Odds and Ends

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. 

Things that are really scary

My plans to post often before Halloween took a left turn this morning.

I had planned to head out to take pictures in La Grange and Columbus today.  I read a short book about an old, really appalling murder that happened near or in Schulenberg, which is just outside of La Grange.  The murder site is under water now but the killer’s home still stands and I wanted to just go an have a look around.  After that I wanted to swing twenty miles west and head into Columbus and take pictures at the Columbus City Cemetery.

However, Bastrop County is on fire again.  One of the worst-hit areas is Smithville, and I would have had to drive right through it.  It’s bad.  Bad like evacuating the area, get the hell off the highway, it’s a disaster area, there are burning embers shooting through the air threatening homes.

I was thinking about instead going to the very historic Dessau Lutheran Cemetery and taking pictures there, but no dice.  The wind shifted and began to blow north and brought the pine smoke with it.  Outside the house smells like burning rubber and there is a haze that I am picking up with each picture I take.  Like lots of dust particles that ghost hunters would call “orbs.”

I have several other entries going but won’t have one ready in time for Thursday.  Sorry about that – picture posts are easy to put together in a way that my wordy book discussions are not.

Central Texas began this summer with fatal floods and is going into autumn burning down.  Bastrop had only just begun to recover from the 2011 fires so hopefully this won’t be as devastating.  My little slice of paradise is unlikely to be affected outside of scratchy throats from smoky wind and cars with a thin coat of soot but I remember that over 1500 homes burned to the ground in Bastrop in 2011 and a couple of people were killed.  I sincerely hope that the fires can be contained before anything that bad happens now.

The Mom Ghost

I’ve linked to this story around Halloween before but I’m going to post the entire story here. I’ve written about this experience on a couple of online venues but recent events in my life (trying to collect all the stories I’ve had published online and realizing not even the Wayback Machine could help me) have shown me that having all my content in one place under my control is a good thing.

So if you haven’t read my account of the Mom Ghost, you’ll find it under the cut. If you have, tune in tomorrow. I’ll have fresh creepiness up then.

Blood by Mark Ryden

Book: Blood: Miniature Paintings of Sorrow and Fear

Artist: Mark Ryden

Type of Book: Non-fiction, pop art

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Lincoln’s head.

Availability: Published by Porterhouse in 2011, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I am not a particularly visual person, though I do have preferred aesthetics. When left to my own devices I prefer Scandinavian home decor styles because they are easy to clean and I like my art bright, pretty and sort of creepy. The latter explains my affection for Mark Ryden, and hopefully will explain my complete lack of artistic vocabulary when I discuss art. I’m only at more of a loss when I try to discuss architecture or any form of math. I one day hope to be a Mark Ryden completist, book-wise. I want to accomplish the same thing with Edward Gorey – his works and works about him – and Henry Darger. It occurs to me that all three of these artists share similar themes – children in potential peril and unsettling situations, pretty illustrations, macabre content, elaborate styles, and just creepiness in general.

Mark Ryden’s paintings feed directly into the part of my psyche that loves nightmarish beauty without consequence, the surrealist nature of dark dreams. There is a catharsis for me when I view most of Ryden’s paintings. My interest in extremity leads me into some dark places – my love for Peter Sotos is an excellent example. But sometimes the impact of horror is hard to stomach. Not so with Ryden’s paintings.

Sometimes his subjects show sadness, such as the girl on the cover of this book. She is weeping blood and looks very somber. But even when his paintings, typically pictures of little girls, encounter the frightening, the gory, the miserably surreal, they seldom show fear. At worst the girls show morbid curiosity, maybe some trepidation, but there is no fear in Ryden’s work. The introduction to this book describes these paintings as showing a loss of innocence and that may be true. But if there is a loss of innocence, it is one that is expected, one that is not miserable to those losing their innocence because the children maintain their wide-eyed beauty even as they are confronted with the dreadful and disgusting. I can look upon lovely, big-eyed children covered in blood or encountering slabs of bloody meat and enjoy them for the absolute beauty in the image, for Ryden’s paintings are always lovely. They are always sumptuous, in colors that are so vivid that they almost evoke the sense of taste for me. This is interesting to me because even though much of Ryden’s work is associated with blood and meat, the bright pinks and various pastels evoke old fashioned, boiled-sugar candy. Taffy. Cotton candy. Not fetid, iron stink of meat. For whatever reason, I don’t experience the loss of innocence the way that I suspect others do when I look at Ryden’s work.  (You see the intense use of pastels most especially in Ryden’s The Meat Show collection.)

Blood is a tiny book, a fitting size because the paintings are all miniatures, and I selected it to discuss during my Halloween post-a-thon because this book contains an explanation for why Ryden engages in such morbidity, almost a defensive apology for what makes him tick and his explanations, in the introduction as well as a quote later in the book, show in action one of the warnings I often give writers: once you create, the creation is out of your hands and you have no control over what your work will mean to others. By his own words, Ryden would likely find my inability to find his works alarming, especially those in Blood, somewhat alarming itself. Ryden says:

Blood is very powerful. While meat is the substance that keeps our living souls in this physical reality, blood keeps our meat alive. Blood is liquid life. When blood escapes our bodies we are alarmed to the very core of our brains. It is life leaking out of us. It is frightening and makes red a profoundly intense color.

