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Perhaps the strangest book event I’ve yet attended began on Saturday at Sweeney Todd’s Barber Shop in Hollywood. Shortly after 2 p.m., a 1950s-era hot rod pulled to the curb on Hollywood Boulevard, disgorging the legendary writer and iconoclast Harlan Ellison, accompanied by a pair of greasers in full leathers.
At 79, Ellison has been a fixture in Los Angeles for more than half a century, cranking out such diverse works as fiction, teleplays and comic books. His 1967 anthology “Dangerous Visions” — featuring original stories by Robert Silverberg, Theodore Sturgeon, J.G. Ballard, Norman Spinrad, Roger Zelazny and Samuel R. Delany — is among the most important science fiction books ever published; his groundbreaking TV criticism for the old Los Angeles Free Press was collected in “The Glass Teat” and “The Other Glass Teat.”
Ellison wrote the “Star Trek” episode “The City on the Edge of Forever,” and created characters by which James Cameron’s “Terminator” franchise was inspired. Before all that, though, he wrote about urban street gangs in the early novel “Web of the City” and a series of stories (most notoriously one titled “Sex Gang”) that were published under a variety of pseudonyms.
The event on Saturday was for a reissue of these stories, in two volumes — “Pulling a Train” (158 pages, $14.95 paper) and “Getting in the Wind” (174 pages, $14.95 paper) — from the Brooklyn-based Kicks Books. For the last year or so, Kicks has staked out its own odd corner of what we might call American trash culture, publishing Kim Fowley, Nick Tosches and Sun Ra in paperbacks with lurid covers, an homage to 1950s pulps.
I was barely 20 and when I first met Harlan Ellison in the too brightly lit cafeteria of South Mountain Community College in Phoenix, Arizona. I had driven with a posse of fellow booksellers to see the infamous SF legend speak at the college, and after what can only be described as Ellison doing stand-up comedy, I made him sign my copy of Troublemakers, got my picture taken with him and then arrogantly told him to remember me. He responded, “Sure kid.”
And more than a decade later, I’m happy to report Harlan Ellison still calls me “kid,” and is just as charmingly outrageous as ever.
Last week, over the phone, Harlan and I discussed the recent re-release of his very first 1958 novel Web of the City, now being reissued by publisher Hard Case Crime. But truly, any discussion with Harlan Ellison won’t be limited to the boundaries of one subject. Most interviews I’ve conducted with authors are a kind of sound-byte piracy: I swoop in and scoop out from their brains exactly what I need to create the perfect piece.But chatting with Harlan Ellison isn’t like that! It’s the most fun you’re going to have in an interview, but it’s not really an interview. It’s a shoot-out at the O.K. Corral. Sure, these bullets might be rubber, but you’re definitely not just going to get what you think you want. You’re going to have to earn it.
“You’re three days late!” Ellison growled after I introduced myself. This is unfortunately true, and possibly my fault. I decided to remind him that not only did we meet over ten years ago, but also that we spoke on the phone in 2011. That time I talked with Harlan Ellison he thanked me for an article I’d written on Tor.com about a short story of his called “How Interesting: A Tiny Man.”
Luckily he remembered this and said, “Well, I try to be punctilious in these matters,” and then laughed like a jolly gargoyle.