During my bright college days, whenever I got into a particularly motormouthed sesquipedalian stream-of-consciousness state, a friend would warn: “You’re Harlaning” — i.e., channeling Harlan Ellison. It was a habit I picked up in high school, when I devoured every Ellison book I could get my hands on. It seems to be a common affliction among people who encountered Ellison’s work at an early age.
Not necessarily at an early age, either. During my senior year in high school, I showed my English teacher Ellison’s long cri de couer against a loathsome pre-teen beauty pageant in The Other Glass Teat and the teacher ended up reading the whole thing aloud to the class. He even Harlaned a bit later on. That’s what happens when you’re exposed to a highly distinctive, thoroughly engaging literary voice. No less a figure than Stephen King, in his introduction to Ellison’s Stalking the Nightmare, confessed that he’s done his own version of Harlaning, so I can say I have at least one thing in common with Stephen King.
Since I have been reading Ellison’s stories and interview for some decades, I found very little that was new in the documentary Harlan Ellison: Dreams With Sharp Teeth, not that I minded one bit. If anything, as a longtime acolyte of the Ellison legend, I was able to fill in The Woman Warrior on some details omitted from the interviews. For instance, the fact that the dead gopher was mailed with a recipe for dead gopher stew. Or that the incident that resulted in an ABC executive suffering a broken hip came about because, during a story conference on the series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, he told Ellison, “Writers are toadies, you’ll do as you’re told,” prompting the Painesville Pugilist to charge him from the other end of the conference table. (If that’s what the guy really said, I hope that model of the Seaview that fell on him during the altercation was really, really heavy.) And that bit about whether Ellison actually threw a pushy fan down an elevator shaft was explained in great detail in “I Don’t Know You, You Don’t Know Me,” the essay included in the July 1977 Ellison tribute issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. There’s even a scene from The Oscar, which effectively ended Ellison’s screenwriting career. We’re talking history here.
So for longtime admirers of Ellison’s work, watching Dreams With Sharp Teeth will be like hearing your favorite anecdotes, this time coming directly from the horse’s mouth. (And with prompting from his friends Robin Williams and Neil Gaiman — you need a 10-cylinder mind to keep up with the man.) Everyone else will want to read the man’s stuff, immediately.
Of course they will find a very mixed bag. One of the earliest critical assessments I read of Ellison’s work came from James Blish, who in reviewing Alone Against Tomorrow said Ellison seemed incapable of writing in any way except the top of his voice, which could be wearing in long doses. True then, true now. The universal injunction against reading an entire short-story collection in one sitting goes double for Ellison, who at his worst (“Paladin of the Lost Hour,” for example) consistently uses overwriting and sentiment to cover thinly imagined material. I was sick of “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman” even when I was only halfway through the story, and if (as the film claims) “Harlequin” is one of the most anthologized short stories for students, it cannot bode well for high school English classes.
But even with the mountain of clinkers Ellison has produced, there are gems like “The Deathbird” and “Croatoan,” novels like Spider Kiss (still the best look at the early days of rock and roll), screenplays like “Demon With a Glass Hand” from The Outer Limits, the rollicking TV and film criticism, the two landmark Dangerous Visions anthologies and the fact that Ellison’s very existence seems to drive fundies and similar wackos to vein popping, spittle-flying rage. These are all great things, and Dreams With Sharp Teeth tells you enough to serve as a a spur to further exploration.