Harlan Ellison: Short Story Collections

Slippage

Previously Uncollected, Precariously Poised Stories by Harlan Ellison




Limited Edition: Mark V. Ziesing Books
1st Hardcover: Houghton-Mifflin / August 1997
Cover Art Shown: Jill Bauman (from Mark V. Ziesing limited edition)

Dedication: to Susan Ellison

The New York Times review
The Langerhans review
Reviews Description and Spoiler Warning

Book and Story Review by K.C. Locke
Overall Review by Dorman T. Shindler

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Contents and Copyright Dates

Introduction: The Fault In My Lines (23 May, 1996)
THE MAN WHO ROWED CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS ASHORE
ANYWHERE BUT HERE, WITH ANYBODY BUT YOU
CRAZY AS A SOUP SANDWICH (a teleplay)
DARKNESS UPON THE FACE OF THE DEEP
THE PALE SILVER DOLLAR OF THE MOON PAYS ITS WAY AND MAKES CHANGE
THE PALE SILVER DOLLAR OF THE MOON PAYS ITS WAY AND MAKES CHANGE (again)
THE DEADLY NACKLES AFFAIR
THE LINGERING SCENT OF WOODSMOKE
THE MUSEUM ON CYCLOPS AVENUE
GO TOWARD THE LIGHT
MEFISTO IN ONYX
WHERE I SHALL DWELL IN THE NEXT WORLD
CHATTING WITH ANUBIS
THE FEW, THE PROUD
SENSIBLE CITY
THE DRAGON ON THE BOOKSHELF (written in collaboration with Robert Silverberg)
KEYBOARD
JANE DOE #112
THE DREAMS A NIGHTMARE DREAMS
PULLING HARD TIME
SCARTARIS, JUNE 28th
SHE'S A YOUNG THING AND CANNOT LEAVE HER MOTHER
MIDNIGHT IN THE SUNKEN CATHEDRAL

The stories, essay and teleplay are variously copyright 1986-1997 by The Kilimanjaro Corporation; "The Dragon On the Bookshelf" copyright 1995 by The Kilimanjaro Corporation and Agberg, Ltd.

Introductory Quote

We are all serving a terminal sentence in the dungeon of life.
- Cyril Connally
PLEASE NOTE:On the dedication page, the author cites the late Mr. Connally's words in an altered form (i.e., as Mr. Ellison first heard them), while the direct quotation is included within the body of the introductory essay. Mr. Ellison is entirely aware that the two statements do not necessarily express identical thoughts; he merely prefers the flavor and syntax of his original encounter with Mr. Connally's statement. All Parties engaged in pose-striking, pondering and peregrinations anent whether Mr. Ellison knows the difference are warmly and jovially enjoined by the author to "Fuck off."
- K.C.L.

Commentary

The Fallacy of the No-Fault Rule
- An Overview and Commentary by K.C. Locke

Bear with me for a minute. This will make sense soon.

I was introduced to Harlan Ellison's work on a dismal, dank, late-winter afternoon, while held hostage by my mother (my own mother!) in a laundrette in Oklahoma City. Please understand - I love my mother; but, for sheer boredom, this sort of thing is superceded only by morning church services and compulsory reports on Yugoslavia for Social Studies class. I was kicking around looking for some kind of bullet to bite and found a tattered copy of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Back when your mother and I were your age, F&SF used to occasionally crank out ‘spotlight’ issues, in appreciation/celebration of particular writers and their work - Ted Sturgeon, Ray Bradbury, you know. So, this issue, the honoree was someone named Harlan Ellison and, not to be out-done by his very good friend Ray Bradbury, Ellison contributed not one, not two, but THREE stories (also an essay, and a bibliography of his work by Leslie Kay Swigert). "Jeffty Is Five." "Working With The Little People." "Alive And Well And On A Friendless Voyage." Instant camaraderie, sense of Old-Friend-ship.

That was something I needed rather badly, for reasons that had little or nothing to do with laundry. See, I was 12, on my way to 13, and even at that tender age, my life was already flying apart in all directions. My dear great-grandfather had just died; my grandmother - the zealot - was growing increasingly wacky and intolerant; my li'l family unit was shortly to suffer a catastrophic incident that would culminate in our flight from OKC to South Texas; and I won't even start, about my step-father.

So, what (you might be asking yourself, and also me) is so important about any of that admittedly-fascinating information? What has it to do with this new collection, this SLIPPAGE? On the surface, nothing, I suppose. But then I refer you to Mr. Ellison's introductory essay to this volume, The Fault in My Lines.

Harlan Ellison has often remarked on what he considers his duty as a writer - stirring the soup, making your eyes water, etc., etc.; which is to say, challenging everything you think you believe, sowing thorns in your safety cushion, and generally leading the Battle Against Complacency. And, to that end (telling us things we need to know, whether we want 'em in our face or not), his collections have cultivated a habit of serving up an underlying thread or theme. DEATHBIRD STORIES, with its tales of deities old and new. ANGRY CANDY and its observations anent the departures of our loved-ones and their mortality.

Now, we have SLIPPAGE.

Mr. Ellison's introduction to this latest volume re-creates, in wince-inducing detail, the effects of the '94 Northridge, California, "thruster" on his home and body; and the events surrounding his adventures with angioplasty, heart-attacks and a quadruple bypass, all of which disclosure leaves the reader sweaty and tensed-up-like.

This time, the theme is one of nervousness, of the ticking of the clock, of the unreliability of sweet earth beneath our feet and dear beating heart within our chest. The theme is: do it while you can. Slippage rules. Gravity ain't forgiving. The theme is: you never know when it's the last of the last. The theme is: PAY ATTENTION
This thought cuts deeper than any of us (any of us) wants to acknowledge. If you raise the lid of the cauldron a mere fraction, you will find that:

Life goes whistling right along on its merry way, deliberately ignorant of our frailty, our weakness, our human inability to keep the pace for too very long, as each of our supports are plucked away and discarded until, finally, in the maelstrom of time and living, there is nothing left to steady us under the onslaught, nothing to cling to, except, possibly, right now.

So: Pay Attention.

Friends and family die or move on. Flight from prosecution or persecution, either is just bloody consequence. I was living in Corpus Christi, TX, when Hurricane Allen zeroed the register on Brownsville. We still caught the edge of it, still had all our windows blown out because we couldn't afford to board them over any more than we could afford to flee inland like many of our neighbors. There are few sounds in this world that can send your hair vertical like the no-sound, the sudden hush of a radio station that was giving you clear hurricane play-by-play just two seconds before. And your power hasn't gone out. Yet.

Slippage.

Accidentally finding a dear friend’s obituary in a terribly impersonal manner, almost five months post-facto, because one friend had become too busy and too famous, and I had, for a period of my life, been too drunk and crazy for too long for anyone to think of contacting me. Too late and distant for Kaddish, too forgetful for Yahrzeit.

Slippage.

When all bets are off; when all things formerly safe and secure are snatched away like that puff of steamy breath on a frosty, windy day; when you discover that they weren't foolin', and there truly aren't any sure things, and only the chumps think otherwise; when even a mother's smile or a deity's grace are unavailable to even the advance-ticket holders.

Now - about that autobiographical stuff. The hurricane, the late friend, and like that. Do you see how it hooks up with the theme of this collection? Because I do, and it frightens me. Between the stories, here and there, Mr. Ellison relates the events of a period of his life when things were shifty, frustrating and confusing, when the slippage made a noticeable spike on his time-line. And he encourages us to look at the fault in our lines. It's there. We must look. We must pay attention.

I have a confession to make: I was less than devastated by my first reading of SLIPPAGE. I have never been disappointed by Mr. Ellison's collections, there are typically three or four stand-outs in a contents list of fifteen to twenty stories that run the gamut from "pretty nifty" to "I can't talk on the phone right now, I just finished this story and my dendrites are still crisp." But, in SLIPPAGE, there was a biggish number of stories that left me scratching my head, puzzled and/or nonplused.

I was in a regular condition, let me tell you. I suddenly felt very uncomfortable with the notion of reviewing this collection - not because I'm afraid of Mr. Ellison's response (he pays little attention to critics with genuine credentials; what sort of threat to his reputation could I possibly pose?), just uncomfortable in the way we were all uncomfortable when Kirk Douglas was accepting his Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy. Did the title, SLIPPAGE, have darker implications regarding the man's work?

As a reader and admirer of the man and his work, I felt a certain loyalty, a duty if you will, a strong desire to say glowing things unreservedly, across the board. On the other hand, I felt a similar duty to the principles which reading Mr. Ellison's work has instilled in me, i.e., honest criticism is the only worthy criticism. Meanwhile, who the hell am I to take shots, to tear down what could be, by his own admission, Harlan Ellison's final collection?

Then, I was rescued by this volume's caveat lector: pay attention. I had pounced on this book like a starving peasant at a groaning board. Have you ever eaten something so quickly that you had no opportunity to savor the texture, the flavor, the nuances of the seasoning? Thus do we cheat ourselves,...

I began again. I paid attention. Because, sometimes, the massive intellect to which I humbly refer as "my mind" goes out for a pack of cigarettes and I couldn't out-wit a Dutch oven. So I paid attention. And, though there are a couple of stutters here, it's all mostly magic; some of it is nothing short of sorcery.

In another introduction, in another collection, Mr. Ellison cites the words of Mr. Irwin Shaw, who said, "Since I am not particularly devout, my chances for salvation lie in a place sometime in the future on a library shelf." Here - now - Mr. Ellison seems to be examining his own mortality, following assassination attempts by his own body and the very mountain beneath his home. And as he stands there in the twilight, sending us descriptions of the indistinct creatures capering in the gathering darkness, he again reflects on Mr. Shaw's words, reminding us and himself that it is, after all, the work that really counts. That those who do it must, while they are able to do it at all, do it exquisitely. That is why Dickens and Dostoevsky and Twain and Steinbeck and Faulkner and Shakespeare continue to be mainstays on our libraries' shelves; why Poe and Hammett and Lovecraft vanished in ignominy, yet their work refused to be buried alive and continues to grip people by their tender portions.

I realize that my concerns for Harlan Ellison's talent as a writer were pompous and, though well-meant, misplaced. He is still with us. No-one can say how long we will have him, but he is, goddam it, still here - and while he is here, Harlan Ellison can still do the work as well or better than anyone going. That's something the slippage can't touch.

K.C. Locke
San Francisco, CA
September, 1998
mesmeratronics@usa.net

The Stories



THE MAN WHO ROWED CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS ASHORE

Synopsis: In which the post-ascension Christ skips-to-m'Lou through the month of October (and then some!), dispensing irony, opportunity and frontier justice; proving, finally, in an otherwise unsynopsizeable story, that He has an antic sense of humor, even after He is pulled from the batting line-up and reassigned under another name. Or maybe not. This does all happen in October; but only in the years that have a month of October.

Comments: But seriously, folks, what first looks like the Mad Hatter's day-planner is, in point of fact, Mr. Ellison’s religious tract in support of atheism. Chosen for inclusion in Best American Short Stories, this is a gestalt piece, entire unto itself, despite what might appear to be stories-within-a-story. It all happens at once, liberally laced with the soothing, therapeutic liqueur of literary wish-fulfillment, bolstering the world-view that the universe, life itself, is a cosmic crap-shoot, neither good nor bad; it merely, utterly, is. And each should, nay can and must, be responsible only for him- or herself.

Because, every few days, in fact, each day, is a different story, whatever you want to call it. Sort of like the old cop shake-down, when addressing Sam Spade, or some jittering stoolie — "Awright, pal, what's the story this time?"

Each story, each day, has a different flavor, as Levendis (if that is in fact his name) goes around doing good. Or tweaking noses. Or making trouble. Or dispensing, or withholding, justice. Or challenging, or creating, or observing, or, or,...or just stirring the soup. What is he? According to him, he is an unlimited person, sadly living in a limited world. According to Harlan Ellison, he is the soup. Levendis=life=the universe=randomness, chaos, whether he/it helps little old ladies who don't goddam it want to cross the street, mocks psychiatry's sometimes self-righteous and misplaced faith in itself, or informs on joy-riding, hit-and-run-driver Cosa Nostra (Nostri? Nostrum? Nostril?). He ponders the sertsa, the soul; the evil fuckery that people commit on one another; the inheritors of this limited world. He entreats schoolchildren to consider the dictum of Smithson: "Establish enigmas, not explanations," and Southern Fundamentalists to give the bible a day of rest and rediscover Shirley Jackson. He cures a 19th century woman of a dreadful venereal disease. After rowing Christopher Columbus ashore, he, um, assures that there will be a dreadful venereal disease available for a 19th century woman to contract, so that he might cure her of it. Some people will do anything to get a good look at a nice butt (be that person unlimited or otherwise).

Is he Good or Evil? "Good, of course!" he enthuses, "There’s only one real evil in the world: mediocrity." Whatever you happen to think about, in other words, the universe will not (and should not) be ignored. Just don’t take it so much to heart.

Who is Levendis? He is Tom Joad, on an epic scale: "Wherever there’s a guy gettin’ beat up by a cop, I’ll be there,..." He is us and we is him. And we are all together, goo-goo g’choob. Gestalt, remember? All parts are one. Heinlein told us, in the words of a messianic adopted Martian named "Mike," Thou art God. Further supporting his previous assertions that "(We) are not alone," Mr. Ellison tries to encourage us, in this story, to recognize our place in the chaos — what we think, say or do might make no more difference, at the end of the day, than what you had for breakfast; but it happens to be breakfast now, and every day, every damned day, it's a different story and we would do well to consider what we contribute to or subtract from it. Or even, perhaps, what it wreaks on us.

This is a story that tells us to pay attention to what we're doing, and ponder whether our actions are right or good or even worthwhile, in the moment or the long run. Because, after all, every day is a different story, whether you're the person rowing a chronically-unlucky Portugese sailor ashore, or going after that pop-fly somewhere in the outfield, to save the game — fighting the fight, doing the deal, to make it a little bit better or just be a part of it at all . It's your choice; your life, your universe. You get to decide whether you are full of the pleasure of living.

Pay attention.


ANYWHERE BUT HERE, WITH ANYBODY BUT YOU

Synopsis: Eddie Canonerro arrives home after another hard day of meaningless wage-slavery, only to be confronted by a brawny shadow on the Canonerro livingroom sofa, who informs him that Eddie's wife, Carole, has chosen to go on without him — but with the house, the kids; everything, in fact, except Eddie's old Army duffle bag, which the dark stranger has already packed with Eddie's clothing,...and future.

Comments: The decisions that others make can and do affect your life. You have no say in the matter, no vote, no nix, no nothin' — zip, zilch, gurnisht. That's slippage. But, how you react, how you choose to take it, can either destroy you or free you; can fill your tomb with cement or grease the wheels of your rebirth. So pay attention.

That's the message, here, and an excellent, necessary admonition it is, too. But there are things about this story that bother me. And, as noted, honest criticism is the only worthy criticism. More often than not, that stance will make you as popular as a mohel with palsy. So it goes. It's not personal, it's just part of the blessing and the curse of what I do — try to do the job with some semblance of integrity.

