"He is funny and caustic and charming and aggressive and stylish and offensive and brilliant and opinionated and short. ... He is Lilliput's answer to King Kong. He is Munchkinland's answer to Godzilla. He is science fiction's answer to the world."
-- David Gerrold
Stalking the nightmare
Essay by Michael Zuzel
I was a high school sophomore, a pagan trapped in a Catholic institution, feeling even more alienated and angry than the typical hormone-drenched, pimple-plagued kid at that age. I had taken refuge in the latest book from my favorite author: Deathbird Stories by Harlan Ellison. It was, I thought, the supreme act of defiance: Ellison's stories were filled with violence and sex and, most of all, gods of a decidedly non-Christian nature.
While reading Deathbird in the library one day, Sister Lillian, my creative-writing teacher and perhaps the only nun at the school who considered my heathenistic soul worth saving, asked what I was reading. It was like getting caught by your mom while you're reading Playboy. In mortal terror, I handed over the book. Sister Lillian read a few lines silently, handed the book back and, with what seemed like sincere approval, remarked, "A modern day Poe." And walked away.
A modern day Poe. Two decades later, it stands as possibly the truest description of one of the late 20th century's most imaginative -- and infuriating -- authors.
"The green monkey"
Harlan Jay Ellison was born May 27, 1934, in Cleveland, Ohio, younger of two children of Louis Ellison and Serita Rosenthal.
Louis Ellison worked for a time as a dentist and served time in prison after taking the fall for a friend who had been caught smuggling liquor from Canada. After his release, he became a jewelry salesman. The couple's first child was a girl, Beverly, eight years before Harlan.
The Ellisons were, he says, the only Jewish family in their hometown of Painesville, Ohio, a fact that figures prominently in much of Harlan Ellison's writing, both fiction and nonfiction. "(Other kids) used to beat (the daylights) out of me. Regularly," he said in a 1990 interview. "It was this Jewish business. ... I was the green monkey, the pariah. And I had no friends. Not just a few friends, or one good friend, or grudging acceptance by other misfits and outcasts. I was alone. All stinking alone, without even an imaginary playmate."
Imagination, it turned out, flowed in Ellison's veins.
If one can believe the author's biography -- he is famous for constructing elaborate, fake curricula vitae for the dust jackets of his books -- Ellison ran away from home at 13 to join a carnival, and over the next half dozen years worked as a logger, a tuna fisherman, an actor, a floor walker in a department store and even a dynamite-truck driver.
After leaving Ohio State University midway through his sophomore year (he punched a professor who said Ellison had no talent ), Ellison moved to New York with the idea of making a living as a writer. At age 21, he was able to pass himself off as a 17-year-old and spent 10 weeks with Brooklyn street hoodlums, an experience he later described in the book Memos From Purgatory. He was drafted into the Army and during that hitch completed his first book, a novel about gang life titled Web of the City.
A writer's rise
Returning to civilian life, Ellison embarked on one of the more prolific literary careers of the 20th century, selling dozens of stories to men's journals, science fiction and mystery magazines and small paperback publishing houses. In 1962 he moved to Southern California, where he built a reputation as one of the more daring and talented science fiction writers in the country; Paingod and Other Delusions is a representative sampling of his work during this period.
His essays, film reviews and commentaries began appearing in local and national publications. He became one of science fiction's most celebrated anthologists for his groundbreaking Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions projects -- and made a few enemies due to his seeming inability to complete the final volume of the series, The Last Dangerous Visions. He also began what would turn out to be an almost legendary, decades-long battle with the film and television industry.
Ellison's science fiction was a direct descendent of his pulp gangland dramas: jarring, often violent, sometimes mixing disquieting psychological elements with pointed, anti-authoritarian political commentary. The technique reached its stylistic and popular pinnacle with "A Boy and His Dog," (first collected in book form in The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, later illustrated in Vic & Blood: The Chronicles of a Boy and His Dog), a grim, funny, offensive post-nuclear tale that took direct aim at Nixon's Silent Majority and the anti-humanistic attitude it represented to Ellison.
Ellison's real-life activism was reflected in his fiction. He marched for civil rights, and wrote about race relations in "Daniel White for the Greater Good" (in Gentleman Junkie and Other Stories of the Hung-Up Generation). He opposed U.S. involvement in Vietnam, and explored the inhumanity of war in his Kyba series (collected in many places, with several brought together in illustrated form in Night and the Enemy).
