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Literature / Spider Kiss

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Stag Preston, as depicted by Robert McGinnis on the textless cover of the 2006 edition.

"…Stag Preston manages to capture a sensitivity that marks him as a performer of rare gifts. This is Stag Preston's show, from first to last, and he runs it with assurance, skill, and verve."
—From a review of Stag's film Rockabilly

"You want to know something, Stag? You stink, kid. You stink on ice!"
Shelly Morgenstern, Stag's publicist

"I'd do anydamnthing to get away from them self-made, pious assholes, and you'd better know I'll do the same to stay where I am."
Stag Preston

First published in 1961 under the title Rockabilly, Harlan Ellison's novel Spider Kiss chronicles the career of Stag Preston, a (thankfully) fictional star from the early days of Rock & Roll, mostly through the eyes of Sheldon "Shelly" Morgenstern, the publicist who discovered him — and came to regret it.

Stag Preston has everything. Thanks to a beautiful singing voice, a commanding stage presence, a lot of determination, and a first-class support team, he's risen from the slums of Louisville, Kentucky, to worldwide stardom. A naturally talented singer and actor, Stag has used his wealth to create a life where any pleasure or luxury is available to him — and he rarely has to deal with the consequences. Yes, Stag has everything, except for two qualities he has never needed nor wanted — compassion and human decency. And those he can fake, at least while he's in front of a microphone or camera.


Stag is, to put it bluntly, a sociopath. He takes self-centeredness and Lack of Empathy Up to Eleven, and he'll instinctively abandon any friend, lover or ally the moment he no longer needs them. Also, with his insatiable appetite for sex and booze, he leaves a career-threatening mess wherever he goes. And the one who has to clean up Stag's messes is Shelly Morgenstern, right-hand man to Stag's current manager, Colonel Jack Freeport.

It was Shelly who discovered Stag (then known as Luther Sellers, "no relation to Peter") when he was just a talented kid working as a bellhop at a fleabag Louisville hotel, making a few extra bucks by leading suckers to illegal poker games, and singing on the side. Shelly recognized Luther's talent and charisma, so he brought him to The Colonel, who effortlessly overpowered the kid's original manager (Asa Kemp, a milquetoast bicycle shop owner) and started him on the road to fame and glory. Shelly renamed him Stag Preston, helped engineer his image, and made the deals that left him a rich, successful icon to millions of teenagers. And whenever Stag goes on a drunken rampage — which happens a lot — it's Shelly who keeps the latest incident out of the gossip columns. Every time he does so, Shelly becomes a little more disgusted with both Stag and himself. However, he's not disgusted enough to get off the Stag Preston gravy train — yet.


Stag thinks the good times will never end, no matter what he does. Shelly keeps warning him that his fans could turn on him in a moment, but Stag never listens. The situation seems too volatile to last forever; how long before Stag does something so terrible and irrevocable that Shelly won't be able to save him?

"These are Stag Preston's tropes, from first to last":

