The Cultural Gutter

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"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." -- Oscar Wilde

The Sci-Fi Life

Keith Allison
Posted September 5, 2013

umanMy first memories are of Ultraman, the Adam West Batman show, and something about jumping into a dumpster — but let’s leave that one out for now. It was probably related to one of the first two anyway. I vividly remember being mesmerized by Ultraman. From there, raised by young parents in a college environment at a time when things were somewhat permissive, I moved easily into Universal horror, Tarzan movies, and old science fiction and adventure serials back when such things were commonplace on television. My mother was a sorta-hippie who once dated a guy who would go on to help found TSR Games. My dad was a laid-back jock with a taste for wizardy prog rock. For quite literally as long as I can remember, gutter culture — scifi, horror, adventure — has simply been culture to me.

So for me to ask myself what it is about “gutter culture” I find so important requires a much more biographical (or self-centered) answer than philosophical. It is simply the very foundation of who I am. I never watched Sesame Street or The Electric Company, but I was well-versed in Godzilla, Frankenstein, and War of the Worlds. My parents’ friends were a bizarre mix of hippies and stoner athletes (one of whom was a football player who also turned out to be an early computer programming genius) who gave me comic books, junior editions of classic sci-fi, and recordings of old radio thrillers. When we moved away from the college town of Lexington to a more remote, rural setting, science fiction and adventure yarns came with me.

Growing up in a rural setting requires a kid to use his imagination if he wants to be entertained when he isn’t doing chores. The speculative nature of science fiction and adventure, the notion that incredible things were possible and an amazing world was just beyond the horizon, did a lot to help pass lazy country days. These things became springboards for my own adventures, the foundation on which I would construct vast and involved (for a kid, anyway) adventures. I would spend time thrilling to the exploits of Tom Swift, or reading through Boy’s Life magazine when the magazine would feature articles about camping and survival alongside serialized comic strips of The White Mountains. Then I would go outside and indulge myself to the upper limit of what wooded, rural Kentucky and permissive 1970s parenting would allow, organizing day-long adventures exploring caves, hunting for Bigfoot, and charting the great unknown around me.

Captain America and Uriah Heep -- such did I come fromAs I got older and watched more movies, read more books, I recognized this low “gutter” culture as the birthplace of almost everything society held as high art. These were the cauldrons from which everything else was born, the wellspring that was tapped whenever humanity wanted to express itself in some new fashion or explore some difficult moral quandary. Our earliest stories are ones of fantastic adventure. The birth of the popular novel relied largely on tales of wonder and the supernatural. Our earliest films are similarly explorations of the fantastic — the incredible works of Melies, Edison’s Frankenstein, the opulent ancient-world spectacles and brooding horrors of the silent era. Every time a new medium or a new technology emerged, those who used it turned to fantasy, horror, and science fiction to exploit what the new medium could do. Who are we? What makes us who we are. Where might we be going, and what meaning is there behind our triumph and tragedy? Science fiction and horror are often the first genre in every medium to grapple with these questions.

For me, though, science fiction is primarily about inspiration. It inspired me to dream about the future. It inspired me to explore the world around me. It was there from the very beginning, pushing me to wonder about things and go a little bit further afield than was sometimes comfortable. And I was not alone. Science fiction motivated an entire generation of creators to go out and actively make the world about which they’d read. Anyone who thinks science fiction is about predicting the future is missing the point; it’s about inspiring the future. William Gibson didn’t predict the world wide web; he inspired people to go out and create it.

Ultimately, my embrace of gutter culture, of these disreputable books and movies and genres of entertainment, isn’t about rebelling against the mainstream, nor is it about crusading for them to be more accepted as meritorious by mainstream society. No, I am here to celebrate science fiction and all of gutter culture simply because it has been the impetus for nearly everything I’ve done. From my first glimpse of Ultraman tossing around some chump monster, it has exposed me to other cultures and new ways of thinking, challenged my own ways of thinking. And so I keep the company of madmen and dreamers, of stolid adventurers and restless wanderers, of monsters, schemers, scientists, and those forever looking ahead. After all, you got me this far.



