What the Hell Did I Just Read

whatthehellI have a few friends who like their comedy, horror, fantasy, sci-fi, whatever in nice little boxes so they know exactly what they’re getting before they start reading. I get why they like that, and that’s fine for them, but I love my genres to mix. Just throw them all in the same box, shake them around a bit, and see what Frankenstein hybrid stories you can tell. I like not knowing what I’m in for.

That’s what attracted me to David Wong in the first place–with all the comedy, horror, sci-fi, and serious drama mashed together I never knew what was coming next. But sadly, I’m starting to figure it out. What the Hell Did I Just Read is the third book in the Dave and John series and I loved it, but I wasn’t quite as enthralled. It was still funny and sometimes horrific, but not quite as mind-bending the third time around.

What I did love, though, was that Dave and John are based on real people. Literally, on the author and his best friend growing up. This makes the goofy heroes of the story also incredibly normal and sympathetic, with realistic insecurities and ambitions and drinking problems. That real human drama is still compelling and sometimes very sad and frustrating, especially as the books follow their characters into the long and complicated years of full adulthood.

David Wong is still one of my favorite authors, right up there with my more acceptably “litarary” faves.* I wonder, though, if Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits ruined me for John and Dave. Less utterly confusing, but more tense and mysterious. Who knows? Only time and several sequels will tell. violence

*For context, I was a literature major. This year’s Nobel Prize for literature went to Kazuo Ishiguro, and though I’ve read at least three of his novels, I was secretly hoping Murakami would finally get picked. I know all this because I’m a bona fide lit nerd. But I try not to be a lit snob. 😉

Book: Working Stiff

working stiffI just finished Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner, by Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell. Melinek is the Medical Examiner, Mitchell is her husband who knows how to write. 🙂 I loved the book, but parts were hard to read. You can imagine a medical examiner’s job is hard sometimes, and Melinek doesn’t hold much back. This book is great, but not for everyone.

I’m up for almost any true story and most fictional ones, no matter how sad or weird or gruesome. Believe it or not, it’s not a morbid streak. It’s more that I think all stories should be told, even the dark and sad ones. Every true story should have witnesses, and we can listen and learn from everything. Many people, even darkly inclined people, shy away from stuff like this, and I’ve always had a weird compulsion to make up for that by looking even more at the dark and the sad and the weird and trying harder to learn something from it, to understand the world better and be a better person because of it.

Which is how I end up reading about autopsies. In vivid detail. Not everyone wants to read about this stuff, so I won’t go into specifics, but if you’re good with bodies and decay and hearing about traumatic death this is a fascinating book. Melinek shares her forensic expertise without losing (in my opinion) her compassion for the dead and for the living they leave behind. She’s honest about her personal feelings and about sometimes being jaded or tired or judgmental, as well as having a real respect for the forensic process and the people she deals with at one of the worst times in their lives.

This book didn’t really give me deep thoughts about life and death. Instead it made me think of all the people who deal with death every day so that you and I don’t have to, and how important and thankless that work can be.

Most of the book, and most of Melinek’s job, was ordinary death. Illness, medical complications, accidents, suicide, drug overdose. There are so many ways to die, and each body tells a story if you know how to read it. These stories were sometimes gross (decomposition doesn’t sound pretty), once or twice funny, and always full of interesting medical facts. For most of the book I was able to put myself in the doctor’s shoes and read about strap muscles and vital reaction with a scientist’s detached interest. There were moments, though, when the sad stories behind those clinical details were hard to read, just as they seemed hard for the doctor to put aside as she did her work.

The hardest parts to read were near the end. A couple of the murders she described really tugged at my heartstrings, but Melinek’s description of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and her office’s exhausting efforts to identify remains and give families some certainty about their loved ones had me bawling. I was states away during the attacks and didn’t know anyone personally involved, and though I followed the news like everyone else it didn’t really cover the awful details people like Melinek had to process every day for weeks. It brought back memories while really bringing home sorrows I’d never even thought of. With more recent European terrorism and U.S. disasters in mind, it made for some tough reading and dark thoughts.

Like I said, this kind of reading is not for everyone. That kind of job is not for everyone. But I’m glad there are people who can do it, speaking for the dead and doing what they can to help the living cope with death. I hope this book inspires a few others to continue the work, and I hope understanding the detailed human cost of violence, all the pain it causes for everyone involved, helps push humanity toward more peace and compassion.

