The Carolina Circle Shopping Center opened in 1976. Situated in the northeastern section of Greensboro, North Carolina, it survived in one form or another until 2002. For the year and a bit that I lived in Greensboro from 1985 through summer of 1986 it was the mall I most frequented.
It had a bitchin’ arcade called Tilt…
It had a great first-run movie theater…
It even had an indoor skating rink (the only one to be found in Greensboro at the time).
Later replaced by a Carousel…
It had book stores and record stores and toy stores and others not as appealing to a twelve going-on thirteen year-old. There was a Toys R Us and a K-Mart “out-parcel”, meaning outside the mall structure but close enough to jog across the parking lot to visit. There was even a restaurant and bar called Annabelle’s to draw in the adults. That’s right; adults used to go to the mall to meet up, have dinner and a few drinks, and then go see Schwarzenegger in Commando.
It was a shopping mall; this much is clear and this much is true. But it was also a gathering place with a strong sense of community. There were concerts. There were magic shows. Santa’s Village was there for the holidays, Halloween décor ruled the roost in October, the Easter Bunny made his customary appearance as well.
There was shopping, yes, but you could easily spend several hours there without the expectation of shopping for anything other than a slice of pizza, a New York Seltzer, a few rounds of the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom game at the arcade, and a screening of Back to School with Rodney Dangerfield, Keith Gordon, and Robert Downey, Jr.
You could do all of the above on less than $20 dollars, I might add, and still have money left over to drop on a new G.I. Joe figure or two…
The most memorable visits to the Circle would have been that summer of 1986 when my buddy Mark visited from Toronto for two weeks. I’m certain we went several times as he was blown away by how cool the malls in North Carolina were. And while I hated the year I lived in Greensboro I will still admit that in the summer, the off-school weekends, it wasn’t so bad. My mother would drive us over, I’d arrange to call when we were ready for pick-up, and we’d just go off and explore the place. Unaccompanied, unencumbered by deadlines and time limits. When we’d exhausted all the mall had to offer I’d use my last remaining quarter to call home and fifteen minutes later (we lived close by) the family Pontiac 6000 STE would roll into the lot and we’d head home.
It was a ritual Mark and I knew well. Back when I still lived in Toronto it wasn’t uncommon for my mother or Mark’s to drive us and another friend or two over to the Scarborough Town Center or Fairview Mall to do pretty much the same thing. Get food, see a movie, hit the toy and music stores (Scarborough Town Center also had a bitchin’ hobby store – The Hobby Hut – which was always well-stocked and always overpriced) and if there was an arcade, play video games. We’d spend hours there, and the malls encouraged us to. Not by saying “hey, it’s okay to hang out here and have fun without shopping for something” but not not saying it either.
When I moved to Brockville and eventually got my license, my friends and I made Kingston’s Cataraqui Town Center our preferred mall for movie-going and general goofing off. It was a 45 or so minute drive down the highway and whenever a new movie was playing there that wasn’t at our local cinema, we’d convoyed down the 401, grab tickets for the show a couple hours early then just wander the concourse, grab dinner at the food court, and browse the shops before convening at the theatre to see Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, Point Break, or Predator 2.
Ottawa had (and still has) its downtown Rideau Center, and on school trips to the museums, Parliament Hill, or the National Arts Centre, between arrival and whatever we were there for, we’d be allowed a couple of hours of free time at the Rideau to do whatever we wanted.
Then came Toronto and Film School. The Ryerson Campus was and to this day lies just north and east of the Yonge-Dundas intersection; Toronto’s version of Times Square. The Eaton Centre sits at that intersection and in that first year living in Toronto at the Ryerson residence, meant one of Canada’s largest shopping centers was a short walk away. And again, that ritual of browsing the shops, wandering the concourse, grabbing a bit in one of the food courts, then heading to the Eaton Center’s 18 (!) screen multiplex to take in a show, became one of those regular rituals for my film school buddies and I.
The 2000s were not good times to be a mall. Towns and mid-size cities, seeing how the big suburban malls had decimated their downtowns, incentivized retailers with tax breaks to draw people back to the town square, where that social life of a city first began. The death of the mall was hastened with the rise of online shopping; Amazon, Wal-Mart, Target, and those big retail supercenters resting near highways replaced the experience of going to the mall. These were not an improvement.
In the Carolina Circle case it was a combination of many factors. The mall began to attract an unsavory element; gangs would brawl in the parking lot and sometimes in the shopping center itself, and the Montgomery Ward store became an infamous hangout, apparently, for gay men hoping to engage in some illicit behavior. Families stopped going as a result, and parents wouldn’t allow their teenage kids to venture there unaccompanied. The movie theater closed, the arcade followed, many of the big retailers left. Bye-bye Waldenbooks and Camelot Music. Bye-bye Montgomery Ward and Toys R’Us, bye-bye Belk and Ivy’s and Dillard’s. The big death knell sounded when Radio Shack – “The Shack” being the one retail outlet that never seemed to die – left; if a mall couldn’t sustain a Radio Shack you knew its days were done.
