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Harlan Ellison: His Life and Work

Profiled by Galen Strickland

Harlan Ellison is a writer. Period. One of the finest of his generation in my opinion. Even though he has written speculative fiction, including science fiction and fantasy, he has long fought the conventional tradition of labeling writers and categorizing them, so I will not make that mistake. At one time he actually went so far as to say, "Call me a science fiction writer and I will come to your house and nail your dog's head to the coffee table!" (This was in his first commentary on the old SciFi Buzz TV show.)

(I suppose the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America weren't listening, because they honored Harlan with the Grand Master Award in 2006.)

It is this type of audacity and abrasiveness that has alienated many readers who otherwise would probably appreciate his work. I hope to show that most of Harlan's attitude is justified - or at least understandable - and that it is just such a stance which makes him one of the most exemplary spokesmen for the downtrodden writers of all genres.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1934, he lived mostly in Painesville until shortly after his father died in 1949, then he and his mother moved back to Cleveland. A few years earlier he had run away from home and for a short time worked with a traveling carnival. In Cleveland, he became very active in SF fandom, publishing his own fanzine - Dimensions - for several years. During his late teens he lied about his age several times and worked at occupations as varied as truck-driving, construction, and once as a stand-up comic.

By 1954 he was in New York, rooming at various times with Lester del Rey and Robert Silverberg, whom he had met at a Cleveland SF convention. Under their tutelage, Ellison began writing prolifically and his first SF sale came in 1956 with "Glowworm" in Infinity Science Fiction. By the end of 1958 he had written upwards of 150 short stories in many genres including mysteries and fantasies. Most were coarse and derivative, but by the end of the decade he was showing signs of finding his voice. His first true literary success came with three separate books which were primarily autobiographical accounts of his experiences as member (under an assumed name) of a youth gang in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn. One of them, 1961's Memos from Purgatory, was adapted into an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in 1964, with James Caan in the role of the writer. Others of this cycle are The Deadly Streets and Web of the City. Other early books include the non-SF Gentleman Junkie and Spider Kiss.

Following a stint in the army, Ellison moved to Chicago where he was an editor at Rogue magazine and was instrumental in the formation of Regency Books. He moved to Los Angeles in 1962, and remains there to this day. He has resided in Sherman Oaks in the same home - dubbed "Ellison Wonderland" - for nearly forty years. By 1964 he had established himself as a reliable TV writer with scripts accepted by such wide-ranging shows as The Untouchables, Route 66, Burke's Law, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Perhaps his most famous work on television has been his two scripts for the original The Outer Limits - "Demon with a Glass Hand" and "Soldier" - and what is regarded by many to be the best-ever Star Trek episode - "The City on the Edge of Forever." Later in his Hollywood career he would serve as script consultant on the 1980's revival The Twilight Zone and as Babylon 5's "conceptual consultant".

Ellison is arguably the most honored American writer, with seven personal Hugos (others shared), three Nebulas, four Writers Guild of America awards, and many more. I've included a few others in the Overview column at the top right, and you can also take this link to a more comprehensive list, although I have no idea if even it is complete. Please note that the Hugo awarded for "The City on the Edge of Forever" was for the aired version, whereas the Writers Guild award was for Ellison's original script. This script would later be made available in the book Harlan Ellison's The City on the Edge of Forever, in which he also detailed the many struggles encountered with Gene Roddenberry in regards to this story. Harlan is very passionate and protective of his work, and this was just one of many incidents which has placed him at the top of the list both as a writer sought-after, and also as one many producers wish to avoid. [UPDATE: Ellsion's original script has now been adapted into a graphic novel.]

Regardless of the fact that Ellison prefers not to be labeled a science fiction writer, it is apparent - and unfortunate - that the SF community is where the majority of his fans reside. However, many of his stories are quite mainstream in their subject matter - but not neccessarily in their execution. It is exceedingly appropriate that some recent reprints of his work have been given the blanket title of Edgeworks. Harlan's writing had been on the "cutting edge" long before that phrase became common-place. In 1962, the legendary Dorothy Parker, writing in Esquire magazine, chose the Ellison collection Gentleman Junkie as the only paperback publication for which she ever wrote a review. She singled out the story "Daniel White for the Greater Good" as being: "without exception the best presentation I have ever seen of present racial conditions in the South and of those who try to alleviate them. I cannot recommend it too vehemently... Incidentally, the other stories in Mr. Ellison's book are not so dusty, either."

