‘“Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman’ by Harlan Ellison

Ellison represents one of the two writers most important to my tragically not-misspent youth. (Kurt Vonnegut, who appears next, is the other.) There is no louder a ‘voice’ writer out there than Ellison, and I think the fact that I prize voice so highly is down to his influence. Ellison was also that now rarest of creatures: a self-declared short story writer. (He wrote a couple of unmemorable novels, and was a successful screenwriter for a while.) He was also as much a character as he was a writer of characters, and while he was probably loathed and loved in equal measure for his… exuberant personality, he wrote wonderful short stories. (Hearing him read his stories aloud was mesmerizing.) And in his often brilliant non-fiction – along with essays, he always wrote intros to the stories in his collections that were as interesting as the stories themselves – he presented his readers with a path to lots of other great writers in and out of genre. 

As with others on this list, I could have chosen several of his stories – ‘The Deathbird’, ‘Jefty is Five’, ‘I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream’, etc – but ‘Repent, Harlequin!’ is the one that means the most to me. It won all kinds of awards, has been reprinted a zillion times (that’s a true statistic), and is a glorious excursion into Ellison’s world of wit, wordplay and wonderment. It offers typically Ellisonian excess, is probably just a tad juvenile – and is very funny. 

First published in Galaxy Science Fiction, Dec 1965. Collected in Ellison’s Paingod and Other Delusions, Pyramid, 1965 and widely recollected and anthologised