Thursday, July 28, 2011
SEX AND VIOLENCE IN HOLLYWOOD: The Story Behind the Book
Movies have always been a passion of mine. I think the movie that hooked me as a little boy was The Wizard of Oz. I never missed it when it aired on TV once a year. On weekends, I watched all the movies that aired on cable — from the horror movies on =Creature Features every Saturday night to the old movies that ran all day Sunday. But I was not allowed to go to a theater to see movies. We were Seventh-day Adventists, a denomination that prohibited going to movie theaters. We were told that if we went entered the local multiplex, our guardian angels would not accompany us, and if we should die while in there, we would be doomed. This stemmed from something written by the cult’s prophet and founder, Ellen G. White, who condemned theaters in her voluminous, mostly plagiarized writings. But she did that back in the 1800s, well before movie theaters existed. So the Adventists extrapolated.
Movies became a kind of forbidden fruit. Mark Twain wrote, “There is a charm about the forbidden that makes it unspeakably desirable.” As usual, he was right. Not being able to see them on the big screen like other people made me crave them. I became a sponge, soaking up movie lore and trivia.
In 1977, my freshman year in high school, I worked up the courage to risk eternal life and enter one of those dens of wickedness — a movie theater. I had the help of a friend named Bob, who was not an Adventist, but whose mother had sent him to the Adventist school I attended, anyway. I told my parents I was going over to Bob’s house after school and would eat there. Instead, Bob’s mother dropped us off at the mall, which had a theater. Three movies were playing there: Star Wars, The Gauntlet and The Goodbye Girl. I was the only remaining human being in the free world who had not yet seen Star Wars at least once — even my Adventist friends had thrown caution to the wind to see the biggest movie in the galaxy. Of course, they didn’t have to deal with my parents. But Neil Simon was one of my writing heroes, so I chose to see The Goodbye Girl.
As we were standing in line at the box office, Bob pointed to one of the benches along the mall’s promenade and jokingly said, “Look, it’s our guardian angels! They’re sitting down to have a smoke!” Icewater suddenly flowed through my veins, my mouth became bone dry and my palms started to sweat. I actually began to tremble with fear because I was about to enter ... a movie theater.
You have to understand that I had always been taught that a movie theater was no place for a good and decent person. The church didn’t seem to mind if we Adventists watched movies at home on TV, but entering that building was a sin — as if the building itself were somehow wicked. By the time I made it to that box office line in 1977, I had come to believe that the inside of a movie theater was a cross between an opium den and a low-end whorehouse. I expected people to be having sex in there, shooting up heroin in the back rows.
Then there was the fact — very real to me at the time — that my guardian angel would stay outside. Not for a smoke, of course, because that was even more sinful than going to a movie! But I would be alone in there. Even accompanied by Bob, even surrounded by the other moviegoers — I would be spiritually, cosmically alone. What if I died in there? What if I choked on some popcorn? What if the place burned down? What if I had a cerebral hemorrhage? What if I tripped and fell on someone's heroin needle? What if god just decided to stop my heart out of annoyance at my rebellion? My soul would be lost — all for a Neil Simon comedy. I nearly soiled myself with panic.
It took him a while, but Bob managed to calm me down and we bought our tickets. Inside the theater, I was shocked to find that alcohol was not being sold at the snack bar. Not even beer! No smoking was allowed in the auditorium, there were no visible signs of drug use and people weren't humping like rabbits, either! Oh, sure, the floor was sticky, but not from anything biological. The movie was wonderful and remains my favorite Neil Simon film, but I left the theater with a much bigger impression than the one left by The Goodbye Girl: movie theaters were not only not dens of iniquity, they were wholesome places! The theater was a hell of a lot more wholesome than my own home, where I learned that my parents had found out I’d gone to a movie. My mother shrieked, “You’re lucky Christ didn’t come while you were in that theater!”