If this were just some sloppy exercise, I would be surprised at the like coming from Mr. Ellison's offices, but at least I would have a clearer idea of how to proceed. But, this isn't some knock-off, walking-around-money contribution from the Peanut Gallery — this is a story by Harlan Ellison, and as such contains sharp, slick elements. The title, for instance, is smashing — sets up dark, gritty expectations of the tale of a disintegrating relationship; plenty of passion and conflict in that-there premise. And what we see of the story is as cool and smooth as a switchblade: Eddie arrives home to find a shadowy golem of a man sitting on his sofa in the darkened livingroom. The stranger gives (and gives and gives) Eddie the message from Carole. Eddie grumbles, barks and begs, but the Stone Who Speaks thwarts him at every turn. Finally, Eddie has a sudden epiphany — he is free to go, all the hassles now belong to Carole, he can kiss that schlub job "g'bye," and go be a footloose-and-fancy-free artist. All very creepy and unnerving, right up to Eddie's visions of staying up late on school nights, and peeing with the bathroom door open and leaving the seat up.

And, then, the switchblade doesn't quite completely open, making it very difficult to deliver the blade properly. The story seems incomplete, almost as though Mr. Ellison dipped into his "idea six-pack" from that service in Poughkeepsie, found this little dandy, got it simmering — then lost interest and jumped ahead to the denouement (which, if you ask me, is a waste of the $25/week he pays them, because this idea is a gem, even at twice the price; but, I digress).

And that's what bothers me. I don't feel I'm making fan-ish demands, either. I don't insist that any author write-to-order for my satisfaction — heaven forfend and far be it from me. No — Mr. Ellison is notorious for, well, many things, but perhaps most so for slipping his readership a little bonus intellectual (or emotional, or spiritual) nutritional supplement, rather like hiding doggy's pill in a lump of ground sirloin. Sure, some of his stories are written strictly for grins, and he rarely, if ever, spells it out for us. Still, the what-you-see-is-what-you-get stories are few and far between. So am I dull as a butter-knife, or is something missing here?

As you may or may not know, this was written (in one day) for Harlan Ellison’s Dream Corridor, inspired by the Dillon’s cover-art by for that issue (you might recall that they also provided the snappy picture that graces the front of Mr. Ellison’s collection, SHATTERDAY). I am grateful beyond the telling to the author for his insightful comments, anent the story as well as my review. While I did recognize some of his own experiences (they are, to a degree, outlined in his interstitial asides), I was enlightened by the information that much of the story was metaphor for the sudden dissolution of a good friend’s marriage. As such, this story is, in part, Mr. Ellison’s way of reaching out and steadying a chum in desperate straits, letting him know that he can make it what he wants it to be, that what has happened here could be, not his doom, but rather his liberation, a gift whether it was intended as such or not.

And yet, I still have questions. As I have no personal experience with marriage, I’m neither qualified nor inclined to debate Carole’s sole-ownership of their property; however (and it might well be my own issues at work), I am concerned about the ease with which he dismisses his sons. Long hours of discussion could be had regarding whether Eddie’s remaining chained to the life of "a good husband and loving father and doomed wage-slave" would constitute contentment or complacency. Is Eddie a monster to live with? Is Carole justified, or just flakier than gramma's biscuits? In fact, the identity of "The Villain" of the piece is superfluous — in either case, Carole has not punished Eddie, but freed him.

My problem, here, I suppose, is the nature of Eddie’s epiphany. Either I am too much benumbed by the stream of pyrotechnic-floral-arrangement-style revelations popular in prose, or Mr. Ellison’s handling of it here is too subtle. Life as Eddie Canonerro knows it does indeed end, a blessing of accident or design; but, as it stands, it seems not so much a second shot at the life he always wanted, as a take on Chaplin’s "Little Tramp" shrugging his shoulders and shuffling off into the sunset. Mr. Ellison’s elucidation opened it up for me nicely; but without that, the depth of Eddie’s epiphany sailed right over my head. And I’m damned if I know whether the shortcoming is mine or the author’s.

I had a few lofty, metaphysical observations, praising Mr. Ellison’s clever intertwining of supernatural elements, so delicately suggested as to leave the reader off-balance and jumpy. That ominous cat (just a tone-setter), the golem-like intruder, feline connections to the Black Arts, and the tricky, occult implications of those nefarious, clock-work ravens. But, as Freud (and Harlan Ellison) said, "Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar." However unsettling the components, here, everything is what it seems. Otherwise, Eddie’s kick at the cat is nothing more than his banishment of his "day", his past; and when the Queen of Spain’s picture goes dark, it’s simply her realization that all has not gone according to her plan — Eddie has broken free of the tomorrow she had set down for him.

As is often remarked in theatrical circles, "Sometimes less is more." But, regarding the protagonist’s epiphany, this just isn't one of those times. Mr. Ellison stops, I believe, a mere few words shy of perfection.


CRAZY AS A SOUP SANDWICH

Synopsis: Professional loser Arky Lochner leaps from the frying pan, to the fire, to a much hotter arena.

Comments: Small gripes: first, this story is (depending on the reader's tastes) perhaps better represented elsewhere in the Ellison Library, in either "traditional" form, or as a comic-book adaptation. Its elements are in keeping with the theme of this collection, but not everyone can wade through a shooting script. I (possibly all alone) wondered why Mr. Ellison found it necessary or desirable to include it here. More on that, anon....

Then, there's the mingy, niggling matter of Scene 2, where "Arky trembles, then drops the .45." Scene 3, next page: "Arky snaps off two more shots, sort of lackadaisically...." Perhaps Mr. Ellison means Arky lowers the .45, rather than drops it. Mingy, yes. Niggling — didn't I say so? Nit-picky; but as Mark Twain said (and Mr. Ellison has cited elsewhere), "Don't say 'light' when you mean 'lightning.'"

Then, there's the shot set-up direction for Scene 27:

27 FROM VOLKERPS — HIGH SHOT DOWN ON THE THREE MEN

— We're seeing the three men from the demon's P. O. V., yes? So, how do we see the demon,

As he smiles a ghastly smile, and looks at them meaningfully.?

Mirrors, I expect; possibly some smoke, too. Contrariwise, as one who has only the least imaginable experience at either end of a screenplay, it’s entirely likely that I’m taking it too literally — which isn’t Mr. Ellison’s fault, really, it’s (now) clearly a pan-&-dolly, swivelling from Volkerps’s perspective to that of his intended snacks; but there must be others, yonder, who are even more mingy than I and less familiar with the form?

That's it. Enough krechtzing. Because the teleplay (written for grins during the run of the revival of The Twilight Zone television series) is almost as much, and in some cases more, fun than Mr. Ellison's more-traditional presentation of the story. In this, it’s original form, it moves right along, dragging your mind's eye and ear on a joy-ride for the imagination; sort of the meeting place for those great old radio serials and any really effective prose, long or short.

I, alas, haven't had the opportunity to catch this on teevee. Mr. Ellison gives the production high praise (high, indeed, when one considers his other experiences with Canadian television production). But, were I the king, I would cause to be made a time-machine, and the cast I would assemble would run as follows (if you care, and even if you don't): Glenn Ford, Lauren Bacall, Arnold Stang, and Ann Sothern.

Yes, yes, yes — I know that the author designates the late David Niven in the scene directions; but I go with Glenn Ford, based on his performance as "Dave the Dude" in Pocketful of Miracles, which always kind of reminded me of James Cagney's later turn in Billy Wilder's One! Two! Three!. So why not Cagney himself in the role? Oh, sure — Betty Bacall's gonna be his moll. Huh!

And in case you're all puzzled about Arnold Stang, please go to your local video shop and rent The Man With the Golden Arm. Tough flick about "junk," great jazz score, and even Sinatra is good (he don't even croon!).

Well, here it is, "anon" already — where does the time go? About that "screenplay format" gripe I had. For some reason, I have a duce of a time thinking of a script as a valid, literary form. I am not alone in this, I know — Mr. Ellison, and others, resigned their memberships in SFFWA over the issue (the work in question was his adaptation, for the screen, of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot; the details of the episode are readily available, in essay form, in Mr. Ellison’s Sleepless Nights in the Procrustean Bed) — I just can’t figure out why that should be. As a writer with such aspirations myself, I know, intellectually at least, that a screenplay is as valid a prose form as a song ballad, or poem. It tells a story, in linear fashion, creating images in the reader’s mind, with a bigger budget than De Mille, Von Stroheim, or even Preminger ever had, even at the peak of their excess. I have to keep reminding myself that, if I discard any script as an "inappropriate" format, then the works of Shakespeare, Shaw, Wilde, and countless other classics must fall by the way, as well. What was I thinking? Shame on me.

In an earlier draft, I made much of Mr, Ellison’s attention to names, delineating with some profundity on the permutations of "Arky Lochner." Hoo-ha, amazing-and-thank-you. Mr. Ellison was most amused, found it all quite interesting, and gently informed me that it was so much eyewash. Thomas Hardy’s work induced in him a fascination with onomatopoeia. So that’s what put the "fun" in "profundity" — that, and an interest in real names, of people or even street signs.

Arky Lochner is exactly what his name suggests: terribly unfortunate.

Hazel, thinking of the color, is cool; familiar and agreeably neutral.

Cassandra? Please — read a book (oh, right — well, another book, too, then).

Chaucer? Gus Chaucer?!? Riotous! Like naming a pit-bull "Blossom!"

I ran into some trouble with "Nino," though. The author insists that, if you’re up against it with a demon, who would a kid from Painsville, OH, go to for help, but the Mafia? I, in my contrariness, stand by the opinion that it is a continuance of the earlier story's "Columbus" reference: the Nino, the Pinto, and the Santa Mario.

Hey — you think this is easy?

And, at long last, there's our theme du menage. Try this on for size, see how ya like the fit — Sometimes, the devil you know is worse than the devil you don't. So pay attention to whom you go for help. And count your fingers after you shake on the deal.


DARKNESS UPON THE FACE OF THE DEEP

Synopsis: Two old friends embark on their ultimate adventure, seeking a dangerous answer to an impossible question. Is this their second chance or a final chance?

Comments: I had some very begrudging misgivings about this story. Then, I looked again, looked closer. Not a chore, particularly — at the first reading, my mind and heart were taken on a flight of fantastic adventure. There are treasures near the surface, but the really priceless gems are hidden deeper. Some of Mr. Ellison’s influences are manifest, here: H. Rider Haggard, B. Traven; epic and sinister possibilities in dark, rich, foreign lands; jungles and deserts; shady pasts and disappointing prospects; all the right bows for the varied strings, deep inside us, that hum with vibration as we examine our own lot.

Then, abruptly, it ends.

Sort of like Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. And, when that comparison struck me ("Think ya used enough dynamite, there, Butch?"), it all began to settle into place. There is a chummy likeness to Butch and Sundance, or even James Cagney and Pat O’Brien in Angels With Dirty Faces, that takes me amidships: two old pals who didn’t quite go in the directions they expected. Given that connection, it seems that there can be no other resolution for Dennis Loder (the scholar, who has always played it safe and bookish) and Bobby Shafka (the outlaw, who has suffered the indignities, sans rewards, so commonly created by those who are too impatient with life to let it work out honestly and with some personal investment).

As the tension mounts, as atmosphere and mood grow more ominous and oppressive, as it becomes increasingly clear that this glowing artifact is the green-light for their undoing and damnation, the story’s theme sinks deeper into one’s consciousness, setting gentle hooks in the emotions. It is alluded to in a couple exchanges between Bobby and Dennis:

Shafka smiled, "This isn’t exactly your line of work, is it? I told you that when you conned me into coming. Little late for regrets, don’t you think?"

Later, it is Bobby who expresses his trepidation:

"...But what d’ya think, there’s something to it? We could be going into someplace we ought not, what d’ya think?"
Loder drew on his pipe, put the little gold reflector over the mouth of the bowl, and sent a cloud of smoke toward the evening sky. "What I think, pal, is that it’s not just a little, it’s a lot too late to be worrying about it."

There it is: Time. Living. The on-going threat of regret. The journeys we take, rarely pausing long enough to consider either the adventure of traveling or the consequences. The adventure and consequences of living. Never knowing when it’s the last of the last. We slave, we toil after a goals that, in the end, kill us, forever ending the journey. We flee to the Emerald City, only to starve in its streets. We sit working at adjustable hospital-room tables, trailing tubes and wires to Kenneth Struykfaden machines, forgetting what put us in that breezy little johnny, and then go back to it once we’re safely home from having our arteries drilled and tapped. We rarely pay attention to the hazards of the trip we take, even when we can get it into our heads that our final destination, The Final destination, is what destroys us. Like Butch and Sundance shooting their way out of a mission in Bolivia, or Bobby and Dennis opening that sarcophagus in a hidden crypt in a nameless land, not knowing where that next step will take us.

But — would we really be better served if we stayed home and indulged in philately? Everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die — and the price of living is dying. Just watch where you step.

The next time I read this story, I may very well feel, again, dissatisfied with its deceptively-hasty conclusion — I don’t know. I do know that it frightens me sufficiently now that I am resolved to more closely pay attention to the journey I’m taking, that I might compensate for the slippage; what little I can.


THE PALE SILVER DOLLAR OF THE MOON PAYS ITS WAY AND MAKES CHANGE

Synopsis: A wistful time-line of history, public and personal.

Comments: Similar in structure, presentation and general nature to both "The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore" and "Scartaris, June 28th," Mr. Ellison seems to join those two stories at this vulnerable point, painting delicate strokes in cool, soft pastels. This is a moonlit stroll down Memory Lane.

A masterful blend of historical fact and semi-autobiographical notation, Mr. Ellison assembles it all in a manner that provides some perspective for his life in comparison with history and world events. At the end of his years (and long may that time be in arriving), who will know? What will we have of him but what he has told us?

And what will it matter? More frightening and heart-breaking still, will it matter? The facts are easily obtainable: the Lindbergh Baby Kidnaping; the horrors of HUAC; the Castro regime; Eichmann’s capture and execution; Vietnam and Franco; Reagan and Zimbabwe and AIDS. You could look it up.

But who will there be to tell you about that little boy’s birthday party; or dancing at the sock-hop with that girl with the leg brace; or Sandburg, or that dear friend in Santa Monica, or the doves above the door?

And when I finish up, when the slippage at last overtakes me, who will there be to tell you about the preposterously bad haircut I got from my great-grandfather’s rival down the street at the other barbershop; or looking down the business-end of a .44 Magnum that time the Narcotics Squad burst into our home, and we ended up having to leave OKC, and the friends I’d finally made, for the sullen strangeness and humidity of South Texas; or about the man, a father-figure, who died suddenly and nobody told me; or my brief meeting with the author of this collection and the pride I took in being able to tell him that I was able to buy his book because I’d finally got the check for my first sold, published article; or the scent of honeysuckle on warm, Summer, twilight breezes; or the smell of firecrackers, or the taste of home-made wild plum jelly, or Papa’s truck pulling into the driveway at the end of the day, or, or,...

