Books

God Speed, Adam Parfrey

Adam Parfrey died on May 10, 2018, and his death has been a mild devastation to me.  I never met him in the flesh but had some online interactions with him wherein he was both very professional and very kind to me.  I keep wanting to discuss his commitment to freedom of speech and to the dissemination of ideas that were guaranteed to make some readers uncomfortable – given recent societal determination to ban and censor all thought that makes anyone feel uneasy, losing Parfrey seems all the greater a loss.

But if you know who Parfrey was, you already know this.  And if you don’t know who he was, the best way to explain why Adam Parfrey was so important is to just to let you see, quite literally see, why he matters so much to me and to other people dedicated to experiencing strange and frightening ideas, to supporting freedom of speech in public and private realms, to shining light on that which is hidden. I said on social media that creating I Read Odd Books, which eventually morphed into this current site, was in no small part influenced by Adam’s works: his own writing, his work with Amok books, Feral House and Process Media are present throughout OTC.

My site and my own life’s works are a small leaf growing on a twig growing from a branch on the tree Parfrey planted and cultivated.  Almost every non-fiction shelf in my home has at least one title that is in some way associated with Adam Parfrey.  This is just a sample of what I found in five minutes or so, glancing at my shelves.

In this shelf sampling, left to right, top to bottom: The Covert War Against Rock by Alex Constantine, Lords of Chaos by Michael Moynihan, Pure Filth by Peter Sotos and Jamie Gillis, Strange Creations by Donna Kossy, The Gates of Janus, first and second editions, by Ian Brady, Rants by Adam Parfrey and Jack Black, The Carnivals of Life and Death by James Shelby Downard, The Source by Isis Aquarian, American Hardcore by Steven Blush, Shit Magnet by Jim Goad, Technological Slavery by Ted Kazcynski, Psychic Dictatorship in the USA by Alex Constantine, Apocalypse Culture/ Apocalypse Culture II / Cult Rapture, all three edited by Parfrey, and Demons in the Age of Light by Whitney Robinson.

This really is just a sample.  There are likely a dozen more, at least, that I didn’t hone in on in my quick survey of my books.

Despite the clear influence Parfrey has had on my book purchasing habits, it seems a bit mawkish to me to be so upset about the death of a man I never met in the flesh.  But, as I think of it, it becomes clearer why I am so sad.  When I look at various elements of my tastes, I can see Adam Parfrey’s influence, even if it is a circuitous route to get from A to B.  For example, I listened to black metal before Lords of Chaos was published, but the book encouraged me to seek out a few musicians mentioned because I wanted to include them in a book I was working on at the time, a book that became hard to work on after 9/11 and was ultimately abandoned.  Reading that Feral House title led me to an interesting, decade-long correspondence with one of the musicians in the book.  That has happened with other Feral House titles, strange friendships forming after the authors saw my discussions of their work.

Parfrey also indirectly led me to Ulver.  My favorite album of all time is Ulver’s Perdition City.  I only listened to Ulver after reading about them in LoC.  I may have eventually given them a try but Parfrey’s willingness to publish such a book certainly got me there quicker.

I don’t know if I would have a book published were it not for Adam Parfrey.  Of course my book discusses titles from Feral House and Process Media, but my discussions of such works brought me to the attention of my publisher, Nine-Banded Books, in a particularly bizarre and even more circuitous way.  My site attracted an unstable young woman who tried to file false DMCA claims against my original content.  When that was quickly decided in my favor, she also tried to get me in trouble with my then host by claiming I was publishing obscene content, including child pornography.  She flagged my discussions of some books discussing sex, including Jim Goad’s Big Book of Sex, published by Feral House.  One of the authors whose book she mentioned spoke to Chip Smith about what had happened to me and Chip contacted me about it.  That led to a friendship and a decision to publish a brick of a book containing some of the more interesting discussions I wrote.  My book contains several Feral House and Process Media titles: The Covert War Against Rock by Alex Constantine, Strange Creations by Donna Kossy, two passes over The Gates of Janus by Ian Brady (the second reaction clocked in at around 20,000 words), The Carnivals of Life and Death by James Shelby Downard, and Demons in the Age of Light by Whitney Robinson.

Parfrey delivered complex, interesting, creepy, inspiring and fascinating voices to those of us willing to explore roads not familiar to us. He published content he thought needed discussion, knowing full well that doing so would ensure labels that did not describe him accurately would be foisted upon him.  I will always appreciate his courage to publish that which the purveying moral arbiters consider evil in some manner, raising the ire of bluenose prigs and puritans on the left and the right.  I owe him a lot. God speed, Adam.

Hi! Buy my book!

So my book, TL;DR is out and you can get it in a number of places.

If you love Amazon, you can get a copy there.

If you really dig ordering books online from Nine-Banded Books, the publisher of my brick-like compendium, you should head over there right now!

Are you in Baltimore?  Because Atomic Books is selling TL;DR. I feel a strange thrill knowing that the store that receives fan mail for John Waters is selling my book, and by strange thrill I mean I will likely be mentioning this fact for years to come.

If you are in the Chicago area, Quimby’s Bookstore is carrying TL;DR.  No direct link to the book yet but go ahead and shop there now.  If I’m not on the shelves, get a few ‘zines and go back later, because that’s what I’d do.

Want a signed copy? You can buy one from me here.

I can’t believe I have a book out.  What a time to be alive.

 

Dark Sparkler by Amber Tamblyn

Book: Dark Sparkler

Author: Amber Tamblyn

Type of Book: Non-fiction, poetry, confessional

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because I spent at least a dozen hours investigating the “Search” suggestions on pages 101-108 and didn’t even make it through the first page due to all the horrible yet interesting rabbit holes I found myself falling down into.

