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​Harlan Ellison: a big fish in an ever-expanding pond

Writer's Block | August 22nd, 2018

Harlan Ellison

by Randy Christianson
randybchrstnsn@hotmail.com

Harlan Ellison always liked rolling a grenade or two into the room before entering. If this were Readers' Digest, I might call him The Most Unforgettable Boy I Ever Met. 'Boy' because, as I saw for myself, he let his inner child come out to play quite frequently. In over six decades of creating--one to put himself on the map and five to maintain his status as a big fish in an ever-expanding pond--he never shed his rep as an enfant terrible (a descriptor you will see ad nauseum in his RIPs and appreciations), to where it's now hard to get your head around the fact that, at 84, he legitimately died of old age.

I encountered him in 1977, roughly the end of his second creative decade, at the UND Writers' Conference. He'd spent the mid- to late '50s turning out journeyman work not only in science fiction (a term he always said he detested) but also fantasy & horror, and “juvie” crime stories, the result of immersing himself in an NYC street gang.

But soon the decade turned, and Harlan Ellison was the sixties waiting to happen. "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," "'Repent, Harlequin!'” “Said the Tick-tock Man," "Paingod," "The beast that shouted love at the heart of the world," and scores of more baroque titles, plus his edgy criticism and editing, signified him as the shock troop of the new. In those same years some early sales to tv soon had him spending more and more time scripting series and screenwriting movies, and...Chiiiiiing!

I'd read several Ellison stories growing up, including “Soldier,” which became one of the episodes fans of the old “The Outer Limits” remembered most fondly, and two decades later, became the centerpiece of a plagiarism lawsuit against James Cameron. Ellison’s winnings against the “Terminator” director could not be disclosed under the agreement, but one very clear result was the post-production inclusion of the words “With acknowledgement to the work of Harlan Ellison” as the end credits begin to roll. He is legendary for his relentless war against the big shots to get his due and, quite frequently, others’.

But in 1976, when he was seeing paperback houses reprint his earliest work, I somehow got such a copy of "Gentleman Junkie." Crime stories. I thought I'd read a couple, then get back to studying. They were pretty good, so a couple more couldn't hurt. Then another, and maybe one more...and next thing it’s midnight and the story bag was empty. The next day I wrote a glowing review for the student paper, and Harlan Ellison had a new fanboy.

I was a student member of the writers' conference board, and also recommended we invite him, only to see my suggestion languish unseconded for months, until another member, film professor Don McCaffrey returned from California where he saw Ellison give a live-wire performance, and the conference founder/director, the late John Little (another larger-than-life but shorter-than-average dynamo) succeeded in booking him.

Come Spring of 1977, my early advocacy earned me the job of squiring him around the conference. The night another student fan and I picked him up at the airport, he did not want supper, but had us take him to both a supermarket and a Valley Dairy to find the exact candies he favored, while he kept up a line of chatter, thumbing through paperbacks while noting respected authors who wrote schlock series to keep beans on the table, and said chatter did not wain until we got him checked into his hotel.

Through the next 2&1/2 days I got him to panels, readings/speeches by other writers, his own reading, two memorable parties and a screening of the (credited) year-old movie adaptation of his brutal novella "A Boy and His Dog." True story: a classy classmate, and wife of the education dean, brought her pre-schooler to it because, well, it was named A Boy and His Dog. I took it on myself to clue her that the title was VERY ironic, and his tale of apocalypse and cannibalism probably wouldn't be up their alley. They were disappointed, of course, but I think I earned points in heaven that night.

By this point he was pretty well off, and his time at UND amply evidenced how much of a walking contradiction he was: he bled sympathy to the poor & the working stiffs, but was, if not outright rude, at least highly demanding of waitresses and set-up people. He had a rep as a shirt-off-his-back generous friend, and at book-signings he was warm & chatty, but with strangers he seemed to embody Edna St. Vincent Millay's sentiment that "I love humanity, but I hate people." He was a celebrity hound who kissed up and kicked down. In panels he urged us to sample the finest things in life--duck l'orange seemed to be a favorite. He detested TV as "puree of birdsh*t," but said he arranged his life so he could work for six months of every year, to earn the financial independence to do the work he loved the other six.

The conference theme was Novels Into Film, and it was a stretch to include him or fellow guests: novelist Larry McMurtry, Southern novelist, poet & critic George Garret, screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury ("Nashville"), documentarian Marcel Ophuls ("The Sorrow and the Pity") and onetime Orson Welles collaborator-turned-actor John Houseman. Truth be told, Ellison did not play well with others; he was used to having the spotlight to himself. And I could not help seeing a poignant insecurity in him as he actually apologized to Tewkesbury, Ophuls & McMurtry for not knowing their works better. Despite all his awards, amongst these folks he seemed to feel still mired in his sci-fi ghetto.

