Here’s a final piece from Herding Ravens, coupled this time with a brief theatrical adaptation I did of the story which was published in another collection, Wild Tracks. The Chairman Comes to Callcopyright © 2012 by Christopher ConlonThe Chairman of the Board of Insomnia came to visit me one night. He didn’t look as I’d expected: first of all he wasn’t a woman, a svelte alluring lady with arched eyebrows and a black dress covered with sparkly sequins. No, he was very much a man, big, block-shouldered, in a gray business suit and sunglasses. He arrived in what at first I thought was a limousine but then realized was a hearse. I could see it at the curb outside when I went to answer his knock. Who drove it, however, I don’t know, though the hands I could see on the steering wheel looked oddly skeletal.The Chairman didn’t wait for me to ask him in. He didn’t even greet me, just marched right through the doorway and stood in the hall looking around. At least he seemed to be looking around. Because of the sunglasses I couldn’t see his eyes. “Nice place you got here,” he said, his voice low, hollow, echoing, like a voice at the bottom of a well. “Thank you,” I said. “I like it.”He asked if I had anything to drink. I asked in return what he would prefer. He shrugged, stepping into my living room, leaning down to see the various items on the knick-knack shelf. “Whatever you got,” he said. “Coffee’d be good.”“At three in the morning?”He didn’t answer.I went to the kitchen and started it brewing. He followed me in, took a chair at the table and turned it around, sat on it in reverse, his arms folded over the back.“I don’t have any decaf,” I warned.The Chairman of the Board of Insomnia didn’t respond.At last the coffee was ready. He took his with cream and sugar, surprisingly elaborate in his preparations, stirring and mixing. “Ain’t you havin’ any?” he asked.“No,” I answered, “it’s far too late for me.”To my surprise, he chuckled. “You got that right, brother,” he said. “Better have some, just the same.”I knew better than to argue with him. I poured myself a cup, drank it black and too fast, scalding the roof of my mouth.“That’s it, you got it now, you got the idea,” he said.“When—how long will you be here?” I dared to ask.“Relax,” he said. “We got all the time in the world. Pour yourself another cup.”“Please, I—I must work tomorrow. I must get some sleep.”“Sleep?” He chuckled again, then began to laugh. It was a strange sound, hard, metallic, not humorous at all but rather sarcastic, mocking. “Sleep?” His teeth were huge, bigger somehow than his mouth, sharp and deadly-looking, like a shark’s. “You don’t seem to understand,” he said at last, when his laughter was done. “I’m gonna be here a long time. A real long time. In fact,” he said, “you might think of me as a sort of permanent houseguest.” He drained his cup. “This is damn good coffee,” he proclaimed, holding out the empty cup to me. “Pour me some more. And have some yourself while you’re at it, pal. It’s gonna be a long night.” The Chairman Comes to Callcopyright © 2014 by Christopher ConlonCASTMan…Young. Pajamas, eyeglasses.The Chairman…Older and bigger than Man. Business suit, sunglasses. TIME: Middle of the night. The present.PLACE: A small room. Door upstage or slightly off.PROP LIST: Two chairs, small table with half-full coffee pot, two cups. (Sound: knocking on door. Starts slowly, grows louder and more insistent.)MAN (entering, disheveled from bed, slipping on eyeglasses): Coming, I’m coming! (Stands at door) Who is it? (Pause.) I said, who is it?CHAIRMAN (off): Open up.MAN: What? Who is it?CHAIRMAN (off): Open the door. Now.MAN: Are you with the police?
CHAIRMAN (off, chuckling): Sure, buddy, that’s it. The police.MAN: How do I know you’re really with the police?
CHAIRMAN: Who else would be knockin’ at three in the morning? MAN: I—I don’t know.CHAIRMAN: So open the door.(Man opens door. Enter Chairman, all swagger.)CHAIRMAN: Thanks.MAN: What do you want?CHAIRMAN: Nice place you got here.MAN: I said, what do you want? Am I in trouble?CHAIRMAN: In a way. You could say that.MAN: Why? What have I done?CHAIRMAN: Relax, bub. You ain’t done nothin’.MAN: Then—why…?CHAIRMAN: I’m here representin’ the Board.MAN: Board? What board?CHAIRMAN: Oh, you know the Board, pal.MAN: I don’t know the Board. I don’t know what you’re talking about.CHAIRMAN: Got any coffee?MAN: Coffee? At three in the morning?CHAIRMAN: I work late hours.MAN: I don’t. I have to get up early.CHAIRMAN: So what? You wasn’t sleepin’, was you?MAN: Well…no.CHAIRMAN: Why not?MAN: I…I often suffer…from…CHAIRMAN: Suffer from what?
