"Fight the power! Stick it to the man! And git off my lawn you dern kids!"
Harlan Ellison is a fantastic author. "Jeffty is Five," "The Deathbird," "A Boy And His Dog," "I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream," - brilliant tales that can hang with the best of science fiction and horror. He's expanded into the world of television, with Outer Limits and Star Trek episodes to his name (albeit significantly altered in the latter case), as well as video games, as in I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream. He deserves praise for some of the most iconic pieces of post-apocalyptic science-fiction cinema, be it in inspiration as in The Terminator, or in adaptations like A Boy and his Dog. I'll always feel tremendously saddened that his adaptation of I, Robot was never filmed, especially considering that other one that came out.
Almost as famous as Ellison's stories is his penchant for controversy. Harlan Ellison is a man clearly unafraid to speak his mind - almost a man afraid not to speak his mind. He's outspoken, forthright and downright abrasive, and makes no apologies for it. Whether one agrees or disagrees, one certainly can't fail to take notice of him.
However, like many opinionated authors, he sometimes comes up with stuff that's just plain wrong. Eh, nobody's perfect.
A while back, I mentioned Ellison being in my bad books for calling Howard insane. I couldn't find the source for the longest time, but thanks to a little Google-fu, I tracked it down: the following is from an interview in Comics Journal 53. However, it wasn't Ellison that sued anyone for comparison to Howard, but Michael Fleisher. Yes, that Michael Fleisher.
Here's the relevent part, with profanity starred:
What's interesting is that the thing that makes Fleisher's stuff interesting was the same reason Robert E. Howard was interesting and nobody else can imitate him. Because Howard was crazy as a bed bug. He was insane. This was a man who was a huge bear of a man, what had these great dream fantasies of barbarians and mightily thewed warriors and Celts and Vikings and riding in the Arabian desert and Almuric, Conan, Kull, and all these weird ooky-booky words. He lived in Cross Plains, Texas in the middle of the Depression, and he never went more than 20 or 30 miles from his home. He lived with he mother until his mother died and then he went down and sat in his car and blew his brains out. Now, that's a sick person. This is not a happy, adjusted person. That shows up in Howard's work. You car read a Conan story as opposed to -- I mean, even as good as Fritz Leiber is, Fritz is logical and sane and a nice man. Or take the lesser writers, all the guys who do the Conan rip-offs and imitations, which are such garbage, because all they are are manque. They can't imitate Howard because they're not crazy. They're just writers writing stories because they admired Howard, but they don't understand you have to be bugf*** to write that way. Lovecraft - you can tell a Lovecraft story from a Ramsey Campbell story, from all the rest of those shlobos trying to imitate him, all the nameless yutzes shrieking like Lovecraft, they still have not got the lunatic mentality of Lovecraft. And the same for Fleisher. He really is a derange-o. And as a consequence, he is probably the only one writing who is interesting. The Spectre stuff was f*****' blood-chilling, which it was supposed to be. I mean, he really did the Spectre, man. For the first time since the '40s, that goddamn strip was dynamite. And the first time they looked at what they were publishing, they said, "My God, we have turned loose this lunatic on the world," and they ran him off. And that was a shame because Fleisher should have been kept on the Spectre FOREVER. It was just the most perfectly nauseous ghoulish thing for him.
Well. All I can say is, I'm sorry Mr Ellison, but...
Let's take it one at a time, shall we?
Howard was crazy as a bed bug. He was insane.
I should point out that Ellison calls people insane about as often as he swears, so don't think he's singling Howard out, by any means. As we see, he also calls Lovecraft a "lunatic," Steve Gerber "insane" in the opening statement of the interview, and Giger he calls "deranged." All I can say is that for a guy who is infamous for his public outbursts and very weird moments, who's written quite possibly the sickest, darkest, cruelest, most dementedly evil story I've ever read, Mr Ellison really should think twice before calling someone else crazy as a bed bug. And I mean that with all respect in the world. Howard and Lovecraft were masters of horror, but even at their darkest, they were never as perverse, oppressive or mean-spirited as Ellison in "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream." Take note that that particular story was written 12 years before this interview takes place.
