Supernatural Superserious by Frank Freeman

Ray Bradbury: Novels & Story Cycles
Edited by Jonathan R. Eller

The Library of America, 2021
$40   896 pp.

Ray Bradbury is the kind of author whose work is best read at a certain age. Just as I’ve been told the best age at which to read Thomas Wolfe, especially Look Homeward, Angel, is 18, and Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time is in your sixties, so I would say Ray Bradbury’s work should be first read in the 13-to-14-year-old range, which is just when I read him. Unfortunately, you can no longer read him as I did, by going down to the corner store or pharmacy and buying a mass-market paperback with the quarters you have scrounged up and then go home or to your favorite tree and imbibe his vision of wonder. You have to go to a bookstore. (Nothing against bookstores, especially independent ones, but there was a time when you could buy literary fiction at your local corner store.)

If you missed reading Bradbury, however, when you were an adolescent, you have a second chance with the Library of America’s new edition of four of his classic novels and story cycles. The volume does not indicate which ones are the novels and which the story cycles, but I would claim that Fahrenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes are the novels and The Martian Chronicles and Dandelion Wine the story cycles.

All of Bradbury’s novels, however, began as short stories. This is because he started out as a pulp writer, sending a story a week to science fiction, horror, and detective magazines from which he could make a living. (Oh, for the day!) This volume also includes, as an appendix, six essays having to do with the four longer works. In one of them, Bradbury mentions how all of his longer works came as surprises to him: he looked around and suddenly realized he had a bunch of stories about colonizing Mars, or firemen who burned books, or memories of his childhood in Waukegan, Illinois, or the delightful terrors of traveling carnivals. He also mentions how he loved the story cycle of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and one can definitely see the influence, especially in the first collection, The Martian Chronicles (1950).

In this work, humankind attempts to colonize Mars primarily because it is about to annihilate itself with nuclear war. (Throughout Bradbury’s work in the 1950s, there is the contemporary fear of the atom and hydrogen bombs.) The first two or three missions do not work out at all—the astronauts are never heard from again—but not because of aliens or a poisoned atmosphere. It is because the Martians are an advanced telepathic civilization: they are able to fiddle with the minds of the humans and make them think they, the Martians, are people back home—Grandma and Grandpa in their old Midwestern Victorian houses. Then, once the humans are lured into a false sense of comfort, the Martians take their lives. The Martians are advanced—they have more delicate bodies than humans, with golden eyes and skin, but they appear to have the same emotions and desires. Though they have been able to overcome their destructiveness at the personal level, they will defend their planet, coolly and savagely, with their best weapon, telepathy.

This is a handy device for Bradbury because it saves him from having to employ the typical science fiction tropes of aliens or technology. He can focus instead on the humans and their nostalgia and melancholy for Earth. (Bradbury once said that, after a certain point in his career, he stopped reading other science fiction and fantasy and focused mainly on literary classics, which is why his work can be said to be of a “crossover” sort: one could call it literary science fiction or fantasy.) Eventually the humans wise up and take over Mars, with most of the Martians dying of chicken pox. More and more humans come and are able to start terraforming Mars. All of this is told in a series of stories about colonists, some but not all of whom are connected with one another.

Three of these stories remain with me. The first, “Way in the Middle of the Air,” involves a group of Black people in the South moving to Mars. A mean old white man, Mr. Teece, sits on his porch and watches this group filing out of town, headed for the rocket ships they have been building. (An unintentionally humorous aspect of the book is that, after a while, rockets are almost like automobiles—anyone can buy one if they save up the money. This makes sense when one considers the rise of the automobile in Bradbury’s America, but funny when compared with the reality of space travel.) Teece and the other whites are distraught about this migration. Who is going to perform all the labor? Who is going to do the laundry and work in the hardware stores? And the subtheme, never said out loud: Who are we going to lord over?

Teece sees a Black man, Belter, who owes him $50. Teece strides out into the caravan and demands that the Black man pay him back or he will force him to stay. The Black man almost gives himself up, but then his cohorts come to his rescue and everyone pitches in to pay the debt. As they leave, Teece realizes he won’t be able to go out at night and round up Black men to lynch when the fancy strikes him.

