Elaine by Ben Arzate

Book: Elaine

Author: Ben Arzate

Type of Book: Fiction, novel

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because I descended into the depths of a rabbit hole as I tried to puzzle out what this book meant.

Availability: Published in 2020 by Atlatl Press, you can get a copy here:

Comments: On the surface, Elaine appears to be a relatively straight-forward read. It’s a fun little book, creepy and frustrating with forays into the incestuous and the priapic. Good times!

But say you’re a woman who has recently been thinking of immigrating to Finland* because you are certain the legislature, the governor, the climate and the slowly crumbling infrastructure in Texas are all teaming up in some god-forsaken superhero quad that will destroy the world in general and you in the specific. If you are such a woman, you might find yourself a bit… uneasy. In fact, I’d finished reading a book about the charming custom of kalsarikanni, translated as “pantsdrunk,” right before picking up Elaine. The Finns take relaxation and drunkenness very seriously, it seems, but mostly I mention this because it seems a bit weird that once I had finished a book about Finnish relaxation, I immediately picked up a book, written by an American, that was populated by Finnish-Americans, most of them named Elaine.

Synopsis: Chris is dating a woman named Agnes, who grew up in a town in Michigan called Elaine. Agnes’s mother just died and Chris is joining her in her hometown as funeral plans are finalized. The roads to Elaine are closed, and the only way he can get there is by train. Every woman he meets is named Elaine, and none of them seem aware that every other woman is named Elaine, too. Agnes functionally disappears for the duration of the novel, leaving Chris in the company of her father in a town that is isolated, empty and unnerving. Chris is disturbed by bizarre, sexual dreams that initially focus on his sister, growing to include Agnes and other women he encounters in Elaine. No one is where they should be, Chris cannot find Agnes, her father eventually disappears as well, the town seems like a ghost town and the train in and out of Elaine stops running. Terrible things happen to Chris at the hands of the Elaines in Elaine, he finds disturbing connections between Agnes and the Elaines that are increasingly menacing and sexually overwhelming, and all of this is punctuated by a creepy, incestuous TV preacher who encourages father on daughter incest. Later Chris finds photos of Agnes with an Elaine who behaved sexually provocatively around him, and it seems very likely that the overall atmosphere of sexual degeneracy in the town caused Chris’ dreams that began on the train into Elaine. Was Agnes a victim of the Elaines herself? Maybe – the ending makes me believe perhaps she was. But all of this doesn’t really help me answer the question of what the absolute hell was going on in Elaine?

It’s a quick and fun read, but my inability to answer the above question plagued me. I didn’t descend directly down into the fear, paranoiacally assuming that the book was cosmically trying to tell me that my desire to go to Finland was a bad idea, Ben peppering the text with clues that would convince me to stay put. But Elaine did raise a lot of questions that I cannot answer. Well, I can’t answer them yet. I finally asked Ben some very generic questions, just outright demanding to know if there was subtext. Ben said there is, that he intends to follow this up with a story that will answer some questions. He didn’t give me any specifics, thankfully, but that confirmation that my instincts are on the mark, that there is something going on and the text gives clues caused me to descend yet again into the rabbit hole and worry all kinds of names and details to see if I could connect the dots.  I haven’t connected them yet but give me time.

Some rabbit hole samples:

“Elaine” is a French form of the Greek name, “Helen.” Helen literally means “shaft of light” or “rays of sun.” That might lead one to believe that there is some greater truth in Elaine, a symbolic revelation that occurs when in Elaine, or a beacon that leads people to Elaine so they can experience some form of enlightenment.

But the link to Helen also makes me wonder if all those Elaines wandering around the city of Elaine were the mid-western equivalents of Helens of Troy, possessing such intoxicating beauty that men would engage in all kinds of heroics to possess them. Most of the Elaines were young and very sexually attractive, and seemed more akin to sirens than a beauty so profound wars were fought over her, but the point is certainly worth mulling over.

A young couple goes missing early on in the book. A cat finds their bodies and the cat’s owner isn’t the least bit alarmed when her cat comes back home covered in viscera – in fact, the cat’s first instinct was to eat the couple’s exposed organs, which is weird behavior for cats. I know we all hear the stories about a cat lady dying and her starving cats eating her body, but cats have to be pretty hungry to do such a thing, and the cat, named Prami, is a pet who is presumably fed by its owner. But the cat is its own rabbit hole. “Prami” is a Finnish name that means “the sea” and a variant of this name is “Pontus.” Pontus was a son of Gaia, ruling the oceans before replaced by the Olympian god Poseidon. We also see the name in “Pontius Pilate,” the man who ordered the death of Jesus Christ. There’s so much there but I have no idea how to pull it together, and it’s made all the more maddening that I am doing this with a cat’s name but what would you have me do? Not worry all these details?

The couple who went missing in Elaine were young, and Elaine is an easy town to disappear into, as Chris will himself experience a bit later. Elaine appears to be a ghost town almost, but there are always people around the corner, in a store, scurrying around unseen until they enact some form of violence or create confusion for Chris. The town also has issues with power supply and cellular phone connectivity so one cannot seek help very easily. The couple who disappeared immediately rang a bell for me. In 2005, a young couple became lost in the Nebraska winter. They were on meth, and became so hopelessly turned around in the snow at night that they could not give accurate information to 911 operators, and their cell phone pinged from one tower to the next, making it impossible to narrow down where they were. The couple eventually left their car and died of hypothermia, but this case has some interesting traction because, much like the Elisa Lam case, many have a hard time believing that psychosis is a thing that happens, be it via mental illness or drug consumption. The couple reported seeing people in the trees, dressed in robes, convinced that they were being stalked and were about to be murdered. Some believe the couple were indeed being stalked by a cult of some sort, and were specifically driven out of their car into the snow in an attempt to kill the couple via hypothermia, based on the female’s account of blacks and Mexicans in cult garb moving cars around to confuse them. There is something very dark and cult-like in Elaine, something that obviously killed the young people whose innards ended up as cat snacks. And cell phones wouldn’t have saved the dead couple in Elaine either.

Does this mean anything? Probably not. But maybe?

Last point I niggled around with was Pastor Toivo, the repulsive televangelist whose giddiness describing biblical incest was unnerving. Later the pastor revealed he himself had been having sex with his daughter, named Elaine of course, and had sired children with her. Agnes’s father doesn’t have much of a reaction to any of this and says that he knows Pastor Toivo and that he can introduce Chris to him. Agnes’ father, Karl, says Toivo isn’t that much of a kook once you get to know him. If Ben revealed Toivo’s last name, I missed it, but “Toivo” means “hope” in Finnish. Pastor Toivo was the final nail in the coffin for me, so to speak, where Elaine was concerned. A lot of what is happening in Elaine can be explained away as just a young man experiencing sexual dreams under stress, a sad daughter acting strangely after her mother’s death, a small town that seems strange to outsiders, an overzealous police force with a Barney Fife level of incompetence combined with a demented blood lust. But Pastor Toivo? What father is okay with a man who uses the Bible to justify raping his daughter and having children with her? Who can look at such behavior and call it kooky? There’s something very wrong in Elaine and even the common folk there don’t seem to recognize it.

There’s more in this book to analyze, from the sexual behavior of the Elaines to a cloying figurine with an upsetting spiritual message. But you can also ignore all of my digging around and just enjoy the strangeness and upsetting nature of the book, which is often softened a bit by some of the ridiculous things that happen to Chris. Ben’s style is one I enjoy – he paints a picture without excruciating scene setting. He uses caricatures of specific behavior to paint ambiguous looks at surprisingly complex characters. It’s an enjoyable book that doesn’t require the sort of poking I do to enjoy it. But, if like me, you have a love of Finland combined with a lot of knowledge about weird stuff that resonates with you as you read, this book may become a bit more than a story of a young man in love being swallowed up by a weird town full of malignant people.

I recommend this book and really need for Ben to explain what Elaine is. I’m very likely on the wrong path, not seeing what Ben is hoping to convey in Elaine, but even if I am completely lost, it was still an enjoyable trip. This is a book that invokes a sort of creepy, insular pagan behavior that causes outsiders to call out for a cleansing fire, though who should burn isn’t entirely clear. Have a read and let me know how you feel at the end.


*Invariably, when I mention my desire to live somewhere in Scandinavia, people helpfully mention that it is cold there. It’s evidently very hard for people to believe a native Texan would want to go to some place so cold, and I guess they figure I must not know that Finland is a bit nippy at times and want to save me from making a terrible mistake. To me, the weather in Finland seems delightful because the only time they really seem like they are sweltering is when they specifically recreate in their saunas the conditions I find on my back porch nine months out of the year. Though as I type this I am sort of remembering how awful the February snow storm was, but I suspect Finland doesn’t have the same grid issues we have in Texas and I would have access to heat when the snow begins to fall in Helsinki. Even so, I would consider such cold to be a feature, not a bug.

