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.#
Originally published in Filmfax 97, June/July 2003...Group DynamicsJohn Tomerlin Talks About Charles Beaumont, the Southern California Group, and Writing for The Twilight Zone Article and Interview by Christopher Conlon Copyright © 2003 by Christopher Conlon John Tomerlin has enjoyed a richly varied career in books and television. An original member of the “Southern California Group,” Tomerlin collaborated several times with the Group’s leader, Charles Beaumont, and broke into TV writing at the same time as Beaumont and other Group members, including Richard Matheson and George Clayton Johnson. His credits include scripts for The Twilight Zone, Lawman, Wanted: Dead or Alive, and Thriller. An avid pilot and sports car enthusiast, Tomerlin has penned numerous novels touching on these topics (The Sky Clowns, The Magnificent Jalopy, and Challenge the Wind, most notably), as well as nonfiction for magazines such as Road & Track and Car & Driver. Tomerlin recently reminisced with Filmfax about the Group and his television writing career. FAX: You were one of the original members of the so-called Southern California Group, those emerging writers of the 1950s such as William F. Nolan, George Clayton Johnson, and Richard Matheson, who centered around the great fantasist Charles Beaumont. What are your early memories of Beaumont, and what was it like being part of the Group? TOMERLIN: In addition to great natural writing ability and an off-beat imagination, Chuck had the kind of energy that attracted people to him. We first met in 1949, and in subsequent years he drew William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson into the core of what was later termed The Group. Richard Matheson became a good friend, as did Jerry Sohl, and we had close associations with writers like Harlan Ellison, OCee Ritch, Bill Idleson, and Rod Serling. The interactions between such people are by nature stimulating, and I think everyone benefitted from them creatively. I know I did. There was, of course, no such thing as The Group in the beginning. We were just a few guys trying to find out how to be in the world. It was Chuck’s wife Helen who first used the term—not always admiringly—in connection with our get-togethers, which tended to be boisterous and run late. Later, when children needed to sleep, we moved our meetings to all-night diners or car trips to the beach. Chuck loved to compete, and we had inter-Group “championships” at everything from pool to miniature golf. Chuck and I raced sports cars for a while, and after going broke at that, moved to the Long Beach Pike Amusement Park to stage races in bumper cars. Bill Nolan proved accomplished at avoiding drunken sailors and teenagers, and emerged as “King of the Bump’ums” (his term). Later, someone bought a board game called “Grand Prix,” which we expanded with a hand-drafted playing board that covered an entire dining room table, leaf included. We played one night—all night—while my wife was in the hospital giving birth to our first child. The story became “The Great Kitchen Table Grand Prix,” published in Road & Track magazine. In fact, I ended up writing about most of the wilder scenes inspired by my association with The Group. Trips to Paris and Monte Carlo for the Monaco Grand Prix, to New Providence Island for Nassau Speed Week, to Tijuana for the bull fights, and several driving tours of the country, all accomplished on little or no money. There were women along the way, of course, but these we will save for another time. FAX: You collaborated with Beaumont more than once, perhaps most notably on the novel Run from the Hunter, published under the pseudonym “Keith Grantland.” How did that come about? And why was the name “Keith Grantland” used? TOMERLIN: In 1950 I started working in radio, first at a station near Riverside, California, later at an NBC affiliate in Bakersfield. Chuck began writing short stories about the same time and, over the next few years, sold them to markets like Esquire and Playboy. About 1956, the station I worked for turned to playing Top-20 rock and roll, and I decided to look for other enjoyment. I knew Chuck had started a crime novel and put it aside for some reason, and I asked him if I could try finishing it. He agreed, and after doing the final polish, he got his agent to put it on the market. We wanted a pseudonym, I don’t remember why. Extreme modesty, perhaps. We decided on the middle names of our two sons, Christopher Keith Beaumont and William Grantland Tomerlin. It sold to Gold Medal Books as Run from the Hunter. They paid a fortune ($2500 I believe it was). I promptly wrote another book under my own name, and when it sold, I was hooked. FAX: How did you become involved in television writing? Did you consider it an artistic endeavor, or was it more for the money? TOMERLIN: You have to understand, I was in radio. I loved radio. I had wanted to work in radio at least from the time I was in high school, and when television took over, all the best shows—ones I might have worked on or even written for—were gone. It was as disappointing as it was disorienting. So, I