I want to talk about something else, away from politics, away from debates in the public sphere. There are other interests people have–that I have and that plenty of people I know share and they don’t really care about Trump or Obama or liberals and conservatives or the threats of fascism, socialism and all the bile spat out upon the world by organized religions and social movements.
Now to discredit myself from the outset I want to warn you that I actually have a Masters Degree in English–specifically in 19th and 20th century American literature with a heavy emphasis on satire. And so I am mostly steeped theoretically in the worlds of Twain and Melville and Poe. I know all of Hawthorne (another horror writer–you’ll get the theme). I wasted months studying Ernest Hemingway, who’s life is far more interesting than his work. I went out of my way to read the complete body of work by literary gems like H.P. Lovecraft, Ambrose Bierce and on and on and on among the generally considered American masters of way back in time.
But the one thing that I noticed as I was finishing up my classes was that very little of the books and stories we were assigned were written much past world war two, other than maybe a little Samuel Beckett and a whole fuckload of pompous shitheads filled with intellectual wanderlust as they wrote everything they thought about style and form and metaphor and literary technique in their five hundred plus page manuals on how to interpret literature. They rarely focused on the story itself–on plot, unless to make a historical parallel to events replicated from the real world. This did not mean that any of the stories were bad (only a few of them were), but they all more or less shared the same outlook and by the end of my sixth year taking these classes (from undergraduate until the end of my formal education), I was pretty burned out on the concepts of nativism and realism and political awareness and the nature of the radical novel.
So when I left college I tried to resume my tastes from before I ever went away. I was weened on crime books, reading Hammett and Chandler and Ross and John MacDonald religiously in the years before high school. Of course, like so many other young boys in the 1980s, I was also led into the horror genre, which of course is far closer to the crime field than non-aficionados of one or the other might realize.
With horror I started, of course, with Stephen King and Peter Straub and Robert R. McCammon–the bestselling scary story writers of the time. There were plenty of others–Charles Grant, Clive Barker (more on him, too, shortly), my discoveries of Robert Bloch and William Peter Blatty (I had seen The Exorcist long before I ever read the book) and Richard Matheson, who is a personal favorite of mine to this day. There are of course hundreds more authors I could name, but I do not wish this to turn into one of those ‘greatest hits’ essays with a bibliography filled with ‘for more on the subject, read:’ stamped for several paragraphs at the end.
I first became a serious fan of horror movies in 1981 when I was nine years old. Of course that was the year of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which I loved. But it was not my favorite film of the year. No, one that had a far more serious impact on me and at least helped to give me the instincts that have turned me into the person I am today, was above and beyond, for me at the time, the greatest movie I had ever seen. For some reason my mother took her young son to see David Cronenberg’s Scanners, the perfect film for a comic-book reading kid like me to explore the darker side of superpowers (and also watch a guy’s head blow up and the ruined, burned, sandy corpse of one of the main characters at the end). But I loved it. My mother started out worried when she realized, I guess, just how violent the movie was (and how fucking horrifying the score to that film is!), but then she saw me with such an enraptured look on my face, that edge of the seat excitement that tells you that you’re having a great time watching other people do horrible things. And from that point forward nothing in the realm of entertainment was off limits to me (other, I guess, than porn, but I was nine years old and there was no internet yet. Where was I going to find porn other than in some underwear drawer or buried under a mound of clothes in one of my parents’ closets?)
The following year saw me race out to see Poltrigiest, and since VCRs were then coming into vogue and we had a video store very close to my childhood home, I would furiously and regularly go out to get horror movies (after my parents signed off that it was okay to let me rent ‘R’). Many of these were trite shit, quickly slapped together nonsense like The Boogyman (a tame rip-off of Halloween), and strange, esoteric fare, like Q and Terror Train, but I also discovered An American Werewolf in London and The Shining and The Evil Dead. I got to see in the theater films like Creepshow and John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing and Cronenberg’s next film, Videodrome. It was an early heaven for a young kid obsessed with ideas of hell.
The literature for me took a turn for the more complicated (Joseph Conrad and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in particular) but still seemed to maintain the designation of ‘horror story’ for me, even through religious parables. Like Clive Barker has said, the bible is possibly the most frightening book ever written. Clive Barker, by the way, then arriving on the scene, was up until the late 1980s the most violent writer I had ever read. He was replaced by James Ellroy and Cormac McCarthy in the few coming years before Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho seemed to initiate the era of feelings versus art.
But they were all horror stories. The movies I saw, I turned them over in my mind and tried to see what scared me about them. Ghandi was about the terror of nobility being wiped from the world; Terms of Endearment was about early death and Amadeus, well, Amadeus actually is a horror story of envy and madness by design.
Of course as I grew older and relived some of my favorites from the past I noticed that I had become somewhat desensitized. Where once Halloween III: The Season of the Witch scared the fuck out of me, now I watched and reacted as most people did in its day: what a stupid piece of shit that was. I needed a new fix. I needed to see something more. I needed to get myself back into those X-rated rooms on the other side of the porn closet where unrated gore flicks were hidden. It was time for I Spit on Your Grave and Cannibal Holocaust and Re-Animator, From Beyond, Bad Taste, eventually more of Peter Jackson’s early films: Dead/Alive and the absolutely horrifying puppet show Meet the Feebles.
