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.

R.I.P. Jack Ketchum

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“The worst is missing them, you know? And knowing they won’t be back again. Just knowing that. Sometimes you forget and it’s as though they’re on vacation or something and you think, gee, I wish they’d call. You miss them. You forget they’re really gone. You forget the past six months even happened. Isn’t that weird? Isn’t that crazy? Then you catch yourself… and it’s real again.”

~ from The Girl Next Door by Jack Ketchum

I’m sad to say I never really knew Jack Ketchum except in the sense that I was an avid reader of his work. In the days since his recent passing, I’ve heard a lot of my fellow horror writers who did know him share fond memories using his real name, Dallas Mayr, but I don’t feel I’ve earned the right to talk about him like that. For better or worse, he’ll always be Jack Ketchum to me.

When I was a freshman in high school, I read my first Ketchum book. It came in the mail, a random selection from the Leisure Horror Book Club, of which I was a member. The book’s title? The Girl Next Door. I had no idea what I was in for.

Inspired by the true-life murder of 16-year-old Sylvia Likens, The Girl Next Door is a heartbreaking, stomach-churning, limit-testing story of pitiless monstrosity hiding not beyond any veil of the supernatural, but in the hearts and minds of everyday people who are all too willing to act on their darkest impulses when given permission. Far from an exploitation of the Likens case, Ketchum’s fictional remix is more an exploration of the tragedy’s most damning philosophical and psychological implications. As Alan Moore once famously wrote, great artists uses lies to tell the truth. Sure enough, Ketchum was indeed a great artist.

To date, I still consider The Girl Next Door to be one of the best horror novels I’ve ever read. I’m not going to lie, the first time I got through it I cried. See, one of the things that made Ketchum so special as a writer was not just the way he directed your eyes towards the harshest real-world atrocities imaginable, all while daring you not to blink, but the way he was able to do so without sacrificing genuine emotion to one-dimensional shock or sadism. The point of Ketchum’s horror was not merely to dwell on human cruelty, but to cut through to the sorrow beneath it. For Ketchum, no character was merely a disposable victim; they were all living, breathing, suffering people. Violence was not something to revel in; it was something to fear and loathe, an expression of one broken soul’s own trauma, which only served to spread that trauma to others.

Jack Ketchum broke my heart with The Girl Next Door, and he did it again later with his novels The Lost, Red, and The Woman, and with his Bram Stoker Award-winning short story “The Box.” Again and again and again, Ketchum challenged me to face true horror and, in doing so, tasked me with not just being a better reader and writer, but being a better person. Ketchum didn’t just want his too-real terrors to scare us, he wanted them to hurt and anger us; he was encouraging us to do better, to not tolerate injustice, to always have empathy for those who have fallen victim to it.

That’s what the name Jack Ketchum means to me: A brilliant storyteller who didn’t just write entertaining stories, but powerful ones. His fiction was, as I interpret it, specifically designed to make the world a better place even if, to do that, he had to shine a light on just how awful it can so often be.

With all that he gave to me and to millions of readers the world over, it’s a great regret of mine that I never had a chance to to meet Jack Ketchum, to say “thank you” to him, and to maybe get to know Dallas Mayr a little, too.

God of Destruction: Remembering Gojira’s Roots

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A great black shadow falls over the Japanese metropolis. Thousands of innocent people flee in terror, but atomic fire burns them to smoking silhouettes. Streets shatter, skyscrapers crumble into dust, and a new monster is born, one whose devastation will be both evoked and invoked time after time in the coming generations.

From that description, tell me, does it sound like I’m talking about Gojira or Hiroshima?

As a decades-old monster movie icon, Gojira (known better as “Godzilla” in the west, but he’ll always be “Gojira” to me) has played many roles over the years. He’s been a hero just as often as he’s been a threat. In America, he’s been mistreated and misrepresented as a CGI joke, little more than an exercise in crass corporate branding and “cinematic universe” ambulance-chasing. For most of his career, though, he’s been an embodiment of pop art, and I mean that in the best sense of the term.

