Compassionate Fangs

Last week I received my DVD of Dreams With Sharp Teeth, the new documentary about Harlan Ellison.  I’ve watched it a couple of times now, thoroughly enjoying it.  Neil Gaiman makes the observation in the film that Ellison has been engaged in a great big piece of performance art called “Harlan Ellison” and I think he’s spot on.  Harlan—he is one of the only writers who ever worked in the realm of fantastic literature to be known almost immediately by his first name—is very much part and parcel of his work.  You don’t get the one without the other.

Which is not to say the work doesn’t stand on its own.  It does, very much so.  No doubt there are many people who have read the occasional Ellison story and found it…well, however they found it.  Anything, I imagine, but trivial.  If they then go on to become fans of the stories, eventually they will become aware of the person, mainly by virtue of the extensive introductions Harlan writes to just about everything he does, secondarily by the stories told by those who know, or think they know, something about him, either through personal experience or by word of mouth.

He’s fascinating to watch.  Sometimes it’s like watching a tornado form.

Harlan was born in 1934, which makes him 75 now.  This seems incredible to me, sobering even.  He will always seem to me to be about 40, even though I have seen him now for years with white hair and other attributes of age.  The voice has gotten a bit rougher, but he’s just as sharp as ever.

I have been in his actual presence on two occasions.  In 1986 he showed up in Atlanta at the world SF convention that year and I have a couple of autographed books as a result.  He dominated a good part of one day for us.   The second time was in 1999 or so, at a small convention called ReaderCon in Massachussetts, where he was guest of honor.  On that occasion I had lunch with him and few others and that lunch remains memorable, because I got to see the man when he isn’t On.  That is, it was before the convention began and he was, so to speak, “off duty” and was more relaxed, less hyperbolic.  And it was a great pleasure.  It is easy to see why people are drawn to him.

He is something of a contradiction.  He is a fine writer.  Even if one doesn’t care for the subject matter or even finds his style abrasive, it is clear to anyone paying attention that this man can write.  He deserves to be read.  At the same time, he is a class A, high functioning extrovert, one able to extemporize brilliantly and fluently on a wide range of subjects, and exhibits all the traits writers by common apprehension are thought to lack.

He is also dramatically confrontational.

In many ways, he reminds me of my father, who is also a man who brooks no foolishness, suffered fools not at all, and generally always said what was on his mind.  Harlan seems to be less controlled so more of his mind gets said than many people can stand.

The weekend of Readercon way back when  gave me a chance to observe him working and I noticed that—also like my father—Harlan is a 110 percenter.  That is, he gives more than he really has to give, especially when he’s fulfilling an obligation, in this case the duties of the guest of honor.  I suspect he’s like that in his personal life, too, and it certainly shows in the work.  Which also means that when his efforts are in some way betrayed, his disillusionment is also great.  I’ve watched my father end friendships, lose deep interests, and walk away from whole careers because something soured it for him and because he had committed so much of himself there was no room to shrug off the slight and go on from there.   He engaged too deeply, more deeply than the person or object could return or could suspect, and when the break came there was no space for backing off and starting over.

In Harlan’s case—as, indeed, with my father—the work is and was paramount and would not have been done with as much passion and precision if they were otherwise.

As far as I’m concerned, Dreams With Sharp Teeth could have been another hour longer.  There are details, aspects of his life and his work, that I would have liked to hear more.  Harlan did not live the life of a writer—he lived the life writers are sometimes said to have lived, and a few did, but most are ill-suited to living.  Hemingway sailed boats, hunted lion, led men in war, boxed, took lovers, and did it all with the kind of gusto that fits someone a writer would write about, not the writer himself.

Harlan marched with King to Selma.

I am in no way suggesting he and Hemingway are the only ones to have done such things, certainly not, but they are among a handful who are known for those things as much as for the work.  That takes a lot of presence, a lot of person, a lot of spirit.

In a way, one could describe Harlan as a perfect storm.  The man matches the words, and the words are…

I defy you to read Jeffty Is Five or Shatterday or The Whimper of Whipped Dogs or All The Lies That Are My Life or The Executioner of the Malformed Children or I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream or Shattered Like A Glass Goblin and come away unmoved, unaffected, for that moment unchanged.   One Life Furnished In Early Poverty is an homage, a justification, an epitaph, and an elegy all rolled into something that also contains enormous glee and childish wonder.

Or go find his two volumes of television criticism, The Glass Teat and The Other Glass Teat, books which were the objects of actual censorship (something that never happens in this country, of course) under Nixon.  Though they were written and published in the Sixties, the observations are fresh and if anything more relevant today.

One thing that I’ve always found interesting, and didn’t quite understand until I met the man and saw him before an audience, is that he is the only writer I know who consistently appears on the covers of his books.  Usually in marvelous illustrations by artists like Barclay Shaw or Leo and Diane Dillon, but consistently enough to be remarkable.  Once you see him and listen to him, you begin to understand.

Anyway, I recommend the film.  And if you haven’t read any of Harlan’s work, do so before you die.  He really should be up there with Pynchon and Mailer, Vidal and King, Burgess and Hemingway, and others.  In my mind, he is.  He’s that good.

Published by Mark Tiedemann