Tuesday, March 27, 2012

"No Doors, No Windows:" Harlan Ellison Without Labels

"They were a cool young group, very California-cool and casual, and one of the coolest seemed to be a little guy, very quick of movement, who had a sharp profile, pale blue eyes, blondish hair, and squared eyeglasses. He wore a pair of brown corduroy slacks, a green shaggy-dog Shetland sweater, a tan suede jacket, and Game Warden boots, for which he had recently paid $60. Frank Sinatra, leaning against the stool, sniffling a bit from his cold, could not take his eyes off the Game Warden boots. Once, after gazing at them for a few moments, he turned away; but now he was focused on them again. The owner of the boots, who was just standing in them watching the pool game, was named Harlan Ellison, a writer who had just completed work on a screenplay, The Oscar." --Gay Talese, "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," Esquire 1966

Up until roughly three weeks ago, I had no knowledge about the life and writings of Harlan Ellison, except for his brief appearance in the classic article above. Now, I find it incredulous that it has taken me this long to be at least semi-familiar with him, given my usual tendency to enjoy certain writers with colorful personalities reflected in their bibliographies (William Gaddis, Hunter S. Thompson, etc.). My best friend, always quick with a good book recommendation, had been touting Ellison's work for some time, and even went so far as to purchase a wonderful old Pyramid paperback copy of Ellison's story collection No Doors, No Windows for me. This is the same friend who ignited my early appreciation of H.P. Lovecraft, so I was eager to see what Ellison's works had in store. Based on the book's back cover, I was expecting delightfully cheesy horror tales, since the description was rife with the kind of flourishes only found on cheap 1970s paperbacks: "Harlan Ellison shows you a frightening world of paranoia and panic, fear and fantasy...with no way out!"

This expectation was nearly undone by Ellison's own introduction to his work. Book introductions range from a few pages to several, with details ranging from necessary background information to historical minutiae. I found it odd for a writer to pen his own introduction, and for someone new to Harlan Ellison, his nonfiction accounts of his own work can be hilarious and/or self-serving, but by the end, there's no doubting his confidence. He's a man with a passionate following and vitriolic haters, and his explanations of the stories seem to be written with both camps in mind.

"I've gone on too long. Conversation, the rap, still holds top spot in my catalogue of ways to have a good time. But I've rambled and digressed, and I've got to tell you a few things about how some of these stories came to be written, and then I'll get my face out of your way and let you go on to read the entertainments. Excuse me if I lecture. I don't mean to. It just comes over me sometimes.
In the main, most of these stories were written in the early and mid years of my writing career. I went through about 300,000 words of previously published (but never collected) stories to select these sixteen. I like each one of them, or they wouldn't be here. But I've substantially rewritten all of them. The errors of style and grammar I made when I was learning my craft were so silly and awful, I couldn't bear to let them stand. So in many ways these are new stories (Ellison 29)."

Upon completion of the book, it becomes evident how necessary the long introduction is--some of the stories would seem like mere snippets of prose instead of pieces with deeper foundations. Ellison could have been accused of rampant misogyny were this not disavowed in the opening pages (given the tendency of people to confuse the material with the writer). He even explains the need of a re-written title: "White Trash Don't Exist" was originally titled "N---- Don't Exist," meant to be a jarring look at the lives of Southern blacks, but given the new title due to a racist editor. Most importantly, Ellison takes pains to distance himself from the label of being a "science fiction writer," preferring the more encompassing term "speculative fiction." What is intriguing about this collection is the lack of anything that could be deemed either "sci-fi" or "speculative." Ellison, at least within these works, displays a combination of noir and magical realism, infusing blatant dime-store plots with gripping narratives that become believable in their own twisted worlds.

