Too Short A Death

By Peter Crowther

(From his up-and-coming collection from Cemetery Dance; THINGS I DIDNT KNOW MY FATHER KNEW)

Hey…hey!’ The man on the stage was trying to make himself hear, laughing while he was doing it and waving his hands conspiratorially, as though he were Billy Crystal in the Mr. Saturday Night movie. But the sound that he was trying to drown out was not the sound of people enjoying him but rather of them enjoying each other or their food or their drinks.

‘Yeah, Hillary Clinton.’ The man frowned and shook his hand as though he had picked up something that was too hot to hold. ‘You heard…you heard Bill wants six more secret service agents assigned to her, yeah? Well,’ he reasoned with a shrug, ‘after all, if anything happened to her, he’d have to become President.’

In humor terms, it was one step—a small one—up from Take my wife…please! but somebody let out a loud guffaw and David MacDonald turned around on his seat to see who it had been. At one of the tables over by the coat racks two men were laughing, but it was clearly not at Jack Rilla.

‘Thanks, Don,’ Jack Rilla shouted into his microphone. ‘My brother Don,’ he added for the audience’s benefit. ‘Nice boy.’

The man at the table—who was clearly no relation to the comedian—turned to face the stage and gave Jack Rilla the bird, receiving a warm burst of applause.

Macdonald had never enjoyed seeing somebody die on stage, so he turned back to his food.

He was enjoying the anonymity. All the effete photographers and the snot-nosed journos had gone, taken up their cameras and their tape recorders and walked. Gone back to the city.

He was no longer news. “The most innovative poet of his generation”, The New York Times had trilled, mentioning—in the 18-paragraph, front page lead devoted to his quest—the names of early pioneers such as William Carlos Williams, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and Ezra Pound; Kenneth Fearing, to whom they attached the appellation “The Ring Lardner of American verse”; the so-called war poets, including Richard Eberhart, Randall Jarrell, and Karl Shapiro—the Pulitzer winner whose “Auto Wreck” had been widely (and wrongly!) cited as the inspiration behind MacDonald’s own “The Downer”, and even some of the Black Mountain College graduates, in particular Robert Creely and the college’s head honcho, Charles Olson. This latter ‘revelation’ enabled the hack responsible for the piece to tie it all back again to Williams and Pound, who, with their respective paeons “Patterson” and “Cantos”, were commonly regarded as being among the North Carolina college’s—and particularly Olson’s—chief inspirations.

A neat job, but, in the main, entirely wrong.

MacDonald loved e. e. cummings, born a generation after Williams but infinitely more eloquent in his embrace of nature and naturalness and, to the end, delightfully, whimsical. Similarly, he preferred Carl Sandburg—whose “Limited” he had used in its entirety (all six lines!) as the frontispiece to Walton Flats, a surreal and fabulous  (in the true sense of the word) novel-length tale of godhood and redemption which he had written in collaboration with Jimmy Lovegrove—to the Runyonesque Kenneth Fearing. And as for the “war poets”, Macdonald rated Randall Jarrell above all the others—Shapiro and his “V-Letter” included—even to the point of learning Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” when he was only twelve years old.

When it came to open verse, MacDonald settled for the Beats—Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti in particular—over the inferior Black Mountain scribes, a fact which seemingly never ceased to amaze the self-styled poetry pundits. But it was their amazement that so astonished MacDonald, just as it astonished him now how nobody seemed to give credit to the “Harlem Renaissance” and the fine work produced in the field of poetry by the likes of Etheridge Knight (of course), plus forerunners of the stature of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, and contempories such as Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez. As much as anyone—if not more than, in many cases—these writers, in MacDonald’s opinion, were fundamental in recording the consciousness of a country at odds with itself, as he had gone to great pains to explain to a surprised David Letterman on live television a little over three years ago. Quoting the final few lines from Giovanni’s “Nikki-Rosa”—in which the poet comments on the patronizing of the whites—MacDonald took great relish in Letterman’s damp forehead.

Sitting at the bar, MacDonald recalled the piece.

‘…I really hope that no white person ever has cause to write about me because they never understand Black love is Black wealth and they’ll probably talk about my hard childhood and never understand that all the while I was quite happy.’

But the attention he had received in the press the following day was nothing to the coverage afforded his bold announcement that he was to forgo the novel on which he was working and, instead, go in search of Weldon Kees.

That was almost a year ago now.

The newspapers and the magazines had all followed: followed him to dry California towns, tracked him into the wastes of New Mexico, dogged his footsteps into the inhospitable Texas plains and now, back in the sleepy Nebraskan township of Beatrice, they had grown bored. After all, a fanatic is only of interest so long as she either looks like succeeding or looks like dying. Simple failure just isn’t news.

Now no flashbulbs flashed as he walked still another dust-blown, night-time Main Street in some godforsaken town, in its own way just one more boil on the fat backside of indulgence, a lazy, going-nowhere/seen-nothing grouping of weatherworn buildings and choked-up autos clustered around an obligatory general store and wooden-floored bar…with maybe a railroad track where no trains stopped any more thrown in for good measure.

Now no microphones were jammed between his mouth and some under- or overcooked indigenous delicacy as he continued his quest even through physical replenishment. Sometimes the questions had been more rewarding than the food. But the answers he gave were always the same, and the novelty had plain worn off.

Beatrice, Nebraska. A small, slow, company town lacerated by railroad tracks and gripped for eleven months of the year by permafrost or heat wave.

This was where he had started and, now, this was where it all ended. It was the latest—and, MacDonald now believed, the last—stop on this particular tour. Eleven months in the wilderness was enough for any man: Even Moses only spent forty days, for Crissakes.

Whitman’s America had come to a dead-end on the shores of the Pacific and, like the land itself, rolled lazily down to the waterline seeing only oblivion. MacDonald was tired. Tired of honky-tonk bars where he would search through a maze of good ol’ boys and raunchy women, rubbing against tattoos and beer bellies, straining to see and hear through cigarette smile and jukebox rhythms, carrying home with him the secondhand, hybrid musk of sweat and cheap perfume; tired of the revivalist espresso houses in the Village, where he would search through intense poets and poetesses, all wearing only dark colors and frowns, the de rigeur uniform. They, like him, searching, always searching.

He pushed the plate forward on the table, the meal unfinished. It had been a bean-bedecked and fat-congealed mush that maybe could have passed for gumbo if he’d been about 1,500 miles to the southwest. He wiped his mouth across a napkin from a pile on the corner of the bar, their edges yellowed with age, and noted the faded photograph of a town square with picket fences that wouldn’t have been out of place in an Archie comic book or a Rockwell painting. He’d walked through that town square—in reality, little more than a pause for breath between developments in what was merely a typical Nebraskan suburb—to get to the bar in which he was now sitting. There had been no sign of the picket fence.

Just like Rockwell himself, it was long gone. But he had seen from the swinging racks in the drugstore that Archie was still around, though his hair was longer now. Nothing stays the same forever. Maybe this town had been Rockwell once, but now it was Hopper, filled up with aimless people like Jack Rilla, the unfunny comedian, all living aimless lives, staring unsmiling out of seedy rooming house windows at the telegraph poles and their promise of distance.

Weldon Kees, where are you? he thought.

The bartender slouched over to him and lifted up the plate quizzically. ‘No good?’ he said, his jowls shaking to the movement of his mouth.

MacDonald frowned and shook his head, rubbing his stomach with both hands. ‘Au contraire,’ he said, effecting an English accent, ‘merely that you are too generous with your portions.’

The bartender narrowed his eyes. ‘Aw what?’

‘He said you gave him too much.’

MacDonald turned in the direction of the voice to see a man in his early forties chasing an olive around a highball glass with a tiny yellow, plastic sword. The man looked like a movie star from the late fifties/early sixties, like maybe Tony Curtis or someone like that. He wore a plaid sportscoat, oxford button-down with a red-and-green striped necktie, and black pants rucked up at the knees to preserve two of the sharpest creases MacDonald had ever seen. Covering his feet, which rested lazily on the rail of his stool, were a pair of heavily polished Scotch grain shoes and, within them, a pair of gaudy argyle socks. MacDonald’s eyes took it all in and then drifted back to the glass. There was no liquid in it. He hadn’t noticed the man before, but then he wouldn’t have. The bar was crowded to capacity, a good turnout for the amateur talent night promised on a rash of handbills pasted around the town.

The bartender nodded and, with another puzzled glance at MacDonald, he turned around and slid the plate across the serving hatch. ‘Empties!’ he shouted.

MacDonald swizzled the plastic palm tree in his club soda, twisted around on his seat and smiled. ‘Thanks. You want that freshened?’

The man turned to him and gave him a long, studied look, taking in MacDonald’s plain gray jacket and pants, green, soft-collared sport shirt buttoned all the way to the neck, and nodded. ‘Yeah, why not, thanks. Vodka martini. On the rocks. Thanks again.’

MacDonald raised his hand a few inches off the bar, and the bartender acknowledged with a short nod that looked more like a physical affliction.

‘You here for the competition?’

MacDonald took a long drink and put his own glass back onto the bar. ‘That’s right. You?’

‘In a way,’ he said. ‘But really only to enjoy the efforts of others. I’m actually a performer myself.’ The strange and self-knowing smile suggested hidden complexities in the statement.

