Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison somehow manages to be both one of the most respected and one of the most controversial writers working today. The author of countless screenplays and essays on the media, he is better known as one of the greatest living masters of the short story. His preoccupation: using grotesque fantastical imagery to caricaturize the existential and ethical concerns of modern life. Though the cast may incude screaming shadows from beyond, cyborgs, ghosts, demigods, aliens, demons, or even malevolent slot machines; he is always illustrating a wry and nihilistic fable about contemporary life, death, love, and belief.

Ellison is an eclectic postmodern mythologist, an Aesop for the Age of the Machines. He has created achingly beautiful prose-poems, hysterically funny send-ups of modern sacred cows, and brutal tales of stomach-wrenching violence; often all within the same collection. Ellison is arguably the only American who has created dystopias as memorable as Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World — but with a greater economy of verbiage, and a steroid-enhanced strength.

Ellison finds his beauty and terror in urban culture. Based on the Kitty Genovese murder and the refusal of her neighbors to get involved, his story The Whimper of Whipped Dogs gives a chilling portrait of the frustration, fear and barely-controlled rage which is every New Yorker's daily life. The dehumanized souls wandering through Gotham watching the violence provide the real terror in this story; the vicious "gods of the city" who appear at the end are less frightening than the New Yorkers who have summoned them. Repent, Harlequin, Said the Ticktockman brings us a measured, weighed, denominated, folded and spindled world, where the Harlequin achieves Public Enemy #1 status by causing delays in the all-important schedule. Lovecraft's stories frighten because his terrors are so alien; Ellison scares us because his monsters are so familiar.

Sex and our culture's preoccupation with same provides Ellison with plenty of ammunition. In Lonely Women are the Vessels of Time, he takes aim at singles bars and hits them hard. Moving from one-night stand to one-night stand and leaving a trail of broken hearts behind him, the protagonist ultimately meets a succubus who is even emptier and more needy than he is. After taking his potency and his soul, she tells him "Now get up and get dressed and get out of here." Croatoan finds a similar protagonist wandering through the sewers, searching for his dead girlfriend's aborted child. Instead, he finds himself surrounded by fetuses riding albino alligators. "I am the one they have been looking for all along," he says at the conclusion, "They call me father." Ellison has an uncanny eye for our society's various hypocrisies, a razor-sharp sense of humor, and a great gift for pissing people off. (Croatoan achieved the unlikely distinction of angering both pro-choice and pro-life people!)

Ellison's characters frequently find themselves in existential dilemmas; faced with lose-lose situations, they somehow manage to achieve painful triumphs. Consigned to hell by a clerical error while the hypocritical minister who impregnated her is accidentally granted admission to heaven, Margaret returns to the inferno willingly. She realizes she still loves the SOB, and that she can take the suffering while he can't (Hitler Painted Roses). Trapped in a literal hell-on-earth by AM, a vast and omnipotent malevolent computer, the protagonist succeeds at last in freeing his friends and fellow captives... by killing them (I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream). Much theme-oriented writing is trite, didactic and moralistic. Ellison avoids these pitfalls with his uncompromising vision of the Darkness.

A master of the short story form, Ellison is perhaps most interesting when he goes beyond that form. From A to Z in the Chocolate Alphabet, a series of prose-poems and meditations appearing in his Strange Wine collection, is considered by many, including Stephen King, to be among Ellison's finest work. The Deathbird, title story of Deathbird Stories, throws in snippets of seemingly unrelated material, essays, and fragmentary prose-poems; the end result is not only one of Ellison's greatest stories, but arguably the best tale about Satan since Paradise Lost.

Never resting in his quest for the perfect shock, he has provided tales of immense grue and blasphemy. At the top of this list is his short-short, Bleeding Stones, where the gargoyles perched on top of a NYC cathedral are brought to life by air pollution, opening the door to one of the most graphic depictions of mass human slaughter ever set to print. A different kind of blasphemy appears in The Place With No Name, where an unlucky drug peddler is forced to change places with Prometheus on the rock, so the immortal can consummate his relationship with Jesus Christ.

Dark visions of love abound in his writing. In the famed novella A Boy and His Dog, the postapocalyptic scavenger Albert feeds his girlfriend to his starving partner; the mutant telepathic attack dog, Blood. In Grail, Christopher Caperton seeks the phantom of True Love by way of demon summoning, only to discover that the object of his quest is the most profound disappointment. In Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes, the protagonist is seduced by a ghost trapped in a slot machine, only to replace her when her affections are discovered to be feigned. In All The Birds Come Home to Roost, the narrator is afflicted by the suspenseful reappearance of former girlfriends in the reverse order of their departure; the first of whom is a malevolent psychotic.

Identity is a perpetual preoccupation as well. In his story Shatterday, the protagonist is progressively replaced over the period of a week by a doppleganger. In Are You Listening?, Albert Winsocki is overtaken by his life of mediocrity and is erased from people's consciousness— an imprisoning invisibility.

Recommended Reading:

Commentary by Kevin Filan with Clifford Low, Tuesday, June 16, 1998.

Photo: Rachel / Model: Cassie Rovitti