1975 - DEATHBIRD STORIES

The SPIDER Symposion: in-depth discussion of specific Ellison stories and works.

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1975 - DEATHBIRD STORIES

Postby Jan » Tue Oct 25, 2005 1:08 pm

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DEATHBIRD STORIES

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Harlan Ellison seduces all innocence on a mind-freezing odyssey into the darkest reaches of mortal terror and the most dazzling heights of Olympian hell in his finest collection. - Dell 1976

Get a hardcover book club edition from Harlan's store for $15, signed - ask Harlan in Pavilion. Many copies left as of April 2009. | Get the E-Reads print edition or e-book. | Langerhans page | Commentary by David Loftus | Article by Brian Murphy

Buy the new deluxe edition from Subterranean Press or Amazon.

The book was integrated into the omnibus volume DREAMS WITH SHARP TEETH (out of print). There is a seperate thread for "The Deathbird". "Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes" and "Delusions For A Dragon Slayer" are reprints from I HAVE NO MOUTH & I MUST SCREAM. "Shattered Like a Glass Goblin", "Along the Scenic Route" and "The Place With No Name" are from THE BEAST THAT SHOUTED LOVE AT THE HEART OF THE WORLD. "Paingod" is from PAINGOD AND OTHER DELUSIONS. "Rock God" was mentioned in the DREAM CORRIDOR Vol. 2 thread.

All editions after 1984 have been revised: “This edition has been extensively revised by the Author; every page has been carefully examined for errors. This edition culls all mistakes, restores missing material, and is as close to a Preferred Text as the Author and Publisher can offer.” If anyone knows what the missing material was or anything else about differences between the various editions, let us know.

THE FACE OF HELENE BOURNOUW (1960)

Perhaps, when the men among us see a beautiful woman and she turns out to like us, all of us have this nagging feeling of "It's too good to be true". Certainly in Harlan's stories many of the women tend to be harmful to the protagonist, yet he's either unable to see it coming or already too much under the control of his hormones. Bournouw is another alluring woman that men cannot take their eyes off. She's an advertising model, which reminds us that advertising is full of beautiful women (including, in these days, music videos) in order to make men take notice. Of course this is basically a cheap trick - we never get the women if we buy the products. The story is preceded by the caption "Even God needs good rolling stock to get things done." I think the idea is that attraction between men and women was something conceived by nature/god, and it lends great power to those who are able to use this for their own purposes. It turns out Helene is a robot built for specific goals (which remain vague). Her power over men is shown to be great, but her influence is almost altogether negative. She drains the people she's with - of their morality, their hope, their self-confidence. Like God, the people who built this "burn-out" woman want to get one thing done, and little thought is given to what happens to the "manipulated" party, to the one who's not in complete control of himself and left drained and spent in a worse place. In all of the relationships portrayed in the story, the men's ability to do their jobs - which can be an integral part of their self image - was compromised.

After later events comparable to the ones in the story, Harlan wrote "Valerie - A True Memoir" (1972) - a case of life imitating art inspired by life. I wonder how this story speaks to women, and what would have to be adjustetd if Harlan were to switch the genders of the characters. Rating: :| :| :oops:
Last edited by Jan on Thu Jan 04, 2007 2:58 am, edited 2 times in total.

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Postby DVG » Tue Oct 25, 2005 2:30 pm

Actually, I always thought this one of the weaker stories in an otherwise facinating collection. The relevation that Helene is a robot seems a bit cartoonish.

I am reminded in some ways of Shirley Jackson's rather more disturbing story, "One Ordinary Day, With Peanuts." I won't give away the details for those who haven't read it. Suffice to say that the theme is similar, but the actions of the primary characters are shown to be finally far more abitrary (and thus more inhuman) than are the machinations of Helene.

I recall having some idea that Mr. Ellison was in fact satirizing the literary notion of the femme fatale--showing such a monster to be an invention (a robot, literally) of the ugly, coarse, misshapen men (the little creatures) who could never attain a real woman sexually. So the plan of the little creatures also stands in for the revenge fantasies of those envious of other men's sexual personas: "That big dumb jock...pulls all those hot broads...I bet his girlfriend is a real bitch..." Etc.

I dare say I read too much into the work.

