Prolific author cast a light on a genre noted for darkness.
Author David J. Skal, whose works explored the cultural significance of the horror genre in literature and film, is dead. He was killed on New Year’s Day when a car jumped the median and struck the vehicle in which he was a passenger. The announcement of his death was made by his sister, Sandy Skal-Gerlock, on Facebook and confirmed by checking the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner’s website. Skal was 71.
David J. Skal established himself as an expert on the horror genre, particularly vampires and Dracula, with his 1990 debut, Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen.* The book traces the path leading from Bram Stoker’s novel to the two film versions shot by Universal Studios in 1931, one in English and one in Spanish, helping to rescue the latter from obscurity. He followed up with several more brilliant books: The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror (1993), Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning, Hollywood’s Master of the Macabre (1995, in collaboration with Elias Savada), V Is for Vampire: The A to Z Guide to Everything Undead (1996), Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture (1998), and Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween (2002). Skal also co-edited (with Nina Auerbach) the 1997 Norton Critical Edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula and provided notes and commentary for the fiction anthology Vampires: Encounters with the Undead (2001),
Skal’s work combined an engaging writing style with insightful intelligence which elevated him a level above being a recorder of historical facts. His stock in trade was pinpointing the way the horror genre reflected the shifting cultural tides that produced it. He often noted that depictions of vampirism reflected current events, such as the AIDS epidemic, which coincided with an explosion of the genre, led by the work of Anne Rice, with the undead representing, in Skal’s words, “both our fear of this blood plague and our fantasy about transcending the fear of death.” He was also keen on exploring the genre’s homo-erotic subtext, with blood-drinking standing in for a less sanguinary exchange of bodily fluids.
In person, Skal displayed a boyish enthusiasm for horror, coupled with a prodigious intellect. He was smart and insightful but never pretentious or self-important: “I am not an academic,” he told me – which might have been literally true but undersold his depth of knowledge. I was not a close friend of his, but our paths did cross on several occasions. The first time I met him was at a personal appearance he made while promoting Hollywood Gothic: at Small World Books in Venice (which was noted for its extensive selection of vampire literature), he presented a slideshow summary of his book and answered all of my nerdy questions (“Why didn’t Universal Pictures cast Bela Lugosi as Dracula in House of Frankenstein?”).
A few years later, I scored what felt like a major coup when I arranged a joint interview between Skal and Leonard Wolf (author of 1972’s A Dream of Dracula). The two titans of vampire scholarship had never met, but in a real sense Skal was Wolf’s successor – the next generation taking up the torch and carrying it forward – and it was illuminating to hear the two bounce ideas off each other. Essentially, they talked to each other for a couple hours, with little coaxing from me, both agreeing and disagreeing. At one point the conversation even got slightly testy after Skal made a comment about not being able to see vampires in mirrors because we would recognize our own reflection:
Leonard Wolf: I think I said that verbatim, David, in one of my books.
David J. Skal: Well, I know I did in one of mine!
The result was published in the winter 1994 issue of Imagi-Movies, titled “Beyond Dracula,” which explored the changing image of the vampire in the 20th century as exemplified by the film adaptation of Interview with the Vampire. Later, I got Skal to write for Imagi-Movies and its parent publication, Cinefantastique. Although we could not really afford his going rate, he consented to do a few pieces that were of interest to him and not too time consuming. Although his contributions were small, they helped elevate the magazines, buttressing their bon fides as serious genre publications.
My subsequent contact with Skal consisted mostly of getting his latest book signed and occasionally hosting an event where he appeared. A frequent guest at conventions and festivals, Skal showed up in Hollywood Gothique coverage from time to time. I moderated a panel with him at the first Vampire Con on the subject of “Why We Love Vampires,” and we appeared with Del Howison (of Dark Delicacies) to discuss “The Undead Metaphor” after a performance of Courting Vampires at the Boston Court Theatre in Pasadena.
Skal was always affable and easy to talk to, like an old friend, even though our interaction was mostly professional. There was something about his voice that invited a sense of comradery. After first meeting him, I would always hear that voice when reading his work. The effect was so strong that, upon reading of his death, I was shocked to realize how long it had been since we had spoken. My last interaction with him was an email exchange asking him to write an article about Nick Dear’s stage adaptation of Frankenstein, but I recall his response as if it were a telephone conversation. (The article never materialized, because the startup publication I was working for never came to fruition.)
David J. Skal left us with a brilliant body of work, not only books but also audio commentaries and DVD bonus features (such as his contributions to the Universal Pictures Box Set of its Classic Movie Monsters from the 1930s and 1940s). He set a standard for critics and historians to aspire to. He gave us facts, but more than that he gave us insight. His work helped us to understand the meaning behind horror’s cultural artifacts, ranging from vampires to mad scientists to alien invaders, and in so doing he reminded us of – and confirmed our love for – the genre.
- Yes, this is where we got the name for our website.