Terrifying Images from this Week's 'National Enquirer'

The monkey from Hangover II walking the red carpet at the premiere

 Maria Shriver rendered as psychotic harpie.

The head of Peter Fonda

Oil portrait of Jennifer Aniston's 
recently deceased dog.

Something called a "teacup fairy."

Dipshit Test

Reds (1976)

Jack W. Thomas
Bantam Books

1970 or so:  Dorcie and Polly really hate high school, so much in fact that, beneath the Ventura Underpass, they vow to ditch the valley and make the scene in the Haight.  Soon they're blitzed on pot and Seconal, thumbing a ride north.  Along comes Cole, a "super-square" high school senior, who gives them a lift to Santa Barbara.  From there things devolve into a particularly long and gruesome Dragnet episode as the three teens descend deeper and deeper into the drugged world of hippie depravity.  Highlights include:

     *Dorcie wrecking the car in a downer-fueled escape from the police.

     *A hippie from Watts who calls himself "King Coon" and vacillates between ironic racial commentary and non-ironic self-loathing.  At one moment he's boasting that he plans to end racism by implanting his "supersoul sperm" into every white girl he can find to create a race of "niggerpiglets," the next moment he's lamenting that "black may be beautiful" but he most assuredly is not.

     *Disgusting hippie crash pad with strung-out meth addict in the attic.  Dorcie later gives him a hot-shot that causes him to bleed out and die, so she burns down the house to conceal the evidence.

     *Acid freak-out resulting in a series of disturbing pictures drawn on the wall with mascara and eye-liner. 

     *Dorcie offering to "run train" on a high school gym class in order to score some bucks for some more reds.

     *Dorcie mainlining 15 Seconals on the beach at Caramel and almost snuffing it.

     *Dorcie forcing Polly and Cole to engage in Peyote-fueled intercourse while she watches.  At the height of their "trip," she puts a gun into each of their mouths.  

As you can see from the above summary, Dorcie is the source of most of the trouble here.  As the trip unfolds, Cole falls for the better-looking and blonder Polly; in fact, he only sticks around through most of this horrorshow to protect Polly and bring her back home.  Dorcie resents the intrusion and does everything she can to separate the two lovebirds and reclaim her original partner in crime.  Plus, as she becomes more strung out during her four-day binge on Seconal, pot, and acid, Dorcie basically becomes psychotic, culminating in her shooting her stepfather in the face and cutting his dick off. 

The book is a bit over-the-top, and I still don't quite know what to make of the rapey yet ultimately benevolent "King Coon," but all in all Reds is a very compelling read.  Even if Thomas is working from the Jack Webb book of drug panics, he has a real knack for narrating how one charismatic teenager can completely screw over another, dragging her into a mess that she would otherwise have avoided.  A must for anyone interested in teen psychopathology of the early 1970s!

Healing of the Mind (1978)

Pat Brooks
New Puritan Library

Fairly standard mix of anecdotes and scripture "proving" that demons are circling around you at all times and are responsible for: depression, self-pity, rebellion, "voices," water-borne parasitical infections, etc.  Brooks particularly has it out for her fellow women, professing a firm belief in "Momism" and urging the ladies to return to their ordained roles as housekeepers and husband-followers.  Highpoint arrives when a woman contacts Brooks to say she practices witchcraft and wants out.  Brooks (and husband) tell her to go home and burn her Ouija Board and all occult books.  We are told that when the family threw these materials in the furnace, a tendril of fire shot out and turned into an apparition that said, "You will burn in hell for this!"  That fairly spooked them, and they ran away.  As added bonus, final page includes what appears to be hand-written sheet music for a song called, "Will You Come with Me?"


Discount Kitty

The white light is a unicorn-shaped bowling ball

 The following is an "exquisite corpse" story written by students in my Exploitation/Cult Cinema course this past term.  The opening sentence is the first line from Boy Crazy by Nicolas Pine, the fifth installment in the Terror Academy series. 

Shannon Riley sighed and lifted her crystal green eyes to the tinted window of the bus.  The emeralds had arrived last night, and were carved so exquisitely that they fit into her eye sockets better than her original eyes.  She put on a new necklace and decided tonight was going to be different.  She didn’t want to be treated like some two-dollar whore.  She was worth at least twice that.  How many elephants would a man sacrifice to deserve her?  He would never truly know, but he was determined to find out if he could ever win her over.  Knowing that he had from birth been set up for failure, he knew that winning her over, making her notice him, and her accepting his hand in marriage would be the last thing he would attempt before giving up for good.  But alas, a simple ‘no’ concluded his bearlike passion.  Gerard could not believe that this was her response!  The idea that she had planned the whole thing to the extent of vomiting blood and soiling herself during the wedding—it was inconceivable.  It was as though she didn’t care a thing for her husband-to-be or the $20,000 wedding dress he had bought for her. 

She’d rather try on hats in front of the bathroom mirror.  The mirror shattered when she gazed into it.  Still, she didn’t need the mirror to confirm what she already knew in her heart—she looked good, damn good, and something as trivial as a kitty mask wasn’t going to change that.  Suddenly she realized something was wrong—‘you know things with your brain, not your heart!’ she thought (with her heart).  She remembered taking long baths in her neighbor’s porcelain tub.  Her neighbor had no idea.  How would he know he was living next door to a nudist if the blinds were always closed?  He must have broken into the house and seen the nude man in person.  Seeing a man naked in the house made him forget completely why he was there in the house to begin with.  He completely froze up and hid himself in a closet and watched the action unfold hidden from sight.  The nude man would often do push-ups.  His exercise routine was specifically designed to maximize his abs, and therefore his chances with the ladies. But more specifically, he wanted to impress Marlene, the new HR rep at work.  What he didn’t know is that Marlene only dates midgets.  This results from an incident in her early childhood, when she had a particularly beautiful one for a preschool teacher, with long, curly hair and blue eyes.