Availability: Published by Harper Perennial in 2015, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I read this book last summer but my overall disorganization as of late worked in my favor for once because some of the content in this book is rather topical right now (I really need to start discussing books the day after I finish them but we can talk about how much I suck in another entry, I promise). The #metoo and #timesup “movements” have brought institutionalized sexual violence and harassment in the entertainment industry into a sharper focus than I could have ever thought possible. The toppling of Harvey Weinstein has been absolutely surreal to witness, but it helps explain why Mira Sorvino sort of disappeared from movie screens after winning an Oscar. I always liked her and now I know Weinstein systematically blocked her from access to high profile roles because she preferred not to have sex with an aggressive ogre of a man. The sentencing of Larry Nassar has lit up Twitter with people cheering as a man who molested at least 140 gymnasts was dressed down by the judge in the case. No matter what the industry is, if it is fueled by young, fit, attractive people, you can count on the industry attracting predators.

But predation can take many forms. A parent, a manager, a director, drug dealers, a world that devalues older women. As topical as this book is in many regards, the women Amber Tamblyn discusses in these poems aren’t exclusively victims of sexual predators. The women who inspired the poetry in this collection experienced a variety of miseries in a world that chews people up and spits them out for all sorts of reasons. Tamblyn took the stories of these girls, teens, and women who achieved some fame, however small or fleeting, and showed the damage done in a way that, strangely, honors humanity as much as revealing interesting and at times salacious stories.

My interest in books is mainly prose – I am not as learned in poetry as I am in prose fiction and non-fiction. But there are still poets whose words speak to me. I focus on specific poems by those poets, seldom embracing their bodies of work as much as the poems that contain those lines that mean something to me. Wilfred Owen (“As under a green sea, I saw him drowning…”), Gerard Manley Hopkins (“It is the blight man was born for, it is Margaret you mourn for.”), and EE Cummings (“Olaf (upon what were once knees) does almost ceaselessly repeat ‘there is some shit I will not eat'”) are great examples of poets who produce specific lines that resonate with me deeply, and Tamblyn manages to create lines that similarly resonate. One in particular I will discuss in a moment.

This collection reminded me in many ways of Mikita Brottman’s short story collection, Thirteen Girls. I found myself curious about all the women in this collection, as I did when I read about the women who fell to serial killers in Brottman’s penetrating look at victims and the ways they are remembered. The titles of the poems are the names of the women they are about, and there were enough stories of women and children whose sorry tales I knew before reading this book to ensure I felt the power of the poems Tamblyn crafted to portray them. Seeing the most troublesome parts of their lives depicted in poetry forced me to rethink my attitudes towards some of the people Tamblyn wrote about.

Venal Men Getting Their Comeuppance: an OTC Two-fer

Books: The Deep Whatsis / Diary of an Oxygen Thief

Authors: Peter Mattei / Anonymous

Types of Books: Fiction, potentially asshole recovery manuals if taken somewhat seriously

Why Do I Consider These Books Odd:  Eh, they aren’t that odd in and of themselves but considering them together shows me how enjoyable shitty people can be when they know they are shitty and just accept it.

Availability: The Deep Whatsis was published by Other Press in 2013 / Diary of an Oxygen Thief was published by Gallery Books in 2006 and you can get a copy of both here:

Comments: Analyzing these two books together, because one hits the mark with me and the other doesn’t, might lead one to believe that one of these books is somehow bad, or at the very least lacking.  That’s not really the case.  Rather, reading these two books around the same time showed me something very interesting about myself: I like unrepentant assholes.  Don’t get me wrong – redemption arcs have their place and can be enjoyable, but after a while I tire of the trope of callow men with some measure of success deciding that their lives are empty and meaningless and that their chosen work is unsatisfying and that maybe, just maybe, they can be better men.  If the catalyst for change is the presence of a manic pixie dream girl, all the better for the formula.

It’s jaded to think that this formula got hijacked from the early successful Palahniuk novels but, yeah, many books told from the perspective of a male protagonist who is sick of his immoral job, who meets an outsider woman and experiences a strong philosophical shift have the aura of Fight Club about them.  I mean, it’s a common trope but perhaps I see it clearer after Palahniuk did it so much better.  The Deep Whatsis doesn’t have a Tyler Durden twist and is almost 99% non-violent, but it follows the script and at the end left me feeling like I really needed the protagonist to burn something to the ground because otherwise this book is more or less just a version of several George Clooney movies, like Up in the Air, where the lovable rogue discovers he’s an asshole and learns from the experience and it’s all really heartwarming.

And that’s well and good to a point but sometimes you just want a self-aware asshole to suffer without trying to become a better man. 

Halloween 2017: Psycho USA by Harold Schechter

Book:  Psycho USA: Famous American Killers You Never Heard Of

Author: Harold Schechter

Type of Book: Non-fiction, true crime

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: True crime will always have a tinge of the odd or bizarre about it for those of us who are definitely not the serial killer type.

Availability: Published by Ballantine Books in 2012, you can get a copy here:

Comments:  Harold Schechter is one of my favorite true crime authors.  I have several of his books covering the crimes of Ed Gein, H.H. Holmes, Jesse Pomeroy and others and one day hope to find myself with time to read some of his fiction.  He writes in a manner that is both intelligent and accessible and manages to speak about the unspeakable without the bombast and disgust that I am sure would mar my writing were I ever to try to write about killers.

