Saturday, October 24, 2009


Just about time again, Halloween and Días de Los Muertos. In my novel Smoking Mirror Blues, I suggested that these holidays from both sides of the Mexamerican border be run together into one three-day celebration of the fantastic, our fears, and remembering those who have died.

I like traditions, but I love to mess around with them, the way I love to mess around with everything else.

I remember and preserve the past, but I can never bring myself to leave well enough alone.

Jack O'Lanterns are great, but why not do some variations on the theme?

As for the Mexican Calaveras -- those lovable living skeletons -- they're going through changes, too. People call them calacas these days, just as the traditional gingerbread piggies have gone from cochinitos to cochitos.

And after all, aren't we all skeletons under the skin? So let the good times, our Dead Daze, roll . . .


Wow! That sure looks like voodoo from the Yoruban homeland of Nigeria, doesn’t it? Well, actually, you should probably look again. The “voodoo” people zapping each other are supposed to be Christians.

Nigeria has an Islamic majority. There’s also the “pagans,” “witches,” and a pesky Christian minority. And you know what happens with minorities . . .

Minorities, others, aliens, their very existence make people's imaginations go wild. See someone who looks, talks, or dresses funny move into your neighborhood, and the rumors of cannibalism, human sacrifice, “voodoo” start to fly. And if this includes some kind of strange religion – watch out!

I’m reminded of an anti-immigration road troupe from a few elections ago that included a black guy who dressed like he stepped out of a Seventies blaxsploitation movie, who screamed about how Mexicans were about to rush across the border to cook and eat “Americans.” Somehow, despite this revelation, Mexican restaurants are more popular than ever. And salsa has surpassed ketchup as America’s most popular condiment. Nobody is offering Aztec sacrificial tacos.

Meanwhile, outside of Christendom, it’s Christianity that has the reputation of being a scary, weirdo, alien religion. Its symbols and paraphernalia take on a voodooistic quality. Throughout the Middle East, centuries after the crusades, children have nightmares about monsters with crosses on their chests. In Japan, the cross is considered sexy. And, let’s face it, the crucifix is just plain weird.

There goes someone wearing a miniature 3D image of man undergoing a slow, torturous death – how freaking sadomasochistic can you get?

And even the Bible can inspire fear:

I wonder if the makers of this film realize that in America, the Bible is the number one book stolen from bookstores. And there are no signs of supernatural repercussions.

However, in my decade-long career as a bookstore clerk, I’ve never once heard of anyone stealing the Koran.

So one person’s blasphemy is another person’s creed. Horror in one culture is holy in another. And here we are in an age of globalization, the world is flat and all gods are created equal. Believe me, it’s gonna get weird!

Friday, October 16, 2009


La Llorona has done better than El Cucuy. She pops up connected to pop music, films, literature, and my wife’s blog. For the ghost of a woman who killed her children and calls out for them, seeking others to share their fate, she’s doing great. She may become the Frida Kahlo of our era.

She’s even in commercials. I wanted to include the great one I saw where the Verizon team shows up and tells her that she doesn’t have to cry for her children anymore – she can call them on her network! When I searched, I couldn’t find it online. Maybe it got axed by the same sorts who got the Frito Bandito banned back in the Seventies. I don’t see why – it was funny and clever. And it’s not like she’s the Virgin of Guadalupe!

Besides, there are other commercials featuring La Llorona. Like this Got Milk spot:

I love that she’s holding a pan dulce! Though I usually prefer Ibarra chocolaté with mine.

And this Doritos one is a mini-horror masterpiece:

Another remarkable thing about La Llorona’s current manifestations is that she’s suddenly gotten beautiful. No more of the skull-faced Aztec spirits, or witchy hags of the traditional representations:

These days, La Llorona is a sexy babe, like the above commercials, and in this annual pageant performed on Mexico City’s Xochimilcho:

Can she go from an object of fear to a sex symbol? What effect will this have on the younger generation? How long before some corporation claims to own the rights to her image?

It’s gonna be some future, kids!


I was worried about El Cucuy (and I don’t mean the morning disk jockey). Here we are in the Third Millennium, with the Internet and all kinds of hand-held and wearable gizmos that bring you information from all over the world, usually from some multinational corporation. How can a funky little bit o’ folklore – essentially a Hispanic version of the Boogieman – survive when he’s competing with video games and Hollywood productions?

For those of you who haven’t heard of him, El Cucuy is one of the things that Hispanic parents, especially in the Southwest/Aztlán, tell their children lurks in the dark of night, that will carry them away, “never to be seen again,” if they don’t get back in the house when the sun goes down. Like the Argentine gnomes, he comes out of the duende tradition, of gnomish creatures, that Spain spread throughout the New World along with the Catholic Church, the Spanish language, and spicy foods. Only El Cucuy doesn’t look like a cute little gnome with pointy hat.