I'm also not a fan of the matter-of-fact statement that Howard was insane, as if he's saying The Sky Is Blue or Water Is Wet, but hey, Ellison's a forthright guy.
This was a man who was a huge bear of a man, what had these great dream fantasies of barbarians and mightily thewed warriors and Celts and Vikings and riding in the Arabian desert and Almuric, Conan, Kull, and all these weird ooky-booky words.
... Conan, a common Scottish/Irish name, most famous as Arthur Doyle's middle name, is a "weird ooky-booky word"? There's that "mightily thewed" again, a phrase which occurs once in a single Conan story, not even used to describe Conan. But I can't criticize overmuch, since it's here that I understand Ellison is actually praising Howard, in his own roundabout way. He's saying that crazy is sort of a good thing, at least when it comes to producing action literature. It's kind of striking that all the things to come are from the point of view of a man who might consider himself a fan of Howard. Considering some of the stuff professed fans have said over the years in all sincerity, it's a stark revelation for a modern reader such as myself.
He lived in Cross Plains, Texas in the middle of the Depression, and he never went more than 20 or 30 miles from his home.
Now, The Comics Journal #53 was printed back in January 1980, so we can possibly forgive Ellison for not knowing Howard, in fact, travelled substantially more than 20 or 30 miles from Cross Plains. As in, orders of magnitude further.
Still, let's crunch the numbers:
Cross Plains to Brownwood, Texas = 30 miles
Cross Plains to Peaster, Texas = 91 miles
Cross Plains to Fort Worth, Texas = 115 miles
Cross Plains to Austin, Texas = 153 miles
Cross Plains to San Antonio, Texas = 191 miles
Cross Plains to Carlsbad, New Mexico = 296 miles
Cross Plains to Santa Fe, New Mexico = 306 miles
Cross Plains to Galveston, Texas = 324 miles
Cross Plains to New Orleans = 558 miles
So you can see, even if we consider Howard's occassional trips to Brownwood, Howard traveled more than "20 or 30 miles" from his home, and in fact seems to have traveled not just hundreds, but thousands of miles over the course of his life. Again, this is a Depression-Era Texan we're talking about.
He lived with he mother until his mother died and then he went down and sat in his car and blew his brains out. Now, that's a sick person. This is not a happy, adjusted person.
Again, it's hard to blame Ellison himself for the grotesque simplification of Howard's suicide, considering that the Howard books being printed include such offensive biographical sketches, and they're supposed to be Howard's greatest defenders and fans! Likewise, suicide is obviously not something healthy, happy, adjusted people tend to do. However, I think there's a difference in degree between describing someone as suicidal, and describing someone as "buckf*** crazy." The latter conjures images of berserk sociopaths, paranoid conspiracy theorists, or deluded souls hallucinating the ghosts of dead warrior kings threatening them in the night. I also note that Ellison neglected to mention Howard's father, and the economic and social factors of the 1930s meaning that grown men living with their parents was not particularly uncommon, and certainly not grounds to consider mental health issues on its own.
That shows up in Howard's work. You car read a Conan story as opposed to -- I mean, even as good as Fritz Leiber is, Fritz is logical and sane and a nice man. Or take the lesser writers, all the guys who do the Conan rip-offs and imitations, which are such garbage, because all they are are manque. They can't imitate Howard because they're not crazy. They're just writers writing stories because they admired Howard, but they don't understand you have to be bugf*** to write that way.
There's that "you can't write as well as Howard because we're psychologically well-adjusted people." Strong words from the guy who wrote a detailed and horrific story about the unholy, cruel, systematic torture of the last few individuals on earth by a malevolent artificial intelligence who wants nothing more than to inflict the most depraved, sadistic, inhuman pain and suffering on five human beings to an extent that makes the likes of Ichi the Killer, Hostel, Wolf Creek, Saw, I Spit On Your Grave and other such appallingly shocking films seem like the cosiest episode of Last of the Summer Wine. (Seriously, if Ellison's going to call Howard "bugf*** insane" for his eccentricities and his stories, then I honestly can't see why I can't call Ellison bugf*** insane for IHNMAIMS and other such tales)
Once again, this can be traced back to the people in charge of Conan, where calling Howard crazy was in the very books that are seeking to use his character to make money. If those writers are saying they can't do a story because they weren't as "crazy" as Howard, then how can we expect Ellison to say otherwise? No, Mr Ellison, the likes of Nyberg, de Camp, Carter, Jordan et al cannot possibly write Conan stories that can even begin to compare with Howard's. But maybe - just maybe - that's because Howard wasn't crazier, but just because he knows how to write Conan, and they don't. Being the creator of the character and all that, you know?
