Category Archives: Dark Discoveries
“René Descartes walks into a bar. The bartender says, ‘Would you like a drink?’
Descartes says, ‘I think not,’ and disappears. A moment later he reappears and says, ‘On second thought…’
Anyway, Bill, this is Harlan Ellison.”
That was how my second voicemail from Harlan began. It was a moment that knocked me out. I’d already received a call from him the prior fall, in November 2006, but there I was leaving work in the spring of 2007, hearing the gruff voice again. A voice I’d heard in audiobooks, CD recordings of lectures, and on television was, again, coming from my phone. At the end of the message, he left his phone number.
I never used it.
Harlan Ellison died on June 27th. I heard about it on June 28th, which happens to be my wedding anniversary. I am heartbroken.
It’s taken me almost two months to write this because I wanted to get it right. I don’t know that I have. Harlan’s work has amazed me since I first started reading it when I was 19 years old, in 1996. I have trouble believing that I’ve been a reader and fan of the guy I first saw on television through his commentary on Sci Fi Channel’s Sci Fi Buzz when he was in his 60s and I was at the end of my teens. Turning 41–an actual friggin’ adult!–and Harlan is gone. People talk about their favorite Harlan Ellison stories. Of course, “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.” and “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” are classics and I love them both. I am partial to “Jeffty is Five” and “The Resurgence of Miss Ankle-Strap Wedgie,” and also “Incognita, Inc.” But trying to list favorites is a mug’s game, as Harlan might say. Every time I think of a few, a few more pop up that I love. His nonfiction was amazing, too. It made me want to try my hand at nonfiction, which is how I got into blogging, and even had the nerve to pitch my column to Dark Discoveries Magazine back in 2004.
But his writing, which was how he defined himself, was only a part of what I loved about Harlan. His personality seemed very similar to mine at times and I loved that he would say what he believed, throwing the chips into the air and letting them fall where they lay. For a kid who spent too much of his adolescence trying to figure out who he was, just living your life by your rules and to fuck with anyone who didn’t agree was refreshing. Looking back, I realize I may have taken this too far at times because Harlan had something I lacked: courage. Or the stupidity of just not being scared by anything. He was a Force of Nature, I was a Fart in the Wind. I look back on my column, American Gauthic, and some of the things I wrote online and said in real life during my early-to-mid-to-late-20s and cringe. I should not have gone there. I was not then, and am not now, Harlan Ellison, who could mostly get away with it. That said, the column did build some bridges and it is the thing that got me the voicemails from Harlan.
In the fall of 2006, upon renewing (or changing my address for) my HERC–Harlan Ellison Recording Collection–subscription, I sent a letter saying I was writing an essay about him if he’d like to read it. Harlan (or, more likely, Susan) sent a Post-It attached to an issue of The Rabbit Hole saying yes, so I mailed the manuscript to him.
A few weeks later, I was leaving work at my newish job as a teaching assistant and I saw I had a voicemail. It was Harlan, thanking me for the essay, telling me it was good, and correcting some mistakes that I’d made. I was thrilled. I wish my phone company at the time had let me keep the voicemail. I revised the essay and sent it to the magazine. The next spring it was published and I mailed the copy or two that Harlan had asked for to keep in his files.
Spring of 2007 was a good time for me. I had met the woman I was pretty sure I was going to ask to marry me. I had been hired as a teacher. Things were looking good. As I left school, I saw I had a voicemail. I opened it and heard, “René Descartes walks into a bar….”
Harlan Ellison had a large impact on my life, just as he did on many readers’ lives. His words, his personality, his performances, his life helped me through difficult times. Harlan’s message in his writing and in many of his lectures and public appearances was to be ourselves, to not take shit, to learn and think and love and help and basically try to be our best. And that was a message I needed at critical times in my life when, as someone coming from a lower middle-class background, elitism was a definite no-no.
Harlan and I had a few exchanges via his bulletin boards, but I was never able to bring myself to actually call him after he gave me his phone number in the spring of 2007. I was just too goddamned afraid, which would have disappointed him. I wasn’t afraid of him, I was afraid of me. It was stupid, and I should’ve listened to everyone around me, but I didn’t.
