Halloween 2017: Masks

It’s Halloween, so what better time to talk to you all about the masks or mask-like uses of make-up that annoy, upset or absolutely terrify me.

One of my earliest memories is of a television commercial promoting an Alice Cooper concert in Dallas.  I must have been three or four at the time.  I was absolutely terrified by his appearance, with the heavy eyeliner that appeared to be running down his face, the wild hair, the marks around his mouth that might have been blood for all I knew – our old television was in black and white.

Seriously, fuck this guy.

My parents decided that the best way to help me overcome my fear of this horrible man on the TV was to force me to watch it every time it came on.  My father would prevent me from running from the room when it aired, holding me there and telling me over and over that it was just a television commercial, it was just a man in make-up, that none of it could hurt me.  It didn’t work.  I screamed and cried and still he and my mother persisted, convinced they could reason with a frightened child.  I had similar reactions to KISS, mostly Gene Simmons.

Interestingly, I am not particularly unnerved by clowns.  I look at a clown, and I know it’s some asshole wearing a bunch of make-up and a wig and maybe some stupid clothes.  I know what the intent is behind clown make-up – to delight or terrify.  When I know the intent, it’s hard to be afraid, and that is where my parents, as well meaning as they were at the time, missed the mark.  I didn’t need to know that it was a commercial and couldn’t hurt me.  I needed to know why the man was dressed that way, what his intent was, what he planned to do in that get-up.  And of course I could not express this so young and of course my parents had no idea what was at play in my terror.  Variations of not knowing the reason behind the disguise fuels my adult uneasiness around masks, I think, though surely there are other explanations, from Jungian collective unconsciousness ruling my response to just plain jitters.

There are a lot of explanations as to why it is that people wear masks and costumes at Halloween and I am loath to discuss them because to do so means I have to cover every potential reason going back to early recorded history or someone will show up and leave a very long comment schooling me on Samhain-this and Pope-Boniface-that and how it’s racist for a white woman even to say Dia de los Muertos, let alone discuss the purpose behind sugar skull make-up.  But this is a time of the year that makes a woman who finds the purpose behind masks very important somewhat uneasy.  And perversely, because it makes me uneasy, I expose myself to it in ways that make me even more unnerved.  But I can’t seem to avoid it, and since I can’t stop poking at this canker sore in my psyche, I’ve decided to drag you all down with me.

Halloween 2017: Abandoned Hotel in Corn Hill, Texas

The photos I am going to share in this Halloween 2017 entry are old, in Internet years. I had intended to share some photos I took over the last month depicting some dark Texas history as well as a lovely old cemetery up the road from my house, but I’ve had a significant equipment failure with my camera. I lack the vocabulary to explain what happened but from what I recall from the conversation I had with Mr. OTC, who is sometimes Mr. Tech-Support, a card got corrupted in my camera.

It’s really important to me to have an entry up every weekday in October. So I dug through my archives and found a couple of photo series that have not appeared online as much as some of my other photographs and with them I’ll create some photo essays of some of my interesting Texas crawls.

If you’re not from central Texas and know the name Jarrell, Texas, it is likely because of the massive tornados that struck the town in 1997, creating one of the most devastating natural disasters I’ve ever witnessed personally, being as landlocked as I am. Arguably the fires we get in these parts are worse but generally with fires, people are able to evacuate with some warning. The Jarrell tornados hit fast and with fury and destroyed so thoroughly that at least one family was wiped from the face of the earth. They were shredded in the winds and enough pieces were recovered to be able to legally declare people dead. Sturdy homes and trailers alike were leveled. We tell ourselves that our weather-predicting capabilities are far more sophisticated twenty years later but when a series of over 20 tornadoes is coming your way, there’s only so fast you can move to safety.

In fact, bizarre weather has made it hard to photograph some of the places I want to share here. The Columbus City Cemetery in Columbus, Texas, has some remarkable statues and a couple of pieces of interesting lore. One year massive fires kept me from going out there. This year Hurricane Harvey made a trip impossible. And the last two times I planned to go to a cemetery in Texas where supposedly there is a space alien buried, it snowed. Snow in Texas often borders on catastrophe and it is never particularly pretty more than two hours after it happens because it turns to slush, then into ice, and it’s a muddy, unappealing mess that results in more car crashes (when people like me try to drive on it) than snowmen.

