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People Top 5
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- December 02, 1985
- Vol. 24
- No. 23
Scarred by the Insults of Childhood, a Manic Fantasist Slashes Back at the World
"I love responding to idiots," says Ellison with a grin. "My mission in life is to point out to the monkeys of the universe that they cannot continue to exist in the state of stupidity. This does not endear them to me, but [bleep] it."
For Ellison, stupidity is only one of life's irritants. Add to that ineptitude and complacency, Jerry Falwell ("a self-righteous governor of other people's morals"), Neil Simon's plays ("He is to dramaturgy as Genghis Khan was to good table manners"), Judith Krantz ("a creative typist"), The Merv Griffin Show ("Talking to him is like talking to your armpit"), people who chew gum in public and Oreo cookies (Harlan favors Hydrox).
Ellison is not about to tiptoe through life unnoticed. He takes as his mandate the words of the German poet Gunter Eich: "Be uncomfortable, be sand, not oil, in the machinery of the world." At 51, Ellison has had four wives, one vasectomy and no children. He has, however, fathered an impressive body of work—prickly essays, cautionary tales and provocative scripts—that has been honored with 16 major literary prizes, including three Nebula Awards from the Science Fiction Writers of America. Currently he is creative consultant to CBS' The Twilight Zone, a concession that marks Ellison's tentative rapprochement with a medium he has blasted for years. "Generally," Harlan observes, "working in television is like putting in time in the house of the dead. I left TV to go into an honest profession, like pimping."
Oh, and Ellison can be touchy about being pigeonholed. When a CNN reporter promised an interview by satellite with "science-fiction" writer Harlan Ellison, viewers who stayed tuned caught a puzzling glimpse of an empty chair. A furious Harlan had bolted. Another time a publishing executive ignored Ellison's pleas not to distribute a novel with those forbidden words stamped on the cover. In a Wagnerian display of pique, Harlan flew from Los Angeles to New York, laid hands on the man and trashed his office.
Harlan calls his Los Angeles mountainside home Ellison Wonderland. Perched above the garage are six fiberglass gargoyles depicting, among others, Richard Nixon and Phyllis Schlafly, two of his particular bêtes. Across his threshold lies a fantasy kingdom perfectly suited to grown-up little boys. Tiny plastic dinosaurs graze on bookshelves lined with nearly 47,000 books. Regiments of toy soldiers form up in corners near framed posters of comic-book heroes. "This is where we sacrifice virgins," says Harlan, pointing to a stained-glass door. (It is, in fact, the residence of his hot-water heater.) Another portal, rounded, and apparently custom-built for a Smurf, leads to the staircase by which the 5'5" Ellison ascends to his writing loft. There, among his Hasbro toys and a haphazard collection of buttons, thimbles and stamps, Harlan shadow-boxes for up to 20 hours a day with his muscular muses.
Ellison's surprising return to television marks his first involvement with the medium since his departure in 1975. Before that he had cultivated a reputation as a pint-size prima donna, occasionally huffing off sets when colleagues tampered with his words. Explains Harlan: "I'm impossible to work with in this way: I don't believe you have to write things stupid for a stupid audience, I don't believe the writer is chattel or a beanfield peon. If my words are treated right, I'm never difficult." At the moment Ellison is one of five people adapting stories and writing scripts for the CBS revival of Twilight Zone. "They're crazy here," Ellison says. "That's why I fit in so well. It's a wonderful way of working, because it's a writer's show."
While it would be reckless to say that Harlan has mellowed, he has, in the intervening years, lived through the exploration of his own twilight zone. It began sometime in 1978. "The first symptom was lassitude," he says, "as if someone pulled a plug out of me and all the energy drained away. I couldn't write for more than an hour or two a day. Then I'd get these terrible sugar rushes." When he began wolfing down two-pound bags of M&Ms, the weight he gained brought on a hiatus hernia. "I had to sleep sitting up or I would get acid in my throat," says Harlan. "The skin on my fingers started peeling, my fingernails turned to horn, my nose would clog up when I ate and my sex drive vanished." So did a good part of his income. Ellison supported himself by lecturing and by writing reviews and a weekly newspaper column. He missed deadlines for larger projects, which only enhanced his reputation for being difficult. A romance foundered, and he retreated from his friends.