And what about your time-line? Will you be in the books, or must you make your own books? Either way, you must PAY ATTENTION. Because rust never sleeps. Slippage spares no-one.

Berlioz wrote, "Time is a great teacher. Unfortunately, it kills all its pupils."
The pale silver dollar of the moon pays its way and makes change.

It’s right there, ready, at the toll-booth. It doesn’t wait for anyone.


THE PALE SILVER DOLLAR OF THE MOON PAYS ITS WAY AND MAKES CHANGE (again)

Synopsis: A diary of the decades, covering incidents and moments of each ten-year period over the past sixty-odd year, and finally giving us The Truth about where all those peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches have been going since August, 1977

Comments: I approach this one with a certain amount of, I think, justifiable moustaches-nibbling. One would think (or perhaps pray, Lu-Ann, pray he’ll stop!) that there is little enough I might add to what’s already been said. One would think,...

First, the critique-proper (!): containing many of the same elements as its companion, Version 2 still seems, somehow, a lesser story. Still plenty of fun facts, likewise autobiographical elements, but the main addition here is, well, rather silly — fun, but rather, well, silly. They seem to have been written to accomplish different goals. For that, I would say they both succeed; but if pressed, I would almost certainly recommend Version 1 to anyone who asked. I might be pontificating my way into a hardy ass-chewing, but I wish I (or some capable person) had snagged the opportunity to edit these two into a single, shining thing, because there are words, lines, moments in Version 2 that truly stand out. I didn't (and likely won't) have that opportunity, but really I think it would be simply a job of deleting the element of the Bros. Presley. I suggest that the Elvis element intrudes on the reader’s emotional connection.

Now and again, in the process of looking through my scribblings here, the author has seen graciously fit to phone me up, occasionally putting me wise to something I'd missed, always with interesting background on the story and/or his process. Were it not for space limitations imposed by my own humility (such as it is) and good taste (such at it is) — whoo-whee, could I tell you a few! Ask me sometime for the background poop on "She's A Young Thing,..."

As Mr, Ellison tells me, he had been approached by a young fellow who runs one o’ them fan-zine-type things, asking for a contribution. Among other reasons., and having looked at some of the fellow's other material, Mr. E. said, "Um, heh-heh — no." Then this chap did a silly thing, a thing strictly and utterly verboten, right on page one of The Care and Feeding of the Artist's Ego: being already appraised that it was negative in nature, he asked for Harlan Ellison's opinion. No, really, I swear — he did!

Mr. Ellison’s reply was, in essence, that the material was puerile, pretentious, self-congratulatory crap, or, in a word, ka-ka. "What you're doing here," he went on, "this thing you're doing, I could do exactly that in one hour. Maybe even less." Now, our man stands at the plate and goes for Strike Three. He says, "Oh, no — I don't think you could do that."

Thus was the gauntlet thrown. Mr. Ellison sat down at his typewriter, drew an almanac down from the shelf and went to work, touching on various incidents for a randomly chosen year from each decade of his life. Okay, it took three hours — so a lot's happened since 1934, okay? Somehow, an early version made it into the program of an sf convention in Atlanta, in 1995. Obviously, he wanted to do more tinkering with it, since that version was mostly just historical facts, and Mr. Ellison would not rest until he and the story had accomplished his objective: thumbing his nose at what he considers literary pretension. Hence the whimsy in this version — actually the first version, by the way — with Elvis and Jesse, and the autobiographical elements which lend it a greater depth and fullness.

About differing goals:

I'm afraid my memory fails me, regarding Mr. Ellison's reasons for producing an additional version of the story; the version I, personally, prefer. I suspect that, having produced an amusing, functional piece, The Writer felt obliged to produce a thing of beauty for those who cared to look deeper. And as I and many others have said, writers reach a certain point in their craft where The Writer takes over. I have no other explanation for why or how a story that was written as a raspberry in the direction of hi-falootin’ litterchoor could assume one form that is somewhat amusing, then another that is so personally touching. And, while he does think that I was kind and clever in my remarks on that other version, Mr. Ellison suggests that I have read too much into it. I humbly suggest that he might be standing too near — because this version is good; and the other is great.


THE DEADLY NACKLES AFFAIR

Synopsis: In which Our Hero, who had sworn to never work in television again worked in television again. Seduced into a year-long, genuinely sparkling experience, he is rather forcibly reminded why he quit that scene ten years before by an involved bit of network chicanery, culminating in more than mere chestnuts roasting on that open fire, and his vow to never work in television again again.

Comments: It's not an easy thing, to misinterpret an essay (although I have had the singular experience of hearing how Swift's "A Modest Proposal" went sailing viciously past a "fellow student," socking into the doorjamb, near his head, like an assassin's dagger; which makes me wonder if the dagger might not have assumed the greater damage had it made its mark,...but I digress). Even if it is a bit of a story itself, its points are neatly made, the structure nice and linear and quite comfy. Unlike some essayists, the author resists the temptations of "soap-boxing", pedantism, and throwing rocks at anything other than duplicity, stupidity and the status quo. He is at least fair and occasionally generous in his description of his dealings with all parties named; the network doesn't count — as Mr. Ellison can tell you,. networks are anything but a party, and definitely no picnic.

What more can be said? Only, I hope, that Mr. Ellison has more goodies to count on his right hand than baddies on his left — even if the viewing public was denied some groundbreaking television-with-a-conscience.

 

NACKLES and "Nackles"

And, speaking of television, if I might be allowed to avail myself of the words of Ralph Kramden — "Sometimes I got a bi-i-i-ig mouth!" How else could I get myself into these predicament?

So I'm talking to this guy, a friend of recent acquaintance, with whom I share an interest in the field of speculative fiction. And I am come over all grumpy because A.) he is singing psalms about a particular book which I do not like a lot and B.) I had been unable to scrape up the loot for the limited edition of SLIPPAGE, which he has, so I am feeling the least bit covetous, if you get me. I say as how it would sure be swell to have a copy, on account of I am reviewing the trade edition for a guy on-line, and the extra material would be mighty handy. "Well," says he, "Why don’t you borrow my copy?"

Naturally, I am stunned and delighted — and never-mind the fact that I was kind of fishing in that stream anyhow. Let's just say that Charles is a stand-up cat, and leave it there.

Meanwhile, this all comes to play just as I have finished not only reviewing the rest of the book’s contents, but after I have received Mr. Ellison’s comments and polished off the revisions. So, just to be on the square about everything, I call him and ask him, since he had nice, kind things to say about the rest of the material, does he mind if I tackle the stuff from the limited. "Pish-Tosh, m’ lad," he says (sort of), "why should I mind? Knock yourself out!" For a second, I wondered if he meant that literally, but then realized he is far too gentle a person, a-slop with the milk of human goodness, etc., etc. His only concern was about the additional teleplay, since he knows how those things make my head spin — what a kidder!

Now — having clapped hands on the goods and garnered the Maestro’s kind permission, I have committed myself. I have blabbed it elsewhere. Oy. I must deliver. And, as Sky Masterson remarked, "Daddy — I got cider in my ear!"

My headache is not a result of confrontation with that fear-striking literary form, the teleplay — goodness, no; I've outgrown that. It's just that I don't feel that I can treat the material fairly, unless I give a going-over to Mr. Westlake’s story as well. Which I don't think is necessarily fair, either, because a script is often a whole different dish of tsimmes and vice versa from a story. And many stories are problematic, when it comes to screen adaptation. And "Nackles" is one of those stories.

It's a wicked, nasty, terrific story; but the meat of it lies in the set-up — of the title character, yes, but of the narrator's creep brother-in-law, too. Frank, the brother-in-law, isn't a monster, per se — he has his share of very real problems; his monstrousness is anchored in how he deals with those problems, i.e., taking out all his fear and dissatisfaction with his life, all his self-pity, on his wife and children. His only communication skills stem from his brutality, which is likely what made him such a hot-shot on the Pro Football defensive line. Well, he's out of that, now, but he's still defensive. And when it becomes clear that physical manifestations of that (in the form of shiners on his wife) won't fly, he turns to a subtler, crueler form of abuse: the verbal mental and emotional torture of his wife and, even more, his children.

Which is how he comes to "create" Nackles — a terrifying Anti-Claus, as intimidating a ghoul as ever appeared in the pages of Tales From the Crypt. And Frank puts as much effort into creating him/it as Mr. Westlake put into creating Frank!

I see a number of elements here, whether Mr. Westlake intended them or not (i.e., they're my perceptions; love me, love my ego). The first section of the story is, to me, reminiscent of the readers' introduction to Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with a dollop of The Great .Santini mixed in; as the story progresses, Mr. Westlake seems to add appropriate portions of "Waiting For Godot," and The Third Man, with the sinister Nackles as Harry Lime. And the piece's greatest accomplishment is the non-appearance of the beastie, another fine example of the philosophy that it's what we don't see or know that unravels us.

And how do you cover that much territory, visually, in an eleven-or-so minute segment? How the hell do you do it in a ninety or one-hundred-twenty minute feature?! In the former case, it's mighty damned tough to get everything said or shown; in the latter, how do you add enough without diverting too terribly much from the story, and still fill the extra half hour or so until you can get around to the title character?

Which brings us, I suppose, to Mr. Ellison's adaptation.

Faced with these challenges, and temporarily forgetful of past and future escapades with the network's Department of Dirty Tricks, I believe that Harlan Ellison did his dead-level best. (Does he ever do less? Of course not — but you will readily recognize, and he will as readily admit, that some of his work is strictly for chuckles, or to stick pins in certain circus balloons.) And it’s a fine script. There is, I think, ample opportunity for social subversion in the original story's content regarding child- and spouse-abuse; but he saw greater possibilities in racism and bigotry, and those are certainly worthy topics — debating which issue to address is rather like trying to decide which leper to heal first. What they call "academic."

In a perfect world, there would have been time to address both issues and perhaps a couple more besides. And that is the keystone of my disappointment: time. Yes, I said it was/is a fine script, and I stick by that statement. But, back in that perfect world I mentioned, where there would have been time to address an abundance of issues, there would also have been more time to develop Nackles. He/It is indeed the anchor between story and teleplay, the fulcrum of the tale. But, in Mr. Ellison’s script, he appears of a sudden, and we have no time to see the progression of studied meanness that gives him/it birth. In an hour or even a half-hour, suppose we see Frank (who has somehow become Jack Podey) terrorizing the kids in his own apartment building with it; roughing his wife because his eggs are over/under-done and his coffee's cold; hassling the Welfare clients; bragging to his cronies in some saloon about how he put one on those li’l nigger kids who keep wrecking the halls in his building, how he came up with Nackles; putting some lumps on a homeless person, with a hard sermon to go with it; then, perhaps after a few demonstrations that other creeps are torturing their own children with Nackles, culminating with the incident as written? We could even trot a succession of dates along the bottom of the screen, leading up to Christmas Eve, so Nackles has time to gain form and the audience has time to build up that terrible and necessary anticipation.

As it stands, Mr. Ellison had very little time, and I really think that the material merits — still merits, in fact; anybody know what the folks at Tales From the Crypt or The Outer Limits have planned for future seasons? — an entire show. The mention and appearance of Nackles in the script are abrupt, and I think the script suffers for that.

All of which, right back to the top of the page, is about what I’d like it to be, as Mr. Ellison has gently pointed out. I want(ed) an eleven-minute segment to be a full episode, or feature. Which this ain’t. What is there, is a nice, hard, muscular piece of work — we have no doubts about who or what Frank/Jack Podey is, the other characters are nicely and realistically formed; in all other respects, it's just what it needs to be. And I still wish there had been a bit more time. Nevertheless, Frank/Jack Podey remains a man victimized by his own ignorance, anger and hatred. I wish we had been able to see it play. Perhaps Messrs. Ellison and Westlake will shop it around — it still matters.


THE LINGERING SCENT OF WOODSMOKE

Synopsis: Dario De Queluz, late of Sao Paulo, is caught up by his past life as Ernst Koegel during a walking tour of Eastern Europe. Confronted in the forest near Auschwitz, he is finally made to pay for his Crimes (literally) Against Nature.

Comments: There is a word in Yiddish: shaygets. It’s from the Hebrew, and its initial meaning is "a Gentile boy or young man." There are other, more-descriptive definitions, some more and less flattering. I am, I suppose, to some degree, all of them — a charming, mischievous devil; an arrogant creep; an ill-educated nincompoop. But I know this, and I know this word, see, because I value culture and tradition. While others are enriching their lives by learning Spanish or French or Esperanto, I, perverse gremlin that I am (see above), I am trying to learn Yiddish. Later, alevay I should live so long, I’ll look into other languages; but Yiddish was my first choice, mainly because it’s a product of a culture about which I know comparatively little, while I enjoy some of its other products with some frequency. I will spare you the gross details, just promise me you’ll, for yourself, sample some matzah ball soup, or some nice potato kugel, maybe a piece gefilte, some kreplach, or just order the bialy instead of the bagel.

I know from value of culture and tradition. I know from history, alright? So, having said that, all kidding aside and ignoring (for the moment) the kosher menu — are we all agreed that I am not saying this from any kind of antisemitism? I know, yeah, yeah, yeah — I grew up in Oklahoma and Texas, and we are all very well-acquainted with the Okie/Texan attitude and vocabulary regarding "niggers, spicks, wops, rag-heads, micks, pope-fuckers, limeys, krauts, chinks, gooks, faggots and kikes," etc., ad nauseam. Believe me, it’s a quick trip to the nauseam part, and it is not an aspect of my background of which I am proud. And I have tried extra, oh, extra-hard to divest myself of that attitude, and that vocabulary, and that whole mind-set regarding race, religion, nationality, gender, sexuality, and even politics (even you Republicans have nothing to fear from me. Yet).

Phew. Having flung all that into the ring, there’s no way around telling you what I think of this story, "The Lingering Scent of Woodsmoke." And that is: not much. That seems so short and flippant, and I have the irritating feeling that I’m doing the story and the author a grave injustice, as if I’m shrugging off both of them. But so help me — I looked and looked at this story, poured over it more and with greater care, at this point, than any other story in this collection, brought all my possibly-pitiful faculties to bear, I PAID ATTENTION, and I. Just. Don’t. Get it. Mea culpa; mea maxima culpa.

The author was kind enough to attempt to alleviate my confusion (where this story is concerned), and passed a number of "innerrestin’ facts" down the phone line to me. I knew that gorgeous cover was done by Terese Nielsen, and Christ can she make art! You can’t look at this thing and not expect magic. What I didn’t know was that this was the single HE’s Dream Corridor story to exist before the artwork. Mr. Ellison was approached by the good people at Land’s End to do a story for a line of walking-shorts they were pushing, but it ran a bit long, and the content was a bit heavy. They paid him for it, but couldn’t use the story, and encouraged him to take it wherever he liked.

