Books

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.

Halloween 2017: 100 Artists See Satan by Last Gasp Books

Book:  100 Artists See Satan

Author: Curated by Mike McGee

Type of Book: Non-fiction, art collection

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd:  It’s 100 depictions of Satan. That’s sort of odd.

Availability: Published by Grand Central Press in 2004, you can get a copy here:

Comments:  This is going to be one of the shortest book entries I will ever write because really there isn’t that much to discuss.  One hundred artists portrayed Satan as they saw fit, Mike McGee wrote a foreword, and here we are.  There are many interpretations of how Halloween came to be and it’s debatable whether or not Satan has much to do with Halloween but only a purist or pedant would insist that Satan and Halloween don’t have at least an uneasy connection, at least in the modern, Western look at the holiday. Some Westerners associate Halloween with evil, a sort of sanitized, cinematic evil, and who is more evil than Satan, mythologically speaking?

McGee’s foreword is relatively interesting.  He creates the best excuse for me to bring up this book in reference to Halloween:

Among the many possible explanations of evil, I have always liked the one that mythology expert Joseph Campbell gave Bill Moyers in the PBS interview series The Power of Myth: “The monster masks that are put on people in Star Wars represent the real monster force in the modern world.  When the mask of Darth Vader is removed you see an unformed man, one who has not developed as a human individual.  He’s a bureaucrat, living not in terms of himself, but in terms of an imposed system.”

Perhaps, even those of us who are formed, who feel as if we are forces at least of neutrality, can assume a mask once a year and let that which is unformed or repressed express or reveal itself when we don a disguise.

McGee gives a quick overview regarding depictions of Satan in different schools of art, but part of his intro explains best why one should both seek out and find value in 100 depictions of Satan as seen through different artists:

Mark Twain once said, “All religions issue Bibles against Satan, and say the most injurious things against him, but we never hear his side.”  While 100 Artists See Satan may not exactly present Satan’s side of things, it does present a wide, albeit inconclusive, range of perspectives…”

And that can seem sort of shallow and on the nose – yes, there are many perspectives on Satan once one steers away from a traditional Judeo-Christian perspective of evil, and there’s been a rash of books and movies attempting to tell the other side of the story in the battle for the human soul.  But even the most jaded religious refugee will find interesting perspectives of what other minds consider to be the most pernicious evil that stalks and taints mankind.  Here are some representations of Satan in the collection that spoke most to me, presented without comment.

Paul Laffoley, “Pickman’s Mephitic Models”

Halloween 2017: Susy Smith’s Supernatural World

Book:  Susy Smith’s Supernatural World

Author: Susy Smith

Type of Book: Non-fiction, paranormal, supernatural, metaphysics

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd:  Most supernatural topics verge into the odd for me, but the real reason I am discussing this book is because of a talking cat.

Availability:  This is an old little pocket paperback.  Published in 1971 by McFadden-Bartell Corporation, you will likely find it difficult to find a copy but sometimes Amazon comes through.  Be aware that often times you will find her first name misspelled as “Suzy.”

Comments: When Mr OTC and I moved to Austin back in 1996, the old Half Price Books on Guadalupe had a quarter sale on old paperbacks and I scored this ridiculous gem.  And it is ridiculous.  Susy Smith, should she still be alive, which I cannot imagine she is – she was in her late fifties when this book was published – was not herself ridiculous.  She was indeed deeply interested in the paranormal, as were many in the 1960s and 1970s, and wrote compelling books, some of which are so nakedly and earnestly open about herself and her life that they almost break my heart.  You can more or less psychoanalyze her through the stories she tells about her own psychic and paranormal experiences, and I don’t want to go into it in depth here because I don’t want the pathos of Smith’s often sad life to steal the focus from the story I am about to discuss, but I think I wanted to show that Smith is (or maybe was, I should really look it up and see if she is still alive) a good writer with more gravitas than the story I plan to discuss would suggest.

There are over a dozen stories of interesting and unlikely paranormal experiences and events in this book.  Ghosts who tell the living who killed them.  Precognitive dreams about decapitations that later happen.  Psychics who find the body in the woods when all those careful police and search parties fail.  Nothing you’ve not heard before if you’ve spent more than ten minutes in the metaphysical section at a used book store.  The reason to seek out this book and own it is because it has one of the sweetest paranormal stories ever told, the story of Whitey the Cat.

