Harlan Ellison
1934 - 2018
May 27, 1934
June 28, 2018
By Nick Mamatas

When I heard from a friend and fellow fan that writer Harlan Ellison (May 27, 1934 – June 28, 2018) died at home Thursday at the age of 84, the first thing I did was ignore my friend for a moment and contact my editor. “Ellison died,” I wrote. “Want something from me?” This is the influence Ellison had on multiple generations of writers. Words first.

Ellison was not a household name, but among a certain set of readers, television and film viewers, and comic book fans, he was inescapable.

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If you’ve watched Captain Kirk wince as he stopped Doctor McCoy from saving the life of peace activist Edith Keeler in “The City on the Edge of Forever,” the best episode of Star Trek, you’ve felt Ellison’s pathos. If you recall Danny Kaye, hanging on to a few minutes of life in the otherwise forgettable 1980s version of The Twilight Zone, that too was Ellison, adapting his short story “Paladin of the Lost Hour.” Indeed, if you’ve ever read short fiction in the science fiction or crime genres, you know Ellison. The anarchic, comical “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” is one of the most famous short stories of the twentieth century. Ellison would often claim it was in the top ten most reprinted. “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” is the thematic opposite — bleak and unrelenting — but is nearly as famous, and was immortalized via inclusion in the Library of America’s American Fantastic Tales. It also won both the Hugo and the Nebula award, as Ellison predicted it would while presenting it to the Milford Writing Workshop. He rejected the feedback from his colleagues, saying "I'm not changing a word, and it's gonna win a Hugo and a Nebula!"

Ellison also wrote essays and reportage, film scripts, rants, and introductions. His work has won eight Hugo awards and four Nebula awards for science fiction and fantasy, five Bram Stoker awards for horror, and two Edgar awards for mystery/crime. Ellison edited the seminal “new wave” science fiction anthology Dangerous Visions, its sequel Again, Dangerous Visions, and taunted the world for decades with rumors of the imminent release of The Last Dangerous Visions. His journalism won the Silver Pen for Journalism given by International PEN, and he was even nominated for a Grammy award in 2009 for his reading of an audiobook version of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America named him a Grandmaster, the World Fantasy Association granted him a Lifetime Achievement Award, and he won endless other accolades.

If this were all Ellison accomplished, he would have been just another writer who was successful and then largely forgotten as the genres in which he worked moved on. But Ellison was great — not in the sense that he was a wonderful person, but in the sense that Alexander or Peter were great. Ellison could not be denied. List the clichés: “He was a force of nature.” “Were Harlan Ellison did not exist, we would have to invent him.” “We’ll not see his like again.” All true. And like Alexander or Peter the Great, Ellison was not necessarily “good.” Indeed, often he was not good at all.

The great theme of Ellison’s work is the outsider against authority. Sometimes the outsider confronts authority, sometimes he soothes the powerless victimized by authority, and sometimes the outsider is consumed by his own rages. This was true of Ellison’s life as well as his work. He helped launch the career of feminist novelist Octavia Butler, claimed to have marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, and crusaded for the Equal Rights Amendment to the point of attending a science convention, at which he was a guest of honor, in a self-contained RV outside the hotel, in order to boycott the state of Arizona. On the other hand, later in life he publicly fondled the breast of writer Connie Willis on stage at the Hugo Awards ceremony—many noted a subtext of Willis having broken Ellison’s record for the most Hugo wins. He also snorted to his online fanbase about “Women of Cuhluh” in a rant wherein he referred to young black writer Tempest K. Bradford as “an NWA.”

If Ellison always cast himself as the outsider despite his fame and success, the “authority” was too often anyone who disagreed with or criticized him. The outsider bragged about mailing a publisher a dead muskrat via book rate mail during a publishing dispute, and tying a naked woman to furniture and leaving her alone, naked, in her mother’s home in the putatively comical essay “The Three Most Important Things in Life.” “All I could think of,” he wrote, “was when her mother got home that night, found her baby girl staked out like a gazelle at the waterhole, take one look at this monstrous scene and start screaming, ‘My caaaarpet . . .!’” It hardly matters if Ellison’s stories about himself are self-mythologizing tall tales—he wanted to be seen as someone who would always attack when provoked, regardless of the provocation, or even if there was a provocation.

Ellison was famously generous to friends and even strangers. He quietly gave large sums to authors whose health and careers went south, and mentored dozens of writers, keeping in touch with them and lauding their publications for years after. His famous essay, “Xenogensis,” is a defense of many of his fellow writers who had been abused financially, physically, and even sexually by their so-called fans, and in these days of toxic geek culture, his words seem like a warning we all should have heeded. When Jason Ridler (the friend and fellow writer who told me Ellison had died) reviewed two volumes of Ellison’s early stories for my online crime magazine The Big Click, Ellison sent us an email: “It was a chilly, absolutely accurate, but hardhearted review. Couldn't have done better myself." Ridler has kept those lines close to his heart ever since. Ellison had that effect on people. Some of them, anyway.

Ellison was also famously litigious. He sued AOL over his work being pirated online, and sued the makers of The Terminator for appropriating elements of his Outer Limits teleplays “Demon with a Glass Hand” and “The Soldier.” The latter suit was settled by the studio for, as Ellison told me during an angry phone call, “four hundred forty-three thousand dollars!” — a number putatively not for the public to know. More readily checkable, the sentence “Acknowledgment to the works of Harlan Ellison” was added to the film and appears before the credits.

Almost everyone in the science fiction/fantasy field has a story about an angry Ellison phone call, or ferocious fax, or waspish letter (most not including a dead animal). A middling review I gave the hagiographic documentary Dreams With Sharp Teeth got Ellison and a coterie of fans on his website’s message board all hotted up. Ellison railed against me, writing, in part, “Goodbye Bradbury. Goodbye Lieber. Goodbye Aeschylus. Goodbye Pliny the Elder. Goodbye Donald Westlake. Goodbye Faulkner and Harvey Swados and William March and Leigh Brackett. Goodbye Owen Wister. Goodbye Shirley Jackson. Goodbye all and every... for the sin of not being recognized by a jealous semiliterate jackalpak of craven wannabes do-nothings and toadstool-licking fanboys who have pudding for memory, dust for generosity, rust for respect.” My wife, who read Ellison’s complaint over my shoulder but who had never seen anything else by him, remarked, “Wow, he is a really good writer. No wonder you’re such a fan.” It’s even more impressive given the fact that Ellison probably wasn’t actually online; it was said he would type his notes on a typewriter and have them transcribed onto the Internet.

My Ellison phone call came some years later, after I wrote a review-essay about his later work for The Smart Set. He bragged about his ability to get my phone number, snarled semi-comically, was jovial at point, but also ranted and raved, complaining about virtually every sentence of the piece, the headline, and the use of the “wrong” art to illustrate the review, which I as the writer had nothing to do with. Finally, he told me “I don’t want to get angry. I shouldn’t get angry anymore. I’m still a daily writer.” That’s what he wanted to me to know — though the last decade saw mostly reprints of his early and mostly unremarkable crime fiction, plus a few minor stories and various introductions and brief pieces — he was still a daily writer.

This is what makes Harlan Ellison important. More than anyone else in the later half of the twentieth century, he made writing short subjects, whether fiction or non-fiction, seem like the most important thing someone could do with their lives. Ellison was an indifferent novelist, and he had the experience most screenwriters have — the final movie or TV show ends up radically different than the script. But for between 1000 and 20,000 words of prose, Ellison was among the best writers in the English language. He knew it too.

Ellison made a practice of writing stories while seated in bookstore window displays, because writing was a way of being out in the world and having an impact on it. His 1980s-era column for the LA Weekly, which he agreed to only if the paper ran whatever he chose to write that week, is required reading for anyone interested in the genre of political journalism, the personal essay, or even “hot takes.” (This appreciation is being published under a similar editorial guideline.) Ellison’s video rant — “Pay the Writer!” is a perennial favorite of aspirants and professionals who are still getting the few pennies a word for their stuff that Ellison did sixty years ago.

And now we need two more pennies for the closed eyes of Harlan Ellison. Goodbye Bradbury. Goodbye Lieber. Goodbye Aeschylus. Goodbye Pliny the Elder. Goodbye Harlan Ellison. Words first.

We invite you to share condolences for Harlan Ellison in our Guest Book.


