R.I.P. Sid Haig

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Like many horror movie fans who frequent the convention scene, I’m happy to say I had the very good fortune of meeting  Sid Haig. I actually did so multiple times over the years, because he was just so damn fun to talk to. Sid was a convention regular and always seemed happy to hang out with his fans. Above is a photo of him and I from back when I was a baby-faced college freshman.

Though best known these days as the crude serial killing clown Captain Spaulding from Rob Zombie’s movies House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects, and the recently released Three From Hell, Sid was an insanely accomplished character actor with a resume longer than John Holmes’ third leg. He was in such cult-classic flicks as THX-1138, Spider Baby, Galaxy of Terror (a major personal favorite), Foxy Brown, Coffy, The Big Doll House, The Big Bird Cage, Kill Bill Vol. 2, Jackie Brown, Hatchet 3, The Lords of Salem (another big favorite of mine), and Bone Tomahawk. .

Suffice to say, the man was a true workhorse. The quantity of his performances was matched, however, by their quality. Whether it was a Filipino women-in-prison b-movie or a Quentin Tarantino-directed Hollywood blockbuster, whenever Sid was onscreen you paid attention. Though some of his parts were small, even the biggest pictures he was in would’ve been noticeably worse without his presence.

Likewise, the world in which we live is noticeably worse now that he’s gone.

R.I.P. Sam Gafford

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I only met Ulthar Press founder Sam Gafford once in person, at NecronomiCon 2017. It was my first time there, my first time at any literary con, and my first time trying to put myself out there as a “real” writer. I met Sam in the vendors’ room and I bought a few copies of the magazine he published, Occult Detective Quarterly.

For many booksellers that would have been enough. Exchange complete. Polite goodbye. Next customer. But Sam remembered my name from Facebook and initiated a conversation that I myself would’ve been too nervous to start. He asked me how I was enjoying my first NecronomiCon. He asked me about my writing. We talked about his magazine and about William Hope Hodgson (of whose work he was a leading scholar). Throughout, Sam was warm and genial. Here was a lifelong veteran of the weird fiction community reaching out to an awkward introvert for no other reason than to make me feel, well, a little bit less like awkward introvert. I don’t think I ever thanked him for that.

After the convention, Sam and I talked on Facebook from time to time, mostly about comic books. He was still just an overgrown kid at the end of the day, still an enthusiastic fan of superheroes, monsters, cartoons, and The Monkees. We should all be so lucky to remain in love with our passions for as long as he did.

I’m heartbroken that I won’t get to see Sam Gafford again at NecronomiCon 2019. Many others knew him far better than I ever did. I’m even more heartbroken for them.

R.I.P. Charlee Jacob

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I just heard. Bram Stoker Award-winning horror author Charlee Jacob has passed away. I haven’t been able to find out much information, but those closest to her have confirmed it’s true. The ews seems to be making its way around the genre fiction community very slowly for some reason, which distresses me. People should know. We’ve lost a true great

As Brian Keene noted in a memorial post on Facebook, Jacob was a pioneer of what we now know as extreme horror and bizarro fiction. Some people look down their noses at such genres, viewing them as nothing but mindless gore or just “weird for the sake of being weird,” but those charges could never be leveled at Jacob. She was a poet as much as anything else, and she brought that sensibility into her prose. There was a lyricism and emotion to her fiction even when it was at its most grotesque. And, no doubt, it often got very grotesque.

It wasn’t just her writing talents that made Jacob special, though, but also her determination to use them despite the not-inconsiderable obstacles in her path. Jacob suffered from Parkinson’s disease, fibromyalgia, and osteoarthritis (which I suspect might have played a role in reducing her prominence in the public eye in recent years). Despite her illnesses, she released somewhere around two dozen books over the course of her career, from novels to short story collections to books of poetry to collaborations with other authors. That’s more than many of us will ever accomplish. What’s more, she was by all accounts a woman of razor wit and unflagging good humor. The stories I’ve heard from those who knew her personally inspire as much laughter as they do tears.

In the coming days, as news gets around, I hope to see many more tributes penned to her, and ones far better than this. She deserves as much.

R.I.P. Roky Erickson

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I came to Roky Erickson in a roundabout way. A local punk band I liked, Lugosi’s Morphine, had recorded a cover of “Night of the Vampire,” and it quickly became my favorite song of theirs… even though I had no idea it wasn’t actually “theirs.” It was probably a year, maybe more, before I realized that this track I dug so much had been recorded for a Roky Erickson tribute album. “Who the hell is Roky Erickson?” I wondered. And that was when I fell down the rabbit hole. Or, if you prefer, the elevator shaft.

