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Working with the Little People

By Harlan Ellison

Every writer has had the dreaded experience of sitting in front of a typewriter and finding that the words just won’t come; that no matter how hard you try your mind stays as blank as the paper, that you have run totally dry of ideas or inspiration. At such a time, a writer may think wistfully of how nice it would be to conjure up gremlins who would do your writing for you, as they were once said to perform cobbling and sewing and household chores in exchange for bowls of milk. Such a deal would be a writer’s dream . . .

Or would it?

One of the most acclaimed and controversial figures in modern letters, Harlan Ellison has produced thirty-seven books and more than nine hundred stories, articles, essays, and film and television scripts. He is the editor of Dangerous Visions; Again, Dangerous Visions; Media: Harlan’s World; and the forthcoming The Last Dangerous Visions. His short story collections include Partners in Wonder, Alone Against Tomorrow, The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, Approaching Oblivion, Deathbird Stories, Strange Wine, and Shatterday. A multiple award winner, he has won Nebula, Hugo, and Edgar awards, and three Writer’s Guild of America Awards for Most Outstanding Television Script. His screenplay I, Robot: the Movie was recently serialized in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, and is the first screenplay in the history of the award to be nominated for a Nebula. His most recent book is the collection Angry Candy.

* * *

Nineteen years earlier, Noah Raymond had written his last fantasy. Since that time over four hundred brilliant stories had been published under his byline. All four hundred had come from his typewriter. What no one knew was that Noah Raymond had not written them. They had been written by gremlins.

Success had come early to Raymond. He had sold his first story, “An Agile Little Mind,” to the leading fantasy pulp magazine of the period, when he was seventeen. It was slug-lined as a First Story, and the craft and imagination it displayed made him an instant cause célèbre. He sold a dozen more stories in the next two years and came to the notice of the fiction editor of a major slick magazine.

The slick paid twenty times what the pulps could afford; the response was from a much wider readership; and as the fiction editor was sleeping with the anthologist who annually cobbled up the most prestigious collection of The Year’s Best Short Stories, Noah Raymond found himself, just four months short of his nineteenth birthday, with a novelette on that year’s table of contents between a pastiche by Katherine Anne Porter and a slice-of-life by Isaac Bashevis Singer.

His first collection was published when he was twenty. Knopf. The promotion manager became enthralled with the book and sent it around to Saroyan and Capote and by special messenger to John Collier. The prepublication quotes in the Times Book Review section were awesome. The word “genius” appeared eight times in a half-page.

By the time he was twenty-five, because he was fecund, he had seven books to his credit and librarians did not file him under “science fiction/fantasy” but in the “modern literature” section. At age twenty-six his first novel, Every Morning at First Light, was selected as a Book-of-the-Month Club alternate and was nominated as one of the finalists for the National Book Award.

His personal papers were solicited for preservation in the Archive Library at Harvard and he went on a critically and financially impressive European lecture tour. He was twenty-seven.

In the month of August, on a Friday night—the 20th, to be exact—at twenty-three minutes to midnight, to be tedious about it—Noah Raymond ran dry. That simply, that easily, that directly, that horrifyingly . . . he ran dry.

He wrote the last original word of the last original idea he had, and abruptly found himself flensed of even the tiniest scintilla of an idea for a new story. He had an assignment from the BBC to write an original story that could be adapted for an hour-long dramatic special, and he hadn’t the faintest inkling of what he could write about.

He thought for the better part of an hour, and the only idea that came to him was about a mad, one-legged seaman hunting a big white fish. He thrust the idea from him forcibly; it was redolent with idiocy.

For the first time in his life, since the first moment he realized he had the gift of storytelling, the magic gift of stringing words together so they plumbed the human heart, he was empty of new thoughts. No more strange little fables about the world as he wished it to be, the world that lived in his mind, a world peopled by characters full and firm and more real than those with whom he had to deal each day. His mind was a vast, empty plain without structure upon it or roll to its topography . . . with nothing in sight but gray vistas that extended to limitless horizons.

All that night he sat before his typewriter, urging his mind to dream, to go away from him in wild journeys. But the dreams were empty husks and his mind came back from the journeys as devoid of thoughts as an earthworm.

Finally, when dawn came up over the valley, he found himself crying. He leaned across the typewriter, put his head on the cool metal, and wept. He knew, with the terrible certainty that brooks no exceptions, that he was dry. He had written his last story. He simply had no more ideas. That was the end of it.

