A Weekend of Horror, Er, Harlan!

or, The Revelation That God is Human, Not a Werefolf

04/20/97 (Guest Ranter: Steven Prete)

Deities exist in many forms. They are often nebulous and ethereal, existing just beyond the veil of our reality. We see them moving and doing, just beyond our reach, and we strive to touch them, to know they are real. We dare to become like them, to do what they have done, yet we always fall short. We cannot rise above the level of humanity. We cannot change who we are and become an immortal of flesh.

On April 4-6, 1997, I was given a chance to see a deity up close. I would be able to interact with him for a limited amount of time. He would sign my books and lecture to me, maybe offering up that secret which is so coveted by mortals. And maybe, he would cast his light down on me and acknowledge my puny existence. Maybe Harlan Ellison would know my name after that weekend.

ICON is held every year at the State University of New York (SUNY) at Stonybrook. It is a science fiction, fact, and fantasy convention. I hadn't been there in a few years, but when I heard that Harlan would be attending I vowed that nothing short of death would stop me from going. I came home to Long Island from Boston where I go to school. I skipped some classes just so I could get home early and make some money working with my dad before the weekend began.

A few weeks earlier, one of my friends who attends SUNY Stonybrook said that he was going to be on the ICON staff this year, and maybe, just maybe, he could get an interview with Harlan. "That's cool," I said. "Can I hold the microphone for you?"

"No, you'll be doing the interview."

I was shocked. My friend actually was going to try to get me to interview Ellison, God, All-Powerful Oz. He said it was only tentative and not certain. They would have to ask Harlan first, of course. But I really did not want to do it. I wouldn't know what to ask him. I knew most of everything that he didn't want to hear, therefor cutting down seriously on the questions that I could ask him. And meeting him would be awkward. I might try to act like we could be friends or like I know even one one-millionth of anything about him.

I don't know him. He doesn't know me.

Fortunately, Harlan doesn't do much without getting paid. And with ICON being in debt, they couldn't swing it. I was safe. I would not have to be in the presence of the light. My image of Harlan as an impeccable being would not be shattered. His delicate, glass flesh would not be sullied by my presence.

Yet, that image hung over my head as I drove to the convention. I desperately wanted to see Harlan, but I did not want my expectations to be too high. I had heard people say that he is rude, and obnoxious, and downright inconsiderate. People have told me that they once saw Ellison as a god, but after meeting him, only kind of liked him. Their image of him had been shattered, dashed to the wind, utterly demolished. I was nervous. I did not want my image of a perfect Harlan to disappear just yet.

I seriously admire Harlan. No, admire is too weak of a word. Deify him is more like it. He has inspired me more than any single person in my whole life, all 20 years of it. Not only as a writer, but as a human being, HE makes me strive for more. He shows me things that I would normally have my back turned to. If there is any one person whom I will always revere, it is him. If I could only read the works of one author, it would be him. If there ever existed a god in my agnostic-atheistic mind, it is him.

But seeing him at this convention was going to change that. For good or bad, my image of Harlan would forever change. He would most likely curse me out, or shove me aside, and I would be crushed. He would stamp me out like a cigarette with his sharp wit, make me feel like a simpleton. But I had to know if he was real, if he would shed some light down on me.

The first event that Harlan was scheduled for was on Friday night. It was entitled, "Home is the strangest place of all." It would be a panel with HE, J. Michael Straczynski, Nancy Kress, and Barry Malzberg. I had no idea what it was about, but HE was going to be there.

I got there early and there was another seminar in progress. People were already filing into the room for the next event and were disturbing the current event. As more and more people came in, it got louder and louder. The speakers of the first event had to keep shouting and were lost to the din of the crowd. A particular group of people were being exceptionally loud. One guy was shouting and rambling on, very rude, I thought. His voice crescendoed with something like, "God is a werewolf." I had no idea what that meant, but at this point I turned to see who this rude, inconsiderate man was.

It was Harlan.

