Ray Bradbury and “The people we are destined to meet”

How Ray Bradbury and Joseph Mugnaini came to create some of the most haunting and surreal artwork.

A man obsessed with his body becomes convinced that his own skeleton is out to kill him. A mysterious crowd appears every time there’s a car accident, and is nowhere to be seen afterwards. A farmer takes on the role of the Grim Reaper during the Great Depression, and is faced with an impossible choice. This is Ray Bradbury’s The October Country (1955) — a collection of short stories that Bradbury had originally written for The Dark Carnival and other publications.

In many ways The October Country is the perfect Halloween book. These stories are about people who find themselves face-to-face with their worst fears, and who often create their own nightmares. By using colorful and vivid language to describe the characters’ fears and obsessions Bradbury paints a world of morbid whimsy, challenging the reader’s own imagination.

The October Country is one of those books I wish I could experience for the first time again, and re-reading it has become a beloved Halloween tradition. However, when I first bought the Ballantine paperback edition, the first thing that stood out for me wasn’t the words but the images. The surreal, black-and-white illustrations were filled with the same dark whimsy as the stories they accompanied.

The artist’s name was Joseph Mugnaini, and the images that had mesmerized me (and countless other Bradbury fans) were part of a decades’ long collaboration between the author and the painter, something that Mugnaini himself described as “symbiosis.”

The story of how the two artists met is like something out of a novel itself. Both Bradbury and Mugnaini have recited their own versions of the story many times in interviews. In its most barebones form, it is a story about an author who was walking past an art gallery in Beverly Hills one night and fell in love with a lithograph of a Gothic building.

At the gallery, Bradbury was also shown two more works by Mugnaini. One of which was a painting of a Gothic train with church windows. It was the perfect image of a story that Bradbury had in his mind but hadn’t written yet. A little spoiler: that story would become Something Wicked This Way Comes — one of Bradbury’s best and most celebrated novels.

Bradbury, who despite his rising fame lived on meager wages of a short fiction author and couldn’t afford those paintings. Determined to get them, he reached out to the artist himself,

“And I came up to see him, and I said, ‘Look, I am madly in love with your work but I can’t afford it. Now, let me make a deal with you: if the two paintings don’t sell, and you get them back I’ll pay you what you would have gotten, which is half price. But I gotta have those paintings.’ And he said, ‘Okay, if they don’t sell I’ll call you.’ A month later he called and said, ‘Come get the paintings! They didn’t sell.’ I found out later that he had pulled the paintings out of the show in order to give them to me.”

The first book that Mugnaini came to work on was The Golden Apples of the Sun — another short story collection. The first story he illustrated was The Sound of Thunder — a tongue-in-cheek story about a time travel safari that goes horribly wrong. There was very little money in illustrating Bradbury’s work, but Mugnaini wasn’t doing it for the money. “I did it because I wanted to, “ he had famously said.

Next, was Fahrenheit 451 for which Mugnaini made the cover art: the now iconic image of the man covered in newsprint and on fire. Then, came The Halloween Tree, and — of course — The October Country.

In interviews, both the author and the painter spoke warmly of each other, and through their accounts I get a picture of a creative partnership. Mugnaini wasn’t just Bradbury’s illustrator — they were working together and bouncing ideas off of each other. In his interview with John Tibbets, Mugnaini said that, “We would both do sketches and then meet up and choose one or two sketches. Bradbury would give me an idea and I would elaborate on it.”

Creatively, Bradbury and Mugnaini were a match made in Heaven. Mugnaini’s art style perfectly reflected Bradbury’s surreal, distorted reality. The elongated shadows and the hard lines play with perspective and are disorienting, just like the stories themselves.