The Gojira movies that so many of us (including yours truly) grew up with were essentially horror cartoons, campy and colorful celebrations of weird monster art, explosive action, and cheesy special effects. I say this with no disrespect. For me, “cheesy” and “campy” are very much positive attributes. But the truth remains: The Gojira who battled UFOs, robots, time travelers, and telepaths, who gave Minilla piggyback rides on his tail, used Anguirus like a soccer ball, and celebrated the defeat of King Ghidorah with a jaunty dance number, that Gojira, the one I know and love as much as any other kaiju fanboy worth his salt, represents low stakes as much as he does good fun.

As children (whether in body or spirit), we thrilled at the sight of the big lizard stomping tanks, throwing haymakers at apartment buildings, and roasting everything in sight with his nuclear breath. We were given the green light to cheer on the chaos and root for the monster precisely because of how obviously fake the entire spectacle was. We knew that no one was in those tanks, that no one was in those apartment buildings. We knew that the monster was just a man in a suit, and that all those little planes, trains, and automobiles were just models, often dinky ones at that, no more real than the Hot Wheels cars we collected in grade school. Indeed, the movies rarely ever tried to convince us otherwise; in Gojira’s world, all these structures existed for no other purpose than to get wrecked.

Because of this, we audience members could relish the on-screen annihilation without reservation or guilt. We were given permission to vicariously indulge our destructive impulses and fully immerse ourselves in the fireworks of so much carefully orchestrated anarchy. The only characters that really mattered were the kaiju themselves; the humans were generally afterthoughts. We related to Gojira, Rodan, Mothra, Baragon, Megalon, and Gigan. When these titans clashed, we picked sides and hunkered down for a show like it was a pro wrestling match.

(The fact that there nowadays exists a wrestling promotion called Kaiju Big Battel, whose performers actually strut their stuff while dressed as giant monsters and brawl in squared circles decorated with model buildings, is a testament to just how much of Gojira’s legacy is steeped in the same kind of over-the-top comic-book pageantry as, say, lucha libre.)

It wasn’t always this way, though. Hack away at more than half a century’s worth of embellishments, tangents, and reinventions, and you’ll find Gojira’s heart a smoldering scar, radioactive with pain and tragedy. Released in 1954, just nine years after the Allied bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the original Gojira is very different from the sequels that followed.

For starters, it’s in black-and-white, one of only two such films in the entire franchise (along with the 1955 sequel, Godzilla Raids Again). Superficial though this may seem, it actually has a startling effect on the film’s visual attitude and atmosphere; director Ishirō Honda and cinematographer Masao Tamai express the story’s figurative darkness by embracing literal darkness, meticulously crafting high-contrast monochromatic images that are at once beautiful and oppressive. The film seems to take place entirely at night, and the big lizard himself is depicted as being almost pitch black in color, a lumbering personification of death in all its merciless, monolithic inevitability.

What’s more, submerging so much of the film’s visuals in shadow helps hide the artifice in a way that later franchise entries simply can’t. Darkness conceals the particulars of the model buildings and vehicles that Gojira tears his way through, and our imagination fills in the gaps, making it ring truer than a more brightly lit miniature, no matter how methodically detailed, ever could.

With that sense of realness, however, comes a morose sobriety. The mayhem Gojira unleashes in his debut carries real weight with it and it hangs heavy on your heart. The destruction here is not “safe,” it is not sanitized. It doesn’t read as hokey, fantastical, or fun. Honda, who co-wrote the screenplay with Takeo Murata (based on an initial idea from producer Tomoyuki Tanaka), doesn’t shy away from showing the brutal reality of the havoc Gojira wreaks. Even now, the sight of a Japanese cityscape in flames is chilling; one can only imagine what it must have felt like not ten years removed from WWII.

