For starters, I don’t really like horror?not the books, not the films; the genre doesn’t pull my heartstrings like science fiction and comics, but great writing is great writing, so I’ve certainly sopped up my fair share of Bob Bloch, Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson; we all cut our teeth on Lovecraft and Poe; ain’t no denying the power of a Stephen King book (even if he does feel the need to pad a decent 300-page book with an additional 400 pages). Mastery of anything is a pleasure to behold, but crackerjack writing is like a glowing gift from the gods. Besides, as Alice Cooper once told me, no one should go their whole life without at least one good decapitation.
So I was pleased when Matt Schwartz invited me to participate in this year’s World Horror Con. Heading up the con’s programming this year, Matt is one of the better guys I know in this genre or any other?a solid guy who functions informally as an industry shadtchan, making matches between writers and artists, doing solids for newcomers, just because he likes to help folks and be where the action is at. Matt’s real gig is running http://www.shocklines.com, the biggest and best horror boutique on the web. He and I go back about decade. When we met, I was with Aardwolf and he was a buyer for Barnes and Noble who soon headed up the Horror & SF districts for their HUGE we-better-get-in-the-game-before-Amazon-eats-our-lunch internet launch. It was a fiasco, of course; Amazon had already eaten their lunch, but no blame falls to Matt, who did a bang-up job (and this town’s big enough for two bookseller monoliths, ain’t it?) I’ve thanked Matt half-a-hundred times for selecting Perverts, Pedophiles & Other Theologians, my 1997 book with Gene Colan, as B&N’s Horror Pick of the Week, but here’s another opportunity to balance the scales. Matt also paid me considerable money to interview heavy hitters like Kurt Vonnegut and Harlan Ellison and Alan Moore and Frank Miller for the Big B&N.com launch. Ah, those sure and schmaltzy days of the Great White Web Bubble! But enough on Matt. “Yeah, sure,” I said. “I’ll be there.” That was even before he told me Uncle Harlan was a guest of honor.
I woke up cobwebbed and wrung out from the previous day’s ballgame fiasco?I’d taken the day off to sit in the sun and drink beers with my son at Yankee Stadium. It was Game 3 of the new season and the Bombers were coming off a two-game whooping streak over last year’s World Champion Redsox?the closet we get to a Hatfields & McCoys spectacle these days. It started out innocently enough (but all good horror tales do, eh?) Tino Martinez was finally back in pinstripes where he belonged and he socked a deep-center solo shot, which was followed by another guided missile off Alex Rodriguez’s bat. I was already burping up hotdogs and beer and it seemed like baseball as usual, except for that boatload of Boston fans who showed up and managed to out-chant the 50,000 Yankee fans whenever their boys did something heroic; a little Twilight Zone-ish if you think back over two decades of lamebrains getting beer poured over their heads just for wearing an Indians hat into our house, but with Championship Rings comes tolerance, I suppose? Fast-forward to act two: The Yanks are up 3 to 2 in the top of the eighth. Queue music? James Hetfield’s opening chords of “Sandman” ring out as Frankensteinbrenner’s monster Mariano Rivera jogs onto the field to shut out the lights. But this is where the rubber hits the road, friends, and where the good writing kicks in; a surprise ending that gives horror addicts their gooseflesh fix. Big Mo, the most feared fireman in the American League, that once unhittable fast-ball hurler, gives up five runs before any of us could even piss out our second beer. And it was over just like that. No joy in Mudville?just 50,000 sad-eyed diehards listening to piped-in Sinatra singing, “Start spreading the news,” while a bunch of sissy liberals drove back to Massachusetts or took the BQE to Queens where they could put on their Mets hats again without a beer shower.
After that fiasco, I was up for just about any horror-thon they could throw at me, even a funeral, which is pretty much what I got. DC Comics was sponsoring a special tribute/memorial service for Will Eisner over on the Lower East Side. I spent the better part of the morning with the cellphone in one hand and the steering wheel in the other just trying to get directions to the gig, but Linda Fields over at DC finally came to my rescue with a MapQuest readout. Then it was off to The Park Central, across the street from Carnegie Hall, to pick up my fare. I queued up with the yellow cabs, who weren’t too keen on sharing their lane with a white Corolla, but fuck ’em if they can’t take a joke, then sat there like a bullfrog with thinning patience, unable to abandon my ride lest I find it towed. Finally, at long last, a familiar face emerged from the hotel.
I rolled down my window. “Hey Joe?is Harlan in the lobby?”
“Harlan who?” asked Joe Lansdale.
“Aw, go scare somebody,” I told him.
It was another ten minutes before the little giant emerge. He was wearing a bright red sweater and mirror glasses. Incognito, I think they call it.
“You’re late,” I said.
“You’re early,” said Harlan. He pointed to his watch. I’d been right on time but I didn’t bother arguing; he could convince Copernicus that the sun evolved around the earth and I was still on shaky ground from that beating by the Redsox, so I just hugged the old man, kissed Susan Ellison hello, and off we sped looking for the FDR.
“Where’d you learn to drive?” Harlan screamed. “Speed up! Go around that motherfucking cab, for chrisakes!” I could see he wasn’t quite in his purple mood yet. Mauve, perhaps, or perse.
“The race is not always to the swift,” I replied, cutting off a fire truck at 70 m.p.h.
“You know I used to drive a hack in this ‘burb,” said Harlan. He regaled me with gypsy cab tales of bygone days until we hit the lower East Side, by which point he’d insulted every other driver and pedestrian within earshot, to say nothing of his ardent chauffeur.
“Why haven’t you pushed him out?” dear Susan asked as we sped along the route. “I’ll hold the door open.”
I swung left on Essex, another left on Stanton, left again on Norfolk and we were there. I felt right at home. Graffiti on the walls. Garbage cans stinking up the sidewalks. The neighborhood looked more like Lou Reed’s New York than Will Eisner’s memoirs, but what can I tell you? Time marches on.
Now say what you want about BIG COMICS COMPANIES being all-business and no-heart, but don’t say it in my presence about DC?at least not while Paul Levitz is at the conn. DC opened the checkbook and rented out The Angel Orensanz Center?a quaint (if it was any more quaint, it would be Amish) arts center on the Lower East Side. The center began life as a full-blown quasi-synagogue in 1849 when it was founded by the same consortium of clock-making German Jews who brought you such cultural anomalies as “the reformed movement” and TV’s “Bridgette Loves Bernie.” The place was about as Jewish as their descendants. But I digress. Let’s rather say it was a lovely building that Will would have loved, right out of A Contract With God (as Peter David observed) and saved only recently from the wrecking ball by a generous benefactor. Inside was a trip back into Old New York; stained glass, candle light, vaulting ceilings and high balconies (condemned and roped off, alas) where the women once sat.
Then came the parade. All of the luminaries of the comics industry?from Jules Fieffer to Frank Miller?had come to pay tribute to an immortal.
[To be continued…]