By Dr. Abner Mality

The world was a very different place 20 years ago when the very first issue of Wormwood Chronicles came out.  The Internet was just starting to make itself known. Cellphones were still something for yuppies. And the people in charge of the US seemed relatively competent and in control of their faculties.

Your old pal Dr. Mality was a different person, too. I could make a joke about just being an intern Mad Scientist instead of the real deal and run with that image for a good long way. The real truth was, I was working at a great job surrounded by clever and creative people and I had plenty of time to work on any idea that came into my head. The situation in 2018 is completely different , but that’s not something I will dwell on. Instead, I think it might be a good time to look back at the strange history of this odd publication called Wormwood Chronicles that took on a life of its own and became a force in the underground music scene.

Wormwood was not the first writing gig for Dr. Abner Mality. Encouraged by my good friend Denyse to write for the local Rockford, Illinois entertainment magazine known as RAM, I created the character of Dr. Mality to write a column about psychotronic movies and TV. Known as Doc’s Dungeon, that column wound up as surprisingly popular. I did columns about the old Night Stalker TV show and the films of schlock director, Al Adamson that got a lot of good feedback. It seems there was a market for what I was doing.

I also dipped into the world of the local heavy metal and rock scene. This was in the mid 90’s. It seems hard to believe, but there was a thriving metal/punk scene in Rockford, IL then. After spending most of my life as a wallflower who rarely ventured outside of my house, I made the rounds of clubs like Hard Times Bar, the Elixur Club, Billy and Earl’s, Corey’s Bluff and more. Every one of which is now gone, by the way. Some of the local bands I chewed the fat with were the Six Million Dollar Band (later to be known as the Goodyear Pimps and simply the Pimps), Throne, Dextorous, 11th Hour Reprieve and Bill.

It was a lot of fun making the rounds locally and also covering “big” shows that played at the Metro Centre. It got the name of Dr. Abner Mality out there. But the truth was, RAM magazine was starting to decline almost as soon as I joined the ranks. A free magazine supported by local advertising, it was starting to find that advertising drying up. The page count of RAM started to slide steadily. It was a big thick publication almost like the more famous Chicago Reader to start with, but by 1997 it had shrunk considerably in size. The handwriting was on the wall as far as RAM went.

There was also a sometimes heavy editorial hand that cleaned up a lot of what I wrote or sometimes cut it out entirely. That goes with being part of a community publication, but my devious mind was starting to rebel against that editorial control. I was better suited for something more underground, along the lines of the heavy metal and punk “fanzines” of the 80’s. The seeds of Wormwood were beginning to sprout…

I was working at that time at a very unique place called R.H Bacon’s Clipping Bureau in downtown Rockford. A job almost impossible to describe. I worked there for 11 years. It drew the biggest collection of creative people and misfits I ever saw. That’s why I worked there. The employees there would be a big help in getting the first paper editions of Wormwood Chronicles off the ground.

Where did the name “Wormwood Chronicles” come from? I have no idea. They say divine inspiration is a cliché, but I can’t think of any other way to describe it. The two words hit my brain like a thunderbolt from the blue and there was never the slightest doubt that that would be the name of the project.

I wanted to come up with something that reflected all my eccentric hobbies..a love of heavy metal music, cult films, pro wrestling and general craziness. Those early print editions of the mag were much more of a hodge podge of strangeness that what the online version is now. I know that’s hard to believe, but the first issue of Wormwood had a puzzle page, a column about serial killers, a page for pin-up photography of Goth girls and an article on comic books. As time went on,  a lot of these things would be pared away and the focus would turn pretty much to music and movies.