His essays, too, frequently centered on politics, current events and the tumultuousness of modern life; his column in the Los Angeles Free Press in the aftermath of the Kent State shootings (reprinted in The Other Glass Teat: Further Essays of Opinion on Television), to name just one example, remains powerful and thought-provoking nearly three decades later. Though often packaged as film and television commentary, his work rarely conformed to the conventions of that genre; more often, the show in question was merely a jumping-off point for a wild romp through whatever was bugging Ellison that particular week. What bugged him a lot were his encounters with Hollywood. Though known primarily as a crafter of the printed word, Ellison frequently sought -- and, later, was sought for -- film and television assignments. Invariably, such experiences turned out badly. Ellison had little patience for budget-cutting producers and none whatsoever for anyone who dared rewrite his words. "The Outer Limits," "Star Trek," "The Young Lawyers," "The Starlost," "The Twilight Zone," "I, Robot" -- the list of TV and movie projects from which Ellison departed under less than amicable terms is almost endless.
While his Sisyphean battles with the studios continued, however, Ellison's written work was hitting new heights of inventiveness and maturity. Beginning with "Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans" (in Deathbird Stories), Ellison's fiction moved ever farther from the space cruisers and laser pistols of his Kyba stories and increasingly into the realm of what literary critics call "magic realism." Elements of the fantastic continued to figure prominently in Ellison's stories, but more often as accessories instead of the main centerpieces. Stories such as "Jeffty is Five," "Paladin of the Lost Hour," "The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore" (selected for The Best American Short Stories 1993) and, most recently, "Mefisto in Onyx" have placed Ellison closer to the literary territory of Jorge Luis Borges and John Crowley than of such sci-fi stalwarts as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.
As of 1994, Ellison had published some 1,300 stories, essays, scripts and reviews. The figure no doubt is considerably higher today and does not include his spoken-word recordings, (available through The Harlan Ellison Recording Collection); appearances on radio and television (he is said to be one of talk show host Tom Snyder's favorite guests, serves as conceptual consultant on the "Babylon 5" series and has for several years offered weekly commentary on The Sci-Fi Channel's "Sci-Fi Buzz"); advertising (he was a pitch man for the Geo Metro automobile several years ago, identified on screen as "Harlan Ellison, futurist"); a comic book imprint ("Harlan Ellison's Dream Corridor" from Dark Horse comics); and convention and promotional appearances (he often writes in bookstore windows).
Ellison often mentions Jorge Luis Borges as his role model, and recent work puts Ellison in the same class as that late Argentinean author. Critics have also compared Ellison to Lewis Carroll, Franz Kafka and others. Still, it is the parallel with Poe, instantly discerned by Sister Lillian that day in the high-school library, that is strongest. (Ellison indirectly admits as much in his novelette All the Lies That Are My Life, which has strong autobiographical elements). Like Ellison, Edgar Allan Poe left college under unhappy circumstances, bristled at the discipline of military life, found it difficult to make love affairs last, made a meager living writing for periodicals and earned some modest renown in the literature of the fantastic.
Poe died in obscurity. Generally speaking, Ellison's recent writing is his best, so he may yet achieve what Poe did not: the critical success and popular acclaim due one of the finest writers of his time.
- The Trouble with Tribbles by David Gerrold (Ballantine Books, 1973)
- "Tripping Through Ellison Wonderland" by Don Shay (Cinefantastique, Spring 1976)
- Harlan Ellison: Unrepentant Harlequin by George Edgar Slusser (Borgo Press, 1977)
- A Reader's Guide to Science Fiction by Baird Searles, et al. (Avon Books, 1979)
- "Harlan Ellison on the Art of Making Waves" by Tom Staicar (Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone Magazine, Dec. 1981)
- Stephen King's Danse Macabre by Stephen King (Berkley Books, 1981)
- "Harlan Ellison: Science Fiction's Last Angry Man" by Howard Zimmerman (Best of Starlog Vol. 3, 1982)
- "Harlan Ellison: Next Stop: The Twilight Zone" by Lee Goldberg (Starlog, Nov. 1985)
- "Harlan Ellison: 'Call Me a Science-Fiction Writer -- I'll Tear Out Your Liver!' " by Lee Goldberg (Starlog, Dec. 1985)
- Trillion Year Spree by Brian W. Aldiss (Avon Books, 1986)
- "The Deadly 'Nackles' Affair" by Harlan Ellison (Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone Magazine, Feb. 1987)
- "Prolific author Harlan Ellison fights Hollywood, critics" by Paul Ciotti (Los Angeles Times, 4 March 1990)
- American Book Association Convention online discussion (June 3, 1995)
- Various issues of "The Rabbit Hole" newsletter (from The Harlan Ellison Recording Collection)
- Essays, introductions, prefaces, postscripts, author's notes and commentary by Harlan Ellison (citations approaching infinity)