Harlan the Great
Called up Harlan Ellison today for two reasons: 1) I missed his cranky old voice and, 2) To make sure he was still alive. We hadn’t spoken in a few years and, frankly, I was starting to worry.
For those of you who don’t know, Ellison is our greatest living writer of science fiction. Okay, “speculative fiction,” since I think that’s what he prefers. But in addition to Hugo-winning work like I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, The Glass Teat, and Deathbird Stories, Harlan wrote what is, hands down, the finest Star Trek script ever (City on the Edge of Forever), and two of the best Outer Limits episodes (Soldier and Demon with a Glass Hand – more on Demon below).
Mapwise, Harlan lives up in the hills of L.A overlooking The Valley and “too many fucking Republicans.” Talentwise, he lives in the same house as Bradbury, Clarke, Asimov. In that pantheon.
I was 15 impressionable years old when Harlan first made landfall in my life: It was at some comic book convention, and “HE” was speaking from a dais so lofty it seemed to treble his true stature. Harlan was waving around a gold watch for all the assembled to see, claiming it had cost five thousand dollars, and further claiming that he had paid for it by – get this – moving words around on paper.
And oh, how he moved those words around!
His stories were always provocative, typically shocking, sometimes downright assaultive. “You can write like this?” I asked in punch-drunk wonder. “You can actually put two fucking colons in the same fucking sentence? While sprinkling in a lot of ‘fucks?’” The answer seemed to be “You can do whatever you want. It’s your story. It’s your writing.” Thousands of his pages I must’ve consumed in a fever-dream of reading and learning that probably, more than anything else, shaped the manner in which I write professionally to this day – so many years after that ostentatious watch-wagging show of his.
I still hope to make a movie of Demon with a Glass Hand. Harlan and I worked on a script together, but that got stuck at Disney after their divorce with Miramax/Dimension. It may take a suitcase full of cash and dynamite to break it loose from there but, trust me, it’d be worth it. Demon was a story that stuck to the flypaper of my brain for about 30 years, and that’s surely a sign that it’s something special. The Outer Limits episode is very much of its own time – meaning, it was made for two dollars and looks like it – but the big, haunting ideas are still there, waiting to be brought to the fore. Wonderful world-ending ideas. Jaw-dropping stuff.
Anyway, I learned in my phone call with Harlan that he’s slowing down these days, not writing anymore, not driving. Too bad on that first count. But while his voice will be missed…I recognize that some of it lives on in my own.