Friday, June 29, 2018

Remembering Harlan (1934-2018)

It's appropriate that people don't have any words to eulogize Harlan Ellison's passing. How do you sum up a life so marbled and striated and so deeply influential in a few sentences? And as someone else already pointed out, he used up all of the good words long before us.

Nevertheless, I hope you'll indulge me as I try to bring some understanding for myself on the death of one of my literary inspirations. I can't call him a mentor, because it wasn't an active relationship--or otherwise, he was a mentor to all of us--but he did teach me a few things, even if he never knew it.

It was my old friend Billy Haney who turned me on to Ellison at the age of seventeen. I'm not going to say "It's Billy's fault," because that is a hoary cliche and moreover, I don't blame him for it. We were both writers, and he was the first person I could talk craft with and not get a deer in the headlights look. Instead, I'll say Thank You, Billy, because reading Ellison as an angry young man absolutely changed my life. It got me through high school. I am not kidding about that.

At the time, me and my friends all had front row seats for the giant falling out between Ellison and Gary Groth over remarks he'd made in a lengthy interview about Michael Fleischer in The Comics Journal, which was our New Yorker at the time. The incident turned into a lawsuit that cost everyone a chunk of cash and turned their friendship into an acrimonious sideshow that lasted, presumably, to the end of his life. Billy was the one who articulated to me why this was a big deal, and that alone sent me scouring after his books.

The first Ellison book I got was Strange Wine, a collection that sold me right away on who this Ellison cat is and why he's called a writer. I'd watched his Star Trek episode, like any good nerd, but I was fascinated to know that they changed his script and he flipped out and walked out when they did. But I'd never read Ellison in his pure, uncut form before. I opened the book up to Ellison's introduction, Revealed at Last! What Killed the Dinosaurs! And You Don't Look So Terrific Yourself, and that was it for me. This cat had some fire. And I got a little obsessive looking for Ellison books after that.

It was probably six months after reading Strange Wine that this guy walked into the comic and book store where I was working and--my hand to God--he brought a sack of books to sell. Along with some of the usual used fantasy and science fiction titles (did everyone read Stephen Donaldson in the 1980's?) was a cache of twelve Ellison paperbacks. I will explain to you Internet users why that's a big deal.

Before everything from pistachios to porn was three mouse clicks away, if you wanted to read a book, you had to go actually find that book. You had to drive to a used bookstore (because there was no Ellison in print at that time--he sold out quickly) and you had to scour their stock, and then, sheepishly, or in desperation, you had to walk up to the register monkey and ask, "Do you have any Ellison?" and then you had to take it when they gave you a sympathetic shake of their head or worse, a derisive sneer, and they almost always said the same thing. "He sells when we get him." Yeah, no shit he sells. I can't find his stuff anywhere.

That's what it used to be like, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and Victoria Vetri was the queen of us all. Collecting books took years. Finding authors whose work you enjoyed was akin to archeology. You bragged to your friends about what you found on your trips.

So, when twelve Ellison books showed up, in my store, in front of me, I bought them. I paid the guy half of what I was going to buy them for, and he left happy. I never saw him again. But I stared at those twelve books: I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, Deathbird Stories, The Glass Teat, The Other Glass Teat, Love Ain't Nothing But Sex Misspelled, The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the WorldDangerous Visions, Ellison Wonderland, Spider Kiss, and the rest, and I felt like the book-nerd version of Indiana Jones staring at the Ark of the Covenant.

I read those books, nearly straight through, for the next two or three years. Here is a short list of just some of the things I pulled from the pile of books, aside from a mass of thoughtful and intelligent prose, sometimes poetic and sometimes distractingly baroque and dated:

It was in The Glass Teat that I read Ellison talking--as a TV and cultural critic--about the effect that television was having on the American public. Of particular interest to Ellison was the cognitive distortions he witnessed that were occurring to us as a people. An alarmist screed, 90% of which either came true or is still relevant to this day.

It was in Deathbird Stories that I first read"The Whimper of Whipped Dogs," a story Ellison wrote in a blind anger about the murder of Kitty Genovese, was one of those watershed moments for me as a fledgling writer.

It was in Spider Kiss that I realized you could write about someone or something very real without using their name, i.e. Elvis. Ellison had some things to say about the seduction of celebrity and he wanted to use Elvis as a metaphor for that, even as Elvis was still very much alive at the time the novel was written. After reading Spider Kiss, and decoding it as an allegory, I started seeing it everywhere.

Reading the Ellison-edited anthology Dangerous Visions was the first time I'd encountered the work of Carol Emshwiller ("Sex and/or Mr. Morrison), whom I'd never heard of, Samuel Delany ("Aye, and Gomorrah"), who I had heard of, but never read before, and Theodore Sturgeon ("If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?"), who I realized I'd been reading for years in other anthologies and loved him.

