1965 - 'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman

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Micheal
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1965 - 'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman

Postby Micheal » Fri Jan 14, 2005 8:19 pm

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"Repent, Harlequin!, Said the Ticktockman" is my favourite Ellison short. I have to nod to its surface simplicity, the hypnotic poetry-prose that Ellison sets forth in the narrative, coupled nicely to a children's book rhythm. It's a story that pulls you in oh so gently until the punch is delivered.

Where it hits me hardest is in the ease that Ellison confronts the reader with a tone of knowing but not accusation, more invitation than challenge. "Harlequin" asks those who read it to consider how they live, how one chains themselves to the conventions of existence without ever questioning the worth of their choices or the consequences these roles will play out upon the mind and soul. Ellison is the ultimate Luddite, but not in the sense often inferred. His is a resistance to the thing human that is eroded by the various machines of consumerism, capitalism, all the 'itics and 'isms that tell us that life is best when we turn of the mind and the imagination and do little more than eat, sleep, shit and fuck.

Ever late, ever late, as the Master Timekeeper runs his orchestrated plots against this nemesis, with far more respect to the Order of things than to respect for the values of humanity. Kent State, Golden Gate Park, The '68 Democratic Convention in Chicago, Tianammen Square, Queen's Park, choose any other spot where some have shown themselves to protest, the government invariably is too quick in its show of teeth and capacity to do harm. In the name of order, violence and death are justified through orchestrated process through a brow beaten populace, sold at the insistance that the brutality was need to protect "freedom, justice, our way of life". There's no need to note the relevance, but I often pause at how many times thoughout my life I've heard these words spoken in earnest at a politican's press conference to explain why the riot squad was called.

Then there's Ellison's creation of the perfect terrorist; Harlequin. True to the heart of every revolutionary, Everett C. Marm has every intention to bring about change on the largest scale possible, but not at the cost of pain, suffering, loss of life and property. His war isn't fought against any enemy other than the forces of convention; no guns, bombs or planes flown into buildings. Marm's tools of choice would be the jellybean, the pratfall and practical joke, served up to the tune of "Moonlight In Vermont". Harlequin loves his enemy, the people who are shackled to the process of existence without ever truly considering the alternative that could be theirs too much to ever reduce them to a representation; he apologizes politely to the forces of order as he shows up late. His actions toward the populace serve not to terrify or extort, his traps and snares for The Powers That Be serve not to maim or harm, rather to enlighten and/or entertain.

Between the two lies the largest character, that prize at the heart of the war: the people. Herein, the writer is leses kind, more honest, in his depiction of those who live in the shadows. Marshall Delahanty's wife, upon receipt of a turn-off notice, openly praying that it be for him, without any consideration of how cheap the existence she protects is by her act of cowardice; Pretty Alice, demanding surcease from Everett's manic life, without consideration of its richness and value, likely the traits in Everett that drew her to him. Ellison shows how the multitudes have surrendered to the process, sacrificing their freedom, their selves in trade for stability, never once considering Jefferson's adage of the needed relationship between the two states of being. I've often imagined a vignette where one or the other supporting character comes to the moment of realization of what they've traded their humanity for, with a somewhat delicious little smile on my face as they are repaid by the fates for their mistake. I give Alan Moore the credit for the assertion that societies are much more likely to embrace totalitarianism willingly than surrender to it at the point of a gun; I salute Ellison for showing how easy the fall can be. From Ellison's perspective, the fall from freedom is so sedentary, so calmly instituted upon those who accepted it, one would almost suggest there be a parade to commemorate the event, with the teeming throngs of humanity happily cheering release from the messy business of seizing their lives, and making them things of beauty and joy.
One would think the masses deserving of pity for their lot under the thumb of the State, but Ellison points out their complicity in silencing the voice of those who find reward and life within deviance from conformity. In many cases, the public will act against the minority, the deviant in the same manner of bullying that the State enforces upon all, perhaps to taste a degree of power or self-efficacy the State would ever dare give to the populace. The State can publicly state its scorn of such actions, but privately cheer how convention and order programmed into a society can be more effective than the brownshirt armed with a truncheon.

Ultimately, the war is fought within each and everyone of us. We carry all three sides inside. The measure of our existence will come in our own choice. Ellison suggests there are no victims in the struggle, one formed by those who oppress out of self-interest, those who resist, and those who are oppressed as much by their own beliefs as they are by outside coercion. The determinant of knowing which side anyone is on is in their recognition of the right and respect of choice, but not made just for the sake of the perception of making choice. Real choice requires insight, memory, instinct, knowledge and empathy of the alternatives, and an awareness of the consquences that will result from one's actions, both for the person and for others. All real choice comes must be made sustained by courage against the relentless pressure of conformity. The author tells you the cost of perpetuating your freedom, and politely asks if you are prepared to pay, even when it is likely that you will be broken. Real choice, real change; it can only come in trade for pain and sacrifice.

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Barney Dannelke
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Postby Barney Dannelke » Sat Jan 15, 2005 2:47 pm

Mostly just wanted to thank Michael for that terrific post. Too often someone says something on the internet that so surrounds an issue that no reply is really needed. Problem with that from the original poster's point of view is that it's like dropping a stone in a well and never getting to hear the splash.

The thing that struck me the most in Michael's post was the word terrorist. A word that didn't really come into vogue until the airplane hijackings of the early seventies. When I think about Harlan's story in the abstract I think of Thoreau and civil protest. It's sad to think that if the Harlequin were "working" today he'd probably instantly be locked up and villified like some manic cross between a performance artist and the uni-bomber. Every time I am confronted with the inevitable "someone somewhere blew up some more innocent bystanders in some intersection that you don't care about to make a statement about something but we either don't know what that statement was because we're busy hosing down all this blood OR the statement isn't anything our sponsors want you to hear and it doesn't slot well into a 12 minute news cycle so just tsk-tsk and move on already" - everyday THAT happens, which is now EVERY day - that's when I miss the Merry Pranksters and hippies trying to levitate the Pentagon.

I mean just think of it. What were their weapons of choice? Hand holding and the threat of levitation!!! And in the sense that I remember that protest even though I was a child and I have already forgotten this mornings dose of bad news means it really worked on some level. The power of levity indeed.

On the story itself I have nothing to add. It's a dead certain lock to remain in the Ellison top 3 finalists for literary immortality and needs no endorsement from me. But a personal observation is worth tossing in. My favorite moment in the story is when the Harlequin shows up early. The morning I met Harlan - which I have written about at length elsewhere - he showed up one hour and twenty minutes early. The day he did the MEDEA signing at Forbidden Planet in NYC in the eighties he showed up 3 hours early. That's a thing about Harlan that few people ever notice. Also, if there are 10 people in a room and one of them is Harlan, the person with the most remarkable watch - and set closest to the correct time - will be Harlan.

And that's my time.

- Barney

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THE HARLEQUIN/TICKTOCKMAN DISCUSSION

Postby Harlan Ellison » Sat Jan 15, 2005 11:25 pm

Micheal's observations cheer me. They are, of course, dead on.

If you had had to suffer through as many classroom "discussions" of this story as have been visited upon me -- usually at some Institution of Higher Learning to which I'd been invited for a lecture appearance -- you would understand why Micheal's comments bring tears of joy to my eyes.

Had I a dollar for every student or martini-besotted spouse of a tenured academic who "cleverly perceived" that The Ticktockman was a robot, a mechanical construct, an automaton, even a clockwork mechanism, simply because they were confounded by, and could not fathom,the mnemonic "mrmee mrmee mrmee" -- merely the sound of an abstracted mind humming to itself -- an indication that Marm had indeed succeeded in throwing a spanner into the works, however small the victory -- I would have enough bucks to relieve the torment of at least half the tsunami victims in Thailand.

I invariably have to repeat eight, nine, ten times at each such class or Administration-thrown party, that this is a simple tale, however swift may run the deconstructionist rivers beneath its surface. It is summed up, in all its potentialities, in Thoreau's reminder: "He serves the State best who opposes the State most."

That's all there is, there ain't no more.

Except, of course, for all the good stuff Micheal said.

Yr. pal, Harlan

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drifting off topic sorry....

Postby KristinRuhle » Sun Jan 16, 2005 12:29 am

We're not academic deconstructionists! Academic deconstructionists get PAID to do that!!!

