Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because my dead pets are also interesting, and because this is probably my most self-indulgent discussion to date.
Availability: Published by The Nervous Breakdown Books in 2011, you can get a copy here:
Comments: When I finished reading Stupid Children by Lenore Zion, I knew I’d need to read everything she’d ever written. She writes neurosis so well that it was alarming how well she pulled it off. Now after reading My Dead Pets Are Interesting, it’s clear Zion is writing from a place of experience. I’m pretty calm and well-adjusted these days, or at least I look that way. A lot of the time I play up my quirks as I write, but it’s undeniable that as a younger woman I was a complete basket case and that even now I’m a bit more nervous and loopy than the average woman. I sit on the OCD spectrum (contamination and cleanliness and I’m certain Mr. OTC will die in a car crash if I don’t give him a goodnight kiss every night before bed), am depressive and have a sleep issues that would kill you if you had them. I’m not exaggerating. On the upside, pictures I’ve posted online about my soul-crushing inability to sleep have been used in articles about insomnia, so I’ve got that going for me. That’s how I know I’m better now – I can see the upside from time to time. Plus when you get older the shit that tired you when you were a kid no longer has the power because you’ve endured it long enough and now know it’s just one of many potential personality types and that neurotics are far thicker on the ground than anyone realizes when they are in their twenties.
Zion herself is a neurotic, and engages in a lot of the same behaviors I engaged in when I was younger, behaviors that seem pathological and inexplicable to the balanced person, but make utter sense to those of us who have the albatross of obsessive anxiety hanging from our necks like… well, like an albatross. I get what she has to say and find the humor in how she relates her mild hysteria to her readers. For those of us who are fellow travelers in neurosis, there is a truth and compassion in Zion’s writing that reminds us that we are both not alone in our affliction and that, in retrospect, almost everything is funny if you look at it the right way.
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s written in a style one does not commonly see in memoirs, a style that demands that you read the book twice in order to really understand the whole of it. The truly odd part is that I don’t think you will mind reading it twice in a row.
Availability: Published by Nine Banded Books in 2014, you can get a copy here:
Comments: It’s hard to write an American memoir in the year of our Lord, 2016. Modernity has caused most of us to live unremarkable lives. No more surviving small pox or famine. Not a lot of terrain to discover that doesn’t already have several Taco Bell locations within a fifty-mile radius. No invaders from foreign lands, no wars on American soil. No duels, few remaining sexy hippie cults waiting to indoctrinate the young and innocent, and even those who have fled to large cities in order to carve out an interesting career in the arts while living with lots of interesting people in a bohemian slum are more likely to micro-blog about binge watching some fucking show about women having lots of implausible sex in a prison than their latest attempt at creating a mural or a novel or an interesting sculpture. The bulk of lives these day are completely unremarkable but sometimes reading about unremarkable lives can be interesting, if the life in question rings true to the reader, offering muffled catharsis for the quiet depression that is so much a part of modern ennui.
Don’t get me wrong – suburbia has a lot to recommend it but it doesn’t lend itself well to the creation of great memoirs unless we have something really and truly nasty lurking behind the scenes, and those things happen to us rather than being experiences we seek out. Good modern memoirists need at least one crazy or alcoholic parent, one unsettling example of sexual abuse, a slowly developing drug addiction, and maybe, if such a writer is lucky, one of his family members will commit a terrible crime or get killed in the course of a terrible crime and then he’ll be rolling in the life experiences that make up the modern memoir.
But even if one has these qualifiers, so do many others. If one is going to write a memoir about a prosaic life, even one with requisite misery, one needs to be a very good writer because otherwise the readers will be tempted to say, “Shitty parents, stranger touched me, drugs during college, terrible job, why am I reading this when I can clearly write my own memoir because everyone in the benighted Generation X more or less lived the same fucking life.”
Nulick takes his cues from all three categories: he’s lived a life that seems all too common to most Americans; he has catastrophic life experiences that make for interesting reading and a certain prurient rubbernecking; and he is a very good writer, profoundly good at times. We recognize Nulick’s life as our own in some respects, we are appalled at some of the things that happen to Nulick, and we are drawn in and held in by his unique and near-poetic style.
