30 April 2012


For this year's A-Z challenge, I'm posting juicy tidbits of researchy goodness for your interest and edification. I intend to use these as story prompts for the terrifying writing challenge Story a Day in May. You may use them however you wish.

Nice "z" word, right? I was tempted, also, to go with "zelatrix," which is the title of an older nun in charge of disciplining younger nuns, according to the much abridged definition at The Phrontistery. However, that just reminded me of this post by E.J. Wesley (scroll down for the nun in question) and I began to feel quite unoriginal.

Zeitgeber: from the German for "time giver," meaning "synchronizer," this word refers to external cues that help an organism sync up its internal clock to the earth's dark / light cycle. The process of synchronization is called entrainment.

Mark Sisson of Mark's Daily Apple notes that "The master mammalian circadian pacemaker is located in the hypothalamus, in a section known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN)." The mechanisms by which the SCN takes cues from the environment are three-fold:
the retino-hypothalamic tract, which directly delivers photic (light-derived) information; the geniculo-hypothalamic tract, which indirectly delivers photic information; and the raphe-hypothalamic tract, which uses serotonin to deliver non-photic information to the SCN. The SCN tells the pineal gland to secrete melatonin. Both photic information (like blue light) and non-photic information (like temperature, social cues, food availability, to name a few) act as zeitgebers with the ability to entrain (circadian synchronization in accordance with an outside cue is called entrainment) internal clocks.
I like the idea of an alien race that takes subtle cues in through new and unexpected organ systems; or, equally, the potential for the discovery of larger, extra-circadian rhythms we had no idea existed.

27 April 2012


For this year's A-Z challenge, I'm posting juicy tidbits of researchy goodness for your interest and edification. I intend to use these as story prompts for the terrifying writing challenge Story a Day in May. You may use them however you wish.

Wow you guys! One more post to go in the old A-Z challenge. Can you believe it? I can't believe it.

I've got good things coming up in May. I'll be hallucinating and raving and foaming at the mouth as I try to make all these posts into short stories. I won't be posting those - I don't tend to publish my fiction on this blog, and I write by hand, and I don't usually present unedited story glick to anyone, so. But I will be posting about my progress, and I'll be celebrating the amazing stuff we all did and learned this month with a giveaway or two in May.

I heartily encourage all of you to try Story a Day in May. It is the toughest challenge I've done. Beats the pants off NaNoWriMo for difficulty, so, you gain massive points in machismo or sheer Amazonian ninjitude or badassery or whatever. Plus when it's over, we'll all have a big stockpile of short fiction to edit and send out to magazines or collect and self-publish or whatever you do with your short fiction.

On to "y": I'll keep this super short. I imagine we're all suffering from A-Z fatigue by now.

Neil Gaiman included a lovely introduction in his short story collection Fragile Things, full of trivia about how and under what circumstances and why he wrote each story. This is his intro to "In the End:"
I was trying to imagine the very last book of the Bible. 
And on the subject of naming animals, can I just say how happy I was to discover that the word yeti, literally tranlslated, apparently means "that thing over there." ("Quick, brave Himalayan Guide - what's that thing over there?" 
"I see.")


26 April 2012


For this year's A-Z challenge, I'm posting juicy tidbits of researchy goodness for your interest and edification. I intend to use these as story prompts for the terrifying writing challenge Story a Day in May. You may use them however you wish.

After yesterday's mega-post, I'm keeping it super short tonight with a brief discussion of a single word: xenium.

A xenium, according to The Phrontistery, is "a gift made to a guest or ambassador; any compulsory gift." The related term, "xenial," means "of or concerning hospitality toward guests."

In Natalie Zemon Davis's book "The Gift in Sixteenth-Century France," she notes that "xenium" is a Greco-Roman term signifying "a gift to make a friend of a stranger."

