Goodbye, Harlan.

Dear Mr Ellison,

I cannot conceal my annoyance that you have gone.

We lost a giant.

That’s not meant as a joke, though Mr. Ellison bore the brunt of cruel nerds who mocked his stature at every turn. The only time I met him was at ICON, held in Stony Brook College, when fans were begging for Simon & Simon to be kept on the air, and demanding a sequel to The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, when they weren’t mocking Harlan on stage for being short. I think that was the last science fiction convention I went to, and it will remain so. The fandom is venomous, like a snake. A small part will kill you, while the rest can be amazing and beautiful… but I digress. I saw how ugly people could be. He was generous and gracious to me, he signed every book and shirt and record that I bought, and I shook his hand, a hard and knobby workman’s hand, odd for a writer. A fighter’s hand.

And boy, could be fight.

And damn, could he write.

If you haven’t read him, Deathbird Stories is my favorite. That and I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. You can get the collection The Top of the Volcano for a taste of his very best stories, too. Angry Candy is damn fine, as well.

We spoke on the phone briefly, when I asked him to contribute his stunning, award-winning story “Croatoan” as a reprint in Protectors 2: Heroes. He called me out of the blue, we had been corresponding by letters with the contracts, and he wanted to know who he was dealing with. We chatted for a while, he was 82 years old and sharp and snappy as always. “Hey, kiddo! It’s Harlan Ellison.”

To me, that was my “made it” moment, which most of us have, no matter how silly they are. Harlan Ellison called me.

In 1989, when I wrote Mr Ellison the infamous letter–which was showcased on Letters of Note, Flavorwire, and got me a gig writing an introduction to a Gerald Kersch collection, a writer whose work I was introduced to through Harlan–I must confess, I looked up his phone number and called it, after I mailed the letter. To apologize. He asked fans not to write, because he felt compelled to answer all correspondence–typed, by hand! imagine that now in a day when publishing professionals can’t be arsed to fire off form emails–and after I dropped my letter in the mailbox, I felt guilty. So why not bother him more, with a call?

I confess, he answered. And I was a coward, I hung up.

I prank called my literary hero. So I really deserved that letter, which makes me laugh to this day. He loved it. Being Harlan. Even stars burn out, and he had the energy of several. I’m glad I was alive to see his light, to shake his hand, to hear his voice. I’ll always be proud to have published his reprint. And yes, I put my story afterward. I didn’t want anyone else to have to follow him.

All a writer has is time and a portion of talent.

Thank you, Harlan, for sharing your time and talent with me. I’ll pay you tribute by using both my time and talent to the best of my ability.

Harlan Ellison letter

Happy New Year – 30 Days – Big Update – I’ll Be Back

Wishing you all a happy new year.

And with that, I’ve decided to stay off social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) for the month of January. I’m also giving up beer for those 30 days–yes, really–so I’ll be off Untappd as well. I’m only mentioning it so my internet coffee klatch does not become concerned.

I will likely still post here– I’m hosting Noir at the Bar NYC with several writers from Broken River Books on Jan 25th, and I’ll want to spread the word. And I’m still social media editor for PROTECT, so I will be posting stories to our accounts there. I’m itching to share news, such as the recent discovery that Ebola patient zero of the recent outbreak was probably infected by bats, which vindicates Richard Preston’s reporting for The Hot Zone, which pointing to Tikrit Cave as the source, back in the ’90s. There’s also news that “rescue dogs” are now in high demand as trophies, so much that stray dogs from other States and even other countries are being imported (some with endemic rabies). There’s a story brewing in me about that, and it won’t be pretty.

