As a college boy in Seattle I wasn’t into reading much, except schoolbooks for class assignments. I picked up an occasional 25 cent Gold Medal paperback because they had the most lurid, sexy cover art. I, the Jury by Mickey Spillane was a red-hot item.
Then I took a class in magazine writing at the University of Washington from Bob Mansfield — his wife was a famous magazine writer who had 13 short stories published in a single year in The Saturday Evening Post. Professor Mansfield told us to look around the field and read a bunch of stories that were currently circulating.
In my browsing I came across a strange story called The World the Children Made in The Post by a brand-new writer who had previously been toiling in the low-end “pulp magazine” field. The story (which had also been called The Veldt in various anthologies and radio broadcasts) was about a young boy and girl who have a playroom where you can imagine places and images on a 360-degree, interactive video screen. The parents try to get the kids to change the view–but they seem to always gravitate to one that shows the African grassland. The children rebel and eventually the lions in the video world wind up rending the carcasses of the parents, while the children blissfully sip tea under a sunshade umbrella nearby.
I was so impressed I began to track down all the Ray Bradbury pulp tales I could find in the stacks of old magazines in used bookstores around town.
That was the beginning of a lifelong admiration for the man many say “invented the future.” A man who left us a haunting legacy as he departed this Earth in 2012. You certainly will have no problem finding hundreds of his cautionary tales today in a voluminous arsenal of fantasy and science-fiction anthologies.
I was lucky enough to eventually meet Ray when I moved to Santa Monica, California. I heard he was going to give a talk to his fans to raise funds for the local library. I attended and sure enough there he was in a wrinkled tweed jacket, sporting coke-bottle rimmed glasses. He looked more like a meek ribbon clerk than the man who created lost cities on Mars, villainous killer babies and children, murderous robots, and spooky alien invaders of Earth.
After his speech I managed to corner Ray for a lengthy conversation. I had so many questions. He was a bit grumpy at first. He was pissed because he had just returned from Ireland where John Huston was filming his script version of Moby Dick, starring Gregory Peck. Ray and Huston clashed violently over changes Huston had demanded. And the whole affair left a bitter taste in Ray’s mouth. However, the experience did lead Bradbury to later write many wonderful tales set in the Emerald Isle, so the venture was not a total loss.
I asked Ray about his magazine stories, as I was hoping to make a name for myself in that arena. He somberly admitted that he normally only sold “one out of every twenty” he submitted. I gulped, trying to imagine how many stories he must have written since he began (and I am now awestruck at the total amount of work that did finally see the light of day–his overall output staggers the mind).
Ray was a farm boy who came to Los Angeles just as the movie business was beginning to boom. He hung around the studios and even wrote jokes for some famous comedians. He sold his first pulp story at 19. Those early pulp sales netted no big money. But he used that platform to develop his craft. Eventually his stories began to appear in The Post, Collier’s, Redbook, Ladies Home Journal, Liberty, and many other leading periodicals that are now just distant memories.
Magazine success led to Ray’s stories appearing on such anthology radio shows as Suspense, Escape, and Dimension X. He had a few stories on TV, but he was sorely disappointed by the cheesy presentations (this was when cardboard robots clanked around instead of the CGI-animated marvels of today).
Movies didn’t get the job done much better. The majority were low-budget black-and-white productions like It Came from Outer Space and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. (Ray did tell me he got the idea for the dinosaur beast in that latter story from seeing the round hump of the Santa Monica roller coaster outlined against the sky one night when he was walking along a beach boardwalk.)
However, Hollywood was much kinder to Ray during the ensuing years with Technicolor film adaptations of Fahrenheit 451, The Illustrated Man, and the successful TV mini-series of The Martian Chronicles starring Rock Hudson. There was also a cable-TV series featuring nothing but Bradbury’s memorable tales.
One of Ray’s most famous short stories is The Pedestrian in which futuristic cops arrest a man just for walking on the street after dark in an oppressive world of the future. Ray said he got that idea after he was stopped and put into a squad car for simply walking around Beverly Hills one balmy summer night. He didn’t know the residents had petitioned for an ordinance that prohibited anyone who didn’t live in Beverly Hills from walking the streets after dark.
Ray told me he regretted not having a college education. He said he learned everything from reading books voraciously at the Santa Monica Library. As a youth, he went there at least three times a week and read to his heart’s content. My kind of guy. I used to seek out old bookstores and leaf through dusty pages until my hands were black with ink. Drove my wife nuts!
Well, Ray has left us. He was a genius. And an odd duck. He wrote about technology and spaceships, but he never drove a car. He had to be driven by someone to every event he attended. He once said: “I’m not afraid of machines. I don’t think robots are taking over. I think men who play with toys have taken over. And if we don’t take the toys out of their hands, we’re fools.”
Goodbye, Ray. Rest easy. You may be gone, but your words will live on.