Dead Trees: Dead Lines by John Skipp and Craig Spector

I first heard of and begin reading fiction from John Skipp and Craig Spector in the mid-1980s. That era is still my favorite period of the horror genre. Thanks to Stephen King, horror had been doing pretty big business, but by 1986 things were really getting wild. For most people it all started with Skipp and Spector’s The Light at the End, a new kind of horror novel, and a vampire story for a hip young readership.

The Light at the End was a radical departure from the horror fiction that came before it. Skipp and Spector’s characters were people I knew. People I partied with. There was influence from classic horror, to be sure, but these were people who listened to punk and metal. They were weaned on midnight movies, Frank Zappa, William Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson.

I read fiction and features about Skipp and Spector in The Twilight Zone Magazine, Night Cry, and The Horror Show. All of which I desperately miss today.

I thought John and Craig were just about the coolest people I could imagine. And you know what? Thirty-five or so year later, I still do.

The John Skipp and Craig Spector superteam was riding high after the 1987 publication of The Scream. I could be wrong, but I think it may have been their most successful book. It was a doozy, too, with a righteously cool poster tipped into the inside of the paperback cover.

Their next book, Dead Lines, was just as good. I had no idea at the time, but it was not a successful one. Apparently the publisher, Bantam Books, dumped Dead Lines with little or no promotion. You could have fooled me. It came out and one day on my weekly visit to the WaldenBooks in the mall across the street from my house, I made a beeline to the horror section. Just as I always did. I saw Dead Lines on the shelf, and I reached for it like a drowning man grabbing a life preserver.

I read Dead Lines, loved it, and anxiously awaited another book from John Skipp and Craig Spector.

Skipp and Spector called it quits a few years after that. They had had a meteoric rise to fame and I guess personal shit came between them. It was like the breakup of a favorite rock band, and these guys were rock stars to horror fans like me.

I later met both John Skipp and Craig Spector. They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes, but I’ve had pretty good luck in that regard. John and Craig have both been very cool with me.  The fondest dream of many people would be to get high with John Lennon. Smoking a joint with John Skipp was even more of a thrill for me. I’ve partied with these guys, worked on projects with them, laughed, and been privileged to know them both.

cover of The Bridge by Skipp and SpectorIt makes me sad to know that Dead Lines is kind of the red-headed stepchild of their books. It may not think it’s their best (The Bridge takes that honor), but in many ways it is their most interesting.

Craig calls Dead Lines a “novelogy” I call this sort of thing a Story Cycle. Or perhaps a Mosaic Novel. This sort of thing is fairly common in science fiction, where many novels were constructed from previously existing short stories. The Martian Chronicles comes immediately to mind, as does Asimov’s I, Robot and Simak’s City. But Dead Lines is unique.

Dead Lines opens with a despondent writer committing suicide in a NYC apartment. Later, two women occupy the place, and one finds and begins to read the deceased writer’s story manuscripts. She becomes obsessed with them, and they begin to take over her life. It seems that the writer isn’t completely gone. He might wish to return, bringing with him the hate, rage, and despair he felt in life.

Skipp and Spector used existing short stories as the works-within-the-book as pieces written by the dead writer. It’s an ingenious concept, brought to life with the swagger their fans loved.

The connecting story is written with polish, but the short stories within are sometimes raw, particularly the ones early in the book. This is downtown fiction, almost Cinema of Transgression put to paper. Other pieces, such as the title story, “Dead Lines,” are crisp and stylish.

If you’re reading this, you are interested in horror fiction. If you have not read John and Craig’s books, you need to. I’d suggest The Light at the End as the best starting point. Or maybe The Bridge. I don’t think Dead Lines is their best book, but I think it is the one that best captures the DNA of what made John Skipp and Craig Spector so popular.

Mark Sieber learned to love horror with Universal, Hammer, and AIP movies, a Scholastic edition of Poe’s Eight Tales of TerrorSir Graves Ghastly PresentsThe Twilight Zone, Shirley Jackson’s The Daemon LoverThe Night Stalker, and a hundred other dark influences. He came into his own in the great horror boom of the 1980’s, reading Charles L. Grant, F. Paul Wilson, Ray Russell, Skipp and Spector, David J. Schow, Stephen King, and countless others. Meanwhile he spent as many hours as possible at drive-in theaters, watching slasher sequels, horror comedies, monster movies, and every other imaginable type of exploitation movie. When the VHS revolution hit, he discovered the joys of Italian and other international horror gems. Trends come and go, but he still enjoys having the living crap scared out of him. Cemetery Dance recently released his collection He Who Types Between the Rows: A Decade of Horror Drive-In. He can be reached at horrordrivein@yandex.com, and at www.horrordrive-in.com.

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