It was sad news indeed to learn author, lecturer, and social gadfly Harlan Ellison passed away on June 28th at age eighty-four.
No writer affected me more deeply in my teenage years than Ellison, and he stands among that handful of authors who have made a lasting impression on me throughout my lifetime.
His fiction was sometimes funny, sometimes bleak and seared with pain, sometimes a cautionary tale and sometimes an intriguing character study. He wrote a small handful of novels, but most of his prose fiction was produced in the short form: novellas, novelettes, short stories. The most pointed of his fiction came in the first part of his career, bearing titles like “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” “A Boy and His Dog,” “The Deathbird,” “Lonelyache,” and that favorite of those readers (like myself) who believe there’s nothing sacred about the status quo, “”Repent, Harlequin!” Said The Ticktockman.”
In the 1970s,the small paperback publishing house Pyramid Books produced a uniform set of Ellison titles, with arresting covers by the talented Leo and Diane Dillon. I snapped them up as they appeared and they remain on my shelves to this day. Other publishers during that period had their shorter list of Ellison books; I was an Ellison fan, not a publisher snob, so I grabbed up those pocket-sized books, too.
Ellison made a mark in Hollywood, turning out material for film and TV. He is credited with turning in the screenplay for one of the all-time stinkers of the silver screen (The Oscar), and with creating the most popular episode of Star Trek in all its incarnations, “The City on the Edge of Forever” (though what aired on-screen was substantially different from the script Ellison turned in).
He was a sociopolitical gadfly with a highly-proscribed ethical code and a willingness to draw a line in the sand and then to stand firm, immovable, holding that line against substantial odds. The stories of Ellison yanking the beard of capital-A Authority are many and the stuff of folk legend: Harlan coming across a conference room table to punch a TV producer who proclaimed to those assembled that writers are toadies — marching for equality and civil rights in the ’60s — bringing plagiarism suits against others not once, but multiple times. Sometimes the settlements were about more than money: he won the addition of a credit to the original Terminator film as a result of one suit, a lifetime supply of Marvel Comics from another. His 1980 court victory against Paramount Pictures and ABC-TV over their series Future Cop is still lauded as a milestone victory for writers and the protection of their output. The title of this piece was both carefully chosen and rings true, since one of Ellison’s early jobs, in the days before his writing career launched, was as the driver of a dynamite truck. Two volatile ingredients, mixed together, yet somehow never igniting a massive blast– the explosions Harlan became involved with became grist for his auctorial mill.
What may stick with me most about Ellison are his efforts as an essayist, and the true-life tales he told as a participant in and observer of the social and cultural scene. His story collections were loaded with non-fiction material: introductions to the books themselves, intros and sometimes afterwords for each story. That in addition to his collections of non-fiction: his regular television column, “The Glass Teat” (collected by Pyramid and, later, others as The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat), and the gigantic collection An Edge in My Voice are must-reads for anyone wishing to gain a full appreciation of this singular talent.
I admit, I’m not sure how well Ellison’s messages “play” with a certain percentage of modern-day readers. His tales (both real and fictional) of individual strivings, individual triumphs, and individual shortfalls may miss the mark with many who grew up absorbing the lesson that “the team is the most important thing.” His worldview and actions were shaped long before the days of “political correctness,” and so may shock or offend the more faint of heart. His later fiction grew more subtle and nuanced, and may not sit well with an audience that made best-sellers of less-ambitious, more-straightforward works (The Hunger Games, the Twilight series, and others of similar ilk). Still, for those of us of a certain age, of a certain sensibility, we grew to adulthood and beyond enjoying Ellison’s fiction and respecting the man (even when we didn’t always agree with every stance he publicly professed — we may also be the product of a less polarized time). We know we shall not see his like again in this world.
I was lucky enough to interact with him on two occasions. In the late ’90s, the first social activity I participated in following my father’s death was to join my good friend Tom Field in Boston to attend an Ellison lecture. We joined the sign-and-chat line at the end of the event, and I had seen Ellison just a few days previous on a late-night network talk show hosted by Tom Snyder (another Ellison fan). That Snyder-Ellison conversation clued me in to a struggle Harlan was waging against the city of Los Angeles to protect the property around his home (he winsomely dubbed it “Ellison Wonderland” and gave one of his books the same title); I was able to ask him for an update on that situation. I may be wrong, but I like to think he appreciated hearing something other than, “I really, REALLY like your work …”
The second time brings us back around to The Library of American Comics: readers of our Beyond Mars collection know I interviewed Mr. Ellison for that book, asking him to discuss the strip in general, but most especially its author, science fiction Grandmaster Jack Williamson. Already dealing with health issues, Mr. Ellison was animated and charming during our discussion, and generous with his remembrances of his friend, Williamson. As our discussion of Beyond Mars ended, the fan in me would have loved to steer the conversation to his own writings and their place in my life, but the professional in me overruled that impulse. I thanked him for his time, told him I was a great admirer, wished him a fine afternoon, and ended the call.
Now forces greater than any of us have written an end to Ellison’s personal story, reminding me of why we refer to such passings as “losses.” The man is gone, but his works live on: to anyone looking for an introduction to Mr. Ellison’s fiction, I recommend the 2014 collection The Top of the Volcano, which collects his award-winning short stories. The hardcover edition on my shelves contains twenty-three different tales, running a hefty five hundred twenty pages. And while that’s a pretty impressive tip of the iceberg, the tip is all it is …
Safe travels, Mr. Ellison, and many thanks for countless hours of entertaining, challenging, and thought-provoking reading.