Ray Bradbury, Mr. Electrico, and Me
There are people who you may never meet, but still have a profound effect on you. There are people who can reach through time and space to touch you, and change you forever, sometimes only with words. Sometimes especially with words. Ray Bradbury was one of those people for me, and probably for a lot of people.
Many people publicly expressed their feelings about Bradbury after his death on June 6, including President Barrack Obama who said this:
"For many Americans, the news of Ray Bradbury's death immediately brought to mind images from his work, imprinted in our minds, often from a young age. His gift for storytelling reshaped our culture and expanded our world. But Ray also understood that our imaginations could be used as a tool for better understanding, a vehicle for change, and an expression of our most cherished values. There is no doubt that Ray will continue to inspire many more generations with his writing, and our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends."
I would change “Americans” to “people”. I expect his reach was far broader than that. For me his fiction wasn’t just inspiring, it was revelatory. He literally changed the way that I looked at words and language.
My first experience with Bradbury came when I was just a kid. I was ravenous for audiobooks which were just becoming more accessible and I remember being captivated by the cover of The Illustrated Man, with its titular figure, and since I already had a love of science fiction, I thought I needed to have it. Little did I know what was in store for me, and what kind of disturbing stories I would later hear, read, in this case, by Ray Bradbury himself.
Years later I returned to the audiobook, older and maybe a little wiser. I distinctly recall listening to the story, “The Illustrated Man,” and having a moment of awakening. It was this passage, describing the man, which did it:
“It had started with the arguments, and then the flesh, and then the pictures. They had fought deep into the summer nights, she like a brass trumpet forever blaring at him. And he had gone out to eat five thousand steaming hot dogs, ten million hamburgers, and a forest of green onions, and to drink vast red seas of orange juice. Peppermint candy formed his brontosaur bones, the hamburgers shaped his balloon flesh, and strawberry pop pumped in and out of his heart valves sickeningly, until he weighed three hundred pounds.”
Maybe not his best words, but there, in the dark, listening to them, it hit me. Words in stories could be beautiful. It was Bradbury who taught me that words can sing. He showed me that words could be more than containers for meaning. And, as I listened to and read to more of his work, I realized that words could be bombs, meaning packed with emotion and evocation, unassuming explosives that could slip into the mind to detonate later, their contents lingering long after.
And of course he made it seem effortless. I think of his stories as these little perfect packages, no visible seams, no excess, no bloat. They’re just right for my Goldilocks mind, little gifts of literature. And the last lines...endings are often hard for many writers, but Bradbury’s closing lines are just brilliant codas that finish as strong, if not stronger, as the beginnings.
My favorite of his stories is probably “There Will Come Soft Rains,” which appeared in The Martian Chronicles as well as other collections. The story has no humans, instead focusing on an automated house that continues to attempt to care for its family long after humans have been wiped out in a nuclear attack. And despite not having real people in it, it’s haunting and sad and ultimately chilling. Even as a kid I remember feeling that sense of melancholy and regret when the story was finished.
Other favorites include “The Veldt,” where two young children become eerily obsessed with their holodeck-like nursery and particularly a setting of an African veldt complete with lions and vultures, and “A Sound of Thunder,” one of the finest time travel stories ever written, complete with a literal butterfly effect.
Then, of course, there’s “The Illustrated Man,” one of Bradbury’s fantasy stories, where tattoos on William Phillipus Phelps’s body end up telling the future. And “Marionettes Inc.,” about a company that creates clockwork duplicates of people.
Many of his stories have horrific elements, but Bradbury, himself an optimist (or who believed in “optimal behavior”) often adds a hopeful or redemptive element to the tragic. In “Kaleidoscope,” an astronaut tumbles through space, heading towards his death, but in the end, he becomes a shooting star.
“The small boy on the country road looked up and screamed. ‘Look, Mom, look! A falling star!’
The blazing white star fell down the sky of dusk in Illinois.
