Saturday, June 21, 2008

Crypt Sleeper

From the vault:

One Last Death Ride: Bellamy's Latest Horror Show Makes It Five Of A Kind
by Mark Satola

TO LOOK AT John Stark Bellamy, you wouldn't think that this friendly-faced guy in a sportcoat and tie was the Keeper of the Cleveland Crypt, as author of five volumes of what he likes to call “Cleveland dismalia.” But then, many a dark, roiling inner life is concealed behind a mild façade.

“I had the good fortune to grow up two blocks from Lake View Cemetery,” Bellamy says, as if about to tell you he liked to build model airplanes as a kid. “I learned quickly how you could sneak in there at night. On the lower part of the Mayfield wall, someone had actually put up a kind of metal handhold that you could reach up and grab and pull yourself up by.

“I spent a great deal of time at night in Lakeview, in the most perfervid years of my adolescence,” he says. “I'd just walk around, look at tombstones -- no flashlight, of course. A couple of times I slept inside mausoleums.”

Come again?

“They were open,” he says with a smile. “Of course now you couldn't do that, what with crime and security concerns.”

While you may not be able to experience a night bedding down on cold marble at Motel 666 anymore, it's still possible to peer inside the vault of Cleveland's dark past with the help of Bellamy's latest volume of mayhem and disaster, Death Ride at Euclid Beach (Gray and Company, $13.95). Like its predecessors (They Died Crawling, The Maniac in the Bushes, The Corpse in the Cellar and The Killer in the Attic), Death Ride chronicles a wide variety of heinous crimes, heart-rending accidents and manmade disasters, culled from over a century of old Cleveland newspaper records and related documents.

It very well may also be the last of its species. As Death Ride hits the stores, Bellamy is packing it in and packing it up, leaving the grim streets of Cleveland for a retirement of sorts in the green hills of Vermont. Death Ride at Euclid Beach marks the crestline of the tide of blood and tears he has lovingly chronicled for over a decade.

His five books, however, will not be his only legacy. “I now have a calendar of Cleveland dismalia from 1800 to about 1984, about 1,200 pages in electronic almanac form,” he says. “So if you wanted to know the 20 worst things that happened in Cleveland on, say, your birthday, it could be accessed with a keystroke.

“When I leave town, I'm going to bequeath it to the citizens of Cleveland as my final gesture, probably on the Internet, the way I did my electronic book on hangings.”

Bellamy's teenage angst (“I was a fairly morbid, introverted adolescent, no doubt about that”) might have led, as it does in so many cases, to the dead end of attenuated, pot-bellied Goth bachelorhood, but he was fortunate to be infused with literary DNA from both sides of his family tree: his mother was a reporter for Hearst's Wisconsin News; while on his father's side, he was preceded by three generations of print men -- his father, Peter, was longtime drama critic for the Plain Dealer, his grandfather was an editor-in-chief of the PD, and his great-grandfather had penned the fin-de-siècle dystopian satire Looking Backward.

“My grandfather came out here in 1907 to work on the Plain Dealer,” Bellamy says. “I just discovered his first bylined story the other day -- a story in the Cleveland Sunday Magazine from August 1907, about what was then a famous Ohio murder. It made me feel as though I were part of an apostolic succession.”

While Bellamy has written about horrors of every stripe, he remains fondest of those involving the gentle art of murder. “In most murders, there are very strong, very unusual personalities involved,” he says. “One of the reasons I've disliked the whole Torso Murder saga in Cleveland is because it lacks that personality quotient. Most of the victims were nonentities -- prostitutes, low-level criminals, vagrants -- whose disappearance we would not have noticed if someone hadn't stumbled over the body parts.

“I'm interested in quirky people with quirky motivations, the kind of woman who kills her husband because she's embarrassed by the slurping noise he makes when he eats soup at dinner parties. To me that's a motivation found in a person who's not run-of-the-mill, who's not operating by the same impulses and restraints that the rest of us are."

Photo by Mark Satola
Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times, April 7, 2004.

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