Wonderful site, BTW, and quite wonderful indeed that Mr. Ellison participates to the degree he does. I am not perhaps his biggest fan, but his best work is a pleasure to read and discuss.

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Postby DVG » Tue Oct 25, 2005 2:48 pm

BLEEDING STONES (1973)

Possibly the only thing by Mr. Ellison that I feel I don't "get" on any level.
Its primary message appears to be "pollution is bad."
I couldn't blame anyone for thinking the secondary message was something not entirely unlike "I hate Catholics."
Neither message feels particularly convincing.
The violence in "City on the Edge" and the final murder in "A Boy and His Dog" didn't strike me as being out of place given their context. But the violence here appears to have no context.
I could put it down as an exercise in sheer style--and considerable artistry went into the tale--but Ellison doesn't seem to be that sort of writer in the short or long run.
It doesn't help to know that there are no gargoyles on Saint Patrick's Cathedral. James Renwick Jr., the building's architect, thought they were vulgar. I also wondered why the stone statue of Atlas, referenced in the story, does not also come to life with the rest of the architectural details. Different mythos, I suppose.

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Postby Jan » Wed Oct 26, 2005 5:04 pm

DVG, what are you saying? This is a masterpiece!!

Just kidding. This looks a bit like something one could be tempted to write shortly after discovering Monty Python. I don't think it achieves anything significant, and it doesn't hold together too well. There's organized religion, there's pollution, and then there's violence. Do the gargoyles kill only the Christians or do they prefer killing them over others? It seems so at times, but I'm not sure. I don't think a whole lot of planning went into this, it seems like something written maybe in a shop window or on a tour or in a spare hour after being pissed off at organized Christianity. The talent of the writer is obvious (the narration is fantastic), there's just nothing very pressing to convey to the reader. I don't completely get the humor aspect of it (black humor again), it's unfunny to me, although the style makes it slightly amusing (the quick cuts, the sense of scale and the carefree attitude towards violence). Wish I had something better to say. I find Harlan's reviews and nonfiction funny.

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Postby Adam-Troy » Sun Oct 30, 2005 2:37 pm

I always found this piece a tour-de-force gore-a-thon, but not much of a story. One of the tales that qualifies Harlan as a first-rate writer of splatter -- a label that will likely anger him, since he has written eloquently about his distaste for splatter, and has used it less and less in subsequent years.* Certainly not a major story, or one I'd shove into the face of anybody I wanted to hook on the man's work.

* True, by the way, of many folks who write horror, myself included.

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Postby David Loftus » Wed Dec 28, 2005 11:59 am

Re: The Face of Helene Bournouw

I ALMOST read "...with Peanuts" for my Shirley Jackson evening of "Story Time for Grownups" four months ago, but ended up going with three other stories, most of which I had never encountered before researching material for the reading. She was an astounding writer . . . and unfortunately died before she was even out of her 40s.

As for "Helene Bournouw," I've never been terribly fond of that one. I took a quick look back at my summary among the Deathbird Stories collection in the Webderland bibliography wing, and found: "Good windup, disappointingly pat close."

I'll stick with that. It's a story that's great with the details, but the general plot isn't much to write home about.

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Postby Steve Evil » Wed Jan 04, 2006 12:54 am

Well, it is curious how weak willed some of these men can be. But anyone who was ever in love has no right to judge. Women are powerful, make no mistake.

But then the little men appear, and the focus changes. Turns out she's their secret weapon to influence the stock market. How novel. How repulsive the final image. Who were they I wonder?

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Postby Jan » Mon Nov 26, 2007 12:09 am

The novelette BASILISK appeared in 1972 and became a part of DEATHBIRD STORIES. It won the Locus Award and was nominated for both Hugo and Nebula. It was also picked up by Joe Haldeman as the opening story for his anthology STUDY WAR NO MORE.

Vernon Lestig is a soldier in Vietnam stepping on a pungi stake. This would mean certain death under normal circumstances, but a creature, the basilisk, has replaced the poison with another kind of substance that mainly seems to make him blind. However, he is captured, tortured, and forced to reveal every strategic secret he knows, before he sends his enemies into death by accident. He has gained a certain power that will become clearer later.

After being found and spending some time in hospitals, where he has to give up his leg, Lestig returns to his home town where he encounters much animosity. While his life is in jeopardy, he doesn’t know he’s being watched.


“Basilisk” features another awesome creature of the kind that Harlan had become so good at describing, the basilisk. Here's the lovely creature’s eye, also seen as part of the original Dillons cover:

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Art by Jill Bauman

Unfortunately he’s just the henchman/pet of another being which I cannot mention without ruining the ending. It's a case of the villains being far more interesting than the protagonist, Lestig. The story is a violent and unpleasant one uncommon in SF. It turns out that for Lestig the war didn’t end in Vietnam - back home he has to keep on fighting, running, suffering. What war actually means, and torture, is not being properly understood by the patriots who keep sending more people overseas. Although intended as a critique of the Nixon administration, the story applies just as much to the Bush administration. They manipulate the people to form a dangerous and violent kind of weapon in a war. As a result, not only Lestig's life has been destroyed, but his family and his community.

After a wordy, descriptive beginning, some tension is derived from Lestig’s encounters with patriotic Americans, but these people are barely more than unlikeable types. The unexpected ending blurs the line between good and evil - the people, including Lestig, are all shown to be victims of the masters. On the whole, it is much easier to appreciate "Basilisk" as a parable than as a story in the normal sense, unless you enjoy stereotypes and scenes of violent catharsis. Regarding the power Lestig is given, generally speaking I can see why the being would do the kind of thing it does, being what it is. But the specifics don't make sense to me. And why does the being turn up now, for (it seems) the first time in history?

War had been a recurring element in Harlan’s fiction, and it came back to the forefront in the late 60s and early 70s due to Vietnam. The attention this particular story received in the SF community seems exaggerated though. It may have something to do with Harlan not writing much else that year that caught anyone’s attention (he was busy publishing AGAIN, DANGEROUS VISIONS), and with the subject matter being something the SF community felt needed to be tackled. However, in “The Region Between” he had already done that two year earlier and been nominated for the same prizes. Rating: :| :| :oops:
Last edited by Jan on Sat Sep 06, 2008 1:10 pm, edited 2 times in total.

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Postby David Loftus » Mon Nov 26, 2007 4:47 pm

Here's what I wrote about "Basilisk" on Webderland, seven and a half years ago:

This is one helluva story. Not because it has a cool monster sent by Dark Forces (and suddenly one wonders, since the basilisk turns up in the jungles of Vietnam, did the makers of the 1987 Schwarzenegger film “Predator” read this story, once upon a time?), not because it has torturing gooks, not because it has a stunning, violent climax with a man-monster facing down (literally!) a crowd bent on his destruction, but because it has all those things merely as a frame for a yarn about real, conflicted human beings who love but are afraid, and who hate for reasons they don’t understand or question; and a protagonist who does terrible things but whom Ellison makes the reader understand, and perhaps even sympathize with.

There are scenes of swift action and violence. The tale would make a dynamite movie. I also liked Ellison’s rapid-fire recitation of analogies and images for extreme pain when the stakes go through Vern’s foot. (“Nova pain” is a weird and amusing pun, especially following hard on the heels of “dentist drills ratcheted across nerve ends.”) But the best scenes in this story are the quiet ones: the hero’s confrontations with his old girlfriend Teresa, married off to a car-selling football hero after the news stories of Lestig’s treason, and with his sister Neola, who relates how his family suffered because of “what he had done.” They still care for him, but they have nothing to give him and do not dare to get close again. The supernatural element is necessary to give Lestig the chance to make his point to the hateful town, I suppose, but it seems a mere narrative trick to make these real, delicately emotional scenes possible.

“Basilisk” won the 1972 Locus Poll Award for Short Fiction.

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Postby Jan » Mon Nov 26, 2007 10:16 pm

Thanks David. The character scenes were alright, but they had "this is going somewhere" written all over them. His ex-girl marries a car-selling baseball hero (which means he's dishonest, strong and brainless) who slaps her around and threatens the hero? Talk about a character waiting for his comeuppance.

I also liked Ellison’s rapid-fire recitation of analogies and images for extreme pain when the stakes go through Vern’s foot.

Ohh! Don't remind me.

I can very well accept the story as a criticism of Nixon and Agnew and as a symbolic representation of America's moral fall from grace, but as storytelling it is too flawed to satisfy. I didn't even mention Vernon's unlikely escape from a besieged house.

