YBHS IX: ‘Footsteps’ by Harlan Ellison

Footsteps copy
Art by Ken Snyder

‘Footsteps’ by Harlan Ellison (1934-2018) is the third story in this collection from a skin mag. It appeared in the December 1980 issue of Gallery, that is just one month after Stephen King’s story ‘The Monkey’. Ellison’s story ‘Footsteps’ was later published in his collection Angry Candy (1988) as well as a self-titled limited edition chapbook in 1989.

Wagner includes a brief introduction by Ellison explaining how the story came to be. Inspired by the writer Georges Simenon (1903-1989) who Ellison believed at the time had written a novel in one week while sitting in a glass cube on display to all of Paris, Ellison sat in the window of the bookstore Temps Futurs for a day to write a short story. This is a practice that Ellison continued for many years in many different cities. In an interview with NBC he remarked:

“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.” 

While in Paris at Temps Futurs, to ensure the story he wrote was not pre-plotted Harlan Ellison was given several story prompts the morning he began. He was told the story must include a female-werewolf rapist, she must have long blonde hair, and the story must take place in Paris. (groan) If he had ever been to an improv show he would know audience suggestions are the worst. However, the story that came from those prompts is a testament that Ellison knew what the hell he was doing.

‘Footsteps’ tells the story of an American Werewolf on a European Tour eating her way from country to country. The “footsteps” of the story refer to her loneliness, they are the steps of those that keep her on the run. We get to see what happens when she meets a monster of another kind on the streets of Paris and the footsteps finally stop. There were a million ways Ellison could have dealt with his awful prompts but he dealt with them in, most likely, the least offensive way he could. Writing on a deadline it would be easy to become lazy and schlocky but Ellison grounded a ridiculous idea in a way that felt truthful to him. He used the concept of erection upon death and extreme pain in a horrific way.

I recently had the opportunity of working on the documentary film Clark Ashton Smith: The Emperor of Dreams. Harlan Ellison plays a big part as one of the interviewees in what I believe was his last interview. His insights into not only Smith but also into the writing industry are some of the most thoughtful and passionate ideas in the film. You can check that out here.

Next: ‘Without Rhyme or Reason’ by Peter Valentine Timlett

More Harlan Ellison:
YBHS VIII: ‘In the Fourth Year of the War’
YBHS VIII: ‘All the Birds Come Home to Roost’

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