October Country

October is my favorite month of the year. The month where the blast-furnace heat of summer has finally departed, where the days are shorter, the air crisper, the autumnal colors exploding everywhere. Where I can wear that jacket that makes me look cool.

And of course, October is Halloween month. Not day – month. That’s when I turn my personal preferences in media – film, TV, books – changes to the strange, the dark, the unusual. Halloween is the one holiday-that-isn’t that everyone is free to celebrate in his/her/their own way.

I would argue that to know the truly inherent kindness of people, look to Halloween. That one night of the year where people will decorate their homes and give out candy to children with promise of nothing in return other than spreading about a little bit of magic and wonder before the long, dark onset of winter. Unlike Christmas and Easter and the religious holidays Halloween is for everyone. There’s no agenda, no moralizing – well, except for the religulous (NOT a typo) types who loudly – always loudly – proclaim we’re going to hell for giving some snack-size M&Ms to a kid dressed as Peppa Pig.

Halloween month for me is always a magical time. It always has been, from when I was a young tyke in a home-made Darth Vader costume cobbled together from Glad trash bags and a store-bought mask, to a teenager whose Halloween night meant watching horror movies with friends, to the now parent of a child who anticipates Trick or Treating with almost as much delight as his father does.

Yet October represents another seasonal moment in my life, recurrent since I was around twelve going on thirteen, as October is the month I will inevitably drag out my old paperback copy of this book for an annual reread:

Something Wicked This Way Comes is the book I’ve read more than any other. Something Wicked may be my favorite book solely because it’s had an outsized influence on my own writing. Not directly (though it is referenced in Magicians Impossible) but thematically.

Looking at my work (Mixtape in particular), Something Wicked is the one that’s left the deepest mark. Not for the magic and mystery, nor the terrors of Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show, its hall of mirrors, its Dust Witch, its cursed carousel.

No, it’s for the central relationships in the novel.

I’ve been thinking of Something Wicked a lot lately for many reasons, not the least of which was a trip back home over the summer that saw us driving through the small town where I lived out my teenage years (the same town that became basis for Garrison Creek – the town where Mixtape is set). There’s something about revisiting the places of your youth; the places you couldn’t wait to leave, only to now wish, in some small way, you could return to. As Teo Stone in Magicians Impossible described, “You spend half your life trying to run away from home and the rest of your life trying to run back to it.”

Seeing my old stomping grounds was an experience. A sad one in some ways. The old town hasn’t done so well in the years since I lived there. Factories closed, people moved. Indeed it is one of a select number of small-to-mid-sized towns in that part of the country that experienced negative population growth. When I lived there in the late 80s and early 90s its population sat at around 21,000 people. Today in 2022 its population sits at … around 22,000 people. That’s thirty years of negative growth. People grew up, they moved away, and the aging population just … left. Some relocated, some moved, some passed away.

In a way I wish I hadn’t visited it at all. I wanted to preserve the memory of what it was, not what it had become. The same feeling carried itself with me when I was able to reconnect with some high school friends during that same holiday, the six of us convening at a patio in Toronto’s west end. It had been years since I’d seen any of them – one I hadn’t seen or spoken to in nearly 25 years. The last time that group had all been together at the same time in the same place would have been the night before we all left that small-town for the big city, for college, for the beginnings of our adult lives. THAT particular night had occurred almost 30 years earlier to the date we met again on the Danforth.

It was a fun gathering but again, a little sad. Thirty years ago we were all teenagers at the beginning of our adult lives. Thirty years from now, well, the odds are good we won’t all be here anymore. Hard and sad but true. The fact that over the past year a good half-dozen people I’ve known or known of have passed away really hits hard. People I went to school with. Spouses and parents of friends and colleagues, and people even closer than that

Something Wicked is about that impulse as stated by Teo Stone – that we spend half our lives trying to run away from home and the rest of those lives trying to run back to it in some fashion, right down to those childhood touchstones – the movies, the books, the music – that got us through those sometimes difficult times. It’s about looking past the borders of your home, your neighborhood, your small little piece of the world, anxiously stepping over that threshold, only to look back and see that single step has carried you miles from there. In distance. In years. In experience.