I had tasted the forbidden fruit, and it had not disappointed. After that, my love for movies only grew more passionate and I saw two or three a week. I read books and watched documentaries about movies and the people who made them. I wrote stories in my spare time throughout my childhood and my writing was as influenced by the movies I saw as by the books I read.
It was only a matter of time before I wrote something that was immersed in the movies. It finally happened in 1999 with Sex and Violence in Hollywood. At that time, I had been thinking a lot about how violent movies had become within my lifetime. I’m not one of those people who thinks violence in movies or books or video games makes people violent — given the kind of books I write, that would make me an insufferable hypocrite. I don’t have a problem with violence in entertainment myself, but I’ve noticed that as it has become more explicit over the years, things that we once found shocking seemed increasingly tame, even naive.
In 1960, the shower scene in Psycho was horrifying, but 20 years later, it seemed rather innocent compared to all the throat-slashing and head-severing in Friday the 13th. And it wasn’t just movies; violence had become more pervasive throughout our culture. And it wasn’t just fake violence! A look at the news on any given day revealed that violence was very much a part of our daily lives.
With each new level of violence presented to us, we’ve become a little more desensitized to it. I was ruminating on this when I sat down to write Sex and Violence in Hollywood. It didn’t have a title yet, though, and I really had no idea what it was going to be about. All I knew was that I wanted to write something that involved the movies and our growing numbness to violent images.
I began with a sex scene. Adam Julian, a young man in his early twenties was having sex with a woman in her forties. I didn’t even know their relationship to each other at first. By the end of that scene I did, though — the woman was the wife of Adam’s father, whom he hated. After that, I was off and running. After all, I had to find out why Adam hated his father! The book flowed faster and more smoothly than anything I had ever written. At times, it felt as if I were merely taking dictation. It was, in fact, the most enjoyable writing experience of my life.
It’s kind of a thriller and kind of a comedy set against the backdrop of Hollywood, with enough touches of horror to keep it from getting too bright and sunny. Adam and his best friend Carter Brandis are hardcore horror movie fans and their love of the genre permeates the book. It deals only peripherally with our desensitization to violence. It’s much more concerned with sex, violence and Hollywood, and features a big, high-profile, celebrity trial. There are even some cameos by real-life celebrities.
My agent showed more enthusiasm for Sex and Violence in Hollywood than anything I’d ever written. He was ebullient. I was concerned that perhaps the ending was a little too extreme, but he convinced me to leave it alone. He shopped it around to all the New York publishers, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. They loved it! But ... they didn’t know what to do with it. I had written almost nothing but horror in the previous 16 years and this was not horror ... although it had elements of horror. It couldn’t accurately be called a thriller ... although it had elements of a thriller. It wasn’t a legal thriller ... although the last third of the book covers a big celebrity trial. It was funny ... but it wasn’t really a comedy. It was sexy ... but it wasn’t really erotic fiction. When it came to categorizing Sex and Violence in Hollywood, the book was an orphan child. Despite the fact that they all loved the book, the New York publishers turned it down with regret.
In 2001, it was finally published by Subterranean Press as a limited edition hardcover. Unfortunately, my regular readers didn’t know what quite to make of it, either, and showed little interest. That was a depressing turn of events because I thought then, and still think today, that it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. Over the years, though, the book pulled in some new readers, one of whom called it a blend of Quentin Tarantino and Jackie Collins — which I took as a big compliment! It has received some great reviews. One of the most enthusiastic was from Bram Stoker Award-winning writer Weston Ochse. You can read his review here. And here are some excerpts from others:
"Nasty, raucous, at times hilarious, Garton’s latest delivers what the title promises, in spades. But the core of the book is a sensational murder trial clearly inspired by the O. J. Simpson case. The cast features an abrasive female judge who swoons over the film stars who flit in and out of the courtroom, tongue-tied prosecuting attorneys, a nerdy defendant who reserves his right to silence, and Rona Horowitz, a pint-sized, high-octane defense lawyer. Even Johnny Cochran, among a host of real-life celebrities, makes a brief appearance. The defendant may be guilty as hell, but part of the fun is watching dynamo Rona cook up one outrageous legal trick after another to try to extricate her client. Meanwhile, the story’s hero, young buck Adam Julian, is sleeping with his hated schlock-film producer father’s new wife, as well as her underage but wildly sexed, drugged and dangerous daughter. [Julian’s sweetheart] Alyssa is the unlikely chip the author will eventually cash in to supply enough gore for two or three more trips to the courtroom. ... This over-the-top excursion into the underside of Tinseltown provides more thrills than a high-speed car chase on an L. A. freeway."
