Memories of Michael Shea by Marc Laidlaw

by on Apr.02, 2014

Marc Laidlaw

Marc Laidlaw

In the summer of 1988, near the end of a cross-country drive that would culminate with Michael throwing his typewriter into a deep Maine lake, the Sheas, Michael and Linda, stayed overnight with us on Long Island. The summer rain was torrential but sporadic, so that we had plenty of time to sit in the yard sweltering and tending to the barbecue. Michael carried with him on this journey a large box of signature pages for a limited edition anthology—a collection that had already been signed by a number of other authors and now required only Michael’s signature in order to be bound.

Michael, as was often the case, had yet to be paid for his contribution to the book, and that was among the subjects of his endlessly soaring flights of spontaneous poetry and wordplay. When he spoke, it was hard to see what tethered him to earth. His sentences were like balloons full of noble gases, going aloft and pulling him with them. It didn’t matter what the subject was, he sent them off in flights that left other writers dazzled by their deftness. If you have read his lush, fantastic prose, you might just possibly be able to imagine him speaking; yet the fact that these were not sentences laboriously composed, but extemporized, made listening to him a differently dazzling experience than reading him.

Eventually we retreated into the house, and into the night.

The rains returned.

I rose in the morning and padded past the slumbering Sheas on our sofabed, glanced out the window, and gasped. In the middle of the patio table, in a puddle of standing water, stood the box of signature pages Michael had carried from California.

I woke him, and he went outside with a grim look, cursing under his breath. Opening the box, he discovered that only a few pages on the top and bottom had been damaged. Almost instantly he devised a ghoulish plan. He would send the publisher waterlogged pages one at a time, with a renewed demand for payment: “If you ever want to see your precious pages again….”

We laughed harder then than we had the night before, but his was the sardonic humor of one who had missed meals due to missing payments. The adulation of fans, the respect and admiration of his so-called peers (the word “peer” used strictly in the social sense, not that of artistic equivalence), even the awards, none of these translated into commercial success. In fairness, it rarely does. But did this stop him? No. I think sometimes it staggered him however.

Michael was a writer whose stories travelled by word of mouth, by reputation. In 1979, home from college that summer, my best friend called to tell me about a story he had read in the latest F&SF. From his brief description alone, I received chills. It was Michael’s early classic, “The Angel of Death,” which worked fantastic changes on the topical Summer of Sam that had obsessed a culture. We sensed instantly the arrival of a master. Several years later, at a gathering of writers and fans, someone mentioned in similarly breathless tones a new tale by Shea: “The Autopsy.” It was the sort of gathering where I could quickly lay hands on a copy of F&SF and scurry to a corner to gulp it down; it is not always obvious that a classic has been delivered. In this instance, it was obvious.

Not long after that, I first met Michael and his wife Linda. A steely, unpretentious man, he kept his intelligence hooded like a lantern until he felt he was in trustworthy company; he was as mordantly dark as Linda was golden and bright. We spoke of horror, of course. A series of barrel murders in Golden Gate Park was headline news. To these Michael added a supernatural flourish—a shape shifting creature identifiable only by a shackle and chain it could not alter, no matter its form.

Through the years, I met my own wife and as a couple we grew closer to the Sheas. They took their small kids and bailed out of San Francisco, which played too harsh a tune on Michael’s strings, and took up various residences in the wine country. Michael still drank then—when I first met him, a bottle of peppermint schnapps was his bosom buddy–but a temporarily crippling and all but fatal collision with a semi finally convinced him to put an end to that. Such eye-to-eyes with death, in addition to the spark and energy of his young children, seemed to drive him to a firmer embrace of life. He became a dedicated runner. Whenever we visited, he was always up early for his miles of running, looking faintly weatherbeaten in his shredded T-shirts and ragged sneakers. I remember his laughter like sand and smoke. He worked hard, and so little of it was at writing—painting houses, spreading asphalt, carpentry. We moved far and saw the Sheas infrequently, much to our sadness. I knew that little by little, Michael had eked his way to a degree and begun to teach. All these occupations surely fed his fiction and his poetry, byt it’s hard not to resent them, as they took him away from the one thing he could leave us.

The irony is that no one wrote more richly or beautifully of the physical aspects of death. No other theme brought out such voluptuous verbosity. I know that he had stared death full in the face several times in his life. This alone does not make him remarkable. But it was Michael’s special grace to wrest incredible beauty from these trysts with mortality, without losing sight of their gruesome nature. It seems fitting that he will be remembered for some of the most beautifully morbid passages ever penned.

Somewhere, in a rare collectible edition, you may find Michael’s signature on a page inexplicably warped and waterlogged. He never followed through on his ransom demand, but I hope all the same he was paid, and well, by whoever was lucky enough to have a new Shea story. We owe him a great deal more than that sum for the priceless visions he brought into being, from the rich landscape of his imagination, wherein he now entirely resides.

Marc Laidlaw

3 comments for this entry:

  • fran skala

    Thanks for sharing. I was friends/neighbors of Michael & Linda in LA…. 1971/72. Enjoyed reading your memories.

  • Robert Szeles

    Thanks so much for sharing these poignant memories of such a great writer. I did not “discover” Shea’s work until early this year. The Fishing of the Demon Sea is one of the greatest fantasy stories I have ever read. Along with the other greats—Leiber, Howard and Vance—he will be missed.

  • John Maddin

    It’s over a year later, and I just learned of Michael Shea’s passing. The SF/Fantasy world has lost one of it’s unsung giants, and I can’t begin to describe how sad I am at hearing this. I had the fortune to get his signature on my set of his books when he came to Portland for the Lovecraft Festival several years ago. He was gracious and kind, and I will treasure that memory. His ferocious, majestic fantasy and horror prose has been a source of awe and wonder for me since I first picked up a copy of the DAW Books edition of Nifft the Lean back in the early 1980’s (still have it, now with his signature). I don’t know what is more tragic; the fact that his passing was almost unmarked in the SF/Fantasy fan community, or the fact that we’ll never get another story of Nifft and Barnar. My deepest condolences to his wife and family. I hope they know that there are a few of us out here that treasured every line he ever wrote, and because of that his memory will live on.

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