But back to Jarrell, Texas. Years ago, Mr. OTC heard of a ghost town called Corn Hill that had a very interesting cemetery. When I hear “ghost town” I think of an abandoned western Main Street with boarded up shops and peeling clapboard houses. While there are a couple of abandoned buildings still standing, Corn Hill as a town relocated either to New Corn Hill (I am not making this up, I swear, and New Corn Hill boasts my favorite Texas cemetery to date) or was absorbed into Jarrell. The cause for Corn Hill dying is, of course, a railroad being laid a few miles in the wrong direction. At its peak, the town had around 350 citizens, a Mason lodge, a school, a post office, a stage stop and several churches. All that remains of Corn Hill are a few buildings and a cemetery. I will be sharing one of those buildings today and the cemetery tomorrow.

Yeah, didn’t go inside. This looks daunting but it looks even worse from the side.

It’s amazing to me that this old house is still standing even after the tornadoes of 1997. I didn’t know the history of this place when I explored it. All I knew was that it looked interesting and that I have a complicated relationship with no trespassing signs. This building was once the hotel and the residence of John Shaver. Located just off I-35, this hotel and stage stop was built in the late 1870s.

But mostly the appeal of this building is how creepy it seemed initially. I guess plenty of fisherman use the “spike the head on a fence to skin the fish” method of descaling their daily catch but it will never not be creepy to see dead heads on barbed wire outside an abandoned house near dusk.

There is a decided “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” feel to this house.

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: The Call Is Coming from Inside the House

I’ve noticed something that I suspect you may have noticed as well: I don’t post entries here as much as I used to.  There are a million reasons for this but it occurred to me that while I will always be likely to go on at length, my entries have become very bloated over the years.  For the love of sanity, I wrote a multi-part analysis of a shallow biography about a woman who pretended to be black.  I enjoyed doing it and I love dissecting books down to their atoms, but it is inescapable that when one writes so much about everything, it can be daunting to post regular blog content.

So I wondered if I could manage to trim back my writing style enough that I could post interesting content every weekday in October.  October is the kindest month for OTC because, you know, Halloween, general creepiness, the weird is sought out more.  So I challenged myself: I want to post 22 content entries in October.

But then I stumbled across a problem – what exactly would I write about?  Would it be all book content?  Would I try to hit up some of my favorite cemeteries or weird places to photograph?  Movies?  Music?  Only content that is related directly to Halloween? What creepy movies are coming out in time for Halloween?  Will I ever be able to get to the Columbus City cemetery and photograph it without fire or floods making a trip dangerous?  I attempted to drive just up I-35 to photograph a cemetery supposedly haunted by a mother and her children who died in a flood a hundred years ago but the runs on gas after Hurricane Harvey caused us to give up when we hit a traffic jam and none of the nearby gas stations had gas.  What creepy books are on the best-seller list?  Would I have enough time to crank through the latest Stephen King doorstop?

Then it occurred to me that I could very neatly order this challenge in a way that limits the scope while simultaneously ensuring I could tackle a number of creepy, weird, odd, gross, scary, and freakish topics: I must limit my topics to content found within books I already have on my shelves and all photography excursions must occur within my county.  If a book mentions a fabulous Texas ghost story that’s inside Travis County, I can investigate it.  If a book mentions a very interesting film, I can discuss it.  Between Mr OTC and me, we have a house full of creepy books (as of right now we enough sufficiently horrible and strange books in the house that I could write a new entry for a year and a half before I ran out of weirdness to discuss).  All kinds of horrible things have happened very close to where I live, mostly involving Comanches and Germans, Czechs and other Eastern Europeans who didn’t heed fair warning about the original inhabitants in this section of Hell’s Half-Acre I call home.  Beautiful and old cemeteries (well, old for Texas) are around every corner if you know where to look.

So I’m making it easy on myself.  It’s going to be hard enough to rein in my desire to go on at length. Searching out and consuming entirely new content AND not writing 5000-word entries about each piece of media would be very difficult.

While I don’t think in the long run I will ever be a concise writer, I hope this exercise establishes some blog discipline for me.  Hopefully I will get back in the habit of writing often, and hopefully my love of the fringe and unsettling will be reinvigorated as I refamiliarize myself with all the weirdness I have within my house and just outside my backdoor.

First Halloween 2017 entry will be up shortly – comment early and often!

Oiling the Slippery Slope

Mr. OTC and I were felled by a particularly tenacious flu virus and I’m not even close to being back on my game, but there’s something bothering me so much that I feel like I need to discuss it now, in an abbreviated form.  I will throw down hard on this topic in detail and with tons of links when my mind is clear and my home is recovered from a couple of weeks of neglect.

