“If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of ‘facts’ they feel stuffed, but absolutely ‘brilliant’ with information. Then they’ll feel they’re thinking, they’ll get a sense of motion without moving. And they’ll be happy, because facts of that sort don’t change.”
― Ray Bradbury, FAHRENHEIT 451
I’m a space geek, a genuine, dyed-in-the-wool fanatic when it comes to anything to do with making the stars our destination.
I think it’s a complete drag how we seem to have stalled here in near-Earth orbit. Sending tourists up to the International Space Station at twenty million bucks a pop, while dispatching robot drone ships to the far reaches of the solar system, letting them do the work for us. No need for boots on the ground, expensive manned programs, grand visions…
I’ve loved science fiction all my life. Bradbury, Dick, Matheson, Beaumont, Ellison…those were my boys.
I’m also crazy about cinema.
Put it all together and you’ll (perhaps) understand what went into the making of “Planetfall”:
When you read a Richard Matheson novel or story you believe it and you believe it because his characters are real people, reacting as real people would when placed in an extreme situation or confronted by the uncanny. Robert Neville, the protagonist of I Am Legend, is the sole survivor of a worldwide plague, the last living human on a planet of vampires. But Neville is no square-jawed, ass-kicking hero, he is a lonely man, his isolation gradually driving him mad. One day, and he knows this, he will simply open the door, walk out and let the waiting creatures take him, ending his suffering. The Shrinking Man’s Scott Carey loses more than his height as his mysterious affliction gradually reduces him to microscopic proportions. He battles gamely to retain his masculinity, his identity and, finally, in life and death battles with predatory animals and insects, his very existence.
More than any other writer of dark fantasy except, perhaps, Ray Bradbury and his friend and colleague Charles Beaumont, Matheson wrote tales that make your heart ache. As you read the story “Little Girl Lost” you experience that poor father’s panic when he realizes his daughter is calling out to him from a place beyond his reach. “Mute” and “Steel” are incredibly sad, affecting stories, offering only thin glimmers of hope, a fleeting chance of redemption.
He and Beaumont were critical influences on my early writing—I knew them first through their work on “The Twilight Zone”. Only later was I lucky enough to scoop up their short story collections (both thrive in the short format) in affordable (usually used) editions, reading their tales over and over again. About twelve years ago I packaged up some of those collections and sent them to Mr. Matheson for signing (along with a self-addressed stamped envelope). He was good enough to oblige and now those books are the treasures of my collection.
I think Stephen King said something along the lines of Matheson deserving credit for taking horror out of the moors and forests and bringing it into the suburbs. I can’t think of a single good horror writer from the past thirty years who wouldn’t consider him the dean of dark fantasy and cast their eyes downward at the mere mention of his name.
And let’s not forget, he could also turn his hand to other kinds of writing. I’ve read several of his western novels and they stand up well compared to the rest of the field. He had a lifelong interest in matters relating to the power and potential of the human soul. He took his researches into the paranormal seriously and the depth of his knowledge manifests itself in what I think is his finest novel, Hell House. His was an active, seeking mind, restless and sharp and, at least when it came to his work, unsentimental and occasionally pitiless. That’s part of what made him great.
I feel a real sense of loss tonight. Yes, I know he was eighty-seven years old and his time had come. I desperately wish I’d had a chance to meet him, exchange a few words with him. I doubt I would have said anything remarkable or cogent. Of all the Big Boys, I suppose there’s only Harlan Ellison and one or two others left.
There’s a strong sense, a la the demise of Bradbury and Harryhausen, of an era coming to an end.
The King is Dead! The King is Dead!
Long will we mourn his passing.
One of my heroes, Ray Harryhausen, died yesterday.
Here’s a link to my tribute on Cinema Arete.
God bless you, Ray…
I remember the day I spotted the cover of The Golden Apples of the Sun in my school library. I was, perhaps, ten years old. I hadn’t borrowed many books but something about this one drew me, perhaps the brazen declaration (right below the title) that its creator was none other than “the world’s greatest living science fiction writer”.
