On Harlan Ellison, Influence, and Grief

Last Wednesday, June 28th, the author Harlan Ellison passed away. I know he was an enormous influence in the world of speculative fiction, and I’ve heard many stories about him, but even now I can’t say for certain that I’ve ever read one of his stories. Nonetheless, I felt then and still feel that I should be in mourning for him, because he influenced my influences.

In a journal post commemorating Ellison, Neil Gaiman goes so far as to say that Ellison made him a writer. This, coming from the man who made me a writer. This is why I feel like I should feel something, and then feel oddly guilty about the fact that I don’t.

Time works differently in the world of literature, but I still think it’s fair to say that Harlan Ellison was before my time. Everyone I can think of who has a strong opinion about him, in either direction, has at least five years on me. Then I again, I know I read some of his contemporaries in college, and I’ve developed a deep appreciation for writers who came much earlier than him.

I feel left out of the grieving process. I worry that I’ve missed something critical by not getting to his work sooner and being able to have a proper response to his passing now. I feel a strange fealty to the writers and thinkers who have influenced me who are now in mourning.

Is that the point of influence? I don’t know. I’m used to thinking of influence as such an abstract thing: a river of ideas connecting one writer to the next, carving a clean bank through the vagaries of culture and history. I’m not used to thinking of influence in terms of community, and right now, it’s more obvious to me that it is that, too.

There are writers who shape your work from across the span of decades or even centuries. You never bother to mourn their passing because they are dead before you are even born, or maybe just a few years after. Kurt Vonnegut is on the cusp of this divide for me. I remember seeing him alive and on TV, on the Daily Show. I remember hearing that he had died. Those both happened long before I fell in love with his work, long before he became one of my influences.

And, of course, there are stories of Kurt Vonnegut and Harlan Ellison hanging out and joking with each other. Those stories, in an even more improbable fashion (since I wasn’t even born then) give the feeling of missing out.

It’s tempting, despite whatever anxieties it may trigger, to imagine all the great writers as one big club. They all hang out together, they all joke to together, they all open doors for each other. It’s all fabulous and stimulating and even when they gather for a funeral you can’t help but picture the scene with a certain glimmer.

But I’ve read enough of their personal accounts, and read them carefully enough, to know intellectually it isn’t like that. They’re lucky to see each other once a year, and plenty of them can’t stand each other. Writing is lonely work, no matter how much you’ve accomplished.

And speaking of writers who can’t stand each other, Harlan Ellison was one of them. He made many enemies. He arguably hurt a lot of people. Maybe in that sense I’m spared the quandary Cory Doctorow is still sorting through, of how to admire the man’s work while scrutinizing (the memory of) the man.

This is not, you may have noticed, a post about Harlan Ellison. Not really. Sorry if that’s what you were expecting. It’s more a post about legacy, because I am obsessed with legacy and it’s hard to find an organic way to talk about it. Only in the last year or so have I figured out that most people don’t think much about legacy. Maybe that’s for the best.

After all, Harlan Ellison’s life and career seem, in retrospect, precisely engineered to leave behind a legacy, any legacy, as long as people will keep talking about him, as long as people kept talking about him while he was still here. I don’t mean to ascribe any cynicism to Ellison or his actions. That would be hypocritical of me. I want to be remembered too. I’m desperately terrified of being forgotten.

And I can’t help but remember something I’ve noticed many times before: that the act of mourning has almost everything to do with the mourner and surprisingly little to do with the deceased. I mourned when Philip Seymour Hoffman died because he was in one of my favorite movies. I knew nothing about him. I love his character in that movie because of what I learned about myself.

I don’t think there’s anything selfish or wrong about this process. In a way, I think it might actually be sacred. When I was a student at UC Santa Barbara, and there was a shooting, the part that angered me most about the entire thing was the new crews infesting the homes of Isla Vista and trying to suck the stories out all the survivors.

“Fuck off,” I thought, and still think any time there’s a shooting, “Those stories don’t belong to you. Those stories belong to the people who were there and the people who knew the departed. They need those stories now more than ever, and they need every drop of those stories, and they need them pure.”

The funny thing is, if it were any other person mourning any other person, I would be far more charitable. Again, I think there’s something sacred about grief. I would defend to death any other person’s right to grieve how they choose, short of committing further violence, and yet I look upon my own process with suspicion.

Maybe this is a post about Harlan Ellison. Maybe this is what I feel about this passing. Maybe this is just my way of making sense of it. And maybe it isn’t wrong and can’t be wrong because grief is the process of accepting the most unacceptable thing. It the process of reasoning through the unreasonable. No matter what we may think about death, it always feels wrong. It gums up the works in a countless enormous and tiny ways.

If I had gotten to Harlan’s work a little earlier, I probably would’ve had time to fall in love with it and tell him so to his face. And if I had become a fan of Harlan Ellison, I would be able to pitch and help with the effort to unpack his difficult legacy. And if I had something to share about Harlan Ellison, an anecdote about how one of his stories changed me, or a unique interpretation of a piece of his work, I would have one more tool I could use to connect with some of the people I admire.

And if I had that, I would have one more brick to put in the wall between myself and death, one more counterweight to the fact of infinite mass, that fact that I will be forgotten here, in this world, the only world I can remember ever living in, the only world I have proof of, whether it’s days after my passing or centuries, because even humanity will end at some point, if somehow my memory which is not me lasts that long.

And as strange and bleak as that all sounds, I feel better now. Maybe that is the real reason why we mourn: to rejuvenate our spirits with the honesty only loss can unlock. Thank you, Harlan Ellison, for that. I’ll try to get to your work someday too.