Oh Shit, Should I Be Worried: An OTC Primer for Threat Assessment

Our hosting provider, A Small Orange, is the online equivalent of the human taint, also known as the gooch depending on regional dialects. I will often receive all at once several months to a year’s worth of comment notifications or emails sent to me via the site’s email address.  One time a terminally-ill author sent me a lovely message asking me to review his last book because he was so moved by my first review of his work. I received it months after he died. I do not know why we haven’t changed providers yet, but I suspect it’s because I don’t stay mad long enough to make it a priority. I also am less active on the site lately and check the back end far less often than I should, so I don’t notice gaps in messages in a timely manner. However, this last flurry of notifications contained a comment that gave Mr. OTC pause, enough pause that he became angry that such a comment had gone months without us seeing it.

“Some asshole is effectively threatening you and this comment sat unseen on the server for months until A Small Orange deigned to send us notification,” Mr. OTC said. “What if he’d said, ‘I’m on my way to kill you!’ and we had no idea?” I suspect A Small Orange, who as a company sucks balls (which, by the way, are near the taint) will not be my host much longer. It should be mentioned that Mr. OTC ultimately was more angry at the taint than the asshole because he understands what is considered an actionable threat and what isn’t, but I was surprised that he was so appalled at the comment. He knows what I write about.  He knows that I get terrible comments. Yet he looked at the comment and did not see what I saw. He saw the potential for genuine threat.

Here’s the comment, with the beginning of my reply.

I think most spouses would feel uneasy seeing that their partner receives comments that invoke torture, extrajudicial murder and final judgement for perceived wrong-doing. But I’ve got this. I’ve been doing this for thirteen years and somewhere along the line I learned how to analyze documents in a way that gives me a pretty good metric for whether or not I should be afraid or concerned about what angry commenters say to me when they are especially pissed off.

Finally! A use for an English degree!

While it has to be said that I am not a behavioral sciences expert, nor am I a legitimate threat assessor, I’ve been reading the words of madmen and reactions to the words of madmen for so long that I reckon I can differentiate between a threat and a dude who unloaded on me after a really bad day (or month, or year). Rob may have intended for me to feel afraid, but offered no harm that I felt could endanger me or my family.

I’ve had two or three threats I considered legitimate since running my book discussion sites and those messages were radically different than Rob’s. Those comments showed that the authors know who I am, meaning they know my full name, where I live, the names of some of my pets, that my husband is ex-military. They had specific issues with something I definitely wrote, showing that they actually read what I wrote and were reacting to me specifically, and they did not speak in generalities. They made reference to how easy it would be to find me or a specific pet, what they wanted to do to me or the cat, and mentioned a time frame wherein they hoped to do harm to me.

Rob’s comment wasn’t anywhere close to being genuinely threatening. Unpleasant? Yes. Reason to freak out? Nope. I know some people will disagree with that assessment so let’s break his comment down and hopefully I can explain why I think Rob hollered at me online rather than metaphorically kick the family dog after having a bad day, and hopefully this analysis will help anyone else who is periodically frightened by what angry (mostly) men say online. Plus, sometimes it’s just fun to hyper-analyze the hell out of weird comments.

Election Day Special: The Hunt

Tuesday, November 3, 2020, is going to be a hell of a day.  I despise talking about politics because the only discussions less useful to intelligent discourse lately are forays into conspiracy theory.  But I think I have a perfect way to express the angst, fear and disgust many people have felt when they realized 2020, a year with numbers that represent perfect vision and clarity, was descending into chaos, sickness and violence while those in power exploited the chaos, sickness and violence.

Enter The Hunt.

The conversation about this film gets derailed frequently. Due to release just after the horrific mass murders in an El Paso Walmart in August 2019, The Hunt’s opening was delayed after President Trump and right-wing pundits like Laura Ingraham insisted the film’s goal was to inspire partisan violence against conservatives.  The film’s opening was delayed until late September 2019, then again until March of 2020. It opened right before Covid-19 caused theaters to shut down in the USA. Not many people got to see it on screen, but those who did found the film uncomfortable viewing.  Leftists were angry that the liberals in the film were such assholes.  Those on the Right were angry that the conservatives in the film were such assholes and also felt that the asshole liberals were coded as conservatives.  That, my friends, is a pretty good sign that this is a film that may show you some uncomfortable truths about class, politics, objective and subjective truth, and what happens when the schism becomes all anyone can see.

If it makes you uncomfortable, interrogate that feeling.

Here’s a brief synopsis of The Hunt, and there will probably be spoilers (I don’t think you really can spoil a film like this, but step wisely if you prefer to go into films utterly tabula rasa): The Hunt is a riff on The Most Dangerous Game, humans hunting humans, but this time it’s personal.  A cadre of elite liberals, very wealthy elite liberals, made a dumb joke in a group chat.  One of them spoke of shooting “deplorables” in a hunt, and the others reacted in a tongue-in-cheek manner.  This chat got hacked and released to the public and conspiracy theorists took it seriously.  The elites eventually lost their jobs and decided to track down some of the most virulent proponents of the conspiracy theory and kill them in a hunt, making the conspiracy theory real after the fact.  Conservative and conspiracy theory caricatures were kidnapped, flown to an estate in the Balkans and killed. The last woman standing is Crystal May Creasey, a lower-middle class blonde with a thick Southern accent. The mastermind behind The Hunt, a woman named Athena, researched the prey she and her peers would hunt, but got it very wrong with Crystal.  Athena kidnapped the wrong Crystal Creasey, not knowing the Crystal behind the social media accounts talking about The Hunt spelled her name “Mae.”  That mistake costs her and you need to watch the film if only to see the final confrontation between Athena and the wrong Crystal.

Athena and her comrades in arms are extremely wealthy and very white, with the exception of one Arabic man who is their token minority. They are wealthy in a way that makes them part of the 1%.  They are so wealthy that losing their jobs means little to their overall net worth as they are able to charter airplanes, pay off staff who fly them around, rent entire compounds for weeks, hire a military advisor to help them train, etc. Their absolute privilege fuels their rage at the mostly blue-collar advocates of the conspiracy theory.  How dare those “deplorables” interfere in their lives in such a way? They must be taught a lesson, an individual lesson that results in their deaths. They messed with their “betters” and that cannot stand.

Liberal discomfort at watching these caricatures is interesting.  Athena and her cohorts get very upset over language – while hiding bodies in a back room at a fake general store and gas station set up to catch anyone who escaped the compound, one older married couple argue over whether or not “black” is an appropriate description for human beings. They come to the conclusion that “African-American” is the only polite term, no matter what NPR has to say about it because NPR employs mostly white people. They have no problem policing each other’s language as they literally kill three people with poison gas because they talked conspiracy theory online. Similar conversations happen in a bunker on the compound, as the tiresome elites wait in anticipation for Crystal to return.  When they accidentally shoot a pig named Orwell, their anger at hurting the animal far outweighs any concern they have for the human beings they rounded up and slaughtered.

Oh, and it is a slaughter.  It’s not a hunt. The conspiracy theorists find a box of weapons but the moment they get their bearings in a clearing, they are immediately shot from an enemy they do not know is there, with no knowledge of why they are there and the rules of the hunt. Those who escape instant death are chased into booby traps, tracked with drones, blown up or gassed and the notion of an actual hunt only comes up when Crystal proves hard to kill.  It was never a hunt until Crystal, the wrong Crystal, hunted them.  It was graphic, outrageous revenge against people who had very little power outside of their capacity to talk about jaded and cruel rich people online.

But bear in mind, the people getting shot and gassed and blown up are also distasteful. One of the guys is a big game hunter, posing with animal carcasses like that asshole dentist who lured a lion out of an animal preservation to kill.  One is a hard-core conspiracy theorist who sees a crisis actor in everyone he sees, even babies, and it strips him of any real humanity and makes him an easy target. Another is a dead ringer for Tomi Lahren, so much so that we don’t need much more from her than a couple of sentences because it’s clear who she is meant to portray (checking the name for spelling showed me as I was typing this, the real Tomi Lahren was tweeting and retweeting about the election and evidently wrote a book called Never Play Dead that came out a year after The Hunt finished production and I sense we’ve come full circle, in a way).  And while I don’t like Tomi Lahren, for many of the same reasons I lipfarted at Phyllis Schlafly, I don’t think it will get me cancelled to say that I don’t want to see her kidnapped and her head blown off.  These ringers aside, the rest are just Q-Anon and Pizzagate true believers who never really understood that there were real people on the other side of their accusations, that what they were saying could potentially ruin lives. If they consider that their actions could ruin lives, they feel it was a morally upright decision to ruin those who prey on the weak, even if the basis for such a decision is bad logic and supposition. They just had the bad luck to cross people more motivated for revenge than the Podesta brothers or that dude who runs Comet Ping Pong.