I mentioned this before in an entry closing out 2015, but it bears repeating. The way that Nulick writes reminds me of conversations one has with an old friend. You know this person well, but you haven’t spoken in a while. Your friend mentions an incident or a person in the course of telling a story, thinking that you know all about that incident or person. You don’t know, but you don’t interrupt because your friend is on a roll and you feel certain that in a moment you can either interject and ask a question or your friend will throw you enough clues in the conversation that you can piece it together. Sometimes you realize the information isn’t important enough to interrupt, because the point of the story isn’t about that person or place – it was just mentioned as an aside in the course of a larger topic.
This is how Nulick writes. Sometimes he mentions a name before we know who that person is. The first time this happened I wondered if I had overlooked the person as I read and I almost backtracked in order to find the original mention that I was sure I had missed. It can be a bit odd if you begin reading this book unaware that Nulick writes this way, treating you like an old friend listening to a long conversation about his life, but once you are knowledgeable about this method of story-telling, it feels completely normal, almost comfortable. You feel like you are being drawn into Nulick’s story in a manner that implies that he considers you a trusted friend, and that’s an unusual feeling when reading a memoir. I’ve often felt some commonality with memoirists as I read their works but this takes that feeling of knowing an author in a direction I can’t recall ever having read before. You may want to read this book through once and then read it again a week or so later. That second read cements that feeling of being a friend because you now feel like an insider to Nulick’s story.
That sense of commonality takes you only so far, though. I find it interesting how many books about Gen-X men have come across my radar lately and how I respond to them. In Ann Sterzinger’s NVSQVAM, the protagonist Lester is utterly lost and a complete asshole, but as I mention in my discussion, he’s our asshole, my generation’s asshole. It’s hard to hate your brother even when he’s a prick. It’s irrational to hate a child you may have created but Baby Boomers despair of me and mine, and for some reason we all seem to be poking Millennials with a stick as if we didn’t fucking make the world they were born into, like we didn’t raise them or mold them into the people they are now. Yet Nulick, in as much as this memoir accurately reflects his real life, at times inspired in me the same nose-pinching desire I felt toward Sterzinger’s Lester. I just wanted to smack him as he artistically destroyed his life, almost as if he was modeling his destruction on those who came before him and set the example for the lost, dissolute, addicted writer.
Type of Book: Non-fiction, essays, philosophy, memoir
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: SubGenii Unite!
Availability: Published by Underworld Amusements in 2014, you can get a copy here:
Comments: This book showed me in many ways that I have become a very bitter woman. I don’t think I am an egoist because I am sort of filled with self-loathing and seldom know what the right thing to do might be and therefore have no business using my own self as a life philosophy, but I can still see the charm in this book of short essays and articles dealing with everything from egoism to the sexual lives of the disabled to selling used books.
Blake’s style is erudite yet irreverent and breezy, almost to distraction at times. And god this book could have been better edited. It actually fell outside of my bitchy upper limit of what I can endure in regards to errors in books, but it was charming and intelligent enough to make it still worth discussing. You will also encounter words like “siphonophore” (a sort of man-of-war water creature) and improving your vocabulary via arcane words is a good thing.
Let’s begin this discussion with Blake’s definition of egoism:
Egoism is the claim that the individual is the measure of all things. In ethics, in epistemology, in aesthetics, in society, the Individual is the best and only arbitrator. Egoism claims social convention, laws, other people, religion, language, time and all other forces outside of the Individual are an impediment to the liberty and existence of the Individual. Such impediments may be tolerated but they have no special standing to the Individual, who may elect to ignore or subvert or destroy them as He can. In egoism the State has no monopoly to take tax or wage war.
Yeah, yeah, I see the appeal but in this respect I’m a pedant and anti-intellectual to boot – if I can’t see it working in real life I can’t really discuss it in much depth. Philosophies that end up stating that one of their tenets is that the State cannot tax or wage war cause me to want to discuss whether or not Ariel the Mermaid should have exchanged her fins for legs and if the exchange was worth it. Both discussions occupy the same head space in my brain. Let’s discuss how many mermaids can dance on the head of a philosopher!
But even if I am philosophically stunted these days, there is much in this book that resonated with me.
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because it made me feel sorry for Chevy Chase for like a minute or so.
