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Sunday, July 01, 2018

Harlan Ellison (1932-2018)

(* This is a longer version of the obituary written for The Guardian which can be found on their website.)

To some, Harlan Ellison was the finest short story writer to have emerged from America’s science fiction ghetto in generations. The Los Angeles Times called him "the 20th century Lewis Carroll”. To others he was a self-aggrandising monster. Short (he stood 5’ 5”), abrasive and strongly opinionated, Ellison was intolerant of everyone and everything he saw as stupid and obstinate, often to the point of fanaticism.
    Letting go was not in his nature. Psycho author Robert Bloch called him “the only living organism I know whose natural habitat is hot water”; to J G Ballard he was “an aggressive and restless extrovert who conducts life at a shout and his fiction at a scream.”
    Somehow, in between provoking people in their thousands and being pissed off by thousands of others, he managed to author 70 books and some 400 short stories, pen dozens of TV screenplays, edit books and write over 1,000 pieces on movies, television, books and jazz records. In 1967 he wrote “I am desperately afraid I will die before I’ve written all the stories I have in me.”
    His stories could be whimsical or cruel, playful or painful, sentimental or shocking. He loathed being branded as a “science fiction” author, although a tally of 45 genre awards prove that SF fans held him in high regard. It was a tough love and Ellison refused to have the term anywhere near his books. At a push he called himself a fantasist, working in the field of speculative fiction. In a 1996 interview he said, “I reject all genre labels because if you try to identify things, you begin to exclude a lot … what I write is Hyperactive Magic Realism. I take the received world and I reflect it back through the lens of fantasy, turned slightly so you get a different portrait.”
    Many stories about his dealings with fans, publishers and fellow writers swirled around Ellison, including but far from limited to: he was supposed to have tossed a fan down a lift shaft at a convention (no); he asked a statuesque blonde “What would you say to a little fuck?”, to which she replied, “Hello, little fuck” (again no, it’s an old joke); that he lasted four hours working for Walt Disney (that one’s true, says Ellison); that, following a telephone argument, he flew from his home in California to the East Coast, went to his tormentors office and punched him (no); or that he mailed, fourth class to make sure it was exceptionally foetid by the time it arrived, a dead gopher to a publisher for refusing his request to revert the rights to one of his books (true, again, says Ellison).
    Stories about Ellison are countless and fall, roughly equally, into the simplistic categories “What Ellison did for me” or “What Ellison did to me”. In 1993, a long-running dispute between former friends Ellison and Charles Platt allied with animosity between Ellison and publisher Gary Groth resulted in the formation of Enemies of Ellison (later Victims of Ellison), an anonymous group who issued their own newsletter. The Friends of Ellison group was founded soon after.
    Ellison did not limit his battles to personal feuds. In 1965, he marched in Alabama, to protest Arizona’s failure to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, an episode written up as ‘March to Montgomery’; he was vocally anti-Vietnam and dedicated his collection Alone Against Tomorrow to the four students shot dead at Kent State University. He was an advocate of gun control and a supporter of human rights organisations.
    This concern with the social problems and the depth of injustice in the world around him, was reflected in his stories and his short fiction reached a new maturity. “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ said the Ticktockman”, about civil disobedience in a world of rigid conformity, won the Hugo and Nebula awards in 1965, followed by Hugos in 1967 for “I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream” and 1968 for “The Beast That Shouted Love At The Heart Of The World”; further Nebulas were awarded for “The Deathbird” (which also won the Jupiter Award) in 1973 and “Adrift, Just Off The Islets Of Langerhans” in 1974.
    In 1977, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction published a special Harlan Ellison issue featuring three new stories and essays by and on Ellison; the lead story, “Jefty Is Five”, won both Hugo and Nebula awards plus the Locus Award (one of 18 Locus wins for Ellison), the British Fantasy Award and his second Jupiter Award. “Paladin Of The Lost Hour” won a Hugo in 1986 and “How Interesting: A Tiny Man” a Nebula in 2011.