‘Make a wish,’ said his mother. ‘Make a wish.’”
Bradbury was a writer, but he was a writer’s writer. He loved the craft. All over Twitter and Facebook after his death, people were sharing one quote, it seemed, over all others - “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” from Zen in the Art of Writing. There are plenty of quotes like that - even outside of his fiction, the man knew words. But he seemed to see writing not just as an occupation, not just as entertainment , but as an integral part of living, as a way to express yourself in the most profound way possible.
“You can’t write for the left or the right, this religion or that religion, or this belief or that belief. You have to write the way you see things. I tell people, Make a list of ten things you hate and tear them down in a short story or poem. Make a list of ten things you love and celebrate them. When I wrote Fahrenheit 451 I hated book burners and I loved libraries. So there you are.”
And his advice, his benediction, to those who want to write:
“If you want to write, if you want to create, you must be the most sublime fool that God ever turned out and sent rambling. You must write every single day of your life. You must read dreadful dumb books and glorious books, and let them wrestle in beautiful fights inside your head, vulgar one moment, brilliant the next. You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads. I wish you a wrestling match with your Creative Muse that will last a lifetime. I wish craziness and foolishness and madness upon you. May you live with hysteria, and out of it make fine stories — science fiction or otherwise. Which finally means, may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”
Reading his words, one gets the sense that Bradbury was in love with the world and all its possibilities. He couldn’t go to college, so he educated himself by going to the library and reading all he could. Even a stroke couldn’t stop him from writing, despite the fact that he could no longer use a typewriter.
If you have any interest in Bradbury, or writing, I urge you to check out his interview in the Paris Review. In it he talks about meeting Mr. Electrico, a circus performer who would electrocute himself on stage and who made his way into Something Wicked This Way Comes.
“Mr. Electrico was a beautiful man, see, because he knew that he had a little weird kid there who was twelve years old and wanted lots of things. We walked along the shore of Lake Michigan and he treated me like a grown-up. I talked my big philosophies and he talked his little ones. Then we went out and sat on the dunes near the lake and all of a sudden he leaned over and said, I’m glad you’re back in my life. I said, What do you mean? I don’t know you. He said, You were my best friend outside of Paris in 1918. You were wounded in the Ardennes and you died in my arms there. I’m glad you’re back in the world. You have a different face, a different name, but the soul shining out of your face is the same as my friend. Welcome back.
Now why did he say that? Explain that to me, why? Maybe he had a dead son, maybe he had no sons, maybe he was lonely, maybe he was an ironical jokester. Who knows? It could be that he saw the intensity with which I live. Every once in a while at a book signing I see young boys and girls who are so full of fire that it shines out of their face and you pay more attention to that. Maybe that’s what attracted him.
When I left the carnival that day I stood by the carousel and I watched the horses running around and around to the music of “Beautiful Ohio,” and I cried. Tears streamed down my cheeks. I knew something important had happened to me that day because of Mr. Electrico. I felt changed. He gave me importance, immortality, a mystical gift. My life was turned around completely. It makes me cold all over to think about it, but I went home and within days I started to write. I’ve never stopped.”
On reading that, I think I know how he felt. People that truly change our lives are often rare. Mr. Elecrtrico did it for Ray Bradbury. Ray Bradbury did that for me.
Bradbury goes onto say the following:
“Seventy-seven years ago, and I’ve remembered it perfectly. I went back and saw him that night. He sat in the chair with his sword, they pulled the switch, and his hair stood up. He reached out with his sword and touched everyone in the front row, boys and girls, men and women, with the electricity that sizzled from the sword. When he came to me, he touched me on the brow, and on the nose, and on the chin, and he said to me, in a whisper, “Live forever.” And I decided to.”
He’ll live forever in his fiction and in all of the people who he touched. I like to think that would have pleased him. It certainly pleases me. If you have any personal thoughts on Ray Bradbury, or even want to share your favorite story of his, I’d love to see them in the comments.
Image via the Las Vegas Sun