It is perhaps due to the relative ease of breaking into the SF market that helped shape Ellison's career, along with the acceptance he received due to his earlier fan activities. All of his collections contain some mainstream material, and he crosses genre boundaries constantly, but the majority of his better known work definitely lies within the SF realm. It is also fortunate that sometimes old adages have a grain of truth in them, and in this case practice did make perfect. It would have been easy to dismiss Ellison as a mimicing hack early in his career, but constant honing of his technique, along with the benefits he derived from his television work, helped tremendously in his knowledge of creating life-like characters and in building dramatic tension.

Shortly after I was introduced to Ellison I grew frustrated with the number of collections I encountered which contained stories I had already seen in others. I later discovered this was due to two different circumstances. First, several of the titles were reprints from England which combined contents of two previously separate collections; second, throughout the late '60s and early '70s Harlan was attempting to resort his work into homogeneous entities with common themes and motifs. Many of these collections were given sub-titles to highlight this conscious effort, e.g. Alone Against Tomorrow: Stories of Alienation in Speculative Fiction, Approaching Oblivion: Road Signs on the Treadmill Toward Tomorrow, and Deathbird Stories: A Pantheon of Modern Gods.

It was with these restructured works that Ellison began the habit of including essays as general introductions to his books, as well as forewards and afterwards to many of the individual stories themselves. This was possibly due to what he perceived as a successful element of the two landmark anthologies he created and edited: Dangerous Visions (1967) and Again, Dangerous Visions (1972), which helped broaden the acceptance and understanding of what has become known as the New Wave movement of science fiction (see my article Science Fiction: A Primer for more info on that). For many years Harlan has promised that the third and concluding volume, "The Last Dangerous Visions" will be published in his lifetime. Let us all hope that is actually the case.

In the introduction to his 1980 story collection, Shatterday, Harlan talks about the "mortal dreads" we all share. That was the title of the introduction, and it is a term he and others often used in describing his work.

"You are not alone. We are all the same, all in this fragile skin, suffering
the ugliness of simply being human, all prey to the same mortal dreads...
I inveigh against illogical beliefs and say that the mortal dreads are the
ones that drive you to crazy beliefs....I try to tell you that fear is okay if you
understand that what you fear is the same for everyone...That is why I tell
you all this, and why I write to shock you and anger you and frighten you.
To tell you with love and care that you are not alone."

This was not the first of his books to open with an introduction, and it is not necessarily representative of the tone of most of his other non-fiction pieces. It is one that gives us a glimpse into the inner workings of Ellison's mind, and it happens to introduce what I feel is his best story collection to date. In contrast, the majority of his other essays tend to be exceedingly caustic and pedantic. I do not mean to imply they are inferior to his fiction; on the contrary, in most cases they are just as entertaining, informative, and meaningful, but if the reader is not in the proper frame of mind and attuned to Harlan's peculiar take on "the way things are," then they could be a turn-off.

One must keep in mind that Ellison was suspended from the University of Ohio for what was described as rude antagonism against a creative writing professor who told him he had no talent. He has also frequently used a quotation from Jules Renard (1864-1910) - "Writing is an occupation in which you have to keep proving your talent to people who have none." His reputation as a film and television writer is one of uncompromising passion, and Gene Roddenberry is hardly the only producer to incur his rath. Practically the entire entertainment establishment has been lambasted by Ellison at some point, as he has written film and television criticism for a variety of publications.

Some of the earliest examples of this work can be found in the collections The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat, a compendium of television reviews Ellison contributed to the Los Angeles Free Press in the late '60s and early '70s. Beginning in the early '80s he wrote film reviews for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction among others, and they have been published in book form as Harlan Ellison's Watching. I have no idea why he is still listed as Film Editor on the contents page of that periodical as it has been many years since he has contributed a column there. Other non-fiction collections of a more personal, confessional nature are The Harlan Ellison Hornbook, An Edge in My Voice, and Sleepless Nights in the Procrustean Bed.

From 1994 to 1997, Harlan provided frequent commentaries (also known as "Harlan Ellison's Watching") on Sci-Fi Buzz, a general information program broadcast by The Sci-Fi Channel. Transcripts for several of these have been archived and are available both on that network's website as well as on Ellison Webderland. It is true that Harlan is one of the most flagrantly opinionated people you are ever likely to encounter, but in his defense I would like to point out that he has always, to the best of my knowledge and understanding, abided by another adage he has frequently espoused.

