Some time back I asked for help from the Kindertrauma folksÂ in remembering the name of a creepy live action movie where a St. Bernard dreams of being chased by a man dressed as a terrifying skiing cat. Here’s my original blog write-up.Â Just today a fellow named Dan Salmon, who had a similar childhood memory of having his shit freaked out by the film, sent me a link to the actual film. I am in awe and ecstasy over the power of the internet sometimes.
Turns out it was called Fantasy on Skis, a 1962 film that later showed up on Walt Disneyâ€™s Wonderful World of Color TV show. After a little research, I figureÂ I saw it in at Bremen TheatersÂ in Tinley Park in 1975, when they rereleased Snow WhiteÂ (that’s what we did before cable, DVDs, and even VHS, kids…we waited years for movies to come back to the big screen). I believe it served as a short subject before the main film.
Watching the rest of the film provides PLENTY of nightmare fuelâ€¦on skis! A scarecrow chases a pair of crows; cowboys (skiers wearing horse costumes around their waists) have a gunfight; Captain Hook chases Peter Panâ€¦itâ€™s amazing. Really, watch it NOW, but feel free to skip ahead to the “ski fantasies”.
The cat part IS especially terrifying, and starts at about the 24:50Â mark.
Comic book creator Dennis Eichhorn died. I wasn’t close friends with him, but I would have liked to have been. We were friendly colleagues though when I interacted with him in the late 90sâ€”mostly by mail and once in person. I’m not sure when I first encountered his work. Like Harvey Pekar, Eichhorn was a writer not an artist; unlike other autobiographical comic creators, however, his life was actually interesting. In the pages of his comic Real Stuff, he shared a bevy of stories about his life in the Northwest US (and occasionally beyond) from the 50s through the present day.
Eichhorn was a picaresque figure. Fighting, drinking, getting high, screwing, working, engaging in low-end criminality, getting busted and imprisoned for a time, bumping into historical and cultural figures as well as lesser-known but no less compelling personalities. He shared it all through comics made in collaboration with cartoonists like Peter Bagge, Ed Brubaker, Julie Doucet, Michael Dougan, Chester Brown, Pat Moriarty, J.R. Williams, and others. I’ll let this link speak for his work (FYI sometimes NSFW).
Good grief. I forgot how often he wrote about marijuana.
When I knew him, Eichhorn served as editorial director for Loompanics Unlimited. Being a young weirdo, I was a faithful customer and eventual contributor. At some point I submitted a couple of articles for their catalog and supplements. One piece was about alleged culture-bound disorders like amok and koro, another about literal mythological sex gods. Considering my writing style and subject matter, there were few places where I could get my work published in the form I preferred. Loompanics was one of them.
In my experience, he was a decent editor. He crafted, he didn’t hack, sending his edits for my approval/alterations along with notes for tightening things up and the like. I would send him copies of my zines and he’d always drop me a nice note. The man was a great communicator.
Some time after that, I think, the American Bookseller’s Association held its convention at McCormick Center. My friend Steven of Quimby’s asked me if I wanted to tag along. I did. We made the rounds ofÂ the underground and weirdo publishers: Fantagraphics, Feral House, Last Gasp, and the rest. I remember bits and piecesâ€”I hope I’m not conflating it with other conventions. Quite a time, in which I ran into my own brand of real stuff: Running into the ex-husband of a former zine/mail friendâ€”we had a bad falling outâ€”who recognized me from my visit to his San Francisco home five years before. A high-end publisher of coffee-table erotica who looked visibly irritated when Steven introduced me as a writer (Jesus, I wasn’t planning to pitch you, so fuck you buddy). Mr. T, covered in gold chains, posing with people while shouting at a maniacal clip: “YEAH! YEAH! WE’RE HAVING A GOOD TIME! LOTTA FUN! LOTTA FUN!” Quite a time. We ended up at the Loompanics booth where we met owner Mike Hoy and Dennis. Eichhorn was a big guy, in body and personality, and gregarious as hell. I can confirm he had a firm and memorable handshake, as I read somewhere today,
Hoy and Eichhorn were preparing to leave. They let Steven take all their display books back to Quimby’s to sell on consignment while I got a couple of cheap bookshelves out of the deal (the benefit of owning a car when most of your friends don’t). After that we gave Dennis a lift. As we passed through the Loop I pointed out particular buildings until we turned onto State Street.
“And here we have State Streetâ€¦THAT GREAT STREET!” I said.
We all went out for drinks afterward. I can’t remember what we discussed. I just remember it was a fun and fascinating talk. What struck me though was that even though he was the Real Stuff guy with the wild stories, freaky background, and incredible past, he was still grounded, friendly, and approachable. Just what one looks for in a folk figure.
