Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Where I Came From

My childhood happened to me in the Laurel Highlands of Western Pennsylvania. I was born in the valley town of Altoona, and raised there and in Munster, a farm township, and Ebensburg, the county seat. It was a move gradually up in altitude, if not necessarily in prestige.

Despite lawyers, judges, and politicos, culture did not surround me. I read more books than the local library shelved. Until I was a teenager, movies meant driving at least 30 miles over dark mountain roads. Theater was Cresson Lake Playhouse and their offerings never interested me. No DRACULA or SWEENY TODD shadowed those footlights.

There was a museum. It held bric-a-brac from rich people who’d died in town over the years. No art brightened its dust.

When the Presbyterian church’s minister from California put on a youth group production of JESUS CHRIST, SUPERSTAR, it was protested. The marchers declined an invitation to come in out of the icy rain for hot chocolate and coffee.

My reading sustained me. At first, classics held my attention. My favorite writer is Dickens. At age 13 I discovered genre writing, accidentally, by picking up The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury along with Islands In the Stream by Ernest Hemingway in the school library.

So I’m one of Bradbury’s literary children. His work, superbly written, blasted my imagination into the cosmos. Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein soon taught me about optimistic futures. Then I hit Harlan Ellison’s collection, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream and it hit back. The emotional kick was such that I threw it across the room every half story or so. I distinctly remember thinking: You can DO that?

He could. And did.

From there it was all downhill. I roamed through genre like a revenant from one of the many dystopias I devoured. Sf, mystery, horror, and fantasy held me. I discovered Tolkien entirely on my own, on the bottom wire rack in the Book & Record Shop in the Altoona Mall.

Fascinated me that the three Barbara Remington covers fit together to make a mural. I had to buy them, and did. The notion of extending a novel over three fat volumes also struck me. I brought them home in the back seat of my paternal grandfather’s bottle green Chrysler New Yorker after my optometrist’s appointment on a rainy fall day. They smelled of ink, cinnamon, and vanilla, the last because of the candles in the shop.

The Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series then featured big in my reading and collecting. My friends and I discussed them.

This world of books is my background. Reading formed me, not place. My sense of place was infused by fantasy and horror ideas. I savored very specific places; a particular branch in the Northern Spy apple tree in my paternal grandparents’ back yard in Munster. A planted a Red Maple that grows there still, although the property has long since been sold to a neighbor who runs a junk shop he calls Mike’s Antiques.

He would riffle through books bought at estate sales, seeking hidden money, then toss them onto a pile that eventually grew to be at least twelve feet high. I climbed into that stack a few times and searched out gems. His peasant’s disdain for books allowed me to buy many collector’s items for a pittance.

What I didn’t understand back then was how his greed reduced the world to things and cash. Imagination, vision, and dreams captured in beautiful prose were starlight to his cave dweller soul; unknown and meaningless.

That’s how almost everyone viewed such things, I found.

In the long series of sliding-door closets on one side of the hall leading to the sun porch upstairs in my paternal grandparents’ house in Munster, on a shelf running 25 feet or more along the back of the one long close behind those sliding doors, I once discovered a cache of paperbacks. There were some Max Brand westerns. No Robert E. Howards, though. What caught my eye were the Edgar Rice Burroughs paperbacks. Escape On Venus was the first I read, again in the back seat of my grandfather’s car during a Sunday drive, remember those?

Again, I was enthralled. Pulp seemed raw and potent, good moonshine to offset the tamer or more refined distillations I’d been reading. I found Lovecraft around then, too, in a volume my Aunt Polly gave me, saying, It looked weird enough for you.

High compliments like that are as rare as Nobel Prizes for pulp writers, so I savor it to this day. The book was the yellow Lancer edition of The Dunwich Horror & Other Tales.

My writing went through its Dickens, Doyle, and Lovecraft phases. It bled into Poe and sopped up Hemingway. All the while I was becoming what ever it is I am now.

Unlike the Beatles, who clung to their Liverpool roots as a touchstone for everything life brought them; unlike Bradbury, who cherished boyhood summers in the midwest and used them to illuminate his journey; unlike the folks, like Asimov, from Brooklyn, who wore the accent and the attitude like a badge of honor, I had a hostile, somewhat Gothic experience amid the wild folk of the Laurel Highlands of Western Pennsylvania as formative material. So it was mostly books that made me.

Books, and my imagination.

Imaginative literature, as opposed to descriptive, sustained me. It opened me up like a Tardis, so I was far bigger and more complex on the inside than I appeared on the outside.

My books surround me still, and my inner worlds spill into words on pages every day. I’m still creating myself, and still exploring myself, and still discovering myself.

That’s the best way a writer can be.

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