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Sunday, November 19, 2017

Thanksgiving 1996

     I awaken with a simple desire: to pick up where I left off in Final Fantasy III. I am finally getting around to playing the game, two years after its initial release, in the fallow period before I get my Nintendo 64 for Christmas. I am borrowing my friend's copy, as well as a gargantuan strategy guide he has downloaded from the primordial internet that is approximately the size of the FBI's file on the John F. Kennedy assassination. These few late autumn days off from school give me the precious time I need to take on this adventure that some say lasts upwards of a hundred hours. I have spent the last several wandering back and forth through a small patch of forest fighting dinosaurs.
     I'm still adjusting to my environment. Just a few months ago, my family moved on up from our mobile home of ten years to a two-story townhouse on the other side of the city. Though I'm still rather annoyed that we never went back to retrieve the rest of my belongings as promised (R.I.P. Teddy Ruxpin and Grubby), we did snag the important stuff, and I no longer have to remain on the same floor as my parents. A fair trade, I suppose.
     From downstairs, the orchestral refrain of the Fox Sports anthem announces the commencement of the several hours of jabbering that precedes the holiday football games. It is accompanied by other traditional Thanksgiving noises: the clink of ice in a glass, the fizzy gurgle as Captain Morgan and Coca-Cola join it within the vessel, the murmured obscenities from the kitchen that will crescendo into a roar by the afternoon. I turn up the volume on my bulky black tube television, neon green dots on the screen expanding into bars as the score of FFIII swells. I make sure to keep it within reason; my mother hates video game music, and I'd like to avoid unnecessary confrontation today.
     The morning passes as planned, with a minimum of contact with my family (it's a rookie mistake not to pace oneself in terms of exposure on the holidays). The Chiefs and Lions game is well underway when the hunger pangs begin a'pangin'. The roasting turkey's succulent aroma has begun wafting into my quarters, and I can resist its siren smell no longer. Reluctantly, I tear my admittedly weary eyes away from the television to head to the kitchen. It's time to indulge in the traditional Thanksgiving snacks.
     I don't know when or how it started, but the selection of pre-dinner Thanksgiving treats in the Marsilio household has long been set in stone. As I approach the kitchen table, I see the goofy serving dish we've been using for years, a plastic blue flower with each petal a separate section containing a different food item. I smile, knowing the culinary joys enplated therein. The menu, as it were, consists of the following:

-Deviled eggs. These hard-boiled, silky smooth delights, their creamy yolks accentuated by a hint of smoky paprika, are ironically simply heavenly.
-Celery sticks, with their green ravine filled to the brim with Kraft Bacon & Cheddar spread. The celery is merely a vessel, as is often celery's lot in life, to showcase the incomparable spread. Were I only to know that it would be discontinued years later, replaced by inferior spreads like the Handi-Snacks-esque Pub Cheese, I would relish the moment and consume even more. On the plus side, the lack of this future sight is likely sparing me some future gastrointestinal distress.
-Black olives. Just black olives, straight from the can, onto the dish, and into my mouth.
-Two items in separate sections meant to be enjoyed together: Saltine crackers and smoked baby clams that had been packed with cottonseed oil in a tin. The technique here is to pile as many clams on a Saltine as possible, add a dash of Tabasco sauce on top, and savor the flavor of Poseidon's own barbecue. The only thing greater than the taste is the degree of difficulty involved in not dripping a viscous oil/Tabasco mixture on the other foods at the table. In the years to come, as my sister would embrace veganism as a lifestyle, my father would taunt her by eating these slowly in front of her, while gleefully inquiring how upset she was that he was consuming "smoked babies" in front of her. This bit would be about as well-received as one would expect.
-Beside the bottle of Tabasco, a separate bowl contains a heaping selection of nuts, including filberts, almonds and Brazil nuts, which my relatives refer to by a name containing a horrific racial slur. I always enjoy them, but having to hand-crack each one grows tiresome, and after a while I just go back for more deviled eggs and clams.

