Friday, January 06, 2006

I've Got the Hots for HOTS (revised)

This pretty thing is the cover of a 1964 digest-sized fanzine -- HORRORS OF THE SCREEN -- published out of Brooklyn, New York by one Alexander Soma. I've been in love with this impressionistic cover drawing of Steven Ritch (as he appeared in THE WEREWOLF, 1956) since I first saw it reproduced in the pages of, I think, a survey of fan press ventures in FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND, probably 40 years ago. Today I finally succeeded in laying hands on a copy of this long-coveted relic and learned that the name of the artist responsible was Charles Johnson.

1964 was a long time ago, of course, and HORRORS OF THE SCREEN (or HOTS for short, as it called itself) has since faded into obscurity from an only slightly more prominent level of obscurity. I don't know how many copies were published, but the scarcity of HOTS has been an unfortunate obstacle in terms of Alexander Soma and company being properly remembered and acknowledged for what they brought to the field of horror movie fan publishing. In brief, HOTS appears to have been the earliest fanzine to insist on the need for more serious writing and reportage about the genre -- something attempted previously only by Calvin T. Beck's one-shot enterprise of 1959 , THE JOURNAL OF FRANKENSTEIN.

In "The Monster Philosophy," the editorial of HOTS #3, the genesis of Soma's brainchild is explained: "In 1961, FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND was for the most part a 'phun-filled' monsterzine aimed at the younger set, with little regard for the serious horror-phantasy addict. This was also true of the few 'fanzines' [note the quotes! it was an uncommon term!] available then! Alex Soma gathered several friends in the New York area and discussed the idea of publishing a completely serious fanzine. Thus the first 'crude' issue of HOTS was born."

I have also obtained the first "Collector's Edition" issue of HOTS (pictured here), published in the Spring of 1962, which describes itself as an "experimental" issue and welcomes fine-tuning suggestions from its readers. Though ambitious, it is a bit of a mess, with a cut-and-paste interior look and lots of typographic errors. "Please excuse the price of HORRORS," the publisher/editor pleads on the first page, "due to printing costs, mailing, and limited circulation we are forced to charge fifty cents." A sentence like this brings the artifact into sharper perspective. HOTS #1 was truly a homemade venture, literally typed onto paper and pasted onto boards with photographs from a variety of sources. In those days, when mimeography and ditto-press ruled, for a fanzine to include photographs at all was a big deal. HOTS was actually lithographed, and the first issue had a laminated cover.

In the Spring of 1962, the debut issue of Beck's CASTLE OF FRANKENSTEIN had only just appeared (in February), and the first issue of the influential French digest MIDI-MINUIT FANTASTIQUE was just around the corner, coming out in May/June 1962. So a journal devoted to the serious discussion of horror cinema was extremely novel at the time, in any language. That said, the first issue of HOTS is hardly for intellectuals only; it's pretty basic from a contemporary viewpoint. The contents cover four articles: an overview of silent horror films 1885 - 1927, a biographical sketch of Vincent Price, a short and superficial survey of recent "macabre fiction" (illustrated with the same portrait of Christopher Lee -- in black-and-white, sans overlays -- that soonafter graced the cover of CASTLE OF FRANKENSTEIN's second issue in full color), and an 18-page illustrated story synopsis of Hammer's THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN.

As is noted in HOTS #3, this synopsis article appears to have inspired FAMOUS MONSTERS to follow their example by undertaking their own long-running series of "filmbooks" (which began in earnest circa 1963, around the time of their popular BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN filmbook), making this otherwise unexceptional piece rather a seminal moment in this particular sphere of publishing. Nearly all the photos reproduced inside the debut issue are familiar to us today, though Soma's editorial describes some as "never before published." There is one signed photo of Lon Chaney (Sr.) that I don't remember seeing before.

I don't have the second issue, which sported a not-very-accomplished drawing of Christopher Lee as Dracula on the cover, but compared to the first, the third issue represents something of a quantum leap. Here Alexander Soma is listed only as publisher, with John Eyman recruited as editor. The first issue's typos are a thing of the past, and the interior features a number of different typefaces or fonts, with some articles even presented via the miracle of reverse type (white on black). Very attractive. The unsigned articles (likely by Soma) in #1 here advance to a number of different contributors, including articles on Bela Lugosi and Peter Cushing written by their then-fan club presidents William C. Obbaggy and Annette Florance. (The Cushing Filmography ends with 1962's NIGHT CREATURES!) Short reviews or looks at such films as THE FLY, THE MAN WHO COULD CHEAT DEATH, THE BIRDS and THE INNOCENTS fill out the issue, but most interesting of all is Edwin Schallert's surprisingly detailed study of how John Fulton created the special effects in James Whale's THE INVISIBLE MAN, probably explained in print for the first time and presented with fascinating procedural illustrations. It's a piece that many fanzines would be proud to publish (or reprint) today.

One of the biggest surprises of HOTS #3 is its letters page, which starts off with a letter from Christopher Lee himself (the likes of which I never saw in the pages of FM or CoF!) and a very sharply observed and thoughtful communiqué about adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe in the cinema from none other than Joe Dante, Jr., of 68 Crestview Drive in Parsippany, NJ!

Looking back at this third issue of HOTS, one feels the stage has been set for something truly wonderful to follow -- but, for whatever reason, it didn't happen. Number 3 was the final issue of HORRORS OF THE SCREEN. I can't find any further information on Alexander Soma or John Eyman, so I have no idea if they couldn't afford to continue, if it was simply too early to make an idea like this succeed, or if the two of them were packed off to Viet Nam. (If anyone within range of this blog knows more, please tell me.) But their pioneering efforts surely inspired other fan publishers to follow their example, and thus we had Fred Clarke's CINEFANTASTIQUE (preceded by his and Dave Keil's GARDEN GHOULS GAZETTE), Gary Svehla's GORE CREATURES (later MIDNIGHT MARQUEE), and countless others who loved FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND but felt the urge to move beyond it.

I'm just seeing these two issues for the first time today, so I could not honestly claim that HORRORS OF THE SCREEN was an influence on me and what I've done with VIDEO WATCHDOG... and yet, in its pages, I can see what must have inspired the people whose work did inspire me. Examining these 40 year-old fanzines has left me feeling more deeply in touch with the world in which I make my living. And I'm grateful.

5 comments:

  1. Alex Soma worked as a book designer in the 1970s and 1980s with Harry Chester's Studio. He did PSYCHO and other Richard Anobile books. Also such books as ART NOUVEAU POSTCARDS and THE POSTER ART OF TOMI UNGERER. Use Google Book Search for other credits. The last time I saw Alex was at the Chester Studio around 1977. I'm told that he's currently not doing too well healthwise.

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  2. Anonymous1:09 PM

    Glad to see the review, it just so happens I know one of the 'several friends' involved in the creation of HOTS, his name is published in the Fanzine, initials PB, he actually lugged the copies from the printer on the subway all the way to Soma's house. he told me that they published around 2000 copies, and has fond memories of hanging with Soma at his home during the creation of HOTS. Funny thing is he still has a bag full of originals.

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  3. My name is Alexander Soma & I live in PA. But I am only 9. There may be a relation to this other Alexander Soma, as my father's ancestors came to Brooklyn from Italy and lived there during that time.

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  4. Anonymous10:29 PM

    Tonight...we just bought in an auction the two editions shown above plus the 1963 edition with the cover image of Bela Lugosi and The Original Dracula. I see this Blog is 5 years old...so interested if it's still being followed! Buck & Caroline from Georgia!

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  5. I still update this blog from time to time, Buck & Caroline, and we still get traffic here!

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