Tag Archives: David James Keaton

The Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing: Musings on Jaws, Part 6

THE SIX-SIDED FISH TANK
by David James Keaton

When I was in first grade, I could never get a handle on Show & Tell. Every time it was my turn, I brought in a parade of nonsense that put the other kids right to sleep. Everybody else came in with stuff that had us scrambling all over each other to get a better look, and you’d think with 90% of Show & Tells just being a presentation of a kid’s favorite toy, I could have cracked this code. But I was so eager to blow them away, that I kept veering off course by bringing in, say, magnifying glasses and no sun in the room to actually burn anything, or the 12-inch single of Sweet’s “Fox on the Run” that I slapped down on Mrs. Circle’s mesmerizing turntable with the flashing diamond lightshow. Yes, her name was really Mrs. Circle and she had a cool record player, which seems unlikely but probably just a chicken-or-the-egg scenario. But this song was probably my worst Show & Tell ever, as I watched everyone’s eye glaze over but did learn a lesson as valuable as anything I retained from first grade—which is never put on music and stare intently into a blank face and wait for a reaction. Music is mostly for solitude, particularly when you hear it for the first time, and a dark room like a movie theater is probably best. This is something I’ve carried with me, which became amplified by a thousand when I witnessed karaoke. So if you’re singing an amazing Meat Loaf song at the bar, and I get up and leave? Don’t take it personal. We must have made eye contact, and I just had no idea what you wanted from me.

But one day, I solved the riddle and cracked the Show & Tell code once and for all by bringing in a toy for this movie I hadn’t even seen yet. See, the toy was ages 6 and up, where the movie was, what, 13 and up? It would probably be rated PG-13 today, like all of Spielberg’s movies (I mean, he’s the dude who invented that rating with Temple of Doom, right?) But this toy? Holy crap it was incredible. It was a big plastic shark with a rubber-band mouth, and you stuck a variety of plastic trinkets on the tongue and then plucked them off one by one with a wicked-looking gaff. And once the bottom jaw wasn’t heavy enough to hold the tension… SNAP! The mouth banged shut, little plastic junk flying everywhere, kids screaming, the works. And it snapped extra hard if you life-hacked that shit like we all did and put three rubber bands on the mouth instead of one. It wasn’t dangerous or anything. It had teeth, sure, but you wouldn’t lose a leg like that poor lifeguard in the movie (the scene that almost got it an R-rating actually), but don’t worry about him either, he’ll be okay. I know it seemed like he died but if you look close, he was barefoot in the boat, but then when his severed leg floated down to the bottom… the foot was wearing a tennis shoe. That’s why this lifeguard is the badass of all time. He took a moment to put on his goddamn shoes while a shark was chomping and blowing bubbles with him like Big League Chew.

Anyway, my shark was a bit hit. We didn’t even have to play the game. I just put it together, fin-by-fin, locked and loaded the rubber-band jaw, then piled up the tongue with the junk. And these trinkets you had to fish out of its face were fascinating, by the way. Sort of like Monopoly, which could have been way better of you spent the game putting sharks on all your properties instead of houses. Near as I can remember, there was a work boot, an anchor, a wagon wheel (?), a fish skeleton, no human body parts but this big ol’ bone that might have been from a person, and a walkie-talkie, which conjured up all sorts of Jonah-in-the-whale type fantasies (“Breaker 1-9, I’m still getting digested, over…”), and also made sense considering Spielberg’s later fascination with this technology. Remember the scandal when he replaced every gun in E.T. with a walkie-talkie? This was supposed to make the movie a bit more benign and kid-friendly, but instead it convinced us kids our walkie-talkies might be lethal.

No license plate came with the toy though, which seems like a real missed opportunity. So I just plucked out this junk for my first-grade class, eyes wide and intent like a mad scientist, or at least a mildly-disturbed dentist, and the room held their breath. And when the jaws snapped shut, I knew it was coming. It wasn’t hard to figure out exactly how much junk a three-rubber-band-tight jaw could lose before it sprung, so I barely flinched at all. The kids lost it though, squealing and rolling out of the way. And maybe I wasn’t a hero for a day, but a hero for 15 minutes, and that was good enough.

I didn’t see Jaws until about a year later when it was on “cable.” I have the scare quotes around cable because my uncle was stealing Showtime with a pirate box (only the biggest suckers paid for cable in the ‘70s). It’s not so crazy for kids to have toys years before they can see the movies that inspire them. And if you think it’s weird that they made toys “ages 6 and up” for a bona fide horror movie, remember this was the ‘70s, where kids were playing with Giger’s Alien in their sandbox or watching Blade Runner on their View-Master. No, seriously, they had Blade Runner on the View-Master! Or maybe it was The Black Hole, I can’t remember. Equally scary though.