     Having been provided adequate sustenance by the White Trash Classics tasting menu, I return to my room to sit on my ass and continue my epic virtual journey. Yet within minutes, the turkey's tantalizing fragrance bamboozles me into thinking that I'm famished. I shake off the poultry hypnosis and try to focus on my game. There are still more dinosaurs to kill, and one of them surely must have the item my adventurers have been fruitlessly hunting for.
     A sudden commotion downstairs indicates that my father either burned himself, cut himself, or that the team that won the football game didn't cover the spread. I don't let it distract me.
     As evening creeps closer, the clatter of pots and pans rises above the cloud of boozy profanity and fragrant meat bouquet emanating from downstairs. The finishing touches are being put on dinner, and I can hardly wait to gorge myself upon the feast that is to come. I turn off the television, rub my dry, tired eyes, and head into the maelstrom below.
     The golden roasted turkey carcass greets me with an almost certainly imagined smile as I descend the staircase. My father is removing the last bits of stuffing from inside the bird with a large wooden spoon and plopping them into some sort of amber dishware. He complains that it is likely undercooked and that we're welcome to eat it if we want, but we may die of salmonella. I'm not terribly concerned; I've been conditioned by now to expect an unending stream of self-deprecations from the architect of this dinner, each in search of a refutation and effusive praise. I will prudently ration those out through the course of the meal.
     A din of dishes hitting dishes, of silverware tinkling against other utensils, of paper towels getting ripped and tumblers getting accidentally knocked over all falls away when I lay my eyes upon what my mother is removing from the refrigerator. A giant but unassuming Tupperware bowl, schoolbus yellow and covered in barely-clinging plastic wrap, joins the assembling feast. Within is the greatest treasure of Thanksgiving, a decadent jewel that smells of the sea and tastes of enchanted kingdoms. The crab salad.
     To the layman, the crab salad looks like a milky, briny slop. But one bite is enough to convince the disbeliever of its deceptive charms. A slaw containing iceberg lettuce, shredded crab and enough mayo to choke a horse, it is the holy grail of my Thanksgiving meal. Rest assured, I partake of the turkey and all the other assorted goodies, but the crab salad is the alpha and the omega of the holiday, the dish that I look forward to the most and that, when all is said and done, I feel like I cannot eat again until a year has passed. Some may think it best eaten on crackers or toast, but I just eat it with a fork. By the time Thanksgiving dinner has concluded, I have eaten three bowls. A simple tally shows my Cool Hand Luke-level egg consumption to be worrisome.
     The family serves ourselves at the counter, plucking selections from the platter of carved turkey, the pot of mashed potatoes, the warm, buttery biscuits, the cranberry sauce that still has hints of embedded lines from the can if you know just where to look. My mother, father, sister and I all sit down at the table, a cramped glass disk atop a white wicker base, and offer a half-assed prayer. Then my father points out that there are two gravy options, one made traditionally from the turkey drippings, and one from a seasoning packet. Despite my father's assertions that his hand-made gravy is "inedible," I both eat and enjoy it, making sure to note that he did a good job and that it is indeed tastier than the powder-based option. I am again informed that I should probably not eat the stuffing, but I have a perhaps naive amount of trust in the old man's drunken cooking skills. My faith is rewarded with a delicious, moist dish and a living streak that continues for decades to come.
     For the grand finale, I cut myself an excessively large slice of pumpkin pie. It's still chilled from the fridge, just how I like it, and I pass on the option to spray real aerosol whipped cream on top in favor of shoveling several dollops of Cool Whip atop its custardy crown. With each bite, I am positive that I absolutely cannot possibly take another. And then I take one more.
     When the feast is finished and the dirty dishes left lurking in the sink, awaiting the next morning's laborious cleaning, I crawl upstairs, lying in bed as the meal slowly begins to break down. Home Alone is on TV, so I shift to lie on my side and watch it, half-focused in the onset of food coma and lamenting that the line "I'll rip off your cojones and boil them in motor oil" is sanitized for broadcast to an awkwardly dubbed "I'll boil ya in motor oil!" My Thanksgiving meal is consumed, and though there will be turkey sandwiches and soup cobbled together from leftovers in the days to follow, the Christmas season is now upon me. I drift into blissful, bloated reverie as I rest up for the day ahead. After all, there is still so much adventuring to do.

Speaking of leftovers, please enjoy some copied, pasted and minimally altered text from a previous Thanksgiving blog! I hope you and yours have a happy Thanksgiving and find some time to just relax and enjoy the season. If you're bored, you can always read my other seasonally-appropriate articles about a book of Thanksgiving poems illustrated by the guy that did Scary Stories to Tell in the Darka book of Thanksgiving stories from the early 20th century and Trader Joe's turkey lunchmeat. And read my book, Henry Garrison: St. Dante's Savior! It's a cornucopia of shameless plugs!

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Carve-O-Lantern 3: The Return of the Kits

When I was walking down the street today, I saw this:

Now this could mean one of two things: either someone is preparing to burn Tobey Maguire in effigy for that dance scene in Spider-Man 3 (which I liked, suck it, haters), or it's Halloween season again! This is perfect, because it gives me an excuse to drone on at length about one of my favorite things: pumpkin carving! Avid readers of my blog may recall my earlier installment about pumpkin carving pioneers Carve-O-Lantern, as well as the sequel post about their product line expansion. Well, there's still plenty of meat on this bone, so I'm diving into a pumpkin PIE-le of patterny goodness to bring you this retrospective!
Carve-O-Lantern (and later, Pumpkin Masters) have released so much material over the decades that I could-and possibly might-write about this stuff forever. So let's go waaaaay back to the early days of the brand to take a look at how their pumpkin carving kits have evolved through time. I've procured a veritable bushel of new stuff since the last article, so this is a great opportunity to share some of them.
To review: the protozoan state of this august October line was the original Carve-O-Lantern book, she of the spiral binding and self-assembled tools:

I covered this book and its assemblage of cool, festive and at time downright bizarre patterns before. So let's move on to the next product in the Carve-O-Lantern line; their streamlined, non-spiral bound pumpkin carving kit:

I reviewed this one before as well, but what I haven't covered yet are the many, many, MANY pumpkin carving kits to follow. We're talking bunnies on some crazy NIMH fertility meds numbers. OK, NIMH didn't really deal with fertility drugs, but maybe they branched out and formed NIRH or something. Just let me have this semi-esoteric reference.
Anyway, Carve-O-Lantern was not releasing products at a breakneck pace at first. They were, after all, pioneers in the field of jack-o'-lantern crafting, and if pioneers try to venture too quickly and recklessly into the unexplored, they might pay dearly. Just ask Lansford Hastings. So the second carving kit came out in 1989, three years after the initial publication of Carve-O-Lantern, and the third would not arrive until 1992. Here it is:

Carve-O-Lantern's designated graphic designer clearly had quite a cushy job, as a product designed to come out once a year would look almost identical for many editions to come. As for the included patterns:

This is a nice assortment, albeit largely the same as the designs in the Pumpkin Carving Patterns supplemental book released the same year. It appears that the intent at this point was to give consumers who already had a set of carving tools an option to buy most of the patterns in a cheaper, tool-less package. This was the first and last time this would be an option, because why sell one product to completionists when you can sell two? Probably because nobody knew such completionists existed back then, a quaint notion in 2017 when some people (cough, cough) feverishly monitor eBay auctions for rare pattern books like the Busch Gardens/SeaWorld assortment.
Somewhat confusingly, the fourth pumpkin carving kit also came out in 1992, though I suspect there may have just been an error in the copyright date on the packaging, since the fifth set came out in 1994. So either we got two of these in one year and then none the following year, or we didn't. GREAT JOURNALISM, JOEY.

