1967 - The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World

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David Loftus
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1967 - The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World

Postby David Loftus » Sun Feb 06, 2005 11:37 am

Image

[Story available in Dangerous Visions, Partners in Wonder, and The Essential Ellison.]

This story is one of Ellison's sterling achievements. As he writes in an afterword, he labored on the idea for fifteen months or more. It took time to mature . . . or the writer took time to grow into the concept.

Like John Fowles's mysterious woman standing out at the end of the Cobb in Lyme Regis, it began as an image -- that of a "creature of filth in the city of sterile purity." Over time he realized he was writing a study of the nature of evil. But not the simple evil of an insane killer, or not just that; the evil of crowds, the evil of the collective, the evil of each individual's darkest desires and curiosities. Finally, as his afterward concludes, "_You_ are the monsters."

Need we be reminded, in this age of people humiliating themselves and one another on prime-time television in so-called "reality shows"? Yes, we do.

It's also not a story of just the "simple evil of an insane killer." Such tales are simple to write, and legion. Ellison gives "Jack" a reason for living, a reason to kill. A good reason, on the face of it. He's a reformer. He wants there to be no more evil, poverty, crime . . . though he goes about it in a vivid and ultimately counterproductive manner.

The story is filled with contradictions that interpenetrate, and become each other: the shadow in a city with no shadows, a dark blot in sterile metal. The "ablute" changes Hernon's body and head, and "Jack's" physical appearance and clothing . . . yet nothing is changed. Hence the irony of "I don't want to be changed" versus "That's a mistake." The Ripper initially takes the city to be the realization of all his reformist's dreams; and in a way, it is, but just as his evil, and Hernon's casual evil, are not changed by the ablute, the city's evil has not changed, and Hernon's confederates are not changed from their (and our) bloody voyeurism.

The ending is nicely prefigured. Early in the story, Hernon calls the killer "Jack" and the latter thinks, "I'm in hell and entered as Jack!" He's also upset by the thought that everyone -- perhaps even God! -- has misunderstood the message in his killings. But when he comes to believe Spitalfields have been swept clean by the city of the future, it's okay: "He knew he would remain anonymous through all time," and it doesn't matter because his mission has been accomplished.

But it hasn't. And with that realization, his identity retakes its importance to him. He insists on its importance, even though it's a mote in the bigger picture of his (and AD 3077's) evil and cruelty. "My name isn't Jack!" he screams, rather the way we will pick at a tiny incorrect detail to "defend" ourselves in an argument when we know we are being fairly criticized for our sins, but don't want to admit it.

Grandfather killed his son for the time travel machine, then his granddaughter to maintain power, to avoid her taking it from him. "Bored, just silly bored" she was, he says; and the evil that Hernon and his colleagues perform in the city, on the city, on and with "Jack" is a measure of the boredom that comes with the purity of the life they have made. It's the same point Underground Man makes in Dostoyevsky's story when he tells the listener: so you will make the Crystal Palace where all need and hunger are wiped away? People will prick themselves with needles the way Cleopatra had slave girls pricked, because they want to prove they are not mere piano keys you can press and make them sound a single note/satisfy them utterly.

Boredom is a terrible thing. Look at the awful amusements of the rich -- the Portland Trail Blazer who lost his job this month because he was hosting pit bull fights. We may all turn to such ghoulish pleasures once our basic needs are fulfilled, and we do not remain alert to creative, life-giving pursuits.

I could say much more, but here's a start.
War is, at first, the hope that one will be better off; next, the expectation that the other fellow will be worse off; then, the satisfaction that he isn't any better off; and, finally, the surprise at everyone's being worse off. - Karl Kraus

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Postby Eric Martin » Sun Feb 06, 2005 12:01 pm

The story is also filled with lengthy, descriptive passages of women being gutted, all based on the best medical details the Ripperologists can give us. As with the work of R. Crumb, you begin to wonder where the art ends and the private obsessions begin.

While you may be able to find a message in the madness, Ellison's preoccupations with violence and the graphic destruction of the human body come right to the forefront here. It might also be argued that under the safe canvas of using Jack the Ripoper as a metaphor, he is able to freely indulge in the physical destruction of women that seems endemic to much of his work.

The artistry is there, as always. Unfortunately, so is something else. Not one of my top ten Ellison picks.

