October is my favorite month of the year. The month where the blast-furnace heat of summer has finally departed, where the days are shorter, the air crisper, the autumnal colors exploding everywhere. Where I can wear that jacket that makes me look cool.
And of course, October is Halloween month. Not day – month. That’s when I turn my personal preferences in media – film, TV, books – changes to the strange, the dark, the unusual. Halloween is the one holiday-that-isn’t that everyone is free to celebrate in his/her/their own way.
I would argue that to know the truly inherent kindness of people, look to Halloween. That one night of the year where people will decorate their homes and give out candy to children with promise of nothing in return other than spreading about a little bit of magic and wonder before the long, dark onset of winter. Unlike Christmas and Easter and the religious holidays Halloween is for everyone. There’s no agenda, no moralizing – well, except for the religulous (NOT a typo) types who loudly – always loudly – proclaim we’re going to hell for giving some snack-size M&Ms to a kid dressed as Peppa Pig.
Halloween month for me is always a magical time. It always has been, from when I was a young tyke in a home-made Darth Vader costume cobbled together from Glad trash bags and a store-bought mask, to a teenager whose Halloween night meant watching horror movies with friends, to the now parent of a child who anticipates Trick or Treating with almost as much delight as his father does.
Yet October represents another seasonal moment in my life, recurrent since I was around twelve going on thirteen, as October is the month I will inevitably drag out my old paperback copy of this book for an annual reread:
Something Wicked This Way Comes is the book I’ve read more than any other. Something Wicked may be my favorite book solely because it’s had an outsized influence on my own writing. Not directly (though it is referenced in Magicians Impossible) but thematically.
Looking at my work (Mixtape in particular), Something Wicked is the one that’s left the deepest mark. Not for the magic and mystery, nor the terrors of Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show, its hall of mirrors, its Dust Witch, its cursed carousel.
No, it’s for the central relationships in the novel.
I’ve been thinking of Something Wicked a lot lately for many reasons, not the least of which was a trip back home over the summer that saw us driving through the small town where I lived out my teenage years (the same town that became basis for Garrison Creek – the town where Mixtape is set). There’s something about revisiting the places of your youth; the places you couldn’t wait to leave, only to now wish, in some small way, you could return to. As Teo Stone in Magicians Impossible described, “You spend half your life trying to run away from home and the rest of your life trying to run back to it.”
Seeing my old stomping grounds was an experience. A sad one in some ways. The old town hasn’t done so well in the years since I lived there. Factories closed, people moved. Indeed it is one of a select number of small-to-mid-sized towns in that part of the country that experienced negative population growth. When I lived there in the late 80s and early 90s its population sat at around 21,000 people. Today in 2022 its population sits at … around 22,000 people. That’s thirty years of negative growth. People grew up, they moved away, and the aging population just … left. Some relocated, some moved, some passed away.
In a way I wish I hadn’t visited it at all. I wanted to preserve the memory of what it was, not what it had become. The same feeling carried itself with me when I was able to reconnect with some high school friends during that same holiday, the six of us convening at a patio in Toronto’s west end. It had been years since I’d seen any of them – one I hadn’t seen or spoken to in nearly 25 years. The last time that group had all been together at the same time in the same place would have been the night before we all left that small-town for the big city, for college, for the beginnings of our adult lives. THAT particular night had occurred almost 30 years earlier to the date we met again on the Danforth.
It was a fun gathering but again, a little sad. Thirty years ago we were all teenagers at the beginning of our adult lives. Thirty years from now, well, the odds are good we won’t all be here anymore. Hard and sad but true. The fact that over the past year a good half-dozen people I’ve known or known of have passed away really hits hard. People I went to school with. Spouses and parents of friends and colleagues, and people even closer than that
Something Wicked is about that impulse as stated by Teo Stone – that we spend half our lives trying to run away from home and the rest of those lives trying to run back to it in some fashion, right down to those childhood touchstones – the movies, the books, the music – that got us through those sometimes difficult times. It’s about looking past the borders of your home, your neighborhood, your small little piece of the world, anxiously stepping over that threshold, only to look back and see that single step has carried you miles from there. In distance. In years. In experience.
On the surface, Something Wicked This Way Comes is a story principally of two thirteen year-old friends, Jim and Will, and their harrowing experiences with the mysterious and enigmatic Mr. Dark of Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show. However, the novel also touches on several of the townsfolk of Green Town, Illinois, who all must struggle with one of the oldest conflicts known to humankind; a deal too good to be true. A devil’s bargain. It’s the story of Faust, set in Depression-era America. A place that, at the time of Something Wicked‘s publication in 1962 was as far removed from that present day as the 1990s are today. No doubt there were some in the early years of the space age who looked back on the 1930s with a wistfully golden nostalgia; Rod Serling’s work on The Twilight Zone in particular demonstrated this in stories like “Walking Distance” (my personal favorite TZ story) and “A Stop In Willoughby”. The shanty-towns, dustbowl, and Hoovervilles of the dirty thirties never made an appearance. In Bradbury’s case he both looks back at those childhood years with fondness but also acknowledges the darkness of an insular small-town upbringing. It’s the flip-side to Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”, and the current waves of nostalgia masquerading as content we see today on Disney Plus.
That’s the premise. The story, however, is of these two friends, Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway, both thirteen, both unaware that life is already pulling them apart. Will (whose last name – Halloway, recalls both Halloween and “away” meaning he’s destined for greater things) born just before midnight on October 30. Jim, born just after 12:01am on October 31st is the Nightshade; the Dionysian opposite of his friend. the troubled kid. The kid who’ll never amount to anything but trouble (and yes, the kid knows this). Yet these two are friends for life, but life is, as always, far too fleeting and much too brief.
Second, more importantly, is the relationship between Will Halloway and his by then middle-age father Charles. The book is written as a reflection from an adult Will, meaning by the time of its telling Charles is no doubt long in his grave. Charles is old for a parent to a thirteen year-old and knows it, like Will knows himself. He’s janitor at the local library (the so-so 1984 film adaptation starring Jason Robards – a movie which led me to seek out the book – re-cast him as the town librarian, presumably because janitors couldn’t be heroes in the 1980s). Charles mourns his youth, and fears the coming years of his health failing while his only son is still young. Charles of course, is the real hero of the tale, which becomes as much about defeating the insidious Mr. Dark as it is in Will saving Charles, and Charles saving everyone else. Something Wicked is about the end of childhood, and the realization that not every friendship stays with you. It’s also about the realization that your parents will someday pass on and make you truly an orphan.
I think of this book at this time of year, every year. But this year in particular its bite is a little deeper. Death has been making more frequent appearances in my life. This year in particular has reminded me of autumn, of final goodbyes before winter’s onset. The older generation, my parents generation, the Baby Boomers passing away.
It echoes what I wrote about back in August, about the movie Stand By Me and the novella it’s based on. Stephen King’s work is full of Bradbury’s influence – note the blurb on the book cover further up – though perhaps a little less whimsical; the depression era Green Town Illinois, replaced by the vampiric ‘Salem’s Lot and the haunted Overlook Hotel. King, that master of horror, made a career of charting childhood innocence and the loss of it, in Gordy, Chris, Vern, and Teddy from The Body but also Danny Torrance from The Shining and the Losers Club from It. I started reading King because I was a fan of horror. I became a fan of King because of his writing so succinctly captured life’s little triumphs and tragedies. Of being young, and seeing the adult world encroaching like a freight train on a railway trestle. Of those four friends – Gordie and Chris, Teddy and Vern – and that one fateful weekend in 1959 and how it represented the beginning of the end of that once close friendship.
Something Wicked now reminds me of myself and my relationship with my son, who’s at that age now where he’s able to take his bike and go riding with his friends, to have adventures in our little suburban corner of the world. I watch him ride off and hope he’s careful and mindful of traffic, but also that he not ride his bike too quickly. To not make those wheels spin so fast that sooner than either of us realizes it he’s left home. The carousel at the heart of Bradbury’s novel can make the old young and the young old, but only on the outside; the mind remains the same. A child could age into an adult but posses none of the wisdom of adulthood. An elderly woman can return to their youthful self, though plagued by the loss of memory, the slowing of thought, the onset of dementia and senility. Bradbury’s warning here is to enjoy where you were in life, be you child, middle-aged, or elderly.
Being the older-than-the-average parent to a child still in his single digits weighs heavy on those 3am wakeups. At the same time I think of all the experiences yet to come and realize the key to remaining young at heart is to be in the presence of the young. The ones who still taking delight at the sight of a bird, or an inch-worm, who still believes in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, that this heartbreaking world of ours can still contain some magic.
