Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Harlan Ellison at 80: A Primer

Writer Harlan Ellison poses with his typewriter

"The only thing worth writing about is people. People. Human beings. Men and women whose individuality must be created, line by line, insight by insight. If you do not do it, the story is a failure. [...] There is no nobler chore in the universe than holding up the mirror of reality and turning it slightly, so we have a new and different perception of the commonplace, the everyday, the 'normal', the obvious. People are reflected in the glass. The fantasy situation into which you thrust them is the mirror itself. And what we are shown should illuminate and alter our perception of the world around us. Failing that, you have failed totally."
– Harlan Ellison

My favourite writer Harlan Ellison turns 80 today, a milestone for anyone but, in light of his health issues – serious heart problems, necessitating an angioplasty, and recently diagnosed clinical depression – and his general tumultuous existence, perhaps more of an unexpected one for him. He’s not nearly as well known as he should be, despite writing the single best episode of the original Star Trek TV series ("The City on the Edge of Forever"), but of late he seems to have crept into the mainstream. The Big Bang Theory referenced him recently as the writer ripped off by director James Cameron, who stole the idea for The Terminator from Ellison's script for the Outer Limits episode "Soldier." And, earlier this season, he showed up as his own cranky (animated) self on The Simpsons, dissing the younger generation while in line for a new comic book release. He also wrote a graphic novel last year, Harlan Ellison’s 7 Against Chaos, which generated some buzz and made it to The New York Times bestseller list. And he’s embraced the internet in a way he hasn’t before – he’s famously known for typing out his stories – announcing new projects, including previously unpublished teleplays, on HarlanEllisonBooks.com. He’s also a regular on YouTube and the like, offering his strong opinions on any number of subjects, all smartly and wittily addressed. But if you’re not familiar with his stuff, it’s difficult to know where to start since his output is so tremendous and diverse, totaling some 1,700+ published stories, screenplays, reviews and essays, and nearly three dozen collections and novels in varied genres. So here are my picks for Harlan Ellison’s must-reads, in fiction, non-fiction and the two groundbreaking anthologies he edited. If you just want a generous overview of his career, check out The Essential Ellison (1987/2001), either the 35th or 50th anniversary editions. (They’re likely not in print but can be found in used bookstores, I’m sure.) Otherwise, you’ll want a more concentrated dose of the man in the following works. Note: Ellison has a habit of tinkering with his short story collections, removing some tales from subsequent editions of his works, when they’ve appeared elsewhere in print in the interim, and often adding new works as recompense. (He’s nothing if not considerate of his readers and their pocketbooks.) I’ll try to indicate where possible which edition you should look for, but realistically the later editions are the ones you’re more likely to stumble across. (Most of Ellison's books are also available in e-book format, through Open Road Integrated Media.)

Fiction:

Web of the City (1958), Ellison’s first novel, about street gangs in New York, and one of only a handful of novels he ever wrote – short stories and non-fiction make up the bulk of his writings – hasn’t dated much at all, likely because Ellison went undercover in a real gang to research it, elaborated on in his 1958 related short story collection The Deadly Streets. In fact, except for the increased presence today of guns and hard drugs, the finely written, pungent and touching Web of the City (released initially as Rumble, without Ellison’s approval) gives you as good an idea of what gang culture is like now as any other book, song or movie ever could. A striking debut.

Gentleman Junkie and Other Stories of the Hung-Up Generation (1961): This collection is the one that introduced Ellison to a wider readership namely because famous and influential writer Dorothy Parker gave it voluminous praise in her magazine book review column in Esquire magazine, writing that Ellison was “…a good, honest, clean writer, putting down what he has seen and known, and no sensationalism about it." Including such seminal, powerful stories by Ellison as "Daniel White for the Greater Good", about race prejudice, which Parker particularly liked, and "Final Shtick", about a self-hating Jewish comedian receiving an honour in his anti-Semitic home town (Ellison grew up in such a town, Painesville, Ohio, but there’s nothing self-hating about him), Gentleman Junkie is as good (and memorable) as Ellison’s ever been as a writer. (There are different introductions and a few different stories in the 1961 and 1975 editions, but they’re minor differences at best.)