The Tomi Lahren stand-in and the big game hunter may have had some money, but that they are so easily kidnapped and illegally flown into Europe speaks to being far lower on the financial ladder than the liberals who want them dead. This is a class war, pure and simple, and it is based simply on class because the liberals feel it would be terrible to kill any of the people of color who spread the conspiracy theory about The Hunt. It’s an interesting place to stand, to be so attuned to white privilege that one is willing to kill any number of white people who say the wrong thing but utterly unwilling to kill minorities who do the same because that’s just not politically correct.

In the middle of these warring class factions stands Crystal.  Her skills are of a Neo-in-the-Matrix type and her flat deadpan delivery is often far too calm, but in her hyper-aware, violently competent, quiet sense of self, we see the only real human in this film. She may be part of the working class the elites hate, but she was never a part of the conspiracy theory and as an outsider to wealth and conspiracy, she is the only one who can see clear enough to survive.  While the other hunt victims woke with bits locked in their mouths, convening together in the clearing where a large box containing weapons was placed, Crystal was pulling apart her name badge and placing the pin on a leaf in a pond to show her the way north.  She never banded together with the rest of them until she was forced to when other victims found her  – she didn’t even wait around long enough to find out who they were or what any of them may have known about what was going on.  We don’t know her political beliefs.  We know she was in the military and that she had a crappy job at a car rental place.  Beyond that she’s an Everywoman, a stand-in for every person who has watched the world split apart, with loved ones on either side of the divide, tired of the rhetoric, cruelty, entitlement and fear.

The prelude to the final fight is very interesting. Athena’s arrogance and distaste for the messy lives of the underclass is sickening.  She taunts Crystal, reciting knowledge about Crystal Mae Creasey’s sad life.  Parents were meth addicts, life spent in foster care, and that pedigree of poverty and despair to Athena is a sign that Crystal, in some Calvinist assignation of blame, earned her terrible life because she on some level deserves it, that her misery was pre-ordained.  Crystal Mae was scum, she was foul, and she had messed with Athena via comments online and had to die for it.  It’s just a shame that she kidnapped Crystal May Creasey, whom she knew nothing about.

The end of the fight is instructive, showing the way the 1% looks at those who don’t have an MBA and who live paycheck to paycheck.  All of the victims have nicknames the elites use and they call Crystal “Snowball.”  Crystal asks Athena why she called her that and Athena immediately thinks Crystal is asking because she doesn’t have any idea who Orwell was nor had she read Animal Farm.  She begins to pedantically explain it to Crystal, who cuts her off, telling her she understands the reference but doesn’t get the link between her and Snowball.  Athena is visibly shocked that this woman, this woman whose identity she now knows she fucked up, read a book, let alone a book almost every high school freshman in America reads. Athena is so married to her idea of those unlike her being genuinely deplorable that any sign of intelligence in her perceived enemy is shocking.

By the way, I’ll be damned if I understand the way that this film viewed Snowball, the pig who represented Trotsky and whose death was used as propaganda by Napoleon/Stalin, who bastardized Snowball’s ideas. Perhaps the conspiracy-minded Crystal was Snowball, but the Crystal they kidnapped was not.  More puzzling, Crystal says she thinks Athena is Snowball, and that makes even less sense, unless it is a way to convey that Crystal is going to somehow misuse Athena’s image to achieve some larger goal.  If that is the case, it’s unclear at the end.  And that lack of clarity may be the point.  At the end, education, literary allusion and decent analogy meant nothing – they were all slaughtered like pigs. In that regard, Athena really was Snowball.

This is an uncomfortable movie to watch.  It parodies conservative conspiracy theories and parrots the worst people think about elites who use the lumpen proletariat however they want but tantrum like very pampered babies when the proles speak out of turn.  It shows how impermeable conspiracy theory is to rational or reasonable thought.  It shows how perhaps we are right to be very afraid of those who wield power and have money.  Conservatives thought the immoral liberal elites were a parody of them, and maybe they were.  Liberals really hate the way the elites were more focused on the minutia of civility than the morality of killing people for sport and revenge.  This film shows what incompetent assholes many who are rabidly partisan become, and won’t let us off easy in the end by telling us much about the heroine who outlasted her financial peers and bested her economic betters. We may be far more like Athena or the ersatz Tomi than Crystal.

The days ahead are going to suck regardless of who wins the election.  I’m a liberal, or a leftist – I don’t even know anymore because the labels change online constantly – and I see Athena in some of my own. And I know that though I am far from rich, the intellectual company I keep may make me seem like a pandering asshole to those to the right of me. Enemy lines have been drawn in a way they never have been before and I worry about the days to come.

That’s it.  That’s the end.  I have no great conclusion here. No matter what happens today, restoring our faith in the government, politicians, and even our peers will not come quickly. Maybe watching this film will result in some sort of catharsis but right now it might just feel like the movie gods are mocking us.  Just buckle in and hope your level best that we will one day live in a society wherein it is not so easy to constantly invoke Orwell.

Oddtober 2020: Sinful Cinema Series vol. 5 by Doug Brunell

Book:  The Amazing Mr. X from the Sinful Cinema Series

Author: Doug Brunell

Type of Book: Non-fiction, cinema studies, film criticism

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Less odd than disheartening – this book illustrates how it is that being very good at what you do is no assurance you will ever become famous or even well-respected in your craft.

Availability: Published by in 2020 by Chaotic Words, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Doug Brunell has become a staple of my “Oddtober” adventures.  I’ve read a little of his fiction (I read Black Devil Spine and my main criticism was that I wish he’d just let loose a bit more and wallowed in the depravity because he was soooo close to pulling off the most difficult feat a horror writer can achieve – pornographic violence that doesn’t pander) but am mostly familiar with his looks at weird, fringe and/or under-known films.  I hope he keeps updating his Sinful Cinema series until either I or this site dies because I think his work has become the OTC version of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. You gotta watch Linus out there in the pumpkin patch and you gotta have a Sinful Cinema volume or it just doesn’t feel like Halloween.

I am in a strange place with The Amazing Mr. X because I want to engage in my usual, endless examination, and this film isn’t outrageous like some of the films Brunell has explored. I have had no qualms about spoiling the plots of those films because the plot and characterization took a backseat to the shlock, sleaziness or overall hokeyness.  Few watch Crypt of the Living Dead or The Abductors for plot complexity or interesting characterization and god help those who find such titles and hope that at least the acting is decent.  But Brunell has a gift for seeing the intent behind bad or outrageous films, showing his readers unexpected ways to look at the plots, character arcs that would have been missed among all the stilted delivery and random boob shots, and his biographies of those involved in the films show the crazy ways Hollywood is connected, from the winding paths between sexploitation and Disney franchises to how the name of a small boat that takes a researcher to a vampire-infested, in-bred island can demonstrate the uneasy interactions between rational science and pagan tradition.  Without Brunell, the average film fan might not have ever understood all of these connections and ideas that permeate even the crappiest low budget horror film, and his extraordinary love of the subject redeems films I would have ignored had I known about them.

That is not the case with The Amazing Mr. X. I can see watching this just because.  In fact, I sort of want to watch it with Mr. OTC to see what he thinks of it.  As Brunell notes in his examination, this film has a lot of things that hamper it, mainly the title, which leads one to believe that this is going to be some sort of character-driven science fiction film.  It’s not.  Brunell says it’s a noir film disguised as a horror film and he’s right.  Every actor hits their mark, the plot is a masterful series of misdirections that never seem forced or false, and all the important characters have unexpected redemption arcs that make sense and are not insulting, forcing a schmaltzy and happy ending.

So I don’t want to spoil this film.  I think you need to watch it, decide what you think is happening, and then read Brunell’s book.  This film is fairly easy to get hold of.  I watched it on Amazon Prime for free but the film is also all over YouTube.

Quick synopsis: The extremely wealthy Christine was widowed when her husband Paul died in a car crash. She feels his presence still and is having trouble moving on. Her somewhat annoying but adorable younger sister, Janet, wants her to accept an engagement ring from her new suitor, Martin, a likeable guy, but on the night when Martin proposes, Christine meets Alexis, a clairvoyant and spiritualist (who has a big squawking crow as his familiar, a bird whose role in this film was not clear to me until Brunell explained the ending), who knows all about Paul and Martin.  His unexpected knowledge weighs on her until she consults Alexis for help and becomes a regular client of his as she uses his psychic powers to try to reconnect with Paul.  Paul’s memory is causing Christine to become unhinged and Janet and Martin become suspicious of Alexis. They hire a private investigator, who is a former magician who knows all the tricks of psychic con men (a sort of James Randi figure, may he rest in peace), to look into the psychic and, sure enough, he has a file on Alexis.  To make sure Alexis is the man he thinks he is, the investigator and Martin send Janet in as bait to get his fingerprints but Alexis is two steps ahead of them because he is, indeed, a con man. That may seem like a spoiler but it isn’t because the viewer knows Alexis is a fraud the moment she sees him.  But in the end, Christine really is in danger, Paul is the source of this danger, and by the time everyone figures out what is going on, Christine is more or less a second thought as far more interesting characters shape the end.

