Monday, November 30, 2009

Softcover Books, Hardcore Horror - RIP

I've just returned from one of my two weekly trips to the local Barnes & Noble - yes, while Amazon confiscates a major portion of my paycheck, I still find prowling the aisles of a bookstore to be one of the most relaxing things I can do for myself - where I've just acquired my monthly dose of mass market paperback horror novels from the good folks at Leisure Books (Dorchester Publishing). This month's releases are Ghost Monster from Simon Clark and The Resurrectionist by Wrath James White. For at least the last thirty years or more this has been my weekly ritual - going to the bookstore (or bookstores) and picking up that week's offerings of cheap (I would add "disposable," but I never throw them away) paperback horror. Two books tonight. There was a time when I would have hauled two books up to the counter and the clerk would have said, "Slow week, Steve?" But now, two books may well be all that I purchase for the month of December...and it's definitely not because I have cut back on my buying habits.

There was a time when paperback horror novels were not just great in number, but they were available for purchase everywhere. It was impossible to walk through the checkout aisle of your supermarket without seeing the latest titles - and this was even before a certain fellow from Maine came along and invigorated the industry. Horror novels would routinely hit the best seller lists in hardcover, cycle through into a cheap mass market edition a year or two later (there was a longer turnaround time then), and then the last step - Hollywood. By the time the film version of the book came out, it had been drilled into the public consciousness for years. When novels like Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, The Other, Audrey Rose, Demon Seed, The Fury and The Entity struck gold, it was not a matter of if they would find their way onto the screen, but when. There's a reason that Spielberg's Jaws copied the design of the book jacket for its Summer 1975 debut: that image was iconic before the first ticket was sold, thanks to the paperback best seller.

Stephen King entered a market primed for multi-medium success. Carrie was published by Doubleday in 1974, and while it was a modest seller, it didn't explode until Signet published a mass market softcover edition one year later, and that mysterious neon-lit profile was
ubiquitous. (You had to open up the book to the inside jacket to find out the title, and lots and lots of us did.) Brian DePalma's film version was out by 1976, and the rest, as they say, is horror history.

But then the publishers changed the rules. The outstanding sales for the paperback edition of Carrie - as well as Salem's Lot - demonstrated that there was an enormous public appetite for inexpensive horror novels, and publishers like Dell, Bantam, Ballantine and Avon began greenlighting titles to be sold as straight-to-mass market, or with only the feint of a hardcover release. Suddenly King was joined on the racks by a plethora of new writers: Dean Koontz, James Herbert, John Farris, Robert McCammon, Michael McDowell, John Saul, Whitley Strieber. And, in the late 70s and early 80s, the paths of publishing and Hollywood slowly diverged. The publishers were putting out far too much product for even a percentage of it to find its way to the screen, and cinemagoers were embracing non-supernatural chills, as the Slashers began their reign of terror. For those who bemoaned the screen's preoccupation with knives and nubile young things, the paperback industry was putting out as many as a half-dozen new titles every week, exploring the wide range of Horror subjects; creatures on the loose, ghosts, demonic possession, vampires, werewolves, ecological catastrophe, nature in revolt, and, yes, stalk 'n' slash. Whatever your taste in terror happened to be, there was something inexpensive between two covers waiting to satiate your hunger.

Was there a lot of dreck? Absolutely. Zebra Books saturated the market with dozens of "skull face" titles by authors like William Johnstone and Ruby Jean Jensen, books that were pilloried at the time, but I confess I look back upon them now with nostalgia. Yes, they were knocked out like so many flapjacks, but they were still Horror, and taken together with the better stuff, they allowed bookstores to feature actual Horror sections of paperbacks, and from authors whose last names started with letters other than "K." These were important if for no other reason than they allowed Horror to coexist on the racks with genres like Romance, Western, Science Fiction, and Crime & Detective.

