Disneyland Hostage (1982)

Eric Wilson
Orca Book Publishers

I can't be entirely sure this book actually exists given how improbable it is that Disney would allow it to exist, but I seem to have read it, so let's imagine that it does actually exist, until of course Disney tells me otherwise, or perhaps forces me to "unread" it.

Liz Austen is a young teen from Winnipeg who has a brother, Tom, and both of them appear to get into various scrapes and mysteries.  This time Liz is flying to L.A. with her Aunt Melody to visit Disneyland.  Things get off to a bumpy start as Liz, a nervous flyer, is convinced something will go wrong with the plane.  And that's exactly what happens!  The pilot can't be sure the landing gear is locked for landing. But it turns out everything's okay, so this dramatic opening is really just a chain-jerk, as they say in the world of YA publishing.

Before going to Disneyland, Liz goes to Universal Studios and has a really great time.  And thus I become suspicious.  Was Orca Books, as a division of Collins Publishers, associated with Universal?  I just find it odd that this Liz of Winnipeg goes to Universal, has a great time meeting new friends and seeing all the attractions, but then gets taken hostage the very next day in Disneyland.  I mean, Wilson describes Disneyland as a great place, but still, being taken hostage can't be fun.

Also, while on the Universal tour, Liz is picked to participate in the "Castle Dracula" show, which in and of itself isn't really all that suspicious---until you see the author photo of Wilson on the inside cover.  He's dressed as a vampire!  So clearly, in the undead battle between Lugosi bloodsuckers and cryogenically-frozen union busters, Wilson has chosen sides.

Anyway, here are the details of the hostage-taking: Liz meets a girl her age named "Serena" who is the daughter of a diplomat from one of those imaginary Central American nations that is always on the verge of collapse and/or revolution (in this case, the tiny land of La Luceña). Things are going great at Disneyland (except, perhaps, for the oddly inappropriate moment when Goofy approaches Liz and tells her "he loves her"--but it was the 1980s after all, so I guess it was slightly less creepy then for a guy in a felt dog-suit to declare his "love" for a random 13 year old).  When they all get to the Tom Sawyer island place (that's there, right?), Liz and her pals are abducted by "the Dragon," a professional terrorist hired to bring La Luceña to its knees. We know he's a professional bad ass because he's always laughing heartily no matter what the situation at hand, making me suspect  he might be the Dos Equis man when he was in his thirties. 

The Dragon lets some of the hostages go, but not Liz and her Aunt.  And then, out of nowhere, we get a great lecture on global exploitation, explained by Serena's "the 1%" father.  One of the younger terrorists confronts the old diplomat:

You have left us nothing but the cockroaches and the mud.  My baby brother is covered with lice and his stomach is swollen from starvation.  But look at you!  Silk shirts, steaks to eat, trips to Disneyland.  Do you call that fair?"

These are good points, but Serena's father has an answer for the hot-headed young Marxist:

"I have come to America to find industries that will invest in our country.  They will bring us jobs so your brother will have work when he grows up."

The young Marxist says yanqui jobs are useless without access to education.  The old diplomat tells him to be patient.  They'll be able to have a better education system once they sell more of their coffee.

At any rate, Liz is okay at the end.  The Dragon is taken into custody.  Everyone else agrees to be good friends from that point on.  And I guess the terrorist's brother still has lice all over him waiting for the coffee crop to come in.

The W.A.S.P. (1967)

Julius Horwitz
Bantam N3859

In addition to writing nine novels, Julius Horwitz was a welfare case-worker in New York from 1956 to 1962, experience he first shared in his 1960 book, The Inhabitants.  In The W.A.S.P., Horwitz turns to Harlem as a circle of white liberals recount their interactions with "Emerson," a Harvard-educated African-American who, after dropping out of Yale Divinity School, takes a job as a "storefront minister" on 118th street.  This time Horwitz refracts his no doubt harrowing experiences as a welfare worker through Emerson, a brooding intellectual who considers Harlem's residents to be essentially "dead" and their children as "little monsters."  Odd in tone and structure, the book bounces back and forth between standard 3rd-person narration and letters written by Emerson himself--most of which are angry indictments of America's ongoing failure to address the politics of race interspersed with horrific accounts of babies tossed from windows, gang-rapes on church floors, 11-year old junkies, and elderly couples beaten to death with iron bars.  Troubling, which I guess is good, mainly because of its unexpectedly nihilistic tone. 

Endorsed by Daniel P. Moynihan!

Handicapping the Oscars Because Of Course That Must Be Done So That They Might Continue to Annoy Us in the Future and Forever

The Artist
When the silent era in Hollywood came to an end, many of tinsel town’s most iconic actors found themselves out of work, flippity flippity zerk.  Mo lo ra tweddle twight, shot in silent black and white.  Ha la morry bog, it’s got an adorable dog.  Cank lo bezzle roddle forning, still can’t get enough of A Star is Boring.