But this phase soon ended, and we find now find her living in her great aunt’s basement with twelve cats and a cactus.  The cactus, which may have seemed like an afterthought, was actually a very rare species and meant a great deal to her.  She approached the cactus, fondling its fruit, mouth watering in anticipation of its bittersweet taste.  The fuchsia prickly pear was just out of reach, even when she climbed on a small ladder.  Taunted by the pear’s intoxicating aroma, she decided to forsake the ladder only to be reminded of the experimental jet pack technology that her great uncle Snidely had been developing in his top secret basement laboratory.  Ultimately, the jetpack’s exhaust gave her one hell of a buzz.  Her landing was a bit bumpy but she made it to the laundry mat.  Upon reaching the laundry mat, she realized she had forgotten her clothes, and decided to bathe herself in a washing machine.  Since she wasn’t able to fit into one washing machine, she combined two, placed half of her body to one and the other half to the other.  One half of her body in the washing machine started counting the number of holes in the machine.  There were too many holes, she decided.  Far too many!  She needed to fill in the holes immediately.  Looking to her left, she saw a can of Play-Do that she could use as Spackle. 

She chose not to, however, which left her with no choice…it was either this or going back to selling vacuums door-to-door in Arkansas.  Anything in the world would be better than moving there. There was nothing left there for anyone under the age of 65.  Nothing except the xylophone carousels that filled the fields.  Their music echoed among the grains and tractors.  Then the pig donkey started dancing!  They danced until the donkey wheel created a white light.  Suddenly the white light gets too bright so they have to stop dancing.  The white light is a unicorn-shaped bowling ball.  The bowling ball got blasted by the unicorn’s galaxy destruction ray.  The bowling ball shattered, and the shards flew out to impale the unicorn once and for all.  It was at this moment that the transcendent man self-actualized and sprouted a beard.  He had now become the man he had always hoped to be.  He looked at himself in the mirror and didn’t want to change anything.  Because he was born that way! And because of the way he was born, he had trouble making friends.  He probably just needs to practice.  I mean no one is hopeless.  It’s almost impossible to do anyway, and it takes years to get it right. 2 years pass.  Sam and Tom reunite.  But in their reunion they found themselves lost in static, destined to exist within the screen. “Get the balls, Mama,” they said, and they grabbed the balls and threw them at the wall.

Operation Rawhide (1990)

Paul Thomsen
Wolgemuth and Hyatt

Conservatives love them some Reagen, that's a well known fact.  Here we have a book in the "Creation Adventure Series," described on the back as "gripping stories" that "introduce young people to the work of a sovereign God, from the beginning of time to now."  This particular gripping story tells us the story of Dr. Ben Aron, the surgeon who treated Reagen after the failed assassination attempt by John Hinckley, Jr. on March 31, 1981.  On the fateful day, we learn, Aron had just finished a marathon session of open heart surgery with another patient.  When he hears that "Rawhide" (Reagen's handle with the Secret Service) has been shot and is on his way to the hospital, he says a quick prayer and gets ready for his Presidential patient.  There follows an account of Reagen's arrival and the challenges of the surgery.

Mainly, however, the book is a vehicle for Christian testimony, the author's bio telling us the following:

Paul and his wife, Julie, have created Dynamic Genesis, Inc. and work full-time to produce books for the Creation Adventure Series of which Operation Rawhide is a part.  They also conduct seminars on how to teach children to answer questions on origins the way the public school textbook presents them and then 'qualify' their answers with a non-gradable Biblical scientific answer.  This 'qualifier' system has received enthusiastic approval from both teachers and students.

In other words, the couple teaches children to answer questions about evolution in the way that Caesar expects of them, but to add a "dinos walked the earth with man 4000 years ago" qualifier.  That's fine, I guess.  Every parent, religious or secular, teaches their children something dysfunctional and stupid, so who are any of us to get in the way?

What's odd (and yet typical), though, is the massively unchristian attitude the book takes toward John Hinckley, Jr.  Now you might think the Christian thing to do would be acknowledge that Hinckley was extremely ill, did something horrible, but should nevertheless be forgiven (which, as I recall, Reagan himself was magnanimous enough to do).  Author Thomsen, however, really, really wants you to hate Hinckley, forever and all time.  Here is the book's first mention of Hinckley:

Death raged in the dark eyes of John Hinckley, Jr. At twenty-five years of age, this American citizen had been a member of the Nazi Party.

So right out of the gate, Hinckley's a Nazi. Not mentally ill, or even confused, or even perhaps spiritually lost--but a full-on Nazi.   But even that's not evil enough, so Thomsen goes on to remind us that the Nazis believed that "through time and chance, evolution would produce a superior race, and only the fittest would or should survive."  Get it?  The Nazis believed in evolution.  Do you believe in evolution.  You're a Nazi, asshole.

Nazi atrocities are then summarized, culminating in a reiteration of the major theme: "And now, forty years later, Hitler's same evil spirit was again rearing its ugly head through one John Hinckley, Jr.--a Nazi."  And more: The night before the assassination attempt "he left his hotel room and went out to pornographic stores, filling his mind with corrupting, lewd pictures.  His senses were dulled by drugs, pornography, hard rock music, and Nazi doctrine--with everything God opposed."  At that very same moment, we learn, President Reagen was experiencing "a sense of closeness, comfort, and love surrounded by the first family that evening" having "worshiped Jesus" earlier in the day.

Do you follow?  Do you understand?

Reagen = Jesus
Hinckley = Drug-addled, porn-addicted, rock-music-listening, evolution-believing NAZI.

More evidence for why we need two countries--one for secularists willing to fund mental health support and treatment, and one for those who continue to insist that both schizophrenia and Nazism are  things that simply "happen" because of a fundamental evilness lurking in the atmosphere.

