Halloween 2017: Haunted Air by Ossian Brown

Book: Haunted Air

Author/Photo Collector: Ossian Brown, with introduction by David Lynch, epilogue by Geoff Cox

Type of Book:  Non-fiction, photography collection

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: The photographs themselves are odd and unsettling, but this book came with unexpected (and sort of gross) surprises.  Plus this book links David Lynch and the dude from Coil together and that has some odd potential.

Availability: Published by Jonathan Cape in 2010, you can get a copy here:

If you live in the UK, it may be cheaper to get a copy here.

Comments: Sometimes the story of how I obtain a book is odd, though the story behind how I came to own this particular title is grimly predictable.  Periodically, I will wake in the middle of the night and will take a sleeping pill to go back to sleep.  This is problematic because I must take a Lunesta every night to sleep at all and am generally not really “awake” when I wake and take the second pill.  Under the influence of double the dose I need to take, I will sometimes not go back to sleep.  Sometimes I open my iPad and order strange fabric collections or, as you can guess, a load of books.  I don’t know I’ve done this until I receive the shipment and wonder why it was sent and go online and see that I was shopping at four in the morning, ordering stuff from sites where my credit card is evidently stored in my account information.

And that’s how I came to own Haunted Air.  Interestingly, I picked out books from my “wish list” so every book I ordered was something I wanted and none of them were too expensive, which was good since I ordered nine books.  Since then I have kept my prescription anywhere other than the drawer of my bedside table and this hasn’t happened in about a year.  I mention all of this because I personally find it creepy when I find evidence that I was moving around, engaging in activities I commonly associate with consciousness, when I was supposed to be sleeping.  But given the popularity of hypnotics as sleep aids, this may not be creepy to others, especially Ambien users who wake to find they ate entire boxes of cereal with their hands or drove their car up to the Wag-a-Bag, executed a perfect parallel parking job, walked back home and went back to bed.  Ordering books in an altered state of consciousness by most standards is vaguely creepy but largely benign.

That sort of describes this book, if you take out the “vaguely” and replace it with “rather.”  This book really is rather creepy but largely benign, with any ill-intent coming from the reader herself. Ossian Brown has an impressive collection of old Halloween photos. The front page calls it “Hallowe’en” and the photos date from 1875-1955.  I only mention the use of the precise but twee “Hallowe’en” because I really wanted to include this video wherein a Chloe Sevigny impersonator pronounces the word as written.

Back to the book.  It occurs to me that the main reason this book is so creepy is because everyone takes about ten photos a day on their phone and so many of us are so very curated in how we appear, even when we disguise ourselves to celebrate pagan holidays.  Endless Instagrams of intricate make-up jobs, exquisite costumes, spider-leg cupcakes straight from the latest Martha Stewart Living fall edition.  We are hyper-aware of ourselves even when we appear candid.  I personally won’t post photographs online if I find there is too much cat hair on the carpet or sofa, unless the purpose of the photo is to document the cat hair and even then I may use a filter.

So it’s unnerving to see people so nakedly and without guile wearing paper or burlap bags fashioned into masks.  Church ladies with their hair up and their dresses buttoned to their necks wearing paper mache masks in scenes that are wholesome as wheat bread yet reminiscent of the set of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  That sort of messy, archaic, unmatched, unincorporated Halloween is not a part of any American’s landscape any longer and the viewer of such photos can find herself in an uneasy place, understanding she is assigning a malignancy to plain-spun activities that was not intended by those in the photographs yet unable to stop herself from imagining someone in such a mask stabbing her to death.

Most of the photos in this collection are nightmare fuel.  They are raw and primal, with a humble intensity that still surprises me when I revisit the photos.  Here are some of the ones that set my teeth on edge.

It’s like The Hills Have Eyes Episode One: Wagon Train.

Halloween 2017: The Secret Books by Jorge Luis Borges and Sean Kernan

Book: The Secret Books

Credits: Stories by Jorge Luis Borges and photography by Sean Kernan

Type of Book: Fiction, photography

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s a strange, haunting book.

