on 12 June 2009
With the 40th anniversary of the Tate/La Biance murders coming up in August there was always a good chance that some new Charles Manson books would start appearing on the shelves. Fortunately this one is far from a quick cash-in and is an extremely detailed, intricate and sober account of the rise and demise of The Family. With the hyperbole toned down Simon Wells has succeded in making the case possibly even more shocking, especially the ease with which Manson moved throughout Hollywood from '67 to '69. What's particualrly good here is that individual members of The Family all get to tell their stories, often long after Manson and the murderers were imprisoned. Even for those familiar with the stories of Squeaky, Sandra and some of Manson's more vocal supporters, there will be something new here in terms of less famous members of the group. Some of the tapes and interview footage that Wells has uncovered is also fascinating and helps to put new meanings onto Manson's own turgid philosophy. The only potential downside is that possibly too much is read into Joel Pugh's death in the UK - no doubt it was suspicious and in Bruce Davis there's a potentially powerful Family suspect but equally it can be read very much as a suicide. But this is a minor point and certainly doesn't detract from the book, and at least Wells develops themes from the original classic, Helter Skelter. Overall, then, you've got to take your hat off to the author for bringing a fresh insight, and a fairly level headed approach (the book often reads like a sober version of Adam Gorightly's conspiracy-packed Shadow Over Santa Susanna, itself getting a 40th anniversary reprint this Summer), to the well-trodden sensationalism of this most infamous case.
on 12 August 2009
I suspect this book was rushed out by the publisher before it was finally proofed in order to meet the 40th Anniversary deadline & if I were the author I'd feel miffed.
Firstly, let me say it is, on the whole, an excellent & objective look at a series of incidents that have become fraught with media enhanced myth, embellishment and sensationalism, often leading to a clouding of facts. This book appears well researched, the crimes being put into cultural and political context in an accessible and highly readable manner. The author evidently knows his stuff. I can't recommend it enough for anyone interested in the breakdown of the 1960's and American society at the end of that decade.
However, the book is chock full of what appear to be ridiculous typos and mis-spellings leading to some bizarre errors (just for example: 10050 Cielo Drive where the Tate murders took place becomes 10055 a sentence later; or the Neil Young song 'Revolution Blues' is quoted as being written since 2000 when it was in fact written in the early 70's as a direct response to the horrific events, and Young's own 'meeting' with the Family in the late 60s). The list of typos is endless. But most annoyingly the book begins with a series of numbered notes in the text referring to sources, quotes etc but these notes appear nowhere in the book and in fact the numbers then peter out half way through. A book like this needs the direct sources (as well as the references, bibliography given) otherwise how are we to believe evidence? Especially as the latter section of the book refers to crimes the Family may have commited beyond those they were convicted for. The publisher needs to hire a better proof-reader! It just seems shoddy.
If you can get over the occassional confusion due to these errors, it is a good book for anyone interested in what remains a disturbing episode in US history and the sad, final marker post for what had once been optimistic times.
on 28 August 2009
Having read an embarassingly large number of books on the Manson Family & its crimes, I bought Coming Down Fast because I hoped it would be full of up-to-date details about all those involved with Manson, and consequently rich in telling insights and interpretations. I have to say that, bar the last twenty pages, I was pretty much wholly disappointed: the story was far, far better told in Bugliosi's book, Helter Skelter. Simon Wells does interpolate material into his telling from interviews with, & autobiographies of, Susan Atkins, Tex Watson etc, but in a fairly perfunctory & undigested way, with little in the way of what I particularly wanted - direct, unfiltered quotation.
Wells is certainly dispassionate & pretty much neutral in his approach to the Family and their crimes, but I would say that's less a moral stand than the indifference of someone commissioned to produce a book on an assigned subject in a hurry. I just didn't feel that the author had any feel for the topic; nor did he have any insights to offer - absolutely none at all. The narrative isn't especially well-shaped, & I felt that a reader who hadn't read Helter Skelter would be left puzzled by the transitions that took place in Charlie & his followers that led up to the murders: he doesn't really catch the full build-up of the madness.
