Darren Westlund’s 1988 profile of Art Beal can be found on the History in San Luis Obispo County website:

LINK

(Originally published in The Cambria Independent, and later, in Westlund’s 1990 book of interviews and photographs, Cambria Treasures)

Art Beal Portrait by Darren Westlund

Portrait of Art Beal by Darren Westlund

Here’s a look at the real Nitt-Witt Ridge and my old friend, Art Beal:

Nitt Witt Ridge
Cambria, CA

CRASH ON CRASH

“Reality is not only stranger than we suppose, it may be stranger than we can suppose.”  —Terence McKenna, paraphrasing J.B.S. Haldane

It’s weirdly unsettling to see your life spattered in ink across 628 pages in a barely fictionalized narrative. I can’t say I’d recommend the experience.
Crash Gordon coverWhen my brother, Derek, first approached me in the fall of 2001 with the idea of writing a novel about my early life and paranormal encounters in Kingsburg, California, I told him, “Go ahead, bro. Knock yourself out.” I was only trying to foster his budding creativity. I never thought he’d actually spend the next six years on the project and end up with a publishing deal. However, if I’d listened to Derek more carefully back then, I might have recognized the seriousness of his intent. He’d promised me he was going to turn my life story into “Quality Lit” (in Terry Southern’s phrase) and “Quality Lit” is exactly what Crash Gordon and the Mysteries of Kingsburg turned out to be, in a uniquely perverse way.

While I’m very proud of my little brother for writing Crash Gordon, I’ve had some qualms about other people reading it. Right around the time of the book’s publication in mid-August of this year, I suffered through two months of severe insomnia (which now, thankfully, seems to be at an end). During that time, I was almost completely cut off from my dreaming life—a situation more distressing for me than it might be for most people, because I constantly refer to my dreams, via Jungian analysis, for guidance in my waking life. Without that dream guidance—the voice of Psyche—I felt unmoored, disconnected from my deeper intuitions. I started to worry that making Crash available to the reading public might end up doing the world (or Derek and his immediate family and friends) more harm than good.

Derek may not be convinced of this yet, but experience has taught me that the strange and the sinister become more intimately acquainted with us when we make public forays into the realms of high weirdness and deep politics. Nietzsche had it right with his warning about staring into the abyss. I found that out first-hand almost twenty years ago, while I was working as a journalist for an arts and entertainment newsweekly called New Times—sort of the Village Voice for about 80,000 residents of California’s Central Coast.

Around that time I’d developed a casual interest in UFOs and had found, to my astonishment, that approximately one out of every four people I broached the subject with had a UFO story of their own to tell, based on actual experience. I was, admittedly, hanging out with a rather odd crowd of writers, artists, and New Age types at the time, but still… the number of encounters seemed high. I decided to write a feature article on the subject, briefly and humorously summarizing several of the stories I’d been told, using pseudonyms for everyone involved.

Steve Moss, the editor-in-chief at New Times, liked the piece well enough to make it that week’s cover story, which I illustrated with one of my trademark photo-collages, done in the darkroom in those pre-Photoshop days. (I was locally famous as a photosurrealist back then—still am, in a way, but now “local” is New York City.) My cover photo depicted a spherical black UFO spewing a looping contrail in the sky above the marquee of an old art deco movie theater in downtown San Luis Obispo. The banner headline read: “Aliens on the Central Coast: Who Are They? Where Do They Come From? Who Does Their Hair?” (You can read the article HERE….)

My life took a bizarre turn right after the article came out. I was unprepared for the deluge of mail sent my way, some of it weirdly threatening. Someone sent me a tape recording from that year’s MUFON conference with a mean little note rubber-banded around the casssette that read: “You asked for this. Now you’re in for it, fucker”—or words to that effect. It struck me as very grim. A local police officer sent me copies of police reports that he and his fellow officers had filed about seeing burning cigar-shaped objects in the sky and so forth. (I was appalled by the spelling and grammar in those reports, but they also made me realize that police officers are just as human and baffled by strange events as the rest of us.) A hick businessman from Bakersfield, who’d made a fortune inventing air mattresses for long-haul truckers, wanted to make me his chief investigator into paranormal phenomena and pay me an annual salary that was more than twice what I was making at the time, but I chose not to follow up on his offer because something about his long, rambling letter suggested to me that he might be insane. And then I started feeling a little insane myself, after I experienced my first full-fledged waking hypnagogic hallucination (first, that is, if I don’t count my childhood encounters with the Easter Bunny…).

