There’s a strange pain to being a Harlan Ellison fan. On one hand, he’s undoubtedly one of the most courageous writers to come out of the American scene in the 20th century, and his voice is a rare one. On the other, the role of Harlan Ellison is a persona to be played by the man, over and over again, and with horrifying results. The same perpetual adolescent “fuck you,” punkish libertarian attitude that demands that we pay the god damn writer also produces a man who will grope a woman, apologize, and then waffle on the apology when it isn’t immediately accepted.
My Harlan Ellison is in 1974, the Harlan Ellison coming out of Civil Rights activism, the Harlan Ellison who wrote in bookstore windows as a dual combination of ruthless self-promotion and a desire for people to see that writing is work. I want the man who impressed such a deep nihilism on me that I’ve never quite been able to recover from it. Speculative realism and vaguely associated branches of thinking have a fascination with H.P. Lovecraft and Thomas Ligotti, both horror writers who craft stories in which the human comes into contact with reality and either comes away irreparable scarred, or better for them, dead.
Why not Harlan Ellison? The introduction to Approaching Oblivion ends with this:
Had I done this book in 1970, as I had originally planned, you’d find in this space a clarion call for revolution, a resounding challenge to the future. But it’s four years later, Nixon time, and I’ve seen you sitting on your asses mumbling about impeachment. I’ve gone through ten years waiting for you to recognize how evil the war in Nam was. I’ve watched you loaf and lumber through college and business and middle-class complacency, pursuing the twin goals of “happiness” and “security.”
What fools you are. Happy, secure corpses you’ll be.
You’re approaching oblivion, and you know it, and you won’t do a thing to save yourselves.
As for me and you in this literary liason, well, I’ve paid my dues. Now I’m going to merely sit here on the side and laugh my ass off at how you sink into the quagmire like the triceratops. I’m going to laugh and jeer and wiggle my ears at your death throes. And how will I do that? By writing my stories. That’s how I get my fix. You can OD on religion or dope or war or toadburgers, for all I care. I’m over here, watching you, and giggling, and saying, “This is what tomorrow looks like, dummy.”
And if you hear me sobbing once and awhile, it’s only because you’ve killed me too, you fuckers.
I’m stuck on this spinning place with you, and I don’t want to go, and you’ve killed me, and I resent it, and the best I can do is tell my little tomorrow stories and keep laughing as the whirlwind whips the dirt in the playground at Lathrop grade school into the ominous dust-devil. [Approaching Oblivion pp.16-17]
When I read this, Harlan Ellison politicized me. This selection from the introduction of the book is peak nihilism couched in smugness, but he does such a careful job to move the mask ever so slightly to the side — beneath the superiority, there’s an immense amount of sadness that we didn’t do better, that as a species, we’ve never been able to deliver on what we’re most certainly capable of. Ellison says it isn’t a call for revolution, but if it isn’t, I’m not sure what is.
One day, probably soon, I will wake up and learn that Harlan Ellison is gone, and there will be a gap.
1. I cannot express how much I think this is just awful shit. What an asshole.