Had the world ended just then, Noah Raymond would have cheered. Then he would have had no anguish, no terror, no concern about what he would do tomorrow. And the tomorrow after that. And all the seamless, hopeless tomorrows that stretched before him like a vast, empty plain.

Writing stories was Noah Raymond’s whole life. He had nothing else of consequence that approached by a million miles the job of telling a story. And now that the river had run dry, leaving only the silt of ideas he had worked endlessly and the tag-end memories of other people’s work, great classics half-remembered, seminal treatments of hoary clichés, he did not know what he would do with the remainder of his life.

He contemplated going the Mark Twain route, cashing in on what he had already written with endless lecture tours. But he wasn’t that good a speaker and, frankly, didn’t like crowds of more than two people. He considered going the John Updike route: snagging himself a teaching sinecure at some tony Eastern college where the incipient junior editors of unsuspecting publishing houses were still in the larval stage as worshipful students. But he was sure he’d end up in a mutually destructive relationship with a sexually liberated English Lit major and come to a messy finish. He dandled the prospect of simply going the Salinger route, of retiring to a hidden cottage somewhere in Vermont or perhaps in Dorset, of leaking mysterious clues to a major novel forthcoming some decade soon; but he had heard that both Pynchon and Salinger were mad as a thousand battlefields; and he shivered at the prospect of becoming a hermit. And all that was left was the realization that what he had written was the sum total, that one year soon some snide bastard at The Atlantic Monthly would write a piercing, penetrating piece titled, “The Spectacular Rise and Soggy Demise of Noah Raymond, ex-Enfant Terrible.” He couldn’t face that.

But there was no exit from this prison of sterilized nothingness.

He was twenty-seven, and he was finished.

He stopped crying into the typewriter. He didn’t want to rust the works. Not that it mattered.

He crawled off to bed and slept the day. He woke at eight o’clock and thought about eating, forgetting for the moment that he was finished. But when the knowledge surged back to drown his consciousness, he promptly went into the bathroom and divested himself of the previous evening’s dinner, what had not been digested while he slept.

Packing the queen mother of all headaches, he trudged into the tiny office off the living room, fearing to look at the neglected typewriter he knew would stare back at him with its hideous snaggle-toothed qwertyuiop grin.

Before he stepped through the door he realized he’d been hearing the sound of the typewriter since he’d slid out of bed. Had heard, and had dismissed the sound as a product of nightmare and memory.

But the typewriter was making its furious tack-tack-tack-space-tack sound. And it was not an electric typewriter. It was a manual, an old Olympia office machine. He did not trust electric typewriters. They continued humming maliciously when one paused to marshal one’s thoughts. And if one placed one’s hands on the keyboard preparatory to writing some measure of burning, immortal prose, and hesitated the slightest bit before tapping the keys, the insolent beast went off like a Thompson submachine gun. He did not like, or trust, electric typewriters, wouldn’t have one in the same house, wouldn’t write a word on one of the stupid things, wouldn’t—

He stopped thinking crazy thoughts. He couldn’t write, would never write again; and the typewriter was blamming away merrily just on the other side of the room.

He stared into the office, and in the darkness he could see the typewriter’s silhouette on the typing shelf he had built with his own hands. Behind it, the window was pale with moonlight and he could see the shape clearly. What he felt he was not seeing were the tiny black shapes that were leaping up and down on the keys. But he stood there and continued staring, and thought he was further around the bend than even the horror of the night before had led him to believe he could be. Bits of black were bounding up and down on the keyboard, spinning up into the pale square of glassed moonlight, then dropping back into darkness, bounding up again, doing flips, then falling into darkness once more. My typewriter has dandruff, was his first, deranged thought.

And the sound of the old Olympia manual office machine was like that of a Thompson submachine gun.

The little black bounding bits were working away at the keys of the typewriter in excess of 150 words per minute.

“How do you spell necromancy,” said a thin, tiny, high, squeaky, sharp, speedy, brittle, chirping voice, “with two c’s or a c and a penultimate s?”

There was a muffled “oof!” as of someone bashing his head against a hollow-core door, and then—a trifle on the breathless side—a second voice replied, “Two c’s, you illiterate!” The second voice was only slightly less thin, tiny, high, squeaky, sharp, speedy, brittle, and chirping. It also had a faintly Cockney accent.

And the blamming on the keyboard continued.

