Thursday, June 28, 2018

RIP Harlan Ellison (1934-2018)

The inconceivable has happened: we now live in a world without Harlan Ellison. It is not exaggeration on my part when I tell you that he was perhaps the most important writer for me, an author whose words and ideas were apocalyptic when I began reading him in the mid-1980s (thanks to Stephen King's Danse Macabre, which I believe is where many fans of my generation first learned about him). My library includes more books, both in paperback and hardcover, by him than by any other writer (and I'm still searching for various editions).

I can still recall the excitement with which I read his classic collections Strange WineDeathbird Stories, and No Doors, No Windows these many years later. And of course it wasn't just the stories! No, it was the introductory essays and think pieces and forewords and such that really opened up my head, that put me in touch with a righteous anger and passion that I had never encountered before. Harlan Ellison pulled back the curtain on the writer's life and duty and I had never seen those workings before. I will never be able to thank him for that.

Below is an old blog-post of mine from 2007 that only scratches the surface of how I feel about Harlan.

Since the death of Tom Snyder several weeks ago, I got to thinking again about "the irascible science fiction writer Harlan Ellison," who Snyder interviewed famously many times over the years. One of my most favoritest writers ever of all time, I was introduced to Ellison's writing when I was around 14 or 15, when I borrowed Strange Wine from the local library after reading about Harlan in Stephen King's Danse Macabre. And in those many years since, I've amassed nearly 30 copies of his books, most all of which are long out of print but can be found through diligence and patience scouring used bookstores. 

Deathbird Stories, a collection of his early ’70s works, is one I had not read in some time. It's essential Ellison. It contains some of his tightest, most controlled works: moody and enigmatic, laced with an existential dread while displaying an unnerving knack for an ugly, yet appropriate, climax, like a crack of the whip—or a snap in the neck. The collection is subtitled “A Pantheon of Modern Gods,” which is the height of irony—is there anything less modern than a god? That’s exactly the point: people are still desperate to worship, to prostate themselves before some imagined superior power or any strange artifact that can somehow impart meaning upon this random and unexplainable life.

And Ellison, despite his compassion for such poor souls, spares none in these moral fables. "I am a religious man," states the melancholic protagonist of "Corpse." "One would think that would count for something. Apparently it does not." Then there's the gut-wrenching "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs," in which Ellison recreates the chilling murder of Kitty Genovese as an act of sacrifice to a new and terrifying god. "The Deathbird," the final story, is an emotionally exhausting reimagining of the origin of evil—in the form of a multiple-choice final exam.

I can still remember the first time I read these stories, a hot summer in 1988 sitting in the stifling office of the gas station I worked at, filling my head with Ellison’s rants and ravings and obscure references that didn’t make me feel stupid or inferior—no, it was exciting, it made me feel like I had a lot to learn, and I had better get caught up fast. As he states in the intro, “As the God of Time so aptly put it, It’s later than you think.”


Mort Castle said...

Very, very hard. From the mid-70s, I had on my cork wall full of rejection slips this reminder to self: Remember, Harlan teaches you to work close to the horns.

Bradbury told him, "Live forever!"

He will. He does.

Mort Castle

ukjarry said...

Did you ever read Ellison’s essay foretelling the collapse of the horror publishing industry at the beginning of the 90s?

- matthew davis

Will Errickson said...

Indeed he does! Thank you for posting, Mr. Castle.

Will Errickson said...

A perceptive article, thanks for the link!

Ron said...

Oh my God I can’t believe it. Harlan was my favorite writer and such a great man. Immensely talented and I read nearly every story and essay has ever wrote. And if you really want a treat- a gift from the late wordsmith: Harlan’s favorite writer was Gerald Kersh. In the intro to Slippage at the very end he mentions him. And it is true in his own words- He wished he could write anywhere near his level of excellence and originality. I will tell you after I heard that I searched out and found all 42 books by Kersh and it is true - He is the greatest writer I ever read and Harlan was right. In his own words ‘ No mortal can write this well’. To the creator of this blog a gift for you- find and read everything you can by Gerald Kersh. Sad Road to the Sea and The Ugly Face of Love are 2 great collections to start with. They are all great. Fowler’s End is the most hysterical novel you will ever read. RIP Mr. Ellison and thank you for so much joy.