Worlds & Time

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Why is Harlan Ellison Consider to Be Great?

A long time ago, after a bit of exposure to Harlan Ellison's personality based on second hand accounts from people like the Penny-Arcade guys, the fans that he sued for passing around e-texts, and that video of him and Connie Willis floating around, I told myself I would never buy a Harlan Ellison book.

Let me revise that: I won't ever buy a Harlan Ellison book from any source from which Harlan will receive royalties.

So, at the paperback exchange a few months ago I picked up a ratty old copy of Deathbird Stories by Ellison. It went into my catch-all reading pile and a week or so ago it got picked to be read next.

Now, this was partially due to Harlan Ellison's staggeringly great reputation as one of the phenomenal science fiction and fantasy writers of his age. I mean, that's why he's tolerated in the community, right? He might be a prick, but he's also supposed to be a really brilliant writer.

I read the first story . . . and this guy has a lyrical tongue. Each sentence seems to be a complicated masterwork wrought from the finest ingredients. The tone and the timbre and the pure fluidity are at a level that I suspect that I will never reach.

After a few more stories though, I realize that while the language is brilliant, the stories themselves are deadening. They're mind numbing. They're twisted in the way that a Steven King novel is twisted, but at least Steven King has some mastery of that indefinite quality that allows people to empathize with what they're reading. King engrosses his readers, but Ellison just grosses me out.

The story "Bleeding Stones" was really the one that turned me from only uninterested to actually repulsed. The depictions of violence, apparently for no other reason than to revel in his perfect syntax while describing the motion of blood, disgusts me.

Take for example this passage:

A gargoyle has backed a dozen Jesus People and elegant Avenue shoppers into a doorway and jabs at them with bloody talons, taunting them till they howl with dismay. The gargoyle scrapes its talons across the stones of the building till sparks fly . . . and somehow catch fire as they shower the shrieking victims. The fire washes over them and they run screaming into the fangs and talons of the marauders. They die, smoldering, and pile up in the doorway.

From page 163 of Deathbird Stories, published by Collier Books in 1990. Used for purposes of criticism.

That language is exquisite, but the entire story is basically carefully crafted paragraphs mimicking the one above, repeatedly reciting the gory details. And I didn't even go anywhere near the paragraph where the nun is raped with a stop sign.

Why? Pollution. Who? Humans, especially Christians. And those questions are explained almost that simply in the story.

Why should I care? I don't. This is a Sci-Fi Channel movie of the week in book form, but at least the Sci-Fi Channel will usually give me an "everyman" character with whom I can attempt to empathize with.

At this point, I'm lingering, my hand on the cover but my interest disabused, wondering if it's worth it to continue. Is all of his like this? Should I have started with something else?

Is this what is supposed to make him great?

Right now, I have to say, the closest that I could come to describing this book is that it's exactly what I would expect from someone that's sold their soul to the devil: the language is perfect, but there is no soul and certainly nothing that makes me want to keep reading. Not that I believe in the Devil, but the metaphor is apt.

Update: Okay, I finished it. The only worthwhile story was the last one: The Deathbird. And I suspect that I might be biased toward it by the heavily anti-Christian themes in it.

One good story doesn't seem like a particularly hit to miss ratio.

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