6 is a Magic Number

Activists of various stripes struggled for years to displace the nuclear family as the center of the American social imaginary.  Not everyone lives in a Mom+Dad+2.5 kids family unit, obviously, and demographics suggest even fewer will do so in the future.  Television has proven a particularly important front in these battles, which is appropriate given how much the medium once worked to solidify the white, middle-class suburban marriage as the foundation for all that is holy and good in American life.  As television historians and old-school Nick-at-Nite addicts are well aware, after the heyday of Beavers and Kittys, Springfields and Mayfields, TV families in the sixties became both playfully monstrous (with The Munsters and The Addams Family), weirdly reconstituted (as in Family Affair, Andy Griffith, and The Brady Bunch), and queerly interspecial/interdimensional (as in Flipper, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and My Favorite Martian).  There was also Mr. Ed, the story of a man who married and presumably had sex with his horse.

Barring any unforeseen social upheavals or planetary timewarps that take us back to 1955, The Cosby Show will probably prove to be the last domestic sitcom to play it straight; that is, to portray the symbiotic foibles of parenting and childhood as intrinsically amusing and somehow transcending all considerations of race, class, and time.  The Simpsons and the less-honored though in its day equally revolutionary Married with Children put an end to all that.  Nuclear-fueled domestic sitcoms still appear on the schedule, of course, but with various “re-framings” that make them something other than Eisenhower-esque re-education camps.  Thus ABC’s Modern Family anoints itself as “modern,” integrates a gay couple and a Latina dialect gag into its multigenerational architecture, and rather unnecessarily looks to the faux-documentary format for an added layer of edgier realism (plus it brought back Ed O'Neil--how's that for the full circle of destroying and then reconstructing the dom-com?). 

An hour earlier on the same network, The Middle—a deceptively by-the-numbers comedy about child-rearing practices in Indiana—now feels like the niche marketing of a certain sitcom classicism.  When’s the last time you heard a really good joke about teenagers who never clean their rooms?   Hip and up-to-date in its cultural references, if not its plots, The Middle also speaks to the industry’s sense that the only place where nuclear families actually still exist and still want to watch television about themselves is the “middle” of the country; i.e. the Midwest, where dated television formats go to die (even if you generally hate this type of comedy, however, The Middle is well worth watching if only for the incredible and generally unsung performance of Eden Sher as middle daughter Sue Heck—she’s like a Dawn Weiner cleaned up for network consumption, a transposition that somehow makes her both more pathetic and more hilarious at the same time.  She’s so good in the role that she’ll never win an Emmy simply because no acting appears to be involved). 

The gradual displacement of the nuclear family as the psychic center of American social, political, and televisual life is laudable to be sure.  Beginning in the 1990s, however, a new format began to emerge that is now arguably just as restrictive, maybe even more so.  In a world where those destined to marry and have children took longer to do so, Seinfeld introduced the premise of urban singles simply hanging out, a sitcom realm where one’s friendship network was often more important and meaningful than blood relations themselves (despite their ongoing cynicism and occasional treachery, the Seinfeld crew clearly preferred their own company over that of their insane relatives—and none of them, thankfully, ever seemed to have any real investment in what society expected of them on the married with children front—an innovation made both explicit and somewhat controversial in George’s lukewarm reaction to his engagement with Susan and his sense of relief once his fiancee poisoned herself by licking too many cheap wedding invitation envelopes). 

Friends famously built on this formula, but with two innovations (neither of which were necessarily welcome): (1) the central cast bumped up from four leads to six; and (2) a resurgence of sentiment and concern about reproductive futurism (to use Lee Edelman’s wonderfully disdainful, clinical term for breeder ideology).

Surveying the state of television today, it is clear that this is the new normal(ization) in network comedy: six (or more) leads, either all single or a mix of single and married dyads, bonded together as an extended family unit confronting the crazy uncertainties of modern life (with at least one eye open to the imperatives of future coupling, career advancement, and reproduction).  If you watch a number of these shows, as I seem to do, you need a scorecard to keep track of each yearly wave of witty banterers looking to live their crazy, mixed-up, cappuccino-fueled lives all over your television set.  Consider the following army of young, clever, and generally photogenic people whom the networks hoped you would like to have known better during the past season:

Traffic Light (Fox): Mike, Adam, Ethan, Lisa, Callie (one shy of six, clearly the reason the show was cancelled)

Perfect Couples (NBC): Dave, Julia, Vance, Amy, Rex, Leigh

Better With You (NBC): Mia, Maddie, Ben, Casey, Joel, Vicky

Happy Endings (ABC): Dave, Alex, Jane, Brad, Max, Penny

Cougar Town (ABC): Jules, Ellie, Laurie, Bobby, Andy, Grayson (+ the kid, Travis)

Mr. Sunshine (ABC): Ben, Crystal, Alice, Alonzo, Roman, Heather (+ many supporting players)

There is also the close-cousin of the NBC super-ensemble workplace comedy:

Community (NBC):  Jeff, Britta, Pierce, Annie, Troy, Shirley, Abed (that’s seven, and with the increased role for Señor Chang," eight!)

Outsourced (NBC): Todd, Madhuri, Charlie, Gupta, Tonya, Rajiv (+ many supporting players)

Parks and Recreation (NBC): Leslie, Tom, Ann, Ron, April, Andy (+many supporting players)

The Office (NBC): Michael, Dwight, Jim, Pam, Ryan, Stanley, Kevin, Angela, Phyllis, Meredith, Andy, Kelly, Creed, Toby, Darryl, etc. !!!!!!

I think I would have better luck memorizing the names of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir than keeping up with all of these characters, many of whom are so structurally interchangeable as to exist as little more than Proppian actants in one giant, undifferentiated fairy tale of life in Los New Chi-Town (less true of the NBC workplace shows, of course).  Somewhere between 12 to 18 of these characters bit the cathode dust by the end of this past season—but be assured their ranks will be replenished by 12 to 18 more irrepressible free spirits next year. 

