Archive for May, 2009

Small Press Spotlight: Centipede Press

Posted in Rotten, Small Press Spotlight with tags on May 24, 2009 by davehurwitz

As you have no doubt gathered from previous posts, when I am not teaching or suffering from strange medical problems, I read.  A lot.  I try to read a book a week, or fifty-two books a year.  I don’t always manage that many, but I usually come close.  I also tend to read obscure books.  This is not to say that I deliberately set out to read out-of-print books or little known authors in order to impress credulous bohemians and annoy my bookseller.  It just tends to work out that way.

Centipede’s luxury edition of Frankenstein

Centipede’s luxury edition of Frankenstein

Over the years, I’ve become dependant on a number of small press publishers to supply me with both old and new books by some of my favorite authors.  Today, and in occasional future posts, I’d like to tell you about a few of these publishers, all of which deserve a wider audience.

For many collectors, Centipede Press is the Rolls Royce of horror publishing.  Centipede’s luxury editions of classic horror novels are justifiably famous in certain circles.  Personally, I’ve been drooling covetously over their edition of Frankenstein—oversized, lavishly bound and illustrated—for years.  But with a price tag of $225, such things will remain forever beyond my reach.  So I was very pleased to learn that Centipede had decided, under its newly created Millipede imprint, to begin publishing affordable trade paperbacks.

I have enjoyed all of Millipede’s horror reprints that I have read so far, including Some of Your Blood by Theodore Sturgeon (a Matheson-like account of a psychiatrist’s struggle to evaluate an insubordinate soldier), Fallen Angel by William Hjortsberg (the basis for Alan Parker’s infamous film Angel Heart), The Other by Thomas Tryon, and The Face That Must Die, a masterpiece of psychedelic horror by Ramsey Campbell.  Though these books explore different themes, they share one common characteristic.  They all deal with characters that are dangerously insane.  They also share very high production values:  great cover art and endpapers, elegant interior design, bonus stories and critical content, plus recycled acid-free paper bound in individual signatures.  Better still, prices range between $12 and $17.

Jim Thompson’s Child of Rage

Jim Thompson’s Child of Rage

Unfortunately, I’ve had less success with Millipede’s crime books.  I made it through John Franklin Bardin’s The Deadly Percheron without sustaining permanent brain damage, but it was close call.  I quit a couple of chapters into both of their David Goodis reprints, as well as Fredric Brown’s Here Comes a Candle.  Noir devotees might love these titles, but they just didn’t do it for me.  In fact, the only Millipede crime book I still own is Jim Thompson’s Child of Rage.

Which leads me to another issue.  Go to the Centipede website and check out the price tag on Child of Rage.  That’s right.  Sixty bucks.  I only paid it because I know that I like Thompson and this particular title has been unavailable for many years.  That, and I’ve always wanted to own one of Centipede’s deluxe hardcovers.  While this is not the most I have ever paid for a single book, it comes awfully close.  Had there been a trade edition of this title, I would have bought that instead.  Alas, there wasn’t.

And that’s a problem.  Recently, Centipede seems to have abandoned their affordable trades in favor of increasingly expensive hardbacks.  While I was willing to plunk down $17 to replace a ratty mass market favorite or try an obscure reprint, I’m not willing or able to pay for Centipede’s deluxe books.  And the prices just keep getting higher.  For instance, I would love to own Centipede’s recent edition of Ramsey Campbell’s The Influence, but $150 is far too rich for my under-oxygenated blood.

The $150 print of Ramsey Campbell’s The Influence

The $150 print of Ramsey Campbell’s The Influence

All whining aside, the point here is that Centipede Press has already made and continues to produce some truly beautiful books.  Not all of them will be affordable to every horror fan, but many will.  I strongly recommend them.  I would also suggest that you order directly from Centipede, as finding their titles on the shelves, or even ordering them through your local bookstore, can prove difficult.  One more thing.  Though Centipede’s current website is a great improvement over previous incarnations, it does not always accurately reflect what titles are available in what binding.  (For example, the trade edition of The Other is not listed on the site.)  If you want to know if a particular title is available in a trade edition, it’s best contact Centipede and ask.

Small Press Spotlight will return with more recommendations.  In the mean time, happy reading.

Dave Hurwitz

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Severed Heads and Arsenic: The Art of Victorian Lowbrow

Posted in Rotten with tags , on May 17, 2009 by davehurwitz

What do sideshow freaks, strange medical exhibits,  funeral rituals,  Opium dens, and graveyards have in common? Why Madame Talbot of course.

The woman in question is a reclusive self-taught artist holed up in her 135 year-old haunted house in Oregon. Her interest include just about anything that has to do with the Victorian era 19th century. She also has a morbid fascination with Victorian death rituals and mourning techniques, medical antiques, blood letting, and loves visiting old cemeteries and graveyards.

