Harlan Ellison: Short Story Collections
Reviewed by Alex Jay Berman
1st Publication: 1988
Reviewed Edition: Plume Trade Paperback, 1989
Copyright 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988 by Harlan Ellison
Copyright 1988 by The Kilimanjaro Corporation
Cover Art: artist not credited
Stacey J's review
Reviews Description and Spoiler Warning
And this little box of bon-bons for the only other man I know
who enjoys poisoned chocolates . . .
ANGRY CANDY is, in the main, a book devoted to exploring the pain
and loss that comes with death, most specifically the death of loved ones.
But I'll get to that in a moment.
This book helped me immeasurably--when I bought it, my Grandmother
was in the process of dying a long, drawn-out death. During that period, this
book suffered innumerable readings and re-readings (Oddly, the other book I
kept coming back to during this time of slow loss was Pynchon's V. I've no idea
what that might signify.) as I sat with my grandmother, the last of my six grandparents
(Yes, six. It's a long story.). Watching this forceful, strong, opinionated
woman who'd beamed to hear herself called a "tough broad" waste away to a wisp
both physically and emotionally was perhaps the most wrenching experience of
my life. I'm no stranger to death, even when it comes as a prolonged wasting;
AIDS has taken care of that--but to see this smart woman, this oh-so-very-stubborn
woman alternate between docile husk and wheezing, crying, screaming arrangement
of bone and skin somehow made the inevitability of death and release all the
worse to bear. By day, I helped her, urging her to eat, helping her up to perform
the most common of functions, entertaining her, and, I hope--Gods, I hope--easing
her pain as she slowly spiraled down the sluice to the region between. By night,
I poured my energies into catharsis, writing my rage and sadness into the novel
I'm writing--guilty though it may make me feel, these experiences much improved
the book; I was able to inject more pathos for each character without it drifting
into melancholia. I'm almost finished the book; I intend to sell it. Still,
even should it become a bestseller whose popularity and acclaim bring me uncounted
millions (riiiight ...), I'd really rather have my grandmother back. But, of
course, that's not how the game is played; we're born; we live; we love; we
suffer and die, but through all this, we must remember to celebrate the life
far more than we shall ever mourn the death.
That celebration of the love we have for those come and gone bleeds
through ANGRY CANDY. Because of this, this book--and, by extension, Harlan--helped
me, allowing me to realize that both angry tears and dark laughter have their
place, a place they often share. Through these seventeen heart-grabbing, blackly
whimsical, pain-drenched stories--and perhaps even more through the six-thousand-plus
word introductory essay that begins this dark paean to the many facets and consequences
of Thanatos, I was told that it WAS all right not to accept the death of loved
ones; indeed, not to accept the cruel touch of death at all; that it was all
right to rage, rage against the dying of the light.
I know now, that, should the Fates decide my time done and the skein
which marks my life be encroached upon by the unkind scissors of Atropos, the
Inexorable, I shall not go gentle into that night, as I know it to be no damn
good night at all.
This, then, is the theme which runs through ANGRY CANDY: The denial
of death and the promises of countless preachers that the cessation of life
is not only natural, but something that should be embraced.
These stories reach out from the page, wrap their knurled fingers
about your terrified heart, and squeeze, alternately leaving you swimming in
the bittersweet memories of those lost to you or laughing out loud from sheer
brilliant absurdity. Either way, the words on the page hold such power that
tears will course from your eyes in empathic love and mourning for everyone
lost to us. Yes, this is a book about anger born of death; born of the deep-down,
scrub-your-soul-with-Borax-and-it-still-won't-come-out pain that comes of losing
those you love, but it's also a book which assures us that the pain can be borne;
that things can become, if not better, than at least more bearable.
From the introductory essay which details the loss of so many that
Harlan loved whose times came to their ends during the time these stories were
written, through stories like "Paladin of the Last Hour" and "Laugh Track" to
the final story, the cathartic "The Function of Dream Sleep", loss is laid out
upon the page in a manner which burns the soul and forces all who read the book
to come to terms with their own mortality--that they might spit in its eye.
A good deal of the vitriol and anger at death springs from the fact
that the mid-to-late Eighties were not especially good years for Harlan; though
he may have finally gained a soulmate, that joy was somewhat muffled by the
deaths of so many of his friends and colleagues. Better that this be explained
in Harlan's own words, however; the San Francisco Chronicle noted, "Ellison
is angry again (When was he ever not?--Ed.),and that's always a good sign."
Whether this be true or not, it can't be denied that this is one of the best
Ellison books in quite some time.
Don't believe me, huh? I see you there--you! Yeah, you with that
"Ma neeshtanah" face scrunching up your puss, wondering, "What makes this Ellison
book different from all other Ellison books?" Siddown, son--and wouldja please
zip that damn fly? Sheesh! Can't take you fans anywhere!--and lemme learn ya
a few things:
One story won a Hugo; another, an Edgar. The book in its entirety
won a World Fantasy Award AND was named one of the major works of American Literature
for the year.
This instills no small amount of fear in your humble reviewer. I'm
scared. I hope I have done this book justice. Some may think these commentaries
and synopses too facile or shallow, with not enough analysis given each story.
Still, that is how I feel it should be done; you cannot explain the beauty of
the "Pieta" by taking core samples of the marble; counting the points of color
in a Seurat painting will do nothing to better explain its mastery. Such are
these stories that I do not want to overanalyze them to the point where they
no longer give me pleasure.
What's really great about this book is that it was perhaps the first
of Harlan's books to be considered in the "mainstream"--finally, the narrow
perceptions of the world are changing; Harlan isn't a "science fiction writer,"
he's a WRITER, bigawd!
Even the chain stores got the news: Go to a Borders or a Barnes
and Noble, and look in the literature section under "E"--you'll see THE ESSENTIAL
ELLISON and this book. Unfortunately, the message may have been a mite garbled:
Oftentimes, these are the ONLY Ellison books to be found in those hallowed rows,
though SLIPPAGE seems to have slipped in as well.
Somewhere, deep in a dark hideout known only to those who cloud
men's minds, who prowl the night that they may hold back--and rout--the never-ending
forces of evil, Cordwainer Bird is reading The New York Times Book Review.
And laughing fit to burst a gut.
I cannot in good conscience deliver a review
of this book without first concentrating on its introductory essay, "The Wind
Took Your Answer Away." Opening with the funeral of Emily Austin, Harlan's longtime
friend and copy editor, Harlan details, unflinchingly, the deaths of friends
and the manner in which he was related to their last days.
Harlan uses this forum to exorcise the demons he harbors over having
missed visiting Manly Wade Wellman on his deathbed one last time by an hour,
over finding himself in the extremely unenviable position of becoming the de
facto obituary writer for nearly the entire science fiction community.
Let's face it; for fans of science fiction, fantasy, magic realism,
what have you, the Eighties were a time of deaths announced almost monthly.
The sidebar detailing the fallen that runs along two pages of the essay is cold
evidence of this: Giants of the industry fell here and there like discarded
plywood as if some errant god had suddenly decided to try out his new pruning
shears. Dick, Sturgeon, Herbert, Bester: all exalted deans of the genre we all
love, all brought down to dark death in the years of Reagan and greed. Had this
essay been written a few years later, Harlan would have had the daunting task
of eulogizing Heinlein, Asimov, Bloch--I honestly don't know that this could
have been done, either due to their grandeur and accomplishments or because
of the deep friendships Harlan enjoyed with these great men of speculative fiction.
Add to the mix that many of Harlan's icons hadn't the grace to live
forever, to survive these years of culling--Benny Goodman, John D. MacDonald,
Fred Astaire, and, perhaps most galling, the artist whose work Harlan's has
been most closely patterned after, Jose Luis Borges. Add then that this man
whom Harlan considered his direct precursor never received the Nobel Prize for
Literature he so richly deserved, and the reasons mount for Harlan to fold,
to fall into a period of no work save constant mourning and eulogizing.
