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Another Sadness

June 30, 2018

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Harlan Ellison died in his sleep the day before last.  He was 84.

It was a gentle ending for a turbulent soul.  Not entirely unexpected.  Harlan had been in very bad health since a stroke laid him low a couple of years ago.  For the world of science fiction and fantasy — he always preferred being called a fantasist to being called a science fiction writer, and he hated being called a “sci-fi writer” — this is another brutal loss in a year that has been full of them.   The same is true for the larger world of literature.   Harlan was not just a great fantasist and/or science fiction writer; he was a great writer, period.   When he was at the top of his form, from the late 60s through the 70s and well into the 80s, there was no finer short story writer in all of English literature.

Harlan was fifteen years older than me.  He was part of a generation of writers who emerged in the late 50s and early 60s, a generation that included such giants as Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Algis Budrys, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Samuel R. Delany.   They were the New Wave generation, and they remade the genre in their own image, none more so than Harlan, whose anthology Dangerous Visions and its sequel Again, Dangerous Visions not only outraged and delighted tens of thousands of readers, but had an enormous influence on the writers of the generation that followed, my own generation.  Those books blew the doors off the hinges in ways that might seem incomprehensible to those who did not live through those times; they opened doors to worlds and worlds of possibilities, to lands of the imagination that John W. Campbell and H.L Gold never dreamt of, and I rushed on through, together with most of my contemporaries.   Writers of the Golden Age wanted to impress JWC; writers of my youth wanted to impress Harlan.   He was a hero to us.

The first time I met Harlan in person was at 1972 Lunacon at the old Commodore Hotel above Grand Central Station.   He read “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs,” a powerful story made even more powerful by his reading (no one read better than Harlan, ever),  and gutted the entire audience.   A few hours later, he moderated the New Writers Panel.   The new writers in question included Gardner Dozois, Jack Dann, a couple of Haldemans (I think), and Geo. Alec Effinger.   Harlan did the panel as if it were the old tv show Queen for a Day, and had the whole ballroom howling with laughter.  I’ve seen half a dozen panels as funny as that one in the half century since, but never one that was funnier.   Laughter and tears; he could evoke them both.

I was a new writer myself in ’72, with maybe four or five sales under my belt, but nowhere near the stature to be invited to be on any panels.   (I would have to wait another three years for that.  I actually won my first Hugo before being asked to be on my first panel.  In those days, you were expected to pay your dues before they put you on stage).  Nonetheless, I screwed up my courage enough to approach Harlan in the hall and introduce myself.  To my surprise, he knew who I was; he’d seen the handful of stories I had published by that point.   But when I asked him if I could submit a story to him for The Last Dangerous Visions, he shot me down quickly and firmly.  The book was done, he said, and would be out that Christmas.   (Years later, Harlan did write me and ask me to send him something.  I sent him an early draft of my story “Meathouse Man,” the darkest and most dangerous story I had in me at the time.  He rejected it almost by return mail, with a scathing letter that ripped it to shreds.   He was completely right about everything he said.   So I gnashed my teeth, muttered curses under my breath, and rewrote the story from beginning to end, making it four times as long and a hundred times as good.   When I sent it back to him… he rejected it again.   He was not easy to please.   Eventually I sold the story to Orbit… but though Damon Knight published it, it was Harlan who edited it, and helped me make it what it is, for good or ill).

GRRM & HE at WFC 1983

Of course, I ran into Harlan many times in the decades that followed, at cons and awards banquets, and even at his fabled house in Sherman Oaks, which I visited for the first time when Lisa Tuttle was living there.   Lisa was only one of a succession of young writers that Harlan welcomed into Ellison Wonderland; Edward Bryant, James Sutherland, and Arthur Byron Cover preceded and followed her, and no doubt others I’ve forgotten.  They paid no rent.  All that Harlan demanded of them was that they write.   These days they’d call it mentoring, I suppose.  Things were less formal in those days, but the bottom line was, very few people ever went as far as Harlan when it came to encouraging and supporting young writers.   He taught at Clarion almost every year in those years, and when he found a talented newcomer, he went above and beyond the call of duty in promoting him or her.

Harlan Ellison was also deeply entwined in my own beginnings in television, as it happens.  It was Phil DeGuere, the executive producer and showrunner of the Twilight Zone revival of 1985-86, who first took a chance on me and gave me my first script assignment, but it was Harlan who suggested that I be given the rewrite of “The Once and Future King,” the Elvis episode that landed me a place on staff.   As irony would have it, Harlan himself took over the short story I’d originally brought to Phil, a Donald Westlake story called “Nackles,” which proved to be his undoing when the CBS censors tried to rip the heart of his script, the first he’d been slated to direct.   Harlan quit rather than let that happen.   Lots of people talk the talk, especially in these sad sick days of the internet, but Harlan always walked the walk as well.   Censorship was anathema to him.