“He was painting my mind!” — Ray Bradbury

“Ray was doing literally what I was doing graphically.” — Joe Mugnaini

“Undiscovered Country”

Bradbury began writing at the age of twelve, after a fateful meeting with one Mr Electrico at a traveling carnival, who touched his nose with the tip of an electrified sword, exclaiming, “Live forever!”. As the hair on little Ray’s head stood up, he knew that something special had happened in that moment: “I started writing every day. I never stopped.”

Bradbury described his first forays into short fiction as derivatives and imitations of the stories that his favourite authors wrote. He imitated instead of creating something that was entirely his own. “There was an Undiscovered Country behind my medulla oblongata, but I never traveled there.”

It was only when the young author was able to tap into his own experiences and his passions, into this “Undiscovered Country,” that he began to write stories that he could be proud of. He called them “intuitive stories,” and they were born out of his own childhood traumas, and out of things that had affected and inspired him.

Bradbury came from humble beginnings so even as his stories were being celebrated he and his growing family had to live on a budget. For instance, he famously rented a typewriter for thirty cents per half hour at his local library so he could write Fahrenheit 451 because he couldn’t afford an office.

Bradbury couldn’t afford to go to college, so the library became his alma mater. He was also skeptical of colleges and maintained that academia is a terrible place to learn to be a writer because “teachers always think they know more than you do — and they don’t.

“Happy accidents”

Mugnaini’s beginnings had also been humble. He studied art at the Otis Art Institute, while working part-time as a truck driver and furniture finisher. When WWI began, he worked for the Intelligence Service, and was shipped off to Germany. Upon returning to the US Mugnaini resumed his studies at Otis, where he would eventually become a teacher himself.

Despite receiving formal education Mugnaini described himself as a self-taught artist, and said that the students learned more from each other: “ fellow students are more important than faculty members.” Like Bradbury, he emphasised the value of self-education and intuition.

“You take a pencil and scribble until you accidentally strike an image that seems to reflect what I have conceived in my mind. You can study and gain knowledge and experience, but the muse of art lives in the wilderness of the mind that you don’t understand yourself. If you’re lucky you can go beyond this frontier and this ‘unknown area’ and come back with something. But it has to happen accidentally.”

In addition to being on the same page creatively (so to speak), the two seemed to be on the same page politically, too. Mugnaini described himself as a liberal, and he and Bradbury both questioned the establishment, and the government. They both worried about things like pollution, censorship, and consumerism.

We can never know exactly why Bradbury and Mugnaini worked so well together. I don’t think even they could’ve given us a straight answer. It could just come down to personal chemistry. Sometimes, two individuals will just click. Bradbury, who went to his “Unknown Country” for inspiration, and Mugnaini, who was letting “happy accidents” guide his process found each other compatible, not just on a creative level, but on a personal one as well.

Of course, they were far from the only creators with this mindset. For instance, Michael Jackson had the same “don’t think!” approach to dancing. Yet, I keep going back to what Bradbury himself said about his friendship with the artist, “The most remarkable thing is meeting people you feel you were destined to meet.” Indeed, there is something about two artists who were creating on the borderline between the conscious and the subconscious, letting their intuition guide them rather than any set of rules or conventions that found each other seemingly by a happy accident that seems predestined.

Which brings me back to The October Country. The stories in that collection were born out of the author’s own deepest fears and most personal experiences, and it’s remarkable, almost uncanny how well the artist’s illustrations convey the emotions in those stories, and how the two art forms inform each other.

Whether it was destiny or serendipity that led to their meeting, at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is what Bradbury and Mugnaini ended up creating together, and what they made out of that meeting.

Links and sources:

An Evening with Ray Bradbury — University of California Television

Joseph Mugnaini interview with Joh Tibbets — KU Scholar Works

“May I Die Before My Voices” — foreword to The October Country

Joseph Mugnaini — MONSTER BRAINS

Ray Bradbury, the art of fiction — Paris Review

Works of Joseph Mugnaini at Heritage Gallery

Originally published at https://aliensupersoldier.com on October 26, 2021.

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Dinara Tengri

Dinara Tengri

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