THE ESSENTIAL BRADBURY

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When the first edition of Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews was published in June of 2010, I embarked upon an overly-ambitious project. I began a series on my blog titled “The Essential Bradbury,” where I intended on listing the 25 must-read Ray Bradbury short stories for any would-be Martian-neophytes. I listed out each story, its history, themes, and what made the tale top-shelf Bradbury. Over the next few years, I made it all the way to 18 stories! But, then, the old web site came down as Listen to the Echoes was published in a handsome new edition by a new publisher and, alas, I never completed the 25 “Essential Bradbury” stories.

So here I go again! Fans have been writing me, asking if I would re-post the old story suggestions and, at long last, finish the project. And so it begins. I figure I only have seven more stories to write about! I have reordered many of my choices. I will be counting down from 25 to number 1 over the next few weeks.

People often ask, "where should I begin when it comes to reading Bradbury?"

The long answer? In 2010, Everyman's Library republished The Stories of Ray Bradbury containing a staggering 100 of Bradbury's best short stories. Along with this, there is the equally voluminous Bradbury Stories, published in 2003, containing yet another 100 more short fictional gems. (Bradbury dedicated this last book, in part to me, an incredible, stirring gift.) Certainly, you cannot go wrong by reading either of these spectacular volumes. Bradbury is a master of the short story.  It is, in my estimation, his strongest creative form. His wife of 56 years, Marguerite, agreed with me. Yet reading 200 stories is, for many, an unrealistic goal.

So the short answer of where to begin with Bradbury is this list, right here. I will offer up a streamlined list of 25 of my own personal favorite short fictions by the master of miracles. These stories will embody all the trademarks of vintage Bradbury: the lyrical language; the fantastic, original, and memorable ideas; the rich metaphor; and endings that sometimes surprise, sometimes sadden, always instruct and entertain. This list will be entirely subjective. These are my favorites. They will reflect a wide range, from weird tales to social science fiction to quiet and contemplative tales of contemporary literature. These tales are pure and classic Bradbury—our modern mythologist.

#25 “THE FIRST NIGHT OF LENT”

Where to Find It: A Medicine for Melancholy, The Stories of Ray Bradbury

First Published: Playboy, March, 1956

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Plot Synopsis: A young screenwriter at work in Ireland in 1953 discovers that his ever-reliable regular taxicab driver has become dangerous and impaired when behind the wheel. Nick, the village driver, escorts the young writer from Dublin to the Irish countryside and the estate of the young screenwriter’s director. Nick then waits at the local pub until the writer is ready to be driven back to the city. There is never a problem, until the first night of Lent. . . .

Critique: Any “essential” list of Bradbury short stories must include an Irish tale (as well as a Mexico story, a Mars story, and a Green Town story, for that matter). The problem is, of course, which Irish story? I choose this one for two simple reasons. First, Bradbury takes the lyrical quality of his voice and drenches it in a poetic and authentic Irish brogue.

Nick, now. See his easy hands loving the wheel in a slow clocklike turning as soft and silent as winter constellations snow down the sky. Listen to his mist-breathing voice all night-quiet as he charms the road, his foot a tenderly benevolent pat on the whispering accelerator, never a mile under thirty, never two miles over. Nick, Nick and his steady boat gentling a mild sweet lake where all Time slumbers. Look, compare. And bind such a man to you with summer grasses, gift him with silver, shake his hand warmly at each journey’s end

“Good night, Nick,” I said at the hotel. “See you tomorrow.”

“God willing,” whispered Nick

And he drove softly away.

The second reason I have selected this story for “The Essential Bradbury” list is that this is the first Irish story Bradbury wrote. It is his first creation, fresh-removed and newly-minted from his own actual experiences of living in Dublin in the autumn of 1953 and the winter of 1954, writing the screenplay for Moby Dick for film director John Huston. From a biographical standpoint, it is fascinating to read a work of short fiction that is, ostensibly, memoir. And with “The First Night of Lent,” Bradbury had discovered a trove of material that would continue to yield rich story, culminating in the publication of the 1992 semi-autobiographical novel, Green Shadow, White Whale, a minor-class

The Beginning of the Irish Stories: As Ray recalled, one night after he had returned from Ireland, he was in bed and a voice spoke to him

“Ray, darling!”