 

Reading about Death: Two Books

First Book: Smoke Gets in your Eyes, by Caitlin Doughty

I liked Ask a Mortician so much I read Caitlin’s book. It’s an easy read as long as you’re not too squeamish about dead bodies. If you are squeamish about dead bodies it’s a harder read, but still worth it. It’s not just a sensational memoir. There are a lot of ‘work stories’ about cremation and embalming, interspersed with historical and philosophical thoughts about death and our relationship to it.

Her basic point is that Americans (and probably many other Western nations) have hidden away and sanitized the death process too much and have sort of lost our way because of it. She wants people to be prepared for death and thoughtful about it instead of terrified or in denial, and I think the detailed stories of body pick-ups, cremations, and enbalmings work for that purpose. Some people could see them as sensational or disrespectful, but I saw them as demystifying death and dead bodies. I appreciated the honesty.

I enjoyed the historical stories and appreciate her philosophy on “the good death,” one planned for and done with dignity. I didn’t agree with her on every detail, but I came away from the book with a lot to think about and a hope that Caitlin’s work will get more people to think about death in a new light.

Second Book: Dead Mountain: the Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident, by Donnie Eichar

I’ve always been interested in creepy historical stuff–unsolved mysteries, unexplained events, legends of ghosts and monsters–so I’d read about Dyatlov Pass before. to put it super briefly, in 1959 a group of hikers/mountaineers attempted a difficult winter trip and died. It was obvious from the start that they left their tent without proper clothing and died of exposure, but no one could figure out why they left their tent without proper clothing. It’s all very mysterious.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Donnie jumps back and forth between the hikers’ journey, the investigation of their deaths, and his own trips to Russia to see the mountain pass for himself and meet people involved in the case. The suspense builds nicely and I got both a good sense of the Dyatlov group and a taste of Soviet society at the time. There’s a lot of detail about the Incident and its aftermath and a solid discussion of various theories put forth over the years, but the whole book still feels like an interesting story about people instead of a catalog of facts. It’s very well done.

I’m being purposely vague about the details because I don’t want to ruin the fun of the book, but Donnie ends with the most satisfying theory I’ve yet heard about the Incident. It’s unproven but testable, and I hope someone gets the money and time to do it one day.

Ghostland

Thanks to Septicemia’s post, I’ve been watching Ask a Mortician all afternoon. When I got to the episode on Open Eye Wakes and Body Farms, she plugged a friend’s book and I realized that Hot Damn I Read That One! We’re kindred spirits!
ghostland.jpg
I read Ghostland: an American History in Haunted Places last October, before I started this blog, so I didn’t think to write about it. I loved it, though, so I’m writing about it now. A lot of “haunted America” type books are just story collections, and while I like that, I loved that this book was so much more. It discusses what kinds of ghost stories we tell and why we tell them. It’s less ‘history of ghosts’ and more ‘how we use ghosts stories to deal with our history.’

It’s not a dry-but-thorough examination of American hauntings, but more a series of musings about famously haunted places and what the stories tell us about their history. It was a relaxing pre-Halloween read, and especially good for those who like a spooky atmosphere without too much blood and gore. Be warned, though, that it does have some discussion of slavery, and slavery is always hard to stomach.

If you know and like U.S. history and culture at all, this book is a fresh and interesting way of looking at it. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to get beyond the stories and look at why we tell them in the first place.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Summer always puts me in a Southern Gothic mood. Southern Gothic isn’t exactly goth, but the American deep south is full of beautiful cemetaries, haunted plantation houses, and its own special brand of spooky horror. In all this heat, it’s just hard to concentrate on windswept moors and drafty castles. For summer, give me overgrown cemeteries, farmhouses full of tragic ghosts, and Southern belles wilting in the sultry August evening.

I finished Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil a few weeks ago. (There’s also a movie version I saw long ago in my Kevin Spacey phase.) It’s sort of a “Southern gothic meets true crime” thing and it’s not written by a southerner so it didn’t quite work for me. But it did make me really want to see Savannah, Georgia. Next time I have money I just might take a long weekend, tour Mercer House, stroll through Bonaventure Cemetery, and read my next gothic novel under a tree in one of Savannah’s beautiful squares.

 

The Darkling Tag

Ooh, this one looks so fun! I read it on Septicemia’s blog and the Mad Magpie  and just had to copy them join in. I’ve been a bit down today and this (plus the lovely clouds outside) ought to cheer me right up.

