Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things
Here’s me at nine, circa the first stirrings of Watergate and the first visible rat incisors growing from the jaws of the Nixon administration: four-eyed, skinny as a chicken bone, in love with my shamrock-green Ross with black banana seat, sixty-five pounds if I weighed anything at all. It was 1972, and more than anything else I’d been seduced by something that reached into a deep black-and-white past and held what seemed to be unfathomably arcane secrets: horror and science-fiction movies. Sometimes new and in theaters but most often on broadcast TV, as the local channels filled their docket with cheaply licensable old genre entries from the studio vaults, the films I absorbed came to me like lost signals in space, aimlessly emanating from a history no one spoke about. Abbott and Costello comedies and Oscar-winning mammoths like Ben-Hur were common, but how could a kid, any kid, be tempted by these tame familiarities over some freakish text called The Hideous Sun Demon?
It seems funny now, but the absurd and even hokey films I couldn’t resist also regularly gave me nightmares. Our house sat on the corner of a lightless, ill-paved old country road surrounded by woods and the occasional farmhouse, and when I awoke at night it was down that road that I imagined various Frankensteins or werewolves lurking and approaching through the blackness of Long Island. The dance that Haley Joel Osment did during his nerve-wracked midnight trip to the toilet in The Sixth Sense? That was my dance, too. Too often I’d knock on my parents’ locked door, waking them from a chronically drunken stupor, to ask for a drink of water I was perfectly capable of getting on my own. Wiped out, my mother would stand by the sink, the cats looping softly around our ankles, and she would tolerate me for a minute or two, the middle son who was already proving to be the most troublesome of her three troublesome children.
But no nightmare could curb my appetite for the stuff, which I’d prime every weekend, when we’d get the Sunday Newsday, five times as thick as it is today, and the staple-bound weekly TV-program guide included therein. This was itself a thick blast of business, with wry and passionate synopses written anonymously by a staffer, later revealed to be John Cashman, who received more fan mail than the paper’s regular film reviewers did. (His summary of 1957’s From Hell It Came was one line long: “And back it should go.” The paragraph on Casablanca began, “This is it.”) I’d sit down on our turquoise canvas-weave couch with this newsprint mag and a pen and circle every movie I wanted to see that week, as if I was outlining a vacation agenda. Anything demarcated as horror, science fiction, or fantasy got an automatic ballpoint corona, but I was catholic enough, if hardly Catholic enough to satisfy my mother, to consider other areas, knowing full well, from my primordial screening of William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights (1939) on a rainy weekend afternoon a year or two earlier, that something innocuously designated as “drama” could split my skull, peel my heart like an onion, and harbor ghosts by the acre.
The movies: absolutely everything from the original 1931 Frankenstein to Attack of the Crab Monsters, The Beast with Five Fingers, Robot Monster, Blood and Black Lace, Carnival of Souls, Day the World Ended, The Tingler, Werewolf of London, Godzilla vs. the Thing, Fiend Without a Face, The Black Scorpion, Panic in Year Zero!, ad infinitum. As it turned out, not every kid was particularly smitten with this mad, rank stuff; for the most part, and bafflingly, I was the only “monster culture” devotee I knew. (“Monster culture” is of course a retrospective label, not what anyone called it then. I called it “what’s on.”) Thus, it was something of a lonely obsession. My best friend, Jimmy, across the street, was a savvy, funny, working-class Irishman who cared much more for the Yankees than he did for any movie whose title began with a capitalized It. It was an era when, to a preadolescent, the name Boris Karloff should’ve meant only the narrator of How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, then habitual annual network viewing, and not the star of The Black Room, Isle of the Dead, The Sorcerers, or, of course, the first and best of the four Universal Frankensteins. If White Zombie showed up on channel 9 during an otherwise perfectly seasonal autumn Saturday afternoon, I watched it alone. In my secret empyrean.