I knew it was him out of the corner of my eye as my head turned. His silver hair, dark sunglasses, and not-as-short-as-I-expected stature. Oh my god, I had just considered Harlan to be the rudest person in this whole convention. I jumped, my heart skipped a beat. No, it froze, refused to let anymore blood pass through my veins until I resolved this conflict of God being Rude. I quickly told myself that it was okay, this was Harlan and he was allowed to do these things. Heck, he was a major guest at the convention and these people were probably running over schedule and should have been wrapping it up. All right, problem solved. My heart resumed its normal job, and I calmed down. Harlan kept yacking away loudly, but it was okay. But maybe it wasn't. Deep down I knew that the portent of Harlan being shattered would come true. But I suppressed those thoughts, saving them for a time when I was alone, and cold, and could cry until my body had no more moisture to give to my eyes.

The first event ended and Harlan began corralling people down the aisles. "Giidyap!" he said, or something cowboy-like. It was chaotic, as certain people tried leaving while others were scrambling for their seats. Someone said something about a moderator, and Harlan came walking back up the aisle. He stopped halfway up, cupped his hands over his mouth and yelled, "Hey Malzberg! You wanna moderate this fucker!" The audience paused at the first statement, then went into wild applause at the second. My heart softened a bit. It was funny, but I liked it.

That was a wild panel, but I had to leave early to help my friend with the convention a bit. Suffice to say, Harlan and the rest of them couldn't figure out what it was about, so he renamed it, "The most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you, and you have to tell the whole audience." Harlan started off and told a great story, which I won't repeat here else I take up ten pages just for that. But I left early and missed some great antics I'm sure.

But I was safe for now. His image would not be shattered that day. Not until the next day, when he was signing books.
I was scared waiting on line. Hundreds of people were waiting, some impatiently, for Harlan to get to it. Sign our books. I had brought three books, since my friend told me that Harlan would only sign one per person. So I gave one to my friend, and I had one. We waited and waited and then I saw him enter. I got nervous again, for surely this encounter would bring me right next to him and possibly allow me to say a few words. Harlan set up his table of books he had brought to sell and the line started moving. Some guy came down the line and announced that Harlan would sign three items, unless you bought something from the table then he would sign unlimited items. Damn, I knew I should have brought more books. But it was cool, because they had some great books for sale at good prices. I bought I Have No Mouth, and Memos From Purgatory paperback for six bucks each. Mint condition, it was great. So I let my friend hold I Have No Mouth along with Deathbird Stories, since one guy had come running back to buy something because Harlan had called him a cheap bastard.

The line was moving slowly and time was running out for the signing. People were getting rowdy and restless. Many were making snide remarks, trying to act as witty as only Harlan can be. But then Harlan himself came waltzing down the line, wearing his nice denim jacket with the "Space Cases" logo on the back, and he screamed out that everyone would get their books signed since he did not have to be anywhere afterwards. And he had been right there, next to me. I could have touched him if I had wanted, but would he have fractured and fallen like so many idols of the past?

I dared not think about those things as we neared Harlan. We passed by John K. Snyder III, who did the cover for Edgeworks: 2, and he signed my program book, since I hadn't brought my Edgeworks. But he had on display a great piece of artwork which will be the cover for volume 4. The we passed Jill Bauman, who did volume 1, and who also had volume 3 on display which I really, really, really liked. You'll see it, and you'll love it too. And then you'll drool and whimper until volume 5 comes out which will hopefully, if you are lucky, have artwork by Bauman on it. (Ed Note: It will. Bauman is doing all the odd-numbered Edgeworks covers)

The ladies in front of us were getting their books signed and Harlan was really nice. They joked and one of them told Harlan a joke that he said was really sick. "I wish I hadn't heard that," he said. But me and my friend had missed it, so we'll never know what that joke was. I was in good spirits. Harlan was great, and happy it seemed.

Then came the day of judgment. My friend went first and plopped the two books on the table. Harlan greeted him and signed I Have No Mouth, then when he saw Deathbird he claimed that he was going to take it if it was the second edition. It wasn't.

