Halloween 2017: The Seventh Victim

As always, assume this discussion (of a film over seventy-years-old!!!) contains spoilers.

Every Halloween I always promise to myself that I will watch all the old horror films that I feel I should have watched.  As a fan of the genre, I have watched precious few of the early horror films and even fewer of the 1960s and 1970s fare and am unable to hold my own in conversations about Hammer films.  But I have to confess that I can never get through older films with legends like, say, Boris Karloff or Vincent Price, without wishing I was in space with two robots sitting next to me.

It was a simpler time.  I know that. What frightened people eighty to ninety years ago is going to seem a bit quaint and possibly silly to a modern audience. I guess I am a result of growing up with John Carpenter’s Halloween films and the Friday the 13th and Hellraiser franchises, which are now cheesy in their own way, come to think of it.  So I’ve been looking for an old horror film I can watch without mockery and I came close with The Seventh Victim.

I learned about The Seventh Victim watching a documentary about horror films – it may have been Nightmare in Red, White and Blue but it’s been a while.  I filed it away mentally because it sounded interesting – the description of “a woman who dreams of death meets a woman desperate to live” or words to that effect plus a possible Satanic cult and of course I would eventually want to see this film.

Not sure where the “robbed of the will to love” part comes in…

It wasn’t entirely as described but it was still interesting.  Made in 1943, it presented a very calm and genteel look at human evil while using some tropes that I have come to associate with Hitchcock and Polanski. The femme fatale was surprisingly fragile, the teen sister looked like she was in her thirties, and all the men were sort of… dumb and/or sappy, but I think this film worked so well because it had elements of some of the more sophisticated horror movies, fare that genuinely unsettled me the first time I saw it.  Christopher Lee as a vampire and Boris Karloff as a mummy never scared me, even as a kid, but Janet Lee in a shower and a cabal of Satanists in a swanky New York apartment seeking their heir did.  Before I discuss this film, here’s a quick synopsis:

Mary Gibson, attending boarding school, finds out her older sister Jacqueline has gone missing.  Jacqueline is her only family and has not paid Mary’s school fees so Mary decides she needs to try to find her sister.  She travels to New York and discovers her sister had given away her cosmetic factory and salon to an employee called Esther Redi.  She manages to trace the man whom she ultimately learns to be Jacqueline’s husband, Gregory Ward, and with him and a very sketchy psychiatrist, whom I think was the same psychiatrist in Cat People, and a dopey poet they manage to find Jacqueline.  Jacqueline, who killed a private eye who was looking for her, is in hiding from both the law and a cabal of Satanists who think she has betrayed them by telling the psychiatrist, Dr. Judd, about them.  Only six people have crossed this cult before and all were killed, and Jacqueline is to be their seventh victim, giving us the title of the film.

Though some of the characters were hokey – seriously someone needed to punch the stupid poet – this short, melodramatic little film was pretty good.  Kim Hunter played Mary, the naive and innocent girl gone to the big city alone to find her sister. The terrible hair and fashion of the time made her look so much older than she was, but Hunter managed to pull off a neat balance between terrified virgin and intrepid girl scout on a mission.  She stays in New York, Gregory Ward helps her get a job, she takes a room over an Italian restaurant (called Dante’s) and is pretty resilient without being too plucky to be unendurable.

Early on, Mary is helped by a private detective who realizes that Jacqueline is being held in a locked room at her salon, and she accompanies the PI to the salon at night and is too terrified to open the door herself.  The PI reluctantly does it and she hovers in the shadows, frightened to her core, and later we learn that Jacqueline was indeed in that room and was convinced a member of the Satanic cult had come to kill her.  The PI drops to the floor, having been stabbed with a pair of scissors, and Mary runs away, leaving him there. Initially, this scene seemed off, but later I realize how well it worked because what was Mary to do?  He was dead, she couldn’t have removed him, and she had no idea how he came to be stabbed – was the killer still there?  The fear and flight were the right reactions.

