Friday, January 12, 2018

John Manderino: Here There Be Monsters

My 2017 book, Seduced by Mrs.Robinson, gave me the opportunity to praise in print a recent memoir by a Maine-based writer named John Manderino. His Crying at Movies was an inspired comic summation of his own life, with each key episode tied to a movie-going memory. For instance, after his first youthful sexual encounter went badly, he sought performance tips from the lusty Swedes by watching Elvira Madigan. (Alas, it didn’t help.) Then, when he was a lowly college sophomore, a senior asked him out because she adored The Graduate and thought he resembled Dustin Hoffman. Manderino was not flattered. In his mind, “Benjamin was short and looked like a rodent.” Still, he was attracted to the young woman, and so he managed to convince her that he was indeed sweet, sensitive, and depressed, just like Ben. In the next chapter we found them in bed together.

Manderino wrote Crying at Movies in 2008. Eight years later, he published another short story volume, one that pays an eccentric kind of tribute to things that go bump in the night. It’s called But You Scared Me the Most. The title comes from a Randy Newman tune, and the collection riffs on monsters, both those encountered on a movie screen and those who surround us in everyday (and every-night) life. More often than not, we are the monsters ourselves, learning to proudly fly our freak flags, no matter who is watching. There is, for instance, the eleven-year-old boy who celebrates Halloween by turning into a vampire. And, in a delicious story called “Wolfman and Janice,” a suburban housewife joins her spouse by transforming into a werewolf. (By this point, he’s already eaten the neighbor’s cat.)

Some of the stories explore characters who are shaped by their interaction with screen monsters and other grotesques. The Wizard of Oz, Frankenstein’s monster, Boris Karloff as The Mummy, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon all make appearances, as do such long-ago pop culture icons as Kukla (of TV’s Kukla, Fran, and Ollie), a bickering Barbie and Ken, and Señor Wences’ creepily literal hand-puppet, Johnny. In such stories a human character’s response to these famous fantasy figures makes clear to us the challenges and confusions within his (or her) own life. But Manderino also sometimes gets into the head of a fantasy being, like Bigfoot (or – charmingly – an aged Nancy Drew, still struggling to sleuth out things that have gone missing.)

One of the earlier stories, “A Certain Fellow Named Phil,” begins with the first-person confession of a murder. The victim, though, turns out to be an inflatable sex doll. I’m wondering if John saw, and enjoyed, my favorite film on this topic, 2007’s Lars and the Real Girl, then gave his version a more morose ending. The final story of the collection, “The Witch of Witch’s Woods,” captures the eerie uncertainty that was an attraction of The Blair Witch Project. But the most cold-blooded story of the lot, the blandly-titled “Bob and Todd,” may contain nothing menacing at all. In this tale of a hitchhiker picked up along a highway, the driver may or may not be hauling his wife’s body along with a load of athletic shoes. That’s for him to know and his passenger to  obsess about. I can imagine this as a one-act play, something on the order of Albee’s The Zoo Story. Or, of course, it could be the genesis of a very cool and creepy movie.

I’ve never met John Manderino in person, and that’s probably a good thing. I think he’d scare me the most.


  1. We saw Lars and the Real Girl. It was indeed weird.

  2. Yes, but also (in my humble opinion) quite lovable.