Childhood’s End: Death and Growing Up in the Books of Ray Bradbury
Jim Nightshade is a boy’s boy. You can practically feel the grit that dirties his tennis shoes, kicked up from crawling under, climbing over, and squeezing through every inch of his small town — from poking his toe into its every corner, private and public, from never passing up a proposed adventure. You’d think he sleeps with toads in the creekbeds, but in fact he has a safe room in a nice house, next-door to his foil, his best friend, his partner-in-crime, Will Halloway. It’s here abed that the 13-year-old discusses the philosophy of procreation with his single-mom in Ray Bradbury’s 1963 horror-fantasy, Something Wicked This Way Comes.
“Why, Jim, your hands are ice. You shouldn’t have the window so high. Mind your health.”
“Don’t say ‘sure’ that way. You don’t know until you’ve had three children and lost all but one.”
“Never going to have any,” said Jim.
“You just say that.”
“I know it. I know everything.”
She waited a moment. “What do you know?”
“No use making more people. People die.” […]
“Promise me, Jim. Wherever you go and come back, brings lots of kids. Let them run wild. Let me spoil them, some day.”
“I’m never going to own anything can hurt me.”
“You going to collect rocks, Jim? No, some day, you’ve got to be hurt.”
“No, I don’t.”
He looked at her. Her face had been hit a long time ago. The bruises had never gone from around her eyes.
“You’ll live and get hurt,” she said, in the dark.
Bradbury writes as movingly and evocatively about boyhood as any other American writer (well, early 20th-century, white, middle-class, Midwestern, suburban boyhood, anyhow) — he’s up there with Mark Twain, with James Agee. And not just the joy of youth, but also the pain its very existence threatens to impart. The flip side of his bated-breath cusp of adolescence is its destruction, which shows up throughout so many of Bradbury’s novels and stories, as much as or more than whatever else we usually associate with his work: the futuristic, the technological, the speculative, the interplanetary, the bibliophilic.
The Martian Chronicles, his 1950 breakthrough collection of loosely related tales about the Fourth Planet set in the near future, is thick with such sorrow.” ost of the stitched-together story collection’s poignancy arises from the native Martian population’s using its powers of telekinesis on the colonizing Earthlings, as when the former make the latter think in “The Third Expedition” that each has been reunited with a lost family member: the aliens make the Red Planet appear to its visitors as Small Town, USA, populated by dead-and-buried loved ones, from long-lost brothers to long-dead grandparents. It’s a heaven-on-Mars that soon becomes a hell, as the once-mourned revenants, Martians in disguise, bear knives that they soon use.
In “The Long Years,” a man lives in happy seclusion with his wife and two children — or, rather, unaging androids, built after the originals perished decades before. But the book’s creepiest bereavement story is “The Martian,” in which an alien with no identity but the one projected onto him by passersby attaches itself to an elderly couple, who long ago lost their son, and becomes their Tom. He begs them not to take him to town, but mother insists, and there he’s rapidly shape-shifted into another lost child, and grabbed by another grieving family — the Spaudlings, the pseudonym Bradbury usually uses for his own. When the father recaptures the creature, they run for the couple’s boat, anchored at the canal, and each person the Martian passes in town starts to chase it, thinking they’d caught a glimpse of the object of their always-present grief: a lost child or ex-sweetheart or deceased spouse. “All along the way, the same thing, men here, women there,” Bradbury writes. “The swift figure meaning everything to them, all identities, all persons, all names.”
All down the way the pursued and the pursuing, the dream and the dreamers, the quarry and the hounds. All down the way the sudden revealment, the flash of familiar eyes, the cry of an old, old name, the remembrances of other times, the crowd multiplying. Everyone leaping forward as, like an image reflected from ten thousand mirrors, ten thousand eyes, the running dream came and went, a different face to those ahead, those behind, those yet to be met, those unseen.
It’s like if you could coax the truth from ten thousand people on the street about whether they’re privately mourning a loss, you’d get ten thousand affirmative responses from ten thousand pained people. Like Jim’s mother, they lived and got hurt.
The source of this kind of heartache seems twofold, both allegorical and biographical. Bradbury was born in 1920, and raised mostly — discounting a few excursions to the American Southwest — in Waukegan, Illinois, then a city of fewer than 20,000 people on Lake Michigan, 40 miles north of Chicago; when he was 13, his family moved to Los Angeles, where he lived until his death 78 years later. Waukegan, now with more than 80,000 residents and struggling with postindustrial depression, features prominently in Bradbury’s work as the setting, under the fictional name “Green Town,” of Something Wicked, Dandelion Wine (1957) and its long-delayed sequel Farewell, Summer (2006), as well as the subsequent story collection Summer Morning, Summer Night (2007). (I’d also argue 1972’s The Halloween Tree is set here, before it ventures out across time and space, though the locale isn’t specified. The phony small town in “The Third Expedition” also seems modeled on Waukegan. Various stories are also set there, like The October Country’s “The Man Upstairs.” And so on.)
His descriptions of the area tend toward the idyllic. “I left at just the right moment,” he once told a documentary producer, “so that nostalgia set in almost immediately.” Halloween Tree, his short Samhain history for young readers, is clumsily conceived and confusingly plotted, but its opening chapters, describing a group of boys’ descending onto a modest Midwestern community on All Hallows’ Eve, are masterpieces of sensory evocation.
There wasn’t so much wilderness around you couldn’t see the town. But on the other hand there wasn’t so much town you couldn’t see and feel and touch and smell the wilderness. The town was full of trees. And dry grass and dead flowers now that autumn was here. And full of fences to walk on and sidewalks to skate on and a large ravine to tumble in and yell across. And the town was full of…
This same flair — for the unknown worth diving into, which provides for necessary exploration and discovery, knowledge gained through direct contact with the physical world — enhances the constant running through small-town streets that the best friends do in Something Wicked, and the children’s playing across lawns during Dandelion Wine’s small-town summer of 1928. But menace always lurks not far from the surface of his deceptively sentimental telling. Readers who remember the semiautobiographical Dandelion Wine as a those-were-the-days coming-of-age novel forget its chapter with the serial killer who targets young women and his latest victim, discovered at the ravine, who “lay as if she had floated there, her face moonlit, her eyes wide and like flint, her tongue sticking from her mouth.”
The book is Bradbury’s masterpiece, his fullest, most deeply felt and lyrical expression, touching on his usual themes of youth, old age and small-town life but stripped of their usual layer of sci-fi remove. It begins with a 12-year-old boy, Douglas (Ray’s middle name), becoming aware of his being alive, discovering the joy in the realization; the Winesburg-esque tales that follow, a portrait of a town in bite-size pieces, teach him the correlating truth: “I’d have to die someday,” as he explains it to his little brother late in the book. “I never thought of that, really. And all of a sudden it was like knowing the Y.M.C.A. was going to be shut up forever…and all the peach trees outside town shriveling up and the ravine being filled in and no place to play ever again and me sick in bed for as long as I could think and everything dark, and I got scared.” (This might seem morbid, but it’s honest. As the father in “The Veldt,” in 1951’s The Illustrated Man, worries about his 10-year-old children: “They were awfully young…for death thoughts. Or, no, you were never too young, really.”)
It’s easy to see where this realization of death came from for Bradbury — not from adulthood, as all four of his daughters outlived him, and he and his wife were married 55 years, but from childhood. He’d lost a grandfather when he was five. When he devotes several of the final pages of Fahrenheit 451 to a newly introduced character’s reminiscences of his grandfather, it’s easy to read it as a little inserted autobiography, the writer writing what he knows. “When he died, I suddenly realized I wasn’t crying for him at all, but for the things he did. I cried because he would never do them again…He was part of us and when he died, all the actions stopped dead and there was no one to do them just the way he did. He was individual. He was an important man. I’ve never gotten over his death.”
A grandfather wasn’t Bradbury’s only childhood loss. Bradbury’s older brother Sam (a family name), twin to Leonard Jr. (another family name), died two years before Ray was born, during the incomprehensibly deadly 1918 Spanish flu epidemic estimated to have killed three to five percent of the world’s population. “Bradbury sensed an unspoken, and perhaps unconscious, desire within the family that he would grow to stand in for his brother’s lost twin,” Jonathan R. Eller writes in the biography Becoming Ray Bradbury.
Bradbury’s baby sister also died, from pneumonia in 1927, which he surely describes in Dandelion Wine when he writes, from the point-of-view of the hero’s ten-year-old brother:
Death was his little sister one morning when he awoke at the age of seven, looked into her crib, and saw her staring up at him with a blind, blue, fixed and frozen stare until the men came with a small wicker basket to take her away. Death was when he stood by her high chair four weeks later and suddenly realized she’d never be in it again, laughing and crying and making him jealous of her because she was born. That was death.
