RIP, Harlan Ellison

Originally published at:



Last thing of his I read was the graphic novel of his “City on the Edge of Forever” teleplay.

I must confess I could not quite comprehend his delight at the final product; it didn’t seem all that different from the actual episode. (I’ll admit that the introduction of a psychotic redshirt works rather better than McCoy getting high.)

By some coincidence, the adventure game version of I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream is pretty cheap on Steam at the moment. Ellison was heavily involved in the development and provides the voice of AM, though I’ve heard the final product is kind of unsatisfactory from a gameplay persective.

If you haven’t read the story lately, may I suggest The Toast’s colorful take on it?


/wave farewell Harlan.


I have a sad.
He was my favorite curmudgeon of sci-fi. Nobody wrote as amusing a rant as he did.


A prickly (and prickish), brilliant, bitingly funny, talented, uncompromising, permanently outraged personality who, based on a few brief encounters with him, was best enjoyed at a distance. For a couple of years my preferred venue for spending time with him was over the radio waves on Hour 25 after he took over from Mike Hodel. That and the books, of course.

It’s hard to imagine Ellison ever at peace and staying still, but here we are.

If you want to get an idea of his personality, he makes an appearance in Gay Talese’s famous 1965 Esquire profile of Sinatra, taunting Ol’ Blue Eyes just for fun:

It was obvious from the way Sinatra looked at these people in the poolroom that they were not his style, but he leaned back against a high stool that was against the wall, holding his drink in his right hand, and said nothing, just watched Durocher slam the billiard balls back and forth. The younger men in the room, accustomed to seeing Sinatra at this club, treated him without deference, although they said nothing offensive. They were a cool young group, very California-cool and casual, and one of the coolest seemed to be a little guy, very quick of movement, who had a sharp profile, pale blue eyes, blondish hair, and squared eyeglasses. He wore a pair of brown corduroy slacks, a green shaggy-dog Shetland sweater, a tan suede jacket, and Game Warden boots, for which he had recently paid $60.

Frank Sinatra, leaning against the stool, sniffling a bit from his cold, could not take his eyes off the Game Warden boots. Once, after gazing at them for a few moments, he turned away; but now he was focused on them again. The owner of the boots, who was just standing in them watching the pool game, was named Harlan Ellison, a writer who had just completed work on a screenplay, The Oscar.

Finally Sinatra could not contain himself.

“Hey,” he yelled in his slightly harsh voice that still had a soft, sharp edge. “Those Italian boots?”

“No,” Ellison said.



“Are they English boots?”

“Look, I donno, man,” Ellison shot back, frowning at Sinatra, then turning away again.

Now the poolroom was suddenly silent. Leo Durocher who had been poised behind his cue stick and was bent low just froze in that position for a second. Nobody moved. Then Sinatra moved away from the stool and walked with that slow, arrogant swagger of his toward Ellison, the hard tap of Sinatra’s shoes the only sound in the room. Then, looking down at Ellison with a slightly raised eyebrow and a tricky little smile, Sinatra asked: “You expecting a storm?”

Harlan Ellison moved a step to the side. “Look, is there any reason why you’re talking to me?”

“I don’t like the way you’re dressed,” Sinatra said.

“Hate to shake you up,” Ellison said, “but I dress to suit myself.”

Now there was some rumbling in the room, and somebody said, “Com’on, Harlan, let’s get out of here,” and Leo Durocher made his pool shot and said, “Yeah, com’on.”

But Ellison stood his ground.

Sinatra said, “What do you do?”

“I’m a plumber,” Ellison said.

“No, no, he’s not,” another young man quickly yelled from across the table. “He wrote The Oscar.”

“Oh, yeah,” Sinatra said, “well I’ve seen it, and it’s a piece of crap.”

“That’s strange,” Ellison said, “because they haven’t even released it yet.”

“Well, I’ve seen it,” Sinatra repeated, “and it’s a piece of crap.”

Now Brad Dexter, very anxious, very big opposite the small figure of Ellison, said, “Com’on, kid, I don’t want you in this room.”

“Hey,” Sinatra interrupted Dexter, “can’t you see I’m talking to this guy?”

Dexter was confused. Then his whole attitude changed, and his voice went soft and he said to Ellison, almost with a plea, “Why do you persist in tormenting me?”

The whole scene was becoming ridiculous, and it seemed that Sinatra was only half-serious, perhaps just reacting out of sheer boredom or inner despair; at any rate, after a few more exchanges Harlan Ellison left the room. By this time the word had gotten out to those on the dance floor about the Sinatra-Ellison exchange, and somebody went to look for the manager of the club. But somebody else said that the manager had already heard about it—and had quickly gone out the door, hopped in his car and drove home. So the assistant manager went into the poolroom.

