Jack H. Harris, 1918-2017

March 27, 2017

jack_harris.jpgJack H. Harris passed away a couple weeks ago at 98 after a long and happy life. That name probably means nothing to you, but it means a lot to me. Mr. Harris was partially responsible for my Master’s degree.

Jack Harris was a movie producer with a real eye for developing talent: he produced the first features by John Carpenter and John Landis. But it was his own first feature that cements his place in Hollywood history. In 1958, Jack H. Harris produced THE BLOB.

5546b5c45040e_358452b-986x750.jpgIt was the age of exploitation in the movie business as the industry frantically swatted away against the incursion of television on its customers’ leisure time: movies needed to be — or at least seem to be — bigger, bolder, better. Plus, by the late Fifties the recently christened “teenager” had developed into its own lucrative category for marketers. As another contemporary showman put it, these kids loved cars, girls and ghouls. So movie after movie gave it to them. And towering over them all was a big ball of malevolent jelly, the frickin Blob.

The Blob’s from outer space. It falls to earth in a meteor or something. An old man pokes around the crash site with a stick into some goo that suddenly rushes up the stick and onto his arm! (The old roll-the-film-backward gag, but it looked good to us.) We never see this schnook again. Every time the Blob eats something it gets bigger and hungrier, and how are you going to stop it?

Now here’s the thing. The first people who realize we Earthlings are in trouble are…teenagers! Well, sort of. “Steven” McQueen, in his first leading role, was already 28, and his squeeze Aneta Corseaut — who went on to play Andy Griffith’s Mayberry love interest, Helen Crump — was 25, but you get the idea. The cops don’t want to hear from hepcat Lover’s Lane jalopy jockeys. No adult does. It gets worse and worse until the Blob finally makes its public debut at a crowded movie theater, and by now it’s the size of a movie theater. If the squares had only listened!

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The Blob is ready for its closeup at the Colonial Theater in Phoenixville, PA.

About fifteen years later, THE BLOB figured into a notion I was mulling for my Master’s thesis at the University of Georgia. I wanted to write something on popular culture — just entering the halls of academia at the time — but there had to be a serious subtext. I decided to look at fantasy and science fiction movies in the period from Hiroshima to JFK’s assassination (when our national innocence evaporated), through a Commiephobe’s point of view. Monsters were then wildly popular, I thesed, because Americans were frightened of Russian saboteurs and uneasy about the still unknown consequences of opening the nuclear Pandora’s box. Invading aliens represented…invading aliens. “Atomic testing” induced wild mutations, most frequently gigantism. And outer space was a fearful place: anything could drop from the sky. Even…a blob!

By now this all may seem obvious, but at the time — I remember listening to the Senate Watergate hearings over my shoulder while working — it was fairly unmowed ground. I touched on dozens of examples in the paper but went into greater detail on four movies, and one of them was THE BLOB. So I have a soft spot for that mound of mush.

Guys like Jack Harris weren’t trying to send a message. They were trying to make money. Most critics savaged THE BLOB, but it became a smash hit, and that means something. If a movie is popular, by definition a great many people have been persuaded to see it. So it is scratching some itch — maybe not even articulated but real just the same.

hqdefaultI’m not sure whether THE BLOB is still part of our shared culture. It once was. Everybody knew the goo, even if they hadn’t seen the flick. But everything has changed. One of the reasons I know Jack Harris’s name is that I created an appendix at the end of my paper with the critical info on about 150 movies, all laboriously gleaned from staring into a tv screen and jotting as fast as I could. At the time I considered that appendix a more important piece of scholarship than the paper itself. But it’s utterly worthless today. Every little cross-referenced mote, down to uncredited cameos, is available with a couple of clicks.

But they still remember THE BLOB in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, the real-life location of that famous movie theater attack. Every year they hold a Blobfest. The next one’s in July. I’ll bet it’s a little sadder now that Mr. Harris is gone, but they’ll honor his memory: after all, NOTHING CAN STOP IT!

Director JACK H. HARRIS poses for photographers as he recieves the 2;517th star on

In 2014, at 95, Jack H. Harris became the oldest honoree in the history of the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

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Two Good Movies (Four, Actually)

July 26, 2015

I saw two really good movies recently, but they’re both genre pictures and they might have slipped under your radar. Correct that if you care to: they’re both out on DVD.

th-1EX MACHINA is the latest and best in a mini-trend of thoughtful science fiction movies. (Even Tom Cruise’s recent EDGE OF TOMORROW has a tiny little brain under its light GROUNDHOG DAY veneer.) This one is about the essential Philip K. Dick concept, which has fascinated scientists for a century, readers for more than sixty years, and film honchos for maybe 35. It can be expressed in six short words: how do you know for sure?

You don’t have to be a techie to recognize the famous Turing Test. If a mechanical device can fool a human being into believing that it is human, does that not constitute intelligence? Alan Turing imagined a subject typing impromptu questions to a person and a computer and receiving their typed answers from the next room. If the interrogator can’t positively identify the human by session’s end, the contraption thus “passes” the Turing test. Should you find that laughably simple, consider the case of ELIZA, a program written at MIT in the mid-Sixties as (one would hope) a parody of Rogerian psychoanalysis. ELIZA simulates a responsive therapy session: “I’m troubled by bad dreams.” “Why do you think you have bad dreams?” “Because my father hates me.” “Who else in your family hates you?” The illusion of intelligence, which is actually only the ability to parse a few words, fooled many users, even after its amazed and delighted creator, Dr. Joseph Weizenbaum, patiently explained how ELIZA really worked. This blind tendency to map human emotions onto machines is today referred to as “the ELIZA effect.”

In EX MACHINA, we revisit the Turing test many, many, many iterations outward. In that proverbial Near Future, the young lad Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a contest staged by his employer’s brilliant, rich, eccentric founder, who became a modern Croesus by creating the greatest search engine in the history of the world. This Sergei-Musky figure, Nathan, is played by the mesmerizing Oscar Isaac, who is quickly becoming one of my favorite film actors. You can’t take your eyes off him, as you couldn’t in INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS or A MOST VIOLENT YEAR, in which he will remind you of the young Michael Corleone a dozen times. (Isaac will get to have more colorful fun in Disney’s forthcoming STAR WARS and X-MEN flicks.) Nathan soon reveals that the grand prize wasn’t just to spend a week at his magnificent, sheltered, high-tech research facility and bachelor pad as advertised, but much more: to be the subject in the most awesome Turing test in history, d00d. Nathan has created the next best thing to a human being (he chose the form of the gorgeous Alicia Vikander, a dancer by training whose movements marry mechanics and grace in a pleasant new way), and it will be up to Caleb to get to know her and evaluate Nathan’s achievement. Then, the first time the two are outside the compound’s ubiquitous zone of security cameras, “Ava” whispers: “Don’t trust him. Don’t believe anything he says.”

Wow. We’ve already been led by the nose several times here by writer-director Alex Garland, and we’re not even at the halfway point. Caleb has our empathy as the dewy innocent youngster. Nathan has already proven himself more asshole than could possibly be imagined, and he keeps pouring it on. Ava is far from a blank slate. And there are reversals and revelations galore still to come, which I won’t dwell upon. This is the man who wrote 28 DAYS LATER…, SUNSHINE, the English NEVER LET ME GO, and DREDD, so he knows from screenplays. Knock yourselves out watching the behind-the-scenes stuff that makes Vikander appear to be mostly mechanical. What makes EX MACHINA work hearkens back to the Turing test. It’s all about the effect of technological achievement on human beings.

thIT FOLLOWS is both the title and a comprehensive two-word synopsis of a clever new horror movie that’s been getting a great critical reception since its release earlier this year. (THE BABADOOK is another recent modestly-budgeted terror triumph that I heartily recommend.) The premise of IT FOLLOWS is simple and diabolical: there is such a thing as a sexually transmitted demon. When you have sex with an afflicted person, the demon begins pursuing you instead. Object: brutal murder. It can inhabit the body of anyone, even somebody you know. There’s only one of it, but it can switch hosts at will. It doesn’t move fast, only plods with a rhythmic gait — but it will keep on following you, however long it takes, until it kills you. You can get rid of it by having sex with someone else, thus transmitting the curse, but if that person dies, the demon will work its way back down the carnal trail and come after you again. One more hitch: nobody else can see or hear it. Only you. (And the audience, of course.) It’s the paranoid’s worst nightmare: something actually is out to get you, and there’s no way to prove it to anyone else. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS time.

