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?

Biblio-sentimentality: The Unlikeliest Positive Vibes

I am still working on my book about manifesto writers. I believe it will come out this year, and I encourage you to pray for my editor and publisher because I have brought my defining trait – unrestrained verbosity – to my discussions of Valerie Solanas, Arthur Bremer, Anders Behring Breivik and others.  Keeping me focused and on point is no simple task, so don’t be surprised if I ramp up with more, “Here’s something interesting I’m obsessing about but has no place in my book” entries about the people behind these manifestos, as we pare down the book by the pound rather than by the word.

As I was pulling out notes for the chapter on Ted Kaczynski, aka the Unabomber, a small piece of paper fell out.  I’d already read and made notes in the book, and I use proper bookmarks these days, so it was kind of weird that what appeared to be a cashier receipt was in my book.  It must have been between the last page and back cover because I can’t imagine how else I would have missed it.  Maybe I’d spaced while tidying up one day and put a receipt in the book?  Dumber things have happened.

A closer look at the receipt showed me that it was indeed part of the book when I purchased it.

Click to see the full size.

Turns out this was not a receipt for goods purchased.  It’s a time clock receipt for an employee at a McDonald’s located in Deer Lodge, Montana.  I blocked out the names of the manager and the employee because Deer Lodge, which is a little over an hour’s drive from Lincoln, is a small town.  Even though this time card slip is dated February 15, 1999, there’s a chance these people would still be easily identifiable. My readers as a group are really cool people but, still, best not to drag anyone into my site or the topic of Ted Kaczynski unless I know they’re sort of okay with it (or are beyond the harms of online harassment.

I mentioned Lincoln above because the mountains and gullies in Lincoln are where Ted Kaczynski retreated in 1972 and was arrested in 1996.  That is important information because the book from which this receipt fell, UNABOMBER: The Secret Life of Ted Kaczynski was written by Chris Waits, a longtime Lincoln resident and the person who knew Ted the best while he was occupying that cabin that the FBI literally hauled off for evidence.  Chris owned the land that permitted Ted access to gullies where he tested his bomb-making and engaged in the sort of monkey-wrenching that would have given Edward Abbey a hard-on, so Ted had to maintain what seemed, at the time, like a friendly relationship with Waits.

So seeing that the receipt was from Deer Lodge in 1999, when the book was published, was interesting. I began to dig through the book for more clues and I realized that this book was inscribed.  Both authors signed this book (Chris’ coauthor was Dave Shors).  In my defense, I bought this book used (because it is no longer in print) and it came to me in a flurry of books I’d ordered to help me with this project.  No lie, one day 21 books arrived in the mail.  But still, overlooking a dual author inscription is unusual for me.

Okay, this is the sort of inscription that causes an obsessive who should be writing her book to spend precious time investigating who “Chief Jay Verdi” was and why he did a good job and why that receipt ended up in his book.  I have no idea about the receipt, by the way.  Neither names on the receipt come up in regards to Jay Verdi in online searches, but I didn’t spend much time digging, to be honest.  Did Chief Verdi stop for coffee in Deer Lodge one day and find some hapless morning shift worker’s time slip and use it as a bookmark in the book inscribed to him?  Did he lend this book to a niece or cousin working at McDonald’s and they read it on their break?

Jay Verdi died in 2008, and a cursory look at people associated with him on social media shows how much he is missed.  He lived a long time in Lincoln, later moving to Helena, and was an extremely civic-minded man. He worked for FEMA, and he joined the volunteer fire fighters in Lincoln in 1972.  He was elected “chief” of the volunteer fire fighters from 1997-1999, hence his title.  There’s still a lot of information about him online, and while I can’t find any direct lines between him and the search for the Unabomber, the fact is that the Lincoln emergency services had their work cut out for them given the number of times Kaczynski sabotaged logging machinery, as well as all the time he spent refining his bombing techniques.  I don’t feel comfortable reproducing actual photos of him but there are pics of him out there, dressed as Santa and posing with dogs for Christmas, showing off an antique fire engine, and basically just being a dude who lived and worked in Lincoln.

