Harlan Ellison: Short Story Collections

Someday, Moansday, Duesday, Woundsday, Thornsday, Freeday,

Shatterday




1st Hardcover: Houghton-Mifflin / November 1980
1st Paperback: Berkely / October 1982
Cover Art: Walter Velez (paperback)
Dedication: James Blish


The Langerhans review

Reviews Description and Spoiler Warning

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Contents and Copyright Dates

Introduction: Mortal Dreads (February 14, 1980)
Jeffty is Five (1977)
How's the Night Life on Cissalda? (1977)
Flop Sweat (1977)
Would You Do It for a Penny? (1967) (Collaboration with Haskell Barkin)
The Man Who Was Heavily into Revenge (1978)
Shoppe Keeper (1977)
All the Lies That Are My Life (1980)
Django (1977)
Count the Clock That Tells the Time (1978)
In the Fourth Year of the War (1979)
Alive and Well and on a Friendless Voyage
All the Birds Come Home to Roost
Opium (1977)
The Other Eye of Polyphemus (1977)
The Executioner of the Malformed Children (1978)
Shatterday (1975)

Introductory Quote

Fear is implanted in us as a preservative from evil; but its duty, like that of other passions, is not to overbear reason, but to assist it. It should not be suffered to tyrannize in the imagination, to raise phantoms of horror, or to beset life with supernumerary distresses
-DR. JOHNSON


COMMENTARY

All the stories in Shatterday were written between 1977 and 1980; with the exception of the cover story (1975) and "Would You Do It for a Penny" (1967). Ellison, in his introduction, writes that all of these stories are about mortal dreads - the darknesses and the fears that feed upon our soul; the whispers we think no one else can hear. His message is that those whispers aren't as private as we think, that even our worst and most private nightmare has an echo somewhere:

You are not alone. We are all the same, all in this fragile skin, suffering the ugliness of simply being human, all prey to the same mortal dreads.

These words may sound strange coming from a man who considers his readers a necessary evil, and who says he would be elated if he never received another fan letter for as long as he lived. It is true that there is a certain dichotomy here. It is NOT true that this dichotomy represents hypocrisy or inconsistency.

Ellison, admittedly, writes first and foremost because he has no other choice; because he has stories born inside his head screaming to get out; because he simply cannot imagine NOT writing. He writes for himself, he tells stories because that is his nature; but for a story to be told there must be a listener, and this is the person Ellison is speaking to in his introduction.

Not the fan. Not the collector. Not the convention attendee who waits in line an hour to get a name written in his book. Ellison is speaking to that singular person who read his story and found something in it that they never thought they would find outside their own dreams, and who by the reading made their private horror a little less private, a little less horrible. I know Ellison writes for himself, but I think he needs this person, this echo, to exist as badly as he needs to tell the tale that they hear.

So, according to Ellison, the stories in this book are about the sharing of mortal dreads. I think they are also about something else:

The stealing of souls.

Or, more accurately, the syphoning-off of pieces of them. You see, we cannot GIVE any part of our soul away. There is always a theft, always a crime, always something skulking away in the shadows with a precious parcel. Sometimes we can identify the thief; sometimes it is something nameless and unimaginable. He is always there, and if we look hard enough we can always find him.

In Jeffy is Five, the thief is the world closing in on a man's childhood, pinching it off. In Would You Do It for a Penny?, the soul is bought with counterfeited coin. In Shatterday, the soul is taken by one more deserving, one more worthy.

The thief is always there, somewhere in the story. Instead of the theft, we may see people returning to reclaim what they left behind (All the Birds Come Home to Roost). We may see the soul-torn beggar, looking for someone to replace what has been lost (Alive and Well and on a Friendless Voyage). We may find a soul that has not been rended, but instead enveloped and kidnapped intact, held hostage by one stronger and less afraid (All the Lies That Are My Life).

Certainly within these sixteen tales lies the occasional exception. Those of you who call Ellison a hypocrite for having an Internet presence, who write the producers of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to point out inconsistencies in the transporter mechanics, who can't figure out why I might be unhappy even though chicks dig my site, will probably also be able to find such flaws. Of course, these stories are about much more than soul-stealing, much more than mortal dreads, much more than the message You are not alone.