The strange thing is, nobody seems to know what El Cucuy looks like. Since over the last several decades, Hispanic culture has been . . . let’s say “undocumented” in Norteamerica, no official version of the story exists, just parents giving a warning and kids imaginations going wild. The result is an unclear, faceless image and a name that, when properly pronouced (coo-COO-ee) with a Spanish accent, sends chills down the spine.

I did hear one detailed description, from one of my cousins. He grew pale and his eyes glazed over when he said it, as if he were describing an actual, traumatic experience. “He’s a man! But he’s got eyes – eyes all over his face! And he doesn’t have any arms – just legs! Lots and lots of legs! And he grabs you with his legs and takes you away!”

Great stuff, but can it survive in the Information Age? A bit of searching on Google and Youtube revealed that El Cucuy is alive and well and living online!

The above shows El Cucuy in his natural habitat – kids speculating about him. It’s pretty close to the kind of conversation that produced my cousin’s fantastic description.

With this one, a Hispanic student (with a British accent!), documents the spread of El Cucuy out of his usual territory.

Folklore is spreading and mutating through the new communications media like viruses. Ethnic monsters are escaping their ghettoes, and wandering the Earth in new ways. Children of the night, what music do they make! Be on the lookout when the sun goes down.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


I never thought much about gnomes, the little men in pointed hats that are used to decorate tacky gardens and who star in TV commercials. I never imagined that people could be afraid of them. Though apparently, this is the case in Argentina.

There is folklore about gnomes there. People see them – especially children. This is something that goes back for generations. Like UFOs or Bigfoot in our culture, there are sightings, close encounters, even videos.

It’s possible that it’s a spinoff from the Hispanic tradition of the duende – gnomish beings with a boogeyman-like reputation that spread across what was once the Spanish Empire. Out of New Mexico, throughout the Southwest/Aztlán, children live in dread of El Cucuy when the sun goes down, but El Cucuy doesn’t wear pointy hats.

In his 1927 book La Cueva del Fósil: Diálogos Increíbles sobre la Vida Literaria Argentina (“The Cave of the Fossil: Incredible Dialogues on Argentine Literary Life”), Carlos Obligado tells of finding a gnome in his library in the middle of the night. In the first chapter the gnome introduces himself as “Rahim” (an Arab gnome?), and explains that gnomes have a network of tunnels all over the world. They like to sneak into people libraries and “borrow” books.

Does Homeland Security know about this?

And is that why I had trouble finding my copy of Thor Heyerdahl’s Early Man and the Ocean this morning?

In the rest of Cueva del Fósil, Obligado and Rahim discuss the works of the poet Leopoldo Lugones and Argentine literary traditon. Obligado seems to be an Argentine precursor to Paul Riddell. But why use a gnome to present satirical literary criticism?

There probably is nothing to worry about. What could gnomes do to you, except carry you off to their underground homeland, never to return? And how many of them would it take to carry off a grownup or child?

Besides, they look so silly, pointy hats and all. The video of one terrorizing children looks like someone in a team mascot outfit.
It was put online by the British newspaper The Sun, with its reputation for sleaze. Some people have even made videos making fun of the whole business.

But still, why do perfectly rational, “civilized” people feel compelled to put effigies of gnomes in their gardens?

Why do such ancient archetypes persist into modern times?

And where is that book I was going to quote from?

Thursday, October 8, 2009


It was the cover of Victor LaValle’s Big Machine that caught my eye. Automatic pistols, cats, ghostly black people, and an array of objects dancing in a white background, under the red, swirly letters. It suggested hardboiled mayhem, but was so un-noir.

It’s the Twenty-First Century, folks. Noir is getting to be cliché. Black translated into French ain’t enough. We need more than darkness. How about some ultraviolet – the invisible light that makes the scorpions glow in the dark? Just a humble suggestion.

Anyway, the flaps and blurbs mentioned Hieronymus Bosch and paranormal investigations – could be kinda weird. Then I read a review that compared it to Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, which I consider to be one the great novels of the Twentieth Century. I ended up plunking down some hard-earned money for it.

It’s not the Mumbo Jumbo of our century – we’ll be lucky if we see such a thing – but I was not disappointed. The range of traditions that LaValle draws upon include Ishmael Reed, Chester Himes, Octavia Butler, and Philip K. Dick. He admits to being a horror fan, uses a quote from John Carpenter’s The Thing as an epigram, and lists Shirley Jackson, T.E.D. Klein, Stephen King, and “my man” Ambrose Bierce as influences. He’s not your typical African American writer, and this book will probably not become an Oprah selection.

