This is one of a series of occasional essays by authors on subjects that concern them in their creative lives.
I FIRST MET film director Sam Peckinpah some 20 years ago when he expressed a desire to film my novel Something Wicked This Way Comes.
"How will you do it, Sam?" I asked.
"Tear the pages out of your book," said Sam, "and stuff them in the camera!"
And so it was that I discovered, late in life, the obvious fact that most of my stories were written to be filmed. Examining an average page, I found that each paragraph was a long shot, a medium two-shot or a close-up. So it was easy to screenplay my tales, or write them for my TV series. The scenes paragraphed themselves. I was astounded at Peckinpah's in- sight. How come he knew what I was? How had I become a screenwriter without knowing it? Where did it start, to end like this?
It started the day I became the Hunchback or perhaps the day I descended the stairs in my grandma's house, her black opera cape slung on my shoulders, the Phantom himself.
I was a child of movies. My mother ate them like popcorn. So in 1923 when I was three, I got trotted off to the flickers (they still flickered then) to see Lon Chaney, "Lost World" dinosaurs and "The Cat and the Canary." In the first grade my mother picked me up after school three days a week and hurried me one block to the Academy theater for late matinees of "Ben Hur," "King of Kings" or "The Johnstown Flood." By the time I was 10 I had seen practically every silent film ever made, plus Al Jolson and all those sound films that shattered the Silents.
I was walking backwards up a dark theater aisle when, in 1928, I stood riveted by Disney's "Skeleton Dance." I froze in place, until my hunger-enraged father lunged in to drag me home to dinner. I joined my local movie houses's Mickey Mouse Club and in a few short years saw 300 five-minute Disney shorts without blinking.
Sundays, aged 14, I loitered in the local museum basement, where a mere dozen Steamboat Willie and Skeleton Dance cartoon cels were locked under glass. Somehow I felt that if I stared long and hard enough, the cels would float up into my eyeballs and there, locked forever, be mine.
Fixated patience gave me my reward. In 1965, at lunch one day in his office, Walt Disney recalled my defending Disneyland against a few jealous intellectuals and untidy Philistines and said: "Ray, you've done so much for us. What can we do for you?"
"Walt," I said, "open the vaults."
Walt dialed a number and said, "Ray's here. Open the vaults."
A little later I rose from the vaults, arms brimmed with treasure: cartoon cels by the dozen from "Snow White," "Sleeping Beauty," "Alice in Wonderland" and "Fantasia." I staggered off the lot capsized with images, not imagining their worth some day, but thinking, I'm 14 years old and those museum cartoon cels, unreachable, under glass, are now mine!
Along the way to Disney's tombs, consuming all the optic-nerve junk food I could find, I was stunned by the covers of Amazing and Wonder Stories, published when I was eight, with their military architectures, fabulous towers and incredible city canyons. In 1929 Buck Rogers, in a single daily strip, focused my life forever. From there on, it was the future and only the future. My fifth-grade friends snorted at my madness, so I tore up my Buck Rogers collection, broke into tears, saw that I had destroyed my life, called my friends what they were -- idiots -- and resumed by fixation on Buck, Wilma, Killer Kane and the Tiger Men of Mars, and thus came back to life.
In those same years Edgar Rice Burroughs's John Carter, Warlord of Mars, flew to the Red Planet and asked me along. With us, I learned later, flew astronomer Carl Sagan, novelist Arthur C. Clarke, Bruce Murray, president of Jet Proposition Lab, and all the astronauts who footprinted the Moon.
So what was I doing, all unaware? Collecting metaphors.
Lord, I didn't even know what a metaphor was. But, hell, I collected 'em anyway. I saw the world as a brightly lit sweet shop where you stared, pointed and cried, Gimme one of these and two of those!
And I remembered King Tut, who came from hiding in 1923 and stunned my imagination with his feat of playing dead for 3,000 years. I ran on stage with Blackstone to help him vanish an elephant. I wandered through Chicago magic shops to touch but not buy tricks that controlled existence.
Metaphors. Symbols, bright objects for jackdaws like me to seize and make nests of.
The Chicago Century of Progress Exposition knocked me down in 1933, and suddenly there were all those impossible architectures, the shapes and colors of future cities, no sooner reared then razed. A vast turntable carried "Lord, I didn't even know what a metaphor was. But, hell, I collected 'em anyway ... Metaphors. Symbols, bright objects for jackdaws like me to seize and make nests of." me into the first animated three-dimensional robot-dinosaur show. I walked backwards so I could stay in one place while the turntable whisked everyone else back to reality. After an hour of me walking backward, the show proprietors ran in cursing to eject me. I never forgave them.
At night I refused to go home on the midnight trolley to Waukegan, 33 miles north of the fair, wanting to hide in those incredible towers and future attics and wake up in 1999. My father dragged me out to the train and rocketed me back to 1933. Later, I forgave him.
ABOUT THIS TIME, a living metaphor arrived: Mr. Electrico, a traveling carnival illusionist, visited Waukegan and sat fused in his electric chair as a billion or so volts of electricity rampaged through his body. Lifting his sword, he tapped my nose. The blue fire sluiced in to spark my ears and comb my hair as he cried, "Live forever!"
That seemed a great idea. But how was someone supposed to do it?
The next day, soon after a favorite uncle's funeral, driving back from the graveyard, I told my father to stop the car. He let me out to plunge downhill toward the carnival, running away from death, I see now, running toward life -- electricity -- and a carnival magician who had promised me immortality.
