02/10/97 (Guest Ranter: James C. Hess)
I write a column on and about films, movies, and television. As of this
writing I have written this column for slightly more than five and a half
years. In that time I have received praise, criticism, abuse in a variety
of forms and manner, marriage proposals, death threats, an attempt or two
on my life, the end of a relationship spanning almost two decades, and some
interesting side trips down the path of life which I believe to this day
would not have happened had I not started writing said column when I did.
These side trips include Harlan Ellison and how he helped me to see the
news media for what they really are, and how I came to appreciate him and
his writings more than I already did.
But to explain this properly I must return to the beginning.
Or the vicinity of that.
Shortly after the first installment of my column was first published I
received in the postal mail a letter, which I believe is called "fan mail".
The letter was from a person then a friend, informing me in no uncertain
terms I was not a writer.
I called him on the telephone and asked for an explanation of this--albeit
truthful--insult. I got it. According to my records the explanation for
this piece of hate mail--which is what it really was--ran to one hour and
When my then friend was done with his tirade I suggested that if he thought
he could do better he should.
He agreed. A few years later he plagiarized an installment of my column
entitled "Cinemasarus", publishing his allegedly original piece in a local
So much for friendship.
That piece of mail, though, started something, interestingly enough. Every
time an installment of my column came out the amount of mail I received in
response to it increased.
Fan mail, all of it. For better or worse.
At first this particular type of mail consisted of one or two pieces a
month. That became one or two pieces a week. Which quickly became one or
two pieces a day. Which eventually became much more.
So much so that I couldn't answer it as quickly as I should have. So it
piled up. On the back left hand corner of my desk. And when that stack
became too high to remain stable, it tipped over, falling over the desk,
down behind the desk, under the desk.
At first I tried to stay caught up with this mail. If two letters a day
came in, I answered two letters a day. Which was fine at first. Then it got
to be four letters a day incoming, while I was still only answering two.
Soon, I was so far behind in my correspondence I gave up trying to catch
But then people who had written to me wrote to me again wanting to know I
had not answered their first letters.
I just kept on answering just two letters a day.
One day my Best Friend, whom I believe is just this side of sainthood, came
into my office, saw the mess on the floor, shook her head, and went out
again without saying a word. About two hours later she returned, carrying
the biggest wicker laundry basket I had ever seen.
Without saying a word she gathered up the accumulated mail and dumped all
of it into the basket.
But the mailman kept bringing more, and soon the basket was filled.
A few weeks after she first brought the basket in my Best Friend returned.
She looked at me, didn't say a word, and took the basket, now overflowing
onto the flooor, now full and very heavy, into the other room. I was
curious as to what she was going to do, so I followed her.
My Best Friend, in addition to being very close to sainthood, is a very
efficient person. She can, for example, go from Point A to Point B and
never stop at any occuring point between.
She emptied the basket onto the floor and quickly divided the contents into
two piles--those with return addresses and those without.
The mail without return addresses was counted into piles of ten pieces
each, wrapped with rubber bands, and returned to the basket.
The mail with return addresses was sorted by postmark first, then into
packs of five pieces each. Those letters with the most recent postmarks
were placed in the basket first, followed by those with the oldest
All this, but with two exceptions.
As my Best Friend went through the mail with return addresses she noticed
the return addresses and made an effot to match those with the same
addresses. It didn't happen much, but there were two or three such packets.
With all this done she then snapped a rubber band around a thick pack and
handed it to me.
"Answer these first," she said.
I took the bundle and returned to my office.
The first leter in the bundle I had was in response to the first
installment of my column. It began with a somewhat sycophantic tone, moved
to one with a light critical manner, segued into sycophantic language
again, and finished with a pleasant send-off: "I look forward to the next
I set the letter aside and ripped open the next one. Again it began with an
ass-kissing, syrupy, somewhat nauseous tone. But, in one sentence, became
critical, with an edge to its tone.
The criticism this time around was systematic, methodical, and very
accurate, pointing out every flaw, every weakness to my writing.
I couldn't argue with the charges. While writing the piece in question I
had a feeling in my gut it was poorly done, and this criticism was
constructive in design, not destructive--something I approve of and seek
So was the case with each successive letter: Sycophantic, critical,
By the time I finished reading the last letter in the pack it was dark
outside and I could barely see. My Best Friend had long since finished her
self-imposed task and gone home.
