Wall Street, they tell me, is on an upturn, and the economy is well on its way to recovery. Hooray and Huzzah! But, even if all this optimism is justified (which I doubt), the rough times aren’t entirely behind us and, however long they linger, certain businesses are going to suffer — especially certain businesses that may not be fit for survival in the digital world, like publishing for the niche markets of SF and horror.
And, even if happy days are here again, some 20th Century businesses won’t be coming back, ever.
Every year, March is National Reading Month, and every year it passes by with no one noticing, except for a few librarians who have to get up on ladders to post the banners (of course, this year, no budget for banners, so there wasn’t even that).
Well, this blog is going to change everything; we’re going to have our own National Reading Month right now! (People read more in the summer anyway, everybody knows that!)
To commemorate it, I’m gonna share with you some of the titles that changed my thinking about what writing (and reading) is all about, and I hope each person dropping by will generously leave a comment naming one book that changed your own life — even if its only in a very small way — and tell us something about it.
1. A Fan’s Notes, A Fictional Memoir by Frederick Exley. More than anything else, A Fan’s Notes strikes me as a dirge for the end of white male primacy, written by a soul raised to prize it — as were we all, all of us boomers, back in the day. The white males of my generation had to adjust to a unique sea change, as we met, smack in the middle of the 20th Century, the idea that maleness and whiteness weren’t so special as we had been raised to expect. Even in the most liberal of households, this privilege had been assumed. We were, all of us, wrong.
This idea, that A Fan’s Notes concerns the fall of white male hegemony, is entirely from my own reading of Exley’s work. I’ve read every review of the book I could get my hands on, and I’ve yet to see a critic suggest any such thing. For all I know, Exley himself might have attempted to punch my lights out if I were to pitch this interpretation to him during his lifetime.
The principal character of the novel is named Frederick Exley, an alcoholic school teacher with literary ambitions, and a sports fan who can’t forgive himself for failing to be the man his father was — a college sports hero and much-loved local basketball coach. While failing to match his father’s sports accomplishments, Exley becomes an enthusiastic follower of the gridiron hero from his USC graduating class, Frank “Golden Boy” Gifford. In the dozen years following his graduation from USC, A Fan’s Notes follows Exley through a dozen years of cowardice and drunkenness, punctuated by periodic half-hearted attempts to get on with his life.
Why would anyone want to read this? It might as easily be titled A Slug’s Life; I’ve loaned this book to people who have brought it back to me, a few pages read, telling me, “It’s too depressing.” And it is, extremely so, but it’s also hilariously funny, even in its darkness, and a sharply observed critique of American 20th Century culture.
The jacket of the first edition of A Fan’s Notes declared it as the first volume of a trilogy, and over the following 20 years two more volumes appeared which unfolded primarily as the story of Exley’s efforts to stay alive long enough to complete his trilogy. All three books comprised the fictional autobiography of a depressive drunkard, juxtaposing scenes of outlandish human comedy (always spiced with a note of tragedy) and an accelerating futility. I think everybody should read A Fan’s Notes. Whether you (or anyone) should should read the subsequent volumes of Exley’s trilogy is more in question — but if his one-of-a-kind voice speaks to you, no one will be able to stop you.
2. Collected Works by Edgar Allan Poe. Poe would have been 200 years old on January 19th of this year, if he hadn’t died. I’ve never owned a volume of Poe, but obsessively read his stories and biographies in school libraries — though at some schools that I attended, Poe was significantly absent from the library shelves.
Shortly after discovering Poe, I frequently found myself being interred alive in my dreams.
In reading of Poe’s life, I learned that he had the singular misfortune of being turned into a fictional character following his death. Rufus Wilmot Griswold, an occasional business associate and a rival in the world of letters, upon Poe’s death, hoodwinked Poe’s mother-in-law, convincing her that Poe intended to make Griswold his literary heir.
Having gained the woman’s trust, and promising her money that he would never actually provide, Griswold made off with all the significant papers of Poe’s life, and subsequently published the definitive multi-volume Poe collection, and several biographical essays indicating that Poe was a misanthropic, hateful individual with an unquenchable thirst for drugs, drink and self-destruction.
Some 75 years later, it was shown that Griswold had forged letters, and added forged postscripts to genuine letters, in order to support his character assassination. When I was a child, more than 150 years after Poe’s death, many of the books in my school’s libraries were still spreading Griswold’s lies, or sometimes giving “equal weight” to Griswold’s depiction of Poe, and that of later biographers.
