Harlan Ellison: Short Story Collections
Reviewed by K.C. Locke
1st Publication: Paperback Library, 1962
Reviewed Edition: Bluejay Special Edition, soft cover; Bluejay Books, Inc.,
Copyright 1962, 1964 by Harlan Ellison
Copyright 1984 by The Kilimanjaro Corporation
Cover Art: artist uncredited
Reviews Description and Spoiler Warning
This random group of leftover dreams and wry conspiracies I
offer to Wednesday's Child...KENNY
Reviewed by K.C. Locke
1st Publication: Paperback Library, 1962
Reviewed Edition: Bluejay Special Edition, soft cover; Bluejay Books,
Copyright 1962, 1964 by Harlan Ellison
Copyright 1984 by The Kilimanjaro Corporation
Cover Art: artist uncredited
Reviews Description and Spoiler Warning
This random group of leftover dreams and wry conspiracies I
offer to Wednesday's Child...KENNY
Contents and Copyright Dates
Introduction: "The Man On the Mushroom" (March, 1974, and November,
COMMUTER'S PROBLEM (1957)
DO-IT-YOURSELF (written with Joe L. Hensley (1961)
THE SILVER CORRIDOR (1956)
ALL THE SOUNDS OF FEAR (1962)
THE SKY IS BURNING (1958)
THE VERY LAST DAY OF A GOOD WOMAN (1958)
DEAL FROM THE BOTTOM (1960)
THE WIND BEYOND THE MOUNTAINS (1956)
BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARDS (1958)
NOTHING FOR MY NOON MEAL (1958)
RAIN, RAIN, GO AWAY (1956)
IN LONELY LANDS (1958)
PLEASE NOTE: It has become standard practice for Mr. Ellison to "christen"
his collections at the outset with some personage's wise words. ELLISON
WONDERLAND, however, came to us before the commencement of that practice.
Unless the author has a preference of material, I give you the words of
the original Lewis Carroll, as set down in his book, (in case you thought
it was the same one) ALICE IN WONDERLAND: "One side will make you
grow taller, and the other side will make you grow shorter." And
for anyone, other than the author, who feels that my choice is intrusive,
I give you these other words, from that same work: "EAT ME."
Spelled out in currants, mind you.
Commentary: ELLISON WUNDERKIND
I'm not a collector, really. A gatherer, perhaps; an allow-to-pile-up-and-not-throw-awayer,
to be sure - the only time I see the top of my desk in all its breathtaking
radiance is when I consult my Oxford American Dictionary or my Roget's College
Thesaurus (a literary dinosaur, in its way - Thesaurus Rex). Or when my stuffed
Daffy Duck falls over; or my Longshot and Nightcrawler action figures; or
my Pinky & the Brain bend-ems.
So, I don't have a complete collection of anything, except for body parts
- and some areas of that collection are a bit more sparse than I would prefer,
or ever admit to anyone except close friends like you guys. I'm working on
it, but my library is embarrassingly shy of even Harlan Ellison's work. At
this writing, I have DEATHBIRD STORIES, SHATTERDAY, SLIPPAGE (his latest collection;
buy it at once), A,DV, and ANGRY CANDY, a recent gift from a very dear friend.
And I take opportunities for 2nd - hand acquisition when I can. And I've had
copies of others: DV, STRANGE WINE, ALONE AGAINST TOMORROW - all gone, "thanks"
to personal catastrophe, or well-meant attempts to spread The Word by loaning
out volumes that drifted away like the Flying Dutchman, never returning to
my lap or shelves. The Dream Corridor series is available, and very nice -
but it's just not the same.
Meanwhile, I remain grateful to libraries and used-bookstores, and there are
some real dandies available through The Harlan Ellison Record Collection.
Furthermore, I salaam as one with hinges on his hips, praising White Wolf
for the work they're doing with the EDGEWORKS series, as well as other releases
of his work. But I wouldn't be the ingrate that I am, if I didn't have the
smallest, mingiest of gripes, now would I?
I, personally, think it would be super-duper if White Wolf would do a bit
of re-ordering of the titles: it is much less difficult to find a copy of,
say, AN EDGE IN MY VOICE than of GENTLEMAN JUNKIE, or WEB OF THE CITY, or
A TOUCH OF INFINITY. I do not degrade the available material, it's just that,...well,
take this book, ELLISON WONDERLAND. Getting it, as I am, on the heels of SLIPPAGE,
it's much like finding your grandfather's baby pictures.
If you take an author, any author, and read their most recent accomplishment,
then follow it with a trip through their earlier work, you will see things.
Look back at Stephen King's first novel, CARRIE, after, say, THE GREEN MILE.
CARRIE is still a terrific book, but it's also as much a form of time travel
as the family photo album. Sometimes, it's like watching a flower open (or
in some, regrettable cases, like THE TOMMYKNOCKERS, like watching one close).
And this party trick works with any author, from Lovecraft to Leiber to,...well,
Ellison, for instance. Why is that important? We'll get to that.
ELLISON WONDERLAND is notably the work of a younger man. Not in terms of style,
talent or content - no, none of those things. Younger, yes. Fresher, brighter,
Juvenile? Plodding? Prey to syntactical error, groping clumsily for words?
Let me put you wise.
Upon my shelf, I have some books. One, a gift from a friend who knew I liked
"sci-fi," is a Galahad/Arbor House omnibus, edited by Robert Silverberg
and Martin H. Greenberg. GREAT TALES OF SCIENCE FICTION, is its name, and
it provides a rather snappy cross-section of writers and periods, from Poe
and Verne to Gregory Benford and Silverberg his ownself (although, inexplicably,
it gives the gate to Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith; and, for that matter,
Pay close attention now. I cannot sufficiently impress upon you my statement,
here and now, that Mr. Ellison's work, even at that early stage of his career
and experience, is as tough, tight and ready to romp as any example provided
for that time-frame; a period, Dear Friends, which includes terrific stories
by such household names, tried and true, as Alfred Bester, Theodore Sturgeon,
Cordwainer Smith, and Fritz Leiber. It is mature, insightful and aware.
