Book Review: Deathbird Stories by Harlan Ellison, Part Two: More Ellison Reminiscences, and The Stories Themselves

So then, after having reread “Deathbird Stories” I realize that at least part of the motivation was to pay homage to one of the great literary influences of my life.  Harlan Ellison’s stories are vivid and emotional, and I have tried to absorb those good qualities and use them in my own writing.

To finish the history begun in part one of this review:  By the time I was ready to strike out on my own, as a writer and as a man, I had accumulated a sizeable collection of Ellison’s books, including first editions that sell for decent amounts of money online these days.  But I had to hit the road, and to do so I had to forsake my possessions; I could not hitchhike around the world dragging a library.  So I took the whole mess of books down to a used bookstore and took the first price I was offered:  thirty dollars, I think it was.  The owner of the shop certainly profited by my haste.  What could I do?  If I had not left everything behind I would never have left.  I had to go out fresh, clean, new, empty, willing to be filled with whatever was my destiny.

Once I visited Harlan Ellison’s home in the hills of Sherman Oaks.  It was about a year after Clarion West 1973, and I was invited and accompanied by a fellow Clarion attendee, one who at the time was Ellison’s friend and had even stayed there from time to time.  The door was unlocked and we walked right in, which my friend informed me was standard procedure.  He led me to the small desk area where all the awards were laid out on shelves:  the Nebulas, the Hugos, the Writers Guild Awards, and so on.  Then Harlan Ellison himself made an appearance, explained that he was sick with a cold and that it wasn’t a good time for a visit, and that was the end of the matter.  I never met him personally again.  Though I had gone to Los Angeles to try my hand at screenwriting nothing had come of it, for the reasons I mentioned in part one of this review:  that I first needed to experience life, before I could write about life.  So I got rid of my books, my television, and anything else I owned that couldn’t be fit into my duffel bag, and hit the road.

Now on to the book itself, and the stories.

As I read it this time, I wasn’t disappointed.  I expected some stories to impress me and some not, and that’s what happened.  Overall, for me it was too much sameness of theme to suit my tastes, too much of the same story told over and over in different ways.  However:

This collection contains what I consider one of the greatest short stories ever written:  “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes”.  It is Ellison at his finest.  All his skills of vivid imagery, stark emotion, and so on come together to great effect and tell a tale of tragic love and loss.  Some of the other stories are first-rate as well, among them “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs”, “Delusion for a Dragon Slayer”, “Paingod”, and “Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans”.  Others don’t work so well, don’t rise up to the level of art of the very best, and yet others are – I would hesitate to call them mediocre, but they are not extraordinary.  If put by themselves in an anthology of other writers’ stories with which they had no similarity they would be fine, but placed alongside some of the superlative stories in “Deathbird Stories” they pale in comparison.

Is it Ellison’s best collection?  Many seem to think so.  But in a short story collection personally I prefer more diversity in the fare.  For me as I read story after story there was, as I said, too much sameness.  So for me I would probably choose “The Essential Ellison” as a superior collection, with its mainstream stories, essays, and even a teleplay, as well as science fiction and fantasy.

That said, I have to add that when Ellison is at his best he is a unique literary experience, unsurpassed and unequaled, and I am grateful for his influence in my own journey as a writer.

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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