The Eccentropedia by Chris Mikul

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book:  The Eccentropedia: The Most Unusual People Who Have Ever Lived

Author:  Chris Mikul

Type of Book:  Non-fiction, compendium, encyclopedia

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd:  Because it is a book devoted wholly to weird people.

Availability:  Published by Headpress in 2013, you can get a copy here:

Comments: My love for all of Chris Mikul’s work is pretty well established by now so I won’t discuss in depth why I think he is and always will be an author worth reading aside from just stating that his love for the odd in this world makes his work very topical for me and for this site. I can’t imagine anyone will be surprised to learn that I think this is great book.  Anyone with a love for strange ideas or eccentrics will need to add this book to their collection.  The book discusses some usual suspects in the weirdo game, like Helena Blavatsky, Charles Fort, Aleister Crowley and Michael Jackson, but for every person whose name comes up all the time in compendiums devoted to eccentrics, there were ten more I had never heard of before.

Because this is quite literally an encyclopedia, the only way to discuss it is to outline a few of the more outlandish people featured in the book.  Not the most exciting way to discuss a book but hopefully the lunacy of the people I select will make up for it.  Here’s a short selection of some of the weird people I had not heard of prior to reading this book, and hopefully there will be a couple I discuss who will be new to you, too.

Baroness Eloise Wagner De Bosquet was a horse-faced woman with buck teeth whose force of charm made her very attractive to people, if only for a short period of time.  After four divorces, in the early 1930s she persuaded two of her lovers to accompany her to Floreana Island, part of the Galapagos Islands chain, to join in with the settlers on the island.  She wanted to create a hotel there, and while visitors to the island found her delightful, less so the two families who lived there permanently.  The lover triad became abusive for one of the men, and The Baroness and one of her lovers disappeared, never to be seen again.  In the wake of that disappearance, there were two more mysterious deaths associated with Floreana, no small feat for an island with fewer than a dozen permanent inhabitants.

I read Mikul’s entry about The Baroness and then immediately discovered a Netflix film called The Galapagos Affair.  The film is an historical piece that covers all of the Baroness’ antics and the scandals and murders on Floreana Island.  I recommend watching it because not only was it a pretty good movie, it also shows how The Baroness could possibly have had any sex appeal to the many men she attracted.  In photos and a silent movie, she is surprisingly attractive.  But still, if you are going to be a part of a cuckold-trio, it seems better to be in thrall to a really beautiful or rich woman. That way when your body is discovered on a desert island with no fresh water source, at least people will see your sorry end as the inevitable result of loving a very bad but extremely beautiful woman.

Next let’s discuss Percy Grainger, an Australian musician and composer.  I was drawn to his entry in The Eccentropedia because he just seems so unlikely.  Had he been a fictional character he would have seemed completely unbelievable. As a boy, his mother told him he was destined for greatness and encouraged him to practice piano for hours.  She whipped him if she felt he was not working hard enough and those whippings became a part of his creative impulse as an adult.  He eventually married a Swedish woman who both understood and did not mind that beating Grainger often was going to be an an important part of their marriage.  Grainger liked whipping others but his masochism took up a lot of room in his psyche, as well as sex in general.

The whippings as a child worked because he became a prodigy, and his marriage to a Swedish woman was more or less inevitable because after a trip to pre-war Germany, Grainger became convinced of the superiority of the Nordic people.  His admiration for the Nordic people leaned heavily into racism but he was also interested in and influenced by the Maori.  He was a fan of Duke Ellington and counted Jews in the number of his friends, but he also created a weird language he called “blue-eyed English” wherein he eliminated all words that did not have an Anglo-Saxon origin and replaced them with his own creations.  This was especially interesting for a composer to do, given all the Italian words used in music.  This site has a short list of the words that Grainger created and is itself a good look at Grainger’s many eccentricities.  Almost equally eccentric, I also discovered that Grainger had invaded unlikely realms online, notably Tumblr and Pinterest tags related to “hot dead guys.”  (On a related note, who knew how ridiculously handsome Anton Chekhov was? Well, evidently lots of people, but I certainly didn’t until I looked up Percy Grainger.)