Again, we see some staggering creativity in terms of graphic design, as this one looks nearly indistinguishable from set #3 at a glance. Unlike that set, however, these patterns were unique to this release, aside from Mr. Lips, who was continuing his journey to become the drunk guy at the party who can't take a hint when it's time to go home.

Possibly the best kit yet in terms of patterns, this one truly offered a variety of options for carvers at all skill levels, from a sassy fanged variation of the traditional jack-o-lantern for babies, to the moaning souls of the damned ironically spelling out the word "happy," which challenged veteran carvers to keep the profanity in check while nervously attempting to not slip and sever one of the thin strands of pumpkin holding the delicate image together.
By 1994, the Carve-O-Lantern name had perished, and from its ashes arisen the mighty moniker "Pumpkin Masters," which endures to this day. With the name change came a shockingly minor facelift to the carving kits, with the primary innovation being the convenient display of patterns on the front rather than the back. No longer would consumers waste precious seconds flipping cardboard in search of these coveted candlelit images.

This is a solid assortment, with all-time classic Screamin', another cute kitty and more, though it escapes me why Trick or Treat '95 needed the premature, 2K games-style yearly branding. Not to ruin the suspense, but it's still just as effective in '17.
BUUUUUT hold on just a minute, buckaroo! We're skipping something here. Even though this was the next traditional carving kit to hit the shelves, the year prior had actually marked the official debut of the Pumpkin Masters name, with this unique product:

Yep, a Deluxe Pumpkin Carving Kit. Totally different than a non-deluxe one, and I'm only being half sarcastic here. A bit of a hybrid between the saw-yielding carving kits of yore and the independent pattern books sold alongside them, this softcover marvel boasted not only a full set of carving tools, but by far the most designs of any release since the original, with a whopping seventeen patterns (including the bonus Night Owl, not pictured on the back).

Admittedly, many of the patterns were reprints from prior years, but come on! For one thing, once any given year's Halloween season was over, the corresponding carving kits were gone. They tended to stay gone, meaning that if you missed a release you were pretty much out of luck. Now you had a second chance to own some of these ephemeral classics. And even considering the volume of reprints, such a wide variety of patterns sold alongside the tools with which to carve them made for quite the package. Oddly enough, only one more Deluxe Pumpkin Carving Kit was released before the line died off. Perhaps the train to Valuetown only runs one way.
1995's big release was marked by the presence of Garfield, whose cool, well-designed pattern was only slightly undermined by his rather lame joke on the cover. What's supposed to be scary about Garfield being on a pumpkin? His licensing fees?

But the real story of 1995 was a product so innovative that Leonardo Da Vinci's ghost secondkilled itself in shame: Melon Lights. Have you ever wanted to carve a pumpkin in July? Well now you can, with Melon Lights! I hope to carve one of these someday and bring it as a wedding gift for someone I desperately want to just stop contacting me.

OK, we're running a bit long here, and I'm sure you have some last-minute costume prep/massive holiday drinking to do, so I'll end with one more tidbit. This last product I'm about to show you may be been the nadir of the original Carve-O-Lantern lineup, and possibly forced them to change their name for fear of ever being identified with it again. I speak, of course, of Pumpkin Pals.

These inane things make Melon Lights look like the internal combustion engine. Too lazy or crippled by carpal tunnel syndrome to carve a pumpkin? Here are some stupid pieces of cardboard and tissue paper to make your pumpkin look like a low-rent Teen Wolf! Choose from other classic characters like Vulcan Vampire and Lady with Her Hair on Fire! And as far as the collection as a whole, there were four of these abominations, including fairy tale variations that would make Mother Goose asphyxiate herself with a potato chip bag. I only have one of them, because to hell with paying ten bucks or more online for this crap. If the art of pumpkin decorating is an ass, Pumpkin Pals is half of it.
I hope you've enjoyed this festive look at the evolution of a Halloween institution. Do yourself a favor and pick up one of these oldies if you happen to see them at Goodwill or something. You won't regret it! Or maybe you will. Life is funny like that. Happy Halloween!

Don't let him fool you. Joey Marsilio is still attempting to sell enough copies of his debut novel, Henry Garrison: St. Dante's Savior, to buy the full line of Pumpkin Pals. You can help him achieve this wretched dream today!

Saturday, July 8, 2017

World's (Insert Adjective Here) "True" Ghost Stories

No, I'm not dead, despite what my online presence, or lack thereof, may suggest. And speaking of the undead, I'd like to reflect today on a particularly strange series of books about the supernatural. In this case, the strange thing is not the content of the books themselves, but rather the series' origins and evolution. Perhaps the oddest thing about these books is that there are nine books in the series (well, arguably...I'll get to that), yet there is almost no information about them anywhere. Most of the Amazon pages for them have no reviews, and even a Google search reveals little more than used book sales. Isn't it unusual that such a lengthy series seems to have not a smidgen of the dedicated, borderline obsessive fandom afforded even the nichest of long-running franchises?

