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Ellison, Harlan

Entry updated 21 August 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1934-2018) US author, the most controversial and among the finest of those writers associated with sf whose careers began in the 1950s. For many years he insisted that he was not in fact primarily an sf writer, and indeed most of his large oeuvre is better described as nonfantastic, or Fantasy, or Horror; but his influence on the field – or more accurately perhaps his example, as he became famous through writing little but short stories (and much nonfiction) – was enormous.

Ellison was born and raised in Ohio, attending Ohio State University for 18 months before being asked to leave, one of the reasons for his dismissal being rudeness to a creative-writing professor who told him he had no talent. Ellison had already become deeply involved in Cleveland Fandom, producing material for and later taking over the Cleveland SF Society's Amateur Magazine, Science-Fantasy Bulletin (later Dimensions). In a profile contributed to the The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction Special Harlan Ellison Issue (July 1977), Robert Silverberg, his near contemporary and friend from an early age, vividly portrayed the young Ellison as insecure, physically fearless, extraordinarily ambitious and hyperkinetic, dominating any room he entered. Much the same could be said about the short stories which made him famous (initially in sf circles, later outside them) and won him a remarkable number of awards including seven Hugos and four Nebulas: because these tales almost unfailingly reflected, flared, magnified their author's character and concerns.

By 1955 Ellison was in New York, living in the same rooming house as Silverberg and producing numerous stories. His first professional sf appearance came early in 1956 with "Glow Worm" (February 1956 Infinity Science Fiction; rev vt "Glowworm" in The Essential Ellison, coll 1987), and he soon began to publish very prolifically indeed, with well over 150 stories and pieces in a variety of genres by the end of 1958. Much of this initial production is coarse and derivative, mixing strong early influences like Nelson Algren (1909-1981) with models derived from successful magazine writers of the time. In these years, Ellison used a number of pseudonyms: in fanzines, Nalrah Nosille; for short stories in crime, sex and other genre magazines, Sley Harson (in collaboration with Henry Slesar), Landon Ellis, Derry Tiger, Price Curtis and Paul Merchant; in sf magazines the House Names Lee Archer (two stories), E K Jarvis (three stories plus one long misattributed to Ellison; see the Jarvis entry) and Clyde Mitchell (one story) and the personal pseudonyms Jay Charby, Wallace Edmondson, Ellis Hart, Jay Solo and Cordwainer Bird, a name which after 1964 he used to designate material that (generally through conflict with television producers) he partially disclaimed. The first such instance was his Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea episode "The Price of Doom" (1964), where in the event the pseudonym appeared wrongly as Cord Wainer Bird.

Not long after reaching New York, Ellison assumed a false identity and ran as a member of a gang from Red Hook, Brooklyn, called the Barons. This ten-week stint gained him material which he used directly in the first of his infrequent novels, Rumble (1958; vt Web of the City 1975), which early demonstrated, in the vigour and violence of its urban imagery, the ambivalent hold of the City on his imagination. Ellison is one of the relatively few writers of his generation to deal constantly and impassionedly with the turbulent complexities of the modern American City (an engagement that would only significantly be furthered in the genre, decades later, by the Cyberpunk movement). More material drawn from contemporary urban life may be found in The Deadly Streets (coll 1958; exp 1975), The Juvies (coll 1961), Gentleman Junkie and Other Stories of the Hung-up Generation (coll 1961; rev 1975) and Rockabilly (1961; rev vt Spider Kiss 1975), as well as in the autobiographical street-gang study Memos from Purgatory: Two Journeys of Our Times (1961). None of this material is technically sf, but Ellison's consistent deprecation of distinctions between generic and non-generic writing in his own works induced his genre readers to explore these titles as well.

After serving in the US Army, Ellison moved to Chicago in 1959 as editor of Rogue Magazine, where later he was also involved in the creation of Regency Books. By 1962 he was in Los Angeles, where he remained. During this time, while continuing to write for many markets, he was beginning to establish a maverick reputation within sf, though his first sf books – The Man with Nine Lives (fixup 1960 dos) and A Touch of Infinity (coll 1960 dos) – display an uneasy conformity to the constraints of late-1950s magazine sf. Ellison Wonderland (coll 1962; vt Earthman, Go Home 1964; with new introduction and slightly differing contents, title restored rev 1974; rev 1984; rev 2015) is likewise uneasy, containing stories whose conventional premises are shaken apart by the violent rhetoric of their telling. Ellison was still very much feeling his way; of major sf writers, he was among the earliest to find his voice – raw thrusts of emotion rattle even the most "commercial" of his early stories – but among the slowest to find forms and markets through which to contain and project it.