On the surface, Something Wicked This Way Comes is a story principally of two thirteen year-old friends, Jim and Will, and their harrowing experiences with the mysterious and enigmatic Mr. Dark of Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show. However, the novel also touches on several of the townsfolk of Green Town, Illinois, who all must struggle with one of the oldest conflicts known to humankind; a deal too good to be true. A devil’s bargain. It’s the story of Faust, set in Depression-era America. A place that, at the time of Something Wicked‘s publication in 1962 was as far removed from that present day as the 1990s are today. No doubt there were some in the early years of the space age who looked back on the 1930s with a wistfully golden nostalgia; Rod Serling’s work on The Twilight Zone in particular demonstrated this in stories like “Walking Distance” (my personal favorite TZ story) and “A Stop In Willoughby”. The shanty-towns, dustbowl, and Hoovervilles of the dirty thirties never made an appearance. In Bradbury’s case he both looks back at those childhood years with fondness but also acknowledges the darkness of an insular small-town upbringing. It’s the flip-side to Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”, and the current waves of nostalgia masquerading as content we see today on Disney Plus.

Curiously the so-so filmic adaptation is *not* on Disney Plus despite being a Disney film …

That’s the premise. The story, however, is of these two friends, Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway, both thirteen, both unaware that life is already pulling them apart. Will (whose last name – Halloway, recalls both Halloween and “away” meaning he’s destined for greater things) born just before midnight on October 30. Jim, born just after 12:01am on October 31st is the Nightshade; the Dionysian opposite of his friend. the troubled kid. The kid who’ll never amount to anything but trouble (and yes, the kid knows this). Yet these two are friends for life, but life is, as always, far too fleeting and much too brief.

Second, more importantly, is the relationship between Will Halloway and his by then middle-age father Charles. The book is written as a reflection from an adult Will, meaning by the time of its telling Charles is no doubt long in his grave. Charles is old for a parent to a thirteen year-old and knows it, like Will knows himself. He’s janitor at the local library (the so-so 1984 film adaptation starring Jason Robards – a movie which led me to seek out the book – re-cast him as the town librarian, presumably because janitors couldn’t be heroes in the 1980s). Charles mourns his youth, and fears the coming years of his health failing while his only son is still young. Charles of course, is the real hero of the tale, which becomes as much about defeating the insidious Mr. Dark as it is in Will saving Charles, and Charles saving everyone else. Something Wicked is about the end of childhood, and the realization that not every friendship stays with you. It’s also about the realization that your parents will someday pass on and make you truly an orphan.

I think of this book at this time of year, every year. But this year in particular its bite is a little deeper. Death has been making more frequent appearances in my life. This year in particular has reminded me of autumn, of final goodbyes before winter’s onset. The older generation, my parents generation, the Baby Boomers passing away.

It echoes what I wrote about back in August, about the movie Stand By Me and the novella it’s based on. Stephen King’s work is full of Bradbury’s influence – note the blurb on the book cover further up – though perhaps a little less whimsical; the depression era Green Town Illinois, replaced by the vampiric ‘Salem’s Lot and the haunted Overlook Hotel. King, that master of horror, made a career of charting childhood innocence and the loss of it, in Gordy, Chris, Vern, and Teddy from The Body but also Danny Torrance from The Shining and the Losers Club from It. I started reading King because I was a fan of horror. I became a fan of King because of his writing so succinctly captured life’s little triumphs and tragedies. Of being young, and seeing the adult world encroaching like a freight train on a railway trestle. Of those four friends – Gordie and Chris, Teddy and Vern – and that one fateful weekend in 1959 and how it represented the beginning of the end of that once close friendship.

