1975 - DEATHBIRD STORIES

The SPIDER Symposion: in-depth discussion of specific Ellison stories and works.

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Jan
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Postby Jan » Sat Sep 06, 2008 12:43 pm

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ON THE DOWNHILL SIDE (1972) - In New Orleans a man named Paul encounters a young woman named Lizette who he knows is a virgin. We learn that both of them are ghosts, and so is the unicorn, Paul's companion. Enjoying the night and the city, they talk about their lives, their loves, and how they went wrong. Only they an save each other from their current non-existence, but things do not go as Paul had hoped.

This is a fantasy story set in the real world of New Orleans, where Harlan had had a disappointing date with a Mardi Gras queen that inspired this piece of fiction. Still, the writing is highly fantastical, involving not only ghosts, gods and unicorns, but a set of particular laws that apply to the world-within-the-world that Paul and Lizette are a part of. In a way, it's another imprisonment story, different mainly for the fact that personal errors of the protagonists led to their predicament and dictate their attitudes. Their goal must be to escape.

The philosophy regarding love and life would find a clearer expression in "Count The Clock that Tells the Time", written a few years later (see SHATTERDAY). In "Downhill Side", Harlan focuses on extremes of personality, giving us Paul who loved too much and Lizette who had never loved. His solution is to find a middle ground, hence the ending. But that's secondary, and I need not tell you that Paul's story is partly autobiographical.

The first half of the story in particular is marked by a dreamlike narrative style which is well adapted to the characters' dwelling on past events, their detachment from the real world, and to the vague feelings and expectations of love in the air. Up to about the middle Harlan produces some of his best and most unusual writing ever. It's easy to see why the story was nominated for a Nebula award, although it lost against a vastly inferior story from AGAIN, DANGEROUS VISIONS. (It's ironic that he won for "Basilisk" that year in the novelette category, and undeservedly so.) When Harlan sat down to write "Downhill", he was clearly in the zone, writing better than ever.

The second half is quite good too, but this is where Harlan's tendency for stylistic self-indulgence takes center stage. In a kind of slow-motion technique we get too much repetitious description, some of it contradictory, and too little action which has also passed the point where it's fascinating. A man and a woman getting together out of necessity does not seem worth devoting much space to, and there's a bad feeling associated with the results due to (non-)actions of Lizette and the unicorn. The finale reads like a first draft, though it's certainly a very good draft that had everything it needed, except a bit too much. With regard to the action, given what was established in the first half, I think any writer would have found it difficult to get out of the whole thing with dignity intact, and Harlan sure gave it his best shot. The final paragrpahs are perfect.

I may be mistaken, but I think I saw shades of Abhuh in the story. The moment Lizette made her exit, the next chapter heading might have been "A Man and His Unicorn". Which reminds me that there were a few loose ends, as in almost every story that isn't planned or outlined before writing. For example, I thought it was a bit of a waste to have the unicorn talk one time, and then for it to be silent for the remainder. Let's not have it talk at all then.

After appearing in UNIVERSE and in DEATHBIRD STORIES, the story was also reprinted in a NEBULA collection, THE BEST FROM UNVIERSE, ed. Terry Carr (Doubleday 1984), and "MASTERPIECES OF FANTASY AND WONDER, ed. David G. Hartwell (SFBC 1989). Still, I don't think the story quite got its due, and it should be in any book of Ellison essentials. Harlan corrected Dowling's error somewhat by putting it in TROUBLEMAKERS (2001). I'm sure the people of New Orleans would love to know about it too. It should be noted that it predated INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE by a few years, which was set in an earlier New Orleans. I wish I knew enough about the literature of the South to be able to trace back the influences of both. :| :| :| :oops:

Visit review by David Loftus. Review, also by David, of the audio recording which is offered in the HERC store and should still be available as LP from Harlan.

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Postby Jan » Wed Oct 01, 2008 8:20 am

AT THE MOUSE CIRCUS (1971) - A man who considers himself the King of Tibet leaves a woman to embarks on a voyage of rediscovery toward Dayton, Ohio.

Original discussion of this story (link) including comments by Harlan:

"The "point" of the story is the explication of how dichotomous it must be for a certain sort of black man to cope with, to be assimilated into, to juggle the contradictions and soul-crushing costs of, a whiteman-ruled society. What debasements he must live with...and perhaps, in some sort of identity-leavening Stockholm Syndrome, how he becomes neither black nor white but, eaten and taken into the belly of that beast, a dancing mouse, a trained flea, a "gray" man."

The introductory note reads: "This is what happens when a black man worships a white god."

This raises the first question: What happens to him, indeed? This story written in "James Joycean subjective writing" (Harlan) ends with the King's car beaing eaten in what he thinks is a dream and a golden thing is hanging upside down in a slaughterhouse. What does it all mean? Even our own Guillaume de Lofutus capitulated this time.

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There are many more references to a dream in the story - it's even dream-like in style - and the particulars of Charlie's world and the way it ends in disillusion make it pretty clear he was pursuing the White American Dream, that god and religion, to the point where he lost touch with himself, gave up control over his life, lost his own identity. Charlie had become the King of Tibet. The dream was made of empty promises symbolized by the boxes-within-boxes Charlie finds in the mysterious chur-- uh, house on the hill. "Charlie had bought a television set once because the redhead in the commercial was part of his dream. He had bought an electric toothbrush because the brunette with the capped teeth had indicated she, too, was part of his dream." Charlie had been fooled by surfaces that promised a better life, and while climbing that golden ladder, his life became successively emptier, more devoid of reality, finally prompting him to go back to Dayton on some kind of vague feeling. He begins to realize that his life of empty sex and materialism has cost him the better part of his life. Despite living in New York, he has never seen the ocean, never been interested in it. It has no dollar figure attached to it. His lack of a solid education makes him susceptible to the calculated lies of advertisers, to religious propaganda, and to the "waves of fear" rippling through a country where power and the ability to frighten the populace go hand in hand. He believes what he sees. What time is it, he ask repeatedly, never getting a response. "It's later than you think," says the God of Time, if Harlan quotes him correctly elsewhere, in "Oblations at Alien Altars". The King of Tibet's life comes to a natural conclusion, but it does so early enough for Charlie to still begin a new life, his own one, if he's capable of it.

