I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison

Mr. Ellison’s excessive use of hyphenated words obstruct the flow of reading, only to serve as a trivial pause during which the reader can back up, deliberate momentarily and re-read the sentence. Initially it was off-putting but I soon realised its unintended purpose. To give pause without the commonplace comma or period. And I must say, it suits his prose style. The content of his stories demand such obstacles to coerce the reader into questioning their own understanding of the prose and revisit what has been just read in case the meaning has altered upon the second read.

Which would remain a good–humored whimsy but for something a biochemist told me a couple of years ago. It seems that there is a blood fraction which is chemically almost identical with the hallucinogen psilocybin. It’s manufactured in the body and like most biochemicals, differs in concentration in the bloodstream from person to person, and in the same person from time to time. And, said my biochemist friend, it is quite possible that there are some people who are born, and live out their lives, with a consciousness more aware, more comprehending, more—well, expanded—than those of the rest of us. He cited especially William Blake, whose extraordinary drawings and writings, over quite a long life, seemed consistently to be reporting on a world rather more comprehensive than one we “know” he lived in.

A selection of my favorite passages from the short story collection

I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

★★★★★ (5/5)

  • Then the sound began. It was light, that sound. Half sound and half light, something that began to glow from Benny’s eyes, and pulse with growing loudness, dim sonorities that grew more gigantic and brighter as the light/sound increased in tempo. It must have been painful, and the pain must have been increasing with the boldness of the light, the rising volume of the sound, for Benny began to mewl like a wounded animal
  • At first it meant Allied Mastercomputer, and then it meant Adaptive Manipulator, and later on it developed sentience and linked itself up and they called it an Aggressive Menace, but by then it was too late, and finally it called itself AM
  • Benny had been a brilliant theorist, a college professor, now he was little more than a semi–human, semi–simian. He had been handsome, the machine had ruined that. He had been lucid, the machine had driven him mad
  • Gorrister had been a worrier. He was a connie, a conscientious objector, he was a peace marcher; he was a planner, a doer, a looker–ahead. AM had turned him into a shoulder–shrugger, had made him a little dead in his concern
  • AM said it with the sliding cold horror of a razor blade slicing my eyeball. AM said it with the bubbling thickness of my lungs filling with phlegm, drowning me from within. AM said it with the shriek of babies being ground beneath blue–hot rollers. AM said it with the taste of maggoty pork
  • AM could not wander, AM could not wonder, AM could not belong. He could merely be. And so, with the innate loathing that all machines had always held for the weak soft creatures who had built them, he had sought revenge
  • And in his paranoia, he had decided to reprieve five of us, for a personal, everlasting punishment that would never serve to diminish his hatred … that would merely keep him reminded, amused, proficient at hating man
  • I’d had him. He was furious. I had thought AM hated me before. I was wrong. It was not even a shadow of the hate he now slavered from every printed circuit
  • He left my mind intact. I can dream, I can wonder, I can lament. I remember all four of them

Big Sam Was My Friend                

★★★★ (4/5)

  • and I think the only reason we all didn’t gallop out of there and pull up stakes was that we were afraid we’d all be held and executed. And Big Sam was the only teleport in the crowd. And there was something else; something I’m afraid and ashamed, even today, to say. I think we were all afraid of losing the business
  • Then I figured him for an empath, and that would have been useless for the circus; except in an administrative capacity of course. To tell us when one of the performers was sick, or unhappy, or a bad crowd, or like that
  • To see an almost certain horrible death—you know how crowds all sit on the edge of their seats, praying subconsciously for a spectacular accident—and then to be whisked away from it so suddenly—brought to the edge of tragedy, and then to have their better natures win out, showing them how much nicer they always knew they were—that was the supreme thrill
  • and there was a deep, infinite sadness about him that sometimes made me want to cry, just talking to him there

Eyes Of Dust

★★★★ (4/5)

  • The blind man and his wife, the moley woman, lived in the small units outside the city, where the farmers tilled their symmetrical fields with equipment that was handsome in its construction, efficient in its operation
  • “No, Father. I lack for nothing. I have my meal cakes and my ale. I have my shadows and my colors. And there is the smell of time passing. I need nothing more.”
  • His walk was the walk of the legionnaire, his speech the measured cadence of the wise man. He would never go bald, his smile would never fade
  • But Person had eyes of dust, and the eyes of dust saw what could not be seen, and the soul within was the sweet soul of the visionary

World Of The Myth

★★★★ (4/5)

  • Rennert was a peculiar person; amoral more than immoral
  • and when the fork came up, a deeply–charred strip steak dangled from the tines
  • Even though their relationship was one built on hatred and lust, Cornfeld knew he could be nothing to either of them. Not buffer, not catalyst, not deterrent, nothing. To them, he was there/not there
  • Hundreds of thousands of ant creatures had been stomped to greasy blackheads against the flesh of the dunes