It is here that I think shows the chasm between Ryden’s intent and my experience with his work. If blood is liquid life, seeing children interacting with blood is alarming but it is also a transformative experience. But girls are used to blood in a way boys aren’t. We literally see our blood escaping our body several days each month. It’s less a loss of innocence than a symbol of coming-of-age. There are biblical instructions about the corruptibility and disgusting nature of menstrual blood but for many women seeing blood outside the body is not alarming and when it happens it is simply a sign of growing up. Perhaps this is why I am not appalled by the loss of innocence seen in the paintings in this collection. Blood is liquid life, but in some respects blood is a liquid proving-ground, a symbol of a trial endured, of obtaining a certain type of wisdom. Sometimes the wisdom that comes from corruption is more valuable than white, unblemished inexperience.

Regardless of the ins and outs of meaning and intent, the paintings in this collection are remarkable in content and execution.

original from markryden.comI love this painting, titled simply enough, Lincoln’s Head.  There’s a lot going on with this painting, and it can be tempting to write it off as kitsch.  I’m not the least bit startled by the blood or gore, and it’s not startling to me how meaningful this painting is to me.  Ryden often paints Abraham Lincoln, with Lincoln performing an assortment of duties, like juggling with meat, birthing a baby from a tree, as well as serving as the focus in scenes not as easily summarized.  In this painting, his head at the foot of the bed is reminiscent of the horse head in The Godfather, a sort of warning to the little girl.  Yet Lincoln, as bastardized as he has become by pop culture, is an enduring image of freedom and sacrifice for most Americans.

This child is one of the more shocked-looking Ryden children, and even so she is not terrorized by Lincoln’s head.  She exhibits morbid curiosity but she is not afraid – just surprised to see him there.  She is clearly a little girl, in her pink pajamas, but note the austerity of the room.  No paintings on the wall, no bedside table, no stuffed animals, no patterns on the sheets.  This is the room of an adult, white sheets stained with the blood of an American redeemer.  Lincoln is a warning to her, that adulthood encroaches  – red blood on white sheets is most definitely an image associated with loss of virginity.   I almost feel like she is dreaming, that she fell asleep and has drifted down onto Lincoln’s bed, his severed head warning of impeding womanhood and the many sacrifices that are made one becomes an adult.  This is a loss of innocence, certainly, but it is inevitable.  Children grow up.  It’s not a tragedy but the little girl’s face shows the alarm that genuine freedom as an adult can bring.

Or it’s a gory, fanciful picture of a little girl in a Shaker-style bedroom confronting a giant severed head.  You make the call.  In fact, I would love to hear other interpretations.

original from markryden.com

The Baptism of Jajo is my favorite painting from the Blood collection.  Interestingly I have far less explanation for this painting than I do Lincoln’s Head and what little interpretation I have may suggest that I have not shucked away my Southern Baptist upbringing as much as I would like to think I have.  Jajo is a baby exhibiting superlative innocence.  He is plump, white, with a big round head, a large forehead and widely-spaced blue eyes.  The hand of Christ is bleeding upon him and my first impulse upon seeing this painting was to think that the child was being protected by the blood of Christ, often represented as a lamb in Christian iconography, one of the most universal symbols of innocence.  And that creepy clown toy looking on at the scene makes me think this baby really needs all the protection he can get (though later that is disproved by another Ryden painting).

Even as I read Ryden’s explanations for these paintings – he was in a very dark place when he painted the Blood collection and really wanted to paint bloody and disturbing scenes – I have such a hard time seeing the menace or fear.  A fat baby in a field of flowers receiving a literal blessing from God.  Many, myself included, find the very notion of Christian transubstantiation disgusting – the idea of drinking the literal blood and eating the literal flesh of Christ as a form of sacrament is disturbing.  But this child is not drinking the blood but is rather receiving it in a sort of pagan/Episcopalian affusion baptism, on the top of his little head, the most fragile place on a baby’s body.  It’s comforting even as it is relatively grotesque.  Clearly I am not as divorced from faith as I thought, or at least from the feelings one experiences when seeing Christian symbols of salvation and protection.  But I also marry the Christianity in this painting with my interest in other forms of metaphysics.  The hand of Christ is palm out, so detailed you can almost read His future.  There is a pretty strong life line on that palm, almost suggesting that Jajo will have a nice, long, protected life.  That life line certainly can’t indicate Jesus’ own life span, so I think this is Jajo’s future spelled out on the hand.  Additionally, Mr OTC noted how placidly Jajo is staring at the viewer, almost Buddha-like in composure.  And why is the baby’s cheek red where the clown is staring yet white nearer the bleeding hand?  Again, there’s a lot going on in this painting and I don’t know how to assign meaning to it all.