Availability: Published by Leetes Island Books in 1999, it appears to be out of print.  However, you can still get an affordable copy of this book used on Amazon:

Comments: There’s no sense in trying to make these entries about the more unsettling or creepy photograph books I own more than they are.  I’m showing you content from my shelves, sort of letting you in on items I own that are often hard to come by, obscure enough to be relatively unknown (while being popular enough for me to be able to afford a copy, itself an odd balance), or books that are just perfect and need to be shared regardless of renown or availability.  Most of my books from the Burns Archive fall in these three categories, and The Secret Books does, too.  While I plan to share text, this entry is going to be mostly visual.  It’s hard for me to go too deep into photography or art books because I often find it hard to express why something appeals to me visually.  But hopefully these more visual offerings are appealing and hopefully they will also allow a sort of voyeuristic look into the book accumulation Mr OTC and I have built up over the years.

The collection is inspired by Jorge Luis Borges’ story, “The Book of Sand.”  In this story, a man obtains a book called the Book of Sand.  It is so called because, like grains of sand, the pages of the book are impossible to number.  The story is a study on infinity and how outright frightening it actually is, how limiting it can be to contemplate it and genuinely experience it.  The protagonist becomes a bit unhinged in the face of something so vast yet so easily contained.  He becomes paranoid, unable to leave his home for fear of the book being stolen while he is gone.  He cannot truly conceive the vastness the book represents but the thought of losing that which he cannot genuinely define or completely possess becomes something that rules his life.  Unable to bear it any longer, the protagonist smuggles the book into the library where he once worked and places among the books. The protagonist says that the best way to hide a leaf is in the forest and has some sense of assurance that he may now be free from the book’s claustrophobic influence, but will never again walk down the street where the library is located.

An English version of this story is reproduced in the book, as is the Borges story, “The Library of Babel.” This story also exhibits the extremely limiting nature of infinity.  In this story the protagonist describes a library that houses every book that contains a potential ordering of a specific alphabet.  There is no order in which the books are shelved, and in most of the ordered alphabet produces gibberish.  This is problematic because the library also contains all known real books, all the information known to mankind, but finding those books borders on the impossible.  Some of the librarians began to develop mentally unstable thinking, much like the protagonist of “The Book of Sand.”  In the face of an infinity they cannot order, in such vastness wherein they cannot even find and sort the information that may be useful to them, some of the librarians turn to strange, superstitious behaviors and try to destroy the books that they perceive to be full of nonsense.  Others turn to a religious search, looking for a master book list that becomes their Holy Grail, certain there is a savior who has read the master list and can save them from the endless contemplation of infinity.

It’s all very on the nose when you type out these synopses.  Infinity is impossible to grasp. It’s so vast that it stunts the ability to understand it and can cause you to turn so inward inward in your contemplation that you begin to live a limited, claustrophobic life.  In an attempt to order it, you can become nihilistic or full of faith that someone somewhere can understand it and show you how to understand it as well.  But should you read these stories they are far more interesting and masterful than my yeoman-like summaries would indicate.

Sean Kernan created photographs that react to both stories, exploring the infinite, the usefulness of the written word, and how hopeful and threatening infinity can be.  The photographs are almost uniformly dark and almost threatening, which is why I am discussing it in Halloween 2017.  There is an almost supernatural menace in some of the photographs.  I found some of them completely unnerving.

The Biblical snake in Eden, the temptation of knowledge.

Sleeping Beauty III by Stanley R. Burns, M.D.

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Sleeping Beauty III, Memorial Photography: The Children

Author: From the Stanley Burns Archive

Type of Book: Non-fiction, photography, death photography, funerary customs

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Pictures of dead children will always be a bit odd.

Availability: Released by The Burns Archive in 2011, you can get a copy on Amazon here:

But I would strongly recommend that anyone interested in the macabre photography from the Burns Archive go directly to them. Sometimes you can get the books far cheaper if you buy directly from the press itself. Not always, but compare before you buy. As much as I like the kickbacks I get when y’all buy stuff using my Amazon Affiliate link, sometimes one can get a new Burns Archive book for literally hundreds less on the Burns Archive site than buying it from a third party vendor on other book sites.

