Authors: Harlan Ellison

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

American writer of short stories, novels, and nonfiction

May 27, 1934

Cleveland, Ohio

Biography

Harlan Jay Ellison is considered one of the most interesting and important writers to come out of the science-fiction genre. He has accumulated accolades both in and out of that genre, including multiple awards from both the Writers Guild of America for Best Dramatic Screenplay and from the Mystery Writers of America. Much of Ellison’s reputation and career has been built upon works that are only tangentially fantastic.

Ellison grew up in Painesville, Ohio, the only child of the sole Jewish family in the city. This, possibly combined with his father’s career change after being convicted of dealing in moonshine liquor, left Ellison feeling ostracized and alone. He claims to have run away from home several times and has cited science fiction as having saved him “from a life of crime.”

Harlan Ellison at the Harlan Ellison Roast. L.A. Press Club July 12, 1986. Los Angeles , California.

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By Pip R. Lagenta from San Mateo, San Mateo [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Among Ellison’s early works the 1960 story “Final Shtick” seems closest to autobiography. Here a Jewish comedian named Marty Field (né Morrie Feldman), returning to his hometown to accept an award, reflects on the hypocrisy of the people who now bask in his celebrity (in his youth Ellison edited the Ohio State humor magazine briefly and worked as a stand-up comic).

With the 1970 story “One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty” the mature Ellison encapsulates the essence of his early life. The story’s early sense of polemic is rapidly transformed into a heartfelt examination of the man he had become and the boy he had been. The final exchanges between Gus and “Mr. Rosenthal” effect a sense of rapprochement and humanity that is the keynote in the mature Ellison’s work.

When he was expelled from Ohio State University in 1955 Ellison moved to New York City. Here he took an apartment in the same building as the science-fiction writer Robert Silverberg. Silverberg has provided an unflattering picture of Ellison’s behavior during that time, describing the enfant terrible persona that Ellison promulgated throughout the 1960s.

In New York Ellison spent ten weeks with a gang in Brooklyn, an experience he used in his novel Rumble (also known as The Web of the City) and the first half of the nonfiction collection Memos from Purgatory. In that collection Ellison defines his distaste for the “Common Man,” one of the constant themes of his work. He often returns to that theme, especially in The Glass Teat, a book of television criticism. It is this stance that led the writer and critic John Gardner, in his On Becoming a Novelist, to cite Ellison’s work as an exemplar of the “disPollyanna” style.

Gardner’s description of the disPollyanna “hack-writer style,” which includes cynicism, depersonalized characters, and crude jokes and images, reflects features that often appear in Ellison’s works. Indeed, Gardner’s suggestion that the disPollyanna style is “an attempt to shock prudes” echoes Ellison’s own claims about his work.

In the late 1950s Ellison wrote formula stories for science-fiction, detective, and men’s magazines. However, as he noted in his 1975 introduction to Gentleman Junkie, and Other Stories of the Hung-Up Generation, “Every once in a while, I’d write a piece that meant something more to me than . . . that month’s rent and groceries.” Several of those stories were collected in Gentleman Junkie. Reviewing the book for Esquire, Dorothy Parker declared that “Mr. Ellison is a good, honest, clean writer, putting down what he has seen and known, and no sensationalism about it.”

When he moved to Los Angeles in the early 1960s Ellison was a moderately successful but undistinguished commercial writer. During his early years in Los Angeles, however, he conceived such stories as “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” (1965), the first story to win a Hugo Award, in which a man’s increasingly absurd acts disrupt a society that is completely dependent on punctuality. This period also saw the germination of “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” (1967), a dystopia about five people “trapped” in a computer; although the unreliability of the narrator undermines any moral the tale might have, Ellison does anticipate here the spirit of “future shock.”

During the mid-1960s Ellison conceived and began the Dangerous Visions project, with which he hoped to show the ingenuity and literary daring of science-fiction writing. The two books that appeared are considered a fine introduction to science fiction, and they played an important part in creating literary science fiction and in introducing several new writers. Ellison has always championed new writers, among them Bruce Sterling and William Gibson, whose first sale was to Unearth, a magazine Ellison founded and edited in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The mid-1960s also produced what many believe to be the definitive American tale of its time, Ellison’s 1967 “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes.”

