Friday, December 7, 2012

FFBradbury: Sturgeon, Brackett, Bloch; Bradbury; Knight, Matheson, Beaumont, King...some notes about RB's mentors, peers, legacy

Ray Bradbury. I've finally gotten around to reading "Skeleton," having meant to do so for decades, one of the early stories, published in Dorothy McIlwraith's Weird Tales for September, 1945. Here's the reprint of that issue's Table of Contents:

Short Stories
    What this doesn't tell you is that this was one of the first dozen or so contributions by Bradbury to the magazine, in the company of the third by his friend, the Finnish-American writer Emil Petaja,  and the first by Jim Kjelgaard, perhaps best remembered these days for the YA dog novel Big Red. Aside from fairly important stories in the careers of Robert Bloch and Anthony Boucher, both of whom were already friendly with and influential on Bradbury, a closer look reveals that the correspondence-oriented "Weird Tales Club" inducted Don Thompson, who would go on to  be a hugely influential co-creator of organized comics fandom, and Jack Murtagh, the New Zealander projectionist and collector who managed to preserve some of Hitchcock's earliest silent footage and other material feared lost. (Also notable: Bradbury, one of McIlwraith's discoveries for WT, is already getting cover credit on equal footing with Seabury Quinn, who had been the most popular contributor during the previous editorial regime of Farnsworth Wright, eclipsing the likes of Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith, who has a poem in this issue.)
    Dark Carnival, Bradbury's first collection (from August Derleth's small press Arkham House) features "Skeleton" as its second story, in its first edition (the story leads off the much later Gauntlet Press reprint), though the reshuffled and more common variation on that first collection, The October Country, slips the story more toward the middle of the book. Typically for a Ray Bradbury story from these early years, it displays the lessons he was learning by assiduously studying Theodore Sturgeon's contemporary early fiction, even down to echoing some of Sturgeon's more effervescent rhythms (perhaps more than a bit of early exposure to Thomas Wolfe is in play here, as well--even in this early work, Sturgeon's growing control over his own prose is, in Bradbury, instead given over to attempts to let the language run free, less consciously controlled...somewhat less effective, but also sharing an often attractive sense of abandon). Also, where Sturgeon's protagonists, early on, were often young men, increasingly as parts of the families and other extended social groups they gathered, Bradbury's characters were, and largely would remain throughout his career, children...sometimes  superannuated children, but still recognizable as such...see such late, relatively important stories of his as "Gotcha!" (Redbook, August 1978 and collected in his major retrospective The Stories of Ray Bradbury and dramatized on Ray Bradbury Theater).
    This, of course, tended to make his work even more irresistible to young readers than that of many of Sturgeon or Bradbury's other peers and models...and it helped ease his path into such general-interest slick magazines as Collier's and The Saturday Evening Post, along with the likes of Will F. "Murray Leinster" Jenkins, Robert Heinlein, and the similarly young Kurt Vonnegut and John D. MacDonald, who would reserve their spikier and more uncomfortable work for the fading pulp magazines, their insurgent digest-sized heirs, and such important but still "little" magazines as American Mercury, as well as the university reviews and the likes of Story, more completely focused on literary art.

       Contrast "Skeleton" with, for example, Sturgeon's "It," (Unknown Fantasy Fiction, August 1940) and the imagination inherent in the stories (which in basic concept are almost inverse to each other) is comparable, and Sturgeon is already ahead, in a comparable point in his career, in deftly generating empathy and in the simple elegance of his prose...but the perfervidness of "Skeleton" is almost as compelling in its way as the devastating incident and close observation of the Sturgeon. I suspect that Bradbury was taking a lesson in part from Robert Bloch here, who, one can hardly fail to note, has his own haunting bone story in the issue, and who was already rather engaged in the work, taking, like his peer and fellow younger "Lovecraft Circle" member Fritz Leiber, the kind of existential horror fiction that H. P. Lovecraft pushed to the center of his own work , as a springboard for his own explorations...Bloch's often in the ways that we destroy ourselves through hidden Others within ourselves, a key aspect of, of course, Psycho among much of his other work, and one of the refinements on Lovecraft Bloch would hugely influentially undertake. Meanwhile, Damon Knight, who was influenced in part by Bradbury's audacity and clear joy in taking premises outre even by the standards of fantasticated fiction and running with them, makes a good case (in a review collected in his In Search of Wonder) that this story particularly, and other early Bradbury horrors, begged to be made into genuinely terrifying animated film.
    Because, as with Roald Dahl and to a lesser extent John Collier, so much of Bradbury is so much about children of all ages, it's only natural that such impressive YA-oriented collections as R is for Rocket and S is for Space and the novel Something Wicked This Way Comes (the last spun largely out of the Weird Tales short story "The Black Ferris") would tend to gain lifelong fans for RB from among their readers...even as the nostalgia for youth, explicit or implicit in work ranging from much of The Martian Chronicles through Dandelion Wine, would tend to catch up adult readers first coming across them as well as the younger; notable also that another of the most nostalgic of major fantastic-fiction writers of the 1950s, Jack Finney, would publish consistently good work, frequently of similar appeal, in the SEP and Collier's before turning primarily to novels as those markets faded. 
    And, of course, Bradbury also as noted published a fair amount of sf from the beginning of his career, along with the horror fiction, often in Planet Stories, the magazine most devoted to "space opera" and "planetary romance" fiction, where Bradbury's friend and mentor and occasional collaborator Leigh Brackett was doing some of the best work this kind of exotic adventure fiction would see (Bradbury completed Brackett's "Lorelei of the Red Mist" for publication in part because she was called away to the better-paying gig of adapting The Big Sleep for the film Howard Hawks meant to direct, along with co-scenarists Julius Furthman and a relatively unproductive William Faulkner). Bradbury would also place a fair amount of his sf with Thrilling Wonder Stories and Startling Stories, which under 1940s and '50s editors Samuel Merwin, Jr. and then Samuel Mines sought to steer an eclectic course between the the exotic adventure emphasis of Planet and Ray Palmer's more sensationalistic Amazing Stories and the polemical and often, but by no means exclusively, tech-flavored Astounding Science Fiction. When Anthony Boucher co-founded The Magazine of Fantasy, becoming The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction with its second issue, in 1949, Bradbury would place with it such stories as "The Exiles" (which Boucher and his co-editor Francis McComas worked with Bradbury to considerably improve, as noted in the anthology drawn from the contents of the magazine's first half-decade and related editorial correspondence, The Eureka Years edited by Annette Pelz McComas); similarly dealing with censorship and anti-intellectualism in the McCarthy era was "The Fireman," which Bradbury placed with the new, founded 1950, Galaxy Science Fiction magazine, where the aim was for accessibility of the fiction for the "slicks" wed to a cultural sophistication surpassing the best of the extant sf magazines. This would be the core of Bradbury's most popular novel, Fahrenheit 451; Sturgeon's most popular novel, More Than Human, would similarly be built around a novella published in Galaxy at about this time, "Baby is Three."
    Bradbury's first comics adaptations, initially plagiarized, were appearing from EC Comics not long after, and the influence of Bradbury was profound on such writers as (particularly) a knot of California-based prose- and screenplay-writers often tagged "the Little Bradburys" (including Richard Matheson, who also often seemed to be doing work based in the same sort of exploration that Robert Bloch had been doing before him...and, as with Bradbury's relation to Sturgeon, Matheson seemed less likely to seek to control his prose as carefully as Bloch did, not tucking in his corners as thoroughly...something which, for a variety of reasons, didn't seem to hurt the popularity of his work)...Matheson, Charles Beaumont, William F. Nolan, George Clayton Johnson and others...Beaumont, particularly, seemed in some ways in his short life and career engaged in creating more sophisticated work than Bradbury usually attempted.  And, of course, Bradbury and Matheson, as slightly more devil-may-care students of the controlled innovation of Sturgeon and Bloch, and perhaps partly as a result more popular as writers, were also even more direct influences on than their models on Stephen King, the often prolix and, at his worst, very derivative writer...and in the running for the most popular writer in English in the last century. There are several lessons in that. 


Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

A really fascinating look at the genealogy of these writer's career trajectories Todd =- thanks very much. I think you are certainly spot-on about the influenece on Sturgeon and then how that filtered through to Matheson. really enjoyed seeing the connections being put under the microscope here - thanks again.

Todd Mason said...

You're welcome, Sergio, and thank you.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Todd, thanks very much for a most educative and comprehensive post and links about Bradbury and his fascinating relationship with his fellow sf writers, especially Leigh Brackett that I have heard much about, and their collective sf. I am really interested in reading Bradbury's comic-book adaptations in EC's Weird Fantasy that I am going to look out for. Never realised that his stories would find their way into comics which, I guess, is only natural with a genre like sf and a creative writer like Ray Bradbury. You can spend a lifetime reading and enjoying sf.

Todd Mason said...

You're quite welcome, Prashant, and thanks to you, as well. With the exception of Brackett, most of the writers I cite above didn't specialize in sf (if you mean science fiction) particularly, though they did write it, so much as writing eclectically in fantasy, horror, crime fiction and to some extent contemporary mimetic fiction and other fields (Brackett also was eclectic, having written more westerns than Sturgeon or Bloch who also did write some, but the vast majority of her work was one kind of sf or another, including the borderline form science-fantasy...her work in that field, and in screenwriting, was why she was asked to to the first screenplay treatment for The Empire Strikes Back, though she died before she could go much further with that project).

If you take away anything from this post, I hope it's that these other writers were fully the equal of Bradbury, when they didn't have a slight edge on him in one aspect or another, and, yes, one can spend a lifetime reading and enjoying nearly every school of literature...there are very few that don't have excellent examples of the art among them (even though some readers and more critics have been known to attempt to segregate the good work from entirely too many schools...perhaps every field of fiction has suffered this to some degree. "I hate contemporary mimetic fiction...but I sure like John Cheever or Raymond Carver or Ellen Gilchrist or...").

And the first EC comics adaptations were plagiarized from Bradbury, as I note above...he famously wrote them a letter suggesting that through some oversight, the check for adapting his work hadn't arrived yet, and the publishers came quickly to an agreement to legitimately adapt his work going forth.

And, of course, all of the writers mentioned in the post have had comics of Sturgeon's earliest stories, "The Ultimate Egoist," was plagiarized by one of the Atlas or Timely Comics horror titles for a story reprinted in my first issue of Tomb of Horror, one of the comics I wrote about a month or so back...legitimate adaptations abound as well, and Mike Mignola, for a related example, took inspiration for Hellboy the comic directly from Robert Bloch...not theft in this case, but inspiration.

Walker Martin said...

Todd, I always enjoy reading your comments about writers and magazines. Concerning Bradbury, despite living a long life I've found that his best work was in the 1940's and 1950's. Frankly, I don't see the same quality in the last 50 years.

So many authors have a brief period where they write their best work and then the decline sets in. Bradbury had a good 20 years or so, maybe less.

Todd Mason said...

Well, he didn't ever stop writing about children...this is the greatest flaw in his work...among no few others, the characters and tenor of his work never matured much, and it took a toll. Being vastly, hugely overpraised doesn't help. Most of his productions in the last thirty years or so have been mediocre verse, one might note. But on rare occasions, as with "Gotcha!", one saw the vigor of the earlier work, in later years...but he was still writing about kids of legal maturity.