Harlan Ellison, 1969.

Harlan Ellison, 1969.

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, Harlequinstories.

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.

14 Comments

  1. Angie says:

    LOL!

    I assured him that the one problem no one had ever had with Harlan was getting him to talk

    Seriously. :) Fortunately for those of us who’ve heard him speak, it’s always a great experience.

    And sure, most of the stories in those books had been rejected before, but not for being bad stories or badly written. I haven’t read them since I was a teenager in the seventies, but I still remember “A Toy for Juliet,” and “If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?” Awesome stuff, and it’s obvious why they were rejected by other editors.

    Angie

  2. JJ Brannon says:

    Harlan was the first SF [Speculative Fiction] writer I knowingly met, at such a lecture at MIT\’s Kresge Auditorium in September 1977.

    Thus I was ruined for life.

    We banqueted at his roast the next evening in Boston\’s Chinatown, where I met Norman Spinrad and Alfred Bester. I believe I related this story in a comment of your recent Bester reminisces.

    JJB

  3. Ace Lightning says:

    I was a fan of Long John Nebel long before I was technically old enough to stay awake past midnight and listen. I remember many nights when you, Lester Del Rey, Judy Merrill, and other people whom I knew only as names on the books I loved to read would stay up all night and talk about whatever came into your heads. When I grew up, I became a radio engineer (I can’t prove it, but I may have been the first female radio engineer in NYC), and found myself working with Long John at WNBC. If you ever appeared on his show between 1971 and 1973, we may have met.

    Long John found it highly amusing that I had been a staunch fan of his when I was a kid, and we shared a passion for Chinese food – he treated me to dinner once. As we waited for our food, I asked him why he used to interview UFO contactees, mediums and psychics, proponents of quack cancer cures, science fiction writers, and other interestingly weird people, but had switched to people who could tell you how to write your own will without a lawyer and authors of pop best-sellers. He shook his head sadly and said, “There are no more harmless weirdos any more – nowadays they hijack planes and blow up buildings.” (And that was in 1972!)

  4. Tina Black says:

    Oh Fred! Harlan came to KU to speak, bearing his cartons of remainders. Someone from the English Department was supposed to sell them. Well, that person cancelled.

    I’m sure Jim Gunn offered to find help. He called me at work and asked if I’d sell Harlan’s books. I said sure.

    The next time my phone rang, it was Harlan, bouncing and full of pep and enthusiasm thanking me for helping out.

    And then, then — the devil made me do it, I swear! — I said “Oh, I’d do almost anything that Jim Gunn needs to have done.”

    And I swear, in the silence on the line was a LARGE thought bubble that said “Jim Gunn has a GROUPIE?”

  5. Earl Wells says:

    RE: “the Battle of the 4-Color Border.” I believe this refers to the publication of Ellison’s 1967 story “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream,” which Ellison wrote about in an essay published in a splendid anthology of memoirs called Fantastic Lives, edited by Martin H. Greenberg. As Ellison remembered it, he taped color cutouts from a computer magazine to the manuscript to establish breaks in the story in a way that indicated how the computer dominates the world of the characters. While he didn’t expect the magazine to publish the story in color, he would have liked to have seen some kind of representation of computer tape to produce the effect he wanted. Despite his disagreements with Fred Pohl, Ellison wrote in the essay that Fred is “one of the truest judges of writing ability the field of imaginative literature has ever produced.”

  6. David Strom says:

    Fred, thank you so very much for writing up these memories.

    I’ve wanted to tell you about a convention memory I have of you, and this seems like an appropriate time:

    At some time, 1975-1977, there was a convention in the Cleveland Ohio area, that I went to with some friend from the college I was attending, and on a discussion panel was Fred Pohl, Harlan Ellison, and a 3rd author that, sadly, I don’t recall. Maybe Joe Haldeman? Anyway, someone in the audience asked a question involving Robert Heinlein. That got Mr. Ellison visibly annoyed, and he said something close to “Heinlein, Heinlein, I’m sick of Heinlein! If he something on a wall, I’m sure that a lot of people would run to read it!” (I can’t swear to the exact words, but I’m sure of the sentiments) And, you, Fred Pohl, raised your hand, apparently indicating that you would be one of those people. Well, the audience laughed, and clapped & cheered. And Harlan Ellison (as I recall) just shook his head in disgust. I enjoyed the moment immensely, being a big Heinlein fan then, and now.

    If I may be so bold as to suggest a topic, I find myself wondering about your friendship with Robert Heinlein, as it seems that your political leanings are so far apart from the apparent leanings of Mr. Heinlein. Without prying, I wonder if you two had so much more to talk about that you didn’t touch on the subject, or if you had long discussions or even heated arguments? Might be interesting to hear how you two didn’t let your differences damage your friendship (I’m assuming/hoping it did not)

    I bought your “The Way the Future Was” & enjoyed it very much.

    Please keep your blog rolling, best of luck & a belated happy birthday.

    David Strom

  7. David Strom says:

    OK, that was supposed to be “If he wrote something on a (subway or restroom) wall”… sorry.


    David Strom

  8. Michael Walsh says:

    Thanks for those stories … as teenager I was blown away by them. You also had a hand in publishing a lot of really great Silverberg stories too.

  9. Jay Borcherding says:

    Not to take anything away from Terry Southern, and sorry for quibbling, but I was under the impression that Peter Sellers improvised some of the funniest bits of Dr. Strangelove. Wikipedia gives Sellers an (uncredited) co-writer credit, but I recognize that that’s hardly a definitive source.

    As for Ellison, his talent is indisputable–but I’ve always had the distinct impression that he’s a prickly bastard, and not lacking in self-regard. I am sure being on the receiving end of his wrath was no fun at all, but with the passage of time it makes for an amusing anecdote–thanks for sharing.

  10. Dan Gollub says:

    I thought Harlan Ellison’s praise of Friday, Robert Heinlein’s novel, was heartwarming. I inferred Mr. Ellison was glad to provide that praise after Mr. Heinlein had produced some works of lesser quality.

  11. Michael Walsh says:

    Jay Borcherding – I’ve three or so encounters with Harlan … all perfectly fine & reasonable. I suspect, as we say in fandom, YMMV.

  12. JohnArmstrong says:

    When I was still practicing the trade of journalism I had a 20-minute phoner scheduled with harlan to advance a local lecture appearance. It turned into a three-hour gabfest that ranged far and wide and is still one of the two most enjoyable interviews i ever conducted (the other was a longish talk with Milton Berle, the best – the most – of which was unprintable ina family newspaper.
    Harlan was kind enough to mention from the stage that he\\\’d enjoyed our conversation and said nice thaings about me, and for some time afterward the local sci-fi/comics geek crowd held me in something like awe. A few years later when I owned a recording studio, jazz guitarist Joe Mavety recorded a birthday song written by his cousin, Joanie, for his Uncle Stan in L.A. Stan? Joanie? L.A.? Was this by a chance Stan Lee, I asked Joe. He was shocked that anyone knew his Uncle Stan – and that story sealed the deal with my comics junky friends …

  13. Michele Combs says:

    We have the Long John Nebel papers here at Syracuse University, including recordings of several hundred of Long John Nebel’s shows (see http://library.syr.edu/digital/guides/n/nebel_lj.htm#series6 ) . You’re listed as a guest on about 30 of the shows we have, but I can’t seem to find Ellison listed as a guest on any of them. Any idea what date that might have been, presumably sometime in 1972? (I know, it was a long time ago, but it sounds like it was memorable!)

  14. Ace Lightning says:

    Michele Combs – How the heck did Long John’s “papers” wind up in Syracuse?