Don’t Let Harlan Ellison Hear This
Portrait of the pulp writer as an old man.
Harlan Ellison. Remember the best episode of Star Trek, the one where Captain Kirk lets Joan Collins die? Or did you ever catch the movie in which a telepathic dog bosses around a very young Don Johnson? (It helps if you’re the sort of insomniac who flips through hundreds of cable channels at two in the morning.) Or maybe you recall his pitchman spiel for the Geo Metro, or his appearances on Tom Snyder’s show or Politically Incorrect, or his segments on the early days of the Sci Fi Channel?
Probably you don’t. The television is so very full of things, after all, being the second vastest wasteland in the world, just behind the Internet. Ellison burns himself into your brain, not your retinas, with his classic short stories: “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs,” and his novelette “Paladin of the Lost Hour” (which was adapted into the only good episode of the 1980s version of The Twilight Zone). These masterpieces were written decades ago, but Ellison, now nearly 80 years old, is still writing. Barely.
In some less reputable districts in the Republic of Letters — the neighborhood at the intersection of science fiction and fantasy — Harlan Ellison is a household name. As in “That damn Harlan Ellison,” or “Oh God, Harlan Ellison,” or “Don’t let Harlan Ellison hear you saying that!” His short stories are classics, his antics and rants fearsome, his litigiousness legendary. The man’s name is even a registered trademark. Editors don’t publish Harlan Ellison stories anymore; they publish Harlan Ellison® stories. If you review his work, he might email you. If you’re a new writer and publish a story that he likes in a magazine he reads, he might find your phone number and call you. I will surely get a note for this essay. He’s a brilliant writer, as has been acknowledged in the Genre Ghetto over the years. Ellison’s work has won the Hugo Award (given by fans at the annual World Science Fiction Convention) eight times and the Nebula (given by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) award four times — most recently for his 2010 short story, “How Interesting: A Tiny Man.” He’s also won the Stoker, for horror, and the Edgar Award, for crime fiction, among many other awards.
But in our grungy paraliterary digs, we don’t use his name to talk story very much these days — instead we cheer and/or boo his lawsuits against AOL (for book piracy) and Hollywood (for allegedly ripping off his stories). We link to his YouTube jeremiad entitled “Pay the Writer” when some neophyte publisher begs for content as if we were all on the tenure track, as though we were cranking out literary fiction or something. And we call him out when he gropes author Connie Willis on stage at the 2006 Hugo Award ceremony; then we shriek our righteous disapproval when he derides one of his critics, the Black writer and blogger K. Tempest Bradford, as an “NWA.” (Well, some of us do. Others are so entrenched in science fiction and out of the pop culture loop otherwise that they had never heard of NWA and didn’t know what Ellison was saying.) And Ellison, these days, apologizes when he is wrong. After 50 years as the genre’s enfant terrible, he’s mellowing.
But the stories! Ellison’s good enough that even his minor efforts are worth reading. They’re still interesting, like tiny men, on the rare occasions they appear. His later work has a whiff of the valedictory about it. The title of his story, “Weariness,” which appeared in the 2012 Ray Bradbury tribute anthology Shadow Show, is apposite. Three beings in the far future observe the heat death of the universe for two pages. The end. But it’s terrifying, and hopeful, and yes, we really are all going to die, and soon, cosmically speaking. Where most of the contributors to the book took half a page to explain their stories and their love of Bradbury, Ellison wrote a touching four-and-a-half page essay about the author, their relationship, and the inevitability of death, carnie magician Mr. Electrico’s command “Live Forever!” notwithstanding.
