“René Descartes walks into a bar. The bartender says, ‘Would you like a drink?’
Descartes says, ‘I think not,’ and disappears. A moment later he reappears and says, ‘On second thought…’
Anyway, Bill, this is Harlan Ellison.”
That was how my second voicemail from Harlan began. It was a moment that knocked me out. I’d already received a call from him the prior fall, in November 2006, but there I was leaving work in the spring of 2007, hearing the gruff voice again. A voice I’d heard in audiobooks, CD recordings of lectures, and on television was, again, coming from my phone. At the end of the message, he left his phone number.
I never used it.
Harlan Ellison died on June 27th. I heard about it on June 28th, which happens to be my wedding anniversary. I am heartbroken.
It’s taken me almost two months to write this because I wanted to get it right. I don’t know that I have. Harlan’s work has amazed me since I first started reading it when I was 19 years old, in 1996. I have trouble believing that I’ve been a reader and fan of the guy I first saw on television through his commentary on Sci Fi Channel’s Sci Fi Buzz when he was in his 60s and I was at the end of my teens. Turning 41–an actual friggin’ adult!–and Harlan is gone. People talk about their favorite Harlan Ellison stories. Of course, “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.” and “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” are classics and I love them both. I am partial to “Jeffty is Five” and “The Resurgence of Miss Ankle-Strap Wedgie,” and also “Incognita, Inc.” But trying to list favorites is a mug’s game, as Harlan might say. Every time I think of a few, a few more pop up that I love. His nonfiction was amazing, too. It made me want to try my hand at nonfiction, which is how I got into blogging, and even had the nerve to pitch my column to Dark Discoveries Magazine back in 2004.
But his writing, which was how he defined himself, was only a part of what I loved about Harlan. His personality seemed very similar to mine at times and I loved that he would say what he believed, throwing the chips into the air and letting them fall where they lay. For a kid who spent too much of his adolescence trying to figure out who he was, just living your life by your rules and to fuck with anyone who didn’t agree was refreshing. Looking back, I realize I may have taken this too far at times because Harlan had something I lacked: courage. Or the stupidity of just not being scared by anything. He was a Force of Nature, I was a Fart in the Wind. I look back on my column, American Gauthic, and some of the things I wrote online and said in real life during my early-to-mid-to-late-20s and cringe. I should not have gone there. I was not then, and am not now, Harlan Ellison, who could mostly get away with it. That said, the column did build some bridges and it is the thing that got me the voicemails from Harlan.
In the fall of 2006, upon renewing (or changing my address for) my HERC–Harlan Ellison Recording Collection–subscription, I sent a letter saying I was writing an essay about him if he’d like to read it. Harlan (or, more likely, Susan) sent a Post-It attached to an issue of The Rabbit Hole saying yes, so I mailed the manuscript to him.
A few weeks later, I was leaving work at my newish job as a teaching assistant and I saw I had a voicemail. It was Harlan, thanking me for the essay, telling me it was good, and correcting some mistakes that I’d made. I was thrilled. I wish my phone company at the time had let me keep the voicemail. I revised the essay and sent it to the magazine. The next spring it was published and I mailed the copy or two that Harlan had asked for to keep in his files.
Spring of 2007 was a good time for me. I had met the woman I was pretty sure I was going to ask to marry me. I had been hired as a teacher. Things were looking good. As I left school, I saw I had a voicemail. I opened it and heard, “René Descartes walks into a bar….”
Harlan Ellison had a large impact on my life, just as he did on many readers’ lives. His words, his personality, his performances, his life helped me through difficult times. Harlan’s message in his writing and in many of his lectures and public appearances was to be ourselves, to not take shit, to learn and think and love and help and basically try to be our best. And that was a message I needed at critical times in my life when, as someone coming from a lower middle-class background, elitism was a definite no-no.
Harlan and I had a few exchanges via his bulletin boards, but I was never able to bring myself to actually call him after he gave me his phone number in the spring of 2007. I was just too goddamned afraid, which would have disappointed him. I wasn’t afraid of him, I was afraid of me. It was stupid, and I should’ve listened to everyone around me, but I didn’t.
And now, Harlan is gone. I didn’t know him. I wasn’t a friend. I was a reader who admired his work and what the man did in his life. There are many out there who can tell stories of bad behavior and this and that and fuck them all. Harlan Ellison was a great man. His stories could cut you, make you feel, make you laugh, make you cry. He always believed in the possibilities of human beings. Harlan wanted what was best for us and for us to live our best lives with ethics, and for us to also know we’re all broken to a degree. We all have ugly sides that are part of being human. He wanted us to experience good art, good food, the best of what humanity had to offer. He knew, though, that there was violence beneath it all, and he had no problem revealing and, in some ways, reveling in it.
Harlan Ellison is dead. Words I knew I’d have to write someday but still feel strange to see together. Like Robin Williams and Wes Craven, another of my heroes gone. But, never truly gone. Because the work remains. And that is what Harlan wanted, for the work to last far longer than he did. I’m up to carrying it along. Join me?