This film is an interesting history piece.  Filmed in 1948, it comes at a sort of crossroads in cultural reactions and social movements.  Young widows filled with grief at the untimely deaths of their young husbands were not uncommon after WWII, so this movie had a sort of anchor in Christine. But spiritualism was dying off, men like Alexis raising more suspicion than praise, so much so that the film’s title was changed from The Spiritualist. But Christine (and Janet) are wealthy, presumably through their family, leaving them prey to con men, while also showing that they didn’t need anyone to take care of them.  Moreover, Alexis, played by Turhan Bey (who was known as the “Turkish Delight” and once dated Lana Turner but couldn’t marry her because his mama didn’t approve), was shoved into a role that was losing potency.  The trope of women swooning over suave sheik types of men was drawing to an end.  Yet in spite of these issues, from the terrible title to the tired tropes to the lack of a “big name,” the film works.  Brunell speculates that if one big name had been cast, this film would today be far better known than it is.

One of the benefits of reading Brunell’s books after watching these films is that they encourage me to watch carefully, almost training me in film analysis.  I missed the subtext behind the ending, and there were other bits and pieces I didn’t pick up on.  But it’s interesting what I did see before I read Brunell, things I would have missed ordinarily.  For example:

–I didn’t entirely connect the dots but I felt a sort of discordance at first because it seemed like Christine, who was played by the lovely Lynn Bari, was the protagonist of the film.  Why was the film called The Amazing Mr. X if Christine is the lead character?  Well, she isn’t.  Alexis is, and that misdirection is intentional and part of why this film is so clever.

–Janet, who is at least ten years younger than Christine, has a chipmunk voice, appears ditzy and silly, and Alexis is able to ingratiate himself to her by insinuating that she is actually the more mature, more grounded of the sisters. Even Christine scoffs at this but Alexis is not wrong. Janet may be silly but she is not plagued by ghosts of dead husbands with questionable motives, she offers unwavering moral support, and is capable of saving lives when the chips are down.  Christine, who has a sort of Joan Crawford, 1940s remote elegance that often is linked to feminine intelligence, is easily fooled, ridiculously unable to act in her own best interests, and at the end the least interesting character in the film.

–I wondered why I liked the bad guy – Alexis – so much when he was a con man.  Because I’m supposed to.  Again, the director laid out a path I was walking on before I knew I was even walking.

And I picked up on these things because I was anticipating Brunell’s book and what it would show me.  It’s a fun sort of mental exercise, a puzzle that connects my experience to the ideas of someone very well-versed in film while showing me the puzzle pieces that I missed.  For example, Brunell’s discussion of the lighting in the film was fascinating and far outside my wheelhouse.

And though the cast and crew biographies are not as salacious as those in the other volumes of Sinful Cinema I’ve read, they are still very interesting.  For example, one of them was blacklisted by McCarthy.  One was utterly beloved by all who knew him. One actress lost her acting contracts when she refused to divorce her husband at the demand of a studio executive. And all of them, very good at their craft, never achieved the fame they deserved.  Seriously, this was a tight cast.  The weakest link was the detective and even he had decent acting chops.  If you dislike Christine, it’s because Lynn Bari’s performance was deliberate in its attempt to create that emotion.  If you begin to enjoy the Gidget-like Janet, well-done because she’s a character who only seems like a caricature of a chatty blonde until you juxtapose her with the more “competent” female character and realize she’s pretty cool.  (And though you aren’t wholly expected to want to root on Alexis as he cons Christine, if you do find yourself feeling ambiguous about him, you’re in good company because I didn’t want Christine to come to harm, but if Alexis got a few bucks out of her, c’est le vie.)

Brunell’s other four volumes in the Sinful Cinema series focus on more outrageous or fringe fare and initially I wondered if I was watching the correct film because I didn’t find myself falling into the sort of MST3K mindset one uses when watching a film that is notably terrible in some manner.  This is a well-crafted, though certainly flawed film, with an interesting script, good actors, and mystery elements that are always honest, never resorting to uneven characterization or left-turn plot twists.  Yet in its own way its as much an outlier as Crypt of the Living Dead because the cast and crew themselves remained outliers in an acting community that never gave them their well-earned dues, the film itself got lost among other noir films that didn’t mislabel themselves via terrible titles, and this film seems… cursed in a way, including a leading lady who died in a notorious fashion before the film began production, and terrible timing.

I really enjoyed Brunell’s tour through The Amazing Mr. X. It was particularly enjoyable seeing his keen eye take on a film that isn’t mostly boobs, poor acting, terrible casting, and inexplicable plot elements.  It’s great to see unexpected weirdness in more mainstream and conventional fare.  Highly recommended.

Oddtober 2020: WNUF Halloween Special

WNUF Halloween Special is one of the best “found footage” films the horror genre has produced in years, which is kind of grim because it was released in 2013.  It doesn’t really matter if the premise has had every drop of ingenuity and decent story-telling wrung out of it.  If it worked once, why not keep doing it until not even the mafia will finance your film?  Given my dim view of other films that mine this vein, the only reason I selected this film on Shudder is because I was doing mindless chores and wanted some background noise. Five minutes in, I understood this wasn’t just another V/H/S.  So I stopped it so I could watch it later and pay attention, and forced Mr. OTC to watch it with me.  Good times.  (By the way, I could only find this on Shudder and couldn’t find it elsewhere to stream, sorry.)

The premise is fairly simple: The news station on WNUF, Channel 28, in some northern town some time in the 1980s is hosting the “first live on TV seance.” We are watching a VHS video someone recorded of the news program that aired right before the Halloween special, wherein we learn about this little town and all its problems. Periodically, the film fast forwards through repetitive or uninteresting sections, mimicking what we all used to do when we recorded network television back in the day, placing the audience in the role of an active viewer of the tape. Interspersed throughout the news and the later seance special, we see commercials that are so absolutely true to 1980s concerns, mores, cultural issues and consumer habits that it was hard not to cringe at how awful the 80s really were. The program for the seance begins after the news, and the audience learns that a son slaughtered his parents in the house, and a couple who are paranormal investigators, a hapless priest, an oily reporter and a cat find out that the dead should be the least of anyone’s concerns.

The only way to discuss this film is to recount both the plot and the running commentary Mr. OTC and I engaged in, as we were delighted and utterly appalled by how much this film got completely right, balancing perfectly between retro cringe and upbeat nostalgia, lampooning and lauding the 1980s.  I’ll swap back and forth between the plot and the best of the commercials, but know that if I could explore every commercial without writing a novella-length discussion, I would.

The film begins with a fast forward through commercials, some of which are helpful PSAs (“Wait! Stop! Think! There’s nothing sexy about STDs!”) and then the news begins.  We meet hosts Gavin Gordon, looking like a young Fred Willard in a vampire costume, and Deborah Merritt, with perfect mom makeup, wearing a witch hat and a saccharine smile.

First thing they tell us about is the upcoming special with reporter Frank, and make terrible Halloween jokes.  “No, you didn’t tune into the Transylvania Public Access station,” Gavin says.  Then they give a rundown of the evening’s news stories: a religious organization is praying for the end of Halloween because Satan is bad, the ads in the governor’s race are getting dirty, and they announce Frank Stewart is going to take us along as he traipses through a murder house.


Mr. OTC: Did you see that smile and little shrug she gave him.  You know that wasn’t on the cue cards.  He’s ad libbing and she hates him.  I bet he even bounced the whole Transylvanian cable access joke off her beforehand and she told him she’d strangle him if he did it and he did it anyway to piss her off.

Me: Really?  I got the impression those two are having an extramarital affair.  That’s weird sexual tension, I think.

Mr. OTC: No reason it can’t be both.

Oddtober 2020: Expiration Date by Laura Flook

Book: Expiration Date: Special Deadition

Author: Laura Flook, illustrated by Brian Williams

Type of Book: Comic, (dark) humor, horror

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s so over the top and tasteless and reminiscent of the early, irreverent, impolite and extremely fun days of Internet usage, it’s almost old school in it’s approach to gross humor. The font colors, size and unique lettering also required a new bedside lamp and, I’m not even ashamed to admit, a magnifying glass to read.  That was a first, and, I fear, a sign of things to come, when not even progressive lenses will be up to the task.

Availability: Self-published by Flook in 2015, you can get an autographed copy from her website.

Comments: Long-time readers of this site, of whom there are at least three, may remember my discussion of Expiration Date from what feels like last year but was really seven years ago. It was delightfully weird, somewhat silly, made references to The Misfits and basically wallowed in comedic grossness.  I was very charmed by the toe tag Flook sent along with the comic.