I'm reminded of another of Mr. Ellison's stories, born of the MEDEA sessions
in the '70s, "With Virgil Oddum At the East Pole." If memory serves,
Virgil uses an old mining laser to tempt a glacier into collusion with some
sunlight at the right places at the right times, forming a living, breathing,
prismed, Technicolor sculpture of the beauty at the heart of man. Similarly,
Mr. Ellison uses the tools of his time, finding new applications for mallet,
awl and adze, to produce, well, magic. Had I not taken to the copyrights page,
I would never have known, nor suspected, that these stories (tweaked and/or
polished by the author for this edition or not) came upon us some 35 to 40
years ago. They are, for the most part, more science-fictional than some of
Mr. Ellison's later work, but that was likely geared to the saleability of
the genre as it was then (during this period, he also wrote and sold quite
a bit of crime fiction). There are no creaks, no stumbles, none of the gratuitous,
"experimental" dabblings with vocabulary, or other elements one
generally associates with (and forgives of) a "junior writer." These
stories seem to have sprung directly from Mr. Ellison's forehead. Not hyperbole;
Harlan Ellison, I remind you, was for some years referred to as, alternately,
the "wunderkind" and the "enfant terrible" of science/speculative
fiction (which appellations have since broadened to include American Letters
in general). Brash as a fan ( before fandom became quite so rabid), it promptly
became clear that he was a force to be reckoned with as a writer, too.
Some of the stories in ELLISON WONDERLAND are recognizable as standards when
we point to our favorites: "All the Sounds of Fear," "The Very
Last Day of a Good Woman," "Nothing For My Noon Meal," and
"In Lonely Lands." These, as well as others, equally mature and
muscular, would have been right at home as television adaptations for "The
Twilight Zone" and "The Outer Limits" - "The Sky Is Burning,"
for instance, would still be breathtaking, on the revival of TZ, or the current
incarnation of "The Outer Limits," as would "Do-It-Yourself,"
(written with Joe L. Hensley), "The Silver Corridor," "Deal
From the Bottom," "Commuter's Problem," and "Rain, Rain,
Go Away" (and if you can read that last story and not think of Marvin
Kaplan as Hobert Krouse, I will personally buy you an ice cream cone, two
scoops, flavor of your choice, with sprinkles).
Mr. Ellison is remarkably agile, making merry in "Gnomebody," then
performing a chilling about-face in "Battlefield." Throughout, he
maintains his now-trademark emotional contact. The premises of such stories
as "Mealtime," "Hadj," and the heartbreaking "The
Wind Beyond the Mountains" might seem white-whiskered now, yet he invests
his characters with such personality that they will not be denied their reality
in the reader's heart. They all have vital organs, they hurt and bleed and
laugh and dance and sweat and shit and die for us, even the ominous Walkaway,
in "Back to the Drawing Boards" (substituted in this edition for
"Are You Listening?" which was soon to appear in a Bluejay release).
As mentioned above, some of this ground had been trod before and certainly
has been since. Nevertheless, as always in his work, Mr. Ellison never for
a moment writes "down" to his audience. Each tool, each piece of
"furniture" is a lever for the heart and mind, a Post-It note for
our conscience. Often, in older stories of this period and genre, I am terribly
distracted by such elements as reporters who wear hats and ties, breathe argot,
warn their ladyfriends against going "all feminine" on them at crucial
moments, and dine on hot, strong, black coffee and hamburger sandwiches. And
maybe it is the World As Advertised ("As Seen On T.V.!") of the
period. Maybe. I believe that Harlan Ellison, in all his work, tells us what
he sees, the reality of the world around him, laced with fantastic elements
or not, and never, ever resorts to a picture of life as we would have it.
He works in a mythology of truth - not stereotype, archetype, or caricature.
Ahem - about that "baby pictures" crack.
As most of us around Webderland know, Harlan Ellison's collections have, over
the years, developed a habit of declaring a theme, a common thread to their
content. I'm afraid there's no such thematic declaration here, per se. There
is, however, a more vigorous, optimistic personality about the collection
as a whole. In his introduction, "The Man On the Mushroom" (written
in 1974 and, presumably, tinkered-with in 1983), Mr. Ellison reminisces about
the dark hours before the dawn, his Sisyphean journey to the West Coast, and
that exalting, exalted moment when the bubble popped and life allowed him
further, gleeful expectation, when that package arrived with EW and that nice,
little royalty check (they call 'em "royalty checks", because that's
what you feel like when you get your first one). These are stories with hope
When I approached Mr. Ellison about reviewing ELLISON WONDERLAND, he seemed
pleased with the notion, yet there remained some misgivings. In fairness to
Mr. Ellison's professionalism, he admits to cringing a bit in contemplation
of some of these stories, allowing that they were written by a younger version
of himself. And he has a point - these stories were all written before the
world became such a truly, lethally, maniacally crazy place; when fans were
people who wrote you nice letters and thanked you for signing things at conventions
and bookstores, not people who slept the night in your car while you and your
wife were out of town or sent the Federales to your doorstep in the dark hours
of the night; before censors and series-creators rewrote everything but your
title; before you discovered how willing some of your colleagues were to settle
for less even than "good enough;" before friends would perjure themselves
on behalf of the opposition, or fall prey to murdering rapists in supermarket
parking lots; before the mention of Ronald Colman (or Django Reinhardt, or
B. Traven, or Cornell Woolrich, or Shelley Berman) turned everyone under thirty
involved in the conversation into a mannikin before your very eyes.
So, these are sweeter songs sung at a lower volume, a "Portrait of the
Artist as a Young Man," dealing in sorcery, warnings and love-notes.
Because even then, he was writing about people. Science, rocket-ships, space-warriors,
all that stuff - mallet, awl and adze, props for the real focus of the tale.
Which is still, invariably, us.
ELLISON WONDERLAND is a delight, a lighter volume that still carries weight;
before the weight was a burden; before the burden settled quite so heavily
on Mr. Ellison's - and our - shoulders. Read it, relax, and know wonder again.