MacDonald nodded and glanced at the stage, ignoring the opportunities to probe. At this stage of the journey he had had it with barroom confessions. Jack Rilla was telling a story about three men from different countries being sentenced to die…but being given a choice of the method of their execution. It was horrible.

‘How about you?’ the man said. ‘Are you a performer?’

‘There’s some that might say so,’ MacDonald replied, grateful to be able to turn away from what Jack Rilla was doing to stand-up comedy.

‘What do you do?’

‘I write poetry.’

‘That so?’ The interest seemed genuine.

MacDonald nodded again and drained his glass as a crackly fanfare of trumpets sounded across the PA system to signal the end of the comedian. Nobody seemed to be clapping.

Turning around so they could watch the small stage at the end of the adjoining room, they saw a fat man with a Stetson starting to announce the next act. By his side were two younger men holding guitars and shuffling nervously from one foot to the other. The fat man led the half-hearted applause and backed away to the edge of the stage. The duo took a minute or so to tune their instruments and then lurched uneasily into a nasal rendition of ‘Blowin’ In The Wind.’

MacDonald shook his head and held up the empty glass to the bartender, who had apparently forgotten them and had now taken to slouching against the back counter. ‘Refills over here,’ he shouted. The bartender lumbered over and refilled the glasses, all the while mouthing the words to the song. MacDonald took a sip of the soda.

‘Not too good, huh?’ the stranger said.

‘The service or the entertainment?’

The man jerked his head at the stage.

‘I’ve heard better,’ MacDonald said. ‘It’s probably safe to say that Dylan’ll sleep easy.’

The man smiled and nodded. ‘I knew a poet once,’ he said.

‘Yeah?’

‘Uh-huh.’ He lifted the glass and drained it in one perfectly fluid motion. MacDonald recognized the art of serious drinking…drinking purely to forget or to remember. He had watched somebody he used to know quite well doing just the same thing over a couple of years…watched him in a thousand bar mirrors. He called those his wilderness years. The man set the glass down again and cleared his throat. ‘What kind of poetry you write?’

‘Kind? It’s just poetry.’

‘The rhyming kind?’

MacDonald gave a half-nod. ‘Sometimes,’ he said. ‘Depends on how I feel.’

The pair of troubadours finished up their first song, receiving a smattering of applause, and launched immediately into another. This one was their own. It showed.

MacDonald reached into his pocket and pulled out the plastic button. The number on it was 23. He looked at the board at the side of the stage: beneath the number 22 was a piece of wipe-off card bearing the legend Willis and Dobbs.

While Willis and Dobbs crooned about some truck driver whose wife had left him for another woman—modern times!—a small group of four men and two women chatted animatedly at the table right down in front of the stage. A tall spindle of metal stood proud in the table center and boasted the word JUDGES. They didn’t seem to be talking about Willis and Dobbs. Maybe it was just that they didn’t like country music.

Willis and Dobbs finished their song almost in unison and bowed while the audience applauded and whistled with relief. As the duo shuffled off the stage, the fat man with the Stetson shuffled on the other side, also applauding. As the fat man reached the microphone, MacDonald took another swig of the club soda and slid off his stool. ‘Wish me luck,’ he said to the stranger.

The man looked around. ‘You on now? Hey, break a leg,’ he said, slapping MacDonald on the arms as he walked past him.

The usual nervousness was there. It was always there. He made his way through the people standing up in the bar section and then walked down the two steps to the adjoining room where he threaded his way among the tables to the stage. All the time he walked he was memorizing the lines, though he knew them by heart. He reached the stage as the fat man told the audience to give a big hand to Davis MacDonald.  The timing was impeccable.

He walked over to the microphone and nodded to the room, raising his hand in greeting. ‘Hi there,’ he said.

A smattering of nods and waves and mumbled returns acknowledged him. The man at the bar had turned full around on his stool to watch him. He raised his glass—which MacDonald saw had been replenished—and nodded. MacDonald nodded back. Then he faced the audience and lifted one finger to his mouth.

As always, the silence was almost immediate. It flowed over and around the people sitting at the tables, flowed through and into them, touching their insides and calming their heads. The only way you could recite poetry and feel it—whether reading it yourself or listening to it being read by others—was to do it in silence. After all, whoever heard of a painter painting onto a canvas that already had something on it?

There were a few nervous shuffles as MacDonald paced from one side of the stage to the other, his hands thrust deep into his pants pocket. At last, satisfied that this was as good as it was going to get, he removed the micro-phone, pointed over the heads of the onlookers to some impossible distance, and began.

‘She’s down!

‘Like a wounded mammoth, her body sags

and, across the sidewalk,

in a shower of fabled jewels,

she spills the contents of her bags.

‘The empty street becomes alive

with do-gooders, tourists and passersby,

all holding breath.

Transfixed, and with mouths agape,

they see her features lighten under death

while, alongside,

the treasures once so richly cherished—

a loaf, some toothpaste, matches, relish—

lie discarded on the paving slabs.



‘And ooohs and aaahs, the silence stabs.

‘It takes some time but, action done,

the audience turns away its eye and,

with a thought as though of one.

thinks there one day goes I.’

On the final line, MacDonald turned his back on the audience, walked slowly back to the microphone stand and replaced the microphone. A smattering of applause broke out around the tables. MacDonald nodded and raised his hand, mouthing the words thank you, thank you. He caught sight of the man at the bar. He looked as though he had seen a ghost.

After ‘The Downer,’ MacDonald recited his ‘Ode To the City.’

‘Beneath the legends of the stars

the drunks cry out in a thousand bars

while pushers prowl in speeding cars...

civilization is never far in the city.

‘Bronchitic winos cough up more phlegm

to mouth the glassy teat again,

and venereal ladies stalk the concrete glens...

though love has long since left the city.



‘The neons wink cold, thoughtless lies,

to flood the dark and strain the eyes,

while the flasher opens wide his flies...

because nothing hides inside the city.’

MacDonald lifted the microphone from the stand again and walked across to the left of the stage.

‘Smoke-bred cancers maim the flesh,

the addict chokes his vein to strike the next

while the abortionist clears away the mess...

as all life dies within the city.


‘The dropouts pass around the joint

and the rapist hammers home his point,

but the suicide doth himself anoint

in the fetid, stagnant waters of the city.


‘The kidnapper pastes together a note

and then binds his charge with silken rope

while frantic parents give us hope...

which so long ago left the city.’

And now, as ever, the audience was his.

“In Mendaala When It Rains” came next, followed by “Dear Diary” and “Conversation”. Then MacDonald paused and, unfastening the top button of his sport shirt, sat down on the front edge of the stage. ‘I want to finish up now with a couple of poems written by a man I never met,’ he said, the words coming softly, ‘but who I feel I’ve known all of my life.’

‘This man stole from us. He stole something which we possessed without even realizing…something which we could never replace. The thing he took from us…was himself.’ He shrugged out of his jacket and dropped it in a pile at his side. ‘On July twentieth, nineteen fifty-five, Harry Weldon Kees, one of your…’ he pointed, sweeping his outstretched arm across the audience, ‘…your town’s…most famous sons—disappeared from the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge.

‘He left…he left many things behind him—not least a fifty-five Plymouth with the keys still in the ignition—but the worst things that he left were holes.’

The faces in the audience looked puzzled.

‘Those holes, ladies and gentlemen,’ MacDonald went on, ‘were the spaces that he would have filled with his poetry. Yes, he was a poet, Weldon Kees, and I’m here…here tonight, in Beatrice, Nebraska…his hometown…at the tail end of what has been almost a year-long search for him. Because, back in nineteen fifty-five, Weldon’s body was never found. And because there have been some stories that he is still alive…somewhere out there. And if that’s true, then I felt I had to find him.’ He stood up, shrugged, and said, ‘Well, I tried.’

‘Weldon…wherever you are…these are for you.’

Reciting from heart, as he did with all of his “readings”, Davis MacDonald recounted Kees’ “Aspects Of Robinson” and, to finish, “Late Evening Song”.

‘For a while

Let it be enough:

The responsive smile,

Through effort goes into it.

Across the warm room

Shared in candlelight,

This look beyond shame,

Possible now, at night,

Goes out to yours.

Hidden by day

And shaped by fires

Grown dead, gone gray,

That burned in other rooms I knew

Too long ago to mark.

It forms again. I look at you

Across those fires and the dark.’

‘Thank you, ladies and gentlemen…thank you for listening to me.’ MacDonald replaced the microphone and ran from the stage, leaving tumultuous applause behind and around him.

When he got back to the bar and slumped onto his stool, he saw that the man next to him was nursing his drink in his hands and his head tilted back, staring into the long but narrow angled mirror above the bar. MacDonald followed his stare and saw it all then: the bar, the back of the bartender’s head as he moved by, the man’s highball glass, and himself staring. But there was no reflection of the man himself.

He turned around quickly, mouth open, to stare right into the man’s face and saw immediately that he had been crying.

‘I’m Robinson,’ he said. ‘A friend of Weldon Kees.’

MacDonald looked back at the mirror and shook his head. Then he looked back at the man and said, ‘How do you do that?’

‘You tell a good story in your poems,’ he said. ‘I have a story, also, though I’m no weaver of words like you and Harry.’

MacDonald slumped his elbows on the bar. ‘I think I need a drink.’

The man stood up and straightened his jacket. ‘Come on, you can have one back at my place.’

‘Is…is Weldon Kees still alive?’

‘No.’

‘Did he die that night?’ Did he jump off the bridge?’