At least “Weariness” is a full story. One of the NEW ELLISON emails from 2010 alerted me to an anthology of stories about the old-timey radio superhero The Green Hornet. Ellison was going to have something in The Green Hornet Chronicles. But not a story, just a “story fragment” with accompanying “liner notes.” “The Soul of Solomon” was to be a story in which the Green Hornet meets The Phantom, the purple-suited guy from comic strips and Billy Zane movies. Ellison got three pages in, gave it up, and wrapped the fragment around a long essay about how futile, and really, how dumb, the idea was. The Green Hornet and the Phantom are two minor pulp crime-fighters, beloved only by the greasiest of geeks, with “nothing in common, ultimately, save the arrogance of an old man who has learned at the last doorway that sometimes what ain’t, shouldn’t be.” Five decades of perfecting his craft, and he finds himself spending a year trying to get two action figures to fight, then kiss and make up? Who wouldn’t surrender to ennui?
“How Interesting: A Tiny Man,” Ellison’s late career Nebula winner, published in the now defunct magazine Realms of Fantasy, is about a fellow who makes a tiny man. People find it interesting. Then they find they find the tiny man, and its creator, outrageous and worthy of hate. With this story, Ellison seems to have been processing the debacle with Willis. Ellison leaned heavily on the refrain of “Hell hath no fury like that of the uninvolved” in his pre-apology defense of his Hugo Award antics, and the tiny man’s creator does the same in the tale. The story’s twinned endings — one in which the creator destroys the tiny man, who squeaks out “Mother!” before getting flattened with a phone book; and one in which the tiny man becomes God and destroys the world, including his own creator, who is now a “tinier man” — speak to the agony of writing and publishing short stories. At best, they're a novelty. At worst, they destroy you. Is that how Ellison felt when he saw fandom turn against him? At the 1978 Worldcon in Arizona, when Ellison was the guest of honor, he stayed in a rented RV in the hotel parking lot and refused to spend a dime in the state, as its legislature refused to vote to approve the Equal Rights Amendment. 28 years later, he was being derided as a sexist for his actions at the very same convention that had lauded him. “How Interesting: A Tiny Man” doesn't rate as highly as Ellison’s other award-winners, but then again, what does? Not other recent Nebula winners, that’s for sure.
Indeed, that’s why Ellison is a cult figure. He’s an indifferent novelist, and his strength is the short subject — the story and the television episode. But he began publishing in the mid-1950s, just as the American short story was collapsing. The pulps were dying, and television was crowding out the sentimental fiction features published in slicks and women’s magazines. Ellison’s television work has been critically lauded, but whatever made it to the boob tube had to first suffer at the hands of the medium’s collaborative processes. He’s in there somewhere, sure, but buried under the ideas a producer came up with while grocery shopping. In the Republic of Letters, nobody cares deeply about short fiction except writers, and in the Genre Ghetto one has to satisfy both writers and nerdy obsessives.
Ellison’s work had tried for some daring escapes: “I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream” made it into the Library of America, albeit in the American Fantastic Tales anthology, and his 1991 short story “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore” was reprinted in Best American Short Stories, where genre fiction almost never makes an appearance. But no, Harlan Ellison never quite made it to the mainstream, because only novelists can do that. To write short stories is to write for a cult.
The engines of creation are grinding to a halt, but Ellison titles continue to appear. In recent years, he’s been publishing his early work under his own print-on-demand Edgeworks Abbey imprint — some of which even he doesn’t seem to like very much. There are five volumes of his original teleplays, called Brain Movies presumably because you’re going to have to imagine them playing on the TV in your brain. His collection of early short fiction, Rough Beasts, is subtitled with an apology: Seventeen Stories Written Before I Got Up To Speed.
The most recent collection, its self-deprecating title Honorable Whoredom at a Penny a Word, features crime and Western stories from 50s-60s magazines like True Men Stories and Nightcap. Even in this hackwork, there are flashes of brilliance. “Girl at Gunpoint” begins “Las Vegas grew up around me like a neon toadstool.” And we’re hooked.
