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Saturday, December 5, 2015

"The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World" by Harlan Ellison

First appeared in Harlan Ellison's collection The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World. It won the Hugo award and was reprinted in few retrospectives by Isaac Asimov, Robert Silverberg.

In a place where time does not exist as we know it, a seven-headed dragon is drained from a man so that he becomes sane. Semph, one of two observers draining the insane creature-man, "interposed himself," presumably stopping or impeding the job. He is sentenced to die.
This has one of Ellison's titles that intrigues, conjures the story and its theme if obliquely. When I first read Ellison, I imagined the title both conjured the story and its artist: spreading ugly truths (through violence or whatever unpleasant reality) with verve and joy. I'd not venture to say that now though, especially with an opening where a man does something terrible to people and then turns around to say how he loves them.

What the story seems to suggest is that our insanity--albeit, a destructive force--is a part of us, a part of who we are. To lose it is to lose ourselves, our identity. This insanity is ineffable. When confronted by it, no one knows what to do with it (see ending where Semph's memorial, which is amazing and may or may not have started WWIV, is quickly forgotten, let alone not understood). In the "center... there is no madness."

There is a slight allusion to Pandora:
"Friedrich Drucker found the many-colored box. Maddened... the man tore at the lid of the box.... But Friedrich Drucker had little time to ponder the meaning of the purple smoke, for the next day, World War IV broke out."
So like Pandora, while Friedrich Drucker might have unleashed evil forces on the world, something good like hope might have also been unleashed (love? but if so, it's a bizarre kind of love).

Semph says that this insanity could be drained, "[b]ut what we'd have left wouldn't be worth having." Our insanity makes us human or who we are?

The tale could be a little more lucid. The writing is at times Ellison Wonderous--"Cyclones and dark, winged, faceless shapes that streaked away into the night, followed by a last wisp of purple smoke smelling strongly of decayed gardenias."--and at times forgettable:
"Linah spread his hands in futility. 'Survival.'
"Semph shook his head slowly with a weariness that was mirrored in his expression."
 An interesting work, nonetheless, if not one of Ellison's best.

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