Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Birthday Love to Coralina

Coralina Cataldi-Tassoni is Italian horror's reigning Diva of Delicious Death Scenes, but she is also a dear friend, an inspiring fellow artist, and our beloved sister, so Donna joins me today in sending her our warmest regards on the anniversary of her birth. She's seen here with us at last October's Cinema Wasteland convention, embracing her own personal copy of the Bava book, while we embrace her -- as I wish we could be doing right now.

Coralina first won the hearts of horror fans as another birthday girl: the ill-fated, talon-sprouting, pus-erupting Sally of Lamberto Bava's DEMONS 2: THE NIGHTMARE BEGINS -- a legitimately great monster performance. She can currently be seen in what is surely the most outrageous of her many death scenes in Dario Argento's MOTHER OF TEARS (featured in the new issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG), and is presently engaged in many different projects we eagerly await, including an ambitious authorized biography written with Filippo Brunamonti, new paintings and music, and some original screenplay projects written in collaboration with the talented writer-director Mariano Baino (DARK WATERS).

You can see the delightfully experimental and allusive 6m trailer for Coralina's and Filippo Brunamonti's forthcoming book on her MySpace page here (which includes a Hitchcock-like cameo by... er, another book), and also sample tracks from her CD, LIMBO BALLOON -- which capture the real Coralina I know and love.

"Happy Birthday!" the dark incubus spake.
"Now tie the birthday girl down
And... cut the cake!"

Criterion's MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION reviewed

Robert Taylor chases Irene Dunne's skirt right into the path of a speeding car in the 1935 version of MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION.

My review of Douglas Sirk's -- and John M. Stahl's -- MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION (Criterion DVD) appears in the March 2009 issue of SIGHT & SOUND, now on newsstands. It can be also read for free on their website, here.

Monday, February 23, 2009


If this blog should be doing anything, it is helping to promote the venerable hub of this freewheeling enterprise: VIDEO WATCHDOG magazine. I've been solipsistically remiss in mentioning here that VW 147 is now en route to subscribers and newsstands, and available now from our toll free 1-800-275-8395 number.

For those of you who favor Eurohorror, this current issue features an engrossing and illuminating (if I do say so myself) round table discussion of Dario Argento's MOTHER OF TEARS, with input from Maitland McDonagh, Kim Newman, Richard Harland Smith, Brad Stevens and yours truly. And, obsessives that we are, we let the thing roll on for 21 pages illustrated in full color! Where else are you going to get that? This is also one of those proud issues that has something to offer readers of every taste, from Jean-Pierre Melville noirs to horror classics from the '30s through present day, and both Kim Newman and Audio Watchdog Douglas E. Winter have their respective says about Peter Watkins' seminal rock-oriented cautionary tale PRIVILEGE. You can get the whole rundown on the issue here, complete with four free sample pages to whet your appetite.

Those of you who have been secretly wishing to write for VW over the years, but have been deterred by our "on an invitational basis only" restriction, may find an announcement in my current editorial of especial interest.

A great issue, this one, but being a monthly gives us no time to rest on our laurels. Last week, we put the finishing touches on our next issue, VW 148, which is now at the printer. Our readers have been urging us to follow our head by covering more obscure product, which we're happy to do, but if we want to keep the folks at Diamond Comics Distribution (and, by extension, ourselves) happy, we're going to have to do everything we can to keep our covers more recognizably commercial. I think Charlie and Donna's cover for 148 is a stellar example of doing this in the prettiest and most tempting way possible.

VW 148 is not billed as such, but it's actually one of our popular "all-review" issues. We weren't planning to emphasize STARDUST to this extent, but the quality of Sheldon Inkol's writing about the film, and the wealth of beautiful images available to us from it, conspired to give this issue both a special identity and sense of direction. Charlie did a lovely job of framing the ever-photogenic Michelle Pfeiffer on the cover, and adding sprinkles of his own stardust to the framing background. I also like the diversity of Donna's choices for the supporting images on the cover stripe, ranging from the British TV miniseries DEAD SET to Al Pacino (so memorable opposite Pfeiffer in FRANKIE AND JOHNNY) in the thriller 88 MINUTES, to classic stars like Fred Williamson and Sidney "Charlie Chan" Toler. This should be shorthand to our readers that, while our cover aims to appeal to wider or at least consistent numbers, the innards of this issue delve well into our usual depths.
Aside from reviews of everything from Herschell Gordon Lewis' MOONSHINE MOUNTAIN to Hideo Nakata's thought-lost ghost story KAIDAN (a remake of a Nobuo Nakagawa classic, to which we have frame grabs comparing and contrasting both versions), the real centerpiece of this issue is Kim Newman's review of the seven features collected in Fox's CHARLIE CHAN VOLUME 5 (including the spooky and rarely seen DEAD MEN TELL), which we've chosen to present in the form of a feature called "Charlie Chan: Curtain Down at Fox." You can read more about this terrific issue here, in our current "Coming Soon" section.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Before or After VW?