I often wondered what became of Will and Jim. Will was clearly not long for Green Town. You could sense he was destined for greater things, and the fact that the book is written as a recollection an older Will is making of that fateful October many years before. Jim, however, probably stayed. Living, working, aging, and dying in that little patch of rural Illinois. Maybe he lived a long life, certainly long enough to see his town, his world change. Maybe he met someone, married, and started a family of his own. Maybe he lived old enough to see his children and their friends grow up, grow older, and move away. Left behind as one of those people who just stayed there, to age and watch the town he knew change, and the people he loved pass on and pass away. Living in a town and a time rapidly becoming another phantom, another shade of what once was.
And Will? Well, he clearly became a writer. He became Ray Bradbury, author of The Martian Chronicles, A Sound of Thunder, The Halloween Tree, The Illustrated Man, and Fahrenheit 451. But I wonder if Ray too, in his later years, thought back to the friends he had, the people he knew, that small town of his that grew and changed so much it wasn’t his anymore. Just a place occupied by shades of memory.
It’s the same reason my old hometown still holds a piece of mental real estate for me. Not a grave, but a memory of what once was. It was shocking and a little sad to see and hear second-hand through an old acquaintance how the town had fallen on hard times after we all left. This friends’ mother was a teacher who witnessed first-hand generational poverty, in the faces of the kids she taught before her retirement, the off-spring of the children she’d taught at the start of her career. Still trapped in that vicious circle.
There’s a song by the Kinks (naturally) I keep coming back to, called “Do You Remember, Walter?” In the song Ray Davies’ narrator recalls an old school friend, wondering what became of him. Ray wrote the song at age twenty-three; quite prescient for a rock and roll song. But the lyric that jumps out at me is the one that goes —
Do you remember, Walter, how we said we’d fight the world so we’d be free? We’d save up all our money and we’d buy a boat and sail away to sea But it was not to be I knew you then but do I know you now?
Walter. Jim and Will. The Losers Club. Gordy and Chris, Teddy and Vern.
My old friends. Some still here, still friends in the day-to-day, but many more of them forgotten. Some not here at all.
The people you share that ride on the carousel with for a time, but eventually they climb off and resume their lives, the common experience of being together fading as you move off and move on with your life.
But memories still remain, whispers in the night reminding you that we’re all on the same journey. Unlike Cooger and Dark’s carousel there’s but one way forward; a journey every one of us takes. But what we do on that ride … that’s up to us.
So a commenter – hi Bailey – asked if I was doing the “31 Days of Halloween” Movie-TV challenge (in which you attempt to watch one movie or horror-themed TV show a day for the 31 days of October. As it happens this year was the first year I attempted it. But to make things more challenging I decided to watch only horror-spooky movies and TV I had NEVER seen before so it was all new. I did all of that, my reward would be a viewing of John Carpenter’s The Thing on Halloween night (a movie I have seen and numerous times). As of this writing I did it – 30 never-before seen spooky entertainments in 30 days:
It’s hard to believe, especially for me, but it was a half-decade ago that my first novel Magicians Impossible entered the world on September 12, 2017. It was a busy time. The stresses of fatherhood, of working while promoting my first ever novel all combined forces to end up making 2017 a pretty hectic year overall.
[As to the status of my next novel, that’s on hold for the time being as I’m up to my neck in the Mixtape TV series. We film the pilot teaser later this month with everything being delivered to the network in early December, so just by typing this paragraph I’m now two weeks behind.]
The book tour for Magicians was loads of fun. Hollywood Boulevard. Orange County. San Diego. The Mysterious Bookshop. Bakka Books. And many other points in between. Podcasts, interviews, guest articles, reviews both glowing and, er, not so glowing. “Best Debut” according to Suspense Magazine. Starred reviews in Booklist, Library Journal, School Library Journal. Thanks for all of this and more go out to my editor Brendan Deneen, himself an accomplished author, as well as publicists, marketers, designers, and overall great people at St. Martins Press/Thomas Dunne Books for all their hard work in getting Magicians Impossible into the world.
That was five years ago today.
And in those five years since its publication , the question I’ve been asked more than any other about Magicians Impossible – in interviews, in reviews, on podcasts, and many years after the fact is “will there be a sequel”.
I’ve long been cagey about it, citing the usual “if there’s interest, if the first book does well enough bla bla bla-de-bla.”
But I’ve had a secret I’ve hidden from the world ever since the promotional cycle of Magicians Impossible began
There was never going to be a sequel.
There was never intended to be a sequel.
That’s because, in a way, you already read it.
Magicians Impossible was conceived, written, and released into the world as a one-and-done story. I never planned for there to be a sequel or continuation of the published novel.
The original version of the novel was much different after the midpoint. Following the events in The Louvre, the story originally went in a completely different direction, culminating in a grand Battle Royale atop the various levels of the Eiffel Tower where The Invisible Hand and The Golden Dawn squared off in an epic conclusion that set the stage for more stories in the series, and a continuation eventually leading to the equally epic Battle of the Citadel.
The fact that we reach The Battle of the Citadel in the third act of the published story (and not say in in book six or seven of a multi-year series) would indicate that things changed. It was my decision too – not Brendan’s, not anyone else’s. I wanted to get to The battle of Hogwarts, essentially, in book one. Point of fact I called my illustrious editor and said “hey, I have a new idea to pursue” which was basically me taking all those wild and crazy ideas for later in a proposed series and moving them up into Book One and Only. I wanted to make Star Wars when it was just Star Wars. Not Episode IV, not A New Hope, not one of nine installments in “The Skywalker Saga”. Just a one-and done story with no promise of more to come.
“But Brad, with everything fantasy expected to be part of an overall epic story, didn’t you essentially shoot yourself in the foot?”
“Yes. Yes I did. And I’d do it again.”
For me the best stories, the ones that resonated most with me as a child, as an adult, were the ones that were one and done. Ray Bradbury never wrote a sequel to Something Wicked This Way Comes, Stephen King never penned a follow-up to The Body (a.k.a. “Stand By Me”) although that story’s teenage hoodlum nemesis Ace Merrill did pop up now and again in subsequent King novellas and novels, most notably in Needful Things. My favorite novel by my favorite contemporary author, the great Joe R. Lansdale titled The Bottoms, was a one-and done with a definitive conclusion which makes that book so much more precious to me (spoken as a ride-or-die fan of Lansdale’s own Hap & Leonard series of crime novels)
Magicians Impossible, the book, ends with Jason Bishop’s rejecting his calling. The eons-old battle between The Golden Dawn and the Invisible Hand continues but Jason refuses to be a part of it. He’s discovered his past, he’s discovered himself, and by the time he connects with the greatest mystery in his life – spoiler alert; his father – he’s found his place in the world. The place he’s spent his life searching for. His arc is concluded. The story of Magicians Impossible is, essentially, a character-driven tale. With Jason’s journey as a character complete there really isn’t anywhere for him to go that wouldn’t be a retread of a story already told.
That’s the end of the story. The end of his story.
Thanks for buying and reading and leaving a nice review on Amazon or Goodreads.
Now … that being said …
As I finished the last final round of edits and sent the book off to my publisher I asked myself what did happen next, on that train, when Damon and Jason were sitting across from each other? I didn’t go so far as to plot out a whole second novel, but I did let ideas stew as I asked “what if there is a little bit more in the tank?”
Enough to push us over that next rise in the road to see what’s on the other side?
So today, on Magicians Impossible‘s fifth birthday, I have a little gift for everyone who read the book, enjoyed the book, befriended me because of the book, and constantly asked me “will there be a sequel”.
This is not that sequel.
But it is a bit of a coda, detailing what happened between father and son on that long train ride back to Manhattan.
So without any further ado I give you …
SPITE THE DEVIL: A MAGICIANS IMPOSSIBLE STORY
The gentle rock of the train had driven Jason Bishop underwater, into a dark, warm calm that reminded him of death. It was peaceful there. It was quiet. The considerable cares of the world but a distant memory. It was a wonderful dream, but the tricky thing about dreams was you always awoke from them in the end. And so when Jason’s eyes opened the first thing he noticed was the deck of playing cards on the seat next to him. The next was the figure sitting across from him. Jason studied the man quietly, like he was running every possible scenario through his head. That was good, and smart as well; in a world of magic you never could be too certain the person sitting across from you was the person they seemed. Finally, Jason settled back in his seat.
“You owe me a hell of an explanation, you know that?” he asked.
“A good magician never reveals his secrets,” Damon King replied. “But I should probably make an exception in your case.”
“We’re an hour out from New York. Will that be enough time?”
“Should be,” said Damon. “Though to be fair I’m dying for a drink.”
“I know a place near Fort Tryon.”
“Time enough for me to answer some of those questions of yours?”
“Time enough to answer all of them.”
Damon settled back in his seat. He tented his fingers and flashed a grin.
“So where would you like to start?”
Jason raised the deck of cards. “How about a magic trick?”
