"All books are either dreams or swords,/You can cut, or you can drug, with words." - Amy Lowell, 'Sword Blades and Poppy Seed'

Monday, June 13, 2011

Strange Wine

Ellison, Harlan. Strange Wine. Kilimanjaro Corporation, 2008. 252 pages.

"From Harlan Ellison, whom the Washington Post regards as a 'lyric poet, satirist, explorer of odd psychological corners, and purveyor of pure horror and black comedy,' comes Strange Wine. Discover among these tales  the spirits of executed Nazi criminals who walk Manhattan streets; the damned soul of a murderess escaped from Hell; gremlins writing the fantasies of a gone-dry writer; and the exquisite Dr. D'arque Angel, who deals patients doses of death..." (description from the book cover)

Overall review: **** (four stars)

  • Variety of Tone.  This collection of short stories provides a little bit of everything.  It ranges from the lighthearted ("Working with the Little People"), to the bleak ("Croatoan), to the whimsical ("From A to Z in the Chocolate Alphabet"), to the cautionary ("In Fear of K").  Being short stories, the reader can choose to read what tickles his/her fancy.
  • Variety of Genre.  Ellison is a master of transcending genre.  This work contains a fairly straightforward ghost story, as well as stories of pure science fiction, stories of fantasy, and stories that go just beyond the possible.  The variety helps to keep the reader interested throughout.
  • The Introductions.  Not only did Ellison write an introduction to the whole collection, but he also wrote intros to each individual story.  As these stories were originally written and published in magazines, he had time to reflect on them before they were collected.  His comments often add insight, not only into the stories, but into the person who created them.
  • Subject Matter.  Harlan Ellison is a man of strong opinions who does not apologize for them.  The contents of some of these stories might very well make readers uncomfortable.  The first story, for example, deals not only quite bluntly with abortion (and this was first published in 1975, mind you), but with some unintended consequences thereof.  
  • Format.  The stories in the collection are in no way related.  There is no connecting thread among them.  As not everyone is a fan of short stories, this collection might not please everyone.
Favorite Stories:
  • "Working with the Little People"
  • "Hitler Painted Roses"
  • "From A to Z in the Chocolate Alphabet"
  • "Seeing"
They don't make science fiction covers quite like they ought to. I must confess that I prefer the original cover of the book. Changes in cover aside, this collection highlights Ellison's flexibility and variety as a writer.  While he may not be as famous outside of science fiction circles as other early sci fi writers such as Isaac Asimov or Ray Bradbury, his work was influential in the field.

I found this collection to be an engrossing read, with a wonderful mix of tones and genre in the stories.  Like most short story collections, its easy to read in small doses.  You can read it in one or two sittings if you want to, but it also lends itself to lingering.  Each short story stands alone, so you can pick and choose what you want to read, and in what order.

Ellison's writing is beautiful, but it can also be extremely dark and cynical.  His view of the world, at least as presented in this book, is far from sunny and is not for everyone.  If you are unfamiliar with science fiction or Ellison's writing, I would suggest starting with one of the stories I've listed above. They represent a good range of what appears in the book.

In some books, I find myself skipping introductions to get straight to the story.  In this book, however, Ellison's introductions enhance the stories.  They are informative, introspective, and sometimes witty.  Ellison's talents lend themselves as well to non-fiction as they do to fiction.  They're not too terribly long, so reading them is never a chore.  The introduction to the entire collection, in particular, is as valuable reading as any of the stories.  Now, I am all in favor of television and movies, but the points Ellison makes about the rise of television and the death of reading hit home, and are still as relevant now as they were in 1978.  So read Ellison's book, and then keep reading, because reading is one of the many joys of life.

    1 comment:

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