The man shook his head. ‘Let’s go. I’ll explain on the way.’

When they left the bar, the sidewalks were wet and shiny, reflecting shimmering neon signs and window displays. As they walked, MacDonald could also see his own malformed shape in the puddles but not that of the man who walked beside him. ‘I think I’m going mad,’ he said.

The man gave out a short, sharp laugh. ‘No, you’re not.’

MacDonald turned to him and grabbed hold of the arm in the plaid jacket—

Robinson in Glen plaid jacket, Scotch grain shoes,

Black four-in-hand and oxford button-down

The words of the poem he had just recited hit him suddenly and he pulled his hand back as though he had been burned. ‘How can you be Robinson? Robinson would have to be—’ He thought for a moment. He’d have to be around eighty or ninety years old.’

‘I’m actually much older even than that,’ the man said.

MacDonald looked down at the sidewalk, saw his reflection…alone. He pointed at the puddle. ‘And what about that?’

‘The mirror from Mexico, stuck to the wall,

Reflects nothing at all. The glass is black.’

He smiled and shrugged.

‘Robinson alone provides the image Robinsonian.’

‘What are you?’ MacDonald asked.

The man stared into MacDonald’s eyes for what seemed to be an eternity, so long

His own head turned with mine

And fixed me with dilated, terrifying eyes

That stopped my blood. His voice

Came at me like an echo in the dark.

that MacDonald thought he was not ever going to answer his question. The worst part of that was that, while he stared, he simply did not care. ‘I think you can guess,’ he said, suddenly, releasing MacDonald for his gaze.

‘Oh, come on!’ MacDonald laughed. ‘A vampire? You’re telling me you’re a vampire?’

The man started to walk again. Over his shoulder, he said, ‘My kind go by many names. And, yes, vampire is one of them.’ MacDonald started after him, his mind ablaze with stanzas from Weldon Kees’ poetry.

The dog stops barking after Robinson has gone.

His act is over.

And

These are the rooms of Robinson.

Bleached, wan, and colorless this light, as though

All the blurred daybreaks of the spring

Found an asylum here, perhaps for Robinson alone.

And even

This sleep is from exhaustion, but his old desire

To die like this had known a lessening.

Now there is only this coldness that he has to wear.

But not in sleep.—Observant scholar, traveler,

Or uncouth bearded figure squatting in a cave,

A keen-eyed sniper on the barricades,

A heretic in catacombs, a famed roué,

A beggar on the streets, the confidant of Popes—

All these are Robinsons in sleep, who mumbles as he turns,

‘There is something in this madhouse that I symbolize—

This city-nightmare-black—’

He wakes in sweat

To the terrible moonlight and what might be

Silence. It drones like wires far beyond the roofs,

And the long curtains blow into the room.

MacDonald suddenly realized that he was running…running to catch up with the man. But, while the man was only walking, MacDonald was getting no nearer to him. Good God, he thought, it’s true. All of it.

The man turned up some steps and stopped at the door of a house. As MacDonald reached the man, he stepped inside and waved for MacDonald to enter.

Inside, the house smelled of age and dirt. A narrow hallway gave onto some stairs and continued past two doors to a third door which was partly open. ‘I’ll get you that drink,’ the man said and he walked along the hall to the end door. MacDonald followed without saying a word.

The room was a kitchen. Dirty dishes that looked as though they had been that way for weeks were piled up in and beside the sink. In the center of the room, a wooden table with a worn Formica top was strewn with packets and opened cans. MacDonald saw several cockroaches scurrying in the spilled food.

The man opened a cupboard and pulled out a bottle of Jim Beam and two glasses. He poured bourbon into the glasses and handed one to MacDonald. ‘I first met Harry back in 1943. He was writing for Time magazine and The Nation where he did an arts column.’ He pointed to a chair littered with newspapers. ‘Sit down.’ MacDonald sat and sipped his drink. The man continued with the story.

‘He was also doing some newsreel scripts for Paramount—he’d just done the one about the first atomic bomb tests—and he had recently taken up painting. He was as good at that as he was at anything, exhibiting with Willem de Kooning, Rothko—’ He paused and shook his head. ‘I’m sorry…are you acquainted with these names at all?’

MacDonald nodded.

‘Ah, good. Yes, with Rothko and Pollock—and he was holding a few one-man shows. So, I guess it’s fair to say that life for him was good.

‘I met him one night in Washington Square. I say one night when, actually, it was well into the early hours of the morning.’ He paused took a drink. ‘I was hunting.’

‘Hunting?’

‘Yes. I was out looking for food.’

‘Are we back to the vampire shtick now?’

The man ignored the tone and continued. ‘I usually arise in the early evening. If it’s too light outside, I stay indoors until the sun is about to set. Contrary to fable, we can exist in the sunlight although it hurts our eyes and causes headaches like your migraines. So we don’t do it. Not usually.

‘This particular evening, I had already fed upon a young woman down near Port Authority. She had arrived in town from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and she offered me herself for twenty dollars. That was a steep price for a prostitute back in 1943, I can tell you. But she was an attractive girl and she knew it. How could I refuse?

‘I killed her in an alley, and drank my fill.’ He drained his glass and waved it at MacDonald. ‘More?’

‘Huh? Oh, no. No more, thanks. I’m fine with this.’

The man turned around and poured himself another three fingers. ‘Always the truth is simpler than the fiction, don’t you find?’ he said as he turned back to face MacDonald. ‘The truth is that we do not have to hunt every night. A complete feed will sustain us for many days—sometimes a couple of weeks—before we start to grow hungry again. Vampires, as you call us, are not naturally aggressive…any more than humans, we hunt and kill merely to feed.’

‘Anyway…where was I? Ah, yes. When I met Harry—he was calling himself Harry back then, and I guess I just never lost the habit—when I met Harry, he was working on notes for his second book. He was walking through the Square where I was sitting. I was completely sated at this time, having—’ He waved his hand. ‘The girl and so on.’

MacDonald nodded and took a drink, eyeing the open door at his side.

‘Anyway, he sat down beside me and we started to talk. We talked about the city and the night—both of which I know well—and then he mentioned that he was a writer. I think that’s what Harry regarded himself as more than anything else: a writer.

‘And he asked me if I enjoyed reading. I told him not very much at all. Then he mentioned his poetry: Did I like poetry? I told him I really wasn’t qualified to comment on it. I did have some books, I told him, but, I said, frankly they might as well be filled with blank pages for all the good they are to me.

‘Sometime later, of course,’ he said, leaning forward from his place against the kitchen counter, ‘he wrote—in the first of what I came to regard as my poems—

The pages in the books are blank.

The books that Robinson has read.’

MacDonald took another drink and hiccupped. ‘Did he know…did he know that you were a, you know…?’

‘Not immediately. But, eventually, of course, yes.’ He took a drink and rubbed his hand against the glass. ‘We were…we were alike, you know. Alike in so many ways.’

‘Alike? How?’

‘Well, alienated. I suppose you could say that we were both outcasts from society. In those days I lived in New York.

‘I have, of course, lived in many places—I won’t bore you with the details: Harry covered some of them in his “Robinson At Home”…uncouth bearded figure; keen-eyed sniper; a beggar on the streets; confidant of popes—but when I lived in New York, it grew too hot for me in the summertime. I used to go up to Maine, to a little coastal village called Wells. Do you know it?’

MacDonald shook his head. Holding out his empty glass, he said, ‘I think I will have that refill now.’

The man took the glass. ‘Of course.’ He filled it to the brim and handed it back. ‘Harry didn’t like me going off in the summer. He said it made him feel lonely.’

‘Lonely? Were you both…were you living together at the time?’

‘Oh, gracious no. Harry was married—Ann was her name: nice girl, but entirely unable to cope with living with someone like Harry. And, of course, as he became more and more taken with my…shall we say, company, he became even less livable with.’ He sniggered. ‘Is there such a phrase as “livable with”?’

MacDonald shrugged why not? And took another drink. The man smiled in agreement. ‘So, Ann took more and more to drinking. In 1954 she went into the hospital and—oh, of course, by this time we were in San Francisco. Did I mention that? We moved across to the West Coast in 1950. Harry took up with some new friends—Phyllis Diller, the comedienne? And Kenneth Rexroth?’

MacDonald nodded to both names.

‘Wonderful poet. Ken Rexroth. Wonderful.’ He took a drink.

We moved out West because, as I say, Harry hated the summers in New York when I was away. You remember “Relating To Robinson?”

(But Robinson,

I knew, was out of town: he summers at a place in Maine,

Sometime on Fire Island, sometimes on the Cape,

Leaves town in June and comes back after Labor Day.)’

He laughed suddenly. ‘I tell you, I never—never—went to Fire Island. Or the Cape. That was Harry. He was just so pissed off with me for leaving him.’ He shook his head and stared down into the swirling brown liquid in his glass. ‘So pissed off,’ he said again, but quieter.

‘So—San Francisco. It was fine for a while, but Ann grew more and more restless. Harry had taken up playing jazz. He was good, too. Incredible man. So versatile. But our relationship—and the constraints placed upon it by his being married—was starting to take its toll. You see, Harry was growing older…I was not.

‘In 1953, he wrote ‘The lacerating effects of middle age are dreadful. God knows…what the routes along this particular terrain are, I wish I knew. The trick of repeating It can’t get any worse is certainly no good, when all the evidence points to quite the opposite.’ He shuffled around and lifted the bottle of Jim Beam. ‘You see,’ he said, flicking off the screw cap with his thumb, ‘I wanted Harry to let me taint him.’