Heather at The Word Blog further elaborates that in the medieval period, xenia were "gifts given by subjects to visiting princes and landholders." She adds, "You might think that this custom is now extinct, but I’m sure it must be directly connected to the bottle of wine we apartment dwellers give our landlords each New Year with the hope that they will continue to promptly attend to any plumbing woes that may beset us in future."

I see a lot of story potential in the concept of xenia. I'm wondering about the potential paradox entailed in the concept of a compulsory gift. If it isn't freely given, is it still a gift?


(By the way, if you're still looking for an "X" word, there's a list of unusual ones at the Phrontistery. I was tempted by xenogenesis until I remembered Octavia Butler already used it, and I am still interested in xanthocyanopsy.)

Wetiko, or, a New Approach to Old Deviltry

For this year's A-Z challenge, I'm posting juicy tidbits of researchy goodness for your interest and edification. I intend to use these as story prompts for the terrifying writing challenge Story a Day in May. You may use them however you wish.

Because of recent events in my personal life, I've been making a study of evil lately. I know in some circles it's considered an old-fashioned word, but I've always thought it relevant and applicable to all sorts of situations and even some people.

I'd watched someone I highly respected allow himself to become so deluded and corrupt that he was merely a shell of his former self. I wanted to understand why. Sure, there were lots of obvious reasons. Befriending assholes was one; climbing into a bottle was another. However, both of these "choices" felt more like symptoms than causes. They were not sufficient as an explanation.

Also, as a writer of horror, I want to hold up a candle to the darkness. I want to understand it so I can describe it.

So I read Hostage to the Devil, a book about exorcism and exorcists by Malachi Martin, a Jesuit and theologian. I learned from it, but somehow the Catholic / Christian approach to devils and the demonic didn't quite help me understand what had gone horribly wrong in my situation.

A little while back I heard about wetiko via an interview with author Paul Levy at Red Ice Radio. What's wetiko, you ask? It's a little (or maybe a lot) like the Matrix: It's in the very air we breathe, in our daily interactions with others. It's certainly in our governments and global economic system. It's in us.

Jack D. Forbes, Native-American and professor emeritus at UC Davis, wrote in his book Columbus and Other Cannibals, "Wétiko is a Cree term (windigo in Ojibway, wintiko in Powhatan) which refers to a cannibal or, more specifically, to an evil person or spirit who terrorizes other creatures by means of terrible evil acts, including cannibalism. Wétikowatisewin, an abstract noun, refers to 'diabolical wickedness or cannibalism.'"

Wetiko has been picked up by horror writers (most notably Algernon Blackwood) as a monster / plot device that signifies how scary the wilderness is, or provides a convenient excuse for cannibalistic behaviour in a character. Essentially, these approaches to wetiko have rendered it another boogeyman, in the tradition of any big bad monster. This is all in good fun but it misses the point (and is yet another form of appropriation of Native culture, itself a type of cannibalism). There is something much darker and more essential in the understanding of the term put forth by Forbes and later expanded upon by Levy.

By mmpratt99, via deviantART

Forbes's book Columbus and Other Cannibals is an attempt to answer a question posed by Derrick Jensen in his forward to the 2008 edition: "why is the dominant culture so excruciatingly, relentlessly, insanely, genocidally, ecocidally, suicidally destructive?"

Good question, right?

By partial answer, Forbes argues that "imperialism and exploitationism are forms of cannibalism and, in fact, are precisely those forms of cannibalism which are most diabolical or evil...the wealthy and exploitative literally consume the lives of those that they exploit." Forbes coined the terms "wetiko pychosis" and "wetiko disease" to highlight the sickness of boundless exploitation and greed for what it is: mass psychosis, a disease so prevalent, invisible, insidious, and vile that every atrocity committed in its name becomes normalized and rationalized by the perpetrators.