Are you, dear readers, aware that this month Amazon removed from sale over 150 books written on the topic of Holocaust revisionism and denial?  If you are aware of it, does it bother you?

News sources state a handful of books were eliminated for sale, but the number is far higher.  When I write my examination of what free speech in a genuinely free society means, I will list them all.  Interestingly, simply being published by Castle Hill is enough for removal because Amazon removed books Castle Hill publishes that have nothing to do with Holocaust revisionism.  Funny, that.

There is a perniciously stupid meme in modern America wherein we state that the only freedom of speech we can expect not to be violated or limited is that which is explicitly granted by the government.  The reasoning is Americans can only expect to exercise freedom of speech and press as granted by the government, therefore any cultural or corporate attempts to silence free speech and the press are acceptable in a free society, that this is a form of censorship that is somehow allowable since it is outside the purview of the government.  The American left has used this meme, this absolutely false belief, to bolster their attempts to deny work to people whom they consider bad, to contact employers, schools, families and churches of people whom they consider bad, to deny access to ideas they find bad, and now they’ve managed to deny access to an entire school of thought because where Amazon goes so do all the other booksellers.

When you use methods of intimidation to eliminate ideas you find distasteful, you are engaging in censorship.  When you pressure booksellers to stop selling books you find distasteful, you are engaging in censorship.  Such methods do not violate the Constitution to be sure but they definitely are censorship and censorship is a threat to the principles of democracy that are the very foundation upon which we have built American culture.

The usual gadflies insist that Amazon and other booksellers have the right to limit books they sell.  They’re correct.  Amazon has that right.  But should they use that right, and when they do should they be answerable for what they decide?  What does it mean when the largest book seller in the USA can effectively throttle access to large swathes of thought?  Books advocating Holocaust denial were removed at the behest of Yad Vashem, and Amazon contacted authors and publishers with the following statement:

We’re contacting you regarding the following book: Book Title Redacted. During our review process, we found that this content is in violation of our content guidelines. As a result, we cannot offer this book for sale.

Will it surprise anyone that Amazon did not elaborate on what content guidelines were violated?  Shouldn’t the largest seller of books in the United States be willing to explain why it is that after 20 years of selling these books they suddenly did not meet content guidelines?  Or are you sanguine with this move because Nazis are bad and Holocaust denial is bad and therefore it’s fine that Amazon and Yad Vashem have decided unilaterally what data you can be trusted to read?

Do you really feel okay having forces who have no idea why you want to read a book telling you that the ideas the book espouses are too dangerous for you to see, therefore they have taken the paternalistic step of ensuring that you don’t become a rabid anti-Semite because you chose to read Arthur Butz?

The people who seem the happiest about this wretched development are those who should oppose it the most. People who are terrified of fascism applaud this measure because to them it is a nail in the coffin to ideologies that feed from antisemitic, fascist beliefs.  But censorship is one of the first steps down the slippery slope into authoritarianism and fascists love themselves a book burning.

Because Amazon and other book sellers have decided you are too unreliable to process information, you now have no easy way of countering Holocaust denial because you will not know the meat of the argument and you will not know the references and sources used to reach those conclusions.  You have been denied your power of response.

That is what happens in a free society that does not tolerate censorship: we trust our citizens enough to process information for themselves, knowing that presentation of ideas and response to those ideas are the cornerstone of open discourse and that democracy cannot exist without it.  Amazon and Yad Vashem think you are a child who cannot judge information for yourself.  They think you are such a weak thinker that having access to Holocaust revisionist texts means you will become a vicious anti-Semite.  They think that you are too stupid to read an idea and form a response, so they took care of it for you.

That’s how it boils down: a corporation on behalf of a concentrated single interest group has engaged in the ultimate paternalism.  They have patted you on the head and told you that you cannot decide for yourself what you think.

Antisemitism is foul.  I have no use for it.  And I have never read a Holocaust denial that I could not easily refute, though I admit I have not read many.  It is undeniable that racism and antisemitism have caused grave problems and that both are offensive.  I personally find racism and antisemitism offensive.  I find a lot of things offensive.