Something Wicked now reminds me of myself and my relationship with my son, who’s at that age now where he’s able to take his bike and go riding with his friends, to have adventures in our little suburban corner of the world. I watch him ride off and hope he’s careful and mindful of traffic, but also that he not ride his bike too quickly. To not make those wheels spin so fast that sooner than either of us realizes it he’s left home. The carousel at the heart of Bradbury’s novel can make the old young and the young old, but only on the outside; the mind remains the same. A child could age into an adult but posses none of the wisdom of adulthood. An elderly woman can return to their youthful self, though plagued by the loss of memory, the slowing of thought, the onset of dementia and senility. Bradbury’s warning here is to enjoy where you were in life, be you child, middle-aged, or elderly.

Being the older-than-the-average parent to a child still in his single digits weighs heavy on those 3am wakeups. At the same time I think of all the experiences yet to come and realize the key to remaining young at heart is to be in the presence of the young. The ones who still taking delight at the sight of a bird, or an inch-worm, who still believes in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, that this heartbreaking world of ours can still contain some magic. 

I often wondered what became of Will and Jim. Will was clearly not long for Green Town. You could sense he was destined for greater things, and the fact that the book is written as a recollection an older Will is making of that fateful October many years before. Jim, however, probably stayed. Living, working, aging, and dying in that little patch of rural Illinois. Maybe he lived a long life, certainly long enough to see his town, his world change. Maybe he met someone, married, and started a family of his own. Maybe he lived old enough to see his children and their friends grow up, grow older, and move away. Left behind as one of those people who just stayed there, to age and watch the town he knew change, and the people he loved pass on and pass away. Living in a town and a time rapidly becoming another phantom, another shade of what once was.

And Will? Well, he clearly became a writer. He became Ray Bradbury, author of The Martian Chronicles, A Sound of Thunder, The Halloween Tree, The Illustrated Man, and Fahrenheit 451. But I wonder if Ray too, in his later years, thought back to the friends he had, the people he knew, that small town of his that grew and changed so much it wasn’t his anymore. Just a place occupied by shades of memory. 

It’s the same reason my old hometown still holds a piece of mental real estate for me. Not a grave, but a memory of what once was. It was shocking and a little sad to see and hear second-hand through an old acquaintance how the town had fallen on hard times after we all left. This friends’ mother was a teacher who witnessed first-hand generational poverty, in the faces of the kids she taught before her retirement, the off-spring of the children she’d taught at the start of her career. Still trapped in that vicious circle.  

There’s a song by the Kinks (naturally) I keep coming back to, called “Do You Remember, Walter?” In the song Ray Davies’ narrator recalls an old school friend, wondering what became of him. Ray wrote the song at age twenty-three; quite prescient for a rock and roll song. But the lyric that jumps out at me is the one that goes —

Do you remember, Walter, how we said we’d fight the world so we’d be free?
We’d save up all our money and we’d buy a boat and sail away to sea
But it was not to be
I knew you then but do I know you now?

Walter. Jim and Will. The Losers Club. Gordy and Chris, Teddy and Vern.

My old friends. Some still here, still friends in the day-to-day, but many more of them forgotten. Some not here at all.

The people you share that ride on the carousel with for a time, but eventually they climb off and resume their lives, the common experience of being together fading as you move off and move on with your life.

But memories still remain, whispers in the night reminding you that we’re all on the same journey. Unlike Cooger and Dark’s carousel there’s but one way forward; a journey every one of us takes. But what we do on that ride … that’s up to us.

ADDENDUM:

So a commenter – hi Bailey – asked if I was doing the “31 Days of Halloween” Movie-TV challenge (in which you attempt to watch one movie or horror-themed TV show a day for the 31 days of October. As it happens this year was the first year I attempted it. But to make things more challenging I decided to watch only horror-spooky movies and TV I had NEVER seen before so it was all new. I did all of that, my reward would be a viewing of John Carpenter’s The Thing on Halloween night (a movie I have seen and numerous times). As of this writing I did it – 30 never-before seen spooky entertainments in 30 days:

