CLOSE
YouTube
YouTube

The Author Who Wrote in Bookstore Windows

YouTube
YouTube

The 102-year-old pregnant corpse.

Chris Carter, creator of The X-Files, gave him the premise. It was a challenge, a dare, and he was responsible for the rest. One by one, the pages went up in the window. They were immaculately typed, spaced, and edited in his head long before his fingers hit the keys.

He started at 1 p.m., craning the necks of passerby outside the shop. They wondered about the man sitting in the window, hunched over a typewriter. It was like a piece of glass that allowed you to see the gears and pistons of a machine.

When the Dangerous Visions bookstore in Sherman Oaks, Calif., closed that day, Harlan Ellison had completed “Objects of Desire in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear," a short story that, yes, included a pregnant corpse and added three suspects.

By this time in 1998, Ellison had already been writing for 40-plus years, collected virtually every award a writer of speculative fiction could receive, and bolstered the reputation of the original Star Trek series by writing the seminal episode, “The City on the Edge of Forever.” He had marched in Selma, sued James Cameron for appropriating his ideas in The Terminator, and mouthed off to a posturing Frank Sinatra.

He was also prolific, and that meant buying less into the idea of writing as a mystical art. To help discourage that notion, Ellison began public compositions in bookstore windows in the 1970s, inspired by French author Georges Simenon, who was rumored to have written an entire novel while sitting in a glass cage. (He didn’t, but Ellison didn’t know that until years later.)

“I do it because I think particularly in this country people are so distanced from literature, the way it’s taught in schools, that they think that people who write are magicians on a mountaintop somewhere,” he told NBC after one such performance in 1981. “And I think that’s one of the reasons why there’s so much illiteracy in this country. So by doing it in public, I show people it’s a job … like being a plumber or an electrician.”

Amid distractions, gaping pedestrians, and breaks to entertain autograph seekers, Ellison churned out stories in bookstore windows overlooking Washington, London, Boston, and New York. Good ones, too. The five days he spent in the window of A Change of Hobbit in Santa Monica in 1977 resulted in work that garnered three awards.

Sometimes he would play music. In one of his foreign appearances, tourists kept asking him where they could find certain titles, believing he worked there. On one of his days in the Hobbit, he conveyor-belted 26 very short stories, which Stephen King later compared to a beat poem. If he needed to research a subject, he'd simply get up and browse the aisles. When people grew suspicious he was plotting out the stories in advance, he began soliciting starting points.

Carter's was one. Four years later, at the Booksmith in San Francisco, Robin Williams gave him the springboard “Computer Vampyre.” Ellison, who disliked working with computers, grunted but wrote a story, “Keyboard,” anyway.

By rejecting the notion of writers as introverts, Ellison raised some charitable funds, brought attention to independent booksellers, and intensified his own reputation as an author who never once considered the act of writing as a mechanical exercise. The author is now 81 and still writes, though no longer while on display.  

nextArticle.image_alt|e
George C. Beresford/Getty Images
arrow
literature
12 Facts About Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness
George C. Beresford/Getty Images
George C. Beresford/Getty Images

Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella about venturing into the moral depths of colonial Africa is among the most frequently analyzed literary works in college curricula.

1. ENGLISH WAS THE AUTHOR’S THIRD LANGUAGE.

It’s impressive enough that Conrad wrote a book that has stayed relevant for more than a century. This achievement seems all the more impressive when considering that he wrote it in English, his third language. Born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857, Conrad was a native Polish speaker. French was his second language. He didn’t even know any English—the language of his literary composition—until age 21.

2. HEART OF DARKNESS BEGINS AND ENDS IN THE UK.

Though it recounts Marlow's voyage through Belgian Congo in search of Kurtz and is forever linked to the African continent, Conrad’s novella begins and ends in England. At the story’s conclusion, the “tranquil waterway” that “seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness” is none other than the River Thames.

3. THE PROTAGONIST MARLOW IS CONRAD.

The well-traveled Marlow—who appears in other Conrad works, such as Lord Jim—is based on his equally well-traveled creator. In 1890, 32-year-old Conrad sailed the Congo River while serving as second-in-command on a Belgian trading company steamboat. As a career seaman, Conrad explored not only the African continent but also ventured to places ranging from Australia to India to South America.

4. LIKE KURTZ AND MARLOW, CONRAD GOT SICK ON HIS VOYAGE.

Illness claimed Kurtz, an ivory trader who has gone mysteriously insane. It nearly claimed Marlow. And these two characters almost never existed, owing to their creator’s health troubles. Conrad came down with dysentery and malaria in Belgian Congo, and afterwards had to recuperate in the German Hospital, London, before heading to Geneva, Switzerland, to undergo hydrotherapy. Though he survived, Conrad suffered from poor health for many years afterward.