Expiration Date: Special Deadition is a re-print of the 2000 issue, with a second part that includes the dark illustrations represented on the cover, along with a page from The Rotten Times, a newspaper that is evidently mostly obituaries and reprinted letters sent to an advice columnist who offers sage wisdom to parents whose shoe-polish consumption results in children needing better toothpaste as well as kids seeking ways to deliberately develop diabetes. I note that one of the obituaries is of a gentleman named “Don Morris,” who also gave Flook a rave review for the 2000 edition of Expiration Date. It’s fun noticing little details like that, little self-referential Easter eggs.  It’s also nice to see that Flook is really fond of her fans.

The comic showcases the antics of Jelly, a funeral home director, and her demented assistant Calvin. Jelly collects genitalia from their dead clients (relatives will ask if you remembered to put Granny’s contact lenses on her dead eyeballs but will never notice if you’ve absconded with her vagina) and Calvin collects boils.

That's repulsive!

It’s the sort of funeral home wherein people come in to plan the funeral for the baby they intend to kill and MeeMaw may end up looking like Ziggy Stardust in her open casket.  The second part is devoted to the newspaper I reference above, because Jelly attended an autumnal equinox party that left her so plastered that she remained unconscious but uninjured for days after a car accident and is among the obituaries until she wakes up.

Lots of gross humor, irreverent references to child abuse, yet no necrophilia (which would have been too on the nose, I think).  The comic costs $15 plus shipping, which may strike some as a bit pricey for a comic that is around 2/3 reproduced content.  But it’s not like it will be easy to find the first issue anyway so you are unlikely to end up owning both, the illustrations are suitably angular and sharp, given Jelly and Calvin’s edgy humor and use of scalpels, and sort of unlike anything I’ve seen recently, the price is actually pretty good given the production values, and it’s refreshing to come across content that is so utterly unrestrained.

But mostly the real reason to buy this is because Laura Flook is all about the details.  No toe tag this time, but she had it shipped the same day I ordered it and it was impeccably packaged with a very striking gift tag.

I was touched to see the comic was dedicated to her late dog, Trocar, who was Flook’s dog equivalent of my late Adolph. I remembered her dog because I looked up his name when I bought the first edition of Expiration Date (as per the Internet, a trocar is “a surgical instrument with a three-sided cutting point enclosed in a tube, used for withdrawing fluid from a body cavity”).

Plus it’s nice to have the chance to directly support artists you like. Flook has other merch on her site, like face masks, interesting funerary-inspired jewelry, and clothing (if your leggings have embalming instruments on them, who cares if you look a bit sausagey wearing them, is what I am telling myself…).

Shortest entry I’ve written, probably ever, but this is a brief comic.  There are times when the having of media so well-produced and dedicated to a specific craft and sub-culture is equal to or greater than the time spent actually consuming said media, especially when you find the creators interesting in and of themselves.  It’s a comic about a demented funeral director and mortician and it’s really sort of pretty.  It’s worth owning on that merit alone but it’s also funny, gross and clever.

Check back soon for more Oddtober content but until then feel free to recommend your favorite optometrist.

Oddtober 2020: The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll by Jean Nathan

Book: The Secret Life of the Lonely Doll: The Search for Dare Wright

Author: Jean Nathan

Type of Book: Non-fiction, biography

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: The Wright Family was odd.  Dare Wright’s upbringing is a perfect distillation of what would happen if you crossed Grey Gardens with Martha Stewart’s micro-managed zest for living with the entirety of the old “cluster B” section of the DSM.

Availability: Published in 2004 by Picador, you can get a copy here:

Comments: This didn’t turn out to be as creepy an analysis as I had hoped.  I may have misjudged the overall creepiness because I’m not really scared of dolls. I never understood the people who were and still are scared of the Chucky franchise.  It was too campy and an active fire and competent voodoo priestess could have wrecked that doll’s shit right quick. The Annabelle franchise is a bit more frightening, I guess, but I also feel that if a possessed doll could be safely secured in a glass case in the home of two elderly fraudsters (no real shade, I love Ed and Lorraine Warren) who kept chickens in the house, maybe all you have to do if confronted by an evil doll is send it to whomever is in charge of the Warren estate and ask that it be put behind glass too.  Or maybe encase the doll in concrete and send it to the Vatican or drop it into the Mariana Trench? But really who cares because if I’m not scared by dolls, I won’t get it and people who aren’t scared by people wearing masks will not understand my utter revulsion at Slipknot or the original Shatner Michael Myers configuration. Horror is relative.

But creepy or not I am going to continue because maybe the creepiness is the books we read along the way. This is the second part of my look at The Lonely Doll and Dare Wright. You may want to have a look at the first part because in that entry I discuss the book itself and my speculations behind what was at work in the book and what may have happened to Dare Wright to cause her to create such a needy, emotionally shattered character in what was meant, one supposes, to be a pretty little children’s book. I wondered why Dare included the spanking scene and what the reader was supposed to take away from the message behind such a spanking.  I had some conclusions, given my tendency toward armchair psychoanalysis.  Among them:

–The Lonely Doll was terrified of abandonment by a male father figure, and that she would submit to any sort of punishment if it meant that the father figure, Mr. Bear, would stay.

–I wondered if Mr. Bear and Little Bear’s sudden arrival signified a stepfather and step-sibling, forcing Edith into submitting to a male figure who was essentially sprung on her, while negotiating a relationship with another child, whose own rebellion against a father figure could create all sorts of problems.

–Because of these two possibilities, I pegged Dare Wright as having been a little girl whose own parents were divorced and who missed her father.  I thought perhaps she had a stepfather whose assertion of his authority over her was at times draconian but she still wanted to please him because he represented stability and because her new step-sibling brought her companionship she missed out on when her mother was single.

I was kind of right but I was also very wrong.

Oddtober 2020: The Lonely Doll by Dare Wright

Book: The Lonely Doll

Author: Dare Wright

Type of Book: Children’s fiction, photography, inadvertently creepy

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because it’s only odd if you’re a grown-up.

Availability: Initially published in 1957, it went out of print for a while but the copyright was renewed in 1985.  I cannot find a publication on my copy but it was published by the Sandpiper division of Houghton Mifflin, and is visually identical to copies you can purchase new:

Comments: When I was bouncing around the idea of trying to get out of my rut and rev my writing engine for Halloween, my friend and PUBLISHER WHO IS STILL PATIENTLY WAITING FOR MY FINISHED WORK ON MANIFESTOS, Chip Smith, mentioned that last year’s foray into children’s books was interesting and made a few suggestions on other works I could pursue.  He didn’t mention The Lonely Doll, but his enthusiasm for the topic reassured me I was on the right path.  So here we are, discussing this pretty but potentially alarming book.

This book was not a part of my landscape as a child. It wasn’t just that dolls didn’t frighten me – I never set eyes on this book until very recently. I first became aware of the book when actress Famke Janssen filed a police report believing that someone had broken into her apartment and did nothing but leave behind a copy of The Lonely Doll.  Police were highly skeptical about her claims, though they never charged her with making a false police report because they believe Janssen believed this happened and was sincere when she made the claims.  There were no signs of entry, the security cameras at her apartment never showed a break-in attempt, and inside the book the police found a to-do list that was written by Janssen herself.  It was the book that grabbed my attention more than the notion that an actress would make up such a story because regardless of whether or not the break-in really happened, I’m still left wondering about the significance of the book and why anyone, Janssen or an intruder, would feel the book conveyed malice or ill-intent.

The story was not enough to provoke me into purchasing The Lonely Doll, but over the last couple of years, the book has come up on various list sites (Top Ten Sewer Disasters, Five Reasons Why You Personally Are Worse Than Hitler, etc.) when the topic of terrifying things from childhood make their rounds. I’m unsure how all my years in the book arena, from childhood to a year ago, passed without me seeing this book but I suspect it’s the case that I tune out that which is not relevant to my interests. I very quickly passed from picture books with minimal text to books marketed to teens and adults, and when I was still reading books for little kids, I liked drawings more than photos. I also tended toward smaller books, like the Little Golden Books.  So the uneasiness this book caused some readers and still causes adults who investigate the book wasn’t something I experienced either as a child or in retrospect as an adult who read this book as a child.

The awkwardness in the final sentence in the above paragraph is intentional because it’s important to narrow down who is upset by this book and why. From what I have seen, children don’t really respond poorly to this book, or at least the children who were the target market for this book during its heyday, and that audience is mostly women who now are between 40 and 70 years old, though younger readers of the book pop up from time to time.  I walked an uneasy line when looking into this book because I genuinely don’t want to know much about books, even fluffy picture books, before I look into them for myself but one statement came up so often that it was unavoidable, words to the effect of:

“I didn’t realize how creepy this book was until I found my old copy in a box in the attic and thumbed through it for the first time in decades.”