The Carolina Circle officially died in the early 2000s, closing in 2002 and demolished in 2005. The site is still there though; redeveloped into one of those complexes of box stores like Wal-Mart and Lowe’s
Thinking of the many shopping malls of my youth, the Carolina Circle stands out because it seemed to be a mall built for people to gather as much as it was a place to shop. It had the arcade, the rink, the theater, and the book, record, and toy stores. It had places to draw people in not necessarily to buy things but to just be there. It was a place to go where it was impossible to be bored. There was always something to do.
The Fairview Mall and Scarborough Town Center still stand but they’ve been heavily redesigned as well. Fewer record and book and toy stores. Smaller food courts. Nothing so grand as skating rinks and carousels and arcades. These “New Malls” don’t want people to just hang out; they want them to spend money, see to their business efficiently, and go home. Movie theaters were closed or moved to larger state-of-the-art facilities across expansive parking lots. You didn’t even need to go to the mall if you were going to the movies. As a result you didn’t spend your money in those malls either, hastening the departure of the cool, quirky, funky stores that existed solely to draw you in the first place like The It Store, SpyTech and Razz M’Tazz.
It was a different era, both for the stores and shopping opportunities available, but also for all the stuff we could do. If you had nothing going on, you could go to the mall and usually find something; a new book, a new cassette or CD, grab a burger or slice, and see a movie. When we got older and discovered girls the mall became the place we hung out to watch and be watched in return. Rain or shine the mall offered an escape from home and family, especially when your relationship with both was going through a rough patch. It was a meeting place; even the small Thousands Island Mall in Brockville’s north end was a place you could just wander through and be guaranteed to see someone you knew from school, either working there or like you just wandering.
In this 2023 world of ours there’s a great deal of nostalgic longing for the mall experience especially from the generation born after their heyday. At the height of their popularity in the 80s and 90s though many wondered what the appeal of the mall was. Why wander through a sterile shopping environment of chain stores and restaurants? How was a mall better than shopping on your main street, with its shuttered shops, drunks and homeless, and beat cops telling you and your friends to “move along” while stern faced civic leaders and shop-keepers glared down their noses at you? Why?
Because they were fun. George A. Romero’s all-time classic Dawn of the Dead and its thematic derision towards consumer culture gave us the Monroeville Mall post-zombie apocalypse but even then Monroeville looked like a fun place pre-zombie; skating rink, cool elevators, wide expansive spaces big enough for a fleet of motorcycles to drive through. Grocery stores, arcades, fine dining spaces. We could spend the day at Monroeville, Carolina Circle, Cataraqui, and Fairview without buying a thing. We could go grab movie tickets, and have time to kill before showtime, and just wander around. Or after the movie we’d stay, grab dinner at Lime Rickey’s or Shopsy’s and just chillax.
Today’s malls feel different. There are a couple of big ones not too far from where I live. One is kind of fun; it has a couple toy and collectible stores, it has a Lego store, it has a decent food court and it has a Dave & Buster’s. No bookstore though; which is a big detriment as far as I’m concerned. Yes I judge a mall on the basis of a bookstore being present or not.
The one closer to me is the one I call the rich person mall. It’s one I rarely go to because it’s geared solely to the commerce, not the social. There’s no food court, there’s no theater, no books or toys and games; there’s no gathering place and as a result it’s kind of sterile. I rarely visit it unless there’s a specific reason. Maybe that’s by design; the rich like having their little enclaves the rest of the population steers away from, but you’d think a shopping mall would want people to shop there.
Malls are not what they used to be. They are now purely transactional spaces; places of commerce, full stop. You go, you shop, you get out. No loitering, no goofing off with friends. Where are your parents? Don’t make me call security. You aren’t a person in need of distraction, or entertainment, or even community; you are a carbon-based lifeform whose duty is to consume and if you’re not there to do that then you should be someplace else.
Some say good; that malls were bad and we should feel bad for liking them. Better they die out entirely and encourage people to shop closer to home, on Main Street, supporting those local businesses. But even doing so is a strictly commercial activity. You can’t sit on a bench outside for too long or people will think you’re up to something. There may be open air spaces with chairs and tables. The chairs are chained down; the tables and seating have a thirty minute limit. Spent long enough in one place someone will come up to you to beg for change, ask if you’ve accepted Jesus as your lord and savior, or suggest you move on. There are no more arcades because they always did attract an “unsavory element” and besides you have a phone; go play games on that, preferably at home but if not could you turn the noise down because those bleeps and beeps are bothering me.
