Ray Bradbury has died.
The sheer weight of those four words cannot be overstated. This is the passing of a titan, and we are all diminished.
Better writers than I will eulogize him. I will leave them to it. All I can contribute is some small sense of what he meant to me.
In Danse Macabre, Stephen King tells a story from his youth, of the day he discovered a box of his father’s old paperbacks. Among them was the H.P. Lovecraft collection The Lurking Fear and Other Stories. It was the day, as he put it, that “the compass needle swung emphatically toward some mental true north,” the day he fell in love with horror stories. What struck him about the work was its seriousness: “When Lovecraft wrote ‘The Rats in the Walls’ and ‘Pickman’s Model,’ he wasn’t simply kidding around or trying to pick up a few extra bucks; he meant it.”
As a kid, I was nuts about dinosaurs. Name a dinosaur, and I could tell you what its name meant, whether it was a carnivore or herbivore, how big it grew, and whether it was a Triassic, Jurassic, or Cretaceous animal. One of my favorites was elasmosaurus, a plesiosaur, a genuine sea monster. I would often doodle elasmosaurs in my notebooks (badly). Something about that creature just had hold of my imagination.
Then one day, while perusing a grade school reader, I came across a story about two guys manning a lighthouse on a dark and foggy night, and how the lighthouse’s fog horn summoned a monster from the depths: “And then, from the surface of the cold sea, came a head, a large head, dark-colored, with immense eyes, and a long neck. And then—not a body—but more neck and more! The head rose a full forty feet above the water on a slender and beautiful dark neck. Only then did the body, like a little island of black coral and shells and crayfish, drip up from the subterranean. There was a flicker of tail. In all, from head to tip of tail, I estimated the monster at ninety or a hundred feet.”
I recognized it immediately, of course. It was an elasmosaurus.
That might not have been exactly what Ray Bradbury was going for when he wrote “The Fog Horn,” but it didn’t matter. I knew this creature. It was my elasmosaurus. It was as if the story had been written especially for me.
That in itself would have been magical enough, but there was much more to it than that. “The Fog Horn” is actually a very bleak tale. It ends badly for the creature, and the two men are lucky to escape with their lives. It is a story of heartbreaking, unendurable loss. The last line evokes such despair: “I sat there wishing there was something I could say.”
That sadness stayed with me, more memorable even than the appearance of my favorite dinosaur.
You don’t normally find such adult sentiments in children’s stories. But of course, “The Fog Horn” wasn’t really written for children. Ray Bradbury understood that there was nothing childish about a sense of wonder, and saw nothing ridiculous in a tale of a long-lost dinosaur searching in vain for another of its kind. Ray Bradbury not only dug something out of my imagination I would never have found on my own, but he respected me enough not to condescend to me or sugarcoat what he was trying to express.
Like Lovecraft, he wasn’t kidding around. He took it seriously. And that, I think, more than anything else, cemented my love of speculative fiction.
You’ll find that mingled seriousness and sense of wonder in all his work. “All Summer in a Day” breaks your heart. Fahrenheit 451 infuriates and disturbs. Something Wicked This Way Comes teaches you the meaning of the word creepy.
I consider myself fortunate to have met the man once, to shake his hand and tell him how much “The Fog Horn” meant to me. “That’s a helluva story,” he said in reply. I agreed that it was. He then proceeded to inform me that it had been made into a movie called The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms—something I, as a movie fan, should have known, but somehow didn’t. And while we were chatting, he signed my battered copy of R Is for Rocket, which contains, among other great work, “The Fog Horn.”
I’m not an autograph hound by any stretch of the imagination, but I will treasure that book until the end of my days.
As I will the rich legacy he left us.
Goodbye, Ray. And thank you.