San Francisco, CA
John Weiler, suburban family man and trade association
executive, is disrupted from his routine by alarming questions and an unwitting
discovery about Those People Next Door. Then, one morning, his distraction takes
him to that fabled Wrong Turn At Albuquerque, which is nowhere near his final
Written in 1956 or '57, this story is slightly reminiscent
of another science fiction work, revered in prose and on theater screens: Jack
Finney's INVASION OF THE BODYSNATCHERS. In fact, the author cites Mr. Finney's
story, "The People Next Door" (found in the collection, THE THIRD
LEVEL) as a source of inspiration. "Commuter's Problem," however,
is intimidating in its own right, and a gentler look at similar subject matter
- how well do we know our neighbors? Nobody tries to overthrow the planet, no
slimy pod-monsters lurk in dark places, waiting to steal the breath from our
bodies; no, this is a subtler sort of paranoia, neither unreasonable nor unjustified.
Who are those people next door or across the way? Might there not be lethally
sinister goings-on behind those drawn drapes and darkened windows?
The two incidents that strike at me most sharply in this story are, first, Weiler's
discovery of the somewhat Lovecraftian flora. The image of a man (in a suit,
oddly enough) in a sunny suburb, goggling down at a photosynthetic squid, while
clutching a baseball is unnerving, to say the least. The second, I find even
more disturbing because of its direct association with reality: when Weiler
is swept back into the subway car by that sea of commuters. One need not be
especially demophobic to touch base with the panic, the overwhelming need to
get out, when immobilized by the sheer mass of a crowd. Here in San Francisco
we have a number of street fairs, in the course of the year, and all are generally
very well-attended. As such, at some varying point in the afternoon, typically
at the day's peak temperature, the notion of the Individual evaporates, and
each attendee, each cell, joins together with the others, forming a mindless,
overpowering beast with a singular capacity for harm. It's like being gripped
by a giant, all control wrested from you as you are physically moved against
your will, regard-less of which direction you wish to travel.
And that is part of what makes the story work, even some forty years later.
The occasional juxtaposition of the comfortingly mundane with the unsettling
and bizarre. That, and a certain timelessness - with nothing much to date it,
it as easily takes place today. Granted, there are likely aspects of Weiler's
job that could and would now be handled through the miracle of e-mail, and assorted
other techno-wizardry; but there are still things to be done at the office,
as it were, and getting from home to work is still a damned nuisance.
On a final, lesser note, Personal Taste rears its snotty head again. The reader
and author will, I hope, forgive me for dragging private issues into it; however,
I am enormously uncomfortable with the notion of Weiler turning so easily from
his wife and child. Yes, yes, I know he doesn't have much room to bargain -
either death, or fitting into a society where the joint is always jumpin', and
he must make a damned good case for remaining alive. Leaving a hateful job,
I understand; I am no fan of public transit, commuting, or traffic. Nevertheless,
my conscience as a reader would be a bit more soothed had the protagonist demonstrated
a bit more regret about leaving his (allegedly) loved-ones. A slightly unhappier
ending might have struck nearer to the heart.
DO-IT-YOURSELF (written with Joe L. Hensley)
Middle-aged housewife Madge Rubicheck decides to
spice up her life by ending that of her husband. But, as Wile E. Coyote also
has yet to learn, ACME products require extra-special attention to detail and
one must always read the fine print.
If I were pitching this to a mogul or two, I would
have to resort to saying something along the lines of, "Roadrunner cartoon
meets Alfred Hitchcock meets Charles Addams." My Warner Bros. cartoon history
is a bit shaky, so I don't know which came first; but it really doesn't matter.
This story is a gem, low on slapstick, high on grim, quirky elegance. I don't
know why Hitchcock or Rod Serling didn't snap it up for teevee adaptation.
Honestly, "Do-It-Yourself" reminds me of so much terrific stuff: the
afore-mentioned pitch, with Shirley Jackson and O. Henry into the mix. Yet,
while it is reminiscent of all those elements, it is imitative of none of them.
It creates sound and pictures for the reader - had it actually been produced
at the time of its writing, I can think of no better cast than Jessica Tandy
as Madge, Ernest Borgnine as Carl, and the redoubtable Arthur Treacher as the
voice of the instruction booklet! Currently, I vote for Glenn Close, Nick Nolte,
and Rowan Atkinson, respectively. But, enough about that.
Typically, in story-telling, it is important to establish some sort of positive
emotional connection with the central character. But, while the reader is inclined
to sympathize a bit with Madge, it also becomes abundantly clear in the course
of the story that she's very likely brought the situation on herself, before
she even orders the kit. At the outset, she is revealed as a rather vain, aging
fussbudget, begrudging the delivery boy a thirty-cent tip, relinquishing the
coin only when she can salve her conscience with the notion that, if nothing
else, she's keeping up appearances. She seems to pride her-self on her orderly,
methodical nature, and I cannot help but imagine that, given true, free reign,
there would be plastic dust-covers on not only their sofa, chairs and end-tables,
but their coffee-table, pillows, mattresses, and toilet-seats. Yet she has trouble
with even the appallingly simple inst-ructions supplied by the instruction pamphlet
- spilling some of the eau de rabid mongrel, missing the snarl in the Deadly
Nightshade. And for one who finds such esteem in her own punctiliousness, and
thinks her loutish husband so simple and transparent, shouldn't she have twigged
to what that ogre was up to?
Well, yes, she should have - if she were as observant as she would like to believe.
But, as Lenny Bruce used to say, "Should is a fucking lie - -it might be
what oughta be, but it ain't what is." And what Madge is, is a feminine
counterpart to Felix Unger, vastly more concerned with keeping up appearances,
paying greater attention to the exterior, and never giving a back-ward glance
to what's happening inside, what's in front of, or behind, her face. And Carl
Rubicheck may indeed be a vulgar clod - but he is sufficiently self-aware to
recognize his lack of facility with newfangled gadgets: he takes care of things
the Old Fashioned Way.
THE SILVER CORRIDOR
Mssrs. Marmorth and Krane enter the Corridor to engage
in, literally, a Battle of Ideas, learning too late the value of humility and
This is one of the stories in ELLISON WONDERLAND
about which I find it difficult to find something to say; but, curse the luck,
I will of course say something.
