Back in January, I had the pleasure of conversing with artist Jason Atomic about his underground comix-style ode to Sixties occultism, “Satanic Mojo.” Those of us who took part in the crowd-funding effort have had the chance to revel in the psychedelic perveyness of the book for some number of month now, and now Mr. Atomic has made copies available to the rest of the world. Strictly limited to 666 copies, “Satanic Mojo” can be purchased on Etsy, along with cheeky extras like the “Satanist Cartoonists” merit badge that I haven’t quite earned through my own work just yet.
The book itself is an acid-soaked compilation of short narratives and pinup-style splash pages brimming with references to pop culture and underground figures of the late Sixties. Evoking the black-and-white mania of comix artists like David Sheridan and S. Clay Wilson, “Satanic Mojo” was conceived as a lost publication from that period that has been salvaged and re-published. Spaced-out hippies, free-love wantons and sinister cult leaders indulge in every manner of vice, attired in groovy kaftans, clunky platform heels and sky-high afros. One of the key characters in the lead-in story is a glitter-bearded drag queen perhaps inspired by drag performer Hibiscus of gender-fucking performance troupe the Cockettes.
Further into the tome, Shaky Kane’s pinup series bears enigmatic time stamps: a reflection in the bathroom mirror is “Paris Texas, June 18 1957” and a crying child is dated “West Halifax, 1987.” It’s an eerie nod to the strange ephemera one might find in a stranger’s scrapbook.
The second half of the book is focused on sending up the wholesome kiddie characters that served as background noise to the up-and-coming hippie movement. A very vulgar Casper gets naughty with Wendy the Witch, and a whole bevy of Disney characters participates in a Satanic orgy that would make Dennis Wheatley blush (or shrug and say “see, this is what I was TALKING about”–one or the other).
“Satanic Mojo” is an absolutely necessary addition to the library of any fan of trippy vintage occultism that has moments of satire as well as loving tribute.
There are movies whose reputations precede them. Containing more than simply graphic violence, there’s a foulness of intent that accompanies many of these titles, trading as they do an an unrelenting misanthropy that infects every frame. I’ve talked about some of the titles that are on my perma-avoid list (life is miserable enough without deliberately jamming on one’s psychic gag reflex), but there are other infamous films that I’ve been holding off on, waiting for the right moment to engage with them.
LHODES is a title that inspires cultish enthusiasm, repeatedly finding its way onto top-ten lists compiled by fans of grimy horror. I was 100% convinced of the unholy power of this movie after I met a man with multiple LHODES tattoos (I was equally grateful that I was in a public place surrounded by a number of friends because those tattoos were hella-graphic-gross).
Interestingly, it’s not the gross-out factor that lingers after having seen this movie–it’s the overwhelming meanness of spirit, an attitude that reflects its 1973 pedigree*. The Aquarius-Age optimism of the 60s had long since evaporated, with Watergate monopolizing headlines even as the United States was grappling with the double punch of a lax economy and rising inflation. Filmed in Oneonta, NY, a small city at the foot of the Catskills, LHODES embodies the anger of disaffected young people trapped in a culture that must have felt stagnant and directionless.
*The film went unreleased until 1977 due to a suit involving explicit footage of one of the actresses.
LHODES is the perverse brainchild of director and star Roger Watkins, who plays career criminal Terry Hawkins. Recently released from prison on drug charges, Hawkins decides to start a new career as a snuff film maker. Hawkins enlists several equally delinquent friends (notably, friends both male and female) and, setting up shop in an abandoned school, begins to sell films of the group’s murderous pursuits. After paranoia gets the better of him and he feels his porno industry contacts are stealing his work, Hawkins lures them to his den and tortures them to death, capturing the entire process on film. All this is takes on additional disturbing texture when one learns that director-actual Watkins had psuedonymously directed a number of hardcore pornographic films, making it hard not to view LHODES as a deeply personal document of one man’s misanthropy. The directorial pseudonym “Victor Janos,” to which the movie is credited, could be a reference to the two-faced Roman god Janus, a symbol that would later be adopted by “Moors Murderer” Ian Brady.
Watkins’ performance in this film is utterly unhinged and thoroughly grotesque. Twitchy, oily and driven entirely by impulse, his Terry Hawkins is a feral animal created by an uncaring society and a broken penal system. His complete lack of empathy binds his cult-like followers to him, inspiring them to go past their general malaise and discontent to commit their own acts of cruelty. Hawkins is an East Coast Charlie Manson who’s dispensed with any whiff of the spiritual in favor of cold-blooded self-gratification.
The centerpiece of LHODES is the methodical torture, mutilation and murder of a woman that, in spite of its H.G. Lewis-esque effects work, makes for a deeply disturbing viewing experience. Hawkins and his ragged band of killers file into the operating chamber with silent reverence, rubber-gloved hands raised, circling the woman bound to the table beneath a white sheet. Once the blood begins to flow, the assault becomes increasingly frenzied and orgiastic. It’s an exceedingly unpleasant crescendo to an exceedingly unpleasant film, and the moments of suspense (well-used gardening shears slooooowwwwlllly descending towards the abdomen of the victim) ramp up the intensity to an almost agonizing degree.
