Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Throat Sprockets Cult

Pierre Olivier-Templier's cover art for the French edition of my novel THROAT SPROCKETS.

It has now been more than twenty years since I first published anything bearing the title THROAT SPROCKETS. It first appeared as a 12-page story in the premiere issue of Steve Bissette's horror anthology TABOO, published in the Fall of 1988. The initial tale was conceived as the first chapter of a graphic novel; it was illustrated in remarkable photo-realistic style by Mike Hoffman and garnered a lot of favorable attention. TABOO's debut issue also featured the work of comics royalty like Alan Moore, Steve himself, Eddie Campbell and Charles Burns, but many reviewers singled out "Throat Sprockets" -- my very first published work in comics -- as the collection's best story. I've never forgotten how, while attending an Ohio comics convention with Steve around that time, someone I knew locally (who had never really given me much of the time of day before) came up to the table where we were signing, clasped my hand in both of his, shook it vigorously, and congratulated me with all the earnestness of a priest. His sincere appreciation of the story was my first glimmer of the impact THROAT SPROCKETS would have on certain people.

I'd like to say "people" in general, rather than "certain people," because that would mean the initial positive reaction went on to become more widespread. Alas, while TABOO went on to introduce other developing graphic novels (like Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell's FROM HELL and Moore & Melinda Gebbie's LOST GIRLS), the graphic version of THROAT SPROCKETS was stillborn, never completed. This was partly due to the fact that Mike's photo-realistic style required so much time to execute, and also because my comics scripts -- possibly as a result from the Alan Moore SWAMP THING scripts that Steve used to school me in the technique -- were becoming not only more detailed and more complex, but untenably long. The second chapter, "Transylvania mon amour" in TABOO #3 (1989) ran a full 30 pages. In retrospect, it seems obvious that the graphic-novel-in-progress was crying out to become the traditional novel I eventually wrote. It was Steve who encouraged me to do this, and it took some doing because I had already written, and failed to sell, numerous other literary novels. But I knew I couldn't continue with the way things were going: my working relationship with Mike Hoffman worsened after we met, and my only contact with his successor David Lloyd (V FOR VENDETTA) -- who ultimately did a splendid job of illustrating the third story, "The Disaster Area" for TABOO #8 (June 1995) -- was a belligerent note he fired off to me on an Edward G. Robinson postcard, when I suggested adding a single panel to a page I had scripted. The three issues of TABOO in which the THROAT SPROCKETS arc appear -- numbers 1, 3 and 8, respectively -- are long out-of-print, but Steve makes a dwindling number of personal stash copies available at SR Bissette's Online Emporium. If you're at all interested, order now because the supply is just about gone.

I would never have proceeded with the novel without the support of a literary agent. My first agent, an enthusiastic young woman named Cathy Mahar, took on the project -- then, in a preview of things to come, decided to quit agenting just as things started happening. Cathy did give me the lead that got me accepted as a client by agent Lori Perkins, and Cathy and I kept in sporadic touch until I received the tragic news of her death, from a brain aneurysm, just weeks after she had sent me a congratulatory letter on the book's acceptance by editor Jeanne Cavelos at Dell. THROAT SPROCKETS was originally acquired by Jeanne to be part of her Abyss horror series, but because the manuscript was considered to be literary noir than traditional horror, it was held back from release a full year and finally issued in September 1994 as the first original novel under the new Cutting Edge imprint. It was preceded by the first softcover edition of Patrick McCabe's THE BUTCHER BOY (which featured an ad for THROAT SPROCKETS on its closing page), which had already appeared in hardcover from another company.

Despite a front cover endorsement by Bret Easton Ellis, a sexed-up subtitle I had nothing to do with ("A novel of erotic obsession"), and unanimous rave reviews, Dell's lack of promotional support (made worse by Jeanne's departure from the company and her replacement by a chilly editorial contact who, I was told, found my book offensive) killed it in its crib. Though Ellen Datlow called it the year's best first novel, THROAT SPROCKETS went unnominated in any of the fiction categories for literary horror awards. It was subsequently published in Great Britain by 4th Estate, who gave it lovely hardcover and softcover editions, and it fared somewhat better overseas than here. It was later translated into French by Simon Lhopiteau as SALLES OBSCURES ("Darkened Theatres") for Pocket Books' Terreur line in Paris. The cover of the French edition (pictured above, a painting by Pierre Olivier-Templier) is my personal favorite, one of the most extraordinary covers I've seen on any book. I so wish I owned the original.

THROAT SPROCKETS, the novel, has been named as one of the best horror novels by at least two reference books compiling such lists, and RUE MORGUE recently included it in a list of essential progressive horror fiction. Despite this continuing interest and support, the book has now been out of print for thirteen years, and there is no sign of it being reprinted and given a chance for broader recognition. With internet booksellers offering used copies at a lower price than it costs to mail it, I can easily understand, especially in this economy, why publishing companies might not see the wisdom of throwing new money in its direction. Though I make no profit from these used copies, they are like seedlings, continuing to bring me new readers brave enough to read fiction by someone principally known for writing non-fiction.

In the very first sentence of the first review of my book I ever read, a wonderful write-up in FANGORIA, Linda Marotta called THROAT SPROCKETS "the kind of novel around which cults are formed." The enthusiasm of her review braced me for imminent fame and fortune, which didn't come, but she was prophetic in that she foresaw a cult for the book.

