(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 2364 words.)