Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Ellison’s “Shattered Like A Glass Goblin”

This Friday will be a special post introducing next week’s topic. Next week Wednesday, Thursday and Friday will be a long, three part excerpt from a very cool novel that shaped my thinking both about the Goblin Universe in general and about love in the Goblin Universe in particular. (I’m not sure how I’ve gotten almost two years into this blog without mentioning either the novel I’ll be quoting next week or the author. That in itself is weird. But next week will get things on track.)


Before I get to next week, before I talk about an author and a novel that shaped my thinking in such a positive way, I want to get today’s post out of the way. Today’s post is about an author and a short story that shaped my thinking in a negative way.

Harlan Ellison’s short story, “Shattered Like A Glass Goblin.”

Help and Anti-Help

For hundreds of years in the West, entertainment and art has accepted implicitly, axiomatically, that helping people is the greatest good a person could aspire to. Heroes are people who help people. (And, of course, in the modern world the whole superhero ethos is built around the notion that superheroes dedicate their existence to helping people.)

But beginning most visibly early this century with the writings of Horace McCoy, many entertainers and artists have rebelled from the accepted wisdom about helping people. In fact, many entertainers and artists have actively embraced—often in the guise of being ‘hard-boiled’ or ‘realistic’—the opposite view and have promoted in their work the notion that helping people is not only futile regarding the person you’re trying to help, but, the anti-help view says, helping people can be profoundly dangerous to the person trying to offer help. (This anti-help view can be seen very visibly, for instance, in the films of Brian De Palma or many of the films of David Cronenberg.)

Ellison’s “Shattered Like A Glass Goblin” was the first example of this anti-help fiction I’d ever read. I read it first when I was a young teenager and it had a big influence on me.

Now, Ellison isn’t one of my favorite writers. When I was an older teenager he was, briefly. But even then I didn’t admire his writing so much as I admired the energy and focus of his writing.

For many years I’ve given a lot of thought to the conflict of this theme and anti-theme, help and anti-help. It’s a pivotal issue both in my work and in my life. I’ve never really accepted either view dogmatically. I have a lot to say on this topic, but today’s post just will be an introduction.

Fans of my blog [‘fans’ of my blog?!] know that I once wrote a short story called, “Sally Gorgon And The Shattered Werewolf.” [Part 1 and Part 2 and Part 3 and Part 4] Theme-wise, that story was me explicitly reacting against “Shattered Like A Glass Goblin” and the ‘Shattered Werewolf’ in my title was a conscious allusion to Ellison’s title.

I’m not going to post Ellison’s complete story. That kind of thing makes Ellison very angry. I’m going to post, however, the complete final scene.

“Shattered Like A Glass Goblin” tells the story of a young man, Rudy, who gets out of the military and returns home to find his girlfriend, Kris, living in a kind of hippie commune. He asks her to leave, to return to him and their life together. She refuses. Rudy moves in with Kris at the commune, to be with her and help her get past her sad attachment to the odd life of the commune. He’s hoping that Kris will remember the good times they’d had together and, eventually, leave the commune with him. But this is an anti-help story and instead of Rudy and the good of the world helping Kris, Kris and the shadows of her world gradually engulf Rudy until one day he looks around the commune and finds everything has changed:

When they cut off the electricity in The Hill, it didn’t bother Rudy, because he preferred the dark. But he went to tell the eleven.

He could not find them.

They were all gone. Even Kris, who should have been there somewhere.

He heard the moist sounds from the basement and went down with fur and silence into the darkness. The basement had been flooded. One of the eleven was there. His name was Teddy. He was attached to the slime-coated upper wall of the basement, hanging close to the stone, pulsing softly and giving off a thin purple light, purple as a bruise. He dropped a rubbery arm into the water, and let it hang there, moving idly with the tideless tide. Then something came near it, and he made a sharp movement, and brought the thing up still writhing in his rubbery grip, and inched it along the wall to a dark, moist spot on his upper surface, near the veins that covered its length, and pushed the thing at the dark-blood spot, where it shrieked with a terrible sound, and went in and there was a sucking noise, then a swallowing sound.

