Harlan Ellison Tribute
By Jordan Owen
Harlan Ellison passed away today. As I sit to write, the words are still ringing silently across the barren planes of existence. The world is slightly quieter now, with colors more subdued and the screeching aggravations of the daily grind only a vague wail across the distant horizon. Still, one blast of white-hot consternation penetrates the membrane of my solitude:
I was thinking about him today.
I was driving to work on this, a dreary, rain soaked Thursday and the thought of what sort of tribute I’d offer Harlan when he died was very much on my mind. I don’t know why I was thinking about it except that all the greats are passing lately and of all the grand masters in all fields of endeavor, Harlan’s my main man. Not only do I aspire to write as well as Harlan Ellison writes, I aspire to play the guitar as well as Harlan Ellison writes. Since age twelve I have taken comfort in the knowledge that an imagination such as Harlan’s existed- that no matter how towering the iron and concrete barriers that stared me down in every direction there was someone out there whose mind was boundless and free- effortlessly soaring through the outer reaches of the psyche.
I first discovered Harlan’s work reading an issue of Electronic Entertainment from the mid 90’s that was doing a pre-release first-look at the upcoming CD-ROM game adaptation of I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. By that point I was an avid reader forever lost to the realms of science fiction and fantasy and the escape they offered from the doldrums of reality. I was already enamoured with Brian Jacques, Douglas Adams, Frank Herbert, Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, and many others but in all cases there always seemed to be a threshold of imagination that none of them seemed willing to cross. When I read that article about a game in which an insane, self-aware supercomputer tortures the five remaining survivors of nuclear war in a subterranean Hell of self-replicating machinery, I was instantly transfixed. Other writers teased at such a world- showed us quick, horrifying glimpses to fuel nightmares and morbid curiosity but Ellison crossed over completely- and seemed, like Virgil to Dante, comfortable strolling through that endless realm of madness and machinery.
I quickly got my hands on a copy of the I Have no Mouth and I Must Scream short story and was transported to that underground realm that was as fascinating as it was disturbing. And that word- disturbing- would come up time and again as I further explored those corridors of dreams that Ellison laid down in each of his short story collections, novels, screenplays, and essays. He put out stories like Frank Zappa put out music- at a decades long fever pitch that filled the mental inbox as quickly as it was voided but those prolific extremes seldom faltered in their quality- Ellison unleashed brilliance with a quick flick of the wrist, like a sleight-of-hand magician whose effortless form is just as fascinating as the trick itself.
From there I consumed the I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream computer game and it quickly became my favorite piece of interactive media, an honor it holds to this very day. At the time I was living in Oxford, Mississippi, which I hated, and my two great escapes were both in Memphis, TN: the Borders bookstore and the Egghead software boutique. In both places there seemed to be a flourishing of creativity, as though the brilliance of Ellison were rubbing off onto the surrounding expanse, making artwork brighter, graphics sharper, music more melodic and words more meaningful. To this day I can still recall the smell of the coffee at Borders and the mouse pads at Egghead. In truth, I had found that greatest of connections, one just as rare and precious as true love itself: I had discovered my favorite writer. My own mind was opened- new and vital potentials unlocked and the purpose of my existence now set on its ultimate course.
I followed Harlan through all of those dream corridors: the metaphor laden psychodrama of I Have no Mouth and I Must Scream, the dystopian futurism of “Repent Harlequin!” Said the Tick Tock Man, the childhood imprisonment of Jefty is Five, the savage passion play of A Boy and His Dog, the psychological cat-and-mouse of Mephisto in Onyx, the bittersweet absolution of Paladin of the Lost Hour, the piercing morality tale that was Shatterday, and so on- and on, and on, and on.
The first book of Harlan’s I read clear through was Deathbird Stories and each of those macabre tales shook me to my foundation- living in the tornado bait anus of the Bible Belt I was surrounded by people who made Heaven seem a lot worse than Hell and in that collection- and that book, which deconstructed the psychological underpinnings of religion, faith and mythology, was an affirmation that I was not alone in feeling like I was surrounded by insanity. The title story, the Deathbird, was a fantasy-science fiction epic that told of the last man in existence being summoned from cryogenic sleep by Dira, the serpent from the Garden of Eden, to go and administer a lethal injection to god. That story, like so many of his, stayed in my thoughts and rewired my brain for years afterward.
I could go on and on analyzing and celebrating his stories- there are literally thousands- but it could never do justice to the writing itself. Go read it- you’ll come back and thank me. All the science fiction you enjoy today stems from Harlan’s launching of the New Wave of science fiction- a movement spearheaded Dangerous Visions, the compilation of writers which Ellison brought together under one directive: write science fiction that crosses boundaries, goes where everyone else is scared to go, and moreover proves that Science Fiction is a serious literary medium.
Years after discovering Ellison I found myself hitting a wall with some of my own writing and I tried something I’d never done before: I looked him up in the phone book and gave him a call. I had no idea what to expect and remembered all too late that there’s a three hour time difference between Atlanta and Los Angeles. Needless to say, his wife Susan was less than thrilled to be hearing from me and her British accent perfectly articulated the lofty irritation in her voice. Then Ellison came on the line and said “yeah?” I stumbled through the blithering idiocy of the question I’d had in mind and he subjected me to several seconds of well deserved verbal abuse before hanging up on me. By that time I was well aware of Harlan’s no-holds-barred approach to dealing with fans that crossed the line and despite being red-in-the-cheeks embarrassed I was more so elated to have been subjected to a moment of personalized Ellison invective.
I didn’t give up, however, and became a regular contributor to the forums on HarlanEllison.com where Harlan, begrudgingly at first, did give me advice on my writing and eventually invited me out to his house- the Lost Aztec Temple on Mars as its called. I was never able to make that visit, unfortunately, and the one time since then that I was out in LA Harlan was unavailable but he and I did talk on the phone through the years and had some wonderful conversations. He was not a metal fan but still impressed me with his connections- everyone from Gene Simmons to Otep were personal friends.
I did, however, achieve one of my life long goals before Ellison passed: we collaborated. In 2012 I was stabbed in the back by someone I thought was a friend and I wrote a song about it called “Dead to Me,” which was performed and recorded by Leaving Babylon, my band at the time. During the writing process a piece of Ellison’s writing lingered in my thoughts: it’s a short piece from Mind Fields, his collaboration with surrealist painter Jacek Yerka, called The Silence and goes as follows:
This is the cathedral in which your cowardice has been enshrined. The silence of the pulpit is the silence we heard when you did not answer cries for help. In the eves of this holy place are the festooned remnants of the friends you did not come to assist. In the darkened rooms of rotting staircases are the tattered faces of lovers you betrayed- here your mother, there your father, both gone now and neither with any degree of calm or joy. Here is the sanctuary of your lost chances- there is no pastor, no choir, no stewards, and no supplicants. It is a congregation of one. You will worship here all the remaining days of your life and at night your spirit will kneel on broken glass in the pews.
In my mind, there can be no greater summation, no more brutally accurate articulation of the pain and anguish of betrayal, so I called Ellison and asked if I could read it as an intro to “Dead to Me.” I was floored when Harlan offered to perform the reading himself. A few days later I recorded him doing the reading over the phone and took it to Ledbelly Sound where we were recording the album. It fit perfectly and I achieved one of my lifelong goals: collaborating with Harlan Ellison.
When I left that band last year- with all the irritation and contempt with which one normally leaves a band- I was initially furious with myself for using my one shot with Harlan on a track for a band that didn’t work out. Now, in light of his passing, I’m glad I took the opportunity when I did. No matter whose album it’s on, I will always take pleasure in knowing that I accomplished that and will forever be grateful to Harlan for the kind gesture. After the album came out I sent him a copy and he replied with a beautiful, typewriter crafted letter what I have framed in my office at home to this very day. It is, arguably, my prize possession.
In closing, I am reminded of Ellison’s short story collection “Angry Candy,” which dealt with death not in the melancholy but in the passionate- the kind of fury that drove Hawkeye Pierce to scream “don’t let the bastard win” as he fought to save a patient in the midst of meatball surgery. That frustration- encapsulated perfectly in the title I Have no Mouth and I Must Scream captured our shared anguish with the nature of existence: that no matter the degree to which we achieve and thrive in this life we remain bound by the immobile constraints of its temporal existence. We all will die. But more penetrating is the truth that all our loved ones will die, both our personal connections and our great heroes all will pass. I was fortunate enough to count one of the former among the latter.
It seems like the greats are all dying off lately. As Maynard James Keenan put it in a recent Perfect Circle song, “Now Willy Wonka, Major Tom, Ali and Leia have moved on. Signal the final call in all its atomic pageantry.” It feels like that- it feels like it’s about time for humanity to go the way of the dinosaurs. It feels like the bloodthirsty stupidity of the world is finally collapsing in on itself and all of those symbols of the end of days- nuclear war, a giant meteor, or the robot uprising, should be close at hand. But in this darkest hour of humanity we, like the five damned souls trapped inside the Allied Mastercomputer in I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream have a choice: we can capitulate to that creeping sense of nothingness- like Artax sinking in the swamp in the Neverending Story- or we can die comforted in having lived up to the final lines of the I Have No Mouth game’s good ending, thinking “we were all heroes, in spite of ourselves.”
Dylan Thomas may have written an iconic poem that urged us to rage, rage against the dying of the light but Ellison wrote thousands of stories with that passionate undercurrent. So let us not fall into despair at the deaths of the greats and instead aspire in our own work and lives to become worthy of setting foot in their pantheon. Let us all be, as Harlan Ellison so perfectly described it, the Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of The World.