Till they ring inside my head forever

By John Hertz: (reprinted from Vanamonde 1309)  On June 28th, Christine Valada told us.

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.” — H.E., 1934-2018.

Susan is his widow.  Valada, the widow of Len Wein, is Susan’s and was Harlan’s friend.  His birthday was May 27th.  He was 84.

Among much else he wrote science fiction and fantasy.  His first story “The Gloconda” was published in 1949; his first in a prozine, “Life Hutch”, in the April 56 If, illustrated by Emsh.  The L.A. Times’ 2,100-word obituary, 29 Jun at p. B4, did not mention his eight Hugos and four Nebulas – “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” (1965) and “Jeffty Is Five” (1977) won both; most recently, a Nebula for “How Interesting: A Tiny Man” (2010) – but did observe he was the third-most anthologized s-f author, after Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov.

He reviewed Joel Nydahl’s fanzine Vega in Spaceship 22 (1953; his own zine at the time was Science Fantasy Bulletin).  With six Hugos and two Nebulas behind him he had thoughtful engaged letters in Janus (1976-77).  “Nissassa!” by Nalrah Nosille began in Science Fiction Five-Yearly 2 (1956) before “Assassin!” (1957) by Ellison in the prozine SF Adventures, and continued through SF5Y 12 (2006) in which I appeared myself.

The Avram Davidson Treasury (R. Silverberg & G. Davis eds. 1998) has H.E.’s after­word to “Polly Charms, the Sleeping Woman” (1975) – noting H.E.’s “Paulie Charmed the Sleeping Woman” (1962), which Davidson while editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction published there – and H.E.’s Afterword to the whole.  The 1999 Van Vogt collection Futures Past has H.E.’s Introduction.

He had a superb relation with the Dillons; they did three dozen covers and interiors for his work, to which I paid tribute in my exhibit “The Art of Diane & Leo Dillon” at Chicon VII, the 70th World Science Fiction Convention.

If we had to choose a leading s-f author whose work was most unlike Ellison’s, that might be Asimov.  The memoir I. Asimov (1994) says “Harlan … is a writer in the fullest sense of the word….  one of the best writers in the world….  if you … work your way past his porcupine spines … you will find underneath a … guy who would give you the blood out of his veins if he thought that would help” (p. 244).

The twenty-third annual Odyssey workshop [was] going on [while this note was originally written], 4 Jun – 13 Jul [the week after his death], Saint Anselm College, Manchester, New Hampshire.  In its third year, H.E. was Writer in Residence for a week; twenty students, four hours each weekday morning; eight hours’ homework each weekday, twenty-four each weekend.  These remarks by and about him were published.

Harlan holds back nothing.  He shared moments from his own life that moved some of us to tears.  He gives in full measure, whatever he does. The night he arrived … he told us, “I’m here to give you what I can…. I can be as wrong as any of you.  Do not think in any way that I am a deity.  But I’ve been doing this for forty years and there’s … some stuff that I can … do well, and I will give you as much of that as you want.  There is nothing you can ask of me that I will not give you in this week.  So ask me.”

Harlan does not lecture about art.  He critiques stories.  Nothing is too small or too large.

“Write by hand on actual paper with an actual pen, ball-point, or the bloody end of your … index finger, if that’s what you need.  Because only in that way will you come back into con­tact with your words.

“Without character, you are thrown back on … anecdote….  That is the dopey way of writing.  There is no subtext, no confluence, no something back here that pays off up there.  Character is the engine that drives the story.

“If you want to be a good writer, all you have to read are the Sherlock Holmes stories.  They are based upon observing.

“There is no nobler chore in the craft of writing than holding up the mirror of reality and turn­ing it slightly, so we have a new and different perception of the commonplace, the everyday, the ‘normal’, the obvious.  People are reflected in the glass.  The fantasy situation into which you thrust them is the mirror itself.  And what we are shown should illuminate and alter our perception of the world around us.

“You never reach glory or self-fulfillment unless you’re willing to risk everything, dare any­thing, put yourself dead on the line every time … once one becomes strong or rich or potent or powerful it is the responsibility of the strong to help the weak become strong.”

He devoted every waking moment to the class and the students (and there were very few sleeping moments for him or any of us that week).

Some of us felt it incongruous that he died in his sleep.  But he was a dreamer.  Nor shall I decline to say May his memory be for a blessing.


A. McGarrigle, “Going Back to Harlan” (1995)

4 thoughts on “Till they ring inside my head forever

  1. Love the McGarrigle quote! The song started playing in my head as soon as I saw the email notification from File 770!

  2. Thanks so much for this, John. Inspiring words from Harlan!
    He was a legend. I can’t forget the time when he won the lawsuit against the producers of the “Future Cop” t.v. show, and used part of the money to lease a huge billboard facing Paramount Studies in Hollywood that read: “Writers — Don’t Let Them Steal From You! Keep Their Hands Out of Your Pockets!” He really stood up and fought for writers, as well as mentoring them in their craft.

  3. “His first story “The Gloconda” was published in 1949; his first in a prozine, “Life Hutch”, in the April 56 If, illustrated by Emsh.”
    Somewhere in there should be his contribution to EC comics, the story “Upheaval!”. It appeared in Weird Science Fantasy #24, Jun 1954. He is credited with the plot of the story.

  4. A good friend called me to tell me Harlan had passed away. Beyond the fact that I knew he was very ill, I still told myself he would live on and on and…. That didn’t happen. My wife said I was white as a ghost when I hung the phone up. I went into the room that is 50% Little Ellison Wonderland, with the glass display towers, the art, the photos and every book he ever published including the different edition and the foreign editions….hundreds. There was more downstairs. I will always have those, but no Harlan to call and talk to, to be laughed at, chewed out and just to chat with every now and then. Such a loss.

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