★★★★★ (5/5)

  • The force of memory of her body there, lying huddled on the inside, together cuddled body–into–body, a pair of question marks, whatever arrangement it might have been from night to night—still, her there
  • One of the assassins had pulled a thin, desperately–sharp stiletto, and Paul had grappled with the man interminably, slashing at his flesh and the sensitive folds of skin between fingers, till the very essence, the very reality of death by knife became a gagging tremor in his sleeping body
  • It was happening, just this easily. A pact of guilt and opportunity was being solidified, without the decency of either admitting its necessity
  • and worst of all, the steadily deteriorating knowledge that somehow what had gone wrong was not real, but a matter of thoughts, attitudes, dreams, ghosts, vapors. All insubstantial, but so omnipresent, so real, they had broken up his marriage with Georgette
  • Simply the mechanics of divorce were gristmill enough to powder him into the finest ash
  • He stared down at her, seeing the double–image, the future lying inchoate across her now–face, turning the paramour beneath him into a relic of incognito spare parts and empty passions
  • There was one who chewed gum while they did it. An adolescent with oily thighs who had no idea of how to live in her body. The act was sodden and slow and entirely derelict in its duties
  • But commercialism is the last sinkhole of love, and when it is reached, by paths of desperation and paths of cruel, misused emotions—all hope is gone. There is no return save by miracles, and there are no more miracles for the common among common men
  • This was how all their arguments had started. From subject to subject, like mountain goats from rock to rock, forgetting the original discussion, veering off to rip and tear with their teeth at each other’s trivialities
  • They trembled there together in a nervous symbiosis, each deriving something from the other. He was covered with a thin film of horror and despair, a terrible lonelyache that twisted like smoke, thick and black within him. The creature giving love, and he reaping heartache, loneliness

Delusion For A Dragon Slayer

★★★☆☆ (3/5)

  • For each of them was pre–ordained. Not in the ethereal, mystic, supernatural flummery of the Kismet–believers, but in the complex rhythmic predestination of those who have been whisked out of their own world, into the mist–centuries of their dreams.
  • Griffin looked down the length of his body, and for a suspended instant of eye–widening timelessness, he felt vertiginous. It was total displacement of ego. He was himself, and another himself entirely. He looked down, expecting to see a curved, pot–bellied and pimpled body he had worn for a very long time, but instead saw someone else, standing down below him, where he should have been. Oh my God, thought Warren Glazer Griffin, I’m not me.
  • And winning! Making his wager with eternity, and winning—for an instant, before the great ship struck the buried reefs, and tore away the bottom of the ship, and the lazzarette filled in an instant, and his men who trusted him not to gamble them away so cheaply, wailed till their screams became water–logged, and were gone
  • This was reality, an only reality for a man whose existence had been not quite bad, merely insufficient; tenable, but hardly enriching. For a man who had lived a life of not quite enough, this was all that there ever could be of goodness and brilliance and light
  • Empty winds howled down out of the tundras of his soul. This was the charnel house of his finest fantasies. The burial ground of his forever. The garbage dump, the slain meat, the putrefying reality of his dreams and his Heaven
  • a man may truly live in his dreams, his noblest dreams, but only, only if he is worthy of those dreams

Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes

★★★★ (4/5)

  • Long legs, trim and coltish; hips a trifle large, the kind that promote that specific thought in men, about getting their hands around it; belly fiat, isometrics; waist cut to the bone, a waist that works in any style from dirndl to disco–slacks; no breasts—all nipple, but no breast, like an expensive whore (the way O’Hara pinned it)—and no padding … forget the cans, baby, there’s other, more important action; smooth, Michelangelo–sculpted neck, a pillar, proud; and all that face
  • She carried herself like a challenge, the way a squire carried a pennant, the way a prize bitch carried herself in the judge’s ring. Born to the blue. The wonders of mimicry and desire
  • So now he stood before the machine, waiting. It spoke to him. Inside his skull, where no one had ever lived but himself, now someone else moved and spoke to him. A girl. A beautiful girl. Her name was Maggie, and she spoke to him
  • There was a ringing in his ears. Hartshorn seemed to waver at the edge of his vision like heat lightning across a prairie. Like memories of things Kostner had come across the country to forget. Like the whimpering and pleading that kept tugging at the cells of his brain
  • Broke, and tapped out in all the silent inner ways a man can be drained, he had left, without even a fight, for all the fight had been leeched out of him
  • There was a terrible shriek, of tortured metal, of an express train ripping the air with its passage, of a hundred small animals being gutted and torn to shreds, of incredible pain, of night winds that tore the tops off mountains of lava. And a keening whine of a voice that wailed and wailed and wailed as it went away from there in blinding light

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