Wednesday, October 31, 2007
  University of Horrorda
©2007 Tribune Media

I think we need a real-life horror story here for Halloween.

My memory of the incident below came back while I was reading about the death of Carol Gotbaum in the Phoenix airport. Her handcuffs were secured by a short chain attached to the back of the bench where she was sitting. She probably died when she twisted around, found the chain pressing against her neck and then was unable to move from that position.

My own situation was more akin to Edgar Allan Poe's 1838 short story, "A Predicament," in which the narrator climbs the interior of a Gothic cathedral. Here is the Black Mass audio adaptation. After the narrator sticks her head through a hole in the face of the steeple's gigantic clock to admire the city, she soon discovers that the clock's immense steel minute-hand has moved against her neck, pinning her with no escape:

"Turning my head gently to one side, I perceived, to my extreme horror, that the huge, glittering, scimitar-like minute-hand of the clock had, in the course of its hourly revolution, descended upon my neck. There was, I knew, not a second to be lost. I pulled back at once–but it was too late. There was no chance of forcing my head through the mouth of that terrible trap in which it was so fairly caught, and which grew narrower and narrower with a rapidity too horrible to be conceived. The agony of that moment is not to be imagined."

When I was in college, I had some classes in a towering 19th-century Gothic building constructed in 1889. One day, I found myself alone in a room in that building with Lyn Murray, an instructor I disliked. It may be that he sensed my reaction to him. While we were talking, I sat on a radiator with my back to a window about six inches behind me. The radiator had a metal radiator cover on top. Murray suddenly decided it would be amusing to act like he was pushing me out the window. I guess the fact that we were one flight up made it more amusing to him. He moved toward me with a big grin on his face and grabbed both of my shoulders.

When he pushed me back towards the window, I reached to hold on as a natural reflex. I put both hands between my legs and grabbed the front edge of the radiator cover. It was then I realized that the metal cover was not attached but was just loosely positioned on top. As he pushed, it tilted backwards. When he released my shoulders, the heavy object swung back down.

As it fell into place, my left hand was pinned, and I felt excruciating pain as my entire body weight and the weight of the metal cover were both pressing a 1/4th-inch wide front metal fringe against the fingers of my left hand. I knew instantly that I could not roll forward, as it might break my fingers (and I would fall face forward toward the floor). I could not go backward because I would then be pulling in the wrong direction from where my hand was caught (and possibly could actually go out the window). I could not bring my leg under my arm. I also felt like my fingers might break with any extra movement. I calculated all options in a split second and knew they would all fail. I was trapped.

I could see only one solution. He was standing in front of me, looking in horror at the expression on my face, as I gasped, "Lift me up." Without hesitating, he grabbed me under the armpits and pulled me straight up. As he did so, I managed to pull the radiator cover up an inch, and my hand slipped free. The cover crashed back into place. My fingers were intact, and I stood there rubbing them until the pain went away. Speechless, he stared aghast at my reddened fingers, probably thinking that if I went to the college clinic, his teaching career would be over.

It had all happened within 15 seconds. There were no witnesses, and it may be that I never discussed the incident with anyone. If such a situation happened at a college today, a student would probably call a lawyer and sue the school for $20 million.

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Friday, October 26, 2007
  Tennessee Williams Blues
In 1940 Tennessee Williams did this drawing while he was planning a trip to Mexico.

In 1949, Williams worked on
Stornello, one of the early drafts of The Rose Tattoo. The character of Pepina had become Serafina Delle Rose by the time the play opened February 3, 1951 with Maureen Stapleton and Eli Wallach heading a cast that included Martin Balsam, Don Murray and Sal Mineo. Anna Magnani won an Academy Award for her performance as Serafina in the film of The Rose Tattoo (1955), and Stornello reveals Williams had Magnani in mind from the start.


BRIEF OUTLINE OF PLAY IN PROGRESS: TENTATIVE TITLE "STORNELLO" (Italian name of a type of dramatic-narrative song, usually in dialogue form between a male and female singer.)


The play is laid in a very small shrimp-fishing community on the Gulf coast in America, a little town settled predominantly by Sicilians.

The date is not fixed too definitely, but is modern, and the entire action takes place in twenty-four hours of a day in late spring, which happens to be the day of a solar eclipse and of the local highschool graduation ceremonies.

The "star" part is that of a Sicilian widow (between 30 and 40) a type ideally suited to the Italian actress, Anna Magnani – who is incidentally said to be learning English.

The widow's name is Pepina. She is the widow of Rosario Quarino a truck-driver who was killed in an accident on the highway about 8 years before the start of the play.

                         Wally Wood's "Anna Lasagna" in "He Rose Tattooed" in Mad 28 (July 1956).
©2007 EC Publications

On October 3, 1945, the theater historian George Freedley interviewed Tennessee Williams on WNYC.

Teddi King sings "Tennessee Williams Southern Decadence Blues" on Playboy's Penthouse (1959):

Tennessee Williams' first published short story, "The Vengeance of Nicrotis," was written when he was 16 years old. It was published in the August 1928 issue of Weird Tales. For appropriate background music, scroll to bottom of browser and select Koyaanisquatsi by Philip Glass from playlist.

