Harlan Ellison Ellison, Harlan (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ellison, Harlan 1934–

Ellison, a short story writer, novelist, editor, and screenwriter, is one of America's foremost fantasists. His fiction most often depicts man in violent confrontation with the universe, a theme he presents in a prose rich in mythical allegory. An innovative craftsman, Ellison has forged a highly personal literary language. His work is both a critical and popular success, winning him many awards and prizes in the field of science fiction, including the Hugo and Edgar awards. (See also CLC, Vol. 1, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Theodore Sturgeon

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ellison's wild style, his unfinished sentences, his tumbling, driving pace, his mad, mixed metaphors and symbols and similes have exploded in all sorts of markets—mostly minor: girlie books, record-review columns, mystery and detective pulps, novels, radio and TV and the movies. But he began in and with science fiction; and his latest collection, Paingod, provides a fascinating study of what he was, and what he is becoming. What he is becoming is great. What he is having is a ball. He has now reached a point where the very worst he can become is the most sharply focused image-maker of contemporary homo sap….

Ellison can be excruciatingly bad;… [but to dwell on examples] would be to commit a foolishness, for Ellison is a growing entity. One may recognize that a youth is not yet an adult; one does not, however, blame him for it. Buy Paingod and read it—and of it, especially the "non-introduction" and the rubrics between the stories. Then get hold of more Ellison titles—there are plenty. Watch him grow. Look, when the dazzle of his means fades from your reader's eye, at his ends: what he has to say, what he believes, believes in, and, clearly, is. (p. 690)

Theodore Sturgeon, in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1966; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), July 12, 1966.

Gerald Jonas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

No one but Ellison could have written [the tales in "Deathbird Stories"]. No one but Ellison could have prefaced them with a box headed "CAVEAT LECTOR," containing the following words: "It is suggested that the reader not attempt to read this book at one sitting. The emotional content of these stories, taken without break, may be extremely upsetting…." Like the prose in the box, the stories offer a mixture of overheated Hype and genuine concern for the human condition. It is Ellison's conceit that these stories form a "cycle" dealing with the death of mankind's old gods and the search for newer deities. A few stories, not necessarily the best, seem to fit into this framework; among them are the overrated "Paingod" and "Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes." A story about a highway duel in the near-future, "Along the Scenic Route," doesn't fit at all; stripped of pretensions, it is simply a standard S.F. nightmare of the machine age.

As a writer, Ellison has always specialized in excess. In this book, I lost count of the number of references to a piece of flesh being torn from someone's body. With enough repetitions, even this image loses its impact; then Ellison has to up the ante….

There are times, however, when Ellison raises excess and pretension to a form of art. The last story in the book, "The Deathbird," is a compendium of every trick Ellison has ever pulled, every artistic sin he has ever committed; I found it genuinely moving. (p. 32)

Gerald Jonas, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 23, 1975.

Eric Korn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Americans do not need symposia; they have Harlan Ellison, not a one-man band but a symphony orchestra, complete with a thousand violins, shofar, and ordinance. I find it difficult to speak temperately about him. On one hand he is responsible for Dangerous Visions, and its successors, anthologies as cardinal as New Signatures or des Imagistes; on the other hand—a smaller, nipping and less important hand, like a crab's left claw—he exhibits all that is hateful about SF: the biographical and autobiographical logorrhoea, the cute titles, the steamy, cosy, encounter-group confessional tone, the intrusively private acknowledgments, the blurbs and afterwords. When I have read a good story I like to rest and smoke a fag; I do not want a writer rushing over and asking if the earth moved….

Harlan Ellison has his own visions, some of a fine, universal menace, some dangerous only to the writer…. [The best thing in] Approaching Oblivion is another story of fascism with an American face, but the other stories are less uniformly minatory. There is one about new Orpheus—can anyone write about jazz without sickliness?—an involved and embarrassing Yiddish joke, and an introduction that takes it all back to being rejected by a gang of playground antisemites. Ellison has done a lot to drag SF out of the ghetto, but is building high, broken-glass-topped walls around his new Jerusalem. (p. 26)

Eric Korn, in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), January 14, 1977.

