Harlan Ellison

If his name had been spoken within earshot prior to the past year, I didn’t hear it. If I’d read it somewhere, tripped over a story or in some other way crossed his literary shadow, I never realized it.

I feel like I’ve wasted time.

Allow me to back up just a little. My interest in Harlan Ellison and figuring out who he is, is a recent thing. Not long ago, a writer friend of mine was compared to “a young Harlan Ellison.” The comparison befuddled me. His was not a name I’d heard until the friend pursued and investigated the comparison, pointing me in the direction of a wiki and a video of Ellison talking about writers getting paid for their work. Not only did I see the parallels between the two men, I was intrigued and filed the name away for future research.

I didn’t immediately being my investigation, but while I was reading On Writing Horror by the Horror Writer’s Association, his name was repeated through multiple essays and one was even written by him. He seemed to jump off the page whenever his name or words appeared in print and I felt like it had to be some kind of cosmic poke in his direction. I invested in a 50-year retrospective of his work called The Essential Ellison. I don’t know why the hell I didn’t find him sooner.

The Essential Ellison is an imposing ~1300 page tome, but I am utterly captivated. I will likely do “Something Like a Review” on it, but I really can’t wait to finish it to say something about it.

Having read his foreword on the work, and having seen “Dreams with Sharp Teeth,” it’s clear that Ellison is a controversial, confrontational and contentious person. Perhaps it’s the touch of genius, or the pure drive of passion. Either way, it’s curious and fascinating to see, and the stories and articles he writes are…engrossing. Why he isn’t being taught in schools is beyond me. He communicates the truth in an unvarnished, unrelenting and honest way, and though the tone is perhaps more cynical, brisk or jaded than I’ve ever encountered anywhere else, there’s a profound sense of his emotional investment in the characters, in the stories and in the impact on the reader beneath it that takes my breath away. The story “Lonelyache” will not leave my head and I’m continually drawn back to the gritty reality of the story and of the ending that had me sitting there, stunned and feeling like I’d taken some kind of mental sucker-punch. Then the deceptively cynical “All the Birds Come Home to Roost,” and the chilling look at our own blindness, complacency and complicity in “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs,” and the wounded humor and self-awareness in his non-fiction pieces “Valerie: A True Memoir,” and “The Tombs: An Excerpt from Memos from Purgatory” inspire me as a writer. I want to be that naked on a page, to be that open, that honest.

I admire Ellison and I’ve only had a brief encounter with his work; I’m not even a third of the way through this book, but I’m hooked. I can only wish I’d had him as a teacher years ago, but perhaps I wouldn’t have been ready then. He’s one of the Greats that any writer would do well to emulate. His skill with the craft of writing and wielding words to have a forceful, emotional impact on the reader is something I now aspire to, and I highly recommend his work to any writer, not just one focused on the speculative fiction genres.

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