To me, science fiction was “Star Trek” and some of the old creature features they sometimes played serially on my favorite after school program. But right from the first pages of The Golden Apples of the Sun, Ray Bradbury made me see that science fiction wasn’t just about the future and that the world around me was filled with magic and mystery, it was all in the way I looked at it.
Ray was wary about the science fiction label anyway—he thought he was a fantasist and he was absolutely right. Science fiction is too constricting for a mind as wide-ranging and imaginative as his. He was our small town Borges, the last surviving Grimm brother. Friends and acquaintances testify to the kindness and civility of the man, and his novels and short stories always provoke a warm, nostalgic glow. But there is much darkness in his work, a real sense of menace present in his masterpiece Something Wicked This Way Comes; happy endings were infrequent. The loneliness of the creature in his tale “The Fog Horn” is palpable. It is the last of its kind, doomed and suffering. A serial killer haunts the pages of his much-beloved Dandelion Wine and books burn by the millions in Fahrenheit 451. Temptation and sin torment his characters and all too frequently they surrender to their baser natures. Ray might have had a sentimental streak but he wasn’t unaware or indifferent to the conflicts that rage inside us.
Ray Bradbury expired at the ripe old age of 91. The last few years must have been difficult—there were strokes and he lost much of his eyesight. But he kept working, we’re told, his determination to put words on paper nearly out-living his physical body. He graced this planet for over nine decades but never forgot the wonders and terrors of childhood, the desire kids have to discover the mysteries and secrets of the hidden world of adults.
He was, and remains, an original, inimitable, a one and only.
From that skinny, timid child of long ago and the forty-eight year old man he’s become.
Montana fading in the rearview mirror and I’m looking at fairly substantial revisions to my western, The Last Hunt.
My meetings and the research I conducted while in the Livingston and Yellowstone area proved invaluable; I’ve found numerous inaccuracies that have to be addressed, many details that can be woven into the narrative to give the novel far more authenticity and impact. There’s a small box of books to go through, a mountain of notes and photocopies, and I’m about to dive in, head first—
Instead, my Muse decides to bushwhack me and, like the worst blindside hits, I never even sensed this one coming.
I’ve had the notion for a science fiction story for a couple of years. I’m a huge fan of the genre, grew up devouring everything space-related I could lay my hands on. Three early efforts that had a big effect on me were “A Walk in the Dark”, a tale by Arthur C. Clarke, and two short story collections, Ray Bradbury’s The Golden Apples of the Sun and a youth-oriented anthology titled Tales of Time and Space (edited by Ross Robert Olney). The latter included “Birds of a Feather” by Robert Silverberg, which is still a fave. I spotted an edition of Tales of Time and Space at a library book sale a number of years ago. Immediately recognized it (even after an interval of thirty some odd years) and snapped it up. I treasure that book; both my sons have read it as well.
My tale, I’ve known from the start, would have a “retro SF” feel to it: like it could have been written back in the late 50’s or early 60’s by someone like Alfred Bester, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, A.E. van Vogt or, yup, Robert Silverberg. Nothing state of the art or high tech. A small story about a lonely, little man. Some alternative history thrown in, a universe with some important differences from our own…
All very nice. But eight days ago I’m cleaning up my desk, sorting through papers and I come across a contest for novelettes and novellas, fiction between 7500-15,000 words, and all at once I’m overcome by this notion that my SF idea would be perfect for that length and I could use the contest, which has a decent payday, as my motivation. Poking a finger at the prize money: that would just about pay off your Montana trip, laddie.
Going after my conscience, my on-going worries over finances here at Casa Burns. My Muse has no sense of propriety or shame.
