I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream: The Voice From the Edge Vol. 1 by Harlan EllisonI Have No Mouth and I Must Scream: The Voice From the Edge Vol. 1 by Harlan Ellison

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsProbably everyone who knows anything about Harlan Ellison knows he’s a jerk (please don’t sue me, Mr. Ellison). I had to consciously put aside my personal opinion of the man while listening to him narrate his audiobook I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream: The Voice From the Edge Vol. 1. I was disgusted by some of these stories, but I have to admit that even though I suspect Ellison delights in trying to shock the reader with his various forms of odiousness (mostly having to do with sex), the stories in this collection are all well-crafted, fascinating, and Ellison’s narration just may be the best I’ve ever heard. Here are the stories:

“I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” — (1967, IF: Worlds of Science Fiction) Harlan Ellison spends the introduction to I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream: The Voice From the Edge Vol. 1, arrogantly expressing his annoyance that this titular story, which he dashed off in one draft during a single evening, has been so well received while “Grail,” his favorite story, which took him many hours of research, is almost unknown. I think “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” is so popular because it’s so gut-wrenchingly horrible in exactly the right way. This is the story of AM, a supercomputer that has become conscious and resents not being able to break free from its programming. To take revenge upon humanity, AM has killed off all but five humans and made them essentially immortal while he constantly tortures them by creating a hellish virtual reality for them to live in. I will never forget some of the imagery in this story. It’s both horrible and wonderful at the same time. I loved it, though I could have done without the occasional loud electronic sound effects in this audio version. “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” won the Hugo Award in 1968.

  • “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” — (1965, Galaxy Science Fiction) This story, which won both a Hugo and Nebula Award, is a social satire with an interesting premise: what if everyone was charged for the time they were late or caused others to be late? The currency? Minutes off your lifespan. “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” was also written in only a few hours. I thought it was a little silly and the whole thing seemed too obvious to me, but maybe that’s just because I’ve read too much Philip K. Dick.
  • “The Lingering Scent of Woodsmoke” — (1996, Harlan Ellison’s Dream Corridor Quarterly) A man who was one of the Nazis at Auschwitz is walking in the woods when he’s accosted by a woman with a gun. This very short tale is a revenge story with a supernatural twist.
  • “Laugh Track” — (1984, Weird Tales) A TV writer tells the story of how he’s been hearing his dead aunt’s distinctive cackling on the laugh tracks of stupid sitcoms for years, and even in live studio audiences. Eventually he solves the mystery. As the story unfolds, Ellison takes the opportunity to rail against insipid Hollywood writing, getting downright nasty in parts. (Harlan Ellison has plenty of experience writing for television.) Those familiar with sitcoms from the 60s and 70s may feel nostalgic about this one. I think I loved the science fiction element best. All of Ellison’s narration has been superb, but this story really highlights what a great storyteller he is. He doesn’t read the text exactly (I checked) but changes it slightly to make it sound better, even adding the occasional groans, chuckles, sighs, snorts, sound effects and such:

    …abruptly, out of nowhere — out of nowhere! — I heard — huh! Ha! — my Aunt Babe clearing her throat, as if she were getting up in the morning. I mean, that.. that phlegmy [hawking sound effects here]… that throat-clearing that sounds like quarts of yogurt being shoveled out of a sink.

  • “The Time of the Eye” — (1959, The Saint Detective Magazine) Two lonely people in an insane asylum befriend each other. At first this seems like a sweet story, perhaps a romance. At first….
  • “The Very Last Day of a Good Woman” — (1958, Rogue) A 40 year old man realizes that the world is about to end and decides he doesn’t want to die a virgin. While reading this story I thought to myself “I bet this was published in Playboy because it has no value other than titillation.” (Not that I have ever read an issue of Playboy, but I have read some stories originally published there.) It turns out I was wrong. It wasn’t Playboy, but its competitor Rogue which was once edited by Harlan Ellison.
  • “Paladin of the Lost Hour” — (1985, Universe 15) After Billy Kinetta saves Gaspar, an old man who’s being mugged, Gaspar insinuates himself into Billy’s life. Both of them are alone in the world and both have their secrets, regrets, and a lot of emotional pain. Billy finds himself opening up to Gaspar and eventually learns that Gaspar is more than he seems. This sweet story made me cry. It won a Hugo Award and is the basis for an episode of The New Twilight Zone.
  • “A Boy and His Dog” — (1969, New Worlds) I was disgusted, yet fascinated, by this story. Reading it was sort of like gawking at a car wreck or a mangled animal in the road. It’s a post-apocalyptic story about a boy named Vic and his dog Blood who share a telepathic bond. They live above ground on the ruined Earth, always hunting for food to eat and girls to rape, murdering whoever gets in the way. When they find and follow a girl who’s come up from the civilized bunker below ground, a lot of trouble ensues and Vic and Blood’s bond is tested. I loved the setting and the telepathic dog, but Vic is one of the most horrid people I’ve ever met in a book. Ellison’s characterization of the girl and the way she reacts to being raped by Vic is totally off. In some ways, it feels like this story was written by a hyped up 14 year old. I was repulsed by “A Boy and His Dog” and I’m pretty sure my lip was curled in disgust the entire time I listened, but the story and the narration is brilliant. “A Boy and His Dog” won the Nebula Award in 1970. Ellison wrote more stories about Vic and Blood and, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’ll probably take a look at those someday.
  • “Grail” — (1981, Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone Magazine) This is the story that Ellison is so enamored of. It tells the tale of Christopher Caperton who is searching for True Love. As she was dying, Christopher’s most recent girlfriend told him that True Love is an object, like the Holy Grail, and that she’s been searching for it for years, so she gives her knowledge to Christopher and he continues the search. This involves magic and demon summonings, lots of money, and many years of travel, but eventually Christopher discovers where it is. There’s an ironic lesson at the end of this story. It’s at once depressing and hopeful. I liked it.