Once upon a time, there was a magazine called FATE that covered stories about reincarnation and poltergeists and weird things that fell from the sky and Susy Smith wrote articles for them.  One of those articles was about her search in 1965 for a talking cat.  Smith, an honest writer, says that she cannot really say if she has laid the matter to rest as to whether or not a talking cat lived and spoke in Lake Hamilton, Florida.  However she did say:

…I interviewed several persons who attest that they have indeed heard a soft voice issue from a tomcat named Whitey, and that this voice spoke clear and sensible English.

Mr OTC and I speak to each other using voices we’ve assigned to the cats.  The best voice belonged to the late Cicero Cat.  He sounded a lot like Bill Clinton.  The voice we use for our elderly cat Gertie sounds a lot like my late mother.  So it would seem like we would be the sorts of people who would delight in the idea of talking cats, but really since we basically use the cat voices to annoy each other, we decide what the cats say and realize that a genuine talking cat would be a complete nightmare.  I don’t even want to know what they would talk about if they could talk.  I suspect that when they weren’t talking about the state of the boxes they crap in and complaining about Grendel eating their food, it would be hours and hours of them shouting, “HEY, HEY, HEY!” at each other and at us.  Because they’re cats.  It’s all poop and food and attention for them.  We would not be discussing literature, or even talking cats.  I reckon having a talking cat would suck.

But let’s see what Susy has to say about it.

Before we begin in earnest, it needs to be said that the Whitey tale was verified by a certain Bennett William Palmer, a retired minister, and therefore more trustworthy than the average Floridian who hears cats talking to them.  He vouched for Mr and Mrs James Deem (seriously, those were their names) so Susy flew to Florida, picked up the Good Reverend and drove on over to the Deem house.  Sadly, Whitey did not speak while Susy was in his house, and his owners seemed skittish as well, but after the humans in the house realized that Susy Smith was not going to mock them for claiming their enormous white cat could talk, they began to open up to her.

Mr Deem found Whitey when he was a tiny kitten.  Mrs Deem heard a pitiful meowing coming from near the house, and sent Mr Deem out into the rain to find Whitey, miserable and sick.  Mr and Mrs Deem spent 48 hours nursing the wee kitten until they restored him to health.  Whitey found his niche in the Deem household, a nice counter-balance to the Deems’ other cat, aptly named Blackie.  Then, when Whitey was six months old, he began to talk.

…he jumped on the bed one morning and said, “I’m hungry.”  Mrs. Deem was not asleep, but she knew she must have been dreaming.  “I thought I was hearing things,” she told me.  “A cat can’t talk.”  She turned over and looked at her pet.  Whitey spoke again.  “Mama, I’m hungry,” he said.

After verifying that Whitey had indeed said he was hungry, she did what any sane person would do.  She got up and fed the cat.

Whitey also showed his skills to Mr Deem.

Two or three days later James Deem was lying down when Whitey jumped up beside him.  Stroking the animal, Mr. Deem said, “Whitey, you’re a bad cat.”

“I am not a bad cat,” replied Whitey, then added, “I want to go out.”

After consulting his wife and determining that the cat was indeed talking, one presumes that Mr Deem let Whitey out.  Luckily, Whitey was not a loquacious cat.

Once he started speaking he was rather fluent for over a year, I was told.  While the more striking incidents occurred very infrequently, over a period of many months he is reported to have said some human word or sentence every day.

As irritating as having a talking cat must be in reality, Whitey’s story sounds rather charming.  He liked grocery shopping day.

When Mrs. Deem went to the grocery, she told me, she often returned with some chocolate.  Whitey is particularly fond of chocolate and he would say, “What did you bring me?”  She would counter with, “Do you love me, Whitey?” And he’d reply, “I love you, Mama, what did you bring me?”

Cute and obsessed with food, tinged with complete self-absorption.  And don’t feed your cats chocolate.  The vets say it’s poisonous but I’m beginning to think that perhaps chocolate triggers the capacity for cats to speak.  But still, don’t let them eat it.

Whitey’s speech at times involved topics other than food.

Once Ruth says she heard the cat say, “Come!  Come!”  She went out and saw him sitting, looking steadily at something under the house.  He said, “He’s a big one!”  She stooped to see what he was looking at, and a big black snake crawled out.  Mrs. Deem screamed, and then, she swears, the cat said, “Mama’s a coward.”

Television seemed to be an upsetting and baffling experience for Whitey.