    The Mystery Writers of America have rewarded him twice (“The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”, 1974; “Soft Monkey”, 1988), the Horror Writers of America four times (The Essential Ellison, 1988; Harlan Ellison’s Watching, 1990; “Mefisto in Onyx”, 1994; “Chatting with Anubis”, 1996), and the World Fantasy Award twice, for Angry Candy (1989) and with a lifetime achievement award (1993). Ellison has also received the lifetime achievement award from Horror Writers Association (1996), the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award from the SFWA (2006) and the J. Lloyd Eaton Award (2011). He was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2011.
    He received the Silver Pen Award for Journalism from PEN International in 1988 for his column “An Edge In My Voice”, and was honoured by PEN for his continuing commitment to artistic freedom and the battle against censorship in 1990.
    Ellison’s maturing as a writer coincided with the growth of SF’s ‘New Wave’, championed by Michael Moorcock, J G Ballard and Brian W Aldiss in the British magazine New Worlds. Ellison invited dozens of authors to contribute to an anthology of stories on the cutting edge of  the New Wave, resulting in Dangerous Visions (1968), which won a Special Hugo Award, as did the follow-up Again, Dangerous Vision (1972). A third volume, to be called The Last Dangerous Visions, was announced in the introduction of the latter, but never appeared. As late as 2007, Ellison, still sitting on over 80 unpublished contributions, described it as “this giant Sisyphean rock that I have to keep rolling up a hill.”
    Ellison received the Writers Guild of America Award a record-breaking four times (in 1965, 1967, 1973 and 1987). His awards in other media include awards from the Writers Guild of Canada, the Bradbury Award, the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films and the Audio Publishers Association.
    Ellison’s screenwriting credits included an episode of Star Trek, ‘The City On The Edge Of Forever’, for which he received the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and the Writers Guild’s Best Original Teleplay award. The episode is generally considered the high water mark of the original Trek series and a memorable landmark of TV in general.
    The episode has been a cause of contention on numerous occasions—from spats between Ellison and the show’s creator Gene Roddenberry to a 2009 lawsuit, Ellison suing Paramount for unpaid royalties from spin-offs of the episode.
    Ellison had, in 1980, sued ABC, claiming their TV series Future Cop was based on a 1970 story he had written in collaboration with Ben Bova. ABC settled.
    In 1984, Ellison threatened to sue Hemdale, the producers of The Terminator, and distributors Orion saying that director James Cameron had taken ideas from two 1964 episodes of Outer Limits written by Ellison, chiefly ‘Soldier’, an anti-war story about a soldier from the future who knows nothing but war and who is accidentally sent back in time; expanding on his original short story, Ellison added a second enemy soldier who also arrives back in the present. The terms of the settlement meant all future prints included an “acknowledgment to the works of Harlan Ellison” as the film fades into the end credits.
    Although for many years Ellison was dismissive of computers and the internet, he was not a Luddite. He simply remained faithful to the level of technology that worked for him and continued to use a manual Olympia typewriter, tapping away at 120 words a minute with two fingers. His very first typewriter, a Remington Rand, was sold in 2010 to author Jamie Ford.
    The website Ellison Webderland was set up in 1995 by Rick Wyatt with Ellison’s blessing, but a lawsuit filed against AOL in April 2000 was widely condemned online. The cause was Ellison discovering that some of his stories were available on Usenet. A 2002 decision in AOL’s favour was partly overturned on appeal in 2004 and AOL subsequently settled.
    Ellison later embraced the power of the internet, publishing books and e-books through his own and, in August 2013, starting his own YouTube channel.
    Never shy of publicity, Ellison performed a number of writing stunts over the years, including writing a story a day whilst sitting in the window of bookstores in Los Angeles, Boston and London’s Charing Cross Road (Words and Music, July 1976) or a hotel lobby during a convention or live on radio.