Events like the violent colonization of the Americas, slavery, and the Holocaust are obvious big outbreaks of wetiko psychosis, but it's the little daily routines that are really killing us. Other symptoms include "raw consumption for profit, carried out often in an ugly and brutal manner," double dealing, the ability to say one thing and do another, the easy way that European culture has of dividing people into "us" and "them," the disregard for and enslavement of nature, disrespect to living creatures at all levels and a separation from what's natural.

Levy, a Jungian thinker whose personal experience with wetiko changed his life, argues that wetiko is a pathogen that sits in the collective unconscious. Levy coined the term "malignant egophrenia" to describe wetiko-like behaviour. Later, when he encountered Forbes's work on wetiko psychosis, he realized that they were talking about the same phenomenon.

In a 2011 article for Sign of the Times, Levy writes,
Speaking in his own language about the predation of the wetiko virus, the spiritual teacher Don Juan, of the Carlos Castaneda books, mentions that the ancient shamans called this "the topic of topics."[xi] Don Juan explains, "We have a companion for life...We have a predator that came from the depths of the cosmos and took over the rule of our lives. Human beings are its prisoners. The predator is our lord and master."[xii] ...Don Juan continues, "It has rendered us docile, helpless. If we want to protest, it suppresses our protest. If we want to act independently, it demands that we don't do so."[xiii] It is striking how Don Juan's description of the effects of these predators is being enacted in our increasingly militarized society, as our freedoms and liberties get taken away step by step. It is as if an inner, invisible state of affairs existing as a yet unrealized archetypal pattern deep within the soul of humanity is revealing itself by materializing in, as, and through the outside world.
I find this concept really useful for working with ideas of good and evil. There are a lot of people who will say that evil is our baseline, that unthinking violence is all we would be capable of if we were not "civilized" through culture.  I have never thought this to be true. Rather, it seems to me that the process of learning to get along in our culture is one of numbing and dumbing down, of learning to dull our connections to those around us in order that we might do what's required. The more in tune we are with dominant culture, the more assoholic we become. Wickedness is something we pass back and forth to each other. It circulates, like living pain.

William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Dante and Virgil in Hell (1850)

Levy's infection metaphor is apt:
The wetiko germ is a psychic tapeworm, a parasite of the mind. Just like certain computer viruses or malware infect and program a computer to self-destruct, mind-viruses like wetiko can program the human bio-computer to think, believe and behave in ways that result in our self-destruction. Wetiko is a virulent, psychic pathogen that insinuates thought-forms into our mind which, when unconsciously en-acted, feed it, and ultimately kills its host (us).
Like a cancer of the mind that metastasizes, in wetiko disease, a pathological part of the psyche co-opts and subsumes all of the healthy parts of the psyche into itself so as to serve its pathology. The personality then self-organizes an outer display of coherence around this pathogenic core, which 'masks' the inner dysfunction, making it hard to recognize. In a psychic coup d'etat, the wetiko bug can usurp and displace the person, who becomes its puppet and marionette....In advanced stages, this process takes over the person so completely that we could rightfully say the person is no longer there; they are just an empty shell carrying the disease. In a sense there is just the disease, operating through what appears to be a human being. The person becomes fully identified with their mask, their persona, but it is as if there is no one behind the mask.
By Anita Zofia Siuda

Having witnessed what looked very much like a pathogenic takeover of an individual - the last person on the planet I would have expected to crumble - the concept of wetiko psychosis makes a great deal of sense to me. I think Forbes and Levy are exploring human consciousness in a very important way. Wetiko does not benefit from being understood or identified, so if it seems like a slippery concept, that's no coincidence. It is in its nature to hide itself. Putting a name to the previously unnamed is tricky business. It's like explaining water to a fish.

24 April 2012

VD Attack Plan

It is time for my annual STD post. Cuddle up, girls and boys. It's story time.

This is a war story. It could be anywhere in the world. It could involve anyone. It could only take place within the human body. 

VD Attack Plan courtesy of the ephemeral film collection at The Internet Archive.

