Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Remembering Harlan Ellison: What He Meant to Me

Author Harlan Ellison, 1934-2018.

I’ve been thinking a lot about writer Harlan Ellison, who passed away at 84, either on June 27 or June 28 – reports differ – reportedly in his sleep. That means he died on my 59th birthday or shortly thereafter, thus allowing me to mark a milestone of another sort, a recognition that his presence, as a cultural and personal influence, has been with me for more than 40 years, my having discovered him at age 15 or 16, when I was still in high school. That’s longer than most of my friendships. (The only other writer I’ve read as deeply is Stephen King but it’s not the same type of relationship.) I am not sure exactly when I discovered him or which books of his I read first – though many of my copies of Ellison were the Pyramid editions with the artsy covers and his name in big bold letters at the top – but I know as soon as I did cotton onto Harlan Ellison, I almost became fixated on him. I picked up his collections, of course, but pretty much bought any magazine that featured his name on it or anthologies to which he contributed. I also tried to catch him on TV, NBC’s Tomorrow (with Tom Snyder) and CBC’s 90 Minutes Live in those days, ABC's Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher later on, where he was scintillating, and I still recall how excited I was when CBC’s flagship radio show As It Happens chose to interview Ellison when Ronald Reagan was elected U.S. president in 1980. Harlan wasn’t too happy about that event, as you can imagine, notably having been on the wrong side of the president when he was governor of California and put Ellison on his enemies’ list. Hell, I even joined Harlan Ellison’s fan club, which sent out neat booklets, extolling his latest projects and the like, and which I still possess. I’ve never done that for anyone before or since.

I remember my first interview with the man (three in all) when I was in university, for The Loyola News at Concordia University, and being so intimidated by his voice (and reputation) on the other end of the telephone line that I only took five of my allotted ten interview minutes. (The ensuing interviews were for The Montreal Suburban weekly community newspaper and the Toronto-based daily paper The Financial Post, now The National Post.Once I got involved with Critics at Large, as co-founder of this nearly ten-year-old daily website, I penned three more pieces on Ellison, beginning with a very long one encapsulating everything I knew and wanted readers to know about why he was so important, fittingly titled "Writer Harlan Ellison: He Has A Mouth, and He Will Scream" (a variation on one of his best known short stories, "I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream"). I also reviewed his fine graphic novel Harlan Ellison’s 7 Against Chaos and, for his 80th birthday, put forth a primer to his work and what I felt you should read, in his fiction, non-fiction and editorial capacities. So when it came down to writing this tribute to such an important figure in my life, I’m afraid I didn’t have much left to say on the specifics of his life and work. I’ll speak therefore to why I feel he mattered so much to me.

First, there was his being Jewish. Not all my cultural heroes are Jewish, of course, but many are: Leonard Cohen, Mordecai Richler, Philip Roth, even Christopher Hitchens, who found out late in life that his mother was a Jew, thus making him a member of the tribe. I felt a special bond with Harlan, and sensed before it was confirmed in his writing that he was one of my co-religionists. (Unlike my own experience, he was the recipient of a constant stream of often violent anti-Semitism when he was a kid.) There was something about his passion, his anger and his quest for justice, which permeates so many of his stories and essays, that felt Jewish to me.

Then there was his talent, which I first recognized in his science fiction stories, a genre that is a lifelong passion of mine, and to which his contributions – “I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream," “Jeffty is Five,””From A to Z in the Chocolate Alphabet,” and “Hitler Painted Roses” are some of my favourites – still stand out as the best of their kind. I’d argue that the only other SF writer who approaches Ellison’s facility in that category is Robert Silverberg (“Passengers,” “Good News from the Vatican,” “When We Went to See the End of the World”), but he’s more of a novelist than a short story writer. Ellison was the reverse. I later discovered his mystery, humorous and dramatic short stories and they were often just as good. But even more impressive were his abilities as an essayist on so many subjects, from his love of comic books to his defense of the ideals of the sixties, to highly personal and profoundly moving essays about his complicated relationship with his mother, Serita, and his dog Ahbhu. (Gay Talese, in his seminal 1966 Esquire magazine essay “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” featured Ellison when he stood up to a bullying Frank Sinatra.) There was seemingly nothing Ellison couldn’t do.

