Harlan Ellison vs. the Cannibal Brain

04/15/01

My grandparents on my fatherís side had a farm in Northeast Arkansas for the early years of my life. They used to live on it, but before I was born they bought a house in Blytheville. We always went to the farm when I visited. They had horses, pigs, cotton, soybeans, and all the stuff that goes with them. When I was eight, they sold or leased it or something. Anyway, we didnít go back there anymore except we drove by it once in a while.

So I'm sitting here, surrounded on three sides by computers and on the fourth by my enormous snoring dog, and I don't know why that's all that comes to mind. I'm trying to put together a small essay about why I think Harlan Ellison's stories are so important. I want to relate why he hits me where he hits me. But all I can think about is how little I can remember about that farm.

It doesnít come to me any way but in flashes of sense. Heat and dust, mainly. Leaning out a pickup truck window and choking on it. Getting shucked off the back of a smart horse by a low branch. The feel of cotton spreading in my hand. Structures Ė houses, shacks, general stores, storage facilities, barns Ė scabbed over with weathered boards, paint peeling, the heads of rusty nails surfacing here and there. The old men and women that sat mostly in the shade, their skin dark as tar and dry as oatmeal before the water hits it. The canyons of their faces. The short, white hair that looked like frosting. A cold RC Cola from a red bin in one of their stores.

And the sunflowers. Implausible, impossible plants, big in a way beyond the reckoning of an eight-year old, coming up out of the ground like a giant fist and forearm, thrusting over my head, lording over the roofs of houses. Their colors not the bright green and yellow of my books but faded like the picture on a much-loved, much-worn, much-washed t-shirt, mirroring the dust and the strained summer sky. Not waving in the wind but rolling like an ocean swell. The wonderful sunflowers.

I know that seems like a lot to someone whoís just reading this now, but thatís about all I have. Thatís my heritage, or part of it anyway, my family heritage, my southern heritage, my writerís heritage. But I wasnít able to claim it.

Why? Because I wasn't laying claim at my grandparent's house those summers. I was eating ice cream and watching TV and playing blackjack with myself at the card table right by the air conditioner. I didnít pay enough attention, and over the years my brain had to store information about sitcoms and videogames and girls and girls and it ate up all but those flashes. It chewed the rest up like some goddamn cannibal gnawing his own leg. Iím sure there are more memories, and more details. But theyíre buried in a way that I canít summon to use in any meaningful way. They're not useful to me except to make a point.

On the other hand, there are NO memories of Harlan Ellison's that seem to be buried, and if there were he's disinterred them - with dynamite. He's got a brain like a DVD recorder, and he's constantly in capture mode. In his finest stories, he lays claim to his past and he invests it with color and depth. His settings LIVE because he lived in them. His characters ring true because he was watching when the people that were their seeds did whatever they did.

There are other authors, like Chandler or Hemingway or Chaucer, that have done this; writers with the ability to perceive both the essence and details of a man or a situation and relate them with a minimum of fuss. There always will be. But Harlan remains special to me because he's the first one I found.

I'm not going to spend any more time giving the man a handjob over the breadth and detail of his remembrances and his skill in putting them into words - anyone who's eaten up enough with Harlan to be reading this knows his work. But you get the idea. Reading his work reminds me of how much there is in the world that is worth notice - and of how much of it I've missed. And that's why he's important to me as an influence. That's why he's important as a friend.

How am I influenced by his work? I'm inspired to try to look both closely and widely around me as I pass through the world so I may try to be a fair chronicler of my own times. Iím reminded to stay true to my own voice, for it is that voice alone that can carry through the years and push through the gauze of changing society and language. Iím enjoined to stop ingesting and regurgitating the pabulum that the media feeds me and to grow and harvest my own crops from my daily life.

I look at Harlanís fights and wonder if I could ever be as fine a champion of a cause. I read his description of Leona Kinzer in Jeffy is Five, think on a sunworn face I saw on a farm long ago, and wonder if I could ever do it similar justice. Harlan, and writers like him, are the ones who learned and remembered. They resisted the cannibalization of the mind by the trivial and the indifferent at every turn. They are the sunflowers.

They paid attention. And we should pay attention to them.

Rick Wyatt
April 2001

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