The Descendants
For better or worse, George Clooney is the closest thing Hollywood has to Cary Grant, not an ant, nor a plant plant plant.   Mecca lecca hi, mecca hiney ho, this middle-age crisis to Hawaii does go.  Clooney has a gift for light comedy, but now I think I need a lobotomy.  And remember About Schmidt? Omaha, never forget!

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Ten years after 9/11, ………. F*#k it, I can’t be bothered.

The Help
You’re welcome, dead domestics of mid-century. 

Best known for his sprawling crime sagas based on extraordinary performances and virtuosic camerawork, Scorsese turns his attention here to reflecting on why even his films now have to be 80% CGI. 

Midnight in Paris
While seeing this movie might strike you as something fatal
It makes sense if you read Paris as a metaphor for Woody’s navel.

Saw this with my dad.  We both thought it was pretty good.   

The Tree of Life
A film that succeeds despite enormous obstacles, like a glaring lab error that fused the master to an old episode of COSMOS, which is coming back, you know, produced this time by Seth MacFarland of Family Guy fame, a show which repeatedly uses random, meaningless death as a sight gag, which is probably the healthier response to such matters.     

War Horse
A horse is a horse, of course, of course, and no one can talk to a horse of course, that is, of course, unless the horse is the famous war horse used to posit anthropomorphic sentimentality as a higher cosmic power that redeems and distracts humanity from its egregious propensity to commit bloody atrocities like WWI. 

So there you have it.  My pick for best film of 2012 is Moneyball because that’s the one I saw and because Rise of the Planet of the Apes got screwed. 

Assorted Nurses (Various)

Vietnam Nurse by Suzanne Roberts (1966) Ace F-405
Julie Jones: Cape Canaveral Nurse by Suzanne Roberts (1963) Ace D-566
Chicago Nurse by Arlene Hale (1965) Ace F-368
Rangeland Nurse by Suzanne Roberts (1967) Ace F-419
An American Nurse in Paris by Diane Frazer (1963) Pocket Books M-4295
Jungle Nurse by Sharon Heath (1965) Ace F-359

I recently bought 100+ pristine nurse novels at a suburban Chicago thrift store.  I hadn't planned on buying any until the owner informed me he was running a "Buy 10, Get 10 Free" special, bringing the price down to around a quarter a piece.  I can't say I have any real interest in reading any of them, but they're such beautiful specimens that I couldn't let them end up in the trash or mouldering in someone else's basement.  So I will periodically display some here, unconsumed and unjudged, so that others might enjoy them and at least learn of their existence. 

The Long, Loud Silence (1952)

Wilson Tucker
Dell #791

The mile-high stack of battered paperbacks in the closet yields another gem.

The Long Loud Silence first appeared in hardback in 1952 featuring the tastefully modern cover to the left (where its status as "a science fiction novel" is rather elegantly printed along the fore edge).  The version that attracted my eye, of course, is the more garish Dell paperback of 1954 to the bottom right, featuring what appears to be a man and woman on the run from some type of alien with a ray gun!

Actually, the book is a post-apocalyptic road tale, and much better written than most.  Russell Gary, a corporal in the army, wakes up in a hotel room after a three-day bender to discover the town around him has been mysteriously deserted.  With no news on the radio, he realizes the nation has been attacked and sets out to rejoin his army unit.  On his way he gradually finds a few more people alive and begins to piece together what happened.  An enemy--it's unclear who--has pretty much destroyed all life east of the Mississippi.  The big cities have been hit by dozens of A-bombs, while those in the countryside have been wiped out by weapons distributing the bubonic plague.  Gary reasons that he and the few survivors are somehow immune to the plague.

When he gets to the Mississippi, he finds the western half of the U.S. has quarantined everyone on the other side of the river.  Most of the bridges have been blown up by the army, and anyone trying to cross the remaining spans is shot on sight.  From here, the book follows Gary as he wanders around the eastern U.S. waiting for the quarantine to be lifted.  A week becomes a month, one month becomes a year, and so on.  Like most stories in this mode, Gary meets up with different folks on his journey, and then after a few days or weeks, returns to his itinerant travels to nowhere.

What is particularly elegant about this story, however, is Gary's gradual recognition that the western half of the country is rebuilding and getting back to some semblance of normality.  Staying at a farmhouse one winter and watching guard at night for the family, he notices that radio stations are beginning to come back on the air from the west.  He listens to them all night, desperate to reconnect with civilization, but eventually realizing that the government is pretending no one is alive east of the Mississippi--he and his fellow refugees have been written off.  Those who did survive will be left to slowly starve to death and descend into cutthroat anarchy.

I won't go into too many details as this one is actually worth not spoiling--especially the last third.  And the ending!  If you're dying to know more about the plot, check here, and you'll see a classic example of a pop author being reigned in by his publisher, in this case probably for the better.