Well, he wasn’t much of a film critic, which is a special skill and in Ellison’s case manifested itself as more of an enthusiasm than a probing understanding of the cinematic form. A Pauline Kael, another member of the tribe, he wasn’t. (And no, I haven’t seen the movie The Oscar, which he co-wrote and which he himself said was terrible -- and not because it was tampered with by the suits, either, as was the case with so many of his forays into television.) He also went a little nuts on the subject of violence against women in the movies, walking out of Blow Out and assailing Brian De Palma as a vile woman-hating filmmaker. That’s as big a misreading of De Palma as it is possible to have. Ironically, perhaps, Ellison himself was accused of acting badly towards women for groping SF writer Connie Willis when she introduced him at his induction by the Science Fiction Writers of America as a Grand Master in 2006. You will see Harlan behaving like the juvenile Jerry Lewis and putting his hand briefly on Ms. Willis's breast. However, because the outspoken Ellison had many enemies, to this day he's accused of having humiliated or attacked her.  He attracted trolls more than most.

Finally, though, and it’s the most important facet of Harlan Ellison, I feel, is his general and laudable behavior as a human being throughout his long life. Yes, he could be unnecessarily cantankerous, unforgiving to those who screwed him and often his own worst enemy. In short, he was human. But he never sold his creative soul or did anything he didn’t believe in and I like to think that is how I have conducted myself, as a reporter, film critic and now teacher. If I wrote about hairdressers for Canadian Hairdresser magazine, as I did once, it was to stretch my interests and abilities as a profiler. I don’t think I’ve ever taken a writing gig just for the money or exposure. In fact, I know I haven’t, just like Harlan. I’m also, or like to think I am, as loyal a friend to my buddies as Harlan was to his pals, fellow writers, some now deceased like Isaac Asimov and Theodore Sturgeon, others, Norman Spinrad, Neil Gaiman and Robert Silverberg, still plying their craft. He was also a supportive mentor to such talents as the late Octavia Butler, among many other young writers Harlan championed and took under his wing.

The flip side of that, for me and Harlan, was our anger, which, despite years of therapy in my case, is still more than a little manifest in me. (In other ways, therapy did help me.) Harlan is quoted as saying once, “I go to bed angry and I get up angrier every morning.” I can relate to that sentiment but I also believe that it comes from wanting the world to unfold as it should and for justice to be always done. Aggression can sometimes lead to one’s being seen in a way one is not. Harlan once pushed an obnoxious "fan" who was getting in his face out of the way and the next morning, the convention he was attending was buzzing about how he had pushed him down an elevator shaft, even though no elevators were out of order. Ellison was always dealing with wrongheaded perceptions like that as in Jeet Heer’s obit on him in The New Republic, where Heer writes, “To be sure, even in his best work, Ellison was a limited writer with a narrow emotional and tonal range. He could do rage, terror, and alienation very well, with hectoring and loud stories that mirrored the 1960s countercultural rage at the establishment. But there was little in Ellison’s work of empathy, friendship or love.”