Though I was terribly interested in what sparked such a retrospective reaction, I managed to stop reading before these (mostly) women explained themselves. I’m glad I did because I was able to see the book through mostly uninfluenced eyes and, in the end, my reaction as an adult who did not read this book as a child is similar to the women who did. When I went back to review their reactions, there one one large commonality that I will discuss in a moment, but mostly we all felt a strange uneasiness that is hard to pin down. And though I feel I must emphasize that this is a book that is despised by the woke among us, the fact is that this is not a wicked or deliberately unpleasant book.  It’s a relic of its time and possibly a very useful tool in armchair psychoanalyzing the author, a favorite pastime of mine.  Unless one was a child who was very frightened of dolls in general, this book is unlikely to be that upsetting.  More modern children may have a negative reaction because of changing mores regarding appropriate discipline for children but much can be said for any book about children written before the 1970s.

Though this is a very well-conceived, well-executed book, it’s an emotionally taxing book for an adult to read.

Little Edith, the Lonely Doll, is terribly lonely, to the point that she begs pigeons to stay and be her friend but all they do is eat the bread crumbs she leaves them and fly away. When Mr. Bear and Little Bear show up, it is literally an answer to this forlorn toy’s prayers, and that it is visually adorable helps draw you in.

The bears and Edith quickly settle into a domestic life that involves lots of playing, mischief and even vacations to the beach. All is right in the world until one rainy day, Edith and Little Bear find themselves at loose ends because it is raining and they cannot go outside. Mr. Bear is not there – running errands one presumes – and the two decide to explore the house, finding a wardrobe full of clothes and shoes and a dressing table covered in cosmetics, perfume and jewelry.

This scene is compelling for little children who enjoy dressing up and especially compelling given the grown-up nature of the items they find on the dressing table, like jewelry and expensive perfume. The two play dress-up until Little Bear dares Edith to put on lipstick.  She demures, certain Mr. Bear would be angry if he found out. Little Bear is feeling rebellious and takes the lipstick and writes, with a nod to Christopher Robin, no doubt, “Mr. Bear is just a silly old thing.”  He then hands the lipstick to Edith, egging her on. She puts on the lipstick, playing along with Little Bear’s antics.  Of course this is when Mr. Bear walks in and is appalled that she is wearing lipstick, something he believes she knows better than to do.

And this is where most people focus their unease with the book. Mr. Bear spanks her.


After her spanking, still defiant, Little Bear still stands by his “silly old thing” comment but Edith breaks down into sobs, terrified that Mr. Bear will leave her and take Little Bear with him if they continue being bad.  Little Bear, immediately chastened, soothes Edith and together they clean up the mess and then seek out Mr. Bear for absolution.

Mr Bear, who was reading the newspaper on the couch like a furry Ward Cleaver, was waiting for an apology and willing to forgive them both of the heinous crime of acting like children.

There’s a lot in this book that adult me finds unpleasant.  The spanking thing is kind of nasty but let’s bear in mind that in the 1950s spanking was the norm and perhaps being spanked over the knee of a teddy bear isn’t the worst thing that could happen to a pretty, unsupervised doll. But the rest of the book is disturbing outside the realms of relativist parenting techniques.

Like, who the hell does this bear think he is and why does he think he has the right to spank this doll?  If Edith is a doll, where is the child who plays with her?  Where are the other toys?  If she’s a stand-in for a little girl, where are her parents?  Why was this doll left utterly alone in this house that she hasn’t even explored enough on her own to discover the dressing room before the bears showed up?  These are real toys interacting with real objects, which gives the reader a voyeuristic feeling as they watch photos that maybe shouldn’t be shown to others.

The author of this blog uses The Lonely Doll as a graphic stand-in for the way adults view spanking of children versus the spanking of adults and wonders if people are upset about Edith’s spanking because they are blurring the lines between childish fantasies about the secret lives of toys and their own reactions to past and present spankings in real life. The author finds fault with some of the negative reaction to this book because the adult is viewing the punishment from the lens of receiving it as an adult, and even if I may not agree, I can see the logic. Whether or not there is anything sexual about spanking Edith, and plenty think that there is indeed an erotic element, the fact that spanking children was not taboo when this book was written and photographed is important.

But we also need to ask ourselves what this spanking was meant to convey. I’m deliberately shying away from discussing spanking in media aimed at children because up until the 1970s, most cases of spanking in children’s media at worst were portrayed as a necessary evil and the children receiving such spankings – think of Tom Sawyer and similar – were just fine. There were some rather Dickensian looks at abuse but the wholesale beating of a child was generally not seen as appropriate discipline and was a thing apart from spanking.  Moreover, the spankings were not the larger message of such books.  They seldom were the actual message of any media that presented spanking. Through the 1980s, media as a whole, including advertising, didn’t shy away from spanking – a trope that seems fairly negative – as they sought to sell their products because the message the ads were conveying was so outrageous as to be culturally understood to be outrageous, or they sought to avoid spanking altogether. Ads featured children and adults alike being spanked. When it was a child receiving the punishment, the message the ads conveyed was that use of their product could avoid discipline issues that led to spanking, which was a thing a good parent would want.

As for spanking adults, most of it was tongue-in-cheek, slyly implying that a wife might be a slattern or slipshod in the hopes of receiving an erotic spanking over the knee of her husband.

Sometimes the script was flipped and the man got the spanking but most of those ads were deliberate inversions of previous ads and it was difficult finding an “organic” use of a woman spanking a man.  This one comes very close.  The man in this ad is not being spanked but her dog bit his ass, ruined his pants, and he ends up humiliated and sprawled over her knee with a pained posterior. The posture of this ad is of submissive acceptance of authoritative dominance and her arm is raised up above her head in a perfect mimic of spanking. Incidentally, this whole ad encapsulates why the seventies was so very awful.


It’s remarkable how many movie posters featured spanking. These ads invariably show how fun spanking a full-grown woman is, especially if there’s at least one person watching as it happens. Spanking was “racy.”


Women evidently wanted to be “tamed” by old screaming men, and, again, it was all in fun, even if the dude looked downright homicidal like John here. This is a nicer version of the poster – another shot has a crowd gathered, presumably to cheer him on as he wrecked this woman for sass or maybe she put on some lipstick, too.


While few modern women will look at these ads and find them wholly amusing, it’s hard to get too worked up over adult women in heels and shellacked hair getting spanked in perfectly posed technicolor.

But mostly these images are deprived of miserable impact because of how fucking stupid they are.  Spanking a wife for not “store testing” coffee or implying drug store shampoo will help a modern woman assert disciplinary dominance are on their faces really stupid premises, deliberately stupid, in fact. Spousal abuse was less discussed when these ads ran and physical violence in relationships was a societal ill that still plagues us but the audiences then, as well as now, understand that these ads are hyperbolic, and that only a lunatic would hit their spouse over supermarket coffee and lunatics were not the target audiences for these products or films. Audiences today might see far more violence in these images than a 1960s housewife but within the times these ads ran, the audience understood the message being conveyed – buy fresh coffee, get the right shampoo, we can’t show you pent up perverts penetration on film so spanking will suffice. At no time is the actual message, “Beat your spouse.”

As an aside, I found this image when searching for spanking images.

Our grandparents were absolute madmen. Jesus Christ, the kid is farting so often that his teacher has to get involved, dragging his mom into class and everything.  But helpful Ovaltine saves the day, proving that the boy isn’t a bad kid, farting up the place on purpose.  No, the problem is with the parents since dad leaves his idiot wife alone to her devices and without him there to instruct her, she evidently feeds her son like a goat at a petting zoo.  But as remarkably awful as this ad is, the message is to avoid spanking your kid by reducing his flatulence.

Back to the book.  What is the message behind Edith’s spanking? The doll in this book is one of the most emotionally desperate child characters one can find outside of depictions of war.  She’s utterly alone, bereft and literally praying for relief from her torment of loneliness.  Then two bears – an adult and a peer – arrive and a weird power balance develops wherein Edith is now subject to the will of a masculine parental figure and the whims of her brother-bear can result in this adult bear hitting her (because Little Bear egged that shit on, for sure). For Edith, the power of the spanking is not that she has disappointed her father figure because she engaged in behavior that any loving caretaker would want to correct, but rather the fear that a spanking is the prelude to future abandonment, a fate she will do anything to avoid.

The message can vary but it boils down to variations of a child learning appropriate boundaries and trusting that bad behavior will not result in parental abandonment.  These two do not have such a boundary set in place, so shown when Edith is spanked and this resulted in her sobbing from fear of being alone again.

And let’s discuss how she got spanked by a random male doll who showed up one day to live in her home.  I do not yet know much about Dare Wright though I hope to have her biography finished today so I can discuss it next, but I guarantee you many young girls whose mothers remarried after divorce or just moved their lovers into the house understand a message very specific to their lives.  One day, a male figure whose arrival and possible departure has nothing to do with you or your wants, has physical and social control over you.  How many abusive stepfathers were seen as Mr. Bear spanked this emotionally shattered doll? For many adults, childhood is a horror they compartmentalize until they are old enough to cope with it all and I can see very easily how an adult woman can see herself in this doll and remember being a child who was not treated fairly and who feared being left behind more than physical violence.