The best story about him I found did, however, involve the Unabomber:

Unabomber file 2: Heard about the Unabomber T-shirts the Lincoln volunteer fire department and ambulance crew is selling (“Home of the Unabomber. The last best place to hide–Lincoln, Montana”)? Jay Verdi, one of the volunteers, wants to thank Illinois and Indiana fire departments for their shirt orders. “We’re over halfway there to raising the $7,200 for a new defibrillator,” he told our source.

I think Chief Jay and I would have had a lot to talk about – I love his decidedly earthy sense of humor and his willingness to do the hard work needed to have a safe community, especially in underfunded emergency services.  I don’t know how his copy of the book ended up with the McDonald’s time card tucked away along the back cover, but I suspect his book went the way of all possessions when we die.  I get the feeling this book has changed hands a couple of times before it ended up with me because the dealer I bought it from is in Kentucky. I feel lucky I have it now because Jay Verdi seemed like a righteous dude, one who had to deal with the less showy elements of cleaning up after Ted Kaczynski.  It’s a weird little piece of terrorist history, and though I seldom get rid of books, I definitely will be holding on to this one.  It has good vibes and a good story behind it, and even a little bit of mystery via that McDonald’s time slip.  Godspeed, Chief Jay.  I’m glad I’ve got your book.

God Entered the Body of Bob Hickman, As a Body. Same Size by Bob Hickman

Book: God Entered the Body of Bob Hickman, As a Body. Same Size: Worlds [sic] Only Holy Ghost Filled Man

Author: Bob Hickman

Type of Book: Non-fiction, possession, unusual theology

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Well, Bob thinks he is possessed by the Christian trinity, and he feels it is a very bad thing.  From his possession Bob has come to the conclusion that God treats mankind very poorly and he has tried to communicate this perspective the best he can.

Availability: You can get any number of books Bob Hickman wrote on Amazon.  Here’s the link to the one I purchased:

Bob has a bunch of books under his name on Amazon, many of them with names similar to this book.  I don’t recommend that you order any of them unless you have a special affinity for or find yourself absorbed by reading word salad.  Bob’s book is actually a bit worse than word salad because the print versions have html tags littered throughout.

I don’t know why, but reading difficult texts on e-readers doesn’t work for me.  Paper books make it easier, somehow, for me to take in extremely strange writing.  But a physical book was of no help here, especially since the writing and format degenerated as the page count increased.  I asked Mr. OTC to scan any two random pages to illustrate what I found when I opened the book.  Click on either to see what I mean.

It may be easier for those who want to know more about Bob Hickman to click some of the information links I will include at the end of this article.

Interestingly, I bought a second Bob Hickman title because it had higher ratings, seemed like it might be coherent enough to give me a better idea of what is happening to Bob, but hilariously, even though they are both self-published books on occult topics written by white men with a ballpark similarity in appearance, they are not the same person. I will set Messages from Rose by Bob Hickman, A Psychic on the Edge of the Etheric aside for another time I feel compelled to delve into occult messages from non-planetary entities.

Comments: Hopefully it is clear that I intended to read Bob’s book about being possessed by the Holy Spirit but there’s no sense in it because he’s very likely suffering from some form of mental illness that causes him to process and express reality in a manner one would need a trained mental health professional to understand.  I’ve said in the past that I often approach certain non-fiction books or manifestos from the perspective of someone who analyzes literary characters.  On a very basic level, if you’ve been trained to detect literary quirks and signs of mental illness in fictional characters, you can sometimes do the same with memoirs and similarly autobiographical writings. But such approaches only work when the non-fiction work is constructed by someone who, though possibly mentally ill or afflicted with some sort of strange personality, is no grounded to what the consensus labels reality.  Bob is not grounded to a reality I recognize and therefore I cannot dissect his words.

His book is over 100 pages of strangely punctuated stream-of-consciousness, margin to margin, in eight point font, with lots of html tags that push even the most dedicated observer of the unusual too far.  After five pages I gave up and all I can say from those five pages is that when he was a young man in Indianapolis, Bob was lonely, and in search of purpose he went to a church and was baptized. After that baptism Jesus began to appear to him to tell him to write down certain things and release them in books. The things Jesus asked Bob to do caused Bob to become isolated from his fellow man and he does his best to remain tethered to us while sincerely trying to do what the spirit in him wants him to do because he feels that doing so is the best way to alert mankind to the real horrors of what the Trinity are going to do to us.