You might ask, what about 30 Rock?  That may well have the strangest core unit of all: Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy as the central, normative dyad of witty, waspy brunettes (divided  by class, age, and politics)-- put into better relief by the psychotic (and ever Other) idiolects of dumb blondness (Jenna) and crazy blackness (Tracy).  Given that the show doesn’t seem to know what to do with Kenneth anymore (a third excluded term for urbane whiteness—country stupid), he seems destined to sink into second-fiddle status with the rest of the supporting cast. 

Beyond creating a Sudoku like challenge for the average TV viewer, this proliferation of characters carries with it an implicit message that may well be as damaging as the previous tyranny of the nuclear family:  If you do not have at least five other significant and extremely garrulous friends in your life (including, perhaps, your spouse), you are a failure inasmuch as you are not living up to television’s new standard for appropriate socialization.  If you are not spending at least an hour a day in a coffee shop, yoga/pilates class, local bar, or public plaza engaged in rapid-fire, playfully antagonistic banter with five other people to whom you would gladly donate a kidney, you are now a freakish pariah of some kind, doomed (along with your paltry two or three good friends) to wander the cityscape as socially retarded orphans (points to Cougar Town and Community for making such exclusion an explicit concern in the characters of “Tom” and Señor Chang,” respectively).  

This may be a particularly misanthropic viewpoint, but I would hazard to guess that most people are lucky to know five people in their entire lives that they would consider extremely close friends—and the odds that all five would end up working in the same office or living on the same cul-de-sac are remote at best.  No doubt much of this fantasy stems from the growing elasticity of that period between “carefree” adolescence and the looming responsibilities of functional adulthood—thus the move in these programs to mix the married and the single, the coupled and the uncoupled, as unwavering integers in the family of six.  No matter where you are on life’s normative and still extremely white middle-class trajectory, these shows have you covered.  

Given the inescapable hegemony of this model, Workaholics (Wednesdays on Comedy Central) is actually a welcome change of pace.  Here friendship has been pared back to a more reasonable cast of three (the square, the wiseacre, and the frizzy-haired oddball—again, I’m terrible with names), college friends who now find themselves rooming and working together in the cubicled hellscape of mid-twenties shitwork.   Office Space is the most obvious comparison, but the show is actually a much better written and deftly executed excursion into territory previously claimed by Secret Girlfriend (a web series picked up by Comedy Central in 2008 that offered a first-person shooter perspective on the also-ran partyscape of young L.A., a la The Continental, done in such a way that, as with Entourage, you wanted everyone dead by the end of each episode).  Workaholics could just as easily have gone wrong, but happily is saved by a doubling-down on the quick banter (even Courtney Cox’s hyperventilating Jules Cobb would have trouble keeping up here, as would the original speed-cracking wise ass, Matthew Perry, who seems almost glacial compared to this trio’s barrage of constant insults).  

Essentially it’s the young urban single format stripped of all female baggage and micro-targeted at the 18 to 24 (male) demographic.  Girls, to the extent that they exist on the series, are either obstacles at work or unattainable as dating partners (everyone over 30, meanwhile, appears to be either extremely bitter and/or insane).  While some might say this makes the show a bit sexist or perhaps even misogynist, I would simply point to the empirical evidence of just how many 20-something men do in fact consider women to be either obstacles at work or unattainable dating partners.  At the very least, the show’s ability to focus so obsessively on the slow-motion anarchy of late male adolescence makes it more “true to life” (God, did I just write that?) than the married, Merlot-sipping wits on the big boy networks. 

Best of all, there is no illusion here that these three will grow old together and take up adjoining rooms at the nursing home in sixty years.  Like its now decade-gone progenitor, Seinfeld, Workaholics represents a welcome return to a philosophy of “no hugs.”  It aspires to be no more than a straight-forward comedy about those last moments in life when truly anything might happen on any given day, and where even the act of waking up and orientating oneself in the morning can become a mystery fraught with peril.  The “shaggy dog” plot is back, in other words, fueled this time not by the thousand stories in the naked city of New York, but by the indomitable and often chemically assisted stamina of a 25 year old male set loose in L.A.   

Enjoy it while you can, guys, in about ten years you'll be sitting on the couch of the Courtney Cox of your generation, pretending to care about her children or having to opine on whether or not she should "open her heart" to the hunky divorcee who just moved in down the street.  Occasionally you will gather in a designated man-cave or be compelled to grill meat outside for a block party--but mostly your rapier-like wit will be directed at the hazards of diaper duty, the tragedy of male-pattern baldness, and the ongoing efforts to marry off the last single member of the old gang (in this case, my money is on frizzy-haired oddball guy). 

Devilday (1969)

Angus Hall
Ace Books 

Billed as a "high-tension thriller" of "Black Magic and Gothic suspense," Devilday is more a British commentary on the circus of countercultural celebrity that occupied so many in late 1960s.  Barry Lambert is a low-level functionary at Southampton television, hoping to make it to the big time with BBC London.  His dreams will come true, promises his boss, if Barry will agree to serve as a personal assistant to an aging American actor, Paul Harvard Toombs, who has agreed to portray the mysterious "Dr. Dis" in a locally produced TV series.  Toombs, we learn from Barry's own personal memories, was once a prominent actor in Hollywood serials--but was fired and blacklisted in the late 50s after being implicated in the lethal sacrifice of a woman in a cave near Santa Monica.

With this Satanic vibe in place, we follow Barry and Toombs as Dr. Dis becomes an unexpected hit and attracts a legion of dedicated fans.  Backstage, Toombs is an unrepentant rake and drug addict who expounds a form of Anton LaVey-ish materialism.  When another woman is murdered in an apparent sacrifice, suspicion turns to Toombs.  From here Hall concentrates on the theatrics of media celebrity, something still novel enough in the late sixties to warrant sustained attention.  The police bust Toombs on a pot charge, allowing the aging thespian a platform to rail against England, the Enlightenment, and just about everything else on earth standing between him and his love of shooting Heroin and beating underage girls. 