Damon nodded, slowly. He knew what came next. The question was; did Jason?
“You sensed them too?” Damon asked.
“From the moment I stepped on the train.”
“You tell me; you’re the Mage.”
Jason stared at Damon silently. Then, he closed his eyes.
Damon leaned forward and could see his son’s pupils darting back and forth behind his eyelids. Seeking was a simple enough trick for a Mage; not unlike REM sleep. It was like those moments in bed, when you could sense someone else slip inside the room before you opened your eyes.
“First one’s three rows in from the rear doors,” Jason said. “You know the type; the Alpha Male with the bushy hillbilly beard they think makes them look like some Special Forces badass but in reality hides bad skin and a weak fucking chin?”
Damon nodded. Not bad. Not bad at all. “Who else?”
Jason shook his head. “Quid pro quo, Clarice; you ask me something I ask you something back.”
Damon checked his watch.
“We have time,” Jason said.
“We’ll be to Spuyten Duyvil in twenty minutes. We have time, just not a lot of it.”
“Twenty minutes?!” Jason shook his head. “We’re nowhere near close to – ”
“This train is about to go express. But you were saying …?”
“Last fall, at Murder Hill. I scattered your ashes there, like you requested. I poured them in, I waited. I expected … something to happen. Only ‘something’ never did.”
Damon smiled. That had been the last test of Jason’s training; the one Carter Block, leader of the Invisible Hand, had failed to anticipate when he’d hatched his plot. He’d thought Jason would be just another pawn, a powerful Bishop on his chessboard. But Carter hadn’t anticipated that Jason was a King and the son of a Queen.
“What were you expecting?” Damon asked. “A big pillar of water, a puff of smoke, your dear departed dad returning to save the day?”
“Kind of. Yeah.”
“Well, to answer your question, yes, returning my ashes to the water was what I needed for you to pull me back out of the Pocket. But returning from death isn’t a simple matter. It’s … painful. Exhausting. Even when I did return I didn’t know who I was, where I’d come from. I was just a shadow, struggling to manifest a corporeal form. It took months to return completely.”
“But what I don’t understand is –”
“Uh-uh, my turn. Who else?”
Jason leaned back in his seat and furrowed his brow. The train was rocking faster now. It didn’t slow as it rolled through Ossining, leaving confused commuters and conductors and dispatchers in its wake. It accelerated as it raced to meet and blast through the next stop.
It was beginning.
And they were running out of time.
“The woman, midway-down, window seat,” Jason said. “Hitchcock blonde. Business professional. Very well put-together. Why’s she on her way to the city and not out of it?”
“Lots of people reverse commute,” Damon offered.
“Not on a Tuesday afternoon and not carrying a Gucci handbag they don’t. The genuine article, not a Canal Street knock-off. I could tell that when I boarded. The bigger give-away were the shoes. They look fresh-out-of-the-box. Never worn before today. That’s a hell of a gamble on the Metro North no matter where you board. Clumsy feet, scuff-marks –”
“Then how did she board the train?” Damon asked.
“My serve.” Jason picked up the deck, opened it, and slipped the cards out. “Our little chess-game. That was all real. It happened. But where was it? You mentioned a ‘Pocket’?”
Now it was Damon’s turn to lean back.
“Carter didn’t tell you everything.”
Jason began to shuffle. Marking the cards. Making them his. An extension of his own self. That was good; he was going to need them shortly.
“Pockets are Way-Points between this world and the magical,” Damon began.
“A Soft Place,” Jason interrupted. “How Mages move instantaneously to points on a map. Or moved – past tense.” He smiled, awkwardly. “I, uhh, kind of broke all that last time ‘round.”
“That’s why we’re on a train.” Damon continued. “With the destruction of the Citadel, Soft Places have become much harder to access, but they still exist. Soft places are how we traveled between worlds, how we opened a door in Los Angeles and walked out into Moscow. Way-Points are kind of like highway rest stops. Some are massive; some are only the size of a sitting room. They’re a place to catch your breath; a place where the rules of Magic don’t work. A place where the Mages of old could meet to parlay without threat of battle.”
“When the Temple of Bones collapsed, I remember falling …”
“Was that a question?”
Damon nodded knowingly. The Temple of Bones had been a hiding place for the Golden Dawn, beneath the Paris Catacombs. It had been destroyed by Damon’s protégé, Allegra Sand, with Jason in the middle of it. He’d been struck unconscious, but the rending of the Temple had opened a Soft Place, and deposited him in the Pocket where Damon could reach him.
“It’s no coincidence the phrases ‘falling to sleep’ and ‘falling unconscious’ employ identical adjectives.” Damon said. “Unconsciousness is not quite dreaming but it is close enough. All the unconscious mind needs is someone already inside a Way-Point to pull them in. That’s where I was and that’s where I was waiting. I couldn’t reach you in the Citadel; not awake, not in dreams. I could only do so when you were outside, in the mundane world. Now, who else?”
The train rocketed past Scarborough. Angry shouts filled the car, from passengers facing a longer-than-usual commute back north, from crew just as confused as their angry patrons. The only two who weren’t perturbed were, notably, Special Forces and Hitchcock Blonde. The noise made Seeing more difficult. It wasn’t until they were on the approach to Irvington that Jason was able to isolate the third.
“The Influencer,” Jason said.
On the opposite side of the car a few rows back, a raven-haired woman in designer shades, designer dress, was clutching a designer phone case and flashing an alluring expression for the benefit of her iPhone and who-knew-how-many social media followers.
“She’s not complaining to her followers that the Metro North just blew through the last two stops,” Jason continued. “Influencers live for that shit. They wither and die without attention.”
“Well done,” Damon said. “But we’ll have to continue the quid pro quo portion of the conversation another time.” He tented his fingers and stared into space. “We’re approximately fourteen miles from where this train makes the curve at Spuyten Duyvil; where the Harlem River meets the Hudson. At a normal rate of speed, that trip takes twenty-seven minutes–”
More angry shouts sounded as the train accelerated past Irvington, now bound for Dobbs Ferry.
“At the current rate, this train will take that bend in fifteen minutes. It’ll hit the curve at over one hundred twenty miles an hour. I don’t need to paint a picture of what happens if that happens, but if I do, it will utilize a lot of red.”
“I suppose that means someone has to stop this train,” Jason mused.
“Which means stopping the four Mages aboard it first.”
“Two cars up. The one manipulating whoever’s manning the controls in the locomotive.”
Jason pocketed the deck of cards and cracked his knuckles.
“Well let’s get this done.” He moved to stand. “I’ll take Special Forces if you want to –” “There is one other thing…”
Jason stared at Damon, and then sunk back into his seat.
“There always is …”
“Ley Lines. They’re conduits between Soft Places. Not as powerful; more like tributaries feeding into a river. The entire world is crisscrossed with Leys. They’re how the first Mages were able to map Soft Places in the beginning.” Damon tapped his arm-rest with his finger. “This particular line intersects with a Ley just below Greystone. It runs straight south from there to just above Spuyten Duyvil. While we’re on that particular stretch of track, magical abilities will be amplified.”
“So we hit hard, it lands harder?”
“And the inverse. This particular Ley is powerful. Short but strong. Any magic utilized while on it will be amplified tenfold. Bad for us, bad for anyone on this train not a Mage.”
“So what you’re saying is we need to stop these four before that happens.”
“In five minutes, at current rate of speed.”
“Sounds impossible,” said Jason.
He raised hands over his face and slowly dragged them down and as he did his visage changed as the Enchantment did its work. Gone was the face not so dissimilar to Damon’s own. In its stead was that of a much older man’s; the shell Jason had worn to his uncle’s funeral earlier that day. The same he’d boarded the train with. His sandy-blonde hair went silver-gray, his taut face muscles went soft, his cheeks jowly, his eyes sunken into recesses of tired flesh. He looked, Damon reflected, exactly what you’d expect to see at a funeral.
But still, Jason’s youthful eyes glittered from his now aged face.
“Fortunately, ‘Impossible’ is our specialty,” he said.
Ramon Santos was so busy getting an earful from seemingly everyone in the car he barely noticed the old man in the black suit until he was right in front of him. The Metro North conductor was just as confused, just as angry, as everyone else. Maybe even more so, because he sensed that this was all going to land on his head and hard. Bullshit always ran downhill, and Ramon was at the bottom of the ramp. Just his luck; his first week on the job and he already had his hands full with a speeding train not making its scheduled stops, no response from the engineer, dispatch screaming at him through his walkie, and a baker’s dozen passengers throwing their Noo Yawk attitudes in his face, the same they did every time something went wrong. There was nothing that he could recall in the manual or months of training that told him what to do in case of a speeding train other than tucking your head between your legs and kissing your ass goodbye. So he was well and unprepared for the old man as he grabbed Ramon by the lapels, and pulled him close.