‘Taint him? How do you mean?’ MacDonald watched the cap roll to a stop on the dirty floor. Its sides were flattened.

‘I mean…to make him like me.’

‘A vampire?’

‘A vampire. He would have had eternal life, you see. It doesn’t happen every time. Not every time we feed. That’s another thing the legends have got wrong. We only taint our victim if we allow our own saliva to enter the wound. Most times, we do not.

‘But, no, Harry wouldn’t hear of it. He said that life was too precious—which was a paradox of a thing for him to say—and he couldn’t face the prospect of hunting for his food. I told him that I would do all of that for him…but it was no use.’

MacDonald took a deep breath and asked the question he had wanted to ask for several minutes. ‘Were you lovers?’

The man’s eyes narrowed as he considered the question, and then he said, ‘Of a sort, yes. But not in the physical sense. We were soul mates, he and I. I had the information and the experiences of the millennia and Harry…Harry had the means to put them into words. Such beautiful words.’ He fell silent and, lifting the bottle to his mouth, took a long drink.

‘By the time 1955 was upon us, we both knew that we couldn’t carry on this way. In his poem ‘January,’ Harry wrote:

This wakening, this breath

No longer real, this deep

Darkness where we toss,

Cover a life at the last.’

And MacDonald added: ‘Sleep is too short a death.’

‘You know it?’ the man said, clearly amazed and apparently quite delighted.

‘I know them all.’

‘Of course, you would.

‘Well, that year, we decided that Harry would have to disappear. I suppose we had known it for some time. Harry had often toyed with the idea of his suicide—even before he met me. He kept a scrapbook of cuttings and notes, and a chronological list of writers who had killed themselves or simply disappeared. One of his favorites, you know, was Hart Crane. He threw himself off a ship.

‘Yes, I know. His poem ‘Voyages’ is one of my own favorites.’

‘Harry’s, too,’ said the man. He sighed and continued. ‘And so we decided that he would jump—or appear to have jumped—from the Golden Gate Bridge. The day he did it was one year to the day since his official separation from Ann.’

‘Where did you go?’

‘Mexico. Mexico City. He lived in Mexico—we lived in Mexico, I should say—very happily. We led as close to a normal life as we could—which was very close indeed.

‘Harry wrote poetry and short stories—many of them published under noms de plume—and we spent the nights together, talking. I would tell him of all the things that I had seen and experienced and Harry would put them into poems and stories.

‘Then, in 1987, a journalist for the San Francisco Examiner wrote that he had met Harry in a bar in Mexico City back in 1957.’

‘That was true, then, that story?’

The man nodded enthusiastically. ‘Every word. Absolutely true. The journalist was Peter Hamill.’

‘Harry was pretty zilched-out that night, I remember,’ the man said wistfully. ‘He’d been drinking Jack Daniel’s and then, because it was my night to hunt, he went off by himself—something he did very rarely—and polished off several bowls of marinated shrimp and most of a bottle of mescal. We thought nothing more about it until, like three decades later, for crissakes, the story appeared in the Examiner. Needless to say, we left Mexico City within a few days.’

‘Where did you go then?’

‘Oh, different places. Central America at first, but then Harry got to hankering for the States so we moved up to Texas.’ He took another drink from the bottle. ‘Then, when Harry’s health got really bad, we moved back to Beatrice.’

‘What was it? What was wrong with him?’

‘Cancer. He was riddled in the end. He died three weeks ago. I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to cope.’

MacDonald didn’t know what to say.

‘Even in the final days, I begged him to reconsider. If he’d let me taint him, he could have conquered the cancer. Then we could have lived forever. But he wouldn’t.’ The man dropped the bottle and slid down the side of the counter to the floor. MacDonald jumped unsteadily from his chair and went to help him. He found a cloth by the side of the sink and ran cold water over it, flicking pieces of food and a couple of dead bugs into the sink. Then he rubbed the cloth over the man’s face.

‘I want…I want you to see him,’ he said. His voice was shaky and slurred.

‘See him? I thought you said he was dead?’

The man nodded. ‘He is.’

‘He’s dead and he’s still here? Here in the house?’

Another nod.

‘Where?’

‘Upstairs. In his room.’

MacDonald turned around and glanced back down the corridor towards the front door. Suddenly the smell of decay which permeated the house made sense. Kees had died three weeks ago. The weather was warm.

The man shuffled himself back up to a crouched position. ‘I…I want you to see him now.’

MacDonald took his arm and helped him up. ‘Okay, okay.’

‘C’mon, then, let’s go.’ The liquor was clearly having an effect. On MacDonald, it seemed to be having no effect at all. He felt as though he had never had a drink of alcohol in his entire life.

They staggered down the dark corridor to the foot of the stairs. ‘You sure you want to do this?’ MacDonald asked.

‘Sh—’ he belched loudly and hiccupped. ‘Sure. Harry’d want to meet you.’

They started up the stairs, swaying from side to side, MacDonald against the handrail and the man called Robinson buffeting against the wall.

At the top of the stairs, the smell was deeper and thicker. It was now pure decay.

‘Thish way,’ Robinson said, and he took off by himself along the narrow corridor toward the end room. He reached it with a thud and took two steps backward, stretching his right hand out toward the handle.

MacDonald ran forward. ‘Here, let me,’ he said, against his better judgment. Robinson stepped aside.

MacDonald took hold of the handle and turned it. His first impression was that the air that escaped from the ancient pyramids must have smelled like this, only milder. It stank. He lifted his hand to his mouth and swallowed the bile that was even then shooting up his throat. He pushed the door open and stepped into the room.

It was almost pitch-black. The curtains were drawn across the narrow window, but a small night-light glowed beside a wide bed that ran from the side wall into the room. In front of the bed and along to the side beneath the window, stretched a long desk strewn with huge piles of manuscripts and sheets of paper. On the table was a typewriter, a confusion of pens and pencils and erasers, a half-full—or half-empty—bottle of Jack Daniel’s, and an army of empty glasses, some upright and some on their sides.

On the bed itself was a body, though its resemblance to anything that might once have lived was tenuous. It was dark and wizened, and seemed to move and writhe where it lay. MacDonald realized that Harry Weldon Kees now provided a home for a multitude of insects and larvae.

The door clicked shut behind him.

MacDonald spun around and faced Robinson. ‘You…you’re not drunk,’ he said.

The man smiled. ‘Sorry. I’ve had what you might say was a lot of practice in holding my liquor.’ Then he opened a cupboard by his side. ‘I have a job for you.’

‘A…a job? What kind of job?’

‘I want you to kill me.’

MacDonald laughed and made a move toward the door. ‘What the hell is this…? I’m getting out—’

Robinson pushed him back and MacDonald stumbled against the bed, throwing his arm out to steady himself. MacDonald’s hand sank into something which seemed damp and clammy. He felt things pop under its weight. ‘Oh, Jesus!’ He jumped away from the bed and looked at his hand. It was covered in what looked leafmold. He shook it frantically. ‘Oh, God,’ he said. ‘Oh, Jesus…’

‘Here.’ Robinson reached into the open cupboard. He pulled out a flat-headed wooden hammer and handed it to MacDonald.

MacDonald took it and said, ‘Oh, Jesus!’

Then Robinson reached in again and pulled out a wooden pole, its end sharpened to a fine point.

MacDonald started to whimper.

‘Here. You’ll need this, too.’

‘No, I won’t.’

‘You—’

‘I’m not doing it. I’m not doing anything else, I’m getting out of this—’

Robinson took hold of MacDonald’s jacket, crumpled it in his fist, and pulled the man toward him. ‘You’ll do what I say you’ll do…if you do want to get out of here.’

MacDonald started shaking and stepped back, away from Robinson. The man had spoken right into his face, breathed right over him…but the smell had not been of Jim Beam, it had been of blood. Heavy and metallic. ‘Why? Why do you want me to do this? Why me?’

‘Because I want to sleep the long sleep. Because…because I’m lonely. And because you are here.’

‘Is…is there no other way?’

Robinson shook his head. ‘At least one of the legends is true. A stake through the heart. It’s the only way.’

MacDonald looked at Robinson and fought off looking around at the thing on the bed. ‘What if I don’t?’

‘I’ll kill you.’

It didn’t take long for them to get things organized. Robinson stretched out on the bed next to Weldon Kees and held the stake’s point above his chest with his left hand. With his right hand, he held the hand of the body by his side.

While he thought about trying to make a break for it, MacDonald heard Robinson sigh a long, deep sigh. ‘It feels funny,’ he said. ‘Funny to be lying here at last, lying here waiting to die.

‘I’ve come close a couple of times—well, more than a couple, I’d guess—but I’ve always managed to turn things to my advantage.’ He turned his head to Weldon Kees and smiled. ‘Old friend,’ he said softly. ‘You and me, forever now.’ He looked up at MacDonald, smiled at the man’s shaking hands around the shaft of the hammer. ‘You’ve no idea, have you?’ he said.

‘About what?’ MacDonald lowered the hammer, grateful for the pause.

‘Loneliness. The ache of ages spent completely alone. I thought that loneliness was all behind me. I thought Harry would eventually relent and let me taint him. But it was not to be. He even begged me not to bite him if he should slip into some kind of coma before the end. He said if I did, then he would never speak to me again.’ He shook his head. ‘I couldn’t live without Harry’s words. I cannot live without his words. Death can only be release.’ He closed his eyes and shook the stake gently. ‘Do it. Do it now.’