23 April 2012


For this year's A-Z challenge, I'm posting juicy tidbits of researchy goodness for your interest and edification. I intend to use these as story prompts for the terrifying writing challenge Story a Day in May. You may use them however you wish.

Okay, maybe it's an obvious "U" word, but I am in love with it after researching it, so schner.

Via Daily Undertaker

The English term "undertaker" refers exclusively to funeral directors / morticians. (If this thread on the Coffin Talk forum is to be believed, "undertaker" was the preferred term before the 1930s; mortician had only a brief vogue in the late 1800s / early 1900s, and "funeral director" is currently in, though I knew a guy who called himself a mortician quite proudly.)


Originally, "undertaker" had a much more broad meaning. The Word Detective notes that in the 14th century, the word referred to someone who agreed to take responsibility for or promised to complete a task. So the term was generic: you had your public works undertaker, your cathedral building undertaker, etc. "Funeral undertaker" was a subset of the larger category of undertakers. By the late 17th century, however, presumably due to the increasing pressures of euphemism, "undertaker" had come to mean one type of undertaking, of the dealing-with-the-deceased variety.

Directionality plays a key role in determining the fate of words, as it turns out. The similar term in French, which also originally meant "one who agrees to take on a task" is "entrepreneur." "Entre" comes from the Latin term meaning "between" and "prendre" means "to take, " according to Webster's Online. Similar to "undertaker," the term "entrepreneur" was originally used like the English "undertaker," and required qualification: "entrepreneur des pompes funèbres." My French is not accomplished enough to discover if this term is still in active use beyond the job listings and college program listings a casual online search reveals, but there are also the terms "conseiller funéraire" (funeral coordinator), "porteur" (apparently a job unto itself?), which involves handling the casket and transporting it, and the fabulous, much-better-than-the-English-equivalent "thanatopracteur" (embalmer). (Here, loved ones carry the casket, so "porteur" as a profession surprised me a bit.)

Obviously, "entrepreneur" in its form as an English loan word has an entirely different set of meanings.


Likewise in Italian the parallel term has never suffered the fate of the English "undertaker." The word is "impresario," from the noun "impresa," which equally tranlsates "enterprise" or "undertaking." The phrase is "impresario di pompe funebri." "Impresa," depending on context, can mean "firm," "business," or "exploit." Impresario on its own refers to a theatre manager / producer, one who is responsible for funding and executing the theatrical season, a term originally used in the world of opera.  Thomas Hewitt Key, in his 1898 work Philological Essays, noted that the related verb, "imprendere," also has the sense "to learn," and argues that the prefix ("im") is connected, via a Greek preposition, with the particle "up."

If ever I do write a story about a funeral director, I shall feel obligated, I think, to call it "The Impresario."


Topography of the Psyche, or, the Craft of Lovecraft

For this year's A-Z challenge, I'm posting juicy tidbits of researchy goodness for your interest and edification. I intend to use these as story prompts for the terrifying writing challenge Story a Day in May. You may use them however you wish.

I want to share a theory with you that has been simmering because of my recent plunge into Lovecraft. In the past month I've been working my way through some early parts of the Cthulhu Mythos. I started reading a story or so at bed time, and almost immediately began having vivid dreams that drew heavily upon their imagery.

The more I read, the more I started to see resonances between Lovecraft's stuff and certain other experiences I've had. I think I'm onto something here, something we can maybe use in our writing, possibly to great effect.

Via Webcowgirl's review of Orono Productions' Dunwich Horror

Bear with me.

I've participated in my fair share of guided visualization classes. If you've ever listened to a "meditation" CD that takes you on a little journey using imagery, you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, well, you should give it a whirl. Basically, a guided visualization CD or instructor will have you close your eyes and picture or imagine different places / images in order to effect a healing or transformation.

(Sidenote: I distinguish between meditation proper and guided visualization, though you'll hear people call guided visualization "meditation." For my money, meditation is about trying to think about nothing / emptying your mind. Guided visualization entails slipping into a hyper relaxed state and going on a little journey.)

