On Harlan Ellison

A few nights ago, trying to figure out what to read next, I landed on some audio recordings of Harlan Ellison stories. These were all stories I’d read before, but they came with these off-the-cuff (so it seemed) commentaries by Ellison. They were great, and for an hour or so, while I lay in the dark listening, it was as if Harlan Ellison was still alive.

I never wrote anything on the blog after learning of Harlan’s death in June 2018. I learned of his death just as we had arrived at the Dollywood Resort for the beginning of 10-day road-trip family vacation through North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia. I was pole-axed when I heard the news. Harlan was one of those people who seemed like he would like forever.

I knew vaguely of Harlan Ellison when I was in high school. I remember a car commercial he was in sometime in the 1980s. But it wasn’t until I got to college where I began to read Ellison’s stories and essays and got to know him through his words. I had been a pretty sheltered reader of fiction up to that point, sticking to mostly what I knew, which was mostly Piers Anthony. Reading Ellison was a revelation. I couldn’t believe it was possible to write the way he did. I didn’t have money to spend on books in college, but I went to the University of California, Riverside, which hosts the Eaton Collection of Science Fiction & Fantasy. The library had plenty of science fiction and I had the opportunity to check out books for free and read them.

In my junior year in college, I read Dangerous Visions. I read most of it while visiting my girlfriend at the time at U.C. Santa Cruz. I found a cozy spot in a campus library and read while she went to class.

After graduating, and starting my career, I moved to Studio City, not far from the Dangerous Visions bookshop, which became a regular stop for me. It was there that I met Harlan Ellison for the first time, an encounter I had forgotten about, and only rediscovered years later.

The first meeting I remembered was a talk Harlan gave at The Learning Tree in Chatsworth in 1995. I sat in the audience, wide-eyed, and listened to Ellison speak. After a break, he pulled some typewriter paper out and said he was going to read to us a story he’d finished writing that very day. The story was “Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral”. I’d never been to a story reading before, and if anyone has heard Ellison read, you know that I was spoiled from the start. It was incredible. Afterwards, I met him, shook his hand, chatted for minute, asked him to sign a few books, and that was that.

In the years that followed, I met Harlan several more times, mostly at appearances he made at Dangerous Visions. I was there, for instance, when he did one of his bookstore window writing sessions. Chris Carter (of X-Files fame) walked into the packed store with a folded piece of paper in his hand. It was the idea he’d come up with for Ellison to write a story around. He read the idea to the audience: “The 100-year old pregnant corpse.” Ellison sat with his manual typewriter and banged out a story called, “Objects in the Mirror of Desire Are Closer Than They Appear” that later appeared in F&SF.

I went to a talk Ellison gave in Marina Del Rey. He was his usual blustery self, confident, loud, funny–and then a door opened at the back of the room and Donald Sutherland walked in and Ellison became a little star-struck, which was kind of adorable to see.

Long after I moved out of L.A. and began my own writing career, selling stories, and getting to know writers who I admired for so long, I found myself attending a Nebula Awards banquet locally. By then I had become friends with Allen Steele. Harlan Ellison was up for a Nebula in the short story category, which he ended up winning (in a tie, I believe) that night. I was very happy for him, and looked around for Allen, but didn’t see him. Finally, I walked out of the banquet hall, and saw Allen by himself, leaning on a wall with his phone to his ear. “Harlan?” I mouthed. Allen nodded. He got to break the news to Ellison.

As it turns out Harlan Ellison lived just up the street from one of my best friend’s house (my friend’s parents still live there). When I learned that the odd house on that narrow street off of Mullholland that I’d passed so many times was Ellison’s, I was retroactively awestruck.

Harlan Ellison was the first writer I’d ever asked for an autograph. He was also the first writer I’d ever met in person.

As far Ellison’s writing, well, it’s just amazing. There are writers who write in a way that I, as a writer, try to emulate. Stephen King is a good example of this. But I knew as soon as I read Ellison’s writing that I could never emulate it. It is far too masterful for the likes of me. I never even tried. There are all kinds of “classic” Ellison stories, but own person favorite is a story of his called “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore.” I believe that it is possible to write a perfect story, in the same way it is possible to throw a perfect game in baseball. But like a perfect game, the perfect story is extremely rare. “The Rocket Man” by Ray Bradbury is one; “The Bicentennial Man” by Isaac Asimov is another. Harlan Ellison’s “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore” is a perfect story.

I’ve met many writers in the years since I first met Harlan Ellison. One of the fun parts of being a writer is meeting so many people you admire. I’ve gotten to know some of these writers well, and call them friends. That was never the case with Harlan Ellison. But as a presence, I’ve never been in awe of someone as much as I was when I was around Harlan.

Which is why, I think, hearing him gab about the origin of story on a sleepless night a few days ago hit me the way it did. Even now, nearly three years later, it is hard to believe that Harlan Ellison is not out there somewhere, sitting in a bookstore window and banging away at another story.

2 comments

  1. Thanks for this. While I read my first Ellison in high school, “Shatterday” from the SFBC, it was college that cemented his place in my Pantheon for me, too. Freshman year, I discovered the local head shop had a spinner rack well stocked with the Ace paperbacks. Every couple of weeks, I’d head into town and pick up another. That was a great few months!

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