by Harlan Ellison
“A world that has grown so complex and uncaring with systems and brutalization of individuals because of the inertia produced by those systems’ perpetuation of self, that merely to live is to be assaulted daily by circumstances.”
Shatterday is another collection favorited by one of the best short story writers in the business, and possibly the best when it comes to combining horror and emotion, John R. Little. This was the second Ellison title on his list of best 10 collections of all time. The other was the immortal Deathbird Stories.
This book opens up with the Earth-shattering “Jeffty is Five,” and it goes downhill from there. Not because the rest of the collection is somehow mediocre, but because it’s impossible to follow up a story like Jeffty (this story will be present in the upcoming Subterranean Ellison Award-Winners collection, The Top of the Volcano). Ellison then goes on to tell a bunch of stories ranging from fair to great, heavily weighted on the ‘great’ side.
But first, in “Jeffty is Five,” two five-year old boys are friends and playmates, and after a brief separation of a couple of years they are reunited. Our narrator, however, continues to age normally while Jeffty does not. We follow our narrator as he moves away for years, then returns to his hometown as a fully grown man with Jeffty still a 5 year old child. Not just that he hadn’t grown physically, he was still actually 5 years old with the matching mentality. The world interacts differently with Jeffty, too. When he turns on a radio, it broadcasts stations that were played when they were five. When our narrator does the same on the same device, it plays modern stations. That’s the setup, and the story is a deep examination of self, of childhood vs. adulthood, innocence and loss, and can floor a reader. Be warned.
The book does not reach this height again, but there are no less than 7 ingenious stories remaining out of the next 15 tales, a couple of fair ones, and a handful of really good ones.
“Flop Sweat” concerns a radio talk show host, her two guests, an unstoppable serial killer, and the end of the world.
“Would You Do It For a Penny?” is about a man with zero scruples hunting for women to seduce.
“The Man Who Was Heavily Into Revenge” is about a contractor screwing over a retiree, and the vengeance taken upon him.
“Count the Clock that Tells the Time” is about not wasting your life, about moving forward.
“In the Fourth Year of the War” concerns a man fiercely battling the other person inside his own head, forcing him to take revenge on those who’ve damaged him in the past.
“The Executioner of the Malformed Children” tells the tale of a boy injured so badly his parents give him up to the only institution that can save him, and who turn him into a warrior against demons from the future.
And in “Shatterday,” a man accidently calls his home number from a restaurant and he picks up the phone at home. Battle is joined with himself.
These were favorites, and every one of them is brilliant. Spread throughout the collection are Ellison’s introductions before each story except “The Executioner of Malformed Children,” where he says he doesn’t want to talk about it. These intros do a great job of explaining the context of the story and while it’s often a good idea to skip Intros at the beginning of a book if you’re reading it for the first time, these are all worth reading on the first pass.
Shatterday is another amazing collection from Ellison, and the only real complaint is that the first story is just too good.
“He never lied; it simply wasn’t worth the trouble.”