Pop Songs and Mortality.

Pegged Jean Nightmares 13

As a lifelong fan of 50s and 60s rock (Thanks, Mom!), it’s not like I hadn’t heard songs about dying before. “Last Kiss” is a sad, unambiguous number about shuffling off this mortal coil. “The Boxer” is about breaking down and being drained. “Eleanor Rigby” may be the saddest song ever written.

These three also have something in common — they’re great songs. The song that made me aware of my own mortality is not a song I’m particularly impressed with, but it had an effect on me, all right.

I was sitting on the floor in my bedroom (not sure why), and I was listening to the radio. Like most kids at that time period, I had a small boom box with a tape deck. A cassette tape cost at least ten dollars new, and you never knew how many good songs you’d get from it. In junior high, before I had built up my tape library and then turned it into a CD library that I still hold onto, even though most of the songs are on my computer now, you had to listen to the radio.

When the announcer said the next song was from Ozzy Osbourne and Lita Ford, I got nervous. It was common knowledge, at that time, that Ozzy was Satan. There were a lot of worries that rock musicians could make you first Satanic and then dead. Now, those rockers get reality shows and nostalgic reunion tours.

Lyrically, the song was mostly forgettable to me. I’ve reviewed the lyrics since then and remain nonplussed.

Until Ozzy starts wailing, “Close your eyes!”

Clearly, he was singing about dying. After all, Lita Ford had just sang she would close her eyes forever. Alone in my room, I realized I would also someday close my eyes forever.

For years, I’ve assumed most people have a weird Sixth Sense type moment where they wonder if they’ve already died and just didn’t know it because they continued dreaming. I held that death delusion for a few moments longer than normal, as the song faded out. I was human. I would die.

I guess they can’t all be love songs.

-Axel

Don’t Go Into The Bookshelves Alone.

Pegged Jean Nightmares 7

Whenever I pick up a scary book nowadays, the cover is a tasteful affair. Lately, you could lay your horror fiction next to your mainstream beach books and have trouble telling the difference. Try it sometime at a bookstore and you’ll see. You could sneak horrifyingly graphic books onto a display of Oprah books and probably get away with it.

The paperbacks of the 80s did not believe in this philosophy of blending in. Every paperback horror cover in the 80s wanted to murder you senseless, and did everything it could to scream its intentions to you. Those books were shameless, shameless things.

The best part is people would bring books with nasty covers anywhere in the 80s. Put one in your purse, leave it in the backseat of your car, or set it on the dinner table when your food comes. If you were an impressionable kid, you were never more than a glance away from seeing something that would bug your eyes out and make you hide behind a grown-up.

I still get tiny goosebumps for the covers of books THAT I DIDN’T EVEN READ. One book of short stories had a Gothic horse-drawn hearse with snakes dangling off of it. My parents loaned that one to my older cousin to get it away from me before the nightmares came, and she still hasn’t returned it. One cover showed a blue-tinted house and a nervous man standing in front of it. It was judged too adult for me to read, but the cover did the trick.

Hell, the covers of Clive Barker’s first books made me convinced me Barker probably murdered people daily. But don’t take my word for it. Check out Will Erickson’s blog Too Much Horror Fiction.

Will’s been kind enough to help me pick some favorites to share and comment on.

 

Will remembers seeing Tricycle at an early age and feeling the fear. The cover reminds me you can never see the faces of Minnesotan kids in the winter. For all I know, there are a lot of these skeleton brats biking about. Be advised.
Not a huge fan of slugs, leeches, and other slimy things in general. It seems reasonable they want to strip the flesh from my bones, leaving my face to screech helplessly into the night air. One INSIDE my skull, too? Why not? I can always use another reason to cringe when I visit a lake or pond.
The main difference between this kid and a kid looking at this cover is one of them still has 100% of his face. Implication: Read this book and your face will melt. Then, some adult leaves you alone with this book and you start to get ideas . . .
This is a lot of confusing, naked flesh. And it’s headed straight for me. Awesome.

Continue reading “Don’t Go Into The Bookshelves Alone.”