Rudy went back upstairs. On the first floor he found the one who was the blonde girl, whose name was Adrianne. She lay out thin and white as a tablecloth on the dining room table as three of the others he had not seen in a very long while put their teeth into her, and through their hollow sharp teeth they drank up the yellow fluid from the bloated pus-pockets that had been her breasts and her buttocks. Their faces were very white and their eyes were like soot-smudges.

Climbing to the second floor, Rudy was almost knocked down by the passage of something that had been Victor, flying on heavily ribbed leather wings. It carried a cat in its jaws.

He saw the thing on the stairs that sounded as though it was counting heavy gold pieces. It was not counting heavy gold pieces. Rudy could not look at it; it made him feel sick.

Rudy found Kris in the attic, in a corner breaking the skull and sucking out the moist brains of a thing that giggled like a harpsichord.

“Kris, we have to go away,” he told her. She reached out and touched him, snapping her long, pointed, dirty fingernails against him. He rang like crystal.

In the rafters of the attic Jonah crouched, gargoyled and sleeping. There was a green stain on his jaws, and something stringy in his claws.

“Kris, please,” he said urgently.

His head buzzed.

His ears itched.

Kris sucked out the last of the mellow good things in the skull of the silent little creature, and scraped idly at the flaccid body with hairy hands. She settled back on her haunches, and her long, hairy muzzle came up.

Rudy scuttled away.

He ran loping, his knuckles brushing the attic floor as he scampered for safety. Behind him, Kris was growling. He got down to the second floor and then to the first, and tried to climb on the Morris chair to the mantel, so he could see himself in the mirror, by the light of the moon, through the fly-blown window. But Naomi was on the window, lapping up the flies with her tongue.

He climbed with desperation, wanting to see himself. And when he stood before the mirror, he saw that he was transparent, that there was nothing inside him, that his ears had grown pointed and had hair on their tips; his eyes were as huge as a tarsier’s and the reflected light hurt him.

Then he heard the growling behind and below him.

The little glass goblin turned, and the werewolf rose up on its hind legs and touched him till he rang like fine crystal.

And the werewolf said with very little concern, “Have you ever grooved heavy behind anything except love?”

“Please!” the little glass goblin begged, just as the great hairy paw slapped him into a million coruscating rainbow fragments all expanding consciously into the tight little enclosed universe that was The Hill, all buzzing highly contacted and tingling off into a darkness that began to seep out through the silent wooden walls . . .


Steve Guy said...

Intriguing. I came here because the title of Ellison's story was mentioned in an issue of "Dr. Fate', and when Giffen & DeMatteis make a pointed reference, I take it seriously. It's not quite what I expected but it fits the context entirely.

Your dichotomy of help and anti-help interests me much more than Ellison's tale. To be frank, he seems to be wallowing here in self-pity, (although perhaps he had just cause to do so at the time). It certainly is a stark illustration of your point - I'll go so far call it an expressionistic exaggeration. Like a simplified textbook formula intended to give students something very black and white to cut their teeth on after learning a new mathematical tool. Maybe that was Ellison's purpose all along?

I think I'll follow up the rest of your week on the topic. It sounds promising.

Anonymous said...

There is an illustrated version of this by William Stout from back in the day; it really colored my vision of this story. The main message I had always associated with this story was Ellison's verilant loathing of the drug culture and the associated dangers in going with the crowd.
However, the idea of anti-help is truly a recurrent theme in Ellison's work. "Try a Dull Knife" is another example of how no good deed goes unpunished.

Anonymous said...

What struck me was the repeated question, first reported and then direct:
…she asked him if he'd ever been heavy behind anything except love.
"Have you ever grooved heavy behind anything except love?"

What I make of this is that one can be a love junkie and be no different from a drug addict. Which is not at all going against love and help. On the contrary, in order to help and love Other, one has to be able to avert the implosion or engulfment of Self.

I believe there's a strong undertone of existential psychiatry to Ellison's stories.