There’s been a great deal of talk these days about the decline in what has been called the “Third Space”. The social clubs, the bowling alleys, the organizations that people used to go to be with other people, all in decline, and the ones that aren’t charge a premium for use. Malls used to be a Third Space but not anymore. We could spend the day just hanging out, going to the movies, playing video games, seeing friends. But nowadays with more of our socializing done online we’ve been breeding a generation that doesn’t know how to socialize in the real world, and the older generation too has lost that sense of community.
Know what you do see when you go to many malls now? Elderly people. The ones born in the 1930s,1940s, and now early 1950s. The ones who shopped at those malls when they were in their prime; parents with young children in tow. When the malls were a place you could go to meet up with a friend, to shop, have lunch, stroll and browse and just be someplace. As the mall became less central to commerce and the day-to-day the elderly seem to be the ones who still see it as a gathering place, to sit amongst hopefully happy memories and wonder where the time all went. The elderly who still congregate at the mall food court and seating do so because they too have nowhere else to go.
Young people are even turning away from getting that rite of passage known as the Driver’s License. Good in a way, but also a little sad; pollution aside a car represented freedom when I was seventeen. It granted me an independence and my parents allowed me that freedom in part because through those earlier years of being dropped off at the mall or the movies, I always made sure to call when done, or just as often be outside the entrance to The Bay or Towers or Zellers at five sharp for pickup or else. Driving to Kingston with friends to see a movie didn’t require me to “check in” by phone; just that I be home no later than 11:30 or else. My parents even let me drive to Toronto to the first Lollapalooza festival in 1991, without my having any idea where I’d be staying that night, or any ballpark of when I’d be back the following day.
Irresponsible? Maybe, but freedoms such as these did prepare me for college life, more so than a lot of high school classes and prep work did. They encouraged me to be responsible, to be safe, to know how to manage my time even when it was the leisurely sort. But who cares about drivers licenses and access to a car now when you can either Uber or Lyft to a friend’s or have mom or dad drive? But what is more heartbreaking is what they’ll tell you when you ask them why. Why not get a license? Why not choose that freedom?
“Where can we go?” they reply. “There’s nothing at the mall for us to do except spend money we don’t have. There’s no clubs, no arcades; no places to hang out. If we do go, security tells us to move along. We’re treated as a nuisance, as a distraction, as possible thieves. We can watch movies online; we can connect with friends by phone or text. We don’t need to leave home to do any of that.”
And what do we adults say?
“Kids today spend all their time on their phones! They don’t go anywhere or do anything! When I was a kid I’d be out until the street lights were on. We’d go to the movies, to the mall, we’d cruise the street, we’d hang out. What’s wrong with kids these days?”
Yes, these are the same adults who’ll see a group of teenagers hanging out in public and presume they’re up to no good. Out come the phones, in come the cops.
The loss of the Third Place has been documented extensively, most notably so for me in Kristen Radtke’s excellent graphic novel Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness. In her book, Radtke identifies loneliness as the challenge of our time because we are social animals; even the introverts. We all seek some form of connection; some one-on-one communication. And year-by-year we lose a bit more of that skill by using it less.
Yes, there is social media. there’s Facebook and Instagram and Twitter (or whatever they’re calling it this week). But I am not being the biggest fan of handing our daily interactions over to tech companies who exploit that loneliness purely so that can make money off of you. Social media is all about a binary yes or no interaction; and one where the negative far outweighs the positive, exposure-wise.
And that negativity permeates the day-to-day. Think of all those distracted drivers sitting at the light before you, head down, scrolling through the phone in their hands as the light turns green and people start getting impatient. Think of the teenagers gathered around the school entrance, huddled with their heads down, hooked on their phones the way their parents were hooked on cigarettes, trading one addiction for another. Think of every short-tempered, rude person you had the misfortune to deal with because thanks to their online push-button world any irritant or delay sparks rage and not patience and understanding.
I’ve long been fond of saying the brain is like any other muscle; if you don’t flex it now and then it will atrophy. That’s why we challenge ourselves with books, with learning, and, yes, in dealing with other people. Loneliness has an effect on our lives and life expectancy. People can die of loneliness. Loneliness takes a lot out of you and it’s dispiriting to find yourself in a world that seems determined to keep us isolated and lonely all so it can sell us things we don’t need but still buy if only to give our brains that little endorphin hit to keep us going.
I also worry about the people who allow themselves to be poisoned by an increasingly negative online discourse that keeps us isolated and angry by design. Therein lies a cautionary tale for us all because every moment we surrender to anger is one we never get to surrender to joy. What I see are people doing way more of the former than they do with the latter. Anger is addictive. Outrage too. And companies are making money off that anger.
