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Authors: Harlan Ellison

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Slippage

BOOK: Slippage
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Slippage
The Harlan Ellison Collection

Harlan Ellison

 

 

 

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

 

 

What are three euphemisms for "museum" in Swedish; what is the most efficacious getaway route by highway from New Orleans; at what depth does nitrogen narcosis take full effect; how does an inmate of an Alabama prison dress and of what are the soles of his shoes made; who said "Common sense is instinct. Enough of it is genius"; can you name a lost Chinese dialect for me?

 

The frenzied call for information at three in the morning; the idle remark that sparks the concept; a well-intentioned push toward completion of a stranded story; an odd request for a certain sort of narrative; medical attention that kept the heart breathing, or abated the fierce itching from shingles while writing in a public bookstore window; a painting that inspired an entire story; years of unquestioning friendship. If the list seems inordinately or insolently long, let it be noted that with any brevity it would not serve the holy purpose of keeping the Author's hubris in check, would not serve as reminder that none of us can do it without help. The list is long. The assistance was invaluable.

 

SAMUEL JOHNSON: "Knowledge is of two kinds.

We know a subject ourselves,

or we know where we can find information."

 

Neal Adams; the executive committee of Albacon 1985 (Glasgow, Scotland); the late Isaac Asimov; Kyle Baker; Steve Barnes; Doug Beauchamp; Jill Bauman; Anina Bennett; the late Alfred Bester; John Betancourt; the late Robert Bloch; the staff of Bookstar, French Quarter,
New Orleans; Alan Brennert; Ron Brown; Edward W. Bryant Jr.; Sharon Buck; Octavia Estelle Butler; Tony Caputo; Paul Chadwick; Bob Chapman; Mel (Melony) Clark; Robert Crais; Jim Crocker; Pete Crowther; Janet Cruickshank; Ellen Datlow; Keith DeCandido; Phil DeGuere; O'Neil De Noux; Leo & Diane Dillon; Kathryn Drennan; Susan Ellison; Peter R. Emshwiller; Louise Erdrich; Arnie Fenner; Keith Ferrell; Richard Finkelstein, Director, Bureau of Client Fraud Investigation: New York Human Resources Administration; Gary Frank, Lisa K. Buchanan & the staff of The Booksmith, San Francisco; the manufacturers of SssstingStop & Alpha Eczema; Lazar Friedman of Lazar's Luggage; Dan Fox; Dr. Richard Fuchs; H.R. Giger; Stephen Hickman; Tony Hillerman; the late Mike Hodel; John Henri & Evastina Holmberg; Rich Howell; Chris Hudak; International Hard Suit; the late Shirley Jackson; Warden Charlie Jones of Holman Prison in Atmore, Alabama; Samanda b. Jeudfi; Katrina Kenison; Patrick Ketchum, former President, Cyberdreams; Robert Killheffer; Tappan King; Tim Kirk; Gary Klotz; Ed Kramer; Mark Kreighbaum; Stan Tymorek & Al Shackelford of the
land's End
catalog; Ron Lee; Robert Lerose; Barry R. Levin; David Loftus; Rod Heather; Sean O'Leary & Joe Martucci of
Lore
magazine; Mike Lowrey; Alan Luck; Jane MacKenzie; Guy McLimore; Robert Mace Kass, M.D,; Steven W. Tabak, M.D.; Ronald P. Karlsberg, M.D.; John David Romm, M.D.; Morris Middleton; Frank Miller; Rockne S. O'Bannon; Omni Group Cruises, Inc. & the ship Regal Princess of Princess Cruises; Kent Orlando; Chris Owens; Byron Preiss; John Radziewicz; Sam Raffa; Chris Reynolds; Frank P. Reynolds; Susan West Richardson; Joe Roberdeau; Ellen Rosenberg; William Rotsler; Kristine Kathryn Rusch; the late Carl Sandburg; Tracy K. Saritzky; Bob Schreck; Diana Schutz; Bruce Scott, Producer, National Public Radio Cultural Programming; Hannah Louise Shearer; Robert Silverberg; Dean Wesley Smith; John Snowden; Ken Steacy; Allen Steele; Joe Straczynski; Jonathan Strahan, Jeremy G. Byrne & the editorial committee of
Eidolon
(Australia); the late Eleanor Sullivan of
Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine;
Leslie Kay Swigart; Avon Swofford; Jenna Terry; Larry Teufner; Robert Tidwell; Michael Toman; the very late Mark Twain; David L. Ulin; the very late Jules Verne; Thomas Vitale; Bill Warren; Lauren Weiss, Deputy District Attorney, Los Angeles; Donald E. Westlake; Michael Whelan; Charlie Williams; Robin Williams; Terri Windling; Jann Woosley; William F. Wu; Rick Wyatt; Mark & Cindy Ziesing.

 

 

 

 

With the late Cyril Connolly ("England's most influential and controversial literary critic"), I used to believe, though in an antic sense:

 

"We are all serving a terminal sentence in the dungeon of life."

 

Then I married Susan.

 

This book is for her.

 

 

 

"You must not mind me, madam: 
I say strange things, but I mean no harm."

Samuel Johnson 
(1709—1784)

 

 

 

 

 

Photograph by Michael Amedolia / Australia

 

 

 

The Fault In My Lines

 

Introduction

 

 

Where to open the fissure: the earthquake or the heart attack?

The earthquake. It is officially listed as a 6.8-magnitude temblor by the U.S. Geological Survey's geophysicists at the Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colorado.