In the age when the Internet was just starting to dawn, I never considered it as an outlet for the mag. I knew I had to do a paper zine. I also knew that it would have to be free. I knew the local Rockford market well. It was gonna be tough if not impossible to get people to pay for Wormwood. So that meant that it would have to be supported by advertiser revenue alone. The first 5 years of Wormwood, I wore my shoes down to nothing pounding the pavement in search  of advertisers. Many visits never bore any fruit. Sometimes I had to make my pitch several times to get somebody onboard. I was doing it all from scratch, using my own powers of persuasion. Yeah, it was that bad.
Meanwhile, I was trying to put together a local team to help me assemble the mag. Key to my efforts was one Mr. Scary Dan Gildea, owner of Scaryhouse Studios and former member of legendary local band Pinewood Box. Scary tried to interest me in running an internet version that would be hosted on his Scaryhouse website. It wound up being posted there for a while , but I was much more interested in his graphics abilities. I didn’t know how to put squat together as far as magazine layout goes….and I still don’t know much.

Wormwood owes a tremendous debt to Scary and his friends Sam Cornn and John “Joe Mocha” Hardt for working on the early print issues. Scary has helped me every step of the way and is also responsible for designing much of the website as it exists now. He is really one of the master planners of the “nuts and bolts” aspects of Wormwood…I even interviewed him for the very first issue!

Wormwood was all local in those days and almost everybody involved with it was a Bacon’s employee or used to be. The amazing cover art of the first few issues was the creation of a remarkable guy named Tom Nali, or Major Tom, as we called him. Tom was the most talented musician I ever knew….he could play guitar like a mother, sing lead, play keyboards, drum, blow a flute, you name it, he did it. Plus he was a tremendous artist. I knew I wanted the cover art of he paper issues of Wormwood to be based on old EC comic books like “Tales From The Crypt”. Tom delivered just what I was looking for to a T. As time went on, the artistic part of the mag would be taken up by Greg “GerGor” Whitmer and others. And then eventually WC would be a completely online-based publication.

I think about my friend Major Tom often. In 2010, he tragically took his own life, depriving the world of a great artist and musician and me of a friend, which you can never have enough of. I have his life sized portrait of the Grim Reaper hanging at the foot of my bed even today. I sure miss him.

There was a whole cast of characters surrounding those early issues. My friend “Hollywood” Todd Ruiz became infamous for choosing and photographing our “Necro Girls” who appeared on Page 2 of the magazine. For some reason this guy is always crawling with leggy Goth chicks. The first actual Necro Girl was my bagpipe playing hairdresser Spiderella and I took the photos of her. Hollywood handled the rest of the Necro Girls, who almost exclusively were waitresses at the trendy Irish Rose pub and restaurant. When the print version of Wormwood went, so did the Necro Girls, but I still get an amazing amount of comment on them to this day.

Hollywood also came up with the Wormwood Puzzle Page, which was ridiculous as only he could be. Another character strongly involved with the early days of Wormwood was Johnny Gremlin, aka Jeff Gamlin, the eccentric owner of the old 15 Minutes Record Store and one time member of horror punk band The Gone. What a character he was…remember him coming to a party with blue hair, green lipstick and a furry coat. He was a huge authority on the Rocky Horror Picture Show and did early interviews with Mortiis and Man or Astro-Man?.

One guy I definitely can’t forget is the acerbic Mort Poisson (French for “dead fish”). This was a supposed curmudgeonly ex-journalist from Montreal who got bombed on vino and wrote vitriolic columns for our old “Spouting Off” section.  The column has been inactive for a long time, but I sure miss some of Mort’s articles like “In Mexico There Is No Cheeze Whiz” and “Kris Cohn’s Death Mask”.

Researching this article brought up a lot of names I had forgotten about.  John Heisel was a guy who did an indy rock mag in Rockford that I contributed to and who wrote some reviews for WC. Matt Overkill was the drummer for local metalheads Vigilance who also did reviews for me. It was a real crazy crew for sure that worked on those early mags.

After some grueling nights putting things together with Scary Dan, Sam Cornn and Colossal Dave, we finally debuted with a run of 200 copies put together at Office Depot and looking pretty primitive. I never thought we would do it. I can remember now the thrill of getting the first copies and taking them all over town to places like the old Media Play, the Tomorrow Is Yesterday comic shop, CDSource and more. The place I enjoyed dropping copies off the most was the Irish Rose. I would leave a stack on top of the radiator by the entrance on a Friday night. By the next night, they were were all gone. That was a thrill that doing the online version could never duplicate.
We switched printers quite a bit on those early issues and each issue would look better than the one before. The feedback I got on them was amazing. I even dropped copies off in Madison and Chicago. I blew a lot of gas money on those trips, but it was worth it. It seemed like some people actually LIKED what I was doing. Granted, most of those people were mentally ill, but….