After much struggle, by 1963 Ellison had established himself as a successful television writer, contributing scripts to such series as Route 66, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (see Alfred Hitchcock Presents) and The Untouchables, with considerable work for Burke's Law as well as two scripts for The Outer Limits in 1964 – one of these, "Demon with a Glass Hand" (1964), won the Writers' Guild of America Award for Outstanding Script – two scripts for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. in 1966-1967, and a Star Trek episode, "The City on the Edge of Forever" (1967), which won a Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation in 1967 and a Writers' Guild of America Award for Most Outstanding Script, Dramatic Episode, of 1967-1968; the script was put into book form twice, as The City on the Edge of Forever (1977), a Star Trek "fotonovel", and, publishing the original script, as The City on the Edge of Forever (1995); its depiction of an Alternate World on Hitler Wins lines, and Kirk and Spock's use of Time Travel to cancel this alternative, makes it perhaps the most memorable of all Star Trek episodes. The latter volume also included an extremely lengthy introductory essay by Ellison detailing changes made to the script before broadcast. A later foray into television – his attempt to create a series based on the concept of a Generation Starship – was something of a fiasco. The series, The Starlost, was Canadian-made and lasted only the 1973 season; and so many changes were made to Ellison's original concept that he disowned the programme (he signed the pilot episode Cordwainer Bird). The original script (not the one filmed) received a Writers' Guild of America Award for Best Dramatic Episode Script (Ellison is the only scenarist to have won the award three times), and was later novelized as Phoenix without Ashes: A Novel of the Starlost (1975) with Edward Bryant. A thinly disguised account of the whole affair formed the plot of a roman à clef by Ben Bova, The Starcrossed (1975), while Ellison gave his own angry take on the studio's interference in "Somehow, I Don't Think We're in Kansas, Toto" (June 1974 Genesis). More recently, Ellison served as creative consultant for the first season of the revived The Twilight Zone. In the introduction and ancillary material appended to I, Robot: The Illustrated Screenplay (November-mid-December 1987 Asimov's as "I, Robot: The Movie"; rev 1994) with Isaac Asimov, he recounts in considerable detail a later imbroglio with Hollywood filmmakers, though the screenplay itself makes clear how difficult it would have been to translate Asimov's archaic concepts – including the exploration of the solar system by human-like though obedient robots – onto the contemporary screen.

At around the same time that he began his television career, Ellison began publishing the short stories that made his name. Many of them appear in his books of the late 1960s: Paingod and Other Delusions (coll 1965; exp 1975) and I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream (coll 1967; rev 1983), both assembled as The Fantasies of Harlan Ellison (omni 1979); From the Land of Fear (coll 1967); Love Ain't Nothing but Sex Misspelled (coll 1968; cut 1976), which mixes sf and non-sf, though the second edition retains mainly non-genre material; The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World (coll 1969; cut 1976), the US edition being a corrupt text; and Over the Edge: Stories from Somewhere Else (coll 1970). Alone Against Tomorrow: Stories of Alienation in Speculative Fiction (coll 1971; UK edition 2vols as All the Sounds of Fear 1973 and The Time of the Eye 1974, the latter containing a new intro) represents Ellison's first attempt (of several) to re-sort his material, and provides a good summary of his best 1960s work. Approaching Oblivion: Road Signs on the Treadmill toward Tomorrow (coll 1974) assembles new stories from the early 1970s with an introduction by Michael Crichton, and contains a moving autobiographical analysis of the roots of his writing. Further attempts at sorting include the superb Deathbird Stories: A Pantheon of Modern Gods (coll 1975; rev 1984), which reassembles many of his best stories into a kind of cycle about Man's relation to the Gods and horrors within and without him. "Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes" (May 1967 Knight), maybe his most moving tale, is again reprinted here, finding at last a fit context. This story of the quasidelusional rapport between a gambler and a female spirit trapped within a slot machine definitively expresses what might be called an Ellisonian pathos about the sadness and rage of men and women, lovers, victims, users: solitaries all, in a gashed world. But Deathbird Stories was not a true retrospective, and the confusion caused by the release of many and frequently revised titles, often with overlapping contents, was cleared up only with the publication of The Essential Ellison: A 35-Year Retrospective (coll 1987; rev 1991; further rev vt The Essential Ellison: A 50 Year Retrospective 2001), an increasingly huge and gripping overview of his entire career. A later attempt to encompass his career, the proposed Edgeworks: The Collected Ellison, foundered after four volumes were issued in the mid-1990s [see Checklist]; but The Top of the Volcano: The Award-Winning Stories of Harlan Ellison (coll 2014), which usefully assembles the work described in its subtitle, was published in association with the name.

