Sunday, May 27, 2018

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, HARLAN ELLISON!

In honor of Harlan Ellison's 84th birthday, I'm reposting a pair of book reviews I wrote for THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF SCIENCE FICTION regarding three of his most recent short story collections.  These two reviews originally appeared in THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF SCIENCE FICTION #295 (March 2013) and THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF SCIENCE FICTION #335 (July 2016)....


Still Pulling This Train:  Harlan Ellison’s PULLING A TRAIN and GETTING IN THE WIND

by Robert Guffey

  
Bearing titles with deliciously lascivious double entendres, Harlan Ellison’s latest story collections—Pulling a Train:  Violent Stories of Naked Passions and Getting in the Wind:  More Stories By a Very Young Harlan Ellison—are dark twins linked by the common themes of erotic violence and violent eroticism. 

Though well-known for having written such classic short stories as “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” (1965), “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” (1967), “Grail” (1981), and “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore” (1992), Ellison began his career in the late 1950s churning out penny-a-word pulp stories for men’s magazines such as Guilty, Manhunt and Trapped.  Considered pornographic upon their original 1959 paperback release, under the title Sex Gang, the stories featured in Pulling a Train and Getting in the Wind have been resurrected by Brooklyn-based Kicks Books publisher Miriam Linna (a former musician who once performed with such punk bands as The Cramps and Nervous Rex).  Intended as nothing more than space-filler for long-deceased “he-man publications” such as Knave, Rogue and Caper, these tales have risen like a perverted phoenix from the puritanical ashes of 1950s moral strictures.  Both books are fascinating time capsules.  What must have seemed like standard softcore porn in 1959 now emerge in the 21st century as historical records of the cultural mores of midcentury America and the ever-shifting borders between what’s considered decency and degeneracy in mainstream culture. 

If titillation alone had been the main impetus of these stories, then reprinting them now would be a waste of time.  But Harlan Ellison, even in his early 20s, was too talented to take the easy way out of any assignment no matter how perfunctory it may have seemed at the time.  In his entertaining introduction to Pulling a Train (entitled “Inescapable Cemeteries”), Ellison calls these “zilch” stories “crude,” and of course they are.  And yet the overall  tone of the stories are permeated with an offbeat world weariness, genuine schadenfreude, unusual for a young writer fresh out of Ohio who somehow found himself in the 1950s Big Apple cranking out one-handed reads to make ends meet.  It’s this curiously dark tone that lifts the material above its utilitarian roots. 

The centerpiece of Pulling a Train is a lurid novella entitled “Sex Gang,” a hardboiled crime story about an eighteen-year-old thug named Deek Cullen who seems to be at the end of his rope when we’re first introduced to him and quickly descends—inch by painful inch—deeper into darkness as the tale progresses.  Cullen’s desperation is palatable and effectively conveyed through Ellison’s staccato, stripped-down prose as the protagonist becomes unwillingly involved with an all-girl gang who spend their empty days stalking the mean streets of New York and raping virile young men like Deek in their spare time.  Though the novella was “written for a buck” (as Ellison says in his intro) at lightning speed, nonetheless one can’t help but feel for Cullen’s confusion and his utter inability to escape the tragic fate that awaits him.  Ostensibly aimed at male readers, from the perspective of the present day one might nonetheless interpret this quasi-noir tale of sudden and near-inexplicable violence as a proto-feminist manifesto, Valerie-Solanas-style, almost ten years ahead of its time.  Its blood-spattered plot twists, interspersed with tough-talking knockout Amazons, prefigure the self-aware, self-mocking tone of Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 film, Death Proof.  Indeed, while reading “Sex Gang,” I couldn’t help but think that this is the stuff Quentin Tarantino probably dreams about writing.  (I also couldn’t help but think that “Sex Gang” would make a fascinating 21st century film, if adapted properly—or perhaps “improperly” would be the apt word in this context.)

The most intriguing stories in both Pulling a Train and Getting in the Wind are those that merge pornography with noir strains:  the aforementioned “Sex Gang,” “A Girl Named Poison,” “Dead Wives Don’t Cheat,” and “Carrion Flesh.”  All four of these pessimistic tales have not been in print since their original appearance in 1959 and are worth the price of admission alone. 

After finishing these two books at a fast clip, I pulled out my copy of Leslie Swigart’s exhaustive (and now very rare) 1973 bibliography of Ellison’s works entitled Harlan Ellison:  A Bibliographical Checklist, and uncovered references to many other early Ellison tales that—to my knowledge—have never been reprinted since their original publication in the 1950s pulp magazines that spawned them.  These stories bear such wonderfully over-the-top titles as “Psycho at Midpoint,” “Homicidal Maniac,” “Scum Town,” “Glug,” “Satan Is My Ally,” “Only Death Can Stop It,” and “A Corpse Can Hate.”  One can only hope that the release of Pulling a Train and Getting in the Wind might soon lead to the resurrection of these other lost gems from America’s pop cultural past. 

To order either Pulling a Train or Getting in the Wind, visit the publisher’s website by clicking HERE. 


