1973 - Ahbhu

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Jon Stover
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1973 - Ahbhu

Postby Jon Stover » Thu Jul 28, 2005 9:25 pm

[From The Harlan Ellison Hornbook but also part of "The Deathbird". - Mod.]

1. My first thought, having re-read "Ahbhu," is that the essay -- for all its other merits -- could be used as a textbook illustration of how to effectively use references to films which a reader might not be familiar with. The essay presents the reader with explanations of the extended movie references Ellison uses to describe Ahbhu. That probably doesn't sound like that big a deal, but how often have you run across references that just hang there, expecting the reader's knowledge?

It's de rigeur to pull out "Ahbhu" as an example to use against people who say Ellison is a pessimistic writer, or cynical, or sees only darkness. I'd suggest that it also works as a corrective to another charge Ellison sometimes gets painted with (and yes, I too think that's a mixed metaphor) -- that he's some elitist name-dropper who yells at people for not knowing the names of all the people who voiced the Shadow.

Well, look here and elsewhere -- here's Ellison the conversational teacher, explaining the scenes that he's thought of, explaining the filmic moment that, like the scene he describes from The Thief of Baghdad, shares a visual or imaginative space with the thing that's happening right there, right then -- the drive home from the pound, the last day at the vet's office.

If one wanted to explain how certain personal events recalled movies, I'd suggest "Ahbhu" as a model. This is how one should use fiction as a lens to look at one's own life without either excluding the reader/watcher who hasn't experienced the particular fiction or somehow trivilalizing the actual, if that last makes any sense. And the two strong film comparisons are used at the beginning and the end of Ahbhu's life with Ellison. That's a marvelous bit of structure. In between, there are less explained comparisons -- to Lawrence Talbot, to Jackie-Coogan-as-the-Kid. At the beginning and the end, you get the whole thing.

2. My favourite cat's name was Captain Midnight. He escaped a barn destroyed by lightning and lived to be 16. His last moments on Earth were spent pushing a younger cat away from his food dish, letting out an ear-splitting howl, and dropping dead of a heart attack. As it was February, his body had to be kept in the chest freezer until he could be properly buried in the spring with his favourite blanket.

3. Notice the weight the essay puts on the beginning and the end? It's there with the film metaphors, but it's also there with the rest of it -- the weight of the description is on Ahbhu's arrival and Ahbhu's departure, and the rest is given to you in quick flashes, lines about Ahbhu's life in between. The essay was written to fit a certain length in a newspaper, and the structure I think reflects that in part: focus on the two major events, and an overall explanation of what Ahbhu meant in the middle.

4. My father never had a dog of his own until 1983, when my father was 54. That dog was hit by a car before it was a year old. My father threw and kicked the dog house he'd built around the yard until it had lost most of its shape, and then carried the dog house to the side hill and threw it over.

5. You might want to look at the paragraph that describes the digging of the grave again. It's lovely and painful and it reminds me for some reason of Wordsworth's "Michael" and its last lines. You'll have to look up the whole thing, but to quote three lines:

"There is a comfort in the strength of love;
’Twill make a thing endurable, which else
Would overset the brain, or break the heart:"

Which is what I'd see "Ahbhu" as being about, in some ways. The essay marshals the careful use of filmic metaphor, but it also marshals that Ellisonian attention to description. The description of the digging of the grave is heartbreaking. Why?

6. A stray Bluetick Hound/Black Lab cross wandered onto the farm in 1989, maybe six months old, and my father had another dog. Bernard (named for the Bernard Sampson character, for reasons that escape me) lived for 14 years and had a platonic relationship with a Manx cat he adopted for the last ten. He was put down during a blizzard, a good vet offering to come out to the farm rather than let Bernard suffer anymore after his back legs finally gave out.

7. "There's nothing more mauldlin..." That's an important section. The essay acknowledges the pitfalls associated with what it's going to do, and then steams ahead. Is it mauldlin? I'd say no, and I'd point back up to how the structure works, to how the essay stresses the beginning and the end. There's a dearth here of string-pulling or violin-playing, no lengthy anecdotes about the time Ahbhu learned how to drive a car or had a particularly wacky adventure that made him all the more human (and note the essay's admonition not to anthropomorphize). One gets an explanation of Ahbhu's ability to evaluate human character and a bit on how women would come to visit the dog.

The things that make someone precious are maybe too precious to explain in detail because they're personal and, in some sense, indescribable. I've read, you've read, essays that go into exhaustive and exhausting detail about the shenanigans of a beloved person, a beloved pet. How many times do those anecdotes sit there on the page, problematic because they're the sort of bland and general thing when described to others that resists the contextualization that made an incident moving in the individual? You were feeling bad and your cat or dog or best friend knew it and came over and was more affectionate than normal. It's a personal moment that is, paradoxically, too universal at this point to be described effectively or movingly. So the essay puts its weight on the beginning and the end.