have a love/hate relationship with TV: Love writing it, hate the business. In 1958, at a car show in Beverly Hills, I met the president of the Mercedes-Benz club, a man named John Robinson, who also was story editor of the Steve McQueen series, Wanted: Dead or Alive. He asked me what I was doing, and when I said I was starting a new novel, a Western, he invited me to come in and talk story. John was a good man, a rarity in the business (he ended up in a mental institution, after the 1960 strike), and I wrote four segments for him before the series ended. The pay was good, and by this time Chuck and Rich Matheson were writing for television too, so I just kept on at it. All of us were under the curious delusion that the quality of programming would get better in time. That may seem naïve now, but back then there were still some fine dramatic series coming out of New York—Playhouse 90 and Studio One, The Defenders, I think—and we believed sooner or later we could start doing that kind of work. What we didn’t understand was that television (and most motion pictures, for that matter) is about business, not drama, or art of any kind. The industry is run by businessmen who are good at what they do, which is only incidentally what my friends and I do, or hoped to do. The reason writing is held in low esteem by most Hollywood producers, and it is—the joke about the starlet so dumb she slept with the writer is classic—is because although they know that a writer is necessary, they have no idea what he’s doing or how he does it. It’s the reason for all the multiple credits you see these days: producers aren’t sure what they want, but hope to recognize it when they see it. They don’t, as is obvious from the number of bad films and television shows. FAX: Perhaps your best-remembered program is the Twilight Zone episode “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You,” which is credited onscreen as having been written “by Charles Beaumont and John Tomerlin.” Beaumont’s health problems were certainly getting in the way of his writing by this point. How did this collaboration work? TOMERLIN: Chuck and I collaborated a number of times, on television shows, articles, and a couple of short stories, plus the novel you mentioned. “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You” wasn’t a collaboration. I wrote the script based on his short story “The Beautiful People.” Somehow the credits got changed while I was out of the country. I’ve never known why. They should have read: “by John Tomerlin, Based on a Short Story by Charles Beaumont.” Neither do I know why the name of Chuck’s original story was changed, but the fact that it was illustrates my point about producers. Consider: Few viewers would have paid attention to the title of the episode anyway; Chuck’s original story had been bought by the producers for adaptation to TV; and someone sat at his desk and thought, “I like my title better than the author’s, so I’ll just change it.” And this at a company reputed to be more respectful of its writers than most. Chuck and I went to New York, in the summer of 1964, to begin collaboration on a new novel. He was unable to work when we got there—extremely unusual for him—and finally returned to L.A. A week or two later, he phoned to say he had an assignment to turn “The Beautiful People” into a Twilight Zone, and asked if I’d be willing to write it. I now believe his Alzheimer’s had reached the point where he couldn’t work, but I didn’t know that at the time. I changed the focus of the story slightly, thinking it would play better for TV. FAX: You mentioned that you had never watched the episode until recently. Why did you avoid it for so long? TOMERLIN: I’ve always thought the reason I didn’t particularly want to watch the episode was because I didn’t want to see what had been done to my script (if, in fact, anything had). I now think the reasons are more complicated. By the time I returned home, Chuck was far advanced in his illness. His home life was a shambles and his wife, Helen, had become an emotional invalid. My wife, Wilma, took charge of some of their family responsibilities, and we took their newborn, Gregory, into our home for a while until Helen began to recover. I spent most afternoons with Chuck at a restaurant in the Valley called The Tail of the Cock, drinking Tanqueray martinis (only two or three, which was all either of us could handle), trying to figure out what the hell was wrong with him. FAX: We sent you a tape of the show—what did you think of it, nearly 40 years after the fact? TOMERLIN: It wasn’t a painful experience. I was reminded that pacing was of less concern back then. This story was “talky” by its nature, and I wish I’d written in a little more action; but the production was true to my script as well as to Chuck’s original ideas, with one added dimension: the use of the same cast members to play different roles. I think that worked. One element I missed was having the Head Man (played by Richard Long, with his face partly in shadow) remain invisible until the end of the scene, and then revealed as normal, i.e. untransformed. I wanted to imply that the transformation was a