Archive for April, 2008

All, or Nothing at All (Body Parts)

Posted in Rotten with tags , , , , on April 10, 2008 by davehurwitz

I have just finished reading Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1898 short story “The Brown Hand.” (Reprinted in The Captain of the Pole Star: Weird and Imaginative Fiction, a beautiful book by Ash-Tree Press, not to be confused with the less comprehensive collection published under the same name in Doyle’s lifetime.) The story concerns a retired doctor haunted by the apparition of a man whose hand he had amputated. If the idea of an Earth-bound spirit in search of a missing body part seems familiar, you’ve probably seen it elsewhere. The device was hardly new even in Conan Doyle’s time.

A century and a half earlier, before the idea of custodial punishment really caught on, the threat of dissection was used to deter crime in England and elsewhere. In the 1700’s, virtually everything was a hanging offence, including petty theft and adultery. The murder act of 1752 turned the remains of the most heinous criminals over to London’s anatomy schools, which had few legal ways to obtain specimens. (The illegal ones included grave robbing, and in one famous instance, murder.) Fights beneath the gallows between anatomists and families of the condemned were commonplace. What motivated the deceased’s defenders was not the nastiness of dissection, but a firm belief that the body had to be buried whole. In those days, Christians of all stripes believed in a physical resurrection on Judgment Day. Gabriel would blow his horn and we would all sit up in our graves. Your recently executed Uncle Steve would be needing his body again. All of it.

The notion raises all sorts of questions. Uncle Steve murdered someone, first of all. What are the odds of his getting past old Gabe? What’s a few missing organs compared to the Mark of Cain? Second, what does Gabe care what Steve looks like? Gabe’s not manning the velvet rope at a nightclub, after all. Third, surely somebody in Heaven can fix up Steve’s mutilated bits. What, is Jesus too busy? And hey, doesn’t everybody, you know, decompose anyway?

A quarter of a millennium later, in our more enlightened times, surely no one believes such nonsense.

Right?

Actually, Judaism requires that bodies be buried as quickly as possible, with all pieces present. (Cremation is frowned upon, as are tattoos, oddly.) The Muslim faith demands the same. So do many other Eastern religions, as in the Doyle story. Even the Catholic Church is surprisingly picky about body parts, especially those of its Popes. A recent traveling exhibition displayed papal reliquaries, essentially fancy jars housing bits various Popes lost during their lives. These would, in theory at least, be buried with the Pope when he died. When Pope John Paul the Second was shot, the length of intestine removed during surgery was preserved.

Popes aside, how do whole body purists fare in our modern world? Not so good, actually. The enemy is no longer anatomy schools, but proper sanitation. In the U.S. and other first world countries, all scrap tissue and other “medical waste” must be disposed of quickly and safely. In practice, the bits cut out of you during surgery are put in a little bin, the contents of which are later dumped into a bigger bin full of a bunch of other people’s leavings. These are incinerated, cremated essentially, either by the hospital itself or a medical waste disposal service.

What happens to these mixed ashes? I’ve never been able to find out. All the websites for medical waste disposal firms that I’ve visited, while they emphasize the thoroughness of their “inventory control,” pass without comment over this issue. No one who might know what happens to the ashes has ever been willing to speak to me about it. Still, one point is clear. Once something’s been cut out of you at the hospital, it’s gone.

David Hurwitz

The Ruins (or How to Raise a Man-Eating Plant)

Posted in Rotten with tags , , , on April 6, 2008 by davehurwitz

3 out of 5 bloody knives
The Ruins raises the Venus flytrap to a new level. In Carter Smiths’s adaptation of Scott Smith’s novel, you don’t have to stumble into the man-eating plant. It will come after you. Even lure you down a deep, dank shaft to be its amuse bouche.

Over all, the movie was decent. Like Exorcist, I felt the best scares were from what the people did to each other. The leg amputation scene was superb in its ability to combine bone crunching and flesh sawing. Also, when Stacy cuts herself up to locate the plants growing inside her, the visuals deliver.

The plot drags in the beginning, and this is due mostly to the Scott Smith’s narrative. I read the novel (as much as I could get through). The concept was intriguing, but I finally had to put it down. I kept waiting for the horror to materialize, but it lingered on the Dawson Creek dynamics of the four central characters. Carter Smith (the director, and as far as I can tell, no relation) was able to shore up the action by cutting much of the melodrama in the first act. Even so, he (or possibly the studio) added the obligatory scare scene at the start to remind the viewer that yes, you walked into the right movie theater. This is a horror movie.

