‘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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.