While perusing the Mario Bava items currently being hawked on eBay, I was startled to find this strangely familiar box art for a Greek VHS release of BLOOD AND BLACK LACE [Sei donne per l'assassino, 1964]. This Video Cronos release isn't dated anywhere on the auction page, but it's possible this box art design actually predates the debut of VIDEO WATCHDOG, since VHS has been around since 1979 or thereabouts. If this release came after 1990, it would offer compelling proof of VW's influence. If it dates from before 1990, it's an impressive bit of foreshadowing, linking Bava with the magazine that would later publish his biography.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Recent Activities

Donna and I spent the Valentine's Day weekend in Nashville, Tennessee -- our first-ever visit there -- where we visited with friends, had some delicious sushi at a Sapporo in Rivergate, and spent some time at a full-scale replica of the Parthenon, constructed there over 100 years ago for the city's centenary celebration.

While there, I also went inside to pledge eternal fealty to the goddess Athena.
The timing of this trip was cosmically fortuitous. During the four-hour drive from Cincinnati to Nashville, we drove past the Kentucky birthplace of Abraham Lincoln -- on his 200th birthday. Two days later -- in the early hours of St. Valentine's Day (when the above pictures were taken), for a total of 18 minutes -- the Moon was reportedly in the seventh house and Jupiter aligned with Mars, signalling the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, as described in the popular song from the 1960s musical HAIR.
I've also been...
... celebrating my and VW's various Rondo nominations, and the recent optioning of my original horror script SCARS & STRIPES by the British production company Livestock Entertainment.
... polishing an unpublished science fiction novel, THE ART WORLD, for another crack at publication.
... planning a four-issue graphic novel story arc for a leading comics company.
... enjoying some particularly wonderful, rewarding correspondences. One of these inspired me to revisit Bergman's FANNY AND ALEXANDER, which was time very well spent.
... looking forward to returning to the pool with my new Finis SwiMP3 player. I imagine Scott Walker and Echo and the Bunnymen will sound especially good underwater.
... reading Frank Harris' legendary MY LIFE AND LOVES (Grove Press). I can remember a time when this book looked too long to read. Very educational; should have read this in my 20s.
... listening a lot to Marianne Faithfull's BEFORE THE POISON, which I find superior to her celebrated '70s album BROKEN ENGLISH.
... thinking seriously about selling off large chunks of my poster, lobby card, book and magazine collections. Now that my body has lost 40+ pounds, I'm finding that my acquisitions weigh too much.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

VW Sweeps Rondo 7 with 10 Nominations!

The nominations for the 7th Annual Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards were posted over the weekend at the Rondo Award website, and I'm pleased to report that VIDEO WATCHDOG earned no fewer than ten (10) nominations, while my own outside projects, including this blog, earned another three (3)! They are as follows...

THE BOOK OF LISTS: HORROR edited by Amy Wallace, Del Howison and Scott Bradley (to which I contributed)

Also nominated: VW's own Tom Weaver and Anthony Ambrogio for, respectively, I TALKED WITH A ZOMBIE and YOU'RE NEXT! LOSS OF IDENTITY IN THE HORROR FILM.


BEST ARTICLE (8 nominations! More than any other magazine!)
'Amy and Her Friends: The Ann Carter Interview,' by Tom Weaver, VIDEO WATCHDOG #137. A career retrospective with the young star of a Val Lewton classic.

'Bewitching Hazel,' by David Del Valle, VIDEO WATCHDOG #140. Remembrance of late Hammer star Hazel Court.

'California Gothic: The Corman/Haller Collaboration,' roundtable with Roger Corman, Daniel Haller and Joe Dante, moderated by Lawrence French, VIDEO WATCHDOG #138. Tales from the sets of the Poe films and more.

'A Eulogy for Charles B. Griffith,' by Justin Humphreys, VIDEO WATCHDOG #141. A friend remembers the touching final days of the eccentric writer behind AIP classics.