So now I know all this. Interesting background, concerns about space limitations for the comic (of which he has zero) were laid to rest. I am aware. I’m also aware that Mr. Ellison had/has significant obligations to the maintenance of his health, and at the time the story was written, he was enjoying hi-jinx with his circulatory system. Which I say as if Harlan Ellison needs a pisher like me to make apologies for him. I ain’t even gonna play dat. Let’s move on to the part where I cut my own throat, shall we? If you will direct your attention to the center ring, Ladies and Germs,...

I feel, personally, that Mr. Ellison went to a fall-back position with this one. Nazi come-uppance, meted out via supernatural means or otherwise, is hardly a fresh premise. It’s execution, here, isn’t especially riveting, either. Frankly ("Good-bye, cruel world!"), it reads like a moderately well-crafted imitation of Harlan Ellison. A shrug. A knock-off. Is it a "bad" story? An invalid notion? Am I overanalyzing it?

I hope I don’t demean the concept. Certainly we must always remember the atrocities that were committed on the Jewish People, in aid of which Mr. Ellison labors here, as well as just turning out a neat story. I merely feel that he fails to serve that cause very well in this instance. Such subject matter should inspire greater care, perhaps especially so in fantasy’s environs.

And maybe it does just come down to a matter of personal taste. All I c’n tell you’se is, where these reviews come from, is where they (the stories, the writing) touch me; and you may have noted that some of these yarns get me pretty deep. If it doesn’t do much for me, that doesn’t mean it won’t wind your turban nice’n’tight.

Well, before the blindfold and cigarette are administered, I should add an historical note regarding verisimilitude and the premise. The internment camp ovens were not fueled with wood — wood, it seems, does not burn with sufficient heat to do the job at hand. Many of the trains that brought the internees ("Your baggage will be sent after you,...") also brought fuel. Gas. For the ovens. And the showers. Horrible, horrible things,... And if Mr. Ellison thinks to use this story to keep history alive, I very humbly suggest that perhaps he keep the facts in line.


THE MUSEUM ON CYCLOPS AVENUE

Synopsis: Gordon Stapylton, Professor of Classics at UNC, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, travels to Sweden for an academic conference. There, he meets the woman of his dreams. Several bouts of the mad-pash later — the street signs change and he with them,...

Comments: Heh-heh. On the one hand, who but Harlan Ellison (inspired by Ron Brown’s "Dream Corridor" cover-art) could have brought so magically and solidly to life such a Repository of Unimaginable Creatures (or, perhaps, Only Imaginable Creatures)? To whom else would it have occurred? Not very damned many, I expect, and fewer still who could imbue it all with a tangibility and passion comparable to their own arcane fantasies. The woman — loveliness personified, made flesh and sleek with passion; the Museum — ominous, sinister, foreboding; the exhibits — they douse the reader in joyous awe, just as the saurian reconstructions and fierce creatures of more mundane museums and menageries transfix children of all ages (if I might use that phrase without receiving litigious glares from the offices of Ringling Bros., Barnum and Bailey).

Then there’s the other hand. Mr. Ellison very adroitly captures the flavor and nuances of speech of the Ol’ Southe’n Gentility, that gracious and graceful turn of phrase that is almost effeminate yet undeniably masculine. His friendship with the late Manly Wade Wellman and a long familiarity with that gentleman’s work stands Mr. Ellison in good stead; in spite of the fact that he told me, voice soft with doe-eyed innocence ("Why, whatevah do you mean?"), that, as the story was writing itself, it came out just that way (yes, you heard me right).

Strangely, however, I found the onslaught of moonlight and magnolia, a bit pleasant at first, then distracting, and finally downright irritating. It defies my powers of explanation — I know a number of people from the Carolinas, and my great-granny was an East Texas Lady born-and-bred, Grand-daughter of the Confederacy, and proud member of the Eastern Star; hearing these people speak is soothing music. Having to wade through it in print is, for some elusive reason, an entirely different matter. An excellent story in all (I mean, all) other respects, my personal feeling on the matter was that the story and the readers might have been better served by an omniscient voice/third-person narrative.

To be fair, though, I took a deep breath and, at the author’s gentle suggestion, read it again. Because, when he called to discuss these reviews (never stooping to an attempt at changing my mind), Mr. Ellison mentioned that he was concerned that his use of dialect would be intrusive, and accordingly wrenched control of the typewriter from his muse. It was getting to him; so he toned down the dialect as the story progressed. Perhaps that’s what made it jarring for me? Friends of mine, whose opinions I esteem greatly, have told me that the story has the opposite effect on them: they found the dialect irritating, at first, then "got used to it;" I, on the other hand, have always had kind of an ear for that sort of thing — I hear an accent or dialect I like, I find myself unconsciously doing it. I was intolerable for weeks, after I saw Fargo, for instance. So, what I’m finally saying is that, having got the voice going in my head, perhaps filtering the non-dialectic syntax through it made my head hurt?

And, still, I would be very interested to hear this story read aloud — perhaps Mr. Ellison will consider adding such a production to the stock of the Harlan Ellison Record Collection? The characters are richly drawn, the setting teeters on a fine line between wholesome light and intimidating shadow, in a (to me) fairly exotic locale, and tension is sustained smartly with a cunning blend of romantic possibility and quiet threat.

Mr. Ellison’s theme is carried out in this story, not by a message or statement, but by a rather unsettling, implied question: What do you do when Love and Perfection come to you, only to turn you down?

Given many of the experiences of my own life of late, that is not a question designed to inspire restful sleep; but, then, when is it ever?


GO TOWARD THE LIGHT

Synopsis: Alkay — it’s the future (which is nice to know we got one, nu?), and there is this Matty Simon — a nice man, a mitzvah to his mishpoche. He works with the Timedrift Project, schlepping around in history, studying and like that, which is all very important. I mean, his bubbeh, she could plotz (God forbid!) from all that kvelling, nu? But! — is Matty a Good Jew? Levin says no, but look who’s talking — that Levin, that gevalt in tuchis! Can such a frummer be also a momser, and as well a nudnik? Who knew? Meanwhile, Chanukah is only a couple days away, and guess who is raising a tsimmes, a big shtuss about our darling Matty’s Orthodoxy and observances? Well, Matty shows him, nu? And a krenk for that Levin! (God forbid it should come to pass.)

Comments: There are some worldly curmudgeons (of all ages) who contend that time-travel, as a story element, has become science fiction shtik, at this point, and therefore terribly old-hat. To which, I respond with a friendly wave of both hands, the thumbs of which happen to be lodged in my ears. These people sneer at the blackboard and chalk, and completely miss the concepts and ideas thence inscribed. So it’s on cardboard and in Crayola — what does it say?!? Well, this one, written for performance by the author on NPR’s "Chanukah Lights," says lots, believe me.

This is a terrific story, for many of the same reasons that "I’m Looking For Kadak" is a terrific story, yet each stands on its own. And, like "Kadak," there are wonders below the surface here, as well. Fun and entertaining, absolutely, on face-value alone; but there are deeper levels here, and it behooves all readers to look at them. To wit:

I grew up (if you can call it that) in a regional culture wherein I was almost constantly harangued about my relationship with (cue the brass, and waken the choir)...The Lord. In this, I identify strongly with Matty. My personal relationship with, indeed my concept of The Deity had to square-up with their notions of what was decidedly "Him" — and to Whom, incidentally, they insisted assigning so many of their (indeed, humanity’s) most despicable qualities.

So here we are. I can’t recite scripture on-cue. Does this make me less a Christian (which faith I profess strictly for me and strictly due to Christ’s teachings and demonstrations about how to live and treat others) (and even though I’m contemplating conversion to Judaism, on account of the little I’ve seen, I’ve liked)? Matty Simon isn’t a rabbinical student — this makes him a "Bad Jew?" I have the same feeling about Jerry Falwell and Jesse Helms, likely, as Matty has about that Levin. So, regardless of the particular denomination involved, I view Matty’s blow against pompous piety with extraordinary satisfaction.

And, also, there’s the viggerish, the little something extra for his time and trouble — first-hand knowledge of the square dope on "the miracle." Most rewarding, I think, is that Matty can’t and doesn’t tell anyone, even that Levin — there is the professional matter of monkeying with history, yes; but I prefer the idea that Matty withholds the information just from his own humility. Is he a Good Jew or a Bad Jew (or even "plain old Dorothy Gale, from Kansas")? Only the worst sort of paskudnyak would even try to draw such a distinction about a mensch like Matty!

Meanwhile, deeper still, Matty takes away more than mere satisfaction at besting that Levin. It’s the difference between theory and practice, memorizing the recipes and actually making the dishes. That Levin knows plenty about the history, observances, traditions and spirituality of his heritage — intellectually. Matty, however, has actually participated in his cultural heritage — he went, he saw, he did; he killed and defended; he contributed. And that, says I, is the most satisfying (and cautionary) aspect of "Go Toward the Light".

Cautionary? Oh, yes, indeedy-do. Consider: how many people, and how often, form their beliefs and opinions solely from the information provided by the newspapers, television or text-books? All those things are very fine and necessary to be sure — but we stop at the starting point. That information should be a springboard to greater investigation, but we are mostly content to stroke our respective chins, form an opinion (the opinion given us, in these circumstances), and do nothing.

Know whence you came. Pay attention to where you’re going. Act. Or suffer the slippage to work its ugly magic unimpeded.

Couple harmless after thoughts: surely there were Goyisher "fugitives." Think there were any Christian body-snatchers among the lot?

And this name, this "Barry R. Levin." Why does it sound so familiar,...?


MEFISTO IN ONYX

Synopsis: Rudy Pairis, a well-educated but down-on-his-luck Black man, is asked by an old, dear friend to practice his cursed talent for mind-reading on a convicted serial killer to ascertain whether the man is innocent, as he still insists. But Rudy’s glimpse into the monster’s psyche reveals something Rudy doesn’t want to know — and, later, something he desperately needs to learn.

Comments: This novella is, quite deservedly, the centerpiece of the collection. Working with a concept (that of "jaunting") inspired by the late Alfie Bester and fulfilling a promise to the late Robert Bloch, Harlan Ellison surpasses himself in sheer story-telling.

Reminiscent of Eric Hoffer’s statement, "What monstrosities would walk the streets were some people’s faces as unfinished as their thoughts," Mr. Ellison extrapolates from there, leading the reader a rather sinister, foreboding chase through the emotions. It’s all here: heartache, disappointment, nerve-wracking tension and an otherworldly melancholy, all suffused through a love for life and the living of it. A hero who (literally) doesn’t realize his own potential, a duped and ensorcelled lady-fair, and a villain of the blackest stripe, hiding behind the wholesome mask he (it?) presents to the world.

Mr. Ellison’s structure of the exposition and syntax are as precisely orchestrated as any of director John Woo’s action sequences. All the fine details are related in a sharply logical, casually scattered, conversational manner, and not a word rings false. It has been said that the most unwelcome character in fiction is the author obviously hard at work. This narrative is seamless. Mr. Ellison has developed, in his long career, a recognizable style and a unique voice; Stephen King commented on it in his introductory remarks for Stalking the Nightmare. While reading "Mefisto in Onyx," however, I found myself so caught up by the narrative voice that I actually became forgetful that it was written by Harlan Ellison, so utterly absent is the writer’s "personality," so fully-formed and truly alive are the characters.

The "slippage" in this story is painfully clear and beautifully sustained. From the beginning, Rudy Pairis’s supports are slowly stripped away, each layer of his friendship with Allison, the relationship itself, leaving him no living soul to whom he might entrust the truth of himself. It only gets better from there, as he is flensed of his dignity and personal honor; his trust, mind, sanity; his wretched, unwanted talent; his freedom, his life, his very identity.

More important, but sublimely less obvious, is that also stripped away are Rudy’s "obstacles," all his excuses to go on being Po’ Ol’ Rudy Pairis, semi-pro hard-luck fuck-up. Whatever else, Rudy can still learn, grow, transcend his difficulties and get on with the business of living. He can shed that old, self-piteous shell in a form of spiritual/physical chrysalis, and be really free and alive, with a clean slate. He even gets the girl.

It’s simple to look at the story with readers’ hindsight and pick out Spanning’s fuckery — the warning signs that all is not as it seems or should be are right in front of us. But it is beyond pointless to theorize why Rudy didn’t twig earlier in the game; part-and-parcel with any sort of transformation of the body, mind or spirit is that one be utterly stripped of one’s old life. It’s a frightening, risky, inexorable process. The rewards aren’t guaranteed, if they exist at all. But the message is here and clear: slippage can be made to work for us. If we PAY ATTENTION.


WHERE I SHALL DWELL IN THE NEXT WORLD

Synopsis: An essay, through which Mr. Ellison explains — again — with diagrams and arrows — precisely how he conjures, thereby erasing any further need for anyone, forever more and amen, to ask him The Question.

Comments: Ahem. Yes. Well. Having synopsized this entry, what there is left that I could add or illuminate. Where does Harlan Ellison (or any other talented fantasist) get his ideas? People ask that question as if the answer would somehow help them, be they Ellisons of Tomorrow, Beatniks or solid citizens of bygone psychedelic days, or lonely flakes of right now.

Personally, on those rare occasions when I am asked, "Where do you get your ideas?", my answer is simplicity itself: I steal them. Simple follow-through logic, if one believes Hemingway’s assertion that "There are no new ideas under the sun — the only reason to be a writer is to try to do it better than the guys that came before you." Paraphrased. Someone had the ideas before me (and will surely have them after I am gone); ergo, I "steal" them.

In the meanwhile, though it might cost me my sponsorship in the WMGAw (Writers Manque Guild of America, west); yea, though it cost me my life or well-being, I’ll share with you a secret. In case you’re still wondering. So you can leave those sweet people — our story-tellers — alone. I won’t divulge the secret handshake, but here’s-how on the inside track:

Harlan Ellison. Stephen King. Clive Barker. Ursula K. LeGuin. Silverberg. Matheson (either of ‘em). Bradbury. Sturgeon. Leiber. Pick one, add a dozen. All the same. Writers get their ideas from the World and Time. What is past, what might yet be; human hurts and joys, threats and fears, love and loneliness and passion.

You can do this. Amaze your friends, lots of fun at parties.

But — you must first train your eyes and ears to see and hear. When I get my six-pack from Poughkeepsie, or that rush-delivery by phone from the Service’s Schenectady office, it’s in a language only I can decipher. Other writers may get all fartootst working from my notes, or I from theirs. So, I translate; they translate. I hope I’ll get as good at it as some of them are.

So, for the Unbelievers in the Peanut Gallery, Mr. Ellison has provided three examples, along with demonstrations of how his process works — sort of. The stories are fun, the processing explanations are fascinating. I’m just not sure that the process is illuminated any better now than by anything he has said on the matter in the past. This happens when you try to explain the color blue to someone who’s never seen it. "Necro Waiters" makes a nice demonstration with bitter-sweet black comedy; "Mark" opens up terrific possibilities, but the leap from "sqwarb" to Sam Clemens’ extraterrestrial origins eludes me; and "The Last Will and Testicle of Trees Rabelais," a character sketch extolling a sense of hallucinatory futility. Maybe.