The Vengeance of Nitocris

by Tennessee Williams

I. Osiris Is Avenged

Hushed were the streets of many peopled Thebes. Those few who passed through them moved with the shadowy fleetness of bats near dawn, and bent their faces from the sky as if fearful of seeing what in their fancies might be hovering there. Weird, high-noted incantations of a wailing sound were audible through the barred doors. On corners groups of naked and bleeding priests cast themselves repeatedly and with very loud cries upon the rough stones of the walks. Even dogs and cats and oxen seemed impressed by some strange menace and foreboding and cowered and slunk dejectedly. All Thebes was in dread. And indeed there was cause for their dread and for their wails of lamentation. A terrible sacrilege had been committed. In all the annals of Egypt none more monstrous was recorded.

Five days had the altar fires of the god of gods, Osiris, been left unburning. Even for one moment to allow darkness upon the altars of the god was considered by the priests to be a great offense against him. Whole years of dearth and famine had been known to result from such an offense. But now the altar fires had been deliberately extinguished, and left extinguished for five days. It was an unspeakable sacrilege.

Hourly there was expectancy of some great calamity to befall. Perhaps within the approaching night a mighty earthquake would shake the city to the ground, or a fire from heaven would sweep upon them, a hideous plague strike them or some monster from the desert, where wild and terrible monsters were said to dwell, would rush upon them and Osiris himself would rise up, as he had done before, and swallow all Egypt in his wrath. Surely some dread catastrophe would befall them ere the week had passed. Unless—unless the sacrilege were avenged.

But how might it be avenged? That was the question high lords and priests debated. Pharaoh alone had committed the sacrilege. It was he, angered because the bridge, which he had spent five years building so that one day he might cross the Nile in his chariot as he had once boasted that he would do, had been swept away by the rising waters. Raging with anger, he had flogged the priests from the temple. He had barred the temple doors and with his own breath had blown out the sacred candles. He had defiled the hallowed altars with the carcasses of beasts. Even, it was said in low, shocked whispers, in a mock ceremony of worship he had burned the carrion of a hyena, most abhorrent of all beasts to Osiris, upon the holy altar of gold, which even the most high of priests forbore to lay naked hands upon!

Standing before the awed assembly of nobles, the high Kha Semblor made a gesture with his hands, A cry broke from those who watched. Sentence had been delivered. Death had been pronounced as doom for the pharaoh.

The heavy, barred doors were shoved open. The crowd came out and within an hour a well-organized mob passed through the streets of Thebes, directed for the palace of the pharaoh. Mob justice was to be done.

Within the resplendent portals of the palace the pharaoh, ruler of all Egypt, watched with tightened brow the orderly but menacing approach of the mob. He divined their intent. But was he not their pharaoh? He could contend with gods, so why should he fear mere dogs of men?

A woman clung to his stiffened arm. She was tall and as majestically handsome as he. A garb of linen, as brilliantly golden as the sun, entwined her body closely, closely, and bands of jet were around her throat and forehead. She was the fair and well-loved Nitocris; sister of the pharaoh.

"Brother, brother!" she cried. "Light the fires! Pacify the dogs! They come to kill you."

Only more stern grew the look of the pharaoh. He thrust aside his pleading sister, and beckoned to the attendants.

"Open the doors!"

Startled, trembling, the men obeyed.

The haughty lord of Egypt drew his sword from its sheath. He slashed the air with a stroke that would have severed stone. Out on the steep steps leading between tall, colored pillars to the doors of the palace he stopped. The people saw him. A howl rose from their lips.

"Light the fires!"

The figure of the pharaoh stood inflexible as rock. Superbly tall and muscular, his bare arms and limbs glittering like burnished copper in the light of the brilliant sun, his body erect and tense in his attitude of defiance, he looked indeed a mortal fit to challenge gods.

What happened then seemed nothing less than a miracle. In his triumph and exultation, the pharaoh had been careless of the crumbling edges of the steps. Centuries old, there were sections of these steps which were falling apart. Upon such a section had the gold-sandaled foot of the pharaoh descended, and it was not strong enough to sustain his great weight. With a scuttling sound it broke loose. A gasp came from the mob—the pharaoh was about to fall. He looked as if he were grappling with some monstrous, invisible snake, coiled about his gleaming body. A hoarse cry burst from his lips; his sword fell; and then his body thudded down the steps in a series of wild somersaults, and landed at the foot, sprawled out before the gasping mob. For a moment there was breathless silence. And then came the shout of a priest.

"A sign from the god!"

That vibrant cry seemed to restore the mob to all of its wolflike rage. They surged forward. The struggling body of the pharaoh was lifted up and torn to pieces by their clawing hands and weapons. Thus was the god Osiris avenged.

II. A Pharaoh Is Avenged

A week later another large assembly of persons confronted the brilliant-pillared palace. This time they were there to acknowledge a ruler, not to slay one. The week before they had rended the pharaoh and now they were proclaiming his sister empress. Priests had declared that it was the will of the gods that she should succeed her brother. She was famously beautiful, pious, and wise. The people were not reluctant to accept her.

When she was borne down the steps of the palace in her rich litter after the elaborate ceremony of coronation had been concluded, she responded to the cheers of the multitude with a smile which could not have appeared more amiable and gracious. None might know from that smile upon her beautiful carmined lips that within her heart she was thinking, "These people who slew my brother. Ah, god Issus grant me power to avenge his death on them!"

