There are many ironic things inside this book. Or even before you get inside the book. Let's start with the first four words of the title. I Have No Mouth….Was famously outspoken Harlan Ellsion laughing at us when he wrote that? The same sharp-tongued Harlan Ellison whose rants go viral on the Internet?
No mouth? Harlan Ellison?
I note, in passing, that the Wikipedia entry for Mr. Ellison has a lengthy section entitled "Controversies and Disputes" —with no fewer than ten separate subsections included in its litany of conflicts. ("Section 4.1. Temperament….Section 4.8 Allegations of assault on Charles Platt….Section 4.10 Lawsuit against Fantagraphics," etc.)
"It sometimes looks rather as if, like a latter-day litigious Oscar Wilde," author Adam Roberts has suggested, Ellison "has decided to put his real genius into his lawsuits." Indeed, Ellison’s publisher once promoted him as "possibly the most contentious person on Earth." I've never heard anyone dispute the title.
But then we get to the next four words. And I Must Scream. Okay, this is the Harlan Ellison we have come to know and fear.
I remember reading the title story in the collection, "I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream,” when I was a teenager. I found it wildly creative and wantonly disturbing. I just read it again a few days ago. I still think it’s wildly creative and wantonly disturbing. A lot has changed in sci-fi since then, but even today, we expect a certain degree of heroism in genre stories. Captain Kirk and Hans Solo must triumph, not only to delight the fans but to keep the franchise alive. Ellison’s heroes don't triumph. They don’t give a tinker's cuss about the franchise. They have a hard time keeping themselves alive.
But they do plenty of damage before leaving the scene. Reading the title story and others in this collection, I was inevitably reminded of that old song "You Always Hurt the One You Love"—in particular the Spike Jones parody version filled with gunshots and screams. Every one of the stories in this book has a love angle, but Harlan Ellison poses no threat to the romance writers of the universe. His love stories make The Bride of Frankenstein look like An Affair to Remember by comparison. If you doubt it, check out the less-than-comforting romances presented in stories here, such as "Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes" (gambler falls in love with a dead girl, and finds she is much, much worse than living dames), "Delusion for a Dragon Slayer" (Quick summary: hero gets the dragon, not the lady—or, rather, the dragon gets him), or "Big Sam Was My Friend" (man searches the universe for his long lost love, and is rewarded with a lynch mob).
Frankly, Ellison has far more in common with horror writers, especially the old school ones such as Poe and Lovecraft, who felt no obligation to provide comfortingly happy endings to their stories. Yes, there are science fiction elements on the surface level of these tales, but the terror runs far deeper. The terror is what you remember.
And it is surprisingly psychological in nature. Yes, horrifying external events happen in these stories. In the first sentence of the title story, the last survivors on the earth encounter one of their colleagues hanging from above with his throat slit. But we soon find out that the corpse is just an illusion. The evil computer that controls their world is just playing mind games with them. The goal of the game is not to inflict physical damage, and certainly not death. The aim is to torment their psyches…and to continue to do so forever and ever until the end of time.
Harlan Ellison is a bit like that evil computer. He likes to play twisted mind games too. In his case, they are called short stories, novels and screenplays. And he has written lots of them—more than 1,700, I am told. But unlike the computer, he gives us a glimpse of his algorithms and methodologies. Each of the short stories in this collection is accompanied by an introduction, which describes the circumstances that surrounded the tale's genesis as well as various observations on the writing life and the responsibility of being Harlan Ellison in a world where everyone else isn't.
These introductions are almost as good as the stories. And for a simple reason. Ellison, say what you will about his "temperament" and "allegations of assault," is a heck of a prose stylist. A number of writers of Ellison's generation deserve acknowledgement for expanding the boundaries of genre fiction, but none of them wrote punchier, more audacious sentences than Ellison. It almost seems as if he inserts a catheter into his Freudian Id, and lets the other end splurt out through his typewriter ribbon onto the printed page. He can go phrase for phrase with Kurt Vonnegut or Hunter Thompson or any of the other masters of raw and raucous prose, and always hold his own.
I can't give you a tour of his 1,700 tales. Ellison outruns even his devoted readers. But I am willing to declare, under oath if need be, that this book is a classic, one of the defining works in the New Wave movement that rewrote the sci-fi rulebook back in the 1960s. And while many of the other New Wave books have aged poorly, their once daring gambits now looking like failed sucker bets, this one still ups the ante. And probably because Harlan Ellison, even at his most experimental, always wrote as if his life depended on it. Or as he describes it: "A special word about the stories in this book: they come from someplace special in me. Someplace I don’t care to visit too frequently." For my part, I enjoyed the visit, but I can't blame Mr. Ellison for his reservations. After all, I get to leave when I'm done, but he has to live there. Okay, at least, he gets to scream.
Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. He is currently working on his ninth book, Love Songs: The Hidden History, which will be published by Oxford University Press.