Harlan has a strong empathy for black people owing to his own background. Not by coincidence Charlie's past, present, and future journey closely resembles his. The outer journey from Ohio to New York, back to the Midwest, and away to California, to the ocean; the spiritual journey from poverty and pain to achieving material and sexual success to realizing that not all he and/or his friends after had the value society pretended it had, leading him to speak of wasted periods in stories like "Count the Clock That Tells the Time" and "On the Downhill Side", of true love, of education, and to identify the lies that assault us, turning us into mice on treadmills. :| :| :| :oops:

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Postby Jan » Fri Jun 11, 2010 11:04 am

ERNEST AND THE MACHINE GOD (1968) - In the mountains of North Carolina an odd young man almost magically fixes the car of Selena, a beautiful woman and a master manipulator. - Check earlier synopsis and comments by D. Loftus.

A story that fits in perfectly with the theme of the book, as the title indicates. It can be divided roughly into three parts - an introduction that includes Selena's backstory and introduces her predicament, a middle that brings her even closer to despair, and a third act in which Ernest appears, solves her problem and becomes the focus of Selena's attention. This last part is interrupted by a second narration which gives meaning to what then ensues by bringing Gods into the mix. Those parts are notable for laying out, to some degree, the mythology behind the book, even though the book was only assembled years later. Like the stories dealing with the Kyben war, the modern polytheistic stories are also set in one and the same universe. The first parts of the story make use of some (most likely) first-hand knowledge of North Carolina landscape and people; Selena even drives a Packard, like Harlan.

16-year-old Ernest shares some characteristics with a young Ellison, and we can perhaps assume that his story is somewhat symbolic of Harlan own experiences. Certainly the ending is highly symbolic and open to interpretation where both characters are concerned. Most importantly, Ernest (whose name might indiate he stands for an aspiring writer) possesses special powers and loses them after sleeping with Selena. At the same time he progresses from being ridiculed to being a man who will be taken seriously. What is open to interpretation here is mainly what the special powers may be hinting at - it may just be an aspect of what we consider the magic of childhood, except Harlan was in some way a special child. The fate of Selena (she dies) recalls several other stories in which women and men were in some way dangerous for the other - "The Other Eye of Polyphemus", "Croatoan", "The Last Day of a Good Woman", "The Sound of a Muted Trumpet" and so on. The fact that the catastrophe is apparently brought about by a God's jealousy, confuses the ending slightly.

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The other conceptual weakness of the story is that Selena's powers add almost nothing to the action. Even without them, the story is farther in fantasy territory than necessary, being based on the idea that Gods exist and that the world is chaotic and reflects their madness. That's all a bit of a pity because the beginning was both easy to accept and promising (the first few pages are prime Harlan), and the basic material of the third act is very good. The "God" interludes are well-written, even if they feel like a late addition. The characterizations, while rooted in truth, are all exaggerated; nevertheless both Selena and Ernest are standout characters. It feels like there's a good non-fantasy story waiting underneath. Harlan seems to have liked "Ernest" a lot; it was included in the original editions of Love Ain't... and Over the Edge as well. :| :| :oops:

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Postby Jan » Fri Jun 11, 2010 4:10 pm

NEON (1973) - After an experimental operation, Roger Charna begins to receive strange messages in neon that he refuses to pay attention to. - See synopsis and comments by D. Loftus. - Only Harlan could write this. A stylish, humorous parable about about the mental barriers people (especially religious conservatives) have when it comes to the varieties and shapes of love, and about evading happiness. Set in New York, probably in the present day or near future. Note the party scene recalling "Lady Bug, Lady Bug" and the use of New York characters (though Caruso would have merited more attention). Main problem: Roger's predicament comes across as retardation - the ending (compare with ending of Star Trek TMP) is too easy not to have taken place earlier, and it's impossible to identify with Roger at any point along the way. :| :oops:

CORPSE (1972) - A literature professor at Columbia University develops a theory about cars having a group mind. - See synopsis and comments by D. Loftus. - The link between Serling's "A Thing about Machines" (1960) and Stephen King's "Trucks" (1973). It was clearly written under the influence of Latin American literature, so it's fitting that the narrator would be an expert on it. Instead of speculating about the future, Harlan speculates about the past and present, based on impressions, unsolved mysteries and research, providing background for a surprise ending. It's Harlan's only story that I'm aware of that deals full-on with the role of the automobile in America and with society's relation to it, obvious subjects that tend to be overlooked. It's all the more interesting that Harlan set this story in New York too, instead of L.A., probably because he got the idea from observations in New York and wanted a pedestrian as a narrator. Sadly, Harlan doesn't deliver any real punches, and the connection between past and present leaves something to be desired. The effect of the story, while small, is unusual; it's a successful homage to Borges et al, especially because the writing stands on its own with a full American identity. The ending, I think, is a Poe ending. Some of the qualities of this story started to show up in other stories, such as "Grail". It contains the seeds of some of his best writing of later decades. At the time of its release however, it merely showed a new aspect of Harlan's versatility that he went on to neglect. One possible reason is that these require much fact-checking and research. :| :| :oops:


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