Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Harlan Ellison and Sword & Sorcery [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

I am going to admit I’m not much of a Harlan Ellison fan. He’s much too literary for my tastes. I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I like space opera, sword-and-sorcery, and other forms of adventure fantasy; told in a straightforward way and quickly paced. That’s not what Ellison writes. This isn’t to say I don’t appreciate the man. I have found his observations on Hollywood very entertaining and informative. I admire his work as an editor on the Dangerous Visions and Medea anthologies. I’ve read his work in comic book form many times. I’ve even read some of his stuff over the years, such as “The Chocolate Alphabet,” twenty-six flash fiction pieces he wrote while sitting in a store window. (The one I liked best was “D is for Dick,” where he described Philip K Dick as a strange creature that lives in a hole writing masterpieces that nobody appreciates.) Ellison is often ahead of the curve. And he’s feisty. Who else but Ellison would go to a national Star Trek convention and begin a speech by saying Doctor Who was the greatest SF show ever made? That takes kahunas, brother. Giant brass ones. And Ellison has them. All this aside, I don’t read his fiction much.

Which is my loss, because if I had ever finished reading The Deathbird Stories (1975) I would have come to “Delusion For a Dragonslayer.” I had no idea that Ellison even noticed sword-and-sorcery in the 1960s. The only time I had ever heard him refer to the Big Three of Weird Tales (Lovecraft, Howard, and Smith) was when he selected Clark Ashton Smith’s “The City of the Singing Flame” as a story that inspired him to be a writer. This surprised me because I thought his influences would all be non-fantasy authors like Ray Bradbury or Ted Sturgeon.

Now the only reason I stumbled across this at all was because of comics. Ellison would like that as he loves and collects comics. He can’t be all Anais Nin and Ayn Rand if he collects Batman and Uncanny X-Men. So there it was... a comic book adaptation in Chamber of Chills #1 (November 1972). It didn’t surprise me to find a sword-and-sorcery story there – that was exactly what I was doing at the time: cruising the horror mags for sword-and-sorcery stories. House of Mystery to Dr. Graves, they all have a few sword-and-sorcery stories in them, especially in the years 1973-75. The Warren magazines and independents had gone through a similar phase in 1966-72. Sword-and-sorcery has enough horror elements in it that this was where the first experiments in short, 5-10 page strips were tried. So this didn’t surprise me. But Harlan Ellison? That surprised me.

Now Ellison’s story originally appeared in Knight (September 1966), a men’s magazine. Alongside the “nekkid ladies” were stories by Brian W Aldiss and John Steinbeck. The cover features Ellison’s story and was done by Leo and Diane Dillon, who would do future Ellison covers like The Deathbird Stories. By all appearances, I had stumbled onto a little bit of Weird Tales-style fantasy in a dirty magazine.

The plot concerns Warren Glazer Griffin, an office worker who gets killed by a demolition accident. Griffin wakes up in heaven, but as the old wizard next to his herculean barbarian body explains, the world is of Griffin’s design and he must fulfill the implied quest of sailing to an island, slaying the monster, and saving the girl. The sailors all chain themselves to their rowing benches and rely on Griffin to navigate them past the siren colors. He does this, then wrecks the ship, because he is too busy admiring his new body.

Washed ashore, he finds the island he has been seeking. With almost no regret or conscience at the death of his crew, Griffin finds a beautiful woman lounging by a waterfall. She is the epitome of all the women he has ever desired. Out of the mist, a fourteen-foot mist giant appears, then becomes more human in shape. Griffin is immobilized by terror and can’t confront the beast. The woman and monster get down to business (let’s remember what kind of magazine this is, after all) and Griffin uses the distraction to stab the monster in the back. Monster defeated, he claims the woman as his reward. His lust satisfied he realizes he has not won heaven at all, but that his dreams are superficial and childish, and a dragon forms from his cowardice and angst devours him. Cut back to the real world. Warren Glazer Griffin’s body has been crushed by the wrecking ball, but every bone has been broken like he was devoured by a monster.

