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Deathbird Stories by Harlan Ellison
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Deathbird Stories

by Harlan Ellison

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1,219189,976 (4.06)33
  1. 20
    Night Shift by Stephen King (artturnerjr)
  2. 00
    E Pluribus Unicorn by Theodore Sturgeon (psybre)
    psybre: My first read and favorite short story collection by Sturgeon contains some parallel sentiments and tropes that may verily been influential to stories in Deathbird.
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This collection, originally published in 1975, has recently been re-released by Open Road Media. Many thanks to them for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinion is solely my own.

"Introduction: Oblations at Alien Altars"

*"The Whimper of Whipped Dogs" (Inspired by the Kitty Genovese murder.)
This story is the crappiest, most offensive indictment of city life - specifically New York City life - that I've ever encountered.
Apparently, Ellison (like others at the time) took the murder of Kitty Genovese as a symbol of all that was wrong with urban living. The problem is, that Ellison not only swallowed a misleading newspaper headline wholesale, he also strongly contributed to the erroneous myth that cities are festering cesspits of crime full of maliciously apathetic neighbors.
Kitty Genovese was murdered by a serial killer and rapist, in a horrific and violent crime. Later, it was reported that 38 witnesses 'did nothing.' That's not true. In reality, there were only two eyewitnesses to the crime. Multiple people called the police (who were terribly slow to respond). Kitty died in the arms of a neighbor who had come out to help. Other 'witnesses' were actually people who had heard noise, but assumed it was just a drunken quarrel outside a nearby bar. There was exactly one witness who knew something really bad was happening and did nothing. Yes, there are some reprehensible people out there.
However, Ellison intentionally went on a campaign to spread the myth that dozens of people did nothing while watching a young woman killed. Not only did he write this story, but he wrote articles about the factual case: "in articles published in 1970 and 1971 in the Los Angeles Free Press and in Rolling Stone, and in 1988 in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (June 1988), later reprinted in his book Harlan Ellison's Watching." He referred to the witnesses as "thirty-six motherfuckers" and stated that they "stood by and watched" Genovese "get knifed to death right in front of them, and wouldn't make a move" and that "thirty-eight people watched" Genovese "get knifed to death in a New York street"."
Why did Ellison have this agenda to spread a rumor that city dwellers are morally deficient? I don't know. But the intention of this story is to create a graphic image of the crime scene that, while fictional, is designed to substitute for what happened to Kitty Genovese in the readers' mind.
The protagonist is an innocent young white girl (and yes, race 'matters' in this story), a recent Bennington graduate, who moves to the city to make it as a dance choreographer. She becomes one of the witnesses to a brutal murder in her courtyard. She sees all her neighbors in their windows, all looking down on the violence as if it's a show put on for their benefit.
She begins a relationship with a neighbor, who turns out to be brutally abusive and cruel. The city begins to 'eat her up,' and she begins to be aware of a demonic influence in her apartment complex. She can either be a victim of this evil power, or become a part of it.
In a final scene, she encounters a burglar in her apartment who attacks her in a scene that mirrors the attack that she witnessed earlier. The way it's written falls into every stereotype of the animalistic black brute savaging a white woman... there's some real racial paranoia here.
First thing I've read in a while that made me actively angry.

**** "Along the Scenic Route"
Wonderful send-up of the absurd connection we make between cars and masculinity. This takes it one step further than the state of the highways in Bradbury's 'Fahrenheit 451.' Road rage is taken to an extreme here, in a future where demolition duels on the highway are legal and licensed. The gender stereotypes are a bit cringe-worthy, but they work - are even essential - in the context of the satire.

**** "On the Downhill Side"
In a mystical New Orleans (strangely compatible with Anne Rice's visions of the city), two ghosts seek a kind of redemption. A beautiful supernatural fantasy of love and sacrifice.

**** "O Ye of Little Faith"
A man and the woman he's been having an affair with go down to Tijuana to procure an abortion. The story is an impressively-done character portrait of a commitment-phobic, not-very-likable but yet somehow sympathetic man, and his partner is also portrayed fairly and believably. Then, of course (this being an SF collection) a bit of magic enters the picture, thanks to a Mexican fortuneteller - and the story becomes a metaphorical tale of all who have lost faith not only in gods but in themselves and in everything around them. A life without anything to believe in, is a life without hope, Ellison concludes.
The story is told with a repetitive cadence that's a bit unusual, but works very well.
Is the protagonist being called 'Niven' a reference to Larry Niven? I can't help but wonder...
Ah-ha! Yes! "Ellison had written short stories to order earlier, notably "O Ye of Little Faith" at the 1965 Westercon in Long Beach, California, to three words — "serape", "polyp", and "minotaur" — provided at an auction by the winning bidder, Larry Niven, whose last name is that of the story’s protagonist.)"

*** "Neon"
There's a definite 1970's acid-trip feeling to this one.
A man is released from the hospital after a serious procedure, but he's not quite the same. His marriage and his life fall apart - and now he's wondering if he's going insane, as well. He's hearing voices - but does it have something to do with his bionic implants? (Or could it be ALIENS?)
In contrast to the first story in the book, I very much liked the dirty-old-New York setting here.