I suppose at this point I should mention the name of this series of books. Don't worry, you probably won't recognize it unless you're one of the six people searching for information on them online and this post showed up by default. The nine books comprise the, for lack of a better term, World's (Insert Adjective Here) "True" Ghost Stories series. Basically, each book proffers an assortment of "true" stories of the supernatural-the quotation marks are their addition, not mine-that best exemplify some descriptor (for example, "mystifying" or "bone-chilling"). I'm sure the selection process for these was thoroughly scientific and their placement is definitive and by no means arbitrary. But this is all very abstract, so let me get into some concrete details before you click away from the page in annoyed bewilderment.

The first book in the series is 1988's World's Best "True" Ghost Stories by C.B. Colby, though it's not really where the series began. No, the true origins of the series go back into the 1950s, when Colby, "an avid adventurer and sportsman" per his bio, wrote a syndicated newspaper column called "Adventure Today." The column dealt with unexplained happenings, supernatural phenomena, mysterious disappearances, lost treasure and what would at the time be referred to as "ripping yarns." The veracity of each story was certainly debatable, as Colby himself would remind the reader, but he presented them with the appropriate zeal and bombast. Eventually, the column gave way to books collecting some of Colby's best offbeat tales: 1959's Strangely Enough! and 1965's somewhat inaccurately-titled Weirdest People in the World. The stories in it are weird, sure, but oftentimes the people within them are completely ordinarily and as perplexed by the events around them as anyone would be. I'd ask Colby what the thought process was behind the name, but I'm afraid I'm about forty years too late for that.

Anyway, several decades after that, Sterling Publishing released World's Best "True" Ghost Stories, a compilation of stories from Strangely Enough! and Weirdest People that dealt with ghosts and the supernatural. Well, mostly. 

There are also stories here of, among other things, a disappearing indigenous tribe in Alaska, an old woman who apparently spontaneously combusted, and a weird tale about talking cats that isn't very good and yet has been retold in more volumes of horror tales than I can remember. So while there's a general theme of uneasiness to the proceedings, there are less ghosts than you might think.

And speaking of titular inaccuracies, let's address the "true" portion of the title. That gets explained in the note to the reader that starts off World's Best, a note which is largely repurposed from the Introduction to Strangely Enough! There are some changes to the text, most notably a few additional sentences written by Colby, or more likely someone posing as Colby, considering he died more than ten years before the book was published. So either way, you could say they used a ghostwriter. The additional lines explain to the reader that "all the accounts in this book have, at one time or another been passed off as 'true'...and who shall say they never happened?" So basically, a very liberal definition of the truth, which in 2017 is more or less the factual standard. Colby never really gets enough credit as a pioneer in the field of truthiness.

That's the book in a nutshell. A mix of accounts of unexplained events, spooky anecdotes and classic folklore, all presented in the matter-of-fact style of a newspaper article and accompanied by simple black and white illustrations that heavily rely on shadows and isolation to convey the otherworldliness of the events described. It is remarkably effective, and what it lacks in florid language it makes up for in efficiency. In the same vein as the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series, the brevity of the stories makes them easy to recount, and the journalistic presentation makes them feel more authentic and less like utter flights of fancy. For the most part, at least...I'm still not buying the talking cats thing. It's a great collection of oddball tales in the spirit of Ripley's Believe It or Not! and a nice greatest-hits collection of Colby's two prior greatest-hits collections.

In 1991, a similar collection of Colby's old works with a different theme, World's Best Lost Treasure Stories (I would have preferred World's Best "Lost" Treasure Stories, but that's splitting hairs) was released by Sterling, suggesting their intention of building a World's Best... franchise around Colby's old material. They got a franchise, alright, but it was not the one they were expecting.

Shortly before the publication of Treasure Stories, Sterling released another installment of spooky tales. This one, World's Strangest "True" Ghost Stories, drew on different source material, bypassing Colby entirely by excerpting stories from John Macklin's 1967 book The Strange and Uncanny.

Perhaps a bit more grim than Colby's work but just as compelling, here we learn of the psychic horse that solved a child's tragic disappearance, the cursed mummy that was allegedly on board the Titanic when it sank, and the sleepy English crossroads that bore both a terrible curse and a name that probably wouldn't fly in America in 2017.

The next year would see the release of World's Weirdest "True" Ghost Stories, written by John Beckett.

This was a milestone: the first installment of the series to apparently be an entirely original creation rather than an abridged rehash of a book from decades before. Still, it continued along the same lines, and probably benefitted from being able to draw from events that had occurred within the previous twenty-five years.

With 1992's World's Most Spine-Tingling "True" Ghost Stories, the series introduced yet another author, Sheila Anne Barry, and perhaps its greatest asset, artist Jim Sharpe.

Whereas the books before had all contained effective but relatively indistinct artwork, Sharpe's illustrations are bold, unique and very evocative. From screaming faces to ominous spirits to a malicious killer doll in a sailor suit, Sharpe would go on to illustrate the remaining installments of the series and elevate even the more mundane stories with his detailed, semi-insane renderings.

But it should really come as no surprise that the guy was talented, considering Time, TV Guide, and many other respectable publications had hired him to do cover artwork for them. He even created a portrait for the presidential gallery! Frankly, given his resume, it seems like he was slumming it a bit for these books, but maybe he just loved this kind of crap as much as I do.

