Tag Archives: Deathbird Stories

Harlequin romance

Harlan

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.

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The potency of cheap paperback covers

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Picasso had his blue period, Van Gogh had his Arles period, and I . . . well, when I was still pretty much a sprout I had my Leo and Diane Dillon period, triggered when a hardcover copy of Harlan Ellison’s anthology Dangerous Visions fell into my young hands at the local library. I was a bit dillonpavane2young to grasp what was going on in a lot of the stories — frelking? — but I was captivated by the Dillons’ woodcut-style illustrations, and for several months after that encounter I diligently copied their black-and-white style, using markers to approximate the thick lines and shadows. I’m not saying the results were anywhere near as good as what the Dillons did, but even back then I understood the venerable artistic principle that since you’re going to be stealing a lot from other people’s styles anyway, you might as well steal from the best. Even so, I never tried to jack their color style, which variously suggested stained glass, batik or mosaic. As a character from another genre said back then, a man’s got to know his limitations.  

Leo and Diane Dillon quickly moved up from genre work to become one of the most honored artistic teams in publishing. By happy accident, my youthful interest in science fiction exposed me to a lot of Leo and Diane Dillon’s work, because their relationship with Ellison (born of the time when he was editing a men’s magazine called Rogue) led to them doing the cover designs for a great many of his books. In the mid-Seventies, when Pyramid Books embarked on a uniform paperback edition of every book Ellison had published up to that point, including the early teen gang projects such as Web of the City and Memos from Purgatory, they brought in the Dillons to do the covers. Many of them, such as the design for the story collection No Doors, No Windows, included little portraits of Ellison himself in the designs.

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The association with Ellison also led the Dillons to hook up with Terry Carr, who in the late Sixties and early Seventies was an editor with Ace Books, at that time a leading publisher of science fiction and other genres. (It was Ace that exploited a copyright loophole to publish the infamous mid-Sixties paperback edition of The Lord of the Rings, which flew off the shelves until the revised Ballantine Books edition came out, with J.R.R. Tolkien’s endorsement on the back cover.) Carr and Ace launched the Ace Science Fiction Specials line, and while Ace was not known for its aesthetic sense, the Specials commanded attention even on the most crowded paperback racks, thanks to the Dillons’ artwork. Carr was also an exceptionally savvy editor, and until he and Ace parted ways under acrimonious circumstances, titles from the Ace Specials line were heavily represented in each year’s Hugo and Nebula nominee lists.

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The Dillons are now known chiefly as illustrators of children’s books, particularly collections of African-American folktales such as The People Who Could Fly, but their genre work is usually the first thing I think of when I hear their names.

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