The Northridge, California "thruster." It hit at precisely,
exactly,
4:31 a.m. on Monday the 17th of January 1994. It had been a pretty lousy year through the 16th, and 1993 hadn't been too cuddly, either. Let us not even talk about '92.

But as rusty as those first sixteen days of the new year had been, they were nothing but sunny days on the beaches of Ibiza by comparison to 4:31 in the dead black morning of January 17th.

First, there was the sound of it. Oh, yeah, trust me on this: first, you hear it coming. You don't know that's what the hell you're hearing, but you catch the sound of it hurtling toward you before your bones and back teeth pick it up.

Let me try to tell you what it sounds like.

Because just the
sound
of it can scare your hair white, (Mine started to fall out in the months following.)

The unimaginative say it sounds like a train coming toward you. Bullshit. Nothing like a train. I used to ride the freights, like a bindlestiff, when I was a kid. Trains have a decent sound to them. A good sound. Tough, but willing to accommodate you. This damned thruster had absolutely
nothing
in common with a train. Then there are those whose best analogy is, "It was a deep rumbling noise." Yer ass. A deep rumbling noise is what you get out of your stomach when you've had too many baby-backs and hot links. A cranky bear makes a deep rumbling sound. The radiator. The water pipes trying to carry the load. Krusty the Klown makes a deep rumbling noise. I'll tell you
precisely
what that muther sounded like:

Ever see one of those Japanese samurai movies featuring the masterless ronin who travels around with his baby son in a wooden cart that rolls on big wooden wheels? The Lone Wolf and Cub films? What they call the "baby cart" series?

Okay, then: are you familiar with "corduroy roads"? They were common and plentiful in this country up until about forty years ago. Mostly, you could find them in backwoods or rural areas, where dirt roads were still in use, macadam hadn't made its inroads, superhighways were distant myths, and country roads were used for hauling heavy loads. So, to make them capable of supporting the weight of a tractor pulling a backhoe, or a fully loaded hay wagon, logs were laid transversely, producing a kind of ribbed look—something like those speed bumps in parking lots that make you slow down—and the buried logs gave the dirt road the topographical surface of the cotten cloth we call
corduroy.

When you drove down such a road, there was a metronomic bump-bump-bump sound. I'm trying to be specific here, trying to describe the indescribable. Explain the color red to someone blind from birth.

What it sounded like was this: a gigantic wooden-wheeled baby cart, as big as a mountain, bump-bump-bumping down a corduroy road. Underneath you. Deep underneath you.

I was awake at that hour. I was upstairs here in my office, working. On the second floor of the office wing I designed and had built some years ago. Walls floor-to-ceiling filled with reference and non-fiction books I might need when working, arranged alphabetically by subject. Several thousand books, mostly hardcovers. And an open central atrium that looks down on the first floor of the office wing. And my desk and typewriter over here next to the French doors that give onto the balcony and a view of the San Bernardino Mountains thirty-seven miles away across the San Fernando Valley. My office looks out due north toward those mountains.

At 4:31 in the morning, the thruster zazzed laterally across the Valley floor, west to south, reached the foot of the Santa Monica Mountains (at the top of which my home sits)...and had nowhere to go but
up.

(Pause. Know-nothings who live in parts of the country where they endure sub-zero weather, tornados, floods, killing pollution, drought, blight, sand storms, provincial bigotry, ultraconservative censorship, hurricanes or Jesse Helms, have been known to remark, "How can anyone bear living in Southern California with all those earthquakes? They must be really stupid not to flee the state!"

(And go
where?

(It's the same everywhichplace these days, folks. New Orleans or Pittsburgh; Kankakee or Kansas; Eugene, Oregon or Oklahoma City. If the twister don't get you, the rabid militia will.

(L.A. is okay. I like it here. But I'm no dope. Long before the thruster, I had hired both seismic engineers and structural experts, as well as soil analysts, to tell me how safe I was here on the crest of the North Benedict Canyon slope. Core drilling had been done, and I was heartened to learn that the house sat solidly, a mere five feet above bedrock. Of even more salutary note was the advisement that not only was the house secure just five feet above bedrock, but the seam ran north-south, in line with the house. Meaning: not even the worst of the "rolling" temblors we knew so well in Southern California could trouble me overmuch. If the rolling came, it would not affect the solid cut under me. I was sanguine. And when the Landers quake hit a few years ago, I barely felt it, despite all the serious damage done in other nearby areas. I was sanguine. "The only way you're going to be in any trouble," said an engineer from the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena—a reader of my work who had offered to bring in some ground-testing equipment as a favor—"any trouble
at all,
is if the whole damned mountain collapses." I was sanguine.)

The fault line came diagonally across the Valley, got to the base of the mountains, had nowhere to go...so it went
up.

The house was lifted with a 4g thrust. It takes only 6 gravs to throw a rocket to the moon.

I heard it coming, and I bolted from my typing chair, and got across the office to the deco stairwell before the first wave hit. The house, and everything in it, went straight up. I was lifted off my feet and thrown across the stairwell, crashing face-first against the south wall of the second-floor landing. The right side of my face smashed into a framed photo of the blind Borges in Baltimore in 1983, sitting at the foot of the memorial to Edgar Allan Poe, running his fingers over the bronze commemorative plaque, paying homage, one great fantasist to another. I hit it so hard it shattered the glass and broke the frame.

BOOK: Slippage
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