MacDonald lifted the hammer high. As he started to bring it down, Robinson’s eyes opened and fixed upon him. ‘Burn us when you’re through.’

The hammer hit the stake squarely, as though MacDonald’s hand had been guided right to the very end. The pole went into the body hard and lodged in the mattress beneath it. Robinson’s body arched once, high in the air, and then slipped back.

MacDonald watched in fascination as the skin shriveled and pulled back, exposing teeth that looked nothing like what he expected a vampire’s teeth to look like. The eyeballs jellied in their sockets and sank back out of sight. The flesh and muscle atrophied, the bones powdered, and within seconds Robinson’s clothes sank back onto the dust. There was no blood.

As if in a daze, MacDonald put down the hammer and walked across to the desk. He lifted a pile of papers and scattered them about the desktop. He could not help himself. As he threw the sheets around, he tried to read some of the lines…some of the title pages. He started to cry.

He threw sheets onto the floor…high into the air, and watched them flutter onto the lone body on the bed. ‘Please…please, God, let me take just one sheet…’

In his head, amidst the confusion, he heard a voice he did not recognize. It was an old voice, but it sounded gently and wise. It said, Take one sheet, then…but only one.

MacDonald grabbed a sheet and jammed it into his sportscoat pocket. Then he picked up a book of matches, struck one, and ignited the whole book. He tossed it onto the scattered sheets, turned calmly around, and left the room.

The fire took longer to get going than he expected.

In the movies, the conflagration is always immediate. But here in reality, it took almost an hour. MacDonald watched it from across the street, watched the first flames reach up to the waiting curtains, watched the first glow in one of the downstairs rooms, smelled the first smoke-filled breeze blowing across the sidewalk.

Then it was done. And only then did MacDonald feel released from the power of Robinson’s eyes.

As he started back to the heart of Beatrice, a gentle rain began to fall. MacDonald pulled the crumpled sheet from his pocket and, in the occasional glow of the streetlights, started to read. It was a poem. A complete work captured on a single sheet of paper. It was called ‘Robinson At Rest.’ It began:

Robinson watching a movie, safe

In the darkness. The world outside spills by

Along sidewalks freshened by rain.

He says to the man by his side, ‘Is that clock correct?’

‘No,’ the answer comes. ‘It’s stopped

At last.’

And seventeen lines later it ended:

—Weldon Kees (1914-1993)

Stephen R. Bissette discusses the framework and interstitials of Blythewood Studios

You may have seen the STUDIO OF SCREAMS mega-interview in last week’s newsletter. Christopher Golden, Tim Lebbon, Mark Morris, Stephen Volk & Stephen R. Bissette (the “creative quintet”, as Paul Simpson rightly describes them) got together on Zoom to discuss their new book with Paul at SCI-FI BULLETIN. Well, here is more from Stephen R. Bissette. Find out how he brought Blythewood Studios to life . . .


All books spend conceptual time in their respective ovens, a baking process that can take months, more often years, depending upon the nature of the book, the nature of the author or authors, the nature of the planned publishing schedule (or lack of same), and so on. My steady work on my respective portion of the collaborative STUDIO OF SCREAMS began in earnest in the summer of 2018, and lasted for well over a year-and-a-half, much to the frustration of my co-authors-in-arms. After all, one cannot pull an entire manufactured imaginary motion picture non-studio out of one’s ass overnight.

The daisy-chain of creation and co-creation can be difficult to trace (just look at how many generations have been trying to sort out the complexities of the post-Lovecraft Cthulhu mythos, or the Jack Kirby/Steve Ditko/Stan Lee Silver Age comics creative conundrums), but in the case of STUDIO OF SCREAMS, there’s nothing to trip over, really. By all accounts, Stephen Volk was the fellow who had the notion of emulating the beloved 1966-1967 THE HAMMER HORROR FILM OMNIBUS pair of paperbacks by Sussex-born, Liverpool-raised John Burke (aka Russ Ames, J F Burke, Jonathan Burke, Harriet Esmond, Jonathan George, Robert Miall, Martin Sands). This was the twist: instead of Burke’s compact distillations of four real-world Hammer Films, Stephen thought it might be fun to invent a competitor-that-never-existed for Hammer Films, and “novelize” four of their imaginary feature films.

John Burke, by the way, was also the writer who novelized the Amicus portmanteau feature DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS (for Pan Books back in 1965), which is of anecdotal interest since it’s that Amicus film (and their last anthology film, FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE, circa 1974) that inspired much concerning my respective contribution to STUDIO OF SCREAMS.

Stephen also cooked up the moniker for this imaginary British film studio, Blythewood Studios. Stephen suggested it to Mark Morris, who thought it a fine idea, and together they brought fellow novelists and horror movie lovers Tim Lebbon and Christopher Golden into the fray to make of it a fearsome foursome, the magic number needed to match the John Burke HAMMER HORROR FILM OMNIBUS package.

It was Chris who suggesting bringing me into the game to write either a framing device or a frame-and-interstitials (which is what I ended up doing) to flesh out Stephen Volk’s Blythewood Studios into a proper studio, with an invented backstory, history, and context for the four imaginary movies each of the quartet were inventing and “novelizing” from scratch.

Perversely, when asked, I not only said yes, but I proceeded to make Blythewood Studios a studio-that-never-was-a-studio, and puzzled over how to believably fold a mysterious cargo of “lost and forgotten” British horror movies into the well-trod legacy of 1960s and 1970s UK cinema history. The problem was twofold, to my mind: how in the wake of the videocassette boom of the 1980s and in the thick of this era of definitive-edition DVD/Blu-ray sets restoring and reissuing every nook and cranny of British horror could one even imagine four vintage horror movies being “lost”—and why would any living producer or heir of the Blythewood products sanction and enforce their films being wilfully excluded from this ongoing home video revival?

But what if the entrepreneur behind Blythewood had buried his own feature films, removed them from the face of the Earth altogether? What if…

Backtracking through my own records, this is what I asked of Stephen, Mark, Tim, and Chris in July 2018 in an email tagged, “STUDIO OF SCREAMS: What Slumlord Stevie B needs to concoct his interstitial in time for deadline” (which is a laugh in hindsight, since it took me until March 2020 to wrap up my contribution):

“I’m writing to ask for some clear directives from you, per whatever stage you might be at in your stories. 

I just need enough to work from and with.

OK, to clarify:

My interstitial involves my (imaginary) indie studio ‘mogul’ being interviewed, his joking about and obsessing over the filming locations, each of which was a real estate purchase he’d use for one film, then sell—that was his money-saving/making concept. He was a studio that never had a studio, but every movie project made money because he’d bank on the sale of the property, which he’d roll over into the next production and property purchase.

But he was also leaving something behind at each location, with a greater intent…

I’ll just need certain key cues: primarily: 

  1. PLACE (setting, so I can construct a ‘studio’ fabrication of a story locale; i.e., the way Hammer at Bray would craft sets to be Tibet, Spain, etc.); IF you have a British ‘location’ you’d like me to use, please, send me all the details you can! I’ll do my best as a Colonial, and will be looking to you, Mark, Tim, and Stephen, to help fine-tune the final result so the references fit enough of reality to read with conviction.
  1. TIMEFRAME (period setting, contemporary, or whatever, of the fiction piece you’re writing: i.e., 18th century London; 19th century Paris; 1960s Swinging London; 1970s Northampton in the decline; etc.); 
  1. CHARACTERS and ‘types’ (so I can play with casting in the references; if you’ve a preferred actual actor/actress or ‘type’ I should work towards, just say so, as in “this character might have been played by Michael Ripper” or “Tod Slaughter on the skids” or “Martine Beswick” or “Veronica Carlson was cast, but since she was under contract to Hammer….”); 
  1. GORE or HORROR set pieces (so I can, if necessary, reference special effects or makeup issues: ask yourself, “how would Phil Leakey or Roy Ashton have done it?”); 
  1. and a clue as to CLIMAX (so I can thread the interstitials in context, without giving away anyone’s game)…”

In the end, in collaboration with longtime friend, fellow cartoonist, former student, and professional archeologist Al B. Wesolowsky (that middle initial is vital, because there’s apparently another Al Wesolowsky working in the same field), I imagined that Lawrence Blythewood’s career in filmmaking was a ruse, a guise, for something Lawrence and his brother were doing that would resonate (I hope) for the reader in the real world. After all, what I loved and still love most about the best of the portmanteau movies from DEAD OF NIGHT (1945) to FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE is that the whole can be more than the sum of the parts; that the framing device can and should be a horror story in and of itself.

 With Al’s considerable knowledge, experience, and insights, brainstorming what lurked behind (and beneath) the Blythewood legacy added immeasurably to the fun, as did fact-checking every frame and interstitial with Kim Newman, who I knew would catch anything too inconsistent with real horror movie history, slap me up aside the head if I wandered too far afield in my fabrications, but would also share and/or remind me of trivia sure to illuminate the manuscript further. I couldn’t have done it without Al and Kim, and I wouldn’t have wanted to. Of course, I also checked each and every interstitial with the respective author of the imaginary film I was—excuse me, Lawrence Blythewood was talking about, and I hastily incorporated the suggestions or revisions suggested by (in order of their novella’s publication) Mark, Chris, Tim, and Stephen, and along with Kim’s emails, Stephen, Mark, and Tim kept me from mucking up with too many Colonial errors regarding UK locations, language, or terminology.

