Atomic Roundtable: Harlan Ellison 1934-2018

One of the most incisive and compelling observers of the human condition, Harlan Ellison passed away in his sleep last week at age 84.

He’d been expecting it for some time. Back in 2010, he announced that he was not going to do any more convention appearances because “I’m dying.” He explained in a lengthy interview at the time, “I’m not afraid of death, and there is not one iota of suicide in me. All I want to make sure is that when the paper comes out, it says, ‘Harlan Ellison died in his sleep.’ You’re talking to, essentially, a pretty happy guy. No, not ‘pretty’ happy — that’s television talk. I am inordinately happy. I am wonderfully happy. I am Icarus-flying-to-the-sun happy. I have led a magical life. I have led exactly the life I would wish to lead. I have led the life I guess that everybody in their heart of hearts wants to lead.”

Everyone who ever met him has a Harlan story, to the point that being in his presence was usually referred to as “witnessing the ‘Harlan Live’ show,” and we here at the Junk Shop are no exceptions. Here are a few:

Jim: I didn’t know Ellison, and he certainly didn’t know me, but I met him about four times, all of them memorable.

My first encounter with Ellison is one I’ve written about before, the two of us side-by-side, rummaging in the quarter bins at the San Diego Comic-Con around 1981, when he looks over, points at an older gent and says “oh look, there’s Joe Shuster.” Prior to that moment, he’d fired off a few smartass comments to the comic vendor, but we had no interaction or conversation (apart from a nod of acknowledgement that I knew who he was, despite his looking like just another fan in his “I Dialed H for Hero” t-shirt) before he sent me scurrying off to meet the co-creator of Superman.

The second time was at a fundraiser in 1982 that involved the local counterculture radio station KPFK, its late-night science-fiction discussion show Hour 25 (which Harlan later hosted for a couple of years), and the legendary Sherman Oaks science fiction bookstore, Dangerous Visions (named after the anthology Ellison edited); I don’t remember if it was a fundraiser for the radio station, the radio show, or the bookstore, but I do remember that they had gathered a who’s who of authors to participate in an all-day event, including Robert Bloch, Theodore Sturgeon, Arthur Byron Cover, D. C. Fontana, Bill Rotsler, George Clayton Johnson, David Gerrold, Harlan Ellison, and possibly a few others I can’t remember now. There was ample opportunity to converse with all of them in between the various panels and events of the day, but Ellison was always buttonholed by somebody, so I only spoke to him briefly, and neither of us said anything memorable. The memorable part was when all of the above sat on stage and took questions from the audience.

A young man stood up and demanded to know why Hollywood and the movie critics are so dismissive and disrespectful of sci-fi, to the point that they failed to recognize that Superman II was a vastly superior film than that year’s Oscar winner, Chariots of Fire. The entire panel gasped and looked at each other. Harlan, playing moderator, fixed the man with his lethal laser stare. “Are you seriously saying that Superman II is a better movie than Chariots of Fire?” The guy asserted again that it is. Harlan looked back incredulously to the others at the table, they looked at each other again. There were befuddled expressions and shrugs. Harlan continued. “You are witnessing a physical manifestation of the word ‘nonplussed.'” Remember that scene in Airplane where everyone lines up to take turns smacking the hysterical woman? It was like that. The authors, each in their turn, dissected all the many flaws of Superman II, and expounded on the artistry of Chariots of Fire, explaining in excruciating detail precisely why the fellow was in serious need of an education.

The third time was about two years later, at a Mongolian BBQ restaurant in the Valley; after helping my then-girlfriend (now wife) move, a bunch of us went to the aforementioned restaurant, and I ended up in line behind Harlan Ellison at the buffet. Inconsequential fanboying followed, which he graciously endured. For all the stories of his mercurial temper and ability to verbally eviscerate and physically assault, in my experience he reserved those for the truly evil, not the merely annoying.

Harlan Ellison signing an autograph at Dangerous Visions, 1982.
Harlan Ellison signing an autograph at Dangerous Visions, 1982.
Photo by Pip R. Lagenta. Used under a Creative Commons license.