Neither the story nor its author fared well in the review of the collection Love Ain’t Nothing but Sex Misspelled in The New York Times Book Review, in which Richard Rhodes cites only one of the book’s twenty-two stories as being “competent writing about authentic people.” Many critics recognize, however, that in fantastic works the landscape may be as important as the people. “Adrift Just off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitude 38 54′N, Longitude 77 00′13′W” (1974) is replete with cinematic references as Lawrence Talbot searches for “geographic coordinates for location of my soul,” but the story would not be as powerful without its melding of high and popular culture. Similarly, “A Boy and His Dog” (1969) depends more on the contrast between its societies than its variation of the Romeo-and-Juliet theme.

Ellison’s most explicitly autobiographical fiction, All the Lies That Are My Life, shows the strain of writing by a writer more attuned to short fiction. Yet the novella is fascinating in part because it marks a transition—one is tempted to say a purging—in Ellison’s writing.

Ellison, who was diagnosed with endogenous depression in 1975, at that time began to temper both his enfant terrible image and the explicit visceral nature of his prose. “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore” was selected for inclusion in the 1993 edition of Best American Short Stories, and many of Ellison’s later works, such as “She’s a Young Thing and Cannot Leave Her Mother” (1988), “Scartaris, June 28th” (1990), and “Fever” (1993), take an evocative journey from the springboard of a myth or historic event.

