Archive for the Rotten Category

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

Bring Out Your Dead: Donald Westlake, Blossom Dearie, J. G. Ballard

Posted in Parker, Rotten with tags on April 27, 2009 by davehurwitz

I seemed to have turned a corner somewhere.  I can remember a time when it felt like I did nothing but attend weddings.  Now it’s funerals.  With no belief in the hereafter to gladden my heart, funerals only serve to drive home the message that someone I liked and cared about has been cut out of the world.  What’s more, a good memorial service displays every unguessed facet of the departed’s life.  The childhood I never saw.  The achievements I never heard of.  The other friends I never met until now.  I’m left with the uncomfortable feeling that I never knew the deceased at all, that I never asked the right questions, that I missed something, and I’ll never find it now.

Donald Westlake

Donald Westlake

Then there are the deaths I read about.  The ones that are not so much a personal loss as a ‘a loss to the jazz world’ or ‘a loss to literature.’  In this respect, the last four months have been pretty bad.  Mystery readers lost Donald Westlake (and his evil alter-ego, Richard Stark) on the last day of 2008.  I have written about Stark / Westlake previously, and that piece seems a more fitting tribute than anything I could do here.  While I never met Westlake or either of the people described below, I mourn their passing in small way.

Blossom Dearie
April 28, 1924 – February 7, 2009

If you’re my age, you’ve heard the voice of Blossom Dearie, whether you know it or not.  You heard it every Saturday morning, courtesy of Schoolhouse Rock.  Dearie was the voice (and piano) behind “Figure Eight” and “Unpack Your Adjectives.”  While Dearie often

Blossom Dearie

Blossom Dearie

asserted that her piano playing was superior to her vocal work, it’s her voice I most enjoy.  Girlish almost to the point of squeakiness, but tinged with a humorous cynicism, it brought a breezy sophistication to all of her songs.  Her mischievious streak frequently displayed itself in ironic show tunes like “To Keep My Love Alive” or “Always True to You in my Fashion.”  Before educating the masses via television, Dearie was a fixture of the late 50’s early 60’s jazz scene.  Though she went on to establish her own label, Daffodil Records, the recordings she made in those early years for Norman Granz at Verve (accompanied only by drums and an upright bass) are, in my opinion at least, her best.  My Gentelman Friend and Once Upon a Summertime are particular favorites, and either would make a good introduction to her work.  Dearie never retired, performing regular gigs in New York and London well into the new millennium.  I always hoped I’d be able to see her on stage, some day.  I never did.

J. G. Ballard
November 15, 1930 – April 19, 2009

Ballard has been called the inheritor of H. G. Wells, and I can see the similarities.  Both were concerned about the impact of technology on human beings, and both were unsympathetically observant of their protagonists’ shortcomings.  Still, I can’t help thinking that the oddly prudish Wells (oddly, that is, for an advocate of free love) would have been horrified by the comparison. 

J. G. Ballard

J. G. Ballard

Crash, Ballard’s most infamous novel (not to be confused with the tedious Paul Haggis film of 2004) deals with the sexuality of cars and car crashes.  Later works explored equally disturbing themes.  In both High Rise and Running Wild, homicidal psychosis erupts in posh gated communities.  The peaceful bird sanctuary of Rushing to Paradise devolves into a cult.  Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes investigate our psychological needs for crime and violence.  Ballard’s last two novels were so controversial that they received no U.S. publication, and I wound up ordering both from overseas.  Millennium People details an absurdist terrorist movement among London’s professional class.  In Kingdom Come, a postmodern ad campaign turns a suburban shopping mall into a fascist breakaway state.