Whitey likes to watch television and the set often is left on just for his benefit.  Once he saw a man shot on TV and asked, “Is he hurt?” Mrs. Deem said, “No, he isn’t hurt.”  Whitey then said, “Mama, don’t tell a lie.” He also is reported to have said of a dog he saw on television, “He’s not real.”  Ruth says she thinks she once heard him say, “Thanks,” but she is not positive of this.

Our late cat Adolph used to watch Spanish language television all the time.  I swear he knew how to operate the old television and remote system and would watch telenovellas at night when we were asleep.

Whitey also was a little tattletale.  Once the Deems left their house and cats in the care of a neighbor, taking a week’s vacation.  When they came back home, the house sitter came over for a visit and Whitey followed Mrs Deem into the bedroom and informed her that her guest, sipping coffee in the kitchen, had hit him.  She asked him what he hit him with and Whitey said he had smacked him with a newspaper.  Mrs Deem ferreted information out of her visitor.  Evidently Blackie and Whitey had gotten into a fight and the house sitter rolled up a newspaper and swatted wildly to get them to stop.

…he did a double take, wondering how she knew about it.  Then he remarked to me, “There is only one way she could have known.  That darn cat told her.”

Can you imagine what your cats could tell people about you?  “He farted twice during dinner.”  “She ate a pint of ice cream in the bathtub.”  “My mama said your pants make your butt look big.”

He may have been a little snitch but I tend to think Whitey was a good judge of character.  A traveling preacher heard about Whitey and showed up to see the cat.  Mrs Deem, far nicer than I am, let the preacher inside.

After some conversation, they were startled to hear Whitey say to the preacher, “Why don’t you go home?”  And then they were horrified when he added, “He’s a stinker.”  Mrs. Deem quickly said, “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?”  But Whitey stoutly denied it.  “I am not.”

Whitey had a very melodramatic flair, remembering back to his sorry beginnings as a lost kitten in the rain.  He frequently lamented about being hungry and feeling unloved.

If one subjects Whitey’s supposed conversation to psychological scrutiny it seems at times almost embarrassingly human – and Freudian.  Here is a cat that apparently was abandoned to die when it was a kitten.  Today, even though rescued and loved by the Deems, it still is reported to complain that “No one loves me.”  It most frequently uses human words of love and rejection: “Hungry,” “Mad,” “I want to go home,” “He’s bad” (often said about Blackie), “Love,” “I love Mama, ” and “Why no one love me?”

I don’t even want to tell you how sad it makes me to realize that perhaps these animals we love so much remember too clearly their hard times before they were rescued.  I guess people who buy cossetted expensive cats from reputable breeders never have to wonder about the bad times their animals faced but those of us who find abandoned and injured cats, hungry and miserable, would be so stricken to know that our cats remember starkly and sadly all the times they felt forsaken.  Poor Whitey.

Susy verified with neighbors that the cat had been heard speaking, and she respected how reluctant the Deems were initially to talk about it, since publicity-seeking can point to a certain lack of veracity.  The neighbors seemed sane and the sorts of people unlikely to perpetrate a hoax.  Plus there was the minister verifying their story.  The Deems seemed like stand-up folks. They mostly just wanted to be left alone with their black cat and their white cat.  They even moved when a story in the local news caused people to come and literally stalk their cats.  It was 1965.  Exploiting pets for base humor and fleeting fame had not yet become common and democratized.

Susy explores the potential reasons behind a talking cat – hoax, delusion, reincarnation, poltergeist, ventriloquist.  She also brings up another excellent story of a talking animal: Gef, the talking mongoose on the Isle of Man.  Gef was investigated far more than the story of Whitey and of course it was a fraud.  It also had more sinister overtones than Whitey’s tale, but there’s still something very endearing about a weird bushy rat thing that talked.

Yeah, I know.  None of this is scary. But Halloween doesn’t always have to be creepy or horrible – sometimes it’s just inexplicable.  For every gory murder or horrible monster there’s an emo talking cat who wants a treat on grocery day. Whitey is the cutely paranormal and while I’m glad my cats cannot speak English I also like the idea of Whitey so much that I held onto this brittle, worn-out paperback I bought for a quarter over two decades ago.  And yes, I call Mr OTC “a stinker” using my dead mother’s voice channeled through an elderly cat.  You may find this unseemly but if anyone understood using pets to irritate people, it was my mom.

I hope that Whitey’s afterlife is free of newspapers, black snakes, and creepy traveling carny preachers, and that he gets all the chocolate he wants.