As the Eighties became the Nineties, there was some drop-off in quantity, but every now and then there'd be a sign of renewed life (like Dell's superlative, boundary-breaking Abyss line of slipstream Horror), and it also became a challenge for adults to sift though the titles on the stands and avoid those countless books marked YA - Young Adult (although I would pronounce it "Yaaaah!"). The novels of Christopher Pike and R.L. Stine seemed to be grooming a new generation to take up the practice of perusing well-worn volumes of paperback horror at an affordable price.

But that didn't happen. The readers of such series
as Goosebumps and Fear Street did not matriculate to adult horror. In fact, they didn't matriculate to anything - they just stopped reading. As book sales faltered, paperback horror was one of the hardest-hit genres, and even established authors whose last names begin with the letter "K" saw their sales slip. Horror novels became the domain of small publishers whose titles are impossible to find at the chains, and sometimes even a challenge for Amazon to intercept. Of the two biggest chains, Borders still features a Horror section that struggles to find books from more than a handful of writers, and Barnes & Noble dissolved its Horror section years ago. (The stores in the Milwaukee area have taken to folding books with vampires, werewolves and zombies into the - shudder - Sci-Fi and Fantasy section.) Kudos must go to Dorchester Publishing and its commitment to release two titles a month by new stars like Brian Keene, Sarah Pinborough and Ray Garton, as well as established talents like Al Sarrantonio, Jack Ketchum, Rick Hautala and Ramsey Campbell.

The conventional wisdom is that paperback Horror collapsed under the weight of dozens and dozens of crappy books, but I don't buy that. Will that same wisdom then try to convince me that the Romance, Sci-Fi and Crime shelves are stocked with minor masterpieces? Horror used to be a reliable go-to for the traveller passing time with a page-turner while waiting for a connecting flight. It used to be an impulse buy for the shopper with a cart full of groceries. It used to be the theme for many a hardcover bestseller, later to be turned into a glossy, big-budget feature with a stellar cast. Horror fiction used to be available, dare I say it - Mainstream. It's not anymore. It's appealing to an insular, isolated audience. Success in the cinema is not pulling readers into bookstores. (It never has. Not even the phenomenon of Star Wars produced more than a temporary uptick in the popularity of published Sci-Fi in the 70s and 80s.) And with the entire publishing industry in flux, and with the future of print itself in question, it's doubtful we may ever see those days return.

How I miss coming home with a stack of paperbacks.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Boris Karloff Blogathon - Epitaph

After Karloff's death in 1969, there were a handful of his movies that had yet to trickle into theaters and did so over the next two years. They are undistinguished work, to which the great thespian gave every last bit of energy that his failing body could muster. For those connoisseurs of his work, there is but one movie that serves as a fitting epitaph - Peter Bogdanovich's 1968 masterpiece Targets. To watch it is to witness a paradigm shift in Horror, as the Gothic accoutrements of castles, mad scientists and supernatural creatures yield to the psychological horrors of a new chromium age. Death now comes at the tip of a jacketed bullet, and those who are its victims may never know why -- or at whose hand they perished. Horror has become random, and we are all now a little less safe.

Karloff's role as fading horror star Byron Orlok makes Targets a film
a clef, a part that cleaves so close to the truth as to be bittersweet, if not downright sorrowful. His is a time that has passed, as filmgoers only want to see nubile young women chased by knife-wielding maniacs (as true as that may have been in 1968, it sounds about ten years ahead of its time). To illustrate the power yet to be had in old-fashioned horror, Orlok contemplates telling the crowd that will assemble for a drive-in theater promotion (a site later to be marked by carnage) the tale from W. Somerset Maugham, "Appointment in Samarra." Director Bogdanovich is wise enough to do it in one shot with a slow pull-in, and Karloff delivers the tale in one take.'s the story of where this little epigram came from that provides an added layer of wistfulness. It's taken from one of the final scenes in Maugham's last work for the theater, Sheppey. Written in 1932 (and dedicated to actor Sir John Gielgud), the play tells the story of a simple Cockney barber (nicknamed Sheppey for his birthplace) who has the great good fortune to win the Irish Sweepstakes. While everyone who knows Sheppey imagines how they will also benefit from his newly-won wealth, Sheppey has different plans...and proceeds to give the money away to those he feels could best benefit from his generosity - even should the recipients be thieves and prostitutes. Having been richly blessed, he decides to do the work of Christ on earth, and, like the Parable of the Sower, some of his seed lands on stony ground. At the end of life, Sheppey is visited by Death, and says with a rueful smile that Death would not have been able to find him had Sheppey returned to the isle of his birth. In reply, Death relates the story of...An Appointment in Samarra.

