Were he to have risen to popularity in the 21st century, Harlan Ellison would have been the king of speculative fiction’s edge lords. Unafraid of voicing opinion, controversial or otherwise, in the very least the man can be respected for walking his own path when so many are pressured to conform to an ever growing list of cultural standards. And it comes through in his fiction. Though the overwhelming majority of Ellison’s oeuvre is short story length, each selection nevertheless has a uniqueness, a singularity that, like his opinions, separates the author from the herd. Volume 2 in his Voice from the Edge series, Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral brings together eleven of Ellison’s best stories, read by the author himself.
The premise of the collection’s opening story “In Lonely Lands” is quite simple: a blind man awaits the arrival of death with his Martian friend on the red planet. A mood piece, Ellison wonderfully captures the melancholy of the man’s final moments in both poetic and direct manner, opening the door to the collection that follows. A pastiche of alien invasions, “S.R.O.” sees a weak, poor New York City man in the middle of lying to a potential date interrupted by an alien invasion. Taking on absurdist tones, the invasion becomes a stage performance the man attempts to take advantage of for his own gain—a wonderful piss take on the strange manner in which some people seek entertainment.
The title story one of the weakest in terms of cohesive vision but grandest in terms of sci-fi sensawunda, “Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral” finds a deep sea diver in the Atlantic trench having an out of body experience. The imagery and visuals pushed to the max, Ellison attempts to draw parallels between his creation and that our instinctual need for connection with family, no matter how remote it may be. A western, or perhaps more properly a post-western, “The End of the Time of Leinard” sees a town rebel against its sheriff. The times they are a changin’ their reasoning, the sheriff’s downfall starts when he shoots the town drunk after he has had a pistol pulled on him. While a short piece, Ellison touches upon a key paradox to human existence in terms of the names under which violence is committed.
Capturing an exceptionally wonderful authorial voice (or perhaps it was just Ellison’s wonderful narration—or likely both), “Pennies, Off a Dead Man’s Eyes” sees a man return to his hometown to attend the funeral of an old friend. Not an ordinary man, he has the ability to become invisible, and therefore is witness to something sacrilegious in the moments following the funeral. More a scene yet somehow still a story, “Rat Hater” tells of a man interrogating a mobster who killed his sister. The story part quite straight-forward, it’s in the details of the scene, particularly the dialogue and inner monologue of the narrator that Ellison captures something engaging.
Seeming to capture perfectly its last breath—that moment of realization, “Jeffty Is Five” is a story about the life and death of America’s Golden Age. Written with an amazing ear for the flow of words, it is the story of a man and his young son whose neighbor doesn’t grow old. Wonderfully metaphoric, it is a look at America’s loss of innocence post-WWII while remaining more nostalgia than paean to bygone days. A proverbial Tommy gun, “Prince Myshkin, and Hold the Relish” is perhaps the world’s briefest frame story. About a guy buying a hot dog from his friend the vendor, they get into a conversation on Dostoyevsky, and subsequently the vendor’s dramatic love life. Like most stories in the collection, it’s Ellison’s superb authorial voice which carries the story—both of them. About the world’s most orthodox Jew who also happens to be a time traveler (‘time drifter’ in the story’s parlance), “Go Toward the Light” looks at the man’s reaction to seeing with his own eyes some of the key moments of religious history, and the resulting psychological impact on him. The psychology of dreams and echidnas, yes echidnas, “The Function of Dream Sleep” closes the audio collection with a foray into the supernaturally subconscious, or subconsciously supernatural, depending on perspective. Ostensibly about a woman still grieving the death of her husband three months prior, the story shifts gears to the man’s perspective as he tries to understand the loss.
Love him or hate him, Ellison has a knack for reading aloud his own stories. The pausing, the intonation, the varied pacing–it all feels intrinsic to the story, adding a layer that the written word does not contain, and in most cases enhancing the stories. I prefer books, but in the Voice from the Edge series, Ellison’s narration brings something to the table the reader simply can’t get in other forms. Subsequently, for Ellison fans who are familiar with his oeuvre, this collection, and the others in the series, offer something extra that is worth seeking out, not to mention those in general who enjoy audiobooks and are looking for fresh, unique material.
The following are the eleven stories collected in Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral:
In Lonely Lands
Midnight in the Sunken Cathedral
The End of the Time of Leinard
Pennies, Off a Dead Man's Eyes
Go Toward the Light
Jeffty Is Five
Prince Myshkin, and Hold the Relish
The Function of Dream Sleep