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Chas. Balun and “Piece O’ Mind”

You most likely knew the late Chas. Balun as the irrepressible voice of Deep Red magazine and the creator of the Gore Score, but his freelance work was equally noteworthy. I’m referring here to Balun’s “Piece O’ Mind” column that ran in GoreZone magazine, which I feel was (and remains) the highlight of that publication.

     GoreZone was a Fangoria offshoot that lasted from 1988 to ‘94, putting out just 27 issues (the last of which, tragically, was a “special” issue devoted to MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN) before being revived in 2013. Dedicated to the funkier, splatter-centric side of the horror-verse not covered in the more middle-of-the-road oriented Fangoria, GoreZone seemed a perfect fit for Balun, whose specialty was gore movies. The relationship, however, was apparently a rocky one, based on the fact that “Piece O’ Mind” was cut short long before GoreZone’s initial run ended, and also Balun’s retrospective complaint about how GoreZone’s editors “censored every single piece I ever wrote for them.”

     Given that the majority of Balun’s writing was either self-published or put out by fringe outfits like FataCo and Blackest Heart Media, it’s hardly a surprise that the Balun-GoreZone relationship wasn’t entirely harmonious. Balun, after all, once bragged to an interviewer that (regarding a home visit by THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE’S Gunnar Hansen) “I got Leatherface stoned!” Corporate-friendly he wasn’t.

     Note the jarring lack of profanity in the “Piece O’ Mind” columns. Creative profanity was integral to Balun’s prose, providing legendary tidbits like “that movie sucks the farts out of a dead cat’s ass” and “it blew homeless goats--and swallowed.” Of course, Chas. Balun’s brilliance was in the way he balanced such verbiage with a thoughtful and mature critical eye. It’s that last point which naturally registers most strongly in “Piece O’ Mind,” but not to worry, as there are many quintessential Balun-isms to be found, such as “This current trend of knee-jerk, anal-retentive, gutless conservatism threatens our basic inalienable right to enjoy glass shards bisecting faces, hypodermics piercing eyeballs or buzz saws performing instant amputations.” Toned down these columns may be, but Balun’s wholly distinct voice and worldview come through fully intact.

     The premiere installment, “Cannibal Chunk Blowers,” was a spirited celebration of Italian cannibal flicks like Umberto Lenzi’s EATEN ALIVE BY THE CANNIBALS and Joe D’Amato’s BURIED ALIVE/BEYOND THE DARKNESS. Subsequent columns were far more caustic, as evinced by the opening lines of the second one, “Beatin’ the Splatter Blues,” in which Balun admits to a “lack of enthusiasm and motivation, general listlessness, malaise, a certain you’ve-seen-‘em-all-and-so-what cynicism creeping into (my) rapidly eroding attitude.”

     Those who recall the horror movie scene of the late 1980s and early 90s will understand Balun’s cynicism. Derivative slasher pics and cookie-cutter sequels were the norm back then, which Balun made sure to note, and lament, in “Piece O’ Mind.” Yet he also made a point of steering his readers toward older, better horror fare like the 1960s-era films of Mario Bava, SHOGUN ASSASSIN and PEEPING TOM (as well as the so-so Italian cannibal fest DR. BUTCHER, M.D., curiously enough one of his favorite movies).

     Anti-censorship is a frequent topic in these columns, as is the oeuvre of Lucio Fulci, whose immortal “Splinter that launched 1,000 sighs” in ZOMBIE (1979) is singled out as the most iconic image in splatter cinema. Then there’s “The Beast and the Least of the 1980s,” in which Chas. correctly opines that “The 80s have ended with a whimper (emphasis on the first syllable), and the genre is in retreat,” and also “Unsung Splatter: (Not So) Guilty Pleasures,” in which he adroitly smacks down over-analytical reviewers with the proviso that “All too often, critics simply want and demand too much from a genre whose sworn purpose seems to rest with titillation, exploitation and cheap thrills.”

     The final installment, “Fear, Faith and Fanaticism,” which appeared in GoreZone #17, sounds a note of cautious optimism in the admission that “Maybe I’m tired of the old gloom ‘n’ doom approach to a genre I love,” and offers a 10-point advisory on how to beat the nineties horror movie malaise that can be summed up with two words: be adventurous.

     As to why Chas. Balun stopped writing “Piece O’ Mind,” it apparently had to do with a brief hiatus that turned into a permanent vacation, the particulars of which I’ll let Chas. explain himself: “I thought I only needed a couple months break from (the column) and when I mentioned that I was ready to go back, Tony (Timpone, GoreZone’s editor) said there wasn’t any more room.”

     “Piece O’ Mind” was briefly replaced with a column by fellow Deep Red alumni Stephen R. Bissette called “With My Eyes Peeled” (which for the record provided two must-read pieces: “Surreal Thing,” about American underground cinema, and “TV Terror: An Introduction,” about made-for-TV horror movies). That in turn was replaced with another column, this one written by the more establishment-friendly Phantom of the Movies. For those of you wondering why GoreZone’s initial run only lasted 27 issues, consider that your answer!

     Chas. Balun didn’t entirely stray from the GoreZone/Fangoria sphere in his later years, although his contributions were pretty scant. They include a surprisingly positive article on HELLRAISER III (apparently an “unqualified triumph”) in GoreZone #23 and a short review of Jack Ketchum’s novel STRANGLEHOLD in Fangoria #149.

     Further 90s-era Balun contributions include an essay called “Welcome Home Big Brother” that appeared in FantaCo’s 1991 Horror Yearbook, in which he bemoaned the rise of the moral majority and their censorious attitudes (a piece that remains prescient today), and some articles in the death metal ‘zine Sounds of Death, but Balun’s freelancing, like his publishing output overall, steadily declined. The reason, as bluntly stated by Blackest Heart Media’s Shawn Lewis (who published the final issues of Deep Red), was apparently quite simple: “The older Chas. got the lazier he got.”

     Chas. Balun, in any event, is gone now. His voice, however, is still with us in these 20-plus year old columns. Dated though Balun’s “Piece O’ Mind” installments are (with their references to mail order, VHS tapes and NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET sequels), they fully retain the infectious enthusiasm that accompanied their original appearances, as well as the oft-uncomfortable truths of their author’s admonitions, which those of us who care about horror cinema would do well to heed!