The salient fact, the piece of information that is crucial to all that follows, no matter how much I wish otherwise: Harlan Ellison has announced that he is dying.
Let that stand alone, for a moment.
How do you begin to write a piece about something that horrifies you? Something that just makes you want to shake your head in denial and hide somewhere, perhaps in a corner, amidst a collection of favorite old books. Books like The Glass Teat, Shatterday, The Beast That Shouted Love At The Heart of The World, Stalking The Nightmare and Strange Wine. What do you do when all those favorite books just remind you of the horrifying news that sent you scurrying for the corner in the first place?
Perhaps you go back, to the origins of it all. The point of discovery, the spark of inspiration, or, as we often say in mystery fiction, the precipitating incident. As such:
I was eighteen years old and spending a great deal of time hanging out in a local comic book store. Partially because I was a huge comic fan, but also because the people that hung there and worked there were very much my sort of people. It was one of the first places I had ever felt a true sense of belonging. The year was 1986.
This comic store, back in those days before the slick, chain like stores took over the business, was really a small house and it carried not just comics but gaming supplies and tons and tons of old books. I loved getting lost in the stacks of books. Science fiction novels, fantasy novels, men’s adventure books with ridiculous titles like The Executioner and The Penetrator. They all fascinated me.
On one particular day, I discovered a book called An Edge In My Voice by a writer named Harlan Ellison. It was an oversized paperback, thick and heavy, put out by a company called Starblaze Graphics. Starblaze I recognized, I had several graphic novels that they had published in my collection along with some books by Robert Asprin.
Harlan, however, was new to me. Still, the book looked intriguing and different so I picked it up and started to read segments at random. It was non-fiction, which surprised me, I think I was expecting science fiction (probably because of the section in which the store had it shelved). It was also incredibly engrossing. Harlan’s voice hit me like a freight train and I think my brain started going through evolutionary changes on the spot.
I had been toying with the idea of writing stories for several years. Even written a few, very, very bad ones. But it was holding that book in my hand, reading Harlan talk about what it takes to be a writer, about being truthful (which doesn’t always mean factual), about being fearless and about the craft itself that really sealed the deal for me. For the first time in my life, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.
I have no idea how long I really stood there reading that book, but I do recall the shop owner coming in to tell me he was closing up. I asked him to find me anything else he had by Harlan and he pulled out several paperbacks, a couple hardcovers and a small stack of science fiction magazines that all had Harlan’s name on the cover.
I took it all and went home and spent the next several days devouring all of it, some pieces over and over. His fiction was every bit as amazing as his non-fiction and even more important, it felt daring and new.
I read Repent Harlequin, Said The Ticktockman! In a paperback called All The Sounds of Fear. Actually, I read it through about four times in a single sitting. The first time laughing my ass off at the sparkling wit, the second time really appreciating the non linear structure, the third time studying the way he built a world so subtly and so completely and finally, the fourth time, when I took all the elements in together and really absorbed what has become my all time favorite piece of short form fiction.
Another piece that had a similar impact on me was found in one of the magazines, an issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction that featured Harlan on the cover for a story called All The Lies That Are My Life. At this point, having read through a couple of the books already, I was expecting speculative fiction (Harlan’s preferred term for what he does). Again, Harlan surprised. All The Lies is as much a piece of literary fiction as anything written by Hemmingway or Salinger. It may (or may not) contain some autobiographical detail. If it doesn’t, you feel like it does anyway because the characters are so painstakingly real and believable.
I could spend days reminiscing about various stories, unfortunately, that’s not why we’re here, you and I.
We’re here to talk of the man.
Harlan has his fair share of detractors. You’ll find no shortage of people online who will call him all manner of unpleasant things, most of which I imagine bring a smile to the man’s face. Likewise, there’s no shortage of us that consider the man a genuine hero, a role model and just an all around incredible human being. Harlan’s probably less comfortable with that adulation then he is with the bile from the other side, but the hell with it, let him be uncomfortable.
He has been known to be a difficult man to work with, especially in Hollywood circles. (Harlan spent plenty of time in the trenches, writing both film and television and winning several awards for his work.) He has been known as a litigious man, instigating more lawsuits than one can easily imagine.
And yet, both that difficult nature and that tendency towards litigation come from an overwhelming desire for fairness and justice. He has fought, over and over, to preserve creators’ rights, tilting furiously against the giant windmills of the huge, entertainment machine. To this day, whenever I hear of a particularly obnoxious money man trying to force creative decisions on a writer, I picture Harlan sneaking up behind him, garlic and wooden stake in hand, ready to do battle for the writer and the story.
In fact, that’s how I’ll always picture Harlan, ready to do battle against the unjust and the unfair, with a smile on his lips and a story in his heart. It’s an example we should all learn from and emulate. We should all spend some time tilting at windmills.
Perhaps my strongest regret is never meeting Harlan. There were opportunities in the past. I could have made it to a convention appearance or a lecture. I let my ego get in the way of that. I wanted to wait until I was established as a writer. I wanted to speak to him, not as an equal, no, my hubris doesn’t stretch that far, but at least as a fellow professional. The new kid on the block, so to speak. It’s a chance I’ll never have, now, and it is something I will regret for a very long time indeed.
Before I go, I want to leave you with a suggestion. Harlan may be dying, but he’s not gone yet. There may be some wonderful things yet to come from the man. Or he may spend his final days enjoying a well earned rest. In either case, I would urge you, don’t send him presents. He’s a happy man, he has said so on many an occasion and he has all that he needs or desires.
Instead, if you feel compelled to do something for Harlan, perhaps a contribution to the CBLDF (Comic Book Legal Defense Fund). It’s an organization that fights against censorship and for the rights of comic creators. Harlan has strongly supported the CBLDF over the years (as have I) and he would, I am sure, be delighted to see an upswing in support in his name.
This piece is written for open distribution, as long as it remains unchanged. As it features a call for support of the CBLDF, anyone who wishes to repost this, anywhere, has the author’s consent, as long as the text and attribution remain untouched.