I'm cautious about the people I take book recommendations from. I've come to distrust most blurbs and reviews. Some are obviously from friends of the authors in question. There's no chance of an impartial review from a close friend. I'm certainly not immune to it. I've bent the truth that way myself.

Then there are people who may be honest, but who have tastes vastly different than mine.

I shouldn't have to explain who Joe Dante is. Anyone with movie knowledge going back further than the Marvel Comics Universe should be more than familiar with the name. I'm a diehard fan of his films. I also enjoy Dante's podcast, The Movies That Made Me. On a recent episode Joe made a book recommendation.

I didn't know if Joe Dante is a reader. I picture his bookshelves holding titles by names like Peter Bogdanovich, Tom Weaver, and David J. Skal. I believe he has mentioned nonfiction books before, but this time Joe recommended a novel called The Phantom of Skid Row.

The Phantom of Skid Row sounded like a book I would love. Dante said it deals with movie history and distribution. OK, good enough. I went out on a twenty-dollar limb and ordered myself a copy.

I was only a few pages into The Phantom of Skid Row when I knew I was going to love the book. The story begins with a young boy in the late fifties named Tito. Tito loves movies. Monster movies, specifically. He reads monster mags, and worships the old stars. He is particularly interested in Lon Chaney, Sr. Silent movies were incredibly difficult to see back then. Tito had to be content to see photos in Famous Monsters of Filmland.

Tito is a character I could identify with. He isn't in good shape, he is ungainly in social situations, and his passion for movies makes him a pariah in his school. When Tito hears about a showing of The Phantom of the Opera at the local university, he is excited. While there he meets the young man who owns the movie print. They become friends, and Tito is introduced to the colorful but back-stabbing world of low budget film distribution.

Years later Tito is given a thankless job of renovating an old theater in a really bad area of town. With help he gets it going, and begins showing movies from the slag heap of old prints at his disposal. His audience is mainly street people, or what used to be known as bums.

All is going well, until Tito discovers some old notebooks in the bowels of the theater's basement. One of the previous owners believed a demon inhabited the theater. A kobalos, which is a mischievous but dangerous spirit-demon.

The Phantom of Skid Row is the kind of ambiguous story that demands readers to derive their own conclusions. Does a demon still haunt the old Dreamland Theater? Or is it hysteria and suggestion? Some readers dislike this sort of thing. I am not one of them.

The heart of this gorgeous novel is the abiding love of film. How true fans can brighten the lives of others, but also how obsession can be detrimental.

There is joy, there's humor, and there's horror and heartbreak in its pages. All the while as I read The Phantom of Skid Row, I was thinking it is a damned good novel. There is a final section of the story, a denouement if you will, that emotionally devastated me, and convinced me it is a great novel.

The Phantom of Skid Row is an indie publication, and the cover is pretty nondescript. I often pass on this kind of thing, for one because I usually can't get them from the library. For another, I have been disappointed far too often in the past. The Phantom of Skid Row proves there are nuggets of perfection hiding out in the netherworlds of publishing.

I urge, beg, plead with you to give this wonderful novel a home in your heart. Movie geeks like me will eat it up, but there is more than enough for any reader to love in it.

Thanks, Joe. I owe you one. As if I didn't already owe you enough for co-directing Hollywood Boulevard way back in 1976.

Written by Mark Sieber

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