Let there be no question; Harlan Ellison could be a difficult man.   He did not brook fools gladly, and he was quick to take offense at any slight, real or perceived.  Most people, as they go through life, make an enemy or two along the way… especially people who never learned to keep their voices down and their heads bowed, which was never Harlan.  Harlan was the only one I’ve ever known who had so many enemies that they actually formed a club, called… of course… the Enemies of Ellison.   But he had far more friends than enemies, as can be seen from all the heartfelt eulogies going up all over the internet.   He was a fighter, and fighters always make enemies.   He fought against censorship with the Dangerous Visions anthologies.  He fought for racial equality, marching with King at Selma.  He fought for women’s rights and the ERA.   He fought publishers, defending the rights of writers to control their own material and be fairly compensated for it.   He served on the Board of Directors of the WGA.   He gave of himself to Clarion, year after year.

Did he make mistakes?  Sure he did.   Was he wrong from time to time?  Definitely.   Who isn’t?   Was he loud, opinionated, sometimes obnoxious?  Oh, all of that… but he was also kind and caring and generous, and a relentless champion of excellence, free speech, and equal rights.  No one goes through this life without a stumble.  The question is not, “was he perfect in every way?” but rather “did he do more harm or good?”   Harlan Ellison was no perfect paladin, but he left the world… and our genre… a better, richer, fairer place than he found it, in half a hundred ways… and that’s why you are seeing such an outpouring of affection for this temperamental, exhausting, relentless, raging, loving, roaring giant who lived among us for a time.

He was a complicated guy, a genius in his own way, and his muse was an angry harpy… but oh, he could write.

And that’s the thing that matters, in the end.   Long after the enemies of Ellison and the friends of Ellison have all followed him to the grave, long after the criticisms and the paeans of praise have faded away and been forgotten, the stories will remain.

Current Mood: sad sad


  • Craig says:

    I learned of Harlan’s passing this morning. Very sad news, but as you say, not entirely unexpected. I never met him myself, but he had a profound influence on me by way of his stories, essays, and interviews. The huge 40+ page interview he did with The Comics Journal in 1979 really turned my head around in a lot of ways. Up to then, I was basically a young (age 13 at the time) SF fan who didn’t read much outside the genre, but his discussion of literature as a vehicle for talking about real issues that are relevant to our lives and our times, and his recommendation of writers such as Doctorow, Borges, and Garcia Marquez, had a permanent effect on my reading habits. I’m sure you disagree with some of the things he said in that interview (he dismissed Tolkien’s work as “imbecile shit”, for one thing, and I know you hold Tolkien in very high regard), but for me, it was hugely important.

    Some of Harlan’s stories were also incredibly valuable to me, sometimes only years after I first read them. After a nasty breakup with a girlfriend in 1994, “In the Fourth Year of the War” helped me to understand what I would be doing to myself if I let anger rule my life. And I’m sure I’m not the only person for whom “The Deathbird” was helpful. And those are only two of so many wonderful, passionate, truly beautiful (though not always pretty) stories.

    Harlan gave the world a great deal in his 84 years. He will be missed.

  • The Dragon Demands says:

    Le Guin, Dozois, now Ellison…

    Oh lord, what can the harvest hope for, if not the care of the reaper man?

  • George T Albanis says:

    Unbelievable. I felt devastated when Jack Vance passed away. Always wondered if you were a fan of Vance….or better yet talking 70’s D&D Gary Gygax? 🙂

    • grrm says:

      I am a HUGE Jack Vance fan, but unlike Gardner and Harlan, I really knew him only through his work. We spoke a few times on the phone, and ran into each other at cons and awards banquets, but I never spent any meaningful time with Jack.

  • Red C. Bowles says:

    On behalf of fans of your work and Mr. Ellisons:

    I extend our sincere wish to you that there will be no other brutal loss – in this year that has been full of them. Except on the pages you write.

    That eulogy got to me.

  • I recently finished Nat Segaloff’s excellent bio of Harlan, A Lit Fuse, and knew he had been ill for some time.

    His passing leaves me saddened.

    The world is a far less interesting place without Harlan directing his volatile anger at some deserving recipient.

  • Leslie Kay Swigart says:

    Thank you, George.

    We first met because of Harlan, that last weekend in June 1973, in Dallas, TX, at the Dallas Comics Convention. I think you’d been running chess matches (or were you still with the Legal Aid?), and came down to the con to see Howard W, maybe Lisa T?, and all.


  • Matheus Ervall says:

    This is very shocking news indeed, I swear to God, I was just reading Ellison Wonderland just this morning as I woke up; All the sounds of fear. I laid it to rest in complete horror and full of emptiness at the ending, opened the internet and found that Ellison had died immediately. In those moments the boundaries of reality and fiction truly do blur, for Ellison had the ability to get deep under your skin in the same way as reality in its darkest moments. I take some comfort that his voice will outlive most of us, and I mean it literally; no one will ever make the audiobook a work of art in itself like Harlan. He truly transformed his text into this living unruly thing (and it was not like it lacked soul-tormenting vivacity to begin with).

