Thursday, June 28, 2018

RIP Harlan Ellison

I'm very sad to hear of the passing of Harlan Ellison, who I met on a couple of occasions and even did business with during my time as a comic book retailer during the 1990s. We spoke at a Diamond Comics seminar in Atlanta and later on the phone. I even I traded him several boxes of comic cards for some first edition hardcovers of some of his books. Seemingly everyone in the industry has a Harlan Ellison story, and I’ve got mine. Next time you talk to me, ask—it’s pretty funny.

Harlan, who was 84 when he died, was a brilliant writer of dark and speculative fiction. Among other master works, he wrote “I Have No Mouth and I must Scream,” one of the greatest short stories of all time. I once wrote a parody of/homage to the oft-reprinted story, which you can find in my book, The Arcade and Other Strange Tales, and which you can read down below. I’m not sure what Harlan would have thought of my story—he probably would have hated it—but there’s one thing of which I’m sure: had he read it, he would have given me his opinion loudly and emphatically. I wish I could have absorbed that wrath. RIP Harlan.

Prior to reading the story below, I suggest you click HERE to read Harlan's tale that inspired it.

I Have No TV, and I Must Watch
Impotent, the tube of my television sat darkly, supported by a gray fiberglass cabinet, standing on thin, chicken-like legs. It had been drained of power by the powers that be.
When Scooter returned from the bathroom, he sat down on the couch next to me and stared vacantly at the dead television. I waited. A few minutes later, a frown pressed itself into his monkey face and he asked me the obvious question. “What’s wrong with the TV? You giving it a rest or something?”
 “Big Mister Smartie Britches interrupted Name that Smell,” I said. “He announced that Congress passed and he signed an amendment that says television is no longer to be considered a necessity. It’s the first amendment to the ‘Oh My God, We’re Almost Out of Energy’ bill in almost a year.”
Scooter was already as pale as cheap Sunday shoes, so he turned yellow. A trace of anger ran across his face, shortly to be replaced by sorrow. “Those sons of bitches,” he said. “Why don’t they just kill us now and put us out of our misery?”
It was our first hour without TV. He was speaking for both of us.
We sat there on the couch for the rest of the evening, each of us staring at the television, each of us wrapped up in our own thoughts, each of us ripe from the lack of a recent bath (Phaser-Man came on during Shower Hour), each of us sloshing through the mental vacuum that was left of our brains, each of us humming the theme to Whip Me So I’ll Scream for Cottage Cheese, each of us trying to figure out a way to get our television turned back on. Scooter, thinking of tools and batteries and other things he knew nothing about. Me, thinking of petitions and protests and things I was far too lazy to get involved with. So there we sat in the dark room, each of us clicking lifeless remotes.
The next day found us asleep on the couch. During the night, we had somehow become entangled, our arms and legs winding together like pretzels playing Twister. We’re more Shaggy and Scooby than Lois and Clark, though, so nothing came of it.
I pushed Scooter off of me and made him go fix breakfast. He came back with two bowls of instant cereal. Just add water and boom, there you go. No milk, of course. We don’t have a cow, and refrigerators were banned the year I was born.
“Thanks, Scooter,” I said, even thought I could barely look at the vile substance he had handed me. It looked like rancid jelly beans in a puddle of puke. It looked like children’s finger nails painted with fluorescent colors floating in fried pig urine. It looked like a bowl of maggot-ridden belly button lint. It looked like something really gross you wouldn’t want to eat unless you had sugar or strawberries or banana slices to go with it. We were out of cereal condiments, but I hadn’t eaten since the night before, so I greedily devoured the un-devourable mess. It was actually quite tasty.
“Well, what’ll we do now, Fredrick?” he asked.
I looked over at my rotund, Reubenesque roommate sitting next to me. It suddenly hit me just how hard he was taking this. He looked helpless, like Ernie without Bert. Like Robin without Batman. Like James Bond without a penis.
Truth be told, I was in far worse shape than Scooter. He merely needed television. Like oxygen, it was second nature to him. He rarely thought about it. Television was life and life was television and it had always been that way. He would die without it, but I was dead without it.
I don’t need television. I want television. I lust for it. I crave it like my old man craves teenage girls. Wait…scratch that. Anyhow, it’s enough to know I’m in love, but I was brave and I tried to convince Scooter we could get along fine for awhile without TV and that Big Mister Smarty Britches would give us back the power when it came time for reelection. I told him we would just have to get by until then, but Scooter demanded action, so after a couple of days of planning, procrastination and praying, we got off the couch and stumbled to the out of doors. Fresh air had never tasted so sour.
Outside our house we ran into a girl we had seen on TV who was on her way to McLuhan’s to buy a new television set.
“It’s not your TV,” I told her. “It’s Big Mister. No more television.”
She looked as though I were speaking Japanese. Somewhere in that television-addled brain of hers, billions of brain cells were scrambling to form a coherent response to my unconscionable remark.
“We’re also head for McLuhan’s,” I said, “but not to buy a TV. We’re going to get a petition started. You want to join us?”
“Sure,” the girl managed to say behind still-confused eyes. “I can’t think of anything else to do. I was going to organize my TV Guide collection, but it was just too depressing.”