Some think Bob is a scammer, but if he is, this is a long-term scam that has very little social or financial payoff.  Those more sympathetic to Bob think he is a paranoid schizophrenic, and they may be right. His wall of text, stream of consciousness writings don’t fall completely into what I have come to expect from unmedicated severe schizophrenics, but he comes close.  Had Bob started reaching out with his messages from Jesus in the 1980s, his missives and tracts would not have looked that different from paranoid musings I’ve received from people who had very unique ideas about the Kennedy assassination, the suppression of free energy and perpetual motion, and interesting theories about how the Bilderbergers were going to genetically mutate corn to turn us all into slaves.  Bob is able to make internal sense in what he is trying to convey, but his narrative skips from one idea to the next too quickly, so quickly even dedicated readers will not be able to keep up.  Worse, one has to have an extremely open world view to be able to give much credence to what Bob has to saw about being infested by the divine.

Being possessed by the Holy Spirit has been a decidedly negative experience for Bob.  On his Facebook group, he wrote the following:

if you didnt feel the spirit of god come into your body, you are still lost. dont feel bad. God attacks me. god is tearing my face and mouth corners all day, by moving my face in different directions, from inside me, ripping and tearing my face. god shoots into my mouth, disease. gum disease is gods best weapon against his people. take their teeth, god told me, and they will want to die. like needles being shot into mouth, coming in continuously. these needles stick in gums, and stick thru long ways, and spew out poison. filling my gums with disease. I put salt in mouth to kill this disease. God fondles me. yes thats right, God plays with, caresses, touches, squeezes, pulls on my dick, and sometimes it feels like a tube inside my dick, and electric tube, moving side to side. Jesus christ appears and laughs and tells me to go back out into the world and commit sin in front of those you witness to, to be abased. theres a warning in the bible, it promises God will betray you. it says God will make it rain on just and unjust. this means give god all and then he will throw you away like he did to satan. but this time, God has a problem. me. God attacked the wrong motherfucker this time. God wanted me to fall and look like a fool, but this time, God will be the one brought down, by a five foot tall man.

Okay, a long paragraph of this is remarkable.  An entire book with no paragraph indentation and font so small I needed reading glasses and a magnifying glass to read?  Yeah, curse these human eyes.

I felt like Bob and his possession by God Himself were in their sad way the perfect inversion of Friday’s look at the world’s sincerest and least dramatic demon exorcism. Placid, kind people drove a spirit out of a young woman I sense was a con-woman and it affirmed their faith in God.  Bob feels occupied by the Trinity and they torture him, revealing to him their nasty plans for mankind, sexually abusing him, making him sick, humiliating him and he hopes to take them down by documenting all they are doing to him and planning for us.

Interest in Bob waxes and wanes, depending on various online factors, and sometimes tricksters online make it hard to know when one is genuinely dealing with Bob, who may have a form of hypergraphia if he is indeed writing across all the platforms I’ve found. Bob is known for sending out texts to various people with the same message (which is a mantra he repeats often in speech):

God has entered into my body, like a body my same size, like me floating into you or you floating into me.

Generally people don’t respond but some have, one asking if Bob is okay.  Bob mostly does not respond to replies.  It was these messages that made people think this is a scam, that Bob is ending bizarre messages to verify if phone numbers are real and selling that data to marketers.  Those texts also caused some to think that Bob is a part of an ARG (alternate reality game).  The notion it is an ARG is also fueled by Bob’s unique van that has become a sort of game for people in his area to identify, but those who approached Bob in his truck, thinking he would give them the next clue in the game quickly realized that this is not a game. But mostly his messages disturb and freak out people and the internet is littered with people asking alarmed questions on Reddit or wondering if they being stalked.

The further you dig, the more you realize this possession really is something Bob believes in and that he really does not enjoy the experience.  He frequently does very self-destructive things, like rubbing sandpaper on his face in an attempt to alter his body so that God will no longer consider it a perfect size and leave.  He also claims God hits him and he keeps records of all of this on his YouTube channel.  By the way, if you search for Bob Hickman on YouTube, you’ll find the etheric psychic, too, so step lively.