Love Ain't Nothing But Sex Misspelled (1968): One of Ellison’s finest collections, and like Gentleman Junkie, entirely devoid of science fiction or genre tales, proof positive that he should never be pigeon holed as an SF writer. The book contains one remarkable novella, "The Resurgence of Miss Ankle-strap Wedgie", that as a scathing, perceptive take on Hollywood’s often poisonous effect on people is fully the equal of Nathanael West’s acclaimed 1939 novel The Day of the Locust. (It was perceptively included in the 2007 Nebula Awards collection of stories after Ellison was inducted as Grand Master by The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 2006, thus introducing it to genre fans who would not otherwise know it.) But other stories in the book, such as "Valerie", Harlan’s startlingly honest rendition of one of his more toxic romantic relationships (one of the few non-fiction accounts in the largely fiction-based collection), "Daniel White for the Greater Good," and "A Prayer for No One's Enemy," a disturbing tale loosely based on the tragic plight of a Jewish American neo-Nazi named Daniel Burros (the 2001 Ryan Gosling movie The Believer also tackles the same story) also stand out, revealing Ellison as a writer working at the top of his craft. (This is the 1983 edition, containing 16 stories, three of which were new but with nine stories from the original edition removed.)

Deathbird Stories (1975): One of Ellison’s best SF story collections contains his Edgar Allan Poe award-winning (for Best Short Story) "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs," a fantastic and imaginative take on the Kitty Genovese case, the New York woman murdered in 1964 while her neighbours reportedly looked away. But so many of the other stories in Deathbird Stories, including “Paingod", "Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitude 38° 54' N, Longitude 77° 00' 13" W," "The Deathbird" and "Shattered Like a Glass Goblin" are stellar, too. (Deathbird Stories was expanded into a longer edition, with five more stories, in 1991.)

Strange Wine (1978): Another fine SF story collection, with snappy intros, as in most of his collections, by the author himself that are almost worth the cost of the book itself. "Croatoan," "Hitler Painted Roses." "From A to Z, in the Chocolate Alphabet" and "Strange Wine" are the standouts here, strange stories often dealing with unlikely juxtapositions, such as "Hitler Painted Roses," and not afraid to deal with the messy realities of life, as when the protagonist of "Croatoan" descends into New York’s sewers to retrieve his girlfriend’s recently aborted fetus. "Strange Wine" was actually written in a store window (A Change of Hobbit in Santa Monica), a gimmick that Ellison frequently engaged in to help his favourite book-selling establishments generate business.

Shatterday (1980); The title story of the book was made into an excellent television production, starring Bruce Willis as a man who calls his home phone by mistake only to have it answered by himself, in the excellent 1980s revival of The Twilight Zone (with Ellison as creative consultant in its first season; he quit before its truncated second season when CBS censored one of his proposed anti-Christmas stories, "Nackles," which was never made). But the other stories in Shatterday are equally provocative, including his Nebula and Hugo award-winning poignant short story "Jeffty is Five," about a young boy who doesn’t age, "How’s the Night Life on Cissalda?", an uproarious and raunchy story of an alien whose visit to Earth causes all manner of sexual shenanigans among our planet’s movers and shakers, and "Alive and Well on a Friendless Voyage," a quietly powerful tale of a man named Moth who is psychically connected to the miseries affecting the various passengers on a mysterious vessel. Another standout Ellison collection. (Reissued in 2007)

Harlan Ellison, with his wife Susan, in 2013 (Photo by Mark Barsotti)

Non-Fiction:

The Glass Teat: Essays of Opinion on Television (1970) / The Other Glass Teat: Further Essays of Opinion on Television (1975): Ellison’s’ two fantastic books of television criticism, largely written for the alternative Los Angeles Free Press between 1968-72, with The Glass Teat lauded by none other than Walter Cronkite, are more than your standard boilerplate TV critiques. They’re outspoken, cutting and (again as per usual for the man) provocative columns that have as much to do with capturing the 60s and 70s zeitgeist in America, the tumultuous time when anti-war protests, government repression and a cultural explosion outside of television were making their mark on the country than with reviewing the shows themselves, such as McCloud, which he liked, The Partridge Family, which he loathed (in his review Harlan merely wrote "Mother of God!") and his own deep disappointment in how "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs" was eviscerated and censored when adapted by him for the show The Young Lawyers (the original teleplay was serialized in his column and reprinted in The Other Glass Teat.) That column was a lightning rod for any number of crazies who wrote angry letters to the newspaper, tried to blow it up but only succeeded in destroying a corner of the building housing it, and when Ellison opined that then Vice President Spiro T. Agnew masturbated with copies of Readers’ Digest, saw The Glass Teat collection pretty much blocked by the U.S. government, which pressured distributors to return the boxes of copies of the book unopened, this after it was starting to sell briskly. The book became the American equivalent of those Soviet forbidden texts circulated surreptitiously underground. Of course, the shows Ellison wrote about are old news now, though often still inhabiting any number of nostalgia-oriented TV channels, but as a detailed, vivid snapshot of his country, filtered through trenchant arts criticism, The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat are unparalleled. I’ve certainly never read better TV criticism – before or since. (Oddly enough, his book of film reviews, Harlan Ellison’s Watching (1989), fails to make the same mark. It’s pallid stuff.) The Glass Teat Omnibus, comprising both collections, was published in a limited edition by Charnel House in 2011, with an accompanying CD of Harlan Ellison reading a new essay, "Welcome to the Gulag", specially written as an updated introduction to the books.

