Massive Gothic Nonfiction Book Pile For Halloween

Hello all! Merry day once more!

All year I’ve been on and off reading a big pile of gothic nonfiction books. A couple you might recognise but the majority will be new.

The video is prerecorded and my hair actually looks like this now: 

Such is the magic of the digital era.

Books mentioned:

Caitlin Doughty: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes

Colin Dickey: Ghostland

Charlotte Gordon: Romantic Outlaws (Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft)

Malcolm Gaskill: Witchfinders

Stacey Schiff: The Witches

Phyllis Grosskurth: Byron

Ossian Brown: Haunted Air

Michael Lesy: Wisconsin Death Trip

Advertisements

Bizarre Book Club: Caitlin Doughty From Ask A Mortician

I read this book in a single day, which should tell you something. No, the book wasn’t two pages long.

I chanced upon a YouTube channel called Ask A Mortician and found her not only informative on all things death related, but also funny and charming. Caitlin Doughty seemed like someone I’d want to hang around with.

This in turn led me to her book Smoke Gets In Your Eyes (And Other Lessons From The Crematory). I expected and enjoyed the anecdotes of working with corpses and the awkwardness of experiencing another culture’s grieving rituals for the first time (the segment on the Chinese family is fascinating).

The horror from outsiders, too, wasn’t a surprise, such as a hospital security guard’s distaste at her picking up ex-babies, that “it didn’t matter how many times I smiled at her, expressed my new-on-the-job status with bumbling Hugh Grant– esque apologies. This woman had decided that I was dirty and deviant. Handmaiden to the underworld.”

I also anticipated moments that made me laugh out loud, such as when “the family had placed a Häagen-Dazs coffee-and-almond ice-cream bar between her hands like a Viking warrior’s weapon. Those are my favourite. So I yelled, involuntarily, “Those are my favourite!””

What I didn’t expect were the many literary quotes and philosophical thoughts. Not that I didn’t think mortuary workers were capable of them, but I didn’t expect to be thinking about them so much afterwards. Caitlin believes the West’s relationship with death has gone astray, that “death might appear to destroy the meaning in our lives, but in fact it is the very source of our creativity. As Kafka said , “The meaning of life is that it ends.” Death is the engine that keeps us running, giving us the motivation to achieve, learn, love, and create.”

She feels that hiding death away and pretending it doesn’t happen is creating greater fear of the  inevitable end. She advocates for a more natural, eco-friendly approach, and for not allowing funeral homes to dictate to the family how the final proceedings should go. I’ll let her explain it in this Ted Talk:

She also believes (more in America, not so much here) that embalming is often sold to people as the only way and is expensive and often unnecessary:

At first I thought, well, is it really so important to be more involved with a body before a funeral? How much can that really change things? Then I thought hard on her point that we also hide old age, stashing the elderly and infirm in sometimes substandard homes, while other cultures move ageing relatives in with them to deal with the consequences of the years together. I wonder if maybe she’s right. What do all of you think?

Caitlin also began The Order of the Good Death, where “funeral industry professionals, academics, and artists explor(e) ways to prepare a death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality.” I’d like to go to one of their talks one day. I’ve also pre-ordered her book From Here To Eternity, in which she travelled far and wide gathering information on the death practices of various civilisations.

As an added bonus, here are a few fun videos from her Ask A Mortician series:

Crematory Scandal That Changed The Death Industry

Victorian STANDING Corpse Photography?

The Punished Suicide

The Self Mummified Monks

Medieval Zombies?!

La Pascualita: Mannequin or Corpse Bride?

Lead Based Make Up Tutorial For Spring

Bizarre Book Club: Bizarro, Victorian Sideshows And Junji Ito

Merry afternoon to you, or whatever time you exist in. I continued my experiment with mouth noises by talking about weird and interesting books I’ve read.

Everything mentioned:

Laura Lee Bahr, Angel Meat

Matt Payne, Robot God/Hybrid Brain

Andrew J Lambie, Carnival Of The Flesh

Junji Ito, Snow White

Witch Trials, Hysterical Nuns And Not Haunted Houses: Horror Nonfiction Bizarre Book Club

Good morning my little cups of fiery chai, I’ve been reading some very interesting books lately.

