Skal, David J. 1952-
SKAL, David J. 1952-
PERSONAL: Born 1952.
ADDRESSES: Home—West Hollywood, CA. Agent— c/o Author Mail, Faber & Faber, 19 Union Square West, New York, NY 10003.
CAREER: Scholar, author, and historian of horror films and books. Consultant to Universal Home Video on Gods and Monsters (DVD), Universal Horror documentary, Universal Studios theme park for "Halloween Horror Nights" ride, and for Universal Classic Monster Collections DVDs; host on television and radio talk shows, including Charlie Rose, Entertainment Tonight, Joan Rivers, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, and Fresh Air; lecturer on genre cinema at college and universities.
Scavengers (novel), Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1980.
When We Were Good (novel), Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1981.
(Editor) Graphic Communications for the PerformingArts, Robert E. Callahan, designer, Theater Communications Group (New York, NY), 1981.
Antibodies, Congdon & Weed (New York, NY), 1988.
Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula fromNovel to Stage to Screen, W. W. Norton (New York, NY), 1990, revised edition, Faber & Faber (New York, NY), 2004.
The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror, W. W. Norton (New York, NY), 1993, revised edition, Faber & Faber (New York, NY), 2001.
(Editor, annotator) Hamilton Deane, Dracula: TheUltimate, Illustrated Edition of the World-Famous Vampire Play, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1993.
(With Elias Savada) Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning—Hollywood's Master of the Macabre, Anchor Books (New York, NY), 1995.
V Is for Vampire: The A to Z Guide to Everything Undead, Plume (New York, NY), 1996.
(Editor, with Nina Auerbach) Bram Stoker, Dracula:Authoritative Text, Contexts, Reviews and Reactions, Dramatic and Film Variations, Criticism, Norton Critical Edition, W. W. Norton (New York, NY), 1997.
Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture, W. W. Norton (New York, NY), 1998.
(Editor) Vampires: Encounters with the Undead, Black Dog & Leventhal (New York, NY), 2001.
Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween, Bloomsbury (New York, NY), 2002.
WORK IN PROGRESS: Book about pop culture and the American identity.
SIDELIGHTS: A science-fiction/horror novelist, and author and editor of numerous nonfiction books about the horror genre—especially in television and film—and the culture of horror in America, David J. Skal has also collaborated with filmmakers and theme-park designers as a consultant on horror characters, especially the legendary vampire Count Dracula. In his essay for the St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost, and Gothic Writers, Mathews concluded that Skal is "an excellent critic who comprehends the horror genre and knows its history in great detail. . . . For this reason alone his books are important reflections on horror in the 20th century."
In the 1980s Skal broke into the horror/sci-fi genre with three novels, Scavengers, When We Were Good, and Antibodies. David Mathew, in an essay for the St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost, and Gothic Writers, remarked that these novels are written "in a style that seems fresh and resilient" but also "a little distant and cold."
Scavengers involves a futuristic society in which a cult has discovered a method for capturing a person's memories and making them available for sale in injectable form to those who want to experience excitement. The donor must be beheaded and his or her brain pulverized in order to obtain the memory "extract," and the question arises as to what donors experience when their memories are rejuvenated in the living brain of another. The plot involves a young man whose girlfriend has been taken as a donor and his efforts to re-create her personality by injecting a large amount of her extract into a living woman. Tom Easton, in a review for Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, concluded that Skal "involves you, hurts you, makes you suffer with his characters."
When We Were Good also takes place in a dismal future, when pollution has rendered humans unable to reproduce naturally but "perfect" children are created in science labs. The children are eternally physically young but grow to adulthood mentally. They are hermaphrodites, unable to reproduce and save the ailing society but hope to take over the world. Normal humans treasure their visits in a childless world and their playgrounds become visions of Eden. Easton wrote that "Skal paints a world on the verge of explosion and extinction" and added that his book "may well spoil your sleep for a night or two." Rosemary Herbert, in Library Journal, described the book as "chilling," "grim," and "powerful."
Antibodies is a science-fiction novel about a cult whose members abhor their flesh and wish to become bionic. The Cybernetic Temple operates a clinic for the replacement of limbs with prosthetics. A central character, Diandra, is captured on her way to the clinic by the depraved deprogrammer Julian Nagy, who tries to bring her back through desperate measures. A contributor to Kirkus Reviews wrote, "None of the details—they involve mutilation, perversion, torture, and other depravities—are left to the imagination." Don D'Ammassa, of the Science Fiction Chronicle, called the book "exceptionally insightful." Mathew found it "a critique of faddishness, of religion, and of course, of cosmetic surgery." A contributor to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction dubbed it an "accusatory trawl through Californian subcultures."