Satyr Trek (1970)

Ray Kainen
Olympia  Press
Spoiler Alert: Medium

It's a kind of pun.  Get it?  At least I think it's a pun, or a sound alike, or something like that.  Star Trek, Satyr Trek.  I guess it's an anagram of a pun--a 'Y' inserted into "Star" and then rearranged as "Satyr," which was a type of horny ancient goat-man who played the flute.

From that odd late-60s/early 70s genre of sci-fi sleaze that gave us Barbarella (1968) and Wham, Bam, Thank you Spaceman (1975), Satyr Trek is the story of Raunch Gaffer, a married man who innocently fills out a sex questionnaire only to find himself transported into a variety of science-fictiony sex scenarios.  How this happens, exactly, is unclear.  Somehow,  after he mails in the questionnaire, it gets caught in a techno-argument between two gendered computers.  Rather than arrive at the scam artist who advertised the sex survey in a cheap magazine, Gaffer's form ends up at the "Earth Data Control Center," which we are told "had been able to transcend time and space for a long time." And that's just what happens.  Raunch is magically transported to his first adventure.  

I won't try your patience with a detailed description of each stop on Raunch's tour of the sexual universe--for that you can track down this gem for yourself.  Below, however, is a brief chapter by chapter outline--and I will warn you, like a bad acid trip, it just gets weirder and weirder.

1. Raunch's first adventure involves weightless sex in an anti-gravity coliseum.  Turns out he's "auditioning" for a big alien variety sex show broadcast nightly on alien television.  He's pretty bad at it, though, and is summarily fired. 

2.  No worries, because next he's a passenger on some kind of sex-tourist spaceship heading to Jupiter.  There he is to encounter a recently discovered though improbably named alien race known as the "Cocksuckers."  Each human--male and female--is allowed one trip to this space sex zone (otherwise they might become addicted and go insane). Somehow the "cocksuckers," which are rather formless blob-like people, invade the ship, take over the person's mind, and then make them relive perfectly realized versions of their most cherished sexual memories.

3. In his third adventure, Raunch practices underwater sex with some form of alien mermaid.  Really just a rehash of the "anti-gravity" fantasy.

4. Next Raunch wakes up and finds himself captive in a zoo run by hideous aliens, in this case giant preying mantis creatures.  As so often happens when humans appear in zoos, the aliens want him to demonstrate procreation with a female of the species. He does so.

5. Chapter five, in which the author demonstrates his sense of humor by naming a planet "Dogpatch" and making Raunch the only available male amid a legion of busty Amazons.  (ed. note: please do not attach any special significance to chapter five.  For some reason "blogger" will not allow me to change the print back from red to black.  Thank you).

6. In a particularly long and complicated chapter that, again, was difficult to follow, Raunch arrives on what seems to be a planet of prostitution where he is surgically altered so that he might switch back and forth from male to female according to his customers' whims. 

7. Now things start getting a little freaky as the author betrays his ambition to write science-fiction over smut.  In his seventh adventure, Raunch has contact with the alien overlords who are guiding his trip through the universe.  Then they turn him into a tree so that he might experience the vegetable perspective on life, sex, and death.

8. Here the acid fully kicks in. The alien overlords transform Raunch into a black hole, or he assumes the consciousness of a black hole, or something like that.  In addition to being mind-blowingly cosmic, it also allows Raunch and the aliens to make a cheap joke about the female of the species as akin to a black hole absorbing all the energy of the universe.  And then, according to a process that was simply impossible to follow, Raunch somehow becomes both a black hole and a regular guy sitting in some futuristic waiting room where people are learning to operate a psychic sex simulator device.  This part might be a reference to the "white room" sequence in 2001, but again, I wasn't willing to do the amount of orange sunshine necessary to make sense of it all. 

9.  As astrophysics predicts, Raunch then transforms from a black hole to the singularity--breaking the speed of light and traveling back in time to a primordial planet where the richest "dirty old men" in the universe go to procure the ultimate sex dolls, perfectly adapted sex nymphs apparently grown like flowers out of the soil. 

10.  Raunch then finds himself alone in a void (or still as a black hole, I'm not sure).  He perceives himself returning to a giant cosmic womb which is in the process of collapsing (or he is collapsing into the void, I'm not sure).  It is the end of the universe!  Actually, this part is worth quoting, just because it is so insanely inspired:

A cunt of unimaginable construction, out of the very core of the universe itself, suspended in the holocaust of compression that was Raunch.  Perhaps it was a figment of his twisted atoms, but Raunch moved closer and closer, tightening up at every moment, toward the end of that tunnel, the final tunnel, he thought, with what energy he could muster for the task, the final tunnel from which we all came and which we all seek.
           The womb.
          The monobloc.
          The ending.
         And Raunch exploded, in a fractional moment hearing the scream of ecstasy and agony about him
11.  But not really, for Raunch wakes up back in 1969 where he discovers that his wife, Velma, has made a similar trip through space and time (either in another dimension or later in the queue, it's unclear).  Having received an education in the cosmic implications of sexuality, they retire to the marital bed, where we are left to imagine things have been somewhat spiced up. 