The play was performed in London in 1933 with Ralph Richardson in the cast, and Karloff would surely have been aware of the monologue's context. A man may do great works upon the earth, as the beneficent Karloff did, but in the end...

Readers of the Jar are familiar with my earlier posting about Phreaky Philm Phridays, a two-year tradition of teens gathering together to watch classic horror and science fiction films. On our last night together we watched Targets, and in the beat before Karloff begins the monologue, I said to the group of 30+ assembled, "This is why this man was great."

When he finished, the teens replied with one word; "Wow."

Who among us could ask for a better epitaph than that?

Boris Karloff Blogathon - The Sea Shall Give Up Her Dead

Classic Creepy Comic Covers - Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery #32 (November 1970)
Artist unknown

It took me a number of years to realize it, but the cover to this issue of BKToM is a rarity because of its subject matter; Gold Key's primary competitors on the newsstand - Marvel and DC - were unable to depict what was featured here in rich tones of aquamarine and two eye-catching splashes of scarlet. (Look at the absolutely perfect positioning of the four zombies, each in a different stance, as well as the overall composition that allows for the clean placement of the title's logo - exquisite.) As the cover boasts, "From the depths of the sea arise the living dead!" Yes, the Living Dead - or, as they are known by the restrictions of the Comics Code Authority, Zombies. And, as the often-frustrated editors of the competition would have told you at the time, zombies were expressly forbidden by the Code. It didn't matter in what state of decomposition they might be; they could not appear on the cover or within the pages of any comic title that bore the CCA seal of approval.

But this cover doesn't have a CCA seal, does it? How very interesting...

The CCA was established in 1954 in the aftermath of Dr. Frederic Wertham's book Seduction of the Innocent, a screed against the excesses of horror and crime comic books of the early 1950s, with the titles published by EC coming under the greatest scrutiny and attack. Following a series of congressional hearings, the comic industry opted for a system of self-policing, lest government intervention impose even greater restrictions. Gone were
the stories of criminals who got away with their heinous acts. Gone were the grisly Contes Cruels that were EC's stock in trade. Gone were the gore-filled denouements that delivered poetic justice. Gone were the vampires and werewolves and ghouls. And zombies. Especially the zombies. (One could scarcely buy a copy of EC's horror line - Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror and The Haunt of Fear - without reading at least one tale of an ambulatory corpse out for vengeance...even as parts of them kept falling off.)

This was a voluntary system of regulation, for after all the negative publicity engendered by the hearings, every company wanted to be on the side of the angels. Every company...except Dell, which took out full-page ads at the time testifying to the purity and harmlessness of their mostly-funny-animal product, and indignantly said they required no regulation to keep their material pure as the driven snow. They opted out of the Code, God was in his heaven, and all was once again right in the world as youth crime and juvenile delinquency was eliminated from America's shores, never again to return. 1962, Dell was ending a partnership with Western Publishing, as that company decided to branch off and publish titles under the new Gold Key imprimatur. Gold Key published a handful of original titles during its history, but was noted for aggressively pursuing pre-existing properties from television and film - like the NBC anthology series Thriller, hosted by Boris Karloff. The company managed two issues under that title (each a whopping 80 pages of material with a 25 cent price tag - adjusting for inflation would mean that a contemporary comic would sell for over ten dollars!) before NBC pulled the plug on the series. Gold Key decided that the Boris Karloff name was the true selling point, and changed the title's name to Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery. However, throughout this, Gold Key maintained Dell's practice of forgoing the CCA seal.

