Schechter, Harold 1948–
Schechter, Harold 1948–
PERSONAL: Born June 28, 1948, in New York, NY; son of Abraham Mark (a garment worker) and Celia (a statistician and homemaker; maiden name, Wasserman) Schechter; married Avra Shapiro, January, 1970 (divorced August, 1976); married Jonna Gormely Se-meiks (a writer and teacher), July 15, 1979 (divorced, 2001); married Kimiko Hahn (a poet), August 15, 2002; children: (second marriage) Elizabeth Sara, Laura Suzanne. Ethnicity: "White." Education: City College of New York (now of the City University of New York), B.A., 1969; Purdue University, M.A., 1971; State University of New York at Buffalo, Ph.D., 1975. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Jewish.
ADDRESSES: Home—New York, NY. Office—Department of English, Queens College of the City University of New York, Flushing, NY 11367. Agent—Loretta Barrett, 101 5th Ave., New York, NY 10003.
CAREER: Queens College of the City University of New York, Flushing, NY, assistant professor, 1975–80, associate professor, beginning 1981, currently professor of English.
(With David Everitt) Film Tricks: Special Effects in the Movies, H. Quist (New York, NY), 1980.
(With Jonna Gormely Semeiks) Patterns in Popular Culture: A Sourcebook for Writers, Harper & Row (New York, NY), 1980.
(With David Everitt) The Manly Handbook, Berkley Books (New York, NY), 1982.
(With Jonna Gormely Semeiks) Discoveries: 50 Stories of the Quest, Bobbs-Merrill Educational Publishing (Indianapolis, IN), 1982, 2nd edition, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1992.
(With David Everitt) Not-the-A-Team Beauty Book, photographs by James Prince, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1984.
(Editor) The City University of New York: CUNY English Forum, AMS Press (New York, NY), 1985.
Kidvid: A Parents' Guide to Children's Videos, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1986.
(Editor, with Warren Rosenberg and Jonna Gormely Se-meiks) American Voices: A Thematic/Rhetorical Reader, Harper & Row (New York, NY), 1988.
The Bosom Serpent: Folklore and Popular Art, University of Iowa Press (Iowa City, IA), 1988, 2nd edition, Peter Lang Publishing (New York, NY), 2001.
(With David Everitt) The Manly Movie Guide, Boulevard Books (New York, NY), 1997.
(With David Everitt) For Reel: The Real-Life Stories that Inspired Some of the Most Popular Movies of All Time, Berkley Boulevard (New York, NY), 2000.
Savage Pastimes: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2005.
Author of television scripts, including "Mirror, Mirror," an episode of The Cosby Mysteries, National Broadcasting Company, 1994; and "Castoff," an episode of Law & Order, National Broadcasting Company, 1998. Contributor to books, including Original Sin: The Visionary Art of Joe Coleman, HECK Editions (New York, NY), 1997. Contributor to journals, including Studies in Short Fiction.
Outcry: A Novel, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1997.
Nevermore: A Novel, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1999.
The Hum Bug, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 2001.
The Mask of Red Death: An Edgar Allan Poe Mystery, Ballantine Books (New York, NY), 2004.
The Tell-Tale Corpse: An Edgar Allan Poe Mystery, Ballantine Books (New York, NY), 2006.
Deranged: The Shocking True Story of America's Most Fiendish Killer, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1990.
Depraved: The Shocking True Story of America's First Serial Killer, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1994.
(With David Everitt) The A-Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1996.
Deviant: The Shocking True Story of the Original "Psycho," Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1998.
Bestial: The Savage Trail of a True American Monster, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1999.
Fiend: The Shocking True Story of America's Youngest Serial Killer, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 2000.
Fatal: The Poisonous Life of a Female Serial Killer, Pocket Star Books (New York, NY), 2003.
The Serial Killer Files: The Who, What, Where, How, and Why of the World's Most Terrifying Murderers, Ballantine Books (New York, NY), 2004.
WORK IN PROGRESS: The General's Son, a true-crime account.