A Cabinet of Wonders:  Harlan Ellison's CAN & CAN’TANKEROUS

 

by Robert Guffey


Harlan Ellison’s latest short story collection, Can & Can’tankerous, is nothing less than a cabinet of wonders built by a demented magician—a box filled to bursting with carnivalesque impossibilities such as doomed and/or omnipotent homunculi, conquering alien imps who unknowingly help the human race while trying to destroy it, time travelling super models, beneficent rubber ducks, Martian sex slaves, phantom cartographers, the 1948 Cleveland Indians, at least twenty-six different brands of mythological beings, and (thrown in for good measure) the ghost of Satchel Paige.  This collection of ten short stories published between 1956 and 2012 spans an impressive array of genres, time periods, worlds, and emotions.

As with his previous books, such as the classic collections Deathbird Stories (1975) and Angry Candy (1988), Ellison is able to gracefully segue from one genre to another within only a few pages—sometimes within the same story.  For example, the third offering in the book, “Objects of Desire in the Mirror Are Closer than They Appear,” combines classic science fiction tropes with a heavily noirish atmosphere, creating a hybrid that somehow looks and feels nothing like the parent-genres that breathed it into existence in the first place. 

The centerpiece of the book, a 15,000-word novella entitled “The Toad Prince, or, Sex Queen of the Martian Pleasure-Domes,” is a near-impossibility:  an impressive feat of close-up magic that excels at pulse-pounding science fiction adventure redolent of 1950s pulp stereotypes while succeeding in being a satirical deconstruction of those same well-worn clich├ęs.  As I avidly read the planet-hopping adventures of Sarna (Our Hero), a Terran prostitute trapped in a world of sex-crazed Martians, for some reason my brain insisted on imagining this epic as a graphic novel drawn by the late sui generis artist Moebius, who often combined cosmic vistas, blatantly sexual themes, and Golden Age science fiction tropes in his own unforgettable stories.  (Hollywood producers, please take note:  If not a comic book, this novella would also make a wonderful animated movie in the style of such borderline-psychedelic SF films as Fantastic Planet and Heavy Metal.)

For the purists among you who have an inherent distaste for Golden Age retro themes in your genre of choice, rest assured that this collection of stories includes at least four Master Class tales that are as accomplished as the best short fiction produced in America during the past two decades:  “How Interesting:  A Tiny Man” (which won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story in 2011), a wildly inventive—and oddly affecting—twist on the age-old concept of the golem; “Incognita, Inc.,” a melancholy tale about an old man responsible for creating the maps that have led countless generations of adventurers to the lands of myth and legend, a deft parable that can ultimately be seen as a wistful meditation on the death (and, one hopes, rebirth) of the imagination in our overly commodified society; “He Who Grew Up Reading Sherlock Holmes,” a devilishly clever jigsaw puzzle of a tale that compels you to begin rereading it the second you’ve finished the final sentence; and “Goodbye to All That,” an absurdist fantasy that has the fearless audacity to create a scenario that can only be resolved by revealing the Ultimate Punchline to the Ultimate Joke… and, in the end, despite this ostensibly impossible-to-overcome buildup, somehow manages to be funny

“Goodbye to All That” is also noteworthy in that it expands on Ellison’s ongoing obsession with Lost World scenarios, a type of story rarely attempted these days; in fact, one could say it’s an extinct subgenre.  Ellison’s contributions are unique in that these types of exotic adventures, whether novelistic or cinematic, tend to be epic in nature, e.g., H. Rider Haggard’s She (1887) or Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s King Kong (1933).  Ellison’s Lost World stories, however, compress such sweeping narratives into only a few pages.  Some of the most memorable tales in Ellison’s 1997 collection, Slippage, played with Lost World scenarios in a variety of fascinating ways (e.g., “Darkness Upon the Face of the Deep,” “Chatting with Anubis,” and “Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral”). 

Several of the stories in Can & Can’tankerous flirt with this venerable Lost World concept, e.g., “From A to Z, in the Sarsaparilla Alphabet,” “Incognita, Inc.,” and “Goodbye to All That.”  I suspect “Goodbye to All That” was inspired by a juxtaposition of two wildly different narratives:  James Hilton’s bestselling 1933 novel Lost Horizon, perhaps the most famous Lost World story of the twentieth century (the protagonist of “Goodbye to All That” is named Colman, no doubt in honor of Ronald Colman, the star of Frank Capra’s 1937 film adaptation of Lost Horizon) and Robert Sheckley’s antic 1976 Playboy story “What Is Life?” in which an explorer treks to a mountaintop in the Himalayas only to be confronted by an invisible deity who demands that the intruder provide him with the ultimate answer to the ultimate question.  In “Goodbye to All That” Ellison manages to trump Sheckley’s insanely clever solution to an impossible scenario (I won’t spoil the punchline to Sheckley’s story in case you’ve never read it, but it can be found in his 1978 short story collection entitled The Robot Who Looked Like Me).

Overall, Can & Can’tankerous is a worthy follow-up to Ellison’s Slippage, his last book of “previously uncollected, precariously poised stories.”  The wonders in this particular magic cabinet are just as precariously poised (perhaps even more so), in the sense that they seem simultaneously familiar and unpredictable, graceful and unbalanced, logical and irrational—a genuine paradox, perhaps the greatest magic trick of all.

To order Can & Can’tankerous, visit the publisher’s website by clicking HERE.

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