Sunday, September 26, 2010

Jagged Edges

I couldn't have been older than thirteen-- any younger and I wouldn't have known who he was, any older and I would've felt guilty doing what I did. That sounds like the opening to a dark romance, and in a way it was, except my heartthrob was a writer I'd never met, and I was making my parents come on the date.

We were in Chicago on a family trip, and I was obsessed with tracking down any and all Harlan Ellison books I could find. You couldn't find a lot of them in Kalamazoo-- the rare appearance of something like Shatterday in the local bookstore was an event met with a whoop and a ravenous grab off the shelf. Otherwise, one had to special-order them through the stores, or from book catalogs, which was how I got the short story collections Stalking The Nightmare and Ellison Wonderland, and his brilliant collection of columns and essays, An Edge In My Voice. But surely a big city like Chicago-- which seemed, to my adolescent eye, to have bookstores on every corner-- surely, this city would sate my desires, surely they would be prominently placing Ellison at the fronts of their stores, in a big display marked by a cardboard cutout of Ellison's scowling visage (preferably with a pipe between his lips). Surely.

It was not to be-- the Windy City was a letdown, as I dragged my poor parents from store to store, and inquired about whether or not they carried Ellison's books (in a voice that no doubt shifted from a tone of Dickensian-street-urchin-begging to a fierce growl with each reply of the store clerks: "Sorry, no"). Or maybe I was the letdown-- who was this thirteen year-old dervish who was perfectly willing to spend everyone's time on such a pursuit? What was it about those books that made them such grails, that led to quests that subordinated everyone's lives to my own? I was like Ray Milland in The Last Weekend, obsessive need shining from my eyes. Simply put--one year earlier, Harlan Ellison changed my life.

My gateway drug was a 1985 issue of Starlog that contained an interview with Ellison. I was twelve years old when it appeared in the mailbox. Ellison was a creative consultant and writer on the new Twilight Zone series that was starting that fall, and right away the article grabbed my eye. In what I would come to learn was a typical rite of passage for many Ellisonians, what caught my attention was his ability to piss me off. He hated recent Spielberg movies; he dissed Back To The Future and Gremlins (or maybe Goonies-- I don't have the issue right in front of me); he suggested a lot of contemporary science fiction and television was garbage, and he did it in a fan bible that often valorized and promoted the very filmmakers and writers and pop culture objects he was slamming. Well, I never! How dare he? There was a photo a younger Ellison on-stage at a convention, but the shoddy printing made him look like a little kid standing in a snowstorm. Which, as I was soon to find out, was how he'd make me feel.

Once Harlan Ellison is under your skin, he stays there. He may have infuriated me in ways I could not yet articulate or fully understand, but I kept reading, intrigued by this funny, opinionated guy. And he was funny-- references and metaphors and profanities flew out of his mouth in such density that it's a wonder the interviewer kept up. The next time I was at our local bookstore, I searched for his name on the shelves, and found the aforementioned Shatterday (I still have it, its white cover sporting a brilliant painting of Ellison in a slick suit, looking shocked as the phone receiver in his hand turns into a deadly serpent). A little while later, the new Twilight Zone debuted, and while I hated the first story in the pilot (a heavy-handed story about nuclear annihilation), I loved Alan Brennart's skillful adaptation of "Shatterday," a tale about a man who means to call his mother, accidentally calls his own number instead-- and hears himself answer on the other end (I will spoil nothing else-- rent the episode on DVD and watch Bruce Willis give a heartbreaking performance as that man). I was hooked, and Harlan Ellison became not so much a writer as a way of life.

I mean no disrespect to Ellison's staggering gifts when I say that discovering his work just as adolescence hit was perfect timing-- for a nerdy tween with all kinds of social adjustment issues (and increasingly bad acne), Ellison's ability to call bullshit and distill rage and confusion was a godsend, a life preserver to cling to in difficult emotional times. As my Starlog and Marvel comics subscriptions suggested, I was already someone who found escape and meaning in fantasy stories. But Ellison was different. Yes, he used the tropes of fantasy, horror and speculative fiction as well as anyone ever has. But this was not about escape, but about illuminating the world around me, and finding the courage to face what I was feeling and deal with it. That could cause its own problems, of course-- wanting to replicate the honesty and bravery of Ellison's prose in my day-to-day life sometimes meant that I just ended up alienating people even further-- but in a moment when everything and everyone seemed to be spinning and turning upside down around me on a daily basis (I've always thought the pod people of Invasion of the Body Snatchers were the perfect metaphors for this stage of my life), Ellison's rock-solid example stood out, guided, and secured.

