Almost daily, I am bombarded by letters from people asking me what it’s
like being a Poison Pen artist. For those of you not in the know, that
is a writer whose stock-in-trade is typically made up of unkind
descriptions of his fellow man, or — even more typically — writing
(this includes personal letters as well as pieces which appear in
newspapers, magazines and or/books) whose sole purpose is to express
displeasure, angst, anger, and a host of other “negative” emotions.
I’m not going to kid you. Poison Penmanship can get you into trouble. It
can lose you friends; it can get you fired from jobs, and much, much
more. Take my word for it.
Over the years, I’ve been blacklisted, rejected, neglected,
over-inspected and generally treated like a worthless piece of vermin by
the (so-called) straight press, not to mention the scads of hate-mail
(including dead animals, death threats and all the usual whatnot) that
have come across my desk.
No violins please. I’m not stupid. When you set yourself up as judge,
jury and executioner, people are bound to be bugged by what you say. In
fact, that’s the whole point. We Poison Pen artists aren’t here to make
friends. In fact, too many “we just love your Stuff” letters are
anathema to the true Poison Pen artist.
Now there are times when what you write is justified and times when it
probably isn’t. Why? Because sooner or later you’re gonna get carried
away — that’s why.
Let me tell you a little tale of how a very minor (a least I
considered it minor) piece of Poison Penmanship backfired. Perhaps it’ll
enlighten you so that you don’t make the same mistake.
As a critic (I used to freelance as a book, record, and film reviewer
for an assortment of publications) you get put on all kinds of mailing
lists. Which means simply that after awhile you find that each and every
day your mailbox is stuffed with all kinds of crap. If you’re a record
reviewer, you get tons of terrible albums, which you then proceed to
trade in at the local Moby Disc. If you’re a book reviewer, it’s the
same deal. For the one good book you might get, you’re gonna be opening
boxes of Danielle Steele type-dreck. At any rate, as the years have gone
by, I have tended — despite the occasional goodies — to take less and
less pleasure in the fact that day after day, my mailbox is continually
stuffed with all sort of junk. Stuff for which I have absolutely no use
At one point, I finally decided it was time to take care of this, so I
went out and rented a Post Office Box (actually three post office
boxes). I then proceeded to inform the companies with whom I wished to
keep dealing to send their products to my new P.O. box address. On the
other hand, I asked the companies from whom I didn’t want stuff to
delete me from their lists.
Sounds simple enough, right?
One of the companies whose list I was on was a publishing house called
New American Library (NAL). I’d been receiving books from NAL for a
couple of years, but about a year after getting on their list, they
began sending me a lot of homosexual books — that is, novels in which
the protagonists were homosexuals. (I’ve no idea as to whether
homosexuals actually wrote the books, and frankly I couldn’t have
cared less.) I’ve never been a fan of “romance” novels, and “romance
novels” about homosexual lovers was even more of a turnoff.
An aside: those of you who’ve been reading this column are no doubt
aware, by this time, that I am not particularly enthralled by my
homosexual, er — brethren. In fact, to get right down to the nitty
gritty, I think that their “lifestyle” (in my book,”deathstyle” is a far
more appropriate term) is reprobate, pathological, sick and evil. And if
that sounds judgmental, so be it. So you can understand then, that I was
not delighted to find these books at my doorstep each day.
Rather than writing a letter, I called the NAL publicity offices in New
I told the girl who answered the phone that I wanted to be removed from
their mailing list (I didn’t say anything about not wanting homosexual
literature at that point) The girl assured me that I’d be removed. And
that, I figured, was the end of that.
A month later, my mailbox was still chock full of books from NAL,
including a ton of homosexual books. I called the publicity office
again. This time I wasn’t quite so nice.
“I wanted to have my name removed from your mailing list,” I said to the
person on the other end of the line.
Long pause. “Well” the girl finally replied, “which list are you on?”
I had no idea which lists I was on. The girl told me that the next time
I got a package from NAL to look at the address label and there, in the
upper right hand corner, I’d find a number and to take note of it.
That number was the list I was on.
Sure enough, the next NAL package I got, I looked, and there in the
upper right hand corner was the number B-1.
“I’m on B-1,” I said, when I called the NAL offices the next day. “Now
could you please remove me from that list.”
This time the girl who answered the phone informed me that it’d take a
month from the time that the “removal order” went in, until the removal
actually went into effect. “You know those computers!” she chirped.
Seven weeks later I was still getting the homo books from NAL. However,
no longer did the packages say B-1. Now the number in the upper right
hand corner read C-2.
I dialed the NAL offices again. “Oh, you can be on more than one list,”
the girl (it was never the same girl) informed me after a long and
rather blistering tirade from yours truly.
“Don’t you have a master file?” I snapped. “What I want is to be removed
from all the files. In other words…I DON’T WANT TO SEE ANY MORE OF
YOUR G–D– FAG BOOKS IN MY MAILBOX AGAIN!”