I am unsure if I really consider Benjamin Lay to be a true eccentric as much as I consider him an excessively-devoted moralist, but the picture Mikul paints of his activities is pretty memorable.  Born in England, Lay first encountered slavery in 1730s Barbados, which made him become a staunch abolitionist.  He and his wife, both Quakers, later emigrated to Philadelphia, where he found that some of his fellow Quakers were slave-owners.  Lay was not one to be subtle in his advocacy.  When he got tossed out of a church for being disruptive, he stretched out in front of the entrance so that everyone who left had to step over him.  On other occasions, he engaged in some one-man theater that is both funny and dramatic:

He invaded another meeting wearing a military uniform with a sword, and carrying a hollowed out book (to represent the Bible) in which was concealed a bladder containing pokeberry juice.  Declaring that enslaving a man was no better than stabbing him through the heart, he drew the sword and plunged it into his ‘Bible’, spattering those nearest him with the red juice.  He once sat outside a meeting in the middle of the winter with one bare leg deep in the snow.  When passersby expressed concern, he said, ‘You pretend compassion for me, but you do not feel for the poor slaves in your fields who go all winter half clad.’  He was not afraid of taking direct action, and once went so far as to kidnap a slave owner’s three-year-old child, so he would know how it felt to lose a loved one.

It also bears mentioning that Lay was a hunchback, rendering him 4’6″ tall.  He died happy because on his death bed, just before he died, the Quaker church had voted to reject slavery.  I wonder how much his activism led them to adopt their moral stance.

My favorite entry was Eliza Donnithorne, the woman who was likely the inspiration for Dicken’s Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. Eliza was born in India where her father was a judge.  Her mother and two sisters died during a cholera outbreak and her heartbroken father decided to relocate to Australia, moving there with the young Eliza in 1836.  When it came time for Eliza to entertain suitors, she rejected all of her father’s favorites, falling for a shipping clerk named George Cuthbertson.  When George proposed to Eliza, her father, known for having a very bad temper, informed George that if he ever caused Eliza any anguish after the marriage, he would be severely punished.

And we all sort of know what happened next.  George jilted Eliza on the day of their wedding.  Eliza believed he would eventually arrive and remained in her wedding dress the entire day.  She came unhinged when she saw wedding guests consuming food meant for the wedding banquet.  Concerned friends took her to her room, where she remained for a month, but honored her request that the wedding banquet be left alone and the dining room door locked.  Unfortunately Eliza was pregnant by George, and when she gave birth the baby was given to a servant to raise, to preserve Eliza’s reputation.  Perhaps that was why George ran away – the prospect of a baby born seven months after the wedding, given Mr. Donnithorne’s threats regarding bad behavior, probably gave him pause.

Eventually Eliza’s father died and she inherited his estate, but that did not encourage her to resume normal life. She had spent years waiting for George to return to her, and had descended completely into madness.

After his [her father’s] death, she had all the shutters on the windows of the house nailed up, and dismissed all but two of her servants… relying on them to conduct all her business with the outside world.  She continued to wear her wedding dress, and the dining room with its uneaten feast remained locked.

It was never wholly proven that she was Dicken’s inspiration, but it seems very likely that at some point he heard her story – the descriptions of the two women seem just too similar for coincidence.  Stranger things have happened though.

This is one of my shorter discussions but to discuss it too much would ruin the nature of the book.  Encyclopedias don’t lend themselves well to my typical in-depth discussions.  This encyclopedia especially doesn’t, given its substantial length (over 500 pages) and 266 entries that cover almost all forms of human perversity, insanity, determination and genius.  This book also has some excellent illustrations by Glenn Smith.  While I completed this book in two sittings, this is a book that can be read in fits and starts, a great book to read when you suspect you may face interruptions, like waiting in line at the DMV.  Mikul, while he can write fiction well, uses a style in this book that is a mix of journalism with clear affection for the subject matter, ensuring the book is readable and engrossing.  I loved this book and highly recommend it!

