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The High-Verbals
An Evening with Harlan Ellison, Peter David, and Neil Gaiman
© Alex Jay Berman

"So three Jews walk onto a stage …"

Saturday, October 6th at MIT's Kresge Auditorium, the "Three High-Verbals" - writers Harlan Ellison, Peter David, and Neil Gaiman - lived up to their somewhat vague billing ("You've heard the Three Tenors; you've heard the Three Sopranos; now come and meet the Three High-Verbals!"), and spent an energetic four hours just talking.

And DAMN, that was one hell of a fine night's entertainment.

The evening opened with Peter David, as funny and entertaining - perhaps moreso - than he is in his comic books, novels, and on his USENET newsgroup. He read the "... But I Digress" column he wrote for the Comic Buyer's Guide the day after the World Trade Center terrorist attack and even though I had read the piece when it first was published, it was even more affecting, hearing it from his lips. "Now that I've depressed you all …" he then joked, put down hecklers, and told a hilarious anecdote of the most sadistic thing he ever did to a fan. A funny and talented man, Peter David. Careful, though; he's got a mean streak. A funny mean streak, but one nonetheless.

Next, Harlan Ellison came onstage, an energetic kid bouncing around in a wiry, sixty-seven year-old frame.

And he talked. A LOT. A WHOLE lot. Each of the three had been allotted fifteen minutes for their openings, but Harlan spoke for about forty-five minutes, with Neil's bemused approval. He joked, ranted, railed against "the shitheads on the Internet" and the mindset of entitlement that breeds the "information wants to be free" kind of thought and its outgrowths Napster and Gnutella, he destroyed his own share of hecklers, and he WAILED.

Like Robin Williams crossed with Lord Buckley crossed with the wiseasses on the corner who rap their sewer Rigollettos at all and sundry, Harlan played himself and his brain and his mouth like Bird shooting the stratosphere with his horn.

Neil Gaiman followed - quiet, polite, English, and far less overtly Jewish wiseass than the preceding two, and quietly, politely, STILL rocked the room. This even despite the power of his opening acts and despite the fact that the Goth contingent who so avidly follow the Sandman comic and Gaiman's other works were in short supply. He told a couple anecdotes, read an amusingly Seussian poem he had written his daughter, then read a selection from a walking tour of a fictional area of Chicago which he is writing along with Gene Wolfe. Had the room entranced AND laughing at the same time.

They sat then, did these three, and joked with each other a bit, then opened the floor to questions. I of course hurried down to the area where the mike was, thoughtful question in mind.

I lucked out; there weren't that many people ahead of me. Most of the questioners asked things which were either directed straight at Harlan, or which were to be answered by all.

And, even despite the power and brains and humor of Neil and Peter, Harlan stole the show.

Stole it as if he were Raffles and the Scarlet Pimpernel and Robin Hood and Zorro combined, hitting his marks and joking and raging. The impression given was not unlike that of Gene Kelly in The Pirate, and one got the feeling that Harlan should have mounted the proscenium, climbed to the rafters, and swung down on the curtain, a knife clutched in his teeth. He stole the show, and the theft was worse than that of the last Presidential election. Worse - and better. MUCH better.

One wonders how Neil and Peter plan to prevent this kind of theft, should they lecture together again.

Came the time I stood ready before the mike.

At which point Harlan, impishly grinning, spoke of how he REALLY wanted to read his most recent story, "Goodbye to All That." None were about to say him nay, so the house lights were dimmed, a painting from his Dream Corridor comic book was projected behind him, and Harlan began the tale, instructing the remaining questioners to sit tight in the aisles where we were.

And a great story it was, enhanced by the patent glee with which Harlan enjoyed the telling of the tale. In the course of the story, he giggled, shucked, juked, and somehow capered about, all while standing still. I won't give away the story, but Harlan: As a movie buff, a lover of good short fantastic fiction, and as a baseball lover, I thank you.

The lights came up, Peter and Neil came back onstage. With a bit of consternation, the three noted that they'd been on for three and a half hours, and said that they'd better start signing before they REALLY took up too much time - but that the remaining questioners should be the first in the signing line.

Now, I don't mind not having my question answered; it would have been lagniappe; just a little touch more on what already was an amazing night.

No; what annoyed me about that was that I had for some time been planning to ask my question, hurry back to my seat, and point out to my friend the drop-dead GORGEOUS girl wearing olive green, three back from the microphone on the other side of the room.

(If you're reading this, hon, there is a GREAT and talented and funny and nice Jewish boy I want you to meet. E-mail me for details.)

[I don't know if she'll ever read this, but I ain't takin' any chances.]

So, daunted in my matchmaking but ready to meet three whom I consider literary heroes, I hurried to the table of books that Susan Ellison manned (my friend remarked that upon seeing the boxes of books opened, I clapped like a schoolgirl. He's probably right.) to pick up a few of the out-of-print offerings to be had.

Reached for my wallet.

NOT THERE.

Frantically signaled to my friend in the balcony to come-down-here-goddamnit and told him of my problem. Still, I went up to Susan - who is a doll indeed, with an utterly disarming, charming smile - and spoke a bit. My friend returned triumphant with wallet in hand and I, sighing in relief, bought I, Robot - The Illustrated Screenplay, and Paingod and Other Delusions.

While waiting in the signing line, I enjoyed listening to Harlan and Peter kibitz with everyone, and I saw some great placards for the show which I decided to see if I could cajole Harlan into letting me have one to take, but someone ahead of me spoiled that by asking for one. Harlan sez, "How much will you give me for it?" The guy said, "Five dollars," and Harlan's face lit up. "See, Susan? I'm making MONEY here!"

Happily, I spoke with Harlan for a lot longer than I'd anticipated; a joy. And his recognizing my name from his message board jazzed me no end. Even the fact that the mild nerves I got, speaking to Harlan, brought back an old - and, I had thought, broken - habit of mine, that of punctuating with the word "like" (for which I was of course chastised by Harlan) did not diminish my happiness.

I DID end up buying one of the Three High-Verbals posters, but I bought it from Peter David. I had intended to buy his new novel Sir Apropos of Nothing from him and get it signed, but somehow the bookseller had forgot to bring that particular book. So, to put some green in HIS pocket, copped a flyer from him rather than from Harlan.

And though the line for Neil Gaiman was long and my money now short, I had to get over to Neil, if only to shake his hand and thank him for all his work. He seemed somewhat pleasantly shocked that I should want such a thing, but there you are.

A great, great evening: High-Verbal, high energy, high comedy, and high entertainment.


Alex Jay Berman is a contributing writer for RevolutionSF.

 
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    Harlan Ellison,
    writing in San Francisco
    (harlanellison.com)

    Neil Gaiman,
    posing for his website
    (americangods.com)

    Peter David at MIT
    (by Mike Toole)

     

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