Book Review – I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream by Harlan Ellison

no mouth

Harlan Ellison is an author I’d heard of, but knew nothing about. I bought this book many months ago and by the time I came to read it, had forgotten why I’d bought in the first place.

But past-me has a habit of choosing great reads so I delved straight in to this collection of sci-fi short stories. Labelled as Speculative Fiction, these tales certainly didn’t disappoint. Well, most of them didn’t.

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream is the title track and, apparently, the most well known. It’s easy to see why. This post-apocalyptic setting where the human race has been destroyed is harrowing and unnerving. A sentient computer keeps five humans alive as kind of play-things, delighting in their suffering and loss of humanity and spirit.

The tale reeked of desperation; the humans’ existence is in the hands of a man-made being, yet themselves the slaves, is something we’ve become accustomed to in recent books and movies. You can tell the story was written in 1967, as some of the ideas are a little dated, but a contemporary remake would make terrifying reading. The ending to this was full-on weird, which is always nice.

Things turn a little less deplorable in Big Sam Was My Friend, where a travelling space circus has an act that is so amazing audiences are wowed on levels never seen before. I felt myself reading this waiting for the fucked-up shit to happen, but it never did. OK, they’re in space with a shape-shifting giant, but after the first story this one felt a little, I dunno; ‘normal’ sci-fi-y?

A woman with grotesque moles and a blind man have a kid. No, it’s the opening line to a joke, but a description of the next story, Eyes of Dust. This offspring, born into a dystopian world, is never allowed to leave its solitary basement. He’s not even given a name, simply known as Person.

The concept here was great, but the story didn’t quite do it justice. Although saying that, I did enjoy myself with this one.

Things certainly picked up with World of the Myth. A spaceship crashes on a strange planet, the three crew members wait for assistance from their base, as strange creatures suddenly appear.

This one was really creepy. A swarm of ants arrive and instead of being a predator or threat, they magically or telepathically allow a person to see their inner demons in all their infernal glory. This could be a metaphor for the human condition, but metaphors aside, this horror sci-fi delight was thoroughly engaging.

Lonelyache was another story with a not-really-hidden meaning. A womanizer who has split from his wife is in a downward spiral of self-loathing, though he doesn’t realise it. This dude isn’t nice, and his bastard ways anthropomorphize (woo – big word!) themselves into a mysterious creature only he can see, that watches him in his bedroom. Surely this thing is gonna send him insane?

If things weren’t weird enough, then Delusions For a Dragon Slayer certainly changes that. A dude dies and has trippy visions of some kind of afterlife/fantasy/viking/sword-weilding type place. Again, the story was kind of ‘meh’ with the visuals being what almost saved the thing.

The collection is rounded off with Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes, where a guy hits the casinos in Vegas and manages, with impossible luck, to almost clear the place with his winnings. It’s probably down to the spirit of the dead woman in the machines, obviously. This one was a goodish ending to the collection, but to be honest nothing lived up to the superb opener.

i have no mouth

Now I’m not sure if all versions of this are the same as my copy, but each story is introduced by the author himself. He also writes a piece about the tale I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream, which is actually a couple of pages longer than the story itself.

The characters in this collection are mostly dicks, and from a quick Google it seems that Harlan Ellison himself was a bit of a dick, too. Although he was one of those dicks who was quite proud of being a dick, so I suppose he was much at ease with his self-indulgence here.

Fans of sci-fi are probably already familiar with his work. But for the more horror-leaning reader like myself, it’s definitely worth checking out, if only to say that you’ve read it. Or maybe just read the title story.

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