But that’s the cost of doing business in a free society.  You will be offended.  Identity politics may have convinced you that you are not expected to endure feeling offended but what they don’t tell you that the cost of never being offended involves censorship and that you have no assurance that your single-interest approach to democracy will not be the next ideology determined too dangerous for the American people to read.  Being completely silenced is the ultimate offense.  Be offended by that prospect. This isn’t about Holocaust denial, antisemitism or fascism – it’s about who decides what is acceptable and unacceptable for you to think, to read, to say and to believe.  The genius of the Constitution is that it prevents any one person from being the decider for all, and an open society finds single interest deciders anathema.

You’re either a whinging child, begging for the government or large corporations to control the dissemination of ideas and man’s independent thought because you cannot tolerate people making decisions about what they read, or you’re an adult who is willing to permit all ideas access to the democratic marketplace, however offensive they may be, remaining engaged in the cultural arguments that promote democracy.

Antisemitism flourishes in a censored society.  Democracy cannot exist in a censored society, regardless of who is the censor.  Censorship, even if it is not initiated by the government, oils the slippery slope into fascist authoritarianism, fear of which fueled this very bad decision on Amazon’s part.

I do not need Yad Vashem or Jeff Bezos to make decisions about what I read and how I interpret it, nor do I need them to guide me through the moral decisions I make regarding controversial topics.  Neither do you.

Book Gawking: Holiday 2016

We had a blah sort of holiday season this year at Chez Oddbooks.  Lots of reasons but mostly some years you are just ready for it all to be over with so you can start a new year and get going again.  We decorated but we didn’t bother giving gifts and instead just gave each other permission to buy whatever we wanted.  And of course, being who we are, we ended up buying a lot of books.

Somehow we bought 119 books.  I’m not even exaggerating.  I scanned them and put them into their own tag over on our Goodreads account.  Have a look if you enjoy browsing through other people’s books as much as I do.

I took a picture of some of my more photogenic choices from our holiday book binge.

All of these were impulse purchases, including The Fuck-Up. No one ever plans to buy a book called The Fuck-Up.

The most interesting purchases I made were not photogenic at all but I want to share them anyway.  All three were used and were just sitting there in the “collectible” section at the big Half-Price Books in Austin, waiting for me.

The first is Instant Lives by Howard Moss.  This is a collection of short, humorous stories about various poets and authors and composers, like Emily Dickinson, Henry James, and Claude Debussy.  I purchased it because the book is illustrated by Edward Gorey.  This is a first edition from 1974 and is going into my “Gorey” collection.

The second is one I think Mr OTC is going to appreciate as much as I do, if not more.  Act Like Nothing’s Wrong: The Montage Art of Winston Smith is a book I owned many years ago but lent out and never got it back.  Mr OTC and I were once SubGenii, and I guess we still are.  Once a SubGenius, always a SubGenius, right?  Winston Smith’s strange and incendiary collages were an important part of the 80s ‘zine culture and still have a cultural punch.  I was so happy to find a clean, collectible copy of this book.  Most copies of this book I’ve come across since losing my original look like someone found them in a dumpster.  This was a righteous score.

The final book is The Secret Books, with poems by Jorge Luis Borges and photographs by Sean Kernan.  It’s a large format, soft cover collection, with gorgeous photographs incorporating Borges’ poems.  I wanted to scan one or two examples but our scanner tests my patience. But never fear!  Scroll through this site and you’ll get a good idea of what the book is about.  This is one of those books that called to me.  I can’t tell you exactly why I needed to own this book but I needed it.  Some books are yours without you even knowing they exist and sometimes you’re lucky enough to find them before someone else buys them.

How was your holiday?  Get or buy any good books?  Any awesome plans for 2017?  Have grave concerns about our next credit card bill?  Share away!

2017: Preparing to Weigh My Crown

Lots of people I know have declared 2016 the worst dumpster fire of a year since the beginning of time, or at least since 1914 or maybe 1347.  The reasons for this seem to involve Brexit and lots of famous people dying.  Also adding to the sense of doom is the election of Trump, a socially liberal, isolationist blowhard who talks a lot of shit.  Americans aren’t used to politicians talking shit that doesn’t involve pleasant lies about policy.  It’s been a long time since Andrew Jackson.  Frankly, Lyndon Johnson was way worse than Trump in terms of saying really gross things, but he said them during a time when the press was more restrained and didn’t report that the President was pretty much the sort of man you would throw out of your house before dessert was served. Aiding his legacy is that the recordings of him berating his tailor because his pants crowded his balls didn’t come out until after he died.  I mean seriously, had smart phones existed in the 1960s, many Twitter pundits would have died from exhaustion reacting to Johnson pissing in a washbowl in front of his secretary as she took dictation or using racist epithets as he farted audibly during discussions about The Great Society.