  1. Old (2021)
  2. Candyman (2021)
  3. Firestarter (2022)
  4. Children of the Corn (1984)
  5. Little Monsters (2018)
  6. Mr. Harrigan’s Phone (2022)
  7. X (2022)
  8. Hellraiser (2022)
  9. Carrie (2013)
  10. Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark (2021)
  11. Hotel Transylvania (2013)
  12. Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2022)
  13. In The Tall Grass (2019)
  14. My Best Friends Exorcism (2022)
  15. XX (2017)
  16. Dead Calm (1989)
  17. Dracula Untold (2014)
  18. Halloween Kills (2021)
  19. The Sandman (Netflix Series)
  20. Dahmer (Netflix Series)
  21. Hotel Transylvania 2 (2015)
  22. Monster House (2006)
  23. My Friend Dahmer (2017)
  24. A Monster Calls (2021)
  25. The Midnight Hour (1985)
  26. Sometimes They Come Back (1991)
  27. Willard (2003)
  28. Peninsula (2020)
  29. The Black Phone (2021)
  30. Boo! (1980)
  31. The Thing (1982)

Celluloid Heroes Part III: Different Seasons

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 The Stand, 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. 

TV series is coming along, thanks for asking …

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.

NEXT MONTH:

Wonderboy

“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).

Pictured: 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.

The Picco Incident

“Art is never finished – merely abandoned.” – Leonardo Da Vinci

So way back in 2012 I did some script work on a little sci-fi indie called The Picco Incident for Little Engine Entertainment. This was to be a “found footage” sci-fi thriller about a family menaced by extraterrestrials. Coming at the tail end of the FF era of low-budget horror, it was filmed in 2012.

Then … nothing. Stuff happened. Life happened.

Little Engine did what they could to push Picco, to get people interested. but I think the timing was just off for yet another found footage film. That despite the fact that as scripted this FF thriller had a twist to it that – to my knowledge – no other FF film had done to that point (or since, for that matter).

Regardless, it sat on the shelf for a long time. Almost ten years in fact. Long enough to become a period piece about life in 2012.

So needless to say I was quite surprised when, late last year, the folks at Little Engine notified me that Picco was finally coming out, as a re-cut, re-conceived web series to debut on the Sci-Fi Central YouTube Channel:

I haven’t seen it yet but I’m told it’s quite different from the movie we shot ten years ago. I’m quite looking forward to it. The seven-episode series (episodes about ten minutes a piece) begins airing … right now, actually:

So I encourage each and every one of you to check out the first episodes and bookmark the channel. A new installment will drop every two weeks.

UPDATE:

So far The Picco Incident is getting great numbers; almost 20,000 views of the first two episodes in less than a week, which is fantastic for a web-series with largely unknown cast and crew. I’ll continue to update this post with links to each new episode as it drops.

To that end, here’s Episode 2:

Episode 3:

Episode 4:

Episode 5:

Episode 6:

Episode 7:

UPDATE update:

The Picco Incident’s seven chapters have been viewed collectively over 100,000 times in the first month. Thanks to everybody who watched!

This Time Tomorrow

As long-time readers of this blog will testify, I’m a guy who likes music. I write about it, I wrote a comic book about it, and I’m currently writing a TV series based on that comic book that will naturally feature much of the music of my youth.

Coming to TV screens everywhere in 2023. Hopefully

The challenge with all of this is listening to that music. The music I grew up with. There are so many memories tied to those songs and bands and albums that forging new memories to accompany those soundtracks proves to be more difficult the older I get. I’ll always think of a lengthy bus ride to Stratford, Ontario anytime I spin The Pixies’ Bossanova album. I’ll always think of a particularly messy breakup anytime I hear U2’s “So Cruel” off their Achtung Baby album (actually, my entire senior year of high school could be soundtracked by AB). Even later albums and experiences have a soundtrack. I can’t listen to Coldplay’s Viva La Vida album without flashing back to my first years residing in New York City. Point is, there’s only so much room in the memory bank before you have to start deleting and dumping old files. That’s why it’s important to allow new music into your life, or at least music that’s new to you.