So given his skills, I should not have been so smug as to think this book had little to teach me.  I’ve stated on this site before that up until 2000 or so, I knew about almost all serial killers, and I did know quite a bit.  But I certainly knew far less than I thought I did because in this book of more obscure American killers, some of whom are serial killers or mass murderers, I only knew of three killers out of the thirty-one presented.  Among poisoners, sex killers, lonely hearts murderers and family annihilators, I knew of the Smutty Nose Killer, an angry seaman who killed a house full of women for money; Carlyle Harris, a despicable seducer and poisoner; and William Edward Hickman, a kidnapper and mutilator.  I had sort of heard of Andrew Kehoe, having come across his name in reference to school mass murderers, but had never read about him in any depth.

Since I am attempting to write quickly for Halloween, I’m going to write about the two murders I know best, and hope I can give justice to this compendium as I do it.  A lot of the true crime encyclopedias out there are tiresome cash grabs, covering the same ground over and over and discussing intricate and fascinating murders in so little detail that the reader finds herself longing for text at least as comprehensive as Wikipedia.  Not so with Schechter, and even if my discussion doesn’t resonate, you should look into him if his name is new to you. If it doesn’t resonate, it’s probably my fault.

Halloween 2017: Haunted Air by Ossian Brown

Book: Haunted Air

Author/Photo Collector: Ossian Brown, with introduction by David Lynch, epilogue by Geoff Cox

Type of Book:  Non-fiction, photography collection

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: The photographs themselves are odd and unsettling, but this book came with unexpected (and sort of gross) surprises.  Plus this book links David Lynch and the dude from Coil together and that has some odd potential.

Availability: Published by Jonathan Cape in 2010, you can get a copy here:

If you live in the UK, it may be cheaper to get a copy here.

Comments: Sometimes the story of how I obtain a book is odd, though the story behind how I came to own this particular title is grimly predictable.  Periodically, I will wake in the middle of the night and will take a sleeping pill to go back to sleep.  This is problematic because I must take a Lunesta every night to sleep at all and am generally not really “awake” when I wake and take the second pill.  Under the influence of double the dose I need to take, I will sometimes not go back to sleep.  Sometimes I open my iPad and order strange fabric collections or, as you can guess, a load of books.  I don’t know I’ve done this until I receive the shipment and wonder why it was sent and go online and see that I was shopping at four in the morning, ordering stuff from sites where my credit card is evidently stored in my account information.

And that’s how I came to own Haunted Air.  Interestingly, I picked out books from my “wish list” so every book I ordered was something I wanted and none of them were too expensive, which was good since I ordered nine books.  Since then I have kept my prescription anywhere other than the drawer of my bedside table and this hasn’t happened in about a year.  I mention all of this because I personally find it creepy when I find evidence that I was moving around, engaging in activities I commonly associate with consciousness, when I was supposed to be sleeping.  But given the popularity of hypnotics as sleep aids, this may not be creepy to others, especially Ambien users who wake to find they ate entire boxes of cereal with their hands or drove their car up to the Wag-a-Bag, executed a perfect parallel parking job, walked back home and went back to bed.  Ordering books in an altered state of consciousness by most standards is vaguely creepy but largely benign.

That sort of describes this book, if you take out the “vaguely” and replace it with “rather.”  This book really is rather creepy but largely benign, with any ill-intent coming from the reader herself. Ossian Brown has an impressive collection of old Halloween photos. The front page calls it “Hallowe’en” and the photos date from 1875-1955.  I only mention the use of the precise but twee “Hallowe’en” because I really wanted to include this video wherein a Chloe Sevigny impersonator pronounces the word as written.

Back to the book.  It occurs to me that the main reason this book is so creepy is because everyone takes about ten photos a day on their phone and so many of us are so very curated in how we appear, even when we disguise ourselves to celebrate pagan holidays.  Endless Instagrams of intricate make-up jobs, exquisite costumes, spider-leg cupcakes straight from the latest Martha Stewart Living fall edition.  We are hyper-aware of ourselves even when we appear candid.  I personally won’t post photographs online if I find there is too much cat hair on the carpet or sofa, unless the purpose of the photo is to document the cat hair and even then I may use a filter.

So it’s unnerving to see people so nakedly and without guile wearing paper or burlap bags fashioned into masks.  Church ladies with their hair up and their dresses buttoned to their necks wearing paper mache masks in scenes that are wholesome as wheat bread yet reminiscent of the set of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  That sort of messy, archaic, unmatched, unincorporated Halloween is not a part of any American’s landscape any longer and the viewer of such photos can find herself in an uneasy place, understanding she is assigning a malignancy to plain-spun activities that was not intended by those in the photographs yet unable to stop herself from imagining someone in such a mask stabbing her to death.

Most of the photos in this collection are nightmare fuel.  They are raw and primal, with a humble intensity that still surprises me when I revisit the photos.  Here are some of the ones that set my teeth on edge.

It’s like The Hills Have Eyes Episode One: Wagon Train.

Halloween 2017: Ben Thompson’s Grave

Ben Thompson doesn’t have the level of posthumous fame as his exploits should have earned.  I think it’s because he didn’t have a catchy nickname.  In the early days of Texas statehood, among impulsive, gun-crazy men with a violent streak, he was first among equals.  But fame is fickle and it’s hard to pin down why some gunslingers are well-remembered and why some become footnotes.  In many regards, outside of Texas history buffs, Ben Thompson is a footnote.

Still, among lovers of Old West or Texas history, some of us do remember Ben Thompson and this is a perfect time of the year to share his story.  He was a soldier and a lawman, but among Texas lawmen during the 1800s, it was not uncommon for lawmen to also be criminals, and Thompson was definitely a criminal, and a violent one at that.  So violent was his life that some people interested in ghosts and the paranormal say the power of his character affects his final resting place.

Ben Thompson was like many of the wild men who made Texas their home – he was a jack of all trades before he found his niche as a gunslinger.  Born in England in 1843, his family emigrated to Texas in 1851.  In his teens, he worked as a printer’s apprentice and in 1859 he went to New Orleans to work as a bookbinder.  It was in New Orleans that the man he was to become showed himself when he killed a man whom he claimed was abusing a woman.  Stabbed him to death.  He was fifteen or sixteen when this happened.