Gregory Ward, played by Hugh Beaumont (yep, Mr. Ward later became Ward Cleaver), knows he is being cuckolded by Dr. Judd, but is so taken with Jacqueline’s exquisite beauty and cluster-B tendencies that he supports her even on the run, though when he finds out she is a killer he encourages her to turn herself in.  He also finds himself falling in love with Mary, probably because she is so uncomplicated.  He abetted Jacqueline’s craziness to a shocking degree, and she was nuts, no two ways about it.  Jacqueline was obsessed with death and suicide.  Because she was so interested in death, she rented a room – over Dante’s restaurant – and the only things in the room were a noose and a chair.  Gregory Ward kept up the rent on that room because he was besotted with what sounds like the mercurial nature of the personality disordered.

Interestingly, everyone felt Jacqueline was one of the most beautiful women they had ever seen.  When we finally meet her, it’s a hoot.  She’s a bog-standard proto-goth, down to the dyed-black hair and uneven baby bangs.  Her affect is utterly flat, she seems to get by on her quirkiness (death obsessed, continually telling charming lies, being the sort who would get in deep with Greenwich Village Satanists and then rat them out in therapy), and given that this film is ostensibly about finding her it matters very little when she is found.

Her hair proves how mysterious she is.

Dr. Judd, Gregory Ward, the poet whose name really doesn’t matter, and Mary finally track Jacqueline down and drag her back to Mary’s apartment to stay until Gregory can arrange a good time for her to turn herself in for killing the PI. But they don’t count on how intrepid the Satanists are.  They find Jacqueline and escort her to their lair, which is an apartment and filled with a cast of characters we met earlier during a party (the woman who owns the apartment has one arm, inexplicably), and give her poison to drink.

But this cabal of Satanists are civilized.  They will not kill her.  They will just pressure her to commit suicide unless she refuses and then, maybe, they will kill her.

Most civilized Satanic attempted murder ever!

Unsure why this cabal exists – they seem to just like having parties and talking about being bad while not actually being bad – but among them are Esther Redi and an extremely emotional hairdresser who worked for the salon Jacqueline owned.  When Jacqueline seems to be close to drinking the poison, the hairdresser loses it and breaks the glass and the cult sends sullen, affect-less Jacqueline on her way, only to follow her and try to kill her.  Jacqueline gets away, desperate to live, and races back to Mary’s apartment above the restaurant.

It is here that she encounters the dying woman who wants to live.  We had seen glimpses of Mimi, the coughing, dying wraith who lives in the building with the poet and Mary, but this is the first time she speaks.  Jacqueline, so paranoid she sees this sick woman and is fearful she is part of the cult, demands to know who she is, and Mimi explains that she is dying and that she is tired of being sick.  She wants to go out dancing and drinking and have fun, if only for one night, and then she might end it all.  She will only kill herself because she so wants to live and is sick of not enjoying life as she slowly dies from her illness.  Jacqueline, having refused to kill herself and having fought to remain alive, sees Mimi and rushes to her rented room and hangs herself.  Don’t ask me why.  Not the reaction I would have had. Conveniently her death clears the path for Mary and Gregory to be together, and Mimi does indeed dress up and have a lovely night on the town.

I was rather surprised by the way the Satanic cult was handled.  The cult called themselves Palladists – presumably a name that nods to Pallas Athena – and looked like a 1940s bridge tournament was being held.  The only one who seemed the least bit odd was the woman with one arm.  Otherwise they seemed perfectly normal, got up to little that was evil – killing only those who threatened the cult and adhering to non-violence whenever possible – yet operated in such secrecy that one was certain that some horrible stuff had to have gone down at some point.  One does not keep a 1940s exemplar of borderline personality disorder locked away in a room for months and later plan her death for squealing if one’s dopey cult does little more than hold interesting salon-style soirees and occasionally hail Satan.

You can tell they are evil because of the lighting.

The cult reminded me a bit of the Satanists in Rosemary’s Baby, another New York Satanic cult that would not have raised an eyebrow initially, consisting as it did of daft old ladies like Ruth Gordon.  Ultimately we saw what the cult that impregnated Rosemary Woodhouse was about, but in the 1940s I supposed filmmakers had less leeway to present Satanic evil to its fullest cinematic glory.  In a way, if you know real life Satanists, the vast majority likely live lives not dissimilar to the lives of the Greenwich Village Satanists in The Seventh Victim, hosting tea parties and discussing the human will.  Leave out the stalking and killing part and it was a surprisingly modern approach to Satanists.  But since the stalking and murder were a part of this cult, it definitely harked back to Rosemary’s Baby – those who are genuinely evil in your midst may be the last people you would suspect.