Skal was editor of the 1981 book Graphic Communications for the Performing Arts, which presents graphic design elements for nonprofit performance art and theater. A contributor to Theatre Crafts called the book is "as pretty as it is incomplete," saying there was not enough material. A Drama Review contributor found it "useful, entertaining" and "expertly designed."
Skal's first nonfiction book, Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen, traces the progress of the "Dracula" story from Bram Stoker's 1897 novel through the production of the 1922 German silent film Nosferatu to the 1927 London stage play and the rewritten American version starring Bela Lugosi. By the time Universal Pictures bought the rights, Dracula existed in four versions, and screenwriters scrambled to create the 1931 film version. Parallel to Skal's history of Dracula is the story of Bram Stoker's widow, Florence, and her struggle to protect the rights to her husband's work, which provided her livelihood. Walter Kendrick, of the Village Voice Literary Supplement, praised Skal's book for its details and anecdotal style. "Best of all, though," he wrote, "there's Florence Stoker, with whom Vincent Price had tea in 1935. . . . Hollywood Gothic is the next best thing." Mathew called the book "such a rich and unpredictable narrative that it reads like a horror story in itself." Kenneth Turan, of the Los Angeles Times Book Review, commended it as a "witty, comprehensive look" at the Dracula story. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Kathleen Quinn observed that "Skal wisely treads lightly over the meaning of 'Dracula,' leaving its essential mystery undisturbed."
In The Monster Show, Skal deals with photography and cinematography of the twentieth century that has portrayed bizarre, freakish, or forbidden images. He discusses the work of photographer Diane Arbus, who captured, said Skal, as quoted by Mathew, "'the things people wanted to look at, but had been taught they must not.'" Skal also writes about film director Tod Browning, who produced a version of Dracula and who made the 1932 film Freaks. Browning was obsessed, according to Mathew, with "carnivals, wild men, geeks, . . . vaudeville, and carnival barkers." Skal follows the history of horror films in the twentieth century, through such characters as Dracula, the Werewolf, Frankenstein's monster, Jekyll and Hyde, Godzilla, Freddy Kreuger, the films Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist, and author Stephen King's creations. His theory is that horror films began during World War I in response to the horrors of war. They continued through the Great Depression, World War II and the cold war, the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, and into the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s, which brought about new interest in vampire films. In an interview for DVD Review, Skal said of early Dracula and Frankenstein films, "They took root in the American imagination during the Great Depression, and ultimately they are images of fear. People today have difficulty appreciating just what it was like back then when these films were first released. There were no social safety nets, anxiety was everywhere, and films were a way of focusing."
In a review of The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror for the Washington Post Book World, Stefan Dziemianowicz called some of Skal's cultural analogues "pretty far-fetched," but noted that the book "makes a strong case for horror's role as a cultural Rorschach pattern. . . . [and] offers persuasive evidence that in order to understand a culture, you must know what it fears." Michiko Kakutani, in the New York Times, commented on Skal's tendency to "look at everything through a darkly colored, voyeuristic lens" and become sidetracked with sordid details, but, he said, when Skal is focused, "the results can be both provocative and illuminating." A contributor to Kirkus Reviews observed that Skal "never forgets that horror is foremost a mass entertainment, and he enlivens his narrative with a wealth of enjoyable anecdote and fact." Marc Savlov, in a review for the Austin Chronicle, wrote that "The Monster Show succeeds where others have lain gutshot and gutterbound, by dint of Skal's obvious and overwhelming passion for the genre."
Skal, with Elias Savada, devotes Dark Carnival to filmmaker Tod Browning and his world. Once a barker and a performer in a carnival sideshow, Browning retained his fascination with the eerie human oddities often on display there. Although many of Browning's films were silent, as in his work with actor Lon Chaney, he is most famous for his 1931 talkie version of Dracula. His talking film Freaks (1932), now considered his best, was so offensive in its time that it was widely banned and ruined his career. Browning was, as described by Martin E. Norden in a review of the book for the Journal of Popular Film and Television, "fully immersed in and very much the product of that tawdry world of apocryphal tales and invented personalities known as show biz." Because information was difficult to find—some of the interviews and research conducted by Skal and Savada preceded the book's publication by twenty years—a contributor to Kirkus Reviews wrote that the authors do "an admirable job. . . , teasing out meaning from the slenderest of sources and filling in the gaps with plausible hypotheses." Dark Carnival also contains a complete filmography of Browning's works, some of which have not survived. Norden called the book "the definitive biography of 'the Edgar Allan Poe of the cinema.'" "What a movie Dark Carnival would make," wrote Tim Purtell, of Entertainment Weekly. "If only Browning were around to direct it."
