by Charlie Brown
When I heard the news that Gerhard de Shannon had died, it threw me into a time warp. News being a medium of the now, as opposed to history as a medium of the then, imparts feelings ranging along the whole spectrum of available time. That report made the seventeen-year-old inside of me ready to cry.
But let me back up, for you probably don’t know who de Shannon was. You aren’t alone, because very few people knew his name.
He was a science fiction writer, author of many novels. I can’t put an exact number on it because De Shannon’s name graced no hardcovers. His purpose in the literary scene was to be the hand crank on the pulp machine. It didn’t matter what subject he chose, his publishers would plunge into his work to feel up the curvy breast of the least common denominator. His rumination on humanity’s isolation “One Stands Still In Time” came out as “She-Pirate of the Nazi Space Cruiser,” the cover featuring a leather bikini clad woman who did not appear in the book. And since Black Out Press’ main distribution point was pornography shops, it didn’t matter.
Hopefully, few of the self-love aficionados were driven to existential despair when they actually read the book.
Now, in 2010, my favorite childhood author is as anonymous as the person who coined the phrase that’s the point of this story: “The golden age of science fiction is 13.”
But now I’m not telling the whole truth. Yes, he was my favorite writer, but I didn’t find him first. That would be Joey Greenbaum.
Joey found a collection of de Shannon’s novels at the bottom of his father’s underwear drawer, each missing the cover. So he actually read them and was inspired by the prose. The books’ illustrations were later found between his parents’ mattress and box spring. They didn’t excite him as much.
But that was true for most things. Joey only had two passions in life: sci-fi and computers. Back in Cleveland in 1976, when we met de Shannon, you would have said they were the same thing.
Joey would become one of the first programmers at Atari, working on those blocky video games that, when we saw them in the 1980s, felt like an “Amazing Stories” cover come to life. He’s a millionaire many times over, but whenever I see him, he wears a clip-on tie, insisting the common hand knot “does not compute.” And, yes, he says things like that.
But in the year of the United States’ Bicentennial, people like Joey didn’t have regular access to programming terminals. So, when he had to leave the high school computer lab for home, he spent his free time breaking the spines of paperbacks.
His eyesight teetered on blindness, so he had to get extra close to make out the words on those pulpy pages. This didn’t diminish the speed of his reading, usually passing along the book in under three days.
Joey and I, as well as our small group of friends, read the classics first. Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein and Clarke hooked us, but soon any book with a robot or spaceship on the cover sang its siren song, the 75 cent price tag falling within our allowance’s borders.
I was the only one not in the computer club. I was in the band. Being the geek within the geek group led to loneliness, especially when your best friends would sometimes only speak FORTRAN (Jesus, Esperanto would have been easier for me), but it worked out alright.
I would go on to be a drummer in one of those New York post-punk groups who’ve come back into fashion. We were never big, as we crammed too much jazz into our guitar-drum duo, but I got to see some of the greatest music ever made while few people were watching.
Once Joey told me he was disappointed I wasn’t Devo’s drummer. I said I would have rather been in Pere Ubu. He said he didn’t know what that meant.
But back to de Shannon and why he was in Cleveland. Because we read so much sci-fi, Joey decided we should also create it. After all, with a few weird ideas, some faster-than-light travel and a couple of laser gun battles, the story would just write itself.
We incorporated the Shaker Heights Galactic Writers’ Group, the meeting hall Joey’s basement. It was incumbent upon each of the members to help decorate, so I went to the used record store and bought Yes albums strictly for their covers. Tony Maselli, who ushered at a grindhouse downtown, had some old horror movie posters. And, after Joey worked out the design grid on graph paper, Dave Pulaski glued them to the wall, then painted a space scene around the paper. We weren’t cool enough to splash out for a black light.
It occurs to me that you may not know who Pere Ubu is. Just listen to “Songs of the Bailing Man.” You’ll either love it or hate it. It makes no difference to me.
Three months after forming the club and two months after the basement’s nerd psychedelia was finished, Joey found the de Shannon books. They didn’t just excite us; they ripped open the fabric of time and space, revealing a hidden universe way cooler than anything we envisioned.
All of the issues kept to the side in the Golden Age, like sex and drugs, came front and center in de Shannon’s work. But beyond that, there was an overarching darkness, the main theme being an inevitable, doomed future for the human race because of interstellar forces beyond our control. Pure ambrosia to the high school sophomore who can’t get laid.