Though the moral lesson is at times clunkily presented—Bradbury is hardly ever subtle—I find this story genuinely moving nevertheless. Rising through the reverse stereotypes of the unredeemable white man and angelic Black man, you can feel the Southerners’ desperation as they realize they will be on their own now and forever. It reminds me of clips of James Baldwin on television in the 1960s asking his white audience, why do you need me to be your Negro? You are the ones with a problem. Many critics have said that, despite the story’s faults, Bradbury was the first author to depict the ravages of racism in science fiction.

A second story, “The Fire Balloons,” involves a group of missionary Episcopalian priests who come to Mars led by Father Peregrine. For some reason which is never explained, most of the Martians who have survived have become luminous globes of blue light which communicate telepathically with humans and save them from misfortune when they can. For instance, Father Peregrine throws himself off a cliff and the globes save him, and when his fellow priests still don’t believe him, he shoots himself and the globes block the bullet. Father Peregrine and another priest build an outdoor church for the globes complete with an organ and a small blue icon globe meant to be a representation of Jesus. The Martians thank them, but tell the priest they don’t need them and they should go back and minister to the colonizers. It is said that Bradbury consulted a Catholic priest about this story.

The third story, “There Will Come Soft Rains,” is the best, most classic story in the book, and one in which no creature, human or Martian, appears. It describes a fully automated house that makes breakfast for the family, plays the music and reads the poetry it wants to hear, runs the bath, turns on the television, adjusts the shades, and cleans up the remains of meals, and what happens to it after a nuclear war has killed everyone on Earth. This is perhaps one of the scariest stories Bradbury ever wrote. The house talks and almost seems to have its own personality, and when you think about Alexa and Siri and Roombas, the concept of singularity, and the fully automated houses that Amazon and Apple and Google want us to have, Bradbury was a prophet.

He was also a prophet in the novel for which he is best known, Fahrenheit 451 (1953). Most criticism of this book, or at least most of the discussions I’ve heard about it in the public realm, focus on how it portrays a dystopia, rather like 1984 or Brave New World, in which firemen burn books, and how this is a warning about censorship. This is true up to a certain point, but what strikes me on a fresh reading is how prophetic Bradbury was about the use of screens. In the novel, most houses have a room in which all the walls are screens and idiotic family dramas are played out on them, ones that include the viewer as the characters turn and appeal to them. In addition, people wear ear devices that pump music and positive thoughts into their minds when they are not watching a screen.

In another prophecy, the whole process of getting rid of books has been initiated through the wishes of the people themselves. They have chosen their screens over their books because books complicate things, render them ambiguous; this is a populace that has more than anything wished to have things clear, black and white, easy. Of course, the only false note in this scenario is that screens can provide complicated, ambiguous entertainments, too. But not in this world.

The protagonist of the novel, the fireman Montag, lives in a society where happiness and peace are blared and trumpeted about all the time, but where the suicide rate is off the charts and children kill one another. When Montag home one night from a disturbing shift on the job—a woman has refused to leave her book-filled house, lit her kerosene-soaked books with her own match, and gone up with them—he finds that his wife has tried to commit suicide. Montag’s chief, Beatty, who is deeply read but supportive of the current regime, knows what Montag is going through and recounts the history of how society have become this way. Part of it, he says, started with minorities—racial, sexual, geographical, political—demanding that nothing negative be said about them.

One can hear shades of Bradbury’s later condemnations of censorship and “political correctness” in such statements; to complicate things further, part of Bradbury’s motivation for writing the book, he claimed, was as a response to the McCarthy hearings. Ultimately, in his ramblings to Montag, Beatty (and Bradbury through him) seems to me to support Erich Fromm’s thesis in Escape from Freedom, that humans can’t handle freedom: when things get scary, they take shelter in conspiracies, or the nostalgia of fascism or the utopianism of state communism—the strong man, or the strong state, that will solve all our problems. Montag ends by rebelling and dropping out of society—I won’t say how in order not to spoil it—and joining another hidden society that just may be able to redeem someday the one its members have left.

When I was that 13-year-old going down to the corner store, I enjoyed the sci-fi, fantasy, horror aspects of Bradbury’s fiction, I find now that his “realistic” work satisfies me more. Dandelion Wine (1957) is unusual for Bradbury in that no supernatural events occur and everything takes place on planet Earth, namely Green Town, Illinois. The novel is about one summer in the life of 12-year-old Douglas Spaulding and his extended family and friends. There are stories family dinners, illnesses, eccentric neighbors, and the ravine, a real geographical feature of Waukegan, Illinois, which is split in two with a bridge that must be crossed. Most frighteningly, there is the presence of a serial killer in the area whom the locals call the Lonely One.

