Thursday, August 30, 2018

"The Prowler in the City at the Edge of the World" (1967)

It turns out that Harlan Ellison's longish story is not just riffing on poor Robert Bloch's previous story, "A Toy for Juliette," but is self-consciously the next chapter. I say "poor" Robert Bloch because he has also been roped into writing the introduction to this story and really doesn't have a lot to say. Of course it sounds like Bloch has high regard for Ellison (he would have to, either way) and I get the sense it's sincere, though he appears somewhat bewildered by the requests. In many ways, Bloch and Ellison are opposites. Both are fascinated by cruelty, but Bloch is more circumspect, laying little traps in his writing that are designed to bloom cunningly into clarity. Whereas Ellison is verbose and explicit. Bloch is a folk song murder ballad. Ellison is an opera. Ellison's story is three times the size of Bloch's, and doesn't come with much of a surprise the way Bloch's does—indeed, was engineered to. I think of Ellison as sort of the Lester Bangs of science fiction, which means in part that I'm OK with his excesses. What interests me most about these two stories is the suggestion of an old guard / new blood distinction. Bloch started publishing in the 1930s. Also, for what it's worth, he's probably known more as a horror or maybe crime fiction writer. In his afterword, Ellison discusses how hard his story was to write. It took more than a year in fits and starts. And it feels a little labored, not to say overdone. It might be the story he was hoping for from Bloch, with the Victorian savagery of the killer juxtaposed by the gleaming technology of The Future. It's going to be heavy for the future when it tangles with Jack the Ripper, man. And so it is, at some length. Bloch's story might be better—if it's more gimmicky, it's also more crafted, and unpleasant, which has to be part of the point. Ellison's is more like a report from his brain which has stalled with vapor lock on the creative problem. It can be highly effective, and in general is one of the most tightly written stories here, but it never has much of anywhere to go. Ultimately it's Jack the Ripper who does most of the work in all of these stories, including Bloch's original from the 1940s, "Yours Truly, Jack the Ripper." In other words, they tend to be ever more grotesque exercises in "when the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison

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