In any case, there are a few guided visualization formats out there. Most of them use specific features to get you to engage and shift different aspects of your psyche. These features are often topographical in nature: describing the physical features of a landscape, including hills and valleys, mountains and seas, as well as artificial features like buildings. You picture going down a forest path, or climbing stairs (up or down - I'll get to that). You enter a temple on top of a mountain, or drop into a secret passage that takes you into a room deep underground.

Maple of Ratibor

How you travel in a guided visualization determines which part of the psyche you're accessing. (I am no expert - this is my understanding of how it works based on taking classes.) If you travel to a mountain top, you're engaging with higher consciousness / matters of the spirit / your higher self. If you go down or underground you're entering into the realm of the subconscious. Other features can symbolize / assist with transitions between dimensions: traveling on a boat across water will help you shift into a deeper engagement with the self; entering a temple signifies a movement into the realm of the sacred where you can seek guidance or receive energies to help you on your path.

In guided visualization, the end goal of these journeys is to integrate new energies, make shifts in your life, or transform stale patterns or negative modes of thinking that no longer serve.

Lovecraft used topography lavishly in his stories, albeit to entirely different effects. I think his use of topography has a great deal to do with how infectious his work is. Have you ever encountered someone who is a big Lovecraft fan? How they'll talk about the Cthulhu Mythos or other aspects of his work, without really being able to explain what makes it so amazing? There's a certain glazed-look, foaming-at-the-mouth quality to these people, as if they've not only read him and liked him, but shared in his madness. (I say "these people" but I've had to wipe away my fair share of foam in my recent discussions of my readings.)

If you take a look at the Cthulhu Mythos list of stories, you can see how many writers in the early years contributed to it. Lovecraft was apparently a very active correspondent then, and he drew many minds into his worldview. His vision is dark, to say the least. One might also call it paranoid.

I think it works on people so effectively because Lovecraft's stories invite you to travel across vivid physical landscapes. You travel across wide plains; out open windows and into cities across mountains and time; you jump onto trollies in abandoned wildernesses; you journey down the longest, darkest staircases.

In using topography like he does, Lovecraft is perhaps accessing the same mechanisms as guided visualization. However, rather than finding the light-filled temple of the soul at the heart of the journey, he populates his destinations with nightmares.

The twentieth century was in many ways a nightmarish period. World war, economic depression, the honing of new tools of mass murder, the rise of modernism, the termination of philosophical thought in an especially dreary form of skepticism - these all pointed toward a loss of meaning. Lovecraft's stories take you to a place that you always suspected was there: it's dark, it's cold, and it's full of creatures who simply do not care, whose mere touch will transform you, violate you, and end you. They whisper, "You always knew this was it. As bad as you dreamed it could be, it is, and worse."

There's something powerful in using place, or - to give it the most mundane of its names - setting - the way Lovecraft did. Writers, this is worth emulating, yes / yes?

By Robert Atkinson

From "The Nameless City"

Then a brighter flare of the fantastic flame shewed me that for which I had been seeking, the opening to those remoter abysses whence the sudden wind had blown; and I grew faint when I saw that it was a small and plainly artificial door chiselled in the solid rock. I thrust my torch within, beholding a black tunnel with the roof arching low over a rough flight of very small, numerous, and steeply descending steps. I shall always see those steps in my dreams, for I came to learn what they meant. At the time I hardly knew whether to call them steps or mere foot-holds in a precipitous descent. My mind was whirling with mad thoughts, and the words and warnings of Arab prophets seemed to float across the desert from the lands that men know to the nameless city that men dare not know. Yet I hesitated only a moment before advancing through the portal and commencing to climb cautiously down the steep passage, feet first, as though on a ladder.