I’m drawn to the myths of ghosts, black magic, the Devil and other spooky things, but what I really love is clearing the fog of legend and finding what’s really underneath. To me the truth behind a haunting is infinitely more interesting than the initial stories, though I respect believers of the paranormal and would never make fun of them. Each to their own.

All three of these books take incidents or places that have been imbued with supernatural meaning and show us the ‘truth.’

1. Witchfinders by Malcolm Gaskill

The story of Matthew Hopkins, the self-titled ‘Witchfinder General,’ is quite close to my heart as I live in Essex and his numerous victims were held in a castle not far from me. Witchfinders painstakingly recounts the journey he took through Essex and Suffolk, whipping the people into a frenzy of blame and fear, and on through the trials and executions themselves.

The concept of witch-hunting in the magical sense seems alien to us now but Malcolm Gaskill does a great job of explaining the world of magic people lived in and how the uncertainty of the Civil War affected them. The thorough research helped me to better understand what might have been going through the minds of each player, even Matthew Hopkins himself.

2. Ghostland by Colin Dickey

This is a fascinating tour through the most mythologised houses, hotels, hospitals and even cities of America. Drawn to the ghosts, he strips back the stories and locates the factual accounts. If it sounds like he’s made them boring, trust me, he hasn’t.

One example is the famous Winchester Mystery House, long believed to have been created by a widow half mad with loss and guilt over the deaths of her husband and the victims of the gun he created, building endlessly to confuse any spirits seeking revenge. But, fantastically, the tale everyone including myself assumed to be fact isn’t, and this is only one of the little surprises in its pages.

This quote sums it up very well: “More than just simple urban legends and campfire tales, ghost stories reveal the contours of our anxieties, the nature of our collective fears and desires, the things we can’t talk about in any other way. The past we’re most afraid to speak aloud of in the bright light of day is the same past that tends to linger in the ghost stories we whisper in the dark.”

3. The Devils Of Loudun by Aldous Huxley

You might recognise the story of Grandier, the French priest whom women loved, men hated and burned as a witch after nuns became hysterical, from the Ken Russell film The Devils (1971). You may also recognise it’s author as the infamous psychonaut and writer of The Doors of Perception.

Where the two previous books are distantly fascinated and relatively dispassionate, Aldous Huxley’s philosophy and personality runs strongly throughout. Normally I wouldn’t like this, but he’s so well read and intelligent that it doesn’t matter.

It gives the story an air of being told by someone who knew the people personally, who smelled the horrible smells of seventeenth century France and had befriended Grandier, in spite and because of his complexities and contradictions.
Mass hysteria is a fascination of mine and anything that can go some way towards explaining it or recreating it in my mind is a definite winner.

Bizarre Book Club: Scary Grandpa, Surreal Stories, Puppet Overlords And Sci Fi

Hello my little sugar cubes dangled over a glass of absinthe. My friend Steve and I have once again created our own writer and artist’s retreat as we have strict deadlines to get things finished, but I have still managed to read some peculiar books.

Cartoons In The Suicide Forest by Leza Cantoral

This is a bizarre and beautifully poetic book about some dark things. Leza takes inspiration from same sex Russian marriage, Jean Cocteau’s beauty and the beast, Mexican folklore and underground sex slave cults among other things and gives them an erotically feminine fairy tale twist. I enjoyed the ‘real world’ stories as much as the surreal, a good example being a relationship failing amidst heroine dependence. Pretty!

Cartoons In The Suicide Forest book trailer

Puppet Skin by Danger Slater

This fun book is a kind of YA twist on the bizarro genre. When youngsters reach a certain age they are forcibly turned into marionette puppets with strings that reach far into the sky. No one knows what’s up there, or why they have to do it, but one young girl decides to rebel just as something strange starts happening to the puppets .

I liked the way the teens actually do things teens do like smoke and skip school. In fact this could be an allegory for ‘responsible’ rebellion and why it’s necessary to look beyond your situation and not always do as you’re told.