Halloween 2017: The Merry Cemetery of Sapanta

Book: The Merry Cemetery of Sapanta

Credits: Photographs by Peter Kayafas, epitaph translations by Adrian G. Sahlean, introductory essay by Sanda Golopentia

Type of Book: Non-fiction, photography, Romanian cemetery

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd:  Because this book documents one of the most unique cemeteries in Europe and because if I enter the city name as it is spelled with correct diacritical marks, WordPress will automatically put every letter with a diacritical mark in the name in bold and italics throughout the entire entry for those reading on mobile devices.

Availability: Published by Eakins Press Foundation in 2008, you can get a copy here:

Comments: This is a delightful little book.  I bought it on a whim at the now closed Domy bookstore in Austin, but the photographs and general nature of the cemetery affected me deeply. I feel strongly that if I am to be buried after death, I want a marker like those in the Merry Cemetery to mark my resting place.  I rather hope I am cremated, or maybe Mr OTC could work up the nerve to haul my carcass out and do a sky burial, but if one is to be covered in dirt for eternity, this is a nice way to do it.

Merry Cemetery is in Sapanta, Romania.  Sapanta is in northern Romania, in a part of the country called Maramures.  According to Golopentia’s essay, around 3500 people live in Sapanta, and the cemetery is now a large tourist destination.  The cemetery’s colorful and at times jovial approach to death can be attributed to Ion Stan Patras (spelled differently throughout the internet but this is how the author’s essay in this book spells and orders his name), who began carving crosses as grave markers in 1935.  Patras was an artist who initially carved lovely gates for his townsfolk, and began to carve the crosses for the cemetery.  He wanted to take a livelier approach to death, incorporating bright colors into his designs.  The plots are separated with concrete dividers that are not that common in the USA but interestingly can be found in some cemeteries near where I live in Texas, where Eastern European immigrants settled.  These crosses for the cemetery plots almost visually seem like doors to me, an interesting correlation given Patras’ early career as a gate-carver.

Patras’ desire to create long-lasting and memorable crosses led him to begin to carve portraits of the dead into the wooden crosses.  Golopentia’s essay speculates that pre-World War Two rural Romanians often could not afford the glass coverings or porcelain transfers that would create long-lasting photos on headstones, so Patras took it upon himself to carve or paint long-lasting portraits of the deceased.  Patras’s colorful and lovely carved crosses became sought after by those who liked the bright and personalized approach to death that Patras created.  Before long, the colorful crosses with portraits had phrases meaningful to the deceased painted on them.  Sometimes those portraits depict how the person died and can be unnerving at first.  There can be no patronizing “this is the death he or she would have wanted” when you can see the child being hit by a car or the soldier being shot to death.  You can’t tell yourself the dead lived a wonderful life when the epitaph they influenced is telling you their life was too short and that they hope their killer burns in hell.

Those epitaphs eventually developed into one of the most striking features of the Merry Cemetery.  Painted in first person from the perspective of the dead, poems and short essays are painted on the crosses speaking directly to family members or those who pass by the cross.  The cemetery speaks directly to the living, forcing family and tourists alike to acknowledge the dead as they speak to us from their final resting place.

The Merry Cemetery shows a very different approach to death – remembering the dead is a colorful, mostly visually pleasant experience there, and the dead get to speak to us outside of the usual Christian sentiments and iconography that are used on headstones all over the Western world. It is that unusual approach to death that makes this cemetery so sought after to photograph.  Romania has influenced much that is dark and frightening in horror culture, from Dracula and vampires in general to the utterly grim and heartbreaking effects of communist totalitarianism on the weakest citizens.  We don’t expect to find a cemetery like the Merry Cemetery in Romania – hell, we don’t expect to find such a place in much of Europe, where somber cemeteries with solemn statuary and orderly tombs express the very Protestant notion that there can be no happiness or humor in death, or that a sad sentiment cannot be expressed with vibrant folk art.  And interestingly, we tend not to associate anger with cemeteries, all those European angels wielding swords aside, but some of the epitaphs on the crosses in the Merry Cemetery are harsh and angry.

There a beauty in this sort of naked honesty in death.  Gorgeous colors, intricate carvings, accurate portraits, personalized requiems that aren’t holy or full of saccharine sentiment.  This is the sort of death that defies the living applying the platitudes that serve us and not them.

I have a few favorite crosses/headstones in the Merry Cemetery, and I encourage you to seek out other photographs and translations of the Merry Cemetery crosses (assuming you aren’t Romanian).  This book is lovely and has some excellent representations of the crosses in Merry Cemetery, but it’s by no means comprehensive.