Tales of the Macabre and Ordinary by Chris Mikul

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Tales of the Macabre and Ordinary

Author: Chris Mikul (longtime readers here may recognize his name – he is the publisher of the excellent ‘zine, Biblio-Curiosa)

Type of Book: Fiction, short story collection, horror

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because Mikul actually does manage to combine the macabre and the ordinary in each story.

Availability: Published by Ramble House in 2009, you can get a copy here:

Comments: The book does what it says on the cover. It delivers macabre (and gross) tales that are also very ordinary in some manner. It’s a very interesting way to tell stories, to permit the narrative to fall flat in some manner, or to tell a story most people know and do it in such a creepy way you make it your own, or to tell a very simple story that seems like it is telling you everything but is really telling you just enough to ask more questions.  At times Mikul denies the reader the catharsis often expected at the end of a tense story because he doesn’t spell things out, and in other instances the narrative ends in a manner that is blunt and horrible. Sometimes the simplest subversions of the traditional story-telling method are the most effective, and each of these stories in some manner are indeed macabre and indeed very ordinary.

The collection has nine stories, and I want briefly to discuss each one. I’ll do my best not to spoil the endings but in a collection like this one, avoiding spoiling endings may well be impossible. Metaphorically, how do you spoil a door slamming in the middle of a sentence? Still, I’ll be careful.

First story, “Dead Spit,” is Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley dropped into the Outback. I don’t think I have spoiled it by describing it this way because, again, the ending will deprive you of the momentum you think the story is gathering. The best part of this story, for me at least, was when I realized that I had created a big mystery clue/red herring due to my own ignorance. I don’t use canola oil because the word canola disgusts me, so I was not aware it comes from plants that collectively are known as canola. I guess I thought canola oil was a mixture of crappier oils and that the trade name for such oil was “canola.” Who knew? Well, evidently everyone else on the planet knew, but that is a detail in this story – working in a canola field and it distracted me from what was really happening.

Jesus, “A Cut Above the Rest” is  Peter Jackson’s earlier films with a touch of “Evil Dead” thrown in. Gross, sort of dumb, quite funny and also gross because I need to emphasize how gross this story was. This story also brings to mind Richard Olen Butler’s Severance, which I should mention I have discussed on this very site. Quick synopsis: fat man tries to win maiden fair by losing weight the hard way.

“Meet Me at the Shot-Out Eye” is a great sort of gritty mystery. Too international for noir but still has that grimy, double-crossing dame feeling. Hero goes to Prague and meets up with a lovely Czech woman with a penchant for sketching people, even during the most inappropriate of moments. Given the length, it’s surprising how layered this story feels when finished. Excellent writing in this one.

Those who regret bitterly their goth years will despise “Blood Sport” but, if you just concentrate on the story instead of your own deep embarrassment at having worn the same Bauhaus t-shirt for years while denouncing Love and Rockets as total sellouts, you can find this story pretty funny at times. Heroine is a teenaged goth with a terrible home life who meets a self-proclaimed vampire (who does not shimmer or glimmer or whatever it was Edward Cullen did) who betrays her. She takes revenge in a very organized manner, killing two birds with one stone, as it were.

“Deddybones” is my favorite story in the collection and I don’t really know why. Les is hired to clear out a creepy old house after the owner dies. The owner had left the home as a sort of unclear monument to a life that never happened when his wife left him. The house is filled with small details that never knit together to form a coherent picture of what awaits Les, and that makes it all the more disturbing. Les falls victim to the house (and takes others down with him as he falls) in a sort of insanity that left me wondering exactly what it was that happened. I mean, we know what happens in a physical sense but never quite get what it is that makes Les go mad, what made the previous tenant go mad, and in turn, that made me feel unsteady, groping for a reason for why things happened as they did. It could be mystical, it could be that sometimes single men lose their bearings. This story is enjoyably frustrating and comfortably familiar in how Les handles the problems that come up as he deals with the fall out from his decisions. I was certain a search on “deddybones” would show me some aboriginal lore that would explain it all but to no avail. Ninety percent of all search results led to this story or to a freelancer in Indonesia. Nope, I am left to wonder what exactly drives Les mad, or if anything drove Les mad.

