Yesterday, June 6, 2012, my boyhood idol and correspondent for more than forty years, Ray Bradbury, died in Los Angeles at the age of 91. One of my (advisedly) old friends in Connecticut — Pierre Bennerup who had been a member of the Fantaseers, our high school science-fiction reading club back in the early ‘50s — emailed me in late morning to tell me about Ray’s demise and provide me with a link, but I had already seen the article in the New York Times on my iPad not long after Claudette McFang, my cat, woke me up at abut 4:30 a.m. and asked me to let her out.
This morning I read Ray’s remembrance, “Take Me Home,” in The New Yorker’s science-fiction double issue for June 4 and 11, 2012, — how serendipitous can you get? His life has always been touched by magic, just as he wrote on his weblog “In His Words,”
It was an encounter with [a magician other than Blackstone] that changed my life forever.
During the Labor Day week of 1932 a favorite uncle of mine died; his funeral was held on the Labor Day Saturday. If he hadn't died that week, my life might not have changed because, returning from his funeral at noon on that Saturday, I saw [a] carnival tent down by Lake Michigan. I knew that down there, by the lake, in his special tent, was a magician named Mr. Electrico.
Mr. Electrico was a fantastic creator of marvels. He sat in his electric chair every night and was electrocuted in front of all the people, young and old, of Waukegan, Illinois. When the electricity surged through his body he raised a sword and knighted all the kids sitting in the front row below his platform. I had been to see Mr. Electrico the night before. When he reached me, he pointed his sword at my head and touched my brow. The electricity rushed down the sword, inside my skull, made my hair stand up and sparks fly out of my ears. He then shouted at me, "Live forever!"
Well, he tried, and he came about as close as a mere mortal can come these days.
As a reader of science fiction when I was very young — what is called “speculative fiction” these days, I guess, and of fantasy — “magical realism” now, I soon understood the difference between the two, between, let’s say, the outer space and futuristic fiction of Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov or the beautiful, impossible worlds of Ray Bradbury and the terrifying eldritch horror stories of H. P. Lovecraft. (I couldn’t stay away from the Lovecraft book I owned, so when I was in the fifth grade I burned it in the gutter outside our rented home on West Third Street in Meriden, Connecticut…and then I spent years looking for a replacement. It is the only book I ever burned, and it shames me to this day, but one part of me was trying to save the other part of me that was afraid of the dark.) I enjoyed the one genre for its projections of a possible reality, and the other for its imaginary evocations of primal hopes, joys, fears, and sorrows.
Ray Bradbury was far and away my favorite living writer in any of these genres. My ambition, almost from the first moments I could read, was to write fantasy, and I did so, pecking away at them on my father’s old standard manual typewriter just as he pecked away at the same machine in his study, writing his own fantasies, the sermons he delivered from the pulpit every Sunday.
The summer of 1949, before I entered Meriden High School, I won third prize in a short story contest for high school students sponsored by the local paper in which it was published and for which I received actual money! In high school that fall my sophomore English teacher, Mary Flynn, took an interest in my stories and poems, and she was encouraging in every way. She suggested, however, that I put most of my effort into becoming a fiction writer rather than a poet because there was more chance I could make a living at it — those were the days when the slick magazines were publishing stories in every issue.
A bunch of us who were juniors and seniors and SF fans as well decided to establish an extra-curricular “science-fiction reading club” with a library of books that would be kept at my house. We called ourselves “Fantaseers,” and there is a photo of our one-bookcase library in my Fantaseers: A Book of Memories. One of the inciting reasons for starting the club was the founding in 1949 of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction which all of us read and that I subscribed to from Issue No. 1. Ray Bradbury was a regular contributor.
Ray’s first book, Dark Carnival, was published in 1947, but I didn’t get a copy of it until I was out of high school and serving an enlistment in the U. S. Navy. The Bradbury books we had in the Fantaseers library were The Martian Chronicles, published in 1950, and The Illustrated Man, 1951. When we graduated from Meriden High in 1952 my friend Ray Staszewski, another Fantaseer, and I enlisted; the following year I was assigned to the USS Hornet, an aircraft carrier that was still being built in Brooklyn Naval Shipyard. It subsequently embarked on a World Cruise and I had a lot of time at sea to read, write, take USAFI courses and begin to publish work in the “little magazines” and literary quarterlies.
I practically stopped writing fiction, though, because every time I tried to put together a story it turned out to be a fantasy. I was still in the thrall of Ray Bradbury. I desperately wanted to write “main line” fiction, but I didn’t seem to be able to pull off that trick, so I ignored Mary Flynn’s advice and concentrated on learning as much as I could about writing verse, though I also took a correspondence course in fiction writing from the Palmer Institute of Authorship. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but a fellow Palmer student was Ray Carver who would subsequently, like me, attend the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. After many years and a number of other books, I finally published one fiction collection - most of the items are magical realism, of course, The Museum of Ordinary People and Other Stories.