But when I watched Jaws that day with my uncle Pat, I didn’t freak out. I was 7 years old or so, and my uncle and my parents marveled at how calm I was through the whole thing. This might have been my first case of “hype,” with my relatives needling me so much about being scared that I had to prove them wrong, because while I was watching it, I kept thinking “This ain’t so bad…” Either that or there was just no way I was going to show weakness. I’d already shown enough weakness earlier in the day when I ran full speed into their sliding glass door, bloodying my nose all over it. It wasn’t the first time I’d done this, which was why my aunt and uncle had put butterfly stickers on the thing so I wouldn’t make this mistake again. But they keep the door too damn clean. If I had a house made of sliding-glass doors, I’d be dead.

So when we were watching the movie, I was doing fine, cheering with everyone when Brody blew it up with that perfect shot, and that was that. Then people wandered off and I kept watching Showtime on my own.

And that’s when the cartoon came on.

I still have no idea what this cartoon was, and I’ve been unable to track it down, even in the Golden Age of internets. Luckily, I wasn’t the only one who saw it, so it really did happen. But my dad doesn’t really remember it like I do. Showtime was weird back then, too. No hosts, no original programming that I remember, with just these short, animated clips to fill time between movies. They were usually darkly humorous flicks, like something they’d play at a drive-in. Showtime is where most of us first saw Godzilla Vs. Bambi, for example. So this cartoon was supposed to be funny, too. It depicted an entomologist running around in a field with a butterfly net, catching butterflies. Then suddenly this even-bigger net swoops down and snatches him up instead. Camera pulls back, and it’s a huge butterfly carrying the squirming man in his net, flying back to a big cave. In the cave, the butterfly yanks the man out, gives him a cursory glance, then smack! Sticks him up on a wall with a giant pin. The camera pulls back again to show the wall is covered with men, all impaled on pins, heads lolling, and the butterfly sitting at a desk, drumming its fingers all bored.

It’s an old turning-the-tables gag I’ve seen a hundred times since, but holy balls did it freak me out. It sent me off, running through the house screaming, and everyone was left scratching their heads, “What’s wrong with Crash?” I listened to them diagnose my meltdown, and they decided that it was Jaws after all, combined with running face-first into the sliding door, that was causing this. Those were the real culprits, not a cartoon. And I was angry at the time, confused no one else was disturbed by the butterfly, but looking back, their assessment makes more sense. The cartoon was a fable, and it had a certain logic to it. Thinking about it now, Jaws was my sliding-glass door to the nose that day. Okay, the butterfly cartoon was freaky, but that’s a simple revenge tale. Sure, Jaws might be construed as a revenge tale, too (Jaws: The Revenge, anyone?), particularly today when sharks are undergoing a mass extinction and the Earth loses three sharks every second, but Jaws was weirder than all that, more alien. The water was outer space, the wrong place to be. And in the movie, any shot of some desperate swimming trying to get to the surface, but being pulled down at the very last second? That’s what got me. Isn’t this essentially what happens when a sliding glass door appears from nowhere? The idea that you’re underwater, that you’re in the fish tank with those alien life forms, only there’s six sealed sides to this tank and no exit, and the promise of sunlight from the surface will be stolen at any moment. That’s true terror. But if anybody can track down the butterfly cartoon, let me know. So I can destroy the negative.

But there’s a reason there’s a Shark Week and not a Butterfly Week on the Discovery channel. Shark Week is only slightly more ridiculous these days, as it’s mercifully pulled back from baiting the conspiracy theorist with fake Mermen and Megalodon documentaries. For a minute there, it was like they didn’t trust people to think sharks were big enough, that they didn’t need three heads or to be surfing tornados. A shark doesn’t need to be the size of an aircraft carrier to terrify. They’ve always been just the right size, meaning bigger than us. Remember the movie Mighty Joe Young? I don’t know about you, but there was something freakier about a King Kong that was somewhere in-between monster-sized and gorilla-sized, like that scary porridge that’s just right. And even a man-sized butterfly on a rampage still lives up here. With us. Not down under those sliding-glass doors, ready to rob you of any hope of escape or last gasps. Or even last thoughts.

