About seven years ago (Jesus), I found for sale in the college library a copy of “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream” and one of “The Deathbird Stories”. Beautiful books, first editions. Had I had the foresight to hang onto them they could probably pay two months rent right now. Unfortunately, I did not have the foresight to hang onto them as after reading them I came to an important conclusion.
I did not like Harlan Ellison very much.
Now some years later in the wake of Snow Crash and my reevalution of Neil Stephenson, I began to wonder what other writers I may have unfairly left on the dust heap. Perhaps Harlan Ellison was one of those fellows. After all I was overly sensitive at that age, and I just read The Whimper Of Whipped Dogs in Dark Descent. It was overwritten and hectoring but had a certain flare. And lots of smart people like him: Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Patton Oswalt. Why not give him another shot? So I bought his seminal collection Dangerous Visions and decided to watch the documentary about him, Dreams With Sharp Teeth, to give myself a bit of an overview. Having done so I’ve come to an important conclusion.
I still do not like Harlan Ellison very much.
Ellison is in the simplest terms, a bully. The worst kind too, one who can dish it out but can’t take it. The fact that he is occasionally brilliant helps not one whit. After all even the lowest bully must occasionally flash some charisma or not even the most craven toady will follow. Make no mistake I’m not saying that Ellison does not occasionally write brilliantly. He has stories, like “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream” that are literally unforgettable. Stories that sear themselves to your brain, that you don’t so much read as see like vivid brain burning fever dreams that threaten to lobotomize in their intensity. What I am saying is that it is not worth wading through the other ninety percent of self aggrandizing dreck in order to get there. His occasional brilliance only highlights just how far short most of his stuff falls.
If you’ve never read Harlan Ellison he can be a little tough to get around. Though not as his followers will try to convince you, impossible. He writes mostly, but not solely science fiction and pops up a lot in his own work. If you take a shot every time you encounter the word “I” in an Ellison work you will be dead before the first page is finished. He’s basically an ugly, dancing imp version of Kurt Vonnegut (Compare Repent Harlequin Said The Tick Tock Man to Harrison Bergeron. Go! You’re welcome grad student whose dissertation I just came up with). If Kurt Vonnegut’s message was “Damnit babies you’ve got to be kind.” Ellison’s can perhaps be summed up as “Damnit babies you’ve got to be unkind.”
A lot of different things upset Harlan Ellison and he yells about them all very loudly. He stamps his feet and pounds his fist and threatens to hold his breath until his little face turns red thanks to the unfairness of politics, and religion and the kind of world where rats eat babies. Of course, nothing upsets Ellison quite so much as questioning something he believes him. You should see him throw a shit fit about file trading, if you ever want to see some fine hypocrisy. I guess we should question all systems but Capatalistic ones ey Harlan? Anyway every once in awhile Ellison composes a story around one of his tantrums and every once in a greater while that story is a work of genius. What can I say, even a blind squirrel eventually finds a nut. But if there’s an author with a higher miss to hit ratio I have thankfully never encountered them.
As for the movie it’s hagiography. Not particularly remarkable hagiography either. A more appropriate title would have been "A Lot Of Famous People Like Harlan Ellison.” Well bully for them. It is this movie’s misfortune to come so close in my viewing after The Z Channel a truly warts and all portrait, that managed to convey the importance of its subject and the respect of his friends, without being a white wash. There’s a moment where an interviewee briefly suggests in the mildest possible terms, that Ellison’s devotion to making a crazed spectacle of himself has distracted others and himself from his actual work and perhaps made it so Ellison has not achieved his full potential as a writer. He is hustled off stage and never heard from again. Why would we want such a dark ray of, you know, interesting viewpoint when we can cut back to Robin William’s mugging?
Yet like the man itself the documentary occasionally shows exactly why people read and respond to Ellison’s work. Just flashes mind, flashes of the brilliance that Ellison is undoubtedly capable of. Like I said, I never said that Ellison is not capable of genius. Just that I am sick of walking through the minefield of his other stuff in order to find it. For all I care he can keep it.