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Family and Friends is my everyday journal. Captain's Log is where I pontificate on religion and politics.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Some like it dark

This is a rather round about way to talk about a book, but it makes sense to me.
Back in the 70's I was living at home going through a rather painful divorce. There was a park close to home and across from the park was a shopping center. A little bookstore opened up directly across from the park. I went in the store to see what they had, and met a really nice lady. She sold mostly children's books, but also carried some Science Fiction. Now I grew up reading just about everything Isaac Asimov wrote (that'll be the subject of another post) and spent Sunday afternoons watching Science Fiction Theater on TV before Football took over. G asked me if I'd read any of Harlan Ellison. I had only read one of his stories in an anthology (Hugo Winners) so I knew the name, but that was about it. She recommended this book, but told me to take the warning seriously. Death Bird Stories is a compilation of 19 short stories and it has a warning to the reader not to read all of them in one sitting as the subject matter is so upsetting it would be too much to absorb all at once. I starting reading it that night. Now I was used to reading a thousand to fifteen hundred pages of theology a day while at Seminary. I looked at the book and thought I'd finish it in about three hours. I read the first story Whimper of Whipped Dogs. It's about a young idealistic woman moving to New York and watching a brutal murder outside her bedroom window, realizing that others in the complex were also witnessing the assault, and seeing something above them in a vapor. I won't give too much of the story away, though the story deals with the disturbing aspect of what Psychologists now refer to as Bystander Syndrome, this was only a few years after the murder of Kitty Genovese and this story was an attempt to not let the reading public forget her. The story took me less than an hour, but that was enough to figure out that it would be best to only read one or two stories a day. Respect the warning. The second story is really much lighter, Along The Scenic Route is about a married couple on a nice drive getting pushed into a car duel. The cars have machine guns, lasers, and government regulated dueling lanes. The winner gets the other driver's life insurance policy. When I started teaching 7th grade English this was the first story I'd tell (you never take your eyes off of 7th graders, even to look at a book) and it always captured their imaginations. I ran into a former student ten years later and he said the only thing he remembered was that story. I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream hit me like a brick between the eyes. It was cathartic, the title alone expressed what I was feeling every time I thought about my failed marriage, loss of career, and mounting debts.
When I finished the book I actually felt better. It didn't end the depression caused by my circumstances, but many of my feelings that I had no words to express were enacted in these stories, and it lightened my depression. I spent the rest of that summer buying every book by Ellison I could find. It was a good year for it, as many of his out of print books were being reissued. I don't have every book he published, but I've come close. I love his writing style, and in one of his anthologies Steven King wrote a forward in which he uses the analogy that reading Ellison is like being milk in a refrigerator, that sooner or later milk takes on the flavor of whatever else is around, and that whenever he reads Ellison he becomes the milk taking on Ellison's flavor.
Ellison wrote the screenplay for one of the early Outer Limits episodes, Demon With A Glass Hand, which starred Robert Culp. City On The Edge Of Forever is his episode in the original Star Trek, the one where Kirk and Spock go back to the Depression era and has Joan Collins as KIrk's love interest. I saw an interview once where he even admitted to writing an episode of the Flying Nun hoping to ask Sally Fields out on a date.
Still no matter how many of his books you read (if you can find a copy I highly recommend The Glass Teat, The Other Glass Teat, and Ellison Watching -- his essays and criticism of Nixon and Agnew and their manipulation of TV shows) Deathbird Stories is the one book that never leaves your memory.

1 comment:

Michael Manning said...

..."writing an episode of the Flying Nun hoping to ask Sally Fields out on a date". I had to chuckle as this sounds like a plan I would hatch! I marvel at your reading capacity!