For the next year or so I sent Dennis a few more zines and we exchanged the odd postcard, but we didn’t stay in touch. I edited an issue of Lumpen and asked him to contribute a piece. Within a week he had a write-up about his prison experiences, in particular with the captain of the prison guards who he described, quite accurately, as the living embodiment of The Manâ„¢. It was a consummate Dennis Eichhorn piece: funny, scary, observant, and interesting.
The world is the poorer for not having time to hear all his stories.
RIP, Dennis Eichhorn.
P.S. Apparently he just released a collection called Extra Good Stuff. Please check it out.
Reprinting a couple of pieces of mine from the months after September 11.
Review of the here is new york photo exhibit
February 4â€“March 30, 2002
In the shaky days after Sept. 11, German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen was roundly misquoted as describing the WTC attacks as the greatest work of art ever. Not so. German, with its knack for single words with myriad meanings, allowed the good professor to describe the day’s events as former angel Lucifer’s KÃ¼nstwerk. Literally translated as “artwork,” the term more accurately denotes one’s handiwork. In Stockhausen’s approximation, Lucifer represents intelligence used to destroy creation, the devil’s creativity untinged by love.
On display Feb. 4 through March 30 at 72 E. Randolph, here is new york: a democracy of photographs displays 1,500 professional and amateur photographs of the days before, during, and after the attacks. The original exhibit emerged from a single picture posted in a New York store window, more photos being donated in the weeks afterward by dazed Knickerbockers, and applied one after the other like bandaids to the communal wounds. Stacked along the walls and dangled overhead in the Chicago gallery, the prints grant the viewer a visual experience approximating a fraction of the sensory overload felt by Manhattanites on an otherwise a beautiful early fall Tuesday.
Aesthetically, the day helped. Even here in Chicago the sun shone and the air was as crisp as peppermint. Weather favors the recording of tragedy. Challenger exploded against an azure sky, twin curling forks of smoke spiraling like DNA helices about a fluffy white plume. The Hindenburg gorgeously exploded against an early morning rain shower, brightly immolating and consuming itself into a crippled metal skeleton. Despite myself and watching safely from home on 9/11, I couldn’t help but be struck by the awesome sight of the towers burning like matchsticks and winnowing down against a perfect blue canvas sky. While the surface message of the show is one of endurance, American rah-rah, and cuddly solidarity, the unspoken theme is that of the aesthetics and disturbing beauty of destruction. Allegory or otherwiseâ€”your choiceâ€”Lucifer used his palette to present an “artwork” few will forget. here is new york, then, might be considered the coffee table book version of the whole hellish exhibit.
The late-January press review bore all requisite solemnity, though was largely unmemorable. A batch of suits and ties thanked us, the press, for coming; the show’s beneficiaries, the Children’s Aid Society WTC Relief Fund were cited (proceeds from the sales of selected prints go to them); and the names of the sponsors, Marshall Field’s and the Target store chain were repeatedly dropped. No one noted the unwitting inappropriateness of Target’s bull’s-eye logo being prominently displayed on the podium.
There were firefighters, of course. Not since the Iranian hostage crisis’ embassy workers has an occupation been so in demand for photo-ops and pull-quotes. The firefighters acquitted themselves nicely, of course, with the just-doing-our-job dignity that should come with their profession. Our own fire commissioner, the wonderfully named James Joyce, with his lived in face, stated that as he looked at them and they at him, they shared the ineffable emotions only the men and women in helmets and rubber raincoats can feel. The firemen themselvesâ€”names of Jeffrey Straub and Anthony Barone, and imported from NYC Engine 6â€”looked bright and shiny in their dress blues when they took the stand. Following the outline given them by the event organizers, an accidental note of unscripted emotion occurred when Straub, flanked by a photo of himselfÂ leaning against a car shelled by WTC detritus, explained what he was thinking at the time. Thinking about his fellow firefighterâ€”and next-door neighbor it turned outâ€”who had lost his life that day. A PR emissary takes the podium afterwards, thanking Firefighter Straub for sharing. It was “very emotional,” she needlessly underscored.
I’m sorry if I seem unnecessarily picky about proper tribute. The event is impossible to cheapen, but even the best-intentioned tend to overdo it. Solemnity can be spread so thick it becomes as overwhelming as the grey dust still coating Manhattan. The press review preliminaries, gratefully, ended, and we were left alone to survey the wreckage.
The number of photos was the first thing I noticed. As a first-world nation, we enjoy the luxury of documenting life down to the second. Cosmopolitan vacation spot New York provided an army of shutterbugs that day. Anonymity is the rule, regarding the photos’ authors, but degrees of professionalism seem easy to differentiate. Reasons for taking photos in the face of apocalypse are harder to pin down.
