Back in the 1980s, my family went to stay with some relatives for New Year’s Eve. I don’t remember much of the festivities itself, but one thing I do remember – for reasons that will become clear – is that nearby, about five minutes walk away in fact, was a comic shop.
Now, I’d been reading comics for a while, but my ‘local’ shop in Sheffield wasn’t very local at all – it was a couple of bus rides away, and of course that kind of travel ate into the potential spending money (this was after Sheffield’s insanely cheap bus fares had been abolished – boo! A flat fare of 2p was a fab thing to a cash-starved kid), so I tended to walk there with my friend Simon. Which took about an hour there and an hour back, so you can see why a shorter walk was so appealing.
This comic shop – I don’t think it’s there any more – had a pretty decent selection of recent comics, and also, as was often the case back then, also sold a lot of paperbacks (mainly SF, fantasy and horror), which you could then sell back to them for half the price in credit. So, being a bookish child and having a bit of Christmas money, I bought myself a book and a comic: All The Sounds Of Fear by Harlan Ellison, and the Warrior Summer Special (both pictured). Small pressies to myself, as it were.
I think I can, without fear of exaggeration, state that it was the greatest couple of pounds I ever spent, and that the combined effect of the two did strange things to my brain for which I will always be grateful.
The Warrior comic featured some stories by Alan Moore, whose work I was already starting to look out for (from the cover-date of that comic, I guess I was something like 12, and was just learning that certain names recurred on the credits of things I liked), and other writers as well, all of which made it a pretty heady brew, and then when I started to read the Ellison, my noggin was permanently bent out of shape.
If you’ve never read anything by Harlan Ellison… well, obviously, I think you should, but there’s a fair chance you don’t recognise the name, especially in the UK; this is pretty odd really, given that he is one of the most-recognised writers ever, but he tends to fly under the radar for a lot of people. Still, have you seen that original Star Trek episode with Joan Collins in? He wrote the screenplay for that? Seen The Terminator? Yeah, he provided (ahem) ‘inspiration’ for that. What about Babylon 5? He consulted on that, and the new version of The Twilight Zone and heaps of other stuff – and that’s just his filmed work, his short stories are allegedly among the most reprinted in the English Language. So yes, I think you should read his stuff – it often has futurist backdrops, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s science fiction. Cos it isn’t.
Anyway, I read the collection of stories in All The Sounds Of Fear, and whatever else that new year brought, it certainly opened with me having a new and strange outlook on just what the written word, when combined with imagination, could do. It’s probably very much one of the reasons that I started writing – not because I sought to emulate his work, or anything so straightforward, but rather because it suggested there was a place in the world for writing down the more spiky and awkward of ideas, if you could do it. And that’s why I cite him as my favourite writer, when asked – it sounds wilfully obscure to most people, but I like to think it’s actually the truth.
Jump forward many years (past 1986, incidentally, when The Singing Detective made me realise just how unlimited the medium of TV could be), to last Friday night, on London’s Southbank; it was raining, and England were playing a World Cup match, and that’s why there was a limited turnout at the screening of Dreams With Sharp Teeth, a film about Harlan Ellison.
There were probably about 30 of us, plus screenwriter and friend of Harlan Ellison James Moran and the film’s director, Erik Nelson, but the limited numbers weren’t any kind of damper on the event – the film was funny and smart and showed HE in what looks like a fairly balanced light. Yes, there were scenes where he was a bit short-tempered, but there were others where he spoke about writing and literature with a passion, and when he read sections from his stories the talent was painfully evident. So yes, it was a good film.
Afterwards, Messrs Moran and Nelson asked the audience to come nearer the front, as they were going to do a link-up to LA, where they’d ask Harlan some questions. I moved down as requested, and indeed got a front-row seat, which I was pretty pleased about. They linked up okay, and asked him a few questions, and then they asked if anyone in the audience had any questions. There was a pause, and then I realised that my hand was up, and they were nodding towards me.
I’ll freely admit I was quite nervous about asking my question, not because I was speaking in front of a small crowd (as anyone who knows me will be aware, I’m a hopeless attention-seeker), but rather because this was probably likely to be my only actual interaction with Harlan Ellison, whose work I’ve enjoyed for over a quarter of a century. If there’s anyone whose work you admire, imagine how you’d feel in a similar situation. Yep, there you go, now you get it.
Anyway, with both the film and my own personal ‘history with HE’ (recounted above at length – and you probably just thought it was the usual self-indulgent rambling, but hopefully now it reveals itself as the vital backstory it was intended to be) in mind, I asked my question, which came out in a slightly gabbled and nervous way, and sounded something like this:
“We see you in the film speaking to college students, and a couple of people in the film say that your work should be taught in schools – what, do you think, would be the ideal age for people to first read your work? When would you most want to get hold of their fragile minds? Teenagers? Ten? Eight? One?”
As those of you who can read will probably note, this is actually a series of questions, mainly because I was gabbling to fill the gap caused by the satellite delay, and I didn’t actually have a microphone, so it was a bit uncertain to me whether Harlan could actually hear any of what I was saying. But he’d heard some of it, it seems, because he asked “Was that a question, or a diatribe?”
Erik then summarised the question, and Harlan answered it, giving a solid and considered answer – but then again, I probably would say that, as he seemed to suggest that the age of 14 or so was about right, thus making me ahead of my time as a child – and I was suitably pleased, on a number of levels.
And as the second – and only other – question was about the long-delayed third volume of Dangerous Visions, which is decades past its due date, and HE tends to get a bit fed up with being asked about (and showed as much on this occasion), I think that I probably did all right, all things considered.
Apologies for length here, but I was really rather chuffed about it, and wanted to record the event in what, I guess, is probably the closest thing I have to a diary. Given that I’ve met Alan Moore a couple of times, and that Dennis Potter has been dead for a number of years, I guess I’ve completed my interaction with the people whose work remoulded my thinking in the 1980s, which feels oddly satisfying.
One final point: if you want to see a terrific example of HE’s writing, read the short story I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream, from which the title of this post derives. The title’s remarkable enough, but the story itself… well, to say “it lingers in the mind” is several kinds of understatement.