Tales From the Metalnomicon: John Skipp

Welcome to Tales From the Metalnomicon, a new twice-monthly column delving into the surprisingly vast world of heavy metal-tinged/inspired literature and metalhead authors…
“We have to raise hell, man,” Jake Hamer chides his wavering rock n’ roll brethren early on in John Skipp and Craig Spector’s 1988 let’s-give-the-fucking-PRMC-something-to-really-fear barnburner The Scream. “It’s our sacred duty. It’s a moral imperative.”

If our hero isn’t actively channeling the book’s co-author in this passage, he might as well be. John Skipp is the paradigmatic Renaissance Man in the world of bizarro carnage, and those tempted to doubt it should first consider the laurels draped around his neck: Stalwart/progenitor of the gore-festooned splatterpunk literary revolution. Uber-editor of gobstoppingly comprehensive horror anthologies such as Demons: Encounters with the Devil and His Minions, Fallen Angels, and the Possessed and Psychos: Serial Killers, Depraved Madmen, and the Criminally Insane. Former frontman of Chris Poland’s eclectic mid-nineties post-Megadeth outfit Mumbo’s Brain. Director of the twisted surrealist film shorts Stay at Home Dad and Rose: The Bizarro Zombie Musical. And, lest we forget, very likely the only New York Times bestselling author to ever take home two trophies at the Adult Video News Awards — i.e. the “Oscars of porn” — for Misty Beethoven: the Musical, a film Skipp helpfully describes as “basically My Fair Lady with fucking and rock songs.”

“One of the most hilarious things about having not died yet is turning into an elder statesman,” Skipp tells Decibel with a chuckle. “Last thing I knew, I was a punk kid. Now I’m all grey-bearded and the punks are coming to me. So I’ve been pretty rigorously over the last bunch of years trying to turn into the guy I wish had been around for me when I was starting out. And the process of figuring out who that guy is has actually been a really cool art project.”

And while Tales From the Metalnomicon would have glady interrogated Skipp based solely on his role in summoning the greatest heavy metal horror novel of all time into existence, there was also a suspicion that his aesthetic philosophy and artistic raison d’etre would jibe well with the cultures of extremity Decibel regularly exalts and explores.

In this we were not disappointed.

“The whole thing with splatterpunk is, it’s fuck with the lights on literature,” Skipp explains. “It’s designed to rock the way heavy metal rocks, using all the same elements of velocity and syncopation. Rock is my tribal music. The spirit in rock is a spirit I’ve felt very strongly my entire life. Plus, I always thought if you write like a rock star, you might get to fuck like a rock star. Which is one of the reasons I decided early on to try to write like a rock star.”

Of course, few are born with an innate tribal fucking by way of symbols scratched out on a blank page ethos, and, in this respect at least, Skipp is no exception.

“The first music I ever fell in love with was church music, because it was the only thing I liked about church,” Skipp recalls. “But that shit got very tired very quick.” Though neither his father’s Frank Sinatra nor his older sister’s Elvis held much allure for him, the Beatles would soon lead Skipp to the Stones, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and, in a bit of prophetic confluence, Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs, whose “Lil’ Red Riding Hood,” written from the wolf’s perspective, was of particular interest.

It wasn’t until his family moved to Argentina in 1966, however, that a nine year-old Skipp discovered music that really tore open hitherto unfathomable dimensions via care packages a friend’s older brother shipped down from Berkeley, California. “These boxes full of albums would just show up,” Skip says. “Hendrix, the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Led Zeppelin — this shit was a revelation to a young mind. I mean, listening to ‘Return of the Son of Monster Magnet’ off Zappa’s Freak Out!? Insane!”

Zappa’s 1965 devilish closing message to tourists outside the Whiskey A-Go-Go made a particular impression on Skipp: “If your children ever find out how lame you really are, they’ll murder you in your sleep.”

So the young man pursed the elusive rock n’ roll mistress, as so many of us do. (A Stratocaster knockoff plugged into the home stereo very nearly electrocuted him, yet Skipp’s budding love for the instrument and songwriting was not deterred…) Nevertheless, comic books like Creepy and Eerie, as well as Alfred Hitchcock’s anthology Stories They Wouldn’t Let Me Do On TV, were simultaneously luring Skipp onto the outskirts of dark fiction and into a world which soon took precedence over his other avenues of self-expression.