Not long after the beauteous Nitocris mounted the golden throne of Egypt, rumors were whispered of some vast, mysterious enterprise being conducted in secret. A large number of slaves were observed each dawn to be carried down the river to some unknown point, where they labored throughout throughout the day, returning after dark. The slaves were Ethiopians, neither able to speak nor to understand the Egyptian language, and therefore no information could be gotten from them by the curious as to the object of their mysterious daily excursions. The general opinion though, was that the pious queen was having a great temple constructed to the gods and that when it was finished, enormous public banquets would be held within its dedication. She meant it to be a surprise gift to the priests who were ever desirous of some new place of worship and were dissatisfied with their old altars, which they said were defiled.

Throughout the winter the slaves repeated their daily excursions. Traffic of all kinds plying down the river was restricted for several miles to within forty yards of one shore. Any craft seen to disregard that restriction was set upon by a galley of armed men and pursued back into bounds. All that could be learned was that a prodigious temple or hall of some sort was in construction.

It was late in the spring when the excursions of the workmen were finally discontinued. Restrictions upon river traffic were withdrawn. The men who went eagerly to investigate the mysterious construction returned with tales of a magnificent new temple, surrounded by rich green, tropical verdure, situated near the bank of the river. It was a temple to the god Osiris. It had been built by the queen probably that she might partly atone for the sacrilege of her brother and deliver him from some of the torture which he undoubtedly suffered. It was to be dedicated within the month by a great banquet. All the nobles and the high priests of Osiris, of which there were a tremendous number, were to be invited.

Never had the delighted priests been more extravagant in their praises of Queen Nitocris. When she passed through the streets in her open litter, bedazzling eyes by the glitter of her golden ornaments, the cries of the people were almost frantic in their exaltation of her.

True to the predictions of the gossipers, before the month had passed the banquet had been formally announced and to all the nobility and the priests of Osiris had been issued invitations to attend.

The day of the dedication, which was to be followed by the night of banqueting, was a gala holiday. At noon the guests of the empress formed a colorful assembly on the bank of the river. Gayly draped barges floated at their moorings until preparations should be completed for the transportation of the guests to the temple. All anticipated a holiday of great merriment, and the lustful epicureans were warmed by visualizations of the delightful banquet of copious meats, fruits, luscious delicacies and less innocent indulgences.

When the queen arrived, clamorous shouts rang deafeningly in her ears. She responded with charming smiles and gracious bows. The most discerning observer could not have detected anything but the greatest cordiality and kindliness reflected in her bearing toward those around her. No action, no fleeting expression upon her lovely face could have caused anyone to suspect anything except entire amicability in her feelings or her intentions. The rats, as they followed the Pied Piper of Hamelin through the streets, entranced by the notes of his magical pipe, could not have been less apprehensive of any great danger impending them than were the guests of the empress as they followed her in gayly draped barges, singing and laughing down the sun-glowing waters of the Nile.

The most vivid descriptions of those who had already seen the temple did not prepare the others for the spectacle of beauty and grandeur which it presented. Gasps of delight came from the priests. What a place in which to conduct their ceremonies! They began to feel that the sacrilege of the dead pharaoh was not, after all, to be so greatly regretted, since it was responsible for the building of this glorious new temple.

The columns were massive and painted with the greatest artistry. The temple itself was proportionately large. The center of it was unroofed. Above the entrance were carved the various symbols of the god Osiris, with splendid workmanship. The building was immensely big, and against the background of green foliage it presented a picture of almost breathtaking beauty. Ethiopian attendants stood on each side of the doorway, their shining black bodies ornamented with bands of brilliant gold. On the interior the guests were inspired to even greater wonderment. The walls were hung with magnificent painted tapestries. The altars were more beautifully and elaborately carved than any seen before. Aromatic powders were burning upon them and sending up veils of scented smoke. The sacramental vessels were of the most exquisite and costly metals. Golden coffers and urns were piled high with perfect fruits of all kinds.

Ah, yes—a splendid place for the making of sacrifices, gloated the staring priests.

Ah, yes indeed, agreed the queen Nitocris, smiling with half-crossed eyes, it was a splendid place for sacrifices—especially for the human sacrifice that had been planned. But all who observed that guileful smile interpreted it as gratification over the pleasure which her creation in honor of their god had brought to the priests of Osiris. Not the slightest shadow of portent was upon the hearts of the joyous guests.

The ceremony of dedication occupied the whole of the afternoon. And when it drew to its impressive conclusion, the large assembly, their nostrils quivering from the savory odor of the roasting meats, were fully ready and impatient for the banquet that awaited them. They gazed about them, observing that the whole building composed an unpartitioned amphitheater and wondering where might be the room of the banquet. However, when the concluding processional chant had been completed the queen summoned a number of burly slaves, and by several iron rings attached to its outer edge they lifted up a large slab of the flooring, disclosing to the astonished guests the fact that the scene of the banquet was to be an immense subterranean vault.

