Reading at Home

Shelter in place with
Ray Bradbury

Phil Nichols, historian, educator, and creator of Bradburymedia, and others offer their series of suggestions for the best Bradbury stories to enjoy at home while the world is engaged in social distancing.

National Geographic recommends
The Martian Chronicles


Want to travel to another world while you are safe at home? National Geographic recommends Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles in it’s “Around the World in Books” series.

From National Geographic:
This very loosely linked volume of short stories—sci-fi wiz Bradbury called it “a half-cousin to a novel”—follow humans as they attempt to colonize Mars, an imagined place of blue hills, Greek temple-like glass houses, and bubbling silver lava beds. How earthlings and the yellow-eyed, brown-skinned Martians interact provides much of the drama against the shimmering, mid-century dream of another planet.”

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Lockdown Choices - Issue #1:
Dark Carnival

March 31, 2020
by Phil Nichols

Image: first edition, Arkham House 1947.

Dark Carnival was Ray Bradbury’s first book, a collection of dark fantasy tales published by the legendary Arkham House in 1947.  It collected twenty-seven stories, most of which had appeared earlier in Weird Tales magazine. There were also six previously unpublished stories. Any one of those “new” stories would have made the book worth buying.

There’s no question, some of Bradbury’s finest stories are found in this collection. The acclaimed “Homecoming”, which established Ray’s “family”. The much adapted and endlessly fascinating “The Jar”. The much imitated but seldom bettered “The Small Assassin”, in which a paranoid mother who thinks her baby is out to get her – turns out… to be right. And “The Next in Line”, one of Ray’s Mexican stories, set amid the mummy-filled catacombs of Guanajuato.

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Lockdown Choices - Issue #2:
The Martian Chronicles

April 02, 2020
by Phil Nichols

Image: first edition, Doubleday 1950

The Martian Chronicles was Ray Bradbury’s first book from a mainstream publisher, a collection of linked science fiction and fantasy tales published by Doubleday in 1950.  Many of the stories had previously been published in magazines ranging from Thrilling Wonder Stories to Mademoiselle. But there was also a lot of new material, mostly in linking stories and passages crafted to join the disjointed tales together. The result is sometimes called a novel, and sometimes called a short story collection. The label “fix-up” is also sometimes applied: this term from the science fiction field refers to a work originally published in sections in pulp magazines, but then stitched together as a novel for book publication. The best description, although it’s a bit of a mouthful, is the term Eller and Touponce use: “novelised story-cycle”.

Bradbury often told the tale of how this novel/collection/fix-up/novelised story-cycle came to be. He met with editor Walter Bradbury (no relation), who suggested to Ray that he could take some of his disparate Mars stories and weave them into a novel. In fact, Ray already had the idea of collecting his Mars stories as far back as 1948, when he wrote some notes under the title “The Martian Chronicles, a book of short stories”. But perhaps it was Walter Bradbury’s suggestion which gave him “permission” to link the stories together.

In this first major publication, Bradbury shows his influences quite clearly. Here you will find some remarkably spare and clear writing, reflecting the influence of Hemingway. In the “chronicling” approach with its explanatory and linking chapters you will find the influence of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. (Remember how Steinbeck alternates between his fictional narrative and his more journalistic interstitial chapters?) And in the stories themselves, with their quirky character portrayals, you will see the influence of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. All of these literary influences, of course, sit alongside the tropes of science fiction, since Bradbury’s Mars is an extension of the common-coin concepts of Mars which Ray knew from his childhood reading of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

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Lockdown Choices - Issue #3:
The Illustrated Man

April 06, 2020
by Phil Nichols

Image: first edition. Doubleday, 1951.

The Illustrated Man was Ray Bradbury’s third book, a collection of mostly science-fictional tales.  It collected twenty stories, most of which had previously been published in various magazines between 1947 and 1951. As with Bradbury’s second book The Martian Chronicles, the stories are linked together to create an impression of being more than “just” a collection of stories, although the linking is much sparser here: an introduction and an epilogue to frame the stories, and the occasional reminder of the link between a couple of the stories. It’s received wisdom in publishing that short story collections don’t sell as well as novels, so it’s understandable that Doubleday would favour any attempt to make a collection look like a novel. According to Bradbury (quoted in Sam Weller’s The Bradbury Chronicles), it was editor Walter Bradbury (no relation) who asked, “We’ve disguised The Martian Chronicles as a novel, do you think we can somehow do the same thing with The Illustrated Man?”