Lon Invites Klaus.

From the film Nosferatu (1979, dir. Werner Herzog) Starz/Anchor Bay

Pegged Jean Nightmares 6

In fourth grade, we were given the assignment of picking an important American about whom to write and present a report. I chose Lon Chaney, brilliant actor and inventor of modern special effects makeup. I’m sure the parents of the Neil Armstrong kid and the Albert Einstein kid took pity on my parents.

My runner up choices were Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.

This project, which the teacher referred to as Night of Notables, required research and revision. When we were done, we presented the paper to an elementary gym filled with parents and other relatives. We all dressed in character. Since there was no way I could recreate Lon Chaney’s famously painful Phantom of the Opera make-up, I decided to copy what I thought was the Phantom’s disguise before he removes his mask. I ended up wrapping my entire head in bandages, which looked more like The Invisible Man than The Phantom of the Opera.

Which starred Claude Raines, not Lon Chaney.

Immediately after having my head covered in bandages, my nose started bleeding. So I stood up and presented my speech on Lon Chaney while dressed as Claude Raines with a hunk of bandages cut away from my nose to remove the blood stains.

If any of my classmates had known how terrified I had been writing my presentation, I would’ve needed more bandages to cover my embarrassment.

In the days of card catalogs, before the Internet, finding information about Lon Chaney in rural Iowa was difficult. Most of the books I did find were aimed at adults, and  I couldn’t stop myself from looking at pictures from movies far scarier than what I was used to watching. There was probably some parental rule about staying away from these pictures, but I couldn’t help myself.

One picture of Klaus Kinski as Nosferatu got under my skin. As you are probably already aware, monsters are legally allowed to visit any time you close your eyes in your bedroom. In the picture, Klaus was leaning over a bed and ready to bite. This meant he would be there as soon as I opened my eyes. His makeup seemed so lifelike then that I still believe Klaus Kinski looked like Nosferatu, and all other pictures reporting to be “Klaus Kinski” are of a fraud and imposter.

I think the book ended up in my parent’s room after I made them come in and take it away. It lead to a long night listing all of the things I would never do again if I made it through the night without having that pale bloodsucker hovering over my neck. Since I HAVE been mean to people and told lies since the fourth grade, I’m pretty sure I didn’t keep those promises.

This is what real vampires look liked, by the way. If you’re a grownup still holding onto hope for vampires with sensitive, mousey personalities and elegantly styled hair, you are living a lie. Klaus will find you one day.

-Axel

A Mountain Monster.

Pegged Jean Nightmares 5

I was old enough to feel shame about getting scared like some “baby,” and I was spending a dull day with the toys strewn around my bedroom. Somehow, I wound up listening to records. One of the records was a 45 handed down to me from some unknown relative. The song? “Bigfoot” by Bro Smith.

The setting couldn’t have been less frightening. My room had light blue walls, and I was playing the record on my portable Dukes of Hazzard record player. I had even heard the song many times before. Something clicked this time, and I pulled the needle out of the groove before the song was done.

I did not look out my window. I knew all too well the rear of our house was surrounded by woods. When the leaves are still on the trees and the weeds are thick, you can’t really tell what’s standing in the woods, staring back at you.

I didn’t believe in Bigfoot then, and I don’t believe in Bigfoot now.However, imagining something unknown and feral watching you from behind a  gnarled tree is a fear I still cannot shake. Bigfoot’s as good a name for that thing as anything.

Want a taste of that fear? Stare at a thick tree line on a dark night and let your mind wander.

I didn’t realize that, when I was listening to Bro Smith’s novelty hit, there was a reason I was scared  in spite of being safely in my own bedroom. The beastly thing looking at me from the woods had been inside me. It was, and remains, a symbol of wild night-time fears. These fears are inside all of our minds from centuries of human survival. My bedroom was no match for that primal fear.

Is yours?

See for yourself. The YouTube video I’ve selected shows the turntable playing the record, an element I believe makes all of the difference.

– Axel

The Gift of Half-Scairt.

“Half Scairt” copyright © 1988 Alan M. Clark.

