Ray Bradbury is my homeboy

The most formative moment of my childhood, and probably the event that influenced me most as a writer was, ironically, when my parents bought me my own TV when I was 6. And not only did I have my own TV but we had glorious, glorious cable, beamed straight into my bedroom.

Yes children, we had so few channels in the 1980s that each channel actually had its own button on a box.

I watched so much TV when I was a kid that it’s actually amazing my rotted brain didn’t leak out of my ears sometime in my early 20s. I calculated that by the 3rd grade I was watching between 35-40 hours of TV a week, and that was during the school year! I watched all the greats: Darkwing Duck, Full House, Supermarket Sweep, Blossom, The Golden Girls, A Different World, and then I’d mosey on over to Nick at Nite and watch The Patty Duke Show, Dobie Gillis, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, usually falling asleep sometime around the second hour of Dragnet.

And at some point in my young life, the USA Network decided that Friday nights were going to be dedicated to spooky, freaky programs like Beyond Reality, Darkroom, The New Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and my favorite of favorites, The Ray Bradbury Theater.

For those of you who don’t know, Ray Bradbury was a prolific science-fiction and horror writer whose stories are frequently set in small, middle-American towns much like his hometown of Waukegan, Illinois. And it’s precisely because the settings he chooses are so normal, so familiar, that his stories are so unsettling. They feel like they could happen to you, that maybe you could walk out of your local library on a fall evening and suddenly see a strange carnival you don’t recall having seen on your way in.

Seems legit. Nothing weird about a mysterious carnival in a corn field.

Ray Bradbury Theater usually had major guest stars like Jeff Goldblum and Shelley Duvall, and were based on some of his best short stories. The freakiest episode I remember, and one that unsettled me so badly I think I had to stop watching the show for a while, was this absolute nightmare where a woman gave birth to a baby, except her human baby was trapped in another dimension, and so the baby she could see was …a blue pyramid????

How do you even get an imagination that can think up something like that? Seriously. How do I get one?

When I was a few years older and stopped choosing books from the kids side of the library and moved over to the adult side, I went straight for Ray Bradbury. I read The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, I Sing The Body Electric, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and his most famous novel, Fahrenheit 451.

It’s the burny-booky one you read in 7th grade.

Fun fact: Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 not as a reaction against censorship, but actually as a reaction against the numbing effect of TV. He felt that people were going to stop reading altogether in favor of tuning out of life and mindlessly watching TV, exactly as Montag’s wife, Clarisse, does for the entirety of the book. Ironic then, that my love of Ray Bradbury began with TV.

Ray Bradbury wrote so many amazing things that I can’t even begin to recount them all here. But I think he was so influential to me as a kid because his writing was incredibly accessible, scary, ironic, smart, and different. He was so out there, that I think he gave me permission, years before I even realized I wanted it, to write weird stuff like a story about cats arguing over whether to eat their dead owner, or a novel about a young woman who’s so angry at herself and the world that she’s carving a portrait of the Mona Lisa into her thigh.

So thank you Ray Bradbury, for being your bad self and encouraging all us other weirdos to follow suit. May we one day meet up at a big creepy carnival in the sky.

Author: Elizabeth Gonzalez James

Before becoming a writer Elizabeth was a waitress, a pollster, an Avon lady, and an opera singer. Her stories and essays have appeared in Ploughshares Blog, The Idaho Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere, and have received multiple Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations. Her debut novel, MONA AT SEA, was a finalist in the 2019 SFWP Literary Awards judged by Carmen Maria Machado, and is forthcoming, Summer 2021, from Santa Fe Writers Project. Originally from South Texas, Elizabeth now lives with her family in Oakland, California.