This could not be done, however; there was too much left to do,
too many stories to write; there was Susan, shoring him up whenever the abyss
of utter despondency beckoned. The stories that follow are proof of the soul's
survival over the pain of loss after loss. I would not be at all surprised if
it were these stories that kept Harlan going when new additions to the necrology
came seemingly every day.
An interesting parallel that emerges in this introduction is the
prevalence of AIDS and the denial of society to accept that a new plague has,
indeed, come upon us. True, there is but one anecdote with which Harlan can
supply us with his personal take on the disease and the spirit of dread and
denial it has brought to the world. Nonetheless, his polemic against the atmospheric
fear caused by AIDS and the fools who, understanding little and learning less,
refuse to associate themselves with the pain and travails of those "tainted"
with the virus, is well aimed and strongly shot. Harlan's words easily manifest
the pain stemming from society's refusal to confront AIDS, to treat those affected
not as pariahs, but as human beings deserving of the love and attention due
any of us.
The essay hits home on two other very personal fronts: As I'm sure
most people globally by now have done, I have watched a friend slowly eaten
away by this new plague and, almost got to see a repeat performance with his
brother, one of my two best friends (who is thankfully now in full remission).
Also, Emily Austin, the first entry recorded in this literary necrology, was
epileptic, as am I. Her death, triggered by a seizure which stopped her heart,
is all the more chilling, especially since, as I write this, I am being moved
from one highly effective medication--albeit one which had started devouring
my liver--to one which will be safer to take but which was not made for my type
of epilepsy (having run through almost every antiepileptic drug, I've no choice),
thus enhancing the chances of having my first seizure in many years.
Speaking for myself, I cannot read this introduction without feeling
some fraction of the twinge Harlan must have felt in his heart at this time
in his life. I, too, loved these people, if only through their writings which
I so enjoyed.
Often, Harlan has decried the forgetfulness of the reading public--having
perhaps half-given up on those addicted to the sour pabulum of the glass teat--this
introduction serves not only to explain the stories in the book, but also creates
a monument to these fallen warriors of the word, so that they may not be forgotten.
NOW I'll get to the stories, having bored you all silly.
Paladin of the Last Hour
While in a cemetery communing with his wife twenty years gone,
Gaspar, an eccentric old man with a rather enhanced sense of responsibility--and
a rather special pocket watch stopped at eleven o'clock--is attacked by punks
and is rescued by Billy Kinetta, a much younger man whose reasons for standing
vigil in the cemetery are much more nebulous. Soon, Gaspar insinuates himself
into Billy's life, giving the younger man a sense of importance and friendship
he had never known. Feeling himself dying, Gaspar reveals that the watch is
much more than a mere stopped timepiece; that the space that separates its hands
separates the earth from its very end should the watch strike twelve. After
a test of both men's worthiness to wield it, Gaspar's custodianship of the watch--
and what it represents--is passed on to Billy, but not before he is granted
a gift by both Gaspar and the watch ...
This Hugo-winning story is more than just an entertainment
for me--in its love for things past, it echoes many of my own feelings. In Gaspar
I see my grandfather--husband to the grandmother mentioned above: A man fully
cognizant that things must move on but angry at their changing. Gaspar, and,
to a large extent, my grandfather, are the templates of the old man I want to
be when age has dimmed my eyes and slowed my step. These men, both real and
fictional, signify much to me: The man sitting on a lawn chair, listening to
two different baseball games at once on his transistor radios (Am I the only
non-collector who misses the simple beauty of transistor radios? Not those black
boxes of my youth, but rather, the Art Deco miniatures of the Forties, Fifties,
and Sixties) while avidly cross-checking the box scores and occasionally decrying
the loss of Shibe Park and the Philadelphia Athletics; the feeling of loss should
a piece of the past be demolished by a society too in love with things of the
new and too busy to care about things gone.
Billy, on the other hand, is no simple viewpoint character, existing
only to show us the doings and eccentricities of Gaspar; rather, he is a man
whose past and sense of duty have robbed him of any chance he may ever have
had of truly coexisting with the world at large. Martyring himself to duty by
cutting all ties and moving cross-country to be closer to the cemetery--which,
in itself, is a recurring theme (perhaps even a background character) in the
story--and taking the deadest of dead-end jobs to keep himself in situ and out
of abject poverty, Billy has taken it upon himself for a sin never committed,
for an obligation--much in the way of the Japanese giri--unpaid. Sadly, Billy
reminds me all too well of myself: living a shadow life unbounded by love or
success, he merely exists--and grieves for a man he never knew.
Both men nurse the pain of loss they feel: Gaspar for his late wife,
Billy for the unnamed lieutenant who saved Billy's life at the cost of his own
in Viet Nam.
These two empty lives, enriched by each other's, dovetail beautifully
in the simple, expositive language which one doesn't tend to expect in Harlan's
fiction: After all, we reason, should not a master work with platinum filigree
and the most pristine marble? We forget that a true wordsmith needs no fantasy
worlds to enchant; no fulsome rhetoric to draw us in with sycophantic moans
to say, "Wow! This is ART!"--which often means that the speaker does not fully
understand what was written. Though these are things at which Harlan excels
and which lesser writers prove inferior in their attempts, this story is written
with a simple grace and flow, much like that of another addition to the necrology:
John D. MacDonald.
Ironically, this story--and the last entry, "The Function of Dream
Sleep," are the only stories in the collection in which death is actually accepted
Oh, these stories neither exalt nor encourage one's racing to be served at the
eternal check-out counter; rather, they rage against the process
against the dying, while embracing the end to dying; letting the pain wash away
with the cessation of life. These stories seethe and rant, yes, but more against
the impermanence of all things and the pain that comes with dying, than against
the inevitable itself.
Harlan has said that he the simple act of reading this story brings
tears to his eyes.
That makes two of us.
: Dear God. I just had the great pleasure, thanks
to Rick's RealAudio link, of listening to Harlan's reading of this story. I've
never quite had the financial stability to justify sending off the eight bucks--small
though the amount may be, there have been weeks when I've lived on less--that
I might join the HERC, and so have never heard Harlan reading his stories. (Ed.
Note - for the link, check out I Write
That WILL change.
I've read and reread this story quite often. I know all its twists
and turns. Given a moment of reflection, I could, no doubt, quote its words
extensively. Still, listening to Harlan weave his glittering web of words, I
felt the story draw me in anew.
"I laughed, I cried; it was much better than 'Cats'." How often
have we heard that refrain, either as a pitch for a new show or as parodied
on late-night comedy shows or conversations? It seems a bit overmuch; as if
someone who might say such a thing fears having used up a period of time in
his or her life without experiencing true beauty, without readily-packaged epiphanies.
I just enjoyed an hour very well spent.
It was much, MUCH better than "Cats".
A lycanthropic gourmand works her way through the rues and
alleys of Paris, enjoying the nightlife of the City of Light; using the street
maps as her menu and Parisians as the hottest of haute cuisines, until she meets
a very different man, a man with whom she cannot work her wiles, neither those
of smile and sexuality nor those of tooth and claw. Though as different as a
man and woman can be, they find each other fitting rather well together.
Though in the hands of a lesser writer, the precis of the
story (werewoman meets plantman) would be flat and predictable at best and schlock
at worst, the sheer skill Ellison has with language, with the turn of the phrase,
and with the knowledge of his readers' expectations makes this otherwise unremarkable
story a joy to read.
Paris comes alive in all its meaty glory; Claire is not the simple
sex-and-death succubus of legend and myth, but rather a complex character with
whom we sympathize, no matter her obvious addictions, no matter the atrocities
Horrific as it may be, this is a love story of madness and monsters
which we cannot help but appreciate.
Well, it's time for a brave band of men to go forth and save
the future again-- though the methods may differ slightly from the usual ...
An odd duck, this little two-page one-shot is the only one
in the collection which does not deal with death or loss in any way. One wonders
just why it was chosen for this collection and not held over for SLIPPAGE. Though
a passable little anecdote, it's hardly one of Harlan's best--nor can it even
be considered up to the standards set by some of his least appealing stories.
An argument can, of course be made for the idea that the story does
indeed mesh with the book's theme; that it seeks to find justification for the
world's pain and suffering.
