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Into the past: ‘Astronaut Dad’ and horror author Carl Jacobi

Panel detail from "Astronaut Dad"
Illustration by Brent Schoonover
Panel detail from “Astronaut Dad”

Every so often I like to stop by comic-book shops and ask if there is anything by local authors and artists. Whomever I’m talking to will fish around for a bit and then produce something I haven’t seen before, sometimes relatively new, sometimes from a few years ago.Astronaut Dad,” for example, the first volume of which came out in 2007. 

As far as I can tell, the book’s author, David Hopkins, lives in Texas. But the illustrator, Brent Schoonover, is local. Or, at least, he was when he illustrated the book. I looked up his web page on Google to confirm, but was warned the site might be compromised, and, indeed, Google showed the content of the site to consist of Cialis and Viagra ads. I imagine he accidentally let his ownership of the site slip and it was instantly snapped up by a spammer. The cost of registering a web page is cheap, and, one supposes spammers might think there are enough people curious about Brent Schoonover to be worth squatting on the domain that has his name.

But I am not here to discuss the ins and outs of cybersquatting. No, instead, I have gotten around to reading “Astronaut Dad,” and that old urge has come upon me again. I’m not sure when it began or why, but a combination of my (admittedly excessive) civic pride and my almost Victorian urge to keep lists and notations have combined into a pathological need to endlessly document locally produced culture, regardless of whether it is new or not. “Astronaut Dad” may be five years old, but it is new to me, and is still available, and so out comes the fountain pen, the specimen jar, and the yellowed label. I shall jot down my notes, return my sample to the shelf, and move onto the next specimen, secure that I have done my part for society the way all Victorians did, by cataloging the world.

“Astronaut Dad” is a keen little story, and I use both “keen” and “little” precisely here. It’s set in the ’60s, when things could still be keen, and offers an intimate view of several families in crisis. This crisis happens to be in the shadow of the Cold War, and the families’ fathers happen to be astronauts engaged in covert spying missions above Russia. but the tale is told through the wives and the children. They are forced to contend with a perplexing unnaturalness. All have been relocated to a military-built suburb in Texas, filled with nondescript tract homes, each equipped with a bomb shelter. And all must contend with a curious mixture of pride and disappointment. They are the wives and children of astronauts, but astronauts they frustratingly believe to be grounded, as the spy missions are so secret that they are kept from the families. All they know is that the astronauts are away often, and even when they are home, they are curiously distant, caught up in their own competitive fraternity of, for lack of a better term, astronauting.

I have stated the themes of the book more nakedly than the book itself does. It’s told, instead, through a collection of moments: neighborhood barbecues, swimming-pool training sessions, and a furtive, halting crush between two of the teen children. Schoonover illustrates these stories as a very clean cartoon — his style is a bit reminiscent of the sort of streamlined, button-nosed characters who populated comic books with names like “Pep” back in the ’40s and ’50s, although there is an unexpected noirishness to his work. Panels are often set at what in film was called “Dutch angles” — tilted slightly. Characters burst in from the edges of the frames, and are often shown with one side enveloped in shadow, as though every scene were taking place in Texas’ friscalating dusk light. This puts a hint of menace into each panel, as though “The Third Man’s” director, Carol Reed, had been hired to film a Archie movie. This being the Cold War, and telling of men engaged in dangerous, covert missions, this sense of menace turns out to be purposeful, as tragedy is on its way.

I’m not quite done with my tagging and notating, by the way. I picked up a sort of awful paperback reprint from 1977 from a company called Panther, which seems to have been doing a sort of literary version of cybersquatting. They somehow managed to reprint an enormous number of old pulp novels, usually repackaged with garish covers and cover text that scarcely reflected the interior contents. This one, called “The Tomb From Beyond,” has as its cover a somewhat amateurish painting of a severed female head nailed to a wall, and on the first page it has an excerpt from the book labeled, with typical luridness, “Satanic Rat.”

Cover illustration from "The Tomb from Beyond"
Illustration: Panther Publishing LLC
Cover illustration from “The Tomb from Beyond”

The book is actually a reprint of a collection of short stories by Minneapolitan Carl Jacobi, originally published in the 1930s and ’40s, back when there was entire collection of pulp publishers who specialized in uncanny tales of the macabre, magazines with titles like “Weird Tales” and “Strange Stories.” I have a personal affection for Jacobi, as he is a fellow University of Minnesota alum and worked, for a time, at the Minneapolis Star as a book and theater critic. Jacobi had trouble getting published after the pulp market collapsed, and took a night job at Honeywell that reportedly led to health problems — one hopes that he saw a little financial windfall as a result of Panther repackaging his stories, just as one hopes that Schoonover is getting a little bit of that Cialis money.

In some ways, Jacobi is an unremarkable writer. His stories are typical of his era, often telling of a bad person whom the cosmos takes revenge on in an especially ironic and ghastly way. There’s nothing wrong with this sort of writing — it was, after all, the bread and butter of EC Comics, and was always entertaining. But a lot of Jacobi’s stories could be titled “The Entirely Unsurprising Death of …” and then fill in the title character. There are hints of H.P. Lovecraft in his work, an occasional cosmic sensibility that suggests the presence of madness-inducing extradimensional oddities that sometimes crack through into this world, which is never unwelcome.

Further, Jacobi had a distinct talent for piling up odd detail upon odd detail. The most Lovecraftian story in this collection, the titular “Tomb from Beyond,” has a drowned city, a flooded cemetery, a mysterious shape beneath the waters, and, at its end, an inferno, which, to fans of the eerie, is a bit like piling sprinkles and M&Ms atop an ice cream cone and then, at the end, just for show, setting fire to it. It may not be great literature, and it may not be genre-defining writing, but, my goodness, does it satisfy a sweet tooth for this sort of stuff.

Jacobi especially had an interest in setting his stories in far-flung regions of the world, and had a journalist’s instincts for making sure the story is filled with accurate atmospheric details. This may actually have preserved his career longer than that of many horror writers when the pulp market became dominated by men’s magazines with cover titles such as the notorious Man’s Life cover that Frank Zappa used as an album title: Weasels Ripped My Flesh. As long as Jacobi’s stories were about men in jeopardy, and as long as that jeopardy was in an exotic location, it would still sell, even with a whiff of the supernatural. In fact, in 1989, Bowling Green State University Popular Press reprinted a bunch of Jacobi’s adventure tales from the pages of magazines like “Thrilling Adventures” and “Top Notch,” titled “East of Samarinda.”

Years from now, I could be a Carl Jacobi. it’s very possible I will likewise be a footnote in the Twin Cities’ long history of creative output. I have a small body of short stories behind me, many of them also tales of terror, as well as other creative projects that have enjoyed some popularity, but may not prove to have any sort of lasting power. I suppose this is why I catalog the past like this. Because one day, I hope I will likewise be noted, annotated, and preserved by somebody like me.

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