HAPPY BIRTHDAY, HARLAN ELLISON!
by Robert Guffey on May 27
In honor of Harlan Ellison’s 84th birthday, I’m reposting a pair of book reviews I wrote for THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF SCIENCE FICTION regarding three of his most recent short story collections. These two reviews originally appeared in THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF SCIENCE FICTION #295 (March 2013) and THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF SCIENCE FICTION #335 (July 2016)….
Still Pulling This Train: Harlan Ellison’s PULLING A TRAIN and GETTING IN THE WIND
by Robert Guffey
Bearing titles with deliciously lascivious double entendres, Harlan Ellison’s latest story collections—Pulling a Train: Violent Stories of Naked Passions and Getting in the Wind: More Stories By a Very Young Harlan Ellison—are dark twins linked by the common themes of erotic violence and violent eroticism.
Though well-known for having written such classic short stories as “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” (1965), “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” (1967), “Grail” (1981), and “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore” (1992), Ellison began his career in the late 1950s churning out penny-a-word pulp stories for men’s magazines such as Guilty, Manhunt and Trapped. Considered pornographic upon their original 1959 paperback release, under the title Sex Gang, the stories featured in Pulling a Train and Getting in the Wind have been resurrected by Brooklyn-based Kicks Books publisher Miriam Linna (a former musician who once performed with such punk bands as The Cramps and Nervous Rex). Intended as nothing more than space-filler for long-deceased “he-man publications” such as Knave, Rogue and Caper, these tales have risen like a perverted phoenix from the puritanical ashes of 1950s moral strictures. Both books are fascinating time capsules. What must have seemed like standard softcore porn in 1959 now emerge in the 21st century as historical records of the cultural mores of midcentury America and the ever-shifting borders between what’s considered decency and degeneracy in mainstream culture.
If titillation alone had been the main impetus of these stories, then reprinting them now would be a waste of time. But Harlan Ellison, even in his early 20s, was too talented to take the easy way out of any assignment no matter how perfunctory it may have seemed at the time. In his entertaining introduction to Pulling a Train (entitled “Inescapable Cemeteries”), Ellison calls these “zilch” stories “crude,” and of course they are. And yet the overall tone of the stories are permeated with an offbeat world weariness, genuine schadenfreude, unusual for a young writer fresh out of Ohio who somehow found himself in the 1950s Big Apple cranking out one-handed reads to make ends meet. It’s this curiously dark tone that lifts the material above its utilitarian roots.
The centerpiece of Pulling a Train is a lurid novella entitled “Sex Gang,” a hardboiled crime story about an eighteen-year-old thug named Deek Cullen who seems to be at the end of his rope when we’re first introduced to him and quickly descends—inch by painful inch—deeper into darkness as the tale progresses. Cullen’s desperation is palatable and effectively conveyed through Ellison’s staccato, stripped-down prose as the protagonist becomes unwillingly involved with an all-girl gang who spend their empty days stalking the mean streets of New York and raping virile young men like Deek in their spare time. Though the novella was “written for a buck” (as Ellison says in his intro) at lightning speed, nonetheless one can’t help but feel for Cullen’s confusion and his utter inability to escape the tragic fate that awaits him. Ostensibly aimed at male readers, from the perspective of the present day one might nonetheless interpret this quasi-noir tale of sudden and near-inexplicable violence as a proto-feminist manifesto, Valerie-Solanas-style, almost ten years ahead of its time. Its blood-spattered plot twists, interspersed with tough-talking knockout Amazons, prefigure the self-aware, self-mocking tone of Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 film, Death Proof. Indeed, while reading “Sex Gang,” I couldn’t help but think that this is the stuff Quentin Tarantino probably dreams about writing. (I also couldn’t help but think that “Sex Gang” would make a fascinating 21st century film, if adapted properly—or perhaps “improperly” would be the apt word in this context.)
The most intriguing stories in both Pulling a Train and Getting in the Wind are those that merge pornography with noir strains: the aforementioned “Sex Gang,” “A Girl Named Poison,” “Dead Wives Don’t Cheat,” and “Carrion Flesh.” All four of these pessimistic tales have not been in print since their original appearance in 1959 and are worth the price of admission alone.
After finishing these two books at a fast clip, I pulled out my copy of Leslie Swigart’s exhaustive (and now very rare) 1973 bibliography of Ellison’s works entitled Harlan Ellison: A Bibliographical Checklist, and uncovered references to many other early Ellison tales that—to my knowledge—have never been reprinted since their original publication in the 1950s pulp magazines that spawned them. These stories bear such wonderfully over-the-top titles as “Psycho at Midpoint,” “Homicidal Maniac,” “Scum Town,” “Glug,” “Satan Is My Ally,” “Only Death Can Stop It,” and “A Corpse Can Hate.” One can only hope that the release of Pulling a Train and Getting in the Wind might soon lead to the resurrection of these other lost gems from America’s pop cultural past.
To order either Pulling a Train or Getting in the Wind, visit the publisher’s website by clicking HERE.