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It drives my wife crazy, and I'm sorry it does, but I can't really help it.
All the little sayings and homilies.
Such as: There's a heartbeat in every potato; you need that like a hen needs a flag; I'd trust him about as far as I could sling a piano; use it up, wear it out, do it in, or do without; you'll never be hung for your beauty; fools' names, and their faces, are often seen in public places.
I could go on and on. I got a million of 'em. I got them all from my mother, who got them all from her mother. Little kernels of wisdom. Cosmic fortune-cookies, if you like.
They drive my wife absolutely BUGFUCK.
"But honey," I'll say in my best placatory voice (I'm a very placatory fellow, when I'm not writing about vampires and psychotic killers), "there's a lot of truth in those sayings. There really is a heartbeat in every potato. The proof of the pudding really is in the eating. And handsome really is as--" But I can see that it would be foolish to continue. My wife, who can be extremely rude when it serves her purpose, is pretending to throw up. My four-year-old son walks in from the shower, naked, dripping water all over the floor and the bed (my side of the bed, of course), and also begins to make throwing-up noises.
She is obviously teaching him to hate me and revile me. It's probably all Oedipal and sexual and neo-Jungian and dirty as hell.
But I have the last laugh.
Two days later, while this self-same kid is debating which card to throw away in a hot game of Crazy Eights, my nine-year-old son tells him, "Let me look at your hand, Owen. I'll tell you which card to throwaway."
Owen looks at him coldly. Calculatingly. Pulls his cards slowly against his chest. And with a humorless grin he says: "Joey, I'd trust you just about as far as I'd spring a piano."
My wife begins to scream and roll around on the floor, foaming, pulling her hair out in great clots, drumming her heels, crying out: "I WANT A DIVORCE! THIS MAN HAS CORRUPTED MY CHILDREN AND I WANT A FUCKING DIVORCE!"
My heart glows with the warmth of fulfillment (or maybe it's just acid indigestion). My mother's homilies have slipped into the minds of yet another generation, just as chemical waste has a way of seeping into the water table. I think: Ah-hah-hah-hah! Another triumph for us bog-cutters! Long live the Irish!
Another of this wonderful woman's wonderful sayings (I told you--I got a million of 'em; don't make me prove it) was "Milk always takes the flavor of what's next to it in the icebox." Not a very useful saying, you might think, but I suspect it's not only the reason I'm writing this introduction, but the reason I'm writing it the way I'm writing it.
Does it sound like Harlan wrote it?
That's because I just finished the admirable book which follows. For the last four days I have been, so to speak, sitting next to Harlan in the icebox. I am not copying his style; nothing as low as that. I have, rather, taken a brief impression of his style, the way that, when we were kids, we used to be able to take a brief impression of Beetle Bailey or Blondie from the Sunday funnies with a piece of Silly Putty (headline in the New York Times Book Review: KING OFFERS EERILY APT METAPHOR FOR HIS OWN MIND!!).
How do I know this is what has happened? I know because I have been writing hard for about twenty-five years now--which means (as Harlan, or Ray Bradbury, or John Crowley, or any other writer worth his or her salt will tell you) that I have also been reading hard. The two go together. I am always chilled and astonished by the would-be writers who ask me for advice and admit, quite blithely, that they "don't have time to read." This is like a guy starting up Mount Everest saying that he "didn't have time to buy any rope or pitons."
And part of the dues you pay while you're doing this hard reading, particularly if you start your period of hard writing as a teen-ager (as most of us did--God knows there are exceptions, but not many), is that you find yourself writing like whoever you're reading that week. If you're reading Red Nails, your current short story sounds like that old Hyborian Cowboy, Robert E. Howard. If you've been reading Farewell, My Lovely, your stuff sounds like Raymond Chandler. You're milk, and you taste like whatever was next to you in the refrigerator that week.
But this is where the metaphor breaks down ... or where it ought to. If it doesn't, you're in serious trouble. Because a writer isn't a carton of milk--or at least he or she shouldn't be. Because a writer shouldn't continue to take the flavors of the people he or she is currently reading. Because a writer who doesn't start sounding like himself sooner or later really isn't much of a writer at all, he's a ventriloquist's dummy. But take heart--little by little, that voice usually comes out. It's not easy, and it's not quick (that's one of the reasons that so many people who talk about writing books never do), but there comes a day when you look back on the stuff you wrote when you were seventeen ... or twenty-two ... or twenty-eight ... and say to yourself, Good God! If I was this bad, how did I ever get any better?
They don't call that stuff "juvenilia" for nothing, friends'n'neighbors.