The argument can be made, yes--but I'll not be the one making it.
When Auld's Acquaintance Is Forgot
In a future world, a desperate man tries over and over to rid
himself of some distressing memories--and, sadly, succeeds.
This story is eerily reminiscent of something Philip K. Dick
might have written; in fact, were I to try to pitch the story to a movie executive,
I'd probably describe it as "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" meets "Lonelyache"
(Yes, I know that even assuming that the executive has read those stories--that
he or she even reads--is a mistake). Dick-like elements pervade this story:
hoverpaks, memory banks, a seedy underworld flourishing in a glittering city--but
the stamp on the story is inescapably Harlan's. The quick easy--yet also somehow
tense--patter of city people, those who affect boredom at anything they've seen
or heard of once, those people inured to a life lived on overdrive, has always
been one of Harlan's best tools, and it is used to great effect in the story.
(Interestingly, a punchline toward the beginning of the story--"Simply
put, Mister Auld: you are overdrawn at the Memory Bank."--brings to mind an
interesting serendipity--the other day, while checking for data on a movie,
I chanced upon the Internet Movie Database's "100 Worst Films." Intrigued, I
looked at the list, that I might gauge their selections against my own. One
of the entries was a Canadian film, "Overdrawn at the Memory Bank." Such a confluence
coming just at the time I was writing this review demanded that I investigate
further. Apparently, the film was made in 1985--from a story by John Varley!--and
once more I bemoaned ANGRY CANDY's lack of an itemized copyright page; I'd love
to know when this story was written--I'd like to know which came first, the
story or the movie. [Addendum: Question answered. According to the SFSite bibliography
for Harlan, this story did indeed come first, by three years.])
I can't help but think that another window has been opened into
Harlan's life with this story; it's been debated whether the recurrent threads
in his stories--the man, having hit a woman, horrified at himself; the man whose
memories are too much for him to bear alone; the searches for love that find
only lust or familiarity and convenience--spring from events from the Man's
own life. The memory Jerry Auld is so desperately trying to divest himself of
is very reminiscent of the passage in "Deathbird" about Nathan Stack and his
dying mother: she begging for release, he unwilling to lose her.
On a long bus ride, Dana, a young woman finds her most precious
possession--a private fantasy grotto held in her head--invaded by what could
best be termed a mental rapist--a telepath with little sense of restraint or
morality. To deal with this monster, she is forced to take the most extreme
measures that she might stop him from ravaging any other women's minds--but
those measures are not at all the kind one would normally expect, nor are their
consequences ones Dana will find it easy to live with.
This story is different from most of the entries in the book
as it does not deal death and loss; at least not in any direct way. Rather,
this story is about the death of innocence, of ideals, of privacy.
"Innocence" sounds a bit off when you consider the "teak fantasy"
that opens the story--apparently, Harlan forgot nothing from his editing days
at various men's magazines; the eroticism of the first two pages proves that--but
the flesh and fantasy serve to heighten the horror that intrudes on this sensual
Think a moment; reflect on your own private lust-dreams; perhaps
you bed Cindy Crawford or Mel Gibson or whatever other symbol of sex you hold
up as the ideal. We carry these fantasies about wherever we go, our mad impulses
safely barricaded behind walls of bone and brain. Let's say that, bored and
longing, you're scratching your mental itch while sitting somewhere--at work,
in traffic, on a train. The two of you (three of you, four of you--whatever
your kick) are going at it hot and heavy--when suddenly, a strange voice starts
critiquing your form, making snide remarks about this technique or that body
part. How might you react?
Personally, I'd be pissed; having a neurological disorder, I'm gotten
a bit more used to weird things going on in my head than most--though, to be
honest, I'm usually not there when things happen ...
I rather doubt that mine would be the usual response, however.
Dana's is the normal response to innocence defiled; to intimacy
made obscenity. As the intruder turns her private fantasy grotto into a stage
for his own mad rape fantasies, Dana sinks into hysteria. This is compounded
by the anonymity of the man polluting her mindscape; he could be anyone on the
Hysteria eventually gives way to resolve; whomever the mind-rapist
might be, Dana can see that he has practiced his obscene trade on many an unsuspecting
woman; she is not the first, nor shall she be the last unless measures are taken
to stop his perverted intrusions.
Even the most innocent and pure of us has monsters locked within
his or her mind; safely locked away in an undermind, these horrors never see
the light of day. To distract the rapist, Dana is forced to set these screaming
beasts free as she holds his consciousness fast within her fantasy world and
walls it away.
Though Dana prevails, it's a victory most Pyrrhic: Not only can
she no longer retreat to her secret safe refuge, she also knows the depths of
madness and depravity she herself is host to.
What sick thoughts have grazed your mind only to be pushed down
by the sudden wave of disgust you felt?
How did you feel when you realized the worlds contained within you
could be so dark and depraved?
On the Slab
A gigantic Cyclopean body is discovered, unearthed from the
earth of a barren orchard, and is subsequently bought and exhibited by Frank
Kneller, a flashy rock producer. The producer begins to feel himself oddly moved
by the majesty of the great corpse, so much so that he makes his bed in the
exhibition hall, the nearer to be to the ennobling presence of the giant. This
proves somewhat unwise, as Kneller becomes witness--and victim--to an attack
never before seen by mortal men. The corpse shudders to life before Kneller's
eyes and, realizing just whom his exhibit was, he finds that it is not that
There Are Things Man Was Not Meant To Know; rather, there are things Man is
better off not thinking about.
I first came across this story in the Dream Corridor comic
book; it struck me then, though not as much as now, reading the whole of the
words, as an allegory for Twentieth Century Man: We have touched the stars;
looked upon the beginnings of the universe, and yet we muddle along, digging
ourselves deeper into the mire. I don't think that this is what Harlan was attempting--after
all, you can pull any number of allegories from nursery rhymes, song lyrics,
and cereal boxes. Still, it works for me.
Once more, the character who serves as Harlan's viewpoint and voice
seeks a rationalization for all the foibles and failings of life by grasping
to something higher, some scheme above our conceptions.
This isn't the first time Harlan has played with the usual conceptions
of Promethean myth--"The Place With No Name" springs to mind--nor do I believe
it shall be the last. Almost every culture has a "fire-bringer" myth, with some
of the protagonists suffering punishment for their arrogance, others whose reward
is godhood and adulation. Fertile ground for stories this is; fertile ground
indeed, and Harlan plumbs this earth deeply, bringing us some great stories.
Even when reading the Dream Corridor version, I felt an odd sense
of deja vu, a sense that this was a story which I had already been told. Oftentimes,
this is Harlan's gift: He is able to create stories and situations so memorable
and visceral that we the readers feel such familiarity that we can not imagine
a time when we did not know this story, when this tale was not extant and oft-told.
Aside from the story's gestalt, it's the little things which make
this tale so effective: The scientists slavering over the new find and what
ramifications it may bring, the media attention the exhibition draws, the two
pupils that look out from inside the giant's single eye, and, sadly, the fools
and children all too quick to cut away at the flesh of the great and terrible
"Ninth Wonder of the World" seeking keepsakes or to immortalize themselves in
the monstrosity's marbled flesh.
These facets of the story only bring we, the readers closer to a
reality in which this story might take place, while at the same time planting
us firmly on the edge of fantasy, of magic; leading us ever closer to the edge
that we may peer off into the murky depths below.
Prince Myshkin, and Hold the Relish
Debating the merits and misogyny of Dostoevsky while waiting
for what is described as the best hot dog in the world, the story's narrator
is accosted by a man who proceeds to vomit a tale of uncanny bad luck with love
upon our hero's shoes.
You think you got troubles?
I defy anyone reading this to hold in his or her laughter. The paean
to Pink's hot dogs is so earnest and obsessive, one might expect it to have
sprung from the mind of a Woody Allen--you know, back when he was making funny
movies. Further, the man in the Borsalino's manic tale of lover after lover--all
of whom met with misadventure of some kind--tragic though it might be, verges
on the surreal.