When SCI-FI BULLETIN’s Paul Simpson first reached out to us all with hopes of corralling the entire Studio of Screams creative team for a chat, my hope was that I’d finally get to meet everyone involved. Being an impoverished college instructor in his 60s earning a bit on the side from reprints of my old 1980s comics work that remains in print (i.e., SWAMP THING), even before we were all subsumed in this global pandemic it was never in the cards for me to join Stephen, Mark, Tim, Pete, Nicky, and Mike in the UK for this month’s planned roll-out. I have been fortunate enough to meet and get to know Mark and Tim during their visits to the US thanks to mutual friend Chris Golden, but I’ve never met Stephen Volk (or “Stephen 1” as I cheerfully call him and forever will), nor Pete, Nicky, or Mike. So Paul’s suggestion was a happy one, and I not only got to enjoy reuniting with Mark, Tim, and Chris via the internet real-time conversation, but to meet Stephen 1 and Paul for the first time, and see with my own eyes Stephen 1 trot out his Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee action figures and play with them on-camera. It’s something I’ll never forget, and I’m smiling still at the memory. My heart swells with joy and pride to be part of this.

Alas, Paul’s written interview doesn’t preserve the “Playtime with Stephen 1” revelation, but all the rest of it is preserved and awaits you, disinterring the secret history of STUDIO OF SCREAMS 


As SCI-FI BULLETIN’s Paul Simpson says, “The result: an hour of real pleasure distilled into a 7,500 word transcript.” And, real pleasure, it is! You can read the full interview, here: https://scifibulletin.com/books/horror/feature-studio-of-screams-zooming-the-authors/


And, let’s not forget the legendary Graham Humphreys. Graham’s artwork is the cherry on the cake. Here’s what Graham had to say:

When I was approached with the possibility of painting a wraparound cover for STUDIO OF SCREAMS, I immediately thought about the Amicus anthology films. The brief synopsis that accompanied each of the author’s titles even depicted elements that might well have appeared within the Amicus and Hammer canon. The direct link was made in a couple of character descriptions, referencing Peter Cushing and Oliver Reed. My artwork is an imaginary cinematic anthology poster. Taking my lead from the original art for DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS, I made use of the colour palettes that defined the horror genre of the era and made generous use of a Peter Cushing portrait from THE LEGEND OF THE SEVEN GOLDEN VAMPIRES, in direct reference to the tale which shares Central Asian elements.

With any job, the reference material is the essential foundation of any painting, particularly where specifics are observed. Although a basic description of the two depicted female characters had been supplied, precise age and hair colouring were not. This can cause visual confusion on any job where the text does not match the art. Many years ago, I worked on a series of illustrations for a corporate finance brochure, in which I was required to depict key management staff in various poses (e.g. ‘watering a very tall plant’ – depicting folio growth). I sourced the poses from various books and magazines (pre-google years!) of businessmen in suits (they were all men), approximating the required poses (folds in cloth are difficult to conjure up with any form of realism). All my portrait references (another point of difficulty, the body poses had to work with the angle of the supplied head shots) were in black and white. Inevitably, client comments on the final art included such questions as “why isn’t his hair red?” or ‘why aren’t his eyes hazel’. How could I know? No descriptions accompanied the photos! A lesson learned.

Some reference was supplied by one author, the vintage creepy clowns, whereas I made use of multiple references for individual characters… the seated female is a mixture of a head shot, hair from another head shot, a separate seated body and a separate scarf from another photo. Oliver Reed is a mix of a still from THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF and Bela Lugosi’s DRACULA! The look of the demon bear was sourced from a benign zoo image and transformed by using my imagination inspired by the supplied text. The screaming head was sourced from a model agency shot, with subtle changes to disguise the original. The tower seen in the top right, is sourced from one of my own photographs of Whitby Abbey. Other elements were sourced and cut and pasted together to generate reference that would suit the look required. As with all such photographic composites, the quality of images varied according to the material, from tiny jpegs upwards. The basic composition is then traced onto watercolour paper. It is then down to my own skills to level the material or disguise the poor reference and skew the imagery to my purposes. It is never as simple as just tracing the reference – deciding on how much visual information is required from each image is key to the focus. Colour and light and contrast all need to work in order to create depth and interest.


Available for pre-order. 

Q&A with Paul Kane, author of THE STORM.

PS: You’ve written a lot about monsters including two collections with that name, Monsters and More Monsters. Where does your love of them come from?

PAUL: I’ll start this one by giving you a little exclusive, that there’s yet another collection in the works called Even More Monsters – so yes, it’s fair to say that I’m quite obsessed with the monstrous. Where does that come from? It’s probably down to my parents, or more specifically my dad who was a big fan of shows like Doctor Who, Star Trek and The Incredible Hulk. Those are shows packed full of monsters – the Daleks, Cybermen and Gorn spring instantly to mind – and I used to watch them with my dad when I was very small, so it was almost definitely that. I also used to watch all the old horror movies with my folks, from the black and white Universals to the Hammers and Amicus films, which boast their fair share of monsters. It was these that introduced me to the likes of Frankenstein, Dracula and the Wolfman, for starters, then I graduated to creature feature novels, beginning with Jim Herbert’s Rats trilogy, and video nasties. I was a bit obsessed with George A Romero and Lucio Fulci’s zombie movies back in the day. You can imagine my delight when I actually got to meet and chat with George, who was such a lovely guy; a bit of a ‘pinch me’ moment. Then of course there were the Godzilla flicks I saw as a kid, King Kong… The list is endless. I guess you could say I was surrounded by monsters – the fictional kind – from a very early age and that love of them hasn’t really gone away.

PS: You actually won an award for one of your monster tales didn’t you?

PAUL: That’s right, ‘A Chaos Demon is for Life’ – which won the Editor’s Choice Dead of Night Award. That one was my homage to the giant monster movies I’ve enjoyed in the past, right up to films like Cloverfield and Pacific Rim. There was a black humour to that one, and an emotional edge as it’s about a boy’s relationship with a pet monster that just happens to start growing until it’s massive and begins stomping around London. I’ve had people tell me they’ve shed a tear or two over that one, which was an unexpected side-effect. The story was reprinted in the first Monsters collection, which itself was short-listed for a British Fantasy Award, so obviously it’s been quite a lucky one for me that.

PS: Where did the idea for The Storm come from?

PAUL: Apart from all the creature features I’ve seen in the past, the revenge of nature novels like The Rats, The Crabs, The Slugs… probably the biggest influence on this one was Stephen King’s The Mist. The book’s even dedicated to him, as there are other nods to his work in there as well. I first read The Mist when it came out and adored it, then I was even more impressed with the movie adaptation from Frank Darabont, who for my money has done some of the best King films. So I began to think about how I could do a story like that, but in a different way. I’ve always been interested in sea monsters, which again probably comes from my childhood and Jaws. And at the time I was thinking about writing The Storm I’d also been commissioned to do an Innsmouth tale, which involved my doing a lot of research into that particular mythos, plus coastal legends and the likes. I also used to go on holiday to the seaside every year when I was young – as we had a caravan at Flamborough – so that fed into things too. Not to mention the frequent trips to Scarborough when we were having StokerCon meetings… I’ve incorporated all that into my second HQ/Harper thriller as well, which is coming out this summer. So it was a mixture of all that stuff swirling round in my brain, plus military strategies which I’ve always been keen on; you can see a lot of that in my Hooded Man books. I also love siege stories, and was delighted when I was able to write one for the novella Flaming Arrow – which also includes modified human monsters, coincidentally. This just gave me the chance to do another one, at yet another old castle.

PS: How did the book itself come about?

PAUL: The road to publication? It doesn’t always happen this way, but The Storm was part of a two-fer with PS, the first book of which was already pretty much there: a collection of rare and unused film and TV scripts/treatments called Dark Mirages. That launched at FantasyCon 2018, a gorgeous hardback publication – if you’ve haven’t bought it yet, then drop everything and check it out here (https://www.pspublishing.co.uk/dark-mirages-hardcover-edited-by-paul-kane-4692-p.asp). The two-book deal also included an – at that time – unwritten novella, which I pitched to Pete and Nicky. Thankfully they liked the sound of it and so I started to write it. I had so much fun it actually morphed into a short novel by the time I was finished, I don’t think I wanted it to end. I then asked my good friend Rio Youers, he of The Forgotten Girl and Halcyon fame, if he’d have a read in the hopes he might contribute the introduction. Thankfully he liked it too, in fact he really got where I was coming from and wrote a terrific intro. Then it was down to artist Ben Baldwin who once again did me proud where the wraparound cover art was concerned. We were actually at Pete and Nicky’s in January when the sketches for the endpapers came in, which Nicky showed me on her computer – and I just thought ‘wow!’ It all came together nicely to make a pretty special book.

PS: As with a lot of your books the characters are just as important as the story or even the monsters in this case aren’t they?

