Introduction to White Wolf's EDGEWORKS 2

Let's Pretend

by Harlan Ellison

“What’re you whistling?” I stopped spreading pumpkin butter on the raisin bread and looked up. “Say what?” “I asked you: what was that tune you were whistling?” The leftover mushroom-lentil soup looked thick and glutinous as an argument with a Scientologist, and I was sorry I’d even started reheating it. “Was I whistling?” “You always whistle. You are a terrific whistler. But you whistle all the time. Even if I can’t locate you, I can tell when you’re coming, even in a store, even when you were in the hospital, even in an office building. If I had gotten separated from you in, say, The Empire State Building, all I’d have to do was ride up and down on the elevator till I heard you whistling on the seventieth floor. Because nobody else whistles these days. It’s one of the great Lost Arts of the modern world. Yes, you were whistling.” “No kidding. So what was I whistling?” “That’s what I’m asking you!” There was a tone in her voice. It is a lovely voice, as anyone who has called our home can attest; a mellifluous, lyrical, patibulary, longaminous speaking utensil. Charms birds. Quietens feral beasts and patrons of Pauly Shore movies who want their ticket money back. This was not that terrific voice. This one had a tone in it. I said, “Uh…can you give me a hint what it sounded like?” She growled. Low, throaty, not reassuring. Sheesh! Whatta grouch. I was just minding my own business, trying to fix some minor lunch out of second-hand leavings. How the hell do I know what I was whistling? “Okay, so at least what’d it sound like?” I asked. Trying to be accommodating. She gave me The Look. So I dredged back through the last five minutes’ memories, and I replayed myself. (As a member of the Agile Mind Squadron, this is but one among an armory-full of mnemonic devices I use to reclaim data. And it uses much less electricity than a slow laptop.) “Oh,” I said, as I heard myself in my head, “that was the theme song from a children’s radio show called Let’s Pretend. I used to listen to it on Saturday mornings back in the 1940s. When I was a little kid.

Cream of Wheat is so good to eat
Yes we have it every day;
We sing this song, it will make us strong
And it makes us shout “Hooray!”
It’s good for growing babies
And grown-ups too to eat;
For all the family’s breakfast
You can’t beat Cream of Wheat!
“Now why the hell would I be whistling that?! I haven’t thought of that in years.”
Susan was squeezing dirty, soapy water out of a big yellow sponge. She had been washing the Packard, out front; and here she was in the kitchen, wringing out dirty, soapy water as I tried to summon the fortitude to face that hellspawn glop of mushroom-lentil soup. “You were whistling it,” she said, not looking at me, “because you can’t think of a way to start that introduction to the book, and your unconscious mind is sick and tired of waiting for you to catch up with it, and it’s signalling you.” And then she walked away.
I hate it that she’s smarter than I.

