Thursday, September 29, 2011

Short Fiction Recommendations - Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison is at the opposite end of the spectrum from P.G. Wodehosue. His stories are brilliant. They are also intense and dark and literary (usually) and not for everyone. I don't read a lot of science fiction and fantasy, but I do read Ellison. I don't read it often because a little goes a very long way. But I love to hear him read his work, and I place no limits on how much I will listen when he's talking.

Because Ellison brings together two things -- the artistry of the master poet combined with the verve of the master raconteur. If you've ever met him in person, you know that words pour out of the man like water out of a fire hose.

I don't have a thorough experience of Ellison, but I can give you quite a few stories I've read. They're just all in different collections. (Note: I'm providing Amazon affiliate links to ebooks where possible. You can find these books in all sorts of places, including used bookstores or at your library... and probably a whole lot more.)

"The Whimper of Whipped Dogs" This is probably Ellison's greatest work, and also the most disturbing. It was inspired by the Kitty Genovese incident -- when a woman was raped and killed in full sight of others and they just ignored it. Ellison writes of our culture as if there is an ancient, evil, blood-thirsty god lurking in modern times, driving the behavior of not just the villains, but of the onlookers. This one is SO relevant to what's going on in the world right now, where people cheer on torture and the death penalty and even the death of uninsured cancer patients. And where it's most relevant is that it's not about people enjoying the pain of others, but rather the driving force of fear and helplessness.

"The Wimper of Whipped Dogs" is in what many consider to be his most masterful collection, Deathbird Stories.

"Paladin of the Lost Hour" A story about a friendship and responsibility, as a young man saves an old man from muggers, and what he learns of the old man's mission. This one is touching as well as gripping. I could not find this in any Kindle edition of Ellison's work, but it is available in the paper edition, Angry Candy.

"I'm Looking For Kadak" is one of his light, funny stories. On a dying planet, off in outer space somewhere, the last few Jews want to sit shiva for the planet before evacuating, but they are short one man to make a minyan. So they send one of their number on a quest to find Kadak, a former member of the congregation who went off to find himself. It's a strange and silly journey through an alien landscape. (This is one I haven't actually read, but once had a cassette of Ellison reading it.) This is collected in Approaching Oblivion.

"Repent Harlequin! Said The Ticktockman." One of Ellison's earlier literary stories, often cited and collected in textbooks. I read it in school, when I was too young to grasp it all. It's a futurist fantasy, where the Ticktockman enforces behavior in a highly regulated society, while the Harlequin is the rebel. The beginning is a little wandery and hip, but once you catch up with the slick style, the end is a grabber. People talk about it as if it has a downer ending, but the very end is optimistic and imho, very satsifying. Ticktockman is collected in The Paingod and Other Delusions.

"Jeffty is Five." Another lighter (though melancholy) story, about a little boy who doesn't grow up. Ever. It's collected in Shatterday.

One other book of his which I love is Mind Fields. Ellison loves art, and when was asked to write an introduction to a collection of paintings by Jacek Yerka -- a Polish surrealist painter -- he decided instead that he wanted to write a story to go with each of the paintings. It's a beautiful collection, and the styles of the two artists are to wonderfully melded. I own more than one copy of it, because I wanted to tear one apart so I could frame the pictures... but I've never been able to bring myself to do that.

Which brings me to one more thing: Ellison's non-fiction is also frickin' brilliant. Read the intros he writes to his books, read his movie and television criticism.

And hearing him read or give a speech is even more frickin' brilliant than reading his stories yourself. Listen to the guy if you can. (Just remember he is naturally uncompromising and, er, forthright.)

Tomorrow, I'll go into more conventional territory with Agatha Christie. Her short fiction is much like her novels -- except that she is more likely to use one technique at a time. This makes her short fiction worth studying for writers, as well as just fun to read.

See you in the funny papers.


Angie said...

I've read piles of his stories, but What You Said about his nonfiction. I used to pick up one of the Dangerous Visions volumes and just go through it reading all the introductions. (I did that with Asimov's introductions in his Hugo Winners anthos too.)

I was also at the '84 WesterCon in Portland when Ellison did his GOH speech about the many different ways fans have attacked, stolen from, or otherwise messed over or taken advantage of SF writers. That was an event, and I've never forgotten it. By the time he was done, I wanted to go find a pro writer and spend the rest of the weekend playing human shield. :/


The Daring Novelist said...

I met him at a Clarion Reunion (twice, actually, I think), and my fondest memory was standing between two circles of people -- one around Harlan and one around Dean Wesley Smith. I was right between them and they both had their backs to me. On the one side, Dean was telling stories about Harlan, and on the other, Harlan was telling stories about...Harlan!

Except, of course, what Harlan telling weren't really stories about himself -- they were stories about this life. And oooohhhhhhh does he tell them well.

In the meantime, if you like his nonfic, I'm told that a small press is getting ready to put out The Glass Teat books again. (TV criticism.)