“Zorro and Jiminy Cricket”: Remembering Harlan Ellison

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Photo by Kevin Shirley
Photo by Kevin Shirley

This summer saw the passing of a giant in the world of science fiction. Harlan Ellison (1934–2018) was an extraordinarily prolific writer, with more than 1,700 published works ranging from short stories and novellas to screenplays, collections, and anthologies. Dragon Con welcomed Peter David, Kathleen O’Shea David (moderator), James Palmer, and Bill Ritch to the Hyatt International North Saturday to remember their friend and colleague. Those in attendance spoke warmly of an author known as much for his temperament and bravado as for his work.

“Harlan was a Dragon Con regular,” began Peter David. For a time Peter and Harlan were fixtures at the con. In fact, they initiated the “Iron Artist” program, the first secret ingredient of which was cubism. The basic rules established by Harlan and Peter remained for the duration of the event. As Peter and Kathleen reflected upon their relationship with Ellison, a fascinating portrait began to emerge. Peter met Ellison in 1974 at a world science fiction convention. That meeting consisted of Ellison literally running through a room, stopping for no one. From that inauspicious beginning, a friendship between the two began to grow. Ellison loved to sing, and he and David loved to sing duets. In fact, one year Ellison was in Tempe, Arizona to receive the Grandmaster award. He was sad because none of his friends were attending. David made a spur of the moment decision to attend the event, flew to Tempe, and arrived just in time for the award ceremony. At the ceremony David found Ellison on stage drooped over, miserable, basically wanting to be anywhere BUT that stage. David got on stage and began to address the group. After David finished his remarks Ellison jumped up, hugged Peter, and the two began a duet. The audience “came alive.” They loved to sing together.

David remembered the MadCon (Madison, Wisconsin) occasion where he “got” Ellison. As a fundraiser for charity, fans could purchase seats at a table with their favorite author for dinner. At this event Ellison had a tube of Guava paste and some cream cheese. He loved the taste of the two, and was sharing the concoction with those in attendance. David, with the assistance of a fan (named Barney) who just happened to come up to ask for an autograph, executed a plan to capture the moment. With Ellison continuing to share his guava paste and cream cheese, David suddenly bellowed: “It’s people! Let everybody know… Guava paste is people!” Barney then ran up, grabbed David and began to pull him toward the exit. As he was being pulled from the room, David clutched the door frame bellowing: “It’s people, Guava paste is people, it’s people!!!!” David completely captured the room and upon his return Ellison dropped to his knees and bowed with his arms raised over his head. David took Solyent Green to a new and unique level that evening in Tempe.

The relationship between David and Ellison was best illustrated by David’s response to the creation of a group known as the “Enemies of Ellison.” David, upon learning of this group and its activities, wrote an essay he published in his “But I digress” column calling for the creation of a “Friends of Ellison” group in which the only requirement was that individuals send him stories of Ellison’s kindness. David was flooded by responses from across the country, including a story by Isaac Asimov. David collected the stories, produced a book, and sent it to Ellison. David’s action “cemented” their relationship in a way it had never been before.

Ellison, when talking with you, tended to cut right to the chase. A famous story involves the occasion with a young writer who contacted him to get some professional advice. He was trying to get his science fiction published. When he contacted the author for advice the response he got was classic Ellison. “Your work won’t sell because it sucks,” he declared. “Stop writing stuff that sucks and your stuff will sell.” The young writer was J. Michael Straczynski.

A touching illustration of the warmth and generous nature of Ellison’s relationship with the David family came when Kathleen and Peter recounted the tale of the evening Ellison babysat their daughter. Ellison allowed her to explore his home with all its unique pieces. Once the exploration ended, the two sat and watched Pinocchio together until they fell asleep.

The audience was filled with those who knew the author and appreciated his work. By the end of the hour what they’d received was a portrait of a complex and creative man who was indeed the “combination of Zorro and Jiminy Cricket.”

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