Clearly, I was the monster-culture equivalent of the gay Midwestern kid who feels a bajillion miles away from Broadway, or the Mormon youngster who feels imprisoned until he reads Naked Lunch. The midcentury was chockablock with our kind, I know now. But then, mine was a solitary pursuit, and so there was a palpable need for a samizdat, a shred of news from the other side. The populist Newsday guide, as fab as it and Cashman’s bon mots were, didn’t cut it. (I still remember my indignation over the automatic four-star ratings awarded every dull and bloated Oscar winner, even Around the World in 80 Days.) What I needed, I found, in August of 1972, with issue fifteen of the Monster Times. I’d ridden my bike a half mile toward town to a particular stationery store, where I’d buy Spider-Man comics and candy bars (and, on occasion, a Classics Illustrated, if it was adapting Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame or something equally cool) from the surly apron-clad proprietor behind the old-fashioned-even-then soda-shop counter. The summer might have had a week or two left to it, and what I went to the store to buy, I could not say. Often, I’d go there or to other places in town with no clear mission. My friends and I could and did wander everywhere unsupervised, shoplifting gum and exploring sumps and fleeing from packs of older kids as if we were escaping from Blackshirts. In this it seems as though the ’70s were closer to the ’30s of The Little Rascals (which we all watched religiously in reruns every schoolday morning) than to the twenty-first-century suburbia my children know. We’d wander deep into towns and industrial sites and onto trespassers-forbidden properties for a day at a time, until one would turn, a little worried, to the others, as dinnertime approached, and say, “We’re far.”
I spotted the unfamiliar and decidedly unglossy tabloid on the store shelf, and that was that. The mag’s title alone was sufficient in commanding my attention; it didn’t matter what was on the cover, which happened to be a three-color sketch of a zombie’s grinning face, apparently a production drawing (I’d later learn) for the lamentable exploitation indie Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things. The trouble, as I remember it, was that I had only twenty or thirty cents on me, and needed at least another quarter, to meet the Monster Times’s fifty-cent cover price. I biked furiously home and bargained with my mother for the extra change—it must’ve been a Saturday, if she was home from work. Gas went for about thirty-six cents a gallon then, so at today’s prices, I was a nine-year-old demanding four or five bucks for a monster newspaper. I somehow netted the two bits, and biked furiously back, foolishly scared that someone might’ve nabbed the one issue in the interim. I don’t exactly recall my first reading of it, just the hundreds of readings since. But it must’ve been intense and scrupulously private—like a votary with his mitts on a long-lost sacred text. I still have that shank of worn newsprint, and will die with it.
It didn’t take me long to discover that there were in fact other publications that catered to my tribe, primarily Forrest J. Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland, which seemed far too dull (there was no criticism, only promotion) and too pun-happy and preadolescent. There was also Calvin Beck’s erratically published but highly revered Castle of Frankenstein, which was never distributed in my suburban world. But the Monster Times was my ticket to ride, and I bought every issue, with carefully earned, found, and hoarded dimes, for the next four years. Opening out twice like a folded-over broadsheet newspaper, measuring twenty-two and a half by sixteen, and edited, after the bunch of issues I never saw, by one Joe Kane, TMT was an inspired media project, a monster-culture newspaper printed on rough pulp that endeavored to report on not just new movies and old, but comics, genre-fiction magazines, TV shows, novels, and even hobby-model kits.
Looking back on it now—because, as I say, I still have my copies, a fact that would most certainly shame my children if they noticed—TMT was not a particularly lofty, perceptive, or skilled affair. It seems to have been targeted largely to my demographic, prepubescents, but not exclusively. Like the Golden Age of Warner Bros. cartoons and the peak years of Krazy Kat and Pogo (TMT ran a one-panel obit, of Pogo shedding a tear, when Walt Kelly died, in 1973), the paper seemed to have been produced largely for its own makers’ amusement. (Kane would have a fabulous second act in the VHS boom of the mid-’80s as the New York Daily News’s B-movie columnist “Phantom of the Movie”—like Cashman, an anonymous pop pundit—and he even put out a fat paperback video guide, published by Dell in 1989.) Such is how the best and most lasting pop culture gets manufactured, then and now. The tone sometimes veered toward the laborious pun-making of Ackerman, Marvel’s Stan Lee, and E.C. Comics’ Al Feldstein (“Fangs for the memories,” that sort of thing), but often the humor stumbling out of the prose, captions, and editorial copy was brisk and, to a kid, snappy and elusive. (All the photos had wry captions, and some even had crudely drawn dialogue balloons: without explanation, characters in old movie stills would blurt, “SQUA TRONT!” or “SPA FON!,” cryptic exclamations familiar only to those with a working knowledge of E.C. Comics—knowledge that I, born six years after the legendary comic line folded, acquired only from the Monster Times itself.)