It's not so much the manner in which the incessant parade of lovers
and their respective fates is delivered, nor is it the black humor inherent
in the myriad ways his paramours all make their final exits; rather, it is the
mad juxtapositioning of chatter and calamity which invariably causes the reader
to giggle, guffaw, and otherwise give in to laughter.
The explanation for exactly why we feel the need to laugh at tragedy,
to smile to keep the dogs of despair at bay, is far more complicated and far
too subjective for me to ever try to explain. I've used laughter as a defense
mechanism all my life, whether as a defense mechanism or to stave off tears
of self-pity. Now, I like to think myself a merry sort, especially considering
all the disease, despair, and death that's fallen like New York pigeonshit into
my life, and I still can't quite understand or explain just why the laughter
comes so easily or from where that need to laugh comes.
This very human need is why this story works so very well.
An aside: It wasn't until after a few readings that I consciously
realized how much the narrator and Michael, the erudite deacon of dogs, are
themselves Dostoevskian in demeanor and conversation. Though the trappings of
Pink's are a far cry from Raskolnikov's Moscow, the opening scene reads like
Dostoevsky as rewritten by Beckett or Stoppard--with a Yiddish twist.
The Region Between
An earthly soul is harvested for use by an interstellar trader;
the soul, resenting being used as chattel, foments revolt in every brain; every
shell in which he is placed.
The longest story of the collection in pages if not in words
(to be wholly honest, the many designs and differently laid-out pages made attempting
any sort of word count prohibitive), "The Region Between" is also the only story
in ANGRY CANDY not written during the period of loss Harlan experienced in the
The story was first published in 1969, but you really don't need
to go to the indicia to determine this. Not to say that the story is at all
dated; rather, the giveaways are the black-bordered illustrations, so typical
of the science fiction digests of the time, and, more telling, the myriad arrangements
of typeface. The words in this story stack themselves in columns, abut each
other and crash into one another in a combat of viewpoints, and even spiral
together in the story's climactic mandala paragraph. These word placements are
terribly evocative of the many newspapers and broadsheets published by all the
Flower Children about which Scott McKenzie sang so banally (I'm convinced that,
had McKenzie himself "gone to San Francisco," he would have worn bricks in his
head rather than flowers in his hair. And we won't even mention "MacArthur Park."
Brr.), like the Haight-Ashbury's Oracle--or, as I don't know where Harlan was
living at the time this story was written, the influence may have come from
Britain's International Times (IT) or L.A.'s own The New World Countdown.
While I understand the work, and while it does work, I've no doubt
that the odd placements might confuse many readers,. As for myself, I'm just
happy I learned long ago to read upside down, backwards, and sideways--I would
have felt rather odd rotating the open book as I read it; what would people
think?--that the book had a centerfold? That I had the optical acuity of Mr.
Know that it took me a while to muster myself to write the review
for this story, simply because the story can be viewed on so many levels. This
story can easily be interpreted as a polemic against the war in Viet Nam, an
allegory for the then-widespread use of hallucinogenic drugs, a screed against
authority, or perhaps it is the natural evolution of the words and philosophy
Heinlein put in the mouth of Valentine Michael Smith: "Thou art God."
Another way to look at the story would be to see the Bailey-soul
as an analogue for the Harlan Ellisons of the world, those with the "live minds
and live hearts," as Harry Chapin once said, those who rail against the conformity
culture, against the do-as-you're-told, believe-what-we-tell-you mindset fostered
by so many world leaders.
It is interesting to see what the soul-stealing Succubus "gives"
the races with malleable souls to better recruit them into his inventory:
The Stechii were given eterna dreamdust.
The Amassanii were given doppelgänger shifting.
The Cokoloids were given the Cult of Rebirth.
The Flashers were given proof of the Hereafter.
The Griestaniks were given ritual mesmeric trances.
The Bunanits were given (imperfect) teleportation.
The Condolis were given an entertainment called Trial by Nightmare Combat.
The Tratavisii were given an underworld motivated by high incentives for kidnapping
and mind-blotting. They were also given a wondrous narcotic called Nodabit.
The Humans were given Euthanasia Centers.
While it's fun to try to dissect these fictional races and suggest
cultures and subcultures to which they may allude, to do so is rather beyond
the point. All these races have, for a new toy, convenience, or societal paradigm,
effectively sold their souls.
This is at the heart of the story; it seems to tell us that NOT
being unique, NOT questioning the status quo, NOT thinking with one's own mind
is as effective way of bartering one's soul away as is heading down to a lonely
Delta crossroads, playing your blues, and signing Ol' Man Scratch's ledger in
The story is oddly partitioned, assigned chapters and half-chapters;
these little microchapters do follow a pattern, but I have to admit that half
of them could just as easily have been separated by a row of asterisks. "Chapters"
Four and Five, neither longer than fifty words, come to mind. It do get annoying,
The introduction is kin to the black-and-white portion of the Wizard
of Oz, introducing us both to the main character and evincing in a few short
exchanges the terrible mediocrity of his lifedeath.
But, as is said at the beginning of the first chapter, "Death came
merely as a hyphen. Life, and the balance of the statement, followed instantly.
For it was only when Bailey died that he began to live." We are then treated
to a surreal description of the condition of not-being followed by an info dump
that shows what a universe in need of a Succubus is like while introducing the
other dramatis personae of the tale.
When Bailey is removed from the soul file and deposited into one
Subaltern Pinkh, a war hero and leader, the allegory really begins to take shape.
Pinkh lives in a world--a galaxy, really--where war is the status
quo. Both the dark star Montag and the Thil Galaxy have their Lords of Propriety,
who have been sending their people off to fight one another for nigh on a century.
These Lords are so above the common populace that they are revered and even
worshipped by their people, to the extent that even the Lords of one's enemy
are considered divine.
Things are changing for the Montag and the Thil, however; the war
is growing old and obsolete; peace threatens to break out at any time. Still,
however, the Lords send out their forces to kill in their name and continue
the struggle. This is a situation which plays itself out daily in the world
in which we live, yet no one ever seems to see how very odd this is. Harlan
sees. Harlan wants to point this out in big flaming letters, but it's so hard
to get people so calcified in their perceptions to listen, writers are forced
to couch their shouted warnings in allegory , in fiction; in space battles spanning
hundreds of light-years.
Though Pinkh is ordered to visit mass destruction on the Thil homeworld,
he and his sappers are issued a stern edict: Destroy what you like, make a My
Lai out of the homeworld if you want, but do not by ANY means strike the Maze
of the Thil Lord of Propriety. Such a thing is so verboten that even considering
it is outright heresy. Never! How could any right-thinking Montag--or even a
of such a thing?
Right about now, though, Pinkh begins to hear a voice, a sort of
anti-Jiminy Cricket, screaming about how very gonzo this situation, Pinkh's
life, the whole society of war and Propriety is. Bailey has become the small
voice of dissent, enemy of the people, the Ralph Nader issuing warnings from
deep within Pinkh's body politic.
Bailey knows, as Pinkh himself does not, that the entire war has
been staged to benefit the Lords of Propriety, that, in fact, Pinkh is the instrument
the Lords intend to use to shore up their peoples' faltering enmity. Pinkh is
to be their Zimmerman Letter; their Pearl Harbor, the impetus that will ensure
that the war continues with the same fervor it had before the people began to
tire of war.
No matter how much Bailey screams and rails at the bearlike (perhaps
a jab at the animalistic culture of warriors?) Pinkh, he does as he is programmed
like a good little soldier, destroying the Thil Lord's Maze and ensuring that
such a transgression will fire the people's anger once more.
Bailey's actions are deemed unsuitable, and he is shuffled into
the mind of a stalker cat, an advance scout for a race of reavers and conquerors
known as the Filonii (Here I found the names of the alien races a little jarring;
we have the Trechii, the Amassanii, the Tratravisii, and now the Filonnii. I
kept waiting for the Hawaii to show up.). The stalkers have always served the
Filonii, helping them colonize new worlds, and in the cat, Bailey finds it a
bit easier to break through with his message of sedition. Though resigned to
what is and what has always been, the stalker cat still harbors resentment of
the "chickenshit" masters who send him and his kind out to help further the
Through a lengthy discourse with the cat as it scouts out the new
world, Bailey is able to stir rebellion in the cat; together, they form an alliance
with the sentient spore trees and hookworms of the planet and destroy the Filonii
This section speaks of the class wars that exist between leaders
and grunts; of the ignorance and contempt directed at indigenous peoples by
conquering societies. Again we are treated to a direct parallel of the American
presence in Viet Nam and the ignorance shown by the warmongers in power.