This fascination can be witnessed in the items she has for sale.

Hand painted tombstones

Hand painted tombstones

Vintage medical instruments

Vintage medical instruments

Hand created "stump" dolls

Hand created "stump" dolls

She also creates “curios” out of various vintage (and often macabre) items. Take her shrunken head. Not only is it authentic, but she also includes instructions on how to make your own shrunken head, should you be interested. Here’s a sample:

Shrunken Head

Shrunken Head

How to Prepare a Shrunken-Head After the enemy had been decapitated (preferably while he was still alive), the head is cut off below the neck, taking with it a section of the skin from the chest and back.

On the back of the head, a slit is made starting from the neck going nearly to the top. Once the skin has been successfully pulled away from the skull without damaging the face, the skull is tossed into the river. The eyes are sewn shut with jungle fiber and the lips are pierced with wooden pegs.

She’s also on the lookout for new grisly items. At a recent auction, she picked up a Victorian skin grafting razor (think of a cheese slicer) and a stomach pump in velvet lined case. One wonders what you would do with a cheese sized slice of skin.

Madame Talbot is self-taught in nearly medium she tackles: painting, pen-and-ink illustration, and framed curio exhibits. She is a purist when it comes to creating her Framed Curio Exhibits. No gaffs or fakes here. If it says real human heart, she means real human heart. She creates several curios a without the help of any assistants or  machines (She sews everything by hand using only a needle and thread). She works alone and seems to like it that way.

Sample Curios

Sample Curios

And as with all of her subject matter, Madame Talbot works within traditional Victorian Lowbrow themes that are at once timeless and current, merging the past and present with each individual piece that she creates in order to insure quality and care are of the utmost importance.

Victorian Lowbrow is a term coined by Madame Talbot to describe her work. She describes it as items both Victorian (of, relating to, or belonging to the period of the reign of Queen Victoria) and lowbrow (being uncultivated; vulgar; characteristic of a person who is not cultivated or does not have intellectual tastes). However a perusal through inventory shows a sophisticated array of macabre items guaranteed to send any Victorian steampunk or gothic into a frenzy.

Chris Kalidor

Kindle versus Kindling

Posted in Rotten with tags on May 10, 2009 by davehurwitz
Amazon's Kindle

Amazon's Kindle

I see Amazon is coming out with a newer, larger edition of the Kindle reader.  While most of me loathes the very idea of electronic books, a small part of me would very much like to own one.  This is the part that is continually selling, trading, and giving away books to make room for yet more books.  While my collection is in a perpetual state of turnover, the overall number of books has increased over the years.  I have two bookcases in the living room, not to mention the plank shelf above the front window.  I have books in the kitchen, books in the bathroom (for those moments alone), and books under my bed.  There are graphic novels in my clothes closet, and oversized books on an Ikea shelf in the bedroom.  And those are just my books.  I share my tiny home with two more voracious readers and their collections.  Suddenly, storing dozens or even hundreds of books on one small electronic device doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

Without a doubt, lack of shelf space will force me to surrender to Kindle eventually.  My jazz CDs have already reached critical mass.  These days, I buy music in disc-free download form whenever possible.  For now, though, the disadvantages of electronic books outweigh my logistical difficulties.  What are these disadvantages?

Buried alive in my books

Buried alive in my books

Start-up cost. The new Kindle DX will set you back nearly five-hundred bucks.  The paperback sized version is somewhat cheaper, but the price has not decreased now that a sexier version is on its way.  This is a significant investment for what is, essentially, a very fancy blank book.  The books themselves, just like music downloads, require an additional payment.  Worse still, if you want a digital version of a book you already own, you have to buy it all over again.

Batteries Required. There is no way around it.  The Kindle is an electronic device.  Paper books consume trees, but electronic ones consume power.  I’ve never had a paperback switch off because the charge ran out.  I’ve never had to change and recycle its batteries either.

Goodbye Secondary Market. There is no such things as a used e-book.  Once you buy a Kindle book, you’re stuck with it.  You can’t sell it to a used book store, donate it to the library, or even lend it to a friend.  (Unless you trust your friend with your $500 electronic reader.)  In short, if the book sucks, you can’t recoup any part of your investment.  (On the plus side, maybe this will finally stop ratty copies of Future Shock and Your Erroneous Zones from piling up at thrift stores.)

Limited Selection. While Amazon’s stated goal is to make every book they sell available for the Kindle, that goal is still way off on the horizon.  Right now, there about 275,000 books ready for Kindle download.  That may sound like a lot to some people, but when you consider that my little craftsman cottage contains roughly 2,000 books, it no longer seems that impressive.  The kinds of books for sale also present a problem.  Right now, the digital shelves hold mainly bestsellers and new books by established, mainstream authors.  In other words, books that a large number of people will want to buy.  Trouble is, I don’t read those books.  Right now, I’m in the middle Michael McDowell’s Cold Moon Over Babylon, a twenty-nine year old Southern Gothic that has been out of print since I left elementary school.  Could I read that on a Kindle?  Not a chance.