By 1981 he was subject to unpredictable rages and once reacted to some spilled coffee grounds by ripping a cabinet door off its hinges. That fall Ellison spoke at a neuropharmacology seminar conducted by Brandeis University, discussing the use of drugs in literature. "As I was doing my research about mood elevators and antidepressants," he says, "I realized I was reading case studies of myself. At the end of my talk I told all these scientists what was happening. I said, 'Please help me.' Then I started crying." Months of medical consultations and tests followed, and Ellison was treated with a rainbow of antidepressants. Nothing worked.
Finally he conferred with a Beverly Hills psychiatrist. "He told me I was nuts," says Harlan, "but that I turn my craziness and anger into productive channels." The doctor concluded that Ellison suffered not from a psychiatric disorder but from dysphoria, a generalized feeling of anxiety and restlessness that sometimes afflicts highly creative people whose productivity is blocked. Since then Harlan has ministered to himself. "I decided I would not let this thing ruin my life," he says. "I might be in the middle of a rage and I'll think, 'Uh-oh, this isn't me being angry—it's this thing.' I try to control it."
Beneath Ellison's bombastic armor is a small boy still battling the demons of his childhood in Painesville, Ohio. His father managed the family jewelry store; his mother tried to manage Harlan. "I was a troublemaker because I was filled with ideas and passion and had no place to put them," says Ellison. "I was also smaller than the smallest girl in my class. My parents gave me shots to make me grow, but I stayed little. I was unathletic and Jewish in a town where there were real anti-Semitic bigots." Comic-book and radio heroes nourished his rich fantasy life, and in a seventh-grade class photo Harlan stands proudly, wearing a Captain Midnight secret decoder badge like a corsage. The real world was more inhospitable. When bullies tossed him around the playground, Harlan learned to fight back. "I'd never let anything pass," he says. "Someone would say any damn thing to me and they'd go to their grave with their teeth in their throat."
Ellison's memories are not mere paranoia. "What Harlan remembers is true, and he was hurt by it," says former classmate Jean Pengal, now a housewife in Fairport, Ohio. "People in Painesville were very prejudiced. The bullies called him 'little kike' and 'Jew-boy.' Harlan was very hyper and always clowning. He'd walk around with a hand puppet he called Roscoe. The boys thought he was weird, but he was just very inventive."
At 13, as a sort of homage to the boys'-book hero Toby Tyler, Harlan ran away and joined a carnival. A Pinker-ton detective hired by his parents retrieved him. Two years later Ellison was alone in the living room with his father when the older man dropped dead of a heart attack. "For the next month," he says, "all I did was stand outside the house and bounce a tennis ball off the wall and catch it in a mitt my dad had given me." Harlan's spirit was bent but not broken.
After being booted out of Ohio State as a sophomore for decking an English professor who disparaged his writing talent, Ellison headed for Greenwich Village. He churned out pulp magazine stories under various pseudonyms. His first marriage, at 21, lasted three years, two of which he spent in the Army. His next encompassed the publication of Gentleman Junkie, a critically acclaimed account of the 10 weeks he had spent with a street gang. A year later he took off for Hollywood, where he separated from wife No. 2 and took on an agent. "We hated each other instantly," says Marty Shapiro, who has represented Ellison for the past 23 years. "He was very abrasive. He has no compunctions about letting people know his opinions. You wanna say,
'Shut up, Harlan,' but you gotta admire him. He's very real in an industry that is not real."
After selling a story to The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Ellison served a profitable apprenticeship on various series including The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Outer Limits and Star Trek. In between, he married, for 45 days, a woman he describes as "the most accomplished con artist I've ever met. I thought I was her third, I was her seventh." By the mid-'70s Ellison was making a comfortable living writing books and working in television. He edited two celebrated fantasy anthologies, Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions, found himself lionized by science-fiction fans and became a gleefully outrageous fixture on the college lecture circuit.