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Lockdown Choices - Issue #4:
The Golden Apples of the Sun

April 08, 2020
by Phil Nichols

Image: first edition. Doubleday, 1953.

The Golden Apples of the Sun was Ray Bradbury’s fourth book, a collection of science-fictional, fantasy, and “realistic” tales. With Bradbury, of course, “realism” can be very far from our everyday reality, but what I mean here is the type of story which does not hinge upon a science-fictional or fantastical premise.

The book collected twenty-two stories, most of which had previously been published in various magazines between 1944 and 1953. Like Bradbury’s first book, Dark Carnival, the stories are presented as is, without any attempt to connect them through a linking narrative. It is therefore the first of Bradbury’s Doubleday books to be allowed the luxury of being an undisguised short story collection. (Remember that editor Walter Bradbury (no relation) had asked of Ray, “We’ve disguised The Martian Chronicles as a novel, do you think we can somehow do the same thing with The Illustrated Man?”)

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Lockdown Choices - Issue #5:
Fahrenheit 451

April 13, 2020
by Phil Nichols

Image: First edition. Ballantine books, 1953. Cover art by Joe Mugnaini

Fahrenheit 451 is legendary. A presentation of a dystopian future, it is sometimes considered alongside other classic dystopias such as Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World. Its central conceit – that those in charge have banned all books because of the dangerous ideas found in some of them – has great resonance, since censorship has so many times been a defining characteristic of real-life oppressive regimes. That one central idea, providing a great “what if…?”, would be enough for most novelists, but Bradbury ties it to other ideas which continue to fascinate us, such as our willingness to be manipulated by the media, and our tendency to turn to addictive substances. Every time you think Fahrenheit must be rendered obsolete because its world has become impossible in real life, real life has a way of making the book all too relevant again.

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Lockdown Choices - Issue #6:
Switch on the Night

April 17, 2020
by Phil Nichols

Image: first edition, illustrated by Madeleine Gekiere. Pantheon, 1955.

Switch on the Night (1955) was Ray Bradbury’s shortest book to date. It contains just a single story, and runs to about fifty pages. This is because it is an illustrated book for children. Yes, the author who started out in Weird Tales scaring the bejeezus out of us with visceral horrors such as “Skeleton” and existential angst in “The Crowd” and “The Wind”, has by now turned into a children’s author! Well, if it’s good enough for Roald Dahl…

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Lockdown Choices - Issue #7:
The October Country

April 22, 2020
by Phil Nichols

Image: first edition, Ballantine 1955. Cover art by Joe Mugnaini. Note the pseudo-gothic houses, the implied wind… and the inexplicable lizard creature…

The October Country was Ray Bradbury’s seventh book, published by Ballantine in (appropriately enough) October of 1955. It contained nineteen stories, fifteen of them reprinted from his earlier book  Dark Carnival (1947). In fact, the project originated as a simple re-packaging and re-arrangement of Dark Carnival, once Arkham house had relinquished rights to the book. It was Bradbury’s Ballantine editor Stanley Kaufmann who realised the revised contents of the book were drifting a long way from the original, and suggested a new title would be in order (see Eller & Touponce, Ray Bradbury: the Life of Fiction, pp. 77-79).

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Lockdown Choices - Issue #8:
Dandelion Wine

April 27, 2020
by Phil Nichols

Image: first edition, Doubleday 1957. Cover design by Robert Vickrey.

Dandelion Wine was Ray Bradbury’s first book for Doubleday in four years, the last being 1953’s The Golden Apples of the Sun. In the interim, he had published a children’s book through a specialist publisher and two books with Ballantine. Although it may look like he had gone away from Doubleday and then come back, in reality it was a case of Dandelion Wine being delayed because he was having trouble finishing it.