The last time I encountered him was in 1985, again at Dangerous Visions. He was doing a signing, so Terri and I popped in to get a few paperbacks autographed. As we approached the head of the line, he turned to the young woman behind the counter, gestured toward the stereo, and asked “can you please play some music that won’t make my head throb?”

The woman looked stricken. She put a hand to her throat and stepped back in shock. “That’s Peter Gabriel!”

“I don’t care if it’s Jesus Christ and all His Holy Angels, it’s killing me!”

The music changed to something 1940s-ish as we stepped up to the table. He politely thanked the clerk for changing the music, put on a deliberate smile and forced himself to shift into celebrity mode as he greeted us and dutifully autographed my dog-eared paperbacks.

Yes, Harlan Ellison wrote “The City on the Edge of Forever” and “Demon With a Glass Hand” and “Repent, Harlequin! Cried the Tick-Tock Man” and “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” and “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” and “A Boy and His Dog” and “Shatterday” and so many more, but as great as Ellison’s fiction is, it was his non-fiction that hooked me. His essays, articles, introductions to his stories, the column he wrote for the LA Weekly, all the confessional pieces and fiery exercises in righteous indignation, the things that made me feel like I knew him well enough to call him Harlan, those are the works I carry with me.

The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat, collecting his TV review columns for the LA Free Press, are an incredible look back at US pop culture and social conventions circa 1970, while Memos From Purgatory is a horrifying look at life in a 1950s New York street gang, drawn from his experience as a member of “The Barons” in Red Hook, AKA Hell’s Kitchen. It’s far more compelling than his fictionalized version, Web of the City.

The introductions to Strange Wine and Approaching Oblivion (“Revealed at Last! What Killed the Dinosaurs! And You Don’t Look So Terrific Yourself” and “Reaping the Whirlwind,” respectively) ought to be mandatory reading for high school students, while “The Three Most Important Things in the World” contains some of the best cautionary tales you’ll ever read.

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Greg H:
My heroes are almost all writers; there are about five that imprinted on me so hugely that I can point to my own work and show you the influence. Most of it is about the way they structured a story, or the way they used language, stuff like that.

With one exception– Harlan Ellison.

Jim talked about the nonfiction, and I think that’s my favorite too. You put it all together and not only do you have a portrait of the man himself but you also have a master class in how to BE a writer, the fights you have to fight and the ones you should probably give a pass.

My introduction to his work was David Gerrold recounting one of those fights in his book The Trouble With Tribbles, the chapter about “The City on the Edge of Forever.” I read that book when I was thirteen and I immediately went looking for other Ellison work; I found Approaching Oblivion and that just about took the top of my head off.

Nonfiction books that haven’t been mentioned yet are the column collections An Edge in My Voice and The Harlan Ellison Hornbook. I favor the White Wolf hardcovers (despite the typos) but your mileage may vary.

And for those of us who read Gerrold’s book back in the day and were dying to see what the ORIGINAL “City on the Edge of Forever” would have been, it was almost impossible to get hold of– the only place you could find it was an obscure Roger Elwood book called Six Science Fiction Plays. Today it exists as both a lovely trade paperback with a bunch of extra essays, and also as a wonderful graphic novel from IDW.

Ellison himself got to cameo as his favorite character from the teleplay, which delighted him. Especially since the whole scene was cut from the finished episode.


Other legendary Ellison screenplays are now available as well– a series of books called Brain Movies. They’re a little out of my price range but I am keeping an eye out when we are bookscouting. And the brilliant I, Robot movie adaptation that was infinitely superior to the one that actually got made.

The illustrations by Mark Zug are gorgeous and will make you weep for what might have been.

I could go on and on about the books, and screenplays, and comics. There’s just so MUCH, and so much of it’s GOOD. But those are the ones I give to people who’ve never heard of him.

I met him twice at signings, and though I saw him get a little prickly with doofus fans, he was nothing but gracious to me. He appreciated readers, his or anyone’s really, and I think he was adept at telling the difference between those who were about books and those who were about Star Trek, or whatever.

The first time, especially, was the memorable one, with a piece of advice he gave me that I carry to this day. He was doing a talk at the University of Oregon in support of the John Anderson campaign– yeah, it was THAT long ago– and I asked him at the Q and A, “They say in order to write, you have to read… who do you read?”

