The Voice From the Edge, Vol 2: Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral by Harlan EllisonThe Voice From the Edge, Vol 2: Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral by Harlan Ellison

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsAs much as I dislike the man personally, I have to say that Harlan Ellison writes great stories. Even the stories that I don’t like — because they’re violent, gory, gross, or full of others varieties of ugliness — are good stories. And if there’s anything that Harlan Ellison does better than write great stories, it’s narrate them. He’s a superb story teller. That’s why I’ve picked up all of his Voice From The Edge recordings at Each is a collection of Ellison’s stories which he narrates himself. This second volume, Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral, contains these stories:

  • “In Lonely Lands” — (first published in 1959 in Fantastic Universe) This very short story is about loneliness, companionship, and dying. It’s touching and thought provoking.
  • “S.R.O” — (1957, Amazing Stories) A down-and-out producer wants dibs on the exploitation of an alien spaceship that has landed in Times Square. I saw where this was going, but it was still entertaining. Perhaps most entertaining his how Harlan Ellison narrates it with New York City accents.
  • “Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral” — (1995, Eidolon: The Journal of Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy) A man whose father died in an industrial accident before he was born meets him again in the Bermuda Triangle. Atmospheric and creepy.
  • “The End of the Time of Leinard” — (1958, Westeryear anthology) This story was written for a Western themed anthology, so it’s not speculative fiction. It’s a thoughtful piece in which a town decides that it no longer likes the frontier style of the sheriff they hired years ago. They don’t like him because they think he’s uncivilized, yet he’s the reason the rest of them are civilized.
  • “Pennies, Off a Dead Man’s Eyes — (1969, Galaxy Magazine) When a white man goes to the funeral of his black friend, he sees a white woman steal the pennies off the dead man’s eyes. The friend of the dead man wants to know why.
  • “Rat Hater” — (1956, The Deadly Streets) After 18 years of waiting for revenge for the murder of his sister, a mob boss tortures a man with a rat phobia. This story is extremely unpleasant. It’s hard to imagine why Harlan Ellison would think this was fun to write or entertaining for the reader. Yuck. I wish I could wipe it from my mind.
  • “Go Toward the Light” — (1996, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction) Physicists have learned how to use light to travel through time. After an argument with a fellow Jewish scientist about believing in miracles and what it means to be a “good Jew,” a man goes back to ancient Jerusalem to witness a miracle. I like this story.
  • “Soft Monkey” — (1987, The Black Lizard Anthology of Crime Fiction) A homeless black woman carries around a doll who she thinks is her baby who died years ago. When she witnesses a gruesome murder on the streets, she finds the extraordinary strength required to protect her “baby” from the white men who want to make sure she can’t talk. This story is named after Harry Harlow’s “Soft Monkey” experiments which Ellison explains at the beginning of the story. Ellison has the science backwards, though — it’s the baby who needs the soft mother, not the mother who needs the soft baby. That error doesn’t at all affect the story, but I’m a psychologist, so I just couldn’t let it go by…
  • “Jeffty is Five” — (1977, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction) The narrator grows up while Jeffty, his childhood friend, remains intellectually five years old which is devastating for Jeffty’s parents. This story is so heartbreaking, but it’s also a gleeful nostalgic stroll through the mid 20th century (especially for geeks). This was my favorite story in the collection. I loved it. (If it wasn’t so cliché, I’d say “I laughed, I cried” because I did.) I wasn’t surprised to find out that “Jeffty is Five” won the Hugo, Nebula, British Fantasy, and Locus Poll Awards. You really don’t want to miss this one.
  • “Prince Myshkin, and Hold the Relish” — (1982, Shayol) In the introduction, Harlan Ellison tells us that “Prince Myshkin, and Hold the Relish” is meant to be listened to, not read. In this frantically-paced run-on-filled story about hotdogs and Dostoyevsky, the narrator (probably Harlan Ellison himself) is arguing with a hotdog vendor about the characters in the cannon of “the fabulous Fyodor” when a man in an ice cream cone suit walks up to tell them the story of how all his girlfriends have died tragically. It’s pretty amusing.
  • “The Function of Dream Sleep” — (1988, Midnight Grafitti) Most psychologists would say that the function of R.E.M. (dream) sleep is to help us consolidate memories, but in 1983 Mitchison and Crick proposed that it also functions to remove certain (probably weak or unnecessary) memories from the brain. This story about a man who believes he has a sharp-toothed mouth in his side that opens when he’s asleep, addresses this idea. In the author’s note at the end of “The Function of Dream Sleep,” Ellison explains that this story is autobiographical. The narration gave me chills.