Written toward the very beginning of Harlan Ellison's career, the "furniture''
is easily apparent: a techno/psychological dueling ground, last-names-only characters,
some of the syntax of the dialogue, the occasional "Confound it!",
political machinations, equations and theories and blade-faced villains, even
Yet, I checked and rechecked the copyright date, because the story really isn't
about any of those things. They are what the author has referred to as "furniture,"
tools, vehicles by which the writer might explore the characters who sit on
those chairs. And I believe there is quite a bit of metaphor and allegory. Written
as it was, in 1956, near the author's adventures in the U.S. Army, so soon after
the Korean War and the HUAC debacle, and the chilliest part of the "Cold
War," "The Silver Corridor" is a plea on a number of different
levels, mostly in aid of the proposition that we (Humanity) must learn to open
our minds to other ideas; that we can work together; and that if we refuse to
find some common ground, none of us will have a place to stand.
Can't we all just get along?
As a matter of fact, no; nor should we. If I might paraphrase Orson Welles's
lines from The Third Man: "For five hundred years, under the Medicis, they
had murder, terror and bloodshed, and produced Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci,
and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had two thousand years of peace and
brotherly love, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock!" Out of conflict
comes, necessarily, beauty. But that conflict must arise from the same need
and desire for progress, not the childish insistence on Being Right, as demonstrated
by Marmorth and Krane.
The other astonishing element, as I see it, is the almost prescient use of an
idea that is currently blossoming around us as "Virtual Reality."
Given the parameters of the Silver Corridor, isn't it (or wouldn't it be) the
next step, once we've satisfactorily unraveled the technology? Is it that far
from where we are now? Couldn't this dream become reality within, say, the next
fifty years, or so? Once more we might raise an example of science fiction beating
a gentle path to tomorrow's reality. All because the author needed a handy device
with which to address what is still a weighty concern - will we learn? Can we?
Or have we only to await the appearance of that crocodile-headed, gargoyle-winged
woman to tell us that not only is it too late, but that our own collective ego
has rendered time irrelevant and rushed us prematurely, immaturely to our doom?
ALL THE SOUNDS OF FEAR
Richard Becker, master thespian, has gone where Stanislavski
never dared dream- but can he return? And, perhaps more to the point, what is
there to return to?
Did I ever tell you about my first encounter with
Harlan Ellison's work? Well I was,...hmm? Oh. Right. But the story goes on!
I blush to tell it, but it was almost ten years later before I ran into his
work again. No, really! I have never been one to charge out and glut myself
on any particular author or genre, and there were other reasons, details of
which I will spare you (I pause for your breezy sigh of relief). Suffice to
say that, while I had heard some rather bellicose comments both by and about
Mr. Ellison, I very rarely got 'round to his work.
Then, eventually, I happened across a copy of ALONE AGAINST TOMORROW, the author's
fifteen-year retrospective on his work. Now, I ask you: how could even the most
aloof reader stand up under such an onslaught? It wasn't a grouping of the creme
de la creme, so much as a very fair look at what Mr. Ellison had been up to
for the past decade and a half. All of the stories were (and remain) good, mind
you, but some of them were extraordinarily powerful. And a few of them had turned
up first in - ELLISON WONDERLAND.
Like this story, for instance.
This story of an actor who is such a willing slave to his craft that he (unwittingly?)
sacrifices his very identity to it. In a clever bit of construc-tion, we meet
Richard Becker as he assumes his first role, his first identity (that of a Bowery
soak), only briefly glimpsing the nice, young man who stepped into the Salvation
Army retail store. Who is he? Who was he, before? We never learn his origins.
Oh, we follow him through several other identities - tortured artist, melancholy
Dane, bigot, Willy Loman, Marco Polo, pimp, and "Jesse Helms," right
down to that role which proves to be his undoing., Tennessee Williams' murderous
religious fanatic - but we never, ever get to see Richard Becker. Perhaps he
is unfamiliar with the dynamics of that role. We never see him, only hear his
tortured, frightened, lost screams, in his self--induced darkness, as he calls
desperately, chillingly, "Give me some light!"
There are levels to even that seemingly-innocuous plea. As a wash-out in theater
and film myself, I remember those tech rehearsals, where the cast would assemble
for a run to set the lights, the cues, and sound and scene changes; and I remember
finding myself in a dim corner of the stage where the action had directed me;
and I remember calling, "Gimme, some light, Harry." Not with such
desperation as Richard Becker; but likely with the same intent. With the author's
note that it is metaphor (as heard in Oedipus Rex), "Give me some light!"
reads as: "Let me understand! Let me know! Let in the light [of Reason]!"
What I hear in that desperate plea is: "I need to be seen, I need to be
noticed, I need to find my way!" And, simply, it just boils down to a case
of I need.
And what Richard Becker needs is Richard Becker. But all that exists of him,
now, is a name. And a lonely, lost terrified shriek from some hidden, padded
You can and should be who you want to be. But always, always remember who you
are. Or you, too, might find yourself pleading "Give me some light!"
where there is none.
Smitty ain't a bad kid, just a little impatient.
All he wants is a shot at the track-and-field team - but to do that, he's got
to run faster than anyone else. And he is a little impatient, otherwise he would
have wished for a more competent gnome.
Another fun notion from the fine folks at the Be
Careful What You wish For Dept. Strictly for grins, and plenty of them. I frankly
don't know what else there is to say about "Gnomebody," except To
wonder where the author picked up that snappy, yet tragically out-of-date jive
talk. It's wild and wonderful, yes, and sparkles in your mind's ear - but even
in 1956 (when this yarn was spun), the lingo had serious whiskers. The sort
of stuff Samuel Z. Arkoff and the loveable hooligans at American-International
Pictures put into the mouths of babes, so we would all know how young, fresh
and hip they were. I mean, "Daddy-o?" "Diz?" "Laddy-buck?"
I think I heard .Satchmo say "Reet!" on one of his recor-dings from
some time in the early 1930s, but since then? Nix-nein-Frankenstein!
Which is all in aid of very capably demonstrating just how big a mistake this
gnome is. Whatever his faults, though, he is an honest gnome, laying it right
on the line for Smitty, staunchly insisting that, rather than getting what he
pays for, Smitty is gonna pay for what he gets.
And I could go into a lengthy sermon about delayed gratification that would
send all of us running for the door and into the insidious clutches of Scient-ology,
or Urantia, or Primal Scream Therapy. "Gnomebody" is just a fun little
story: nothing more nor less.
And, of course, there's always the bright side: in his ultimate physical configuration,
it is at least possible that Smitty will be very popular with the girls...