Skal followed Dark Carnival with V Is for Vampire, an encyclopedic collection of all terms vampiric, as well as myths, stories, novels, and films about vampires, complete with a detailed bibliography. It contains information about obscure film versions of Dracula, as well as about Browning's lost version of London after Midnight, featuring Lon Chaney. From ancient lore to modern film, the book is, according to Anne Liebst in Voice of Youth Advocates, "as seductive as an undead kiss." Mike Tribby, of Booklist, called it "great fun." Likewise, Martin Morse Wooster, in the Washington Post Book World, concluded, "V Is for Vampire is a well-researched, informative encyclopedia that's great fun to read."
With Nina Auerbach, Skal edited a critical edition of Bram Stoker's work in Dracula: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Reviews and Reactions, Dramatic and Film Variations, Criticism. Kate Behr, in a review for Notes and Queries, found that the editors, especially in their footnotes, "create a shadowy, multi-layered text that resists dissection." Behr concluded, "If the point of [the edition] is to supply, via detailed notes and selected critical extracts, an understanding of a cultural context unfamiliar to the reader, then the editors have failed in their task." She added that they had succeeded, however, in offering "more or less informed interpretations of the text."
Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture is a book about mad scientists in novels, essays, theater, television, and film and their quest to create new life, such as in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and its many film versions, including James Whale's 1931 film. Skal also writes about Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Moreau, Nikola Tesla, the Rocky Horror Picture Show, the Heaven's Gate cult, the Grand Guignol Theatre in Paris, comic books, and even, in conclusion, about the modern obsession with UFOs and extraterrestrial aliens; the commercialization of medicine; and the preoccupation with "virtual reality."
Chad Sylvain, in a review of Screams of Reason for the Christian Science Monitor, concluded, "As the line between magician and scientist blurs in a science-dependent world where science is not a popular enterprise, the author's position itself is an unclear mixture of cool-thinking history and dreamreading." A contributor to Kirkus Reviews wrote, "Skal's familiarity with his subject is second to none, and his interest in significant intellectual and cultural issues, . . . is an added treat." A contributor to Entertainment Weekly noted Skal's "suitably subversive humor," and a Publishers Weekly contributor found the text "fresh, hip and lively."
Dick Teresi, in a review of Screams of Reason for the New York Times Book Review, objected to Skal's "negative judgments about scientists" and its "exhaustive study of loony cinematic scientists." Keith Phipp, in a review for The Onion A.V. Club, observed that the book is "a fine, if unlikely, handbook to the sources of a pre-millenial environment that has produced everything from the Unabomber to the Heaven's Gate cult."
In a review for Modern Menace, Nashville Scene, Michael Sims pointed out that although Skal "merrily races up every byroad that presents itself" and "rides his antiscientific hobby horse like a knight on a quest," Screams of Reason is "an entertaining, informative book on a topic that tunes into much of the radioactive background noise of our culture." Jeff Yanc, of the Tucson Weekly, wrote that Skal reveals "how this often kitschy [mad scientist] character has been used (both consciously and unconsciously) by the creators of pop culture artifacts to articulate society's deeply rooted fears of science and technology." Yanc concluded that Screams of Reason "offers informative, entertaining and sometimes important insights into our highly ambivalent relationship with the technologies that have shaped our society, and the zeitgeist-tapping catharsis offered by its pop-culture representations."
Skal's 2002 book Death Makes a Holiday, delves into the subject of Halloween in America. He discusses traditional celebrations and Halloween's origins, as well as the modern-day commercialization of the holiday; its celebration in the gay community; Halloween movies; tourism in Salem, Massachusetts; and the effect of the events of September 11, 2001, on the celebration of Halloween. On that subject, Randolph E. Schmid, in a Cincinnati Enquirer article, noted that Skal mentions in his discussion of neighborhood displays that "in at least one, a local haunted house was quickly converted to feature a crowd-pleasing scene in which Osama bin Laden was electrocuted."
Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Karal Ann Marling stated that Skal "is terrific on the subject of films of the please-don't-go-into-that-room genre" and "illuminating . . . on the subject of the 'spooky worlds' recently constructed for profit, for charity or merely for the hell of it by . . . entrepreneurs, lawn artists and geeks, using the techniques of Hollywood set builders and makeup artists." A contributor to Kirkus Reviews found the book to offer "some frightfully nice reportage on the history of a lively festival." Audrey Snowden, in Library Journal, observed that the book "comes to life" when Skal "digs in and starts debunking Halloween urban myths." Patricia Monaghan, writing in Booklist, thought the growing wiccan and neopaganist religions deserved more credit for the popularity of Halloween, but she added that the book is "wonderfully well written, outrageous, and provocative." A contributor to Publishers Weekly called it "much more treat than trick."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1993.
