Harlan

It’s 1982; I am 10, and my brother is going on a trip and my folks are going to watch his daughters for him. To help keep them occupied, he loans us this magical new device called a “Video Cassette Recorder.” We knew VCRs existed, but here was this magical device that allowed you to watch and rewatch movies. We didn’t even have cable at the time. The only problem was the movies he lent us for that week were kids’ movies. Luckily, my dad knew an unsavory character.The neighbor down the street was not just the type of bastard who raised Pitt Bulls as fighting dogs, he was also a movie bootlegger. My dad, risking reputation, went down to “Rick’s” house and came back having borrowed about a dozen little brown rectangles, all of which contained an actual movie. My parents set out to watch as many as they could. We were poor. And by “poor” I mean we lived in a one bedroom trailer in Southern Arizona and I slept on the couch. So, one morning my dad gets up to watch a movie early while my nieces were still asleep in sleeping bags on the floor, and I wake up and lay there on the couch while he sits in his self-built plywood, throne-like leisure chair to watch “A Boy and His Dog,” starring Don Johnson (Miami Vice had not happened yet) and Suzanne Benton. It is a twisted little story about a young man and his intelligent psychic dog wandering the post-World War IV wasteland looking for women. It is the first R-Rated movie I ever saw, and it left an indelible impression.

It’s 1983 and I have discovered I love Star Trek more than Star Wars. My source of Star Trek is the local video store from which we rent video discs (we’ve ALMOST moved into modern home entertainment at that point) and they have the entire classic Trek series, two episodes per disc. I see “City on the Edge of Forever” for the first time. While reading fan materials, I find out the original story was very different, and there was controversy around a man named Harlan Ellison. I begin to look up his other work, only to find he wrote the original novel for “A Boy and His Dog.” He hated the movie’s ending. I read the novel, and begin to understand the real differences creative vision can bring to things.

It’s 1989, and I am dating the girl of my dreams. She’s cute, she’s smart, and puts up with the fact I am not only a huge nerd, but trying to learn how to write myself. Best of all, her dad like me too. He likes the fact I can quote Clarke and Asimov and the greatest of them all, Bradbury. From an extensive collection hands me a copy of Harlan Ellison’s “Deathbird Stories.” I read it all in one night.

It’s 2013 and I am about to publish my own collection of short stories. I have to pay tribute to the two writers who have influenced me the most in that medium, Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison. One is a muse of light and possibility who gave me the gift of rockets and the joys of the everyday miracle. The other is a master of pragmatism and darkness who gave me the gift of indicting tyranny, of calling out cruelty, of using the dark to shed light. I portray them as gods on my shoulder whispering in each ear as I desperately try to claim even a spark of their fires as my own.

It’s 2018 and I am sitting at work and I get a text from a friend that Harlan Ellison has died. The Master has passed in his sleep in an age when his direst warnings have come true, and we need his voice to censure the rancorous. But he’s gone, and we have to carry on in his place. I am still trying to nurture the fire he sparked in my head and heart, but I have not come close.

We will never do what he did as well as he did, but the best memorial we can give him is to try. My condolences to his family, and to the rest of us who now have to live in a world post-Harlan Ellison.

“The trick is not becoming a writer; the trick is staying a writer.” –Harlan Ellison