The end....or is it????

The Market in Quirk

A lot of haters out there gunning for Zooey Deschanel, star of Fox Television’s New Girl and ½ of the singing duo She and Him.  I’ll admit I had no dog in this fight until recently.  After all, New Girl pretends to speak for a younger generation that may actually exist or may have been completely fabricated for television—I have no way of knowing.  Meanwhile, the only “She and Him”-related track I own is M. Ward’s esoterically selected and tastefully realized cover of Daniel Johnston’s “To Go Home,” and I believe that’s just him with no she.

But I did start paying attention a couple of weeks ago when Zooey D. shared this tidbit with the New York Daily News.  The article recounts how in grade school, girls “spat” in Z.D.’s face, and then:

Though the bullying stopped long before she attended Northwestern University, Deschanel continued to have a difficult time fitting in during her freshman year at college.

"I went to Northwestern because I had gone to a really nontraditional high school," says the actress, who counts Jake Gyllenhaal and Kate Hudson as her former classmates.

"I was like, 'It'd be cool to have a traditional college experience,' " she says. "Then I was like, 'Oh, but none of these people understand what's cool about me. My specialness is not appreciated in this place.'"

Well, boo fuckin’ hoo, Zooey Deschanel.

First of all, it’s always amazing to me when someone reaches the age of 30 (Z.D. is 32 by my count), and still believes the various indignities he or she suffered in grade school are somehow wholly unique.  In elementary school, I got my ass kicked everyday for a month by some psycho-hillbilly who had just transferred from Alabama.  Why?  I’ll never know. I will always assume it was because he was from Alabama.  Another kid almost beat me up because I still thought Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple was pretty cool (that impulse, at least, I can now somewhat understand).  When I was in the 7th grade, finally, some weirdo 9th grader (on the other side of the terrifying puberty line) followed me around all year calling me “Maserati.”  I still don’t know what the hell he meant by that, I only know that it was supposed to frighten and traumatize me.  And I guess it did, for a while. 

But I would never bring these incidents up as significant, defining episodes in my biography, because they are not.  Getting abused in the American junior high school system—verbally, physically, emotionally—is as common as dirt; in fact, many would argue it is the institution’s explicit function (the only thing boys learn in junior high, as far as I remember, is how to conceal troublesome erections and where to hide to avoid pummelings by older boys suddenly seized by even more psychotic outbreaks of testosterone, typically triggered by the unexpected presence of girls.  That and maybe a little algebra).  If, at the age of 32, you still feel bad about this treatment, then I’m afraid I’m going to have to reserve the right to spit on you right now, this very second, metaphorically if not actually glandularly.

But Z.D.’s comments caught my attention, not so much for rewriting a bad day on the playground into a solipsistic trauma of life-scarring magnitude, but instead for her implicit swipe at my current institutional home and paycheck signer, Northwestern University.  I should say up front that Z.D. flamed out at NU before my time, so I have no personal vendetta against her.  I should also say that I don’t particularly bleed purple, so the following should also not be seen as some type of reflexively jingoistic defense of all things Wildcat.  If the Hoosiers came up to campus tonight with a truck to steal our fabled rock, I’d think that was actually pretty hilarious (as long as they gave it back, of course).  And I’m happy to admit that one of our most famous alumni is former governor and continuing hair-joke, Rob Blagovich, who recently lost on The Apprentice and is now on his way to a 14 year stint in the federal pen.  

But it does piss me off when someone like Zooey Deschanel literally states that she is “too cool for school,” thereby insulting the many really gifted, smart, talented, and yes, “special” students I have taught over the years at Northwestern. 

In some respects, I understand Z.D.’s plight.  The freshmen year at college is one of the most difficult years a white upper middle-class person will ever face.  Though not really “cut off” financially, there is still the often frightening illusion of being “on one’s own,” a cruel reality reinforced daily by the need to do one’s own laundry and get to class on time without direct parental intervention.  And then, of course, there is the notorious difficulty of having to reorganize one’s lived social networks, moving from a high school where a person’s identity is pretty much set—for better or worse—to a new environment where everything is up for grabs yet again.

It is a difficult transition for any 18-year old.  But it is particularly challenging for the progeny of Hollywood. I promise, I was utterly clueless about Z.D.’s biography until I looked her up on the wiki this weekend.  There, I discovered that she is the daughter of a Hollywood cinematographer and an actress who was on Twin Peaks.  Her sister, it turns outs, is apparently that Vulcan woman on Bones. 

Then it all made more sense.  

For some reason, Northwestern seems to have become a “safe house” of late for Hollywood parents hoping to delay, at least temporarily, their child’s descent into the looming quicksand of substance abuse, megalomania, and tick-like sloth that so often comes from growing up in an environment of perpetual wealth and eternal sunshine.  Of course, I'm not saying this is the fate that awaits all Hollywood kids, at Northwestern or elsewhere, just that this group constitutes what might be called a "high risk" community for becoming living terrors.   I guess the logic of shipping them north must be that getting them away from the “bad influences” of L.A. and into a more “wholesome” Midwestern environment will keep the lid on things, at least for 4 years or so.  And what better place than Evanston, Illinois, birthplace of the temperance movement and generally ass-deep in snow five months a year?  If I had a teenage daughter who was out every night until 4am with some twenty-something “junior executive” at Warners, I’d probably pack her butt off to E-town myself.    

But imagine how tough it is for someone like Zooey D.  One year she’s attending Crossroads High, Hollywood’s famous gestation chamber for future starlings, taking classes alongside Jake Gyllenhaal and Kate Hudson.  The next year she’s in a dorm room with some merely “average-looking” girl from Iowa who wants to become a surgeon, or a biochemist, or an NGO manager or something equally boring.  Worse yet, she finds out there are a lot of people on campus who don’t know who her mother is, or who Goldie Hawn is, or who have even heard of Twin Peaks. Nor is anyone particularly bedazzled and enchanted by the sight of yet another 18-year-old-girl tricked out in thrift store garb and toting a ukulele around as an attention-getting accessory.  And worst of all, for every minute that her “specialness” is being ignored in Evanston, her social peers back in L.A. are inexorably moving up the ladder of fame to claim what is rightfully theirs (and Z.D.’s!).  I’m amazed she lasted a year, quite frankly.

Then again, maybe I’m just being defensive.  Perhaps the only way to survive at Northwestern is to be as notoriously slow-witted and unspecial as Stephen Colbert (’86), Seth Myers (’96), and Kristen Schaal (’99). 

Of course, the Z.D. backlash is not entirely fueled by Northwestern employees and alum, given that it started well before her recent comments to the Daily News.  Here, I think, we must examine the concept of “quirkiness,” a label that, whether intentionally or no, has become Z.D.’s calling card in the popcult marketplace. 

What defines “quirk,” exactly, and why do so many loathe those who consider themselves “quirky?”  Briefly defined, quirk is a synonym for the “peculiar,” the “idiosyncratic,” or in Z.D’s words, a state of “specialness.”  To consider oneself “quirky” thus suggests a narcissistic delusion in which one actually believes in the possibility of being peculiar, idiosyncratic, and special when, of course, this is now impossible.

Obviously, every human on earth is a “special” and thus somewhat “peculiar” constellation of historical circumstances, personal background, and psychic inheritance—but once an attempt is made to translate that sense of “individuality” into the marketplace of lifestyle, we all become, sadly, all too predictable vectors of consumer capitalism.  In this respect, “quirk” is the studied performance of not being like everyone else, which of course only infuriates those who recognize that said quirkiness is precisely a performance that implicitly defines itself against everyone else’s “normality.”  And no one appreciates being cast as the beige gestalt that allows the self-perceived “quirky” to stand out in vibrant yet wholly predictable contrast.    

You don’t get a gig on a network sitcom by being “quirky.”  You get it by conforming to a recognizable and thus marketable performance of quirk that will attract those who still stupidly believe in the authenticity of the quirky.  Like so many other youth of exceeding, apparently intolerable “specialness,” Z.D. may have gotten her look by raiding thrift stores—but will anyone really be surprised in a couple years if she’s rolling out the new Q-line of teen-wear at Macy’s?  The only genuinely “quirky” fashion statement is one that presents a daily danger of institutionalization by the state, outfits so outside the codes of legible fashion that orderlies with butterfly nets feel compelled to get you off the street before you start biting the heads off pigeons.  Anything else and you’re still just a target market. Most of us just accept that and move on.  Others cling to the illusion that their taste is somehow truly sui generis.

Speaking of which:  Wacky, slightly silly girl in cutesy dresses with a ukulele?  Wasn’t that Victoria Jackson’s old shtick?  To her credit, Jackson has actually crossed over into genuine “quirk,” transforming over the past decade or so into a batshit crazy right-winger.   Want to see real quirk?  Skip New Girl and check out the below:  

I am happy to add, in closing, that Ms. Jackson is NOT an alumnus of Northwestern University.  