The writing is not good. Others have mentioned typos and factual errors, but Wells' style is dreadful. He misuses semi-colons & even commas, & the page is clogged with redundant adjectives, cliches & clunky phrasing. The word 'nestles' is used to describe any place in proximity to anywhere else (Spahn Ranch, Barker Ranch & 10050 Cielo Drive all 'nestle'). Randomly: on p228 Jay Sebring is 'the epitome of Hollywood cool' who 'still held a torch' for Sharon Tate, having been struck by her 'awesome' beauty. Cliche alert! Apparently he had a 'radical' approach to cutting hair. What does that unexplained (& I'm sure un-understood) statement actually mean to any reader? Absolutely nothing. Sebring wanted Abigail Folger (p229) to 'invest in business plans to expand his hairdressing skills.' Well, no: he didn't want to expand his skills: he wanted to expand his business. And on & on & on. The piling-up of cliches and inaccurate wording oddly obscures the subject. On page 246 Susan Atkins is quoted as saying, 'To taste death & yet give life, wow, what a trick.' Of course it should be 'wow, what a trip' - a much apter phrasing - but you have to know it already to know this book has it wrong. On page 257 the coroner is described as having 'ministered to' the body of Marilyn Monroe. As opposed to, you know, performing her autopsy. On p326 we hear of Tom Jones' 'sexual physique', whatever that may be exactly. On p400/401 Wells mentions how, 'curiosity getting the better of him', Dennis Hopper went to meet Manson in jail to discuss a film project. Apparently they had 'spirited discussion'. End of statement. It's literally the reverse of an insight, the reverse of journalism. At one point I looked at the spine of the book, wondering if it was self-published (like the thoroughly entertaining conspiracy-packed Shadow Over Santa Susannah, which is well worth a read). But no: it's from Hodder-Stoughton.
Wells makes much (too much, I think) of the death of Joel Pugh in London. In the acknowledgements he thanks Joel's relatives for giving him extra information about their 'much-loved' brother & hopes that he has presented a 'more complete picture of your remarkable brother.' Since this extra detail is mostly a catalogue of Joel Pugh's slump into mental illness & catatonic depression (thereby inadvertantly bolstering the notion that he committed suicide, rather than, as Wells contends, being murdered by - probably - Bruce Davis) I don't know how delighted they'll be.
The handling of the trial - which was of course the core of Bugliosi's book - is disappointing, though given the book is 436 pages, something had to be drastically cut down on. Oddly, satanist, murderer & Aryan Brotherhood aparatchick Bobby Beausoleil is rather gently handled: 'Damned by his assocation with the Family,' Wells says - rather than because of being convicted of murder! Wells never really plots the relationship between Beausoleil & Manson, which was certainly an odd & ambivalent one.
This book is full of information and interest, but I would say read Helter Skelter and then, if you wanted to know more, The Shadow Over Santa Susannah & Without Conscience: Manson In His Own Words. And then, if your curiosity had grown to morbid depths, the rather obscure Manson Behind The Scenes. The best autobiography by any family member is undoubtedly Paul Watkins' My Life With Charles Manson.
on 21 June 2009
This mostly satisfying treatment of the morbidly fascinating Manson story is a great - and predictably terrifying - read for anyone who, like me, is familiar with the basic gist of what happened but has not read anything else on the subject. As for those with more knowledge, I'm afraid I can't help but I'll try to break down the contents of the book for you.
The first 40 pages deal with Manson's first 32 years - his mother's situation, him being moved around different homes and then his litany of juvenile offences and periods of incarceration, then finally his 7 year stretch in his twenties / early thirties. It was pacy and never boring but I could have done with more on this last period of prison as it seems so crucial to what happened later - it was when he started to dabble in alternative religions and psychology.
The following 100 pages are about Charlie building up The Family and pursuing his musical opportunities. This was probably the best section of the book, Wells writes about the backgrounds of many of the cult members and how they drifted into Manson's orbit, and about the day-to-day life of The Family. Interestingly, the writer keeps Charlie's dark side largely out of sight, with the effect that the reader is to some extent seduced by the fun time they all seem to be having, though I did want to know a lot more about Manson's mind-games and how he was able to keep so many people following him - it was a lot more than just wanting to keep the good life going, they hung on his every word and evangelised about him wherever they went.
Then there are 70 pages where things start to turn bad - The White Album, Lotsapoppa, Hinman - and Wells is very effective in creating a heavy, sickening sense of dread closing in around the reader (although he does lay it on a bit thick with the number of paragraphs he ends with 'little did they know it was about to turn a lot darker,' or 'it was the last time she would ever talk to him,' etc.)