SIDELIGHTS: Harold Schechter's specialty is the history of serial killers in the United States. Using newspaper clippings, court transcripts, and other sources, Schechter has documented the crimes and punishments of several of the most notorious American torture-killers. The subjects of his true-crime tales include Herman Mudgett, a Chicago murderer; Albert Fish, who killed and ate at least fifteen children in the 1920s; and Ed Gein, whose Wisconsin crime spree inspired the movies Psycho and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. These portraits of society's most dangerous denizens are just one aspect of Schecter's larger pursuit as a historian of popular culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He has also authored a series of mysteries featuring Edgar Allan Poe.
In addition to biographies, such as Deviant: The Shocking True Story of the Original "Psycho" and Depraved: The Shocking True Story of America's First Serial Killer, Schechter coauthored an encyclopedia on serial killers. He is, as a Publishers Weekly reviewer put it, a "serial killer expert." The same reviewer described Schechter as a "deft writer" whose strengths include "recreating from documentation the thoughts and perspectives of long-dead figures." Booklist correspondent Ray Olson found Depraved to be "first-rate true crime, first-rate popular history," and a Publishers Weekly contributor felt that in Depraved, Schechter does "a masterful job of reconstructing [the murderer's] killing spree."
Film Tricks: Special Effects in the Movies, which Schechter wrote with David Everitt, details the evolution of special effects since the advent of motion pictures. Among the effects documented in Film Tricks are actress Fay Wray's capture by the giant ape in King Kong, actor/dancer Fred Astaire's gravity-defying dance in Royal Wedding, and the flying sequences in Superman. A reviewer for the New York Times Book Review described Film Tricks as a "carefully researched, pioneering study." Paul Stuewe, writing in Quill and Quire, deemed the book "an informative and liberally illustrated guide to the manufacture of illusion." Citing the gruesome effects of Jaws and The Omen, Stuewe added that Film Tricks "provides all the graphic examples necessary to relive such cinematic thrills and chills."
In Savage Pastimes: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment Schechter makes the case that, not only is violent entertainment less prevalent and less gruesome today than in past generations and centuries, but that most of the people who witnessed it throughout history, even at its worst, were decent people who never turned observance into action. Schechter compares violence in contemporary media (film, television, comics, video games) to historical equivalents (Roman amphitheaters, public tortures and executions, Puritan pillories, even the brutality in novels of classic masters such as Herman Melville). He claims that vicarious portrayals of violence occur (and always did) because people want to watch; furthermore, in the past people openly enjoyed the show. Today, at least, he suggests, most people seem satisfied by artificial re-enactments. A Kirkus Reviews contributor described Savage Pastimes as "a bloody fine riposte to those who would censor with clouded hindsight and muddy reasoning." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly predicted: "This entertaining, provocative, not entirely convincing work will be a treat for literate readers."
Nevermore is a historical mystery narrated by Edgar Allan Poe. The year is 1834, and young Poe, his great works still ahead of him, is working as a journalist. After Poe savages Davy Crockett's autobiography in print, the notorious frontier statesman seeks Poe out for a duel. Instead of fighting, the two men team up to solve a series of murders that give Poe grist for the macabre stories he will write. A Publishers Weekly reviewer noted that, while the prose is a bit "overwrought to contemporary eyes," the novel "has plenty of suspense and nicely integrated background detail." In the New York Times Book Review, James Polk found Schechter's "entertaining premise" to be "supported by rich period atmospherics."