Pleated Jean Nightmares 4

The Year’s Best Horror Stories XIX, edited by the great Karl Edward Wagner, came out in 1991. I got it as vacation reading, but I think I was too busy with vacation-having to read it right away. I don’t remember exactly when I got back to the book, but I remember enjoying every story in it.

One story felt like it thundered off the page, and might be three solid knocks away from breaking down my door. That story was “I’ll Give You Half-Scairt” by Wayne Allen Sallee. The story, as explained in its introduction, is a fictionalization of a real life conversation between Sallee and artist Alan Clark.

Sallee wrote his story under the inspiration of the painting above. It concerns a writer and artist, naturally, who begin a sort of competitive collaboration. It ends with a hazy homicidal blending of death and art, as it they were two mucky colors smudged together on a canvas.

Amazingly, the story captures the picture without including it. I have added it here with the kind permission of the artist. Like the story, the picture is realistic, but slowly bleeding over into surreal horror. Both painting beg the question “Why?” and then gleefully avoids answering that question.

UPDATE: Alan Clark was nice enough to send me a close-up of the thing in the painting. I’m simultaneously relieved and, somehow, more scared. So many questions about what’s going on in that house.

“Half Scairt Detail” copyright © 1988 Alan M. Clark.

Reading this story, I could feel Sallee smudging my own fears, and mixing my nerves in with the character’s trauma. With reckless pacing and vivid description, Sallee challenges all of his readers to remember why they came. And then he poses the question – what would readers do if he ever gave them the full measure of scaring they came for?

Just look at the picture and let your mind wander.

Painting or story, either “half-scairt” is scairt enough.

Shaken and Stirred.

Pegged Jean Nightmares 3

This is a children’s song, and for all I know it’s a standard. I’m nearly thirty years removed from first encountering it.

I remember the day in kindergarten when we sang this song, which I believe is called “Stirring My Brew.” It was around 10 AM, and the sky outside remained a perfect twilight grey. I imagined I could hear the dry leaves blowing in tight circles near the outside door. Our kindergarten class was taking the time sing a Halloween song, as the holiday was quickly approaching.

The song is a simple little ditty about a witch and her brew, and it’s filled with lots of low “oooo” singing. As we sang on, I found myself staring at a pale-skinned classmate who somehow looked much older than her kindergarten age.

This girl suddenly became the witch our class was singing about.

The beauty of a young imagination is its ability to accept without questioning. At that moment, this student was an old witch, and that was that. As the song droned on, I felt I could see the edges of a yellowing witch-skull poking out of her forehead and cheeks. I felt hypnotized; my classmates sang on, oblivious to the evil in the room with them. At any moment, the room could melt away and it would be the witch  and my class trapped in the room forever, wasting away in silence.

Then, the song ended and my witch daydream was over as quickly as a child’s daydream can end.

Except I can still picture the witch-face I saw in my imagination, and I can still hear the song.

– Axel

I am including a link to a YouTube video of children singing this song. Enjoy.

Leaping Off-Kilter

Pegged Jean Nightmares 2

In the late 80s, there was an unwritten Code of Scooby Doo. Televison shows liked to get a little weird around Halloween, but in the end life went back to normal and the rules of reality still applied. Sure, it seemed like it was a ghost, and the house was haunted, and the older sister was possessed. But the shows always ended with a misunderstanding explained, a hearty laugh, and spookier-than-usual theme music.

In episode 3, season 3 of Quantum Leap, evil decides to hang out the whole episode, and it doesn’t bother to explain itself. I’ll not be spoiling the twists and turns here, but I will tell you one of those twists does not fully resolve itself when the credits go past.

Also, if you watch the episode (which is currently streaming on Netflix), the whole thing is filled with evil imagery a-go-go. Goats and cats and snakes. People dying. Sanity questioned. Usually when network TV got that creepy in the 80s, it was on the mocking confines of a talk show set.

“The Boogieman,” which is the title of the episode, feels more like a short stand-alone film than the continuation of an existing series. When you watch an episode that off kilter, it means anything could happen. Usually, the Code of Scooby Doo is in play and things somehow manage to work out. But sometimes you get a diabolical hot mess like “The Boogieman.”