My life has been invaded by archy the cockroach, was Noah Raymond’s second, literary, even more deranged thought. In those days, the wonderful writings of the late Don Marquis were still popular; such a thought would have been relevant.

He turned on the light switch beside the door.

Eleven tiny men, each two inches high, were doing a trampoline act on his typewriter.

The former enfant terrible sagged against the doorjamb, and he heard the hinges of his jaw crack like artillery fire as his mouth fell open.

“Turn off that light, you great loon!” yelled one of the little men, describing a perfect Immelmann and plunging headfirst onto the # key while a pair of the little men with another pair of little men on their shoulders weighted down the carriage shift key so the one who had dived would get an upper-case # and not a lower-case 3.

“Off, you bugger, turn it off!” shouted a trio of little men in unison as they ricocheted across each other’s trajectories to type p-a-r-s-i-m-o-n-i-o-u-s. They were a blur, bounding and dodging and shooting past each other like gnats around a dog’s ear.

When he made no move to click off the light—because he was unable to move to do anything—the tallest of the little men (2¼”) did a two-step on the space bar and landed on the typewriter carriage housing, arms akimbo and fists balled. He stared straight at Noah Raymond and in a thin, tiny, high, etcetera voice howled, “That’s it! Everybody stops work!”

The other ten bounced off their targets and vacated the typewriter en masse. They stood around on the typing shelf, rubbing their heads, some of them removing their tiny caps to massage sore spots on foreheads and craniums.

“Precisely how do you expect us to get ten thousand words written tonight with you disturbing us?” the little man (who was clearly the spokesman) said with annoyance.

I can’t face the future, he thought. The delusions are starting already and it’s not even twenty-four hours.

Another of the little men, somewhat shorter than the others, yelled, “ ’Ey, Alf. Cawnt’cher get this silly git outta f’ere? We’ll never ’ave done, ’e don’t move on!”

Noah did not understand one word the littler little man had said.

The tallest of the little men glared at the tiniest one and snarled, “Shut’cher yawp, Charlie.” His accent was the same as Charlie’s, dead-on Cockney. But when he looked back at Noah he returned to the precise Mayfair tones he had first used. “Let’s get this matter settled, Mr. Raymond. We’ve got a night’s work ahead of us, you’ve got a story due, and neither of us will manage if we don’t get this perishing explanation out of the way.”

Noah just stared. He had hot flashes.

“Sit down, Mr. Raymond.”

He sat down. On the floor. He didn’t want to, he just suddenly did it; sat down . . . on the floor.

“Now,” said Alf, “your first question is: what are we? Well. We might ask the same of you. What are you?”

Charlie started hooting. “Cut out th’ malarkey, Alf. Send ’im out an’ tell ’im t’leave off annoyin’ us!”

Alf glared at the little man. “Y’know, Charlie, you’re a right king mixer, you are. You better close up your cake ’ole before I come down there an’ pop you a good’un in the ’ooter!”

Charlie made a nasty bratting sound like a Bronx cheer, the time-honored raspberry, and sat down on the shelf, dangling his tiny legs and whistling unconcernedly.

Alf turned back to Noah. “You’re a human, Mr. Raymond. The inheritors of the Earth. We know all about you, all there is to know. We should, after all; we’ve been around a lot longer than you. We’re gremlins.”

Noah Raymond recognized them at once. Living and breathing and arguing personifications of the mythical “little people” who had become a household word during World War II, the sort of/kind of elf-folk deemed responsible for mechanical failures and chance mishaps to Allied aircraft, particularly those of the British. They had been as famous as Kilroy. The Royal Air Force had taken them on as mascots, laughing with them but never at them, and in the end the gremlins were supposed to have turned against the Nazis and to have helped win the war.

“I . . . I once wrote a bunch of stories about gremlins,” Noah said, the words choked and as mushy as boiled squash.

“That’s why we’ve been watching you, Mr. Raymond.”

“Wuh-wuh-watching muh-muh—”

“Yes, watching you.”

Charlie made the bratting sound again. It reminded Noah of unhealthy bowel movements, a kind of aural Toltec Two-Step, vocalizing Montezuma’s Revenge.

“We’ve been on to you for ten years; ever since you wrote ‘An Agile Little Mind.’ For a human, it wasn’t a half-bad attempt at understanding us.”

“There isn’t much historical data available on guh-guh-gremlins,” Noah said, off-the-wall, having trouble even speaking the magic name.

“Very good lineage. Direct lineal descendants of the afrit. The French call us gamelin, brats.”