  1. What is your favorite candle scent? Scented candles give my husband migraines, so officially my favorite is unscented. Unofficially, I like evergreen.
  2. Do you have a favorite book? Not just one, no. Don’t be silly. But I love Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits a whole lot. I tend to go through phases with authors, so I guess this is my David Wong phase. I had a Kurt Vonnegut phase in high school, a Haruki Murakami phase in and after college, a Roddy Doyle phase around the same time. I had a brief Shirley Jackson phase a few years ago. I never really grew out of my Neil Gaiman phase . . . I could go on, but there are a lot more questions to be answered.
  3. Are you a tea or coffee person? Coffee with real half-and-half and NO SUGAR! Or peppermint tea if I’m sad or sick.
  4. What is your favorite brand and color of lipstick? Currently, Maybelline Vivid Matte Liquid in Red Punch. Kind of a scabby brick red that stays on well.
  5. What is your favorite perfume or cologne? Same problem as scented candles, so none. My conditioner smells like rosemary and mint, but that’s as good as I can smell without getting divorced. 😦
  6. Do you have a celebrity crush? Nope. Not really.
  7. If you had to give up the color black, what color would you choose instead? To decorate my house I’d choose red. Red, red, red. To wear I’d probably choose gray. Does gray count? If gray doesn’t count I’d probably choose red to wear, too.
  8. If you could change your name to a stereotypical 1990s/2000s goth name, what would it be? The gothic name generator gave me Entropy Striker, which is better than anything I ever came up with. I’m embarrassed to admit that I really had a cheesy goth name in the late ’90s, online at least. Once upon a time I was Shards of Glass. So dark!
  9. What are your top three tips for surviving hot weather while black clad? Billowy dresses, thin fabrics, and air conditioning. It gets to 100 degrees F (38 C) here pretty regularly, so I try to just stay in during the day and early evening.
  10. What song will always make you happy (doesn’t have to be a goth band)? Shreikback’s Nemesis does a pretty good job. I also secretly love the B-52s when I’m down.
  11. Are you active in the arts (ex. play and instrument, paint, write, etc.)? Not particularly. I write decently when I get around to it. I crochet and knit and I can sew a tiny bit.
  12. If you had a teacup/mug inscribed just for you, what would it say? It would say “We’re all mad here,” like the Cheshire Cat.
  13. What is your number one non-gothy hobby? I’m a really good cook. I love to look at cooking magazines and try new recipes.
  14. If you could be a supernatural creature, what would you be and why? This is a tough one, they’re all so cool. A sexy-but-deadly succubus. Or a cruel but beautiful fairy queen.
  15. What horror monster-based power would you have? I’d like to hypnotize people with my eyes the way Dracula does. That would be cool.
  16. Do you feel confident or comfortable interacting with other goths/gothy people? I have the same problems with everyone. I think there are goths like, an hour away from me but I’ve never bothered to find out for sure.
  17. Which is more important for a look: great hair or great makeup? I’m not great with either, but I admire people with great hair.
  18. Is there something you wish there was more of in your subculture? Book clubs. 🙂 That would make me finish rereading Wuthering Heights. But seriously, goths should take a cue from regular geeks–just relax and be more open.
  19. Care to share an embarrassing story relating to your “darkliness”? Isn’t it enough that I told you my ’90’s “goth name”? I’m almost sorry now that my website of dark poems no longer exists–I was such a goth cliche for a while.
  20. How are you at DIY? Not good. That’s why I save money and pay people on Etsy to DIY for me.
  21. Quickly describe your ideal wedding: If we could do it all over again we’d probably do the actual marriage as simply as possible, then throw a casual party afterward. Preferably a Halloween party.

