Harlan Ellison

I never met Harlan Ellison, but I did fall victim to his wrath. Many times, the first of which occurred when he screamed at me through the television set. From 1993-1996, the Sci-Fi Channel’s Sci-Fi Buzz concluded its program with a three-minute segment entitled “Harlan Ellison’s Watching.” There the pugnacious author would peer from the shadows of some wannabe film noir set, and rage his frustrations of the world at the audience. What gave him the right? We did. The pinheads who sat back and sucked The Glass Teat, refusing to rise against the tyrannies of everyday life.

The topics of “Harlan Ellison’s Watching” would range from the hell of political correctness to the absurd death of Superman. Whatever struck a nerve, Ellison would command his corner of pop culture and spit contempt towards the fools responsible for such idiocy. His fervor was abrasive but infectious. Sometimes I would raise a fist in solidarity, but more often, I sheepishly shrunk in my seat. Cuz damn, I sure did buy a lot of those polybagged Death of Superman issues. They were going to pay my way through college, dammit!

The first episode I encountered was number eight. I would have been no more than fourteen or fifteen years old. I had no idea who this guy was, or what gave him such authority over the countless geeks that tuned in to get berated. I just knew the person he was disappointed in was me.

Ellison begins this rant quietly recounting a midnight lecture he gave to a packed room at Stony Brook University. He remembers a student raising their hand during the Q&A, asking him to clarify a name he referenced that was unfamiliar to her. “Who is Dackow?” Ellison’s eyes narrow, and daggers are delivered directly into the camera. “Do you mean Dachau?” Half the crowd gasps, but the other half remains silent. Ellison asks the students who also don’t recognize the name to raise their hands. He is appalled and infuriated by the numerous skyward admissions.

I was not in that room, but I was equally as ignorant. When Ellison’s still demeanor shifted into full-blown revulsion, I faced his anger, and I was ashamed. Dachau is a name that should live on in infamy.

One of the most proficient Nazi concentration camps, Dachau was responsible for more than 32,000 documented deaths and thousands more undocumented. Hundreds of prisoners were murdered in the process of medical experimentation committed by Dr. Sigmund Rascher. Victims were subjected to hypothermia tests in which they were dunked nude into vats of icy water, and high altitude trials in which they were forced into decompression chambers where they experienced agonizing, spastic deaths.

Regularly, Ellison would use this platform as a means of chastising the subpar entertainment we accepted in our lives. He could not understand why we would turn up for Tommy Boy but deny ourselves the pleasures of Alfred Bester, Leigh Brackett, and Cordwainer Smith. He hated how the market demanded Fabio dust jackets while the all-time great writers (including himself) struggled to find room on store shelves. He blamed the consumers, but he also took aim at the gatekeepers. The publishers, the editors, the writers who refused to look beyond the sitcoms they digested.

Episode eight of “Harlan Ellison’s Watching” concludes with Ellison quoting George Santayana’s adage, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” He denounces us for falling into cultural illiteracy. How can we expect superior art if our artists not only have no understanding of history but no memory of it whatsoever? If all art simply references other art, then mediocrity is the damnation we deserve.

Everyone knows about the Nazis, or they think they do. They’re great villains in Raiders of the Lost Ark. But when you look around today, recoiling at the tiki torches of Charlottesville and the hate speech spewing from the highest office in the nation, you truly understand the darkness of the untaught. Wikipedia is not enough. Dig in. Read. Learn. Engage.

Those three minutes were a helluva slap. Thank you, sir, may I have another? I remember asking my dad about Dachau the next day. Phew. He had most of the details, but not all. “Harlan Ellison’s Watching” sent me on an educational journey, stockpiling information on World War II as well as other historical events of interest. As a wannabe writer, I took note that I needed to obsess beyond the comfortable hobbies I had already acquired.

There is a source to all art. Star Wars did not spring forth from George Lucas’ brain a la Athena from Zeus’ forehead. Harlan Ellison was the first person to instruct me to seek out the horde of thought that built the Empire. Flash Gordon, Akira Kurosawa, Joseph Campbell, Dune, John Ford, The Dam Busters, those damn Nazis again. Everything you love came from somewhere, and excavating the bones of that love will only enrich your appreciation.

From those three minutes, I was hooked on Ellison. Even in the nineties, that meant I had to get acquainted with used bookstores, rarely were his short story collections available at Crown Books or Borders. Sweet must became the cologne of choice. Snatching up copies of Strange Wine, The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, and  I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream was about as good a thrill as could be had.

The real life-changer was Deathbird Stories. This 295-page offering of 19 shorts destroyed me one winter while I awaited Christmas break. Ellison begins with a warning: do not attempt to read this book in one sitting. “GO AT YOUR OWN RISK.” I did not flat out ignore this direction but came close. Two sittings. Done. Bam.

Ellison finishes Deathbird Stories with “The Deathbird.” To this day I’m not quite sure what to make of it (before going forward, I paused to reread the tale). The story is a farewell shot from the author, an exploration of the nature of religion and our desires to assign good guys and bad guys to an indifferent universe. Ellison’s wrath can be found within, but the story is mostly flowing with love, and how that love is necessary for pulling the trigger on a broken earth.

I honestly cannot remember exactly how “The Deathbird” affected my teenage brain. Confusion was probably the most apt response, but also a delight in that unknown. The story forced me to work. Not only did I have to crack into Genesis, I had to burrow into dozens of foreign allusions. Robert Fulton, The Thief of Bagdad, Brando, Zapata, A Boy and His Dog, Zarathustra. Who? What? Huh?

Every Ellison story was a gauntlet dropped, a challenge to match. He did not write down to his audience, and his faithful had to scramble to get on his level. The rage that powered his writing was born from a confidence in humanity’s potential. Einstein walked this planet and we goddamn better fight for the right to follow behind him. To do any less is suicide.

Ellison had little taste for the novel, and as a result, he never quite reached mainstream mass appeal. He is mostly remembered as the cranky writer who was never satisfied with creating the single most brilliant episode of Star Trek, “The City on the Edge of Forever,” or the sue-happy tyrant that went after James Cameron for cribbing his Outer Limits scripts for The Terminator. He was a mad bulldog champion of creator rights, and his tirades often dunked him in hot water.

I don’t blame anyone for turning away from such vitriol. I have several friends who actively rejected the man as a direct result of those tantrums. Each one of “Harlan Ellison’s Watching” segments is now readily available on YouTube. Devouring a batch of them last night, I could not help but cringe at several of his venomous assaults. He could be as much a monster as a man-at-arms.

To his detractors, I offer the words of Neil Gaiman. In the documentary, Dreams with Sharp Teeth, the creator of Sandman explains how the dichotomy of Ellison’s behavior is essential to the whole: “You have to accept that you have somebody who is partly one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, and partly an alternately impish and furious eleven-year-old boy. Or possibly nine-year-old boy or possibly a five-year-old boy. It’s all part of the same thing.”

Harlan Ellison screamed at me when I needed it most. He was a gateway drug to countless other brilliant minds, but more importantly, the real world where I kept my stuff. He kicked against the pricks and encouraged the rest of us to join him. Whether we did or not didn’t matter. Nothing got in his way. Especially not the pinheads.