Then there was the shower scene.  Janet Leigh being stabbed to death in Psycho was more than fifteen years away from hitting the silver screen, but I’ve seen it, as have most horror fans, and that scene definitely colored how I viewed Mary’s shower scene.  Mary had gotten her hair done at the salon her sister once owned, and had pumped the hairdresser for information about Esther Redi.  Esther Redi finds out and goes to confront Mary.  Mary lives in a single room over Dante’s Restaurant, and shares a bathroom with other tenants.  She is in the shower, complete with shower cap to cover her freshly styled hair, when Esther Redi enters the bathroom, which presumably Mary forgot to lock.

We do not know much about this cabal of Satanists that Esther Redi belongs to, but it is never good when a young girl is caught at such a disadvantage.  The shower curtain is clear so we can vaguely see Mary’s essential outline from Esther’s perspective.  However, from Mary’s perspective, all we can see is Esther’s backlit shadow towering over her.  But thankfully the Palladists are, at their core, gentle Satanists and Esther simply warns Mary away.  But the menace was clear – Esther could get into the bathroom, and presumably into Mary’s room, and had no trouble sneaking up on the naive teen when she was at her most vulnerable.

The use of showers in horror films is a ringer – it’s almost too easy – young person, generally a woman, naked and defenseless, becomes an easy and titillating target for the killer/supernatural monster.  But I note that in mostbest shower scene in a horror movie lists,” the lists don’t include any films prior to 1960’s Psycho.  Did this shower scene in the 1940s cause viewers the same apprehension it did me?  Did that menacing silhouette have anything close to the same baggage then as it does post-Psycho?  As I went looking for stills to demonstrate the scene, I found this snippet of the film on YouTube. The person behind this account clearly felt the same way I did.

This was not a terrifying film, but there were enough modern signifiers – a death-obsessed woman whose appearance was a precursor to more modern female death junkies/manic-depressive dream girls, Satanists that were not goat and baby sacrificing lunatics and judicious use of shower-menace – that it set far better with me than early monster movies and seriously hokey Hammer films (god, I want to enjoy Hammer films but they are just so purple and over the top and it makes me feel like a crappy horror fan that I sort of recoil when I hear the names Christopher Lee or Ingrid Pitt).  I recommend watching it if you can find a copy.  It’s not too hard, because you can stream it from Amazon.

If you watch it, let me know what you think.  Feel free to make fun of me for not liking Hammer films.  I’m used to it.

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.

Every Cradle Is a Grave by Sarah Perry

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book:  Every Cradle Is a Grave:  Rethinking the Ethics of Birth and Suicide

Author:  Sarah Perry

Type of Book:  Non-fiction, philosophy

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd:  Pretty self-explanatory.

Availability:  Published by Nine Banded Books, you can get a copy here:

You can also order a copy directly from the publisher.

Comments:  Sarah Perry wrote this book from a place of philosophical intellectualism and factual integrity.  She exhaustively researched the hows and whys of suicide and procreation and makes a very compelling case for making suicide accessible for people who do not want to live and for considering whether or not it is ethical to continue to create new humans whose lives may be more a burden to them than a gift.  As she deftly picks apart the arguments against suicide and antinatalism, she bestows upon mankind a dignity and respect for self that anti-suicide and pro-birth crusaders deny us as we are asked to suffer and to mindlessly recreate ourselves because of tyrannies of tradition and religious mores.

I very much want to discuss this book in a bloodless manner because the subject matter is so fraught with emotional reaction, much of it knee-jerk, that makes the topic hard to discuss in an intelligent way.  When you speak to people whose loved ones killed themselves, you hear them speak of the cowardice and selfishness of suicide.  When you talk of people who did not have children, you all too often hear others dismiss ethical childlessness as selfish, or insist that if only one had a child, one would know, really know, what true love means.  To approach a counter to such topics with emotion is pissing in the wind because the very basis for avoiding suicide and encouraging procreation is steeped in emotion.