And yeezus! There were awards! Harlan Ellison collected them like Billy Graham collected souls. In terms of sheer numbers, between his stories, essays, and broadcast scripts, he could lay claim to being the most award-ridden writer alive! Come the night of his reading John Little, awarded my scut work (which I was happy to do just to hang with my idol) by allowing me to introduce him, at what turned out to be one of the largest turnouts for any speaker on campus. Beforehand Ellison had given me a full sheet, small-print listing of what just had to be every award in every field he had ever received in the two decades of his career, and made it clear he wanted me to mention each and every one! I did not, instead mentioning a few key ones, then using the Billy Graham line. He said later he forgave me, but I worried afterward I had abridged too far.

True to his nature, Ellison began by perversely criticizing works which a huge chunk of his hipster audience probably worshipped: Robert Heinlein's "Stranger In a Strange Land", "The Lord of the Rings," and even "Star Trek," even though, I confirmed later, the fact that he'd scripted it’s most famous episode, "City On the Edge of Forever" drew in scads of Trekkies. "Star Wars" did not premiere until a few months later, else Ellison would have certainly included it in his roll of dishonor.

He read a couple new stories he was prepping for publication. One was a moody but unremarkable fantasy. But the other, another fantasy with the working title "Jefty Is Always Five" became the talk of the conference: a heart-ripping mixture of cold reality & schmaltz, innocence and evil, that put him back on par, or better, with those other ‘serious’ guests. Later The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction would feature it, as "Jefty Is Five," at the center of its special Harlan Ellison issue, and, along with "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs" (Edgar award) it would become one of his post-Sixties classics, and earn him one more trip to the dais for his umpteenth Hugo award.

After his appearance he became more like his old self. I don't know if he was in one of his five marriages at the time or between them, but either way he was patrolling for anything in skirts, as we once said, and many women would tell the story of their Harlan come-on. He continued to regale rapt listeners with his tales of taking his antagonists to Fist City, or details of his huge circle of fellow writers. The current art museum exhibit included a large, blood-red ceramic American Indian, and he was so taken with it he agreed to the asking price of several hundred dollars, big money in those days, with no bargaining, plus the cost of shipping it to his own Xanadu in L.A., Ellison Wonderland. Impulse buy! He had his appetites, and the wherewithal to feed them.

When I took him to the airport to leave for home, he once more wowed me by buying the hot-off-the-presses copy of "Penthouse," not for the usual reasons but so he could see how they presented his story "Hitler Painted Roses,” destined to become yet another 70’s classic. It seemed like his stories were just mushrooming everywhere. And when we bought coffee at the lunch counter, he again showed frustration that our waitress could not adequately cream his "to match the color of this countertop." Good help is so hard to find!

He would attend a second conference in the '80s, no doubt more comfortably because this one had a science fiction theme and included such friends as Theodore Sturgeon and Frank Herbert. Didn't see it. But the self-contradictions continued, even accelerated. Ellison has boasted he has won multiple awards for his work promoting feminism, and I'm sure he has. I know that he has many females among his ardent fans. But....he HAS been married five times, and routinely describes a couple Exes as she-demons. At least several of his stories--I can't claim to have read nearly all of them yet--portray the females as compliant floozies, unintentionally destructive airheads or just pure evil, as in one of the most perfectly crafted horror stories of the past century, "All the Chickens Come Home to Roost."

But any Woman Problem is nowhere more evident than in a remarkable few opinion pieces among many he wrote for the "L.A. Weekly", collected in "An Edge In My Voice," about a woman who dissed him, anonymously as I recall. Ellison retaliated by sussing out her identity, then her address, just so he could inform her he now had her number! Ellison was so self-unaware that he actually bragged about his obsessive stalking behavior, and expected compliments for it. And of course his off-his-meds clowning at the 2006 Hugo awards ceremony, climaxing with groping the breast of the female presenter, is now regrettable legend. I would see him once more around that time, in Madison WI, where he had no less than Neil Gaiman in tow, and he seemed compos mentis, but delivered his barbs with low energy. I never stopped appreciating him, but my fanboy was long since dead. Shortly after that he announced he was no longer making public appearances. For health reasons. But now it occurs to me to wonder if it was only for physical health.

Now all his contradictions are reconciled, he was bigger than life, but couldn’t quite manage bigger than death. He was far from perfect, but in 1934 near-anarchy was loosed upon the world. We won't see his like again. And that's a very sad thing. 

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