Last week Harlan Ellison died. He was one of my favorite writers for a long, long time.
I only have a couple of stories about interacting with him. But since so much of the responses to his death, both celebrations of his life and celebrations of his death have focused on Ellison as a person to interact with (see this MeFi thread for examples of both positive and negative reactions, or Cory Doctorow’s balanced account, or John Scalzi’s obituary), I’d rather talk about him as someone whose work I read, and who meant a lot to me.
Also, all of my books are in storage now because of the impending move (which is terrible, and I will write about this), so I can’t quickly reach for my Ellison paperbacks, hardcovers, CDs, and comic books. So his creative output looms especially large for me right now, just as he died.
If you don’t recognize the name, and haven’t clicked on the Wikipedia link above, know that Harlan Ellison was an important writer in many venues. He was best known for stories in science fiction, fantasy, and horror, but he also wrote mysteries, mainstream fiction, tv scripts, radio plays, essays on all sorts of things including tv, and a computer game. For some he’s most famous as the author of everyone’s favorite Star Trek episode, “The City on the Edge of Forever.” For others he’s one character in a Gay Talese essay, an energetic young man who goes toe to toe with Frank Sinatra. He also edited several very important anthologies.
For me, he’s a writer who opened my mind wide when I was a kid. By “kid” I mean from age eight or so onwards. I was a big science fiction reader, devouring everything the local public library held, from children’s lit to the most challenging adult science fiction. I prowled the stacks every chance I could, and brought home troves. When I turned 13 we moved across the country, and I kept reading sf. This was back in the 1970s and 80s, dear reader, when being a nerd was akin to being a leper with open sores. I spent a lot of time reading and not talking with people.
And those Ellison stories! They always came at me from bizarre directions. They weren’t stories which one read by trying to understand an alien species the heroes discovered, or how to suss out a new invention’s implications, but stories I simply couldn’t get at first glance, and needed to read harder just to figure out what was going on.
What does a kid make of those insane titles, like “Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitude 38° 54′ N, Longitude 77° 00′ 13″ W”?
I remember reading “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” with the feeling that the top of my head was lifting off into the stratosphere, and I understood maybe one half of the story. I pawed through Dangerous Visions and, through its ambitious attempt to corral the American new wave, started realizing that science fiction had both a history and a politics. Ellison’s manic introductions to stories gave me glimpses of writers as people, and also showed me ways to read stories. The riffs and cultural references in stories like “Repent, Harlequin!” overwhelmed me… but also gave me pointers to other authors to read, and glimpses into a broader world which I could somehow start to apprehend.
As I got older Ellison’s writing kept teaching me things. The “Glass Teat” essays showed me for the first time how to view television critically. His formal experimentation demonstrated ways that literature could be twisted and redesigned. “Deathbird” showed me mercy killing – by euthanizing the entire Earth. “Shattered Like a Glass Goblin” is the first story about drugs that I recall reading. “The Place With No Name” demonstrated how to radically re-imagine religion and myth (I wasn’t raised religiously, and didn’t read fantasy then, so this was all new).
There was an astounding precision of word choice and gleeful love of language in these stories. Maybe more than anything else I took that linguistic love away, and also his sheer manic energy, which infected and inspired me with each reading. I feel it now, like a shot of adrenaline, just thinking about those stories, and dipping into some recent interviews. Stephen King wrote an introduction for one Ellison collection, and complained that in writing that short bit he felt his own style warping under the influence, like milk in a refrigerator taking on the scent or flavor of what stood next to it on the shelf.
Ellison was like some demonic tutor who didn’t just pace me but kept ahead, daring me to go further.
For example: as a lad I also learned to play the cello – not well – and that led to music camp for several summers. One night I decided to tell my cabin-mates a scary story, so naturally reached for an Ellison tale. It was a good one with a great finish (can’t remember the title now; the man with no face, anyone?). The would-be violinists, cellists, flautists, etc. listened avidly, then had a hard time falling asleep. Some talked or walked in their sleep. In the morning we compared weird dreams.
This was before the web, basically, so finding books was a different game. I treasured those strange, sometimes beaten-up, always weirdly-covered books. Freed from hellish high school, I made friends, not a few of which connected with me over a shared admiration for Ellison. Through classes and degrees I expanded my reading and interpretive skills, and found returning to Ellison always rewarding, simply put. His work expanded and deepened as I learned how to read for more breadth and depth.
As a literature prof I taught several of his short stories. “Shatterday” was a fine one, not least because I’d written a dissertation on doppelgangers. I loved seeing those students respond, with echoes of those music camp cabin-mates. I also heard stories about the time Ellison visited that campus (before I got there!) and won over the audience with a joke about nuns, penguins, and sex.
As a twenty-first century parent I gradually introduced my children to Ellison’s work, and then they raced on to find their own encounters with the demonic tutor. Owain found YouTube videos about the computer game of “I Have No Mouth.” Gwynneth loved his comic book writing. We all chuckled over Ellison’s voiceover role as an irritating computer program in Babylon-5. I saw my children do what I did in discovering this terrific body of work, watched them grapple and stretch and learn – but on their own terms, in their own ways. Which is best.
OK, I have one Harlan Ellison story to share here, and it’s a silly, irreverent one. I actually met him several times, but the first occasion was as an undergrad when another student organized bringing Ellison to campus. This would have been around 1988.
A bunch of us met in a Chinese restaurant on South University, Ann Arbor, and the first thing the writer did was insult another student for his clothing (ironic, if you know the Talese essay). I was intimidated and tongue-tied, and can’t remember conversing over dumplings. I do remember listening, and admiring my fellows for engaging with this demon.
Afterwards we moved to a big auditorium and Ellison held forth for an hour and more. No notes, no PowerPoint (it was before that era): just rants, advice, remembrances, and more advice, each smoothly moving from one to the next. The audience was rapt. At one point he named several Nazi death camps and dared people to raise their hands if they didn’t recognize them. A friend of mine shakily lifted an arm, and Ellison both blamed and praised him for his ignorance and bravery. At another point a different friend shouted out something about Cartesian mind-body dualism, thinking he was echoing the speaker’s point; Ellison was nonplussed, and moved on. Afterwards Ellison and his wife (I think) sold copies of their books, a practice which I admire and have since emulated.
I’m not sure how it came up, but at one point in his peroration Ellison held up a tiny jar of what he claimed was the world’s most heinous hot sauce.
It came, he explained with some terror, with an eyedropper, so fierce was its potency. This piqued my interest, as a young dabbler in hot sauces. Right after the talk finished I nerved myself to go up on stage, get face to face with Ellison, and ask for a sample. He handed the thing over directly (no, I can’t remember the name). I skipped the eyedropper and swigged directly from the bottle. It was fiery stuff, but I downed it without choking or emitting steam from my ears. Seeing Ellison’s – Harlan’s – eyes bug out was a ridiculous thrill.
I’ll miss him forever. It’s time to reread. And reread again.