English: Harlan Ellison at the Harlan Ellison Roast. L.A. Press Club July 12, 1986. Los Angeles , California. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I heard today that Harlan Ellison has had a stroke. His mind’s still going strong, thank goodness. I think it’s time to write about him, since I’ve been amazed by his talent, intelligence, wit and depth of character for most of my life.
I started reading science fiction when I was in the third grade, which was when I was either 7 or 8 years old, and I got hooked for life. A few years later I encountered Harlan Ellison’s stories for the first time and became an instant fan.
As I learned more about him I admired him more. Here was someone who stood up for his principles regardless of the cost, and who would never compromise just to make things easier. On anyone. He clearly had an intelligence and a level of fearlessness far above those of mere mortals.
My father, a professor of 18th century English literature and ordinarily not much in tune with contemporary writing, heard about Ellison’s victory over Frank Sinatra and cheered. He didn’t know who exactly Harlan Ellison was, but if he could stand up to a notorious show business bully and win, he must be Someone indeed. For once in my life I could talk about a literary figure from experience my father did not share. That felt good.
I had hoped someday to be able to meet Mr. Ellison, but it didn’t seem likely. I did not go places he was likely to be, and vice versa. When I heard he was in poor health I thought it even less likely that we’d ever meet.
And then everything changed. In January, I received an invitation to David Gerrold’s birthday party. I’ve known David for many years but never would have guessed that I was high enough up the friends list to merit an invitation. After I picked myself up off the floor, I accepted. I’m a sociable person, to be sure, but I don’t go out a lot and hadn’t been to a party of any kind other than family events for longer than I can remember. It was somewhat daunting to consider.
For a number of years I’ve been subject to occasional vertigo attacks of varying intensity, everything from “I can’t get up off the floor, so don’t ask” to “OK, I’ll stagger if I move suddenly but I can function.” The day of the party I woke up with that familiar spinning feeling. Oh crap. As the day went on it was clear that it was a minor attack, but still, for any other activity I would have called in sick with regrets. Not this time. This was truly a once in a lifetime event and by golly I was going to suck it up, take some Antivert and go.
I’m not a name dropper so I’ll just say that I saw and talked with a whole galaxy of superluminaries, and those were just the people I recognized. There were many more whom I would surely have known, but I thought it would be tacky to go around asking “Who’s that” all over the place. I gathered up my nerve, approached some of the people I did recognize, waited for a suitable break in the conversation, introduced myself and made a few “lordy, I hope this is not too inane” comments before leaving the celebrities in peace. After a while, I got some food from the buffet and sat down at a table full of congenial people and introduced myself and sat back to enjoy the conversation.
A little later, I noticed Harlan Ellison in the next room. Oh my god. Harlan Ellison. Well, there was just no way I was going to walk up to HIM and introduce myself. Uh uh. Because I knew what would happen if I made any stupid remarks, he’d eviscerate me on the spot. He suffers fools not at all. Some of the people at the table knew Harlan and we chatted a bit about him. Then I got up to go to the bathroom, telling the lady on my right that I’d be right back.
When I got back, there was Harlan Ellison sitting in the chair I had left. I stopped dead. What was I going to do? He got to a break in the conversation, or so I thought, and looked at me. So, under the influence of dizziness and drugs, I began as bravely as I could, “Hello, Mr. Ellison, my name is Marte…” and he snapped back “You’re interrupting me!”
If my brain had been working at anything approaching normal speed I would have made some mild comment like “Well, you did take my chair.” But all I could do was gasp and say “I’m sorry.” The lady on my right said something to me and I replied to her and Harlan snapped “You’re still interrupting me!” I did manage to say “I was talking with her,” but that got a “It doesn’t matter, you’re still interrupting!”
OK, so at that point I did what any sentient being with a few functioning brain cells would do–I went and found somewhere else clear across the patio to sit quietly by myself.
A few minutes later, I was very surprised to hear Harlan call over to me, “Sorry, Marte!” I smiled, waved a hand and called back that I was OK. Which I mostly was.
Later, as I was wending my way to the bathroom again I passed Harlan talking with a group of people. He said “Hello, Marte!”
I said, somewhat nervously, “Hello, Mr. Ellison.”
“Oh,” he said, “you don’t have to call me that. You can call me king, or emperor…”
“Whatever you say!” I said, trying to sound un-flustered.
“Oh no, no, I would never say that.” (and no, I wouldn’t.)
At that point someone else came along to talk with Harlan and I escaped to the bathroom. And I didn’t really get a chance to talk with him again. But what could I have said, anyway? That I’d admired him for most of my life? Would that have sounded like a comment on our relative ages? (He is, after all, a mere 16 years older than I am) Honestly, I don’t know what I would have said. I felt it was best not to try. Better not to irritate him again, and thus part on good terms between author and fan.
Not long after that, David cut the cake, I ate my share, and headed for home. I was exhausted and spinning and just hoped that the GPS would guide me safely home, which it did. I conked out and slept for 14 hours after that and woke up the next day with only a little vertigo and a lot of memories that still make me blink to this day.
Thank you, David, for a once in a lifetime invitation. And thank you, Harlan, for everything you are and everything you have done or will do. May you recover swiftly and take arms against the world again. Soon.
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