THE SKY IS BURNING
Beautiful, terrible, ancient and wise, an extraterrestrial
race has come to our little corner of the universe, only to fall to their deaths
in Earth's atmosphere. And if you think that's disheartening, wait until you
hear the reason why....
If you've been following along in your book, you
have, perhaps, perceived a certain deliberation in ELLISON WONDERLAND's design.
Or structure. The ordering of the stories. It's a bit like a roller-coaster.
Often, the form is to begin with a sensational grabber, peak in the middle or
thereabouts, and polish off the book with a glowing coup d' gras. ELLISON WONDERLAND
does that, yet, as with so much of the author's work, seems less inclined to
razzle-dazzle. So this one might catch you emotionally unaware.
"Commuter's Problem" is a rather light-hearted aliens-among-us suspense
story; "Do-It-Yourself," sparkling black techno-comedy; "The
Silver Corridor" a sober statement about the ideas upon which we can agree,
and where individual philosophies meet; "All the Sounds of Fear" sparks
our compassion, giving us a chilling look at the ultimate identity-crisis; and
"Gnomebody," a merry jaunt to, in essence, "one of those shops,"
Mr. Rod Serling, proprietor.
And, now, we have "The Sky Is Burning." Later in this volume, the
author introduces a tale, citing a message which is met with almost universal
editorial enthusiasm: You ain't as hot an item as you think, Chollie! The same
could be said for this story, because it really knocks the pins from under much
other work in the genre. Pick a story you like, short or novel--length - the
most shiny and heroic. All those great adventures in space, all that boldly-going.
All that "triumph of the human spirit," yadda-yadda. Now, add Ithk
and his people into the mix, as they occasionally glance in our direction while
we fart around our solar system and grope blindly through our own galaxy - they
watch us much the same way that Jose Canseco watches Pee-Wee Baseball players.
The way we watch ants.
Our solar system, our planet - this is where the lemmings land. Where the gods
go to die (and don't we do-in enough of them anyway). And however far we might
travel, we will never really catch them up. Gather, for a moment, all your heroes,
all your idols, all your ideals. You meet them and/or examine them, but are
you ever really a part of them? Equal to them? Or are the things you want so
far beyond you that all you can look forward to is, perhaps, waving to Mel Gibson
as he strides into the film's premier, waving and smiling, yes, but still passing
you by? No matter how many others we find in the universe, we are, and will
Devastating. Heartbreaking. However much we jolly each other along, how-ever
much we want for each other and ourselves, all we have are each other and ourselves.
And that is, I think, the sweetie that covers the bitter pill: we have each
other. Here, at the bottom of the cosmic cliff, we can warm each other against
the cold loneliness. If we can't do that, maybe we should use our radios for
And that's what I think. Is that what Mr. Ellison thinks? I dunno. I think he's
telling us a really terrific story, which is as personal as it must have been
in 1958, and I'm only telling you where it skewers me. And it might be a mistake
to pay me much mind. Because, as the saying goes, "1,000,000 lemmings can't
This evening's debate, on "The Nobility of Man."
On the left, Mr. Kradter, in support of the proposition that Man must teach
and nurture the sad, backward, savage beings we are sure to find in the course
of our conquest of the cosmos. On the right, Mr. Dembois, who will discourse
in favor of the immediate exter-mination of those beings before they can do
the same to us. Our moderator this evening is Captain Calk, of the Catalog Ship,
Circe. The closing argument will be delivered by...
"Bluntly put, the following story has truly
been used." Mr. Ellison's words, taken from his comments on the story.
The copyright date sets it at 1958, but it goes farther back than that. Appearing
originally in the Ohio State Sundial, it reappeared in E.C. comics' "Weird
Science-Fantasy" as "Upheaval," as "Green Odyssey"
in the author's amateur sf magazine, Dimensions, and as a full short story in
Space Travel Magazine, and never the same way twice. But wait! There's more!
Performance rights were purchased by people planning the resurrec-tion of the
radio program Dimension X, even though neither the story nor the program ever
made it to the airwaves. And so on.
Although somewhat dated by the "furniture," "Mealtime" is
still uniquely a Harlan Ellison story. From whom else might there come a story
containing a square-jawed, stoic captain; a strapping doer of good deeds who
is not above using his fists on evil no-goodniks; and a spoiled, weasely bigot
- the latter two of whom fill the lonely hours by arguing over Man's Duty and
Place In the Universe? Who else would dare disillusion us, using the tools of
the genre (which tools were even then getting a little dull and rusty), regarding
Humanity's notion that we are the ne plus ultra, the Alpha and the Omega of
universal form and intellect? Who is that cackling that we got no clothes?
It's that guy again, that "Man On the Mushroom, not asking, this time,
but telling us "Who farted!" According to the author, "What I
remember is that the basic tenet of this story - You ain't as hot an item as
you think, Chollie! - -has appealed to every editor who has seen it." I
can certainly understand the reason for that. Above and beyond the fact that
it's a fun story that takes us down a peg or two, it also plays on our sense
of mystery in that we must ask ourselves what we don't know. What if all these
Laws of Science are strictly a product of our limited perception? What if things
are only impossible because we don't know how to do them, might never know how?
A whole set of extra What-Ifs. And, often as not, the questions might be more
involving than any of the answers.
THE VERY LAST DAY OF A GOOD WOMAN
Glimpsing the End of Everything, due Thursday, two
weeks hence, Arthur Fulbright finally reaches out for the one thing he's most
missed in life - an ultimate intimacy.
As noted, there are stories in ELLISON WONDERLAND
that send me scurrying for the copyright page - this is one of them. For some
reason, I cannot resign myself to the knowledge, the certainty, that this story
was written in 1958. Well, it appeared in '58; it might have been written even
earlier, which only further deranges me. At the ripe old age of 24 (or 23),
Harlan Ellison wrote an astonishingly warm, mature story, with a brief mention
of precognition, as a sop, almost, to the genre. There is some action (if you'll
pardon double entendre, regarding the end of the story), reflection, contemplation;
yet the protagonist doesn't change, has in fact changed before the story's beginning,
thereby precipitating the story.
