I was in LA two weeks ago, to record the person who is playing the actual Voice of God in Good Omens. I had hoped for a long enough trip to see old friends and catch up with the world, but the trip was immediately truncated, as I was needed in Toronto where they were having press days for the next season of American Gods. I had just enough time, between leaving the airport and getting to my hotel, to see a friend.
I went to see Harlan and Susan Ellison. Harlan’s been my friend for 33 years. We met in 1985, in the Central hotel in Glasgow, where he was Guest of Honour at the Eastercon. I was there as a young journalist to do an interview with him for a magazine that went out of business between me handing in the interview and them printing it. They were closed down by the publisher after printing the black and white pages of the magazine but before they printed the colour pages (which cost more). I sold the interview to another magazine, and the editor was immediately fired and everything he had bought spiked. And then I put the article away, convinced it was a Jonah.
A couple of years later, when I had just started writing comics, Harlan phoned me up to shout at me about having Batman break the law by entering a hotel room without a warrant (“But that’s why he wears a mask,” I said. “So he can break the law.”). That wound up with me turning up at his house, the next time I was in LA for a signing, bringing with french fries, the kind he liked. And after that we were friends.
A phone call from Harlan was still like a phone call from a tropical storm that’s about to turn hurricane. My assistant Lorraine dreaded them.
I’ve written about Harlan a few times over the years. I wrote the introduction to his collection The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World.
A few quotes from it:
It has, from time to time, occurred to me that Harlan Ellison is engaged on a Gutzon Borglum–sized work of performance art—something huge and enduring. It’s called Harlan Ellison: a corpus of anecdotes and tales and adversaries and performances and friends and articles and opinions and rumors and explosions and treasures and echoes and downright lies. People talk about Harlan Ellison, and they write about Harlan, and some of them would burn him at the stake if they could do it without getting into too much trouble and some of them would probably worship at his feet if it weren’t for the fact he’d say something that would make them feel very small and very stupid. People tell stories in Harlan’s wake, and some of them are true and some of them aren’t, and some of them are to his credit and some of them aren’t . . .
That was true until he died. (Gutzon Borglum was the man who carved the faces into Mount Rushmore.) I also wrote in the introduction about me and Harlan. This is part of what I wrote:
I’ve had a personal relationship with Harlan Ellison for much longer than I’ve known him. Which is the scariest thing about being a writer, because you make up stories and write stuff down and that’s what you do. But people read it and it affects them or it whiles away your train journey, whatever, and they wind up moved or changed or comforted by the author, whatever the strange process is, the one-way communication from the stuff they read. And it’s not why the stories were written. But it is true and it happens.
I was eleven when my father gave me two of the Carr-Wollheim Best SF anthologies and I read “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” and discovered Harlan. Over the next few years I bought everything of his I could find. I still have most of those books.
When I was twenty-one I had the worst day of my life. (Up to then, anyway. There have been two pretty bad days since. But this was worse than them.) And there was nothing in the airport to read but Shatterday, which I bought. I got onto the plane, and read it crossing the Atlantic. (How bad a day was it? It was so bad I was slightly disappointed when the plane touched down gently at Heathrow without bursting into flames. That’s how bad it was.)
And on the plane I read Shatterday, which is a collection of mostly kick-ass stories—and introductions to stories—about the relationship between writers and stories. Harlan told me about wasting time (in “Count the Clock That Tells the Time”), and I thought, fuck it, I could be a writer. And he told me that anything more than twelve minutes of personal pain was self-indulgence, which did more to jerk me out of the state of complete numbness I was in than anything else could have done. And when I got home I took all the pain and the fear and the grief, and all the conviction that maybe I was a writer, damn it, and I began to write. And I haven’t stopped yet.
Shatterday, more or less, made me what I am today. Your fault, Ellison.
And it’s true too. The urging voice in the back of my head, when I was a young writer, the one that drove me forward, that voice was Harlan’s from his introductions and essays: fierce, unapologetic, self-shaped and determined. I wasn’t that person, but Harlan’s voice lit a fuse that kept burning. And Harlan demystified writing. The way he described it, it was something you could do. It was within your reach. And you could get better.
He was his own worst enemy, and that’s even more impressive when you stop to think that he is the only person I know to have actually had an official Enemy group (for a while they actually called themselves the Enemies of Ellison). He inspired great loyalties and great enmities, and thought it a huge character failing in me that I really liked most people (including several of the Enemies of Ellison) and that most people seemed to like me.
Harlan and I stayed real friends, through ups and through downs. The most recent down was his stroke, three years ago. He went to bed and didn’t get up again. He had been a fighter, but he stopped fighting. Was not always there: lost memories, was sometimes confused, was still Harlan.
I was very aware that each time I saw him could be the last. We were painfully honest with each other. You try not to leave things unsaid, when death‘s in the air.
The last time I saw him he was more himself than at any time in the last few years. But a milder version of himself. He wanted me to tell him the set-up to a joke I had told him 15 years ago that, he said, was the funniest joke he’d ever heard, but he had forgotten how to tell it, and I did, and he laughed again. I told him about the Mermaid Parade, and Amanda and Ash. (I took Amanda to meet Harlan, when we first started dating, in the way you take someone to meet the family.) He said he had learned from Susan how to be at peace with things, and that she had learned, in the 32 years they had been together, how to be angry.
Yesterday, I left the Good Omens edit, and saw that I had missed several calls. I called Susan Ellison, and she told me the news, that Harlan had died in his sleep.
I am glad he went peacefully.
I loved him. He was family, and I will miss him very much.
He left behind a lot of stories. But it seems to me, from the number of people reaching out to me and explaining that he inspired them, that they became writers from reading him or from listening to him on the radio or from seeing him talk (sometimes it feels like 90% of the people who came to see Harlan and Peter David and me talk after 911 at MIT have gone on to become writers) and that his real legacy was of writers and storytellers and people who were changed by his stories.