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Alternate Perceptions Magazine, May 2017

An Interview with Doug Skinner: A good friend of the late John A. Keel

by: Brent Raynes

Doug Skinner right and John Keel left

Doug Skinner had the good fortune to call the late John A. Keel a friend. He has contributed to "Fortean Times," "Fate," "Nickelodeon," "Weirdo," "Cabinet," and other fine magazines; Black Scat Books has published books of his cartoons, music, and short stories, as well as several translations of the French photo-Dadaist Alphonse Allais. He has written many scores for the theater, most conspicuously for Bill Irwin's show "The Regard of Flight." You can find his work archived at dougskinner.net; he maintains a site about John Keel, updated weekly (usually) with material from Keel's files, at johnkeel.com.

Brent Raynes: Shortly after John's passing in 2009, in your very nice tribute to him in the Fortean Times, you described how the two of you had met back in 1990 and how soon afterwards you became a regular attendee at his New York Fortean Society gatherings. I enjoyed reading of how you began helping him to set up some fun and entertaining events at such assemblies, like at the FortFest in Virginia where, as an accomplished ventriloquist, you did this act where you had a dummy, a dummy that had psychic powers of course, and somehow it knew, wonder of all wonders, what chair in the audience had a dollar bill taped beneath it. It sounded like the two of you had a good deal of fun.

Doug Skinner: We did have fun! He invited me to some of the FortFests held by the International Fortean Organization down in the D.C. area. I contributed some comedy bits to the program, and then started giving talks as well. John was always a magic buff, and enjoyed working a card trick into one of the skits we came up with. Those old FortFests were a blast. Where else could you party with forteans, skeptics, Christians, pagans, cryptozoologists, and occultists? I also had a good time drawing a cartoon for the cover of his booklet "The Flying Saucer Subculture," an official publication of the New York Fortean Society. John insisted there had to be a straitjacket and a propellor beanie.

Brent Raynes: Within a short time the two of you became good friends. Could you share with us some about the friendship that evolved between the two of you, what he was like and what his friendship meant to you?

Doug Skinner: I got along well with John, for some reason. I say "for some reason," because he could be rude and difficult. We often had long phone calls, and met for lunch. Meeting for lunch always required a long phone call as well. It might have helped that I was open-minded about ufology, but not active in the field myself (and therefore not engaged in the usual polemics), and that I worked in show business, where John spent much of his life. He taught me a lot about Forteana, and I kept him up to date on the miseries of auditioning.

Brent Raynes: I came across a couple articles that you had written for Fate magazine and I watched a YouTube lecture you gave at FortFest once where you were filling in for John while he was back in New York recuperating from a bad cold or something. What sort of impact I wonder did John's Fortean related interests perhaps have on your life? 

Doug Skinner: I had read Fort before I met John, and even accompanied a dance performance in San Francisco, back in the '80s (for a dance by Virginia Matthews), by reading some excerpts from Fort. John did introduce me to other Forteans and Fortean groups. I ended up writing for "Fate," "The Fortean Times," and "The Anomalist," on the Count of Saint-Germain, Richard Shaver (especially his paintings), Charles Fort himself, and other topics. I was happiest with an article I did on Tiffany Thayer for "Fortean Times," since nobody had really researched him, and he was an interesting character. I also drew some Fortean comics for "Zuzu" and "Nickelodeon," which puzzled my colleagues who were not Forteans.

Brent Raynes: I wonder if you've ever had a puzzling experience in your own life that you couldn't explain and that you always wondered about?    

Doug Skinner: Just the usual bewilderment at life on earth and human consciousness.

Brent Raynes: A number of people who had met John I understand complained that he was difficult, depressed, and negative to be around at times. While I never met him in person, we exchanged letters and spoke on the phone several times, and as with his many magazine articles and books, he consistently had what to me was a great wit and sense of humor. Of course, toward the end his health was getting very bad as he was battling diabetes and suffering anemia and heart trouble. You wrote that John insulted people, including you, and would be a bit of a trickster, that if you were going somewhere together and you were the navigator with the roadmap, you'd say something like turn left and he'd turn right. I'd say that there we're talking about the days and years before John became really ill, which certainly affected his social abilities quite severely then. 

Can you give us some perspective on the differences?

Doug Skinner: John was sometimes funny and charming and sometimes rude and negative. He suffered from money and health problems, and was often depressed and in pain. He was terrified that his diabetes might lead to kidney failure or amputation, as it often does. The Mothman movie brought him some money (it didn't pay him much, but the book was republished in several countries), which relieved some of the financial worries. In his later years, he was starting to suffer from cognitive difficulties, like problems with word retrieval and memory loss. That was hard for him to deal with too. As he used to say, "Old age is not for sissies."

Brent Raynes: In the end, though others had been helping to care for an aging and very ill John Keel, you ended up alone with him, hovering at his bedside in the hospital as he was about to take his last breath. As he laid there before you in an unconscious state, you spoke to him of how he'd be missed and promised that we'd keep reading his "crazy books." 

Doug Skinner: At the end, Larry Sloman and I were his medical proxies. We saw him a couple of days before he died, and he was in bad shape. I got a call from the hospital telling me that he had died and been resuscitated, and that Larry and I needed to decide if he should be kept alive with a respirator. So, he had already taken his last breath the last time I saw him. We gave the final directive. Larry was out of town, so I was left to say the last goodbye, although I'm sure John didn't know. I had to do it anyway.

Brent Raynes: John Keel had become a Fortean and ufological legend. Whether you agreed with him or disagreed, he had made his mark in those fields. A big, very big mark. He is known by researchers and readers all over the world. Hopefully, my little book about him, which is currently being considered for publication, will help to further preserve his memory and encourage future generations to continue to read his "crazy books" because he was a very unique individual with many thought-provoking and original, pioneering insights, ideas and information that just may contain some overlooked and neglected clues that just might one day help us to eventually solve some of this world's greatest mysteries. 

Maybe his books weren't all that "crazy." 

Doug Skinner: Crazy is good! I meant it, of course, in the sense of "wild," not "insane." John's books were surprising and iconoclastic, crazy in the best sense of the word.

Brent Raynes: Thank you Doug for being there for John, and for the website you maintain with monthly postings of letters that he had written and received, along with reports, photos, clippings, and articles, all posted at: http://www.johnkeel.com

Doug Skinner: Anthony Matt and I set up the site for John's fans; I hope they enjoy it. I think the best part may be the bibliography. I post weekly, not monthly, by the way. I'm currently posting the notes he kept in 1967, which he eventually turned into "The Mothman Prophecies."

Brent Raynes: Doug, is there anything you'd like or care to add? 

Doug Skinner: No, I'm just glad to hear he still has fans. Best of luck with the book!

Wednesday, May 31, 2023