When I was a kid, I loved the classic Universal monster movies; I still do, after adjusting a bit for subsequent sophistication. To me, the most disturbing monster wasn’t Frankenstein’s experiment, or Dracula, or the Wolfman, or Mr. Hyde, or the Creature from the Black Lagoon. The one that really got under my skin was the Mummy. Because the Mummy was relentless. Classmates used to sneer: anybody can outrun the Mummy, man. True enough, but if ever you desecrated its tomb, even if you then flew in a plane to the U.S., it would walk across the ocean floor if it had to, step by step, and one day it would catch up with you. This thing requires no sleep or rest, unlike you. IT FOLLOWS brings the same creepy unending unease without traveling to Egypt.

The Babadook comes from a book book book.

The Babadook comes from a book book book.

No, we’re in suburban Detroit, a bombed-out shell of a city that’s virtually deserted; this is that kind of “chamber piece” that exists in its own little claustrophobic world. The teenagers at the heart of the story encounter very few adults, and most of them are incarnations of the demon. There’s a quick gruesome shot early on to help establish how high the stakes are, but in general IT FOLLOWS depends on sustained dread, not graphic gore or cheap jack-in-the-box “gotcha!” moments. It’s a cousin to THE BABADOOK in this regard, and the polar opposite of such fare as the CHUCKY or FINAL DESTINATION franchises.

Writer-director David Robert Mitchell and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis get the most out of their digital gear, making a normal day look menacing (most of the setups in this horror movie are exteriors). They repeat a little motif I love, a slow left-to-right pan to set the scene. It’s innocent at first, but as they repeat the move once we’ve gotten used to the demon’s slow, determined rhythm, they’ll show it coming from way off in the background during the pan without visual comment. (Once we’re “punk’d,” but still.) By now we can make it out a mile away, but where a lesser talent would probably stop the move and push in, we just go, holy moley, girl, look behind you! A similar shot was one of the best moments in THE DESCENT (my fourth recommendation, a little bloodier though), as we pan past the trapped spelunking girls and get our first look at one of the cave-dwelling creepy-crawlies behind them. Did we just see what I think we saw? You don’t need a loud noise and a musical sting to jolt the viewer, or a big visual effects budget to make an impact. All you need is some old-fashioned creativity. The low-budget, high-powered IT FOLLOWS is crammed full of it.

That pan in THE DESCENT that wants to pass by what's in the background, while you're screaming,

That pan in THE DESCENT that wants to pass by what’s in the background, while you’re screaming, “Did I just go crazy?”

P.S.: If you’re interested in ELIZA, she’s actually available as an app. I doubt Prof. Weizenbaum is involved.

8/24/15: Maika Monroe, the young scream queen who stars in IT FOLLOWS (and THE GUEST, a terrific psychological thriller, so make that five good movies), was named today to VARIETY’s Ten Actors To Watch list for 2015. She is already getting attention among casting directors: she’ll star in the new INDEPENDENCE DAY flick.

11/30/15: ELIZA is now available in audio format via Amazon Echo (similarly known as “Alexa”). Just enable the “skill” and talk away. Same deal.


Fabula Interruptus And Other Problems

July 5, 2015
This adorable little moppet has a secret friend named Drill.

This adorable little moppet has a secret friend named Drill.

When I read that ABC was planning to turn Ray Bradbury’s short story “Zero Hour” into a tv series, I rolled my eyes, as I’m sure would most others familiar with the piece. It had been one of those pin-pricking yarns that really got to me as a kid, probably because of the parent issues involved. I was creeped out by “The Veldt” and Ray’s mushroom-growing boy in the same way. That ol’ Bradbury could really get under your skin, as in “Fever Dream,” another super-squirmish tale. The disquieting thing they all share is that the parents aren’t really, really listening, and it is they who putatively control reality for their kids. As a youngster in THE WHISPERS, the resulting series, tells her mother, grownups don’t know what’s really happening. They only think they do.

But wow, a whole tv series? This story can’t be more than 5,000 words long. Look it up and go read it right now. “Zero Hour.” It’ll take you fifteen minutes, tops. Then we’ll continue. If you have to order a Bradbury story collection to read “Zero Hour,” then I’ll see you after it arrives, at which point I will accept your gratitude for steering you to a really good book. You’re welcome.

Now. After watching as many episodes as tv critics usually get in advance to evaluate a new series (three or four), I have to concede that I’m rather pleased with how the WHISPERS writers have been able to “open up” the story. Having just read it (or watched or heard it; the previous two links guide you to tv and radio adaptations for printophobes), you already know, sort of, who or what the children’s invisible friend “Drill” is, and that is still the undercurrent that informs the entire shebang. But non-Bradburian plot points are opening up like flower petals as the little teeny story inspires a big multipart saga. And THE WHISPERS is hardly alone. We’re living in a Golden Age of scripted television. Not some fabled long ago. Right this dadburn second. But this age has brought with it some huge problems.

The LOST cast asks,

The LOST cast asks, “WTF?”

Everybody thought scripted tv had gone to hell after SURVIVOR ushered in a new wave of “reality” shows (they have their own writers, but let’s set that aside for now) as the century turned, and for a depressing little while it really looked that way. But creativity, like water, will always try to find a way into your home, and in my opinion the important hinge for scripted tv was fall 2004, when this same ABC premiered both LOST and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES. It’s true that THE SOPRANOS had started carving its path through the jungle as early as 1999. But subscription cable like HBO has a built-in ceiling. Even today, the recent record-breaking Season Five finale of GAME OF THRONES could only attract 8 million and change, meaning non-thief viewers coming from the subscriber pool. Those earlier two ABC series, in contrast, were beamed out on a Big Four broadcast network, and they flipped out the folks en masse.

(N.B.: Every time the Writers Guild calls a strike, it puts more writers out of work in the long run. “Reality” began as a palsied defensive salvo from the networks, but damn if it didn’t catch on!)

Soap operas and their prime-time cousins (e.g., DALLAS) aside, most dramas in the history of television had been episodic, meaning you could watch them in any order and they’d still make sense. LOST and DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES broke that mold on network tv. They were each one long serial tale, a series of weekly cliffhangers that not only required ordered viewing, but also felt compelled to feed the audience enough backstory at the top each week to create a new catchphrase: “Previously on LOST.” Now damn near everybody else works that way too.

The good news: a come-hither format that, when artfully executed, can deliver a sprawling story that resembles an epic novel but also makes you pant for next week’s continuation (this format took hold long before the instant gratification of streaming and bingeing became possible; see below). The bad news: these days it’s almost impossible to earn anything from domestic syndication, even with the jumbled-up episodic sitcoms that are perfect time-fillers and once celebrated their 100th episodes (they’d made enough of them to deal to local stations) more than their original green-lights: now we’re gonna get rich!