Sleepless Nights in the Procrustean Bed (1984): An enticing and wide-ranging book of essays, gifted to me by good friend Bram Eisenthal, on the occasion of a private screening of the (then) banned-in-Ontario George Romero zombie horror film Day of the Dead for my film censorship column Censor Watch in The Toronto Star. (The column is peripherally connected to Harlan as he was and still is a vociferous foe of censorship. I cherish a photo of us with Harlan pointing to one of them.) The essays include Ellison's ineffably moving eulogy for his mother, "Serita Rosenthal Ellison: An Eulogy," an angry, disgusted account of the racism he experienced and saw first hand when he marched for Civil Rights for African Americans in Selma, Alabama in the 60s ("From Alabamy, With Hate") and "A Love Song to Jerry Falwell," aptly described in an intro as an “indictment of the ways in which society brutalizes its creative geniuses." There are also moving, generous essays paying tribute to Ellison’s friends and talented fellow writers Robert Silverberg and the late Fritz Leiber. as well as fifteen other revealing and intelligent essays, a reminder that as an essayist he is second to none.

The Harlan Ellison Hornbook (1990); Harlan’s eulogy for his mom Serita, as well as the essay  "Valerie" also appear in The Harlan Ellison Hornbook, another collection of essays written, like The Glass Teat and its sequel, for the alternative press, the Los Angeles Free Press and the L.A. Weekly News in 1972/73. Ellison also pays loving tribute to his father Louis Laverne Ellison, who died when Ellison was just a teenager, in "Everything I Know About my Father," his dog in the very touching "Ahbhu" (clearly he’s not the asshole so many paint him as) and inveighs on subjects as diverse as the revival of comic books ("Did Your Mother Throw Yours Out?"), the positive legacy of the 60s ("The Song the Sixties Sang"), his visit to death row ("Death Row, San Quentin") and even in "The Day I Died," an amusing, self-deprecating speculation as to when and how he’ll die. (Fortunately, he’s lived past 2010, the last date of death in the essay, but he has not yet received, as he imagines he would, the Nobel Prize in Literature or had a stamp commemorating his literary achievements, though in a just world, he’d at least get the stamp. Being a perceived genre writer and an American would likely rule out the Nobel.) Besides, how can you not want to read essays entitled "Why I Fantasize About Using an AK-47 on Teenagers" or "With Bloch and Bormann in Brazil." (The former lambastes the present – at the time – younger generation for being vapid, no worse than Ellison’s generation except for the fact that they didn’t learn anything from the successful changes wrought by the protests of the 60s. The latter is a fascinating account involving writer Robert Bloch and just possibly a Nazi who may have been Martin Bormann himself.) You can also check out An Edge in My Voice (1985), the (uneven) collection encompassing essays mostly written for the L.A. Weekly in the early 1980s with the proviso that they could not be edited. His passionate essay on the need for gun control, just after John Lennon’s murder and still, sadly relevant, and his lauding of the Equal Rights Amendment, which enshrined women’s equality but failed to become law, are among the subjects dealt with there.

Anthologies:

Harlan Ellison, back in the day
Dangerous Visions (1967) / Again, Dangerous Visions (1972): Nearly fifty years later, the Ellison edited and compiled Dangerous Visions remains the most important and significant science fiction anthology put out to date, and this in a genre whose greatest strength lies in strong anthologies compiling short stories each year. It came along at the right time when any number of gutsy writers like Philip José Farmer, Fritz Leiber, Theodore Sturgeon, Samuel R. Delaney, Lester Del Rey, Philip K. Dick (of Blade Runner fame), J.G, Ballard, Robert Silverberg, John Brunner, Norman Spinrad and dozens of others, were shaking up the genre, bringing adult themes, explicit sexuality, and bold political statements to what had mostly been PG (at best) SF. (Only a handful of women writers made the cut in the first book and a few more in the second. SF still had a ways then to go in the field of gender equality; it largely has done so now.) Most of the up-and-comers had stories in Dangerous Visions, many of which went on to cop SF’s major awards, but more importantly they wrote exciting, provocative tales that made you think of the literary possibilities of science fiction. If you loved the genre already you were ready to move up and if you didn’t know it or dismissed it as just so much kid’s stuff, you were in for a rude awakening. Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions (a third and final collection to be called The Last Dangerous Visions never materialized) deftly guided by Ellison’s editorial hand and his spot on taste (he chose all the writers for the anthologies), not to mention his terrific intros to the stories (including one of his finest, the Jack the Ripper tale "The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World," paired perfectly with Robert Bloch’s disquieting Ripper tale "A Toy for Juliette") ensured that the books would make a splash. What I think no one could have foreseen is the permanent impact that they would continue to have as anthologists continue to cite them as inspirations for their own compilations. Ellison’s voice and prints are all over the two anthologies and, in fact, if he hadn’t done any writing of his own, on the strength of Dangerous Visions alone, and its follow up, he would still leave his mark on the SF world.

