In middle school, I started reading.
I’d been “reading” since kindergarten. It was dutiful and orderly. Point B followed Point A.
But something happened in middle school—a perfect alignment of parental support and benign neglect. The parental “support” came from keeping me stocked in Beverly Cleary, John Bellairs, The Great Brain books, and Daniel Pinkwater. Also Bridge to Terabithia, The Pushcart War, How to Eat Fried Worms—and the parallel-universe, one-two mind-crack of The Bully of Barkham Street and A Dog on Barkham Street.
And then there was the blessed, benign neglect.
The “neglect” grew out of the same “support.” My mom and dad were both busy, working jobs and trying to raise two kids during uncertain times. In the rush of trying to find something new for me to read, they’d grab something off the shelf at Waldenbooks after only glancing at the copy on the back.
Whoever did a lousy job writing copy for books like Richard Brautigan’s The Hawkline Monster, H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, Harlan Ellison’s The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (“It’s about a teenager in the future!” said my mom)—thank you. Thank you thank you thank you. You gave me some tangy, roiling stew under the golden crust of the Young Adult literature I was gobbling up.
So yes, I still love Bellairs’s The House with a Clock in Its Walls, but I always imagine the two bounty killers from The Hawkline Monster in its basement, armed for bear and fucking the Magic Child on a rug. And somewhere beyond John Christopher’s White Mountains are Vic and Blood, hunting for canned food and pussy. And who prowled the outer woods of Terabithia? Yog-Sothoth, that’s who.
It’s a gift and an affliction at the same time—constantly wondering how the mundane world I’m living in (or reading about) links to the darker impulses I’m having (or imagining I have). The gift-affliction followed me (or was it guiding me?) through my teens, in 1980s suburban Virginia. The local TV station still showed The Wolfman on Saturday mornings—but I’d already read Gary Brandner’s The Howling. So I couldn’t watch Lon Chaney, Jr., lurch around the Scottish countryside without wondering if he craved sex as much as murder. I would recontextualize lines of sitcom dialogue to suit darker needs, the way the Surrealists would obsess over a single title card—“When he crossed the bridge, the shadows came out to meet him”—in the 1922 silent movie Nosferatu.*
Then the local TV station gave way to the early years of cable TV. My parents’ working hours were such that it was impossible to police my viewing habits. Scooby-Doo and his friends unmasked the Sea Demon and found bitter Old Man Trevers, trying to scare people away from his harbor. But they missed, under the dock, the Humanoids from the Deep, raping sunbathers. Did Harriet the Spy and the Boy Who Could Make Himself Disappear run afoul of Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45, Paul Kersey from Death Wish, or the Baseball Furies from Walter Hill’s The Warriors? The Pushcart War took place on the same New York streets where Travis Bickle piloted his taxi. And it sure was cool how the Great Brain could swindle Parley Benson out of his repeating air rifle by pretending to make a magnetic stick. You know what was better? Knowing that, one state over, the bloody slaughter of Heaven’s Gate was swallowing up John Hurt and Christopher Walken.
Maybe that makes my generation unique—the one that remembers before MTV and after. . . and then before the Internet and after. The generation I see solidifying itself now? They were born connected—plopped out into the late nineties, into the land of Everything That Ever Was Is Available from Now On. What crass acronym will we slap on the thumb-sore texting multitudes of the twenty-first century? The Waifnos? The Wireds? Anything’s better than “Gen X,” which is what we got. Thanks, Douglas Coupland. We sound like a team of mutant vigilantes with frosted hair and chain wallets. Actually, that’s not completely horrible.
And neither was being “Gen X.” We’ll always cherish the stark, before-and-after culture shift of our adolescence. We had isolation. . . and then access. Drought and then deluge. Three channels and then fifty. CBs and then chat rooms. And our parents didn’t have time, in the beginning, to sift through the “Where is all of this new stimulus coming from?” and decide what was beyond our emotional grasp. Thus, the mishmash. Six-color cartoons, but with an edge of gray and maroon. YA literature laced with sex and violence. A generation gifted with confusion, unease, and then revelation.
Not anymore, I guess. It seems that every TV show, movie, song, and website for the generation following me involves protagonists who’ve been fucking, killing, and cracking wise about fucking and killing since before anyone even showed up to watch them. I’m sure that will yield some bizarre new films, books, and music—stuff I can’t even imagine. Doesn’t matter. By the time that comes around, I’ll have long had my consciousness downloaded into a hovering Wolf Husbandry Bot. I’ll glide over the Russian steppes, playing Roxy Music’s Avalon, setting the mood for a lusty canine rutting. I don’t care how high my shrink increases my Lexapro dosage—I WANT TO BE A ROBOT THAT HELPS WOLVES HAVE SEX. Otherwise, my parents threw away the money they spent on my college education.
So thank you, Mom and Dad. Thank you, League of Lazy Copywriters. Thank you, reader, for buying this book. I apologize ahead of time for not even trying to aim at Point B, or even starting from Point A. Comedy and terror and autobiography and comics and literature—they’re all the same thing.
Stuff l did on the Internet while writing this introduction:
• Looked up the lyrics to Toto’s song “99”
• Played two “Armor” battles of Gemcraft Chapter 0
• Checked the Facebook status of two people I hate
• Technorati’d myself
*Nosferatu looms over and lurks under everything I’m writing about here, and in this book.
I was five years old and living in Tustin Meadows, California—a point on the arc of my dad’s military career postings, tracing a backward word balloon over the United States, starting in Virginia, up through Ohio, out to California, and back to Virginia.
It was Halloween, and the local library had one of those “kids’ activity days,” where we made cookies and cut out jack-o’-lanterns and heard ghost stories. And one of the librarians—with nothing but good intentions, I’m sure—decided to show an 8 mm print of Nosferatu against a wall. They blacked out the curtains and the projector clattered to life and spit out what I’m sure the adults thought would be a harmless, old spook show.
That movie—F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu—burst and spread out and filled that little room with jagged, discordant fever-mares from across continents and decades. The scariest vampire any of us had seen up to that point was the Count on Sesame Street. We were screaming and balling our fists up to our chests and wondering how we’d gone from cookies and crafts to a wrinkly rat-man spreading contagion across an already-blasted landscape like a plague that kills plagues. No one in that room ever escaped Max Schreck’s curly, cursed talons. Least of all me. I saw how that flat square of sepia light replaced the hard dimensions around us. I wanted to get on the other side of it.
© 2011 Dagonet, Inc.
A Book by Patton Oswalt
Zombie Spaceship Wasteland
A Book by Patton Oswalt
Oswalt combines memoir with uproarious humor, from snow forts to Dungeons & Dragons to gifts from Grandma that had to be explained. He remembers his teen summers spent working in a movie Cineplex and his early years doing stand-up. Readers are also treated to several graphic elements, including a vampire tale for the rest of us and some greeting cards with a special touch. Then there’s the book’s centerpiece, which posits that before all young creative minds have anything to write about, they will home in on one of three story lines: zombies, spaceships, or wastelands.
Oswalt chose wastelands, and ever since he has been mining our society’s wasteland for perversion and excess, pop culture and fatty foods, indie rock and single-malt scotch. Zombie Spaceship Wasteland is an inventive account of the evolution of Patton Oswalt’s wildly insightful worldview, sure to indulge his legion of fans and lure many new admirers to his very entertaining “wasteland.”