Harlan Ellison: Essay Collections

Wilson Hornbook Logo


The Harlan Ellison Hornbook


Kirk Hornbook Logo


Reviewed by Nicole Walter

1st Hardcover: Penzler Books, 1990
Reviewed Edition: Penzler Books, 1990
Art Displayed: Logos for original column by Gahan Wilson (above) and Tim Kirk (left)


Dedication:
This one is for
EDDIE LONDON
more than just a friend for twenty-seven years
and for
BILL DIGNIN
whose camraderie stretches back through thirty-eight years to days of youth in Cleveland


The Langerhans review

Reviews Description and Spoiler Warning

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Contents and Copyright Dates

Foreword: The Cricket Beneath the Hammer (by Robert Crais, 1990)
The Lost Secrets of East Atlantis (July 8, 1989)
Installment 1: My Father (Los Angeles Free Press, 10/26/72)
Installments 2-4: Valerie (Los Angeles Free Press Nov 3-24 '72)
Installment 5: Getting Stiffed (Los Angeles Free Press, 11/30/72)
Installment 6: The Tyranny of the Weak, and Some Foreshadowing (Los Angeles Free Press, 12/07/72)
Installment 7: With Bloch and Bormann in Brazil (Los Angeles Free Press, 12/14/62)
Installment 8: The First of Three Culinary Comments (Los Angeles Free Press, 12/21/72)
Installment 9: No Offense Intended, but Fuck Xmas! (Los Angeles Free Press, 12/28/72)
Installment 10: The Day I Died (The Los Angeles Free Press, 03/04/73)
Installment 21: Fair Weather Friends, Summer Soldiers, and Sunshine Patriots (Los Angeles Free Press, 03/29/73)
Installments 22&24: Troubling Thoughts About Godhood (Los Angeles Free Press, 04/06/73)
Installment 23: Bless That Pesky Wabbit (Los Angeles Free Press, 04/19/73)
Installment 25: Where Shadow Collides with Reality: A Preamble (Los Angeles Free Press, 05/11/73)
Installments 26 & 27: When I Was a Hired Gun (Los Angeles Free Press, 05/25/73 and 06/27/73)
Installment 28: A Rare, Kindly Thought (Los Angeles Free Press, 07/12/73)
Installment 29: 3 Small Pleasures for a More Endurable Existence (Los Angeles Free Press, 07/19/72)
Installment 30: Varieties of Venue (Los Angeles Weekly News, 08/09/73)
Installment 31: Why I Fantasize About Using an AK-47 on Teenagers (Los Angeles Weekly News, 08/16/73)
Installment 32: In Which the Imp of Delight Tries to Make the World Smile (Los Angeles Weekly News, 08/23/73)
Installment 33: I Go to Bed Angry Every Night, and Wake Up Angrier the Next Morning (Los Angeles Weekly News, 08/30/73)
Installment 34: Ahbhu (Los Angeles Weekly News, 09/06/73)
Installment 35 & 36: Death Row, San Quentin (Los Angeles Weekly News, 09/30/73 and 09/27/73)
Installment 37, 39, & 40: College Days (Los Angeles Weekly News, 10/25/73, 11/08/73, and 11/15/73)
Installment 38: The Death-Wish of a Golden Idea (Los Angeles Weekly News, 11/01/73)
Installment 41: The Last of Three Culinary Comments, Gonzo-Style (Los Angeles Weekly News, 11/22/73)
Installment 42: Out of the Mail Bag (Los Angeles Weekly News, 11/29/73)
Installment 43: Oh, Dear, He's Not Going to Do Xmas Again, Is He? (Los Angeles Weekly News, 12/13/73)
Installment 44: The Death of My Mother, Serita R. Ellison (Saint Louis Literary Supplement, 1976)
Installment 45: Enormous Dumb
Installment 46: Revealed at Last! What Killed the Dinosaurs! And You Don't Look So Terrific Yourself (Strange Wine, Harper & Row, 1978)
Appendices:
Appendix A: Comic of the Absurd
Appendix B: Dogging It in the Great American Heartland
Appendix C: Darkness Falls in the City of the Angels
Appendix C: Lenny Bruce is Dead
Appendix E: Did Your Mother Throw Yours Out?
Appendix F: The Song the Sixties Sang
Appendix G: The Dingbat Appendix

COMMENTARY

Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. --G.K Chesterton

Like it or not, the troublemakers are the ones who make a difference. Even the peaceful ones like Martin Luther King, Churchill, Ghandi, and Jesus. Those are the people who are known. Going against popular opinion is a sure way to become famous.