The Black Dog (1971)

Georgena Goff
Belmont Books

Young teacher and her psychic-researcher boyfriend arrive in small Michigan town to investigate the legend of a multi-generational psychic family.  There they find their subject, "Holmes," presiding over weekly seances where he answers questions for a local circle of believers.  Enter the titular dog.  Each time the black dog arrives on the scene, someone snuffs it.  The young teacher finds herself increasingly under the spell of Holmes, and then her boyfriend starts to behave weirdly as well.

First published by Belmont, The Black Dog later appeared under the "Five Stars" imprint, an early 70's competitor to the Satanic Gothic line for occult-psychic-romances (which included Louisa Bronte's (!) Lord Satan.)

Thrill (1977)

Barbara Petty
Dell Books
Spoiler Level (High)

Beautiful Katherine and slightly less-beautiful Sandra are roommates and co-workers at a big Manhattan ad firm.  After Katherine bumps her head pretty hard on the glass ceiling at work one afternoon, Sandra talks her into hitting some east side bars in search of sexable men.  But the pickings are slim.  Just as they are about to give up for the night, however, they run into Ted.  He's fairly handsome and decently dressed, so they decide to let him work his routine, which quickly turns to boastful talk about his prowess in  "3-ways." The gals confer in the powder room and decide, eh, why not?

Back to Ted's bachelor pad.  Things are going well (even if Sandra is slightly jealous that Katherine, as the more attractive of the pair, garners more of Ted's attentions).  But Sandra is next (it's a pretty orderly 3-way as it turns out).  After that, Ted suggests that Katherine and Sandra put on a "little show' for him.  They may be BFF's, they say, but they ain't lesbians (I'm paraphrasing here).  This causes Ted to freak out, and soon he's beating Sandra with a belt, cutting up her legs and raising nasty welts.  Hysterical, Katherine grabs a letter-opener off Ted's desk and stabs him in the heart.  Ted?  He's dead.

What to do?  What to do?  Sandra decides they should wipe off all the fingerprints in the apartment and get the hell out of there. Katherine is still kind of dazed, but she goes along with it.

Come Monday, Sandra is ready to go back to work and act like nothing happened.  But Katherine is still upset that she stabbed this guy to death--plus she's starting to have terrible nightmares.  But the nightmares aren't about 3-wayer turned no-wayer Ted, they're about...her father!

For you see, Katherine is from a very, very rich family, but she is estranged from her father.  Two reasons for this: 1). He forbid her to marry some hayseed from Iowa, even though he was the love of her life--said hayseed later killed himself by driving into a tree; 2). Daddy used to beat Katherine with... a belt! 

Gradually it dawns on Sandra that SHE didn't actually kill anyone, and that she might have some leverage over oh-so pretty, oh-so rich Katherine--especially now that she knows Katherine goes insane whenever she sees someone getting whipped with belt.  So she calls Katherine's millionaire father (who works on Wall St.) and they have lunch at the top of the World Trade Center.  She tells Dad that Katherine is having a nervous breakdown.  Dad is concerned, genuinely it seems, but he is also smitten by Sandra and sends flowers to her the next day.

Meanwhile, there's this guy named Stan at work that has been pestering Sandra for weeks to have a tryst.  She finally agrees and they go out to dinner.  But Stan starts drinking early and often and pretty soon Sandra realizes he's going to be next to useless in bed.  Yet she goes back to Stan's secret city sex-pad anyway--where she gets an idea for a THRILL!   She asks Stan if he might be interested in...a 3-way...with Katherine.  Being drunk and a guy, Stan thinks that's a great idea.  So Sandra calls Katherine.  But she says nothing about the 3-Way, telling Katherine instead that Stan is drunk and "out of control" and she needs Katherine's help getting him home.  Katherine's not happy about it, given that she's still mopey and crying and screaming at night because of her murdering, but she agrees to come over anyway.  Sandra goes back to Stan and says, just for fun, why don't you take off your belt and pretend to whip me with it when Katherine gets here?  She's into that, Sandra says, that'll really get the 3-way action going.  Being drunk and a guy, Stan agrees.  So Katherine comes over and the inevitable happens--she sees Stan "whipping" Sandra with the belt and stabs him with the letter-opener.  But this time her aim isn't so good, so it's Sandra who picks up the weapon and keeps on stabbing Stan in the back until he's dead.

The next day at work, Stan is missing, Katherine pretends to be sick and stays home, and Sandra goes into the office as usual.  When the gumshoes arrive later that day, having found Stan dead, they begin putting two and two together.  Busted.  At the very end, Sandra is looking in the mirror and thinks she's Katherine.  

Very much of its moment, like Play Klutey for Me, Mr. Goodbar. 

Homicide West (1963)

Samuel A. Krasney
Pocket Books 6140

Gas station owner finds a stiff in the trunk of a Cadillac parked out front, initiating a police procedural that jumps back and forth between Brooklyn homicide and the gambling underground that more than likely had the guy iced.  Lots of tough-talking cops and hoods, New Yawker style, along with a blond moll who may or may not be involved.  Added complication: the gas station owner who finds the body is African-American, and one of the cops is a stone-cold racist looking to send him up the river regardless of the evidence.

