Chicago’s role in the development of 20th-century literature is well-known: the city has nurtured writers as different as Nelson Algren and L. Frank Baum, and Poetry magazine, founded here in 1912, published new work by talents ranging from Pound and Yeats to John Ashbery and Gwendolyn Brooks.
It’s less well-known that Chicago also spawned the first literary magazine devoted to horror and fantasy. Starting in 1923, Weird Tales introduced readers to the likes of Robert Bloch (Psycho), Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian), Tennessee Williams—whose first published short story appeared there—and H.P. Lovecraft, a New England writer influenced by the gothic fiction of Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Machen.
Though Lovecraft, who died in 1937, wasn’t terribly successful in his lifetime, he’s recognized now as a major influence on modern horror and fantasy literature—almost as important as Poe himself. He was offered the job of editor at Weird Tales early on, but didn’t want to move to the Windy City. (The original mag folded in 1954; the version that exists today dates back to ’88.)
On November 16, Chicago horror specialists WildClaw Theatre will commemorate the 85th anniversary of Weird Tales‘s debut with The Dreams in the Witch House, a stage adaptation of Lovecraft’s short story about a young man who discovers a gateway to another dimension. The play, adapted and directed by WildClaw founder Charley Sherman, also marks the 75th anniversary of the story’s appearance in Weird Tales.
“I didn’t discover Lovecraft till I was in my 20s, but when I did I felt an immediate kinship,” says Sherman, a 43-year-old British expat. “As a schoolboy in Nottingham, I would watch the great Hammer horror films on late-night TV. I was also writing horror stories about monsters. I invented a character called Super Bat who was from the Light World and had to fight creatures from the Dark World like Evil Eyes. I got so deeply into it that the headmaster had to call my mam to ask her if everything was all right at home.”
Sherman came to Chicago in 1990 after graduating from London’s distinguished Drama Centre theater school. Though he started off as an actor, he quickly gained notice here as a director and writer of plays steeped in sci-fi, the supernatural, and the macabre. His directorial debut, at the old Organic Theater, was a chilling adaptation of “In the Flesh,” Clive Barker’s tale of a young convict trying to make contact with the spirit of his mass-murdering grandfather. That was followed over the next 15 years by adaptations of other stories by Barker (Son of Celluloid), William Gibson (“Burning Chrome”), and H.G. Wells (The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds) as well as stagings of Lord Byron’s occult play Cain and the gruesome Jacobean revenge drama The Maid’s Tragedy.
In 2005, while directing his own adaptation of Henry IV for the Shakespeare Project of Chicago, he struck up a conversation with one of the cast members, Aaron Christensen, who mentioned that he had an idea for a book about horror films. Christensen’s concept was an anthology of movie reviews written by fans rather than professional critics. “I was startled to hear an actor talk about horror with such enthusiasm,” says Sherman. Christensen couldn’t have found a more receptive ear.
Christensen, now 40, had also arrived in Chicago in 1990, from Colorado. “I wanted to do theater, but I didn’t feel like going to either coast,” he says. “Then my college roommate’s mother, who lived in Elmhurst, sent us a copy of the Reader. When I saw all those listings of all the shows that were going on, I said, ‘There’s gotta be room for one more.'”
Christensen and Sherman began brainstorming projects—and the best way to put those projects before the public. Sherman had always relied on existing theaters—Organic, Next, the European Repertory Company—to support his work. Now, though, he and Christensen decided to gamble on their own troupe. Sherman proposed the name WildClaw as an homage to his late friend, actor Ray Wild, who died of cancer in 2004. “Ray’s nickname was ‘Claw,’ from when we’d play gin while drinking whiskey in the wee hours of the morning,” says Sherman as he mimes a clawlike hand sweeping up the winnings from an all-night card game. “I thought it sounded like a good name for a horror company.”
“Chicago needs another theater like it needs a hole in the head,” acknowledges Christensen. But WildClaw hopes to set itself apart by virtue of its niche: “Bringing Horror and the Supernatural to the Chicago Stage.” As artistic director, Sherman is committed to overcoming the stereotype of horror as gross-out entertainment by creating atmospheric, artistic work with literary substance.
So far WildClaw has survived on box-office receipts and barroom fund-raisers, at which attendees are invited to play “Scaryoke,” a game that involves acting out scenes from scary movies. “At one point we had an entire bar full of people chanting ‘The power of Christ compels you! The power of Christ compels you!'” recalls Christensen.
WildClaw tested the waters last March with The Great God Pan, based on Machen’s occult thriller. The box-office response was encouraging, and Sherman decided to go forward with two new productions this season: The Dreams in the Witch House, which runs through December 21 at the Athenaeum Theatre, and, next April, the midwest premiere of Revenants, an original drama about zombies by local writer Scott Barsotti. In between productions, Sherman and Christensen plan to maintain a creative presence with their podcast, Blood Radio, which can be downloaded from WildClaw’s Web site. The show features news from the horror front as well as interviews with notables like Barker and comic book illustrator Dave Dorman, but Christensen also hopes to begin including short plays from WildClaw’s DeathScribe Festival—an evening of radio-style horror plays, performed by professional actors with live sound effects, that drew a crowd of about 400 to the Music Box last month.
Christensen—who sometimes goes by the alias Dr. A.C.—saw his book idea come to fruition last year. Horror 101, published by Midnight Marquee Press, collects critiques of 110 classic horror, sci-fi, and monster movies by 78 contributors from around the world. Filmmaker Joe Dante praises the book for its “refreshingly egalitarian approach.” But there’s nothing amateurish about the engaging essays, whose authors include Chicago playwright Brett Neveu and local actor Anish Jethmalani as well as Sherman and Christensen.
Chicago has a thriving horror scene. The city hosts two national conventions every year, Fangoria in the spring and Flashback in the summer. Night of the Living Dead director George Romero was the guest of honor at last summer’s Flashback, and next year’s Fangoria will feature Texas Chain Saw Massacre creator Tobe Hooper. And the Music Box’s annual Music Box Massacre, a 24-hour movie marathon cohosted by Christensen and Rusty Nails, draws large crowds, as did last summer’s Terror in the Aisles Festival at the Portage Theater. So it would seem WildClaw has a built-in local audience.
But Sherman and Christensen don’t want to just appeal to a cult core. “We’re having fun, but we take our horror seriously. Too often horror ends up being the redheaded stepchild of any art form, be it theater, film, the visual arts, whatever,” says Christensen. “Horror makes money, but it don’t get no respect. We want it to get respect.”v