I don’t mean to seem flippant because I know a lot of people seem to be very afraid of Trump and I don’t want to mock genuine fear.  Most of those people are very young and don’t remember the continual fear of nuclear war during the Reagan administration.  Some were children when the Twin Towers fell, creating a fear of Islam that replaced temporarily a fear of Russia, so all of this is new to them.  Of course Trump is a terrible choice to lead America.  But so was Hillary Clinton.  At some point all elections force us to choose between either an unqualified person who says terrible things about grabbing genitals while berating fat women, or a person who really wants to go to war with Russia and compromised national security when a lanky Australian wiener got into her e-mail.  Anyone who really feels either side in the recent election would have done a radically better job than the other is either in their 20s or became completely lost online and didn’t mean to read this entry.  But all of this is my way of saying that we survived Nixon, we survived Reagan, we survived Millard-fucking-Fillmore.  We’ll survive Trump, there will be no genocide of whatever group is most upset, at worst he’ll quit or be promptly impeached and we’ll be stuck with Pence until the 2020 Democratic candidate inevitably defeats him. Then we’ll have neo-cons threatening to come to Texas and secede from the USA.  Again.

But even though Bowie and Prince and Carrie Fisher all died, even though an unqualified and gross dude is gonna be in charge of my country soon, my 2016 wasn’t all bad.  It was a biochemically difficult time – I tried to wean myself off sleep meds, with plenty of medical supervision, and still I failed.  My year was spent in a vague, depressive state.  Not despairing – just muffled and incoherent.  I’ve been absent mentally since 2013, since my mother told me she was dying.  She then spent a year dying, then we spent a year coping with the fact she died.  Then I tried to detox and sleep naturally despite my REM disorder, and here we are.  It was bad losing my mother, of course, but even so I expected it and dealt with it, as well as everything else that came my way.  Yet it seems like the last four years passed in a couple of months.  Time is rushing to an end for me in a way I never thought could happen.  All those older people who told me that time would eventually accelerate were right.  Time is off in the distance.  I can almost see it.  But it runs faster than I can and one day I won’t be able to see it all.

This is a moment we all will have.  That realization that we have reached the age when there is no more time for fucking around.  You simply cannot waste anymore time.  You cannot give into weakness.  You can’t sit in a near-fugue state, babying your brain during a bad REM cycle, reading conspiracy theory online rather than books written by some of the greatest minds ever to live.  You can’t watch the same comforting television show in a loop instead of writing your books, instead of reacting to the great books you read.  You can no longer wait for things to get better before you begin to accomplish your life’s work.  The time you have now is the time you must use as it happens, while you can see it, before it outruns you at last.  You cannot risk wasting another day because years pass in a month and what will you have done at the end?

That’s where I am right now.  I have goals for 2017, none of which I will share because resolutions at the New Year are lies until you make them real and I am tired of lying to myself.  But maybe some of my goals will be evident to those who read here.

I’ve been listening to Amorphis’ album Under a Red Cloud a lot lately.  The song “Sacrifice” means a lot to me (and the way Tomi Joutsen pronounces “treasure” triggers my echolalia like mad, which is strangely comforting as I mutter “trezshure” to myself) but lately “Death of a King”* has resonated with me because it, in a mythic and grandiose way, explores the revelation I had recently.

 

You will stand there amidst silence
In the void of endless winter
On the ice of an unknown lake

There you will meet yourself
There you’ll weigh your crown
On the ice of the lake of death
On the mirror of time

It’s Scandinavian metal so it’s a bit melodramatic but, as I’m fond of saying, everyone’s life is melodramatic.  We all live epic lives even as we nestle into suburbs and live quietly.  Against terrible odds, sperm met ovum and we happened, we managed to be born, we survived all sorts of modern predations and we are here.  There is a reason for that.  Some think that reason is God, or god, or gods.  Some have kids, some have important jobs, but at the end we all are our own Sovereigns and we will weigh our crowns, our works, and even if there no Heaven at the end, there will come a moment before we die when we see that scale, and we will see our life laid before us, and woe betide us if the arm bearing our crown doesn’t move before our eyes close.

Yeah, yeah, melodramatic.  But I’ve lost close to four years and my branch of the Dalton family tree is not long lived.  My father died 22 years short of the national average, my mother 13 years short.  If I follow the trend, I really cannot afford to lose any more time.