"Not everyone is entitled to an opinion.
They are only entitled to an
informed opinion."

Other than a couple of early non-genre works concerning juvenile gangs, Ellison earned his print reputation exclusively as a short story writer. You may perhaps see references to some of his works as "short novels," but by strict definition it would be a stretch to call even his longest works novellas. I do not have all of his books by any means but of the nineteen titles I do have, the longest stories - "Doomsman" and "The Resurgence of Miss Ankle-Strap Wedgie" - barely exceed 20,000 words each. A recent anthology- The Fantasy Hall of Fame - edited by Ellison's longtime friend Robert Silverberg, stipulated a cutoff point of 17,500 words for short stories, and novellas are generally considered to start at that point and run to approximately 40,000 words. By the way, Ellison's Hugo and Nebula award-winning "Jeffty is Five" is included in that anthology, chosen by the members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America as one of thirty of the best examples of the fantasy genre from 1939 to 1990.

As mentioned previously, Ellison has written stories in a wide range of genres - fantasy, science fiction, horror, mysteries - as well as mainstream themes, and most of his collections include a mix of all of these styles. Even though all of his collections contain some good stories I would not recommend his earliest ones, other than as a means to chart his progression as a writer. Almost all of his best work has been printed in at least two different books, some even more than that. In my opinion the best collection to start with would be I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream from 1967. The title story, also a Hugo winner, revolves around the terror and dehumanizing experiences suffered by the last five human survivors of a nuclear war perpetrated by a sentient computer. If you cannot find this particular title don't despair, for all but one of the stories surfaced again in various collections in later years, and now with the Edgeworks series there is yet another opportunity for discovering his unique talent. Originally, the Edgeworks titles were offered by White Wolf Publishing, but due to several conflicts with that company Ellison bought back his contract and will be handling any further releases himself. [UPDATE: That never really developed, and most of Ellison's current editions are now offered by Open Road Media, the four Edgeworks titles are considered collectables. Yay! I have all four!]

Following are a few other collections, with my choices of the best stories in each. Keep in mind these are just titles on my shelves, there are many others I do not have.

Love Ain't Nothing But Sex Misspelled (1968), almost exclusively non-SF - "Neither Your Jenny Nor Mine" (concerning, among other things, abortion), "Riding the Dark Train Out," "The Resurgence of Miss Ankle-Strap Wedgie," "Daniel White for the Greater Good" (reprinted from Gentleman Junkie), and "I Curse the Lesson and Bless the Knowledge."

The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World (1969), almost exclusively SF - The title story of course, and "Along the Scenic Route," "Asleep: With Still Hands," "The Place With No Name," "Are You Listening?", "Shattered Like a Glass Goblin," and "A Boy and His Dog" (the basis of the film starring Don Johnson).

Alone Against Tomorrow (1971), a 10 year retrospective (all reprints) - "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream," "Deeper Than the Darkness," " 'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman," "In Lonely Lands," "The Very Last Day of a Good Woman," "Lonelyache," and "Pennies, Off a Dead Man's Eyes."

Approaching Oblivion (1974), all printed in book form for the first time - "Kiss of Fire," "I'm Looking for Kadak," "Silent in Gehenna," and "One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty."

Deathbird Stories (1975), mostly reprints - "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs," "O Ye of Little Faith," "Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes," "Delusion for a Dragon Slayer," "Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitude 38°54' N, Longitude 77°00'13" W," and "The Deathbird."

Strange Wine (1978) - "Croatoan," "Hitler Painted Roses," "The Wine Has Been Left Open Too Long and the Memory Has Gone Flat," "Lonely Women Are the Vessels of Time," and "Strange Wine."

Shatterday (1980) - "Jeffty is Five," "The Man Who Was Heavily Into Revenge," "All the Lies That Are My Life," "Alive and Well and on a Friendless Voyage," and "Shatterday."

Stalking the Nightmare (1982) - "Grail," "Djinn, No Chaser," "Transcending Destiny," and "The Hour That Stretches."

Angry Candy (1988) - "Paladin of the Lost Hour," "Broken Glass," "The Region Between," "The Avenger of Death," and "The Function of Dream Sleep."

