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Strange Wine by Harlan Ellisonshort story collection
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Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsI keep telling myself, as I prepare to write this review, that I am not going to add to the wealth of opinion, favorable and un-, that has already been voiced over the years regarding the phenomenon we have known as Harlan Ellison. But then again, such a conceit is pretty self-deluding. Suffice it to say that, like some of you, I often find it hard to separate the man, the flamboyant and abrasive yet almost demonically charming public persona, from his writing, considering the latter with as objective an eye as possible. Ellison the Celebrity always takes center stage.

I find Ellison more irritating than likable, I fear. I cannot deny his importance to the genre’s development and history. Like many of you, I have seen him work his magic at conventions, standing on stage before thousands of enthralled fans and basking in cheers and standing ovations. And yet Ellison is so much like a TV evangelist in that regard. His undeniable charisma and ability to work a crowd masks a character given to self-aggrandizement and outright dishonesty. Vide his shameful history regarding the now-mythic anthology The Last Dangerous Visions, which for decades Ellison swore had just been dropped off to the publisher that day, when in fact the hundreds of stories he had bought were languishing somewhere in his office, never to see the sun. Or the ridiculous episode involving a physical altercation some years ago with author Charles Platt. Ellison, according to witnesses (particularly Frederik Pohl), smacked Platt in the jaw over something of trivial consequence at a Nebula banquet. Ellison later apologized to Platt, sort of, in a personal letter, and then both men signed an agreement never to have anything to do with one another again, and never to discuss the affair in any forum. And yet, years later, Ellison was regaling his usual auditoriumful of fans about the time he laid Charles Platt out. “I punched behind that motherfucker,” Ellison is quoted as saying. I’m sorry, but for a 60-year-old man to brag (and lie) about fisticuffs is not merely dishonorable, it’s disgracefully childish.

Okay, so Ellison can be a jerk. What’s new under the sun? Little, but you can understand me when I say that, in reviewing his stories, his reputation perforce precedes him. There’s no way around it. And I find in some of his stories, the “victim of the schoolyard bullies” aspect of Ellison’s persona comes to the fore more often than not. Ellison’s tales are often bravura, quasi-adolescent spasms of sheer emotion, as if from an unhappy child who is begging, demanding approval and attention. It is sometimes a gripping spectacle, but not always, it must be said, literature. Ellison has proclaimed himself, whenever anyone will sit still enough to listen, a “master storyteller.” He demanded this appellation on his book cover bios. But, just as Michael Jackson crowned himself the “King of Pop” and had the British Music Awards create a new category (Artist of a Generation) just for him, it takes more than hyperbolic egoism to make you the thing you want to be. The work must earn you the title. Does Ellison’s? Nope. He is often a fine storyteller, but a “master”? Not by a longshot. Although this collection does contain an enjoyable and relevant introduction (Ellison’s intros are widely held to be the most entertaining things in his books, and I’m not inclined to disagree) lamenting illiteracy, the stories he offers up here run the gamut from brilliance to bullshit. When Ellison is good, he is very very good, but when he’s bad... hoo boy.

Which is a comment you could make about almost any author today. Ellison has written some fine tales in his time, but to be perfectly fair, whether he is or isn’t a “master storyteller” like his idol Borges isn’t really for him to decide.

Repugnant story about a man who chases an aborted fetus he has just flushed down the commode into the NYC sewers, where he makes a startling (and absurd) discovery. Isn’t that special? Perhaps David Cronenberg could pull this kind of thing off, but why? Title comes from the legend of a 16th century Virginia colony whose inhabitants vanished without trace; what it has to do with this story is anyone’s guess.

I suppose every writer has to write a story about a writer with writer’s block, so here’s Ellison’s. A gifted and successful young author feels the well run dry before turning 30, yet just as he’s on the brink of hopeless depression, along come a group of gremlins who take over his typewriter for him. Enjoyable for its uncharacteristic (for Ellison) lightheartedness, rather than for anything resembling originality.