I haven’t noted all of Harlan Ellison’s finest tales, such as the 1969 Nebula award winning novella A Boy and His Dog (turned into a 1975 dystopian cult film of the same name by L.Q. Jones, with the last line of dialogue disavowed by Ellison as sexist), and classic stories like "Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" and "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream," but that’s because they’re in some of his lesser collections – though, to my mind, pretty much anything he’s written is worth a look. But by all means seek those stories out, in The Essential Ellison for one; take a gander at his TV work, including J. Michael Straczynski's first-rate 90s SF TV series Babylon 5, to which Ellison acted as creative consultant as well as his published screenplays, such as his proposed version of Isaac Asimov's classic I, Robot, published in 1994 in book form as I, Robot, The Illustrated Screenplay (Ellison had nothing to do with the 2004 Will Smith version of I, Robot which finally made it to screen) and even his oddball projects such as Mind Fields (published in 1994) with Ellison contributing short stories commenting and accompanying the ravishing paintings of Polish artist Jacek Yerka. There's also Erik Nelson's 2008 Ellison documentary film Dreams with Sharp Teeth, which isn't as good as it could have been, but is worthwhile and certainly the only one we'll get on the writer, at least while he's alive. (Supposedly Ellison is set to write his own autobiography called Working Without a Net – first 'seen' in an episode of Babylon 5 where a character is shown reading it – but he made that announcement almost six years so its imminent appearance seems unlikely. Considering how revelatory the man is in his writing, it may not even be necessary.) And you can't go wrong with the 6 CDs entitled On the Road with Ellison, where you get to hear the man himself, lecturing in all his contentious glory,

Ellison has slowed down somewhat – his last full original story collection Slippage came out in 1997, but he’s obviously not gone yet. Who knows, he may yet live to 120 (a Jewish aphorism/blessing, and the age at which Moses supposedly died), but whenever he goes he’ll still be remembered, hopefully fondly, by those lucky enough to have met him or read him. I’ll end exactly as I did when I wrote about him two years ago today as it still applies: Happy Birthday Harlan and many more to come!

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching a course on iconic cinema. He is currently teaching a course on Hollywood and Society, a look at how Hollywood has handled hot-button issues in the movies over the years, beginning on May 9 at Ryerson.

4 comments:

  1. "But if you’re not familiar with his stuff, it’s difficult to know where to start since his output is so tremendous and varied, nearly three dozen collections totaling some 1,700+ published stories, screenplays, reviews and essays, in varied genres."

    Most of his short fiction anthologies are simply reshufflings of the same fixed number of stories. Because, at least until the mid-1980s, when Ellison could no longer interest major publishers in reissuing uniform series of his books, the same books were periodically published by different paperback publishers in new editions, his output appears far greater than it actually is. By the way, the correct title is "The Resurgence of Miss Ankle-strap Wedgie."

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    1. Shlomo Schwartzberg replies: Wikipedia lists 22 original collections of fiction, eight non-fiction collections and if you add the several novels of Ellison's, which was not included in my original listing, it comes to about three dozen books. Regarding his 1,700+ stories, essays etc.: that figure seems accurate, considering the numerous venues Ellison has been published in, from Playboy to in-flight airline magazines. Not all the stories (or essays for that matter) appear in the collections -- we phrased that wrongly in the original post. Thanks for catching the error in the title of The Resurgence of Miss Ankle-strap Wedgie. Both issues have been corrected.

      On the subject of the number of publications, see Ellison's own testimony on the subject from 2013: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/jun/14/harlan-ellison-q-and-a-interview

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  2. I think you meant "Nathaniel West" when you wrote "Nathaniel Hawthorne" in the LOVE AIN'T NOTHING BUT SEX MISSPELLED paragraph.

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    1. Thank you, Jason! That is indeed who we meant, and it has been corrected.

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