But given my personal history and recent events in my life, I can only approach these topics – especially suicide – from a place of emotion and personal anecdote.  I hope that as I write from my id I do this topic justice.  This book really is a paradigm changer, and you don’t have to adopt an antinatalist world view for that to happen.  It is a book that argues against some of the most deeply ingrained habits of human existence – to remain living at all costs and to spread one’s seed far and wide – and it makes the case that our reason and self-awareness are not entirely a great gift and that possession of them should permit us to control how we decide to die rather than be used as a manipulative tool to keep us living.

And there is no way to discuss the entirety of this book.  Know that I will be unable to discuss large amounts of this book and that you need to read it yourself.  All I can do is discuss what I experienced when reading this book and how it relates to my life.

The Plight House by Jason Hrivnak

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: The Plight House

Author: Jason Hrivnak

Type of Book: Fiction, experimental, borderline ergodic

Why Do I Consider This Odd: This book is a test to see what you know about the depths of human despair and it’s also a distraction you can use, reading it to the despairing one until he puts down the gun or she hands you the bottle of pills.

Availability: Published by Pedlar Press in 2009, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I have a strong feeling that this may be a book that requires a certain level of experience to understand. Of course, feelings of misplaced responsibility and grief are common enough, so I don’t want to discourage anyone from reading The Plight House. But I do think that unless you have tried to end your life or tried to prevent someone from ending his or her life, this may not have a certain resonance. I say all of this because, as I indicate above, this book is borderline ergodic. The way Hrivnak constructed his book forces you to interact with the text in a manner that forbids passivity and can defy understanding unless you are willing to work hard. The content is also so very specific and tied to an extremity of experience that could, for some readers, be alienating.

That having been said, I think you should read this book. This isn’t House of Leaves level ergodic. This is a book that can be completed in one sitting, if you don’t mind the feeling of being flayed now and then. But fair warning: this is definitely not a book for those who prefer linear narratives.

Brief synopsis: The protagonist met his friend Fiona when they were nine and they became inseparable. They created a strange otherworld they called the “Testing Range” wherein they created trials for the people they knew, trials that verged on torture but had a specific end and meaning. An untalented violinist who loves her music but is afraid of rats would be put in a cage full of rats for a night. If she survived, she would have the talent of a virtuoso for a year. At the end she would have to make the choice to expose herself to rats for even longer in exchange for another year of talent or she would lose her talent forever. The protagonist and Fiona create these trials for everyone around them. Fiona has a neurological condition but as she gets older she also seems like she has some sort of personality disorder. When Fiona’s family moves, the protagonist tries to keep in touch with her but eventually he can’t find much to say to her anymore.  They’ve become too different.

He attends college and gets a job but his friendship with Fiona has left him avoidant and near schizoid, craving solitude to the point that he lives his life in a darkened room, sleeping only to dream and waking only to record his dreams. He manages to hold a job but one day receives a letter from Fiona’s father. Fiona has broken into the grade school she had attended with the protagonist. She slashed her wrists and died. In her belongings, her father had found a page from the “Testing Range” notebook that she carried with her and he contacted the protagonist and asked him if he could explain what was written on the page. The protagonist, racked and wrecked with grief, decides to write The Plight House, a test for Fiona and a chance for him to achieve a sort of redemption in the face of crushing sorrow.

Using the magical thinking that we all engage in, the super-powerful what-if we practice when the unthinkable happens, the protagonist imagines what would have happened if only the Plight House had existed before Fiona made the decision to kill herself.

The Plight House is the missing element from the night Fiona broke into the school, its failure to appear there no different from the absence of a stolen property or a garment devoured by moths. I picture the manuscript sitting ready on a clean, well-lit desk, a batch of sharpened pencils at the side. I picture Fiona noticing it in the course of her wanderings and stepping cautiously into the light, aware of a twist in the game.

