Wednesday, June 6th, 2012.
First period, 10th Grade Honors English. Roughly 9 a.m.
That’s when I heard the news.
Even today, as I write this, I feel a chill. Looking back, it was not only a surreal and an unbelievable experience…it also offered a moment of affirmation for me as a teacher that hasn’t been rivaled, since.
Let me set the scene. As I mentioned in my recent review of Sam Weller’s compilation of interviews with Ray Bradbury, Listen to the Echoes, I discovered Bradbury’s work late in life. Because of this, I’ve taken it up as my mission to ensure all my students know who Bradbury is, what kind of legacy he has given us, and how important his work is.
I’m not going to lie, my students reaction to Bradbury has always been mixed, but at least none of them will ever be able to say they don’t know who he is, or say they’ve never read his work. By the time my students have graduated, chances are they’ve read either Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Martian Chronicles, The Halloween Tree, Dandelion Wine, Fahrenheit 451, selected stories from The October Country, excerpts from Zen and the Art of Writing, and many other Bradbury short stories.
Several months earlier, I’d purchased the DVD collection of The Bradbury Theater. Over the years, I’ve often viewed selected episodes of The Twilight Zone with my students as a theme-analyzing exercise, and I wanted to supplement that with episodes from The Bradbury Theater. We’d watched several episodes: “The Banshee,” “Small Assassin,” “The Jar,” “Let’s Play Poison,” “Zero Hour,” “Boys! Grow Mushrooms in Your Cellar,” and more. That morning, June 6th, 2012, we had just finished “The Lake.” After discussing the episode and its themes, I shut the projector off, and in the waning moments of class, I got online to check the news.
And there it was.
Science Fiction Legend Ray Bradbury Passes Away
It took me several minutes to process those words, but after reading the article several times, (I can’t remember which news service it was) my initial response was disbelief. I searched the internet to make sure, because it couldn’t be true. Could it? Social media was hitting its stride back then, and death hoaxes shared via Facebook were “the thing.” Hadn’t someone shared a similar story about Leonard Nimoy the previous week? This had to be another one of those.
Of course, it didn’t take long for me to confirm the news. Just before the bell rang, I called for attention in a class that had, over the past two years, read Something Wicked This Way Comes, Fahrenheit 451, Dandelion Wine, and almost all of The October Country. I announced that Ray Bradbury had passed away.
The class fell into silence. And then, one girl from the back said in a hushed, dismayed voice: “Wait. Wait. That…that means…he’ll never write another story.”
It sunk in, and her eyes widened. “Omigod.”
There was a bittersweet resonance in that moment. An average teenager had suddenly realized that the author whose work we’d studied and collectively enjoyed the past two years was no longer with us, and would no longer provide us work to read and enjoy. I felt a ridiculous pride in that student, at that moment, as I ushered them out to their next class, into a suddenly much dimmer world.
It rained that day, I believe. I remember coming home to a brilliant rainbow, that, instead of arcing, looked like it was streaming away into the sky. I took a picture and posted it on Facebook, saying I wanted to believe Ray was riding that rainbow home to Mars. Not exactly eloquent, but it felt right, at that moment.
At the start of this series, I spoke of my transformative evening with Tom Monteleone, F. Paul Wilson and editor of Whispers magazine, Stuart David Schiff, and how it served as my springboard into a deeper and wider reading of the horror genre in particular, and speculative fiction in general. A year and several months after that night, Ray Bradbury passed away. I realized that, much to my lament, there was so much of his work I hadn’t yet read. Seeing as how I was a year into my exploration of horror and speculative fiction, I decided that the summer of 2012 would be dedicated to reading as much of Bradbury’s short fiction as possible.
In my office (which, over the years, I have fashioned as a poor imitation of Bradbury’s mythic basement office), I had several Bradbury collections waiting to be read. One nicely leather-bound tome contained The Illustrated Man, Golden Apples of the Sun, and The Martian Chronicles. I had also recently purchased Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales (that still boggles my mind; 100 of his most celebrated tales?) I had purchased The October Country and read that back in 2010, but decided to re-read it. I had also purchased From the Dust Returned in 2010, but had yet to read it.
My goal that summer? To read at least one Ray Bradbury short story a day. Very quickly, however, as I was sucked into a world of far flung planets, African veldts, carnivals, alien mushrooms growing in cellars and strange jars, I realized I faced a much BIGGER challenge: try to read only two or three Bradbury short stories a day. As you know, of course, I teach high school English. I have my summers off. This is the kind of “professional development” all English teachers should pursue.
I’m not sure of the exact amount, but I believe I ended the summer having read nearly 200 of Ray’s short stories (and yes, I also spent a large bulk of that summer reading short stories from Shadows, Whispers, and Karl Edward Wagner’s run of Best Horror Stories of the Year, which I’ll cover in a future column). As you can imagine, my mind was buzzing from an overdose of short fiction. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that I wrote a story that summer which would eventually become my first professional sale.