For the professionals, it was just part of the job. It was for Bill Biggart, whose shrine rested in back. The last picture of Biggart’s life is glorious yet horrific: It shows one side of the North Tower exploding into balsa wood splinters. The shot, splendidly framed, was obviously taken while looking up. The same fragments that Bill captured probably buried him. The next photo shows a pile of photographer’s toolsâ€”cameras and light meters scorched black, a singed and melted deck of press passes lying beside them.
The amateur photos are, as stated, relatively easy to identify. Varying levels of exposure, poor framing, and unimaginative composition abound. The tragedy, however, adds gravitas to the most banal shots. The exhibit isn’t about ability, it’s about the view through several hundred different eyes. En masse, the pictures all “work”â€”individually and as a collective.
Two images recur. One is of dragon’s fire bursting from the towers’ guts: A bright yellow fusion heart is at the center, burning brighter than the sun; the fringes of the holocaust are flushed with the colors of autumn leaves, slowly burning black. The other is that of the spectator, gazing upwards, one hand holding a cell phone against the ear, the other slapped against the forehead in disbelief.
Against the west wall, photo #6068 shows American death shrines in the style of Mexican Dia de los Muertos ofrendas. Bright orange posters surrounded by half-melted candles create an impermanent memorial to the unknown dead. One poster states, “I never met you. I will never forget you.” The other laments, “I don’t know you and I miss you already.”
In other photos, America’s bipolar reaction is documented. Peaceniks beg for cooler heads, marching with neatly rendered placards reading, “It’s Time for Reflection Not Revenge” and “Break the Cycle of Violence.” Opinions grow less tolerant closer to Ground Zero. The photos of dust, while visually dull, linger with me. The impact of the planes, the explosions were the media money shot. We didn’t see the dust on TV. We thought it was all fire and falling bricks. Photo #5681 stands out most for me. A William H. Macy clone dressed in blue Brooks Brothers and carrying a briefcase runs through a grey blizzard of lung-clotting dust. Office building dust jams up his day’s clockwork, the very materials in which he daily dealt business. Ironic that. Photos #1240, 1237, and 5192 show further capitalist paralysis with piles of Gap shirts and jeans and Perrier bottles buried in ash. Dust anesthetizes, rather than eradicates the City that Never Sleeps. Dust also provides a ready medium for rage. “WELCOME TO HELL” offers the back window of a Honda Civic in photo #1118. On photo #87, a “NUKE THEM ALL” graffito virtually screams from an opaque store window. Throughout the exhibit the dust messages debate, sentiments ranging from “Our Grief Is Not a Cry for War” to the less poetical “REVENGE.”
Moving on, certain photos help me recall a vow I made 25 years ago. On a grade school career day I stood in front of my class, dressed in a yellow rain slicker and a plastic fireman’s helmetâ€”an Independence Day promo piece handed out by a local insurance agent. Words immortalized by fourth-graders before and after me tumbled from my mouth: “I want to grow up to be a fireman, so I can put out fires and help people.” Looking at picture after picture of dust-covered firefighters, burned-out eyes staring from beneath battered black helmets, I wanted to renew that vow. Photos #3383, 5247, 5234, 2424, and so on show walls of other firefighters, EMS techs, doctors, nurses, and just plain good Samaritans, in varying stages of exhaustion, human endurance stretched to a rubberband’s snapping. It’s all here, every emotion, every reaction. Photo #2763 shows two burly firefighters practically in a lover’s embrace. Unwitting comedy is achieved with a Scientologist counselor attempting to comfort a firefighter who looks like he’d rather be somewhere else enjoying his bottle of Poland Springs water.
Many of the photos, it must be pointed out, are disturbing. In #2840 blue-gloved medics handle a woman bleeding as red as her shirt. Beyond shock, her eyes are sealed with rust-colored dust. Still, for every image of a battered, bleeding, and broken human being, there’s a more reassuring and recurring image, that of an extended hand.
E.B. White, best known for Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, provided the ideal title and coda of the show in his 1949 piece “Here Is New York,” which presciently describes the urban inferno to come: “A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headline of the latest edition.”
Mr. White’s chilling clarvoyance aside (his assessment of the Big Apple’s vulnerability itself a fabulous example of the melancholy poetry of destruction), the effect of the original exhibit rested in its spontaneity, its proximity, and its participatory nature. While effective, we as Chicagoans miss the real power of the original show. Unlike street cows, this bit of city art doesn’t travel well or translate accurately. The gallery offers us a before, but we lack an after with which to compare it. It is our good fortune, of course, that we’re deprived of ashes from which to arise. New York, however, in characteristic braggadocio, shows the horrors it’s lived through and, six months later, has risen above.