  • Adaptation Expansion: Spider Kiss is based on "Matinee Idyll", a short story Ellison wrote in 1958.
  • The Alcoholic: Stag, and it just makes his other negative traits that much worse.
  • The American Civil War: Plays a role in Colonel Freeport's Backstory. In Antebellum America, the Colonel's ancestors owned the huge Freeport plantation, only to lose it during the burning of Atlanta. The Colonel has been saving up to rebuild this "tiny empire of regal living", and he expects his share of Stag's profits to put him over the top — at least, until Stag's antics threaten the Colonel's dream.
  • Attempted Rape: Stag does this twice. The first time, his victim is Jean Friedel, who knocks him out. This doesn't stop her from becoming his manager later in the story. The second time it's Marlene, President of the Secaucus Stag Preston Fan Club, who falls to her death while trying to escape him. This signals the beginning of the end of Stag's career.
  • Awesome Mc Coolname: Shelly and the Colonel go through several of them while deciding what Luther Sellers' Stage Name should be. They reject Bruce Barton, Alan Prince, Brick Colter and Matt Gore before Shelly comes up with Stag Preston.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: The Colonel isn't exactly nice, but in public he usually has the manners and demeanor of a Southern Gentleman. However, when he learns that Stag has impregnated a singer named Trudy Quillan, the Colonel snaps and gives the singer a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown. This is mostly because Trudy is black, and the Colonel is a racist.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: While Stag is clearly the villain, all the major characters are morally compromised.
  • Blackmail: Stag is subject to it when a "friend" lures him to a wild party where Stag engages in a threesome — which he doesn't know is being filmed. The Colonel pays to have the film destroyed, but it resurfaces later in the novel. However, it doesn't hurt Stag that much, because by then his career is already in ruins.
  • Chekhov's Gun: When Marlene from the Secaucus Stag Preston Fan Club visits her idol, the club's other members are ready to photograph them posing on the balcony together. This explains why they're able to photograph Marlene plunging to her death from the balcony instead.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Shelly, trying to bond with Stag, asks the singer about his background. Stag says that his parents were drug addicts "and one day the court just sent me off to the Home, took Pop and my old lady away, and that was it." This gives Shelly a Hope Spot; he begins to think that Stag's dark side is a result of his upbringing, so maybe the singer isn't beyond redemption.
    • I Lied: Later, when Shelly stands up to Stag for the first time, the singer punches him in the stomach, then follows by saying that he made up the "junkie parents" story: "I'd tell you any damn thing to keep you on my side. That was crap just like you're crap." Ouch.
  • The Determinator: For better or (mostly) worse, Stag won't let anything or anyone stand in his way. This becomes especially clear at the end of the novel. Stag's career is already a train wreck when two thugs severely damage his vocal chords, but he teaches himself to sing all over again. If Stag wasn't so despicable, it would be a Heartwarming Moment.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: One of the major characters does this by finally showing some moral backbone at the end of the novel. During a publicity junket in New Orleans, Shelly happens upon the strip club where Stag is now singing — after the beating that supposedly destroyed his vocal cords. Watching a performance, Shelly realizes that triumphing over adversity has made Stag a better singer than ever. Stag tells Shelly that if they renew their relationship, they could both return to the top. Shelly knows Stag is right, but he also knows that Stag is still a horrible person who doesn't deserve a second chance. Therefore, Shelly leaves Stag in the gutter where he belongs, regaining his self-respect in the process.
  • Evil Versus Evil: When Stag is brutally attacked by hired thugs near the end of the novel.
  • Fictional Counterpart: Averted Trope. Stag signs with a real record label (the now-defunct ABC-Paramount) and movie studio (Universal), and the executives who ran both companies at the time are mentioned by name.
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: Stag goes from a shady bellhop to a sociopathic superstar.
  • I Have No Son!: It's briefly mentioned that this is how Shelly's estranged father feels about him.
  • In Medias Res: The novel begins by describing one of Stag's concerts after he's made it big, then goes into a long flashback showing how Shelly and the Colonel made him a star.
  • It's All About Me: Stag has a horrible case of this.
  • Lawyer-Friendly Cameo: Usually averted, since many movers and shakers from the era's entertainment industry are mentioned by name. However, Ellison resorts to this at least once: Bob Mandle, a Cleveland disc jockey who hosts one of Stag's early concerts, is based on Bill Randle, a Real Life Cleveland disc jockey who played a similar role in Elvis Presley's career.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Shelly eventually feels this way over his role in discovering Stag, then keeping his bad behavior out of the press.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Ellison claimed in a forward that while many people said Preston resembled Elvis Presley, he was mostly based on the life of Jerry Lee Lewis.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Stag gets two of these. The first is noted above in Beware the Nice Ones. The second occurs late in the novel, when Stag's contract has been bought out by by a group of small-time businessmen. Stag foolishly vents his frustration by viciously insulting his new bosses to their faces; they retaliate by hiring goons to scar his face and damage his vocal cords so that he'll never be able to sing again.
  • One Name Only: Marlene's last name is never revealed.
  • The Power of Rock: A very dark take on the subject.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Once Ruth Kemp finally gets fed up with Stag, this is the result:
    Ruth: Look at you. Look at what you are. You aren't anything to be proud of. You think you've gotten away from being poor, because you wear silk clothes. But you're lower than ever. You have no heart, no soul. Look around you, see these people? They're as foul as you. They don't care what you do as long as they can make the money. But we know you back home. We hear what you do. You're an animal, Luther. You were always an animal, but we needed something to love, we wanted to be hurt, and you were always ready to hurt us. But you're not human… you're too selfish for that. You won't live long… you can't live long. God won't allow it. He'll find you out soon enough.
  • Sexy Secretary: Jean Friedel, Shelly's Love Interest. Too bad she doesn't love him back…
  • Textless Book Cover: The 2006 printing has one, as seen above.
  • Title Drop:
    • Early in the novel, Ellison compares the "ominous, threatening, sensuously compelling" undercurrent of Stag's performances to "the kiss of a spider", among other bizarre, disturbing images.
    • Also, Rockabilly (the novel's original title, which was imposed by an editor) is the name of the movie Stag stars in.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: Stag's demeanor toward the Kemps. Once he's signed with Colonel Freeport, Stag callously shuts them out of his life, as well as making sure they get no financial benefits from his success. Stag never changes his attitude, even when Ruth begs him to visit the terminally ill Asa one last time — or later, sing hymns at his funeral.
  • You Have Failed Me: When Colonel Freeport's employee Morrie Needleman gets the worst of a business deal, the Colonel instructs Shelly to have him fired. Never mind that Needleman's wife has breast cancer…
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Not a literal example since no one is killed, but this is Stag's attitude toward the Kemps, and later Trudy Quillan, once he's gotten what he wants from them.