It is Griswold’s fiction of Poe that has contributed the most to the “tortured artist” trope of modern times. The cultural influence of this “False Poe” is still with us today in the cultural threads of Emo and Goth, though I also enjoy blaming these things on Neil Gaiman.
3. The Mysterious Stranger by Mark Twain. Twain was the other great subversive influence commonly taught in schools, though certain of his works, especially this one, wouldn’t be found on school shelves. Because it was public domain, excerpts from the various versions of Twain’s final work — not published during his lifetime, so never published in any “authorized” version — would frequently turn up in the many “100 Classics of Science Fiction” or “100 Tales of the Incredible” volumes that were a paperback staple before corporate America arranged with Congress to gut the Public Domain. What struck me, a young Catholic boy, is obvious in this concluding passage from one of the several versions:
“‘It is true, that which I have revealed to you; there is no God, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, no heaven, no hell. It is all a dream – a grotesque and foolish dream. Nothing exists but you. And you are but a thought – a vagrant thought, a useless thought, a homeless thought, wandering forlorn among the empty eternities!‘
He vanished, and left me appalled; for I knew, and realized, that all he had said was true.”
Will Vinton, the animator known for the California Raisins, the Domino’s Pizza Noid, and many animated M&Ms ads, produced and directed The Adventures of Mark Twain, which included a mind-blowing adaptation of this work.
4. Barefoot Boy With Cheek by Max Shulman. Primarily a cornball comedian with a typewriter at hand, Max Shulman taught me to always address my reader as if our conversation was 1-to-1. Even in the TV series that he created, “Dobie Gillis,” the Dobie character would speak directly to the camera, in Shulman’s narrative voice, at least twice per show, while seated on a park bench, beside a reproduction of Rodin’s ‘The Thinker.”
Shulman used to write and perform the Marlboro commercials that appeared in the show, creating ads that were frequently funnier than the show they sponsored. Years later, I was emulating him when, annoyed by the money-grubbing tone of the “house ads” that Fangoria magazine had to carry in each issue, I started writing and designing subscription, back issue, and makeup supply ads to suit the tone that I was trying to establish.
Shulman’s business relations with big tobacco extended to his “On Campus” newspaper column. syndicated “for free” to college newspapers, and underwritten by the same cigarette company, whose ads ran side-by-side with the column, in an obvious “hook ‘em young” effort. Shulman eventually did his best to redeem himself with his cancer comedy “Anyone Got A Match?” — a satirical novel along the lines of Christopher Buckley’s 2006 work, recently adapted for film, Thank You For Smoking.
5. In Starmaker, by Olaf Stapledon, a troubled young Brit steps out for a stroll beneath the stars when he is suddenly wrenched free of his fleshy container; he travels deep into space, then to other galaxies, planets and civilizations, each one more outlandishly alien than the last, each with their own history of struggle and survival; ultimately, he encounters the fountainous source of all, and returns safely home, only a few seconds older but much wiser.
Starmaker is most frequently regarded as science fiction, but it is more properly categorized as occult fiction or religious fantasy. When I worked in a New York bookstore specializing in occult and paranormal topics, I encountered practitioners of astral travel who believed the book to be a nonfiction travel guide, and some who claimed to have visited many of the same astral tourist spots as Stapledon on their own astral jaunts.
Well, I can’t prove that they didn’t.
As a kid, I loved the book. and it made a sci-fi nerd out of me. Attempts to re-read the book as an adult have been abysmal failures — I’ve simply grown too accustomed to human characters to put up with a book so sterilized of any human content.
6. The Big Ball of Wax: A Story of Tomorrow’s Happy World by Shepherd Mead. Shepherd Mead was an ad-man who, in his spare time, wrote How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, a satirical self-help book which opened the door for an infinite flow of humorous books about radical self-makeover. Since it had no storyline, when How to Succeed was adapted for stage and screen, the storyline was drawn from Mead’s own life — he had risen from the mailroom of the Benton & Bowles ad agency to a vice presidency in a little over a decade (in the play a similar trajectory is achieved in one week). After struggling for years to craft his first novel in his spare time, to receive only rejection, Mead wrote the bestselling fake self-help book during a single Cape Cod weekend.
Writers of such non-books seldom make any other mark in the world, but Mead went on to write a few more non-books (like How To Succeed With Women Without Really Trying), and several novels.
