So Ray Bradbury died. It’s strange, but the very night before the long-dreaded event occurred, my father and I were talking about Bradbury. We were trying to figure out how old he was, and what condition his health was in—in short, how long he had and what his passing would mean, especially to me. Death—anybody’s death—is a fraught subject when I talk to my father because, as I’ve noted elsewhere, he’s 82-years-old, nine years younger than Bradbury was, and not in the best of health. No matter how you calculate it, my father doesn’t have much time.
But what Bradbury’s passing reminded me of is that we all of us have many fathers, and that we lose them all. Somehow over the years Bradbury and my own biological father have become so mixed up in my mind and heart that it’s hard to separate them anymore.
You have fathers and you have fathers, and sometimes they move through one another like ghosts. My father—my biological father—and I have always been close. Bradbury, since I met him in sixth grade, when I stumbled across S is for Space and R is for Rocket in the school library, and I have been equally close, and perhaps closer. I can still feel those crumbling paperbacks in my hands. I can recall their stories with a kind of dreamlike perfection; they’ve no doubt gone and gotten mixed up with stories from the dozen other collections I managed to lay hands on in the years that followed, but the titles alone still exercise a powerful pull on my imagination.
What Bradbury taught me was that a kid who had little aptitude for actual science could still write ably and well in the genre I love. He taught me the power and beauty of language when wrought by a master craftsman. And he taught me something else as well: that the rural world of Princeton, WV, could be as legitimate a setting for stories of the fantastic as any high-flown generation starship or miserable dystopia. Nothing could have been more important to me as a writer.
And so my first father—my biological father—shared his stories of the rural past of depression-era West Virginia, and from those stories I wrought stories of my own, on the model and method of the stories Bradbury had whispered in my ear all those long years ago. Ray Bradbury was my illustrated man, and even today, when my creative well runs dry, I return to those early stories of his to drink of the clear waters that bubble up there. His short stories—especially the early ones, and especially the dark (and some of them are very dark indeed)—are the purest and simplest examples of the form I know; he could cut your throat with a single stroke of the blade, and you wouldn’t even know you were dead.
I think of “The Scythe,” when Death, in the person of a good man named Drew Erickson, becomes so maddened by the loss of his family that he sets off the horrors of the 20th century. That scythe is still swinging and the day before yesterday it took Ray Bradbury from us forever. The stories will live on. We have that at least. But when I heard of his loss, tears sprang to my eyes. I felt like I’d been kicked in the chest. And I was reminded that I had yet other fathers to lose, and soon.