Friday, March 25, 2011

Dope Island: John Steakley we hardly knew ye

By Charles Cassady Jr.

Someone at one of my menial part-time jobs - wow, what fun it is, to be an internationally published writer - remarked that the first part of the newspaper he turns to are the obituaries. Because he wants to see if anyone he knows is in there. Including himself. I thought I was the only one who did that.

Despite my strenuous efforts to keep up, not only checking the death notices in The Plain Dealer but also the addictive BlogofDeath.com, one fatality got past me. John Steakley, dead at 59 last November (my despised birth month, during which no good happens) in McKinney, Texas. Cause was cited as a longstanding liver condition.

Why should you care? Steakley was a science-fiction and fantasy author of something less than prolific output. He only wrote a handful of short stories and finished two novels. Even with that, I can't claim to have read anythying more by him than the one of those novels that made a whimpering dent in Hollywood history, Vampire$.


In 1998 it was adapted into an okay horror feature VAMPIRES or, to use the full-brand name, JOHN CARPENTER'S VAMPIRES. This movie retains a strong fondness for me by, basically, being one of only two Hollywood features for which Charles Cassady, bottom-rung freelance Cleveland critic, actually went on a press junket to Los Angeles, courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

Most critics who hang in there long enough get to go on a junket. And I suppose if they turn out to show cost-effective positive performance - churning out scads of upbeat, PR-type articles for diverse media about any given press event - I would imagine they are invited back. I wasn't, of course.

And I pretty much knew the score when I met follow esteemed reviewers and found them everything from writers for weekly shopping papers from upstate California to college student-paper scribes flown in from Boston. Today it would probably be wall-to-wall bloggers. Some first-timers, some return offenders; we were just undergoing our inspection as potential celeb-boosters and quote whores, that's all. You know, the types who affix their names to theoretical ad quotations such as: "JOHN CARPENTER'S VAMPIRES Is The Must-See Film Of The Year! The Sleeper Hit Of The Fall! The Feelgood Movie Of The Decade! It Moves Like STAR WARS! It Cures Cancer And Takes Off Belly Fat! JOHN CARPENTER'S VAMPIRES Prevents Home Foreclosure And Works Like Viagra!" and so on.

Oh believe me, for a free overnight stay at the Four Seasons and a chance to ask questions of a tolerant James Woods and John Carpenter in person, there are critics who would print that. And, more frighteningly, mean it. For a lonely, typically friendless misfit critic to be treated like a king on a junket - though, I am given to understand, the broadcast folk had it even better than we print-media wretches - you bet that generates lots of good will and gratitude. And I wasn't even one of those writers who took advantage of the free stay to sneak out of the hotel and take in a late-night music show - I forget who was playing that 1998 fall weekend, but it was a biggie.

This is turning into a junket memoir. I don't mean it to be. Neither do the studios. Critics who write whimsically about the junket experience rather than the movie are making the worst tyro mistake there is, a guaranteed dis-invite next time. But I would like to say for the record that I had a halfway intelligent question to ask double-threat director-musical composer Carpenter about what comes first for him, the soundtrack or the image (I am in awe of those who can write and perform music, more perhaps than I should be). But I never got a word in edgewise, so I only hope somebody asks him that at some point. And James Woods looks a lot bigger in person.

But the point of this column is John Steakley. Like many a film completist (or someone who has to set obsessive guidelines about which books to read and when, there being so many they'd completely monopolize my time), I was determined to ingest the novel Vampire$ before I saw the film, especially with a cross-country plane trip in the offing. The Cleveland Public Library secured the obscure 1990 paperback through an interloan, and here is the part I want you to remember. Vampire$ rocks. It does. It is for me the Twilight, the Charlaine Harris, the Laurel Hamilton novels, all in one.

John Steakley's obituaries are a fuzzy mix of dry facts and mythologizing, with much left to the imagination (each one seemed to mention a different wife). He spent some of his youth adventuring in South America, acted in bit roles in JOHN CARPENTER'S VAMPIRES and a few more other indie-Texas flicks, and went to Hollywood for a period at the behest of actor-director L.Q. Jones, but the experience there was something he evidently despised. He was an outsized character and a skilled golfer. Even with his small literary output Steakley was a sought-after guest at fantasy conventions, and admirers independently stuck up a website in his honor.