“I don’t want anybody in here without coats and ties,” Sinatra snapped.

The assistant manager nodded, and walked back to his office.


re: Cory’s eulogy/commentary

As soon as I saw that he had died I thought to myself that there is the perfect example of a less that stellar human being - an inveterate asshole in fact, who had produced some very fine work. I too went through a Harlan Ellison phase, and a subsequent loss of interest in him as a human being.

None of us will ever be as impressed with Ellison as he was with himself.


Beautiful piece, Cory, that really resonates with me personally.

I met Harlan Ellison in New York City in the 1970s and disliked him intensely. But he wrote some great stories; and I suspect that without his passion and his willingness to offend his art would have been much less.

Rest in peace, angry man.


Really excited about his upcoming lawsuit against his undertaker as, even in death, Harlan will most likely be insanely litigious.


I think Harlan Ellison would not be happy to rest in peace. He would probably far rather be spinning in his grave.


Rightfully thought through, Cory. It seems so often that those most touched by genius are monsters or madmen of one kind or another.

His editing of the Dangerous Visions collections and his acid writings on artistic compensation were as valuable to the world of science fiction and my love of it as his own fiction, I think, and his fiction reliably and often beautifully cracked conventions.

Harlan was always exceptionally kind to my mother, in correspondence and in person, I think because he regarded her as more peer than rival (he never did call her motherfucker, though I’m sure she would have been tickled if he had). I had the great fortune to visit his semi-wacko home in the Valley with her once, and noted the door to his office, specifically constructed so that only he (just 5 feet, 2.5 inches in height) could enter it walking upright.

In tribute, I’m reminded of a verse from Camper Van Beethoven’s “Jack Ruby:”

So draw the box along quickly
Avert your eyes with shame
Let us stand and speak of the weather
And pretend nothing ever happened on that day
Grant us the luxury, 'cause all our heroes are bastards
Grant us the luxury, 'cause all our heroes are thieves
Of the innocence of the afternoons

RIP, Harlan, you nasty, brilliant fellow.


We can’t hold our breath waiting for the perfect human to come along. To live is to make missteps, and a lot of time grouchy jerks are grouchy jerks because they’re failed romantics-- the real world doesn’t live up to the ideal world they think should and could exist.

Or at least, that’s my current excuse for myself.


Yeah, pretty good writer with occasional flashes of brilliance; but otherwise a pretty despicable human being with a chip on his diminutive shoulder the size of a city block.


If you were on his bad side, he was a miserable cur. If you were on his good side, he’d fight by your side with his last ounce of strength. One of the last times I’d seen him (2001) we shared side-by-side urinals; not exactly the best way to have a meaningful conversation but hey, it was real easy to end it!
RIP man, it was a fun ride.
Tonight, instead of An Edge in my Voice, I’ve got a lump in my throat.


What a great story. Thanks for posting that, gracchus. It’s amazing those two egos could fit in one room.


“Rest in Peace, Harlequin,” said the Tick-Tock Man


I remember this story from my first experience of Ellison, one day in the 70s when I was home ill from school, watching afternoon TV. I had no idea who he was, and have no idea what he was doing on an afternoon chat show in the UK, and had not much of an idea about Sinatra outside of being a singer and an actor in some old movies. I found the whole thing bizarre, but a while later I found a paperback of All the Sounds of Fear with a wildly inappropriate Chris Foss cover, just in time to coincide with my teenage angst phase.

When I wanted to be a writer, I tried to take some advice he gave out to heart, which was to not write anything unless you knew exactly what you were going to write. Not that great advice, when what I really needed was to be told to write and figure out how to make it all work in the edit. And from some of the stories of unfinished work that he owed, I think he should have ignored that advice himself from time to time.

Shit. I haven’t read any Ellison for ages, but I’m going to miss the old bastard anyway.


His collected essays on television, “The Glass Teat” and “The Other Glass Teat” proved to be remarkably prophetic, though they might be getting a bit dated now.

RIP Harlan.


Harlan Ellison was a frequent guest at I-CON, our campus SF convention, back when it was a true SF convention. Really loved his stage performances back then, and enjoyed his writing.

Got to witness his purchase and destruction of one of his hated early works while doing a signing.

Got to see his quieter, insecure, off-camera side too, fussing over book stocks with his wife Susan. He really loved and depended on her; it was touching seeing the contrast with his irascible public side.

One of my college friends (who I caught up with jsut yesterday, after far too many years) was on good terms with Harlan. He said Ellison confessed deep fear and despair that his writing would be forgotten.

I hope that isn’t the case.


I’m sure you’ll forgive the people he bullied if they find their didactic value to be cold comfort. Though I do understand the value of learning from the wrongs of others, they, including Connie Willis, really could ask for better.