Follow by Email

Wednesday, November 28, 2012


MY TRIP DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE

You never know, do you?

It’s that way in stories, of course.  Dorothy never knew she was going to Oz.  Alice never dreamed that a fall would take her to Wonderland.  Even adventurers like Ulysses and Jason of the Argo don’t really know what waits on the far side of the world, what perils, what wonders.

I was in my thirties at the time.  Spending my days building up my portfolio in sculpting and effects makeup for a (hoped for) career in special effects makeup.  My first wife was supporting us, but it was tight, and we needed to supplement her income. 

So, I went into a local bookstore, one within walking distance of our apartment on Coldwater Canyon near the freeway.  Ventura Boulevard, near Woodman, in the city of Sherman Oaks.

The store was DANGEROUS VISIONS BOOKSTORE.

I had been there a few times.  Founded in 1981, it carried mostly science fiction, horror and fantasy.  New, used and rare books.  Unlike the big chains, DV also carried more than just the “flavor of the month.” It seemed everyone in those genres was represented, usually with multiple titles and editions.

 
A near mint copy of the Ace
printing of CITY by Simak,
one of my favorite books, and
just one of the treasures I found
 at Dangerous Visions
 
I walked in, and talked to the fellow behind the counter.  As luck would have it, he was leaving and needed to find a replacement.  It was the easiest time I ever had landing a job.

I thought I would be surrounded by books, and that would be enough.

It was so much more.

It was my DREAM JOB.

The owner, Lydia Marano, loved books, and science fiction in particular. She loved the genres and their history, the art that went into the writing , the covers, the leaps of imagination into worlds filled with both wonder and terror.  Her husband, Arthur Byron Cover (himself an author) seemed to know everything about the creators and craft of science fiction, horror, fantasy and comics.

They were brilliant, funny and kind.

If that were all, meeting these two amazing and passionate people, that would have been more than I bargained for.

But Dangerous Visions was a destination.  For fans… and for writers.

It was no coincidence or risky act of appropriation that the store was named for one of the most groundbreaking series of anthologies in the field of speculative fiction.  Harlan Ellison was good friends with both Lydia and Art, and a frequent visitor to the store.

Do you know what it’s like to love science fiction, and to have Harlan Ellison walk into your job?  To find out that he wasn’t the fire-breathing, invective spewing troll he’s often portrayed as, but a kind, erudite, funny and quite reasonable human being?  Harlan probably doesn’t remember me, but I won’t forget those times he would come in and browse, comment on works in the new books case or the news of the day. 

And I got to know local authors, people just starting on their careers who have gone on to be well established.  People like David Schow, Richard Christian Matheson and Steven Barnes.

Unlike many bookstores, all the bookcases in DV were made by hand, most (if not all) by Lydia and installed by friends.  The place was a treasure trove of pulps, old books, rare books, art objects, memorabilia and strange, funny and cryptic signs and notices.  The bathroom, tiny but serviceable, was paper with cartoons and quotes from fandom and pro-dom.  

Some days were slow, and I would stock shelves, comb the coming titles from Ingram Book Distributors and listen to music. I could dress as casually as I wanted, and no one was breathing down my neck - that was a first. Other days were filled with regulars, some merely coming to hang out and engage in lively discussions about books, film and whatever was going on.

And then there were the autograph parties.  In my short time I met several authors I idolized including Robert Sheckley, Robert Bloch and Harry Harrison.  There were dozens more, many before my time and some after.

I never dreaded going to work.  I loved it.  The people I worked for, the regulars, the writers, the very world… I was never so steeped in the world of science fiction as I was then, and I was happy.

I don't have any pics of my own of my time there.  Back then, cameras weren't as ubiquitous as they are now, and though many autograph parties were documented, I don't have copies or rights to the photos.  You can find them online though, and there are even some of the many, many illuminaries who visited, signed books, and helped to make it a special place.

Sadly, Dangerous Visions didn’t last.  Big chains and Amazon provided too much competition, and a brick and mortar store became untenable. It’s still online (under readsf.com), but that’s not quite the same, is it?  That smell of book dust, the feel of a new (or old) book in your hand, perhaps finding (as I did several times) a near mint version of a book from your childhood.
 
Where DV used to be...

I was very lucky that time and circumstance brought me to Dangerous Visions Bookstore.  If I didn’t love writing so much, I pine for it.  As it is, I miss it, and the world Lydia and Art created within its walls.

I guess every adventurer has to go home sometime.  Dorothy to Kansas, Alice out of the rabbit hole, Ulysses to Ithaca and Jason to Greece. 

But we remember our great adventure, and we tell the stories.

 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

HOW A TRIP TO THRIFTY DRUG CHANGED MY LIFE


HOW A TRIP TO THRIFTY DRUG CHANGED MY LIFE

 
 

 
I was fifteen when I got bitten, smacked upside the head and knocked flat on my backside.

It was 1968, and my family was headed for another long vacation. I can't remember if it was to Georgia to see relatives or Twin Lakes to go camping, all I remember is that it was a long enough car trip to necessitate a trip to the local Thrifty Drug to buy paperbacks. Buying books for a vacation trip was one of my favorite things to do. In all the years and in all the books, I only got carsick once, and I hold my roadside lunch responsible for that unpleasantness. My younger brother Gary practically got sick reading road signs, and either slept or looked out the window. I always felt a bit sorry for him being unable to read on a car trip.

Me? I loved nature and scenery, but I loved science fiction more.

Back then, I only read SF. Fantasy seemed too silly or overly-complicated and horror had not gone through the resurgence that would come with Stephen King and books like Salem's Lot (seems everyone had a copy of that one back in the mid-seventies).

