Listed below are Harlan Ellison’s best stories.
1. “Repent Harlequin!” Said The Ticktock Man. Brilliant story, brilliantly told; exemplary in its succinctness. Should belong on anyone’s list of the top 100-or-so short-stories ever told.
The Harlequin sows disorder and tardiness; he is a menace to assembly lines and punch-clocks everywhere, a heretic to the religion of efficiency. His weapon of choice? Jellybeans.
It will be bad news if the Ticktock Man catches the Harlequin, for it is the Ticktock Man’s job to make sure everything goes smoothly “timewise,” and he has the power to subtract from a person’s life– his actual lifespan– the minutes that the person costs the System by his inefficiency, bungling, or (in the Harlequin’s case) outright sabotage.
Proclaims the Harlequin: “Take your time! Saunter a while! Enjoy the sunshine, enjoy the breeze!” Grrr, says the Ticktock Man.
2. I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream. Harlan is here at his crudest, most syntactically creative best.
It’s their 109th torturous year trapped in a sadistic, human-hating computer. There is no escape for them, and the computer is omnipotent– it can turn them into beasts, melt their eyes to jelly… or even take away their mouths. Don’t expect a happy ending.
Following is a passage from the story (probably never picked-out before by other reviewers) that I’ve always loved– I think it does a beautiful job of creating atmosphere in a few sentences:
“In the darkness, one of the computer banks began humming. The tone was picked up half a mile away down the cavern by another bank. Then one by one, each of the elements began to tune itself, and there was a faint chittering as thought raced through the machine.”
3. A Boy And His Dog. One of Harlan’s longest short stories. I found myself growing a tad impatient during the “downunder” scenes about 3/4ths the way through. It’s about a boy and his talking dog, survivors of a holocaust that has left behind a world wherein the good people live underground and the surface is ruled by gangs.
Harlan sets the scene well, complete with craters, melted lampposts, and dis-formed survivors. Some may despise its misogyny (even rape is treated cavalierly). And the ending… Shocking, even for Harlan– whose stories often go rutty with the shock-value.
There’s a particular passage that I feel says directly what Harlan is often saying in undertone in his brash, crude stories: “Polite? Christ, you could puke from the lying, hypocritical crap they called civility.” For Harlan, polite society has always been little better than a lie.
Those are the top three, and arriving in a clear order of awesomeness as far as I’m concerned. The next level of Harlan’s great stories consists of:
4. The Time Of The Eye. There’s something very Poe-etic about this tale. Bizarrely sophisticated compared to most Harlan Ellison stories.
5. Shattered Like A Glass Goblin. Not every counter-culture group forms a phalanx of heroes.
6. The Prowler In The City At The Edge Of The World. Interesting mash-up of a 19th century mass-murderer with a futuristic techno-color city.
And here are the rest of the best, in no particular order:
7. Pulling Hard Time. This story is saved from mediocrity by being condensed into a brief, thought-provoking (almost short-short) story.
8. Along The Scenic Route. Pure adrenaline. Not much story or character, but it’s certainly action-packed.
9. The Song The Zombie Sang. This story could arguably be moved up the second tier with The Time Of The Eye, etc.
10. The Voice In The Garden. A cute vignette. Really little more than a three-minute variety show skit, but I liked it.
11. Erotophobia. A fun, short romp about a male fantasy gone terribly awry.
12. Paladin Of The Lost Hour. A fairy tale, really. Perhaps Harlan’s most mature work, actually possessing some emotional depth. Also has one of my favorite lines: “Show me someone who’ll eat lima beans without being at gunpoint, and I’ll show you a pervert!”