That’s what I’ve been doing since around September.  Contemplating the day I take off my crown, gathering the mental energy to make sure that when I take it off the accounting of my life will be worth the dozens and dozens of ancestors who lived and died and got me here.  My branch of the Dalton tree ends with me.  I can’t rely on continuation of my DNA into further untold generations to add weight to my life.

I wonder if that is what middle age is – the real gut punch of knowing you will one day die and that these blocks of time you waste may be held against you when it comes time to add up sums. If 2017 ends up being a year that is not lost to me as the recent past has been, 2016, the year I became aware of how flimsy my crown is, will have been a very good year.

 

*I don’t know why in the video the guitar player is forced to use an electric guitar for the intro instead of using a sitar and swapping out as the song progresses. I also feel I should mention the conversation Mr OTC and I had when I played this song in the car one day.

“So the singer can actually sing. He has a good voice,” he said when the song reached the chorus.

“Yeah, he does sing well,” I replied.

“Then why does he waste time doing that hollering, growling noise.”

Because metal, my dear husband. Because metal.

2015: Truly the Crappiest Year

This is the time of year when everyone comments on the best books they read, best movies they saw, best albums they listened to, most important political events that affected them, and basically whatever else they feel summed up their experiences during the calendar year.

The last two years of my life have been a depressive blur punctuated by extreme stress. I had calm moments, like when I proofread books for other people and when I would disappear into my office and mindlessly sew for days on end. There were brief periods when the desire to write or obsessively research grabbed hold of me, but those moments were indeed quite brief. I did very little reading because my attention span wouldn’t permit it for very long – reading for pleasure became impossible and this site suffered greatly because of it. I feel like I am coming out of it but I am also often wrong about what my brain is doing. We’ll see, but I can confidently say 2016 will be a helluva lot better than 2015.

Also 2016 will be better because I will begin to discuss the excellent media that did penetrate the blur:

In the Sky by Octave Mirbeau, translated by Ann Sterzinger, absolutely devastated me. I am reading it for the second time at the moment and I can’t imagine a better way to describe the last couple of years I’ve lived. The gorgeous infinity of a blue sky becomes a crushing, enveloping landscape of endless misery, and all pleasures and hopes will be devoured by that endlessness. Because I am a typical American, I can speak only the one language, so I sit in awe of any peer who is fluent in other languages. That awe is magnified when I consider how Sterzinger finessed Mirbeau’s words into a narrative that spoke directly to my own feelings, so direct and pointed and frighteningly accurate. It’s a beautiful, dark book.

Valencia by James Nulick is a memoir of a man from a fractured family, the story of a boy carelessly raised, who experienced the death of childhood while still a child, growing into a man whose peripatetic life managed to remain anchored a bit by the photographs he keeps in an old cigar box and the ties he maintained in that fractured family. It’s a memoir not so much of a phoenix rising from flames but rather a document that shows how even trees which may appear to be dead still have an endless network of living roots underground. What makes this memoir most remarkable is the way in which Nulick tells his story, in a disjointed manner that mimics the way old friends speak to one another. Nulick assumes his audience is his friend and speaks to us in a way that draws us into his story, bringing up events unknown to the reader but later expanding on those events, a hiccup in timeline that happens often when those who know each other well have conversations.

The Suiciders by Travis Jeppesen is a book I need a very clear head to discuss. I can’t even try to summarize it now. I don’t know whether I loved it or hated it. Perhaps both? Neither? It is a book that defies easy synopses and was a book I read in spurts, which made it all the harder to really grasp. I may reread it before I attempt to speak of it. But even as I have no fucking idea what this book really means to me, it’s still niggling away in the back of my head, demanding attention.

House of Psychotic Women by Kier-La Janisse is a book that gave me hope regarding my own approach to my media of choice. Janisse discusses neuroses in women as depicted in horror and exploitation cinema, and she discusses these films not so much using cinematic aesthetic criteria as she uses her own personal experiences as the relevant filter for these films. Her relationship to the films were the basis of the book, even as she discussed schools of cinematic thought and psychiatric ideas. I have always filtered literature this way and I have been told by a couple of academicians that it’s a lazy, self-absorbed and ultimately useless way to discuss books. That may be so but at the same time I cannot abide a review that doesn’t tell me simply whether or not the reviewer liked the book and why. We may all find value in beautiful prose, in deft characterization, in well-constructed plots, but if the book does not move that which is you, that part of you that exists beyond education and cultured reaction, then all the authorial skill in the world is meaningless. Discussing literature or any media this way has perils – I discuss far more of my life discussing books that connect with me than some diarists and you get to see all the dirty dishes behind the kitchen door. But it’s the only way I can discuss books, and it was heartening to see this approach used by a woman who is clearly a strong thinker even as she responds with herself as the filter.