The mall isn’t coming back; not the way they existed in the 70s through the 90s. It’s one of those passing eras that we kind of took for granted, like the video store and the arcade. Those places that were here one moment, and gone the next and over before we realized. The death of the Third Place continues to have lasting impact on us because we need physical spaces for commerce-free interactions.
It’s why I’ve long been a supporter of public libraries. To my mind public libraries are the best thing our society, flawed as it is, has given us. A place we can go without requirement of a door fee or expectation we’re going to spend money. A place we can take our children to story-time, where we can borrow armloads of books, where we can attend lectures and performances and seminars. Where we can just … talk to people, but quietly, please; the librarian told us to. Rain or shine, having a library may not be as exciting as the mall once was (and, frankly, might be again as more people realize the necessity of that Third Space), but it is a place where you can go and be seen and maybe feel a little less lonely.
And so let’s all pour one out for the great shopping malls of our youth, and for me in particular that long-gone Carolina Circle Mall, which for a time provided a refuge for a sad, lonely child not getting along very well with Greensboro. At that mall I felt a little happier, a little more comfortable. There were things to do, movies to see, games to play. It only exists now in my memories and the occasional dream where I’m walking the concourse, feeling that chill as the air temperature drop as I near the skating rink and the arcade just beyond it. I can hear the bleep of video games, I can smell buttered popcorn from the movie theater, and I can sometimes taste the Black Cherry New York Seltzer on my tongue.
But it’s a place I can only visit in dreams and that’s sad. We spend so much of our childhoods trying to run away from home and so much of our adult lives trying to run back but like so many things, once a place, a time, or a moment are gone they don’t return quite so easily …
Being a child of the 70s puts me squarely in Generation X territory. Those kids born between 1965 and 1980. The ones who grew up with TV, a single landline telephone, and playgrounds of steel and concrete and concussions. But the Generation X experience is not uniform. Not indeed is any generational experience for that matter. A Baby Boomer born in 1947 likely had a much different experience growing up versus one born in 1962. And so an Xer born in 1967 had a different experience than one born in 76 or 77. The early Xer grew up watching Banana Splits and The Incredible Hulk and CHiPs. They grew up with Led Zeppelin and Foghat, with the Bee Gees and Donna Summer, with The Jam and The Clash. A child born in the mid 70s would have grown up with Duran Duran, U2, Culture Club, MTV, Spielberg movies, Freddy Kruger, and the earliest days of the internet.
Point is, that early X-er era had a much more 70s upbringing than the ones born in the 70s. Their brains were developed enough to come home, grab some fresh-mixed Freshie from the fridge, click the TV dial over reruns of Gilligan’s Island and Batman on the local affiliate, or go to their bedrooms and and tune their radios to the local rock or disco stations while they half-assed their way through the day’s cursive homework and consulting textbooks printed and in circulation since 1946. For those of us born in the 70s, the 70s were and would remain terminally uncool through the 80s and into the 90s. The 70s were tacky and tasteless and kitschy, with bad hair, bad fashions, and bad music. A punchline, along with hippies, greasers (outside of Arthur Fonzarelli- he did jump a shark after all), The Village People, and 8-Track cassette.
And to talk about why, we need to talk about Quentin.
Compared to the 1980s, the 1990s are regarded as a golden era for American cinema. gone was the schlock excess of the worst of 80s cinema. this was the era of the indie film, of Miramax and New Line, Artisan, of bold new voices in film like Richard Linklater (Dazed & Confused), Allison Anders (Gas, Food, Lodging), David O. Russell (Spanking The Monkey), P.T. Anderson (Hard Eight), Wes Anderson (Bottle Rocket), Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi), and many more. Some made a big splash, others faded into the wood-work. But I would correct that belief, and say that in the 90s movies didn’t necessarily get better compared to the 80s but they did sound better. This was when old theaters were retrofitting with THX and Dolby Digital sound, new theaters were being build with stadium seating and state of the art sound systems. And the movies responded with aggressive sound mixes that really took advantage of having a 24 track playback system to blow the roof off of.
I saw this when I worked at a video store in the Toronto suburbs, full time in the summers, part-time during school to help pay for my college education, this towards the tail end of that time when you could pay for a semester plus of schooling, rent, and food, on a part time job (I still graduated with student loans to pay off but nowhere near to the amount classmates did). This was one of the only stores in the city that rented and sold Laserdiscs, a creaky format now but at the time state of the art.
And so you’d have these guys coming in to buy or rent movies that … weren’t particularly great. Stuff like Anaconda and Species and that Charlie Sheen skydiving movie. Not good movies, but the sound mix was spectacular. And these were guys, always guys, who’d invested in the big screen plasma TV set, the surround sound Dolby Prologic AC3 THX sound system, and they wanted to show it off. They invited friends and family, made popcorn, and had a movie night in the comfort of their own home.