Such vaults were decidedly uncommon among the Egyptians. The idea of feasting in one was novel and appealing. Thrilled exclamations came from the eager, excited crowd and they pressed forward to gaze into the depths, now brightly illuminated. They saw a room beneath them almost as vast in size as the amphitheater in which they were standing. It was filled with banquet tables upon which were set the most delectable foods and rich, sparkling wines in an abundance that would satiate the banqueters of Bacchus. Luxurious, thick rugs covered the floors. Among the tables passed nymphlike maidens, and at one end of the room harpists and singers stood, making sublime music.

The air was cool with the dampness of under-earth, and it was made delightfully fragrant by the perfumes of burning spices and the savory odors of the feast. If it had been heaven itself which the crowd of the queen's guests now gazed down upon they would not have considered the vision disappointing. Perhaps even if they had known the hideous menace that lurked in those gay-draped walls beneath them, they would still have found the allurement of the banquet scene difficult to resist.

Decorum and reserve were almost completely forgotten in the swiftness of the guests' descent. The stairs were not wide enough to afford room for all those who rushed upon them, and some tumbled over, landing unhurt upon the thick carpets. The priests themselves forgot their customary dignity and aloofness when they looked upon the beauty of the maiden attendants.

Immediately all of the guests gathered around the banquet tables, and the next hour was occupied in gluttonous feasting. Wine was unlimited, and so was the thirst of the guests. Goblets were refilled as quickly as they were made empty by the capacious mouths of the drinkers. The songs and the laughter, the dancing and the wild frolicking grew less and less restrained until the banquet became a delirious orgy.

The queen alone, seated upon a cushioned dais from which she might overlook the whole room, remained aloof from the general hilarity. Her thick black brows twitched; her luminous black eyes shone strangely between their narrow painted lids. There was something peculiarly feline in the curl of her rich red lips. Now and again her eyes sought the section of wall to her left, where hung gorgeous braided tapestries from the east. But it seemed not the tapestries that she looked upon. Color would mount upon her brow and her slender fingers would dig still tighter into the cushions she reclined upon.

In her mind the queen Nitocris was seeing a ghastly picture. It was the picture of a room of orgy and feasting suddenly converted into a room of terror and horror, human beings one moment drunken and lustful, the next screaming in the seizure of sudden and awful death. If any of those present had been empowered to see also that picture of dire horror, they would have clambered wildly to make their escape. But none was so empowered.

With increasing wildness the banquet continued into the middle of the night. Some of the banqueters, disgustingly gluttonous, still gorged themselves at the greasy tables. Others lay in drunken stupor, or lolled amorously with the slave girls. But most of them, formed in a great irregular circle, skipped about the room in a barbaric, joy-mad dance, dragging and tripping each other in uncouth merriment and making the hall ring with their ceaseless shouts, laughter, and hoarse song.

When the hour had approached near to midnight, the queen, who had sat like one entranced, arose from the cushioned dais. One last intent survey she gave to the crowded room of banquet. It was a scene which she wished to imprint permanently upon her mind. Much pleasure might she derive in the future by recalling that picture, and then imagining what came afterward—stark, searing terror rushing in upon barbaric joy!

She stepped down from the dais and walked swiftly to the steps. Her departure made no impression upon the revelers. When she had arrived at the top of the stairs she looked down and observed that no one had marked her exit.

Around the walls of the temple, dim-lit and fantastic-looking at night, with the cool wind from the river sweeping through and bending the flames of the tall candelabra, stalwart guardsmen were standing at their posts, and when the gold cloaked figure of the queen arose from the aperture, they advanced towards her hurriedly. With a motion, she directed them to place the slab of rock in its tight-fitting sockets. With a swift, noiseless hoist and lowering, they obeyed the command. The queen bent down. There was no change in the boisterous sounds from below. Nothing was yet suspected.

Drawing the soft and shimmering folds of her cloak about her with fingers that trembled with eagerness, excitement, and the intense emotion which she felt, the queen passed swiftly across the stone floor of the temple toward the open front through which the night wind swept, blowing her cloak in sheenful waves about her tall and graceful figure. The slaves followed after in silent file, well aware of the monstrous deed about to be executed and without reluctance to play their parts.

Down the steps of the palace, into the moon-white night passed the weird procession. Their way led them down an obviously secreted path through thick ranks of murmuring palms which in their low voices seemed to be whispering shocked remonstrances against what was about to be done. But in her stern purpose the queen was not susceptible to any dissuasion from god or man. Vengeance, strongest of passions, made her obdurate as a stone.

Out upon a rough and apparently new-constructed stone pier the thin path led. Beneath, the cold, dark waters of the Nile surged silently by. Here the party came to a halt. Upon this stone pier would the object of their awful midnight errand be accomplish.

With a low-spoken word, the queen commanded her followers to hold back. With her own hand she would perform the act of vengeance.

In the foreground of the pier a number of fantastic, wandlike levers extended upward. Towards these the queen advanced, slowly and stiffly as an executioner mounts the steps of the scaffold. When she had come beside them, she grasped one up thrust bar, fiercely, as if it had been the throat of a hated antagonist. Then she lifted her face with a quick intake of breath toward the moon-lightened sky. This was to her a moment of supreme ecstasy. Grasped in her hand was an instrument which could release awful death upon those against whom she wished vengeance. Their lives were as securely in her grasp as was this bar of iron.

