Short Story Review: “Grail” by Harlan Ellison

(Cover by Jim Warren. Twilight Zone Magazine, April 1981.)

Who Goes There?

Where to start with Harlan Ellison? He resented being called a science fiction writer, but in his defense, he wrote a lot more than just SF; he was one of the most important and most productive writers of genre fiction from the second half of the 20th century. SF, fantasy, horror, things not so easily categorized? Ellison did it. He got his start in the ’50s as a middling young author along the lines of Robert Silverberg at the start of his career, but the ’60s saw a profiund step up for him as he began refining his craft, not only putting out award-winners like “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” but also writing for shows like Star Trek and The Outer Limits. Of course, things are not nearly as simple as that. Ellison’s involvement with Star Trek proved a fiasco, and when he was not being unprofessional (his degree of procrastination was legendary) as a writer, he was being a thorn in a lot of people’s sides as a fandom personality.

Perhaps the most memorable controversy with Ellison, for me, is his inability to finish (or seemingly even to start) what was to be the concluding entry in a trilogy of anthologies, The Last Dangerous Visions. Dangerous Visions was a landmark original anthology, as was its sequel (said to be superior at least in some ways), Again, Dangerous Visions, both edited by Ellison, but Ellison’s lack of initiative with working on TLDV (which was announced in 1972 but never published) has spawned many justifiably vitriolic reactions. While some stories that were sold to Ellison have since been published elswhere, the majority of the stories submitted for TLDV have yet, after all these decades, to be released to the public in any capacity. With Ellison’s death in 2018, followed by his late wife Susan’s in 2020, not only will we never get TLDV as Ellison envisioned it, but it looks like the Ellison estate has been thrown in disarray recently.

With all this said, and taking all of Ellison’s shortcomings as a writer (not to mention as a person) into account, he’s still one of the Big Names™ of short fiction in modern times, not just in SFF but outside of it. “Grail,” as I’ll elaborate on shortly, is a good example of Ellison’s vigorousness as a storyteller, as well as someone who (I say this in a good way) wears his emotions on his sleeve.

Placing Coordinates

First published in the April 1981 issue of Twilight Zone Magazine, which is on the Archive and which also happens to be that magazine’s inaugural issue. Twilight Zone Magazine is exactly the kind of publication that would get some TLC on my blog, as it’s a bit quirky, a bit out of left field, and most importantly, it didn’t last that long. Oh, TZM did fairly well, and for the first half of its existence it was edited by T. E. D. Klein (this is like if you gave Thomas Ligotti a horror magazine), who while not the most prolific of authors proved quite the reliable editor. Unfortunately, despite some high-quality fiction and fancy packaging, and despite its numbers never tanking, TZM did not quite survive the ’80s. Another story I recgonized from this issue is George R. R. Martin’s “Remembering Melody,” which I will absolutely get around to reading/reviewing… at some point.

Where else to find “Grail”? There are Ellison stories which have been reprinted many times (frankly too many times), but “Grail” is not one of them—not helped by the fact that, for some reason, it has become considerably harder to find Ellison books in the wild in recent years. I don’t know what happened. It looks like even the most essential Ellison collection have gone out of print; you can find them on the second-hand market, but you won’t find new editions, and even used copies are inexplicably harder to acquire. Still, there are a few options. “Grail” was reprinted in the Ellison collection Stalking the Nightmare, which is very much out of print but thankfully is not hard to find used. If you like Ellison like I do then you may be interested in The Essential Ellison, which is a massive volume that collects short fiction and essays and which comes in two distinct editions. The older edition is easier to find, but it’s still something of a collector’s item.

Enhancing Image

Christopher Caperton (which sounds like a name someone made up) is a shy kid who grows up desperate to seek adventure, and seek it he does. From the time he’s a child and for the rest of his life, Chris is deeply concerned with one question: What is love? Baby don’t hurt me Not just familial love or even romantic love, but True Love, that most elusive of abstractions. What does it look like? Does it have a face? Is it possible for Chris to find The One? Despite his life experiences, and despite reading the works of every author under the sun on subject of love, he’s no closer to finding True Love. As an aside, I find it funny that apparently John Cheever knows even less about love than our protagonist, as I’m not sure if Cheever’s turbulent personal life and bisexuality were public knowledge in 1981 (probably was for the former but not the latter). Speaking of which, queerness doesn’t really come up in-story; it’s alluded to, but the narrator makes it very clear to us that Chris is, to paraphrase the protagonist of Silverberg’s Dying Inside, drearily heterosexual. Oh well.