He served in the Civil War, fighting with the Confederates, but the battles he fought didn’t quell his love of guns and rough justice because after he returned to Austin he shot and killed a man during an argument over a mule.  A mule.  Seriously.  And since the mule was technically Army property, Thompson was arrested.  That didn’t slow him down though because he busted out of prison and fled to Mexico where he joined Maximillian’s forces until the good emperor lost the war in 1867.  Clearly a man unable to function outside of conflict, Thompson returned to Austin and promptly shot his brother-in-law for abusing Thompson’s wife.  Oh yeah, Thompson got married during his stint in the Civil War.  The civilizing effects of marriage didn’t really take with him.

So, Thompson was tried and sent to prison in Huntsville, and this time he was unable to break out.  He served two years of his four year sentence until pardoned by President Grant.  Once free he headed up to Abilene, Kansas with his family and opened a prosperous saloon with an old Army buddy, Philip Coe, and seemed to be doing reasonably well.  That changed when Thompson was in a terrible buggy accident that injured him, his son and his wife, who lost an arm.  While Thompson was recovering from the accident, Coe went and got himself shot by Marshal “Wild Bill” Hickok.

By any measure Abilene of the early 1870s was a tough town, and its city marshal – James B. (Wild Bill) Hickok – was up to the challenge of taming its rowdy visitors.  Although there may have been many reasons that Hickok and Philip Coe did not care for each other, it is likely that the basis for their dislike was a woman they both cherished.  Apparently she chose the gambler over the lawman and was going to leave town with Coe – or so she thought.  During the evening of October 5, 1871, Hickok shot Coe, who had been firing his pistol into the evening air on a street in Abilene.  Tragically, in the confusion of the shots taken at Coe, Hickok also shot and killed his deputy. (Texas Cemeteries, Harvey)

After that, Abilene, Kansas was tired of Hickok and all the cattle drivers who passed through, making trouble at the drinking and gambling establishments, so they relieved Hickok of his duty and banned undesirables from entering or remaining in the city.  That included Thompson so he went to Ellsworth, Kansas and began his time as a professional gambler.  Interestingly, it was in Ellsworth that Thompson encountered another name we all remember more than poor Ben:

After the shooting of Coe, Ben Thompson left town for Ellsworth, Kansas, where he met Wyatt Earp in one of the Old West’s classic “in the streets” confrontations.  Looking down the barrel of Earp’s gun, Thompson backed down and soon left Ellsworth for the Texas Panhandle.  There Thompson would meet and, in the ensuing years, form a life-long friendship with Bat Masterson. (Texas Cemeteries, Harvey)

Interestingly, Thompson’s brother shot and killed the Ellsworth, Kansas sheriff and fled.  A couple of years later he stood trial and was acquitted – the Thompson family seemed to be able to avoid the worst penalties for their impulsive and criminal natures, but so did a lot of men during that time.  Rustle some cattle and you’d hang immediately if caught but shoot a sheriff and people could understand how the sheriff may have had it coming.

From 1874 to 1879, Thompson made his living as a professional gambler, traveling around various Texas cities, and of course he got into trouble as he did it.  On Christmas Day, 1876, a fight broke out in the Austin Theater.  Thompson, seeing a friend was causing the commotion, decided to help his friend out and jumped into the fray.  When the theater owner emerged with a rifle and shot at Thompson, Thompson returned fire and killed him in three shots.  It was determined later that Thompson had killed in self-defense.

Looking for quick money in the Colorado silver mines, Thompson went west and while there teamed up with his friend, Bat Masterson, who had assembled a team of hired guns to work for Kansas-based railroads that were embroiled in a right of way dispute with Colorado railroads.  Thompson was well-paid for his efforts so he returned to Austin and opened a gambling saloon that he called the Iron Front Saloon.  Here’s where it gets kind of funny: Ben Thompson was scrupulously honest in the way he ran his gambling tables and earned the respect of Austin citizens as being an honest man, so honest that the citizens in Austin elected him to be city marshal, not once, but twice.  And the hell of it is, he was an honest man.  He just liked shooting people.  So why not have an honest shooter serve in law enforcement?

And it was a pretty good decision – plenty of people thought Ben Thompson was the best marshal Austin ever had.  But rest assured he didn’t stop killing people.  In 1882, Thompson visited the Vaudeville Theater in San Antonio and felt that the card tables at the establishment might not meet his level of scrupulous honesty and shot the theater owner, Jack Harris, to death.  He was indicted for murder and resigned as marshal and it will surprise no one that he was acquitted of murder.  Presumably the theater owner had it coming.  Thompson returned to Austin and was given a hero’s welcome

Now, you and I, if we shot a popular entertainment establishment owner to death, we might be emboldened a bit if we returned home to the 1880s version of a ticker tape parade, but it takes a really bold person to return to the scene of the crime.  Thompson went back to the Vaudeville Theater in 1884.  He and his friend, John King Fisher, one helluva gunslinger in his own right, sauntered into San Antonio like they owned the place and news of their arrival spread quickly.

