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A Man and His Stories

The hard-boiled, hard-edged Harlan Ellison.
by Bill Ryan
June 4, 2021
A Man and His Stories
American writer, Harlan Ellison, Boston, Massachusetts, USA, 9th November 1977. (Photo by Barbara Alper/Getty Images)

Harlan Ellison’s reputation tended to precede him. Many stories about him, true and false, created a public image of the late writer of speculative fiction (his preferred term) that often overshadowed his work. One story—a false one—that plagued Ellison is that once, at a science fiction convention, he threw a fan down an elevator shaft. Anybody who actually believes that should probably ask themselves how Ellison could have possibly gotten away with so public a murder, but there is a reason why the idea of the pugnacious author inflicting violence upon a fan might be easily believed. Put simply, throughout his career Ellison regularly called out fans on their BS. And not in a glib, “you guys are such nerds” sort of way. As the guest of honor at the West Coast Science Fantasy Conference in 1984, Ellison delivered a speech (later published under the title “Xenogenesis,” in his collection Over the Edge) in which he details at length—in print the essay is close to 40 pages—the many experiences he and other science fiction, fantasy, and horror writers have had with unhinged fans. Among the stories told in “Xenogenesis” is one about an anonymous letter Ellison received celebrating the death of Ellison’s friend and fellow writer James Blish.

The point being, Ellison saw something deeply sinister in fandom, and, by the time he passed away in 2018, he’d lived to see this kind of dark behavior go from a fringe, almost cult element at genre conventions to a form of mainstream support for massive corporate entities like Marvel and Disney. Though Ellison wisely had almost no online presence, he was surely aware of the reach and power of the kind of fandom he wrote about in “Xenogenesis,” and seeing it not only go unpunished, but applied to the most risk-averse form of art or entertainment of the modern era, must have galled him, not least because in his own fiction he strove for, and very often achieved, true originality in style, story, and language.

Though best known as a science fiction writer, Ellison wrote in many different genres and modes. His first three books—the novel Web of the City (1958), and the story collections The Deadly Streets (1958) and Sex Gang (1959, writing as Paul Merchant)—can be categorized broadly as crime fiction, with a particular focus on street gangs, which would also be the subject of his 1961 memoir Memos from Purgatory. Even when writing in other genres, his prose often takes on a hard-boiled flair. Near the end of his third and final novel, Spider Kiss (1961), which is about the rise and fall of a rockabilly singer of an especially virulent sort, the end of a stripper’s performance is described this way: “The broad finished suffering.” That sentence is a perfect slice of hard-boiled brilliance.

Ellison was primarily a writer of short stories, criticism, and essays, hence, despite a decades-long career, his last novel appearing in 1961. These tended to depict a kind of urban, low-life desperation; consider “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs,” a horror story about a (now largely debunked) aspect of the notorious murder of Kitty Genovese, or the eerie, knife-twisting gambling fantasy “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes,” often cited by Ellison as one of his own favorites among his stories. Such entries in his oeuvre betray a brand of existential hopelessness often found in the novels of Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford.

Perhaps the apex of this sort of thing in Ellison’s writing is his classic novella “A Boy and His Dog.” A post-apocalyptic story about a young man named Vic, and Blood, the brilliant dog with whom he can communicate psychically, “A Boy and His Dog” is remarkable in the way Ellison creates Vic’s voice, and Blood’s as well, as the two roam the blasted wilderness looking for food, and women, and sometimes booze, and weapons, and fight off “roverpaks” (basically, gangs). It’s an exciting story, filled with action and humor, and is blunt with its violence and sex (the novella, especially in today’s climate, is positively begging to be misunderstood) while remaining sharp and politically furious and dripping with smooth hard-boiled style. Early on, after Vic and Blood have found a woman named Quilla June who Vic plans to have sex with, they realize a roverpak is preparing to invade their hideout, kill them, and take whatever they have. After successfully taking down three of them, Vic reflects:

[Blood] didn’t say a thing, but I knew what he was thinking: maybe that was three out of seventeen, or three out of twenty, or twenty-two. No way of knowing; we could be faced-off in here for a week and never know if we’d gotten them all, or some, or none. They could go and get poured full again, and I’d find myself run out of slugs and no food and that girl, that Quilla June, crying and making me divide my attention, and daylight—and they’d be still laying out there, waiting till we got hungry enough to do something dumb, or till we ran out of slugs, and then they’d cloud up and rain all over us.

