Goosebumps Rising

Enduring Books in the SF Realm

Although this year's Worldcon didn't really do it for me -- too many paunchy caped crusaders rushing through the halls, a threadbare dealer's room, and a woeful amount of absentee luminaries -- the number of legends wandering around and looking somewhat dazed still managed to impress. Forrest J. Ackerman, sporting his trademark retro-eyewear (ridiculous yet endearing, and let's see Harlan Ellison try to pull that off), lounged about, basking in the attentions of legions of Famous Monsters of Filmland fans and glowing over the rebirth of his seminal Perry Rhodan, Master of the Stars. An aging Frederik Pohl sought cigarettes and some idle chatter outside the Avon Books fete. Michael J. Straczynski, of Babylon 5 fame, looked immensely hurried and probably hoping to avoid the crush of the fannish crowd, what Ellison calls "xenogenesis."

In all, though, it was not what I'd hoped. For my money, the annual World Fantasy Con or even Fangoria magazine's twice-yearly Weekend of Horrors offers more bite for the buck, cramming in fantasy and horror filmmakers alongside old guard literary lions and the new, young turks of the field. These affairs are a bit more raucous, full of long-standing feuds that ellicit spectacularly public arguments (the 1989 WFC birthed a "quiet horror vs. splatterpunk" row that was especially notable thanks, in part, to Charles Grant's seething war of words with a slightly tipsy John Skipp and Craig Spector). There are, too, tremendous parties that always seem to end up with John Shirley ranting atop someone else's bed, and groggy, bleary-eyed brunches attended by the few, the proud, the editors (and, of course, Kirby McCauley).

Most fans, I'm thinking, are drawn to the cons by way of their love for the books that startled and shocked them when they were young, getting the meathooks in early, so to speak. I'm no different, as the list below should serve to demonstrate. All of these books (and their authors) entered my consciousness by the very fitting age of 13 or so, and have stuck with me since, marking both the foundations and, occasionally, the boundaries of my literary groove. Almost all of them have been returned to on a yearly basis, some more than that, some much more than that. In no particular order, then:

  • Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
Without fail, this finds its way into my hands every October. It's one of Bradbury's richest outings, full of lengthy passages that almost border on the purple at times. I'll forgive him his trespasses, though, because it's just such a damn fine read overall, drawing as it does from the author's dark Americana and elegiac youth in fabled Green Town, Illinois (it's not on the map -- I looked). As a metaphor for both dwindling innocence and the vagaries of advancing age it remains nonpareil. And as a record of the Halloween-loving Bradbury firing on all eight cylinders over the course of the 175-plus pages of the novel, it's unsurpassed. Quick trivia: The novel was based on Bradbury's 1947 short story "The Black Ferris" from the Arkham House collection Dark Carnival. I'm sensing a pattern of some sort here...
  • I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison
This collection of seven of Ellison's best, earlier works ended up in front of me at a library book sale some 15 years back; I liked the cover illustration and the rest, as they say, is history. One of the most prodigious of living writers, Ellison, amazingly, remains vital to this day, although I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, published way back in 1967, is far more affecting than much of his recent work.
  • The Dunwich Horror by H.P. Lovecraft
Any Lovecraft, really. Especially the black-bound Arkham House editions. Now that his name is officially an adjective ("Lovecraftian"), his fate, like that of Charles Dexter Ward, is forever sealed. I credit Lovecraft with my able spelling of the words "batrachian" and "squamous," not to mention my ongoing love of Providence, R.I., and its surrounding environs.
  • "...And Then We'll Get Him!" by Gahan Wilson
Who says cartoons can't be literary? Rubbish. Wilson's vile wit and sketchy pen-and-ink drawings frequently evoked Lovecraft's elder New England horrors better than Lovecraft himself, and anyone who can maintain a stable freelance position in the changing hierarchy of Playboy magazine for as long as he has is someone to be respected and perhaps feared. And, in this case, laughed at.
  • `Salem's Lot by Stephen King
King's name remains anathema to many critics these days, not least of all because he's so damn successful. He's Midas with a Smith Corona. Nonetheless, his masterful characterizations are top notch; love them or hate them, you always feel as though you know King's characters, even the ones you'd really rather not have as next-door neighbors. This updating of Stoker's Dracula is another perennial Halloween read for me; it goes equally well with a cool glass of fresh apple cider on the dusky front porch swing or a sixer of Pabst Blue Ribbon sprawled out on the living room couch. Either way the goosebumps rise unabated.

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