Harlan Ellison: Short Story Collections

Deathbird Stories




Reviewed by David Loftus

1st Hardcover: Harper & Row (1975)
1st Paperback: Dell (1976)
Cover Art: Barclay Shaw (1983 Bluejay books edition)

The Langerhans review
Reviews Description and Spoiler Warning


Dedication:
"With some weariness, but not
much more wisdom, this book
is dedicated to TRUE LOVE,
whatever lovely face it wears"

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Contents and Copyright Dates

Introduction: Oblations at Alien Altars
The Whimper of Whipped Dogs (1973)
Along the Scenic Route (1969)
On the Downhill Side (1972)
O Ye of Little Faith (1968)
Neon (1973)
Basilisk (1972)
Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes (1967)
Corpse (1972)
Shattered Like a Glass Goblin (1968)
Delusion for a Dragon Slayer (1966)
The Face of Helene Bournouw (1960)
Bleeding Stones (1973)
At the Mouse Circus (1971)
The Place with No Name (1969)
Paingod (1964)
Ernest and the Machine God (1968)
Rock God (1969)
Adrift Just off the Islets of Langerhans (1974)
The Deathbird (1973)


COMMENTARY

This may be the first Harlan Ellison book I ever read. For that reason alone, it would be significant to me.

I cannot be certain, because that was a quarter century ago, in 1975, and I don't remember much about that year except for the 9:36.9 two-mile I ran and, on April 14, the first kiss with a girl who would become my first love and lifelong friend. In those days I read mostly nonfiction -- very little fiction of any sort -- but a buddy introduced me to sci fi in that, my sophomore year of high school. (It helped that a teacher required us to read Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes.) So I have vague memories of Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein, Simak, Dick, Harry Harrison, and others from that period. Only Bradbury has had staying power for me. And of course Ellison.

That year a small ad for this brand-new book ran in the New York Times Book Review, which I used to read at the public library in order to reserve for new books before the library got them in. The ad included a splash quote from Bradbury: “Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, stand aside. Harlan Ellison is now a better short story writer than you will ever be again during the rest of your lives.” Even at the time, the notion of literature as a horse race, that one could measure or should care who was “better,” or that you could compare any of those writers’ short stories directly against the others’ or Ellison’s (and why would you want to, if you enjoyed them all?) struck me as moronic. I wonder whether Ellison was embarrassed by his friend’s effusion, then or now. But of course I was intrigued.

I don’t remember whether I heeded the author’s warning note not to read the book all in one sitting. Considering my schedule in those days, I probably couldn’t have, but I might well have wanted to. What I do remember is that several stories blew me away to an extent I could not recall ever happening with a short story before. (I didn’t read very many short stories then, nor have I since.) I read some of them aloud to my girlfriend. She particularly liked “Ernest and the Machine God.” I also read some to my grandmother (who listened to me read a lot of things, including “The Prowler In the City At the Edge of the World”)

After that I read nearly everything Ellison published. Several times in the ensuing decades our lives intersected in a glancing manner I never could have imagined. I saw him do a benefit reading for Avenue Victor Hugo Books in ’81 and lecture at MIT in ’82 (where I gave him a print of the photo I took of him at his Olympia with pipe in mouth at the earlier event). About that time I became a member of the Harlan Ellison Recording Collection.  I interviewed him briefly over the phone in ’83, in connection with the publication of Sleepless Nights in the Procrustean Bed. During a long dry period in southern Oregon I lectured on Ellison and his work at the Douglas County Library (probably about 1989) and prevailed on the library to buy some of his books for their collection. After the typographical debacles of the first two Edgeworks volumes, I wrote to him. In the winter of 1997-98 I proofread Slippage and Edgeworks Vol. 3, for which (apart from getting my name in the acknowledgements) the greatest payment was the delight of chatting on the phone several times with Unca Harlan. He called me “ya greedy fuck” at one point (we were both laughing), and when I told him my wife was converting to Judaism he asked, “Why would anybody wanna do that?”

I still feel like a kid, and in my mind’s eye Ellison still looks like an angry young man. But I’m middle aged and fighting a paunch that’s reshaping my former distance runner’s physique, and he’s undoubtedly taking it slower after a heart attack and quadruple bypass.

Rick Wyatt’s proposal to review all the man’s work gives me an opportunity to come back to this book, which I have not cracked in at least a decade, perhaps closer to two. Even before I opened it, I knew I could say that Deathbird Stories is clearly Ellison’s most consistently high quality collection of short fiction. If you’re carrying around the original Harper & Row, it probably looks to the casual passerby like a cheap thriller, despite the Dillons’ always-gorgeous cover art. (The dated, “groovy” type font for the title and author’s name probably has a lot to do with that.) But you know you are holding pure storytelling gold -- no, platinum! no, rubies and emeralds! -- in your hot little hands. Elsewhere there are better individual tales than many of the ones in this book; but there are a lot more clunkers as well. If there is one suit this collection comes up short in, it would be humor. This is a heavy buncha stories. A better recommendation for the Ellison newbie might be Strange Wine, Shatterday, or Stalking the Nightmare, unless the person clearly has a strong stomach. This book is a cold, hard rap to the temple. But hey … I read it first and I survived. I think.

The theme of this book is God … or rather, gods. Though Yahweh or someone like him makes an appearance here and there, most of these stories address other, newer gods who rule the lives of humans (or more accurately, to whom humans give power over themselves -- consciously or without sufficient heed). The god of speed. The god of beauty. The god of money. The god of mechanical and technological advances. The god of spurious dreams. The gods of smog, rock, voyeurism, and Freudian guilt.

In a brief introduction, “Oblations at Alien Altars,” Ellison makes the point that for all their seeming puissance, gods are a remarkably fragile lot. (Although he quietly acknowledges deep into “Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans…” that the truism is Nietzsche’s.) “When belief in a god dies, the god dies.” Ellison offers a litany of dead gods -- the Greek Achelöus, the twelve Aesir of the Vikings, the Persians’ Ahriman, Alaghom Naom of the Mayans, Ama-Terasu of Japan, Amen-Ra, Anaïtis, Anath, Anshar, Anu, Anubis, Apollo -- all of them long dead and gone because their human adherents died, or traded them in for newer deities.  “And that’s only into the A’s.”

These “new, vital, muscular gods” are “a strange, unpredictable lot,” Ellison observes. “Offerings can be made at their altars in new-car showrooms and gambling casinos and in crash-pads and penthouses.” And despite the author’s warning that all gods must die one day, in most of these stories the acolytes are weak, confused, lost … and the gods survive, even triumph. As I said, this book is a heavy one. A real downer. That is, if you think simply in terms of plot, as opposed to the thrills of pungent prose and electrifying ideas.