There are other books I plan to discuss, like Trevor Blake’s Confessions of a Failed Egoist, as well as what I have now come to call The Borderline Personality Potboilers – books by Gillian Flynn, Claire Messaud and Paula Hawkins. I have great hopes that 2016 will be a wholly different year and I can reconstruct this site into the place I always wanted it to be. For those who still read here, thanks for hanging on, and hopefully more will join you when OTC is updated regularly.

Have a happy holiday, however you celebrate!

The holiday onslaught is upon us

I’m a woman who enjoys the holidays despite being somewhat anti-capitalist, and, though I love a wholly just society, I tire of all the extraordinary analyses of why Thanksgiving is “problematic.”  Columbus was a madman and there’s nothing I can do about it now.  There were pioneers, now we’re all here, some of us are queer, get used to it (and over it)!

As I prepare dishes to take to a family celebration tomorrow, I will use the mental space I receive from performing repetitive tasks to plan Yule gifts I need to make or acquire. I’ll think about where we need to put the tree this year since Boo Radley is what cat experts would call “a complete disaster.” Boo will be frightened of the tree and will become so startled he will leap up into the air, crap at the apex of his ascent, and his poop will hit the ground before he does. Alternately, a strange madness will overtake him and he will race up the tree toward the ceiling, loosening every ornament as he goes, destroying hours of decorating. He will then become afraid of the tree again and this cycle will repeat itself until New Year’s Day. And let us not even speak of Grendel and the Infestation of Two and what they can do to a fully decorated tree in under three minutes of concentrated mayhem. I often feel that had we let wolves into the house it would have been more hygienic and less chaotic.

But as I fret about all the piles of glittery cat yak that are my yuletide fate and the chores I must do before 12/25, I am also thinking about those who have come and gone, the people whose lives were spent in service to their families, who spread joy to their loved ones. Who sacrificed for those they loved. My grandparents, my mother, my step-grandmother, Mr OTC’s grandparents and his step-father. These people served their countries on the home and war fronts. They raised their children to be independent and ethical. They worked jobs for decades, in some cases using skills that were forgotten for a while only to be rediscovered when we realized complete modernity wasn’t quite the utopia we had hoped.

We’ll never have a utopia. Philosophy always beckons, reality always fails. In the meantime we just need to remember those who sacrificed for us, all those people now consigned to a history that is often remembered with mawkish sentimentality or demonized as a whole. In the middle is the truth, and it’s something to be proud of.

What’s our sacrifice? Or rather, what’s mine? I don’t know yet. I don’t think we ever know, most of us, because sacrifice is seldom dramatic. It’s the scope of a life lived in service to others and to ourselves. I have no idea if the scope of my life will be remembered or if it is worthy of remembrance.

But as I ponder historical and familial sacrifice, there are pies to be baked, and I’m going to enjoy baking them and hope that others enjoy eating them. And Tony, if you are reading this, yes, there will be rice krispies treats. Lots of them. Let’s be thankful for that, if nothing else.

Anthropodermic Bibliopegy – A Flay on Words

Yep. Anthropodermic bibliopegy. That’s the technical term for books bound in human skin.

I decided to write this article after I stumbled across five mentions of anthropodermic bibliopegy in a 48 hour period. I took that as a sign that books bound in human skin was a topic I needed to discuss here – synchronicity isn’t something I really put much faith in but I wager that the average person might think it a sign if she just happened upon several references to such an arcane subject.  It didn’t hurt that I found books bound in human skin extremely interesting.  Also, as I read about these books, I found myself wishing there was a master list and discussion of the more famous examples of anthropodermic bibliopegy, and who better to compile a long, wordy list than me? And here we are!

Because of my interest in true crime, I knew that there were instances wherein court records were bound in the skin of executed criminals. I was also familiar with a few examples of anthropodermic bibliopegy in pop culture, notably the Evil Dead films. But given the morbidity of the subject, I was surprised at how little I knew about these books, real or fictional. Books, creepy things, unsettling representations of the dead – you’d think I would have been all over this topic by now.