Summarizing my feelings about I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream: The Voice From the Edge Vol. 1 is difficult. There’s an awful lot to like in this story collection. Some of these stories were unforgettable and there were one or two I loved, or almost loved. Most, if not all of them, were also crude, nasty, and disgusting in parts. All of them were wonderfully narrated. If you’re a fan of Harlan Ellison’s stories, you absolutely must hear him read them himself. If you haven’t tried Ellison, this is the perfect starter collection.

Interesting note: As I was writing this review, the mailman delivered advanced review copies of two new Harlan Ellison story collections that will be published by Subterranean Press later this year. When I opened the package, my stomach kind of turned. I was both excited and revolted at the same time. I’ve never had such mixed feelings about books before. I’m still not sure whether or not I’ll read them.

~Kat Hooper

: I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream: The Voice From the Edge Vol. 1 by Harlan EllisonHarlan Ellison is probably one of SF’s biggest personalities. By all accounts, he’s brash, cocky, arrogant, abrasive, and obnoxious. He is also one of the most brilliant practitioners ever to hammer away at a typewriter, producing over 1,700 screenplays, novellas, short stories, essays, and pieces of criticism, etc. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the SF field was his watershed anthology Dangerous Visions (1967), which championed the New Wave movement and challenged the genre to redefine itself.

I’ve never been to a SF convention or met many SF authors or fans (Hawaii and Japan are not the biggest hotspots for that, believe it or not), so I have never met or heard Ellison speak. Therefore, I will not comment on all the notorious stories about his belligerence. I will simply weigh in on his work, which is what I have to judge him by. And within minutes of listening to I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream: The Voice From the Edge Vol. 1, I was completely hooked. This guy is a born storyteller, without question the most passionate, intense and brilliant audiobook narrator I’ve ever experienced. He’s just that good and he knows it. He captures the characters quirks, personalities, attitudes, and delivers the stories at exactly the right pace and tone, which is obvious because he’s reading his own stories. And the 5-volume THE VOICE FROM THE EDGE series is the ideal showcase for him to strut his stuff and read his favorite stories from a career spanning over 60 years. He has a huge pile of awards (Hugos, Nebulas, Bram Stokers, Edgars, World Fantasy) and Lifetime Achievement Awards, so there are plenty of excellent stories to choose from. Vol. 1 features some of his most famous and impressive work, and are narrated to perfection. I’m not sure there’s anything more that can be said about the man or his stories, but it was my first time to encounter his work, so I assume there are other SF fans out there, especially younger ones, who may not have heard anything. If so, this is a great way to hear his stories read exactly the way he’d want. Absolutely brilliant. My favorites in this collection:

  • “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” —  (1967, Hugo Winner): The collection leads off with one of Ellison’s most famous stories, about an insane and sadistic AI named “AM” who has killed off the rest of the human race but has saved five unlucky individuals for eternal torture. It’s narrative with such enthusiasm and energy that you can picture Ellison with a maniacal grin in the recording studio. The vitriol that AM bears toward humanity is fearsome to behold, and it’s a very different take from the cold, detached approach of HAL. Overall, it’s a chilling story and brilliant performance.
  • “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman+ — (1965, Hugo & Nebula Winner): This is another classic favorite set in a dystopian future society controlled by the Ticktockman, who regulates the lives and daily routines of all its citizens. Everything runs smoothly until a man dressed as a clown starts to disrupt things, involving jelly beans of all things. In addition to the great title and narration, the audio production has added a number of amusing sound effects.
  • “Laugh Track” — (1984): This is a later story that ruthlessly skewers the cynical entertainment business that Ellison worked in for decades, in particular the insipid and mind-numbing TV programs that Hollywood has cranked out for generations. Ellison reads this story with incredible energy in a New York wiseguy style, about a young guy in the business who hears the voice of his dead Aunt Babe on one of the laugh tracks, and starts to pick out her voice on other sitcoms. He decides to track down the source of the recording by talking with an ultra-secretive “sweetener” who produces the laugh tracks. His description of the “unmentionable” sweeteners, the unspoken dirty secret of the industry, is hilarious, and when he finally tracks downs dear old Babe, the story takes a very unexpected turn. This was one of my favorites just for the biting humor and ridiculing of sitcoms.
  • “Paladin of the Lost Hour” — (1985): This story took me completely by surprise. After the dystopians horrors of “I Have No Mouth..” and “Repent Harlequin…”, I was unprepared for a story as poignant, emotional, and sublime as this. Is this really the same writer? Ellison, showing his versatility as a storyteller, switches from wiseguy mode to sensitively tell the story of a young man in a dead-end job as a midnight convenience story manager who encounters an old man being beaten by hoods in a graveyard one night. Although he isn’t looking for friendship, the old man is so clearly lonely (he visits his wife at the cemetery all the time), that the young man lets him stay at his place out of pity. Eventually they develop a very close friendship, and both reveal very unexpected backgrounds that moves the story into a completely different direction than I was expecting. This story moved me to a surprising degree, and again proved that Ellison is too versatile a writer to be pigeon-holed.
  • “A Boy And His Dog” — (1969, Nebula Winner): Here’s a story listeners are likely to either love or hate. It’s the story of Vic and Blood, the eponymous Boy and his Dog. The are a team that roves a post-apocalyptic United States where civilization has collapsed into savagery and roving gangs. The only bastions of civilization are underground shelters where pre-war society has been recreated in caricatured terms. Vic is not a sympathetic figure – he is a shallow and vicious hoodlum who seeks simply to survive, kill rival scavengers, and track down women to rape. So are we supposed to sympathize with him? I hope not.The story gets going when Vic and Blood are at a movie theatre showing vintage stag films, and among the many solo scavengers watching the film Blood informs Vic that he smells a woman. They follow her trail to a building where he corners and rapes her. Despite himself, he starts to develop feelings for her. She encourages his feelings, despite the misgivings of Blood. They then find themselves under attack from other solos who’ve tracked her as well. Eventually the girl Quilla lures him underground to Topeka, a cartoonish version of the lost middle-America. However, it turns out he’s been lured on purpose to serve as a ‘stud’ to impregnate the women there as the men there have lost the ability to do so. The sound-effects here are really great – incongruously cheerful and hokey music plays as Vic and Quilla spread death and mayhem in Topeka in their bid to escape to aboveground. When they get there, they discover that Blood is injured and starving, and Vic has to choose between his loyal dog and his newfound love.

    This story was filmed in 1975 by L.Q. Jones, and features a young Don Johnson as Vic. I saw it many years ago and I think it’s meant as dystopian satire, at least I hope so because otherwise it’s a pretty unpleasant choice between the vicious hood Vic and the creepy artificial world underground. In the end neither is particularly appealing, but Ellison’s sympathies are clearly with the anarchic freedom outside and the bond between Vic and Blood. What’s more questionable is how he treats Quilla in the story, as she quickly gets over her initial rape and quickly latches onto Vic as a ticket out. It’s not a very pleasant story, but undeniably gripping. And Ellison of course invests the storytelling with such gusto that you can’t help being carried along.

  • “Grail” — (1981): This is the last story in the collection, and according to Ellison’s opening intro, this is one of his favorites. In fact, he is confounded by the fact that his other more famous stories were written very rapidly, while he spent a great amount of time and research on ‘Grail’ but it never really gained a major readership. The story itself is certainly interesting. After losing his love in a mortar attack during the Vietnam War, a man hunts across the world for ‘true love’, which she told him about in her dying words. After much travail, he discovers a means to find it – forming a pentagram and contacting a demon from the nether realms. Things get pretty strange afterward, and the demons are not what you’d expect. Finally, he finds his long sought-after grail. But once again, Ellison delivers a twist that boils down to “beware what you wish for.” Definitely an original story, though not perhaps as superior as he believes. But then it all comes down to preference.

~Stuart Starosta

Publisher: Refers to the AUDIO version. A collection of stories written and read by the master of science fiction and the supernatural. Harlan Ellison has won more awards for imaginative literature than any other living author, but only aficionados of Ellison’s singular work have been aware of another of his passions . . . he is a great oral interpreter of his stories. His recordings have been difficult to obtain–by his choice. In 1999, for the first time, he was lured into the studio to record this stunning retrospective.