So nom 90s movies weren’t necessarily better than 80s ones. And I would argue that today, the movies of the 80s hold more of the imagination than 90s cinema does. They were more varied, more diverse. There were more companies making movies that actually got into theaters. Orion, Carolco, New World, New Line, Canon, Vestron; those companies that went under or were bought out. They were scrappier, the movies were quirkier. Starting in the 90s that all changed, the smaller companies disappeared and we were left with the big studios. Fox, Universal, Paramount, Warner’s. Columbia Tri-Star. United Artists in name only.
And the movies followed, more corporate, less independent. For all their considerable crimes against decency it makes you miss Miramax and Dimension Films, whose track record was more miss than hit, but they were still chipping away at the studios. The 90s saw growing consolidation, the smaller scrappier production companies and studios fall by the wayside. It was the movie version of the Telecommunications Act doing the conglomerates’ dirty work. Like the great indie radio stations that broke Hip Hop and Alternative Rock and Grunge were subsumed by Clear Channel and I Heart Radio, the sharp edges filed away, those quirky unique voices stifled and buried beneath mounds of corporate newspeak.
[Not just in the US mind you – Canada has always followed the path trod by its older sibling. Canada and Toronto of the 80s and 90s had Much Music, YTV, and a host of independent TV stations. Now? Well, They all exist in some form but they are not the same.]
This is why Reservoir Dogs was such a lightning bolt for me and my film school friends. Toronto in 1992 felt like what San Francisco and Berkley must have felt like in 1966 going into 1967, or what Greenwich Village must have felt like to a NYU Freshman in 1961 – the epicenter of the universe. Reservoir Dogs premiered at TIFF the year I began film school. The musical revolution we were all seeing as Generation X asserted itself sonically was making its way over to the film world, and indie film, not studio films, were where things were exciting. Heck, the Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series prompting thousands to pack Yonge Street, then two whole blocks from where I was living.
While technically a late stage boomer, Quentin Tarantino’s story is the prototypical GenX story. The latchkey single child of divorce, raised on TV in the wilds of LA while mom worked. A troubled youth, struggling in school, whose education came in watching movies over and over again. Working as a video store clerk in the now infamous Manhattan Beach Video alongside up and coming filmmakers Roger Avery and Craig Hamann.
Much of this is detailed, by the way, in Tarantino’s non-fiction book CINEMA SPECULATION, which I recently read. If you ever wanted to hear Tarantino opine on the legacy of his favorite era of film (the 70s) and some of those films – The Getaway, Bullitt, Taxi Driver, The Funhouse, Daisy Miller, Rolling Thunder, and more, I’m told there’s also an audiobook.
My tangential connection to QT came through my manager, his former manager Cathryn Jaymes. She helped usher him into the Hollywood system, beating the street and pounding on doors and putting his screenplays in front of producers and execs. Of course, once he was a certified star he dropped Cathryn because he didn’t need her to open doors. Yet despite all that bad blood to her dying day Cathryn still spoke highly of his work, once offering me a copy of his Inglorious Basterds screenplay a few years before the film came out. He had talent, she said, but he was an asshole. I can’t disagree. I do like his films despite the crappy way he treated people I liked. But that’s hardly the only case in my checkered career.
But to paint a picture of those early 90s years means painting a picture of my life circa 1992. Being in Toronto at RU meant being within close proximity to what must have been forty movie screens. Eaton Center, Uptown and Backstage, Plaza, Carleton, Varsity, that one on Queen. Those were walking distance. Beyond you had rep theaters The Bloor, The Paradise, The Royal, The Roncesvalles, The Revue. You had the Chinatown theaters, you had screenings at U of T and Ryerson. Toronto was a movie town and still the best movie town I ever lived in (and I’ve lived in NYC).
[It was also a music town. Don’t believe me? In my first four months of college alone I saw The Beat Happening, Grasshopper, Henry Rollins, Ministry, Stone Temple Pilots, Alice In Chains, Sonic Youth, Teenage Fanclub, Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, Lowest of the Low, hHead, Mudhoney, Malhavok and probably a whole lot more musicians than I can easily recall now. Subsequent years would have me see Nirvana, Soul Asylum, The Breeders, Belly, Juliana Hatfield, PJ Harvey, Smashing Pumpkins, The Beastie Boys, Jesus and Mary Chain, Primus, Rage Against The Machine, Alice In Chains (again) and several consecutive years of Lollapalooza]
Now you have barely half that number of movie screens. Of the aforementioned The Varsity and the Carleton are all that remains. The rest were bulldozed and turned into condominiums. Downtown excitement was once just footsteps away but they paved paradise and put up a high-rise. Even the Yonge-Dundas epicenter died out. The big record stores like HMV, Sam the Record Man, A&A Records, the video arcades and head shops are all gone now too, replaced with bubble tea and vape shops. Everything has this grey paint wash on it, the color has been drained from everything. The busiest intersection in Canada now resembles any number of box stores. yes there’s street life, but it’s more a case of you getting from one building to another.
