One of my most treasured books is my The Top of the Volcano hardcover, a complete (at the time of publication, 2014) collection of Harlan Ellison’s award-winning stories published by Subterranean Press. It’s a beautiful book and the content… well this is arguably Harlan Ellison’s very best stuff. It will blow your socks off.
I recently re-read “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman”, which is the first story in this collection. It’s one of my favorite Ellison stories because it hits me right where I live. It has inspired me a time or several to stop and wonder what it is exactly that I’m doing in my life. I’m still not a jelly bean tosser, but at the very least I’m galvanized to suppress my inner Ticktockman.
As beautiful a book at The Top of the Volcano is, there are two audio versions of this story that ought not be missed. The first is Harlan Ellison’s reading of the story that is part of The Voice from the Edge: I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. Ellison is a fine forward-leaning narrator that demands attention. You can find this audiobook at Downpour and Audible.
This story was dramatized as part of the 2000X: Tales of the New Millennia radio series, which is worth tracking down. It stars Robin Williams as the Harlequin (Everett C. Marm), Stefan Rudnicki as the Ticktockman, and Harlan Ellison as the narrator (and host of the entire series). Yuri Rasovsky was producer/director. It looks like it’s out of print, so a used copy is your best bet. Another gem in that series is Richard Dreyfuss starring in Robert A. Heinlein’s “By His Bootstraps”. Listen through good headphones!
A few miles from here
a frost-stiffened wood waits and keeps watch
above a mere; the overhanging bank
is a maze of tree-roots mirrored in its surface.
At night there, something uncanny happens:
the water burns. And the mere bottom
has never been sounded by the sons of men.
On its bank, the heather-stepper halts:
the hart in flight from pursuing hounds
will turn to face them with firm-set horns
and die in the wood rather than dive
beneath its surface. That is no good place.
— Beowulf, 1361-1372, as translated by Seamus Heaney
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The order of God’s Providence maintains a perpetual vicissitude in the material being of this world; day is continually turning to night, spring to summer, summer to autumn, autumn to winter, winter to spring; no two days are ever exactly alike. Some are foggy, rainy, some dry or windy; and this endless variety greatly enhances the beauty of the universe. And even so precisely is it with man (who, as ancient writers have said, is a miniature of the world), for he is never long in any one condition, and his life on earth flows by like the mighty waters, heaving and tossing with an endless variety of motion; one while raising him on high with hope, another plunging him low in fear; now turning him to the right with rejoicing, then driving him to the left with sorrows; and no single day, no, not even one hour, is entirely the same as any other of his life.
— Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales
“And he had a couple of Bibles in need of customized repair, and those were an easy fifty dollars apiece – just brace the page against a piece of plywood in a frame and scorch out the verses the customers found intolerable, with a wood-burning stylus; a plain old razor wouldn’t have the authority that hot iron did. And then of course drench the defaced book in holy water to validate the edited text. Matthew 19:5-6 and Mark 10:7-12 were bits he was often asked to burn out, since they condemned re-marriage after divorce, but he also got a lot of requests to lose Matthew 25:41 through 46, with Jesus’s promise of Hell to stingy people. And he offered a special deal to eradicate all thirty or so mentions of adultery. Some of these customized Bibles ended up after a few years with hardly any weight besides the binding.”
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“Sure, they’re cute now, but in a second they’re gonna get mean, and they’re gonna get ugly somehow, and there’s gonna be a million more of them.” — Guy Fleegman, Galaxy Quest
I just re-read the short story “Window” by Bob Leman. It first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the May 1980 issue.
The big problem in the story is caused by an army researcher who is looking into ESP and the effect that specific words have on the environment and on the minds of others… put another way? Magic spells. We don’t see any of the details of this research in the story, just the aftermath of what I’m calling an accident.
In Leman’s story, the result of the accident is the appearance of a window on the past. At least it appears that it is the past. It looks peaceful, pastoral, and it’s alluring. Characters in the story are strongly attracted to both the setting and the family they see through this window. Then Reeves takes an opportunity (dare I say “a five-second ‘window’ of opportunity?”) and leaps to the other side, where he finds things not as they seem. Teeth are bared, Reeves is shredded, and in that terrible instant the truth of the thing is revealed. It’s not the past at all, it’s Somewhere Else. And evil lives there. And that evil now knows we exist and are tasty.
The horror deepened when the father from the other side of the window, after feeding on Reeves, grabbed his thick leather bound book, flipped to a passage, and uttered the words he found there, which shut the window. Chills. Not only do they know we exist, but they also know a heck of a lot more than we do about how the universe actually works. Not, uh… not ideal. Good job army researcher guy. Thanks a million. Can we take this one back?
The theme that rattles around my head after reading the story is a common one in science fiction: Is there knowledge that we’re better off not having? Lovecraft’s characters spend a lot of time wishing they didn’t know what they know. James Blish wrote a few novels around the subject: A Case of Conscience, Doctor Mirabilis, and Black Easter/The Day After Judgment. Also leaping to mind are The Stand by Stephen King and countless other novels of apocalypses caused by mankind’s errors.
At the risk of being labeled “anti-science” (like Spider Robinson labeled The Stand in a review from 1980 that I disagree with), I have to say that opening doors can be dangerous. I don’t even think that’s arguable. The problem is that we have no idea which doors lead to teddy bears and which ones lead to tentacles until we open them.
I like how near the end of “Window”, Leman writes a second story in a paragraph:
Krantz has been thinking along the same track. He said, shakily, “We’re in a spot Gilson, but we’ve got one little thing on our side. We know when the damn thing opens up, we’ve got it timed exactly. Washington will have to go all out, warn the whole world, do it through the U.N. or something. We know right down to the second when the window can be penetrated. We set up a warning system, every community on earth blows a whistle or rings a bell when it’s time. Bell rings, everybody grabs a weapon and stands ready. If the things haven’t come in five seconds, bell rings again, and everybody goes about his business until time for the next opening. It could work, Gilson, but we’ve got to work fast. In fifteen hours and, uh, a couple of minutes it’ll be open again.”
Fifteen hours and a couple of minutes, Gilson thought, then five seconds of awful vulnerability, and then fifteen hours and twenty minutes of safety…