Oddly enough, after two consecutive original books, 1993's World's Most Bone-Chilling "True" Ghost Stories went back to the repurposing well, revisiting John Macklin's work and lifting stories from his awesomely-named 60's books Brotherhood of the Strange and Dwellers in Darkness.

But after that, subsequent titles went back to being original works. Well, this point, the series was getting pretty tired, revisiting the same themes time and again and even repeating some of the same stories (albeit with different authors) as the books continued to roll out every year like macabre installments of Madden.

The eighth book in the series, 1996's World's Most Mysterious "True" Ghost Stories, could well have been called Weird War Tales for its heavy focus on military themes (which, funny enough, would likely have met with noted armed forces buff C.B. Colby's approval). Even Sharpe's artwork looked oddly rushed by that point.

Finally, things wrapped up in 1997 with World's Most Mystifying "True" Ghost Stories, as the series drifted off into the aether like an unfed Tamagotchi, likely to the tune of Elton John's "Candle in the Wind 1997."

Or did it? 1998 saw the release of The Little Giant Book of "True" Ghost Stories, where the series did what it did best: repackaged old material. Basically books five through seven of the series crammed into one volume, The Little Giant Book kept the series...well, not alive exactly, but undead at least. And that, after a decade, marked the last volume of "True" Ghost Stories.

Yet it still did not mark the end of the stories themselves. C.B. Colby's original material persists to this day, published in various compilations of spooky stories, but the strangest part of this saga involves an overlap with a completely different series of books.

Following the huge success of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series, Short & Shivery, and others of their ilk, a new contender in the youth-focused horror short story arena emerged in 1991's Scary Stories for Sleep-Overs. The big hook of this book and its numerous sequels were their sheer nihilism. Whereas the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books would often feature protagonists that got thoroughly heebie-jeebied but ultimately survived, Scary Stories for Sleep-Overs was a slaughterhouse where no one made it out alive. If you wanted to read about a child getting ripped apart by a werecat, or an entire family being strangled to death by their own shadows, or extraterrestrials burning kids to death before summoning their compatriots to Earth to do the same to the entire human race, you were in luck. This series persisted through the 90's, with almost as many volumes as the "True" Ghost Stories series until it finally petered out, possibly because they ran out of children to murder.

You may be wondering why I bring this up. Well, apparently long after the demise of the original series, someone published a book simply called Scary Stories for Sleepovers.

And, lo and behold, it contains some of the very same C.B. Colby joints printed in Strangely Enough! and Weirdest People in the World and reprinted in World's Best "True" Ghost Stories. Nearly sixty years after their original publication, the stories are still going strong, veritable literary body snatchers hopping from series to series, assuming their identity while never losing their own.

So, to recap: a newspaper column was repurposed into two books, which were then repurposed into another book, which begat a series of books with similar titles that at times repurposed material from other books and at times consisted of original material (albeit said material consisting of retellings of events recounted elsewhere). After the conclusion of this series, several of the books were repurposed into a giant compilation book, and long after that, the original stories that were repurposed into the first book in the series were repurposed again under the title of an entirely different series of books. It's a truly fascinating web of use and reuse that, in the end, boils down to the simple fact that people love a good story. And ghosts. And cursed mummies. And psychic horses.

A final note: there was a television show years back called Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction?, hosted at first by James Brolin and later by the illustrious Jonathan Frakes, master of the wry smile.

The show would present reenactments of stories, then call upon the viewer to determine whether or not they had actually occurred. Many of the stories reenacted on that show were the very same ones described in these books, so I would often have a bit of an unfair advantage in determining which of the tales I was witnessing were Fact...or, I suppose, "True." Whether due to coincidence or fandom, the subject matter of this low-key series of ostensible ghost stories (yes, including the psychic horse) had made it to primetime network television, a.k.a. the American Dream.

Well done, "True" Ghost Stories. You "truly" are the (insert adjective here).

Joey Marsilio would like to cordially request that if anyone out there, anyone at all, has read these books, that they please let him know about their memories and experiences with them. And also that they purchase a copy of his novel, Henry Garrison: St. Dante's Savior.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Frightful Flashback: The Haunted House and Other Spooky Poems and Tales (But Mostly Poems)

In a dark, dark mobile home, there was a dark, dark cupboard...

And in that dark, dark cupboard, there was a dark, dark shelf...

And on that dark, dark shelf, there was a goofy, rainbow-colored record player...

And in that goofy, rainbow-colored record player, there was...


I've spilled a lot of virtual ink in my numerous online missives about scary stories, particularly Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and its two sequels. But Alvin Schwartz was not the only author to produce collections of scary stories for younger audiences, and he certainly wasn't the first. Maria Leach, for example, had been doing an excellent job laying the groundwork for macabre collections to come in her compendiums of chilling folklore like Whistle in the Graveyard. And then there's this curious little number: 1970's Scholastic release The Haunted House and Other Spooky Poems and Tales.
I was introduced to The Haunted House long before I ever read it. In fact, for years I didn't even know it was an actual book.
You see, at some point during my childhood, my mother bequeathed unto me the sweet vinyl pictured above, mentioning that it was a scary record she used to enjoy in her childhood. We listened to it together, and I was entranced. It was like nothing I had ever heard before: the soft, haunting voices of a man and woman alternating recitations of classic horror poetry and prose. Well, the vast majority was poetry, really, but that's how you knew this stuff was classy. The record's natural pops and snaps evoked the eerie ambiance of sitting fireside, listening to ghost stories and peering out into the darkness, wondering what lurked there watching you back. It was a brief but spellbinding experience (you don't get a lot of auditory mileage out of 7" vinyl). And now you can hear it too, thanks to the magic of Youtube!