As a young man Chris finds himself in Vietnam in the late ’60s running drugs with a woman named Siri, who is not as normal as she seems. The two become lovers as well as partners in crime, and when all is said and done this is probably the happiest relationship Chris ever has; unfortunately it doesn’t last long. A random artillery strike kills Siri, but before she dies, she spends an impressively long amount of time explaining to Chris this artifact that’s supposed to represent True Love, an artifact which Siri had been looking for for years but had sort of given up on recently. She didn’t find True Love, but she found the next best thing. Siri is an interesting character because she’s one of those story figures who doesn’t get much screentime (or pagetime?) but whose plot relevance is immense; in this case she’s the one who basically kicks the plot into gear and sends Chris on his quest. Of course her dying words do not just encompass “This thing exists, now go get it,” as she also gives Chris some very specific and very unusual instructions.

More on that in a minute.

Something I wanna say right now is that when I picked “Grail” as part of my spooky short story lineup for review, I was under the impression that it would be straight horror. Not so! There’s a bit of horror, primarily having to do with a certain character, but overall it much more reads as an adventure narrative with a philosophical bent. Still, it’s spooky enough to serve as the first cover story for Twilight Zone Magazine, and more importantly, it’s good enough a story to earn that position. I can’t properly explain it, but the vigor that’s apparent in Ellison’s writing makes even his lists (and there are a few times where he basically just lists things in “Grail”) engaging to read. You could theoretically write a 300-page novel with “Grail” as a blueprint and the novel would not feel stretched thin, but Ellison zeros in on only the most relevant of info, resulting in what almost feels more like a compressed novel than a short story.

In my review of C. M. Kornbluth’s “The Mindworm” I noted Kornbluth’s use of compression and how he was able to cram a lot of history and worldbuilding into a tight space, and Ellison does basically the same thing here—only maybe even more impressively. Get this, the bulk of the artifact’s history as Siri understood it:

Between 1914 and 1932 the object—while never described—turned up three times: once in the possession of a White Russian nobleman in Sevastopol, twice in the possession of a Dutch aircraft designer, and finally in the possession of a Chicago mobster reputed to have been the man who gunned down Dion O’Banion in his flower shop at 738 North State Street.

In 1932 a man visiting New York for the opening of the Radio City Music Hall just after Christmas reported to the police who found him lying in an alley on West 51st Street just below Fifth Avenue that he had been mugged and robbed of “the most important and beautiful thing in the world.” He was taken to Bellevue Hospital, but no matter how diligently he was interrogated, he would not describe the stolen article.

In 1934 it was reputed to be in the private art collection of the German architect Walter Gropius; after Gropius’s self-imposed exile from Nazi Germany it was reputed to have passed into the personal collection of Hermann Goering, 1937; in 1941 it was said to be housed with Schweitzer in French Equatorial Africa; in 1946 it was found to be one of the few items not left by Henry Ford at his death to the Ford Foundation.

Its whereabouts were unknown between 1946 and February of 1968. But Siri told Chris, her final love, that there was one sure, dangerous way of finding it. The way she had used originally to learn the hand-to-hand passage of the artifact that was True Love from the Palace of Minos to its present unknown resting place.

So now we get to the spooky character in “Grail,” which is the minor demon Surgat. Siri left instructions so that Chris could not only summon Surgat (supposedly a demon who can pick any lock) but also stay protected from the demon’s treachery. Because a demon doesn’t want to help you, it’s more like a form of indentured servitude. There’s a bit of a deal-with-the-devil narrative here, although it’s more a case of two people who clearly hate each other’s guts but are forced to work together. The first time Chris summons Surgat he’s naturally unnerved about the whole thing (How often does one get to draw pentagrams and summon demons?), but given the very recent death of Siri and everything that’s happened this marks the start of his evolution into a badass. Surgat opens the trove that contains Siri’s most secret things, having to do with her search for the artifact, but before he fucks off he takes Siri’s body as a… treat.

The implications are a wee bit concerning.

From here on out, Chris is on his own. The man who started out as a bit of a wimp is now on a quest to find True Love, and if there’s one thing he’ll do anything for, it’s love. It’s at this point that we get a few time skips (remember what I said about the compressed novel thing), jumping from the late ’60s through the ’70s as Chris wanders the globe, “a nameless, stateless person, someone out of a Graham Grene suspense novel.” Again I’m taken back by how Ellison is able to squeeze so much in here, making years pass by in mere words without making us feel like we’re missing out on too much. It helps, too, that while Chris is not the most complex of characters, his mission, his want, is deeply relatable, and we’re given enough context about his life to see why this would be so important to him.