I won’t get into Heer’s off-base analysis of Ellison’s abilities as a writer; obviously I don’t agree that Harlan has a limited range – as far from limited as you can get, in fact, I’d retort – but to suggest that he never evinced any empathy or compassion or love in his work is utterly false. “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs,” “Jeffty is Five,” “Daniel White for the Greater Good," “A Prayer for No One’s Enemy,” "The Resurgence of Miss Ankle-strap Wedgie” and so many other stories, not to mention the essays referenced above, attest to a man who felt and cared deeply about people and the world they inhabit. I’d thus have to conclude from Herr’s idiotic declaration that he can’t possibly be as familiar with Ellison’s oeuvre as he implies; either that or he prefers to ignore the evidence in front of him in order to make his point about Harlan’s "propensity" for violence, which he claims disturbs him greatly. Well, Harlan once broke an ABC executive’s pelvis and fought it out with fellow writer Charles Platt, but he was also on the receiving end of violence, not just as a young boy but also when he marched for Civil Rights in the South and when he was beaten to a pulp by thugs. That both explains the violent actions he occasionally displayed but there still aren’t enough such examples to make a pattern and, besides, how does Heer know that Ellison didn’t work on curing his violent tendencies, through therapy or just by himself? I should add, for what it’s worth, that the Harlan Ellison I met, on two occasions, struck me as a gracious, polite man. When I brought him the collected clippings of his local Toronto coverage, he thanked me kindly and then I watched him for an hour signing books, articles, etc. for his many fans and knew when I went home that he would likely be there for at least an hour more. Yes, I don’t doubt he could be and has been an abusive asshole to some – most of whom likely deserved it, I’d add, though some certainly did not – but I still consider the well-behaved and civil Ellison I saw to be the norm.

Ellison’s life, and now death, struck me hard. I had tears in my eyes when my brother sent me a link to the devastating news of his passing and couldn’t really function for a time. That’s how much Harlan Ellison meant to me. He wrote that he had given orders to his wife Susan to destroy any unpublished manuscripts of his – possibly more than a hundred exist, he said – and while I doubt she would want to defy her husband’s last wishes, these things have a way of finding their way into the light anyway. I am not sure I care – the stories may not be any good and anyway he didn’t want us to see them, which should be respected. And while I was waiting with baited breath for Ellison’s own memoir Working Without a Net – he’s been the subject of some bios, lately A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison by Nat Segaloff (2017) (New England Science Fiction Association), which won a Hugo award for Best Related Work and which I have not yet read – that seems not to have been completed. (It’s glimpsed being read by a crewwoman on the fine SF series Babylon 5, which Ellison consulted for, so maybe in the far future someone will utilize a time machine to get Ellison to finish it in his lifetime.) We will get a new novel, Blood’s a Rover, from Subterranean Press this month. It’s an expansion of his 1969 novella A Boy and His Dog, but, again, I’m not sure that is something we need to read. The original was just fine as it was and the 1975 film adaption was pretty nifty, too. (It’s already been elaborated on in ensuing short stories and a graphic novel, Vic and Blood.)

In short, I guess what I am saying is that what we have from Harlan -- the stories, essays, novels, teleplays, including the famous Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever” (which he hated because it was rewritten by others but which I love; it was the only TV clip I showed in my recent "The Future is Now" course on science fiction films and is still his main claim to fame to the average person  as well as his many TV appearances preserved for eternity on YouTube is enough. He once wrote about his legacy: “For a brief time I was here; and for a brief time I mattered.” I’d argue that he’ll always matter or in a decent world, at least, he should always matter. But I’ll also add what Jews say about the dearly departed. May his memory be a blessing! Those of us who met you or just read you were blessed to have known you and we will remember you always.

– Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches film at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre, and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute and just finished teaching a course at the University of Toronto's Continuing Education program entitled Sight & Sound: What Makes a Movie Great?, which will he will also teach, beginning in Feb. 2019. He will be lecturing on the films of Sidney Lumet, beginning July 25 at Prosserman JCC.

1 comment:

  1. "Finally, though, and it’s the most important facet of Harlan Ellison, I feel, is his general and laudable behavior as a human being throughout his long life."

    You might consider revising that statement if you listen to author Marc Scott Zicree's remembrance of Ellison, where he recalls Ellison's unforgiveably atrocious behavior toward Zicree when they were both nominees for the same Nebula Award. And no, the bullying he received as a child or during the civil rights marches he participated in do not in any way justify his punching Charles Platt or ABC TV executive Adrian Samish, which story he loved recounting with relish as if what he did was admirable.