by Thomas Pluck
The title of this post is a reference to a Harlan Ellison story you can find in Love Ain't Nothing But Sex Misspelled, one of his many collections.
I learned of Ellison's passing while away on vacation, and while I can't say I didn't know it was coming, it affected me more than I thought it would.
He was 84 years old, hardly young, but some live twenty years longer. And someone as driven as Ellison was, you thought they'd have a shot. His health had deteriorated after a stroke, but he kept the fire burning, working with an editor to release long-lost stories and essays, and to finally put together Blood's a Rover, the collection of stories related to his classic post-apocalyptic nightmare, "A Boy and His Dog."
That book was waiting for me when I returned home, and brought back the sadness. HE as he was called in correspondence--it has a delightful outlandish godliness to it, doesn't it, like H. Rider Haggard's She or his own creation, AM, the malevolent artificial intelligence that destroys nearly all of humankind--and I met once, corresponded "infamously," once, but it made Letters of Note and appears on the internet now and then, most recently shared by Neil Gaiman.
The story is mundane, but like most things involved with science fiction fandom, was blown out of all proportion and made to seem epic and shocking, which is why I don't write speculative fiction anymore, or at least when I do, I don't call it that. I found the fandom toxic. I can't remember if I wrote him first or met him first at I-CON, held out in Stony Brook college on Long Island. I drove my silver '65 Mustang convertible out on the LIE to see a few literary heroes, illegally blasting through traffic cones blocking my way out of the Lincoln Tunnel. This was before GPS, we had the Rand-McNally Road Atlas and faith, and when I saw no police around, I swerved around those cones and hoped I wasn't heading into a parade.
The con was one of my first. I'd met Jimmy Doohan and Tom Baker at a Creation Con once, dressed as Arthur Dent in my bathrobe, but this one was bigger and different, more book-centric. Dan Simmons was there, and he'd just written the excellent Summer of Night, which is better than It, in my estimation, but not better than Boy's Life, for horror bildungsroman. Worth a read. Anyhow, Harlan was generous to me, and all in the signing line. To be fair, I'd plunked down a bunch of green for Again, Dangerous Visions, a t-shirt, some records of him reading his stories. He signed them all and shook my hand. It was a rough, knobby, workman's hand, probably from his early days as a carnie roustabout, or from hammering at his manual typewriter. But he was gracious to my flabbergasted young self, and I walked away like I'd met J.C. and had my bunions cured.
I'd heard the stories. And he's far from innocent--what he did to Connie Willis was indefensible, and he doesn't get a pass for it--but I found it hard to believe that he was irascible to innocent fans, as I was told by fan gossip. At that particular convention he was well behaved when I was in his presence, which is all one can say. We don't know anyone, really. That's why we love books. We get to know the people in them better than anyone we meet. But I digress. Harlan got up on stage for his one-man panel, decked in a bomber jacket complete with a blood chit from the air campaigns to liberate China from the Japanese Empire. Sure, he was full of himself. He liked to tell stories, and given an audience, he knew how to work it. He was never boring, for sure. I don't remember what he said, because what sticks out, was when the mic was malfunctioning, he asked "can you hear me?" and a woman sitting near me bellowed, "we can't see you!" to great applause, mocking his short stature.
Now that's hardly much of an insult, and he took it in stride, but the heckling from the crowd bothered me. What did they want? Were they fans, or did they come to watch the show, get him riled up, which he would gladly do for them? In the old days they brought rotten vegetables to throw on stage. Anyway, just a memory, hardly even a "Harlan story" worth telling. The letter, well, to my shame, I wrote it because I couldn't find a story by Gerald Kersh that he'd quoted. Now I could Google it and identify it in seconds. Back then, I re-read and skimmed all his books looking for the epigram, and came up blank. (It was in a graphic novel, which is why I missed it). So, I fired up my daisy wheel printer and sent him a letter. I wanted to use the same quote in a story I was writing in college. I didn't mention that, or send my work to him. (The story, "Phoenix," is about a Vietnam Vet haunted by a comrade who shows up like Mr. Hyde, it's preachy and garish, he goes to a Mothers of Invention show for no good reason, and my professor was very generous with his grade.)
Harlan wrote back, and while he starts off justifiably angry for me wasting his time, he can't help but praise Kersh, who became one of my own favorite writers. He's most famous for Night and the City, which was adapted as a film noir, but read anything you can get, he's a master of the short form and the novel. Fowler's End is wonderful, and his stories can be better than Roald Dahl. He captured humanity like insects in amber, magically kept alive. Here is the letter.