Availability: Published by Soft Skull in 2010, you can get a copy here:
Comments: I bought this book in my typical accumulator manner. I was at the annual New Year’s Day sale at BookPeople and the title caught my eye because like all slightly weird girls in the ’80s I was way into Eraserhead. It took me a couple of years to get around to reading it and I should have read it the moment I brought it home because this is a very readable and entertaining biography-true crime hybrid. The prologue of this book is one of the funniest things I have ever read. Ten pages of utter mayhem that should have humbled Chevy Chase forever. The prologue is the price of admission for this book, the reason you should read it, but after those hilarious, raucous ten pages, the rest of the book is deeply engrossing.
I had never heard of Peter Ivers before this book, which means I also had not heard of New Wave Theatre. He was a man who needed a book to help people like me know who he was and why he was so important and influential, even though his name is not remembered to the degree that his influence should dictate. The book as a whole is a look at how the Ivy League drama departments and National Lampoon magazine spawned Saturday Night Live, a whole bunch of hilarious 70s films like Caddyshack, and how Peter Ivers was a member of all those specific tribes as well as being a pioneer who introduced punk and new wave music to America on an early cable station.
Peter Ivers was one of those people who was perpetually ahead of the curve, able to know instinctively what was going to be the next big thing. Educated at Harvard, Ivers was primarily a musician and a song writer but his influence spilled over into much of the entertainment industry. Yet despite having his finger on many pulses, he never really achieved the level of fame his talent and perspicacity deserved. Worse, he was murdered right when it looked like he was about to become as famous as the people in his circles, like Harold Ramis, John Belushi, and Chevy Chase. His is a very sad story in so many ways, but at the same time the overwhelming sadness wasn’t apparent to me until I began to write this discussion because this book really is such an engaging, rollicking read that the sheer entertainment value of the book blunted the injustice of Ivers’ murder. That’s not a flaw, either, because eventually the reality of the waste of life hits you, but it’s also a testament to the interesting nature of Ivers’ life and the interesting nature of those around him that this is not a wholly sad book.
It’s actually maddening to realize what an interesting person Ivers was and know that he slipped under my radar for all these years, and the reason he was not even a blip on the mainstream radar is because he was indeed so far ahead of the curve that the public didn’t appreciate his efforts until the moment was gone. Muddy Waters once said that Ivers, who never missed a chance to jump up on stage and jam with blues men of great renown, was the best blues harmonica player alive, but Ivers’ band’s new wave album was released and received with little fanfare. However, David Lynch heard Ivers’ album and decided that Ivers’ sound was just what he needed for his bizarre film school effort, Eraserhead.
Typical of Ivers career, being recognized by Lynch and working with the filmmaker didn’t really do much for Ivers’ career, even though Ivers was responsible for one of the most iconic scenes and songs in film history – the mumps-cheeked girl in the radiator singing “In Heaven Everything Is Fine.”
That creepy voice? That’s Ivers. How the hell did I not know this all these years?
Well, I didn’t know it because Ivers’ influence and talent were often a part of someone else’s dream and goal.
Ivers seems to be best known for his work on New Wave Theater, an early live performance cable show with a format that introduced the public to a number of LA new wave and punk bands and popular comedians. Peter, the host, played the provocative, Harvard Boy weirdo to many rough-edged bands. Ivers was a tiny man but never failed in his role, often angering bands, sometimes being threatened by them as he interviewed them. That he often assumed a slightly homosexual persona only caused some of the more macho bands to channel their sense of unease into potential violence. However, many bands caught onto what was happening, understood the purpose of Ivers’ veiled jabs and sparkly appearance, and became friends with him, notably members from bands Fear, 45 Grave and The Dead Kennedys.
After a couple of years of hosting New Wave Theater, Ivers began to chafe under the pressure put on him by show producer David Jove, a drug-addled madman who surrounded himself with even madder madmen. Ivers had found a song-writing partner and together they were creating excellent songs that were selling well, and was poised to take his career in a new direction. Diana Ross and the Pointer Sisters ended up performing songs he and his partner wrote. With a blossoming career as a songwriter ahead of him, he eventually gave Jove notice on New Wave Theater. Shortly after giving notice, Ivers was found in his apartment, bludgeoned to death with a hammer.