Slowly, lusting upon every triumph-filled second of this time of ecstasy, she turned her face down again to the formidable bar in her hand. Deliberately she drew it back to its limit. This was the lever that opened the wall in the banquet vault. It gave entrance to death. Only the other bar now intervened between the banqueters, probably still reveling undisturbed, and the dreadful fate which she had prepared for them. Upon this bar now her jeweled fingers clutched. Savagely this time she pulled it; then with the litheness of a tiger she sprang to the edge of the pier. She leaned over it and stared down into the inky rush of the river. A new sound she heard above the steady flow. It was the sound of waters suddenly diverted into a new channel—an eager, plunging sound. Down to the hall of revelry they were rushing—these savage waters—bringing terror and sudden death.

A cry of triumph, wild and terrible enough to make even the hearts of the brutish slaves turn cold, now broke from the lips of the queen. The pharaoh was avenged.

And even he must have considered his avenging adequate had he been able to witness it.

After the retiring of the queen, the banquet had gone on without interruption of gayety. None noticed her absence. None noticed the silent replacing of the stone in the socket. No premonition of disaster was felt. The musicians, having been informed beforehand of the intended event of the evening, had made their withdrawal before the queen. The slaves, whose lives were of little value to the queen, were as ignorant of what was to happen as were the guests themselves.

Not until the wall opened up, with a loud and startling crunch, did even those most inclined toward suspicion feel the slightest uneasiness. Then it was that a few noticed the slab to have been replaced, shutting them in. This discovery, communicated throughout the hall in a moment, seemed to instill a sudden fear in the hearts of all. Laughter did not cease, but the ring of dancers were distracted from their wild jubilee. They all turned toward the mysteriously opened wall and gazed into its black depths.

A hush fell over them. And then became audible the mounting sound of rushing water. A shriek rose from the throat of a woman. And then terror took possession of all within the room. Panic like the burst of flames flared into their hearts. Of one accord, they rushed upon the stair. And it, being purposely made frail, collapsed before the foremost of the wildly screaming mob had reached its summit. Turbulently they piled over the tables, filling the room with a hideous clamor. But rising above their screams was the shrill roar of the rushing water, and no sound could be more provoking of dread and terror. Somewhere in its circuitous route from the pier to the chamber of its reception it must have met with temporary blockade, for it was several minutes after the sound of it was first detected that the first spray of that death-bringing water leapt into the faces of the doomed occupants of the room.

With the ferocity of a lion springing into the arena of a Roman amphitheater to devour the gladiators set there for its delectation, the black water plunged in. Furiously it surged over the floor of the room, sweeping tables before it and sending its victims, now face to face with their harrowing doom, into a hysteria of terror. In a moment that icy, black water had risen to their knees, although the room was vast. Some fell instantly dead from the shock, or were trampled upon by the desperate rushing of the mob. Tables were clambered upon. Lamps and candles were extinguished. Brilliant light rapidly faded to twilight, and a ghastly dimness fell over the room as only the suspended lanterns remained lit. And what a scene of chaotic and hideous horror might a spectator have beheld! The gorgeous trumpery of banquet invaded by howling waters of death! Gayly dressed merrymakers caught suddenly in the grip of terror! Gasps and screams of the dying amid tumult and thickening dark! What more horrible vengeance could Queen Nitocris have conceived than this banquet of death? Not Diablo himself could be capable of anything more fiendishly artistic. Here in the temple of Osiris those nobles and priests who had slain the pharaoh in expiation of his sacrilege against Osiris had now bet their deaths. And it was in the waters of the Nile, material symbol of the god Osiris, that they had died. It was magnificent in its irony!

I would be content to end this story here if it were but a story. However, it is not merely a story, as you will have discerned before now if you have been a student of the history of Egypt. Queen Nitocris is not a fictitious personage. In the annals of ancient Egypt she is no inconspicuous figure. Principally responsible for her prominence is her monstrous revenge upon the slayers of her brother, the narration of which i have just concluded. Glad would I be to end this story here; for surely anything following bust be in the nature of an anticlimax. However, being nor a mere storyteller here, but having upon me also the responsibility of a historian, I feel obliged to continue the account to the point where it was left off by Herodotus, the great Greek historian. And therefore I add this postscript, anticlimax though it be.

The morning of the day after the massacre in the temple, the guests of the queen not having made their return, the citizens of Thebes began to glower with dark suspicions. Rumors came to them through divers channels that something of a most extraordinary and calamitous nature had occurred at the scene of the banquet during the night. Some had it that the temple had collapsed upon the revelers and all had been killed. However, this theory was speedily dispelled when a voyager from down the river reported having passed the temple in a perfectly firm condition but declared that he had seen no signs of life about the place—only the brightly canopied boats, drifting at their moorings.

Uneasiness steadily increased throughout the day. Sage persons recalled the great devotion of the queen toward her dead brother, and noted that the guests at the banquet of last night had been composed almost entirely of those who had participated in his slaying.

When in the evening the queen arrived in the city, pale, silent, and obviously nervous, threatening crowds blocked the path of her chariot, demanding roughly an explanation of the disappearance of her guests. Haughtily she ignored them and lashed forward the horses of her chariot, pushing aside the tight mass of people. Well she knew, however, that her life would be doomed as soon as they confirmed their suspicions. She resolved to meet her inevitable death in a way that befitted one of her rank, not at the filthy hands of a mob.