'Harry Redmond Jr.: Last Survivor of Skull Island,' by Mark F. Berry, VIDEO WATCHDOG #146. Interview and revelations from last production veteran of King Kong and other RKO Cooper-Schoedsack-O'Brien classics.

'The Prisoner: A New Order,' by Tim Lucas, VIDEO WATCHDOG #142. Making new sense of the village by reshuffling the episodes.

'Suspense: The Lost Episodes,' reviewed by Kim Newman, VIDEO WATCHDOG #140. Episodes from dawn of TV described in kinoscopic detail.

'The Ubiquitous Dabbs Greer,' by M.J. Simpson, VIDEO WATCHDOG #144. The character actor interviewed about HOUSE OF WAX, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and more.

An incredibly tough competition!

VIDEO WATCHDOG #137 - Ann Carter and Simone Simon cover by Charlie Largent

Video WatchBlog by Tim Lucas

I was also surprised and interested to see that a new "write-in" category has been introduced this year: Best DVD Reviewer.

I sincerely hope you'll all take the time to vote for your favorites in the various categories. As I've said here before, I'm not asking you to vote for VW or for me, necessarily (of course, I'd be the last to discourage you from doing so!); the important thing is to do your part to see excellence in the field of fantastic film journalism and pop culture acknowledged and rewarded. The ballot page tells you everything you need to know about voting; it's easy, and you needn't vote in every category. Voting ends on March 21.
My congratulations and best wishes to all of this year's nominees!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Mario of the Desert

While watching the new Criterion Collection disc of Luís Buñuel's SIMON OF THE DESERT (1965), in preparation for reviewing it for next month's SIGHT AND SOUND, I saw a couple of things that struck me as worth noting here -- namely, a previously unnoted set of connections or coincidences linking the work of Buñuel and his contemporary Mario Bava.

There has been some debate on the subject of which came first: the little girl devil in Bava's KILL, BABY... KILL! or the one in Federico Fellini's TOBY DAMMIT. The answer to that brain-teaser, it turns out, is the one in Buñuel's SIMON OF THE DESERT, played with minxish aplomb by VIRIDIANA's Silvia Pinal. The Devil materializes to tempt the early Christian ascetic Simon (DR. TARR'S TORTURE DUNGEON's Claudio Brook) in various guises, the second of which is as a little girl rolling a hoop. When her innocence has no effect, she turns more womanly and coquettish, displaying a shapely pair of dark-nyloned legs and finally baring her breasts (a startling image which Criterion has boldly posited as the disc's inset), yet Simon remains inviolate.

The hoop accessory is interesting, being analogous to the white ball of Bava and Fellini's evil spectres, but also because it has a Freudian dimension of entrapment when contrasted with the phallic pillar of Simon's proud asceticism.

After the failure of her thwarted seduction, Pinal's Devil returns as a bearded, lamb-cradling Jesus Christ and, still later, as a bare-breasted goddess. The Buñuelian irony of all this, of course, is that Simon's prayers for godly intervention into his selfless life attract only the brickbats of a friendly Hell. Finally, abruptly, the Devil sweeps Simon off the top of his pillar by introducing a jet plane into this early Anno Domini fable.
The sudden assault of futurism anticipates the finale of Bava's LISA AND THE DEVIL (1973), in which Elke Sommer survives a harrowing night among ghosts in what appears to be another century, only to find herself aboard a 747 bound for Hell, piloted by Telly Savalas' Satan. Producer Alfredo Leone has taken credit for suggesting this finale, but it seems remarkably consistent with these and other Buñuelian tropes found in Bava's filmography. LISA AND THE DEVIL, of course, was also filmed in Toledo, Spain -- which Buñuel considered "a holy city." He filmed TRISTANA there in 1969.
Criterion has also issued Buñuel and Pinal's earlier masterpiece THE EXTERMINATING ANGEL (1964), in which a severed hand briefly runs amok. The look of this deathly appendage is nearly identical to a sculpture of a disembodied hand that plays a prominent role in Bava's final feature, SHOCK aka BEYOND THE DOOR II (1978).

SIMON OF THE DESERT runs only 45 minutes and is perfect enough at this length. Buñuel always claimed that the money (supplied by Pinal's furniture magnate husband, who produced) ran out, preventing him from completing the picture. In a supplement on the SIMON disc, a 2008 interview with Pinal includes her surprise confession that she was responsible for pulling the plug, when Buñuel excused himself from another project she was planning, a vanity three-episode anthology inspired by the Mastroianni/Loren hit, YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW. The actress now regrets her fit of hubris and recognizes that only her work with Buñuel has entitled her to a place in the history of cinema.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

As Promised

Here's the reply card, provided with copies of MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK, that the late, great Lux Interior sent to us back in October 2007. Such a sweet thing to revisit after the sad events of last week. Wish we could have met...