Author Works Short Fiction: The Deadly Streets, 1958 A Touch of Infinity, 1960 Gentleman Junkie, and Other Stories of the Hung-Up Generation, 1961 The Juvies, 1961 Ellison Wonderland, 1962 (also known as Earthman, Go Home, 1964) Paingod and Other Delusions, 1965 I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, 1967 From the Land of Fear, 1967 Perhaps Impossible, 1967 Love Ain’t Nothing but Sex Misspelled, 1968 The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, 1969 Over the Edge: Stories from Somewhere Else, 1970 Alone against Tomorrow: Stories of Alienation in Speculative Fiction, 1971 (pb. in England as All the Sounds of Fear, 1973) The Time of the Eye, 1974 Approaching Oblivion: Road Signs on the Treadmill Towards Tomorrow, 1974 Deathbird Stories: A Pantheon of Modern Gods, 1975 Partners in Wonder, 1975 No Doors, No Windows, 1975, 1983 The Illustrated Harlan Ellison, 1978 Strange Wine: Fifteen New Stories from the Nightside of the World, 1978 The Fantasies of Harlan Ellison, 1979 Shatterday, 1980 Stalking the Nightmare, 1982 Angry Candy, 1988 Footsteps, 1989 Dreams with Sharp Teeth, 1991 Mefisto in Onyx, 1993 Mind Fields: The Art of Jacek Yerka, the Fiction of Harlan Ellison, 1993 “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman: The Classic Story, 1997 Slippage: Precariously Poised, Previously Uncollected Stories, 1997 Troublemakers, 2001 Pulling a Train, 2012 (writing as Paul Merchant) Long Fiction: Rumble, 1958 (also known as The Web of the City, 1975) The Man with Nine Lives, 1959 Spider Kiss, 1961 (also known as Rockabilly) All the Lies That Are My Life, 1980 Run for the Stars, 1991 Screenplay: I, Robot: The Illustrated Screenplay, 1994 (adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s novel) None of the Above, 2012 Teleplays: Harlan Ellison’s The City on the Edge of Forever: The Original Teleplay That Became the Classic Star Trek Episode, 1996 Brain Movies: The Original Teleplays of Harlan Ellison, 2011 Nonfiction: Memos from Purgatory, 1961 The Glass Teat: Essays of Opinion on the Subject of Television, 1969 The Other Glass Teat, 1975 Sleepless Nights in the Procrustean Bed, 1984 An Edge in My Voice, 1985 Harlan Ellison’s Watching, 1989 The Harlan Ellison Hornbook, 1990 Edited Texts: Dangerous Visions, 1967 Again, Dangerous Visions, 1972 Thinking Machine: The Enigmatic Problems of Prof. Augustus S. F. X. Van Dusen, Ph.D., LL.D., F.R.S., M.D., M.D.S by Jacques Futrelle, 2003 Miscellaneous: The Essential Ellison: A Thirty-five Year Retrospective, 1987, revised and expanded 2001 (as The Essential Ellison: A Fifty Year Retrospective) Bibliography Adams, Stephen. “The Heroic and Mock-Heroic in Harlan Ellison’s ‘Harlequin.’” Extrapolation 26 (1985): 285-289. The often-anthologized “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” is convincingly viewed as a mock-heroic epic, parodying epic conventions through the central character and the narrator: “They both upset established rules (social or literary) and interject spontaneous, anarchic humor into an otherwise joyless, predictable, over-regulated world.” Atheling, William Jr. More Issues at Hand. Chicago: Advent, 1970. An early view of Ellison’s impact upon science fiction, especially concerning the anthology Dangerous Visions, its significance being that it consisted entirely of literary experiments then called “New Wave.” Ellison is highly (but skeptically) praised: “a born writer, almost entirely without taste and control but with so much fire, originality and drive, as well as compassion, that he makes the conventional virtues of the artist seem almost irrelevant.” De Los Santos, Oscar. “Clogging up the (In)human Works: Harlan Ellison’s Apocalyptic Postmodern Visions.” Extrapolation 40 (Spring, 1999): 5–20. An overview of apocalyptic themes in Ellison’s writing, concluding that while Ellison’s vision is bleak, his protagonists battle on. Ellison, Harlan. “An Ill-Begotten Enterprise.” Harper’s 294 (May, 1997): 31–32. Describes the controversy over a 1966 Star Trek episode that Ellison wrote, “The City on the Edge of Forever.” According to Ellison, Gene Roddenberry, the creator of the series, claimed in public that he had rescued the episode from the original script; Ellison strongly criticizes the various people who have claimed that they saved the teleplay. Fredericks, Casey. The Future of Eternity. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982. Contains an analysis of Ellison’s mythmaking capacity, especially the story “The Place with No Name,” which apparently allows no settled interpretation. McMurran, Kristin. “Harlan Ellison.” People Weekly 24 (December 2, 1985): 97–100. A biographical sketch that claims that Ellison’s genius is often overshadowed by his big mouth; discusses how Ellison’s childhood was marred by anti-Semitic insults, how he went through a bout of depression for several years, and how he is driven to work harder. Nicholls, Peter, ed. The Science Fiction Encyclopedia. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979. An excellent, fact-filled summary of Ellison’s career, which carries the reader through the period of Ellison’s greatest accomplishments. The mere list of his activities demonstrates his extraordinary energy and ambition. The article emphasizes, however, that he will be remembered largely for his short fiction. Platt, Charles. Dream Makers. New York: Berkeley Books, 1980. In this book of interviews and interpretations, Platt talks to Ellison in his Los Angeles home, crowded with books and memorabilia. The discussion covers the wide ground of Ellison’s interests and serves as a good introduction to his personality. Priest, Christopher. The Book on the Edge of Forever. Seattle, Wash.: Fantagraphics, 1994. A detailed explication of some of the contretemps surrounding the nonpublication of The Last Dangerous Visions. Slusser, George Edgar. Harlan Ellison: Unrepentant Harlequin. San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1977. In this interview, Ellison reflects on his early life as a writer and in a lively manner offers an analysis of how the genre magazines operated in the 1950’s. Stone, Albert E. Literary Aftershocks: American Writers, Readers, and the Bomb. New York: Twayne, 1994. Ellison’s short stories are among many discussed in this study of the atomic bomb in literature. Weil, Ellen, and Gary Wolfe, eds. Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2002. A wide-ranging collection of critical essays on Ellison’s work, including teleplays and film scripts as well as print.

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