We were a different breed – Generation X. No way would we buy into the mainstream acceptance the way Gens Y and Z seem to want to. We hated being marketed too. Now it’s taken as an insult and a micro aggression when you’re not. We got old, we got sadly conservative. I recently read a poll saying more than 53% of currently registered Republican voters* identify demographically as Generation X. That is what really blows my mind and simultaneously bums me out. That people my age, who grew up on Star Wars and Steven Spielberg, who rocked out to The Cars and U2 and Nirvana and Lollapalooza, who were the first to go online, who snarked their way through South Park and Beavis and Butthead could becomes so mainstream and middle-class. Watching concert footage of those punky kids with the nose rings and hot pink hair-dye and trying to mentally age them up to forty and fifty-somethings with a suburban house, two SUVs and three kids, watching FOX News or whatever the Canadian equivalent is and letting the hatred algorithm drive them further away from the person they wanted to be.
As far as why Gen X made its mark when it did I would argue that it all boils down to demographics. While technically a late-stage Baby Boomer, Tarantino came of age in the 70s and early 80s so by the time the 90s rolled around he and filmmakers, storytellers, and musicians of his ilk with the similar shared cultural experience of Saturday morning Cartoons, Drive-In theaters, MTV, quirky syndicated TV stations and independent rock radio had “matured enough” to the point where the money-holders realized there was an untapped audience of young adults out there who grew up with the same touchstones. In other words, there’s a reason the 18-34 year old demographic is so favored by Madison Avenue ad companies.
Generation X was the first generation to grow up in a world with TV and music videos. Gens Y and Z had those same things, yes, but they had the internet as well, and it was the internet more than anything else that took what was once a shared cultural experience and splintered it into a thousand little subcultural pieces. In other words once MTV and Much Music stopped playing music videos, once YouTube and Spotify and streaming services became the norm, the idea of mass-media as a unifier died and was buried.
Reservoir Dogs felt like a signpost telling the world that things were going to be different. The Hollywood mainstream pap wasn’t going to cut it with GenX anymore. We were Smells Like Teen Spirit, not Teen Spirit the deodorant.
We were so naïve.
Because a few years later Cobain was dead and Tarantino next film, Pulp Fiction, won the Palm D’Ore at Cannes and became a genuine box office hit. A mainstream hit. He wouldn’t make a film like Reservoir Dogs again (though The Hateful Eight came close). But there was still that brief moment where it felt like we were taking over. That things would change.
The intervening thirty years have been good for QT. The rest of us not so much.
Every generation wants to change the world, especially when it is young. But the world is what changes us. It gives us experiences, it imparts its hard, sometimes harsh lessons upon us and one way we wake up and realize just how much time has passed. We seem to live in this state much of our lives where things like death and decline, aging and disease, occupy this almost abstract place in our minds. We’re aware of them but they seem nebulous, difficult to nail down or contextualize, until friends and family begin to pass away.
That’s the place I’m at right now. Depressing? Yes, but it is what it is and I can’t change that.
I feel increasingly distant from the world I once grew up in. Visiting Toronto last summer was a humbling experience. The city looked the same, the streets looked the same, but everything had changed. Towers stood where corner stores once sat. My muscle memory of being a Torontonian remained, but it was like I was walking and driving streets that were erected upon the ghostly remnants of my life. Close but not close enough.
You realize as you get older how temporary everything is. Your life, those milestones. The people whose lives you intersected with for only a brief while. old friends and family now gone. The old neighborhood restaurant hangout you once frequented is now condominiums. This can be depressing but in a way I feel liberated by it at the same time. That those things you fret and stress about turn out to be nothing. The part time job that made your life hell goes under, goes bankrupt, whatever.
In my mind the most important film of Tarantino’s career after Reservoir Dogs would be his last, most recent film Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.
Here’s a film set during Tarantino’s childhood of 1969 (he was born in 1963) that must still hold the same romance, the same nostalgia, as those early Toronto years of the 1990s now hold for me. A film told from the older, wiser perspective compared to the young angry man of 1992. A eulogy and an elegy to an era that was here for a moment, consigned to history the next.
For me those years and Reservoir Dogs‘ place in my memory were were a very brief moment when the world seemed a much more unknowable place. Where it felt like the big adult journey of my life was beginning which, in a way, it was. There’s a very long thread connecting the here and now to the way back when. But each year it gets a little more frayed, those years a little more distant before eventually fading altogether.
