John Skipp: Looking For Trouble?

by Cody Goodfellow

When old rock stars go back out on the road, the result is often a bittersweet celebration and betrayal of all they stood for in youth: wiser, surer, but somehow tame. They temper our relief at seeing them still aboveground with a sense that they’ve somehow sold us out by not remaining rebellious and nasty in our memories.

And when they were young, few rebelled more nastily than the splatterpunks, who seized the horror ghetto like the radical Indians occupying Alcatraz, and turned tired turf into a thriving red light district with their stadium-rocking, blue-collar grand guignol.

But when the movement moved on, many critics disputed whether they’d left anything behind but bloodstains, ringing ears, and bills for wrecked hotel rooms.

Enter smiling iconoclast John Skipp, with both a hug and a fistful of fuck-you for each of these maudlin misconceptions. A decade in the dark has only taught Skipp new chops. His youthful glee at shredding expectations makes young, fresh horror fans clutch their pearls and pacemakers, while his themes and people (it sells them short to call them characters–Charley Weber from his last short novel, CONSCIENCE, is out there,somewhere) bear out the lasting legacy of splatterpunk best by burning it down… and building a strip club.

Because horror is where you find it, Skipp has gone where many have before, but he’s scoped what all the others missed and brought back a big, bad yarn in a mean little book that shows he’s wiser, surer and wilder than ever before.

Skipp graciously agreed to meet me at Freaky Kiki’s Topless Cockpit, and explain his behavior.

CG: In his SPLATTERPUNK anthology, Paul Sammon called Skipp & Spector the “moral center of the splatterpunks”, and your books were among the very few where I genuinely rooted for good to triumph.

JS: Thanks! I always thought that if the good guys were any fucking good, you wouldn’t want them to get their asses kicked.

CG: And now, we find you in a strip club, cavorting with and glorifying sleaze! How came you to this sorry state?

JS: Oh, Cody. You know I’m not glorifying sleaze. I’m just sitting in a room with it, and trying to describe it accurately.

CG: Oh, bullshit. I just saw you cavorting!

JS: Well…I mean, just because I’m at a titty bar doesn’t mean I can’t have a good time! (laughs)

But actually, I’m not a huge fan of strip clubs. I think they tend to be pretty desperate places, once you scratch beneath the loud and wiggly surface.

I mean, what’s the point of being in a room with naked women who you’re not allowed to touch? I would rather have naked women that Iam allowed to touch – who, in fact, want me to do so – or just forego the naked women altogether, for a minute. You know? It’s like going to a restaurant and ordering mouth-watering food that you’re not allowed to eat. That’s just CRAZY shit!

But when I lived in Hollywood, during the “lost” years, the closest bar within walking distance was Jumbo’s Clown Room. It’s this nasty little dive where Courtney Love used to dance, back in the day. In other words: a very classy joint.

So if I needed a break in the writing, around midnight or so, I might stumble down there for fifteen minutes, half an hour. There was no cover, so I could walk in, catch a beer and a show, maybe talk with some people, and then head back to work.

And one thing I’ll say for titty bars: they are very cinematic. I’d always find myself sitting where I’d want to put the camera, if I were shooting this. Getting the best angles on the stage, the bar, the crowd.

So, eventually, I started thinking about a film I could shoot there. And that’s where the story came from.

The fact is that places like Jumbo’s exist, and flourish. I’m not sure I think they fulfill an actual need, per se; but they certainly whip up an itch, and then offer to scratch it for you.

I also think that they’re fascinating Petri dishes, in which nightly experiments on the dynamics of sex, money, and power are conducted, all over the world. The customers are there for one set of reasons. The workers are there for another. (Like, for example, cash.)

But there’s an awful lot going on there, underneath, and I wanted to explore it. Get to the heart of it.

Which, of course, turned it into a horror story.

CG: Which begs the question: how has the moral center of your work evolved, as a solo act? Moreover, how does your model of right and wrong clash with the classic moralistic model (within the genre and without) that wants to punish sexuality?

