Yearly Archives: 2013

BOOK REVIEW: “Mind Fields” by Harlan Ellison

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“What does it matter if something is old? Charles Dickens said any book you haven’t read is a new book. What does it matter whether it’s old?… I don’t understand what this lemming-like dementia is about constantly having new stuff. When was the last time you read the totality of Steinbeck or Faulkner or Katherine Anne Porter or Shirley Jackson? Everybody always wants something new, new, new – and that’s what’s killing life for writers. This dementia for ‘new’ is ridiculous. It turns everybody into a back number… We’re dealing with a more and more illiterate and amnesiac constituency. It’s impossible to get a readership that will follow you, because all they know is what they knew yesterday… And so when I hear this what-are-you-doing-lately thing, or that the Edgeworks books are bringing back all of my older books, I say, ‘Yeah, they’re real old books – like five years old!’ See, I do go off on these things. And if you ask the wrong question, I get real cranky.”
– Harlan Ellison
Mind Fields is a book of short stories by Harlan Ellison, inspired by the mythic glory of paintings by Polish artist, Jacek Yerka.

Mind Fields, I’m ashamed to admit, is the first Harlan Ellison book I ever bought. Ashamed because I was over the age of 20 when it was published and Harlan Ellison almost instantly became one of my favorite authors of all time, and I regret I wasn’t buying his books from the moment I could read.

Jacek Yerka paintings are so vibrant and imaginative, even the most uncreative cynic would become charmed with the sense of life and depth within them. His paintings move. They breathe. They sting with snakebite fire.

In the hands of Harlan Ellison, he bleeds the visions dry, squeezing every pulpy drop of venom from every nook and cranny. No detail is missed. No pore is unexamined. No brushstroke is ignored.

Although Harlan Ellison is one of the most prolific and award-winning authors of our time, during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, there are still going to be those of you who are unfamiliar with his work. Allow me to share with you one of my favorite passages from Mind Fields, a story entitled “The Silence”…

This is the cathedral in which your cowardice has been enshrined. The silence of the pulpit is the silence we heard when you did not answer cries for help. In the eaves of this place are the festooned remnants of the friends you did not come to assist. In the darkened rooms of rotted staircases are the tattered faces of lovers you betrayed – here your mother, there your father, both gone now and neither with any degree of calm or joy. Here is the sanctuary of your lost chances. There is no pastor, no choir, no stewards, no supplicants. It is a congregation of one. You will worship here all the remaining days of your life and at night your spirit will kneel on broken glass in the pews.
That one chills me everytime I read it. How I love authors who write prose as poetry.

Mind Fields is not only a fantastic introduction to one of the living legends of imaginative literature, but also serves as a beautiful collection of some of the finest examples of surreal art being created during our lifetimes. Ellison inspired by Yerka is a beauty to behold. This is Shakespeare inspire by DaVinci. This is Bradbury inspired by Dali. Yeats inspired by Michaelangelo.

The thing I love the most about Mind Fields is the flow of said inspiration veritably spills off the page. Between the brilliant combination of Jacek’s imagery and Harlan’s stories, it’s impossible for your own imagination to cease churning. One look at the paintings and stories start forming in your own head. Then you read Harlan’s prose and the paintings nearly come to life. You fear waters may drip upon your floor, so you hold the book less upright. You fear monsters may nip at your fingertips, so you draw your hand to the edge of the pages. No longer paintings, the images become windows to real worlds. That’s what makes Mind Fields a unique work of art. A prime example of two artforms converging to create something greater than the sum of its parts. Mind Fields is more than a book of beautiful artwork; more than a book of glorious short stories. Instead it’s a genuine gateway to imagination, opening doorways to otherworldly possibilities no story or image could do alone. Therein lies the power of Mind Fields. Melding two incredible artists to conjure something entirely new.

Not long ago in my career as a writer, I had the great honor of being a very small part of a project similar to Mind Fields called Tales From the Dark Tower. Dark fantasy artist Joe Vargo had created a number of paintings for the Tales From the Dark Tower anthology and I had the privilege of being one of the writers who contributed to it. With all due respect to the talents of Joe Vargo, I’m sure he would agree, we are no Yerka and Ellison. Nevertheless, Tales From the Dark Tower showed me a small hint of how excited Ellison must have felt when he wrote Mind Fields.

My only negative comment? The book is too short. Too thin. I would have loved for it to be two, three, four times as long! Every page is a wonder to behold and I would that they numbered into the hundreds.

This is a creation I can’t recommend enough and encourage you to go buy it. This is truly a life enriching book that must be on your shelf and it will do what all great works of art should – take you to places more spellbinding than you have ever dreamed.