5. THERE HAVE BEEN MANY ALLEGED KURTZES IN REAL LIFE.

The identity of the person on whom Conrad based the story’s antagonist has aroused many a conjecture. Among those suggested as the real Kurtz include a French agent who died on board Conrad’s steamship, a Belgian colonial officer, and Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley.

6. COLONIZING WAS ALL THE RAGE WHEN HEART OF DARKNESS APPEARED.

Imperialism—now viewed as misguided, oppressive, and ruthless—was much in vogue when Conrad’s novella hit shelves. The "Scramble for Africa" had seen European powers stake their claims on the majority of the continent. Britain’s Queen Victoria was even portrayed as the colonies' "great white mother." And writing in The New Review in 1897, adventurer Charles de Thierry (who tried and failed to establish his own colony in New Zealand) echoed the imperialistic exuberance of many with his declaration: “Since the wise men saw the star in the East, Christianity has found no nobler expression.”

7. CHINUA ACHEBE WAS NOT A FAN OF THE BOOK.

Even though Conrad was no champion of colonialism, Chinua Achebe—the Nigerian author of Things Fall Apart and other novels—delivered a 1975 lecture called “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” that described Conrad as a “thoroughgoing racist” and his ubiquitous short classic as “an offensive and deplorable book.” However, even Achebe credited Conrad for having “condemned the evil of imperial exploitation.” And others have recognized Heart of Darkness as an indictment of the unfairness and barbarity of the colonial system.

8. THE BOOK WASN’T SUCH A BIG DEAL—AT FIRST.

In 1902, three years after its initial serialization in a magazine, Heart of Darkness appeared in a volume with two other Conrad stories. It received the least notice of the three. In fact, not even Conrad himself considered it a major work. And during his lifetime, the story “received no special attention either from readers or from Conrad himself,” writes Gene M. Moore in the introduction to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness: A Casebook. But Heart of Darkness managed to ascend to immense prominence in the 1950s, after the planet had witnessed “the horror”—Kurtz's last words in the book—of WWII and the ramifications of influential men who so thoroughly indulged their basest instincts.

9. T.S. ELIOT BORROWED AN IMPORTANT LINE.

Though Heart of Darkness wasn’t an immediate sensation, it evidently was on the radar of some in the literary community. The famous line announcing the antagonist’s demise, “Mistah Kurtz—he dead,” serves as the epigraph to the 1925 T.S. Eliot poem “The Hollow Men.”

10. THE STORY INSPIRED APOCALYPSE NOW.

Eighty years after Conrad’s novella debuted, the Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now hit the big screen. Though heavily influenced by Heart of Darkness, the movie’s setting is not Belgian Congo, but the Vietnam War. And though the antagonist (played by Marlon Brando) is named Kurtz, this particular Kurtz is no ivory trader, but a U.S. military officer who has become mentally unhinged.

11. HEART OF DARKNESS HAS BEEN MADE INTO AN OPERA.

Tarik O'Regan’s Heart of Darkness, an opera in one act, opened in 2011. Premiering at London’s Royal Opera House, it was reportedly the first operatic adaptation of Conrad’s story and heavily inspired by Apocalypse Now.

12. THE BOOK ALSO SPARKED A VIDEO GAME.

In a development not even Conrad’s imagination could have produced, his classic inspired a video game, Spec Ops: The Line, which was released in 2012.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Dan Bell
arrow
Design
A Cartographer Is Mapping All of the UK’s National Parks, J.R.R. Tolkien-Style
Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park
Dan Bell

Cartographer Dan Bell makes national parks into fantasy lands. Bell, who lives near Lake District National Park in England, is currently on a mission to draw every national park in the UK in the style of the maps in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Kottke.org reports.

The project began in September 2017, when Bell posted his own hand-drawn version of a Middle Earth map online. He received such a positive response that he decided to apply the fantasy style to real world locations. He has completed 11 out of the UK’s 15 parks so far. Once he finishes, he hopes to tackle the U.S. National Park system, too. (He already has Yellowstone National Park down.)

Bell has done various other maps in the same style, including ones for London and Game of Thrones’s Westeros, and he commissions, in case you have your own special locale that could use the Tolkien treatment. Check out a few of his park maps below.

A close-up of a map for Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park in central England
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Cairngorms National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Cairngorms National Park in Scotland
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Lake District National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Lake District National Park in England
Dan Bell

You can buy prints of the maps here.

[h/t Kottke.org]

All images by Dan Bell

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios