Harlan Ellison did not appear from nowhere. When he first began to show up in the sf magazines he had already been writing from an early age — had even had his work appear in as prestigious a magazine as The New Yorker, but had never really found his voice until the beginning of that period in the early ’60’s. That’s when he began to write the astonishing series of pyrotechnical masterpieces sometimes referred to as the “Repent, Harlequin” stories.
More than for most writers, Harlan’s stories and his life seemed both almost part of the same work of art. His home was in the hills overlooking Los Angeles — well, not exactly, in a technical sense, really overlooking it. To overlook the city from Harlan’s front door you would have had to be able to see through some miles of solid rock, because he lived on the far side of the hills.
The house was worth the trip. The name on the door was “Ellison Wonderland.” His writing office would not have shamed a banker, though it centered on nothing more spectacular than a typewriter, and one that was neither computer-based nor even electrified, but powered only by the muscles of Harlan’s ten fingers. His office’s central sound system, he boasted, could deliver any music a visitor requested at the press of a button; and the whole place, like any proper wonderland, had a secret chamber.
And there, in those years of the 1960s, he wrote stories like “‘Repent, Harlequin,&rsqu; Said the Tick-Tock Man,” “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” “The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World,” “A Boy and His Dog,” “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes” and “Shattered Like a Glass Goblin,” racking up a considerable collection of Hugos and Nebulas in the process. (One writer said, “They ought to give him a Hugo every time he writes a story, just for the titles.”)
I was Harlan’s editor for the first publication of some of the best of those stories, and I have to say that it was not an easy job. We were in a state of war for five or six years on end. There was the Battle of the Douchebag, when Harlan fought tenaciously for his right to have one character in a story call another by that epithet. In a large sense, he was sort of in the right; for generally speaking a writer should be entitled to have his story presented as he conceived it. But I was aware that a significant fraction of our magazine’s readers were fairly young boys, of an age where parents, not themselves readers, might pick up a magazine to see what Tom Junior was reading and be shocked to see that word becoming part of their son’s vocabulary. (Remember we’re talking about a time half a century ago.)
Or the Battle of the 4-Color Border, in which Harlan, having seen some colorful graph strips in, I think, Scientific American, wanted similar strips to frame his next story, and didn’t want to accept the judgment that he couldn’t have them unless we took the printing of the text of the magazine off the cheap black and white press they had always been printed on and substituted a budget-busting color press. And additional skirmishes beyond count.
There was no doubt that Harlan was a major sf writer. The only jarring note was that Harlan was dissatisfied with the possession of that pigeonhole, and so his production of sf stories dwindled as he went on to the exploration of other pastures.
The pasture that was most financially rewarding, I think, was a career as professional lecturer. In return for taking a plane to some college town and talking for an hour or two to a couple of thousand college undergraduates he would receive a check that was usually larger than what a short story brought in, and was a lot less trouble. Moreover, he soon hit upon a way of making it more profitable still. He brought along remaindered copies of his backlist books, and when the talk was over sold them, autographed, to members of the audience.
Audiences loved him. At least, most of the members of his audiences did, though for a few people it was not all that pleasurable. Those were people who were the subject of some of his reminiscences. If I had had any doubt this was true — I never did — I would have learned better on one occasion, in New York one evening just before that year’s annual Nebula Awards dinner.
Harlan had come to New York to speak at the dinner, and his publisher’s publicity people had taken advantage of the opportunity to put him on some radio and TV spots to promote Harlan’s latest book, the anthology, Again, Dangerous Visions. One of the programs was Long John Nebel’s all-night talk show, on which I was a regular. John had had some troublesome experiences with West Coast writers not long before, including Terry Southern, the man who wrote all the funny parts in the film Dr. Strangelove, but on six hours of John’s show rarely responded to a question with more than a “Yes,” “No” or “I don’t know, but maybe.”
So John called me up before booking Harlan with a worrisome question, “Can he talk?”
I assured him that the one problem no one had ever had with Harlan was getting him to talk, but John, wanting insurance, asked me to join the show anyhow.
I’ve made many mistakes in my life. That day I made a big one. I said, “Yes.”
When we assembled in the studio and John began to talk he spent a good twenty minutes praising the anthology, though of course he hadn’t read any part of it. Then he turned the mikes over to Harlan, who spent another twenty minutes modestly praising the talents of all the authors in the book, Then John said, “What about you, Fred? What did you think of Again Dangerous Visions?”
That sort of question is not meant to be answered candidly on that sort of program, but I could not make myself join in the previous hymn of worship. What came out of my mouth was something like,, “Well, it’s interesting that Walter Bradbury, the book’s editor at Doubleday, describes it as ‘stories that have been rejected by every editor in the science-fiction field.’ All the same, I think there are some stories there that are really good.”
John, who had been about to lean back in his chair, gave me a quick look and then one at Harlan, whose mouth was already opening for rebuttal. John rapidly returned to the upright position and addressed me. “And why don’t you tell us about some of the stories that impressed you, Fred?” And bloodshed was postponed.
A consideration I had overlooked, however, was that Harlan was to be the keynote speaker at the next evening’s banquet. And I would be sitting at a head table, right under the speaker’s place, in full view of the audience for all of the three-quarters of an hour that Harlan spoke.
It was a memorable evening. There are, however, some memorable evenings that I really would prefer to forget. What’s more, I can prove that some of his assertions were false, as I have, for instance, a copy of my parents’ marriage certificate and the record of my own birth nearly two years later.