I gathered up the letters, reread them, and composed a single response. It
went out in the next morning's mail.
Not too long after that the next installment of my column was published and
a week later a letter from The Critic (as I now called him) arrived. It
started as the previous ones had. But ended differently. This time, just
before the closing lines, The Critic wrote, "You have such an easy-going
writing style I have to wonder if you teach or lecture when not writing."
That remark stopped me in my tracks.
It stopped me because I loathe and hate crowds of any kind. I regularly
refuse invitations to gatherings of more than five persons because such
numbers come across to me on some level as being mob-like. And, like
Frankenstein's monster, I am made more than just nervous by their
I fired off a note to The Critic to that effect because something deep in
my gut told me I was about to be set up.
My gut, incidentally, is rarely wrong.
Some time passed and I forgot about the letter and the response to it.
It was a Meatgrinder Monday morning. The dog was barking, the doorbell was
ringing, the toilet in the front bathroom had taken to projectile vomiting,
I had overboiled the coffee in the microwave oven, and the telephone had
started ringing around dawn, waking me from not enough sleep the night
The first of several telephone calls were the usual inconvenient types:
People selling that, people wanting this, polls for that politician, polls
for this cause.
By the seventh call I was ready to yank the plug from the wall.
"Mr. Hess," said a calm, even, masculine voice on the other end of the
"Yes?" The dog relieved himself on the carpet in the living room. The
contents of the toilet washed into the hallway.
The caller identified himself. It was The Critic. He started in immediately
with a sycophantic song and dance number. I braced myself for the criticism
certain to follow and wished my coffee was laced with something strong.
Something like brandy or arsenic.
But the criticism expected didn't come.
Instead The Critic moved to his next topic and caught me somewhat off-guard
"Mr. Hess," said The Critic. "I was wondering if I might ask a favor of
My defenses went up. My lower jaw pulled tight.
"What would that be?" I asked cautiously, my voice going low.
"I teach a class on film and video at [he named a college] and I was
wondering if you would come and give a lecture to my students about the
"No?" His tone was definitely one of shock and surprise.
"No," I said again.
There was a momentary vacuum on the telephone line, reaching across some
two thousand miles.
"May I ask," The Critic said. "Why you won't do a lecture?"
"I don't do lectures," I said. "Because I believe such things are best left
to people who have funny clusters of letters after their name--PhD, EdD,
"Don't you? I mean, don't you have a degree?"
"I have a B.A., but it isn't enough, in my opinion, to allow me to do
lectures such as you suggest without perpetuating a certain type of
hypocrisy. And if the world needs less of something, it's hypocrisy."
A pause from The Critic. I could hear the gears in his mind grinding
themselves smooth. "I see." Another pause. "Thank you for your time." With
that he hung up and I went back to the three ring circus that passes for My
About a month later, the matter behind me, the thought all but forgotten,
the telephone rang.
I hooked it on the first ring.
The Critic came prepared for this encounter, carefully choosing his words.
"Would you come talk to [emphasis on 'to' his, not mine] my students?"
"Talk to?" I repeated.
"Yes. Talk to my students. Would you come talk to them?"
It was definitely slippery, a fine line sort of thing. But...
"No," I said.
"No?" The Critic wasn't expecting that. "Why?"
"Because," I said. "'Talk to' sounds too much like 'lecture'."
"Oh." A pause. "I see. Thank you."
I went back to whatever it was I was doing. If memory serves, I think I was
trying to remove a horny Samoyed from the leg of a bicycle-riding Mormon
out to save my soul from eternal damnation.
Approximately a month later the telephone rang.
I knew before I picked the phone up who it was.
"Hello," I said. "How may I help you today?"
The Critic was a bit surprised at my rather pleasant response.
"Um...," he began. "Well, I was hoping I could change your mind. About the
talk thing, I mean. I was hoping you might come talk with my students."
"Talk with?" Was this a trick on his part or not?
"Yes," he said hesitantly. "Talk with. No lecture. Just one on one. Would
that be acceptable?"