JS: Well, for starters, I don’t want to punish sexuality. I never signed on for that job, and there are too many people employed there already. If we, as a species, weren’t so fucked up about sex, we’d either

a) no longer need strip clubs, or

b) make them more like places of worship. With strippers as high priestesses. Which would be fine by me.

That kind of outsider’s moral stance is intrinsic to me, and hasn’t changed a bit, from the earlier work. I just know more now, cuz I’ve lived longer. I’m a lot less judgemental, and much better acquainted with the minutiae of different ways of living, and struggling.

So my empathy, as always, is with all the people in the story, whether I’d want to hang out with ’em or not. I just think I understand people a little bit better.

The other biggest difference, obviously, is that it’s no longer Skipp & Spector. Just Skipp. But, honestly, I never felt morally compromised by our fictive collaboration. Whether we agreed or not, I always got to say what I wanted to say.

And I always root for the underdog. Simple as that.

Did that answer the question?

CG: Your work has often been characterized as cinematic (often so much so that a film adaptation would be redundant), and The Long Last Call originated as a screenplay. How did this (and your own recent dabbling in filmmaking) direct the shape and substance of the story, and what did you bring in, to make it more?

JS: Like I said: I had the visual, emotional, and spiritual components first. Then I got to the story. There were a couple of years spent simmering it, on one of my brain’s many back burners, before I got around to writing the script.

Every once in a while, I’d write one of the songs that the strippers would dance to, or write notes about the characters. And at one point, I brought in a brilliant friend – who was an actual house mom (a.k.a. hoochie wrangler, or strip club den mother) – to write the screenplay with me.

She and I had two projects together. When we parted ways, she took the one she originated, and I took The Long Last Call. But we both gave each other lots to chew on, in the process. (In fact, the whole centerpiece scene – with Mom, the Dark Stranger, and the briefcase full of money – was her suggestion. And it’s one of the best things in the story.)

When I finally wrote the script – and set out to get it made, as writer/director/producer – Stuart Gordon (RE-ANIMATOR, KING OF THE ANTS) optioned it almost immediately. He didn’t think I was quite ready to direct, but he made me co-producer on the project, and considered it my farm team training.

He was also dissatisfied with my ending, and pushed me to make Hank a more vital part of it. Which I did, on my own, and to my own satisfaction.

A couple of years passed, and the movie still wasn’t made. So I took it back from Stuart – who I still love and admire, completely – and considered my next move.

Somewhere in there, I had written CONSCIENCE, and gotten my fiction-writing itch back. I wanted to write another book, quickly.

And there was The Long Last Call.

So I gave myself two months to write it. It wound up taking two and a half.

CG: Explain the difference between the script and the novel.

JS: Basically, a screenplay’s job is to tell you only what you can see and hear. It’s the blueprint, to be filled in by performances, music, lighting, set design, wardrobe, makeup, special effects, camerawork, editing, and all of the other jobs that make film such a collaborative act.

But when you’re writing a novel, you have to perform all those functions yourself. You have to deliver the performances, capture the mood, nail the action, and somehow sweep people up into the story. It’s one-stop shopping, with total focus.

So I took the script, broke it down into chapters, and then proceeded to fill in the blanks. Using fictive techniques to get inside the heads of the people, and make you feel like you were there. Or at least watching the movie, instead of just hearing about it.

I also had the very keen sense that I might never get to make this movie. But if I told the story, well enough, as a book, then that would barely matter.

And – on the plus side – it was the best argument I could make for ACTUALLY MAKING THE FUCKING MOVIE.

Which, incidentally, I now feel readier than ever to direct.

CG: The Long Last Call also bucks hoary conventional wisdom that horror novels should be big, bloated epics, and follows the CONSCIENCE model of a tight, tense story one actually could finish in a sitting.

What went into this tactical shift, and what have you learned from it, and (perhaps more importantly) what should other writers take from it?

JS: I think it’s time for publishers to realize that people really like short books. They want to read cool shit, but they can’t always find the time for one gigantisauric novel after another.

I’m serious about this. If people could read a great book in roughly the time it takes to watch a shitty film, they just might opt for the book.