She would have understood within the first few pages that the test was not written by a doctor or a parent or, even, fundamentally, by a friend. And its coldness would have come as a great relief to her. I knew from the outset that the test’s chance of success would inhere in its refusal, first, to sing her back toward a world that she despised, and, second, to use guilt as a straitjacket. My only hope was to create a resonance , duplicating both in myself and in the text the particular frequency of despair that was driving her toward suicide. I’m not sure what, if anything, it would have meant to her to experience that resonance. But so long as she understood that she had been seen, and therefore accompanied, in that worst of all possible moments, I could have lived with her decision.

Of course, that’s not true. One does not write a book like the tests in The Plight House, an exercise to prevent the worst, if one is going to be sanguine if the worst actually does happen.

In fact, the final words of the last paragraph make it clear that the narrator means very much for this book to be used as a means to prevent the worst, with no eye to any other alternative but salvation and preservation.

If it becomes necessary to administer The Plight House, do so without apology and without expectation of thanks. Her tears of protest may rend your heart, but remember the alternative. She stands to lose everything, and so, therein, do you.

The synopsis and quotes I produce above are contained in the first 29 pages. That’s the only linear part of this book. Then the Plight House begins.

Odd and creepy stuff that is not book-related

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

I’ve been a bit busy lately. I know, that sounds weird to read because it is well known that I am the least busy person on the planet. If I run an errand, I need a nap and a diet soda upon waking. But since about December I’ve had a lot of energy. Lots of hobbies, errands, cooking, interacting with Mr. Oddbooks, and absolutely neurotic levels of cleaning have been going on. This burst of energy means my backlog of books to discuss is about to become not so backed or logged.

And it means I want to write here more, even when I don’t have book-related content. I will have book content Monday – a discussion of Wrath James White’s Population Zero – but until I post it, I want to discuss the music/noises I have been obsessed with lately. I’ve been resurrecting old writing of mine, looking at it and seeing if it is worth salvaging. Some of it is and one of the pieces I want to work on is deeply disturbing. When I work on disturbing stories, I cannot listen to my usual music. I find myself listening the most discordant, horrible sounds because my usual tastes may cause me to think of old friends, old activities and I end up reminiscing more than working. I need things that jangle my brain in an anonymous way.

Nothing I share below is new, though some of it is new to me. I’m sharing it anyway because I feel like sharing, dammit. And it’s not like this site is devoted to the latest in media anyway.

I’ve always been very interested in numbers stations. There’s just something very creepy and intense knowing that you may be listening to a coded order for a spy to kill an enemy agent or to take the cyanide pill. Yeah, none of that probably happened, but it’s still unnerving to listen to a form of communication and know you cannot now and will never know what was being communicated. So I’ve been listening to numbers stations recordings.

When that gets tiring, I listen to the Siberian Sounds of Hell. Anyone who has ever listened to Art Bell knows of them. Utter bunk, but distressing noise is distressing noise. I most often listen to a 20 minute loop of this I have on my computer, but this little video gives the “origin story” of these sounds.

And if you were an Art Bell junkie for any length of time, you probably already know of the call Art Bell got from a supposed frantic man who claimed to have worked at Area 51. Tool turned the call into a song called “Faaip De Oiad.” There’s something about this one that sort of messes with me if I listen to it long enough. I have absolutely no idea why.

Then there is this little gem. I found this one several pages back on a Google search for “horrible noise.” I’m not really into noise rock so that may explain why this has been out for two years and I never heard of it until recently. I play this one in a loop for hours as I think. And again, for whatever reason, there is something about this noise that is troubling to me. Much of the this song is distressing, especially the line, “Our bones won’t grow in the dirt.” That was enough on its own to be unsettling, but then I looked up the band and found this video. Now I associate all of the noise surges with screaming and the line about bones has a more sinister meaning. And then there’s the whole story in the video. Is the victim a girl or a boy? How long was he or she held in captivity, because the smeared make-up and dirty socks convey the idea of a lengthy abduction. The madman is in his underwear. Did the victim thwart a sexual attack and flee? Is the camera pan comparing the legs of the running victim and the madman telling us something? How about the manner in which the victim knew the exact place to hit the femoral artery? What does that tell us? Anything? Nothing? In a way this video encapsulates all that is amazing in story-telling – giving enough information to draw us in and leaving out enough so that we are forced to think. This one is gory as hell so if you are easily freaked out by such things, don’t watch.