As we hurtle toward the inevitable bloody set-piece of an ending, Hall takes great pains to obfuscate the true source of Toombs' energy and personal magnetism.  Could be Satan, then again Toombs could be just an extremely hammy actor.  All in all a decent read, especially if you have an interest as to how the occult vibe of the late sixties might impact a smaller English metropolis.  The easy thing here would have been to make Toombs a "Brian Jones" figure, so placing an old American actor at Their Satanic Majesties Request makes for a welcome turn.

I'm assuming Hall was not a fan of Dr. Who, a constituency that is implicitly cast here as a legion of blind devotees willing to excuse the adventures of a lecherous, occult junkie so that their beloved show might continue.

The Europeans (1878)

Henry James
Penguin Classics

"European" brother and sister ambush their American cousins in New England, opening the door for the 19th-century equivalent of L.A./New York jokes, except here the collision is between boring, puritanical Yankee-ism and the vaguely debauched life of bottom-feeding Eurotrash.  Some will marry, some will not, but most end up agreeing the scenery and quality of light in the USA is much different than the old world. 

A Dolphin with Issues

The Day New York Trembled (1967)

Irwin Lewis
Avon Books

Milquetoasted professor is distraught when his friend and colleague from England drops dead while debating the origins of Etruscan civilization.  What looks to be merely another death chalked up to the hard living of university classics professors soon leads Dr. Milquetoast into international intrigue involving a new drug that makes people wholly oblivious to pain.  A Godsend, you say!  No!  Because, as we have seen on many documentaries about kids born without the ability to experience pain, they are in constant danger of dying from a ruptured spleen or a burst appendix since they have no way of knowing--through pain, sweet pain--that anything is wrong.  Whoever controls this formula, the professor learns, could put the entire city into chaos as people unexpectedly drop dead with no warning.  And wouldn't you know it, that's precisely what some evil folks have in mind.

For most of the adventure, Dr. Milquetoast is under the tutelage of the beautiful (but deadly!) Olga, a Natasha-like character who constantly has to save the Professor from various thugs, and whom Dr. Clueless comes to believe might have feelings for him.  But in the end she betrays him, and so the Professor must defeat the anti-pain terrorists with the help of his spunky young student, Ruth Stapleton, who we know is spunky because she is both fearless and constantly blowing wisps of hair off her face with an oh-so-sexy pout.  Together they destroy the formula and smash a mason jar of the drug before it can go into the NYC reservoir.... but Olga escapes.  Does she have the formula elsewhere?  Will there be a sequel?  Only subsequent trips to a garage sale will reveal the answer.

She Let Him Continue (1966)

Stephen Geller
Ballantine Books

Dennis, a young arsonist on probation, moves to a small town, takes a job at a chemical factory, and then attempts to convince the 17-year old Sue Ann that he is actually an undercover C.I.A. agent.  Dennis appears to be wholly delusional, even borderline psychotic given that he once torched a church and a girl inside it, but he soon finds Sue Ann matches him marble for lost marble.  The C.I.A. charade leads to the two sabotaging the chemical plant and killing a guard (Sue Ann is all for it, one might even say "she let him continue...") which then mutates into a plan to take out Sue Ann' mother.

Reads very much as a Charles Starkweather/Caril Ann Fugate tale, albeit with a bit more bumbling on the male side this time around.  The paperback boasts the novel was (in 1966) "now filming for Embassy Pictures," which turned out to be the much better titled Pretty Poison (1968) starring Anthony Perkins and Tuesday Weld.  One suspects this was the goal all along as Geller's pacing and prose is as close to screenplay format as you can get.  Long sections printed in italics strive to explain what's going on in Dennis' head, but mainly this is a dialog driven tale of two teens who are very, very bad for one another.

Brain Wave Synchronizer: $425

 From Fate (August 1990)

How to Be a Clown (1977)

Charles R. Meyer
David McKay Company, Inc.

Okay, first thing you're going to need is a good dog, and by that I mean a good clownin' dog.  Let's face it, some dogs are funny and others are just real ass-draggers, like that jowly cartoon dog that used to be on TV mumbling all the time, so you're going to need one that is small, cute, and full of "Big Top" energy.  If the little shits in the back row can't see the dog is all peppy and happy to be jumping through hoops or whatever other shit you have in store for him, he's pretty much useless and I wouldn't waste any time on him.  Also, you got to take into account that the mutt is going to be climbing up your back for ten to twenty shows a week, depending on how much work your particular circus is seeing, so weight is important.  Anything over 12 pounds and you're just asking for the lumbago, take it from me.

So after you find a reasonably sized dog that isn't a complete moron, you're going to need to train him to run up your back and sit on his hind legs.  Now a dog, no matter how smart he is, doesn't have a natural inclination to just run up your back and stand on his hind legs while a few hundred corn-fed yokels are hooting, screaming, and throwing popcorn at you, so you're going to have to train him.  Two rules of thumb here:  liver treats and unrelenting fear.  That dog has to know you're in charge at all times, both in the ring and back in the trailer, otherwise he's going to do whatever the hell he wants when he wants to, and probably right in the middle of your act.  Sure, that still makes people laugh, but they'll be laughing AT you and not WITH you because your mutt just turned you into a sucker.  But remember, you may be a clown but no dog is ever going to make you a sucker.  Ever.   Make sure your dog knows that real good too.  Real good. 

But you also gotta treat him nice or he won't do shit either, so it's a real balancing act.  That's where the liver treats come in.  I find that by stripping nude and putting a liver treat on every third vertabrae up my spine, I can get most dogs to jump me and crawl up my back in about a week.  Then you need a pal to hold one last liver treat way up over the dog's head until he learns to stand up on his hind legs.  Later the dog figures out you got that last treat stashed in your pocket, so he'll pretty much sit there forever until you fork it over to him.  Dogs are dumbshits like that. 