MAN: From…CHAIRMAN: Spit it out.MAN: Sleeplessness! I can’t sleep. Often.(Chairman nods, looks around apartment.)CHAIRMAN: Hey, there’s coffee right here. MAN: No, that’s…CHAIRMAN: What?MAN: Leftover. It’s leftover from this morning.CHAIRMAN (reaching for the pot and cup): I don’t give a damn.MAN: It’s not even hot. It’s cold.CHAIRMAN: Don’t matter.MAN: You won’t like it.CHAIRMAN: Lemme be the judge of that. (He drinks.) What are you talkin’ about? This is good coffee. Damn good.MAN: Please, who are you? What do you want?CHAIRMAN: Pull up a chair. Let’s talk. (He turns a chair around, sits backward on it, sips the coffee.)MAN: No, I…I have to go to work in the morning…Please, if I’m in some sort of trouble…CHAIRMAN (chuckling): Buddy, you have no idea. Sit down. (Pause.) I said sit down.(Man sits.)MAN: You said you were from…a Board…?CHAIRMAN: You should really have some of this coffee.MAN: What Board is it? That you’re from?CHAIRMAN: Insomnia.MAN: What?CHAIRMAN: That’s the Board. Board of Insomnia.MAN: And you’re…?CHAIRMAN: The Chairman.MAN: Chairman of the Board?CHAIRMAN: Of Insomnia.MAN: I didn’t know there was a Board for that.CHAIRMAN: We’re around. We don’t make waves. Mostly we do our work at night. When other people are sleepin’.MAN: Yes, that…that makes sense, I suppose.CHAIRMAN: But we’re not. We don’t.MAN: Sleep?CHAIRMAN: Yeah. (Drains his cup.)MAN: Please, what do you want?CHAIRMAN: I want more of this coffee. (Stands, gets it.) You need to have some, too. (Pours second cup.) MAN: No, I don’t…I really don’t want any.(Chairman steps close to Man, holds cup out to him.)CHAIRMAN: Take it.MAN (taking it, resigned): Thank you.CHAIRMAN: Now drink.MAN: It will keep me up all night. I have to get some sleep.CHAIRMAN: Sleep? (Laughs, then drains cup in one quick motion.) You think the Chairman of the Board of Insomnia visits just anybody, mac?MAN: No, it’s…a great honor, I’m sure.CHAIRMAN: Drink. (Man sips tentatively.)MAN: There. Now, please, if you don’t mind…(Moves to stand; Chairman pushes him back into chair.)CHAIRMAN: Don’t try that again.MAN: I’m sorry. It’s just that…CHAIRMAN: What?MAN: I need to sleep. I really do need to sleep.CHAIRMAN: Drink your coffee. (Man drinks.) You ain’t sleepin’ anytime soon, pal. You know that, don’t you?MAN: I’m beginning to realize.CHAIRMAN: You knew all along. It’s like this a lot, ain’t it? Night after night.MAN: Yes. It is.CHAIRMAN: You’re one of us. One of the people.MAN: People?CHAIRMAN: People who’re awake at three in the morning. People who stare at clocks in the dark. People who’d pay money to be able to drop off but they just lay there hour after hour listening to the sound of the clock and the traffic outside. People who push off the bed sheets and pull them on again later and toss and turn and try to count sheep and get up to listen to music for a while or watch TV and then get back into that bed and think, “Now, now I’ll sleep.” But it don’t work. You don’t sleep, do you, pal? You don’t sleep at all. MAN (emotional): No. Not very much.CHAIRMAN: It’s hell, ain’t it?MAN: Yes. It’s hell.CHAIRMAN: Sleepin’ pills don’t work. That ain’t real sleep. You know that.MAN: No. They’re worse than…nothing. They don’t help at all. I don’t have a chance to…CHAIRMAN: That’s what I’m here to offer you. (Stands, gets more coffee.)MAN: What?CHAIRMAN: A chance.MAN: What chance? What do you mean?CHAIRMAN: I’m authorized to make you an offer, pal.MAN: What offer?CHAIRMAN (looking at him, sitting again; gentler approach): Join the Board.MAN: What?CHAIRMAN: Become a member. Work under me. We need people like you.MAN: People like me?CHAIRMAN: You’re qualified. I never seen a guy so qualified.MAN: What would my…responsibilities be?CHAIRMAN: What d’you think? (Drinks.) MAN: What you’re doing? Now?CHAIRMAN: That’s it.MAN: How?CHAIRMAN: Any way you can think of.MAN: And my…my targets…?CHAIRMAN: We call ’em clients.MAN: My clients…?CHAIRMAN: You’ll get a list. Don’t worry ’bout a thing. You’ll like ’em. They’re all people like you. Just like you.MAN: And like you?CHAIRMAN: Sure, like me. I didn’t get to be the Chairman overnight, you know. This work ain’t easy. MAN: No.CHAIRMAN: But it’ll give your nights meaning. Your nights ain’t never had much meaning, have they, friend?MAN: No. CHAIRMAN: So will you take the job? Become a member of the Board?MAN: I wish I’d never let you in here.CHAIRMAN: Let me in? Buddy, I’ve always been here. Every night. With you.MAN: Yes, I see that. I see that now. (Pause.) What time is it?CHAIRMAN: Who cares? We got nothin’ but time. MAN: I suppose that’s right. (Pause.) Will I be—trained? CHAIRMAN: You can start tonight. Make some calls with me. You’ll catch on in no—MAN: —time?CHAIRMAN (chuckling). You got the idea.MAN: And if I say no?CHAIRMAN (shrugs). That’s on you, friend. I can keep comin’ back. Again and again, night after night. You can just keep starin’ at that clock in the dark. And it’ll never change. Ever. MAN: Ever.CHAIRMAN: We want you, pal. We really do. I’m sincere. (Puts hand on Man’s shoulder, brotherly.) So what d’you say?(Pause.)MAN: All right.CHAIRMAN: Great. (Standing.) Wanna start now?MAN: Yes, but just one thing.CHAIRMAN: What?MAN (drains cup, stands): Do I have time for another cup of coffee?CHAIRMAN: That’s one thing we always have time for. (He pours coffee for both, hands cup back to Man. They drink.) Yes, sir. Damn good coffee. (Drains his cup.) Finish up and let’s get movin’, pal. It’s gonna be a long night. #
Here's another one from Herding Ravens.I, Ringocopyright © 2012 by Christopher ConlonI am now a very old man and few are left alive from those times, so I can it admit it freely at last: yes, it was I who set the trap, I who placed the bomb, I who caused him to flail and tumble and drop to his death.I, Ringo.Children cannot imagine what those nights were like! Videos do not even begin to suggest the reality of it. Flying high above the city in our jet-black skinthins, dancing in midair with only a fineline between us and disaster a thousand feet, ten thousand feet below. Such freedom! No, the young have nothing like it today in their world of rules and regulations and strictly enforced limits. There have been no nightflyers—real ones, not holovideo greenscreens—in two generations.But once there were. Once! The legends are all true. Using our finelines we would soar from building to building, window to window, blacksuit against blacknight, tumbling and somersaulting, always just one leap ahead of the police and death. Gangs of us. There were the Skulking Panthers and the Green Goddesses and the Mighty Rocketeers and my own gang, the Fighting Flyers. And of course there was the greatest of them all, the Kool Kats.No one knew it then—knew their greatness, that is. All we knew then was that they were the most popular gang among many popular, acclaimed gangs. We were all in competition, slyly disabling alarm systems as high up as the clouds, silently slicing through glass and stealthily invading the dark homes of the richest of the rich, those who lived up there in those clouds, leaving the rest to riot and rot and stink in the streets so far below