Or get yourself killed.

Either way, it takes courage, passion, and determination to do what needs to be done. Those people are the ones that get what they desire, be it fame, fortune, love, or peace of mind. Helplessness is only a state of mind. From the essay entitled "Varieties of Venue":

My philosophy of life is that the meek shall inherit nothing but debasement, frustration, and ignoble deaths; that there is security in personal strength; that you can fight City Hall and win; that any action is better than no action, even if it's the wrong action; that you never reach glory or self- fulfillment unless you're willing to risk everything, dare anything, put yourself dead on the line every time; and that once one becomes strong or rich or potent or powerful it is the responsibility of the strong to help the weak become strong.

It takes courage to charge headlong into dangerous situations, to speak out against what everyone else holds sacred, and to have adventures. It also takes courage to be a friend, to let our loved ones go, and to admit one's own mistakes. Hell, takes a phenomenal amount of courage, which is what differentiates it from mere survival. Harlan Ellison is NOT a survivalist. He is determined to make the most of life, and woe to anyone or anything that should stand in the way.

It takes courage to be free from the constraints of society, and to be true to one's own self. It takes courage to cry, to rage, to love, to give to a world that, for the most part, doesn't even care.

It's all about being different, shaking up the status quo, pulling back the illusions, opening the eyes of the masses, revealing the truth when people are screaming, "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!". The essayist is the epitome of free speech. In definition,
The essayist takes chances.
The essayist hammers the blinders from your eyes.
The essayist speaks to you in languages you've never heard.
The essayist goes logically from presumption to inescapable truth you refuse to accept.
The essayist won't take anything on faith.
The essayist is a practitioner of guerilla warfare.

  (Introduction, The Harlan Ellison Hornbook)

People like being ignorant and lazy. They suck down things like fundamentalist religions, alien abductions, Psychic Hotlines, and televangelists like little kids drinking Kool-Aid, taking in all that sugary sludge, never mind that it rots their ability to think for themselves, so long as it's easy to digest and tastes good. The days of individual thinking are dead, buried, and rapidly decomposing, with only a few to mourn for them. As I read essay after essay, I found myself gawking in amazement. Harlan did (and does) the kind of things I can only imagine doing, spoke out on things I had never dared voice. In all my eighteen years of life, never did I imagine that someone would actually share my views on the evil that is Christmas, and have the courage to say something about it. About halfway through, I was struck with a revelation. Anyone can have an adventure, anyone can make a stand, anyone can overcome challenges. It only takes one thing.

Guts.

I lived with my alcoholic father for nine years. Most of my childhood is a blur, but I remember enough to know that this experience screwed me over big time.

For those that know nothing about alcoholism, denial is the word of the day. Don't speak about it, because it didn't happen. There is nothing wrong here. It's all about going around with closed eyes and making excuses when you bump up against reality. I had my own defenses. I kept my mouth shut. I denied.

I forgot.

Last year, my blindfold was brutally ripped off. I was in a mental hospital, getting treatment for a failed suicide attempt, the same thing I had been treated for a little over two years ago. Somehow I knew, as I sat in that room, that this too would ultimately be for naught. There was something deeper, but what, I could not imagine. I saw myself, my childhood, things I had tossed aside years ago, perhaps hoping that, if I ignored the problem, it would go away on its own.

Well, it didn't.

Finally, after hesitating for months, I realized that I needed to care of these things. So, with encouragement from one of my friends, I attended my first Al-Anon meeting and, at long last, forced myself to come face-to-face with my biggest enemy.

Myself.

All of which took courage, more than I ever imagined I had.

Card number eight in the Rider-Waite tarot deck is named Strength. A woman stands over a lion, the symbol of infinity over her head, calmly closing the fearsome jaws. This card represents the triumph of the human spirit over the baser impulses of rage, jealousy, and fear. And as she forces the fanged maw shut, she stares the beast right in the eye. Doing what one must, in spite of pain. Acting despite terror. Strength.