Recent movies and books I’ve enjoyed. Creole Belle, by James Lee Burke. Even though he does something that made me loathe Chelsea Cain’s One Kick- he lets early child abuse turn a character into a killer/super ninja/etc- he is so deft with character that the story is redeemed. There’s so much more going on, and his fury so well focused, that I forgave him this trespass. But writers, listen up. Child abuse alone does not turn you into a serial killer, a gibbering mental case, or a superhero. Nor does it lock you into the “cycle of abuse,” or make you want to personally execute every predator you see. People who’ve been abused can be all those things, but the majority are not. Those our are projections, of how we would deal with such unfathomable cruelty. Certainly many psychopaths experienced severe abuse at an early age, which blocked any formation of empathy, but it is infinitely more intriguing that most victims of abuse do not become killers or abusers themselves. That is the power of even the dimmest scintilla of human empathy. Don’t use child abuse as a shortcut. Burke almost did, but managed to make a self-destructive character into a fully fleshed human being, instead of a collection of impulses leading to “edgy” and unbelievable plot points, which is what I thought of One Kick before I threw my Kindle across the room (into a couch).

the-collectorSpeaking of psychopaths, I watched the 1965 version of The Collector with Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar, which was quite chilling, and managed to keep a razor wire of tension throughout. Next I’ll read the novel. I also read A Gathering of Old Men by Ernest Gaines, a rightfully lauded masterpiece of Southern racial relations, which dances from character to character in Rashomon-like fashion, and offers a glimmer of hope at the end. It’s set near Baton Rouge, which I recently visited, and I enjoyed recognizing the unique Louisiana culture. I’ll be moving down there one day. It’s corrupt and swampy and has great food, so it’s closer to New Jersey than you think. If Ernest Gaines isn’t a pseudonym, it should be. I’m eager to read more of his work.

I also enjoyed Bon Cop, Bad Cop, a Canadian buddy-cop movie that I can best describe as Hot Fuzz meets Strange Brew. It’s funny, silly, and simply a blast. Pitting a snobby Toronto cop (Col Feore) and a scruffy Quebecois officer vs. psycho terrorist killer hunting those who besmirch the glory of Canadian hockey, it’s always “Long Wait” on Netflix, but definitely worth waiting to see. Great fun.

bon-cop-bad-cop_huard_feoreAlso reading Circus Parade by Jim Tully, an early hardboiled stylist who wrote of riding the rails and as here, circus carny life, before shuffling off to Hollywood and then obscurity. Let’s just say that his circus tales ring much truer than Water for Elephants did, even though Sara Gruen got a lot right, and wrote a very enjoyable, if maudlin tale. This one’s influence on Hammett, Hemingway, and others is obvious and it’s worth reading, if like me, you dig hobo narratives.

On the writing front, I have stories in upcoming collections:

“The Big Snip,” in Dark City Lights, edited by Lawrence Block for Three Rooms Press, a collection of New York City stories. This is available for pre-order.

“The Cronus Club,” in Dana Kabel’s Kannibal Cookbook, from Out of the Gutter. No release date, but I’ve read the story at several readings and according to the audience, it’s quite a doozy.

And I wrote an introduction to the Valancourt Books reissue of Gerald Kersh’s novella collection Clock Without Hands, one of his best. I found Kersh through Harlan Ellison, which led to this infamous letter, and eventually also led to me writing this foreword. Having my name beside Kersh’s is quite an honor. More on this when the book is available.

I’ll also be writing short articles for Criminal Element and sharing them here. I won’t be posting here just to post, as that has the same lure of instant validation that makes social media appeal to me. See you in the comments.

I’ll be back…

I'll be back - Terminator

Not Rude At All…

The letter I received from Harlan Ellison made it into Flavorwire’s “Rudest letters sent by celebrities to their fans.” For the record, I didn’t find Mr. Ellison’s letter one bit rude; I impinged on his time, ignored his vocal plea to fans to not write him, as he has an obvious compulsion to respond to all correspondence, and he answered my question and directed me to an incredible book that influences my writing to this day. We have chatted back and forth on his web forum since, and it was an honor to hear from him. He writes with a power few of us could wield so accurately.

You can read the letter in its entirety here.

 

 

Salute These Shorts

I love short stories. Otherwise I wouldn’t write them, because they are a pain in the ass. Sure, you can get the whole idea in your head at once, but there’s no room for error. So when I read a great one, I sit in awe. Here are a few of my favorites. What are yours?