Therefore upon her entrance into the palace she ordered her slaves to fill instantly her boudoir with hot and smoking ashes. When this had been done, she went to the room, entered it, closed the door and locked it securely, and then flung herself down upon a couch in the center of the room. In a short time the scorching heat and the suffocating thick fumes of the smoke overpowered her. Only her beautiful dead body remained for the hands of the mob.

  Rod Serling, Famous Writer

Molly Finnegan, in The Atlantic (October 12, 2006), looked back at Jessica Mitford's controversial Atlantic article, "Let Us Now Appraise Famous Writers" (July, 1970):

Jessica “Decca” Mitford… was a refugee of the British aristocracy. She chose a different path from most of her high society sisters—a life of radical activism, cultural exploration, and the not-terribly-glamorous profession of muckraking. As a newcomer to the United States, Mitford’s invaluable outside perspective enabled her to make incisive observations about the country, and she homed right in on America’s penchant for turning nearly everything into a commodity...

In another famous Atlantic piece, Mitford confronted the phony faculty of the Famous Writers School, a correspondence-course racket that promised fame and literary success to aspiring writers. Upon interviewing the 15 figureheads who appeared on the school’s marketing materials—writers of genuine literary accomplishment and renown who had allowed their names and images to be appropriated—she found that none were willing to take responsibility either for the quality of the instruction or for the deceptive advertising practices. Some incredulously insisted that the advertising wasn’t predatory because most people couldn’t be naïve enough to have fallen for it. Another frankly conceded that the program was pointless because, he said, “‘Of course, somebody with a real gift for writing wouldn’t have to be taught to write.’”

At the end of the piece, she imagined how the school might grade her article:

I can visualize the helpful comment on my paper: "Good work, Miss Mitford. The Oakland widow's problem was well thought through. But characterization is weak. You could have made your script more believable had you chosen a group of shiftyeyed hucksters out to make a buck, one step ahead of the sheriff, instead of these 15 eminently successful and solidly respectable writers, who are well liked and admired by the American viewing public. For pointers on how to make your characters come to life in a way we can all identify with, I suggest you study Rod Serling's script The Twilight Zone in the kit you received from us. Your grade is D-. It has been a pleasure working with you. Good luck!"
Thursday, October 25, 2007
  Xero Gravity
In 1960 I met Dick and Pat Lupoff and soon found myself working closely with them as the art director of their publication Xero. Dick calls Xero a "journal of popular culture" in this July 13, 2004 panel discussion on KUSP radio (88.9 in Santa Cruz, California). The other panelists are Jeremy Lassen (Night Shade Books), author Kage Baker (In the Garden of Iden), Pat Lupoff (children's book buyer for Cody's Books), Marty Halpern (Golden Gryphon), Jacob Weisman (Tachyon Publications) and moderator Rick Kleffel (The Agony Column).

Dick gave Xero a unique format, inspired by the Ace Doubles. One side of Xero targeted the science fiction community, both fans and professionals. Flip it over, and the other side was devoted to vintage comic books. It was a pioneering effort since almost no serious studies of comic books existed at that time. Xero went on to win a Hugo Award in 1963, and its articles on comics were later collected in the book All in Color for a Dime (Ace, 1970).

Above is a cover I did for Xero 9. I'm posting it here to clarify, since it was recently reprinted in The Best of Xero (Tachyon, 2004) with the caption crediting another artist. This was created by dripping rubber cement on a board, letting it dry, covering with India ink, pulling up the rubber cement and then drawing in the white areas. It was printed on red dayglo paper.

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Saturday, October 20, 2007
  EC Comics: From Here to Nudity
©2007 WMG and Wallace Wood Estate

A native of India, Fershid Bharucha became a French citizen, notable as an artist, editor, translator and publisher in France, where he introduced Europeans to American artists in his USA Special magazine and also published hardcover French albums with comics by Will Eisner, Rand Holmes, Shary Flenniken, Mark Schultz, Bernie Wrightson and others. His own artwork was in early issues of the Hot Stuf ' and Bizarre Sex undergrounds. I came in contact with Fershid through a curious sequence of events.

When I learned that a graphic story I had scripted and packaged for Heavy Metal had been reprinted in Europe, I contacted Heavy Metal to get additional payment for myself and the artists involved. The rates at Heavy Metal were so high that I didn't expect any problem in getting a check for their resale. However, I was taken aback by the magazine's curious response, which came down to, "Prove it." Apparently this was because no records were kept when stacks of materials were shipped to France. It seemed pointless to get into an argument over such a matter, so playing by their rules, I wrote to Fershid who gladly sent me some copies of USA Special with the full-color story. I passed a copy along to Heavy Metal with a bill, and eventually we did get paid.

When work on Against the Grain got underway in 1985, Fershid sent me some photocopies of Wally Wood art from his files. This included an odd, unlabeled inked drawing by Wood showing a man talking to a nude woman standing in front of his desk. Attached was a note from Fershid: "Woody rendered this panel on an EC page. Gaines didn't think it was funny. I don't know what story it's from. Do you?" It had a certain familiar feeling to it, and I began turning pages in Weird Science and Weird Science-Fantasy. It didn’t take more than a few minutes to spot it as identical to the layout and characters in panel six, page five of Wood's story "The Children" in Weird Science-Fantasy #23 (March, 1954), about the mutated children of space colonists.

