Friday, April 8, 2011

LIVE GIRLS: The Story Behind the Book

Live Girls was the result of my first visit to New York City. I was spending the day with my (then) editor in his office and he suggested I visit Times Square just a couple of blocks away. He told me to have fun ... just hang onto all my receipts and don’t make eye contact with anyone on the street.

“Eye contact?” I said. “Why not?”

“Because some people will misinterpret it, or take advantage of it. And don’t smile at people. You smile too much. That’ll make you look like an easy mark.”

Was I visiting Times Square or an institution for the criminally insane? I certainly wasn’t visiting the Times Square that exists today. This was early in 1986, before Mayor Rudy Giuliani cleaned up Times Square and moved Disney in, preparing the way for Mayor Michael Bloomberg to turn it into a family-friendly tourist destination. This was the old Times Square: dirty, gritty and a little dangerous.

I was 23 at the time and had led a pretty sheltered existence for most of my life. I’d grown up in a small town in a very protective religious family and had attended religious schools from grade one into my freshman year in college. My editor's warning made me nervous. For me, Times Square was an eye-opening experience.

As I strolled by the adult book stores and peep-show parlors and winos and hookers and guys selling drugs openly, I was often overcome, not unlike Davey Owen in Live Girls, with the irrational fear that one of my former bible teachers might spot me slowing down to get a better look at one of the posters outside an adult movie theater. It took a while, but I finally mustered the courage to go inside one of those dens of iniquity.

The establishment I entered is described, almost to the letter, in Live Girls. It was a dark little hole-in-the-wall peep-show with no posters or barkers out front like most of the others. There was only a single sign made up of three red neon words: LIVE NUDE GIRLS. The “I” in LIVE and the “DE” in NUDE flickered and buzzed. I purchased the minimum number of tokens and walked down a long, narrow corridor that turned to the right. There were doors on each side, some with men standing outside, waiting their turn.

I found an empty booth, went inside, closed the door and locked it. It was dark, humid and smelly in there. My heart was thundering. Although I’d never been inside such a place, I’d heard and read of them and knew that once I dropped my tokens in the slot beneath the red light, a panel would open and there would be a naked woman on the other side of the glass – a LIVE NUDE GIRL, just as the sputtering sign outside had promised.

As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I noticed a small opening beneath the vague outline of the rectangular panel. Pale, gray light came through the opening, falling on the black, glistening, sticky floor beneath my feet and faintly illuminating a small plastic plaque next to the token slot that read: INSERT TIP THROUGH SLOT. I realized the opening below the window had indeed been a slot at one time, but the center of it had been expanded into a crude circular opening. Well ... perhaps “expanded” isn’t the right word. There were rough grooves in the edges of the wood, as if someone had used a makeshift tool to widen the slot, something like a pocket knife or a sharp-edged piece of metal. Or ... teeth? Yes, it looked almost as if it had been chewed open. That thought gave me a brief, enjoyable chill ... and then another that wasn’t so enjoyable when I noticed the opening was level with my crotch. But the real chills didn’t come until I dropped my tokens and the panel slid open.

The girl on the other side was nude ... but I had some doubt as to whether she was “live.”

She was the color of chalk and so horribly thin that I winced involuntarily when I saw her. Her dark hair was greasy and fell in limp strands past her shoulders. Her face was little more than a skull with yellowish-brown half-moons beneath her dead, sunken eyes. Her lips parted only once, briefly, during my short-lived stay in that booth, but when they did, I saw that her tiny, snaggled teeth were a dark gray color. There was an angry sore on her lower lip. Her neck appeared much too thin and frail to hold up her head. Her chest was a sharply-etched ribcage with two thin flaps of flesh hanging over it, mere ghosts of breasts. The flesh around her nipples was puckered, like skin left too long in a tepid bath. The left nipple was pierced, sported a small ring and was swollen and inflamed. Her arms and legs were jointed sticks that wore bruises the color of over-ripe bananas.

I stopped breathing, just held my breath for a long time, thinking that she should be in a hospital, not on the other side of that window exposing herself for tips. I was at once repulsed and fascinated as she closed her eyes and began to perform.

Her performance consisted of a zombie-like gynecological self-examination. Her movements were stilted and she leaned her head back limply, as if in a stupor. When she lay back on one elbow and spread her legs, I gasped. Her shaved pubis and inner thighs were covered with an oozing rash.

I left. As I passed the men in the corridor, I wondered why they were waiting. There were other unoccupied booths. Were they waiting for their favorite LIVE NUDE GIRLS? Or had they chosen to wait because they knew what they’d find in those unoccupied booths ... like the one from which I’d just made a quick exit? My imagination raced with possibilities.