“The Petrol Run” is an effective story with an abrupt ending. A cult leader goes to prison for child molestation and the cult member left in charge stages a disturbing public reaction to the sentence. This one was probably more effective to me because I had been reading The SCP creepypasta just before reading this story, most notably the notorious SCP-231. Sometimes the external influences are what make a story disturbing, and that was certainly the case for me with “The Petrol Run.”

“Mountain Devils” is close to “Deddybones” in terms of excellence. An older widow paints children’s faces at a local fair, and one boy asks to be painted as a devil. That boy is later a victim of a terrible crime, and the crime doesn’t end with the perpetrator’s death. This is a relatively disturbing story, and the heroine’s end seems abrupt, but when you consider what happens in the story, it actually makes perfect sense when you realize the only person who was affected by the criminal and who did not die was a man in the throws of dementia.

“Barbecue at Nev’s” is some heavy stuff, gentle reader. This one has a pretty solid ending, but one that left me asking all kinds of questions. Family and friends gather for a cook-out and mete justice to one of their own who has stepped outside the boundaries of moral behavior. There are some pretty loathsome details in this one – putting cigarette butts out on cockroaches, for instance. And I don’t think I am giving too much away when I say this story isn’t told in third person, despite all initial appearances that it is. This story is really disturbing in its implications and was skillfully written.

The last story in the collection is “The Wonders of Modern Medicine” and it’s also pretty disturbing. A young woman sleeps through the last stop on her train and finds herself with a dead cell phone and attacked by strange men. And it just gets worse for her from there. This story borrows heavily from urban legend and what is happening is telegraphed pretty clearly but at the same time it’s a nasty little story.

All in all, this was a solid short story collection. Mikul tells you exactly what he plans to do from the outset – he mixes very obvious and at times pedestrian story-telling with extraordinary details, plots and characters. The result is generally that even as you think you know what is coming, you really don’t. And when you do manage to guess, you end up second-guessing yourself. This is a maddening, interesting, entertaining, at times gross and at other times even grosser collection. I liked it a lot. Highly recommended.

This Is Not an Odd Book Review: Biblio-Curiosa, No. 4 by Chris Mikul

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Title: Bibilo-Curiosa, No. 4

Author and Editor: Chris Mikul

Availability: You need to contact Chris directly at cathob@zip.com.au. The ‘zine itself is $5 Australian, so those outside of Australia need to get a quote from him directly. For Americans, if I recall correctly, it is $8 USD an issue, shipping included.

Comments: Last year was a complete waste for me. Dozens of books were left unread, dozens of discussions never happened here. Truly pitiful. But in the spirit of not dwelling on the past and various failures, I want to begin 2014 with a discussion that is long overdue and about a writer whose work inspires me. I’ve said several times that I really envy Chris Mikul’s writing style and research expertise, and his fourth issue of Biblio-Curiosa further cements my opinion of him (I also have two books of his I really want to read and discuss this year – fingers crossed).

For those unfamiliar with Biblio-Curiosa, Mikul’s ‘zine is part book review, part in-depth research. He reads genuinely strange and obscure books and writes about them, but he also engages in deep research into the lives of various writers, sometimes trying to track down authors whose names are very nearly lost to history. Every issue is a fascinating read.

Issue 4 has four articles, and begins with a look at what can only be called a lunatic book. The Werewolf vs The Vampire Woman doesn’t sound that loony on its face – just sort of pulpy. Written by Arthur N. Scarm (yes, Scarm, though it is spelled “Scram” on the title page) in 1972, it is a novelization of a Spanish film called La Noche de Walpurgis, released in the USA as The Werewolf vs The Vampire Woman or Werewolf Shadow. The movies, going by title, sound cheesy enough, but as Mikul notes, the novelization is… not entirely true to its source:

…the book bears only the most passing resemblance to the film. Instead, it takes off on innumerable mad tangents of its own, and brims with cartoonish sex and violence, ludicrous dialogue and scenes that border on the surreal.

The book changes the protagonist’s name from Waldemar to Waldo, changes his personality from a shaggy, animalistic creature into an urbane, sophisticated wolf-dude, and introduces all sorts of previously unknown and probably created on-the-spot werewolf lore. It is here I feel I should mention that Waldo can do all sorts of nefarious and odd things, like shrink boobs with his mind. Montague Summers would weep if he read this book.