Puppet Skin book trailer

Like Jagged Teeth by Betty Rocksteady

The story starts with immediate tension and continues throughout. A girl is walking home from a night out followed by boys when, just in time, she’s picked up by her grandfather – who’s been dead for several years. When she arrives back at his place joy turns to fear as she realises something isn’t right.

As the character lurches from room to room the story becomes progressively darker and the effect is disorientating, but it deals with shame and guilt and love and is more than mere gross out stuff.

Betty on the This Is Horror podcast Original post

Cog by K. Ceres Wright

The head of a large corporation in a futuristic world is in hospital and his son is missing, along with millions of dollars. Add to that an estranged son with questionable motives and a daughter who has to go on the run and you’ve got an enjoyable read that reminded me of classic action science fiction films. The gadgets aren’t always immediately described which can seem confusing at first, but I’d much rather that than reams of explanation.

K. Ceres Wright reading a section (NSFW)

Good day, hope you enjoy these if you decide to purchase, toodle pip!

Trash Cinema, Weird Travel And Freaky People: Bizarre Book Club Non-Fiction Special

Merry morning my little chimpanzees in the planning stages of taking over the world. I’ve been reading lots of weird things and here they are:

Death Confetti: Pickers, Punks and Transit Ghosts in Portland, Oregan, by Jennifer Robin death-confetti-510x801

This is, no exaggeration, one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. I follow the author on facebook as well and, seriously, her status updates are miniature masterpieces.

Jennifer charts her non-linear journey from reclusive childhood to Portland artist with description as biting as William Burroughs and prose as rich as Anais Nin, but also completely unique. Sometimes she just remembers a character from her past, sometimes a full anecdote, sometimes she’s just looking at people on the bus, but all are beautiful. How can you not be fascinated by an intro like this:

“My directives, as established at seventeen—to experience real emotion, real contact with other people, all of the things you only learn by sucking cock, smoking rock, climbing cliffs, sleeping in catacombs, getting pregnant, and making a lot of mistakes—were fully enforced at this time. Within a year of my arrival I was playing in an electronic noise band. On and off-stage, we made—or perhaps “were”—performance art.”

The Disaster Artist by Greg Sestero ohm

I have genuinely never laughed so loudly and consistently at a book. If you’re unfamiliar with Tommy Wiseau’s complete mess of a film The Room, first of all where have you been, and second please watch it right now. Our fascination with it is hard to explain to people who don’t love terrible films. Example conversation with a friend:

Friend: Are you coming to Ian’s later?

Me: Yep. I’m bringing The Room

Friend: What? Not again. I’ve got Lolita at home, I’ll bring that

Me: Noooo, I can watch a good film anytime. YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND MEEE!!!

And so on. Greg is the guy who played Mark (Oh, hi Mark) and he recounts the complete debacle from beginning to end including the first time he met Tommy and the events that led to his making the film. What elevates this above merely poking fun at an eccentric is the genuine level of affection – though sometimes tested – and desire to understand Tommy. He’s not a monster, he has real feelings and a desperate need to be an actor, and perhaps another reason we enjoy The Room is his sheer determination to make that happen. As Greg says, “The Room is a drama that is also a comedy that is also an existential cry for help that is finally a testament to human endurance.”

There is a film coming out, called The Masterpiece, based on this book. I, for one, will be watching it.

Everything Wrong With The Room In 8 Minutes Or Less:

Dandy in the Underworld by Sebastian Horsley dandy

“Please allow me to introduce myself. I am a peacock without a cause, I am a piece of transcendent trash – a futile blast of colour in a futile colourless world.”

If Sebastian had been born in the 1800s he would be one of those sons paid by their wealthy family to stay away. He crashes through life like a mixture of Byron and Withnail, rarely likeable but always interesting, an artist who’s biggest art piece was himself.

On a whim he goes diving with sharks, has a fling with gangster Jimmy Boyle, bets on the stock exchange and becomes horribly addicted to heroin and crack. When he has money he doesn’t respect it, when he doesn’t he’s desperate. He makes no excuses for shoplifting and generally being a louche, entitled rich boy and if he did I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed reading him as much. He died aged 47 of a suspected overdose.