*** "Basilisk"
At first, I was slightly put off by some of the luridly poetic language of this story, but as it went on, it grew on me.
Clearly a response to the Vietnam War, this story is pretty much an all-around indictment of war, the treatment of prisoners of war, the treatment of returning veterans, the behavior of those veterans... but it also deals with each aspect with a surprising amount of compassion and understanding. A worthwhile, thoughtful piece of war fiction, with a fantasy aspect that works both on face value and as metaphor.

*** "Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes"
A horror tale involving a haunted slot machine - and a well-crafted story about the false hopes of gambling, and the bleak desperation of those who are drawn to it.

** "Corpse"
A disaffected assistant professor living in a deteriorating New York City gives us a stream-of-consciousness monologue which details his falling-apart career, his lack of real personal connections - and his bizarre obsession with automobiles.
This shares a theme with the first story in the collection: new gods or powers arising from the gestalt of the society that we have created.

*** "Shattered Like a Glass Goblin"
Surreal horror... A young man is discharged from the army, and upon his return, finds that his fiancee has taken up residence in a communal household of drugged-out hippies, and seems strangely unwilling to leave. Not ready to give up on her, the boyfriend moves in... and discovers that the house is a stranger place than he'd guessed.

*** "Delusion for a Dragon Slayer"
After death, an unassuming 'Walter Mitty'-type has the chance - and only one chance - to grasp all his lifelong dreams and live as a hero in an epic fantasy-type scenario. But is he actually capable of heroism?
We like to think that the 'ordinary' man might be full of unrealized potential for greatness. But isn't it equally likely that he is full of the potential for evil?

** "The Face of Helene Bournouw"
A beautiful model has devastating power over every man she encounters - and she uses that power devastatingly. But there's a twist to this femme fatale story.
And... I didn't like that twist. It was creepy, but it also eliminated even the non-multi-faceted agency that a femme fatale usually has.

*** "Bleeding Stones"
If gargoyles ever came to life, putting them onto churches might turn out to have been an absolutely terrible idea. This gleefully tasteless scene feels like it was written by a headbanging teenager with an aim to shock - but I couldn't help enjoying it.

*** "At the Mouse Circus"
If this made any sense at all, I missed it. It's a bizarre acid-trip; a series of hallucinatory images. However, I didn't dislike it...

** "The Place with No Name"
A violent junkie pimp on the run from the law finds himself unexpectedly and magically transported into the body of an obsessed explorer in a fantastic Heart-of-Darkness-style scenario. The object of his driven quest turns out to be a bizarre scenario involving Prometheus and Jesus, with a sci-fi twist.
I found the disparate elements here to be too random; the way they were bound together didn't end up feeling meaningful.

*** "Paingod"
Musing on the idea that without pain, there can be no pleasure, Ellison gives his readers The Paingod - who, in actuality, seems more like a civil servant, dispensing pain and suffering to the denizens of countless worlds.

** "Ernest and the Machine God"
Another femme-fatale story. Our protagonist has always been able to manipulate men - and everyone around her - to do her bidding. She takes it pretty much for granted. But now, she's on the lam. When she's forced to go to a car mechanic in a one-horse town in the middle of nowhere, she unexpectedly meets a man who may be just as powerful as she is.
What happens then, however, just made me go "huh? why?" I didn't see the motivation...

*** "Rock God"
No, not THAT kind of Rock God. No guitars here.
From a sacrificial ritual in ancient history, Ellison traces his deity through the world's legends of sacred stones, up to the present world of corporations and skyscrapers.

*** "Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitude 38° 54' N, Longitude 77° 00' 13" W"
A suicidal but immortal werewolf... a secretive Information Agency... a high-tech scientific facility... A Fantastic Voyage-style journey... And a large heaping dollop of self-referential metaphysics. Interesting, but possibly just a bit too much for one story.

**** "The Deathbird"
This, the title story, shares a lot of themes with many of the other stories in this collection. It mixes science fiction with mythology and surrealism, weaves together disparate elements and symbols into a 'trippy' whole. However, I feel that it's a lot more successful than some of the other selections here.
250,000 years in the future, Nathan Stark is woken by aliens into a far-post-apocalyptic future, when he learns that there is some truth to the myths and legends of human religion - but 'God' has always been insane and 'Satan' is actually a caretaker, trapped by the strictures of his assigned role. The final fate of the Earth will rest on Stark's decisions.
It's not just a fate-of-the-Earth story, though... woven through the tale is an exploration of the meaning of compassion, and the meaning of love. A strong ending to the book.


( )
1 vote AltheaAnn | Feb 9, 2016 |
Harlan Ellison built his career on the short story format and as a result, became one of the most awarded living writers. I have many of his collections in my library, which was why I recognized most of the material in this anthology.

Deathbird Stories consists of 19 tales, originally printed between 1960 and 1974, all loosely gathered here under the theme of modern gods. While some of the stories, such as "Neon", "Along the Scenic Route", and "Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes" seem to miss that mark, many of the stories directly fit the theme or at least, contained supernatural elements.

