I read the oldest weird fiction that I could get my little paws on; Gilgamesh, The Cannibal Hymn of Egypt, Flatland by Edwin Abbot, The Yellow King by Robert W Chambers and Hell Screen by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa.
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:
First up… guess who’s novella/connected short stories were just accepted?! No, me, I meant me.
Not so long ago I posted a couple of sites where you could read Aleister Crowley for free, and threw in a UK documentary for chuckles. It’s a little over the top and sensationalised but still interesting.
Well, it seems it was part of a series called Masters of Darkness, and I’ll share the others with you now on the equally bizarre alchemist and mathematician John Dee, sadistic Marquis De Sade and ‘mad monk’ Rasputin (not an author, you got me, but come on, he’s fascinating). There’s a book about him I’d really like to read which apparently cuts through the myth, which I’m endlessly in favour of.
I’ve also added a documentary about Issei Sagawa, the student of avant-garde literature who murdered and cannibalised his girlfriend and, due to a technicality, served only fifteen months. Yep… He now makes his living writing and talking publicly about being a cannibal.
I missed an exhibition in London of John Dee’s library a year or two ago, I’m still annoyed about it.
The Marquis De Sade (disclaimer: Andrea Dworkin talks a lot of tripe)
Bonjour! Here are a couple of videos I worked my little socks off for. The first is an expedition to find the places in A Curious Guide To London by Simon Leyland, including the possible real life inspiration for Miss Havisham.
The next is a reading of my bizarro fiction novella at the Big Green Book Shop with Chris Meekings hosted by award winning author Laura Lee Bahr. It was amazing and I hope you like it too.
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.’
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.
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.”
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.
Afraid I can’t write too much because I am suffering some serious lady time issues. I’ve shared fiction podcasts and writing advice podcasts, now allow me to share some true story, factual and informative podcasts that stray on the creepy, weird and dark side.
Here is the latest episode of the podcast that focuses on weird episodes of history, The Dancing Plague. Mass Hysteria is a particular fascination of mine, and podcast creator Nathaniel Lloyd seeks to question “Can we trust history as we have received it?”
This is a fantastic and informative true crime podcast, focusing on different and often unusual stories each episode. In Eight Years we discover being a Harry Potter fan isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Hilarious husband and wife team (she’s a doctor) take a humorous look at medical mishaps and odd cures of the past. In this episode they explore the man who couldn’t stop eating, including a cat, a puppy, a snake, an eel, offal and poultices:
Genuinely informative and in-depth horror podcast for film buffs and nerds, this goes beyond the usual horror fan chit chat and discusses film making and horror as an art. This episode is about beautiful black and white flicks Night of the Hunter and The Innocents:
Hosted by writer/performer/general weirdos Dr Bramwell and David Mounfield, each episode features different speakers offering “a portal into the fringes of culture; its mavericks and pranksters, adventurers and occultists, artists, comics, eroticists and even the odd chef,” all before a live studio audience. Of course I picked the Sherlock Holmes episode.
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.”
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:
“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’):
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.
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!
Greetings! As everyone around me knows, I went to Florence in Italy in September. I have one more thing to share with you though, the spectacularly macabre La Specola, the oldest science museum in Europe. There’s taxidermy, fossils and general oogly booglies, but the best bit by far are the wax anatomical models.
Have a look at the film made by me and edited by Youtube channel Haunting TV, then glance over the photos by Bill Purnell.
Among other things I like to write erotica, and it just so happens I have another tale out with Forbidden Fiction. I’m working on getting a collection together, so if you like that side of my writing there’s more to come.
This new story features a Victorian actress determined to be taken seriously. When she lands a part in The Grand Guignol she decides not to get involved with any of her co-stars, but that all changes on the opening night.