Thank you, Harlan

>> Thursday, June 28, 2018

Back in the 1970s, there were these things called "Fotonovels."  What a lousy word.  They were like comicbooks, only they'd been adapted from television shows and movies, and what the publishers had done was, instead of hiring an artist to ink scenes from the source material, they took frames from the source material and then added in the word balloons with dialogue from the script and maybe threw in the little sidebar boxes for exposition.  So, comicbooks with photos instead of illustrations.  Where "novel" came into it was that it didn't, except that the format for these things was that they were the size and shape of your standard issue mass market paperback of the time.  But it was basically a comic book, you know.

Also back in the 1970s, Star Trek was off the air, except in reruns, and there weren't any Star Trek movies (though there were some things in the works, especially after Star Wars knocked everybody out), and Gene Roddenberry was working on "Phase II" which would sort of become Star Trek--The Motion Picture and also would sort of become Star Trek--The Next Generation, but I don't know how many people really knew that was happening.  I certainly didn't, but I wasn't even ten years old.  But even with Star Trek being a show one of your local channels aired (probably a UHF channel, too, which was the TV ghetto in those days of rabbit ear antennae) after school or late at night, there was a surprisingly large amount of Star Trek stuff out there to consume--novels for adults, and for the kids a vast range of lunchboxes and View-Master discs and picture books and vinyl records and all kinds of things.  A whole bunch of which I had as a kid, records and toys and whatever.  And among the stuff for this TV show that had been cancelled before I was born was a line of Star Trek "Fotonovels," of which I owned exactly one example: Star Trek Fotonovel #1, "City On The Edge of Forever."

It looked like this, except much more beat up and the pages were eventually falling out.  Maybe it looked kind of like this when it was new?



I can't remember when my copy was ever new.  Can't remember who bought it for me or where, or what happened to the damned thing which, if I still had it, would probably be worthless, the condition it would be in, but would probably be some kind of treasured item I'd clutch to my chest and weep tears of childhood's end over.  I loved the damned thing.

You know who probably hated it?  Harlan Ellison.

I can't say that for sure.  I mean, the guy liked actual comic books, and he won awards for writing the original thing, or some version of it anyway.  But in the 1970s he really, really hated television, a medium he spent decades writing for; and he hated the dumbing down of America, which a "Fotonovel" seems symptomatic of; and he really hated his whole experience of writing "The City on the Edge of Forever," it turned out, because when Gene Roddenberry got his hands on it he had the nerve to take fine art from the typewriter of Harlan Fucking Ellison and turn it into a watchable 50-minute television program, basically re-writing almost the entire thing start to finish and then it won Ellison awards for this ersatz fraud (this had to be insult on top of injury).

But I loved it, and in some dimly precocious way I took note of two words from the "Fotonovel" (I would bet earnest money Harlan Ellison would have hated that fucking "f"): they were, can't you guess, "Harlan" and "Ellison."

A few years later, and I'm maybe a precocious, nerdy child who likes reading and fantasy and science fiction who has entered the double-digits.  And I catch wind of something called Twilight Zone Magazine, a sincere cross-branding effort to publish SF and fantasy in a glossy literary format, as opposed to the pulp format such things usually appeared in.  Coincidentally, the first issue that trailed across my path and is still in a box in a closet somewhere in my home had Captain Kirk hisself on the front cover, only in the role of the unfortunate Robert Wilson, fresh from the nuthouse and afraid of flying, which may or may not be why he sees a man standing on the wing of his airplane when he looks out the window.  One of the gimmicky-yet-cool tie-ins TZM had with its namesake televesion series besides having Rod Serling's widow in a ceremonial titled position on the masthead was that every issue included a teleplay from the original show.  (And jesusfuckingchrist: I look at this magazine cover and realize that the very first issue of TZ I owned introduced me to T.E.D. Klein, the magazine's editor at the time; John Sayles, who was interviewed for the issue to promote The Brother From Another Planet, and goddamned Richard Matheson, who wrote "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," the teleplay featured on the cover and inside the issue.  Klein, Sayles, and Matheson between two glossy cover pages?!  You either have no idea what I'm talking about or your mind just blew up and left boogery bits of grey matter on the screen.  If you're in the first camp (sorry about your monitor and head if you're in the latter), we're talking about three pretty legendary genre writers, though Sayles snuck out into the mainstream when the cultural gatekeepers were distracted.  Klein has been woefully slow to publish and you'd be excused for not knowing his work, but Matheson is somebody whose work you know even if you don't know you know it.  Anyway, I'm having a moment, sitting here and realizing that this single issue of a nearly-forgotten magazine may be one of the most formative experiences of my entire lifetime.  Excuse me.  I need a second to catch my breath, doctor.)

My first issue of Twilight Zone came off the rack, but of course I wound up with a subscription.  No idea now whether that first subscription was a gift or something I paid for with my allowance, but there's a point to all of this, and the point is that in 1985 the mailbox had an issue promoting CBS' first big revival of The Twilight Zone (the television show).  And one of the things the 1985 revival of Twilight Zone (on television--help, I'm slipping into The Twilight Zone, what with all these references and do you see what I just did and added another?) did right was they brought in... why, don't you know, they brought in the television-loathing Mr. Harlan Ellison to write 'em a couple of scripts and to consult, and so one of the things this issue of Twilight Zone (the magazine) had to promote the new show was a Harlan Ellison short story he was adapting for the revival, "Paladin of the Lost Hour."

Let's say that the "City on the Edge of Forever" "Fotonovel," which I read in my single-digit-years (some years before I ever got to watch the actual episode, I should have previously mentioned), was the hook.  That hook stuck in my lip--I didn't even know it was there, not really, insensate fish I am--for years, for about half a dozen years I guess.  Give or take months.  Let's say that was the hook; "Paladin of the Lost Hour," a short story about two men, one of whom is young but traumatized and the other who is near death and in possession of a certain pocket watch of cosmic significance, this was where the fisherman reeled me in after letting me play on the line, oblivious to how I was going to be wrenched in.

Harlan Ellison had become very, very, very important to me.

I don't have anything at hand to give you an offering of his way around a word.  Hell, when I was reading Harlan Ellison in the 1980s, nearly all of it came out of the school or public libraries, so I don't have it now, a problem with libraries (meaning no disrespect to an ancient and honorable institution--but you have to give the damn books back, you know).  Anything of his I was reading in the '90s came out of college libraries, same thing.  By the Oughts, wise foolish me had a handheld electronic device and an account with a now-defunct e-book retailer, and so there are a half dozen Ellison anthologies I own that are encrypted by a credit card number I haven't had in more than a dozen years, so until I find the patience to figure out a way to decrypt the bleeding things... it's going to be easier to go back to the used bookstore, or a new books one.  (Do not, do not, do not take the opportunity in the comments section to smugly "educate" me as to how I have illustrated the superiority of material objects over digital files.  I have as much access to the e-books as I have to the ones I checked out of the library (or even read curled up on one of the overstuffed chairs in the Appalachian State University student library, thinking it was too cold to walk home just then and this story's pretty good, only realizing near closing time that it had grown too colder while you put off the walk up Stadium Drive).  A paper book is one thing and a digital book another, and each has their uses and disadvantages, and I have no regrets about having purchased some files I can no longer open, only amused disappointment.)

I digressed.  I'm at the office and I don't have anything at hand to illustrate what Harlan Ellison could do with a word.  I'm making excuses, and putting off the statement of a thing which you may have known before you began reading this (thank you, by the way), which is that Harlan Ellison is dead.

A friend posted the news on Facebook.  I fretted.  Harlan Ellison was getting on in years, eighty-four of them, and his health reputedly had been terrible for years, and so he'd been dead before.  I didn't really doubt my friend, who is a phenomenal editor and well-connected in SF and Fantasy circles, and so she would be one to know, but (as I just wrote), he'd been dead before (rumor, exaggeration, c.f. Mark Twain).  So I went onto Twitter, where someone had been authorized by Ellison's wife, Susan, to announce that Harlan Ellison is dead and it took this time.




Oh, goddammit.

I think I need to say something else everyone has known for years, which is that Harlan Ellison was someone who it could be terribly hard to be a fan of.  A thing that was on my bucket list and unlikely to be achieved before today and impossible now: I really hoped he would insult me someday, hopefully to my face.  This is the kind of person Harlan Ellison was.  He was not just notoriously prickly, he was aggressively thorny, noted for tossing out invective and having less and less patience as the years went on.  And then, a number of years ago, there was an infamous incident where he grabbed another writer's breast on stage and in front of quite a lot of people (not that it would have been any better if he'd done it in private), and another (less serious but still very dramatic because of who was involved) incident at a different awards ceremony involving a couple of webcomics artists who have subsequently achieved their own notoriety for what could be described as sexually abusive antics (verbal, so far as I know, nothing physical; but extremely dickish and ugly on their parts).  Even before the breast-grabbing, there was a famous story about Harlan Ellison that he told about himself and was often repeated, about a really bad date Ellison went on that was the sort of anecdote that used to be pretty funny up through, oh, some time around the mid-1990s, but was a bit ugly and cruel and misogynistic by the 21st Century; the story never changed but the rest of us did, and this is how things sometimes go, that a story that makes you a popular raconteur in one decade makes everybody cringe some years later.  On the non-sexual, non-interpersonal, but just sort of generally terrible front, there was The Last Dangerous Visions, the unpublished sequel to Ellison's legendary New Wave (the SF New Wave, not the French New Wave, the American New Wave, or the musical New Wave--there are all these waves, you see, and sometimes they're new) anthologies Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions, of which there were some unfortunate accounts of stories being tied up and left on a rug somewhere; I guess Ellison definitely isn't finishing it, now.

I know that last paragraph was awfully snide and cruel to a man who I loved from afar.  But you have to understand that you can love a genius despite his flaws, and you also should understand that in some ways Ellison's flaws were... how do you put this without accidentally coming off as an apologist?  It's not that his faults were forgivable, much less likeable, but I guess you could say they were an intrinsic part of a package that in its sum could be amazing.  He was offensive and pugnacious, but when he put that into a short story it hit you in the gut and it stayed there, not like a punch but like a gunshot, a broken bullet with pieces inextricably stuck in the wound to decay into your bloodstream for the rest of your miserable life.  I would have loved being insulted by him because whatever he would have said would have been clever and incisive and possibly even true.  He could be reckless and wild, which (from what I've heard, having never been present in person) made him a terror at conventions, but in his literary work that recklessness turned into daring.  If he was a misogynist (and I hate to think it, but he probably was, all his boasting about his feminist street cred and work on behalf of the failed ERA notwithstanding), that misogyny was--and again, I don't want you to mistake this for an apologetic--but it was a part of his work in something of the way racism was a part of H.P. Lovecraft's: unpleasant, uncomfortable, ugly, but also a part of a uniquely compelling perspective on the universe.

My favorite story about Harlan Ellison isn't even about Harlan Ellison.  (My favorite story by Harlan Ellison... hm... it might still be "Paladin," thirty-two years later.  Maybe because I was young and impressionable when I was run over by it.  Maybe because it made my eyes fall out and I had to put them back in again.)  My favorite story about Harlan Ellison is a story about Frank Sinatra.  Specifically, the story about Frank Sinatra, Gay Talese's "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," which is literally the only story about Frank Sinatra anyone has to read.  Please n.b. the italics in that last clause: I don't mean that if you like Frank Sinatra stories, or might have a passing interest in Frank Sinatra stories, or are really just bored and have nothing to do except read a Frank Sinatra story, there's this one that's exceptional and you can forget the rest.  I mean, you have to read Gay Talese's "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," which is one of those classic pieces of journalism that there's a good chance you've heard of even if you've never had the pleasure of holding it near you.

