Archive for death

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

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

The Worst Auto-Accident I Ever Saw

Posted in Rotten with tags , , on May 17, 2008 by davehurwitz

Dedicated to J. G. Ballard

I have seen some pretty wild things out on the road over the years. In Nevada, my wife and I came a across a U-haul truck that had lost control and gone off the highway into a deep ditch. Furniture and packed boxes had literally exploded out the roof of the vehicle, strewing the golden desert sand with torn books, snapped chairs, and shattered dishes. Both Tim and I saw a bicyclist who’d been hit by a drunk driver. One of her shoes had lodged in bush thirty feet from the point of impact. I’ve seen tires blow, vehicles burn, motorcycle riders flung to the street. An aged Chevy jumped the curb and plowed into the side of a house right before my eyes. But when I saw this accident, or rather its aftermath, last autumn, I wasn’t even sure what I was looking at.

I first learned to drive in a small town in Illinois. Many times since I have been grateful for that fact. In addition to learning the ropes in light traffic populated by courteous drivers, I also learned to drive in weather. This is not something your average Southern Californian ever learns. We get accidents every time it rains, even just a little. Water soaks into the freeway concrete. Eight or nine months worth of accumulated motor oil floats and rises, coating the road surface with a layer slick, invisible ooze. Turn too sharply or break too abruptly, and your vehicle becomes a gliding weight, unsteerable, unstoppable, the plaything of physics, destined for impact.

This is surely what happened to the big-rig that veered suddenly out of the number two lane of the 805 South just shy of the 43rd Street off-ramp, slewed through the fast lane without touching any of the smaller traffic, and slammed into the support pillar of an overpass. It hit so hard that chunks of concrete flew into northbound traffic, smashing the wing mirrors and shattering the windshields of early commuters.

Of course, I saw none of this. All I knew was that southbound traffic was crawling along at an hour of the morning that usually assured clear sailing, and that I was crawling with it. It hadn’t been raining when I left the house, but I had seen the wet pavement. Stupidly, I had not gone back inside and checked the Caltrans website. Equally stupidly, I decided not to take any of several alternate routes, believing that things would clear up shortly.

More than twenty minutes later, the source of the congestion still nowhere in sight, I began to seriously regret this decision. The jazz album in the cassette deck cycled back to the beginning as I scanned the cup holders for something I might be able to piss in. Finally, one of those giant Cal Trans arrows closed off the fast lane. Several minutes later, another closed a second lane, the one immediately to my left. Traffic merged again, angry horns sounding while the Andrews Sisters sang to me about the lures of Trinidad.

The sight of empty, sunlit highway to my left was wrong, eerie, post-apocalyptic. Something bad, something two lanes worth of bad, had happened up ahead, and in a minute or two I would have a front row seat. I wanted to see. No, I didn’t want to see, but I knew that I would look with wide-open eyes when I got there. I rode the brake and watched the car in front of me. I hoped nobody had died.

The dump truck parked beneath an overpass came as something of an anticlimax. I didn’t know it, but it blocked the view of the support pillar’s shattered base. I wondered, briefly, if this was some ill-timed construction project. Then I noticed the dust winding along the tarmac in the light breeze, half construction grit, half glittering chips of metal and paint. The concrete of the median wall was scraped and scared for yards, the remainder of the accident zone a surprisingly long distance from its origin.

A wad of metal sat in the number two lane. That is the only way to describe it. It looked exactly like ball of crumpled paper, except that it was made of red-painted metal, and was nearly the size of my car. There were no windows, no doors, not a single machined curve, nothing that even remotely suggested that this was once a motor vehicle. For a few stunned seconds my mind utterly failed to understand. Then it did, and almost immediately, a more horrible realization followed. No blood was visible, but somewhere inside that shapeless heap of scrap were the remains of a human being.

A few yards beyond, a smaller wad straddled the number one and two lanes. Further on, CHP officers supervised the loading of a third onto a flatbed tow-truck. All three were the same red color, the same smashed and shredded steel. As I passed by the second piece, I recognized what must have been the cowling over a front tire, though the tire itself and even the wheel were nowhere in evidence. It was not until I read a news account of the accident later on that I learned that what I had seen had been a truck. The remains of the trailer, which had been the only recognizable piece of debris, had been hauled away before I passed by.

When I finally got clear of the blockage, I could not resist the urge to speed. Given what I had just seen, it was monumentally foolish, illogical, and somehow necessary. I pushed my little car until the chassis shook, balding tires skimming along the slick concrete, finally free.

Dave Hurwitz

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.


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

Will bugs eat you if you’re not actually dead?

Posted in Rotten with tags , , , on March 24, 2008 by davehurwitz

Here’s the situation: You’re out hiking in mountains alone. You slip and fall off a moderate cliff and break your back. You’re not dead, but you can’t move either. Your cell phone and flare gun are useless because all your limbs are paralyzed. Will the bugs that consume dead bodies try and consume you?

I’ll give you the good news first. Many of the bugs that live on dead flesh are attracted to organic decay itself. The beetles that do the bulk of the eating sense dead animals in a way that is still poorly understood. They are not likely to drool over a live human, immobilized or not. Other bugs, generally referred to as “cheese-skippers” prefer the more advanced stages of decay, after your own digestive juices have gone work on you. The bottom line? If you aren’t stinky rotten, some bugs just aren’t interested.

Now for the bad news. Flies don’t care if you’re dead or not. Neither do ants. Flies will settle and lay eggs on any unmoving animal within twenty minutes. (There’s a pizza delivery joke in there somewhere, but I’ll resist.) Their favorite place to lay eggs? Open wounds. This isn’t as bad as it sounds, actually. Maggots eat necrotic flesh, and a good maggot infestation can actually save you from septicemia and gangrene. Just don’t get them in your eyes. Not all ants will eat flesh, but those that will don’t care if you’re dead or not. Hell, ants don’t care if you wiggle or not, so long as you can’t get away.

This sort of thing happens more often than you might think. Not just to hikers, but to botched suicides and the victims of amateurish murder attempts. But the most frequent subjects of unwanted insect infestation are the elderly and the ill. The most likely causes? Abuse and neglect.

So never hike alone, boys and girls. And choose Granny’s nursing home carefully.

Note: Many off the facts in this entry come from a lecture by David Faulkner, Forensic Entomologist. Any errors are my own.

David Hurwitz