For a long time I was quite the aficionado of true crime books. I had a fascination with serial murder for a good part of my young life. I published a zine about it, in fact. I probably read most of the books Rule published before the early 1990s. She, John Waters (who also collected true crime and wrote an essay titled “All My Trials”), and boredom at work were the three reasons I started the zine.
Among others, Ms. Rule wrote one of the two more interesting books about serial killer Ted Bundy. Hers was The Stranger Beside Me, the other was The Only Living Witness by Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth. TOLW was based on hours of interviews with Bundyâ€”who never openly confessed, but was happy to â€œspeculateâ€ on the nature of the murders and the killer’s mindsetâ€”which lent it the frisson of hearing the smug bastard’s story in his own words. Rule’s book, as I recall, was nicely written and researched, but was also helped by the fact that Rule knew Ted before “Bundy” become synonymous with evil (or Married…with Children for that matter).
During my true crime fanboy period, I enjoyed reading Rule. Not always. I remember her being occasionally stilted. When she began covering scandalous family murders instead of serial killing perverts, I lost interest. According to my regressive thinking at the time, that was middle-aged chick readingâ€”weepy pap about filicides and mariticides enjoyed by pearl-clutching hausfraus. Give me dark darkness with extra dark, Laird Beelzebub, said a young, gritty, quasi-puncrock Mr. Dan Kelly. Glad I got over that…mostly. It helped that I encountered many real lost boys and girls through the mail, who refused to grow up and dabbled in muck without the slightest bit of self-examination. Geez. Of course, they also made my zineâ€”titled EvilÂ® (the copyright sign’s intended irony was lost on most)â€”my most successful. But that’s a longer story for another day.
Anyway, Rule generally reliably delivered the goods. She was an old-school true crime writer, writing innumerable articles for the newsprint detective mags and several books under the alias Andy Stack (and others) because, per her first editor, the wimmens just didn’t write true crime. For the genre she was pretty good. Not Capote or Mailer good, but she kept things percolating, did her research (she ran into some accusations of sloppiness later, though these came from less than pure folks), and, as far as I can tell, kept the exploitation and sensationalism down. Uh, never mind the early Andy Stack stuff, which was SLEAZY as hell.
I saw her many years ago at a bookstore signingâ€¦I forget where. She talked about her latest book (If You Really Loved Me or Everything She ever Wanted maybe), knowing Bundy (who’d been electrocuted for, I think, two years by then), and answered questions. Silence of the Lambs had recently come out, and someone asked her opinion of the book and film. Unequivocally, she stated she hated both, loathing the idea of a serial killer character portrayed as smart, sexy, and funny. I imagine when you discovered the smart, sexy, and funny fellow you worked a suicide line with, and who you previously would have loved to see your daughter dating, was a psychopath who secretly raped and killed 30+ women, you’re likely to view Hannibal and Dexter with a scowl.
After the talk, I asked her to sign my books (she even signed my copy of The I-5 Killer as Andy Stack!), and told her I was a writer, and that she was a personal inspiration. Which was true, though before and since there have been other more influential writers in my life. I don’t recall her exact words, but she was very encouraging, and even spoke with me a bit about the craft without a hint of brush-off or acting as if she’d rather be elsewhere. Rare behavior in my field.
Anyway, in my experience: a very nice person was Ann Rule. RIP. I may dig through my old true crime collectionâ€”what remains of itâ€”and reread one of her books in tribute.
I spent several days writing about a distressing event that recently happened to me. Happened to someone else, actually, with me in close proximity. I use the word “traumatic” sparingly. I’m not going to argue semantics, but it’s one of those words bandied about too freely these days. There are truly traumatic eventsâ€”things involving death, abuse, severe injuries, and the like. But while what happened was scary and psychologically stabbing, everyone involved came out all right. I suppose it was partially traumatic, but nothing requiring psychological liniment and band-aids.
For the past week I kept returning to the piece, crafting it to recall every breath, sensation, and emotion. And it was pretty good. After several years of feeling barely able to word-craft worth a damn, it flowed. Flowing is a healthy activity for blood, water, and words.
But it occurred to me that this wasn’t entirely my story, and I wasn’t certain sharing it online was a good choice. I asked my wife what she thought, and after a moment she said, “No, don’t.” Occasionally, she’s overly cautious, but not this time.
Still, I had to finish it, I knew this, even though it’s destined for a file in the closet cabinet, along with my notebooks, journals, and never-sent letters. That stings a bit, because it’s one more bit of work that’ll do me no good now (soul-balming notwithstanding), and won’t last after I die. My kids might retain some of my work out of nostalgia for the old bastard, but otherwise one day my children’s children’s children will say, “What is this crap?” and heave it into the trash.
