Harlan Ellison died last week on June 28th at the age of 84.
Acerbic, belligerent, cantankerous, despicable—there’s no doubt a disparaging word or two that has been used to describe Harlan Ellison for every letter of the alphabet. In short, by most accounts he was not a nice person. But a talented writer? Hell yes. And no matter what is said about Harlan Ellison the man, I mourn the death of Ellison the storyteller.
Although a prolific and award winning writer (check out the ridiculously long list here), Harlan Ellison may not be known to many people today aside from diehard Star Trek fans, readers, and writers of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. (He, by the way, preferred the term speculative fiction in conjunction with his work.) If you haven’t read any Ellison, I hope you’ll read at least one of the stories I’ve mentioned here and judge his work for yourself.
His writing reveals the myriad nooks and crannies of the human heart, especially those deep, dark corners most of us fear to explore. Fiction or non-fiction, Ellison’s best work bursts at the seams with emotion, passion, and intelligence. Much of his writing attacks the reader with sharp, pointy sticks forcing us to think, feel, do something!—even if just to launch a retaliatory attack on him. Above all else, Ellison hated complacency. He lived to shake foundations and…Make. People. Think.
Looking back at my personal favorites from Ellison’s short stories, I am still haunted by the feelings they provoked within me: the painful disgrace of cowardice and inaction in “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” (1975), the mad glee of “‘Repent Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” (1966), the horror of “Í Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” (1967), the poignant romance of “Count the Clock That Tells the Time” (1978), the nostalgia and melancholy of “Jeffty is Five” (1977).
His non-fiction also left its mark: the astounding autobiography Memos from Purgatory (1961) about the time he spent undercover in a Brooklyn street gang; The Glass Teat (1970) and, of course, The Other Glass Teat (1975) in which he ranted about the absurdity of television in the 60’s in 70’s. (Until reading the last two, I was mainly oblivious to the damaging influence that TV shows had on my notion of what everyday life should be.) And the introductions to his short story collections, which I looked forward to those almost more than the stories gathered in those books. I owe a lot to Ellison for waking me up to the realities of the world.
One of the stories about Ellison the man is that everyone who went to a Science Fiction convention back in the days of Ellison’s prime has an Ellison story. Many of them are being retold now as people look back on his life. Most illustrate his outrageous curmudgeonly antics, story upon story adding to his forever image of the epitomic “angry young man” lashing out at everyone and everything he considered subpar. I, too, have an Ellison story, but of a different sort…
In 1976, my friend Jeri and I went to one of the first-ever Star Trek conventions. We were both big fans, but not the kind who wore Spock ears and learned Klingon; we loved the original series, but weren’t adverse to making fun of its flaws. Imperfect as it was, the show remained important to us. I can’t speak for Jeri, but for me Spock’s battle to contain his human emotions helped me cope during high school when most of the time I feared I was going crazy trying to make sense of my own conflicting emotions.
Star Trek was also the first TV show that made me aware of the importance of television writers and format. In the last season when it was relegated to a 9 p. m. CST time slot, I begged my parents to let me stay up past my bedtime to watch it because—and I remember this as an exact quote: It’s important, not just any show. Twilight Zone and Outer Limits are science fiction, too, but this is the first show with a continuing story and characters you see week after week! Do I digress? A bit, but all this background points to the fact that when I went to that convention the writers had become as important to me as the characters or the actors, maybe more so.
Jeri and I took the train downtown to Chicago’s Congress hotel, both of us feeling excited and nervous. (Would it be amazing? Would we be the only ones that showed up, proving that we were the most hopeless nerds and outcasts on the planet?) Into the lobby and—wonder of wonders—there were lots of other fans there and they looked pretty much like normal, happy people, excited to be there just like us. We got programs. There would be showings of the episodes on big screens without commercial breaks, which sounds like nothing today, but was a huge never-before deal back then. There would be autograph signings, panel discussions, and more. I don’t remember what all because looking down the list of events I saw Harlan Ellison’s name. The guy who wrote “The City on the Edge of Forever” and won a Hugo for it. The prolific writer whose short stories I had just begun to read, whose ideas and style made me want to be a better writer, to write like him or at least as well as he did. Several programs were slated for the same time slot. Jeri opted to go hear James Doohan (Scotty) speak and get his autograph. I headed off to Ellison’s talk.
All the seats in the long room had filled, lots of people standing in the back. We waited. A few minutes late, Ellison arrived on stage, a bit breathless. Short guy, big nose, stage presence that dwarfed the fuller-than-capacity audience in the room. He ran a hand through his hair, and announced that we had a choice to make: he could go ahead and talk about the planned topic (something about genre writing, although I don’t remember what precisely) or he could read a short story that he’d just finished writing in his hotel room. I’d read accounts of Ellison writing in shop windows and taping up the pages as they came off his typewriter for passersby to read. But I still couldn’t believe that anyone could be so confident in their writing skills that they’d read an unedited (gulp!) story to a huge crowd. For me as a fledging writer, this was a moment of definite shock and awe.
We voted to hear the story, which I have no doubt was what he wanted us to do.
And so he read “Shatterday,” wherein a man mistakenly dials his home phone number and falls into the Twilight Zone when the phone is answered at the other end by him. It’s a story of transformation, of the painful change from being a despicable ass to becoming a worthy human being. The story, to this day, is one of my favorites. As he read it, it seemed this journey was personal for him—one that Ellison himself had struggled through or was struggling with. Whether or not that was true, it’s how it felt to me while I listened.
He went well over his allotted time, but we all held fast to our seats and wouldn’t be moved until he finished. No time for a question and answer session, but as the room began to empty of the Ellison audience and the crowd waiting for the next session began taking our places, some people pushed up through the side aisle to where the great and scary author was attempting to make his exit. I forced myself to head that way, too. And suddenly, there we were face-to-face and I asked him what I should do if I wanted to become a good writer. If he would have said “boo” I know I would have run away, hid in a corner, and never have written another word. But he took a moment to talk to me. I was quaking in my boots so much that I don’t remember exactly what advice he gave me except that it was something on the order of: write and keep writing and never stop writing. Then he told me about the Clarion Workshop, explained what a tough challenge it presented, a kind of boot camp for writers, and wrote the name down on a slip of paper for me.
I came away from my brief encounter with Harlan Ellison wanting more than ever to write great stories and to keep digging inside for the courage to stay on the long, difficult journey I had chosen to take. (Hey, if I could confront Harlan Ellison with a mundane and needy question and survive, I figured there had to be some hope.)
Years later, still struggling along that path to become a good writer, I occasionally feel like giving up. But I can still hear Ellison’s voice reading “Shatterday” in that room, blowing me away with his masterful storytelling, his audacity, and his kindness in stopping to give a moment of time to a young writer.