The Voice From the Edge, Vol 2: Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral is definitely worth a look — or should I say listen? (If you’re going to read Harlan Ellison’s stories, which you should, you must, I insist, try the audio versions.) Be warned that his stories are visceral and there is a lot of ugliness here — a gruesomely described industrial accident, torture, murder, violent acts, repulsive language. Most of these stories won’t make you think pleasant thoughts, but they will make you think. Most won’t make you feel good, but they will make you feel.

~Kat Hooper

The Voice From the Edge, Vol 2: Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral by Harlan EllisonMidnight in the Sunken Cathedral: The Voice From the Edge Vol. 2 is the second installment in Harlan Ellison’s 5-volume THE VOICE FROM THE EDGE series. He’s a born storyteller, without question the most passionate, intense and brilliant audiobook narrator I’ve ever experienced. He captures the characters’ quirks and attitudes, and narrates with masterful pacing and tone. This is the ideal showcase for him to read his favorite stories from a career spanning over 60 years.

Vol. 1 featured some of his most famous stories and incredible voice narration, so it’s a tough act to follow. While his narration is just as exemplary in Vol. 2, I didn’t think the stories were quite as brilliant as those in Vol. 1. In part I think that’s because the stories in Vol. 1 are longer, while Vol. 2 has a number of shorter stories that didn’t grab me as much. Having said that, it’s still a great collection and these were my favorites:

  • “Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral” — (1995): This story is all about the oppressive weight and darkness of the depths of the Bermuda Triangle, and how that parallels the feelings of loss of a man whose father was killed in an industrial accident. As he dives deep below the sea, he encounters his father again in unexpected fashion. This is impressively described, with dramatic and hallucinatory imagery. An excellent story.
  • “The End of the Time of Leinard” — (1958): Here’s a story that is not SF or F at all, but rather a Western theme. It’s about tough-as-nails Sheriff Leinard, who had to do plenty of killing to civilize a rough border town, but once things have become more civilized, the town leaders decide they don’t need such a fierce peace-keeper anymore. Just when you think it’ll end in an epic shootout, it ends on a note of melancholy. The story may be a metaphor for the loss of that hard pioneer spirit as society gets more civilized.
  • “Go Toward the Light” — (1996): Since I’ve recently read Robert Silverberg’s time-travel book Up the Line, this was an interesting spin on the idea of travelling back in time to witness important historical or Biblical events. This one focuses on scientists involved in a time-travel project. They have an argument over who is the better Jew, and one of them goes back in time to witness a miracle at the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE. Despite all his training, he is torn about meddling in history, the cardinal sin of time travel.
  • “Jeffty is Five” — (1977): As Kat said, this is the highlight of the collection, and won the Hugo, Nebula, British Fantasy, and Locus Poll Awards. It’s about a boy named Jeffty who is stuck at 5-years of age, while his friend grows older normally. His parents are at a loss what to do, and seem emotionally paralyzed. Jeffty cannot go to school, so his only friend is the narrator, who keeps visiting him as he grows older but Jeffty remains the same. The story is filled with heaps of nostalgic trivia about all the old TV shows, cartoons, and books that Jeffty can miraculously continue to acquire long after they have disappeared from the modern world. The story has a tragic ending, a clear metaphor for the loss of that sweet innocence that we imbue the past with.
  • “The Function of Dream Sleep” — (1988): This story is more psychological horror, about a man who has a terrifying dream that a mouth has opened on his side and exhales a chill breath of death. He visits a group studying R.E.M. sleep and explores the idea that dreams are not a means of expresses subconscious thoughts, but rather a way to expel bad thoughts from the mind. After a very strange experience with a group of mental patients, the man is directed to find a reclusive man who may have the answer to his dreams. It ends with a strange encounter that I didn’t fully understand, but it was certainly a memorable story.

There were also several humorous stories that featured great New Yorker accents, such as “S.R.O.” and “Prince Myshkin, and Hold the Relish.”  These are great to listen to, and really show off Ellison’s sharp wit and skill with accents. There’s another story called “Rat Hater” which Kat absolutely hated, but which I thought was a fairly powerful vignette about a gangster getting revenge many years later for the murder of his loved one. Then again, I like Mafia movies like The Godfather, Goodfellas, The Sopranos, etc. The first story “In Lonely Lands” is a short piece about an old man dying and his Martian companion. It strongly reminded me of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, and just like that book I didn’t really connect with it.

Overall, this was a very good collection that illustrates just what a skillful storyteller Ellison is, and also that his unique brand of story writing doesn’t easily fit the SF or Fantasy categories, but frequently contains fantastic elements in stories that are otherwise firmly grounded in our reality. This is yet again different from magic realism. It shows that Ellison is fully capable of telling an emotionally powerful tale with conventional settings, but borrows fantastic elements whenever they serve to enhance the story.

~Stuart Starosta