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Notes on "Kings of the Afternoon"

By Lewis Shiner

This comes from my first really serious efforts in short story writing, in the mid-to-late 70s, in an apartment on Rankin Street in Dallas. I had just bought a reconditioned Selectric typewriter, which I was in love with, and this was the first story I wrote on it.

I did revise this story lightly for my first collection, Nine Hard Questions About the Nature of the Universe (Pulphouse). In my introduction, I had this to say:

"Kings of the Afternoon" is probably the best title I ever came up with. I thought of it while washing dishes in the Rankin apartment, I remember, and it was so good I was convinced I must have read it somewhere. I literally spent several days trying to track it down, which I never did.
A number of factors produced the story. I was in a workshop with a writer named Glenn Gillette, who one night brought in a post-apocalyptic western. It's a rather narrow genre, to be sure, but one I'd always been partial to. However, I felt Glenn had things backwards. Rather than tying up their horses to broken parking meters, I wanted to see these cowboys riding motorcycles and big 50's sedans through the desert.
Meanwhile I had become fascinated by James Dean, perhaps the ultimate icon of alienated American youth. Once again scenes started popping into my head: bikers circling a stranded flying saucer, Dean waving a six-gun from the back of a convertible, surrounded by adoring fans, a deserted motel with something growing in the pool...
This was the first of what I think of as my "alternate biography" stories. Later attempts included "Mystery Train" and "Jeff Beck." The structure of a real life gives me something to hang on to, a good source for symbols and incidents and colorations.
It's also a kind of companion piece to another story, "Twilight Time." I've always thought I could put the two together and crank up the volume and have the core of a pretty weird novel. It would feature flying saucers, a mixture of celebrities and fictional characters (if there's a difference) like, oh, say, the Hardy Boys and Elvis, and, most of all, the Arizona desert.

The story first appeared in the semi-professional magazine Shayol, edited by Pat Cadigan and Arnie Fenner; Pat went on to become a very dear friend. It garnered probably my favorite fan letter of all time, which I unfortunately can't lay hands on at the moment. I remember it quoted the Eagles song "James Dean": "Along came a Spyder, picked up a rider/Took him down the road to eternity." The guy thus let me know he had not only picked up on the James Dean aspect, but also all the allusions to Eagles songs.

Let me take a moment here to point out that I know the Eagles are considered the height of unhipness these days. I let myself be intimidated by that and didn't mention them in my original introduction. But now I don't care. When they hit their stride, with Desperado, On The Border, and One Of These Nights, they were unbeatable. They had great melodies and lyrics and some of the best harmony ever. Their songs had a terrific sense of place and atmosphere, powerful emotional content, and exceptional guitar playing. And they helped conjure this story for me out of nothingness.

I would never write a story this violent now, but I'm willing to forgive the lack of compassion here because I like the emotional risks the story took. This remains one of my favorites of my own work.


© 2007 by Lewis Shiner. First published in Fiction Liberation Front, October 2007. Some rights reserved.

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