As discussed in past interviews, pranks at EC often involved hoax art never intended to be published. On several occasions, Wood brought in finished art with fake pasteovers on top of panels, calculated to surprise someone in the office and trigger a laugh. Interviewed in Bill Spicer's Graphic Story Magazine, Harry Harrison recalled, "We did two or three stories which gave us some laughs monkeying around with the artwork, mainly to relieve us from the boredom of having to illustrate lousy scripts. One was on a story called “Playtime Cowgirl” for an EC Western romance (Saddle Romances 11, March-April 1950). We brought the thing in originally with a big dong in the horse’s crotch, about four feet long, circumcised with crabs, real crabs and lobsters hanging from it, spider webs, Band-Aids all over it. Turned it in to Gaines, who loved it and kept it to show to his advertising man, Lyle Stuart. They showed it around; then forgot about it. Finally, it went to the engraver where they took black plates of it, then proofs, which got as far as the colorist, who was the one who caught it. ‘Mr. Gaines, isn’t this kind of a funny-looking horse?’ Gaines screamed to think it could get so close to going through. We just painted it out. They reshot the black plate, but it almost got by. Another one was also in the romance comics. They always had some title like ‘She Married a Man Who Gave Her No Love,’ which we changed to ‘She Married a Man With No Balls At All’ and pasted it over the real title. Stuck a lot of baseballs and footballs around the artwork, which could be peeled off. We’d sit around in the studio and think of ways to liven up the stories this way.”

I stared at the page and the pasteover and realized this was a rare opportunity to see one of the long lost EC prank pages from decades earlier. With minimal effort I could reconstruct the way the panel looked in 1954. I went to a copy shop and sized the two elements to match. When I pasted them together, it was a perfect fit, requiring virtually no retouching, even though the background was different and the foreground figure was a silhouette in the original. So there it was: a restoration of the page as it appeared on the day Wood, anticipating hilarity, walked into the EC offices and pulled the finished inked story from his portfolio. I viewed this as a significant discovery, so the recreation page was included in the stack of artwork I wanted to include in Against the Grain.

As designer Greg Sadowski and I worked on the book, we became aware of the full extent of censorship executed on both language and images by prudish publisher John Morrow. To his credit, Morrow far outstrips many publishers in accurate accountings and immediate payments to creators. But in terms of censorship, it was as though decades had never passed, leaving Morrow with a retro view akin to the attitudes of mid-century Midwestern small towns. I had agreed to the censorship because I wanted to see the book published after years of waiting. (Fantagraphics had originally commissioned the book but did not move to print it. When ten years passed, I asked them to return it to me.)

Greg was so surprised by the censorship that he did not even really believe it was true. Once he got past his initial disbelief, he was forced to go through the book, yank certain pictures and insert replacements. It seemed important, however, to retain the page from "The Children," but that would require masking parts from the panel. Should we use black bars? White bars? Greg's solution was simply to white out three spots on the figure.

In retrospect, I should have just deleted the entire page from the book, because the imposed restraints sabotaged the situation. The caption explained it was a restoration, but the alteration to remove body parts from a previous alteration left some readers scratching their heads in complete confusion. They read the caption, looked at the panel but were baffled by the image of a nude turned into a non-nude, a riddle wrapped in a paler shade of enigmatic whiteness.

So this Potrzebie presentation is aimed at banishing bewilderment with a comparison of the various elements: the original EC panel, the EC prank panel and the page from the past.

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Friday, October 19, 2007
  Tower Bawher
October 28 is World Animation Day. Here is a clip from Theodore Ushev's Tower Bawher. To see the entire film (which may only be available for two weeks), go to World Animation Day at the National Film Board of Canada.

Born in Bulgaria, Ushev earned a 1995 Master's degree in graphic and poster design at the National Academy of Fine Arts in Sofia, and he taught there before moving to Canada in 1999. Working mainly in electronic graphic design, he was an art director for INPIX Media and now has his own design studio. Ushev has exhibited posters in Bulgaria, Finland, Germany, Japan, Denmark and Russia. His digital animation has been seen at festivals, including Annecy (Dissociation in 2002 and Well-Tempered Heads in 2003), Ottawa (Early in Fall, Late in Winter in 2002 and Vertical in 2004), Sundance, Rio de Janeiro and Leipzig. In 2003, BOF won the public's choice award at the Seoul and Barbizon festivals. Last year, Ushev co-directed OIAF's Signal Film.
Saturday, October 13, 2007
  France Joli sings "Come to Me" (Turn up the volume!)

The magnificent original 1979 recording of "Come to Me" (9:34) was by the magnetic France Joli. Born in Dorion, Quebec, in 1963, she began singing in her home when she was four. By 1974, at age 11, she was performing in talent shows and appearing in commercials. She was 16 years old when she created a sensation singing at Fire Island's July 4th, 1979 oceanfront party (substituting for a no-show Donna Summer), and later that year her "Come to Me" recording topped the 1979 Hot Dance charts at #1 and broke into Billboard's mainstream Top 20 at #15. The clip below is from September 9, 2006, in Paris. "I want everybody in the house to put up your hands! Everybody, come on... up, up, up!" Still mesmerizing and exhilarating after all these years.