And so, as Nick Caraway said in The Great Gatsby, we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
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
Welcome to the third and final* installment of Celluloid Heroes; my look back at the movies and moviemakers that inspired me to become a storyteller. Parts 1 and 2 can be read by clicking the links. In this case I actually do recommend reading in order. Got it? Good.
As a writer I get asked a lot of writer questions. About my work, about my process. But sometimes I get asked more personal things. Who’s my favorite author, for example.
Living would be Joe R. Lansdale.
Deceased? Harlan Ellison.
Favorite short story is Miss Gentilbelle by Charles Beaumont, with Godzilla’s Twelve-Step Program by Joe Lansdale a close second.
Favorite novel is Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, with JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit a runner up.
Favorite comic book series? That would be Larry Hama’s original run of GI Joe: A Real American Hero. Favorite comics miniseries is Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s From Hell.
Looking at the above you’ll see I skew towards the genre side of things. Genre fiction over literary. That’s just my preference.*
*and before someone chimes in with “that’s very fine and well, Brad, but were there really no women authors who inspired you” I owe an unpayable debt to the works of Judy Blume and Beverley Cleary; two genuine titans of literature who wrote the first books I truly, truly loved at a time I began to love reading. I wouldn’t be the writer I am today without them.
Which brings us to Stephen King.
King is a genre to himself and I always make sure to read whatever he puts out. His latest, Fairy Tale, will, I’m sure, be no exception. I’ve read most if not all he’s written, though I confess I’ve always struggled to get through his Dark Tower series. The first King novel I ever read was The Dead Zone. That was followed by It, Needful Things, Misery, and the four short novels contained within The Bachman Books (“Rage” and “The Long Walk” being my favorites from that collection). I actually didn’t get to his “best” books until much later, when during a summer spent working in Niagara Falls in the 1990s I made regular trips to a local used bookstore to grab TheStand, Pet Semetery, ‘Salem’s Lot and The Shining.
Yet there’s one King story I keep revisiting, the one I’ve probably re-read more than any of the others:
Which became the basis for this movie:
The reasons for both is something of an origin story.
My origin story.
As close to an autobiography as I’m ever to pen.
It’s 1986. I’ve just turned 13 years old. We’ve been living in North Carolina and it hasn’t been a great experience. Probably the worst year and a bit of my life. To this day I dislike the Southern USA precisely because of that year in the Tarheel State, despite some of the warmest, friendliest, all around nicest people I’ve ever known being from the south. I just wasn’t a good fit. In my previous home and neighborhood, I did fit. I had friends, I was happy. Content. I could have remained there forever, or at least until I graduated high school. And, to be honest, when we were told by my dad we were moving to North Carolina I was looking forward to it. We’d been told this was to be a two-year “loan” assignment from my dad’s company to another company that was a subsidiary of it. We didn’t even sell our house; the plan was to live in North Carolina for two years then move back to the same house, the same street, the same neighborhood on the suburbs of Toronto to resume life (spoiler alert: never happened).
So North Carolina was not a good fit. If you want that background before we continue I’d rather you click here and read that than make me reiterate the reasons why here. The one rare bright spot of being friendless in Greensboro was that in Greensboro I really became a movie fan. More like an obsessive. I must have seen a new movie every week. New release, second-run repeats, and weekly trips to the video store. I did a lot of movie watching at home, thanks to the whole “not having friends” thing. I also re-watched these movies, and began to notice things like motifs and symbolism and themes. That movies could be about more than just “plot” and “story” was a divine secret learned at the foot of our VCR which was actually, yes, a Betamax.
So the short version of North Carolina; I survived. And I got a boost when my dad announced we were returning to Canada a year early, though unfortunately not to our old neighborhood, for him to take a big promotion. I almost didn’t care; I just wanted to get the hell out of Greensboro. We moved back to Canada in August of 1986, a couple of weeks before I was due to start school. In those two weeks we got our feet wet in our new town, and that included a trip to the local cinema (we only had two in 1986, soon to become only one 2-screen theater).
That movie was Stand by Me.
Now at the time I didn’t know it was based on a Stephen King story. At that time I hadn’t read Stephen King. I only knew him as the guy who’s name was mentioned in the TV commercials for Christine, Cat’s Eye, Firestarter, Cujo, and, yes, the 1986 stinker Maximum Overdrive (filmed in, you guessed it, North Carolina). So, when “based on the novella by Stephen King” appeared at the end I, like most in the audience, was surprised. Stephen King was a horror writer. He wrote scary books about possessed cars, possessed dogs, girls who set things on fire with her mind (a mind possibly possessed). And here he’d written a story about four twelve-going-on-thirteen years-old boys that felt real and genuine. They felt like real kids. It felt like me and my old friends in Toronto, having an adventure, wandering the woods and fields, smoking cigarettes and bragging about non-existent sexual conquests. Stand By Me almost made me wish I could go searching for a dead body with my friends.
