Books / Camp

Yesterday’s Schlock Is Today’s Treasure in “The Camp Followers’ Guide!”

Our new Bible (all photos by moi)

Susan Sontag may have written the most renowned and widely considered definitive consideration of camp, but let’s be honest, Susie could not be camp if her public intellectual life depended on it. Regarding the Pain of Others, Illness as Metaphor, or even, On Photography aren’t exactly laugh riots! I’m not speaking out of turn here. Sontag herself was aware of her camp failings, admitting in Notes on “Camp”: “It’s embarrassing to be solemn and treatise-like about Camp. One runs the risk of having, oneself, produced a very inferior piece of Camp.” Oh, honey, I hate to be the one to tell you!

A year after the publication of 1964’s Notes on “Camp,” a small berserk book entitled The Camp Followers’ Guide! was released to fill in this glaring gap for overexaggerated theatrical artifice lovers everywhere. Including me. Even decades later, after being gifted this tacky tome by Filthy Dreams contributor Andy Anderson, I feel compelled to share this tasteless treasure with you, dearest camp denizens! With a delightfully psychedelic cover by iconic illustrator Milton Glaser (yes, of “I ❤️ NY” fame), featuring a showgirl revealing a bikini under an American flag wrap, The Camp Followers’ Guide! not only details our favorite aesthetic in a crazed classification frenzy but does so in such a maniacally zany manner that it can only be understood as camp itself. Just turn to the dedication page, which declares in a looping and elegant font: “To Mother.” Everyone knows Motherboys are the height of camp!

If this extravagant cursive isn’t enough to convince you, have you ever wished you had a handy quiz to help discern your Camp I.Q. (Inness Quotient)? The Camp Followers’ Guide! assists with their series of fifty questions, such as: “Are you fanatical about egg creams?” (which the previous owner of my copy wrote in pencil, “No. What’s that?” Clearly, un-Camp!); “Do you have toys in your bathtub?”; “Do you sleep under a fur bedspread and have American flag pillow cases?”; and “Were you an extra in the crowd scene in Flaming Creatures?” Sadly, for those of us who are not mid-20th century queens, it’s a quiz we are destined to fail. However, the book also contains enough entertainment for those of us born in the latter half of the 20th century and after. This includes D-I-Y art projects like an Art Nouveau paint-by-numbers that only suggests colors such as periwinkle, chartreuse, and ochre, poems made up of a list of Campbell’s Soup flavors from the summer of 1939, classified ads offering old tin cans of all descriptions and assorted Popsicle sticks from The Schlock Shoppe (“Whatever it is you’re looking for in the way of old trash, we probably have it”), and a collection of jingle lyrics for emergency sing-alongs. Just picture settling around the crackling warmth of a campfire and belting out: “Super Suds, Super Suds! Lots more suds with Super Suds! Richer, longer lasting, too, they’re the suds with Super Do!” A joy for everyone, I’d imagine.

And don’t worry, The Camp Followers’ Guide! isn’t merely all fun and games for us unserious types. There’s enough camp theorizing to satisfy the more academically inclined. The book delves into a variety of camp categories from the more well-known like High, Middle, and Low Camp to lesser appreciated differences between Active and Passive Camp (“Sex, naturally, is not Active Camp per se, but sex on a fur rug is Active Camp”). There are even some forms of camp I’ve never heard of. My lugubrious sense of humor is particularly tickled by Accidental Camp, the description of which begs to be quoted at length:

“Naturally a disaster is full of ‘content’ (i.e., deaths, injuries, social upheaval, etc.). In that sense, disasters are not Camp. But there is in every disaster pure form and style—something which suggests a disengaged, purely aesthetic and unserious vision—in other words, The Camp of it that blocks out the content and visualizes the disaster purely as gesture. The passage of time can also make a disaster Camp. Time liberates the disaster from moral relevance and contracts the sphere of banality of abstract death, replacing it with a pleasing nostalgia and fondness. However, there should be a weirdness, an “off” quality to the disaster before it can become Camp. Some very random examples: High Camp disasters—the War of Jenkins’ Ear; the burning of Rome by Nero; Middle Camp disasters—the panic caused by Orson Welles’ broadcast of “The War of the Worlds”; the death of Isadora Duncan; Low Camp disasters—the demolition of the Roxy, the Hall-Mills murders; the burning of the Hindenburg; the Coconut Grove fire; the sinking of the Titanic and the Stock Market Crash of 1929.”

I like that the Titanic is Low Accidental Camp. Take that, you upper-class snoots!

In addition to making fanatical distinctions between the various camp categories, the so-called “Camp Conservation Corps” (CCC) also goes on a list-writing delirium within the book, beginning with the Official Camp List “gleaned from the writings of the Camp authorities.” The Official Camp List ranges from the expected such as Tiffany lamps, the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, Bette Davis, and Aubrey Beardsley drawings to the downright bizarre. I mean, Winnie-The-Pooh as Camp? I don’t know…Quite notably (and hilariously), not every detail in the Official Camp List, despite being bestowed the seal of approval by the CCC, is correct. For example, they list “Des Esseintes in Huysmans’s Bas,” who every self-respecting decadent should know is from Huysmans’s À rebours! Shame, shame, shame!! Rather than enraging distractions, these errors just give the sense that The Camp Followers’ Guide! was penned in a panicked aesthetic-induced psychosis. Who has time to fact-check?! And if one mega-list doesn’t suffice, the book is stuffed with many other smaller lists, including “The Seven Camp Wonders of the World” (Niagara Falls, Steeplechase Park, Red Square, to name a few), some of Camp’s favorite advertisement quotations (“Let’s talk frankly about internal cleanliness”), and items to stockpile while the getting is good like TV-dinner trays and JFK Eternal Flame cigar lighters. As the guide reminds us, “Today’s schlock is tomorrow’s treasure!”

