Posted by Gary B. Phillips on Jul 3, 2013 in Apex Publications Blog: Matters of SF, Fantasy, and Horror | 0 comments
It’s been just over a year since Ray Bradbury passed away. Most celebrity deaths don’t really bother me, but his was different. No other author has had a more profound impact on me as both a reader and a writer.
It was a pleasure to burn.
It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.
Those are the opening words to Fahrenheit 451. They changed my life.
I loved reading as a child and was surrounded by a large number of books. I read a lot of classics: The Scarlet Letter, Moby Dick, White Fang, to name a few. But I didn’t fall in love with any of them. (Although as a young boy I did have a deep affinity for Jack London’s novels.) The books were old and I was young, too young to truly appreciate them. Something about them felt… off. I did my best to understand them. If you could have seen me, I probably looked like a mad man (or boy, in this case) from one of Lovecraft’s stories; up late, reading by night light, trying to decipher archaic texts and going insane in the process. I may not have understood or loved everything I read, but I did learn to love reading.
At fifteen years old, that love for reading compelled me to start my own library. One of the first books I picked up was Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I had seen it sitting on a friend’s desk and the cover intrigued me. (The book has had the good fortune of having some amazing cover art over the years.) Within the first few paragraphs, I was captivated by the prose, by the sheer weight and beauty of each line. I didn’t read a lot of poetry (and still don’t, something I need to remedy) but his work read like poetry to me. I didn’t just read each sentence linearly until I got to the end. I read and re-read passages, immersing myself in the words, studying them. I held them close to my heart and though I didn’t realize it at the time, I would soon start writing stories of my own and it was Bradbury’s words that would be my guide.
I moved on to his short story collections, The Illustrated Man and The Halloween Tree. He was a master of the short story and a prolific writer, producing around 500 short stories in his career. His work ethic lives on through projects like Write 1 Sub 1. I’ve come to appreciate that work ethic and try my hardest to emulate it, though I know I fall short. His short stories are the gold standard by which I judge my own.
Many times when I’m feeling down about my own writing I’ll search out interviews with authors. Something about finding out what ignites their minds helps to recharge my own batteries. I recently saw this conversation with Ray Bradbury. It’s a joy to see his passion for books and writing. It’s infectious. He talks about finding an author that you can connect with, that can lead you through the dark. While good advice for a writer, I think it goes for readers as well.
I’ve been writing down my thoughts for this blog post for a while. During that period Richard Matheson passed away. I didn’t discover him until I was well into my twenties, but he has always been linked with Bradbury in my mind. (Bradbury spoke very highly of Mr. Matheson saying, “[he] is worthy of our time, attention and great affection.”) I couldn’t agree more. He is most well known for I Am Legend, but that only scratches the surface of his writing. His haunted house novel, Hell House, is one of my favorite horror stories. He was responsible for a number of great novels: What Dreams May Come, Somewhere In Time, Stir of Echoes (all which went on to inspire films of various quality), dozens of wonderful short stories, and a number of Twilight Zone episodes.
To lose two such giants in the field just a year apart is a terrible thing. And we have lost far more than just those two writers in the last year. Forgive me for not naming them all, we would be here all day. What started as a simple tribute to Bradbury has morphed into something very different. I realize just how inadequate my own words are when talking about the great authors that have inspired me. I’m nowhere near the writer I want to be. I don’t write enough, or as fearlessly as I should. I don’t read as far and wide as I should. I am riddled with hang-ups and fears and plenty of excuses that stop me from writing. I know many other writers with the same illness. It seems to be a disease. I am reminded of two Bradbury quotes and I believe that his words are a pretty good panacea:
“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”
“You must write every single day of your life… You must lurk in libraries and climb the stacks like ladders to sniff books like perfumes and wear books like hats upon your crazy heads… may you be in love every day for the next 20,000 days. And out of that love, remake a world.”
Mr. Bradbury and Mr. Matheson, thank you for leading me (and countless others) through the dark. It has been a pleasure to read.
Gary B. Phillips is a writer and software developer living in Arizona with his wife, two daughters, three cats, and two chickens. The sun and heat don’t agree with him and he dreams of living in the Pacific Northwest.
He writes horror, science-fiction, and fantasy stories and is currently working on a YA Horror novel. Find him and his work online at his blog, How Dull the Wretch, or Twitter @garybphillips.
He enjoys reading, writing third person bios, and staring off into the void as his picture is taken. He has no plans to shave his beard until the novel is done.