Each of the back covers featured this endorsement: “From the author of ‘Venus Awaits!’” But when we asked for it at the Walden Books in Russel Park Mall, we got blank stares. Asking them to order it, we found it was out of print.
As spring turned to summer and the heat of the coming Bicentennial celebration ratcheted up to simmer, Pulaski provided the breakthrough. Dave wanted to go to art school, convincing his father to take him to New York to scope out campuses. He knew he didn’t have a prayer of attending, as five minutes in the city would have his union-dues dad screaming about animals free in the streets, but he wanted a shot at seeing the city and some of the museums.
Pulaski never came to visit me the whole time I lived in New York. He settled into a job illustrating ads for local newspaper and TV. He told me one Christmas when I visited one trip was more than enough.
“Christ, how can you live with those freaks? They’re just being weird for weird’s sake.” I told him most of those cats were my friends because they liked the music I played. He told me he started listening to Yes because of those albums I bought and he preferred Styx and Kansas to my band. The blue collar never fades.
Pulaski came to the Galactic Writers’ Club giggling after his Manhattan run. When we asked him about the big city, he said nothing, unfolding a wispy paper. Greater New York City phonebook, Desplas to Devigne. There, misspelled with a capital D, was Gerhard de Shannon and his Lower East Side address.
I thought we should call him, but that seemed too immediate to Joey. As club president, he decided upon a plan: a writing workshop lead by de Shannon. We would pay for his train fare, plus an honorarium. A phone call to Amtrak priced the ticket at 50 bucks. We would offer him another $150 for his time, also requesting one copy of “Venus Awaits!” It took another three weeks, but he sent a letter of acceptance.
He would come in mid-June for a weekend and stay in the meeting hall, because Joey’s basement was the only one that could house a guest.
I don’t have to imagine what went through de Shannon’s head when he got the letter. When I moved to NYC, I looked him up at the old address. He had been committed to Bellevue and, after a few days of working up the nerve, I went to visit him. He recognized me right away and we talked once a month for a few years, until I started touring and didn’t have the time anymore. When I got back from one road haul, he had checked out of the hospital, but hadn’t returned to his apartment. I never saw him again.
When I first visited, I asked him about that weekend and his amber teeth spread into a smile. Here’s the thing about young writers: de Shannon hated them. Obviously, you’re thinking his lack of success made him frustrated at the boundless energy and high self-delusion of the initiate scribe. But you’d be wrong.
Yes, writers bothered him. The company of his peers left him breathless as they consumed all the oxygen in a room. The hard blowing wind of self-importance made him seasick.
But it was the young part that bothered him most. While true that de Shannon could barely tolerate a room populated by more than five people, twenty bottles and a jazz-filled jukebox, the under-25 set triggered the rusty fishhooks of regret stuck in his back. Youth was wasted; it was his only real philosophy.
But the money we offered would cover the rent, assuring him one month free from hustling the netherworlds of the publishing industry. And he had never been to Cleveland.
He obviously meant the last part as a joke. When I tell people where I’m from, they always say some version of “that’s too bad.” I mean, how can you explain the inside joke of the USA was actually a great place to live? It wasn’t, but I have to defend the city. I need to pretend I’m making my parents proud.
The initial rush of a guaranteed paycheck was replaced by fear of not being able to locate “Venus Awaits!” He called the used book places, The Strand and all that, to see if there was a copy floating about. He gave them the alternative titles: “The Raft to Pleasure,” “Of Alien Bondage,” even “Venus’ Hairy Delta.” Nothing.
That meant a trip to Times Square, the old 1970s “Taxi Driver” Square before Rudy Giuliani washed his cultural bleach over the streets and stores. He decided to go during the day, mostly so solicitation from prostitutes and pimps would be a trickle, not a spurting hose. The bustling hub wrapped its sleazy neon in the red, white and blue bunting of patriotism, vendors hawking cheap polyester flags next to spank mags and dildos. Some of these silicon johnsons were star spangled for the holiday.
“Made me goddamn proud to be an American,” de Shannon told me between puffs of a cig.
He crapped out on the first two stores, but Friendly’s, one of the back alley joints, proved to be a virtual archive of Gerhard de Shannon’s oeuvre. But he had to keep within the budget, so the 35-cent copy with the cover title “The Voyage Between Her Legs” (a translation of the German title) would come to Cleveland.
In Bellevue, he reminisced about that edition of the book. He had sold it to Black Out as a value-added reprint so they would also publish “Ozone Nights.” They would retitle the new book “Steamy Moon Stories.”