The latest upsetting thing I’ve stumbled across is a Blogger account that leads to links of Bob’s work plastered across nation specific Blogspots. Posting as late as October of this year, across around 75 blogspots hosted in different countries, Bob is offering to sell himself for any sexual purpose because “god has the morals of an ally cat” and is a randy God, apparently. Please note that if you click on any of the language specific links, you will be taken to photos of Bob in the nude.  So don’t click at work unless your boss is cool with seeing what appears to be a naked Amish man posing seductively in an attic. In fact, just Googling his name brings up so many nudes. Surf safely, friends.

I hope no one tries to buy him.  I worry he’s trying to fuck God out of him but may be surprised that the God in his body isn’t run off that easily.  But it is undeniable that this whatever is happening to Bob has taken a disturbing left turn down an unsettling sexual road.  His YouTube account is a very mixed bag, with videos ranting about Nancy Pelosi, a short video on his stereo system, Q&A sessions with God, and descriptions about how God is essentially raping him.

Shit.  This is sort of awful beyond just being awful, you know? If you track Bob down online, be kind to him because regardless of what is genuinely happening to him, he is suffering.  I almost wish I could introduce him to the kind Rev. Conn from The Devil Called Collect.  Bob needs a decent man of the cloth in his corner.

Below are some links to a couple of interesting analysis videos about Bob. There are enough Reddit threads about Bob that you could spend many hours wading through his antics over the years. Bob is a rabbit hole so only begin to explore if you have hours of time to spend.

Oddtober 2019

I had decided not to do an odd take on October this year because at some point I need to finish the book I’ve been writing about manifestos written by people who have spilled blood. But my publisher and editor, the extremely accommodating and very patient Chip Smith at Nine-Banded Books, encouraged me to go ahead and try to wallow in the season for however many days we have left. So here we are.

I’m planning to discuss Rob Zombie’s latest film, a disturbing artifact from the Satanic Panic during the 1980s and a film that artifact inspired, a fairly disgusting yet compelling horror film about rot, another book from Doug Brunell’s Sinful Cinema series, a charmingly naive look at exorcising demons and the horror of Bob Hickman’s experiences being possessed by God Himself. There may be more, but the rest is up in the air.

I’ve been so lax on this site. I have no idea why because I have so many things I want to discuss. But mostly I try not to think about it because thinking about it may spawn an excuse. Better to just try to overcome it. So check back all the weekdays left in October, leave me comments and recommendations as the spirit moves you, and enjoy Oddtober 2019!

Weaponizing Bourgeois Squeamishness

This is another entry inspired by the research I am doing for my upcoming book about personal manifestos written by people who have spilled blood.  As I read about these manifestos, I am led down roads that don’t really belong in my book but are deeply interesting and need to be discussed.  I’ve wandered off course analyzing how The Birdman of Alcatraz tried to convince Carl Panzram to commit suicide before he could be executed, and how it is that it is almost impossible to feel sympathy for most of the men in the current incel subculture.

Now I need to share with you how I fell into a way of thinking that elites use to control how people like me (and possibly you) perceive people who may be right, who may be wrong, who may be extremists, but who pose some sort of threat to the established order.

One of the first books I read about Ted Kaczynski, the man who came to be called the Unabomber due to initially sending bombs to universities and airlines, was written by the FBI agents who played a primary role in investigating the Unabomber crimes and eventually arresting him.  UNABOMBER: How the FBI Broke Its Own Rules to Capture the Terrorist Ted Kaczynski by Jim Freeman, Terry D. Turchie, and Donald Max Noel, was an interesting book though it largely confirmed for me, their protestations notwithstanding, that had Ted Kaczynski’s brother not turned him in, they’d very likely still be searching for him today.

The book also triggered my disgust in a way I didn’t expect, and it colored how I looked at Kaczynski until a different way of looking at Ted called into question the validity of the information I was using to make my decisions.

When the FBI arrested Ted Kaczynski, he looked pretty rough.  In all the pictures of him just after his arrest, Kaczynski looks very thin and very dirty, clad in filthy clothes with holes in them, looking as if he had not bathed in months.  Living a sort of hermit’s existence in a shack lacking plumbing and electricity does that, one presumes (though the “Ted was a hermit” narrative is not correct – Ted had contact with a lot of people and had established friendships in the community in which he lived; he was hardly a hermit).  Plenty of people who make their way to Idaho, Wyoming and Montana in order to live in a rural area, off the grid, are not going to have the same attitudes toward personal bathing and what it is that makes a person clean or dirty as someone living in the suburbs with more bathrooms than people living in the house and washing machines and dryers in the garage.

