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

Ghost Cars, Paedophiles And Hitler: The Weirdest American Sitcoms

Sitcoms can be quite odd. Often a vacuum of humour, they’re mostly born of a Network’s desire to keep things inoffensive and entertain the whole family, dulling any creativity on the way (Big Bang Theory and Citizen Kahn, I’m looking at you). Sometimes they break free and become something great, for example Nathan Barley, Silicon Valley, Spaced, The League of Gentlemen, Fleabag, The Mighty Boosh and Atlanta (technically a comedy drama but I highly recommend it, particularly the BET episode. My stomach hurt during that).

Most of the time, though, sitcoms are just the same old thing in different settings, cobbling ideas together from already successful shows during a very desperate board meeting. Sometimes they have an original idea, but it’s so outlandish that you can’t quite believe was pitched let alone accepted.

Bosom Buddies

Tom Hanks’ first screen appearance seems to be inspired by Some Like It Hot only more stupid and less funny. Some Like It Hot had to be in black and white for audiences to accept Tony Curtis and Jack Lemon as women, but the Bosom Buddies creators thought nah, it’ll be fine.

Tom and his chum find a cheap apartment to rent but oh, curses, it’s a hotel for women. Did…did those exist in the 1980s?

My Mother, The Car

Wanting to capitalise on the success of fantasy sitcoms like Mr Ed and Bewitched, with a little oedipal complex thrown in, the reviews for the sitcom in which a man’s dead mother is reincarnated as a 1928 Porter were so bad that it wasn’t picked up for a second series. I suggest you watch The Simpsons parody Lovematic Grandpa instead.

Diff’rent Strokes – The Paedophile Episode

I had to include this. Generally a regular, unfunny situational comedy, it took a dark turn when the writers decided to highlight the dangers of paedophiles.

While I think it was well meaning and may have done some real good, the story slips down a rabbit hole of inappropriate laugh tracks and wise cracks while the action onscreen grows ever more disturbing. If you’ve ever watched the Butter’s Very Own Episode of South Park you’ll know what I mean, only this was unintentional.

The Flying Nun

“There’s this nun, see.”

“OK?”

“And she can fly.”

“What? Why?”

“She weighs just 90 pounds and…and…when the wind is strong it catches that funny hat they wear, and off she goes!”

“Tere, your mother and I are very worried about you.”

Mr Smith

The orangutan from Any Which Way But Loose landed a speaking role in this short-running sitcom. Apparently transformed into a genius after drinking an “experimental mixture” (pesky stuff) he becomes a political adviser (?) while his assistant and secretary try to keep his ape identity a secret. Yes, I’m sure it was hilarious.

Bonus! full episode of Heil Honey, I’m Home

Hitler and Eva Braun live in an apartment next to a Jewish couple in this British parody of American 50s sitcoms which aired for a single episode. I suggest you read this review of the shockingly unfunny programme here. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

P.S. The writing at the start is fiction.

Robots And Reddit: Writing And Storytelling In The Future

First off I just heard that The Wicked Library podcast will be reading the short story on my previous post in December, so that’s exciting. It also kind of illustrates the point of today’s post.

A while ago I shared some online interactive horror stories (look through if you haven’t already, they’re very good). The evolution of storytelling is an endlessly fascinating subject for me, from folk tales passed by word of mouth to the invention of the printing press to creepypasta and reddit. Now we can upload a book immediately onto the internet for anyone in the world to read or add a piece to a collective mythos like the SCP Foundation.

In the video below Fredrik Knudsen (whose YouTube channel is a very interesting mix of weird fiction and oddball internet personalities, you should follow him) tells the story of Mother Horse Eyes, the author of strange and disturbing reddit comments which developed into something unexpected.

Look out for the moment when Mother Horse Eyes reveals themselves to be a Douglas Adams fan.

Next up is an interview with Don Coscarelli, director of the film adaptation of David Wong‘s John Dies At The End. He discusses how the book started off as a series on Wong’s website and was recommended to him by an automated Amazon robot.

In 1954 Roald Dahl’s short story The Great Automatic Grammatizator, in which a computer writes a novel, was published. In March 2016 a short novel by a Japanese AI “almost won a literary prize…” though the narrative of robots rising to overtake their human overlords falls apart under inspection. Much of the work was done by humans and the first rounds probably had fairly simple requirements. Still, pretty darn impressive.

By the way I recommend following the twitter mentioned in the article, Magic Realism Bot, it’s highly entertaining.

To finish off here’s a video I uploaded today of my adventures with online interactive horror fiction. Toodle pip!