Even without the syndication market, LOST and HOUSEWIVES were such monster hits, bolstering ABC’s other shows on their air nights, that the law of diminishing returns was invoked and we began to see dozens of crappy imitators. Their fates helped change viewing patterns and, I submit, the very willingness of audiences to try out new programs.

THE EVENT cast asks,

THE EVENT cast asks, “WTF?”

An important personal touchstone was THE EVENT, a series that NBC launched in fall 2010, after LOST had just finally ended its six-year tale. Like LOST, THE EVENT was a vaguely foreboding story whose secrets and surprises began just out of camera range and were filled in gradually. The production looked like a million bucks, the cast were all seasoned pros, NBC promoted it as hard as humanly possible, and I started watching the 22-episode first season, having found a new hour per week with the finale of my beloved LOST. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough colleagues in dens and media rooms across the country, and NBC cancelled the program after a single season — even though the drumrolled “event” of the title had not yet taken place!

I felt cheated, foolish, taken advantage of. NBC had utterly wasted my time, pulled a rug out from under me. (Of course ratings are ratings and tv is a business, I get it, but I was still one disappointed customer.) However, THE EVENT did teach me a lesson. Now I’m wary enough to really pick and choose with healthy skepticism among the time-sinks competing for my attention. And I’m not alone. Nor is THE EVENT. While I was writing this piece, NBC pulled the plug on AMERICAN ODYSSEY, whatever that is, after one lone season. If you were interested in its story, better get disinterested right away.

This LOST/EVENT template, a weekly serial which may or may not actually reach its payoff, is being replicated all over the dial. Ten or twenty scripted mega-stories launch every year now. The latest innovation is the “summer series,” like UNDER THE DOME or THE STRAIN, which brings the tv calendar full circle and makes “the new season” year-round. But also spiking is the threat of cancellation.

An entire little town asks,

An entire little town asks, “WTF?”

This attrition-in-disgust resentment is not news to those who fashion our programs, the suits and showrunners. So some clever people decided to cut losses and introduce something new: the non-serial series. AMERICAN HORROR STORY proved so creepy and visceral that its producers said, renew us and we’ll reboot for another unrelated ten-episode story; all we’ll promise is the same sensibility. FARGO made the identical move: we’re going to set our ten episodes within the world of the Coen brothers’ movie, then we’ll reset and try another story within the same milieu. (That’s how you can get, say, Billy Bob Thornton to star: the gig has an end date.) I read that WAYWARD PINES was always planned as ten episodes with a beginning and an end, but it’s been doing pretty well, so we’ll see if Fox can resist the temptation to plod on serially.

A single member of the WAYWARD PINES cast asks,

A single member of the WAYWARD PINES cast asks, “WTF?”

THE WHISPERS, the Bradbury-inspired series, begins with the story’s unsettling premise — single-digit children in an idyllic Bradburian suburban setting begin playing “a game” with their friend, whom older siblings and adults cannot perceive — and then opens into a dark conspiracy involving defense secrets, an unexplainable something found on the other side of the world, an amnesiac who seems to be oddly connected to it all, and two troubled marriages that help keep the proceedings at human level. Like Stephen King’s best novels, like LOST itself, THE WHISPERS is most effective when the audience is still digging through the initial mysteries. As the writers inevitably begin to explain themselves, the piece visibly loses power, like many second halves of King novels. That’s also happening with Fox’s isolated-town tale WAYWARD PINES, whose “reveal” (if indeed true; I haven’t read the source books so can’t be sure) is so preposterous that it induces a bit of recoil in the viewer. Its isolated-town cousin, UNDER THE DOME, which just began its third season on CBS, is suffering from the same problem: the story is getting away from itself through weirder and weirder complications (LOST devotees may empathize). I have read DOME’s source novel — by our pal Stephen King — and if the book’s ultimate reveal is preserved for tv, there are going to be some angry viewers, because it just doesn’t support the ever more elaborate buildup.

Everybody in THE WHISPERS except the adorable children ask,

Everybody in THE WHISPERS except the adorable children ask, “WTF?”

The fly in the ointment, of course, is streaming. HOUSE OF CARDS fans on Netflix are watching a serialized story too, but they can consume a whole season’s worth over a weekend, because the entire batch is released at once. Network tv uses a different business model, so they’re obliged to beg you to take a chance. In opposition, Netflix is teaching viewers that they can put off weekly gratification in favor of having the whole enchilada. (Back in the heyday of DVD, many people would buy whole seasons on disk and tear through them all at once. Binge-watching is nothing new.) If the networks worked that way, they’d have to “drop” a season for streaming and wait for the reaction before green-lighting the next one. Meanwhile more and more viewers will still call their bluff and fail to commit until they’re sure there will be a satisfying major-chord ending. The relationship between creator and consumer may be turning into a Leone/Tarantino Mexican standoff.

And that’s gonna make a great open-ended series.

7/27/15: WAYWARD PINES ended with a startling turnabout (evidently departing from the source books) that will encourage some to want a theoretical second season. They did explode the initial premise, but they are not leaving it alone.

8/31/15: I knew it. UNDER THE DOME is no more.

10/22/15: And today we learned that ABC is sending THE WHISPERS to the tv graveyard after one season. It started strongly, but then the writers slowly went nuts. By season’s end, the only thing left from Bradbury’s story was the name Drill.

6/2/16: WAYWARD PINES, now ensconced in its Season One-ending setting and minus most of its Season One cast, has devolved into the Rebels against the Empire. I quit watching forever after about :20. Everything that was fresh in S1 has been leached out. Ugh.


The Recall Of Cthulhu

October 27, 2014


UnknownThis story was first published in THE REPENTANT, a 2003 anthology edited by Brian M. Thomsen and Martin H. Greenberg. I send it out to all H. P. Lovecraft fans this Halloween. Boo!

One drives nervously through certain rural country in north central Massachusetts, far from the bustling metropolae of learning and commerce, without even knowing why. The crisp New England air becomes heavy and foetid, even inside an automobile insulated from the elements. The roadside flora offer no solace, for the traveller who might be soothed by the emerald grandeur of lush, verdant hills is instead assaulted by bramble patches and unkempt stands of forest grasping over the motorway, which is bathed in unremitting dusk even as the sun gleams its brightest. When the visitor finally can make out signs of human habitation, they too seem unnerving: broken, pitted wood fences long lain un-repaired; foul rusting yokes upon which large, lean black birds rest at odd angles and stare at passers-by with disquieting intensity; wilting plants of indeterminant genus that push obscenely out of denuded grey land once slit by a plow but thence shunned by its owner.

Nor can the crutches of civilization thrive here for long. When this dank region is spoken of at all, it is chiefly by returning travelers in muffled tones of dread and relief. One finds, they report, that the clammy hand of night can here reach even into the protective cocoon of an auto. No timbre save hissing static may be retrieved from a radio. Tape and disk mechanisms develop curious problems: they are unable to emit the sounds encoded on them and sometimes slow down or speed up unaccountably; various pilgrims have reported slow gutteral resonance not unlike the groaning song of the great leviathans of the deep, while others have heard distressing atonal piping that vaults upward on its alien scale to attain a painful pitch beyond hearing. The unluckiest have experienced mechanical problems, made most ominous by the imminent approach of night-fall, and more than one veteran of the long and lonely byways must suppress a shudder as he recounts the supreme unease with which he stepped out of the car to investigate this or that echoing rattle or metallic sigh.

The portable telephones which have so infested our sophisticated culture are here as useless as one of these Yankee farmers’ abandoned fenceposts — either the land brings its guests too far away from the technological world for communication to reach, or else there is some force, whether climatological or, worse, self-determined, which conspires to isolate this area from the orbit of rational discourse and reason. Looking this way and that, the visitor tends to slink back to the false shelter of the automobile and pledge to deal with the issue later, far away in a warm bed, if only the damned machine will successfully transport him. Never has anyone who has voyaged upon these dark lanes evinced the slightest desire to return.