I never really liked Aphex Twin but this was part of my background noise when writing long before I saw the video.

And then there is the always horrifying “Frankie Teardrop” by Suicide. The screaming, oh the screaming. The relentless drum machine. This is madness in the form of a song.

There’s more but six videos for one entry is more than enough, I think. Please share with me the music that helps you work, the music that terrifies you or the music that fills you with nauseated dread.

Suicide Girls in the Afterlife by Gina Ranalli

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Suicide Girls in the Afterlife

Author: Gina Ranalli

Type of Book: Bizarro, fiction, novella

Why I Consider This Book Odd: Ultimately, this was not such an odd book, but it is classified as bizarro and is published by Afterbirth Books, an imprint of Eraserhead. Since I review all my bizarro reads over here, this is where I decided this book should go.

Availability: You can get it here:

But obtaining this novella via The Bizarro Starter Kit (Orange) would be an infinitely better purchase. In this volume you not only get this book, but also novellas and short stories from other bizarros. Check out the kit here:

Comments: I found this book to be a sweet and charming read, but it was not what I expected and I find myself mostly lukewarm towards it. The premises – that basically every act of self-neglect, from overeating to failure to procure proper health insurance is suicide, that Heaven and Hell are under construction, and that there are levels of worthiness in Heaven – are not that bizarre. I suspect every college freshman has had a similar conversation. The idea of Satan as a goth and Jesus as a hippie are also… trite. God, I hate using that word, but there’s nothing new in the concepts and, in fact, they are common enough tropes that to see them in a bizarro book is jarring.

Okay, that’s fine, in a sense. Even in bizarro, there does not necessarily need to be something new under the sun. Bizarros retell iconic stories filtered through their own whacked-out lenses and they work more often than not. But this story was not grounded in the insane enough to forgive the various issues I had.

For example, if a book is bizarre and original enough in concept, I don’t mind if I don’t connect with the characters. I loved Jeremy Robert Johnson’s Extinction Journals, which I will review here soon. It was like nothing I have read before and the insanity of the concept was such that aside from some very shallow connections, there was no way to relate to the characters. Conversely, in some of Andersen Prunty’s short stories, the elements of magical realism in some of the pieces are mild, and some of the stories are just odd vignettes, but as tame as they can be compared to the mind of, say, Carlton Mellick III, they have an undercurrent of connection that permits the reader to relate to the characters, a pathos that bridges the gap between high weirdness and basic humanity. Ranalli comes very close to pulling this connection off in Suicide Girls in the Afterlife but ultimately, I didn’t feel it.

The protagonist, Pogue, committed suicide by electrocuting herself. She gets to the Afterlife and finds herself in a hotel until Heaven and Hell are no longer under construction. She is assigned a floor and the closer the floor is to the basement, Hell, the lower you are in the Afterlife’s hierarchy (purgatory is sandwiched between floors like John Cusack’s office in Being John Malkovich). Pogue meets another young suicide named Katina and within minutes of landing in Pogue’s room, they are bored and start exploring the hotel. One is not allowed to go to floors above one’s assigned room so they go down, with the help of a robot named Jane 62, meet denizens of lower floors, visit Hell, meet Satan, visit Heaven, and meet Jesus.

The book ends with the sort of conclusion that makes me a little nuts – was it all a dream, was it all a relativist examination of the human condition? Did Pogue not really die and was just having an electric brainstorm wherein she recreated all facets of herself into characters in her hallucination? Probably the latter and I just don’t like endings like that. This is a personal issue, I realize, but I’ve endured far too many books where such endings were cheap tricks to end that which is difficult to conclude. Others may vary wildly on this one but I cannot recall a single book I have read short of The Wizard of Oz, wherein “It was all a dream!” did not leave me feeling cheated.

There are brief moments of bizarro grotesqueness, like the shit tornados that sweep through hell and the man who is… well, committing acts of pedophilic necrophilia. There are moments of bizarro brilliance, like the food permitted on Pogue’s floor is all pie – Opera Pie, Rock Pie, and it makes a cacophony as you eat it, if you can take the noise.

