By LAWRENCE GROBEL
The first thing Harlan Ellison did when he entered the classroom was ask for a paper cup. He then told the 17 UCLA students, “Every time one of you pinheads uses the word ‘like’ as if you were a Valley Girl, you will put a quarter in this cup.”
He next barked at a student who was writing in his notebook, “You don’t have to write anything down! This will not be on a test. I hate stereotypes of Asian Americans who write everything. You are Asian American aren’t you?
“I’m Filipino,” the stunned student answered.
“That’s Asian…sort of…well…it’s not actually Asian. It’s semi-Asian,” Ellison said.
When the girl next to the Filipino student leaned over to whisper something, Ellison challenged her. “You don’t have to soothe him. He’s an adult. He can take care of himself. If he gets really upset he can start to weep and then I’ll come over and slap him.”
Then he said to them all, “Essentially I hate everyone your age. Mostly because you actually believe the Internet is a positive thing, and you cannot be separated from that s—t music for more than three seconds. It is my hope that all of you who walk down the street with an iPod plugged into your head are hit by a Seven Santini Brothers moving van. I look down on a lot of you,” he continued, “not because you’re not terrific people, but because you’re not stupid, you’re ignorant. Big difference. Ignorance is never having seen a film by Akira Kurosawa. It’s not knowing who Guy de Maupassant is.”
Mind you, I hadn’t yet introduced Harlan Ellison to the class. They, of course, knew who he was and what he had accomplished because we had been preparing for him for a month. He had insisted that they read the large collection of his stories The Essential Ellison and that we see Dreams with Sharp Teeth, the documentary film about him that hadn’t yet been released. But no matter what you read about him, or see on film, you can never be fully prepared for the head-on assault that is Harlan Ellison.
He promised that by the end of the evening, he would have insulted everyone in the room. “By the way if I miss, during the evening, saying something offensive to you, insulting your sexual proclivity, your physical disability, your race, your religion, your sex, anything, please, raise your hand. I’ll get to you, I promise. I’ll say something really nasty.”
As the class was supposed to interview him, he was asked a question. He came around to answering it 45 minutes later. During this stream-of-conscious free-associating response, he touched on movies and books that were meaningful to him, admonishing the students that if they didn’t know who or what he was talking about, they were ignorant and unworthy of graduating from UCLA.
Harlan Ellison—winner of eight Hugos, three Nebulas, five Bram Stoker Awards, two Edgar Awards, four Writer’s Guild Awards for Most Outstanding Teleplay, the Horror Writer’s Lifetime Achievement Award and the first Living Legend Award by the International Horror Guild—was just getting started. The students were in for a night they would never forget.
His reputation for being brash, obnoxious, wisecracking and prolific precedes him. Back in 1967 Ellison’s book of stories, I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream, and the richly acclaimed book of stories by other science fiction writers called Dangerous Visions, which Ellison edited, brought these similar assessments by two at the apex of the speculative fiction genre: Isaac Asimov and Theodore Sturgeon. “Harlan is a giant among men in courage, pugnacity, loquacity, wit, charm, intelligence—indeed in everything but height,” wrote Asimov in the introduction to Dangerous Visions. “He is…colorful, intrusive, abrasive, irritating, hilarious, illogical, inconsistent, unpredictable, and one hell of a writer,” Sturgeon wrote in his introduction to I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream.
After the World Trade Center was destroyed in 2001, Harlan and I were among 34 writers (including Ken Kesey, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Maxine Hong Kingston, T.C. Boyle, Ishmael Reed and Alice Walker) who were asked to contribute essays about the event for a book called September 11: West Coast Writers Approach Ground Zero. We appeared together at a book reading and signing at a Border’s Bookstore in West Hollywood. Harlan came with a box of some of his other books to sell and sign. He also brought a half-dozen fancy, expensive fountain pens, which he laid in front of him, so he could pick and choose which one to use. He obviously enjoyed the process. And when he read his essay—about how he decided to turn down appearing on Bill Mahr’s Politically Incorrect show because he had nothing to say about what to do with Osama Bin Laden and the fight for increased Homeland Security—he read it with gusto, especially the parts about how much he disliked Jerry Falwell, who appeared on Pat Robertson’s The 700 Club and blamed the Twin Tower bombings on “the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians…the ACLU, People for the American Way…I point the finger in their face and say, ‘you helped this happen.’”
Here’s what Ellison had to say about that: “In the dead of night, masked marauders should stalk and ensnare Jerry Falwell in his bed, his coiffed cap of majestic silver hair mussed as a haystack, drag him into the bayou, to an abandoned cray fisherman’s shanty, hang him up with his arms handcuffed behind his back on a slaughterhouse hook screwed into the top half of a Dutch door, strip him to his gourmand gut, slick and pale as a planarian worm, and beat him across the belly with an aluminum ball bat till his piss runs red.”