Those who bravely or naively continue to peer out the window, while they negotiate the curving wooded roads toward blessed home, can usually discern the inhabitants of this forsaken clime. They are a solemn and oddly distanced lot, gazing without expression from well-trodden pasture or from the porches of tiny colonial-style houses which are not quite plumb, misshapen in a way that provokes revulsion instead of empathy, and glistening in a foul chitinous fashion as if constructed from the carapace of a giant insect. Their dwellings are spaced miles apart from each other, and no wonder, for they do not seem to particularly relish the company of humankind. There is no wave toward the passing vehicle, no smile, no acknowledgment. Only heads slowly turning to follow the progress of a car will betray the fact that the native watchers are indeed alive. The motorist wishes to escape their forbidding community no more ardently than the citizens of Dunwich wish to see him gone.

It was in the encroaching gloom of late afternoon that one of them, an ancient dairyman named Abner Brockman, followed the latest vehicle with his vacant and sallow gaze until the sound of its passing gave way to the stillness that always pervaded the stricken countryside at this time of the day. He turned back to his herd, a feeble collection of desultory animals which nosed their way through a dirt-pocked pasture nearly picked clean. The scent of mould and decay was on the air, and Brockman instinctively looked upward apprehensively in the direction of the table-like rock of Sentinel Hill. He was unable to make out the summit in the diminishing light, but he needed no visual confirmation of the barren hillock where no tree, shrub, or blade of grass would ever grow.

The first whippoorwill of evening raised its lonely moan, and Brockman pulled his jacket tight against his neck. These birds frightened and distressed the residents of Dunwich, where local superstition held that whippoorwills were creatures that waited for the souls of the dying, and that their cries are timed to the wretched victim’s last breath. It was still early and the bird was joined by no others, but that did not prevent a shiver from coursing through Brockman’s body as the dull silence descended again.

The metallic clang of a cowbell bit the air as old Sarah, Brockman’s doddering prize Guernsey, padded toward the fence. Something was bothering her. Her tail swatted furiously and she picked up speed. Now the other cows joined in, bleating pathetically and fighting to escape the middle of the field—not in one direction but toward all sides in a stampede from the center. Whatever the disturbance was, it emanated from a bald patch that the half-ton animals were laboring to flee. Brockman moved closer.

Suddenly the ground heaved with a sharp jolt, as if an explosion had been set off beneath. The cattle leaped away with even greater force. As Brockman stared in amazement, a tight plume of dirt sprayed into the air like water from a fountain and left a small hole in the pasture, through which something was struggling to emerge.

A cloven hoof pawed its way out of the hole and was joined by another. The hooves strained to widen the aperture, and a bovine nose appeared, snorting with a prodigious effort. Rooted to the spot, Brockman watched as the fawn-colored head of a full-grown Guernsey pulled into the light. How had the beast fallen into the earth?, he wondered. And how was it possibly attaining the strength to correct its condition? The rest of the herd had run as far away from the bizarre display as pasture fencing would allow, many of them headed in the direction of Sentinel Hill, which it had always before been their nature to shun.

The forward half of the cow was now free, and it used its hooves as leverage against the plane of the pasture. With a moist pop the rear half emerged, and Abner Brockman’s grip on sanity loosed to the point of dissolution. For he was accustomed to the creatures of a natural order; what he now beheld was an atrocity from somewhere past the known laws of biology, beyond the three dimensions which deluded men of science into believing they had any inkling of the soul-shattering mysteries that long predated the emergence of Homo sapiens on the planet.

About halfway down its body, the creature simply failed to be a cow any more. It was covered with matted black fur, through which protruded dozens of wormy grey tentacles, each waving and undulating independently to create a horrible writhing skirt below which no legs protruded. At the end of each tentacle was a reddish sucker, opening and closing with a hideous sodden sound. Where the tail might have been on a normal beast was a longer, thicker trunk or feeler that swayed and pushed against the ground. A greenish-yellow substance with the consistency of syrup oozed from the fur surrounding the tentacles; its mouldy ichor attacked Brockman as surely as if he had been struck by a fist, and he felt the ache of nausea rise in his belly as the rank odor hung heavily on the still air.

As Brockman watched in stupefaction, sets of eyeballs asserted themselves among the fur and disappeared, only to re-emerge at another spot. They were constantly winking into existence and receding, all over the creature’s rear section. Then a slit appeared in the midsection and opened slightly to reveal a set of canine teeth, above which a larger set of reddened eyes appeared and set, then a nose. The dark fur over the obscene countenance lightened while Brockman watched and resolved into a half face, elongating impossibly along the side of the beast until it was better than a yard wide, an impossible imitation of the human form. It was still barely recognizable as the cruelly distorted face of a young man, topped by crinkly albino hair, whose eyes were now jutting wide with exertion as it attempted to speak.

The mouth moved slowly and a deep bass rumble issued forth from it, a noise that at first sounded like an animal growl. But as the cavity opened and closed, a ghastly green tongue occasionally protruded to help produce a variety of humming, clicking and sibilant sounds, and somehow Brockman understood that there was an intelligence operating this blasphemy. The cow’s head that remained on the damned pseudo-beast raised its snout skyward, and matched the unearthly noises coming from its torso. In unison, the twin vocal boxes spewed what sounded at first like gibberish, but then resolved into strange croaking words:

Ygnaiih…N’gai…Y’bthnk…Bugg-shoggog…my mother…YOG-SOTHOTH!”

That was enough for Abner Brockman. He fell to his knees, blubbering nonsensically, drool rolling out of the sides of his mouth, then pitched forward into a cowpie. His hair follicles were already beginning to lose their color, and his reason was forever lost with them as the abomination moved wetly toward him.

F’tagn Whateley slithered closer to the fallen man and his extensions drooped in frustration. He had tried everything he could think of to make a connection. He had taken on the frame of the creatures with which this human had surrounded himself. He had made the vibrations of welcome, had even used the human tongue—and eyes! F’tagn could smell success as the man watched and tried to comprehend, and he had undulated with excitement. But it was always the same. Was he so horrible? His life surely was. Some Great Old One he was making.

F’tagn couldn’t help that he was a halfbreed. It wasn’t his fault that mapped upon his handsome glutinous frame was part of a human face, elongated in a fetching way to be sure, but still there. He was a twin, born several human generations ago of Old One and earthly woman in an arcane ritual atop Sentinel Hill that was supposed to seal the eventual fate of humankind. But that still made F’tagn a pup in the multifaceted eyes of the rest of his dad’s crew. He hadn’t even been around for one single aeon. And it was so hard to fit in. Most of the other Old Ones turned their tentacles away whenever F’tagn oozed by, repulsed by the human half of him. They could sense it, smell it. After all, the rest of them were from some grand unnamable place beyond angled space. F’tagn was from Massachusetts.

Eternal life was so unfair.

Pop could have thought of this before he had congress with old albino Lavinia Whateley that randy night so long ago. In the phrase of the daemons of Nyarlathotep, what possessed him? Several of the night-gaunts that hung around the great stone city of R’lyeh, now sunken in the ocean, would chitter conspiratorially at the sight of F’tagn, and it was plain that his Great Old Man had done a bit of bragging at some point. Everybody was curious about the physical details: how’d you do it, stud? A couple of shoggoths had gone out and experimented with farm animals in the vast Midwestern regions, but when the smoke cleared, all that was left were mutilated cows and frustrated shoggoths.