Although Neil Gaiman recently described Ballard as “terrifyingly normal”  in person, his biography is fully as interesting as his books.  Born in British controlled Shanghai, Ballard spent part of his childhood in a Japanese internment camp during World War II.  Later, he abandoned the study of medicine to join London’s literary avant-garde, editing Ambit, the literary magazine founded by pediatrician Martin Bax.  In 1964, Ballard’s wife died unexpectedly of pneumonia (not, as myth and rumor would have it, in a car crash) leaving him to raise three children on his own.  His work has been filmed by directors as diverse as Steven Spielberg and David Cronenberg.  One final book, an account of his losing battle with cancer, has yet to be published.

In one respect, the deaths of artist are not so final as the deaths of others.  The University of Chicago, which began reprinting Westlake’s Parker novels last year, has accelerated its publishing schedule.  Two more, The Mourner and The Score, are out already, with an additional four to appear throughout the year.  Sadly, Daffodil Records seems to have closed its doors (or at least its Internet portals), but not before reissuing some of Dearie’s back catalog.  The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard, weighing in at twelve hundred pages, is slated for a September release by W. W. Norton.  Though none of these people will ever create anything new, there is a lot of their work that I still have yet to enjoy.  It’s not what I would choose, if such things were up to me, but it will have to do.

Dave Hurwitz

Why are Fanboys so Thickheaded about Wolverine?

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

I’m looking forward to the new Wolverine movie. Apparently, multitudes of fanboys are not. They have been tearing this movie apart since before it went into production. Why, you ask? Mainly because the costumes aren’t right. Yes, that’s it. And recently, to top it off, a rough cut of the movie has been leaked and is currently making rounds on the Internet.

Wolverine in yellow and blue spandex

Wolverine in yellow and blue spandex

The FBI, Motion Picture Association of American and 20th Century Fox are rabid to find out who exactly leaked a rough cut of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. They vow to prosecute that person “to the fullest extent of the law.”

There’s even talk of the fanboys boycotting the Wolverine movie (although some of this had to do with Fox’s holding up Watchmen in court).

Now, lets examine the costume problem. In the comics, Wolverine is dressed in his trademark yellow and blue duds with that pointy mask. This costume was fine for the 1970s when he first appeared (Incredible Hulk #180, October 1974).

Now, honestly, if you follow the wolverine character, would someone with his personality ever dress in something so ridiculous? The comics have a tradition to uphold, but once it jumps to film, they can update the outfit, as they did for the X-men movies.

What fanboys fail to realize is that by moving to film, a whole new audience is opened up to the character. And film is always different from the comics.

Let me give you a personal example. I’m a HUGE Fantastic Four fan. My car is an orange Saturn

Hugh Jackman as Wolverine

Hugh Jackman as Wolverine

Vue with the license plate THING F4 (All other iterations of thing, grimm, and Clobberin Time were taken). I have all the issues of FF from #32 and up. I’ve seen the horrific John Buscema years and the brilliant John Byrne issues.

So, of course, I was anxious to see the Fantastic Four movie. I had heard that originally it would be Peyton Reed doing a 60s spoof of the team, which might have been good. I knew that they couldn’t do any worse than the 1994 version made by Roger Corman.

So was I wowed by the final 2005 film. No. But it capture the sorrow of the Thing and the “family” dynamics of the team. I think they made a mistake with Doom, but ultimately the film worked as a whole.

There are certain limitations to each genre. Could a two-hour film sum up 400 issues of Fantastic Four history? No. But they were able to add elements in the film that the comics never could. Often, the issues of the FF I had the most trouble reading were the ones solely devoted to the family dynamics with little action. But the movie can have scenes that work. Chris Evans, though he didn’t look or sound like the Human Torch, brought to the screen the bravado and suave of the character.

So looking back to Wolverine. Yes, I’ve collected many of the comics, though I’m by no means a number one fan. However Hugh Jackman has certainly captured the character on screen. Although the X-men films fell down in several places, Wolverine remained the highlights.

2005 Fantastic Four

2005 Fantastic Four

An in terms of costumes, which do you think a real life Logan would wear? Come on, yellow and blue spandex?

Chris Kalidor