Thoughts On Harlan Ellison

In 2011 I found myself submitting a short story to the anthology Resistance Front featuring none-other-than Harlan Ellison. Suffice to say I didn’t know that much about Harlan, only that he’d written the best of the TOS episodes, City On The Edge Of Forever.

I asked Alan Dean Foster if he would be interested in contributing to it as well, and was surprised when he agreed. I passed him over to Bernard Schaffer, editor-in-chief of the project and set about conducting interviews with all the writers involved. When it came to getting one from Harlan, he told me point blank he didn’t do email, Facebook, Twitter, etc. However he would grant me an interview if I could source him several magazines available here in the UK featuring him. Suffice to say I didn’t bother (sort of walking away from my first contact with the man rather deflated). It wasn’t until I did some reading online that I learned what kind of man Harlan Ellison was, and why it was not out of sorts for him to expect me to send him stuff for an interview.

In early 2013 my good friend Bernard did an interview with Matt Posner (author of School of the Ages), and he had this to say:

Harlan . . . I’ve never spoken openly about what happened with Harlan but I think enough time has passed to do so. Harlan was always one of my literary heroes. He still is. I’d kill for him, so don’t misunderstand anything I say. Over a period of a month or so, I was in constant contact with him. Emails, faxes, phone calls, mailed packages. He is a font of information and even his simplest emails will make you feel embarrassed to call yourself a writer. We talked about life, love, family, politics, his experiences as an author, Dangerous Visions, everything. In the midst of all that, Harlan offered to edit Old-Time Lawmen. I was flabbergasted.

To go from a kid who stood in line at Philly Comic Con to get his signature to an author working on a project with him was staggering. But it gets more amazing. He actually rewrote the first page of my story and signed it. I have, in my possession, a one of a kind Harlan Ellison manuscript that contains my characters and world in his words. He gave me a very honest, and correct, critique of the story and I told him I would get to work right away. I went into a frenzy of writing. It was like his insight to my work unlocked something in me, and I completely overhauled my style. So, it was with great enthusiasm that I sent him the new version. I thanked him for his honesty and told him how he’d helped me, and I waited.

 Now, let me back up a moment.

 Harlan is very ill, and what I think happened was that the month we were in such close contact, he was feeling better. He had some energy. He was excited about the project. That all changed when his illness reared up. The last phone call I got from him was that he’d received my story, and that he could not do anything more for me. I had, to quote, “Gone beyond the boundaries of imposition.” I had no idea what to say. I muttered an apology and he told me to save it. And then something really crazy happened. I knew this was it, so I thanked him for everything. What else could I say? He’s a literary giant and I’m a peon and he took the time to share a little of his insight with me. I told him I would always be grateful.

 He said, “Yeah, I’m just a wonderful fucking human being.”

 And then he hung up. We never spoke again. In more ways than one, it was a definitive experience for me as an author. Probably as a person.

I do believe that after that interview Bernard did have some contact with Harlan again. But that was his experience working closely with the man. Perhaps, reading it, it was not completely out of character.

Side note: Alan Dean Foster did his interview with me to promote the anthology and had the answers back the same day. I’ve had email contact with Alan on and off for years and have always found him very pleasant and approachable.

So I read about his famous bust-ups (including the Sinatra fiasco) and his lawsuits (my god, Terminator?). I found myself fascinated with watching his video clips on Youtube, his interview segments. I read the story he’d contributed to Resistance Front, an original version of Emissary From Hamelin. I grabbed a copy of I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream and read the entire collection. I went on to read Shatterday, Approaching Oblivion and his version of events surrounding the aforementioned Star Trek episode City On The Edge Of Forever.

When Hard Case Crime reprinted his classic crime novel Web Of The City, I managed to get myself an uncorrected proof of it.

Have I known him personally? Apart from two exchanges on his message board, no. My only real connection with him is to be published in the same anthology.

No, I came to know Harlan Ellison the writer, the artist, the champion of short fiction, the uncompromising voice. And I’ve got so many works of his to seek out and devour. I’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg. But thus far, I dare anyone to read I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream (the story) and not feel dumbstruck by the intense darkness of the piece. Or read One Life, Furnished In Early Poverty and not have your heart broken.

As of this writing, Harlan Ellison is laid up after having had a major stroke. But apparently his mind is still there. Well, I don’t find that hard to believe. The man is an unstoppable force, a creative cyclone. And one day the vessel that carries him will die. But not Harlan Ellison.

That master of words will live on forever.

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