I'm wrote out for now.

Jon

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Postby P.A. Berman » Thu Jul 28, 2005 9:59 pm

I have a lot to say about this story, but right now all I'll say is... I can't really read this story without crying.

PAB

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More --

Postby Adam-Troy » Mon Aug 01, 2005 6:30 pm

I think we all personalize our animals to some extent, and I think those of us who have written obituaries for those animals (as in my own lengthy words about a cat named Pita, still the one creature on this planet who loved me more single-mindedly than any human or animal I've ever known) are writing as much about what we project as what we've experienced.

I suppose that if I'd met Ahbhu, I would have considered him a nice dog, maybe even a personable dog, but would not have known the SAME dog.

But then the personalities of dogs and cats are formed as much by the behavior of those who care for them, as by their own innate natures. As can be said about human children as well.

Signed,

current owner of Uma Furman
and Meow Farrow,
husband of she who owned
Buster Kitten and Charlie Catlin.
Coming in 2007: THE SHALLOW END OF THE POOL! Plus THE UNAUTHORIZED HARRY POTTER (Ben Bella Books).

Coming in 2008: EMISSARIES FROM THE DEAD!

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Postby P.A. Berman » Mon Aug 01, 2005 11:26 pm

Why is it that people assume that pets' personalities are projections on the part of the owner? I think Harlan went out of his way to indicate that he was not responsible for Ahbhu's personality. Ahbhu likes Hungarian food; he goes on dates with hot ladies who won't even talk to Harlan; he knows a bad egg before Harlan does. Ahbhu is depicted not as chattel, but as a peer, with wisdom of his own. This is how I see my own pets. It's not that they're so smart or cute or just like me; it's that they're so different, but we still understand each other.

The fact that our pets aren't human frees us from a lot of the bullshit of human to human interaction. We have complete control over their lives but not over who they are, and in the end, we are totally responsible for how they go but not for how they end. We have the ultimate privilege of being with them when they die and digging the grave ourselves. It's a strange balance of power, but in the end, I think we are in their thrall as much as they in ours, which is what love is, isn't it?

OK, I'm waxing maudlin myself now, so I'll sign out with one last confession-- "Ahbhu" is the story that sparked my life long love of Harlan Ellison's work. In this story, he expresses something deeply held for me, and that understanding opened the door to the rest of his work. I used to have my seniors read it when I taught high school. Most of them just didn't get it. You are either that kind of person or you're not.

PAB

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Abhu

Postby Adam-Troy » Wed Aug 03, 2005 9:33 am

I think I may have been showing early signs of brain damage when I composed my last post.

I don't really mean to say that animal personalities are ONLY a projection of their owners, but that much of what we PERCEIVE of their personalities is our own projection.

Judi had a cat named Jones who we perceived as downright wise. He adopted the kittens we brought home, and actively protected them from other, more aggressive cats in the brood. Sure, he had a good heart. But wise? That's a little harder to measure. And yet it's a perception I ascribe to fully. Jones was wise. Just like, as I say, I know in my heart that Pita loved me more singlemindedly than any human being, or animal, I have ever encountered.

I feel the weight of such personalities as much as anybody else does.

I only question just how much the perception comes from what I *need* and *expect* them to be. At least a part of it, I suspect.
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Postby Anthony Ravenscroft » Tue Aug 15, 2006 1:33 am

I read the story once when I was very young. Since, I've never been able to look at more than a few scattered chunks without crying over cats dead & disappeared.

Which is a shame, as it's a complex piece of literature that deserves a life far beyond the skiffy sandbox.

It's one of the few stories I've read about interaction with alien intelligence that goes over the horizon from the usual "Californians in monster suits" dreck.

I've lost friendships because their cats (& in one case dogs) like me better than their "owners." For instance, a neurotic tomcat (belonging, naturally to a neurotic person) kept skeaking up on me at a party, then hissing & running away. Finally, I reached around, made a fist, & smacked it down on the carpet, right in front of him. His eyes went big, then he pounced in my hand, bit me, drew two shalllow scratches, & strutted away looking smug. After that, we were not-quite-buddies, & his owner reported a startling increase in spontaneous cuddling. (It's a challenge-&-submission thing I learned over the years, & allows the cat to demonstrate dominance in the territory.)

The death of my father is the only event worse than the death of my 18-year-old Siamese, Winston. We had what can only be called a friendship, even though the communication gulf was sporadically bridged in ways I still don't think I can fully understand. Right now, I've got Ouja & Kamala, who don't take commands but certainly consider suggestions. FWIW, they're nothing like me, maybe because their job is to counterbalance what needs counterbalancing.