— Publishers Weekly
“Trust Ray Garton. This talented author of many of the more distinctively strange horror novels of the past decade and a half could — probably — write the sort of break-out commercial novel that would make his name a household word right up there somewhere in the alphabet just before the King, Koontz K-section in the book stores. … Check out his substantial new novel, Sex and Violence in Hollywood. It’s a fascinating work with all the commercial elements: greed, Hollywood, murder, Hollywood, lust and graphic sex, Hollywood, psychopathia. Oh, and Hollywood. Garton’s novel is muscular, paced something like a car with a brick duct-taped to the throttle, and edgy with a sharp and nasty little tongue lodged firmly in cheek. ... The deliberately broad and superficially bland title manages to reel in vivid portraits of a generation more lost than usual, an accurately jaundiced view of how thin the dividing line seems to be between fantasy and reality. ... As a bonus, the reader gets a sardonically entertaining legal thriller slipped between the ribs of what might be termed a dark associational suspense work. ... The author cranks his epic to a balls-to-the-wall ending that could trigger late-night reader debates for quite a while.”
— Edward Bryant, Locus magazine
"Worth every penny of its price. You are in for one mean, hard, vicious ride; it’s about as searing a satire as you’re likely to encounter. I defy anyone to survive the last 50 pages unshaken."
— Gary Braunbeck, Bram Stoker Award-winning novelist
"Visceral, provocative, and graphic, Sex And Violence In Hollywood would make a perfect vehicle for the next Quentin Tarantino film. Equal parts crime novel, Hollywood expose and legal thriller — Garton alternately channels Jim Thompson, Joe Esztherhas, Dominick Dunne and John Grisham — it’s a genuine pleasure to read, a trashy thrill ride with unexpected depth. Gleefully milking the dramatic potential of Adam’s dysfunctional family, various Hollywood lowlifes and America’s legal system for all they’re worth, Garton also slips in some sly commentary on modern culture, the media, and the judicial system, celebrating and condemning their excesses. Purists might ask, 'Is it horror?' Well, not in the supernatural sense, but certainly in the utter emptiness of the main characters’ lives. Rest assured, however — there are some genuinely horrific moments, not the least of which is the shocking denouement."
— Henry Wagner, Hellnotes
“Sex and Violence in Hollywood is not only Ray Garton’s best novel, but it may be one of the best novels published, in this or any other year.”
— Weston Ochse, author of the Bram Stoker Award-winning novel Scarecrow Gods
"Sex and Violence in Hollywood is a realistic, non-supernatural melodrama of greed, murder, and twisted family relations that offers exactly what the plainspoken title promises. ... It’s a kinetic, plot-driven novel filled with cliffhangers, betrayals, unexpected developments, and moments of stark, disturbing violence. It’s also, at times, a very funny book, filled with cogent observations of an insular, narcissistic society. Sex and Violence in Hollywood possesses wit, energy, and a relentless momentum that carries the narrative steadily forward. At its best, Garton’s latest has the raw, in-your-face power of a Quentin Tarrantino film. It comes highly recommended to anyone looking for a nasty, colorful, high-adrenalin good time."
-- Bill Sheehan, Locus magazine
Sex and Violence in Hollywood is available for Kindle at Amazon and for Nook at Barnes and Noble. If you've read and enjoyed Sex and Violence in Hollywood, I hope you'll post a review at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or on your blog or website. To keep up with new releases, please visit my website at RayGartonOnline.