Monday, February 09, 2009

Always Crashing Into Myriem Roussel

The talcum powder scene from Tristesse et Beauté.

My Myriem Roussel fever continues to run high. Thanks to eBay, I've been able to obtain ancient VHS PAL and SECAM pre-records of Joy Fleury's Tristesse et Beauté ("Sadness and Beauty," 1985) and Robert Van Ackeren's Die Venusfalle ("The Venus Trap," 1988), both featuring Roussel, neither of which was ever exported to America.

The former, which co-stars Charlotte Rampling and Andrzej Zulawski, casts Roussel as a sculptress. the younger woman in a lesbian relationship, who is sent by her partner to seduce and destroy a successful writer who broke her heart years before. The film was given a DVD release in Italy, which would certainly have yielded a much superior picture to the French SECAM crap I watched, but it would also have stuck me with Italian dubbed audio; at least on the tape, the original dialogue recording was intact. I found the movie compelling even without understanding all the dialogue; its images are gripping, its depictions of artistic process valid, and Roussel is absolutely lovely, acting with equal conviction in her love scenes with Rampling and Zulawski. It's an erotic film whose standout scenes spotlight personal hygiene, firstly as Roussel powders her body prior to an assignation with Zulawski, and secondly as Rampling uses a straight razor to shave her lover's underarms.

Die Venusfalle, from the director of A Woman in Flames, curiously downplays Roussel in its packaging, which toplines and pictures "Der Neue Erotik-Star" Sonja Kirchberger, though Roussel is given top-billing on the film itself. The movie is typical, pretentious, coked-up, '80s Eurotrash in many ways, with a soundtrack featuring various uncredited Bowie, Roxy Music and Iggy Pop tracks. Nevertheless, Roussel comes across as a real rock star here.

Her introduction, withheld until we're more than 20 minutes into the picture, must be one of the most outrageous ever dared. The unlikeable, arrogant, fashion-plate male protagonist, Max (Horst-Gunther Marx), struts into a pool hall, where he finds Marie (Roussel) playing billiards with a man. It's obvious they notice one another, but they're too cool to acknowledge the attraction, not even exchanging glances as she and her partner finish and leave. Cut to later that night, as both toss and turn in their respective beds with their respective lovers asleep beside them. They both awaken, silently dress, climb into their cars and roar off into the night. Moments later, their two cars independently arrive on opposite ends of the same street and accelerate toward one another in a game of Chicken, finally deflecting off one another in a scrape that sends both vehicles spinning out of control.

The two staggered drivers sit in their cars for a moment or two, eyeing each other like diagrammatically fated pawns. They recover their senses, exit their cars, start walking then running toward one another, collide in an embrace and proceed to make love right then and there, in the middle of the empty strasse.

Yes, the scene is ludicrous, even kitschy, yet it's more vividly staged and carries a stronger erotic charge than anything in Cronenberg's CRASH. And I ask you, does the cinema have a better reason to exist than to bring visions such as this within everyone's reach? (Well, everyone able to play PAL or SECAM tapes, anyway.)

There's another enjoyably preposterous scene where Max disrupts Marie's ballet recital; it's preposterous because Roussel, despite having a perfect swan-like neck and balletic grace, is much too tall to be part of a ballet chorus and looks awkward when raised. This doesn't alter the fact that she's an extraordinary creature and makes the film endurable, even irresistable, with her uncanny presence alone.

Throughout this alternately fascinating and annoying movie, I kept thinking that Georges Franju would have given his left arm to work with Roussel: she's Édith Scob and Francine Bergé rolled into one. Indeed, the final shot, in which she slips out a window wearing a fetching black danceskin, could easily pass for something Franju directed. Alas, though the very young Roussel was the protégé of Jean-Luc Godard, the Roussel of her late 20s and 30s appears never to have found the ideal interpreter of her particular brand of magic.

I understand that Die Venusfalle played in years past with English subtitles on the Australian superstation SBS. If anyone in my audience has a recording of that broadcast, or a copy of the Fleury film in English, please let me know how I might obtain a copy from you.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Lux Interior (1946-2009)

Donna and I were saddened to learn of the death yesterday of legendary Cramps frontman Lux Interior, who, under his real name of Erick Purkheiser, was a longtime subscriber to VIDEO WATCHDOG magazine and one of the original patrons of MARIO BAVA ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK. He was kind enough to send in the index comment card provided with his copy, which he filled out enthusiastically; I've asked Donna to pull it from our files so that I can share it with you in the days ahead.