The next 60 pages deal with Tate-LaBianca and the immediate aftermath and are as chilling, horrendous and just horrifically sad as you could imagine. There are no fancy stylistic tricks on Wells' part, it is just straight-forwardly journalistic and as such is the best-written part of the book even as it is the worst for obvious reasons. I must confess I was unable to sleep when I had reached this part, both genuinely frightened and crushingly depressed by it all.
Then we get 50 or so pages on the investigation period (including the killing of Shea), 30 pages on the trial, 30 on Bruce Davis (including Zero, London, Joel Pugh, Gaul and Sharp). I would have liked to know more about the investigation and trial, but I imagine this is what Helter Skelter covers. As for Joel Pugh, I feel the writer lets himself down here - it's worth mentioning if it is part of the "mythology" but Wells seems desperate to tie in Pugh's death with the Manson Family even though the information he gives the reader clearly makes any reasonable person conclude it was suicide. The evidence to the contrary appears to be that Bruce Davis may have been in the same country at the time and a friend of Pugh's later wrote a letter referring to his death as 'what happened to Joel' - a line it is possible to read two different ways. Wells even seems to imply he gives credence to some guy's book that says Davis may have been the Zodiac killer! It's such a shame as Wells starts the book keen to tread carefully around things in the legend that are not verifiable facts, such as Manson's mother being a prostitute.
The final 40 or so pages are comprised of a potted history of the main Family members since the trial, up to the present day.
It's easy to see why people can become obsessed with this story, the horror is so incomprehensible that you find yourself wanting more and more information about how it happened. On the whole a decent job by the writer - although I'm afraid this R-Format trade paperback edition is absolutely littered with typos.
on 4 July 2010
This book has been done the injustice of being dumbed down, apparently both by the publishers and by the author. Wells has a writing style that I find annoying - he can't write a noun without attaching an adjective to it - "he was speedily re-arrested" rather than "he was re-arrested"; whereas for a non-fiction book the rule should be that if one is available, attach a fact: "He was re-arrested within 2 days".
This gives the whole book a tabloidy feel, and it's not helped by the lack of end- or footnotes (though Hodder & Stoughton have been sloppy enough in some places in the book to leave pointers to notes which have not been printed) - this sometimes leads to the feeling that a thread in the storyline is being left hanging.
The book also hasn't been (properly) proof-read. Note to Hodder: spell-checking alone is not sufficient. A spell-checker can't identify that it should be they'd instead of there'd, hoped instead of hopped, relived instead of relieved, filled instead of filed, and so on ... and with the smattering of factual inaccuracies, it feels too much like a rush job.
Presumably in an attempt to make this book different from the many others about Manson, Wells has chosen to highlight Manson's music (not surprising given the author's background), and the death of Joel Pugh - and the latter needed much more to give it the relevance that the author was aiming for.
Apart from the grating style, it is fairly readable, but it could have been a lot, lot better.
on 4 January 2017
First of all, as obvious as it may seem, I would warn anyone before reading this that some of the description of the murders are particularly detailed and gruesome, so not for the faint hearted. Probably like most people I only know the basics about Manson. The Tate murders, the bizarre misinterpretation of The Beatles lyrics and the terrifying hold he had over his band of dangerous disciples as part of his 60s counter culture. I learned a lot from this book. I knew about his troubled background but I had no idea that he had been imprisoned so many times in so many places at such a young age too, or the amount of escapes he pulled off from these various institutions (not all of them successful).
It was likely in these very institutions through a combination of deep and varied studying of books and not least, having to deal with some dark and destructive inmates that he eventually learned to hone and develop his very own set of psychological tools for manipulation that would prove so harmful and effective down the line.
As well as colouring in the vibrant and intense political and musical background of the time, Wells explores the many psychological and religious movements that were around, some had some interesting things to offer but many of them were just ridiculous gangs, lead by delusional idiots, spouting lies and fantasy dressed as spiritualism. He discusses the light and dark sides of 60s California and gives us a really interesting grounding on Haight-Ashbury and how the idealistic yet often misguided LSD experiment descended into more destructive terrain like PCP and heroin and how that dragged their reality into one of violence, paranoia and decline. Wells illustrates the building tension and conflict between the two and the resultant fall out in not just Haight-Ashbury but all through the state and beyond.