    The outspoken writer was the subject of a 2008 documentary, Dreams With Sharp Teeth and played himself in episodes of Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated in 2010 and The Simpsons in 2013.
    Harlan Jay Ellison was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on 27 May 1934, the son of Louis Laverne Ellison and his wife Serita (née Rosenthal). Louis, a former singer (My Yiddishe Momma was written for him but made famous by Al Jolson), worked as a dentist, then at his brother-in-law’s jewellery store in Painesville, where his son attended Lathrop Grade School and East High School.
    Ellison later said that his only achievement at school was a National Scholastic Writing Award for a story he “shamelessly pilfered” from Karel Capek’s “R.U.R.” Being a short, arrogant Jewish kid meant regular beatings – bullying and anti-Semitism being a feature in a number of his autobiographical tales. Ellison was well-read, claiming Joseph Conrad and Immanuel Kant were amongst his boyhood favourites. James Otis Kaler’s 19th Century Tom Tyler; or, Ten Weeks With A Circus inspired him to run away, aged thirteen, to join a carnival. After three months the entire operation was closed down by the police and Ellison spent three days in a cell in Kansas City refusing to give his name. Radio adventurer Captain Midnight, comic books and pulp magazines were the more discernible influence on his early stories, written and illustrated by Ellison aged 15 and published in the children’s column of the Cleveland News in 1949.
    In May 1949, Ellison’s father died and he moved with his mother to a residential hotel in Cleveland.
    Ellison’s interest in science fiction pulps led to his co-founding the Cleveland Science Fiction Society; he was the editor and principal writer for the Bulletin of the Cleveland Science Fiction Society which later morphed into Ellison’s own fanzine, Science Fantasy Bulletins (later Dimensions). In 1953 he attended the World Science Fiction Convention in Philadelphia where he became infamous for describing Isaac Asimov as “a nothing” – an accusation repeated by Asimov but denied by Ellison, who insisted that his expectations of Asimov based on his work led him to blurt out “You aren’t so much.”
    In September 1953 Ellison entered Ohio State University but was thrown out following an incident with a professor of creative writing who reacted to Ellison’s science fiction stories by angrily dismissing his talents. Ellison’s “Why don’t you go fuck yourself!” response was the final straw in a troubled sixteen months.
    Ellison had sold a script to EC Comics’ Weird Science and was now determined to write full time. Travelling to New York, he lived at the homes of Lester del Rey and Algis Budrys, writers he had met through his fan activities, before arriving at West 114 Street, an apartment building where Robert Silverberg also lived. Here he collected rejection slips and earned a living working in the Broadway Book Shop in Time Square selling dirty books to tourists.
     Hal Ellson’s novels of gang life were popular sellers and Ellison decided to go undercover as Phil ‘Cheech’ Beldone and ran with the Barons, a Red Hook district gang, in Brooklyn for ten weeks. The resulting article was sold to Lowdown magazine but while Ellison’s photograph appeared by the article (with the addition of a drawn-in scar on his left cheek), “not one word of what I had written was in the piece.”
    His first published story, ‘Glowworm’, appeared in Infinity and over the next few months Ellison began selling with increasing regularity. Crestwood were one of his main outlets, Ellison contributing to their crime magazines (Guilty, Trapped), science fiction (Super-Science Fiction) and men’s magazines (Mr., Dude, Gent). This surge in sales coincided with Ellison’s first marriage, to Charlotte Stein, in early 1956, although Ellison described their relationship as “four years of hell as sustained as the whine of a generator” before they divorced.
    Ellison wrote a novel, Web of the City, which he sold to Lion Books and completed shortly after being drafted into the Army in March 1957. After training at Fort Benning, Georgia, he was posted to the Public Information Office at Fort Knox, Kentucky, where, as Troop Information NCO, he filled the pages of the weekly post newspaper with articles and reviews.