Contained within this book are stories of courage that will inspire you, unorthodox opinions that will make your blood burn like fire in your veins, tales of loss that will make you rush to tell the ones you love exactly how special they are, but most of all, essays that will make you take a second look at your own perceptions as they expose all previously held notions to the harshest scrutiny. Because in these mad times, nothing is sacred. Nothing at all.
But it's really better that way, isn't it?

The Essays

Installment 1: "Everything I Know About My Father

Synopsis:
Stories about Louis Laverne Ellison, his life and death.

Comments:
I had a hard time with this one, to say the least. I have had three "fathers" in my life. Biological, whom I know nothing whatsoever about, adoptive, whom I discussed earlier, and step, which I hate with a fierce passion for a number of reasons. As I read about the many kindnesses and sacrifices of Louis Ellison, I couldn’t help but feel hurt and jealous, both in equal measure. Not everyone is as fortunate as to have a kind and compassionate father. There are plenty who abuse their children physically, verbally and sexually, more than most of us would like to admit. Some abuse the position of fatherhood, while others, like Louis Ellison, honor it.


Valerie

Synopsis:
Presented in three columns--
Part 1: The author finds himself attracted to woman named Valerie, and continues an off-and-on relationship with her.
Part 2: Valerie makes off with the author’s credit cards. He eventually confronts her.
Part 3: Harlan Ellison decides to press charges and finally sends her to jail.


Getting Stiffed

Synopsis:
When writers get taken by their own publishers.


The Tyranny Of The Weak, And Some Foreshadowing

Synopsis:
Expecting the people we admire to have some sort of god-like powers, and the disappointment of finding out that they too are only human.


With Bloch And Bormann In Brazil

Synopsis:
A visit to the Polish Embassy in Rio, and a startling look at the legend of Nazi war criminal Martin Bormann.


The First Of Three Culinary Comments

Synopsis:
An article on the cuisine at El Palenque, an Argentinian restaurant in L.A.


No Offense Intended, But Fuck Xmas!

Synopsis:
A focus on the hypocrisy, loneliness, and pain of this so-called "joyous season".

Comments:
As one of the most controversial essays in the Hornbook, it is almost impossible to not feel strongly one way or the other. Many people, especially the very religious sort, will hate this essay as coming from the lips of Satan. But a great deal of others, myself included, will nod in agreement, and thank whatever god they worship that someone finally had the guts to tell it like it is. Ask any psychologist and they will tell you that the suicide rates soar during the Xmas season. And the holidays are hell for the families of alcoholics, as they give the person a perfect excuse for drinking. Makes the phrase "Merry Xmas" sort of a contradiction in itself, no?


The Day I Died

Synopsis:
Musings on mortality, and how one’s life can end at any time. Harlan Ellison tells of the different ways that he might meet his end.


Fair Weather Friends, Summer Soldiers, And Sunshine Patriots

Synopsis:
The trials of being a friend, and the pain of betrayal.


Troubling Thoughts About Godhood

Synopsis: Presented in two parts--
Part 1: The burden of being worshipped, and the insanity of the worshippers.
Part 2: The problems of putting one's friends on a pedestal.


Bless That Pesky Wabbit

Synopsis:
Extolling the virtues of animated films and cartoons in a serious world.


Where Shadows Collide With Reality, A Preamble

Synopsis:
A look at how truth can be as strange as fantasy, and perhaps even more so.


When I Was A Hired Gun

Synopsis:
Presented in two parts--
Part 1: A story from Harlan Ellison’s teenage years, when he was a gofer and bodyguard for a paranoid neurotic by the name of Al Wilson. He is given strange errands, odd instructions, and dangerous jobs.
Part 2: Al falls in love, and commissions the author to deliver the girl a raw steak as a token of his love, then asks him to travel to Cincinnati with a briefcase handcuffed to his wrist.


A Rare, Kindly Thought

Synopsis:
A snippet of understanding and compassion for the "phonies" of the world.