Krasney wrote around 15 or so crime novels in the 1950s and 60s, including a "vice" book called Morals Squad (1957) for Ace.  This this is exactly the type of story television ended up replacing.

Caligula: Divine Carnage (2001)

Stephen Barber and Jeremy Reed
Creation Books

If you have a more embarrassing brow trapped half-way between your high and low, then there is a good chance you have seen I, Claudius, the 1976 BBC adaptation of Robert Graves’ 1934 novel of the same title.  Loosely based on the particularly decadent line of succession in the Roman Empire from Augustus to Tiberius to Caligula to Claudius himself, I, Claudius was potboiler history at its best, a lurid melodrama featuring such legendary scene-chewers as Brian Blessed, Patrick Stewart, and Derek Jacobi.   Most memorable, though, was John Hurt as Caligula.  Shot a year after Hurt had starred as Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant, Hurt portrayed Caligula as the most mincing, petulant, and perverse polymorph ever on television.  Though the series could only go so far in what it actually showed on screen, the implication was that Caligula would fuck anything and everything that moved—his sister, his horse, his guards, his dead sister, anything.

I have fond memories of watching that show on PBS back in junior high school, probably because—despite its no doubt spurious “historical accuracy”—it had the odd effect of making me think history might be very enjoyable to read and think about, if only because the series hinted that other people in other times had more interesting lives than collecting baseball cards or riding a bike down to the 7-11 everyday for an Icee. 

So, it was with some excitement that I stumbled upon a copy of Caligula: Divine Carnage during a recent thrift run.  Even better, the book is apparently only one of several volumes in the Atrocities of the Roman Emperors series.  Amazon tells me that the Brit lad-mag Bizarre dubbed it “the greatest history of Caesaral carnage ever written,” and that author Stephen Barber, a “noted cultural historian and the leading authority on Antonin Artaud,” was once called “the most dangerous man in Britain (Barber co-wrote the book with Jeremy Reed, who, while not necessarily dangerous, was called “England’s greatest visionary” by J.G. Ballard, which strikes me as even better than being the most dangerous).  It looked very promising.

For the first twenty or so pages, Barber and Reed almost have you convinced.  Sure, a lot of what they describe seems improbable.  Maybe Tiberius forced everyone in the palace to kneel every morning before his “diseased, blackened sexual organ,” maybe he didn’t. And perhaps it's only slightly hyperbolic to say Caligula spent “the first months of his reign almost entirely in incestuous copulation with his sister, Drusilla”—that depends on just how one defines “almost” and “entirely.”  But then Barber and Reed go too far, writing that Rome’s “plebian scum” loved Caligula because:

…he was a visible presence in the filthy backstreets of Rome, often to be seen carried about in a litter with Drusilla by his side, energetically masturbating with one hand while distributing gold coins with the other; the plebian scum elbowed and crushed one another into the dust in order to simultaneously catch the imperial spurting semen in their mouths and the coins in their hands.

Now, this strikes me as highly improbable on any number of levels.  That Caligula might enjoy a good wank while throwing coins out of his litter is plausible, I guess, but how long could one really sustain such a jerk ‘n’ toss?  I suppose it's possible that Caligula began each day by venturing forth into a filthy Roman alley to masturbate and distribute his coins, but after each dispensation, wouldn’t he need a few minutes to rest before moving on to the next filthy alley?  I’m willing to concede that Caligula at 23 was probably extremely resilient and horny, but still, this seems like it would become a burden at a certain point. And what did he and Drusilla do while Caligula was in his refractory period?  I'm sure what seemed like a great idea while they were back in the palace would become, at this point, rather boring and even awkward.

And then there is the question of the “plebian scum” angling to receive the “imperial spurting semen.” Now, again, no doubt Caligula at that point was a young man with a first rate prostate and impressive distance, but just how would one project semen from a litter (where one typically sits or reclines) to the waiting mouths of the plebian porno cast?  I suppose Caligula might stand while he threw coins and masturbated, but then the litter would be in danger of overturning, unless of course Drusilla was doing same on the opposite side—which seems unlikely.

Later we learn that Caligula’s profligate spending (of money) had all but depleted Rome’s coffers.  While touring France, Caligula gets the inspired idea of canning his own shit and selling it for the equivalent weight in gold.  Now, again, I am willing to concede that a power-mad, soon-to-be-self-deified Roman emperor might truly believe his shit was worth its weight in gold, and I’m also willing to concede that terrified subjects in France might be compelled to buy said shit with gold to avoid execution.  But then we are told this: “Soon the Empire’s coffers were starting to bulge again.” 

