HARLAN ELLISON: EVERYTHING IS AWFUL
At this point in a long, fabled literary career, Harlan Ellison requires about as much introduction to Angelenos as Ray Bradbury or Charles Bukowski. Ranking as a fantasist alongside the former, Harlan surpassed the latter as teller of seamy truths and razor-toting fables while still an angry kid ten-finger death-punching a rattletrap manual typewriter. Before celebrity; before an untidy heap of awards; before influential TV scripts for Star Trek, Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone; before a formidable rep as controversialist and heretic, Ellison ran with a 1950s Brooklyn street gang and lived to write the tale not once, but innumerable times. Out of this experience came a novel titled Web of the City, scads of still-incendiary short stories and—penned under a series of cash-cow pseudonyms—scarifying tales of urban alienation and psycho-sexual violence. Written for a penny a word for long-defunct men’s magazines, the choicest of the last-mentioned bitter morsels are now available as Pulling a Train: Violent Stories of Naked Passions, packaged in suitably lurid Eisenhower-era art and available from Kicks Books. A second slashing collection, Getting in the Wind, is also out now. If you thought of Harlan as merely the world’s greatest living writer of science fiction, prepare to have your mind blown outta the back wall of your skull by these long out-of-print tales. You can’t wander this town for a decade-plus without crossing paths with the fellow who seemingly invented writing as performance art. My few encounters with Harlan included 1) him declaring at a book signing I couldn’t be from Appalachia because both my eyes aren’t on the same side of my face and 2) the day he called my desk at L.A. CityBeat to praise something I’d written about him and demand to know what I meant by the word “roorback,” a Jeffersonian-era term of abuse he professed much delight over. Here we find the legendary writer and columnist in a mellow, contemplative mood. This interview by Ron Garmon.
Pulling a Train consists of several of your early men’s magazine crime stories published as Sex Gang under the pseudonym Paul Merchant back in 1959. Though you make no such claim, this volume could be the latest serious rediscovery in postwar noir literature. Has the world finally caught up with this kind of explosive anger and moral emptiness?
Er—you could be right!
Yes, and frequently am! One of your best-ever introductions as well. Concise, laconic—it centers the reader and yourself in the history of this long-dead pulp art form that leaves the neophyte wanting more Harlan. Please situate these tales in the pulp noir tradition of Jim Thompson and David Goodis.
Well, in those days, we were all writing pretty much the same stuff for a penny a word as fast as we could. There were a plethora of magazines. Good, bad or indifferent, you finished it, sent it out and that was your week’s groceries.
There are stretches of Sex Gang that are even bleaker than Jim Thompson at his most nihilistic. He is generally reckoned by critics to be the last word in extreme pulp.
Jim was a very great artist and I enjoyed knowing him and writing to him and reading his stuff. He was one of the premier novelists of the 20th century, up there with James M. Cain. He was that good.
Yes. It’s tempting to see Deek in Sex Gang as an ultra-horny, doomed precursor to Vic in ‘A Boy and His Dog.’
They’re pretty much the same kind of kid, yeah. I brought the sensibility of the old kid gang stories into the world of science fiction with ‘A Boy and his Dog’ and I was pilloried by a number of close personal friends who fancied themselves literary masters saying I was cheapening the form. I said, ‘You write what you know, I’ll write what I know.’
This stuff is deadpan, matter-of-fact raw. Just this morning, I was reading on Salon.com some mainstream novelist’s idea of a sex scene and my god—very weak compared to the mayhem you dish out.
I always thought of these stories as mainstream erotica. I didn’t think there was anything that serious about it or anything near pornography. The more people who talk to me, the more I’m surprised at how startling they find this stuff to be. We wrote this kinda stuff as a matter of course—straight and real. It could not be more courant at the time, so to have it considered courant or even ahead of its time now is very startling to me.
That comes to another question—what do you think about seeing this sliver of your youth suddenly become trendy?
It’s one more startlement on the long trail of my career. I’ve given up figuring out about where posterity lies for me. For some people, all I ever wrote is science fiction; to others, all I ever did was television. Other people, I’m remembered for the juvenile delinquent stuff and now that this stuff is back, it just revivifies one more phase of my long career.
Speaking of that, next year Hardcase Crime is reprinting your first novel, Web of the City. [First published in 1958 as Rumble.]Do you think it, and your other juvvie stories, influenced Sol Yurick’s The Warriors, which came a few years later? There’s a similar sense of hardass hopelessness.
I’m sure there was an influence, but then we were all influenced by each other, as I was influenced by Hal Ellson, who wrote before me. We were all writing the same down-in-the-streets kind of stuff. Hal worked at Bellevue Hospital and knew these kids intimately. We became friends and I read a lot of his stuff, so I got very close to that stuff, so I got the true wording and the true activities.
Your command of Beat-era hipsemantic lingo is very impressive. Were you a Lord Buckley fan?
Ha—I was indeed.
These stories, plus the ones in Gentleman Junkie also predate A Clockwork Orange, yet no one in Lit Crit land really notices. What say you?
Ah … (Pained sigh) If I have anything to say, I’ll just get into the same trouble I did when someone pointed out Cormac McCarthy’s The Road was nothing but a rewrite of ‘A Boy and His Dog.’ I said, ‘Yeah. Gee, it sure seems like it, doesn’t it?’ and everybody said ‘Ah, you’re just bitter and cruel because Cormac McCarthy made millions off it and you didn’t.’ So I try not to predict where people’s sources come from. It’s likely Burgess was familiar with the literature of the day, but he was also very, very British.