The Creature from the Cleveland Depths, by Fritz Leiber

This one felt silly when I first read it, but now that we have cell phones, ol’ Fritz is laughing in his grave.

In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried, by Amy Hempel

Amy Hempel paints pain so beautifully, without ever using fancy brushes.

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas, by Ursula K. LeGuin

An incredible fable that puts civilization in perspective and asks us why we can’t walk away.

The Gentle Way, by Lawrence Block (available in his collection “Enough Rope”)

Mr. Block writes damn fine short stories. This one, about an animal shelter dealing with a vandal, resonates deeply. His excellent story “See the Woman” is available online.

Placebo, by Andrew Vachss (Available in his collection “Born Bad,” and also in Protectors: Stories to Benefit PROTECT.) You can read the also-excellent “Working Roots” free here on his website.

Placebo is a pared down work of great power. Working Roots is a gritty urban fairy tale. I wish Andrew Vachss would write a novel about these kids.

Houston, Houston Do You Read? by James Tiptree, Jr. aka Alice Sheldon.

How do you end violence? The answer is simple, if unpleasant.

Speech Sounds, by Octavia Butler
The last Ms. Butler is interviewed by Charlie Rose here:

The late, great Ms. Butler captures the terror of a true apocalypse and losing the power to communicate in this gut puncher.

The Man from the South, by Roald Dahl

One of my favorite horror tales. You’ll be clutching your fingers!

The Chaser, by John Collier

One of the funniest and best short story writers, Collier is oft forgotten but has many lessons to teach writers today and many joys to bring readers for centuries hence.

The Appointment in Samarra, by Somerset Maugham

A classic bit of flash fiction.

Why I Live at the P.O., by Eudora Welty

A great picture of a family from one of its loony members.

A Good Man is Hard to Find, by Flannery O’Connor

If you don’t like this story, hit yourself in the face.

Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell

The inspiration for “The Thing,” this one is terrifying on a cellular level.

“I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” by Harlan Ellison. He has written a ridiculous amount of great short stories. How to choose one? This has always been the most memorable to me. A supercomputer destroys humanity in retribution for creating him–a genius who cannot truly move, feel or love– but he saves five individuals to torture for eternity. Misanthropy at its most dire. A close second is “The Paladin of the Lost Hour,” a wonderful fantasy story about a man who guards the “clock” that keeps the world from doomsday, and how he shares a moment with a veteran wracked with survivor’s guilt. The first is available in the collection of the same name, the second is in “Angry Candy.” I am also fond of the entire collection :”Deathbird Stories,” especially the title story, which retells Genesis from Satan’s–I mean “Snake’s” point of view.

Book Blast: Bird, Ellison, Abbott, Beat to a Pulp and more

Several books by authors I admire have hit the streets recently. But first, let me get this out of the way. My friend Sabrina graciously opened the door of her blog to me, and I have a guest post up about why I wrote “Little Sister,” my story for last year’s Lost Children Charity Anthology.  Sabrina is a great friend, and my ideal reader: a passionate fan of crime fiction, who likes a story fraught with action, real stakes, and bloody thrills. She always puts her heart into her reviews, and if you like thrillers and noir, I highly recommend you follow her blog.

First up, my friend Nigel Bird- one of my favorite short story writers- has written his first novel. Some are calling it “teacher noir,” about a Scottish schoolteacher who tries to help one of his troubled students, and ends up in over his head. Nigel is the author of the excellent story collection Dirty Old Town, and last year’s smashing novella Smoke. In Loco Parentis is available at Amazon.

http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=plyoto-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&asins=B0082FR9ZO&ref=qf_sp_asin_til&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr

Megan Abbott is one of noir’s rising stars. She began with powerful nods to the classics, and last year she wrote The End of Everything, a daring novel about an abducted girl in the Detroit chi-chi suburbs. I first read her in the L.A. Noire story collection, where her tale of Hollywood sleaze “The Girl” knocked me out of my socks and into next week at the same time. Now she’s tackled the high octane and brutally competitive world of high school cheerleading with DARE ME, and Dave White gives it a great review at his new blog, Beer ‘n Books. Dave is an IPA hound, but he has great taste in beer. He also writes a pretty good yarn himself, like Witness to Death.