He had been antic and funny for most of the talk but for this his whole face changed and you could tell this was something he really cared about. “Well, that’s not true, first of all,” he said. “To write– how can I put this– you have to hear the music. You have to hear it in your head. Find THAT, listen to THAT, follow THAT.” He went on to explain about a famous writer who I won’t name, but who Ellison regarded as a genius, whose early work was stunningly original but of late his books had been not as good. “Because he’s been READING too much,” he finished. “He lost his voice. He’s not hearing the music.”

He went back to being antic and funny after that but it really struck me how much he put into that answer, how much he CARED that a kid who wanted to write got good advice.

Later when I was getting a book signed I told him I’d heard that from one of my professors– I didn’t have to add that I was being lectured about reading too much crap and not enough classics– and Ellison just snorted. “The guy’s not doing his job. Writers write. That’s all there is. There’s no secret. You sit your ass in the chair and write.” Then he winked at me with a good-luck-kid smile and that was it.

Today I get to call myself a writer. I’ve had a bunch of fights with editors– friendly ones, I never mailed anyone any dead gophers or knocked a giant submarine model on to a network censor– but I have stories I fought for. I’ve won some awards, even. Don’t think I’m putting myself at his level– I’m not anywhere near Ellison’s weight class. But I learned HOW to do it from him and his books. Hear the music. Put it all into the work. Pick your battles but by God, fight them when you have to.

In teaching my Young Authors classes these are things I come back to a lot. I’m very proud of the kids who’ve gone on to publish because I think they’ve internalized those ideas as well. I talked about Troy and Jonathan here a couple of weeks ago, and I think Teya’s going to be another one. She just finished her first novel… at fourteen. I worked them all like dogs because it really is all about the work, the only thing that matters is what you put on the page. I learned that from Ellison.

Harlan Ellison mentored a LOT of us. Some in person like Ed Bryant, Arthur Byron Cover, and David Gerrold, and a great many more of us at second and even third-hand, all the way down to me and my Young Authors kids. Even more than the books– and the books themselves would be more than enough — I think all of us out here trying to follow the example he set are his legacy.

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John: I’m not sure what I can add to the great remembrances that Jim and Greg have already shared, but I’ll do my best. Unlike them, I never had the pleasure of meeting Harlan Ellison face to face. I met him the same way that I imagine that most people reading this did: as a reader.

Oh, I’d seen “The City on the Edge of Forever” as a kid, as I was part of the generation that discovered Star Trek in syndication in the 1970s, but I don’t think that really counts, partly because Ellison’s script was so heavily rewritten that it didn’t keep much besides the title and the broad strokes of the plot, but more importantly because I doubt that the name “Harlan Ellison” really permeated my consciousness at that point.

My first encounter with Ellison was in a more offbeat place: Eclipse Comics’ 1988 collection of Dave Stevens’ initial five-part Rocketeer storyline.

Rocketeer Dave Stevens Atomic Junk Shop
Art by Dave Stevens.

Ellison wrote the introduction, which he occasionally did for comics he really liked. You can also find Ellison intros in Astro City and Sandman collections, among others. I’d never heard of the Rocketeer or Dave Stevens before, but the art was undeniably beautiful, and it looked like good pulpy fun. And I’m sure that the photograph of the real-life Bettie Page on the introductory pages didn’t hurt, either.

Bettie Page Rocketeer Atomic Junk Shop
If you want a 16-year-old boy to pick up a book, including this photograph is a good start.

(Quick aside: It strikes me that this one trade collection ended up turning me on to Dave Stevens, Harlan Ellison, Bettie Page, Doug Wildey, and Doc Savage. That’s a lot of bang for your pop culture buck.)

Honestly, I didn’t like Ellison’s introduction much. It seemed kind of smug, in that a lot of it was talking about how much more fully he appreciated all of Dave’s homages and references than we possibly could, along with a gratuitous shot at “Spielberg and his clone-children […] filling every corner of the frame with little in-jokes and blatant references to the sci-fi crap that impressed them when they were ten years old, so distracting that you aren’t supposed to notice that the movie center-screen is full of holes and has an empty soul.” Wow. I didn’t like Temple of Doom too much, either, but that seemed rather harsh to 16-year-old me.