I had to take a brief hiatus in 1999. My Dad’s health, which had been deteriorating for years, was reaching rock bottom. He was unable to walk and was recovering from a colon cancer operation. My Mom was stretched to the limit taking care of him. That was something that was always on mind. Plus I had lost my job at Bacon’s where I was comfortable and where I had worked for 11 years. In all the years since then, I have never found anything to really replace it. I could have given up on Wormwood then, but something told me to keep with it. When I decided to kick it back into gear in late 1999, there were a number of important new additions to the crew.

At the same time I started Wormwood, a guy named Gary Hill had begun an online publication called Music Street Journal. MSJ was a lot broader in scope and a lot more refined than Wormwood. I actually met Gary when I interviewed Blue Oyster Cult at one of the old “On the Waterfront” festivals Rockford used to have when things were better. We hit it off right away and a crossover collaboration began. I wrote for MSJ using my “real” name and Gary contributed to Wormwood using the name Dark Starr. Almost 20 years later, we are still working together. After my own contributions, Dark Starr probably has submitted the most material to Wormwood. He is one of the world’s greatest authorities on prog rock and he brought a real sophistication to Wormwood…something it sure didn’t have with my contributions. This zine would be a LOT less than it is without his work on it.

Another guy who was to play a large part in Wormwood was a teenage prodigy who played in a death metal band called Mausoleum and who booked a “hole in the wall” venue called “That One Place”. He had the unlikely name of Arnold Hablewitz but Wormwood fans knew him better as Thrash-head. He had tried his own fanzine earlier, but his writing really took off with Wormwood. He put so much enthusiasm in everything he did that he energized us all. His contributions lessened once he moved to California but he still wrote for us now and then.

We also acquired a new graphic artist by the name of GerGor (Greg Whitmer). This guy radically changed the look of the physical mag, moving to a more photo-based style and playing a lot of crazy tricks with typography and layout. A lot of times it wound up being too crazy, but it wasn’t easy reining this guy in. He came up with some super innovative covers for us, particularly the last paper issue #11.

Also joining us in those years was Pete 3:16, who wrote about wrestling and comic books and Eli The Atomizer Kolb, who did a column dedicated to the local music scene. Back then you could do such a thing. The way things are now in Rockford, that column would run about two paragraphs.

During the crucial period around the turn of the 21st century, we were also making great strides in terms of interviews. We went from local bands to bona fide superstars and underground sensations. One extremely pivotal interview for me was my talk with the late Ronnie James Dio, one of the greatest metal singers of all time. I was nervous as hell when doing my phone interview with him, but I got through it and enjoyed talking to the very polite and thoughtful Dio. That was a breakthrough. From that point on, I would be more confident about getting interviews with even the biggest stars.

After 11 paper issues of Wormwood Chronicles, it was becoming evident that advertising was harder and harder to get. I was getting super busy with a full time schedule at Rockford Business College, a part time job and a father who was dreadfully sick. The decision was made to terminate the physical issues of Wormwood. It’s a measure of their success that even 20 years later, people still tell me they saved their copies. We went from a super primitive first issue with a run of 200 copies to a professional, 50 page mag that interviewed the likes of Morbid Angel and Motorhead that had 1000 issues out.

I was at a crossroads once more with the project. Scary Dan was urging me to keep Wormwood going as an online publication since that seemed to be the way things were going. I was becoming more computer oriented and net savvy myself so I agreed to do it. I still miss putting together the paper issues and distributing them. In my view, online publications are not a true substitute for physical media, but I took the plunge.

I made a new acquaintance at Rockford Business College who was instrumental in getting Wormwood online regularly. This was Sgt Deth aka Mike Heitzman, a computer whiz and metal fan who came along at just the right time to help me. In the early 2000’s, I would send Sarge material over email and he would update the site. He also was enough of a metal fan to write reviews and do interviews of his own.Sarge had an off and on relationship with Wormwood that lasted over 10 years, aided by his lovely wife Kat.

