book reviews by Althea

Deathbird Stories – Harlan Ellison

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This collection, originally published in 1975, has recently been re-released by Open Road Media. Many thanks to them for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinion is solely my own.

“Introduction: Oblations at Alien Altars”

*”The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” (Inspired by the Kitty Genovese murder.)
This story is the crappiest, most offensive indictment of city life – specifically New York City life – that I’ve ever encountered.
Apparently, Ellison (like others at the time) took the murder of Kitty Genovese as a symbol of all that was wrong with urban living. The problem is, that Ellison not only swallowed a misleading newspaper headline wholesale, he also strongly contributed to the erroneous myth that cities are festering cesspits of crime full of maliciously apathetic neighbors.
Kitty Genovese was murdered by a serial killer and rapist, in a horrific and violent crime. Later, it was reported that 38 witnesses ‘did nothing.’ That’s not true. In reality, there were only two eyewitnesses to the crime. Multiple people called the police (who were terribly slow to respond). Kitty died in the arms of a neighbor who had come out to help. Other ‘witnesses’ were actually people who had heard noise, but assumed it was just a drunken quarrel outside a nearby bar. There was exactly one witness who knew something really bad was happening and did nothing. Yes, there are some reprehensible people out there.
However, Ellison intentionally went on a campaign to spread the myth that dozens of people did nothing while watching a young woman killed. Not only did he write this story, but he wrote articles about the factual case: “in articles published in 1970 and 1971 in the Los Angeles Free Press and in Rolling Stone, and in 1988 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (June 1988), later reprinted in his book Harlan Ellison’s Watching.” He referred to the witnesses as “thirty-six motherfuckers” and stated that they “stood by and watched” Genovese “get knifed to death right in front of them, and wouldn’t make a move” and that “thirty-eight people watched” Genovese “get knifed to death in a New York street”.”
Why did Ellison have this agenda to spread a rumor that city dwellers are morally deficient? I don’t know. But the intention of this story is to create a graphic image of the crime scene that, while fictional, is designed to substitute for what happened to Kitty Genovese in the readers’ mind.
The protagonist is an innocent young white girl (and yes, race ‘matters’ in this story), a recent Bennington graduate, who moves to the city to make it as a dance choreographer. She becomes one of the witnesses to a brutal murder in her courtyard. She sees all her neighbors in their windows, all looking down on the violence as if it’s a show put on for their benefit.
She begins a relationship with a neighbor, who turns out to be brutally abusive and cruel. The city begins to ‘eat her up,’ and she begins to be aware of a demonic influence in her apartment complex. She can either be a victim of this evil power, or become a part of it.
In a final scene, she encounters a burglar in her apartment who attacks her in a scene that mirrors the attack that she witnessed earlier. The way it’s written falls into every stereotype of the animalistic black brute savaging a white woman… there’s some real racial paranoia here.
First thing I’ve read in a while that made me actively angry.

**** “Along the Scenic Route”
Wonderful send-up of the absurd connection we make between cars and masculinity. This takes it one step further than the state of the highways in Bradbury’s ‘Fahrenheit 451.’ Road rage is taken to an extreme here, in a future where demolition duels on the highway are legal and licensed. The gender stereotypes are a bit cringe-worthy, but they work – are even essential – in the context of the satire.

**** “On the Downhill Side”
In a mystical New Orleans (strangely compatible with Anne Rice’s visions of the city), two ghosts seek a kind of redemption. A beautiful supernatural fantasy of love and sacrifice.

**** “O Ye of Little Faith”
A man and the woman he’s been having an affair with go down to Tijuana to procure an abortion. The story is an impressively-done character portrait of a commitment-phobic, not-very-likable but yet somehow sympathetic man, and his partner is also portrayed fairly and believably. Then, of course (this being an SF collection) a bit of magic enters the picture, thanks to a Mexican fortuneteller – and the story becomes a metaphorical tale of all who have lost faith not only in gods but in themselves and in everything around them. A life without anything to believe in, is a life without hope, Ellison concludes.
The story is told with a repetitive cadence that’s a bit unusual, but works very well.
Is the protagonist being called ‘Niven’ a reference to Larry Niven? I can’t help but wonder…
Ah-ha! Yes! “Ellison had written short stories to order earlier, notably “O Ye of Little Faith” at the 1965 Westercon in Long Beach, California, to three words — “serape”, “polyp”, and “minotaur” — provided at an auction by the winning bidder, Larry Niven, whose last name is that of the story’s protagonist.)”

*** “Neon”
There’s a definite 1970’s acid-trip feeling to this one.
A man is released from the hospital after a serious procedure, but he’s not quite the same. His marriage and his life fall apart – and now he’s wondering if he’s going insane, as well. He’s hearing voices – but does it have something to do with his bionic implants? (Or could it be ALIENS?)
In contrast to the first story in the book, I very much liked the dirty-old-New York setting here.