But you don’t even have to have this specific memory to feel uneasy about a book that features a stand-in for a little girl who begs pigeons to stay with her and talk to her. When confronted with this book, you see dolls interacting in a human environment, standing in for humans.  There is a reality to this book that I did not encounter in my Little Golden Books.  It is very easy to assign Edith a human role even though she is clearly not a real little girl because the rest of the book is very real. Plus the environment is clean, pretty and the dolls themselves are very cute.  A sad little girl is finally given a sort of family and then BOOM! The goddamn big bear is apparently looking right up her dress as he spanks her and she descends into a fit of sobbing despair.  That they seem like they’ve mended fences at the end is nice, but that is not the ebb and flow of childhood. It takes a long time to overcome the misery of years of loneliness and fear.  The reality of this book mirrors the reality of the unstable nature of childhood itself, where lessons have to be learned over and over and children don’t always spring back.

Dare Wright produced eighteen other books in the Lonely Doll series (one features a kitten and another features Edith kidnapped and tied to a tree), and this book still routinely makes “Best of” lists for children’s books in defiance of how adults may feel about it.  Clearly the message children receive from this book, even modern little children, is very different than mine.  I don’t know what they see when they read this book but the beautiful photography, cuddly bears, pretty doll, the allure of the make-up and high heels during dress-up all likely play a role in the enduring interest some children have with this book series.

But I still wonder, what message was it that Dare Wright wanted to convey?  What caused her to create such a sad, needy character?  Did she even realize Edith was needy and miserable? Why did she create a scenario wherein a doll is spanked by another doll in a genuine attempt at discipline? Did she really think Edith deserved a spanking for something so minor?  Was the scene a touching look at a father’s attempt to tame an unruly child, or was there something far more malignant that only distance from childhood can show us?  Will any of this information help us understand why this book was involved in an actress’s presumably delusional belief someone planted the book in her home?

We’ll find out in my next entry.  Until then, share with me any books you read as a child that now as an adult freak you out.

Oddtober 2020: Biblio-Curiosa No. 5 – The Children’s Books Issue

It has been far too long since I have discussed Chris Mikul on this site.  When I decided to devote a bit of Oddtober to media for children, I remembered that Mikul had released a Biblio-Curiosa devoted to kid’s books and the authors of said books. As is the case with just about everything Mikul writes, I could write reactions to his articles that are longer than the articles themselves but I will work to restrain myself.  In the past, Chris Mikul sent me down a fascinating rabbit hole chasing the memory of the man  known as F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre, as well as discussing the book that has since become my odd book Holy Grail, The Pepsi-Cola Addict by the surviving Gibbon twin, June, a name likely known more to fans of strange phenomena than to bibliophiles.

His body of work is what I’ve often said I hope OTC can be when it grows up, which it probably won’t. Which is just as well because Mikul’s work approaches being sui generis, and it’s a bad idea to mimic that which is one of a kind, though it’s always nice to have such inspiration.  Issue 5 isn’t creepy or Halloween-y in a supernatural way, but all the books he discusses in this issue have some element to them that is strange, eerie or odd.  Emphasis on “odd” because, as the title reveals, one the books he covers is actually entitled Odd.

The fact that the cover is re-enacted in my neighbor’s backyard in no way influenced me where Mikul’s look into this book is concerned. It should also not be surprising that I would be kindly disposed toward a book that features two little girls washing a pig.


This was one of the shorter of the seven articles in this edition, but it struck me as being the most relevant to my interests and as being the story that best illustrates one of the many paths a child can take to becoming an odd adult.  Odd tells the story of six-year-old Betty, daughter of an MP and the middle child of five.  Her two elder siblings are close in age and her two younger siblings are twins, leaving Betty on her own.  She is literally the odd one out.  One day Betty accidentally knocks one of her younger brothers down and is locked in a storage room with a Bible (!!) as punishment.  Her nanny tells her she cannot come out until she memorizes a Bible passage.  And it’s here that the “weird kid” roots begin to take hold. Mikul describes the scene:

Turning its pages, Betty comes to the Book of Revelation and the text “And I came unto him, Sir thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the lamb.” Betty learns the text by heart and becomes obsessed by it.  She finds out what tribulation means, and after that asks everyone she meets if they have experienced it yet.  She is terribly worried that tribulation is only for grown-ups, and if she dies before experiencing it she won’t go to heaven.

This resonated with me strongly.  As a child who grew up in a large city in the American South, I cannot be the only kid who, when confronted with another child’s steadfast opinions regarding baptism and salvation, became convinced that I was going to hell because Southern Baptists didn’t baptize babies (or at least my church didn’t).  Luckily I was able to ignore conversations about full body immersion versus top of head christenings and avoid a freakout because I figured that even if the top-of-headers were correct, the top of head got wet in a full body immersion so pretty much everyone would be fine in the end.

So the middle and odd kid’s parents have to go away and in what I feel like is a typically upper-class British manner, the kids are sent to live for six months on a farm their nanny’s brother owns, and are permitted to run amok unsupervised in manner that would likely make the evening news if it happened in my neck of the woods.  Betty meets all sorts of grownups, including a church organist, who gives Betty a puppy, which predictably causes Betty to worry about whether or not her dog will go to heaven. Betty develops a friendship with the father of a dead little girl, and genuinely enjoys the company of adults, and in turn the adults in her life don’t mince words or treat her like a foolish little child.  They don’t speak to her like an equal, but they also do not shelter her and as a result she takes the slings and arrows of life with more equanimity than many modern adults would.  The book ends with a tribulation that involves a mad dog and sacrifice and if this sounds familiar know that Amy le Feuvre’s Odd was published in 1897 and that she handled the way such a plot plays out far better.

In this issue, Mikul also shares the story of E.W. Cole and his astonishing book store in Melbourne, Australia, Cole’s Book Arcade, and his charming picture books that appeared to have a preternaturally Aquarian Age reliance on rainbows.  He has me rather interested in finding one of the Wallypug novels by G.E. Farrow, a series of books influenced by but not nearly as smarmy-sounding as Carroll’s Alice books.  He also revisits an author he discussed in issue two.  Murray Constantine, who wrote Swastika Night in 1937, was actually a lady named Katherine Burdekin and she wrote a book aimed at children in the 1920s called The Children’s Country under the name Kay Burdekin. In retrospect this is a heavy book for children if they are skillful in picking up on subtext.  I wonder how modern, woke audiences would feel about Burdekin’s blurred sex/gender lines.

If nothing else, this issue shows how many books for children and young adults were written by women. Amy le Feuvre is clearly a woman’s name but one could be forgiven for assuming Erroll Collins and EE Redknap were men, writing heavy and at times brutal science fiction with a splash of fantasy for young readers.  Nope, those were the writing names for Ellen Redknap, whose hardcore militaristic and intensely martial story lines ensured that a reader like me would not have enjoyed her writing when I was her target audience. What makes this writer all the more remarkable is how… girlie she was.  Evidently she was known as “Goody” as in goody-two-shoes.  Deeply maternal and helpful, she raised her siblings after their mother died, lived as a spinster while offering all sorts of assistance to aspiring writers, all the while writing books aimed at aggressive pre-teens entitled The Black Dwarf of Mongolia and The Hawk of Aurania.

The oddest book Mikul looked at is the utterly bizarre, plot-driven Susie Saucer & Ronnie Rocket by Stella Clair, illustrated by Edward Andrewes.  Whew lad, this is one hell of a book and hopefully Mr. OTC adds this to the “need to buy if I come across it” list. Heavily influenced by the 1947 description of “flying saucers” and the horrors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, this 1957 children’s book is a synthesis of that which is cute, that which is arcane, and that which is absolutely fucking terrifying.

Honestly, she’s waving a little handkerchief that matches her bloomers. How could something this adorable be so creepy?


Stay with me: Okay, so on Venus, the business men decide to stop making flying saucers and Susie is one of the last ones constructed. Susie is recruited by “Flame,” who is a Lord of Venus, to be his… I don’t know, spaceship ward, and he places her in service on a huge spaceship carrier called Jupiter.  On a mission to Earth, Susie meets a rocket, Ronnie, and the two race each other and get up to all kinds of shenanigans but Susie gets stuck in a pond and she and Ronnie are found and taken in to be examined by Earthlings, certain Ronnie and Susie are enemy weaponry.  Ronnie gets help, Susie is rescued but Ronnie is caught again and turned into a bomb and the UFOs have to save the day.

This story is full of absolute WTF-ery that make it absolutely mind-boggling, especially given how adorably illustrated it is.  Here Mikul is discussing when Susie and Ronnie meet:

They strike up an awkward conversation, with the rocket’s “gorgeous dorsal fin” making Susie’s magnet quiver.

Later, when Susie is captured, the attempts to disassemble her sound very close to rape.  It’s a weird little book to be sure.

The part I liked the best about Susie is clearly she was a means by which true believers in UFO-ology were trying to make the topic approachable for children, going so far as to mimic a widely known but disputed photograph of a UFO.