scam to keep the public in subjugation, and was not indulged in by the true leaders. I still like the notion, but it would have been hard to shoot, and the point was too subtle to play well. The director was right to drop it. In sum, the production was better than I’d expected, if less than I’d hoped for—which is to say, a considerable improvement on many of my experiences in TV. FAX: Though Twilight Zone is probably your best-known TV credit, you did your largest body of work for the 1958-’62 Western series Lawman, starring John Russell and Peter Brown. How did you get involved with that series? TOMERLIN: Richard Matheson had written an episode, and recommended me to the producer. I ended up doing a dozen originals and a couple of re-writes. Westerns were fun because you could write about virtually any subject—capital punishment, racial prejudice, political corruption—and people wouldn’t object because they didn’t recognize what you were doing. All they saw were white hats and black hats. You had to be careful about some content, though; this was just after the McCarthy affair, and story editors were still asking, “Are you now or have you ever been….?” “Payola” was making headlines too, so on some shows you had to be careful what you asked for in the way of props. You could call for a telephone, but not a colored phone or a “Princess,” as that would be construed as advertising. There were fewer constraints of this type in Westerns. FAX: You also wrote an episode of Boris Karloff’s series Thriller. What do you recall about it? TOMERLIN: Nothing good. A key concept of fantasy is suspension of disbelief. Every competent fantasy writer knows what it is and how to do it. The task is more difficult in film and TV because less is left to the imagination. You have to be subtle. I wrote an original story, “Dark Legacy,” about a magician who dies and leaves a book containing the secrets of his illusions to another magician. The secret is, they aren’t illusions; he’s been conjuring up a demon to assist him. Now, it’s absolutely crucial not to see the demon—at least not before the final scene—because the minute you see it, it ceases to be magic and becomes just another monster. Without consulting me, the director (John Brahm) decided to have the demon appear halfway through the show, after which the story had no further suspense and became rather silly. Those interested in this sort of thing should see a film called Night of the Demon (a.k.a. Curse of the Demon, 1957) with Dana Andrews, based on M.R. James’s “Casting the Runes.” When the demon finally appears in the last scene, it’s superimposed on the vapor rising from a locomotive, and only barely glimpsed until…Well, I won’t spoil the ending. I know too well how that feels. FAX: You also worked with Dark Shadows creator Dan Curtis. TOMERLIN: Curtis is amazing. An extraordinarily versatile and, in my opinion, under-rated filmmaker. His production of Dracula, written by Richard Matheson and starring Jack Palance, is the best of all versions of the Bram Stoker classic. And his production of Herman Wouk’s Winds of War is one of the finest World War Two stories ever done for television. He also did a fine job with Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, from a script by William F. Nolan. I was fortunate enough to get the assignment for a three-hour adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray (which appeared in two parts on the ABC Circle Theater), and I was set to do Jane Eyre when the series was discontinued. I regret this, not only because I enjoyed working for Dan (a writer himself, and understanding of the writer’s task) but because I had hopes of setting the record straight on the correct pronunciation of “Eyre.” There is internal evidence in the Charlotte Brontë novel that Jane’s name is pronounced “Ire,” not “Air.” Now, the world will never know. FAX: Another of your credits is Genesis II, for Gene Roddenberry. Tell us about that. TOMERLIN: Okay, you’ve got me. Having criticized people in TV production, I must admit that here was someone else I liked and admired. Gene was a writer, which may have made the difference. I did one of the pilot episodes for a new series he had planned, called Genesis II. The concept was evocative of Star Trek in that it was a “journey” series: in a post-apocalyptic world, a future-tech subway system is found to have survived. The cast travels to an unlimited number of “new beginnings”—mini-societies founded on every variation of human (or mutant) behavior imaginable. I loved the idea, but the network couldn’t quite visualize it. FAX: When did you leave television, and why? TOMERLIN: “Why” should be fairly apparent. “When” was the spring of 1964. Lawman had ended, I’d done a couple of re-writes for other Warner Brothers shows, and was given scripts to read for several hour-long series. Reading them crystallized a thought that had been growing in my mind for some time, that with the passing of the pure dramatic series and anthologies, there was nothing left I really wanted to do in television. And because I’d started by writing books, and hoped to write more of them, I decided I’d better get on