Harlan Ellison, pugnacious and prolific science fiction writer, dies at 84

Mr. Ellison wrote more than 1,700 short stories and articles, at least 100 books, and dozens of screenplays and TV scripts.
Jeff Robbins/Associated Press/file 1972
Mr. Ellison (right) wrote more than 1,700 short stories and articles, at least 100 books, and dozens of screenplays and TV scripts.

NEW YORK — Harlan Ellison, a furiously prolific and cantankerous writer whose science fiction and fantasy stories reflected a personality so intense that they often read as if he were punching his manual typewriter keys with his fists, died Wednesday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 84.

His wife, Susan Ellison, confirmed his death but said she did not know the cause. He had had a stroke and heart surgery in recent years.

Mr. Ellison looked at storytelling as a “holy chore,” which he pursued zealously for more than 60 years. His output includes more than 1,700 short stories and articles, at least 100 books, and dozens of screenplays and TV scripts. And although he was ranked with eminent science fiction writers like Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov, he insisted that he wrote speculative fiction or, simply, fiction.


“Call me a science fiction writer,” Mr. Ellison said on the Sci-Fi Channel (now SyFy) in the 1990s. “I’ll come to your house and I’ll nail your pet’s head to a coffee table. I’ll hit you so hard your ancestors will die.”

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He was known as much for his attitude as his writing — he described himself once as ‘‘bellicose.’’ His targets were anyone or anything that offended him, from TV producers to his own audience. An encounter with Frank Sinatra, when the two faced off while Mr. Ellison was shooting pool, was immortalized in Gay Talese’s famous 1966 magazine profile of the singer.

‘‘I go to bed angry and I get up angrier every morning,’’ he once said.

‘‘Harlan Ellison: There was no one quite like him in American letters, and never will be,’’ author Stephen King tweeted on Thursday. ‘‘Angry, funny, eloquent, hugely talented. If there’s an afterlife, Harlan is already kicking ass and taking down names.’’

Several of Mr. Ellison’s works were translated into dozens of languages.


His best-known work includes “A Boy and His Dog” (1969), a novella set in the postapocalyptic wasteland of the United States; “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” (1967), a short story about a computer that tortures the last five humans on earth; “The City on the Edge of Forever,” a beloved back-in-time episode of the “Star Trek” television series in 1967; and ‘‘ ‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” (1965), about a futuristic society where time is regimented by a fearsome figure called the Ticktockman.

“But no one called him that to his mask,” Mr. Ellison wrote. “You don’t call a man a hated name, not when that man, behind his mask, is capable of revoking the minutes, the hours, the days and nights, the years of his life. He was called the Master Timekeeper to his mask.”

“A Boy and His Dog’’ portrays a world devastated by nuclear war and fought over by vicious gangs.

The hero, a young thug whose traveling companion is a mutant, telepathic dog, is lured to an underground community but rebels against its sterility. The novella was the basis for a 1975 movie starring Don Johnson. The film’s gruesome but darkly comic ending elicited stunned laughter from its audience when it was the featured film at a science fiction movie marathon in Los Angeles that year.

Mr. Ellison was a fast-talking, pipe-smoking polymath who once delighted talk-show hosts like Merv Griffin and Tom Snyder with his views on atheism, elitism, violence, and Scientology.


And he could be wild, angry, and litigious. He said he lost his job with The Walt Disney Co. — on the first day — when he stood up in its commissary (with company executives watching) and described how he wanted to make an animated pornographic film starring Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

He is said to have sent a dead gopher to a publisher and attacked an ABC executive, breaking his pelvis.

He frequently accused studios and television producers when he believed they had copied his stories. One of his many lawsuits included one against the makers of the movie “The Terminator,” which accused them of plagiarizing “Soldier,” a script he wrote in 1964 for the television series “The Outer Limits.”

And he remained upset for years that Gene Roddenberry, the creator of “Star Trek,” had made rewrites of his script for “The City on the Edge of Forever.” Decades later, he would sue CBS Paramount TV for merchandising royalties that he felt he was owed from the episode.

Ellison said her husband eventually put his “Star Trek” imbroglio behind him. But he would never watch the classic episode.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this obituary.