Writer Harlan Ellison, who died on Thursday aged eighty-four, was best known for writing the Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever”, as well as the 1975 film A Boy and His Dog, and the short story “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream”, among many other works.
Ellison was a close friend of First Blood author David Morrell, who we had the pleasure of interviewing on Bookstr two weeks ago. Morrell shared with Bookstr the reasons why he will never forget Ellison, who was in his words ‘truly a legend.’
Harlan Ellison | Image Via Detroit News
My author friend Harlan Ellison died on June 28 in his sleep, age 84. Harlan wrote stories, novels, teleplays, screenplays, essays—if it could be put on a page, he did it. (I’ll get to titles in a moment.) He was truly a legend. Anyone who met him never forgot him. The drama of his personality was forever seared into your memory. One print example of this is Harlan’s famous encounter with Frank Sinatra in Gay Talese’s classic 1966 essay “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.”
Here’s why I myself can never forget him. In 1987, he visited the University of Iowa to give an evening lecture. I taught in the English department there. I’d never met him, but we had mutual friends, so through those friends I invited him to dinner before his lecture. This was in the fall. In June of that year, my wife and I had lost our 15-year-old son Matthew to a rare bone cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma. During dinner, Harlan described his new collection of stories Angry Candy, scheduled to appear in 1988. The collection was about attitudes toward death, he explained, and was motivated by the numerous recent deaths of friends and creative people who mattered to him. His introduction to Angry Candy, he continued explaining, would be about his extended grief for these people and would list their names and death months in the margins. Inevitably, the topic of our own grief entered the conversation as we explained about our son. Harlan listened with obvious pain in his eyes. The following year, we bought Angry Candy, and as I read the introduction, I was stunned to read my son’s name as one of the items in the margin, in distinguished company. “June 1987 Fred Astaire Matt Morrell.” I weep as I type these words. What a magnificent gesture of sympathy.
Harlan was the best author public speaker I ever saw. He was somewhat short, but he could fill a stage like a giant. I once saw him speak to a vast audience about the books he would offer for sale during the intermission. Yes, his talks had an intermission. The books, he explained, had been purchased for $2.00 as his publisher cleared that section of its warehouse. He’d bought every copy. These were the only copies in existence, and the lucky people in the audience could buy them during intermission and receive his signature for $25. And they grabbed at the opportunity. He signed for an hour before returning to give another fifty minute talk.
As charming and gracious and generous as he could be, Harlan could also be outrageous and insulting. Sometimes this was for dramatic effect, because Harlan did enjoy attention. (I was once on a panel with him at a Horror Writers Convention. He called me “a windy bastard” as I answered a question from the panel master. He then took control of the the panel and spoke three times as long I’d been doing.) But often Harlan’s outrage was genuine if he felt he’d been slighted. Some of his targets were James Cameron and Star Trek’s Gene Roddenberry.
Those names give me a chance to mention titles. Two of Harlan’s most famous teleplays are “Soldier” and “Demon with a Glass Hand,” included in the 1964 season of the TV series The Outer Limits. The former has a plot remarkably like James Cameron’s The Terminator. Harlan sued, was relentless about it, couldn’t be discouraged, and won. At the end of The Terminator films, you’ll see an ‘indebted to Harlan Ellison’ reference.
Another of his teleplays, “The City on the Edge of Forever,” was voted the best episode from the original Star Trek series. He received several awards for the script—the original script, he emphasized, not the corrupted version that Gene Roddenberry produced. (Borderlands Press released an excellent limited edition of all the versions of the script, plus Harlan’s excoriating introduction about how much he disliked Gene Roddenberry.)
“I Have no Mouth But I Must Scream.” “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.” A Boy and His Dog. These are only some of the other titles that Harlan Ellison enthusiasts discuss when they get together. So great a loss to the literary world. So sorry for his wonderful wife, Susan, who is as unforgettable as Harlan.
Here’s a photo from 1990 when I visited Harlan at his distinctive Sherman Oaks home. Harlan loved to walk around in his bathrobe. I look sleepy, but Harlan appears as ready to go as ever.
Image Via David Morrell
Our deepest thanks to David Morrell for sharing his memories of Harlan Ellison with us, and our condolences to Harlan Ellison’s family, especially his wife, Susan.
Featured Image Via David Morrell