If you look up the word “cantankerous” in the dictionary, you should, by rights, find a large, book-jacket-style photo of Harlan Ellison, the legendary author of over 1,700 short stories, novellas, screenplays, comic book scripts, teleplays, essays, and criticism on literature, film, television, and print media. You should find his picture, that is, but he very likely would have sued Webster’s Dictionary for using his image without paying him. Few authors have done more for speculative fiction and for the rights of artists to get paid for their work than Harlan Ellison, a firecracker with a typewriter. He has passed away at the age of 84.
The news came via a tweet from his lawyer:
Susan Ellison has asked me to announce the passing of writer Harlan Ellison, in his sleep, earlier today. “For a brief time I was here, and for a brief time, I mattered.”—HE, 1934-2018. Arrangements for a celebration of his life are pending.
— Christine Valada (@mcvalada) June 28, 2018
Ellison, born in Cleveland, OH on May 27, 1934, was expelled from college after 18 months for hitting a professor who denigrated his writing ability. For the next 20 or so years, Ellison would send that professor a copy of each and every story he published. This is the kind of person Ellison was; incredibly hard to get along with but an unprecedented and brilliant mind in the world of the written word.
Among Ellison’s greatest works of literature are the short stories “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” “The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World,” “The Deathbird,” “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” and “A Boy and His Dog,” all of which have become utter classics in the world of weird fiction, as well as acclaimed collections such as Love Ain’t Nothing But Sex Misspelled, Approaching Oblivion, and perhaps the best title of anything ever, Ellison Wonderland, a moniker he also gave to his Sherman Oaks, CA home.
And let’s talk about television! Ellison wrote some of the most lauded episodes of dozens of sci-fi, horror, and fantasy series. He won a Hugo for his episode of Star Trek, “The City on the Edge of Forever,” in 1967, and wrote two of the best episodes of the original The Outer Limits, “Soldier” and “Demon with a Glass Hand.” He also wrote several episodes of the 1980s reboot of The Twilight Zone and was a writer and consultant on the cult space opera Babylon 5. He created only one television show in his career, The Starlost, which ran for 16 episodes in 1973-1974. Ellison was so famously unhappy with network changes to his concept that he had his credit changed to his pseudonym, Cordwainer Bird.
“Ellison was famously unhappy” is a phrase that can be applied to just about everything in his long career, and he often went to court over copyright claims. He sued James Cameron over using elements of his Outer Limits episodes for The Terminator; he attempted to sue the makers of the 2011 movie In Time for ripping off “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” but withdrew it after actually viewing the movie. He got into tiffs with studio execs, universities, magazines, and was accused of physical assault on several occasions.
He was also doggedly committed to making sure writers–and himself especially–got paid for every bit of work they did. “I don’t take a piss without gettin’ paid for it,” he frothed in this now-famous clip from the 2008 documentary about him, Dreams with Sharp Teeth.
Harlan Ellison was a prick, but he was a talented prick, and one who should be read by each and every person out there looking to write fiction, or essays, or criticism, or anything where a word is on a page. He was a staunch and vocal atheist, but I hope he’s wrong just so I can picture him yelling at God, or the Devil, or whomever he meets on the other side.
Images: Pip R. Lagenta/ABC