I can’t begin to express the massive effect that Ray Bradbury’s writing had on me, but I’m going to give it a shot. Unlike most of my peers, I didn’t latch onto his work at an early age. I’d read parts of Dandelion Wine, Farenheit 451, and The Martian Chronicles in school, but I was always one of those students who didn’t like anything I was assigned to read, no matter how good it was. Though I could recognize that there was talent in his work, I bypassed it as something my teachers were trying to force down my throat.
Yes, I’m aware that I just blasphemed.
The truth is, I didn’t get into Bradbury until a few years ago. After a couple of rough years, that climaxed in my best friend’s suicide and concluded with my brother, my girlfriend, and others close to me moving across the country to start a business, I was in a dark place. There were plans for me to move out there with them, but they weren’t exactly set in stone. For one, I wasn’t sure my girlfriend wanted me there. Secondly, Philadelphia to Texas is a big move for a twenty-something with little money, little education, and no job. It was one of the first times in my life that I’d been faced with true uncertainty. I’d been met with challenges before, but I’d always either believed things would be alright or I was young and crazy enough not to care. This time around was different. I was scared. I felt more alone than I’d ever been.
I had my writing, and I was still playing music at the time. That helped. Songwriting was something that alleviated whatever it was I was feeling, but without my late best friend/bandmate it never felt like enough. It felt like a temporary fix, like getting drunk or high. When I put the pen down or stepped away from my piano, the darkness came rushing back.
I’ve always loved and appreciated the horror genre, both in books and film. While looking for more stuff to read, a friend (James Manderson, who did the cover art for Goblins) recommended Bradbury’s October Country. He cited it as one of his top ten, and as a huge influence on his work and life. Manderson’s a guy whose opinions I’ve always valued. He was the one who showed me that not all electronic music is a throbbing bombardment of obnoxious, yet danceable beats. We also shared literary interests. We were total devotees of King and Lovecraft, Barker and Poe.
I bought The October Country on one of my solitary trips to Barnes and Noble (with a large percentage of my loved ones half a country away there were a lot of these). I read the first story, The Dwarf, while I was in Doylestown with my Mom, waiting for her to get done work so we could go out for dinner. It was an interesting read, but I wasn’t crazy about it. I didn’t fall in love until the second story.
I read The Next in Line on a day off, walking through the woods in impossible humidity. The shade of the trees coupled with a light breeze from Neshaminy Creek to cool me down. It had rained a few days ago, and the ground was still squishy and hard to get through. I had one of those moments as I read (we all have them if we read good shit) where I was totally taken up in the prose. Every word lingered long after I had passed it, and I was no longer in the woods, but in the world Bradbury had created. In the case of this story, it was an underground crypt in Mexico that was filled with mummies.
Over the next few weeks, I devoured each story like my life depended on it. If I wasn’t working, eating, talking on the phone with my girlfriend or sleeping, I was reading. His words did something for me that hadn’t been done for me in a long time: it showed me that the world, though often terrifying, cruel and uncertain, was a place of beauty. His childlike enthusiasm that framed each story in the collection made it so much more than horror fiction. It was fantasy, but not in the sword-and-sorcery sense. It was poetic prose (and I only use that description if I really mean it). It did something else, too. I remembered that the songwriting thing was really only a small part of what I loved doing. It was the act of storytelling, of painting a picture with words, that I was truly drawn to.
At the end of that summer, I made my way to Texas to be with my girlfriend and my brother. The uncertainty didn’t matter. What mattered was that I did something, that I moved forward. In some strange way, I feel like Bradbury’s work helped me with that.
The girlfriend, in question, is now my wife. These days, I write every day. I’ve finished more projects than I ever thought I could’ve. I’ve even had a few published. Am I even close to getting as far as I want to go? No, but the point is that I keep moving forward, and keep shooting for it. I’ll get there, a few paces at a time, but I’ll get there.
“A writer writes,” he says. And a husband loves, and a friend is reliable, and a student learns, and a salesperson sells, and so on, and so on.
Thank you, Ray Bradbury, for inspiring me in my work as well as my life. May you rest in peace. Guys like you ought to be immortal, so I hope you’re drinking dandelion wine with martians in the October Country.