As I read about books bound in human skin I noticed that there was a surge of articles on the subject in the spring and summer of 2014.   Harvard University tested three suspected examples of anthropodermic bibliopegy in their collections and only one was genuinely bound in human skin, the skin from a woman who spent her life in a mental asylum. Those tests spurred a media interest in anthropodermic bibliopegy, and an interest I am deeply appreciative for because otherwise I don’t think research into the topic would have been so easy.  Though several sources I read insisted that the practice of binding books in human skin was once an accepted practice, it was not a common practice and more or less ended in the late 19th century.  There are very few of these books that remain in museums and libraries.

Though the bulk of the remaining examples of anthropodermic bibliopegy are from the 18th and 19th centuries and primarily from Europe, claims that skin was used for book bindings date at least as far back as the 13th century. Prior to the development of precise scientific testing to determine skin origin, experts determined origin of skins via microscopic analysis.  Physicians and museum curators observed patterns in cuticles and tiny hair remnants left in pores after the tanning process and used those patterns to determine the animal that provided the skin.  Many books claimed to be bound in human skin were identified as such by using microscopic analysis – not many have been subjected to more modern tests.  One of best tests for animal origin of tanned skin is peptide mass fingerprinting,  which analyzes the proteins left in tanned skin.  Those proteins point to the animal the skin was taken from and though at times the protein markers show simply that the skin was taken from primates, it can be assumed that those primates were humans.  Monkeys were not thick on the ground in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries.  At least one book, which I will discuss, that was considered one of the best examples of a book bound in human skin, was proved to be bound in sheep or cow hide after peptide mass fingerprinting.  I suspect that a significant number of books authenticated as human skin using older, microscopic methods would not be authenticated as human if tested using peptide mass fingerprinting (and that method cannot determine who specifically donated skin as the tanning process destroys DNA).

The Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia currently has the largest collection of books bound in human skin in the USA, counting five total volumes, three of which were bound in skin from a single donor.  All five have been tested according to modern standards and the bindings have been proven to be of human origin. The Mütter Museum has formed a team to try to create a comprehensive list of all the examples of anthropodermic bibliopegy, encouraging institutions to test all the books in their collections that are alleged to be bound in human skin:

Most institutions the team has worked with are keeping quiet, however. During her presentation at Death Salon, Rosenbloom did share the aggregate results so far: Out of the 22 books the group has tested, 12 have been found to be made out of human skin. According to one of Rosenbloom’s slides, the remainder were found to have been bound with “an assortment of sheep, cow, and faux (!) leather.” The team has also identified an additional 16 books that they have not yet tested—and is working to locate more.

I have to think that there are likely some undiscovered examples of anthropodermic bibliopegy in private collections, but I think that if one of the largest known collections of books bound in human skin has only five books, perhaps the custom of binding books in human skin was indeed less common than some of the sources I consulted seem to think it was.

As I read about anthropodermic bibliopegy, the topic fell neatly into several categories: criminals whose skin was harvested after their executions; skin used from people who could not or did not give meaningful consent to have their skin used after their deaths; voluntary skin donors; books proven not to be bound in human skin after peptide mass fingerprinting; and representations of human skin-bound books in pop culture.

I found interesting a lot of the squeamishness and revulsion people feel for books bound in human skin.  Often it seemed as if this revulsion was rather selective, given some of the truly macabre museum exhibits that exist, from the entirety of the Mütter Museum to the visually disturbing but excellently bizarre flayed Musee Fragonard exhibits.  It seems strange to be upset about a book bound in human skin when you can see dissected bodies on display in medical museums, bodies that were often curated without the consent of the person when he or she was alive.  However, the longer I read about this topic, the more I found myself feeling a bit uneasy about some of the examples of books bound in human flesh.  I am unsure if this is a 21st century mentality. Perhaps it is because I am accustomed to patient/family consent in medical and funeral procedures.  Or maybe my discomfort is linked with my identification with the underclasses who ended up providing most of the skins used to bind books.  I wonder if others who immerse themselves in this topic find themselves growing a bit indignant about the fates of some of the people who provided their skins.

Please note that I exercised some discretion that may seem offensive since I am not an antiquarian, book binder or scientist, but you will find that there are some “authentic books” that I think are unlikely to be bound in human skin.  Sometimes I left the books with questionable authenticity in the “real” sections and sometimes I put them in the “fake” section.   Generally the “authentic” examples of anthropodermic bibliopegy that I place in the hoaxes or disproved section are pretty egregious fakes.