You might fancy him mad. But, as Edgar Allan Poe wrote, madmen know nothing. Who but the mentally robust, the compos mentis, could spawn a horror empire – magazine, radio station, national expo, movie theatre – from the confines of a former funeral home and remain psychologically unscathed?
Rod Gudino (BA 1996 VIC) launched the linchpin of his demonic dynasty – Rue Morgue magazine – on Halloween 1997. The idea came to him in a gothic store in Toronto, when he realized that horror entertainment had extended beyond cinema and sunk its talons into video games, comic books and toys. He thought a horror magazine could marry modern pop culture with his own academic interests. While majoring in philosophy and literary studies at U of T, Gudino had been consumed by such existentialist works as Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling and Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy – “both very much rooted in the concepts of anxiety and fear and dread,” he says. “I understood pop culture would support the magazine, but it could also be a platform to explore other ideas and be intellectually interesting for myself.”
The magazine is a witches’ brew of mixed media, philosophical meanderings and what could be described – depending on the strength of one’s stomach – as lowbrow gore. Recent issues have featured essays on the literature of H.G. Wells; zombie comics by George Romero (director of Night of the Living Dead); reviews of horror video games; and a column called “The Coroner’s Report” – a ghoulish take on the Harper’s Index that features demonic trivia (to wit: it took 1 minute and 17 seconds for the first criminal to be executed in the electric chair).
Gudino has slowly expanded his underworld dominion to include Rue Morgue radio – an online radio station that plays a selection of macabre music – and the annual Festival of Fear, held at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. The gathering is Canada’s largest horror expo, and this year featured such celebrities as Linda Blair (the maniacal head-spinning child in The Exorcist) and fiendish writer and director Clive Barker.
Last November, Gudino had a stroke of good luck when one of Toronto’s oldest funeral homes, at Dundas St. W. and Keele St., came on the market. It now serves as head office for him and his staff of nine. (“It is just a dream place, really,” he sighs. “I’m still kind of pinching myself.”) The decor looks as though Debbie Travis’s gothic doppelgänger came in, pointed her stave and hatched funeral-home chic. A figurine of Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre sits on a computer top, while posters of such dark alternative films as David Lynch’s Eraserhead decorate the walls. A row of faux-granite tombstones – with the names of staff members past and present – line the main hallway. (One particularly valued former staff member is immortalized with the epigraph, “Her subscription has expired.”) Caged rats Ben and Willard, named after rodent horror flicks from the 1970s (“Ratsploitation films,” jokes Gudino), share office space with the magazine’s editors.
Gudino’s latest endeavour has been to convert the funeral home’s chapel into a 100-seat movie theatre, where he shows weekend creepfests to locals. The room also doubles as a wedding chapel: the first black wedding was held there in June, where the tattooed bride – resplendent in a strapless black gown and carrying blood-red roses – was given away by her beaming father.
At the end of a long day, Gudino – like Nosferatu retiring to his inner sanctum – retreats to his dwelling in the upstairs quarters of the funeral home. Does he sleep peacefully? Certainly. Have any possessed entities visited him? Not yet. However, the police once told him that someone had been murdered in the backyard and that lights in the house often flicked on and off at night. (They eventually confessed to lying.) The one drawback of Gudino’s home isn’t spectral stalkings, but rather a practical matter. His apartment was formerly used by a mortician to give embalming lessons to students. “You can still,” he says, “occasionally smell the embalming fluid.”