And now, Harlan is gone. I didn’t know him. I wasn’t a friend. I was a reader who admired his work and what the man did in his life. There are many out there who can tell stories of bad behavior and this and that and fuck them all. Harlan Ellison was a great man. His stories could cut you, make you feel, make you laugh, make you cry. He always believed in the possibilities of human beings. Harlan wanted what was best for us and for us to live our best lives with ethics, and for us to also know we’re all broken to a degree. We all have ugly sides that are part of being human. He wanted us to experience good art, good food, the best of what humanity had to offer. He knew, though, that there was violence beneath it all, and he had no problem revealing and, in some ways, reveling in it.
Harlan Ellison is dead. Words I knew I’d have to write someday but still feel strange to see together. Like Robin Williams and Wes Craven, another of my heroes gone. But, never truly gone. Because the work remains. And that is what Harlan wanted, for the work to last far longer than he did. I’m up to carrying it along. Join me?
That handsome cover belongs to a reprint anthology my story “The Umbrella People” is a part of. There are stories by others whose names make me giddy, like Ray Bradbury, Kealan Patrick Burke, Elizabeth Engstrom, Tim Lebbon, John R. Little, William F. Nolan, John Shirley, Tim Waggoner, and so many others that my head’s a-spinnin’! I’m very proud to be a part of this group of writers.
This will be the third printing of this short story. Its first publication was in the first issue of Dark Discoveries, which is what qualified it for this antho. Its second publication was in my short story collection Catalysts, which was actually published by James R. Beach and Dark Discoveries Publications. I decided that, in honor of this publication, which is due to be released from Dark Regions Press this Tuesday, that I would write a few words about the story.
“The Umbrella People” came to me around 2003. At the time, my parents took me, my then-wife, and my older daughter out to dinner every Saturday to a pizza place in a nearby town. It was a good little restaurant. Their pizza was great, and so was a lot of what they cooked, comfort food meals. It was raining and as we sat in our booth, my mother put her umbrella under the table.
“Don’t let me forget my umbrella, people,” she said.
“Where are they?” I asked.
“Where are what?”
“Your Umbrella People.”
She called me a smartass, we all chuckled, and went on with the meal. For some reason, though, the idea stuck with me. And, like most ideas, the longer it stuck, the darker it became. The world itself was growing darker. I was unhappy in my marriage. I was restless and confused. And the world was going crazy. We were about to go to war over lies that our own government was telling us and things seemed, at the ripe ol’ age of 24, bleak. A storm was coming, it seemed.
And so I began writing.
At the time, I worked at a bus station, behind the counter. An entire wall was made of a mirror above the counter if you stood in the waiting area. From my vantage point behind the counter, it was a window. I would bring my Olivetti manual typewriter to write, after January 2003, I brought my notebook computer, a Toshiba Satellite that lasted me until 2010. I wrote the story at the bus station.
It was during a fairly productive time in my life and I was doing a lot more writing than I have time for now. The story flowed out without many issues. I remember thinking how odd the tale was how strange. I was very proud of it.
Now, thirteen years or so later, I’m still very proud of the story. I know James Beach loves the story, and it was a major impetus for him allowing me to write a column for Dark Discoveries between 2004 and 2011, as well as taking a chance on my first collection of stories. Others who’ve read it also seem to really like it. I wrote a short film script based on it and intended to try to make the movie myself for a long time. These days, I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to make it happen.
I also think about the Umbrella People sometimes, and wonder what happened after the story. I think there may be a novella there, but it’s still unknown to me, foggy. Maybe someday, a character will speak to me and I’ll be able to find out what happens next, and then let you know. Until then, I’m happy the story has found a new, really cool home and I’m looking forward to you making this particular Discovery.