There seems, to me, to be something of J. Alfred Prufrock in meek, mild Arthur
Fulbright. As such, the story reads, almost, as a tone poem inciting in the
reader feelings of wistfulness, empty spots, those emotional/experiential pockets
left unfilled, thanks to the timidity, procrastination or casual neglect that
typically thwart the capture of our dreams.
This is a beautiful, tender and brilliant story. If there is a sermon or a message
in it, I think it is this: It doesn't really matter. Love is in here and out
there, and sex is a non-compulsory part of it, and if we can get the in-here
and out-there together, join them in an ongoing form of reverse mitosis, person-to-person,
one at a time if necessary, things will be okay and, yes, the world, the universe,
will end and it really won't matter, because we have loved, lived, and as the
Poet said, "'Tis better to have loved and lost than to have never loved
Sometimes, being so cool and intellectual, I am sure that all of that, each
word of that entirely-too-long sentence, is eye-wash - not for nothing am I
in therapy for chronic depression. Then, sometimes, I run into a story like
this. And I dare to dream again. Dare to hope. And another day insinuates itself
between me and the slab. For that, thank God, a certain Jewish kid from Ohio
has much to answer.
War may be hell, but it is also big business. And
for Second Lieutenants Bill Donnough and Wayne Massaro, it's business-as-usual.
Written in 1958, while Mr. Ellison had "the
Duty"at Ft. Knox, Kentucky, I find this story a little funny, in a very
I hate, just hate, to make these pesky pop-culture/media associations, but I
am possessed by devils. Help me. Meanwhile: have you seen that Warner Bros.
cartoon? The one with the sheepdog and the wolf ? You know the one I mean: they
pound each other, with the wolf getting most of the damage, as usual. But what
sets it apart are the breaks. At the beginning, they're warm and toasty in their
respective beds, their alarms go off, they shave, brush their teeth, greet each
other at the time-clock - "Mornin', Ed." "Mornin', Ralph."
When the whistle blows, they open fire. Later, another whistle blows: they stop,
sit down, break out the sandwiches, coffee and donuts. Lunch over, they go back
to the cliff, resume the position, and *WHAM!* At the end, the sheepdog is about
to administer the coup d' gras and the whistle blows. They pack up, punch out
and head for home. "Nice work today." "Thanks - see you tomorrow...."
Those pauses make the cartoon, for me, and I riot whenever I see it. And I seize
upon it, when contemplating this story. It is, in essence, precisely what this
story is about: Nothing personal, just business. Come to think of it, that seems
to be the Mob's business slogan, too. That's what war is becoming; what it might
already be, given our adven-tures with Iraq, the past few years. It could happen,
yes-indeedy-doo. Consider the sad fad for depersonalization currently rampant
in our society - how great a leap is it from science fiction to global fact?
One measly step; a step in the wrong direction.
Amid epic action scenes, the author hints at how easily the battle can overflow
the field. And I can find no mention of what the battle is for or about(as if
that matters); it is simply a war between Black and White, reducing its participants,
in form and lethal function, to chessmen. Soldiers and their wives get together
for dinner, old chums from their college days. Massaro, the fresher of the two,
has doubts about theory and practice. The next day, they report for duty, and
we find that they are on different sides; and, at the end of the day, Donnough
must find some other dinner companions for the coming weekend. It is never spoken,
never really implied, but I can't shake the notion that the young lieutenant
who was so shocked by the seasoned vet's revelation at the story's opening was,
in fact, Wayne Massaro, later obliterated by his old frat brother with-out a
All of which I find deeply disturbing and utterly possible. You are quite welcome
to proselytize all you wish about how much smarter we are than that; I will
only respond that you are full of donkey turds, and direct your glance to Richard
Nixon (all two terms of him), Ronald Reagan (all three terms of him, if you
count George Bush), and how we never got around to calling Lyndon B. Johnson
to account for our involvement in a war (peace-keeping mission, my ass) that
went on, as you may or may not know, for many years before the U.S. involved
itself, and long after it was apparent that we weren't accomplishing anything
noble by being there.
"Battlefield", approaching its 40th year, is still frightening, still
infuriating. And should be.
DEAL FROM THE BOTTOM
Mastery of the thespian arts requires not only intelligence
and skill, but imagination as well. Maxim Hirt's tragic lack of all these qualities
is his undoing in both arenas and takes him, literally, from the frying pan,
into the fire.
What is there to be said about a deal with the Old
Original Wild Card himself? Well, not the original, actually - He of the Horns
and Tail has sort of franchised the business out to underlings, similar to how
you'll never catch Dave Thomas (Wendy's dad) in a fast food kitchen/lab. No,
more along the lines of King Lear or Vito Corleone or Amway distributors.
So there is the matter of the Field Rep., one Skidoop, who is, I must say, one
hip demon. Maybe I contradict myself from earlier in this session, but Skidoop
makes the talk work, and I tell you that straight; amazing and mysterious, but
it looks like demons got it and gnomes do not. Maybe the beatniks had something
that the old-school jazzbo-types let fade?
But that's another argument for another (much later) time. Another story strictly
for grins, specifically intended to let the genre breathe and stretch and not
take itself so goddamn seriously, given as we occasionally are to pondering
The soul, for instance. Mr. Ellison handles that matter sweetly, neatly and
solidly in line with the story. He may be indicating his own thoughts on the
matter, but that's his gig (Help! I am trapped in argot and vernacular! Happens
when I read Damon Runyan, too....)
If imagination is coin of the realm, though, I'd hate to think that our Skidoop
was working on commission - too many customers like Maxie Hirt would have him
shoveling coals, just to feed the wife and imps. But think what a guy like Harlan
Ellison would bring! (I hope Mr. Ellison has been reading all his contracts
And it's hard to feel too sorry for Max -- I mean, anyone who would think of
listing baked beans on the menu of their last meal, devil or no devil, deserves
exactly what they get.
THE WIND BEYOND THE MOUNTAINS
Lured away by his own curiosity, furry, green Wummel
of the Ruskind is captured and whisked far from kith and kin by human explorers.
In short order, the humans learn a lesson that Wummel would have done well to
I have no way to tell how it was received at its
appearance in 1956, but "The Wind Beyond The Mountains" remains a
beautiful, touching, haunting story. It paints gorgeous alien landscapes (I
can feature Max Ernst illustrating it mag-nificently or perhaps Leo and Diane
Dillon; just a note, for when Dream Corridor hits the presses again), while
still planting the reader firmly in his/her own heart and head (and who knows
where is fancy bred?).