He remembered what Black Out’s publisher, Martin Blandiss, who de Shannon described as a thin, balding man who always wore a vest but never a jacket, told him that day. “Gerhard, if you could write a sex scene, I’d triple your pay.”
“I responded, ‘Martin, I’m touched. I didn’t know you actually read my books.’ We laughed for years over that one.”
De Shannon pulled the novel down, noting the address of the store in case he ever needed more of his work. But, as he started towards the counter, his inner voice started yelling at him, wanting him out of that shop pronto.
Tucking the book into the back pocket of his jeans, de Shannon sprinted out the front door. The guy behind the counter, a piggy 23-year-old with stringy blonde hair, chased de Shannon to the street, running full-on into a vice squad phalanx about to raid the place. The cops didn’t stop de Shannon and the author had his prize for the Shaker Heights boys.
The voice in his head is not a metaphor. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Joey went with his father to the train station to pick up de Shannon. I look back now and can only imagine what this man saw when he descended into the basement that Saturday. It may be hard for you to remember, but the teenager feels grown up, that adults should treat him with the respect of a peer, when all the elders see is a bubble of youthful gas.
So this man who had lived a half-century walked into a room with nine kids sitting on the floor. Fashions of the time meant we were wearing ringed t-shirts with blocky letters, candy-striped jeans belled at the bottom and thick, black plastic glasses. Yes, each and every one of us had the same frames. Only the prescription varied. Worst of all, seven of ten had hair cascading over our foreheads.
When I asked de Shannon how he saw us, the writer’s instinct took over: “I looked upon da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ and it smelled like Clearasil.”
Maybe there is something to biology determining our lot in life. How many self-described nerds fall into that visual? I don’t understand the haircut thing, but I was blessed with back-flowing locks. I could have had the perfect feathered middle-part cut when the ‘80s turned, but by then I was too punk for that.
But the glasses? In the Middle Ages, Joey would have been considered blind and would have had to beg for food. But his eyesight, which prevented any sports acumen, led to his intense studies. Remove Michael Jordan’s eyesight and he could’ve been a prize-winning scientist.
But what amazes me is the people who look like this now made it cool. When my old band mate and I went on a reunion tour, we saw all sorts of women sporting this look who, bodily, were more attractive than our original fans. I preferred the first set, as both them and me were pleased as hell someone actually found the other desirable.
When de Shannon joined us in the basement, I immediately felt his presence. His hair was ghostly silver and hung to his collar, sideburns and goatee still flecked with black. He wore a patterned polyester long-sleeved shirt despite the season and his bell-bottomed jeans covered thin, Italian leather zip-up boots. Whatever he was, he was different from our parents and I wanted to be him.
I saw my friends felt the same awe. Except Joey. He had the whole car ride for the aura of hip to envelope him. He stood in the doorway, arms crossed and head bobbing, a stance that hip-hoppers would eventually make iconic. Joey told me in the ‘90s “it was the coolest I ever felt.” And he knew Steve Jobs.
The only seat was a hot pink beanbag chair which was offered to the guest of honor. De Shannon sank into it, assuming a half-lotus position. He held out his hands, open-palmed. “What’s on the agenda, cats?”
We delved into our writings. It was rough going for most of the guys. I had no delusions what I was writing approached readable, much less would soon be featured behind a four-color cover on a dime store rack, but the rest of the guys thought they were creating decent prose. De Shannon destroyed these thoughts.
But he said it in an encouraging way. He used a red pen to scratch out wide swaths of unnecessary exposition, tired dialogue and bad ideas. But a few of us got hand-drawn five-pointed stars indicating de Shannon liked a phrase or idea.
Morty Sherrod got three such stars and, when de Shannon handed him back his typed pages, he cried with joy. De Shannon told us, “Don’t think you’re all doing badly. I threw away five novels before I sent one out. You just have to learn at what point you stop being mediocre and begin actually writing.”
Morty was the only one of us who went on to be a writer. He went to the University of Southern California, studying screenwriting. Coming out of college, he got hired by Roger Corman to write and direct sci-fi and fantasy exploitation films. He once told me that de Shannon’s words kept him going when he was looking for work. “I knew eventually I would begin writing, just like Gerhard said. I guess Roger didn’t care if I was mediocre.”
When I saw him in 1987, he looked like an extra from “Miami Vice,” wearing a white sport coat and mirrored sunglasses, although he still had a pudgy waistline. He summed up his life this way: “I still have all those perverted thoughts of a fifteen-year-old geek. I just get to turn them into movies.”