He goes into some detail of how Manson managed to round up his band of lost souls and damaged drifters. Like all good egocentric, power hungry leaders, Manson got other people to take the risks and do the dirty work for him. Like all bullies he was hiding a bigger coward inside and tried to disguise it with a whole host of drugs, pseudo philosophy, threats of violence and general mumbo jumbo. In so many ways this is sad as it is tragic, how Manson managed to seek out and find so many impressionable youths to recruit and reshape into doing his bidding. How he manipulated and exploited so many of these (mostly) young people. The extent of bumbling incompetence by this group of dazed clowns was clearly at a level of blatant recklessness that begs belief. No matter how ridiculous and absurd these people and their beliefs were they would turn out to have truly horrendous and irreversible consequences for many innocent people. Predictably the behaviour of the press and media was truly appalling, they consistently cheapened and dramatized it all showing a particular lack of sensitivity towards Polanski with even the landlord trying sue him for damage to the house.
Wells has a pleasing and accessible style that allows us to slip directly into the Manson’s world. He covers his dubious origins with sensitivity and perception, showing us how little chance Manson had to flourish or get ahead, given his appalling upbringing, but at the same time he doesn’t try to justify his behaviour. He does a nice job of painting evocative pictures of how idyllic and hopeful image of the Californian scene appeared at the start of the 60s but still captures the darkness and destruction that would soon follow in its wake as he delves deeper into the dirtier edges of what was also going on at the same time which can make for fascinating and chilling reading. There are a number of annoying typos but nothing to get too bothered about and overall I really enjoyed this book and learned a lot about one of the darkest periods in modern Californian history.
on 16 May 2012
A very long book, but well worth the effort, as it covers everything you could ever want to know about Manson and the family.
Charting Charlie's troubled upbringing and teenage years it goes on to describe events leading up to 'helter skelter' and the infamous La Bianca / Sharon Tate murders, along with the legal proceedings, investigations, trials and aftershocks. Manson's weird fixation on the Beatles and the Beach Boys is explained in detail and the book really captures the hippy world of the 60s, which seems light years away from where we are today.
However, the whole story makes you realise what a long lasting effect these events had on American society and culture. Like Mr Marilyn Manson for example...
on 1 October 2009
In a recent TV sitcom, a character was compared to Charles Manson and the studio audience roared with laughter. It was revealing because the laughter contained all the popular misconceptions of one of the most infamous figures of the twentieth century. The name, Charles Manson, conjures up a wild - eyed maniac, the leader of a sinister cult, a madman who was responsible for some of the most senseless and horrific murders of modern times. The truth, although containing shreds of those misconceptions, is somewhat different and far more complex, and anyone interested in unravelling the myth would do no better than to read, Charles Manson: A Chilling Biography: Coming Down Fast, by Simon Wells: Hodder & Stoughton.
Coming Down Fast, could have easily been subtitled, Charle Manson and his World, so detailed and absorbing in painting the scene Manson fell into in 1967, following his release from prison; San Francisco's, Haight - Ashby, the music, crazy cults, mind bending drugs and the Summer of Love. A fresh - minted account of this much written upon subject is never going to be easy, but the author achieves just that, together with a depth of knowledge of the Sixties and in the extensive research on Manson and his circle, using much new original source material.
If anyone could be said to be shaped by their upbringing it was Charles Manson. Born illegitimately in 1934, Manson grew up in a fractured and disprutive enviroment, and by 1967 had spent most of his adult life behind bars thanks to being involved in many petty crimes. One of the great ironies of the Manson story is that for him prison was home, and he was reluctant to finally leave it behind him. Having immmersed himself in the study of psychology and some of the quasi - religious cults which were emerging, including Scientology, when Manson was released from prison he was fully equipped to manipulate and coerse the many vunerable and lost souls who would later be termed the "Family."
Simon Wells goes on to give us a comprehensive and well balanced portrait of Manson. Manson the man is given a fair hearing and it is soon clear that far from planning a career as the leader of a cult (which he never was) he actually wanted to become a successful song writer and performer. Indeed, what is clear throughout this book is that all Manson really wanted was a record deal, and it was the frustration of never achieving this that would culminate in the events of 1969. Each of the book's chapters is preceded by some of Manson's own words: Manson the deep thinking individual, who although took on the appearance of a scruffy street hustler, had the power to persuade dozens of people to follow him. But we are reminded that Manson was able to operate as he did because of the times he lived in; a sex and drug fuelled commune was not exactly new in the late Sixties. Had Manson been released from prison in 1973 instead of 1967 there would probably be no Manson story at all.
