This is a series you’ll only find from used sources, but if you’re a fan of Harlan Ellison it’s well worth having. If you don’t know who he is, well, two things: First, these are a great introduction to his work, and second, just what is the going rate for rocks to live under, anyway?
In my personal wheelhouse of most influential authors, Harlan Ellison is easily in the top five, possibly the top three. And I’m not even a voracious reader of his work. But I have been exposed to him throughout my life, and in some ways that I didn’t even realize until much later.
His fingerprints are all over American speculative fiction for the last fifty-odd years—in television with the original Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, and Babylon 5, in video games with the memorable I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, and films such as A Boy and his Dog.
In some ways he’s better known for what didn’t get made, such as his original version of “The City on the Edge of Forever” for Star Trek, and his film adaptation of I, Robot.
But mostly he’s known for being a very angry man, known for suing those who crib his intellectual property and ruffling the feathers of everyone else. He’s been parodied for ages as the archetypal curmudgeony talented writer with a chip on his shoulder the size of a Buick.
Ellison’s work is so varied, not just in medium but in genre and tone, that it’s actually difficult to recommend any single book of his to give you a sense of his range. This is why I suggest the Edgeworks series. Originally intended to include all of Ellison’s work over time, only four (possibly five) volumes were ever made, but they contain a little bit of everything the man has to offer. Each volume contains two novels and/or short story/essay collections.
Volume 1 contains Over the Edge a collection of short stories and some essays, including some recollections of his time working on Star Trek, and An Edge in My Voice, a series of essays written for the LA Weekly. It’s a testament to his skill that his essays are just as entertaining as his stories, if not punchier in some ways by virtue of not being fiction.
Volume 2 has Spider Kiss, a novel about the disturbing rise and fall of a Rockabilly era music star (which Rolling Stone magazine called “the best rock novel ever written”), and another collection of short stories, Stalking the Nightmare.
Volume 3 includes The Harlan Ellison Hornbook, another short story collection, and Harlan Ellison’s Movie, in which a producer at 20th Century Fox asked him “If we gave you the money, and no interference, what sort of movie would you write?” and got his answer (he no longer works at 20th Century Fox… in fact, he’s no longer involved in movies).
I thought the series ended there, but it turns out there is a Volume 4 with two books involving love, while Volume 5 seems to be reprints of his seminal collections The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat, but I’m having trouble finding a copy.
You’ll notice I didn’t go into much detail on the essays and short stories, because they really are all over the map—from funny to scary to tear jerking, from futuristic to contemporary to historical, and everything in between. It’s impossible to sum up in a few words exactly what it is he writes. And that’s not a bad thing.
Harlan Ellison has attitude, sure, but he also has heart and humor as well. He also doesn’t go for easy answers and loves throwing clichés on their head, usually after throwing them out a window first. He is subversive in his own way, not just of society, but of his own profession. And the world of writing, and genre fiction, has been made richer for it. He was part of a movement that changed how we looked at speculative fiction, and the repercussions of that are still being felt today.
But ultimately, I think the best way to decide if you want to try him on for size is to hear the words the author used to describe himself, which was printed in Stephen King’s book Danse Macabre:
“My work is foursquare for chaos. I spend my life personally, and my work professionally, keeping the soup boiling. Gadfly is what they call you when you are no longer dangerous; I much prefer troublemaker, malcontent, desperado. I see myself as a combination of Zorro and Jiminy Cricket. My stories go out from here and raise hell. From time to time some denigrater or critic with umbrage will say of my work, ‘He only wrote that to shock.’ I smile and nod. Precisely.”
Harlan discusses one of my favorite shows growing up that discussed genre fiction, Prisoners of Gravity.
Originally Published in KODT #239