I bought The Big Ball of Wax without knowing any of the above, because
A. It was on the science fiction rack
B. The cover indicated it was a novel of ideas.
What Mead did was take Aldous Huxley’s concept of “the feelies” from Brave New World, expand on it enough that it would be recognizable today as Virtual Reality, and came to the logical conclusion that the first application for such an invention would be porn, and the equally logical idea that the introduction of such tech into American culture (as lived in the 1950s) would result in a wrestling match between the advertising industry and the religious establishment. The result was social satire not unlike Shulman’s, though more pointed and cynical. I was maybe 14 or 15 when I read this, and a long way from gaining an appreciation of Voltaire, but Mead brought that sensibility to my doorstep. Mead eventually wrote 19 novels, none of which are nearly as well-known as BBW. [Note: I just now took a break from writing to order, from Ebay, Mead’s 1965 novel, The Carefully Considered Rape of the World, in which the entire female population of Earth discovers themselves mysteriously pregnant.)
7. The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut . Like all of Vonnegut’s books until Breakfast of Champions, this was kept on the science fiction rack, though Vonnegut was, from the beginning, too massive a writer to be contained by genre.
“Everyone now knows how to find the meaning of life within himself. But mankind wasn’t always so lucky. Less than a century ago men and women did not have easy access to the puzzle boxes within them … Mankind, ignorant of the truths that lie within every human being, looked outward–pushed ever outward. What mankind hoped to learn in its outward push was who was actually in charge of all creation, and what all creation was all about…”
In these opening words of The Sirens of Titan, we find the theme of Stapledon’s Starmaker summarized in a cozy paragraph, and stuffed into a cocked hat. Sirens, like Starmaker, concerns a malcontent whisked off to distant regions of space, encountering alien civilizations, to similarly learn the follies that all mortal beings, alien and earthly, share, and to ultimately confront God — but not so reassuring a deity as the cosmic fountain offered by Stapledon.
Vonnegut doesn’t give us a chance to look directly into God’s Face, as Stapledon does in the climax of Starmaker. Instead we see God through the eyes of another mortal, the founder of the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent.
The principal character is Malachi Constant, the luckiest man of the 22nd Century, and therefore the wealthiest. He becomes the pawn of another wealthy, but much less fortunate man, Winston Niles Rumfoord who, through an encounter with a spaceborne phenomenon that Vonnegut calls a “chrono-synclastic infundibulum,” has come unstuck in space and time. Along with his dog, Kazak, Winston exists as a quantum waveform, “a distorted spiral with its origin in the Sun and its terminal in Betelgeuse,” periodically materializing, with his dog, at various points of time and space within the wave.
From his unstuck perspective, Rumfoord can see the past and future, knowledge he shares with Malachi Constant. But is Rumfoord helping Constant by revealing his future? Or stripping him of his free will? Is Rumfoord really trying to save Eaeth from a Martian invasion — or is he trying to turn the invasion to his own advantage?
When I started reading Vonnegut. I thought of him as a science fiction satirist like Robert Sheckley or Ron Goulart (two admired SF writers I later came to know personally) As Vonnegut’s reputation grew, and his books were moved to general fiction,I followed him there, and slowly stopped being a sci-fi nerd.
8 and 9. The Outsider by Colin Wilson, Demian by Herman Hesse. I pair these because they were read within weeks of each other, and both were useful in explaining my life to myself, so I could at least temporarily believe that my life had direction. Today, I’d dismiss much of the rationale these books inspired in me as spiritual melodrama, but I’d not fault the authors for this. Like many of my generation, my idea of a fun vacation was to swallow chemicals that produced a state of temporary insanity.
Most people seem not to be very interested in themselves, in the sense of what they actually are, in what their place in this world may be, or in this world’s place within a larger reality — or whether any “larger reality” exists at all. Colin Wilson’s thesis in The Outsider is that those few who dedicate their energies to figuring out such questions for themselves do so because of a gnawing dissatisfaction that makes them “outsiders,” and that this status as outsider provides them with the only valid vantage point from which such precious research can be accomplished.
Wilson’s own history was certainly not that of an insider. From a working class background, Wilson had left school at 16, and started doing factory work and other unskilled labor. He hated the jobs available to him, and eventually resumed his education in the Reading Room of the British Museum, where he also wrote his first and best-known book, The Outsider, while living in Hampstead Heath, London’s extensive public park.