Again removed for his intransigence, Bailey is placed in the form
of an amorphous being who serves as gladiator for one of two entities in constant
conflict. The exchanges between the two adversaries smack of the absurdity that
diplomatic exchanges between warring countries can be. We can once more draw
an easy parallel between the entities and the superpowers of the Cold War; between
the gladiators and the hapless countries drafted into the U.S.-Soviet conflict.
In rapid succession, Bailey is deposited by the Succubus into being
after being, always stirring up trouble; always fomenting revolution against
the accepted definition of "what is."
For this constant revolt, the Bailey-soul is yanked from the soul
rotation by the Succubus and deposited in Limbo, placed there until the soul
merchant can better examine this aberrant soul, this nonfunctional piece of
rolling stock to determine what's gone wrong.
The Succubus examines Bailey extensively; what it does not know
is that Bailey is taking the time to examine his tormentor. What neither of
them know is that the stuff which once was God, for lack of a better name, resides
in both of them, as it does in everything. However, in Bailey, this fragment
of Godness has been ever on the verge of breaking free. The intense scrutiny
of the Succubus's examination provides it with the impetus to do so, and it
leaps from within Bailey, joining with all its myriad aspects in all the billions
of repositories it has placed some of its self, enveloping all.
This speaks to the fact that even the smallest of us has the power
to alter our destinies, to break free from the behaviors and actions ingrained
Though out of time, out of its element, this story fits rather well
with the rest of the collection, dealing as it does with death and with the
raging against the night of darkness so necessary to live a life rather than
merely experience a wait until cold death takes us down to dirt and dust.
Throughout his life watching and creating television comedy,
a harried television writer believes he can hear the laughter of his dead Aunt
Babe laughing gaily at comedy shows throughout the decades. Apparently, her
distinctive laugh was recorded on an tape loop which serves as the laugh track
to show after show. Noting that over the years, the quality of Aunt Babe's recorded
laugh has degenerated, the writer soon realizes that some part of his aunt's
spirit has left its electronic imprint on the tape, that she is trapped in a
hell where she is forced to laugh at the most insipid of sitcoms. To free her,
he sets himself on a quest that leads him to the Phantom Sweetener, a technician
who works in the secret underbelly of network programming.
Oh, I liked this one a lot. I've always been big on nostalgia
despite my age, and this one, like many of Harlan's, delivers in spades. In
many ways, this is the comic mirror to "Jeffty Is Five," updated to better stoke
the memories of those of us who grew up suckling at the cathode-ray nipple of
the glass teat. One part of the story really struck home: as a child, Angelo
characterizes Aunt Babe's laugh as what he imagined the sound of the Toonerville
Trolley clattering downhill. I'm a little sad that most people wouldn't get
this; I was lucky enough to grow up a block next to a large regional library
which had quite a good deal of comic collections. So it was that I was introduced
to Walt Kelly's Pogo, Will Eisner's Spirit, and Fontaine Fox's great Toonerville
Folks. The strip ran from 1915 to 1955, so most people aren't all that familiar
with it, a fact Harlan uses to good effect:
If you have never seen a panel of that long-gone comic strip,
forget it. It was some terrific laugh. It could pucker your lips.
Those unfamiliar with The Skipper (NOT Alan Hale, Jr.), Powerful
Katrinka, Mickey (himself) Maguire, the String Saver, and all the other wacky
Toonerville-ians can get what he's saying, but I immediately saw that old trolley
weaving around the tracks.
(An aside: While checking the 'Net to make sure I had the correct
dates of the strip's span, I came across a picture of a tin-plate model of the
Trolley from the Twenties, beautifully painted and detailed with The Skipper
hanging on the platform. Instant object lust washed over me. Sure, it's probably
worth hundreds of dollars. Doesn't matter--I WANT it!)
Back in 1978, the time in which Harlan sets the story, I was six
years old, and, though my sister and I probably outread our entire classes,
I was a good little slave to that magic box in the living room. To better illustrate
this, let me just say that this was back when I thought of Gilligan's Island
as high art. As you might expect, I feel a sort of guilty pleasure at having
had action figures of both the Fonz and the characters from "Welcome Back, Kotter"
(It could have been a lot worse--two and a half years before, when a single-engine
plane crashed two blocks away--a few short lengths of lawn away from my grandparents'
house, in fact--and the power went out in the neighborhood, I was upset because
I missed what was then my favorite show ... The Donny and Marie Hour. Yeeg.).
Having said that, I think you may understand why reading this story
spurs a frisson of guilty nostalgia deep within those half-dead brain cells
left over from when I sat so close in front of the box of dreams and nightmares
that I could make out the red, green, and blue in the pixels of the screen.
The idea of a ghost in the machine is nothing new--though the idea
of a astral critic hopping the cathode rays is apt. How many of us remember
seeing double images on grainy black-and-white sets that we believed to be ghosts
haunting the tube?
That the aspect of "sweetening" is revealed is somewhat vindicating.
I'd often suspected something like it went on even when I was a child: No matter
how sincere Tom Bosley sounded as he said, "'Happy Days' is filmed before a
live audience," my eight-year-old mind knew that something was a little on the
treyf side. Even though I was told by my elders that the eerie similarity, the
terrible Pavlovian conformity of the audience's chuckles, giggles, guffaws and
snickers were due to the "APPLAUSE" sign, I knew something was going on.
Without fail, every single schmuck in the audience laughed at the
same time. Don't think that's odd?
Tell a funny joke to a group consisting of more than three people
(if you haven't the talent, get someone else). Observe their reactions. They
will laugh in stutter-time, one's tone and volume rising as another's falls.
Then there are those who, no matter how simple or blunt the joke, will always
wait a picosecond before adding their own strained mirth. Whether that's because
they don't get the joke or because they're waiting for a follow-up or a better
punchline, it doesn't matter; the reaction is the same.
It came as a great relief to me to hear years later (I think it
may have been on a Dick Cavett show) that my suspicions were not unfounded,
that extra dollops of merriment was indeed added to show tapes on occasion.
Harlan's Phantom Sweetener is a great character, a man at the pinnacle
of a very private profession. As one of the seamier cogs of the machine that
drives series television, Wally Modisett is a man well sketched in only a few
I find, once again, that while enjoying the story, a secluded part
of my undermind keeps sliding off into tangents: Just how close is Angelo an
analog to Ellison? Is there a real Bill Tidy (heaven forfend!), and just who
is it? How much of television scenarists' work really is butchered (well, we
know the answer to that, but I've been watching so little television these days
that I've forgotten just how much rancid tripe is out there)?
That aside, the story stands very well on its own, a modern counterpart
to any number of stories by Ambrose Bierce and the writers of his time: There
is a ghost in the box/closet/house/et cetera. Upon discovery or disturbance
(and after twenty years of exposure of incessant crap TV, I'd assume Aunt Babe
to be very much disturbed), the ghost takes action against its discoverers,
jailers, or whomever its ire may be directed toward.
The conversation between Angelo and his aunt is both eerie and tender,
as I suppose any conversation with a much-loved dead relative would be. Rather
than simply being a nice lady with a sassy demeanor and obliging mammaries,
Aunt Babe, though immaterial, is given flesh as a character. This is something
many writers would have bobbled; Harlan keeps the story from being a one-note
Though somewhat predictable (think "elephant shit"), the story's
ending nonetheless can bring a grin to your face, if not a giggle, chuckle,
chortle, snort, or belly laugh.
A man named Vicenzey, a man with many a dark stain on his soul,
recounts to us the story of his meeting with an enigmatic Mr. Brown, a collector
of military men in pewter, and how that meeting changed him from the mercenary
type he once was into something of a guardian angel. In a series of vignettes,
he gives us what constitutes the wisdom of the ages--or at least, as much of
that wisdom as we really need.