One things leads to another and, heh heh, eight days later I’m done, presented with a 37-page, 10,000 word tale called “Eyes in the Sky”. It came in a rush and would not be resisted. Any gal who’s given birth knows exactly what I’m talking about. The piece arrived just about fully-formed and its creation was so effortless, it made me suspicious that the bloody thing was no good. But Sherron has reassured me. She read a printed draft last night and gave “Eyes in the Sky” high grades. So I’m relieved.
But still perturbed to get yanked away from my western novel with no warning, no explanation. I guess it’s an object lesson. Something this control freak had better get through his thick head: I am not in charge. I am merely an agent, not the Source. I am servant to a difficult, mercurial taskmaster. I may grumble and groan but am compelled to obey; no rest for the weary and, as I should know by now, there’s always another story, waiting to be told…
I’m relieved to discover that this habit isn’t necessarily a manifestation of mental illness, nor is it unique in the world of the arts. I’ve read enough biographies and articles on authors to know that a good number of them have well-developed fantasy lives and often immerse themselves in their self-created environments, sometimes to the detriment of real world relationships and obligations. I think of writers like Ray Bradbury, P.G Wodehouse and and H.P. Lovecraft. For prolonged periods of time they take up residence in fictional universes, describing their journeys with such detail and depth that they seem almost like parallel existences, places we could visit if we took one wrong turn on a dark street or wandered off the path, into the endless forest.
I’ve devoted nearly four years of my life to conceiving, researching, writing and editing my novel So Dark the Night. Working on it every day, day in and day out, month after month after month. Frequently I’m in my office from 8:00 in the morning ’til 9:00 at night, coming out only to use the bathroom or gobble down a few quick bites of food. So fully inhabiting the city and environs where my two main characters ply their trade that at times it’s hard for me to fully re-emerge and engage with family and friends. Some days it’s absolutely spooky. I open up the door of my office and expect to see…what? The city of Ilium, home of my detective duo, a dilapidated former industrial center, hugging the shores of Lake Erie, long past its prime, presently in the midst of an accelerated decline. The dockland the repository for rusting hulks, bristling with abandoned gantries and infrastructure. The factories that once employed thousands now empty husks, ringed by concertina wire, patrolled by private security goons. The ground laced with heavy metals and toxins, poisoned for ten thousand years.
I see it so clearly in my mind’s eye.
Dunno about the other fellows but I confess to a preference for my imagined worlds, personal playgrounds where my my mind can roam, unfettered by the demands of mundane reality. When I shut the door to my office, everything on the other side ceases to exist. The phone is unplugged, the doorbell is ignored, nothing is allowed to break the spell. Music is the first step–sometimes an hour of howling metal or spacey, ambient stuff or track after track of Dylan. Depends on how I’m feeling.
–and then all at once I find myself sitting at my desk, pen in hand. I don’t remember how I got there or when I started writing. That’s the truth. So when I say “spell”, I’m not just blowing smoke up your ass. I can’t tell you how many thousands of words I’ve put to paper that have no clear origin; I looked down and there they were. And the process is as mysterious now as it was a quarter century ago. That’s the fucked up part. I’m no closer to understanding what it takes to create a successful work of prose or verse, even a single, melodic sentence, than I was when I first dared imagine myself a writer.
That’s why I take such offense at workshops and creative writing classes. You can teach someone basic grammar but you can’t help them create music with a few strokes of a pen. Sorry. Nor can you impart to your students the ability to absorb the pain and prolonged physical, mental and spiritual exertion the writing life demands from its (usually) unhappy acolytes. Basic compositional skills are empirical; a good ear for dialogue isn’t.
Writing is hard work, as hard as digging ditches or mining coal. That is, if you’re doing it right. Putting words down on paper, that’s nothing. Arranging them so that the exact right one is in the exact right place…that is a feat of engineering on par with any building, bridge or monument from the present day to ancient epochs.
