Saturday, August 18, 2007

Currently reading: Deathbird Stories by Harlan Ellison

Since the death of Tom Snyder several weeks ago, I got to thinking again about "the irascible science fiction writer Harlan Ellison," who Snyder interviewed famously many times over the years. One of my most favoritest writers ever of all time, I was introduced to Ellison's writing when I was around 14 or 15, when I borrowed Strange Wine from the local library after reading about Harlan in Stephen King's Danse Macabre. And in those many years since, I've amassed nearly 30 copies of his books, most all of which are long out of print but can be found through diligence and patience scouring used bookstores.

Deathbird Stories, a collection of his early ’70s works, is one I had not read in some time. It's essential Ellison. It contains some of his tightest, most controlled works: moody and enigmatic, laced with an existential dread while displaying an unnerving knack for an ugly, yet appropriate, climax, like a crack of the whip—or a snap in the neck. The collection is subtitled “A Pantheon of Modern Gods,” which is the height of irony—is there anything less modern than a god? That’s exactly the point: people are still desperate to worship, to prostate themselves before some imagined superior power or any strange artifact that can somehow impart meaning upon this random and unexplainable life. And Ellison, despite his compassion for such poor souls, spares none in these moral fables. "I am a religious man," states the melancholic protagonist of "Corpse." "One would think that would count for something. Apparently it does not." Then there's the gut-wrenching "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs," in which Ellison recreates the chilling murder of Kitty Genovese as an act of sacrifice to a new and terrifying god. "The Deathbird," the final story, is an emotionally exhausting reimagining of the origin of evil--in the form of a multiple-choice final exam.

I can still remember the first time I read these stories, a hot summer in 1988 sitting in the stifling office of the gas station I worked at, filling my head with Ellison’s rants and ravings and obscure references that didn’t make me feel stupid or inferior—no, it was exciting, it made me feel like I had a lot to learn, and I had better get caught up fast. As he states in the intro, “As the God of Time so aptly put it, It’s later than you think.”







Ellison on Snyder's show, circa 1994.

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