From the mid-1960s on, Ellison began to amass a large number of Hugos and Nebulas: both were awarded in 1966 for "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" (December 1965 Galaxy; vt "Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman: An Illustrated Portfolio 1978 chap illus James Steranko; new version as "Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman 1997 illus Rick Berry); a 1968 Hugo (Short Story) for "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream" (March 1967 If), a most scarifying expression of the true dehumanizing consequences of nuclear war; a 1969 Hugo (Short Story) for "The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World" (June 1968 Galaxy); a 1974 Hugo (Best Novelette) for "The Deathbird" (March 1973 F&SF); and a 1969 Nebula (Best Novella) for "A Boy and His Dog" (April 1969 New Worlds). This last scarifying Ruined-Earth story was made into the successful film A Boy and His Dog (1975) – itself awarded a 1976 Hugo, shared by Ellison, for Best Dramatic Presentation. He also won a 1975 Hugo for Best Novelette for "Adrift Just off the Islets of Langerhans, Latitude 38° 54' N, Longitude 77° 00' 13" W" (October 1974 F&SF), an Edgar from the Mystery Writers of America for "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs" (in Bad Moon Rising, anth 1973, ed Thomas M Disch), a 1978 Nebula and Hugo for Best Short Story for "Jeffty is Five" (July 1977 F&SF) and a 1986 Hugo for Best Novelette for "Paladin of the Lost Hour" (in Universe 15, anth 1985, ed Terry Carr).

It was during these prime years that Ellison also began editing his famous Dangerous Visions series of New-Wave sf Original Anthologies, beginning with Dangerous Visions (anth 1967; vt in 3 vols Dangerous Visions #1 1969, Dangerous Visions #2 1969 and Dangerous Visions #3 1969), and continuing with Again, Dangerous Visions (anth 1972; vt Again, Dangerous Visions I 1973 and II 1973 2vols); these books were striking for the general excellence of their contents and for the extensive, deeply personal annotations supplied by Ellison. For this success – and self-exposure – he was to pay. A third volume, «The Last Dangerous Visions», was announced at the start of the 1970s but was never published. A series of illnesses certainly impaired Ellison's fitness for the huge task of annotating what had soon become an enormous project (its millions of words would by now – on anything like a pro rata basis with the previous anthologies – have required hundreds of thousands of words of introduction and comment); but an inherent stubbornness seemed to prevent him from closing the enterprise down after its era – the high tide of the 1960s New Wave movement, which had of course been created in part by the first volume of the series – had inevitably passed. The moral dilemmas he incurred by retaining purchased but unpublished stories – eventually in some cases (of work bought for Again, Dangerous Visions and held over to the next volume) for close on fifty years – were scathingly analysed in Christopher Priest's The Last Deadloss Visions (1987 chap) (for further editions see about the author below).

For several years, Ellison had in addition to his fiction and his screenwriting activities begun to produce a considerable body of nonfiction – essays, reviews, polemics, culture cartoons, memoirs. Much of this material was later published in book form. The Glass Teat: Essays of Opinion on the Subject of Television (coll 1970; rev 1975) and The Other Glass Teat (coll 1975) engage trenchantly with their subject matter of Television; Sleepless Nights in the Procrustean Bed (coll 1984) collects general essays, as does An Edge in My Voice (coll 1985), both containing severe assaults on hypocrisies of government (and individuals); Harlan Ellison's Watching (coll 1989) contains film criticism 1965-1989, including many reviews of sf Cinema; and The Harlan Ellison Hornbook (coll 1990) is a sequence of sometimes fairly ratty confessional essays.

From about 1970, though the quality of his best work did not clearly decline, Ellison began to publish markedly fewer stories; and from about 1980 an understandable inclination to cultural melancholia began to be noticed, though Medea: Harlan's World (anth 1985) – one of the earlier Shared-World anthologies, and perhaps the best – demonstrated a continued, collegial vigour. His name, along with those of Arthur Byron Cover and Martin Harry Greenberg, was associated with a purported 1987 anthology from St Martin's Press titled «Best of the New Wave» or «Harlan Ellison Presents the Best of the New Wave»; this, though allotted an ISBN, is a never-published ghost title. New Ellison stories, some as distinguished as anything from earlier decades, were assembled in Strange Wine: Fifteen New Stories from the Nightside of the World (coll 1978), Shatterday (coll 1980), Stalking the Nightmare (coll 1982), Angry Candy (coll 1988), comprising stories almost all first published in the 1980s (this was a tied winner of the World Fantasy Award for best collection), and Mind Fields: The Art of Jacek Yerka/The Fiction of Harlan Ellison (graph coll 1994), generating a sense of the painful maturity of an author passionately engaged not only with himself – an engagement whose dangerous allure he never denied – but with the essential gestures of rage and love and self-betrayal that mark our species.

