Review: ‘Strange Wine’ by Harlan Ellison

Front and back cover of the first edition, because it's a gorgeous wraparound.
Full jacket of the first edition, because it’s a gorgeous wraparound.

Harlan Ellison is one of those writers who works so prolifically and in so many genres that you’ve probably enjoyed something of his without even knowing it. His most recognizable mainstream work is the teleplay for “The City on the Edge of Forever”, the episode of Star Trek in which Kirk, Spock, and Bones travel back in time and almost FUBAR Earth’s history.

He is also notorious for being extremely contentious, a reputation he embraces with relish. Much of his work is shocking, and at times, unpleasant. I’m not so sure Ellison’s primary intention is to provoke. Certainly, he aims to incite; but one gets the impression he uses readers’ outrage more than anything as a barometer of how purely he has conveyed his true sentiments.

Some may find Ellison’s style overly sentimental. Others take issue with the fact that he writes with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Regardless of these criticisms – and depending on the story, they are not without merit – I feel there is real value in literature that attempts to contextualize suffering, rather than simply throwing its hands up in surrender.

‘Strange Wine’, from the 1978 collection of the same name, does exactly that.

The story opens with in situ tragedy. A man named Willis Kaw has been called to the scene of a fatal car accident to identify the body of his daughter. We soon discover this is but the latest in a series of devastating personal blows. Kaw’s only other child, a son, was paralyzed from the neck down in a diving accident. His marriage is coming apart at the seams. His house is similarly on the verge of collapse.

There is one scene in this section I find particularly resonant. A rainstorm exposes the leaks in the roof, and Kaw scrambles about trying to find enough receptacles to catch the dripping water. When he is unable to do so, he puts his face in his hands and shuts down. As someone who’s had an on-and-off battle with depression (mostly off nowadays, thank goodness), I can relate to those times when it seems even the most trivial inconvenience – dripping water, a late bus, a dropped bowl – can avalanche you.

It is in the cataloguing of Willis Kaw’s misery that Ellison reveals one of his essential qualities. The man doesn’t just write about sadness: he knows sadness.

Ellison also knows how to exploit the fantastic. It’s used to great effect in this story. Perhaps triggered by his ordeals, Kaw begins to believe that his life is may not be as it seems, to “see” otherworldly things. Admittedly not the most original premise, but it’s perfectly in keeping with the story of a character almost numb with despair.

The deeper Kaw sinks into depression, the more convinced he becomes that his delusions are the true reality, and that the suffering he experiences is some cruel joke. This tension between reality and fantasy continues to build, until Kaw finally gives in and the situation resolves itself in an unexpected way.

In the hands of a lesser storyteller, the consequences of Kaw’s decision might be handled in trite, even mawkish fashion. Instead, Ellison goes for the bitter pill approach, resulting in one of the more magnificent story twists this side of O. Henry. I won’t dare spoil anything, but suffice it to say, despite the sheer darkness of everything I’ve summarized, ‘Strange Wine’ is possibly the most moving, most genuine love letter to existence that I have ever read.