Nights at the Strand
As the lights dim and the tattered curtain
rustled and parted with a creak-crank
of unseen wheels and pulleys, as a boy's eyes
widen to a dark screen grown suddenly bright
and huge – not the tiny ovoid TV
but vast, enormous, spanning the width
of his field of vision from Row Three,
the row, as Marilyn tells him
with a fifth-grader's knowing accent
the monsters are in perfect focus.
He cleans his glasses furiously
as the sound track crackles, and a globe
topped with the RKO tower emanates
a zig-zag of Marconi waves, and, lo,
he commences his movie-watching Saturdays
with King Kong, who, on that screen,
amid those shrieks and screams of the crowd
on-screen and in the audience, strides tall
on his island, taller yet as he scales
the uncountable floors of the Empire State.
He had seen cartoon dinosaurs, but those
who try to wrest the Fay Wray-morsel from Kong
are as real as they get, the first taste
of a primal world of eat-and-be-eaten,
smite-or-be-smitten, the first beware
of the fate of him who falls for Beauty.
An old poet now, on a far coast, he can, if asked,
recite all the names of the movies he saw there
like a litany, week by week, in double-feature pairs,
as dear to him as the saint days to a medieval monk.
A basement full of surgical failures in The Black Sleep –
first view of an exposed brain a special thrill.
They do that to crazy people in Torrance, he’s told,
skull-top raised up like an egg-cup, brains
poked and stirred around for no more reason
than Let’s see what happens if we do this.
The mute sad butler played by Lugosi was a pathetic sight;
the man who had been Dracula reduced to a doorman.
Rathbone and Carradine, Tamirov and Johnson
the mad doctor and his henchmen and victims.
This double-billed with The Creeping Unknown,
whose alien-microbed astronaut, gaunt and wandering
assimilates all life in its path: men, cacti and lions,
until it oozes octopoid onto the scaffolding
around Westminster Abbey. Fast work
for stalwart scientist Quatermass who rigs
the metalwork with a million volts
from a nearby power plant.
After The Blob he turned inward to his chemistry set
and devised, with his friends, The Boron Monster, a bubbling mess
of boric acid, carbonates, and a medley of insect parts
that festered for two days in a Florence flask, then
made a nocturnal exeunt into the floor drain. For weeks
the four boys of the Kingview Science Club swore they heard it
in house pipes and gurgling drains; one went so far
as to say it raised its white pseudopods when he looked
into the late-night toilet bowl.
The dreaded Cyclops
from The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad seemed as he woke
to stand in silhouette against the bare hill behind his house.
When the garish colors of Curse of Frankenstein
reveled in blood and bosoms, he set up shop
in Caruso’s garage in Keiffertown. Live Monster Show,
the hand-drawn poster said in drip-red lettering
and the children came from all around.
Clothesline and sheet for curtain, old 78
of The Sheik of Araby a Gothic foxtrot,
his fellow fourth-graders no longer chemists
but grease-paint actors: monster and villagers,
doctor and hunchback. Naturally he is the Doctor,
his hands the ones that raise Jell-O brains and send blood
rivulets down the aisles among the screaming girls.
A raincoat, sleeves inverted, can pass for a Dracula cape.
He sends for a mail order course in hypnotism.
They learn the art of mummy-wrapping (green chalk
and Noxema), black powder and kerosene for fires,
dry ice for malevolent Jekyll-Hyde elixirs.
But there’s no keeping up with the Strand and its
accelerating horrors. The bugs have invaded:
ant and tarantula, mantis and locust grown
to the size of locomotives, the dark side
of the atom whose giant flower mutations
they are taught about on schooldays. They would
all glow in the dark and in perfect health
when Our Friend the Atom was done with them.
After Them! and Tarantula, Beginning of the End,
The Giant Claw, and The Deadly Mantis,
the worst was The Black Scorpion, so horrible,
in fact, that as he watched it open a train
like a sardine can, extract the passengers, then sting
them with its terrible stinger before the slow
ascent to the drooling jaws and mandibles, someone
on the balcony vomited a visual melange
of popcorn and orange soda on his brother's shoulders.
Then came Godzilla, a whole new order
of urban destruction and radium-breath:
boys who had never seen a city looked on
as powerlines and factories, gas terminals and seaports,
glass and steel towers, department stores and palaces
were stamped to splinters and rubble
beneath the wayward reptilian scourge
that had nothing to do with eating: Godzilla was hell-rage,
a force that might wipe clean the earth once and forever
of the human infestation.
Godzilla made manifest, too,
in the form of a fat bully on Mulberry Street
who waited to knock the school and library books
from his hands into the nearest snowdrift.
He filled a squirt gun with ammonia and onion juice,
a minor armament since he was studying nuclear fission
and knew a dozen withering curses in Latin.
When the saucers of The Mysterians began airlifting women
to help repopulate a dying world, he was jealous,
dreamt of a gravity beam abduction from his own bed.
Forbidden Planet taught him to embrace the alien:
if left on Altair Four he'd happily join Morbius
in solitary study of the long extinct Krell geniuses;
if taxed enough with unjust bullying, he'd join
the crew of Nemo’s Nautilus: they’d all be sorry
when he sank half the Atlantic fleet or turned
the submarine to starship and beat the Russians to Mars.
He had never been two towns away,
but he knew the names of the outer planets’ moons.
Small boy in torn shoes and baggy hand-me-downs
sewn from his father's old shirts,
goggle-eyed with wrong glasses, arms full
of comics and all the books he could carry,
he was The Strand's acolyte, its screen and stage
the doorway to a higher reality. No matter
how far he has gone, what written or done,
he is still there, in that seat in Row Three
as the ships land, the invasion commences,
the tentacle comes slowly into focus
at the edge of vision, the branches part
to those two great orbs of The Beast.
He was the one who ran away
to join the Monsters
to explore the stars,
haunted, to become the Haunter.
October 2010 – March 2011