What happened inside the Vaudeville Theater depends on the sources.  Some say that within minutes of entering the saloon area of the Vaudeville Theater, they were both ambushed and shot from behind.  That’s some cowardly crap right there but, it must be said, that there would have been little chance for anyone to kill him in a straightforward gunfight.  But other sources indicate that perhaps Thompson pushed things too far. He had already run into some of Jack Harris’ business partners inside the Vaudeville Theater, but stayed for the show and pressed his luck in the saloon

Thompson and Fisher had been drinking heavily in the saloon.  Inside, Simms, Foster and three confederates were waiting.  When the subject of the murder of Jack Harris came up, Fisher wanted to leave. But Thompson pushed on, eventually slapping Foster and putting a pistol in the saloon owner’s mouth.  Almost immediately shooting broke the tension and silence of the room.  As the smoke cleared, both Thompson and Fisher lay dead on the floor.  Fisher had never drawn a gun, and Thompson managed but a single shot.  Yet the bodies of the outlaw lawmen had nine and thirteen wounds, respectively.  Ironically, a coroner’s jury in San Antonio ruled the killings self-defense. (Texas Cemeteries, Harvey)

Legends of the ambush grew far outside of the reality of what really happened.  Texas history junkies talk of how it was that Ben Thompson killed six of the men who ambushed him with a single six-shooter and hit them each square like ducks in a carnival shooting game.  The reality is that even in the scenario where he pressed his luck, he barely knew what hit him.  I bet he’d have liked the way his own murder played out in terms of the myths that arose around him.  But no one was ever charged with killing him, and his body was shipped back to Austin.  He’s buried in Austin’s Oakwood Cemetery.

I first heard about Ben Thompson from a ghost hunter.  I don’t hunt for ghosts, but I do like looking into ghost legends, and ghost hunters can be really helpful in finding out interesting stories.  The lady I met told me that it was impossible to take a good photo of Ben Thompson’s gravestone because he hates the stone that was put on his resting place because it isn’t the one he won in a card game, so he makes sure all the photos people take are marred in some manner.

Bear with me, this story has some merit.  The late Charley Eckhardt wrote up a lot of what he knew about some of the better and more interesting Texas legends and he wrote a short article about how it was that Ben Thompson won his tombstone in a card game.  One night a tombstone salesman named Luke Watts played poker at a table at Iron Front Saloon and it just so happened that Ben Thompson was playing that night at that table as well.  Watts tried to sell Ben Thompson a tombstone, but Thompson didn’t seem too interested. But when Watts had lost every penny in his pocket, Thompson’s demeanor changed.

Watts was not as good a poker player as he thought he was, and sometime after midnight he announced that he was cleaned out and was leaving the game. Thompson asked him how much his tombstones were worth. “It depends on what kind it is,” Watts replied.

Thompson said he wanted the best tombstone Watts had. Watts told him he had a fine marble stone that was worth $200. Thompson told him to bring it up and put it in the game. Thompson would accept it in lieu of $200 cash. The game began again and Thompson won the tombstone. Watts suggested that he carve at least Thompson’s name and date of birth on it, but Thompson said no. The stone sat in the poker room in the Iron Front for a few months, until Thompson ordered it moved to the basement.

Not long after this Ben Thompson died in the ambush in San Antonio, but according to Eckhardt his resting place in Oakwood Cemetery lacked a headstone until 1925, and that the tombstone he won remained in the basement of the Iron Front Saloon until it was demolished. Eckhardt wasn’t certain if the stone that was eventually placed on his grave was the stone he won in the card game.

I don’t know one rock from another but the stone that marks Ben Thompson’s resting place does not look like it’s fine marble and I don’t think that anyone was too pressed to rescue a slab of marble from the basement of a saloon marked for demolition.

Oakwood Cemetery is a favorite of mine and many others in the area.  I spent a lot of time there searching for the burial places of the victims of the Servant Girl Annihilator, and while I was there years ago, I remembered that legend the ghost hunter told me and I took a photo of Ben Thompson’s gravestone.

And there you go.  Maybe Ben really is angry about his stone and interferes with good pictures.

Join me under the cut as I behave like the killjoy I so often am.

Halloween 2017: Sleeping Beauty II from the Burns Archive

Book: Sleeping Beauty II: Grief, Bereavement and the Family in Memorial Photography, American and European Traditions

Credits: Stanley B. Burns, M.D. with Elizabeth A. Burns

Type of Book:
Non-fiction, photography, death photography

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Well, pictures of dead people will always be a little bit odd.

Availability: Published by the Burns Archive in 2002, it can be found from third party sellers on Amazon:

But you can also get a copy directly from the Burns Archive as well.

Comments: As I was poking around in my shelves finding books appropriate for Halloween discussions – books about cemeteries, ghosts, creepy things in general – it struck me how many books I have devoted to death photography. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. I find death photography absolutely fascinating. The first Sleeping Beauty, purchased from The Strand Book Store in New York for what turned out to be a song, is one of my prized possessions. When I die, I will not leave a sizeable financial estate but hopefully fist fights will break out among my loved ones as they negotiate who gets my Burns Archive book collection.

Mr OTC inadvertently started my obsession with death photography. We had just moved to Austin and he was attending grad school. In one of the libraries someone had removed this book from the shelf and left it on a table. He checked it out and brought it home for me to look through, certain I would be interested in it. How well he knew me even then. I don’t think you can check this book out any more and it took me a very long time to be able to afford the comparatively inexpensive copy I got from The Strand. Now books from the Burns Archive are gifts for me on birthdays and Christmas and that is how I got this copy of Sleeping Beauty II – Mr OTC came through for Christmas in 2006. I wonder if he ever regrets igniting this interest of mine because the books documenting it are seldom cheap. He’d be well and truly screwed if I actually sought out original photos to purchase but I’m a reasonable fanatic.

I find the best way to discuss these books is to quote from the textual information and demonstrate the information with photographs. Because some people, understandably, find pictures of dead children distressing, I will put all such photos under the cut.

Halloween 2017: The Secret Books by Jorge Luis Borges and Sean Kernan

Book: The Secret Books

Credits: Stories by Jorge Luis Borges and photography by Sean Kernan

Type of Book: Fiction, photography

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s a strange, haunting book.