Many things have happened to both of us, you and me, the two of us, you in your place and me in mine, since last we got together here at the EDGEWORKS Spa and Storm Window Company, and I would be dilatory in my duties if I didn’t say I’m awfully sorry about the miserable crap that’s happened to you recently; but look on the bright side, there are still those three or four good things that you can cling to in wretched moments.
I don’t mean to be smartass or overbearing about it, but you know it was your fault, mostly. You keep trying to outwit yourself, but there are times when you fall back into the same old habit-patterns and reaction-formations. And then…well…you know what happened. Which isn’t to say that I’m not very sympathetic. We’re pals, you and I, and when you’re all fucked up it makes me miserable as a buzzard on a shit-wagon. Or somesuch rural phrase intended to make you feel better.
And I know it’s not going to make your lot any easier if I tell you that soon after we last met here, I had this very serious heart attack, and they cracked me open like O.J.’s alibi, and they took 27-1/2 inches of vein out of my left leg (leaving a scar that runs from my anklebone up to my groin) (and though I’ve said it elsewhere, it’s a good line, so I’ll say it again: this scar makes me look as if I finished way out of the money at the Heidelberg Dueling Academy slice-a-thon), and they built me a new superhighway in my chest. Over the counter, in lay terms, it’s called quadruple bypass surgery.
I also got this nifty zipper scar in my sternum area.
To be frank about it, kiddo, I was almost dead. Stood right at the open doorway and looked to the other side of that misty aperture. Trust me on this: you don’t come back if you go on through.
And I have had any number of interesting epiphanies, eye openers, illuminations, awarenesses, and like that. Most of all, I am now able to report, it scared the crap outta me.
And there’s been other stuff that happened, and places I’ve gone, and things I’ve done, and a few new awards won…
(Did I ever tell you that the very first award I ever copped was when I was, oh, I don’t know, maybe seven or eight, in Painesville, in Ohio, 1941 or ’42, something like that, and it was a bronze medal for kite-flying, and let me tell you, pal, I fuckin’ loved that little medal, and it’s been lost for a lot more than fifty years, and I miss the hell out of that object. I just know it’s lying up in some dusty cigar box in the back room of a gimcrack and antiquery in Weyauwega, Wisconsin or South Lunenburg, Vermont but I’ll never again hold that first treasure in my pudgy little kid’s fingers. Okay, now you flash on what you lost from your kidhood, and the two of us will take a minute or two break to sigh and go tsk-tsk and dwell on how time swirls by too fast to grab any of it, no matter how lean or pudgy the fingers.)
…and I know a long-time friend betrayed you, and that you had a few nights when the phone rang, late, waking you, and someone you love gave you the medical report; and I know the money thing didn’t get much better, but you made it through again, and like the man said, what don’t kill us only makes us stronger; and we both got suckered into seeing Independence Day and came out wondering why the hell they had to spend so much money just to update Earth vs. the Flying Saucers; but we’re still here, you and I, maybe for no other reason than to piss off our enemies (and you five redolent bags of turkey-puke know who you are, and don’t think that just because you’ve backed off for a while, that I’ve forgotten to dream about your carotid arteries and the reflective glory of an old-fashioned straight razor).
We’re still here, despite all of it; and for the most part we still have our dreams. We can still play let’s pretend.
And I’m very pleased you came back for a second helping of what I’ve spent my adult life writing. Yes, there were a lot of typos in the first book, and we’ve heard your complaints and have struggled to do a lot better this time. Mostly because of Dana Buckelew, the editor for White Wolf who is down in the pits every day, her sleeves rolled up, smudges of inferno soot on her cheeks, stoking the EDGEWORKS machinery.
(But to the one or two of you who are so goddam ignorant that you don’t appreciate the unjustified “deckle-edge” margin — considered very chic in the best publishing and design venues — which have been integrated into the page layouts by Richard Thomas and Larry Friedman, well, let’s be frank with each other: don’t you, finally, get exhausted with embarrassment as you continue to demonstrate your penchant for Not Getting The Word? You keep wandering into the meeting half an hour late, and you ask questions that were dealt with before you stumbled into the hall. You keep going out on the Internet and wondering, “Who’s this Bix Beiderbecke [Walter Damrosch, Jacqueline Cochran, Herbert Marcuse, Alexander Karensky, Alfred Krupp, Florence Mills, Lucy Terry, June Christy, Hetty Green, Clarice Cliff, Babe Zaharias, Baby Dodds, Paul Muni, pick whatever name was your most recent gaffe online], anyway?” You keep believing the bullshit that you are entitled to your own opinion, when I keep telling you, over and over, that you are only entitled to your informed opinion. You keep running your face, expressing every idiot vagrant assumption that flashed behind your eyes, and just because you see similar stupidity demonstrated every night on Letterman, you keep walking into it. And there you are, yet again, dripping your faucet as the homies put it, saying bone-dumb things like how come you got those raggedy right-hand margins, can’t you afford to do ’em the way my PC does ’em, real neat and all squared up?
(No, you sorry thing, we choose to do ’em just the way Gutenberg did ’em in his Bible, the way John Peter Zenger did ’em and Emile Zola did ’em and even Mark Twain did ’em. Because, there was a time in this life, and not all that long ago, when a book was designed with some style, some dangerous panache, some chutzpah; even a bit of the old crème de la crème. It was called Lookin’ Good, and you had to pay extra for it. We give it to you free of charge, just another way in which we say, “We’re proud of these packages. You get good value for the money.” Think not? Well, consider this:
(The Ecco Press this year published Joyce Carol Oates’s short story, FIRST LOVE, as a book, with illustrations by the splendid Barry Moser. The size of the book is 6-1/2" high by 4-1/2" wide. It is a little book. It is 88 pages including frontmatter, short bios of Ms. Oates and Mr. Moser, and very wide margins. It is a lovely little book. It costs $18.00 in the U.S. and an unbelievable $23.99 in Canada. Yes, it is an absolutely terrific story by an author whose every book I own, illustrated with seven of the most striking Moser woodcuts you’ve ever seen — notably that Christ and the snake on page 57 — but gimme a break here, Ecco honey, it’s a measly eightyfuckingeight pages! For something close to twenty bucks, including the tax.
(And I don’t even want to think what it runs some poor damned Oates aficionado who lives in Ottawa.
(So consider: EDGEWORKS volume one stands 9-1/4" high by 6-1/2" wide; it contains two complete books and new additional material, such as this introduction, totaling more than two hundred thousand words [200,000]. Way more than 200,000. It runs to nearly 470 pages [four hundred and seventy] and it has photographs and an exhaustive index. And a great cover.
(White Wolf offered it to you for $21.99 [$29.99 in Canada]. With that gorgeous Jill Bauman cover.
(Now, let’s get something straight here. I’m not talking comparison of quality of the work in either book. As a long time and righteous Joyce Carol Oates/Barry Moser fan, I freely admit that Mr. Moser can draw circles — as well as polyhedrons, tesseracts, hexafoil spheroids and skiagrams — around me; and Ms. Oates — whose photo was taken with me on a June night in New York this year, in the banquet hall of the hotel where Cary Grant used to live — produces work, year after year, book after book, that is the envy of any sensible writer and the delight of any percipient reader. I am only nuts about her writing. So step off, with any suggestion that I’m saying I’m better than Oates and Moser…or admitting they’re better than I. What I’m pointing out, and shouldn’t have had to, and certainly shouldn’t have taken this long to do it — but sometimes you do piss me off — what I’m pointing out is that anyone who bought EDGEWORKS volume one got a huge value for the dollar. Now, if you hated what I wrote, that’s another matter. If you can’t stand a book, it doesn’t matter if you got it for free or your bankbook registered zero after you’d paid for it. But just strictly from the “dollar’s-worth” perspective, and the amount of sheer physical labor and talent that went into the book, anybody who is piss-ant pawky enough to kvetch about the elegance of an unjustified right-hand margin really ought to take his/her business elsewhere, and stop bitching about it on the web, because this White Wolf series is, candidly, too good for you.
(No, not you. I didn’t mean you. You and me, kiddo, we’re pals. I’m talking about the pinhead who complained on my website about the unjustified margin and, well, I just got fragged about it. But I’m okay now. Susan made me lie down with my feet raised, and she put a cool, moist compress on my forehead. I’m all right now, I really am. You can come out of the closet, and please stop trembling like that. I’m fine, I tell you. Fine. Just fine.)
So here you are back again, and this time we have two very interesting books to proffer. The first is a novel. A novel about r&b, rock’n’roll, about the world of pop music. It appeared originally as a Gold Medal paperback in 1961 under the title ROCKABILLY, a title given it by the then-executive editor of Gold Medal, the legendary Knox Burger, and by my personal editor on the book, the late Walter Fultz, as sweet and decent and intelligent and talented a man as I’ve ever been privileged to work with. He died a while back, and he needn’t have…at least, not for the reasons he did.

