NEWPORT BEACH — The screenwriter-narrator in Ray Bradbury's new novel, a murder mystery set in Hollywood in the '50s, refers to them affectionately as the loonies, the jerks, the idiots, the goons.
They're the starry-eyed autograph hounds who loitered in front of the movie studio gates waiting for the stars of the silver screen to materialize in the California sun.
Like his protagonist in "A Graveyard for Lunatics," Bradbury was once a member of that "mob of lovers worshiping at the studio shrine."
"I have thousands of autographs," said Bradbury, who arrived in Los Angeles with his family from Waukegan, Ill., in 1934 when he was 13 and wasted no time in trolling the streets for "famous people." "That first day I roller-skated out to Hollywood," he recalled. "I arrived in front of Paramount and standing there was Irwin S. Cobb, a well-known writer at the time and pretty well forgotten now; Ben Bernie, an orchestra leader who's long since forgotten, and W.C. Fields himself.
"So I roller-skated over and said, 'Mr. Fields, can I have your autograph?' He signed and gave it back and said, 'There you are, you little son of a bitch.' "
"That," said Bradbury, having executed a pitch-perfect imitation of the legendary misanthrope, "was my introduction to Hollywood."
Bradbury, seated in a booth in the bar at the Balboa Bay Club, chuckled at the memories of his "lumpy" teen-age self pursuing Harlow, Dietrich, Laurel and Hardy and other cinematic objects of his affection.
The prolific science fiction-fantasy writer has tapped those early Hollywood memories and his later experiences as a screenwriter at Paramount, MGM, Disney and Universal to fashion what Publishers Weekly calls "a loopy fun house of a novel."
"A Graveyard for Lunatics" (Knopf; $18.95) opens on Halloween night, 1954. There are some wild parties in progress at Maximus Films, "the most successful studio in history," when the screenwriter receives an anonymous note telling him to be at the cemetery behind the studio at midnight, "where a great revelation awaits you."
At the cemetery, Bradbury's reluctant hero runs into what appears to be the former head of Maximus Films climbing a ladder over the wall into the studio. The problem is that the movie mogul died in a car crash 20 years before.
As the screenwriter attempts to unravel this bizarre mystery, the reader is introduced to a weird assortment of Hollywood characters:
There's Fritz Wong, the imperious Austrian-Chinese director; Stanislaw Groc, a cosmetic surgeon who keeps the studio's stars looking forever young; Constance Rattigan, the faded movie queen with a penchant for skinny-dipping, and Clarence, "a mad autograph collector now grown old."
Bradbury was in Newport Beach last week to discuss his latest novel at Round Table West, the monthly authors luncheon.
The science-fiction eminence is now 70 and this year is celebrating the 40th anniversary of "The Martian Chronicles."
He was not wearing his trademark white "ice cream suit" ("It's in the closet; I've outgrown it."). Instead, in honor of being in Newport, he wore his "wonderful ice cream shorts."
Looking not unlike a cruise ship captain after too many midnight buffets, the portly, white-thatched Bradbury nevertheless cut a striking figure in his all-white get-up: white shoes, white knee socks, white shorts, white shirt and white parka (with blue tie).
As he nursed a glass of Chardonnay with just an hour to go before the luncheon, the always ebullient Bradbury managed to talk about his new book and just about everything else, from his early effort at writing short stories ("It was terrible!") to his distaste for the age of tell-all celebrity biographies ("To hell with it; it's a lousy age!").
Bradbury said he had "wonderful fun" writing "A Graveyard for Lunatics."
"All my writing is fun, but this was super because I was putting all my old friends in."
Among those old friends are movie director Fritz Lang and cinematographer James Wong Howe, whom he combined to create the novel's dyspeptic Fritz Wong.
Bradbury's longtime friend, movie animator Ray Harryhausen ("Mighty Joe Young," "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms") served as the role model for Roy Holdstrum, the studio's resident special effects wizard.
And, of course, the unnamed protagonist--a character introduced in his 1985 mystery novel, "Death Is a Lonely Business"--bears a striking resemblance to Bradbury himself--he hates heights, doesn't drive ("I cower in the back seat"), is not physical and is not afraid to cry.
Bradbury, who got the idea for using an unnamed narrator from Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op, said that many of the events depicted in the book actually happened to him during his various Hollywood screenwriting assignments.
One of these was "King of Kings." "They had no ending for the film, and I said, 'Have you tried the Bible?' " Bradbury recalled with a laugh. "They said, 'No. We want Matthew, Mark, Luke and Ray."'