“On the floor! NOW!” he shouted
Almost simultaneous, Ramon felt something heavy press down, like a blast of air had hurtled down upon him and the other passengers milling about. They all hit the floor hard and stayed there. Ramon was the only one facing down the car, so he was the only one on the train outside its participants, to watch a battle unfold.
The old man pivoted and thrust his hands out, and a blast of … something … catapulted a muscular, bearded passenger out of his seat and into the reinforced glass of the window beside him, cracking it under the force of the blow and splintering the glass lengthwise. The shock of this moment was doubled as the passenger recovered and crouched on the window itself. He yanked his shirt sleeves down to reveal tattoos comprised of words and symbols crisscrossing his powerful forearms. He slammed those arms together. A shockwave hammered the air and propelled the old man into the seats opposite. The old man’s skin disappeared in puff of smoke, dissipating and revealing a thirty-something man Ramon didn’t remember even seeing board the train.
Further down a well-dressed man stood, and faced one, then a second woman opposite. The two women seemed to be in league with each other because the ice-cold blonde made a pushing motion with her hands that propelled the second girl at the other man. As she rocketed at him she disappeared in a burst of smoke that split the air with a thunderclap and shattered windows all down the length of the car. The glass splintered but held, thanks to its engineering but the cracks widened with each jolt of the train as it rocketed down the tracks. The Dobbs Ferry station was an indistinct blur of grey and green through fractured glass.
And impossibly, the train was still accelerating.
The second girl erupted from a blast of smoke behind the well-dressed man. Her hands clenched into fists that glowed red, then white-hot, then nearly translucent. Ramon felt the hairs on his arms and neck stand rigid. He could smell ozone in the air.
What the hell was happening?!
A hand grasped his. The thirty-something man’s face was inches from Ramon’s.
“Get everyone off this car!” he shouted.
He swiped left with his hand. Behind Ramon, the door leading to the next car up slid open. The man then pushed with that same hand and Ramon felt himself slide backward along with the other screaming passengers. Ramon didn’t wait for further instruction; he scrambled to his knees, grabbed the nearest passenger, and hauled them back with him.
“C’mon people let’s MOVE!” he shouted.
Further down, Ramon saw the younger woman thrust out with her hands. White-hot energy erupted from her palms. The well-dressed man either saw them or sensed them because he pivoted smoothly, and redirected the energy with his hands, sending them slamming into the blonde woman and catapulting her backward with a pained, surprised yelp.
Something slipped from the younger man’s jacket sleeve. It was a deck of cards.
“What the fu –” Ramon began.
“Sorry. Trade secret,” the younger man said.
He swiped his hand right. The door slid shut, and there was a harsh metallic rending sound.
The passenger car shuddered and screamed –
Then there was just the clatter of wheels on the track. Ramon stood and stared out the window to see the front two cars of the train and its locomotive screaming ahead, doubling the speed the tail of the train was diminishing by, slowing with each clatter of rails under its wheels. By the time the Metro-North’s five rear cars had come to a gentle stop Ramon Santos could only wonder what the hell had just happened, and what was still happening somewhere down track on that runaway train.
The card deck in his hand felt like an extension of his own being. It had been months since he’d last wielded one in battle but it had been a long winter and he’d had plenty of time to practice. He parted the deck swiftly and pivoted as Special Forces propelled himself off the window and landed in the aisle mid-way down. Special Forces thought this would be easy.
Special Forces was about to learn a hard lesson.
Jason dealt the cards in a flurry, sending them on their deadly path. Special Forces quickly cast a defensive spell, scattering the cards, sending them wild. The bulk buried themselves in seatbacks and ceiling, but the ones that remained the most found their carefully-aimed marks, slicing Special Forces’ arms, slashing a groove across his cheek, and giving his bushy beard a trim. He retreated, trying to cast spells by mashing the tattooed markings on his arms together in an attempt to form a word, a command to unleash hell back on Jason.
Special Forces wasn’t looking so “special” now.
Further down, Damon had his hands full with the twins, as he was calling the two women he was facing off against. He recognized their magic, but not them, even though they were natural-born Mages; not conjurers like the Golden Dawn, presently getting his ass handed to him by Jason. They must have been Carter’s acolytes. Or maybe new recruits. Either way, they were definitely –
“Invisible Hand, huh?” Damon asked. “I guess this means I’m off the team.”
“It’s a new world now, old man.” Influencer smiled. “And you’re history.”
“Your time is over,” Hitchcock Blonde added. Her clenched fists crackled with malignant energy. “Our time is beginning and we will –”
Damon unleashed the full deck. Not at her but past her, striking the glass behind her, widening the cracks, tearing the opening wider, wider still. Air rushed in and that coupled with the speed of the train did the rest. The entire window exploded outward, the wind howling its way inside. It was enough distraction for a quick jolt of a push from Damon to catapult Hitchcock Blonde out the window and off the train entirely.
He turned to face Influencer. The cards swept back through the air past her, and filled his waiting hand with a perfectly shaped deck.
“First rule, kid? Show, don’t tell, and certainly don’t talk when you should –”
Something lurched. But it wasn’t the train, it wasn’t the compartment; it wasn’t even Damon. He wasn’t the only one who felt it too. He could see it in the stunned expression on Influencer’s face. In the brightening glow on Special Force’s tattooed arms.
The Metro North had crossed over. They were riding the Ley Line.
“You feel that?” Special Forces asked. “Yeah, you feel that; that vibration in your fillings? Those hairs standing on end. That electricity in the air, that …” He sniffed dramatically. “… that burnt-metal aroma? That’s power just waiting to be tapped.” Special Forces’ tattoos burned white hot, and Jason had to avert his eyes from their brilliance. “Unlimited power.”
Jason unleashed his remaining cards. They cut their deadly path through the air with Ley-fueled lethality, but Special Forces merely gave them a disgusted flick of the wrist, scattering them and embedding several into the walls, floor, and seats of the passenger car.
Special Forces raised his hands. With a mighty rending the passenger car shuddered as chairs and tables were wrenched from their mounts and brackets and catapulted at Jason. He had a moment’s grace and took it, focusing on a point further down, and blinking towards it, past Special Forces, past the debris hurtling at the empty space Jason was standing in a heartbeat before. He got clear of it for the most part; a glancing, painful blow across the shoulders from the last of the seats twisted him about and sent him crashing.
Special Forces raised his hands again. The debris piled about him lifted off the floor.
“Remember what I told you!” someone behind him shouted.
A man’s voice. Damon’s voice. And a reminder.
That the Ley Lines amplified everything.
Special Forces directed the wreckage full-blast at Jason, who raced forward and thrust his hands out at the precise moment of what would have been impact. The fragments stopped on a dime and blasted back at their thrower, slamming arms and legs and chest, pinning him to the door and holding him as the remaining projectiles crashed into him and burying him beneath their ruin.
Jason could feel the energy pulse through him. His muscles, his very veins trembled with white-hot adrenaline. He felt like he could do anything.
The train car began to roll, like it had uncoupled from the tracks. Jason lurched, staggered, and fell against a wall. He was going over. The entire train was going over. He slid up the wall to the roof, felt himself dragged across that by the incredible force of the barrel roll.
Influencer was standing on the ceiling, now the floor, perfectly perched and seemingly unaffected by the warping of the compartment. She had her hands cupped before her, like she was cradling something round and precious in her hands. As she twisted her hands, manipulating the unseen shape, her movements were matched by the rolling of the train car.
This wasn’t a derailment. This was magic. Unlike anything Jason had seen or experienced.
And by the looks of things, neither had Damon. He was pinned against the same ceiling as Jason, only he was trying to push himself back off it. Influencer countered, sending the train and its occupants, save her, careening and falling with the movement of the train.
One-eighty degrees. Three-sixty.
And around again.
This isn’t real, Jason thought. It’s an illusion. She’s enchanting us, destabilizing our equilibrium.
He fell to the floor, bouncing hard off a chairback and landing harder on the ground.
Feels pretty damn real to me …
A hastily discarded iPhone tumbled across the floor between them, as they held on. The phone slid up the incline, up the wall, and was sucked out the window as it rolled over the tracks. Twin beams of steel were briefly visible, then there was the embankment, houses and high-rises racing by, the blue sky above. The train was corkscrewing again.
Jason could sense the crash of debris a moment before he could hear it. Special Forces was freeing himself from his prison. A quick glance confirmed it; the conjurer was bruised, battered, bloodied, his eyes burning hatred.
“Jason!” Damon shouted above the crashing din.
They were going over again.
“Get ready! I set him up you knock him down!”