From 2004 through 2010 I wrote a column called American Gauthic for the magazine Dark Discoveries, which seemed to have some regular readers. A few, anyway. In 2006, I wrote an installment on Harlan Ellison, which was apropos. The reason I was writing the column was partly because of Ellison’s own excellent columns that I’d read collected in An Edge In My Voice, Harlan Ellison’s Watching, The Harlan Ellison Hornbook, and The Glass Teat books.¹ They inspired me. Looking back on the earlier columns make me cringe. I was beginning to hit my stride, though, by the time I stopped writing them.²
Today, on Harlan’s 79th birthday, I’m posting my essay. It will be revised and have annotations throughout. I hope you enjoy and, if you aren’t familiar with his work, make yourself so.
From Gautham to Ellison Wonderland
Someone suggested at one point (I think it may have been John R. Little–whose work, including Placeholders, The Memory Tree, and Miranda, I love) that I write an installment about one of my favorite writers, Harlan Ellison. It’s a daunting task, really. Others who are far more talented than I am have done so and have barely touched the surface of the entity that is Harlan Ellison. But there have also been many less-talented people who’ve written about Ellison, so I figured why the hell not?
I’ve said to friends that if Stephen King is #1 on my favorite writer list, then Ellison is #1.5. As King pointed out in one of the last sections of the chapter called “Horror Fiction” in his 1980 nonfiction book Danse Macabre, “it is impossible to separate the man from the work.” The reason this is so is because Ellison has a persona that is as hated as it is loved and is as famous as any of his stories. There are few people who tend to fall into a gray area in regards to him.
I’ve never met the man. Some would count me among the lucky ones. I have had a little bit of contact with him, though, through the bulletin board at his website, which was begun by Rick Wyatt. Our few exchanges have been pleasant. At one point he needed a specific printing of his collection Troublemakers that I happened to have and I sent it to him. I soon received a first printing of the book with a short thank-you note on the book’s title page. It’s amongst my prized books (second only to my signed edition of Borderlands 5).
In person, I saw Ellison (along with Neil Gaiman and Peter David) at MIT in October 2001. I didn’t stick around for the signing because at the time I was too nervous and…well, there were some other complications, too. Gaiman brought out most of the crowd but Ellison was electric. What I remember best about that night (besides the albino with the goggles who seemed to have orgasmic fits almost every time Gaiman spoke, including, at one point, screaming “We love you, Neil!”), was the pure joy Ellison had reading his story “Goodbye to All That.” There was a running joke in the story that, after the third time the audience laughed, sent Ellison into a childlike dance of glee.
There was also an exchange with a young man that brought tears to my eyes. It was after one of Ellison’s diatribes about Internet piracy (this was in the midst a lawsuit against AOL) in which Ellison called most of the people in the room stupid. The young man was clearly upset and asked Ellison if he thought calling people stupid helped the message. Ellison came to the edge of the stage (which made some of the audience ooh and aahh, expecting him to pounce the young man and tear his throat out, to which he responded, “Shut the fuck up”), and asked, “Do you think you’re stupid?”
A brief hesitation, before, “Yes.”
Ellison climbed off the stage and went to the young man. “The very fact that you asked that question means that you’re not stupid.”
Then Ellison went on to explain about how asking questions and caring is so important.³
What does all this have to do with reading Ellison? Well, I think it’s a window into what Ellison’s work is about. There’s a lot of screaming in his earlier (and sometimes his later) work, mouths or no mouths, but there’s always an underlying tenderness–or at least an underlying caring–that is essential to Ellison the man.
Ellison seems to be a burst of energy; someone more prone to running around on stage like Robin Williams (who is a friend of Ellison’s) than sitting at an Olympia manual typewriter writing stories. This may be one of the reasons Ellison has published only four novels compared to the 1700 stories and essays. Like the man, his stories are bursts of energy that leave the reader moved.
I first became aware of Harlan Ellison when I was thirteen, when I bought the first edition of George Beahm’s The Stephen King Companion. There was an interview with Ellison in that book, along with an essay from Harlan Ellison’s Watching. I read the interview and essay, and the name was filed under Someone Important In the Genres and that was about it. Ellison’s name popped up again for me in the aforementioned chapter of King’s Danse Macabre. Again, it was filed under a similar heading (along with Someone I Should Read Someday), and then ignored.
It wasn’t until we got the Sci-Fi Channel and I began watching their show Sci-Fi Buzz (which I miss wholeheartedly) that Harlan Ellison really hit me. He had a commentary on the show, done mostly from his legendary home Ellison Wonderland (or the Lost Aztec Temple of Mars). Being around seventeen, I thought he was a jerk. Yelling and screaming at the tv audience. But I was also entertained. And, while I might not have admitted it at that point, I looked forward to his small contribution to the show.
One night I flipped through the channels and stopped at CNBC to see who Tom Snyder was interviewing. He occasionally interviewed people I was interested in. This particular night he was interviewing Harlan Ellison and I remember thinking, It’s the old grouch from Sci-Fi Buzz. They were discussing Ellison’s new collaborative effort with Polish surrealist Jacek Yerka, Mind Fields, and Snyder asked Ellison what his favorite painting in the book was. Ellison said it was the painting called Ellison Wonderland, one of only two paintings in the book whose name he changed (because it reminded him of his house); the other story/painting was “Susan.” Snyder pulled out a large package and told Ellison that he had a surprise for him.
Ellison looked flustered and there, in his hands, he now held the painting Ellison Wonderland. And I saw something that, at that point, I didn’t think was possible. Harlan Ellison was speechless. Tears welled in his eyes as he stammered and finally was able to thank Snyder. Smiling, Snyder went to a commercial and I wiped the tears from my own eyes. Within days, I bought Ellison’s first volume of the ill-fated White Wolf Edgeworks project, which featured the collection of stories and essays called Over the Edge and the collection of Ellison’s column An Edge in My Voice. I was nineteen. I was hooked.
It’s been almost 17 years since all that happened. A lot has happened to me (and Ellison) in that time, but my admiration for the man and his work has never foundered. His audiobooks are amazing. His performance of “Jeffty Is Five” brings tears to my eyes every time I listen to it. Ten years ago, when I was very unhappy in my marriage and wasn’t sure what to do, it was his performance of “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” that made me realize what I had to do. Like the characters in that classic story, I was trapped in something and I needed to make a painful decision to fix escape. That story gave me the courage to take off my wedding ring and decide it was time to end the marriage despite the fear I held for my relationship with my then-five-year-old daughter.
When people talk about Harlan Ellison’s work (when they can get past the legend surrounding him, anyway) it seems that the words angry and painful are often used. And while that may be true for many of his earlier stories, something that carries through almost all his stories is the hope that Ellison has for the human race. If he’s angry at you, at me, at all of us, it’s because he sees in humanity the godlike abilities to create, to nurture, to love. Love is a huge theme in Ellison’s work…having gone through four marriages before meeting and marrying his wife Susan, having gone through an uncountable number of relationships, Ellison’s work is as much about what it means to love as it is about anything else. He also sees humanity’s self-destructive nature and shortcomings and it upsets him.
“Jeffty Is Five” is my favorite story of his. The story has always choked me up, but Ellison’s reading of it has made me cry. Here is a fantastic, subtle story filled with love. And, maybe, a small amount of anger. Another favorite of mine is “The Resurgence of Miss Ankle-Strap Wedgie,” in which a Hollywood star of old films is rediscovered in a diner and brought back to Hollywood in the late 1960s. It’s a heartbreaking tale and Ellison pulls it off with panache. I first read it when I was about twenty-four or so. At twenty-six, I read Nathanael West’s novel The Day of the Locust and wondered how much West influenced Ellison’s own tale of that bitch of a vampire called Hollywood. I also love his story “Incognita, Inc.” This is a story about a man who has to put an old man out of business. The old man is a mapmaker who makes maps that will find things one could only imagine. All these stories have the caring that Ellison has for the world, mixed with the anger at what corporations and selfishness does to people.
His work has certainly influenced my own. Right after completing “The Growth of Alan Ashley,” I called it “my Harlan Ellison story” in an e-mail to a friend. Not that I’d copied his style or tried to mimic his voice, but because I tried to take the way he bends reality until it’s a mirror image of itself and use it in my own way. So when I heard that it would be in Borderlands 5, in a sense, I felt as though I’d succeeded. After all, Ellison had a story in the first volume of Borderlands.
His influence can also be seen in this column. Going back to that first Ellison book I owned, and then reading his collection Harlan Ellison’s Hornbook, and other essays, certainly made me consider being able to do anything like this. Even the logo I had for American Gauthic was reminiscent to the logos Ellison had for his columns.
At 79, he’s not done yet. His Edgeworks Abbey imprint has been working with Publishing 180 has released eight books in the last couple of years, including two (so far) this year, and while some of the books reprint classic stories, novellas, and screenplays, they also premiere never-before-collected work. Last year, Kicks Books published his early books Pulling a Train and Getting in the Wind. This year, Hard Case Crime republished his first novel Web of the City. Subterranean Press is republishing two highly-regarded early collections, Gentleman Junkie and Other Tales of the Hung-Up Generation and The Deadly Streets in very nice collectible editions. DC Comics will be publishing the long-awaited graphic novel 7 Against Chaos. And while there aren’t any on the horizon that I know about, the CD series of On the Road With Ellison from Deep Shag Records is up to six volumes now and I recommend them all. And that’s off the top of my head (with a leeeetle research).
While I’m excited about this new stuff, I still have a lot of his older stuff to read. And reread. Whether one loves or hates the man, one cannot ignore the impact his stories, his visions, have had. Whether he’s the Zorro or Jiminy Cricket of the speculative fiction fields can be argued, but what cannot be argued is his blazing talent. And what cannot be ignored is, love him or hate him, he’s done things his own way and has held no one else responsible for the outcome.
I’ve learned a lot about what to do and what not to do from Harlan Ellison. And I look forward to many more years of his lessons. And, more than that, many more stories. I think Harlan would agree that when it’s all done, it’s all about the stories.
Right before this went to installment went to press in 2006/2007, I needed to change my address with Harlan Ellison’s newsletter, Rabbit Hole, which comes through his Harlan Ellison Recording Collection, and I mentioned the piece in the letter I sent. His wife, Susan, sent the last issue of the newsletter with a Post-It saying they’d “love” to have a sneak peek. So I sent it. Harlan Ellison called and left a voicemail to thank me for it, as well as correct a few errors and help me zipper my fly as far as some poor proofreading was concerned. It’s one of those moments that is so weird, yet so welcome.
When the essay was published in early 2007, I received another voicemail from him, again thanking me (and correcting a few things). Both voicemails were lost, since I was never able to figure out how to save them. Since the publication of this essay, Erik Nelson’s phenomenal look at Ellison’s life, Dreams with Sharp Teeth came out. Besides the incident with the young man at MIT mentioned above, there’s a clip where Ellison says, “I’m an Atheist, folks,” and some woo-ing can be heard. That’s me and my best friend Toby.
I never returned the calls to Harlan because I never knew what to say. It’s one of the many times my social anxiety has gotten the better of me. Still, I have the knowledge–an enough friends to heard the messages, including my wife, who heard the message back when she was my girlfriend–to know they existed.
Harlan’s influence has been great on me, both his writing and his life. So it is with great joy that I say–
Happy birthday, Unca Harlan! And thank you.
¹ I also found inspiration in Tom Monteleone’s M.A.F.I.A. column in Cemetery Dance.
² I stopped writing American Gauthic for several reasons, the biggest of which was lack of time. I needed to take classes to keep my job and found that a lot of my time was eaten away. Time wasn’t the only reason, but it was a big one. I’d happily go back to writing it for Dark Discoveries or another publication if the opportunity arose. I’m much better at time management now.
³ This incident appears in the documentary about Harlan called Dreams with Sharp Teeth, as is another clip from that evening.
Between the day job being busy leading up to the holidays, the two novellas, the holidays themselves, and the job of being a husband, father, son, man o’ the world, I forgot to mention that the current issue of Dark Discoveries has the eleventh installment of American Gauthic. It was the Dark Science Fiction issue and my column focuses on the “Fear of Science.” Check it out!