I hope that you’ve enjoyed National John Skipp Appreciation Week. If you liked the videos, there are several more from this series available for free on YouTube. View them at your leisure, and share them with others. As our celebration draws to an end, instead of posting a new chapter of Deluge, I thought I’d tell you a little bit about how Skipp’s work has impacted my own career. The best way to do that, I think, is to reprint the introduction I wrote for his novel The Long, Last Call. That novel takes place in a bar, and by a remarkable coincidence, so does the intro. The introduction is called “Shut Up And Listen”, and that’s what I want you to do.
SHUT UP AND LISTEN
So we’re in this smoke-filled bar, you and I. The DJ over in the corner is playing “Freebird” and I could cheerfully strangle the piss out of him. A girl is dancing up on stage, and her smile isn’t reflected in her dead eyes. Everybody’s laughing a little too loud, drinking a little too much, and trying way too hard to pretend that their lives are working out the way they expected them to. I’m drinking a glass of bourbon and you’re having whatever it is you’re having. We’re sitting here in the corner, away from the hustle and bustle, the desperate pick-up lines and the clack of billiard balls, because I’m supposed to introduce you to John Skipp.
John Skipp. The man needs no introduction, and yet I find myself asked to provide you one anyway. That, in and of itself, is a very fucked up thing. The guy is a hero of mine. Having me introduce John Skipp is like having N Sync introduce the Beatles. It just seems wrong, somehow.
But I digress. John Skipp is many things to many people; one of the founding fathers of the splatterpunk movement, humorist, New York Times best-selling novelist, artist, screenwriter, public speaker, musician, filmmaker, and all around bad-ass. Hell, he’s even won an AVN Award (the porno industry’s Oscar) for his work on the first X-rated rock musical. His fans are legion, and include Stephen King, Joss Whedon, Clive Barker, George Romero, Marilyn Manson, and myself.
I mentioned he was a bad ass. That’s what originally made me a fan. Can’t remember what year it was. Sometime in the 80’s. I was out of high school but not yet a man, living in my hometown of York, Pennsylvania. Wanted to be a horror writer, didn’t think it very realistic, and instead, worked in a foundry. But I still read horror. Oh yes, I devoured it. There were these new guys; called themselves Splatterpunks. Dave Schow and Ray Garton and Joe R. Lansdale and Skipp and Spector. A few others. They weren’t just writers. They were fucking rock stars, man. Walked around in black leather and earrings and listened to good music and wrote this really amazing horror fiction, and they were just so fucking cool. Well, okay, Lansdale didn’t have earrings or wear a leather trench-coat, but he could kill you just by looking at you, so that was okay, too. But I digress. These guys didn’t wear tweed jackets or smoke pipes or pontificate about how many letters H.P. Lovecraft wrote to Frank Belknap Long. Fuck that. They got to the meat of things. They cut open the genre’s white underbelly and for the first time, showed us all of the black stuff inside. And they pissed a lot of people off in the process. I dug that. Still do. It was cool.
I worshipped the Splatterpunks. Read every magazine article on them that I could find. Bought their books. Clamored for more. As a kid in the 70’s, I decorated my room with posters of KISS and Farrah Fawcett. Years later, it was the Splatterpunks. I cut pictures of them out of Twilight Zone Magazine and The Horror Show and taped them to my word processor. I wanted to be these guys. They had it all—women, booze, best-selling horror novels, and the adulation of the fans. Although they might kill me for saying so, they were sort of like the genre’s first boy band. And I was a screaming teenage girl. John Skipp was my favorite. He was like the court jester. The clown prince. Always the funny one in interviews, always ready with a sarcastic jab. Had a crazed look in his eye, a smirk that I did my best to emulate, and some seriously whacked out hair (imagine the guitarist from Flock of Seagulls fighting with a weed-whacker in a wind tunnel).
Skipp and Spector lived in the same town as me, and their influence was everywhere. I’ve been quoted saying this before, so I see no harm in repeating it here: If you grew up in the 70’s/80’s and you desired to be a horror writer, chances are you wanted to be Stephen King. If you grew up in York, PA, and you desired to be a horror writer, then you wanted to be John Skipp. Now don’t get me wrong. Mr. King was certainly an influence on me as well. I love his work as much as the next person… but so does my Mom. If your parents are into the same thing you’re into, it’s suddenly not cool anymore. A Skipp and Spector book, however? No, dog. Mom wouldn’t touch that with a ten-foot pole. Thus, it’s most cool.