Skipp sold his first short story to The Twilight Zone Magazine in 1982, and then, united with Craig Spector, saw the publication of their novelization of the film Fright Night one year ahead of the bestselling genre-bending 1986 splatterpunk landmark The Light at the End, a novel that cleverly melded visceral vampire lore to the Lower East Side punk rock scene.

Here is how metalhead and horror icon Brian Keene describes the impact splatterpunk had on his cadre of brutality purveyors during their fledgling years:

They cut open the genre’s white underbelly and for the first time, showed us all of the black stuff inside. And they pissed a lot of people off in the process…If you grew up in the 70’s/80’s and you desired to be a horror writer, chances are you wanted to be Stephen King. If you grew up in York, PA, and you desired to be a horror writer, then you wanted to be John Skipp. Now don’t get me wrong. Mr. King was certainly an influence on me as well. I love his work as much as the next person…but so does my Mom. If your parents are into the same thing you’re into, it’s suddenly not cool anymore. A Skipp and Spector book, however? No, dog. Mom wouldn’t touch that with a ten-foot pole.

A string of classic Skipp-Spector novels followed — The Cleanup (1987), Dead Lines (1989), The Bridge (1991) — until a disastrous gig scripting A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child — a ridiculous story Skipp recounts with righteous incredulity in the excellent, no-stone-left-unturned documentary Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy — and a nervous breakdown left him both disillusioned — “Writing fiction kind of felt like being forced at gunpoint to fuck the corpse of the woman you loved” — and “living in a little shithole apartment in Hollywood waiting to die.”

Rather than simply surrender and shuffle off this mortal coil, though, Skipp found solace in the same place of purity that had so enlivened him in his youth: Rock n’ roll.

“The first Megadeth album came out the same year as The Light at the End,” Skipp says of his fortuitous partnership with “staggering genius” Chris Poland. “So he was getting famous in his shit and I was getting famous in my shit and then we both crashed and burned before meeting up.”

The story of how Skipp found his way from this lowest of lows to the artistic rebirth via Mumbo’s Brain is, I believe, is worth hearing in his own voice:

Alas, Mumbo’s Brain toiled for a few years without ever securing a deal and broke up. (“A lot of metal people really hated my voice,” Skipp says, speculating that a post-Megadeth expectation game might have hurt the band’s chances. “I wasn’t really a metal singer I was somewhere between a blues singer, a crooner, and a guy who was having a nervous breakdown.”) But in the meantime Skipp had been taking film classes, gaining knowledge which would bear fruit in the not too distant future, and, after nearly a decade out of the writing game, he slowly retook his rightful place in the saddle, writing scripts (including those recently collected in Cemetery Dance release Sick Chick Flicks), editing anthologies, and collaborating on new novels with Cody Goodfellow.

“Making that music completely revitalized me,” Skipp says. “It was such a pleasure playing with those guys. There was nothing they couldn’t do so I kind of felt like there wasn’t anything I couldn’t do. My soul really woke up hard.”

In truth, collaboration is the recurring motif of Skipp’s career.

“I started out in rock bands, so jamming is a thing I really enjoy,” Skipp says. “I think creativity is, at its best, play. You can’t collaborate with everyone, but when you connect with someone who brings something to the game you can’t bring yourself — that is the shit.”

It is this openness, this admirable creative restlessness, this fearlessness with regard to barreling into the unknown that has allowed Skipp to achieve more in multiple mediums than most manage in a single carefully chosen one. More remarkable, perhaps, is the fact that thirty years into his professional career, the man shows no sign of having blown his imaginative — not imaginary! — wad.

“I vigorously pursue my interests, whether anyone seems interested or not,” Skipp says. “I’m not afraid to try new shit and I never stop, not even after I pass the point where any sane person would have. I’m also one of the luckiest bastards I know.”

If such amiable ebullience sounds refreshing compared to the lazy critical caricature of those artists who toil in dark genres…well, that is by design.

“At various points in my life I’ve felt compelled to face the darkness, but one of the most important things I’ve learned is that happiness, too, is possible,” the splatterpunk auteur says. “Part of exploring the darkness is making peace with it and understanding that, whether we like it or not, bad shit will always be with us. So what are you going to do? Be miserable forever? Or find some way to spread light in that darkness?”

Keep up with Skipp via LiveJournal, Facebook and Twitter. The previous Tales From the Metalnomicon on Black Sabbath for Children lives here.