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Saturday, March 5, 2011

LIFE-SIZE PAPER MACHE TIGERS FROM LONDON: A Night With Tom Monteleone, Paul Wilson, and Stuart David Schiff: Part II


Where do I even begin?

Whatever I say in this post, rest assured -  my words can't adequately describe my experience.  At all.  But, as I'm a writer I'm bound to try, so here we go...

Last week Tom Moneteleone and Paul Wilson visited Seton to workshop with my Creative Writing students.  Though a snow cancellation cut us a day short, we had a marvelous time, and I'm pretty sure that for several of my students, Tom and Paul opened the door to fiction  just a bit wider.

Their first night in Binghamton, Tom and Paul invited me to hang out.  That in itself blew me away.  I mean - they're tremendously friendly, giving, wonderful guys anyway - but even so.   That they thought of me means the world, especially because, in Paul's words, he'd said to Tom before calling me: "Gotta get Kevin over here.  He'd love this."

They were visiting Stuart David Schiff, editor of the legendary Whispers horror/sci fi/fantasy anthologies (of which before then I'd only heard "whispers" about).  It never ceases to amaze me how many genre figures hide out in Binghamton.  Of course, as the hometown of Rod Serling, that makes sense, I suppose.

Anyway.  Stuart is not only a former editor, but a collector extraordinaire.  And that doesn't even do the man justice.  Over the years, he's jammed his basement full of collectibles, so many, it boggles the mind.

The captain's chair from the original Enterprise.  And one from a Klingon warship.  And those were two of his minor pieces.  I can't, I simply CAN'T put into words what I saw that evening.  Original prints of movie posters. Tomes of weird fiction by authors I'd only barely heard of.  Figurines.  LIFE-SIZE PAPER MACHE TIGERS FROM LONDON.  Original studio horror props.


The biggest treat of the night was sharing WONDERFUL Chinese from a place in my own town I've never heard of - Moon Star - and listening to Tom and Paul and David reminisce on the genre's early says, their own careers, and everything under the sun concerning writing, publishing, horror, fantasy, and science fiction.

Tom and Paul repeatedly apologized, worried they were "waxing philosophical" and "boring the hell out of me" (an approximation of Tom's words).  They needn't have worried.  They weren't boring me.  Far from it.  They were totally, completely, taking me to school.

Faced with a basement full of absolute genre and even cultural memorabilia gold, and enthralled by their stories, I realized two very humbling, awesome things:

1. I knew next to NOTHING of genre fiction's history

2. I had virtually no genre heritage of my own.  Not as rich as theirs, anyway.

I'm not sure why this is.  I've spent the whole week thinking about it, and I still don't think I've come up with a complete answer, only these fragments.

I grew up in a fairly regimented, disciplined Baptist home.  Dad served as a deacon and church superintendent for many years.  Back then, I thought he was the worst type of tyrant possible.  Several years later I realized he actually did a pretty good job walking the fine line, keeping things balanced at a happy medium.

And also, he just wasn't into genre fiction.  He's a facts and figures and documentaries sorta of guy.  We've always been voracious readers, Dad and I. We devour books.  Him nonfiction, myself fiction.  

I always kid him, though, that he only has himself to blame for my fascination with the "weird".  In junior high HE bought me my first collection of genre novels, a box set of Five-Year Mission Star Trek novels.  He laments his gift to this very day, to great comedic effect.

Also to be considered: we grew up in the country.    Not in the boonies, but definitely outside town.  No comic shops or book stores for me to walk to.  A country store called "The Bread & Butter" sat up the hill from school, but I rarely got up there to scope out their comics.  Maybe because they also stocked Playboy and Penthouse.  I'm sure Dad knew this.  He's a pretty sharp guy, although he shouldn't have worried.  They taped those darn covers shut pretty tightly...




Anyway.   They had comics at the MALL in the CITY, and during my teen years in the grocery stores we visited once a week (our weekly big trip into the city).  For many years, I subsisted entirely on those, especially in college.  The mall used to have this store called The Reader's Island.    

During college I'd take the bus there, sit in the back, camp out and read for hours.  Also, one of my aunts always bought me a comic subscription every year for my birthday.  Star Wars one year.  G. I. Joe the next.  They did get me Conan the Barbarian one year, but that quickly disappeared for some reason (I suspect this had more to do with the scantily-clad women than the sorcery). 

Something else about the eighties that may or may not be my memory playing tricks on me: the kid shows and cartoons and things like that became very "commercialized" over time (Smurfs, Transformers, Go-Bots, My Little Pony, He-Man, G. I. Joe etc.).   But maybe commercialization has always been there.

I do remember some really bizarre cartoons like Blackstar.  That's the one I have the most vivid memories of being really strange, weird, and absolutely addicting.  Was it science fiction?  Fantasy?  Horror?  Whatever it was, I remember being amazed, and - maybe playing into that whole commercialism thing, it only lasted for a year.  A shame.  

By comparison, another "weird" show I loved was Dungeons & Dragons, which lasted about four years - but the existence of the role-playing game probably helped with that.  Another show that was very cool - and had decent show/toy/comic book marketing angle - but only lasted about a year was Thundercats.

So I suppose I have a heritage.   I didn't have Weird Tales or EC Comics (how wonderful that would've been!), but I had (now, don't laugh) The Hardy Boys.  Scooby-Doo, (the real one WITHOUT Scrappy), and even though that always ended with Bitter Old Mr. Withers in a mask, trying to steal an inheritance that "rightfully belonged to him", Scooby still served up some chills, especially for elementary-school me.   

And I ABSOLUTELY remember the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series.  They may not seem that terrifying, but I read WAY out of my age range, so I was pretty young when I found those.  They wigged me out.  Seriously.

And I loved every minute of it.

Nostalgia surely plays a large part in this. Maybe I find my "genre heritage" lacking compared to what I saw last week because not enough time has passed for me to "remember" the stuff I grew up on (does that make any sense?)  Even still feels like something's missing.   Maybe the "Golden Age" of Science Fiction and Fantasy and Horror WAS better.  More... substantial.   WEIRDER.  More fantastic.

Or maybe it's just the passage of time.  I still don't know.  What I DO know is Tom and Paul educated me in the best possible genre matters last week, recommended authors and collections that I've already got ordered (two Whispers anthologies are on the way, VIA Amazon), and today I'm totally crashing the used book store down the road on the way back from writing.  

Looks like I'm going back to school.  Need to get all my materials....


  1. Kevin:

    trust me, Paulie and I had a great time hanging with you and Stu Schiff when we were up for the Seton Catholic boot camp. I was a privilege for us to tell you some of the stuff we were lucky enough to witness and share some war stories about some of the old genre vets like Lieber and Bloch. You will be picking up the torch soon and running with it, and we couldn't have found a better brother in the battle against semi-literate mookery that passes for pop culture these days.

    Tom M.

  2. Tom -

    You honor and humble me sir. And the best thing is being able to call both you and Paul friends. Thanks for everything, and see you are around the circuit!

  3. My god, this is a school I want to attend! Think my head would simply asplode, SCANNERS-style, upon seeing all of Schiff's weird fiction collection...