Repent, Harlequin…


Authors are supposed to have influences. I have favorite authors and I have those and have emulated them shamelessly. (But not plagiarized…although my story would be arguably better if I had). But what is the first story that really grabbed my by the throat and shook me around and said “read me again, dammit!”   I am old enough to have read the “Dick and Jane” stories and I can’t say they really held my attention. Even at five I could recognize the failure to build a proper motivation for the characters and gigantic holes in the plot. (“See Dick Run. Run, Dick. Run.” Where is the motivation? Where is the conflict? Why should I care?)

In my college English class, I got an anthology of stories and we read “The Metamorphis” and “Young Goodman Brown”. Both were entertaining, but neither were as captivating when I was scanning through the unread stories and I found Harlan Elison’s “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” . The story might be characterized as science fiction in that it is set in a dystopian future. But it is really allegory for our willingness to conform and was probably a reaction to post World War II “Man in the Grey Flannel Suit” sameness that we had somehow viewed as normal.

What really grabs me about the story is the use of language and description.  The description of the Ticktockman included the following passage “You don’t call a man a hated name, not when that man, behind his mask, is capable of revoking the minutes, the hours, the days and nights, the years of your life. He was called the Master Timekeeper to his mask. It was safer that way.” The fear and dread ooze out of the story. But I prefer humor in my story and his humorous side is what really said “Wow … I wish I could write that” shortly before embarking on an abortive attempt to be certified to study rocks.  Consider this excerpt, “He skimmed over a slidewalk, purposely dropping a few feet to crease the tassels of the ladies of fashion, and inserting thumbs in large earshe stuck out his tongue, rolled his eyes, and went wugga-wugga-wugga. It was a minor diversion. One pedestrian skittered and tumbled, sending parcels every which way, another wet herself, a third keeled slantwise and the walk was stopped automatically by the servitors till she could be resuscitated. It was a minor diversion.” How could one not laugh at the image? (I admit to having a weakness for cartoons).

The story continues through to an end that is alternately sad and hopeful.  Far too many years have passed, but I still find this a fun and inspirational read and hope you do as well.

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One thought on “Repent, Harlequin…

  1. After I finished college and my first choice of careers came abruptly to a halt, I ended up working at a book store and eventually shared an apartment with the manager of the tore who had been an English major. He gave me a recording of this story, read by Ellison himself. It was marvelous. My taste in books at that time ran far away from sci fi, but I had to appreciate the writing skill Ellison brought to the genre – not that he was the only one. I enjoyed this blog. I will read the book you are writing if I can locate the text.

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