Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2364
Harlan Ellison is a stern moralist. Despite his adopted role as a Hollywood pacesetter, professional bad boy, and outrageous commentator, he is at heart thoroughly conventional, a description he may not want to hear. He declares the necessity of love, loyalty, discipline, personal responsibility, and a puritan world of work, outside which life decays into horror, a wasteland depicted in violent and grotesque imagery. Despite his antireligion, he is resolutely on the side of the angels, his standards often as simple as the message on a bumper sticker. His successes use that simplicity to make clear images and dramatic patterns in which eternal truths once more become vivid. Of his hundreds of stories, the five considered here are all highly praised and frequently anthologized. They represent his work at its best and show his range of themes, images, and methods. Three of these come from Deathbird Stories, the most central of his collections and a good place to begin.
“Shattered Like a Glass Goblin”
“Shattered Like a Glass Goblin” (from Deathbird Stories) shows the expressionist at work, using images and dramatic patterns to express his disgust for the drug culture’s special claims about morality and its hypocritical expropriation of “love.” Seeking his girlfriend, who has been missing for eight months, Rudy finally locates her in a decaying Los Angeles house, a hippie commune of eleven persons who drift in and out with little attachment to one another. Kris, the girlfriend, is strung out on drugs and tells him to leave. Rudy stays nevertheless and is steadily absorbed into the character of the house.It was a self-contained little universe, bordered on the north by acid and mescaline, on the south by pot and peyote, on the east by speed and redballs, on the west by downers and amphetamines.
From the beginning, he hears strange noises. The inhabitants, who care about nothing except their own sensations, are degenerating into beasts: “[He] had heard squeaking from the attic. It had sounded to him like the shrieking of mice being torn to pieces.” Far from being committed to love, the members of the commune cannot extend the simplest commitment to one another. In time, Rudy notices that some of them have disappeared. Changes have started to come upon him too: “He wore only underpants. His hands and feet hurt. The knuckles of his fingers were larger, from cracking them, and they were always angry crimson.”
Eventually, he cannot find any of the inhabitants and goes into the basement and upstairs to explore.On the first floor he found the one who was the blonde girl. She lay out thin and white as a tablecloth on the dining room table as three of the others he had not seen in a very long while put their teeth into her, and through their hollow sharp teeth they drank up the yellow fluid from the bloated pus-pockets that had been her breasts and her buttocks.
Rudy, locating Kris “sucking out the moist brains of a thing that giggled like a harpsichord,” pleads with her to escape with him. By this time, however, he discovers that he has turned into a glass goblin. Showing little concern, the werewolf behind him says to the glass goblin “Have you ever grooved heavy behind anything except love?” and then smashes him into a thousand pieces. The vision of hell, which is both felt and believed, earns the intense language and grotesque violence.
This vision of hell frequently uses the city—New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, or elsewhere—as the threatening habitation of demons and strange gods lusting for the souls of those who falter. Again and again, Ellison invents his own pantheon of the supernatural, rejecting ordinary religious imagery but nevertheless showing a fundamental puritanism that emphasizes humankind’s moral weakness and the eternal damnation that follows it. “Croatoan” (collected in Strange Wine), illustrates the constantly repeated connection between individual morality, a vivid central image, and the mythological creatures underlying the story.
Carol, having had an abortion and having flushed the fetus down the toilet, quarrels with her boyfriend, Gabe. She demands that he go down into the sewer to retrieve the fetus. To please her, he goes out into the street and lifts the manhole cover.It had finally overtaken me; the years of casual liaisons, careless lies, the guilt I suppose I’d always known would mount up till it could no longer be denied.
Gabe is so completely irresponsible that his abortionists regard him as a steady customer. He therefore feels compelled to enter the sewer, and he proceeds deeply into the bowels of the earth, fascinated by the smell of rot and his guilty reflections about Carol and his long string of abandoned girlfriends. He passes a group of bums, and one of them follows him, pleading that he should go back and leave this world to its inhabitants. The man has no hands, only chewed stumps. He comes upon an alligator, with no feet, chewing up a nest of rats. (Gabe remembers the legend that the sewers are occupied by alligators originally bought as children’s curiosities and then disposed of down the toilet, as he had once done, paralleling the treatment of the fetus.) Gabe follows the hideous animal and is finally stopped by a heavy door, with “CROATOAN” carved on it in heavy gothic lettering. He finally remembers that this was the one word carved in a tree left by the vanished community at Roanoke, Virginia, in 1590, never to be found again and which sponsored the legend of Virginia Dare. He enters the door and realizes that he is surrounded by alligators. Then he sees the children: “And the light came nearer, and the light was many lights. Torches, held aloft by the children who rode the alligators.” He stays in the sewer, the only adult among them, and, he says, “They call me father.” In this story, as he does in other successful pieces, Ellison, far from resting upon clever imagery, builds his narrative with several degrees of accretions. He combines moral indignation about personal irresponsibility leading to abortion, the sewers underlying the city as a central image of moral disgust, the popular belief that alligators remained alive after being disposed of in toilets, the historical legend of Roanoke and Virginia Dare, and finally, a translation of the action into a personal mythology, with the children riding on the backs of the alligators.
“The Face of Helene Bournouw”
“The Face of Helene Bournouw” continues the pattern of connecting moral responsibility to a central image and ultimately to the supernatural, though the language is quieter and subtler (the reader may feel relief when Ellison stops banging the drum and writes a page without an apocalypse). A celebrated model, Helene is the withered hag made beautiful, “the most beautiful woman who had ever seen man through eyes of wonder.” She creates adoration in whomever she touches, “the most memorable succubus he had ever encountered,” according to a gossip columnist. Readers follow her throughout her day. Her first engagement is with her lover, Jimmy, at lunch at Lindy’s. She tells him that their affair, which seemed perfect to him, is finished. Later that day, he commits suicide, and Helene goes on to her second appointment. Quentin Deane is a struggling artist for whom she had been a patron. Now she ridicules his latest work, which had been important to him, and tells him she is going to withdraw her support if he persists with these ideas. He rips up his canvases and returns to Ohio.