Lest you think I'm just going to leap to Howard's defense, regardless of those naysayers who think trying to disprove myths and correct inaccuracies is somehow counterproductive to Howard's legacy, I have to note Ellison isn't that complementary to Lovecraft either:
Lovecraft - you can tell a Lovecraft story from a Ramsey Campbell story, from all the rest of those shlobos trying to imitate him, all the nameless yutzes shrieking like Lovecraft, they still have not got the lunatic mentality of Lovecraft.
Again, the man who wrote passages like this:
No, AM had given her pleasure, even if she said it wasn't nice to do. I was the only one still sane and whole. Really! AM had not tampered with my mind. Not at all. I only had to suffer what he visited down on us. All the delusions, all the nightmares, the torments. But those scum, all four of them, they were lined and arrayed against me. If I hadn't had to stand them off all the time, be on my guard against them all the time, I might have found it easier to combat AM. At which point it passed, and I began crying. Oh, Jesus sweet Jesus, if there ever was a Jesus and if there is a God, please please please let us out of here, or kill us. Because at that moment I think I realized completely, so that I was able to verbalize it: AM was intent on keeping us in his belly forever, twisting and torturing us forever. The machine hated us as no sentient creature had ever hated before. And we were helpless. It also became hideously clear: If there was a sweet Jesus and if there was a God, the God was AM.
Is calling Lovecraft the lunatic? I'm also uncomfortable lumping Ramsey Campbell in with the likes of Derleth and other Lovecraft pasticheurs, the same way I wouldn't dream of comparing Karl Edward Wagner to Steve Perry.
Anyway, the result of all this is that Fleisher was so distraught about the things Ellison said that he decided to sue him for libel. I note that one of the things that offended him was the comparison to Robert E. Howard:
The case sounded ridiculous. Harlan Ellison, interviewed by Gary Groth for The Comics Journal in 1979, had made a few offhand comments about the work of Michael Fleisher, author of the notoriously violent DC Comics Spectre series. Ellison said the series was "bugfuck"; you had to be crazy like Robert E. Howard or H.P. Lovecraft to write like that. Fleisher said he was "devastated and appalled" by Ellison's remarks, and decided to sue for libel.
Just a few short years later, Fleisher, who was absolutely appalled and outraged to be compared in "madness" to Robert E. Howard... went to work on the Conan the Barbarian comic. There he produced such peerless masterpieces as "Tower of Flame," where Conan wanders into an episode of Star Trek; "The Dark Blade of Jergal Zadh" featuring Conan getting addicted to an energy-draining magic sword that's not anything like Stormbringer, whatever makes you say such a thing; and "The Bird Men of Akah-Ma'at," a tale so silly and ludicrous that when Roy Thomas returned, he had no option but to turn it into a dream. You know, this lawsuit actually explains an awful lot about Fleisher's run, come to think of it.
Now, you wanna talk "Bugf*** crazy"...
Fleisher's returns showed an increase in gross writing income from about $27,000 in 1979 to $50,000 in 1983. In at least one instance he seemed to benefit from notoriety: after Ellison's interview compared his craziness to that of Robert E. Howard, Fleisher was commissioned to script a Conan comic...
Predictably, Mr Platt doesn't mention that Howard's perceived insanity may have been cause for libel in itself, but who cares about a long-dead author's reputation?
Now, it occurs to me that everything could just be hyperbole, that Ellison isn't actually trying to suggest that they, or Fleisher, are certifiable madmen who ought to be locked up for the good of humanity. That seems to have been the defense. At the same time, though, he must've known calling Fleisher a "derange-o" would've come back to bite him, especially considering - again, I hate to beat an immortal jelly-man - Ellison himself could be described as just as "crazy" as any of the authors he speaks of. And you know what? He might well agree, and take it as a compliment. Frankly, I might even mean it as a compliment.