Comments: I’d intended to discuss this book long ago but I put it up on display with a piece of art that Mr. Oddbooks bought me. Once something is on a stand behind glass, I am loathe to mess with it too much. However, I recently started using some software to analyze the traffic to this site and noticed a lot of traffic coming from searches about death photography. Then, shockingly, I noticed some hits coming from Pintrest. You know, the site wherein people share pictures of cake, high heels and celebrities with cats. Never thought death photography would be an interest on such a fluffy site, and for some reason, discovering that fact encouraged me to get my book off the stand and discuss it. Actually, I have several Burns Archive books on creepy topics that I should discuss here.

For now, I’m going to discuss Sleeping Beauty III. This book is much smaller in size than Sleeping Beauty I and II, almost appropriately because this volume deals with children exclusively. Sleeping Beauty III has 125 pictures from the 1840s to present time, and spans several cultures. Though the book is definitely Western-centric, and truly most death photography is of white people, this book contains some pictures from other cultures.

A lot of people find memorial photography morbid – if you stumble across a Facebook account where death photography is discussed or reproduced, the comments range from an appreciation of the history to people thinking the parents long ago were insane or that the whole thing in general is somehow morally wrong or gross. “Ewww! Why would anyone want to take a picture of a dead person?” As much as I dislike it when people react to these pictures from a strictly modern sensibility or a squeamish quasi-morality, I often have a hard time explaining why it is such images appeal to me. Burns does his best to explain why these images may seem so jarring:

It is difficult for most of us today to understand the prior culture’s need to take memorial photographs. We no longer live with personal death and dying as part of our everyday lives. By the 1930s, dealing with death had been left to professionals ranging from physicians to morticians. The advance of medicine, control of killer epidemics, the ability to treat disease, and the removal of the sick from the home made us unaccustomed to living with and seeing death. Children dying before parents, something so common in the nineteenth century, has become unusual in the twentieth century.

He goes on:

Memorial postmortem photographs have deep meaning for mourners. These keepsakes become special icons that help survivors move through the bereavement process. Healthy grieving ultimately distances us from the dead. The human bond, our connection with others, is mankind’s strongest guiding emotion and thus influences our fears and actions. These images represent confrontation with our loved one’s mortality and our own.

I would like to think this fear of death that these images can provoke is behind the “Yuck!” reactions people sometimes express.

I often have a hard time discussing death photography because I relate to these images on an emotional level. While the appeal of the Burns Archive collection tends towards the visceral response, Burns offers useful information in the book to give context and history behind the photographs. I find the best way to discuss this little book is to reproduce a few pictures from it and quote the information that Burns provides to help us put these pictures into an historical context.

Reading postmortem photography comes with understanding the culture of death in a given era. Today it is traditional to close the eyes of the dead. But in the past, when a memorial photograph was taken, families frequently requested, especially for children, that the eyes be open. This was particularly the case for children who had never been photographed when they were alive. A second, eyes-closed photograph with changed pose would signal the memorial photograph. Photographs that depict the dead child in some sort of activity as if alive are considered “posthumous mourning portraits.”

This picture is haunting. It looks to me like his eyes may have been painted on the print to make them look open. The symbolism of this little boy at death’s door really isn’t symbolism. He’s dead and gone, and his eyes don’t give this picture any ambiguity.

The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths by Corinne May Botz

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Deaths

Author: Corinne May Botz

Why I Consider This Book Odd: The book documents unexplained deaths as depicted in the form of miniature, almost dollhouse-like scenes. This book is bizarre, creepy yet utterly charming.

Type of Work: Photography, essay

Availability: Published by Monacelli in 2004, this book is still in print. You can get a copy here:

Comments: This book is amazing. Though the content is likely a bit morbid for most to consider it a coffee table book, had I coffee table, it would definitely be prominently displayed on mine. The book discusses the career of Frances Glessner Lee, a woman Corinne May Botz describes as:

“…brilliant, witty , and, by some accounts, impossible woman. She gave you what she thought you should have, rather than what you might actually want. She had a wonderful sense of humor about everything and everyone, excluding herself. The police adored and regarded her as their “patron saint,” her family was more reticent about applauding her and her hired help was “scared to death of her.”

Raised in an ultra-traditional, very wealthy family, Lee spent a good majority of her young life thwarted, though she was exposed to home decorating skills that would stand her in good stead when she began making the Nutshell Studies. Unable to attend college as she wanted, once her parents died, Lee started to come into her own, both metaphorically and literally, as she then had plenty of wealth to support her interests. She met a man by the name of George Magrath, a medical examiner who testified in criminal cases in New England. Magrath enthralled the young Lee, and it was through Magrath and his knowledge that Lee began to see what would become her life work.