And there he sat on his platform by his electric chair. He did not tell me how to live forever, I was too shy to ask, but he did introduce me to all those strangely contorted people behind the scenes in the tent, then walked me down to sit me on the lakefront sands and listen to my large philosophies.
"You know," he said, at last, "we've met before."
"No, sir" I said.
"Yes," he said, "you were my best friend at the battle of the Ardennes Forest in October 1918 and, wounded, died in my arms that day. Now here you are with a new name, new face, but the soul shining out of your face is the soul of my lost friend. Welcome back to the world."
Astounding. The night before he had offered me electrical immortality. Now he put the other bookend in place: I had lived before.
Within two months of my last encounter with Mr. Electrico, I wrote my first stories of landings on the moon and arrivals on Mars. God bless Mr. Electrico, who sent me on the journey.
Just ahead I encountered Ray Harryhausen, who animated 16-millimeter film dinosaurs in his garage. We promised, in our loving friendship, to grow old but never grow up. I would write dinosaur screenplays which he would spark to life. Which is exactly what happened.
In 1950 I published a tale about a dinosaur falling in love with a lighthouse, thinking that its foghorn voice was the lonely sound of another beast lost in time and summoning him near. Then I dined with John Huston, gave him all my metaphorical tales, told him I had seen "The Maltese Falcon" 20 times and begged for employment. Huston read my stories in Africa (where he was filming "The African Queen") and wrote to me, agreeing that someday we would work together. Returning to Hollywood in August 1953, he called me to his hotel, put a drink in my hand, leaned over me and said, "Kid, what're you doing in the next year?"
"Not much, Mr. Huston," I said. "Not much."
"Well," he said, "how would you like to come live in Ireland and write the screenplay of Moby Dick?"
"Gee, Mr. Huston," I said, "I've never been able to read the damned thing."
There was a long silence and then Huston said, "Tell you what ... go home tonight, read as much as you can, come back for lunch tomorrow and tell me if you'll help kill the White Whale."
I went home and said to my wife, "Pray for me."
"Why?" she said.
"Because," I said, I've got to read a book tonight and do a book report tomorrow."
I did just that, got hired, and took my wife and daughters to live in Dublin for most of the next year.
One night, sipping my least favorite drink, whiskey, I turned to Huston and said, "How'd I get this job? Out of all the writers in the world, why me?"
"It was that story of yours about the dinosaur and the lighthouse," said Huston. "I felt the ghost of Melville there."
But how could that have been?
The answer came when I researched Melville's life. His metaphors were my metaphors. His midwives were mine. The Old Testament of my young years was his. Shakespeare had embraced me as a teenager. Shakespeare had fallen late on Melville. Nearsighted, unable to read the small type of his age, Melville found a large-type edition of "Hamlet," "King Lear" and "Othello" when he was 30. In a Shakespearean frenzy he threw most of his whaling gear out and, pummeled by Job and Ecclesiastes, birthed the White Whale, flukes, Spirit Spout and nightmare panics in less than a year.
SO THERE you have it, dinosaurs when I was six, Daniel in the lions' den, chariot Elijah and Mickey Mouse when I was nine, Hamlet's father's ghost at 16. From such metaphors, then -- kept, nurtured and delivered forth in my story the "The Fog Horn" (film: "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms") -- came my first screenplay, "Moby Dick."
The young collector of Popeye, Flash Gordon, Prince Valiant and Tarzan delivered forth those storyboard intuitions. (Every comic strip is a storyboard scene for a screenplay, large or small, so that as you grow up you learn screenwriting day by day in your local newspaper or from Greek and Roman myths cheek-by-jowl with same.)
The youthful reader of Emily Dickinson, John Donne and Robert Frost delivered forth those images to the unflickering screen of 1953. As I have often said, if I taught cinema my students would write haikus and shoot one-minute films based on those superbly clear poetic snapshots. Shooting haiku in a barrel is how I put it. Compacting reality into 17 syllables or 60 film seconds. Pure metaphor, out of the poet's head and onto the screen.
In the years since, I have learned to watch those metaphors drift in my subconscious in the relaxed hour before dawn, instructing me for my day's occupations. In that early-morning theater, trapped between my ears, the old images of hunchback, phantom, dinosaur, world's fairs, red planets, and apeman perambulate as they wish. I do not own them. They control and bid me jump to run and trap them with my typewriter before they sleep.
It is from this interior theater that I learned what to do when, confronted with 800 pages of Melvillian novel, I read and re-read some sections 50 times until a dawn came in London 40 years ago when I sat up in bed, stared at the mirror and said, "I am Herman Melville!" Out of bed, I wrote the last 30 pages of the screenplay in eight hours. All the metaphors within metaphors within metaphors fell into place.
If you wait long enough, I learned, and stuff your eyeballs with shapes, sizes and colors, the gumball machine in your skull lends you gifts at the drop of a penny.
And so it seems Sam Peckinpah was right. Rip my pages and stuff them in the camera, for they contain all the bright trash and compacted truths of a life that refused to stop its constant hyperventilation.
All the sources I have named, magnificent or vaudeville second-hand, have been my traffic cops. This way, not that, that way, not this, they have cried, at last echoing my long-lost magician's advice: "Live forever!"
Stand back. I'm still trying.