Schechter continues to write novels featuring Poe as detective, and the critics who most appreciate them seem to be those who can read the tales for the fun of it: for the believable characterizations of Poe and his cohorts, the unlikely juxtapositions of historical figures who lived very different lives at the same time in history, and the preposterous backgrounds from which the stories emerge. The Hum Bug reveals that Poe has moved to New York City, where he is contacted by entrepreneur P.T. Barnum to solve a murder mystery that the media reporters of his day have linked to a grisly exhibit in Barnum's wax museum. Not only is the murder gruesome, but the sideshow characters are odd enough to demonstrate Schechter's confidence, based on his scholarly research in popular culture, that readers will gravitate toward the spectacle. Some reviewers noted that the plot pales in comparison to the people, while simultaneously recommending the book as an enjoyable entertainment. "A riveting experience," commented Connie Fletcher in Booklist, while a Kirkus Reviews contributor called it "high fun." Positive reader response prompted Schechter to pair the Victorian sleuth with mountain man Kit Carson in The Mask of Red Death: An Edgar Allan Poe Mystery. In this adventure, one of Barnum's living exhibits, Chief Wolf Bear, is falsely suspected of a series of killings-by-scalping, and it is up to the detectives Poe and Carson to track down the real perpetrator, a monster out of the mountain country. A Publishers Weekly critic noted that Schechter's successive forays into Victorian-style fiction reflect improvements in "plotting and pacing" that result in a "competent" novel.
Schechter once told CA: "I'm less interested in the way pop culture affects us than in the way it reflects or symbolizes the hidden fears, fantasies, and desires that exist in our collective undermind. Pop art is a kind of communal dream—which is to say myth—and in much of my writing I examine the archetypal themes that are embodied in movies, comic books, television shows, and so on. That's one of the reasons I'm interested in Ed Gein. As the power and cult status of both Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre attest, Gein's story exerts a strange fascination. It's intriguing to me how closely certain elements of it parallel such fairy tales as 'Bluebeard' and 'Fitcher's Feathered Bird,' and my plan is to do a book that uses the Gein case as a way of getting at some basic questions about horror: why the human imagination craves these stories and why they are particularly popular in America right now. My interest in myth is also related to Discoveries: Fifty Stories of the Quest, a short story anthology whose contents are arranged according to the different stages of the archetypal hero's quest.
"The most interesting thing about my work—at least to me—is my ongoing effort to maintain two entirely separate writing careers, one as an academic producing scholarly pieces on Hawthorne, Melville, and Charles Brockden Brown; the other as a 'commercial' writer in the competitive world of trade paperbacks (a type of book I find strangely congenial to my talents). Which type of writing do I prefer? I find that, while each presents its own special problems, they both, in the end, produce an identical sense of satisfaction—one so deep that it more than compensates for the many frustrations and disappointments that seem to be an inescapable fact of life for anyone trying to make it as a professional writer."
Schechter later added: "The Hum Bug is the second in what was not intended as—but has turned out to be—a series of historical mysteries with Edgar Allan Poe as the detective. In each book, Poe teams up with a famous figure from his historical period—a person the actual Poe never met in real life but could have.
"I originally planned to do only a single novel—a kind of historical version of an action-adventure 'buddy movie' in which two totally contrasting personalities are thrown together and end up becoming the best of friends. My idea was to team up the pompous, intellectual Poe with the plain-talking, rough-and-tumble frontiersman Davy Crockett. That idea became my novel, Nevermore.
"The book found enough readers to encourage me to a sequel, The Hum Bug, in which the celebrated showman P.T. Barnum hires Poe to help solve a murder. That book was followed by The Mask of Red Death, which pairs Poe with the legendary scout, Kit Carson. Another entry in the series is The Tell-Tale Corpse, in which Poe and his wife travel to Concord, Massachusetts, and meet the young Louisa May Alcott, future author of Little Women.
"Since I write the books from Poe's point of view, I have to read some of his fiction every day to get the sound of his voice going inside my head. It is hard work but fun. Unfortunately I'm starting to run out of famous people from his era to pair him up with."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Book Review Annual, 1987, review of Kidvid: A Parents' Guide to Children's Videos, p. 352.
Armchair Detective, spring, 1990, review of Deviant: The Shocking True Story of the Original "Psycho," p. 239.
Booklist, September 15, 1981, review of Film Tricks: Special Effects in the Movies, p. 84; June 15, 1986, review of Kidvid, p. 1491; May 15, 1989, review of Deviant, p. 1589; October 1, 1990, review of Deranged: The Shocking True Story of America's Most Fiendish Killer, p. 234; August, 1994, Ray Olson, review of Depraved: The Shocking True Story of America's First Serial Killer, p. 2002; January 1, 1999, Budd Arthur, review of Nevermore, p. 840; October 1, 2000, Ray Olson, review of Fiend: The Shocking True Story of America's Youngest Serial Killer, p. 295; October 1, 2001, Connie Fletcher, review of The Hum Bug, p. 303.
Chicago Tribune Book World, May 17, 1981.
Choice, July, 1988, review of The Bosom Serpent, p. 1703.
Come-All-Ye, summer, 1989, review of The Bosom Serpent: Folklore and Popular Art, p. 9.
Cresset, September, 1981, review of The New Gods: Psyche and Symbol in Popular Art, p. 30.
Film Quarterly, summer, 1982, review of Film Tricks, p. 63; summer, 1989, Bruce Kawin, review of Deviant, p. 62; winter, 1989, Carol J. Clover, review of The Bosom Serpent, p. 46.
Films in Review, October, 1986, review of Kidvid, p. 498.
Folklore, August, 2004, Gillian Bennett, review of The Bosom Serpent, p. 241.
Georgia Review, fall, 1988, review of The Bosom Serpent, p. 657.
Hollywood Reporter, March 16, 2005, Gregory McNamee, review of Savage Pastimes: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment, p. 30.
Journal of American Culture, September, 2005, Marshall W. Fishwick, review of Savage Pastimes, p. 337.
Journal of Popular Culture, fall, 1989, Ray B. Browne, review of The Bosom Serpent, p. 177.
Kirkus Reviews, July 1, 1994, review of Depraved, p. 917; December 15, 1998, review of Nevermore, p. 1756; September 1, 2000, review of Fiend, p. 1268; September 15, 2001, review of The Hum Bug, p. 1319; June 15, 2004, review of The Mask of Red Death: An Edgar Allan Poe Mystery, p. 556; December 15, 2004, review of Savage Pastimes, p. 1191.
Kliatt, May, 2000, review of Nevermore, p. 20, and review of For Reel: The Real-Life Stories that Inspired Some of the Most Popular Movies of All Time, p. 38.
Library Journal, August, 1981, review of Film Tricks, p. 1563; June 1, 1986, John Smothers, review of Kidvid, p. 116; August, 1994, Gregor A. Preston, review of Depraved, p. 102; January, 2000, Kim R. Holston, review of For Reel, p. 114; September 15, 2001, Laurel Bliss, review of The Hum Bug, p. 117; July, 2004, Rex E. Klett, review of The Mask of Red Death, p. 63.
Los Angeles Times, June 1, 1986, review of Kidvid, p. 4.
New York Times, May 3, 1981, review of Film Tricks, p. 7-47.
New York Times Book Review, May 3, 1981, review of Film Tricks, p. 47; November 27, 1994, Thomas Maeder, review of Depraved, p. 25; January 31, 1999, James Polk, review of Nevermore, p. 16.
Publishers Weekly, July 18, 1994, review of Depraved, p. 232; December 21, 1998, review of Nevermore, p. 56; October 2, 2000, review of Fiend, p. 75; October 15, 2001, review of The Hum Bug, p. 49; May 31, 2004, review of The Mask of Red Death, p. 54; December 20, 2004, review of Savage Pastimes, p. 45.
Quill and Quire, May, 1981, review of Film Tricks, p. 35.
Reference and Research Book News, August, 2005, review of Savage Pastimes, p. 238.
School Library Journal, August, 1986, review of Kidvid, p. 40.
South Carolina Review, fall, 2001, review of The Bosom Serpent, p. 229.
Virginia Quarterly Review, summer, 1993, review of Discoveries: 50 Stories of the Quest, p. 107.
Washington Post Book World, May 15, 2005, Juliet B. Schor, review of Savage Pastimes, p. 4.
Weekly Standard, January 3, 2005, Jon L. Breen, review of The Mask of Red Death, p. 31.