I was first exposed to the deadly, 'tang-drenched, rockabilly vibes of The Cramps through the movies: as one of the more memorable acts in the IRS concert compendium URGH! A MUSIC WAR and as part of the soundtrack for Tobe Hooper's THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART 2, where DJ heroine Stretch (Caroline Williams) gives a spin to their classic tune "Goo Goo Muck." Erick, who was 62, reportedly died due to a pre-existing heart condition -- twenty-plus years after an intensely circulated death rumor in the late 1980s. Donna and I send our condolences to Erick's wife "Poison" Ivy Roschach and to his friends, family and fans.

As long as speedometers go higher than the legal speed limit, as long as monster movies occupy the tiniest niche in the popular consciousness, as long as hard-ons hide in tight bluejeans, Lux's raging music will live on.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Bava's Lost Super Giallo Opportunity

Tomorrow marks the commencement of the 59th annual Internationale Filmfestspiele in Berlin. I have a number of friends who are boarding planes today to attend, hopeful of meeting and attracting investors for their current projects, and I wish them all success. Their scripts are all something seldom seen in theaters today -- originals, not remakes-- so they can use all the positive thinking you can send their way. I, for one, don't believe a country that voted Barack Obama into office is interested in continuing to subsist on a steady diet of remakes, but evidently stubborn Hollywood thinks differently. Even flops like THE ILLUSTRATED MAN are being green-lit.

The above scan from a 1965 Italian trade paper reminds us that even the greats of cinema who have now passed on into history, such as Mario Bava, had to spend much of their careers in pursuit of funding. This ad attempted to stir up interest for a 1965 project called 12 bambole bionde ("12 Blonde Dolls"), described as a venture between Bava, actor-turned-producer Ulderico Sciarretta, and Sciarretta’s production company, Eco Film.

The advertisement asks: “Who killed Gino? Who killed Linda? Who killed Paolo? Who killed Romolo? Who killed Raymondo? Who killed Emerson? When these questions are asked, Inspector Klem will answer them!” (Apparently most of the “12 Blonde Dolls” were to be men!)

What is interesting about the ad—which goes on to promise “not just a Super Giallo, but a Colossal Giallo”—is that it says absolutely nothing about the movie's obvious and quite ambitious intention of doubling the body count of Bava’s vicious Sei donne per l’assassino (BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, 1964), a film that had the good fortune to be released all around the world. Instead, the ad hubristically proclaims that 12 bambole bionde “follows the grand success of Crimine a due.” This ultra-obscure title, directed by Romano Ferrara and starring John Drew Barrymore and Lisa Gastoni, was apparently Sciarretta’s first and only film as a producer, issued earlier in 1965 and never released outside of Italy.

Understandably, few (if any) investors were attracted by the ad's questions or its hollow boast of Crimine a due's "grand success." The upswing of this faulty strategy: 12 bambole bionde was never made and Bava and Sciarretta never worked together.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Origins of a Film Critic

Me (third from left) with the Mirror staff, photographed on the ground floor of the then-under-construction new building of Norwood High School in 1971. Click to embiggen.

These have been very interesting times for me: I've been unexpectedly reunited with a long-lost friend from high school, now a successful and well-travelled artist. This has led to a vigorous, fulfilling correspondence and a lot of restimulated memories from thirty-odd years ago, some good and some not-so-good. My friend evidently lost a lot of her old personal photos along the way, and she asked if I might send her some high school pics, which led me and my digital camera back to my long-packed-away yearbooks from Norwood High School. While rifling through the pages of the 1971 and '72 Silhouettes in search of her, I also took a digital snap of this personal shot, which shows me as part of the staff of the school paper, The Mirror. This is where I was first published as a film critic.

Introducing the Mirror staff from left to right: Sharon Nolte, Gary Larrison, yours truly, Jeff Wilkerson, assistant editor Joan Peters, editor Randall Parsons, Rod Best and faculty advisor Miss Danea White. (Not pictured: Bill Howard and Nadine Hoover. Nadine was a sweetie, and I hope she's happy and thriving, whatever her current circumstances may be.)