In those days, there weren't many bookstores close by, and the internet was something out of science fiction. I did all my shopping at Thrifty and a small department store called Cal Store. Cal Store had more books, but it was easier to get to Thrifty on my bike.

At Thrifty, each check stand had a small book rack at its end, all those bright covers vying for your attention as you entered the store. This was in the days when stores like Thrifty also had a tube tester, so your Dad could check the tubes on the Magnavox and see why you couldn't get a decent picture on Laugh-In. Come to think of it, I probably accompanied my Dad on one of his TV tube forays when this Mark-shaking event occurred.

After watching my Dad test tubes (the set-up and gauges of the machine looked like something out of Flash Gordon), I went over to check to see if there were any new books I might take on our trip.

A very colorful cover caught my eye, orange and yellow, black and purple.

Across the top, black lower case letters proclaimed,

death stalked him

through the galaxies
Okay, they had my attention! Next came the title, larger, upper and lower case yellow.

Dimension
of Miracles
 
Below that, the author, some fellow named Robert Sheckley, who had also (according to the book cover, written Mindswap and The People Trap.
Below that was a egg with planets and stars inside it, and tiny people on the ground below it. The cover was by Paul Lehr, and if you haven't seen at least a half dozen of his wonderful illustrations, you weren't reading SF in the 60's and 70's.

It was a 50¢ Dell.

So, it looked like a pretty cool book, but fifty cents wasn't something to just toss away... I always had to check the blurb on the back. Flipping it over, I read:

Earth Hunt

It had to be somewhere, Carmody knew that
much. It was waiting for him, just as he had left it.     
 
But where?
 
He only knew he was in the center of a galaxy
in a universe of galaxies. Within them lay end-
less varieties of the planet Earth. And there
was only one way to find his Earth again.
He would have to visit each one. And he would
have to hurry. Because his search for home
had turned into a race with death...

Wow!

I loved stories with an individual pitted against impossible odds, surviving by their wits and a few skills. I took the book, paid my fifty cents plus tax, and waited for our car trip.

Somewhere between Mission Hills, California and Albany, Georgia I read my first Robert Sheckley book. I had expected spacefaring adventure and derring-do, and there was certainly some of that.

But it was so absurd! The story concerns Carmody, an everyman who is whisked away to a distant galaxy because he has won a prize. My first clue that things were about to get very, very odd was that the judges assumed Carmody would know the coordinates to his home world. Of course, he doesn't, so they don't know which Earth to send him back to. Their solution? Let him try every variant of Earth, until he finds home or one close enough. Up to this point, my only notion of parallel Earths came from Earth II in DC Comics, where all the heroes of the WWII era resided.

But Sheckley had a way of making the mundane science fiction/fantasy concept fresh. (Read "Gun Without a Bang" to see his take on the disintegrator pistol, or "Ghost V" to see how he deals with that monster under your bed or in your closet.)

My second clue was that Carmody's prize while being a pot, was sentient, and a smart-ass. This was no brave robot or android ally, no alien pal, this was a cynical and tactless thorn in Carmody's side.

It wasn't just inventive, it was funny.

And it was more than funny, it was satirical, wry. (Sheckley wasn't called the Jonathan Swift of science fiction for nothing.) A universe where God is a contractor and planets are built to spec, sometimes using substandard materials? An Earth where advertising overshadows every aspect of life (and wasn't that prescient)?

I had never read anything quite like it - and I loved it.

These stories were so fresh, so inventive, I had to have more. Mind you, I was a voracious reader of SF and Sheckly did not diminish my love for Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke and Bradbury, among others.

But, with that one book, I was hooked. I found every Sheckley title in the bookstores I could. Once I had secured those (this was pre-internet, remember), I would scour used bookstores... Oh, the triumph of finding a new title or two!

Sheckley was a true master of the short story - every word counts, every word paints the world and tells you his tale. I rarely see so vividly as when reading his work. And novels? Immortality, Inc. is a favorite. It is similar to Dimension of Miracles in that a character named Blaine is plucked from a fatal car wreck just before impact and transported to the future... as part of an advertising gimmick. The campaign is abandoned and so is Blaine, left to fend for himself in a future world far, far different from his own. I love this book, and have recommended it to friends and read it many times. (Side note: You can imagine how excited I was to hear that Immortality, Inc. would be made into a movie in 1992. Sadly, it was a loathsome piece of dreck called FREEJACK with Emilio Estevez and Mick Jagger. The film bears little resemblance to the original novel, which is a real pity.)

People credit Douglas Adams with practically inventing satirical and absurdist SF. Sheckley never had a blockbuster like The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and many think he came later. Not so - Sheckley was making his first sales to Imagination, Galaxy and other titles in 1951... Adams was born in 1952. I admit I rankle a bit when Adams wrote, "I had no idea the competition was so frightfully good." Humph.

No matter. Comparing the two is non-productive. Happily, Sheckley is again available in e-books, and you'd do well to sample some of his stories. Any collection will do, and then you might try his novels. He wrote some spy novels, too, but it was SF where his light was brightest.

(Back in the day!L to R: Norman Spinrad, Harlan Ellison and Bob Sheckley.)

                                                                                                   
 
I was fortunate enough to meet Bob when I worked at Dangerous Visions Bookstore back in the 80's. He signed several of my books and was friendly and kind. We corresponded a bit, and my last purchase of a Sheckley book was his self-published sequel to Dimension of Miracles, called Dimension of Miracles Revisited. I've kept it sealed for twelve years, because Bob passed away in 2005 and there will be no more trips inside his wild, wonderful and inventive mind. But it's calling to me, and I suppose I will read the original first, then the sequel.
 
You know what? I feel like a kid again.