In a career spanning more than 40 years, he has won more awards for the 75 books he has written or edited, the more than 1700 stories, essays, articles, and newspaper columns, the two dozen teleplays and a dozen motion pictures he has created, than any other living fantasist. He has won the Hugo award 8½ times, the Nebula award three times, the Bram Stoker award, presented by the Horror Writers Association, six times (including The Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996), the Edgar Allan Poe award of the Mystery Writers of America twice, the Georges Méliès fantasy film award twice, two Audie Awards (for the best in audio recordings), and was awarded the Silver Pen for Journalism by P.E.N., the international writer’s union (this prestigious accolade was presented for his columns in the L.A. Weekly, titled “An Edge in My Voice,” in defense of the First Amendment).All of that being the case, you may be wondering why you haven't heard of him. And I have no ready explanation for that, though there are a few hints in the wind. First, it is said that 90% of his stuff is out of print. And second, he has a reputation for being, shall we say, difficult. The man clearly believes in free speech (see reference to First Amendment, above) but he does not like having his stuff used without remuneration. He was involved, for instance, in a 1980 landmark lawsuit: he sued ABC-TV and Paramount Pictures for $337,000 when they plagiarized a television series that he had created. This was the famous (in some quarters) Brillo/Future Cop case. And more recently he has taken on AOL.
'What Ellison does best', says one web site, 'is irritate people.' Ellison is not a tall person, says the same source, 'but he is very self-possessed and confrontational... When he stood up to give a reading at a convention a voice drifted to his ears: "Isn't he short?" To which Mister Ellison's immediate reply is reputed to have been (through gritted teeth), "I may be short, but I'm very tall when I stand on my ego." The disembodied (and much chastened) voice did not reply.'
If you search Amazon.co.uk for Ellison's works, you will find plenty listed, but they almost all come from American publishers. My local library has almost nothing of his. Hence it took me some time, poking around in dusty old bookshops, to find a collection of short stories first issued in the UK in 1973 and reprinted in 1981.
Titled All the Sounds of Fear, this collection includes some of Ellison's most famous stories, particularly I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, and 'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman. The latter I regard as one of the most brilliant titles that I have ever come across, though personally I would have omitted the inverted commas.
In a short introduction to All the Sounds of Fear, Ellison says that the theme of alienation dominates the collection. And he is right. But, he adds, the stories 'are by no means stories of hopelessness.' Well, I'm not so sure about that.
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, the first story, is a strong contender for the title of blackest, darkest, bleakest story that I have ever read, describing, as it does, a future in which computers have taken over the world and preserve just one human life solely in order to inflict pain and suffering upon him.
The Ticktockman story did not, for me, live up to its title. And the last one in the book, Bright Eyes, is yet another vision of an apocalyptic future in which all human life is extinguished.
In short, I suspect that Harlan Ellison is a writer for true connoisseurs, hard-core fans of the genre, rather than the general reader. However, if you're tempted, you might begin by trying The Essential Ellison: a 50 Year Retrospective. It runs to more than 1200 pages, according to Amazon.com, though Amazon.co.uk thinks it only has 152. I think the former authority is more likely to be correct, particularly as it supplies far more information about the book.