Book Review: A Lit Fuse: The Provocative Life of Harlan Ellison by Nat Segaloff; Part One: What H.E. Means to Me

On the short list of writers who most influenced my own career, Harlan Ellison has one of the top positions, if not the number one spot. Others on the list would be Jack London, Henry Miller, and Jack Kerouac.

One of Ellison’s stories was directly responsible for my choice of writing as what I had to do with my life. Well, I might have come round to it anyway; I can’t imagine doing anything else. But an Ellison story was the catalyst that I needed to open my eyes and light my own personal fuse. I had been staggering semi-blindly through my courses during my one college year at the University of Santa Clara when I enrolled in a class on science fiction as literature. The textbook was The Mirror of Infinity: A Critic’s Anthology of Science Fiction edited by Robert Silverberg, and ensconced within its covers was the story “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” by Harlan Ellison. That story blew me away. I had been an avid reader since I was very young, and I had been profoundly moved by many great books. This experience was different. It was visceral; it was shocking; it was like getting emotionally overwhelmed by some ripping great rock music. By the time I had finished it, I realized: “This is it! This is what I want to do with my life! I want to turn people on with the power of my writing just as this writer turned me on!” From that moment, there was no going back, and I never gave passing glance to any other career.

That doesn’t mean it has been a smooth and easy ride. Ha! Far from it. There was even a time that I stopped writing for about fifteen years, but that’s another story. Back to the college scene. I was badly messed up back then. I was smoking way too much pot and taking way too many psychedelics. My brain was fried and fragmented and it took me time to recover. I found myself back up in Seattle working odd jobs and going to the occasional community college class. And then I read in the paper one day that Harlan Ellison was going to be lecturing and reading from his works at the University of Washington. I went to the auditorium at the appropriate hour and was treated to a wonderful show. Not only that, I learned that he was there as a teacher at the Clarion West science fiction writers’ workshop. It was the first time I had ever heard of it, but I immediately wanted to be a part of it.

That evening Ellison kept the audience captivated with his incomparable speaking skills, sharing anecdote after anecdote. About an hour or an hour and a half in, he had the lights lowered so that the only illumination was the reading lamp on the podium, and he read us a story that had not yet appeared in print but went on to win awards, the dark fantasy thriller “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs.” What an event! I can never forget that experience! He followed with another shorter story, a light violent comedy called “Bleeding Stones.”

Now that I knew about Clarion West, I was determined to enroll. I applied and got accepted for the following summer. Looking back, I think the criteria for admission must have been lower than it is now; there were almost certainly fewer applicants. I say this because although I had been making attempts at writing stories, I knew virtually nothing about it when I went to Clarion West, and during my stay there I learned little, having such a weak foundation upon which to build. My growth as a writer came later. However, Ellison came back and was one of my teachers. It was a thrill to meet him and listen to his instruction, even if he did dismiss with few words the pittance of a tale I offered during his week there.

My next and last personal encounter with Harlan Ellison took place down in Los Angeles. I had finally realized I had to get out on the road and experience life if I wanted to have something worth writing about, and I had started out on my first hitchhiking journey to Mexico and Central America. On the way back, I stopped in at the apartment of short story and teleplay writer Russell Bates. He took me up to Ellison’s house in Sherman Oaks. Bates had lived there for a while, and he walked right in without knocking and started to give me a tour of the awards displays and so on. At some point, Ellison came out in his bathrobe, politely said that he was feeling sick and it wasn’t a good time, and cut short the visit. That was the last time I ever saw him personally.

For a time, I collected every book of his that I could find, and I avidly read them all. I had most if not all of the Harlan Ellison series put out in the seventies by Pyramid Books with beautiful covers by Leo and Dianne Dillon. I also had a copy of the original comprehensive bibliography of Ellison’s works that came out in a large soft paper edition. Alas, when I needed to minimize my belongings and acquire cash to travel as I set off on my first trip to Europe and the Indian Subcontinent, I sold those books to a used book store for a fraction of what they are worth now. There was nothing I could do; for me, it was a time of forsaking.

That’s about it. After that, I had less opportunity to enjoy Ellison’s writings, although I did find and read Deathbird Stories at a library in Thessaloniki, Greece, much later when my wife and I were raising our young family, and I ordered a copy of The Essential Ellison from Amazon UK and read that wonderful compilation of stories and essays. Later, after I had moved back to the States and attended Clarion West events, I would ask people who had been in touch with him how he was doing. That’s how I heard about his stroke and diminished health. He died on June 28th, 2018, about a year after A Lit Fuse was published.

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