We’re down to the last couple of bolts in this particular quiver, so let’s start wrapping things up with a look at the literature that shaped the most formative year of my childhood.
The top of that particular heap was Twilight Zone Magazine, purchased with scrounged pocket change at the convenience store across from Ferullo Field in North Woburn. I’ve written before about the profound impact that publication had on me, but an abbreviated recap is still in order.
In the beginning, my interest lay in the fantasy and horror short fiction pieces which ran in each issue, which tended to be scarier and less subdued than the creaky M.R. James riffs featured in official “horror” anthologies for the kiddie set. Over time, however, I began to dive into the magazine’s other features — historical essays on the evolution of genre fiction and film-making, author interviews, and critical reviews of books and movies (conducted by Gahan Wilson and Tom Disch, respectively).
Much of it went well above my blonde bowl-cut head, assuming familiarity with certain works, authors, or traditions that I’d never encountered, yet what did register reshaped the way I viewed genre material going forward. When a TZM reviewer savaged something, it wasn’t a blanket dismissal of a genre in general but of a specific work that failed to live up to its potential. The reviewers were invested in the scene, but did not allow their loyalties to become the basis for weak justifications of crap.
“Just because it has dragons or superheroes or aliens in it, doesn’t mean its worth your attention” is such an obvious message, but one that had eluded my pre-teen self the way it apparently continues to elude large segments of fandom. It didn’t trigger an overnight transformation of my tastes, but it did irrevocably alter my approach to fandom in the years to come.
The other major literary player of my 1983 was a cheap Vintage paperback collection of Ray Bradbury’s short stories, picked up at the Booksmith in the Woburn Mall. A another geeky classmate had lent me his copy to read during an indoor recess session, and those fifteen minutes with the book were enough to convince me to buy my own copy. My opinions about Bradbury’s work have varied over the years (and currently reside at “like the short fiction, hate the nostalgic and allegorical stuff”) but stories like “There Will Come Soft Rains” and “The October Game” hit the sweet spot where beautifully readable prose met lingering chills.
(“Fever Dream” particularly resonated with me, as I spent both the February and April vacation of 1983 laid up with severe bouts of the flu, and the notion of getting assimilated by a sentient virus did not seem so far fetched to my trembling, spasm-wracked self.)
On the school library front, my two favorite reads were the very Seventies, very dystopian YA sci-fi anthology The Other Side of Tomorrow and a hardcover retelling of The Iliad and The Odyssey with illustrations done in the style of ancient Grecian vase paintings. As much I as adored them, and was apparently the only person ever to check them out, I was too much of a goody two shoes to swipe them before I moved onto to junior high. I regretted my righteousness immensely when some idiot teens burned down the school building a couple of years later.
I did manage to score a cheap copy of the anthology on eBay about a decade ago. The mythology book is something of a highly sought rarity which commands more than I’m willing to spend on the secondary market.
Apart from these, there were other books that caught my fancy for an afternoon or occasionally a lifetime. There were Mad Magazine paperbacks full of dated references and amazing art. There was the Interplanetary Spy series, whose videogame-inspired aesthetic and puzzle book elements gave them a leg up over the more staid Choose Your Own Adventure line of interactive fiction. There were the Books of Lists and the People’s Almanac, jam-packed with fascinating factoids (and whose “naughty” chapters would be the closest thing I’d ever have to a sex-ed class). There was a cheapjack Scholastic horror collection that contained the first Lovecraft tale I ever read (“The Dunwich Horror”) and several “How to Beat Videogames” digests bought without having ever played most of the games featured.
I have fond memories of all of these, yet those still pale in comparison to a mortally injured Wolverine slashing his way through swarms of Brood warriors in X-Men #166. If I close my eyes, I can still visualize the Cheeto dust fingerprints in the gutters of my original copy of the issue.