Strangely, perhaps, as someone who loved fantastic tales, it was almost always Ellison's non-speculative work that most grabbed me. I loved the introductions to his books as much as the tales they told. I was thrilled when a collection of his work would contain an essay amidst the brilliant fiction (such as "The 3 Most Important Things In Life," from which I learned the term "movie crawl," and that "At Disney, nobody fucks with The Mouse"). I also learned a lot from An Edge In My Voice, a collection of columns he wrote for Starlog, The LA Weekly, and other outlets (for which he won the Silver Pen for Journalism from International PEN). And I devoured Spider Kiss, his 1961 novel about the early days of rock. Ellison's was a voice that didn't so much transcend genre as overwhelm it, devour it, and spit it out as something unrecognizable and beautifully new. Of his speculative work, the story that will always live with me is "Jefty Is Five," which uses the conceit of a never-aging boy to explore issues of time, maturity and the imagination, to devastating effect. If John Cheever and Ray Bradbury collaborated on a story, it might turn out something like "Jefty," but even they never would've generated the same emotions Ellison does in just a few pages. I get a bit choked up just remembering the story; I haven't read it in at least twenty years, but I will never forget its climax, or the clear-eyed way Ellison drags us like teary-eyed babies to its logical conclusion. It's a gut-punch of a tale, all the more powerful for its slow build, for how well Ellison deploys bright humor and his eye for everyday detail in order to express the fragility of a childhood day.

As I got older, and my social awkwardness either faded or at least seemed less awkward around the other high school kids, my interest in Ellison lessened. It never entirely went away-- seeing an Ellison book on the shelf was still an event (in an ironic restaging of that long-ago book crawl, I remember my friend Chad and I splitting a stack of Ellison books we found in a Chicago second-hand store), and I was always interested when I saw his byline on magazine covers or television. But there was something about his anger and absolute certainty that felt less accessible to me as time passed. Was the world really that black-and-white? Were our choices always that stark, their moral dimensions always so absolute? I told myself that in moving away from Ellison, I was actually paying tribute to what I felt he'd taught me-- the need to stay true to yourself in the face of others, to say "no," even if you were saying no to one of the writers who'd taught you that very thing.

Many years later, I was watching the Mystery Science Theater version of Mitchell; when Crow and Servo responded to the image of a short, surly-looking guy being booked at the police desk by exclaiming, "Hey, Harlan Ellison's been arrested again!," I laughed. A couple of summers ago, I found out he had a webpage, where fans and friends gathered to talk about his work and life, and where he himself would stop in to answer questions, make announcements, and offer views on whatever was on his mind at that moment. I posted a couple of times, once to tell him how much his work meant to me, once to mention a website that played "Old Time Radio" shows (a passion of mine that I knew he shared). He never responded, but that was okay-- I hadn't expected him to, and I mostly just wanted to say "thanks" in what little way I could, for all the things his work had taught me, and all the ways it had sustained me in difficult times.

There's a passage in one of his book introductions where Ellison talks about being on a radio show; a woman calls in and tells a heartbreaking story of pain and depression, and Ellison writes that, in that moment, all he wanted to do was tell that woman, "You are not alone!" I think of that passage a lot when life is stressing me out, and I think of it sometimes when I teach or write-- that one of the best things we can do is to tell people who might otherwise feel isolated or out-of-place that there are others like them, that they will find community, that it's okay to swim against powerful emotional or intellectual tides. I thought of it again when I read that Harlan Ellison may be dying, and that he's almost certainly written his last book. Because of that news, he's been on my mind in a way that he hasn't for twenty years, and I just want to tell this man I've never met (but somehow feel like I know as intimately as anyone, such is the power of his writing), you are not alone. And thank you-- for the humor, the insight, the rage, and for all the ways your work has pissed me off over the years. To paraphrase the Gunter Eich quote you're so fond of, you have been sand rather than oil in the machinery of my life-- but somehow, I know I run better because of it.