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A tribute to Ray Bradbury by Mark Dery

The Million-Year Picnic is over. Ray Bradbury — chronicler of a starward migration that never came; vintner of dandelion wine; barker on the midway of the Middle American unconscious, ballyhooing illustrated men and mechanical Tarot Witches — died in Los Angeles on June 5 after what the Los Angeles Times called “a long illness.” The man who traced his transformation into a pulp fantasist to the day in 1932 when a carnival magician named Mr. Electrico knighted him with an electrified sword, declaring, “Live forever!,” was 91.

“The electricity rushed down the sword, inside my skull, made my hair stand up and sparks fly out of my ears,” he wrote, in a short essay on his website. The experience made unsettling music in the 12-year-old Bradbury’s mind, the magician’s words chiming eerily against the death of a beloved uncle earlier that week. The next day, after the funeral, he returned to the carnival, where Mr. Electrico seemed unsurprised to see the boy (“almost as if he were waiting for me”). Beckoning him into a tent, the magician introduced him to sideshow gaffs — freaks who are made, not born — such as the Illustrated Man, the Fat Lady and the living skeleton. Then, the man who made his living cheating high-voltage death before slack-jawed crowds — “he sat in his electric chair every night and was electrocuted in front of all the people” — took Bradbury aside and imparted a piece of creepy wisdom. “You know, we’ve met before,” he told the boy, insisting that Bradbury was the reincarnation of a friend who’d died in his arms in the Great War. “Here you are, with a new face, a new name, but the soul shining from your face is the soul of my dear dead friend.”

In Bradbury’s telling, “something strange and wonderful” happened that day — a Touch of the Marvelous, as the Surrealists call it, propelling him toward his destiny as a writer. A few days after his portentous encounter with Mr. Electrico, he began to write “full-time,” something he did every day until disease stopped the clack of his typewriter keys.

But there’s another augury here, a premonition of the quintessentially American contradictions beneath the surface of Bradbury’s work. What could be more American than the electric chair, which combines our devout belief in technological progress, our appetite for prime-time spectacle and our Old Testament morality? What better symbol of the “moronic inferno” of American society (Martin Amis), with its delirious violence, all-consuming consumerism and pious hypocrisies than state-sanctioned murder staged as entertainment for the gum-snapping crowd? Bradbury’s master metaphor, the conceit extended through The Illustrated Man (1951), Dandelion Wine (1957), Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962), not to mention his first published book, the 1947 short-story collection of the same name, was the Dark Carnival, an image that evokes the freak show behind the tent flap of heartland America. (Bradbury grew up in Waukegan, Illinois, mythologized as Green Town in his fiction.) Is it mere coincidence that Bradbury’s fateful year of 1932 was the year Tod Browning unleashed Freaks on American moviegoers?

For that matter, does it come as any surprise that Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson’s pitch-perfect harmonization of Victorian sentimentality and Lost-Generation existentialism, was a seminal influence on *The Martian Chronicles (1950)? Bradbury rebuilds Winesburg amid the fossil seas of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom and populates it with a cast of Martians and Earthers worthy of Anderson’s small-town grotesques. Worlds away from the Erector-Set prose of “hard” SF novelists like Asimov, Bradbury’s supersaturated lyricism in Chronicles is a visual echo of the dime-store-Surrealist illustrations that enlivened the pages of ’40s pulps like Super Science Stories, where Bradbury learned his craft. But the stories are perfumed with what Anderson would call “the sweetness of twisted apples.” Like the Midwesterners who moved by the millions to California in the early decades of the 20th century — the Bradburys were part of that westering movement, and Chronicles is among other things a meditation on Becoming Californian, which is to say: Becoming Alien — Bradbury’s Terran explorers and, later, homesteaders, bring their vanities, vulgarities, bigotries and other Freudian diseases of the psyche to Mars.

Thumbnailed as an Old Master of SF alongside Asimov, Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke, Bradbury always insisted he wrote fantasy candystriped with horror. His stories owe as much to Poe as they do H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs; the shadow of the American gothic creeps into the corners of his books, even in his nominally space-operatic Chronicles, most obviously in “Usher II,” about a literatus who builds a theme-park spookhouse booby-trapped to kill, in ingeniously Poe-inspired ways, the book burners who’ve tracked him to Mars.

Like his fellow Midwesterner Walt Disney, Bradbury was that most American of oxymorons, the Nostalgic Futurist. Sentimentally drawn to the Main Street, U.S.A. of his youth but beguiled by Gernsbackian dreams of Tomorrowland, he spoke the dream language of the Machine Age but waged a rearguard war, much of his life, against what he perceived to be the dehumanizing effects of technology, championing the typewriter over the desktop computer, inveighing against TV and even the Internet, refusing to permit e-book editions of his works (until the very end), never learning to drive (in Los Angeles, the Vatican of car culture). Yet, unlike Uncle Walt, he knew that our vision of ourselves as We the People has to be reconciled, somehow, with those greasy faces leering back at us in lynching-party postcards. Tomorrowland, it turns out, is just a monorail ride away from all the Haunted Mansions of our troubled past.

Mark Dery’s latest book is I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-By Essays on American Dread, American Dreams