The stories themselves deal with the things we can’t escape in this life or the next; the work which goes for nothing, because it can and will only get worse; and keeping a sense of humor about going into that dark tunnel, because it might be the only sweet snack you get on the long ride outta here. Which leads us back to the theme of this collection — the only things you can depend on are the things you truly don’t want to depend on; the number of which things is growing. We call that "slippage." So pay attention.


CHATTING WITH ANUBIS

Synopsis: A 7.5 temblor draws to young anthropologists to the Oasis of Siwa and what could be the Temple of the Oracle — the mythical Shrine of Ammon — and a soul-shattering, life-altering secret from the lips of the Jackal-Headed One.

Comments: Cognizant of the verbal run-off present in most of my reviews in this series, I am almost pleased to announce that words pursuant to the critique of this story are putting up a hell of a fight. I can tell you that Mr. Ellison was inspired in this by the elegant, exotic "Dream Corridor" cover by Jane MacKenzie, etc., etc. etc. But damned if I can tell you how the man dood what he done.

Perhaps the secret rests in the exotic locale, Egypt, timeless and strange. Perhaps it’s the almost-mythic tale of Alexander the Great’s mysterious decline. Curious places; unsettling legends -- whatever it is, there’s something about this story that puts and keeps me on edge, in a pleasantly eery way. It’s the feeling I still get watching the 1932 picture, "The Mummy," starring Boris Karloff — the opening sequence where that dry husk in the sarcophagus slo-o-o-owly opens its eyes, glittering, malevolently alive; and the segment where Ardeth Bey (Karloff) shows his reincarnate princess (Zita Johann) visions of What Was. Gauzy, wispy, rich with subtle, unspeakable terrors: the isolation of the desert; the ancient stone, secreted for a time beyond time, now lifted up to mortal eyes; the simple dread inspired by a descent into deeper darkness; chill winds and formless, invasive hands; awesome, massive statuary; the terrible, ethereal beauty of the tomb; pale, opalescent mist -- faerie-light or Will-o’-the-Wisp; and mighty Anubis, Lord of the Dead and Companion of Souls, Bearer of the Secret and Guardian of the Tomb of the Nemesis, the Murderer of the Elder Gods.

This story is like incense, at once sweet and bitter, somehow damning to one’s peace of mind. Mr. Ellison merely hints at the secret, of course, setting in motion an internal conflict for the reader: the maddening situation of wanting badly to know a thing that we are sure we don’t want to know, that will unhinge us, sealing our doom. It has been said by the late Mr. Karloff (regarding film, but it applies as easily to other media as well) that it’s what we don’t see, or know, that drives the nail home. Once set in motion by elegant suggestion, our imaginations do the dirty work with greater, ghoulish aptitude than our Story-Tellers could muster and retain their sanity. That Moses lies in the Tomb has very tough implications, all by itself — what is this horrific secret? That Andrew Dice Clay is actually funny? No — madness, that way lies,...

The only twinge I experience in this otherwise entrancing, disorientating, gorgeous and chilling story is the narrator’s committing the manuscript in Yin, the lost language of the Chinese. If the man is giving us a warning, why does he leave it in a language that might be completely lost before it’s ever found, if it’s ever found? Yes, there is a school of thought about hiding things: either in plain sight, or a hiding place within a hiding place — just to make it that much more mysterious. This application of the rule, however, just seems a bit gratuitous. And hardly worth arguing over. If it applies here.

And then there’s the message — that there are some things you just don’t wanna know; pearls of great price that bestow a burden with ownership; asking the question might be more important than getting the answer. Just pay attention. Because innocence cannot be regained and damnation may not be unlearned.


THE FEW, THE PROUD

Synopsis: Del Springarn, Dropshaft Sapper 2nd Class, relates to the court-martial officers the circumstances by which he became the War Hero who deserted under fire, his own dark secret, and that of his late, beloved grandfather. All he asks in return for this information, regardless of his final sentence, is the answer to one, measly, little question,...

Comments: At first, Odd though it might sound, the words get in the way. After a somewhat Orwellian, four-paragraph set-up, "The Few, The Proud" reads like nothing so much as a narrative from one of the old Science Fiction/Combat Tales pulp magazines. And, at first, the words get in the way. My chin was resting just shy of my navel — "Am I reading this? This was composed within my lifetime? When do we get to the technomagical atomic food-assemblers and the new hyper-destruct-o experimental Explodium Bombs, so recently and unwittingly stolen by those gruff-but-patriotic space-pirates? Ha!"

But, by the time I had finished the story, I had shut up and decided to read it again. A couple times, in fact. Mr. Ellison did not choose this narrative style lightly — it only wants time to sink in. Like homemade chili or stew, it gets better the second day.

Del sounds for all the world like that guy in all the old war movies; you know, the guy from Brooklyn — very jazzy, very vernacular, very cliche, right down to his Grampa Louie, blessed be his memory. It’s impossible (for me, anyway) to read that "voice" without thinking of Archie Andrews, Mom and hotdogs, that skinny, square-shouldered, smilin’ kid from the old neighborhood. Clean-cut, loves his country. Few things, to my mind, capture that image like the old ‘40's and ‘50's pulps’ style, and that mental/emotional image is what makes this story work like a Swiss watch; in fact, what makes it work at all.

The irony is that, had this story been written during the period of the style it emulates, it likely would never have seen daylight. Come to that, it very likely could have got Mr. Ellison deported! The story’s a little (!) too stand-up honest, too harsh, scary and real, and it doesn’t cast the government and defenders of our planet (read as: nation) in a very kindly light; at least, not those who run things and can, therefore, make deep doo-doo for anyone producing, um, "Un-American" noises. (Anyone out there remember the Charlie McCarthy Hearings? The real heros all decided to dummy-up; we never saw their lips move, brother!) And here, in this story, with the assistance and encouragement of our trusted leaders, clean and pure and innocent slowly become dirty corrupt and foolhardy, as Del reveals through his story that he has lovingly, unwittingly devoted himself to a monstrous lie.

To honor his adored grandfather — humble war hero and three-tour veteran of the Pleiades — Del joins up at thirteen. He completes his training and serves with pride. Until the Battle of Black’s Nebula, that is. Until, seven years into his enlistment (the same interval, by the way, that it takes the human body to reproduce itself), he comes home, a decorated war hero, for some R&R, and to confess to his Grampa that he, Del, isn’t made of the same stuff. Until Grampa Louie puts him wise to his shame about his own war activities, and advises Del to get out while he still has some of himself.

I wonder how far back this sort of thing goes. What John Prine called "The Great Compromise," I mean — committing war on each other simply because They Are Different, and there’s a buck to be made. Fighting the fight because we’re told to fight it by those who, unlike Del and Grampa Louie, have never seen that the Enemy has a face. Because, really, if you remove the "furniture" of aliens, rocket ships and laser-squirtguns, this could as easily be the story of the generation between WWI and WWII; or WWII and Korea; or Korea and Vietnam; or Vietnam and the Gulf War; or the Gulf War and whatever-comes-next, and something always comes next. Pick a fight, any fight at all — look at the stories of the simple souls down there on the ground, those who see that the Enemy has a face, and find out why they’re fighting...why they think they’re fighting.

In the end, Del cuts them the simplest of deals: he’ll share his Grampa’s greatest, most shameful secret if they will, in turn, just tell Del how they tracked him down before they "blow [his] atoms to goofer dust." Thanks to the wonders of first person narrative, it is impossible to tell whether they honor their agreement or not — and, either way, it doesn’t really matter. Either way, their answer is the culmination of so many gross indignities and vulgar manipulations. Either they welsh on their promise, or they reveal that they expect their soldiers to do precisely as Del has done, expect it from the outset, and prepare for the contingency of their personal retrieval and vaporization themselves — Kyben blast or "friendly fire." Either way, Del sums it up very sweetly, as he is dragged to the starchamber: "You lied to me! You lied to me."

We must be careful of the things we do, things we take for granted. We must examine why we do them. We must intimately assess our heros, our role-models, our inspirations; their motives and our own. Otherwise, we might discover too late that we have devoted ourselves to wickedness. We must ask questions. We must pay attention.


SENSIBLE CITY

Synopsis: Two indefensible defendants jump bail to escape a guilty-verdict, and head for greener pastures — until the greener pastures start coming for them,...

Comments: This, among all the other entries in SLIPPAGE, is perhaps the single story in the collection which requires the greatest adherence to Mr. Ellison’s advisory to "PAY ATTENTION." I first encountered the piece in BEST NEW HORROR V (or perhaps it was VI? The trouble with library books is that they must eventually go back,...), and it left me scratching my head.

The characters are richly rendered. The time and place of the setting are right here with us (even if the author leaves the particulars uncomfortably vague). The author deftly balances gruesome violence, black humor, and atmosphere moving from gritty noir to Lovecraftian doom, creating a truly unsettling core of dread.

And so far as all that goes, Bravo, Mr. Ellison! But what is the story about? Two creeps escape one damnation, only to be suddenly and unexpectedly seized by another. Fro some reason, I found it extremely difficult to break through this admittedly-engrossing shell and get to the meat underneath. There is, invariably, more to Mr. Ellison’s work than the ink we see on the page before us; and I do not refer to that trickiest of literary devices, symbolism. He is subtle. Sly and clever. There are clues. Pay attention.

The title: "Sensible City."

(Former) Lt. Gropp’s devotion to pragmatism, practicality, good sense.

The characters of Gropp and Rizzo themselves, wicked and brutal, yet an homage to another pair — George and Lenny, in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Of course! How could I have missed that? Gropp, the blocky, bullet-headed thug, the brains of the organization; Mickey Rizzo, the childishly brainless, behemoth engine of destruction. Even their exchange about Grape-Nuts for Mickey echoes George’s and Lenny’s discussion/argument about ketchup for their beans.

At which point, I twigged. Because, "The best laid plans of mice and men,..."

Bingo. Slippage.

There are times when, hero or villain, our finest, most meticulous, most Machiavellian schemes are thwarted by blind circumstance. For no knowable reason, all our hard work goes swirling down the pipe, regardless of our reasoned intention to do the Right Thing, the sensible thing. No reason. Nada. Right out of the clear blue (or, in this case, green). Slippage. Common sense and logic crumble like fine ash beneath our gaze. The consequences aren’t always so just, dire, or hair-raising as in "Sensible City," but neither are they usually terribly rewarding.

This is a splendid story, but not very satisfying. I don’t think it’s meant to be satisfying; rather it is unsettling. Because, although we might not come to the same bitter end as Gropp and Rizzo, we need to know that, at some point, our dearest wish might be overruled. Suddenly. Unexpectedly. For no reason.

Slippage.


THE DRAGON ON THE BOOKSHELF

Synopsis: A diminutive dragon is dispatched to our reality to repair a rent in dimensional timespace. Before he can get down to work, however, he falls for a mortal woman, and falls hard. As things break down, the dragon, Urnikh (that’s Oower-neesh) must decide whether to save her for himself, or save her by saving us all,...

Comments: Attempting a review of this story does peculiar things to my head. It is an excellent story, to be sure. A tough, tight piece of writing, it is perhaps on par with any of Mr. Ellison’s recognized masterpieces, or anyone’s personal favorites. For passion and magic, this is a heavy contender, and you hear this from a man who is not particularly fond of Magical Dragon Adventures.

What makes this difficult, and probably unnecessarily so, is the collaborative aspect of its construction. There are elements, images, turns-of-phrase that, elsewhere, are unique to the respective authors. Here, however, their styles blend so seamlessly that I defy anyone to, with any certainty, pick out who wrote what. Of course, the authors have known each other so long they can reminisce on long winter evenings about what a boon was the invention of paper. Two old pros who are also old friends — they’ve written a terrific story, so why bother trying to sort out which of them wrote what? Am I reviewing the author(s), or the work? The work, natch — that’s what lasts, remember?

Thing is, this is One Of Those Times, when trying to review Mr. Ellison’s work is like trying to explain a magic trick, and spoiling it in the process, especially when you got it all wrong. And on these occasions, it is ever-so-much simpler to try a little misdirection, to point your eyes at the peripherals of who-wrote-what, when I just don’t, goddamn it, know how he sawed the wench in half. There’s an expression I miss, a word one doesn’t hear around much anymore — the word is "hooey." I suspect that, in my wandering attempt to critique this story for you, I may well be simply a-slop with hooey. Bear with me, braced by your godly, forgiving nature.

There are wiseguys by the freight-car load who will read this story and read into it; those among the readership, be they members of rabid, smothering fandom or sweet, noble folk like all of us here; people of too little (or perhaps too much) imagination. I shame-facedly confess that, being a bear of very little brain, I was among that smarmy mob. I was seduced. Ensorcelled. Consider, please: a small dragon — an inch or so shorter than a mass-market paperback, perhaps five and a half inches? — here, with A Mission, to save Humanity from inhuman monstrosities of which we are all unaware. Any of this sound familiar? No reason, just asking. So, the dragon is distracted from his duty by his unexpected love for a beautiful, mortal lady, who he imagines thinks of him as merely cunning and amusing. The dragon, a sentinel, a force for Good, is faced with the choice of love or duty. He makes his choice — the world goes to flinders, crust to core, while the dragon shelters his lady-fair, dreaming her a sweet reality for the rest of her life and the rest of his.

Now — these kooks I mentioned earlier. Many cries of "A-ha!" will be sent up to the night sky, as they point confidently at this story and declare that Harlan Ellison and his truly-lovely wife, Susan, are the models for Urnikh and Margaret. They will smack each other smartly (which term I do not use in any reference to their intelligence or perspicacity) on their backs, affirming that Mr. Ellison has very sneakily leaked information to the effect that he will no longer fight the fight, but rather has elected to serve out the remainder of his term being in the happy company of that dear lady, his wife, and that this will indeed be his last book, forever and ever amen, and we must do it all on our own, poor souls that we are. I can only add that I would hate to be any of those people when Mr. Ellison turns up on their doorstep, or the other end of their phone line. Mr. Ellison has made it (or tried to make it) abundantly clear that he does not write autobiography. As he drills into us in SHATTERDAY, "Writers take tours of other peoples lives."

Here, though, he seems to take a little meander through some of his own fantasy life. Do I contradict myself? I think not. There is so much of Mr. Ellison in his very best work, throughout his career; that’s how he makes that vital emotional connection that sets really successful, effective writing apart from the dreck of (insert shelf-filler of your choice here).

Harlan Ellison has, for over forty years, now, known and served a duty to his craft; gone to bed angry, arisen angrier still; fought the fight, smiting evil-doers in their lair. He is certainly no longer a duckling. The ground beneath him might, at any moment, prove an assassin. His own body occasionally fails or refuses to cooperate.

