Halloween 2017: Beyond the Dark Veil from the Thanatos Archive

Book: Beyond the Dark Veil: Post Mortem & Mourning Photograph

Author: Jack Mord

Type of Book: Non-fiction, photography, death photography, mourning photography

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Photos of dead people, etc.

Availability: This was beyond a doubt the most involved copyright page I’ve ever seen in a book. Shortest publisher name behind this book was Last Gasp, this book was published in 2014, and you can get a copy here:

Comments: All the death photography books I own are in some regard beautiful. The Burns Archive books are all substantial yet minimalist in their arrangement. Beyond the Dark Veil is more ornate, a gorgeous little book, with gold-edged pages and a gold embossed cover. The pages are thick and glossy and I felt like I needed to don gloves before flipping through it. I’m lucky enough to own some amazingly beautiful books and Beyond the Dark Veil takes a certain pride of place among them.

I am harping on this book’s beauty because this book really is a visual and tactile experience. All photography books are visual, of course, but among people who accumulate books we occasionally come across a book that is just above and beyond, constructed in a way that makes you want to hold it and stroke it and just gaze at it lovingly. This book has interesting information about death photography and funerary customs, and deviates a bit by offering photos of the sick and dying, as well as customs of burial, but I’ve quoted from books about death photography and cemeteries in several entries on this site. So I don’t plan to quote too much information from this book.

Instead, I will quote from the introduction, entitled “Remembering Death.” Written by Marion Peck, herself an artist who creates gorgeous, visually compelling paintings, this introduction captures the loveliness of the book. I think the final paragraph in her introduction very well sums up the photographs in this collection that speak to me the most:

In a sense, these photographs are like ghosts. They are the shadows of people who once lived actively and breathed in a present moment, who saw the blue sky above their heads and might have felt the same passions, joys, and sorrows in their hearts that we feel in our own. If we can quiet ourselves enough to spend some time with these ghosts, contemplating, listening to them, we may learn from their great wisdom. It is the wisdom of ancestors, of those who came before. What we are, so once were they. What they are, so we shall be.

I don’t know if I can ever really explain why I have such a love of cemeteries, death photography, funerary statuary, and most of the ornate customs and accessories of Victorian death. But on some level I think I am learning from the dead. I am godless. I fully expect that when I die I will cease to exist – no heaven, no reincarnation, no posthumous salvation. But we don’t know, really, what happens when we die. Modern medicine seems to think that the brain protects us from the worst horrors of death, that the parts of the brain that experience great pain and fear shut down and we experience only the brightly-lit sensations of awe and wonder as we leave. I think I wander cemeteries because I want to know what awaits me and am studying all the options.

Part of it too is that I am one of two leaves left on a withered branch on a spread-out family tree. There won’t be mourning children and grandchildren or bereft siblings when I go. If I die before Mr OTC, I won’t have a headstone. I won’t be photographed. I will be cremated and hopefully poured into some paint or concrete and something interesting made of my ashes. All the evidence of death I sift through will not be mine so I have to observe now because I will never be among those who are buried and presumably know. And that’s good. I don’t really care if I have these customs applied to my death.

But at the end I wonder how much anyone can really control the customs that others use to navigate the death of loved ones. My mother, by her own request, has no stone and her ashes were scattered on private property that we need special permission to access. Not having that place I can go to visit, to speak to her, is a lot more troubling than I expected. These customs we have built up over centuries of civilization may be steeped in religion that means nothing to me but the customs came about as we human beings struggled to cope with death, to ease the blow, to be able to remain tethered to the dead because even the most hardened unbeliever feels forsaken when she realizes she will never again be in the presence of her mother.  In the absence of a place to visit her, I have created a sort of shrine to her.  I didn’t think about it too much as I did it because my actions were really mindless reactions, but I have some of her ashes, a couple of her prized perfume bottles, small gifts she gave me, some of her parents’ belongings, all behind a glass-fronted shelf in one of my bookcases.  It almost seems like it is an instinct to demand a permanent place to mourn the dead and if the dead prefer not to have a static mourning place dedicated to them, those who miss them will do what is needed to be able to commune with them.

We do these things because it is part of being human.  These photos show me that.

But even as I feel a bit melodramatic writing this out, the fact is that we do what we do for the dead so that we can remember them and so that we can be remembered because it is daunting to think that there will be a time when no one alive knows us. These traditions are an attempt at permanence, and given my own recent experiences, it’s an attempt I understand all the better.

Under the cut are the photographs that resonated the most with me, presented with only enough comment to give them context.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Author: Stieg Larsson

Type of Book: Fiction, thriller, mystery

Why Did I Read This Book: I read this book because I am a narcissist. You see, while I am not THE girl with the dragon tattoo, I am A girl with a dragon tattoo. The title sucked me in. Then I flipped through the pages and saw that a character had my own name. I have not read a book with an Anita in it since the book Anita and Me by Meera Syal. Those reasons were reason enough for the likes of me.