I paused. Part of me said it was a trick. Part of me didn't.
"All right," I said after a sufficient silence. "I'll do it."
"Yes. But one question: How many?"
"How many what?"
"Students. How many students will I be talking with one on one?"
"Oh." I could sense the relief in his voice. "Um, I have thirty enrolled in
the course, but there are rarely more than fifteen or twenty in any given
"Or twenty. At the most, twenty."
I hate crowds. Really, I do. But twenty people--students, at that, well,
it's like a big party.
"For how long?"
"Ninety minutes?" It was a question, not a statement.
"All right. Twenty students at the most. Ninety minutes. When?"
The remaining details were hammered out, and various arrangements for
travel, food, and lodging were resolved.
Now that telephone conversation took place in January. I agreed to talk
with about twenty students for ninety minutes the first week of May on
film, movies, and television.
But between the time I agreed to this talk, and the time I was scheduled to
give my talk, something happened.
A lot of "something" happened, to be more accurate.
The Critic, energized by the fact he had succeeded in securing my services
for a day, began telling everyone and anyone he could about the impending
Some promptly forgot. Others didn't, and, in turn, told others. Who told
I knew none of this. Had I known any of it, I would have canceled out first
chance I had, citing breech of agreement, a sudden and unexplainable case
of transmittable genital herpes, etc.
So the number of those who would be in attendence grew. Twenty became
forty. Forty became fifty. Fifty became seventy. Seventy tripped past one
hundred without breathing hard or breaking a sweat.
And the day came when I was to give my informal talk to about twenty
students. I arrived, as is often the case, early. Good thing I did because
I was not familiar with this particular campus and it took me a good
fifteen minutes to find someone who knew where the building was I needed to
It was dark. It was empty.
I turned on the light, turned to sit down in the front row to wait for
someone, anyone to arrive, and saw a note scrawled on the chalkboard that
told me to go to another building.
I did so.
As I have pointed out, I did not know this particular college campus, and
so I did not know where I was going.
But having spent several years at the University of Colorado I did know one
thing. Every college, every university has a student center, and every
student center has an information desk.
I found the student center. I found the information desk. I asked where the
building was I wanted. The young woman behind the counter looked at me for
a moment, then showed me with the aid of a photocopied map.
I thanked her, followed the map across the campus to a grassy rise, and
started down over it.
But as I did, something caught my attention. The line of people coming out
and going around the building I wanted.
I stuffed the map into my coat pocket and approached the line of people.
They were all ages. Some were well-dressed, some were not. Some were
obviously college students. Some were obviously not.
An attractive young woman on the arm of a young man I took to be a football
player was nearest to me. I approached them and asked if they knew where
such-and-such room was.
The young woman told me they were going to that room. Really? I said. Small
I excused myself, went to the door, and explain to the thicknecked security
guard there that I needed to get inside, to such-and-such room.
He refused to let me in.
Not one for confrontation, I turned away, walked around to the side of the
building, and found another entrance.
I was about five seconds inside the building when another thicknecked
security guard intercepted me.
"Where are you going?" he asked, doing his best to look bigger than me.
I told him.
"Nope," he said.
"Nope. You gotta go through the front entrance to get to that room. Just
like everyone else. Sorry."
"I tried that," I explained as he herded me back toward the door. "But the
guard there wouldn't let me in."
"Too bad," said the guard. "But I got my orders."
"Wait" I said as he pushed me at the door. "Is there someone in charge
here? A professor [The Critic]?"
The guard stopped. "Yeah. Why?"
"Go get him and bring him here. He'll tell you who I am."
He looked at me long and hard. I think he was actually thinking at that
moment, but I wasn't sure. His eyes did glaze over, though.
"Okay," he said slowly. "But you stay here. Right here."
"Right," I said, trying my best not to look suspicious.
The guard wandered off, occasionally looking at me over his shoulder, as if
he didn't believe I would behave myself in his absence.
About ten minutes later he returned. At first I thought he was alone. But
then a small, white-haired man stepped out from behind him.
Having never met before neither of us knew the other. I introduced myself.
He did the same. I proved to him and the guard I was who I said I was by
showing my driver's license. Both of them seemed to accept that, and,
guarded by the guard, we made our way to the room where I was to give my
talk and where I got the shock of my life.