Buy Dare Me at Indiebound
  http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=plyoto-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&asins=0316097772&ref=qf_sp_asin_til&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr
Beat to a Pulp Round Two is out, and editing superstar David Cranmer has put together another stunner of a collection. This time Charles Ardai, Bill Pronzini, Patricia Abbott, James Reasoner, Glenn Gray and Steve Weddle are on the card, among other champs, contenders and ringers. And look at that cover. David is one of my favorite editors to work with, and he really knows how to rope together a collection. Maybe he learned a little from Cash Laramie, his western marshal?
http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=plyoto-20&o=1&p=8&l=as1&asins=0983377510&ref=qf_sp_asin_til&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr

And last but not least, the first author to influence me and make me pick up the pen was Harlan Ellison. Maybe you’ve read of our infamous correspondence? Well, Harlan began writing juvenile delinquent tales, before he broke the chains from pulp SF and created his own audacious flavor of speculative fiction. And some of those tales were racy, collected as “Sex Gang,” under the pseudonym Paul Merchant. They’ve been out of print, until now. Kicks Books is releasing them with the only slightly less squirmy title, Pulling a Train.

I don’t see the Ellison book available at my local indie or at Amazon yet, but these are what I’ll be reading this summer… once I catch up and read Dead Harvest, The Adjustment, City of the Lost, Edge of Dark Water, and That’s How I Roll!

© 2012 Thomas Pluck
I post on Twitter as TommySalami ~ My Facebook Page

Hardboiled Magazine

Do you like Hardboiled fiction? Then you should subscribe to Hardboiled Magazine. It’s been in print since 1985, created by my friend Wayne Dundee – a hell of a writer himself – and is now run by Gary Lovisi. Paper only, you go to the link below, click Catalog, then select Hardboiled Magazine. It’s $35 for a yearly subscription, old school print and hard as a set of carbide tipped knuckle dusters. You won’t regret it. Frank Bill, Andrew Vachss, Bill Pronzini, Harlan Ellison and Bill Crider have all graced its pages and it is worth the extra steps needed to subscribe in this one-click world. 
Gary takes credit cards now, but I sent a check. It felt like the old days. In a good way…
© 2012 Thomas Pluck I post on Twitter as TommySalami ~ My Facebook Page

Writing to Harlan Ellison

I believe the first book I read by Harlan Ellison was his short story collection I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. Besides being one of the great titles, the story remains a fascinating capsule of humanity at its best and worst. It follows the tortures of a small group of insane and terrible people damned to live within the confines of a Cold War supercomputer gone sentient, a Frankensteinian who despises its former masters with a hate so vitriolic that it has annihilated the planet and kept only five survivors as its playthings. It may not resonate as deeply as it once did, but as a child of the ’80s kept up nights by a senile President picking fights with inscrutable nuclear enemies, its palpable sense of dread was quite affecting.

But that’s just one of Mr. Ellison’s stories. A true master of the short story, I read everything by him I could get my hands on. Deathbird Stories is a favorite of mine (and Neil Gaiman) where Harlan plunges into myth and religion. He’s run the gamut, but they all have one thing in common: a monolithic moral foundation and deeply emotional underpinning. While ghettoed as a science fiction writer, he prefers the term speculative fiction. As tribalist monkeys, we humans love our categories. He’s written magic realism, he’s written fable, such as “Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman,” which is one of the most reprinted stories in the English language. He wrote that in six hours, in one draft. The man’s a storytelling genius.

