Harlan Ellison is dead.
It seems almost impossible. I’ve been reading Ellison’s work for almost as long as I’ve been reading adult books–and I began reading them when I was about 9 years old. I know I read Paingod and Other Delusions right after my 10th birthday, because that’s when I picked up the collection from where my dad had left it and began reading it. I was hooked from page one. The man who wrote “Repent, Harlequin!” said the Ticktock Man” can’t be dead… can he?
I don’t mean page one of the stories. I mean the beginning of his introduction. My edition is the one with “Your Basic Crown of Thorns,” which is a meditation on the nature of pain. It’s glorious and heartbreaking and beautiful. It brought me to tears, then and several more times over the years. Harlan Ellison remains the only writer who has ever done that to me. And I’ve loved him for it.
Harlan Ellison is part of why I don’t speed. I read his story, from that introduction to Paingod, about having to go to traffic school, and seeing–and hearing–the scream of a mother who had just lost her young son to a traffic accident. He said that five days later he could still hear it, couldn’t stop hearing it. That imprinted on me. I don’t speed in residential areas. I get angry at those who do. Because I read Harlan’s “viscera” in his introductions.
He was always a man who stirred up controversy. Growing up in fandom means hearing endless stories about him. I assume most of them are BS, but a few have the ring of truth. He was acerbic, to be sure. And that, too, I loved. Harlan Ellison was a man who wasn’t afraid of telling anyone his opinion, even if he knew it would be unpopular or would anger those he was talking to.
When I found out that my father had died, my sadness was because it hit me that now I’d never know him. It was the death of dreams. I feel a similar sense of loss regarding Harlan Ellison; I had so wanted to meet him, but could never get to where he was. And in recent years, I’d begun to realize it wasn’t going to be likely–he was getting older, and had stopped going to cons. But I held out a little hope. Now I’ll have to make do with the words he left us. He’d probably think that was as it should be.
Of course, he made mistakes. We’ve all heard, I’m sure, of the incident in 2006 with Connie Willis, which I won’t repeat here–Google is there, you know how to use it. I’m sure he made many others–he was, after all, only human. I’ve seen many people today focusing on those aspects of Harlan. I don’t think that’s right. Acknowledge them, yes. But remember that this was a man who could smith words like very, very few can. Let’s not try to take that away from his memory. Let’s stop eating our dead, and instead honor what they did well, and resolve to do better than they did where they fell down.
As for me, “my” Harlan Ellison was a deeply honest man who wrote about the horrors and the triumphs of life, and made me think about who I am and what I’m doing here. He taught me to know the facts behind my opinions, and if the facts didn’t fit the opinions, to change them, and not the facts. He taught me principles. Most of all, he taught me that I am not alone, and that sharing my fears and my very self with others would benefit me more than it would harm me.
He also, if I’m being honest, taught me how not to behave as a professional writer.
And now he’s gone. Goodbye, Mr. Ellison.