Ellison’s books are known, among other things, for chatty introductions to every individual story. Some of the earliest collections (Ellison Wonderland, Paingod, I Have No Mouth…, and From the Land of Fear) provide a single though at times lengthy paragraph. The collaborations in Partners in Wonder and the Dangerous Visions anthologies obviously called for explanatory notes, and the real essay collections, from the Hornbook and An Edge in My Voice to the film criticism in Harlan Ellison’s Watching, easily accommodate his war stories.

After gamboling in the two- to eight-page intros to all the stories in Strange Wine and Shatterday, one feels prepared to write a short but colorful biography of the man just on the strength of the raw material from these disparate sources. The story intros have been a source of controversy; they can make Ellison look like a bit of an amateur, since “real” writers don’t cozy up to the reader in this way but let the stories speak for themselves. Save for the odd biographical fact here and there, veteran readers of Ellison probably don’t recall the intros the way we can summon up specific stories and scenes. Still, I daresay we all liked them when we first encountered them.

So it’s a bit of a surprise to note that quite a few Ellison collections (Gentleman Junkie, Love Ain’t Nothing…, Alone Against Tomorrow, Approaching Oblivion, Stalking the Nightmare, Angry Candy, Slippage) do not introduce every story. And the terse phrase or one to two sentences that precede each of Deathbird Stories come across as magisterial and cold. The author of this book doesn’t talk about himself; you wouldn’t know anything about him after reading the book except that he’s a helluva storyteller. We’re grownups now, these brief notes suggest; we’re looking at hard truths here instead of shooting the bull over a drink or a campfire.

Nearly half of the stories in this collection had already appeared in book form, a couple going back to the mid 1960s. Several of the new ones remain among the very best he ever wrote. One took a Locus Poll Award, the two final ones both garnered Hugos and Locus Poll awards, and the final one also received a Jupiter Award from the Instructors of Science Fiction in Higher Education (discontinued in 1979). When the collection was published in Britain, it won the 1979 British Science Fiction Award for Short Fiction.



THE WHIMPER OF WHIPPED DOGS

Synopsis
Beth, a recent graduate of Bennington College in dance and currently working for a choreographer, has been in New York City two months when she witnesses the brutal slaying of a woman in the courtyard of her apartment complex. Frozen in shock before the sight, she notices other tenants witnessing the event in silence from their windows and balconies -- some of them smiling. She also notices a fog gather in the air above the grisly encounter, a fog that seems to have eyes. The next day, she gets involved with Ray, a neighbor who was one of the other watchers, and he casually teaches her about what the city does to people’s souls. In the ensuing weeks, the city itself teaches her what it does to people’s souls. And one night she comes home to find a burglar in her apartment, a burglar who attacks her and pushes her out onto her balcony so that she becomes the latest show for the watchers above the courtyard, and she has to make a choice.

Comment
In a way, this story anticipates American Psycho and the 1999 film “Fight Club”; they all contrast and yet intimately link the shiny, modern interiors of urban American life to the grimy, gritty violence that swirls around (and sometimes within) them. In this cold, hard collection of stories, “Whipped Dogs” is about the coldest. I remember a librarian at my high school considered getting a copy of Deathbird Stories for the library on my recommendation until he read the first story, noted that one character attempts anal intercourse with an unwilling partner (only not in those words), and decided: uh uh, can’t bring that in here. You can’t really like any of the characters in this story; you don’t get to know them very well. Perhaps that’s part of the point, but it’s probably one of the reasons this has never been one of my favorites, despite the ballyhoo.

“The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” first appeared in a 1973 collection edited by Tom Disch called Bad Moon Rising. It won the Edgar Allan Poe award for best mystery story of 1974 from the Mystery Writers of America (even though, as its author has acknowledged in print, it is not a mystery story), and was reprinted in 1975 not only here but in the Pyramid collection No Doors, No Windows. Although it has the same name as a teleplay for “The Young Lawyers” that appears in The Other Glass Teat, the two stories have nothing in common. “I just liked the title,” Ellison says.

The plot was inspired by the notorious murder of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese in New York’s Kew Garden neighborhood in central Queens on March 13, 1964. Genovese, a 28-year-old bar manager, was on her way home at about 3:00 a.m. when a man attacked and stabbed her several times. What made the incident so horrifically memorable, now legendary in sociological circles, was that 38 of her neighbors watched her die, over the course of more than half an hour, and nobody moved to help her. Her initial cries for help alerted neighbors, lights flicked on, and the attacker retreated.  But when no one took action to help Genovese, the attacker returned, calmly raped her and stabbed her to death. According to Ellison, neighbors watched from darkened windows. Some pulled up their chairs for a better view. Others turned up their radios and televisions so they wouldn’t hear Genovese’s dying screams. As she was being raped in an apartment vestibule, already knifed several times and half dead, a man who knew her opened his door, saw what was happening, and closed it again. Not until 35 minutes after her screams were first heard did someone call the 102nd Precinct. A patrol car was on the spot in three minutes, but the killer was gone, and Kitty Genovese was dead on arrival at Queens General Hospital.

“I was never satisfied with the intellectual theories about why no one had aided her,” Ellison wrote in the introduction to No Doors, No Windows. “It’s not the kind of dehumanized behavior that can be explained with phrases like ‘disinvolvement’ or ‘alienation’ or ‘inurement to the reality of violence from seeing so much death on nightly newscasts.’ It was the kind of mythic situation that could only be explained in terms of magic realism, fantasy.” In the 1975 Pyramid edition of The Deadly Streets, he added that the story “is a fantasy that explains reality in a way reality cannot explain itself.”

Ellison also reports that after “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” appeared in print, a full nine years after Genovese’s awful death, he received hundreds of letters assuring him that New York had changed, that people helped one another now and he ought to be ashamed for dredging up the past. Yet only months before his 1975 Pyramid series, he sourly notes, a nurse was stabbed to death in the same Kew Gardens district, and one of the witnesses to Kitty Genovese’s death watched this one too, and again did nothing.

In my memory, this story struck me in my teens as vague and elusive. Strangely enough, it reads almost too pat to me now. The effects of maturing, I suppose. (Compare this to the more successful, enduring mysteries of the final two stories in the book, discussed below.)

One of Ellison’s possible faults as a writer is that he sometimes gives the reader more than he or she needs. (Not that you can necessarily blame him; on those occasions when he chooses to be more oblique -- such as the ending of “Jeffty is Five” -- a howl goes up from casual readers who either aren’t comfortable with ambiguity or don’t want to do the work of thinking through a story.) A quotation from Rollo May’s Love and Will with which the author closes “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” adds nothing but pseudo-authority to what is already a complete package.