Availability: Published by Leetes Island Books in 1999, it appears to be out of print.  However, you can still get an affordable copy of this book used on Amazon:

Comments: There’s no sense in trying to make these entries about the more unsettling or creepy photograph books I own more than they are.  I’m showing you content from my shelves, sort of letting you in on items I own that are often hard to come by, obscure enough to be relatively unknown (while being popular enough for me to be able to afford a copy, itself an odd balance), or books that are just perfect and need to be shared regardless of renown or availability.  Most of my books from the Burns Archive fall in these three categories, and The Secret Books does, too.  While I plan to share text, this entry is going to be mostly visual.  It’s hard for me to go too deep into photography or art books because I often find it hard to express why something appeals to me visually.  But hopefully these more visual offerings are appealing and hopefully they will also allow a sort of voyeuristic look into the book accumulation Mr OTC and I have built up over the years.

The collection is inspired by Jorge Luis Borges’ story, “The Book of Sand.”  In this story, a man obtains a book called the Book of Sand.  It is so called because, like grains of sand, the pages of the book are impossible to number.  The story is a study on infinity and how outright frightening it actually is, how limiting it can be to contemplate it and genuinely experience it.  The protagonist becomes a bit unhinged in the face of something so vast yet so easily contained.  He becomes paranoid, unable to leave his home for fear of the book being stolen while he is gone.  He cannot truly conceive the vastness the book represents but the thought of losing that which he cannot genuinely define or completely possess becomes something that rules his life.  Unable to bear it any longer, the protagonist smuggles the book into the library where he once worked and places among the books. The protagonist says that the best way to hide a leaf is in the forest and has some sense of assurance that he may now be free from the book’s claustrophobic influence, but will never again walk down the street where the library is located.

An English version of this story is reproduced in the book, as is the Borges story, “The Library of Babel.” This story also exhibits the extremely limiting nature of infinity.  In this story the protagonist describes a library that houses every book that contains a potential ordering of a specific alphabet.  There is no order in which the books are shelved, and in most of the ordered alphabet produces gibberish.  This is problematic because the library also contains all known real books, all the information known to mankind, but finding those books borders on the impossible.  Some of the librarians began to develop mentally unstable thinking, much like the protagonist of “The Book of Sand.”  In the face of an infinity they cannot order, in such vastness wherein they cannot even find and sort the information that may be useful to them, some of the librarians turn to strange, superstitious behaviors and try to destroy the books that they perceive to be full of nonsense.  Others turn to a religious search, looking for a master book list that becomes their Holy Grail, certain there is a savior who has read the master list and can save them from the endless contemplation of infinity.

It’s all very on the nose when you type out these synopses.  Infinity is impossible to grasp. It’s so vast that it stunts the ability to understand it and can cause you to turn so inward inward in your contemplation that you begin to live a limited, claustrophobic life.  In an attempt to order it, you can become nihilistic or full of faith that someone somewhere can understand it and show you how to understand it as well.  But should you read these stories they are far more interesting and masterful than my yeoman-like summaries would indicate.

Sean Kernan created photographs that react to both stories, exploring the infinite, the usefulness of the written word, and how hopeful and threatening infinity can be.  The photographs are almost uniformly dark and almost threatening, which is why I am discussing it in Halloween 2017.  There is an almost supernatural menace in some of the photographs.  I found some of them completely unnerving.

The Biblical snake in Eden, the temptation of knowledge.

Halloween 2017: A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

Book: A Head Full of Ghosts

Author: Paul Tremblay

Type of Book:  Fiction, horror

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s not wholly odd, but it’s a horror novel that fits in neatly with my Halloween 2017 plans.

Availability: Published by Harper Collins in 2015, you can get a copy here:

Comments:  Limiting my word count discussing this novel is going to be difficult because this book lends itself well to many different avenues of analysis: blog culture, reality television shows and the exploitation that often goes along with them, the impact of a faltering economy on the American family, how toxic families create children who are far more in tune to their environment than we give them credit for, and how religion, when espoused disingenuously, can make any terrible situation so much worse.  This book was absorbing and tight up until the last 20 pages or so – I really dislike the ending, though I am not entirely sure why – and I plowed through it in two sittings.  It was a book I didn’t want to put down until I reached the end.  It’s been a while since a mainstream horror novel made me want to sit up all night and keep reading.

Here’s a quick synopsis: The Barrett family is experiencing a perfect storm.  John, the father, lost his working class but well-paying job and cannot find another.  His unemployment has run out and they are about to lose everything because Sarah, the mother, works as a bank teller and cannot support a family of four on her salary. Eight-year-old Meredith, known mainly as Merry, is a sensitive and intelligent child and she’s the conduit through which we see the collapse of the Barrett family.  Her older sister, fourteen-year-old Marjorie, is showing signs of schizophrenia and psychiatry does not seem to be helping.  Her behavior becomes more and more unhinged and her father turns to a Catholic priest, Father Wanderly, for guidance.  The priest convinces John that perhaps Marjorie is possessed by some sort of demon and just happens to have a contact with a reality television show that wants to film the Barrett family during the lead-up to an exorcism.  I’m going to be careful here because it is so easy to give up spoilers but it won’t spoil too much to state that the decisions the adults make in this book destroy the family and, even though I hate the ending, I don’t know how else it could have ended.  Perhaps I hate the ending because Marjorie and Merry deserved so much better, which is probably the entire point of this book.  Merry’s story is told through her perspective as an adult and through the prose of an interviewer who is writing a book about the Barretts and the TV show that followed them.  There is also very interesting information about the show in a blog written by a very informed but terribly twee writer whose well-versed entries add a lot to the story when I wasn’t cringing at her style.