Okay, last thoughts. When I used to work at a bookstore back in Toledo, my boss at the time told us how she’d spent summers in Arizona back in the ’70s doing volunteer work on a Navajo reservation, and one day she thought it would be great to organize a field trip to see Jaws. She said that most of them hadn’t seen many, or any, movies at all, so she hoped there would be some big impact, maybe like the Maori tribe in The Piano who stormed the stage while watching the locals put on an adaptation of Bluebeard, or the apocryphal tales of crowds panicking and running from a projected locomotive during the Lumière brothers screening of their first film, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station. Instead, she said, they watched the movie without comment, and when it was over, she eagerly went to them to debrief them about the experience. She was much more excited than they were, however, and one Navajo man’s response seemed to be indicative of the general consensus. He just said, “Big fish” and shrugged, which is a good way to remind us what was really important here, all desperate sliding-glass-door symbolism aside. That fucking fish was big enough.

David James Keaton’s work has appeared in over 50 publications. His first collection, FISH BITES COP! Stories to Bash Authorities (Comet Press), was named the 2013 Short Story Collection of the Year by This Is Horror and was a finalist for the Killer Nashville Silver Falchion Award. His second collection of short fiction, Stealing Propeller Hats from the Dead (PMMP), received a Starred Review from Publishers Weekly, who said, “Decay, both existential and physical, has never looked so good.” He lives and teaches in California, where the roads are made of sand fleas and avocados.

Posted in Blog, Movie Reviews, Movies | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Last Projector

David James Keaton has delivered a literal smorgasbord of a novel here. Loaded with grease and fat and enough madness to choke a goat. If pop cultural references were dimes, The Last Projector would be A LOT of money. The music references alone would have garnered about eighty dollars. But enough about that…

Larry is a director of pornography and he hates it. He used to be an EMT named Jack, and through a series of unfortunate events—events that haunt him almost daily—he is now Larry, a third-rate director of smut. He hates his actors and their seemingly contagious tattoos. He hates a lot about his life…and himself, honestly. While Larry films the fuck films, he secretly films his “real” movie with a woman and her daughter, only they have no clue they’re being filmed.

We also follow a young couple, maybe lovers, definitely almost terrorists—hey, they’re working on it! They unite in their quest to “scare” or kill a cop and maybe kidnap a police dog. At the very least they just want to fuck over as many law enforcement officers as they can. Their thread through the novel is richly braided with dialogue and so many cultural zingers it should be registered as a weapon.

This book is long, a little too long, in my opinion. I found portions hard to slog through but I stuck with it and was entertained overall. The characters are insane and well drawn, their antics all believable given the folks acting them out. From the opening incident of a man getting nose-punched for spitting mouthwash on a statue of the Virgin Mary to the ridiculous discussions of watching drive-in movies without sound from a neighboring house, this book seems to have it all.

Sense of humor as a bludgeoning object seems to work for Keaton. In nearly everything I’ve read from him, he wields that weapon proudly and with no apologies. He writes a mean story but sucker-punches you into not realizing how fucking dark it is until you’ve come out the other side. The one-liners and jokes keep you numb to the horror that creeps and scurries at your feet.

The Last Projector is available from Broken River Books.

Posted in Blog, Book Reviews, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fish Bites Cop

Do you like being punched in the face? How about being kicked in the shins? Maybe someone holding you at knife point and making you lay your hand on a table so they can smash it with a hammer sounds like bliss? All of those brutal and violent scenarios have a lot in common with David James Keaton’s collection, Fish Bites Cop!: Stories to Bash Authorities.

Oh, I don’t mean it’s a painful read or anything; I mean that at any given juncture, in any story, the unexpected veering violence could take hold and you could lose and eye—or even bladder control. Fish Bites Cop is a collection of 30 short tales. The only thread that tethers them thematically would be that there is usually at least one cop, fireman, or EMT in each story. There is also a lot of death, anger, and, for some odd reason, hand deformities.

I won’t go into every story but I will touch on the ones that left scratches. “Trophies” is the opener and a wonderfully bizarro intro it is. Through seemingly strange circumstances we get to see what lies beneath. In “Schrodinger’s Rat,” we are introduced to a group of prison inmates and witness their odd dealings and shenanigans. Brutal and witty while never losing its edge, this ain’t no Shawshank fo’ sho’!