I hunted down Hershel Gordon Lewis (a terrible director and writer who did, however, know how to pile on the blood) and Dario Argento and every Italian zombie movie I could find. I had an imagination filled with bloodshed and the first works I was writing back then were intentionally violent, trying my hardest to outdo the material I was a fan of.
After this came the pseudo-documentaries Faces of Death, which were more like segments cut out of Ripley’s Believe It or Not because of television standards. You see people eating monkey brains after cracking the animal’s skull open and plenty of other unpleasant things that I never liked because I love animals too much. But this crap still served as the background noise along with 80s Heavy Metal at drunken and stoned parties we fifteen and sixteen yearolds would have when our parents went out of town.
But I stayed with this interest. And all the while that I was discovering Don Delillo and Jose Saramago, at a time I was obsessing over the films of Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa and forcing myself to read every single play of William Shakespeare’s, there was still a yearning for splatter. I would seek out increasingly distant material that I could not find in a bookstore or library (these were still the days before Amazon). They were only in mail-away catalogs, where you had every bit the chance of ordering The Turner Diaries or Physical Interrogations Techniques as you did of finding some early Joe Lansdale or Edward Lee or (and this is a shout-out) Wayne Allen Sallee’s “Rapid Transit” trilogy of short stories. But I did find these things and all I wanted was more.
By the 1990s I was in college, learning the hoity toity and beginning to understand the idea of literary art, kind of like Graham Greene’s distinction in his works between ‘novels’ and ‘entertainments.’ But this still seemed too elitist to me. I listened to these pretentious fucking assholes in my classes talk about horror as though it were dog shit on the bottom of their shoes. They would triumphantly claim with maximum condescension that they had “never read a book by that piece of shit Stephen King.” And if one of the more timid students spoke up in King’s defense, almost whispering praise for The Shining and The Stand, they would be laughed at. I was so annoyed with these fuckers that I penned the following poem in a creative writing class filled with terrible poets writing of the most sincere arrogance. This was mine, and I read this aloud to the class:
“Around Lunch, On the Way, Happy Birthday”
So I’m fucking corpses the other day
It don’t matter, cemetery’s on the way
But I gotta make it, gotta find some meat
‘Cause little Jesse needs a treat
But the temptation hits me all at once
Rotting bodies just around lunch
Slowly I pull my cock from the gash
And stick my hand into the slash
I pull out intestines, maggots too
I lap them up, that’s what I do
The taste is so scrumptious, I try some more
I even pop someone’s herpes sore
So what if I get it, I don’t give a fuck
All I ask of Jesse is one good suck
Well, I’ve gotta be on my way
Jesse’s turning twelve, today’s her birthday.
This was not received well. Two people stormed out of the class after the first line. But you know what the worst thing about their bashing me was (the best was their horrified looks)? It was the fact that they held their primary criticisms for my free use of slang and abbreviations. Someone actually hissed at me, “Doesn’t matter! Doesn’t Matter!”
But I was an arrogant motherfucker too and really didn’t care what any of them thought of me. I asked, “Is that really your chief problem, the troubled grammar? I mean, the guy telling to story is fucking corpses and feeding human flesh to his twelve year old girlfriend. I figured that he doesn’t have the most perfect English.”
Someone aloofly said to this, “English matters,” with a hopeful smile towards the professor, who literally had nothing to say.
Later I tried to bring this faith in horror into an academic setting, writing a very long paper with video components on the “Splatterpunk” style of horror that most horror writers rejected being labelled under. I started with a quote, once again referencing Clive Barker. In defining himself he said, “I am not writing horror or making horror movies to produce a mild frisson which can be shrugged off, so people can move on to make their cocoon and go to bed. I am writing horror and making horror movies to genuinely disturb people.”
To me this was and remains a very profound goal. Because horror stories, deep down, are not just about monsters and demons and psychopaths. No, they are a high point of literature, the type that gets closest to the truth about humanity. If you choose to strip away the supernatural magic that many horror stories employ, you still have a tale of a vampire as an unrestrained urge, still the wolf man with all social order thrown away and you still have zombies commenting on the bleak realities of humanity, that we are all here terminally from the moment of birth, and then we go on to eat, shit, and rot. Zombies, so popular today, have always been a powerful symbol of the hopelessness of mankind. Even comedic zombie films touch on this aspect, because the fate of life on earth will always end with failure.
In the early 1990s I was hired to write several comic book scripts by a man named Hart D. Fisher, then publisher and most frequent writer for the underground comic book company Boneyard Press. Hart is a marvelous self-promoter with a fascinating life history and I do not feel I can possibly capture the genuinely horrifying elements of his life without mentioning also his honest charm and sincere good nature. But he is much more equipped to speak about himself, so I want to offer you something of his: http://www.americanhorrors.com/. This is a streaming, Roku 24-hour graphic horror film channel that he founded with his wife Waka, that shows you many older and less well know horror films, uncut, and with a boisterous joy in its celebration that might make it hard for the snobs to not become fans. They also produce original content and the whole experience is a blast.
I dedicate this essay to Hart, because he doesn’t like my political shit. I could no doubt go on and on and on and on about all things horror and all the hideous graphic violence that has gone before he and I and the young, devious minds of today, but this is already by far the longest of my pieces here. I just wanted to offer a personal appreciation of the horror genre. Despite my frequently serious high art tastes, sometimes nothing beats disembowelment mixed with cum.