7 Responses to “The Sci-Fi Life”

  1. Anukampa
    September 5th, 2013 @ 5:10 pm

    This article provided a definition of ‘Gutter Culture’ that immediately resonated with me. My young years (the 1960’s and early 70’s) also were wrapped in comic books and cartoon TV. Having three older brothers allowed me, or forced me on occasion, to be exposed to spine chilling reads such as Creepy, Weird and Eerie. But I was also awed by the Fantastic Four’s adventures and the cosmic explorations by the crew of the Fireball XL-5. I may not have had the chance in the late 60’s to travel to the Kennedy Space Center to watch Apollo 11 take off, but I had Thunderbirds and Star Trek to fuel my imagination weekly. Long live Gutter Culture!

  2. Keith Allison
    September 5th, 2013 @ 9:56 pm

    Thanks! I knew there were a lot of us out there. That era — from the end of the 60s until the early 1980s — was a great time to have weird interests, because so much of it was just…it wasn’t nerdy or looked down upon; it was just the way things were.

    I love Creepy and Eerie, though they were hard to come by where I grew up. I’ve always been a Tomb of Dracula man, though!

  3. Professor Kettlewell
    September 9th, 2013 @ 4:29 am

    Point 1. Is that your dad, and is he holding a copy of “Demons and Wizards”?

    Point 2. I think that growing up in the West Midlands in the 1970’s and 1980’s is not-all-that-different to rural Kentucky. For us, it was the launch of Channel-4, and the sudden availibility of cheap little TV sets, which meant that you got to watch imported exploitation movies on Saturday night.

    Point 3. I’m trying to track down the moment when I realised that ‘gutter culture’ was truly where my mind belonged. And the video nasties had nothing to do with it. No-one I knew even had a video recorder.

    Point 4. I think W.H. Allen’s “Unexplained” series was more responsible, or the “Boys book of adventure” annual.

    Point 5. Anukampa: Thunderbirds was shown at 13:30 on sundays round our way. I can never, ever hear that music without thinking of the smell of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. But Captain Scarlet was saturday mornings, and that was a far more elicit thrill. That’s my Pavlovian association.

    Point 6. I think you need Dryden and Dostoyevsky and Bruno Mattei if you’re going to understand ‘who we are, where we come from, where we are going’, and with your help, I’ll try to understand more about science fiction too.

    Point 7. I will never give up searching for the Jess Franco nightclub.

  4. Keith Allison
    September 10th, 2013 @ 3:28 pm

    1. Yes. Yes it is.

    2. For me, it was WDRB-TV 41, an independent broadcast channel (remember those?) that was literally run out of a garage. They would do anything and everything to fill up broadcast time, including Godzilla movies and something called Fright Night that would play not just old Universal horror, but Eurotrash, 50s cult scifi, and anything else they could get for cheap or free.

    4. I started out in adventure, but it got pretty weird back in the 1970s. The White Mountains was my favorite as a kid, a combination of adventure, scifi, paranoia, and ripping off HG Wells. Still love that book.

    6. I agree. “High” art certainly carries substantial cultural significance. What I like is how much high art was considered lowbrow trash during its time.

    7. We are as one on this. I found one that is close here in NYC called Duane Manor/Duane Park. A supper club with nightly magic and burlesque performances, in an elegant Victorian/early Edwardian decor setting. Maybe we should kickstarter opening a Jess Franco club.

  5. The Sci-Fi Life | The Merry Frolics of Teleport City
    September 10th, 2013 @ 3:33 pm

    […] new article for September is up on The Cultural Gutter. The Sci-Fi Life is my “getting to know you” piece, discussing why I think “gutter culture” […]

  6. Professor Kettlewell
    September 10th, 2013 @ 8:12 pm

    Point 7.
    I want to go. Next time I’m in NYC, I’m there.

  7. Professor Kettlewell
    September 11th, 2013 @ 12:26 am

    Point 7 redux. Just checked website. Oh my gosh and goodness.

    The phrase “jazz and live erotic whimsy” pushes so many of my buttons, a DEC PDP-11 on bootstrap would get jealous. That’s even before I read “excessive candelabras, partial nudity” and I just about went loopy.

    Someday, I intend to hold a seance there, and summon the ghost of Soledad Miranda.

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