“Greenhorns” is a tale of a group of fisherman with a much more sinister agenda. “Three Ways Without Water (Or the Day Roadkill, Drunk Driving, and the Electric Chair Were Invented)” is my favorite of the bunch. What a delirious kick in the pants it is. Part weird western, part bizarro, it’s like Cormac McCarthy’s drunken cousin after he raided the medicine chest. I mean, it has everything: vampirism, zombie horses, gun slinging, shape-shifting, and did I mention zombie horses? Glorious!

“Castrating Fireman” is a darkly comic romp that is and isn’t what its title implies. “Three Minutes” is one of the few tales that feature “Jack,” an EMT with some serious issues. In “Clam Digger,” a younger sibling must come to grips with the events that ended with his older brother’s demise. “The Ball Pit (Or Children Under 5 Eat Free!)” is a troubling tale that hints at post-apocalyptic fringes but never reveals what’s behind that dark curtain. And for the grand finale, he smacks us over the head with “Nine Cops Killed for a Goldfish Cracker,” a gonzo bloodbath of law enforcement and craziness that should be the punch line to its own joke: What’s blue and white an red all over and goes a hundred miles an hour?

So, is it a good book? You bet. I dug it. But I must be honest and inform you that it is not for everyone. If you like gritty noir-ish bizarro stories and people, with authority figures who are as flawed and warped as all get out, this is your Easter egg. If that isn’t your thing, then you may want to sit this one out. There’s a bench over there, right beside the nice policeman.

Fish Bites Cop is available through Comet Press.

Posted in Blog, Book Reviews, Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Zee Dreamt and Deathless Wurm

David James Keaton’s Zee Bee & Bee (a.k.a. Propeller Hats For The Dead), as it was called when it was sent to me last spring, has since been rechristened Zombie Bed & Breakfast (Zee Bee & Bee). Regardless of which title you acknowledge, this is one of the zaniest sort-of-zombie works I’ve ever read. Its audacity to be so smart and ridiculous at the same time is a feat worthy of your time.

In this novella, Keaton tells the story of a Zombie Bed & Breakfast, one of those themed places where folks pay to stay and be entertained. In this case, attacked by hotel workers dressed as the shambling dead.

Keaton has a keen eye for personality and pop culture references. The broken-down hotel workers are all schooled in their zombie lore and mythos and all know their script…but when things start to meander from the scripted path, chaos and bloodshed ensue.

Bizarro and smart. Keaton has a unique voice in his writing, the literary equivalent to Geddy Lee’s vocals—those who dig it are really going to dig it; those who hate it…you know what I’m getting at. It is also worthy of mention, an urban legend suggests that Tom Savini was so offended/insulted by this novella that it led him to “unfriend” the author on Facebook.

If I know David as well as I think I do, he wears that fact as a badge of honor.

Andrew Bonazelli steps up with his slice of world-ending pie, “The Dreamt and Deathless Obscene.”

His apocalypse is sort of quiet. Set in the mid 70’s, people just start acting strange. A plague has reduced half the populace to raving maniacs, while the rest don’t seem all that better off.

A group puts down roots in Philly and tries to start again, or at least live normally until a cure is found. In this, we are introduced to the Gall family, flawed and harboring their own insanities, well before the supposed plague began. The father and his two sons struggle to come out on top, through any means necessary.

Where Bonazelli elevates this above the typical post-apocalyptic crazy plague story, is with his unique grasp of the language. Quirky phrases and characters that are real and not at all the empathetic likeable survivor-types we’re used to. He takes all the templates of this genre and sets them aside, giving us a bleak and not-all-that-positive idea of the world ending—not with a bang, but with a whimper.

You can buy this book through Vitriol Press.

I don’t like worms. They’re icky and slimy. I get it. I’ve seen the world end at the hands of worms before. Keene served it to us and the 70’s film classic Squirm did as well. Worms are scary.

In 1991, Matthew J. Costello and Diamond Books gave us his novel Wurm. These worms are the scariest I’ve read about yet. Deep sea leech-like creatures that burrow inside and become what we are…and then become more.

Filled with great strong characters and frenzied pulp horror violence and gore, Wurm reminded me of all that I loved about the paperback heyday of the 80’s and early 90’s.

Wurm begins as an exploratory group is surveying a deep-sea volcanic rift and discovers countless species of strange life. Mainly worms. Big long worms. They go deeper…and are attacked by bigger, meaner worms who live in burrows. They return to the surface with a piece of a worm. From there, bad things happen and a new god struggles to rise.

Wurm is a quick read, a crazed comic-book fun ride through sci-fi tinged Lovecraftian landscapes. Recommended!

Posted in Blog, Book Reviews, Reviews, Short Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment