Channeling Murray Leinster
His real name was William Fitzgerald Jenkins and his ghost haunts me.
Murray Leinster often appears to me when my mind wanders. I’ll see him at a street corner as I drive by. At night, just before I slip into sleep, he’ll whisper to me, and often a voice will utter neti, neti, while I am writing. I know that it means not this, not this, but I wonder if Mr. Leinster’s ghost really knows this, or is he just reading my mind.
Murray Leinster died in 1975, but in 1961 I met his ghost in my uncle’s attic. Uncle Rocky had 20 years worth of science fiction magazines boxed up in a room in his drafty old Victorian mansion overlooking the Hudson River. I used to explore the house, looking for ghosts and secret passageways. The many gabled roof hid a dozen oddly shaped rooms in the upper stories of the house. They were all filled with things too good to throw away, but no longer used or needed. In the far corners of the attic, there was total silence. You could believe in ghosts in rooms with an inch of old dust and windows so dirty that they let in little light.
There was an issue of Astounding Stories. The magazine’s cover was of a space ship hanging in space with the story First Contact by Murray Leinster just inside the front cover. Murray began his whisperings to me then when I was just 10 years old. His voice filled by head with space ships and ray guns and strange aliens. For months, I rode my bike down the hill to the house on the side of the hill and read every story in every box in that dusty attic room. Murray Leinster’s ghost has haunted me ever since.
Of course, Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, Norton, Leiber and a host of other great writers have tunneled into my psyche since those summer days in the attic. Murray Leinster, is not as well known and in total, perhaps, a lesser star than other writers in John W. Campbell, Jr.’s inner circle. Leinster just wrote. He produced hundreds of short stories, many of which were not all that memorable, but he also wrote First Contact, the greatest science fiction story ever written.
Nobody reads Leinster today. His masterpiece, First Contact, has a fatal flaw, an ethnic slur that would have gone unnoticed near the end of World War II, but today makes you flinch when you encounter it. His other stories are deeply immersed in a society that no longer exists. They were written for an audience that has long since died. My Uncle Rocky passed away ten years ago, but Murray’s voice still talks to me about the craft of science fiction.
If I look in a shop window and see a display of tiny intricate cell phones, Murray whispers to me about alien eggs containing the souls of the long dead masters of the galaxy.
If I watch a distant jet crossing a deep blue sky, Murray fills my head with a vision of dragons looking for a meal.
If I take a pill for a headache, Murray shows me the complex chemical interactions that are slowly changing me into something other.
The man saw things in the light of speculation. Reality is for the ordinary folk. Murray sees what might be, could be and should be, and he tells me about it. The ghostly light of Murray Leinster shines on the special, the odd, the wonderful and the weird.
Not this, he tells me as a write, but this, he shows me. Surprise them, don’t resort to the expected… If they can see it coming, it isn’t worth the words… Shorten those sentences… A single personal reaction might be as good as a page of description… It all has to work out in the end… Pull the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle from your pocket and surprise everyone… Make a good back story, but let the reader fill in the blanks… Don’t write a single word past the end… A good story fits well in a nice box, but don’t spend too much time filling in the corners…
I don’t know if these are things I’ve learned from Murray or not. All I know is that he reads every word I write and is lets me know when he’s not happy. I know that Murray wants me to write a good tale. I know he roots for me and I also know he’s disappointed when I don’t pull it off as well as I could.
In a meeting at my job, my boss asked something about the DPW programming project that I’ve been working on. I considered for a moment, not knowing quite how to describe the issues involved. A voice, from a specter standing just behind me whispered in my ear. Start at the beginning, man. A good story will write itself. I explained my problems with the project and the solutions that I proposed. When I am finished, the heads nod around the table. I had explained it well. It was a good tale, a ghostly voice whispers.