“The deaths of these siblings most assuredly contributed to Bradbury’s fascination with death,” Steven L. Aggelis writes in his introduction to the collection Conversations with Ray Bradbury. (It only takes Fahrenheit 451 three scenes, fewer than 15 pages, until a character tries to kill herself.) There was also the curious incident from his youth in which he spent a day playing with a girl on the edge of a lake; then she went swimming and drowned. This formed the basis of his first major story, “The Lake” (1942), republished in his first story collection, Dark Carnival. As a result of the writing, he “was able, at least partially, to purge from his system a demon that had long haunted him, the memory of her death,” Aggelis writes. If that’s true, he had quite a few such demons to purge, which must be why you see such loss show up again and again in his books! One of his most death-obsessed stories, “Next in Line,” opens with the funeral procession of a tiny coffin in a small Mexican town.
Bradbury’s work often oscillates between young death and old. In October Country’s “Jack-in-the-Box,” an isolated child, poorly educated in seclusion by his nutty mother, doesn’t know what death is, and he mistakes it for life after he finally sees the outside world, which he was always told would kill him. To the bemusement of a beat cop, the boy runs wild down the streets, tears streaming, shouting, “I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m glad I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m glad I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m dead, it’s good to be dead!” The collection’s next story, “The Scythe,” opens with a down-on-their-luck family discovering the lonely corpse of an old man in a remote farmhouse. The patriarch picks up the deceased’s wheat-culling gig with the title’s tool, only to figure out he’s become Death, and part of his responsibility is to chop down the stalks that represent his children’s lives.
At the same time, I don’t think we should take Bradbury too literally: what also animates his oeuvre is the melancholy of age, the realization of inevitable, inexorable death. The death of old men is straightforward, the lurking fear of all aging humans. But its warped reflection, the death of children, seems to exist in Bradbury’s subconscious as a metaphorical motif, an expression of mourning for a man’s lost childhood, for his alienation from its starry-eyed innocence, killed off by the ever-lurking menace, whether it’s in Midwestern Green Town or on Mars. It’s not the children dying but childhood itself — the metamorphosis of a man that haunts his aged self, reminding him of his impending cessation.
Often the most moving and melancholy passages in his books concern older men ruing their age. In Dandelion Wine, we see it again and again: the elderly shoe-store proprietor transported emotionally back in time by a pair of sneakers, the colonel on his death bed listening over long-distance to the sounds of people just living their lives in Mexico City, or the 95-year-old spinster who meets her ideal mate six decades too late. In Something Wicked This Way Comes, Will’s father throughout longs wistfully for his youth, especially in Chapter Three, the book’s most poignant, which begins:
Watching the boys vanish away, Charles Halloway suppressed a sudden urge to run with them, make the pack. He knew what the wind was doing to them, where it was taking them, to all the secret places that were never so secret again in life. Somewhere in him, a shadow turned mournfully over. You had to run with a night like this, so the sadness could not hurt.
Older people in Bradbury’s books are always sad about being older, even the occasional woman that Bradbury hasn’t confined to proudly suffered motherhood. In Dandelion Wine, the widow Mrs. Bentley loses an argument with a few local children about whether she were ever a little girl, ever pretty, ever really called “Helen,” points she tries to prove by showing them trinkets and a photograph, all of which they accuse her of stealing from some little girl. “I don’t mind being old — not really,” she later confesses to her teacup — “but I do resent having my childhood taken away from me.”
In contrast, Miss Foley, the boys’ former teacher in Something Wicked, comes to resent having been given it back. Miss Foley fears mirrors — those ultimate indicators of age, reflecting senescence right back in our faces — and it’s not only the magical mirrors at the carnival that almost get her, those funhouse captors, but also the ordinary variety in her home, which both in Bradbury’s prose threaten “drowning.” And it’s this fear of old-age that tempts her to ride the book’s age-changing carousel, leaving her a helpless child, weeping in the rain under “a vast oak tree” in a particularly chilling scene. (The devastating honesty of mirrors also turns up in “The Dwarf,” in which the title character spends every night posing before an elongating fun-house reflector, until the carny pulls a mean-spirited prank — replacing it with a diminishing one — sending the man into a murderous rage.)
The commonality between Bradbury’s junior and elder deaths is that both prove we can’t count on ourselves or other people, because other people and ourselves are prone to an inescapable change whose endpoint is death. It’s all part of the same problem: the ephemerality of all existence. As the uber-skeptical hero of Illustrated Man’s “No Particular Night or Morning” puts it: “My wife died. You see, nothing stays where you put it — you can’t trust material things.” Or as Dandelion’s Douglas puts it, summing up the book to that point:
YOU CAN’T DEPEND ON PEOPLE BECAUSE…
…they go away.
…people you know fairly well die.
…people murder other people, like in books.
…your own folks can die.
He’s too terrified to write down the obvious final item on that list: that he, too, can die — or, you might say, grow up, because in Bradbury it’s the same thing, just different points on the continuum.