One of the author's great strengths is his detailed knowledge of music, especially the music of the Beatles, who played their own strange part in the Manson saga. It was after Manson moved his ever growing band of followers from a remote ranch, which was a disused Western movie set, to Barker Ranch in Death Valley that events signalled the beginning of the end. The combination of the natural elements, drugs, orgies, internal violence and the frustration of still being refused a record deal, despite the involvement of the "Family," with Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, Manson's rants reached a insane level, culminating in what he called "Helter Skelter." Manson's obession with the Beatles, White Album is well documented here, and his vision of an apocalyptic race war in which he was being instructed by the Beatles album in conjuction with the Book of Revelations, is fasinating to read and a feat of research in itself.
Of course, the centre piece on any book on Manson will be the Tate/LaBianca murders. The complexity and threads which lead up to the murders is clearly explained, and the description of the killings are still painful to read. It is all well told with a journalistic eye for detail, and even now the ruthfulness of the four attackers is chilling, with the heavily pregant Sharon Tate pleading with the recently deceased "Sexy Sadie," Susan Atkins, for the life of her unborn child, together with the other three participants, "Tex" Watson, Linda Kasabian and Patricia Krenwinkel, who under Manson's orders slaughtered everyone in the Cielo drive house and then shortly afterwards the same four with another menber of the "Family," murdered Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. It is also disturbing to read, but for a quirk of fate, that furthur murders which were planned never took place. In the bloody aftermath it might suprise modern readers, with the wealth of technology available nowdays, that it took several months for the Sheriff's Office to finally piece together enough evidence to make arrests and bring charges against those responsible, Manson being charged with murder and conspiracy, though he never actually took part in the killings.
Coming Down Fast, contains a first rate narrative of the following trial which almost descended into a farce and became a media circus, with President Nixon throwing the trial into jeopardy when he declared Manson guilty before the trial had ended; added to this Manson conducting his own defense and members of the "Family" shaving their heads and sitting outside the courthouse. In a final twist, the defendants had their sentences changed to life imprisonment instead of the death sentence handed out to them, as California temporarily abolished the state's death penalty.
For all the millions of words written about Charles Manson, his life produced no good at all, and to the families, relatives and friends of those who were murdered, he is indeed a satanic figure. Simon Wells book firmly puts Manson in the context of his times, but offers no excuses for Manson's actions. Rather it is laid bare that Manson represented the very worst flip side of the idealised culture that was prevelant at the time of his crimes. Manson today, forty years after the fateful events of 1969, still sits in prison and still fascinates and revolts at the same time; Comming Down Fast, amongst all the other important literature on Manson probably does the best in telling us why.
Sometimes, a book is published which marks the author and his work an authority on a given subject. Simon Wells should be proud, he has, with Coming Down Fast, earned this accolade. A fine achievement.
on 18 June 2015
Not read any books on this subject before so not sure how it stands up to the many other books written about the nightmare at the end of the hippie dream that was Manson and his family. I found it well researched and comprehensive. Wells manages to evoke the time and place and general vibe of late 60's California very well.
on 20 June 2009
This is a fantastic book, Simon Wells has done an excellent job in researching and presenting the facts of the Manson story in such a fascinating manner. This is not really a subject that would usually interest me but the book was so well written I remained enthralled right up until the last page.
Simon maintains a detached view throughout adopting a studious approach presenting facts rather than sensation, so unlike the contemporary newspaper stories he cites from the time.In a way the Manson story is like watching a train crash you know what is going to happen as from childhood onwards he never really gets a chance to get off the slippery slope to his fate.
Simon weaves his fascinating knowledge of Sixties counter culture and music into this exciting tale adding considerable colour and background to the story. Several times I went away to google several of the colourful characters who crossed Manson path to find out more.
On the 40th anniversary of the grizzly murders this book provides a clear unbiased account of the whole sorry saga from beginning to end.
I'd heartily recommend this book to anyone, it is a very good read. Even if like me you only have hazy memories of these events from your childhood it will allow you to realise just how shocking they were at the time