But however he’d managed it, F’tagn was living proof that Pop was a sexual pioneer. F’tagn and his twin brother Wilbur. The lucky bastard—actually, they were both bastards—Wilbur had favored their mother. He could pass for human in Dunwich, and he grew up among people. They may have distrusted him, even feared him, because Whateleys tended to keep to themselves, and that kind of behavior attracts gossip, especially in New England.

But at least Wilbur got to be out there in the world. In contrast, F’tagn had been boarded up in the second story of his grandpa’s house for most of the time he was a Young One. That experience would create psychological problems in most any kid, but F’tagn had inherited something that nobody had expected, certainly not his dad. He had been conceived as a leader of the new generation. But F’tagn was proud of his human side, and he yearned to communicate with his half-kind.

It didn’t help that Wilbur had seemed as intent on bringing forth the reign of the Great Old Ones as fervently as any shambler from the stars. Wonderful. He gets the gene of human appearance, and what does he do with it? He devotes his life to the destruction of the world order and the domination of conquerors from the depths of time and space. Not to mention the fact that Wilbur hadn’t bothered to hide his disdain for their mother, insane and decrepit though she might have been. Toward the end, before Wilbur overstepped his bounds and got his just deserts, she had even grown afraid of him. F’tagn felt for her. But every time he tried to reach out like a good son, his mom would run screaming from the house.

Like most humans who were zealous enough or nuts enough to look into the apocalypse issue, Wilbur had gotten a lot of it wrong. The drill was that great Cthulhu, the Oldest of Old Ones, was dreaming in the ocean, in his house in the sunken R’lyeh, waiting for some clever folks to unearth certain forbidden books and spit out just the right incantations. That would open the cosmic gates and bring back the original rulers of the planet, the Great Old Ones. The entire posse would come roaring in to devastate the world and, of course, tear out the humans—including the incantors, which would make necromancy a pretty self-limiting career path.

Of course, this was all horseshit.

To call the Old Ones back, no mumbo-jumbo was needed. They had never left in the first place. Insanity and nightmare were their calling cards the world over, and they’d developed plenty of insidious ways to mess with human beings. And Cthulhu could pop in whenever he wanted, thank you very much. He was dreaming in R’lyeh, sure, but that was only because he was exhausted. In this aeon alone, he’d worked on the Black Plague, about three dozen major wars and the Holocaust—and those little numbers had happened without Wilbur’s or anyone else’s help. Why eradicate the human race when it was much more fun to play with them, to instill terror and suffering that would really last? The Old Ones learned their lesson when they snuffed out the dinosaurs. So dumb. The old-timers told F’tagn that it had been very, very boring for several aeons afterward.

But that didn’t prevent people like Wilbur from finding the old dusty tomes and trying to make sense of the ornate gobbledygook inside. The trouble was, these books only had small pieces of the picture, and more often than not, completely distorted ones. The one they called the Necronomicon in particular was fairly fashionable among the hooded-robe set, but it would embarrass them like crazy if they ever got a faithful translation. Like somebody just starting to learn a foreign language, these weekend wizards would say the most hilarious things. You wanted to finish their sentences for them and put them out of their misery. Wilbur himself spent more than one night up at the old stone altar on Sentinel Hill making this ludicrous pained face, clamping his hands to his temples like an idiot and screaming “YOG-SOTHOTH!” Which to Old Ones simply means, “How ya doing?” or, to a tentacled creature like himself, “How’re they hanging?” F’tagn had slipped into his native tongue when he was talking to the man lying before him; he realized he should have continued speaking in human, but the concentrated effort it required had just been too great.

This obsession of F’tagn’s with human connection, which most of the Old Ones considered a debilitating fetish, meant that he had few friends. He didn’t consider it a big loss: they lived in a dimension of their own, oddly shaped angles and all. These fuddy-duddies were so non-Euclidian! But he did get out socially. For example, there was the monster who had become close to a Boston painter named Richard Upton Pickman, even posed for him in his gallery. That was fascinating. F’tagn hung around him for a while, peppered him with questions about the relationship, but it became clear that there had been no real communication, that he was dealing with a beast who just enjoyed seeing himself in pictures. It was a matter of ego, not empathy. Plus there was the upsetting fact that the model had been rendered while in the process of devouring a human being. No matter how many times he heard somebody say that they were just animals, F’tagn could never develop a taste for human flesh.

In general, F’tagn was shunned and mocked as a disappointment to his father, whom he hadn’t seen in decades. No doubt Pop was out haunting some other poor lonely hamlet, making a hundred eyes at another disturbed human waif. He had a swaggering new reputation to uphold, after all. But F’tagn got the definite idea that Pop had wanted to use his cross-dimensional ardor to improve his own standing, to suck up to Cthulhu. It would be the ultimate desecration, creating a new race of conquerors from the very wombs of their prey. And starting off with twins, to boot! But the splitting of the seed from beyond had unexpected effects—as perhaps might have been expected if anyone had bothered to reflect on it in the first place. Wilbur got the looks. F’tagn got the heart. And the Whateleys would go down in history as the single most dysfunctional family on earth—or under it.

F’tagn was the first of a new line of Old Ones. Just not the kind Pop had wanted.

F’tagn was so sorry. Sorry that his own kind made dinner out of people. That his very countenance was enough to cause a simple farmer to go mad. That Old Ones carried such dimensionist bigotry along with them every century of their lives. The world was a big place—big enough so that one day, just maybe, if they tried very hard, two species might walk hand in feeler, together at last in peace and harmony. Well, any change begins with a single act. And F’tagn Whateley was going to be the being who got the ball rolling.

A sharp clap of thunder disturbed F’tagn’s reverie and he looked down at the wretched dairyman before him. Thankfully, he had lost consciousness. It was tough to make out his features in the deepening gloom. F’tagn brushed his face gently with a tentacle, an action that would probably have returned Abner Brockman to sleep had he witnessed it. The silence that had ruled the late afternoon gave way to the excited cries of a flock of whippoorwills, and F’tagn looked up to the sky. The hellish birds had massed above the barren Devil’s Hop Yard on the ridge, circling in frenzy. Then, on an invisible signal, they poured down the hill toward Dunwich.

F’tagn knew what that meant. They were trolling for the souls of those who were about to die.

Old Ones must be gathering, he realized, for a night of carnage.

He shambled down the hill as quickly as he could move and headed for the town square.

One of the many advantages Old Ones had over humans was that they could move among them unnoticed, walking as they will between the dimensional spaces. You could never fool an animal, not even one as dumb and sweet as a cow, and more than one victim-to-be had made the mistake of ignoring a barking dog or hissing cat which sensed the mind-shattering presence of an Other. Besides, the way most of F’tagn’s cousins looked, it would be impossible to sneak in anywhere without the protective coat of invisibility. He doubted that even Pop could have scored the way he did without sparing his paramour the family’s good looks. So most OOs began their fun with auditory and olfactory components. They’d bang on walls and doors, and leave their spoor in the middle of a room—it didn’t take long for it to develop a smell of decay so acute that it could fell a starving hyena. Another popular gag was to leave tentacular tracks in the dirt or snow and watch some superstitious outdoorsman babble with fear as he tried to explain. F’tagn didn’t approve, but this was all fairly harmless stuff.

But Old Ones couldn’t hide from each other. And when he arrived in town, F’tagn saw immediately why Dunwich had attracted so many whippoorwills. Though the locals may not have realized it yet, their fair township had just become host to a veritable Double-O convention. For some reason, lots and lots of things were here.

