Tuesday, April 19, 2011

CRUCIFAX: The Story Behind the Book

Back in the mid-1980s, I lived for a while in a tiny studio apartment in North Hollywood. That’s in southern California’s San Fernando Valley, where all the towns melt together in one long blur of strip malls, fast food joints, gas stations, doughnut shops and traffic lights. There was always a lot of traffic and it took forever to get anywhere. A simple outing to get some groceries felt like a long road trip.

To get out of my depressing apartment, I went for a lot of walks and spent late hours writing in an all-night coffee shop in nearby Studio City called Tiny Naylor’s. Sometimes writing was difficult because the people-watching at Tiny’s, which unfortunately no longer exists, was so distracting. Every Wednesday evening, a group of familiar character actors—the kind of actors whose faces you recognize but whose names you don’t know—came in together. The group always included Mark Lenard, who played Spock’s father Sarek on Star Trek, and Dave Madden, who used to play Reuben Kincaid on The Partridge Family and whose distinctive voice carried throughout the restaurant whenever he was there. They were the only two whose names I immediately knew, but the group included other familiar faces from movies, TV shows and commercials. Tracey Ullman and Jodie Foster came in frequently and most trips to Tiny’s included at least one celebrity sighting. The San Fernando Valley is probably the capital of the porn industry—it was back then, anyway—and Tiny’s got a lot of business from people I often didn’t immediately recognize with their clothes on. Down the street from Tiny’s was the famous Queen Mary night club, and after it closed at 2:00 a.m., the drag queens came in for coffee and breakfast. They were among my favorite regulars because they were so friendly and funny and they always seemed to be performing, even while they ate. One of them was a wiry little old guy who had to be at least 75, who always entered Tiny’s dancing.

But I digress.

There was some pretty interesting people-watching on the streets, too. I don’t know what North Hollywood is like now, but back then, it was rather seedy. On my walks, I encountered a lot of winos and drug dealers and hookers—the kind of background color that showed up in a lot of my fiction from those years. But mostly, there were kids. Teenagers whose dress and hairstyles reflected those seen on MTV at the time seemed to be everywhere. They wandered the streets, sat around in small groups, haunted the video games and pinball machines in convenience stores. I suppose that doesn’t sound too unusual, but it seemed odd to me at the time because there were so many of them. They didn’t go to school and they were around day and night, almost as if they had no homes to go to. I saw the same teenagers over and over again, and the creepy thing was...they watched me. They’d follow me with their eyes as if they were suspicious of me. Maybe it’s because they knew I was watching them. I’m an inveterate people-watcher and I try to be unobtrusive about it, but I think they caught on fast that they’d captured my attention.

Those kids weren’t the only ones who haunted the video games and pinball machines in the convenience stores—so did I. My apartment was lonely and depressing and never felt like any kind of home, so I spent as little time there as possible. When I was there, all I did was drink, so by staying out as much as I could, I probably saved my already tormented liver from further damage. I tried talking to a few of those teenagers at the video games in the 7-Eleven, but they weren’t interested in a conversation with me.

They seemed to have nothing better to do, no place to go, and I suspected there was no one wondering where they were. There was something very sad about them. They almost seemed to be waiting for something. I had no idea what that might be, but they were awfully patient about it. I wondered what would happen if they just didn’t go home again. Were their parents involved in their lives at all? How long would they have to be gone before their parents would become concerned? What if the thing or event or person they were waiting for finally came along and took them away?

These were the thoughts that led to Crucifax. After Live Girls, I wanted to write something that did not involve vampires, or the squirming black manifestations of evil from Darklings, or the seductive and hungry monsters from Seductions. I wanted to do something completely different. Those aimless, wandering North Hollywood teenagers gave me Mace, a kind of modern-day rock-and-roll Pied Piper. But instead of leading rats out of the village, he leads the teenagers of the San Fernando Valley out of their homes and schools and into his basement lair where he offers them all the sex and drugs and rock and roll and freedom they want. But it comes, of course, at a terrible price.

My agent submitted the novel to Simon and Schuster under the title Crucifax Autumn. My editor didn’t like that title, though—and that wasn’t all she didn’t like. There’s a particularly gruesome scene in the book involving a cunnilingual abortion. It’s cunnilingual because a character performs it with the aid of his three-foot-long tongue. Then he eats the fetus. The scene was long and extremely graphic, and my editor’s response was, “There is no way this book will be published with this scene as written!” I strongly disagreed with her and went to my agent, Richard Curtis, certain that he would back me up. I was wrong. He thought the scene was unnecessarily explicit, too long, and made the story grind to a halt. I was young, stupid and drunk, and this made me angry. I lost the battle with my editor and ended up watering the scene down. Then I fired my agent. This was one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done.

Crucifax, my fourth novel, was published as a paperback original by Pocket Books in 1988. But the unexpurgated Crucifax Autumn was published as a limited edition hardcover with beautiful cover art by the great Bob Eggleton. The story of the “censored chapter” in the book became quite famous in the horror genre, and that chapter was reprinted several times in magazines and collections, including Paul Sammon's Splatterpunks.

Some years later, I stopped drinking, sobered up, grew up and came to see that Richard Curtis had been right. The cunnilingual abortion scene was unnecessarily explicit and too long. I was guilty of doing something that I had always criticized in other writers—holding up the momentum of the story so I could go for the gross-out and make my reader squirm with disgust. I returned to Richard Curtis with my tail between my legs, and he was good enough to take me back. I'm still with him today. The trimmed chapter in Crucifax is the superior of the two editions, I think, and it is the one I’ve decided to stick with for all future editions of the book. And speaking of future editions of the book...

Crucifax is available from Open Road Media for Kindle from Amazon, for Nook from Barnes and Noble, in paperback, and as an audiobook from Audible. Now you can take a trip back to the San Fernando Valley of the late 1980s and find out what those little creatures are that lurk in the shadowy corners of Mace’s subterranean lair. To keep up with new releases and other information about my work, please visit my website at RayGartonOnline.com.