ALONG THE SCENIC ROUTE

Synopsis
In the not-too-distant future, freeway drivers may challenge one another to duels under certain specified rules. George, an average family guy out for a drive in his Chevy Piranha with his mousy wife Jessica, is flagrantly cut off by a young hotshot in a Mercury which incidentally has twin-mounted 7.6mm Spandaus. Enraged, fed up with being pushed around by punks on the highway, and with Jessica whimpering beside him, George impulsively challenges the kid to a duel. A Freeway Sector Control Operator warns him that the Merc is more heavily armed, but George has had some recent work done on his nuclear-powered, laser-equipped Piranha. And of course there’s his good old .45 automatic under the seat. The two drivers are cleared for a duel. But once engaged in battle, George learns the kid has more experience and tricks up his sleeve than the respectable challenger had any reason to expect.

Comment
This one’s a peach. Smooth and quick, like a lightning ride in a fast car. Along with “Neon,” this is the closest thing to a real laugh in the book. “Billy,” the young punk, is identified by the Sector Control Operator as “Mr. Bonney,” for those who can appreciate the joke. The story dates from The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World (1969). There are several signs of authorial prescience: in a way, “Scenic Route” presages road rage by a good two decades. That a Chevy plant is said to be located in Bombay also foretells of multinational corporate flight (although car plants seem to have come to the United States, while the microchip industry that no one could have predicted is what has found a home in the former Raj).


ON THE DOWNHILL SIDE

Synopsis
The narrator is walking with his unicorn one night in New Orleans when a beautiful young woman beckons to the animal and it goes to her (so we know she’s a virgin). The two humans walk the streets, have coffees at the Café du Monde, a julep at the Royal Orleans Hotel, visit a nightclub -- all the time trading stories of their lives. The narrator, Paul Ordahl, was an architect whose first wife went insane, and whose mother-in-law blamed him (as he is tempted to blame himself). After his third marriage ended, he committed suicide. Lizette relates tales about a string of men who loved her, and a marriage of convenience to a wealthy New Orleans property owner. They are both ghosts and, Paul gradually realizes, opposite sides of the same coin in the way they misspent their lives. He thinks they can help each other, and this night is their one chance (the unicorn’s, too), but it’s not clear how or to what purpose, and it doesn’t look as if Lizette is going to come through for him. The unicorn, a familiar assigned to accompany Paul everywhere, is patient but concerned, and Paul has to remind him that soon they will be “on the downhill side,” which follows midnight. The climax occurs in the world-famous Saint Louis Cemetery, the perfect, ancient graveyard where bodies are laid in crypts above ground because the water table is only 18 inches below the surface of the city. And a sacrifice will be demanded.

Comment
As of the spring of 2000, this is the only story in this collection that Ellison has read aloud for recording. In a review of that album on Michael Zuzel’s Islets of Langerhans web site, I wrote that I never thought this story particularly memorable. (If only Ellison had recorded “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes,” “Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans…,” “Along the Scenic Route,” “The Deathbird,” or even “Basilisk”!) Perhaps that was largely an adolescent reaction against the seemingly hokey realm of magic and unicorns. Reading it again, I’m a bit more impressed, but not so much by the plot, which seems fairly pedestrian. Rather, Ellison’s style in “On the Downhill Side” contrasts strongly with much of the rest of his work, and especially with the other sleek, cold, hard stories in this collection.

Particularly on the “uphill side” of this tale, there is an allusiveness -- an elusiveness -- that one does not see in a lot of his other writing. One glimpses a sentimentality, even a (dare we say it?) romantic streak that probably charmed many readers unused to encountering this in his books. The writing has a delicacy and indirection, so that one follows it as one might pick up bits of the conversation of a couple at another table across a restaurant floor. It is as if Ellison breathed in the delicate, somewhat musty atmosphere of old French New Orleans and exhaled it onto the page (along with a few choice French words). Occasionally one finds a sentence that is just exquisite, such as: “Her eyes were a shade of gray between onyx and miscalculation.” Again, I find my interest in the story peaks during the first half, through the aching and reaching out, and subsides during its climax, which seems less original and skilled, but for the striking image of the rainbow of colors pulsing through and then leaching from the unicorn, so beautifully rendered by Don Ivan Punchatz as album art for the recording. There are also a couple favorite Ellison words that send up little bells of recognition for the reader -- “shrike” and “woodsmoke” -- the way darning needle dragonflies and the word “rimed” surface in Ray Bradbury’s stories more often than average.

“On the Downhill Side” has a lot in common with the later “Count the Clock That Tells The Time” (in Shatterday): lost souls who wasted their lives on earth, a single chance at redemption partly through the medium of love for another lost soul, and a “happy ending.” Gil Lamont, who wrote the liner notes for the recording, reveals that Ellison wrote this story after a 1971 date with a Mardi Gras queen whose soul turned out to be “a foul and disgusting thing,” and I have to say that, as she comes across in this tale, Lizette does not strike me as worthy of redemption or Paul’s love. But then, Paul assures us he wasted his life on the planet, too, so perhaps they deserve not only each other but a shot at happiness as well. That would be Ellison’s bittersweet but generous revenge on his date. But oh, pity the poor unicorn!



O YE OF LITTLE FAITH

Synopsis
Jerry Niven is astonished to find himself climbing a rock face to escape a minotaur. Only an instant before (or was it ages?) he was in Tijuana, helping his 35-year-old paramour Berta get an abortion and then acidly fending off her questions about where their relationship stood. They had a fight, she stumbled down an alley and into a shop that advertised serapes and Indian sandles, where a wizened Mexican offered to tell their fortune. Only he told Jerry’s fortune, and it wasn’t good. And now Jerry’s trying to find a curve, a bowl, in the rock face or the minotaur’s got him.

Comment
This compact (a little under 9 pages) story does its job. Since the plot includes a south-of-the-border jaunt for a D&C, it reminds one of “Neither Your Jenny or Mine” (and you can’t help thinking a much younger Ellison may have had a few conversations like the caricatured argument between Berta and Niven), but it’s a much lesser story, with lesser ambitions. It doesn’t have a lot to say -- the message is similar to that of the Deathbird Stories introduction -- but says it relatively well.