There are certain books in your life that have such an impact on you, years later you can still distinctly remember where you were when you read them. King’s The Stand had that effect on me. Read it in eighth grade and learned about themes. Richard Laymon’s The Cellar; read it in high school and it taught me about plotting. Skipp and Spector’s Animals is another one. Read it shortly after I got out of the Navy, and immediately after a bad break-up with a girl who… well, it was a bad break-up. But I digress. I read Animals. Finished it in a day, and then immediately read it again. That book spoke to me, and while many fans list it as among their least favorite of Skipp and Spector’s works, for me, it’s a defining moment, because Animals taught me everything I ever wanted to know about characterization; creating living, breathing protagonists and antagonists that the reader can identify with, crawl inside their skin and look out from their eyes. That’s some heavy shit. Some cool shit, too.
It was shortly after reading Skipp and Spector’s The Cleanup that I seriously tried my hand at writing. It was immediately after reading Animals that my stories started to improve. So John Skipp taught me that. I listened.
Came the day when the horror genre dried up and went away. Moved underground. Skipp and Spector parted ways around the same time. Joe Lansdale went off on his own as a genre of one. David Schow started writing movies. Ray Garton retreated to the small press. There were no more Splatterpunks. No more horror genre. No more cool.
Except that there were a bunch of us who’d been weaned on this stuff, and we’d listened. While the horror genre was in hibernation, we were practicing, honing our skills, getting ready. And when it eventually came back, we exploded on the scene and did our best to (whether consciously or unconsciously) mimic our heroes, the Splatterpunks; not so much in our style of writing, but more in our attitude, in the way we approached the business and the limelight. I was the John Skipp of the group, and I don’t say that out of some bizarre form of nepotistic ass-kissing. I say that because it’s what the critics compared me to. And that was most cool.
But here is what we didn’t know. The publishing business eats its young, and since there hadn’t been a new wave of up-and-coming horror writers in quite some time, it was fucking hungry. Ravenous. And little did we know that we were the buffet. Enter John Skipp. Was about this time, when the limelight was at its brightest, so bright that we couldn’t see, and the applause was at its loudest, so loud that we couldn’t hear, that he decided to poke his head back into the genre and see what was going on. He was writing again, solo this time, free and unfettered and never more dangerous. He investigated the scene and found this new clown prince modeled after him somewhat (who, luckily, had avoided that crazy hairstyle). This new guy was freaking the fuck out behind the scenes, even while he kept up the brave face for the public. Too much sudden money. Too much sudden fame. Too many people with their hands out. John Skipp, recognizing the symptoms and perhaps seeing a bit of himself reflected in this new kid’s eyes, sat him down over email and advised him on the perils and pitfalls that he’d faced a decade before. “Learn from my mistakes,” was the theme of that series of correspondence, and I have it on good authority that the new kid did just that, and did much better, and still has those emails saved. Because he learned from them, just like he’d learned from Animals. He listened.
In the almost two years since then, John Skipp has become on my dearest friends. I love him like an older brother, and it’s always a treat when he comes back the area. Recently, when he was out this way for a visit, my wife and I had the opportunity to hear him read from his novella, Conscience (which you should run out and buy if you haven’t read it yet—I’m serious, put this down and go read Conscience, and I’ll be here when you get back). There were roughly eighty people in the room (maybe a few more than that, even). John read without benefit of a microphone. His voice was barely a whisper, and I caught myself leaning forward, straining to hear what was said. I noticed that the rest of the crowd was doing the same. Quite literally, his performance had us on the edge of our seats, desperate to find out what would happen next, anxious not to miss a thing.
That is John Skipp’s gift—he pulls the reader in, makes us beg for more, and he doesn’t even raise his voice to do it. His writing is lean and linear, visceral and ethereal. It’s like gossamer razor wire. Vanilla scented sulfuric acid. It will hurt you, and you will ask for more. All you have to do is listen. I learned that from him as well. Learned how to make a crowd shut the fuck up and listen to me—because I listened to him.
There, I’ve introduced you to John Skipp, and told you a bit about the impact he’s had on me. I won’t tell you much about this book, because you need to discover it for yourself. John originally wrote this as a screenplay, and laid out the film, but no one would hire him to make it because he was a first-time director. Then he wrote the novel, so people would get the story told properly at least once. I’m glad he did.
In a moment, you’re going to meet Hank, Ambrosia, Daisy, Bo, and many more interesting people. I say people because they are not simply characters. Once again, John Skipp breathes life into them. They step off the page. Face the same perils and pitfalls that all of us face in life, and his deft hand is there to guide them. Or torture them. His voice is barely a whisper, hinting of dark secrets and even darker strangers. You would do well to listen because this is important.
The bartender just announced last call. Finish your drink, and turn the page, and tune everything else out…
Brian Keene, October 2005