Judge A Book By Its Cover.

Using the guy from Hellraiser for Douglas Cowan’s Sacred Terror was an interesting choice. They put him in front of a stained glass window, making him look sort of priestly. In fact there was a minister at a Presbyterian church my parents once took me to who looked a lot like that, but that’s another story. Honestly, though, why that guy? Why not a scene from The Exorcist or The Omen? And if those were too expensive, why not a scene from the remake of The Exoricst, or The Omen, both of which tanked at the box office?

For that matter, why didn’t they call the book Holy Terror? That seems like it would fit a lot better.

Book ‘Em: The Call Of The Wild.

A book about werewolves isn’t an unusual thing. Even a book about werewolves forming gangs–deadly gangs–and roaming Los Angeles wouldn’t be that unusual, but Toby Barlow‘s debut novel Sharp Teeth takes it to a whole new level. It’s in poetic free verse, the white space across the pages being an open pit for the imagination as blood saturates large sections of the story. Not really descendants of ancient lycanthropes, the werewolves that fight and run across southern California in this book do carry on ancient, for lack of a better term, bloodlines. And while one gang, headed by a former young lawyer, rakes in cash, another takes out drug labs as part of a larger, more mysterious plot. And on the periphery of all this is Anthony, a dog catcher who quietly moves mutts off death row and spends more than he can afford to feed them carne asada tacos.

Yes, it’s a story with a heart–one that gets ripped out, still beating. Barlow doesn’t spare the grisly details, and a passage in which one werewolf gang taking out another highlights the power of his free verse:

One of the invaders lunges forward, spitting for blood,
but two of the pack take him down,
one cutting his throat so fast
the assault is thrown off for a stroke of time, the surprise
pushing them back on their haunches, as
blood from the torn artery arcs across the room.
But then the attackers surge forward again,
through the raining blood
which glistens on their coats
and flicks in their eyes,
only raising their adrenaline.

Prose would be too heavy for this sort of thing. The line breaks keep up the speed and tension, cutting it further and further down.

The choice of southern California is also important. Between the desert and the ocean, California was the last strip taken by settlers in pursuit of Manifest Destiny, and it’s retained its older history while being part of a newer, fresher history. It’s a place of gangs, terrible violence and poverty, riots, fires, earthquakes, but also incredible opulence. In one section a lone werewolf, cut off from the pack he formerly led, heads to Pasadena hoping to be picked up by animal control. He’s heard that the pound there has a spa, and

has more vets
than the local clinic has doctors,
it has a dietician and
a masseuse.

This bright moment of comedy is a nice break in the grimness, as is a moment when Anthony, who’s in love with a woman whose secret he doesn’t suspect, contemplates the quiet desperation of life. Barlow can be extraordinarily gruesome in describing bodies torn apart, but he can also be tender.

We are all china barely mended,
clumsily glued together
just waiting
for the hot water and lemon
to seep through our seams.

It’s more than a book about werewolves, but lycanthropy itself serves as an elegant extended metaphor running throughout the book. The essence of Barlow’s novel is change, and how it changes us. We are–whether werewolves or not–fragile creatures, and the relationships we create are also fragile but necessary to our survival. In traditional folklore the werewolf has always represented a break with civilization; it is civilization’s antithesis. Barlow has a more modern, more complex outlook. Civilization is, in this book, both civilized and uncivilized. Civilization can’t exist without wildness, but at the same time civilization incorporates wildness into itself. In the end there is no civilization and there is no wildness. There is simply one pack or another.

Word Of The Week: October 10th, 2009

In contemporary society we often take a very lighthearted look at folk beliefs, particularly spirits and “little people”, even though at one time people believed in and took mythical creatures very seriously. The evolution of the term pixie is an excellent example of this. The Oxford English Dictionary is fuzzy on the term’s origins. Like a lot of folklore it’s impossible to trace back to its beginnings, although pixie may be derived from Puck, which might make pixies relatives of pookas. Even though another name for Puck was Robin Goodfellow he was not necessarily a nice character and, in Irish folklore, pookas are almost always dangerous.

And yet the term pixie has become derogatory, especially in slang where it’s sometimes used (although less commonly than fairy) to refer to an effeminate or gay man. In Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets when Gilderoy Lockhart reveals a cage full of Cornish pixies the students are openly derisive. The released pixies, of course, then wreak havoc. There’s a lesson in that: never underestimate any creature.

On a more gruesome note, Pixie Stix have the distinction of having been poisoned Halloween candy, although it wasn’t handed out to unsuspecting trick-or-treaters. Ronald O’Bryan, whose story is told in the book Death Makes A Holiday, gave his own son Pixie Stix laced with cyanide, hoping to collect insurance benefits. Like I said: never underestimate any creature.

Get On The Bus.

Lately I’ve been riding Nashville’s first (and so far only) hybrid bus. Riding the hybrid bus wasn’t a conscious choice. For some reason I think they just picked my route. Since the bus is often crowded when I get on I guess the double-sized hybrid bus was an obvious choice.