So the three of us walked. Privately owned cars had been banned years ago, and we were used to having groceries delivered to us, so we didn’t get out much. It was weird being outside. And there is no way to describe the mental strain that not having watched TV for hours brought us.
In the three eternal miles from my house to the store, we were coerced by some unforeseen forces into the bowels of hell.
We passed through a fitness club.
We passed through a church.
We passed through a health food store.
And we passed through something called a library. I think it was kind of like a video store, but I wasn’t sure.
Along the way, the girl kept us entertained with her stories of being an actress. She must have been one of those people who talked back to their TV all the time because her mouth was a lot stronger than her legs. She was even weaker than Scooter and myself, so I carried her part of the way. She was grateful and had sex with me a couple of times when we stopped to rest, but it was no fun because Scooter kept giggling. I think he was stunned by how much more there was to sex than what they would show on television.
“How much longer?” Scooter asked, after we had been walking for what seemed like years.
“Not much,” I said.
Just then, a limousine pulled up beside us. A tinted window rolled down and who else poked his head out but Big Mister Smartie Britches himself. He smiled and asked how we were doing.
“We’re doing okay,” I lied, totally chickening out.
Scooter awoke from some hazy dream. “We need TV,” he said, sounding like a programmed recording.
“Well, as soon as Congress…” Big Mister went on about things none of us understood or cared to understand. “Have a nice day, my fellow citizens, and God bless America.”
As the limo drove off, we saw through the back windshield a small square of light that was obviously a television screen.
“I hate him!” the girl screamed.
Her eyes flared red, and rabies-like foam began pouring from her mouth.
“Let me tell you how much I hate him,” she said. “I have seven hundred issues of TV Guide. If the word ‘hate’ was printed on each page, it would not equal one quintillionth of the hate I feel for Big Mister Ass Face.”
She was hysterical and out of control. She dropped to the ground and began singing the theme to Green Acres.
Scooter stared at her and drooled. It was his first crush on a real girl. He flung himself on her and took a bite out of her cheek. She screamed. It was just like Robert De Niro in the remake of Cape Fear. I knew what I had to do.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out my lucky remote control. I pointed it in the direction of the fight and pushed the off button. The struggle stopped and the two lovers fell to the ground. I leaned over the prostrate forms and listened for the beating of their hearts. They were dead. Two less tax payers to fund Big Mister’s wacko laws.
I know I saved them from a miserable life without television, but I still can’t forget killing them. It was so much different than killing on TV. It was really kind of sad.
I carried on. I had a job to do.
When I got to McLuhan’s, the lights were off and the place looked abandoned, but a crowd of people had gathered at the front door. Their blank stares, pale bodies and hunched shoulders told the story, but I had to go for a closer look.
I shoved through the mass of animated corpses and saw a small sign posted inside the glass front door. It read: GONE OUT OF BUSINESS FOREVER AND EVER AMEN
I smashed my face against the glass and peered inside. I felt as though I were standing at the gates of Hell. The place was empty. All of the television sets were gone. They must have been confiscated by B.M.S.B. and his cronies.
In that instant, I sneezed. No one noticed.
Surrounded by couch potatoes, surrounded by ignorance, surrounded by everything but television, I knew death was the only way out.
Of course, I didn’t kill myself or we wouldn’t have a story, but I knew I had to kill everyone else who loved television.
I turned from the doorway, pulled out my remote and began firing. Like sacks of potatoes, bodies began dropping to the ground. No one moved to stop the killings. One woman whispered “thank you” as she died.
I walked around for several minutes, killing as many vacant, lifeless TV zombies as humanly possible. They were nothing more than poverty-stricken TV addicts wandering the streets, too poor to pay B.M.S.B.’s suicide tax, too brain dead to find anything to do, too stupid and ugly to let live.
I would have killed myself, but I have to admit that once again I was chicken. What if there’s no TV in the afterlife in Heaven or in Hell? I was afraid to find out.
Finally, I got tired and started walking home.
When I plopped down on the couch in front of my darkened television set, I felt my body collapse into a limp, jelly-like substance. My arms and legs were oversized grub worms hanging uselessly from my body. I sank into the couch like a bad batch of gray vanilla pudding. I was tired, but my mind was still intact. I could dream of Jeannie. I could wonder about The Wonder Years and Wonder Woman. I could lament Lavern and Shirley. I could fantasize about Fantasy Island.
I sat before the television set, tears forming in my eyes. I decided to go ahead and kill myself. With spaghetti arms, I managed to remove my lucky remote from my front pocket. I maneuvered it ever so carefully, pointing it straight at my heart. I pushed the OFF button. Nothing happened. I pushed it again and again. Nothing.
So here I am alone, living under a leaky roof, sitting in front of a dead television. The television I wasted my life watching. I must have known subconsciously that it was time badly spent, and now I know for a fact that it was. Even so, my will to live is gone. Without TV I don’t know what to do with myself. At least my friends are spared from this misery. Knowing that makes me a little happier. I wish I could join them…
I have no TV. And I must watch.

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