NEON

Synopsis
Either someone is trying to communicate with Roger Charna through electric signs and mechanical appliances, or he’s going insane. Odds are not good. Surgeons labored over Charna for a long time after the accident, but he came out of it with a collapsible metal finger on his left hand, a right eye with sensors to pick up and process data from both the infrared and ultraviolet ends of the spectrum, and a spiral of neon tubing that often glows in his chest. Once he’s discharged from the hospital and takes a job at a Times Square bookstore (the accident and publicity about his operation lost him his previous job and drove away his companion, but the proprietors felt he was a novelty that would boost sales), he starts perceiving odd messages, calling him by name from a 7-Up sign, overhead fluorescent lights, and movie marquees. Almost as distracting, his new finger periodically breaks into tinny renditions of Italian opera and Kurt Weill. Why are all these city signs and light fixtures telling Roger “I’m in love with you”?

Comment
I said there’s very little humor in this book. Some of it can be found here. This is a fairly funny story, though it’s sour, sarcastic humor, not laugh-out-loud or warm-fuzzy humor. Consider the paragraph about the guy who obsessively seeks carnal knowledge with blimps. Or the dwarf who’s frothing because Doubleday remaindered his outstanding study of the anopheles mosquito. (Roger meets these and other lovelies at a party for freaks.)

Obviously some of Ellison’s observations from the time he had a job as a Times Square bookseller have found their way into this tale. In mood, “Neon” reminds me of nothing so much as the sunnier “Street Scene,” Ellison’s collaboration with Keith Laumer in Partners In Wonder.

I can also definitely say you have no idea where it’s going to lead. I’m not sure I fully understand the ending, but I know it’s meant to be kind of sweet.


BASILISK

Synopsis
Lance Corporal Vernon Lestig stepped on some pungi stakes and was taken prisoner by the Viet Cong for a while. As a consequence of the former, he lost his right foot. Due to long rounds of torture by the latter, he talked. Somehow, he ended up back in the hands of the U.S. military, which court-martialed him for treason behind closed doors, quietly paid him off for the loss of his foot and temporary total/ongoing partial blindness, and discharged him with an honorable. Now he’s going home to Grafton, Kansas, to face the music of his family, friends, and neighbors after all the negative publicity about his case.

Comment
This is one helluva story. Not because it has a cool monster sent by Dark Forces (and suddenly one wonders, since the basilisk turns up in the jungles of Vietnam, did the makers of the 1987 Schwarzenegger film “Predator” read this story, once upon a time?), not because it has torturing gooks, not because it has a stunning, violent climax with a man-monster facing down (literally!) a crowd bent on his destruction, but because it has all those things merely as a frame for a yarn about real, conflicted human beings who love but are afraid, and who hate for reasons they don’t understand or question; and a protagonist who does terrible things but whom Ellison makes the reader understand, and perhaps even sympathize with.

There are scenes of swift action and violence. The tale would make a dynamite movie. I also liked Ellison’s rapid-fire recitation of analogies and images for extreme pain when the stakes go through Vern’s foot. (“Nova pain” is a weird and amusing pun, especially following hard on the heels of “dentist drills ratcheted across nerve ends.”) But the best scenes in this story are the quiet ones: the hero’s confrontations with his old girlfriend Teresa, married off to a car-selling football hero after the news stories of Lestig’s treason, and with his sister Neola, who relates how his family suffered because of “what he had done.” They still care for him, but they have nothing to give him and do not dare to get close again. The supernatural element is necessary to give Lestig the chance to make his point to the hateful town, I suppose, but it seems a mere narrative trick to make these real, delicately emotional scenes possible.

“Basilisk” won the 1972 Locus Poll Award for Short Fiction.



PRETTY MAGGIE MONEYEYES

Synopsis
Kostner is just about tapped out. In the wake of a broken marriage that nearly destroyed him, he’s wandered west to Las Vegas. Stripped of his funds at the blackjack tables, he shambles toward the exit with nothing to look forward to but the hope of some sort of new life in L.A. or a gun to his head. Just short of the door he finds deep in his pocket a last silver dollar. Why not blow it all on a dollar slot machine, a cartwheel Chief with a two-thousand-dollar payoff? If you’re gonna go out, go out like a champ. Margaret Annie Jessie, the progeny of a full-blooded Cherokee woman and a bindlestiff of mixed European heritage just passing through, comes bombing out of Tucson at the age of 23, “the determined product of Miss Clairol and Berlitz,” looking for men with money in Vegas. The paths of this irresistible “Maggie” -- long legs, large hips, flat belly, waist that works in any style from dirndl to disco-slacks, lotsa blonde hair, no breasts (“forget the cans, baby, there’s other, more important action”), those incredible blue eyes -- and Kostner will cross irrevocably when he pulls the handle on the one-armed bandit.

Comment
If “Basilisk” makes the top 75 or 50 of the 900-odd stories Ellison has published between hard covers, “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes” indisputably ranks within the top 20. This is an incredible story based on a fairly blah premise. It’s not just that the narrator makes you fall in love with this spellbinding and dangerous creature, this Maggie:

Outthrust chin, perhaps a tot too much belligerence, but if you’d walloped as many gropers, you too, honey: narrow mouth, petulant lower lip, nice to chew on, a lower lip as though filled with honey, bursting, ready for things to happen; a nose that threw the right sort of shadow, flaring nostrils, the acceptable words -- aquiline, Patrician, classic, allathat; cheekbones as stark and promontory as a spit of land after ten years of open ocean; cheekbones holding darkness like narrow shadows, sooty beneath the taut-fleshed bone structure, amazing cheekbones; the whole face, really; simple uptilted eyes, the touch of the Cherokee, eyes that looked out at you, as you looked in at them, like someone peering out of the keyhole as you peered in; actually, dirty eyes, they said: you can get it.

The real achievement of this story may be the dialogue between Jules Hartshorn, the hotel and casino owner, and Kostner after our boy wins nineteen straight jackpots on the Chief -- a stupendous mathematical impossibility. Kostner doesn’t look like a “spooner” (a con person who uses a piece of plastic or wire -- sometimes a spoon -- to kick the machine and make it pay off), but Hartshorn’s crew hasn’t been able to find a single mechanical defect in the slot, either. So the casino owner feels out our hero, tries to find a way to use Kostner without threatening him as he bids fair to break the bank on this slot machine. (Note the nifty use of names here: the man who is Shorn of Heart tests the one for whom everything Kosts.)