Then I stepped up into the light. He signed my Memos From Purgatory then saw my copy of Sleepless Nights In The Procrustean Bed. "What copy is this?" he said. "This is unfamiliar to me." He scanned the back cover and then inside. It was the fourth printing. "Hold on a sec," he said, as he jumped up and ran down to his lovely wife, Susan. I looked to my friend, "Oh my god, he's gonna take my book away from me cause it isn't authentic. Cool!" And it would have been. I would have loved it if Harlan had stolen one of my books. But he came back and signed it. "Is it authentic?" I inquired. "Oh yes, just that I hadn't recalled receiving the fourth printing, but my wife says it's okay." Wow, Harlan had just spoken to me, directly, and I was still alive. All my skin was there, my ego was intact, my spirits were high. Harlan was great. Some dealer came over and wanted Harlan to sign a print he had because he couldn't wait on line all day since he had to man his booth. "What makes you more important than all of these people who are so patiently waiting on line?" Harlan said to him. That's why I love Harlan, he really cares about us fans. But he did sign the print for the guy, which shows how big his heart truly is.

So we walked away and I was happy. Later that day I attended a Babylon 5 panel where Ellison was appearing. He was a little late and everyone cheered when he came on stage. It was such a great time at that seminar. Marvin Kitman showed up and had us all rolling, along with Peter David and Straczynski and Michael O'Hare. I was loving Harlan more and more. He was everything I expected him to be. But he wasn't being rude, not really. He was just having a good time with the audience and using some unclean language to do it. Heck, that's all of my friends right there, why should I hold Harlan to a higher standard. Because he is God?

That same day--yes, so much Harlan in one day may stunt your growth, but I did not care-- Harlan did a reading. At least he was supposed to. He ended up schmoozing with us. He even taught us what schmoozing meant. It was so great. He blasted Wes Craven and played his take on the Heaven's Gate cult which ran on the Sci-fi Channel. And he told some great army stories and every other kind of story. The audience loved him. I loved him. We didn't want it to end, but it did. And I was supposed to go the next day to hear Harlan read "Paladin of the Lost Hour", which he promised would leave not one person in the audience with a dry eye, but I missed it. I had stayed out until 2 a.m. which had immediately become 3 a.m. due to daylight savings time (and it was at that point that I realized why Harlan was going to read "Paladin"). I overslept and missed the reading on Sunday morning. But I didn't care much. I could order the CD from HERC and it would still be as good, well, almost as good.

But, the best thing of all was that I had had the most amazing time on Saturday. I was inundated with Harlan and not only did he hold up solid, but I didn't have to look up at him. He was there, right in front of me. He was flesh, and bone, and human! He was everything that I expected him to be. I wanted to know that he was real, and indeed he was. He was more real than most people I know, in the respect that he says what he feels, and he feels what he says. That last part is most important. He knows the impact he'll have on you with his statements, and even when he is caustic, he knows how to do it gently. His passion flares out in all directions, but he knows where it hits and where it hurts.

This is not to say that I know Harlan. Most certainly, I know him less now than ever, for I have seen that he is human. And being human means having a myriad of facets. But being able to see just one more of those sparkling, jewel-like sides of Harlan was all it took to make him real. I don't know him. He doesn't know me. Yet I know that he is human.

Harlan did not shatter like all the idols I had previously had. For the first time in my life, I had touched a god and lived. His fire did not burn me, for he knew how to control it. His glass body did not shatter, for it is not glass, but flesh. I found out that a god could be human. But he really isn't a god. He is a man, like you and me. He is human, like you and me. He is real, like you and me. And perhaps more real, in that he unleashes his passion, not without check, but with all of his heart. His light does not radiate down onto us, but from the same level as us. And it shines brighter than any human has ever shone, and it guides us through the dark.

The maintainer of this site regrets that he knows nothing of Steven Prete aside from what is contained in this rant and his e-mail address (Yalzton@aol.com).

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