PAUL: I’m a big one for character studies, in fact I have to rein it in sometimes. But I do believe that if you’re going to present the reader with a scenario that’s as outrageous as this one – where eel-monsters, giant crabs or whatever come through a crack in reality disguised as a storm to attack a castle – you have to make the characters who are being attacked as real as you possibly can. Otherwise you’re not invested in what happens to them. The central characters in this case are an American family who are visiting these shores, and the main duo of Keegan and Gemma – one a workman there, the other a tour guide – who are kind of star-crossed lovers. How Keegan feels about Gemma fuels a lot of his actions, as he’s always said he’ll never abandon her, will always be there for her. Then of course when they get separated by all the chaos, he does everything in his power to reach her. Someone asked me in an interview just recently what I thought made a horror story inherently British, and I gave the answer that we just kind of get on with things no matter what’s thrown at us. You can see it right now with what’s happening with the pandemic, we’re all just dealing with it however we can. In this instance, though, it’s a case of going ‘F**k it!’, monsters are falling from the sky so we’d better just get on with fighting them.

PS: Do you have a favourite monster of all time?

PAUL: If we’re taking the Cenobites and Nightbreed as read, then I think I’m going to have to give it to the Xenomorph from the Alien movies. I absolutely love those guys in all their forms, from the Facehugger to the Chestburster – or Dogburster, or whatever species the host happens to be – to the fully grown Alien itself. Giger’s one of my favourite artists anyway, and these just scream Giger…because he designed them! Everything about them is beautiful and terrifying and disgusting all at the same time, which is not an easy thing to pull off. So, yes, I’m going to have to give it to the Alien.

PS: What projects are you working on or do you have coming out soon?

PAUL: At the moment, like so much of the world, you catch me in lockdown mode because of the virus. That’s also necessitated a shift in our plans for StokerCon which was due to be happening – at time of writing – next week. It makes me incredibly sad that it’s not happening, as we’ve been prepping for it for two and a half years, and it would have been awesome. But with a bit of luck it’ll happen in some form down the line. So, I’m keeping myself sane by working on admin, parking my bum and getting on with fiction writing that I owe – a novelette to begin with and I need to get on with the third thriller for HQ/HarperCollins – and watching lots of films and boxed sets: we just started Doom Patrol, but are in the middle of Mr Mercedes, Ozark, The Witcher and various others; at the weekend we watched The Shining and Doctor Sleep back to back, which was fun. As for what’s out and coming soon, as well as The Storm obviously, my first thriller as PL Kane Her Last Secret just dropped as a paperback and audio in March, our latest anthology through Titan – Cursed, edited with my better half Marie O’Regan – is also out, plus a novella called Blood Red Sky from Silver Shamrock. Luna Press are releasing the official movie tie-in for The Colour of Madness, a film that’s based on my novelette ‘Men of the Cloth’, this month, then the second thriller comes out over the summer from Harper. I’ve also begun working with Mark Miller and Christian Francis at Enclopocalypse to bring out some of my back catalogue as audio books, including Signs of Life, Of Darkness and Light and Sleeper(s). The rest of the year is taken up with collections essentially, but more about them as and when.

PS: Thanks for taking the time out to talk to us Paul!

PAUL: My pleasure.


Paul Kane is the award-winning, bestselling author and editor of over ninety books – including the Arrowhead trilogy (gathered together in the sellout Hooded Man omnibus, revolving around a post-apocalyptic version of Robin Hood), The Butterfly Man and Other Stories, Hellbound Hearts, The Mammoth Book of Body Horror and Pain Cages (an Amazon #1 bestseller). His non-fiction books include The Hellraiser Films and Their Legacy and Voices in the Dark, and his genre journalism has appeared in the likes of SFX, Rue Morgue and DeathRay. He has been a Guest at Alt.Fiction five times, was a Guest at the first SFX Weekender, at Thought Bubble in 2011, Derbyshire Literary Festival and Off the Shelf in 2012, Monster Mash and Event Horizon in 2013, Edge-Lit in 2014 and 2018, HorrorCon, HorrorFest and Grimm Up North in 2015, The Dublin Ghost Story Festival and Sledge-Lit in 2016, IMATS Olympia and Celluloid Screams in 2017, plus Black Library Live and the UK Ghost Story Festival in 2019, as well as being a panellist at FantasyCon and the World Fantasy Convention, and a fiction judge at the Sci-Fi London festival. A former British Fantasy Society Special Publications Editor, he is currently serving as co-chair for the UK chapter of The Horror Writers Association. His work has been optioned and adapted for the big and small screen, including for US network primetime television, and his novelette ‘Men of the Cloth’ has just been turned into a feature by Loose Canon/Hydra Films, starring Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator, You’re Next). His audio work includes the full cast drama adaptation of The Hellbound Heart for Bafflegab, starring Tom Meeten (The Ghoul), Neve McIntosh (Doctor Who) and Alice Lowe (Prevenge), and the Robin of Sherwood adventure The Red Lord for Spiteful Puppet/ITV narrated by Ian Ogilvy (Return of the Saint). Paul’s latest novels are Lunar (set to be turned into a feature film), the Y.A. story The Rainbow Man (as P.B. Kane), the sequels to REDBlood RED & Deep RED – the award-winning hit Sherlock Holmes & the Servants of Hell, Before (an Amazon Top 5 dark fantasy bestseller) and Arcana. He also writes thrillers for HQ Digital/HarperCollins as PL Kane, the first of which, Her Last Secret, came out in January. Paul lives in Derbyshire, UK, with his wife Marie O’Regan and his family. Find out more at his site www.shadow-writer.co.uk which has featured Guest Writers such as Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Charlaine Harris, Robert Kirkman, Dean Koontz and Guillermo del Toro.


THE STORM is in stock and available to order.

Paul Kane’s Top Ten Monster Books and Movies

So, here we go with my favourite Monster books and movies… And I should mention that I’m consciously not including vampire, zombie or werewolf offerings, as they’re categories in their own right; I could easily come up with ten books and films for each of those. Plus it allows room for me to include other entries.

 

1) The Thing (directed by John Carpenter, 1982).

This is a movie that had a massive effect on me in my formative years – when I crept down to watch it late at night on ITV one Saturday and totally freaked myself out (I used to do that a lot, as we all probably did). I remember not being able to face my Sunday dinner the next day after seeing that autopsy scene, but couldn’t tell my parents why. It was probably my first exposure to the sub-genre known as ‘Body Horror’ – which would become so important to my work. My better half Marie O’Regan and I even edited The Mammoth Book of Body Horror years later, and included ‘Who Goes There?’, the original John W. Campbell tale which The Thing is based on. It’s also a perfect example of how flexible horror and monster movies can be, in this instance an SF-Horror (other examples of this in my all-time favourites list would definitely have to include Alien and Event Horizon). Everything about this film is just perfect, from Bill Lancaster’s script to Carpenter’s direction, from the desolate setting to the inventive effects, not to mention the memorable characters – this is Kurt Russell’s finest hour as reluctant hero MacReady (“Those damned Swedes!”). I could watch it a million times and that still wouldn’t be enough.

82) The Hound of the Baskervilles (written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1902)

I’m a huge fan, as most people will have read when I did the publicity for Servants of Hell, of Sherlock Holmes in all his incarnations…though for me the definitive screen Holmes will always be Jeremy Brett. I came across the original Conan Doyle stories at around the same time as I did Clive’s work, which is probably why the two were forever linked in my mind, but my very favourite tale from the original canon is The Hound of the Baskervilles. It’s the definitive ‘horror’ Holmes really, with a huge supernatural dog running around killing people… even if it did have a more earthly explanation at the end. I would still regard it as a monster, even in that form! It certainly fired my imagination and I was delighted to be able to bring the hound in question back to roam the corridors of Hell in my own Holmes novel. It was probably also in part responsible for RED (published with the sequel Blood RED by SST), as well as the obvious fairy tale influence. There would also be no Crimson Mystery without this one.

3) Jaws (directed by Steven Spielberg, 1975)

This movie is simply an exercise in cinematic suspense, executed perfectly. We can forgive the rubber shark, ‘Bruce’, that makes its grand entrance towards the end, because the way the tension is built up before that is a masterclass in how to have an audience on the edge of its seat; not least the use of the camera POV as the monster in question for most of the film. The shock of the fisherman’s head appearing in the bottom of the sunken boat still makes me jump all these years later, almost as much as it does Richard Dreyfuss’ Hooper. And, of course, we wouldn’t care at all if it weren’t for the portrayal of the characters by him, Roy Scheider – as ‘fish out of water’ New Yorker Chief Brody, transplanted to Amity Island at the worst possible time – and Robert Shaw’s Quint, one of my favourite characters in anything ever. When he tells the story of the Indianapolis, a true monster tale, not only do all the hairs stand up on end on the back of your neck, you totally understand where this Ahab-esque man is coming from. Not many films deserve the classic status they’re given more than this one. Also, crucially, without Jaws, there would be no blockbuster.

4) The Rats (written by James Herbert, 1974)

Hhmm, I’ve just realised that the last couple of choices are all about revenge of nature or animals on the rampage, but that’s no bad thing in a list of monsters – and here’s another! I’ve long been an admirer of James Herbert and his work, and feel very privileged that I got to know him before his untimely death; my last abiding memory of him was the signing he did for us at FantasyCon in 2012, where he took time to chat to everybody and was telling tall tales – what else would you expect? What Jim did here with his first chiller (a term he coined himself) The Rats was take a tired horror genre and create something fresh within it that was copied again and again. The Rats was probably the first full-on horror book I ever read, certainly the first ‘monster’ one, and I loved it! The terrifying notion of these giant killer rats plaguing London sent shivers down my spine and had me checking under my bed and in the wardrobe. It still does, frankly. When it was reported a while ago that giant rats the size of dogs had actually been found, I said to myself: Jim was right all along! There was also the sense that when you were reading The Rats you were doing something forbidden. To be fair, I probably was – reading gore and sex scenes at such a tender age – but boy was it a ride! I can’t mention The Rats, though, without including Lair and Domain, which raised the bar even higher. I’ll never forget the clever and emotionally draining way Jim handled wiping out an entire population at the beginning of the latter.