Ray responded, “Who is it?”

And the voice said, “It’s Nick, the cab driver who drove you back and forth from Dublin to Kilcock 80 or 90 times. Do you remember that, Ray? Do you?”

And Ray said, “Yes?”

And the voice said, “Would you mind puttin’ it down?”

So Ray Bradbury started writing his Irish stories, beginning with “The First Night of Lent.”

Historical Aside: A fascinating New York Times article on John Huston’s Georgian Irish Manor, ran June 12, 2012. Check it out here.

This is the very house where, in 1953, Nick the cab driver picked Bradbury up late at night, to drive him back to Dublin. This is the very house where Ray say with John Huston, late into the Irish night, as Huston went over Ray’s adaptation of Moby Dick.

#24 “THE SOUND OF SUMMER RUNNING”

Where to Find It: Dandelion Wine, The Stories of Ray Bradbury

The illustration by Amos Sewell that accompanied the original publication of “Summer in the Air,” in the February 1956 issue of  Saturday Evening Post .

The illustration by Amos Sewell that accompanied the original publication of “Summer in the Air,” in the February 1956 issue of Saturday Evening Post.

First Published as: “Summer in the Air,” The Saturday Evening Post, February 18, 1956

Plot Synopsis: At the beginning of summer, 1928, Douglas Spaulding sees a pair of brand new tennis shoes in a storefront window. His shoes are worn out, his feet feel heavy, and he is convinced that this resplendent pair of Cream-Sponge Para Litefoot Shoes will change his summer forever.

Backstory: Ray Bradbury on the origins of the story from Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews:

“I was on a bus going into Westwood a few years ago, and a young boy jumped on the bus, threw his money in the box, raced down the aisle, and threw himself into a seat across from me.  And I looked at him, and I said, ‘My god, if I had his energy, I could write a poem every day, a story every week, a novel every month.  What’s his secret?’  I looked down at his feet.  He had the brightest pair of new fresh tennis shoes on his feet.  And I said, oh, my god, I can remember when I was a kid, my father taking me downtown and buying me my first pair of new summer tennis shoes.  I went home, and I wrote the short story.”

Critique: This story is a shining example of Bradbury’s range as a literary writer. The man did not need an otherworldly landscape or elements of the fantastic to meditate on the human experience. Bradbury found magic in the every day, in this case, in a new pair of tennis shoes and the perspective of youth. The best Bradbury, in my opinion, is rooted in unforgettable story with a philosophical question at its center, all told in his singular, poetic style.

The Prose: Somehow the people who made tennis shoes knew what boys needed and wanted. They put marshmallows and coiled springs in the soles and they wove the rest out of grasses bleached and fired in the wilderness. Somewhere deep in the soft loam of the shoes the thin hard sinews of the buck deer were hidden. The people that made the shoes must have watched a lot of winds blow the trees and a lot of rivers going down to the lakes. Whatever it was, it was in the shoes, and it was summer.


#23 “THE LONG RAIN”

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Where to Find It: The Illustrated Man, The Stories of Ray Bradbury

First Published: As “Death-by-Rain” in Planet Stories, September, 1950.

Plot Synopsis: Ray Bradbury writes a Jack London story set on Venus. A marooned crew on the perpetually rain-saturated planet march through the thick and endless planetary jungle world desperately seeking a sun-dome, a man-made structure built by colonists that provides warmth, provisions and respite from the infinite rain.

Cinematic History: Director Jack Smight brought the story to the screen in the 1969 adaptation of the Illustrated Man, a critical and box-office disaster.

Personal Anecdote: No question, this is classic Bradbury. But I am also partial to it. “The Long Rain” is the first Ray Bradbury story I ever read. I was 11-years-old and I was never the same again.

