Books That Shaped Our Lives

Wayne Steffen, University Editor

Paingod and Other Delusions by Harlan Ellison


In the summer of 1971 a 13-year-old boy walks into a public library in a small town in Indiana—he spins the paperback exchange rack and the world shifts underneath his feet.

Paingod and Other Delusions—a promising title. Better yet, a bug-eyed monster on the cover. I’ll take it, I thought. I was the one taken—for the ride of my life! The author, Harlan Ellison, would become my guide through adolescence.

The story that sticks 42 years on is the title track. “Paingod” is a god who dispenses pain to the creatures of the cosmos. Wondering at last why he has this job, he wanders out and sees the effects of what he has done to a human sculpture. The pain the god gives the artist allows him to create his masterpiece. The most famous story of the nine is “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman." In a future where people are penalized for lateness by having minutes removed from their lives, one man rebels.

Pain and rebellion against corrupt authority are constants for Ellison. They struck a chord with me since I was in pain and was learning the limitations of those in authority over me. The pain: My grandfather, my male role model, had died the summer before, and my mother and I had moved in with my grandmother. The problem with authority: I’d just survived junior high school, an experience that should shake anyone’s faith in the system.

I was alienated. Ellison was alienated. We had an understanding that lasted through more than a dozen books with titles like I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, Alone Against Tomorrow and Love Ain’t Nothing But Sex Misspelled.

Harlan Ellison’s influence stretches well beyond his genre. He has won every award in his field. He has written classic TV episodes for the original Star Trek and Alfred Hitchcock Hour. Ellison is also a seemingly perpetually angry atheist whose great writing contains many naughty words and who was a happy sexual revolutionary. He has no children, just stories. We can take comfort that his current marriage (number five) has now lasted 27 years, and that he neither drinks alcohol nor takes drugs.

What’s the takeaway for a boy who is now a happily married churchgoing man who thinks fatherhood the best job on the planet? Harlan Ellison grabbed me by the collar, wrenched me out of my narrow view of the world and made me like it. He turned my gaze from my feet to the sky and told me I was in charge of me, good, bad or indifferent. And for all his rants about human stupidity, he does know we can do better. And he wants us to.