‘Strange Wine’ is a short story collection by Harlan Ellison featuring 20 pieces with introductions by the author for each one and a general introduction with a funny story about Hoss Cartright and the distinction between reality and television. Ellison knows all about reality but his writing delves into the fantastic, as these tales show.
The first story is the highly controversial ‘Croatoan’. To appease his distressed girlfriend, Gabe, a promiscuous man, descends into the sewers to search for the aborted baby that’s just been flushed away. He finds more than he bargained for! Are there alligators or crocodiles in the sewers of big cities? I don’t know but damn it, there should be.
Jimmy keeps killing Netta in ‘Killing Bernstein’, but she won’t stay dead. A compelling narrative with well-researched insights into toy manufacturing but I felt a bit cheated by the Science Fiction pay-off because there was no Science Fiction build-up. It was originally published in a crime magazine so those readers may have felt the same.
‘Hitler Painted Roses’ is a very fantastical story about people getting out of Hell with a lot of Christian/Jewish mythology built in but concludes with true love. Hitler doesn’t do much in the story but his name in the title makes the reader curious.
‘The Wine Has Been Left Open Too Long And The Memory Has Gone Flat’ is about one hundred and one thousand alien representatives meeting at the end of the universe when entropy has almost run down and they are all bored stiff of life anyway. The conclusion has been done before by Isaac Asimov, Alan Moore and many others, I suspect but Ellison pulls it off in style.
‘From A To Z In The Chocolate Alphabet’ was written over two days while sitting in the front window of a bookstore. Ellison is a show-off. It’s not one story but twenty-six very short ones for each letter of the alphabet. A is for Atlantean, B is for Breathdeath, C is for Cushio and so on. Some are clever, some are funny, all are interesting in one way or another.
As with wine for the wedding at Cana, the best is saved until near the end. ‘The New York Review Of Bird’ is an entertaining pulp fiction yarn about Harlan’s alias, Cordwainer Bird. Outraged by his works being hidden in the basement of bookshops while the unworthy novels of the literary establishment and certain bestsellers have pride of place, he sets out to bring them down. As his uncle is The Shadow, he has a little help.
‘Seeing’ is set in a far future we may be heading for where billions hunger for the necessities of life and one unlovely lady heiress owns whole planets. She wants a special pair of eyes and doesn’t mind breaking the law to get them. Happily, there are men willing to kill for organs and doctors happy to do transplants. Despite the Science Fiction trappings, this seemed more like a fantasy but Ellison delivers a very different tale than you would expect from the bare bones outline and it’s great.
The title story, ‘Strange Wine’, is about a deeply unhappy man who believes the world is a miserable place indeed but eventually finds that the truth is even stranger. One to make you think but that could be said about all the stories. By all accounts, Ellison the man could be a pain in the neck but Ellison the writer delivers the goods and I admire him, especially as he did it in short stories which have now become almost as much a minority pursuit as poetry.
‘Strange Wine’ is available second-hand in various editions and, if you are one of the minority, it’s well worth your time. I’m not sure it’s worth the money that sellers are asking though. I bought mine for £12 back in 2018 and you can’t get it for less than £30 now. That’s what death does for a writer. They should bring out an eBook.
(pub: Open Road Media, 2014. 264 page small enlarged paperback. Price: varies. ISBN: 978-1-49764-327-7)