I emphasize this last to point out I'm not the only one transfixed by Vampire$. It's one of those fine-tuned reads that makes me ashamed I call myself a writer. Apparently Steakley started work on it initially in the early 1970s. It shows great care and patience in the writing and the rewriting of it. I've known labored-over books like that - James Agee's A Death in the Family" comes to mind - in which the effort in reading is almost equal to the strife it took in writing; you respect the work, but it's still heavy lifting. Steakley's prose isn't. Every paragraph is pitch-perfect, every word is polished and perfected until they gleam like dragon eyes and lure you spellbound, page after page. That was one fun plane trip, I can tell you. Maybe the last fun plane trip I ever had.

Essentially, the premise is that the present-day Vatican itself sponsors and pays a fortune to a rip-roarin', whorin' and drinkin' band of professional vampire hunters (absolved by the Pope of any sins they may commit in the call of duty), under the command of a huge frontier type named Jack Crow. As the story opens they barrel into a small, undead-infested Texas town, slaying nests of vampires with crossbows and sunlight as the villagers cheer. But this enrages a Master Vampire, who massacres the team during their after-sunset after-party at an unwisely undefended motel. Jack Crow must rebuild his squad, and he recruits an old companion, a very reluctant, very skilled gunslinger named Felix, to take on the Master Vampire. What follows is a heady mix of latter-day Wild West stuff, pop-culture pulp adventure (vampires love grand opera, hate rock and roll), paranormal action and even a hint of the Twilight fascination with the vampire-as-the-ultimate-bad-jock-boyfriend vibe that so surrounds us now. Except Steakley set it all in a college environment, not high school. Wonder if he burned with resentment at Stephanie Meyer's superstardom; I'm not even sure that the John Carpenter movie tie-in lead to any great publishing expenditure in getting Vampire$ back into bookstores.

At my menial, end-of-the-road Cleveland library job - wow, what fun it is, to be an internationally published writer and critic who gets to go to LA on junkets - an old patron loitering around the fiction stacks bemoaned the lack of anything worth reading. I knew there sat, on those shelves, that same 1990 paperback edition of Steakley's Vampire$, ignored. It never went out on loan, to my knowledge, not even when it was put next to all the paranormal romances at Halloween displays. I gave it to him and told him that it's un-put-downable after the first ten pages, enjoy. I've never seen the book or the patron again, so maybe it made him a follower. Maybe not.

I might add that there was a direct-to-video sequel to JOHN CARPENTER'S VAMPIRES, I believe called VAMPIRES - LOS MUERTOS. Haven't seen it. I seem to have lost heart. Carpenter's movie itself wasn't bad - one printworthy statement he said during the junket was that he deliberately made the "flick" (as James Woods called it) a real old-school western, with makeup prosthetics and actual gunpowder pyrotechnics, none of that digital crap that is now upwards of 85 per cent of modern cinema. Carpenter also reversed a lot of Steakley's mythology, making (as seems to be a career habit of his; must be the burden of having "JC" as your initials) the Catholic Church into a malevolent force. Too bad; Steakley cast the Pope in a singularly heroic light - think Gandalf with a Bible and a cool castle) and fighting vampires and demons in kitsch fantasies is just about the only good PR left for Catholic priests these days. Like I said, the movie was John Carpenter's VAMPIRES, not John Steakley's, and that's that.

One director who comes to mind who would do more justice to Steakley's vision might be Robert Rodriguez, although after FROM DUSK TIL DAWN and its sequels I'd say he's all vampired out. And besides, the real treasure is there in the pages, not another movie mogul's ego. Turn off the DVD, stay away from the bloodsucker-plagued theaters (I'm talking bedbugs - and occasional aspiring filmmakers - not vampires), and actually sit down and read the novel Vampire$. And maybe salute John Steakley a little in your mind, for his storytelling. Every so often, I promise, you'll come across a fan reference to "Jack Crow" and know that you're in good company.

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