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Postby Barney Dannelke » Sun Feb 06, 2005 12:49 pm

I was going to wait to post until I had time to go back to listen to the story - and I mean break out my LP and "listen" since I don't think that's been put on the two VOICE FROM THE EDGE collections, although I make no promises - BUT Eric pulled me in.

Whatever the "correct" interpretation of this story might be I think Eric is very far off base to imply that there is some sort of wish fulfillment, let's act out my most depraved fantasies 'cause this is as close as I can come to the real thing secret agenda going on here.

I'm going to play my "I've known Harlan a long time" card here...

No, wait, I'm not. It wouldn't mean squat. Getting Susan to weigh in on this might count for something, but not me.

I will say this, however - the guy who wrote ALL THE BIRDS COME HOME TO ROOST is not a guy who sits around fantasizing about this stuff.

Are we also supposed to think that just because Joyce Carol Oates wrote ZOMBIE that she used to drive around with dead bodies in a van?

See what you've done? Now I have this Joyce Carol Oates writer/serial killer scenario in my head.

***********************************************************

Since I'm here and it's the Ripper story I have to ask - Harlan, did you read Patricia Cornwall's PORTRAIT OF A KILLER? Walter Sickert certainly seems to be the guy with motive [sexual dysfunction brought on by multiple botched genital surgeries as a child], means [he's the only person who was in his prime and in the area for each murder PLUS he had the equipment, multiple Whitechapel studios and the nocturnal habits] and opportunity. There are even run-up murders and a series of murders in France involving children where Sickert later moved. Plus the forensic evidence involving hand writing samples and very specialized stationary is quite compelling.

- Barney

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Postby Eric Martin » Sun Feb 06, 2005 1:39 pm

>the guy who wrote ALL THE BIRDS COME HOME TO ROOST is not a guy who sits around fantasizing about this stuff<

I'm not sure that's quite what I said. But a serious discussion of Ellison's work cannot afford to ignore the point I'm bringing up here. I'm hardly the first to notice that in many of his stories, the money shot involves the violent death of a woman. From Edith Keeler to Quilla June, and how many more in between?

It's a theme that I believe has troubled other readers and critics as well. Certainly it sets Ellison apart from most of his peers. You can deny it or minimize it, but it's there, and to point to Harlan's personal life, which should have nothing to do with an assessment of his literary output, strikes me as evasive.

And I'm not sure that "All the Birds" serves as a counterpoint, Barney. Sure, there's no pornographic violence, a la "Prowler." But what exactly IS going on in that story?

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Postby P.A. Berman » Sun Feb 06, 2005 2:01 pm

Eric, let's not fall into the intentional fallacy here-- I don't think it's a sound critical choice to attribute the graphic violence in this story to wish fulfillment on Harlan's part. Jack the Ripper did those things, so why should Harlan shy away from describing them? Wouldn't that be evasive, and rather unlike him to soft pedal?

All readers are tempted to do biographical research in order to unearth an author's intentions and motivations behind his writing. I think it's best to avoid pointing fingers like that, and just read and discuss the story for what it is, without dragging the author's personal life into it.

Barney, I read ZOMBIE too, and yes, it's a chilling book. I'd be hard pressed to say that JCO had deep-seated fantasies about such things, but who knows? And that's my point-- we don't know, hell, the author him/herself might not even know. Best to read it and analyze it on its own terms.

PAB
I don't know. I don't care. And it doesn't matter anyway. ~Jack Kerouac

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Postby Eric Martin » Sun Feb 06, 2005 2:45 pm

Look, let me state this again...this business about wish fulfillment is coming from Dannelke, not me. That's not what I said. I talked about Ellison's obsessions AS A WRITER. If I was unclear on that, I apologize.

I believe I used the R. Crumb comparison. R. Crumb draws a lot of acts that I'm reasonably sure may be compelling to his subconscious, but are not exactly what he WISHES he could do. There's a difference here, a subtle one, and I don't want to be defending myself (or Ellison) on the wrong side of that difference.

Charles Dickens wrote about the death of Nancy in "Oliver Twist," and for years gave emotional readings of that very passage. The theme compelled him, but that doesn't mean he WISHED to go out and bludgeon whores.

So let's stick to the texts and what they are saying, and let Harlan's personal fantasy life stay at home.

We can also, if it's easier, scale back the discussion to the use of graphic violence in general in Ellison's work, and forget the woman question for now. That will keep the anti-PC police at bay, at any rate. Despite David Loftus's complete avoidance of the subject, one cannot discuss "Prowler" without addressing the frequent and lengthy descriptions of evisceration that color the whole story.