Before then, I didn’t know how much of so many things I loved owed a huge chunk of their origins to Erickson. In the ‘60s, his group The 13th Floor Elevators was the first to ever refer to itself as “psychedelic rock,” and the band’s raw, snotty, proto-punk sound likewise embodied a style that would come to be known as garage rock. In the ‘70s, Erickson’s second group The Aliens prefigured the horror-punk of The Misfits and the psychobilly of The Meteors with its harder-edged music, b-movie lyrics, and song titles like “I Walked with a Zombie,” “Stand for the Fire Demon,” and “Creature with the Atom Brain.”

It was not just Erickson’s lyrics that were haunted, however. In 1968, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and for years drifted in and out of psychiatric hospitals, where his “treatment” included forced electroconvulsive therapy (AKA shock treatment). At one point, he was even arrested and subsequently committed for the crime of possessing one single joint. In the ‘80s, Erickson announced that he was possessed by the spirit of a Martian and that, as an extraterrestrial anomaly, he was subject to constant psychic assault from the rest of humanity. Later he began hoarding junk mail and taping it to the walls of his home, to the point where he was eventually arrested on charges of postal theft.

Perhaps worst of all, throughout his career Erickson was taken advantage of time and time again by predatory record contracts that dwindled his royalty payments to almost nothing.

In that way, as great as Erickson’s impact has been on music, his iconic status goes far beyond that. More than just a rock ‘n’ roll innovator, Erickson was, is, and will continue to be a poster child for every underappreciated outsider and persecuted weirdo in the world, for anyone and everyone who has ever felt like a space alien locked away in some great, big, planet-sized insane asylum.

Artists as varied as ZZ Top, Henry Rollins, the Butthole Surfers, the Jesus and Mary Chain, R.E.M., and Mogwai have all paid tribute to Roky Erickson over the years, acknowledging his influence. Despite efforts by mainstream society, and perhaps even his own mind, to hold him back, he was a traveler, an earthbound astronaut who blazed burning trails through hallucinogenic starfields, showing us all the glories of that magic place where, as he put it, “the pyramid meets the eye.”

Just like he sang on the 13th Floor Elevators’ biggest hit, I’m gonna miss him.

R.I.P. Dennis Etchison

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Confession: The first horror novel I can remember reading was not a towering classic like Dracula or Frankenstein, nor even a New York Times Bestseller gateway-drug à la Stephen King’s The Shining. It was something no more prestigious than a cheap paperback novelization of a slasher movie. Its spine was cracked and its pages were yellow. And it was great.

I read Halloween II, a book I’d inherited from my mother, years before I ever saw the movie upon which it was based. Hell, I hadn’t even seen the first Halloween back then. Nor had I fully graduated from reading R.L. Stine’s kid-friendly Goosebumps books, which were all the rage during my ‘90s-kid childhood. Still, Halloween II served as a crucial stepping stone for me. It was the first horror story I ever read whose pages numbered in the triple digits, and it was also my first taste of adult horror.

Halloween II was written by Jack Martin, an author who I would never read anything else by. I would, however, go on to read a lot of stuff by Dennis Etchison, the man behind the Jack Martin pseudonym. Where Martin had but a short life consisting of only a couple more novelizations (one of another Halloween sequel, the other of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome), Etchison boasted a long and illustrious career as a novelist, short story writer, and anthologist. Much like Charles L. Grant, Etchison represented an aspect of the horror genre that was more driven by atmosphere and psychology than what mainstream audiences often gravitated towards in the ’80s and ’90s. He was, in many ways, a writer’s writer.

Naturally, when news broke of Etchison’s recent passing, it didn’t take much to get me itchin’ to revisit some of his work, preferably something I hadn’t read in a long time. But what? Maybe his novel California Gothic, concerning a complex web of unreliable narrators navigating unreliable realities in the celluloid shadows of Hollywood. Or maybe his classic short story “The Dog Park,” with its bleak and biting dissection of loneliness, desperation, and show-biz cannibalism. Or maybe MetaHorror, an anthology he edited for the vaunted Dell Abyss line, which ambitiously pushed the envelope of what genre fiction could be at a time when its definition was very much in flux.

Rifling through a box of books while trying to decide, I chanced across Halloween II. The same copy that had once belonged to my mother. The same copy I’d read more than two decade ago. Its spine was even more cracked now, its pages yellower than yellow. A wave of nostalgia swept over me. My choice was made.

It almost goes without saying that Halloween II is far from Etchison’s finest work. I read a review once that surmised Etchison mainly wrote novelizations as a way to collect an easy paycheck. I don’t know if I believe that. I do know that Etchison was a dyed-in-the-wool cineaste, even acting as a consultant for the film-focused chapters of Stephen King’s Danse Macabre. I’ve heard that he was a personal friend of director John Carpenter. And I’m aware that he famously co-wrote a screenplay for Halloween 4 which went unused after being dubbed “too cerebral” by the sort of people who decide such things.

In any case, reading Halloween II today illuminates one thing for certain: Great writers are great writers, full stop. Their greatness shines through regardless of what material or constraints you give them, or even what they themselves might think of the job. Even working within the confines of a story given to him by someone else, saddled as he was with characters, events, and ideas that were not his own, Etchison’s voice remains unmistakable. His flair for poetic description and ominous mood give an otherwise screen-accurate adaptation a flavor distinct from its cinematic source.

It may pale in comparison to his original works, but as far as formative genre introductions I could have done a lot worse than Dennis Etchison playing in somebody else’s sandbox. Like an old beat-up paperback at the bottom of a cardboard box, it’s comforting to know that Etchison was and always will be there. He proved just as important a piece of my literary development in adulthood as he was in my youth.

I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning from him.

R.I.P. Wilum Hopfrog Pugmire

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I sadly never had the chance to meet W.H. Pugmire in person. Nevertheless it was impossible for anyone seriously interested in Lovecraftian and weird fiction to not feel like you knew him somehow. Spend any amount of time researching the genre at all and you will undoubtedly run into him, either as one of its most critically esteemed modern-day practitioners or as one of its most vocal and enthusiastic fans.

Pugmire’s reverence for weird fiction, its history, and its progenitors was unparalleled. His own contributions were similarly unrivaled, the words he put down on paper just as singular, idiosyncratic, and inspired as his unapologetically eccentric persona. The entire Sesqua Valley, and all who have ever passed through it, is in mourning today. We have lost a truly unique, irreplaceable voice in the one and only Queen of Eldritch Horror.

Remembering Ron

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Who is Ron Gelsleichter?

For those of you who’ve picked up a copy of the new anthology Test Patterns and read “I Am Become Death,” the story he and I share credit on, you may or may not have wondered this. Of the book’s 30+ contributors, Ron Gelsleichter is the only one with no other publications to his name. While my own credits are admittedly few (and of debatable noteworthiness) they still exist. You can look me up on Goodreads or on Amazon any time you want and find my bibliography. You can track down a copy of one of my books and find my name immortalized there on the table of contents. Slight as it might be, there remains a record of my contributions to the world of fiction, one which will persist even after I’m gone.

Who, then, is Ron Gelsleichter? Well, he was one of my very best friends, for starters. In fact, he was one of only two that I can honestly say have ever completely and utterly known the real me, one of the very few I truly felt comfortable sharing anything and everything with. For more than ten years, since I first met him in 2006, hardly a week went by where we didn’t spend at least a day together. I often joked that my weekly visits with Ron were the only thing keeping me sane. There’s truth to that; no matter how stressful or depressing things in my life got, a night hanging out with Ron, eating greasy takeout and riffing on bad movies, always helped me recalibrate. Ron’s house was like a decompression chamber where I could go and have my mood instantly lifted, so as to return to the “real world” refreshed and renewed.

No one shared my sense of humor like Ron did. No one had tastes in art and entertainment so similar to mine.  No one reflected my own past and present back at me so totally, in such a way as to forge a bond of unshakeable camaraderie. Ron was undoubtedly the closest thing I’ve ever come to having a brother. That last sentence reveals something I only just now realize in the very moment that I write those words. You ask me who Ron Gelsleichter was and the truest answer I can give you is that he was my brother.

Last year, Ron died very unexpectedly. He was only 32.

Today is my birthday. Today I turn 31.

Ron remains 32. He will never be older than 32.