But jot it down I must.
What happened? I’ll tell you this much.
Someone dying and someone mimicking dying sent me into a double funk for the past week. Huzzah. Mr. Dan Kelly meet Mr. Death Mortis.
I think about dying a lotâ€”not in a scared way. It just reoccurs to me that I’m mortal and will end. I don’t want to die. Confidentially, and this may surprise you, I hate the thought of it. Standard reactions, yes, but I’ve long developed a bland acceptance of what I can’t control. I’d like to fly unaided, but there’s all this damn gravity to contend with. I’d like to travel everywhereâ€”literally EVERYWHEREâ€”but money, time, space, and previous obligations won’t accommodate me. I’d prefer not to die, butâ€¦well, we’ve all been there. We all ARE there. You accept the limits and try to find a way to ameliorate the disappointments. Very well, airplanes and a few trips over the course of a lifetime it is.
But Death has no workaround. And when you’re face to face with it or it gives you a preview of the real thing, you discover the bastard is too stupid to make deals with you, or to give you a pleasant if temporary alternative. Death is neither fair nor unfair. It’s an unavoidable, dull-witted, bureaucratic lug doing its job that doesn’t even wonder why people are annoyed. Imagine a janitor wearing ear buds, listening to its music as it pushes past you to clean off your desk, even though you’re obviously still working or eating or otherwise occupied. Then it leaves without a wordâ€”but you know it’ll be back to swipe and discard whatever else you’d prefer it leave alone. Worse yet, it occurs to you that maybe you’re going in the wastebasket next time.
But you’ll get over it, because there’s no alternative. Which can be looked at as a comfort if only for its consistency and inevitability, I guess.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Put on your pointed ears, speak in a sonorous baritone.
Silence the communicator, put your phaser in its box
Bring out the coffin, live long and prosper, Spock.
Horror fiction is the only genre I follow with any consistency. I’ve had brief flirtations and extended courtships with genres like fantasy (I favored sword and sorcery during high school, but happily never after), mysteries (mostly the old pulp/hard-boiled stuff, though Iâ€™ve followed a few modern series), and sci-fi (briefly raiding my dad’s 40s to 70s sci-fi libraryâ€”truthfully, it’s the only genre I find a bit silly). Horror, however, is my fictional wife, or at least my mistress.
I’ve been reading horror novels, short stories, and comics and watching horror films and TV shows since grade school. Arguably even before that through myths, ghost stories, and fairy tales. I followed a familiar path, starting with Poe, Bierce, Stevenson, Wells, and the other classics; reading through Stephen King’s output; discovering Lovecraft and Rod Serling’s circles; indiscriminately gobbling up every vault, haunt, and crypt of terror-fear-horror EC, DC, Marvel, Gold Key, and Charlton comics offered; falling in love with my literary queen, Shirley Jackson during college; and working through everyone from Ray Bradbury to Richard Matheson to Clive Barker to Mark Danielewski, and plenty of other hacks and auteurs in-between.
Between all that I watched my share of B-movies, monster flicks, cult classics, gore fests, and arthouse horror, and delved deeply into real life nightmares like serial killers and ickier/stickier subjects, and supposedly real life nightmares in the urban legend/campfire story vein. If it was disturbing, made my flesh creep, and had me hiding under the covers, I was interestedâ€”especially so. Why? Who knows? A slow imbibition of poison, perhaps, can do a body good. What does not kill me makes me stronger as I shudder.
The gist of this entry is that I’ve seen and read a lot of scary stuff. Most of it is forgotten, some remains, but a few bits and pieces have lurked for far longer, like dark flickering shadows in the corners of my eyes. Two in particular though, not only stuck around, for years I couldn’t be sure if I’d actually seen them, or if my mind made them all up. I’d like to share them, and if I’m worth a damn as a writer, I might even help you understand why they remained with me.*
As indicated, my brain’s mouth has gobbled great greasy piles of fictional horror-steak, the quality of the meat running the gamut from terrible (as in awful) tales of terror that couldn’t scare a three-year-old, to pungent, succulent, juice-dripping stories that made my sense of reality slip a bit.
Just a little bit.
But just enough.
The latter are rare, their power depending on their originality, the writer’s skill, and my age while reading them. What scared me at age 10 wouldn’t make me arch an eyebrow at age 45, but like a chicken pox scar, some sensations remain scratched into my memory’s flesh. Hm, maybe not a chicken pox scar. More like a self-administered tattoo.