    Meanwhile, Web of the City had appeared – as Rumble – from Pyramid (Lion having collapsed) and Ellison sold a collection of short stories, The Deadly Streets, to Ace Books. Ellison’s huge output of up to ten published stories a month shrank dramatically. Ellison would later admit: “[U]p till 1957, I was strictly a money writer who had not yet reached the pinnacle of egomania your humble author now dwells upon . . . But I was drafted into the Army in 1957, and time for writing was at a premium. So I wrote only stories that I wanted to write, not ones I had to write to support myself or a wife or a home.”
    Released from the Army in April 1959,  Ellison took up the invitation of publisher William Hamling to become editor of Rogue. Moving to Evanston, Illinois, Ellison entered a new phase of writing, many of his best stories from this period (“Final Shtick”, “No Game for Children”, “Lady Bug, Lady Bug”) appearing in Rogue. Ellison hired Lenny Bruce and Alfred Bester to write regular columns and give the paper an identity that could have rivaled Playboy.
    Following his divorce, Ellison entered a self-destructive cycle of partying and short-term relationships while working for a publisher he grew to despise. When one of his parties resulted in Ellison hurling abuse at a stranger who had just smashed a $500 sculpture, Frank M. Robinson, who also worked on Rogue, took him aside and persuaded him to take up writing full time again. Ellison threw everyone out and, taking an idea from an earlier story (“Rock and Roll – and Murder”) began writing Spider Kiss that night. The story of a monstrous rock ‘n’ roll singer, it is often thought to be based on Elvis; rather, Ellison said, it was based on Jerry Lee Lewis. It immediately sold to Knox Burger of Fawcett Gold Medal, the movie rights were picked up by Col. Tom Parker (whether to make or suppress a possible movie is unclear) and Ellison moved back to New York.
    There he met and married Billie Joyce Sanders, who had a child from a previous marriage. Ellison accepted an editorial job from his former employee and returned to Evanston to edit the Nightstand range of “stiffeners” on the agreement that Hamling also publish a line of mainstream books chosen by Ellison. The latter, Regency Books, published Ellison’s Gentleman Junkie and Memos From Purgatory. The latter told of Ellison’s days as ‘Cheech’ Beldone and, in its second half, how he was falsely denounced as possessing drugs and illegal weapons, arrested and spent a night in New York’s infamous jail, The Tombs.
    Regency Books also published Robert Bloch, B. Traven, Clarence L. Cooper, Thomas N. Scortia, Algis Budrys, Hal Ellson and Lester del Rey before Ellison decided he had made a terrible mistake returning to work for Hamling. Ellison’s soon-to-be-second-ex-wife wanted to move to the West Coast, The Ellisons returned to New York, where Harlan was able to sell another short story collection, Ellison Wonderland, financed the journey west.
    Whilst in New York, Dorothy Parker published a review of Gentleman Junkie in Esquire which turned Ellison’s career around, describing Ellison as “a good, clean, honest writer, putting down what he has seen and known, and no sensationalism about it” and his story “Daniel White For The Greater Good” as “without exception the best presentation I have ever seen of present racial conditions in the South and of those who try to alleviate them. I cannot recommend it too vehemently.” TV director James Goldstone took out an option on the story, which helped establish Ellison in Hollywood.
    Arriving in Los Angeles in January 1962, Ellison found work as a scriptwriter on Ripcord, Burke’s Law, Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea, Outer Limits and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, adapting his own Memos From Purgatory for the latter. His 1964 Outer Limits script “Demon With  A Glass Hand” won him his first Writers Guild Award.
    Although Ellison described himself as “a common day labourer” in Hollywood, he was a man about town, written about by Gay Talese in Esquire and named one of the “most eligible swinging bachelors in Hollywood” by Cosmopolitan Magazine.