So in this tale is a very basic lesson: to write good short stories, or maybe even great short stories (I’d say mine are good; I’m still working on great, and will probably never get there), you need to get drunk on them. I realized that, for a guy trying to write and sell short stories, hoping to eventually land a professional sale, I wasn’t reading many short stories. To write them, I needed to read them.
To be honest, I can’t say I really learned any tangible structure or method or trick from reading those short stories. All that reading rewired my brain, however, and it suddenly became much easier (notice I say easier, NOT easy) for me to visualize short stories whole, in my head.
Want to write short stories? Read a lot of them. Overdose on short stories.
The following summer would see me continue my Bradbury Reading Challenge. The summer of 2013, I consumed Quicker than the Eye, Long After Midnight, Somewhere a Band Is Playing, and The Bradbury Chronicles: The Life of Ray Bradbury, by Sam Weller. I didn’t read nearly as much that summer, however, because I decided to embark on a different kind of Bradbury Challenge. I wanted to take up the mantle of writing one story a week, as he did throughout his career.
I somehow managed to do it; through eight weeks of summer I banged out eight stories. Three of them ended up as novellas; two of them appearing in my novella quartet Through A Mirror, Darkly, the third soon to appear in my upcoming collection, Things You Need. The others I managed to place or sell; not in professional venues, but respectable ones, regardless.
Eight stories in eight weeks, and they all found homes! What an exhilarating experience. I can’t imagine what it must’ve been like for Ray to produce that many stories throughout his lifetime; how satisfying that must’ve felt. I know I’ll embark on this same challenge again in the future.
The last summer I read Bradbury almost exclusively was 2014. I read The Machineries of Joy, S is for Space, R is for Rocket; I re-read Somewhere a Band Is Playing, which made me desperate to write a story of my own about a town full of resurrected dead people, A Sound of Thunder and Other Stories, Farewell Summer, and I re-read From the Dust Returned, for some reason having a much greater appreciation for it upon my re-read. And of course, I’ve taught The Martian Chronicles for the past three years, I’ve taught both Something Wicked This Way Comes and Dandelion Wine multiple times, and I always use several stories from The October Country for my horror unit, every October.
It’s been a few summers, however, since I spent the summer reading Bradbury, and I feel like it might be time for another go this summer. It’s mind-boggling to think that, as much I’ve read…there’s still so much more left.
How has Bradbury impacted me as a writer? Well, just as with Charles L. Grant, H. P. Lovecraft, and Stephen King, I immediately wanted to write just like him. Something in the way Bradbury strung together poetic lines of prose-verse called out to me. Of course, in my attempts to write like Bradbury, I learned the same thing I did with the other aforementioned writers: only they could write like that. I had to discover how I was supposed to write. The desire to achieve a Bradbury-like lyricism and description has never left me, however. I’m not there yet, and may never get there, but I know it’s in the back of my mind whenever I want to evoke place and atmosphere.
Also, having read Something Wicked This Way Comes and Dandelion Wine, I was delighted to find, in pouring through his short fiction, other Greentown stories. Like “The Man Upstairs,” “Any Friend of Nicholas Nickleby’s is a Friend of Mine,” “Colonel Stonesteel’s Genuine Home-made Truly Egyptian Mummy,” “The Burning Man,” “All On a Summer’s Night,” and so many more. Between this, and his love of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, which led me to that wonderful collection, I was more determined than ever to bring my short fiction together and create my own little mythos.
As many other horror writers much finer than me have maintained, The October Country should be required reading for all aspiring horror writers. This collection combines the best of pulp sensationalism with insightful examinations of the human psyche. To this day, I still gape a little at Theady’s wonderfully gruesome fate in“The Jar,” (“Here kitty kitty!”) and I shiver when Martin receives his visitor from beyond the grave in “The Emissary.” “The Man Upstairs” is a wonderfully pulpy tale about what to do when the undead becomes a border at your Grandmother’s house, and “The Skeleton” is just delightfully odd and weird.
But “The Crowd” offers us a haunting reason why people like to swarm to the scenes of an accident. “The Next in Line” portrays a chilling portrait of a quietly failing marriage, with an equally chilling and ambiguous ending. “The Scythe” combines a man’s desperation with a disquieting explaination for the world’s random violence. “The Lake” tells of a young boy encountering death for the first time, and how it haunts him until he can find closure, and “The Dwarf” shows us how a man’s petty cruelty makes him small, regardless of his physical size.
Bradbury’s dark stories aren’t only to be found in The October Country, however. “The Veldt” tells the unnerving tale of children in the future who have gotten used to having whatever they want, and the lengths they’ll go in order to keep getting what they want. “Pillar of Fire” offers a dreadful man driven by hate, who has come to a world which knows no hate, and the possibilities excite him beyond reason (S is For Space).
