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Harlan Ellison September 23, 2007

Posted by Jim Berkin in Books.
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Since I posed a review of the television version of “The Departed” some time ago, I’ve had my giant memory toy chest of Ellison’s works opened in my brain. It’s been a while since I plowed through all of his books after spending considerable time and effort hunting down every out-of-print volume wherever I could find them. It was long enough ago that most of the used bookstores I found the bulk of them are long gone, lost to the stronger competition from Ebay or Powell’s.

I wonder if there’s anyone who absolutely loves every single thing Ellison has written – it reminds me of what Frank Zappa said about his own works – since they were so eclectic and varied, he remarked that he wouldn’t trust the sanity of any fan who claimed to love all of it. I tend to like Ellison’s nonfiction more than his fiction, though his fiction falls into many different categories and I prefer some more than others. Early in his career, he wrote a lot of material on juvenile delinquency, some of it based on his experiences in a youth gang (found in Memos From Purgatory, which was dramatized on an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents). While these stories are often interesting, what’s more fascinating about them is how they are cultural artifacts from what comes off as a lost world, considering how such violence has changed since. There are also stories of a more general, reality based fiction, such as the ones found in his first story collection, Gentleman Junkie. The major category for Ellison is obviously science fiction, though I can see his point whenever he argues that they ought to be called speculative fiction, since they are most often not dependent on the science element to get their themes across.

But isn’t that typical Ellison to begin with, to bitch about the labelling? He’s a science fiction writer, but he doesn’t write science fiction. It fits the general pattern – Ellison works very hard to make himself a series of walking contradictions in all of his writing: he’s the macho feminist (defending women’s rights while boasting of his sexual conquests), the elitist populist (railing against the ignorance of the masses while fighting for individualism), and my favorite, the luddite futurist – the man who marvels at the scientific advances of the space age while rejecting the internet (and computers in general) to pound away at the keys of his old manual typewriter. Looking back on Ellison’s nonfiction writing especially, with his anecdotes, reviews, political commentary and so forth… the man would be a natural professional writer/blogger and you’d think the futurism side of his personality would embrace the ability – Finally!!! No more editors to fight with, no gatekeepers… but the main presence of Ellison online is a website run by someone else, though every so often there might be a message from Harlan posted in the message boards, passed on second hand as if we’re getting a note in a bottle.

I’ve never been a big reader of science fiction since I get bored if the material is overly technical. Not a problem with Ellison, who uses science fiction conventions but only to relate human stories. I have my favorites. Even when the technology dicatates the setting, as in I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream, the theme concerns the human spirit. Ellison writes “in the zone” when concentrating on emotions such as love (Grail never gets too much attention it seems, and it’s so well written), or revenge (Along The Scenic Route crackles and moves along, and listening to Ellison do a reading of it at Book Soup several years ago was a treat) – and has also swung for the fences by getting experimental, as in what I think is his best story, The Deathbird (the essay on taking his beloved dog to the vet to be put to sleep, found within this tale, haunts me to this day).

His nonfiction becomes a compilation of views on everything from television and film to where to get a good rye bread in Los Angeles (alas, the late lamented Brown’s Victory Bakery), and when taken it total give us a pretty good view of the man. And as far as that goes, man o maneschevitz am I looking forward to seeing this documentary about Ellison that’s been playing the festival circuit in search of a distributor. Follow the link and watch some clips – the only red flag I saw was the presence of Robin Williams, who I fear was brought in as an attempt to widen the audience for the thing with his patented brand of “whoa fantastico” high-larious improv. Granted, Williams was amusing in The Arisocrats, but usually his nonstop schtick wears out its welcome with me fairly quickly. I’d rather listen to Ellison tell yet another story of how he broke a different bone on a different TV exec while fighting over a line of dialogue back in 1966.

It’s an essay he wrote for an old magazine called “Midnight Graffiti” called Xenogenesis that I believe is the window on his feelings about the internet, by the way. The essay is an anthology of sorts concerning horror stories of fan-boys gone wild with examples of rudness and often psychotic behavior aimed at Ellison and his scifi writer friends. It’s a textbook of atrocities courtesy the social skills-deprived comic book guys of our culture, and if you add the anonymity of the internet as a way for such cretins to mask their behavior, I think we can see why Ellison wants to avoid becoming an online fixture.

As I said, I enjoy his nonfiction the most. His reviews of television and film are knowledgable, and thinking back to that Zappa quote, I’m reminded of how often I might strongly agree with him and other times just shake my head in disagreement. Case in point – I’m on his side with his disgust over what he termed “knife-kill” horror movies in the ’70s and ’80s… it reminds me of a recent tirade I went on with someone about Eli Roth and the current torture-porn fad growing on the Hollywood horror genre like a cancer tumor, and NO, I’m not giving any links here and I hope EVERYONE involved in greenlighting that immoral crap is CURSED by having their OWN posh & pampered entertainment industry bubble lives personally affected by the results of the kind of horrible sadistic violence they mistakenly find hip ‘n’ edgy and oh-so-cool because that might be the only thing left to wake them up short of ME BASHING IN THEIR SKULLS WITH A SLEDGEHAMMER AND WHY DON’T YOU PUT THAT OUT ON HIGH-DEF DVD YOU AMORAL DICKS (be sure to photograph my good side), and I have an entire year to atone for wishing this upon them by posting this today! HaHa!

Cut to dancing Rabbis….

Yeah, Ellison has influenced me, I guess. As far as the head-shaking disagreement, I remember an essay “The Three Faces Of Fear” which comprises a number of reviews, one of which is a brilliant analysis of the effectiveness of the subtle horror of Val Lewton’s low-budget movies (something that’s obviously a treasured childhood memory for Harlan) that’s better than most film books I’ve read and I’ve read a bunch – and it combines this with an amazingly off-the-mark dissing of The Loved One, a favorite movie of mine, where Ellison misses the point ENTIRELY… I’m also reminded of how I’d find myself at odds with the 1960s baby boomer-style politics Ellison would embrace when reading his old An Edge In My Voice columns or when looking back on the Huffington Post-wet dream-circa-1968 stylings of an amusing story like Santa Claus Versus S.P.I.D.E.R or as I had complained about in my previous post about “The Departed” in his tendency to overwrite dialogue…

But I keep reading, keep thinking, and keep turning the pages. And isn’t that what it’s all about?

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