Waldo ends up with a vampire woman, as described in the title, but before he does he engages in all kinds of strange seduction. Take this snippet Mikul shares from the book:

Handling the girls like toys, he planted them on their backs, one on top of the other, and with Elvira on top, got on top of her. Ruth was on the bottom and he made love to her through Genevieve and Elvira, with all three girls screaming because it was so uncomfortable.

Yeah. This hilarity aside, this article gets even more interesting when Mikul looks into who “Scarm” really was. 

Biblio-Curiosa Issue 3 by Chris Mikul

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

‘Zine: Biblio-Curiosa Issue 3

Author: Chris Mikul

Type of Book: ‘Zine about strange books and the authors who write them.

Availability: You have to get copies straight from Chris. If I recall correctly, he charges $8 USD for the ‘zine and shipping. You need to contact him at cathob@zipworld.com.au to place an order.

Comments: I did not intend for this to be a Chris Mikul mini-week here, but I needed something I could write about quickly and Mikul’s ‘zine fit the bill. I am writing like a maniac to get ready for my upcoming New Bizarro Author Series giveaway that starts next week and the Jim Goad ANSWER Me! week that follows soon after, so this issue of Biblio-Curiosa lent itself well to a quick discussion (well, quick for me).

Chris Mikul is a fellow traveller in the world of strange books, but he does it so much better than I do. When I grow up I hope to be able to dissect books as concisely as he does. He has a style that marries utter glee for and absorption in the weird books he finds with an investigative and succinct style that my innate verbosity makes impossible for me to imitate. The third issue of Biblio-Curiosa is a delight for anyone who lives for that moment when they find a strange or unusual book at a used book store or an estate sale. Mikul gathers as much information about the book, its author and any other details that will make the book or its author come to life. He finds amazing gems that my untrained eye would have skipped right over.

The first article in this edition discusses a book called The Ferocious Fern by C.B. Pulman. On a trip to a hotel on the Greek island of Rhodes, Mikul and his wife found a hotel library that featured some astonishing books, including a first edition of Animal Farm. Some of the extraordinary books had ex libris information from their previous owner, Archie Wilkinson, whose story is interesting in its own right so I won’t spoil it. One of Archie’s books that particularly interested Mikul was The Ferocious Fern, a collection of short stories with horror and fantasy twists. You need to read the article to get a feel for the book itself, but given what Mikul’s research reveals, this may very well be the only extant copy of this book.

This next article is a price of admission article and I will write just enough of it that hopefully you will feel the same way and will want to read it yourself. “Swastika Night by Murray Constantine” is Mikul at his book-loving, researching best. Swastika Night is an alternative history novel wherein the Nazis have taken over the world, women are less than second class citizens and keep themselves covered in a manner that modern Westerners associate with fundamentalist Islam. They are breeding stock and little else. Not too unexpectedly, this relegation of women to such a demeaned status has a perverse effect on the men. Mikul’s far fuller examination of the book has caused me to put this book on my wish list so I remember to buy it and hopefully discuss it on this site. There are two very interesting elements to this alternative history of Nazi occupation. First, it was written in 1937 and is both an alternative history for the modern reader and a fear of what the future was to hold for the writer and reader during the time it was written. Second, Murray Constantine was really a lesbian writer named Katherine Burdekin, who wrote more dystopian books. It seems very likely that Burdekin’s works, especially Swastika Night, written more than a decade before 1984, were an influence on George Orwell. This is a deeply fascinating look at a female writer whose legacy was almost lost to us.

The next article, “My Friend Froggy,” was written by Jeff Goodman and will be of deep interest to those who originally found out about F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre through the second issue of Biblio-Curiosa. Jeff Goodman once worked at an “adult fiction” mill, typing out very specific porn books, often in one sitting, for very little money. It was at this job that he met Froggy, as he called MacIntyre, and when he read Mikul’s examination of MacIntyre’s life, his strange stories about himself, and his suicide, he wrote to Mikul and revealed his experiences with Froggy. MacIntyre, even after reading a good friend’s examination of him, still remains a cypher to me, as I don’t understand why he created such a fabulist tale of himself when the real story was equally as interesting. I’ll stop discussing this now so as not to ruin it for those who want the details of Froggy’s life through the eyes of someone who knew him, but even as I know little about MacIntyre’s motivations, he was clearly an endearing, interesting, talented, deeply intelligent and deeply depressed man and I want to read his science fiction book The Woman Between the Worlds all the more.