I returned to my editor’s office and began to write. I already had my title, that was easy. And I had my premise; after seeing that pale, corpse-like girl in the booth, that was easy, too. Live Girls began as a short story about vampires that ran a peep-show in Times Square. But the story became a novel, which was published in January of 1987 by Pocket Books.

Live Girls received some very good reviews. Some critics were kind enough to give me more credit than I deserved. The idea of vampires in a sex-for-sale setting was seen by some as a metaphor for AIDS. To be honest, that had never crossed my mind. But, hey, if they wanted to credit me with some depth, who the hell was I to get in their way?

After the book was published, I received some mail and even a couple of phone calls (I have no idea how they got my number) from people who wanted to know how I’d found out about them, about their secret, nocturnal, bloodsucking activities. Vampires were contacting li’l ol’ me!

Yeah, right.

Live Girls made a couple of chain book store bestseller lists and was very popular in the UK. The New York Times called it “artful” and one veteran, award-winning writer of quiet horror (now deceased) claimed it marked the end of intelligent writing in horror fiction. Dean Koontz called it "gripping, original and sly," and Ramsey Campbell called it "The most nightmarish vampire story I have ever read." It was published in several different languages and has found readers all over the world. A few years after it went out of print, I learned that mint-condition copies of the Pocket paperback were selling for outrageous prices, and the UK hardcover was selling for twice that! It became collectible and garnered some respect. And you know what? That shocked the hell out of me.

In the years since its initial release, there have been a number of movie options. Some of the people who’ve optioned the book have had some rather unusual ideas about what to do with it. One wanted to set it in a Blade Runner-like future. Another wanted to turn it into a rap/hip-hop musical. My favorite was the genius plan to cast it with a Brat Pack reunion – Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, that whole crowd. Kind of a John Hughes movie with titties and fangs. Fortunately, none of those ideas ever came to fruition.

Since the original publication of Live Girls, I’ve written about 60 books. I’ve encountered a lot of people who’ve never heard of any of them – but they know Live Girls. The novel has been reborn in reprints and has been kept alive by used book stores, flea markets, garage sales and eBay. I’m very grateful to the many readers it’s had over the decades, especially to those who’ve been kind enough to write me flattering letters and emails.

Two years ago, I got an email from a young woman who told me the story of how she was named. While her mother was pregnant with her, she’d read Live Girls. Not only had she enjoyed the book, she'd fallen in love with the names of two of the vampires – Anya and Shideh. So she named her daughter Anya Shideh. Anya told me that people frequently complimented her on her names and she’d always appreciated them. She wanted to thank me for them. Frankly, that made me a little misty-eyed.

Now Live Girls is available as an ebook for Kindle and Nook.  For more information and to keep up on new releases, please visit my website.


  1. Wow! You have such a talent to be able to make people laugh yet move them in the same breath. Love your blogs!

  2. Excellent essay, Ray. I absolutely loved this book, and must admit that the Times Square horror story I'm working on was in no small part inspired by it.

  3. Thank you, Julie!

    I'm glad you enjoyed the book, Ed. And I'm thrilled that I could be part of the inspiration for something! Is your story set in the present-day Times Square or an earlier one?

  4. Wow, reality IS weirder than fiction. The scene at the strip joint was far more horrid than the book - which was a really fun read. But thinking of that poor pathetic woman behind the glass truly makes me shudder.

  5. It's set in 1977, in the Square's heyday - grindhouse double bills and street hustlers, questionable food and broken dreams. The book is something that's been brewing in my brain for some time, but Live Girls really helped convince me to do it.

  6. Sounds great, Ed! That's a wonderful setting for any story.

  7. Great story Ray. Love how you put us right in there. Wasn't a pleasant place to be. Did they provide tissues? :) Not sure how much it was cleaned up by the time I got to NY in 1990, but I was amazed by all those peep shows and lights and porno cinemas. I had a quick look in one, and when I left, only a few hours had passed. haha..

    Never actually went to a porno cinema, but I did go to a Live Sex Show in Amsterdam in 89. It was bizarre but hilarious as they encouraged 'participation', all in jest of course. This black woman came bounding over the seats to the sixth row where I was and grabbed me on the balls. True story. With the spotlight on us, it was incredibly embarassing. I don't know how that dude on stage got it up. Probably the 1989 equivalent of Viagra.

    When I ordered Live Girls just recently there were many copies online to be found. Guess you created a classic Ray.


  8. My own exposure to the old Times Square occurred in the winter of 1978, when I was in NYC doing research on HPL. I was so out of it that I had no idea why strange women were talking to me until my host, fanzine editor Tom Collins, pointed out that I had just been "asked if I wanted a date." I didn't take them up on their offer despite them looking much more presentable than the tragic vision you encountered in the booth.