The book benefits greatly from its colourful and charming illustrations by Edward Andrewes.  Susie, with her ribbons and polka-dot outfits, must surely be the most feminine flying saucer ever conceived.  Andrewes based her closely on the iconic flying saucer Adamski claimed to have photographed in December 1952. This looks like a hubcap (probably because Adamski made it from one) and has three round protuberances at its base (probably light bulbs). In Andrewes illustrations, these become Susie’s three legs, clad in polka-dot material with frills.

I feel like I need to say something here but words sort of escape me.

You know terribly scary and awful Christian cartoons are?  Like Davey & Goliath and basically all those weird vegetable and fruit animations? They mean well but they are invariably off-putting at best, nightmare-fuel at worst. It’s good to know ufology attempts to recruit the young suffer from similar shortcomings.  I guess dogma marketed to children will be a tough row to hoe, so to speak.

There’s much more to the article than this and I’m holding myself back because this is a “worth the price of admission” article.  Actually, every article in this issue is worth the price of admission.  If this is the first time you have encountered Chris Mikul’s work on my site, I should apologize for my sloth of late because you really need to be made aware of him annually, if not quarterly.  I plan to discuss his most recent book, My Favorite Dictators, here as soon as I reasonably can, and you can have a look through my “Authors A-Z” list and see more of my looks at his work.  Also, if you are interested in buying issues of Biblio-Curiosa or Mikul’s equally fascinating Bizarrism, you can contact him at cathob@zip.com.au to get costs and shipping rates.

Mikul’s look at children’s literature was an excellent starting place to discuss media for children that ended up being unintentionally disturbing to children or alarming to adults.  And what better time to consider terrifying children than during Oddtober?

Oddtober 2020: Hellebore: The Sacrifice Issue

A couple of weeks ago, a young man who follows me on Instagram recommended a magazine that is dedicated to dark folklore. I want to send him a cookie bouquet or maybe some free healthcare because had he not mentioned Hellebore on his feed, I might not have heard of it at all, let alone found out about it in time to discuss it for Oddtober2020. Living in your own little world has its drawbacks, and basically all the youngsters who follow me on Instagram expose me to all kinds of new media, ensuring I will always have fodder for OTC. The kids are alright and most of the time they have really interesting taste.

Hellebore is a fascinating journal. The magazine’s subtitle is “A Summoning of Ancient Terrors” and so it is.  When I placed an order, only the first two issues were available.  Number one is the “Sacrifice” issue and number two is the “Wild Gods.”  It is a biannual magazine, released at Beltane and Samhain, and since I placed my order, the third installment, the “Malifice” issue became available for pre-order.  I am sort of bummed that I will not be able to get the third magazine in time for this year’s Oddtober because, of the three issues, it is the one most relevant to my specific interests.

But that’s a very small complaint because the first two issues are definitely worth talking about.  But I now know I already have an entry planned for Oddtober 2021.  Just sayin’…

It’s been a while since I wallowed in the occult, and what better time to solve that problem?  Walloween, my friends.

I’m only going to discuss the first volume, the “Sacrifice” edition, this go around but it should be mentioned that both issues are deeply interesting.  At the time of this writing, Hellebore is offering all three in the “Wyrd Sisters” bundle at a reduced price.  Definitely worth the purchase and shipping price, but if you’re in the UK or the US also have a look at the stockists list just in case a book store near you carries the magazine.

As is likely obvious, the “Sacrifice” issue handles the topic of sacrifice and how it manifests throughout history, and in this context history is confined mostly to the British Isles and some Northern European locations.  Among the eight articles in this 68-page magazine are:

  • A look at stone circle sites in the UK and discussion regarding their purpose, which was possibly serving as locations for human sacrifice (Druids enter stage left) and larger, megalith sites, like Stonehenge, were possibly mass cremation sites.
  • An interesting literary discussion about the man who was the inspiration for the creepy and wicked Mr. Abney in M.R. James’ story, “Lost Hearts.”
  • A brief examination of various types of animal sacrifices throughout history.
  • A discussion of the perception of English small towns as places where the old gods and old ways reign supreme and the casual visitor may want to bear that in mind if they find themselves wanting to disparage the rural inhabitants of seemingly backward burgs.  This article, “From His Blood the Crops Would Spring” by Maria J.Perez Cuervo, was deeply interesting to me.  Earlier this week I happened across a channel that is essentially a computer reading some of the creepier threads from 4-chan boards, usually /x/.  I had listened to this video on occult happenings in Yorkshire, including what appeared to be wholesale sacrifice of horses as well as possible child sacrifice.* That level of happenstance generally means I will want to talk a topic to death, so to speak, but I don’t know enough about this topic to hold forth at length. I will definitely be sorting through the references Cuervo used for the article because this was a “worth the price of admission” story.

This journal actually has two articles that are worth buying the magazine for – the Cuervo article above and “The Bodies in the Bog” by John Reppion.  I’m focusing on Reppion’s article because I know a thing or two about “bog bodies” and because I appreciate Reppion’s scholarly attempt to shed light on how some of these people actually died versus the very salacious assertions of human sacrifice offered up with every newly discovered bog body.  What initially looks like a body buried with its limbs severed could very easily be a person whose limbs were cut off by the peat-cutters who discovered the corpse.  What appears to be a garotte may just be a leather necklace that shrank over the centuries.

But Reppion is also willing to cede that many bog bodies are, indeed, the results of human sacrifice, or at the very least capital punishment with a disregard for burial customs.  He specifically mentions the Haraldskaer Woman, found in 1835 in Jutland, Denmark, so well-preserved that she was initially believed to be a recent murder victim (as are many bog bodies, it must be said).  It was believed she was Queen Gunnhild of Norway, who lived between 910-980 AD.  In the Jomsvikinga Saga, it is said that she was the wife of Eric Bloodaxe and was the mother of many subsequent kings, but Harald Bluetooth of Denmark had her drowned in the bog on his estate.  So certain that they had found the body of this historical heroine, the then-king of Denmark and Norway ordered an elaborate burial casket for the bog woman. When subjected to modern testing, it was revealed that the bog woman was definitely not Gunnhild.  The Haraldskaer Woman lived around 500 BC.  And if she lived in 500 BC, during a time when cremation was the preferred burial method, it seems rather likely that there was a significant reason why her body was sunk in a bog, with branches placed atop her limbs to hold her in place.  A faint groove along her neck points in the direction that she was a victim of human sacrifice.

I love stories of bog bodies.  They seem to follow a script.  Manual workers find the corpse as they are digging up or cutting into something, they think it is a murder victim, the academics gather and declare the corpse to be a specific type of bog person, only to have academics gather later and declare all the earlier information null and void. I became interested in bog people when I was in college. I read about one for the first time in a Margaret Atwood story that framed the breakup of a student and the older professor who should have known better around the discovery of a bog body.  The story, called simply “The Bog Man” was the first time I recall knowing about such things, but I also recall that bog people played a big role in some of Seamus Heaney’s poetry. Regardless, it wasn’t science that sparked such an interest, which probably goes without saying.

I have a favorite bog person – which also probably goes without saying because of course I have a favorite – and it’s the Elling Woman.

The Elling Woman likely had blonde hair, but the tanning process in the bogs renders all lighter hair colors a deep, reddish brown.

She was found in Denmark in 1938, and she’s been overshadowed in bog folk-lore by the discovery of the Tollund Man, found in 1950 about 200 feet away from where her body was discovered.  Both bodies were killed by hanging, and the positioning of their bodies indicates they were ritual sacrifice victims rather than people subjected to capital punishment.  Initially, it was believed the Elling Woman was a young man, but a later scan of her pelvis revealed her sex.

This is a recreation of both the braid as well as the cloak the Elling Woman was found wearing. You can find tutorials on YouTube that take you through the process of plaiting your hair up like the Elling Woman.  And yes, I’ve attempted this braid and sort of got it but I suspect I am just not Nordic enough to pull it off. You need to be very tall and in possession of at least one embroidered dress from the set of Midsommar to wear hair like this without looking a bit odd.

You know the world is a fascinating place when you can read about the disturbing enthusiasm a reclusive Texan has for a charming Dutch woman’s recreation of a hairstyle worn by an Iron Age woman hanged for cultural reasons we will likely never know then stuffed into a bog. But mostly, yeah, I selected the bog men article so I could talk about this specific bog woman because I tried to replicate the hairstyle during a long spell of jittery insomnia. Not even close to the worst reason I’ve chosen a topic for this site.

All in all, Hellebore has proven to be a righteous purchase.  In the off-chance my copy of the “Malefice” edition crosses the pond fast enough for me to talk about it for Oddtober2020, I’ll devour it in one sitting and write it up.  Otherwise meet me back here next year.


*Beware: Any time missing children are mentioned from anything related to a /chan, you are no more than an Internet inch away from falling down a deep and relentless Q-Anon rabbit hole, which is less a rabbit hole than a gaping chasm in the time-space continuum from which you will not emerge for months, if you’re lucky.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.