Encomium for an Unrepentant Harlequin

He is gone, right?

Harlan Ellison is dead?

Really dead?

He can’t be.

He must be. It’s been more than two weeks now and not a sound from him. Not a peep, not a whisper, nothing. I was hoping that like Mark Twain, P.T. Barnum and Bertrand Russell (and if you were to splice the DNA of all three men together, the resulting chimera would doubtless turn out to be much like Ellison), he was secretly reading his premature obituaries to see how he would really be remembered. But there have been none of the outraged screams we certainly would have heard had he been just joshing with us. Every news item seemed determined to piss him off one last time, just to make sure he was really dead or see if they could get him spinning like a Whirling Dervish before he was even in his coffin. Almost to a T, they mostly ignored a vast repertoire of brilliant short stories in favor of his TV work, and almost all of that was focused on a single Star Trek episode. While many science fiction fans, including myself, get filled with ennui over the endless obsessing over the show, Ellison had even more reason to be annoyed. Not only are his scripts for The Outer Limits, The Man From UNCLE and the Eighties revival of The Twilight Zone all superior but (why am I telling you this when you should already know all about it? Just get the book with the published script and Ellison’s account of the facts, OK?). Even more galling, they not only described him as a science fiction writer but the headlines in many called him a sci-fi writer. Is it possible to hear the sound of copulating crickets from beyond the grave?

Ellison, of course, violently recoiled from being pigeonholed as a science fiction writer; like Ray Bradbury, he was more properly a fantasist whose oeuvre merely skimmed the surface of science fiction. Heinlein’s term speculative fiction has frequently been used as the umbrella term for the entire literature of the fantastic, and it has sometimes been used, for lack of a better word, to attempt to categorize Ellison’s work; it has similarly been used to describe the work of other writers such as Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelzany who also similarly defy facile categorization as “science fiction writers”. His stories have also been described as being both urban fantasy and magic realism, yet neither of those terms does justice to him either. If we are going to try to locate Ellison in a particular genre or literary tradition, he may be best described as not just a surrealist, but a Surrealist, since he produced art that was intended as a scream of reason in an unreasonable world. Even though his work that did fall under the rubric of science fiction was at most a three on the Moh’s Scale of Scientific Hardness, this extolling of the rationalist struggle to not just understand but survive in a random and unjust universe made him a kindred spirit with those writers whose work definitely qualifies as science fiction.

Isaac Asimov, one of Ellison’s closest and dearest friends, probably came up with the most accurate word to describe his oeuvre when he called it Ellison-fiction. Like Borges and Kafka, two of his literary heroes, Ellison was not merely sui generis but a genre unto himself. Most good writers can be distinguished from one another by the particular voice in their writing, and Ellison was no exception (a skilled he picked up from his third major influence, the great American dark fantasy writer Charles Beaumont) but there is no mistaking a Harlan Ellison story for anyone else’s on any level, not style, not theme and not even subject matter. Even the titles of Ellison’s work are distinct from anyone else’s. Like Stan Lee, he was a master of alliteration, and this is evident from some of his most famous titles: “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs.” “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes.” “Count the Clock That Tells The Time.” However, Ellison’s use of alliteration never crossed over into awkwardness or bordered on self-parody; titles that should have been tongue twisters instead flow beautifully, and even non-alliterative titles such as “The Man Who Rowed Columbus Ashore” have a gorgeous rhythm to them. They may not come off as poetic when you try to recite them out loud, but they flow like quicksilver to the mind’s ear. Only Avram Davidson and R.A. Lafferty displayed a similar playfulness in their titles, or at least one that also extended to the stories themselves. Each promises the reader that there is something special beneath the header, and that promise is more often than not fulfilled by the story that awaits them.