It wasn't a room room. It was an auditorium room.
It wasn't twenty people. It was a lot more than twenty people.
For a brief moment I considered leaving fast. But I didn't. After all, I
had agreed to this and I do keep my end of agreements.
So I did what I came to do. I talked. I talked with the people there. They
talked with me. We talked and laughed and cried and joked.
The talk was supposed to have lasted ninety minutes.
The building security officers made us leave after four hours. (With the
aid of thinly veiled threats of arrest if we didn't.)
I left quickly, vowing silently to myself I would not do that sort of thing
Less than a month later, though, I gave another such talk.
Which was followed by another talk.
Which was followed by another.
Which was followed by another.
Which was followed by another.
And two more.
And two more after that.
About the fifth or sixth talk I began relaxing, finding my stride in these
events. I began to realize, with one or two exceptions, people came to talk
with me about common interests, concerns, fears, and ideas. All brought
into focus through films, movies, and television.
And as I began to realize this, I began to notice things as well.
Like Ms. Journalist.
It was, I believe, the seventh talk I gave. Some long-winded,
sanctimonious, politically-correct, self-professed Liberal was reading me
the riot act on why I shouldn't bad-mouth the likes of Bill Clinton and
Newt Gingrich (Newt was actually okay, but his sacred cow--Clinton--was, in
his opinion, off-limits.)
I tuned him out after about five syllables in because he was singing the
Post-Liberal mantra (which is really Communism/neofacism), and just kept
nodding my head like I was listening, hoping my eyes didn't glaze over too
That was when I saw her. She was in the back row, standing because there
were no seats left. Probably in her early twenties, natural blonde,
attractive, well-dressed, and had a determined air about her.
After the blowhard finished his tirade, thinking he had ripped me a new
asshole and taken me down a peg or two, he left, followed by applaud and
huzzah from people who looked like something left over from ONE MILLION
YEARS B.C. and I finished the talk--only an hour over the agreed upon time.
A few remained while the masses filed out, asking question after question.
I politely answered each one, making my way toward the door as I did.
Which was when she intercepted me.
"Mr. Hess?" she said. Oh, such a voice she had. If only angels could sing
as sweetly as she spoke.
"Yes?" I said as a rather large woman dressed in what seemed to be Grateful
Dead garb shoved a meaty handful of my columns at me to be autographed.
"How do you do?" she said, offering a soft, small hand.
I quickly signed the columns off, flipped them back to the deadhead, and
took the young woman's hand.
"Fine," I said.
"I'd like to do an interview with you," she said.
I quickly withdrew my hand and the remaining die-hard types around me
scattered when my facial expression turned dark.
"I don't do interviews," I said, a snarl coming in behind my words.
"What?" Ms. Journalist lost her air, her professionalism. Even her beauty
seemed to fade in response to my remarks.
"I don't do interviews," I said again, slowly so she wouldn't
She looked as if I had hit her between the eyes with my key ring.
"Because," I said.
"'Because' is not an answer."
"Touche," I snarled. "Well, try this: Some people don't believe in God.
Some people don't eat meat. I don't do interviews. See you around."
I was almost to the parking lot when she caught up with me, her high heels
clattering against the pavement as she ran to my side.
"You don't understand," she said, whining as females tend to do when they
don't get what they want. "If I don't get this interview, I'll fail my
"I'm a journalism major. And this interview is for my class. And if I
"But I need this interview for my grade." The whining in her voice was now
like fingernails dragging down a chalkboard.
"Go bother someone else. Like Stan Brakhage. He loves to talk."
Based on her facial expression at that moment I might as well as have
announced I had just run over her cat. Back and forth nine or ten times.
With new radials. She looked at me with unconditional hatred, turned on her
heel, and walked away quickly.
I thought that was the last I would see or hear of her.
I was wrong.
It was the fourteenth talk I gave. She was there. As I gave my talk, I kept
one eye toward her. At the end of my talk, when once more everyone was told
to leave, I expected her to approach me, asking again that I give her an
But it was around that time that the mail started. The electronic mail,
actually; 'E-mail', According To Them That Know Such Things.