Although all of them appeared originally in periodicals or anthologies prior to my collecting them, none of them, sadly, were ever published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
I was almost immediately successful in my verse writing efforts, however, and the first poems I published in media other than the local newspapers and school magazines appeared in The American Poetry Magazine in 1953 when I was nineteen years old and still ashore in Brooklyn Naval Shipyard. I was beginning to meet people in the literary world. Lilith Lorraine (!), the editor of a little magazine called Epos that had used some of my early work, lived out on Long Island, so one day I hopped on the Long Island Railroad and went out to visit her and her husband. When I arrived I felt as though I had stepped into a Ray Bradbury story, for I found that Lilith had two thumbs on one hand and a parrot that could lie down and roll across the floor.
By the time I had finished my four years of active duty in the Navy I was well published in the literary magazines, to the degree in fact that I had to keep my ear to the ground at UConn in order to hear whether a particular teacher admired me for my early success or resented me for the same reason. I steered clear of the latter when it came to choosing classes.
I continued to write and publish while I went to school, and I continued to meet folks in the trade both in my correspondence and as the director of the UConn Student Union’s visiting writers series. One of the people I knew by the time I graduated, in January 1959, was August Derleth, publisher of Arkham House which had issued Ray Bradbury’s Dark Carnival in 1947. August used a batch of my poems in an anthology titled Fire and Sleet and Candlelight in 1961: its binding and format looked exactly like Bradbury’s book.
Time passes. In 1968 I was scheduled to be a member of the faculty of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at Middlebury College in Vermont, and so was Ray Bradbury! I looked forward to meeting him, but when I arrived I discovered that he had for some reason canceled. It was then that I decided to strike up a correspondence with him. We continued as pen-pals for the next forty-plus years, although I was never to meet him. On my computer I still have a few of the letters I wrote him over those years, but the bulk of our correspondence is in my archive at Iowa. However, when one of my books of poetry was published in 1970 Ray wrote a blurb for it:
“Lewis Turco and I share similar worlds. Everything he writes about in The Inhabitant is part of my real or remembered world. There are many riches here. Reading the book is like going up in the attic on an autumn or summer night, to open trunks and fetch out strange images and treasures.”
The book is long out of print, but the poems are available in Fearful Pleasures: The Complete Poems of Lewis Turco 1959-2007.
On 8 August 2005 I wrote,
When I saw [Sam] Weller’s The Bradbury Chronicles reviewed in the NYTBR I ordered it right away, and I’m reading it now. Whenever Weller mentions one of your stories, I stop reading, look it up, re-read that first (I’ve read them all if they’ve been published, often more than once), then go back to reading the biography. I haven’t enjoyed anything more than this since, when I was in college in the mid-‘fifties, I sat out on the lawn and read, first, The Alhambra and then Don Quixote de la Mancha.
Coincidentally, my book titled Fantaseers: A Book of Memories will be published shortly (I enclose a proof copy for you). It tells of the adventures of our Meriden (CT) High-school science-fiction reading club of the early ‘fifties. We had a library in my house (there’s a picture of it in the book, page 97), and your work was a big part of our lives back then, especially mine. As I read your biography I think about how our lives often parallel each-other. For instance, when I was nineteen and in the Navy floating around the world on a carrier, the Hornet, I began to publish my poems in the national little magazines (the first one appeared in The American Poetry Magazine in 1953). One of the people I ran across early was August Derleth who was as kind to me as he was to you, though we never met. We corresponded (I bought a copy of Dark Carnival from Arkham House), and he asked me to contribute some poems to his 1961 anthology Fire and Sleet and Candlelight — he took seven! (Not bad for someone whose First Poems had come out only the year before: August reviewed my book on Thursday, April 21st, 1961 in the Madison WI Capital Times. One of the poems he took, “The Seer,” had been first drafted while I was in high school and published in the UConn Fine Arts Magazine while I was in college after the Navy. I collected it last year in The Collected Lyrics of Lewis Turco / Wesli Court 1953-2004 (“Wesli Court” is an anagram pen-name under which I published most of my rhyming and metering poems over the years.)