Interested in promoting proper examination techniques to coroners, who were then mostly untrained in criminal investigation, she founded a library at Harvard (where her parents had refused to allow her to study) that contained over a thousand rare books she had collected. With her inherited wealth, Lee set up the George Burgess Magrath Endowment of Legal Medicine, and though she did not have any formal training, she was respected as an authority in what would later become forensic sciences.

However, it did not go unnoticed to Lee that students could seldom get any hands-on training, due to many factors, the main one being that few crime scenes of interest occurred when students were in training sessions. That caused her to create the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death. These death scenes in miniature were physical reenactments of baffling cases, set up meticulously so that students could study them and analyze the clues and evidence in the scene, and come to an appropriate conclusion. Some were suicides that looked like murders, accidents that looked like suicides and some were murders that the killers tried to make look like either suicides or murders. The goal was to encourage students to study and find all pertinent information the scenes provided. She held seminars using her miniature scenes as visual aids. She made it clear that it was not always necessary to find the cause of death, but rather the scenes were “exercises in observing and evaluating indirect evidence, especially that which may have medical evidence.”

The sheer amount of work that went into the Nutshell Studies, as well as Lee’s incredible attention to detail, astonishes me. All of her skills and knowledge were poured into the miniature scenes. Working from crime scene photographs, she would construct detailed scenes, filled with information – some relevant, some not. The models she created worked, in the sense that one could raise the blinds, a tiny mousetrap would spring, and the coffee pots were filled with coffee grounds. With her knowledge of interior design, Lee selected wallpaper and furnishings that matched the socio-economic and class structure of the victims in the studies. She agonized over the scale of everything, making endless adjustments until the entire scene was in perfect scale.

No less attention went into the dolls, representations of dead people. Stuffed carefully to ensure flexibility, clothing hand made (even down to Lee hand knitting silk stockings for the dolls), and posed with care, these dolls became macabre representations of terrible ends. Though Lee never felt as if her dolls looked realistic enough, she had no qualms about creating dolls that showed the extremes of violence and death.

Though Botz observes this in decidedly more eloquent prose, as I read the essay about Frances Glessner Lee, I could not help but think that her choice of life work was a huge middle finger extended towards her parents and society as a whole. Her parents refused to let her get a college education and taught her that she “shouldn’t know anything about the human body.” Yet she ended up in a career where she attended autopsies and created representations of terrible crime scenes. Better yet, her career brought her into close proximity with lots of attractive, unmarried young men, a situation that had to be satisfying to her even though most of them saw her as a maternal figure, sending her Mother’s Day cards. Once her parents were dead, Lee did not set back the clock and get the education she wanted, but rather used her inheritance to become involved in legal medicine, a subject of which her father heartily disapproved. Though some of her class prejudices showed up in her works – she was reluctant to show crime in upper class settings – her quiet assumption of a decidedly unfeminine career, as girlie as making dollhouse scenes may be, was a blow for her personal freedom as well as a chance to do that which interested her.

The book is primarily made up of photographs and information about the scenes Lee created. Each scene collection has a numbered picture at the end that shows all the various clues and information one should have gleaned from the scenes, as well as analysis of what one could potentially think of the information. For some of the scenes, at the end of the book is a sort of answer key, so one can see if what one saw in the scene had any relevance to a crime. It’s an interesting diversion for those of us interested in the macabre, looking at these scenes and trying to puzzle out what Lee wanted us to see, absorb and interpret.

See some of the pictures of Lee’s scenes under the jump. These are reenactments of crimes using dolls, but if you are of a sensitive nature, bear in mind that violence is depicted.

Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America by Stanley Burns, M.D.

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America

Author: Stanley Burns, M.D.

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Contains photographs of dead people, many children, from the turn of the 19th century and while beautiful, it is somewhat morbid. If you have an aversion to such photography, give this review a skip.