When asked by one of the students how he had developed his “blue collar” work ethic, Ellison answered, “I’ve been on my own since I was 13. I grew up having to use my wits. My parents were not wealthy. We weren’t poor, but we had a lot of meals with noodles. I was born during the Depression. My parents died pretty much penniless. Every dollar I’ve ever made I earned myself. I don’t believe in luck. Louis Pasteur said, ‘Chance favors the prepared mind.’ The smarter you are, the more you know, the better. I was the only Jew in town and I was my generation’s Bart Simpson. I knew the world could be mine.”
He didn’t come to that conclusion in his teens, admitting that he hadn’t kissed a girl until he was 19. But once he sold his first story and moved to Los Angeles, his life, and his perception of himself, changed. “I was having carnal knowledge of at least four women a day,” he bragged. “I stopped counting when I hit 700. Plus, I was writing at the peak of my form.”
That peak would last a lifetime. “I’ve got 50 years of writing,” he said. “I’ve spent my whole life putting everything on paper. My posterity is on the shelf. The best part of me is in the books.” What’s in those books are 1700 short stories, nine novels and novellas, essays and TV criticism, graphic adaptations, anthologies he’s edited, as well as screenplays, TV shows and recorded audio tapes. He has appeared in bookstore storefronts writing stories suggested by his audience. He married five times.
“I married women at stages in my life when it seemed like the thing to do,” he said. “When I look back at them they always seem very silly to me. Four marriages are serious mistakes, they are not idle mistakes. I had to go through that. I got it right finally with Susan, whom I’m nuts about.”
The one relationship he didn’t want to talk about was the one with his sister Beverly. “With the exception of saying, ‘Hello, Beverly,’ at my mother’s funeral around 1981, the last time I spoke to my sister was December 1962. I was in Cleveland some months ago and my niece, whom I adore, was desperate to have me come see [her mother] Beverly. What is there to say after 50 years? She just didn’t like me and she treated me badly. My sister and I never got along. There’s a great quote by Alexander Dumas: ‘There are some words that when spoken, close an argument like an iron door.’ There is some s—t you just don’t say. She went over the line and she breached that which was supportable to me. She doesn’t exist in my universe. Gone. She’ll go to her grave and I’ll go to mine.”
The class was supposed to last two hours and after that I gave the students permission to leave, but none of them did. Harlan talked for five hours, and when he left he told me, “I usually get $10,000 to do what I did tonight.” After such a performance—and performance seems the appropriate word—I must say that in all the years I have known and read Harlan, he has been consistent in his sense of who he is. He is, by almost all accounts, a remarkably singular man. A man who will always manage to get the last word.
“I go to bed angry every night, I wake up angry every morning. There are certain injustices in this life you’ve got to do something about. You can’t just say that you can’t fight it, or it’s too much trouble, or that you don’t have the time or the effort, or that you can’t win. Forget all that. Fight them all! I fight them all because you never know which one is the big one. You never know which you give up and then it will come back and bite you in the ass. You never look away from a mountain lion, you lock eyes and you don’t let him get behind you.”
Collecting Harlan Ellison
Harlan Ellison has written or edited more than 70 books. He has attended hundreds of signings over the past five decades, so signed first editions are readily available. Prices on signed first editions vary greatly depending on who else signed the book—Ellison has edited and contributed to a number of collections. A first edition of Dangerous Visions signed by Philip K. Dick and Ellison is priced at $3,000, largely because Dick was reclusive and signed material by him is very rare. A first edition copy of Graven Images signed by Ellison, Ray Bradbury, Clive Barker and Forrest J. Ackerman can be found for $475. Contrast this with first editions signed just by author Harlan Ellison that can be found in the $100 to $200 range.
In addition to books, signed memorabilia from his film and television work is also available. An authentic signed autographed card for Babylon 5 (for which Ellison served as design consultant) is priced at $25. A poster for the same show, signed by Ellison and director Tony Dow, show creator J. Michael Straczynski and executive producer John Copeland is in the $65 range.
Ellison is a frequent attendee of Sci-Fi conventions and signing events related to the publication of his books or the release of his film and television work, but is not scheduled for anything in 2009. The next big opportunity for a signing might come with the publication of his next book—an autobiography is currently in negotiations. So stay tuned to Autograph’s Events listing.
You can contact the author at:
c/o The Harlan Ellison Recording Collection
P.O. Box 55548
Sherman Oaks, CA 91413