Ellison planned to expand “A Boy and His Dog” into a novel (it was adapted into a, let’s say, idiosyncratic film starring Don Johnson, directed by Peckinpah stalwart L.Q. Jones, in 1975) called Blood’s a Rover, and he wrote bits of it, published as short stories, over the years, but was never able to bring it all together, in case you were wondering why his novels stopped in 1961.

But for decades, the stories—many of them great, and groundbreaking—didn’t stop: “Jeffty is Five,” a tragic fantasy about the dangers both of nostalgia and forgetting the past; “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” a terrifying science-fiction story about a computer gaining sentience; “The Prowler in the City on the Edge of the World,” about an immortal Jack the Ripper. Along with “A Boy and His Dog,” Ellison’s masterpiece is arguably “The Deathbird.” A mix of mythology, philosophy, Biblical satire, and adventure, the structure of “The Deathbird” is so inventive that it not only makes room for a personal, non-fiction essay about the death of Ellison’s dog Ahbhu (who was the inspiration for Blood), but introduces it in the form of “Supplementary Reading” instructions for the various test questions that are sprinkled throughout the story: “After you have read this essay, using the reverse side of your test paper, write your own essay (500 words or less) on the loss of a loved one. If you have never lost a loved one, fake it.”

There was an intense, restlessly experimental side to Ellison’s fiction. One collection, Partners in Wonder, is comprised entirely of stories written in collaboration with other science-fiction luminaries. His 1993 collection Mind Fields is made up of stories that were each inspired by a different picture by the Polish fantasy artist Jacek Yerka. These stories include “Susan,” a sad and beautiful tribute to Ellison’s wife, who later passed away in 2020, and “Please Don’t Slam the Door,” written in honor of Jerka’s son who died before the book was completed. Another novella, “The Region Between” from Angry Candy (1988), possibly Ellison’s best late-career book, includes experiments in typography and page layout, resulting in one of the most physically difficult-to-read pages I’ve ever encountered. Which is a compliment, of sorts. That story is also echoed by two much later stories, “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore” and “Scartaris, June 28,” which are themselves connected to each other in their depiction of a time-hopping being performing deeds good and bad, both, ostensibly, for the general betterment of the universe.

And of course, all of this is just scratching the surface. Ellison was also a TV and film critic. His TV columns for the Los Angeles Free Press, collected in The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat, were full of venom (and every so often affection) for a medium he believed had endless potential for artistic expression and communication, but was being used to pump out mindless junk. His several decades as a film critic—most notably for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in a column called “Harlan Ellison’s Watching,” later collected in a book of the same name—produced rave reviews of films like Mickey One and Lolly-Madonna XXX and devastating pans of Gremlins and Star Wars (speaking of fans, when he was overheard publicly slamming the latter, Ellison claims a teenager keyed his car).

Additionally, Ellison wrote numerous, lengthy autobiographical essays. Many of these appeared as introductions to his various story collections, and at the height of his fame (a time that included frequent TV appearances, most notably on Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow, where he was, let’s be frank, almost always a bit too pleased with himself, and politically outspoken in a way that made him very easy to disagree with; hence, to some degree, his reputation) these could be as popular, discussed, and controversial as his fiction. I think his best, and most moving work in this area is “The Wind Took Your Answer Away,” which serves as the introduction to Angry Candy. In it, he describes a horrifying two years in which a shocking number of people who mattered to him—either as friends or as artists he admired—died. He ends the essay with this, a passage I believe sums up his career quite nicely:

This is a book of stories that you may think of as angry candy. They will please and entertain, I really and truly hope they will entertain (and a few of them are supposed to do no more than that), but they are also stories that I hope leave a bittersweet taste in your mind, like a jalapeño-laced cinnamon bear. They are stories I wrote because my friends are gone, a lot of them, and if you can’t be angry about it, how the hell much did you care to begin with?

It’s something. At last, it is something.

Bill Ryan

Bill Ryan is the writer and sole proprietor of the blog The Kind of Face You Hate. He can be found on Twitter at @faceyouhate.