Several years later, when I would acquire a copy of the text version of The Haunted House, I would discover that the recording barely scratches the surface of it, covering only about a third of what appears on the page. Plus the book's cover is all trippy and colorful in comparison to the album cover's admittedly fitting bleak monochrome.

The Haunted House is a mixed bag, like a goodie sack after a rigorous night of trick and/or treating. As I mentioned before, there's a plethora of poetry here, regarding topics ranging from feuding cats to still, frosty November nights to gleeful cannibalism. In one jolly limerick, a woman becomes frustrated with her inability to become a witch and commits suicide.

And naturally, there's some good old atomic age technophobia at work here:

Who know comic books were so informative in regards to nuclear weaponry? As you can see from these examples, shockingly dark gallows humor is abundant here. In the spirit of how Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark always had some humorous entries, this book never lets you forget what a hoot horror can be. I mean, what's funnier than a fatal auto accident?

A couple of these poems also received the ultimate compliment: they were quoted on Magic: The Gathering cards. Back in 1994, when Magic was more elegant and sophisticated (*SHOTS FIRED*), the cards would often quote classic literature, Bible verses, etc. to add some flavor to the denizens of the world that Wizards of the Coast were creating. Two of the cards from the Legends set just so happened to include flavor text derived from poems featured in this book. Might someone on the design team have been a big The Haunted House fan? If only we had gotten a "Cradle That Rocks by Itself" artifact (foreshadowing!).

Then again, it could just be a coincidence. I've seen Roethke's poem a few times elsewhere, and Shakespeare is, well, Shakespeare. And rightfully so; these are both exemplary works in the field of creepiness. One thing we can all agree on: the art is better on the Magic version.

One thing, though...I've seen bats, we've all seen bats, and if Roethke thinks bats have a human face, he should probably get his eyes checked, because from the sounds of it he's blind as a...well, you know.

Speaking of artwork, let's address The Haunted House's. The competent, cartoony illustrations are a far cry from Scary Stories' sanguine, betendriled nightmare visions, having more in common with In a Dark, Dark Room's youngster-friendly relative zaniness. It does, however, effectively convey a certain mood, and at times somehow manages to make a story much more creepy by its contrasting playfulness. For example, take the case of The Wreck of the Hesperus, a poem so grim and depressing that it makes Upton Sinclair's The Jungle seem like The Berenstain Bears Learn to Embrace Communism. The bleak saga of a shipwreck that claims the life of a young girl and her father because the father in question is a prideful moron is made all the more disturbing by its somewhat basic, juvenile illustration. Turns out the way to make a picture of a dead child even more disturbing is to make it kind of look like said child drew it.

Overall, the art does the job just fine. Still, there is something very of-its-time about it...for example, I can't help but hear ABBA in my head when I look at this picture:

The art above is from "The Velvet Ribbon," which is one of the most famous stories here and was wisely selected for the record.  It's a classic tale that can be found in many such collections of horror folklore, such as In A Dark, Dark Room, which I referenced earlier but have helpfully linked to my article about once again. The details between the versions are different, but the payoff is just the same: a woman's head falls off. As an added bonus, the one here continues wailing as it rolls across the floor! It's a real treat for decapitation aficionados.
The other four stories here vary in quality. There's the so-so "The Devil's Pocket," about two boys who hang out in a quarry their parents have forbidden them from approaching; the comical "The Ghost Catcher," a goofy tale of spectral deception from India; and the masterful "The Red Room," abridged from a longer story by none other than sci-fi legend H.G. Wells, which serves as an incredible exercise in extracting maximum suspense from the most basic setup: a dark, candlelit room in a spooky house. They're all breezy and fun to read, and even the weakest of them has a certain charm.

The best story here, though, is "The Cradle That Rocked by Itself." I mentioned Maria Leach earlier in the article, and I cannot overstate what an excellent job she did compiling and retelling spooky tales from all over the globe during her career. "The Cradle" is possibly my favorite of them all. It concerns a family who hears what sounds like a baby crying outside during a terrible storm. Reasoning that it must be seals or something, no one goes out into the maelstrom to investigate. Once the storm passes, the family finds a nice cradle washed up on the beach and, seemingly unable to form a connection between it and the distinctly babyesque sounds they heard during the storm, takes the cradle inside and puts their baby in it. They continue using it for more babies over the years despite the cradle's quite unusual trait of rocking itself. Rather than immediately chop it up and throw it in the fire due to an exceedingly apparent ongoing haunting, the parents hand-wave the whole thing. Their blasé attitudes become decidedly UN-blasé, however, when a visiting family member is able to somehow perceive the reason behind the inexplicable rocking...the pale, dark-haired phantom of a mourning mother has been tirelessly rocking away for all these years. Rather than celebrate the gift of a laborer that never eats, sleeps or demands pay, the family...chops up the cradle and throws it in the fire. As a final, skin-crawling memento, a baby cries from somewhere within the flames the entire time the cradle burns. Pretty unsettling stuff, and it was rightly chosen to conclude the audio version. Do yourself a favor and check it out if you never have before.