This story, poised on the wire between fiction and allegorical
nonfiction, is an odd duck among Harlan's writings. Though there have been quite
a few stories told in the first person--"Tired Old Man", "I Have No Mouth, and
I Must Scream", and "Prince Myshkin" spring to mind--none of them have the me-to-you
flavor of a story being told directly to the reader. All of the stories noted
above could have been overheard in a bar, a park, a bus--they are stories told
at someone rather than straight to us.
The story of Vincenzey is for the most part supplemental; the delivery
system by which the missiles that are the thirteen vignettes contained within
may be launched.
I'm brought to mind of days back in Mr. Belasco's Creative Writing
class at Northeast High School, when he would dictate: "This assignment will
be less than a hundred words--now write an emotion." Though doubtless our offerings
were far below any of these microstories, the similarity still stands nonetheless.
I have to wonder if, wracked by the demons driven by the deaths of friends,
Harlan sat down at the Columbia and composed this stories as a form of self-therapy.
Harlan has often invoked Mario Vargas Llosa's wisdom that "Writers are the exorcists
of their own demons," and it would certainly appear that Harlan is going once
more to the mattress with his own with this story.
To try and analyze the genesis, message, and meaning of each entry
would necessitate my printing them all here, and I do not want to deprive any
who have not read the story of his or her feeling of discovery. Rather, I shall
lump them together, making blanket statements here, more specific comments there,
and hope that the whole mishmash somehow makes some semblance of sense.
All of these vignettes may be considered shadows of Harlan himself,
perhaps more than most of the stories he has written; some appear to be his
experiences drawn whole-cloth with no artful obfuscation; others demand more
scrutiny to be seen as pictures from Harlan's life.
One almost certainly is a thinly veiled summation of all of the
author's failed relationships with women before his one shining success; another
is a writer's debunking of the conceit that one picture is worth a thousand
words; most are artfully-drawn allegories for the author's own pain and loss.
I said earlier that these seem to have been written as self-therapy; if so,
then it is obvious that Harlan believes as I do that the best way to help oneself
is to help another in the effort. While not entirely a primer on how to keep
one's soul intact and healthy in the face of the slings and arrows being thrown
in your face, this story is certainly a good start down that lonely road; no
better textbook has yet been written.
The message? As best I can distill it, it seems to be a gentle convoking
we all should heed: Yes. Yes, we all feel it. Here; read. Learn.
A bag lady, a witness to a very disorganized crime committed
by members of organized crime, is hounded and hunted by the criminals. Using
the unique methods the street has taught her, she evades and eventually triumphs
over her pursuers.
This story is both a favorite of mine and one it took me
a while to fathom, this because I did not wholly grasp one key part of the painting.
The term "soft monkey" refers to the "Cloth Mother" or "Chicken Wire Mother"
experiment conducted and expanded upon by Dr. H. F. "Harry" Harlow in the Fifties
and Sixties. Briefly, the socioanthropological studies dwelt on the comfort
factor inherent in imprinting and childrearing.
In the experiments, infant monkeys was placed in cages containing
two wire sculptures loosely representing the shape and form of a mother monkey.
One would normally be constructed of bare chicken wire, whereas the other would
have the addition of soft cloth or fur swathing it. The studies found that the
infants would, almost without fail, imprint themselves upon and cling hard and
fast to the softer, warmer, and generally more comfortable construct, hence
the derivation of the term "soft monkey". Even when the wire monkey was equipped
with a nipple connected to bottle of milk while the "soft monkey" had a nipple
that drew on nothing, the infants would stay with the more comfortable of the
"mothers" provided, sometimes to the point where starvation would have ensued
had the experimenters not interceded. later experiments proved that the door
swung both ways, that a mother would care for a surrogate "child" even to the
detriment of her real offspring
I didn't originally make the connection between the story and Dr.
Harlow's experiment, so I felt myself somewhat self-betrayed--though the story
is enjoyable without this understanding, it nagged at me that I had not wholly
grokked everything that could be had from the story.
Having since been pointed to the connection, I find that the story
still irks me--not because there's anything missing, but simply because it serves
as a reminder of something I could not figure out--conceited, I know, but there
This story won the 1988 Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for
Best Short Story of the Year, as well it should: Harlan paints a tapestry of
a kind largely unseen in the mystery genre.
Annie, our "hero", is very unlike most mystery protagonists; not
only is she of a station--hell, let's call it what it is in these enlightened
times--an underclass, a caste generally left out of most suspense, crime, and
mystery stories. Usually, bag ladies are written into such stories as informants,
or to give an element of seediness to a particular setting. While there have
been stories in the genre with homeless protagonists, their worldviews are generally
not so blurred as Annie's nor do most of them take much time before slipping
into the familiar archetype we have come to expect from these tales: They get
their obligatory love interests, their overall situation drops sharply but by
book or story's end they find themselves on a better footing than they were
at tale's beginning. This is not at all the case with "Soft Monkey"--Annie is
a delusional old ugly black lady who for some time has not really been living;
rather, she does what she does best: Annie simply survives, her plastic doll-child
Alan clung tightly to her breast, her existence a series of safe squats every
Upon becoming a witness to murder, she is forced to kick her survival
instincts into high gear as never before, shucking and jiving, using every advantage
the street makes available to her. Here again, we divert from the normal fare:
Though Annie uses methods of escape and fighting which in anyone else would
be considered supernatural, she, her life, and her surroundings have been drawn
in such loving detail that we simply nod our head and accept them as the most
plausible things ever written. Her methods are not those of Spider-Man buried
under the skyscraper, unable to move the rock and debris until his inner monologue
touches upon poor Aunt May, whereupon a sudden burst of improbable strength
is granted him simply through force of will; hers is a strength born of someone
whose only driving force is to get through the day, get through the years, get
through this life. Having survived for so long with this her only goal, Annie's
one goal has become her one true strength.
The story ends with a retelling of an encounter Harlan once had
in New York (which is recounted in another essay, but I've just been through
my collection a few hundred times and cannot find it for love nor money--which
means I'll find it a few days after Rick posts this on the site), but it smacks
neither of rehash or of recycling: This is the only believable way with which
the author can end the story and leave Annie's life; it almost appears that
this experience was given Harlan just to tie off the story, so seamlessly does
Eugene Keeton, an average guy, finds that his is almost always
the deciding vote. When he realizes that whatever or whomever he votes for invariably
wins, no matter the odds, he finds that with great power comes great obligation.
This is an okay little piece; though it doesn't quite fit
into the theme of death and loss, though the sudden removal of Eugene from his
wife's life to fulfill his responsibilities is somewhat akin to a death of the
relationship; his loss is no less mourned by his wife had he died. Assuming
responsibility for all, Eugene Keeton divests himself of the life he knew.
This tale seems rather like one of another time, one that could
have been penned by Thurber, Twain, O. Henry, or Saki. These are good names
to be compared to, to be sure, and yet I find this story a bit lacking in the
company of its peers. Whereas "Paladin" or "Soft Monkey" may be lauded and hoisted
into the pantheon of great stories; whereas "Footsteps" or "Prince Myshkin"
may become cultish favorites of many Harlan fans, I rather doubt that "Stuffing"
will be much remembered.
I have to point out, of course, that to be a good story in the a
great collection is nothing to spit at, and that the story does work very well
on its own. It's just that I see it as akin to a Count Basie playing a song
straight, without embellishments: Though technically perfect and well played,
we hunger for the mad genius; the discordant notes that make a pleasing sound
and the frenetic synca-syncapation that are Basie hallmarks.
Though not a bad story nor even a mediocre one--and hardly as out
of place here as "Escapegoat"--"Stuffing" pales somewhat next to the tales around
With Virgil Oddum at the East Pole
A former convict exiled to an icy penitentiary continent tells
the story of the silent noodge who kept disturbing him, raiding his supplies,
and generally pissing him off at every opportunity, and of the transcendent
beauty the noodge --and, in some small part, the convict himself--created.