Aside from enjoying a dynamite story, the veteran Ellison watcher can hear all sorts of echoes in this tale. There is some typographical play during Maggie’s confrontation with the Chief that looks very much like certain pages in Ellison’s Jack the Ripper story, “The Prowler In the City at the Edge of the World” (with which it is roughly contemporary; this story first appeared in the 1967 collection I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream while Jack was slouching toward Dangerous Visions). The phrase “All the lies that were her life” turns up, which rings a loud alarm for anyone familiar with a novella that would turn up more than a decade later with the sex of the protagonist changed. And doesn’t some of Kostner’s background sound familiar?: “…born to kind and warm parents who hadn’t the vaguest notion of who he was, what he wanted to be, where his talents lay. So he had run off, when he was in his teens, and alone always alone on the road” -- plus a failed marriage to a woman with a son from an earlier marriage. One cannot help wondering which of the hundreds of women Ellison has known went into his magnificent creation of Maggie.


CORPSE

Synopsis
The narrator, an assistant professor of Latin American literature at Columbia, not only seems destined not to gain tenure, but is losing his hold on his job. On his rounds, he often sees gangs of teens and even families stripping abandoned cars in the streets of Harlem near the university. He’s uncomfortable with cars and what heavy dependence upon them has done to urban American society, so even though the sight reminds him of grave robbers defiling corpses, it also gives him a certain glee. At a dinner party, he picks an intellectual fight with the wife of one of his colleagues, and tosses out the theory, just for argument, that cars have developed a collective mind and declared war on humans. After all, some 1,750,000 people have been killed by the automobile since Henry Ford tested the first horseless carriage in 1896. More Americans die at the wheel than in military uniform. And if cars have a group mind, possess sentience, perhaps they have a culture, secret dreams, and even a god…?

Comment
This is one of the weakest stories in the collection. That’s a shame, because Ellison gives us a different kind of protagonist from his usual down-and-outers and hard scrappers, and the premise -- the intellectual framework -- is intriguing enough. The sparring at the dinner party is engaging; our hero muses on minority relations, the Orson Welles film Black Magic, the lost years of Jesus and the possibility he visited the Aztecs, the relations between the latter and Cortés through the sympathetic eyes of conquistador-observer Bernal Dìaz del Castillo. But the ending is fairly abrupt, simplistic, and unsatisfying.



SHATTERED LIKE A GLASS GOBLIN


Synopsis
Rudolph “Rudy” Boekel has managed to land a medical discharge from the army and comes to a huge and ugly house off Western Avenue in Los Angeles in search of his fiancée Kristina. The house is a wreck, the yard a mess, strange sounds filter from odd corners of the building, and various examples of human wreckage wander about it. Kris is very out of it. She doesn’t respond much to Rudy’s questions and lashes out at him vaguely whenever he brings up love or marriage. A girl casually offers herself to Rudy. Jonah, an acquaintance from the past, seems to head the place as much as anyone can, and indifferently welcomes Rudy to the menage. Rudy moves in to help pay the bills, fend off police inquiries, and be near Kris. She talks him into dropping acid when they couple. Odd noises and animal sounds continue to intrude. People seem to disappear.  Rudy can’t convince Kris to leave.

Comment
This story dates from the period of “Along the Scenic Route” and 1969’s The Beast That Shouted Love…. I have mixed and at best lukewarm feelings about this one. Though very cinematic (illustrated at least twice: by William Stout in The Illustrated Ellison, and by Kelly Jones in Weird Tales #1, 1992), it invokes paranoid fears of hallucinogenic drugs as effectively (and with as little subtlety) as any bible-thumping sermon. Ellison is famous as a non-drinker and non-partaker of recreational drugs (although he has several decades of tobacco dependence in the distant past). As Stephen King said, “Harlan’s drug of choice is Harlan.” And I have no doubt he has known people lost to illicit substances … but there was probably something lost about them to begin with, and we get no sense of that here. These characters have no past to speak of; we cannot tell how they got to this place. As a result, “Shattered” strikes me as a ham-fisted scare story, a cartoon like “Reefer Madness,” intended to keep little kids away from boogie monsters.



DELUSION FOR A DRAGON SLAYER

Synopsis
Through a discouraging series of chance occurrences, Warren Glazer Griffin, a 41-year-old accountant, is crushed to a pulp between the triple-fanged rows of teeth in the mouth of a 78-foot dragon, in a Land That Never Existed. Late for work because of a shortage of razor blades, he takes a short cut down an alley near the site of building headed for demolition, a building whose demo will not go according to plan because of the peculiar needs of a philandering billionaire some 40 years before. Griffin finds himself on the open sea, on the deck of a highly polished sailing vessel, and in a body he does not recognize: six foot three instead of five-seven, skin of finest bronze, sculptured musculature, a Nordic blonde. The face of a wizard on the hilt of his sword tells him he is in Heaven; that is, Griffin has entered the sum total of his lifelong dreams. “You have one chance to buy your Heaven with all the intents and ethics of your life,” the face tells him, if he can live up to them. That will necessitate sailing the slave-driven ship through the straits, past the shoals, arriving at the island, overcoming the foam-devil that guards the girl of his greatest fantasies, and winning her love, and thereby playing the game on Griffin’s own terms. Can he do it? And what does he win?

Comment
Books are filled with stories that have an excellent premise and a fabulous build-up, only to piss it away with a weak ending. This story is a different animal: a fairly ho-hum plot that manages to whip a pretty good ending out of its hat.

A classic sword-and-sorcery fantasy (so clichéd I could see Ray Harryhausen footage -- say, from “Jason and the Argonauts” -- in my mind’s eye while reading it, and had to fight the temptation to skim) serves as the fairly thin lunch meat between more substantial slices of multi-grain bread. Although the prologue doesn’t seem essential to me either. There, the narrator relates the deaths of four real persons, all apparently victims of cruel chance and only one of which is instantly familiar (she being Marilyn Monroe; I think the only other place I’ve heard of “Dick Bong, Ace of Aces,” was in another Ellison story, “Repent, Harlequin”). The notion of a fateful concatenation of chance occurrences that results in either needless death or incredible good fortune is a fascinating and frightening one, but the real-life examples here are somewhat weak for the purpose, not explored in great depth, and I’m not sure they or the point they illustrate adds all that much to Griffin’s story. The ending is a good, strong right to the jaw, though. In structure, the plot reminds me a little of Bierce’s “Incident at Owl Creek Bridge.”

This story appeared in the 1967 collection, I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream along with the classic “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes.” Not sure which god we’re looking at here, unless it could be called the God of Delusion (or False Expectations) -- clearly a god we create and sic on ourselves. Too often.