Other than that, it's just poems, poems, poems. Fortunately, editors Gladys Schwarz and Vic Crume have good taste, and selections include works from such luminaries as Langston Hughes and Robert Louis Stevenson. There are some astonishingly morbid works here, like Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe's "The Erl-King" and its depiction of a child's murder by supernatural forces, or "Dust," which describes a woman's literal journey from dust to dust as she transforms from cleanliness-obsessed housewife to open-eyed corpse covered in the sort of grime that bedeviled her living days. Then there's "Voices," which gives me the heebie-jeebies even though I can't quite put my finger on why:

Of course, there's plenty more to savor here. You got Vic Crume's superb titular poem, and a shark inviting an impressively naive flying fish to dinner, and rhymes about death that my grandparents used to recite...

It's all great stuff, and well worth checking out if you get the chance. You can probably find a used copy pretty cheap, or up in your grandmother's attic for free! It's a deserving addition to any library of strange and scary tomes, disco illustrations and all. The record is also a great pickup, if you can find it. Unfortunately, my copy was lost (along with the rainbow-colored record player) when my family abandoned our mobile home; it was among the many items my father promised he would go back to retrieve but never did. I eventually purchased two more copies on eBay, giving one to my mother to replace the original record (which was rightfully hers) and keeping one for myself. Both copies mysteriously disappeared, though we suspect my grandfather may have pilfered them during a period of time he was staying with my folks. He denies this fervently. In the end, perhaps that which we should fear most is not ghosts, ghouls or goblins, but rather the dread specter of kleptomania.

Until next time, I leave with with a simple image demonstrating what this book would look like had it been illustrated by Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark's Stephen Gammell, just for kicks. Happy October!

For further October reading, consider Joey Marsilio's novel Henry Garrison: St. Dante's Savior. It's the grooviest! Check it out here!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A Requiem for Cactus Jack

Sometimes, on an overcast day, when the sun's luminous silhouette struggles mightily to break through the murky clouds and the wind whispers its vague lullaby, I think of my friend and hope that, wherever he may be, he is happy...


With the recent success of the Pokémon Go mobile game-such a phenomenon that it has popularized that most base and shameful of activities: walking-the original 151 Pocket Monsters have reentered the popular consciousness with a vengeance. Because of this vengeful reentry, my thoughts of late have turned to my own personal experience with the Pokémon games of yore, and the untold tragedy of a fallen friend.
I first heard of these games through a 1996 issue of Nintendo Power, which at the time was quite fond of  dangling the carrot of Japanese games before ravenous American audiences that would never get to play them. How I longed for Secret of Mana 2 or RPG Maker to hit these shores! Pocket Monsters, while cool-looking, had the air of something we Americans would never see, save for a few screenshots here and there, like Fire Emblem (nope, never gonna see that, nuh-uh), so I paid it little mind.

In a way, I was right, because the game would not hit America until 1998, a relative eternity in teenager time. Yes, somehow the Game Boy had managed a nine-year run despite being a technological relic, completely outlasting the Super NES and, in its death throes, still managing to cough out one last ultramegahit. And when the time came for us Yanks to get a taste of that sweet, sweet monster nectar, Nintendo Power was once again driving the hype train, with a monthly series showing the game and its creatures in detail that somehow managed to drum up excitement for an 8-bit portable RPG in my 3-D polygon, 64-bit heart.
I put a lot of time into Pokémon. A LOT. We're talking the quantity that is scientifically known as "a buttload" of time. The game managed the awe-inspiring feat of getting me to do something other than play Magic: The Gathering, as exploring for new monsters, powering them up and battling my friends was more fun than all the ostensibly "fun-sized" candy bars in the world put together.The perpetual arms race to have the biggest and strongest Poképugilist was fast and furious and involved beating the Elite Four more times than I care to remember. And then, of course, there was "catching 'em all." When all were caught, however, there could be no doubt who ruled the roost as the biggest, baddest, cute, cuddly plush toy come to life. He was known as Mewtwo, and he reigned supreme.

Mewtwo was broken. He was a Psychic Pokémon, which was essentially the most powerful class of creatures due to some of the intended programming fail-safes against them not working (not to get too deep and nerdy about this, but for example, Psychic Pokémon were supposed to have a weakness to Ghost-types. For whatever reason, they didn't, and they basically ran roughshod over everything). The second generation of Pokémon games went to great lengths to correct this, but here, the imbalance was obvious. In addition, Mewtwo was simply stronger than anything else by his very nature, having base statistics unmatchable by any other Pokémon and capable of learning all sorts of different powerful moves. He was a god among ants, and his rule was absolute.
Now, like I said, I played a lot of Pokémon. I started with Pokémon Blue, but eventually also picked up Pokémon Red, so that I could pathetically trade Pokémon with myself and complete my Pokedex without any of that icky social interaction stuff. Beyond that, having two games meant I could run through the whole game several times, transferring my best creatures to the other cartridge and sparing their lives when the entire world reset and wiped their compatriots from existence. In this way, I managed to accumulate several of even the rarest creatures, including the aforementioned Mewtwo.

