Size / / /

I often feel like I'm living my life in fragments. That may be from basic things like how people come and go and coworkers move on to other opportunities and so on, but I've also noticed that I seem to encounter the life of the mind—or to put it more accurately, pop culture!—in pieces. Like bits of a movie late at night on TV when I can't sleep, or a hot song from someone else's radio. I'm generally better at pursuing the whole of a book than, say, the entire span of a TV show.

To take a step back from one TV show: by the sheer scale of human civilization, there's simply no way to experience it all, so I'm not likely to ever get all the context anyway. Could I watch every Dr. Who episode? Maybe, (and the epic watching commitment seems to have a hold over many a Doctor fan), but that's just one title. I can't watch them all, never mind all of their antecedents. I have to make do, just like everyone else.

It's like the old problem with The Simpsons—every episode is strewn with references to pop culture bits, and I'm unlikely to know the full weight of every instance of such. For example, I saw Citizen Kane beforehand (I'm odd that way) but I know plenty of people whose only experience with the Orson Welles masterpiece is glancingly by way of the famous Mr. Burns episode. And since The Simpsons itself is on TV, a medium that's conducive to encountering only a small piece of a show or episode, the viewer might be two steps removed from catching the whole situation.

To take another step back, and one that doesn't sit well with my obsessive nature: who would want to watch/know all that stuff anyway? Sturgeon's Law applies just as much to The Simpsons as to the items that the show is parodying. The scale is vast, and the percentage of crap just makes the situation worse. Sure, a fragmented experience might be annoying, but gaps might also be healthy—can all those Dr. Who episodes really be that good?

On a related note, I end up thinking a lot about the power I have over my own media diet. I'm a nerd with disposable income and that means I can follow any obsession pretty far down the rabbit hole (see board games or Miyazaki for examples, so my comments about Dr. Who are fairly unwarranted). But I did not always have that ability to follow my whim. When I was a kid, I was mostly stuck with what was available at the tiny bookstores and libraries nearby. Even if I could track something down, it was not necessarily in the right order (see my comments about Zelazny's Amber series).

Quite often, my younger self would run into something, and a) have no idea what it was and b) have no way of finding out.

I have two incidents of things that made a huge impression on me as a kid, and that I managed to track down later in life. I figure there were plenty of other fragments that were simply lost in time due to their lack of any memorable quality. And these two were memorable for their shock value as much as anything else. Would they be as shocking when seen or read more in their proper context? Is it even worth it to come back to something old when there is always so much new in the queue?

A Torturer Wearing a Doll Mask

I was probably ten or eleven. We were house-sitting for someone, or at least my sister was, and these people had an entertainment setup in the basement. What a huge novelty, to have a big TV, a fully functional VCR, and a cable hookup! Those were the days, laughable to us of course, but just imagine what people 20 years on are going to say about YouTube and the iPhone. We watched some other crap that we had rented; probably some cheesy action movie from the eighties since it was my brothers who had gone to the video store. The bad guys were dispatched by way of one-liners and the credits rolled to cheesy synthesizer (just a guess!). Then we skimmed through a few channels, and we came across a scene that I remember vividly to this day.

A man is strapped to a chair, inside of a cavernous room with ribbed concrete walls and some kind of weird floor with gaps in it. There's a platform in the middle, and around the chair are various torture implements. The man is screaming and pleading for release. The torturer is wearing a white coat and picking through his gleaming knives and implements. But he has no face—only a hard, bone-white mask that's in the shape of an evil and chubby baby. The scene drags out, and there's more screaming. Suddenly the face of the torturer turns upwards, and there's a close-up of his upturned and nightmarish visage. Something is happening above him, and then there's blood sprouting from a bullet hole in his forehead—or rather, the hole in the hideous baby mask. Some commandos rappel into the cavernous space and manage to rescue the torture victim after a shootout.

That's all we saw. And some of you already know quite well what the scene was, but at that time, I certainly didn't. I had no way of finding out—certainly no one to ask, and nothing like the internet to browse around for information. I was motivated to find out, mainly because of the way this fragment had lodged itself in my brain, but I didn't even know how or where to pose the question. Maybe Google will create some way of searching video footage by describing a visual, but that's not reality just yet.

Many years later, I was in undergrad, taking an artsy degree at a university known for its computer science and engineering contingent. One of my technically-minded friends wanted to take a break from his grinding course load, so he looked through the arts side of the course calendar—lo and behold, there was a course where you could sit around and watch science fiction movies and then gab about them. It was like every stereotype of artsy life come true (if I recall correctly, the course turned out to be quite hard!). He was showing me the textbook for the course, and we were comparing notes—we had not really seen many of the titles.

I was paging through the entry for Terry Gilliam, and there it was! There was a picture of a man strapped to a chair in a cavernous room, being menaced by a white-coated, baby-masked torturer. Completely by coincidence, the entry for Gilliam's Brazil was illustrated by the precise image that was stuck in my brain for so many years. In such a visual movie, the textbook writers would have had a plethora of striking images to pick from. But the image is so powerful that they must have chosen it for the same reason that it was burned in my memory.

