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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 Times Square.
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 before.

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 clear.
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,

"Yes?"

"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 ever forgot.
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, "Got that?"

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 at that.

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."

He 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 besides that?


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