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. ūüôā 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.

Bone Records

Someday, when I have more money to spend, I would love to collect Roentgenizden, or bone records.

For quite a while after World War II, the Soviet Union had a black market record trade. A whole host of songs and musicians, even homegrown Soviet songs and musicians, were banned for various reasons, so people had to pass the music among themselves. Record players could be put together at home, but vinyl for pressing records was much harder to come by, so creative music lovers used x-ray plates instead. They called them bone records, or ribs, or Roentgenizden (after Wilhelm Roentgen, who discovered x-rays), and they’re beautiful. I love the haunting images x-rays produce, and I love the history and the dedication to music behind bone records.

Unfortunately, after all this time they’re also a bit rare and expensive. You can find them on eBay but they’ll cost you quite a bit. I doubt they’ll get any cheaper, since there’s now a¬†book¬†(available used) on bone records and a documentary going around the international film festivals as we speak.

 

I just got the book in the mail but I haven’t sat down to read it yet. It’s part coffee table book and part history of bone records. I’m excited to get into it.

How about all of you? Is there something you’d love to collect that you just can’t afford? Would you buy a bone record if you could? I have an x-ray of my kid’s broken arm but I think she’d be mad if I turned it into art. It’s not her fondest memory.

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.

Day 23: My Lucky Bracelet

A couple years ago my friend Tammy went on a Mediterranean cruise and was nice enough to bring me some souvenirs, including this bracelet from Turkey. It’s supposed to protect me from the Evil Eye. I’ve had reasonably decent luck since then so it must be working, right?

You’ll notice it has a little elephant charm, which my mom would consider bonus good luck. She always had a small collection of lucky elephants, all with their trunks pointed up “so the luck won’t run out.”

I don’t much believe in lucky talismans but I am lucky to have good friends who bring me pretty things.

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

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.

Inspiration: Art Deco

For many of us goth lasts a lifetime, but there aren’t a whole lot of sites and shops for the not-so-gracefully aging (fat, not an hourglass) goth. It’s not just the size issue, though. It’s also that as I get older I have less time and energy for extreme or fussy fashion and more money for good fabrics and interesting home decor, and dedicated goth shops are often short on those. I still have fun looking at all the youth-driven stuff, especially cybergoth and gothic lolita and dark mori, but when I’m looking to buy I often look elsewhere for inspiration.

Lately I’ve been all about Art Deco. In some ways it’s the opposite of the dark medeival castles and ornate Victorian fashion and decor goth usually draws inspiration from, but it’s not such a crazy connection. The dark woods, rich greens and reds, and Egyptian accents of Art Deco decor goth up pretty easily. And in the U.S., the Art Deco period (mostly the 1920s) is also the era of Old Hollywood and famous Prohibition gangsters so it has a certain decadent, dangerous aura I’ve always liked.

The wide open spaces and geometric styling aren’t so common in modern goth decor, and I don’t see a lot of goths running around in flapper dresses and pearls, but there’s a lot to like in Art Deco. Plus, there are a lot of haunted and abandoned Art Deco era buildings these days, so goth points there. ¬†It’s always been a popular and “grown up” style, so it’s not hard to find good ideas and quality products inspired by this era.

How about you? Does Art Deco do it for you or leave you cold? What are your unusual inspirations?

 

Demon Fear

exorcistWhen I was a little kid, Satan was everywhere. Back in the ’80s, religious Americans saw Evil everywhere. Hidden messages on heavy metal albums led kids to Satanism. Dungeons & Dragons led kids to Satanism. Everyone had a friend-of-a-friend haunted by a ouija board. According to many conservatives, Satanic cults were everywhere preying on children, tearing apart the very fabric of society. And that’s just scratching the surface of ’80s paranoia. I haven’t even mentioned the Cold War or the many stories (many untrue) about razor blades and poison hidden in Halloween treats. It was a wild time.

Compared to a lot of middle Americans my parents were pretty sensible. My dad was a huge Tolkien fan so he rightly saw D&D as harmless fantasy instead of a portal to Satan, and while our parents didn’t like most of our music and fashion choices they didn’t put a lot of limits on us. They were (and still are) devoutly religious, though, and they more or less believed in a real Satanic force that could haunt and possess people. “Personal experiences” of possession and haunting floated around our congregation.*¬†pinhead

No wonder I turned out the way I did–I grew up in a world full of demons and ghosts and monsters. I was always fascinated but I didn’t always love them. For a long time I was terrified. If those things were real, they were more powerful than I could imagine and I would be at their mercy. It was only near the end of high school, once I was pretty sure Satan wasn’t hiding in my closet, that I let myself really explore the world of horror.

All that demon fear gave me a late start on the road to where I am today, but it also gave me a deeper and different knowledge of darkness and a better understanding of those who fear it. I may not have been goth from the cradle, but I grew up in a gothic world.

satanic-panic

*I grew up Mormon. Not mainstream Christian, but Christian enough to fear Satan. Mormons don’t practice exorcism in any official way, but they would perform special prayers to bless and heal you if you were afflicted by Satan. I’m sure this still happens occasionally in the church but possession stories became more rare once the ’80s panics died down.