Savoy People
Harlan Ellison

M i c h a e l   M o o r c o c k
o n   H a r l a n   E l l i s o n

(Introduction to the Gregg Press editions of Paingod and I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream)

Harlan Ellison



IT COULD BE ARGUED that Harlan Ellison possesses the romantic imagination without quite enough of the romantic discipline. Instead he substitutes performance: Keep it fast, keep it funny, keep 'em fazed. And this is why in my opinion his work is so uneven, often within the same story. I don't think any other writer pleads his own cases so often or at such length. This phenomenon supports my theory, I think. His stories are usually buried in their own weight of introductions, prefaces, running commentaries because each collection is a set (in the musical sense) this non-fiction is the patter designed to link material for the main numbers. Each story is an act—a performance—and almost has to be judged as a theatrical or musical improvisation around a theme. The idea of working in public, in a shop window, is anathema to me and most other writers—to Harlan Ellison it is a natural extension of his writing methods.

As with jazz, he'll use a rubato technique to catch up on himself, get to his original drift (tune or phrase) often after very long digressions. His best stories are scarcely stories at all: they are images, emotions, characters, collages. They are often at their worst when they try to fit genre conventions and dash themselves to fragments against the edges and walls on the form. A Boy and his Dog is an excellent piece of work and only bad when it tries to become a run-of-the-mill sf story (the underground scenes). Eggsucker (the prequel written some years later) is better because it doesn't try to be anything more than an anecdote (and paradoxically is more of a well-made short story than much of Ellison's work). 'Imagist' writers don't need to worry too much about plots—witness Stevenson's best short stories—and can destroy their own conceptions by conscientious attempts to fit them into conventional shapes. This is often the case with Ellison whose plots can distort the 'real' information in his short stories. Ellison's information is no more in his plots than is, say, JG Ballard's in his or Poe's or Sterne's in theirs. The information is in his images, characters, his pyrotechnic highly oral method of performing a piece.

Flashes of autobiography, of self-revelation, are usually immediately disguised or obscured (for all he claims to tell us exactly how it is). Trent, he says, in Paingod, had reached a Now in which he could no longer support his acts. If Trent is Ego naked and at large, we know whose ego he represents. In this story everything works fine while the images are coming—the trip through the universes, the skid row scenes and so on—while the characters are being described—but when we are given 'plot' it is a let-down. The story part—a pretty banal statement about there being no pleasure without pain—could easily be discarded without the essence of the piece being harmed at all. How much of this is Ellison's fault and how much the fault of sf magazine editors (most of whom have probably done more to ruin the flowering of imaginative talent than any other single group) is hard to say.

In his introduction to 'Repent, Harlequin' Said The Ticktockman he admits the fact that he is always late (A fact—as someone who's almost always early and an anxiety neurotic who's terrified of missing deadlines—I can vouch for. It is a hideous experience watching Harlan limbering up for a deadline whose date has already passed) and this, too, is a trait more often associated with a performer who needs to give so much of himself to his act that he is always vaguely reluctant to begin until the last possible moment, always exhausted afterwards. I have met more people like Harlan when I've been performing with rock and roll bands than I have met at writers' conferences. It is worth noting, I think, that he has worked as a stand-up comedian and a singer in his time and is always in demand as a speaker, when he never fails to give a complete performance. His personal life is much closer to the personal life of, say, Al Jolson than it is to John Updike and I'm sure he prides himself on the fact. He is by no means the only writer to work and live as he does, but he could be one of the first to draw on performing rather than dramatic and literary disciplines to aid him to shape his writing. Byron and Shelley, Swinburne and Rossetti (these two latter are probably better examples) had poetic meter to control and give shape to their imaginations; similarly a writer like Ballard has chosen to use literary methods to control the flow of his creation. In America there is more of a tradition of what could be called pseudo-oral writing (Twain to Vonnegut) and Harlan Ellison's best work is in this tradition, of course. But films, radio, comic-strips have taught him more technique than, I suspect, have books. In this he breaks more thoroughly with tradition than he does in his subject matter which is fairly conventional. He is conscious that he is competing with visual forms and so he seeks perpetually for immediacy—for the immediacy offered by popular entertainment, by newspapers, by rock music, by the performers from George Burns to Lenny Bruce whom he so admires. It is no accident that he finds himself spiritually at ease in Hollywood, that he blossoms on a podium, that he takes naturally to TV appearances, that he shows on occasions a somewhat wary attitude to the more staid gatherings of writers and critics where performance is not expected of him.

High above the third level of the city, he crouched on the humming aluminum-frame platform of the air-boat (foof! air-boat, indeed! swizzleskid is what it was, with a tow-rack jerry-rigged) and stared down at the neat Mondrian arrangement of the buildings.

Harlan Ellison speaks about fifteen languages, all of them English. This gift is derived from a natural relish for words which enables him to make use of them far better than most of his contemporaries. It also enables him to work an audience. If he could produce his stories in front of about two thousand people at Circus Circus, Las Vegas, I think he would probably be in his element. The trouble with writing is that it is still a somewhat slow process, still essentially a solitary activity, and Harlan Ellison is still trying to beat those particular problems.

