A new feature: I’m going to review a story from every collection, anthology, and chapbook on my bookshelf. I have a lot of them, so this might take awhile. First up: Harlan Ellison.
The book: Angry Candy
The story: “The Function of Dream Sleep”
Review: When I was nineteen years old, I picked up my first Ellison collection. He’d come to my attention after Stephen King’s enthusiastic review of his work in Danse Macabre, which was the budding horror-writer’s bible back in the 80’s. I remembered reading a minor story by Ellison (“Do-It-Yourself”) years prior, and thought he would be worth an extended look.
The first paragraph hooked me: “On the night after the day she had stained the louvered window shutters of her new apartment on East 52nd Street, Beth saw a woman slowly and hideously knifed to death in the courtyard of her building. She was one of twenty-six witnesses to the ghoulish scene, and like them, she did nothing to stop it.” The juxtaposition of the mundane and the shocking, the ripped-from-the-headlines approach—it worked like gangbusters, and “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” became the first of many Ellison stories seared into my soul, leading me to immediately seek out more. And his stories led me to his film reviews, his collections of essays, his groundbreaking books about television (The Glass Teat and its sequel). I spent a handful of years devouring everything Ellison wrote. My college essays started to sound like Ellison. The short stories I attempted had an Ellisonian sheen. Hell, even my politics skewed left after reading Ellison’s exhortations for liberal causes. Harlan Ellison was, in short, my very favorite writer.
That was a long time ago. I haven’t read an Ellison story in years. It happens: you find new heroes, new mentors. Harlan didn’t help matters, either, spending the twilight years of his life better known for being boorish and inappropriate than for writing anything new. And now he’s dead, and the words cease flowing altogether.
Which brings us to the story at hand. I first read “The Function of Dream Sleep” in the December 1988 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. I remember it knocked me out, immediately entering my upper pantheon of Ellison stories, a definitive statement on grief (along with the introduction to the collection it was housed in, Angry Candy), rivaling Ellison’s classic, “The Deathbird.” How would it hold up thirty years later, a week after the death of its creator?
Well, I’m not sure it’s the classic I once thought it was. But it is a good story, a heartfelt attempt by Ellison to make sense of all the friends and loved ones he had lost in the space of two years, a way to assuage his pain. The main character, like Ellison, is someone who has been driven half-mad from the loss of too many people he cares about, from attending too many funerals. And now he glimpses an open mouth in his side when he wakes up from REM sleep, a mouth full of small, sharp teeth. The mouth and the man’s grief are connected, of course, and he has to deal with the latter to get rid of the former.
Like most of Ellison’s work, the story is a little over-the-top. Harlan’s work is definitely informed by the pulp tradition he sprang from, and he likes dramatic confrontations and monologues a bit more than he should (confession: so do I). The dialogue strikes the occasional false note, and the story ends too quickly. But “Dream Sleep” still has power, and strikes a chord with me. While I’ve been fortunate to avoid major losses in my personal circle of friends and family, I’ve lost a lot of heroes lately: Ed Gorman, Melanie Tem, Bowie, Prince, Tom Petty. And now Ellison—the guy who taught me it wasn’t my opinion that mattered, but my informed opinion, the guy who demanded I care about something, the guy who expected quality and refused to fail—he’s gone, too. Maybe he wasn’t the giant I thought he was when I was nineteen, but he helped shape the writer I am, the citizen I am, maybe even the person I am. Yeah, he was probably an ass, and I don’t think I would have ever wanted to meet him. But on a good day, he could write like a dream, and he cared. That’s enough for me.
Next Up: Looming Low, edited by Justin Steele and Sam Cowan