(Be warned, I suspect he says things because he likes to be ‘shocking’):

A Curious Guide To London by Simon Leyland curious

Yes, yes, there’s the Houses of Parliament and Trafalgar Square blah blah. Where are the corpses? A common cry, and one this book would like to answer.

Beneath the respectable layer of London’s past is a hidden world of information, such as the peculiar shrub in Chelsea Physic Garden that gave John Wyndham the idea for Day of the Triffids, St. Sepulchre’s watch house in Holborn (built to keep an eye out for grave diggers), the Haymarket cat opera (exactly how it sounds) or the leftover ‘snob screens’ in The Lamb pub which protected delicate wealthy eyes from the sight of the common man.

It’s separated into districts so you can have a flick through next time you go to London and see what’s about. If you’d like to see a bit more of weird London via a guide have a look at this spooky tour we embarked upon for Halloween.

Midnight Movie Madness by Ian Watson midnight-movie

A cavalcade of truly terrible films, this collection takes you from Maniac ‘director’ Dwain Esper‘s exploitation efforts, through fifties B movies to nonsensical modern day fare. Some of the descriptions made me chuckle out loud, particularly in the WTF section.

If monster movies are your thing, or perhaps overseas oddities, each film has been separated into categories ( I like categories, don’t I? I never realised that before), making it easier to dip in according to mood. Enjoy!

Book Review: Surrealist Women, An International Anthology

Hello my little dustpan brushes sprinkled with attractive gems. Recently I read Surrealist Women: An International Anthology. The kindle version is slightly cheaper than the hardsurrealist-women-cover copies but still costs a whopping thirty pounds. I do think it’s worth saving up for, however, as it is an almost exhaustive encyclopedia of all females involved in the art movement from the twenties to sixties counter-culture to now, including examples of their work.

The essays at the beginning of each new era, separated into chapters, refutes the idea that women were not as involved as men. While they were not seen as full members during the twenties they were just as passionate, and only a decade later their participation exploded. It only seems to be outside critics and scholars who have omitted them since.

This passage offers an explanation for the reticence at the start (Andre Breton’s wife, Simone Kahn, wrote several letters to her cousin Denise Levy in the early years): “Although masculine egotism surely existed in the Surrealist Group, what is known of Kahn’s correspondence refutes the temptingly simple but shallow argument that the relatively small production of the first women surrealists can be blamed on male chauvinism alone. What held these women back, more than likely, was a complex of inhibitions and fears inherited from centuries of French and European patriarchal, capitalist, Christian culture; notions of “feminine reserve,” “woman’s place,” and “biological destiny” that they had internalized more or less unconsciously as children and which continued to wreak havoc in their psyches in later years, despite themselves.”
Meret Oppenheim's 'furry cup'
Meret Oppenheim’s ‘furry cup’
The author mentions other biographies of individuals but Surrealist Women is packed with primary research and any omissions of a particular writer/artist’s contribution to surrealism is addressed. She also looks at surprising aspects of surrealism, such as it’s affinities with Trotsky and other leftist leaders as well as feminism. In the early thirties the wall street crash brought a tide of woman-hating against those who ‘stole the jobs of men.’ Two high profile murder cases took place in France during that time, the Papin sisters – maids who killed their bosses – and Violette Noizierre. Both were reported vitriolically by the press as examples of women running amok, but apparently the Surrealists were one of only a few groups to point out that all women involved were being abused and possibly acted in self-defense.
I discovered several writers and artists I had never heard of as well as learning more about others. As a huge fan of Anais Nin I was excited to discover Nelly Kaplan who, under the name Belen, wrote “erotic tales of black humor.” She is also a filmmaker, one of her best known being A Very Curious Girl (1967).
There was also Suzanne Cesaire, born in Martinique. Though her husband, Aime, often overshadowed her, she was very active and started the magazine ‘Tropiques’ with him. There’s Joyce Mansour, the best known Surrealist female poet once told by Breton himself “Your gift is that of a genius,” and Rikki Ducornet, artist as well as author, who has illustrated books by Jorge Luis Borges among others.
I enjoyed it and learned a lot, and now have plenty of further reading and art to explore, as will you.
Below is a short documentary about Leonora Carrington, also featured in the book. Incidentally one of her stories is in The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, another I highly recommend.