Harlan Ellison: 79 & Still Important
From 2004 through 2010 I wrote a column called American Gauthic for the magazine Dark Discoveries, which seemed to have some regular readers. A few, anyway. In 2006, I wrote an installment on Harlan Ellison, which was apropos. The reason I was writing the column was partly because of Ellison’s own excellent columns that I’d read collected in An Edge In My Voice, Harlan Ellison’s Watching, The Harlan Ellison Hornbook, and The Glass Teat books.¹ They inspired me. Looking back on the earlier columns make me cringe. I was beginning to hit my stride, though, by the time I stopped writing them.²
Today, on Harlan’s 79th birthday, I’m posting my essay. It will be revised and have annotations throughout. I hope you enjoy and, if you aren’t familiar with his work, make yourself so.
From Gautham to Ellison Wonderland
Someone suggested at one point (I think it may have been John R. Little–whose work, including Placeholders, The Memory Tree, and Miranda, I love) that I write an installment about one of my favorite writers, Harlan Ellison. It’s a daunting task, really. Others who are far more talented than I am have done so and have barely touched the surface of the entity that is Harlan Ellison. But there have also been many less-talented people who’ve written about Ellison, so I figured why the hell not?
I’ve said to friends that if Stephen King is #1 on my favorite writer list, then Ellison is #1.5. As King pointed out in one of the last sections of the chapter called “Horror Fiction” in his 1980 nonfiction book Danse Macabre, “it is impossible to separate the man from the work.” The reason this is so is because Ellison has a persona that is as hated as it is loved and is as famous as any of his stories. There are few people who tend to fall into a gray area in regards to him.
I’ve never met the man. Some would count me among the lucky ones. I have had a little bit of contact with him, though, through the bulletin board at his website, which was begun by Rick Wyatt. Our few exchanges have been pleasant. At one point he needed a specific printing of his collection Troublemakers that I happened to have and I sent it to him. I soon received a first printing of the book with a short thank-you note on the book’s title page. It’s amongst my prized books (second only to my signed edition of Borderlands 5).
In person, I saw Ellison (along with Neil Gaiman and Peter David) at MIT in October 2001. I didn’t stick around for the signing because at the time I was too nervous and…well, there were some other complications, too. Gaiman brought out most of the crowd but Ellison was electric. What I remember best about that night (besides the albino with the goggles who seemed to have orgasmic fits almost every time Gaiman spoke, including, at one point, screaming “We love you, Neil!”), was the pure joy Ellison had reading his story “Goodbye to All That.” There was a running joke in the story that, after the third time the audience laughed, sent Ellison into a childlike dance of glee.
There was also an exchange with a young man that brought tears to my eyes. It was after one of Ellison’s diatribes about Internet piracy (this was in the midst a lawsuit against AOL) in which Ellison called most of the people in the room stupid. The young man was clearly upset and asked Ellison if he thought calling people stupid helped the message. Ellison came to the edge of the stage (which made some of the audience ooh and aahh, expecting him to pounce the young man and tear his throat out, to which he responded, “Shut the fuck up”), and asked, “Do you think you’re stupid?”
A brief hesitation, before, “Yes.”
Ellison climbed off the stage and went to the young man. “The very fact that you asked that question means that you’re not stupid.”
Then Ellison went on to explain about how asking questions and caring is so important.³
What does all this have to do with reading Ellison? Well, I think it’s a window into what Ellison’s work is about. There’s a lot of screaming in his earlier (and sometimes his later) work, mouths or no mouths, but there’s always an underlying tenderness–or at least an underlying caring–that is essential to Ellison the man.
Ellison seems to be a burst of energy; someone more prone to running around on stage like Robin Williams (who is a friend of Ellison’s) than sitting at an Olympia manual typewriter writing stories. This may be one of the reasons Ellison has published only four novels compared to the 1700 stories and essays. Like the man, his stories are bursts of energy that leave the reader moved.
