Jewish author Harlan Ellison dies aged 84

Jewish author Harlan Ellison dies aged 84

Writer who penned works such as 'A Boy And His Dog' passes away after career spanning more than half a century

Harlan Ellison and his most famous work A Boy and His Dog
Harlan Ellison and his most famous work A Boy and His Dog

Harlan Ellison, the author of A Boy And His Dog and countless other stories featuring nightmarish and sometimes darkly humorous scenarios, has died at the age of 84.

During a career that spanned more than half a century, Ellison wrote some 50 books and more than 1,400 articles, essays, TV scripts and screenplays.

Although best known for his science fiction, which garnered nearly a dozen Nebula and Hugo awards, Ellison’s work covered virtually every type of writing from mysteries to comic books to newspaper columns.

Ellison’s death was confirmed by Bill Schafer, an editor with Subterranean Press, the author’s publisher.

He was born on May 27 1934 in Cleveland. His youth in nearby Painesville was lonely – he and his older sister, Beverly, were among the only Jews in town and were rejected. His loud mouth and small size also made him a target of bullies.

He attended Ohio State University but left after punching a professor who said he lacked writing talent. After he was drafted, he served in the army and then embarked on a writing career.

He was known as much for his attitude as his writing – he described himself once as “bellicose”.

His targets were anyone or anything that offended him, from TV producers to his own audience.

An encounter with Frank Sinatra, when the two faced off while Ellison was shooting pool, was immortalised in Gay Talese’s famous 1966 magazine profile of the singer.

“I go to bed angry and I get up angrier every morning,” he once said.

“Harlan Ellison: There was no one quite like him in American letters, and never will be,” author Stephen King Tweeted on Thursday.

“Angry, funny, eloquent, hugely talented. If there’s an afterlife, Harlan is already kicking ass and taking down names.”

Several of Ellison’s works were translated into dozens of languages.

One of the best known, A Boy And His Dog, portrays a world devastated by nuclear war and fought over by vicious gangs.

The hero, a young thug whose travelling companion is a mutant, telepathic dog, is lured to an underground community but rebels against its sterility. The novella was the basis for a 1975 movie starring Don Johnson.

The film’s gruesome but darkly comic ending elicited stunned laughter from its audience when it was the featured film at a science fiction movie marathon in Los Angeles that year.

Ellison recently expanded the story into a full-length novel, Blood’s A Rover, that Subterranean is publishing this month.

Some of his most popular works were surrealistic fantasies set in worlds run by totalitarians and conformists. Some were humorous, while many were shockingly graphic for their time.

He once said he wanted his stories “to grab you by the throat and tear off parts of your body”.

His short story, I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream, is about the last humans, eternally tortured by a malevolent, god-like computer. It was made into a computer game, with its author providing the machine’s voice.

Ellison disliked computers and worked on old manual typewriters, although he denied being anti-technology.

“I hate the uses that technology is put to,” he once said.

Sometimes, for promotional purposes, he would write his stories while seated in bookstore windows.

He edited Dangerous Visions, a seminal 1967 collection of science fiction stories that expanded the boundaries with their complex psychology and depictions of sex and violence.

Ellison was fiercely protective of his work and was not shy about going after those he believed had stolen or tampered with it. He instructed his fifth wife, Susan, to destroy all his notes and unfinished works after his death to avoid having them completed by some “literary grave-robber”.

He received partial credit after suing the producers of the Terminator movies that made Arnold Schwarzenegger a star, claiming the idea of the killer robot was stolen from his stories.

Throughout his career he maintained a love-hate relationship with the TV and movie industry, scripting episodes for such series as The Outer Limits and the original Star Trek. He was also a conceptual consultant for the 1990s popular syndicated science fiction series Babylon 5.

His 1967 Star Trek episode, The City On The Edge Of Forever, was one of the series’ darkest and most brilliant.

A young woman played by Joan Collins is saved from a fatal accident by the starship Enterprise’s time-travelling Dr McCoy. Later, Captain Kirk and Mr Spock learn they must return to the year 1930 and let her die or history will be changed and Nazi Germany will win the Second World War.

Despite his success – the Los Angeles Times said he should be considered the “20th-century Lewis Carroll” – Ellison sometimes seemed wistful about his own legacy.

His afterword to The Essential Ellison, a 1987 collection of his writings, read simply: “For a brief time I was here; and for a brief time I mattered.”

He is survived by his wife, Susan.

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