they hardly had any knowledge of them at all. For all the rich knew or cared, there was no street, no ground. They lived in the sky, perfectly self-sufficient and safe.Or so they thought.Children today think they have an idea of the romance and adventure of it, but they have no concept. It was a Golden Age that we knew, even then, was a Golden Age. Diamonds! Pearls! Rare coins! All there for the taking for those with enough skill and courage to master the art of travel by fineline, shooting the lines out from your customized fingertips (customized at enormous expense, of course—you saved for years) to latch onto the building across the way and then swing out to it, nothing between you and the street thousands of feet below but empty air. We carried black belts with zippered openings, just right for the small but infinitely valuable items we took. And take them we did, quickly sailing back down the night, dropping gracefully through the sky until we found ourselves finally back on the streets, where we had clubs of our own, and drinks, and women—ah, the women! Outside might be riot and strife but inside our well-protected clubs we had everything we might ever have dreamed of needing, including safety.There was only one problem for me—for me personally. My gang, the Fighting Flyers, was a good one. A very good one. But it was not the best. And everyone knew it. We got good scores, better than practically any other gang’s—but not the very biggest ones. Like every other gang in the city, we admired and envied the one gang that was always a bit ahead of us, the undisputed champions of the nighttime world.The Kool Kats.There were four of them, and even in regular street clothes they seemed part and parcel of one another—brothers, more than brothers. The pale, handsome features. The long—shockingly long—chestnut hair. And in their skinthins they seemed four parts of the same person, a miraculously beautiful and stylish person divided four ways, a quartet of grace and genius. They were, in our small world, the ultimate celebrities. The Fighting Flyers would be applauded and fawned over when we entered a club, but street people swooned when the Kool Kats arrived. They seemed to suck the oxygen out of a room. The Fighting Flyers was an excellent gang—we truly were. But no one remembers the Flying Fighters today, any more than they recall the Skulking Panthers or the Green Goddesses. They are all on the ash heap of history, just like all those obscenely rich people whose glittering towers came crashing down a generation later in the Great Cleansing.No, in terms of the great gangs of that period all the history books remember now—as if they had patrolled the night single-handedly, with no one else with them in competition friendly or unfriendly—are the Kool Kats.One night I decided that I would become a Kool Kat.Understand: I had a fabulous gig with the Fighting Flyers. All the money I needed, all the celebrity. I was acclaimed as one of the greatest timesetters in the city—a “timesetter” being the one who set the pace for the rest as we sailed across the night skies toward our next job. A good timesetter was crucial—gangs had collapsed for the need of one, members colliding with one another in mid-air, careening crazily to their dooms below. That happened to two members of the Blue Danubes, a gang that had genuine potential—Fiery Thomas and Behemoth, may they rest in peace. Such a thing could happen at any moment without a first-rate timesetter.When the timesetter arrived at the windowsill of that night’s mark, he became the lookout for the others. Timesetters never set foot inside the premises themselves—they watched and waited, watched and warned. I had saved my fellow Fighting Flyers more than once by sending the silent blinking signal to their beatboxes when I espied the familiar ominous shapes of the police floatcars approaching. We were never caught. Not once. And a good thing, too—it would have been loboes for all of us then, the remainder of our lives spent drooling in institutions. Oh, timesetters were vital, believe me. And we always got our full share of the haul upon returning to street level. No one would dream of cheating a good timesetter.The Kool Kats had never been caught either, but unlike the Flying Fighters, they had had close calls. The word on the street was that their timekeeper, Sneaky Pete, was not all he might be. He was the handsomest in the gang, yes, and the most popular with girls—but some wondered about the long-term prospects of the Kool Kats with Sneaky Pete. Oh, he was good, no doubt. But he was not great.I was great. And I knew it.And I proved it to the world once I joined the Kool Kats.Yes, I admit it. It was I who paid off the security guards, I who planted the explosive on the windowsill of the residence they were working that night. How did I know which it would be?Why, Sneaky Pete told me. We were friends, you see.And so when Sneaky Pete, timekeeper of the greatest gang in the city, swooped out of the sky onto the window ledge that night, all those years ago, it exploded.It was not a large explosion. It was just enough to blow apart his fineline and send him tumbling into space, helplessly dropping from the clouds to the hard and unforgiving street. There was, I am told, little of him left after the impact.Of course this left the other Kool Kats dangling, scrambling, rushing away in a panic as the police floatcars were in the sky almost instantly. They escaped, but it was a close thing. No one saw any of the surviving Kool Kats for some days after that dramatic and tragic night, and everyone began to assume that their gang had broken up, was no more.Then, as I knew they would, they came knocking at my door. I was the best timekeeper in the city, you see. It was inevitable they would come to me. They stood on my doorstep, hats in hand, and asked if I would consider leaving the Fighting Flyers and joining the Kool Kats. Of course I made a show of hesitating, of weighing the pros and cons. And of course, in the end, I said yes.And so we became the greatest of all the flying gangs of that long ago time, our celebrity and accomplishment reaching new heights once I became part of them. I fit in, too—I looked a bit like them, and it was not difficult to grow my chestnut hair long like theirs.I have always assumed that they had no idea who had placed the explosive there, who led their original timekeeper to his doom. But the more I have learned about life over my own very long one, the more I wonder. Perhaps they did know.Perhaps that is exactly why they invited me to join them.Well, there is no one left to ask. Today I am the only remaining survivor. Sneaky Pete, meanwhile, is hardly even a footnote to history. The world remembers the Kool Kats, and always will. The Kool Kats: Wily John, Pretty Paul, Silent George.And I, Ringo.#
Over the next few weeks I'll be posting some of my little "bon-bons"--very short stories reprinted from my collection Herding Ravens, which Peter Schwotzer at Famous Monsters of Filmland called "brilliant...a totally insane group of tales that can't really be pigeon-holed into a genre."