The Monster Times is an artifact of a cultural obsession that still thrives—few nonsexual obsessions are as ubiquitous and fiery on the internet as horror/sci-fi fandom, which today mostly segregates itself into madnesses about CGIs, taboo-busting gore, anime, Harry Potter, vampirism-as-alternative-lifestyle, and superheroes in every medium. The difference may seem strongest in how these private kingdoms stand as islands in the mainstream—fan-cult realms today are infinitely more accessible and far more socially accepted. Being a freak today takes work; in the ’70s, all you had to do was read the wrong magazine. Certainly, among fifth-graders, I was slightly freakish, outrageously far-sighted, and too sharply focused on pulp that no parent and few peers could appreciate. Even so, I did not subconsciously “identify” with “the Other,” as the geeky members of Devo, for instance, are happy to admit in their fondness for Island of Lost Souls (1932) and ’50s alien-invasion movies. Freudian theorists have spent decades matchmaking between marginalized social demographics, especially “nonorthodox” juveniles, and the hyperbolic figures found in “psychotronic” pop cinema, but I’m pretty sure that was not my party. I wouldn’t be sure with whom or what I “identified,” exactly, but my experience of the movies’ creepy otherworldliness, whether effectively frightening or merely hyper-weird, was just that: a jolt of unease, an electric, clarifying plunge into the irrational. I was the films’ witness and victim, not their monster. Perhaps my experience of my family’s booze-fueled toxicity needed further contextualization, and in order to make sense of my father’s bleary violence or my mother’s claustrophobic unhappiness, I needed to glimpse other battlefields, other madhouses, far more corrupted with strangeness.
There’s your shot of Freud—my father as the Amazing Colossal Man, or the entirety of the dopey, droning zombie crowd from the original Night of the Living Dead. Or perhaps it was plain old Aristotelian katharsis, or what ’80s psychologists termed “sensation seeking,” measured for the sake of research on a “Sensation Seeking Scale”? Whatever the juice, a boy just hitting double digits learns quickly to codify this stuff, take it seriously, build a body of knowledge, take the exploration of the culture’s webbiest corners as a matter of vocation. The Monster Times was instrumental in broadening my suburban media dalliances into a worldview, and therein did far more than a dozen years of public education to steer me toward the vast and tangled jungle of global culture on the largest scale. Sure, there was a Best Monster Ever contest (Godzilla won, dubiously), but articles also explained the mechanics of Lon Chaney’s self-designed makeup for Phantom of the Opera, dissected the mise-en-scène of Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr, offered instructions for the care and feeding of bats, took on a photo-tour of Transylvania, debunked Erich von Däniken, plumbed underground comics and comics conventions before any mainstream publication knew they existed, saluted wartime comic artists like Plastic Man’s Jack Cole and Captain Marvel’s C. C. Beck, and explored the “strange case” of ’40s acromegaly-victim/movie-creature Rondo Hatton. When Glenn Strange, who “played” the Frankenstein Monster in two mid-’40s movies plus Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet Frankenstein, died—the role called for him only to stand and walk—TMT honored him with a memorial poster. The staff taste-tested Franken Berry cereal, issued the world’s first “Worst Issue” (From Hell It Came figured in their All-Time 50 Worst), and stood alone reviewing the obscure and semi-lost 1973 horror-comedy Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood, even as the film was denied rating or distribution by the MPAA. This is where I first read the names H. P. Lovecraft, Roman Polanski, Frank Frazetta, Tod Browning, Algernon Blackwood, F. W. Murnau, Richard Matheson, Arthur C. Clarke, Alex Raymond, Basil Wolverton, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Samuel R. Delany.
Much of this felt like secret knowledge to me, but I soon understood how wide this underworld actually was—a dawning moment was the first time I heard Alice Cooper’s 1971 song “Ballad of Dwight Fry” (sic) on Long Island radio. A squirrelly, often humpbacked staple of the Universal horror films of the ’30s, Frye was, I’d thought, one of those forgotten cultural personas that you’d find name-checked only in the Monster Times. But this was also a day and age of thundering Exorcist-rip-off, intensely watched box-office horror TV movies (from Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark to… Killdozer), persistent Twilight Zone and Star Trek reruns, Planet of the Apes sequels and TV adaptations, Aurora model kits of the Wolfman, the Phantom of the Opera and Co. (I had them all), et cetera. I may not have been very freakish at all.