To me, though, the theft is what these stories are about. They are about waking up one morning and realizing that a part of you is gone, severed from you sometime in the past when you weren't paying attention. About being betrayed by someone you thought you were sharing souls with; seeing them run off laughing while you look down to see what they have given you is fool's gold. About wandering and wandering, searching for something you know has gone missing but cannot put a name or shape to.

I chose to write this book up first because it is my all-time favorite Ellison book, including essay collections and editorial stints. It was the first book I bought in its original publication, and I personally think it best represents Ellison's range and depth. If you can get your mitts on a copy, by all means do so.

The Stories

Jeffty is Five

Synopsis:A young man discovers that his childhood friend Jeffty never grew past the age of five. Jeffty is a conduit to a world in which the old serials, comics, and radio shows of the 40's still exist and still produce new material. Jeffty shares this world with his friend until one fateful day...

Comments: "Jeffty is Five" is undoubtedly one of Harlan Ellison's most powerful and moving stories, and as such I am going to give it extra attention here. It is joyful in its homage to the great "pulp" days of the 40's, and it is hearbreakingly sad as a story of the death of innocence and wonder.
When Jeffty invites Donald Horton into his world, he restores something to him. He brings him back to a time when there could be slave-dug canals on Mars, cloud cities on Venus, supernatural battles on the streets of New York. A time when space pirates roamed the starlanes and superheroes protected the innocent. More importantly, though he opens Donald up to WONDER again, to the possibility that the fantastic can be touched, that magic can exist in our world. Harlan writes of Jeffty's age:

It is a time when the eyes are wide open the the patterns are not yet set; a time when one has not yet been hammered into accepting everything as immutable and hopeless; a time when the hands can not do enough, the mind can not learn enough, the world is infinit and colorful and filled with myseries. Five is a special time before they take the questing, unquenchable quixotic soul of the young dreamer and thrust is into dreary schoolroom boxes. A time before they take the trembling hands that want to hold everything, touch everything, figure everything out, and make them lie still on the desktops.

Jeffy returns Donald to that age, and still lets him live in his adult world as well. Unconsciously we know what must happen, for our own lives are testaments to the fact that those two worlds cannot exist together. We fondly remember the days of our youth; we recreate it by playing old songs and reminiscing about old TV shows and old toys; we try to pretend that we have not lost the magic. At some point we realize we are only acting out a puppet show, although we do not stop our shadow play. The difference is, we know what it is and why we are only sideline players at that most serious game of being a child.

The loss of Jeffty, the loss of innocence, begins precisely at that point where Donald sets him aside, literally sends him away to deal with the "more important" crises of his job. Donald forgets Jeffty and sells TVs, and only distantly feels what happens to Jeffty, what happens to himself, as a result - as if he were picking it up over an old and failing Atwater-Kent radio.

Our hearts break when we read this story - not for the tragedy of Jeffty or for Donald's loss, but because we know that we have each of us in turn beaten up and drowned our own innocence. Those who lived through the time or have studied it also know that for a brief time some fifty-odd years ago our world briefly revisited the world of wonder. But of course, like Donald, we soon returned to the real business of life - which is, naturally, building and selling things, making money, and killing each other off. And always, always...pretending that that is the way we want it.


How's the Night Life on Cissalda?

Synopsis: Temponaut Enoch Mirren returns from a venture to time/universe Earth-2 inseperably, obscenely, and rapturously attached to a disgusting thing from the planet Cissalda. Two months later scientists finally manage to separate human and Cissaldan, ending their sexual congress. The Cissaldan dissapears and is found three hours later in a broom closet with Dr. Marilyn Hornback. Not long after that, the terrific and disgusting little things (which happen to be the "most perfect fucks in the universe") start popping in all over the world, fastening themselves onto everyone - famous or not. Everyone, that is, except Enoch Mirren...

Comments: "Cissalda" isn't soul-wrenching or fever-inducing or nightmare-causing or any of the other things you hear about Ellison's work. It is, quite simply, a fucking hilarious bit of writing. Artists who think that sex wasn't invented (you know, REALLY invented) until the 90's should look back on just how shocking and irreverent Ellison was almost twenty years ago, describing the infiltration of the Cissaldans:

Truman Capote, popping Quaaludes like M&Ms, rolled himself into a puffy little ball as his Cissaldan mounted him. The level of dope in his system, hoever, was so high that the disgusting thing went mad and strained itself straight up the urethra and hid itself against his prostrate. Capote's voice instantly dropped three octaves.
Maidservants to Queen Elizabeth, knocking frantically on the door to her bedchamber, were greeted with silence. Guards instantly forced the door. They turned their heads away from the disgusting sight that greeted them. There was nothing regal, nothing imperial, nothing even remotedly majestic about what was taking place there on the floor.