It happened like this: I was living at the time in a three-story redwood house set on a steep forested hillside in Cambria, California. I shared the lease on the house with my then-girlfriend, a gregarious ex-Hollywood socialite known as Justine the Screaming Eel Skin Queen. Justine happened to be one of the very few people on this planet who got along well with the reclusive—and now possibly murderous—Phil Spector (she’d spent a few years working as his studio assistant). Warren Zevon used to call Justine late at night for rides home whenever he’d had too much to drink after a concert (which was often), and she also supposedly inspired at least three songs by The Knack, including the annoying hit, “My Sharona”—although I never really believed that last one… (Justine was slightly prone to exaggeration and manic-depression). We were subletting the spare bedroom down the hall to my recently single friend, James Marrsden, who was working on his first novel, Vampirism Made Easy, while recovering from a bad bout of alcoholism… (a quart of vodka a day, an unfaithful new wife, a chainsaw applied to the conjugal waterbed). Our house had lovely wide redwood decks on the upper two floors that looked out onto the sea, just a few blocks away. The deck off the master bedroom, where Justine and I slept, was covered with thorny wild rose vines and suspended about twenty feet off the ground. It could only be accessed through the bedroom’s sliding glass doors. But one night not long after my UFO article’s publication, I woke up around two in the morning and saw a shadowy man standing on that deck, peering in at me. I sat bolt upright in bed and tried to shout, but I couldn’t find my voice. I was almost paralyzed with terror, because the shadowy man’s face was crawling with what looked like luminous blue fireflies (see illustration—with apologies to Magritte…).

Blue GuyFinally, the repressed shout tore loose from my throat: “Get out of here! Leave us alone!” I roared at him. My ragged shouting woke up Justine and the dark man disappeared as soon as she turned on the lights. Adrenaline was boiling through me like rocket fuel as I tried to explain what I had just seen. Justine couldn’t calm me down. “It must have been a nightmare,” she kept saying, but I was having none of that. The vision had seemed perfectly real. In fact, I was so convinced by its authenticity that I put on all my clothes and went upstairs to get a butcher’s knife from the kitchen.

By the time I got back to the bedroom, James had come out of the hallway bathroom next to our room. He meekly explained that his towel had gotten caught on the edge of the toilet tank lid as he was drying off from the shower, and the lid had fallen onto the floor and broken in two with a loud crack. A few seconds later, he said, he’d heard me shouting. The crack must have woken me up in the middle of REM sleep, he theorized, and I’d continued dreaming with my eyes wide open.

I told him to put on his clothes and help me check around outside the house, anyway. I was starting to come around to the idea that I might have been dreaming (I wasn’t as familiar then with hypnagogic hallucinations as I am now), but I still needed to be sure that shadowy men with blue firefly faces weren’t roaming around outside our house. James reluctantly went out into the cold night to look around with me. There was nothing out there, of course. We went back inside and sat down on the couch in front of the huge stone fireplace upstairs to talk. I was too wired to sleep and James was a night owl, anyway, because he had a radio show two nights a week that ran from 11:00 p.m. to 8:00 in the morning. (His tagline, in his suave DJ’s voice, usually went: “I’m A.C. Nightshade and you’re tuned to KOTR, wet ‘n’ furry radio for the Central Coast”—but once, not long after discovering his wife’s affair, he changed it during the morning rush-hour commute to: “You’re tuned to KOTR, the station that won’t cum in your mouth….”)

We talked about books and our usual pie-in-the-sky bullshit for a few hours and I started to calm down… and then we both saw someone (or something) walk past the windows flanking either side of our front door on the house’s third floor, headed toward the rear deck.

“What the fuck was that?” James asked me. Without saying another word, he picked up a heavy brass statue off the coffee table and I grabbed my butcher’s knife again. He went out the front door as I simultaneously went out the sliding glass door onto the deck. Whatever it was that we’d just seen walking past the windows, it would be trapped between us, on a deck and a narrow walkway three stories above the ground. We found nothing and no one, of course. But the hair was standing up on the back of James’ neck now, too, as well as mine, and my story about the shadowy man with the blue firefly face suddenly didn’t seem so implausible, after all.

We both ended up blaming the event on my recent UFO article. I chose not to write the follow-up article, about my deluge of UFO letters, even though New Times was hot to run it. I backed away from writing about strange and sinister subject matter for a number of years after that, but the strange and sinister didn’t back away from me.

From that point onward I became involved in a series of almost comical disasters. Bad love affairs, hideous financial problems, the unwanted attention of stalkers and sociopaths… I was seemingly swept up in a tidal wave of bad karma. But James experienced the exact opposite: Everything suddenly started going right for him, in an almost spooky, supernatural way. Gorgeous and guileless young women threw themselves at him, he sold his unpublished manuscript to Hollywood for more than half-a-million dollars, and in no time at all he had legions of fans who adored him and gobbled up his novels (a new one published every year) as if they were cheeseburgers. It was almost as if he’d made some sort of a Faustian bargain to become a best-selling author. I jokingly suggested as much to him in an e-mail many years later and that, abruptly, was the end of our friendship.

Apparently, I’d struck a nerve….

And now I can’t help wondering if there was some thing, rather than nothing, outside our house on the Night of the Blue Firefly Man those many years ago. Maybe, when James went out the front door and I went out the back, a slumming Mephistopheles met him on the walkway and they cut a quick deal.

How else should we explain the spectacular successes of our ego-bloated former friends? Talent? Pluck? Plain dumb luck? The Mephistophelean explanation is so much more satisfying for any number of reasons, chief among them being that it really pisses the smug bastards off.