He would marry three C-list actresses, dumping each wife when they turned thirty.
When the carnage of the workshop ended, de Shannon looked drained. It was closing in on seven o’clock and he rubbed his face with both hands, then shook out his arms and fingers. “Let’s get a beer.”
Teenaged heads darted from side to side. Nine sets of eyes eventually landed on me, as I once went to a bar to see The Ramones. I cleared my throat as de Shannon stared me down.
“There’s a liquor store close by. My dad always goes there.” I had no idea if my dad went there or not, but I did to buy Utz’s chips.
“Perfect. Who’s driving?”
The heads swiveled to Joey, who had to drive his kid sister to ballet. He slunk upstairs, returning with keys to the Chevelle station wagon, chin tucked in his neck. “We also have to pick up the pizza?” He ended on that questioning note soon to be how every young girl would speak.
De Shannon opened his arms. “Groovy. It shall be a feast.”
The pizza place and the liquor store were within a block of each other, so we split into two groups. Joey flew solo to grab the three pies and I brought de Shannon into The Cork’N’Crate for the liquid portion.
This was long before Americans cared about the quality of their booze, so the store was four aisles of bottles and a buzzing fridge unit. The best wine was Gallo. Beef jerky on a clip rack by the register was probably the best-tasting thing in the whole store
De Shannon went straight to the refrigerator, stopping in front of the Genesee. I saw him counting on his fingers, then he turned to me.
“Guess we’ll need a case.” He grabbed the suitcase of beer by the cardboard handle and walked up to the counter. The pudgy counterman, close to sixty and grey flat top standing at attention, swiveled his head to look at me.
“You ain’t buying this for him, are you?” He had that scratchy, high-pitched whine of the Ohio native. “Cause we got plenty of pop is he’s thirsty.”
“No, sir. My nephew’s just giving me a ride down the road. Got a card game in a few and needed something to lubricate the night, if you get my drift?” Here, de Shannon put his arm around my shoulder. I felt this weird pride, as if we were actually related. “He’s a good kid. You ain’t gotta worry about him.” De Shannon mimicked the counterman’s voice, but the guy didn’t notice.
“Okay, then.” He accepted a ten dollar bill from de Shannon and watched us walk out the door.
Joey sat in the driver’s seat as de Shannon slipped into shotgun. I rode next to three cardboard cartons wafting tomato- and pepperoni-scented air. Joey’s eyes narrowed behind his thick glasses. “That’s a lot of beer.”
In five minutes, we were back in Joey’s driveway. Mr. Greenbaum was watering the lawn and the stream of water ceased as he released the metal pistol grip screwed to the top of the hose.
“What is that, now?” Joey tried to block the case of beer from his dad’s sight, but Mr. Greenbaum cut us off from the front door. “That’s a whole lot of beer, son.”
Joey looked like a flower trying to close its petals, while de Shannon maintained a blasé demeanor. I looked at Mr. Greenbaum staring down his nose through his own thick glasses. It took a few seconds, but de Shannon broke the stalemate.
“Well, there are ten of us, Eugene.” De Shannon lifted his eyebrows. Mr. Greenbaum’s face erupted with a toothy grin.
“Aw, hell, Joey. I didn’t know you even liked beer.”
“I don’t!” Joey’s head popped out of his collar now.
“Now I know why the six pack doesn’t seem to go as far as it used to.”
“Dad, I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
Mr. Greenbaum elbowed de Shannon in the ribs. “When I was their age, jeez. We would do anything to get our hands on some of these. The hard part was finding an opener. With these pop tops, it’s just too easy, right?”
“Better get these in fridge, boys. Also, let’s eat before the pizza cools off.” De Shannon walked through the front door and Mr. Greenbaum went back to the hose. Joey grabbed my arm as we walked inside.
“You know I don’t drink beer. I don’t want to get in trouble.”
“Joey, jeez, cool it. It’s okay.” I opened the door to the basement. “Your dad wants you to drink.”
Joey shook his head, but he accepted it as we set up for dinner.
I had never drank beer before either. There was no reason behind it. We just didn’t think about it. I know the teenage years are supposed to be a rebellious time, but I didn’t feel that way until I got to New York. There I pulled a 180 and tried everything put in front of me. I’m not proud, but it’s true.
I laughed in Ian MacKaye’s face when he told me about his whole straight edge punk thing. I said, “No sex, no drugs, no booze, huh? I did that at fifteen, just not by choice.”
