Pets can tell when their owners have died, even if they’re hundreds of miles away. It’s true. Happens all the time. Joe Bloggs goes into cardiac arrest, and at that precise moment his adoring dog Fido will get up and take a shit on the front lawn. Something it was going to do anyway, but now it’s a mournful shit.
I think I might share this psychic link with certain celebrities. Occasionally a name will pop into my head, and I get worried. Many people in my mental Rolodex are old and in bad health. So I’ll immediately ask Dr Google for a prognosis: are they still alive?
Sometimes they’re not. David Gemmell wasn’t. Tom Clancy wasn’t. Often they’ll have died weeks or months earlier, which weakens my claim to psychic ability.
But sometimes, as now, the prognosis is good. Harlan Ellison is still alive! In fact, he recently published a new book. It’s called Can and Can’tankerous. He’s more than alive, he still has his workclothes on.
He’s a writer who has spent nearly sixty years producing output in forgotten wastelands – first 1950s pulp fiction, TV shows, a few comic scripts, even a computer game – he seems attracted to media with a brief expiration date. He’s known for filing suits and (in the case of Connie Willis) groping them. He’s a strange creature, a narcissist who can be self deprecating (one of his collections has the endearingly honest subtitle “Seventeen Stories Written Before I Got Up To Speed”).
He’s also proof that you can be too good at self-promotion.
Becoming a funny dancing monkey is always a successful marketing strategy, but it’s no good as a long con – at the end of the day you don’t actually want the attention on yourself, but on your art. Rebecca Black’s art is now completely ignored – she was only valuable as a brief cultural zeitgeist, forgotten and disposed of once we found other dancing monkeys to gawk at. I don’t even have the courage to see what the Numa Numa Guy is doing now. Probably trying to launch an actual musical career. I feel depressed just thinking about it.
H.E. is different, yet in a sense, he isn’t. There’s a line of demarcation between selling a product and providing a spectacle. Harlan Ellison spent a career straddling that line blowing raspberries.
He’s so over the top and ridiculous that Nick Mamatas draws a distinction between “Ellison stories” (which means H.E.’s science fiction oeuvre) and “Harlan Stories” (stories about Harlan, the man). H.E. presumably wants the world to care more about the Ellison stories than the Harlan ones. My impression: maybe the Harlan ones are winning out. It’s hard to find in-depth commentary on his science fiction (and much of it has gone out of print). But man, the internet won’t stop talking about that time he got fired from Disney after four hours of work.
Ellison’s fascinating in a way that sometimes overshadows his work. But as I said, he does a lot of work in fields that lack longevity – how many Mickey Spillane paperbacks have you bought in the past whenever? Does your heart bleed from the loss? I don’t know if Ellison’s stories will disappear from our culture’s memory the way Spillane’s have. I think that his most famous efforts (“Repent, said the Etc”, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Etc”) will survive the memory hole for a long time, but someday even they will be forgotten.
But there’s a certain sad poetry in impermanence, and beautiful things that die quickly.
Think of the female mayfly, which rises from a swamp and lives for only about thirty minutes. Its compound eyes open, take in their surroundings…and then close. Forever. Its wings unfurl, beat upon the malarial air, and then are still. Only the swamp that spawned it remains.
Maybe Ellison knows what he’s doing, and maybe he’ll even have the last laugh. He’s cultivated an impressive amount of art, and maybe we could include Ellison himself in that body – a demonically charming man, both irritating and unforgettable.
Barthes wrote about the “Death of the Author”. Well, here’s one author that isn’t dead, and still won’t be dead when they put him in the ground. That might have been the plan all along.