Mostly, though, it is about what Bradbury conveys in the following passage that describes a realization Douglas has after he and his brother, Tom, have fought, as boys will sometimes do, for no particular reason at all:

No! Douglas squeezed his mind shut. No! But suddenly . . . Yes, it’s all right! Yes! The tangle, the contact of bodies, the falling tumble had not scared off the tidal sea that crashed now, flooding and washing them along the shore of grass deep through the forest. Knuckles struck his mouth. He tasted rusty warm blood, grabbed Tom hard, held him tight, and so in silence they lay, hearts churning, nostrils hissing. And at last, slowly, afraid he would find nothing, Douglas opened one eye.

And everything, absolutely everything, was there.

The world, like a great iris of an even more gigantic eye, which has also just opened and stretched out to encompass everything, stared back at him.

And he knew what it was that had leaped upon him to stay and would not run away now.

I’m alive, he thought. . . .

I’m really alive! he thought. I never knew it before, or if I did I don’t remember!

This is really the spirit of the novel, and though, as usual for Bradbury, some of the episodes are over the top in their sentimentality, it is well worth reading in its entirety. I have a friend who read it at the optimum “Bradbury time” and refuses to ever read it again because his teenage memories are so emblazoned in his mind, he doesn’t want to ruin it.

Stephen King included Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962) in a list of his 10 scariest books. It is a dark fantasy about the friendship of two boys, Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, and Will’s father, Charles Halloway, the local janitor of the library who sees himself as a failure as a father and husband.

One October night shortly before Halloween, a carnival comes to the town where the story is set. Soon all hell is breaking loose, and the two boys are wanted by the carnival master, Mr. Dark, aka the Illustrated Man, for having learned the terrible secret of the carnival’s carousel, mirror maze, and freak show. The unlikely hero of the novel is Charles Halloway, who, although he is a passive man, has read almost every book under the sun and who rises to the occasion to save the two boys and the town from Mr. Dark, having his hand broken and almost suffering a heart attack in the process.

In this book, to my mind, Bradbury proves he is the successor to Edgar Allan Poe. I am not the first to say this. His mind is not as sharp, precise, and scientific as Poe’s, but he can do terror. Part of what makes it so effective is that, in this novel and in many of the short stories, Bradbury suffuses an atmosphere of peaceful domesticity with the haunting specter of terror: you think everything is warm and cozy, but the baby in the bassinette is waiting for you with scissors.

In Something Wicked, Bradbury allows himself to go beyond his usual mix of mawkish tropes and amazingly lyrical writing—often within the same paragraph. In the first three books of the Library of America edition, there is not a hint of sex except the type which would be allowed in a 1950s movie. Here, the boys find a house where a couple makes love with the shade up:

And Will, hanging to the limbs of the tree, tight-pressed, terribly excited, staring in at the Theater, that peculiar stage where people, all unknowing, flourished shirts above their heads, let fall clothes to the rug, stood raw and animal-crazy, naked, like shivering horses, hands out to touch each other.

Jim wants to return to the house more often than Will does, just as Jim is more drawn to the carnival than Will is, even after, and especially because of, its danger. There are lines such as this, describing the carnival: “Somewhere a vast animal made water. Ammonia made the wind turn ancient as it passed.” Bradbury, in other words, is loosening up, and consequently Something Wicked comes off as the best written of the four books in this collection.

It may be obvious by now that Bradbury is the kind of writer that people either hate or love, though I have known or read more people that love him than hate him. Stephen King once said that without Ray Bradbury there would be no Stephen King. Neil Gaiman has written a similar encomium. Bradbury is the type of writer whose work you read for the vision behind the words, for the words, it must be admitted, often slush around with sentimentality. But when they’re sharp and clear, they’re alive and radiant and icelike in their piercings. Much like Poe, Whitman, or even D. H. Lawrence and Theodore Dreiser—all of whom could write so terribly at times you wonder how they managed it—Bradbury overcomes any deficiency in style with the burning intensity of his vision. It is a vision of the wonder of life, the basic awareness of life as the ultimate miracle, that Saint Augustine knew as the beginning of philosophy.

Frank Freeman’s work has been published in America, Commonweal, Dublin Review of Books, and the Weekly Standard, among others. He lives in Maine with his wife and four children, dog, cat, and four chickens. He hopes to have his books published some fine day.

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