This episode never kept me up at night, but it got my attention. When the show dipped to commercial break ahead of the big confrontation, I realized I had no idea how in the hell time-traveling Sam Beckett was going to get out of this one. For about half a commercial break, I thought maybe this would be the one episode of TV where everything broke down and couldn’t be fixed. The show isn’t nearly that frightening when it’s over, but it made me wonder. That’s a pretty good trick.

Fans of the show even associate a sort of curse with this episode. I’ll let you research that on your own time. Not just any show gets its own curse. Nicely down, “The Boogieman.”

– Axel

The Blob – For Kids!

If you hid it under your shoes and coat, the book couldn’t get you.

Pegged Jean Nightmare 1

If taking the Crestwood House children’s novelization of The Blob out of book bag and throwing it into the woods behind my house would’ve stripped the horrible images from my brain, I would’ve done so without hesitation.

Before my parents got sick of the nightmares, I used to read everything scary the Denver Public Library had on its shelves. Crestwood House had other monster books, and they had given me their own sleepless nights (I’m looking at you here, Dracula book). Still, nothing unsettled me like reading The Blob unsettled me.

After finishing The Blob, by Ian Thorne, I resigned myself to inevitable death at the gelatinous touch of the titular creature. I knew the difference between fiction and non-fiction, but something inside me decided The Blob was real enough to stay awake and worry about. Consider the following passage:

“Steve picked up a sharp cleaver and threw it at the blob. But the sharp steel only sank into the gooey mass, doing no harm. The blob kept on coming, faster and faster!”

Doomed.

The actual movie isn’t this scary. To be fair, I saw it when I was much older. Still, the blob I imagined was like liquid death. It sloshed across floors and drank people’s innards like a towel on a fruit juice spill.

Sure, the book and movie offer some crap about the blob being vulnerable to cold. As a kid, I knew better. The “cold can save us” bit was just so the less gullible kids could sleep at night. I wasn’t gullible. I knew that real life blobs probably bubbled about just fine in hot and cold temperatures. This is how I knew we were all doomed when the real blobs came, and this is why I stayed up watching the floor for blob tracks. This may even be the book that caused my parents to call the school and ask them to keep me away from scary books at the town library.

The always-excellent Rue Morgue Magazine has written about Crestwood House. For more info on the other titles in the series, check out this article.

Years ago, my childhood library had a massive moving sale and I bought The Blob as a trophy. Some people have grizzly bear heads on their walls. I have my blob book. And I am a survivor.

Keep watching for blob tracks!

-Axel

If you need to have a song stuck in your head for the next twelve days, please enjoy this link to the theme song from The Blob.

Crypticon’s Campfire Ashes.

Another Crypticon in the books. Now, the work begins.

I always come home from Crypticon loaded up with homework. Movies to watch, music to listen t0, and books to read. What lessons am I now learning? I’m studying the works of Joe Knetter and MP Johnson. Drink Blood Records gave me discs from They Live and The Funeral and the Twilight. I have In Harm’s Way and Potpourri (for the second time) to watch, from the dependable folks at Restraining Hollywood.

Add to this the fliers and memorized suggestions and you’ve got months worth of scary entertainment. This is a very good thing. Watch and listen to the Crypticon crowds and you know the Minnesotan winter is already on their mind. We have to load up to get through.

Crypticon is Minnesota’s last great bonfire before winter. Ask anyone who attends and they’ll comment on the warmth and familial nature of the convention. Whether you’re standing by a stranger or a friend, you’re only a short greeting away from a friendly conversation about the beloved creatures and mesmerizing maniacs they’re dying to discuss.

When the Crypticon campfire is reduced to ashes, waiting to be lit again in another year, we all head home with new stories to tell, and new stories to watch and learn. It’s the stories that bring us out in the first place, the scarier the better.

So I’ll catch up on my reading and survive the winter. Next year, I want to bring a few stories of my own the ‘con.

– Axel