True or False:

  • I love watching cheesy romance films: No I do not. Unless there are vampires involved.
  • I ALWAYS remember to wash off my makeup at night: Yes, I really do.
  • I sleep with plushies: Technically true. I have a Darth Vader tsum tsum I use as an arm pillow.
  • I wear non-black pjs most nights: False
  • I still listen to a boy band that had disbanded years ago: False. I’ll bite anyone who suggests differently.
  • I think Andrew Eldritch is overrated: False. Andrew Eldritch is correctly rated as pretty awesome.
  • I don’t like vampires: False
  • I don’t like clubs: True. Too old, don’t care.
  • I’m dating a goth/darkly-inclined person: False. I’m married to a total nerd.
  • I don’t enjoy graveyards: False. Graveyards are nice.
  • Blood makes me queasy: Mostly false
  • I’d sooner faint than pet a spider: True. I love looking but don’t want to touch.
  • I don’t like haunted houses: Like, actually haunted or commercial? We have a ton of Spook Alleys here and I just don’t care about them anymore. But actual historical haunted houses, those are cool.
  • I still browse Hot Topic’s clearance racks: Haven’t set foot in a Hot Topic for at least 10 years.
  • I’ve never read Dracula:  False. I’m up on my gothic classics.
  • I think “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” is a long & boring song: True. Sorry. It’s fun to dance to, but I wouldn’t just sit and listen to it.

alice

 

The Poe Toaster

Edgar_Allan_Poe_daguerreotype_crop
E. A. Poe, public domain via Wikipedia

Edgar Allan Poe is sort of the quintessential goth author. Not only did he write dark, romantic poetry and horror that holds up even today, but he also had a dark and tragic life and mysterious death. Talk about the whole gothic package.  Of course, some of his dark reputation is total slander, and some of his works have not worn well. (He may be the grandfather of sci fi, but his child has grown way beyond him.) But his writing style and his sheer inventiveness have left their mark not just on goths the world over, but on more general literary history as well.

I’ve read (more than) my fair share of Poe, but growing up it never occurred to me to carry him around for “goth points” or anything like that. I partly grew up about 20 minutes outside of Baltimore, a city so into Poe that we named our football team the Ravens. And dressed them in purple and black uniforms, because spooky. Where I grew up, it was weird if you didn’t read Poe for fun at least on Halloween.

Edgar Allan Poe isn’t really from Baltimore, but he died and was buried there so the city claims the hell out of him. He’s kind of got two headstones actually, both in the same churchyard. Poe’s grave was originally unmarked and not well tended, and eventually that sadness was kind of overcorrected–there’s a proper headstone at his grave and also a rather large monument stone at the corner of the churchyard.

poetoaster
Poe Toaster, from Life Magazine. I think. 

The corner memorial was partly paid for by schoolchildren collecting pennies, and people still throw pennies in memory. But the more famous tradition is the Poe Toaster, who used to visit the grave on Poe’s birthday every year, toasting him with cognac and leaving three roses and the cognac’s remains in salute to the author. The original Toaster remains a mystery, and he (or his son–the tradition lasted a good 75 years) quit coming in 2010, but the Maryland Historical Society has recently started a sort of annual Poe Toaster reenactment.

I’ve been to Poe’s grave exactly once, ages ago, when my sister was sick in the hospital across the street. Appropriately sad circumstances for paying Poe a visit. My sister still lives near there and I’m planning to visit in June, so it might be time to once again pay my respects.

EdgarAllanPoeGrave
Public Domain, Andrew Horne via Wikipedia

Lit Class with Spooky Schoolmarm, plus Fashion Challenge Day 10

IMG_3649Day 10 is a special item of clothing. I don’t get all that attached to my clothes. This Nightmare Before Christmas scarf is the most special thing I could think of–I like the movie fine, but more than that I love Disney Halloween Time. I’ve only been twice–once for Mr. Robot’s and my anniversary and once last year with the kids, which is when I bought this scarf.

And now for something completely different:

Since finishing Frankenstein I’ve been thinking about all the lit classes I’ve taken, all the dark genres out there to explore, all the great stories and authors I read only because some teacher made me. I don’t have time to reread them all, but I thought I’d take time to reminisce. Here are a few unexpected treasures from my school days.

  1. Shirley Jackson–she’s popular already with goths for The Haunting of Hill House, which has been made and remade, so I would have heard of her eventually. But my first taste of Jackson was The Lottery. My teacher made me read it, and I was too young to really understand it at the time, but that story’s the reason I went back to Jackson later. The Haunting is good, but I prefer We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
  2. Dorris Lessing–Lessing isn’t a gothic or darkly romantic writer at all. I had to read her in high school but I didn’t remember much but her name and her nice writing style when I picked up The Fifth Child looking for summer reading. I was not expecting subtle horror and fairy tale elements or the heartwrenching portrayal of mental health issues, but that’s what the book delivered. It only resonates more as I get older.
  3. Nathaniel Hawthorne–I’m haunted by an internet argument I once had about Hawthorne’s deep, dark genius. I was and still am of the opinion that some of his genius was totally unintended. Hawthorne wrote some great stuff–The Scarlet Letter and the House of Seven Gables were quite good, and Rappaccini’s Daughter is exactly as amazing as my internet opponent thought it was. But people tend not to read the complete works of Nathaniel Hawthorne because some of his works were really not good. He wrote an entire book of badly Christianized Greek myths for pete’s sake. His major theme was the evil within us that must be overcome, and sometimes that made for deep explorations of the human soul, but sometimes that made for boring morality tales. Still, when Hawthorne’s good, he’s really good.

