Rant #3: In Which
the Author Describes His First Encounter With Harlan Ellison
Initially, I had decided I wasn't going to
go to WHC this year. Last year's, frankly, hadn't been that
great, and while I enjoyed the company, I was leery of the
expense of both time and money that another trip would entail.
In the end, though, I decided to go. The urgings of my fiancée,
who A) thought it was a good thing career-wise and B) wanted
me out of the house so she could get some serious work done
on the repainting of the downstairs, played a big part of
it. So did the chance to see friends, the possibility of pitching
my newly fledged novel, and the opportunity to wander around
Oh, and Harlan Ellison was going to be there. And that decided
me. I'd been waiting nearly ten years to say something to
him, face to face, and I wasn't going to miss the opportunity.
You see, I'd encountered Harlan Ellison once
Back in the day, when I was young, foolish,
and working in the tabletop roleplaying industry, I did a
book called Charnel Houses of Europe: The Shoah.
It was a sourcebook for Wraith: The Oblivion, a White
Wolf game about ghosts, and it concerned itself with the Holocaust.
I was indignant at the way the self-described badass RPG industry
shied away from the serious stuff, the way boobs and blood
substituted for serious content, and the way so-called "adult"
games were more like EC horror comics than the sort of material
actual adults might be interested in. I thought maybe I could
do a little good, teach a few folks a few things, and demonstrate
that you could make a good game book that wasn't automatically
spurious, gross, or lighthearted.
There had been attempts previously, gingerly,
to touch on the topic. There was a legendary Champions
module called Wings of the Valkyrie, if
I remember correctly, that involved time-travel and the players
helping to cause World War II in order to save the world.
It was all very City on the Edge of Forever, but it was too
hot for an industry ducking accusations of Satanism from demented
housewives, so it got shelved. Then there was a game called
Reich Star, a Nazis-in-space extravaganza that would
have made Perry Rhodan weep tears of joy. If memory serves,
the backstory for that game indicated that after they'd conquered
the world, the Nazis lost interest in that whole Final Solution
thing, and now there was just some cranky Jewish resistance
group running around the Thousand-Year Reich's spaceways.
So, one might say that I saw a need. I pitched
it internally, put it on the schedule, got support from the
folks at White Wolf, and got started on the project. Mark
Cenczyk and Rob Hatch came on board as writers, Matt Milberger
made a great cover image, and Janet Berliner, co-author of
the Madagascar Manifesto trilogy and the daughter
of a survivor, agreed to write the intro. She also became
my unofficial mentor and support on the project, providing
advice and encouragement that was very much needed. Doing
the book was not easy. Doing the book right meant immersing
myself in the material, and as one might have guessed, that
wasn't pleasant. There were other concerns as well - how would
my family react to this, could this be done with the appropriate
level of respect, and so on and so forth. None of it was trivial.
And once the book was announced, the screaming
started. There were people who were justifiably concerned
about the prospect of the book, as White Wolf's record for
research and sensitivity was not entirely immaculate. After
all, it made sense to be at least a little bit wary of this
sort of material in the hands of the folks who'd made Freak
Legion and a CCG that included cards like "Schoolbus
Full of Kids", "Curb Stomp" and "Red-Headed
Stepchild". The credentials for delicacy and sensitivity
were, admittedly, somewhat lacking. The people concerned about
that, however, I could win over. I engaged them in conversation,
sent them chapters, and asked them to judge the material on
the material, not on their worst fears. In almost every case,
the discussion was positive and so was the reaction.
On the other hand, there were the folks who,
sight unseen, declared the book an abomination. They threatened
boycotts, demanded that it be burned before it had been printed,
and compared me and it to Hitler and Mein Kampf,
respectively. Their logic escaped me, but their meaning was
I told Janet about the issues I was having, and she had an
eminently sensible suggestion. "Harlan Ellison had similar
issues on a computer game he did," she said. "Write
him a letter explaining what's going on, send him the manuscript,
and ask him what he did."
So I did. More accurately, I spent a week and
a half agonizing over the letter, my well-thumbed copy of
Harlan Ellison's Watching on my desk to remind me of the titanic
personality I was daring myself to address. Finally, when
I could delay no longer, I printed the letter out, tucked
it and a copy of the manuscript into an envelope, and, with
my eyes closed, mailed it.
A week passed. Nothing. I exhaled, figured
Mr. Ellison was too busy, and went back to hacking at the
clamoring naysayers on alt.games.white-wolf. (Yes, it was
that long ago).
And then, one day, the phone rang. Yelled.
Screamed, even. Demanded to be picked up.
I picked it up.
"Dansky?" a voice on the other end
demanded. I nodded, remembered I was on the phone, and said,
"Ellison," the voice said, as if
that explained everything. "I got your package."
He then proceeded to launch into a marvelously profane, impressively
loud farrago of unqualified support for what I was doing.
(By comparison, Art Spiegelman's comment to me consisted of
raised eyebrows and a bemused, "Good luck.") He
told me that the story had to be told, that it had to be told
wherever and whenever possible, and that there was no inappropriate
medium for it - if necessary, it should be printed on placemats
and feminine hygiene product wrappers just to make sure nobody
Ten minutes on, the phone melting in my trembling hand and
held four feet from my quivering ear, I heard him wind down.
More accurately, he screeched to a halt like the Road Runner
coming up on a pile of ball-bearing laced birdseed, and growled,
I nodded again. "Err, yes."
"Good," he said, and hung up.
I sat there for about fifteen minutes, then
went to see HR about getting another phone.
The book came out, eventually, amidst a couple
of printing errors, more yammering, and some things I'm not
allowed to talk about. It was on the whole extremely well
received. I got a lot of email from people thanking me for
doing it. There were a great many reviews and posts and letters
that included the words, "I learned something."
It did, ultimately, what I had hoped it would do.
To Janet, to my coworkers, to the writers,
to my family - I said thank you. I had that opportunity. To
Harlan Ellison, not so much. I never got the chance. There
was one very brief encounter in a doorway at DragonCon, but
I was going out and he was going in and at least one of us
was late for a panel and, well, you only get so many shots
So it was off to World Horror, there to lurk
and await my chance. Naturally, he found me. I was standing
over the freebie table, carefully stacking a small mountain
of Cold Fear promo discs and lurking near the posters for
the remake of The Amityville Horror, when from
behind me a memorable voice boomed "It's a fraud! Don't
support that! It's all lies!" I turned and meant to say
something witty about how I was following Herodotus' example
by refusing to give it any of my attention so that it would
be lost forever to history, but, well, it didn't come out
so well. But once I finished making an ass of myself, I did
get to say "thank you."
said, "You're welcome." Even seemed to remember
the book, and to ask about how it did and the response. Then
he trundled off to a panel, where he terrorized Jack Ketchum
and Michael Slade and a host of others while keeping the audience
in stitches for an hour. And what, really, can you ask for