Some time before, against my better judgement, I acquired an e-mail
address. At first, until that heated clash with Ms. Journalist, I received
five to ten pieces of e-mail a day, most of it being offers for cheap
screen savers from Playboy, shareware programs for trading stocks on the
Internet, free condom samples, ad infinitum.
Then came the mail. Her mail. Just one piece the first time she contacted
me by e-mail. A note that read, "Please do the interview with me."
Then the one piece became two. Actually, the same note sent twice. Then
five copies of the note. Ten copies. Twenty. Fifty. One hundred copies of
that note with its implied whiny tone.
My e-mailbox at the time could hold one thousand pieces of mail before it
started loading the mail into what is called 'a queue'.
I ignored her requests and pleas that continued to find my box.
One weekend I went out of town. When I returned there was a message on my
voice mail from the server who maintained my e-mail service.
I called and asked for the person who had left me the message. He came on
the line rather quickly.
"Don't you ever empty your mailbox?" he asked roughly.
"Your e-mail. Don't you ever dump it?"
"Well, of course."
"Well? Do it now."
"Give me a minute," I said, hanging up.
About fifteen minutes later I called him back. "I emptied my mailbox but
it's full again."
"I know. Empty it."
I hung up and emptied my mailbox again.
Within a short span of time it was full again. I emptied it again. It
I called the server back.
"What is going on with my mailbox?" I asked.
"You tell me. We've got over five thousand pieces of e-mail in a backlog
waiting for you."
He explained carefully and slowly, a definite note of irritation in his
voice. My mailbox was full. But so were six queues.
Then it hit me. The reason for why I had so much e-mail.
"Can you do something for me?" I asked.
"Can you go into your system or whatever it is, and see what the
origination address is on my mail?"
"What?" It was his turn to be surprised.
"Check the address on the mail and see where it is coming from. Can you do
"Sure. But I'll have to call you back."
"With the exception of about fifty pieces all of it comes from one
It had to be. I just knew in my gut it had to be her. Ms. Journalist.
"I'm going to read off an address," I said. "And I want you to tell me if
that's the address all the mail has on it."
I read it off, making sure I got it right the first time. There was a pause
on the other end of the telephone line.
"How did you know that?"
"Never mind," I said. "Now for the big questions. Is there any way I block
in-coming mail from here and how do I do it?"
He explained the procedure to me. The flood of e-mail stopped overnight.
I went back to my life.
Two days later the guy from the server was back on the telephone.
"Your box is full again."
I checked. Sure enough, it was. But the bulk of the mail came from an
e-mail address I didn't know.
Not at first, anyway. I checked the contents of about five of the letters
and found out who the mail was coming from.
So I blocked in-coming mail from that address.
And the flood of mail stopped.
This activity went on for about two weeks. And every time I found out who
the e-mail was from, I blocked the address it was coming from.
Finally, a single message from a new address came in. It read: "Please do
an interview or I will lose my job."
I was in a very bad mood the day that note came in. I don't remember why.
But I do remember that note and the response I sent off. "Make something
up. That's people like you do anyway."
It is said that in the heat and passion of a moment we reveal previously
unadmitted and, possibly, unknown truths about the human condition.
In that moment, banging out that response, I did such a thing.
It was also one of the dumber and stupider things in my life so far.
My e-mailbox filled within the hour. There were a number of different
e-mail addresses, but the messages sent were basically the same through and
through: For such an opinion I should attempt an anatomical impossibility
I suppose, looking back, I had that response coming. But I wasn't thinking.
Eventually the flood of hate mail--that hate mail--stopped. Mostly, I
think, because I didn't dignify it with a response.
A few weeks later, though, there came a letter in my e-mail relating to
this adventure that required a response from me.
It was a sixteen thousand byte letter from Ms. Journalist apologizing for
any and all things she had done to me in the name of her profession.
Well. I couldn't just let that go, so I wrote back, accepting her sorry
attempt to appease me.
She wrote back almost immediately, this time with a different tact to her
long-ago original request. She still wanted the interview, but if I agreed
to it, she would let me write an article of my choice for the newspaper she
was now working for.
Let me? I could feel the muscles in my neck and lower jaw tightening. LET?
