Ray Bradbury: "Live forever!"

“Live forever!” Mr. Electro told him. Ray Bradbury was twelve years old and had just seen Mr. Electro get strapped to the electric chair at the traveling carnival. Someone threw the switch. Mr. Electro got electrocuted. It was Labor Day weekend, 1932.

After the show, after his recovery, Mr. Electro took the young Bradbury aside. “We’ve met before,” Mr. Electro told him. “You were my best friend in France in 1918, and you died in my arms in the battle of the Ardennes forest that year. And here you are, born again, in a new body, with a new name. Welcome back!”

“When he came to me,” Bradbury later wrote, “he tapped me on both shoulders and then the tip of my nose. The lightning jumped into me.” And that’s when he told Bradbury, “Live forever!”

“I decided it was the greatest idea I had ever heard,” Bradbury said.

“I staggered away from that encounter with Mr. Electro wonderfully uplifted by two gifts,” Bradbury later wrote: “the gift of having lived once before (and of being told about it)…and the gift of trying somehow to live forever.”

Bradbury recounts the story in his essay “Drunk, and in Charge of a Bicycle” in Zen and the Art of Writing. (He recounts it, too, in the afterward if the 1999 edition of Something Wicked This Way Comes.) The encounter was a pivotal experience. “Starting in Mr. Electro’s year, I wrote a thousand words a day,” Bradbury said. “God bless Mr. Electro, the catalyst, wherever he is.”

I’d like to say Bradbury had the same kind of electrifying effect on me, but by the time I discovered his work, I was already well-steeped in literature of the fantastic: Tolkien, LeGuin, Stoker. Monster movies and Marvel Comics. Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone was huge.

I met Bradbury through Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway, the protagonists of Something Wicked This Way Comes. Jim and Will and I were all the same age, all on the far end of thirteen. “Both touched toward fourteen; it almost trembled in their hands,” Bradbury wrote of his heroes.

I trembled, too, but not out of anticipation or zest. I was living in Montpelier, Vermont, in the explosive shadow of my mother’s Svengalian boyfriend. The days were taught as piano wires without music. Books provided great escape, and the farther away in space and time those books took me, the better. Movies, too.

And so, when Something Wicked This Way Comes came to the local cinema, it was as if Halloween had come early that year. It rumbled into the theater the way a dark train rolls into town in the thick of night, a “slow-following dragon-glide” along a “snail-gleam of the railway tracks” on the edge of the world, bringing the carnival.

Way late at night Will had heard—how often?—train whistles jetting steam along the rim of sleep, forlorn, along and far, no matter how near they came. Sometimes he woke to find tears on his cheek, asked why, lay back, listened and thought, Yes! they make me cry, going east, going west, the trains of far gone in country deeps they drown in tides of sleep that escape the towns.

Those trains and their grieving sounds were lost forever between stations, not remembering where they had been, not guessing where they might go, exhaling their last pale breaths over the horizon, gone. So it was with all trains, ever.

So I felt in those days, and so the movie resonated with me. Bradbury wrote the screenplay and later said the final film was as close to a completely realized adaptation of one of his stories as had ever been made.

Like all films, it was different than the book—in some ways, strikingly so. I’m glad I saw the movie first, because it indelibly marked itself as one of the great delights, secret and alive, of that unfortunate time. It let me enjoy the movie as a work unto its own, unsullied by the dazzling prose it could have never lived up to had I read the book first.

The movie led me to the far end of Main Street where the library sat in a kind of opposition from the theater and where I found Bradbury’s original novel. In the story, Will’s father worked at the library, “cloistered with great drifts of silence and transfixed avalanche of books poised like the cuneiform stones of eternity on shelves, so high the unseen snows of time fell all year there.” Vermont knows snow, so that’s saying something.

I read the novel for its story that first time through, pleased to be swept away by Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show brought to town on the dead-of-night train. In the years since, though, I have read the novel for the poetry of its prose—something I entirely overlooked during my first trip through the book. A reader can pick up the novel, open it to any page, and find exquisite writing. Bradbury transports not just because of his ability to journey into the dark corners of imagination but because of his transcendent use of language.

After Something Wicked came and never quite left, I went on to The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, and Dinosaur Tales. I read his widely anthologized stories “The Veldt” and “The Sound of Thunder” (which I still keep misidentifying as “The Delicate Sound of Thunder” in apparent subconscious homage to the live Pink Floyd album).

Just days before Bradbury passed away on June 5, I had finished Zen and the Art of Writing. “[A]ll science fiction is an attempt to solve problems by pretending to look the other way,” he wrote. He was more right than he could have known. Escapism had been my strategy for surviving the pandemonium shadow show I lived in Vermont.

In Zen, he also articulated a directive he had given me that summer long ago, unbeknownst to me, through his work:

“Go children. Run and read. Read and run. Show and tell. Spin another pyramid on its nose. Turn another world upside down. Knock the soot off my brain Repaint the Sistine Chapel inside my skull. Laugh and think. Dream and learn and build.”

“Run, boys! Run, girls! Run!”

And with such good advice, the kids will run.

And so I have. I have run and read and shown and told and dreamed and learned and built. I have been touched by Mr. Electro. I have been told to live forever.

God bless Mr. Bradbury, wherever he is. It’s the greatest idea I have ever heard.


Photo credits:

Sophie Bassouls/Sygma/Corbis:

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