I love that story I read so much, allow me to close with Harlan reading the same story.

To the Readers who Discovered my Writing After I Died

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“Like the wind crying endlessly through the universe, Time carries away the names and the deeds of conquerors and commoners alike. And all that we are, all that remains, is in the memories of those who cared we came this way for a brief moment.”
– Harlan Ellison

Hello, my friend. This is my time travel message to you. To my knowledge, no other writer in the history of the world has ever made an effort to speak to his (or her) fans the way I’m speaking to you now. Hard to believe I was ever so young, isn’t it? You know, I was still just a little kid when composed this message for you. Still a new author. Still figuring out how to write. I created this all the way back in December of 2013. When I made this, I did not yet know when my last day of living would be. But I did know, someday, long after my life had ended, you would find my books, and you would love my stories. Believe me, as much you wish you could meet me and talk to me and tell me how much my writing means to you, I wish I was still there to hear you say it. Time is a strange thing. We only have a limited supply, and we never have enough, and it seem the people we love most can often slip out of lifetimes, just when we yearn, harder than ever, to cleave those beloved souls to us.

In all the years I spent writing, there was one thing consistently weaving a common thread through all of my work. One message. One obsession. That was to make sure every man, woman and child who reads my books will come away with a sense of appreciating their tragically limited time. We spend so much of our lives zoned out and nearly catatonic. I’m just as guilty of that as you are. Only in brief flashes do we ever truly feel alive! That summer afternoon when you finally lost your virginity to that gorgeous girl or charming boy. That amazing day at the beach when waves sprayed the breakwall like diamonds in the sunshine. That wonderful book that changed your life. Or maybe it was something even more simple. Something innocuous. That special afternoon with your grandfather when you took a walk together and he told you how he fell in love with your grandma. Those brilliant moments stick with us. Those are the times we feel so aware that we exist! That life matters!

Yet our decades upon this earth are always too brief. When a person dies under the age of 50, people always say, “Oh, they were so young.”

When a person dies at 97 they say, “Well, at least they had a long life.”

The heck with that! When you get to be 97, are you, in the words of Dylan Thomas, going to go gently into that good night? I think not. We should all be so lucky to reach 97 and when we do, that will still be too young. Personally, I’m striving for about 125. Life is far too wondrous and magical to ever want to let it go. No matter what age we are when we awake to our last day on earth, we will always wish we had a little more time. The existential regret encapsulating the lot of humanity.

There are some souls born into this world who leave things behind. We construct architecture like Egyptian pharaohs. We found entire nations like presidents and kings. We bear children who carry on a legacy of business and commerce and invention. We compose music and literary works that endure for centuries like Mozart and Shakespeare. Unquestionably, such artifacts shall endure long after everything I contributed to the world. Yet, for a time, perhaps decades or even centuries after my own death, my work too shall remain. Unlike the most infamous emperors of old, you are not only be able to read my words, you are be able to see me. To hear my voice. And in that way, I have attained a great privilege, for although I was never a mighty leader or messiah among men, even after I departed the earth, evidence of my existence is preserved more vividly than the very kings of antiquity. For the honor of this near immortality, I have an obligation and I owe fans of my work this message.

Thus to you who love my work, to you who did not discover I existed until after I died, I want to say I’m sorry. I’m sorry that we never met. I’m sorry that I passed from the world before you even arrived. I wish I could have lived longer and spent more years upon that beautiful earth.

I know you really connected with my writing. I know it meant something special to you. I know you never read anything else like it. I know you wanted to write me a fan letter, just to have the chance to tell me how much you connected with my stories. You don’t even care if I would have written back or not. You just wanted to let me know how much my writing means to you. You wanted to tell me how it influenced your life. How it made you see things in a new way. How it helped to save you from the dark. Sometimes, you feel like you’re nothing more than a ghost. You feel like no one cares that you are alive. And when you read my stories, you feel like someone gets it. In my stories you find kindred souls. You find your friends. The ones you have never found out there in the real world. People who think the way you think. Who appreciate life the way you appreciate it. And you’ve never met anyone else who cherishes the subtle beauty of living the way those people do in my stories. Until you found my writing, you didn’t think there was ever anyone else in the world who was from your tribe.

You just wanted to thank me. Now you’ll never have the chance.

Believe me, I would that I were still there to hear you say all those wonderful things. I wish I could read your letter and thank you for sending it. I wish I could shake your hand and tell you that you’re welcome, when you thank me for all my writing has given to you.