Jason braced himself between two seats as Special Forces stood, the tattooed markings on his arms burning angry. He tightened his fists, and brought his arms back. As he slammed his forearms together Damon reached out and grasped Special Forces and yanked him towards them. Special Forces was caught off guard by the sudden pressure and was mid-way to Jason when Jason pushed.
The force of the blast threw Special Forces out the shattered window just at the moment the train rolled, and he was out and under the train a second later. There was a pained scream, then a wet crunch of bone and blood and meat as the side of the train mashed him to pulp along a mile-long stretch of rail.
“Told you,” Jason muttered. “Bushy beard and a weak fucking chin.”
The passenger car slammed down hard on the tracks. Jason and Damon were thrown up to the ceiling, hard-bounced off it and collapsed to the floor.
Pain stabbed at Damon’s side; a cracked rib. Jason managed slightly better.
Influencer set down on the floor. Her tear-streaked cheeks glistened against the harsh glow of her hateful eyes. She and Special Forces clearly had been more than just team-mates.
“At least we outnumber her –” Jason began to articulate.
The roof of the Metro North unzipped from end-to-end with a rending sound. The metal peeled back and away, like it was just a strip of aluminum foil. Through the opening they both could see a figure standing, her white-blonde hair whipping madly in the ferocious wind.
Hitchcock Blonde was back for round two.
Influencer smiled, pushed against the floor, and levitated herself out of the passenger car. As she did the entire compartment began to shudder. Metal screeched, walls buckled, glass shattered. The entire car was being crushed, like it was an empty aluminum can being squeezed.
Jason locked eyes with Damon.
“After you, Damon said.
“Age before beauty,” Jason replied.
Damon grinned, but there was no joy in it. This was life-and-death now. The train raced past Glenwood. After that would be Yonkers, then Ludlow. Then Riverdale.
Then Spuyten Duyvil
They were running out of time.
They were clear of the passenger car a moment before it imploded. It was as though the unseen hand of an angry god had brought itself down upon the eighty-five foot long, ten foot wide, one hundred forty-four thousand pound metal tube, the train car was crushed flat. It slammed against the tracks and held there with such force it trailed sparks for a full three miles of drag before Damon and Jason were able to uncouple it from the train. The mangled debris came to a shuddering, smoldering stop just at the edge of Yonkers.
The train roared into the city and Jason and Damon alighted upon the first passenger car. Glass and steel skyscrapers vaulted above the rail line, jockeying for space with the 19th century brick and mortar buildings still awaiting redevelopment. Facing them were three Mages. Hitchcock Blonde and Influencer, by this point, needed no introduction.
But the third was familiar to both Damon and Jason.
In the latter case intimately so.
“Hello lover!” she shouted above the howl of wind.
Jason’s blood went molten. His fists clenched. Anger began its slow steady build.
A name and a face from the not-so-distant past. Jason’s “ex” had survived Murder Hill. Jason knew there’d been a split in the Invisible Hand’s ranks following the destruction of their Citadel; that Allegra Sand and Katja Eis were warring with each other. Clearly Katja had enlisted some outside help. But Golden Dawn involvement was another matter; one he’d have to ask his mother about the next time he saw her.
“You are looking well,” Katja continued. “Much better than our last meeting.”
A flash of memory intruded. Of a car sinking beneath Hudson river waters. Of Carla’s terrified face. Of Noah’s alarmed cries. The two people in the world Jason die to protect, facing their own deaths at the hands of Katja Eis.
Jason took a step forward. He felt Damon’s hand rest on his shoulder.
“Focus,” he muttered. “Don’t let anger get the better of you. You do and she’ll exploit it.”
Damon gave his shoulder a squeeze, then released. Jason felt the anger simmer.
Katja held steady against the hurricane
“I had to see it for myself,” she said. “Wherever you’d been hiding yourself, it was truly out of the way. But when I saw the news about your dear departed uncle I knew you wouldn’t be far.” She shifted her hateful gaze to Damon. “And look who else you brought to the party! Damon, you are looking surprisingly spry for a dead man your age!”
“It’s not the age; it’s the miles,” Damon shouted back.
Katja’s smile was like jagged ice. “Girls … ?
Influencer and Hitchcock Blonde took position, legs planted, hands at the ready. Spells on their lips, just waiting for the order. Despite the rush of wind howling, Jason and Damon could hear the cries emanating from the passenger car beneath them. Dozens of lives were in their hands; if they failed, those dozens would die.
“Prove him wrong,” Katja said.
There was a thunderclap cloudburst. When the smoke parted Katja was gone, and Hitchcock Blonde’s hands were glowing translucent. Influencer cupped her hands for another go-round.
“I’m open to ideas –” Jason began.
He didn’t get a chance to finish; the world went upside-down again.
Jason and Damon dropped to the train’s roof and grabbed onto its recessed handholds as Yonkers and all surrounding it went upside down. Jason felt himself slipping, his legs dangling into open space. If he fell off he’d keep falling, up, up into that beautiful blue sky. Until the world righted itself that is; then he’d fall all the way down.
Ahead of them the two Mages stood unaffected. Hitchcock Blonde cast her spell. Electricity spilled from her upturned hands and fell to the train’s metallic surface. It sparked there and surged across the roof, spilling along towards Jason and Damon like water from an overflowing sink.
“Those shoes of yours. Rubber soles?” Damon asked.
“What?!” Jason gasped.
“Yeah – sure, I guess!”
“Focus on Influencer. On her center of mass.”
Jason focused on Influencer. The world around her was rotating, sweeping around like the runaway second hand of an analog clock. As he set his gaze on her and concentrated, the world surrounding became less distinct, more blurred. Then, it stabilized. It was still spinning but the train felt unaffected. As the electrical charge reached them, Jason and Damon stood. The electricity licked at their shoes but did nothing else. Like a stream of water split against the toe of an insulated boot, it parted. For the first time since this ordeal began, Hitchcock Blonde and Influencer looked less certain of themselves. Like they didn’t know everything after all.
“After you …” Damon said.
Jason crouched, and blinked.
He was on Influencer a moment later, pushing her with a blast of concentrated magic. She slid and staggered backward to the edge of the train where it was coupled to the engine. Jason skidded to a stop as Influencer teetered on the precipice, her eyes registering genuine fear for the first time.
“This is your stop,” he said.
He flicked his wrist. Influencer was wrenched off the train and sent crashing through the plate-glass window of a passing condominium tower. Not enough to kill, but certainly enough to sting.
Further behind, Damon and Hitchcock Blonde faced off. The shattering of glass directed them momentarily to Influencer’s exit from the stage, but only momentarily. The train was screaming through Yonkers and now actually and impossibly accelerating towards Ludlow.
“Get to the engine!” Damon shouted to Jason. “Stop it!”
Jason nodded. There was a blast of air and smoke and he was gone.
“He won’t be able to stop it,” Hitchcock Blonde said. “And he won’t be able to stop her.”
“You’re awful confident for one so young,” Damon replied.
“And you’re quite arrogant for someone whose time’s long passed, old man.”
“You know, a lot of people say I look a bit like Cary Grant.”
“Who’s Cary Grant?” she sneered.
Kids these days … Damon thought.
The train cleared Yonkers. Further down through a break in the trees the GWB loomed closer.
Hitchcock Blonde’s hands blurred. Damon felt the blast take him square in the chest. He staggered and slipped, tumbling hard to the roof. He felt that cracked rib break. The pain was so sharp, so jarring, it almost ended everything.
But he was wounded now, and Hitchcock Blonde couldn’t resist assuming the role of the cat.
She approached calmly. Slowly.
She held her hand out and Damon felt the fingers enclose him. They squeezed, sending paroxysms of pain tearing through him as he was slid backwards, to the rear edge of the train. Hitchcock Blonde’s mouth curled into a sneer as she pushed him the last way and released him. He fell, grasping the edge of the train, holding on as best as he could. But his hands were damp. Sweaty.
She stopped to loom imposingly over him.
“So, ‘Cary’; any famous last words?”
“Just one,” he said with a pained grimace. “‘Duck …’”
Her brow creased in confusion. Then she turned.
The bridge overhang Damon had spotted thirty seconds prior slammed into her body with lethal force. It was so fast, so brutal, so final. Hitchcock Blonde was there one moment, gone the next. The train passed beneath the bridge and was out the other side a three-count later. Damon pulled himself painfully to the roof and collapsed there. His side was throbbing. Just to breathe sent fresh pain cutting through him. He could feel the bones grinding against each other. Setting a broken rib was something he’d done several times before. To others. To himself.
But in his defense he was a lot older now.
He just hoped Jason could handle the rest of it.
He closed his eyes, reached inward with his magic, and snapped the rib back into place.