The fictional fears that stay with me are diffuse: Lovecraft’s description of Akeley’s cylinder recordings of the Mi-Goâ€™s buzzing voicesâ€”use of recording technology as a false document to cause the heebie-jeebies decades before The Blair Witch Project, incidentally. The night burial of Church the cat in King’s Pet Sematary. The cool, low-toned fear of House of Leaves, when the protagonist stops and listens to the constant grinding and shifting of the walls, floors, and ceilings as the house remodels itself. Clive Barker’s “Dread,” which ends ludicrously, but has an exquisitely horrific extended photographic sequence featuring a vegetarian, a steak, and a locked room. No easy trick for a writer when they can’t show you the photographs.
Those are memorable bits, surely, but there are two that lingered, sticking to my brain like a black tumors, and metastasized over the years, become more terrible than I knew they could have been (this entry deserves turgid, overwrought metaphors, leave me alone!). Why did these moments become so exponentially freaky and terrifying? Mostly because I encountered them once, and then never saw or heard about them again. Even worse, no one I spoke to about them knew what I was talking about. A horror trope in and of itself!
I’ll wager most of the younger folks out there have no concept of the pre-Internet age, when pop knowledge wasn’t easily acquired. Surely, you could go to the library and get your fill of info on Benedict Arnold, Art Deco, wainscoting, or other “normal” topics, but try to locate an iota of info about an obscure TV show, film, writer, or book… good luck with that pal. In my youth, while looking for works by, say, Kerouac and Lovecraft, the four or five local libraries I had access to were only able to scrounge up Tristessa and The Dunwich Horror. As for other books by those writers, or just more information about the writers themselves, the librarians did their best, finding and photocopying a scattering of articles through reciprocity agreements with other libraries. Ultimately, they were found wanting. Think of that drought of facts, and compare it with today, when punching a few words into Google turns up rafts of websites about Jack and Howard that all but tell you what they had for breakfast on any given day of their life.
One more point, a seemingly strange point: while the info they turned up was sparse, they proved that Kerouac and Lovecraft existed.
Now, imagine trying to describe something you experienced briefly as a child, without benefit of verification through images, sound, or text. Just you, babbling: “There was this cartoon I watched every day as a kid, where this alien boy came to earth, and he had a medallion that gave him superpowers. And his worst enemy was a guy who threw a buzzsaw watch.” For years I described the show to kids in my own neighborhood, trying to find someone else who had watched it on UHF channel 44. “Uncomprehending” is too light a word for their expressions. It wasn’t until I took German in high school and met a girl named Ramona who’d also seen Prince Planet that I realized I hadn’t made it all up. That sense of doubt is weird enough for an innocuous (if hyperviolent) cartoon like Prince Planet, but it becomes cancerous with a thing that scared the hell out of you. I’m sure there’s a psychological term for it. Maybe the Germans call it by some multi-syllablic name.
But I lived until the 1990s, and I light a candle and say a prayer for Mother Internet for letting me know I wasn’t going mad when I rediscovered the following spookshows.
As a kid, how old do you have to be before radio shows seem stupid and boring? I should experiment with my four-year-old son, and play The Shadow, The Whistler, Weird Circle, and other old-time radio shows for him before he becomes jaded. I’ll tell you one thing, I’ll sure as shit not play Arch Oboler’s 1962 Drop Dead! albumâ€”featuring reenactments of his 30s and 40s radio show Lights Outâ€”within listening distance of the lad until he’s at least 10. Maybe 30.
I still remember how queasy I felt after hearing the LP at a friend’s house one long-ago Halloween. If you’ve heard of Oboler’s show, you probably remember one story in particular: “Chicken Heart.” Everyone remembers “Chicken Heart.” With that title how in God’s name could you not? Orson Welles may have convinced the rubes that the Martians had landed, but Oboler left a bloody wet thumbprint of terror on the brains of multitudinous youths, including Stephen King and Bill Cosby, who did a routine on the show. I won’t summarize “Chicken Heart”; it’s best experienced through the first link. Certainly, it’s ridiculousâ€”absurd evenâ€”but there’s something there, something grotesque and wrong. Thump-thump… thump-thump… thump-thump…
For me, Oboler’s scariest, freakiest skit was “The Dark.” “The Dark” barely has a plot. Scary stuff just…happens. From memory…Sam the cop and a psychiatrist are called to an old abandoned house (is there any other kind in these stories?) because the neighbors, presumably, heard screaming and shenanigans taking place. The cop and the doc walk in and discover a madwoman, given to bursts of cackling, shrieking laughter that will drill through your head. Something stirs in a nearby room, and when the doctor, to the cop’s chagrin, opens the door they discover… a man… TURNED INSIDE-OUT! A monster shows up, as monsters do, in the shape of a shadowy mass that acts more like a pitch-black amoeba. Listen to the link before proceeding further. I’ll wait.