If you got a "bad" dog, the best bet is just to get rid of him and start over with a new mutt.  If a dog screws over my act, I usually dress him up real cute and then push him out under the bottom of the tent when all the yokels are leaving to go home. Don't worry about it, I'm sure some kid will find him.  Sometimes though you get down to just one dog, so if he starts screwing up the act you may need to have the circus doc "dose" him up or down depending on just what his particular problem is.  That should last you a week or two until you can get a better dog. 

Okay, getting the dog to stand on your back is a good 70% of clowning.  The rest of it is just funny clothes and acting like a moron.  Wish I could say it was more of an "art," but really it's just about loud plaid jackets and big shoes and spraying seltzer water on everything.  Oh yeah, you'll need some kind of make-up that makes little kids want to laugh and shit their pants at the same time.  If I don't see at least one kid crying by the end of my act, I consider it a total failure.  I've even followed them out to the parking lot just to make sure at least one of them NEVER forgets me.  As for the design of your make-up, who gives a shit, really?  Most clowns look pretty much the same.  My advice would be to go down to the library and just copy the make-up from some famous clown in the past.  It's not like any of that stuff is trademarked or anything, so you can pretty much paint yourself up however you want. 

Now remember, not all clowns get to work the big venues right out of the gate, so be prepared to eat some real shit for a few years.  Birthday parties.  County fairs.  Traveling carnivals. Some rackets may even ask you to help put up and strike the tent at each show, or maybe work the corn-dog stand during off hours. Don't get all high and mighty about it.  Remember, your only skill is you can get a dog to stand on your back, so it's not like there ain't a thousand people who could replace you.  Just smile and do whatever they tell you to do--if you're any good, you'll be out of there soon anyway.  But no doubt about it, it can be a pretty God-awful depressing life for awhile, so don't be ashamed about bringing along lots of booze--you'll need it, believe you me.  Most clowns find that being a little drunk helps them perform better anyway.  Hell, I'd still have a couple of shots before each show even if I was screwing Barnum AND Bailey, if you know what I mean.

When you're just starting out, though, it's a good idea to have a few publicity shots you can hand out to line up some gigs.  As you can see from my picture above, the best thing to do is find a concrete drainage ditch of some kind and take a picture at straight-up noon, preferably on the hottest day of the summer.  The idea here is to have as drab a picture as possible so that when the circus boss actually meets you, you seem a lot more freakin' hilarious than you look in the picture.  Trust me.  If you have some fancy photo of you pulling scarves out of your ass in front of the Eiffel Tower, you're just going to disappoint everyone when you show up with your stupid dog-on-the-back act.  Lowering expectations is the key to becoming a successful clown.  That and staying the hell away from the Ringmaster's wife. 

That's about it, really.  Like I said, the dog and the clothes do most of the work.  It doesn't hurt to know how to take a stage fall or throw a fake punch. 

Happy clowning!

Mobile UPC Scanner Dude

In the spirit of the Philip K. Dick future that awaits us all, I would like to confess to a murder that I have not yet committed but, statistically speaking, am probably due for any day now.  The person I am slated to kill is not someone I know personally, but is rather a “type” of individual that has emerged from the technosphere over the past decade and who seems hell-bent on destroying one of the last remaining pleasures of the pre-digital browser, and by “browser” I mean s/he who browses and not the latest compulsory update of Firefox.   

The person I will kill is the A-hole who shows up at Goodwill, Oxfam, or any other thrift store with that groovy iPhone App that allows him to scan the UPC barcodes on the backs of books, CDs, and DVDs, all in a quest to pillage the store of any and all valuable titles so that he might take them back home to sell online.  I hate these people so much it’s all I can do not to kick them in the trachea and throw their cell phones into the great black hole at the center of all thrift emporiums—the used underwear bin.  In fact, they produce such a boiling rage at the very core of my being that I’ve had to take time, for purposes of emotional prophylaxis if nothing else, to consider why they push my buttons even more than tailgaters, birthers, or Yankee fans.

A little back story first.  In the days before Amazon cookies began telling us all what cultural artifacts we wanted to consume before we even knew we wanted to consume them, there existed a proud tradition of un-digital browsing in second-hand book and record stores.  The point of such browsing was not so much to find Item “X,” but was instead to find Item “?”—an odd novel or record that so far had eluded your taste formation’s vast radar array.  Thus, you dipped into the used bookstore to see if you could find a cheap copy of the most recent James Ellroy novel, and emerged instead with a strange ‘70s thriller about a psychotic mime killing people in Central Park.  Or, in your quest for a decent Dick Dale retrospective, you were unexpectedly and delightfully derailed by the discovery of a Turkish funk anthology.  I suppose Amazon’s algorithms will one day be sophisticated enough to posit a link between My Dark Places and The Mime (a day, I might add, when the final illusion of any unique “core” to one’s self will be so thoroughly compromised that a Roman bath will be the last remaining option; but then again, Amazon will probably predict that as well and have recommendations ready for ‘final exit’ razors and scented candles.  Thinking about exsanguinating in a bathtub?—you might also enjoy jasmine bubblebath from The Body Shop and Joy Division’s Closer).  For now, anyway, such discoveries remain primarily a product of happy accident. 

The last decade has been a real bummer for those of us who actually enjoy “wasting” an hour or two wandering through physical piles of paper, cardboard, and vinyl in search of petit objet WTF.    Used book and record stores are going out of business left and right.  Second-order substitutes like Borders, Tower, and Virgin—all dead.   In the future, the only people who will have access to the simple pleasure of “browsing” for books will be the forklift operators in the Amazon warehouse as they organize incoming pallets of teenage vampire fiction.  And then the book itself, like vinyl and the CD, will finally shed its mortal coil and exist purely as data on the web.  Perhaps at that point we will begin burning old books and records for fuel, creating campfires of obsolescent culture to dot a hellscape where we all walk around with our PDA’s finally and irrevocably sutured into our belly fat.  Wait, doesn’t Amazon call their e-reader the “kindle?”  Truly, we are doomed.    

