I’ll Just Have a Little Lava, Thanks: The Top of the Volcano: The Award Winning Stories of Harlan Ellison

A few weeks ago, I participated in a big marathon reading of Moby Dick in New York City and while many people read from ornately bound editions of the giant novel, I was thrilled to be using my dog-eared paperback copy with totally pulpy cover art and a corny plot summary to match—a MADMAN DRIVEN INSANE BY A WHALE!

What I’m saying is, I’m not crazy about “classy” reissues, so I’ve had a hard time with the new Harlan Ellison omnibus: The Top of the Volcano. It’s such a freaking tome. Ellison is the bomb, and I love (most) of these stories. But should he be read like this? All fancy?

Subterranean Press does beautiful and wonderful work putting out handsome collector’s editions of various books (their gift edition of Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep comes to mind) but these are perhaps designed for people who value the form of the books slightly over the content. With The Top of the Volcano, all the short fiction for which legendary writer and SF impresario Harlan Ellison won awards has been collected in a big, beautiful collector’s volume. This means everything from “‘Repent Harlequin!’ said the Ticktockman” (Hugo Award in 1966) to “How Interesting: A Tiny Man” (Nebula Award 2010) is here, and if you’ve never read Harlan Ellison, these are pretty much the essentials. Be careful what you wish for in “Djinn, No Chaser,” explore telepathy and scary murder in “Mefisto in Onyx,” and worry what would happen if your best friend never grew up in “Jefty is Five.” You can read it here, there, and everywhere I’ve written about this guy; his short fiction is wildly original and arrestingly confident.

However, there’s something in a collection like this that reminds me of endless reissues of compilations by beloved bands like The Beatles. If you’ve never listened to the Beatles, should you get the Red and Blue Best Of double-albums or the Beatles’ singles album 1? Each year, iTunes and Best Buy makes it more confusing as to what the definitive Beatles track-listing truly is, and this Ellison collection is a little like that. Sure, these are the number one hits of Harlan Ellison, so to speak, but are we sacrificing the lesser-known album tracks if this is the one and only Ellison book you’ll supposedly ever need? If this is the one Harlan Ellison book you’ve ever read you’ll have a skewed perspective; you’ll find “The Boy and His Dog,” but you might never read “Go Toward the Light” or “Deeper than Darkness.”

It’s also missing one of the best parts of Harlan Ellison’s other short story collections—Ellison’s personal narravite. I’ve written this before in a variety of different ways and I’m sure I’ve used the word “blasphemous” before, but here it goes: Ellison’s non-fiction accounts of how he’s written stories or other strange introductions to his fictions are often better than the stories themselves. And acting as an editor, Ellison can ramble on about acquiring a story from a writer that’s just as (or sometimes even more) entertaining than the story itself. In his 1972 collection Again, Dangerous Visions, Ellison writes about stealing Ursula Le Guin’s Nebula, which ends with Le Guin patting Ellison’s hand maternally. The story totally sounds like a lie, but wow is it entertaining. So if you’re only reading the award-winning stories, you’re missing some of the more raw elements of Ellison—he’s a writer whose musings about his own work are often like reading liner notes in an album scrawled by the rock and roller themselves.

Harlan Ellison, to me, is best read in a way that’s a little more rock and roll than this particular book. Call it reverse snobbery—like saying you can only listen to the White Album on a cracked old vinyl record—but if I’m going to enjoy Harlan Ellison, I’d prefer to read one of these stories in a way that makes them feel less “important.” Basically, I think the best way to read Ellison is to not put him on a pedestal. This particular collection will likely please people who have already read Harlan Ellison, but it might not be suited to a newcomer.

I liked reading from my old copy of Moby Dick because it reminded me of when I first read the novel, and I feel the same way when I read Harlan Ellison; I want to be reminded of being unaware and excited. I want the writing to feel awesome because I wasn’t expecting it to be awesome. If we forget that writers like Harlan Ellison are imperfect raconteurs and not gold-plated geniuses, we occasionally run the risk of losing our abiltity to be surprised all together.

Ryan Britt is the author of the forthcoming essay collection Luke Skywalker Can’t Read from Plume Books (publishing Fall 2015). He is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.


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