While I’m glad they’ve bought a hybrid bus–which is quieter, very spacious inside, and doesn’t spew a cloud of black smoke every time it starts up after coming to a complete stop–Nashville’s public transportation is still pretty lousy. The minimum wait time for a bus on the most popular routes is twenty minutes on weekdays, which goes up to forty minutes on Saturdays and an hour on Sundays. If you have to ride one of the less-used routes your wait on a weekday can be up to two hours. And that’s if you’re lucky enough to live near a bus route. Vanderbilt pays my bus fare when I’m going to or from work, which is a pretty nice deal. A lot of people I work with would take advantage of the deal but even some of the ones who live in the county would have to walk several miles to the closest bus stop. So kudos to the Nashville MTA for buying a hybrid bus. I hope they’ll add more, but expanding the service should be a priority too.

Raising The Barcode.

If you used Google on October 7th, 2009, you may have noticed their usual logo was replaced with this one:

It’s the latest in a long line of “alterations” to the Google logo, used to mark special events such as Gandhi’s birthday, St. Patrick’s Day, and the Cricket World Cup.

This particular one celebrated the invention of the barcode, which got its first patent on October 7th, 1952. Because I work in a library I’m very familiar with barcodes. I stick them on books all the time and have a handheld barcode reader in my office. Someone actually warned me not to point my barcode reader at the Google logo. Were they afraid it would cause an infinity loop, forcing the universe to collapse on itself? I hated to tell them I’d already done it. It spelled out “Google”.

Back when some libraries first started using barcodes they had “smart” barcodes, like this one for Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s* Music And Moonlight.

I’m glad I wasn’t around for this project. I just know I’d put the wrong barcode on some book and that would completely foul up the system. I’m lucky enough to work with “dumb” barcodes.

*Willy Wonka, in the 1972 film Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, quotes O’Shaughnessy when he says, “We are the music makers,/And we are the dreamers of dreams.”

Saucy Jack.

Every seventy-six years Halley’s comet returns, about every ninety minutes Old Faithful erupts, and, although its frequency isn’t nearly so predictable, you can pretty much bet that sooner or later someone’s going to come up with another theory about Jack The Ripper’s identity. There are over one-hundred suspects on the list now, but I think the only two things that anyone knows with any certainty are that he murdered five women and that he was left-handed. And I’m not entirely sure about the left-handed part, although, being left-handed myself, it does give me a little thrill to think that Jack was too. Even his name is an alias that was assigned by police, because, to paraphrase Samuel Goldwyn, every Tom, Dick, and Harry is named Jack. Although he did (we think) send one letter to the police, with the return address “From Hell”, he didn’t sign it.
Historian Mei Trow is now the latest in a string of investigators who claim to have finally unmasked Jack The Ripper, identifying him conclusively as a morgue attendant named Robert Mann. As the article in the Telegraph explains,

The portrait drawn up of Jack was as a white male from the lower social classes, most likely the product of a broken home.
It was also thought he would have had a menial job but with some anatomical knowledge, something like a butcher, mortuary or medical examiner’s assistant or hospital attendant.
Because of prolonged periods without human interaction, Jack would also have been socially inept.

Mann fits the profile well enough. In the morgue he undressed the body of Polly Nichols, generally considered to be Jack’s first victim, in spite of being instructed not to, and was present when the police examined her. The Coroner said Mann’s testimony was untrustworthy, saying, “the mortuary-keeper is subject to fits, and neither his memory nor statements are reliable”.

That Jack was someone capable of holding down a menial job but “subject to fits” seems extremely plausible. Unfortunately it remains speculation, and, even professional profilers admit that their picture of Jack may not be accurate. There’s also no forensic evidence around that could be used to provide proof one way or the other. In 2001 the crime writer Patricia Cornwell advanced the theory that impressionist painter Walter Sickert was The Ripper. She even spent $2 million buying thirty-one of Sickert’s paintings and had one destroyed in an attempt to get some DNA. The tests were ultimately inconclusive, so the subtitle to her book, Portrait of a killer : Jack the Ripper– case closed seems more than a little presumptuous.
Jack has ultimately been more fascinating as a literary subject, inspiring, among others, Alan Moore’s graphic novel From Hell, Robert Bloch’s The Night Of The Ripper (Block also wrote the novel Psycho), and Pamela West’s Yours Truly, Jack The Ripper. Jack also plays a more peripheral role in books like Tom Becker’s Darkside, about a young man who discovers a part of London ruled by Jack’s descendants. The idea that Jack reproduced is enough to send a chill up my spine.
He’s become a legend which, I think, does at least as much as time to obscure the true identity of Jack the Ripper. We can speculate endlessly, but we’ll never really know. The theory I like best myself is that Jack was really…the Loch Ness Monster.