Somebody like Deek in the flesh would’ve been his worst nightmare come to life.
What can I say? You work days or you work nights. One or the other.
Did you revise much? A habit of subtly altering your early work is something you share with Tennessee Williams.
These stories, I did not. When we divided Sex Gang into two books, Pulling a Train and Getting in the Wind, which will be out next month, we added other stories of the period. Not so much kid gang stories, but ones from the same period. For instance, ‘Nedra at f:5.6’ is a much better story than most of them in that book, but written more seriously for a more serious audience.
I loved that one! A high-art tribute to Fritz Leiber, dedicated to him.
Fritz was one of my idols and one of the great men of literature.
I share your opinion of him. One of your many achievements on the page was bringing a kind of proto-punk attitude and aesthetic to fantasy writing. While we’re on the subject of young people, please relate any cranky rant about kids today here.
I think on the day after the Aurora, Colorado, massacre, anything said about young people today is moot. No one will face the fact that the NRA runs America and is killing us. There were more people killed in that Aurora slaughter than were killed in the entire country of Japan last year. Only eleven people killed by gunfire in Japan last year and this kid killed twelve. This is bewildering. It’s certainly way past the kid gang stuff, where if you had a switchblade or a zip-gun, you were deadly. Now, they’re deadly and they have AK-47s.
They’ve become weaponized. Now they’re like soldiers.
And they’re trained that way by video games, the internet and television. It’s become a culture of pure violence.
There are still also many, like Deek, who simply have a mad on for the rest of humanity.
I can never figure out what they’re upset about in the outside world. The outside world is awful, but I guess I sound like Cassandra. Everything is awful.
Well, there’s always Hemingway’s notion that ‘the world is a fine place,’ and worth saving for that reason.
The good stuff is worth saving. And it’s getting harder and harder to do so day by day.
True. You spent much of your tenure as Glass Teat columnist [for The Los Angeles Free Press] predicting a second American Revolution or at least indulging in the occasional daydream of one. How much discontent are we short of a revolution at this moment?
I don’t see a revolution now. I see everyone so confused and so beaten down, they don’t have anything to rebel against. It’s like the Occupy movement. They’re furious and they know they have a need to be furious but they don’t know who to be furious at. So they run around and yell and break things. I don’t see that as a revolution. A revolution moves toward a goal and I don’t know what the hell the goal is at the moment.
A lot of it is pure anger at this point. Most revolutions start as expression of that.
We’re an angry country. We’re a road rage country, no question about it.
What music do you listen to these days?
I don’t listen to much music at all any more. There’s not much I can listen to. I go back to jazz and the classics. When you reach a point where music has mutated to whatever it’s mutated into, you go back to the things you know and are comfortable.
I know you hung with the Stones and Three Dog Night. At what point did you tune out on rock music?
Well, it came a lot later, about the time hip-hop started. Hip-hop seemed to me to be a dead end right off the bat. Everybody was a poet and it was violent, nasty stuff that didn’t interest me much. I never could get through grunge and have no idea what they’re calling it now. One of my friends is Otep and I like her music, so I guess I’m a fan of Otep!
Pretend you’re once again writing your old L.A. WEEKLY or Free Press columns—what local issue would you rip into the city’s Powers That Be over?
I suppose the overabundance of cop violence that’s coming back again after we managed to get rid of the Hat Squad. It’s come back and it’s very, very violent. I don’t get it because I’m not profiled, but everyone I know who is feels it very strongly—it’s an iron boot out there ready to come down.
And does come down—often on people wielding chalk.
Yeah. I’d be writing about that and the total confusion at City Hall. It’s like Alice in Wonderland over there. We need another Lewis Carroll.
Other than coinciding with a serious uptick of interest in your writings, how’s the Great Recession been treatin’ ya?
I’m okay. I’m above water. Everybody gets their fifteen minutes of fame and I’ve had mine for about 35 or 40 years. I’m still considered a great icon. But now … I’ve been reflecting that it’s been like one of the characters on Lost, sitting on the beach staring at the water and the tide rolling in and not realizing a whole continent has built up behind you. I turn around and ‘Holy Christ I’m famous! How’d that happen?’ I was too busy working like a blue-collar worker to notice. I’m not planning any trips to the moon, but they’re not throwing me out of my house either.
You had some very appropriate things to say about the great Ray Bradbury. It’s a little late, but any last thoughts on Thomas M. Disch? On his LiveJournal page before his suicide, Disch mentioned you both feuded briefly in the mid-60s, but buried it.
I loved Tom, for all his crankiness. He could be one of the most cantankerous people who ever lived—not a good, easy guy to be friends with. He was a great writer, but he couldn’t get out of his own way in some respects. I think he was never fully clear of being upset over being overlooked as a serious poet. He was one of the people they consulted for giving out the Pulitzer Prize, but he was never up for it himself. I think it finally just took him away. Depression is a bad thing and not something you can do much about. I have it myself. You just sit and stare.
I understand you’re no internet junkie, but if you were to look at Disch’s blog, you’d see much eloquent despair, mixed in with the gorgeous poetry he simply gave away.
Well, everybody keeps trying to get me on Twitter and I say, ‘146 characters? Please. That’s when I just start to catch my breath!’
HARLAN ELLISON’S PULLING A TRAIN AND GETTING IN THE WIND ARE AVAILABLE NOW FROM KICKS BOOKS. NORTONRECORDS.COM/KICKSBOOKS. UNOFFICIAL SITE AT HARLANELLISON.COM.