The Raven 2
copyright © 2012 by Christopher Conlon
I had been writing in my chamber—a small, ill-lit, melancholy room whose main feature is a huge painting of my lost love, a beautiful young female whose name is untranslatable into the present tongue but which means something along the lines of “swift graceful huntress”—when there came a tiny rapping at my window. Pulling myself from my oppressive mood of sadness, I hopped over to the ledge and discovered a very small human standing outside.Angling my beak just so, I pulled open the window and stood staring at the little man. He was perhaps three inches high. He wore a silver suit which covered his entire body, neck to feet.Once upon a time, in the years before the Great Light, we ravens feared and loathed human beings for their guns, their stones, their shouted voices—and their sheer size: if one of us was hapless enough to fall into their hands, lo! all hope was lost. They were vastly bigger than we and capable of utterly destroying us. Our only way to survive came through our sheer slippery cunning.How things changed after the Great Light. Whence it came we know not. But one morning it was there, obliterating almost all it washed over: and after it passed away virtually everything was dead. Horses, dogs. Most vegetation died and then grew again in new shapes and colors. Happily, rats and mice and other such tasty prey survived, though many in the raven community agree that they tasted somehow indefinably different—not without savor, but different.The humans all perished—or we thought they did—and their carcasses were a pleasure to devour for weeks to come. That was the great period for the ravens. We ate our fill without fear. We circled the skies and cried out to each other in joy.And we grew. Perhaps in reaction to the sudden cornucopia of food available, we rapidly became enormous—I myself, once about eighteen inches tall in the way man formerly measured such things, am now nearly four feet high. I said earlier that we thought man had utterly perished. We were soon proved wrong by some of the mightiest hunters of our clan, who began bringing back strange little creatures with arms and legs, creatures the likes of which we had never seen before. One of our greatest and profoundest thinkers pondered the problem for some time before coming to the conclusion that, as we ravens had grown, the humans had shrunk. Millions of them had died, yes—but the ones that hadn’t perished had shrunk, as this one before me now, to a height of around three inches. The Great Light certainly moved in mysterious ways.And now here was this man before me. I could easily have grabbed him with my lightning-quick beak and devoured him, but I am not particularly partial to the taste of these new miniature humans. Anyway, I was curious about this one, and taken aback by its boldness. I decided to discover what the little animal wanted.It was waving to me and saying something. Its voice was very small and low, but it was audible. Happily I am well-versed in the language of humans as it was once spoken in this land. What the human said was, “Filthy bird!” Now this was even more surprising. Surely the creature understood that it could be assassinated at any instant by the simple application of my own rock-hard beak to its soft, tender man-flesh. I was tempted to laugh, but laughter was not an indulgence in which I had engaged for many moons. Something about the miniature being instead made me take pity. I leaned close to it and spoke its language—my ability to speak human is limited because a raven’s vocal apparatus is completely different from that of a man, but I can manage a few words of the barbaric tongue.“O Man,” I said, “wherefore dost thou come to me in my hour of sorrow?”For I had indeed been sorrowing, staring at the picture of my lost Swift Graceful Huntress and attempting to peck out a poem to her blessed memory.Quoth the man, “Filthy bird!”This was most strange. Perhaps, I thought, the poor creature was demented. After all, in addition to the aforementioned fact that I could kill the thing at any moment I chose, there was the additional truth that ravens, myself included, are very clean birds. We bathe assiduously and work constantly to keep our feathers free of fleas and mites. I myself had had a lovely bath in a pond not far from my chamber only a few hours before. Afterwards I had preened for some time, wanting to feel as clean and pure as I possibly could in order to compose my poem to my lost love. Therefore, while I was admittedly and proudly a bird, I was most certainly not filthy.“O Man,” I said, working my way around the unnatural sounds and syllables as best I could, “thou art confounded. No doubt the new order of the world hath baffled and bewildered thee. Perhaps thou art frustrated that we ravens hath overtaken everything that was once Man’s. Perhaps thou once lived in this chamber, or one like it, long ago, before the Great Light. I feel sorrow for thee, O Man.”Quoth the man, “Filthy bird!”