St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost, and Gothic Writers, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1998.
St. James Guide to Science Fiction and FantasyLiterature, 1975-1991, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1992.s
Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, September, 1980, Tom Easton, review of Scavengers, p. 168; October 12, 1981, Tom Easton, review of When We Were Good, p. 166.
Austin Chronicle, October 26, 2001, Marc Savlov, review of The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror.
Booklist, October 1, 1995, Mike Tribby, review of V Is for Vampire: The A to Z Guide to Everything Undead, p. 238; September 15, 2002, Patricia Monaghan, review of Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween, p. 186.
Christian Science Monitor, September 17, 1998, Chad Sylvain, "Dr. Frankenstein May Be on to Something," p. B7.
Cincinnati Enquirer, October 29, 2002, Randolph E. Schmid, "'Death' Observes Life of Halloween."
Drama Review, winter, 1981, review of Graphic Communications for the Performing Arts, pp. 100-101.
Entertainment Weekly, November 17, 1995, Tim Purtell, review of Dark Carnival, p. 73; August 21, 1998, review of Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture, p. 118.
Journal of Popular Film and Television, winter, 1997, Martin E. Norden, review of Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning—Hollywood's Master of the Macabre, p. 186.
Kirkus Reviews, January 1, 1988, review of Antibodies, p. 25; February 1, 1993, review of The Monster Show, p. 131-32; August 1, 1995, review of Dark Carnival, p. p. 1096; June 15, 1998, review of Screams of Reason, p. 881; August 1, 2002, review of Death Makes a Holiday, p. 1111.
Library Journal, February 15, 1981, Rosemary Herbert, review of When We Were Good, p. 475; October 1, 2002, Audrey Snowden, review of Death Makes a Holiday, p. 119.
Locus, May, 1989, review of Antibodies, p. 50. Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 28, 1990, Kenneth Turan, review of Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen, p. 6.
New Statesman, November 25, 1994, John Clute, review of The Monster Show, p. 42.
New York Times, July 20, 1993, Michiko Kakutani, review of The Monster Show, late edition, p. C16.
New York Times Book Review, December 30, 1990, Kathleen Quinn, review of Hollywood Gothic, p. 15; September 13, 1998, Dick Teresi, "Are You Mad, Doctor?," p. 34; October 27, 2002, Karal Ann Marling, "Day of the Dead, Month of the Charge Card," section 7, p. 12.
Notes and Queries, September, 1998, Kate Behr, review of Dracula: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Reviews and Reactions, Dramatic and Film Variations, Criticism, p. 400.
Publishers Weekly, January 18, 1993, review of TheMonster Show, p. 454; September 4, 1995, review of V Is for Vampire, p. 64; July 20, 1998, review of Screams of Reason, p. 201; September 2, 2002, "Frightful Evolution," p. 67.
Science Fiction Chronicle, October, 1989, Don D'Ammassa, review of Antibodies, p. 42.
Theatre Crafts, February, 1982, review of GraphicCommunications for the Performing Arts, p. 70.
Tucson Weekly, June 24-June 30, 1990, Jeff Yanc, "David J. Skal Dissects Pop Culture and TechnoFears in Screams of Reason."
Voice Literary Supplement, November, 1990, Walter Kendrick, review of Hollywood Gothic, p. 7.
Voice of Youth Advocates, February, 1997, Anne Liebst, review of V Is for Vampire, p. 340.
Washington Post Book World, May 30, 1993, Stefan Dziemianowicz, "The Thrill of the Chill," p. 8; September 24, 1995, Martin Morse Wooster, "The Bible of Blood," p. 8; October 22, 1995, review of Dark Carnival, p. 13.
Wilson Library Bulletin, May, 1995, Candace R. Benefiel, review of Hollywood Gothic, p. 38.
DVDReview.com,http://www.dvdreview.com/ (May 7, 2003), "A Talk with Film Historian David J. Skal."
Modern Menace, Nashville Scene,http://weeklywire.com/ (November 30, 1998), Michael Sims, "Horror-Obsessed Author Takes a Look at Mad Scientists."
Onion A.V. Club Web site,http://www.theonionavclub.com/ (May 7, 2003), Keith Phipp, review of Screams of Reason.
Wolfman Productions.com,http://www.wolfmanproductions.com/ (May 7, 2003), review of Death Makes a Holiday.*