Yeah, I'm a starving English major. But I decided long ago that even a janitor makes a greater contribution to human civilization than a tail-chasing academic.

On terrorism...pranks are one thing; the morality becomes problematic when they turn murderous. The 9/11 terrorists thought they were making a "statement" too. However, the government's extreme reaction and fearmongering are making even non-violent forms of protest more difficult (not to mention eroding civil liberties.) Bush's government is clamping down on its own citizens in the name of "security."

Maybe the Unabomber should have just sent them dead rats.

Sorry for drifting off topic for a moment (if we want to discuss protest vs terrorism it should be in another thread or maybe even the Pavilion.)

ObEllisonia: People were trying to take apart the character names in "The Deathbird" - which I thought was a little forced; Harlan's gotten character names from random strangers for heavens sake - but did anyone notice the similarity between "Harlan" and "Harlequin"?

"Harlequin" evokes a court jester, an archetypal rebel-figure, one whose very role in life is to question authority. (In past eras, only a jester could get away with sassing a king and not instantly lose his head - as long as the king thought it was funny, though...)

"Repent.." is a brilliant story - SO brilliant that you suspend your disbelief. If you start tearing down the story and trying to make sense of the plot logic it doesn't hold together - I know a guy who used to bait Harlan with, "Hey Harlan, where DID he get the jelly beans?" (All I know is he lived to tell the tale - LOL) So what? The story is powerful, it has a lot to say, and it is the kind of story that sticks in your mind for years and years - the kind of story Harlan is a master at creating.

It's about the human spirit in a society where everyone is forced to be a "cog in the wheel" and a slave to the clock. Clocks have their uses - civilization is highly interdependent - but Harlan's warning against taking this too far never loses its relevancy.

I liked the ending; it seemed to indicate (to me) that the Harlequin's sacrifice - after all, he was broken, like Winston Smith - was not entirely in vain. I never thought for a moment that the Ticktockman was a robot. (His official title was Master Timekeeper - "Ticktockman" was presumably a slang name and not one anybody would have dared use to his face. Except maybe Marm, of course.)

Kristin
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Postby Steven Dooner » Sun Jan 16, 2005 2:37 am

"Repent" strikes me as part of a genre of stories about the rebel in a totalitarian world. Harlan references Thoreau and Orwell, and the important question is how "Repent" is different from Orwell's Oceania or Animal Farm.

I think one answer is that it is a very American world that the Harlequin occupies. It is not Stalin's Soviet Union. It is filled with the pettiness and cruelty of middle management and the fear that makes people cling to empty lives. The story's narration is also typified by the speed and compression that is typical of American cultural life.

The middle class drones on the moving sidewalks will, of course, hate the man who disturbs their conformity more than their bosses. And the control of people's cardio plates is such a logical extension of so many invasive monitoring systems that we are submitting to every day: urine-tesing or norplant for welfare mothers are good examples.

I think the jelly beans are just about the best thing in the story. The ingenuity and financial resources it would take to amass that many jelly beans, in a highly controlled world, would suggest that Eliot is actually a kind of jelly bean genius, akin to Mozart or Michelangelo. Yet, I will also argue that Marm is an ordinary man, not a Christ or Khan or Aristotle, and that is something he has in common with Nathan Stack.

I also found the stylistic compression of details of Marm's torture absolutely chilling and sad. When Harlan reads this section aloud, his voice has a kind of weariness that bespeaks his familairity with the natural conclusion for most rebels like Daniel Shays, John Brown or Martin Luther King. Yet, I believe we are supposed to look past the tone of the piece, especially at this point. We must care about Eliot even when the narration tells us we should move along quickly on our moving sidewalk.

I think Harlan has written this story for the people on the moving sidewalks, and its amazing success, in classrooms across America, suggests that it is the story itself has worked like Marm's jelly beans. Yet, the use of Thoreau at the beginning to "explain" the story and the snappy reference to Orwell at the end really must be suspect. Every time the narrator tries to speed us up and move us along, I think we are really supposed to slow down and think. If we haven't read "Civil Disobendience" or Walden, if we haven't read 1984, we have homework when we are done with "Repent."

The scene of inquisition is also a great and cathartic version of familar trials in Plato's Apology, A Man for All Seasons, A Tale of Two Cities, The Grand Inquisitor, and St. Joan. Yet, Eliot's phrase, "Get stuffed!" seems to me so much more elocquent than those defenses offered by the former lot.

As for "taking apart names," I will also point out the obvious about Harlequin Eliot. Hello, Kristin.

Finally, I will end with this thought: perhaps the villains in Batman are actually heroes of non-conformity. Gotham City's social order is rancid afterall, and Batman is a drab and sinister servant of order. Maybe these colorful villains are trying to dismantle social order by robbing banks, the symbol of cultural conformity.

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Postby Eric Martin » Sun Jan 16, 2005 9:47 am

>I invariably have to repeat eight, nine, ten times at each such class or Administration-thrown party, that this is a simple tale, however swift may run the deconstructionist rivers beneath its surface. <

Fiction is open to multiple interpretations, including those that the author never intended. If you have a problem with this, and feel it distracts from or obscures your "message," you should write essays, not short stories.

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Postby Barney Dannelke » Sun Jan 16, 2005 10:25 am

I'm not sure if you wanted anyone other than Harlan to respond to that Eric, but since you have decided to not audit this one I'll take a swing at it.

Baby steps first. You were aware that Harlan DOES write essays, correct? Okay then, moving on...

You may think it reasonable to tell an author that he should stick to the essay form rather than bemoan a life spent pointing out, explaining and endlessly re-explaining details that a careful reader might have picked up or thought through the first time. I don't, but you might.

There is also a very important distinction to be made right here. It's not that Harlan is cutting us off at the pass or saying we are not entitled to ask ourselves what a story means. Writing fiction is an act of IMPLORING the reader to explore potential meaning. At it's best fiction is pretty much the opposite of the lecture.

But your remark posits a reality where Harlan's [or any authors] intentions mean less than that of the reader. That when the author is TOLD "oh, you obviously meant this" and he dares to say "no, I didn't" that he has exceeded his station. That's not a place where an artist or art can thrive. We are all PRO art, aren't we?

- Barney

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Postby Eric Martin » Sun Jan 16, 2005 11:38 am

Works of art are like children. You create them, but in time your influence and intention fades, and they take on a life of their own.

I'm sure if Mark Twain came back and read 90% of what has been written about Huck's voyage down the river, he'd snort with derision. That doesn't make those interpretations any less valid.

The author's viewpoint is one viewpoint. For the author to dismiss other "less informed"views by martini-soaked spouses or whatever strikes me as contrary to the purpose of creating the art in the first place.

>But your remark posits a reality where Harlan's [or any authors] intentions mean less than that of the reader<

Not less. I never said less.

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Postby P.A. Berman » Sun Jan 16, 2005 1:19 pm

Barney, the problem is, Harlan can't go sit next to every person who reads "Repent!" and explain to them the meaning of "mrmee" when they wonder. If it's ambiguous in the story, then the author has to live with that, because if the ambiguity allows the other interpretation and enough people see it that way, without the author's sanction, that becomes a valid reading of the story. The author does not have the power to dictate how his story is read, at least not in the long run. The idea that the Ticktockman is a robot is wrong from Harlan's POV, but is it inherently wrong in general, or could a case be made for it despite Harlan's assertions? Now there's a thought question for you.

Here's what I thought of the "mrmee"-- I thought that it was hint that Marm had somehow gotten through and affected the Ticktockman, and that he was murmuring Eliot Marm's name in some fashion. "Marm, E." if you will. Is that an incorrect interpretation? It has always worked for me.

PAB

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Postby sjarrett » Sun Jan 16, 2005 2:16 pm

Although I'm not entirely in sympathy with it, I certainly can understand Harlan's attitude about the interpretive meanderings of academics and others, given his vocation as a writer of fiction. No one doubts the value of the science of taxonomy, but it's difficult to affirm its value if you happen to be one of the butterflies who is subjected to the chloroform and pushpins.

That said, Harlan, I would suggest that, to take your example, it's a relatively minor point whether the Ticktockman really is an automaton or a human. The larger point is that he has chosen to abdicate his humanity. If he isn't an automaton, he might as well be. He may be biologically human, but he merits the title on no other level.

