Ray BradburyRay Bradbury may be 81 and recovering from a stroke, but he is not yet ready to be mummified like a Thousand Times Great Grand-Mère, a star among the eccentric stars of his latest novel, From the Dust Returned (Morrow, Forecasts, Aug. 27). Bradbury looks thin, and his voice is a bit hollow, but he talks. And laughs. On the wall of his living room, where it has been hanging for 50 years, is a painting by Charles Addams, the great New Yorker cartoonist, showing an eerie Victorian gothic haunted house inhabited by a family of lovable freaks, the Elliotts, who are featured in some of Bradbury's best-loved stories and take center stage in From the Dust Returned. Originally intended to grace the cover of the long-planned novel, the painting is finally being put to use.

Bradbury was a brash, broke and confident 26-year-old living in New York when Weird Tales magazine rejected "Homecoming," his first Elliots story. Weird Tales was his first serious publisher, paying him $20 apiece for "The Jar" and "Skeleton," but "Homecoming" wasn't traditional enough for the editors, who wanted stories imitating Poe and Lovecraft. So he submitted the story to Mademoiselle, where Truman Capote, then an editor, accepted it for the Halloween issue. Addams was chosen to do the artwork. Bradbury decided to do a book based on the story and illustrated by Addams after he and the artist became close. "But he wandered off to do his Addams Family [inspired by the Elliots], and I wandered off and did my other Family stories on my own. Along the way I bought the painting from him for $200 when I couldn't afford it and paid by the month. It took me three or four months."

It took another 55 years for the book to appear, but it still seems remarkably fresh, as vibrant as any of Bradbury's earlier work. The reason, insists the writer, is that "all of my books surprise me. I'm writing them all the time."

Bradbury's first foray into the world of writing came in 1939, when the Waukegan, Ill., native was 19 and working as a newsboy in Los Angeles. Setting himself up as the publisher of a fanzine, Futuria Fantasia, he managed to recruit an impressive lineup. "Forrie Ackerman paid for it. Henry Kuttner and Robert Heinlein wrote for it and Hannes Bok drew for it," he says. His first published story was "It's Not the Heat, It's the Hu-" (sic), which appeared in Script magazine in Beverly Hills: "no money but a lot of free copies." After his success with Mademoiselle, the editors of Weird Tales accepted his strange and unique stories, "but they kept fighting me. 'Do real ghost stories!' "

He published his first book, the story collection Dark Carnival, with Arkham House in 1947, but his breakthrough came in 1949, when he sold The Martian Chronicles to Doubleday. He needed the money, because by then he was married to Maggie McClure and expecting their first child. The book's origin was near miraculous. "I was writing it for four or five years, but I didn't know it. It took a Doubleday editor, Walter Bradbury (no relation to me) to point out I had written a novel. He told me to go back to the YMCA where I was staying and write an outline. We had no money, Maggie was pregnant. He told me, 'Bring it to the office and if it's any good I'll give you $750.' I stayed up all night and wrote the outline of a novel I didn't know I had written and took it to the office of Doubleday the next day. Walter Bradbury looked at it and said, 'That's it, here is $750.' So I was rich, because in 1949 that paid our rent for a whole year in Venice, Calif. It paid for our first baby, too, because babies in those days only cost about $100."

Although he is often called to appear on TV as a science fiction writer, he insists he is not one. "Only Fahrenheit 451 is science fiction. The Martian Chronicles is fantasy. There is no such place as Mars. It's based on the dreams I had as a child, on the photographs taken at the Lowell Observatory and the sketches by Schiaparelli and the Martian books by Edgar Rice Burroughs"

His second love has always been the theater. After working for seven months on the screenplay for Moby Dick, one morning he looked into the mirror and "there was Herman Melville. He assumed my identity." John Huston had told him that he wanted the interpretation of the story to be Bradbury's, and then unjustly took co-credit for the film. Still, the work in Ireland paid off in his Irish one-act plays, "The Anthem Sprinters." He recalls, several years ago, a production in San Francisco and the marquee read, "Two Irish plays tonight, by Sean O'Casey and Ray Bradbury. Isn't that great, huh?" After a pause, he adds, "I cried."

Waukegan has appreciated Bradbury, who returns annually and visits the ravine where "I used to play.... They've renamed it 'The Ray Bradbury Park.' " Asked about another famous Waukeganite, Jack Benny, he says, "We used to appear on concert programs together. I introduced him, and he would play the violin. We were known as 'The Boys from Waukegan.' He was a very nice gentleman." Ray chuckles as he recalls a Steven Spielberg story. The great filmmaker was asked in an interview, "If you could make God say something, what would it be?" Spielberg answered, "Thanks for listening." Bradbury laughs. "Isn't that beautiful? God whispered to Spielberg to tell him to become Spielberg, and whispered to me to become Bradbury, and I listened."

Concerning the recent terrible terrorist events, he refers to a recent essay in which he wrote, "Mankind is too soon from the cave, too far from the stars, we are the in-between generation, not having accepted the gift of life completely. We diminish it by such acts. Not by war, hatred and greed, but then we recover and do good things. We are half and half people. We need forgiveness. We have to move forward, go back to the moon, go to Mars, on into the universe, meantime struggling with the two halves of ourselves. The events of recent weeks have been a real struggle not to go crazy."