Here's what the code says about supernatural characters in comics -
  • Scenes dealing with, or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, vampires and vampirism, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism are prohibited.
I'd say that this 1970 cover, illustrating the tale "They Came from the Deep," would be a pretty cut-and-dried violation of the Code - that is, if the code had ever been applied to Gold Key titles. In 1971, the CCA loosened up its restrictions to permit vampires and werewolves. In fact, although zombies still remained verboten, other companies found ways to circumvent this rule by simply not calling the walking dead "zombies" (hence Marvel Comics and their omnipresent "zuvembies," but that's a post for another day). While I have no evidence to support this, I'd like to think that the CCA saw the cover for BKToM #32 and, the world not ending in the aftermath, decided to loosen the leash a bit.

One final point: it is a sad fact that so many of the credits for Gold Key titles go unknown, especially authors of individual stories, but more tragically the talent behind these remarkable painted covers. A number of them have been attributed to one George Wilson, and later covers by Luis Dominguez bear his unmistakable touch, but most of the canvases for their horror titles cannot definitively claim an artist as responsible for their beauty. Occasionally the original artwork will show up for an eBay auction, and usually fetches a price in the low four figures. But the sellers are often unable to provide authoritative proof of creator. For a company that did so many things so well for so many years, this inattentiveness is simply shameful. Let us be grateful that the artwork survives, even though fandom can only offer an inconclusive toast to the artist.

Friday, November 27, 2009

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, your boughs are green and bloody...

Before you head out to get that Christmas tree, you may want to consider going artificial after you see Treevenge, a short film from Canadian director Jason Eisener that picked up an award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, as well as a number of other citations from fantasy film fests across the nation. It's been bouncing around the Interweb since the summer, but now is truly the time to give it an airing.

I submit this for those of you who think The Jar's taste in horror to be a little on the mild side; you would do well to remember that I adore all Canuck horror, the more twisted and demented, the better.

It is, without any equivocation, NSFW, and parents may want to think twice before watching the second part. I, on the other hand, am quite childless, and so I say...roll it!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Boris Karloff Blogathon - The Bishop on Broadway

After the twilight years of classic Universal horror - and as the studio segued into tales of sci-fi and radiation-spawned monstrosities - and as Val Lewton's efforts for RKO drew to a close, Boris Karloff increasingly explored non-cinematic opportunities to ply his craft as an actor. He eagerly embraced the nascent medium of television, but, true to his stage roots, he also accepted a handful of offers to "tread the boards" on the Great White Way. In 1941's Arsenic and Old Lace he appeared as gangster Johnathan Brewster, for whom plastic surgery has rendered the spitting image of a certain horror film star (pity every production that followed, professional and otherwise, charged with the difficult task of finding a performer to compare with the incomparable Karloff), and he was the villainous Captain Hook in the 1950 musical adaptation of J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, with score by Leonard Bernstein. In 1955 came the role that Karloff considered the proudest moment of his long and storied acting career: Bishop Pierre Cauchon in Lillian Hellman's adaptation of the Jean Anouilh play about the martyrdom of Joan of Arc, L'Alouette - The Lark.

The chance to adapt the play came at a time of great difficulty for playwright Hellman. Respected for such stage works as The Children's Hour, The Watch on the Rhine and The Little Foxes, Hellman was called before the House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952, and told to give up names of associates with Communist sympathies. She refused, but rather than know the martyrdom of a contempt citation, she was dismissed with the degrading comment, "Why cite her...? After all, she is a woman." There began a period of blacklisting and poverty, with Hellman unable to see her original work produced - at one point, she was even forced to sell her house. Instead, she turned to adaptations, a prospect that did not fill her with excitement. But when presented with Anouilh's script, she found an occasion for pointed political commentary. Like fellow dramatist Arthur Miller did in 1953's The Crucible, she would find inspiration from history, and whereas the accused of Salem met their fate at the end of a noose, Hellman's protagonist would be burned at the stake. That climax was not without personal resonance.