Cold Moon

Cold Moon

It’s not really as bad as all that.  What is, right now, Kindle’s biggest problem may turn out, in a few years, to be its greatest virtue.  When books become digital, they need never go out of print.  Why would they?  Digital books don’t clutter up warehouses or bookstore shelves.  None of the storage costs that motivate the destruction of unsold books will ever hold true again.  Computers have already changed the way I buy and even trade books.  (If you’re unfamiliar with internet book trading, check out Paperback Swap, my favorite exchange site.)  In a few years, once the technology settles down, I fully expect that Kindle, or something similar, will change the way I read.  Maybe then I can use my shelves for something else.  Anyone got some spare houseplants?

Dave Hurwitz

Walpurgis Night — The Dark Side of May Day

Posted in Rotten with tags , , on May 4, 2009 by davehurwitz

I celebrated this past May Day with my two-year-old daughter Lilly. She ran around a makeshift Maypole with some yarn. We decorated the house with flowers. All pretty innocent stuff. That night, my wife and I watched the movie The Wickerman as a way to get into the season.

The wickerman holds the sacrifice

The wickerman holds the sacrifice

First off, we saw the 1973 version with Christopher Lee, and not the 2006 version with Nicolas Cage. A world of difference. The remake paled in comparison. Though not all of it was Cage’s fault. He nixed the happy ending (having him saved) and opted to go down in flames (ironically, like the movie).

But this brings us to the darker side of May Day, also known as Beltane. You see, this is when Druids would sacrifice a human to ensure a good harvest in the fall. Yup. Watch The Wickerman and you’ll see it all go down. I know most of us think of pagan rituals with all the nudity and flowers. And Wickerman delivers. And then there’s the sacrifice burning to death in a giant wicker man.

This made me dig a little deeper into the whole human sacrifice thing. Most Beltane ceremonies use a symbolic sacrifice such as cake thrown in the fire. Maypoles in Spain were each topped with a male effigy which was later burned. Contemporary Pagans burn sacred wood and dried herbs as offerings in their Beltane fires.

Naked pagans

Naked pagans

It turns out that Beltane has a whole host of other names, like Mayday, May Eve, or Walpurgis Night. When I think of Walpurgis Night, my mind goes instantly to Dracula. Just the way I think. This was the night that Harker arrived at Borgo Pass.

Walpurgis Night is named in honor of Saint Walburga, the patron saint of coughs, famine, plague and storms. Okay, who gets to be the saint of coughs? I guess she healed pagans in Germany (starting in 748) also curing plagues, rabies, etc. Still. I wouldn’t want to be known for diseases. Her canonization coincided with the pagan ritual of Beltane.

Walpurgis Night (April 30th) is the night when witches, demons and spirits hold a huge party. It is celebrated in similar to Halloween, with tricks played on unsuspecting people. Anything that isn’t nailed down—doormats or potted plants—is brought inside or it’ll disappear. In Germany, many people also put out a slice of bread liberally spread with butter and honey, called Ankenschnitt, for the phantom hounds in order to protect all from bad weather and ensure crops don’t fail.

The Phantom Dog is almost always black

The Phantom Dog is almost always black

Phantom dogs haunt gates and crossroads. They are sometimes accompanied by the sound of rattling chains, or they walk with an unnerving splashing noise. (Makes me think of trotting in blood). Many times these phantom dogs chase people. It is impossible to escape a phantom hound. The more you run, the faster the beast will give chase. Seeing a phantom dog is an omen of death. Either your own or a member of your family will die. So I guess I’m glad I’ve never seen one.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used the legend of the phantom (or black) dogs in his story The Hound of the Baskervilles. The phantom was of course fake—an ordinary dog covered in fluorescent paint and starved until it is half crazed and prepared to kill anything—but the atmosphere of fear was on the mark.

A version of these death dealing phantom dogs appeared in the Supernatural series, episode No Rest for the Wicked. Here they were hell hounds meant to drag a victim to hell.

Noise is the most widespread remedy against evil beings during Walpurgis Night. As soon as the sun sets, everyone does their best to make as much racket as possible, from shouting and beating sticks to shooting guns! This is still Germany. People knock back the drinks and generally get into trouble. Which is why May 1st is a public holiday in Germany. Everyone is hung over. This sounds a bit like how we celebrate Cinco de Mayo.

So next May Day, lock your doors, drag in the welcome mat, and set out some bread or the phantom dog might visit you.

Chris Kalidor