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Best Author Ever: Harlan Ellison

Best Author Ever: Harlan Ellison

Every once in a while you get the right hero.

When I think about Harlan Ellison, I think about kindness. For those steeped in the popular mythology of the man, that may seem like a strange reaction. He was a self-professed practitioner of revenge and pissed off a lot of people, but if this essay could be anything, perhaps it could serve as a small corrective to the image of the fuming genius that springs to so many minds when Ellison comes up in conversation.

I have kept less than a handful of heroes in my life, and Ellison has been a constant, so I take it personally when he is smeared. Discussing the importance of his work is my niche. He is the hill I will defend until the fighting ends because he believed in the best of us while illustrating our foolishness and ugliness. He was a writer fighting an endless war against anti-intellectualism and bigotry whose nonfiction writing from 50 years ago is prescient of our current cultural malaise. Yes, he was an elitist, but with a working-class edge. He wanted to demystify writing for the mass of people who believed the craft was somehow magic, and to do so he would write original short stories in bookstore windows from prompts he received moments before the first blank page rolled into place on his typewriter. I had the privilege of seeing this feat at the beautiful but now defunct bookstore called Dangerous Visions in Sherman Oaks, California. It was like being at a strange dinner party where the clack-clack of Ellison’s fingers on the typewriter keys provided the chamber music. But that experience had to do with a small act of aforementioned kindness that more will be mentioned of later.

The first time I experienced Harlan Ellison, I was ready to be radicalized. The event occurred during an auction at the big science fiction convention in midtown Manhattan sometime in the early ‘80s. This poor schlub of an auctioneer couldn’t get a soul in the packed ballroom to bid on anything, and then this whirlwind jumped on stage, grabbed the mic and started fast-talking the audience. With them bewitched by the energy of this diminutive giant, the money started flowing. Objects that earlier appeared to have no value became must-haves that kept escalating in price. Within moments an auction that had laid dormant for 45 minutes was cleared in less than 15 with the sharply dressed sprite with the big glasses and the expert part in his hair smiling and bowing to raucous applause.

Heavyset, pimply and sans such a deliciously crafted division within my own unruly mop, I stared at the man and vocalized my awe by saying “Who the fuck is that?”

“That,” said the stranger beside me, “is Harlan Ellison.”

I want to say that I bought my first book immediately and had a moment with the author while he autographed it, but that’s not the case. Cover price for a paperback was a lordly sum for preteen me, but I had an amazing used bookstore a short bike ride from my parents’ house. There I bought copies of Paingod and Other Delusions, Shatterday, Ellison Wonderland and Deathbird Stories for a quarter apiece, which was a pittance when compared to what those books did to me.

I come from conservatism, a small town of small minds that flies too many American flags and Trump/Pence banners. It is a place that feels forgotten by time whenever I visit, where conservative voices fill the air on summer days from radios the way baseball games once did. This is a town that lost a case to the Supreme Court for banning books. Harlan Ellison’s short stories saved me from these doldrums and expanded my consciousness in the best possible way. He wrote short stories almost exclusively and never suffered within the confines of that form. His goal was not so much the slippery slope of originality but an uncompromising attempt at honesty in the emotional logic of his characters and the structure of his stories. The happy ending never arrives shiny and pure, the hero is rarely uncompromised, because human beings don’t get to live lives unmarred by challenges that require their best. We are unable to meet the standard of the typical heroic narrative, so Ellison’s experiment was to remind us that we are deeply flawed beings occasionally capable of unflinching nobility.

The literary canon teems with authors of similar intentions, but not enough of them populated their books with a Ticktockman, a Harlequin, telepathic dogs, mutant discards, wolfmen looking for their stolen souls and a five year-old that manages to stay unaffected by progress until it inevitably destroys him. And when I decided I wanted to become a writer, I found a master class in craft in the introductions Ellison wrote to his hundreds of short stories. {Shatterday} alone should be used as a teaching guide in any art of the short story workshop.

Now I’d like to return to my earlier mention of kindness. I interacted with Ellison mostly as a fan, meeting him at conventions and literary events and waiting in line for an autograph. His congeniality always surprised me given his reputation. He always gave me time and asked what I thought of the short story I heard him read on more than one occasion. These moments made me feel special even though I know that’s part of his showmanship. The first time I realized he had an unbelievable capacity to foster kindness was the day he tracked my brother down. We were living together in Los Angeles in the days before cell phones and came home to a blink on our answering machine. It was Harlan Ellison inviting my brother to the writing in the window event at Dangerous Visions. The Los Angeles Times were printing book reviews by readers and my brother had written about one of Ellison’s collections. The author was moved by the review and wanted to meet him. They had a moment before Chris Carter unveiled his prompt, one my brother never forgot.

My friend, Ellen Herbert, told me a story about being a single mom in Los Angeles and listening to “Hour 25,” a local radio show dedicated to science fiction. This was the mid ‘80s, and Ellison was a mainstay and he would help get the host, Mike Hodel, through the broadcast when the latter became gravely ill. Listening to this act of friendship helped Ellen through one of the more trying times of her life. Film critic Leonard Maltin wrote movingly in his obituary of Ellison last year, describing how the author would read to him for a time after Maltin had eye surgery. We always look for the artist in the art, and one of the main characters in Ellison’s “Paladin of the Lost Hour” is an eccentric old man named Gaspar who refuses to be called “crazy.” He is responsible for the world around him. There’s a great deal of Ellison in Gaspar. Many of us give lip service to our friendships and compassion. Ellison followed through on his. He was responsible, and I felt it in one small way.

Twelve years ago, I had a friend who was the guest host for left-leaning radio shows and he would take me along on these gigs. After I proved myself capable by not swearing on air, my friend told me to find some guests for the show. I wanted Harlan Ellison.

Finding Harlan Ellison has never been a problem. He kept his number listed. Sadly, he was not in LA at the time, but off at a science fiction convention receiving one of the many Grand Master awards he was getting during the denouement of his career. Was I disappointed? Yes. But life goes on. What are you gonna do?

The gig ended a few days later and I was at home warming something for dinner when an unfamiliar number appeared on my caller ID. Twelve years ago we did things like answer such calls, and a familiar voice greeted me when I clicked the green phone icon.

“This is Harlan Ellison. I’m calling for Don Kelly.”

“This is Don Kelly,” I said, wondering if I was now the butt of a very specific practical joke. But I wasn’t. He called to thank me for thinking of him. I confessed my fandom and apologized because the gig was over and I honestly didn’t know if there’d ever be another. He said that was all right and added it to the list of frustrations he accrued during a week on Long Island. I am from Long Island. Neither of us cared much for the place. We chatted about that and other things for the next hour.

There is a line from his short story “The Cheese Stands Alone” where the character says “What’s left may only be the tag end of a shitty life…but it’s my shitty life. And it’s the only game in town, sweetie. The cheese stands alone.” I used to love that line because it sounded so tough and stylized, but the cheese never stood alone. Ellison made connections all the time and used that life to show us what was possible.

Every once in a while you get the right hero. Harlan Ellison was mine and he never disappointed me. His greatness can be catalogued by his impressive list of awards and his place in the history of science fiction and fantasy literature. But, even more than that, he was a person worth emulating for his passion, courage and compassion. He died last year, but he is immortalized in his work and the many clips of his interviews and appearances online. We are lesser without him.

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