Harlan was a giant squeezed into a 5’5″ frame, and what you felt around him was a sense of that energy compressed. He was the first human being I’d met at his level of energy and integration. And…I was fascinated.
I’d read his articles in the Free Press in the late 60’s, heard him on the radio, seen him on television, and read his stories in Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, as well as a collection of shorts I’d picked up in a used book store. And wow, that episode of THE OUTER LIMITS, “Demon With A Glass Hand” in 1964 was just amazing television. I was twelve years old. Mind blown.
One person did all of this? One person was such an astute observer of society, such a blazingly original fiction voice, such an unapologetic and combative defender of Truth, however he saw it?
Of course I didn’t agree with him on everything–especially not everything that was his “act” as opposed to his private presence. He performed The Harlan Show with diabolical precision and presence. But I wasn’t fooled by that…I knew there was more, and wanted to find out what it was.
I stalked him. Not at his home. Every time there was a public event, a speech or roundtable or interview, ANYTHING, I attended. Sat in the first row. Asked polite questions. I knew that, given time, he’d start to wonder who I was. And…it worked. Over time, we began to exchange words, and then polite conversation. Yes, there was a day I decided to try the Fast Gun, and at another time I’ll tell you how effortlessly he took me down. I’ll say only that it didn’t sting: I’d learned something I needed to know.
What was it? That Harlan’s verbal reaction speed was uncanny. The reaction went from brain to mouth with no pause at common sense. Pure survival flash, and I recognized it. Martial artists who have either trained like Shaolin Monks, been in combat, boxed at competition level, been in countless street fights…or were abused as children and re-integrated successfully react with that speed. Dangerous as hell. When combined with real technique? Lethal.
Harlan’s mind was Shaolin-level conceptual/verbal kung fu, there is no doubt. But there was something else…he was the first person I’d had a chance to study who revealed what I call the “Chinese Puzzle Ball” effect.
Know those carved wooden puzzle balls, concentric skeletal shells you can rotate to stick a pencil through? Real fun. Well…most people’s creativity, or sexuality, or combative spark or “genius” is like that. They have to have the lights, and music, and talk, and environment JUST RIGHT and you can access what Harlan called “the burning core.”
And…some people are like those annoying prodigies who can solve Rubik’s cubes while juggling them. Ugh. Harlan could go into “flow” harder than anyone I’d ever seen. That’s what the “write a story in a store window” thing was, to me. Like meditating in a room full of hungry cats. That was a hell of a mind. I’m not surprised that he trained for a time with Bruce Lee, and man, do I wish I’d been a fly on the wall during one of THOSE sessions. And yes, we talked about that. Another time.
I wanted to tell you about the most meaningful interaction I had with Harlan. He knew damned well how much I admired him, and it seemed to me that when people were sincere, and not fawning but genuinely respectful, he rewarded that frank and honest emotion by dropping the “HARLAN!” act. Then he, like other masters I’ve known, was just a man walking a road one day at a time. Bradbury, Inosanto, Butler, Niven, Muhammad, Stewart, Spielberg, Bill Nolan…I’ve encountered this before, a combination of humbleness and supreme confidence. And appreciation of anyone who finds the same road of fascinating interest.
Remember the definition of Mastery? Once you have the basics, and have committed to your path for a lifetime, you are as much a “Master” as anyone else on the road…even if they are horizons beyond you. They have a real sense of that path between the Child and the Elder. Harlan’s “child” was an adorable six-year old, and anyone who tried to fuck with him ran into the most terrifying Tiger Daddy imaginable.
But what he really wanted was playmates. I knew that we liked each other, but I wasn’t remotely at the same level as a writer. Horizons distant, he was.
I published my first solo novel, STREETLETHAL, in 1983. It was a shaky time in my relationship with Nicki’s mom Toni, and I was living by myself in the San Fernando Valley on a street called Hayvenhurst. I was hanging on to my sense of possibility by a fingernail–terrified about that first solo effort (DREAM PARK had been an enormous success. THE DESCENT OF ANANSI had been a painful, humiliating experience I barely survived.)
So when Jim Baen outbid Susan Allison for my freshman solo, it felt like all the world was opening itself to me…but also my every nerve felt exposed and vulnerable. I made sure that Beth Meacham, my wonderful editor, sent Harlan a galley (other readers included Norman Spinrad and Gordon Dickson), and I remember the day I got a call from Harlan saying that he’d received a copy and liked the first page…it reminded him of his own work.
Cue optimistic music. About three days later, it was raining out. About eight o’clock on a very dark, cold, drizzly evening and I was alone at home. The phone rang and it was Harlan. His voice sounded pained, like a family doctor about to read a regrettable diagnosis. “Steve..?” he said. “Is it too late to stop publication..?”
I sat on the floor in my living room, listening to my hero tell me all the reasons why the book…just wasn’t good. I could hear the deep regret in his voice. There was NO cruelty there, just advice for a kid stumbling behind, far far behind, on the road.