Almost all the characters in these stories are, of course, Harlan Ellison. Harlequin the gadfly is an idealised Ellison, justifying his penchant for practical jokes, giving it a social function (one can also see him as a good version of Batman's adversary The Joker). This particular story is one of the most successful of Ellison's '60s performances, for all that its ending tends to be a trifle ordinary and it reveals, to me at any rate, some of his own associations—'childishness' with 'freedom' and 'parsimoniousness' with 'social responsibility'—at their crudest (he is far too intelligent and subtle a man to make such associations in any terms but those of metaphor, I should add). The story is in many ways a thematic re-run of the earlier The Crackpots. That he is capable of producing an sf story quite as ordinary and dull as the average sf story he demonstrated in 1974 with the publication of Sleeping Dogs which slipped naturally into the pages of ANALOG, a magazine which since 1940 or so seems to have devoted itself specifically to the curtailment and even destruction of the creative imagination. He seems to have gone into this enterprise with much the same spirit of a skilled high-wire monocyclist who for some reason wishes to show the world that he is as good at pushing an ordinary bike along an ordinary sidewalk as anyone else:

A moment later, a new sun lit the sky as the dreadnought Descartes was strangled with its own weapon flared suddenly, blossomed...and was gone.


Bright Eyes was improvised around an existing illustration in response to a challenge by that remarkable editor Cele Lalli, whose editorship of AMAZlNG and FANTASTlC in the '60s did so much to encourage the best writers of what came to be known as the US 'new wave'—Disch, Zelazny and so on. Here we see Ellison responding to a sympathetic audience (in the shape of Lalli) with a far better story that is still on a familiar theme (the central character is typically 'alienated', another version of 'the artist') and which I suspect presents us with more original images than appeared in the illustration. The image of the bleeding birds is particularly good. Again we find a fairly conventional 'story' element, but all in all Bright Eyes is a successful performance, if not a spectacularly ambitious one. The Discarded (also from FANTASTIC, but six years earlier) repeats the alienation theme and is about as unremarkable a story as Sleeping Dogs. Ellison was here still translating his social rejects into people like the mutants in this story (and presenting arguments about the social usefulness of such rejects all but identical to his current arguments). Although he had written documentary fiction about actual social rejects (New York street gangs) he did not yet seem to have made the realisation that greater 'immediacy', more effective imagery, could be gained by discarding conventional sf ideas and using his own experiences. The familiar trappings of sf, the familiar 'optimism' of pulp stories, can be seen completely obscuring any individual idea or language in the second earliest story reprinted here, Wanted in Surgery. Like me, Ellison is a pretty lousy science fiction writer. Possibly because we are both lousy science fiction writers we independently picked on similar themes for our early work. Ellison wrote The Beast that Shouted Love At The Heart Of The World at about the time I wrote a story called The Lovebeast. He wrote Deeper Than Darkness at about the time I wrote a story called Consuming Passion. All I can say about the latter is that they were both run-of-the-mill stories. I'm not sure, however, that I could call my own 'pyro' story a 'tone-poem'...

Like Ellison I was regarded for some years as a pretty ordinary kind of sf writer. We both of us became highly-thought-of sf writers when we decided to stop doing sf. Then we began winning prizes for work which the average ANALOG reader would dismiss as mere 'borderline' sf or, worse, 'fantasy'. Certainly, in I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream there are appropriate sf terms—computer is one of them—but essentially Ellison has learned to use the imagery and terminology of sf as metaphor—he has ceased to be dominated by the conventions of the genre and is making use of them. Compare that story to Big Sam Was My Friend, a perfectly reasonable sf story which had appeared nearly ten years earlier. The story-telling method is much the same. The 1958 story is a well enough put together collection of fairly familiar sf images and ideas and the sentimental conventions of the ending are pretty mawkish. By 1967, however, Ellison had learned how to communicate his anger at the manifest ways in which the human spirit is debased, warped, robbed of its dignity by the stupidity and unimaginativeness of our social institutions (he has always reflected his times but happily the '60s were more radical years and they made a far better mirror for his temperament). He is still capable, occasionally, of sentimentality or (the opposite side of the same coin) obvious cynicism, but he has learned to check it not so much by standard literary 'distancing' techniques or by the kind of irony found, say, in Ballard or Disch, as by an almost frenetic oral style which balances off one view against another. In a performer (a comedian of Bruce's stature for instance) it would emerge as 'Oh, so ya don't like that version, eh? How about this one, then...?' Like all of us he is aiming to please his audience. Like some of us he is aiming to please it without flattering it, without appealing to universal middle-class assumptions about life, without distorting the fundamental subject, without wiping out the ambiguities and paradoxes which are the 'truth' he is trying to make us see. Because he equates the cooler ironies of acceptable literary style with an unwillingness on the part of the author to 'involve' himself in life (and often, naturally, he is right) he has sought and found his own peculiar, sometimes bizarre methods of story-telling. These can involve an attack on syntax and grammar which only a fool would find offensive, a wild mixing of metaphors and a rapid bringing together of associated images done not necessarily to achieve ironic effect, but done in an ironic 'careless' spirit which again I tend to identify with the rapid, scatological delivery of a superb comedian (which Ellison, incidentally, is). My only regret is that Ellison doesn't, in fact, make the final transference from fantasy to comedy in his fiction (he has written far too little comic fiction)—for, as one of his heroes Gerald Kersh consistently proved, comedy can be an even better method of intensifying and exaggerating incident and imagery than fantasy.