I have no idea whether that was fun for you, but it was fun for me. Did you read and like any of these? Got any other dark-but-not-goth favorites I should add to my long, long list? Things you had to read for school that you didn’t appreciate until later?

 

Frankenstein and Channel Zero

I finally finished Frankenstein. It was no Wuthering Heights, but it was good. A lot of the themes wear well–the inhumanity of humanity, Dr. Frankenstein’s infuriating refusal to see his responsibility for this mess, the ups and downs of pushing science past its limits–those ideas and more are still compelling after all this time. The vagueness of the actual science wears less well, and I just couldn’t get behind the Monster learning French and pondering the nuances of Paradise Lost just by listening really hard. But this is forgivable. You don’t read Shelley or Poe for their scientific prescience.

You can’t really recommend or fail to recommend such a classic, so instead I’ll say this: it’s about as exciting-yet-flawed as Stoker’s Dracula, more focused than Ann Radcliffe’s work (but less focused than Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or The Invisible Man), and not as romantic and full of atmosphere as Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. If you’re really into the foundations of goth you’re either already read it or really ought to. I can’t believe it took me so long to get to this.

And now, out of the past and into the TV present. While I was sick I found time to watch Channel Zero season one and I mostly liked it. Since this is a fairly recent show instead of a classic of Western Horror, I won’t spoil it with too many details. If you like creepypasta you’re probably familiar with the Candle Cove storyline, and for the most part the show did a great job with it. That tooth child (you may have seen it in the trailers) and various Candle Cove puppets are suitably creepy and the plot is interesting. I was totally sold for the first 4 episodes or so, and after that there were some hiccups but I still enjoyed it. Definitely worth a look if you like quirky, atmospheric horror.

Assorted Entertainments (Part 2)

As usual, one of my kids brought home germs and gave them right to me. She has terrible timing–I got sick right when our schedule got extra busy for a week or so–and without time to rest it took a while to recover.

So mostly I’ve been finishing some horror novels and spent a precious few hours of rest time binge watching the Santa Clarita Diet on Netflix. It was a fun show, by the way. I liked it for the same reason I loved Shaun of the Dead. They both set ordinary relationship issues against a fun background of blood and guts, and they both pull it off well. It might be hard for a second season to keep the right balance, what with TV shows always having to increase the drama to keep people watching, but I enjoyed this first season.

I also read The Red Queen (sequel to Alice) this week. It was short and very easy reading, but not as compelling as the first book. The first one, while hurtling toward a certain conclusion, had a real sense of growth for Alice. The second one talked a lot about continuing that growth, but action-wise Alice felt very much like a pawn. I know this is meant to mirror the chess game aspect of the original Through the Looking Glass, but it didn’t work for me. In the end, Alice comes into her own power and symbolically becomes a queen in her own right, but the way it was written didn’t really convey that. There were still no real choices for her to make, and it felt like Alice never really escaped being a pawn.

A week or so ago I finished but didn’t mention Broken Monsters, by Lauren Beukes. I liked it but didn’t love it. The basic plot, about dreams (nightmares maybe) trying to manifest in the waking world, was wonderful. Those parts of the book were grotesque and beautiful. They got lost a bit, though, in the long backstories of every character. I think the backstories were supposed to slowly explain each character’s role in bringing the nightmare to life (or ultimately, not), but they didn’t all fit in the end and some of them seemed unnecessary. The author seemed to have many themes she wanted to explore and they didn’t all fit into one coherent storyline. It’s a shame, because the main thread was perfect.

Now I’m getting around to Frankenstein, the one glaring gap in my classic horror knowledge. I suspect it’ll take longer than the books I’ve breezed through recently. I’ve love to hear what you’ve all been up to lately.