Deathbird Stories by Harlan Ellison first appeared in the mid-1970s. I’m sure I must have read them then — I was quite assiduously following the break-through writers of the British and American New Waves, as well as those feminist writers who were pushing the thematic boundaries of the genre — but I don’t remember them at all. It may be symptomatic of something that I’ve just read them again, and I barely remember them three days later.
Whatever my own reaction, they were greeted with high acclaim, somehow, to those who were writing blurbs, at least, seeming revolutionary. The author states in his introduction to this reissue that his “basic idea” for this collection was “the new gods.” And indeed, the foreword, “Oblations at Alien Altars,” expands on the idea that the gods die when belief in them wanes, and new gods arise to take their places. And so it was with some eagerness that I embarked on this exploration of the new gods, eager for new myths, or at least a new insight into old ones. After all, if the heroes of the American West can take on mythic proportions through simple storytelling, surely a highly acclaimed writer can work some magic with the complexities of modern life and give us a new set of myths of our own.
The first selection, “From A to Z, In the Sarsparilla Alphabet,” is just that — give or take the sarsparilla. The first section, “A is for Archon,” details the punishment duty of two seraphim who have been consigned to guarding the “divine spark” for heinous deeds — one invented okra, the other the mail-order catalogue. If you cast yourself in the role of one of the seraphim, you have a good idea of what you’re in for in the rest of the book. And if the humor strikes you as puerile, so be it.
As for new gods, I didn’t find any —- unless you are willing to accept a soul trapped in a slot-machine in Las Vegas as some kind of deity (“Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes”).
“The Face of Helene Bournouw,” about a devastatingly beautiful woman who effortlessly turns men to her will, might have had some potential as a metaphor for the way in which our celebrities become — well, idols, I guess, if not real gods. Unfortunately, the ending can best be characterized as “trite.” (And one wonders what Joanna Russ would have had to say about this story, founded as it is on blatant misogyny.)
“Scartaris, June 28th” gives a good glimpse of the ways in which a contemporary Trickster might operate, but it never quite resolves itself into a story — it’s a series of episodes tied together by a character who changes his persona as he changes his location.
There’s no point in my giving a story-by-story run down of this collection — those I’ve mentioned, I think, give a good idea of the general tone of the book. I found little to engage with in these stories, quite probably, to my mind, because there are so few real people inhabiting them — there are automata and abstractions, but not much in the way of characters. Nor did I find anything that could be characterized as any sort of mythic resonance — they are surface readings, and little more.
Thirty-odd years ago, Deathbird Stories may very well have seemed revolutionary, but time has not been gentle with them.
(Edgeworth Abbey/Subterranean Press, 2010)