Much of this scenario is familiar, and I think on purpose. The ship and sirens smacks of Ulysses (not Conan), though the rest could be more Howard. I felt more like the hero was John Eric Stark of Leigh Brackett creation, but I guess it doesn’t really matter. We all know the type of tale, from Beowulf to Masters of the Universe. This tale of the macho barbarian is told in an ornate style that reminds me at times of Clark Ashton Smith. For example his description of killer colors: “In a rising, keening spiral of hysteria they came, first pulsing in primaries, then secondaries, then comminglings and off shades, and finally in colors that had no names. Colors like racing, and pungent, and far-seen shadows, and bitterness, and something that hurt, and something that pleasured...” This goes on for many more sentences.

It is a rather artsty fartsy way to tell an adventure story, but it’s not an adventure story really. It is a story with a point: that the dreams of fourteen year-old boys are lustful, childish, and ultimately unrewarding. This may be a bigger poke at fanboys than anything Fredric Brown ever wrote. If we assume that Ellison is saying that people who read sword-and-sorcery are as unworthy as Warren Glazer Griffin, then I guess this is an anti-sword-and-sorcery story.

My first guess before even reading the story was that Ellison was going to be slagging sword-and-sorcery. He would not have been alone. Ron Goulart, Larry Niven, and even Andrew J Offutt (before Andy would become one of the top sword-and-sorcery writers of the 1980s) have disparaged the legacy of Conan. Was Ellison jumping on their bandwagon? I don’t really think so. And I don’t think Ellison is trying to skewer Conan fans. There were suddenly many new ones around 1966 with the new Lancer paperbacks, but most of these lie in the future, as are the Conan the Barbarian comic fans. Instead, I think Ellison may be remembering his own teenage fantasies and enjoyment of hero tales. Ellison was fourteen in 1948 or so, about the time Leigh Bracket was queen of the space pulps. Robert E Howard was becoming a dim memory then. Remember, I thought of Stark, not Conan. Maybe Ellison was thinking of “Lorelei of the Red Mist” from 1941 by Leigh Brackett and Ray Bradbury. The main character’s named is Conan. More likely he was thinking of “The Enchantress of Venus” (1949) that begins with John Eric Stark on a Venusian sailing ship. Maybe he was writing about how he had to grow past such stories and become a “speculative fiction writer.” As such, I can appreciate the story better than a sad reductionist parody.

Looking at the Chamber of Chills comic adaptation is interesting. The comic story was adapted by Gerry Conway (who would script Conan the Destroyer with Roy Thomas in 1984) and the art was provided by Syd Shores. Conway’s script strips off Ellison’s five dollar flowery phrases and its sexual content, leaving us with little but the bones. The final “surprise” is no surprise to anyone familiar with “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” I don’t know what Ellison’s feelings were about the adaptation, but it is a perfect example of how adapting a heavy work can result in a much smaller product. Without Ellison’s words the piece is no different than any of the others in the comic series. The emotional payoff at the end is gone and the plot is largely pointless. Just another guy-I-don’t-care-about dreams big, then gets squashed. It doesn’t even have the crutch of blaming it all on Dungeons & Dragons like so many stories in the 1980s. The final irony is that the writer who was so good at fantastic tales with a sting of emotional irony at the end was Leigh Brackett. In a story like “The Woman From Altair” (1951) which ends on a bitter note, Leigh could have the hero win, but leave a bittersweet taste in the reader’s mouth. Maybe Ellison meant something similar. If so, his hand is too heavy while his over poetic words are distracting. It’s like Clark Ashton Smith rewriting Leigh Brackett.

Finally, I wonder how I would have reacted to this story back in High School where I first encountered The Deathbird Stories? I was a solid Edgar Rice Burroughs-Robert E Howard fanatic then. That fourteen year old me with the fourteen-old fantasies. If I had been able to wade through Ellison’s prose (which is doubtful) I am sure I would have reacted badly to his message. As a fifty-three year old I can see things a little differently. But I still don’t know if I agree with Ellison’s dark message. The hero tale is as old as time and it does more than belittle women and hide cowardice or whatever angsty worries Ellison had back in 1966. Christopher Booker and Joseph Campbell and even JRR Tolkien would back me up on this. I think sword-and-sorcery is worthy of our time. Like all fiction, the best examples are pure gold while the worst hackwork is abysmal trash (Sturgeon’s Law). And maybe Ellison would agree with me now at 82-years-old. Or maybe I missed the point and will have to read “Delusion For a Dragonslayer” again and again until I get it. But a re-re-re-re-read of “The Tower of the Elephant” or “The Enchantress of Venus” is much more likely, and ultimately, more satisfying.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.
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