“The Witch Door” ends in a dreadful whisper Charles L. Grant would’ve surely appreciated. “Boys! Raise Giant Mushrooms in Your Cellar!” put me off raising any edible fungus in my cellar for the foreseeable future, especially if the seeds come from a sketchy mail-order company I’ve never heard of. “The Burning Man” twists the knife quite nicely at the end, also, and “Zero Hour” tells of an imminent alien invasion that’s almost Lovecraftian in its other-worldliness. “The Blue Bottle” shares a haunting truth: so many men are driven by desires they can’t satisfy that they prefer death to a life of unfullfillment.
In addition, Bradbury hides darkness so very cleverly in works which appear cloaked in nothing but sunshine. On the outside, Dandelion Wine appears to be all happiness, summer and sweetness. However, a Ravine cuts down the middle of Greentown, and it’s filled with darkness, decay, and danger. That is where the Lonely One abides, of course. A serial killer who preys on solitary women.
Doug Spaulding’s mother knows this all too well, she feels the fear of the dark in her bones as she waits for her son to cross the ravine on his way home from the movies one night. Lavinia, local unmarried beauty (who hasn’t quite arrived at spinsterhood), not only loses a friend to the Lonely One, but barely survives a dreadful encounter with him herself.
Leo Auffman comes very close to ruining his family with his obsession with his “Happiness Machine.” There’s a tragic kind of sadness in the fate of Colonel Freeleigh, as he calls an old friend in Mexico City and has him hold the phone out the window, so he can hear the sounds of a life he can no longer live. Mrs. Bentley sacrifices her memories to make way for the next generation. “The Trolley” delivers a crushing truth: nothing is forever. All things, even good things, must pass away, in the name of “progress.”
Douglas experiences this loss all too keenly. He loses his best friend, John Huff. He realizes death is more than what happens to cowboys on the silver screen; it’s real. He realizes that like life, summer must end, and that is almost his end. All the darkness in the world is there in Dandelion Wine, mixed in with the summer and the light, because that’s what life is on this mortal coil, light and dark, forever entwined.
And of course, we can’t leave out Something Wicked This Way Comes. The insiduous Mr. Dark and the nefarious Mr. Cooger, of the Pandemonium Shadow Show, descending upon Greentown just before Halloween, dangling everyone’s fondest wish—a cure to Tom Fury’s lonliness, youth for Ms. Foley and Mr. Halloway, adulthood for Jim Nightshade—while holding death behind its back. And The Halloween Tree, Something Wicked‘s gentle cousin, in which a group of boys travel with the enigmatic and perhaps slightly menacing Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud through time and the history of Halloween to save their friend’s life.
Bradbury’s fiction has left an indelible mark upon me. At a time when I was searching for my own voice, trying to find out what horror meant to me, Bradbury’s crystal-clear vision of humanity caused me to think about the most important part of a horror story, or any story, for that matter: the human element.
Stories like “The Big Black and White Game,” which speaks so powerfully about racism and prejudice. “The Poems,” which is a stunning commentary on how an artist borrows magic from the world to make art, and the consequences of that. “That Woman on the Lawn,” and how ghosts of the future and the past mingle. How he spoke so eloquently about faith and science in “The Machineries of Joy,” “The Fire Balloons” and “The Man,” which proved so important for guy like me, who wanted to try and write authentically about his faith, yet at the same time write stories which appealed to lots of people. The loneliness of a creature out of time in “The Foghorn,” and stories taken directly from his experience writing Moby Dick in Ireland, like “The Banshee.”
I could go on and on, surrounded as I am right now by stacks of Bradbury’s books. I’m not going to, though, because it would merely turn into a list of his stories. Also, I’m not going to try and pretend I’ve read every single Bradbury story there is to read. There’s so many more left, which is why another Bradbury Challenge needs to happen, soon.
In any case, something Bradbury gifted me, as a horror writer, or just a writer, period, is this: Passion. Hope. Brightness which walks hand in hand with the dark. Even considering Bradbury’s darker tales, I feel, when I’m reading his work, how very much he wanted to believe in humanity. How very much he wanted to believe in people, and the inherent love he felt for them and the world.
A close friend and writing colleague once remarked to me that while he really enjoyed my work, he felt I was often too “nice” to my characters. I think maybe Bradbury is the reason for that. Even when my characters end up failing and succumbing to their demons, I can’t bring myself to damn them completely. Hope needs to exist there somewhere, even if just for the reader, and I have Bradbury to thank for that.
Something Wicked This Way Comes
The Martian Chronicles
The Halloween Tree
The October Country
Long After Midnight
Bradbury Stories: 100 of His Most Celebrated Tales
From the Dust Returned
Somewhere A Band is Playing
Kevin Lucia is the Reviews Editor for Cemetery Dance. His column Horror 101 is featured in Lamplight Magazine. His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies. His first short story collection, Things Slip Through, was published November 2013, followed by Devourer of Souls in June 2014 and Through A Mirror, Darkly, in June 2015. His novella Mystery Road is forthcoming in limited edition hardcover from Cemetery Dance Publications, and he’s currently working on his first novel.