But even then I could recognize that it was well-written. And I remembered the name of Harlan Ellison.

And I read more of his stuff. I second Hatcher’s recommendation for those White Wolf Edgeworks hardcovers that came out in the 90s (I was rereading Ellison’s introduction to Love Ain’t Nothing But Sex Misspelled about once a year there when I found myself frustratingly single in the early 2000s). I remember discovering what Ellison’s original story for “The City on the Edge of Forever” was when it was finally reprinted in a mass market paperback in the mid 90s. I remember devouring his screenplay for I, Robot in the mid 90s during my breaks at my summer job at Blockbuster Video. I remember his 1986 graphic novel adaptation of “Demon With a Glass Hand” was one of the very first things I bought on eBay. I remember discovering more of his stories through Harlan Ellison’s Dream Corridor from Dark Horse Comics. He wrote a lot of great stories. They were the kind of stories that stayed with you, even years after you last read them. “Jeffty is Five.” “The Resurgence of Miss Ankle-Strap Wedgie.” “Paladin of the Lost Hour.” “S.R.O.” “How’s the Night Life on Cissalda?” “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.” “A Boy and his Dog.” God, even his titles grab me.

Demon with a Glass Hand Atomic Junk Shop
Arlene Martel and Robert Culp in the classic OUTER LIMITS episode, and Marshall Rogers’ cover to the comic book adaptation.

And his nonfiction essays were great, too. Some of my favorites are “The 3 Most Important Things in Life,” (the story of how he got fired from Disney after just a half-day of working there) “Xenogenesis,” (still sadly relevant with today’s toxic fandoms) “Somehow, I Don’t Think We’re in Kansas, Toto,” (the story of the disastrous TV science fiction series The Starlost) his classic revenge essay “Driving in the Spikes,” (he mailed a dead gopher to a stubborn publisher fourth class!) and his introductions to “The City on the Edge of Forever” and “I, Robot,” explaining why those projects didn’t happen the way Ellison hoped they would happen. Really, you haven’t lived until you’ve read Ellison’s recounting of his telling a studio executive that he had the cranial capacity of an artichoke.

And he did lots of cool comics, too. He co-wrote a cool issue of Daredevil with Arthur Byron Cover illustrated by David Mazzucchelli where the Man Without Fear had to figure with way out of a house that was filled with deathtraps from top to bottom. And there was the issue of Detective Comics with Gene Colan that he took 15 years to turn in to editor Julie Schwartz. Mark Evanier tells the story behind that one here.

Daredevil Detective Comics Batman Harlan Ellison Atomic Junk Shop
Daredevil art by David Mazzuccehlli and Danny Bulanadi, Detective Comics art by Gene Colan and Bob Smith.

His Batman: Black and White story with Gene Ha, “Funny Money,” is a stone cold classic. I’ve already mentioned the graphic novel adaptation he did with Marshall Rogers of his own “Demon With a Glass Hand” teleplay, but I’ll repeat the recommendation. Len Wein and José Luis García-López did a wonderful adaptation of Ellison’s unused Two-Face story treatment for the Adam West Batman series in a Batman ’66 special a few years back. And his 2014 graphic novel with Concrete‘s Paul Chadwick, 7 Against Chaos, is great stuff that I need to give a reread. Oh, and as long as I’m mentioning Paul Chadwick, I should mention that he did a great Concrete story, “Byrdland’s Secret,” about Concrete touring Ellison’s expy Dwayne Byrd’s amazing home, obviously inspired by Chadwick’s own visits to Ellison Wonderland.

I’ll leave this with two things that feel like they should be on here, because this piece would feel incomplete without them. The first is this magnificent rant from the definitive documentary about Harlan, Dreams With Sharp Teeth. It’s entitled “Pay the Writer” but it applies equally as well to any creative art:

And lastly, a quote from Mr. E himself. When you get down to to it, it’s all that any of us can strive for in life:

“For a brief time I was here, and for a brief time, I mattered.” – Harlan Ellison, 1934-2018.

 

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