When I hung up the phone, I broke down and sobbed. Yeah, it was too late to stop publication, even if I’d wanted to. It wasn’t that I believed everything he said. It was that I didn’t have the strength to totally discount it either, and his opinions allied themselves with my own demons.
Some years later, because my Hollywood agent Marvin Moss packaged “The Twilight Zone” reboot for CBS with uber-producer Phil DeGuirre, an (unproduced) script I’d done for The Disney Channel passed the story editor’s desk. They liked it, and we met in a room at the Beverly Garland Hotel. DeGuirre, Jim Crocker, Dorothy Fontana, and…Harlan Ellison.
“How did you get here, Steve?” he asked with genuine curiosity. He listened, smiled as he munched a Danish, and said, “well, kid…don’t look behind you. Just keep running.”
I did. I ran as fast as I could, trying to keep up with the big dogs. Couldn’t quite do it, and when I wrote my second episode, an adaptation of Rober Silverberg’s TO SEE THE INVISIBLE MAN, Harlan read my first draft and as kindly as possible, expressed disappointment, walking me through the process of creating a series of visual images that express the plot and themes of the work. THAT was my job as a screenwriter. And…I hadn’t done it. I was better than I’d been, but still not good enough.
I survived that experience, and soldiered on. Years passed, and we got to know each other better, and I was always careful to be as genuine, honest, friendly, helpful and “fun” as I could be. Not always easy…but this isn’t the time for those thoughts. I’ll just say that my times with him were a beautiful thing. I’d never thought to be actual friends with this Celestial Being I’d worshipped from afar as a kid. And that house on the hill! Good Lord. Harlan’s house was like his head, turned inside out. Chock A Block with souvenirs and posters and rooms designed by Will Eisner, and others hidden away from sight…with histories I won’t discuss now, but let’s just say that although he was never into drugs or alcohol the 60’s were very, very good to Uncle Harlan.
At his front door is a plaque that says: ELLISON WONDERLAND. DIG…OR SPLIT.
When THE OUTER LIMITS was rebooted in 1995, I was stoked–it had been one of my all time favorite shows, and I pitched an idea called “Recidivist” about a time-traveling serial killer. They loved it, retitled it “A Stitch In Time” and I wrote my ass off.
There is a simple truth I hold as gospel: If you get up to bat enough times, eventually you’ll get a hit. Keep hitting…and one day you’ll hit a home run, and you’ll know when the vibration hits your hands.
I was so proud of that episode. And…called Harlan. Asked him if he’d seen it.
Understand this: much as with Octavia Butler (who Harlan discovered and sponsored to Clarion) Harlan liked ME better than he liked my writing. I appreciated that, and knew that he was honest with me–it was a compliment, I felt. He knew that I really wanted to BE good. I didn’t want to just “think” I was good.
So…I swallowed and listened for his answer. Nope, he hadn’t seen it. Could I send him a copy?
I did. VHS. And about a week later I got another call from him.
“Barnes,” he asked. “Was that your script?”
“They didn’t rewrite all over it?”
Nope. Some small changes. My words, characters, images, plot. All of it.
“Well…you did it. This shit smokes. It is original, and important. You pulled the plow, kid.”
And…it felt as if a raven flew out of my chest. I’d done it. After all this time. I had fallen in love with Harlan Ellison with an Outer Limits episode. And he had finally seen me educe from within my own burning core the quality I’d always dreamed of…in an Outer Limits episode. I’d solved the Puzzle Ball, at last. Just once, maybe. But even if you are consumed, it is worth it to touch the sun. Even just once.
Life has a lovely symmetry sometimes, does it not?
I loved that man. I saw in him the same human potential so many of us have, and so few ever explore. There was NOTHING there discontinuous with the rest of us, and I think that was part of what drove him nuts, made him so volatile. A sense that life was so short, love so precious, art so important. God DAMN it!
His every word seemed to scream WAKE UP!!!
Will you not be kind to each other? Why aren’t you sprinting toward your dreams with everything you have? What the FUCK is wrong with you? Don’t you know the night is coming? You think life is a dress rehearsal?
Harlan burned his candle at both ends, with a blowtorch in the middle. Flawed and screwed up, he was. Because he was a real human being, trying to live in the eye of a creative storm called THE HARLAN ELLISON SHOW that he put on for the public…and if he occasionally forgot it was a role? Well…I can forgive him for that.
He was the most “himself” human being I may have ever met, the simple result of having the courage to say what is really in your mind…and the brilliance of having something to say worth hearing…combined with the work ethic of a titan on amphetamines.
Here’s to you, my friend. Whatever doubts and regrets you may have had, know that to me you will always be what you aspired to be: that crazy combination of Zorro and Jiminy Cricket.
You pulled the plow, kid.
Namaste and Farewell…