It is only in the terrible phantasms of drugs or delirium that any other man can have had such a descent as mine. The narrow passage led infinitely down like some hideous haunted well, and the torch I held above my head could not light the unknown depths toward which I was crawling. I lost track of the hours and forgot to consult my watch, though I was frightened when I thought of the distance I must be traversing. There were changes of direction and of steepness, and once I came to a long, low, level passage where I had to wriggle feet first along the rocky floor, holding my torch at arm’s length beyond my head. The place was not high enough for kneeling. After that were more of the steep steps, and I was still scrambling down interminably when my failing torch died out. I do not think I noticed it at the time, for when I did notice it I was still holding it high above me as if it were ablaze. I was quite unbalanced with that instinct for the strange and the unknown which has made me a wanderer upon earth and a haunter of far, ancient, and forbidden places.

In the darkness there flashed before my mind fragments of my cherished treasury of daemoniac lore; sentences from Alhazred the mad Arab, paragraphs from the apocryphal nightmares of Damascius, and infamous lines from the delirious Image du Monde of Gauthier de Metz. I repeated queer extracts, and muttered of Afrasiab and the daemons that floated with him down the Oxus; later chanting over and over again a phrase from one of Lord Dunsany’s tales—“the unreverberate blackness of the abyss”. Once when the descent grew amazingly steep I recited something in sing-song from Thomas Moore until I feared to recite more:

“A reservoir of darkness, black
As witches’ cauldrons are, when fill’d
With moon-drugs in th’ eclipse distill’d.
Leaning to look if foot might pass
Down thro’ that chasm, I saw, beneath,
As far as vision could explore,
The jetty sides as smooth as glass,
Looking as if just varnish’d o’er
With that dark pitch the Sea of Death
Throws out upon its slimy shore.”

Time had quite ceased to exist when my feet again felt a level floor, and I found myself in a place slightly higher than the rooms in the two smaller temples now so incalculably far above my head. I could not quite stand, but could kneel upright, and in the dark I shuffled and crept hither and thither at random. I soon knew that I was in a narrow passage whose walls were lined with cases of wood having glass fronts. As in that Palaeozoic and abysmal place I felt of such things as polished wood and glass I shuddered at the possible implications. The cases were apparently ranged along each side of the passage at regular intervals, and were oblong and horizontal, hideously like coffins in shape and size. When I tried to move two or three for further examination, I found they were firmly fastened.

21 April 2012

Strange Fruit

In 1937, a high school teacher named Abel Meeropol published a poem called "Bitter Fruit" in the union magazine The New York TeacherAccording to the wiki, it is commonly thought that he was reacting to a widely circulated photo of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, two black men who were pulled out of jail, beaten with sledgehammers, and hung from a tree in Marion, Indiana in 1930. Such photos were sold as postcards and were wildly popular, because people are ghouls and that was true then like it's true now. Meeropol set the song to music and performed it in New York.

Billie Holiday began performing the song, retitled "Strange Fruit," at Café Society, New York's first integrated nightclub, in 1939. Peter Daniels, writing for World Socialist Web Site, notes that the song faced major resistance: it received scant radio time, and Holiday was forbidden to perform it at some clubs. The Rapp-Coudert Committee, a precursor to the McCarthy hearings, interrogated Meeropol on the origin of the song, apparently seeking a way to ban it.

"Strange Fruit" was one of the first pieces of popular culture to protest the practice of lynching. If you've heard it, you know how haunting it is. Daniels describes it as "unusual...not in the folk song tradition, not quite jazz." To my ear it sounds very old, as old as injustice itself.


Strange Fruit 
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves
Blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
The scent of magnolia sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
for the rain to gather
for the wind to suck
for the sun to rot
for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

19 April 2012


For this year's A-Z challenge, I'm posting juicy tidbits of researchy goodness for your interest and edification. I intend to use these as story prompts for the terrifying writing challenge Story a Day in May. You may use them however you wish.