Some of my favorites included (along with Harlan's taglines for each):

The Whimper of Whipped Dogs - When the new god comes to the Big Apple, its Kyrie Eleison turns out to be a prayer Kitty Genovese simply couldn't sing. But thirty-eight others knew the tune.

Along the Scenic Route - God, in the latest, chrome-plated, dual-carb, chopped & channeled, eight-hundred-horsepowered incarnation. God's unspoken name is Vroooom!

On The Downhill Side - Posing the question: does the god of love use underarm deodorant, vaginal spray and fluoride toothpaste?

Neon - Kurt Weill and Max Anderson wrote, "Maybe God's gone away, forgetting His promise He made that day: and we're lost out here in the stars." And maybe He/She's just waiting for the night signal to come back, whaddaya think?

Basilisk - Have you ever noticed: the most vocal superpatriots are the old men who send young men off to die? Well, it might just be that the heaviest reverential act when worshipping the god of war is to be the biggest mutherin traitor of them all. Check Spiro, I think he's having a seizure.

Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes - The god of the slot machine: new religions, new souls, new limbos.

Paingod - If God is good, why does He send us pain and misery?

Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans - Reality has become fantasy; fantasy has become reality. 35mm constructs have more substance than your senior congressman, but Martha Nelson is real, no matter what you think. And the search for your soul in a soulless world requires special maps. ( )
1 vote pgiunta | Jan 22, 2016 |
Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes; do I really have to say more? Harlan Ellison is the master of the short story.

I *do* miss the days when he hung out in the window of the bookstore, though. Interesting. I just found out that there's a documentary that includes scenes from those days.

http://www.identitytheory.com/dreams-sharp-teeth-documenting-harlan-ellison/ ( )
  Lyndatrue | Dec 4, 2013 |
The warning at the start of the book set the tone well:

"It is suggested that the reader not attempt to read this book at one sitting. The emotional content of these stories, taken without break, may be extremely upsetting. This not is intended most sincerely, and not as hyperbole" (xii).

The first story was troubling enough to make me question whether or not I should have bought the book. Ellison lacks the restraint that most human beings come by instinctively. I suppose, when writing a book about all the gods people follow today (the gods of the freeway, the coaxial cable, the paingod, the god of neon, the rock god, the god of smog and even the god of Freudian guilt), you should expect trouble.

I tracked this volume down through AbeBooks.com after learning it was the inspiration behind Neil Gaiman's American Gods and Anansi Boys. The concept that a god is only alive insofar as he or she is worshiped is a fascinating idea to explore. Gaiman explored it with brilliance while Ellison used it as the lietmotif in this collection of short stories.

From a Christian perspective, Deathbird Stories invites some interesting thoughts about the nature of belief and modern forms of idolatry. These hallucinatory tales show idolatry for what it is—unfortunately, without offering any solution. ( )
1 vote StephenBarkley | Aug 5, 2013 |
*note to self.copy from Al. ( )
  velvetink | Mar 31, 2013 |
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» Add other authors (7 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Harlan Ellisonprimary authorall editionscalculated
Burns, JimCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dillon, DianeCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dillon, Leosecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kidd, TomCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 002028361X, Paperback)

Harlan Ellison's masterwork of myth and terror as he seduces all innocence on a mind-freezing odyssey into the darkest reaches of mortal terror and the most dazzling heights of Olympian hell in his finest collection. Deathbird Stories is a collection of 19 of Harlan Ellison's best stories, including Edgar and Hugo winners, originally published between 1960 and 1974. The collection contains some of Ellison's best stories from earlier collections and is judged by some to be his most consistently high quality collection of short fiction. The theme of the collection can be loosely defined as God, or Gods. Sometimes they're dead or dying, some of them are as brand-new as today's technology. Unlike some of Ellison's collections, the introductory notes to each story can be as short as a phrase and rarely run more than a sentence or two. One story took a Locus Poll Award, the two final ones both garnered Hugo Awards and Locus Poll awards, and the final one also received a Jupiter Award from the Instructors of Science Fiction in Higher Education (discontinued in 1979). When the collection was published in Britain, it won the 1979 British Science Fiction Award for Short Fiction. His stories will rivet you to the floor and change your heartbeat...as unforgettable a chamber of horror, fantasy and reality as you'll ever experience. -Gallery "Brutally and flamboyantly shocking, frequently brilliant, and always irresistibly mesmerizing." -Richmond Times-Dispatch

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:21 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

"Men rarely (if ever) manage to dream up a god superior to themselves. Most gods have the manners and morals of a spoiled child." -Robert Heinlein, 1973 A masterwork of myth and terror, Deathbird Stories collects nineteen of Harlan Ellison's best stories written over the course of a decade. In it, ancient gods fade as modern society creates new deities to worship-gods of technology, drugs, gambling. Revolutionary when first published, the short stories contained here have won multiple honors, including the prestigious Hugo and British Science Fiction Awards. They have inspired a generation of readers and other authors to reexamine blind faith and fight against crumbling institutions. Stark and often angry, this collection strips away convention and hypocrisy and lays bare the human condition. After all, the gods we invent contain all too much of their inventors.… (more)

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