“The Dark” is scary. “The Dark” is also, under scrutiny, stupid. Unlike many fictional monsters, our shadow beastie makes no damn sense whatsoever. Let’s pretend a person could survive the initial, incomprehensibly painful shock of the act, not to mention that a person could be “transposed” (they can’t, sorry), and ask, what is the creature’s motivation? Whether sentient or non-sentient, why does it do what it does? According to the presented evidence, it doesn’t perform full-body prolapses to eat, defend itself, or even to meet some magical/ritualistic purpose. Notably, it does not properly kill its prey, making it unlike any known or even possible creature. Barring any yammering about alien morality, we must assume that it is sentient and yanks human beings from stern to stem simply to be shitty. That’s horrifying, especially to a young boy seeking sense and hoping for kindness in the world.**
The sound effects are the second level of “The Dark’s” horror. The good doctor’s yucky description of our reversible human being is terrible enoughâ€”we’re left to imagine a pitiable anthropoid mass of veiny, sticky, red flesh, dangling organs like a grisly purse rack. Doc’s description is merely gross, but Oboler revealed his creepy genius for radio through the sudden stomach-lurching sound effect of our poor floppy guts-man trying to stand up, pitiably mewling and wetly slapping about the floor like a landed trout. Good gravy, no wonder the cop passed out.
Purportedly (though perhaps apocryphally), Oboler achieved the inside-out sound effect by filling a rubber glove with cooked macaroni and slowly reversing it Mercifully, he avoids the likelier sounds of such extreme body modification involving the bones, or the effects of reversal of the lungs and larynx. Perhaps in the words of the several dozen insensitive bastards I’ve met in my life, I’m “too sensitive,” but “The Dark” put the fix on my head for two reasons: it didn’t just make me imagine my own insides slithering out, it offered the scenario of discovering someone so reversed, and the feelings of frustrated compassion and helplessness it would entail. Gut blowout isn’t something you can kiss and slap a Band-Aid onâ€”the first sensible reaction available to a lad of eight or nine years.
Then there was that one story…
I’ll bet you have one too. A tale you read by daylight, which laid in wait in the back of your head until bedtime, emerging from the closet to say, “Hey, kid! I’m gonna keep you awake for the rest of your life. That cool?”
I read mine in seventh grade. At the time (I think I was 10) it scared the bejeezus out of me, and for years, even after maturity sapped it of fear-power, it returned in some form or other on nights that seemed excessively lonely and dark.
A great deal of its strength rested in its formatting. Someone in my class, I don’t remember who, passed along a manuscript. That’s how I remember it: a typewritten stack of eight or so pages, not a photocopy (fairly uncommon in the classroom in the late 70s), though it might have been a mimeograph; I have a memory of the ink being purple, but I can’t verify that. If it had been passed along to me as part of an anthology or a torn-out magazine page, I would have been fine. What it resembled was a sworn statement, some sort of confession, or an MS found in a bottle. I took my turn with it that night and brought it back the next day. For a long time after sleep wouldn’t come.
In summary, a young boy named Tommy is frightened of his basement, and has been so from a very young age. The door stands in the kitchen, the single room in the house where Tommy doesn’t act like a perfectly happy little fellow. When open, he screams bloody murder until mom or pop closes and locks it, taking the extra measure of stuffing the cracks in the doorframe with rags and the like, worshipping the lock with kisses and caresses. Childhood binding magic.
His parents, total yokels, are put out, and employ old-time parenting techniques like “thrashing” him and sending him to bed without his supper for this single bit of insolence. Tommy grows up, and at five years of age, in preparation for school, they take him to see the family doctor. Naturally, he is perfect health, but his basement fear is brought up. In private, Tommy tells the doctor there’s something down there, something bad, but when pressed to describe it, he reveals that he doesn’t know what it is… he just knows that IT is down there. The doc advises Tommy’s parents to nail the door open and leave Tommy in the kitchen for an hour so he’ll see his fears are groundless. Since this isn’t inspirational glurge from Reader’s Digest, you can guess where this is going.
And here was my other bout with self-doubt and potential false memory. I knew the story existed, but other than a vaguely remembered title (“The Thing in the Basement” sounded right, but seemed too vague). I couldn’t find it at the library, and I wondered whether it was the work of a classmate’s older sister or brother (hence the typewritten manuscript). The story, as I recalled it, was a perfect frame on which to hang a horror story. The tropes are all there: helpless, frightened victim whom nobody believes; a subterranean place that radiates evil; clueless authority figuresâ€”it seems like it could only exist in the abstract, as every horror story.