Currently I’m a fan of contemporary artists like Jack White, The Kills, The Weeknd, Metric and – possibly my favorite new artist – the three-piece sister act Haim out of Los Angeles.

My favorite album of 2020. And 2021 for that matter.

But if there’s one “new” band that towers over all the above, it would be this one, formed in 1963, and splitting in 1996. Four scruffy lads from the Muswell Hill area of North London.

The klassic line-up (L-R) Ray Davies, Mick Avory, Dave Davies, Pete Quaife

I of course am talking about The Kinks.

Buckle up.

PART I: Picture Book

The first Kinks song I ever heard, or became aware of, would have been “Come Dancing”, which was a staple of rock radio and MTV back in the 80s. I think I heard it on the car radio and when the DJ mentioned them my dad, who was driving said “The Kinks. They were big when I was a teenager. They’re still around?” A lot of “Boomer Rock” was making a comeback in the 1980s but The Kinks never really went away. Theirs was a prolific output of practically an album a year from 1964 well into the 80s. With popular and current bands routinely taking 3-4 years between releases, that’s an impressive feat.

The Kinks were never big. They were considered “second tier” British Invasion artists. Through the years the occasional Kinks song made it through the radio barrier. You Really Got Me, All Day and All of the Night, Lola. But again, they were never BIG in the way The Beatles, The Stones, and The Who were and remain. And I think that fact was key to my (re)discovery of them in 2019.

It was on a visit to my local library. My son was at a “toddler time” story and sing-along event, and I took a stroll through the building, finding myself on the media floor, browsing their enormous CD collection. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, but when I got to the “K” section and found The Essential Kinks just staring at me I went “why not” and grabbed it to take home for a listen.

I popped it into my computer’s CD tray, opened iTunes and listened while I worked. And the amazing thing was that I found I knew a lot more Kinks songs than I realized. Songs I never even knew were Kinks songs but had heard on the radio, in movies, on TV. Dedicated Follower of Fashion, A Well-Respected Man, Sunny Afternoon, Death of a Clown, and, of course their epic Waterloo Sunset. But I also found myself falling immediately in love with “new to me” songs like Shangri-La, Victoria, Celluloid Heroes, Life Goes On, Sleepwalker, Better Things, Living on a Thin Line, and Do It Again.

By the end of my listen, I was a Kinks fan. I wanted more. And more is what I got.

PART II: 20th CENTURY MAN

As stated, what was most surprising about my listen was how many Kinks songs I actually knew; I just never knew they were Kinks songs. Of course there were many movie-centered tracks like This Time Tomorrow, Strangers, and Powerman (from Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited), and The Village Green Preservation Society and Village Green (featured in Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz, and continuing into Starstruck‘s appearance in his 2021 thriller Last Night in Soho). Even a tune like Lola – the drunken sing-along song in any bar, party, concert – took on new meaning on repeated lessons when I finally realized the titular “Lola” isn’t a, well, give it a listen and really pay attention to the lyrics;

Lo-Lo-Lo-Lo-Lola

Lyrically The Kinks run circles around their better known contemporaries like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones (I would rank The Kinks’ 1967 album Something Else well above The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Rolling Stones’ Between the Buttons). Credit Ray Davies’ brilliance for that – this is the man who managed to make “vernacular” and “Dracula” rhyme after all – but also his younger brother Dave Davies (The Kinks’ secret weapon and inventor of the power chord that inspired every punk, grunge, and heavy metal band that followed). The legendary animosity between the Davies siblings aside, that personal and creative friction spawned so many of The Kinks’ greatest songs, albums, and performances.

So after returning The Essential Kinks to the library, I did some digging and found their copy of The Kink Kronikles, another “Best of” which filled in some gaps not covered by The Essential Kinks. For my money (and I say this because I now own it on Vinyl) it’s the better collection of songs and a better snapshot of The Kinks in that late 60s/early 70s era than any other collection before or since.

So that was going to be it. I had all the major Kinks hits covered, I was content to just leave it there. Then I visited my local comic book shop and I got hooked again.

