died on June 27th, 2018, and the reaction around the Internet has been… strangely more subdued than I expected. Perhaps it’s because the man was so ill-suited to our politically correct times. Perhaps it’s because he alienated the Internet and computing technology in general to the point that the Internet collectively snubs him in self-defense. Most likely, it’s because for all the amazing volume of work he put out, he could have put out ten times more, but preferred to become a professional litigant first and a creator second. Sci-fi forums and geek blogs are taking a bit more notice, but even there he’s best remembered as a lovably grumpy bastard.
But me, I’m a train wreck today. All writers, whether they know it or not, have lost a brother. True, Ellison was a walking human pile of road rage, but he devoted half his life to activism that we’re better off for. The price he paid was becoming an insufferable bastard to everyone he met. Sometimes the universe needs an angry man. Just be glad it didn’t pick you.
In Ellison’s spirit of gonzo honesty in writing, let me spill some of my ugliest guts for you: Growing up, I was as good as raised by wolves, a functional orphan. I was only born because two hippies met on a blanket at Woodstock and the acid going around didn’t turn them off; hippies grow up to be bums with psychosis in Southern California and, thank Ronald Reagan, California is a rotten place to get help for being crazy. I ran away from home every chance I got, and damned if I wasn’t better off on the streets. Reading was the only thing I could always afford to do. So authors became my surrogate family, and Harlan Ellison was in there second or third place as one of the authors who shaped what I have become today.
I shouldn’t say that so literally, lest you think I’d been through five divorces and a scandal for groping women on stage. I’ve been married 25 years (the lady is still sane, miracles never cease), and I know not to make a huge ass of myself in public, at least not without reason. Ellison swore off having kids early; I enjoyed the adventure of raising a family. But the professional side of me, the creator’s side, owes a lot to him. I don’t know how much exactly. My brain is its own little animal living up there in my skull. I don’t inquire into its affairs and it doesn’t bother with me.
But Harlan, even the smart-ass, referred to his writing as an addiction, and God can I ever identify. People in real life (the meat space outside the Interwebs, where today there’s an extreme heat advisory) ask me why I picked freelance writing of all careers. And I always answer that it didn’t; it chose me. I have piss-poor patience with coworkers, a tissue-thin boredom threshold, and a word machine in my head that WILL. NOT. SHUT. UP. I dream a new novel every night. I blather to myself on autopilot while I fumble with coffee in the morning. Left to my own devices, I will wander around the house practicing dad jokes and alliteration headlines and catchy shower thoughts on everybody until they hide in the closets. If I haven’t worked in awhile, I start yelling at the TV because soap opera writers can’t plot for sour beans, and I run around making up homemade labels with more imaginative brand names for the peanut butter, and I rip up the newspaper and chew the crossword puzzle in my foaming mouth.
There’s no pill for hypergraphia and hyperlexia. Writing is merely my handle for mental illness. It just so happens to be a paying skill too, but if it wasn’t, I’d be on a desert island scrawling rants in crab blood on coconut fronds and sending them out in corked bottles.
We are all hideous hobgoblins of disease and insanity, that’s what Harlan taught us.
His only work commemorated here, A Boy And His Dog, is but a thread of his work. Over in Star Trek forums he’s known only for the episode “The City on the Edge of Forever,” and little else. Video game forums are remembering him for the game I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, adapted from his short story, and little else. Practical joker culture remembers him for mailing a dead gopher to a publisher he was having one of his endless quarrels with—and little else. But saddest of all, the crooks of this world breathe a little easier today, because he was way more trouble to them than he was to anybody else. Funny thing about Harlan Ellison: He had the work ethic of a monk melded with the attention span of a gerbil, so he dabbled in every medium, culture, franchise, fandom, and genre he could find, but always produced a landmark work in whatever he set his hand to do. Of course he was weird and original and feisty and controversial, he contained the soul of a rabid Balrog with PMS.
As, another tortured genius who ran all his life from hellbent demons, would have put it, Harlan Ellison was too weird to live and too rare to die. Like a comet striking the Earth, there will be an impact crater where he was for a long time.