This doesn’t change the playing field for people who really love spending a week or a month submerging themselves in epic fiction. Those people will still be there. And those books will be there, for them.

But for the rest of us – and that includes me – there will be books that can be devoured, as you said, in a single sitting.

I wish there were more of those books.

So, in that sense, I’m just doing my part for literature. (laughs) And I hope to God that literature appreciates it!

CG: In the current culture war, the unbridled depravity in The Long Last Call would surely cause a huge dustup and issue of fatwahs if it fell into the wrong hands, but you use the strip club setting for far more dangerous ends than merely depicting the mysterious mating rites of homo sapiens.

Are you trying to piss people off? What’s your game, anyway?

JS: Honest to God? I’m amazed by how LITTLE my books have managed to stir up shit, in the cultural brainscape.

When Skipp & Spector wrote THE SCREAM, THE CLEANUP, and THE BRIDGE, it was our hope that avalanches of cultural debate would erupt.

But it didn’t happen. Life went on, as before. And those books sold hundreds of thousands – sometimes millions – of copies. And STILL nothing happened!

So I don’t anticipate a fatwah. And, frankly? I would HATE a fucking fatwah!

But I do hope that people read it, and dig it, and appreciate all the things that it’s saying.

If a good time is had, and thoughts are provoked, and people BUY the thing, then my job is done.

Past that: it was really fun to do. And that, in itself, counts for one whole hell of a lot. I hope that focused funliness and honest intent results in a book that people might actually want to read.

At this point, that is all that I ask.

CG: Your observations about how the objectification of gender cuts both ways, and celebrates sex while pointing out how EVIL – far from wanting to punish us for our fleshly vices – wants and needs us to feed on each other, are a bit more subversive than just showing us boobies.

But what does it tell us about ourselves, as men and women?

JS: Wow. If I talk about it too much more, then what’s the point of writing the goddam book?

Bottom line: out in the hetero-sphere, men and women need each other – and hurt each other – in astonishing ways. That’s just the way it is.

If we understood each other better, and treated each other better, there would be no need for horror stories at all.

Unfortunately, we’re not quite there yet.

The one thing I’ll say is: this is not just a book for boys to leer at, with adolescently-arrested brain-boners. I’m all about fair play, and trying to see our predicaments from every angle.

So both male and female readers are most welcome to suck on this particular loaded barrel. (laughs) And, hopefully, get something out of it.

CG: Your irrepressible exuberance would seem a great case study for horror as therapy. Is it the act of creating itself, or do you still find writing (and reading) challenging horror makes it easier to face the day?

JS: Irrepressible exuberance is its own reward. Which is to say: being excited about being alive. When you imbue your work with that, you pass it along to others. Which is, to my mind, a very good thing.

All serious artists want to communicate the essence of life, and its meaning, through their work. As a serious artist, working through popular forms, I always hope to communicate deep and meaningful things.

But I also want it to be fun. Because we all NEED fun. And we need the truth to be simpatico with our fun glands. We need to erase the gulf between the meaningful and the enjoyable, whenever possible.

Most of us have gotten very good at being scared, and angry. Big whoop-dee-doo. How hard is that?

But figuring out how to be happy – in spite of all the horror and heartbreak that life routinely presents – is another story entirely.

Throughout my life – and, certainly, throughout my writing career – I have always tried to bridge the gap between our light and dark selves. Our happy and unhappy selves. Our vision of how life should be. And how it often, ultimately, winds up.

Bottom line: my horror wouldn’t kick half as hard, or matter half as much, if it wasn’t grounded in beauty, laughs, and love.

I guess that’s kind of therapeutic, huh? (laughs) Hey! I should get paid for this shit!

CG: If The Long Last Call gets made into a movie, what then?

JS: If I direct it, and it’s good, then maybe I have a new career.

If somebody else makes it…well, ANOTHER HORROR MOVIE GOT MADE! And I stand to pick up a couple bucks. Unless, of course, I get totally screwed.

At the very least, there will be at least one horror movie, set in a strip club, that features no vampires, whatsoever!

And that, I think, is an accomplishment in itself.

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