Harlan Ellison talks about unfinished business

Harlan Ellison – the fabled sci-fi writer credited with the best-ever episode of "Star Trek" – says he's coming to the end.

One reviewer said that Harlan Ellison is so prolific that "it's unlikely any living person over the age of 30 hasn't watched, read or heard something [he] created or inspired."

Harlan Ellison says he’s dying.

That would mark an era’s end, whether you love the author or hate him – and so few remain neutral that he once inspired an "Enemies" as well as a "Friends" group.

As one reviewer wrote, “Ellison has written so many novels, stories, screenplays and teleplays – both in the sci-fi genre and out – it's unlikely any living person over the age of 30 hasn't watched, read or heard something Ellison created or inspired. He wrote what is considered the single greatest episode of the original 'Star Trek,' called 'City on the Edge of Forever'; he wrote many of the best episodes of 'The Twilight Zone' and 'The Outer Limits'; his work inspired James Cameron's original 'Terminator' film, and he edited what many say is the greatest sci-fi anthology ever, 'Dangerous Visions' and its first sequel, Again Dangerous Visions.' "

(For myself, I’d add to the achievements list “Jeffty is Five,” which readers of Locus magazine once voted the best short story of all time.)

Just before a recent convention appearance, Ellison told the Daily Page, with typical bombast, that he would drop dead at the convention itself. (He didn’t.) But he insisted that it was the last such event he would ever attend, and that “The truth of what's going on here is that I'm dying…. I'm like the Wicked Witch of the West – I'm melting.”

Ellison told the interviewer that his wife, Susan, “has instructions that the instant I die, she has to burn all the unfinished stories. And there may be a hundred unfinished stories in this house, maybe more than that….

“When I'm gone, that's it. What's down on the paper, it says 'The End,' that's it. 'Cause right now I'm busy writing the end of the longest story I've ever written, which is me."

Ellison’s a legend in his own right, but so many legends about the man abound that a 2008 documentary on his life opens with friend Robin Williams quizzing Ellison on their veracity. Mailed a dead gopher to a publishing house? Yes. Drove a dynamite truck? Yes. Threw a fan down an elevator shaft? No, not that one.

Like so many fans, I have a small Ellison story of my own. As a teenager working with pricey Golden Age books in a comic shop, my boss once severely scolded me for mailing an order to Ellison’s home COD. As it turned out, it had been prepaid. I wrote Ellison an apology, primly telling him how I was aware of his reputation, and hoped my boss and myself would escape his retribution. Next thing I knew Ellison himself was on the phone to our little shop, telling me I had him all wrong. He also wrote a kind note back to me, one that I kept long after I had left the job and long after I learned how to react when bosses yelled. No big deal in the big picture, but I remember it all these years later: a man who was famous and powerful in that little world lending a hand to a timid young clerk. And I remember hearing him at a comic book convention, actually using the word “pusillanimous” quite naturally in a sentence. Again, love him or hate him, it’s hard not to admire that.

If Ellison is indeed dying, at 76, it’ll settle the biggest question that has dogged him over recent decades: whether the world will ever see the last volumes of the “Dangerous Visions” anthology, stories that were famously commissioned and purchased but never published in that form.

In a 2007 interview, he said that for his own peace of mind, “and to have people stop sniping at me, of course,” he’d like to have "The Last Dangerous Visions" out. “It’s this giant Sisyphean rock that I have to keep rolling up a hill, and people will not stop bugging me about it. You would look at all the stuff I have done, and then they start yelling at me about that which I haven’t done.”

Human nature, isn’t it, to always want more?

Rebekah Denn blogs at eatallaboutit.com.

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