Deathbird Stories: A Pantheon of Modern Gods • 1975 • collection by Harlan Ellison

★★★★★

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Meta: isfdb, published originally 1975 by Harper&Row, now re-published by Open Road Integrated Media.

Summary: Ellison linked the 19 stories, which were previously published between 1960 and 1974, with a common topic summarized in the subtitle: new gods of our modern society, like for city neighborhoods or cars, need to be worshipped or drop out of existence. The stories worked as a standalone narrations but must be interpreted differently in this new context. It is not a thematic link like Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles but more a common idea. The stories were considered so important that even a generation later, you find echoes in works like Neil Gaiman’s „American Gods“. Strong language, vivid imagery, and emotionally striking themes pervade these stories. The theme is not obvious in every story which range from magical realism to science fiction and horror. The nature of gods is sometimes benevolent like the snake in „Deathbird“, but most often malevolent like the urban god feeding of violence in „The Whimper of Whipped Dogs“. Often, moral tests define the relationship between gods and men, like in „Delusion for a Dragon Slayer“ where a dying man is transported to a fantasy world to earn the Heaven he desires.

Ellison isn’t bound to a specific subgenre but draws freely on speculative and non-speculative elements within any single story. Most strinkingly this is the case for „Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans…“ which merges genres and works from Kafka, Melville, Asimov, Shelley and others. Sometimes it is more Fantasy like in „Delusion of a Dragon Slayer“, seldom pure SF like „Along the Scenic Route“. The best way to characterize his stories would be „magical realism“ or simply „speculative fiction„, most often merged with psychological, or morale/theological topics, and set in contemporary U.S. at the edge to mimetic fiction.

He isn’t a novelist but a master of short works with several hundreds of short stories. His natural form seems to be novella and novelette which are short enough to bind his impatience but long enough to develop character and background.

So, if you’ve got bored of plain story-telling, then up your narrative diet with Ellison’s brilliant fiction. Not all of the stories are great, but they are certainly different – some of those you’ll like, some you won’t, depending on your openness to unusual narrative voices and willingness to dig into a short story.

Just do yourself a favour and don’t read it in one session – Ellison himself recommended to digest this collection slowly.

My favourite ★★★★★ stories were

  • The Whimper of Whipped Dogs
  • Basilisk
  • Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes
  • Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitude 38° 54′ N, Longitude 77° 00′ 13″ W
  • The Deathbird

Weakest ☆ or ★ stories

  • Bleeding Stones
  • Corpse
  • At the Mouse Circus
  • The Place with no Name

Contents:

  • ★★★★★ • “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” • (1973) • the god of „not my problem“: magical realism, Kitty Genovese in New York • review
  • ★★★ • “Along the Scenic Route” • (1969) • the god of speed: Near SF car battle • review
  • ★★★ • “On the Downhill Side” • (1972) • two ghosts in New Orleans react to the god of love’s demands • review
  • ★★ • O Ye of Little Faith” • (1968) • Jerry Niven escapes both the questions of his paramour about their relationship and a Minotaur that he suddenly faces after entering a Mexican bookshop. A strong start with the Minotaur but then it only replays the introductory questions about gods. For 9 pages it doesn’t need to say much more.
  • ★★1/2 • “Neon” • (1973) • the gods of neon light enlighten the world • review
  • ★★★★★ • “Basilisk” • (1972) • Mars, the god of war, sends a monster to a vietnam vet • review
  • ★★★★★ • “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes” • (1967) • The god of slot machines grants jackpots • review
  • ★1/2 • Corpse” • (1972) • More Americans die at the wheel than in military uniform. Are cars sentient, do they kill men on purpose? Weakest story in the collection so far with much philosophizing and an abrupt and unmotivated ending.
  • ★★★ • “Shattered Like a Glass Goblin” • (1968) • review
  • ★★★ • “Delusion for a Dragon Slayer” • (1966) • review
  • ★★ • The Face of Helene Bournouw” • (1968) • Helene Bournouw is beautiful beyond perfection. She ruins the lifes of a business man, an artist, and a priest. A heavy-handed story ending in a fairy tale: „Even God needs good rolling stock to get things done.“
  • ☆ • Bleeding Stones • (1973) • industrial pollution awaken the NYC cathedral gargoyles to life. It ends in a splatter movie like havoc because they purge the threat of what they are made to protect. Repulsive, explicit violence including raping a nun with a stop sign. At least, it is the shortest story with only a handful pages.
  • ★ • At the Mouse Circus • (1971) • a highly surreal story of Charlie, the King-of-Tibet, travelling from Manhattan to Ohia in his cadillac, meeting witches, dinosaurs, and a Mickey Mouse who was as confused as I am after that story. At the end, a crowd eats his car.
  • ★ • The Place with No Name • (1969) • Cocain-addicted pimp Norman flees the police, ending in a shop where he is magically transported to a jungle. He meets the bound Prometheus there. The climax is predictable, the rest completely confusing, leaving too many loose ends.
  • ★★★★ • “Paingod • (1965) • the god of pain immerses his subject’s feelings • review
  • ★★★ • “Ernest and the Machine God” • (1968) • Selena has a car accident • review
  • ★★★ • “Rock God” • (1969) • An old Stonehenge god is about to awaken in a NYC skyscraper • review
  • ★★★★★ • “Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitude 38° 54′ N, Longitude 77° 00′ 13″ W” • (1974) • pastiches from Kafka, Melville, Asimove, Shelley, and Siodmak • review
  • ★★★★★ • “The Deathbird” • (1973) • Adam gives the needle •  review
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