I believe the first book I read by Harlan Ellison was his short story collection I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. Besides being one of the great titles, the story remains a fascinating capsule of humanity at its best and worst. It follows the tortures of a small group of insane and terrible people damned to live within the confines of a Cold War supercomputer gone sentient, a Frankensteinian who despises its former masters with a hate so vitriolic that it has annihilated the planet and kept only five survivors as its playthings. It may not resonate as deeply as it once did, but as a child of the ’80s kept up nights by a senile President picking fights with inscrutable nuclear enemies, its palpable sense of dread was quite affecting.
But that’s just one of Mr. Ellison’s stories. A true master of the short story, I read everything by him I could get my hands on. Deathbird Stories is a favorite of mine (and Neil Gaiman) where Harlan plunges into myth and religion. He’s run the gamut, but they all have one thing in common: a monolithic moral foundation and deeply emotional underpinning. While ghettoed as a science fiction writer, he prefers the term speculative fiction. As tribalist monkeys, we humans love our categories. He’s written magic realism, he’s written fable, such as “Repent, Harlequin! Said the Ticktockman,” which is one of the most reprinted stories in the English language. He wrote that in six hours, in one draft. The man’s a storytelling genius.
Energetic and opinionated, he became infamous among science fiction fans as ill-tempered. I drove to Long Island in a ’65 Mustang with leaky brake lines to meet him at a convention at Stony Brook college. To me, he just seemed like a confident man who didn’t take any shit. It bemuses me when people expect someone to take shit. He was heckled on stage about his height, and I imagine some came merely to heckle, to set him off. What struck me most that he was a champion of others’ work more than his own. Dan Simmons was there promoting his latest- Summer of Night– and Harlan found a copy of Simmons’s first novel, Song of Kali, and read the excellent opening paragraph aloud. That doesn’t sound like an asshole to me.
Admittedly, I met him only once, but he was quite gracious at the book signing table and signed things I purchased that I didn’t even ask to be signed. But I’ve been amused for his reputation. Surely he is no saint, and during that minor epoch of the ’70s when science fiction writers were rock stars with big collars and enormous eyeglasses, perhaps he rubbed some the wrong way. He also made it very clear that he didn’t want your damn fan letters. They were a distraction, he said, from writing. Like many prolific writers, he was driven. Whatever his voluminous pagecount was, it was never enough.And like a stage star who says they never read reviews, he may have excoriated fan letter writing, but he interrupted his day to read them.
Now, I’ve never been good at taking no for an answer. And as I was adrift as a young man and seeking a father figure, I had a habit of contacting writers and celebrities I admired, in my search for a male role model. I think I called his house, once, and sat tongue tied until he hung up. I’m not proud of that. And of course, knowing that he didn’t want people writing him, I wrote him. In one of his stories, he quotes Gerald Kersh, a writer he admired greatly. I remembered the quote, but not the source. And in those days before the internet, I would have had to go to the Nutley public library and skim every Harlan Ellison story until I found it, if they had the book, and hope that he footnoted the origin. So I used that as an excuse to write him a letter. And lo and behold, he answered, and of course, chewed me out for busting his balls with my request:
I did find Gerald Kersh. I found Nightshade and Damnations, the collection Harlan edited. I read his excellent novel set in a London slum, Fowler’s End, which is on Kindle for 99 cents, so you have no excuse. I read his other collection, Men Without Bones, which is also on Kindle. Kersh writes like a dream. He’s a writer’s writer. Clever stories, and a style so effortless it inspires awe and envy. He lacks the raw emotional power of Harlan’s best work, but he is also one of the best writers of the last century, and four a lousy four bucks you can take a bite of the heart of his best work. Have at it.
As for Harlan, I wrote this because I sent this letter to Shaun Usher of the excellent Letters of Note blog, and it was showcased a year or so ago. Shaun contacted me after he spoke with Mr. Ellison on the phone, and my letter came up. Harlan said I was an idiot for not selling it on ebay, because of the 200 or so letters he receives a week, mine remains one of the few he’s responded to. I wish I’d kept my copy, no doubt scrawled in my stout lazy cursive, or more likely printed on the daisy wheel printer I had back then. I don’t recall if I begged or beseeched, or merely kissed ass. But it felt good to be remembered. I lay the blame on my Plucky surname, but my head was a whirlwind of formless, aimless energy back then and I’m sure I wrote a few lines that would defy explanation today.
And of course, I just wrote him again. On his web page. That way, instead of intruding on his mailbox, if he reads the forum for his readers, it is of his own volition. But yeah, I’m gonna refresh that page daily to see if he replies. And I know Harlan is yanking our twig about replying to few letters, as a few years later I told an eccentric old lady and voracious reader I knew from delivering medicine at the drug store, Mary Brasseur, about my letter, and she wrote him as well. She said he was a curmudgeon, and he corrected her, he was an ‘irascible sonofabitch’ (or some such; good Mary has passed to the great used bookstore in the sky). I’ve always felt like I knew Mr. Ellison a little, and that he was a bit like Busto (read the letter) and that’s why the quote resonated with him, and with me. I wouldn’t presume to know him from his writing, but as Andrew Vachss says about “children of the secret,” veterans of the same war are attuned to each other’s frequencies.
© 2011 Thomas Pluck