If you type the words "throat sprockets" into the search engine at Amazon.com, you will be taken to a page that not only shows the various editions of my novel, but lists other works of fiction that, uncannily, pay it tribute. A story by VW's Kim Newman -- called "Castle in the Desert" in THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST NEW HORROR 12 and "The Other Side of Midnight" in VAMPIRE SEXTETTE -- namechecks the imaginary film in my novel as a real one, and a vivid character I mentioned only in passing, porn director Debbie W. Griffith, is discussed as though a real person. For all I know, today she may well be... it would sit well beside the fact that a 1996 horror novel, ESCARDY GAP by Peter Crowder and James Lovegrove, features a Nurse Sprocket (possibly a nod to my novel's "Once Upon a Time in the West" chapter, set in a hospital) and refers on page 252 to the "throat sprockets" of an old projector in a movie theater. Last year, Rayo Casablanca's novel 6 SICK HIPSTERS placed a copy of THROAT SPROCKETS in a character's apartment as a sign of their good taste. To my even greater surprise, two different books about music make reference to THROAT SPROCKETS, citing its depiction of cinemania as reflective of the masculine record collecting impulse.

Which brings us to this curious turn of events. As of last week, when you type "throat sprockets" into the Amazon.com search engine, my book is no longer the first thing you see. The newest THROAT SPROCKETS on the block is the debut CD (pictured) of an inventive and energetic band from Glendale, California, who call themselves, with my blessing, Throat Sprockets. The 14-track album on Cat Sandwich Records is available from both Amazon and CDBaby.com. CDBaby.com also makes it available as an mp3 download.

The lead singer of the group, who goes by the name Miss Lonelyhearts, sent me a copy of the disc for my thoughts. It's one of the most intimidating review duties I've ever had to face, because I feel a paternal connection to these fans of my book who wanted to carry its banner, so to speak. (Miss Lonelyhearts told me "It's the best band name since Led Zeppelin!") But what if I didn't care for what they produced under the auspices of my title? Would I want to withdraw my permission? Could I?

Fortunately, I need no longer fret over such questions because, having listened to THROAT SPROCKETS a few times, I do like it. It's noisy, quirky, clever and unpredictable. Like most debut independent releases, it finds the band still in the process of discovering their group identity, their group sound, but the search itself takes them through a series of interesting mutations. It's a map of their musical interests and ranges rather than a focused statement, and its presentation is so cryptic -- no personnel listing, no explanation for the front or back cover illustrations, and the album's opening and closing guitar notes are in Morse code -- that it conveys the feel of a message launched in a bottle, sent out in search of the right ears eager to listen.

"The Bruiser" is probably the most commercial and fully realized track of the bunch, but I find myself most attracted to the more lyrical "Small Potatoes" (really lovely) and "Violent Kisses," which I think feature the best singing on the album. Several songs have a strong melodic sense and, at the same time, a quirky experimental edge; the sound of Throat Sprockets is a slippery, busy, noodly sound, at different times whimsically juvenile, brashly teenage and emotionally armored young adult, veering somewhere between instrumental virtuosity and André Gide's admonition "Do not understand me too quickly." Sometimes the music and lyric are willfully contradictory. For example, "Each and Every Day" might have been the standout, but the bluesy gravitas of the lyric seems to belong to a different song, the accompaniment so contrary as to deny the emotions the words express. Miss Lonelyhearts, whose voice I file mentally between Joan Jett and Belinda Carlisle, alternates vocals with an unnamed male bandmember, but his tracks don't particularly grab me. I suspect the more melodic inclinations of the band will guide them to a unique group sound before their thrash numbers will, but it's the band's call, of course -- and everything depends on what they add to these building blocks. I'm told they have already moved on creatively from here, and will start recording their second album shortly.

Bottom line: Though I found the THROAT SPROCKETS album too scattershot to pin down as a whole, it held my interest throughout with its constant edge of invention, and it kept my foot tapping. It is engaging, and I'm proud to be reached by this latest ripple from the book I cast on the waters all those years ago.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Gone, or Updike Underground

The great American novelist John Updike has died, a lung cancer victim, at the age of 76.. As a stylist, he was certainly comparable to his great hero Vladimir Nabokov. A few of his novels (like THE CENTAUR) and most of his poetry I found insufferably precious, but the Rabbit books, his stories about the disintegrating Maple family, and even the Bech comedies are remarkable core samples of their times; I can remember images and turns of phrase from RABBIT REDUX, which I read more than 20 years ago, as vividly as I remember anything I saw with my own two eyes in the 1960s. Updike was also one of the great literary critics and essayists of our time, and the enormous books he published collecting this material -- PICKED-UP PIECES, HUGGING THE SHORE and ODD JOBS, for example -- are eminently worthwhile. He wrote especially well about nature, money, the realities of business and middle age, illicit sexual relationships and Herman Melville. I also loved the way he stuck with Alfred J. Knopf as his publisher from, I believe, his second book on -- the hardcovers under the dust wrappers forming a rainbow-hued uniform edition of his collected works. My title may seem irreverent, but remembering his own proclivities for alliteration and rhyme, I feel it is very close to the title he would have selected for his own obit.