(I know you're in no position to argue with me after seven years.)

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Postby Jan » Tue Feb 12, 2008 3:07 pm

ADRIFT JUST OFF THE ISLETS OF LANGERHANS: LATITUDE 38° 54' N, LONGITUDE 77° 00' 13" W won the Hugo and Locus for best novelette. Lofty has written a nice review about this which I hope he will post, otherwise click on the link near the top. I have nothing to add but will proceed to do so anyway. Langerhans is about a guy named Talbot who, let's say, is unhappy and wants to find his soul. By enlisting the help of a weird agency and a scientist friend, he manages to enter his own body with a map which shows where he will find it.

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Now, this is one of those stories that is as much about the journey as it is about the destination. It is roughly divided into three thirds plus prologue and epilogue. In the first third, Harlan has Talbot appear at the agency and get the map. This is one strange agency, but never mind. In the second third, which I felt was clichéd and ponderous, Talbot persuades his friend to help him. Harlan spends considerable time establishing the friendship between the two as well as the sort of technology that we're dealing with. These introductory chapters also establish geography as the story's leitmotiv.

The last part, of course, strains credulity, but Harlan did a good job setting up the fictional universe in which these kinds of things are possible. This part is symbolic anyway, and you take it literally at your own peril. Talbot's journey is one into innocence, an element of childhood that we tend to lose. The more we give up, year after year, the longer the journey back to one's self.

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Harlan has some vague ideas about what makes a life worth living, as opposed to wasting it. He went on to talk some more about it in "Count the Clock that Tells the Time", among other places, but "Adrift" is already a strong statement in that regard. I would assume that the women in the story which look like Talbot's mother were in fact fictional manifestations of Harlan's own mother who, as we know, had been extremely sick and who hadn't had a life since her husband had died (see "My Mother"). While Harlan is celebrating his childhood in the story, he also wishes he could have been an adult much earlier to help his mother and perhaps, his sister. By the time he wrote "Adrift", he could only look back in regret. It is very appropriate that Harlan would remember his childhood and his mother in the same story, since she was a part of it.

I would say most of the story is pretty average (sometimes better, sometimes worse), but the sections make an interesting combination and the first and final pages include some of Harlan's best writing. I don't know under what influence the story was written, but I would think Harlan had been reading Marquez, Cortázar, and Borges. Of course, the story is very much his own, but parts of the story fall into the realm of that Latin American magic realism. Others seem to be homages to Poe, Stoker, Melville, and Conrad.

On an interesting side note, Talbot seems to be a werewolf, but no transformations are shown. I would say that Harlan wanted to use that symbology because the story was, in a way, dealing with his own dual nature, the inner child he is still fond and protective of, and his adult anger. There is a big difference between the Talbot in the first section and the one we end up with. My rating: :| :| :| :oops:

Addendum 2/09: Talbot is, of course, the Wolf Man from the old Universal film series written by Curt Siodmak. Find out about Talbot in a splendid blog article by John Seavey. I wouldn't be surprised if Harlan sometimes identifies with Talbot, who turns into a "vicious killing machine" three nights a month. Personally, I have never seen these films.
Last edited by Jan on Sun Feb 22, 2009 2:36 pm, edited 3 times in total.

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Postby David Loftus » Fri Feb 15, 2008 1:08 am

This is what I wrote about it in the Webderland bibliography:

Synopsis
Lawrence Talbot, the Wolfman, wants to die but cannot. If he can find the exact location of his soul, maybe sweet death will be his. He manages to secure the coordinates, and turns to his old friend Victor, the Transylvanian scientist, to handle the practical details.

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This story has one of the all-time great Ellison titles, along with " 'Repent, Harlequin,' Said the Ticktockman," "I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream," and "I See A Man Sitting On a Chair, And the Chair Is Biting His Leg" -- except that I dare anybody to recite this one accurately from memory. Like those other provocative titles, this one describes the action of the story fairly pointedly, but at the same time it doesn’t offer you a clue in advance as to what it’s about. If you said "The Wolfman Searches for Rosebud," that would tell the innocent reader a whole lot more than this wonderful but opaque title.