I fired off an immediate all-capital note to her reminding her that there
was this thing that people like her didn't like to acknowledge called
"Freedom of Speech", which was protected by something called The
Constitution of The United States and as far as I was concerned there was
no way nohow she or anyone else could or would keep me from writing what I
wanted, when I wanted, how I wanted, and she could take her request and her
offer to 'Let me' write something for her fourth-rate rag, roll both of
them up into a very tight funnel shape, and forcibly insert it where the
sun rarely, if ever, shines.
Ms. Journalist fired back--again, almost immediately--with a note informing
me that while she could and would not keep me from writing what I wanted,
how I wanted, when I wanted, she could and would keep me from being
published in certain publications because the paper she worked for owned
My response to this note was a single word: Hypocrite.
There came no response to that charge.
A few days later, perhaps a week, there came a note with a new e-mail
address from Ms. Journalist.
The tone of the note was sweet and cute and kind and cuddly and made me
want to puke. Ms. Journalist, once more, was admitting she was wrong about
everything and if I could find it within myself to forgive and forget she
would like it very much if I would write freelance articles for her in her
new position as Book Editor of a once-weekly news and arts publication.
My response was quick and blunt: The conditions of this agreement are?
None, came the reply.
It was a situation and proposition too good to be true.
It was. But not at first.
Now around the time my emotionally and verbally charged negotiations with
Ms. Journalist began there came into my possession a book entitled
EDGEWORKS, Volume One, by Harlan Ellison.
I read Harlan Ellison's writings. I read Harlan Ellison's writings. I will
continue to read his writings no matter how much I may disagree with him
and his take on whatever.
In the library in my home there are two full shelves dedicated to him. Many
of the volumes there are first editions (including the recently acquired
hardback, mint condition, first edition of STRANGE WINE). A couple of the
paperbacks, however, have broken spines and torn covers, ripped pages and
bent edges because Ellison, through his writing, so infuriated me at the
time, I heaved the book across the room with all the fury and rage and
anger and revelation of truth and fact I could muster.
Since I had yet to read EDGEWORKS, Volume One, I thought it would make for
a good start in reviewing books. Harlan Ellison, I decided, would be the
benchmark, the standard by which all other writers would be measured.
I read that given tome in one sitting. I wrote the review of it immediately
thereafter, e-mailed it to the Book Editor, and awaited her response.
A week passed.
I have been at this writing business long enough to know that unless you
name is Stephen King or Michael Crichton or the likes, editors will and do
take their time in getting back to you with regards to your manuscript.
Maxwell Perkins and his kind are long since dead, so accept reality: It
sucks and you are probably at the bottom of the bottom of the dung heap,
just below the beetles and the blind white maggot-like worms who live in
smelly, wet darkness.
Three weeks passed by. I occupied myself with other projects, but with that
effort always nearby in my thoughts.
Finally, a month had gone by and no word from Ms. Journalist, the Book
Editor. So I did what any nervous, should-be paranoid, totally insecure
writing-type person would do:
I picked up the telephone and called her.
The man who answered my call told me she no longer worked there.
I should have panicked, but I didn't. Instead I asked if he knew how I
might get in touch with Ms. Journalist.
He gave me a phone number. I called it. It turned out to be her former
roommate who had been stiffed for three months rent by Ms. Journalist.
I asked if she know how to get in touch with Ms. Journalist. Strangely, she
did. I called that number. It turned out to be a twice-weekly newspaper on
the eastern plains of Colorado.
No, I was told when I asked for her by name. She worked here. But she no
Again I asked for a forwarding telephone number for the nomadic one. Again,
surprisingly, I was given a telephone number. Again, I called it.
Several hours, an untold number of telephone numbers and calls later, and
the larger chunk of my patience worn thin, I found Ms. Journalist. She was
working for a small arts publication that concentrated on books, cinema,
and visual arts.
I asked if she still had my manuscript. She told me she did. I asked her
what the status on it was. She mumbled something I didn't catch.
"Look," I said, trying to be calm. "Do me this. Put the manuscript in the
mail, and we will pretend none of this ever happened."
"NO!" she screamed.
I almost dropped the phone.
