My Writers: Harlan Ellison


I really wanted to be a science fiction fan when I was in middle school and high school. It seemed the proper extension of my geeky interest in comic books, albeit an extension that, I felt at the time, carried more of a veneer of respectability. This was a lifetime ago, when the great writers of science fiction–Isaac Asimov, Rad Bradbury, Philip K. Dick–were spoken of with reverence, essentially elevated to take up the cool kid table of the emerging twentieth century canon. I tried repeatedly to embrace this particular brand of genre writing, but I have to admit that it never fully took for me. There was one writer, however, who ensnared my imagination like a beast locking down its powerful jaws. Ironically enough, he first did it through exposing me to the vast array of great science fiction writers who he admired, or at least felt had created works that were worthy of being assembled in one place, their literary acumen and social foresight so strong and strident that he could unhesitatingly deem them soothsayers.

I got Dangerous Visions from the Stoughton Public Library, the unsettling green cover well buffered by some two decades of readers who’d preceded me. The 1967 collection, a mighty five-hundred-plus pages (or, as Ellison chose to enumerate it, “two hundred and thirty-nine thousand words”), aimed to bring together works by the best speculative fiction writers of the day, leading with Lester del Rey and continuing all the way to Samuel R. Delaney’s seismic “Aye, and Gomorroh.” Ellison immodestly carved himself a spot in the tome, with the beautifully titled “The Prowler in the City at the End of the World.” As proof that Ellison almost always approached writing as an wordy game of multi-dimensional chess, his piece also served as a sort of answer to another in the book, Robert Bloch’s “A Toy for Juliette.” Ellison may have penned only a single fiction piece in the collection, but it truly seemed an expression of self, an agitated expression of the tremendous value of complex words put forth with fearless passion.

Perhaps aside from Joyce Carol Oates, I don’t think I’ve read another modern author who has such a mind-boggling command of the language, consistently crafting marvelous sentences that are pure and surprising. Ellison has a way of phrasing something in a manner that is entirely unique and yet seems so exactly, precisely right that it’s a wonder it doesn’t represent the way an emotion, a thought, a plot point has always been expressed. His brilliant inventiveness begins with the titles, a splendid litany of riddles that compel the reader to dive in and discover the secrets they hold: “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” “The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World,” “Shattered Like a Glass Goblin,” “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” and “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore.” They are bold enough to be a full-scale provocation, an invitation and a challenge all in one.

Provocation is a fitting word to apply to Ellison in general. A ferociously intelligent individual with a corresponding lack of patience for anything he considers the product of feeble thinking, Ellison has reserved some of his most fiery creative efforts for various invectives hurled against those who’ve wronged him over the years, although “wronged” may have a more complicated definition in Ellison’s world. It’s sometimes seemed as if his lawsuits filed were poised to outnumber his works of fiction, with Ellison regularly asserting the primacy of his creative constructs over the influenced echoes that may have come along later (most notably his litigation against James Cameron’s The Terminator, resulting in an acknowledgment of the film’s purported debt to Ellison inserted into the credit, much to the chagrin of Cameron). Ellison merely sitting and talking–with perhaps a few prompts meant to artfully poke at areas of his psyche previously rubbed raw and left to never heal–is a symphony of vividly articulate ferment, arguably as compelling as any of his writing. Dangerous doesn’t even begin to describe him. Ellison doesn’t only show how words can be weapons. When he’s wielding them, it hard to imagine them as anything but.

An Introduction
Margaret Atwood
Anne Tyler
Michael Chabon
Ian McEwan
Don DeLillo
Stephen King
John Steinbeck
Donna Tartt
Jonathan Lethem
Bradley Denton
Zadie Smith
Nick Hornby
Kurt Vonnegut
Thomas Hardy

22 thoughts on “My Writers: Harlan Ellison

  1. Harlan Ellison had a very similar affect on me. He was one of the first writers I read for personal enjoyment in high school. My dad gave me my first copy of the short story collection, I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream, my first book of his. Once I read that I was hooked, looking up collection after collection of his work as I plowed through as much of his library as I could. But then, my dad, as much a supporter of my passions as he could be said, “You know, if you like I Have No Mouth, then you’ll probably love this collection he put together called Dangerous Visions.” And that was like the proverbial letting of the floodgates.
    Though I am, I think, more a fan of science fiction in and of itself than you are, Harlan Ellison and in particular the collections Dangerous Vision and Again, Dangerous Visions showed me that a story that takes place on another planet or in the future, or even in an invented past, doesn’t have to be same melodramatic formulaic stories that plague television as well as literature, which was his purpose for developing it to begin with.
    And it was this focus on story and plot and everything that goes into making something worthwhile that helped me realize that I can write a story that’s, interesting, original, and a little fantastic.

    1. I’m so glad you shared this with me, a did so with such genuine beauty, appreciation and insight. All those years chatting casually about books and sci fi, and I never knew Ellison was your proverbial launching pad. Or that Dangerous Visions had a special weight for both of us. What you wrote–far more than what I wrote–makes me want to seek out the collection and read it all over again.

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