If you've ever played any of these games before, you probably know that, in terms of strength, all Pokémon are not created equal. Each creature has its own individual power level relative to others of its sort, meaning that you could have two Raticates with quite different stats despite being the same level (while still both being relatively weak, because Raticate sucks). There were ways to enhance your precious little babies' strength with vitamins and supplements, but ultimately, that disparity could never be fully overcome. Some Pokémon were simply the Charlotte Flairs of their world: genetically superior.
Speaking of professional wrestling, 1998 was a key year in the sage of the sport's storied "Monday Night Wars," wherein WCW and WWF (now WWE) were locked in a visceral waltz of doom, each side bringing out its big guns in a winner-take-all battle for ratings supremacy. Though the WWF would eventually become that winner who would therefore take all, at the time it was an underdog, and its efforts to overtake Ted Turner's juggernaut would result in television programming that absolutely enthralled a then-sixteen-year-old Joey Marsilio. So, as you can imagine, when it came time to bestow individual names upon my Pokémon, I dug pretty deep into the wrestling well. I had a Sandslash named The Rock (and yes, I realize a Geodude would have been more fitting). I had Articunos named Stone Cold and Al Snow, a Hitmonlee named after Steve Blackman (!) and a whole team of Exeggutors named after members of the band The Offspring (again, 1998). And of course, I had the exquisite burden of coming up with names for my cadre of Mewtwos. What name could possibly evoke the proper persona of this baddest of asses?
In the end, I decided to name my killer kat klone army after a wrestler whose capacity for violence and inhuman pain tolerance were already legendary: Mick Foley. Foley's gimmick was, in part, that he had several personalities, each with their own distinct look and character traits. So one of my Mewtwos was named Mankind, while a slightly weaker one with different moves was Dude Love. And then there was Cactus Jack. Cactus Jack, as a wrestler, had a fearsome reputation as a whirlwind of violence, a savage whose ungodly threshold of pain was surpassed only by his penchant for inflicting grotesque bodily harm upon his opponents. Fire, steel, baseball bats wrapped in barbed wire...nothing was too brutal for Jack. He was a killer, and the very mention of his name inspired fear. So it was with this particular Mewtwo. His stats were exceedingly high from the moment I captured him (after, fittingly enough, a grueling marathon of a battle), and I further enhanced his strength by pumping him up with as many of the game's vitamins, nutritional supplements and whatever the hell HP Up was as were allowed. When he reached his pinnacle at Level 100, one things was clear: no other Mewtwo even approached Cactus Jack's strength. He was unfairly powerful, a murder machine that mowed down all opponents, Mewtwo or otherwise. He was a blitzkrieg in purple and gray, a cruel deity whose thirst for pokéblood was insatiable. And I loved him.
As my Pokémon journey continued, Cactus Jack was always by my side. He was transferred over to the Nintendo 64's Pokémon Stadium, where he continued his path of destruction, and found his way into my copy of Pokémon Silver, mercilessly destroying everything on an entirely new continent. The horizons were endless. Surely Jack would be my ruthless companion in the many adventures to come.

Then, one day, some sad, shocking news arrived via Nintendo power (naturally): the generation of Pokémon games following Silver and Gold would not allow Pokémon from previous games to be imported. They were starting over fresh, with a new, more balanced stats system, and the holdovers from older installments were not allowed to come play with the new kids. Unfortunately, this fresh start would prove my exit from the series. What was the point of continuing through new adventures if I couldn't bring my old buddies and their de facto leader Cactus Jack along for the ride? And so Pokémon moved on without me. Jack lie dormant, neglected, in the Pokémon Silver cartridge that would prove his tomb.
As the years went by, and my metabolism waned and my alcohol tolerance waxed, my thoughts were consumed by things other than Pocket Monsters named after pro wrestlers and alternative rock artists. Yet somewhere along the line, I stumbled upon a disturbing bit of information: the real-time clock built into Pokémons Silver and Gold was apparently a tremendous drain on the batteries within the cartridges. As in, said batteries would die much quicker than those of other video games, taking the data on the cartridges with them on a one way trip to the inky void. Could it be true? My copies of Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior on the NES still had working batteries, and those were much, much older than Pokémon Silver. Could the infernal clock really have drained an extra decade's worth of battery in such a short time? Warily, I set out to determine the veracity of these claims. With shaky fingers, I plugged the Pokémon Silver cartridge into my Game Boy Color and, after a few misfires, booted the game up. After passing the title screen, I was greeted with a grim sight:

There was no option to Continue. The saved game file was gone, and all the data with it. All my old friends, whom I had meticulously groomed and trained to the height of their powers. Cactus Jack, the fearsome paragon of might. All gone, lost forever like a spiderweb caught in a hurricane. It was unexpectedly crushing. Why should I feel sad for the loss of creatures that did not exist? Perhaps the time I cracked my head open on a piano as a child had something to do with my misplaced empathy. Regardless, I sorrowfully powered the Game Boy off, ruefully aware that I would never see my prized Pokémon again, at least not in this life.
The irony in all this, if irony it be, was that the clockless Pokémon Blue and Pokémon Red, despite being several years older, still have their save files intact to this day. A level 100 Poliwhirl named Supercrazy can attest to that.
Which brings us to today, and Pokémon Go. Through my hours of playing the game, I cannot help but reflect on Cactus Jack, and the fun times we had together mercilessly annihilating fools. At the time of my writing this, there is still no way to access the Legendary Pokémon within the game, Mewtwo included. Oh, we know they're coming, but how and when is a mystery. Still, I hold out hope that one day, I might be able to catch a Mewtwo in Pokémon Go. A Mewtwo so mighty that others fear its very name. And that name, of course, will be Cactus Jack. It would be nice to see my friend again.
Ah, well. At least for the time being, I have an Exeggutor named Offspring.

Joey Marsilio blathers on about other old video games in his novel, Henry Garrison: St. Dante's Savior, and can currently be found...ugh...walking.