It seems appropriate that I should have started reading Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962) the day before Ray Bradbury died. Bradbury was a writer who remained at the top of his form for over sixty years. Often called a science fiction writer, he could not be tied down to a single genre—he wrote widely and prolifically. His output can only be matched by a few—Anthony Burgess, Joyce Carol Oates, Edgar Rice Burroughs (all of whom interact with Bradbury’s themes on a similar level)—and could be surpassed only by the typing machine that was Isaac Asimov. And each new story, each book, each essay, each poem, called to mind images which were hauntingly familiar and alien at the same time.
Bradbury’s childhood was good to him. Most of his fiction came from his childhood memories. Dandelion Wine (and its sequel, Farewell Summer) was incredibly autobiographical. Something Wicked This Way Comes contains a Mr. Electrico, based upon a real man that Bradbury met at a traveling carnival when he was a boy. And if the circumstances were not autobiographical, the obsessive taste in books—Poe, E. R. Burroughs, pre-20th century poetry (mostly 19th and 18th, though going back to Gilgamesh)—was always apparent. (The Martian Chronicles contains a story, “Usher II,” which is a dastardly tribute to Poe, reworking the structure of his stories into a single, over-arching story, with the overtones of a Roger Corman movie.) Fahrenheit 451, his most famous novel, was about the destruction of books by firemen who were trained to start, rather than stop, fires as a means of censorship. And as with any book about censorship, it has faced censorship cases repeatedly. (Irony, however, is always lost on those who try to censor books, I’m afraid.) Bradbury’s first five novels—The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Halloween Tree—are indispensable milestones in literary history. These five books are almost perfect works of art, capturing an emotional intensity (without overtly sentimental or ironic tones) and delivering an incredible story. Every story is accessible to adults and children alike in equal measure. Bradbury was truly a universal author.
The short story “There Will Come Soft Rains” (a selection from The Martian Chronicles) served as my reintroduction to Bradbury after many years of only half-paying attention to his career. In a class on the short story, we spent one class dissecting and arguing over the story. The story is about an automated house of the future which performs its time-saving duties for its owners—who, unknown to the house, were killed by nuclear fallout. Even though the house knows that something is wrong, the house continues to act as though nothing has changed, until the house is destroyed by a fire. It’s a beautiful piece, with the house becoming more than just a collection of circuits and wires and wood and paint. The house becomes human, as if to replace the humans that used to live there. The themes of “man/machine” and “nature/technology” were much under discussion. So much was packed into roughly six pages of text; enough to create many arguments which spilled over after the class ended. Soon after, I revisited The Martian Chronicles and found myself hooked all over again. Unlike The Chronicles of Narnia or The Hardy Boys, Bradbury had not lost his charm as I aged. Instead, I found that I loved these books even more than I had when I first read them.
Later on in life, Bradbury often recounted in interviews that the real Mr. Electrico told him that he would live forever.
I, along with many others, wish that Mr. Electrico had been right.