A movie this spiritually revolting is only enhanced by its primitive aesthetic approach. The bad dubbing, grainy film stock and awkward performances underscore the ugliness of the story. The psychic acoustics of the film are almost unbearable, with a minimalist synth soundtrack, overlays of beating hearts and pacing that draws out every disgusting moment to its breaking point. LHODES presents a hopeless, horrible world untempered by any element of beauty. Beyond exploitation, this is a film that owns its filthiness without wincing–or winking.
There is rarely a day that goes by when I don’t feel grateful for my ability to self-publish via the internet. I take a staunch no-advertising stance (any promotional material I share here is due to a personal belief and/or interest in the Thing In Question) and I love being the end-all and be-all of what gets posted in my corner of the virtual universe. Like may people who share their writing and art on the web, I’ve reverse-engineered my Dead Tree Publication bylines by making those connections via the web. I also know that more people have seen my thoughts on how American Apparel ads look like Eurotrash movies than will ever read my way-more-laboriously-researched pieces in Ultra Violent Magazine.
I feel lucky to have the opportunity to get my work out there without ever dealing with the mainstream publishing industry, because fuck those guys. I’ve seen the way that shit works firsthand and I lack the intestinal fortitude to Go Pro.
When I was a horrible, self-centered tween and teenager (not to be confused with my current state of horrible, self-centered grown-ass woman-dom), my mother typed away at her novel, first on one of those Brother word processor/typewriter combo devices (that took hours to print out school papers, leading to many late nights and lots of nailbiting from this author) and later on an under-powered Macintosh bought secondhand from the local public school. Inspired by Twentieth Century Gothics written by authors like Daphne du Maurier and Joyce Carol Oates, my mother crafted a story that blended mystery, romance and a flavoring of the supernatural. She was well-versed in the tools of genre convention and manipulated them to fit with her contemporary setting.
Once the book was complete, she started the grueling process of printing out and submitting her manuscript to publishers and agents. I’m not exaggerating when I describe this process as epic–that word processor was the level-worst, requiring one to stand by and feed paper into its greedy jaws a sheet at a time, for the duration of the print process. After what felt like scores of submissions, an agent liked what she’d read and agreed to represent the book, leading to having it picked up by a major publisher.
Sadly for her, it was the 90s and Gothic Romances were out of fashion. In order to prep the book for publication, textural elements were removed and altered (in contrast, I would stab a motherfucker with a letter opener if s/he suggested I should make my characters in Super Coven “sexier”). My mother dutifully worked to incorporate these adjustments and at long last, the manuscript became an Official Novel.
An official, marketable novel.
On Christmas Eve, a manila envelope arrived from the publisher, promising to contain the cover art for my mother’s book. She was excited and nervous to reveal the imagery that had been chosen to represent her work. Standing by as she cut open the envelope, I watched as she pulled the glossy printout from its sleeve… and started to cry. Honest-to-god tears, and not of the happy variety. I snatched the printout from her and beheld the glistening, chitinous abdomen of a Hunk. What the 90s lacked in Gothic Romance, they more than made up for in Fabio. At the moment The Cover Hunk was revealed, my mother realized that this wasn’t her book anymore, and that it had been sold for what amounted to a paltry-ass sum.
There were a couple of book signings, and attendance at the Romance Writers of America (RWA) conference. The RWA conference was its own brand of weirdness–I remember her calling and telling me how out-of-place she felt in her subdued dress (she was very Martha Stewart in presentation) while her friends and colleagues were armored in sequined gowns and enormous up-dos. She did get to meet Hunk Archetype Fabio, who made quite a positive impression by being patient and charming with the crowds of fans in attendance (to this day, even though I have never met him, I feel very well-disposed towards Fabio as a result of my mother’s anecdote).
Interestingly enough, one of the things my mother learned during her involvement with RWA was that the authors who made romance-writing their career rarely wrote passion projects. In fact, “Category Romances” (people of a similar age to mine will remember spinning racks of these by the checkout at the grocery store) are quite literally written in accordance to a checklist. The authors are expected to write quickly and to-spec, and the experience is closer to that of a corporate PR copywriter than it is to the romanticized image of long nights, garrets and starvation. The ability to write Category Romance virtually precludes starvation–make no mistake that those authors work hard; it’s just a different kind of work from the creative audacity one might imagine as integral to writing fiction.
My mother continued to write, and finished at least two additional novels that she shopped around gingerly. Perhaps these other novels didn’t execute the right genre conventions, rendering them un-sellable, but whatever the case, my mother only ever published one novel. At one point, she got in touch with the artist responsible for Cover Hunk and was shown the photos that served as reference. I remember her telling me that she was impressed that the artist was able to imbue the knucklehead in the photos with the glimmer of intelligence she saw in the finished painting. She was crazy-great at finding silver linings. I give her a lot of credit for continuing to write the stories she felt passionately about, but it’s a bummer that she didn’t get to share them with readers.
What all this means to me is that I’m grateful I don’t have to Go Pro with my passion projects since I have the option of getting my work out there cheaply and efficiently on the internet. Once you accept money from an organization for your work, it’s no longer your work–part of accepting that cash is accepting the fact that other people will be tinkering with what you’ve created. Each person has to determine how comfortable s/he with that, and I’ve chosen to self-publish my personal work so I can be as awful and un-sell-able as I want to be. The only filthy marketer who’s going to shape my work is gonna be me, dammit!