Death Is A Lonely Business: The Bradbury Novel that Told Me I Could Maybe Write, and No One Else Seems to Have Read or at Least Mentioned Recently
In the past few days the stories of Bradbury’s influence have been coming fast and thick from writers, readers, innovators, and politicians. He is part of the great group subconscious of the world, that is not in doubt. And people have been talking about his books of course, and how those books influenced their lives. Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes. All the big names in his cannon.
I honestly can’t say when I read my first Bradbury story. It was probably something from The Martian Chronicles, and I was probably seven or eight. Young enough not to know that Mars didn’t really have ancient canals. Young enough to be horribly disappointed when the pictures from the surface of Mars came back without towering cities of crystal. I read all his stories of the red world. I think my favorites actually came from The Illustrated Man. The first short film script I ever wrote was a direct homage to those stories.
But for as much as those books inspired imaginations across the world only one truly changed my thoughts on writing and possibly slid the idea that I could write subtly into the back of my mind.
When I was perhaps thirteen, maybe fourteen (we were already in the new house, I remember that), my father returned from an expedition to a used bookstore with a hardbound book baring the title Death is a Lonely Business by one of my favorite authors. From the cover glass eyes stared at me, and inside it had a fake Bradbury signature made out to someone I didn’t know. My father told me it wasn’t his usual stuff. It was a murder mystery. My father has always been one for the mysteries and thrillers. His bookshelf was always lined with Dashiell Hammett, John le Carré, and Arthur Conan Doyle. He could recite every word of Bogart’s Maltese Falcon. Being antisocial, insomniatic, and willing to read anything I finished the book in one night.
It opened with an unnamed young writer, obviously some form of Bradbury himself, riding the old Red Line trolley through a bleak, rain drenched, Venice California in 1949. As he rides through the pounding rain a drunk comes into the car and sits behind the young writer. The drunk moans and mumbles and says those words. “Death is a Lonely Business.”
This opening I understood. I’m an urban child. I grew up with the BART train rolling by less than a block from my bedroom window. I knew about drunks on trains and buses late at night. I knew just as the author did to hold still, they are attracted to movement. Don’t make eye contact, in case they take it as an invitation. Don’t look, in case you see something you don’t want to. But there are two things you can’t block out, the sound and the smell. Drunken curses to people who aren’t there. Schizophrenic rants to God, with no obvious replies coming. And the smell of beer, piss, vomit, and dirt. The knowledge that death would probably smell better. All this I understood, whereas Bradbury’s late autumn, Midwest, small town days were as foreign to me as the canals of Mars. And I had greater belief in his Martians than in parents who told their children to go and play and not come back until dark.
Within a couple of pages of the drunken encounter Bradbury gives up the first body. Someone shoved into a lion cage that was half submerged in scummy canal water.
As accidents occur, and people die of fright, or age, the unnamed writer with his writers imagination believes they are victims of murder. And as he tries to bang out little tales of terror that will net him 40 dollars a sale he also collects people around him, and around the newly dead, living on the crumbling Venice pleasure pier for his stories. Each person Bradbury snatches up and gives to us in a handful of words, in that lovely impressionistic style he has. Elmo Crumley, the detective who has grown his own Garden of Eden and has a half-finished novel in his desk drawer. Constance Rattigan, the silent movie star who keeps vampire hours and swims in the ocean with the seals and sharks. And Fannie Florianna, the 400 pound soprano and queen of an old tenement house.
Of course the killer is collecting the same people for different reasons and calling them the Lonelies.
I have always loved the murder mystery especially in the Hammett style, but it was Bradbury speaking as a writer that worked its way inside my brain. There were words to himself as a struggling young man. He was comfortably into his 60’s and could tell himself, through literary time travel, that things would work out if he could survive those fogy impoverished years. There was also the advice to Crumley, and every other soul with a day job and a half-finished novel. The words could and would come if you kept at it, if you really wanted it. For some it was easier, others harder, but the words were there. If you weren’t one of the Lonelies and on the list of some late night killer. But the most important thing for me was the Talking Box.
I did a final sermon on Miss Birdsong, and a page about the glass eyes, and took all these pages and put them in my Talking Box. That was the box I kept by my typewriter where my ideas lay and spoke to me early mornings to tell me where they wanted to go and what they wanted to do. I lay half-asleep, listening, and then got up and went to help them, with my typewriter, to go where they most needed to go to do some special wild thing; so my stories got written. Sometimes it was a dog that needed to dig a graveyard. Sometimes it was a time machine that had to go backward. Sometimes it was a man with green wings who had to fly at night lest he be seen. Sometimes it was me, missing Peg in my tombstone bed.
I didn’t know I wanted to write when I read this book. I didn’t know if I wanted to do anything except be left alone in my fortress of books with my collection of broken things. But the idea of the Talking Box stuck in my head. The idea that you didn’t need a full idea. That stories and novels didn’t erupt fully formed in the minds of even the greats. That the stories I loved could be stitched together out of bits and pieces of ideas and people who brushed against your life. As someone who wouldn’t throw out puzzles with missing pieces and collected my mother’s broken crystal this idea appealed.
When I finally got to university I was studying theatre. I was still clinging to the grand illusion that I could act, or maybe direct (I still know I can direct), but the year before I had started writing bits of plays for drama class and collecting descriptions of odd people I knew. It wasn’t long before I got tired of having my history essays scrambled in with my half formed plays and bits of angst ridden fanfic. Being a modern child I liked a tidy file structure so I created a new file, named it My Writing and dumped everything original in there. By the next day it was My Original Work. By day three the file was called Talking Box. It still is. In every computer I’ve ever owned my copy of Word opens automatically to my Talking Box. The shortcut sits on my desktop. And while it contains some completed works it is also filed with snippets, random pages from half formed novels, character sketches. There are even some completely blank documents that just have a title that I’m sure meant something brilliant at the time I created them.
So out of this certainly egotistical, adolescent whim of file naming for the last thirteen years every time I have sat down to write for at least a second Bradbury leaps into my mind. When I stare at blank pages trying to form new worlds his golden eyed Martians stare back at me. When I have good days and my fingers are flying over the keys with quite clicks faster than I can think I have an image of an ‘unoiled 1934 Underwood Standard typewriter… as big as a player piano and as loud as wooden clogs on a carpetless floor’. That typewriter produced story after amazing story and I pray to capture just a drop of the wonder that spilled from that machine. And on days when nothing comes and the curser blinks at me on a white page, like Bradbury’s unnamed young writer, I pull someone from the depths of my Talking Box and do my best to figure out where they want to go and what they need to do.