Book Review: Deathbird Stories by Harlan Ellison; Part One: Clarion West 1973 Revisited

I honestly don’t know exactly what made me read “Deathbird Stories” again after all this time.  I usually alternate between fiction and nonfiction books in my reading program.  I was just finishing a nonfiction book and considering that I wouldn’t mind reading a book of short stories, but I didn’t have anything on hand and nothing came to mind that was at the local library and it was too late to order something online even if I could afford it, which at the moment I can’t.  Then I thought of “Deathbird Stories”.  I knew the library had a copy.  I thought, why not?

That’s part of it.

I had not read much of Harlan Ellison for a long time, though back in the early seventies he was my favorite writer and my mentor – though I’m sure I made so little impression he would have no recollection of me at all.  More on that in a minute.  A few years ago I bought a copy of the mammoth tome “The Essential Ellison” because I wanted to have some of Harlan Ellison on my shelf.  I read some of the science fiction and fantasy stories for old time’s sake, but what really fascinated me in that collection were the essays, many of which I had never read before, and one mainstream story which I had read long, long ago:  “Punky and the Yale Men”.  That’s one hell of a story.  Anyway, when I struck out on the road in my world-wandering days I sort of left science fiction behind, being more enthralled with the works of Jack London, Jack Kerouac, and the incomparable Henry Miller.

But back in the early 70s I read almost nothing but science fiction, and I got turned on to it after reading a story of Ellison’s, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” in a university textbook anthology.  At that same time I determined that I had to be a writer and learn to compose such brilliant stories.

After I messed up my year at university and moved back to Seattle, I somehow heard that Harlan Ellison was in town and attended a reading/lecture at the University of Washington, where Clarion West was being held.  The next year, 1973, at twenty years of age, I attended Clarion West myself, and Harlan Ellison was once again one of the teachers.  I did not distinguish myself.  I wrote what must be the worst story I have ever written the week he was there.  As I mentioned, I doubt he would remember me.  I wouldn’t remember myself either, had I been him.  Unless it was because my prose hit new heights of mediocrity.

I was heavily into drinking at the time; that was one problem.  Russell Bates, Paul Bond, some of the other attendees and myself would, whenever we could, head off to one of the numerous taverns I knew of that didn’t ask for ID and quaff pitcher after pitcher of beer when we probably should have been back at the dorm pounding on the typewriter.  But it wasn’t just that.  I was immature, naive, clueless about the realities of life.  I wasn’t ready to produce anything meaningful.  I was too frightened to step out on my own and live, and without living you can’t really write about life.  You might be able to come up with some sort of half-assed approximation, but it won’t be the real thing.

So from a writing standpoint Clarion didn’t do me much good, but it was not the fault of the teachers or the workshop itself; it was my fault.  I wasn’t ready.

To get back, though, to “Deathbird Stories” and Harlan Ellison.  At the time he was in the midst of composing the stories that would constitute the collection, and he would talk to us about the inspiration and theme and so on.  But also, and above all, during his reading/lecture at the end of the workshops, one of which I attended in 1972 and the other in 1973 after the one I attended, he would read the stories themselves.  Back then he was at his energetic peak.  He was winning award after award.  “Dangerous Visions” and “Again Dangerous Visions” had been published, and he was being acclaimed as an editor as well as a writer.  He was then, in 1973, seeking stories for the third and last volume of “Dangerous Visions”, and it was the dream of every Clarion attendee to sell him a story for what was then the most prestigious speculative fiction anthology series in the world.  As I said, I never came close.  But all this is to explain what a phenomenon Ellison was at the time, and he was hard at work on this cycle of stories that he considered his magnum opus.  The first of the stories I heard him read, back in ’72, was “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”.  He had all the lights in the auditorium extinguished except a tiny reading lamp at the podium, and stunned all of us with this powerful, image-laden, horrific story.  As I remember he got a standing ovation, and it was well-deserved.  Now, my memory may not be spot-on about which story he read when, but I think that afterwards, as an encore, he read “Bleeding Stones”.  Then, in 1973, he read the first part of what was then a work-in-progress, “Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans”.  So I have heard him read live two and a half of the stories from “Deathbird Stories”.

This book and I have a history.

To be continued.  In the next installment I will give my impression of the book itself based upon this current reading.

I’m a professional writer; I make my living by my words.  I’m happy to share these essays with you, but at the same time, financial support makes the words possible.  If you’d like to become a patron of the arts and support my work, buy a few of my available books or available stories.  Thanks!

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2 Responses to Book Review: Deathbird Stories by Harlan Ellison; Part One: Clarion West 1973 Revisited

  1. Dan Kennedy says:

    Hi John,
    I went to Clarion as a freshman in 1975 because of Harlan Ellison. I had been reading his works for maybe five or maybe four without digging in my books to find out, but I never met anyone who took his classes. One professor talked about him when we tried to start Fantasy and Science Fiction club.

    I have been thinking about “A Boy and His Pack”. Well, maybe “Another Boy and His Pack.” Has Harlan ever done a sequel to “Run Spot Run”?

    Are your books available from you directly?

    • John Walters says:

      Hi, Dan. Sorry, no, my books are only available through Amazon, and also other channels via Smashwords. You must have had some interesting teachers at Clarion too. Those were the days, the seventies.

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