Given this sad state of affairs, we browsing dinosaurs have increasingly had to depend on the thrift store/charity shop as the last bastion for the unstructured contemplation of physical media.  Back behind the beat-up couches and racks of discarded clothing, there is usually a corner featuring old books, records, and CDs (for now, most places still keep their DVDs under lock and key, testament to the format’s lingering value in the hierarchy of donated detritus—once the current Blu-Ray hegemony is complete, however, the DVD will no doubt join its brethren in the dead media section).  Here is the one place where the easily distracted can spend some time relaxing by digging through piles of discarded culture in search of…well, again, who knows what? 

Not that the ongoing devaluation of physical media hasn’t had an effect here as well.  Most thrift stores used to keep fairly tidy book/record sections, displaying the donated items on appropriate shelving and in custom bins.  While some thrift shops still have at least one volunteer who cares enough about these items to make sure they are easy to access, many more are simply dumping books, records, and CDs on the floor like the abject shit they have become.  A Salvation Army near me no longer even bothers to shelve book donations, but simply wheels them out in institutional-sized laundry bins that require customers to dig, like pigs in search of truffles, through layers and layers of Tom Clancy paperbacks in the hope of finding something more rare, exotic, and/or interesting. 

Records are even worse.  I think there is now an unspoken agreement among all used-record folk that every valuable piece of vinyl from the album’s heyday has finally been tracked down, priced, and collected—all that remains in the thrift stores are infinitely printed and infinitely disposable Barbra Streisand, Janis Ian, and 101 Strings albums (for a while I considered covering an entire wall with Elton John “Caribou” album covers because: (a) it’s an amazing artifact of 70s post-glam bubblegum weirdness and (b) you could find 20 of them for a dime apiece each time you were at Goodwill).  Now many thrift stores practically dare you to browse the vinyl section, piling them to the ceiling in a deadly game of Jenga that both warps the records and threatens to bury you under the collected works of the Longines Symphonette.  CDs, oddly enough, still rate a few actual shelves in most thrift stores, even though that medium is arguably even more dead than vinyl.

Which brings us back, finally, to the jerks with the mobile UPC scanning Apps.  Their very presence disrupts the entire vibe of the thrift experience, transforming what should be a relaxing journey of exploration into a bloodsport of bitter competition and contestation.  While you are trying to leisurely sort through a shelf of books or CDs in search of nothing in particular, cyberdude is systematically scanning each and every item to see how much it goes for on Amazon.  In earlier iterations of this App, the user had to actually read each price on the screen, but with even more annoying software updates, the user can now set a “price point” and wait for his phone to “ding” when it gets a hit.  Anything under, say $5 bucks, and the App ignores it; anything over and the phone dings, rings, barks, or zaps to let the entire store know that Mr. Wizard has made a real find and you, alas, have not.    

Now, obviously, people have cruised thrift stores for years in search of hidden bargains that they can then re-sell, either at their own store or to a more specialized vendor trading in rare books and records.   I don’t begrudge that; in fact, I will sometimes even buy a record for a buck that I know I can sell for five, not because I need the money necessarily, but because I feel that record should ultimately end up with a person who really, really wants it and will take care of it.  I don’t listen to a lot of jazz, but if I see a "near mint" Thelonious Monk elpee sitting on the floor waiting to be eaten by silverfish or reduced to moldy pulp the next time the store’s toilet floods, I feel an almost moral imperative to rescue it for future generations.  Similarly, if I find an early twentieth-century novel at a garage sale for a buck or two, I will usually buy it to donate to the Newberry Library (which specializes in such things).  I relate these stories, partly to parade my own awesome taste and generosity, but also in solidarity with the many others out there who I’m sure share a similar complex about protecting rare ephemera from neglect and destruction. 

And this is why the growing army of mobile UPC-scanners irks me so.  With one simple download, they now enjoy an ability to convert cultural capital into economic reward with little to no effort, in effect electro-poaching the collective expertise of pop literati like myself who learned to separate sublime wheat from pedestrian chaff the “old-fashioned” way--perhaps even by once working in a book or record store.   If given a test identifying minor label icons from Factory to Asthmatic Kitty, I think I’d score at least a B+, and with a little squinting, I can still distinguish a “Book Club Edition” from an original imprint at about ten yards, usually based only on the color saturation of the book's dust jacket.  But while I spent years immersed in marginalized music and marginal authors, acquiring “knowledge” that allows me to recognize a boutique label, a limited pressing, or a rare paperback, Calculon can now mindlessly put phone to barcode and “discover” a long OOP Japanese import Traveling Wilburys promo that will fetch $50 on eBay.  

It’s not fair and it’s not right.  Scanner-boy hasn’t earned it. 

Granted, the real prey of UPC scanner guy is typically the recent bestseller and not the obscure collectible.  Most vinyl, after all, doesn’t have a UPC marker in the first place, nor do older books.  But even in the pitiful world of the useless CD, these guys will occasionally beat you to a genuine oddity, not because they know or want the item, but because the collective hive of digitized taste-valuation has set off their freakin’ dinger.  Recently one of these pests beat me to a Bobby Sherman “2-Albums on 1 CD” disc, and based on his age, insouciance, and woolen cap, I am certain he didn’t have a clue as to what or who a Bobby Sherman might be.    

And it just gets worse.  Recently I went to a local thrift and discovered not one, but two of these budding young cyber-capitalists scanning opposite sides of the CD rack. At first I thought there might at least be some amusement in seeing them pitted against one another, racing down their respective aisles in an effort to score all the big finds before the other guy –-but after a few moments, I realized that one of them was actually being paid by the other to make this thrift raid more efficient!  They even took breaks! 