Even more revealing are the insights his choice of titles give on Ellison the Human Being as well as Ellison the Writer. This has been the case ever since the publication of his first story, “Upheaval” (ironically, not Ellison’s original title) in the EC Comic Weird Science-Fantasy. Consider especially his two most famous titles and how they so perfectly encapsulate not just the running themes through most of his oeuvre but the strong emotional and intellectual passions that characterized the writer’s life as well. “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” clearly telegraphs that the author is crying for justice in an unjust universe, a defiance of all authority even when rendered voiceless. A similar note of fiery defiance and urgency is struck by “Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktock Man,” but this is underscored by the dichotomy in the title. Harlequin, evoking the image of a colorful trickster figure, such as that in a painting by Picasso or Derain, and Ticktock Man, another Ellison alliteration, this one evoking not merely a calculated allegiance to a mechanistic outlook but its authoritarian imposition upon others (also true of the mad computer in “I Have No Mouth…”), an automaton who seeks to deny autonomy. A classic set-up of Anarchism versus Order, Civil Disobedience over Social Acquiescence, and Self-Actualization versus Predestination, all reflective of not just the author’s personality but his personal struggles in life as well.

A similar dualism pervades other titles, such as “The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World” and “Demon With a Glass Hand” which illuminate many of the contradictions and complexities of their author. The first story is one of Ellison’s most experimental and stylistically radical; it is also one of the most difficult for the novice reader. Yet the title is perhaps most reflective of the complexity of Ellison’s character, if we parse it properly: “The Beast that Shouted…” This is the Harlan Ellison most people are aware of; although he likened himself to cross between Jiminy Cricket and Zorro, it would be more apt to describe him as a cross between Wolverine (co-created by his friend Len Wein) and Ignatz the Mouse from George Herrman’s Krazy Kat. But then we have “Love at the Heart of the World,” epitomizing the inner Harlan, the secret Harlan known to his friends but whom the general public or even much of fandom was only vaguely aware of. The Demon in the latter title is intended to be a metaphor for the main character’s fury and tenacity, character traits that certainly were part of Ellison himself. The Glass Hand is real, but has a metaphorical function in the title to indicate the character’s hidden fragility (stunningly revealed in the conclusion), in contrast to his seemingly unstoppable steel will and determination. A glass jaw or Achilles Heel we have all heard of, but a glass hand? In the actual story, the hand is really computer relaying instructions and trying to help him complete the blanks in his self-knowledge and realization, the ego to a “human” Id Monster, with his superego being the entire human race encoded within him. Maybe yet another self-reflexive comment on the complexities and contradictions of both Ellison the Man and Ellison the Writer, who despite his reputation as a Demon in human guise, produced scores of brilliant stories from his own hand, which if not made of glass then at least created art as beautiful and delicate as glass sculpture, and who also despite his insistence that he wrote out of mere self-interest, demonstrated a keen sense of social responsibility.

And then there’s “A Boy and His Dog.” This story has blindsided many a reader who see the title and assume that they will get a gentle family-friendly fable, only to be presented with a graphic and gritty depiction of a post-apocalyptic world (one of the most vivid and convincing ever depicted), overflowing with Ellison’s trademark profanity as well as the explicit sexuality he had by then become infamous for. And yet, the title is perfectly apt, as it is about the bond of respect and Platonic (thankfully!) love between a young man and his canine companion. Vic, the titular “Boy” really is a boy despite his adult sexual urges; in this heartless world, he has been denied the chance to grow up and mature emotionally, socially, and especially intellectually; it’s no wonder then he says at one point that his telepathic link to his dog Blood comes because “they think alike” because in an uncivilized world, he has been unable to achieve personal actualization beyond base animal instincts, albeit guided by an undeniable intelligence as well as instinct and cunning. Like many of Ellison’s other male characters, Vic is a tragic case incapable of human love or commitment, and instead seeks refuge in a succession of loveless sexual encounters (although he doesn’t receive a comeuppance for his self-centered misogynistic hedonism, as do the leads in “Croatan” and “All the Birds Come Home to Roost.”). The story was written shortly after both the death of the author’s own beloved dog (also an influence on “The Deathbird”) and the break-up of his third marriage after a mere six weeks (a fifth final and happy one did not happen until the Eighties), and the deep feelings of sadness, loneliness and guilt that must have been consuming him at the time are well apparent. Blood the Dog is a fascinating character as well. I had initially thought that his relationship with Vic was based on Ellison’s friendship with Asimov (who shared with Blood a fondness for dirty limericks) as well as Lester Del Rey and Frederick Pohl, older men who mentored him and with whom he held a mock-antagonistic relationship-cum-rivalry that resulted in many an infamous convention story. However, it now seems evident to me that Blood was in part a proxy for Ellison himself, with much of his own personality quirks present, especially when he continually corrects Vic’s grammar and insults him for his general ignorance. Ellison could be as vicious as a cornered dog but like the same animal, could also be loyal and appreciative the next moment as well.

