Aside from being one of the best and most iconic writers in the history of speculative fiction, Harlan Ellison is pretty much a bottomless well of crazy anecdotes and infamous stories. There’s his legendary head-butting with Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry over the episode “The City on the Edge of Forever,” which Ellison wrote. There’s the tussle with Charles Platt at a post-Nebula Awards party in 1984. And there was the time he mailed a dead gopher to the comptroller of a publishing company (via fourth-class mail). Now you can add another completely Harlan story to the binder: this past weekend he kicked off a promotional book signing by…getting a haircut?
Harlan has pulled some unique publicity stunts over the years — particularly the times he’s written entire short stories while sitting at the front window of a store — so this outside-the-box scheme shouldn’t be too surprising. (Pictures for this article courtesy of Steven Barber, (c) PawsHere Productions.) The plan was to promote Kicks Books’ release of Pulling a Train and Getting in the Wind, which collect his early stories about street gangs, many of which he wrote under pseudonyms and which have been out of print for decades. According to the LA Times, he arrived at Sweeney Todd’s Barbershop in Los Angeles in a 1950s hot rod, escorted by “a pair of greasers in full leathers.” Given the name of the place, it’s fortunate no one got their throat slit, although Harlan did pose for pictures while brandishing a switchblade.
The haircut was followed by a signing down the street at the La Luz De Jesus Gallery and Soap Plant. Ellison joked that it would be “the second hardest signing I ever did. “The first hardest was in San Francisco when I had shingles. They wrapped me in Saran Wrap and I sat in the front of a bookstore itching like crazy for eight hours.”
Freshly shorn, Harlan went on to do the thing he does best: tell stories. He talked about stalkers, atheism, and, at one point, Philip K. Dick. One of the attendees at the signing asked Harlan his opinion of Dick, to which the writer replied:
What you’re asking is really two questions: What I think of him as a writer and what I think of him as a human being. As a writer, he was one of the great innovators. He was sweet, man, an absolutely individual talent, and I admired at least 80% of what he wrote. As an atheist, I had a lot of trouble with his spiritual stuff; it is to me a gritty world. As for the human being, it’s an entirely different answer. When he wanted to be charming, he could be.
Ellison paused before continuing:
I shouldn’t say this. You know what? I’m not going to answer. It doesn’t matter what I think. He could do you a solid or be a very unpleasant person. Like Frank Sinatra. Or God. God … one day, he’ll let you win the lottery and the next? Colon cancer. And Phil, like God or Frank Sinatra — they’re all deities.
There’s a brief video of the events below, and if you’re craving more, check out these recent books which collect more vintage Ellison, including the script for Cutter’s World, an unproduced 1987 pilot for a “space western” that beat Joss Whedon and Firefly to the punch by 15 years.