Wummel has green fur and triple-jointed limbs, and is, ... well, hard to explain,
except to say that he is utterly a part of his world. Not merely his people,
but the whole of their planet, which they call Ruska - a sentient cell in his
societal organism, so to speak. Wummel's people, in a fashion, exemplify what
some consider Mr. Ellison's most important message: You are not alone. As he
says in his prefatory remarks, "And from these peregrinations has come
the belief that not only is home where the heart is, but the heart is undeniably
where the home is."
Which, unfortunately, is my cue to overanalyze - but all I can do, as a reviewer,
is to tell you where and how the stories touch me and the meanings I find.
I write this review during the Dratted Holiday Season, between Thanks-giving
and the New Year; and though it isn't my first X-mas/Chanukah away from home,
it is my first such season so far away. With most of my family, it's historically
dreadful; but I spent the holidays, (before my relocation)with Mom, and mingled
with the relations, and even got to meet my long-lost (half) brother, Robbie.
All in all, it was the most terrific Christmas I'd had in, probably, twenty
Which is kind of a cheat, really: finally feeling that I wasn't a stranger,
or a guest in the presence of a mob I had known my entire life; right before
I moved 1,500 miles away. Dirty pool!, I cried, Damnation and Faust! Except
that heart is where the home is; and if I keep those emotional photographs in
the wallet of my heart, then I always have them handy. I have, for various reasons,
neither seen nor heard from Brett or Mike or Althea or Lainie for (god!) between
five and sixteen years - do I love them any less? No. Is Xavier any less my
friend for the intervening decade? I should say not. Never again on this Earth
will I so much as clap eyes on Adam Roarke, or Melinda Ritter, or Carson and
Inez, or Emmet Goff, and Sweet Jesus, how I miss having them handy for their
embrace, their words of encouragement, and I do feel their absence - but not
entirely, not so long as I keep these little snapshots handy. That I do not
have them chained up in my cellar does not mean that I don't have them - and
those snapshots and artist's-renderings often do much toward getting me through.
So I may be missing the mark entirely, here, but I believe Wummel pities his
unwitting executioners, not because of their unquenchable need to keep moving,
but because they don't truly realize where their home is. And it is pitiable,
how we take such things for granted. Heart is where the home is and home is
where the heart is, and if Wummel could have worked all the way through that,
perhaps he would have seen his beloved Ruska again.
Now - tell me where is fancy bred: In the heart? Or in the head?
BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARDS
After laboring fifteen years in the development of
the miraculous vid-bot, Walkaway, and more in the attempt to retain control
of his creation, Leon Packett strikes a blow for individuality and freedom of
choice - sowing the seeds of bureaucracy's undoing,... and a little more besides.
At this collection's original publication, this space
was occupied by another story, the equally fine "Are You Listening?"
This, however, is the 1984 Bluejay edition and, since they were about to unleash
a reprint of another of Mr. Ellison's works, which volume also contained that
story, the author thought it only fair to try to give us fair value for our
reading dollar by substituting this story. We've lost nothing by the exchange,
I assure you, only gained another look at an older story not as widely available.
And a nifty little story it is, too! The classic bones bear all-too-current
flesh - bitter, reclusive scientist creates a handy robot, suitable for a combination
of space exploration and on-the-scene reportage, which is later wrested from
his control by Big Business and the government (if that is not too redundant
a series of words).
It's quite a kicker now, as it must have been when it first appeared in 1958,
in the pages of Fantastic Universe magazine. If anyone out there who hasn't
read this one expects a sweet little homily that adheres strictly to kindly
Dr. Asimov's Laws of Robotics, I fear you may be disappointed. "Back to
the Drawing Boards" is a more "creator-friendly" telling of a
future Frankenstein. It still quite capably comments on Humanity's foibles,
yes; but rather less gently than any of the Good Doctor's fiction.
On another note, which might be my own head working overtime, I wonder whether
some of the story's tone and content might not be due to some of the author's
experiences during his early career. 1 have recently had the extreme pleasure
of listening to "An Hour With Harlan Ellison" (available now for a
pittance, from HERC!), in which Mr. Ellison reminisces about the closing years
of the pulp era. Highly recommended - and what brings it to mind here, is Mr.
Ellison's remembrances of certain publishers who weren't always on the up and
square when it came to paying their authors. The story of how Mr. Ellison was
driven to drastic acts in order to exact his $36 payment from a certain scoundrel
by the name of Scharf is only terrific, so order the tape. But I digress.
Part of what makes this story so accessible, almost forty years later, is its
commentary (intended or otherwise) about holding onto our individuality, fighting
for what should be coming to us, the Artist's control. And a spooky sort of
The tag at the end seems a trifle dated in its cleverness - -or perhaps it's
the discovery that the story is not told us by an omniscient narrator, but handed
down like lore. In either case, it drives home the notion that, if we don't
catch the message, and act accordingly, we might very well end up as robots.
Or has that process already begun?
NOTHING FOR MY NOON MEAL
Marooned and widowed by the explosion of their ship,
Tom Van Horne fights out a desperate disparate existence (with a little help
from the local flora) on a distant planet that he has, perhaps erroneously,
Another beautiful story, and another head-spinning
trip to the copyrights page. Nineteen fifty-eight? Are you sure? Wow. And furthermore,
I know that Mr. Ellison's early years were not easy ones; I also know that,
after the initial rush sometimes necessitated to make a sale, authors (of any
given story) had and sometimes took the opportunity to give the story a good
polish, before once again turning it loose on the reading public. Nevertheless,
this is a damn good story, whether it's had a high-shine administered or not
- one can always tell good breeding, and the cornerstones of this story absolutely
run the rest of its elements; i.e., only a lummox could make a bad story from
such beginnings, a merely good writer could do wonders,...and then there's this
23 - 24 year old kid from Ohio, and where did he learn that stuff? The emotions
are not uncommon at any age, I certainly had them (have them now, in fact, as
do we all) - what, I want to know, though, is how Harlan Ellison, at that tender
age, how anyone.....