"The Whimper of Whipped Dogs" opens the collection, and manages to combine the bulk of these ideas. A woman is violently killed in a courtyard with her neighbors watching from the windows, and one of the voyeurs, another woman, feels a sense of guilt for not helping or calling 911 (understatement intended). She begins dating Ray, a man in her building and another witness to the killing. He quickly reveals himself to be a misogynist, dismissing her and engaging in forceful sex. While these plot lines seem unrelated, the story ends up being a look at the hard realities of city life, with the extreme actions providing a buffer to the everyday urban monotony and grimness, and a supernatural force comes into play as well. For an opening story, it gives a strong sense of what else is to come, with the remaining stories focused on singular weirdness, rather than outlandish layers:

"She tried to decorate the apartment with a less precise touch. Huge poster blowups of Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham replaced the Brueghel prints that had reminded her of the view looking down the hill toward Williams. The tiny balcony outside her window, the balcony she had steadfastly refused to stand upon since the night of the slaughter, the night of the fog with eyes, that balcony she swept and set about with little flower boxes in which she planted geraniums, petunias, dwarf zinnias and other hardy perennials. Then, closing the window, she went to give herself, to involve herself in this city to which she had brought her ordered life (Ellison 53)."

Ellison also has a gift for finding the humorous in the macabre. "Tow the Line" explores a foolproof carjacking scheme that goes terribly awry, with the revelation saved for the very end, a clever twist overriding the gruesome consequences, explained almost cheerfully by an FBI agent. "Opposites Attract" is an offbeat love story, with a killer and a bomber finding themselves to be kindred spirits. In "Status Quo at Troyden's," an elderly man goes to extremes over his raised rent and evil landlord, and even in the senseless act, the reader feels dark sympathy for the protagonist. We're in his head, and while the murder cannot be condoned, there's a twisted logic in the old man's actions:

"He never quite finished. Mr. Huggerson had moved with the precision of a zombie as the fat man had turned away. He lifted the metal ashtray with the heavy weighted base, and moved in behind Troyden's chair.
Without sense or reason or actual volition, all energy had drained from him as the cruelty and unreasonableness of the landlord's words struck him forcibly. To not get the reduction was bad enough--but to pay twice again as much! It was horrible, it was torture; he had to put a stop to those words that were terribly, mercilessly destroying his universe. He had to stop the torment of this man. He had to!
Strangely, there had been no blood (Ellison 76)."

It's difficult (and rather pointless) to pick a favorite of the collection, but I found myself drawn to "The Children's Hour," a story that seems to be the most horrifying and timeless. At the United Nations building, dozens and dozens of children enter the hall and plead for world nations to stop fighting. After the spokeschild states their case, they leave, and the (un)expected happens:

"What happened next was pandemonium. A pandemonium of laughter. The Russian delegation began, and in a few moments it had spread till the entire room was a bonfire of mirth. The Russians begged to speak and when their representative rose he said this was a poor, shabby trick for the Americans to pull, and that it changed no one's mind, except that perhaps the Yankees were greater fools than the world had thought.
The US representatives accused the Russians.
The Chinese accused the British.
The French accused the Germans.
Bedlam was the order of the day.
And the next day...
And the next...
But on the fourth day, there was no bedlam, because the wars in Europe, Africa and Asia simultaneously escalated. They didn't last long, however, On the same day, wherever anyone might have been...whether in a bathtub, or on a desert, or in a jungle, or on a mountaintop, they heard the sounds (Ellison 142-143)."

These aren't the stories for which Mr. Ellison is best known, but as an introductory collection, these are great starters, and the gaudy 1975 packaging actually aids the the best stories. One wouldn't be faulted for going into this expecting breezy, ridiculous horror tales, and for serious readers, this expectation, while met, is elevated by the genuinely gripping passages. Whether he would admit this or not, there is a smattering of sci-fi and the supernatural, but the majority of these stories achieve what the best genre fiction tries to do: there are morals and contemporary problems even in seemingly unrelated scenarios. This is my guess as to why Ellison despises labels and opts for emphasis on the act of writing. He knew that some people wouldn't take him seriously, and designations such as "sci-fi" or "horror" writing would add to the derision. Many great modern writers continually share their early loves of genre writing--Lethem has Philip K. Dick, Michael Chabon has the world of comic books--with the hopes of "elevating" the genres to show how they work beyond the stereotypes. While I'm not immediately familiar with Ellison having any outspoken backers, his stories don't need apologizing or explanations. At his best, he packages deep philosophical musings into fantastical scenarios. Even at his worst, you can't go wrong with a good thriller story when the mood strikes, and he's not one for cheap thrills. He still values good writing and intelligence in areas where it seems they would not be found.

Work Cited:
Ellison, Harlan. No Doors, No Windows. Copyright 1975 by Harlan Ellison.

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