When I’m working, my focus is absolute, like a laser beam. Nothing else matters except that page in front of me. I am there and nowhere else. I see my characters’ faces, breathe the same air. A camera swooping and dipping, discreetly recording the scene that’s unfolding. At such moments, it is temporal reality that seems entirely unconvincing and implausible.
Perhaps that’s why writers sometimes behave like such buffoons in the real world. We’ve forgotten social conventions and have no idea what constitutes appropriate behavior and language back on Earth Prime. I think of someone like Wodehouse, who cheerfully admitted to preferring the worlds he created to the real thing. Maybe that’s why he was gulled into those wartime radio broadcasts from occupied Paris for which he was so vilified. To his mind, they were harmless trifles…but to his countrymen across the channel, teetering on the brink of apocalypse, each syllable was treason.
Fantasy can beguile too.
Lovecraft was reclusive, a man who evinced little interest in worldly affairs, steeping himself in history and lore. More comfortable conversing in lengthy correspondences than face to face. His “mythos” an attempt to impose order on a civilization he felt far removed from. His attitudes, frankly, reactionary, which explained his fascination with the past and his fear of the things that might lurk just beyond his safe threshold, the darkness that yawned…
His writing is fevered, a cascade of obscure or archaic words, all in a vain (and overblown) attempt to describe the indescribable, put features and traits to things beyond human ken. The Lovecraftian universe is, even this non-fan must confess, a thrillingly imagined one, seemingly consistent and lavishly illustrated. For a considerable portion of his short life he resided in strange climes and, within the limits of his talent, did his best to describe the bleak and blasted vistas he saw there.
And then we have Bradbury…Raymond, the child-man. For Ray, the view from his window is pristine and richly coloured: small town Illinois, circa 1924. Memories of the cataclysm of war fading, a renewed sense of optimism surging through America, the first forebodings that an isolationist republic might have bigger, more ambitious aspirations on the world scene. An era of silent movies and loud jalopies; traveling circuses and lonely leviathans. White picket fences, dandelion wine and well-attended churches. In a second story bedroom, a child lies beneath clean, flannel blankets, blinking in the early Saturday morning light, listening to birdsong. In thirty years, this same child, grown tall and ramrod straight, will mount a silver rocket and blast off for the red sands of Mars…
Ray is all about nostalgia, a sense of what could/should have been. His ability to re-imagine a past that never was rivals that of Walt Disney–and I think it fair to say both are obsessed with bygone eras and far-flung futures and care not a whit for the present day. You gotta believe Ray has a rich fantasy life and I’d kill to be able to walk into one of his dreams.
Ray Bradbury’s stories are reflections of the man…just as Lovecraft’s tales reveal a twisted, inner psyche and Wodehouse’s lengthy canon a yearning for a well-ordered paradigm where the worst thing that can happen to a person is an accidental betrothal.
And as for me…hmmm. I think there’s a similar desire to impose some kind of cohesion or logic to a world I regard with more than a little cynicism and disapprobation. In the early part of my career, I wrote almost exclusively about characters who were somehow disenfranchised, powerless, marginalized. I approached those tales from the point of view of victims and that says something about my childhood and formative years. The fears that besieged and threatened to overwhelm me.
But in the past five years or so I’ve noticed that my characters have gotten tougher, taking control over their lives, no longer cowering in the face of their oppressors. And I think that change was accompanied by a great deal of healing as well as a better balance in my brain chemistry. At 46, except for the inevitable bad days (no one can avoid them), I’m feeling pretty good. Well enough that I can talk candidly about my secret places in a radio play like “The First Room“. No longer having to avert my eyes, try to think of anything but. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still as neurotic and nutty as ever, it’s just that I’ve come to terms with my inner loon.
I think my continuing survival is actually a very positive life lesson. If someone with my childhood, my psychological problems, my genetic history, can manage to make it this far, there’s hope for anyone. My writing saved and redeemed me and if you’re out there, dangling by a thread, there’s something for you too, something to pull you up from the precipice. Trust me.