While I was in high school it was touch-and-go whether I was going to be a fiction writer or a poet, but going into the Navy brought me down on the side of poetry because, though I was a Navy clerk — a “Yeoman”! — I didn’t have all that much time to spend typing up stories, but I could do poems handily. Also, I wanted to write mainstream fiction, but every time I tried a story, it wound up a fantasy. Which perhaps wasn’t all that bad, because I very much wanted to be published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, my favorite of the pulps. At last in grad school at Iowa I managed it — with two poems! One was titled “A Great Gray Fantasy,” which came out in 1960 while I was still at Iowa; the other, "Excerpts from the Latter-Day Chronicle," came out a couple of years later, in 1962.
You were born in 1920, and I in 1934, the middle of the depression. The story of your family’s poverty was similar to mine, of course, as were the stories of millions of other families. As I read, though, I couldn’t wait to get to the year of my birth so that I could see what I was doing and where I was when you were beginning your career in writing. Really, I can’t tell you how much, and in how many ways, I’m enjoying this book.
I have only one regret. You may recall that we were both supposed to be at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference — was it in 1968? When you didn’t show I was devastated, and I am still filled with frustration and rue whenever I think about it.
Well, I still have lots more of your life to read, so I’ll stop here and get back to it.
With all the best, always, from your old fan….
Ray was delighted with my letter, and he sent a copy to Weller who, apparently, was equally delighted. Ray and I had always exchanged Xmas cards, and this is the one he sent me that year:
A month later I wrote,
18 September 2006
In 1974 I wrote a book titled Satan’s Scourge: A Narrative of the Age of Witchcraft in England and America 1580-1697 e-book edition, a book of history, a chronicle of the period when the Age of Sympathetic Magic, which had been the system by which mankind operated from time immemorial, was beginning to shift over to the Age of Science, “The New Philosophy,” by which the world would be increasingly governed from then forward. The main focus of the book is upon my mother’s family, the Putnams of Buckinghamshire, in England, from the birth of John Putnam, born in 1580, some of whose descendants would be deeply involved in the last gasp of sympathetic magic, the great witchcraft explosion of Salem Village, Massachusetts, in 1692, which is the climax of the book.
The volume not only looks at all the witchcraft cases in England and New England during the period covered, but it also tells the stories of the major scientists and Adepts of sympathetic magic (often the two were the same) in Europe and America. The effect is twofold: First, the method is strictly chronological, unfolding like a tapestry year by year. As one thread of the tapestry swells and tapers off, others appear and interweave with one another. Second, the history is told from the point of view of common people, the Puritans of England and New England primarily, but also the crystal gazers, alchemists, alleged witches and their accusers, and those ordinary citizens caught up in the webs woven by plotters, liars, “possessed” children and their parents, and, of course, the clerics.
Furthermore, this is the period when America was settled, when Oliver Cromwell and the Roundheads carried out their Puritan revolution, and all the politics and machinations of the relevant sovereigns and courtiers of the period are also a part of the tapestry there woven.
Now, 32 years later, I have resurrected the book and rewritten it as I typed it into my computer. The reason I am writing you is to ask whether this person is related to you:
Capt. Samuel Smith of Boston was preparing to voyage to Barbados, and Mary Bradbury of Salisbury went to Boston to sell him two firkins of butter that were put aboard. The vessel sailed, and after they had been at sea for three weeks the crew discovered that one of the firkins had not been completely churned — it had spoiled and was full of maggots. The seamen were considerably irritated, and they mumbled among themselves that they had often heard Goody Bradbury was a witch. It must be true, they inferred — exercising their infallible mariners’ logic — or she would not have dared to sell their captain such goods.
That’s an excerpt from my book, and of course Goody Bradbury gets into trouble later on. Is she one of your progenitors?
“September 25, 2006
“Thank you for your September 18th letter.
“You asked if Mary Bradbury is related to me and the answer is yes, she’s a direct blood ancestor. She was tried as a witch around 1692 but fortunately escaped. The family Bradbury originated outside of London around 1400 and they sailed to America around 1650. I’m so glad that you asked about Mary; I’m very proud of the fact that I’m related to her.
“Good luck with your work and best wishes,
2 October 2006
Thanks for your letter about Mary Bradbury. I was sure you’d be related to her.
I’m enclosing the front matter of my typescript, the material I have on Mary, and my mother’s genealogy.
Do you use a computer at all? If you do, I can send you a CD with the entire book on it, if you think you might like to read it before it’s published (if it ever is. Oxford is looking at it at the moment).
In the spring of 2007 I sent Ray a copy of Fearful Pleasures: The Complete Poems of Lewis Turco 1959-2007, and he responded,
When Satan’s Scourge came out in 2009 and won a prize in The New England Book Festival I sent Ray a copy of that as well. One last item of my old friend that I have kept is a copy of a pamphlet published by the National Endowment for the Arts on the cover of which he scribbled a note: