Probably everyone who knows anything about Harlan Ellison knows he’s a jerk (please don’t sue me, Mr. Ellison). I had to consciously put aside my personal opinion of the man while listening to him narrate his audiobook I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream: The Voice From the Edge Vol. 1. I was disgusted by some of these stories, but I have to admit that even though I suspect Ellison delights in trying to shock the reader with his various forms of odiousness (mostly having to do with sex), the stories in this collection are all well-crafted, fascinating, and Ellison’s narration just may be the best I’ve ever heard. Here are the stories:
“I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” — (1967, IF: Worlds of Science Fiction) Harlan Ellison spends the introduction to I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream: The Voice From the Edge Vol. 1, arrogantly expressing his annoyance that this titular story, which he dashed off in one draft during a single evening, has been so well received while “Grail,” his favorite story, which took him many hours of research, is almost unknown. I think “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” is so popular because it’s so gut-wrenchingly horrible in exactly the right way. This is the story of AM, a supercomputer that has become conscious and resents not being able to break free from its programming. To take revenge upon humanity, AM has killed off all but five humans and made them essentially immortal while he constantly tortures them by creating a hellish virtual reality for them to live in. I will never forget some of the imagery in this story. It’s both horrible and wonderful at the same time. I loved it, though I could have done without the occasional loud electronic sound effects in this audio version. “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” won the Hugo Award in 1968.
“‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” — (1965, Galaxy Science Fiction) This story, which won both a Hugo and Nebula Award, is a social satire with an interesting premise: what if everyone was charged for the time they were late or caused others to be late? The currency? Minutes off your lifespan. “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” was also written in only a few hours. I thought it was a little silly and the whole thing seemed too obvious to me, but maybe that’s just because I’ve read too much Philip K. Dick.
“The Lingering Scent of Woodsmoke” — (1996, Harlan Ellison’s Dream Corridor Quarterly) A man who was one of the Nazis at Auschwitz is walking in the woods when he’s accosted by a woman with a gun. This very short tale is a revenge story with a supernatural twist.
“Laugh Track” — (1984, Weird Tales) A TV writer tells the story of how he’s been hearing his dead aunt’s distinctive cackling on the laugh tracks of stupid sitcoms for years, and even in live studio audiences. Eventually he solves the mystery. As the story unfolds, Ellison takes the opportunity to rail against insipid Hollywood writing, getting downright nasty in parts. (Harlan Ellison has plenty of experience writing for television.) Those familiar with sitcoms from the 60s and 70s may feel nostalgic about this one. I think I loved the science fiction element best. All of Ellison’s narration has been superb, but this story really highlights what a great storyteller he is. He doesn’t read the text exactly (I checked) but changes it slightly to make it sound better, even adding the occasional groans, chuckles, sighs, snorts, sound effects and such:
…abruptly, out of nowhere — out of nowhere! — I heard — huh! Ha! — my Aunt Babe clearing her throat, as if she were getting up in the morning. I mean, that.. that phlegmy [hawking sound effects here]… that throat-clearing that sounds like quarts of yogurt being shoveled out of a sink.
“The Time of the Eye” — (1959, The Saint Detective Magazine) Two lonely people in an insane asylum befriend each other. At first this seems like a sweet story, perhaps a romance. At first….
“The Very Last Day of a Good Woman” — (1958, Rogue) A 40 year old man realizes that the world is about to end and decides he doesn’t want to die a virgin. While reading this story I thought to myself “I bet this was published in Playboy because it has no value other than titillation.” (Not that I have ever read an issue of Playboy, but I have read some stories originally published there.) It turns out I was wrong. It wasn’t Playboy, but its competitor Rogue which was once edited by Harlan Ellison.
“Paladin of the Lost Hour” — (1985, Universe 15) After Billy Kinetta saves Gaspar, an old man who’s being mugged, Gaspar insinuates himself into Billy’s life. Both of them are alone in the world and both have their secrets, regrets, and a lot of emotional pain. Billy finds himself opening up to Gaspar and eventually learns that Gaspar is more than he seems. This sweet story made me cry. It won a Hugo Award and is the basis for an episode of The New Twilight Zone.
“A Boy and His Dog” — (1969, New Worlds) I was disgusted, yet fascinated, by this story. Reading it was sort of like gawking at a car wreck or a mangled animal in the road. It’s a post-apocalyptic story about a boy named Vic and his dog Blood who share a telepathic bond. They live above ground on the ruined Earth, always hunting for food to eat and girls to rape, murdering whoever gets in the way. When they find and follow a girl who’s come up from the civilized bunker below ground, a lot of trouble ensues and Vic and Blood’s bond is tested. I loved the setting and the telepathic dog, but Vic is one of the most horrid people I’ve ever met in a book. Ellison’s characterization of the girl and the way she reacts to being raped by Vic is totally off. In some ways, it feels like this story was written by a hyped up 14 year old. I was repulsed by “A Boy and His Dog” and I’m pretty sure my lip was curled in disgust the entire time I listened, but the story and the narration is brilliant. “A Boy and His Dog” won the Nebula Award in 1970. Ellison wrote more stories about Vic and Blood and, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’ll probably take a look at those someday.
“Grail” — (1981, Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine) This is the story that Ellison is so enamored of. It tells the tale of Christopher Caperton who is searching for True Love. As she was dying, Christopher’s most recent girlfriend told him that True Love is an object, like the Holy Grail, and that she’s been searching for it for years, so she gives her knowledge to Christopher and he continues the search. This involves magic and demon summonings, lots of money, and many years of travel, but eventually Christopher discovers where it is. There’s an ironic lesson at the end of this story. It’s at once depressing and hopeful. I liked it.
Summarizing my feelings about I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream: The Voice From the Edge Vol. 1 is difficult. There’s an awful lot to like in this story collection. Some of these stories were unforgettable and there were one or two I loved, or almost loved. Most, if not all of them, were also crude, nasty, and disgusting in parts. All of them were wonderfully narrated. If you’re a fan of Harlan Ellison’s stories, you absolutely must hear him read them himself. If you haven’t tried Ellison, this is the perfect starter collection.
Interesting note: As I was writing this review, the mailman delivered advanced review copies of two new Harlan Ellison story collections that will be published by Subterranean Press later this year. When I opened the package, my stomach kind of turned. I was both excited and revolted at the same time. I’ve never had such mixed feelings about books before. I’m still not sure whether or not I’ll read them.