The way the police handled the case will leave incredulous anyone with the most basic understanding of crime scene containment and murder investigation. Before the investigation even began, while the bloody sheets were still on the bed where Ivers died, people were permitted to come into Ivers apartment and rifle through his belongings, take out items, bring in new items and ultimately the police felt that Ivers was just some freak who likely got picked off by one of the punks he hung around with. The influence of the famous people advocating for Ivers – an ex-girlfriend who was a studio executive and Harold Ramis among them – wasn’t enough to overcome the horrible way the police handled the investigation. He was killed in 1983 and the most-likely suspect has died of cancer, so there will never be much in the way of justice for Ivers, outside of this book that shows us all how important Ivers was and how was he the sort of guy who anticipated MTV several years in advance, who understood the importance of David Lynch before anyone else, who could walk the talk amongst Harvard graduates, street punks, Hollywood executives, pop stars, blues men, and the cinema avant garde.
The book details all the relationships Ivers had with rich and powerful people, as well as giving the reader a look at his personal and romantic relationships. The former are pretty interesting, the latter less so (I found his long-term girlfriend so insufferable that I found myself glossing over all passages involving her – she was the sort of woman who considered herself counter-cultural, accepted a job with a major studio in defiance of her personal beliefs, then spent weeks crying about it – bleah), but even the less interesting passages don’t really diminish what an interesting person Ivers was and how interesting this book is. I sailed through it in two readings. Seldom do biographies or true crime books demand my attention this way.
The best line in the book:
To Peter, underutilized potential was a tear in the fabric of the cosmos.
The hell of it is, Peter’s potential was never underutilized. Plenty of people utilized it. He just didn’t receive much benefit from all that utilization.
This is one of my shorter reviews because the scope of this book is such that one either goes on at length and still barely scratches the surface or one mentions the best parts and still barely scratches the surface. For once I decided to err on the side of word conservation.
But I cannot emphasize enough how very funny, actually hilarious, the prologue is. Seriously, I read it out loud to Mr Oddbooks and we both laughed until we could not breathe. Chevy Chase, in a mohawk wig, trying to host a New Wave Theater-successor while shit-faced drunk, completely unfamiliar with punk culture, screaming at bewildered punks, “IS THERE ANYONE ELSE WHO THINKS THEY CAN TAKE ME DOWN?!” while Cyndi Lauper waits in the wings, presumably wondering if she should fire her manager. Highly recommended.
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because one of the stories ends with the following line:
And that guy turned out to be an asshole.
Availability: Published by Apophenia in 2014, you can get a copy here:
Comments: Hank Kirton may be the best odd short story writer you’ve never heard of, and that sucks because he is rapidly becoming one of my favorite writers. This is a near-flawless collection of short stories. Of course, since it is a small press release it could be better edited, but even with that caveat this is still an excellent book. Kirton has a style that is immediately identifiable as being Hank-like, yet his stories cover a lot of intellectual and literary ground. He handles magical realism in a manner that I generally don’t expect from male authors, and some of his stories reminded me a bit of the sort of work Amelia Gray puts out – a sort of amusing, fey and ultimately good-spirited weirdness. Then at other times he manages the dark, nasty, post-modern flatness I associate with the mundane horror of A.M. Homes. His stories evoke some of the best work done by some of the best odd writers, infused with the uneasy strangeness and overall noir I’ve come to associate with Kirton’s work. I fancy I can see the veins Kirton mines for inspiration – one story even reminded me so much of an old R. Crumb comic that I had to scour the Internet to make sure I was remembering it correctly – but who knows? That’s the danger of writing – you never know what a demented Pflugervillian housewife will think of when she reads your stories.
Kirton’s voice remains very strong, even as he reminds me of other artists, and with one exception, every story in this collection soars because the eclectic nature of these stories definitely works in its favor. And the one story I didn’t particularly care for was because of my own deep distaste for the old Nancy Drew books. The story, “Janet Pepper, Girl Detective: The Mystery of the Kitchen Cabinet,” is a parody of those tiresome books with a very adult twist and I can see how it’s amusing and how others would find it very funny. I just remember all those gormless books being foisted upon me in grade school and how awful I found them, how boring they were, like chewing microwaved oatmeal, so this parody wasn’t that subversive to me given how little I could tolerate the original source.