So did Brazil live up to its shocking yet fragmentary introduction? Yes. I've seen it probably half a dozen times, each time thinking back to my younger self. It resonated with me and still does, but I think it also helped form my preferences. The movie is a wildly imaginative tale of paranoia, mistrust, unhappy endings, and a future where Kafka has gotten into bed with Orwell.

Having said that, Brazil is relatively tame in comparison to my other example!

Sexual Assault by Zombie Insects

We were on a road trip—my parents and possibly also my grandmother—in a camper heading somewhere into eastern New York state or Pennsylvania, this within a year or two of the Brazil incident. I was running out of things to read on the trip, which was always a dread state of affairs. I could never get enough books from the library. I had finished the few science fiction or fantasy books I had along, and even with a stack of Michener as backup, I was running low.

I remember the location where we stopped clearly—it was just a convenience store, probably attached to a gas station. There was a wire rack with paperbacks, but nothing looked good to me. And beside it was a similar wire rack, but surprisingly set up for comic books. Comics were a foreign world to me, and still are to some extent. I bought three comic books, which were all I could afford: some war story that was entirely crappy, an issue of Green Lantern, and some other thing called Swamp Thing.

Now some of you might be guessing the time period and thinking of who was writing Swamp Thing at that time—personally I had no idea who Alan Moore was, or anything like that. More on that in a minute, but yes, I'm about to describe the effects of one of the most potent horror comics on a naive young mind.

The Green Lantern issue was pretty good. I knew zero about the backstory of the character, but he seemed to have cool powers. And I remember a fairly desolate ending, where Green Lantern has saved the day (or the girl, I'm not entirely sure), and he's standing on the edge of a desert or other type of vasty plain, with his shadow stretching out before him, saying something along the lines of how his superpowers have doomed him to a life of loneliness. This is a common theme in comics, and beaten to death over the years, but it was intriguing to me at the time.

The other comic book was an entirely bizarre matter. A woman was naked on the floor of her kitchen, desperately scrubbing her bare skin with something harsh—maybe steel wool? Large parts of her skin had already been abraded away, and on the blood-red areas some spooky faces showed up. Then there was kind of flashback—maybe?—where the woman was talking to a weird green creature. Then she was somewhere else, talking to some creepy guy—her husband?—and was trapped in a house with some undead humans, who were also made out of insects—maybe? I could hardly tell what was happening, but the imagery was startling and overtly sexual. Violation by evil insects? Zombies and evil husbands who made friends with them? Why would anyone read such stuff, never mind write it?

I always remembered that the book was Swamp Thing, so when I came across the full context years later, it wasn't the same moment of lightning-from-the-heavens discovery. But I still had no way of getting the item, since I was never plugged in to the whole comics scene. A few years after undergrad, I was hanging out at a friend's place who was just getting in to the whole "graphic novels" thing. He was dumping a lot of money into it, since around that time, more and more collected editions were being released. He had the whole run of Gaiman's Sandman (which didn't make much of an impression on me when I read it, but I saw how people could get passionate about it) and other similar items. He also had some Alan Moore colllections, and when I saw the cover of the first Swamp Thing collection, I thought that the design of the swamp creature was terribly familiar. Was it the same storyline? I thought so at first, but I read the first volume, and there was no sign of zombie insects or sexual assault.

Just last year, I thought of Swamp Thing again, and I ended up buying the first three or four Swamp Thing collections, and sure enough, the issue that traumatized my mind as a child is in the second volume. There it was, Chapter Two of Love and Death, in all its depraved glory! The steel wool was actually a potato-scrubbing wire brush, and the flashback was a dream, but otherwise my memory was fairly accurate. The main character is married to a man who does "the bad thing" to her, and brings zombies home from work, and assaults her with his band of zombies in a rather shocking two page spread.

Strangely enough, while I was still freaked out by it, there was some interesting context, and a story that fit together quite cleverly and effectively. Swamp Thing made Alan Moore's reputation and I see strong antecedents here for the densely written horrror elements in Watchmen.

And to top it all off, the Alan Moore run on Swamp Thing was the first to break with the Comics Code Authority. Just in time to show up in a convenience store on a shelf that was easily accessible to the impressionable youth on camping trips with their families.

As might be obvious from this column, I was an impressionable child. Two other moments are worth mentioning: my oldest brother had a subscription to Time, and I had several recurring nightmares from news items in that magazine. One example, and a not surprising one, was an account of what happens to the human body in an execution in the electric chair—details about eyes boiling and so forth are rightly upsetting for a kid. And then another example that seems too good to be true, especially for a science fiction fan like myself, was a story about the sun swallowing up the Earth in 5 billion years. I had nightmares for weeks about that, and my folks really didn't know how to comfort me!

James Schellenberg lives and writes in Ottawa. This column will be his last for Strange Horizons.
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Current Issue
27 Jul 2020

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