My dad turned me on to Ray Bradbury. The short stories had captivated him in his late teens and early twenties, and on his shelf was a two-volume Grafton paperback collection of them.
There was a waft in them of something dark and strange and menacing and mysterious and infinitely delicious. Picture me, a knock-kneed ten-year-old bookworm in the anaesthetized suburban Surrey of the mid-1980s, taking down from the shelf the first of those two volumes. Its cover had THE STORIES OF RAY BRADBURY in large black block capitals on a red background and, underneath, even larger and in yellow capitals, VOLUME 1. Or rather: VOLUME, and then, underneath and fully half the height of the cover, the numeral 1 pointed upwards like a rocket-ship.
And what a rocket-ship it was. It took me to dozens and dozens of other worlds. Bradbury is a poet of the unheimlich, or unhomely. He transports and unsettles. On the one hand, he has an almost miraculous fecundity of imagination – he’s thought to have written as many as 400 short stories, though nobody seems to be able to put a precise figure on it. On the other, he returns again and again to the same set of vibes, the same themes – the sinister carnival blowing into town, disrupting the safety of the Mid-western America of his small-town childhood in Waukegan, Illinois; the vampiric visitor; the dinosaur; the monster; the lonely beauty of Mars.
The introduction to those volumes was called ‘Drunk – and in Charge of a Bicycle’, and it is at once memoir and manifesto. The way he expresses his relation to his stories is that the muse chased him, rather than vice versa: ‘My stories have led me through my life. They shout, I follow. They run up and bite me on the leg – I respond by writing down everything that goes on during the bite. When I finish, the idea lets go, and runs off.’
Bradbury describes a writing life in which he followed his childhood obsessions through a lifelong trip which he identi
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