I first became aware of Harlan Ellison when I was thirteen, when I bought the first edition of George Beahm’s The Stephen King Companion. There was an interview with Ellison in that book, along with an essay from Harlan Ellison’s Watching. I read the interview and essay, and the name was filed under Someone Important In the Genres and that was about it. Ellison’s name popped up again for me in the aforementioned chapter of King’s Danse Macabre. Again, it was filed under a similar heading (along with Someone I Should Read Someday), and then ignored.
It wasn’t until we got the Sci-Fi Channel and I began watching their show Sci-Fi Buzz (which I miss wholeheartedly) that Harlan Ellison really hit me. He had a commentary on the show, done mostly from his legendary home Ellison Wonderland (or the Lost Aztec Temple of Mars). Being around seventeen, I thought he was a jerk. Yelling and screaming at the tv audience. But I was also entertained. And, while I might not have admitted it at that point, I looked forward to his small contribution to the show.
One night I flipped through the channels and stopped at CNBC to see who Tom Snyder was interviewing. He occasionally interviewed people I was interested in. This particular night he was interviewing Harlan Ellison and I remember thinking, It’s the old grouch from Sci-Fi Buzz. They were discussing Ellison’s new collaborative effort with Polish surrealist Jacek Yerka, Mind Fields, and Snyder asked Ellison what his favorite painting in the book was. Ellison said it was the painting called Ellison Wonderland, one of only two paintings in the book whose name he changed (because it reminded him of his house); the other story/painting was “Susan.” Snyder pulled out a large package and told Ellison that he had a surprise for him.
Ellison looked flustered and there, in his hands, he now held the painting Ellison Wonderland. And I saw something that, at that point, I didn’t think was possible. Harlan Ellison was speechless. Tears welled in his eyes as he stammered and finally was able to thank Snyder. Smiling, Snyder went to a commercial and I wiped the tears from my own eyes. Within days, I bought Ellison’s first volume of the ill-fated White Wolf Edgeworks project, which featured the collection of stories and essays called Over the Edge and the collection of Ellison’s column An Edge in My Voice. I was nineteen. I was hooked.
It’s been almost 17 years since all that happened. A lot has happened to me (and Ellison) in that time, but my admiration for the man and his work has never foundered. His audiobooks are amazing. His performance of “Jeffty Is Five” brings tears to my eyes every time I listen to it. Ten years ago, when I was very unhappy in my marriage and wasn’t sure what to do, it was his performance of “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” that made me realize what I had to do. Like the characters in that classic story, I was trapped in something and I needed to make a painful decision to fix escape. That story gave me the courage to take off my wedding ring and decide it was time to end the marriage despite the fear I held for my relationship with my then-five-year-old daughter.
When people talk about Harlan Ellison’s work (when they can get past the legend surrounding him, anyway) it seems that the words angry and painful are often used. And while that may be true for many of his earlier stories, something that carries through almost all his stories is the hope that Ellison has for the human race. If he’s angry at you, at me, at all of us, it’s because he sees in humanity the godlike abilities to create, to nurture, to love. Love is a huge theme in Ellison’s work…having gone through four marriages before meeting and marrying his wife Susan, having gone through an uncountable number of relationships, Ellison’s work is as much about what it means to love as it is about anything else. He also sees humanity’s self-destructive nature and shortcomings and it upsets him.
“Jeffty Is Five” is my favorite story of his. The story has always choked me up, but Ellison’s reading of it has made me cry. Here is a fantastic, subtle story filled with love. And, maybe, a small amount of anger. Another favorite of mine is “The Resurgence of Miss Ankle-Strap Wedgie,” in which a Hollywood star of old films is rediscovered in a diner and brought back to Hollywood in the late 1960s. It’s a heartbreaking tale and Ellison pulls it off with panache. I first read it when I was about twenty-four or so. At twenty-six, I read Nathanael West’s novel The Day of the Locust and wondered how much West influenced Ellison’s own tale of that bitch of a vampire called Hollywood. I also love his story “Incognita, Inc.” This is a story about a man who has to put an old man out of business. The old man is a mapmaker who makes maps that will find things one could only imagine. All these stories have the caring that Ellison has for the world, mixed with the anger at what corporations and selfishness does to people.
