Friday, December 8, 2017

FFB: MIND FIELDS by Harlan Ellison and Jacek Yerka (Morpheus International 1994)

Jacek Yerka is a Polish painter who was influenced first and foremost, we're told, by the Flemish school of representational art, and one can see that; the degree to which he was also influenced by Rene Magritte among the other Surrealists is also hard to miss, though there's a softness to the lines of some of his paintings not much like Magritte at all, and a sharp clarity in some that outdoes the playful elder master.  Harlan Ellison, a writer mostly but by no means exclusively of fantasy fiction and popular-culture criticism, was unsurprisingly drawn to Yerka's paintings, and with this project took to writing vignettes in response to individual paintings, sometimes little anecdotes or jokes or musings, sometime fully-fleshed if brief short stories. Not the first time Ellison would write stories around paintings, a common commissioning practice in the fiction magazines of the 1940s, when Ellison began reading them, and the 1950s, when he began his career writing for them; and not an uncommon means of creation of fiction in any era; I've done it...there's no little chance that you've done it. Further, collections of vignettes is an approach Ellison had used fruitfully before, in such literary portfolios as "From A to Z, in the Chocolate Alphabet" and, perhaps less obviously, in working around a common theme in some of his best work, such as "The Deathbird". This book is, so far, the last collection of predominantly new work Ellison has published, aside from the comics adaptations, mostly of older stories, for the magazine project (and collected reprints in book form) Harlan Ellison's Dream Corridor.

The stories in this volume have only infrequently been seen elsewhere, and are for the most part not Ellison's best work, but are still engaging examples of his approach, each taking its title as well as inspiration at least in part from the painting it's paired with. As a nice package deal, illustration and story together, three were published in magazines before or alongside the book's appearance in 1994:

from the Locus Index:  
Mind Fields: The Art of Jacek Yerka; The Fiction of Harlan Ellison Jacek Yerka & Harlan Ellison (Morpheus International 0-9623447-9-6, Mar ’94, $24.95, 71pp, tp, cover by Jacek Yerka) Art book, a collection of 33 full-color paintings, each paired with an accompanying original short-short or prose poem by Harlan Ellison based on the painting. With notes by Ellison. A 1,000-copy hardcover edition (-03-7, $45.00 — already sold out) and a signed, slipcased, leatherbound 475-copy limited edition (-00-2, $95.00) were announced but not seen. Available from Morpheus International, 200 North Robertson Blvd., Suite 326, Beverly Hills CA 90211.
Yerka's painting trimmed for the cover format
Two of the stories, "Susan" and "Fever", were reprinted in Datlow and Windling's The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror volumes for 1994 and '95, respectively; otherwise, the prose items have in some cases been included in Ellison's retrospective collections published since, but only a few of them...they do work best, for the most part, not divorced from the paintings, even if the better ones can stand on their own. Ellison is usually better at longer forms of short fiction, giving himself room to dig in and explore the psyches of his characters in greater detail, but the charm of much of his mature work is in evidence here...the notes help make clear, as do the dedications from both Yerka and Ellison, that this book was assembled in stressful times for nearly everyone involved: Ellison had several heart attacks in the period, his wife Susan, for whom he describes "Susan" as a valentine of a story, had spinal disc problems, Jacek Yerka's young son died, not living to see the advice he gave to his father on the last painting in the book come to fruition, and even the publisher at Morpheus, James Cowan, was afflicted with motility problems that looked at first as if they would require extensive surgery (Yerka dedicates the book to the memory of his son; Ellison to the memories of the then recently-dead friends Isaac Asimov, Fritz Leiber and Avram Davidson). Added to this, Ellison is particularly disturbed  by the early '90s resurgence of Nazism and similar fascist tendencies, including Pat Buchann's new prominence as both presidential candidate (I suspected then and continue to suspect, in part to deflect David Duke from having as much influence on the GOP's contest as he might, as the less-well-known Trump wildcard of 1992) and Holocaust skeptic, however partially. Certain things never go out of style. Ellison deals with this most explicitly in "Twilight in the Cupboard".

It's a lovely book, though the semi-gloss pages in large format make it easier to look at than to read (the reproduction of the paintings looks to be excellent)...not the book to start with for Ellison, which would probably be one of the versions of Deathbird Stories, but worthy of one's time and effort to obtain it...very reasonably priced copies of the paperback edition are available from the Usual Sources.





And one of the best stories, and the painting that, to a degree Ellison found annoying, seemed to catch everyone's eye as the epitome of Yerka's brilliance, the book's cover painting as a result, "Attack at Dawn", was the sample Algis Budrys, a lover of automobiles among other relevant things, took for his magazine Tomorrow, in the same issue that published my first story. As a result, this book has a certain sentimental resonance for me. The 1995 Year's Best Fantasy and Horror which includes Ellison's "Fever" also includes my story "Bedtime" in the "Recommended Reading" longlist.

For more of today's books, please see Patti Abbott's blog.

Mike Doran points us, in comments below, to this interview, from Tom Snyder's CNBC series, in 1994...the tape source it was uploaded from was in pretty rough shape in parts (though the audio is never seriously disrupted), and dates from the days when YT limited uploads to about 7-8 minutes each:






10 comments:

Anonymous said...

I remember pawing over this on a visit to San Francisco ... but never picked up a copy. As poor as I was, clearly out of my skull. Have to get my hands of a copy now. And yeah, that cover item with the car is really memorable - had no idea there was so much trauma behind the scenes though! Thanks as ever Todd :)

Jerry House said...

Todd, I'm assuming that the "others" on the cover of that issue of TOMORROW was your pen name. I've seen it used on many other mags and anthologies, from which I can only infer that you are much more prolific than I had realized.

Todd Mason said...

It's a good and valuable book...but not Ellison's best. It seemed particularly in keeping with The Way Things Are Going of late...

I was working in a bookstore in March, 1994, and was not unflattered that the assistant manager who took care of the sf & fantasy section, Darla Baack-Hilton, set up a display with MIND FIELDS and the TOMORROW issue together, with note about a staffer's first story within.

Todd Mason said...

Jerry, I am terrifyingly prolific. In fact, I address this issue in my earlier post...Budrys added my story to the issue at the last moment, so I and all the illustrators in the issue got to be Others...

Just the way The Man wants you to think of us.

George said...

I couldn't find my copy of MINDFIELDS so I just ordered another copy. Wonderful book! Todd, you have exquisite taste!

Todd Mason said...

Thank you, George...I like your choices, too, in fiction if not always in sociology. Did you put your original copy of the book in the university library collection?

Mathew Paust said...

I shall have to get my stereo fixed so I can play Sinatra while reading this one.

Todd Mason said...

Matt, I take it you've read Gay Talese's "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" sometime along the decades...(one incident in the essay has Sinatra trying to bully Ellison, and Ellison trying to brush Sinatra off with no deference, to the exasperated terror of the owner of the small night club where this is taking place).

Mike Doran said...

Since nobody mentioned it above, I'll throw this in here:

When this book came out in '94, Harlan Ellison went on Tom Snyder's CNBC talker to promote it.
Ellison and Snyder were good friends off-camera, and played well off each other on-camera.
So it was that as Tom and Harlan were talking about Mind Fields and Mr. Jacek, Tom sprang a little surprise on Harlan ...

... Actually, it's better if you see this yourself; the whole show is on YouTube, in several parts (I've never been able to link, so you're all going to have to look it up yourselves *sorry*).
Definitely worth the effort, though.

Todd Mason said...

Thanks, Mike!