But overall, the book just isn’t that odd and the story too shallow to make up for the lack of oddness. Seriously, you cannot go looking for plot holes in bizarro because you will find them. Seemless plots are not needed here, thank you. It is best just to wallow in the strangeness, the newness of ideas, the grossness of the story, the craziness of the narrative and characters. But you can’t do that in Suicide Girls in the Afterlife because the story does not employ enough true slipstream to enable you to get into the bizarro headspace that permits you to overlook plot issues and characterization problems. In bizarro, characters come and go senselessly at times, subplots dead end and the plots loop wildly, often not making sense and you overlook it because sense is not the point. In a story that has the sort of order assigned to it that this book does, as well as a narrative that is so grounded in popular imagination that it is essentially a retelling of Judeo-Christian mythos, random characters and plot issues stand out.

For example, the Salvadore who meets Pogue to escort her to the hotel? No idea what he was or who he was meant to be. Another character informs Pogue that Salvadore does not meet suicides as a rule, that he mainly escorts the rich white people who make up the upper echelons of Heaven, living on the top floors of the hotel. With his pencil thin mustache, I am reminded of Salvador Dali but I am unsure what connection to make from that. The hotel is too regimented and makes too much sense for a any surrealism to be at play. And why did he meet Pogue if he generally meets those from upper floors? No idea. And the character who explained it? In a throwaway line we are told she is really a cross dressing man. Why is this important? No idea. Jane 62 explains that there is not a Jane 61. I guess her name is just supposed to be… wacky? Inexplicable? Salvadore explains that those who are already in Heaven and Hell are fine, but the newcomers must stay in the hotel until renovations are complete. So why are Jesus and Satan there? Presumably they had a place in the old Heaven and Hell and do not need new accommodations. These are the sorts of plot issues that one should not have to think about in bizarro literature.

To address the characterization issues I had, Pogue and Katina are two of the most unlikely suicides I have ever read in print. Both are inquisitive, engaged, almost perky in their excitement to roam and discover what is what in the afterlife hotel. Why did Pogue commit suicide? We are only told she had her reasons. If there is a veil in the afterlife that wipes away the spiritual angst and misery that causes suicide, we are not informed of it. They are both fun to read about, however, one of the graces in this book, and that they both seem like restless, happy girls, neither carrying the cosmic burdens that suicide implies, is a problem.

And therein lies the problems I had with this book: Either the bizarre needs to be so outre that a personal connection is not needed and the awe and wonder at the world created overshadows the mundane needs for proper plot, or the mildly weird needs to make a connection with us, which requires it to make sense as well as probe certain universality of feeling. This book is neither fish nor fowl. It does not offer a paradigm amazing enough to suspend disbelief and it does not offer an odd conduit to real emotion. It is too normal for one, too shallow for the other.

Add to it that I read it in under two hours, and I suspect I cannot really recommend this book to anyone. That is not to say that I will not read Ranalli in the future. Far from it. I have read descriptions of the plot of Mother Puncher and it sounds crazy and dystopian enough that I hope it skirts the ho hum qualities of this book. Ranalli’s work is quite readable. Her prose is sound and in some places, a thing of beauty. That I found this book lacking did not reflect on the quality of the prose itself – she had very few clunker sentences and in a way, the fact that she can write well made disliking this all the worse. But this story simply did not work for me, given it’s brevity, the lack of unique plot, the problems with the plot and the seemingly inappropriate characterization.

Alice, the Sausage by Sophie Jabès

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Alice, the Sausage

Sophie Jabès, translated by Catherine Petit and Paul Buck

Why I Consider This Book Odd:
I initially heard about this book in the sadly ever-increasingly inactive LiveJournal community, Disturbing Books. (Check out the archives over there sometime.) It was every bit as insane and grotesque as I had been led to believe.

Type of work:

Published by Dedalus in 2007, this book is still in print. You can get a copy here:

: This book is a posthumanist hellhole. I say that with nothing but praise.

