BOOK REVIEW: “The Essential Ellison” by Harlan Ellison

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“What does it matter if something is old? Charles Dickens said any book you haven’t read is a new book. What does it matter whether it’s old?… I don’t understand what this lemming-like dementia is about constantly having new stuff. When was the last time you read the totality of Steinbeck or Faulkner or Katherine Anne Porter or Shirley Jackson? Everybody always wants something new, new, new – and that’s what’s killing life for writers. This dementia for ‘new’ is ridiculous. It turns everybody into a back number… We’re dealing with a more and more illiterate and amnesiac constituency. It’s impossible to get a readership that will follow you, because all they know is what they knew yesterday… And so when I hear this what-are-you-doing-lately thing, or that the Edgeworks books are bringing back all of my older books, I say, ‘Yeah, they’re real old books – like five years old!’ See, I do go off on these things. And if you ask the wrong question, I get real cranky.”
- Harlan Ellison
 

Harlan Ellison is one of my favorite authors of all time. You like him too, you just might not know it. In a career spanning more than 50 years, he has written novels and short stories and Twilight Zone episodes and Outer Limits episodes and worked on Babylon 5 and been published in magazines and newspapers composing everything from fiction to sports essays. My introduction to his writing came by way of the new Twilight Zone episodes in the 1980′s and his wonderful rants and essays and commentaries in various interviews on the SciFi Channel. After that, I saw him doing promotional work on Tom Snyder for his wonderful book Mind Fields and the writing in that book really solidified things for me. Since then, I’ve been trying to go back and read all of his previous works. Well, not all of it. The man has published over 1700 stories, most of which are out-of-print, so I’ll never read all of them.

Harlan prides himself on being a writer. Not an author. Not a novelist. A writer. Plain and simple. And if you try to pigeonhole his writing into a particular genre, he’ll punch you in the mouth harder than I will when you try to stick my writing into a genre. He loathes the idea of being categorized into a particular style or type of writing and his varied career of more than five decades has proven his immense diversity and worthiness of being acknowledged to writing not genres, but Harlan Ellison stories. From speculative fiction to memoirs to journalistic essays and commentaries, Harlan defies categorizing at every turn.

The best compendium of his commentaries and short stories is a massive 1200-page volume called The Essential Ellison, published by Morpheus International. Note there are two versions of The Essential Ellison. One with a yellow cover, which is a 35 year retrospective and another with a maroon cover, which is a 50 year retrospective. I obviously suggest you get the 50 year version, since it has more content.

His writing is so glorious that a majority of the more than 75 stories are quite memorable. I don’t want this review to take an hour of your time, so I’ll just focus on a small handful of stories that stood out the most to me. The stories which, when you read them before bed, continue to haunt you into the next afternoon.

“The Resurgence Of Miss Ankle-Strap Wedgie” is an exceptionally long short story. In fact, I think it may be the longest piece in the book. The story is about an old movie starlet who gets a second chance in Hollywood. I have to tell you, based on that description, this isn’t the kind of story I’d ever be interested in reading. However, it’s truly one of the best stories I’ve ever read. Not just the best Harlan Ellison story, but the best story. Period. Again, it goes back to what I tell people all the time – storytelling isn’t about the story, it’s about the telling. The idea for the story is boring. An old Hollywood starlet comes back to do a movie? Who cares? Who wants to read that? But Harlan tells the story so beautifully, so poetically, it has become one of my favorite stories of all time. As a writer, it’s the kind of story that makes me throw the book across the bed and go, “Oh, man. Fuck this. I suck. I totally suck.”

Normally, I’m very confident in my writing. I often read stories and think I could have written that just as well. For most authors, I think I could do better than that. But when a writer like Harlan is in peak form, I just think, “Damnit, I couldn’t have come close to this.” That’s how “The Resurgence Of Miss Ankle-Strap Wedgie” made me feel. I couldn’t have come close to writing something that beautiful and eloquent.

I don’t want to give away any of the plot, but I will say, the story has a rather unexpected ending. It’s certainly not a happy ending. But it isn’t tragic either. Let’s call it, bittersweet. That’s why I love the story so much. Like life itself, it’s often not sunshine and rainbows, but it’s not darkness and despair either. Frequently, it’s just enough to keep us afloat. We can sail blissfully along and savor the beautiful blue skies, and there may not be a hurricane on the horizon, but it does look like rain.

“The Deathbird” is a story I am horribly depressed to have discovered at this time of my life. The story was published before I was born and I wish I had read “The Deathbird” when I was 10 years old. If only the ideas in that tale could have influenced me from a gradeschool age. The story revolves around a character having to confront God at the end of the world and discovering that God has always been the war-mongering bad guy of the universe and the Devil is the benevolent creator. I’m going to admit it right now, I’m going to use that idea. A mad god. The lord of light is actually the good guy. That floored me. That idea was such a gutpunch, I’m going to have to use it in a future story of my own. I’m not some asshole plagiarizer. I’ll give full credit to Harlan for the inspiration. But “The Deathbird” story really changed my life. It was an extra cog in the gears of my destiny that went – CLICK! – and slightly altered my course and I went, “Oh, wow! That was unexpected!” What if the “bad guy” of the universe had tricked all of humanity into thinking he was the good guy and he caused wars and strife and animosity to pit man against man? Such a simple idea. Such a disturbing idea. And one that utterly changes the entire course of Abrahamic religious history. Still can’t believe I didn’t find it when I was 10 years old. That would have been great.

