The biggest problem with Harlan Ellison's short story collection "Strange Wine" is that the introductory essay is so good. "Revealed at Last! What Killed the Dinosaurs! And You Don't Look So Terrific Yourself" is one of the best of Ellison's introductions, combining biography with diatribe, in this case a denunciation of watching television as being "soul deadening, dehumanizing, soporific in a poisonous way, ultimately brutalizing." Ellison finds watching television to be "a bad thing." In contrast he offers "Strange Wine" as a metaphor for imagination, the key element that the dinosaurs lacked that turned them into fossil fuels.
The fifteen stories collected in "Strange Wane" do not include any of the acknowledged classics of speculative fiction that Ellison has written over the years, but there is certainly enough food for thought here to make it well worth the reading. "Mom" is a nice tribute to Ellison's own mother (is there any other way to read this one?), and "From A to Z, in the Chocolate Alphabet" is the product of one of those stunts Ellison does when he writes in the window of a bookstore, but what he can do with one paragraph about a nonsense word is pretty impressive. "Lonely Women are the Vessels of Time" is a rather short, short story, but it is about loneliness, which is one of Ellison's better themes. "The Boulevard of Broken Dreams" is a harrowing little tale about a man having dreams of dead Nazi war criminals. "The Diagnosis of Dr. D'arque Angel" does a nice little twist on Faust, and "Hitler Painted Roses," another one of those stories written as a stunt, is based on the chilling idea that it is humanity and not God who determines who gets to go to Heaven and who gets dumped in Hell. Then again, "Working with the Little People" is actually rather cute, which is a rather disquieting idea when you are talking about the writings of Harlan Ellison.
There are a few misfires in the bunch: "Killing Bernstein" has a great premise when a toy company executive kills his ex-lover, only to have her show up the next day as if nothing had happened. I was thinking that this one would go in a different direction, so the ending rubbed me the wrong way, while "The Emissary from Hamelin" strikes me as being a trifle not worth Ellison's time. Even "CROATOAN" seems heavy-handed, despite the subject matter, although the final image is certainly disturbing enough. The rest of the stories are middling, with the title story being something of a disappointment given how the essay makes the phrase so significant.
So, if we were grading all of the stories in "Strange Wine" I think it is safe to say that Ellison would come out with a solid "B" average. I still maintain that once you read the essay you have gotten your money's worth with this collection, but with Ellison there are always going to be several unforgettable stories that you will enjoy having read, whether you are a big time fan or just checking out the book to see what he is ranting and raving about this time around.