THE FACE OF HELENE BOURNOUW

Synopsis
Helene Bournouw is beautiful beyond perfection. Hers is a beauty that burns out the eyes. A professional model, her private life somehow manages to stay fairly hidden from the media, though one Broadway columnist termed her the most memorable succubus he had ever encountered. On a given day, over an early lunch, she blows off a multi-billionaire she had been seeing for a week so that shortly after he will put a bullet in his brain (which has huge repercussions on world markets); meets breaking artist Quentin Dean for a quick one and ridicules his work in progress so that he destroys everything in his loft and slinks back to Ohio; then goes to see the Right Reverend Monsignor Della’Buono for some hot and hungry coupling on the rectory table, and promises to bring some little girl clothes next time. She has other appointments, such as the ones with UN delegates. It’s a busy day. But what does Helene Bournouw really want? What motivates such a woman, and whom would she be going to see in the Bowery at five in the morning?

Comment
This story was anthologized much later in Shudder Again: 22 tales of sex and horror (1993), edited by Michele Slung. I had a hard time remembering the plot when I saw the title. Now I know why. It’s only a so-so story. Good windup, disappointingly pat close.



BLEEDING STONES

Synopsis
The Jesus people, forty thousand of them, are gathered before St. Patrick’s Cathedral, filling the intersections of 50th, 51st, 52nd streets and Fifth Avenue, awaiting an appearance and message from the Cardinal. As he steps out to speak to them, he feels moisture on his left hand and looks down. Is it a drop of blood?

Comment
This is the shortest story in the book, just over six pages. Although Ellison’s pre-note declares “This is a funny story. Honest to gods” -- it’s a very acerbic joke. Apparently a hundred years of industrial pollution stings the cathedral gargoyles to life and they wreak havoc on the crowd (and the Cardinal) below. The violence is so graphic and ugly that it’s hard to chuckle about it. One can admire the vivid imagery, I suppose, but … file this one under “nice try.”


AT THE MOUSE CIRCUS

Synopsis
Charlie, the King of Tibet, is having himself a fat white woman. Although his mother had told him when he was a lad that he could be anything he could do, the King has fallen on hard times. He drives out of Manhattan in his Cadillac Eldorado and passes through New Jersey and Pennsylvania into Ohio. When he stops at a restaurant to eat, a flocked velvet witch picks him up and takes him to a party on a hill. The house seems to consist of boxes within boxes, through which the King and his escort pass until he loses count. Finally, an old woman with fine bones offers him whatever he wants to know, and seeing the option on a list, he asks how the dinosaurs died. She shows him. He lights her cigarette upon her request. When the scenario about the dinosaurs is finished, the King realizes he’s never really seen the sea, and though he’d like to go to California, he fears he will never escape Ohio. His date is incensed that he lighted the old woman’s cigarette. She pulls him from the party, and at a hotel with her later, for the first time in his life he can’t come. Outside, he sees a large crowd eating his car.

Comment
I am absolutely stymied by this story. I have no idea what Ellison is trying to do, I have no understanding of the flow of the plot, I have no idea why the Wonderland white rabbit, Billy Batson, and Mickey Mouse pass through (although they all seem about as lost and confused as I), and Ellison’s note, “This is what happens when a black man worships a white god,” offers no enlightenment. If anybody has any ideas, please email me, okay? Or let’s discuss it on alt.fan.harlan-ellison.



THE PLACE WITH NO NAME

Synopsis
Cocaine-addicted pimp Norman Mogart is doing all right with Marlene, his “seventeen-year-old Puerto Rican voluptuary with a childlike delight in the carnal act and an insatiable craving for Juicy Fruit gum.” But then they get busted while doing the dirty under a bush in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, and by the time Norman is back on the street he is out of business and bereft of a fix. He tries to assault a comely resident into being his next girl, but she puts up a good fight and he ends up pounding her to a pulp with a length of pipe. A long chase ensues, over roofs and across avenues, until Norman finds sanctuary in one of those ubiquitous little shops owned by a wizened old man, promising “ESCAPE INSIDE.” Norman fades away and finds himself waking up in deep jungle, possessed of idle thoughts that identify him as Harry Timmons Jr., and making his way to the Place With No Name, where a man with walnut-brown skin is chained to a rock and prey to a bird that repeatedly tears out his liver.

Comment
I hated this story. Worse than the story you don’t understand at all but at least is gripping from one moment to the next (e.g., “At the Mouse Circus”), is the story that consists partly of stuff you don’t understand at all and partly of stuff that is only too clear … and you can’t grasp how the two halves fit together. I think Ellison thought of this nifty-cool shocking climax (what if Prometheus and Jesus Christ had been homosexual lovers; aliens who had felt compassion for earthlings and given them gifts that angered the gods, who decreed they must be punished?) and then cobbled up a story around it. The story doesn’t make much sense or flow well. Most of the “action” is interior; the narrator tells us everything, shows us little. The answers come to Mogart in a dream which in turn is spoon-fed to the reader. And there are far too many loose ends. Why should Norman Mogart be chosen as the replacement for Prometheus?  Why do we dwell on his pitiful excuse for a life, and a murder, before the story really gets going in South America? Will a similar lowlife replace Jesus on the cross? What will this do to the enduring legends of the two mythical heroes? To top it all off, Ellison gives away the punchline in his pre-story note. I just wanted this one to be over.



PAINGOD

Synopsis
Trente is the Paingod. From a race of beings that lives a very long time and does not feel the tug of emotions, he was chosen by the Ethos to be the disinterested dispenser of pain throughout the universes. For millennia, he has apportioned bearable and unbearable torments to distant planets and star systems, to species, races, groups, and individuals, but of late he has felt something unfamiliar: Concern. And he needs to know what it is all about. So he picks a locale at random (the one called Sol III, Earth, Terra, the world) and goes on his first nightwalk, entering the body of a 50-year-old wetbrain just at the instant he dies in an alley near the L.A. Greyhound station. Trente’s aim is to see the effects of the pain he has just dispensed to a man named Colin Marshack.

Comment
This may be the oldest story in this book. It appeared in its own eponymous collection, Paingod and Other Delusions (1965), whose lawyer’s page says the title story was first published in the June 1964 issue of “Fantastic.”

Out of curiousity I checked my copy of the first Pyramid edition to see whether the story had been updated at all. At first it appeared it hadn’t: a misspelled “miniscule” was corrected; a period at the end of a paragraph became a colon to lead into the next; two paragraphs were joined into one; “wet brain” became a single word; a few more words were italicized; but the text remained the same. Then comes a middle section that is completely excised from the Deathbird version: a full page in which Marshack listens to the racist ravings of a street orator. As Ellison’s explanatory paragraph in the 1965 Pyramid edition says, the author had been among the 50,000 who marched on Selma the preceding March, and that “walk through the country of the blind” was very much on his mind. But the excerpt doesn’t add anything to this story, it’s just there and then Marshack brushes it off with the bitter and fearful thought, “Why is such hideousness allowed to exist?” Obviously unnecessary to the plot.

Unfortunately, the remaining plot is pretty schematic, too. The narrator tells us almost everything: We don’t get to see the critical events transpire, we merely learn of them. Trente’s flash of insight, whatever the statue he caused Marshack to create looks like, why Marshack should turn to despair and drink the instant after creating his greatest work … they happen, and that’s it. And frankly, Trente’s lesson is trite, although if Ellison had perhaps shown him interacting more with the world, with Marshack, and feeling the pain of compassionate empathy more deeply, then his declaration that he will henceforth create more pain might have had more punch.


ERNEST AND THE MACHINE GOD

Synopsis
Selena, a fine, sleek manipulator who has worked her way up from the prettiest thing in Minneapolis to Chicago, New York, and then Washington, with two brief marriages and a modeling career, is in trouble now. Locked in combat with a man as wily as herself, she accidentally killed him and is now on the lam in a cheap, sea-green ’51 Packard she bought with the cash she was able to find on the body. In the mountains of North Carolina, in the middle of a thunderstorm, the car spins out and starts grinding something internal, and Selena manages to pull off in tiny Petrie -- population 650, five stores and a gas station -- to get help. A trio of local rustics mess with her smart Northern mind while eyeing her pretty little bod, and finally admit that nobody can fix her car, unless she wants to try calling “ol’ Ernest.” They fix to bust a gut laughing, and when an incredibly thin teenager, six feet tall with arms like a rickets case, ambles up the street, she gets the joke. But she’s desperate. And there is something in his eyes, “the writhing of something nailed down and in torment” as the line from Gerald Kersh has it, and she sees how the sight of her lights him up. Can he help her? And what will she do if he can?

Comment
I can’t remember why my high school girlfriend liked this story, but I never forgot that she did, or the basic plot. There’s something terrific about the collision between hard, manipulative bitch from the city and quiet, simple country boy with a magic touch for machines. Not that this is a perfect story by any means; the narration periodically interjects some folderol about gods and particularly the Machine God to keep us on track in a way that I don’t think is particularly necessary, and it’s hard for me to imagine what Selena might have wanted from a sheaf of government papers that she would have struggled with a guy to the death for them (particularly since they drop clean out of the story after having served the purpose of getting him killed and her on the road). But the scene where the local hayseeds face her down and she has to scrabble hard mentally to follow their game, and the ultimate fates of Ernest and Selena, make this a memorable tale. Ellison’s pre-story note allows as how “about 45 percent of this is a true story,” so I’m guessing he had car trouble in the South, got led around by such a trio, and probably encountered an Ernest with that magic touch for automobiles, though with less dramatic results.


ROCK GOD

Synopsis
Dis, the great god who rises from the plinths of Stonehenge after being summoned by the ancient folk we call the Wessex People, presents a mote of burning blackness from his heart to the supplicants before returning to stone and earth. The mote containing the soul of Dis remained buried at Stonehenge, but his body was divided between the Seven Stones of Power across the globe, from the Blarney in Ireland to the Stone of Solomon in Palestine. But the mote was dug up by a madman, and it changed hands many times over the centuries, from a Minoan Crete to a thinker of Mycenaean Greece, from a priest of Isis to Phoenicia, Poland, and the New World. A Croatian workman, not knowing its value, tossed it into the hollow center of the cornerstone of a great New York skyscraper. But the Stierman Building was cheaply built: developer Frank Stierman bilked his fellow investors and skimmed off $2 million for himself before they caught him. The foundation is sinking into the muck of Manhattan. Stierman’s wife won’t stick by him. And the time is near for Dis to live again.

Comment
Fairly pedestrian effort. This story first appeared in 1970’s Over The Edge (as did the far superior “Ernest”), and I can say it is okay, but no better. The oogie-boogie atmospherics of the first half are dated, the frantic venality of Stierman in the second half pretty by-the-numbers. And why would a Croatian workman not recognize some value in a stone that for a while was polished and mounted so that the women who owned it “became famous” and “their names are legend”? Editing quibble: No matter how you turn it over in your mouth, “I ought to kill you, you scum” cannot be rendered as “I outta kill you….” It appears that way in Over the Edge, in the first hardback Harper & Row of Deathbird Stories, and in the 1975 Dell paperback; but is corrected to “oughta” in the 1983 Bluejay hardcover reprint and in Edgeworks Volume 1. Also, I’m skeptical about “the Amida of Daibutsu … in the Sacred Temple of Kyobe”; I’ve been to Kyoto, and there was an earthquake recently in Kobe. Could Ellison have mixed them together?



ADRIFT JUST OFF THE ISLETS OF LANGERHANS: LATITUDE 38
° 54' N, LONGITUDE 77° 00' 13 " W

Synopsis
Lawrence Talbot, the Wolfman, wants to die but cannot. If he can find the exact location of his soul, maybe sweet death will be his. He manages to secure the coordinates, and turns to his old friend Victor, the Transylvanian scientist, to handle the practical details.

Comment
This story has one of the all-time great Ellison titles, along with “ ‘Repent, Harlequin,’ Said the Ticktockman,” “I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream,” and “I See A Man Sitting On a Chair, And the Chair Is Biting His Leg” -- except that I dare anybody to recite this one accurately from memory. Like those other provocative titles, this one describes the action of the story fairly pointedly, but at the same time it doesn’t offer you a clue in advance as to what it’s about. If you said “The Wolfman Searches for Rosebud,” that would tell the innocent reader a whole lot more than this wonderful but opaque title.

I left a lot of interesting details out of the synopsis because they would require too much further explanation, or they simply have no obvious explanation. Ellison does a fair amount of experimenting in this tale, as in “The Deathbird.” For one, the gripping first sentence reads: “When Moby Dick awoke one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed of kelp into a monstrous Ahab.” He makes a pot of tea, considers the terrible fish in an aquarium that killed off all the other fish and will not die. For two and a half pages it goes on in this vein with only occasional hints (“Like him, it would not die”; “He … found himself thinking of the chill, full circle of the Moon”) that our hero is really Lawrence Talbot. Then suddenly he is Talbot, and we are off into the main story with hardly a glance back at Moby and Ahab, and no explanation of why they were there. I’m not complaining, just noticing.

