Harlan Ellison has died.
I read the news online, just over two hours ago, before his Wikipedia page even updated. I sat in stunned, disbelieving silence for a moment, and then burst into loud, sobbing tears in the middle of my day-job office. Thankfully, my boss is out for the day.
I’ve admired Harlan for a long time, but I don’t mean to claim some sort of personal relationship with him, and I don’t intend to write an obituary here. Those who actually knew him will have much more to say. I just need to get my feelings down, and I wanted to briefly summarize my experience with the man and his work as I mourn his passing.
As is unfortunately the case with many of my favorite writers, I can’t quite remember when I first discovered Harlan Ellison. I can’t remember when I first heard/read his name, or what story of his was the first I read (it might’ve been “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” but I’m really not sure; I know I saw his episodes of The Outer Limits before I read any of his prose). I just remember that somewhere along the way I fell in love with the guy’s voice, his style, his ideas, his obvious passion, his attitude.
Because it was always difficult to find more than one or two of his books at my local stores, I asked for Ellison books for Christmas and upped my online shopping game. I hunted out Ellison stories (either by or about him, sometimes both) wherever I could find them, and was always excited to dig up an old issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction or a similar digest with his name on the cover. Which is not to say that I’m even particularly well-read in Ellison’s bibliography; I’m fairly certain I’ve barely scratched the surface, even now, and I must admit that I own more of Ellison’s books than I’ve actually read (though I intend to correct that very shortly).
In any case, as brilliant and cool as I thought he was, I didn’t think I’d ever get to meet him. He stopped going to conventions not long after I started, so I resigned myself to admiring him from afar as I’ve been content to do with most of my heroes.
And then, in the summer of 2015, I just happened to be searching for more nearby conventions and found Archon. It was one that I’d barely heard of, but it was only a day’s drive away and (HOLY SHIT) Harlan Ellison was listed as a special guest of honor!
I told my dad (my frequent partner-in-cons) that we were going to Archon that year, and immediately dove into Ellison Wonderland. I binged every interview I could find, watched every clip on his YouTube channel, listened to several audio performances (both of his own work and others read by him, including a spoken-word appearance in a heavy metal song), and that October, lumbering toward Archon in Dad’s road-hazard of a van, I sat in the passenger’s seat and read aloud from Love Ain’t Nothing But Sex Misspelled for most of the trip. I was so excited to meet Harlan but also terrified of coming across as the sort of mindless, worshipful fanboy he so obviously detested.
At the con, he was scheduled to participate in two panels: one on the future of science fiction, the other on anthologies. Both panels were being held in the same room, and were virtually back-to-back. Dad and I slipped in early and got front-row seats; a moment later the room was packed.
Finally, Harlan entered in a wheelchair to a smattering of applause, coming down the aisle like Moses through the Red Sea, pushed along and followed by his friends and fellow panelists.
This was almost a year after his stroke, of course, and he looked frail, but when he spoke his voice was clear and loud. I don’t remember everything he said. Somebody was recording both panels for his Kilimanjaro Corporation, but to my knowledge the recordings haven’t yet surfaced anywhere online.
Between the panels, he had a book signing. Anyone who knows much about Ellison knows that signing books was one of his least-favorite parts of the writing profession, and I can only imagine how uncomfortable it must’ve been for him to sit at a long table for two hours signing book after book and shaking hand after hand. He had a limit of I think two books per person, and one of those had to be purchased directly at the table for him to sign anything. Having brought two books, I gave one to my dad, and we each bought one. While we were waiting in line, a guy (clearly part of Harlan’s group and with his permission) was running up and down selling more signed paperbacks, and I think we bought a couple from him as well.
When it was my turn, I presented Harlan with the books and nervously introduced myself.
“It’s a real honor, Mr. Ellison,” I think I said. Something like that. “My name’s David Busboom.”
“Pleased to meet you, David.”
“Your work means a lot to me. I’m a writer.”
“Just a couple of short stories.”
We shook hands, he gave me my signed books, and I thanked him before making way for the next person in line.
Afterwards, Harlan and his wife Susan were browsing the convention’s art show (located in a broad hallway) at the same time as my dad and I. They stopped a few times to admire a particular piece or to complement an artist, and at one point they got separated in the sea of people moving from one panel to another. Harlan didn’t seem to mind much at first, as he’d stopped to chat with somebody, but after a moment my attention was seized by a howl of “SUSAN! SUSAAAAAAN!!”
The crowd was thinning now, and Susan had somehow gotten rather far from Harlan, who’s wheelchair was caught on something. None of his usual entourage was anywhere to be seen, so Dad and I wheeled Harlan over to Susan, and he thanked us.
Then came the second panel, immediately after which Harlan and Susan retreated to their hotel room and from there to the airport.
All told it was a rather brief encounter, but one that I’ll never forget.
Harlan’s passing is especially painful given the current state of the world we live in; there’s one fewer voice of reason in the madness, one fewer light in the dark. Except that’s not really true, because Harlan’s voice, like every writer’s, lives on in his work. He, more than most, has earned the posterity for which all writers strive.
When Leonard Cohen died, I drowned my tears in alcohol and sat in the dark with his music. I won’t do that for Harlan. Instead, I’m going to honor him the best way I know how: I’m going to write.
I’m part of a writing group that meets every Thursday at a local cafe. We say hello, and then sit in silence working for two or three hours before saying goodbye and going home. Though I try to write most evenings anyway, these Thursday nights always give me a little boost. They often help me get over whatever writing-related hump I’m currently facing. I haven’t gone for about a month due to life getting in the way (moving sucks), but tonight I’m going to go and I’m going to write my ass off.
I’m pretty sure that’s what Harlan would do.