And then, there is Susan, a delightful woman, to whom he publicly refers as "The only really good thing in my miserable fucking life."

How tempting it must be, to settle, to relax, to let the battle pass to other hands; to let the world go to ashes, while the dragon rests with his lady, dreaming a private reality at her side. Which I think is a fair attitude to take. Seventy hellacious books, a ride like no other through this corrupt amusement park, a fighter like Mr. Ellison has the right to do anything he jolly well wishes, and if retiring to peace and quiet and Susan is it, I say, "Sholem Aleichem, mein zaydeh."

Of course, I don’t believe for a minute that’s what Mr. Ellison is saying here — I’m crazy, alright, but I ain’t fucking stupid. No — Harlan Ellison is still in the business of hearing strange things, and hearing them side-ways; still going along with the "What If" his soul with which his soul pesters his conscious mind. And he still turns out a hell of a good story, a story about a sentinel who must decide between love and duty. Whether to share his love with the World, or share the World with his love.

Oh — and the coiled, furry-haunched Master?

Silverberg. Gotta be,...


KEYBOARD

Synopsis: We join our nightmare, already in progress: Chris Hudak, beset by personal strife, retreats into his work, the central tool of which is his personal computer — but it remains to be seen who, precisely, is the "tool," when the contraption begins to, literally, suck the life out of him. Dubious at first, he swiftly becomes inured to the finger-sticks, sitting at the machine entranced, while day turns to night, while his wife leaves him in disgust, while he grows weaker and weaker. Deserted by family and memory, he becomes the willing food-slave of this "technosferatu", finally rescued by a lightning-induced power surge. Saved, perhaps, for a greater, more insidious evil,...

Comments: Inspired by a suggestion (challenge? hurled gauntlet and pistols at dawn?) from Robin Williams, and written in the front window of The Booksmith, this is Reason #173 Why Harlan Ellison Does Not And Will Not Own Or Work With A Personal Computer.

Mr. Ellison has kindly and very, very, VERY patiently counseled me that, in this instance, "A cigar is just a cigar." That was a necessary admonition, because I had made assumptions about this story, the problems of the protagonist and his wife, etc., etc., and placed a great deal of it on the author’s neck, painting-in his attitude and philosophy where such was neither warranted nor intended. An easy mistake to which an unwary critic might fall prey.

Yet, connected to that, there is the notion that sometimes things exceed their creator’s intent. For instance, Mr. Ellison has long warned all and sundry about the dangers of encroaching techno-slavery, the depersonalization of the masses by technology in general and computers in particular (especially the Internet). I do hope you’ll pardon me if I seem to blast the soapbox from which I now orate, but I tend to agree with him. For all the informational advantages made available by the technology, it still signals the demise of personal interaction and communication — I, personally, need and prefer faces, and voices, and the occasional warm, flesh-and-blood hand on my shoulder. Sentiments can, indeed, be transmitted by electronic means, but you often don’t get the whole person; sometimes it’s the moisture around the eyes or the constriction of the vocal chords that really finish (or even constitute) the sentence. I will steel myself against a technical diatribe, except to say that one of these beasts vanished five chapters of a novel from my life for always; my roomie was incommunicado for several days, recently, when his new Magic Box fried its mother-board; and I run everything (even what you see here) through one of my old, manual fossils first (and before you go striking that pose, or form those smug words, let me promise you I was doing this long before I discovered that Mr. Ellison works on similar machines; if my ‘lectric goes down, I can work at a picnic table in the park, if need be).

Well, enough about me; let’s get back to "Keyboard," shall we?

While it is neither antic nor whimsical, "Keyboard" is still a very funny story, albeit in a darker, more sinister, um, vein. If one wants to be all serious and beard-strokey about it, I suppose it could be seen as allegorical. A year or so ago, I coined a term I rather like (and it’s mine, do you hear? Mine!) — mesmeratronics. It refers to dangerous technology, dangerous because of it’s capacity to either enrich or consume the lives of those who employ it. Really, the material isn’t the danger, as most of you easily guess: it’s we who endanger ourselves. We retreat into pleasant activities, rather than face the source(s) of our discomfort. Or even just get caught up in books ‘til 4 ayem on a weeknight, on a regular basis. Whatever our motivation, how often do we give in, seeking the monster’s embrace without ever realizing it, turning our back on human aid and/or comfort? Next thing we know, we’ve logged on simply to, say, check our e-mail, or look in here at Webderland, only to glimpse the clock and discover that we were supposed to pick up our date four hours ago. All in pursuit of that abundance of "information" now at our fingertips. And what useful information! Don’t worry, I won’t tell — not even about that search you did for "rubber+leather+trampoline+hockey+glove+barbeque+tongs." Really. That’s just between us.

Yes, of course, I’m exaggerating (a bit); and I realize that there are plenty of people who make a darned nice living working with or on computers, from their home or office. But there are countless other lost souls caught out there in the twilight — people who can’t play their aged vinyl LPs, and don’t have the scratch to go get a CD player; who can’t afford a PC if they even want one (and they MUST have one), who must do strange magic when certain people insist on electronic submissions; who must bargain with the Evil One to get any variety of typosaurus cleaned for less than the price of a used train, or find a dratted ribbon for their poor, old museum-pieces. Is it me, or is there a certain amount of elitism flooding an arena that is supposed to be a great step in communication? In drawing people together?

My, my — if it sounds like sour grapes, it is. I’m not a Luddite, or a simpleton, or anti-progress. Honest, I’m not. I think progress is neat-o (by which term I give myself away). There are useful tools a-plenty awaiting discovery, and/or available now. But I really, REALLY resent being bullied into Tomorrow at the cost of Yesterday; not getting to play because all I have is my ball and mitt, while the other kids are all hung-up on GameBoy. We should not pay for our future through the obliteration of the past — such is not only the demise of communication and personal interaction, it may very well be the death of individual identity. It was once said that "Friendship is the thief of time;" now, it seems like convenience might become the thief of friendship. How speedily and with what precision must we engineer our obsolescence?

We should pay attention to what has come before us, learn from it, before it slips (or gets kicked) away, irretrievably lost. We must remember who are the masters, before it ceases to be an issue. I don’t know whether that is Harlan Ellison’s playfully-presented message, or if he would support my view — still, it’s my view. For what it’s worth.

Call your mother.


JANE DOE #112

Synopsis: Ben Laborde is pinned to a past greater than his own, a past to which he has no claim, and is finally confronted by the rightful owners.

Comments: This is a sad, sweet, beautiful and frightening tale, somehow reminiscent of "On the Downhill Side." Both stories have a connection to New Orleans, both deal with ghosts that are strangely not ghosts — but that’s only surface stuff. "Jane Doe #112" retains the flavor of the previous story without being imitative or derivative. They merely have common elements — "Jane Doe" could have taken place on the moon and succeeded just as well. Yet, there remains a nice juxtaposition of the familiar and the strange.

Which could be said of this story’s protagonist, Ben Laborde. He remembers — without knowing how he remembers — things from before his time: rooming houses; owning a Studebaker Commander; listening to "The Green Hornet" on the radio. Wonderful, yet impossible, things, all of them gone or fading as he made his way through childhood.

Then, there are the pale, milky, transparent people he’s begun to see following him. For some inexplicable reason, they terrify him. He schemes to confront them, demanding an explanation, but at the moment of truth he is seized by panic and flees.

They are patient. At last, they come to him, and all is made, um, clear.

Ben is as enigmatic in his way as any of his pursuers — seemingly he has no past of his own, instead living out the life and times of the victims of his temporal vampirism. The details are as ethereal and wispy as the Pale People, but as I understand it, Ben has lived a full, rich life (several, it appears) at the expense of those who haven’t the taste for it themselves. "Born" in 1949, he somehow transcends, travels through time (unaware, all the while), bleeding-off the life-force/essence/livelihood/joi-de-vivre of those who care too little about it to live it themselves: the Pale People, who pass over at the end of their allotted time, regardless of whether they’ve lived or not, because it’s all over but the dyin’. This is vicarious living at its spookiest extrapolation.

Returning to his childhood home, Ben is finally confronted by the two remaining wraiths, who have come to claim whatever might be left of themselves — but too little remains of either. They do not seek vengeance, are neither bitter nor unkind — Ben has only done what they have allowed — they merely crave some sustenance. Ben can only provide them with some company as they await their end. Soon enough, Ben is left alone in the dying light, alone for the first time in his life. His life. The adventures, the experiences, will belong solely to him, stolen from no-one. Paradoxically, in the end, following the departure of his other "components," Ben Laborde at last seems like a whole person.

The message in this story is similar, in its way, to that expressed in "The Other Eye of Polyphemus" — Whatever you need in life you must go and get. Here, however, the author seems to add, Whatever you would keep of your life you must hold it fast and be prepared to fight for it. Otherwise you end up with a calendar filled with yesterdays. You risk becoming one of the Pale People, your life devoured by those with a greater appetite for it.

So pay attention. Do it while you can.


THE DREAMS A NIGHTMARE DREAMS

Synopsis: A cautionary tale, pursuant to keeping the Nightmare alive...and peacefully a-slumber.

Comments: A brief piece, this is nearer a sketch than a proper story; in fact, Mr. Ellison identifies it as a tone-poem. Originally written and recorded (as read by the author) for release on a cassette accompanying Cyberdreams’ "H. R. Giger Screensaver," it works,...yet it doesn’t.

Anyone familiar with M. Giger’s artwork — and anyone who has seen any or all of the Alien films has a pretty good grounding in the material — is aware what brilliantly sinister, disturbing, sanity-swiping images he can (and does) create. Mr. Ellison’s polished narrative declaration is the perfect bait with which to lure the unwary — quiet, sly, poised to pounce. It is unnerving in and of itself, leaves the reader pondering possibilities best left unpondered (if, that is, you desire a restful night’s sleep), darting increasingly frequent glances in the direction of the shadowy corners, and wondering/hoping/praying that that furtive noise was nothing more than the neighbors’ cat (they do have a cat, right,...?).

In that sense, the story is a prize, a darkly glittering jewel.

Yet, for me,...how shall I put it? There was a sense of disappointed expectation. As this is an (aural) introductory essay, it leads the reader/listener right to the edge of the cataract and suggests a swan, or perhaps a double-gainer — but I don’t have the screensaver, do not, in point of fact, possess a computer of my own. There is, then, no pool, no dixie-cup, nay, nor even a moist sponge to absorb the impact of jack-knife-with-a-three-quarter-twist.

Which is to say: I have no screensaver and, ergo, no terrifying monstrosity.

And having said that, I must now announce that I am rather ashamed of myself. Precisely how much of the work do or can I expect Mr. Ellison (or M. Giger, or any artist, of whatever medium) to do for me? Am I, like so many, become so softened by the onslaught of television and movies that I no longer possess sufficient imagination and creativity to build my own monsters in the basement laboratory of my soul?

Yes, this is about keeping the Nightmare alive, individually and as an institution, feeding it to sustain its enchanted slumber, lest it waken and claim us, literally or figuratively. I’m reminded of the opening of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and her remark that those beings which do not dream go mad — is there any greater madness than our nightmares attaining flesh-and-blood reality? It’s happening around us now — children slaughtering one another over substances which are destroying them anyway; serial and spree killers, like Dahmer and Cunnanan (the latter of whom passed me on the street); far-out, far-Right Fundamentalist groups attempting to seize everything that might pass before our eyes, in aid of ordering our lives, for our own good.

Madness.

Nightmare.

Slippage.

We must embrace our dreams, be they idyls or terrors. We must own them, understand them — only in that way can we control and decide their reality. We ignore them at our peril.


PULLING HARD TIME

Synopsis: Charlie Lumschbogen, already dangerously disturbed, witnesses the rape and murder of his wife by marauding hooligans. Driven to atrocity in exacting his revenge, he is sentenced to life in prison, despite extenuating circumstances. Wrested from his world, and with nothing in which to anchor his hopes, the violence continues, until even those hopes are taken — leaving him only with his dreams.

Comments: Back when I was in vaudeville, we had a saying: "Always leave ‘em wanting more!" My initial response to this story was a desire for more, perhaps even some resolution; with subsequent re-readings, however, and a bit of time to let it all sink in, I have decided that this is quite enough, thank you. Because Harlan Ellison (working from the "Dream Corridor" cover-art of Sam Raffa) has gone and given us a glimpse through yet another window into Hell.

Imagine, if you will, if you dare, your "special dream" — the one that hits you hardest; the most frightening, horrifying or heartbreaking; the dream that, when it comes to you in the night, sits you upright, bathed in clammy, sea-green terror. Yes — that one.

Sit back down, relax — we’re just talking, like old chums. Nothing here can hurt you.

Right? Right.

Now — imagine yourself trapped in permanent, weightless slumber. Thanks to the miracle of technology and hard-line future justice, you cannot waken. Not even to those thugs disguised as garbage men or those rude kids who live above you. You cannot waken.

Imagine, Sweet Friend, as you lie there in that Land of Never-Ending Nod, that your "special dream" comes to you. You can’t wake up, no teddy-bear, no sips of water, no trips to the potty, no-one to hold you or comfort you or soothe you back to sweeter visions. Your "special dream" comes to you. And comes to you. And comes to you. It is delivered on an endless loop, while microscopically-calibrated mists see to your nutritional needs and bodily wastes, and you float there in null-g, 24-7, and it comes to you, and you cannot waken.

And the nightmare never ends.

This, in a nation in balance, is justice. It is "Punishment to fit the crime." As good ol’ Warden Burkis puts it:

Well, they just float there till they die, but it’s in no way "cruel and unusual punishment" because we do absolutely nothing to them. No corporal punishment, no denial of the basics to sustain life. We just leave them locked in their own heads, cortically tapped to relive one scene from their past, over and over.
So — Charlie Lumschbogen, who witnessed his wife’s rape and murder and whose mind, as a result, went out for a pack of cigarettes while his body went on "puree," who had nothing left to lose, now floats in a null-g cubicle, eight years old (somewhere in there), pinned in a wrecked car, staring into the face of his slowly putrefying mother. Every nanosecond. Until his dying day. One of the peskier and more pervasive Rules o’ the Universe is: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. As I despise blanket statements of any kind, I generally modify that to: For every action, there is a consequence, and that consequence is certainly neither always opposite, nor by any means equal.

Charlie Lumschbogen’s life and his Last Good Thing were torn from him, suddenly, senselessly. He reacted, and his reaction drew a consequence far beyond his coping skills. Then, with nothing left to lose — he thought — he lost, was robbed of, even the feeble torments of the flesh, by this nation of no special cases, only "special dreams."

There’s a ghoulish streak in mankind as wide as it is tall. We deny it, of course, but people like the late Alfred Hitchcock played it like Stevie Ray dug out a blues hook. We secretly want these atrocious things to happen; we want, for instance, to see Cary Grant drop Martin Landau straight off Washington’s nose — gruesome, reprehensible, but we want it, even if we hate ourselves for it, and that is part of how suspense works, that internal conflict.