The girl said that the master file was over in another building on the
other side of town, and they didn’t have access to it. She said that in
order to get my name removed from all the mailings lists
(apparently there were hundreds of the bloody things), that I had to
write a letter to the head of the publicity department, and that person
would have to issue an official memo in order to effect “total removal.”
To say I was furious is an understatement. In addition to having spent
$50 or so on phone calls, my box was still cluttered with the hideous
stuff. And the homosexual books seemed to be getting more numerous …
almost as if somebody at the company were enjoying my overwrought
emotional condition. I knew I was probably just getting paranoid, but
knowing that didn’t make me feel any better!
I then wrote a letter to Mary Ann Palumbo, head of publicity at NAL. I
don’t have a copy of the letter anymore, but I do distinctly recall that
it was not a very nice letter. I also began marking RETURN TO SENDER on
all NAL packages, and leaving them unopened in my mailbox.
Unfortunately, several days later, the postman informed me that because
the stuff had been sent bulk rate, they could not return it. Only first
class mail could be returned to the sender.
I stormed into the house and called the postmaster. “I’m getting what I
consider to be highly offensive material in the mail,” I hissed, “and I
do NOT want it delivered to my house any longer!”
“Well,” the poster
replied. “We’ll have to see the material.”
I explained that what I was getting were books which depicted explicitly
graphic sexual acts (I didn’t mention that they were between two men.
After all, who the hell knew? This guy might have been one of “them.”)
Unfortunately, the postmaster — who sounded genuinely sympathetic with
my plight — informed me that unless the material was visual, that the
post office was powerless to do anything about it.
It was now approximately three months since my first call to NAL.
I sat down and considered my alternatives. I didn’t want to call and
talk to another “helpful” nitwit on the phone. Soon my path became
clear. I had to switch roles — to go from defense to offense
It also struck me that if I sounded insane, it might help things
I sat down and reeled off another letter to Mary Ann Palumbo. I don’t
remember exactly what I wrote, but I did my best to sound as crazy as
possible. And, if truth be told, I guess by that time, I really was
I hand-wrote the letter, affecting a rather schizophrenic scribble. In
the letter I informed Ms. Palumbo — in explicit detail — that if I
didn’t step getting mail from their company (“especially those g–d–
fag books”) that I was going to hop on a plane to New York. Upon my
arrival, I informed Palumbo that I was going to personally look her up,
after which I was going to do some very unpleasant, Charles Mansonesque
things to her. (I think I may have borrowed a few lines from Bret Easton
Ellis’ “American Psycho,” an extremely graphic and lurid novel about the
antics of an individual who fancies disemboweling — and occasionally
eating — his victims).
I crumpled the letter up several times to give it that “schizo” look,
scrawled my name at the bottom, and stuffed into an old yellow envelope
upon which I’d drawn all kinds of weird symbols, including swastikas,
666’s and other assorted demonic insignias.
Feeling positively gleeful, I took the hideous document and plopped into
the nearest mailbox.
Following this, I went down to the local smut shop and purchased about
$100 worth of hardcore porn, focusing on S&M and fetish magazines. I
took them home, and proceeded to cut out the most disgusting pictures I
could find until I had a very explicit selection of really nasty,
hardcore porn. I then inserted all the cut up photos into a blank NAL
envelope, wrote my name in the “send to” section. Then I hopped in my
car and headed over to the post office.
There was a huge line when I arrived. I puffed out my chest, strode to
the front of the line and demanded to see the supervisor.
When the guy came to the desk, I mustered my most pained expression,
then launched into my spiel like a true pro. “I’ve been getting this
… obscene material from this company. I’ve written them
letters, phoned them, begged and pleaded with them … and it still
keeps coming. Every day! My family and I are very upset! I mean
… what if my children” (I have no children) “were to get a hold of
The postmaster took the envelope and dumped its contents out onto the
counter. An audible gasp went up from several of the people who were
standing nearby. The postmaster tried to look cool, but I could see he’d
Gingerly, he took the offensive material and put it back inside the
envelope. “Just a moment sir,” he said, turning and walking into a back
office. Several moments later he returned with some papers for me to
sign. “We’ll issue a cease and desist order right away sir,” he told me.
“If these people continue to send you any further obscene material, call
us immediately and our office will proceed with a criminal prosecution.”
Driving home from the post office, I had mixed emotions. Sure, I’d
“enlarged” upon the truth. But dammit — as far as I was concerned, I
was getting offensive, pornographic material forced upon me.
Delivered to my very doorstep! All I had done was worked within the
system — using its own rules — to make my case.
Convincing myself I’d done the best thing, I went out for some
much-needed lunch, after which I proceeded to forget the entire matter.
A week later a certified letter arrived in my mailbox. I noticed
immediately that it was from an attorney’s firm located in New York. I
smelled the contents even before I opened the envelope. The attorney who
wrote the letter stated that he represented Mary Ann Palumbo of NAL
books. The letter was very short and to the point. It informed me that
“the threat to kill and maim is a crime punishable by long
imprisonment,” and that my name had been turned over to the FBI.