So that wasn’t too upsetting to me. Mountain men do dirty work and bathe less, especially if they live off the grid, though his appearance did not strike a healthy chord with me.  But the way the book described the way Ted lived in his shack in Montana did upset me (shack versus cabin is also an important distinction – those who are disgusted by Ted call it a shack, those who are not call it a cabin, and it interests me how even now I go back and forth between the two). The book descriptions made my skin crawl.

When I quote passages from the book, the “I” in the passages is Jim Freeman speaking.  He goes into great detail describing the squalor of Ted Kaczynski’s shack, but before he does he makes sure we know that he considered Ted “disheveled” when he was arrested, and also attributed a “high-pitched” voice to him. He’s essentially conveying that Ted was gross and sort of feminine, which is a weird combination but oddly effective in the end. His disgust is muted in the beginning:

First to catch my eye was the small, dirty window on the left wall…

Yeah, windows get dirty during the winter when you have to use a stove to heat your living space, but it continues:

A low, wooden cot was along the right side and I could make out a prominent smear of black dirt on the wall apparently caused by Ted’s bare shoulders and hair rubbing against the wall.  It was impossible to get out of my head the picture of Kaczynski’s filthy body covered in black soot from the poorly vented stove.  Just seeing and smelling the carcinogenic ash led me to the conclusion that Kaczynski was a walking case of cancer from second hand smoke if my agents were exposed to him for too long.

Yeah, this is bad.  And of course Freeman was being hyperbolic about the second hand smoke leading to cancer bit, but he wasn’t kidding about how he wanted to convey the terrible squalor he felt Kaczynski lived in, encouraging the reader to consider Ted completely naked, covered in filth, begriming the very walls where he slept.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Saying Goodbye by Ben Arzate

Book: The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Saying Goodbye

Author: Ben Arzate

Type of Book: Fiction, short story collection, flash fiction, bizarro

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Increasingly I wonder why I continue with this explanation for each book.  If I am discussing it here it’s odd, that’s a given.  But I think, for the time being, you should consider this book odd because one story features a landlord strapping thick books to his head and goading his tenants into punching him when rent is due.  Also a house gets cancer, and the cancer isn’t a horde of stray cats moving in and destroying everything the humans love.

This collection also contains the line: “Hank walks home with the neck of his guitar shoved up his ass.”  You need to buy the book to find out why this happened to Hank.

Availability: Published in 2018 by Nihilism Revisited, you can get a copy here:

Disclaimer: Ben Arzate is a frequent commenter on this site (and I should return the favor but I sort of suck lately, you know how it is), and I consider him an e-friend. We’ve never met in person but who does actually meet in person anymore since the Internet has come to ensure we can have friends without ever leaving the house?  At any rate, you run the risk of being called a shill if you don’t disclose such things so be aware that I e-know Ben and approve of him as a person.

Comments: Ben Arzate is a very good writer, but in addition to being favorably inclined towards him because he keeps my morale up over here in Hell’s Half-HyperSpace, I really like this collection because it is filled with the kind of strange little stories that have made me a fan of Hank Kirton, Jon Konrath, and Andersen Prunty.  These stories cover a lot of literary and psychological ground in very few words – 33 stories in 104 pages of text.  I find such stories remarkably detailed because their spare nature causes me to fill in any blanks with my own life, sort of modifying them to fit my experiences.  I do that with everything I read, to an extent, but it’s all the easier when writers like Arzate give me a perfect framework upon which to build my own literary reaction.

Most of these stories are flash fiction, more along the lines of vignettes. A few of the stories are longer form, like “Meth-Lab Nursery,” which sadly does exactly what is indicated in the title, and “The Arranged Marriage,” a strange story about a young couple forced to marry by their intrusive parents.  The couple eventually find a way out of their predicament when they meet the girl’s ex-boyfriend, who works for a side show because he has what sounds like a cinematic form of progeria.  We also get snippets of the miserable, post-apocalyptic, life of Alex, a protagonist who, in the course of three stories, gets coffee at a terrifying cafe located in an utter hellscape, is forced to fetch his mail from a locked cuckoo clock, and watches what appears to be the televised version of Best Gore punctuated by ballet performances. They’re unnerving stories, the Alex tales.