I left a lot of interesting details out of the synopsis because they would require too much further explanation, or they simply have no obvious explanation. Ellison does a fair amount of experimenting in this tale, as in "The Deathbird." For one, the gripping first sentence reads: "When Moby Dick awoke one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed of kelp into a monstrous Ahab." He makes a pot of tea, considers the terrible fish in an aquarium that killed off all the other fish and will not die. For two and a half pages it goes on in this vein with only occasional hints ("Like him, it would not die"; "He … found himself thinking of the chill, full circle of the Moon") that our hero is really Lawrence Talbot. Then suddenly he is Talbot, and we are off into the main story with hardly a glance back at Moby and Ahab, and no explanation of why they were there. I’m not complaining, just noticing.

There are many aspects of this story Ellison could explain further, but he doesn't, and that is good. On the other hand, having Talbot explicitly highlight the name of the head of Information Associates is unnecessary: "Man named Demeter. I thought there might be some clue there. The name…. But later, when I looked it up, Demeter, the Earth goddess, Greek mythology … no connection. At least I don't think so." Those who care about such things will either know or look it up, and if they do the latter, they are apt to find what Talbot should have, easily enough: Demeter was also the focus of the festival of the Eleusinian Mysteries, whose practices were shrouded in secrecy but must have involved death and rebirth of grain, and later a belief in the immortality of the soul. Perhaps Ellison also wanted to tie in the famous myth of Demeter going to Hades to retrieve her lost daughter Persephone from her abductor Pluto and connect it to Talbot’s rescue of Martha Nelson and Nadja.

There is some humor in this story, too, but it is very dry. The kind of humor that makes you smile inside while you read, rather than chuckle or guffaw. Talbot and Frankenstein have an interesting, wry but respectful relationship. There is a bit more pseudo-scientific apparatus to the plot than one normally encounters in Ellison, but despite this and the "Fantastic Voyage" angle, there are some familiar themes here, as well. We are treated to "Jeffty"-style nostalgia for classic old radio shows and bric-a-brac; the idea of the lost childhood or innocence; the notion of (and concern about) "wasted lives" that turns up in "On the Downhill Side," "Count the Clock That Tells the Time," etc.

On the other hand, the narrative ranges over all sorts of terrain, from pseudo-spy territory (the office of Information Associates doubles as a men’s bathroom), to the creaky old horror movie set of a corpse barge on the Danube, to the "synchrophasotron" (a giant particle accelerator 16 miles in diameter) of Victor Frankenstein, and the dreamscapes of the inner body. I can’t help wondering whether Ellison meant something with the coordinates in the story. Aside from the oddity of using two-dimensional mapping coordinates to locate a place in three dimensions (Talbot’s own pancreas), if I read the numbers right, 38° 54' N, 77° 00' 13" W appears to be in Maryland just south of Washington DC and Alexandria. Eyeballing suggests the nearest towns are La Plata and Pisgah (which has possibilities; Mt. Pisgah is where Moses got to glimpse the Promised Land before he died).

A stunning work of imagination, "Adrift" won the 1975 Hugo Award for Best Novelette.

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Postby Jan » Fri Feb 15, 2008 3:34 am

the narrative ranges over all sorts of terrain, from pseudo-spy territory (the office of Information Associates doubles as a men’s bathroom), to the creaky old horror movie set of a corpse barge on the Danube, to the "synchrophasotron" (a giant particle accelerator 16 miles in diameter) of Victor Frankenstein, and the dreamscapes of the inner body

That's true, and if you can follow the references and homages (I'm sure I missed some), it's part of the fun. You know what I thought, when I read your review? This could make an interesting Tarantino movie! He is so well-versed in all the various styles of moviemaking, he could make all the episodes distinct without sacrificing the whole, which is what Harlan did on the page.

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Postby Jan » Sun Jun 15, 2008 7:15 am

THE WHIMPER OF WHIPPED DOGS (1973) - In New York a woman named Beth is one of the witnesses of the slaying of a woman in the courtyard of an apartment complex. The witnesses all have one thing in common – they stand at their windows and watch. Beth also sees a set of strange eyes, some sort of creature, behind one of the windows. When it’s all over, she is greatly disturbed by her own behaviour. During the next few days, at work and at a party, she gets to know a guy and some other people who witnessed the event.