She mumbled something else. I didn't catch that either. She gave me a
long-winded, convoluted explanation of why we couldn't let this go. She
pleaded, she begged, she groveled.
I gave in.
But with conditions.
"You have one week," I said, "To publish this review. If it isn't in the
next issue, I am informing you now I am pulling it back and any action on
your part to publish it will be consider a violation of copyright and will
result in legal action by me. Okay?"
She mumbled something and hung up.
The week went by. The review of EDGWORKS, Volume One, didn't appear. I cut
my losses and dropped the manuscript into my writer's trunk.
About two weeks after I gave Ms.Journalist my ultimatum she called me,
groveling, prostrating, and sniveling.
One more chance, she begged. Give me one more chance. I can't publish it
here because of editorial policy, but I will get it published somewhere.
I reminded her she was not my agent and any monies made from this would go
to me. Period.
She accepted that.
I don't know why I agreed to this particular nonsense, but I did. Maybe
because I had now commited so much time and energy to it I wanted it
concluded in the only way it could be: Published for the world to read.
I agreed to letting her place the manuscript. But with conditions: I would
be given all names and telephone numbers of all those she contacted just so
I could be kept abreast of things happening. Just in case she disappeared
from view again.
She hesitated on that, but eventually agreed, and proceeded to explain how
she was going to undertake this effort.
She had contacts at a number of publications and she would contact all of
them about my manuscript.
Fifty newspapers and God only knows how many weekly, bi-weekly, and montly
publications later the unpublished review of EDGEWORKS, Volume One by
Harlan Ellison was back in my possession.
But without any explanation from anyone as to why.
Now having a manuscript, short or long, rejected is no big deal. It is part
of the job, an unavoidable element of the territory. Everyone who writes
for publication--including the likes of Stephen King and Michael
Crichton--has a rejected manuscript or two moldering away in their trunk.
Stuff that can be called, simply, "SHIT".
The stuff I have in my trunk, however, gives new meaning to "shit". So bad
is some of this stuff that people who wander by my trunk (which, is in
fact, an old wooden trunk painted green) ask sincerely if some small forest
creature, with a major case of the farts, crawled inside the trunk
unnoticed and died on a hot August afternoon.
But the unpublished review of EDGEWORKS, Volume One I wrote was not shit.
Not bad, at all. In fact, to be honestly objective about it, it is a very
good review. Tight, short, to the point, and fair, echoing--I like to
think--the style, form, and tone of the late Dorothy Parker when she
reviewed Harlan Ellison's GENTLEMAN JUNKIE.
So why was it rejected and by so many publications?
Maybe it was me. Maybe the fact I am not yet a Writer had something to do
with it being made an outcast of the publishing world.
Maybe. And there was, I felt, only one way to find out if this was true. I
took the manuscript to a former professor of mine who, in his spare time,
writes book reviews, and who, as of this writing, has published well over
five hundred such reviews.
He thought my review was good. 'Very good' were his exact words.
I thank him for his insight, not mentioning that it had been rejected.
So. It was rejected by all those papers and praised highly by a practiced
writer of such things. Which meant what?
It meant something was going on and I wasn't privy to it.
I decided to find out. I began placing descreet inquires with people who
know almost everything. Those people Out There who--well, you know that
stunning, exotic, and very single woman who works in your office that you
would give your life to make love to just once? Well, she has a secret or
two that those people Out There know.
Secrets like: She prefers Italian, hand-made spike heeled dress shos
because they pinch her feet and she is into physical pain. She sleeps in a
black full-length latex rubber catsuit that zips in the back, and her
friend--the one who says she is from New York City, but really came from
Indiana after the sex-change surgery--comes by her house every night at
10:30 to zip her up and tuck her in.
Anyway, I asked one of those people Out There what was known about a
certain manuscript. An unpublished review of a book called EDGEWORKS,
Volume One by Harlan Ellison, specifically.
The responses to my inquiries came fast and furious. Some of the responses
were shocking, some were expected, some were just down right weird:
* "Harlan Ellison is a good writer. Too good be to be read."
* "Harlan Ellison? That son of a bitch? He should be drawn and quartered. I
refuse to have anything to do with him, anything he writes, and anyone who
has anything to do with him!"