There was a problem; halfway through the adaptation, Hellman discovered that she didn't care for the story. Whereas Anouilh's Jeanne d'Arc was true to the title - a lark singing in ecstasy to the glory of the Almighty - Hellman envisioned a tougher character, a sturdy peasant girl capable of leading armies into battle. (I would argue that the tension of this dichotomy actually led to a better script and a more complex Joan - child, woman, warrior, saint.) The experience left Hellman somewhat distant and embittered toward the project, reminding her yet again that the world was not interested in her original ideas.

Broadway producer Kermit Bloomgarden, with a reputation for shows of great literary import, would bring the play to New York. Hellman would remain a very hands-on playwright, involved in every element of the production, including the hiring of neophyte
Broadway director Joe Anthony. The first-timer was considered a gentle, approachable sort, open to input from the performers. However, he was consistently overruled by the ever-present Hellman, who routinely barked out directions to the cast, testing the patience of even the most professional of the crew. In his autobiography, cast member Theodore Bikel tells of an occasion at a rehearsal of his solitary scene as Beaudricourt, the landowner who is worn down by a relentless and optimistic Joan. When the girl exited the stage, Bikel placed his head in his hands in frustration, only to hear Hellman shout out from the back of the theater, "What was that supposed to mean? Don't do that! I don't like gestures!" Bikel's response is worth reprinting in its entirety -

Miss Hellman, I cannot accept such a statement. If you do not like a particular gesture, then we might discuss it with the director and if we should all agree that it is wrong or inappropriate, then we might consider changing or eliminating it. But to have you say to me - categorically - that you do not like gestures - in the plural - directly attacks one of the principal things my profession is all about. Words are your department, Miss Hellman, gestures are mine. I wish you would realize that my work starts where yours ends.

Having been in such rehearsal situations myself, I can imagine the tomblike silence that followed. Certainly such difficult dynamics required a cast of utmost professionals, and with Karloff in the role of Bishop Pierre Cauchon, the show had a performer who embodied professionalism and courtesy to fellow actors and crew. For Karloff, here was a part that allowed him to demonstrate new colors within his actorly palette. Audiences that arrived at the show expecting him typecast in the role of a grand inquisitor had to be surprised. Instead, his was a paternal figure, protective of the innocence he saw within the young martyr, and fearful of the destiny that awaited her if she did not renounce her claim to be a vessel for the Holy Spirit. (How could she be? After all, she is a woman...) Karloff received glowing reviews for his work, and earned a Tony nomination for Best Actor in a Play, but lost to Paul Muni in Inherit the Wind.

For all his professionalism, there were moments that saw the great man (almost) crack. Directors often admonish actors not to tamper with the play's dialogue offstage in jest, lest those unorthodox re-writes accidentally find their way in front of a paying audience. Bikel tells of a performance when this happened. The line of dialogue, delivered by one of Joan's prosecutors, was supposed to be, "When the devil wants a soul for his own, he appears in the shape of a beautiful girl with bare breasts!" What emerged from the actor's mouth was Bikel's backstage parody - "He appears in the shape of a beautiful bear with girl breasts!" Poor Boris was the one who had to deliver the follow-up line, and the cast could see him struggle to suppress his laughter.

The show was a great critical success, but the reviews for star Julie Harris were positively rapturous. By the time the show had opened at the Longacre Theater on November 17, 1955 (going on to run 229 performances, a smash for a straight drama), Harris was already an Oscar-nominated actress (The Member of the Wedding), and in 1953 received the first of her record-setting five Tony Awards and ten nominations for her portrayal of Sally Bowles in
I Am a Camera (later to be the source material for the musical Cabaret). She earned her second Tony as Joan of Arc, graced the covers of national magazines, and was the toast of New York City. She also developed a warm relationship with Karloff, and the two spoke of each other with great fondness in the years that followed. Both reprised their roles when The Lark was adapted for television as an installment of the Hallmark Hall of Fame that aired on February 10, 1957 (and will hopefully be excavated and released someday on DVD).