Oh man, the next article is another “price of admission” article. “Tod Robbins, Master of the Macabre” is an amazing look at the life and works of Tod Robbins, who if he is known much by modern readers, is known for writing the book upon which Tod Browning based his movie Freaks. Strangely secretive about his many marriages, imprisoned in an internment camp in France during WWII, Robbins’ life was as interesting and strange as his fiction. Born wealthy, Robbins lived an enviable life during the day, but…

…when he took up his pen at night, his thoughts turned to crime, horror, madness and murder. To crimson thoughts, as he called them.

And indeed he turned to many crimson thoughts, writing novels and short story collections that seem quaintly horrific in a James Whale sort of way and strangely prescient to modern tastes in the deeply disturbing nature of some of his content. I hope it does not seem like a cop-out to say that there are two “price of admission” articles in this small ‘zine but there really are. This article is also worth reading just to be able to see some of the covers and illustrations that Robbins’ novels sported. An illustration for “Close Their Eyes Tenderly” initially seems very whimsical but the longer I looked at it, the more menacing it became.

The last article is “The Cardinal’s Mistress by Benito Mussolini.” I had no idea Mussolini had written books, but evidently in 1909 a socialist newspaper owner suggested that Mussolini write a book that would be defamatory to the Catholic Church. The novel ended up becoming a potboiler and though salacious was actually somewhat sympathetic to the Cardinal who took a poorly regarded mistress who ruined his name. This somewhat sympathetic portrayal is quite interesting when one learns how much the book would mirror his later life, as if he either predicted his own fate or reenacted it from his own book. Mussolini later thought the book he wrote was trash, but it sounds roiling enough that if I can get my hands on a copy, I may give it a read.

It’s probably clear by now that I am a big fan of Mikul’s but my fannish love of his works is born from a bit of envy. The books he digs up, the analysis he puts forth and the investigation skills he possesses are understandably enviable. For a 48 page ‘zine, this reads more like a book and the people and books it will show you are nothing you can find anywhere else because even the most extensive Wiki on interesting, bizarre and lost books will lack Mikul’s clear love of the topics. Highly recommended, e-mail him now and get your copy and if you don’t have issues 1 and 2, order those as well.

The Cult Files by Chris Mikul

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: The Cult Files: True Stories from the Extreme Edges of Religious Belief

Author: Chris Mikul

Type of Book: Non-fiction, cults, religion, true crime

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: This is very subjective, but as an atheist I find all religious beliefs a bit odd. Extreme cults are therefore all the more odd.

Availability: I read the Metro Books edition, but this book has been released by Amazon for Kindle, and that edition is a better bet:

Comments: This book was in my to-be-discussed pile back in 2011 (yeah, I am still catching up) when Chris Mikul sent me copies of his excellent ‘zine, Biblio Curiosa. We began a friendly correspondence and he gave me some interesting information about this book. Evidently his publisher was concerned that some of the content in the book could lead to a lawsuit and demanded the book be radically edited. Mikul sent me the excised chapters but I am limiting myself to the content in the actual book because it seems unfair to discuss material that my readers won’t be able to read for themselves.

But even though he had to cut out some pretty interesting discussions, The Cult Files remains a very absorbing book. Though I am reasonably well-read on the subject of cults, I found information new to me in this cult anthology. There are some of the usual suspects, like the Branch Davidians and Jonestown, but every other chapter had something completely new to me.  That Mikul discussed one of my “favorite” cults, the Ant Hill Kids, led by the repellent and vile Roch Thériault, just sealed the deal for me. Thériault didn’t get much play in the USA and is one of the most fascinating cult leaders, far more interesting than Charles Manson and, in my opinion, at least as toxic as David Koresh. So that was definitely a point in Mikul’s favor.

