Harlan Ellison: Audio Collections

The Voice From the Edge, Vol 1:

I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream

Reviewed by James Palmer

Dove Audio, 1999

Reviews Description and Spoiler Warning




I have never been a fan of audio books, being too interested in the actual printed page. What I am a fan of are radio dramas, because they have different characters doing the voices. In The Voice from the Edge, Harlan Ellison does a great job of blending the two mediums. He reads from his own work and often employs different voices for the characters, playing Italians, Southern women, and old men with ease. This is pure Ellison, in his own words, and is simply a treat to listen to.

If Ellison had never become a writer, he would still be renowned for his lively lectures and gravelly speaking voice. Unlike many writers, who are shy and quiet, Ellison is charismatic and loud. He is also thoroughly engaging, and you are compelled to follow him on a walking tour of some of his most famous stories.

The introduction is great, because Ellison talks about the writing life as he compares two of his short stories, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream and Grail, and the difference between the critical acclaim they have received. This was nice, but it seemed to begin in mid conversation. I would have liked more of this type of dialogue, in which Ellison discusses his personal experiences. Of course, this is coming from someone who is as much a fan of Ellison the man as Ellison the writer.

The rest is, of course, great stuff, and I have several favorites. The stories begin with his most famous, I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. The story of the last members of humanity trapped beneath the earth by a giant computer called AM, No Mouth is designed to shock. Ellison does a great job reading it, using different voices for the characters and AM. Ellison is a natural born actor, and he uses these skills throughout this collection.

The next selection is a nice change from the bleak and disturbing No Mouth. Laugh Track undoubtedly draws on Harlan's experiences writing for television. This story is a very humorous look at mindless sitcoms and their producers. The narrator, an Italian kid making his way in show business, keeps hearing his dead aunt Babe's laugh on laugh tracks for awful television shows. It turns out that she went to a taping years ago, and that laugh has been recorded over and over again. With the help of a "phantom sweetener," one of those mysterious people who freshen up inane sitcoms with laugh tracks, he frees his aunt's ghost from television hell, with hilarious results. The last sentence turns out to be the punch line for a long, though well told joke.

My other favorites are "Repent, Harlequin!" said the Ticktockman, Paladin of the Lost Hour, The Lingering Scent of Woodsmoke, and A Boy and His Dog. In the first, Ellison takes us to a future society ran by the hands of a clock. The Master Timekeeper, referred to as the Ticktockman behind his back, keeps everything running smoothly, until a Harlequin literally throws jellybeans into the works. This is a great story, very different from other Ellison works, and I had as much fun reading it as I did listening to Ellison read it.

You might remember Paladin as an episode of The New Twilight Zone which aired in the mid eighties. It's about a young man who meets an old man in a cemetery by the name of Gaspar. Gaspar has a very special pocket watch that holds the last hour of Earth. If the watch runs down, the world will end. The two men become companions and share a touching relationship. This is a fine story.

The Lingering Scent of Woodsmoke, is my favorite of Ellison's most recent efforts. It was written around an illustration for Ellison's comic book Harlan Ellison's Dream Corridor. It's the shortest story in the collection, but a lot of fun. Woodsmoke gives a new twist to the Jewish Holocaust. Ernst, a Nazi returned to the mother country, encounters a dryad in the forest. This wood nymph seeks revenge on him because he stoked the furnaces in a concentration camp, burning thousands of her brothers and sisters, the trees. In the end Ernst has been turned into a tree.

A Boy and His Dog is widely considered Ellison's masterpiece. This novella tells of a future earth devastated by nuclear war. The survivors get by with the help of genetically engineered dogs, who are telepathic and equipped with a kind of sonar. Vic, the boy in the story, and his dog Blood scout for food and sexual gratification on the bombed-out earth. When Blood finds a girl for Vic, the trouble starts, as Vic follows the lovely Quilla June back to her "downunder," huge towns built beneath the earth. Quilla June's downunder is a subterranean Anytown, U.S.A., and it's wholesomeness sickens Vic. I won't spoil the ending, but will sum up by saying that Vic ultimately chooses the love of his dog over that of a woman.

I love this collection, and often go back and listen to it again and again. I can't wait until Ellison goes back into the studio to do more of these collections.

Review by James Palmer

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