I like Minor Threat’s music, but come on. Most punks were nerds anyway. Let them have some fun.
After the pizza was gone, de Shannon loosened up. He had drunk three beers, telling us about meeting Isaac Asimov. De Shannon introduced himself at the Hugo Awards and Asimov refused to shake his hand.
“He told me, ‘You cheapen our art, Mr. de Shannon.’ I told him ‘Nightfall’ was the worst story ever written and he responded that it had been reprinted many time. ‘Now who’s cheap?’ I said and walked away.”
“But I love ‘Nightfall,’” Pulaski said.
“In five years, you’ll see it for the hack work it is.” He finished his fourth beer in a big gulp and laid out that old chestnut. “Remember, guys, the golden age of science fiction is 13.”
“Wait, you mean the stuff we’re reading is bad?” Joey looked angry because he hated wasting time. He thought he was investing in something by reading so many books and now one of his heroes had told him otherwise. But de Shannon softened.
“Not all of it. The thing is those older sci-fi guys have great ideas, but they don’t write very well. They see their stories as a way to get across a vision of the future, not as an exercise in literary excellence.” He popped the top on a fifth can. “When you get older, you’ll want to read something at a higher level. Maybe it will be the New Wave guys like Ballard or Morcock. Hopefully, you might read some Joyce or Faulkner. Or Hemingway. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. But you will outgrow the boom-pow stuff, because it’s for kids.”
“Are we wasting our time reading your books?” Joey’s face was boiling red.
“I don’t know.” He pulled on the beer, receding into the bean bag. The room quieted for a whole minute and some of the guys looked ready to leave. I opened a second beer, facing de Shannon directly.
“You said sci-fi guys have great ideas. Where do they come from?” This focused all my friends. Even Joey looked curious again. We had been struggling with finding stories to tell and now, maybe, this guy could give us some insight.
Of course I know this is a standard question to any writer and one no professional wants to answer. I have been asked a million times how to write a song. I usually say put words on paper and your hands on an instrument and see how they go together. Nobody ever likes this.
But this hoary question caused a metamorphosis in de Shannon. His lips slumped into a frown and his eyes bagged. Maybe it was the beer, but he was upset.
“How many times I’ve wanted to answer that question. They always ask it and I never say anything. Well, fuck it. Right here and now, I’m telling you the truth.” He went to the wall where Pulaski had drawn our solar system and de Shannon pointed to Venus. “After World War II, I was stationed at Okinawa. In the middle of nighttime guard duty, a great light blinded me and I awoke in an alien spaceship.
“They said they were from Venus and I was chosen to be their herald. In 2010, they would take over Earth and I was to prepare the human race for their eventual slavery. They implanted something in my brain, I think it must be like one of those computer tapes, and I should transcribe their messages for broadcast.
“From that night on, I heard the voice in my head prompting me to write. It also looks out for me, like when I was buying this.” He went to his overnight bag and handed me the book he stole from Times Square.
“What’s it saying now?” Joey sounded afraid. De Shannon turned and faced the corner like a misbehaving fourth grader.
“To kill all of you because you know too much.” His voice caught on his words and he sobbed.
The meeting ended quickly after that. De Shannon slumped in the corner weeping was too much raw emotion for kids who fought to keep theirs tamped down. I was the last to leave, as Mr. Greenbaum came to take de Shannon to the train station. Joey said later he was too scared to have that crazy person staying in his house overnight.
The writer looked at me, his face like an off-kilter Comedy mask as Mr. Greenbaum pointed him upstairs.
“Kid, it’s a good thing those Venus guys are terrible writers. Nobody could believe the shit I wrote. And, most importantly, nobody wants to read it.” He yelled out, “Venus awaits!” He laughed finally, but it was cold and froze my insides.
When I saw de Shannon in Bellevue, the first thing he told me was the voice was gone.
“I don’t know if the tape broke or if they gave up. But the messages have stopped and I don’t have to write them down anymore.”
“Then why are you still in here?”
“You think that was the only thing wrong with me?” His smile made me laugh and I promised to sneak in some beer. I could never get it past the front desk.
What bothers me is that de Shannon’s death came in the year the Venusians said they would cause the end of Earth. My brain knows this is a coincidence, but my heart wants to scan the sky. Should I look for the bright lights? Or should I just go on living without worrying about impending doom?
I re-read that tattered old pulp book he gave me about once a year. Now, I’ll have to look at it again and search through it carefully, just in case Venus awaits us all.