In 1976 he married again. He was 41, she was 19. "I was desperately in love with her, but it was a stupid marriage on my part," says Harlan. They were divorced after eight months. "I prefer the company of women, but I can't sustain a relationship," he admits. His friend, Brother Theodore, an oddball monologist and artist of the bizarre, once explained the problem succinctly: "When women meet us we seem exciting and dangerous. We sparkle; they cling to us. Then six months go by and they say, 'When will it end? When will there be some peace? Some quiet?' " Some of Harlan's friends know the feeling. "Harlan is quite a show, though not one I always wish I were attending," says science-fiction writer Robert Silverberg. "But Harlan is easier on the universe now. He knows, for example, that I would be embarrassed if he picked up a potato and threw it across the room to display his dissatisfaction with dinner."
For other reasons, perhaps, Ellison's live-in relationships have fared better than his marriages. Since October he has shared his home with a British psychology student he met last summer. "I'm easy to get rid of," he observes. "If someone says, 'Look, I love you, but I didn't sign on for this craziness,' I understand. I never dog women or throw bricks through their car windows." But that doesn't make him a pushover. "It's hard to be Harlan's friend because he's demanding," says writer Jessie Horsting. "But he has always offered 100 percent to people without reservation, and most of his life that trust has been betrayed. Though he has made a career of confessional writing, he is an intensely private individual."
It is Harlan's disarming kindness that most endears him to his closest friends. "Harlan looks out for underdogs of all kinds," says Silverberg. "He's very generous to new writers, quite beyond their merits, and he's crazily loyal to his friends. If I needed somebody killed, Harlan would see that it was done." Robert Bloch, author of Psycho, describes Ellison as the only organism that thrives in hot water. "Harlan is scrupulously honest and has a tremendous passion for justice," says Bloch. "He is also his own worst enemy. He can win over an audience in five minutes, then he will push further until he infuriates them." And he can be inventive in working off grudges. When a New York publisher broke a contractual agreement by allowing a cigarette ad to be placed in an Ellison paperback, Harlan retaliated by sending the company comptroller a dead gopher—fourth class.
Ellison has no qualms about these lurid tales of his mischief. "People who have never read a word of what I have written know who I am because of these crazy stories," he says. "I love my reputation because maybe I have a shot at a kind of posterity. I mean, what the hell is it all about? I've sat behind a typewriter for 30 years. I've eschewed wife and family. I have hemorrhoids—to what end?" Snatching a dust mote out of the air, he crushes it between his fingers. "So that maybe when I'm gone the work will still be here. Okay, I counted in a little way."
Still striving for his sliver of immortality, Ellison attacks each day with manic intensity. Up before 6, he vacuums in the nude while he assembles his thoughts. Before two or three of his assistants arrive at 10, Harlan is already at his typewriter. At midday he often prepares grilled salami sandwiches on rye for the group, then returns to work with his stereo booming. At 3 an alarm goes off to remind him it is pill time—Lysine, for his herpes, and vitamins. He breaks at 5 for milk and cookies, then resumes his labors until after sundown. "I lead a fairly sedate life," he observes. "I don't drink or smoke cigarettes. I'm probably the only guy in L.A. who has not had a homosexual experience of any kind. For me a hot time is Hydrox cookies and a book." Ellison is currently completing the third volume of the Dangerous Visions trilogy, which is already 10 years overdue, as well as a new collection of his own stories. One novel in progress is nearly finished, and another is still tap-dancing in his head. It is a creative maelstrom that brings him close to contentment.
So, in a different way, did the afternoon last summer when Ellison went to see the reshooting of a fragment of the Twilight Zone episode Gramma. Crew members welcomed him to the set; the director listened to Harlan's suggestions. Cameras rolled, and fake fog billowed down a corridor as the writer watched entranced. "It's like being Ali Baba," he whispered. "Anything I can dream up, they make real." In the shadows, his face seemed aglow. In that brief moment, Harlan Ellison was, for once, in repose.
September 24, 2016
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