Friday, June 29, 2018

The Titan of Tales

Circumstance forces me to interrupt my sequence of posts about the 2nd Amendment and the NRA.

That circumstance is the passing of writer extraordinaire, Harlan Ellison. 

Harlan was nothing less than a titan of words. Ferociously dedicated to the craft of writing, he was likewise immensely talented in terms of the vast and diverse body of work he produced. Though he was most often associated with Science Fiction, he rankled at this label, often proclaiming the genre of his work to be "Harlan Ellison Stories." With regard to technique and power, he has few equals and no superiors. His words are titanium steel on the page.

Notable tales for me are ‘Paladin of the Lost Hour,’ ‘I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream,’ ‘Mefisto in Onyx,’ ‘Repent, Harlequin, Said the TickTock Man,’ and of course, the classic Star Trek episode, ‘City on the Edge of Forever.’ (His original version really is even better than the Gene Roddenberry-revised version that was ultimately aired on the show).

Favorite Quote:

“You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant.”

Notable anecdotes for me are:

-        His one-day employment at Disney. During his lunch hour, he regaled a bunch of fellow writers with a stirring rendition of a hardcore porn film featuring Mickey and the gang. Unbeknownst to him, Roy Disney was sitting at a table nearby and overheard the whole thing. Harlan returned from lunch to find a pink slip on his desk.
-        Being confronted by a little person who took offense to his use of the term ‘midget’ and explained that the correct phrase was, ‘little person.’ In response, Harlan replied, “I am 5’5. I am a little person. YOU are a midget.”
-        Moments after sitting down to sign autographs following an appearance at a convention, Harlan realized he’d left his glasses in the meeting room where he’d just given his presentation. Because he was very tight on time and wanted to be sure everyone got their book signed, he stood up, announced, “Okay, everyone follow me,” and strode back into the meeting room with myself, my friend Cheryl, and several other attendees in tow. When I ‘admonished’ him that he was making a spectacle of himself for losing his glasses, he halted, turned, and glared, ready to take me to task for insulting him. Then, he got the joke, rolled his eyes and shook his head in bemused exasperation, and continued on, later graciously signing one of his books for me.
-        His penchant for making writing a performance art by taking requests from patrons of a local bookstore (some of them well-known celebrities; Robin Williams and Neil Gaiman spring to mind) regarding basic ideas for a story, then sitting in the front window of said bookstore and writing said story.
-     His steadfast rejection of the personal computer as a writing instrument. He worked exclusively on manual typewriters, and could type faster than most computer keyboardists.
-        His standard answer to anyone who asked him where he got his ideas, which was something like, “I order them from an idea factory in Peoria. I send them a check and every few months they ship me a six-pack.” Several years after I heard that story, I witnessed his delight as a pair of fans gave him a custom-designed six-pack of black cans with “IDEA” printed in purple on the sides.
-        At one appearance, I saw a fan respectfully approach his autograph table and hand him a copy of one of his books that had clearly seen better days. Fidgeting in embarrassment, the fan said to him, “I’m sorry it’s not in very good shape.” Without missing a beat, Harlan held up the book and replied, “You know what this means? It means this book has seen some miles. It means you took it with you in your car, to the beach, to the bank, to a laundromat, to a diner, to your girlfriend's house. It means you cared so much about this book and what was in it, you carried it around wherever you went, and it shows.” He then proudly signed the book and returned it to the fan.  

In describing himself and his work, Harlan writes: "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 denigrator or critic with umbrage will say of my work, ‘He only wrote that to shock.’ I smile and nod. Precisely."

Love him or hate him, Harlan Ellison was simply impossible to ignore. A middle ground perspective regarding the man and his words was not an option. He was a poster-boy for the phrase “larger than life,” a diminutive powerhouse of personality with a razor-keen, unapologetically emphatic opinion on everything from civil rights to the merits of Hydrox Cookies over Oreos. Seeing him in person never failed to impress, whether you agreed with him or not. He was a fabulous storyteller (with a killer Bogart impression) with a warehouse of a mind and a diabolically subversive sense of humor. Harlan lived a spirited and eventful life filled with colorful adventures. He walked his talk and was not intimidated by anyone or anything (sometimes to a fault). Saying he did not suffer fools lightly is like saying the Titanic sprung a little leak. He was incredibly passionate about social issues and all but homicidally dedicated to and protective of the integrity of his work.

There are scores of people who can write about Harlan with vastly greater knowledge and authority than I can. He was certainly far from perfect and some, maybe even many, of the criticisms leveled at him over the years have at least some legitimacy. That does not preclude him from being remarkable. 

I’m providing a few links to articles that will tell you more about the man and his life.

There’s a very good documentary about him titled ‘Dreams With Sharp Teeth.’ It’s predictably out of stock at Amazon as of this writing but will undoubtedly turn up again soon.

Though I only met him in passing on a few occasions scattered across the years, Mr. Ellison has made an indelible impression on my life and has been an incredible inspiration to me. Indeed, he is tied for first place as my most powerful creative muse (If you have to split the win, sharing it with Freddie Mercury is a pretty badass compromise). When anyone asks me who my favorite writer is, my response is always “Harlan Ellison” without a blink of hesitation. If you have ever read one of my stories or blog posts and enjoyed them, you should pass along a nod of thanks to Harlan. His mark can be found in virtually everything I've ever written.

His passing leaves a scar on the literary landscape. The world is now less passionate, less interesting, less hilarious, less unpredictable, less intelligent, less creative, and a lot less fun.

There are not many people who truly live up to the phrase, "We will not see his like again" but Harlan Ellison most certainly does. 
He will be very sorely missed.

Thank you for reading.


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