Availability: Published by Vintage Crime, is is widely available. You can get a copy here:

Comments: It’s been a while since I have been this enthralled by a best-seller. This is a seriously good book on many levels and I think that you should read it. I feel this way for a variety of reasons.

Larsson’s ability to write a multi-layered mystery with so many characters is in itself amazing. Generally, books with more than one sub-plot can become tiresome, with too much competing for the reader’s attention. Larsson’s tale has several sub-plots neatly woven together so tightly and interdependent on one another that the book is near seamless.

I will not attempt to summarize the plots more than this: Disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist is hired by wealthy man to try to solve the decades-old mystery of his niece’s disappearance. He meets Lisabeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo, because she had been hired by a security company to investigate Blomkvist. When he reads her dossier on him, her abilities as an investigator and a hacker impress him and he engages her to work with him to find the missing heiress. Together they uncover far more than just a missing girl, but rather many missing and dead girls, whose disappearances all lead to a shocking and dreadful conclusion.

The carefully laid plot is worth the price of admission, so to speak, but really, the reason this book is so captivating is because of the girl with the dragon tattoo, Lisabeth, and her intriguing, sad, maddening life.

I read some reviews of this book after I finished it and was puzzled by some of the words people used to describe Lisabeth Salander. Words like spunky. Fiesty. She is not fiesty. She is not spunky. She is not plucky. Those words describe a character in a Reese Witherspoon movie. There were those who think she is a deliberate outsider, choosing to live as she does because she’s some sort of personal agent provocateur. She is not a charming loser, a female Cool Hand Luke. Then there was a discussion online as to whether or not she had Asperger’s Syndrome, which does not even seem reasonable to me, but several felt that she did have the condition. It beggars belief that people found her personality spanning so many characterizations, from a plucky heroine who lives by her wits to a funky anarchist whose tattoos and hacking are a rage against the machine to a computer savant whose interpersonal relationships are limited because she has a psychological or behavioral condition.

How could so many people leave this book with such different conclusions about Lisabeth, though wrong most of them are in my eyes? Because in Lisabeth, Stieg Larsson managed to create a character wholly unique. So unique in fact that she is hard to pin down and even my attempt may be a shoddy representation of her.

The Postcard Killer by Vance McLaughlin, Ph.D.

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: The Postcard Killer: The True Story of J. Frank Hickey

Author: Vance McLaughlin, Ph.D.

Type of Book: Non-fiction, true crime

Why Did I Read This Book: I have a weakness for true crime. There was once a time when I could have told you the name and victim count of every serial killer from recorded time to present but I have since lost that ability as serial and mass murder became sort of commonplace in the Internet and on television and I lost interest via excessive immersion. However, I still appreciate a good true crime yarn, especially about a killer I have never heard of before.

Availability: Published by Thunder’s Mouth Press in 2006, you can get a copy here:

Comments: The case of J. Frank Hickey was a fascinating read. Though I disagree with the assertion the author makes, that Hickey was the first man ever captured as a result of profiling, that does not render this book any the less absorbing and hard to put down.

Because I discuss books in depth, there is no way for me to discuss elements of this book that would not spoil elements of it for some readers. I think this is a book worth reading, and if you think my many words will ruin aspects of the book, stop reading now. Just go buy the book. It’s not going to be a book that inspires a lot of thought or cause much internal contemplation – it is simply telling the tale of a sadistic man who killed 100 years ago, and as true crime goes, it is better than most.

J. Frank Hickey was a man who confessed to three murders, and if contemporary knowledge of serial killers is of any use, then it is very likely he killed far more than those he confessed to. As a young man, he killed an older drunk whom he feared might take his job, and a couple of decades later, he killed a newsboy. The book focuses, however, mainly on the murder of Joey Joseph in Lackawanna, New York. In 1911, Hickey lured the seven-year-old boy with a trip to a candy store, then took him into a multi-seat outhouse outside a saloon and strangled and raped the child. He then threw the boy’s body down one of the outhouse seats into the latrine below and went back into the saloon and drank. No one ever suspected him and he very well might have gotten away with the murder had he not overplayed his hand: He began to send taunting postcards to the family.

This is where I contend that Hickey was not caught by profiling. He was caught because newspapers ran copies of the postcards he sent in the hopes that someone would recognize the handwriting, which is exactly what happened. Two separate men recognized Hickey’s handwriting and it was downhill for the police from there. It was a capture due to police exercising certain procedural discretion, not because of profiling.

Three things stand out the most for me in this book. First is that Hickey, likely needing the thrill that finding the body would cause, became frustrated when the local police chief failed to find the boy. He sent a postcard to the chief of police telling him point blank that Joey Joseph was in a cesspit, giving the exact location. He did this within a month of the murder. The police chief sent a couple of cops to check out the outhouse and they peered into the filth below, unable to see much. They did not drain the cesspit, they just looked. Had the police performed even the most casual due-diligence, Joey’s body would have been found sooner. But the chief of police patted himself on the back, finding a silver lining in his cloud of incompetence: Had they found Joey’s body sooner, Hickey would not have written more postcards and they might not have caught him. It took over a year for Joey’s body to be recovered once the police finally pumped the cesspit and found him.

Second is how Hickey toyed with the family. Not even Jack the Ripper or the Son of Sam, David Berkowitz, letter writers both, taunted directly the victims of their killings. Neither did the Zodiac Killer, who remains uncaught to this day. But Hickey did. His postcards were not as horrific as the letters sent by Albert Fish to the family of his victim, Grace Budd, whom he tortured and then ate, but they were upsetting enough. He said that since Joey’s mother was known as a nervous, unstable woman, he could not bear the torture she was undergoing and hoped his letters to the family, confessing the murder, would lead to finding the boy’s body. More likely, he did not receive the catharsis he needed when Joey’s body failed to be retrieved from the muck and needed some release via upsetting the Joseph family. However, if that was his goal, it backfired for a long while as the elder Joseph did not initially turn the letters over to the police, hoping against hope the letters were hoaxes and his son was alive somewhere. But he also sat on the letters because he feared that if the police knew his son was murdered, they might stop looking for the boy.

Third, I had no idea the life of a newsboy was as horrible as it was until I read this book. Young children in urban areas, sent out to sell papers by families barely scraping by, were of course open prey for pedophiles. Some even became prostitutes, selling themselves for meals and sometimes just the price for admission to a cinema, to be in out of the cold. Joey Joseph was not a newsboy but one of Hickey’s admitted victims was, and reading about the terrible life these children faced, the poverty, the potential victimization and similar, has made me want to read more about the topic. Newsboys seem a romanticized part of history in many large American cities and it was appalling and interesting to see how that romance crumbles under the most casual scrutiny. It seems to me, on many levels, that kids selling the news have always been natural victims. From newsboys to boys abducted as they delivered newspapers on their bike routes in more modern times, it seems odd that the technological advance that so many fear imperils children helped stopped one of the perils – the lone child peddling the news.

All in all, a very interesting, well-written book.

Severance by Robert Olen Butler

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Severance

Author: Robert Olen Butler

Why I Consider This Book Odd: This book has an absolutely lunatic premise. It is said that a decapitated head can remain in a state of consciousness for 90 seconds. In heightened states of emotion or agitation, people can speak at the rate of 160 words per minute. Combine the two and you have the micro stories in this book.

Type of work: Fiction, short stories, flash fiction

Availability: Published by First Chronicle Books in 2006, this book is still in print. You can buy a copy here:

Comments: It’s weird, including a Pulitzer Prize winner here, but hell, I already got me a Nobel Laureate, so why fight it. The acclaimed can also be so very, very odd.

So, as I said above, this book combines the premise of consciousness in a decapitated head and the ability to speak quickly when under duress. This book is a series of tales from heads speaking approximately 240 words. I initially did not like this book and set it aside for a few months, but when I picked it back up again, I fell in love with it.

The tales from heads separated from bodies range from the touching, to the horrific, to funny. Anne Boleyn’s words after her head is severed from her body are to her daughter, Elizabeth, and they are heart wrenching:

…but still there is my sweet girl my Elizabeth her pale face and her hair the color of the first touch of sun in the sky, the pale fire of her hair, she turns her gray eyes to me and I know I am soon to leave her… and I say rise my sweet child and she straightens and lifts her face and I bend to her, I draw near to her, I cup my daughter’s head in my hands

The story from Lydia Koenig, a woman who was beheaded by her son in 1999, is just dreadful:

…my baby, my own baby boy his bones deep and untouchable inside him, I dress him in pink thinking it makes no difference I hold him baby and then in plaid and he has freckles on his nose… and the man is gone and my baby cries all night through, though he is no baby he is returned and he says help me find a vein help me tap this vein and I cannot…

The story from Gooseneck (Gansnacken), a dwarf who was a court jester to Duke Eberhard the Bearded, who beheaded him in 1494 for sad, but funny actions beyond his control:

…I am jester not a sailor the goat breaks his knot and bolts just as I leap from the rope and fly at my stricken lord and fall heavy upon him, crotch to face, and alas I am already full excited at my joke, like a lover

The book contains many famous beheadings, like John the Baptist, Mary, Queen of Scots, Lady Jane Grey and similar, but also has more modern, less famous decapitation victims telling their tales, like people beheaded in the Middle East since 9/11. There are two non-humans in the book – a chicken, whose body indeed ends up crossing the road, and the dragon slain by St. George (who is also included in the book). There is a man beheaded in 40,000 B.C. and insanely, the chicken speaks better than the dragon, who speaks better than the Cro-Magnon man. Most insane and odd of all, Butler records his own putative decapitation in 2010, losing his head when he sticks his head ill-advisedly out an elevator.

This book is a short little read, but you may find yourself going back to reread the tales. It’s a delightful, odd little book, built around an odd but amazing premise, the sort of idea that makes you smack yourself on the head and wish you had thought of it yourself. The brief stories are richly detailed and full of both history and emotion. It’s amazing what Butler can do in 240 words. I am a well-known lover of excellent flash fiction and Butler’s flash is breathtaking.