I only mention that because, not necessarily to my credit, I could not suppress a certain quantity of fiendish glee at the thought of the Bad Guys — the rapists, the child molesters, the murderers and junk pushers — floating around in eternal night; eternal nightmare.

But then, there’s this Charlie Lunchbucket, a man maddened by grief and loss, already traumatized, endlessly sentenced to his greatest hurt. "Oh, not him, of course," I think. "Okay, then, Meester," I think right back, "Who?" I did some Math. Just FYI, y’see.

Did you know that a memory/dream loop running 15 - 30 seconds on the average constitutes one million, five hundred seventy-two thousand, four hundred eighty toboggan-rides through Hell in just one year? I hadn’t realized that. You can multiply that by however many years you think a con can live in that sort of environment, if he is jailed in, say, his mid-twenties.

Ghoulish relish gave way to pity, compassion, then horror.

"Pulling Hard Time" makes being hanged sound like hot soup on a cold day.

Pay attention. You never know when it’s the last of the last — and if you think it is the last, and they can’t take away anything else, you could find yourself with a little something left, after all. Something they’ll make you keep,...


SCARTARIS, JUNE 28th

Synopsis: He is the Man From Everywhere and Everywhen, the man from the last place he was, stirring soup and adding pepper in Chicago, IL or Beloit, WI; in a jet liner, or Greece, or Zurich, or the Lagos Slave Coast. Never with a full audience, he moves through the world touching people, one at a time — healing, challenging, interfering, giving rest and an occasionally necessary boot in the ass. Finally, this last remaining god of Atlantis, unable to find one true-believer, he has the good sense to call it quits and hit the showers. To regroup. To re-create. Which leads him to a special place on a special day.

Comments: I will, likely, draw a bit of fire, here. Now and again, during his commentary on my material, Mr. Ellison has very charitably suggested that I am, perhaps, full of something that comes out of cows (and I don’t think he means milk). This is gonna be another one o’ them times.

Harlan Ellison has tried to make it abundantly clear, over the course of his career, that he does not write sequels, refuses, is loathe to repeat himself. Yet, that seems to be precisely what he has done here. Please note my use of "seems" in that assessment. It’s too temptingly simple to declare that this story and "The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore," are different presentations of the same tale; I will not deny some similarities. In fact, I’ll share a little secret that Mr. Ellison shared with me: "Scartaris...," itself a maturation of what he took a run at in "Where I Shall Dwell in the Next World," is the story that touched-off a twenty-year-old fragment that blossomed into "The Man Who Rowed,..." Isn’t that interesting? Well, I thought so. The "Jules Verne" reference point was helpful, too— but is the protagonist, here, Levendis? No.

This story — both, actually — would fit very sweetly in DEATHBIRD STORIES, I think. They are stories of gods, believers, religions; they are well-suited to this volume; they are not imitative of one another. They are two ends of a literary triptych, meeting (I believe) at that delicate point of "The Pale Silver Dollar of the Moon,...", describing the universe, the perspective of the people in it, and now,...what? You want to know what I think? C’mere, let’s hunker down and deal with this calmly and rationally. Because, if I’m right, it’s awesome, and if I say it out loud, the sky might fall.

I think this one is about the qualities that make us worth saving.

You can go giggle and hoot with your chums if you want. I’ll understand. Meanwhile, those of you who are too well brung-up to actually say "Schmontses!", let’s take a closer look:

"The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore" — earlier in the game, I cited Mr. Ellison’s declaration that this story was his religious tract in support of atheism, the idea that the Universe is random, is chaos, is neither good nor bad, but simply is, period. Apart from the gestalt literary wish-fulfillment, it’s a crap-shoot, and each must be accountable for himself.

"The Pale Silver Dollar of the Moon Pays Its Way and Makes Change" — bearing in mind the aforementioned crap-shoot, what (regardless of whether it matters now) will it matter later? What’s important to you, what does the world need to know; what do you need to say? Do it while you can, while there’s time, while it might make a difference to someone.

And "Scartaris, June 28th" — many things happen, here; some more of that "literary wish-fulfillment," if you will. Laughter, danger, tears, mercy, introspection (does the Universe, blind and numb to its effects on its prisoners, contemplate itself?). Without exception, and unlike "The Man Who Rowed,...", the interactions are more benevolent in nature, even when they challenge and destroy creaky, narrow, old ideas and philosophies. The author tells me, for instance, that the scene on the airliner, the elderly couple with their retarded daughter, was drawn from his own experience — they were all prisoners of their affection; literarily, he freed them. It might not look like kindness, to the casual observer; but death can be a rest for more than the dearly-departed.

A clue or clever bit of misdirection is the mention of "Levendis," though in neither story do the protagonists actually announce that as their name. During a stop-over in Greece, this man from a land that no longer exists murmurs the word, and is overheard by an old, blind man:

"You sound so lonely."
"I was lonely, for a long time."
"For your people?"
"Yes. But they’re gone, and I haven’t heard my name spoken for much too long...."
Then, later in their chat:
"Why did you think I might be Greek?"
"Because you knew our word, levendis. But I was wrong."

Is his loneliness for his people, his followers, or simply the spirit of levendis, the fullness of the joy of living? When there is no balm in Gilead, no joy in Mudville, no appetite for Tomorrow — that, I think, signals the departure of the last true believer, the death of the Dreamers and the Dream.

Warts and all, I think the world is a pretty neat place. Rotten, awful things happen, yes — but are delight and kindness utterly out of our reach? Isn’t it within our power to keep that joy alive? Can we not withdraw, regroup, re-create? Pave the way for a new, better, stronger generation? Can we not improve?

I had written a rather windy comparison of the threads of ANGRY CANDY and SLIPPAGE, but re-examination of the work, following some discussions with Mr. Ellison, have pointed my head in subtly-different directions. The whole thing about the former dealing with the departures and mortality of our loved ones, the latter with our own mortality — I’m not so sure that was out-of-line, but it felt rather limited. I still think, though, that this is about what’s salvageable, and about paving the way for the new, true believers, the soup-stirrers, the desperados and guerilla nose-tweakers. Having said "Good-bye" to so many of the old gang, and dealt with assassination attempts by seemingly-innocent mountains and faulty bio-plumbing, Mr. Ellison can hardly help but reflect on the unknown number of his days. Yet, he remains courteous and concerned (and this story at least suggests why); and any Boy Scout can tell you, part of courtesy is leaving it in good shape, ready for the next guy, a little better than you found it. For the new Dreamers, those who touch our lives, thereby enabling us to touch our own lives, as well as others’. So that levendis might not descend into that passage to the center of the Earth

Once upon a time, Harlan Ellison suggested his own epitaph: "For a brief time, I was here; and, for a brief time, I mattered." He is still here, still matters, and slippage be damned.

But who will take up the slack when the time comes?


SHE'S A YOUNG THING AND CANNOT LEAVE HER MOTHER

Synopsis: An aging drifter takes his mysterious and exotic Lady Fair, Camilla, home for the first time in their fifteen-year relationship, to meet the family and perhaps settle down.

Comments: Just to have it over-with quickly, I must first draw your attention to the irony, intended or otherwise, of the title: "She’s A Young Thing And Cannot Leave Her Mother." Truth-in-advertising at its darkly-humorous peak.

Also the only real chuckle in this fascinating tale. Well-crafted, it’s a masterpiece of mood and a triumph of imagery. There is a sweet melancholy about it, a lonely sense of desolation — the mind-movie I get is of a deserted stretch of rocky shoreline, under a gray, rain-heavy sky, and the soft, plaintive music of a wooden flute drifting in from a distance, sad and forlorn. It rather inspires introspection in the reader.

The tale is told by a man who has no great hold on life, who is almost a non-person (to the extent that the author declines to even give him a name). He fled his small, southwestern hometown and, with it, apparently, any instructions for making a settled life of contentment. He traveled the world, working here and there, never giving a sufficient damn to make any lasting friendships, master any particular trade, settle anywhere, make a life anywhere.

Until he met Camilla. The narrator’s relationship with his mysterious lover is the single ray of spiritual sunshine in this piece, and the lady remains little more than a shadowy, hinted-at presence until near the end. The origins of their relationship are deliberately left as vague and formless as the descriptions of the woman herself. That story, the narrator feels, "isn’t something everybody would understand." Rather, he sums up his loving relationship with Camilla in one brief paragraph:

I’ll just say this: she didn’t want to be there, and her lot was not a happy one, and I got her away from there, and we started running, and besides being in love, she is the first and only person who ever needed me.

The unspoken sentiment there is that his need is finally reciprocated — for years, he has needed something, someone, and at last found someone who needed him back. Such are the terms of love.

Imagine, then, the blistering horror at his discovery of dark, bloody secrets when he finally accedes to Camilla’s plea to take her home to her family in Scotland, only to find that she is, like them, an ageless, cave-dwelling, flesh-eating ghoul. Chambers racked with time-rotted clothing, like a costume loft for the Grand Guignol; pantries-ful of dismembered men, women and children, great mounds of dried infants; a cell, stacked floor-to-ceiling with human bones.

For the love of her, like a gruesome parody of John Smith and Pocahontas, his life is spared by his prospective in-laws. She loves him, kisses him, makes over him, cooing, soothing, and tells him the story of her clan. He flees in terror and revulsion.

At story’s end, our narrator is burdened with a terrible choice: does he return to destroy these abominations; or does he claim a place at the side of his beloved? For those of us who would think to return at all, that might seem like the choice between ice cream and hemlock. But, in case you haven’t noticed, Harlan Ellison isn’t just any- or everyone, and, as such, refuses to make this easy on us. One must consider what the narrator has learned about judgment, perspective and compassion. There is also the fact that Camilla, child of monsters, possesses the ability to love him; indeed, possesses something capable of winning his love for her.

If I might paraphrase Mark Twain for a moment, it has been pointed out that a story must be about something. I can’t express the delight and relief I felt, as a reader and a writer, when the realization dawned that a story may even be about several things. And, going over "She’s A Young Thing,..." I could do this all day. I will not presume to guess what was intentional; suffice to say that stories occasionally have a way of dealing cards the writer didn’t realize were in the deck. When that happens, and it is agreeable to what we wished to say through our work, most of us merely stroke our beards and look wise. So —

One question here is: is love enough? Is it sufficient reason to abandon prejudice? To fight our gut reaction and look deeper? To overlook race, religion, gender, sexuality, halitosis and/or poor table manners? Mr. Ellison, wisely, does not, cannot, will not try to make that decision for us. I suspect, however, that if love is not enough,...well, that might be the worst sort of slippage there is.

And here’s another thought that came bubbling, like swamp-gas, to the surface of my brain — the unity of couples. How lovers complement each other; fill in the blanks; create a single, whole organism. Is it possible that Camilla might be representative of our darker aspects, those parts of our selves that we don’t want to acknowledge to ourselves, let alone other people? And if we do make the discovery, if we do track the monster to its lair, its origin — do we destroy it, or embrace it? Either way, we can’t ignore it. Not "shouldn’t" — can’t.

The single hair in my eye, where this story is concerned, is the reference to the Sawney Bean legend. Perhaps I am low and mingy, but this is really not in the least meant as a meanspirited detraction. I am one of a handful of people who pay much attention to such weirdness, so I hesitate to bring the matter up, for fear of wrecking verisimilitude for other readers. Yet, it remains to be said that the Sawney Bean legend was, some years ago, debunked as just that — a legend, a bubbe-mayse, a 15th century urban myth, with which to frighten one’s wee, bonny bairns into good behavior; the pre-Elizabethan equivalent of Kentucky Fried Mice and that famous, bloody hook dangling from passenger-side door after the prom.

On the one hand (if you’ll pardon my transitional syntax), Mr. Ellison cites a reference dated 1986; the copyright dates of these stories range between 1986 and 1997. On the other hand (see — no hook!), he has been known to give a little extra polish to those stories which need an occasional update, in aid of sustaining verisimilitude.

All of which kvetch I top off by saying, "Who cares?" "She’s A Young Thing And Cannot Leave Her Mother" is still a dynamite story, still gets under your ribs, and still keeps pestering the reader with uncomfortable questions s/he would probably prefer to leave unanswered.


MIDNIGHT IN THE SUNKEN CATHEDRAL

Synopsis: First Sonar Technician for the U.S. Navy, Dennis Lanfear is obsessed with the memory of the father he never knew. He clandestinely investigates mysterious, underwater readings that shouldn’t be there, down in the darkness where the Wall of Andros meets the Tongue of the Ocean — in an area casually referred to as the Bermuda Triangle. In the blackness of the warm-running deeps, the Guardian of the Portal seizes him, transporting him to...death? Life? Infinity? His heart’s desire?

Comments: Have I ever told you about my great-grandad? He, along with my great-granny, raised me full-time for three highly-formative years, and summers thereafter, while my single, overworked, college-student mother went through some things of her own. He was a barber in a tiny town in western Oklahoma. Short, bald, not especially handsome -- looked a bit like Jimmy Durante, in fact. He was, quite possibly, the kindest, gentlest, most decent man I have ever known, certainly the most promising candidate for Father Figure in my life. On 7 January, 1977, very early in the morning, we were all sitting up at the hospital, and it didn’t look good, and he died,. And those motherfuckers wouldn’t even let me in long enough to say "Good-bye." Had he not asked for her, I suspect they would have left Granny on the wrong side of the door, too.

I suppose I differ from Dennis Lanfear, in that I actually knew my great-grandad long enough to realize what I was missing when he was gone. But I’ll tell you a secret — that difference? Doesn’t mean fuck-all. Like most of us, if we play our cards right, I am a junkie — a life junkie, a time junkie. Corner any old soak in the Tenderloin, any mainliner nailing up in any Union 76 gas station restroom, ask them what’s the one thing they never got but always wanted. Perhaps an Angel of Light will descend on them, cause the truth to slither quietly from between their lips, and they’ll answer you honestly: enough. They might call it more, but really they mean enough. I understand that. I cherish the time I had with Papa; nevertheless, I spend easily double that in time and energy tormenting myself about the years/days/hours/minutes we didn’t have together. Because, however much we had, it was never, could never be, enough.

So, here we have Dennis, and he never really knew his dad, except by reputation, so he had to make it all up in himself, and he felt that need so desperately that it became his devotion, his obsession. And I certainly understand that, too -- I also continue to stick pins in myself because I just can’t seem to live up to my supreme ideal, any more than Dennis can live up to his. And that’s part of why this story gets me all misty and mushy, and leaky around the eyes; why it hurts — because I miss him so goddam much, and fail him so consistently, and always tell myself that I would do anything, anything, just to have a little more time,...

If this review seems a bit more personal that the rest, I can only say in my defense that the subject matter and the tools of its disclosure make objectivity extraordinarily difficult; it might mean more to me than to some other readers. As if by clairvoyance, as if he wrote this knowing my own dark, chilly places, Mr. Ellison baits the hook and then sets it. Dennis gets his wish, yes — but, before he gets to Atlantis’s Mars branch, he has to tread through a setting, a set of experiences, about which I have an almost phobic level of fear: deep under the cold, dark ocean, walking that wire through black, limitless void, brought electrifyingly to our vision by Stephen Hickman’s splendid Dream Corridor cover-art (and, in a bit of serendipity, polished with the artwork of Michael Whelan; Mr. Ellison tells me that the story was working in that direction, and Mr. Whelan’s cover, set for use already, gave him the perfect backdrop).

That’s the rub. I say "anything;" but do I mean it? Would I, could I, face one of my greatest fears, on the strength of a notion that my fondest wish might be waiting on the other side? There’s not a lot of gray-area in that equation and, whatever my answer, I must be prepared to carry it into practice in my daily life. "Everybody wants to go to heaven," as the saying goes, "but nobody wants to die." There are no guarantees, mind you, but that is the nature of risk, of taking the gamble — there may be rewards, pay-offs, among the consequences; but sometimes the only pay-off is that you took the gamble at all. Here’s another fortune cookie for you: "Enough is as good as a feast." But what is "enough?"

Better than any other story in SLIPPAGE, "Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral," the literary culmination of Mr. Ellison’s search for his own father, exemplifies the theme of the collection: You never know when it’s the last of the last. Do it while you can. Pay attention. What you get is all you get, and that, "good" or "bad", is never enough — that’s why, when they talk about Heaven, they say words like "forever," "eternal," and "everlasting." When what they really mean is "enough."

And there ain’t no such animal.

Every day that slips away unattended steals from you, not only your past but your future, as well. Even your today is tainted, when your heart is elsewhere. And what happened? Where, when, did it all go? Vanished. Non-time.

And that is the deadly, terrifying, heartbreaking nature of slippage. Please: Pay Attention.



HACK-KNOWLEDGEMENTS

Before I send you on your way, desperately hoping that you will invest a bit more time in words-on-paper, and those uttered face-to-face, or sent along miles of string from one dixie-cup to the other, I have to shed a little light.

We have all seen how dashing and brilliant I am, in the course of these reviews, but I can’t stand back and wallow in a job well-done all alone. I’m a flake, but not a total jerk. It is time to distribute the "Thank You, Mask Man" awards. So, if you read this and I missed you, call me and I’ll tell you how big a help you were.

Meanwhile, I must first thank Rick Wyatt, our Shoppe-Keeper, for giving me the opportunity to do this. His patience and good will are truly boundless, particularly given the herculean task of trying to edit my deathless prose while allowing both of us to retain our dignity and friendship. As he is recently married, and may have smaller versions in his future, I hope that he will retain those qualities, for they will stand him in good stead.

I am indebted, as well, to our own dear, beloved Barney Dannelke, who had know compunctions about returning my semi-desperate call regarding the "Dream Corridor" cover-artists, and engaged in a long, warm, chummy visit as if he had money to pay for a call from Allentown, PA to San Francisco, CA. He is very near the top of my "Wotta Guy" list, and he will always be HERC #1, be it documented or not.

Likewise, I must tip my pointy hat (the one with the stars and crescents and whatnot, not the one that says "dunce") to Phillip Cairns. I found his encouragement and insights not only pertinent and objective, but enlightening, entertaining, and just generally valuable. Thanks, chum!

Sue and Joe Luesse. They were and are always there with a kind word, some splinter of necessary information, an encouraging boot-in-the-ass, or some form of support, in this work and many others. They are genuine, modern-day patrons of the Arts, even this particular bargain-basement artist (Sue really can’t resist a bargain,...), and I honestly couldn’t have done it without their love and support.

And, for assistance, encouragement, love, support, food and shelter, and mitzvoth of such variety and number that they defy arithmetic, logic and memory: Donna Mcfarland; Ralph Prevett; Gary Brown; Jay Stephens and James Laljer; "Scary Mary" Meyer; Cory and Turtle; Robert Peacock; Marcus Grubbs; Bryan Douglas; Douglas G. Mangum; Carson and Inez Locke; Dragon Terry; Kristen Valus; Michael Hall; Sal Resendez; Robbie Reames; David R. Carpenter; Byron Weber; Carl Weber; Jean and Jeep Schapka; Lu Schapka; the late Adam Roarke; Lou Diamond Phillips (despite what anyone else might think or say about it); Stewart and Jane Bolerjack; Pat Spaan; Rob Paulsen and Maurice LaMarche (little do they realize); Josh "Maestro" Manfredi; Bill & Dr. Bob, and all their chums; and My Good Pal Chip.

And —

Perhaps the greatest thanks are due the author, of whose work I having been making paper-dollies, Mr. Harlan Ellison. Were it not for his influence, I might never have set about this "writing-thing" with such vigor and enthusiasm — clearly, he has much to answer for.

More than that, beyond the fact that he produces all these wonderments (which I cheerfully disassemble), there is the generosity of the man himself. There are plenty of writers who would never have taken a backward (downward?) glance at a mostly-unpublished beginner, like myself, who would have been only too happy, if they acknowledged the effort at all, to let me strangle on my own syntax.

Not Harlan Ellison. When I called to get square on the Connally quotation, he enthusiastically suggested that perhaps I would let him have a look at it? Of course! No sooner said than done — I sent it along, inviting any comments, clarifications, or other insights of which I should be aware, or might otherwise find interesting and helpful. I can only add that, with gratifying patience, he called me, on his own nickel, to let me know that, here and there, the dutch-oven was perilously close to putting me in checkmate.

And there’s another, more personal matter: in the course of the discussion, Mr. Ellison made mention of where he had initially perused the material, i.e., that most-special and intimate of rooms in any house, the one sanctuary whence such a terribly busy person might sit and relax at their leisure, particularly as a morning/evening ritual. I suggested that was probably the perfect place for a maiden-encounter with my work. Harlan Ellison would have none of it — he wasn’t effusive, that is simply not his style. He merely said, "No, no, you have talent, I can see that; in fact, sometimes, you fly, my friend."

I’m just glad I was sitting down. Adhering to the adage that "If you can be discouraged from being a writer, you should," Mr. Ellison nonetheless always tries to give credit where it is due. Whether I merit such praise or not (and I am certainly not going to argue with Mr. Ellison, not about this!), whether I really am a nobody, the fact remains that Harlan Ellison made it possible for me to, occasionally, avoid feeling like a nobody. I want all interested parties to know that he has my thanks, not only for forty-odd years and seventy books of sorcery, but for making time with which to present to me his kindness, support and encouragement.

K.C. Locke
San Francisco, CA
September, 1997

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SLIPPAGE

by Harlan Ellison (Houghton Mifflin/303 pages) $22.00 (Gift Edition from Mark V. Ziesing Books/361 pages -- with an extra essay, teleplay and short story -- is available at $75.00)

Reviewed by Dorman T. Shindler

Mixing tropes from various genres and investing them with a healthy dose of his own larger than life personality, Harlan Ellison creates fictions unlike anything else in the marketplace today. Often compared with the works of Jorge Luis Borges or Lewis Carroll, his writing has been praised to the heavens by a group of readers as diverse as Buckminster Fuller, Thomas Pynchon, Ayn Rand and Dorothy Parker. "Slippage," his latest batch of stories, will only elevate that praise.

Ellison’s collections are usually structured around thematic similarities: "Love Ain’t Nothing But Sex Misspelled" is a collection of stories centering on civil rights, Vietnam, and other topics dealing with social conscience; "The Beast That Shouted Love At the Heart of The World" explores the many varieties of that thing we humans call love; "Deathbird Stories" deals with gods and religion; "Angry Candy" centers on matters of death and the guilt of the survivor; "Mind Fields" collects 33 short, sharp, Borgesian jabs to the soul, all of them inspired by the illustrations of Jacek Yerka. And the thematic threads running through "Slippage" concern the loss of power and control over our own lives… and what we do with that knowledge once realized.

The book starts from strength with "The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore," which was included in the Best American Short Stories, 1993, anthology. Like Ray Bradbury, Ursula K. LeGuin and Michael Bishop, Ellison has had the sweet satisfaction of having a "genre" story gain significant recognition by winning one of the highest honors bestowed upon a short work of fiction. What makes the accolade doubly delicious is that he did so with a story every bit as experimental as those which gained him a reputation in the 60’s and 70’s: stories like "‘Repent Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktock Man," "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," "The Beast That Shouted Love At the Heart of the World," "The Region Between" or "The Deathbird." Wild stories which pushed the envelope of excepted parameters and begged another reading if only to ensure that the reader absorbed all the thoughts and themes which the writer had run through at breakneck speed. "The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore" is in the same class as those high-caliber stories. Written in short, sometimes terse passages which resemble diary entries, the story is broken up into four sections: "This is a story titled The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore; This is a story titled the Route of Odysseus; This is a story titled The Daffodils That Entertain; This is a story titled At least One Good Deed A Day, Every Single Day. At the conclusion of the tale, an addendum proclaims: This has been a story titled Shagging Fungoes. Manipulating barriers of time, space and dimension, the protagonist (who calls himself Levendis) travels the world performing both good and bad deeds. Occasionally, he allows himself the luxury of emotional involvement; other times, he remains coolly detached, like a god watching over its creations. Inspired by a 1956 Shirley Jackson story ("One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts"), Ellison employs all the tricks he has learned as a writer and entertainer to underscore a lesson which everyone forgets at one time or another: each of us is the master of his own fate. Complex in form and thought, humorous, witty, wise and even a bit sad, it is one of the best stories Ellison has ever written.

Some of the stories (like "Sensible City") are meant to be little more than what Graham Greene once termed "entertainments" – something to spark an emotion or raise an eyebrow. Others, such as "Pulling Hard Time," a futuristic satire concerning the inadequacy of our penal system and the lopsided scales of justice, speak to concerns which address the whole of society. Some of the pieces aren’t even short stories in the traditional sense: "Crazy As A Soup Sandwich," a mean little twist on the tried and true deal-with-the-devil story, is a teleplay; and "The Pale Silver Dollar of the Moon Pays Its Way And Makes Change " is a mini roman-a-clef (ala "All the Lies That Are My Life") which walks a thin line between essay and fiction while ruminating upon the brevity of life.

(There is also a "dying god/myth" sub-theme which skips across the collection like a stone on water, touching upon the lead story ["The Man Who Rowed…"] and the aforementioned teleplay, as well as "Darkness Upon the Face of the Deep," "The Lingering Scent of Woodsmoke," "The Museum On Cyclops Avenue," "Chatting With Anubis," "The Dragon On the Bookshelf [which seems to harken back to "Quiet Lies the Locust Tells"]," "The Dreams A Nightmare Dreams," "She’s A Young Thing and Cannot Leave Her Mother," "Midnight In the Sunken Cathedral," and "Scartaris, June 28th [which could be viewed as a literary cousin of "The Man Who Rowed…"]").

And Ellison’s prose is as pliable and diverse as the mood, tone or subject of each story. It can be hard-boiled ("Mefisto In Onyx": "Get told by a motel desk clerk that they’re all full up and he’s sorry as hell but I’ll just have to drive on for about another thirty miles to find the next vacancy, jaunt into his landscape and find him lit up with neon signs that got a lot of the word nigger in them, and I wind up hitting the sonofabitch so hard his grandmother has a bloody nose…"), whimsical ("Mark": "The white-maned old man with the drooping mustaches sat up, cricked his neck till it popped, then got to his feet by bracing his hands against the sides of the coffin. ‘By God, I think my bladder will burst,’ he said, beginning to unbutton his fly. He suddenly realized the boys were staring at him. ‘Do you mind?’"), or even as lyrical as a poem, as in this excerpt from "Darkness Upon The Face of the Deep": "Morning of the day after All Hallow’s Eve dawned with a brightness that cast orange and rose light over the mountain of Hindustan. Hysteria seemed to have possessed the birds: they rose in a canopy, spreading their great patchwork wings, proclaiming in a minor key another year of safety.

"In the Valley shadowed beneath the grandfather mountain could be heard the sound of nails being prised from the heavy slats used to board up the villager’s windows. And the laugh of the first adventurous child as he held his nose and yanked off the wreath of malodorous henbane protecting a front door. The fountain had been unplugged and its music rose toward the black thorn of escarpment. The nilgai, sheep, and goats had been chivvied together in the shallow caves where they had been secreted; and now the shepherd girls drove them up the ramps from the underground. Fresh flowers were laid on the pedestals of the thirty-two idols circling the rustic plaza."

Other highlights in the collection include: "Where I Shall Dwell In the Next World," an essay-cum-fiction in which Ellison definitively answers that eternal question, "Where do you get your ideas?" (something even Aristotle couldn’t codify), by showing the reader how an idea is processed through his mind, and then offering up the result in three comical short tales; and from the limited Ziesing edition, "The ‘Nackles Saga," which includes an essay detailing the specifics behind an act of network censorship, the original short story by Donald Westlake, and the teleplay ("‘Nackles") written by Ellison for the "Twilight Zone" during its first revival between 1985 and 1987, which is one of the top twelve pieces of screenwriting ever produced by Ellison (this section would make a great primer for neophyte screenwriters who want a prime example of top-notch writing and wish to know what to expect when working for Hollywood); "Keyboard," a wry commentary about our increasing dependence upon technology (written, incidentally, in the window of a California bookstore after Robin Williams handed Ellison a piece of paper with the title and the theme of the story); "Mefisto in Onyx," in which a telepathic black man named Rudy Paris is talked (by ex-lover and District Attorney, Allison Roche) into visiting a prison in order to positively determine the guilt or innocence of a serial killer more malevolent than Ted Bundy; "She’s a Young Thing and Cannot Leave Her Mother," a tale which turns from poetics to cannibalism in an effort to underscore something once stated by Anais Nin ("The only abnormality is the incapacity to love."); and the beautiful closing story, "Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral," wherein Dennis Lanfear crosses time, space and myth, to meet the father he never knew.

The collection is prefaced with a brand new essay/introduction entitled "The Fault In My Lines," in which Ellison recounts two terrifying brushes with death involving an earthquake and a quadruple bypass, and laments how easily Americans let their own culture and history slip through the cracks in our gestalt, MTV memory. It is a poignant piece, filled with anger, fear, humor, regret and cynicism. A wake up call to those who forget that time waits for no one.

"Slippage" is one of Ellison’s major collections, filled with enough cultural information to pack a pocket-sized encyclopedia and enough superb story-telling to entertain even the most jaded reader. Don’t be surprised to see it on the short list for a variety of awards and honors next year. And remember to keep it within easy reach on the nearest bookshelf – because, like all great books, it bears rereading. If only to remind us mere mortals that we can’t keep counting on our gods and icons to lead us by the hand through life. Eventually, we have to learn our lessons and take responsibility for our own lives.

Dorman T. Shindler is a freelance writer from Missouri, and a regular contributor to the "Armchair Detective," the "Bloomsbury Review," the "Denver Post," the "Des Moines Register," the "Milwaukee-Journal Sentinel," the "St. Petersburg Times" and the "San Antonio Express-News."


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