Wednesday, October 10, 2007
  E. Simms Campbell
Here are three by E. Simms Campbell. One is a 1935 watercolor cartoon from Esquire showing tourists with cameras. The full-color cartoon with the caption is from his 1948 Esquire Calendar, "Ladies of the Harem." The Cuties cover is also from 1948. Cuties was Campbell's syndicated gag panel for King Features. Tina Fey used this same backwards dress situation as a pantomime gag in one of last season's 30 Rock episodes.

Born January 2, 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri, Campbell was the first African-American cartoonist to appear regularly in national mainstream slick magazines. Beginning in 1933, he was the leading cartoonist in Esquire, appearing in every issue for years, and he also was published in Playboy, Cosmopolitan and The New Yorker. He died January 27, 1971, in White Plains, New York.
Monday, October 08, 2007
  Chet Baker and Matt Damon: "My Funny Valentine"
The DVD of Bruce Weber's Let's Get Lost (1988) documentary about Chet Baker is reportedly due in December. Slightly out of synch, here are Chet Baker and Stan Getz (at a 1984 Stockholm concert).

Anthony Minghella, filming The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), felt that Chet Baker was key to the era depicted in the film, commenting, "More than anything else, it's Chet Baker that makes you feel the late 1950s." Thus, Matt Damon sings "My Funny Valentine," and the characters in the film visit the San Remo Jazz Festival where Chet Baker did appear in 1958.
Saturday, October 06, 2007
  Joyce Roodnat interviews David Lynch for Dutch television
The clip below is nine minutes of a much longer interview. Click here for the full December 3, 2006 interview with David Lynch, who speaks about Twin Peaks, Marilyn Monroe, 9/11, meeting Fellini, arthouses, the Internet, Edward Hopper, transcendental meditation, pure bliss consciousness and W.C. Fields. Included are clips from Howdy Doody, Blue Velvet, Loose Change, La Strada, The Mysterious Mr. Hopper, Eraserhead, It's a Gift, Lolita and other films.

Trailer from the new documentary Lynch (2007):

Friday, October 05, 2007
  Carradine by Wood
©2007 Wallace Wood Estate

This is Wally Wood's portrait of John Carradine, the only original art he did for Castle of Frankenstein.

As I recall, the notion of contributing to Castle of Frankenstein was Wood's idea. Noticing that I ran a review in Castle of his magazine witzend, he proposed to trade an original drawing for a witzend ad. This seemed like a fine trade, so I said yes.

Within a week, the drawing arrived. It had a ruby overlay to indicate where the halftone screen would go. We ran the ad, and many months later, when someone contributed an interview with Carradine, I pulled the Wood drawing from the filing cabinet and then flipped through a Dover book with ancient border designs. Amazingly, I found one where the vertical rectangular space in the middle perfectly matched the dimensions of the drawing. After the magazine was printed, the art went back into the files, so I don't know what became of the original.

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Monday, October 01, 2007
  Lapses of synapses
During a recent television discussion with Mel Brooks, Dick Cavett started talking about health expert J.I. Rodale, publisher of Today's Health. You may recall that Rodale was the person who died during a Cavett Show taping in 1971. It was fascinating to see that Mel Brooks thought Cavett was using the standard slang to describe a comedian "dying" on stage. Several exchanges went back and forth before Brooks understood that Cavett was talking about a guest who actually did drop dead during a talk show.

For The New York Times last May Cavett wrote a compelling memoir of the 1971 incident. But don't stop when you get to the end. The comments that follow offer a remarkable prismatic look into the nature of memory, since some recall watching that show even though it never aired. See Marshall Ephron "What Happened on the Dick Cavett Show" and Mark Evanier's "Dying on television" for different angles on Rodale's death.

What about dying on radio? On 23 January 1943, the critic Alexander Woollcott was at CBS as one of five panelists discussing "Is Germany Incurable?" on The People's Platform. The group also included novelists Rex Stout and Marcia Davenport (My Brother's Keeper). 

Suddenly, Woollcott wrote a note, "I am sick," and was helped out of the studio. Later, Marcia Davenport claimed she had killed Woollcott. The two apparently had a lifelong hatred of each other. As a child, Davenport had often been insulted by Woollcott when he was visiting her mother, soprano Alma Gluck. In the moments before the live broadcast of The People's Platform, the two had been hurling bitter invective back and forth, sending Woollcott into a frenzy during the final seconds before the program went on the air.

Minutes later, he suffered a heart attack followed by a cerebral hemorrhage. Woollcott was cremated, and his remains were mistakenly sent to Colgate University in Hamilton, New York. When the error was discovered, Woollcott was then shipped to his alma mater, Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, arriving with 67 cents postage due.

The cover painting for the Cardinal edition of Marcia Davenport's My Brother's Keeper (1954) is by Tom Dunn, who had been a U.S. Marine Corps Artist during WWII, and returned home to do numerous cover illustrations for Pocket Books, including Philip Wylie's The Disappearance.
Masquerade of the albino axolotls

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is the editor of Against the Grain: Mad Artist Wallace Wood (2003), reviewed by Paul Gravett.

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