Thursday, March 31, 2011


The older I get the more I realize that the most important thing any of us can do in life is strive to live compassionately, keeping our hearts open, treating others with understanding and, most important, simple human kindness.  “That which is most needed,” as Buddha said, in words that have echoed through my life for decades, “is a loving heart.”  I truly believe that the microcosm is the macrocosm.  That our smallest acts of compassion resonate across the planet.  That one heart can quite literally change the world.

Of course it’s one thing to make compassion an intention in our lives and quite another to live it.  Oh, I try, I honestly do, to be as good and decent a person as I can—I’ve been consciously working on myself, on my connection to the Divine, since I was in high school—but the truth is, for all my work, for all my striving, I’m regularly astounded by my ability to say or do spectacularly stupid or hurtful things.

I’ve found that ninety-nine percent of the time, when I’ve done something to wound another person, I’ve done it unconsciously:  I was so clueless I wasn’t even aware of my idiotic actions.  When I discover my transgression, my response is usually the same:  guilt, misery, shame, and abject apologies.  (The first three, I’ve decided, are fairly useless.  The abject apologies are absolutely necessary.)  Then—what else can I do?—I get up out of my pool of self-pity and determine to be more conscious of my actions in the future, to open my heart a little wider, to be more aware

That said, I think that no matter how hard we try to live our highest ideals, we are, at some point—and, I suspect, with some regularity—going to screw up:  say or do the wrong thing.  Make idiotic mistakes.  Hurt someone’s feelings.  The fact is we’re human—if we were meant to be pure and perfect angels we’d have been born with wings—so all we can do is our best.  Sometimes our best is extraordinary, sometimes it’s pathetic; but it’s the effort that counts, I think.

In Kurt Vonnegut’s wonderful 1965 novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (one of my all-time favorite books), the main character—a man who cares so much about his fellow humans that it’s driven him to the brink of madness—is asked to baptize newborn twins.  Eliot Rosewater then improvises a succinct, honest and heartfelt welcome to Planet Earth that concludes like this:  “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—:  ’God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’”

Those words, like Buddha’s request for a loving heart, have stayed with me for decades.  Neither quote is especially poetic, but both contain enough truth to change the world.

One heart at a time.

©copyright 2011  J.M. DeMatteis

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


It's William Shatner's 80th birthday.  (How did he get so old while the rest of us haven't aged?)  A few years back I wrote, at length, on my old Amazon blog about the reasons why I'm an unrepentant, unapologetic Shatnerd—the essay seems to have vanished into cyberspace, so I may re-post it here at some point—but, really, it can all be summed up in two little words:  Denny Crane.  Of course I love Captain Kirk and the Priceline guy, the unhinged airline passenger who flew through The Twilight Zone, Third Rock's Big Giant Head and the Shakespearean prosecutor of The Andersonville Trial (among many others), but Shatner's portrayal of Boston Legal's legendary lawyer is the role that folded all his personas into one larger-than-life—and yet heartbreakingly human—package.  So, in celebration of Shatner entering his ninth decade, here's a little taste of the inimitable Denny Crane.

Monday, March 21, 2011


I’ve written before about those transcendent moments when it becomes clear that I’m not really the author of my work; when I understand that I’m a channel, tuning in to another frequency, another dimension, and bringing that information down into the physical world until it takes shape as that astonishing creature called a Story.  Opening to that cosmic download, then transcribing, embellishing and editing the information, is a profound and magical event; but, for all my participation, I know it has very little to do with me.  I’m experiencing a kind of visitation:  a descent of story-angels, of narrative grace.  I’m not the initiator, I’m the vessel.  And grateful for it.

Storytelling is woven into my DNA; hell, it’s almost an addiction:  I couldn’t stop doing it if I tried (and there have been several occasions when I have tried—and, thank God, failed).  As blessed as I’ve been all these years, making my living doing something I genuinely love, there are times I find it insanely difficult (accent, as my wife will attest, on the insane); moments of frustration and despair—sometimes brought on by the intransigent story itself, sometimes by the economic realities of the freelance life—when I think I’ll never be able to create again.  Why, I wonder, can’t I just turn on the divine download at will?  I imagine a kind of channeling that goes beyond what I’ve experienced in the past, where I simply close my eyes and allow the Story to take complete control of me.  My conscious mind ascends into a warm, spiritual void while themes, plots, characters and endless words flow down from the astral heights, electrifying my fingertips, urging them to dance across the keyboard with lightning speed.  I emerge from the void, perhaps minutes later, perhaps hours, to find the finished story waiting for me.  No effort on my part:  it’s simply there.  

In another version of this fantasy, I’m not even at the keyboard.  I go to bed at night, only to discover—when I turn on my computer in the morning—that a new story has appeared on my desktop:  in need of minor editing, but essentially complete.  How has this happened?  Perhaps, in some ineffable altered state, I’ve staggered out of bed at three in the morning and written the piece in a hypnotic daze; or, better yet, perhaps entities from the Celestial Realms have sailed into my office while I’m fast asleep and written the entire story for me.  It’s the writer’s version of the classic fairy tale—one that’s fascinated me since I was a child—The Shoemaker and the Elves.  The cobbler sleeps, the elves work.  In the morning:  shoes!

It may come as no surprise to you that that this hasn’t happened yet (being a firm believer in the miraculous, I always hold out hope), but I’ve come close a few times—although not in an overtly mystical way.  What’s happened instead is that, going through old files, I’ve unearthed a story that was written years earlier:  a proposal, a detailed outline, a completed screenplay that was pitched for sale and then—when met with rejection—abandoned like a foreclosed house.  Sometimes, leafing through this forgotten work, I discover that there were excellent reasons for abandonment; but, more often than not, I find that the story was actually strong:  it was the timing that was wrong.  So I blow off the dust, make some minor changes, pop the tale in a boat and sail it back out into the world.