Wilson’s task in the book was to weave together common threads in the ideas of those he deemed to be the great outsiders of western thought: H. G. Wells, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway, Herman Hesse, T. E. Lawrence, Vincent Van Gogh, George Bernard Shaw, William Blake, Friedrich Nietzsche, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and many more. While the commonality of these thinkers was not always as clear as Wilson contended it was, he most frequently succeeded in making the connections he perceived clear in his text, and the book was a critical triumph, and an international bestseller that served as an introduction to existential philosophy for many English-speaking intellectuals.
Herman Hesse was one of the names Wilson cited as a pioneering modern outsider, and it was almost certainly Wilson’s recommendation that led me to his work. Over the years, I would read several of Hesse’s works, but none would stick with me as did the first of his that I read.
Demian follows the growth of young Emil Sinclair from the age of ten through his university years, and the spiritual and psychological journey that he undertakes. Emil’s transformation begins when he encounters Max Demian. who will be his friend, his spiritual guide and his protector. Emil sees a duality in the choices before him; the world of his parents and his sisters — a world suffused with light — and the wider, outside world, which he sees as a forbidden world, shrouded in darkness.With time, experience, and the influence of Max Demian, Emil moves beyond this duality when he learns the nature of “abraxas” — an outsider’s conception of God that is neither wholly light nor wholly dark. He finds that “each man has his ‘function‘ but none which he can choose himself, define, or perform as he pleases. . . . Each man had only one genuine vocation–to find the way to himself. . . . His task was to discover his own destiny . . . and live it out wholly and resolutely within himself.”
10. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson. My earliest fondness for horror came through reading quite a lot of Poe, and a bit of Lovecraft, though when I nerded out on sci-fi, horror became a neglected genre for a while. My mother, however, had a Hitchcock fetish and, as a tie-in to the Alfred Hitchcock Presents television series, there were published a series of story collections featuring ghastly murder, “edited by Alfred Hitchcock.”
The actual editor of these volumes was Robert Arthur, Jr., a staff writer on both Hitchcock’s television show and the other great personality-based TV anthology, Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone”. Arthur would write a brief introduction to each tale, in the same style of gallows humor used for Hitchcock’s on-screen appearances in his TV show.
With titles such as Stories They Wouldn’t Let Me do On TV, Stories My Mother Never Told Me, and Stories That Scared Even Me, these collections contained a mix of crime and horror that served, following the demise of the original Weird Tales magazine in 1954, to keep the genre alive, if not exactly thriving. My mother acquired all of these titles as soon as they were out in paperback, and in one of them volumes I had my first encounter with Richard Matheson. It was in an isolated seaside town where a speedtrap turned out to be an invitation to dinner — actually, an invitation to be dinner, for a town of cannibals. Yes! I have spoiled the story.
But I didn’t tell you the title, or which anthology it appeared in, did I?
Subsequently, I inhaled all the various Matheson anthologies that I could find in print or used (back in the day, there were used books stores everywhere), and it was not long before I encountered I Am Legend.
Some books, there’s not much you can say besides read it
Stephen King found a few things to say when he wrote a new introduction for the most recent edition, which you can read here, along with enough of an excerpt from the novel’s opening to have you seeking out the book.
11. Dark Gods by T.E.D. Klein. Ted’s one of my very oldest friends, one of just a couple of people I’ve known from as far back as my very first writing jobs. If he wasn’t such a damn good horror writer, I ‘d feel terribly guilty about leaving him off this list.
Luckily, he is damn good, so we can include him here — and you don’t have to trust my say-so. Even when Ted first began writing, his output was extremely slim, just a few short stories each year, yet these few tales would suck up all the air in the room as the annual fantasy awards for short fiction were announced, leaving more prolific but less talented writers choking dust.
A traditionalist whose work has built upon and done homage to Machen, Lovecraft, Long and others, Klein is nevertheless contemporary enough to have been a fitting choice to collaborate with Dario Argento on the screenplay for the underrated Grand Guignol giallo, Trauma. Klein’s literary work is unique in that it constantly makes reference to the greats from the dawn of pulp, but makes no demand that the reader recognize these references. Klein works like a gateway drug for the creeping horror of eons past: take a casual read of The Events at Poroth Farm, and soon enough you’ll be mainlining Arthur Machen’s The White People.