To prevent this from becoming an extremely long discussion, I’ll just discuss the chapters in this book I found the most interesting or that were new to me when I read the book.

Before I begin, I need to state that not all of the cults discussed in this book fit my criteria of what makes a cult, but it must also be said that I use a pretty strict measure that requires a single charismatic leader, alienation from family and friends, no financial control for followers, increasingly strict punishments for continually changing “sin” metrics, different rules for those in favor with the leader, an inability for followers to question anything, an inability to leave with impunity and more. Mikul doesn’t define his metric with such exacting specificity, though he does give an idea of what a cult may be and how what defines a toxic cult can vary from person to person and from sect to sect. However, his metric comes pretty close to that espoused by Robert Lifton, who stated three different categories to consider when discussing cults: a charismatic leader who positions himself or herself to become the focus of worship, employing brainwashing or thought control methods, and exploitation of the rank and file cult members by the upper echelons of the cult. Even if the cults Mikul discusses in this book may not meet my stringent standards, they meet Lifton’s, who is far more of an expert.

The book begins by discussing the Thuggee in India, a group of traveling confidence killers who preyed on other travelers. They became associated with the garrote, their most common method of killing. I knew a bit about the Thuggee just from osmosis because of my varied reading habits, but I had not known they were dedicated to the Hindu goddess, Kali, the goddess of death and destruction (among other things). The Thuggee were more or less suppressed and destroyed by the British Raj. Before reading this I had considered the Thuggee to be murderous equivalents of the Irish Travelers, con men and women who just upped the ante in scams via murder. I suspect part of it is because I always think of cults in terms of charismatic leaders, and the Thuggee were not organized in this manner, or at least they weren’t when they were in their heyday. But there are typical cult elements that one commonly sees in cults that allow the Thuggee to qualify as a cult, like an us-versus-them mentality, justifying all behaviors, even that which is illegal, as ordained by elevated or outsider status. I think it was an interesting choice to include the Thuggee in this book.

Biblio-Curiosa, issues 1 & 2, by Chris Mikul

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Zine: Biblio-Curiosa

Author: Chris Mikul

Availability: Chris is in Australia and does not have a merchant website, but you can contact him at cathob@zipworld.com.au – he charges $8 per issue, postage included.

Comments: This is not technically a book review, but my usual off-topic title of “This is Not an Odd Book Discussion” does not apply either. This is very much going to be a discussion of odd books. Chris Mikul noticed I had read his book about cults last year (and I still plan to discuss it here though it’s now been a year since I read it, and, also, fuck my life) and sent me the first two copies of his ‘zine Biblio-Curiosa. He later also sent me issues of another ‘zine of his, Bizarrism and a copy of his book, Tales of the Macabre and Ordinary. Please do not misinterpret my delight in receiving these items as a tacit admission that I am going to discuss a lot of Mikul in the future because I am easily bought. I read and eventually discuss everything people send me. But Mikul may have jumped the line a little bit because he is an incredible writer and I didn’t want to sit on these until they came around in the review queue.

I think Biblio-Curiosa is what I wish IROB could be when it grows up, if it grows up. Mikul’s analysis of the strange books and odd authors he encounters manages to be both scholarly and entertaining, a skill borne from years of authoring non-fiction books about the strange among us. I would do well to exercise some of his organizational skills when I write. I’ve always said I resent being inspired but there is something about Mikul’s ‘zines that make me want to be a better writer. I sense my innate verbosity and inability to focus will prevent any emulation transformation but I can always hope.

Biblio-Curiosa‘s subtitle is “Unusual Writers/Strange Books” and covers both with equal ease. The breadth of his interests and the scope of the topics he discusses puts to shame my passive procurement of odd books. Mikul has access to a huge mountain of strangeness most of us would never know about. I know when I see pulp paperbacks from the ’50s, I often look at the lurid covers and think, “I bet my dad would have read that and liked it.” Mikul’s perspective on the pulp paperbacks from before either of us were born showed me how very wrong I am to dismiss such books because even the pulpiest of them may have interesting mysteries behind them for those astute enough to look for them.