Elvis Presley’s management people once took an option on SPIDER KISS. Either they wanted to style it as a vehicle for him, or they wanted to make sure no one else made the movie. Because, for a long time, a lot of people thought the model for Stag Preston was Elvis. Even Greil Marcus, and Ken Tucker of The Philadelphia Inquirer — canny rock critics, both of them — who praised SPIDER KISS inordinately, both of them thought Stag was a roman à clef for Elvis. Wrong. I modeled Stag after the Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis.
I wrote this story first as a short, for W.W. Scott. I called it “Matinee Idyll” and Scotty ran it in the December 1958 issue of Trapped (and featured it on the cover) as “Rock and Roll — And Murder.” It was 4700 words, and it was about this sleaze of a rock star who, during the course of a rape attempt of a fan, causes the girl to fall out a window. It was a one-punch story, purely in Trapped style à la Manhunt; and I wrote it sitting at an oilcloth-covered kitchen table in Morganfield, Kentucky in mid-’58, where I was on detached duty from my job at the U.S. Army Armor Center, Fort Knox.
I was unhappily married to my first wife at that time. Her name was Charlotte. She was still back in New York, on West 82nd Street. The forty-two fifty a month I was making as a PFC didn’t go very far, so I was supplementing my support of Charlotte, back in The City, by soldiering all day and writing all night.
The check for $64.50 (after agent’s commission) went straight to Charlotte, I never saw it. And I promptly forgot the story. Just another fast fable for a farthing.
I’d gotten the idea for the story from a rock singer named Buddy Knox (his big hit was “Hula Love” in 1957) who, like Elvis and me, had been drafted. He was in my barracks for a while, and one night we sat shooting the shit, and he told me about an incident in which a popular singer had tossed a young fan out of an open window, about thirty floors to the sidewalk from a Detroit hotel room. I filed the story away, with a shudder, and dredged it up when I needed a plot for “Matinee Idyll.”
But it was not until 1960, when I’d been mustered out and was living in Evanston, Illinois, that I went back to that story. It was a rotten time of life for me; I’d divorced Charlotte; I was working for a publisher I despised; and I was hanging out with a lot of collegiate mooches from Northwestern. And I hadn’t written a book in a while.
Frank M. Robinson — a superlative novelist, a great editor, and a lifelong friend — was also working for the guy I hated, and he saw that I was going down the toilet. And one night, in the middle of a party at my home on Dempster Street, filled with freeloaders and adolescents whose names I barely knew, Frank grabbed me by the collar and pulled me into the big walk-in pantry, and he put me against a cabinet and looked into my idiot face, and he said, “You’re turning to shit, kiddo. This isn’t your way of living. You know even half those creeps out there, breaking up your furniture and puking on your carpet? Get back to the writing. It’s the only thing that will save your ass.”
And I threw them all out, and I went into my office, and I sat down at my Olympia manual office machine — I still work on Olympia manuals — and for I- don’t-know-what-reason I started writing SPIDER KISS, taking off from “Matinee Idyll.” I have no idea why I picked that plot for my second novel, but I suppose it was because I’d been listening to a lot of rock‘n’roll, and no one had done a book about that milieu at that time, and I was fascinated by Jerry Lee and how he’d married his teen-aged cousin, and I put on one of his albums, and cranked up the gain, and I began to…well, as they say nowadays…I just said let’s rock and roll!