One of the most disturbing stories I have ever read is “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”. For years, I have heard the title of this famous Harlan Ellison story, but I had no idea why it was so famous. People all call it a classic work of science fiction. That’s a load of crap! This is a horror story! Just because it has computers in it doesn’t make it science fiction. This story is straight up ghastly. I don’t like horror stories. I like Twilight Zone creepy stuff. I don’t like dark and terrifying. “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” is dark and terrifying. So, that’s just my public service announcement to people. Don’t go reading this thinking it’s science fiction. No. It’s not. You’ve been lied to. This isn’t science fiction. It’s a total nightmare. Harlan has claimed that he wrote the story in about 6 hours and I have to give him credit. As much as I disliked the story for being unsettling and horrifying, he managed to create something in 6 hours that will be burned into my brain for the rest of my life. This is a story you will never forget. These days, many movies and books and even television shows have greatly pushed the boundaries of shock and terror. Movies especially are becoming tastelessly violent. Even by today’s standards in 2014, “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” is gruesome and brutal. I can’t imagine the reception it must have gotten when it was originally written in 1967. When you finish the story, you will want to look at pictures of puppydogs and kittens or get laid on a tropical beach. Just something to wake you up out of the dread so you can say, “Ah, okay. Life is still beautiful. The world is a wonderful place. Happy thoughts. Happy thoughts!”

I do have one criticism of “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” and since the story has been around for over 40 years, I’m sure I’m not the first person to say this, but… the story revolves around an artificial intelligence named AM torturing the last five human beings in existence, out of his hate for being confined to a prison of circuitry. So, why didn’t they just give AM some legs? Right? If he was so pissed off about being entombed in circuit boards, just stick him in an android body. Problem solved!

Those three stories probably stood out for me the most. Nevertheless, there were many other stories that lingered in the mind long after I read them.

“The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” is very unsettling and has a wonderful sinister poetry to it, about a person witnessing a murder in a New York apartment complex. Perhaps the real horror of the story is how real it feels. A frightening commentary on the apathy and complacency of our culture. Humanity is truly nothing more than a pack of vicious demons parading around in clothing.

I love “Valerie: A True Memoir” because, goodness knows, I’ve known my share of Valerie viper ladies. Thankfully, I’ve never been stung so sharply as Harlan was in this real-life essay, but I could still relate.

“The Tombs” is a sobering account of his time spent in the New York City prison system. His descriptions are enough to make any law abiding citizen remain steadfast on the straight and narrow. You know those television programs where they take troubled kids and make them spend a day in prison, in order to scare them into straightening out their lives? You don’t need to do all of that. Just spend an evening reading “The Tombs” and you’ll achieve the same effect.

“From Alabamy, With Hate” is a true account of Harlan joining a Selma to Montgomery civil rights march in the south in 1965. The simple fact he made it out alive is worthy of this real-life essay.

“Jeffty is Five” is a story about a little boy who never ages and feels like a Twilight Zone episode I’ve seen, even though I know, no such episode exists. Something about the story makes it so easy to visualize, you can almost see a fuzzy 1985 copy on VHS and watch credits roll on the screen as it plays in your head.

“Neither Your Jenny Nor Mine” follows characters to Mexico for a cheap illegal abortion and was something that I’m grateful I can’t relate to in any way, but the haunting quality of that tale was something you can’t shake for an hour or so.

I found “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes”, a story about a strangely enchanted slot machine in Vegas, to be a little predictable. But Harlan makes up for a predictable plot with gorgeous prose. As I’ve said many times, it’s not the “story”, it’s the “telling”, and he does tell this one so bewitchingly well.

“A Boy And His Dog” was Mad Max before Mad Max. There is a reason that “A Boy And His Dog” is considered a classic. Of course, in order to consider it a classic, you have to know what love is.

“The Museum on Cyclops Avenue” was a story I adored simply for the descriptions and the concepts of love and loss. Once again, Harlan manages to present a story idea I never imagined before. What happens when you finally meet the perfect woman, but you’re not good enough for her?

“Xenogenesis” is another real-life essay, the final story in the book, and the final story I’ll mention in this review. Of all the tales, this one is the most horrifying of all, because it recounts stories not only from the experiences of Harlan Ellison, but from that of other famous authors, about strange and inappropriate confrontations with psychotic fans. In all honesty, it’s enough to make aspiring authors cease their aspirations. Anyone who dreams of being famous need only read “Xenogenesis” and they may begin to reconsider the price of fame. People out there are fucking lunatics!

Harlan Ellison is one of those polarizing writers. Very few people are indifferent to him; you either love him or you hate him. As with many great authors, the readers opinions of Harlan also go far in measuring the intellect of the reader in question. If you’re a fucking idiot, you hate Harlan’s writing. If you’re reasonably intelligent, you love Harlan’s writing. Certainly there remain idiot douchebags among his fans and liking Harlan is not a failsafe barometer of determining brain capacity, but it’s a good yardstick to begin your investigation.

Joking aside, if you are unfamiliar with Harlan Ellison, The Essential Ellison is a fantastic introduction. This book showcases a vast diversity of his writing and among it’s 1200 pages, you’re treated to an excellent cross section of his prolific body of work. I love this book so much, I actually converted a copy into an ebook so I could have a backup on my Kindle. This is one I truly can’t recommend enough. This is a must-have title from one of the most influential authors of our time. At the time of this review, The Essential Ellison was out-of-print. So, it may be a little difficult to find a copy. I was lucky enough to acquire one of the last new copies, direct from the publisher, for a fee slightly higher than the cover price. I now polish it with a diaper. This is the 1961 Ferrari 250GT California of books. I therefore leave you with the immortal words of Ferris Bueller, “It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.”