This guild membership came with certain gifts, besides an indexical recall of Ray Harryhausen’s career. For one thing, just one step beyond these litanies brings the curious kid to things like German expressionism, Darwinism, vaudeville, quantum theory, Iron Curtain communism, dream analysis, astronomy, “art films,” and World War II. But another weighty takeaway was what every cultist takes from the aging wellspring of obsession—a respect for and fascination with the past. Whether you’re fixated on Victorian wallpaper patterns or obsolete-nation postage stamps or Benny Goodman 78s or old mad-scientist movies, you osmotically receive an intimacy with the foretime that has supplied the DNA of who we are and how we create the world around us. Forgetting, it seems to me now, is a modern civilizational malady. Michael Chabon, in “Landsman of the Lost,” his achingly evocative essay on cartoonist Ben Katchor, admits to suffering “intensely from bouts, at times almost disabling, of a limitless, all-encompassing nostalgia, extending well back into the years before I was born.” Chabon lays out his nostalgic helplessness in reasonable and anthemic terms:
We are not, as our critics would claim, necessarily convinced that things were once better than they are now, nor that we ourselves, our parents, or our grandparents were happier “back then.” We are simply like those savants in the Borges story who stumble upon certain objects and totems that turn out to be the random emanations and proofs of existence of Tlon. The past is another planet; anyone ought to wonder, as we do, at any traces of it that turn up on this one.
If you know exactly what he means, you know this passion is not about preferring the past, as a conservative politician might, but simply not letting it get landfilled under a tarmac of now. Nostalgia is rarely taken seriously, and has taken a socio-ideological beating in academic and critical circles for the last half century, but without it ten thousand ways of seeing human society and experience as it has passed through time would be lost. As it is, so much has been lost already, and there’s little we can do to stave the flow, despite the dogged efforts by untold armies of fiction and memoir writers, history teachers, record and book and antiques collectors, archivists, old-film lovers, obsolete model-railroad fanatics, arcane-website curators, archaeologists, sports-trivia nuts, drag queens, library lovers, and museum workers. Total up that cataract of work and love, and it might ironically seem as though a gargantuan percentage of educated human culture is being, semi-privately, devoted to preserving older human culture, while our media-world charges ahead with commercial urgency into the future.
Monster culture was my gateway drug to cultural history, but, significantly, one that loitered, disreputably, on the fringes. Of course, at that age I was not particularly hospitable to passionate engagement with Renaissance art, Dickens, Bach, Austen, or the Civil War. But neither would I be for some time. I learned early a boiling distrust of authority, and so the official building blocks of public education and high cultural literacy, like the Great Man Theory of history, Aristotelian aesthetics, blank verse, Homer, nineteenth-century “social novels,” basic economic theory, even algebra, were not on my to-do list. But I needed a way to separate myself from my dourly lower-middle-class, semi-educated origins, a way that would suit my nascent social-political discontent. I think I sensed as a preteen what critic Robin Wood would maintain in his landmark 1979 essay “An Introduction to the American Horror Film”—that genre films are fueled by the Marx-echoing tension between social repression (most often sexual) and the reactive fury of the repressed, and so represented an “outsider” energy, an alternative to orthodoxy and capitalist authority. I didn’t see myself as the rampaging id taking down bourgeois normalcy, but I was all for the insurrection march. Without having a sophisticated thought in my head, I grabbed a seat on this unsavory caravan, knowing it carried genuine culture and history but not in service to authoritarian and/or socially conservative forces I instinctively loathed. It was culture and history as opposition, the fifty-foot ape tearing down the Fifth Avenue El train and terrorizing the city.
The Monster Times, then, was my guide, my Baedeker, mapping out the territory of human expression going back centuries but starting out in one strange little corner of the landscape, where the trolls still lived under bridges, and the castles, though crumbling, were still torchlit and inhabited. It was a country most people didn’t bother to acknowledge or explore. But from there, the roads went everywhere.