* "Harlan Ellison? Oh, we don't cover that sort of thing. He's too much a
Now, the first two response presented here were stupid enough in their own
right, but the latter has to be the most hypocritical of all because these
remarks are coming from publications--newspapers--that claim to
report--objectively--all the news that's fit to print. These remarks are
coming from publications that claim to be liberal.
Liberal. Look it up and find the basic defintion to be one who is
Bullshit. They are not open-minded. They are narrow-minded. So much the
heads of the publishers, the editors, the writers should be pointy.
Which brings me to Harlan Ellison.
Look: If you are lying in bed, about to turn out the lights and go to
sleep, and suddenly you see a face at the window, the aforementioned
journalists would probably tell you that the face at the window is not a
face at the window, but an illusion, a trick of shadows and light.
Harlan Ellison, on the other hand, would probably tell you different. He
might tell you that the face at the window was in fact a real,
honest-to-God face and that bump in the night that wakes you from a sound
sleep an hour later is the face that was at your window, and is now
wandering around your darkened house, looking for bits and scraps and other
little things that speak volumes about you and whatever dark secrets you
Harlan Ellison might tell you that the face at the window is not a harmless
peeping Tom but a serial rapist out for a night of fun. Harlan Ellison
might tell all this and more, like how the monster you just know is in the
closet and the thing under the bed are not only real but are bigger,
scarier, and uglier than you could possibly conceive.
For this he is branded as a troublemaker, a radical, a pain in the ass who
just won't behave like gentrified, diplomatic, mannered, politically
correct journalists should, According To Them That Know Such Things.
Which is why you probably won't ever read the review I wrote of his book.
Journalists today don't write like Ellison does and to encourage him is, in
their orderly, anal-retentive mindsets, is to encourage something they and
Slick Willy don't want:
Freedom. The freedom to choose, to think, to see.
It scares them, that's what it does. And Ellison scares them because that
is what he is about. Because he is they, the self-proclaimed protectors of
Free Speech, want him and his kind silenced.
But they must be careful in how they do this silencing. They do it by not
publishing reviews of his books. By not encouraging you to think and act
Now if you are a strong person, the type who confronts the face at the
window after it peers in at you, the type who smacks the monster in the
closet with a blood blotted baseball bat because it drools into your
favorite pair of sneakers while waiting to scare you, the type of person
who kicks the thing under the bed and yells as you leap to the bed, "I'M
NOT AFRAID OF YOU!!!", then find, buy, and read EDGEWORKS. Because you
should. You need to. You need to read about creationism and evolutionism
and Harlan Ellison's take on both. Read about people like Bill Starr and
how things that should come around do because of cosmic justice. Read about
"[t]he smiler with the knife. The flesh that always smells of soap. The
good book, called The Good Book, seldom seen opened but tightly held to the
chest with clean fingernails. Assassins with shined shoes".
Read "Three Faces of Fear" and how fear really worked back then, compared
to the schlock that passes as sui generis today, and why the films of the
overlooked Val Lewton outperform the grissly art of the much and oft-hyped
Wes Craven and Tobe Hooper by leaving so much to you, the viewer, to see in
the mind's eye.
Read "The Words In Spock's Mouth" and come to understand what has become of
the artist formerly known as "The Writer".
Read "Xenogenesis" and about how the five or ten percent of all people who
are total assholes can ruin a pleasant day for the rest of us and what
Harlan Ellison thinks of the whole lot.
Read the entire text of AN EDGE IN MY VOICE and see how, not so many years
after these essays were written, almost everything Harlan Ellison said
about some many things came true, good, bad, and otherwise.
Read about Jon Douglas West and understand, by his words--not actions, why
there are no rules in life and why, of all the people crawling and
scabbering over the face of the planet, Harlan Ellison, when put against
the living dead who call themselves objective journalists, who live and
work in air-conditioned buildings nothing more than crypts, is the most
well-mannered, humane person YOU'll ever encounter in print or person and
why his rants and rages and assaults on the human condition are a much
needed tap dance to wake us from our
And when you are done, please do this:
Say "Thank you"
and tap dance on the crypt of the living dead.
James C. Hess is the creator of The Cinematic Voyeur. He has never been arrested in Sri Lanka.
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