“What I suggest,” I continued, ignoring the poor thing’s feeble insult, “is that thou stayest here with me. I will care for thee as a beloved pet. I will feed thee and bathe thee and give thee a place to sleep thou shalt find comfortable. Thou mayest ride upon my head or seated atop my feet as I go about my daily duties. I will protect thee, O Man, and guide thee, and love thee.”Quoth the man, “Filthy bird!”I confess: at that point I grew enraged. Already overcome with my feelings of loss for my Swift Graceful Huntress, I reached with my great beak to silence the minuscule vulgarian forevermore.To my astonishment, however, my beak snapped closed on nothing.Looking up I saw that the human was flying about the room. Flying, as a raven would fly—though of course with none of a raven’s grace. There was some sort of device strapped to its back that emitted two little flames which seemed to grant the human the means of this aerial locomotion. The human swooped this way and that through the air and, although I cannot be sure, I believe that I heard the ill-mannered thing laughing.This was an outrage I would not stand. The impertinence! Man in flight! It is true that in the days before the Great Light Man did have its mechanical contraptions which flew with great noise among the clouds, but this was different. This man was flying—himself!I resolved to pursue him and bring this blasphemous farce to its conclusion by snapping the wretched animal in half. Yet, try as I might, I could not seem to catch the creature. It was so small that it could dart like a sprite and hide in small cracks and crevices I could not penetrate. Chasing the thing in that small, enclosed space, I was at a disadvantage—I was too big, too clumsy.At last I was winded and, in despair, flapped back to my desk, with my incomplete poem under my feet.The little man had taken refuge atop the bust of Polly which stood above my chamber door. Polly the parrot, the first bird, according to our tradition, ever to speak. Just below his bust was the smaller statue of the cracker Polly is said to have requested with those initial words.Quoth the man, “Filthy bird!”But now, to my surprise, the man continued speaking.“It won’t be long now!” said he. “Mankind is coming back! There are pockets of us everywhere around this city! We’ve developed technology, like my Jet Pack here! We’ve developed weapons—deadly weapons! Weapons a size we can use! Weapons that will destroy you and your kind! The reign of the raven is about to come to an end!”The pitiful little human raved on insensibly about its mad fantasies regarding its technology, its weapons, its glorious future. It all made me sad, almost as sad as when I looked up and beheld the image of my Swift Graceful Huntress.“O Man,” I answered, inspired to metaphor, “take thy beak from out my heart!”The man merely laughed. It obviously had no understanding of the compliment I had (admittedly insincerely) attempted to pay it, suggesting that Man too might contain the power and beauty of a bird’s beak, if only metaphorically. Nor did it comprehend how melancholy I had been made by its meaningless babblings, which truly did hurt my heart.The strange thing is that the human still is sitting on the bust of Polly above my chamber door. It watches me day and night. Occasionally I hear it laughing, though for what reason I know not. Yet something within me whispers that a time of great change may be coming, a change possibly as tremendous as that brought on by the Great Light. But such things are too large, too foreboding, to think about. Instead I return my beak to the paper, slowly pecking out my sorrowful ode to her whom I shall meet again—nevermore!#
One of the sadder side effects of my having gone so completely over to ebooks in recent years has been the relative neglect of my physical library. Located in our basement, its many shelves house something over 1500 volumes—and that’s not counting my wife’s half of the collection, which is nearly as extensive. As best I can estimate, there are over three thousand books down there—books that, in my wife’s case as well as my own, no longer get much love. Oh, I use them when I need them, of course. But the once-pristine organizing of my own portion of the library is long gone, with far too many random titles stuck in random places. Too many shelves are overstuffed, with books resting awkwardly in horizontal positions on the tops of others. Once carefully-tended shelves are white with powdery dust, and if I take a book down the first thing I have to do is blow on the top of it, which raises a little billowing cloud that dissipates slowly down onto the unswept floor.
Again and again I’ve stood in our library wishing there were a way to magically convert all of those many cumbersome volumes onto my Kindle…or most of them, anyway. There are, naturally, some books on those shelves which have a special value to me—and many of those books are autographed, or, as we say in more sophisticated circles, “signed.” (I suspect book people think “autographed” just sounds too fan-girlish, though in this context the two words mean exactly the same thing.)
I own a lot of signed books. I’ve also signed a lot myself—not the books in my collection, but rather limited-edition versions of my own works. The first major experience I remember having with this was when Cemetery Dance sent me one thousand (!) signature sheets for my anthology Poe’s Lighthouse, each one of which had to be hand-signed; I’ve also had signed limiteds of He Is Legend, Midnight on Mourn Street, Lullaby for the Rain Girl, and probably some others I’m forgetting. One thing I’ve learned in signing my name so many times in succession for these projects is that after a while strange things begin to happen to my signature—it develops oddities I’ve never seen before, weird eccentricities in the formation of some letters, odd hitches and glitches that keep repeating themselves until I take a break, shake out my hand and think about something else for a while. At times I’ve looked back at a pile of finished sheets and realized that some of those scrawls hardly look like my signature at all.
On my shelves rest dozens and dozens of books signed by their authors. I find, though, that my feelings about these books have evolved over the years—partly as a result of ebooks taking over my reading habits, and partly as a result of my own feelings about certain books or, especially, certain writers having evolved across time.
