The Sound of the Scythe, or Harlan Ellison Eviscerates Me Again

It doesn’t take much work to know that I love Harlan Ellison’s work, and that I think the man himself is pretty keen, too. Even a new reader of my blog/website will know fairly quickly. So this Christmas was a pretty good one considering I got two of his books as gifts. One was the Subterranean Press edition of his classic 1958 collection The Deadly Streets, which I’d read this past summer in one of my paperback editions. Subterranean makes handsome volumes and this one is no exception. Now I need me the matching Gentleman Junkie so I can have the set. Anyway, Pamela did great. The other Ellison volume I received was Harlan Ellison’s The Sound of the Scythe, which features the full-length novel The Sound of the Scythe, published in its entirety for the first time, as well as four novellas. I feel the urge to talk about this book.

The Sound of the Scythe opens the book. Like most of Ellison’s novels, it’s a short one. It’s about a man named Emory who is moved to revenge against a former friend of his, a powerful man who is intent on destroying Emory’s life for the simple reason that he can. The book is a science fiction story that has the main character moving across the stars, trading faces (and, in some cases, bodies) to exact his revenge. It’s pure Ellison. Equal parts angry, loving, fantastic, and scary, one can’t help but feel Emory’s pain and even disgust in himself until the final pages. Still, while the novel is entertaining, it’s the lesser piece of the four that comprise this book. The fact that it was published for the first time in over 50 years, and was rewritten and unabridged, and the fact that it’s Ellison’s second novel, are the main selling points. I enjoyed it a lot, but it isn’t my favorite piece in the book.

The book’s second piece is Ellison’s novella “Mefisto in Onyx.” This story is about Rudy Pairis, a man who is able to read minds, and how he’s duped by a serial killer to switch bodies. The story is really good, though I found that the introductory meeting between Rudy and his closest friend, deputy district attorney Allison Roche, to be longish, since it comprises most of the story. Still, I enjoyed it the first time I read it back in my early-twenties when I read the 1997 collection Slippage, and I enjoyed it even more this time around.

The third piece is the novella “All the Lies That Are My Life,” which appears to be a semi-autobiographical tale about two writers. While I have this novella in the 1980 collection Shatterday, I still haven’t read the collection. This novella floored me. When I reached the end of it, I wanted to go back to the beginning and start over, and I wanted to curl into a ball on the couch and cry, heart-broken. It’s that kind of story.

The final novella of the book is one of my favorites, “The Resurgence of Miss Ankle-Strap Wedgie.” I first read this story back around 2000/2001, in the fourth volume of the doomed Edgeworks series, which collected two of Ellison’s collections: Love Ain’t Nothing But Sex Misspelled (1968) and The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World (1969). “The Resurgence of Miss Ankle-Strap Wedgie” is in the former collection. I read it again as part of 2001’s The Essential Ellison: A 50-Year Retrospective. This novella is a Hollywood story about a former movie star by the name of Valerie Lone who is found waitressing at a roadside diner by a movie studio’s publicity guy–Handy, who is the main character–and a producer. They lure Lone back to Hollywood, seeing it as a way to make their current movie, a spy picture starring Robert Mitchum, more interesting to the public.

The novella is heartbreaking. It got me back when I was 23/24, and it got me again, harder, at 37. I stayed up late one night this week finishing it, even though I knew how it ended. And when I finished, I wanted to cry.

And that’s why I’m writing about this book. The four longer pieces by Ellison are at times quite funny, and beautiful, but they’re all heartbreaking. They move one to look at the world, and at themselves, and ask the difficult questions. What constitutes bravery? Why do we allow ourselves to become entrapped by outside forces? Why do we ignore the songs within ourselves for false senses of security? What is love?

These are things that run throughout Ellison’s work, and they are why I love his writing so much. When I’m done, I’m usually wrecked, but I feel better for it. So click the link. Get yourself this book, or the others that I mentioned, and ask yourself those questions.

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About Bill Gauthier

Bill Gauthier is a writer. His books include the collection CATALYSTS (2007), ALICE ON THE SHELF (2011), and SHADOWED (2011).

Posted on February 8, 2015, in Books, Opinion, Pop Culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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