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/O2yVZCVLK3E" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]


Sometimes jokes go too far. The Wisconsin Tourism Federation, which, as Chris Matyszczyk reports, created its name “30 years ago, when the Web was not even a thought in the mind’s eye of an engineering spider” has had to change its name because some bloggers have been having fun with the acronym. The new name is the Tourism Federation of Wisconsin. It’s unfortunate they couldn’t figure out something simple with Federation at the beginning and Tourism in the middle, because then they could come up with a blog-friendly slogan like “Wisconsin tourism: FTW!” Except I’m sure they’d get bashed for that and, apparently being easily shamed, they’d change their name and their slogan, causing further confusion. Maybe we should all take a cue from P.J. O’Rourke, who, on Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me had a lot of trouble figuring out why this is a problem. He finally said “WTF probably spells something that probably means something to you people”. Yes, it does mean something, but I don’t see why it can’t also just mean Wisconsin Tourism Federation. The people who work for the WTF have a hard enough job convincing tourists to visit Wisconsin in the winter, so it’s not fair to make their lives harder.

I realize I’m helping to perpetuate the joke, but really I want to let the Wisconsin Tourism Federation keep its old name. The joke is mildly amusing so we should all take a moment to giggle once and then ignore it from now on. It’s bad enough that reporters have come up with some pretty bizarre pronunciations for the name of the planet Uranus, which has been called “the Rodney Dangerfield of planets”. Are we all so childish that a perfectly respectable organization has to change its name because the acronym is an internet joke? There was a time when I used to laugh hysterically whenever I heard the names Peter or Willy. Then I grew up. An English friend of mine told me the name Randy would cause a lot of embarrassment across the pond. Except I believe most British people would be smart enough to know that it’s a pretty normal name in the U.S. and polite enough not to mention it.

And finally I have to wonder whether Washington and Wyoming also have tourism federations. If they do I hope they have the good sense not to change their names.

Book ‘Em: A Scary Minute.

scary.jpg Supposedly ventriloquist Shari Lewis, who’s best known as the hand behind the puppet Lamb Chop, liked to go to restaurants and order lamb chops just to see the horrified looks on the faces of the waiters. I really want to believe that’s true, but, even if it’s not, she and author Lan O’Kun did put together a terrific collection of scary stories, perfect for this time of year, especially if you have small children and want to give them nightmares without feeding them lamb chops.

What makes this collection really amazing is the variety of the stories. There are one-minute versions of Washington Irving’s The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, and even a one-minute version of Moby Dick. There are also short adaptations of famous folk tales like The Golem and traditional stories like The Monkey’s Paw and The Golden Arm. And there are some silly children’s stories, including Who Ghosts There? It’s a fun book, and the stories really are very short–most run to two pages at most, and there are a lot of illustrations.

It’s longer than a minute, but here’s an adapation of Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart that gave me nightmares when I was a kid. James Mason’s voice is perfectly suited to this story.

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/W4s9V8aQu4c" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

Word Of The Week: October 3rd, 2009

One of the qualities of paganism is that everything–stone, tree, house, sometimes even a room–has its own resident spirit that doesn’t just watch over it. The spirit inhabits the space. The Russian ovinnik, for instance, is a mischievous, even destructive, creature that, according to Russian pagan belief, inhabited the barn (the threshing barn where grain was dried and stored was called the овин in Russian), particularly when it was used in the late fall or early winter. Not many Russians have a threshing barn now, but, according to Russian Myths by Elizabeth Warner, even into the 20th Century Russians who did would hold ceremonies, lighting the drying fire and offering the ovinnik food. Since the ovinnik was believed to sometimes burn down the barn it had to be appeased.

The ovinnik is described in some sources as a “subspecies”, along with the bannik, the bath-house (вняа) spirit of the domovoi, a house spirit that could be beneficial if shown the proper respect and destructive if not shown respect or if it believed it was being mistreated.

It’s often said that in modern life we’ve lost touch with nature, but sometimes I think we’ve lost touch with something even more fundamental: the world around us. I talked about giving inanimate objects names, which is an almost pagan attitude, showing respect to something we own, possibly in the hope that it’ll treat us nicely. It would really be a waste of time more than anything else, but I wonder if certain days at work wouldn’t go better if I were to believe in, and do whatever I could to appease, an office spirit. What would I do to appease it, though?

Not A Vampire, Not From Hell, And Not A Squid, But…

I’ve always been fascinated by both cephalopods and creatures of the abyss, and at this time of year when there seem to be so more vampires around than usual, I can’t help thinking of the abyssal cephalopod scientists have lovingly named Vampyroteuthis infernalis, which translates as “vampire squid from Hell”. And yet, as you can see in the video below, it looks scary but seems gentle, almost docile, tricking predators with the bioluminescent tips of its arms. David Attenborough describes it as “the weirdest”. Not to quibble, but weird is relative. There are creatures of the abyss that are at least as strange as Vampyroteuthis.

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/S3CJIKKSUpg" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]