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-Curiosa Issue 3 by Chris Mikul

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

‘Zine: Biblio-Curiosa Issue 3

Author: Chris Mikul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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