The climax of “Thrill Kill” contains a luscious long sentence that reads in part “…I hear my voice so large in my own ears and I’m screaming something about forgive me forgive me but that must be someone else screaming and all I know is I want my thrill and I have my knife high over my head when the stuttering begins and it’s a machine gun like the ones they used at Château-Thierry, which I remember very well because that’s where the shots hit me and I first got the pains, and suddenly I feel the hot and the sharp of them hitting me and splattering the brick walls of the alley, and I spin around and I know that I’ve been killed myself, which isn’t funny or strange, but only a little sad, because now I know…” and our narrator thinks about his old violin, and how being gunned down is the real thrill, and how he won’t be able to say goodbye to his knife, the “beautiful thing.” The sentence is a thrill, especially given its presence in a throwaway story published in a third-rate detective magazine, and it’s better than anything Joyce Carol Oates wrote about the mind of a psychopath last weekend, or likely ever.
Ellison isn’t the only one digging through his old file cabinets. The quality noir imprint Hard Case Crime published a nice new edition of his early crime novel Web of the City last year. The small press Kick Books put out two volumes of Ellison’s crime-‘n-smut stories from his pulp days: Pulling a Train and Getting in the Wind —the neat retro covers of both volumes warn-slash-promise that they contain stories by “a very young Harlan Ellison.”
And in 2013, Ellison published something new. The DC Entertainment graphic novel Harlan Ellison’s Seven Against Chaos (you know you have nerd cachet when your name goes before the title of a comic book) only feels retro. It’s a sci-fi version of The Seven Samurai with art by Paul Chadwick and a baby’s-first-blow-your-mind plot: what if in an alternate timeline lizards had evolved in place of humanity, so that there was a lizard Caesar, a lizard Mona Lisa, a lizard you, a lizard me? Well, there would be some fights, and after great sacrifices the heroes would restore humanity to primacy, that’s what! It’s a romp, but one more like the kitschy-but-cool Roger Corman/John Sayles/James Cameron pastiche Battle Beyond the Stars than the original Kurosawa.
I get emails about Ellison stories. I get personal questions about “Harlan stories.” A “Harlan story” isn’t a fiction; it’s the detailing of a personal encounter with the famously rambunctious author. Fans prize these as much as they do the actual work, which is sad. Though I do have a Harlan story, it is a minor one. A few years ago, a friend told me about a documentary she had seen, about Ellison. "He reminded me of you," She said. "A lot." She invited me over to watch her recording of Dreams With Sharp Teeth, directed and produced by Erik Nelson, and co-written by Ellison himself. I found it fawning and sentimental, and wrote a review on my blog. Someone (not me!) rushed the URL over to Ellison’s website, where he holds court on what’s essentially a Web 1.0 guestbook, and everyone started fuming. His fans-cum-epigones took grammar school-quality cheap shots against my surname — “Mamatas? Is it contagious?” — and my erstwhile career as term paper artist, which I once detailed on this site. Then Ellison himself left some notes. They were bombastic, and far more articulate than the comments from the fans. One read, in part, “Goodbye Bradbury. Goodbye Lieber [sic]. Goodbye Aeschylus. Goodbye Pliny the Elder…” and continued at length. By the time he got describing me as a “manque, a poetaster, a no-price for whom the internet is a last chance slave market where, for free, he can bleat to his shrunken little heart's delight” my wife Olivia, who had been reading along over my shoulder, said to me, “Wow, I see what you mean. He really is a great writer! No wonder you like him so much.”
And that is what I mean. He really is a great writer. I like him so much. If you catch wind of another Harlan Ellison short story to be published, please email me as soon as you can. • 27 January 2014
Nick Mamatas is the Bram Stoker and International Horror Guild-nominated author of three and a half novels, including Sensation (PM Press 2011), and 60 short stories that have appeared on Tor.com, Lovecraft Unbound, Weird Tales, and many other magazines and anthologies. His fiction collection You Might Sleep... was published last year by Prime Books. As editor of Clarkesworld, the online magazine of the fantastic, Nick was nominated for the Hugo and World Fantasy awards, and with Ellen Datlow he co-edited the anthology of regional ghost stories Haunted Legends (Tor, 2010).