Mike Segretto: The Bride of Trash
On a recent visit to Eastbourne, home of the staid and retired, I noticed, out of a corner of my eye, a poster for Circus of Horrors. Aha, I thought -- remembering the 1960 film of that name -- that poster can't have been there for 45 years, so someone remembers the old thing with affection. It must have become a cult movie.
The movie was, incidentally, written by George Baxt, who came to London to do the job. I was introduced to him, by a mutual friend, in the interval of Brendan Behan's The Hostage at Wyndham's Theatre. Baxt was an entirely commercial writer -- not a literary bone in him -- but he produced some entertaining stuff in his time.
On the other hand... maybe what I saw, had I paused to examine it more closely, would have proved to be a poster not for the original film but for a touring show which calls itself the Circus of Horrors. Judging by its web site, the show is inspired by the film. (And, now that I look at the web site, I see that the show was due to call at Eastbourne on 26 January.)
But I digress. Sort of. The fact is that the film, the touring show, and Mike Segretto's book all belong in the same tradition. The genre of trash horror, aimed at a low common denominator. Decent, well-brought-up people, people who know how to eat with their mouths shut, would never be seen dead buying a ticket for a circus of horrors -- in whatever medium. Although come to think of it, the living dead might be found in the queue.
Mike Segretto's book, in short, is not likely to have been produced over three years on an MFA degree. It is more likely to have been battered out, at least in part, after a beery evening spent with pals and a pile of old videos.
The story, basically, is that Wizzer Whale, a sort of drunken layabout come junk dealer, finds a headless body in the back yard. It is the body of a woman, and he falls in love with her. I will quote from the blurb: 'The problem is that after the corpse becomes reanimated by an ancient curse, it displays a distressing taste for blood. Before long, Wizzer and his monstrous bride are being pursued by a raging mob, an unstoppable TV reporter, and a homicidally jealous puppet.'
Well that's fair enough. It's all in remarkably bad taste, and your mother certainly wouldn't like it. I liked it enough to finish it. Mr Segretto has a agreeably loose and readable style (as do all these Contemporary Press guys; maybe it's infectious).
By the way, there is a reference on page 32 of this book to an actress called Karen Jamey, who played the creature in a series of Monster Lake movies. This is further proof, should any be needed, that Karen Jamey's memoirs (see yesterday) are, as she says, 110% accurate.
Tony O'Neill: Digging the Vein
Now I have to admit that I am not best qualified to judge this book. The vein referred to, as you have probably come to expect, is the vein that the junkie (is that word hopelessly out of date?) searches for in his anxiety to plunge the needle. And, since I have never so much as smoked a spliff (which is, if I am not out of date again) an English term for a marijuana cigarette, then, as I say, I am not really qualified to determine whether this is a good book of its kind or not. (Mine has been a very sheltered life, as you may recall from previous admissions of same.) But that Digging the Vein is a very good book, in the judgement of one non-addicted person, that I can certainly testify. It is well written and it tells its story economically and effectively.
What tradition is this one in? Well, I guess one forerunner is Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an Opium Eater. Which I haven't read. Then there's William Burroughs's first book, Junkie, which I read when it first appeared in the UK, nearly fifty years ago. (The book was published [as written by 'William Lee'] by Digit Books according to the British Library, 1957. But my copy was from Ace Books, which originally published it in the US in 1953. So did Digit import a few copies, or what??? But I digress; again.)
Junkie was a perfectly straightforward book, and very well written in my view. It is described (e.g. by the Wikipedia article on Burroughs) as a novel, but it was clearly based on first-hand experience. The world, however, was a much simpler place in the 1940s and '50s, even for those who came to depend on drugs. And so (if I remember correctly) the descriptions of drug-taking in Junkie are very mild compared with those in Digging the Vein.
I don't think, with the best will in the world, that I could describe Digging the Vein as a fun read. Pages 187 to 190 for instance, constitute as bleak a picture of the drug addict's life as you would ever wish to read.
There are moments of humour in this book, assuredly, but overall it is a serious and, frankly, slightly depressing piece of work. The first-person narrator, by the way, is an English keyboard player making a life (? or death) for himself in Los Angeles. At one point, he finds himself playing with the Electric Kool-Aid, a band which rang a bell even with me. Try Tom Wolfe for details.
I had to loosen my jeans to get a working vein, a long blue one running up the outside of my left thigh. I noticed Genesis rolling her top down, exposing one white tit to the daylight. I watched her silently as she appraised her breast in the same way that a butcher might examine a piece of fresh meat for imperfections. Then, finding her spot, she squeezed the flesh hard with her left hand and slowly slid the needle in... 'Its the goddamn crank,' she explained. 'Fucks your veins up real quick. God knows what those bastards mix it with.'
As usual, I went looking for an author's web wite at this point, and found one. It turns out that, like his narrator, Tony O'Neill is an English keyboard player who went to LA and had his career 'derailed by heroin addiction, quickie marriages and crack abuse. While kicking methadone he started writing about his experiences on the periphery of the Hollywood Dream and he has been writing ever since.'
This is not a surprise. And those who are in search of a subject for PhD thesis could have a whale of a time figuring out whether Tony O'Neill's novel is more closely related to the actual events of his life than James Frey's famous book relates to his.
Of the three Contemporary Press books that I have read, and written about today and yesterday, this is much the most 'important', if you follow me. It is also, I suspect, in some mysterious way, the 'best written'. But it is also the least enjoyable. Go figure. If you ring me up in ten years' time (should I still be answering the phone) and tell me that this book has become a classic of its genre, then I shan't be in the least bit astonished.