Remembering Harlan Ellison

Once upon a time when the world was younger and maybe just a tiny tad or two wiser . . .

(though perhaps that’s just the way it seemed), I strolled to the stop one day after school to pick up the bus home and, keen to delay homework, sidestepped into one of the Leeds branches of Woolworths—yesirree in those days the bigger towns regularly had several Woolworth stores. First port or ports of call were the comics and book counters (always a healthy display) and their Embassy records stand where you could buy cover versions of ‘hip pop songs’ of the day recorded by other artists (yeah, these truly were wiser times). Anyway, on the bookstand, I saw, amidst a confusion of gaudily covered paperbacks, one book that has, it’s fair to say, pretty much changed my life: ELLISON WONDERLAND by Harlan Ellison, in whose brief but brimming 190-page array of creativity I was to meet Skidoop, a beatnick Beelzebub; I think, member of a race of suicidal super giants visiting Earth briefly on his way to eternity; and Gnomebody, a jazzy little leprechaun in a pork-pie hat.

I bought the book (aged 13 or so—it was 1962) and pretty much read it that same night and so started a love affair with Harlan Ellison’s writing, his joie de vivre, that irreverent and often downright cruel chutzpa, and his pure alligator-like irascibility. And now he’s gone. Just like that.

And so we went on together, with me steadily building my Ellison collection (along with many others), the two of us, not actually meeting until 1993 at the World Fantasy Convention in Bloomington, Minnesota (about which more later).

In the dog days of autumn 1988 . . .

John Gilbert and the Newsfield crew (CRASH magazine, LM and others) came up with a new magazine called FEAR and I started freelancing for them doing reviews and fairly detailed interviews which I was also doing for David Pringle’s INTERZONE and MILLION, Jessica Horsting’s MIDNIGHT GRAFFITISTRANGE THINGS ARE HAPPENING and so on which included Ray Bradbury, Patrick McGrath, Andrew Vahchss Jonathan Carroll, Ramsey Campbell and, of course, Harlan not to mention umpteen musicians including Frank Zappa (now there’s a story!).

Talking to Harlan was a gas, hilarious, eye-opening (and—watering!), and both funny and sad, often in the same breath. The man did not pull punches and when he had an opinion (like, when did he NOT!) he let everyone know. Thus you’ll find many people in the industry hold differing opinions and I have to say that they’re all justifiable. In closing that particular item, I’ll say this. Being some years away from emails and the internet, I sent the article across to Harlan and got on with the process of preparing for our annual holidays then a couple of weeks away.

Imagine my surprise, then, at the docks about to leave for France, to receive a telephone call (I had a mobile phone courtesy of my job at the bank but it was a far cry from the tiny cell-jobs I carry now . . . more a fully realized telephone kiosk strapped to my back!) from my mother who, in turn, had received a delightful call from a “lovely young man (all men were young as far as my mother was concerned, even then, when she was the age I passed just yesterday) in California called Alan Ellington” who wanted me to ring him about an article. To cut to the chase, I called Alan Ellington (a cunning disguise on Harlan’s part) and he waxed lyrical about the piece which, with a handful of amends, he passed for publication.

We remained pretty good friends from that point, exchanging comic books and telephone conversations.

 

Harlan never seemed able to come to terms with the fact that when it was 8 in the evening for him, it was 4 in the morning for me. But I have to say I could forgive the guy pretty much anything, even when, just a few years ago when we were working on the special PS edition of ELLISON WONDERLAND (which is where we came in on this topic, kids, so stay with it to the end as well as this entire Newsletter) and had a contretemps with Harlan calling me daily (in the Yorkshire Dales when Nicky and I were taking a few days walking) and saying things that I like to think he didn’t really mean. Thus the book appeared without the two of us speaking about it, but it did receive some great reviews and I’m hoping that we’ll be able to reprint the book as a trade paperback under PS’s Drugstore Indian Press imprint . . . along the same lines as our Caitlin Kiernan collections. I’ll let you know.

But now I’d like to finish a little more upbeat

. . . by going back to my attending (at the same time as Harlan, whom, I believe, was a Lifetime Achievement winner) the Convention in Bloomington.

It was my first Big convention and my first time in Minnesota where, I kid you not, the spit freezes in your mouth in seconds unless you dress warm. I was up for Best Anthology Award for my editing debut, NARROW HOUSES and, in line with the generosity and warmth of spirit that is so prevalent in this screwball business lots of folks were coming up to me and telling me—with winks and back-slaps galore—that I stood a good chance of winning, even given the remarkable quality of volumes up for recognition. Thus I spent a goodly amount of time the evening before the big Banquet at which the Awards were made, writing my acceptance speech.

And so I sat, trembling nervously as one after another, the categories and nominees were announced until, lo and behold, Small Crowther Person, the time came for Best Anthology.

Now, I’m not going to BS ya on this cos it wouldn’t be fair.

This is how we operate, you and me, and it’s too late to stop now even if I wanted to. And so I will tell you this: for the briefest of moments, I wanted to kill Dennis Etchison, for it was he who, with that fabulous tome, METAHORROR—and Dennis, there’s still a part of me that hates you—accepted the Best Antho Award to rapturous applause. And ladies and gentlemen, I have to tell you that some of that applause was from me—truthfully—delivered as it was with a rictus grin and a tear-channelled face. METAHORROR was/is a damn fine book. And, hey, I regained the power of speech in a short time thereafter.

But there was someone else at that Convention, someone else who, it turned out, also thought I should win (not as much as I thought I should win—don’t forget, we’re telling truths here, kids) and, Goddamnit, he was on a mission to make sure the whole world knew.

So I’m in the lobby talking with Dennis Etchison (who, somewhat annoyingly, was holding his statuette—MY damn statuette, ladies and gents) plus Tom Monteleone and Peter Straub. And suddenly, entering stage right, Harlan appears a few yards away, and he’s marching determinedly in the direction of we four humble scribblers.

I like to think that everything went quiet and, heck, maybe even time stopped, but I guess it didn’t, not really. But Harlan’s presence turned heads—no question. And he stepped right up to us, took hold of my beard (I wore a full set in those halcyon days) and shook it so hard I thought he was about to pull the damn thing right on off of my face. And relaxing his grip, Harlan said “You wuz rucked, kiddo.” And without further ado, having completed his message to the troops, he strolled off like the Tasmanian Devil in the old Warner Bros cartoons, threw his saddle and blanket over the pinto tethered to the bar and then he was gone leaving Dennis, Tom, Peter and me considering the only possible response which was “Hey, who was that masked man?”

And now he’s gone and, dammit, I’m pissed off that that singular voice has been silenced . . . though I suspect that on certain nights when the fire embers are still crackling in the grate and the candle is flickering close to dark, we’ll hear from him again—or think we did. And that’ll just have to do for now.

Happy trails, Harlan. You were a rascal, no denying, but one rascal every once in a while is essential.

— Peter Crowther 

 

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