Prying the door to the engine compartment open proved a challenge courtesy of the hurricane intensity wind pressing against it. Inside the cab, the first thing Jason noticed was the eerie calm. Like the cab was the eye of a particularly violent storm. Everything vibrated; the floor, the walls, the front-facing windows. Through those he could see Ludlow station approaching, slow at first but closing the distance rapidly and blasting past the train a short intake of breath later. So fast you could barely see the commuters, the station employees, the police. Emergency cherries flashed against the window but they disappeared as quickly as the station had.
Riverdale next. Then Spuyten Duyvil. Then …
He turned his attention to the engineer. It was a heavy-set man with a bushy mustache and a beer belly resting on his thick thighs as he sat, staring benumbed at the monitors displaying the forward and rear views of the train. His eyes were glazed over, his meaty hand was on the throttle, pressing it all the way forward. His arm was rigid, as he was rigid.
Jason moved to the engineer and grasped the throttle. He struggled against it almost as much as he had with the door. The engineer was not letting go.
“Think, think,” Jason muttered. Was there a sleep spell? Something he could cast that would break the connection, the enchantment, the whatever Katja had done to –
The engineer’s hand was on his throat a second later. His grip was like frost-bitten steel. He threw Jason, catapulting him back into the cab door. The wind pressing against it, thankfully kept him from falling through it but it still hurt. He shook the pain away and stood as the engineer’s fat potato of a body evaporated like mist.
Katja stood in his place.
“It was never going to be that easy, Jason,” she said. “I’m disappointed, but not surprised. You always chose ‘easy’ over literally anything else.”
“Well, I did choose you didn’t I?” he replied.
Rage flashed across Katja’s face. There was a barely perceptible ripple and for a momentary gasp, Jason could see the scarred visage beneath. The scar bisecting her from eyebrow to lip, clean through the mangled nub of a nose; Katja’s true face. The one she hid from everyone at all times, most pointedly, from herself. Then it was gone.
“Where’s the engineer?” he asked.
“He went under the wheels south of Cold Spring. I’m certain he is many places by now.”
“Why?” he asked. “What’s the point? To all of it?”
“You went to ground, Jason; too well, in fact. I needed to flush you out. The world has changed, you see. And we need to know where you stand. You and your father.”
“I’m retired. You and Allegra want to squabble over the pieces, do it without me.”
“Oh Jason …” Katja’s sigh was almost disappointed. “You cannot hide from what’s coming.”
She raised a hand, and clenched it slowly into a fist. Beside her the control console of the train crumpled, into a mass of twisted steel and crackling electronics. It all enclosed over the throttle, locking it in its forward position, shielding it from anything Jason could do.
“So consider this your warning,” Katja said. “Next time there will not be one.”
She snapped her fingers. The forward windows her imploded. Wind shrieked into the cab. There was a crack of air and smoke, then Katja was gone.
Damon arrived a moment later. He was clearly in pain, but hid it well.
“Where’s Katja?” he asked.
“She dumped me. Where’s the Hitchcock Blonde?”
“She had a hot date with an immovable object,” Damon replied.
“Well, there’s bad news and there’s bad news,” Jason said.
“Oh, there’s bad news?”
Jason gave him the low-down on what Katja had done, but Damon waved off her warning dismissively. Like he already knew what she’d told Jason. Or maybe because they were still on a speeding runaway train and that took precedent. In either event, Damon had eyes and could see for himself. He took a moment to consider their limited options.
“Alright, we need to cut the passenger car loose. Then we deal with the engine.”
“Why?” Jason asked. “The track bends at Spuyten Duyvil. Just let it derail. I know the area; it’ll land in the river. Big splash, end of story.”
Damon shook his head.
“Too risky. If a Circle Line boat is sightseeing or there are track workers on the line? They’re long-shots but not ones I’m willing to take. You uncouple the train. I’ll slow the engine.”
Damon blinked out of the train compartment. A moment later, Jason followed.
The wind whipped his hair, his suit and tie, but as Jason crouched at the front of the passenger car and focused on the train coupling below he felt calm surround him. The wind diminished. His clothing ceased their flag-in-the-wind flapping. Silence descended like a shroud as he studied the coupling for a moment, then reached out with his thoughts, with his magic. It was slightly more elaborate than a padlock but the principal was the same. Because Damon had done the lion’s share with the previous car, it took Jason a few attempts before he was able to separate the lock lift assembly from the knuckle. There was an audible clank of metal separating, then the rattling passenger car steadied. The engine pulled away, speeding forward as the remainder began its gradual slow-down. Jason crouched there watching the locomotive and Damon atop it racing down the track until both had disappeared from view.
The passenger car screeched to a stop at Riverdale station. Those watching, dumbfounded, from the platform were so focused on the lone train car delivered without aid of the locomotive that had raced past moments before they didn’t notice Jason atop or the puff of smoke as he blinked away a second later.
Spuyten Duyvil station was approaching rapidly. The waters of Spuyten Duyvil Creek, where the Harlem River joined the Hudson were unoccupied. Beyond it, the forested springtime green of Inwood Hill Park gleamed in the afternoon sun. Trees had begun to bud, leaves unfurling. Rebirth was well underway.
Crouching atop the locomotive, Damon tried to slow the accelerating train but Katja’s enchantment kept that throttle buried in the forward position. It would have been simple enough to disembark and let the train derail to plunge into the waters, but he wanted to send a message to whomever may be watching; that Damon King was back, and ready for anything his multiplying adversaries had in store for him and his son.
Damon raised his hands.
At the curve a half-mile ahead, there was a metallic rending as one, then a second train rail was pried off of the ground. Ties popped loose with a ping-ping-ping of clattering steel. The rails squealed as they bent backwards, their twin blades pointed at the locomotive rushing to meet them.
When the moment did happen Damon was already off the engine, blinking from the locomotive to the safety of the platform at Spuyten Duyvil station. Nobody on the platform noticed his arrival; their attentions were directed to the locomotive as it was impaled through the front of the cab by the bent steel rails. There was a titanic groan of metal loud enough to be heard in Hoboken as the locomotive upended, catapulting end over end, landing with a crash that set off the alarms of automobiles parked up on Edsall Avenue. The locomotive landed on its back, tearing deep furrows in the ground as it slid across that last length of land … and stopped at the water’s edge. The rumble sounded over Upper Manhattan – a mighty roar not unlike the death throes of a dying prehistoric beast.
It was over.
* * *
Jason stood on the small peninsula that jutted from Inwood Park out into Spuyten Duyvil Creek. Across from him, the wreckage site swarmed with emergency vehicles and crew. Sirens screamed through the air, nearly drowning out the beat of NYPD and network news choppers circling like angry flies above.
He heard the approach of footsteps behind him. He didn’t need to turn to know who it was.
“Not exactly how I’d envisioned my return to New York,” Jason said.
“I’m sure it isn’t how you envisioned a lot of things,” Damon replied
For a moment or several, father and son just watched the unfolding action across the smoothly flowing waters of Spuyten Duyvil Creek. Then Damon turned to Jason, and smiled.
“So … how about that drink?”
TM and (C) 2022 by Brad Abraham. All Rights Reserved
(This is the first in a series I’m calling “Celluloid Heroes” (HT: Ray Davies) in which I take a look at the movies that made me, or at least had a very outsized influence on me growing up. This installment will be followed by two more, running through this summer, and I hope to continue the series through the years ahead.)
So without further ado, “when this baby hits 88 mph you’re going to see some serious shit.”
You could argue that of all the movies of the 1980s, the one that stands above all others is this one. Back to the Future. Released on July 3, 1985, easily the most 80s year of the decade, it was a massive commercial and critical hit. It stayed in theaters for months, making money hand over fist.
I also think it holds the crown for movies most about the decade they’re actually set in and BTTF is 100% 80s. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox, as if you didn’t already know) wants to get back to his year, 1985, the year of the film which automatically dates it, as though a “dated” film is a bad thing when few films released are remembered a year after release, let alone thirty-eight (it’s true; look it up. Also, sorry).
But what makes Back to the Future the 80s movie? Why not Ghostbusters or Gremlins, why not Robocop or E.T. or Die Hard?
Let’s break it all down;
1. It’s a Teen Comedy
While teen-centered movies had existed before the 1980s it wasn’t until the 80s that they became a genre. Films made for and marketed to the prosperous children of the prosperous Baby Boom generation. The kids now called “Generation X”. Films like Fast Times At Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, Valley Girl and all their offspring.
So looking at Back to the Future through that lens as a teen movie, it works. It’s a cool teen with problems who goes to experience life as a teenager in his parents’ era when they were teenagers. One of the reasons I recommend George Gipe’s Back to the Future novelization (copies are easily attainable and affordable in the secondary market) is that it really delved into the differences between 80s kids and 50s kids, which is quite the trip to read in 2022, where the 80s are as far removed from us as the 50s were to the 80s. If Back to the Future were made today Marty would time-trip back to the distant year of 1992 (again, sorry).