It seems strange to speak of Ellison as a sentimentalist, as this side of him is rarely discussed, as opposed to his compassionate side, which is well documented. And yet, his sentimental side is very apparent in some of his best stories. In particular, my two favorite Ellison stories, “Jefty is Five” and “One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty” display it very well, bittersweet looks back at the author’s childhood that celebrate youthful innocence and the happier memories while acknowledging the hardship and cruelty that accompanies them (Bill Watterson, Ellison’s successor to the title of Greatest Fantasist of His Generation, had a similar genius at evoking childhood joys and fears simultaneously, although he evidently enjoyed his Cleveland childhood more than Ellison did his). Although redolent of Ray Bradbury, they also display the influence of Charles Beaumont even more, especially Beaumont’s Twilight Zone episode “Static” (they are also extremely reminiscent of Rod Serling’s “Walking Distance” and Reginald Rose’s “Incredible World of Horace Ford”) and his nostalgic memoir Remember? Remember? (Additionally, Beaumont long preceded Ellison as movie critic for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and his reviews obviously influenced those later collected in Ellison’s Watching). The kind and decent human being Ellison truly was, in spite of his foibles and idiosyncrasies, is most evident in these stories. I frequently found myself defending Ellison online, pointing out how he had helped so many people, including helping such talents as Dan Simmons and Octavia Butler get their start, and that obviously, underneath that shtick of his was a good man with the heart to match his talent. To which a close friend of Ellison simply replied, “Definitely.”

That F.O.E. was Bill Warren, film critic and historian best known as the author of Keep Watching the Skies and The Evil Dead Companion. Warren was like Ellison in many ways: brilliant, curmudgeonly, swift to anger and difficult to please. He was also like an online father to me, teaching to me to be more careful about what I say and how I say it. I suspect it was a relationship much like Ellison had with many of his own friends. Sadly, Bill died two years ago, and he was just one of many of Ellison’s closest friends to have passed away recently. These include: Robin Williams. Hugh Hefner. Ursula Le Guin. Gardner Dozois. Robert Blake (OK, not really but might as well). The aforementioned Len Wein. Jerry Pournelle….

Waidaminnid…. JERRY POURNELLE??? A writer of equally great intellect and short temper, but otherwise Ellison’s opposite in every conceivable way? Science fiction’s staunchest conservative and Reagan and Gingrich’s connection to fandom? A man who Ellison frequently called a “fascist, imperialist pig,” and probably many worse things?

Yes, very good friends for over sixty years, through even the most fractious times of Vietnam and the Cold War. Near the end of their lives, their bond was renewed and strengthened when they both recovered from severe strokes. That these two men should have such an enduring friendship in spite of their stark differences is a lesson to all of us. It is especially pertinent today, when fandom is seemingly being torn asunder not just by partisan politics but the knee-jerk dehumanization of all those who do not follow The Party Line. As much as I may have disagreed with the overwhelming majority of Ellison’s views, with how he expressed them and how he frequently behaved in public, it did not diminish my immense respect for him as both a writer and a human being. And that respect will never die.

He no longer has a mouth.

Yet his scream will still be heard.

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