His work has certainly influenced my own. Right after completing “The Growth of Alan Ashley,” I called it “my Harlan Ellison story” in an e-mail to a friend. Not that I’d copied his style or tried to mimic his voice, but because I tried to take the way he bends reality until it’s a mirror image of itself and use it in my own way. So when I heard that it would be in Borderlands 5, in a sense, I felt as though I’d succeeded. After all, Ellison had a story in the first volume of Borderlands.
His influence can also be seen in this column. Going back to that first Ellison book I owned, and then reading his collection Harlan Ellison’s Hornbook, and other essays, certainly made me consider being able to do anything like this. Even the logo I had for American Gauthic was reminiscent to the logos Ellison had for his columns.
At 79, he’s not done yet. His Edgeworks Abbey imprint has been working with Publishing 180 has released eight books in the last couple of years, including two (so far) this year, and while some of the books reprint classic stories, novellas, and screenplays, they also premiere never-before-collected work. Last year, Kicks Books published his early books Pulling a Train and Getting in the Wind. This year, Hard Case Crime republished his first novel Web of the City. Subterranean Press is republishing two highly-regarded early collections, Gentleman Junkie and Other Tales of the Hung-Up Generation and The Deadly Streets in very nice collectible editions. DC Comics will be publishing the long-awaited graphic novel 7 Against Chaos. And while there aren’t any on the horizon that I know about, the CD series of On the Road With Ellison from Deep Shag Records is up to six volumes now and I recommend them all. And that’s off the top of my head (with a leeeetle research).
While I’m excited about this new stuff, I still have a lot of his older stuff to read. And reread. Whether one loves or hates the man, one cannot ignore the impact his stories, his visions, have had. Whether he’s the Zorro or Jiminy Cricket of the speculative fiction fields can be argued, but what cannot be argued is his blazing talent. And what cannot be ignored is, love him or hate him, he’s done things his own way and has held no one else responsible for the outcome.
I’ve learned a lot about what to do and what not to do from Harlan Ellison. And I look forward to many more years of his lessons. And, more than that, many more stories. I think Harlan would agree that when it’s all done, it’s all about the stories.
Right before this went to installment went to press in 2006/2007, I needed to change my address with Harlan Ellison’s newsletter, Rabbit Hole, which comes through his Harlan Ellison Recording Collection, and I mentioned the piece in the letter I sent. His wife, Susan, sent the last issue of the newsletter with a Post-It saying they’d “love” to have a sneak peek. So I sent it. Harlan Ellison called and left a voicemail to thank me for it, as well as correct a few errors and help me zipper my fly as far as some poor proofreading was concerned. It’s one of those moments that is so weird, yet so welcome.
When the essay was published in early 2007, I received another voicemail from him, again thanking me (and correcting a few things). Both voicemails were lost, since I was never able to figure out how to save them. Since the publication of this essay, Erik Nelson’s phenomenal look at Ellison’s life, Dreams with Sharp Teeth came out. Besides the incident with the young man at MIT mentioned above, there’s a clip where Ellison says, “I’m an Atheist, folks,” and some woo-ing can be heard. That’s me and my best friend Toby.
I never returned the calls to Harlan because I never knew what to say. It’s one of the many times my social anxiety has gotten the better of me. Still, I have the knowledge–an enough friends to heard the messages, including my wife, who heard the message back when she was my girlfriend–to know they existed.
Harlan’s influence has been great on me, both his writing and his life. So it is with great joy that I say–
Happy birthday, Unca Harlan! And thank you.
