Harlan Ellison (May 27, 1934 – June 28, 2018) was an American fantasist and author of many genres of fiction as well as incendiary social commentary. After years of heart trouble, he died this week in his sleep at his home in Los Angeles. He was 84 years old.
Ellison’s best fiction is unclassifiable as anything other than tales written by Harlan Ellison: emotionally charged, full of rage, wit, intelligence, and heart. He was a personality unlike any other in the writing world. Tales of his exploits abound. There are stories of his exploits at conventions, tales of notoriety to be sure, but there are tales of kindness, too.
Full disclosure: I am not doing any research for this article. I have read so much by and about Harlan Ellison that he is a mythical creature in my mind, and this article shall treat him as such. I swear I read somewhere that he ran away at an early age to join a carnival. That he went to New York in the 1950s to join a street gang and wrote novels about his experiences. It seemed he lived something of a transient lifestyle after he left home. He idolized pulp writers, Jack London, and Jack Kerouac, and believed Hemingway’s credo that you should write what you know, so he sought to know everything first hand. He wrote short stories in the windows of bookstores in cities I dreamed of visiting. He was notoriously difficult to work with, both in publishing and television. He had famous run-ins with famous people. His writing was cut-to-the-heart honest and emotionally powerful. Supposedly he was a teetotaler, which I couldn’t ever comprehend. He was admired by some of the greats, and had run-ins with some of the greats. There was no other writer like him. For a long period of time – most of the 1990s in fact – I read his work voraciously. I wanted to be something like him, for it was clear to me that nothing could be exactly like him. I studied his fiction, I wrote as much as I was able following his example.
Alas, I was cut from a different cloth than Harlan Ellison. Most of us are.
Starting in 1990, I collected everything I could find by Harlan Ellison. As I recall, I was introduced to his work by science fiction artist David Martin, who did a lot of work at the time for Amazing Stories and several RPGs. David and I attended the Colorado Springs Science Fiction Writers Workshop for two years between 1990 and 1992. We became friends, and spent some leisure time together, hiking and discussing mutual interests. He pointed me to Shatterday. After that, I hunted down and read all that I could. My favorites from back then are Stalking the Nightmare, Shatterday, Deathbird Stories, and Angry Candy. I was a fan of his earlier science fiction work as well, especially The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, but nothing really matched those four key collections for me.
Those of you who follow this blog will recall I had a troubled youth and sank into some dire times in the mid-1990s. I lost pretty much everything, and lived by the grace of friends on their couches. I owned a single duffel bag of clothes that I carried with me. In that duffel bag, I carried one paperback: I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. I must have read the book 15 times. It wasn’t his best work in my opinion, but it was all I had for a while. Gentleman Junkie and Strange Wine found me in interesting places personally. Love Ain’t Nothing But Sex Misspelled and Paingod were some other timely titles, meeting me in places where I needed them the most.
There are so many reviews of Ellison’s career out there right now in the wake of his death, I hope you’ll forgive me this indulgence. I really just wanted to share everything that has stuck in my mind about Ellison over the years. All the stuff above, and more. Edward Bryant was a close friend of Ellison’s, and Bryant ran the workshops I attended all those years ago. I recall tales of how Ellison encouraged Dan Simmons in his early days after reading one of his stories. Bryant would talk to his writer friends in the workshop (not me so much) and I’d hear first-hand of those who’d been encouraged, and those who’d been excoriated. As I discovered Kerouac, I recalled that Ellison had sought out and met with Kerouac (am I misremembering this? I can’t find confirmation). I recall that when Ellison heard Fritz Leiber was broke, writing his stories on a manual typewriter in some squalid hotel in San Francisco in the late 1970s, that he reached out to the author he so admired, infuriated that such a great talent could be reduced to such poverty. That’s the other thing about Ellison: he was a great fan not only of the genre, but the short form – he wrote several novels early in his career: crime, troubled youth, science fiction – yet spent most of his writing career crafting short stories, for which he regularly received awards and accolades from the top down.
For actual facts and more information about Harlan Ellison, which really just scratches the surface but is nevertheless entertaining, click here to read his obituary in the New York Times.
A few notes about my Ellison collection as it exists today: I have two signed books, Memos from Purgatory and Angry Candy. I sought to complete my collection of the Pyramid and Ace editions, but I’m not there yet. I bought my copy of Love Ain’t Nothing But Sex Misspelled from SF author John E. Stith, who gave me good writing advice that I didn’t follow and was an all-around nice guy. My hardcover editions are worn and well read. While the scans below by no means represent all of the Ellison books that have passed through my hands over the years, these are the ones I ultimately kept hold of, with few regrets.
Much of Ellison’s work has been reissued in electronic editions by Open Road Media. To browse the list of Harlan Ellison titles currently available on Amazon, click here.
These cover scans are from the library of author Christopher Fulbright. The featured image for this post is from the Deathbird Stories cover art by Barclay Shaw.