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.
Ellison’s gang stories fit right in, with their punchy style and graphic substance: “She took him like Attila took Asia,” he writes in “A Blue Note For Bayou Betty.” “By storm, by conquest, by brutality. She descended on him and used him, and he was whipped like a dog.” At the same time, they’re an important reclamation project, having been out of print for more than 50 years.
The haircut was a stunt, of course, meant to draw attention to a reading and signing down the block at La Luz De Jesus Gallery and Soap Plant. For a while, it seemed as if Ellison wouldn't make it; sitting in the barber chair, joking with old friends while his fans watched through the shop’s front window, he was in classic form.
“This will be the second hardest signing I ever did,” he said. “The first hardest was in San Francisco when I had shingles. They wrapped me in Saran Wrap and I sat in the front of a bookstore itching like crazy for eight hours.”
Later, he pulled a switchblade from his pocket and held it up as people snapped his photo.
As it turned out, Ellison never did read, exactly, even after he led a makeshift parade down the block to La Luz. Introduced by Patton Oswalt — who called him “the Judith Krantz of science fiction” — he riffed for 45 minutes on a variety of subjects, beginning with his hatred of the digital world.
“The great curse of coming out and appearing in public,” he announced, “is that everything you say will end up on one of these disgusting handheld devices” — although this didn’t stop him from saying whatever was on his mind.
“I’ll answer any question you have. I have no secrets,” he promised, before offering digressions on the late performance artist Brother Theodore and the need to protect oneself against stalkers, which led to a simple declaration on his relationship to the cosmos: “That’s why I’m an atheist, because if there is a God, clearly he or she ain’t watching.”
Toward the end of the afternoon, jut before Ellison was ushered to a table where 100 or so fans waited to have books signed, someone asked for his opinion of Philip K. Dick, another California writer who transformed science fiction in the 1960s, and whom Ellison published in “Dangerous Visions,” as well.
“What you’re asking,” Ellison answered, “is really two questions: What I think of him as a writer and what I think of him as a human being. As a writer, he was one of the great innovators. He was sweet, man, an absolutely individual talent, and I admired at least 80% of what he wrote. As an atheist, I had a lot of trouble with his spiritual stuff; it is to me a gritty world. As for the human being, it’s an entirely different answer. When he wanted to be charming, he could be.”
Ellison paused, looking into the audience, as if trying to decide about something. Then, he went on in a very different tone.
“I shouldn’t say this. You know what? I’m not going to answer. It doesn’t matter what I think. He could do you a solid or be a very unpleasant person. Like Frank Sinatra. Or God. God … one day, he’ll let you win the lottery and the next? Colon cancer. And Phil, like God or Frank Sinatra — they’re all deities.”
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