So with that criticism out of the way, let me discuss the stories that I liked best in this 21-story collection.
Type of Book: Non-fiction, compendium, encyclopedia
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because it is a book devoted wholly to weird people.
Availability: Published by Headpress in 2013, you can get a copy here:
Comments:My love for all of Chris Mikul’s work is pretty well established by now so I won’t discuss in depth why I think he is and always will be an author worth reading aside from just stating that his love for the odd in this world makes his work very topical for me and for this site. I can’t imagine anyone will be surprised to learn that I think this is great book. Anyone with a love for strange ideas or eccentrics will need to add this book to their collection. The book discusses some usual suspects in the weirdo game, like Helena Blavatsky, Charles Fort, Aleister Crowley and Michael Jackson, but for every person whose name comes up all the time in compendiums devoted to eccentrics, there were ten more I had never heard of before.
Because this is quite literally an encyclopedia, the only way to discuss it is to outline a few of the more outlandish people featured in the book. Not the most exciting way to discuss a book but hopefully the lunacy of the people I select will make up for it. Here’s a short selection of some of the weird people I had not heard of prior to reading this book, and hopefully there will be a couple I discuss who will be new to you, too.
Baroness Eloise Wagner De Bosquet was a horse-faced woman with buck teeth whose force of charm made her very attractive to people, if only for a short period of time. After four divorces, in the early 1930s she persuaded two of her lovers to accompany her to Floreana Island, part of the Galapagos Islands chain, to join in with the settlers on the island. She wanted to create a hotel there, and while visitors to the island found her delightful, less so the two families who lived there permanently. The lover triad became abusive for one of the men, and The Baroness and one of her lovers disappeared, never to be seen again. In the wake of that disappearance, there were two more mysterious deaths associated with Floreana, no small feat for an island with fewer than a dozen permanent inhabitants.
I read Mikul’s entry about The Baroness and then immediately discovered a Netflix film called The Galapagos Affair. The film is an historical piece that covers all of the Baroness’ antics and the scandals and murders on Floreana Island. I recommend watching it because not only was it a pretty good movie, it also shows how The Baroness could possibly have had any sex appeal to the many men she attracted. In photos and a silent movie, she is surprisingly attractive. But still, if you are going to be a part of a cuckold-trio, it seems better to be in thrall to a really beautiful or rich woman. That way when your body is discovered on a desert island with no fresh water source, at least people will see your sorry end as the inevitable result of loving a very bad but extremely beautiful woman.
Next let’s discuss Percy Grainger, an Australian musician and composer. I was drawn to his entry in The Eccentropedia because he just seems so unlikely. Had he been a fictional character he would have seemed completely unbelievable. As a boy, his mother told him he was destined for greatness and encouraged him to practice piano for hours. She whipped him if she felt he was not working hard enough and those whippings became a part of his creative impulse as an adult. He eventually married a Swedish woman who both understood and did not mind that beating Grainger often was going to be an an important part of their marriage. Grainger liked whipping others but his masochism took up a lot of room in his psyche, as well as sex in general.
The whippings as a child worked because he became a prodigy, and his marriage to a Swedish woman was more or less inevitable because after a trip to pre-war Germany, Grainger became convinced of the superiority of the Nordic people. His admiration for the Nordic people leaned heavily into racism but he was also interested in and influenced by the Maori. He was a fan of Duke Ellington and counted Jews in the number of his friends, but he also created a weird language he called “blue-eyed English” wherein he eliminated all words that did not have an Anglo-Saxon origin and replaced them with his own creations. This was especially interesting for a composer to do, given all the Italian words used in music. This site has a short list of the words that Grainger created and is itself a good look at Grainger’s many eccentricities. Almost equally eccentric, I also discovered that Grainger had invaded unlikely realms online, notably Tumblr and Pinterest tags related to “hot dead guys.” (On a related note, who knew how ridiculously handsome Anton Chekhov was? Well, evidently lots of people, but I certainly didn’t until I looked up Percy Grainger.)