Even more haunting are the broken, twisted bodies crushed under the rubble of buildings they once called home, the overworked doctors struggling to tend to a constant influx of injured civilians, and the young children suffering in the throes of severe radiation sickness. Such imagery is something Japanese people of the time were all too familiar with, having been subjected not only to the atomic onslaught of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also, in the very same year as Gojira’s release, the events of the “Lucky Dragon 5” incident, wherein a crew of fishermen sailed too close to a bungled American nuclear bomb test near Bikini Atoll. As if to hit the nail on the head, this event is recreated in the film’s opening scene, implying that U.S. nukes are to blame for the big lizard’s wrath.

While the rest of the Gojira films are more or less feel-good popcorn monster movies, the first one is more like a cross between an unromanticized disaster epic and a grim ‘n’ gritty war picture. The human toll of Gojira’s rampage is front and center in a way it never is again in the series (at least not until Shin Godzilla, but I’ll get to that later). Not only do we see the destruction as it happens and the heart-rending aftermath, but, also, we are granted access to several well-developed human characters. Through them, the film explores more than just the practical challenges of facing a kaiju threat, it also investigates the emotional, moral, and philosophical implications.

Case in point: Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (played by Akihiko Hirata), a scientist researching a new chemical process which could very well be the key to building a weapon capable of downing the big lizard. The problem? A weapon powerful enough to kill Gojira would itself be just as dangerous as Gojira, and the good doctor (a military veteran who lost an eye in WWII) is loath to trust such a device in the hands of foolish, flawed, fallible men.

Again, the parallels to real life are striking, even if they’re not entirely subtle. These parallels are, more than anything, what sets apart the first Gojira from its seemingly endless conga-line of follow-ups. For me, one of the primary features that makes horror, sci-fi, and fantasy storytelling so captivating is the ability to confront issues and themes head-on. Instead of obscuring them beneath layers of plot and subtext, they are instead integrated into the plot as full-blooded characters. In genre fiction, inner demons get to be actual fire-and-brimstone devils; symbols are given sentience.

In an interview from 2005, producer Shogo Tomiyama (who oversaw the Gojira franchise from the 1980s through to the early 2000s) compared the big lizard to a Shinto “God of Destruction,” an unstoppable inhuman force, like a storm, which simply cannot be reasoned with, can barely even be understood by petty human minds. Revisiting Gojira’s roots, then, serves a worthwhile function. That is, it reminds us just what kind of symbol the big lizard actually is. When you get right down to it, what Gojira symbolizes is a uniquely Japanese experience (which is why I’ve personally never warmed to any of  the American adaptations). Gojira symbolizes the radioactive horrors of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Lucky Dragon 5. If you prefer to look at things more broadly, he also symbolizes the reprehensible horrors of WWII, and of war in general.

Despite the almost superheroic molds we’ve forced him into in the 60 years since he first rose up out of the wine-dark sea, despite all the remakes, reboots, and animated Saturday morning spinoffs, underneath it all, Gojira is an amoral engine of doom. He may have been created by man, but the King of the Monsters owes allegiance to no one.

None of my saying this, mind you, is meant as a jab at the later films for “neutering” the character or anything like that. No sir. If nothing else, I hope you’ll take this long, meandering love letter of mine as an appreciation for how versatile Gojira has proven over the years. The most recent entry in the series, Shin Godzilla, in many ways returns Gojira to his roots, reflecting anxieties brought upon by such recent tragedies as the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Tōhoku, and the subsequent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident.

I love that a character like Gojira can be used like that. I love brooding, allegorical, black-and-white Gojira, and I love bright, zany, robot-fighting, space-faring Gojira too.

Across the character’s long and storied history, only one man ever embodied the big lizard at both ends of the spectrum. Only one man embodied both Gojira the walking H-bomb and Gojira the proud papa of Minilla. That man was Haruo Nakajima, who recently passed away.

Nakajima was the first Gojira, the original Gojira. He continued to be Gojira all throughout the 50s and 60s, right into 70s. He played the role for 12 consecutive movies, more than any other Gojira suit actor. And now he is gone.

A few years ago, I had the honor of meeting Nakajima and shaking his hand. I was almost surprised at how small and humble he was in person. Still, as colossal as the character he made famous may be, the imprint Nakajima left in the hearts and imaginations of monster movie fans all over the world will always be bigger.

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