    Rest in peace, Harlan! I will still hear you around, in my headphones, till the day I die.

  • When I started reading science fiction in early middle school, I gravitated to the classics I found in my school libraries: Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, Bester, Van Vogt, and so on. I appreciate them all, for the “sensawunda” that they could evoke.

    I think I came to Ellison a bit later, in high school (and certainly in college, where I went through the University if Miami’s collection of Ellison) and just as well, because there was a rawness of human experience in them that I was barely old enough to even approach understanding. There was such verve and energy and passion in his work. So many of his best stories still resonate.

    I only saw him once, in Anaheim in 2006. He left the audience in stitches with outrageous tales from his outrageous life, and gamely bantered with fans who were getting their books signed. But it was, admittedly, an event where one ended up seeing the flaws that were part and parcel of who he was and always had been.

    I think the good outweighed the bad, though. You can’t really ask for more.

  • Cassie says:

    I’m so sorry to hear about the recent losses of Harlan Ellison and Gardner Dozois. Many hugs to you for the loss of your friends! ❤️ Incidentally, my family was in CO earlier this month from NC, & this is the second year we were able to make the 2 hour trek to NM while we there to visit all of your usual haunts as an homage to you like Meow Wolf & the Jean Cocteau Cinema. Your writing has always been such a source of solace for me, and today (my birthday), I just wanted to send you some well-wishes from afar and thank you for being the very same kind of writer you admire most — talented, inspiring, and irreplaceable. I look forward to reading whatever you put forth in the future.
    Thank you!

  • Davidson Frith (Fanamir) says:

    One of my favorite bits of Ellison’s writing isn’t a short story, or even 100% an Ellison original. It’s Ellison’s unprodudced screenplay for I, Robot, which my older brother picked up many years back and quickly tossed aside. I picked it up one day and was absolutely enthralled, both by Ellison’s script and Mark Zug’s illustrations. It introduced me both to Ellison as a writer and to the worlds of Isaac Asimov, and to more “grown-up” science-fiction in general. It also introduced me to the type of work that goes on behind-the-scenes in a film production, before the cameras roll. I ruthlessly cribbed from Ellison in a script I wrote for film class (something he would have absolutely hated, I’m sure). I’m aware he could be a difficult person, but I feel his loss deeply.

  • Morgan Sheridan says:

    George, your eulogy for Ellison is beautiful. I first read about his passing from Melinda the day he slipped away. I recall replying to someone – not necessarily in the thread under her post – that he was American literature’s finest short story writer. I am so grateful for all the times my mom let me read her pulps when Ellison had a story published when I was a kid and that his writing sustained me through my stint in the Air Force and in college.

  • S. Sidore says:

    “PAY THE WRITER.” ‘Nuff said.

  • John Holst says:

    A friend of mine introduced me to Harlan’s works some 25 years ago, and despite anything I had read before, “Repent, Harlequin, Said The Tick-Tock Man” became the most inspirational thing in terms of my own desires to write. I often get an idea in my head that just begs to be written, yet I often cannot find the starting point that breaks the dam that unleashes a flood of words, characters, places and events, until I read the words “Now begin in the middle, and later learn the beginning; the end will take care of itself.” I now have a few middles that still need beginnings, but at least I have a direction to go, thanks to Harlan.

  • Jim Heneghan says:

    Harlan seems like a classic tragic figure. Not so say he was tragic but that his brash complicated way of doing things would make great drama. Was he able to analyse egg breaking way of life to write a character in that mold?

  • John Trader says:

    You have my condolences. Seems like you’ve lost a lot of people in the recent months, I know it is an easy.

  • michael engelberg says:

    Beautifully done, George

  • MrDemiurge says:

    It’s funny how you can come to appreciate people who suffer no fools and offer their unvarnished opinion whenever asked, even if its sure to offend everyone around them. They may grate on your nerves, but at least you know they won’t offer you empty flattery if they think something you wrote sucked.

    I never met Harlan Ellison, but there was a game made from “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” back in 1995. He voiced AM in that game and seemed to take great delight in hamming it up.

  • A friend of Arthur's says:

    Arthur BYRON Cover. Think you may have had Edward Bryant on your mind when you typed Art’s name.

  • Gerald says:

    I first encountered the writing of Harlan Ellison at age 10 when I brought home a copy of Dangerous Visions from the local library in 1969, a couple of years or so after it was published. I borrowed it solely because I loved Asimov’s works and he did the foreword and I noticed that it had a story by Lester Del Rey whose works I also read often. My reading to that point had mostly been just Heinlein, Asimov, and Del Rey. Dangerous Visions broadened my SF horizons immensely. I was introduced to Ellison, Dick, Delany, Knight, Aldiss, Lafferty, Spinrad, Zelazny and others who became my favorites and remain so all these years later. Harlan Ellison definitely altered my view of what SF could be. As a writer he will be missed, no matter one’s opinion of the man.

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