Gentlemen Junkie by Harlan Ellison (book review).

Harlan Ellison has produced a steady stream of award-winning short stories and television scripts down the years, often in the fantasy and Science Fiction genres. This book does not fall into those categories but perhaps SFCrowsnest got it because he’s a fantasy author or perhaps because it‘s from the Subterranean Press who release many excellent anthologies in our favourite genres. In any case, it doesn’t hurt to read the mainstream sometimes. It keeps us geeks in touch with grim reality and, in these stories, there is an awful lot of reality and much of it is grim. As the cover blurb says it’s about ‘the lost, the damned, the helpless, trying to get a handle on life’. I’m just warning you, it’s not a feel good, nice, sweet, fluffy bunny cuddles sort of book.


These tales were written in the late fifties and early sixties, some of them while Ellison was serving time in the army. He started writing for a living in 1955 and churned out pulp fiction of all kinds to pay the rent. With the U.S. government providing room and board and less time to write, he could concentrate on what he really wanted to do, which was stories of the oppressed minorities in society or of those folks not conforming to Eisenhower era norms.

So we have the ’Gentleman Junkie’ of the title story, a psychiatrist hooked on heroin. ‘High Dice’ about a poorer junkie trapped in a toilet with a mean gambler. ‘At The Mountains Of Blindness’ about Porky, a dealer who gets his comeuppance in a very unusual way. We have ’Final Shtick’, about Marty Field, born Feldman, returning to his home town as a celebrity and pretending they really did all love him back when he was a kid. ‘Daniel White For The Greater Good’ concerns a black rapist who just might deserve lynching. There are a few good yarns about party people and ‘artists’ on the fringes of society: ‘Lady Bug, Lady Bug’, ‘Sally In Our Alley’ and ‘Have Coolth’.

‘Enter The Fanatic, Stage Center’ is a neat mix of ‘Bad Day At Black Rock’ and ‘High Plains Drifter’ but completely original, I hasten to add before Harlan puts a rotten fish in the post. ‘Free With This Box!’ is an autobiographical tale of a little boy being suckered by big business then scared by the police. It was a formative experience.

All good stuff but I particularly liked the clever ones in which something mentioned briefly in the body of the story turns into the kicker at the end, kind of utilising Chekov’s old maxim about the shotgun on the wall. ‘This Is Jackie Spinning’ about a disc-jockey messing with the mob does this. So does ‘Someone Is Hungrier’ in which a dame hiding out from her mobster boyfriend is hoist by her own values.

All the stories are powerful, so powerful that in overdose they become overpowering. It’s a book best dipped into now and then, not swallowed in one gulp. There’s a strong urge to take it all in because it’s so good. While churning out all those pulp stories, Harlan did learn how to write. Practice made him pretty perfect. However, I think that like Silverberg, Ellison does himself an injustice in downplaying the hackwork. Turning out a readable, entertaining story is nothing to sneeze at even if it ain’t ‘Art’.

A brilliant collection that I enjoyed far more than I thought I would, to be honest. Ellison proves that the short story is still a thing worth doing and, obviously, worth doing well. Highly recommended.

Eamonn Murphy

(pub: Subterranean Press. 269 page deluxe hardback. Price: $45.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-539-0)
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