5) Nightbreed (directed by Clive Barker, 1990)

You were wondering when Mr Barker would appear, weren’t you? And what better example of a monster movie than this one, which is all about them. However, while reading the short novel it’s based on, Cabal, is still a wholly satisfying experience, watching the second movie Clive directed (after Hellraiser) is always a bitter-sweet experience for me; even if I’m watching the director’s cut. Don’t get me wrong, it’s one of my favourite movies of all time – and definitely one of my Barker favourites – and I love the way the ’breed were brought to glorious life by Bob Keen and his crew at Image Animation. But there’s always going to be a bad taste in the mouth at the way this movie was mishandled by the studio system, and the way it was marketed. Trailers that pitched it as some kind of stalk ‘n’ slash with monsters totally missed the whole point that the monsters here are the good guys, showing up the bigoted and – especially in psychiatrist Decker’s case, played to perfection by an eerily calm David Cronenberg – psychotic humans for the true monsters they are. It’s since gained the classic status it deserves, with actors like Craig Sheffer (as Boone), Anne Bobby (as Lori), Hugh Ross (as Narcisse) and Oli Parker (as everyone’s favourite ’breed member, Peloquin), getting the recognition they so richly deserve. It was also nice to see the original male Cenobites back in roles: Doug Bradley, as the ’breed’s wiseman Lylesberg, Simon Bamford – with much less make-up than he needed for Butterball – as Ohnaka, and Nick Vince as the moon-faced Kinski.

6) Frankenstein (Written by Mary Shelley, 1818)

The granddaddy of all mad scientist monster books and films, I first read Frankenstein when I was going through my period of reading everything genre-related back in my teens…what I call my real education. Which included the classics, such as Dracula, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and, of course, Frankenstein. Actually, I first read all of them in one volume which had a lurid red and black cover and an introduction by none other than Stephen King – more on him later. Without this one, we wouldn’t have had so many of my favourite tales and movies, like The Fly, Re-Animator, Splice and too many more to mention. What I absolutely love about this is the way Dr Frankenstein is so sure what he’s doing is right and it comes from a place of wanting to make the world a better place, only for things to go spectacularly wrong. The road to Hell and all that. On the flip side we have the monster who didn’t ask to be created, is this kind of outsider figure who doesn’t fit in, and never will. They make up this tragic Yin and Yang which fuels the story and makes it so interesting. A truly ground-breaking tale, variations of which are still appearing today – you only have to look at the recent episode of Doctor Who, ‘The Haunting of Villa Diodati’ to see that. It’s also a perfect example of the story behind the story being as fascinating as the book itself.

7) The Cabin in the Woods (directed by Drew Goddard, 2011)

A bit of a cheat, this one, as it contains pretty much every monster you could ever dream of all in one place, especially when they run riot at the end. I’ve been a fan of Drew Goddard’s work for a long time, from his Buffy days through to writing Cloverfield (the quintessential found footage monster romp), right up to the excellent Daredevil and Bad Times at the El Royale. His collaboration here with the creator of that show about a certain vampire slayer is nothing short of perfection, in my humble opinion. Simultaneously a satire and commentary on tired horror tropes, and a movie that elevates itself above them, it’s a surprise monster fest that manages to cram in everything from the Cenobites (good old ‘Sawhead’) to creepy ballerinas, snake creatures and, yes, even mermen! If you haven’t seen it, I recommend that you correct that oversight immediately. There’s also an excellent novelisation from Titan, written by my good friend Tim Lebbon.

8) The Mist (written by Stephen King, 1980)

Told you we’d get back to this talented chap, the person who coincidentally The Storm is dedicated to (you’ll find out why when you read it). I’ve loved this book – technically a novella that first appeared in Dark Forces, then the collection Skeleton Crew – since I first read it, and my enjoyment hasn’t waned in all that time. I love the setting, which is by turns claustrophobic and also global in scale, the premise – that we’ve torn a hole in reality and let through all kinds of creatures from another dimension – and the characters. A father battling to keep his son safe in the midst of all this chaos? There’s no greater motivation than that. I was equally delighted when Frank Darabont (who did such an excellent job of adapting Shawshank and The Green Mile) turned this into a movie, and if anything made it even bleaker, especially at the end. I love a bit of bleakness, me, as anyone who’s read books like The Rot will testify.

9) King Kong (directed by Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933)

As much as I adore his contemporary, Godzilla – and believe me, I do – he probably wouldn’t exist without Kong. I’ve chosen the original and the best here, although later movies like the Jackson adaptation and Skull Island do give it a run for its money. But it’s the introduction of the character of Kong himself that makes this movie so special. Created by stop motion surpremo Willis O’Brien, or Obie to his friends, when Kong appeared on screen for the first time nobody had ever seen anything quite like it before. I mean, sure, there had been dinosaurs – most notably in 1925’s The Lost World – but Kong, literally, wiped the floor with those. Who could ever forget his memorable scrap with the T-Rex while Fay Wray looks on and screams her lungs out? Stuff like that sticks with a little kid watching creature features on rainy Sundays and bank holidays (and Ray Harryhausen, I’m also looking at you when I say that). I’m so looking forward to seeing Kong and Godzilla in the same film knocking lumps out of each other, it’s going to be epic.

10) The Day of the Triffids (written by John Wyndham, 1951)

I came to this novel in a kind of roundabout way, via the BBC adaptation in the 80s starring John Duttine. That scared the living daylights out of me when I was a kid (the tender age of 8 to be precise), but it also made me want to hunt out and read the book. Like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, Triffids is a great example of SF commenting on the present day and possible nightmare futures. In this instance it’s where we might end up if we continue to experiment with cross-breeding plants and genetically engineering them. Okay, so the triffids are useful and valuable when everyone can see – their oil in particular – but what about when a comet in the night sky takes away most of the population’s eyesight and the little buggers escape? Then you’re definitely in trouble. I love this one not only because of the unique monsters, seared into my mind as those walking rubber creations from 1981 with ‘tongues’ that lash out and sting you, but also because it’s a great example of a post-apocalyptic scenario where people soon forget how to be civilised and society crumbles into mayhem. While I’m on, I can wholeheartedly recommend the official sequel by my old friend Simon Clark, The Night of the Triffids, which takes both the action and the horror to yet another level.

 

Well, there you have it. Not a comprehensive list by any means – I doubt I’d have been able to fit all my favourites into a top million – but should give you some idea of where I’m coming from and the kinds of monsters that inspired The Storm especially.

Paul Kane is the award-winning, bestselling author and editor of over ninety books – including the Arrowhead trilogy (gathered together in the sellout Hooded Man omnibus, revolving around a post-apocalyptic version of Robin Hood), The Butterfly Man and Other Stories, Hellbound Hearts, The Mammoth Book of Body Horror and Pain Cages (an Amazon #1 bestseller). His non-fiction books include The Hellraiser Films and Their Legacy and Voices in the Dark, and his genre journalism has appeared in the likes of SFX, Rue Morgue and DeathRay. He has been a Guest at Alt.Fiction five times, was a Guest at the first SFX Weekender, at Thought Bubble in 2011, Derbyshire Literary Festival and Off the Shelf in 2012, Monster Mash and Event Horizon in 2013, Edge-Lit in 2014 and 2018, HorrorCon, HorrorFest and Grimm Up North in 2015, The Dublin Ghost Story Festival and Sledge-Lit in 2016, IMATS Olympia and Celluloid Screams in 2017, plus Black Library Live and the UK Ghost Story Festival in 2019, as well as being a panellist at FantasyCon and the World Fantasy Convention, and a fiction judge at the Sci-Fi London festival. A former British Fantasy Society Special Publications Editor, he is currently serving as co-chair for the UK chapter of The Horror Writers Association. His work has been optioned and adapted for the big and small screen, including for US network primetime television, and his novelette ‘Men of the Cloth’ has just been turned into a feature by Loose Canon/Hydra Films, starring Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator, You’re Next). His audio work includes the full cast drama adaptation of The Hellbound Heart for Bafflegab, starring Tom Meeten (The Ghoul), Neve McIntosh (Doctor Who) and Alice Lowe (Prevenge), and the Robin of Sherwood adventure The Red Lord for Spiteful Puppet/ITV narrated by Ian Ogilvy (Return of the Saint). Paul’s latest novels are Lunar (set to be turned into a feature film), the Y.A. story The Rainbow Man (as P.B. Kane), the sequels to REDBlood RED & Deep RED – the award-winning hit Sherlock Holmes & the Servants of Hell, Before (an Amazon Top 5 dark fantasy bestseller) and Arcana. He also writes thrillers for HQ Digital/HarperCollins as PL Kane, the first of which, Her Last Secret, came out in January. Paul lives in Derbyshire, UK, with his wife Marie O’Regan and his family. Find out more at his site www.shadow-writer.co.uk which has featured Guest Writers such as Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, Charlaine Harris, Robert Kirkman, Dean Koontz and Guillermo del Toro.