The square was a riot of slithering, crawling, scuttling, shambling beings of every description imaginable, and some that probably weren’t. The fishboys from Innsmouth were here, the pyramid people from frozen Antarctica, the three-lobed burning eye, the goat with a thousand young, the jelly things, the fungous orbs from Vermont, the shining trapezohedron creatures, the blasphemous bee buzzers, the haunters of the Monolith, and many more. Even Pickman’s model had bestirred itself to wander up from Boston for the occasion.

Of course. The occasion. All became clear.

Hallowmass.

It was the closest thing to a holy moment—had they dared to describe it as such—on the Old Ones’ eternal calendar, the night when, as one, they reaffirmed their dominion over their weak, timid enemies in a gruesome orgy of gluttony and debauchery. They always fasted before the big day to make sure they were supremely hungry. F’tagn had once described the celebration to a scale-crusted frog-man as “the spring break from hell,” but there was no response from the humorless batrachian.

This year, for Hallowmass, they had selected F’tagn’s home town, right under his nose. Why did it not surprise him that he hadn’t been invited?

The ghastly conveneers massed against a tiny schoolhouse, its windows warm with golden firelight. Judging from the agitation of the whippoorwills, now piping as loudly as they could, there were quite a few people inside—no doubt terrified by the cacophony of noises outside and a nose-burning aroma beyond description, so pungent that it threatened to beat down the door all by itself. F’tagn could hear wails through the walls, and was dismayed to make out the cries of children among them.

The front flank moved toward the door, as much in unison as their varying methods of locomotion would allow. F’tagn knew what would follow. The famished mob would take corporeal form and visit an unspeakable fate upon those inside—keeping them alive as long as they possibly could. Dunwich would become an abattoir, and augment its reputation as a haunted, doomed spot for years to come.

F’tagn screwed together his courage and slithered past the leading edge, his back to the door. The creatures halted, puzzled. Most of them had never met F’tagn before, and their antennae, feelers and eyestalks sent them mixed signals. The stench of human was definitely upon this one, but he looked as much like an Old One as did the most horrific of the Hallowmass revelers.

Panting with hunger and anticipation, a monkey-crab feinted toward F’tagn with his pincers and scampered back, but he held fast. The crowd moved inexorably closer, and F’tagn readied his most threatening infra-bass roar. He had no chance against so many, but maybe they would think twice about harming one of their own. If that was in fact how they regarded him.

Three pink, gelatinous rats, each the size of a large cat, ran in to attack. F’tagn let loose his howl and swiped at them with a tentacle, and they leaped back toward the crowd. But it was already so close that there was no room to retreat. As the front rank recoiled from F’tagn’s aria of aggression, they were pitched over by the body mass pressing in, and the rats took the full weight. Tiny bones cracked and the hellish rodents squealed in mortal pain. But what really turned the tide was the delicious iron smell of blood.

This was too much for the carnivores in the mob, which was just about everybody. Those closest to the rats literally fell on them and began dining, but they had to compete with a host of maddened rivals made delirious by the scent. One scratching, slicing fight led to another, and soon interdimensional blood was flowing all over the square as the Hallowmass convention proceeded to devour itself. It was the most horrible sight F’tagn had ever seen.

Upstairs, the whippoorwills had no idea what to do. Prepared to capture human souls from the schoolhouse, they were thrown into pandemonium. Without direction or purpose, they flew around at random, keening their annoying piping sounds and smashing into each other at full speed—only to become main courses themselves as they descended upon the grasping mob.

Within a few minutes, the crowd had lessened by more than half, and it was evident where the excess had gone. Happy, finally sated Old Ones exchanged pleasantries, made signs of mutual respect in the limited number of physical ways that they could manage, and promised to meet again next year. Only a few malcontents–like Pickman’s model, who had, not unexpectedly, survived–complained about the lack of human on the menu; many more raved over the exciting, unexpected way that the meal had been served. It was clear that this event would be one of those legendary stories told to jealous Old Ones who had had the misfortune to be elsewhere, for aeons to come.

F’tagn leaned back against the door, inside which the schoolroom had gone completely silent, what with the piping and clawing and chewing. Maybe he hadn’t communicated with his human half-kind. But he had saved them from a fate they would be better off not knowing about. F’tagn was happy. He’d started something between Old Ones and humans. Maybe even gone a small way toward affecting the Old One diet! He was just starting to plan what to do next, when. . .

. . .F’tagn Whateley disappeared from the spot, and from Dunwich, forever.

A long time must have passed, for F’tagn was groggy when he awoke in a great city of granite and marble, of monoliths and sepulchers. And water. Lots of water in this city. There was only one place it could be.

R’lyeh. Cthulhu’s undersea crib.

F’tagn started to get up, but his human-face torso was chained to a stone tablet and each tentacle was restrained. He had to shut all his eyes when he pulled against the chain.

The Hallowmass episode had gotten back to the boss somehow. How could it not? He sighed. Pop’s experiment with earthly union had produced a mutant. And evidently it hadn’t amused the big guy—F’tagn was responsible for too many dead and digested Old Ones. Not to mention disturbing a long Cthulhuian dream.

The leader had spoken. He’d pulled the plug. F’tagn was out of commission.

Well, so be it. Maybe R’lyeh was the right place for him now. Maybe he might even get to meet the great thing. Maybe talk to him. Maybe the next time Cthulhu woke up and rubbed his many eyes, they could reason together. Plan a new future for the dimension that gave F’tagn birth.

After all, stranger things had happened. Way, way stranger.

And besides, F’tagn had aeons to think about it.

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“The Recall of Cthulhu” Copyright © 2003 by Tom Dupree.

All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.


Besides Rocky Horror

August 30, 2014

Phantom-of-ParadisePHANTOM OF THE PARADISE, Brian De Palma’s 1974 movie, has a special place in my heart – and in the hearts of only a select few others, as we shall soon see. Back when I was writing about rock music, my very first transcontinental record-company junket took me to Los Angeles, also a first for me. There, during my three-or-four-day visit, I interviewed the Hudson Brothers and their showrunner Chris Bearde at the fabled “Television City in Hollywood,” talked to and dined with Neil Bogart at his Casablanca Records office on Sherbourne Drive just off the Sunset Strip and a nifty little disk-biz bistro called Lost On Larrabee, partook of an American smoking mixture from a huge Hefty bag proffered by Casablancan Larry Harris back on Sherbourne, learned how to play backgammon, and actually attended one of those weird Hollywood parties you see in movies. At mine, one pontificator who claimed he was a “script doctor” and seemed falsely modest about his contributions to famous flick after famous flick had this rapt audience of dropped jaws, but I couldn’t call bullshit on him because culturally I might as well have been in Latvia: he could have been the scriptus emeritus for all I — “Tom’s with Rolling Stone down South” — knew. However, it’s a further activity on that trip which brings me back to our subject, which I still consider De Palma’s finest film.

My hostess, a music publicist, had arranged for us to see a very early screening on the 20th Century-Fox lot, but only a rough assembly, so I had to promise (in writing) not to write about it until the finished flick was released later in the year. There were only three in the audience: yhos, my hostess, and Charles Champlin, the chief film critic for the Los Angeles Times, who sat right next to me.

You might have been tempted to say, “loved THE GOLD RUSH, Mr. Chaplin, huh huh huh,” but I’d just been through a graduate-level curriculum in Radio/TV/Film, had not quite yet defended a thesis on Fifties monster movies that I’d written in spurts while tearing myself away from the televised Watergate hearings, and had been introduced to meaningful world cinema by an early-Seventies PBS series called FILM CLASSICS. It mined the storied Janus Films vault and screened these brilliant works of art as the distributor insisted: uncut, uninterrupted, undubbed. It was a film school on your television set. And this luminous series was hosted by none other than, let’s see if I can remember, oh yeah, Charles frickin Champlin.