In S. T. Joshi’s 2001 survey The Modern Weird Tale, the literary critic appraised the body of Ted’s work : “In close to 25 years of writing Klein has only two books and a handful of scattered tales to his credit, and yet his achievement towers gigantically over that of his more prolific contemporaries. Eight years later, there’s one slim volume added to the stack. Ted’s 2006 collection, Reassuring Tales.
I haven’t read Reassuring Tales, it seems my copy’s been delayed in the mail. But it would have to be pretty damn good to beat Dark Gods as the ideal place to acquaint yourself with Ted’s ability to build quiet horror in layers, like fungus creeping up a bathroom wall, leading to an inevitable climax of understated horror. Ted has written one novel, The Ceremonies, which is a fine read compared to anyone else’s work, but pales a bit when side-by-side with his better work in shorter form. Dark Gods is a collection of four short novels — the form best suited to Ted’s temperament, — and all four are gems. Children of the Kingdom begins by examining certain rational racial fears of modern city dwellers, whipping up a fair amount of free-flowing anxiety before it finds focus in the musty basement laundry room of an old folks’ home. Petey is an old-fashioned monster tale, where Ted toys with the reader and, rather sadistically, with his characters, while everyone speculates on why the protagonists were able to buy a beautiful Connecticut estate so cheaply.
Black Man with a Horn draws from a passage in Lovecraft’s Shadow Out of Time:
“Of earthly minds there were some from the winged, starheaded, half-vegetable race of palaeogean Antarctica; one from the reptile people of fabled Valusia; three from the furry pre-human Hyperborean worshippers of Tsathoggua; one from the wholly abominable Tcho-Tchos…”
The protagonist of the story, who is modelled after Lovecraft contemporary Frank Belknap Long, learns too much about the abominable Tcho-Tcho, a mythic tribe that also figured in two stories by August Derleth, The Thing That Walked on the Wind, and Lair of the Star-Spawn.
Dark Gods concludes with its most striking tale, Nadelman’s God, in which the protagonist learns that a blasphemous poem that he wrote as a youth has become lyrical fodder for a heavy metal band, and that the idle scribbling of his youth is not as powerless as he had supposed.
Dark Gods is out of print, but used copies are easy to find.
12. Kings of the BS: Working Within the Hollywood System: An Anthology of Film History and Criticism edited by Todd McCarthy & Charles Flynn. Kings of the Bs was published in 1975, 4 years before Fangoria first appeared. Bookmasters or Brentano’s — or one of the other disappeared bookstore chains — had huge stacks as a cheap remainder in 1979. Michael Weldon (publisher and editor of Psychotronic Magazine) recommended this title to me, perhaps even gave me a copy. I also gave away and bought several copies over the years, and it informed much of the content in early Fango.
Nowadays, most of the hard facts in this book are easily found on the web, in Wikipedia or on IMDb, so I doubt we’ll see a reprint any time soon, even though any film nut would find the interviews and profiles in this volume to be delightful. Used copies still go for cheap at Amazon.
13. Nightmare USA by Stephen Thrower Just received this, but love it already; it will be read cover to cover, then browsed and rebrowsed. A former member of the industrial music pioneers Coil looks at American Exploitation from 1975 to 1985 — years overlapping with my time as editor of Fangoria. There’s very little overlap with anything Fango was doing in those years — Thrower’s aesthetic is very different from mine, though it is what I believe Fango was evolving toward during my time there. Thrower’s enthusiasm is infectious, and I look forward to being infected.
I had come across this book online a number of times, and felt put off by the $40 price tag, but in the course of an email exchange with Frank Henenlotter, Frank gave the book an enthusiastic endorsement. I didn’t need any more prodding than that, Frank knows exploitation like no one else. A week later, this MAMMOTH volume arrived, more than five pounds of book! We are talking URBAN PHONEBOOK SIZE! And none of it is padding, open it to any page, and the pages drip filmgeek gold. A movie poster unseen in decades here, a photo of a 42nd Street grindhouse marquee there….
“Hell Hath No Fury Like Slithis!” ….
“The MOST BEAUTIFUL GIRLS in the WORLD! — HE was their JUDGE, JURY, AND EXECUTIONER!” …
“THE MAFU CAGE…a Terrifying Love Story!”
And interview after interview with exploitation figures I’ve never seen in print before — and doubt I ever will again. More details on the legendary exploitation films of the mid-to-late 20th Century than you have ever seen between covers!
Don’t put off buying Nightmare, USA another minute! It’s only eight bucks per pound!
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