And to this girl. To you, my lovely. I’m especially sorry that a young and beautiful girl like you ended up being born years after my gravestone was planted. You are the one I wish I could have met most of all. A smart girl like you, who gets bigger crushes on dead authors than on living boys. I know the boys you meet are jackasses. You wonder what I was really like. Was it true I was quite the charmer? All those fantasies you have about meeting me at a book signing and then, well, doing what pretty boys and girls do best? Oh, I would have been very dashing, my dear.

Forgive me. I know that talking directly to you like this almost makes it worse. Almost makes it harder. Your head is spinning. You’re wondering if I’m really saying this to you? Is this an actual conversation? Would I hear you if you spoke back? Is the voice in your head truly your own? Will these only be my words the first time? Will you pray that somehow my words might be different the next time? That I could reach across time and space.

Does it really matter?

In the end, I just wanted you to know you’re not crazy. No matter what the rest of the room tells you or says behind your back. They have never spoken the language of our tribe and therefore they have never comprehended the way the universe truly functions and the way we have always instinctively understood it. You’re not alone. We are the rarest of creatures, you and I. But even if you never find them, rest assured there are others of our blood. As I said earlier, time is a strange thing after all. And although we can never touch, dreams are still very, very real. And it is there that I can always take your hand.

So, to all of you, to all you dear friends who discovered my books long after I died, I apologize for not being there. I’m sorry that all you have left of me are the books and the stories. But know this, all that you dream you might have become, can still be. All the friendships and love affairs and the pen pals that we are, can still happen in your wondrous daydreams. You were right about me. I do get you. I do know you. I do understand you. That’s why I left you this message. How many other writers have ever done this? I did it because I know that you’re real. We are brothers and sisters of the same tribe. Time does not encapsulate us. And for all the inspiration and hope and love you have found in my stories, I now beseech you to remain unyielding in your long quest, for you and you alone are the knights and shieldmaidens of our noble banner. You still have your life. Make something of it. Achieve something splendiferous with the time you have remaining. Because one day, one day far too soon, you will no longer be upon that earth either. One day will be your last. And when you awake on the morning of your final day, you owe it to yourself and to all our tribe represents, to be able to look back and say, “I’m proud of what I achieved. I made the world a better place. I left something beautiful to this good earth.”

I may not be with you in the flesh any longer, but my spirit endures in your magical world. Through my words. Through my stories. In my books, I am still there. As people we are nothing more than stories and thoughts and words and memories. And all of mine are still with you. I remain far more than just dreams and remembrances. Our tribe is mightier than that. Those others out there, the ones who are not of our tribe, don’t understand what in the world I’m talking about. But you do. Unlike them, you know the essence of who you truly are. Hold steadfast to that, remain a beacon of light in all the shadow, and we will meet again. Fare thee well, my friends.

“The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there’s little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.”
– Carl Sagan

BOOK REVIEW: “The Essential Ellison” by Harlan Ellison

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“What does it matter if something is old? Charles Dickens said any book you haven’t read is a new book. What does it matter whether it’s old?… I don’t understand what this lemming-like dementia is about constantly having new stuff. When was the last time you read the totality of Steinbeck or Faulkner or Katherine Anne Porter or Shirley Jackson? Everybody always wants something new, new, new – and that’s what’s killing life for writers. This dementia for ‘new’ is ridiculous. It turns everybody into a back number… We’re dealing with a more and more illiterate and amnesiac constituency. It’s impossible to get a readership that will follow you, because all they know is what they knew yesterday… And so when I hear this what-are-you-doing-lately thing, or that the Edgeworks books are bringing back all of my older books, I say, ‘Yeah, they’re real old books – like five years old!’ See, I do go off on these things. And if you ask the wrong question, I get real cranky.”
– Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison is one of my favorite authors of all time. You like him too, you just might not know it. In a career spanning more than 50 years, he has written novels and short stories and Twilight Zone episodes and Outer Limits episodes and worked on Babylon 5 and been published in magazines and newspapers composing everything from fiction to sports essays. My introduction to his writing came by way of the new Twilight Zone episodes in the 1980’s and his wonderful rants and essays and commentaries in various interviews on the SciFi Channel. After that, I saw him doing promotional work on Tom Snyder for his wonderful book Mind Fields and the writing in that book really solidified things for me. Since then, I’ve been trying to go back and read all of his previous works. Well, not all of it. The man has published over 1700 stories, most of which are out-of-print, so I’ll never read all of them.

Harlan prides himself on being a writer. Not an author. Not a novelist. A writer. Plain and simple. And if you try to pigeonhole his writing into a particular genre, he’ll punch you in the mouth harder than I will when you try to stick my writing into a genre. He loathes the idea of being categorized into a particular style or type of writing and his varied career of more than five decades has proven his immense diversity and worthiness of being acknowledged to writing not genres, but Harlan Ellison stories. From speculative fiction to memoirs to journalistic essays and commentaries, Harlan defies categorizing at every turn.