There Be Spoilers Here

Even more than a decade of searching, Chris has tracked the artifact to what seems to be its most recent resting place, in the hands of some super-rich mogul (I don’t think we even get his name), who also happens to be on his deathbed. The mogul has the artifact locked behind a ridiculously convoluted security system (it would make Mission: Impossible look like a documentary), but this doesn’t stop Chris from summoning Surgat again and revealing the artifact anyway. The artifact, which is indeed a grail, reveals in its liquid the face of True Love, but it’s not what Chris has been expecting all these years. The final twist of the story is subtle, yet deeply tragic, and shows Ellison twisting the knife that he’s just thrust into us; he’s very good at that.

This is not the very end, technically, but it’s enough:

He looked down into the loving cup that was True Love and in the silver liquid swirling there he saw the face of True Love. For an instant it was his mother, then it was Miss O’Hara, then it was poor Jean Kettner, then it was Briony Catling, then it was Helen Gahagan, then it was Marta Toren, then it was the girl to whom he had lost his virginity, then it was one woman after another he had known, then it was Siri—but was Siri no longer than any of the others—then it was his wife, then it was the face of the achingly beautiful bride on the cover of Esquire, and then it resolved finally into the most unforgettable face he had ever seen. And it stayed.

It was no face he recognized.

Years later, when he was near death, Christopher Caperton wrote the answer to the search for True Love in his journal. He wrote it simply, as a quotation from the Japanese poet Tanaka Katsumi.

What he wrote was this:

“I know that my true friend will appear after my death, and my sweetheart died before I was born.”

I’m gonna keep it real with you: I thought this was devastating. Ellison has done sadistic endings many times before, his protagonists sometimes being defeated outright or achieving a sort of Pyrrhic victory, but “Grail” mixes that sadism with a genuine tragedy. When I say “tragedy” I mean it in the proper sense of the word, which is to say Chris, due to a combination of circumstances and his own flaws, fails nobly. When people call something tragic they simply mean to say something bad has happened (don’t worry, I do this a lot too), as opposed to what it really means, but Ellison understands real tragedy. These are words coming from a man who, due in part to his own personality flaws, had loved and lost over and over. His famous novella, “A Boy and His Dog,” perfectly captures Ellison’s brand of wounded-dog misogyny (that’s right, it is a misogynistic story, but it’s a psychologically arresting story specifically because of its apparent distrust of women), but “Grail” achieves a similar effect without the blatant woman-hating.

I can believe that “Grail” is a middle-career piece from Ellison, because I don’t think the Ellison who wrote “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” the Ellison who was younger and not as adjusted to his fame, could have written it. This story, and especially this ending, reads to me as by someone who still has a lot of fire in his belly but who also has been in the game long enough to pair that fire with real craftsmanship and insight. Even “The Deathbird,” which might still be my favorite Ellison story, and which still reads as totally experimental, does not distill its disquieting effect as succinctly as “Grail” does. This story made me feel something.

A Step Farther Out

I was shocked to find that “Grail” is only ten pages long; mind you, this is in TZM, which is not only two-columned but has frustratingly small type. What impresses me is that Ellison is able to tell what is basically a man’s whole life story in that span, and it doesn’t feel rushed or like we’re missing important information. Like sure, it’s compressed, the whole thing is an exercise in compression, but it’s a fully developed tale of one man’s search for the impossible. Chris starts out as a socially awkward nobody before tragedy sends him on a path to becoming a globe-trotting badass, but at the cost of something he can’t put his finger on. The question of finding true love is an ages-old but still deeply relevant one for most people, including myself, and personifying it as something akin to the Holy Grail is probably not new either, but it’s how Ellison gives it its own history, its own sense of weight, that makes the ending tragic. Indeed the ending would be an existential nightmare, were it not so sad and relatable.

I was expecting something more horror-centric, but I can’t say I was disappointed with what I got. Ellison is, if nothing else, an emotionally potent writer (sometimes to the point of edgy tedium), and “Grail” is an example of the mature Ellison flexing his muscles. On the one hand I’m a little surprised it didn’t get more awards attention (though it was up for the coveted Balrog Award), and also that it hasn’t been reprinted more often. Oh sure, “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” can be reprinted literally a hundred times, but an objectively better and more layered story like “Grail” is apparently deemed a minor work by virtue of its lack of exposure. Well I’m gonna change that! Maybe not “change,” but I do wanna tell more people about this one; I think it’s a bit of a hidden gem.

See you next time.


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