Derek McCormack’s Haunted Library

Emily M. Keeler is a writer and the editor of...

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Shelf Esteem is a weekly measure of the books on the shelves of writers, editors, and other word lovers, as told to Emily M. Keeler. This week’s shelf belongs to Derek McCormack, the artist and beloved writer of nine weird and wonderfully dark books, including Dark Rides and The Show That Smells. His books are in his home in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood. The day I went he served lemon tea for us to sip while we sat on the floor and poured over his Halloween collectibles.

My friend Al made this for me. He’s an old carny and … I shouldn’t say old, he’s just been doing it a long time. He’s built a miniature carnival in his basement, and he thinks of this as a block of a Coney Island location that’s all dedicated to me. There’s my Dark Ride. It’s all things I love, or that he thinks I love. So there’s the alley, and on this side there’s a sex shop—he made all the little dildos and things. I don’t leave this side out when my parents are here. Isn’t that incredible? I wrote a piece about him in Nest magazine years ago. In his basement, he’s been constructing a miniature carnival for years. He has an incredible amount of circus and carnival stuff, in part from being a circus owner years ago, and a carny as a teenager. He also writes for ECW. He’s the only actual carny I know. He loves carnivals, but he’s the only one who’s actually with it. Everyone else, like me, is just a voyeur. He’s the real deal.

That’s about it. Bookshelves and tons of little knick-knacks. There are some old carnival knock-down dolls. I have a lot of crap. I shouldn’t say crap—I love it all, and I keep it out for a reason. It all has a lot of value or meaning to me. Like that? My friend Vincent made that for me. It’s a company that makes fake poo, and he had them make a “D” for me, so I could hang it on my Christmas tree—which I’ve never done. But I’m so thrilled, it’s couture poo! All poo is couture, to be honest, but it’s fake couture poo.

And then books. I don’t have that many of them—I’m very careful about culling them. I work at a book store, and you get so many in advance, and then when I wrote about fashion for Post I got a lot of fashion books, some of which are still sitting there. I can’t even tell you my system. Do people have systems? Okay, this is my system: Novelty Gags, Halloween, Christmas, then Carnival and Magic, then Country Music, Fashion, a sort of no-man’s land, and then novels. But these first two shelves are my favourite books. I read from them a lot because I steal from them in my writing.

Puppetrix is one of my favourite books. I haven’t stolen from it yet, but I do have a novel on the go. This is about puppet magic. But what I like about it is that the first chapter is a history of puppets in magic acts. It doesn’t really have any dates, but it documents the life of Winkletom, “the first hand puppet ever used for magical purpose.” Isn’t that great? I guess it was in the ’20s—oh, no, it was pre-1920s, because it’s before Felix the Cat was popular. Anyway, God bless the person who wrote the history of puppets in magic acts.

I guess the books I’ve stolen from the most are the ones about Ghost Shows. Do you know about Ghost Shows? They started in the 1920s as any show with a macabre element that played on a sense that you were resurrecting ghosts, or beheading people. They were very showy. I guess they came about during the Depression, at a time when people were trying to get people into theatres to see movies, and before you would show a scary movie, a magician would come out and do sort of frightening magic tricks. And then there would be a blackout, and a man dressed as a gorilla would run through the audience, or they would have ghosts on pulleys go overhead, or they would throw cold pieces of string into the audience. It was a really, really cheap haunted house in a movie theatre, basically. It was very B-movieish, very sensationalistic. There are two histories of them, and one is official.

But what I like are the manuals that I’ve managed to find over my life time. Spook Stunts. I’ve stolen a lot from that. I love magic manuscripts. They were all typed and run off so cheaply, and the prose is so spectacularly bad.

This is an article from Genie magazine about Robert Nelson, who was one of the great spook show manufacturers of stunts. This is actually part one of a two-part article. I haven’t picked up the next month’s issue yet. I found this too, it isn’t uncommon or anything, but it’s a book about Bill Neff, who was a great spook show magician. He was Jimmy Stewart’s childhood best friend, and Jimmy Stewart was in his magic show for years, until he became famous and poor old Dr. Neff died in obscurity. There’s an incredible interview with his son about how Dr. Neff was the worst father who ever lived—his son calls him Satan.

This is a book called Seance, which is a reprint of a magic magazine called Seance, but I bought it because they have this very little article on something that Robert Nelson produced and sold in the ’30s and ’40s. He marketed it way back when. It was a pistol that Disney made, where when you pressed the trigger it would project pictures of Disney characters on the wall. And then he bought them and tore them apart to rig them so that if you were doing a show or a seance you could do it in the dark and then pull the trigger so that a ghost would appear. I think there are versions of them in pens, too. I can’t explain why a medium would be carrying a gun, especially a plastic gun. I’d love to find one of these someday. They never pop up.

I keep the novel section very slim. I read fiction, but unless you’re one of my friends I won’t really hold onto your book. I have tons of Ken Sparling from over the years, all these handmade books. This was a big deal to me: Dennis Cooper is like my favourite writer of all time—this is an advanced copy of Frisk, with a letter with his home address, which I got back when I was an aspiring writer. I wrote this fawning, fatuous, just sycophantic letter to him, and I met him years later. He’s published three of my books, and we were doing a radio show together, Bookworm, in L.A., and I forget how it came up but we were talking about fan mail. I said, Oh, I sent Dennis a letter years ago, but he wouldn’t remember it. And he said, Oh no, it’s in my archive. So I guess it’s at Fales Library and I should die of embarrassment.

I have so much stuff by the new narrative writers, Kathy Acker, Dodie Bellamy, Lynne Tillman. That’s where I cut my teeth. I love all these books from Publication Studio. All of Genet’s books were big for me, but Edmund White’s biography was really big for me. I think I stalked him to get it signed.

I used to borrow books from the store, but I’m too much of a slob and I’d get pizza sauce on them or something. So I give them away, or I give them to the library to sell. I keep my fiction and poetry collection really really small. I don’t know why that is. I guess part of it is that other books I collect, including art books, when they go out of print they’re so expensive to get again. I think with fiction, unless I’m going to have a problem finding it again I won’t hold onto it. If you find a book on Charles James’ Fashion, it’s going to have a little window of availability. So I hold onto that stuff. I guess I hold onto rare and coffee-table books more. But I should say that I do have some books in storage. Especially from when I was starting out as a writer, I’d go to every launch and buy every book.

Shelf Esteem runs every Tuesday.

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