with that. FAX: But you had some credits after 1964. You wrote for S*W*A*T, the memorably violent 1970s series. TOMERLIN: Well, I considered my break with TV in 1964 to be permanent, and stopped seeking further work. But opportunities came along after I returned to California in the late ’60s, and I accepted several of them. I’m glad I did, or I would have missed the opportunity to work for Dan Curtis, for instance. FAX: How is it that you have worked so successfully in so many different fields? What accounts for your fantastically wide range as a writer? TOMERLIN: The tough answer to that question is that I wasn’t talented enough or dedicated enough to be a major success in any one field. A gentler assessment might be that I’ve had a variety of interests in life, but never one that’s obsessed me. I wanted to race cars, and had some success at the amateur level, but was not tempted to turn professional. I learned to fly, and enjoyed owning my own plane for a while, but never thought of making it a career.Similarly, I discovered I could write short fiction and nonfiction; novels for younger readers as well as on adult themes; scripts for a wide variety of TV shows, and even a screenplay. A lot of this work followed my personal interests (“Live it up, and write it down,” Hemingway is reputed to have said), so that I’ve written about racing, flying, travel, and all the rest. Or nearly all the rest; I may have a few books still to go. FAX: What are you most proud of in your writing career? What would you like to be remembered for? TOMERLIN: The obvious answer is: the next book. But of my work to date, I’d probably choose the series of articles I wrote on highway safety, published in Road & Track magazine in the 1970s and ’80s. Based on a mountain of research, I established the true relationships between speed and safety, and advanced the only practical solution to the problem of drinking and driving ever developed (but not yet implemented). These pieces generated interest around the world, and two were read into the Congressional Record. Considering only television work, I think my adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray and the scripts for Wanted: Dead or Alive gave me the most pleasure. FAX: What projects are you working on now? TOMERLIN: In addition to a second book for serialization, I’m working on a novel about board-track racing in the 1920s. I’m calling it The Wooden Road. I’m also collecting notes for a memoir covering the years of my association with Charles Beaumont and The Group. FAX: One of your more recent publications is a wonderful short story, “The People of the Blue-Green Water,” in the anthology California Sorcery: A Group Celebration. How did this story come about? It seems rather Hemingwayesque. TOMERLIN: I can think of no greater compliment. This is an illustration of what I was just talking about. When asked to contribute to the anthology, my first thought was to give them a story published some years ago in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Then, because I hadn’t written a short story in several years, and was in the mood to do one, I decided to try an original. Inasmuch as I have rafted down the Grand Canyon, and hiked one of its tributaries, Havasu Canyon, I thought it would be fun to do a story based on these experiences. There’s a young boy who wanders away from camp and ends up learning something about growing up. The editors liked the story and accepted it for publication. Now, a month or two later, I’m flying home from a legal conference (I should mention that I’m also an “expert witness” in highway safety-related matters), and I find myself sitting next to the publisher of serialized books for young readers. So, “The People of the Blue Green Water,” with the addition of a Havasupai girl, a mountain lion, and quite a bit of incident, has become an 18-part novel, The Valley of No Return, appearing in 50 newspapers around the country. Now, if only Disney would like a turn-of-the-century adventure featuring Native Americans…. And so it goes. In memory of John Tomerlin, 1930-2014
I'm happy to announce that Cemetery Dance Select: Christopher Conlon is now available for Kindle from Amazon.com! As the title indicates, this new ebook-only collection is part of the "Cemetery Dance Select" series, which includes many estimable writers in the fields of horror and suspense--Michael Marshall Smith, John R. Little, Lisa Morton, Jeff Strand...lots more. The idea of the series is to have writers "spotlight a sampling of their own short fiction: award winners, stories they consider their best or that had the most impact on their career, or neglected favorites they feel deserve a second look." To that end, the stories I've selected are:
"Darkness, and She Was Alone" (from Poe's Lighthouse)
"On Tuesday the Stars All Fell From the Sky" (from The Oblivion Room)
"The Girl That Nobody Liked" (originally in Dark Discoveries, later folded into Lullaby for the Rain Girl)
"The Unfinished Music" (from Thundershowers at Dusk)
The collection also includes an Afterword by me, original to this ebook. All this for the LOW, LOW PRICE of $2.99! Find the collection here: