Guest Post: Harlan Ellison Got Personal With Me Eight Times

In 1974, my new best friend at a new high school introduced me to the works of Harlan Ellison (along with an expansive list of other authors, movies, books, music, and heroes). Bob was a writer himself, a passionate admirer of Ellison, and his passion transferred to me somewhat. Naturally, Bob sent me an email on Thursday. I asked him if he’d like to write a proper eulogy, which is presented below.
— Jim MacQuarrie

Harlan Ellison Got Personal With Me Eight Times

By Robert Sercombe

They flushed the n*****s from underground bunkers, out near the perimeter, and Charlie Knox killed his because he thought the b***** was going for a gun. As it turned out, he wasn’t; but Knox didn’t know that when he let fly.
Earlier that day Knox had gone to a fitness session and the ward Captain had reprimanded him for haste in firing. “These aren’t shootouts, Knox. The idea is to level the weapon and point it in the right direction, not blow off your own leg. Now take it again. Another hour on the range, Saturday.”
Even earlier that day, Knox had had lunch with his wife; he had done the cooking himself, and they had discussed how difficult it had become to get fresh vegetables, particularly carrots, since the new emergency measures had been put into effect. “But it’s necessary,” Brenda had said. “At least until the President can get things under control again.” Knox had said something about radicals and Brenda had said, you can say that again…

At the Mount San Antonio College Writer’s Day in Walnut, California in 1974, Harlan Ellison read aloud his new story “Knox” to a packed auditorium. As you can read above, he saw today coming.
He’d been late, as always; to entertain us while we waited, the literature department chairman had, with great relish, himself begun reading Harlan’s earlier story, “Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman,” said to be one of the most reprinted in the English language. Appropriately — the Ticktockman executes the Harlequin for chronic tardiness in a clockwork lockstep future following massive pranks to gum up the works (avalanches of jellybeans on public thoroughfares, &c.). Before the chairman finished, word came that our guests had arrived: Harlan, and Ray Bradbury — who never learned to drive, even after half a lifetime writing about Tomorrow; Harlan chauffeured Ray from Cheviot Hills, so both were late. They were put onstage together as chastisement. Harlan went first. And hit all of us right between the eyes.

It’s difficult to convey how Harlan could electrify a huge audience, or frighten it, and he did both at once. Charlie Knox and his militia exterminate nonwhites by night, toil at pointless and absurd factory work by day (assembling appliances that are dismantled down the line), beat a Jewish furniture retailer to bloody pulp and torch his store on their downtime, and have little to say to their wives, who get a bit tiresome. He memorizes dozens of bigoted epithets; murders a coworker on mere suspicion (induced by their supe); crucifies his best buddy’s dog as a warning, when his turn comes. He can’t recall the past, but sees and hears things that can’t be there. A signal difference between the year Harlan wrote it and now is that Charlie Knox doesn’t take his wife with him when he ends it all. The 1980s were still to come, when every third bumper sticker in Los Angeles read DON’T GET MAD — GET EVEN!

Another difference is that, however bitterly the social-justice campaigns of two decades had lost momentum, the more leftward/forward pop culture seemed optimistic: we were at last putting racism and anti-Semitism behind us, into a past so vile, squalid and monstrously ridiculous — President Nixon resigned ahead of guaranteed impeachment the same year — that we could afford to laugh at them, as Mel Brooks had won his script Oscar for laughing at Nazis in The Producers, and now collaborated with Richard Pryor on Blazing Saddles, a massively profane hit comedy that my African-American sister-in-law saw multiple times; the same year, Bob Fosse memorialized comedian Lenny Bruce, who’d spewed a litany of racist epithets at a mixed audience in the hope that soon they’d be empty, meaningless noise with no power to hurt anyone. But the 1980s were still to come, and worse. Harlan did not censor one particle of the wickedness, fear and violence he foresaw, because he knew, as everyone does now, it was always there — like the people in black garments haunting the margins of Charlie Knox’s sight.

(It would be too much to say that Ray Bradbury’s inspiring talk felt like visiting Disneyland after touring Auschwitz; then again, Ray had endorsed Walt Disney for Mayor of Los Angeles, and Harlan was the only Jewish kid in an Ohio town that was actually named Painesville, where he was short, all but friendless, and had to fight every day, going on to write story after novel after teleplay about desperately cornered loners good and bad. To be fair, Harlan had lifted the mood by answering audience questions like Don Rickles in a race with himself. The big book that year? Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.)

Mt. SAC’s Writer’s Day wasn’t my first pepper-spray taste of Harlan’s work. In seventh grade I’d bought his 1971 collection Alone Against Tomorrow: Stories of Alienation in Speculative Fiction. It led off with a sledgehammer world-tragedy, “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” where the almighty Judge of us all is a sentient computer we’d built too well, to the destruction of all but five humans, whom it has made immortal for everlasting torture — an Inferno with no Purgatorio or Paradiso in sight. It is no criticism to say that it so resonates with adolescent misery that one felt grateful. So did every story following. (I still owe Harlan for clarifying the sexual act in “The Human Operators,” his 1971 collaboration with A. E. Van Vogt for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction — because my parents had omitted the mechanics of reproduction.) “Knox” opened his next collection, Approaching Oblivion: Road Signs on the Treadmill Toward Tomorrow.

Many alive today remember his still earlier TV work: his first (of four) Writers Guild Award winner, 1964’s “Demon With a Glass Hand” on The Outer Limits; his second, 1967’s “City on the Edge of Forever” on Star Trek, both of which I caught on syndicated reruns; his third, 1973’s “Phoenix Without Ashes” on The Starlost — which he disowned because the producers so dreadfully fucked it up. The hero of the first is the loneliest of them all, once aliens conquer the earth and all humanity vanishes without a trace; yet trapped in an office building with him is a terrified Puerto Rican garment worker who is all the ally he needs: when he asks his hand, a flickering glass prosthetic computer, what to do next, and it tells him, Let them kill you, he does so; kneeling at his corpse, she prays for Mary to save her, whereat the hand wakes up and informs her You can save yourself — and instructs her how to bring the hero back to life.

It was Harlan’s most consistent message. His tales

…are to tell you that as night approaches we are all aliens, down here on this alien Earth. To tell you that not Christ nor man nor governments of men will save you. To tell you that writers about tomorrow must stop living in yesterday and work from their hearts and their guts and their courage to tell us about tomorrow, before all the tomorrows are stolen away from us. To tell you no one will come down from the mountain to save your lily-white hide or your black ass. God is within you. Save yourselves….

He wrote this introduction to his 1969 collection The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World in Rio de Janeiro, within sight of the Christ the Redeemer colossus. The Puerto Rican garment worker will later — crying to God for forgiveness — kill two aliens to save the hero’s life.

Harlan woke up angry and went to bed angrier, having belabored his readers, critics and enemies with scorching imprecations to take some of the load off him by acting to better their own society and world — this was his answer in 1982 when some kid asked him why he didn’t loosen up, go surfing once in a while? I asked Harlan if he’d ever gone skydiving. Rather than put me in my place for impertinence, he smiled at long-ago panic and said he’d “skydiven” when writing for the 1961-1963 TV series Ripcord; the jumpmaster dismissed his fears: “You don’t need a static line” — the standard fail-safe for beginners, whose minds evaporate from sheer terror on exiting the airplane. In Harlan’s world, laughs kill.

So could love, of course. More often, it vexed and deserted and sacrificed — either without (refreshingly!) seeking revenge, or winding up worse off in so seeking. He had friends by the legion and fans of all sexes. And zads of lovers — over 500 by 1968, when he was asked for a count, published in Love Ain’t Nothing But Sex Misspelled, going on not to boast, but

I subscribe to the view that I was looking for something very hard, perhaps with unconscious desperation. I think I understand the psychological reasons why I was on that endless hunt, and I submit there was less of deviation, perversion or obsession than of loneliness and a determination to find answers. I’m constantly perplexed at the dichotomous position of people who laud a student’s seeking everywhere to find the answers to life, or creativity, or the existence of God, or the direction of the student’s career…who cluck their tongues and badrap the same attempts to discover the answers to interpersonal relationships by those who seek in every area that presents itself….Perhaps I’m advocating profligacy, but I don’t think so. Discovering the nature of love is infinitely more complex and exhausting than, for instance, learning how to be a brain surgeon…

His five marriages might suggest he didn’t confine his combativeness to his (manual!) typewriter. I’ve witnessed his charm, watched him attract such a crowd of women that he wasn’t visible in their midst — he stood 5’5″ — and I’ve watched, proud and amused, as he flirted, like a gentleman, with my beautiful girlfriend in 1981, while he wrote a short story before our eyes. In final draft. Off the top of his head. Without typos. In the indoor gazebo of Sherry Gottlieb’s beloved Santa Monica SF/Fantasy bookstore, A Change of Hobbit. Which he did often. Anyone buying $25 of books won an autographed photocopy of the story, which went up on the wall page by page until finished — “Broken Glass,” collected in 1988’s Angry Candy: a timid woman curled up alone in a back seat of a Greyhound bus at night soothes herself toward sleep with a favorite sexual fantasy — only to find it invaded, by someone on the bus, who diverts it to his own sicker, bloodier tastes. Without violence, the timid woman figures out how to turn the tables, and saves herself.

Despite the raw intensity of his passionate work and private life, I saw how he could stay polite under duress and in a bad mood, as when subsisting on Hydrox cookies while receiving a long line of autograph-seekers in the window of Lydia Marano’s Sherman Oaks bookstore Dangerous Visions. I asked when he would finish The Last Dangerous Visions, the final volume of his groundbreaking trilogic anthology of custom-written stories. With displeasure but gentle firmness, he said he would tell me what Michelangelo told the Pope: “It’ll be finished when it’s finished.” A beautiful female friend came with me. He was not in a flirtatious mood. It possibly, but not probably, had to do with his having secretly lodged the mediaphobic, likely (and justifiably) paranoid Thomas Pynchon some time before — as he was said to have done with Vietnam War draft resisters — which I learned from a third party there.

He did not publish TLDV, sadly — for readers; more so for the writers whose submissions never saw print (and some of whom died), although 32 stories were eventually published elsewhere. Hardly anything else so convinced me of the endless, enervating grind a successful yet principled writing life can be. He had to seize or invent every possible opportunity to practice what he called the holy chore of writing, just to pay the bills; and too much time had to be spent away from the typewriter, amongst all of us, speaking for a fee.

Still, he put himself out for others. The examples are countless; the last I read about was only last week, how he encouraged and bought a story (for The Last Dangerous Visions) by then-unknown Octavia E. Butler after being impressed by her writing at the Screenwriters Guild of America Open Door Workshop, plus giving her $100 to apply to the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop. When Ray Bradbury finished a talk at the Ambassador Hotel in 1978, I found Harlan waiting outside the ballroom, with a girlfriend, to give him a ride home. He’d been there the day before and some copies of his latest collection Strange Wine remained, so I not only scored another autograph (his girlfriend’s too: “Catherine 9” — ? ), but because nobody expected him to be there, I had him (and his girlfriend) all to myself for forty-five minutes.

When I withdrew to let someone else have a turn, it was a youngster who took great offense at Harlan’s grim takedown of the slow brain-death that was television in the introduction to Strange Wine, “REVEALED AT LAST! WHAT KILLED THE DINOSAURS! AND YOU DON’T LOOK SO TERRIFIC YOURSELF” — opening with the 1974 on-camera suicide of Sarasota anchor Chris Chubbuck. Harlan mildly but firmly blew the kid off, then explained to Catherine 9 how sometimes people felt compelled to argue with him, whereas others (pointing at me) are polite and just want to chat. By then he seemed to recognize me every time as someone who wouldn’t irk him. We resumed our chat. I mentioned my concern that Ray, who could loft an audience on laughter-silvered wings of elation, seemed to be having an off night. Harlan thought maybe he was just tired. As any writer would think. Although Harlan himself would suffer years of lowered productivity from Guillain-Barré Syndrome, he’d reached bracingly peak form in Strange Wine, but it was too early then for me to waste his time gushing about it.

I still flatter myself for not being the blithering jerk type of fan. Motorcycling up Benedict Canyon to look over LA or the San Fernando valley from the ridgeline of the Santa Monica Mountains, I might tootle up Coy Drive to contemplate from my saddle his unique homestead, bought with Hollywood money, built into a hillside and christened the Lost Aztec Temple of Mars. I enjoyed the alien gargoyles, the CHIPMUNK CROSSING sign, the fabulous woodwork of the door (by his longtime friends and illustrators Leo & Diane Dillon, if memory serves), and I enjoyed glimpses of him moving around his office above the garage. I certainly never rang the bell.

Harlan did not suffer fools, and wasn’t always mild about it — although he saved his megatonnage for those guilty of great abuses, from the studio executive willing to commit vast resources to a colossal film project of Harlan’s without having read the script (Harlan’s takedown is legendary) to mendacious and venal politicians, no matter what it cost him: he was thrown off the studio lot, and the LA Free Press was firebombed within days of his column attacking Vice President Spiro Agnew (whom he accused of masturbating to the Reader’s Digest). And while many great abusers met Harlan over the decades, it may seem that he wasted his venom on pettier targets, putting an ABC Network Censor in the hospital for calling him a toady, or punching out a cop at an antiwar protest in Century City, adjacent to Fox Studios. DISCLOSURE: I do not endorse violence — being in agreement with Aldous Huxley, who insisted that we not justify loathsome means by worthy ends, since humans always turn means into ends in themselves. Harlan would not be alone charging that networks (when there were only three) and police (in their hundreds of thousands) were capable and guilty of great wide-ranging harm without check; but Harlan was a fighter, not a martyr — which only makes him very, very American. He served in the US Army (and was nearly court-martialed), knew (and at times used) martial arts, and could handle firearms. But he was also in Martin Luther King’s 1965 march to Selma — although as far as I’m aware, he wasn’t present when it reached its bloody termination on the Edmund Pettis Bridge. Correct me if I err.

In answer to an audience question at the UCLA Alumni Association in the early/mid 1980s, he called Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism “meretricious” — speaking carefully, less to avoid offense than to achieve precision, and perhaps respect the achievement of a writer who could, at least, balance the broadest (if myopic) perspective with the closest intimacies in turning 1,000 pages of dense propaganda into (mostly) readable bestsellers. To my knowledge and in my hearing he always gave credit where it was due, and his was high praise — for honest laborers in the holiest of chores as he saw it, and in lesser though still honorable trades. How nonplussed he was that day, particularly when asked about Ayn Rand, telling us that when his pocket calculator broke, he could not get it repaired for less than it would cost to replace! A spreading waste, an insult to perfectionism and craftsmanship of all kinds, it seemed to him — child of the Great Depression and World War Two, author of (one of many, many) award-winning stories like “Jeffty is Five,” a look back at all the good we discard with the bad or useless when we and the world update and upgrade, told in terms of a five-year-old boy who never grows up, even as his parents decline into terrible bewilderment at their freak offspring, and his best friend becomes a middle-aged adult. (Collected in 1980’s Shatterday.)

The forward-looking speculative-fictioneer doting on his own carefully-imagined aliens and robots so that he can’t see the humanity in his own Earthly characters was a cliché when Harlan killed it off with the first Dangerous Visions anthology in 1967 — and gave birth, as some saw it, to a Nouvelle Vague in the field. It surely struck many at the 2000 AggieCon in Texas, where my wife and I had moved, that the cliché had caught up with Harlan himself when his curmudgeon’s rant went scattershot, attacking rap music because it wasn’t actually music — perhaps momentarily forgetting its origins in the cultural Left of the 1960s with The Last Poets — but at 66, Harlan was far from finished: his collection Slippage was only three years old, slaying the competition with finer exactitude than ever in “Mephisto in Onyx” and “The Museum on Cyclops Avenue.” I am still haunted by “Objects of Desire in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear,” which he wrote in the Dangerous Visions bookstore, from a story prompt by Chris Carter, creator of The X-Files, and collected in Can’t and Cantankerous in 2015 — at age 81.

I grew up reading about him putting his own safety and income on the line, when it was exciting enough reading stories that other writers confessed were like getting kicked in their authorial asses — such as “Shattered Like a Glass Goblin,” or “A Boy and His Dog,” or “The Deathbird.” I was not privy to dirt on him, although in 1984 I bumped into an apparent writer, ostentatiously scribbling and pipe-smoking in a noisy Scottish pub in Pasadena, who claimed to know some. Harlan belonged in some senses to the postwar patriarch’s generation of Roth, Updike, Mailer and Bellow, with much of what that might entail, and yet was a proud feminist. And to many, an extraordinary friend. Here’s Stephen King, introducing 1982’s Stalking the Nightmare:

If I knew I was going to be in a strange city without all the magical gris-gris of the late 20th century — Amex Card, MasterCard, Visa Card, Blue Cross card, driver’s license, Avis Wizard Number, Social Security number — and if I further knew I was going to have a severe myocardial infarction, and if I could pick one person in all the world to be with me at the moment I felt the hacksaw blade run down my left arm and the sledgehammer hit me on the left tit, that person would be Harlan Ellison. Not my wife, not my agent, not my editor, my accountant, my lawyer. It would be Harlan, because if anyone would see to it that I was going to have a fighting chance, it would be Harlan. Harlan would go running through hospital corridors with my body in his arms, commandeering stretchers, I.C. support units, O.R.s, and of course, World Famous Cardiologists. And if some admitting nurse happened to ask him about my Blue Cross/Blue Shield number, Harlan would probably bite his or her head off with a single chomp.

At this point, I’m not receptive to attacks on him; but I don’t matter. I met and spoke with him quite enjoyably, often bracingly, eight times in three decades. When he asked for contributions to a copyright infringement lawsuit against AOL, he promised he’d return every penny. I sent $100. He paid it back.
Everyone loses heroes and loved ones, to nothing if not Time.
This would hardly suit Harlan, at least regarding others lost; he introduces Angry Candy with the funeral of fellow writer Norman Spinrad’s lover Emily.

No one allows us to be angry. It isn’t fitting, it isn’t seemly. But that’s how I feel. I’m just pure and deeply angry that she’s gone. That she died when her life was so good. That’s cruel. It’s like some kind of old Arabian Nights revenge, where the djinn waits till you’re happiest to slice you down. And in the compassion that we try to show each other, we won’t let ourselves be angry, won’t let ourselves scream at the world that is now minus that special part.
You can be angry! “Do not go gentle into that good night, old age should burn and rave at close of day; rage, rage against the dying of the light.” It will be a brief enough time before our daily measure softens the edges of memory, and Emily, and all that she was, and all the places in which she resided in our hearts will have closed over like the Red Sea, and we won’t feel like being angry. We’ll just be miserable, and lonely for her, and we’ll never have taken the opportunity to let the stupid nasty world that took her know how much we miss her and how just goddamned angry we are!

I AM angry, and my eyes welled up for the first time at a celebrity’s death since the assassination of John Lennon — another problematic figure, or figurehead, to many; yet genius enough to scorch new paths back to the truth and ahead to what we might make of it — and whose death STILL enrages me.