The least interesting signed books are those pre-fab collector’s items of the sort I just described—books signed in large or small quantities by their authors and sold as “limited editions.” The first such I ever bought was in 1979, when the Mysterious Press offered a signed limited facsimile edition of Ellery Queen’s The Roman Hat Mystery. I can still remember the thrill of looking at that signature page for the first time, the careful, highly legible “Ellery Queen” signature in quotation marks because, as I well knew, the name was the non de plume of Frederic Dannay and Manfred Lee. Dannay always did the Queen signature with those unique quotation marks (Lee had passed away some years before). My copy, which I still own, is marked as number 45 in a special signed edition of 250. A quick glance at abebooks.com shows me that this book is worth about $250 today. I certainly didn’t pay anything near that when I first bought it. I was in high school.
I went through a period—well, it lasted maybe twenty years, so is that really just a “period”?—of collecting such things. I have a bunch of pre-fab collector’s editions of books by Robert Bloch, Richard Matheson, Harlan Ellison, and many others, but I find that today I’m indifferent to them—indifferent to the editions, that is; I may well still love a given book very much, but the fact that it’s got a fancy binding and that a signature sheet is bound into it leaves me with no feeling at all except that I’m quite certain I generally paid far too much for such things.
Better are books that I got individually signed by an author, usually at official book signing events. I met William Styron a couple of times that way, and for a long time I treasured my signed first editions of Lie Down in Darkness, The Confessions of Nat Turner, and Darkness Visible. The same is true of Gore Vidal, a writer I also met a couple of times, and I have six or seven of his books signed to me. But these aren’t really that different from pre-fabs; Styron’s inscriptions say “To Chris” above his signature, while Vidal’s merely say “Chris” above his (Vidal obviously learned from many years’ practice that skipping the “To” helped significantly when facing a long book-signing line). I remember these meet-the-author events fondly, but now, all these years later, the inscriptions mean as little to me as they did to the authors themselves. Technically “inscribed,” they merely indicate that I got the guy’s attention long enough to have him scribble my first name in addition to his own. Somehow this is no longer particularly thrilling to contemplate.
Occasionally, with writers no longer living, I actually purchased a signed book from a second-hand dealer. I have a nice copy of Truman Capote’s Music for Chameleons with his unmistakable miniature signature that I picked up from the Gotham Book Mart in New York; they also sold me a couple of Tennessee Williams titles with his broad scrawl within (one of them is inscribed “To Bruce,” whoever that may have been). Again, though, these items have no meaning to me anymore.
One, though, remains special: a copy of William Saroyan’s Days of Life and Death and Escape to the Moon, purchased, as I recall, from Ferndale Books in Northern California around 1987. Saroyan, once a legendary figure in American letters now mostly forgotten, was an early favorite of mine (he wrote My Name Is Aram and The Time of Your Life), and thirty years ago I couldn’t resist this lovely little volume with its unique Saroyan inscription—scrawled all over the title page it reads, “For Louise Dodgson of Fresno + the world of books everywhere—hang in there, books may catch on someday. William Saroyan October 26 1972.” Fifteen years after adding that book to my collection it occurred to me to try Googling the identity of Louise Dodgson, and I discovered that she had been a long-time Fresno bookseller. I love the book itself—it’s one of the best of Saroyan’s later works—and so this one remains a valued treasure.
Perhaps the oddest item in my collection is not a book at all (and is not kept in the basement library but rather in my file cabinet upstairs). It’s a packet of half a dozen unpublished letters written in the late ’50s and early ’60s by the great fantasist Charles Beaumont (1929-1967), author of countless brilliant short stories, numerous famous Twilight Zone episodes—and one of the most important writers in my life. These were given to me by Beaumont scholar Roger Anker as a thank you for—well, something, but I actually have no memory of what! The unique thing about these letters, all of which are typed, is that they are yellow second-sheet carbons straight from Mr. Beaumont’s typewriter. (If you’re under forty you may have to look up what I mean by a “carbon.”) They’re delightful—and they’re all signed “Chuck.” But is a carbon signature a real signature? Each one was created by Beaumont’s own direct application of pressure onto the paper-carbon paper-second-copy sandwich with his own hand; kind of a second-generation autograph, if you will. I have no idea what they might be worth, if anything—is there even any precedent for valuing carbon-copy signatures? Well, no matter. There’s no chance I would ever sell them, anyway.
But to return to my main theme here: best of all are books signed and inscribed by people I’ve actually known and been friends with. I value such items from writing compadres such as Bill Heyen, Dick Lupoff, Tony Albarella, Kurt Newton, Norman Prentiss, Lisa Morton, and lots of others. Earl Hamner, who I met at the Twilight Zone Convention in Los Angeles in 2002 and who later became a great pen-pal of mine, was a great book-inscriber. My copy of his book of Twilight Zone scripts contains this inscription: “Chris—To a real poet from an aspiring one!,” while my Spencer’s Mountain reads, “To Chris! This book was published in 1961. What took you so long to read it? Love anyway! Earl.” In my copy of Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow Earl wrote out an extended quote from Housman’s Shropshire Lad: “Into my heart an air that kills from yon far country blows, what are those blue remembered hills, what spires, what farms are those? This is the land of lost content. I see it shining plain, the happy highways where I went and cannot come again.” Now that’s an inscription.
Sometimes a writer’s inscription can be a little disappointing. My pal George Clayton Johnson inscribed his Twilight Zone Scripts and Stories to me this way: “Hi Chris! Thank you plenty! George Clayton Johnson, 2002,” which is okay, I guess, but less than I’d hoped for given all the projects we’d worked on and the time we’d spent together. At least the inscription is enlivened by several Johnsonian sketches of stars and odd figures.