Energetic and opinionated, he became infamous among science fiction fans as ill-tempered. I drove to Long Island in a ’65 Mustang with leaky brake lines to meet him at a convention at Stony Brook college. To me, he just seemed like a confident man who didn’t take any shit. It bemuses me when people expect someone to take shit. He was heckled on stage about his height, and I imagine some came merely to heckle, to set him off. What struck me most that he was a champion of others’ work more than his own. Dan Simmons was there promoting his latest- Summer of Night– and Harlan found a copy of Simmons’s first novel, Song of Kali, and read the excellent opening paragraph aloud. That doesn’t sound like an asshole to me.

Admittedly, I met him only once, but he was quite gracious at the book signing table and signed things I purchased that I didn’t even ask to be signed. But I’ve been amused for his reputation. Surely he is no saint, and during that minor epoch of the ’70s when science fiction writers were rock stars with big collars and enormous eyeglasses, perhaps he rubbed some the wrong way. He also made it very clear that he didn’t want your damn fan letters. They were a distraction, he said, from writing. Like many prolific writers, he was driven. Whatever his voluminous pagecount was, it was never enough.And like a stage star who says they never read reviews, he may have excoriated fan letter writing, but he interrupted his day to read them.

Now, I’ve never been good at taking no for an answer. And as I was adrift as a young man and seeking a father figure, I had a habit of contacting writers and celebrities I admired, in my search for a male role model. I think I called his house, once, and sat tongue tied until he hung up. I’m not proud of that. And of course, knowing that he didn’t want people writing him, I wrote him. In one of his stories, he quotes Gerald Kersh, a writer he admired greatly. I remembered the quote, but not the source. And in those days before the internet, I would have had to go to the Nutley public library and skim every Harlan Ellison story until I found it, if they had the book, and hope that he footnoted the origin. So I used that as an excuse to write him a letter. And lo and behold, he answered, and of course, chewed me out for busting his balls with my request:


I did find Gerald Kersh. I found Nightshade and Damnations, the collection Harlan edited. I read his excellent novel set in a London slum, Fowler’s End, which is on Kindle for 99 cents, so you have no excuse. I read his other collection, Men Without Bones, which is also on Kindle. Kersh writes like a dream. He’s a writer’s writer. Clever stories, and a style so effortless it inspires awe and envy. He lacks the raw emotional power of Harlan’s best work, but he is also one of the best writers of the last century, and four a lousy four bucks you can take a bite of the heart of his best work. Have at it.

As for Harlan, I wrote this because I sent this letter to Shaun Usher of the excellent Letters of Note blog, and it was showcased a year or so ago. Shaun contacted me after he spoke with Mr. Ellison on the phone, and my letter came up. Harlan said I was an idiot for not selling it on ebay, because of the 200 or so letters he receives a week, mine remains one of the few he’s responded to. I wish I’d kept my copy, no doubt scrawled in my stout lazy cursive, or more likely printed on the daisy wheel printer I had back then. I don’t recall if I begged or beseeched, or merely kissed ass. But it felt good to be remembered. I lay the blame on my Plucky surname, but my head was a whirlwind of formless, aimless energy back then and I’m sure I wrote a few lines that would defy explanation today.

And of course, I just wrote him again. On his web page. That way, instead of intruding on his mailbox, if he reads the forum for his readers, it is of his own volition. But yeah, I’m gonna refresh that page daily to see if he replies. And I know Harlan is yanking our twig about replying to few letters, as a few years later I told an eccentric old lady and voracious reader I knew from delivering medicine at the drug store, Mary Brasseur, about my letter, and she wrote him as well. She said he was a curmudgeon, and he corrected her, he was an ‘irascible sonofabitch’ (or some such; good Mary has passed to the great used bookstore in the sky). I’ve always felt like I knew Mr. Ellison a little, and that he was a bit like Busto (read the letter) and that’s why the quote resonated with him, and with me. I wouldn’t presume to know him from his writing, but as Andrew Vachss says about “children of the secret,” veterans of the same war are attuned to each other’s frequencies.

© 2011 Thomas Pluck