When I was 16 years old, I borrowed the
short story collection Strange Wine from the Mid-Manhattan library. It was by a sci-fi writer named Harlan Ellison, a name I recognized as the author of my favorite Star Trek episode (I did not know, at the time, that he had sued CBS over their creative changes to said beloved episode). I figured that his books would be like Star Trek: gentle friends traveling through space, encountering aliens and advocating for socialism. But the first story, to my memory, was about aborted fetuses riding crocodiles through the sewers of New York. It wasn't quite Star Trek. It was, however, so bizarre, so intoxicating, and so perfectly, grotesquely suited to the title Strange Wine, that I had to go on and read the next story. And the next. And the next. Until I was lying in bed in the wee hours of the morning, petrified with fear and wondering if the library had any more Harlan Ellison books. Ellison passed away in June, leaving behind a legacy of ground-breaking science fiction. He was known for brilliant, mind-expanding short stories that pushed the boundaries of the genre. He was also known for his legal battles, his cantankerous personality, his mentorship of Octavia Butler, and occasionally punching other authors at conventions. His biography is controversial, to say the least.
But the biographies printed in his books were nearly always funny, surreal, and patently untrue. In nearly all of his short story collections, Ellison took it upon himself to create an entirely new life story. At the back of each book, where most authors list off their children, dogs, and other publications, Ellison would always write a strange and fictionalized backstory for himself instead. Here are some of my favorite author "bios" from Ellison's work, because a good writer is really just a talented liar:
'No Doors, No Windows' "Harlan Ellison, impoverished scion of once-wealthy Basque shellfish entrepreneurs, has repeatedly maintained he had no connection with the assassination of Chicago's mayor Anton Cermak in 1933. He continues to assert he was born in 1934 and could not possibly have installed those storm windows for Giuseppe Zangara. Yeah, sure, but where was he when JFK bought it? These questions, and other foodstuffs, are fully examined in this book. Is it warm in here, or did someone just get thrashed with a bolt of lightning?" Click here to buy. 'Slippage' "This extraordinary amalgam of fictions is the debut offering of the sightless Mennonite mendicant Harlan Ellison, whose treppenwörter carved on the northern face of mysterious, misty mount Ngungun in the Glass-house Mountains of Queensland continue to draw thousands of...garishly-dressed middle-class tourists with lexicons and expensive Japanese cameras every year, despite (or perhaps because of) the negative publicity promulgated by the Royal Archeological Society, Geraldo Rivera, and Mensa. All the children, and most of the auks, recovered. The Right Reverend Ellison spent the entirety of last year in two marvelous endeavors: writing these succulent stories (and hand-coloring, with the new 64-box Crayolas, all of the accompanying, recently-discovered, Maxfield Parrish etchings) (mostly, as a political position, he used one or another of the eight "retired" Crayola colors - ... Orange Yellow, Raw Umber, Green Blue, Maize, Blue Gray, Orange Red, Violet Blue, and Lemon Yellow - while eschewing the new sissy smart-ass yuppie oh-ain't-we-trendy Cray-o-las- Dandelion, Wild Strawberry, Vivid Tangerine, Fuschia, Teal Blue, Royal Purple, Jungle Green, and Cerulean), and learning the dangerously-intricate terpsichore of the geometric Italianate waltz known as the "Volta." All the children, and most of the auks, recovered." Click here to buy. 'Harlan Ellison's Watching' "'HARLAN ELLISON' is the anagrammatic pseudonym of Ranisha Lonell, a 66 year old great-grandmother who, at the age of fifty, absented herself from the material world to join an order of nuns dedicated to the preservation of the wonders of nature. As Sister Marcelina, her leadership of the Ausuble Chasm protest sit-in and the Joshua Tree National Forest intervention brought her to national attention in 1979, at which time her literary career as "Harlan Ellison" was revealed for the first time in a major New York Review of Books essay by Jacques Barzun. Her monograph comparing the Lupe Velez "Mexican Spitfire" films of the early 1940's with the "Gidget" cinematic cycle has been praised by Cahiers due Cinema as "a work of film scholarship worthy of Ronald Firbank." Today, withdrawn behind convent walls and a vow of silence, Ranisha Lonell, Sister Marcelina, continues to write her vegetarian recipes and an occasional book of trenchant essays about the world she has disavowed. Her limp has not improved." Click here to buy. 'Edgeworks Vol 3: The Harlan Ellison Hornbook/Harlan Ellison's Movie' "EXACTLY HALF OF THIS IS TRUE, CARE TO GUESS WHICH? H A R L A N E L L I S O N Caught a car thief, at age 15 / Publicly insulted the head of the Russian KGB at a reception in Sweden / Put Rita Hayworth to bed one night when she was drunk, and never tried to cop a feel / Was almost hit by a train while speeding through a railroad crossing in Dave Barry's van, with Chuck Berry lasting at 120 decibels / Had a serious run-in with Frank Sinatra and his bodyguard in a pool room in Beverly Hills / Edited and published the very first collection of stories by B. Traven, the mysterious author of TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE / Once stood off the son of the Detroit Mafia boss with a Remington XP-100 pistol-rifle, while wearing nothing but a bath towel / Is related to the Shadow / Hunted javelina in the Nevada mountains with Philip K. Dick / Was a sharpshooter in the US Army Broke the back of his drill sergeant while in Ranger basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia / Sang professionally and can be heard in the chorus on the original cast album of the Broadway hit KISMET / Knew L. Ron Hubbard Knew Lotte Lenya / Knew Lenny Bruce and even ghost-wrote for him / Was run out of Brazil at machinegun point by the ruling military junta / Was a close personal friend of Isaac Asimov / Is a writer whose books have been read and enjoyed and openly praised by Ayn Rand, David Bowie, Buckminster Fuller, Mel Blanc, Samuel L. Jackson and, a couple of years ago, MEFISTO IN ONYX was a favorite of the President and his wife, Bill & Hillary that is / Saved 200 acres of watershed land from developers, so it can be dedicated as Edgar Rice Burroughs Memorial Park / Was thrown out of Sunday School for Heresy / Types 120 words a minute with no errors and no typos NAAAH, WE LIED. IT'S ALL TRUE; EVERY WORD OF IT" Click here to buy. 'Edgeworks Vol. 2: Spider Kiss/Stalking the Nightmare' "Harlan Ellison is made of: partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (one or more of: coconut, cottonseed, and soybean); salt; corn, wheat, and oat flour; sugar; sodium ascorbate and ascorbic acid (vitamin C); blue #1; yellow #6; red #40; niacinamide; zinc oxide; reduced iron; natural orange, lemon, cherry, blueberry, raspberry, lime, and other natural flavors; tumeric color; annatto color; pyridoxine hydrochloride (vitamin B6); riboflavin (vitamin B2); vitamin A palmitate (protected with BHT); thiamin hydrochloride (Vitamin B1); folic acid; and vitamin D. It is not true that Harlan Ellison believes the ghost of his mother rides a tricycle through the ionosphere, whistling 'Mairzy Doates.'" Click here to buy.