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Harlan Ellison, 1934-2018
June 28, 2018  | By David Bianculli  | 1 comment
 

 

Harlan Ellison, the passionate and influential writer whose works encompassed fantasy novels, collections of TV and film criticism, groundbreaking literary anthologies and memorable TV episodes from Star Trek and The Outer Limits, died in his sleep today, June 28, at age 84. Many people may not associate him immediately with television, but I do…

As a writer of short stories (he hated the term sci-fi), his early collections included 1962’s Ellison Wonderland and 1967’s I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. On television, also in 1967, he wrote “City on the Edge of Forever,” the Hugo Award-winning first-season episode of Star Trek in which William Shatner’s Captain Kirk travels back in time to Depression-era New York, falls in love with a woman (played by Joan Collins), but must let her die in order to preserve the natural order of the timeline.

And before that, in 1964, he wrote “Demon with a Glass Hand,” the classic Outer Limits episode starring Robert Culp. Another of Ellison’s tales, the postapocalyptic novella A Boy and His Dog, was made into a cult 1975 movie starring a pre-Miami Vice Don Johnson.

I read and saw all those as a teenager, and just as eagerly devoured his brilliant and bold anthologies of original works by other writers in the fantasy genre. His 1967 collection, Dangerous Visions, was by far the best compendium of imaginative, speculative fiction of its time – outdone, eventually, by his Again, Dangerous Visions in 1972.

Not even those books or TV shows or films, though, affected me as much as his collections of TV criticism for the Los Angeles Free Press, published in book form as The Glass Teat in 1970 and The Other Glass Teat two years later. This was a different type of television criticism than I’d ever encountered: outraged and outrageous, truthfully raw and unapologetically opinionated.

Three years later, in 1975 and still working my way through graduate school, I became a TV critic myself. And in 1979, while a TV critic for the Fort Lauderdale News, I commissioned Ellison – who was well out of the TV-criticism business by then – to write a new introduction to his recently published Strange Wine essay, specifically for the Television Critics Association newsletter I was editing at the time.

When I contacted him and told him I was a writer who had gone into TV criticism partly because of his Glass Teat columns, he replied, “Couldn’t you have gone into a more honest line of work, like putting horses to sleep?”

Nevertheless, Ellison not only gave permission for his essay to be published in the newsletter for TV critics nationwide but provided an original introduction for it. Harlan was not playing nice, and wasn’t even playing.

“I have been asked to share it with you…” he wrote, “all of you who codify and too-often deify the dregs on the tube for your slavering readers. It is my belief that you will not love me for it. But I was one of you for a long time, and like a reformed drunk who is high on AA, I feel much saner and cleaner since divorcing myself from television.”

Television was pretty much at its nadir in the mid-70s – but it got better and better. (Ellison even returned to the medium to write, briefly, for the rebooted Twilight Zone series in the mid-80s.) And at some point around 20 years ago, another TV critic, Mark Dawidziak, offered to take me on a detour excursion while we were both covering the TCA press tour in Los Angeles, and drive me to Harlan’s house and introduce me to him.

The author’s house – wittily called Ellison Wonderland, just like his early literary collection – was a marvel inside and out. Outside, it was adorned with commissioned sculptures, fanciful gargoyles that protected and framed the entrance. Only upon close inspection did one notice that the gargoyles had grotesque yet familiar faces: specifically, Richard Nixon and all the President’s men.

And inside, everything was another treasure – a childhood memory, a valuable artifact, a rare volume. And Harlan and Susan were the perfect hosts. I didn’t visit often, and we didn’t talk often by phone. But over the years, whenever we spoke, it was fun, and funny, and a pleasure. The last time we spoke was a year ago when he called to compliment me on a column I’d written for TV Guide. You can imagine, from Harlan, what a treasured remark, and call, that was.

To get a sense of Harlan Ellison the man and the writer, I can recommend two sources of instant illumination. One is the 2008 biographical film about him, Dreams with Sharp Teeth, which you can buy on DVD on Amazon. And the other is the obituary, just posted by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, by Mark Dawidziak, the same person who introduced me to Harlan Ellison so many years ago. A great job of writing, saluting a great writer.

I’ll miss you, Harlan…

 
 
 
 
 
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1 Comments
 
 
Mac
Not a big fiction reader,let alone sci-fi,but these tomes of criticism passed me by and I'm always in those stacks. My first born,on the other hand,has been a fan of his fanrasy stuff forever, Currently the Glass Teats are available as pricey trade softbounds. The original mass markets seem to be around at reasonable prices but I'm pretty much a hunter in the wild vs. online sources. Anytime a cranky good writer is gone we all lose.
Jun 29, 2018   |  Reply
 
 
 
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