Sunday, May 19, 2013

Days of Reckoning Press

I once was the editor of a “zine” that made it through at least four issues with the spiffy title The Days of Reckoning Press. At the time I was living with a young woman, lets call her Z--,  who was my co-editor. We were on the fringes of the punk scene. That is to say, she was in the punk scene and I wasn’t. It was a few years too early to call us “slackers,” plus Z-- worked a real job in the research division of the NYPL, while I was a low-paid “journalist” for suburban newspapers.  We collected weird pamphlets and books. Z-- kindly introduced me to the writings of Charles Fort (whose wit and creativity make him transcend the crackpot category). Other treasures collected include a pamphlet about the benefits of “rebound” exercise (on small trampolines), aka "reboundology," and one I since have lost about Baltasare Forestiere, the Mole Man of Fresno, who carved out an enormous underground house in the desert of California for a bride in Italy who refused to join him. My rather miniscule collection still includes a homey history circa 1940 of the Purefoy Hotel in Alabama. Z-- subscribed to a very bizarre newspaper out of Hollywood in which all manner of strange theories were promulgated, and in which one B-movie actor, Aldo Ray, a friend of the publisher’s, was treated as one of the all-time greats. (David Goodis’s Nightfall is still one of my favorite noir novels but I have never seen the movie starring the great Aldo Ray.)

The idea with Days of Reckoning was to mimic a crackpot publication--like that one out of Hollywood. For inspiration, we read all of Martin Gardner’s books on pseudoscience. We also had both gone to college in Santa Cruz, California, so our memories of the bulletin boards there, full of testimonials for groups like the “Breatharians” (who claimed they did not need to eat but only breathe mindfully to survive) provided added inspiration--in Santa Cruz in the late 1970s, trying to escape from the jargon-laced ensnarements of Est-graduates was also part of daily survival. A few friends contributed columns. I drew a picture of a lizard for the front cover that also served as the handbill that we posted on street corners.   We pasted up each edition the old-fashioned way and then ran it off on what were then termed“Xerox” machines—since we didn’t have access to the even less efficient technology of a mimeograph machine.
In the zine, I included  brief biographies of characters such as Samuel Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathy. I didn’t know what I was doing but tried to make these pieces read like slightly zany Jorge Luis Borges essays. Instead they read like something that belonged in a zine.  I suppose it was a bit sophomoric. We had a few avid fans, including my older brother, who tends to like all my dubious stunts. (My writing career probably began in high school when I wrote him long letters when he was off being a ski bum that he read aloud to his roommates in Colorado to apparent great effect.) The advertisements for Days of Reckoning outlived the publication--one of the phantom handbills with a ripped up lizard survived near a loading dock off of Bleecker Street for nearly a decade after we closed the press.

After this period of youthful/punk/bohemian/absurdity I broke with Z--, floundered around, got married, got a Ph.D. and learned better how to research and write about historical characters such as Hahnemann. My dissertation was filled with biographical sketches of electro-therapy showmen, stage hypnotists, anti-Spiritualists, and New Age salespeople. The Days of Reckoning impulse had undergone a sea change--it's hard to be a father, raise two children, and live absurd. I still love writing about people who uphold bold ideas contrary to the status quo--call it the Quixote impulse. [See Man from Mars: Ray Palmer’s Amazing Pulp Journey]

The Days of Reckoning no longer seem to be upon me. With that, I can live.

Friday, May 10, 2013


I recently adopted the word Interwebs, after puzzling over it and then gleaning online that the term began its life as one of George W. Bush’s malapropisms. I like the way it takes the slapstick to the word Internet, makes the medium seem, correctly, as stupid or smart as the people involved.
Participants in an early Go tournament in Pittsburgh, 1934.
            With his slip of the tongue, W. joined the longstanding project of science fiction writers to conjure up future slang. In the early 1930s, science fiction editor Ray Palmer ran a competition for new slang in his column “Spilling the Atoms” in the fanzine Time Traveller. The offerings weren’t great, for example, “Go Oil a Robot,” and “That’s gravitude for you.” Yet SF writers forged on, coining names for  technologies and practices alien to the present. Much of it was obsolete on delivery if you can "grok" what I'm saying.
             It took a mainstream novelist, Anthony Burgess, to invent a virtuosic slang that borrowed from Russian to animate his droogs' patter--for example, the joy Alex and pals feel after they "tolchock some old veck in an alley and viddy him swim in his blood."  
             Philip K. Dick, who projected a future where all was not gleaming, shimmering majesty, realized the true potential of such slang – offering up not linguistic bravado based on false utopian promise but instead words with a stale wholesale quality. Like his heroes, his slang was schlubby, schleppy, borderline mensch. When I first began reading his books, I found his invented names off-putting, irritating; the words looked dead, dispirited. Slowly I realized that they helped define a future that was slightly anemic, mildly dystopic, and at times downright psychotic.
            Dick’s characters read self-editing “homeopapes,” they lived in “conapts” (a term that still bothers me, but bothers me more when not a feature of his future worlds); they used “skins” (of alien fungi) or “crumbles” to buy products created in “autofacs.” If they are lucky they fly in their own “flapple” or “squib”—all this far from the heroic gadgets imagined in the 1930s by Hugo Gernsback and his fellow enthusiasts for space opera. When depressed, Dick heroes enter “Padre booths” for guidance. If marooned on a dystopic Mars, they take the drug Can-D with friends and set up a “Perky Pat” layout so all can become characters in the imaginary landscape of this Barbie-like figure.
           Dick’s slang created an architecture for perishable futures. If Dick was a pre-cog he saw that the future was never futuristic and in fact slipslided, usually in undesirable directions.