I could go into Ellison's ideas about the necessary separation of love and sex, or discuss the appropriateness of this story in the moral climate of the late 70's, or perhaps even comment upon the fact that much of our lives is spent simply seeking out that one perfect fuck. But I'll leave that for another day. This story is full-blown, run-amuck, pedal-to-the-floor humor, and and I would only insult it by analyzing it.

Flop Sweat

Synopsis:Sexy, up-and-coming talk show hostess Theresa Ketchum's Los Angeles radio program this night consists of two guests. Brother Michael Darkness is the psychotic, disturbing, and powerful leader of the devil-worshipping Euchites, proclaiming the return of those devils to take over the world. Dr. Jacob Theiss is a prestigious psychiatrist, on-air tonight to discuss the LA razorblade slayings, the work of a serial killer who has just claimed his eleventh victim. Theresa's first call-in is a man who claims to be the razorblade killer but who turns out to be someone (or something) much, much worse....

Comments: Someone (I think Abraham Lincoln) once said "The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing". Theresa Ketchum is a good woman (or at least not a bad one), but also an ambitious woman. In pursuit of that ambition she does two things: she uses her looks to advance her career, and she provides a nightly forum through which the deranged, perverted, and/or just plain evil can reach thousands or millions of listeners.
Every time Theresa invites someone like Michael Darkness into myriad homes, every time she gives a prophet of doom or supersitions access to her wide-ranging audience, she makes a subtle change in an ancient balance. Perhaps on a night-by-night basis this makes little difference - but as her influence grows over years, Theresa becomes an important provider of chaos and the wrong kind of fantasy. She serves her dark followers unknowingly but well, and when they finally gain enough strength to bring their desires to fruition they do not forget those who helped:

They raised their arms and the sleeves fell back from pale flesh and metal fingertips. She waited for the first touch.
And they sank to their knees, lifting their arms in supplication. She began to tremble with the rictus of a scream shaking her like a fever. Now she know the worst, now she understood:
She was not to die. She had broadcast the word for them, ever night for seven years, and she was not to die. She would be their dark priestess. Like the others who had spread the word, she was to be kept alive, perhaps forever.

The name of the story comes from the show-biz term for the cold sweat that sometimes erupts from nervousness right before a critical performance. In the end, Theresa's reward is a flop sweat that will last through a performance without end.
This story was written a decade and a half before the advent of the sleazy television talk-show, and the proliferation of tv shows such as "A Current Affair" and "Hard Copy". "Flop Sweat" is both a horror story and a cautionary tale, and one that is coming true in both facets at an accelerating pace. Harlan's opinion that the power of the media should be tempered with responsibility is today being voiced by many others, and most of us aren't listening any more now than we did then. Those of us who have to live through what our generation gives birth to as a result will find little solace in the knowledge that it is no more than we deserve.

Would You Do It for a Penny?

Synopsis: Arlo, consumate stalker of that most dangerous game, women, is having little luck at the watering holes tonight. Every 24-hour supermarket he visits is deserted. Then, near the end of his hunt, he spies the lovely Anastasia at the usually desolate Ralph's. After a vicissitudinous and toughly-fought courtship involving an empty gas tank, an airport, and a pair of soiled bikini briefs Arlo finds himself alone in his apartment with his prey.
The not-quite-couple's conversation descends upon Arlo's coin collection which he inherited from his father, and as Anastasia finally comes to her senses and leaves Arlo gives her a rare penny from that collection, no strings attached. Touched by this, she stays just a little bit longer than she had planned.
The question is, what will Anastasia do when she finds out just what that rare penny is worth, and how will Arlo survive her wrath?