I could not have loved this book more. In an ocean of chicklit where women strive for beauty and true love at all costs, balancing careers and men and an oh-so-cute bumbling personality flaw, like overshopping or the tendency to be amusingly clumsy, Alice is an anti-heroine who completely destroys herself without ever looking back. Irrational, afraid, unable to see herself as she really is, she commits continual and irrevocable acts of mental and physical violence against herself until there is nothing left for her to do but commit the most lunatic act of degradation.

Alice begins this novella as a beautiful, aloof virgin until a visit with her father destroys her view of herself in a simple yet believable way. Her father tells her she is no Marilyn Monroe and that in order to get by in life she must be nice to men. Alice is lovely, and the reader never really knows why her father says this to her, but those words, uttered distractedly and likely with no greater goal behind them than unthinking misogyny, destroy her sense of self utterly. They create a chasm within Alice that she begins to fill with food, eating ravenously.

Seeking help and comfort, Alice turns to her mother, who is of no help. A vain woman clinging to youth, she dismisses Alice, telling her that as long as she removes all her body hair and doesn’t starve herself, she will be okay. Reeling, and still eating, Alice acts nice to men as her father instructs her, and picks up the first man who really responds to her. She has sex with him, inviting him to visit her the next day. He does return, has sex with her again, and leaves her money, creating a path Alice merrily skips down to her own destruction. She loses her job as a librarian and becomes a full-time whore.

Alice incorporates food and the obviously oral into her acts of prostitution, making the “ice cream cornet” the act that distinguishes her from other prostitutes. I’ll let the reader draw his or her own conclusions as to what an ice cream cornet as a sexual act entails. Alice incorporates food into her sex job, using the money to do nothing more than keep a roof over her head and food in her home.

Alice’s life degenerates. She still takes care of herself in the manner recommended by her mother – eating and removing body hair – but she sleeps all day when she is not performing sex acts, stops cleaning, becomes super-obese, and becomes so repellent that eventually her clients include only an elderly man who wants to take Alice away from her dank, unpleasant life, and a set of good-looking twins who escaped from an insane asylum, Fulvio and Flavio. She sexually services the twins and feeds them even though they have no money to pay her. When her mother steals the elderly client and runs off with him, Alice is left with only the twins, no source of income, and decides to sacrifice herself to crazy love. Eating until she can barely move, Alice plots her end. While I won’t spoil the ending entirely, the title alone should give it away.

The book, while disgusting to the extreme in sections, is also beguiling in its descriptions of the foods Alice crams into herself. The book even contains a glossary at the end so that the reader knows exactly what Italian delicacies it is Alice consumes. Pastas, pizzas, cheeses, sweets – the reader is tempted to join Alice in her consumption, as dark as we know the end will be if we do. But it is impossible not to be affected by the litany of foods recited in the book, making Alice’s end, though utterly insane, seem just a little bit attractive.

There is no hope in Alice’s transformation into something not quite human. She does transform, but in a horrible way, one without any hope in the future. Alice forces the reader to look hard at what it means to be a human being and how being human can go so terribly, terribly wrong. I am skirting the feminist issues raised in the book because they simply don’t interest me as much as the idea that Alice can only escape negative forces by becoming a monster and eradicating herself. It is hard to say if she has free will to become what she does and to do what she does, but the reader at times understands that Alice is in fact in control of her destiny, that she chooses the horrific life she assumes. In complete contradiction to the idea that humanity instinctively chooses life affirming activities and strives for happiness, Alice embraces disgusting, destructive forces she cannot control and that no one seems willing to save her from. At the end, it is difficult to see that Alice is still a human being, and indeed, she is so inanimate and passive that she does not seem human to the reader at times, her motivations and self-destruction foreign to all except the most mentally ill or nihilistic among us. Alice doesn’t even redefine what it means to be a human female in a difficult world. She simply gives in to a basic, gnawing, insecure atavism that renders her humanity worthless.

Posthumanist hellhole. I love this book. It makes up for every fey, twee, charming little bit of girlie-fic I have ever read. For once, beauty, the right clothes, a clever but plain girlfriend, and the love of a good man cannot save the heroine. For once, disaster is not averted. For once, there is no heart warming end to the book that begins with a gorgeous blonde with an excellent career picking out the right clothes to wear while waiting for Mr. Right. It feels good.