J. G. Ballard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Exuberance, an attractive and abundant quality in science fiction, is comparatively rare among its writers, as anyone attending an sf convention soon notices. (p. 405)

The most notable exception among contemporary writers of sf is Harlan Ellison, an aggressive and restless extrovert who conducts his life at a shout and his fiction at a scream. Teenage gang-leader turned Hollywood screen-writer [and] polemicist …, Ellison is one of the most interesting and talented sf writers to appear since Ray Bradbury. (pp. 405-06)

[Approaching Oblivion] has all the visceral and paranoid obsessions that run through [his] anthologies…. However lurid, the stories have a relentless imaginative drive, suggesting that Ellison may be the first of a new kind of sf writer, completely uninterested in science but attracted to the medium by the ample opportunities which New Wave sf offers for exploiting the most sensational emotional mixes. (p. 406)

J. G. Ballard, in New Statesman (© 1977 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), March 25, 1977.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Harlan Ellison's A Boy and His Dog … is a cautionary fable employing satire and mythic patterns to define a future world that in some respects may already be with us. The "boy" is Vic … and the "dog" is Blood …; their world is the American Southwest in 2024, shortly after World War IV and the near-total destruction of the human race. (p. 162)

In Blood, we have one of the variations in mythic patterns and folk motifs that make … [Ellison's novella] so fascinating and disturbing. At first glance, Blood seems much like the wise magic animal of folk and fairy tales who comes to the aid of the hero when the hero is at an impasse. But Blood goes beyond this role to become Vic's link to the lost pre-war civilization, teaching him reading, arithmetic, recent history, and "Edited English" grammar. He becomes the culture-bearer of the bombed-out wasteland, superior to Vic in everything but the necessary skills of animal survival. The normal relationship of human and animal is inverted.

This inversion and others that follow acquire significance when we see them against the structural pattern of the story. The pattern is the basic descent-containment-reascent pattern of initiation, which in primitive societies is usually a formalized ritual designed to bring a boy into manhood. It also appears in myths of the hero, where the hero undertakes the task of renewing the wasteland. Through the many variations of the...

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George Edgar Slusser

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It seems amazing that a writer like Harlan Ellison, with twenty years of work and many memorable stories behind him, has never been studied seriously and at any length before. This is surely because he writes fantasy, and fantasy as a genre is still more or less ignored, even today, when other, more specious "minorities" are having their day in the sun. I find particularly ironic the term "mainstream." Coined by writers of the 1930s to designate that other, better literature, it has helped drive into the ghetto what in fact has always been a dominant mode of literary expression in America. The kind of tale Ellison writes was done not only by Poe, but by Hawthorne, Melville, and Twain as well—mythical allegories...

(The entire section is 4440 words.)

Mark Mansell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Let there be no doubt about it, a new Ellison collection is an event. Harlan Ellison is one of the best short fiction writers of our time, and [Strange Wine] gives ample evidence of his talent. Ellison writes with immense force and emotion….

Ellison's books are more than just a group of his stories slapped between two covers. They capture his personality. Lest readers miss the meanings of the stories, he adds an introduction to the book, and a preface to each story. The Introduction—"Revealed at Last! What Killed the Dinosaurs! And You Don't Look So Terrific Yourself"—is a dangerous vision more frightening than anything Ellison put into his two anthologies of that name. You will never again feel complacent about watching the boob tube.

Unlike the prior Ellison collection Deathbird Stories, Strange Wine is compiled of not-previously-collected stories. There is no way to summarize an Ellison story—they're so tightly interwoven within themselves that no summary can do them justice….

So well-known are Ellison's tales of the unpleasant inner morasses of mankind, that his lighter tales tend to be forgotten. That is a shame, since Ellison's lighter stories have a cutting, ironic touch….

[They are] draughts of very strange wine, indeed. Through the years, Harlan Ellison continues to improve, never resting on his ample laurels. This book is a must-read. (p. 39)

Mark Mansell, in Science Fiction Review (copyright © 1978 by Richard Geis; reprinted by permission of Richard Geis and Mark Mansell), September-October, 1978.