The best compendium of his commentaries and short stories is a massive 1200-page volume called The Essential Ellison, published by Morpheus International. Note there are two versions of The Essential Ellison. One with a yellow cover, which is a 35 year retrospective and another with a maroon cover, which is a 50 year retrospective. I obviously suggest you get the 50 year version, since it has more content.

His writing is so glorious that a majority of the more than 75 stories are quite memorable. I don’t want this review to take an hour of your time, so I’ll just focus on a small handful of stories that stood out the most to me. The stories which, when you read them before bed, continue to haunt you into the next afternoon.

“The Resurgence Of Miss Ankle-Strap Wedgie” is an exceptionally long short story. In fact, I think it may be the longest piece in the book. The story is about an old movie starlet who gets a second chance in Hollywood. I have to tell you, based on that description, this isn’t the kind of story I’d ever be interested in reading. However, it’s truly one of the best stories I’ve ever read. Not just the best Harlan Ellison story, but the best story. Period. Again, it goes back to what I tell people all the time – storytelling isn’t about the story, it’s about the telling. The idea for the story is boring. An old Hollywood starlet comes back to do a movie? Who cares? Who wants to read that? But Harlan tells the story so beautifully, so poetically, it has become one of my favorite stories of all time. As a writer, it’s the kind of story that makes me throw the book across the bed and go, “Oh, man. Fuck this. I suck. I totally suck.”

Normally, I’m very confident in my writing. I often read stories and think I could have written that just as well. For most authors, I think I could do better than that. But when a writer like Harlan is in peak form, I just think, “Damnit, I couldn’t have come close to this.” That’s how “The Resurgence Of Miss Ankle-Strap Wedgie” made me feel. I couldn’t have come close to writing something that beautiful and eloquent.

I don’t want to give away any of the plot, but I will say, the story has a rather unexpected ending. It’s certainly not a happy ending. But it isn’t tragic either. Let’s call it, bittersweet. That’s why I love the story so much. Like life itself, it’s often not sunshine and rainbows, but it’s not darkness and despair either. Frequently, it’s just enough to keep us afloat. We can sail blissfully along and savor the beautiful blue skies, and there may not be a hurricane on the horizon, but it does look like rain.

“The Deathbird” is a story I am horribly depressed to have discovered at this time of my life. The story was published before I was born and I wish I had read “The Deathbird” when I was 10 years old. If only the ideas in that tale could have influenced me from a gradeschool age. The story revolves around a character having to confront God at the end of the world and discovering that God has always been the war-mongering bad guy of the universe and the Devil is the benevolent creator. I’m going to admit it right now, I’m going to use that idea. A mad god. The lord of light is actually the good guy. That floored me. That idea was such a gutpunch, I’m going to have to use it in a future story of my own. I’m not some asshole plagiarizer. I’ll give full credit to Harlan for the inspiration. But “The Deathbird” story really changed my life. It was an extra cog in the gears of my destiny that went – CLICK! – and slightly altered my course and I went, “Oh, wow! That was unexpected!” What if the “bad guy” of the universe had tricked all of humanity into thinking he was the good guy and he caused wars and strife and animosity to pit man against man? Such a simple idea. Such a disturbing idea. And one that utterly changes the entire course of Abrahamic religious history. Still can’t believe I didn’t find it when I was 10 years old. That would have been great.

One of the most disturbing stories I have ever read is “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”. For years, I have heard the title of this famous Harlan Ellison story, but I had no idea why it was so famous. People all call it a classic work of science fiction. That’s a load of crap! This is a horror story! Just because it has computers in it doesn’t make it science fiction. This story is straight up ghastly. I don’t like horror stories. I like Twilight Zone creepy stuff. I don’t like dark and terrifying. “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” is dark and terrifying. So, that’s just my public service announcement to people. Don’t go reading this thinking it’s science fiction. No. It’s not. You’ve been lied to. This isn’t science fiction. It’s a total nightmare. Harlan has claimed that he wrote the story in about 6 hours and I have to give him credit. As much as I disliked the story for being unsettling and horrifying, he managed to create something in 6 hours that will be burned into my brain for the rest of my life. This is a story you will never forget. These days, many movies and books and even television shows have greatly pushed the boundaries of shock and terror. Movies especially are becoming tastelessly violent. Even by today’s standards in 2014, “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” is gruesome and brutal. I can’t imagine the reception it must have gotten when it was originally written in 1967. When you finish the story, you will want to look at pictures of puppydogs and kittens or get laid on a tropical beach. Just something to wake you up out of the dread so you can say, “Ah, okay. Life is still beautiful. The world is a wonderful place. Happy thoughts. Happy thoughts!”