It is now just thirty-six years since the lonely night I started writing SPIDER KISS, and the time thereafter when Knox Burger bought it at Gold Medal Books and published it as an original paperback as ROCKABILLY.
It’s been optioned twice for feature films, it’s been reprinted half a dozen times, it’s been named as one of the best rock novels of all time; and Elvis is dead, and they made a movie out of Jerry Lee’s life, and rock’n’roll has become something I can’t listen to without my teeth ache; and I’m sixty-two years old as I write these words, and Charlotte is long gone from my life, good luck to the both of us, and I’m married to Susan, as you know…and Gold Medal Books are gone, and Walter Fultz is gone, and Knox is an agent; and Frankie Robinson lives in San Francisco for years and just had a new book come out, and he still writes like a firehouse dog chasing a red truck; and I have no idea what happened to old W.W. Scott. Scotty’s wife wrote a bestseller back in the ’60s, if I recall correctly. But it’s not likely he’s still peering up from under that green eyeshade. Hell, he’d have to be pushing a hundred if he were still out there, still chugging along. But nothing’s impossible. And Silverberg lives upstate in California, and I seldom go back to The City, if I can help it, and here comes SPIDER KISS again, after all these years, like a good song covered by a current group.
I can’t believe it. Sixty-two. Jeezus, I’ve seen a lot of sunrises, and I wish I had a penny-a-word for every night of my life that I’ve sat up like tonight, way past midnight, flogging another deadline, just writing and writing and writing. But it’s better than standing at that open door I mentioned earlier, listening to the sound of my own heartbeat.

The second book in this volume is a collection of short stories and essays, STALKING THE NIGHTMARE. I wrote a whole batch of stuff about those stories in that book, once upon a time; and then, for reasons that seemed fulgent to me, twice upon that time, I shitcanned all the commentary, and substituted the introduction called “Quiet Lies the Locust Tells.” It suited the book better, I thought.
Well, now here it is a while later; and STALKING THE NIGHTMARE is back before us; and once again I have the opportunity to add auctorial insights. And I think I’ll opt out. Give it a pass. Shine it. Because the book already has a nice foreword by Stephen King, and it’s got “Quiet Lies…” and I think the pieces in that book can definitely stand on their own, they need no Ellison in the background rambling on about what this means, and what that means.

I’ve never told this one before, so here’s a good place for it. You didn’t have anything else to do, did you? You can hang out for a while, yeah?
Great. Terrific. So here’s how it went:
I got out of the Army, as I said earlier, and I went to work for this guy in Evanston, a suburb of Chicago. And then I went back to New York, as I said; and I wrote SPIDER KISS, as I said; and then this guy I’d worked for in Evanston came back. He searched me out, where I was living in Greenwich Village, and doing rather well, thank you; and he offered me lots more money to come back to Chicago and start these two paperback lines for him.
Well, actually, I’d already started one of them, when I was working for him previously. Sort of did it with my left hand while editing Rogue magazine with Frank Robinson. It was a line of “erotic” novels—pretty pale and tame by today’s standards—called Nightstand Books, and in one year the line made this guy, my boss, over a million bucks. So then I split, and he came and found me, and I was just getting married for the second time, a rebound sort of liaison that didn’t last more than a year…but that’s another story for another time…and I needed the bread, so I agreed to come back to Evanston, though I had come to dislike the guy (and would grow steadily from dislike to loathing, the deeper in his clutches I got), but I made the deal like this:
I said I’d edit Nightstand, if I could create a line of controversial, mainstream paperbacks. Over which I had total control. He hmmed and haggled, tried to outflank me and tried to intimidate me, but I knew what I needed to stay sane in such a job, not to mention the dangers and risks attendant on his operation (another story, for another time). Finally, he agreed.
I got married and, in company with Billie and her son from a previous marriage, I moved back to Chicago. Where I took up the Nightstand reins. I spent two days a week on the line of what we called “stiffeners,” and we were publishing six or eight titles a month by that time, which I edited singlehandedly, proofing, getting covers, writing up the plots for most of them, doing every phase of the production and editorial regimen in a tiny, one-room office, with the name Blake Pharmaceutical on the door. Don’t ask.
But five days a week I worked on my passion, Regency Books.
That was the line that published Robert Bloch’s FIREBUG, the first collection of B. Traven’s short stories ever done in this country, my own MEMOS FROM PURGATORY and GENTLEMAN JUNKIE (both of which will follow in this White Wolf series), Bill Brannon’s THE CROOKED COPS, and several dozen other kickass books, all originals. And I had an idea for an anthology of controversial science fiction stories that would deal passionately with taboo subjects sf hadn’t, till that time, tackled. With further ironic coincidence, that this anecdote appears in this EDGEWORKS volume, I called the book STORIES FROM THE EDGE, and I hired Judith Merril to edit it.
Well, Ms. Merril commissioned Fritz Leiber to do a story for the book, he wrote “Lie Still, Snow White,” and Ms. Merril didn’t deliver the book. She dawdled and dawdled, and by that time I’d had it up to here with the publisher, whom I had come to despise with a ferocity that time has not dulled; and I left the job under crummy circumstances…another story for another time…and wound up here in Hollywood. Another editor tried to get the book out of Merril, but it never happened.
Fritz’s story was published in an obscure paperback collection of originals called TABOO, and it wasn’t till 1965 that I managed to sell the idea of a big, controversial collection…what came to be known as DANGEROUS VISIONS.
Watch for its reissue here in this White Wolf picnic.
But Fritz would never have written “Snow White,” and likely wouldn’t have jumped off from that dangerous vision to produce the brilliant “Gonna Roll the Bones” — that won him a Nebula, among other accolades.
Ain’t it a strange gitalong.
It’s late. I think I’ve overstayed my welcome this time. The sun’s coming up. My neck muscles hurt the way they do when you drive truck cross-country, thirty-six hours on NoDoz and coffee and Clark Bars for the jolt. You looked fragged, too. We’ve been sitting here talking for hours. You ought to go home and crap out for a couple of hours before you go to work.
I’ve got a hard day ahead of me. Cardiac rehab tomorrow morning, and before I can snag a few zees I’ve got to fax this introduction out to Dana Buckelew at White Wolf.
They call this a metafiction. Watching myself watching me as I watch myself write an introduction. Drive carefully. Stay away from bad dope. Avoid Stephen Seagal movies. Thank your mother for the chicken soup.
And as Howard Garis used to say, We’ll get together again unless the soup spoon flips itself off the edge of the table and puts out the cat’s eye so that it runs amuck in the kitchen and lands in the microwave and fricasees its feline ass, and Uncle Wiggily gets involved with a hooker who takes him for his top hat and spectacles; unless all that happens, I’ll be back here in six months or so with Volume Three, containing THE HARLAN ELLISON HORNBOOK and the previously only-limited-edition-published book-length screenplay, HARLAN ELLISON’S MOVIE.
Until that time, kiddo, stay out of the line of fire. And let’s pretend Life is a lot easier than reality tells us.
Harlan Ellison
6 August 1996
Los Angeles
"Let's Pretend" by Harlan Ellison copyright 1996 by The Kilimanjaro Corporation. All rights reserved.

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