ENTRY FROM THE ST. JAMES BOOK OF HORROR, GHOST AND GOTHIC WRITERS

FromThe St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost and Gothic Writers (ed. David Pringle (St. James Press, 1998); entry by Gary Westfahl.

While many horror writers have grown up in or moved to Los Angeles, the milieu of that city is perhaps most powerfully reflected in the works of David J. Schow. Manifestly drawing upon first-hand knowledge, he often writes cynically but sympathetically about the inhabitants of its many colourful subcultures -- film executives, rock musicians, models, gang members -- as well as ordinary Angelenos with more mundane occupations. In addition, Schow regularly projects a uniquely Californian philosophy, on the one hand aggressively proclaiming one's independence from roots and traditions while embracing everything alien, heterodox and repulsive, and on the other hand shyly revealing a sentimental longing for the old-fashioned morality and loving relationships of Leave it to Beaver. So it is that Richard Christian Matheson, writing about the author proclaimed the "father of Splatterpunk" (a term Schow coined) and renowned for his shockingly explicit violence, would speak of Schow's "secret tenderness."

While there are these continuities through Schow's short fiction, his collections each bring out a different aspect of his singular talents.Lost Angels (which contains the introduction by Richard Christian Matheson referred to above), designed to have "thematic unity," displays his fascination with Los Angeles in some of his gentlest and most understated works; Seeing Red demonstrates his mastery of the conventional horror story; and Black Leather Required shows Schow taking risks and going to extremes in depictions of kinky sex and graphic violence.

Three of the five stories in Lost Angels seem especially striking. In "Red Light" a glamourous model, after expressing fears that repeatedly having her photograph taken is somehow draining her life away, mysteriously vanishes. In "Pamela's Get" a neglected young woman invents three imaginary companions and somehow makes them real; when she dies, one of them makes a desperate but unsuccessful attempt to stay alive. "Monster Movies" is the touching story of a young boy who makes a ritual out of watching Friday-night monster movies, his cruel stepmother who burns his monster magazines and forbids his television viewing, and the young woman who, many years later, lovingly restages the ritual for the now-adult fan.

A fascination with horror movies also surfaces in some of the stories inSeeing Red. "One for the Horrors" is about a seedy movie theatre that inexplicably shows old movies with never-before-seen scenes. "Blood Rape of the Lust Ghouls" involves a reviewer of exploitation movies who murders his wife and tries to escape through a movie poster into a parallel world. "Coming Soon to a Theatre Near You" depicts another decrepit movie house that is run by dead bodies animated by colonies of cockroaches. Insects taking over human bodies also figure in "The Woman's Version" while "Night Bloomer" describes an executive who takes a seed from a mysterious woman to grow a magical plant which kills a despised superior -- but then learns that his body has become an incubator for thousands of deadly seeds. Other stories in the collection include "Bunny Didn't Tell Us," where inept graverobbers unearth and struggle with a zombie; "Pulpmeister," about the hero of a hack writer's series who comes to life and takes over the task of writing his novels; "Incident on a Rainy Night in Beverly Hills," which describes a Hollywood conspiracy to murder people as a way to boost ticket sales; and "Visitation," where a man attempts to defeat an anticipated outbreak of demonic energy in a Los Angeles hotel.

One standout story in Black Leather Required is the astonishing "Scoop Makes a Swirly," where Mikey, a small-time hood known as "Scoop," finds himself tied back-to-back to a headless corpse and left floating in an underground sewer, struggling to turn around and gulp some air before inhaling another mouthful of turd-filled water. He finally comes ashore, fighting off rats gnawing at his body, to encounter a strange group of subterranean exiles who regard him as the messiah predicted by their singular religion, destined to be blessed by a monstrous alligator. When they turn on Scoop after he refuses to follow the script and kills the approaching creature, he wriggles into its body to escape in the guise of a monster; he finally reaches a ladder to the surface and "ascended back into the world of hurt." In summary, the story sounds like little more than an excuse for one gross-out after another; yet readers will find Scoop remarkably endearing in his stubborn determination to survive in the face of some of the worst indignities imaginable, and he oddly emerges as a truly heroic figure, a Ulysses for the 1990s.

Other stories in the Black Leather collection that combine repulsiveness and charm are "Jerry's Kids Meet Wormboy," best described as a colourful comic romp set in the universe of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead; "Life Partner," where a woman discovers that her man is a better companion -- and better lover -- after he dies; and "Pitt Night at the Lewistone Boneyard," about a lonely man who is visited by the rotting remains of several dead relatives. Two other noteworthy stories feature dinosaurs: "Sedalia," where dinosaurs begin to briefly materialize to rampage and defecate in modern cities, and "Kamikaze Butterflies," a wild take on Ray Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder" where people return to the days of the dinosaurs deliberately determined to do as much damage as possible and thus completely alter history.

Schow's novels to date have attracted less attention than his stories.The Kill Riff is essentially a gripping suspense novel about Lucas Ellington, a Vietnam veteran (a frequent figure in Schow's fiction) who is unhinged by his daughter's accidental death during a rock concert and methodically sets out to murder all members of the group that performed that night. Its most horrific touch is a psychologist's theory that Lucas's personality type -- the psychopath who is utterly obsessed by his own world view and single-mindedly determined to achieve his goals -- may represent a successful and soon-to-be common adaptation to the pressures of modern life. His other novel,The Shaft, is an expanded version of a story of that name included inBlack Leather Required; it features a criminal who accidentally causes a woman's death, flees to Chicago, and eventually falls into a loathsome quagmire at the bottom of as ventilation shaft.

In recent years, while continually promising to publish a third novel and fourth collection, Schow has focused on film and television scripts, his most significant known accomplishment being his rewrite of John Shirley's screenplay for The Crow. Given the titles of some of the other films he has worked on, one must hope that he is merely engaged in extended research for his next Hollywood horror story.

 

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