I am unsure if I really consider Benjamin Lay to be a true eccentric as much as I consider him an excessively-devoted moralist, but the picture Mikul paints of his activities is pretty memorable. Born in England, Lay first encountered slavery in 1730s Barbados, which made him become a staunch abolitionist. He and his wife, both Quakers, later emigrated to Philadelphia, where he found that some of his fellow Quakers were slave-owners. Lay was not one to be subtle in his advocacy. When he got tossed out of a church for being disruptive, he stretched out in front of the entrance so that everyone who left had to step over him. On other occasions, he engaged in some one-man theater that is both funny and dramatic:
He invaded another meeting wearing a military uniform with a sword, and carrying a hollowed out book (to represent the Bible) in which was concealed a bladder containing pokeberry juice. Declaring that enslaving a man was no better than stabbing him through the heart, he drew the sword and plunged it into his ‘Bible’, spattering those nearest him with the red juice. He once sat outside a meeting in the middle of the winter with one bare leg deep in the snow. When passersby expressed concern, he said, ‘You pretend compassion for me, but you do not feel for the poor slaves in your fields who go all winter half clad.’ He was not afraid of taking direct action, and once went so far as to kidnap a slave owner’s three-year-old child, so he would know how it felt to lose a loved one.
It also bears mentioning that Lay was a hunchback, rendering him 4’6″ tall. He died happy because on his death bed, just before he died, the Quaker church had voted to reject slavery. I wonder how much his activism led them to adopt their moral stance.
My favorite entry was Eliza Donnithorne, the woman who was likely the inspiration for Dicken’s Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. Eliza was born in India where her father was a judge. Her mother and two sisters died during a cholera outbreak and her heartbroken father decided to relocate to Australia, moving there with the young Eliza in 1836. When it came time for Eliza to entertain suitors, she rejected all of her father’s favorites, falling for a shipping clerk named George Cuthbertson. When George proposed to Eliza, her father, known for having a very bad temper, informed George that if he ever caused Eliza any anguish after the marriage, he would be severely punished.
And we all sort of know what happened next. George jilted Eliza on the day of their wedding. Eliza believed he would eventually arrive and remained in her wedding dress the entire day. She came unhinged when she saw wedding guests consuming food meant for the wedding banquet. Concerned friends took her to her room, where she remained for a month, but honored her request that the wedding banquet be left alone and the dining room door locked. Unfortunately Eliza was pregnant by George, and when she gave birth the baby was given to a servant to raise, to preserve Eliza’s reputation. Perhaps that was why George ran away – the prospect of a baby born seven months after the wedding, given Mr. Donnithorne’s threats regarding bad behavior, probably gave him pause.
Eventually Eliza’s father died and she inherited his estate, but that did not encourage her to resume normal life. She had spent years waiting for George to return to her, and had descended completely into madness.
After his [her father’s] death, she had all the shutters on the windows of the house nailed up, and dismissed all but two of her servants… relying on them to conduct all her business with the outside world. She continued to wear her wedding dress, and the dining room with its uneaten feast remained locked.
It was never wholly proven that she was Dicken’s inspiration, but it seems very likely that at some point he heard her story – the descriptions of the two women seem just too similar for coincidence. Stranger things have happened though.
This is one of my shorter discussions but to discuss it too much would ruin the nature of the book. Encyclopedias don’t lend themselves well to my typical in-depth discussions. This encyclopedia especially doesn’t, given its substantial length (over 500 pages) and 266 entries that cover almost all forms of human perversity, insanity, determination and genius. This book also has some excellent illustrations by Glenn Smith. While I completed this book in two sittings, this is a book that can be read in fits and starts, a great book to read when you suspect you may face interruptions, like waiting in line at the DMV. Mikul, while he can write fiction well, uses a style in this book that is a mix of journalism with clear affection for the subject matter, ensuring the book is readable and engrossing. I loved this book and highly recommend it!
Availability: You need to contact Chris directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. The ‘zine itself is $5 Australian, so those outside of Australia need to get a quote from him directly. For Americans, if I recall correctly, it is $8 USD an issue, shipping included.