Bradbury’s original concept for what became Dandelion Wine dates back to the mid-1940s. He drafted various brief outlines – often just a list of short story titles – called The Small Assassins, The Wind of Time, The Blue Remembered Hills and Summer Morning, Summer Night. The project evolved from being a set of stories about children and childhood, to including a conflict between children and the elderly. As with The Martian Chronicles, various short stories would be written and published first, as the book gradually came together as another of Bradbury’s “composite novels” or “novelised story-cycles. (See my blog post on The Martian Chronicles for more on this concept.) The end result is a partly-biographical story of one summer in the life of young Douglas Spaulding.

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Lockdown Choices - Issue #9:
A Medicine for Melancholy or The Day It Rained Forever

April 30, 2020
by Phil Nichols

Images: first US edition, Doubleday 1959 (top); first UK edition, Hart-Davis 1959.

A Medicine for Melancholy was never on my radar. As a Brit, growing up in the UK, we had a similar-but-not-really-the-same book instead: The Day it Rained Forever. To this day I consider the UK title much more poetic than the US one, and the book itself more definitive than the American version. This, of course, wouldn’t be the first time that A Bradbury book was renamed for the UK market or had a change of contents when crossing the Atlantic. The Martian Chronicles had gone by the name The Silver Locusts over here, and with some small changes in content; and Dark Carnival had been somewhat truncated in the UK due (we are told) to post-war paper shortages.

A Medicine for Melancholy/The Day it Rained Forever is another short story collection, and like Golden Apples of the Sun it mixes genres quite freely. The stories had nearly all been published before, in various magazines, during the period 1948-1958. Note that by now Bradbury had mopped up nearly all of his science fiction stories in The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man; nearly all of his horror stories in The October Country; and nearly all of his small-town Illinois stories in Dandelion Wine. And this means that what remains to be collected here is mostly not-science-fiction, not-horror, and not-Green-Town.This doesn’t bother me at all. But it makes the book difficult to pin down, which inevitably confuses critics and book reviewers who wonder “why is this sci-fi guy not putting much sci-fi in his books?”

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Lockdown Choices - Issue #10
The Small Assassin

May 12, 2020
by Phil Nichols

Image: First edition, paperback, Ace 1962. Cover artist unknown.

The Small Assassin is, to us Brits, as essential a Bradbury volume as any other. But it is solely a British volume, with no equivalent in the US. It contains thirteen stories, all of them “leftovers” from the UK editions of Dark Carnival and The October Country. How this came about is bit difficult to explain…

Ray’s usual British paperback publisher Corgi Books turned down the option to publish The October Country, as they didn’t feel that a book of horror stories matched their usual style.
In 1961, Ace Books stepped in and bought The October Country, but decided to drop seven of the stories (“The Next in Line”, “The Lake”, “The Small Assassin”, “The Crowd”, “Jack-in-the-Box”, “The Man Upstairs”, and “The Cistern”. Although they also decided to add “The Traveller”, which had appeared in Dark Carnival, but not in The October Country.
(Are you with me so far? There will be a quiz later.)

In 1962, Ace took those seven deleted stories, put them together with the remaining six stories from Dark Carnival, and issued the result as The Small Assassin.

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Lockdown Choices - Issue #11
Something Wicked This Way Comes

May 16, 2020
by Phil Nichols

Image: First edition, Simon & Schuster 1962. Cover art by Gray Foy.

Something Wicked is Ray Bradbury’s twelfth(ish) book, depending how you count them. At this point, I’ve more or less given up! It is – definitely – his first true novel. What do I mean by that? Well, The Martian Chronicles looks something like a novel, but it’s really a collection of previously-published short stories, stitched together into a new patchwork. Fahrenheit 451 is barely long enough to count as a novel (it’s more of a novella), and in any case is an expansion of a previously published short story, “The Fireman”. And Dandelion Wine also looks something like a novel, but is really another collection of previously-published short stories, stitched together into a new patchwork.

And that leaves us with the present volume, the definitely, no question about it, never before published original novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. 

Except… It’s not an original work… Now, before you start screaming, let me explain: this novel has its origins in a previously-published short story, “The Black Ferris” (1948). Bradbury used this short story as the springboard for an expanded work called The Dark Carnival.

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