*** “Basilisk”
At first, I was slightly put off by some of the luridly poetic language of this story, but as it went on, it grew on me.
Clearly a response to the Vietnam War, this story is pretty much an all-around indictment of war, the treatment of prisoners of war, the treatment of returning veterans, the behavior of those veterans… but it also deals with each aspect with a surprising amount of compassion and understanding. A worthwhile, thoughtful piece of war fiction, with a fantasy aspect that works both on face value and as metaphor.

*** “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes”
A horror tale involving a haunted slot machine – and a well-crafted story about the false hopes of gambling, and the bleak desperation of those who are drawn to it.

** “Corpse”
A disaffected assistant professor living in a deteriorating New York City gives us a stream-of-consciousness monologue which details his falling-apart career, his lack of real personal connections – and his bizarre obsession with automobiles.
This shares a theme with the first story in the collection: new gods or powers arising from the gestalt of the society that we have created.

*** “Shattered Like a Glass Goblin”
Surreal horror… A young man is discharged from the army, and upon his return, finds that his fiancee has taken up residence in a communal household of drugged-out hippies, and seems strangely unwilling to leave. Not ready to give up on her, the boyfriend moves in… and discovers that the house is a stranger place than he’d guessed.

*** “Delusion for a Dragon Slayer”
After death, an unassuming ‘Walter Mitty’-type has the chance – and only one chance – to grasp all his lifelong dreams and live as a hero in an epic fantasy-type scenario. But is he actually capable of heroism?
We like to think that the ‘ordinary’ man might be full of unrealized potential for greatness. But isn’t it equally likely that he is full of the potential for evil?

** “The Face of Helene Bournouw”
A beautiful model has devastating power over every man she encounters – and she uses that power devastatingly. But there’s a twist to this femme fatale story.
And… I didn’t like that twist. It was creepy, but it also eliminated even the non-multi-faceted agency that a femme fatale usually has.

*** “Bleeding Stones”
If gargoyles ever came to life, putting them onto churches might turn out to have been an absolutely terrible idea. This gleefully tasteless scene feels like it was written by a headbanging teenager with an aim to shock – but I couldn’t help enjoying it.

*** “At the Mouse Circus”
If this made any sense at all, I missed it. It’s a bizarre acid-trip; a series of hallucinatory images. However, I didn’t dislike it…

** “The Place with No Name”
A violent junkie pimp on the run from the law finds himself unexpectedly and magically transported into the body of an obsessed explorer in a fantastic Heart-of-Darkness-style scenario. The object of his driven quest turns out to be a bizarre scenario involving Prometheus and Jesus, with a sci-fi twist.
I found the disparate elements here to be too random; the way they were bound together didn’t end up feeling meaningful.

*** “Paingod”
Musing on the idea that without pain, there can be no pleasure, Ellison gives his readers The Paingod – who, in actuality, seems more like a civil servant, dispensing pain and suffering to the denizens of countless worlds.

** “Ernest and the Machine God”
Another femme-fatale story. Our protagonist has always been able to manipulate men – and everyone around her – to do her bidding. She takes it pretty much for granted. But now, she’s on the lam. When she’s forced to go to a car mechanic in a one-horse town in the middle of nowhere, she unexpectedly meets a man who may be just as powerful as she is.
What happens then, however, just made me go “huh? why?” I didn’t see the motivation…

*** “Rock God”
No, not THAT kind of Rock God. No guitars here.
From a sacrificial ritual in ancient history, Ellison traces his deity through the world’s legends of sacred stones, up to the present world of corporations and skyscrapers.

*** “Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitude 38° 54′ N, Longitude 77° 00′ 13″ W”
A suicidal but immortal werewolf… a secretive Information Agency… a high-tech scientific facility… A Fantastic Voyage-style journey… And a large heaping dollop of self-referential metaphysics. Interesting, but possibly just a bit too much for one story.

**** “The Deathbird”
This, the title story, shares a lot of themes with many of the other stories in this collection. It mixes science fiction with mythology and surrealism, weaves together disparate elements and symbols into a ‘trippy’ whole. However, I feel that it’s a lot more successful than some of the other selections here.
250,000 years in the future, Nathan Stark is woken by aliens into a far-post-apocalyptic future, when he learns that there is some truth to the myths and legends of human religion – but ‘God’ has always been insane and ‘Satan’ is actually a caretaker, trapped by the strictures of his assigned role. The final fate of the Earth will rest on Stark’s decisions.
It’s not just a fate-of-the-Earth story, though… woven through the tale is an exploration of the meaning of compassion, and the meaning of love. A strong ending to the book.


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