3 Small Pleasures For A More Endurable Existence (The Second Of 3 Culinary Comments)

Synopsis:
A review of the movie, "The Legend of Hell House", a Castilian restraunt called "Juan Jose’s La Masia", and the book "Harlan Ellison: A Bibliographical Checklist".


Varieties of Venue

Synopsis:
An interesting, and somewhat humorous account of the visitors at Ellison Wonderland, and the general state of chaos in the Ellison home.


Why I Fantasize About Using An AK-47 On Teenagers

Synopsis:
A look at the apathy and ignorance of the teenage generation.

Comments:
Even though I am a teenager myself, I have to agree with Mr. Ellison. My generation is flat-out pathetic. The only thing they ever seem to think about is popularity, fashion trends, and boyfriends or girlfriends. Shallowness, superficiality, and a frightening lack of concern are the hallmark of this generation. They worship television, but shudder in terror at the concept of reading a book just for the enjoyment of it. Insecure, they fear thinking for themselves, and Athena Herself help them if they ever have to be alone and silent for a moment! Closed minds and empty heads are the result of our times. Granted, there are exceptions, but these are few and far between. What ever happened to the concept of free thinking, of learning rather than ignorance, of being more than just mediocre? Many, many times I have looked at my peers, and hung my head in shame, embarrassed to be grouped together with these people.


In Which The Imp Of Delight Tries To Make The World Smile

Synopsis:
A focus on the small joys of everyday life in a world gone to hell.


I Go To Bed Angry Every Night, And Wake Up Angrier The Next Morning

Synopsis:
The many injustices of the world, a direct contrast to "The Imp Of Delight"


Ahbhu

Synopsis:
Harlan Ellison talks about the loss of his beloved dog, Ahbhu.

Comments:
The loss of a pet is probably one of the most painful experiences anyone can go through. A pet listens when no one else does, a pet loves unconditionally, and a pet will always be there to cheer you up. It is best friend, child, and family all in one. And losing that companion hurts like hell. The hardest part of all this is making the decision to put that animal to sleep. It is the final acknowledgment that your friend, your pal, is truly sick and in pain. In a case like this, love carries a heavy burden. On one hand, it ends the creature’s pain, but it is not easy to let go. Still, let go one must. This brings about the realization that love is doing what is best, not what is always the easiest or most pleasant.


Death Row, San Quentin

Synopsis:
Presented in two parts--
Part 1: Harlan Ellison visits killer Ronald Fouquet at San Quentin, and describes the prison in detail.
Part 2: Harlan meets Ronald Fouquet face-to-face, and gives his impression of him.


College Days

Synopsis:
Presented in three parts:
Part 1: The author’s short college experience, and how he ended up being kicked out of Ohio State.
Part 2: The author's fraternity days at OSU, and subsequent expulsion.
Part 3: The story of Don Epstien, who had his dreams killed by the college system


The Death-Wish Of A Golden Idea

Synopsis:
Harlan Ellison’s futile attempt to see "The Iceman Cometh"


The Last Of Three Culinary Comments, Gonzo-Style

Synopsis:
A somewhat confusing, yet very entertaining review of the "Golden China Restraunt".


Out Of The Mail Bag

Synopsis:
Harlan Ellison answers some of his "fan mail"


Oh Dear, He’s Not Going to Do Xmas Again, Is He?

Synopsis:
The return of "Fuck Xmas!"


The Death Of My Mother, Serita R. Ellison

Synopsis:
Mrs. Ellison’s death, funeral, and euology

Comments:
"You don’t know what you got till it’s gone" is a quote that sums up this essay. Indeed, when our loved ones are alive, it is easy to overlook how special they are to us. Remembering the dead is painful, but essential for us to do so that we may continue to grow. The loss of a parent in particular is difficult, because parents, in many cases, are the people that we have lived with most of our lives, our caretakers, and our teachers, and when they die, a part of ourselves goes into the grave with them.


Enormous Dumb

Synopsis:
A list of some of the more "simple-minded" movies of our time.


Revealed At Last! What Killed The Dinosaurs! And You Don’t Look So Terrific Yourself

Summary: A part of the infamous "Glass Teat" collection, looking at the destructive effects of television on society and the minds of people.

 

Stories Review by Nicole Walter

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