An interesting sidelight - The Lark marked the second time that Karloff acted in a production with music from the pen of Leonard Berstein, albeit indirectly.
Bernstein composed a set of choruses for seven voices plus simple percussion that served as incidental music for the play. Three of the songs are in French and based on folk songs of the period; the remainder are his interpretations of movements from the Latin Mass. The works are published in two volumes and have gone on to become choral concert staples. They were pre-recorded for New York performances of The Lark - which meant that Bernstein had minimal working contact with Hellman, an old friend. Their successful endeavor inspired them to collaborate on a musical version of Voltaire's Candide, one of the legendary "interesting failures" in musical theater history. The free-wheeling Bernstein clashed violently and often with martinet Hellman, and the friendship was irrevocably broken. Years later, eyebrows were raised when Hellman agreed to speak at a televised 60th birthday celebration for the maestro - and spent her time speaking only of Bernstein's recently deceased wife Felicia.

Earlier this year, Karloff's daughter Sarah auctioned off a number of items from her father's treasure trove of mementos, believing that they best belonged in the possession of fans. Two items stood out among the rest: a scrapbook of notes, photos and reviews from The Lark, and, more impressive still, Karloff's original script, filled with annotations and pasted-over rewrites. The notes in the margins reveal a very workmanlike approach, utterly practical, devoid of the psychological over-analysis in which some performers indulge. Perhaps it is because that Karloff recognized a compassionate humanity in Cauchon, compassion which he shared in abundance and used as a wellspring. Maybe it is because his work in The Lark allowed him to show the humanist within that made Pierre Cauchon Boris Karloff's most cherished role, and we should hope that its televised version will someday surface, that future generations may know an equally-cherished man.

(This post is dedicated to the joyous memory of Thomas F. Nevins - teacher, mentor, director, colleague, friend - who passed away two years ago this week. He saw and loved the original New York production of The Lark - and was able to direct his own version before he passed away. God love you, Tommy. Now shut the hell up.)

Happy Thanksgiving from The Jar!

But please - try not to overindulge. After all, gluttony is a sin.

Heh heh heh...

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Midweek Music - Boris Karloff Blogathon!

David DeFigueredo, Gloomy Sunday

Midweek Music - "Gloomy Sunday"
Music and lyrics by
Reszo Seress and Lazslo Javor

As I mentioned on Monday's post, the Gold Key comic title Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery became a must-buy by the time I was a mere six years of age. However, it took only until the second issue for the title to feature something that simply scared me right out of my prepubescent mind, a fear that stayed with me for many years after.

In addition to illustrated stories, the Gold Key horror titles of the time also featured one-page text pieces, usually printed after the first full story, with real-life subjects that were taken from supernatural legends or the paranormal. It was as if each book was taken over for one page by the editors of Ripley's Believe It or Not, and these text pieces were my first exposure to stories of UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, ESP, even the well-documented similarities between Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. But it was issue #24 of BKToM that told the terrifying story of...The Melody of Death.

Accompanying the text was an ominous drawing by Gold Key artist Joe Certa; a radio was in the foreground, musical notes issuing forth from its speaker, while in the background stood a woman. Her head was lowered in profound grief, face in hand, her dark hair obscuring her features. She stood alone, bereft, moved to unspeakable melancholy by what she was hearing. It was a chilling sketch, replete with shadowy portent, but it didn't do justice to the tale told by the text.