2. It’s a Spielbergian fantasy
You can’t talk 80s cinema without talking Steven Spielberg. The guy was and remains a master filmmaker, but it was his aesthetic, the “Amblin feel” of so many classic 80s films – Poltergeist, Explorers, Gremlins, Goonies, Back to the Future – that suburban living could lead to adventure, that the fantastical could drop on your doorstep, that became a genre unto itself. Even today, with Netflix’ Stranger Things series, the Spielbergian influence is front and center.
The biggest genre films of the decade – the Indy trilogy, E.T., these films he produced – sparked wave after wave or imitators and homages. And Back to the Future, despite being a Zemeckis-Gale joint, has Spielberg’s fingerprints all over it, right from that look of awe on Marty’s face when he sees the DeLorean for the first time. Those somber, reflective moments like when Marty pens a letter to Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) warning him of his future murder. Seeing his parents kiss for the first time. Little touches that humanize the fantastical are all Spielberg and it’s no small surprise many mistakenly believe Back to the Future is a Spielberg film.
3. It’s Boomer nostalgia
Starting in 1985 the baby boomers all started turning 40. And you could see it in the culture of the day. Whereas the first half of the decade was dominated by MTV, New Wave, new Romantics and “youth” culture, starting in 1985 the boomers took their revenge. The big waves of 50s and 60s nostalgia (present in some form from Happy Days, Grease, and Sha-Na-Na in the 70s) really took hold in the 80s. It was that turning 40 where those greaser and hippy kids started looking back at their lives, and the culture followed. Paul Simon, Bob Seeger, the Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, the Beatles all saw a resurgence in popularity (in fact the following year’s Ferris Bueller’s use of The Beatles’ cover of Twist And Shout launched the Beatles back into the popular culture).
Back to the Future really leans into the boomer nostalgia, filtered through the gaze of a 17 year old played by a then 24 year old and written by a couple of late 30/early 40-somethings. It may be Marty’s POV – he’s virtually in every scene of the movie – but it’s George (Crispin Glover) and Lorraine’s (Lea Thompson) story. Their world. Their era.
Part of why, to me, the two sequels aren’t nearly as effective or good (sorry but it’s also true) is because their settings – 1885 and the then far-away world of 2015 – are divorced from any world we, the viewer, knew. They’re perfectly fun time-wasters but they lack the emotional resonance of the first film. They’re movies about Back to the Future; not movies about a teenager time-traveling to meet his parents as teens.
Back to the Future also made me conscious of the fact that my parents were teenagers once. That they had a lot of the same hopes and fears as I did. It got me more interested in their music, their movies, their TV. The sense that they’d grown up in a period predating my birth; that they’d lived a fair bit of life before becoming parents.
4. It’s a Gen X Film
Generation X as a term to describe that cohort of people born between 1965-1977 or thereabouts wasn’t actually coined until 1991 by author Douglas Coupland, in his book titled, well Generation X. But now, Marty McFly, those John Hughes Kids, those Kids of Degrassi Street and the like are all labelled Gen X. It was a label assigned after the fact. Unlike Gen Y, unlike Millennials, Gen X typically had to wait until the dust had settled to get a name, which it didn’t receive until:
As an aside, there’s definitely merit to an argument going around that it’s GenX who’s at fault for the endless sequels and reboots of classic 70s-90s film series as we’re the 40-50 somethings clinging to the nostalgia of our youth. But the missing component to that argument lies in the fact that the main demographic companies/networks/studios want to reach are 18-34, not 35-54. GenX is also, demographically, a small cohort sandwiched between two larger ones, the Boomers and the Millennials. I would argue more to the plethora of sequels, reboots, remakes as just being more evidence of that tepid corporate mindset that it’s a safer bet to repackage an existing property than to attempt something new. You couldn’t make Back to the Future today without a plan and a promise for a film series. The numbers bear that out; the two biggest movies in recent terms financially have been a new Batman movie (of which there’ve been 10 since 1989), a Spider-Man sequel, the 9th Spider-Film in the last 20 year span, and a sequel to Top Gun, 36 years after the original. It’s interesting to ponder how the landscape might have been were there only 3 Star Wars movies, 3 Indiana Jones movies, 6 Star Trek movies, 1 Ghostbusters, 1 Back to the Future. Would they be as beloved today or would they sit somewhere closer to a 1-and-done success like E.T. the Extra-terrestrial? That is rightly regarded as a classic film, but it certainly doesn’t have the fandom that those other franchises have (because in the end, all that matters to studios is the merchandise – the T-shirts, the video games, the toys, that keep the money flowing). But I digress.
But let’s look at Back to the Future in that context; Marty, the youngest child, sees his older siblings and parents crushed by the grind of life. Dad is a nerd pushover, mom an overweight alcoholic with a jailbird brother. Marty’s brother works in fast food, his sister is likewise in a dead-end job. George’s high school bully, Biff, is still tormenting him. He’s facing a future of diminished expectations which is why he has so much riding on that battle of the bands; his ticket out of the decaying California town of Hill Valley. He is of a generation that can expect to climb nowhere near as high as the generation preceding it. That’s the GenX-perience. That we were never going to have the success of our parents. And poor Marty’s family … are failures. Whatever dreams they once had (like George’s ambition to be a sci-fi author) never came to fruition.
So why is Back to the Future so important to me?
In 1985 I moved to Greensboro North Carolina. School, culture, were not a good fit. Quite simply, I hated it. So there was an enormous appeal in Marty McFly’s story. I wished I too could time-travel with Doc Brown back to, well, maybe 1984 and just inhabit the pre-NC years on an endless loop. But I knew in my heart that was silly and doomed; to be perpetually aging while I relived the same events. Going from ten to eleven to twelve running in place. So while the fantasy was appealing I knew the only way to survive NC was to go through it.
[I did get through it, though the two years we were expected to spend in NC were truncated by an at-the-time fortuitous circumstance that eventually would have consequences for the whole family.]
I wish I could say things in NC turned around but they never did and when I left NC later in 1986 it was without any looking back. I haven’t been back there since and don’t intend to. Unlike all the many other places I’ve lived I have zero nostalgia for that time in my life. In point of fact to this day I posses a strong, very unfair dislike of the southern USA because of my North Carolina experience.
But in Greensboro, we lived a short walk from the nearby strip mall which included a nice bookstore, great Chinese restaurant, a Toy City, and movie theater. This was a second run theater, one of two in town, and when movies came there on their way to home video they played for a while. Tickets were a buck, popcorn and soda or candy was another buck. When Back to the Future finally made its way there I went almost once a week. When another movie like Young Sherlock Holmes or Weird Science arrived I alternated but the end result of that is I’ve probably seen Back to the Future in the theater more times than any any other movie before or since.
Back to the Future is my movie comfort food. SO much so that this past father’s Day I chose it to be my movie for the day. And almost 40 years on it remains as fun, as sweet, as charming as it ever was. Watching BTTF now is akin to traveling back in time to 1985, to 1955 and back again to 1985. Over those many years past Marty McFly became a friend, then he became me; a teenager out of place, desperate to return to the place he belonged. His home. His time. It took a little longer for me but I made it home eventually.
That story will be told in the third installment of this series.
But first we need to take a leap forward to the year 1991 and this bad boy.
“Writing is an occupation in which you must continuously prove your talent to people who have none.” – Jules Renard
I admit it’s strange to say you miss a person you never met, that you never knew, but if like me you were a fan of his work I think we all felt like we knew Harlan Ellison. Some people I know actually did know him so I suppose in the grand scheme of things I could say Harlan and I were two degrees removed (top THAT, Kevin Bacon, who I’m only four degrees from).
Here was a writer who put himself front and center, to the point that in some circles he was better known for his personality than his writing.
A writer who never hesitated to make noise for himself in an industry where writers are expected to shut up and type and let someone else get the glory.
While I loved his fiction – “A Boy And His Dog”, “The Deathbird”, “Shatterday”, “Paladin of the Lost Hour”, “Mephisto In Onyx” rank among my favorites – I was a greater fan of his non-fiction; his essays on film, on television, on the art of writing, of his own life experience. Harlan laid it all out there and became the first writer as rock star, a figure known in some circles more for being Harlan Ellison, period. Louder and larger than life. He wrote about his father (“My Father”), his mother (“My Mother”), he wrote about the loss of a beloved pet, (“Abhu”). He wrote one of the best unproduced screenplays I ever read (his adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s “I Robot”). His book “Harlan Ellison’s Watching” collecting years of essays and reviews on film has been a constant companion for more than 25 years.
So if it wasn’t clear, I was and remain an Ellison fan.
He was haunted by the murder of Kitty Genovese (“The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”), he marched through the segregationist south with MLK (“From Alabamy, with Hate”), he was a fierce, fierce advocate for the rights of the working writer, and was unafraid to call out assholes where he saw them. In the movie business and the book biz, they’re plentiful, believe me.