One thing about the Harlequin that has always struck me is his resemblance to Zorro, and in particular to Douglas Fairbanks Sr.'s Zorro. I say that because in the Fairbanks "Mark of Zorro," a central element of Zorro's character is that he never kills his enemies. Instead, he humiliates them, and usually in a humorous way. An assault with jellybeans would be right up his alley. This similarity is not so surprising, given that Harlan has frequently expressed admiration for Zorro. In fact, I find it surprising that the list of names associated with the Harlequin by the common folk in the story does not include Zorro (although it does include Robin Hood, a similar character similarly played by Fairbanks).

About mrmee, mrmee... , like PA Berman, I have wondered about whether this could be an echo of Marm's name. One could even speculate that the Ticktockman is mumbling to himself about what for him would be the ultimate blasphemy: "Marm - Me; Marm - Me?; Marm - Me! ..."

Steve J.

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Postby Micheal » Sun Jan 16, 2005 3:54 pm

A moment's diversion in an internet cafe. Things aren't going well.

First, thanks to those; Barney, Harlan, Kristin, P.A., Steve, Eric and SJ. The lift to my spirits is immense. I can't look at my scribblings without seeing scars of misspelling, bad structure and improper phrasing, but parents are often hardest on their own.

As for the central theme, Harlan, it's your own fault. The passage of "Civil Disobedience" says virtually all needed to be said. I had to work rather hard to find another well-thought angle to see the work from. You couldn't ever dare to be obscure for the purpose of art could you?

SJarret: No, the Master Timekeeper (none would dare call him Ticktockman to his face) is far too real. He goes by many names: Bush, Clinton, Kennedy, Ashcroft, Pearson, Mulroney, Martin; all the grey men who mouth the words but never dream the ideal, much less see the potential in its realization. Even more, their own principles and ideals, however these men might promote or espouse them are immediately co-opted (killed) by the process. No Canadian Prime Minister could ever earn the credit for the creation of socialized medicine, or would everdisplay the courage to take the risks involved; Tommy Douglas, the premier of Canada's smallest and least politically power province could.

I look at leaders as I look at the Ted Bundys or Charles Mansons of this world, as people who defy being identified as people by the prominence placed upon their deeds, becoming more representations than human. Perhaps that's where the academics fall down, in their failure to see that these are men and women such as we all are. Perhaps it's where we fall down for our part in our process of iconization, in creating a sense of ideal in these people that we strip away their humanity, consequently their failings or even more damning for all involved, their responsibility for their conduct and the lack of empathy to humanity often displayed.

Would one consider a world leader as a psychotic butcher, in light of the actions so many governments have engaged in the name of revenge or political expediency?

Kristin: If you might, I would suggest reading Harlan's essay "An Edge in My Voice: Installment 55". It's available in An Edge in My Voice, Whitewolf's reprinting of it in Vol. 1 of Ellison's aborted Edgeworks series, or the 50th Anniv. edition of The Essential Ellison. I don't dispute the actions of Bin Laden as criminal, and I do find him and Al Quaeda indefensible and psychotic, but often the State moves to make any justification for attack and destruction of those who oppose it without any consideration of the merits of the opposition's argument, much less showing respect for the rights, the freedom of those people making it. One should also see how the state can categorize, dismiss and kill its opponents without any investigation of the person or their act to find the humane motives so often inherent.

The most chilling point is that the power to do such things is given to these people by us, for us.

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Postby Eric Martin » Sun Jan 16, 2005 4:08 pm

>The author does not have the power to dictate how his story is read, at least not in the long run. <

The most salient point. In time, all of us, Harlan included, will be dust. But I honestly believe that some of Harlan's stories will continue to be read, discussed, and debated. Like all works of art that outlive the artist, they will undergo revisitations, re-readings, crazy interpretations...most of which will be completely out of Ellison's original intent.

Imagine what Dickens would say if he came back and saw the characterizations and motivations given to Fagin, by actors like Ron Moody or Richard Dreyfuss. He would probably be outraged. But that's the price he pays for writing a rich work that transcends its own time and the conscious motivations of its creator.

