The provacative master of speculative fiction Harlan Ellison died in his sleep last week at the age of 84. In addition to numerous episodes of The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour way back in the ’60s, Ellison penned more than 1,800 short stories while accepting numerous awards for over 50 years. To some, he was a combative monster, but to others he was a generous soul.
For me, The Glass Teat, a compilation of Ellison’s caustic, scathing columns about television in the late ’60sbetter than any TV criticism before or sincewas a huge influence when Metro first gave me this column. Never one to mince words, Harlan’s vocabulary and turns of phrase in that masterpiece continue to blow me away. It brings to mind Guy Debord of the Situationists, who created a book with a sandpaper cover so it would scratch any books placed next to it. I don’t recall where I found my tattered paperback copy, but it still occupies a holy space on my shelf, and I laugh out loud every time I flip it open. In one column Ellison described himself as an “anthracite-hearted, asp-tongued guttersnipe.” Those words would make a great epitaph.
In that book, at the height of the Vietnam era, when racist slobs supporting George Wallace predated the racist slobs in the Cult of Trump, Ellison never hesitated to thrash the bejeezus out of any xenophobic rube, anywhere. The same hollow-headed conspiracy trash about blacks, Mexicans, liberals, atheists, commies or hippies “taking over the country” existed then as it does now. The same deranged right wing ammosexuals and their medieval fears poisoned all rational conversation then as they do now. Nothing has changed.
What’s more, Ellison never sunk to giving ersatz accolades in The Glass Teat. It wasn’t his job to be a PR person or a “community builder” for every giddy feel-good show on TV. In one passage he referred to Johnny Carson as “the world’s oldest Huckleberry Finn.” But if he liked a show, he bent over backward to shout its praises. In more than one column, he applauded the Smothers Brothers and how they ridiculed old spinster schoolmarms and “the crewcut set,” thus receiving “raw-throated outrage from the neatsy-clean tickytacky types out there in the Great American Heartland.” All in all, I’ve stolen several lines from that book.
But Ellison’s lasting impression was his voluminous output of short stories, most of which navigated our darkest psychological corners to demonstrate that we all share similar thoughts and feelings. In the introduction to his collection, Shatterday, Ellison exploded for a few thousand words in response to some feep who accused him of writing gruesome stuff just for shock value.
“This wonderful and terrible occupation of re-creating the world in a different way, each time fresh and strange, is an act of revolutionary guerrilla warfare,” Ellison wrote. “I stir up the soup. I inconvenience you. I make your nose run and your eyes water. I spend my life and miles of visceral material in a glorious and painful series of midnight raids against complacency. … All in pursuit of one truth that lies at the core of every jot of fiction ever written: we are all in the same skin…but for the time it takes to read these stories I merely have the mouth. You see before you a child who never grew up, who does not know it’s socially unacceptable to ask, ‘Who farted?'”
When I started grasping for my own voice somewhere in the vicinity of 20 years ago, long before any newspaper, magazine, or website agreed to print my words, the introduction to Shatterday impacted me so much that I typed out every single word. And I still have the original file.
A few years ago, the author Neil Gaiman appeared at Cinequest and cited Shatterday as one of the books that inspired him to start writing. So I cornered Gaiman at the afterparty and thanked him for mentioning that book.
I will never be in the same league as Harlan Ellison. Nobody was. But like him, as you read this, I merely have a mouth. And we are all in the same skin.