Oh, blow it - it doesn't matter how, the fact is he did, could, can and does
express such feelings eloquently, breathing reality into a fantastic situation.
Often, particularly in his early career, Mr. Ellison (like many other writers
of the era) was called upon to create stories from ready-made cover-art; I suspected
that this story is one of the more successful products of such inspiration,
yet I am assured otherwise by the author. There is an almost surreal quality
to it, at times, a dreamy tangibility. Years later, in his original introduction
to Mr. Ellison's I HAVE NO MOUTH & I MUST SCREAM, Theodore Sturgeon commented
on Mr. Ellison's ability to reproduce on the page similar effects to those experienced
while under the influence of "psychedelic" drugs (without, by the
way, ever having personally enjoyed the dubious benefits of their ingestion)
- I suggest that the author's talent for such speculation goes back even further,
and I shamelessly hold up this story as an example. To my knowledge, Mr. Ellison
has never been marooned in the middle of an airless desert (marital adventures
aside) on a remote planet; yet he creates a vivid world, with logical difficulties
and sensible solutions. And he only hints at the 'hard science,' aspect sufficiently
to sustain verisimilitude - a logical, reasonable possibility worthy of (and
left to) further investigation by Those Who Know About Such Things.
Splendid fantastic fiction, and damned good writing to boot!
At the "come-hither" of the celestial and
omnipotent Masters, the good people of Earth send the powerful and wily Wilson
Herber and ship's captain Arnand Singh to the cold, distant reaches - where
they discover that the Masters' message was less an invitation than a ring for
Cigars occasionally being nothing more than tobacco-leaf
tubes rolled around more, shredded tobacco leaves, "Hadj" is, I suppose,
a somewhat more humorous version of "Mealtime," except that the former
story precedes the latter, at least according to the copy-right dates. Which
is the long (and slightly convoluted) form of: "'Hadj' reminds me of 'Mealtime;'"
or vice versa. "Hadj" appeared in 1956, "Mealtime" in 1958.
Phew - there. In this collection, their order is reversed. Now, having established
that, I cannot remember why I felt the need to point it out.
Ah, yes - they resemble each other, in substance; that wisdom of the Old West:
there's always someone can draw faster'n you, Kid. In "Mealtime,"
we are spat out like a kid's first taste of brussels sprouts; in "Hadj,"
however, we are summoned - rather like being pounced-on by some sort of cosmic
press-gang, or drafted (though their message is merely "Send us a representative
from Earth," I suspect there was great temptation for the author to preface
it with "Greetings - ").
All in all, "Hadj" is a darkly amusing story, and somehow more satisfying
(to my tastes, at least) than "Mealtime." Even though the author points
it out as a "caustic comment on the 'faithful' and their faith," there
is an undeniably wise message regarding spirituality, here, very neatly initiated
by Capt, Singh, a Moslem, during an exchange with Our Hero, Wilson Herber -
the notion of a "hadj," or spiritual journey. The unspoken (or written)
sentiment is that, if one embarks on a spiritual journey, it behooves one to
do so with an open mind - and perhaps a dash of humility about it, as well.
RAIN, RAIN, GO AWAY
Ritualized and habitual - is it wishing, or praying?
Hobert Krouse finds out, and also discovers that sometimes the answers aren't
always immediately apparent.
A fine and funny extrapolation, a fantastic example
of the 'What If..." in its natural habitat, based in a reality with which
most, particularly those of us who live in such climes where it rains, sometimes
frequently, are familiar. As I write this, for instance, I live in San Francisco,
California, and the rainy season is upon us, cold and damp and driving white
wires through my sciatic nerve. I laugh nervously about this clever story, which
is, of course, merely a fun bit of fantasy - yet never, even as I hobble, grumbling,
through the icy downpour, berating myself for not having brought an umbrella,
do the words of the title pass my lips.
It's not really so far-fetched. I believe it was Einstein who posited the notion
that energy must go somewhere, after all, does not simply cease to be - well,
what about rain? We, like Sarah Sylvia Cynthia Stout (who would not take the
garbage out), can only procrastinate for so long, before things sort of back-up
on us and insist that we, goddamnit, deal with them. Only so much room under
the rug, y'know.
And to finish up with my trademark over-analysis of this other-wise simple and
witty bit of fiction - isn't most of life like that? This is coming, of course,
from one, most of whose "sins" are sins of omission. Still, we can
only duck a thing for so long - eventually we have to buy higher boots and perhaps
IN LONELY LANDS
Will Pederson, aided by his friend and companion
Pretrie (a Martian follower of the blessed Jilka), discovers the value of having
to face neither life nor death alone.
Perhaps it is simply a matter of where my head is,
currently, but I think not. This story touches me more deeply than any other
story in this very fine collection. Inspired by the general tone of Steinbeck's
short work, with a dash of Clifford Simak, it is universal to us, to people,
to every feeling being, and it is nothing less than beautiful. I don't have
a proper bibliography for this story, have no idea where or how often it has
been collected or anthologized; I can say, however, that it ranks high indeed
among Mr. Ellison's work proclaiming the essential fact that "You are not
More clearly than many of Mr. Ellison's stories, I believe, the science-fictional
elements are truly merely furniture, stage setting for the market at hand. There
is no reason other than the writer's whim why the story should take place on
Mars, with a Martian, etc., etc. It could just as easily play anywhere on Earth:
South America among the Amazonian aborigines; India; the Australian outback;
Africa, or the Middle East; even right here in the Good Ol' U.S., with the Lone
Ranger and Tonto, at the end of their Golden Years. As a matter of fact, I have
it on authority that, in its original magazine appearance, the story took place
on some far-flung cosmic lump, then was later restationed on Mars for inclusion
in a Mars-friendly anthology.
So, the story isn't about Mars or space travel: it's about living and dying
and the choices we make, choices that govern how we do both of those things.
It suggests that, sometimes, the alienation we feel is of our own construction
- because we are not alone, we need not be alone, and, if we are, it is through
our own (perhaps unwitting) choice. To share our lives with one another is a
privilege and an honor, but it is also a necessity. Reach out; take that hand;
let it warm you against the cold darkness of those lonely lands.
Story Reviews by K.C. Locke
harlanellison.com is maintained by Rick Wyatt - email@example.com
hosting provided by Volpe Systems Group