But time heals all wounds and, with luck, makes one smarter. I didn’t know Shinola about good writin’ back then. I concentrated on plot, and the plot for “The Thing in the Cellar” is scary as hell because it’s fill-in-the-blank. When you’re a child, you spend most of your time filling in blanks, often with erroneous info. See, I knew what Tommy was afraid of, I knew it because I had my own basement monsters. Somewhere I encountered a picture of a Metaluna mutant, and for a month I thought one was huddled behind the couch in my dad’s basement den. I can still it in my mind’s eye, shambling up the steps, ready to rip off my head with its claws. Now I’d probably just side-kick it back down the stairs and run like hell.
The fear got worse. I read about the “true” story of a girl who suffered periodic attacks by an invisible assailant. My unimpeachable source, by the by, was a Ripley’s Believe It… or Not! comic book, in a story titled “The Thing with Claws” (I sense a trend). My Metalunan metamorphosed into a see-through clawed assassinâ€”the unknown became the invisible and vicious, compounded by an unseen and horrific result, namely, Tommy’s death in the story.
Ah, as for that. These two sentences stick with me to this day.
Trembling, he examined all that was left of little Tommy.
The mother threw herself on the floor and picked up the torn, mutilated thing that had been, only aÂ little while ago, her little Tommy.
They sting worse now that I have kids.
We know the result of the cellar thing’s attack on Tommyâ€”presumably a moment of joyous triumph for the creature, since it had the only being aware of its existence in its powerâ€”but we don’t know its extent. “Torn.” “Mutilated.” “All that was left.” Perhaps you’re picturing a few well-placed, deep scratchesâ€”something whipped up by the Buffy the Vampire Slayer make-up/special effects department. Not me. Not with my stupid, scared child brain. I conflated the integrity of Tommy’s corpse with a story I overheard my father telling; the one about the family who adopted a poodle as a companion to their Doberman. The next day they returned home to discover cottony viscera all across their living room rug. My child’s mind made it worse, picturing Tommy left in stringy tatters and a single red chunk of gristle staining the kitchen tiles. Tommy? Did I say Tommy?
Sorry, I meant me.
That was me.
I was there. Dead. Shredded. Violated. By the Thing in the Basement.
Rereading the story, there’s another segment that may have gotten to me. The oafish Mr. Tucker takes out his toolbox and pounds nails while explaining to his clearly terrified son in English spoken not by people who real are:
And IÂ am going to nail the door open, Tommy, so you can not close it, as that was what the doctor said. Tommy, and you are to be aÂ man and stay here in the kitchen alone for an hour, and we will leave the lamp a-burning, and then when you find there is naught to be afraid of, you will be well and aÂ real man and not something for aÂ man to be ashamed of being the father of.
I should make the point that my parents loved me and were plenty sympathetic whenever I was afraid. Mom was nurturing and reassuring; Dad rationally explained away fearâ€”I tend to do both with my son whenever he’s afraid.*** But no kid, no adult, ever gets rid of the fear that the only thing worse than Mom and Dad not being there is Mom and Dad not giving a shit or acting, by intent or omission, as agents for one’s invisible claw monster destruction.
Closing thoughts? None, really (though if anyone wants to pay me to expand on this essay, I’m all ears). When people ask me why I writeâ€”which happens ALL the damned timeâ€”I explain that I write about two subjects: what I love and what I fear. I write about what I love because I want other people to enjoy and preserve those things. I write about what I fear because, for as long as can remember, I’ve been a fearful fellow. And I don’t like it. As my former dentist told me, “Fear is the mind killer.” By reading and writing about what I fear I become not only stronger but smarter; and as I become smarter I become a better person. As personal meanings of life go, that’s not a bad policy.
As an addendum, and FYI. I’ve never mentioned the above to anyone for as long as I can remember. I figured it was time to exorcise those particular demons.
*Also, I’m reading Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, and I’ve been itching to throw in my two, no, let’s make it nine cents on the subject.
** Side Note: I imagine Oboler had Doc specify his mouth as the final piece covered by shadows in order to avoid suggesting he was turned inside-out starting at the rectal end. Which, from an engineering perspective, makes slightly more sense.
*** My favorite technique for when Nate is afraid of somethingâ€”say the giant frog-shaped shoe and sock basket on his closet doorâ€”is to punch it out and encourage him to take a few swipes himself. Mom and Dad did a good job, but I wish they’d encouraged me to go a few rounds with my monsters. In hindsight, they were all wusses.
“One day in Berlin … Eno came running in and said, ‘I have heard the sound of the future.’ … he puts on ‘I Feel Love’, by Donna Summer … He said, ‘This is it, look no further. This single is going to change the sound of club music for the next fifteen years.’ Which was more or less right.” â€”David Bowie