Discussing the blog author opens the door to my two main, grounded criticisms in this book, so let’s get them out of the way so I can discuss the meat of the story.  The blogger employs a very kitschy style of writing throughout her blog entries and I cringe as I wonder if my own writing is that cutesy, affected and predictable (anyone who follows a reference to zombies with “mmm braaaiiins” or some such similar deserves our derision).  I hope it isn’t but it’s hard to judge because I can’t even control my word count, let alone my conversational and perhaps irritating tone.  But the blogger’s style was a problem because her perspective is very important to the novel and I almost skipped over the blog entries entirely, though I should mention I was a bit heartened by the blog lengths. Yes, it’s a fictional blogger but still. Also irritating were the in-joke character names.  Tremblay gave his characters the names of fellow writers and borrowed a name from House of Leaves and I just find that hackneyed.  The House of Leaves name-borrowing especially is getting old – I’m losing track of how many novels have characters named Navidson or Zampanò.  Stop it.

Now to discuss the many upsides of this novel.

Creating realistic child characters is hard.  Very hard.  Tremblay nails Merry so well that I felt my stomach tighten when I knew she was in distress or in some sort of danger, as if this was a non-fiction recount of an actual child’s life.  Merry and Marjorie had a very close relationship in spite of their age difference and Merry’s reactions to her family’s disintegration – anger and fear towards Marjorie, feeling abandoned by her mother who had too much too do and too little money to do it with, and wanting to be the clown for her father and the film crew – were a perfect enactment of how a real child would behave.  Merry knew it wasn’t her fault, all that was happening, yet in the way of all children, she secretly blamed herself for so much that occurred.

Marjorie would help Merry rewrite stories in her Richard Scarry books and together the two wove interesting new tales using the book’s characters.  But when Marjorie began to show signs of severe mental illness, the stories began to take a dark turn, with one story notably featuring a father doing malignant things to his family, ultimately killing his two daughters.  This story is almost a Macguffin, in a way, because it makes it unclear how much Meredith understood about her father and it causes the reader to wonder how much Marjorie, herself a perceptive and intelligent teen, understood about her father and his motivations.  It causes the reader to question what it is we think we know about John Barrett and what it is that Tremblay wants us to take away from how Marjorie’s illness manifests.

If this sounds a bit stilted, it’s because I am doing my level best not to spoil any plot elements or parts of the book that will spur the reader on to make his or her own conclusions.  I myself came away with a very sinister view of the relationship Marjorie and John may have had, though even that is not a solid statement because part of the ambiguity in this book is that we do not know exactly what is wrong with Marjorie, though we can safely say she is not genuinely possessed, or at least that is the conclusion I drew.

Part of the problem is that Tremblay shows us how clever and resourceful Marjorie is.  She’s a child of the Internet age and can piece together narratives the dense adults around her think are impossible for her to know, as if it would have been unthinkable for a fourteen-year-old girl to find out details about exorcism rituals online.  No, the priests think it has to be a demon responding because their need to believe in their version of the story – it is totally a demon wrecking this girl and not her crumbling family and mental illness – and any other explanation has to be discarded.  Marjorie’s mother Sarah is the only one who understands how capable her eldest daughter is, that she could very easily know all the things the priests and her husband seem to think are too arcane to be found with little effort.  It’s a neat little inversion, that Sarah never becomes the hysterical mother clinging to traditionally feminine ideas of male-led intercession and salvation.  She and her two daughters stand in opposition to the men who think so little of the intellect of a teen girl, who think ancient rituals will work better than medications to calm Marjorie.  Sarah sees the exploitation of both of her daughters by her husband and the church and is unable to stop it but remains a thorn in their sides and helps her daughter make it out the other side of the ridiculous exorcism.

But then the reader is faced with a question: if Marjorie could easily research facts about exorcisms, if she could incorporate elements of demon-possession films into her own expression of possession, then she could also research schizophrenia and execute a reasonable impersonation of a person with the condition.  If she was performing mental illness, what would make her want to do such a thing?  I do not know how much of Marjorie’s behavior was genuine illness and how much was calculated reaction to her father. And that inability to know for sure is one of the reasons this book is so compelling.

All of this is just icing on the cake because the reason this novel works so well is because of Merry.  Tremblay, as I said already, wrote such an excellent child character in Merry.  Her love and trust in her sister becomes more and more eroded as the book goes on.  We shift from Merry and Marjorie creating fun stories, to Marjorie creating stories that scared Merry, to watching in clenched-fist tension as Marjorie crept through the house at night, messing with her sister’s possessions, leaving her alarming notes, chipping away at her sense of safety. Merry responds like any child would – she loves her sister and it takes a while for the fear to set in but when it does she avoids Marjorie while feeling guilty.

Merry is a girl with unusual interests – she loves reality show programs about Bigfoot.  She prefers to make her own stories to write alongside the stories printed in her books.  Her imagination, however, isn’t quite ready to accept what is happening with Marjorie.  It’s hard for her to move from adoring her older sister to feeling afraid of her to becoming tired of the whole situation.  The reality show seems like a perfect idea to young Merry, who relishes the idea of being a TV star.  She likes the money the show brings in because suddenly her family has enough money to stock their basement larder with snacks, to have milk with cereal again, to eat something other than spaghetti for supper.  She has no idea how bad things would get for the family after they made their Faustian bargain to televise Marjorie’s illness or possession to millions of people.  One presumed the adults would have known but the ill-effects seemed to take them by surprise, too.

The crew of the show that invades the Barrett home are surprisingly tender towards Merry, concerned about her well-being, playing with her when things get tense, hoping against hope that her parents will wise up and exclude her from the filming but filming her anyway (though limiting her screen time) because the little sister is an important part of the story.  But at no time does Tremblay let us forget that Merry is a little girl who is experiencing things that would mess up even the most hardened adult.

