In 1987, Nemo Press published a huge (huge? an understatement) volume called The Essential Ellison, a 35-year retrospective of Harlan Ellison's work. Stories. Essays. A screenplay. A later edition updated that book, covering 50 years of his writing.
That book is now out of print, but Subterranean Press has just released The Top of the Volcano: the Award-Winning Stories of Harlan Ellison, a superb selection of Ellison's short fiction -- it's not quite an essential Ellison, but if you've never read his fiction before this is a great place to start.
Every story in this book is an award-winner, and Ellison's won a LOT of awards -- there are 23 stories here covering most of his career. These stories have received science fiction's Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Poll awards, the Mystery Writers of America Edgar award, the Horror Writers of America Bram Stoker award, and more. In this book, you'll find Ellison at the top of his game, and it just doesn't get better than that (and if it does, well, as John Wayne said in Rio Bravo, "I'd hate to have to live on the difference").
So why do I say this is almost, but not quite, an essential Ellison? Because one of this book's strengths is also a weakness when it comes to assembling an "Essential" or "Best of" volume of a writer like Ellison, who has written in so many areas. The fact that all these stories are prize-winners means that you're getting stories that readers and writers declared best in their class in those years; it also means that powerful work done in areas where such awards were not being given simply isn't included. With a book as strong as this one, that's a minor quibble. As I said, if you've never read his fiction before, this is a great place to start -- just bear in mind that you won't want to stop here.
Unlike most of Ellison's collections, The Top of the Volcano contains no new introduction, no notes on the selections. The fiction stands alone. Other reviewers have noted that this is perhaps as it should be. While author introductions and comments are part of nearly all his books, the stories are the point. The Top of the Volcano is straight Ellison fiction, and nothing else.
So, what's in The Top of the Volcano? Here's the table of contents:
‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman
I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream
The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World
A Boy and His Dog
The Region Between
The Whimper of Whipped Dogs
Adrift Just Off the Islets of Langerhans: Latitude 38° 54’ N, Longitude 77° 00’ 13” W
Jeffty is Five
Count the Clock That Tells the Time
Djinn, No Chaser
Paladin of the Lost Hour
With Virgil Oddum at the East Pole
The Function of Dream Sleep
The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore
Mefisto in Onyx
Chatting with Anubis
The Human Operators with A.E. Van Vogt
How Interesting: A Tiny Man
Now, if you know Harlan Ellison's work at all, that list is all you need to make this book an immediate purchase; if you don't, be aware that The Top of the Volcano contains stories that will chill your blood and others that will break your heart (and some that will do both), and even the oldest stories here ("Repent, Harlequin!" and "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream") remain as fresh and new and compelling as they were the day they were first published. This is fiction made to last, by one of the great short story writers of our time.
Speaking of made to last, Subterranean Press does a terrific job on its books, and the hardcover edition of The Top of the Volcano is a thing of beauty. Get a description at: http://subterraneanpress.com/store/product_detail/the_top_of_the_volcano_the_award_winning_stories_of_harlan_ellison
And in case you don't already have some idea of Ellison's range, check out the titles listed at: http://www.openroadmedia.com/harlan-ellison