Saturday, March 14, 2009

Early Influences: Part One - EC Comics & The Big Show

I enjoyed Tales from the Crypt before I could
even read... or talk... or walk....
It seems like fans are pretty interested in how Ol' Ron came to love monsters and horror and all manner of creepy stuff. I've touched on those early influences briefly in interviews, but never explored it in great detail. So I thought it might be fun to write a series of essays on those books and movies -- even folks -- that are responsible for stirring up this gooey gumbo of monster-loving mischief that I call a brain. As with most writers of horror and suspense, it all started with an interest in monster movies and comic books and eventually evolved into an appreciation for more adult fare (and I'm talking about Poe, not Playboy). So let's start with my earliest influences... the publications and motion pictures that turned an innocent child into a dyed-in-the-wool monster lover!
EC Comics
Although those great EC horror comics hit the newstand nearly ten years before my birth, I was influenced by their depravity at an early age... an extremely early age, in fact. To tell the truth, before I was even born.
Let me explain, before y'all brand me as a certified nutcase. I've told this story before a couple of times, so bear with me if you've heard it before. Back in 1959, my mother was pregnant with me and living in the rural town of Dickson, about forty miles southwest of Nashville. My father was in the Army overseas. He urged my mother to join him in Germany, but she refused to go, afraid that the hospitals over there weren't up to par and that something bad might happen during her delivery. Her intuition proved correct, for during my birth there were complications and both me and her nearly died. But I'm putting the haywagon before the mule here. Anyway, Mama rented a little house in Dickson and, while exploring the attic one day, discovered a huge stack of old EC horror comics amid the dust and cobwebs. Titles like Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, and Haunt of Fear. Well, she brought those comics down out of the attic and read them over and over again throughout her pregnancy. So, instead of a prenatal diet of sweet lyllabyes and nursery rhymes, I was fed a ghoulish goolash of reanimated corpses and bug-eyed, flesh-eating monsters. I don't know how valid the "knowledge-before-birth" theory is, but I did always share a strange sort of psychic connection with my mother (one that could be downright scary at times) and it's plausable that I might have absorbed some of the terror and disgust experienced as she read those "funny books" that had no Comics Code Approval stamp on their covers. At least that's how my relatives believe I turned out the way I did.
I did enjoy the reprints of those old EC horror comics later on, when I was in my teens. In fact, I bought an entire set of the hardcover Tales of the Crypt reprints, part of the Complete EC Library released by Russ Cochran in the '80s. Funny, when I read those gruesome and gory stories for the first time, many of them seemed vaguely familiar, although I'd never laid eyes on them before. So maybe there's something to the whole pre-natal literature influence after all.
The Big Show
No, I'm not referring to the morning show with John Boy & Billy that's a staple of Southern radio-listening. This Big Show was an afternoon movie fest hosted by weatherman Bob Lobertini on Nashville's WLAC television station back in the 1960's. I remember coming home from kindergarten, snuggling up on the couch with a jelly-jar tumbler of lime Kool-Aid and my favorite snack of peanut butter and Karo syrup on leftover breakfast biscuits (my mother's strange, but delicious concoction) and watching the Big Show. My friend, Mark Hickerson, insists that the program had different themes (Elvis and Beach Party movies), but all I remember was that they featured every monster movie ever made until that time (excluding silent films and really bad B-grade movies). This was my first introduction to these types of flicks and, particularly, the classic Universal Monster movies.

The best friends a five-year-old could have...
the Universal Monsters!

From that moment on, my outlook on life was changed. At that early and impressionable age, I was bitten by the "monster bug" and its bite was terminal. I sat and watched all the old Universal movies during that hour and a half following the sobering reality of public school. Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman, the Mummy, the Invisible Man... they all haunted my daydreams. None of them seemed particularly scary... just fun to watch. My imagination began to reform itself during the viewing of those black and white horror flicks. I found myself stepping out of the grim reality of day-to-day existance (we were poor folks living in a rental house in Nashville at the time, my father earning a whopping $40 bucks a week at his tool-and-die job) and into those spooky landscapes with their crumbling castles and fog-shrouded moors. There were other monster movies on the Big Show as well, all wonderful, but none giving me the true shudders. I remember movies like The Incredible Shrinking Man, War of the Collosal Beast, and Monster on Campus... the one where the fluid from a prehistoric fish leaks into the pipe of a college professor, turning him into a flannel-wearing, hatchet-slinging Neanderthal Man. I also remember watching a movie called The Monolith Monsters, where the equivent of giant Magic Rocks reeked havoc and thinking, even at that young age, that the plot was ill-formed and downright idiotic.

Then came the Universal monster who, for the first time, transended our little 16" black and white TV screen and swam its way into my five-year-old nightmares...

The first monster to invade my nightmares...
The Creature from the Black Lagoon!

The Creature from the Black Lagoon was the first Universal Monster movie that had a truly horrifying impact on me. The Wolfman came close, but it was the Gillman who conjured a shudder of fear and infected my psyche with the potential for both loving horror and being affected by it in a deliciously dark way. I guess the Creature with his scales, gills, and razor-sharp claws presented a monster in a much more menacing way than the other members of the Universal crew did. I mean, he actually looked real! The Wolfman was hairy and scary, but he did roam the European countryside in well-pressed shirt and slacks. The Gillman was nakedly horrifying; he wasn't a human being who had eventually evolved into a monster like all the other Universal monsters... this was what he had been since birth, full of fury and resentment of those who would invade his precious Black Lagoon. The scene in which he attacks the men in the tent was one of the most horrifying I had witnessed up until that time and, even though you only see the Gillman's webbed claw groping through the tent flaps, the result is terrifying. I remember waking up in the middle of the night several times that week after watching The Creature from the Black Lagoon, crying out for my mother, swearing that the Gillman had been in my bedroom, stinking of swamp algae, his fish-eyes gleaming in the glow of the streetlight outside my window. I remember my mother debating whether I should be allowed to watch the Big Show again but, eventually, she succumbed to my youthful pleas and soon I was watching more Creature features like Revenge of the Creature and The Creature Walks Among Us (my least favorite in the series... after all, he wore clothes through the majority of the movie. What a bummer!)

Also at this time, I was first exploring my artistic side. My mother fashioned me a binder loaded with school paper and I would draw each monster as I sat there watching. Before I began first grade, I must have had at least eighty drawings of every movie monster imaginable. What I wouldn't give for that binder of childish sketches right now...

So, with the introduction of the Universal Monsters, my horrifying lot in life was set... my destiny forged with yak hair, fake fangs, and latex scales. From that moment onward, my interest in normal boyhood interests diminished. I traded in my baseball cards and catcher's mit for lumbering man-made men and Transylvanian counts. And upon my chest was pinned the badge of weirdo. But it was a metal I wore proudly and without shame...

Coming up next: As I advance toward my pre-teen years, my love of monsters is joined by a brand new love... of web-slinging nerds, green-skinned behemoths, and steely men who can leap tall buildings at a single bound!

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