New Weird Fiction Horror Story In Dark Lane Anthology Volume 5

Good day and a merry afternoon. You can purchase my Victorian set weird fiction horror type story here. There are weird drugs, cults and spooky things so enjoy!

Aleister Crowley Free Online

Hello my little pumpernickles! On Tuesday I read my latest novella in a London bookshop along with Laura Lee Bahr and fellow 2015 New Bizarro Author Chris Meekings. I’ll share the videos next week as my friend and I spent the morning following a book called A Curious Guide to London.

In the meantime I’ve found a place to read a few of Aleister Crowley’s books for free online, unfortunately not the drug diary. You can read directly from the site here or there are PDFs to download here.

I’ve also included a BBC documentary about him. I’d prefer to find one less sensational that sticks to reality but it’s still quite interesting. Enjoy!

Southend Vlog And 1920s Horror Science Fiction Short Story Reading

I have returned!

I’ll just give a little personal update before looking up weird arty things to share. The first video is a vlog of my two weeks spent at home with Bill in Southend, Essex. The second is a reading (not live) of my occult science fiction horror short story.

If you ever wanted to learn how to make a Sidecar cocktail…ask Bill, not me. I’m also still reading my favourite stories each week here.

Disturbing And Creepy Early Cinema Vintage Clips

Quick announcement: Bill and I are having a holiday at home, so after this post I shall see you in two weeks’ time.

Before the motion picture industry solidified in the 20s, The tens and 1890s were a period of gleeful experimentation, much like the advancement of YouTube from dramatic gophers to defined communities and vloggers.

From the cinéma vérité of the Lumière Brothers, the fantastical whimsy of Georges Méliès, the glamour and fun of Alice Guy-Blaché  and the innovation of the world’s first animators, everyone had something they wanted to test. Vaudeville stars of the Belle Epoque and big events were a natural draw, but sometimes events don’t go according to plan, vaudeville acts seem alien to modern eyes and other things… are just odd.

The Balancing Bluebottle/The Acrobatic Fly (F. Percy Smith, 1910)

I honestly felt sick after watching this. It’s fascinating though and I couldn’t look away. But…yeah I still felt sick.

A fly is glued to a matchstick by the wings, it’s strength tested by placing objects onto it’s flailing legs, one of the objects being a dead fly. Yep, it spins around the corpse of it’s brethren on frantic arthropodic feet. You know that shudder Bart does in the Simpsons…

Fish (Bert Williams, 1916)

This next one isn’t creepy so much as sad. Bert Williams wrote and directed two films, unheard of for a person of colour back then. However this two reeler is very light on humour and audiences had a hard time accepting him, as a 42 year old man, playing a boy. Added to the mix are parents played by white people in black face with incredibly poor comic timing and pathos that leaves the viewer depressed.

Bert was never able to reach his full ambition, stuck as he was in ‘black’ roles often in blackface. Friend and fellow vaudevillian WC Fields said “Bert Williams was the funniest man I ever saw and the saddest man I ever knew.”

On stage and in his other short he was a more subtle comedian. After the disappointment of Fish he returned to live performances.

Death jump from the Eiffel Tower, 1912

On the 4th February, 1912, Franz Reichelt was scheduled to test his homemade parachute by jumping from a great height. Nobody in the watching crowd or French and British media thought to tell him it was a bad idea and off he went, falling from the tower to his unfortunate death.

The Dancing Pig (1907)

The internet is quite familiar with a small section of this vaudeville performance, namely the titular pig gurning grotesquely at the end. The rest is pretty darn odd too, involving public humiliation and torment. All in good fun though.

The Cameraman’s Revenge (Wladislaw Starewicz, 1912)

Perhaps it’s my phobia of dead bugs (live ones I’m fine with though, no idea why) that leads me to find this film so shudder inducing. It’s a shame because this satire by the Polish, Russian and French stop motion animator is really incredible.

The cast of deceased insects perform an operatic melodrama of betrayed love and revenge in a mischievous swipe at popular theatre.

Monkeyshines 1, 2 and 3 (Thomas Edison, 1889 – 1890)

These ghosts from the past were captured during Edison’s first attempts to record image on film.

The Consequences of Feminism (Alice Guy-Blaché, 1906)

Either this film is meant to show the absurdity of men who protested against the suffragette movement or it’s an indictment of what could happen if allowed to continue. Seeing as Alice was a filmmaker herself I’d prefer to believe the former, but we just don’t know.

The Inferno ( Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan and Giuseppe de Liguoro, 1911)

This ambitious project was one of the first feature length films ever made (the first being The Kelly Gang, 1906). It’s packed with disturbing imagery from cannibalism to tortured souls and remains hauntingly fascinating to this day.