    His movie career, on the other hand, was less successful. The co-written The Oscar (1966) was mauled by critics and whilst some later scripts (Harlan Ellison’s Movie, I, Robot) have seen book publication, none of Ellison’s screenplays – which include adaptations of Norman Spinrad’s Bug Jack Barron, and many of his own stories, including "Rumble" and "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs" -- have made it into production. A Boy And His Dog, based on Ellison’s 1969 Nebula Award-winning novella, has become something of a cult hit. Filmed by L.Q. Jones in 1974, it starred Don Johnson  in a post-apocalyptic world where Vic seeks out food and sex with the aid of his telepathic dog, Blood. The film was not welcomed by everyone: Joanna Russ, in Frontier: A Journal of Women’s Studies, said, bluntly, “sending a woman to see A Boy And His Dog is like sending a Jew to a movie that glorifies Dachau”. Ellison subsequently distanced himself from the film’s misogyny and its famous last line – a blackly comical reference to the woman’s poor taste – claiming he had fought to have it removed.
    Ellison incorporated two additional published stories into a 1989 graphic novel version drawn by Richard Corben: a prequel, ‘Eggsucker’, and sequel ‘Run, Spot, Run’; all three tales are part of a lengthy, unpublished novel. The stories and the unfilmed movie sequel scripted by Ellison were published in 2018 as Blood’s A Rover.
    Ellison’s fiction output fell in the 1960s but its quality soared. He made no effort at further novels following an attempt to co-write (with Avram Davidson) a mystery novel, Don’t Speak of Rope, which was sold to Gold Medal but abandoned.
    Ellison’s scriptwriting for television—which included episodes of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Star Trek, Cimarron Strip, The Flying Nun and The Young Lawyers—tailed off in the late 1960s as his fiction gained more widespread approval. Ellison worked as a script editor on a series about an occult investigator, The Sixth Sense, and was the creator of The Starlost, a science fiction series produced in Canada. Ellison’s original pilot script, “Phoenix Without Ashes”, won him his third Most Outstanding Teleplay award from the Writers Guild of America; the version filmed, revised by other hands, was a travesty which Ellison had his name removed from and, not for the first time, insisted that ‘Cordwainer Bird’ be substituted. The story was lampooned in The Starcrossed by Ben Bova, a roman á clef wherein Ellison becomes Ron Gabriel and Bill Oxnard is Bova, who was the science advisor on the show.
    Ellison maintained his contact with film and television through criticism, collected in the books Harlan Ellison’s Watching, The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat. He also became a regular columnist for the Los Angeles Free Press (1972-73), Saint Louis Literary Supplement (1976), Future Life (1980-81) and LA Weekly (1982-83), his columns collected in The Harlan Ellison Hornbook and An Edge In My Voice.
    Ellison also became involved in the revival of The Twilight Zone, receiving his fourth Writers Guild Award for “Paladin Of The Lost Hour” but quitting when CBS censored his adaptation of Donald Westlake’s “Nackles”, a dark Christmas Special about a malevolent Santa that Ellison himself was to direct. Ellison walked.
    Ellison was also involved in Roger Corman’s unproduced Cutter’s World TV series and was, far more successfully, creative consultant for J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5, as well as co-writing two episodes and appearing as a Psi Cop.
    Ellison continued to publish collections of stories but his output over the years has been littered with projects that have fallen by the wayside. Dial 9 to Get Out (a contemporary, partly autobiographical novel first mentioned in 1967), Demon with a Glass Hand (expanding his 1964 Outer Limits story), The Prince of Sleep (a novel expanding his 1970 novella ‘The Region Between’, announced as forthcoming in 1972), The Dark Forces #1: The Salamander Enchantment (due 1975), Rif (due 1976), Shrikes (first announced in 1980) and Nights in the Garden of Trepidation are just a few of the numerous ghost titles announced but never published. An ambitious 20-volume library of Ellison’s work was begun by White Wolf in 1996 but collapsed after only four volumes a year later.