Take this upsetting scene.  This happens after Marjorie suffers from a violent, screaming outburst in the middle of the night.  Sarah retreats into Merry’s bedroom to calm her and sleep with her once the spell is over.  Merry knows that Marjorie has been creeping into her room at night – Marjorie taunted her by telling her she would come into the room at night and pinch her nose closed.  Merry wakes from sleep, her mother still in the room, and she sees a picture of two cats her sister had drawn and left for her in a window of a cardboard playhouse in Merry’s room:

I got out of the bed quietly and didn’t wake Mom.  I plucked the picture out of the window. Written on the bottom was the following:

There’s nothing wrong with me, Merry.  Only my bones want to grow through my skin like the growing things and pierce the world.

The growing things refer to a story Marjorie had told wherein vines grew out of control and choked and crushed everything in their path, killing the world as they bloomed.  This is terrifying stuff for a little girl – Merry has just had proof that even her mother sleeping in her room would not save her from Marjorie’s creepy crawls in the middle of the night.

Yet Merry didn’t become as afraid as I would have, not immediately.  She sits outside her cardboard house and looks around, seeing if maybe her sister was going to fall down from the ceiling and bite her or otherwise attack her.  But she calms herself.  Then it gets weirder:

I told myself that maybe in the morning I would hang up the sister-cats inside the cardboard house.  I folded the picture and put it in the top drawer of my bureau, next to the other note that Marjorie had written me.  When I took my hand out of the drawer I noticed there was a green leaf with a curlicue stem carefully etched on the back of my hand.

Not only did her sister creep in and leave the note under their mother’s sleeping nose, but she was able to draw on Merry’s hand without waking her.  This is such a violation; Merry is safe no where in the house and not even her parents can protect her if Marjorie wants to hurt her.  And this scene should provoke all kinds of questions.  Was Marjorie foretelling that the vines that were choking her would come for her sister, too?  Or was she showing how easy it is to cause harm in the night without a mother noticing, perhaps warning her sister of other vines that might creep into her room?  Hard to say but I have my opinion.

But then again my opinion wavers because I sense I may be dismissing Marjorie the same way her father and the priests did. Marjorie may well be the direct force of danger. She may well be warning Merry that she is the one who is dangerous, foreshadowing the roiling insanity that could trigger violence while she has enough of her senses to control herself to the degree she manages.

I want to share the next passage just because it is such a good look into Merry’s mind as terrible things were happening and because it is an example of the sort of creepy, symbolic writing Tremblay pulled off.  The Barrett family is gathered at the dining room table and Merry asks Marjorie if she can please wear a sparkly baseball cap of Marjorie’s to school the next day.

Now I remember thinking that her answer could change everything back to the way it was; Dad could find a job and stop praying all the time and Mom could be happy and call Marjorie shellfish again and show us funny videos she found on YouTube, and we all could eat more than just spaghetti at dinner and, most important, Marjorie could be normal again. Everything would be okay if Marjorie would only say yes to me wearing the sparkly sequined baseball hat, the one she’d made in art class a few years ago.

The magical thinking of children and the recently bereaved is at play in Merry’s thinking here, and it’s heartbreaking, the way kids do this, imbuing trivial situations with the power of solving life’s problems.  And the implicit end to this request is that if Marjorie denies her the hat then her inability to get her sister to say yes is what will sink the family.  Kids feel responsible for every goddamned thing their parents do wrong, for every family failure, and I wish more parents understood this and stood guard against it.  But back to the scene:

The longer we watched Marjorie and waited for her response, the more the temperature in the room dropped and I knew that nothing would ever be the same again.

She stopped twisting her spaghetti around her fingers. She opened her mouth, and vomit slowly oozed out onto her spaghetti plate.

Dad: “Jesus!”

Mom: “Honey, are you okay?” She jumped out of her seat and went over to Marjorie, stood behind her, and held her hair up.

Interesting how this played out.  Dad called to Christ, Mom got up to comfort the daughter.

Marjorie didn’t react to either parent, and she didn’t make any sounds. She wasn’t retching or convulsing involuntarily like one normally does when throwing up. It just poured out of her as though her mouth was an opened faucet. The vomit was as green as spring grass, and the masticated pasta looked weirdly dry, with a consistency of mashed-up dog food.

She watched Dad the whole time as the vomit filled her plate, some of it slopping over the edges and onto the table. When she finished she wiped her mouth on her sleeve. “No, Merry. You can’t wear my hat.” She didn’t sound like herself. Her voice was lower, adult, and growly. “You might get something on it. I don’t want you to mess it up.” She laughed.

Dad: “Marjorie…”

Marjorie coughed and vomited more onto her too-full plate. “You can’t wear the hat because you’re going to die someday.” She found a new voice, this one treacly baby-talk. “I don’t want dead things wearing my very special hat.”

This scene was hard for me to read – the green vomit that is clearly a pea-soup call-back to Regan in The Exorcist, the numb and listless vomit just oozing from her sister almost like rot from a corpse, Marjorie’s refusal to interact with anyone but Merry, while staring at her father.  While this is the story of an American family faced with American problems this is also very much the story of how these two sisters navigated the toxicity the adults in their lives rained down upon them.

And as I said, I don’t like the ending, but I don’t know how else the novel could have ended.  Perhaps that is why I hate it – perhaps the ending was so perfect while being so heartbreaking that I was meant to hate it.

All in all, this is a very good novel.  Though it can be classified as a horror novel, people who are not fans of genre fiction may still find a lot to like in this tightly plotted book with excellent characterization and enough ambiguity that it forces them to read carefully and make their own decisions about what really happened in this novel.  Highly recommended.