And not only have I survived, I’ve thrived. Over the years I’ve taken on the roles of husband and father and that has equipped me with better coping skills and patience to deal with the frictions that are inevitable in any close personal relationship, no matter how loving and supportive. Those childhood fears and insecurities crop up in funny places and so does the anger, the rage of a kid who is powerless; a witness, an accomplice, a victim, a pawn of larger, darker forces.
I mentioned the bad days, those intervals where reason and balance seem to flee from me. It doesn’t happen nearly as often as it used to (thank God) and the bouts of fury and despair are no where near as intense. I find myself raging against the small chores and obligations that are part and parcel of daily life, chafe at an off-the-cuff comment, smolder because some small, petty desire has been denied me. Until the feelings pass, I retreat to my office, read, meditate, listen to extremely loud music, waiting for the worst of it to be over.
These fits usually coincide with some “down time” in my writing, any period when I don’t have a big project in front of me. I simply have to be doing something every single day…or my mind begins to turn on me. Most people around me view me as a terrible workaholic, too driven and consumed by my calling; they don’t understand that it’s the writing that keeps my demons at bay. All those long hours I spend in that other place, the worlds I construct from memories, epiphanies and passing impressions. They sustain me, are a crucial article of my faith. Without that outlet…I shudder to think.
I’m not saying mine is necessarily a healthy lifestyle. I’ve read the reports that warn of the health risks of a sedentary existence; I definitely should get outside more, stretch and exercise. Often, when I’m really locked into a project, I forget to eat, barely aware of the passage of time. That can’t be good.
But I also know that because of the way I live my life–on my terms, with few accommodations to outside influences–I’ve managed to spend the last decade or so (for the most part) in a state approaching happiness. Is it a trade-off? I think so.
Without the ability to shut off the world and use my office as a portal to possibility, amazement, redemption and hope I would never have lasted this long. I truly believe my fantasy life is key to my continuing survival. When the stories run out, I’m finished.
I think the other fellows know what I’m talking about. I ponder the life of Ray Bradbury–I know he’s had some health setbacks and that has affected his legendary productivity. But at 90+ years, he’s still telling tall tales, even if someone else has to take dictation and type them up for him. Each day he commutes to that place where his visions dwell. His fortress of solitude. Sitting in a comfortable chair, barely able to see but hardly sightless. His gaze far, far away. In Green River or navigating the Valles Marineris; lost in a funhouse or at the helm of a gleaming rocketship, bound for the stars.
After all, nothing is impossible if we allow ourselves to think with the mind of a child. Experience has not yet affected one so young and no one can convince them that dreams can’t ever come true.
I’m a writer. But the printed word isn’t merely my vocation, my bread and butter; it has been, from an early age, a constant companion, confidante… and refuge. It gives my life purpose and direction, helps define me and makes me who I am.
I’ve always been a reader. For diversion and escape, yes, certainly, but I also possess an insatiable desire to know, learn everything I can about other people and places, give in to possibility, open myself up to astonishment. As a child I discovered that the ability to suspend disbelief for prolonged periods of time was a valuable coping mechanism, a life skill they didn’t teach in school.
I read anything I could lay my hands on. Remember the Companion Library series? Two classic kids’ books printed back to back: Heidi and Black Beauty. Hans Brinker and Tom Sawyer. We had the entire set and once I finished them, I scanned the rest of our modest collection, plucking out anything that looked halfway promising. I can recall spending many a rainy afternoon with the likes of Zane Grey, John Buchan and Daphne DuMaurier.
Remained a bookworm through my teens, acquainting myself with the work of Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Harlan Ellison, Philip K. Dick. They were the guys who inspired me to scratch out my first short stories. Crass imitations of far better authors; calling those early efforts “juvenilia” is being excessively kind.
But I caught the writing bug and what followed was a long apprenticeship that continues to this day. My first sales came in my early 20’s, to CBC Radio and a now-defunct literary magazine called Rubicon. Writing was no longer a hobby, it was an obsession. “The pain I can’t live without,” as my colleague Robert Penn Warren puts it.