Eyes of Dust is still too early a story to show anything more than the theme, yet again, of individuality Destroyed. It lacks resonance. And World of Myth seems to me to lack any saving irony to make it more than a conventional idea expressed in fairly conventional images, whereas Lonely Ache is almost completely its opposite in intensity of imagination and feeling. And here in the introduction we receive another clue to Ellison's methods—performance as a kind of therapy in which the performer reaches for catharsis and in turn transmits it to the audience: a potentially self-destructive working method. It is the only way to play the blues, but it is a dangerous and sometimes unsuccessful game which can ruin a human personality when 'vitality' is equated too much with 'art', and reading a story like this makes me worry, as I sometimes worry when I watch David Bowie giving himself, like some latter-day Piaf, to his audience, if Ellison isn't exhausting himself too quickly. Such greedy drawing on the world of dreams requires enormous restitution unless we are to find ourselves living in a waking dream, a reality which lacks the texture of those deeper, semi-conscious worlds of sleep: for we are using the fundamental stuff of our inner selves, which needs particular forms of contemplative tranquillity (too easily translated as 'death') in order to replenish its reserves. In that sense, then, this particular story is the most frightening in the collection, for it describes a familiar (to me) suicide equation.

I read Ellison's introduction to Delusion for a Dragon Slayer after I conceived my 'performance' theory. The style itself is scarcely 'experimental', but the form is much more free than most of those he had used up to that time and, in my view, much more satisfying as a result. The interesting thing is that he says of it that he wanted 'a density of images, a veritable darkness of language, comparable in narrative to what saxophonist John Coltrane blows in his 'sheets of sound' style'. In this story he is able to display most of his virtues and few of his vices and it is a story which carries for me almost the emotional intensity of my favourite Ellison imaginative story, Croatoan. And in the introduction to Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes we find a further confirmation of Ellison's frustration with the written word, with his looking to the techniques of the film (and possibly the record) for his models. 'I scream,' he says, 'helplessly at the inadequacies of the lineal medium. There is a section herein in which I try to convey a sense of impression of the moment of death. In films I could use effects. In type-on-paper it comes down to the enormously ineffectual italics, type tricks, staccato sentences and spacings of a man groping to expand his medium. Bear with me. It is experimentation, and unless typesetters and editors somehow develop the miracle talent of letting writers tear the form apart and reassemble it in their individual ways, the best I'll be able to do in terms of freedom of impact is what I got away with here...'

Impact could be the key word in that statement. A good many writers—particularly those who accept and enjoy the world about them—are conscious of their rivals in films and tv and even newspapers where virtually nothing is demanded of the audience but that they sit and be 'entertained'. Like me, like Ballard, like Disch and like, I suspect, most of us, Ellison watches a lot of television (witness The Glass Teat) and from time to time he probably loses the will, habit or impulse to read a book thoroughly. He knows that his impatience with the printed word is reflected in the majority of his potential audience. In seeing ways of challenging the rivalry of screens and stereos he is taking part in a movement which began almost with the century and which I now suspect is pointless in terms of its conscious goals but worthwhile in that it assimilates and develops subject matter, images and dramatic techniques which go periodically to revive, expand and enrich that most flexible medium of all—the medium of printed fiction.

Ironically, of course, it is in this medium that Ellison who has tried his hands at most other forms—excels, and stimulates many other writers, particularly the young. He has done a lot more for American imaginative fiction than many of those who currently receive the praise of a cautious literary establishment. For one thing, his performances are considerably tighter than those who appear to have set out to produce the fictional equivalent of, say, Tubular Bells, in which one four-bar phrase is repeated over and over again on a variety of instruments, and in which every musical vice is combined (tautology as an art-form). It would probably be enough if Ellison simply rocked on. But, happily, he does rather more than that, whilst retaining the virtues of a 'vulgarity' which in history is always looked back on as legitimate and enviable expression of the romantic spirit.

He is, as I have said elsewhere, a brave little beast, this dwarfish Jew, this Mid-Western Byron, this persuasive spieler who has been able to make me produce the first critical introduction to a book by an individual I have written in twelve years. Like all the finest performers, he uses his charm almost unconsciously. And because he is such a good and generous performer, it is extremely hard not to forgive him virtually anything.

Which, of course, must be another reason why he writes so many introductions and at such length.

Harlan Ellison in Savoy:



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