Now here’s where the magic emerges from the mundane:  because the outline was written so many years before, reading it is virtually a new experience.  Oh, I may have vague memories of working on the piece—but the time spent, the effort expended, has all the substance (or lack of substance) of a long-ago dream:  hazy, distant and profoundly unreal.  There are times, in fact, when it feels like I haven’t written the story at all.  It’s as if the work has manifested—in a blaze of light and a swirl of pixie dust—in my files:  a gift from the elves.

This happened to me recently when I was approached by the National Audio Theater Festivals about being a guest playwright at their yearly celebration.  If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time, then you know how enthusiastic I am about what some people call “Old Time Radio”—from The Mercury Theater on the Air to The Jack Benny Show, Suspense to Dimension X.  Audio drama is one of the great art forms—with rare exceptions (BBC Radio, to name one), it’s a lost art form—and the opportunity to contribute an original script, to actually watch it performed and recorded, was too good to pass up.  (Too good?  It’s a dream-come-true.)  I proposed doing a thirty-minute, Rod Serling-like supernatural drama about the afterlife that had been rattling around in the back of my head for a few years.  NATF Vice President Lance Roger Axt, who’ll be directing my piece, loved the idea—and I was off.  At least I thought I was until the morning I woke up with a completely different tale of the afterlife flooding my brain, demanding to be resurrected for audio:  a story I’d written back in the 80’s called Knocking on Heaven’s Door.  I think I may have pitched KOHD to CBS’s revival of The Twilight Zone (my first television sale was to the 80’s Zone and you can watch the episode here) or maybe to a Zone clone called Tales From The Dark Side.  In any case, the story hadn't sold and I tucked the outline away.  The question was, did I still have it?

I rushed into my office, dropping to my knees beside a hulking file cabinet that’s been my companion for decades, hurling papers left and right as I ransacked the drawers.  Eventually I found it:  an ancient document, on parchment-crisp paper, produced not by a computer and printer, but by an actual typewriter.  (For years I worked on a massive IBM Selectric, an advanced-for-its-era behemoth that had a then-extraordinary feature:  it could “remember” and, if necessary, erase up to two entire lines of text.  And it only cost me $2,000.00!).  (A moment, while you fall out of your chair laughing.) 

I read the outline over and was amazed, delighted, not just by the fact that Knocking On Heaven’s Door was an excellent story, but by the simple fact that it was there at all, patiently waiting more than twenty years for me:  a complete tale, with a compelling plot and interesting characters.  An outline, perfectly suited to the audio format, that required absolutely no effort on my part.  Yes, once, in some previous incarnation, I’d written it—but I certainly had no recollection of the toil and thought that went into the piece.  In fact, as clearly as I recalled the story itself, I had no memory whatsoever of the process that went into its creation.  So wasn’t it, I wondered, just as likely that I hadn’t written Knocking On Heaven’s Door; that it had been secreted away in that cabinet by the elves:  a beautiful pair of story-shoes, crafted just for me? 

You can call this channeling or selective memory, happenstance or a small miracle; but whenever I’ve had this experience—whenever I’ve found a long-forgotten artifact locked away in my thirty-year pyramid of work—it’s felt like a gift from the universe.  

And, in that moment, I’m the happiest shoemaker on the planet.

© copyright 2011 J.M. DeMatteis

Thursday, March 10, 2011


Over at Comic Book Resources, they've posted the first six pages of my very first published comic book story, a Weird War Tales piece called "The Blood Boat."  WWT—which was captained by a way-too-young editor named Paul Levitz—was just what the title implied:  war stories infused with horror elements.  This particular story was—to put it in Hollywood parlance—PT 109 meets Dracula

Although it was the first of my comics stories to see print, "Blood Boat" wasn't the first one I sold.  That honor goes to a House of Mystery story with an almost unforgivable title:  "The Lady Killer Craves Blood."  (Yes, it's another vampire story.  I wrote lots of them in those days—for the astounding rate of thirteen dollars a page.)  I sold "Lady Killer" in December of 1977, just as I was turning twenty-four, and, as I've said elsewhere, working on DC's horror anthologies (actually, they didn't use the word horror back then, they called them "mystery books") was a fantastic way to learn my craft. 
(It helped that I had wonderful teachers like Paul, Jack Harris and Len Wein—who became a mentor to me, encouraging and developing my talent in a way no one else had—showing me the ropes.)  Those anthologies were the vaudeville of comics:  so under-the-radar of the average super-hero reader that I never had to worry about my work being noticed, or savaged, by the fan press.  It was a safe place to try out material, fail spectacularly, and get up again, wiser for the experience.  And a thrilling experience it was:  I didn't care about the money, I didn't even care if anyone was reading the stories, I was working in comics, I was part of the business, and that was what mattered.

A final note about "The Blood Boat":  I actually sold that story three times, taking the basic premise and re-working it into a science fiction story ("Howl" in Mystery in Space #112) and again for a Joseph Conrad-lite saga of the high seas ("The Seas Run Red" in House of Mystery #291).   Hey, at thirteen bucks a page, you did what you had to to survive!

The first page of "The Blood Boat" is below.  Hop on over to CBR for the rest.

© copyright 2011 J.M. DeMatteis

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


I'm a bit brain-fried right now as a result of spending ten hours at an airport yesterday waiting for a thirty-five minute connecting flight.  Didn't get home till one in the morning.  I hope to be back up and running—and posting—in another day or so.  Meanwhile, here's something to keep you occupied and, I hope, entertained:  my recent Sym-Bionic Titan episode, "I Am Octus."  If you'd like to watch it, do it soon:  I have no idea how long this will be available.