My favorite story in the collection is “The Rent is Due.”  A lunatic landlord wakes all his tenants on the day rent is due.  At 3:30 a.m., he lines them up, uses a belt to attach a large book to his head, and forces his tenants to punch him.  If they don’t punch hard enough, he makes them hit him again.  I don’t know why this story delighted me so much.  Another of the shorter pieces I appreciate features a man dying after eating literal doughnut holes – like he has regular doughnuts but does not eat them but eats instead the void in the center.  It kills him.

The above stories are all entertaining, but evoke less of my verbose need to fill in the blanks. Not the case with “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Saying Goodbye,” a story that spoke directly to my largely unexplored animism.  I am that person who is sure the pair of shoes she never wears feels slighted, or that her carpet is sad because the cats have been puking a lot lately.  The last time a story pinged this tendency to imbue the inanimate with spiritual and human traits happened during S.D. Foster’s bizarro story about a piece of fruit that never gets eaten.  In Arzate’s story, a house literally gets cancer.  It’s an old house, and the owners kick themselves for not getting it checked out sooner, making sure it was healthy before the lumps formed on the stairs and under the carpet.  Maybe they could have prevented the cancer, and they struggle in much the same way a person might when the dog they’ve had since they were a child becomes terminally ill.

There are things I don’t like about our house, and I hate saying any of it out loud because I know the house can hear me.  It’s not the house’s fault that the cats have wrecked the carpet and baseboards, that Sally (whom we have to nebulize in a weird crate Mr OTC made out of stuff he got at Home Depot) has coated every surface from the knees down with snot, that Boo Radley has scratched large chunks of frosted glass off the front and back doors as he tries to catch moths outside the house and on and on.  So when I criticize the house or complain about the amount of time I spend crawling around with a magic eraser in one hand and enzymatic cleaner in the other, I am certain to make it clear to the house that I don’t blame him for all this mess. I also worry that when we finally move or die the house will be bereft.  It has had a weird time in its short life and I sense it is sort of happy with us living here.  The dude who lived here before us sold DirectTV things, you know, those gray disks people install on their roofs?  Our garage was full of the boxes when we moved in, and all the boxes were empty except for a ton of gecko carcasses because those things infest this house and yard.  The garage had been turned into some sort of indie-band sound studio and that’s my most optimistic guess. I am 90% certain porn films were shot in there. Dozens of electrical outlets still remain along the ceiling and we will never be able to mask all the surround sound speaker mounts in the TV room.  We could replace the drywall entirely and they would still be there.  The whole house is covered with scars, and I know the house doesn’t like these scars.  These are not the sort of scars that chicks dig.  Neighbors seemed visibly relieved when a quiet-looking couple bought the house.  So you can imagine how our house felt.

And let us not mention the… weird stuff that happens in this house, the almost Lovecraftian entities we are certain inhabit this space.  I brought it up discussing Konrath’s fine lunacy, and you may have thought I was exaggerating for comedic effect, but seriously there is something living in this house that makes me certain it will kill me.  The stairs have already come for me, and I now have a limp every time the temperature dips into the sixties or below, so in addition to worrying about my house’s feelings, I also fear it.  Or rather I fear the things living here I cannot see.  The house does, too, which is another reason I will feel really bad if we move.  Our house doesn’t have cancer.  It has PTSD.

My reaction to this story is longer than the story itself, I think, which is the real magic of the sort of writing Ben presents us with in this collection.  Some of his stories really are a foundation upon which you can build your own cat-infested snot hole that will one day kill you or maybe just leave you feeling guilty about the messes that your slovenly pets make along with the certain knowledge that all the cleaners you use give you your own tumors to deal with.