Even after twenty-five years the process of creation, committing words to paper, is still a source of profound mystery to me…perhaps even magic. At the end of the day, when I look at what I’ve written, I get goosebumps. I have no firm recollection of composing those pages. In truth, I’m no closer to understanding how and why I write than I was when I first started out, all those years ago.
But here’s the strange thing: while I continue to revere fine writing and apply myself, day by day, year after year, to the service of literature, the amount of reading I do has declined precipitously in the last couple of years.
Now, as I’m sure you’ll understand, that’s a hard admission for a man in my line of work to make.
In partial defense, I add that I do read a fair amount for research purposes, books and magazine articles, not to mention the endless hours spent on-line, Googling like crazy. I like to read non-fiction to get my mind warmed up in the morning. Something historical, twenty or thirty pages over breakfast before heading upstairs to my office and commencing work.
But reading for pleasure, picking up a book for the sake of killing a few hours, immersed in a fictional universe? For a considerable length of time that notion hasn’t held much appeal. I’ve found other activities, diversions to occupy me.
It’s no coincidence: since 2007, I have enjoyed a period of remarkable productivity in terms of my writing–two novels completed, a couple of radio plays, short stories, essays. That productivity comes at a steep price, i.e. many long hours sequestered away in that little room at the top of the stairs.
When I finally lurch out of my office in the late afternoon or early evening I’m bleary-eyed, soft-headed with fatigue, barely sentient. Words. I’ve spent the last eight or ten hours staring at words, wrestling with and endlessly rearranging words, so many bloody words—
And so settling into our big arm chair with the latest Ian McEwan or Irvine Welsh doesn’t interest me. Sorry, lads. At that point I want to hang out with my family, catch up on their lives. As well as being an author guy, I’m also a husband and father. Those responsibilities are important to me.
Then, as it gets on into the evening, I’ll chill out with a glass or two of scotch, pop in a “South Park” DVD or an old “Black Adder” episode. Later, in bed, I might get through another ten pages of that non-fic book before my eyes refuse to stay open a moment longer and I reach over and turn out the light…
How did a lifelong reader descend to this, treating books like a luxury, an indulgence, rather than a necessity? Holding off starting a new novel by a favorite author because I don’t want to “waste” an afternoon reading it.
Shame on me.
And I feel worse when I check out on-line forums and see how much the real bibliophiles are reading. The sheer amount of books these people claim to go through is ridiculous, unbelievable, impossible. They have to be lying. When do they have time to, oh, y’know, work, sleep, interact with their families?
Their devotion to books is inspiring—to the extent that I had decided to amend my ways. I’ve got shelves and shelves of wonder-filled books and I’m giving myself permission, here and now, to spend every free moment I can rediscovering my all-consuming passion for reading. No movie or other media can move me like a good book can. Nothing else gives me that sensawunda.
And I’m going to do my best to ignore that niggling, insistent voice bemoaning the valuable time reading takes away from my own writing. Pay no attention…or, better yet, counter with the argument that it was through reading that I learned everything I know (what little that amounts to) about writing. Reading a well-crafted book is a form of professional development, damnit! How can I grow and improve as an author unless I acquaint myself, firsthand, with the work of gifted colleagues who are breaking new ground in character, structure and narrative? Closely studying their sentences, the way they frame their thoughts.
As a child, I recognized the power and majesty contained in words. Reading untethered my imagination and charged my creative energies. I dearly wanted to do what my literary heroes did, tell a tall tale that would hold readers in its thrall. Make them forget who they were, all their problems, the fears bedevilling them. That was the initial impetus.
I aspired to be the next L. Frank Baum or Arthur Conan Doyle. Creator of something that would live forever.
A story for the ages…and the ageless child inside us all.
Copyright, 2009 Cliff Burns (All Rights Reserved)