May 1, 2014 | by Dave Tompkins
On reading Peter Matthiessen in the Everglades.
I first encountered Peter Matthiessen in a hurricane, with the roof-flown certainty that we’d never meet again. Just passing through, the memory blurs at 135 mph. I was in the Bahamas reading Killing Mister Watson, sweating out a Category 4, trying to concern myself with an Everglades outlaw who produced excellent cane syrup and, in the wake of his murder, a bunch of conflicting yarn-burners. I only made it through the beginning, apparently no further than E. J. Watson himself, ventilated by thirty-three neighborly slugs upon stepping off his boat and into his own lore. This just after the hurricane of 1910 had wasted Chokoloskee. Announced by a comet, the storm upchucked the marl, catapulted Watson’s infant son through the mangroves, and, as Matthiessen had it, “blew the color right out of the world.”
My hurricane merely blew the color out of the TV. With an earful of low-pressure williwaw, I had problems getting all those Watson thoughts inside my head, preparing to duck shard as the windows bowed, wondering if the author’s next word would be my last. Kind of a morbid, if not meteorologic, approach to one’s literature, imagining the final line that accompanies you and your velocity into the whateverafter, joining LeQuinn Bass (last words: “Well, shit”), the Owl Man of Deep Wood (“Finish it”), Belle Starr (a screech—she was shot in the back, off her horse), and whomever else Bloody Watson managed to ether before it was all said and blown away. The last thing you’d want to read should be the first. Read More »
September 9, 2013 | by Dave Tompkins
In 1977, O. J. Simpson thought he was going to Mars. Instead he was kidnapped and taken to synthetic Mars, staged at a CIA base somewhere in New Mexico. Or Arizona. Wherever. The American public bought it, just as they believed O. J. Simpson could be an astronaut. The transmission from Mars was all a conspiracy, project-managed by Hal Holbrook and NASA in the film Capricorn One. Accompanied by James Brolin and the assistant DA from Law & Order, Simpson escaped this fraudulent Mars in a Lear jet, only to crash-land in the desert. Last time we’d seen James Brolin in the desert, he was gunned down by Yul Brenner in Westworld, astonished that the Russian cowboy-robot was using real bullets. This time Brolin is rescued by Telly Savalas in a crop duster. The assistant DA from Law & Order isn’t so lucky. Nor is O. J. I remember Simpson’s eyebrows being full of sand upon realizing the birds in the sky were really helicopters.
I may have writer’s block. It’s not all spaceman in the trashcan as one would imagine. (One would imagine nothing, I’d think. And I would think, if I didn’t have writer’s block, or indulge in a hopeless tautology.) But I have been thinking about O. J. on Mars with sand in his eyebrows, rather than, say, geo-acoustic mapping, torpedoes, and swamp outlaws—the real concerns of my unfinished future. Read More »
June 10, 2013 | by Dave Tompkins
Skeletons seem to be preternaturally deft swordsmen. This one is giving Sinbad all he can handle, at one point throwing its shield like a Frisbee. It’s a roadhouse move, executed with zing and grimace. Sinbad ducks and the shield crashes into the evil sorcerer’s lab, causing a model dinosaur to take a header off the top shelf.
