The author, the reader, and the listener


“Once upon a time there was a person who ended wars forever by murdering 42 Santa Clauses.”

That’s the opening line of one of my favorite short stories. It’s called “The Santa Claus Murderer.” It was written by Spencer Holst. It can be found in his books “The Language of Cats” and the later collection “The Zebra Storyteller.” I recommend both highly.

I’m not alone. The New York Times called him “The most skilled fairy-tale artificer of our time….” John Cage called him a magician. Allen Ginsberg used the term “genius.” Muriel Rukeyser said his work was “ecstasy.” I agree with them all.

This is what he said about his stories. “In the geography of literature I have always felt my work to be equidistant between two writers, each born in Ohio — Hart Crane and James Thurber, but my wife says don’t be silly, your stories are halfway between Hans Christian Andersen and Franz Kafka.” Again, I agree.

Spencer was sometimes a guest at our Thanksgiving dinners. We have a tradition. Each year, I read Damon Runyon’s story “A Piece of Pie.” As some of our guests had heard it many times, they sometimes moved around during the reading. It didn’t bother me; it incensed Spencer.

Reading aloud was very important to him. Among his awards was not only one from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters but also one from the Foundation for Performing Art. He sometimes wrote of a trio: the author, the reader, and the listener. He was all three.

I fell in love with his stories the first time I heard them. I’ve read them aloud many times. And, when my wife told him that after one of his readings, he asked us to return with him to his apartment, where he gave me something to read to him. When I finished, he gave me more. We spent much of the night that way. It turned out to be unpublished material that he had never heard aloud before. It was later published as “Something to Read to Someone.”

Spencer was not in the best of health even when I first met him. Recently, he got worse. I read to him in the hospital.

Sometimes, after “A Piece of Pie,” I would read “The Santa Claus Murderer” on Thanksgiving. Sometimes that would lead to more of Spencer’s stories: “The Monroe Street Monster,” “Another Imposter,” “Mona Lisa Meets Buddha,” and so on. This year I didn’t.

Spencer Holst died on Thanksgiving. He was 75.

TTFN, Mark