Randy Parsons was the president of the 1971 senior class, the fellow who spoke to us clueless frosh on Orientation Day, telling us about the school and the innate superiority of upperclassmen while also encouraging us to pursue extracurricular activities. I responded by following him out of the auditorium, calling "Mr. Parsons!" down the hall, and offering my services to The Mirror as film critic then and there. I'd already had some reviews accepted by CINEFANTASTIQUE, not yet published, which gave me this then-unusual measure of courage.

My chores on The Mirror, where I worked through my freshman and sophomore years, consisted of reviewing films and records and also writing/drawing a serial comic strip, Captain Norwood. Unfortunately, only two samples of the strip survive in my archive: the first and the very last, published toward the end of my freshman year. The final strip became a huge cause celebre at NHS when Captain Norwood was finally unmasked and revealed to be the school janitor, Fred Burnett, who became an overnight star. There's a picture in the 1971 Yearbook of Fred surrounded by a gaggle of prom girls, the poor man looking like a deer caught in the headlights of teenage sex. That picture is the success of Captain Norwood in a nutshell. I don't know why I didn't continue the strip in my sophomore year, when Mrs. Janet Fealy took over as faculty advisor. Possibly she wanted the paper to become a little less irreverent, or maybe I decided not to continue with it. I liked Mrs. Fealy; she was remarkably forgiving of my various crimes, like blasting The Mothers of Invention's "Billy the Mountain" on the paper office's turntable when I had no idea that she was sitting in the outer room, grading papers. The look she shot me as I emerged from the room with the record under my arm -- followed by a slow, head-shaking, half-complicit smile -- is one of my sweetest memories of high school.

Some other interesting folks here. I'm the only freshman in the picture. Gary Larrison, the senior standing to the left of me, was the first novelist I ever met. I remember him working on an original novel called THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX, undertaken for Independent Study, in the paper office. I was astonished by the ambition of his project and I asked him about it with great interest; it turned out to be my first glimpse of my own future life. Sharon Nolte, who looks remarkably like Donna looked when we first met two years later, was a nice girl, one of two (the other being Nadine) who cared enough to check on me at home during an extended absence after the 1972 suicide of my best friend, Mike Hennel.

Danea White was the most important teacher I ever had, though I never had the pleasure of taking one of her classes. In addition to being the paper's advisor, she became a personal friend and mentor, and there were a few times when she, her boyfriend (and later husband) John and I used my theater passes to go to the movies together. It was a great time for movies and we saw things like A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and EL TOPO, which I then reviewed for the school paper, though I doubt even my senior editor Randy was old enough at the time to be admitted to them. One day, Miss White and John surprised me by inviting me to lunch in that off-limits haven, the teacher's cafeteria, where my presence drew the codfish-eye from a few other teachers who regarded me as something of a ne'er-do-well. I credit Danea's interest in my talent and well-being with keeping me alive during a difficult period and with encouraging me to finally forsake my art interests to become a writer. My only regret is that we're standing so far apart in this picture, the only one ever taken of us together.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Throat Sprockets Cult

Pierre Olivier-Templier's cover art for the French edition of my novel THROAT SPROCKETS.

It has now been more than twenty years since I first published anything bearing the title THROAT SPROCKETS. It first appeared as a 12-page story in the premiere issue of Steve Bissette's horror anthology TABOO, published in the Fall of 1988. The initial tale was conceived as the first chapter of a graphic novel; it was illustrated in remarkable photo-realistic style by Mike Hoffman and garnered a lot of favorable attention. TABOO's debut issue also featured the work of comics royalty like Alan Moore, Steve himself, Eddie Campbell and Charles Burns, but many reviewers singled out "Throat Sprockets" -- my very first published work in comics -- as the collection's best story. I've never forgotten how, while attending an Ohio comics convention with Steve around that time, someone I knew locally (who had never really given me much of the time of day before) came up to the table where we were signing, clasped my hand in both of his, shook it vigorously, and congratulated me with all the earnestness of a priest. His sincere appreciation of the story was my first glimmer of the impact THROAT SPROCKETS would have on certain people.