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Postby P.A. Berman » Sun Jan 16, 2005 5:17 pm

Micheal wrote:SJarret: No, the Master Timekeeper (none would dare call him Ticktockman to his face) is far too real. He goes by many names: Bush, Clinton, Kennedy, Ashcroft, Pearson, Mulroney, Martin; all the grey men who mouth the words but never dream the ideal, much less see the potential in its realization.

For me, "Repent!" is an allegory, hence such silly touches as the jelly beans make sense (or don't NEED to make sense). When I think about the Master Timekeeper, I think of him as the personification of that punch clock on the wall, the automated recording on the phone when all you want is a person, the computer that fixes you in a formulated phrase, the cold calculation of society when it comes to money, conformity, and progress. The story hinges on the problematic reality of a world that is run by numbers: clocks, dollars, statistics, bar codes, ID #s.

There is no Ticktockman, yet there is a Ticktockman hiding in the heart of every bureaucrat, teacher (yeah, I said it), parent, institution, government, society. Politicians aren't the Ticktockman--they just work for him. You give them far too much credit when you say they are he.

I look at leaders as I look at the Ted Bundys or Charles Mansons of this world, as people who defy being identified as people by the prominence placed upon their deeds, becoming more representations than human.

Wow, I think that's going a bit far, and off topic too if you don't mind me saying so. Notice that Marm isn't killed, he is subverted. That's what society does. It doesn't kill you, it tries to clip off all your pointy edges and sand off your curves so that you fit into the hole they've made for your peg. To some extent, all of us have submitted to such a process, or we wouldn't be functioning members of this society to one degree or another. You can throw a spanner in the works surreptitiously, but most of the time we negotiate with the machine. What other choice to we have?

Perhaps that's where the academics fall down, in their failure to see that these are men and women such as we all are.

I think some academics do. In fact, a lot do. It's the Average Joe who doesn't see it.

Perhaps it's where we fall down for our part in our process of iconization, in creating a sense of ideal in these people that we strip away their humanity, consequently their failings or even more damning for all involved, their responsibility for their conduct and the lack of empathy to humanity often displayed.

This is a lot closer to the truth. The iconization is a big part of the problem, as is the machinery of government. It seems like a juggernaut that regular people feel they cannot affect, and I'm not sure they're entirely wrong to feel that way. It's all a big clockwork that rolls on despite what people want or know to be true. It's very alienating, unless one decides to stop worrying and love the bomb.

PAB

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Postby Jon Stover » Sun Jan 16, 2005 8:47 pm

A couple things...

Dooner hits on something at the end of his post that's interesting in terms of some of the pop stuff swirling around in Harlan's stories, and this one in particular. The Harlequin is a type of Joker, the Ticktock Man a type of Batman -- especially the Batman of the 1940s to the early 1960s, an establishment man in drag beset by buffoons who never really 'hurt' anybody.

I think you may have gone too far with Mree, PAB, but it's an interesting idea. Besides the idea that the Ticktock Man has been infected at the end of the story, I've always seen this as an interesting allusion (intentional or not, natch) that ties into the inverted superhero paradigm mentioned in the previous paragraph. Doc Savage, for all his control, trilled at moments of stress or intense thought, and that was noted again and again in the pulp novels as being galling to Doc because it was something unconscious, and because it indicated that for all his training, there were certain things that couldn't be trained away (or that 'got out.'). I don't think that strange musical sound sounded like 'Mree' -- but I'd like to think it was in the ballpark, anyway.

Return of the repressed, anyone?

Cheers, Jon

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names etc

Postby KristinRuhle » Mon Jan 17, 2005 2:01 am

Wasn't his name "Everett C. Marm," not "Eliot Marm?" I dunno, my copy of ESSENTIAL ELLISON is buried a mile deep in a storage room (dammit, Mom!) Besides finding a job I'll have to save up for months before I can move out of here and rescue it.

As for the torture bit, has anyone listened to the 2000X radio-play version of "Repent?" (Featuring Robin Williams as the Harlequin!) it's in the CD set (in a "save the best for last" mode) and available from Audible.com. They stuff soggy lima beans down his throat!!!

Kristin


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