But it’s not all “fill in the blanks.”  In “My Church” I didn’t need to descend into a near-psychotic analysis of my house to appreciate the story.  A kid attends a dismal church held in a basement and the best way to describe the philosophy of the church is Pointless Aggression Theology.  After prayers they turn off the lights in the basement and beat each other with hymnals that were accidentally printed in Russian. I love the reason the pastor gives for these book beatings but I’m gonna keep it to myself to keep from wholly spoiling the short story.  (It’s also interesting that this collection features a character who wants to be beaten by a book via the punches to the tomes he straps to his face and a religious group who smack each other with books written in a foreign language none of them can speak.  I want to psychoanalyze Ben but I’m currently using my powers for evil.)

The book ends with “Love: A Parable.”  It may seem like a jaded, cynical look at love, but at the same time it is a kind look at the nature of some sorts of romantic love, a perspective that can become very sentimental if not kept in check.  It’s strange to say that a story can be both cynical and sentimental but here we are.

This book contains some rough and/or gross content: a neighborhood descends into really uncompelling group sex, a war criminal recites a nauseating soliloquy, weird angels wreck cars when they fall from the sky, and similarly unnerving content can surprise the reader unprepared for this sort of bizarro-ish splattery writing.  Luckily I was prepared.  You should be, too.

I find it interesting that a style I find intolerable in other writers works to Ben’s advantage.  I’ve spoken before about the tiresome, emotionally-removed, flat style that caused me to rebuke books from Tao Lin and Stephen Elliott, yet found myself enjoying from Sam Pink.  And now I can add Ben Arzate to the very short list of writers who use this style well.  In Ben’s case, this flat remove is needed because you really can’t create a strong emotional attachment to characters in stories that are often two paragraphs long.  Nor would you really want to.  Additionally, extremely violent content can often be better appreciated at a certain emotional remove.  It’s a variable that I now realize I have to solve on a case-by-case basis.  I used to think I detested the style.  Now I think I simply dislike when it is not done well.

This style is especially well-married to the stories Ben tells.  Absolutely dystopic in almost all cases, yet often tempered with a bit of affection for the story or a little serving of hope.  Such stories need a simple, direct method of story-telling.  Too much emotion would clutter up these spare tales.  As would too much detail.  Ben achieves a sort of spartan reserve that lets him tell outrageous stories without crossing over into the false wackiness and pointless gore that eventually turned me off so much bizarro.

I want to leave you with this line from “Deep Sea Diving Suit” because I relate on an almost spiritual level to the protagonist Jeff’s decision to live his life in a deep sea diving suit:

He is so used to spending time in an environment hostile to his survival that he finds himself unable to leave his protective suits despite the fact they make existing in a welcoming environment difficult.

And now you know one of the many reasons why I cannot hold a day job.

You should get this book, highly recommended.

God Speed, You Desert Wizard

Art Bell has died.  On Friday the Thirteenth.  Of course he did.  Because he was Art Bell and we should have expected it.

So many people will be offering up eulogies of this man who, in my estimation, heralded in the current “reality TV” obsession with the paranormal and supernatural through his radio show, Coast to Coast AM, that I don’t know how much I can offer that is unique.  I’ve mentioned several times over the years that Art Bell has influenced me in strange ways, from introducing me to the works of former priest/fallen man of faith/potential conman/charming Catholic Malachi Martin to making me wonder how many pieces of modern music he influenced.

Mostly I adored him for suing the late Ted Gunderson for defamation when Gunderson insinuated that Bell molested one of his sons and was involved in child pornography.  My low opinion of Ted Gunderson should not be belabored in this short paean to one of the most notable purveyors of weird, but I love that Art Bell did not tolerate such slander.  He prevailed in a civil suit against Gunderson and Gunderson’s cohorts, and the details of the verdict are sealed so we don’t know how much Ted Gunderson had to pay out for making such base accusations, but the moral victory was more than enough for Bell fans.

Every year I listen to Art Bell’s Halloween shows called Ghost to Ghost, where he takes in calls from people who had paranormal and frightening experiences.  It’s going to be a bittersweet listen come this October.  I hope now Art knows if there’s a bottom to Mel’s hole and what is down there if there is, if Oswald was a lone gunman in the Kennedy assassination, was there really a frozen little green man in Jonathan Reed’s freezer, and if John Titor Timetraveler was really a load of horseshit.  I hope his afterlife is as weird as he deserves.  Rest well, Art, and know that your death, in maybe a few weeks, will likely have a very strange conspiracy theory surrounding it.  We all know you would have wanted it that way.