Horrible Monday: I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream: The Voice From the Edge Vol. 1 by Harlan EllisonI Have No Mouth and I Must Scream: The Voice From the Edge Vol. 1 by Harlan Ellison

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.

Publisher: Refers to the AUDIO version. A collection of stories written and read by the master of science fiction and the supernatural. Harlan Ellison has won more awards for imaginative literature than any other living author, but only aficionados of Ellison’s singular work have been aware of another of his passions . . . he is a great oral interpreter of his stories. His recordings have been difficult to obtain–by his choice. In 1999, for the first time, he was lured into the studio to record this stunning retrospective.

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KAT HOOPER is a professor at the University of North Florida where she teaches neuroscience, psychology, and research methods courses. She occasionally gets paid to review scientific textbooks, but reviewing speculative fiction is much more fun. Kat lives with her husband and their children in Jacksonville Florida.

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12 comments

  1. I think being a jerk is his schtick. It doesn’t surprise me that his stories are kind of revolting too, even when well written!

  2. If you don’t want to read them, Kat, send them to me. I think Ellison is something of a genius of the short story. I don’t have the visceral reaction to him that you have, though I’m not sure why; perhaps because I know a fair bit about his philanthropic side. People sure are complicated.

    • Hi Terry, I guess the fact that I don’t want to send those books away shows that my admiration for his writing overcomes my dislike of the man. (I think if he showed up at my door I wouldn’t invite him in.) He may be philanthropic but, in my opinion, throwing money around doesn’t make up for personal character deficits.

  3. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve read him, but in high school (make that a long, long, long, long time) he was one of my favorite authors adn this one of my favorite collections of his. Someday I’ll have to see how they hold up myself, but this makes me think probably pretty well . . .

    • Bill, this collection may not be the same one you read. I think it’s special for audio. But if you haven’t tried it in audio, I highly recommend that you do. Probably the best audio I’ve ever heard. You can join Audible and get it for free, then cancel your subscription and keep the book in your account which you keep forever if you like. (There is never any problem with cancelling or with their customer service — it’s excellent.) If you do that, please click through with the coupon in the right sidebar. I don’t know if we get any referral fees from that if people cancel, but we might.

  4. Well, he is trying to make a point in “A Boy and his Dog,” about civilization — what is it and isn’t. Not saying I disagree with your assessment.

    • And that’s why I liked the story so much. It’s a contrast between the safe white picket fence society below where everyone has to obey and conform and the dangerous decadent, but free, life above. Both were awful places to live.

  5. Kat, I’m with you: I certainly am put off by the man and some of his writing, but am greatly impressed by many of his stories. I’m even willing to go more extreme in my assessment of his fiction. I agree with Terry that he’s a “genius of the short story,” a master of the form. I don’t say the words lightly. And when a man is as universally despised as he is and STILL gets so many awards, you know those stories truly deserve the awards and recognition they’ve earned.

    And yet, he can be truly vile. And the feminist in me wants to give only negative responses to any mention of the man and his work. He certainly is an oddity, the authorial Snape of literature.

    • The Snape of Literature. That ought to be an official award…

      • He would have some real competition for this award if Bukowski were still alive . . .

        And at least I was nice and didn’t say he was the Voldemort of Literature.

  6. A long-debated question–just how much should the personal life/behavior of the author affect one’s reading enjoyment/support of that author?

    Kat, I generally don’t do audio. I’m rarely in the car for more than 10-15 minutes and at home if there’s going to be audio, it’ll be music. I also find it difficult to do fiction on audio, though non-fiction is much less of an issue. That said, as it appears I might be driving to Alaska and back this summer, I just might take your advice and try it again

    • I have never liked audio books until last year when I realized I could listen to them while reading the book. A bit obvious, I know, but it was a real revelation for me since I’ve got to see the words on a page to follow a story or poem. I’ve been enjoying stories by Lovecraft and Maugham, as well as novels by Ed McBain. I will give Ellison a try as well. If you have a Kindle Fire, I recommend highly the Immersion Reading they offer.

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