Passage of Exemplary Bradburian Prose: "It was a hard rain, a perpetual rain, a sweating and steaming rain; it was a mizzle, a downpour, a fountain, a whipping in the eyes, an undertow at the ankles; it was a rain to drown all rains and the memory of rains."

The Venus Chronicles: Bradbury only penned two Venus stories over the course of his illustrious career and they were both classics. “All Summer in Day” is one of his most anthologized and beloved tales, read around the world in middle school grades. “The Long Rain” is Bradbury in a rare adventure yarn, a thrilling man versus nature narrative.

#22 “IN A SEASON OF CALM WEATHER”

Where to Find It: A Medicine for Melancholy, The Stories of Ray Bradbury

First Published: January 1957, Playboy

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Plot Synopsis: A man who idolizes Pablo Picasso encounters his hero creating a masterpiece in the sand on a beach in the South of France. 

Backstory: Bradbury got the inspiration for the story one day while walking on the beach along with his wife and some friends. He picked up a discarded Popsicle stick and started etching in the sand. At this point, he thought about a man who always wanted to own a Picasso original and one day stumbled upon the renowned artist creating a masterpiece on the beach. The creation, of course, would last only as long as the tide would stay out.

Critique: An excellent example of Bradbury at his most tightly crafted game. Short and taut, “In a Season of Calm Weather” is just a few pages, but tells a compelling story of celebrating the moment—in this case, the moment on the beach where George Smith watches from afar as his hero creates his masterpiece in the sand. The story also features a seldom discussed example of Bradbury’s appreciation of French prose poetry (See Echoes pgs. 210-211). Bradbury’s lengthy description of Picasso’s sand creation represents his further literary exploration of the highly evocative work of French writer Saint-James Perse.

 For there on the flat shore were pictures of Grecian lions and Mediterranean goats and maidens with flesh of sand like powdered gold and satyrs piping on hand-carved horns and children dancing, strewing flowers along and along the beach with lambs gamboling after, and musicians skipping to their harps and lyres and unicorns racing youths toward distant meadows, woodlands, ruined temples, and volcanoes. Along the shore in a never-broken line, the hand, the wooden stylus of this man, bent down in fever and raining perspiration, scribbled, ribboned, looped around over and up, across, in, out, stitched, whispered, stayed, then hurried on as if this traveling bacchanal must flourish to its end before the sun was put out by the sea. Twenty, thirty yards or more the nymphs and dryads and summer founts sprang up in unraveled hieroglyphs. And the sand in the dying light was the color of molten copper on which was now slashed a message that any man in any time might read and savor down the years. Everything whirled and poised in its own wind and gravity. Now wine was being crushed from under the grape-blooded feet of dancing vintners' daughters, now steaming seas gave birth to coin-sheated monsters while flower-red kites strewed scent on blowing clouds...now...now...now...

The artist stopped.

Anecdote: “In a Season of Calm Weather” was produced into the 1969 feature film Picasso Summer starring Albert Finney. The film suffered from myriad production difficulties and has seldom been seen since its original theatrical release. It occasionally airs on late night cable television. Bradbury wrote the screenplay, but it was largely scrapped by the film’s director, Serge Bourguignon. The short story was later collected under the title “Picasso Summer.” Bradbury told me that he actually prefers this title, stating that it is more succinct. From my own point of view, I favor the original story title, as it has the ring of John Stienbeck’s early influence on Bradbury. I also adhere to Bradbury’s own mantra (a mantra he has frequently defied, by the way), that “a writer should never mess with his younger self” by later rewriting published works.

 One Last Point: I firmly maintain that the epic production failure of the 1969 film Picasso Summer—replete with Spanish Bullfighters, arrangements with Pablo Picasso to play himself, and comedian Bill Cosby serving as co-producer—would make for a great short comedic memoir. Ray Bradbury agreed, but due to his advancing age and declining health, this book concept (similar to his autobiographical novel Green Shadows, White Whale, never saw the light.