In 1933 collaborators Reszo Seress and Lazslo Javor created a song that caught the attention of their native Hungary, and not in a good way. The tune was entitled "Gloomy Sunday," and its lyrics (translated from the Hungarian) tell of a love lost to Death, and the longing for reunion that only suicide can bring -

"Sunday is gloomy, my hours are slumberless.
Dearest, the shadows I live with are numberless.
Little white flowers will never awaken you,
Not where the black coach of sorrow has taken you.
Angels have no thought of ever returning you.
Would they be angry if I thought of joining you?
Gloomy Sunday.

Gloomy is Sunday; with shadows I spend it all.
My heart and I have decided to end it all.
Soon there'll be candles and prayers that are sad, I know.
Death is no dream, for in death I'm caressing you.
With the last breath of my soul I’ll be blessing you.
Gloomy Sunday."

The song was not a success initially, but (and what follows here may very well be apocryphal) reports surfaced over the next few years of the song being linked to a number of suicides, often of a very colorful variety...a man requested an orchestra to play the song, and then went home and shot himself in the head...a woman overdosed on barbituates and was found clutching the sheet music...suicide notes were written consisting of merely the two words of the song title...and in the incident that got to me, the comic book text piece told of a young boy bicycling down the street who, having heard a panhandler whistling "Gloomy Sunday," gave the man all his money, pedaled to the nearest bridge...and threw himself in the water to drown.

Gentle reader, that scared the daylights out of me; a 1968 comic book aimed at kids was the last place you'd expect to read of another child's actual death - and by his own hand. The notion that a song could exert such a powerful thrall over an otherwise well-adjusted person shook me to my core. I resolved that day on that I would never allow myself to hear the melody...and it was a pledge that I kept for almost 16 years - that is, until I picked up a copy of former J. Geils Band frontman Peter Wolf's solo debut LP Lights Out, and there on the second side..."Gloomy Sunday." But hey, I was a college student now, it was 1984, I was a double major in Music and Theater - what harm was it gonna do? So I listened to it.


To be honest, it is indeed a very mournful tune, and in the original Hungarian it has the most haunting, ineffable impact; given the subject matter, it is easy to hear how it could have a negative effect on someone predisposed to self-destruction. However, it is also worth remembering that Hungary has traditionally had the highest suicide rate among all European countries. (Stories of the song being banned after similar suicides in the US appear to be just that - stories.) In the last 75 years there have been hundreds of cover versions, with the most notable coming from Billie Holliday (no stranger she to depressing subject matter), Sarah McLachlan, Portishead and Elvis Costello. So here, submitted for your approval, is "Gloomy Sunday" in the original Hungarian, and a cover version by the inscrutable (and Icelandic) Bjork.

Oh, and one final bit of information...composer Seress died in 1968 from - you guessed it - suicide, flinging himself off a building. Just so you know.

See you here at the Jar tomorrow. I hope.

Terror Trivia Tuesday - Boris Karloff Blogathon!

What Oscar-winning movie from the 1990s featured Boris Karloff as a character?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Boris Karloff Blogathon - February 3, 1969

Day One of the Boris Karloff Blogathon...

In the winter of 1968-69, I was in the First Grade, and my horror proclivities were well on their way to being permanently established. Thanks to my mother, I had learned to read by the tender age of two, and my first few years of school were filled with tests after tests measuring my abilities and perceptions. I'll have to make this a separate posting someday, but for now I'll just say that my teachers discovered that nothing could make me happier than to be sent to the school library, where I would pore over Edgar Allan Poe stories and volumes of short stories "edited" by Alfred Hitchcock.

I also adored comic books. Like most kids, I first acquired the Disney titles and Harvey's Richie Rich offerings, but in the summer after my kindergarten year, I discovered the darker titles; DC's anthology books to be certain, but my first purchases from the Red Owl supermarket were from the folks at Western Publishing, and their Gold Key comics line. After consulting my collection and doing some checking of dates, I can conclusively say that the first horror comic that I ever bought was Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery #23, cover dated September of 1968.

