Death Valley Superstars: Occasionally Fatal Adventures in Filmland, by Duke Haney. Delancey Street Press, December 2018. 306 pages. $15.95, paper.
For people … like myself … that take morbid delight in the machinery of Hollywood and its end product … movies – then this book is pure candy – a riotous … and virtuous sugar-hit … a thrill ride … of investigative essays somewhat in the vein of Kenneth Anger … or the more Tinsel Town-centric pieces from Joan Didion – although to align this book with those writers … would be to do Duke Haney a disservice.
In this septic age of alternative facts … hot takes and Twitter shitstorms … Duke Haney talks like a Shamus … researches like a Gumshoe … and comes up with a rollicking journey through the cool frailty of the Californian entertainment industry … albeit with side excursions to Haney’s time in Manhattan.
There are some actors and topics here that … in 2019 … we probably never need to have another word written about again (Marilyn Monroe … Elizabeth Taylor … Hugh Heffner … Jim Morrison) … or so I thought … until Duke Haney puts his personal and thoughtful take on them. For instance … there is an essay on Elizabeth Taylor … but from the perspective of Duke Haney … as a child … seeking to get her autograph when she comes to Haney’s hometown. There is a moment when Haney and Taylor’s eyes meet … and what is enthralling about this article is the subsequent reflection from Haney … decades later … on what this all meant … what he … as someone who once aspired to be an actor … could make of all this.
Part of this book deals with Haney’s contemplations of a childhood spent amongst movies. The complexity … as Haney discusses … of him not liking modern Hollywood fare … but liking more vintage Hollywood lore … the complexity … as Haney sees it … is that he now is … as an adult … a dinosaur. If Iron Man is rightly called shit … and if Haney doesn’t watch ‘baby movies’ … what exactly is he? This is the existential crisis he might be in. In this dog-eared and dirt-clothed Earth … what are celluloid dreams anymore? The trick that Haney attempts … is to juxtapose those ancient Hollywood worlds with modern technology internet meme-worlds. There is no message anymore … no standard book of aesthetics … just the same medium. Are we lost within it … just floating … bubbling along?
Some of the blither essays detail Haney waking up in Jim Morrison’s motel room after a seance covered in his own piss … as well as Haney and his cohorts rolling around South-Central Los Angeles looking for Sly Stone’s RV. However … the adventure isn’t just the action … the action … the wisdom after the adventure … is what Haney discovers. If the hollowness of Los Angeles is dreadful … then Haney needs to get out amongst it and reflect and discover. The intention (finding a suitable psychic who talks to the dead … tracking down Stone’s whereabouts) is the starting point … the end point delivers the reader to the wisdom that Haney discovers.
There is an essay … perhaps one of the most poignant things I have recently read … that essentially details Haney just walking around Westlake … downtown Los Angeles … near the Alvarado Court Apartments where the film director and former actor William Desmond Taylor was murdered. What follows is Haney’s reverie on the real-life situation that plays out before him. But Haney … always has one eye on the past … the Hollywood past … he is a casual tour guide walking with no one … the people he guides are the readers. He is a wayward oracle who attracts incidents (in this case someone who seems to have escaped from the local psyche ward … and the subsequent cop-action that occurs) so that he can reflect on all manner of filmlike things.
Every topic in this book revolves around cinema. Every topic … and this is the beauty of the book … doesn’t seem to have anything to do with cinema. Lee Harvey Oswald for instance. But scratch the surface … and Haney doesn’t have to scratch too hard … and there are numerous links and intrigues to Oswald and his relationship to cinema: the Zapruder film … the films that Oswald watched while he was living in the Soviet Union … the films that Oswald was watching in the movie house prior to the post-assassination shootout and his subsequent arrest. Haney believes that every subject has clues and patterns that can be traced back to cinema.
Haney details the time when he wrote erotic thrillers … that midpoint between noir and soft porn … his experiences and challenges of being involved in some lesser known Roger Corman sequels … as well as his fanboy pursuit of Elizabeth McGowan … all the while decked out with a copy of Moby Dick. Haney also mentions his screenplay credit for writing the seventh instalment in the Friday the 13th series … and how that came about.
The book is brilliantly sequenced. For every tale … such as the ones in the previous paragraph … there’s some heavy longform work that is in-depth and investigative … that is drenched with facts … recollections and heartache. There’s a centrepiece essay on the desolate and irrational life of Mark Frechette … there’s the understanding that Haney finds from investigating his subjects … for instance … Haney mentions that he wanted to write a book on the actor Steve Cochran … but wanted to call it Steve Cochran: Bad Motherfucker. Haney … upon viewing Cochran’s FBI file … realises that Cochran might have just been a massive asshole.
Anyway … this book is a cracker. There’s a lot here that I’ve subsequently thought about since turning the last page. There’s a lot to contemplate. On a base level … one could judge a book on how quick the reader turns the page. This was a real page-turner. People who write reviews should probably offer more. People who read reviews … perhaps … would like more. But let’s strip this back to brass-tacks … I really enjoyed this book. I couldn’t wait to get back to it when I was away doing mundane things – like life.
Authors sometimes say … and I have said this in previous interviews … that one writes the book they wanted to read. Duke Haney seems to have written the book that he always wanted to read. Duke Haney seems to have written the book that I have always wanted to read – the weird thing is that I haven’t written it. I know that sounds like some sort of weird intense metaphysics … so I will just leave the organic reality of this book for another time.
If you’ve ever wanted to hear scalpel slices of backlot dreams … perhaps nightmares … or Gnosis remarks that refer to Las Vegas and Hollywood … then Duke Haney … with sly wit burning … with unknown and known old-school celebrities … certainly delivers.
Read it before you become your own pentobarbital casualty …
Shane Jesse Christmass is the author of the novels Xerox Over Manhattan (Apocalypse Party, 2019), Belfie Hell (Inside The Castle, 2018), Yeezus In Furs (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2018), Napalm Recipe: Volume One (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2017), Police Force As A Corrupt Breeze (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2016) and Acid Shottas (The Ledatape Organisation, 2014). He was a member of the band Mattress Grave and is currently a member in Snake Milker. An archive of his writing/artwork/music can be found at shanejessechristmass.tumblr.com. Instagram: sjxsjc. Twitter: @sjxsjc.