SEX! LIES! SECRETS!: The Dirty Little World of Harlan Ellison’s Pulling a Train and Getting in the Wind.
Over the past decade, it’s become common knowledge that Harlan Ellison sold his soul to Mammon as a young writer. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Ellison, like his buddies and colleagues Robert Silverberg and Barry Malzberg, helped pay the rent and feed the beast by writing what we’d call sex novels or erotica. Using pen names, they’d crank out the dirty stuff. While the name “Cordwainer Bird” is most associated with the subpar work Ellison did in general and science fiction, it was under “Paul Merchant” (and others) that he made his early smut (the pen name being a play on “smut merchant”). Ellison did his dirty work while editing a “Gentleman’s Mag” for an unnamed editor whom he first admired and then soon loathed.
Recently Kicks Books managed to convince Ellison to re-release “Paul Merchant’s” chief novel and stories, and reveal the secrets of his youth. The first, Pulling a Train, includes the novel originally titled Sex Gang, as well as other stories. Getting in the Wind collects a fistful “best of the rest” of “Paul Merchant.”
Ellison wrote introductions for both, each time in the form of a mea culpa. He hated his sleaze boss, but needed the money, so he became as dirty as some of the women and men he writes about, “doing it for a buck.” Ellison claims his work made his boss millions, and while Ellison was paid well he was still ripped off and, of course, ashamed. Hence the years of pretending “Paul Merchant” never existed.
Coming clean, Ellison confesses the work is meh and gross. He was young, paying his dues by learning the hard way (writing lots of awful fiction until he had some command of his growing skills), and part of that learning curve included made-to-order sleaze fiction. It’s a nice bit of passive-aggressive reverse psychology, honest though it may be, because the set up is that his fans will rally and say “Hey, this one isn’t that bad! There’s some of the early Ellison magic! Heck, I even liked some of the dialog!” They’d see the hits, and forget the misses… which are many.
Pulling a Train, AKA Sex Gang (a far better title), is a tale based in part on Ellison’s adventures running with a street gang in NYC. It’s a JD (Juvenile Delinquent) sex novel, JDs being something of a scourge in Ike’s America (see Nelson Algren On Non Conformity for a better snapshot of the era). And, just so we know what we’re getting, this is the first sentence:
“Deek hadn’t wanted to rape the girl.”
But the rape is okay because the girl really likes it, and, in fact, encourages it. From there, we’re off to the races as Deek has to fight, kill, and fuck his way around this crazy, mixed up world we live in, including sexing a girl gang like a stud horse before he becomes their enforcer.
Many stories follow Pulling a Train ’s flavor of “misogynist adventure tale.” The locals change (a radio station in “This is Jackie Spinning,” a fancy hotel room and then exotic Panama in “Dead Wives Don’t Cheat”), but the mechanics do not (and Ellison noted he set up a system for writing these things on the quick). Either the audience or Ellison were clearly leg-men and not breast focused, as most of the women are described with a face shot, followed by a slow drag from the toes up to the waist (though it might be mere technique of the “slow reveal,” as if all men looked at women as if they were a nudie booth with the canvas slowly rising). For variety one girl was ugly but built like a Swedish bikini model and just needed good sex to get an identity (“God Bless the Ugly Virgin”). There’s even early MILF fiction, where our hero enjoys both his girlfriend and her mother before shenanigans ensue (“Both Ends of the Candle”). These are the stories Ellison nods at for being “read with one hand.” Naturally, they are the least interesting of the stories. What stick out are the anomalies.
“Pride in the Profession” is as close to “good” Harlan Ellison fiction as one can get in Getting in the Wind. It’s the story of a small town executioner who finds his calling during the post war lynchings in the South, and the macabre pride that dominates his life. It’s not great. But the seed of the social conscious of this era, one of Ellison’s calling cards, is clearly in play, if utterly unresolved.
Then, there’s the guilty pleasure of “Portrait of the Artist as a Zilch Writer.” Either as gag, or perhaps confessional, the story is memoir in fictional drag: our hero, the good writer who knows he’ll never be Sartre or Hemingway but still wants to make his name, gets dragged into the “zilch” (AKA: “sleaze”) mag world. Despite his amazing talent, the editor only wants him to write by-the-numbers “zilch” stories. With a beautiful secretary, described for about 8000 words, our hero has his sex muse for zilch… but the stories become too zilchy! Poor hero! Will he ever win? (Rim shot!).
Pulling a Train and Getting in the Wind are specialty items for die hard Ellison fanatics and those interested in the history of sleaze pulps and, perhaps crime fiction, and gender studies. But they also offer a footnote in the creation of Harlan Ellison’s public persona. For years, Ellison debased, insulted, and snarled at writers who “sold out” by writing media tie-in fiction or endless sequels, just to “make a buck.” Check out the old Prisoners of Gravity episodes, where he decried those who worked on shared world project, despite occasional good works, as sell outs. Seems the author of Sex Gang doth protest too much, hence the mea culpa of hiding his secret life as Paul Merchant.
For years, Ellison pined for the respect he thought he was due as a writer. Silverberg remembered how young Ellison lied about selling stories when, in fact, he’d only submitted them (Ray Bradbury, and many others, are guilty of the same wishful thinking), believing he’d already cracked a top mag. Ellison distanced himself from science fiction, wanting the respect other contemporary authors of “serious” fiction received, and began a steady career as a fantasist of many colors, earning justified acclaim and producing a very rich body of work. Now, in his seventies, acclaim has lost its luster, perhaps. Ellison doesn’t feel the need to pretend he was never Paul Merchant. Just apologize, and accept more of his own history, dirty secrets and all.