Kathy Charles on Less Than Zero

Photo by Evan Butson

Photo by Evan Butson

My first encounter with Less Than Zero was through MTV, which makes perfect sense.

I was nine years old. Every Saturday night Richard Wilkins introduced the hottest clips from the States while my sister got ready for the Bluelight Disco. It was the summer of The Bangles, and ‘Hazy Shade of Winter’ was our anthem. The music video was filled with scenes from a movie I was too young to see, but from the outfits and sunglasses and wild parties I knew it was cool. Damn cool.

Fast forward to thirteen, and I am reading everything my teachers disapprove of. I take a break from Stephen King paperbacks to devour Less Than Zero. I am expecting parties, drugs and narcissism. I am given so much more. Scenes of apocalyptic terror that haunt my dreams. Ghost Indians. Dead cats in the mouths of coyotes. Billboards with ominous, prophetic pronouncements. It’s no coincidence that the hot Betamax bootleg among Ellis’ protagonists is Temple of Doom. LA is a ghost town; the very landscape exudes death and destruction, and its inhabitants are cursed. Less Than Zero is less melodrama, more horror show. I stare out my bedroom window at an Australian landscape and dream of the madness crouched in the Palm Springs desert.

Years later, I arrive in Los Angeles. By some bizarre coincidence I find myself in Sherman Oaks, the quintessential valley suburb where Ellis grew up and set much of Less Than Zero. For the next fifteen years this will be my home turf in LA. I fall hopelessly in love with the city, with the canyons of Hollywood and all their secrets. The ghosts of dead movie stars haunt me. I begin my own LA novel in earnest, and it’s dead on arrival: an obvious imitation of Ellis. I now know better. There is no imitating Ellis. His prose may appear deceptively simple, but it writhes with the same metaphysical undercurrents that haunt his characters. I set about finding my own vision of Los Angeles, and I largely achieve it, but always there is the specter of Less Than Zero in every word I write. LA once belonged to Fante, then Bukowski. LA now belongs to Ellis. The rest of us are merely interlopers.

Kathy Charles is the author of Hollywood Ending, published by Text.