He had a lot of experience in Hollywood, mostly in Television with episodes of shows like Burke’s Law, The Flying Nun (!) and Route 66. His most in famous work though would be the two episodes he wrote for The Outer Limits – “Demon With A Glass Hand” and “Soldier” (both of which became the un-sanctioned inspiration for James Cameron’s The Terminator. Ellison sued, and won both credit on the film and a cash payout).
And his most famous? That would be this one:
Widely regarded as the best episode of the original Star Trek, and source of an infamous rift between Ellison and Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, detailed in Ellison’s book:
Harlan kept all the receipts.
When Harlan passed in 2018, I didn’t mourn, but I did reacquaint myself, pulling my 1012-page softcover of The Essential Ellison off my shelf and spending the next six or so weeks re-reading it cover-to-cover. That was my eulogy, my memorial to a writer who definitely had an influence on me. occasionally his name would pop up on the radar post-mortem, but I figured that was it. He’d specified in his will that all unpublished work be destroyed, leaving his wife Susan to manage his copyright and his estate (sadly Susan followed Harlan two years later). More on that further down.
So it was, back in February, that I attended my first in-person Boskone since early 2020 because, well, reasons. A guest on several panels, I made my customary sweep through the dealer’s room, where to my surprise, I saw my old pal Harlan. He was at the NESFA table; sci-fi and fantasy hardcovers and softcovers on sale to raise money for the New England Science Fiction Association, the fine organization that helps run the Boskone event. Naturally, I couldn’t leave without grabbing the last of two remaining copies of A Lit Fuse. It took a few weeks to get to it – I was immersed in a biography of Buster Keaton at the time- but after cracking A Lit Fuse open I dove back into a world I’d largely forgotten.
On my first big trip to LA as a full-time working writer I made sure one of my stops was the late, sorely missed Dangerous Visons bookstore on Ventura Boulevard. I went because it was a bookstore, but also because it was Harlan’s bookstore. He lived a short drive away, and the name itself was taken from the legendary Dangerous Visions anthology he edited in the 1960s, that sparked a revolution in sci-fi-fantasy writing, breaking it free from the shadows of the pulp and the obscure and made it vital for a new generation of reader.
Naturally I bought a couple of Ellison books; the first two volumes of The Essential Ellison (as well as a now extremely rare signed, slipcase copy of the late Richard Matheson’s Twilight Zone scripts). Given the ridiculous Canada-US exchange rate at the time I estimate I dropped two hundred dollars on books that day, and spent the next month eating Ramen noodles and mac & cheese (ah, the life of a screenwriter just starting out).
Harlan making himself, warts and all, very public was a bold move, a brave one, and an oddly prescient one. Because today writers are expected to be public. We’re expected to be online, Tweeting and Facebooking and Instagramming our daily lives. We’re supposed to attend workshops and conferences and readings, we’re supposed to campaign for awards, to play the role our industry expects of us.
It’s almost enough to make you want to chuck in the towel.
Because if there is one thing I’ve come to discover about myself it’s that while I still enjoy the act of writing I don’t much enjoy being “a writer”. Certainly not as much as I used to. I enjoy the work, the rewards less so. A blank page does not terrify me the way it does others. I’ve heard writers say again and again that the writing is the least pleasant part of the process, preferring the adulation, the applause of the audience, the commendations that follow publication or production.
Dorothy Parker herself famously said “I don’t enjoy writing; I enjoy having written”. Well, that’s where Dorothy and I part ways. I enjoy writing, and when I’m done writing I write something else.
Clearly I’m the exception. And I’m not in any way blaming other writers for embracing what’s supposed to be fun. The victory lap is important especially for those very talented writers, the men and women for whom writing is therapy and exercising the demons that drive them. Writers and creators who come from traumatic backgrounds, hard upbringings, alcoholic and abusive families, ones who genuinely struggle from PTSD.
Reading Segaloff’s biography of Ellison I found myself remembering the writer I wanted to be. There’s very little of the mid to late-nineties I recall with much nostalgia. It was a depressing time in my life I wouldn’t ever want to repeat. And yet Harlan Ellison, the man, the writer, his stories and non-fiction I do recall in much fonder terms.
I’m definitely closer to the end of my life than I am to the beginning. Harlan once said life should end around age 70 (he lived to see 84). A debilitating stroke incapacitated Harlan some years before his passing; the worst torture for a writer now physically unable to write. Keeling over at my desk seems the best possible retirement for me. I’d hate to spend my remaining years sitting and doing nothing useful with them.
What is most surprising (and a little tragic) to me is that Harlan and his works are slowly being forgotten four years later. Without Susan to manage his estate his books are starting to go out of print. I don’t believe his writings will disappear entirely, but the day will come when some publisher that does retain rights will look at sales figures and decide it’s not worth the cost to a multi-million dollar corporation to keep a deceased author with a dwindling fan-base in print. Food for thought for all the writers out there concerned with their “legacy” and “creating works that outlast me”. I hate to break it to them/us but the likelihood anyone remembers us or our work after we’re gone is slim to none.
There’s a lyric from Canadian band Metric’s gorgeous song “Breathing Underwater” that sort of encapsulates where my head is at the present. It goes; “I can see the end but it hasn’t happened yet”. That’s where I am in my life. I can see the end. It’s (hopefully) a long way off, but it’s undeniably closer now than it used to be. I still have time and plan to make the most of it, but I know I’m nearer to the end of the road than the beginning. There’s still some great scenery, great moments to come, but that end is coming.
To be clear, I don’t see that as a bad thing. We all make the mistake of believing our lives are infinite. If there’s any regret I have it’s the years I wasted, and the time others wasted for me. Knowing what I do now I would have walked away from people and situations a lot sooner than I did. I won’t make that mistake with the time left to me.
Harlan was once asked what he wanted his epitaph to be, and he replied; “For a brief time I was here, and for a brief time I mattered.” I think that sums up the human experience as succinctly as anything he wrote. Our lives are brief, and over far too soon, but to our loved ones and to the people we touched through what we created, they matter. Writers like Harlan, like myself, try and snatch a little bit of immortality by producing work we hope will outlive us.
But as the years go on, everything fades.
Even words on a page.
ADDENDUM: I will be back next month with part one of a 3-part series I’m calling “Celluloid Heroes”, in which I take a deep dive look at three movies that changed the course of my life, inspired me, or otherwise made their mark. Following that summer series will be a little treat marking the 5th anniversary of my book MAGICIANS IMPOSSIBLE, so make sure you’re here for that. October will feature a piece on another writer with a great influence on my life, the legendary Ray Bradbury, and I may have a few more surprises in store. Stay tuned. Same Brad-time, same Brad-channel.
If I’ve been a little silent as of late it isn’t without good reason. I’ve been up to my neck in work on a new project closely related to my comic book series Mixtape.
I’ll be brief and to the point; I’ve partnered with Little Engine Entertainment to develop Mixtape as a half-hour comedy-drama TV series. That’s right, the further adventures of Jim, Noel, Siobhan, Lorelei, and Terry are (hopefully) coming to the small screen. We (Little Engine and I) are currently in the development phase of the sales pitch that we hope to start taking to broadcasters and production partners this fall, with an eye to rolling into production (again, hopefully) sometime in 2022.
Hope is not a business strategy, and we recognize that. But it seems the age of 80s nostalgia is moving off and the 90s are back “in” again (except to people like me, where the 90s apparently never left). But with some BIG musical anniversaries this year (Lollapalooza, Nevermind, Badmotorfinger, Ten, Use Your Illusion 1 & 2, Screamadelica, Out of Time, Blood Sugar Sex Magick, Trompe Le Monde, Bandwagonesque*) now is probably the best shot we have at grabbing the attention of the people we want to grab.
*Seriously, Google “1991 Albums” and prepare to drop your jaw. 1991 might have been THE year the 90s officially began, culturally anyway.
It’s a long road ahead, and one that might never reach its destination, but we all believe in the project and think it has a better chance of moving forward now than it ever did.
So, that’s where you’re going to find me over the coming months; here, working on Mixtape again. It feels good, if a little strange
To be clear this series is NOT an adaptation of the comic; think of it more as a companion piece to those stories. Each issue of Mixtape captures a small moment in the life of its particular main character, but there’s a lot more story to tell that until now has lurked largely in the margins. new characters, new situations, new music. It’s all there. The pictured title page is actually the first completely “new” Mixtape story I’ve written since completing Volume 1 of the series. My hope is that with a series moving forward I’ll be able to return to the comic book world of Mixtape and complete Volume/Side 2.
But that’s all some time from now. Until then I hope you all have a great summer and I’ll see you in September!