Ray Bradbury, Magician, 1920-2012

A haunted train steams into a small town on an October midnight, carrying a dark carnival. It rumbles past the graveyard, accompanied by music from a calliope with no one at the keyboard. Light streams from the windows of empty passenger cars. The locomotive charges ahead with no engineer aboard—no one but the invisible magician whose hand is at the controls.
“I always wanted to be a magician, and of course that’s what I turned out to be,” Ray Bradbury told me in 1997, when I interviewed him for New Times.
“The best description of me is a magician and not a science-fiction writer.”
The magician who turned science fiction into high literature with “Fahrenheit 451” and “The Martial Chronicles” died this morning at his Los Angeles home. He was 91.
It wasn’t “Fahrenheit” or “The Chronicles” that led me to call Bradbury in 1997. It was a children’s favorite—“Something Wicked This Way Comes,” that was being performed, at the time, by the San Luis Obispo Little Theater in California.
“It’s a metaphor for all of life,” Bradbury said of his play, which you may know better as a 1983 movie starring Jonathan Pryce, Jason Robards and Diane Ladd.
“You write a thing. You don’t know why you’re doing it or what it’s all about. It’s got to be passionate and automatic and intuitive, and when you’re all done, it’s all about life. It’s all about being born, growing up, being afraid, knowledge of death—whatever—a little of everything.”
“Something Wicked” ranked among Bradbury’s most successful works thanks to school librarians and devoted children.
“Right now it’s in most of the schools in America,” he told me. “That’s very important. To belong to the children, I think that’s just great. I’d rather belong to them. They’re far more honest in their loves and their hates, and if a bunch of kids tells me that I’m doing okay, I’d much rather listen to them then a bunch of grownups, who make up reasons for liking you or disliking you.”
Bradbury dredged “Something Wicked” from the same primal experiences that led him to a career in writing. His mother took him to a traveling carnival that visited his Illinois home town in 1926, when he was 6 years old.
“All the people who ran carnivals when I was a kid smelled of cat pee, and their breath wasn’t very good. So you suspected that all this genteel behavior and all the smiles were a front for something quite horrible.”
In the story, two 12-year-old boys slip behind the scenes of Cooger & Dark’s Combined Shadow Shows and Pandemonium Theater Company, a traveling carnival that arrives on a haunted train one midnight in October.
The carnival grants townspeople their dearest desires. They only discover later that it does so at a dear price. The boys uncover the dark carnival’s dark secret and battle its sinister leader, Mr. Dark.
“And that was the October week when they grew up overnight,” the prologue teases, “and were never so young anymore….”
But Bradbury loved carnivals. He owned his career to one.
In 1932, when he was 12, Mr. Electrico arrived in his hometown with The Dill Brothers Combined Shows, which Bradbury describes as a “seedy, two-bit carnival.”
“Every night for three nights, Mr. Electrico sat in his electric chair, being fired with ten billion volts of pure blue sizzling power,” Bradbury recalled.
“Reaching out into the audience, his eyes flaming, his white hair standing on end, sparks leaping between his smiling teeth, he brushed an Excalibur sword over the heads of the children, knighting them with fire. When he came to me, he tapped me on both shoulders and then the tip of my nose. The lightning jumped into me. Mr. Electrico cried: “Live forever!”
Mr. Electrico told young Ray he’d known him before—that they had been best friends during World War I, and that Ray had died in his arms at the battle of the Ardennes forest. Something in Mr. Electrico’s sword sparked young Bradbury’s imagination, spurring him to express his love of magic on paper.
“A few weeks later I started writing my first stories about the planet Mars. From that time to this, I have never stopped. God Bless Mr. Electrico, the catalyst, wherever he is.”
Mr. Electrico's magic kept Bradbury alive until this morning, and as the writer traversed the stars, from Illinois to Tucson to Mars, to his longtime home on Cheviot Drive in Los Angeles, he gleaned wisdom that he handed to me in that interview 15 years ago:
“Do your best to live to the end of your life and fill it with self-discovery and the joy of living. That old saying from the Bible, which was taken by William Saroyan for one of his plays, “in the time of your life”—In the time of your life, live. Don’t doom yourself. Don’t go around with a long face.”

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