Comments: This story seems out of place in this book, especially following a story in which Ellison makes a strong statement about the responsibility of the media and the artist. Ellison says in his introduction that the story idea and the first draft were both done by his collaborator Haskell Barkin, and admittedly the story was written thirty years ago. Still, I would have have preferred to see this piece remain uncollected rather than provide more fodder for those who continue to rail at Harlan for being cruelly misogynistic on the basis of stories like this and in spite of his later works and his ceaseless and constant toil some years back in support of the ERA.
Although I don't think nearly as much of this story as I did back when I was eighteen and I though it was the coolest thing I had ever read, it still is an extremely clever and funny idea and an enjoyable tale of a skilled con artist who manages to take the short con all the way into the long con. In his single-minded pursuit of the art of bumping uglies, Arlo is as talented an actor as Morgan Freeman, as quick at improvisation as Billy Crystal:

...never meant much to me - until he died..."
He choked up. She paused with a forkful on her way to mouth. The appraisal she gave him was the crucial one: if he could pass the sincerity test, the rest was all downhill.
"But when he died...?" she prompted him.
And he plunged on. "It was all he left me [...] He was a good guy - never really understood me, but I suppose that's typical with the parents of our generation."
Lofty. Very lofty, and as far away from sex talk as he could get without going into withdrawal. "They must be quite valuable.", she said again.

Anastasia likewise is a strong counterpoint, a determined yet whimisical woman who doesn't like Arlo from the get-go and is all the more desirable for that fact. The characters are three-dimensional and solid, and the writing is well-paced. I guess I just don't like it when the scumbag wins.

The Man Who Was Heavily into Revenge

Synopsis: Fred Tolliver, a 62-year-old retired studio musician, has been well and truly screwed by contractor William Weisel. For a substandard, shoddy, and falling-apart guest bathroom Weisel has charged his client four times the estimated price, charged almost as much as Tolliver receives in a year. Tolliver's pleas for redress are met with vague indifference by Weisel and his sometimes-receptionist wife Belle. Tolliver swears he will get even, swears there will be justice.
And he does. And there is.
Shortly after Tolliver is pushed to the breaking point, bad things (REALLY bad things) start happening to William Weisel. No one will sell him gas for his Rolls because Fred Tolliver wouldn't like that. Belle leaves him and cleans out his bank account. His loans are all called due, his stocks plummet, he even fails his est class. Over the next week Weisel is reduced to a reeking, malnourished, stained and soiled bum who remains alive only by the narrowest thread, and Fred Tolliver is still unable to work or play his cello or do anything but think about how his life was ruined by William Weisel.
Eventually, Weisel succumbs - and the force haunting him needs to find a new focus - and what better focus than Fred Tolliver?

Comments: Even though we hate William Weisel, despise him for his callousness, we can't help but feel a little sorry for him. The repurcussions of his business with Fred Tolliver are a little more than simple justice would call for. As a hundred cliched books and movies can attest to, revenge solves nothing and only creates a vicious cycle. We all have wanted to see the car that cut us off in traffic explode into flames, have all secretly fired .50-caliber bullets from our eyeballs into the forehead of some offensive goon. If the universe acted on such desires, most of us would be appalled and regretful over the result. It is one thing to wish the worst to someone - it is quite another to see one's wishes granted.
At the heart of this story is the hollowness of revenge. Fred Tolliver doesn't feel any better for getting his - in fact, he doesn't even KNOW he has done so. Tolliver is not an active participant in his revenge, which underscores the notion that so often we are controlled by revenge rather than the obverse. Tolliver is instead a conduit for the frustrations of us all:

The electrons dance. The emotions sing. Four billion, resonating like insects. The hive mind of the masses. The emotional gestalt. The charge builds and builds, surging down the line seeking a focus. The weakest link through which to discharge itself. Why this focus and not that? Chance, proximity, the tiniest fracture for leakage. You, I, him, her. Everyman, Anyman; the crap shoot selection is whatever man or woman born of man and woman whose rage at that moment is that potent.
Everyman. Fred Tolliver. Unknowing confluence.

We cheer when Weisel "gets his", but we cheer with our mouths while our eyes furtively glancing around, seeing if anything is hiding in the shadows. And when as a result of his misfortune Fred Tolliver fails another who is counting on him and himself becomes the cynosure of the forces recently converged upon Weisel, we realize how little revenge really changes, and how little it protects us.

Shoppe Keeper

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All the Liest That Are My Life

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Django

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Count the Clock That Tells the Time

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In the Fourth Year of the War

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Alive and Well on a Friendless Voyage

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All the Birds Come Home to Roost

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Opium

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The Other Eye of Polyphemus

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The Executioner of the Malformed Children

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Shatterday

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