The best years of your life? Thoughts on GRAIL by Harlan Ellison and THE SUMMER OF ’69

I am starting to think that the CURRENTLY READING section of Goodreads is cursed. At least for me because each time I put a book up there the reading, suddenly, slows down and then I find a book that is, for the moment, more interesting. I may finish these books, but it goes ever so slowly.

One of the books that I didn’t put up on CURRENTLY READING on Goodreads was the audiobook of one of Harlan Ellison’s short story collections. It went by fast. The book is called I HAVE NO MOUTH AND I MUST SCREAM (VOICE FROM THE EDGE #1) and it happens to be read by the author himself.

I’m a little bit ashamed that I haven’t read his work before. He’s been on my to-read list for a very long time but I’ve never got around to his stories for some reason. These things have their own time, huh?  I can’t remember what it was exactly that prompted me to look him up on STORYTEL now but I’m happy I did.

I sometimes listen to audiobooks when I’m out walking the dog, (the fact that I am now a person that walks a dog still puzzles me). At other times I listen to podcasts and sometimes I just listen to the chatter of my own mind. It tells you things, when you’re alone in the forest with the dog sniffing around, that it wouldn’t do otherwise.

The collection starts with a short prologue where the author talks a little about the art of writing a short story and how he likes the stories in the collection. He claims he couldn’t quite understand why I HAVE NO MOUTH AND I MUST SCREAM became as big as it did and proceeded to say that he really loved GRAIL, which is the story that concludes this part of the collection (I am currently listening to vol. 2 of 3).

He didn’t quite explain why he liked GRAIL. I am guessing a part of it has to do with the act of writing it. He claimed that I HAVE NO MOUTH AND I HAVE TO SCREAM came to him in one evening and was finished by the end of it and so I guess GRAIL took longer to finish and therefore felt more “crafted”. And while I did LOVE the SCREAM story I have to agree with him on liking GRAIL a lot more.

I have my own private reasons for this.

When it comes to music I have one arch-enemy. It is the one song I hate with all the fibre of my being. This is not due to the tones of the song. It is a catchy song and if I’m not careful you might find me humming the tune or maybe even singing the lyrics when I’ve been exposed to it. It still never fails to annoy me.
“I got my first real six-string,” and once you start you cannot stop.

THE SUMMER OF ’69 by Bryan Adams is a catchy song, but there is one thing about it that has always, since I remember hearing it first, rubbed me the wrong way.

The GRAIL is a story about a man who spends his life trying to find an artefact called TRUE LOVE. It’s hard to make my point without talking about the end of the story. So be warned if you haven’t read it and want to do so (and you should) go to it and do so before continuing. I’ll wait!

Finished? Well, the demon Surgat gives the protagonist a “gift” and this gift is sinister and the true horror of the story if you ask me. It’s subtle, because the story focuses so steadily on the search for true love. It’s been a search spanning most of the protagonists life and in finding the artefact it shows him images of people’s faces, the faces of women he has loved throughout his life. These images might be what’s on your mind as you finish the story. What do they mean?

The story hints though that it isn’t the GRAIL that shows him the faces but the demon Surgat who can’t touch him, but can reach him. And the last face is a face he does not know. This is not the extent of the demon’s gift, in fact what comes next might be the whole of his gift to the protagonist and it is the knowledge of once you reach the finest moment of ones life you will then know that this was the finest moment of your life and after that you will have to live through the rest of your life knowing that it’s all downhill from there. The protagonist calls it a curse and a blessing.

I’d call it my worst nightmare which happens to be exactly why I hate THE SUMMER OF ’69 with as much gusto as I do. The notion that you have already lived through the “best days of my life” – that terrifies me and I refuse, and will continue to refuse, that thought with every fibre of my being.

The duality in the story, the way the protagonist seems to think that this is a blessing too? It leaves you thinking. It’s not a very clear ending, you find yourself mulling it over a lot and I’m sure there are people out there who can explain it better than I can and maybe have a whole different interpretation. It’s the beauty of art. But what does it mean when he mentions that his “sweetheart” died before he was born?

This has to be one of the more potent horror stories I’ve read. It’s well written and plotted. It has demons and a grail in it and it surprises you throughout. And that awful moment at the end when the demon’s gift is realised? – I got a shiver down my spine.

To this I can add that Harlan Ellison is an outstanding reader. If you have the chance of listening to these audiobooks of him reading his own short stories I highly recommend you do so. He does it with ardour you rarely hear in audiobooks and hardly ever when the author reads the book.

I’m going to leave you with an excellent version of the Bryan Adams song I’ve spent a large part of my life hating. Leo Moracchioli does metal covers of popular songs on Youtube and is brilliant at it.

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