The new online WC trimmed away some of the material that was in the paper version. The local music column and comic book columns got cut and the Spouting Off section started to taper away. The focus was on underground metal with occasional forays into punk and prog rock, along with cult film and my Wormwood Files column which investigated the paranormal. We started hooking up with more and more reputable PR companies….the promos started to flood my inbox and we got opportunities to do more and more interviews. Voi Vod, Opeth, Kittie, Anthrax and more were grilled by Wormwood My skill as an interviewer was growing all the time and we were starting to get known throughout the underground!

The Worm Crew was an ever shifting kaleidoscope of oddball talents who came and went. I always say that I am the least talented person involved with Wormwood Chronicles. Authors, musicians and graphic designers attached themselves to the Wormwood star.

One of the nuttiest and most farflung writers was a Wildman from Denmark by the name of Jens Kofoed-Pihl, whom I had met on the IMDB film boards. Hard to put into words what this lover of sleazy movies and music brought to the mag. Under the name of Jens Hellroute, he got us interviews with grindhouse film-makers like Jack Hill and Don Edmonds. He also brought a punk feel to the mag by talking to Supersuckers, Poison Idea and D.O.A. Jens has not contributed to WC in many years, yet his stamp is all over the mag.

One of the more tragic additions to the crew was Ed Barnard, who went by the name of Earthdog. He had actually helmed his own very successful website, which focused on doom metal and stoner rock. He was one of the most generous contributors we ever had who supplied us with major reviews and interviews that he easily could have reserved for Doommentia alone. Unfortunately Earthdog suffered from a devastating progressive disease that not only made it impossible for him to continue writing but also resulted in him being homeless.  After being forced to shut Doommentia down, he disappeared from the scene and I have had no news of him in years. It is more than likely that he has passed on but I don’t know that for a fact.

There were a plethora of ups and downs over the next few years. Once in a while, the site would suddenly disappear and I would frantically hit the panic button, getting in touch with Scary and Sarge about the technical aspects I knew nothing about. Always we found a way to restore the website. During one particular power outage, we were forced to abandon the URL and start using the address instead. That probably cost us some followers and I still regret it to this day.

One really major change came in 2010, the 11th anniversary of my starting Wormwood. Scary and I had found a method where I could finally do all the updates to the website myself instead of relying on others to do it for me. This is the system I still use today. It has made a HUGE difference to Wormwood, as I now could easily do weekly updates. Now the floodgates of creativity really opened. I take a lot of pride in putting up new material every single week. Since that date in 2010, we have added immeasurably to Wormwood  to the point where we now have over 4500 music reviews and 500 band interviews!

It is really staggering the amount of material that has been assembled under the Wormwood name. I’ve been looking it over while researching this article and see tons of things that I’ve forgotten we even have! At some point I want to permanently archive this material to preserve it after I pass into oblivion.

The world was becoming progressively more digital and that made it easier to connect with both new contributors and readers. We now had made connections with plenty of new PR companies and digital promos flooded the WC inbox. I long ago gave up the possibility of reviewing everything we were sent.

There were a lot of fly by night contributors who only did a couple of reviews before vanishing into the ozone. Names like Iron Buffalo, Selennos Lunos and Annabelle Lee popped up and disappeared like the moles in a Whack-A-Mole game. But we also added new contributors who produced in a longer lasting way. Hearse-driving Rusty Coffinnails did some writing for us. The Great Sun Jester contributed some valuable interviews and reviews connected with doom metal and retro rock. Demented artist Derelikt Waugh dug up some filthy death metal related material and did a great interview with three masters of underground metal art.

Two writers that have been with me for more than ten years are Colonel Angus Greg Olma and Professor Jocko Travis Jensen. These two alumni from Music Street Journal have produced a lot of fine material for the mag.

