When you’re a kid, people you know only through their art can seem unreal. Artists, musicians and writers are out there somewhere, in the big wide world, living exciting lives that are so very different from the dull, routine ones the adults around you live. Writers, for example, spend their days making up interesting stories. You don’t know them, but if you’re a kid who finds the world confusing and scary sometimes, a writer’s work can offer shelter and also guidance.
Artists we discover as kids, when we’re susceptible to being inspired, can become heroic to us just by producing work that touches us. When you’re a kid, you don’t get to pick who’s going to inspire you. It just happens, and your life might follow a certain path because of a writer’s work, without you even knowing it.
“I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream” was the first Ellison story I read. I think; memory can be tricky. It is about the last few people left on Earth after a nuclear apocalypse caused by a supercomputer, which has kept these people alive in order to torture them. After several sadistic episodes, the story climaxes in what can only be called a stunning act of self-sacrificial homicide.
I read an obituary of Ellison that claimed he didn’t write about love or compassion, which did not fill me with hope for the state of journalism.
I first encountered Harlan Ellison in an issue of Starlog magazine in the seventies. He complained about his treatment by Hollywood, he complained about how people behave, and he complained about science fiction. I had never read an interview with someone who talked like that, who was so passionate about writing. It made me want to be that passionate about something, too.
As a pre-teenager who liked comic books and Creature Double Feature, I was surprised that someone was pushing the idea that sci fi could be about important things, maybe things that weren’t important to me at that point, but things adults were interested in. I was going to be an adult someday, so maybe I should think about these things, too.
Harlan was interested in comic books and movies and fiction, but he was also interested in ethical behavior, and women’s rights, and racism, and doing the right thing. This was heady stuff for a kid whose favorite thing in the world was The Fantastic Four.
“Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes” is about a prostitute whose soul ends up stuck inside a slot machine, and the loser who is seduced into changing places with her. It’s about hate and bitterness and the way love gets warped and can be used for selfish ends.
It’s also about the shocking idea that men have feelings, too. Women aren’t the only ones who are lonely, who long for love. Ellison wrote about this not in some fat-headed “privileged” way or as special pleading, but as one would talk about the simple reality that EVERYONE deserves love. Yes, even “white boys.”
I bought every book of his I could get my hands on, looking for more of that high octane stuff. I bought lots of science fiction and often ended up disappointed. The few exceptions included the work of Robert Silverberg and Samuel R. Delany, whose works were not like Ellison’s but seemed rooted in the real world, too. Though I also enjoyed Roger Zelazny and Theodore Sturgeon, I discovered that Ellison didn’t write science fiction stories, he wrote Harlan Ellison stories.
I went to my first science fiction convention (I’ve only attended one other) and saw Ellison talk for a couple of hours. He was very entertaining, talking about Star Dreck: The Motionless Picture and his friend Terry Carr and so many other things. He made the 14-year-old me think the world was waiting for me, and it could be great or it could be terrible, but no one was going to hand you anything, you had to go out and live an adventure. The next day he had an autograph session. I presented two items for him to sign, and he said hello, signed the magazines. I stood there like a dope, saying nothing. I thanked him, and this ogre, this horrible man who says mean things about people, thanked ME.
“Jeffty is Five” is the story of a boy who’s friends with this weird kid who’s into comic books and radio adventures. The hero moves away, goes to college, starts a business and comes back to his home town, where he finds that Jeffty is still five. It’s one of those stories that builds a little home in your memories, and even though you age and experience life and read more profound or more critically-accepted, less-sentimental fiction, there it is, still in there, making you think a little each time you remember it.
Ellison kept writing. I bought each of his books as they appeared, watched the new Twilight Zone because he was involved, bought every magazine that included a story or interview or column.
And then, in the nineties, I kind of drifted away from him.
Or, he drifted away from me. A guy who was always complaining about how loathsome TV is seemed to grab every TV job that came his way; a guy who bragged about his upcoming novels being on the bestseller lists never came out with a novel in my lifetime; a guy who used to rack up awards and nominations started selling to few top markets. He seemed to go into the underground of an already subterranean genre. He seemed like what many of his critics called him, just a crank who talked a good game but was off to the side while others writers took the spotlight that you’d think Harlan commanded, the way he talked.
As I came into contact with a wider variety of people I discovered that not all successful people not named Harlan Ellison were evil, and not all non-white people were saintly–and that stereotyping them as such was insulting and dehumanizing. His patronizing attitude toward poor black and Hispanic people, as he does in his Twilight Zone screenplay Nackles, became annoying, and embarassing. When he was on, as in Mephisto in Onyx, he could use race and the idea of ‘white privilege’ to force the reader to question his or her beliefs about race. But he often came off as a typical Hollywood liberal, looking down on those who weren’t as enlightened even as he talked about how noble were the folks he didn’t seem to know much about beyond the cliches of a 60’s liberal.
Ellison was always bragging about how many women he’d been with, how much money he made, and how with-it he was. He’d throw something at me if he heard this, but the person in our culture who seems most like Ellison is Donald Trump. Ellison’s reputation with women included an infamous case with a writer, which resulted in the man who championed the equal rights amendment to the constitution being considered a sexist pig. Yet for all his being a bigmouth, a womanizer and, frankly, a liar, Ellison is an example of someone who can be all those things and still be good at his work.