A disclaimer: I have never read MEDEA: Harlan's World, so
I have no idea whether this story is set in that universe, whether Penitence
Island at the East Pole is a new setting, or if the alien "fuxes" have appeared
before in Harlan's writing, so I will treat this story and the world on which
it is set as if they were created from whole cloth--which, of course, they may
have been. Whether or not the fuxes are indeed created just for this story,
I have to admit that the society, biology, and behavior of the fuxes is very
well sketched out; the reader can see these fantasies as he or she reads.
Much of this story is based on anger and bitterness. William Randall
Pogue, exiled to Penitence Island for crimes unexplained, is content to be a
human island, ignorant of or disbelieving John Donne. Pogue seems to know that
his passing would diminish no one, and appears oddly content with this notion.
Whatever contempt Pogue holds for his past crimes and himself, however,
it is eclipsed only by the anger he has when Virgil Oddum, silently walking
out of nowhere, disturbs his solitude--or, for lack of a better word, his "pity
Oddum, true to his name, is certainly an odd'm: Saying nothing,
he assumes a beatitude that, to Pogue, is wholly unwarranted. Until the insistent
fuxes bring Pogue to the ice peaks of the Rio de Luz where Oddum slaved away
on his masterpiece, Pogue sees Oddum as an unwanted intruder at best and a thief
and callous invader at worst.
Most galling to Pogue is the fact that the fuxes, who had only marginally
accepted him as someone worthy of "conversation", show a reverence for and connection
to Oddum that they have never half so much granted Pogue.
This feeling of being usurped, of being forgotten in favor of another,
wends through the story, even to the point where Pogue is reluctantly drawn
into completing Oddum's Great Work and is promptly forgotten for his troubles.
If viewed as allegory (and really stretching), it's intriguing to
contemplate how the meat of this story jibes with Harlan's vociferous demand
that all his unfinished work be burned so as not to fall into the hands of semicompetent
"finishers"--on the face of it, it would appear to refute this, but then, we're
never told if Pogue did a good job or not.
This is an interesting tale for me in that it raises questions about
what proximity to greatness, what being known simply for having known or assisted
someone famous, can be like. Did Nehru envy his friend Gandhi's strength, popularity,
and success? Did Judas betray for money, for fear, or for jealousy? What's it
like to be Alice B. Toklas? I often wonder how a young Jules Feiffer felt, signing
"Will Eisner" to stories he'd written and drawn for Eisner's legendary "Spirit
Worse, what's it like to be a footnote to history; someone disqualified
from the Game of Life; a doorstop on the way to fame and fortune? What's Pete
Best doing these days?
In a futuristic yet feudal society, a revolution is occurring;
a revolt by the peasants against the sixty Brother Lords who hold power. The
last surviving Lord, Garth of the Red Hand, seeks escape in the only safe haven--the
past. He forgets, however--havens are only safe for those who belong there.
Another punchline story, this again deals only tangentially
with death. Not as out of place as perhaps "Escapegoat" but still a slightly
sharp note in a symphony, "Quicktime" seems to be a holdover from Harlan's work
of the early Sixties. This does not at all diminish the acerbic wit of the punchline
nor is the art of the story's language less than one would expect.
Perhaps part of my indifference toward the story is that it's another
which I first encountered in the Dream Corridor
comic. Though bereft
of much of the flowing prose that, for me, saves the story from being a throwaway,
the adaptation worked rather well for me, in fact, this may work better for
me as a comic than as a story, perhaps because of the Twilight Zone-like nature
of the story. Indeed, according to SFSite, this was in fact written during the
year's tenure Harlan spent on the revival of the show. One wonders if, if not
for the "Nackles" affair (detailed in the limited edition of SLIPPAGE), this
was meant as a treatment for a segment of the Twilight Zone. It certainly would
Because of Pat Broderick's art, I shall forever see Garth as a cruel
dandy in Empire clothing, strutting the strut of them-that's-got even when bereft
of real power and hunted like a common thief. I can clearly see him crouched
hidden from the mob, incensed that the rabble would think to attempt an overthrow
of the Lords. Even as his fear grows, his anger is evident in his premature
plans for reprisal once the reins of power are back where Garth believes they
belong, securely in his hands.
That aside, for all intents and purposes, it is
story--but what a punchline!
The Avenger of Death
After discovering a check stuck in one of his book, mild-mannered
book dealer Pen Robinson finds that Death does indeed, as they say, have many
faces, and embarks on a quest to eradicate all the bringers of death.
This story appeals to me because of the many facets that
can be found on its shiny surface. It's a mystery thriller that turns abruptly
into a world of magic realism and murder; it's one man's song of his love for
his friends and his father; it's a lonely cry in the night, an appeal for a
justification for what is, and, were I even more
given to blathering
than I am (no little feat), I'm sure I could think of at least a half dozen
more ways to look at this story.
What makes the story special is that it works on each level that
it can be perceived upon.
Again, Harlan rails against the unfairness of the universe while
showing us that trying to find catharsis in pointless revenge is exactly how
one should not
deal with soul-searing loss.
The idea of putting a face--or better yet, a reachable, touchable,
hittable, killable face--on Death is an attractive one; when angered, when pained,
we seek catharsis. Sadly, over a million years after developing buttocks so
we could walk upright and begin the path to knowledge, our first instinct is
to hit, to hurt, to kill.
How convenient, then, it would be, to find avatars of death whom
we might be able to dispatch before they dispatch us. How much easier it is
to find that these servants of dust are people just like you and me who sold
away their humanity for a few extra years of killing.
It's a very tempting idea, when you think on it. The silent man
who ate at the deli across from you last week? He was the bastard who took Bill
Hicks, Cab Calloway, Richie Ashburn, Sammy Davis, Jr., Raoul Wallenberg, Grandmom,
and Robert Bloch.
Through the tears, are your lips skinned back, teeth clenched, face
taut? Is the anger flowing quick and sharp in your veins? Good. Don't fight
it; this has been the way for hundreds of thousands of years. Isn't it nice
to have someone to blame
This isn't to say that the story is perfect; no, there are things
which lightly jounce the mind: Not until the second or third reading did I notice
that the connection between the forces of death and the FBI, be the agents real
or no, was never explained, not even to the point of a throwaway line or paragraph,
perhaps something like: "Pen hesitated when he met the man who had taken Bill
Veeck and Mark Bolan; who had erased Harry Chapin and Marshal Tito from the
earth. The taker was one of the men who, posing as FBI agents, had detained
and interrogated Pen." Not hard, and it would have made the story slightly more
cohesive--but it's not something that automatically jumps out from the page
and screams, "THIS IS WRONG!" unlike the errors to be found in many books.
To be honest, I was rather surprised that Harlan neglected to show
any capacity for good whatsoever--charity work, family, art--in any of the takers.
Whether this would make them easier to revile or not, I cannot say, but accustomed
as I am to the face of evil in Harlan's writings to be very human indeed, I
had thought that the takers would be expanded upon. Still, for whatever merit
may be in these points, the fact remains that I did not write the story, and
as such have little right to say, "This should have been done," "that should
have been changed."
This is perhaps the most overtly personal of all the stories in
the collection: Harlan pours out his anger and frustration over the utter pointlessness
of death; Emily Austin, whose passing so moved Harlan that her death literally
opens the book, is revisited in this story; in addition, judging when the story
was written, we may equate the pain Pen still feels at never having had the
chance to say good-bye to his father, who died when Pen was a child with the
pain Harlan has often written of when referring to his own father (Indeed, Pen's
father passed away "forty-one years before," we are told--almost exactly corresponding
with the date of Louis Ellison's death); thus does Harlan deal with his loss.
Chained to the Fast Lane in the Red Queen's Race
A man--never mind his name--finds himself living serially;
moving from one life to another like a snake shedding its skin, pushed ever
further through good lives and bad by the pressure of all the ""hims" behind
him. Ever in search of a better life, only to be evicted by those behind pushing
their way out of the bad lives they've
landed in, this man hopes to find
a place to live, a life to live, where check-out time never comes.