Annoying, yes, but enraging?  Again, I do not necessarily begrudge folks converting thrift stock into cash, and I guess I could even live with having the arcane esoterica of my synapses downloaded into the WWW.  But the impact these idiots have in the physical space of the store itself drives me to the brink of homicide.  Collectors have always competed against one another in these situations.  Even twenty years ago, you could easily recognize by shirt and haircut alone who else in the store was also looking to load up on old pulps and forgotten new wave singles.  Still, there remained at least some modicum of camaraderie among those afflicted with the collecting disease.  Occasionally thrift divers would even discuss what they typically collected, and when it didn’t overlap with one’s own taste, might even pull titles for each another.  And if someone found a Loretta Lynn record you already had, politeness dictated you say “thanks,” put it in your stack, and then quietly pass on it at the checkout counter.  It was the thought that counted—a small gesture that said, “I understand and share the thrills and disappointments that come with plowing through a stack of Kansas and Foreigner albums to unearth a miraculously placed Moby Grape record still in shrink wrap." 

You will not have such conversations with the mobile UPC-scanner dude as there is a good chance he neither reads books nor listens to music; or if he does, it has little or nothing to do with why he’s in the store with you.  As he meticulously and mercilessly proceeds down the aisle—scanning books and CDs without even bothering to look at the titles—he inevitably makes you hurry your own search lest he finds first that rare gem for a quarter that he hopes to later sell back to you for twenty bucks at his e-store.  As an emblem of a certain technogenerational formation, “he” has already for the most part ended theatrical exhibition, book browsing, and the record store—and now he’s prowling the last remaining sanctuary of the culturally damned (i.e. those over 40) looking to leverage your own nostalgia and taste—born of brick-and-mortar bookstores and record shops, no less-- into profits gleaned from the antiseptic exchanges of the Internet. 

He is, in short, a ruthless cyborg—one that has melded a scanner-wielding meat-frame with a Gibsonian knowledge-chip programmed to "ding" at all your old analog desires, all so "he" can buy a new and more powerful computer to help make the future suck even faster.   

God help me, if “he” gets between me and some rare item I really want, I’m going to be doing twenty to life in the State pen.    

Triangle of Terror (1975)

Adi-Kent Thomas Jeffrey
Warner Books

Back in the seventies, a few piper cubs and pleasure boats went missing around Bermuda and lead to the widespread speculation that some type of sinister psycho-fortean force was at work sucking planes and ships into the sea.  Hence, the Bermuda Triangle.  Adi-Kent Thomas Jeffrey (!) builds on this lore by relating other tales of geographic mystery and packaging them under the head-fake of the "triangle," even though none of the accounts actually involve any sinister geometry.  Here's what you get:

1.  The Indian Ocean cast as its own "region" of mysterious vanishings. Unremarkable given that the Indian Ocean is in fact an ocean.
2.  Storms and tenacious seaweed make for tough going on the Sargasso Sea.
3. Rumors of lost ships buried under the sand in the American southwest. 
4. A place near Italy that, when the weather is just right, reflects images of ghost ships up in the clouds.  I'll go out on a limb here and say this is probably an optical illusion of some kind.
5. An island off of Scotland where everyone has ESP.  Everyone.  Which island, you ask?  Obviously you're not from there.
6. Various haunted boats found adrift near Sable Island off Nova Scotia. 
7.  A place in rural Russia where some residents are said to be over 150 years old.  This was another point of Fortean fascination in the seventies, leading to a famous Dannon yogurt commercial featuring old Russian people eating Dannon yogurt. 
8.  Assorted whirlpools and maelstroms.
9.  People killed by rains of stones and other unexpected projectiles from the heavens.

A Month in the Country (1980)

J.L. Carr
NYRB Classics (2000)

Veteran of WWI spends the summer of 1920 refurbishing a church mural in a small English village and almost has sex with the minister's wife.  Summer is short.  Life is long.  Art is eternal.  In hindsight, some 70 years later, perhaps he should have had sex with the minister's wife.

A Pre-Digital Surveillance Hack in 'Black Belt Jones'

About half-way into Black Belt Jones (1974), the titular "Black Belt" (Jim Kelly) and his partner Sydney (Gloria Hendry) need to infiltrate a mob-owned vineyard in order to retrieve a stash of photos and money.  All they need is an innovative plan to break through the Mafia Don's security system.

Jones approaches a quartet of trampoline enthusiasts that he has been coaching on the beach in Malibu.  After offering them $5000 a piece for their help, Jones begins an elaborate training session instructing each woman in an appointed task.  Many of these tasks appear to involve leaping. 

Arriving at the vineyard to carry out the mission, Jones motions toward a CCTV camera posted by the front door. 

A cut to the interior shows the mobsters are monitoring the door through a television set, conveniently placed atop a keg of wine. They are also eating large plates of spaghetti. 


Jones and his team go to work.  First, a portable trampoline is deployed.

 A third woman, equipped with a Polaroid camera, then uses the trampoline to leap to the exact height of the CCTV camera.

 While aloft, she snaps a picture replicating the camera's 
"field of vision."

 With the Polaroid developed, the woman attaches the photo to a specially designed brace.  Another leap on the trampoline and she affixes the brace + photo atop the CCTV camera. 

The Polaroid captures the "usual" view of the camera while simultaneously shielding Jones, Sydney, and the rest of the team from surveillance. 

The wiseguys are none the wiser and continue to shovel spaghetti into their mouths. 

The plan is working perfectly...at least until a breeze begins to alter the position of the brace and photo.

The mafia Don looks at his monitor and then looks away.  But something is wrong, and so he looks back to see the Polaroid now knocked completely askew and Jones running away in the "real" yard with a sack of money.

 "Mama Mia!" he exclaims to his fellow Mafiosos.
Extended karate fighting ensues.