At the end of World War II, when it became clear that the Nazi war machine was going down in a big flash of crazy, certain members of the German elite decided it was time to get out of Dodge. They went via ratlines (Rattenlinien).

Named after the rope-ladder-like rigging sailors use to climb on sailing ships, the ratlines were organized networks that allowed war criminals safe passage, mostly to South America. Documentaries, novels and films (The Odessa File, Boys from Brazil) have dealt with the theme of the escape of war criminals after WWII. I find the notion of ratlines fascinating because of what they suggest about the sheer endurance of evil.


18 April 2012


For this year's A-Z challenge, I'm posting juicy tidbits of researchy goodness for your interest and edification. I intend to use these as story prompts for the terrifying writing challenge Story a Day in May. You may use them however you wish.

"Quack" as a derogatory term for a scammer healer has a long history. The word derives from "quacksalver," a term coined in the 1570s from the Dutch "kwaksalver," literally "hawker of salve," according to Online Etymology Dictionary. The term has versions in German (Quacksalber), Danish (kvaksalver), and Swedish (kvacksalvare).

The Quacksalver by Rembrandt, 1635

As Europe became increasingly urbanised throughout the 16th century, and people moved away from small communities, it was less and less possible to rely on a local and well known wise woman or healer (often your own mom). Apothecaries or physicians - the university trained variety of doctor - were expensive, and might not have the miracle cure you were looking for.

Enter the snake oil salesmen.

A huge part of the quacksalver's game was performance, including an enactment of the miraculous curative properties of whatever cordial, syrup, or salve that was for sale that day (usually performed by an assistant who was an employee of the quacksalver). Travelling quacksalvers used a form of theatrical performance familiar to us via the late night infomercial. (There is a fabulous example of this in Andrew Miller's wonderful novel Ingenious Pain.)


Their actual healing skills might be dodgy, but they would sell you a cure at an extremely reasonable price. As time went on, the term "quacksalver" came to apply to any would be healer with questionable skills, including the barber-surgeon. ("Physician" did not equate to "surgeon" originally - if you needed surgery - a tooth pulled, a boil lanced, or something cut out or sewn up - you went to a barber, not a doctor).

A typical day at the barber-surgeon's.
Above all, quacksalvers held out hope to those who otherwise could not be cured, or did not have access to care. They're still with us today: you can hardly avoid encountering them. (I call them "pharmaceutical companies", but that's a cynical post for another time.)

By object... Via Medico Della Peste

17 April 2012


For this year's A-Z challenge, I'm posting juicy tidbits of researchy goodness for your interest and edification. I intend to use these as story prompts for the terrifying writing challenge Story a Day in May. You may use them however you wish.

So let me tell you about this really fabulous art project that's coming up, or rather, let this extremely brief and gorgeous looking video tell you.

I can see all kinds of neat ways to use Souther and Monica's Trading Tortoise idea as inspiration for a story...because the travelogue is such a primal form of storytelling, and what are the chances they won't pick up a cursed object or two on their journey?

(I earned the right to think such things, however devious they may be, because I contributed to their kickstarter fund. You should too.)

16 April 2012

Octopus, Octopodes, Octopuses

I'm momentarily suspending my story prompt theme to talk about my inspiration for a story I've already written. This post still contains juicy tidbits of researchy goodness for your interest and edification. 


A while ago, a call for stories went out from Obsolescent Press for a highly unusual themed anthology. While open to stories of any genre or style, the anthology would be themed around "the most noble and fascinating of marine animals, the octopus."


I researched them. I learned that the correct pluralization of "octopus" is "octopuses" or "octopodes," not "octopi" or "octopii." I learned that an octopus has nine brains, three hearts, and eyes similar to vertebrate eyes, but better because they lack our blind spot. They are the pinnacle of a line of evolution that separated from ours way, way back. They are smart. They learn from each other, solve puzzles, and remember what they've learned. They're highly adaptive. They are squishy.