The Phantom Of The Paradise. He got his face caught in a record-pressing machine.

The Phantom Of The Paradise. He got his face caught in a record-pressing machine.

At first I was just frozen, as you would be if Bill Clinton plopped down next to you at the multiplex. Yes, this was a screening room, yes, they did have quarter-cut sammidges for refreshment, yes, there was a tiny gooseneck light to help you take notes without disturbing the next film critic, but damn! Trust me, in the early Seventies Champlin was the tv face of movies, the Roger Ebert of his time, but for cineastic snobs he was even better: he was a fine-flick-crittin STAR! I stammered out something. My memory is, whatever I managed was inadequate. But “Chuck” – he was hot shit in this room, knew the projectionist by name, surely I was just piggybacking on a screening he’d already set up – shook my hand and then waved for the feature, tout de suite. We did not speak afterward except to say goodbye. But by then my face had already melted off by what we’d been summoned there to watch: De Palma’s movie.

The assembly we saw was raw, but it did begin with a two-minute opening narration by Rod Serling, the first thing we heard after the Fox fanfare. For some reason Serling’s uncredited voiceover was excised from most of the versions I saw on pay-tv or cassette over the years; it was recently restored for the DVD re-release, and now Shout Factory has presented a Blu-Ray edition that can make you a PHANTOManiac. I will pause while you purchase and watch this gem.

The three-man chorus that constantly re-invented themselves. P.S.: this was before Kiss.

The three-man chorus that constantly re-invented themselves. P.S.: this was before Kiss.

In case you didn’t, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE is a musical satire about Seventies excess that mashes up FAUST, THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. You know, the obscure one that doesn’t feature a character named Rocky Horror. Composer Winslow Leach (William Finley) has written a masterful cantata, but his music is stolen by Swan, a ruthless, powerful record exec (played by Paul Williams, who also wrote the movie’s great original songs) even more sinister than Phil Spector, on whom the character is evidently modeled. There’s a cute chanteuse (Jessica Harper, in her first movie) who’s born to sing Winslow’s work, but the evil Swan goes commersh instead and hires a glam-rock shrieker named Beef (Gerrit Graham in a show-stealing part). Meantime, Winslow has had his face mangled in a record press, so he wears a mask and cape that he steals from Wardrobe and skulks around a la Lon Chaney, determined to sabotage Swan’s artistic sacrilege. The funny yet plausible songs range from doo-wop to beach to piano ballad to metal (performed by an ever-morphing Greek-chorus of two guys from National Lampoon’s LEMMINGS and their pal), as Williams sheds the MOR roots that made him famous. And the whole clambake is built by the brilliant Jack Fisk, lit by the brilliant Larry Pizer, and staged by the brilliant Brian De Palma. It is a hoot and a half, and hasn’t lost its power to dazzle in forty years.

The hilarious Gerrit Graham as Beef. A little too close to emerging reality.

The hilarious Gerrit Graham as Beef. A little too close to emerging reality.

It had a rough start. In script form, this project was called PHANTOM OF THE FILLMORE, but Bill Graham didn’t like some of the stuff that would have happened in his putative theater, so he declined permission. The producers shortened it to PHANTOM, actually did opticals using that title, and then heard sternly from whoever owned Lee Falk’s old comic strip character. So, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE. But wait, there’s more. Universal Pictures decided that the project trod upon its character the Phantom of the Opera (laughable, sure, U almost certainly would have lost a lawsuit, but in order to release their film the producers still had to settle), and finally, adding insult to injury, Led Zeppelin’s manager Peter Grant sued over the pic’s use of the “Swan Song” record label, even though Zep had founded its identically named label after principal photography had wrapped. But Grant prevailed – he held a legit trademark, whether coincidental or not – forcing the filmmakers to optically remove each prominent representation of the words “Swan Song,” on which De Palma had based his narrative. There was to be a continuing visual motif that would introduce each scene by pulling back from a Swan Song logo – see, Swan was everywhere – but due to Zep’s lawsuit it was abandoned for release (you can compare one instance on the new Blu-Ray extras). For the rest of the movie, these horrible shimmering mattes obscure the Swan Song name and change it to “Death Records” (this is pre-CGI, remember). They’re ugly even to me; those mattes must absolutely break the hearts of the filmmakers. So it’s amazing that you can overlook these obvious warts – the poor schnooks were in trouble even before their title sequence was done – and settle back for a wild and wooly ride full of enough visual information to overpower any amount of ragged retro-fitting.

Paul Williams and William Finley. Lovely.

Paul Williams and William Finley. Lovely.

You think I’m some crazy outlier, the Cliven Bundy of cult movie fans? Well, you could be right. It sure looked that way after I came back from L.A. and told all my friends about this groovy new pic I’d just seen. A few months later, PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE became a King Kong-sized bomb, one of the worst disasters in movie then-history. Nobody went to see it, mate; it’s almost as if they got together beforehand and decided to cross their arms en masse, like those Pubs did on Inauguration Day 2009. I don’t think PHANTOM even played in Athens, Georgia, where I lived, but in Atlanta it was being openly sneered at by some of my friends, including a guy who’d managed a group that had lowered the bar for the venerable Columbia Records by selling the fewest number of double-Lp units in this storied label’s history. Even he — maybe especially he — could smell an overripe turkey.

But it wasn’t a turkey, goddammit! Music plus horror plus comedy plus insane gonzo visuals just formed a combo that was simply too hip for the room. All except for two cities, and guess which ones they were? Winnipeg. And Paris. PHANTOM created its own cult, and imaginative kids who grew up in the day doted on it. Guillermo del Toro is a HUGE fan and invited Paul Williams to help score PAN’S LABYRINTH because of it. The deux hommes in Daft Punk told Paul they’ve probably seen the flick twenty times. And most important, after all this time seeing the picture again after all this frickin time, it still works as the product of a group of young mad scientists who couldn’t believe someone had given them the world’s best train set to play with. Huzzah to De Palma and his whole gang for PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE. Never will we see its like again.

11/19/14: Less than three months after I wrote this piece came the sad news that Charles Champlin has passed away at 88. As an expert on film and populist for the art form, he belongs up there with Roger Ebert.


Richard Matheson, 1926-2013

June 26, 2013

richard_mathesonRay Bradbury brought poetry to fantastic fiction and Rod Serling popularized it for the masses, but a third man was arguably the field’s most influential writer since H. P. Lovecraft. This was Richard Matheson, and if you don’t recognize his name as easily as those others, don’t worry: authors sure do. What Mr. Matheson did has since become commonplace, but in the mid-Twentieth century he hacked a path through weird fiction as if he were carrying a machete, and the writers who followed his trail are legion – and legend.

When Mr. Matheson’s first bylined professional short story, “Born of Man and Woman,” was published in Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1950, “horror” fiction was almost exclusively Gothic: set in dank catacombs or haunted mansions; told in an ornate, almost self-parodic style which might have been contemporary to, say, Edgar Allan Poe, but was growing tired in any lesser hands (and nearly all were lesser) than that odd antiquarian’s, the thirtysomething “Old Gentleman,” Lovecraft.

“Born of Man and Woman” is a “short-short.” It can’t be more than two thousand measly words. But crammed into those few pages is enough dread and otherness to fill a whole novel. It’s a tour de force, in both form and content, that jolts everyone who comes upon it. It’s set in a dungeon, but a far scarier one than those of puffy-shirt-era period pieces. There are modern touches: automobiles, a movie-star magazine. But the power issues from its point of view, and it’s a master class in the Lovecraft method of letting you fill in the details for yourself. Your imagination is more frightening than anything you can be told, as anyone knows who enters even a familiar room in pitch-blackness.