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Postby Eric Martin » Sun Feb 06, 2005 4:26 pm

>Jack the Ripper did those things, so why should Harlan shy away from describing them?<

A good question, which really is central to the debate I am trying to start. Does it serve the story? Certainly these descriptions, in my mind, are central to the story, and given the attention and historical accuracy devoted to them, probably a big reason it got written. Significantly it was dedicated to Robert Bloch, who wrote his own share of Ripper tales, including one of the more lurid Trek episodes, "Wolf in the Fold."

I jumped in on this one because unlike the other SPIDER story selections, I think "Prowler" is representative of the problematic side of Ellison's work. That problem is, if I must put a phrase to it, a tendency of the writer to drift into unabashed, misanthropic (and yes, often misogynistic)violence, which tends to overwhelm or render pointless any purpose the story might have had.

That's not to say that violence and graphic descriptions don't have a place in art. My question is: does it HERE, in this story, or does the story just exist to present such material. Certainly Bleeding Stones has little else to offer, and thus reads like pornography. Does Prowler?

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Postby Eric Martin » Sun Feb 06, 2005 4:30 pm

My mistake...Mefisto is dedicated to Bloch, not Prowler. I checked on that afterwards, since re-reading Prowler brings Bloch to mind. Sorry about that.

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Postby Barney Dannelke » Sun Feb 06, 2005 4:40 pm

Eric.

Beliefs aside, which critics. Which other readers?

Harlan has written hundreds of pieces of fiction. You mention three or four where bad things happen to women. Actually, off the top of my shiny head I can think of a dozen other stories where bad things happen to women in Harlan's fiction. Now if we were discussing Edward Albee or J.D. Salinger I would say that had some statistical meaning. But does it have the same meaning in a body of work comprised of hundreds of stories?

I think we would have to ask ourselves what percentage of these stories have events where bad things happen to men. If bad things happen to both men and women in the same piece of fiction do these events cancel themselves out?

In a story with dramatic conflict and no animals, isn't it 50/50 that something bad is going to happen to either a man or a woman?

And most importantly, are you saying you don't want to ride around a major metropolitan on a sunny day astride the butt cheeks of a large and comely black woman?

- Barney

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Postby Eric Martin » Sun Feb 06, 2005 6:12 pm

Barney, you'rs still dodging the main point. Yeah, Harlan has written hundreds of stories, if there's no animals something bad will happen to someone, etc...but that doesn't address the kind of violence used in Prowler or a lot of other "canon" Ellison fiction.

Are you saying it's not there? That Harlan's use of it is nothing unusual, compared to his peers and predecessors? That he doesn't have a reputation, rightly or wrongly earned, for the use of it? That Prowler isn't dripping in offal, to a level that forces it to be analyzed in a thread about the story?

Come on.

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Postby P.A. Berman » Sun Feb 06, 2005 6:14 pm

Eric: I see that you're drawing a distinction between "private obsessions" and "wish fulfillment." I do see the difference (though it's a bit of a fine distinction to make), but it amounts to the same thing, which is looking into Ellison's personal life for the roots of these graphic descriptions. In some sense, you're right-- it must come from SOMEWHERE inside him, but the question of exactly where is what runs you into trouble. I wouldn't begin to attempt such a discussion, and don't think it's relevant either.

Personally, I don't enjoy such descriptions, but I see the artistry of the story. That's all I'm gonna say about it.

PAB
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Postby Eric Martin » Sun Feb 06, 2005 7:00 pm

That's not quite what I was trying to do, P.A. I'm not interested in psychoanalyzing writers, but rather discussing their texts.

But because it's becoming clear that no-one really wants to address what is a distinctive and controversial feature of Ellison's canon (see aforementioned Loftus post for an example of complete avoidance), than I'll drop it. Let the fourth praise-a-thon resume.

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Postby Micheal » Sun Feb 06, 2005 8:22 pm

I'd often looked at this morality play as being Ellison's repudiation of the two forces that seem to be given the credit for man's progression into self awareness: religion (Jack) and technology (Hernon). As so many others throughout history, we see how man can allow indulgence in these tools to strip away any prupose of humanity these foces can give us to grow and learn.

Jack runs across Whitechapel, sanguine in his belief that his deeds of great violence and bestialty serve the better good. Yet in truth, all Leather Apron has brought about if fear and terror within his populace, and a feral lust of violence within himself. More than that, we find at the base for his assault upon the decency and righteousness he holds as his validation for his butchery the fuel of lust; his desires for the Reverend's wife.