“A Boy and His Dog” is great. The movie is great, but Harlan was right about that last line. The sequel story, “Eggsucker,” is heartbreaking. Killing off Vic and having Blood hook up with a woman seems like the act of someone bowing to pressure. Even self-described gadflies care what others think about them. In this case, I think he ruined something that could have been expanded into a novel.
I think THE ESSENTIAL ELLISON was the last hardcover of Ellison’s I bought until the White Wolf hardcovers, which were reprints of books I already had. That series was abandoned, and Ellison seemed to get away from me. I’ve been told by someone who knew him that Ellison had many problems with publishers, which makes sense. Harlan discussed his own health problems and writing issues.
He was still alive, still working, but he sure seemed to do a lot of convention appearances. The people he used to mock, the sci fi fans, became a big source of income. I have zero problem with that, or with doing commercials or anything done to make money legally, but it’s odd to see all that when for years he made a point of how much he hated it.
He used to behave like the only writer who was on the ball, too busy writing big Hollywood movies to ever go back to TV or deal with those pimple-faced nerds, winning awards and grabbing headlines. But in the last few years he published a lot of books you could order from him but couldn’t find in a book store. He wasn’t writing the stories or novels people were talking about.
“Shattered Like A Glass Goblin” is an anti-drug story, but it is indicative of something so few seem to grasp in the drug debate, that one can be all for people doing what they want and still criticize what they’re doing. Ellison didn’t do drugs, and believed in legalization, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t depict what a waste of time it is to do that crazy shit.
I think that sometime in the eighties Harlan lost his way. Short stories just aren’t a major part of today’s culture, not even today’s comic book and SF culture. People ask “Have you seen that new movie?” or TV episode or even read that novel; they don’t much talk about short stories. And Harlan was a writer of short stories. His television work was negligible, episodes of shows that never broke through to the audience I suspect he really wanted–for all his excellence, his knowledge of SF and comic book history, he never created a LOST, or a comic book adapted into a hit movie, or a STAR TREK (despite writing the best episode of the original show).
Harlan’s introductions in DANGEROUS VISIONS and AGAIN, DANGEROUS VISIONS are some of his best writing. Someone should collect all of his introductions into a book. Well, a series of books.
Or it might be something else. It might be something that happens to many writers, including songwriters. Harlan got married. A video I saw a few years ago shows a husband and wife who truly liked each other. I don’t say this lightly, it might be the case that he just became a happy person and lost some of what fueled his work.
But something changed, and it impacted my enjoyment of his fiction. There’s a reason that almost all of my favorites of his work come from the sixties and seventies. He always had a streak of self-righteousness that emerged in almost every story, usually as the Ellison stand-in lecturing other characters and especially the reader as to proper behavior and the right way to think. Often his stories were dramatically flawed because Ellison did all the work for the reader–you always knew which was the right way to think about whatever issue was being discussed. The right way, of course, was Harlan’s way. Other stories were simply anecdotes, or situations described in his amped-up, excessive manner.
Luckily, I had all those old paperbacks of his, a kind of comfort food reading. Harlan would lose his lunch if he knew his sexual, violent stories, meant to burn readers’ minds, were some fans’ fuzzy teddy bears.
Some of Ellison’s stories from the sixties deal with racism and loneliness in ways no other genre writer has ever dealt with them, with such open pain behind them. Later stories such as “Croatoan,” “Hitler Painted Roses” and “In Fear of K” address the wounds left by romantic relationships using fantasy backgrounds. I don’t think they’d find much interest from contemporary readers of SF and fantasy.
It’s silly to try to carry childhood heroes into adulthood, but I think Ellison’s work was so fine, his manner so entertaining, and his talk about ethics and decent behavior so important that long after I tossed aside hero worship, I still kept an eye on his career, still picked up any books of new Ellison material, and was happy when he won awards. I liked knowing he was still in the world.
Harlan inspired me in everything from choosing to follow a writing career to working with the homeless and at-risk youth. He also inspired some of the dumbest things I’ve ever done. But there are borders of responsibility strangers cannot penetrate; we have to take responsibility for our own choices in life, not blame someone we never met whose work we got something from that changed us for life, for better or for worse.
He talked and wrote about people who didn’t have anything, about victims, about the lonely and the oppressed, all in genre fiction which is either junk or P.C. pamphelteering. He was a significant person in a world where most of us just manage to endure, and he lived the kind of life most people never even bother dreaming about.
“The Deathbird” is an example of a “dated” story, I guess. It’s a relic of the New Wave, it’s written in an unconventional style that would probably be mocked in a modern writing class, and its goals could be met in a more Carver-like way. I guess. But Ellison was a fantasist, and a lover of art and film, and in this story you can see someone taking the death of his mother and painting on a huge canvas in order to depict the depth of his feeling. Hemingway-like stripped-down language is not the only acceptable way to talk about things. Sometimes, depicting the death of your mother and your dog using planet-destroying birds can get at you in a way a more respectable method might not.
Just like writing a couple thousand words about someone you only met for a few minutes a couple of times can have meaning, if only for the one writing it, in ways more straightforward memoirs could.
It just figures that when Ellison’s death is the topic I’d drone on too long, unable to express a few sentiments at reasonable length. But, like Harlan, I feel justified. Because to this person who didn’t know him, Ellison had significance.
I know no one lives forever, but I’m sad that he’s gone.