The Voice from the Edge Volume 4: The Deathbird & Other Stories by Harlan Ellison
The Deathbird & Other Stories: The Voice from the Edge Vol. 4 is the fourth 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 best stories and narration, Vol. 2 was also excellent but not quite as brilliant as Vol. 1, and Vol. 3 had some top-notch stories and finished with two horror tales, the first narrated by Robert Bloch. Vol. 4 is the first collection in which not all the stories are narrated by Ellison himself. Fortunately the other narrators are very good, including Theodore Bikel, Stefan Rudnicki, and Arte Johnson. You can imagine that someone as picky and demanding as Ellison would tolerate nothing less.
What distinguishes Vol. 4 of this collection is not just the large number of award winners and nominees, but the challenging nature of the stories. They are complex, elusive, erudite, and experimental. So much is implied; very little is spelled out. But they are also very rewarding if you listen carefully. I actually listened twice to the ones I liked best. In particular, Ellison’s endings often contain a twist that redefines what came before, so you need to make sure you don’t miss them. Stories from the 1970s and later have gone completely away from the early more pulpy stories of the 1950s. That’s why it’s strange that the longest story in the collection, “Run for the Stars” (1957), reminded me of Philip K. Dick’s earlier stories. Frankly, it feels quite dated and pales versus his later, more mature stories, so I’m not sure why it was included and narrated by Ellison himself. Having said that, it’s an impressive collection and these were my favorites:
“The Deathbird” — (1973; Hugo & Locus winner, Nebula nominee): This is the most challenging story in the collection. It tells a very unconventional story of the creation and destruction of the world. A shadow figure drifts through the layers of a desolate far-future earth to find a crypt in the center preserving Nathan Stack, a man who has been sleeping there for 250,000 years. The shadow figure is named Dira, and is also known as the Snake, who harks back to the Garden of Eden. Dira was left on the Earth by an earlier race to make sure that humanity knows the true story of creation. That is because the God we know has twisted the story of Genesis to his own ends, and the Snake has been on the side of humanity. And only Nathan Stack, essentially the avatar of mankind, has the power to confront God and end the pain of the world with the help of the Deathbird, whom Dira commands.
This story is told in non-linear form, with several vignettes that seem like conventional stories, with the unifying theme of people letting go of loved ones. There are also odd snippets of academic-sounding comments, such as the opening lines of the story: “This is a test. Take notes. This will count as 3/4 of your final grade.” The central story is told in mythical, biblical style. It reminded me somewhat of the middle story in Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1973). Ellison lets the reader put the pieces of the story together gradually, leaving tantalizing clues throughout. I had to listen to this one three times to grasp its meaning, and I’m still not sure I understood everything. But the writing, imagery, and narration (which is done by someone other than Ellison, perhaps Stefan Rudnicki) are so hypnotic and intriguing that it’s worth it. On further reflection, the story’s concept of God as a sinister and not omnipotent creator mirrors the complex Gnostic concepts explored in Philip K. Dick’s The Divine Invasion (1981).
“Croatoan” — (1975; Hugo nominee): Here’s another story where it’s not immediately clear what is going on. A man named Gabe is sent by his panicked girlfriend to go into New York’s sewers to retrieve something very precious that they flushed down. The story also moves between flashbacks to put together the full picture of what led him to this point. He discovers that discarded crocodiles, and something far more sinister, infest the sewers. The story is more character than event-driven, and touches on a very sensitive subject in the US today.
“The Beast Who Shouted Love at the Heart of the World” — (1968; Hugo winner): Here is another complex and demanding story with a brilliant title. It takes a similarly elliptical approach, dropping incongruous details and not identifying the connections between story elements. The story begins with very newscast-like comments describing three terrorist-like mass-murders perpetrated by a man named William Sterog, who is clearly insane. The narrative then jumps to the far future in which an Earth expedition finds a giant statue with a beatific expression on its face, and a vague description of the crosscurrents of time, space, and existence.
The story then shifts to a strange underground “level” containing an insane seven-headed dragon (which may be the same as “the maniac.” Two individuals, Semph and Linah, are arguing whether it is appropriate to “drain” the dragon or not. Although not immediately apparent, the “draining” process seems to involve removing the insanity of the subject and dispersing these bad essences elsewhere. The debate centers on what becomes of these essences. Semph is sentenced to death for opposing the draining, and a statue is built in his honor.
Once again the narrative abruptly changes to the description of the meeting of Pope Leo the first and Atilla the Hun. Apparently Pope Leo managed to convince Atilla not to sack Rome, though at other times Rome did not escape this fate. The connection of this to the rest of the story is completely unclear to me.
Finally, during the trial of Semph, it’s made clear that the draining of insanity keeps the future society of the Concord safe from madness, but that these essences have been beamed throughout the universe, and have arrived on the Earth. This may be an explanation for the insane actions described in the beginning, and for all other acts of madness by implication.
“The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore” — (1991; Nebula nominee): This story defies easy description. It is strange, sympathetic, cruel, ironic, and filled with humor. Essentially it is a series of tiny vignettes featuring Levendis, a powerful but mysterious figure that goes about the world dealing out justice (with extreme prejudice) in some cases, standing by observing in others, and playing bizarre pranks in others. As it turns out, it appears that Lavendis may be how Harlan Ellison views the role of the divine in our lives — random, capricious, both good and evil, sometimes indifferent, but always unpredictable. God, if he exists, is not either the vindictive Jehovah of the Old Testament nor the merciful and sacrificial Christ of the New Testament. If anything, Lavendis may be Ellison’s way of saying “shit happens” in life and that we shouldn’t expect any rhyme or reason in the world. Life is what you see before you, and it’s up to you what to make of it.
“Count the Clock That Tells the Time” — (1978; Locus winner; Hugo nominee): This is a sweet little love story based on very original premise: what happens to all the time that we “waste” in our lives? Does it just disappear, or go someone else and accumulate? Ellison explores this question, and then expands on it by speculating on what happens when two people who have wasted their entire lives in solitude find each other outside of time and space. It’s pretty affecting and has a bittersweet ending as well. Excellent stuff.
“How Interesting: A Tiny Man” — (2010; Hugo winner): This is a short but effective story that could only be done full justice being narrated by Ellison himself. What if you were to create a tiny man who could fit in your shirt pocket? How would other people react? Would they simply remark “How Interesting! A tiny man,” or would their reactions be more extreme? The answers this story arrives at are a powerful indictment against the intolerance and close-mindedness of people, and the ending is very sad indeed.
Arte Johnson…from the ’60s TV show “Laugh-In”?!?! Wow…nice to know he’s still with us and working!
This sounds really interesting. I need to try this series of audiobooks.