Monday, August 22, 2016

96 Years Ago...

Ninety-six years ago in Waukegan, Illinois, Ray Douglas Bradbury was born.

People sometimes ask me why Bradbury was important. There are all sorts of answers to that, some of them to do with him as an author, some of them to do with him in relation to the world, and some of them just down to personal taste.

The best answers I can give are these:

Innovation. Long after gothic fiction had grown tired, irrelevant and formulaic, Ray Bradbury was reinventing it as modern horror. He presented contemporary people in the contemporary world who became obsessed by, and frightened of, everyday horrors. Crowds. Your own skeleton. The wind. I refer you to those masterpieces of short fiction, "The Crowd", "Skeleton" and "The Wind." Without Ray Bradbury, there is no contemporary horror fiction. Stephen King has admitted as much. If you aren't familiar with this Ray Bradbury, check out his The October Country.

Reflection. When science fiction had become a genre, the staple of American pulp magazines of the 1930s and 1940s, Bradbury took its clichés and its tropes and used them to do something other than fantasize about conquering alien races. He blended SF with horror and reflected our fantasies and fears, in stories like "Mars is Heaven!" He considered the complexity of colonialism, by reflecting on what it means to be the conquering race in stories such as "And The Moon Be Still As Bright" and "The Million-Year Picnic".

Write what energises you. When other writers were content to write for the market, churning out fiction that merely fed back into the pulps the same tired ideas that had originated there, he chose to write for himself - and let the stories find their own market. Because his writing was of quality, he soon emerged from the pulp ghetto into the so-called "quality" magazines. By so doing he was able to take his fantasies and horrors to the mainstream, where genteel magazines such as Mademoiselle found themselves challenged to accept new story forms.

Write clearly, visually. As a writer of efficient, transparent prose, he soon realised that his style should lend itself to screenwriting, and began creating TV and film versions of his works for Alfred Hitchcock , Rod Serling and others, and became a dramatist for John Huston, Carol Reed and Hecht-Hill-Lancaster. He put up with the disappointments of working in Hollywood (where most film scripts end up gathering dust on a shelf) because he loved the excitement of conceiving and re-conceiving ideas for different media. And, perhaps, because Hollywood paid him well, even while it treated him badly.

Head and heart, in equal measure. He occasionally turned out some clunkers, as all writers do. But he also kept everything that didn't sell, and would go back to his earlier manuscripts, eager to fix them. He allowed the public to believe that his stories came easily and unbidden, that he wrote without thinking because intellectualising was anti-creative. But the reality was that he was a shrewd editor who knew how to take out this wrong word, or to move up this powerful paragraph; or to speed up the pace, or slow things down. He summed up his process metaphorically as "Throw up in the morning, clean up at noon". By which he meant put the story down as it comes, without letting your conscious thoughts get in the way; and later return to what you have written and let your intellect make the cool decisions of what to cut, what to re-write.

Scenes. If Bradbury's fiction loses its way, which it sometimes does, it's in the longer pieces. In the short form, I firmly believe that he reached perfection in some stories. But even the longer fiction had stunning scenes. The martyring of the old lady in Fahrenheit 451 is perfect. Will and Jim hiding down in the drain while Mr Dark and Mr Halloway talk above it is perfect in Something Wicked This Way Comes, as is the carnival that sets itself up by night. What's been most fascinating for me, as I have studied Bradbury's manuscripts, is how often he will stumble across a scene idea in one draft which will then be improved in the next draft, even while the context of the scene is changed. Then, when he takes the work into another medium (adapting it for film or stage, for example) he will re-work the overall story but still find a place for those perfected scenes.

And if you need more reasons for thinking highly of Ray Bradbury, I can give you a random list:

"A Sound of Thunder"
"The Veldt"
"The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl"
Fahrenheit 451
The Martian Chronicles
"The Jar"
"The Burning Man"
"The Messiah"
"The Toynbee Convector".

Today in Los Angeles, to celebrate Ray Bradbury's 96th birthday, many friends (and family) of Bradbury are gathering to read his stories, poems and essays. "The Ray Bradbury Read" is taking place right outside the LA central library, adjacent to Ray Bradbury Square. I can't be there, on account of living on a whole 'nother continent, but I heartily recommend it to those who might happen to be in SoCal.