Harlan Ellison – Strange Wine, Deathbird Stories and I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream

Strange Wine
Warner Books – 1979 (First Published 1978)

Despite being discussed at length in Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, Harlan Ellison’s Strange Wine is not a horror collection. Ellison seemed to dislike the idea of being pegged as a genre writer, and this book is an interesting mix of horror, science fiction, humour and fantasy.

Every story has an introduction, and I found these a little grating at first. Ellison is fiercely opinionated, and there were a few moments that caused me to roll my eyes and think “What an asshole!”. These moments would soon be followed by Ellison acknowledging that he was an asshole, and this self-awareness made him a lot easier to read. If you spend any time reading about this guy, you’ll find stories of him being a jerk, but at least he was able to make fun of himself.

Some of the stories in here are great, but some of them are not great. The introduction to one of the stories, “The New York Review of Bird” is more entertaining than the tale itself. “From A to Z, In the Chocolate Alphabet” is an interesting literary experiment, but honestly, it’s not much fun to read. The stories that contain the most horror might be “Croatoan” and “Hitler Painted Roses”, but that’s debatable. I think my favourite story in the collection was, “Mom”, the tale of a Jewish mother coming back to haunt her son. It’s not a scary one, but I thought it was pretty funny. “Seeing” is also great. It’s about a space prostitute with mutant eyes. It’s really violent.

Her scream became the howl of a dog. He could not speak, because he had no part left in his face that could make a formed sound come out. He could see only imperfectly; there was only one eye. If he had an expression, it was lost under the blood and crushed, hanging flesh that formed his face.

Seeing

In Danse Macabre, King discusses Strange Wine, but he also mentions another of Ellison’s collections called Deathbird Stories. Initially I planned to read only these collections for this post, but then I realised that Ellison’s most esteemed stories are scattered throughout a bunch of different collections. Perhaps his best known story is called “I Have no Mouth and I must Scream”, and I thought I had better read that before anything else. It’s the title story of this 1967 collection, and this is where I went next.

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream
Pyramid Books – 1976 (First published 1967)

This collection is decent. It only has 8 stories, and they’re all pretty good. The title story is about a group of people kept alive by a malevolent super computer. This is super bleak dystopian sci-fi. I liked it a lot. There’s lots of aliens in here and some stories about space-psychics and space-ants. While this kind of stuff may seem more sci-fi than the stuff I usually review, there is a darkness to much of it that shouldn’t be understated. Ellison seems to have been one of those writers who writes fantasy to make statements about reality. (His view on reality wasn’t too cheery.) Maybe the tropes here are a little different to my usual fare, but the themes are spot on. (Also, this is my blog and I’ll review all the god-damned sci-fi I want.)

The first story is the best. That final line. Brutal.

Deathbird Stories
Dell – 1980 (First published 1975)

I wasn’t quite as impressed with this collection to be honest. Some of it is great, but I thought there was a lot of filler. The first story, “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” was inspired by the murder of Kitty Genovese. It’s gritty as fuck but thoroughly effective. The other story that stood out as a horror story was “Bleeding Stones”, a tale about some church gargoyles coming to life and attacking mankind. It’s not very scary, but it is brutally violent. I enjoyed it. Some of the other stories in here were a little too trippy for me. I felt like I was missing the point of some of them entirely. What the hell is “At The Mouse Circus” about?

By the time I got to the end of this book, my patience for Ellison was wearing thin. (I read all three of these books in close succession.) This is unfortunate as the last 2 stories in here are probably the best ones. “Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitude 38° 54′ N, Longitude 77° 00′ 13″ W” is a bizarre tale about the Wolfman going inside his own body with the help of Victor Frankenstein. It’s less silly and more complicated than it sounds. In “The Deathbird”, Ellison rewrites the story of the Garden of Eden and describes man’s final encounter with evil. This was a seriously impressive piece of writing.

I think Ellison was a fantastic writer. He wrote a lot though, and not everything he wrote was amazing. There’s no mass market “Best of” collection out there containing just the gold, but Subterranean Press put out an “Award Winning Stories of” in 2014, and I think I might read that next. (I don’t think I’ll bother writing about it on here though.) I wrote this post because Ellison was included in Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, but I reckon Stephen King only included him there because the two were friends. Ellison was great, and I’m sure his vicious style of writing had an impact on many horror writers, but the above are not books of horror stories. I don’t mean that as a deterrent. You should definitely read some Ellison if you haven’t already. Of the three I read, I think I’d recommend I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream as the best starting point, but they all contain some pretty amazing stuff.