Her third appointment is with a Catholic priest who is alarmed to see her because she knows his weakness. She dresses up as a little girl and indulges his sexual fantasies. Her day, however, is not over. She leaves her fashionable Sutton Place apartment and takes a cab to the Bowery. In a filthy alley, she knocks on a door and is admitted to a room containing eight hideous demons from hell. Then they turn her off, for Helene is only a machine: “Ba’al, wipe her off; you know we’ve got to keep the rolling stock in good condition.” The technological detail itself pushes the reader over the fine line separating fantasy from science fiction.Later, when they wearied of formulating their new image, when they sighed with the responsibility of market trends and saturation levels and optimum penetration campaigns, they would suck on their long teeth and use her, all of them, at the same time.
“On the Downhill Side”
“On the Downhill Side,” a modern ghost story and a fantasy without science-fiction elements, has much greater delicacy in its images than most of Ellison’s gothic horror but is insistently moral nevertheless. The action takes the reader through the Vieux Carré of New Orleans, using familiar landmarks. Paul, accompanied by his unicorn, meets the beautiful Lizette on the street (she must be a virgin because she is able to stroke the mane of his unicorn, a symbol of moral perfection, with its ivory horn and platinum hoofs clattering on the pavement), and as they wander from place to place, they tell their stories without directly responding to each other, as if they were talking at cross-purposes. Their lives are at opposite ends of a scale: She has been silly and selfish and trivial, rejecting love; he, on the other hand, has overcommitted himself to his insane wife and demanding mother-in-law, smothering himself in guilt. They have but one night out of all eternity to redeem themselves and to escape their fate. Now it is already after midnight, “on the downhill side.”
After her flirtation with a flamenco dancer in a café and hearing her pleas about her hopeless condition, Paul reluctantly allows her to go her own way. With dawn approaching, however, he and the unicorn fly over the fence of the Saint Louis Cemetery, that archetype of all cemeteries, because they know that Lizette must return there. The naked Lizette lies upon an altar, attended by eyeless creatures, the agents of the god of love, who are about to claim her. He cries out to her in one last effort, and she comes to him at last in an act of love. As she does, however, the faithful unicorn disappears in the mist, symbolizing his abandonment of “loving too much,” in contrast to Lizette, who “loved too little.” Thus, the lovers meet on a middle ground in which their damning faults are worked through in compromise. Though the resolution is too abstract, its concluding imagery too vague to support the moral action, the story nevertheless has a fine touch and a restraint often lacking elsewhere. One can remember especially the unicorn, with its “silken mane and rainbow colors, platinum hoofs and spiral horn.” The pattern remains much the same as that of other stories: a moral preoccupation tied to a vivid central image and realistic elements giving way to a supernatural override.
“Jeffty Is Five”
“Jeffty Is Five,” winner of the Nebula Award for the best science-fiction story of 1977, brilliantly uses nostalgia to attack the empty vulgarity of modern technology, especially television, one of the author’s favorite essay targets. Donny and Jeffty are both five when they meet. As friends, they engage in activities familiar to their age, which Donny lovingly recalls: eating nickel Clark Bars covered with real chocolate, attending Saturday matinees that featured Lash LaRue and Wild Bill Elliott, listening to radio programs such as The Lone Ranger and The Shadow. They all form a flood of memories made real by the author’s absorption into popular culture. Donny moves away and comes back several times. He continues to grow up, but Jeffty mysteriously remains at age five—not retarded but with the interests and concerns of a lively child of that age. When Donny returns from college to go into business at his own electronics store, he continues to befriend the child, frequently taking him to see a film. Jeffty’s parents have been terrified by his lack of development and have left him in limbo, without love.
Donny then discovers Jeffty’s radio, which plays programs long since discontinued. Furthermore, Jeffty receives a new Captain Midnight Secret Decoder Badge in the mail, buys new versions of old comic books, and is even able to project at a local theater a film from James Blish’s The Demolished Man, which ought to exist but does not. He is reordering others’ reality, especially Donny’s. One Saturday, Donny is forced to send Jeffty on to the theater alone because his store is busy selling color television sets. While waiting in line at the theater, Jeffty takes the radio of another to listen to one of his favorite programs. This causes a fight, and Jeffty is seriously injured. Thereafter, he lies in his room upstairs, listening to rock music on his radio, the old programs no longer available. His escape into the past is clearly tied to the indifference of the parents, and Donny’s placing of business before Jeffty is a betrayal that he lives to regret. A paragraph of science-fiction boilerplate, mentioning that “the laws of the conservation of energy occasionally break,” unnecessarily tries to hold the story within the science-fiction genre.
Ellison’s explosive imagination scores often enough to believe that his best work will live after him. If, as the poet Randall Jarrell said, a great poet is one for whom lightning has struck half a dozen times, all the rest being mere competence, then Ellison may already have won his place. Other noteworthy stories that should be mentioned here are “A Boy and His Dog,” which won a Nebula best novelette in 1969; two stories that Ellison names as his personal favorites, “Pretty Maggie Monyeyes” and “At the Mouse Circus”; “O Ye of Little Faith,” which Ellison wrote in one hour on the basis of three words given to him in the central hall of a science-fiction convention, only to see if it could be done; “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” a Hugo Award winner in 1968; and “The Deathbird,” which Ellison has said best represents his work.
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