"On the night after the day she had stained the louvered window shutters of her new apartment on East 52nd Street, Beth saw a woman slowly and hideously knifed to death in the courtyard of her building. She was one of twenty-six witnesses to the ghoulish scene, and like them, she did nothing to stop it."
"The Whimper of Whipped Dogs"
You might not think of Harlan Ellison® as a horrorist, and you'd be right, as far as that goes. It would be closer to think of him as a fantasist--and farther from the truth to call him, as the old car commercials did, a "noted futurist," since although some of his stories are set in the future, what they're about is today. Yesterday, even, since this is a writer whose career has spanned decades, now, who was writing about today in the 1950s and is still doing it...well, today. Most accurately, Harlan is a writer, and he uses or demolishes genre conventions as his stories demand.
But you don't have to read much of Harlan's work to know that he is interested in horror--not zombies and werewolves and vampires, but real horror, the nightmare stuff that humans do to one another, as in the real-life case that inspired the story quoted above. Harlan's subjects are humans beings, and if he sees in their works a kind of horror that most people would flinch away from--would draw the blinds so as not to witness, not directly, or would at least hide inside the dark apartment in hopes that the horror wouldn't look back--then maybe it's because he, at least, is looking without blinders on, seeing true and clear and reporting back from the nightmare zone with the accuracy only a real storyteller can bring to bear.
Here's what he looked like when I met him. His hair is whiter now, his face a little more lined, but when I look at him I still see this guy, full of energy and life and language and a love of story that's nearly unmatched.
"Once, late that night, he thought he heard the bull-ram horn of Odin, ringing across this dim, shadowed land, but he could not be sure. And once he heard a sound of something passing, and he thought Bast, and she slipped smoothly away into the darkness without saying a word to him. And toward morning there was a light in the sky that seemed to be a burning chariot, Phaeton the charioteer, Helios's burning chariot, but that was probably the effects of the drowning, the hunger, the sorrow. He could not be certain."
"O Ye of Little Faith"
If there's a writer who's had more stories told about him than Harlan, I don't know who it would be. I've heard a lot of them. Some may even be true. I don't know any of the unpleasant ones to be true, from my personal experience, and I've spent some time with the man over the years.
There was the time he was doing a signing at Mysterious Galaxy, and he looked out the window at the line, which was, as you might imagine, considerable, because this is a Very Famous Writer with a lot of books under his belt. And he called inside the store one young man who was standing in line with his girlfriend, and he signed that young man's books, bumping him several dozen spots ahead, and he sent the young man and the girlfriend away. When the couple had left--not to their faces, as some of the stories might suggest--he explained that he had seen the girlfriend tapping her feet and glancing at her watch and generally demonstrating her impatience to the world, and if he had not done what he did, Harlan said, "That guy wasn't getting laid for days."
"In that moment before the boot touched the bamboo spike, the basilisk passed through the final veils of confounding time and space and dimension and thought, to assume palpable shape in the forest world of Vernon Lestig. And in the translation was changed, altered wonderfully. The black, thick and oily hide of the death-breath dragon beast shimmered, heat lightning across prairie land, golden flashes seen spattering beyond mountain peaks, and the great creature was a thousand colored. Green diamonds burned up from the skin of the basilisk, the deadly million eyes of a nameless god. Rubies gorged with the water-thin blood of insects sealed in amber from the dawn of time pulsed there. Golden jewels changing from instant to instant, shape and scent and hue...they were there in the tapestry mosaic of the skin picture. A delicate, subtle, gaudy flashmaze kaleidoscope of flesh, taut over massive muscled threats.
"The basilisk was in the world."
There was the time we checked in almost simultaneously at a Doubletree for a convention in Novi, Michigan. At Doubletree, you may know, the front desk staff gives you free cookies when you check in. I was helping Harlan and his wife Susan up to their room with all their boxes of books--this was shortly after Harlan's major bypass surgery--and he opened his bag and his cookie had a big chunk taken out of it, as if someone had bit it. The Harlan of the legends might have roared threats of vengeance, might have promised to tear the veins from the desk clerk's chest and garotte him with them, but the Harlan that I know laughed it off.
"She had been born in Tucson, mother full-blooded Cherokee, father a bindlestiff on his way through. Mother had been working at a truckers' stop, father had popped for spencer steak and sides. Mother had just gotten over a bad scene, indeterminate origins, unsatisfactory culminations. Mother had popped for bed. And sides. Margaret Annie Jessie had come nine months later, black of hair, fair of face, and born into a life of poverty. Twenty-three years later, a determined product of Miss Clairol and Berlitz, a dream-image formed by Vogue and intimate association wtih the rat race, Margaret Annie Jessie had become a contraction.
"Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes"
There was the time I spent the night in the ER with a kidney stone, and the first call I had in the morning was from Harlan, who opened with "You passed it yet?" and then went on to tell me of his own experience with one "the size of a Thanksgiving turkey."
"He found Kris on the third floor, lying against the wall of a dark closet, her left hand stroking a faded pink rag rabbit, her right hand at her mouth, the little finger crooked, the thumb-ring roach holder half-obscured as she sucked up the last wonders of the joint. The closet held an infinitude of odors--dirty sweat socks as pungent as stew, fleece jackets on which the rain had dried to mildew, a mop gracious with its scent of old dust hardened to dirt, the overriding weed smell of what she had been at for no one knew how long--and it held her. As pretty as pretty could be."
"Shattered Like a Glass Goblin"
There was the time Harlan called to tell me how much he was enjoying Desperadoes: A Moment's Sunlight. And the time he called to complain about the ending.
"For Trente had been appointed by the Ethos--the race of somewhere/somewhen beings who morally and ethically ruled the universe--as their Paingod. To Trente, who knew neither the tug of time nor the crippling demands of the emotions, fell the forever task of dispensing pain and sorrow to the myriad multitudes of creatures that inhabited the universe. Whether sentient or barely capable of the feeeblest unicellular reaction-formation, Trente passed along from his faceted cubicle invisible against the backdrop of the changing stars, unhappiness and misery in propotions too completely arrived at to be verbalized."
There was the time Harlan and Susan danced in their kitchen, for an audience of two.
"He remembered Lilith, with hair the color of dark wine. He remembered taking hours to die beneath a rock slide as his hunting companions in the pack ripped apart the remains of the bear and ignored his grunted moans for help. He remembered the impact of the crossbow bolt as it ripped through his hauberk and split his chest and he died at Agincourt. He remembered the icy water of the Ohio as it closed over his head and the flatboat disappearing without his mates' noticing his loss. He remembered the mustard gas that ate his lungs as he tried to crawl toward a farmhouse near Verdun. He remembered looking directly into the flash of the bomb and feeling the flesh of his face melt away. He remembered Snake coming to him in the board room and husking him like corn from his body. He remembered sleeping in the molten core of the Earth for a quarter of a million years."
There was the time Harlan was gracious and funny and charming and well-spoken. The time he helped a young writer's career, financially or with effusive public praise, helping bring attention to deserving talent that couldn't attract it that quickly any other way. The time he sat in a chair and signed every book presented to him, no matter how old and tattered or how new and obviously unread. And those times are legion, because that, dear friends, is the kind of man the Harlan I know is.
Words spark and flare from Harlan's soul like he was a fireworks factory that somebody tossed a torch into. As with any conflagration, a few innocent bystanders might get scorched. But the light cast on the world by these flames is not like any other light, and it's all the more precious for its rarity.
The stories quoted in this piece are all from a single collection, Deathbird Stories. Over his career--50 years of professional writing since his first sale, "Glowworm," in 1956--he has published many others. Find one. Read it. October's not over yet.