Let me tell you about The Outer Limits in Waltham MA. It’s one of those great old-school comic book stores that has pretty much anything anyone could want. Old paperbacks and pulp novels, old toys and games, model kits, magazines, comic books – you name it. Seriously, walking there with twenty bucks you’re guaranteed to walk out with something.

But what really grabbed me on this particular day was the store’s collection of affordable and varied vintage vinyl records. If none of the written material appealed to me I’d flip through the selection and grab a couple for the home turntable. So naturally, when I again got to the “K” section I was rewarded with a selection of Kinks albums I didn’t own. Sleepwalker, One for the Road, Low Budget, Give The People What They Want, Muswell Hillbillies.

I pretty much cleaned them out.

Preservation Act 1 & 2 soon followed, along with Soap Opera and Schoolboys in Disgrace; all from the band’s much reviled theatrical period (though I love Soap Opera and, while Preservation Act 1 & 2 I’m so-so-on, the live versions are amazing – check out the Live at the Hippodrome 1974 recording at Archive.org if you don’t believe me).

But they returned to straightforward rock and roll with Sleepwalker, Misfits, and Low Budget; a renaissance that carried them well through the 1980s, and landed them the popular MTV staple Come Dancing in the midst.  

It’s only natural …

So they were hot, then not, then hot again. Today they’re regarded as the unsung heroes of the British Invasion, the godfathers of punk, Britpop, and Alternative Rock. And that I think that career arc gets to the core of what the Kinks mean to me.

Because, like them, my career began with a lot of interest, a lot of promise. Then some bad decisions and unfortunate circumstances sidelined me. I went through lengthy stretches of nobody caring about my work. Hell, I went through some periods of not caring about my work either. How could something I knew I was actually good at fill me with nothing but irritation? For a time I came to hate writing and everything about it. 

Because The Kinks couldn’t tour the US at the height of their popularity (thanks to a touring ban instigated by their on-stage antics and the oft-claimed rumor that Dave Davies slugged a stage-hand who insulted him and the band), they had to look inward, which prompted Ray and Dave to pen some of their most British albums. Something Else, Village Green, Arthur, Lola, Muswell Hillbillies. They also avoided, in my humble opinion, the burnout that would have likely fallen in the wake of US touring success, consigning them to the dustbin of also-ran 60s one-hit-wonders. Had the ban not happened we might not even have been gifted the “veddy British” songs that put them in the rock pantheon.

For my part, frequent rejections, general indifference from agents, from development executives, from producers younger and less experienced than I was led me to turn inward, and start writing for myself, not for the marketplace, not for them. The result? Mixtape, for one. Magicians Impossible for another. Those two projects probably brought me more renown, more of a genuine audience than any of the stuff I did for SyFy Channel. It wasn’t until I started creating and writing projects I cared about that I actually became a good writer.

My favorite Kinks era is that “middle” period (1966’s Face to Face through 1970’s Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround Part 1) where they produced some of their lowest-selling yet most beloved works – albums, I might add, regarded as stone-cold classics by an establishment press that once dismissed them outright. That run contains my two favorite Kinks albums; The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society and Arthur, or The Decline And Fall of the British Empire. My copy of Arthur on Vinyl is an original pressing and still sounds great. I bought those five album on CD solely so I could listen to them in my car (and yes, my six year-old is being raised on a steady audio diet of The Kinks, Led Zeppelin, and The Rolling Stones).    

Arthur is his fave …

PART III: Days

“Discovering” The Kinks at this later stage in my life has been revelatory. With so many of my favorite bands, songs, and music being heavily guitar influenced discovering The Kinks has been like discovering the source of the Nile River; the source from which those waters flow to the sea. The Ramones. U2. the Pixies. Nirvana. The Clash. The Jam. Blur. Oasis. The White Stripes. Van Halen. Metallica. Motley Crue. Guns ‘N Roses. How different might the last fifty years of popular music have been without the brothers Davies, Pete Quaife, Mick Avory, John Gosling, John Dalton, Andy Pyle and so many more who contributed to that Kinks? there’s a joke question that goes around; “Are you a Beatles fan or a Stones fan? Wrong; The Kinks.” Or, “Who was the greatest British Invasion act and why was it The Kinks?” I think in the end Ray Davies is probably delighted that his band, the fourth or fifth tier of British acts back in the day are now regarded as one of the best acts of all time.