Compared with other Gold Key titles (the other two titles of their terror trinity being Ripley's Believe It or Not! and The Twilight Zone), this issue was something of an anomaly. Like the other two books, it was published quarterly (!), meaning that each issue could remain on the newsstand for three months waiting to be sold. Yet, despite such a leisurely schedule, Gold Key must have needed to do some cost-cutting about then, as the contents were mostly reprinted from the title's "first issue," when the book was launched in 1962 as a tie-in to the television series Thriller. Even the cover was duplicated, albeit with a splash of yellow behind the revised title. By the third issue, the book was christened BKToM, and it remained a fixture of the Gold Key line until the very end of the 1970s, 97 issues later.

This issue also featured the only photographic cover of the series, something that was more common in the early run of such Gold Key TV tie-ins as Star Trek, Dark Shadows and Bonanza. The comics line was noted for their sumptuous painted covers, reminiscent of the work being done for paperback books and movie posters of the time. Placed alongside the latest offerings from Marvel and DC, the Gold Key titles looked sophisticated, expensive, compositionally complex. It was very easy to lose yourself in the cover of a Gold Key comic.

I'm not sure what it was about that issue that drew me to it, but I have a vague recollection of my father, pulling out his wallet and whipping out the fifteen cents worth of magic, reinforcing the fact that, if I liked all things ghostly and ghastly, then Mr. Karloff's was a name that I would do well to know. Hence this elderly man holding a candle ushered me into a new world of comic collecting, and in the next twelve years, I never missed an issue. (That December, watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas on its second CBS repeat, Karloff's name popped out at me; here was a voice to attach to the comic drawings, and the black and white headshot that appeared on every cover.)

February 3, 1969 was a Monday morning, and the television was tuned to the
CBS Morning News (during the summer, it would remain on that channel for Captain Kangaroo one hour later). I was all dressed up and waiting for the neighbor lady to come pick me up and drive me to school, when the story moved on the screen; over the weekend, Boris Karloff passed away from pneumonia in Great Britain at the age of 81. The choice of a film clip was an odd one in retrospect - it was the waterwheel climax from 1951's The Strange Door (for years I thought my memory on this might have been a bit hazy, until I eventually saw the movie and the recollection came flooding back). No Frankenstein's monster? Or The Mummy? Nothing more recent, like from Corman's pictures? Perhaps this was all the news division could find in a pinch.

I didn't know enough at the time to ask these questions - I was merely struck. This was the first celebrity death of someone I knew, someone whose sepulchral voice was familiar to me, someone whose picture I held in my hands. Even though I only knew him from his more elderly appearance, and later
learned of the fragility of his health during his last decade, it saddened me that someone could die from something that was little more than a very bad cold. And how Ironic that a man whose stock in trade for most of his career was Death...would wind up imparting one of my earliest lessons on the subject.

This week over one hundred bloggers around the world are celebrating the 1887 birth of Karloff the Uncanny with the Boris Karloff Blogathon, and here at the Jar all my postings for the next seven days will pay homage to the man behind the monster. For those of you who are regular readers, you know that I like to post material that remains relatively uncovered by the Interweb. That may be a bit of a challenge, but I'm looking forward to it, and I'm honored to join my fellow bloggers in such a worthwhile tribute. Stop by Pierre Fournier's excellent Frankensteinia and see what the rest of the world has to say. It promises to be frightfully fun....

Saturday, November 21, 2009

DVD or Die - 1988 Edition

1988 falls in the post-slasher era, yet before the great Horror Drought of the early 90s; lots of supernatural themes, big rubbery monsters and, unfortunately, many theatrical releases that are still awaiting their digital due. Apologies - trailers for The Carpenter, The Chair, Hide and Go Shriek, Paperhouse and The Unholy either were non-existent, or resisted embedding. Let's enjoy a few of these together, shall we? (And watch for a very special appearance from Toni Basil in one!)

Blood Relations

The Brain

Deadly Dreams

Ghost Town

Heart of Midnight


Slaughterhouse Rock

To Die For

The Unnamable