“But I thought you were just something the pilots dreamed up during the Battle of Britain to account for things going wrong with their planes.”

“Nonsense,” said the little man. Charlie hooted. “The first modern mention of us was in 1936, out of the Middle East, where the RAF was stationed in Syria. We used the wind mostly. Did some lovely things to their formations when they were on maneuvers. Good deal of tricky Coriolis force business there.”

“You really are real, aren’t you?” Noah asked.

Charlie started to say something. Alf turned on him and snapped, “Shut’cher gawb, Charlie!” Then he went back to Mayfair accents as he said to Raymond, “We’re a bit pressed tonight, Mr. Raymond. We can discuss reality and mythology another time. In fact, if you’ll just sit there quietly for a while I’ll knock off after a bit and let the boys carry on without me. I’ll take a break and explain as much to you as you can hold tonight.”

“Uh, sure . . . sure . . . go ahead. But, uh, what are you writing over there?”

“Why, I thought you understood, Mr. Raymond. We’re writing that story for the BBC. We’re here from now on to write all your stories. Since you can’t do it, I shouldn’t think you’ll mind if we maintain your world-famous reputation for you.”

And he put two minuscule fingers in his mouth and gave a blast of a whistle, and before Noah Raymond could say that he was so ashamed of himself he could cry, they were once again bounding up and down on the typewriter.

My God, how they worked!


It was simply the Nietzschean theory all over again. Nietzsche suggested that when a god lost all its worshippers, the god itself died. Belief was the sustaining force. When a god’s supplicants went over to newer, stronger gods, belief in the weaker deity faded and so did the deity. So it had been with the gremlins. They were ancient, of course, and they were worshipped in their various forms under various names. Pixies, nixies, goblins, elves, sprites, fairies, will-o’-the-wisps, gamelins . . . gremlins. But when the times were hard and the technocrats rode high, the belief in magic faded, and so did they. Day by day they vanished, one after another. Whole families were wiped out in a morning just by a group of humans switching to Protestantism.

And so, from time to time, they came back in strength with a new method of drawing believers to them. During World War II they had changed and taken on the very raiments of the science worshippers. They became elves of the mechanical universe: gremlins.

But the war was over, and people no longer believed.

So they had looked around for a promotional gimmick, and they had “found seventeen-year-old Noah Raymond. He was quick, and he was imaginative, and he believed. So they waited. A few stories weren’t good enough. They wanted a body of work, a world-acclaimed body of work that could sustain them through this difficult period of future shock and automation. Tolkien had done his share, but he was an old man and they knew he couldn’t do it alone.

And so, on the night Noah Raymond went dry, they were waiting, a commando force of typewriter assaultists specially training for throwing themselves into their work in the most literal sense. Tough, unsentimental gremlins with steely eyes and a fierce determination to save their race. Assault Force G-l. Each gremlin a hand-picked veteran of extra-dangerous service. Each gremlin a volunteer. Each gremlin a specialist:

Alf, who had led the assault on the Krupp munitions factory’s toilets in 1943.

Charlie, who had shipped aboard the Titanic on its maiden voyage, April 10th, 1912, as sabotaging supercargo.

Billy, who had been head gremlin in charge of London underground subway disruption since 1952.

Ted, who worked for the telephone company.

Joe, who worked for Western Union.

Bertie, who worked for the post office.

Chris, who was in charge of making coffee bitter in the brewing throughout the Western Hemisphere.

St. John (pronounced Sin-jin), who supervised a large staff of gremlins assigned to complicating the syntax in the public speeches of minor politicians.

And the others, and their standbys, and their reserve troops, and their replacements, and their backup support . . .

Ready to move in the moment Noah Raymond went dry.

And so they began.


For the next nineteen years they came to Noah Raymond’s typewriter every night, and they worked with unceasing energy. Noah would stand watching them for hours sometimes, marveling at the amount of kinetic energy flagrantly expended in the pursuit of survival-as-art.

And the stories spun out of Noah Raymond’s typewriter, and he grew more famous, and he grew wealthy, and he grew more complacent as the total of their works with his byline grew from one hundred or two hundred, from two hundred to three hundred, from three hundred to four hundred . . .

Until tonight, when Alf stood shamefacedly on the Olympia’s carriage housing, his cap in his tiny hands, and said to Noah Raymond, “That’s the long and short of it, Noah. We’ve run dry.”