Type of Book: Photography

Availability: While I am unsure if this book is considered rare, per se, it only had two editions.  Mine is from the second edition.  Clearly, the first editions are far more expensive, but the second editions are pricey as well.  One can obtain a copy of either edition if one is willing to pay between $400-$1000 USD. Had The Strand not had a copy with a damaged book jacket selling for cheap, I would not have a copy. Amazon appears to be the best source for this book:

Comments: This book is one of my most prized books. I waited for almost a decade to be able to afford a copy, and even after I ordered it, I bit my nails until it arrived for fear that there was some mistake and they were going to notify me that I had been undercharged. Reading this book on loan from a library began my intense interest in memorial and death photography. It is one of those treasured books that I still cannot believe I own.

This book examines postmortem photography from 1840-1930. A practice that may seem morbid to some, death photography was actually quite common for those who could afford it. In a time when photography was still expensive, many times these photographs of the dead would be the sole picture people would have to remember their loved one, especially if the deceased was a child. The pictures in this book will often stay with those who have just glanced through it. After discussions online, there have been a number of times wherein people who could remember a particular image sent me messages asking me if I could provide details. One photo in particular, “The Murdered Parsons Family,” generates more messages than any other. The picture shows a father, a wife, and their three children, laid out on a bed like cord wood, bullet wounds visible on their faces and bodies. I think this is the most remembered picture because it plays into so many different modern fears. Home invasions, violent murder, children in danger. Many of the pictures in this book depict deaths that seem like they could no longer happen to affluent Americans. Emaciated babies and typhoid victims are thin on the ground these days. Kids dying from bullets are not. I think every person willing to have a look at this book will find a picture that will haunt them. Or, as was my case, many that will haunt them.

But most of the time we will have no real idea why certain photographs affect us other than the obvious pathos involved in looking at the dead. To this day I am not sure why I am so deeply interested in these photographs. Stanley Burns says in his preface, “Nineteenth-century Americans knew how to respond to these images. Today there is no culturally nominative response to postmortem photographs.” And that is why many of us, myself included, are awe-struck by these photographs, unable really to explain what we find so appealing and appalling about them.

Though many pictures in this book affected me, during the reading I did before writing this entree one photograph seemed to affect me the most. And bear in mind that I can on some level state intellectually what interested me in this photograph, there is likely a visceral response that I could never express.

This picture is quite striking to me. As Burns indicates in the notes for this picture, it is uncommon to see fathers posing with their dead children. More often than not, mothers posed, or the child was photographed alone.  That the father is the primary parent in this photograph is touching because it is so atypical.

Another poignant part of the picture is not immediately obvious, but if you look in the lower left hand corner, you will see the mother’s hand stabilizing the pillows that prop up her dead daughter.  That action was among one of the last things she could do to help capture the memory of her child, a little girl whose death took her far beyond the reach of a mother’s desire to nurture.

And my god, the little girl…  In many of the photographs in Burns’ book, the children look like they are sleeping.  But some look obviously dead, with bloody faces, severe emaciation, or evidence of disease on their still bodies.  This little girl straddles the line between sleeping and hard death.  As you look at her, you can tell there is something very off about her eyes and the pose she is in.  It looks like she is either beginning rigor mortis or leaving it.  But by not appearing that she is sleeping, and by not looking as horrible as some of the corpses in this book, she is in a netherworld where, to the casual viewer, it may not immediately be evident what is happening.

This and other pictures like it give lie to some of the ideas I have learned from history.   Many sources claim that until the time of American urbanization and complete industrialization, life was cheap and the lives of children even cheaper.   These sources claim that couples had many children not only to use as a labor force, but also to ensure that at least a couple survived to adulthood. Childhood was an unsentimental time because parents could not get attached to their children. The pictures in Sleeping Beauty make it clear that even when money was tight, when photography resources were limited, and even when life seemed cheap, it was never really quite that way.  People deeply mourned their dead, especially their children, and paid money to make sure that there was some evidence that a dead person existed beyond simply the memories of those who loved them.  This comforts me.  It tells me that human beings are often much the same no matter when they lived in history.   These pictures show me that life was not so cheap even when I assumed it was.

The book is filled with pictures like this, heartbreaking looks into the ways that parents handled the deaths of their children, but not all the pictures are of families. Badmen in their coffins, murder victims, as well as photos of memorial picture presentation in jewelry or watches. Hopefully, one day this book will be released for a third printing, making it somewhat more affordable for people to get their hands on a copy. It is truly a beautiful, haunting book.