Among his more influential admirers were the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who read his stories in Russian translations of the 1950s, and JG Ballard, whose introduction to his own volume of Complete Short Stories (2001) stated: "At its best, in Borges, Ray Bradbury and Edgar Allan Poe, the short story is coined from precious metal, a glint of gold that will glow for ever in the deep purse of your imagination."
Born in the small town of Waukegan, Illinois, Bradbury arrived in Los Angeles with his parents, Leonard and Esther, in 1934, and lived there for the rest of his life. At the time of his graduation from Los Angeles high school in 1938, he was already publishing stories in amateur fanzines, and was an active member of the LA Science Fiction Society, where he rubbed shoulders with more senior writers such as Henry Kuttner, Leigh Brackett and Robert A Heinlein.
He had a reputation at that time as an amusing but pushy kid, always under the feet of visiting magazine editors, always asking his seniors for tips, coaxing them into reading his manuscripts and sometimes collaborating with him. Sustaining himself as a part-time newspaper seller, he continued to write furiously (at one point, it is said, he burned more than a million words of unpublished fiction), making his first professional sales in 1941 and styling himself a full-time writer from 1943. By 1947 he was sufficiently established in his career to marry Marguerite McClure, with whom he was to have four daughters.
The best of his early stories appeared in the pulp magazine Weird Tales, edited at that time by Dorothy McIlwraith. These were moody, macabre pieces which avoided the stock ghosts and monsters of supernatural fiction. The Crowd, about a conspiracy of ghoulish spectators at traffic accidents, and The Scythe, about a farmer who involuntarily takes on the role of Death, were typical of Bradbury's prolific output in 1943-44. These were collected, along with many similarly grotesque pieces, in his first book, Dark Carnival (1947), with some rewritten for his definitive collection of horror stories, The October Country (1955). He also contributed numerous stories to the crime and science-fiction pulps of the mid-1940s, some of them unreprinted to this day.
Not content to remain a master of pulp, Bradbury set his sights on more prestigious magazines. In 1945 he made his breakthrough when he sold a non-fantasy story, The Big Black and White Game (on racial and sporting themes), to the American Mercury. This came to the attention of Martha Foley, editor of the annual Best American Short Stories anthology, who reprinted it in her 1946 volume – the first of many appearances by Bradbury in that and similar anthologies.
Within a few years, he was selling stories regularly to the biggest and "slickest" magazines of the day – Mademoiselle, Charm, Collier's, the New Yorker (just once), Maclean's, Seventeen, Esquire, the Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Harper's and more. In an era before television held sway, the last heyday of the magazine short story, Bradbury flourished. His fantastical, whimsical stories, blending horror, humour and sentiment – instantly recognisable in style – appealed to editors and readers across the board.
Ironically, however, it was in the lowly science-fiction pulps that his second – and best – book had its origins. With The Million-Year Picnic in 1946, he began a loose series about pioneer settlers on Mars and, over the next four years, these appeared primarily in the gaudiest of poorly paying pulp magazines, Planet Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories. They were gathered together as The Martian Chronicles (known in Britain as The Silver Locusts).
The book was praised by critics, including Christopher Isherwood, and sold well (in its paperback reprints, it became a steady seller and has been in print ever since). Scarcely a "novel", and scarcely science fiction – his space rockets are like firecrackers, and his Mars people are Halloween ghosts, while his Martian landscape is a heightened version of southern California – it nevertheless became a classic science-fiction novel.
The Martian Chronicles was followed by The Illustrated Man (1951), The Golden Apples of the Sun (1953) and, a little later, A Medicine for Melancholy (1959; known in Britain as The Day It Rained Forever). These, along with his short novel Fahrenheit 451 (filmed by François Truffaut in 1966), remain the core Bradbury books. The best of their tales have a magical quality that endures.
Another of his finest books, Dandelion Wine (1957), like his earlier Mars volume, is a gathering of short stories furbished with linking passages and presented anew as a "novel". Like most of his work, it is about childhood, or the child's-eye view of things. Set in the fictional Green Town, Illinois (a reimagined Waukegan), during the long hot summer of 1928, it concerns minor domestic incidents which are made over in the feverish mind of a 12-year-old boy so that the town seems to become a realm of time-travellers and witches, of enchanted tennis shoes and impossible "happiness machines". The book is not a fantasy of the supernatural in any conventional sense, but a highly imaginative work that mines a deep vein of modern American folk-fantasy. There is much delightful whimsy, combined with an obvious nostalgia for a simpler, old-fashioned way of life, but there are also dark elements. The boy realises that one day he will die; an old woman is robbed of all the memories of her youth; a killer known as the Lonely One lurks in the town's shadows.
Although he continued to write to the end, most of Bradbury's work after 1960 was less successful. Death is a Lonely Business (1985) and A Graveyard for Lunatics (1990) were adequately entertaining mysteries. Green Shadows, White Whale (1992) and From the Dust Returned (2001) were latter-day attempts at "fix-up" novels, put together in the same style as Dandelion Wine. The former was based on "Irish" short stories written in the 1950s and 60s, inspired by his experience of working on location with John Huston on the 1956 film of Moby Dick (for which Bradbury wrote the screenplay); and the latter on very early fantasy stories of the 1940s. Later collections ranged from The Machineries of Joy (1964) to Driving Blind (1997), One More for the Road (2002) and We'll Always Have Paris (2009).
Despite a 50-year decline from his peak of the 1950s, Bradbury remained a much-loved writer, his work often adapted for film and television. Never a great traveller (he preferred a bicycle to a car, and usually avoided aircraft), he lived quietly and was the recipient of many awards ranging from an O Henry prize in 1947 to a Bram Stoker lifetime achievement award in 1988 and, in 2004, a National Medal of Arts award.
Marguerite died in 2003. Bradbury is survived by their daughters, Susan, Ramona, Bettina and Alexandra.