If you did read the novel, you’ll find that many of the character’s roles are switched (Stacy with Amy) and much of the rambling action tightened for film. The ending was improved somewhat. Instead of having Stacy kill herself as a warning, she escapes into a Hollywood horror ending.

The vines themselves are much faster moving in the film, as they should be for a horror flick. Their appearance, however, was distracting. They bore an uncanny resemblance to cannabis leaves. There needed to be a line about smoking them in the film script.

Now, if you really want to read a great short about man-eating plants try Michael A. Arnzen’s masterpiece of flash fiction, “How to Grow a Man-Eating Plant” from Pseudopod. This is a must read. I’ve never read anything funnier, and it’s actually a piece of flash fiction with an ending. Pseudopod is also free and ports the stories direct to iTunes.

Check out wikipedia for a complete summary of Scott Smith’s novel. Internet Movie Database has a full synopsis of the film (with spoilers). For Arnzen’s flash fiction, just listen to it yourself. It’s only a few minutes of your time.

Chris Kalidor

Absinthe

Posted in Rotten with tags , , , on April 2, 2008 by davehurwitz

No other intoxicant has so much goth cache. Perhaps it’s the ritual, a bit like high tea, a bit more like smoking opium. The slow flow of clear yellow liquid from the beau arts fountain. The sugar cube placed on the slotted, silver spoon. The cold water, and the transformation to an opaque, unnatural green. The faerie released from her liquid prison.

Perhaps it’s the history. Montmartre. The Moulin Rouge. Toulouse Lautrec. Maupassant, who wrote “Le Horla,” then slashed his wrists in an insane asylum. Perhaps it’s the wormwood. Toxic. Hallucinogenic. Said to grant visions, or cause permanent psychosis in the too frequent user. Or maybe it’s merely the fact that it’s illegal.

We are about to find out.

Up until recently, if you wanted a bottle of absinthe, you had to order it on-line from a European supplier, then hope what arrived wasn’t home-brew poison. Last year, two Old World brands successfully demonstrated their safety to the ATF, and became legal to sell. Absinthe Verte, made in California, is America’s first entry into the market. As Goth kids across the nation rejoice, I wonder what the future holds for the Green Faerie. Now that it’s legal, can absinthe stay cool?

To answer that question, let’s set the Wayback Machine for the autumn of 1994. On Friday or Saturday nights, young Tim and Dave meet downtown, where the San Diego coffeehouse scene is just beginning to jump. Our destination? Mecca Java. Sandwiched between a vacant warehouse and a gallery selling hand-blown glass lampshades, this is the home of honking big café mochas, live music, crayons and butcher paper on the tables, and a statuesque barista named Bear. Parking here means dodging car-wipers and other, more aggressive panhandlers. Those who leave their windows open a crack risk returning to a latrine. But the coffee is good, and the company is even better.

As the months roll by, you may notice certain changes. The smell of clove cigarettes is gradually replaced by the aroma of actual tobacco. And who are those people with the nice shoes and purses? Finally, there is a fatal omen. A pool table, that harbinger of death for any watering hole, takes the place of a sprung sofa. Soon after, Mecca Java closes, unable to pay the increasing rent in a neighborhood it helped to revive.

Fast forward to today. The downtown home of Mecca Java is now the Gaslamp District, an over lit avenue of pricey restaurants, bars and boutiques. Traffic is heavy, and parking your car will cost you at least a ten. The homeless, tired of getting rousted by bicycle cops, have migrated uphill, to my neighborhood. Around the county, there’s a Starbucks across from every legit coffeehouse. A walk by Lestat’s, my local java hut, shows an unspeaking crowd of caffeine addicts with laptop computers. In short, coffee ain’t cool, and it hasn’t been for a long time.

I give absinthe five years. After that, expect to see a kiosk at the mall selling slotted spoons and gilded glasses. Expect an absinthe fountain at Hooters or Dick’s Last Resort. If the Green Faerie really takes off with the disposable income crowd, we might even see a national chain of absinthe bars. They’ll probably have some horrible name like “Absinthe Without Leave” or “Martre-Mart.” Hmm… Maybe I should copyright those.

David Hurwitz