Though Ron and I had much in common, there is one way in which we were still very different.  Something we occasionally laughed about was the idea that he and I were actually the same person from alternate universes, the one major difference being that, as introverted as I might be, I had learned at least some social skills. Indeed, Ron was an extremely private person with very few friends and almost no real family. Aside from his warehouse job, he had little interest in leaving his house or interacting with the vast majority of humanity. And despite having one of the keenest minds for storytelling I’ve ever seen a person display, he was reluctant to put any of his own work out into the world.

Though Ron’s brain was always whirring away with all kinds of crazy, wonderful ideas, he rarely finished any of the myriad projects he started. Hell, he didn’t even start that many, despite the seemingly infinite reservoir he’d been blessed with. In the end, I think, his storytelling instincts may have been too keen. Whenever we discussed a story or a movie or a TV show, Ron’s critiques generally proved the most insightful and on-the-nose. He always knew exactly what was wrong with something and he could rattle off a dozen ways to make it better. That ability to recognize flaws, however, could be damning; it’s not hard to see how it could mutate into a kind of self-defeating perfectionism that disinclined him from seeing any endeavor through to the end since he knew all along how flawed it would inevitably be.

I was upfront with Ron about how much this bothered me. It was frustrating knowing how many lesser talents, myself included, were able to make at least some kind of name for themselves as storytellers while this quiet prodigy would continue to remain largely invisible. It was just a month or so before Ron’s passing that I convinced him to collaborate on a story with me. We both agreed to brainstorm ideas separately before meeting up sometime in the near future to see what we’d each come up with. But that meeting never came. That story will never be written.

Ron’s funeral was modestly attended.

There’s no shame in that. Like I said, he was a very private person who was highly selective about who he wanted to be friends with. If any more people came to pay respects to him than he himself would have preferred to bother with, that would be insulting. Nevertheless, my heart ached (and continues to ache) thinking about how few people out there will ever truly fathom the wonderful personality, the wild sense of humor, the brilliant mind, and the gifted storyteller the world lost with his passing. Ron deserves to be remembered. He deserves to be on the record. He deserved to be immortalized, in some small way.

That’s why Ron Gelsleichter is my co-author for “I Am Become Death.” In truth, he could rightfully be credited as co-author for everything I’ve ever written and everything I ever will write. Of all my close friends, it was his opinion I trusted the most, his approval I sought the most, and his criticism I both valued and dreaded the most.  The first time I had a story published, he was the first person to get a copy. In fact, he was the only person I consistently made sure got a copy every single time I had a story published, because his thoughts on the final product mattered so much to me.

“I Am Become Death” is influenced heavily by Rod Serling’s classic TV series The Twilight Zone. The anthology it appears in, Test Patterns, is specifically meant as a tribute to shows like The Twilight Zone. Ron and I were both big fans of The Twilight Zone. More than a few of those days we spent cooped up in his house were days spent marathoning episodes, debating our favorites, and perversely hunting for what could be definitively called the worst Twilight Zones ever (we both had a strange fascination with seeing the things we loved most at their absolute worst).

“I Am Become Death” was the first story of mine accepted for publication after Ron’s passing. It seemed a decent way of paying tribute to him. Just writing “In Memory Of” didn’t feel like enough. So instead, anytime someone ever comes across a copy of Test Patterns in the wild, they will find his name there right alongside mine. Right alongside Joe Pulver’s and Cody Goodfellow’s and Matthew Bartlett’s and Philip Fracassi’s and a dozen other of the best and brightest names in contemporary weird fiction. Right where it belongs.

I have to confess, I wrestled with myself a long time over whether or not I should write this blog at all. I didn’t want it to come across a self-congratulatory, like I’m patting myself on the back and saying “Look at what a swell guy I am for being willing to share credit with my dear departed pal.” I never wanted to make this about me. But then I realized that if I didn’t say something I’d be robbing you of any information about who Ron actually was. All because… what? Because I’m afraid how that might reflect on me? No, if say I want Ron to be remembered only to play coy about who it is I’m sharing credit with on this story (and why), then the whole effort is self-defeating, isn’t it?

For many, “Ron Gelsleichter” will just be a name, one readers may or may not notice as they turn the page and continue on to the next tale. But for me he was a lot more. Certainly more than I could ever hope to summarize even if I wrote a thousand more paragraphs, though I hope this tiny fragment I’ve offered here communicates at least some idea of who Ron Gelsleichter actually was, of how much he meant to me, and of how much the world has been deprived by not seeing his name on more stories.