But the most uncomfortable books for me to contemplate today are those warmly inscribed ones from writers who were once friends but, for whatever reason, later dropped out of my life, sometimes under slightly dramatic circumstances. What am I to do now with books whose inscriptions express deep friendship, great regard, and enormous admiration when they were written by people with whom I later suffered a falling-out? People who stopped talking to me, or whom I stopped talking to? What does one do with relics of long-dead, burned-out relationships? I shan’t name names here and there aren’t, thank goodness, too many of these books in my library, but there are a few. I look at them and try to conjure up the relationship I once had with the writer, but too often can no longer really remember—what I remember instead is how the relationship later ended, sometimes in bitter acrimony. I try to tell myself that the inscriptions are still valid—valid for that particular moment in time, anyway—but somehow it doesn’t help. Probably I’ll end up giving these books to a thrift store someday. Let some interested browsers come across such signed items and count themselves lucky to have grabbed these collectibles for a buck or two.
In the meantime, writing this has gotten me thinking again about all those old pre-Kindle volumes downstairs. Perhaps I’ll spend some time downstairs with them today.
Maybe—who knows?—I’ll even take it upon myself to dust those shelves….
This unfinished sequence, written circa 2001-2, reflects an unhappy experience my wife and I had as foster parents.
The Lost Girl
The palm that doesn't dampen your own.
The heels that don't thump on the stairs.
The whimper that doesn't need water at three a.m.
The giggle that doesn't wake you from your nap.
The burp you don't shush at the dinner table.
The goal you don't cheer.
The knee you never bandage.
The math problem you don't help with.
The boys you don't interrogate.
The nights you don't lie awake.
The groundings you never order.
The recitals you don't attend.
The hypocrite you're never called.
The embarrassment you never suffer.
The time you never spend wishing you were reading.
The envy you never wonder about.
The hostility you never fear.
The astonishment you're never overwhelmed by.
The goodbye you never say.
In my dream I attended her funeral,
but she was there too, standing beside
my wife, shaking her head sadly
and looking down at her own small coffin
as it was lowered into the earth.
"It's sad you had to die," she said to me,
head still shaking. And when I tried
to protest, say, "It's not me, it's you,"
I suddenly knew it was me, though I
could hardly fit in such a small box.
But part of me could. And did.
"After all, there are other children--
thousands of them!"
Three meals, an overnight:
her pajamas and crooked teeth.
Chocolate kisses. Hot tea.
Her suspicion-veiled eyes,
her heavy hurt.
as she runs--
away from us.
A surrealistic prose poem written (in italics, for some reason) sometime in the 1990s.
The Lateness of the Hour
He found himself awake in the middle of the night and her staring at him. "You're awake," he said. She nodded. Time passed. He touched the sheet covering his chest and felt its texture with his fingers. Not wanting to, he asked: "Is this real?" She said, "It's a dream." He looked up at the webbed light glowing in the ceiling. "So when I wake up," he asked, "you cease to exist?" "Unless," she said, "I'm the one who's dreaming." He considered, then said: "Either way, neither of us will survive. Not if we're dream selves. Not if we're not real." She looked up at the ceiling with him. "What time is it?" she asked. He glanced the the clock on the table. It had no hands. "Late," he said. They stopped talking.
Sorting through some old papers the other day I came across a sheaf of never-published poems, some dating back over twenty years--works I'd abandoned for some reason or other, but which I'd felt at the time deserved better than just being thrown in the trash and erased from existence forever. I'd completely forgotten about some of them, while others I only vaguely recalled; looking over them now I find that I still like a few of them, so I've decided to post those here.
These first ones are interesting to me because they represent my first attempt at dealing with the subject matter I later covered in my sequence What There Is, released as a chapbook by Argonne House Press in 2002. The chapbook is long out of print, but its entire contents are reprinted in my Wild Tracks: Uncollected Writings 1985-2014. I believe I wrote the poems below in the mid-1990s, only to abandon them and try again with a different approach some five or six years later. (Historical oddity: the first poem fictionalizes a visit to my short-lived brother's grave--I had never actually visited it at that time--but I finally did actually go there in 2002.)Simple Math...could that have been the little shift
I sensed a while ago
as I walked down in the rain to get the mail?
- Billy Collins, "Tipping Point"
Michael, who lived fourteen hours on July 31, 1955,
is dead for forty-seven years when I stand, for the first time,
near my fortieth birthday, over his grave in California
on a summer's day heartsick with beauty.
I've lived (I figure this later with my pocket calculator,
something even science fiction couldn't envision
in Michael's time) something like three hundred fifty-one thousand,
five hundred and four hours in my life--give or take
a few hundred, or thousand. Who cares, in a life
so abundantly rich with hours? Doing the math again,
I learn that at this moment I'm living Michael's life
for the twenty-five thousand, one hundred and eighth time.
The last time I lived his life I stayed up late talking with friends.
I drank peppermint tea, talked with my wife on the phone,
slept well, woke and showered, had toast and peaches
for breakfast, watched CNN, read a short story in a magazine,
and drove out to find my brother's plaque in a lovely cemetery
on an obscenely sun-drenched day.
In the meantime,
for the twenty-five thousand, one hundred and eighth time in my life,
Michael lurched sickly into the world,
gasped, struggled, felt cold and died.