Harlan knew that you hurt, and how very much more deeply than you could bear to tell even your closest companion. Good God, he knew that Captain James Tiberius Fucking Kirk hurt: when you saw “City on the Edge of Forever,” you saw him stop Doctor McCoy from saving the life of the woman Kirk loved, so that history would be uncorrupted and return to the timeline that birthed them and everything they knew. But in Harlan’s original script, the coldly rational Mister Spock stops Kirk from saving her.

I was told: “Our character wouldn’t act like that.”
Bull. Who knows how someone will act when pressed to the final, ineluctable confrontation with himself? I felt it vastly deepened the one-dimensional character of Kirk-the-rock-jawed, and made a point about mortality and the necessity for love that television seldom considers.

Much else was excised: the coldblooded drug pusher on the Enterprise crew who’d amassed his secret fortune by addicting entire planets (and named Beckwith, for Medgar Evers’ impenitent assassin); a Depression rabble-rouser who sets a street mob on Spock, who looks vaguely Chinese, making him a hated foreign rival for jobs; and Trooper, a legless World War One vet selling pencils on the street, whom Kirk gives some money for information — which Trooper repays by taking a phaser hit for Kirk when Beckwith hunts him down.
The epilogue disappeared entirely:

SPOCK
(softly, understands)
Evil can come from Good,
and Good from Evil.
(beat)
But the little man…Trooper…

KIRK
(a bitter smile)
He was negligible. He fought at Verdun,
and he was negligible. And she…

SPOCK
No, she was not negligible.

KIRK
(simply; groping for understanding)
But…I loved her…

SPOCK
No woman was ever loved as much,
Jim. Because no woman was ever
offered the universe for love.

I still grieve, for that unheard speech. For the undramatized longing, never to be embodied and spoken by human beings.

Harlan hadn’t for a while been the incendiary young confrontationalist who (like Lennon) enraged the corrupt and dangerous Nixon Administration while Americans were despairing of their government and their dwindling stockpile of heroes; or he might have been setting the current administration aflame with its own intemperate and sub-literate indignation.

We have, like Lennon’s, his legacy. It is all that we need.
Listen to the glass hand:
You can save yourself.

The Web is filled with accounts, references, reviews, interviews, videos of Harlan. Let it now fill with 100,000 more remembrances.

And let us go now to save ourselves, and, if we may, one another.

7 Comments

  1. I loved Jeffty Was Five when I read it around the time I was 20. When I reread it a few years ago, I found the narrator’s fixation on all the cool stuff from his youth rather sad (Ellison’s “One Life Furnished in Early Poverty” took a less enthused view of nostalgia).
    Good column. Ellison’s writing became so cranky as he got older, it’s nice to remember when he really blew me away.

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    I still remember my first real glimpse of Ellison, beyond the pages of Starlog ( I was too young to stay up and see him on the Tomorrow Show, with Tom Snyder). It was the video Masters of the Comic Art, which he hosted, providing context for comics as an artform, then introducing the ten subjects. It was interesting when he introduced Ditko, who didn’t appear on camera, and just read a statement, illustrated with panels from Mr. A, which was filled with Objectivist double-talk. Out of respect (I assume), all Harlan says is that he was in interesting guy, with something to say. You could kind of tell he didn’t agree with most of it; but, he respected Ditko’s craftsmanship, history, and sincerity of belief.

  3. RobertRays

    For the love of God…how can this “Robert Sercombe” cretin DARE to summon our attention — as some special intimate of a late, great public figure — while getting wrong the most easily-verified facts? (1) Harlan was not an “all but friendless” kid in Painesville OH, he was TOTALLY friendless — no one came to his one birthday party. (2) One of his last books WASN’T ‘Can’t and Cantankerous,’ which reads stupidly, but ‘Can and Cantankerous,’ which at least attempts the wit of a weak pun. I grant that a eulogy must be timely, but is ALL hope of accuracy in this fact-challenged world mere vanity?? If NO ONE will hold the line for even the smallest of truths, what hope have we for the greater??? Has the brain-dead torpor of our culture reached even this far????

    With disgust,
    Robert Sercombe

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