There are many aspects of this story Ellison could explain further, but he doesn’t, and that is good. On the other hand, having Talbot explicitly highlight the name of the head of Information Associates is unnecessary: “Man named Demeter. I thought there might be some clue there. The name…. But later, when I looked it up, Demeter, the Earth goddess, Greek mythology … no connection. At least I don’t think so.” Those who care about such things will either know or look it up, and if they do the latter, they are apt to find what Talbot should have, easily enough: Demeter was also the focus of the festival of the Eleusinian Mysteries, whose practices were shrouded in secrecy but must have involved death and rebirth of grain, and later a belief in the immortality of the soul. Perhaps Ellison also wanted to tie in the famous myth of Demeter going to Hades to retrieve her lost daughter Persephone from her abductor Pluto and connect it to Talbot’s rescue of Martha Nelson and Nadja.

There is some humor in this story, too, but it is very dry. The kind of humor that makes you smile inside while you read, rather than chuckle or guffaw. Talbot and Frankenstein have an interesting, wry but respectful relationship. There is a bit more pseudo-scientific apparatus to the plot than one normally encounters in Ellison, but despite this and the “Fantastic Voyage” angle, there are some familiar themes here, as well. We are treated to “Jeffty”-style nostalgia for classic old radio shows and bric-a-brac; the idea of the lost childhood or innocence; the notion of (and concern about) “wasted lives” that turns up in “On the Downhill Side,” “Count the Clock That Tells the Time,” etc.

On the other hand, the narrative ranges over all sorts of terrain, from pseudo-spy territory (the office of Information Associates doubles as a men’s bathroom), to the creaky old horror movie set of a corpse barge on the Danube, to the “synchrophasotron” (a giant particle accelerator 16 miles in diameter) of Victor Frankenstein, and the dreamscapes of the inner body. I can’t help wondering whether Ellison meant something with the coordinates in the story. Aside from the oddity of using two-dimensional mapping coordinates to locate a place in three dimensions (Talbot’s own pancreas), if I read the numbers right, 38° 54' N, 77° 00' 13 " W appears to be in Maryland just south of Washington DC and Alexandria. Eyeballing suggests the nearest towns are La Plata and Pisgah (which has possibilities; Mt. Pisgah is where Moses got to glimpse the Promised Land before he died).

A stunning work of imagination, “Adrift” won the 1975 Hugo Award for Best Novelette.



THE DEATHBIRD

Synopsis
The premise of this story is, what if the Serpent was the real hero of the Book of Genesis but got screwed in the telling of the story because God subsequently handled the PR? The world is coming to an end. Nathan Stack, the latest incarnation of a long line of humans going back to Lilith’s husband, is revived by Snake (aka Dira) to make the journey to the mountain where God lives, to confront him and make him pay for all the lies and the earth’s suffering.

Comment
This is it: one of Ellison’s Top Five stories. It’s a post-modern masterpiece, a collage of styles and ideas that may or may not fit together but undeniably offers something the reader has never seen before. There is a basic plot: Nathan Stack, guided and advised by Dira or Snake, goes to the home of God (in the baker’s dozen litany of descriptive phrases for it, I like “the toyshop of creation” and “the kiln of last attempts” best), and stands up to the worst God can dish out. A blasted, eerie landscape inhabited by weird creatures helps to fill in the narrative leading up to the climax, and the mysterious Deathbird is seen periodically soaring overhead, but that’s a pretty simple plot.

Interspersed within that plot, however, are two other narratives: an essay about a dog rescued from the pound and all he brought to the narrator’s life before the dog became mortally ill and had to be put to sleep; and the tale of a beloved older mother’s dying moments (although she is apparently Nathan Stack’s mother during the period he was just a human being).

In addition, there are interpolations of academic-sounding text and questions, entitled “Topics For Discussion (Give 5 points per right answer)” and “Multiple Choice (Counts for 1/2 your final grade).” The dog essay is introduced as “Supplementary Reading” and concludes with its own “Questions for Discussion.” In fact, the first words of “The Deathbird” are: “This is a test. Take notes. This will count as 3/4 of your final grade.” Some of the multiple choice answers to the questions provide a little cheap, sour humor to the story.

This melange of styles and plot lines makes for a sophisticated stew. The tale of the dog, entitled simply “Ahbhu,” is true -- as true as anything that ever appeared in Ellison’s fiction. It briefly relates the account of Ellison’s rescue of a Puli mutt from the West Los Angeles Animal Shelter; his decision to name it after a character in one of his favorite films, the 1939 Alexander Korda version of “The Thief of Baghdad”; Ahbhu’s ability to judge the character of visitors unerringly; his enduring friendship with various starlets after Ellison had stopped dating them; and his final sickness, when Ellison had to hold him as the vet stuck the needle in.

Response to the excerpt was so strong after “The Deathbird” first appeared in the March 1973 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction that Ellison reprinted it as one of his LA Free Press columns on September 6, 1973. (The column appears in the Harlan Ellison Hornbook collections as Number 34.) It seems rather out of place in this apocalyptic tale, not only because it is nakedly sentimental, but because it provides an emotional peak, a heart-punch, well before the end of “The Deathbird.” Nevertheless, it works; I’m not sure why it works, but it does. I guess the message is about love: the love between creatures of different species, love that enables one to be there for the other at the moment of death, even to assist the passage to death (as Nathan Stack will do for his biological mother and much later for his ecological mother).

As in the biographical notes for the protagonist of “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes,” one may see pieces of the author in the character of Stack. Nathan’s mother says, “your sister isn’t the most likable woman in the world” and perhaps her parents “missed something from the gene pool. Charlene isn’t whole.” Ellison has never made it a secret that “my sister and I have never been friends.” Interestingly, the death of Nathan’s mother in “The Deathbird” seems to foretell the passing of Serita Rosenthal Ellison, three to four years later. In the story, Nathan’s mother is paralyzed on her left side with a cancer spreading toward her heart. “I would kill for a cigarette,” she says. In his tribute to his own mother, first printed in the Saint Louis Literary Supplement in November 1976 and subsequently reprinted in the Hornbook, Sleepless Nights in the Procrustean Bed, and The Essential Ellison, Ellison says she would end up paralyzed from strokes, a heart attack, and a leg filled with blood clots. The photograph of her in better days shows her holding a cigarette. “I begged them to pull the plug, but they wouldn’t,” Ellison writes. There are significant differences of course -- Nathan’s mother is alert up to the end while Ellison’s mother went into a six-week coma -- but had he a syringe like Nathan, perhaps Ellison would have put his mother out of her misery as well.

“The Deathbird” won the richly-deserved 1974 Hugo Award for Best Novelette.

I feel I should say something in conclusion, not just let the synopses and comments end with a thump, but really, I have nothing to say … except that it was a privilege and a joy to reacquaint myself with this incredible collection of tales.

David Loftus

June 2000

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