    Ellison created The Kilimanjaro Corporation in March 1979 to handle all his works and copyrights and he became Harlan Ellison® when Kilimanjaro trademarked his name in 2002.
    Since 2011, he has self-published a number of titles via (Harlan Ellison’s Brain Movies, Harlan 101, Rough Beasts, Honorable Whoredom at a Penny a Word, 8 in 80, Again Honorable Whoredom at a Penny a Word and The Last Person to Marry a Duck Lived 300 Years Ago).
    His work continues to see publication in a wide number of media. Ellison has produced audio recordings of many of his favourite stories and six volumes of On The Road With Ellison series gathers together some of Ellison’s convention speeches, talks and lectures. Comic strip adaptations of his works include Demon with a Glass Hand by Marshall Rogers (1986), Night and the Enemy by Ken Steacy (1987), Vic and Blood by Richard Corben (1989), Harlan Ellison’s Dream Corridor (1995, 2007) and 7 Against Chaos, a graphic novel based on a 20-year-old film script with art by Paul Chadwick and Ken Steacy, made the New York Times bestseller list (for hardcover graphic novel) in 2013.
    In 2000, he began producing a weekly series of commentaries for Galaxy Online under the title "Working Without A Net," also the title for his proposed memoirs, which were sold to a “major publisher” in 2008 and which he described as “three-quarters finished” in 2013.
    Of all his books, he claimed that he was most proud of Mind Fields, a collection of 33 stories each based on a painting by Polish surrealist Jacek Yerka.
    He lectured widely at over 300 colleges and universities and was the guest of honour of dozens of conventions. His appearances were, as one would expect, occasionally controversial. In 1969 at the Texas A&M University he referred to the university’s Corps of Cadets as “America’s next generation of Nazis.” In 2006, at the 64th World SF Convention at Anaheim, during the Hugo Awards ceremony, Ellison groped Connie Willis’s breast, an act he described as “unconscionable.”
    In 1985, Ellison revealed to People Weekly’s Kristin McMurran that during the period 1978-82 he had suffered from dysphoria, a mood disorder that causes anxiety and depression. In 2011 he was diagnosed with clinical depression and put on a spectrum of medicines.
    In 2010, Ellison, believing he was suffering from failing health, announced that his Guest of Honor stint at MadCon in Madison, Wisconsin, would be his final convention appearance. Interviewed by Josh Wimmer at that time, he claimed “An old dog senses when it’s his time … I’m not afraid of death … All I want to make sure is that when the paper comes out, it says, ‘Harlan Ellison died in his sleep’…
    “I have led exactly the life I would wish to lead. I have led the life I guess that everybody in their heart of hearts wants to lead.”
    For five years, beginning in 2011, Ellison began conducting a series of exhaustive interviews with documentarian Nat Segaloff which formed the basis for A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison.
    Ellison died on Thursday, 28 June 2018, aged 84. His death was announced by family friend Christine Valada (widow of Len Wein) who said that he died in his sleep.
    Following his second divorce, Ellison was married to Lory Patrick in 1966 (divorced within a few months), to Lori Horwitz in 1976 (divorced 1977) and finally to Susan Toth in 1986, who survives him. He is survived by his niece, Lisa Rubin (daughter of his estranged sister, Beverly, whom he saw only once after 1962) and nephew Loren Rabnick.
    Ellison has said that “immediately on the striking of my passing—or as soon thereafter as conveniently possible—[Susan] is to destroy all of my unfinished stories, burn and stir the ashes of any manuscripts in progress, do the same to any novels-in-progress, flense all notes and snippets, tear out all the pages of my working notebooks and in-progress files and, in short, make it impossible for anyone to ghost-write, collaborate-to-completion, or ‘finish’ anything incomplete at the moment of my death.”

1 comment:

  1. Kafka also asked to have his unpublished work burnt after his death.

    By the way, excellent piece (like a trip down memory lane, since I read much of Ellison's work and have many of the books you show here).