This scene from 1958’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was created by Ray Harryhausen, a special-effects pioneer who recently died, at the age of ninety-two. Only in this lost world could a model Sauropoda look faker than a skeleton wielding a scimitar. The realness was in the time and dedication that went into letting that shield fly, its rotation not unlike the UFO that Harryhausen drunkenly crashed into the Capitol two years earlier in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. While destroying national landmarks makes for a good time, stop-motion animation also demands archeological patience. A mere shoofly of a skeleton’s wrist can equal a full day’s work. For Harryhausen, a little boy’s “dinosaur phase” evolved into a lifetime of endless adjustments and clicks, a shot for every move and turn. One of his biggest challenges and triumphs was activating Medusa’s snake perm in Clash of the Titans (1981), not to mention the instant ossification induced by her stink-eye. Harryhausen would also embellish the legend: Medusa as a graceful archer with snake arrows was as myth-busting to me as a Kraken showing up in a movie without tentacles. Read More »
December 21, 2012 | by Dave Tompkins
What’s Christmas without some ancient demons embedded in the chimney? On the evening of December 25, 1972, BBC viewers celebrated the birth of Christ by being scared to death. They learned that their homes could be resonating with discarnate traumas absorbed over centuries, that the limestone walls have been listening, recording, and screaming—and that the ghost of Christmas past had been using their minds as its personal VCR. Scripted by Nigel Kneale, The Stone Tape is about a British electronics company who’s in a race to beat Japan to a super washing machine and a groundbreaking recording medium based on the “magnetic susceptibility” of certain minerals and their capacity to retain terrible memories. Holed up in a Victorian mansion, the team of bickering scientists working for Ryan Electronics would discover that haunting was a new form of playback. Merry Christmas.
Kneale had grown up on the Isle of Man, home to a mongoose named Gef who could prove his own existence in six different languages, including Russian and Arabic. Kneale’s imagination flourished in television, a medium with a reputation for killing souls. His teleplays seemed intent on trying to out-weird each other: a taxidermist gets stuffed by a pond of vengeful toads; a man is choked to death by his own bike wreckage; a porn cinema is haunted by dolphins. He also gave us titles like “Vegetable Village,” “Clog-Dance for a Dead Farce,” and “The Big Big Giggle.” One of my favorite Kneale shows involves a frumpy supermarket cashier who enlists the store mascot—a woodchuck called Briteway Billy—to wage telekinetic war against her tyrant boss, pummeling him to death with nonperishable canned goods. How many soup cans can a supermarket woodchuck ghost hurl?
November 5, 2012 | by Dave Tompkins
The Invisible Man, neat freak by design, was known to fuss over the grit beneath his fingernails. According to British horror historian Denis Gifford, dirt threatened transparency. In A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, Gifford sees “a pair of disembodied trousers skipping down the lane to ‘Here We Come Gathering Nuts in May.’” The hands are clean.
For Gifford, the devil was in the details, if not in all of us: “We who came to stare only see ourselves.” Or through ourselves. He notes the shabbiness of Mr. Hyde’s tailcoat, and the yak-hair transplants on the Wolfman’s face. Also important: “a sinister sofa,” controlled by an underground switchboard operated by a man in a wig. And Frankenstein’s homunculus, taken out by a falling crossbeam no fewer than four times in his film career.
These images were filtered through words I’d just discovered. Until last week, I had never actually read the most important book of my childhood. The text had gone unseen. My mother had given A Pictorial History of Horror Movies to my brothers as a Christmas gift in 1973. She still cheerily refers to it as “that book with the girl with the hatchet in her head.” I was forbidden to read it but was never told I couldn’t look at it. Read More »
September 17, 2012 | by Dave Tompkins
The half-mouse—the good half, the half equipped with a smell memory validated by neuroscience, the half mortally known as the half that never saw it coming—shot across the kitchen floor, headed due west with a decent but final glimpse of the front yard. The back half landed somewhere near the sink.
My brother had split the mouse in two with a nine-iron. According to witnesses at the scene, the creature’s separation was cartoonishly neat. I recall thinking this was a flawed method of pest control for someone with no short game to speak of. The linoleum gopher hump that rose from my grandparents’ kitchen floor—a distortion from water damage—did place the moment in a Goony Golf warp. But from my understanding, the murder was more reflex than act of cruelty. It wasn’t like my brother teed up and put the mouse through a window. (I imagine a similar instinct overtaking him the time he allegedly potato-slammed a palmetto bug on the kitchen counter, knocking it out of its exoskeleton, quivering.) He just grabbed the first thing within reach—a legendary chemistry teacher’s nine-iron—and let the mouse have it. Having once hurled a toaster oven at a cockroach, I can relate.