“A wild ride into terror. A grand and disturbing adventure.”
That’s how Dean (R.) Koontz once described Robert (R.) McCammon’s novel, Swan Song. Little did he know how right he was.
I was already in hot water with my high school English teacher for bringing an issue of Fangoria to class. In fact, she took it away from me and I had to go in after school to reason with her so I could get it back. At least, I remember her saying that I’d have to come in and talk to her after school if I wanted to see my magazine again, but in hindsight she couldn’t have been very interested in returning my property, because I had to argue with her for something like forty-five minutes before there was any sign of a chink in her icy armor. Her classroom was like a foreign country with the two of us its only occupants. I had stormed there with great verve and confidence, but it all whistled out of me like air from a balloon when I stepped inside. I’d come with a friend for support, but he was a bit of a loose cannon and I asked him to stay out in the hall. I set my books down on a nearby desk, and it felt almost like tearing off a jacket to get ready for a fistfight. I hadn’t given it a single thought up until then, but as I laid down my school books and binder—the one with a crudely scrawled Van Halen logo prominently displayed—I could have slapped my forehead. As if my Ossa was in need of any Pelion, I had topped my stack of texts with that grand and disturbing adventure, Swan Song, complete with Koontz's two cents smack on the cover. Mrs. … oh, let’s call her Hindenburg ... zeroed in on the quotation (after, no doubt, taking notice of the leering devil looming over the cover’s post-apocalyptic landscape) and didn't hesitate to express alarm at the use of both grand and disturbing in the same description. We had our opening salvo! I improvised a gambit whereby I tried to convince her that I only wanted my magazine back because it featured a Clive Barker interview I hadn’t read yet (it would have been the first thing I turned to in reality). I knew she wouldn't know who he was and figured maybe she'd have an ounce of appreciation for the fact that I was an avid reader, if also a blood-thirsty ghoul. As far as off-the-cuff tactics go, it wasn’t a bad one. She asked me if she could cut the interview out and just give me that, so at least I wouldn't have all of the gruesome photos in my possession. I sensed a door opening, if only by an inch or two.
My confidence restored, I waxed worldly about how much more collectible the magazine would be intact. But here I had misjudged the pedagogical zeppelin. “What do you mean, ‘collectible’?” she wanted to know. “Do you have more of these at home?”
“Um, yes. I subscribe to it.” I’ve always had a problem with honesty.
I thought she might actually faint in the moments following my admission. This was at the height of eighties Satanic panic, after all. The thought of such a magazine as Fangoria arriving at a teenager’s house every month was enough to do her in. I felt sure of it. Maybe even a little hopeful (there’s that damn honesty problem again). The thing to do would have been to apply a little common sense to the situation. Obviously my parents were okay with my having the subscription. The black plastic it came wrapped in probably helped a bit in my mom’s case, because the covers really could be pretty horrible. My dad found the whole thing kind of amusing, I think. I should have realized that they would have taken my side in the argument with Mrs. Hindenburg.
But I didn’t want to make trouble in the moment. I just wanted to get past the uncomfortable interaction, reclaim my cherished magazine, and get the hell out of Dodge. So I turned the conversation back to the literary aspects of the horror genre, making the best case I could for its merits as a legitimate art form. I must have worked some rhetorical magic, because we eventually got to a point where I was able to remark casually that she should give Stephen King a try sometime. She might just be surprised at how good he is.
Too many classics to get through first, was her reply. Fair enough. We can’t read everything. Maybe I’d opened her mind a little, at any rate—if not with my exhortation to give horror fiction a chance, maybe with my appeal to her sense of fairness when I pointed out that she often laughed with some of the girls in class about articles in Seventeen or Cosmopolitan yet saw fit to take my Fangoria away.
If I got her thinking about any of those things, great. But the most important thing was that I did get my magazine back. Mission accomplished.
I was angrier about the incident than Mrs. Hindenburg could have guessed from my comportment, and my friend, who was still waiting for me in the hall when I left, was boiling over. It must have taken every reserve of self-control he possessed not to barge in and throw a few four-letter words into the mix. I’m forever grateful that he did not.
That night, I talked the whole thing over with my parents, and of course they were on my side completely. If I could have known that for sure I might have been more resolute with Mrs. Hindenburg. But it all worked out okay, so no regrets, no problems. The friction between my teacher and me had smoothed itself out.
At least, it would have if I’d had the sense to leave well enough alone. But you see, Mrs. Hindenburg had an avocation. She fancied herself a country music artist. I don’t remember how I got wind of this fact, but I do know how I confirmed it. I was working part time at a country radio station by this time, so I had access to a pretty amazing vinyl library of country classics, as well as some home-grown indie fare. Mrs. Hindenburg’s opus fell into the latter category, and the album cover boasted a gauzy photo of her leaning pensively against a tree, wearing a smile whose sense of rapture could only have been matched by the religious subject matter of the songs on the album itself.
My teenage metalhead self found it beyond hilarious and quickly made a photocopy to show my friends at school.
Unfortunately, I forgot that I had slipped it under the front cover of my homemade Van Halen binder, so the next day in class, when I opened the binder to pull out my homework, there it was in all of its glory: a black-and-white photocopy of the cover of Mrs. Hindenburg’s sole release. Even more unfortunately, she was hovering directly over me when I made this discovery.
To give me my due credit, I tried to bullshit my way out of it, but there was precious little purchase to be had.
“Where did you get that?” she carped.
“Um, I work at the radio station and found your record there. I didn’t know if you realized they had a copy, so I Xeroxed the cover for you.”
“Of course I know. I gave it to them.”
What else was there to say?
What else is there to say? Well, I’m glad the two encounters happened in the order they did, for I have no doubt that if I’d shown up with the image from Mrs. Hindenburg’s record album prior to the bargaining session surrounding my issue of Fangoria, I wouldn’t have stood a chance at getting that damn thing back. And I shudder to think how my friend might have retaliated.