I'd like to say "people" in general, rather than "certain people," because that would mean the initial positive reaction went on to become more widespread. Alas, while TABOO went on to introduce other developing graphic novels (like Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell's FROM HELL and Moore & Melinda Gebbie's LOST GIRLS), the graphic version of THROAT SPROCKETS was stillborn, never completed. This was partly due to the fact that Mike's photo-realistic style required so much time to execute, and also because my comics scripts -- possibly as a result from the Alan Moore SWAMP THING scripts that Steve used to school me in the technique -- were becoming not only more detailed and more complex, but untenably long. The second chapter, "Transylvania mon amour" in TABOO #3 (1989) ran a full 30 pages. In retrospect, it seems obvious that the graphic-novel-in-progress was crying out to become the traditional novel I eventually wrote. It was Steve who encouraged me to do this, and it took some doing because I had already written, and failed to sell, numerous other literary novels. But I knew I couldn't continue with the way things were going: my working relationship with Mike Hoffman worsened after we met, and my only contact with his successor David Lloyd (V FOR VENDETTA) -- who ultimately did a splendid job of illustrating the third story, "The Disaster Area" for TABOO #8 (June 1995) -- was a belligerent note he fired off to me on an Edward G. Robinson postcard, when I suggested adding a single panel to a page I had scripted. The three issues of TABOO in which the THROAT SPROCKETS arc appear -- numbers 1, 3 and 8, respectively -- are long out-of-print, but Steve makes a dwindling number of personal stash copies available at SR Bissette's Online Emporium. If you're at all interested, order now because the supply is just about gone.

I would never have proceeded with the novel without the support of a literary agent. My first agent, an enthusiastic young woman named Cathy Mahar, took on the project -- then, in a preview of things to come, decided to quit agenting just as things started happening. Cathy did give me the lead that got me accepted as a client by agent Lori Perkins, and Cathy and I kept in sporadic touch until I received the tragic news of her death, from a brain aneurysm, just weeks after she had sent me a congratulatory letter on the book's acceptance by editor Jeanne Cavelos at Dell. THROAT SPROCKETS was originally acquired by Jeanne to be part of her Abyss horror series, but because the manuscript was considered to be literary noir than traditional horror, it was held back from release a full year and finally issued in September 1994 as the first original novel under the new Cutting Edge imprint. It was preceded by the first softcover edition of Patrick McCabe's THE BUTCHER BOY (which featured an ad for THROAT SPROCKETS on its closing page), which had already appeared in hardcover from another company.

Despite a front cover endorsement by Bret Easton Ellis, a sexed-up subtitle I had nothing to do with ("A novel of erotic obsession"), and unanimous rave reviews, Dell's lack of promotional support (made worse by Jeanne's departure from the company and her replacement by a chilly editorial contact who, I was told, found my book offensive) killed it in its crib. Though Ellen Datlow called it the year's best first novel, THROAT SPROCKETS went unnominated in any of the fiction categories for literary horror awards. It was subsequently published in Great Britain by 4th Estate, who gave it lovely hardcover and softcover editions, and it fared somewhat better overseas than here. It was later translated into French by Simon Lhopiteau as SALLES OBSCURES ("Darkened Theatres") for Pocket Books' Terreur line in Paris. The cover of the French edition (pictured above, a painting by Pierre Olivier-Templier) is my personal favorite, one of the most extraordinary covers I've seen on any book. I so wish I owned the original.

THROAT SPROCKETS, the novel, has been named as one of the best horror novels by at least two reference books compiling such lists, and RUE MORGUE recently included it in a list of essential progressive horror fiction. Despite this continuing interest and support, the book has now been out of print for thirteen years, and there is no sign of it being reprinted and given a chance for broader recognition. With internet booksellers offering used copies at a lower price than it costs to mail it, I can easily understand, especially in this economy, why publishing companies might not see the wisdom of throwing new money in its direction. Though I make no profit from these used copies, they are like seedlings, continuing to bring me new readers brave enough to read fiction by someone principally known for writing non-fiction.

In the very first sentence of the first review of my book I ever read, a wonderful write-up in FANGORIA, Linda Marotta called THROAT SPROCKETS "the kind of novel around which cults are formed." The enthusiasm of her review braced me for imminent fame and fortune, which didn't come, but she was prophetic in that she foresaw a cult for the book.

If you type the words "throat sprockets" into the search engine at Amazon.com, you will be taken to a page that not only shows the various editions of my novel, but lists other works of fiction that, uncannily, pay it tribute. A story by VW's Kim Newman -- called "Castle in the Desert" in THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST NEW HORROR 12 and "The Other Side of Midnight" in VAMPIRE SEXTETTE -- namechecks the imaginary film in my novel as a real one, and a vivid character I mentioned only in passing, porn director Debbie W. Griffith, is discussed as though a real person. For all I know, today she may well be... it would sit well beside the fact that a 1996 horror novel, ESCARDY GAP by Peter Crowder and James Lovegrove, features a Nurse Sprocket (possibly a nod to my novel's "Once Upon a Time in the West" chapter, set in a hospital) and refers on page 252 to the "throat sprockets" of an old projector in a movie theater. Last year, Rayo Casablanca's novel 6 SICK HIPSTERS placed a copy of THROAT SPROCKETS in a character's apartment as a sign of their good taste. To my even greater surprise, two different books about music make reference to THROAT SPROCKETS, citing its depiction of cinemania as reflective of the masculine record collecting impulse.