These copious lists are joined by a series of short stories and essays on essential subjects like Camp on TV (“…you’d think that TV, which gets worse and worse, by non-Camp standards, year after year, would become more and more Camp, as the seasons pass. Surprisingly, it’s not true”), whether the American flag is Pop or Camp (“It is Camp when worn as a garment or used as a towel or a bedspread or other forms of drapery”), and my personal favorite, an invitation to the Janus Meek Home Movie Festival, held in the author Meek’s mother’s living room in the Bronx. This Home Movie Festival makes the argument that shoddy home movies, shakily recorded by technically inept family members, should be the new underground. Move over, Jack Smith! Step aside, Warhol! Here comes cinematic delights such as “Trip of the Klutz family to Yellowstone National Park” by Hyman and Rose Klutz. I’ll let Meek explain:

“At times somberly shadowy; at times achingly over-exposed. We see a juxtaposition of a series of park images: The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone with the camera dipping and sweeping dizzyingly, like a roller coaster; a young Klutz feeding coffee grounds and bologna rind to a droll, if menacing bear; Old Faithful shot through what seems to be a white mist (Mr. Klutz used sun lotion on the lens for this shot), and a jerky pan of what seems to be a mountain, or perhaps a valley.”

How moving! Count me in! And because this particular section of The Camp Followers’ Guide! amused me to no end, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another film in the lineup: “Deedie’s Birthday” by Mrs. Ronald Fenst:

“A Cake. Chocolate ice cream. Six little girls. A spoon seems about to enter a mouth. But no! The ice cream has fallen, and little hands are seen smearing a dress. Blonde curls and a little girl smiling—then a push and a clown face screws up in ungovernable tears. A little girl falls and skins her knee! A plate is hit on a head! A vase teeters. The camera sweeps up to the ceiling then falls in a crazy spinning montage of room images. Then blackness.”

Sounds better than Skinamarink to me!

Now, I know what you’re wondering as it was the same thing I asked myself when reading: Where the fuck did this book come from?! Good question. The Camp Followers’ Guide! includes the byline of editor Niles Chignon, clearly an appropriately camp moniker. According to the book’s introduction, “By day, Niles Chignon is the proprietor of a 42nd Street medical book and novelty shop, a store so in that it is regularly visited by stalwarts of New York’s vice squad in search of hard-core pornography, unaware that Niles’ wares are merely a ‘front’ for his fantastically too-much collection of Camp treasures, ranging from rare first edition Big Little Books to Mickey Mouse wrist watches. At midnight, however, Niles locks his store and hies himself over to his super-smashing flat on East 4th Street, where he presides over a nightly salon of Camp followers.” Surely, a trashy fantasy! From some curious Googling, I discovered via PRINT Magazine that Niles Chignon was the pseudonym of Richard R. Lingeman, former editor of The Nation and biographer of Sinclair Lewis. Though seemingly uber-serious, Lingeman also was an integral part of the satire magazine, Monocle, whose team worked on The Camp Followers’ Guide!. That this guide derives from a satirical publication is not too much of a stretch given its silly and bonkers humor is reminiscent of Mad Magazine, as well as the mid-20th century delight of the Gay Girls Riding Club films.

Eat your heart out, Roy!

Like the Gay Girls Riding Club, The Camp Followers’ Guide! is undeniably a product of its mid-1960s era with references to Uptown gay hangouts like Serendipity 3 to underground cinema (Even Jonas Mekas gets a shout-out) to many internal arguments about whether something is Camp or Pop. Warhol looms large here with references to Campbell’s Soup cans, his 8-hour film Sleep, and his love of boring things (“Incidentally, boredom is very Camp, or rather highly boring things such as tap dancing, Andy Warhol movies, and triple features are. This list is very Camp”). Aesthetically, though, the book takes more inspiration from the Benday-dotted paintings of Roy Lichtenstein. Even the endpaper design features a pattern of cartoonish cloud-like speech bubbles seemingly straight off of Roy’s canvases. Designed by Glaser’s own Push Pin Studios, the book features a wacky range of fonts, as well as imagery, including two…uh…unfortunate images of Amos n’  Andy in blackface, as well as other less problematic imagery of Carmen Miranda and Jean Harlow.

The era of publication also goes a long way to explain exactly why this book was published. As a way to jump onto the Sontag-fueled Camp bandwagon before the fad ended, of course! Always be branding! However, it’s not as if this Avon paperback, which sold for only 96 cents, was raking in the cash. Like camp, this book was born to be cheap! Enough of a steal that readers could still save up for Total Recall as advertised in the classified section towards the back of the book: “Total Recall for odd and useless nostalgia will enable you to become the dominant bore of the party!” Who doesn’t feel stuck when coming up with a song with which to assault your unwitting audience of fellow party-goers?! Total Recall offers, “Amaze your friends by reeling off perfectly ALL the words to 25 corny old songs like ‘The Good Ship Lollipop’ or ‘The Music Goes Round and Round.'” Sold!

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