As soon as I was able I trekked to the local used bookstore in town, searched for, and grabbed their worn copy of Different Seasons, the collection that contains “The Body” along with other notable King shorts Apt Pupil and Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. I read The Body first, and must say to really get to the dark heart of the story you really need to read the novella. As grim as Stand by Me can be at times, it’s a bright and sunny fairy tale compared to the novel, which carries a much darker, much more mournful tone. The Gordie (Wil Wheaton) of the movie is a troubled, sad kid whose friends become his lifeline and his family. There’s tragedy in the future death of best pal Chris (played by the equally tragic River Phoenix), and a gradual drifting apart with Teddy (Corey Feldman) and Vern (Jerry O’Connell), but the movie ends sweetly, with the adult Gordie (Richard Dreyfuss, who also narrates) fulfilling a promise to his twelve-year old son to take him and a friend swimming. The child of 1959 now an adult in 1986, striving to be a better parent to his son than his parents were to him.
The Body is not the same story. The skeleton is the same, but the flesh and muscle is bruised, battered and scarred. I won’t spoil things for those of you who haven’t read it, but the tragedies in The Body; about growing up, growing older, of death, area lot more cutting. Friends die; old bullies and tormenters live on. It was as if King had channeled the early teenage experience, identified why “he never had the friends like he did when he was twelve”, but also acknowledged that those friendships inevitably faded with time. People grow up. They move on. They move away. And they die too young.
I think of Stand By Me a lot these days as I get closer to my fifties. As a father to a young child, a son with the same wanderlust I had and still do. As an adult who’s faced the untimely passing of several high school era friends and acquaintances in recent years. But I also think of my father, who really loved Stand By Me and recommended it others constantly. He may have loved it more than any movie I’d ever seen him love. I think in part because of the era but also the timing. He was born in 1947 so he would have been the same age as Gordon, Chris, Ted, and Vern in that year 1959. Stand By Me he saw at age 39, then father to a child the same age – 12 going on 13 – as the kids in screen, the same age he was that summer. I think he came to be more introspective about his youth back then. The friends he had. The ones he’d lost touch with. The ones he’d lost along the way.
Both the book and movie really lean into that line about the friends you had when you were twelve, and when I did begin school that fall and found I made friends – a lot of them, actually – quite easily, a part of me knew that those friendships wouldn’t last the test of time, but in that case I was wrong. While in NC I was friendless (and really doubt if anyone I attended that one year of school with even remember my name), but the Brockville years would introduce me to new faces, some of whom I’m still friends with to this day. Heading into the back third of my life I find myself thinking about those years more and more. Especially with Mixtape, which is firmly set in and about those years where a teenager becomes an adult and learns that growing up frequently means saying goodbye.
I think Stand By Me and The Body were really what sparked my interest in becoming a storyteller. More so than Star Wars and Indiana Jones, more than Back to the Future and Terminator 2 and the big genre movies of my youth that I still unabashedly love. Both that novella and that adaptation of it showed me that my seemingly normal, mundane, everyday life possessed moments of grace, of beauty, of joy. That being “normal” and “average” was not a death sentence. That my life mattered.
That last statement – my life and the moments within mattering – forms the crux of this Celluloid Heroes series. I realize a lot of this is Generation X philosophizing, casting fond golden hued looks back at a period in life that seems a lot more sunny than it probably was. I recognize my nostalgic gaze isn’t so dissimilar to my parents’ generation looking back on their youth, the same way millennials now likely look back on the early 2000s with the same wistfulness. Everybody does it, and the ones currently complaining about it likely do the same when the doors are closed. I would argue that looking at where you came from is important to find the best way forward, for who are we but the sum of our experiences and memories?
The music of my parents’ generation is beginning to fade. Take a spin around terrestrial radio and you’re unlikely to hear Buddy Holly (unless it’s the Weezer song from 1994). Give it another ten years and fifties culture will largely be forgotten, glimpsed only in the movies of the 80s that people still remember. And even then I know that the cultural touchstones of my youth will not outlive me by very much either. Everything passes in the end. Everything, as Kink himself wrote, is eventual.
They say that among a lot of artistic types it’s a fundamental unhappiness that drives a lot of creation; like we’re all trying to rewrite the unhappier parts of our childhoods, where we can be the cool kids, the quick wits, the people everybody likes. While I certainly have grappled with my own moments of dreary darkness, I feel that my life and the experiences I’ve had – the good and the terrible – all shaped me into the writer I’ve become. One whose work still grapples with the overall theme of my life; looking for a place to call home.
Fortunately for me I found a place where I belong. And it was these movies – these three Celluloid Heroes in particular – that helped me find that way home.
*I’ve enjoyed writing this series and a whole lot of you have enjoyed reading it too so I think this is one I will revisit in the future.
“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.