A toy company executive kills a female colleague (his ex-lover) whom he suspects is trying to sabotage his career...then she turns up at work the next morning just fine! At first I thought this was developing into a brilliant story of obsession and madness, with a protagonist for whom the boundaries between fantasy and reality were cracking. Then Ellison shoots it all to hell with a preposterous, O. Henry-esque surprise ending that literalizes the whole thing in the dumbest manner you can imagine. What a waste! Still, the passages concerning toy test marketing, derived from real-life cases, are interesting.

MOM ★★★
Ghost of a Jewish mother continues to nag (nuhdz) her long-suffering son. A one-joke story, but told lovingly and wittily. This was Ellison’s tribute, after a fashion, to his own mother.

Unpleasant and ham-handed allegory about, well, fear, in which a man and a woman live deep underground in a chamber surrounded by a labyrinth which is prowled by a monster called K.

Emotionally moving but intellectually and philosophically shallow fable about cosmic injustice. A woman wrongly executed for multiple murder escapes Hell and manages to visit her lover, who really did the deed, in Heaven. After the initial poignancy fades, you realize this is just as manipulative as any Hollywood movie. Ellison says he wrote this entirely impromptu over a live radio broadcast during which listeners could call in with suggestions: end result seems a bit too polished to support such bragadoccio, though, knowing Ellison and his public stunt-writing, it probably happened just as he says.

Definite oddity commissioned by Terry Carr for Universe 6. Even the ludicrous title was concocted because Carr told Ellison “long titles are in this year.” A vast panoply of aliens attend a gathering on a distant world. One delivers disturbing news about the universe’s fate. Ellison swears this has a happy ending, but it kind of seems like a shaggy dog joke to me. Judge for yourself.

One of Ellison’s famed written-in-a-bookshop-window stories. This is actually 26 little story pastiches, inspired by a piece of comic book art done by a friend. Each letter of the alphabet is given a nonsense word and a paragraph-length tale, some of which are truly startling, others hilarious. So it’s a stunt more than a story, but an undeniably amazing stunt. You won’t find anything in fantasy fiction quite like this.

Suitably grim story about loneliness, clearly a product of its time (the mid-’70s, when the sexual revolution was still in full swing). Works much better as an allegory than, say, “In Fear of K.” Also succeeds due to its five-page brevity. Ellison is in top form in these brief tales of profound inner turmoil. Interestingly, it was first published in a convention program book.

From the sublime to the ridiculous. Laughably serious fable in which the Pied Piper (yes, that Pied Piper) comes to Earth in the late 21st century to warn us we’d better stop destroying the planet or else.

Verrry broad farce in which Ellison casts himself as pint-sized superhero Cordwainer Bird, out to vanquish the forces of evil who reign over publishing and bookselling. Funny for about four pages, then just gets monotonous and silly. Nonetheless, it offers a revealing insight into Ellison’s character, particularly his career-long unfulfilled desire to write major bestsellers.

Evocative but grim and unredeeming SF-horror novellette, set in a far future Arctic colony, in which an avaricious dowager arranges for the kidnapping of a young woman gifted with genetically ultra-rare “forever eyes,” that can see much more than ordinary light, in order for these eyes to be transplated into her own head. Ultraviolent and nasty, as I suppose good horror ought to be, but its grungy mise-en-scene seems Blade Runner-ishly old hat today, and there are frankly no sympathetic or remotely appealing characters at all. This is the kind of thing Clive Barker might have churned out for one of his lesser Books of Blood volumes.

One of the most effective and chilling stories in the whole book, and it’s only four pages. A man has nightmarish visions of dead Nazi war criminals. A short, sharp shock. This is the stuff.

Willis Kaw is one hard-luck guy. His daughter is killed in a wreck, his son is paralyzed, and on top of that, he thinks he’s an alien! You’ll never guess how it ends... Supposedly the theme here is that one must soldier on through life’s trevails, because there’s always some poor schmoe who has it worse. I feel better already!

Nifty black-comedy variation on Faust, in which the title character, a secretive and beautiful woman, periodically injects her patients with doses of death, so they will build up a tolerance. As predictable as rain in Seattle, but it evokes an enjoyably sinister mood.