If you want to see all the paintings in the Blood series, visit Mark Ryden’s site. Dig around and have a look at some of his other collections.  Jajo makes another appearance in The Meat Show in Jajo, Patron Saint of Clowns. 

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all the art I prefer is pop or low brow, or created by mentally unstable hermits.  I’m not particularly well-trained to see beauty and truth in a visual format.  I’m much better at interpreting words.  So it’s all the more likely that I have absorbed these images in a manner that doesn’t honor artistic intent.  But as with literature, I don’t think anyone needs to have a handle on absolute meaning to read Shakespeare or Stephen King or to enjoy paintings from Leonardo or Ryden.  Sometimes all that matters is if you love something and I love the juxtaposition of seemingly unharmed children confronted with blood and horror.  These paintings bring to me a sort of hope that the miseries of life are endured with a child-like resilience and that beauty remains in the face of the nastiest experience.  That in the midst of the rot you smell the flowers and taste the pastel saltwater taffy.

In a way, despite the title of the book, this was the least Halloween-y book I could discuss but I didn’t really understand that until I wrote this entry.  Here’s hoping my next entry is creepier.

Musical influence of Art Bell

I’m going to do my best to post a lot before Halloween because indulging in creepiness is one of the things I do best. I have so many creepy books, favorite creepy movies, and creepy sites to share that it would be a shame not to take advantage of this time of the year and write about all the eerie weirdness rattling around in my head.

This entry came about in my typical circuitous “getting lost on the Internet” method of gathering information. I wanted to discuss some really disturbing, dark songs about child predators, and had a specific song in mind, two songs, actually, about a predator assaulting a child and the child seeking revenge, but couldn’t remember the name of the songs or the band that performed them. In my attempts to run the song to ground, I fell into a YouTube hole that completely distracted me from my original goal. I’ll eventually discuss songs about child predation but not today because I found mystery wondering how many songs there are that are inspired by Art Bell’s Coast to Coast AM. (By the way, the band I was originally searching for is G.G.F.H. and the songs are “Little Missy” and “Missy’s Revenge” and while the songs are still outre and upsetting, they aren’t as viscerally disgusting as they were to me when I heard them years ago. I fear I am becoming jaded…)

Discussing Art Bell’s influence on music is really apropos for me this time of year because I always listen to his Ghost to Ghost episodes right before Halloween. I was putting together a playlist earlier this month but when I was searching for G.G.F.H.’s body of work, I found a title that piqued my interest and it turned out to have an Art Bell sample (the Venetian Snares song I discuss below – that is the song that linked me from child exploitation to Art Bell). After listening to the song with the Coast to Coast AM sample, I decided to see how many songs I could find that were influenced by Art Bell in some manner. Art Bell is interesting and somewhat weird in his own right, a man whose life has taken several unexpected turns, and he has been a personal hero of mine ever since he sued Ted Gunderson (who is hopefully right this very minute encountering the Satan he insisted was lurking in every daycare and influencing every politician since Washington) for slandering him as a pedophile.

Art no longer hosts Coast to Coast AM (and while George Noory is okay enough, he lacks a certain edge, I think, that Art brought to the table) but his long tenure on the AM and online radio program featured many bizarre and memorable shows. One of the most memorable was the night a man who claimed he was a former Area 51 employee called into the show in a panic, revealing that the US government was being duped by inhuman creatures posing as aliens from outer space, and that these creatures meant mankind harm. He claimed to be on the run from the federal government and sounded to be completely unhinged by the gravity of his discovery. In the middle of the phone call, something happened to the satellite and at least 50 separate radio stations went dead for around half an hour. Understandably, this caused Art and his listeners to freak out, assuming that indeed the feds were tracking the frightened caller and had interfered with his attempt to share his story. The man behind the Area 51 call eventually called back to Coast to Coast and explained it was indeed a hoax but that he had no idea what had happened in regards to the satellite failure. That, evidently, was just a coincidence. There are some who still believe the Area 51 caller was real and that the later call revealing the hoax is the real hoax, but that is the nature of conspiracy. This episode is called either the “Area 51 Caller” or “The Frantic Caller.”

However real or fake the Area 51 call may have been, it’s now a part of Area 51 lore and anyone who has much interest in fringe or conspiracy culture has likely heard of it. It’s definitely influenced some musicians, famous and obscure. One of the more famous bands to sample the Area 51 call is Tool, in the song “Faaip de Oiad” from the album, Lateralus Faaip de Oiad means “the voice of God” in “Enochian” (the supposed angelic language recorded and likely invented by John Dee and Edward Kelley) – Maynard Keenan is a sort of Renaissance man of the weird and I think he runs a winery now, of all things.


“Faaip de Oiad” doesn’t freak me out the way it does many Tool fans. I think that’s because I’ve heard the source material too many times, and had heard it many times before ever hearing this song. But I can see how this would be jarring or alarming to someone who might not know the source of the jangled, frightened man talking in the middle of the song. I link to this particular video because it has the “lyrics” in the upload notes section.