My stomach felt slightly queasy. But I quelled that by congratulating
myself. Hah! Guess I’d gotten those jerks attention alright! I figured
that if that’s what it took to get these idiots to do something
— then so be it! I didn’t blame Palumbo, actually. Had I received the
letter I’d sent her, I’d probably have gone running to the Feds too.
Hell, there are a zillion loonies out there. How was she to know I was
just an innocent guy who was tired of getting homosexual books?
The mail from NAL stopped completely after that. I congratulated myself
on having beaten the system.
A couple of days later, I was watching a rerun of “Godzilla,” when my
doorbell rang. I have a sign posted on my front door which very
pointedly states that “No Salesmen Or Religious Fanatics” are to ring
the bell. There’s a Jehovah’s Witness church around the corner from my
house, and the jerks — you can always tell them because they wear these
really cheap suits and they always drag a little kid around with them
when they come to hand out their tracts — were constantly knocking on
I went to the door, ready to give the bell-ringer a piece of my mind.
As soon as I opened the door, I knew that the man on the other side was
no salesman. He was approximately 6’3″, attired in a dark blue suit …
and he had on the blackest pair of shades I’d ever seen.
“Are you Mr. Goldman? ” he asked. There was not a hint of emotion in his
“Ah, yes. … Yes, I am,” I said,” plastering a stupid smile on my face.
“The man reached into his inside jacket pocked and pulled out a badge.
“Regis Boyle … FBI,” he said, handing me a business card.
“Oh, ah … you must be here about that … that dumb letter I sent to
the woman at that book company. Ahhhhmmm, that was nothing…really!
Just a joke! I, ah … y’see … they were sending me all these
homosexual books … and I was trying to get off their mailing list for
three months and I called and called, but I couldn’t get them to take me
off and so finally I just got really mad and I wrote that letter and …
ah … look, sir … I was just kidding! Really!
I could feel the guy sizing me up behind the shades.
“Well, it’s our job to check these things out sir,” he said after a
“Of course it is!” I blurted. “I understand completely!”
The guy continued to size me up for another 30 seconds, then he removed
the shades. Without them, he looked very tired. I kept on babbling away,
yakking a mile a minute about God knows what, while the guy just stood
there. He was such a perfect picture of a Fed that a couple of times I
almost started laughing. Thankfully I didn’t.
After I’d babbled awhile more, the guy put his shades back on. I tried
to hand him the business card back.
“Keep it,” he said.
He looked at me a moment longer, but now that the shades were back on, I
hadn’t the slightest hint of his state of mind. “Don’t you go writing
anymore of those letters,” he said. Still, there was not the slightest
trace of emotion in the voice.
“I won’t, sir! Don’t you worry now!”
I watched his back as he walked down the driveway.
“Thanks for coming,” I yelled.
No reply. A moment later, an all black car, windows tinted pitch black,
did a U-turn in front of my house, then sped down the street.
A couple of months later I was at the ABA (American Booksellers
Convention) in Hamburg, Germany and I happened to pass by the NAL booth.
I glanced over, and my eyes fell upon a short dumpy woman with a foof of
blonde hair. For some reason I looked at her nametag. It read “Mary Ann
For a short moment I considered going up to her and introducing myself.
Heck, maybe I’d even tell her about the FBI guy showing up at my door (I
had kept his card. In fact, for some absurd reason I actually carried it
around in my wallet!) Maybe we’d go out for a bite to eat and have a
good ol’ laugh about the whole thing. Sure, and over lunch, I’d pitch
her a couple of my latest book ideas! Hell, you can’t do much better
than the head of the PR department, right?
But suddenly I had an image of me being handcuffed and dragged away,
kicking and screaming, by several men with no necks and thick legs, after
which I’d be taken into a back hallway and beaten stupid.
I kept walking.
That’s basically the end of the story. You can make of it what you will.
I’m not saying that the moral here is “don’t write any threatening
letters to people,” because the fact is that had I not done what I did,
I still might be getting my mailbox stuffed with those lousy
I guess all I’m really saying is that there are consequences for
everything you do. Message No. 2 and we’ll end this lurid little tale.
If you’re going to threaten somebody, do it in person. In fact, I’d
suggest not threatening at all. If you’re actually serious about
“getting even” with someone (whether it be via a lawsuit, or having
their kneecaps broken), my suggestion is simply to “just do it.” (Better
yet, pay someone to do it for you).
Poison pen artist or no (yeah, I know … it’s a glamorous profession),
don’t — I repeat — DON’T PUT IT IN WRITING!
STU UPDATE: This article is excerpted form S.L. Goldman’s book,
“Confessions Of a Poison Pen Artist,”
which can be
purchased from The Tongue Secure Storefront. Also be sure to check
out Poison Pen, Volume 2 (“With Malice For All”) and Volume 3 (“Taking
No Prisoners”) also at
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