In 1993 Ellison received the World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement, and further such career honours followed, some for Horror: the 1995 International Horror Guild "Living Legend", the 1996 Bram Stoker Award, the 2000 World Horror Grandmaster from the World Horror Convention, and the 2006 SFWA Grand Master Award. Two further recognitions followed in 2011: the Eaton Award for life achievement, and in June 2011 his induction into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, an event which he was too ill to attend. His final Nebula award came in the same year, a tied win for "How Interesting: A Tiny Man" (February 2010 Realms of Fantasy).

Ellison increasingly engaged his large energies as a writer in creating parable after parable – only some of them couched in anything like a conventional sf idiom – that illuminated the late years of the twentieth century, sometimes luridly, always with a genuine and redeeming pain. For all the scattershot rawness of his wilder work, at the end of the day – as All the Lies that Are My Life (1980) and Mefisto in Onyx (1993) tormentedly expose – Ellison was a representative speaker of the things that count. Though he always tended to protest too much, and to insert himself too glaringly into his works, he was ultimately a central witness to the pain of the world. [JC]

see also: Amazing Stories; Automation; BSFA Award; Children in SF; Comics; Computers; Cyborgs; Eschatology; Galaxy Science Fiction; Games and Sports; I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream; Invisibility; Machines; The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; Messiahs; Milford Science Fiction Writers' Conference; Music; Mythology; New Worlds; Optimism and Pessimism; Post-Holocaust; Religion; Sex; Science-Fiction Five-Yearly; SF Music; Taboos; The Terminator; Transportation; Women SF Writers.

Harlan Jay Ellison

born Cleveland, Ohio: 27 May 1934

died Los Angeles, California: 28 June 2018


Note on this Checklist

Ellison's bibliography is complicated, for several reasons: his active career extended over half a century; he was an inveterate retitler and reviser of his work; most of what he wrote over that period was in short forms (there are well over a thousand individual stories in all genres), and various stories and nonfiction pieces were as a natural consequence published variously, in different states and often under differing titles; as an author whose sales were substantial, he had many opportunities, few of them scanted, to re-sort his oeuvre, having for instance included one of his most famous stories, "Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman (December 1965 Galaxy; 1978 chap), in at least eight of his own collections; this tale has also appeared in many anthologies, while the 1978 chapbook mentioned above differs from the 1997 standalone incarnation with different illustrations. Anything but a comprehensive bibliography will fail to encompass this daunting tangle; the Checklist below cannot, therefore, be as helpful as might be desired. As usual in this encyclopedia, the existence of new ancillary matter in a reprint (such as revised introductions) does not trigger a "rev" citation. The four volumes of Edgeworks: The Collected Ellison comprises omnis of earlier works, but these volumes are listed together as a series; no further volumes of the projected twenty have appeared, owing to a dispute between Ellison and the publisher. The Brain Movies series sets out to collect all the screenplays from all genres, whether produced on screen or not.


Edgeworks: The Collected Ellison

  • Jokes Without Punchlines (Stone Mountain, Georgia: White Wolf Publishing, 1995) [coll: a text released to promote Edgeworks: The Collected Ellison: pb/]
  • Edgeworks (Stone Mountain, Georgia: White Wolf Publishing, 1996) [omni/coll: including revised version of Over the Edge above, plus An Edge in My Voice and other material: Edgeworks: The Collected Ellison: hb/Jill Bauman]
    • Edgeworks 1 (Stone Mountain, Georgia: White Wolf Publishing, 1999) [rev vt of the above, with revisions made to An Edge in My Voice: omni/coll: Edgeworks: The Collected Ellison: hb/Jill Bauman]
  • Edgeworks 2 (Stone Mountain, Georgia: White Wolf Publishing, 1996) [omni of Spider Kiss and Stalking the Nightmare above: Edgeworks: The Collected Ellison: hb/John K Snyder, III]
  • Edgeworks 3 (Stone Mountain, Georgia: White Wolf Publishing, 1997) [omni of The Harlan Ellison Hornbook below and Harlan Ellison's Movie below: Edgeworks: The Collected Ellison: hb/Jill Bauman]
  • Edgeworks 4 (Stone Mountain, Georgia: White Wolf Publishing, 1997) [omni of Love Ain't Nothing But Sex Misspelled and The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World above, both revised: Edgeworks: The Collected Ellison: hb/John K Snyder, III]

Dream Corridor

Brain Movies

individual titles (some nonfantastic)

collections, screenplays and stories


works as editor


Dangerous Visions

individual titles as editor

about the author


previous versions of this entry

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