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Deathbird Stories by Harlan Ellison

01/03/2011. Contributed by Patrick Mahon

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pub: Subterranean Press. 388 page deluxe hardback. Price: $45.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-085-2.

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I first heard of Harlan Ellison through my elder brother, who was a massive ‘Star Trek’ fan. Ellison was the writer of one of the best episodes of thed138 original TV series, the Hugo Award-winning ‘City On The Edge Of Forever’. However, he is much more than just a scriptwriter. ‘Deathbird Stories’ is a classic collection of his short fiction originally published in 1975. This expanded re-issue was originally planned to come out on the 25th anniversary of first publication but has taken another decade to make it to print. Does the collection still have relevance thirty-five years after it first came out and fifty years after the earliest of the stories collected within it was first published?

The theme of the collection is gods. In particular, the new gods of modern society. In a statement which will find later echoes both in Neil Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’ and Terry Pratchett’s ‘Small Gods’, Ellison explains in the foreword that there is only one rule for gods: ‘When belief in a god dies, the god dies…to be replaced by newer, more relevant gods.’ So which gods are more relevant to the modern world? That is the question that these stories explore.

The original collection included nineteen short stories. This new edition adds three more recent ones on the same theme as well as a foreword and afterword. I will illustrate the range by discussing four stories that I really enjoyed and two that I was less convinced by.

‘On The Downhill Side’ is a beautifully touching story about two ghosts who have wandered through New Orleans for a century because they displeased the God of Love. Paul’s crime was to love too many women, leading to multiple divorces and ultimately suicide. Lizette’s fault was in the opposite direction, remaining a virgin until her early death. After one hundred years of purgatory, they have one last chance to please their god and escape eternal damnation. However, there will be a cost. Are they willing to pay it? This story is emotionally engaging and perfectly paced, unfolding slowly to its wonderful conclusion. I loved it.

A very different set of emotions is explored in ‘Basilisk’. Vernon Lestig is an American soldier in the Vietnam War, blundering onto a hidden Vietcong trap made from poisoned stakes. The God of Conflict takes the opportunity to recruit Vernon to his cause, infecting him with a Basilisk’s venom at the same time. Vernon is captured by the enemy who torture him almost to death. He is a normal person with no extraordinary capacity for resisting pain, so he tells them everything he knows. However, when close to death and surrounded by his enemies, the Basilisk’s venom activates on his breath and as each of his torturers comes close, they die in horrific fashion. He is found, rescued and evacuated home, but is shunned by his friends and family for betraying his country’s secrets to the enemy. Strangers who are disgusted by his inability to resist torture want to beat him up, perhaps even kill him. However, like a supernatural Rambo, each time Vernon is cornered by vengeful rednecks the Basilisk comes to his rescue with horrific results. This continues until Vernon realises his power, revels in it and demands obeisance from those around him, at which point the God of Conflict abandons him to his fate and he is ripped to pieces by the mob. I enjoyed this story for two reasons. It is very well-written, the menace and horror jumping off the page. In addition, it illustrates the reality that most of us are not super-human. It is likely that we would do or say almost anything to stop being tortured. We should therefore probably be more understanding of others who fail to act heroically in such circumstances. Ellison presents this deeply compassionate message through an exciting, pacy story that kept me enthralled.

‘Paingod’ is probably my favourite story in the entire collection. It tells the story of Trente the Paingod, appointed by the ruling Ethos to deliver pain and suffering when and if necessary to each conscious being across all the universes. For a long time, he does his job without concern or emotional involvement. However, he eventually decides that he needs to understand what pain feels like, so that he can perform his role better. He therefore visits the last creature he sent pain to, who happens to be a human sculptor called Colin Marshack, who has lost his ability to sculpt over the last two years and is devastated. Spending an evening with him, culminating with helping Marshack to sculpt his greatest ever work, Trente learns his lesson. Pain is a blessing because without it there can be no joy. Relieved to finally understand the value of his job, he returns to the Ethos, who are overjoyed to see that he has learned the lesson that no previous holder of his post has learned. He will now be able to do his job better and for longer than any of his predecessors. This is another story that is engaging and enjoyable to read. It is, however, also thoughtful and insightful. Ellison has something meaningful to say but he makes sure you enjoy yourself while you’re reading it.

I also want to highlight one of the three new additions to the collection. ‘The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore’ is written as the diary of thirty-five days in the life of Levendis, whom Ellison asserts is one of the two characters, traditionally taken to be God and Adam, whose fingers are almost touching in Michelangelo’s famous ceiling fresco in the Sistine Chapel. Levendis is a Greek word meaning someone who is full of the pleasure of living and this story shows a god on Earth who goes around righting wrongs half of the time and watching them with interest the other half. The story is absolutely hilarious and showcases Ellison’s dry sense of humour, which is present in several of the other stories, too.

In a collection of twenty-two stories, it is inevitable that an individual reader will like some less than others. In my case, there were two that I found it particularly difficult to engage with. In both cases, this was because the stories had no clear point to them and this made it difficult to care about the fate of the main characters.

‘Shattered Like A Glass Goblin’ is the story of love-struck Rudy, who is trying to get back together with his former fiancée Kristina after she left him when he was conscripted. Having managed to discharge himself from the army, Rudy locates her in a run-down drugs den where she has moved in with ten hippies and doesn’t want him back. In order to try and persuade her, he moves in. However, he seems unable to fight the surreal atmosphere within the house. After a while he starts to hallucinate until, in the end, he thinks he is a glass sculpture of a goblin and Kristina is a werewolf. When he tries to talk to her one final time, she attacks him and he shatters into a thousand pieces. The story started well enough but as I read on, I found it increasingly confusing and pointless. By the end, I didn’t really care any longer what happened to Rudy or to anyone else.

In ‘At The Mouse Circus’, Charlie, The King Of Tibet, is travelling around America and ends up at a house party in Ohio. A witch asks him what he would like to know and he asks how the dinosaurs died out. He is shown a vision where early man gives the dinosaurs the plague and they all die from it. The witch steals his dreams as payment for the vision and he is left dreamless in Ohio. This one was surreal from the start and I never really had any idea what was going on or why I should care.

‘Deathbird Stories’ is a hugely rewarding collection of short stories by a very gifted writer. Given that the original 1975 edition has been out of print for some years, this expanded re-issue from Subterranean Press is very welcome. The stories are original, well-crafted, thought-provoking and as relevant to the twenty-first century as they were to the twentieth. The foreword and afterword provide a fascinating insight into Ellison’s choice of theme for the collection. Finally, Subterranean Press have done their usual high quality job with the design and production of the book, including the use of a beautiful painting by Tom Kidd, commissioned by Ellison himself and refusing for it to be covered in title/author text, as the cover art. This is a book to treasure and re-read.

Patrick Mahon

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