Another trip behind the karmic wheel, this story is kin to
"The Region Between", but is a much more human story. Not because there is no
transmigration of soul from one body, one race, to another, but rather because
this story focuses more on the human aspect of life--or "lives".
At heart, the story is more disturbing than "Region Between", if
only because we can better identify with a life ill lived; the urge to escape
one's circumstances. The character-of-many-names who is the protagonist of this
story succeeds all too well at this; he is, in fact, a living example of Heisenberg's
Uncertainty Principle--each time the particle that is his current life is observed
(that is, noticed by his other selves), the mere act of observation appears
to alter that particle.
Another reason this story hits closer to home is because we all
live many lives during our span; I can personally see quite a few paradigm shifts
in personality and outlook that I've experienced in the last decade or so. When
a child, I delighted in the idea that every cell of skin I had was replenished
each seven years; such freedom comes from imagining one's self a new person,
beholden to none of the rules or limits we enjoyed in our "previous" life. Of
course, to travel too far down this road of rebirth, of constant chrysalis changing
us from moment to moment is to court psychopathy.
Harlan shows us the other dark extreme of this philosophy in "Red
Queen's Race"; too quickly moving through the membrane from life to life, Alan/Allen
loses much with every trip through the membrane: Love, friends, contentment;
all this without the knowledge that the life ahead will be a better--or even
John Donne wrote, "Every man's passing diminishes me," and this
is no less true of any of us: As loved ones pass from our lives--breaking up,
losing touch, dying--we are changed, sometimes subtly, sometimes greatly.
The time during which these stories were written was likely full
of changes in Harlan--death upon death will do that to you. Not, mind you, to
cause our resident malcontent to "lose his touch", as some buffoons would have
it, but certainly to alter his outlook on life.
I didn't warm to this story much at first; it took a few readings
for the tone and theme to really grab me. Though I don't often seek out the
happy ending (I'd not be as much a fan of Ellison if that were true), I was
rather happy to see Wally et al. find their "good life" at the story's end.
Ellison is cruising along at his best here, the prose is magical
and the imagery vivid (even when horror and repugnance are veiled, as when describing
the hell that is the life of Alvin Justman).
The Function of Dream Sleep
Unsuccessfully attempting to come to terms with the many recent
deaths of friends, Lonny McGrath wakes one night from a dream of those lost
to him to find a gaping, toothed maw in his side exhaling--something
His search to both rid himself of his pain and divine just what it was he saw
leads him to a very atypical group therapy session and a monster wracked with
guilt who show him that it really is better to let go.
There really couldn't be a better end to the book than this.
"Eidolons" might have served to offset the reader's immersion in death and pain
but wouldn't have been as good a matching bookend to the introduction.
Here Harlan mines his own life perhaps more than ever; Emily Austin
is invoked once more, as is, if I'm correct, Ted Sturgeon. Though Lonny is not
Harlan, they share much the same circle of friends, and react very alike when
confronted with the diminishing of that circle .
It's not a pretty story, nor is it one to come off as an overt exhortation
of life; this was placed here to tie off the whole ugly knot of pain and loss
that threads through the book, not to send you off with cheery Bambi-thoughts
twinkling behind your eyes. This is, as longtime Harlan readers might expect,
a disturbing tale of what darkness can lie behind the facade of the everyday
conventions we expect from our experiences. Still, somehow the tale does
uplift (no doubt Edwin Newman would have quarrel with me for abbreviating the
adjective and making it a verb, but I haven't used "ongoing" in this review,
so linguistic pedants will just have to take the good with the bad) the reader;
we can put the book and go on without being consumed by melancholy.
Both groups McGrath sits in upon (Anna Picket's REM group and its
deeper, "real" sister group) can be seen as icons for how the professional mourner
may see others: Either those on the outside of our pain seem shallow fools mouthing
succor at us, or we meet those whose lots in life are so much worse than our
own. Anguish, it seems, plays only to extremes.
The reaction of the "real" REM group to McGrath's pain speaks to
us a very important truth that Harlan seems to have realized while writing these
stories: By not allowing ourselves to let go, to move past the pain, we hurt
those around us who, seeking to lessen our pain, feel all the worse when we
will not let them help us. McGrath does not realize this, and will not look
within himself for the release he needs, turning instead to the dark Le Braz.
At first glance, Le Braz seems an older, darker reflection of the
abortionist from "Neither Your Jenny Nor Mine", but there is more here. Le Braz
is not simply a more sinister avatar of Doctor Quintano; rather, he is a twisted
man, a butcher, but a butcher who, after committing the obscene most of his
atrocities, has recanted and now lies locked in a prison made of his own guilt.
As I see it, there is a dual moral to this story: Not only do we
have to learn to let go of pain, of loss, we have to make ourselves ready to
mourn and then let
ourselves let go. To hold onto the pain only causes
it to deepen, which ends up hurting not only the mourner but also those around
him. I wonder just how long it took Harlan to realize this; of course, he did
have Susan to shore him up--or, considering what he has written of this woman,
slap him back to his senses. As I can only guess at what it took Harlan to put
himself back together in the face of the loss chronicled in this book--and I've
guessed at far too much in this group of reviews--I'll simply leave it at this:
Well, the review's done, but I can't leave off just yet; the cord
hasn't been quite knotted. As I said near the beginning, this book helped me
through the death of my grandmother. Some time after I started writing this--a
little under a year after Grandmom's death--we had to put my eighteen-year-old
dog, with whom I grew up, to sleep (And yes; I read the "AHBHU" section of "Deathbird"
often in the last weeks of his life.).
Now, I have to admit that I loved both of them, but that if I were
given the choice of which to call back from Elysium, poor Oscar would be SOL.
Still, his passing acted as a catalyst to finally help me come to terms with
Grandmom's being gone.
Maybe it was because the scenes were so similar: I was in almost
the same position when each of them passed over: Standing crouched at Oscar's
side, stroking his paw, I realized how very alike the situation was to that
of eleven months prior as I sat on the edge of Grandmom's hospital bed, holding
her hand. Even my mother filled the same role and hit the same marks in both
tableaux: She stood crying to my left, stroking Oscar's head, just as she had
done for her mother.
By the time of their deaths, both had pretty much lost the ability
to move; the means of communication were all but lost, beyond eye movements
and periodic twitches. Still, I could see the love in her eyes; in his eyes,
as they began to make their final dissolve and fade to black.
What strikes me the most, and what relates most to this book (Yes,
this does relate. Surprised?) was something that occurred at both deathbed scenes
life had fled.
No longer feeling my grandmother's pulse, I looked to the nurse,
who needed no words to see what was in my mind; she expertly felt about my grandmother's
neck and quietly told my mother, "She's gone."
My mother's quiet sobs burst forward into full-out bawling, and
I moved to hold her, never letting go of my grandmother's hand. A minute later,
as Mom's weeping died down, I was shocked to hear a noise behind us.
A breathy groan sounded from deep within my grandmother's chest.
Irrational hope played in my heart as I wondered if the nurse had been wrong;
that Grandmom had not
yet gone to meet Grandpop somewhere where Glenn
It took a moment to realize that that wasn't the case; that it had
only been trapped air making its exit from Grandmom's lungs, but it was pretty
damn eerie even after I became aware of this.
Almost without difference, the same thing happened eleven months
later when my dog left us.
In both instances, I found my mind drawn back to the cold exhalation
in "The Purpose of Dream Sleep", and the phrase "The wind took your answer away,"
played through my thoughts. It wasn't until Oscar died that I was finally able
to stop chasing that gust, to let go and give myself and those around me no
It took me a while to fully come to terms with this, but I now know
that even though the answer has been gusted away to far lands, the answerers
are still here with me in my memory and in my heart.
I apologize for any and all of the above ramblings, certain that
this review parallels that of the Jesuit priest who delivered a paper on the
story "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" at an MLA conference some time ago,
unaware that the conference's organizers had invited none other than the Author
hizzownself, who proceeded to tell the priest exactly how incorrectly he had
assessed the story.
Story Reviews by Alex Jay Berman
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