The story was inspired by the Kitty Genovese murder in Queens, in 1964, describing a comparable event (though Harlan’s claim that it was based on that murder is misleading). “Whimper” won Ellison his first MWA mystery award, beating out a Joyce Carol Oates, even though it’s not a mystery story, it’s an urban fantasy and suspense story. It opens both DEATHBIRD STORIES (1973) and NO DOORS, NO WINDOWS (1975) and was selected for THE ESSENTIAL ELLISON.

While parts of the story are reminiscent of the works of Robert Bloch and Fritz Leiber, it also deals with Harlan’s particular concerns: the rise of new gods and collective human failure. He wrote this at a time when crime in New York had been at or near an all-time high. It’s his most direct statement about the city and its dwellers. To that end it also contains some of Harlan’s most explicit prose, which is very much a part of what the story is all about.

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Harlan’s passionate indictment of New York with its noise, dirt, and high population may have surprised some people since Harlan had lived there and set some of his best stories there. While he was always critical of the living conditions, the city itself was never blamed for anything that happened there. While most would probably agree it’s not the best place to look for friendly people, and no one would call it clean, even today, Harlan had apparently continued to pay attention to the level and forms of violence there and made this his main point of attack. “Whimper” is about the moral state of the city, about being a New Yorker. Harlan was in full attack mode, his opinion bolstered by fact and years of experience.

It seems to me that to use the Kitty Genovese murder as a launching pad may be a bit unfair, and the office of tourism would probably agree. However, the middle part of the story, which deals mainly with attitudes may be both fair and correct, even though in his usual manner, Harlan only looks at one side of the coin. Beth’s situation as a morally corrupt woman who attempts to fight back, is fascinating and well-written, as is her first encounter with Ray, one of her neighbors whom she ends up having an affair with. Harlan creates an unusual amount of human interest, good dialogue and has an interesting mystery holding it all together.

My only problem is that while Harlan’s comments about New York have some validity, the opening murder and people’s reactions to it would have deserved to be dealt with on a level other than fantasy. It doesn’t seem right to me to not to buy any of the explanations that other people have offered (see introduction in No Doors, No Windows) and then proceed to offer even less insight. We have a fairly good understanding of group behaviour as well as crime, and in his earlier days Harlan made better contributions to that understanding than he did here, apart from the New York mental state. However, in Harlan’s defense, the true events are just a catalyst for a more general statement.

On the whole, “Whimper” represents some of Harlan’s best writing. It’s well-constructed, suspenseful, and contains a number of fascinating scenes. In addition, more than the usual amount of care went into the prose which is in no way inferior to his stories of the 90s.

David Loftus’ review is HERE.

One of Ellison’s possible faults as a writer is that he sometimes gives the reader more than he or she needs.

Oh yeah. But it’s hard to say what this story would be like if the explicit passages (and I mean the fights) were more oblique and shorter. Certainly they show that Harlan’s fiction is at least partially rooted in earlier pulp fiction. Violent action and suspense are components of this story, although as a fantasy/magic realism story, it perhaps would have benefited from a few cuts. Ironically, it probably wouldn’t have won the award that way, because the fantasy elements would have been more prominent.

A quotation from Rollo May’s Love and Will with which the author closes “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” adds nothing but pseudo-authority to what is already a complete package.

I agree, but I think this was also meant as an acknowledgment.

My rating: :| :| :| :oops:

rich

Postby rich » Mon Jun 16, 2008 6:54 am

I think it's entirely reasonable to say that the Genovese murder inspired Ellison to write this (as you did, Jan, in the opening), but it's implied later in your essay that the Genovese murder and, more specifically, the reactions of witnesses to the murder, are true. They are not true.

Also, I think one of the reasons this story of Ellison's resonated with so many people is because of the 'character' of NY city. Though NY city is a LOT different today, back in the 60s up to the 80s, it was very much not a nice place to live for people who could barely afford living there. The New York city you see in movies like TAXI DRIVER, SERPICO, or even lighter fare like THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE are good snapshots of what it was like living in the boroughs during those three decades or so. Andrew Kevin Walker says in his commentary in SEVEN that he wrote SEVEN while living in NY (I think it would be early '80s though I don't think he specifies in his commentary), and that a lot of the anger, despair, and frustration Walker experienced was because he lived in the city during that time, thus prompting him to write the movie with the 'head in the box'.


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