In a recent Justice League comic, a team member watches Batman suffering near death from a serum the Dark Knight injected himself with to give himself strength to defeat an evil Superman. As Batman writhes on the ground from the side effects, the teammate yelled to him to “fight it. You’re too mean to die.”
This comment could also be applied to Harlan Ellison, who passed away on June 27 at the age of 84. One always felt that this aficionado of hate—he ended his college career by punching a professor in the face; mailed a dead gopher to a publisher for putting a cigarette ad in one of his novels; and once dove at a movie producer, to name but a few incidents—was just too mean to die. What is equally remarkable was that this writer—who once said that he “went to bed angry and woke up angrier”—died, according to his fifth wife, “peacefully in his sleep.”
Ellison wrote from his gut, or, as Henry Miller once said of his own writing, “from the solar plexus.” His stories reflected his rage, as well as an occasional burst of optimism. A gut can be a useful tool in writing fiction. But he also applied the same methodology to his liberal politics, and as a result he was a bellowing reactionary unacquainted with reason and empiricism.
Like the Stalinist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, a writer Ellison admired, he applied the term “fascist” loosely and incorrectly; anyone who did not occupy his side of the political spectrum was a Hitlerite. A committed union member who once lamented that Ronald Reagan supposedly used his position as president of the Screen Actors Guild to move it in an anti-communist direction, thus violating the Guild’s apolitical charter, Ellison supported later attempts to use the Guild to funnel union funds to the oppressive regime in Nicaragua.
Ellison’s flirtations with hypocrisy did not end there. This vocal supporter of women’s rights was far less tolerant when it came to the rights of individual women, groping the breast of a female author on stage during an awards ceremony in 2006 and attempting, on a segment of the television show Politically Incorrect, to physically assault a woman panelist who expressed views he deemed too conservative.
Whatever his shortcomings as a political activist, however, it must be said that as a writer, Ellison delivered the goods. Unlike other science-fiction writers, he could write skillfully in any genre: television scripts (including some Star Trek classics), mysteries, horror, op-ed columns, book and film reviews. He won, along with eight Hugos (for science fiction), several Bram Stoker Awards (for horror), and Edgars (for mystery), as well as the Pen Award for journalism.
But Ellison never let these awards go to his head. Unlike the narcissism of James Ellroy, who proclaims himself the “Mozart of American literature,” Ellison attributed his success to hard work. At Stephen King’s request, he once wrote a description of his style and his personality: “My work is foursquare for chaos,” he wrote. “I spend my life personally, and my work professionally, keeping the soup boiling. Gadfly is what they call you when you are no longer dangerous; I much prefer troublemaker, malcontent, desperado. I see myself as a combination of Zorro and Jiminy Cricket. My stories go out from here and raise hell. From time to time some denigrator or critic with umbrage will say of my work, ‘He only wrote that to shock.’ I smile and nod. Precisely.”