Big Machine is the story of Ricky Rice, an ex-junkie janitor, who was raised in a cult that is truly bizarre but disturbingly believable. He is recruited into a group of psychic investigators, because he can hear The Voice. He is drawn into the wars between secret societies that include the one he grew up in. The story tears back and forth through time, revealing him and his world in startling, jagged chunks like brutal time-travel. And where it ends up is far beyond, and more fantastic than I was hoping for. Fans of the science fiction/fantasy/horror megagenre will enjoy the mindblowing conclusion.

The “paranormal” entities in the book are truly something different, have the texture of reality, and stand out in this age of cheap fantasy media overload.

Part of me wonders why Will Smith and Denzel Washington aren’t fighting over the movie rights, but this book digs deep into heroin, race, religion, politics, and other specters that are haunting Twenty-First Century America. It’s scary in a way that “horror” loving pop culture will have a hard time cozying up to. Which makes it a better book, and one to look out for.

Saturday, October 3, 2009


Our bookstores are dying. Not just the big box chains, the independents are also in trouble. Bookstores have always been a risky business.

People think of something that has been around for a generation as a natural phenomenon. I thought it about television. The current generation feels that way about the Internet. Bookstores as we know them seem like something that must have existed since the beginning of time.

It’s not true. Bookstores were something that didn’t come into my life until I was near my teens. I thought they were wonderful when I found them, but they weren’t where I was accustomed to getting my reading material.

In my early years, the Sixties, and Seventies, I found my books and magazines where my family bought everything else in the San Gabriel Valley, down the San Bernardino Freeway from L.A. – supermarkets, department stores, drug stores (I found Michael Moorcock’s The Final Programme in a Thrifty’s), and liquor stores. What I found in these venues was so much more interesting than what they were trying to force on me in school and at the library. These were bizarre magazines, gaudy paperbacks, and comic books – my happy alternative to children’s literature.

My favorite was George’s Liquor Store, on Francisquito Avenue, a short walk from my parent’s house. This walk crossed the border between "suburban" West Covina, and "barrio" Baldwin Park. Lots of people thought I was crazy for risking my life among the lowriders and graffiti.

But I remembered the day my mother got a letter announcing that our house that used to be in Baldwin Park was now in West Covina. I went out to discover that everything looked the same, and was disappointed. I learned an important lesson: that borders are arbitrary, and can change without notice. You shouldn’t be afraid to cross them, and you never know when they will cross you.

The magazine and book racks of George’s always challenged my developing sensibilities. Famous Monsters of Filmland, Creepy, and Vampirella were plopped next to second-rate girly mags. The comic book spinner was next to a paperback rack that mixed bestsellers from New York with soft porn books from local publishers. One glimpse of the cover of Ed Wood’s To Make a Homo, disturbed and haunted me for years. I was made aware that there were other worlds out there.

I also found science fiction magazines, Amazing, Fantastic, Galaxy, If, and other latter-day pulps that inspired me to become a writer. When one on slick paper appeared, I was eager to let my high school English teacher know about it. It was called Vertex and had a story that impressed me called "Bleeding Stones" by Harlan Ellison.

When Mrs. Goodman asked me where I found it, I told her. Looking disgusted, she repeated, "George’s Liquor Store?" She made it sound like the last place on Earth she’d want to go.

To this day, I don’t understand academics.

Friday, October 2, 2009


Mexican comic books are a lost world. They tend to be consumed and not collected. Often they are found with pages ripped out, on the bathroom floors of bus stations. What information I’ve found about them is interesting, if spotty. If I had more time (and money) on my hands this is another world I’d be exploring.
La Novela Policiaca No. 1695 has everything, sex, drugs, bloody violence, and a title lifted from Baudelaire.
La Novela Policiaca No. 1535 is a personal favorite that I’ve reread many times. I can’t resist crime amongst the ruins. And the woman who is way too tall for a Maya was ripped off from Boris Vallejo.
The upside-down tequila ad from the back cover of La Novela Policiaca No. 1535. I guess it's only okay to have liquor ads in comics if they're upside-down.
From Kaliman No. 1128. Mexico’s musclebound mystic hero also stars in movies and radio serials. Note the phone number for an Alcohol Anonymous youth group at the bottom of the page.

A warning about AIDS from the inside front cover of Sensacional de Sueños No. 3.
A plea for etiquette while using public transportation from the inside back cover of Sensacional de Sueños No. 3. Who says social responsibility can’t be fun?
Ghosts of a Gulf War past, with a wrestler in charge, from Teniente Botija, El Huracán del Norte No. 152.

These are just a few chips off the tip of this bizarre iceberg. I’m hoping some obsessive collectors have more weirdness filed and catalogued. There were these kids who ran an impressive used comics shop in the town of Palenque, not far from the Mayan ruins of the same name – I wonder what they’re doing now?