I was later honored to anthologize Harlan in Protectors 2: Heroes. Once again I summoned the chutzpah to write him, asking for a story for the charity anthology that helps PROTECT train wounded vets to hunt online predators. It's hard to say no to that. He offered up "Croatoan," but holding to his mantra of Pay the Writer, we settled on an honorarium of one dollar, and two copies of the book for his library, which I gladly shipped on publication. And yeah, I sneaked a copy of Blade of Dishonor in there. I doubt he read it, but he doesn't seem the type to throw a book in the trash. Hopefully it's in Ellison Wonderland, or donated to the Sherman Oaks public library. Or a doorstop in his shithouse, for all I care. He called me to seal the deal, and answering the phone to hear "Hey, kiddo! It's Harlan!" nearly gave me a heart attack. He had more energy at 80 than most have at 20. Which is why his death seems unfathomable. He was the Harlequin, but he ran like the Ticktockman, a wind-up clock that was never supposed to run down.
I'll miss him. He left us a legacy of fiction and stories and fights and slights that will be hard to forget, whether you lionize or loathe him. He had a cadre of toxic fans of his own, who Googled his name and posted anything said about him on the Internet on his website for him to read and respond to. I forgot that we traded posts on one of his forums, too. That was when I compared the movie Fallen to his novella Mefisto in Onyx. I thought they'd stolen his idea, but obviously he didn't, or he would have sued. (Watch the end of The Terminator and see the note that it was indebted to his works, specifically the Outer Limits episodes "Demon with a Glass Hand" and "Soldier," and the short story, "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream." I wasn't sure until I watched "Soldier." I thought he was overreacting. But hunt it down, and you'll be damned if the post-apocalyptic low budget future doesn't resemble the post-SkyNet nightmare in Terminator way too closely. Harlan didn't write very much in his later years, and it would be tragic and ironic if it was because of the internet, answering fan queries and taunts online instead of by mail.
Anyway, I was supposed to mention bookstores, wasn't I?
I really liked Writer's Block in Anchorage (Spenard, technically) Alaska. A town once infamous for rough bars is now a tourist trap with a couple of nice local ginmills such as Darwin's Theory, which hipsters call "dives" nowadays because working people drink there. But they do have a few good bookstores, and The Block is one of them. It's also a music and reading venue, a cafe, and a bar. So it's one of the few bookstores you could truly hold a Noir at the Bar at. (I enjoy attending readings at bookstores, cafes, hotels, and yoga-kombucha spaces, but call it something else maybe). Writer's Block has a nice selection, if small. I noticed horror by John Langan, a lot of Edwidge Danticat, somewhat light on crime, heavy on well-curated literary. They had Rene Denfield, James R. Benn, and Luis Alberto Urrea. The used bookstore is Title Wave, and enormous. I picked up a first edition hardcover of Cold Storage, Alaska by John Straley there (such a beautiful cover).
Washington had more bookstores. Elliott Bay Book Company is wonderful, a big selection, good staff. Eagle Harbor Books out on Bainbridge Island is smaller but keeps a good selection, new and used. Overall, the trip to Bainbridge on a ferry was a waste. The ferry trip is nice, but there's not much to do on the island if you don't live there. It's some place old people go to walk to wine bars and buy crap. Vancouver has a ton of bookstores, but I only visited one, White Dwarf. They absorbed Dead Write books, and it was a time warp to the '90s, walls of mass market paperbacks in the old display shelves. It made me wish those affordable reads were more plentiful. A nice crime selection, and a friendly owner, Walter. I'm told there's a Jill as well, but I didn't meet her. Owen Laukannen clued me in to the shop, and it's worth a visit if you're in town. The used store there is Pulpfiction Books, which I'm glad I didn't visit because I spent a couple hundred bucks on books this trip and brought home a duffel full.
I also read several books on the trip thanks to long plane journeys. One was I Hear the Sirens in the Street by Adrian McKinty, a treasure. The Sean Duffy books are wonderful, set during the '80s in Belfast, when the Troubles burned hot. He knows how to tie a mystery together, and they remind me of Lawrence Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr books in tone, in that they are just plain fun to read, full of repeating characters you care about, and they paint a detailed portrait of the city and time they are in. Luis Alberto Urrea's House of Broken Angels was incredible, epic in scope but under 300 pages. He continues to amaze. I finished The Bobby Gold Stories by Anthony Bourdain on the plane before takeoff. I had heard about his novels Bone in the Throat but wasn't grabbed by it. but Bobby is a great character and you can read the book in one sitting. Find a copy. It is shamefully out of print. It had a British edition, we didn't respect him enough over here. Sort of like how McKinty isn't published in the U.K., which is downright criminal. The last book I opened was Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, who lives in my town, and a book that Roxane Gay called her favorite of last year. It is, as the blurbs warn, addictive. A family saga that begins in Korea before World War II, it is paced like a thriller and written with deceptively cozy prose, in third person omniscient, masterfully. I am 200 pages in, and I have to force myself to put it down to write.
I'm nearly done with the messy first draft of Riff Raff, the second Jay Desmarteaux yarn. I have a duty-free bottle of Bruinladdich Octomore scotch waiting to celebrate when I type "The End." I thought that would be a better incentive, I bought it after Bouchercon in Toronto last September! But alas, you can't rush the work. It takes what it takes. I'm having fun with it. I hope readers will, too.