Book review

Spider Kiss (Harlan Ellison)

Steve Barber/AP

To commemorate the passing last month of the incomparable short story writer Harlan Ellison, I went on a mini–Harlan buying and reading spree. To report out on the first of the volumes thus far tackled, this is a short review of the short novel Spider Kiss, originally published the year my brother was born, 1961.

In a nutshell, while classic Ellison, this is not immortal Ellison. The problem mostly lies, I think, in his decision to make this a full-scale novel rather than a short story. An early work (most of the Ellisonia I cut my teeth on was from the late 1960s through the ’70s), it has the familiar voice and dirty milieu, but not the sustained punch and certainly not the fantastical elements. For an unusual feature is that Spider Kiss is firmly set in a real and recognizable world, with nothing speculative about it.

The book has an intriguing premise: the rise from obscurity to fame of an Elvis/Jerry Lee Lewis–style singer with a talent as pure as his character is tainted. The cobra-like Stag Preston — whose unholy charisma I at first thought would constitute a fantastical element, and I wonder what the book would have been if Harlan had taken that tack — is mesmerizing in his depravity and unmitigated loathsomeness. Ellison conveys the grim and jaundiced better than anyone, and the cynical shysters, opportunists, and exploiters populating Stag’s world would be at home in any hard-boiled noir. But his protagonist Sheldon Morgenstern does not take the journey of redemption the author has set down, moving from grasping to grace. He never feels to have changed substantially, and without that moral conviction, you only have left a tale of increasing — and ultimately wearying — outrage.

Salvaging the slim story are bounteous examples of Ellison’s delight in and command of the language, as well as of his acute powers of description:

He was big in small ways.

He had come up with a product for which there was — at the moment — no demand whatsoever.

Manhattan late at night was a pearl. It shone and it rested and it lived all at once.

With success and almost regal treatment by the highest and lowliest alike, Stag had acquired a deeper, more sophisticated sense of distrust…

Ruth Kemp began speaking. It was a great boulder rumbling down a hill, beginning far off softly and louder and louder till it became an avalanche. It was a dynamo hurtling itself to life, spinning sibilantly at first then whining at top-point efficiency till the sound mounted up and up and glass shattered.

And in stark contrast to that last, where Ellison’s grand extended metaphor elevates and invokes, there is this clean, crisp phrase a few paragraphs later that precisely and concisely says exactly what it means:

She felt the need to declare herself in regard to what she had witnessed…

Ellison rather punts with the ending, which takes an interminably long time to wrap up — a length that could only be justified had he taken a surprise twist, which he did not. And that is morally if not aesthetically satisfying, and why I love Harlan Ellison. There are plenty of other authors (and politicians) who will gleefully twist the narrative to foil the hapless. Harlan has a bleeding heart full of sympathy for the person trying to escape fate, circumstance, or character flaw.

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