I grew up in the ‘80s, and while I never had a weekend of searching for dead bodies while avoiding trains and Kiefer Sutherland or searching for pirates gold with a guy obsessed with Rocky Road candy bars, I did have an overnight slumber party in which my friend Erik had smuggled in a book on tape by Harlan Ellison entitled, “A Boy and His Dog.” It was me, Erik and Richard in our slumber bags that night in the darkened living room, staring at the ceiling and listening to Mr. Ellison himself read his legendary tale of, you guessed it, a boy and his dog. I can remember the night vividly as one of the precious teenage nights that made me want to be a writer.
Ellison was in full Ellison mode as he narrated the tale in character as Vic, the young boy in the post apocalyptic wasteland, searching for entertainment and food while his telepathic dog, Blood, acted as a sort of voice of reason; a Mad Max version of Jiminy Cricket, if you will. There’s a great passage where you learn that dogs were given injections of dolphin spinal fluid, among other treatments, that resulted in the dogs being granted telepathic powers. I was 14 years old, and while I didn’t get all of the overt sexual references in the story, I was able to glean that this was something special and that Harlan Ellison was a writer in full control of his words. The dark tale of Vic and Blood gaining entrance to an end of the world movie screening and finding out that one of the other patrons was a woman, a real, honest to goodness woman, in the world of filthy men and marauding gangs, was something I instantly got involved in. As Blood and Vic tracked the woman out of the theater and into the nearby destroyed town, I hung on every word that spilled from Ellison’s mouth. The little black circles on the cassette, yes, it was an actual book on tape in the form of an actual cassette, thank you very much, went round and round and made a soft clicking sound in the darkness as Vic was drawn in by the woman, who turned out to be Quilla June, a not so innocent girl with a hidden agenda. We stayed up all night listening to Blood plead with Vic to leave her be, only to be rebuffed in favor of Quilla’s womanly charms. It was a choice each of us young men would have loved to be able to make, given our dateless nights all through Freshman year. Yes, we loved our pets, but this was an honest-to-goodness woman, if I can use that phrase in the real world now, and at 14 women were still a mystery to be unraveled and each of us would have gnawed our own leg off to get a crack at a simmering beauty like Quilla June, though she only existed in the sharp words of Ellison himself. Vic eventually gives into Quilla and follows her into the Downunder, where he finds that everyone who escaped the awfulness of the surface has decided to live in an idealized version of the 1950’s, complete with picket fences and phony, cheery smiles. I had to admit I was terrified of Vic being alone in the Downunder without Blood, since the two were so completely connected. I grew up on E.T. & Elliot and Luke Skywalker & Princess Leia, folks who were so bonded at their cores that each knew when the other was in trouble. Believe me, I got the connection thing and I was riveted as the tale spun out of that cassette recorder. Vic is offered the chance to become basically a stud to the Downunder town since most of the men have found themselves sterile, and while the 14 year-old version of me often fantasized about a town full of women waiting to be serviced, there was also the 14 year-old me that knew that this was too good to be true and the only real friend a boy of that age has is his dog, and that Vic, being just one year senior, had better known as well. Thankfully, Vic is able to resist the siren song of the Downunder and barely escape with his life, only to find that Blood, who has waited the entire time by the entrance, is near death. Quilla June, having tagged along for far too long, begs Vic to leave the dog behind, but Vic knows the harsh truth of the new world and the end finds Vic and Blood off on their own again, Quilla June having mysteriously vanished at the same time as a large meal was served; you can make your own conclusions.
The cassette tape ended and we sat in silence for a minute, each thinking about what they had just heard. My mind was electric, filled with the kinetic energy that only something that inspiring can bring. That was the night I truly decided I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to inspire in someone the same emotions that Ellison had stirred in me. From that day each blank piece of paper was a masterpiece waiting to be revealed, like Da Vinci staring at a canvas or Michelangelo admiring a block of marble. Sure, I had no illusions that I would ever attain the peak that Ellison had scaled, but art is in the attempt, not the outcome. The tape eventually clicked over to the other side, this being one of those fancy Sony Radios that did that sort of thing, and the B-Side tale of “Repent Harlequin, Said the Ticktock Man” began to play. Ellison’s second tale was not as vibrant or detailed as Vic’s journey, but it had an equally big message about fighting the system and making each day, each minute count. Later I would discover Harlan Ellison’s touch on some my favorite science fiction heroes, most notably Captain Kirk, Spock and the rest of the crew of the Starship Enterprise in the now classic episode, “City on the Edge of Forever.”
Widely hailed as the best episode of the original series, City does a masterful job of showing Captain Kirk that the Prime Directive also applies to Earth and that sometimes, inaction is the only course of action, even if it brings the highest tragedy for the greater good. I won’t even attempt to unravel the intricacies of “City on the Edge of Forever”, as it has been dissected by greater minds than mine, except to say that I wholeheartedly agree with its master status and bow to the golden typewriter of Harlan Ellison. In interviews he’s brash, opinionated and everything you could want in a rock and roll rebel writer. Harlan’s the guy who got fired his first day at Disney when he suggested an animated sexy romp featuring the studio’s most beloved characters. What he was doing at the House of Mouse is a mystery as nothing science fiction came out of the studio during that era except “The Black Hole” and those of us who have endured that particular flick either regard it as a cheesy Star Wars misfire or a complete borefest, though the truth may lie somewhere in the middle there. Much like Hunter S. Thompson, Harlan Ellison has never backed down from a good fight and has sued studios over similarities between his scripts for The Outer Limits and the James Cameron epic, “The Terminator.” There was even a film version of “A Boy and His Dog” that hit theaters in the early 1970’s that I discovered on a dusty VHS tape back in the late 80’s that starred both a very young Don Johnson and a very heavily made up Jason Robards.
It’s not very good and I wouldn’t recommend to anyone who is a fan of the short story. But for those who need a picture to go along with their words, it’s at least passable. But for me, nothing beats that hot summer night when I was given the chance to peer into the genius mind of Harlan Ellison. Years later I was able to track down a copy of that elusive cassette and give it a second listen – and you know what? It still holds up to this day and would make a great modern day film, complete with CGI talking Blood and all star cast of High School Musical Alumni…on second thought, never mind. I’ll bask in the hiss pop of that old recording and consider myself lucky that I stumbled upon “A Boy and His Dog” when I did. Just like Blood, it led me on a journey to find the better part of myself, and isn’t that what art is supposed to do?