Again, I’m no expert in antiquity, but I do know that Rome was a pretty vast empire that had a lot going on, activities that no doubt required lots of money.  It’s hard to imagine that any Emperor, even one as full of shit as Caligula, could really make any substantial dent in the Roman budget merely by shitting into little cans.

Finally, let us consider Barber and Reed’s account of Caligula’s deification ceremony.  To mark his transition to a God, Caligula enlisted his favorite gladiator, Superbus, to bugger him in front of thousands in the Coliseum.  We then read this:

A mysterious eight-foot-tall figure, masked and dressed entirely in black, held a scimitar poised over Superbus’s head as he pumped away.  Then, at exactly the same moment that the gasping Superbus ejaculated and the emperor convulsed in a grandiose orgasm, the black-clad figure skimmed the gladiator’s head from his body with one great blow of the scimitar.  A spurting torrent of arterial blood fountained up into the air from Superbus’s severed neck at the same moment as his terminal semen flooded the emperor’s divine rectum, the great gouts of scarlet blood falling on Caligula’s head and into his mouth as he twisted around to receive them.

Even if we concede that this event was actually choreographed for the benefit of the plebian snuff-scum, so much of the bio-physics involved here seems unlikely, what with all the timing and twisting and such.  And it is especially difficult to imagine how Superbus could “perform” in this context given that an executioner stood over him with a giant scimitar.  Perhaps Superbus didn’t know the fate that awaited him—but really, what else could a 8-foot guy dressed in black with a scimitar over your head signify? 

So, in the end, I’m afraid I must call shenanigans. This stuff may all actually be in the historical sources consulted by Barber and Reed--but that just goes to show you that one shouldn't believe everything one reads.

Mike Kelley

If you follow the world of contemporary art and have an interest in living in a world that might be less horrible, you probably have heard about the apparent suicide of Mike Kelley on Wednesday in California.  I can’t say that I knew Mike well, but I did have the privilege of interviewing him on a couple of occasions, visiting his studio, and writing an essay for one of his recent exhibits.  My condolences to his close friends and colleagues as I can only imagine how stunning and sad Mike’s passing must be.  Even in the brief and primarily professional exchanges I had with Mike over the past few years, I had really come to value, not just his amazing work, but also his wit, creativity, and generosity as a critical thinker.

My first conversation with Mike was an interview for the premiere issue of Tate, Etc. in 2004.  Mike was revisiting his famous exhibition on “The Uncanny” for the Tate-Liverpool, and had suggested to the editors that he and I might stage a dialogue about various states of uncanniness.  It turned out that Mike had read my book on haunted media and thought a thematic conversation would be more interesting than the usual artist interview.  I was surprised and flattered by his interest, obviously, because like most in academia I assumed the only people who read my work were forced to do so as an assignment or out of obligation.  The idea that a civilian--an artist no less--had read the book and wanted to continue the conversation was nothing less than mind-boggling. 

I’m embarrassed to say that my knowledge of Mike’s work was, at that point, pretty much limited to his now iconic cover for Sonic Youth’s Dirty elpee.  So, in an effort to hold my own on the Art with a capital A front, I prepared for our talk by reading as much about Mike’s career as I could.  And what a revelation it was.  As I encountered more and more of the work, it gradually dawned on me that Mike was a primary architect of a sensibility that I had been living in since my early twenties, a way of negotiating the often intertwined wonders and horrors of late twentieth -century American culture that my generation had completely internalized without really knowing its source.  In short, I realized I had been living in Mike Kelley’s world—psychically, affectively, politically--and didn’t even know it.

By the time I finally met Mike in person, I was prepared to deal with an ego and attitude conforming to all my worst stereotypes about the rarefied world of the avant-garde.  And of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong.  As so many have said in the past day or so, Mike was incredibly unassuming and direct, interested in seemingly everything, and amazingly conversant in cultural histories both high and low (or “accepted” and “repressed” as he called this divide).   All of our meetings were ostensibly about preparing material in relation to one of his shows—but he was always just as interested in whatever I was working on at the time, and gave me invaluable feedback on possible sources, angles, and weird tangents.  After mentioning once that I was writing a piece on “mime-hatred," Mike sent back an extensive list of the most relevant and horrifying mime materials imaginable.  An entire chapter of my next book stems from Mike introducing me to the mythology of Richard Shaver, the once famous now largely forgotten “hollow earth” writer of the 1940s.  His elegant and characteristically precise essays on Caltiki The Immortal Monster (1959) and The Baby (1973) have become and will remain staples of my film syllabus for as long as I am still teaching.   

Losing Mike is a terrible blow to the art world, obviously, but I will also miss him as an insightful critic, historian, and walking archive of a subterranean twentieth-century.  I wish I had met him earlier and known him longer.  One thing is for sure—the future just got a lot more boring.  

At top: Kandor 10 from Mike's 2011 show in L.A.