Hernon lives within a world of man's possessing the ability of thinking every whim, every hope, every desire into being, being able to have all that one could literally wish. With all he has, Hernon chooses instead to feed the most infantile wishes, the most pointless activities; a hedonism without purpose or clue. He lusts for his granddaughter, and toys with human beings he brings through time to satiate her desires.

Lust sits in the heart of both men, the immediate gratifactions of their libidos overcoming intellect and sanity. Ellison shows clearly that reducing oneself's to such slavery at the whim of desires becomes a hell that needs no demon, when's one's own psyche can create such torment.

Neither man has a soul, a center of being or ethic that gives reason to their deeds, or cause to make them consider their lives. Instead of Jack or Hernon taking the tools that are given to them to make something of their world or themselves, using these skills toward self-actualization and betterment, both use these abilities to allow their most feral and cruel instincts to run amok, deciding in their primacy that their gratifiaction should reign above all, their humanity sacrificed for petty brutality. In both cases, society gets to pay for their actions, and in the most brutal means possible.

For both life becomes a game, an infantile enterprise into self-indulgence rationalized by their professed justifications. Only when they come into direct contact with one another are they forced to confront that overwhelming aspect of their nature; as a result both are shown at their most impotent. Both find the solution of the moment in each other, and then watch as that immediacy doesn't bring about easing of their urges, instead the dissatisfaction forces both to act more bestially towards one another, much like addicts looking for a bigger fix to fill the emotional hole. No gods of future days to deliver Jack from hell; no death or end for Hernon to allay his boredom. Both become the plaything of the other; to amuse each other for all eternity. However, as with any other child, there is never a thought given to what happens when the toy tires of the game.

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Postby Barney Dannelke » Sun Feb 06, 2005 10:27 pm

>>Barney, you'rs still dodging the main point. Yeah, Harlan has written hundreds of stories, if there's no animals something bad will happen to someone, etc...but that doesn't address the kind of violence used in Prowler or a lot of other "canon" Ellison fiction. <<

I'm not dodging your point any more than you're dodging mine about which other readers and critics have problems with the violence in these particular Ellison stories or Ellison stories in general. You use this charge to back up your position but cite no names and no texts.

If you want to say that Harlan's work is misanthropic, you might have a case. Might. It's not where I would go, but so be it. If you are saying the work, the canonical work is specificly mysoginistic I think you need to show that either;

A] A disproportionate number of awful things happen to women as opposed to men, aliens and animals - allowing for the fact that there are are fewer women in the entire body of Harlan's work than men, OR

B] That the things that do happen to women in Ellison stories are MORE AWFUL than the things that happen to men in Ellison stories.

I just don't think you've made a case for either one of these two scenarios being true. IF you are saying that more violent things happen in Ellison stories than in the works of John Cheever or Herman Hesse, I think that's a given. More awful than Gunther Grasse or Elie Wiesel or Bret Easton Ellis or Clive Barker? That's a steeper hill to climb.

Violence against women in a Jack the Ripper story? I'm shocked. Is the violence worse than the violence in all the other stories in RED JACK - a ripper anthology put out by DAW in the 1980's in which Harlan's story appeared?

How shall we quantify this violence? Is it worse than the clinical evidence put forth in the Patricia Cornwall book about Sickert and the other Ripper suspects? Worse than the description of crime scene corpses in the novels of James Ellroy?

AND [please read genuine sincerity here if you have not been so far, and you should have been] where, in your mind, does the Art in this story stop and the gratuitousness begin? I had a moment (two actually) in AMERICAN PSYCHO and dozens in NATURAL BORN KILLERS
but not one in this particular Ellison tale.

And you also dodged my question about R. Crumb and lifestyle modes of conveyance so pot calling kettle black with thick meaty thighs is what I'm sayin'.

- Barney

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Postby Barney Dannelke » Sun Feb 06, 2005 10:39 pm

AND I'd like to add how happy I am that Micheal has avoided the big C since he is now at least 5 and 0 for posts where I smack my dome and say, "Geez, just how smart is this guy" or "Man, why the hell didn't I see that?"

My only problem is that his posts are SO thoughtful I'm tempted to skip the re-read because I'm not going to get more out of it than whatever I just read from Micheal.

Keep dodging bullets.

- Barney

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