You Had to Be Then
The one Nashville science fiction convention in the second half of the 1970s I couldn’t attend was the 1977 Kublai Khan. None other than the redoubtable and controversial Harlan Ellison was the guest of honor that year. I had just started a job at Opryland, the theme park that is now a mall and a convention hotel and a testament to the excesses of modern American life. Instead of interacting with one of the great writers of the 20th Century, I spent that weekend washing and drying and dry-cleaning and pressing and hanging up the costumes for all the shows performed in the park.
Like most of my fellow fen in that deep and abyss of time that was my misspent youth, I had fairly strong opinions about Harlan Ellison. I loved his work and still do. I’d seen him on television several times, so I knew he had little inclination to couch his own opinions in tactful language. And he did have opinions, many of them. I tended to agree with most of them, so missing out on the chance to meet him and hear him speak was yet another one of those regrets I mentioned a couple of columns ago.
I’d first encountered his writings in the late 1960s, back when he was one of the brash young things pushing science fiction to emerge from the genre ghetto it had existed in for so many decades and evolve into a real live literary form worthy of respect from academia and Hollywood alike as well as being one able to generate lots more money than was being paid to its practitioners in them thar days.
He was part of the New Wave that had started in England during Michael Moorcock’s tenure as editor of New Worlds magazine that was dedicated to taking speculative fiction (as Ellison called what he did rather than the stale old term ‘science fiction that the non-cognoscenti thought meant cheesy special effects and monster costumes with the zippers clearly visible in the back) in new directions.
It was real people doing real things; in space, in laboratories, even in bedrooms. Because real people, you know, have sex. And poop, so, yeah, let’s think about how a being from Alpha Centauri might arrange his bathroom. That’s part of it, although nowhere near all. But you kind of see what some of the ideas floating around were like in those days. Real people, or real BEMs (Bug-Eyed Monsters), doing what they will probably actually be doing in the future, explained in language that was more sophisticated and poetic than the simplistic pulpy sensationalism of days of yore. Or something like that.
It was the 60s. As the title of this piece points out, you had to be then.
In 1967, Ellison edited a ground-breaking anthology of New Wave stories called Dangerous Visions. He got more than thirty of his fellows in the field whom he had not managed to completely alienate to write the best stories of their lives, the ones they’d always wanted to write, but never felt would get bought by the publishers of that time. The tales that were too avant-garde, too controversial, too dirty for the fiction markets of the day.
And so, they did, those thirty-plus legendary scriveners. And it was an era-defining success. Fritz Leiber, Jr. (whose novel Conjure Wife will receive some attention in a future column – stay tuned!) won both a Hugo Award and a Nebula Award for his novelette, “Gonna Roll the Bones”, beating out Philip K. Dick’s “Faith of Our Fathers” for the Hugo. Philip Jose Farmer took the Hugo’s novella category for “Riders of the Purple Wage”, and Samuel R. Delany won the same award for his short story, “Aye, and Gomorrah…” That’s pretty much a sweep for a single anthology. Ellison was also honored at the 26th World SF Convention in Berkeley, California (of course) for his efforts.
Now, those of you denizens of darkness out there who only know of Robert Bloch as having written the book Alfred Hitchcock based his most famous movie on might be surprised to learn that the author of Psycho also wrote science fiction. In fact, he won the 1959 short story Hugo Award for “That Hell-Bound Train”, so of course, he was invited to contribute to Dangerous Visions.
And boy, did he deliver. He delivered so well that Ellison was inspired to write a sequel to “A Toy for Juliette” that he called with his typical carefully considered restraint “The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World”. But it’s the Bloch tale that concerns us in this space, in this moment, as we’re thinking about time travel this week.
Simply stated, in “A Toy for Juliette”, a man in the distant future has been fetching people from the past for his bored, jaded, spoiled rotten and thoroughly homicidal daughter to play with. One day, he decides she needs a real challenge, so the toy he brings to her is…
Oh, go ahead and look. You know you want to.
Jack the Ripper.
Yep. That Jack.
The Ripper. The Whitechapel Horror.
No wonder he was never caught, huh?
Is it science fiction? Well, yes.
Is it horror? Very much so. Did I happen to mention dismemberment?
Is it time travel? You bet. So, it fits with our theme, n’est pas?
If Ellison didn’t suspect Bloch might go that route, he probably ought to have. Bloch had already written one of the most important Jack tales of the 1940s, “Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper”, which by 1967 had been adapted to both radio and television. Bloch was more than due to revisit his old friend anyhow, and Ellison gave him the perfect showcase for it.
According to its Amazon page, Dangerous Visions does appear to still be in print, if not available from your local second-hand bookstore, if there is such a thing near you. There was a follow-up anthology, Again, Dangerous Visions, which is available as an ebook from Amazon. I found no dead tree editions for sale except in the used book markets. It had forty-six stories from forty-six different writers.
There was to be a third volume, The Last Dangerous Visions, but Ellison was never able to get it into print before he passed away in 2018. Some of the purported 150 stories he contracted for it by 1979 were eventually placed elsewhere. Some were withdrawn. In 2020, the executor of Ellison’s estate, Michael Straczynski, announced that he intended to go ahead with publication of whatever is left of Ellison’s original compilation.
I worry, though, that there will turn out to be a consensus that the moment might have passed, that those visions are no longer particularly dangerous. That the tales Ellison gathered together over forty years ago are nowadays pretty much in the mainstream of the genre at best, dated at worst, and that despite all the efforts of the New Wave writers the genre they strove to bring legitimacy to is still called science fiction and still thought of by the illiterati as ‘that Buck Rogers stuff.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
The more it changes, the more it stays the same.
I haven’t provided my fellow horror addicts a lagniappe in a while. You know, that little something extra, like the thirteenth doughnut in a dozen that nobody gives out anymore, or the free lifetime tire rotations you get when you buy four new Michelins. It’s well past time you had une lagniappe, and I think I’ve got a doozy for you.
Way back in the early years of the millennium, I placed a cluster of short stories in several long-out-of-print anthologies published by Rage Machine Books. Rage Machine is an imprint run by a gentleman and a scholar by the name of G.W. Thomas. He has spent a couple of decades doing yeoman labours in the field of the history and study of the supernatural detective story, which was the focus of most my own work in those days, as well as of the Rage Machine anthologies in which the majority of my yarns appeared. G.W. also had an email thingie you could sign up for to receive daily “flashshots”, very short tales of one hundred words or less. I placed eight or nine ultra-short stories in that venue, one of which is right here:
God Bless Us, Every One
Thanks to Scrooge’s change of heart, Tiny Tim lived, and he grew strong. Forty-five years after the events of that memorable Christmas Eve, the man who had been Tiny Tim stood in a dingy, blood-spattered room in Whitechapel, hacking away at the corpse of Mary Kelly, muttering under his breath, “God bless us, every one… God bless us, every one… God bless us…”
Sixty-three words, not counting the title. Not the shortest one I did; a gruesome little piece called “Oops!” clocked in at a mere thirty-two words. I did try to expand “God Bless Us, Every One” into a longer yarn later on, but never could get it right. The concept cried out for a flash tale of sixty-three words, and no more.
Anyhow, G.W.’s website and associated blog contain a wealth of information on some aspects of the history of our genre that I have not yet examined, and are well worth the time anyone interested in our shared cultural heritage might be inclined to invest in them. I commend them to you. They can be located here:
Go thou and be enlightened, as well as entertained. It’s good stuff.
And so, until next time, fellow fiends…
Be afraid. Be very afraid.