Mr. Matheson’s lasting contribution to fantasy fiction was to bring it into the present. It’s easy to shake off the events in an ancient Transylvanian castle, or to dismiss Colin Clive’s histrionic ravings at the dawn of the sound era in cinema, because we encounter them today at some remove. But when a pedophile abducts a child at the local McDonalds (Stephen King’s story “Popsy”), it’s suddenly a great deal closer to home. Mr. King is probably the most fervent Matheson acolyte: he’s certainly the very best at dropping strange events into the most mundane settings – turns out it’s far creepier that way. Without Richard Matheson, not only don’t you have Stephen King, but neither Dan Simmons, Rick McCammon, Joe Lansdale, Clive Barker, Peter Straub – all of them and many more are indebted to the guy who proved you can unnerve people even in full bright daylight.

Mssrs. Matheson and Serling crossed paths after the former had already turned to screenwriting; oddly enough, Mr. Matheson wrote most of those puffy-shirted Roger Corman “adaptations” of Poe stories. He was a frequent writer for the original TWILIGHT ZONE (I used to love it when Mr. Serling did a billboard for next week’s episode and used writers’ names; that’s also how I first heard of Charles Beaumont), including an adaptation of his own story “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet,” the one with William Shatner and the gremlin. Other Matheson stories auto-adapted for ZONE included “Third From the Sun,” “Death Ship,” “Little Girl Lost,” “Long Distance Call,” “Steel,” and “Mute.”

“Button, Button” became a big 2009 movie with Frank Langella called THE BOX. “Duel” inaugurated Steven Spielberg’s feature career. And Matheson novels are all over the screen: I AM LEGEND (filmed no fewer than three times), THE SHRINKING MAN (Universal added the word INCREDIBLE and changed it to WOMAN for Lily Tomlin), WHAT DREAMS MAY COME, BID TIME RETURN (you know it as SOMEWHERE IN TIME), HELL HOUSE, A STIR OF ECHOES.

If there’s a quickie narrative thread, it’s probably paranoia, but even more important is the same thing that continues to propel Mr. King’s career: these guys each draw recognizable characters that you might meet in the checkout line, and they can both spin, as the Brits say, a ripping yarn. Mr. Matheson didn’t even require spooks. I remember one of the happiest publishing days in my good friend Gary Goldstein’s life came in 1991, when he signed up a new Matheson Western(!) for Berkley Books. JOURNAL OF THE GUN YEARS was so sublime that it won the Western Writers of America’s Spur Award for Best Novel — and the author was a Western newbie.

I have a beautiful Matheson volume, COLLECTED STORIES (1988) from Jeff Conner’s Dream/Press. I hate to pull it out of the slipcase too often, because it’s signed by the author and I don’t want to mess it up from overuse. But it’s been out and open for the last few days, and I’ve been reading here and there. It is amazing how much of the short fiction holds up after as long as 63 years (“Born” hasn’t lost a drop of juice in that half century-plus). That’s the best thing about being – or reading – a great author: his work renders him immortal. Richard Matheson became immortal this past Sunday. And while we certainly grieve with R.C. and the rest of the family, at least we have his undying legacy to sustain us forever.


Meet Scott Nicholson

December 14, 2010

On our annual Jamaican reading/crosswording vacation, the book pages fly, and nearly every year I discover something new. This year, somebody told me that I needed to read a thriller called AS I DIE LYING by Scott Nicholson (I thought it was my friend Ray Garton, not a bad thriller writer himself, but Ray says I’m mixed up, and what was that book again with the great title?). I cued it up on the Kindle, and found myself so entertained and impressed that I just had to go get me some mo’!

AS I DIE LYING is a meta-novel “written” by a character called Richard Coldiron, who has endured a childhood so disgustingly awful that he’s invented an imaginary friend to help him deal. Then he invents another. Before long, not everybody inside Richard’s head is all that friendly. Sometimes one of his multiple personalities takes over the writing: talk about unreliable narrators! Frequently we step outside the action of the novel to hear about the writing and publishing process, which are life-and-deathly important to the story. But it’s all done with a blazing self-confidence that lets you relax and go along for the ride, knowing you’re in good hands. It’s funny and scary at the same time. It’s a dazzler.

I got in touch with the author. I told him how much DIE LYING had knocked me out, and that I wanted to read a couple more conventional works. I love it when form rises to meet content, but frequently that’s a show-off mode that doesn’t truly represent your auctorial ability; too often it’s nothing more than a mildly amusing impression of Harlan Ellison. Well, I read some other pieces that Scott recommended, and now I’m getting my drum out to bang for him.

Scott Nicholson lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina (I originally come from southeastern Virginia, so I recognize the area), and he can see the Gothic potential in everything around him: that’s where the stuff I read is set. He has a great eye and a great ear. His dialogue feels fully natural, not “written”; it sounds like people might actually say these things, particularly rural Tarheels. He demonstrates an innate sense of pacing, both in a scene and a story, that can only be gained by writing tens of thousands of lousy words: he doesn’t rush, but he doesn’t waste your time either. I’ll lay THE RED CHURCH, the most “turned out” Nicholson yarn I’ve read, alongside any other literary frightfest.

Scott Nicholson in a rare pose: without a keyboard in front of him.

Most of his fiction invokes suspense: tension and release. Sometimes there’s a supernatural element, but not always. Sometimes it’s science fictiony. Some of Scott’s characters do very bad things: maybe they’ll get what’s coming to them, and maybe they won’t. If these were movies, they’d be rated R, and at least one novel, DISINTEGRATION, might well be too disturbing for you in toto. (I expect some of you to take that as a challenge.) Some, some, some: with Scott’s work, you never know.

Now, this boy didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. His story “The Vampire Shortstop” won the grand prize in the 1999 Writers of the Future contest, a hot annual competition underwritten by the estate of L. Ron Hubbard (no kidding, this particular award is dead serious), and THE RED CHURCH happens to have been a Mystery Guild alternate, it sold well in paper for Kensington, and it was nominated for a Stoker Award, the Oscar of the Horror Writers of America. So Scott’s fan club has many more members than just me. Without even knowing his history, I can assure you he got to this point by observing the two cardinal rules for would-be novelists: write your scrawny ass off, and read even more than that. Scott has obviously gone to school on Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Jim Thompson, Richard Matheson (a character in THE RED CHURCH even bears that family name), Robert Bloch, Ira Levin, Dan Simmons, and doubtless others whom I’ve never heard of – but he has developed his own voice well enough to scare you silly whenever he cares to. He’s written novels, stories, screenplays, comics, you name it. The guy just can’t quit typing!

Here’s another thing I like about Scott. He’s taken control of his own career. He has a website where you can buy all his books and give him feedback – which he honestly wants to hear. They’re also on sale at Amazon, where I got them, and the electronic editions are a fraction of the retail price set by big publishers. He cheerfully offers that certain of these books may get another revision before it’s all over. Though anything he puts up for sale is entertaining enough to deserve remuneration, Scott is letting his readers in on part of the process, and crafting a relationship that’s as personal as he can possibly make it. Like Mike Stackpole, Scott uses the individualized communicative power of the Web as his own personal promotional tool, and also like Mike, he has the literary chops to deliver.

Once upon a time, publishers would take a flyer on a good “midlist” author like Scott: maybe start with mass market originals, develop a reader base, and let him build on it bit by bit as you gradually increase the press run. It happened with Elizabeth George when I was at Bantam. But those days are long gone. Thank goodness there are authors who are as shrewd as they are talented, because let’s face it, building the base is now their job. Meanwhile, you want a well-written page-turner, cheap? And another and another and another? Do yourself a favor, my friend: meet Scott Nicholson.


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