Deathbird Stories

Harlan Ellison
Deathbird Stories Cover

Deathbird Stories: A Pantheon of Modern Gods


Harlan Ellison – how come I have never heard of you before? Ellison is an AMAZING writer. I picked this up due to wanting to read 12 new SF Grandmasters in 2014. I'm pretty much going through them in recent order of 'unread'. 'Deathbird Stories' was picked purely because it's on a couple of 'best of' lists – no other reason why.

Well, I am so delighted I have read this – the collection is amazing and Ellison has quickly put himself on my 'must read more of' list.

The stories in this collection focus on the theme of God. The author advises that one does not read these in one sitting as the emotional impact of the stories could upset the reader. Whilst I have been able to sleep at night after reading a couple at a time this is not pure hyperbole. These stories are thought provoking, haunting, harrowing and shocking. They've crept up on me during the day, at work and whilst doing something unrelated to reading. They hook you in and don't want to let go. Of course one may want them to let go as the experience isn't always nice.

God is the theme, both old Gods and the new Gods of consumerism. This is not a collection of faith and hope however – I'd describe this collection as one of the Death of God, or at least a faith in a better afterlife or future. The stories do require a strong stomach at times and are truly visceral. Ellison is ripping the heart out of 1960's – 1970's America and exposing it's underbelly and leaving sores exposed to fester. Yes, there are religious themes but this is a very political collection too. In terms of style, the stories often confuse but his use of imagery and vocabulary is superb. The reader is not a bystander to the action but very much is involved in the story.

I've hated other stories with similar subject matter but this pushed buttons in the right way. Reviled, enthralled and captivating. There is blatant misogyny in many of the stories which isn't particularly nice.

Some notes on the stories;

1) The Whimper of Whipped Dogs – An amazing start to the collection. This is like getting punched in the face on page 1. New York is a bad place to be. (I visited New York a few years ago and I totally get this – it seems a city with an attitude problem that self perpetuates through the generations.) A woman views a sickening murder and realises her role and the city's role. The story is bleak and features a harrowing anal rape amongst other brutality. There's a touch of Rosemary's Baby to this (which predates this story). This stayed with me for ages.

2) Along the Scenic Route – A bit of fun. Ordinary Joe meets Mad Max. We all want to prove we've got a big dick.

3) On the Downhill Side – A New Orleans ghost story. Really enjoyed this. A story of sacrifice and redemption.

4) O Ye of Little Faith – What happens when you don't believe. Felt like a shower after reading what you can buy in Tijuana.

5) Neon – Tripped out this one.

6) Basilisk – Amazing story. I imagine this having significantly more power at the time of writing as America was still heavily involved in Vietnam. A Vet is tortured and provides information. His suffering is only just beginning. Pain shoots through this story – it's like being ripped apart. He doesn't get a Hero's Welcome upon his return. A really powerful story which hit home hard. It's really horrible what the Vet goes through. Shouts loudly at what patriotism is and about those who support war. Worth considering walking in someone else's shoes.

7) Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes – A story of the gambling and how it sucks people's souls away.

8) Corpse – If cars were sentient, if cars had God.

9) Shattered Like A Glass Goblin – One seriously fucked up story. A bad acid trip. Please don't take drugs after reading this. I loved it but is was one descent into hell

10) Delusion for a Dragon Slayer – If we could present our best version of ourself, what would others really see?

11) The Face of Helene Bournouw – Beauty works in wicked ways. The first story in the collection I wasn't bothered with. Loved the ghouls at the end.

12) Bleeding Stones – Stigmata meets Ghostbusters. When you pray to the God of sacrifice in the centre of consumerism what would you think happens? Amazing story.

13) At the Mouse Circus – Plain weird dreamscape. Didn't really get into it.

14) The Place with No Name – A pimp commits a brutal murder. Then a dream trek into the jungle. Ellison notes 'what would happen if Prometheus and Jesus had a sexual relationship'.

15) Paingod – At the end of the day God is all about suffering. Good story which suggests happiness cannot exist without pain.

16) Ernest and the Machine God – A story about power, how it is held and lost. This one references other stories in the collection. It's a story of sexual energy and power.

17) Rockgod – Really good story that presents Stonehenge as a monument to Satan and that Satan (known as Dis) is of the Earth. Interesting idea that all the major world religions were made from the ancient God Dis. The story suggests that Dis' time on Earth is now in a world full of skyscrapers and financial greed.

18) Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitude 38° 54' N, Longitude 77° 00' 13" W – An immortal lycan searches for his soul. Interesting nod to The Wolfman film and there's a bit of Mary Shelley in there too. Thoroughly enjoyable story.

19) The Deathbird – Turns the Book of Genesis on its head. Many of the ideas in respect of the illogical nature of Genesis is explored but there were a few new ones here. Quite rightly suggests the story of war is written by the victors. Has an important subtext of control of the media by the powerful and how truth is subjugated.