¹ I also found inspiration in Tom Monteleone’s M.A.F.I.A. column in Cemetery Dance.
² I stopped writing American Gauthic for several reasons, the biggest of which was lack of time. I needed to take classes to keep my job and found that a lot of my time was eaten away. Time wasn’t the only reason, but it was a big one. I’d happily go back to writing it for Dark Discoveries or another publication if the opportunity arose. I’m much better at time management now.
³ This incident appears in the documentary about Harlan called Dreams with Sharp Teeth, as is another clip from that evening.
An Unofficial Note to the Kids: Past, Present, & Future
It sucks being a teenager. It really does. By teenager, I mean from about 12 until about 20 (though things don’t get much better in your early twenties). But yeah, they suck. There are feelings and emotions coursing through you, making you feel unlike anything known to humankind. You’re parents don’t get you, your teachers don’t get you, and most other teenagers don’t really get you, either. And while the logical part of your mind knows this isn’t true, your heart feels that it is, and that just fucks you up. You’re not alone in feeling this way, yet, you are alone in being able to overcome it.
That’s depressing, isn’t it? Yeah, we’re here, we adults. I’m a father and a teacher to teenagers. I was a teenager once, too, and not a very good teenager. I mean that most teenagers get up to shenanigans and do stupid shit. I didn’t. I stayed home and wrote. I was too shy to talk to girls, didn’t really get along with guys, and preferred reading and watching movies to more social activities. And I was depressed for a large part of my teenage years. Partly, the bullying I endured from the time I was 10 until around 15 contributed to these feelings. But I got through, became a father at 20, and pulled myself through many things. The year I turned 30, things began to change. Still, that lost, helpless (and somewhat hopeless) teenager still resides within. The way I got through was accepting the love of those whom I trusted (parents, a teacher who acted as a second mother) and by eventually changing myself.
I was around 19 when I decided to change the way I was. It wasn’t instantaneous, nor did it happen easily, but the beginnings began at that point. I knew that even with the love I had of those around me, I could get myself out of those funky years. And that’s what I want to tell you. You should accept help from those who mean to do well by you. Parents, teachers, guidance counselors (most of guidance counselors aren’t worth their weight in anything, but every now and then I meet one who is excellent), coaches, etc., are often willing to help. They cannot fix everything, but they can listen and maybe give advice. You won’t take much of their advice, but you’ll wish you had. Someday. And it’s okay that you didn’t heed their advice because you need to fall down. You need to have your heart broken. But you also need to get up again and try again, even when everything in you says you don’t want to.
Kid, you’re given one life. One. Yeah, some of you believe in an afterlife or reincarnation or somesuch, and if you really want to wait for that time, that’s your call, but the way I see it, even if you do believe in that stuff, you cannot deny that this is what you have right now, and this is where you need to focus. In this one life, you must live. You must take chances and experience the pains of failure. And it will suck to fail. And you’ll cry. Man will you cry. And that’s good. You have to push yourself to get over that pain of failure, whether it’s a relationship or a goal or something else entirely, and then try again in a new way.
It won’t be easy. I can’t do it for you, but I can help you. And even if I could do it for you, I wouldn’t. You need to be able to take responsibility for yourself. But I promise that if you keep trying, if you keep making those attempts at whatever it is you wish to achieve, sooner or later, something will happen. It may not be exactly what you’d wanted; your dream girl/guy may never love you, your dream career may never be anything more than a dream, but you will find happiness with someone, doing something. But you have to make it happen. All those sad people in the world who tell you it will never happen have given up, or haven’t realized that their happiness is within them.
Look, I don’t have all the answers, but I promise that even though you have to face your personal fears alone, you are not alone in this world. We can, and will, support you.
I hope this message finds you, whoever you are. I know being a teenager sucks, but it’s the only thing you’ve got right now, and someday these struggles will prove to be inspirational. You’re doing a great job. Now don’t shut yourself off, just live.