Monday

DO NOT GO GENTLY: THOUGHTS ON HARLAN ELLISON

By K. Patrick Glover

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.

Pay the Writer - from the documentary Dreams With Sharp Teeth



A classic Ellison interview from 1976:



The full-length apocalyptic SF movie, 'A Boy and His Dog,' based on a short story written by Harlan Ellison:


Watch A Boy and His Dog IPOD in Entertainment  |  View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com

9 comments:

Jared said...

I agree.

Jamie Ford said...

An Edge in My Voice flipped a switch for me too. Nice to know I'm not in the minority of fans that admire his non-fic just as much as his fiction.

I had the pleasure of speaking with him a few weeks ago. As genuine a guy as there is.

I hope the end is not so near...

George Haberberger said...

In the "Pay the Writer" clip Harlan rails that the writer should always be paid. He says, "I don't take a piss without being paid." But in the Terminator clip he says that if Cameron had come to him and asked to adapt "Soldier" he would have let him have it for nothing more than an acknowledgment. These two positions seem to contradict each other.

Texture AKA Bram E. Gieben said...

I guess Harlan is a complicated, unique individual just like everyone else...

George Haberberger said...

"I guess Harlan is a complicated, unique individual just like everyone else..."

I like Ellison's writing very much. Been reading it since the late 1960s. I have more of his books than any other single writer. I enjoy his interviews and the image he presents as a take-no-shit-from-anyone iconoclast.

But "complicated and unique" are not the same as inconsistent, especially from someone who is quick to point out hypocrisy in others. And Harlan is not like everyone else. Most people ARE inconsistent. Contradictory statements, especially about something he holds to be a core principle do not support the image he gives in interviews.

The more likely scenario is that once the Terminator case was settled, Harlan could say what he said to make Cameron's plagiarism even more egregious and stupid.

Anonymous said...

Weaponizer Webmaster & Viewers:

I do not know Mr. Haberberger, nor does he know me. So, unless he is somewhichway not only telepathic but invested with telephonic memory that stretches back across many decades, his "likely scenario" is about as rewarding as the voluble know-nothing chatter pandemic on this medium.

What I said at the time, what I said in EVERY interview across all these years, what I say now--even given "inconsistency"--is NOT what Mr. Haberberger chooses to put in my mouth.

What I said then, what I have said since the day I saw "The Terminator," a film I greatly admire, is THIS:

Had James Cameron come to me, called me, written to me, or by any other thread-drift come-back to me, and said ANYTHING LIKE "Gee, I liked your Outer Limits segments, but I have a different take on "Soldier," I'd have said HAPPILY, and AS I ALWAYS HAVE SAID to anyone who didn't want to plagiarize my work without paying me a ducat, but had another way to go with an idea I'd ALREADY DONE, "You have my blessing."

What I said THEN, and NOW, and ALWAYS have repeated ad nauseum re this old-news bullshit, despite Mr. Haberberger's late-to-the-party misquotes and rewriting of actual published and re- and rere-published history...

Is that HAD Cameron ever indicated word-one that he wanted to try my idea a different way, I'd have said THAT'S WHAT ARTISTS DO! They acknowledge the source, and do their own thing.

No hypocrisy, no inconsistency on THIS one, sir. Yeah, as one grows older, one learns and may have a different opinion...which is what's usually called "learning"...as Paul Selvin suggested, "Wisdom come late is wisdom nonetheless," but James Cameron said, in print, and to visitors to the set, when asked where he'd gotten the idea for the film-in-progress...

At various times, phrased in several different explications, but in no uncertain terms, "Oh, I ripped off a couple of OUTER LIMITS shows..." or on one memorable occasion to someone who knew me, "Oh, I ripped off a couple of Harlan Ellison stories."

THAT was why the film's producers were legally obligated to add my "acknowledgment" at the end of the film, and why virtually everyone in the sapient universe has known this for a millennium...

Except for Mr. Haberberger, who ought to say, simply, "Oops," and go away.

Further, deponent sayeth not.

Yr. Pal, Harlan

K. Patrick Glover said...

I don't see any contradictions there, George.

There is a difference between another creator coming to you and asking to do a new spin on your idea and a corporation coming to you and asking to republish something you've done, intact.

I find it hard to believe that you can't see that difference.

Texture AKA Bram E. Gieben said...

Mr Ellison, thanks very much for clearing that up for us! I'm hugely honoured that you would come and comment on our little blog.

I am a great admirer of your work. Thanks for stopping by, and thanks again to K. Patrick Glover for his piece.

For my part, the works of yours which resonate with me are 'A Boy and His Dog,' and latterly the comic 'Phoenix Without Ashes' - it is so great that you got to revisit this scenario; I always saw so much potential in the ideas behind 'Starlost.' As for 'A Boy and His Dog', anyone who has not seen the film should watch it now! It is an absolute classic.

George Haberberger said...

Mr. Ellison,

Oops.

I apologize for putting words in your mouth. My speculation about your comments regarding allowing James Cameron to adapt “Soldier’ if he had only asked, was presumptuous.

I watched all those film clips that are imbedded at the end of the article on Weaponizer. I was familiar with “Pay the Writer” since I own a copy of “Dreams with Sharp Teeth”, but I hadn’t seen “Terminator Origins”, so I had been unaware of your comments regarding the movie. (I only knew you sued Cameron and won.) I thought that your justifiably uncompromising stance on making sure the writer gets paid seemed, (to me at least), at odds with allowing someone to essentially rework your story for nothing more than an acknowledgment. But that of course is how I perceived it and it is obviously not how you saw it.

I admire your work and love the Terminator movie. I am happy that your name now appears at the end of the movie but I think you should have gotten a co-writer credit. Mr. Cameron had no legal ground or ethical justification to use your work.

Incidentally, while it is true that we don’t know each other, I do have a letter from you that you wrote to me in response to a query I had about “Croatoan” in 1980. I was very impressed that you responded and that the letter was on your personal stationary which included your phone number. I thought it was a measure of trust between an author and his readers that you allowed some guy you didn’t know have your phone number. I obliged that trust by never calling it. Would that that had been our last interaction.

Again, I apologize for my presumptuousness.

George Haberberger

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