I posted this on Facebook, but it belongs here, so here goes:
So … Ray Bradbury. What does Ray mean to me; more particularly, what do his works mean to me?
I live in a country, South Africa, where Ray Bradbury is almost completely unknown. (That isn’t completely true, but I’ll get to that later.) And yet, Ray reached across the ocean and somehow managed to infiltrate my DNA before I’d even heard of him.
In approximately 1963, my dad and I were listening to the radio late one night, when one of those creepy Springbok Radio shows came on. Was it The Creaking Door? Was it Beyond Midnight? I can’t remember, but I was eight or nine years old, and the show scared the bejesus out of me. Produced by Michael McCabe, a UK national who could do a sepulchral voice like no other, it was the story of an infant that tries to murder its own parents. My dad and I were still babbling excitedly about the show when my mother, who had been out visiting relatives, arrived home. The first thing she said when she put her handbag down, was “We listened to such a scary story on the radio this evening!”
I couldn’t remember the name of the story, or the author who had written it, but it was “The Small Assassin”, of course. I found this out only about a decade later, when I started buying all the Bradbury books I could find. And then suddenly, in the episodic way memories present themselves, it was 1969. I needed to read a few books for a book report and I noticed one called R Is for Rocket in the school library. Well, it seemed to me that this would be a painless entry in my book report—the title suggested the sort of thing that teachers would disapprove of, but I wasn’t in the Henry James league just yet—so I borrowed it.
And of course, I was instantly enraptured when I started reading. From the opening story, in which young kids plaster their faces against a chain-link fence to watch rockets taking off, dreaming of Mars, I was transported to a realm of childlike wonder. It seemed to me that the author knew the dreams of childhood; the vivid fantasies at which most adults turn up their noses. I was fourteen or fifteen then—a few years older than the prime age at which most readers discover Ray Bradbury—but then, I was always a late bloomer. The Bradbury virus took hold irrevocably and incurably one late afternoon, when I was reading “Frost and Fire”. I had the book propped up on a window-sill as the sun was setting, and my frenzied reading in the fading light mirrored Sim and Lyte’s desperate race against the dawn. And then my mother called me for supper, and the spell was broken. But from that day forward, Ray Bradbury was my favourite author.
It was 1972 before I bought my first Bradbury book—appropriately enough, it was R Is for Rocket, the Pan paperback with the wonderful abstract cover art by Ian Miller. I had to start there, because that had been my introduction to Bradbury. Soon enough I bought the matching edition of S Is for Space, and then, of course, I had to have them all. But there was no internet in those days, and I had no proper bibliography of Ray’s books. So I scoured every second hand bookshop in Cape Town, looking for Bradbury titles. Every branch of Pilgrim’s Books, every indie bookshop, every paperback exchange, every book sale, every firetrap in Long Street, Cape Town, every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse in that area (thank you, Tommy Lee).
I was by now a full-blown Bradbury obsessive. I even bought a few books or digests because they contained Bradbury stories that I didn’t have already, or that I couldn’t remember having. Stories such as “Bright Phoenix”, “The Black Ferris”, “The Watchers”, “The Undead Die”, “A Wild Night in Galway”, and others—I had them all before they appeared in “proper” Ray Bradbury books, thanks to battered old paperbacks edited by Peter Haining or Damon Knight. If it had a Bradbury story, and I couldn’t remember the title, I bought it.
Of course, living in South Africa meant that 90% of the books you saw were from UK imprints. The differences between UK editions and the original ones could sometimes lead the hapless collector down some bewildering rabbit holes. The most egregious instance of this type of collector’s folly was when I ordered the two volume set of Reader’s Digest Great Short Stories of the English Speaking World, just so I could have “The Shoreline at Sunset”. Little did I know that the story was already in my library, titled “The Sunset Harp”.
The first more or less properly curated bibliography of Ray’s works that I ever saw was in Science Fiction Monthly, August 1974, in an article by Walter Gillings. But this bibliography gave rise to a new mystery: it listed Ray’s first book as Dark Carnival. What was this Dark Carnival? What was in it? Why hadn’t I ever found such a book in all my book hunting meanderings? In the 1990s I finally found the Short Story Index in the Cape Town Library, and I discovered that I already had 23 of the 27 stories in Dark Carnival (different texts, but that’s another story), but I still wanted Dark Carnival, just because it was so elusive. This was an itch I finally got to scratch in 2002, thanks to Gauntlet Press, the internet, and the small matter of $220.
For me, the internet age arrived only in the year 2000, and I was finally able to order the “proper” US editions of Ray’s new books. Some things are ineluctably British, like the music of the Beatles, and when it comes to their albums, it’s the UK ones I want. But Ray Bradbury is a quintessentially American author, and when it comes to his books—make mine American, please. That doesn’t mean that the UK editions of Ray’s books are without their own idiosyncratic charm. If you’re an American reader, you absolutely should have The Day It Rained Forever, for instance—a sort of parallel universe version of A Medicine for Melancholy, but with two stories that never appeared in any of Ray’s US paperbacks. And I will insist to my dying day that, in one of my old paperbacks, there is a paragraph in which cricket is substituted for baseball—if only I could find that again! I recently scanned (visually) my old Corgi paperbacks, but couldn’t find that passage. Is it a false memory?
The internet has brought Ray Bradbury’s world a little closer to those who, like me, lived out of reach of his many public appearances and book signings. Nevertheless, thanks to the friends I’ve made in Bradbury fandom, I have a few autographed copies of his books, including one or two addressed to me. They’re not rarities, of course, because in his younger days Ray signed everything with his name on it, but I cherish them. Just as I cherish the memory of that late afternoon when I read my first Bradbury book by the light of a westering sun. Ray has left us, but his books and incomparable stories remain with me, because, as Elvis Costello said, he left his fingerprints on my imagination. Ray was my gateway drug to science fiction, even though he more or less stopped writing science fiction after Fahrenheit 451.
In recent years, I tried to obtain a copy of that radio show that ignited my fear and passion for Ray’s stories, almost six decades ago. I even emailed Michael McCabe about a decade ago. He had retired to the UK, but his wife kindly responded and informed me that Michael had no records of the many adaptations he had done for South African radio, including several of Ray’s stories. An old time radio fan sent me a copy, but the quality is poor and it’s virtually unlistenable.
Oh, one last thing. I said that Ray was almost unknown in South Africa, but the day after he died, there was a small report in my local paper about his passing. One of the luminaries from the arts world who were quoted about Ray’s influence on them was the Afrikaans alternative musician, Koos Kombuis (“Koos” is from Jacobus, so his stage name is approximately Jake Kitchen). Just shows you: Ray is everywhere, and always will be.
As the man said, forever.
douglasSP, wonderful story! Thanks for posting and sharing it.
That was beautiful, thanks.
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