The story behind the story with the story is basically that Gay Talese went out to interview Frank Sinatra for Esquire, couldn't get the interview, and so wound up writing a story about following Frank Sinatra around and never getting the scheduled interview with him.  It's the kind of story nobody could write anymore because magazines are all broke thanks to the Internet, and if a journalist called his editor and said, "This guy isn't talking to me," he'd be recalled home; except this would never happen because the whole thing would actually happen in a publicist's office and be more canned than a past-use-by-date container of Spam.  But this was the Sixties, and magazines like Esquire had seemingly bottomless expense accounts, and you could get paid (and comped) to go across the country and follow somebody around asking when you were going to get to talk, and then write what we'd now call a "meta" story about how all your interview subject wanted to do was go around to various places and do things like nearly get into a fist fight with then-obscure young writers hanging out in pool halls.

Which is what happens about a third of the way into Gay Talese's "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold": Frank Sinatra went to a pool hall where Harlan Ellison and some friends were playing, and Sinatra expected a certain amount of deference for being Frank Sinatra and instead Harlan Ellison treated Sinatra about the way he'd treat any asshole who just walked in and decided seemingly at random to be snotty about Harlan Ellison's shoes.  And while Talese treats the (really trivial, when you get down to it) incident of Sinatra and Ellison acting like a pair of assholes as a minor brush-off for the larger-than-life Sinatra and a life-changing incident for the incidental Ellison (this is how you get your editor to sign your receipts when you get home even though technically you goofed the assignment), what really comes across all these decades later is that Harlan Ellison didn't really give a shit and would have probably just as soon broken a pool cue over the Chairman of the Board's blue-eyed head if Frank Sinatra said one more goddamned thing about how Ellison dressed himself in those days regardless of Sinatra's well-known connections to men willing to shoot a guy in the back of the head and bury him boots and all in a shallow grave next to Judge Crater.  It's worth mentioning, too, and maybe I should have mentioned it earlier in case you didn't know, but Harlan Ellison wasn't just famously an asshole, he was famously a little asshole: he may not have looked up to Sinatra in the usual figurative sense, but he had to look up when Sinatra was in his personal space.

I find myself trying to summarize the whole thing in a quick and clumsy way and feeling so fond of the man.  Ellison, I mean.  I like Frank Sinatra records and The Manchurian Candidate, but the guy was a shit.  So was Ellison, I guess, but Ellison was a lovable shit, and I guess that's the point of the last several paragraphs about the awful behavior at cons and stepping on Frank Sinatra's toes.  His misbehavior was cool when he punched up, and I think probably nine times out of ten... or maybe out of eleven... he was punching up, bless him.

I'm not sure when he wrote his last piece.  He'd been having the health problems.  And so I find myself feeling... it's not as much a sense of loss as of resignation.  Maybe it's also all the terrible things happening lately, and the death of a little old man who formerly wrote utterly brilliant prose but was lately hobbled by age is less significant at a time when the United States has lately been putting children in concentration camps and it seems not-implausible Roe v. Wade will be overturned by this time next year.  And here's a funny thing: thinking about this and about Ellison's corpus gives me a twinge of, what was it we used to call it?  Oh yeah, hope.  Because while Ellison wrote a lot of grim tales (and probably his most famous ones), there was a lot of it that was about recognizing the darkness and spitting in its face even if it wound up eating you (or annihilating your ability to vocalize the agony the universe was putting you through, anyway).

In "Paladin of the Lost Hour"--I don't want to spoil this, but--somebody's figured out a catch to avert the Apocalypse indefinitely.  And also in "Paladin," there's two characters who come from wholly different backgrounds, generations, ethnicity, but there's a bond formed between them.  And I guess what I'm saying right here and right now in spite of all my pessimism is that I'm hoping for loopholes and for bridging gaps between people.  Although I'm also going to say that I'm all in for stepping up to a bully, however big and unpleasant and entitled they think they are, and telling them to blow.  And then I'm going to say that even though I hardly ever write anymore (trying to fix that, I am, but it's been hard), I still believe in the almighty word.

Okay, now I'm feeling a little loss, too.

Thank you, Harlan.









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