Ellison's interview with The Comic Journal may have bothered me, but I find myself agreeing with the author who straddles the line between Angry Young Man and Curmodgeonly Old Fogey. There's this piece on the right for dead authors to have their work destroyed:
Now, I suppose someone who enjoys reading, who loves Miller's work, or Robert E . Howard's work, or even--on a warm day--Harlan Ellison's work, presumes to believe s/he is justified in assuaging his/her selfish need to have a moment more's enjoyment by championing the "right" of some parvenu ghoul of a literary grave-robber to misappropriate the efforts of a dead man or woman, for the self-gratification of a faceless, nameless audience. I tell you this from the heart: whoever it might be stoking that position on Usenet... you are wrong. You are smartass, and insolent, and offensive; you are wrongheaded, and lack even the vaguest understanding of the proprietary and primary interest of literary creations by the Author; you are selfish, and mingy, and have the soul of either a ribbon clerk, or a poltroon. You ought to be a high school corrections officer, or some narrow-eyed public official who spends all day stamping DENIED on applications for something-or-other. You are just simply, finally, full of rhino-turds, and I urge you to shut the f--- up and NEVER EVER AGAIN venture a moronic opinion such as this, in public or in private, lest a Real Writer overhear, and pound you into flinders.
I could point out the vague hypocrisy of the man who wrote a screenplay adaptation of I, Robot in accusing people of monkeying about with others' creations, but obviously screenplay adaptations are a different animal from literary continuations. I could also point out that Ellison need not worry about future hands messing with his work, because there's no way Robert Silverberg or whoever could match his writings. Why? "Because they're not as bugf*** crazy as Ellison is." I kid, I kid...
I both agree, and disagree. I disagree in the idea that nothing should ever be done with the literary works of great authors, or that they should never be completed: as experiments, explorations and oddities, they can be illuminating and interesting. However, under absolutely no circumstances should they ever be put on the same level as the author's original works. For most authors, this is pretty clear: you won't find Drood next to Charles Dickens in most shelves. With those authors whose creations hae been franchised, however, you might well find the works of Carpenter, Moore and Turtledove right next to Howard on a Conan shelf, or Salvatore, Farmer and Werper next to Burroughs on a Tarzan shelf. It's not always a good thing, and I'm eternally grateful the Tolkien estate have shown such mettle in resisting the call of officially sanctioned fan-fiction, considering it could end up as dire as the storylines in the many Lord of the Rings video games. Or Born of Hope.
Creating new stories and novels with the characters is also fine by me: look at A Study in Emerald and "The Problem of Susan," neither of which are, or should be, considered canon for the Cthulhu or Holmes mythoses, or Narnia. Just don't presume to put it in the same collection as the real deal, or place it on equal footing. That's the purist position: not that pastiches shouldn't exist, but that they shouldn't be considered any more "official" or "canon" than a story you wrote yourself. And, of course, Ellison's perfectly within his rights to have his fragments destroyed: it's his stuff, after all, and he can do what he likes with it.
Anyway, this turned into a bit of a rant. Suffice to say that although I disagree with Ellison's appraisal of Howard in this interview, I think it's actually, in a weird way, meant to be complimentary. It just kinda backfired, as such things are wont to do, like the time he groped Connie Willis at the Hugo Awards. "Well jeez, I thought you wouldn't understood that I didn't mean to grab you in a sexual way!"
A strange, strange man, but then again, strange men often come up with some great things. I suddenly want to read "Jeffty is Five" again. In addition to giving a lovely little shout-out to Howard, in the form of a never-never Conan novel called The Isle of the Black Ones (a sequel to "The Pool of the Black One," mayhap, or a revamped version of the infamous "Isle of the Eons" fragments?), it's a wonderful tale that's joyful and bittersweet in equal measure. Again, I could criticize the idea of the Conan stories being in any way suitable for five-year-olds, even precocious and intelligent ones like Jeffty, but I suppose it's no worse than when I watched Aliens. Just because it wasn't meant for children doesn't mean children can't enjoy it.
A weird note to end on, perhaps, but such is the nature of the very weird, and very wonderful, Harlan Ellison.