I do have one criticism of “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” and since the story has been around for over 40 years, I’m sure I’m not the first person to say this, but… the story revolves around an artificial intelligence named AM torturing the last five human beings in existence, out of his hate for being confined to a prison of circuitry. So, why didn’t they just give AM some legs? Right? If he was so pissed off about being entombed in circuit boards, just stick him in an android body. Problem solved!

Those three stories probably stood out for me the most. Nevertheless, there were many other stories that lingered in the mind long after I read them.

“The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” is very unsettling and has a wonderful sinister poetry to it, about a person witnessing a murder in a New York apartment complex. Perhaps the real horror of the story is how real it feels. A frightening commentary on the apathy and complacency of our culture. Humanity is truly nothing more than a pack of vicious demons parading around in clothing.

I love “Valerie: A True Memoir” because, goodness knows, I’ve known my share of Valerie viper ladies. Thankfully, I’ve never been stung so sharply as Harlan was in this real-life essay, but I could still relate.

“The Tombs” is a sobering account of his time spent in the New York City prison system. His descriptions are enough to make any law abiding citizen remain steadfast on the straight and narrow. You know those television programs where they take troubled kids and make them spend a day in prison, in order to scare them into straightening out their lives? You don’t need to do all of that. Just spend an evening reading “The Tombs” and you’ll achieve the same effect.

“From Alabamy, With Hate” is a true account of Harlan joining a Selma to Montgomery civil rights march in the south in 1965. The simple fact he made it out alive is worthy of this real-life essay.

“Jeffty is Five” is a story about a little boy who never ages and feels like a Twilight Zone episode I’ve seen, even though I know, no such episode exists. Something about the story makes it so easy to visualize, you can almost see a fuzzy 1985 copy on VHS and watch credits roll on the screen as it plays in your head.

“Neither Your Jenny Nor Mine” follows characters to Mexico for a cheap illegal abortion and was something that I’m grateful I can’t relate to in any way, but the haunting quality of that tale was something you can’t shake for an hour or so.

I found “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes”, a story about a strangely enchanted slot machine in Vegas, to be a little predictable. But Harlan makes up for a predictable plot with gorgeous prose. As I’ve said many times, it’s not the “story”, it’s the “telling”, and he does tell this one so bewitchingly well.

“A Boy And His Dog” was Mad Max before Mad Max. There is a reason that “A Boy And His Dog” is considered a classic. Of course, in order to consider it a classic, you have to know what love is.

“The Museum on Cyclops Avenue” was a story I adored simply for the descriptions and the concepts of love and loss. Once again, Harlan manages to present a story idea I never imagined before. What happens when you finally meet the perfect woman, but you’re not good enough for her?

“Xenogenesis” is another real-life essay, the final story in the book, and the final story I’ll mention in this review. Of all the tales, this one is the most horrifying of all, because it recounts stories not only from the experiences of Harlan Ellison, but from that of other famous authors, about strange and inappropriate confrontations with psychotic fans. In all honesty, it’s enough to make aspiring authors cease their aspirations. Anyone who dreams of being famous need only read “Xenogenesis” and they may begin to reconsider the price of fame. People out there are fucking lunatics!

Harlan Ellison is one of those polarizing writers. Very few people are indifferent to him; you either love him or you hate him. As with many great authors, the readers opinions of Harlan also go far in measuring the intellect of the reader in question. If you’re a fucking idiot, you hate Harlan’s writing. If you’re reasonably intelligent, you love Harlan’s writing. Certainly there remain idiot douchebags among his fans and liking Harlan is not a failsafe barometer of determining brain capacity, but it’s a good yardstick to begin your investigation.

Joking aside, if you are unfamiliar with Harlan Ellison, The Essential Ellison is a fantastic introduction. This book showcases a vast diversity of his writing and among it’s 1200 pages, you’re treated to an excellent cross section of his prolific body of work. I love this book so much, I actually converted a copy into an ebook so I could have a backup on my Kindle. This is one I truly can’t recommend enough. This is a must-have title from one of the most influential authors of our time. At the time of this review, The Essential Ellison was out-of-print. So, it may be a little difficult to find a copy. I was lucky enough to acquire one of the last new copies, direct from the publisher, for a fee slightly higher than the cover price. I now polish it with a diaper. This is the 1961 Ferrari 250GT California of books. I therefore leave you with the immortal words of Ferris Bueller, “It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.”