Nick Mamatas is the author of The People’s Republic of Everything, Mixed Up: Cocktail Recipes (And Flash Fiction) for the Discerning Drinker (and Reader), and seven and a half novels. He last wrote for Legacy about the life of insult comedian Don Rickles.
Published by Chicago Tribune on Jun. 29, 2018.
No memorial events are currently scheduled.
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57 Entries
Cheers, to the greatest speculative short story writer ever!
R. Bruce
January 5, 2020
God is a God of all Comfort and he will Comfort the Family's... My condolences
October 24, 2019
We had a great time bantering while walking down the WB street. Thanks for writing the story and giving me credit. Thanks for helping. Miss the honest bulldog. You always stood up for what you thought was right. An honest man, tough on the exterior and kind on the interior. D.R.
Del Rée
May 27, 2019
There is a hole in the world, and the winds sigh.
Ken Nahigian
March 2, 2019
I have no eyes, but I must cry.
December 30, 2018
When Harlan left this dismal world we have to reside in, we lost one of those guys with a real spine that said what he meant. He talked the talk and walked the walk. I will always miss this friend of mine
Mark Owens
December 15, 2018
Ellison was here and his work mattered! I hope that his writing will be read for generations to come.
November 30, 2018
May God bless you and your family in this time of sorrow.
October 16, 2018
During this time of great sorrow and pain, know that you are not alone. May God give your family strength and comfort to help you endure this time of loss. As you remember your beloved one, may our Father, the God of peace, give you comfort and peace in every way today, tomorrow, and always. Please accept my sincere condolences. 2 Thessalonians 3:16
September 11, 2018
A tremendous loss. My condolences to Susan and all of Harlan's many, many friends. I am proud to have known him and to have had my work published alongside his. To paraphrase his epitaph, "For a brief time he was here, and for a brief time, he mattered." I have to disagree with the latter part of what wrote, though; I believe Harlan's life and work will matter very much in the decades and centuries to come.
Richard Dean Starr
September 9, 2018
My sincere condolences to the Ellison family. Share your fond memories with each other as God comforts all of you.
August 30, 2018
Thank you, thank you thank you. You will be sorely missed. No one in the 21st century will come forward, yet, and try to revive the short story or novella genre so far. Those who are honest and talented owe you for teaching us what speculative fiction is and can be. RIP.
Cythia Nelson
August 29, 2018
Please accept my sincere condolences for your loss. As the days and weeks pass, and as you return to life's routine, may you continue to feel comforted by the love and support of family and friends. (1 Thessalonians 4:14)
August 21, 2018
I would like to express my deepest condolences to the family for their loss of a talented man, who will be remembered for his contribution to film industry. May you find comfort and help in God during this time of sorrow.
August 3, 2018
Sad to hear of the loss of this talented young man. While words cannot completely erase the sorrow felt because of his loss, hopefully God's assurance at John 6:40 will bring a measure of comfort to you.
July 31, 2018
Too young. Too soon.
Joe DeSousa
July 29, 2018
My sincerest condolences to you Susan. Thank you for sharing him with us. His passing is a great sadness for us all. May you find the strength to endure your pain and sadness.
philip Oppenheim
July 26, 2018
I will miss his writings and food for thought he gave us...I wonder what his next book would be about? Knowing his writings we would have a treat. The world will miss his wonder!!!
Alice W.
July 24, 2018
He held my hand as we watched "A Boy and His Dog"
Cecilia Lopez
July 20, 2018
I will miss him forever. Harlan's writing made me laugh, angry, sad and beneath all the anger and rage I always felt that this person had a heart of gold. Susan, through his writing, (Mine Fields), he loved you so much. May you find peace in your grief, you were so loved.
Cynthia Nelson
July 19, 2018
My sincere condolences to the family for the loss of your loved one. May prayers strengthen you and memories comfort you. May God our Father, who loves us, comfort your hearts and make you firm during your grieving process.
July 14, 2018
May the love of friends and family carry you through your grief.
Psalm 46:1 ...DE
July 11, 2018
Susan : my sympathy . Thank you and Harlan for being guests at the out of state cons, especially the giant Cleveland Superman con with Curt Swan and Bill Mumy.
And someone's got to quote the Master about himself, and keep in mind who said it : "I'm an agnostic Jew." Shalom.
stephen borer
July 9, 2018
I met him once while taking a Clarion Writer's Workshop. He was unforgettable; creative, erudite, passionate about the written word and one of the funniest people you would ever meet. I can't believe his life-force is stilled - I prefer to think he is pounding the keys of some Olympic typewriter in another realm. He will be missed.
Sonja Sullivan
July 8, 2018
I read Harlan's book, "Can and Can'tankerous". I won't say it was his last book because I just KNOW that somewhere in some attorney's office safe is a completed manuscript that begins, "If you're reading these words, then I'm dead."
Rick Steele
July 6, 2018
Thank you for your courage.
Eric Peterson
July 6, 2018
Valenda Newell
July 4, 2018
Prolific! Leaving a gaping hole in the literary world, my sincere condolences to the family friends and fans who have suffered the loss of this master of writing, Harlan Ellison. God will comfort and sustain you during this difficult time because he cares for you. (1Peter 5:6,7)
July 4, 2018
A professor at OSU told him he'd never make it as a writer. Everytime something appeared in the press about him, he'd clip it out and send it to the prof. He said, "I figure now he has enough to fill a room." - For that alone he'd be great.
Mark Thompson
July 4, 2018
Godspeed Harlan. When you see the Almighty, be sure to have your list of complaints and grievances typed and ready. I'm still working on mine.
Dave Jacobson
July 3, 2018
Ah Harlan, My World is diminished without you in it. You will be missed. My sincerest condolences to you Susan.
Virginia Halpin Simons
July 3, 2018
May your fondest memory some how help you face each new tomorrow, and may you find that God's help continues lessening your sorrow.

