Wednesday, 29 August 2018

HARLAN ELLISON: THE TELEGRAPH OBITUARY AND A REMINISCENCE

I met Harlan Ellison once. It was at an sf World Con in Washington in 1973. I was working in DC at the time, and had a great time. But at one point, maybe on my way to liberate the swimming pool with Michael Gorra at some early morning hour, I walked into an elevator containing Ellison and two young women. I was a fan of his, and I smiled and said hi, but something in my smile, or maybe just my size, irritated him, and he started in on some riff about a goofy mid-western farmboy. The women giggled, I just smiled and said see ya when the elevator reached the ground. I thought it was a little strange, but I'd heard he was aggressive and combative and I just wrote it off to a severe case of Little Man Disease. And he had a pipe, which was a sort of 50s 'longhair' thing--think Hef at the Mansion.

Early this July, 45 years later, I did a brief write-though for the Daily Telegraph of their obituary of Harlan Ellison, adding some details I thought pertinent, some slight interpretation, and a little bit of redirection of the original. It took a long while for the version to reach print (in fact, it came while I was on holiday in Iceland), which I just discovered a few days ago when I checked online. You can link to that obit here, (the online version is behind a paywall).

One of the things I concentrated on for the Telegraph was trying to explain why Ellison's primary work was in the short-story, and this was what I came up with:

      "The short story was his m├ętier...they reflected the bright flame of his angry personality, an emotional  impact that was hard to sustain over greater lengths".

That was my experience reading him. When I first came to his work as a teenager, through those mid-60 short story collections, I found them powerful. Yes, some were derivative of mainstream writing, especially Nelson Algren, but some others of the same people were all read growing up. But they were also, in a sense adolescent, in their rage against the way the world was: his characters were often losing in battle to forces beyond their control.

While I was looking for the Telegraph piece, I followed a link to an interview Ellison did with The Comics Journal back in 1979. It's a long rambling airing of insults and feuds, and many of his opinions and rants read like stuff you would have found in some fanzines back in the days when I was reading them. Obviously when he wrote he exercised more control. But one quote jumped out at me:

     "I swear to God just one day I'd like to get up and not be angry. Just one Goddamn day in this life I'd like to arise and not be fucking pissed off at the world."

I didn't need the confirmation, but it was striking to see it out there so plainly. I thought back to that encounter and breathed a sigh of relief I hadn't made anything of the bluster I'd received. I also thought how important that anger was to the energy of his stories and the physical power of his best writing.

Some of my adds for the paper were also about 'speculative fiction' and Dangerous Visions: those two anthologies were central to my own sf reading. I noted in the obit that by the time Again, Dangerous Visions appeared, five years after the first volume, its innovations had already become commonplace in the genre. The paper left out mention of Christopher Priest's book about his story which Ellison bought for The Last Dangerous Visions but wouldn't allow him to use when that book failed to appear (one interesting question: will it appear now, courtesy of his estate?). I would assume some of the introductions are missing; Ellison was a fascinating editor (including of himself) in the sense that his intros to stories are often as interesting, if not more so, than the stories themselves.

I filled in details about the famous Star Trek feud. It may be that work in forgettable serial television used up all of Ellison's 'long form' fiction, but I may in a minority in finding 'The City On The Edge Of Forever' good for Star Trek but less than monumental. Most of his other episodic work I don't remember; I was young and they were mostly fluff. The film of A Boy And His Dog remains excellent, and deserving of more attention.

I'd still recommend those story collections, including and perhaps especially the non-sf Love Ain't Nothing But Sex Misspelled (a title much less daring nowadays) which had a beautiful cover by Leo and Diane Dillon, who also did the covers and illos for the two Dangerous Visions volumes. You'll like I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream or The Beast That Shouted Love At The Heart Of The World or Paingod And Other Delusions, and you may wonder why you hadn't read him before.

By coincidence, I had picked up a copy of Ellison Wonderland, which I'd never read, a few months before Ellison died. This was lucky because it provided some explanation about the import of Dorothy Parker's review of Gentleman Junkie to his career, but I didn't get very far through the stories. They vary in quality, sometimes seeming like drafts of Twilight Zone episodes, sometimes seeming like sharp allegories of the society and mores of my youth, sometimes hitting real emotional nails directly on their hearts.

For me, Ellison opened up doors toward writing that challenged me just at the point I was discovering sf. He wouldn't quite move past that with me, but I would dip in and out of his writing for decades. The thing that does stay with me is the wonderful ease and conversational style he was able to maintain in his essays, and the way that flows into his fiction, though forged very much through anger. I truly hope he rests in peace.  

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