Other collections not previously mentioned, or that I do not have at this time, include the early Ellison Wonderland (1962), Paingod and Other Delusions (1965), and From the Land of Fear (1967); and from the middle period, Over the Edge (1970) and No Doors, No Windows (1975); and more recently The Essential Ellison, a 50-Year Retrospective (originally 1986, updated in 2000), Mind Fields (1994), Jokes Without Punchlines and Rough Beasts (both 1995), and Slippage (1996). Troublemakers (2001) is again a retrospective with quite a few reprints. Add to this 1971's Partners in Wonder, in which Ellison collaborated with fourteen other SF authors, and you have a mountain of short stories to keep you occupied for quite some time. When I originally uploaded this page, way back in 2000, quite of few of these titles were out of print. Now only a very few are not available new, and I hope that stays the case for a long time. Even if you don't buy through Amazon using our links, I still highly recommend Ellison. He should not be read quickly or without close attention to details, and you probably shouldn't attempt completion of some of these collections in one sitting. Most pack a considerable emotional punch, and careful rumination on each story before moving to the next is advisable.

At various times throughout this essay I have made reference to Ellison's temperment and to his condescending attitude toward others he deems less intelligent and less talented than himself. One of his biggest gripes is against what he terms "cultural amnesia," wherein the majority of the population - and not just younger readers either - cannot recognize cultural and historical references that predate their own existence. This should not be difficult to understand when you consider our schools are graduating many students that can barely read, much less retain any knowledge of history. Ellison himself is a modern-day Renaissance Man, well-read in a vast number of fields, and his works contain many references and allusions to other writers, both contemporary and classic, as well as to art, music, science, politics, and philosophy.

For many years Harlan has derived a considerable income as a lecturer, primarily at colleges and universities, but also at conventions and writing seminars. Another one of his "acts" involves the creation of a story, seemingly at the drop of a hat. On many occasions, both at conventions and at various bookstore appearances, Harlan has sat at his typewriter (he refuses to upgrade to a computer) to produce a short story written to order based on ideas submitted by fans, much in the same manner as an improvisational acting troupe will create a scenario from suggestions from their audience. As each page is completed it is taped to a window or pinned to a bulletin board so that readers can continually follow the work in progress. Of course, even Harlan would not wish you to believe everything materializes in his mind at that moment. As with any gifted artist, his mind contains ideas and concepts for stories not yet written on which he can draw to complete a particular story suggestion. It is also conceivable he has written some of these stories in advance and reproduces them from memory, although I am perfectly willing to believe he is capable of spontaneous creation.

A vast majority of his earlier works were permeated with a pessimistic, dark, and forboding nature, preoccupied with death, destruction, and alienation, with protagonists primarily alone in their struggle for survival. A noticeable mellowing of tone is perceivable in his later works, with more emphasis on the interconnectivity of humanity, but still with a sense of loneliness and helplessness in the face of a seemingly uncaring universe. Ellison's failing health (heart attacks, coronary bypass surgery) and the death of several of his close friends is more than likely responsible for this change. Regardless of his personal outlook, he is still able to tap into the insecurities and fallibilities of us all.

"I don't know how you perceive my mission as a writer, but for me it is not
a reponsibility 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.
It is my lot to wake with anger every morning, to lie down at night even angrier.
All in pursuit of one truth that lies at the core of every jot of fiction ever written:
we are all in the same skin...but for the time it takes to read these stories,
I merely have the mouth."

[from the introduction to Shatterday]

 

Also of interest:
My reviews of the film version of Ellison's A Boy and His Dog,
The still-unproduced Screenplay for Asimov's I, Robot,
The documentary film Dreams With Sharp Teeth,
and Phoenix Without Ashes, not only about Ellison's graphic novel but also the novel of the same name by Edward Bryant, both based on Ellison's pilot script for the ill-fated TV series The Starlost.
Most recent is a page on his latest collection, Can & Can'Tankerous.

Related Links:
Ellison Webderland
Ellison's Bibliography at fantasticfiction.co.uk
Wikipedia
Harlan on YouTube

 

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Born
May 27, 1934
Cleveland, Ohio

Website

Awards
8 Hugos
(2 other "special") 3 Nebulas
SFWA Grand Master (2006)
SF Hall of Fame (2011)
6 Bram Stokers
2 World Fantasy
2 Edgars
4 Writers Guild of America
1 Writers Guild of Canada