You can be forgiven for not knowing Harlan Ellison’s name. In the last few years he’s been pretty quiet because of a stroke which eventually took his life in late June. But if you’ve never experienced an Ellison story the good news is his work is all over the multi-media landscape and his books and short stories are still at the top of everyone’s lists. He’s dead simple to find on Amazon because his work, thematically, is still as relevant as when it first exploded on the world in the late 60's.
I remember the first time I read a Harlan Ellison story. The writing was so strong, so brutal, so impactful that the last line hit me with a force that my adolescent brain couldn’t process. I remember sitting there and actually feeling sick to my stomach. I felt as if the world, as I knew it, had ended.
And it had.
I’d taken that step from the scifi fanboy of rockets, ray guns and Dandelion Wine, to aliens, humans - and machines - who existed for nefarious reasons that had nothing to do with our silly human values.
The line? The one that knocked me silly...?
I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream.
That was also the title of the short story first published in 1967.
"I Have No Mouth and Must Scream" is an allegory for Hell where people are endlessly tormented by an all-powerful sentient supercomputer.
I was late to Ellison but his work had that amazing impact on me that has never stopped haunting me with its brutal power.
Harlan Ellison’s career spanned decades in print, film, television, articles, comic books and just about any medium that he could imprint his particular brand of horror onto including video games.
His work includes 1,700 short stories, novellas, screenplays, comic books, TV shows, essays, and literary criticisms. He’s also produced over 100 books.
Ellison hated to be called a science fiction writer preferring speculative fiction writer instead.
“Call me a science fiction writer,” he proclaimed, “and I’ll come to your house and nail your pet’s head to a coffee table. I’ll hit you so hard your ancestors will die.”
This giant in scifi circles, was born to humble beginnings in Cleveland, Ohio in 1934. A wandering mind which pushed a wandering spirit, Ellison ran away from home frequently, taking odd jobs including on a tuna boat, crop picker, and...as an actor. He was expelled from Ohio State University for hitting a professor who had dismissed and denigrated his work. For the rest of his life, he sent that professor copies of everything he published and newspaper clips of his numerous awards.
Ellison’s hair-trigger temper and lack of sufferance for those he perceived to be fools was legendary. He even once clashed with Frank Sinatra during a pool game over a pair of boots. He also sent dead gophers to various publishers with his life-long friend Robin Williams. He was hired as a writer at Disney Studios and fired the same day when Roy Disney heard him joking about making a porno film using Disney characters.
In Hollywood, where Ellison moved in 1962, he was quickly snapped up by the hungry medium of television.
The Loretta Young Show
The Flying Nun,
The Outer Limits,
The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,
The Young Lawyers,
Tales From the Darkside,
The Alfred Hitchcock Hour
and many more.
His novella “A Boy and His Dog” was made into a movie starring a young Don Johnson and is actually being remade now.
He also wrote the film “The Oscar” starring Steven Boyd and Elke Summer which had a cameo by...Frank Sinatra.
His Star Trek episode "The City on the Edge of Forever" is considered to be the best in the 79 episodes of the original series, even though Ellison railed against parts of it being rewritten by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. This acknowledgment of his script is quite an accomplishment considering that the original Star Trek series featured some of the best of the best of television and science fiction writers.
In the 80's Ellison was tapped to be a creative consultant on the new Twilight Zone series and also Babylon 5.
It was through J. Michael Straczinski, the creator of Babylon 5, that I very nearly met my writing hero, Ellison. It never happened and I am angry with myself that I didn’t push harder to try to make that happen. I would have probably sat there, mouth agape, and just stared at Ellison wordlessly - but at least I would have been able to shake his hand. Maybe. I might have been equally as body paralyzed by being in the presence of this true writing genius.
Ellison’s television and film work was prolific and award-winning but it was his prose work in which he truly shined.
“Repent, Harlequin, Said The TickTock Man” won every major science fiction print award available and shows up in most of the top five best of science fiction lists. The story structure is non-linear, starting in the middle, going to the beginning, and then to the ending - WITHOUT the use of flashbacks. It is one of the most reprinted stories in the English language and was written in six hours at a writer’s conference. The story is a slap at societal mores and thematically illuminates the struggle for the human spirit to find its place in a world that demands normalization. A theme that was part of Ellison’s DNA and very popular in the late 60's as youth rebelled against convention and authors and filmmakers inserted those themes into their work. Movies like "Cool Hand Luke" and plays like "One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest" displayed this angst in film and on stage - and authors like Ellison tore at it in print.
Harlan Ellison was richly rewarded for his genius.
He won ten Hugo Awards all-in-all during his magnificent career, four Nebula Awards from the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA); five Bram Stoker Awards from the Horror Writers Association (HWA); two Edgar Awards from the Mystery Writers of America; two World Fantasy Awards, Jupiter Awards, Saturn Awards, fantasy film awards and dozens of others.
"Dangerous Visions" and "Again, Dangerous Visions" were compilation books of short stories edited by Ellison featuring himself and other authors that he chose. Each was a work of genius recognizing genius. I devoured them.
Ellison could be pretentious and overbearing, and was famously known to be consistently caustic and argumentative.
He wrote of himself: "My work is foursquare for chaos. I spend my life personally, and my work professionally, keeping the soup boiling. Gadfly is what they call you when you are no longer dangerous; I much prefer troublemaker, malcontent, desperado. I see myself as a combination of Zorro and Jiminy Cricket. My stories go out from here and raise hell. From time to time some denigrater or critic with umbrage will say of my work, 'He only wrote that to shock.' I smile and nod. Precisely.”
Lawsuits for creative infringement were as much a part of Ellison’s world as his writing. He sued a lot of people including James Cameron for Terminator. He charged that Cameron had ripped off his concept of a killer robot in a script he wrote called “Soldier.’ He settled out of court and a credit acknowledging his work was added to the film.
He took on CBS and The Writers Guild. Sued them and won. Also Fantagraphics, a comic book and magazine publisher. And ABC and Paramount.
On and on, Ellison’s lawsuits protected his prodigious work flow as if his life depended on it. And perhaps it did.
Ellison also did a lot of voice acting work. Two productions stand out. He is a recurring character in Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated, as a professor of literature. And he appeared in an episode of The Simpsons called "Married to the Blob.”
Harlan Ellison, author, futurist, provocateur, never settled, never stood back from a fight, never edited himself or his powerful work. Although this distanced and isolated him many times from many establishments it also allowed him to live - and die - without compromise. He stuck out his jaw both virtual and real and dared you to hit it, supported by his righteous anger at a world that wasn't as logical as him, nowhere as aware.
Harlan Ellison was true American original. I doubt we’ll see his like again.
To paraphrase his own work, he had a mouth...and he screamed.