I don't recall--no--each time he passes, nearly twice
a day. But I do remember it today,
Michael, your fourteen-hour life lived before I was born,
and feel in its fourteenth hour--which is now,
as my pencil scrapes along this lined yellow paper--
your small wings beating a question within my chest,
and I pray to the god in whom I don't believe that you hear
my scarred heart murmuring to you its uncertain answer.CompanionOne night by a river my dead brother
appears next to me in my sleeping bag,
ninety if he's a day, limp-skinned,
frail, gasping as old men do, breath fetid
like cancer, like my dad's in his last
months. He's naked, pushed against me
in the tight bag, feet and fingertips
cold, milk-filled eyes darting and
bewildered. I can just see him
in the dark looking at me,
wondering who I am, what he's doing
here, where he is. But when I try
to tell him I realize that I don't know
myself. I look around us: long grass
white in the moonlight, warm wind, fat
stars. Sounds, indistinguishable--
animals? mad killers?--begin to
fill the air all around us, seem
to approach us from all sides,
I'm afraid and want to cry
out. But he looks at me,
this old man, my brother,
wrapped around me like a child,
and I swallow and breathe deeply,
slowly, say softly to him that it's
all right, I'll protect him, I know just
where we are and the sun will be up
soon, we'll have breakfast, we'll
walk or I'll carry him to see
what's over the next hill, until then
shh, hold on, shh, hold on, shh....Ten Michaels1.
Madly in love
with a man named
to Congress on
Streets of DC,
dead of joy.
Speaking With SerlingScience Fiction Grandmaster James Gunn Discusses His Unfinished Interview with the Creator of The Twilight Zoneby Christopher Conloncopyright © 2017 by Christopher ConlonJames Gunn’s celebrated career in science fiction began in 1949 with his first professional story sale (“Paradox” in Thrilling Wonder Stories), and continues on to this day. In 2017 alone he brought out two new books: Transformation, the final novel in an SF trilogy published by Tor, and his memoir Star-Begotten: A Life Lived in Science Fiction, from McFarland. In between there have been novels (Star Bridge with Jack Williamson, This Fortress World, The Listeners), nonfiction books (including a Hugo Award-winning study of Isaac Asimov), a TV series (The Immortal), and the Grand Master Award from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. In the late 1960s Dr. Gunn initiated a series of filmed interviews with well-known science fiction writers at the University of Kansas, where he served as a professor. One of his interview subjects was Rod Serling.Q. How did your interview with Rod Serling come about?A. Student Union Activities at that time was sponsoring annual events, speakers and performers, and Serling was scheduled to speak in Hoch Auditorium. Maybe because of Serling’s Twilight Zone and my own reputation as a science-fiction writer and scholar, and maybe because my wife and I volunteered to host a reception after his talk, I found myself driving him around the campus the day of his arrival. We seemed to get along and I asked him if he would be willing to do a film interview that afternoon if we could make arrangements. I had already completed the eleven films of what later became known as “The Literature of Science Fiction film series” with the indispensable help of Alex Lazzarino, director of a section of Continuing Education called Extramural Independent Studies. Alex was a dynamic and dominating director, who found the financing and the personnel to make the filming possible, and he got a cameraman and sound recorder together within an hour. We did the interview in a room on campus set up for the purpose where we had previously recorded the other films in the series (except for the Damon Knight film, which was recorded in the Lazzarinos’ living room; the majority were done on site).Q. What do you remember about conducting the interview itself? What were your impressions of Serling as a person? A. We hadn’t planned anything or discussed what we might talk about—except that it would concern his experience with Twilight Zone, so everything on the film was off the cuff, like a normal conversation. Serling was remarkably at ease and easy to interview, no doubt from long experience. He didn’t display any Hollywood pretensions or literary fame. It was a pleasant occasion. I thought it was remarkable then, and still do, that he agreed to something from a stranger that was so unexpected.Q. Why was the interview never finished?A. Alex left Continuing Education not too long afterwards to join the Menninger Clinic as a fundraiser and project manager, and personnel for editing the films (I had others uncompleted and still do) was more complicated in those days when the sound and film had to be synchronized. I had original plans to produce 18 films that would cover a broad range of science-fiction topics and be useful in the classroom at a time when teaching science-fiction was still in its early days. I wanted to get film topics featuring Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury, for instance, but was never able to make arrangements. I didn’t finish the Serling film, however, because I felt the film wouldn’t be complete without clips from Twilight Zone to illustrate Serling’s anecdotes, and we were unable to get permission to use them—or, at least, we didn’t have the right personnel and resources to obtain permission. I also would have filmed an introduction that would have placed Serling’s film and literary career into perspective. Q. How did the raw footage from the interview end up on YouTube? A. The film footage languished until ten years after Serling’s death when a Kansas City public television station asked for permission to show it as part of a memorial program, and that seemed like a good use. It was also borrowed for the use of parts of Serling’s comments on a national TV program about his life and work. More recently it showed up on YouTube. I don’t know how that happened.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=588fV4vg4ckQ. Serling has an unusual place in SF; his is a famous name associated with it, but he was never really “of” the field. He didn’t come up through the magazines or fandom, and was already very famous when he created Twilight Zone. What are your thoughts regarding Serling’s place in the history of science fiction? A. Serling put an important face on science fiction. He was one of the major influences in bringing it into the mainstream of popular acceptance, which began after World War II and progressed through the efforts of authors such as Robert Heinlein to broaden its appeal into slick magazines, juveniles, and film. In addition, and perhaps as important, he respected the field by translating stories into television with faithfulness to their source, unlike most visual media adaptations (like, for instance, the adaptation of my own The Immortal). And he did this with a modesty about his own contributions and over difficulties that he recounted in the interview.As a postscript, my wife got the flu the day Serling arrived and wasn’t up to hosting the reception. The Lazzarinos volunteered to be the hosts and saved the day (and we called Jane’s illness “the Rod Serling flu”). She never got to meet him. And that was my only contact with him as well. Many thanks to Dr. Gunn for taking the time for this interview.#