Moreover I increasingly find The Kinks providing the soundtrack to my life. I feel like that isolation (it’s lonely here in New England and that was even before the pandemic), that inward looking and looking back at a career that’s seen some ups and downs speaks to me in a way modern music does not. Music definitely changes as you get older, and changes you in ways it didn’t before. I do miss how it used to be; music is never as good, as exciting, as it is when you’re seventeen or eighteen. A time when you’re looking forward not backward. I’m doing much more of the latter than the former. I see fewer years ahead of me than there are behind me. 

I recently connected with an old friend from high school; someone I hadn’t spoken to in twenty years and seen in nearly thirty. We talked about the old days, we talked about where we are now. We both have our own lives, our own histories. Neither of us, I think, ended up where we thought or hoped we would back when we were teenagers. But in my case I feel like I ended up winning the jackpot anyway. My life isn’t what I thought it would be but when I look at all I do have I wouldn’t give any of it up. Turning back the clock, making different decisions might have propelled me to the heights of success, but I’d have to lose all I have now – my wife, my son, my life – and I could never do that. 

So years from now when I’m as old as Ray and Dave Davies are now, I’ll probably look back on these years and find the memories – the good, the bad – accompanied by The Kinks. 

What can I say? They really got me. 

Brad’s Top Ten Kinks Albums:

10. The Kinks BBC Sessions 1964-1977 (you haven’t heard them ’til you’ve heard them live)
9. Low Budget (The Kinks do hard rock and spark their comeback)
8. Muswell Hillbillies (a country-inspired album that’s much better than you’d think)
7. Face To Face (the first “true” Kinks album)
6. Sleepwalker (severely underrated pre-comeback album)
5. The Kink Kronikles (the best compilation album)
4. Something Else by The Kinks (Waterloo Sunset. That is all.)
3. Lola vs. Powerman and the Moneygoround Part I (Lola. Lo-lo-lo-lo-Lola)
2. The Kinks Are The Village Green Society (tied for #1 with …)
1. Arthur Or The Decline And Fall of the British Empire (their masterpiece)

Brad’s Top Ten Kinks Songs:

I don’t think I could narrow it down to ten, so here’s seventy Kinks Klassics for your listening pleasure.

ADDENDUM:

So this update/post/whatever kind of blew up when I shared it to my various social media platforms. And I had one person message me directly to ask why I was still using Spotify as a music streaming platform. Apparently – and this is all news to me because while I’m forced to use social media I refuse to involve myself in online discourse – people have been boycotting Spotify because of their association with podcaster Joe Rogan. Apparently Neil Young and Joni Mitchell led the charge over Rogan’s platforming of anti-vax, right-wing luminaries and had their music removed, sparking others to cancel their subscriptions. Rather than respond to this reader directly I’m posting my response here;

I believe everyone must make their own principled stand whenever they feel they must. If that includes boycotting or dropping Spotify as a service, Godspeed to you. BUT if the reason is for them giving Joe Rogan a platform then I believe you have to delete Facebook and Twitter, Instagram and Discord and TikTok and every social media platform as well because they to give a platform and a voice to Rogan and his ilk. Deleting Spotify and none of these other “bad apples” is just performative.

I’ve never listened to Joe Rogan. I never will listen to him. In a world where the collected works of Sam Cooke, The Guess Who, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, The Jam, Johnny Cash (god, there’s an upcoming music/blog entry for you), and, yes, The Kinks are available to listen to at the click of a button, why people would waste their valuable ear-time listening to some opinionated meatball is one of those mysteries of human existence I will never ever understand.