Considering the inevitability of their deaths doesn't improve my day. Then again, they improve my life a dozen times a day, & I certainly seem to be repaying.

And I'd guess that only the readers who've felt that baffling but inarguable depth of communication can even hope to grasp the story.

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Postby FrankChurch » Wed Aug 16, 2006 6:17 pm

Man's best friend is so true. Dogs are about unconditional love; you also see this with A Boy And His Dog, except the Master has a hard time showing it. Because of Harlan's problems with dating and woman, he used his dog to be a companion, when other people in his life gave him pause.

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Postby Gwyneth M905 » Tue Sep 05, 2006 11:57 pm

(As an aside, was there really an Ahbhu? Or is he a creation of the author?)
This essay is disingenuous. It is written in a straightforward style, has a simple topic, and yet... and yet...speaks to some of the most complex themes: loss, love, and death. It is interesting to note that it does not speak to redemption. Ahbhu's owner has only the stark neat divot of dirt and the knowledge that he "couldn't send him to strangers".
In that sense, the essay is very, very truthful--that there is nothing beyond the grave but the grave itself, and the memories of ourselves left in others.

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Postby David Loftus » Wed Sep 06, 2006 10:56 am

Gwyneth M905 wrote:(As an aside, was there really an Ahbhu? Or is he a creation of the author?) This essay is disingenuous.[/i]

Ooh, ouch! Them's fightin' words. Or they would be, if you weren't a newbie here and obviously an admirer of Ellison's work otherwise. (Some nice initial posts from you, Gwyneth; may I request that you introduce yourself formally on the Webderlanders page?)

Certain copies of "Ahbhu" (the Hornbook and the Essential, perhaps?) include a photo of the dog. That could have been made up, too, but Harlan has talked about Ahbhu in so many other places that it's hard to believe he would carry on a figment that long.

Just the other day I received a copy of a British/Canadian magazine called "Fear," dating from Sept 1990, which I purchased through eBay, that has a decent interview in which HE talks about Ahbhu and why he will never own another dog again after him.

If you really needed corroboration, I suppose there are actresses Harlan dated back in the 1960s who would verify that they used to walk him.

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Postby Gwyneth M905 » Wed Sep 06, 2006 11:23 pm

David Loftus wrote: (Some nice initial posts from you, Gwyneth; may I request that you introduce yourself formally on the Webderlanders page?)

Thank you, David, I would be happy to do so!':D'
The source I was using for "Ahbhu" was The Deathbird, I need to unpack my copy of the Essential Ellison and check out the full essay.

Sigh, this board is *wonderful*. It's been a long time since I've been able to discuss literature, especially Harlan's works, with erudite and fun folks.

OK, I'm off to jump on Word so I can type something coherent about myself and how I 'found Harlan and saw the light'! And then I'll post it on the Webderlanders page.

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Postby kevinkirby » Tue Oct 03, 2006 4:59 pm

I met Ahbhu.

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Postby Jan » Tue Oct 03, 2006 5:20 pm

Were you one of the ones Ahbhu liked? If not, I'm afraid you have to go.
Last edited by Jan on Sun Jun 01, 2008 5:34 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Postby Gwyneth M905 » Tue Oct 03, 2006 11:26 pm

Was he as shaggy as a Puli can get? What was he like? Did he play fetch?
Tell all!!!! We need some happy stories around here! :)

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A Face of Black Ringlets

Postby kevinkirby » Wed Oct 04, 2006 2:35 pm

The memory is dim and the details are returning slowly. There was more than one occasion, during summers in LA while President Nixon was in office, when a pre-teen me went along on journeys to the House of Ahbhu. One thing that comes to mind is that he became much larger, between visits, than is seen in that b&w photo. He had also developed a face of long and curly hair that was like feelers, almost, and there is still a distinct impression to that sense of a touch.

I seem to be remembering that fluffy face, and an outside door with a knob in the middle. That's about as objective as I can get, and hopefully it's not an implanted false memory or another dog getting into the mix.

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Re: A Face of Black Ringlets

Postby Gwyneth M905 » Wed Oct 04, 2006 4:45 pm

kevinkirby wrote:The memory is dim and the details are returning slowly. There was more than one occasion, during summers in LA while President Nixon was in office, when a pre-teen me went along on journeys to the House of Ahbhu. One thing that comes to mind is that he became much larger, between visits, than is seen in that b&w photo. He had also developed a face of long and curly hair that was like feelers, almost, and there is still a distinct impression to that sense of a touch.

I seem to be remembering that fluffy face, and an outside door with a knob in the middle. That's about as objective as I can get, and hopefully it's not an implanted false memory or another dog getting into the mix.


I *love* your description of his "fluffy face" and his "curly hair that was like feelers". Did he lick your hands and jump up, or was he a more subdued dog?
Fellow dog lover,
Gwyneth


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