Dead Trees: The Cleanup

banner reading Dead Trees by Mark Sieber

cover of The CleanupWhen I first began reading horror fiction, most of it was populated by educated, successful characters. Writers were a popular choice. I was fine with it, and I still am, but by the mid-eighties the genre needed a jolt from a different demographic. John Skipp and Craig Spector gave it to us.

With the publication of The Light at the End we had characters from another class and fiction designated for a different demographic. Those who barely made it through high school. Or didn’t get a diploma at all. The disenfranchised, the ones who were dealt a bad hand from the start. People like me and my friends, in other words.

Many of the people I grew up with had ideals, but most lost sight of them. Bitter disappointment after disappointment hardened our hearts. We partied to celebrate our youth and to be free of the constraints of society, but the partying quickly began to take a toll, and burnout set in. We were more concerned with the next beer, the next gore movie, the next gorge-out buffet than bettering the world or ourselves.

Our lives were badly in need of a cleanup.

cover of The Light at the EndJohn and Craig hit the field like a tsunami with The Light at the End. It’s a terrific novel, especially considering it is a debut. Their followup, The Cleanup, is in my opinion the better book.

We are introduced to Billy Rowe in The Cleanup. He’s not much different than a lot of guys I knew. A talented musician whose potential eroded from endless drunken nights, disillusionment, and frankly a lot of old fashioned laziness. He’s plugging along in a rocky relationship, his apartment is a real shithole, and he scrapes by with the least possible effort.

Billy is shaken out of his stupor when he witnesses a murder. Then something miraculous occurs. Billy is visited by a supernatural being. It seems Billy is someone very special. He is chosen to help heal the world. A world in desperate need of a cleanup.

Billy has been given miraculous powers to cleanse. He starts with his apartment and moves on to other problems in New York City. Soon not only the predators need fear Billy Rowe. His power corrupts his already shaky morals.

Tales of redemption rarely go out of style. Billy has to learn that any serious life change takes endless work and sacrifice. Quick fixes like a pill or a new relationship might provide  temporary salvation, but real change is hard-won and painful.

Thankfully I cleaned my own life up considerably, even if the work is never really over. Other friends of mine didn’t make the effort. Many are now gone.

alternate cover of The CleanupThe Cleanup was a controversial novel when it was first published in 1987. There is a brutal rape scene that drew a lot of criticism. John and Craig were the kind of writers who had to face the darkness in their work. To have any kind of real impact, they had to confront it head on, no blinders and no filters. Horror is there in the world, every day and in every town. To battle it, we have to stand directly in its path with open eyes. There is no gore for gore’s sake in their work. The extreme situations in their books all served a higher purpose.

Some took exception to the less-than-flattering way radical feminists are depicted in The Cleanup. John and Craig knew that extremists from any ideology are dangerous. There’s  contempt for right wing oppressive greed as well as neo-Left egotism in their fiction.

John Skipp and Craig Spector brought passion and hunger to their work. You can sense they still cared about human rights and helping the poor and hungry. The optimistic flames of the sixties still smoldered. The Cleanup seems to me to be an attempt to wash away the cynicism, the lethargy, and the need to embrace chemically-induced oblivion.

Like John and Craig’s environmental horror novel, The Bridge, The Cleanup is a plea for change. A call to go back to the things we believed in when we were so young and hopeful. It was an important book then, and it may be even more critical today.

Photo of Mark Sieber with a cat on his shoulder
Mark Sieber and friend

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 has published his nonfiction collections He Who Types Between the Rows: A Decade of Horror Drive-In and He Who Types Between the Rows 2: Horror Drive-In Will Never Die. He can be reached at [email protected], and at

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