Comments: Last year was a complete waste for me. Dozens of books were left unread, dozens of discussions never happened here. Truly pitiful. But in the spirit of not dwelling on the past and various failures, I want to begin 2014 with a discussion that is long overdue and about a writer whose work inspires me. I’ve said several times that I really envy Chris Mikul’s writing style and research expertise, and his fourth issue of Biblio-Curiosa further cements my opinion of him (I also have two books of his I really want to read and discuss this year – fingers crossed).
For those unfamiliar with Biblio-Curiosa, Mikul’s ‘zine is part book review, part in-depth research. He reads genuinely strange and obscure books and writes about them, but he also engages in deep research into the lives of various writers, sometimes trying to track down authors whose names are very nearly lost to history. Every issue is a fascinating read.
Issue 4 has four articles, and begins with a look at what can only be called a lunatic book. The Werewolf vs The Vampire Woman doesn’t sound that loony on its face – just sort of pulpy. Written by Arthur N. Scarm (yes, Scarm, though it is spelled “Scram” on the title page) in 1972, it is a novelization of a Spanish film called La Noche de Walpurgis, released in the USA as The Werewolf vs The Vampire Woman or Werewolf Shadow. The movies, going by title, sound cheesy enough, but as Mikul notes, the novelization is… not entirely true to its source:
…the book bears only the most passing resemblance to the film. Instead, it takes off on innumerable mad tangents of its own, and brims with cartoonish sex and violence, ludicrous dialogue and scenes that border on the surreal.
The book changes the protagonist’s name from Waldemar to Waldo, changes his personality from a shaggy, animalistic creature into an urbane, sophisticated wolf-dude, and introduces all sorts of previously unknown and probably created on-the-spot werewolf lore. It is here I feel I should mention that Waldo can do all sorts of nefarious and odd things, like shrink boobs with his mind. Montague Summers would weep if he read this book.
Waldo ends up with a vampire woman, as described in the title, but before he does he engages in all kinds of strange seduction. Take this snippet Mikul shares from the book:
Handling the girls like toys, he planted them on their backs, one on top of the other, and with Elvira on top, got on top of her. Ruth was on the bottom and he made love to her through Genevieve and Elvira, with all three girls screaming because it was so uncomfortable.
Yeah. This hilarity aside, this article gets even more interesting when Mikul looks into who “Scarm” really was.
Type of Book: Fiction, short story collection, gently weird
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s not the full-bore weird I generally discuss on this site, but it is one of those books that is neither fish nor fowl. It’s not lit fic but it’s not wholly experimental. Complete inability to classify a work is often a very good sign it is strange in some manner.
Availability: Self-published on the Lulu platform in 2010, you can get a copy here:
Comments: Before I begin this discussion, I want to point something out about this self-published book: it is far better edited than most books that come from small and even large publishers. When I received this book in the mail and saw it was self-published, I had a small twinge of trepidation before reading it. My distaste for the increasingly slap-dash efforts that go into editing books is hopefully well-known by now and I feared I would have to gently tell yet another aspiring writer that I could not discuss his or her book because the editing was so bad all I would be able to do would be to savage it. Sometimes I like savaging books, but most of the time I don’t enjoy it and will not throw the same disgust I lob at say, Edward Lee, at a new and struggling writer. It was such a relief that such concerns did not play out with Akstin’s book. It is impeccably edited. Some of the spacing and indentations in my copy are a bit off but when the grammar is spot on, I can overlook wonky paragraph alignment.
One day I will weaken and stop beating this drum, but reading poorly edited books is a chore. I don’t like it when reading is a chore. Proper editing elevates even the most mundane novels and it certainly helped Akstin’s stories. Akstin’s writing style is not one that I am fond of, but clean writing goes a long way in making even that which is not my cup of tea something I am willing to drink. Though I think these stories would have been more memorable had there been more immediacy, I can also admit that applying my specific tastes to these stories and finding them lacking would be a disservice to Akstin’s goal because even as he writes of miserable, desperate people, he is telling the stories of very disconnected people. Immediacy and emotional depth would have spoiled that necessary disconnection. This book is full of addiction, fault memory, aborted and lost children, and brutal fights, and the muffled way the characters experience these traumas ring as distant as a Carver story but without the minimalism.
When I read this collection, I didn’t feel kinship with the stories. Despite having a glimpse into the lives of strangers, at times intimate looks, I never felt like a voyeur, looking through windows with a telescope. I felt like a clinician peering at slides under a microscope. It’s the distance in the prose that created that feeling. In this collection of 16 stories, Akstin presents a common theme of madness, guilt and a great desire for atonement with a creepiness that permeates all the stories. What made these stories interesting is that even as you feel like a dispassionate observer, there is a maddening yet compelling fuzziness to some of his endings that forces you to interpret the story, further driving home that reading his work is an act of interpretation, not connection. You are looking at the disease cells under a slide, not talking to the patient.
There were a few stories in the collection, as in all short story collections, that worked better than others. To keep this from becoming overlong, I’ll limit myself to the stories I liked best. Be warned: there will be spoilers.
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 email@example.com 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.
Book:The Cult Files: True Stories from the Extreme Edges of Religious Belief
Author: Chris Mikul
Type of Book: Non-fiction, cults, religion, true crime
Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: This is very subjective, but as an atheist I find all religious beliefs a bit odd. Extreme cults are therefore all the more odd.
Availability: I read the Metro Books edition, but this book has been released by Amazon for Kindle, and that edition is a better bet:
Comments: This book was in my to-be-discussed pile back in 2011 (yeah, I am still catching up) when Chris Mikul sent me copies of his excellent ‘zine, Biblio Curiosa. We began a friendly correspondence and he gave me some interesting information about this book. Evidently his publisher was concerned that some of the content in the book could lead to a lawsuit and demanded the book be radically edited. Mikul sent me the excised chapters but I am limiting myself to the content in the actual book because it seems unfair to discuss material that my readers won’t be able to read for themselves.
But even though he had to cut out some pretty interesting discussions, The Cult Files remains a very absorbing book. Though I am reasonably well-read on the subject of cults, I found information new to me in this cult anthology. There are some of the usual suspects, like the Branch Davidians and Jonestown, but every other chapter had something completely new to me. That Mikul discussed one of my “favorite” cults, the Ant Hill Kids, led by the repellent and vile Roch Thériault, just sealed the deal for me. Thériault didn’t get much play in the USA and is one of the most fascinating cult leaders, far more interesting than Charles Manson and, in my opinion, at least as toxic as David Koresh. So that was definitely a point in Mikul’s favor.
To prevent this from becoming an extremely long discussion, I’ll just discuss the chapters in this book I found the most interesting or that were new to me when I read the book.
Before I begin, I need to state that not all of the cults discussed in this book fit my criteria of what makes a cult, but it must also be said that I use a pretty strict measure that requires a single charismatic leader, alienation from family and friends, no financial control for followers, increasingly strict punishments for continually changing “sin” metrics, different rules for those in favor with the leader, an inability for followers to question anything, an inability to leave with impunity and more. Mikul doesn’t define his metric with such exacting specificity, though he does give an idea of what a cult may be and how what defines a toxic cult can vary from person to person and from sect to sect. However, his metric comes pretty close to that espoused by Robert Lifton, who stated three different categories to consider when discussing cults: a charismatic leader who positions himself or herself to become the focus of worship, employing brainwashing or thought control methods, and exploitation of the rank and file cult members by the upper echelons of the cult. Even if the cults Mikul discusses in this book may not meet my stringent standards, they meet Lifton’s, who is far more of an expert.
The book begins by discussing the Thuggee in India, a group of traveling confidence killers who preyed on other travelers. They became associated with the garrote, their most common method of killing. I knew a bit about the Thuggee just from osmosis because of my varied reading habits, but I had not known they were dedicated to the Hindu goddess, Kali, the goddess of death and destruction (among other things). The Thuggee were more or less suppressed and destroyed by the British Raj. Before reading this I had considered the Thuggee to be murderous equivalents of the Irish Travelers, con men and women who just upped the ante in scams via murder. I suspect part of it is because I always think of cults in terms of charismatic leaders, and the Thuggee were not organized in this manner, or at least they weren’t when they were in their heyday. But there are typical cult elements that one commonly sees in cults that allow the Thuggee to qualify as a cult, like an us-versus-them mentality, justifying all behaviors, even that which is illegal, as ordained by elevated or outsider status. I think it was an interesting choice to include the Thuggee in this book.