We also had the Thunder God Mighty Thor join us from Asgard…or at least, Beloit, Wisconsin. Jason Thorson was a one time member of a band we covered in the very early days of Wormwood, Stone Misery. Somehow I maintained contact with him over the years and he wound up being a prime contributor, concentrating on the most brutal metal on the planet. He’s a talented drummer and is also the brains behind the Ravenous Monster horror website, which the Good Doctor is also known to contribute to.

Facebook often comes across as the biggest time leech on the planet, but it was instrumental in spreading the word on Wormwood. Around the same time I gained control of updating the website, I made the acquaintance of an actual professional metal journalist known by the lofty name of Lord Randall. This scribe contributed to the sorely missed Metal Maniacs magazine as well as Zero Tolerance and likely several other underground publications. Almost on a whim, he became a member of the Wormcrew and one of our most important contributors ever. Not only has he provided a ton of interesting interviews I would have otherwise never thought to do but he’s helped behind the scenes and saved me some headaches. It is a great honor to have such an important member of the metal community lend his time to our little mag.

Without a doubt, the oddest of our collection of oddballs is a recluse from the hills of Arkansas known as Octopi Mills, amongst several other arcane names. I still have no idea who he really is after almost ten years. A man of mercurial tastes, withering scorn and unique verbiage, he writes in a style I have never seen from anyone else. Although I often scratch my head upon reading an Octopi missive, there’s no doubt he’s written some of the most entertaining material ever to appear at Wormwood.

At this point (around 2014-2015), the production at the zine was locked into a fairly comfortable groove. Our reviews and interviews were getting quoted and posted by major PR companies, resulting not only in more exposure, but we were now getting so many music promos sent to us that an army couldn’t have reviewed them all. This situation always made me uncomfortable but what can you do? Attempts to add new writers usually drew people that would do a review or two and then vanish into smoke.
In 2017, a major career change threw me into chaos with strange hours. Yes, even stranger than when I was stitching together corpses in the lab! This, combined with losing a couple of key contributors, made me  first contemplate scuttling Wormwood for good.

Fortunately, two new contributors arrived in the nick of time to forestall this dire development. On the recommendation of a Wormwood fan, El Chief joined the crew. This guy is a legit journalist from California who knew all about deadline pressure and producing material. In the first two weeks, he knocked out three reviews and an interview with Blothar from GWAR. I breathed a sigh of relief upon getting a guy who knew how to get things done. The other newcomer was The Gil-Man, a guy I had actually known for years on the webs. We shared a mutual love of classic AWA wrestling, but I gradually came to see he was a serious heavy metal  fan as well. He knocked out some interesting material for us.

That brings us to 2018. 20 years have passed since I first got the Wormwood Chronicles concept flashed into my brain as if by lightning. It has often been suggested to me that that site should get a big overhaul to have a lot more bells and whistles and a slicker visual approach. Well, life, as it always does, has changed. Keeping a reliable staff together is harder and harder. My “real life” work continues to provide long and inconvenient hours that usually keep me far away from the events I’d love to cover. And I guess the real kicker is that the music scene itself really just seems like a pale shadow of what it was when Wormwood started.  Getting interviews with “known” bands is harder and harder and the unending flood of digital warriors who don’t have to do anything but record a few tunes to get a recording contract has really kind of cheapened the music  scene. And who could have predicted that the next generation would so overwhelmingly prefer crap like mumble rap and diva pop to actual cutting edge music performed with real instruments? Then again, there’s a lot of things about the world today that even the most imaginative SF writer couldn’t have foretold.

It is not quite as much fun doing the project. To all things comes an ending. I certainly don’t want Wormwood to backslide in quality. And it may be that that is where it is headed now. So better for a dignified departure. How I will replace it is a mystery. It’s hard to imagine a life where a lot of my work doesn’t revolve around Wormwood. But this is what lies before the Good Doctor right now.

Wormwood started as a “real” fanzine in the spirit of those home-made paper zines of the 80’s and at its heart, that is what it remains. If circumstances change, it is not impossible that it may return. Or not. I still haven’t figured out a way to see the future, no matter how much I work on it in the lab.

This is the epitaph for Wormwood Chronicles and I thank all you worm-fiends who have contributed to it, enjoyed it or even hated it all these years. Thanks to you all!