In The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, I first read "Along the Scenic Route," about a man on the highway, his car armed to the teeth, that decides to fight back against his unnamed tormentor with a fusillade of machine gun fire. The short story was one of the inspirations for the game Car Wars and probably also Deathrace 2000. My first car, a 1971 Volkswagon Beetle, had a toggle switch on the dash that was labeled "Missile Launcher."

 There are more, but you get the idea. Ellison shaped my tastes and influenced my writing, so early, and so much, that it's difficult to say where, exactly, but I can point to one thing that jump-started what eventually became my "voice": Anger.

Ellison was angry, a lot. Many of his best stories and essays have the white-hot intensity of someone who is righteously indignant about something, and in Ellison's case, it could be anything: creative theft, social injustice, gross stupidity, corporate greed, professional greed, personal greed, pride, avarice, lust, war--pretty much any combination of the seven deadly sins of man--betrayal, mediocrity, and a horde of enemies, a legion of lickspittles and toadies that all conspired to bring us as a people down into the muck, a backslide into barbarism. Ellison hated all of that shit, and he punched back as often and as hard as he could, for as long as he could.

His anger made it all right for me to be angry, and moreover to express my anger. Venting my spleen was good for me. It let me articulate, sometimes better, and sometime worse, what bothered me. It made me choose my words carefully. It sharpened my wit, if not my wits.  It honed my voice. He made me a better writer by his example. I've been thinking about my anger a lot for the past six months and I've spent years strangling it off, bit by bit. I'm not going to do that anymore. I don't know if I'll ever be as pissed off as I was in my twenties, but I've stopped censoring myself. Anything less would be a betrayal of me as a writer, and that's something I took straight from Harlan Ellison's own playbook.

I got to meet him, twice, and the meetings where, thankfully, free of drama. By the end of the 20th century, he'd become something akin to the barker at his own sideshow. He'd been "the angry guy" for so long that people expected it. And many people goaded him, like it was a party trick, to blow up and do his little song and dance. I saw that in action at a San Diego, where a fan in front of me asked, grinning like an idiot, "I wonder if you'd seen the latest editorial that Gary Groth wrote in The Comics Journal where he mentioned you by name?"

By the mid-90s, Ellison and Groth hadn't spoken in years. The lawsuits had poisoned their relationship and they were not in contact. Anyone else would have slapped a smile on their face and said, "No, I haven't. We don't communicate anymore." Or something to that effect. But Ellison woke up like the chicken at the state fair that plays Tic-Tac-Toe and said, "Gary Groth?! Don't ever mention his name to me again or I'll drive to your house and kill your mother!" He vented for another fifteen seconds, and the fan basked in it, like it was a refreshing shower. He walked off. He'd gotten his Ellison story. "Harlan blew up at me for mentioning Gary Groth in a conversation." It was bullshit, and I felt sorry that Ellison felt like he had to play along.

The second time I met him was at an AggieCon in 2000, along with the other members of Clockwork Storybook. We were selling chapbooks and we gave one of each to Ellison. He made a point of looking through them and complimenting us on our attention to detail in the creation of the books. Later, he actually called Chris Roberson to talk to him about things he'd written--and at the time, I was glad he hadn't called me, because Ellison could be just as effusive with his scorn as his praise. Now I wish he had. I would have taken Ellison's abuse and thanked him for it.

I wish I'd thanked him earlier.

Rest in Peace, Harlan. If anyone earned it, it's you.
It's difficult to measure his influence on speculative fiction, a term he used to describe fantasy and science fiction because he thought the genres needed elevating. I certainly took more from him regarding my non-fiction writing, and also a lot of how to conduct business as a writer. He walked away from a lot of jobs, and picked fights and even lawsuits with many others, over the treatment of himself and his work. He made it clear that writers--all artists--have value and should be treated fairly and with dignity. Also, he made it clear that writers were under no obligation to write happy stories. He said it best himself:

I don't know how you perceive my mission as a writer, but for me it is not a responsibility to reaffirm your concretized myths and provincial prejudices. It is not my job to lull you with a false sense of the rightness of the universe. This wonderful and terrible occupation of recreating the world in a different way, each time fresh and strange, is an act of revolutionary guerrilla warfare. I stir the soup. I inconvenience you. I make your nose run and your eyes water.

In the next few days, I'm sure that there will be a slew of counter-eulogies, describing what a misogynist prick Ellison was, or how he was an asshole and shouldn't be lionized. They will all be within their rights to offer up such a course of action. And they will be wrong. Now about him being an asshole, but over his canonization. Whatever problems Old Ellison had in the digital age, Young, Fresh, Blood-in-his-eyes Ellison set the pace for generations of writers and artists. He deserves his place at the table, and don't think for a minute he doesn't.

Polemic. Irascible. Curmudgeonly. Alarmist. Controversial. Brilliant. Born out of time and indelibly of his time. There will never be another Harlan Ellison. How could there be?



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