July 3, 2018
May the God of all peace bring comfort to the Ellison family and friends at this difficult time.
July 2, 2018
In memory of Mr. Harlan Ellison, may you continue to find laughter and joy most important in God's promise for a future of everlasting life and happiness.-John 6:40. Know that prayers are being said in your behalf.
July 2, 2018
Tribute to one of the great writers and minds and characters of the 20th and 21st centuries. Rest in peace, weary warrior. You had a great run.
Len Hummel
July 2, 2018
May the Almighty God of comfort be with Mr Ellison's family, friends and fan at this time of deep sorrow. We invite all to draw close to God, our creator and source of life. Learn all you can about him and his son, John 17:3. They truly love us.
July 2, 2018
My deepest condolences for your loss. May the God of all comfort prove to be your strength during this difficult time.
Psalm 18:2
July 2, 2018
Ann Marie Stokman
July 2, 2018
My most sincere condolences to the family and friends of Harlan Ellison. May the God of all comfort, comfort you in these difficult times. Please know that God cares and He promises to "...to bind up the brokenhearted.
M. Ramirez
June 30, 2018
Condolences are with you. May The God of all comfort give you the strength needed to get through this difficult time.
June 30, 2018
Offering my heartfelt condolences and prayers for the family of Harlan. May God provide comfort and strength during this most challenging time. Harlan was truly a brilliant and accomplished man of integrity. He will truly be missed. With Love & Hugs
A Caring Neighbor
June 30, 2018
Superb obit, Nick. Not only for Ellison but for all of us who possess a great confusion of light and darkness. Thank you.
Bob Hannum
June 30, 2018
Sending prayers and words of comfort to the family and friends of Mr. Ellison.His writings will be remembered by so many. He is resting in Gods memory. Please accept my sincere condolences.
Ms. Sowell
June 30, 2018
Heartfelt condolences for Harlan Ellison. Remembering your great stories today and always
June 30, 2018
Condolences to Susan in these hard times. Words first. Yes. What if the words just won't come out? This man moved so many. Maybe not a household name...but for the ones who sought him out, who experienced his works, rants, lectures, ect. He was one that touch both our minds and our hearts. It is comfort knowing he is never too far away, we can find him there on our bookshelves, ( or if you're like me...once you've read his stuff...he becomes somewhat of a Jiminy Cricket of the brain) Alas, he is here, always here, waiting to mollywhop your brain from the page. Thank you, Mr. Ellison, for the stories that helped us outsiders grow. We will miss you dearly.
D Peron
June 30, 2018
1970s Los Angeles. KPFK. Mike Hodel and Hour 25. Me driving on the Santa Ana Freeway from Orange...bumping into Mr. Ellison here and there...me a youthful Chicano...all special to me now, an old man on the otherside of the world...
Eduardo DeLanderos-Tierre
June 30, 2018
Grief can be so hard, but our special memories help us cope. Remembering you and your loved one today and always.
June 30, 2018
Condolences goes out to the family and friends of Mr. Ellison may the memories you all treasured with him and God's love comfort the family

June 30, 2018
My condolences to the family. May the God of comfort be with you at this difficult time.
June 30, 2018
So truly sorry for your loss of a very talented man . May the God of comfort continue to bring you comfort and peace.
June 30, 2018
May the God of all comfort be with the family and friends of Harlan Ellison during this time of grief.
June 30, 2018
Deepest condolences for the loss of your loved one. A. D.
June 29, 2018
So sorry for your great loss. It appears he was an icon in the eyes of those who knew him.
K. T.
June 29, 2018
A person who is remembered is never truly dead.
Zant Burdine
June 29, 2018
My heartfelt condolences and prayers for your family. May God provide comfort and strength during this most challenging time. I am truly sorry for your loss. With Love
June 29, 2018
Celebrating a life well lived. We will cherish the memories forever.
June 29, 2018
My deepst condolences to Harlan's family. He was a great writer! I loved his short stories. Whereever he is I hope he is still writing.
geri eisermann
June 29, 2018