Which brings us to this curious turn of events. As of last week, when you type "throat sprockets" into the Amazon.com search engine, my book is no longer the first thing you see. The newest THROAT SPROCKETS on the block is the debut CD (pictured) of an inventive and energetic band from Glendale, California, who call themselves, with my blessing, Throat Sprockets. The 14-track album on Cat Sandwich Records is available from both Amazon and CDBaby.com. CDBaby.com also makes it available as an mp3 download.

The lead singer of the group, who goes by the name Miss Lonelyhearts, sent me a copy of the disc for my thoughts. It's one of the most intimidating review duties I've ever had to face, because I feel a paternal connection to these fans of my book who wanted to carry its banner, so to speak. (Miss Lonelyhearts told me "It's the best band name since Led Zeppelin!") But what if I didn't care for what they produced under the auspices of my title? Would I want to withdraw my permission? Could I?

Fortunately, I need no longer fret over such questions because, having listened to THROAT SPROCKETS a few times, I do like it. It's noisy, quirky, clever and unpredictable. Like most debut independent releases, it finds the band still in the process of discovering their group identity, their group sound, but the search itself takes them through a series of interesting mutations. It's a map of their musical interests and ranges rather than a focused statement, and its presentation is so cryptic -- no personnel listing, no explanation for the front or back cover illustrations, and the album's opening and closing guitar notes are in Morse code -- that it conveys the feel of a message launched in a bottle, sent out in search of the right ears eager to listen.

"The Bruiser" is probably the most commercial and fully realized track of the bunch, but I find myself most attracted to the more lyrical "Small Potatoes" (really lovely) and "Violent Kisses," which I think feature the best singing on the album. Several songs have a strong melodic sense and, at the same time, a quirky experimental edge; the sound of Throat Sprockets is a slippery, busy, noodly sound, at different times whimsically juvenile, brashly teenage and emotionally armored young adult, veering somewhere between instrumental virtuosity and André Gide's admonition "Do not understand me too quickly." Sometimes the music and lyric are willfully contradictory. For example, "Each and Every Day" might have been the standout, but the bluesy gravitas of the lyric seems to belong to a different song, the accompaniment so contrary as to deny the emotions the words express. Miss Lonelyhearts, whose voice I file mentally between Joan Jett and Belinda Carlisle, alternates vocals with an unnamed male bandmember, but his tracks don't particularly grab me. I suspect the more melodic inclinations of the band will guide them to a unique group sound before their thrash numbers will, but it's the band's call, of course -- and everything depends on what they add to these building blocks. I'm told they have already moved on creatively from here, and will start recording their second album shortly.

Bottom line: Though I found the THROAT SPROCKETS album too scattershot to pin down as a whole, it held my interest throughout with its constant edge of invention, and it kept my foot tapping. It is engaging, and I'm proud to be reached by this latest ripple from the book I cast on the waters all those years ago.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Gone, or Updike Underground

The great American novelist John Updike has died, a lung cancer victim, at the age of 76.. As a stylist, he was certainly comparable to his great hero Vladimir Nabokov. A few of his novels (like THE CENTAUR) and most of his poetry I found insufferably precious, but the Rabbit books, his stories about the disintegrating Maple family, and even the Bech comedies are remarkable core samples of their times; I can remember images and turns of phrase from RABBIT REDUX, which I read more than 20 years ago, as vividly as I remember anything I saw with my own two eyes in the 1960s. Updike was also one of the great literary critics and essayists of our time, and the enormous books he published collecting this material -- PICKED-UP PIECES, HUGGING THE SHORE and ODD JOBS, for example -- are eminently worthwhile. He wrote especially well about nature, money, the realities of business and middle age, illicit sexual relationships and Herman Melville. I also loved the way he stuck with Alfred J. Knopf as his publisher from, I believe, his second book on -- the hardcovers under the dust wrappers forming a rainbow-hued uniform edition of his collected works. My title may seem irreverent, but remembering his own proclivities for alliteration and rhyme, I feel it is very close to the title he would have selected for his own obit.