Harlan Ellison (1934-2018)

Sadly, one of genre fiction’s most prolific, provocative, and decorated writers has passed away at the age of 84.

Odds are, anyone reading this post knows the name Harlan Ellison, and can cite particular titles from his incredible oeuvre. For those lucky few yet to be initiated, I offer such classic and unforgettable tales as “A Boy and His Dog,” “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs,” “Jeffty is Five,” and “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman.”

I can remember obtaining a copy of The Essential Ellison: A 35-Year Retrospective back in the late 80’s, and spending a whole summer getting gloriously lost inside its pages (along with Stephen King’s It and The Stand, it was probably the largest volume in my teenage collection). I read and reread that book to pieces, until its dust jacket was tattered and its spine had enough cracks to put an osteoporotic gravedigger to shame. Delving into this copious collection (which has since been Revised and Expanded), I was mesmerized by Ellison’s versatility and virtuosity alike.

In 2005, I got to meet Ellison in person at the World Horror Convention in New York City (where he was a Guest of Honor). The Saturday afternoon train from Jersey was late getting to Manhattan, and when I finally arrived at Ellison’s (ostensible) Q&A session, he was already in full-raconteur mode. Scared to interrupt his performance, I hung back on the balcony overlooking the ballroom, but the second he spotted me up there, he invited me down to join the audience (pointing to an empty seat right up front). There I got to experience up close his oratory splendor, as he regaled the gathered crowd with anecdote after anecdote, joke after joke.

Later in life, Ellison’s public persona seemed to eclipse his weighty reputation as a writer. Someone as brash and outspoken as Ellison was bound to alienate no small number of people, but also to earn the admiration of plenty of others for his take-no-shit attitude. Often uproarious, and never, ever boring, Harlan Ellison always left an impression. Today he leaves behind a treasure trove of literary jewels, rich, finely-wrought narratives that assuredly will never shatter like a glass goblin.

Remembering Jack Ketchum

I was deeply, deeply saddened to learn yesterday of the passing of horror writer Jack Ketchum (the pen name of Dallas Mayr) at age 71.

A multiple Bram Stoker Award winner, Ketchum authored such classic novels as Off SeasonThe Girl Next DoorThe Lost, and Red (many of which were made into films adapted from his own screenplays). His approach to horror was distinctively unflinching, unabashedly brash in its depiction of violence and sex(ual perversion), yet Ketchum never reduced the graphic to the gratuitous and always brought a level of sophistication to the bloody mayhem splashed across the pages of his books. What made his narratives so hard-hitting wasn’t a mere knack for splattery effect but a true understanding of character–Ketchum was committed to conveying the emotional and psychological components of pain and suffering. A writer whose genre work tended toward the non-supernatural, Ketchum reminded readers time and again that the most horrific monsters are the ones wearing human skins.

I first heard the name Jack Ketchum mentioned in Stephen King’s 2003 National Book Award acceptance speech (during which King lauded Ketchum’s Gothic western The Crossings). Not long thereafter, I picked up a paperback copy of Ketchum’s story collection Peaceable Kingdom and was completely and utterly blown away (to this day, I can recall my first experience of these dazzling dark gems, holed up at Montclair State University and desperately hoping no students would show up during office hours to distract me from reading). Ketchum’s masterfully-crafted stories rekindled my then-guttering interest in genre fiction, and served as perfect illustrations of just how powerful horror fiction could be. After journeying through Peaceable Kingdom, I proclaimed myself a loyal subject, and scurried to purchase the rest of the author’s books.

Over the years, I got to meet Jack/Dallas on several occasions, at conventions and book readings in New York City. Encountering him in person was no less amazing than reading his prose. He proved approachable and affable, genuinely enthusiastic about interacting with his fans (he would even invite everyone to join him after a reading for some food and drink at one of his favorite spots, the Aegean Restaurant on the Upper West Side). My first impression, and lasting memory, of him, is as a down-to-earth guy who wasn’t looking to hold court in front of an idolizing entourage but was simply happy to hang out and chat with fellow horror-lovers.

With the passing of Jack Ketchum, the horror genre has lost not only one of its finest writers, but also one if its best representatives.