“Now wait a minute, Alf,” Noah said, “That’s impossible. You’ve got the entire race of gremlins to choose from, to find talent to keep the stuff coming. I simply cannot believe an entire race has run out of ideas!”

“Uh, well, it’s not quite like that, Noah.” He was obviously embarrassed, and had something of special knowledge he was reluctant to say.

“Listen, Alf,” Noah said, laying his hand palm up on the carriage housing so the tiny man could step onto it. “We’ve been mates now for almost twenty years, right?”

The little man nodded and stepped into Noah’s palm.

Noah lifted him to eye level so they could talk more intimately.

“And in twenty-years-almost I think we’ve come to understand each other’s people pretty fair, wouldn’t you say?”

Alf nodded.

“I mean, I even get along pretty well with Charlie these days, when his sciatica isn’t bothering him too much.”

Alf nodded again.

“And God knows your stories have made things a lot better for the reality of the gremlins, haven’t they? And I’ve done my share with the lectures and the public appearances and all the chat shows on telly, now haven’t I?”

Alf nodded once more.

“So then what the hell is this load’a rubbish you’re handing me, chum? How can all of you have run out of story ideas?”

Alf went harrumph and looked at his feet in their solid workman’s shoes, and he said with considerable embarrassment, “Well, uh, those weren’t stories.”

“They weren’t stories? Then what were they?”

“The history of the gremlins. They were all true.”

“But they sound like fantasies.”

“Life is interesting for us.”

“But . . . but . . .”

“I never mentioned it because it never came up, but the truth of it is that gremlins don’t have any sense of what you call imagination. We can’t dream things up. We just tell what happened. And we’ve written everything that’s ever happened to our race, right up to date, and we, uh, er, haven’t got any more stories.”

Noah stared at him with open-mouthed amazement.

“This is awful,” Noah said.

“Don’t I know it.” He hesitated, as if not wanting to say any more; then a look of determination came over his face and he went on. “I wouldn’t tell this to just any human, Noah, but you’re a good sort, and we’ve shared ajar or two, so I’ll tell you the rest of it.”

“The rest of it?”

“I’m afraid so. The program’s been working both ways, I’m sorry to say. The more humans came to believe in us, the more we gremlins have come to believe in you. Now it’s pretty well fifty-fifty. But without the stories to keep things going, I’m afraid the gremlins are going to start thinking of you again as semi-real, and . . .”

“Are you trying to tell me that now the gremlins are responsible for the reality of humans?”

Alf nodded nervously.

“Oh, shit,” Noah suggested.

“Been having a bit of trouble in that area, as well,” Alf lamented.

And they sat there, the tiny man in the human’s hand, and the human in the hands of the gremlins, and they thought about getting drunk. But they knew that wouldn’t help. At least not for very long. It had been a good ride for nineteen years, but the gravy train had been shunted onto a weed-overgrown siding.

And they stayed that way, sunk in silent despair, for most of the night.

Until about three fifteen this morning, when Noah Raymond suddenly looked at Alf and said, “Wait a minute, mate. Let me see if I have this figured out right: if the gremlins stop believing in humans, then the humans start disappearing . . . check?”

Alf said, “Check.”

“And if the humans start disappearing, then there won’t be sufficient of us to keep up the reality of the gremlins and the gremlins start vanishing . . . check?”


“So that means if we can find a way of writing stories for the gremlins that will reinforce their belief in us, it solves the problem . . . check?”

“Check. But where do we get that many stories?”

“I’ve got them.”

“You’ve got them? Noah, I like you, but let’s not lose sight of reality, old chum. You ran out of ideas nineteen years ago.”

“But I’ve got a source.”

“A source for stories?”

“A unified mythology just like your gremlin history. Full of stories. We can pass them off as the truth.”

And Noah went into one of the other rooms and came back with a book, and opened it to the first page and rolled a fresh piece of typing paper into the Olympia, and checked out the ribbon to make sure it was still fresh, and he said to Alf, “This ought to keep us for at least a few years. And in the meantime we can start looking around for another writer to work with us.”

And he began to type the opening of the first fantasy he had attempted in nineteen years: a story that would be printed on very small pages in infinitesimal type, to be read by very little people.

And he typed: “In the beginning Kilroy created the heaven and the earth, and the earth was without form and void and you couldn’t get a decent mug of lager anywhere . . .”

“I like that part,” said Alf, dropping his Mayfair accent. “ ’At’s bloody charmin’, is what’t is.”

Charlie went blatttt!

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