five episodes of which aired on HBO and USA, for which he adapted his own work. Among his best chillers are "The Small Assassin", "The Jar", "The Skeleton", "Usher II", and his novels Something Wicked This Way Comes and Death is a Lonely Business. His children's novel The Halloween Tree remains the best all-around book on my favorite holiday; but tales of the fall – like "Homecoming" and "The October Game" – can be found throughout his collections. His gravestone will read, at his request, "Author of Fahrenheit 451", but Bradbury was first and foremost a short-story writer. America's greatest, in my lifetime, with over six hundred to his name.
I could mention his countless awards and the honors Bradbury received (in recent years, he was given the National Medal of Arts, but appeared proudest of his French Commandeur Ordre des Arts et des Lettres medal, which he often wore during public appearances); the one-of-a-kind tributes (he's certainly the only person I've met with a lunar crater named after him); and the creators he's influenced. Stephen King and Steven Spielberg both credit him for their careers; Disney, Fellini, and Gene Kelly adored him.
But then everyone who met Bradbury adored him. For his true legacy is one of love. He genuinely, madly, wholeheartedly, and unapologetically loved writing; and he encouraged everyone to love whatever it is they do (including myself, when I interviewed him several years ago, and had the opportunity to tell him he was the reason I became a writer). The only thing that gave Bradbury as much pleasure as the work was the response of the readers who enjoyed it. Love is what kept him going for so long (just last week a new essay of his was published in The New Yorker), and love will continue to make his work resonate. In that, Ray Douglas Bradbury – the boy from Waukegan, Illinois – will live forever; and reach Mars, the stars, and everything else that's awaiting us.