I had a blast imagining and entering the mindset of an octopus for the story I wrote in response to the call, so I was tickled pink when it was accepted. Suction Cup Dreams, which will include my story "Three-Hearted," is now in prepress. I'll let you know when it comes out.

Noli Me Tangere

My original plan with this article was going to be to discuss the disease Noli me tangere ("touch me not" or "don't touch me"). Noli me tangere is one of those medieval and Renaissance disease categories that probably included what modern medicine considers a few different diseases, definitely lupus exedens, a skin disease that you should not Google or click any links associated with unless you are really into looking at medical photographs of distressing conditions, and basal cell cancer (ditto).

The one very interesting thing I learned while researching Noli me tangere the disease is that one Renaissance cure for it involved macerating tobacco and applying the juice and leaves to the facial lesions. Anne Charlton, writing about "The Medicinal Uses of Tobacco in History" in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, notes that a page who was suffering from Noli me tangere cured his condition entirely by applying tobacco to it. (As a historical sidenote, that page was a member of Jean Nicot's household. Nicot was the French ambassador to Lisbon. He became such an enthusiast of tobacco's healing properties that people called the plant after him: it was called "the ambassador's herb" or nicotiane.)

Anyhow, that was all very interesting, but while searching for info on Noli me tangere I was reminded of  the iconographic tradition associated with the same phrase. This is something I came across during my grad school research but, like many other avenues of interest, I had no time to explore it thoroughly. So here we go. 

"Noli me tangere" as many of you probably know, is what Jesus Christ is supposed to have said to Mary Magdalene when she first meets him, post-resurrection, in John 20:11-18. She goes to the tomb to carry out the sombre task of embalming him, only to find that the body is missing. She (quite naturally, I think) breaks down and cries. Angels ask her, "Why do you cry?" A man asks her, "Why do you cry?" She says, "If you have taken him, bring him back." (I figure she imagines the grave has been robbed.) The man says her name. It's Jesus. 

He tells her "Touch me not, for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and [to] my God, and your God." (KJV) 

It seems to me quite natural that one would want to embrace a loved one who has returned from the grave, especially if they don't resemble a zombie.

"Give me some sugar."
Nicholas Poussin 1653

According to Barbara Baert, writing for Image and Narrative, "No other utterance by Christ has been the subject of as much discussion by the first Church Fathers as Noli me tangere." She notes that, via various complexities of translation, the phrase could mean "do not cling to me," "do not wish to touch me," or "you must let go of me." A massive exegetical (interpretive) tradition sprang up around the meaning of these words, as did an iconographic tradition named after the three words uttered by Christ. These images seem to position Mary Magdalene as desiring contact, and Christ as either repelling her or blessing her.

A lot of Noli me tangere artists gave Jesus karate hands
Hans Holbein the Younger, 1524

I find these images a little bit comical at times. At others, I think they seem to address the very profound and human aspects that surround living in this brutal physical existence, transcending it, achieving ascension as Christ did, and what happens to your friends and loved ones after you're gone, and (even more confusing) should you hang around for a while. That has got to be a head trip, you know?

Some Noli Christ figures are more standoffish than others
Alexander Ivanov 1835
I think the Noli me tangere art tradition also speaks to the fear of woman, the divine feminine, and of the flesh that took root in the Christian church. Mary Magdalene was the most important woman in Christ's discipleship. (And yeah, if you've read The Da Vinci Code, you know all about some of the theories around her.) Apocryphal texts, including Gnostic gospels, note that Mary Magdalene was more beloved of Jesus than any of his other disciples, and jealousy sprang up in them because of her. She was either Yoko Ono or Jesus's right-hand man, depending on who you read and whether you think a woman has potential as a powerful spiritual disciple and teacher or not. (Two guesses as to where I sit on this issue.)

Note the sign of the horns: heavy metal appropriated it, but it's a traditional warding gesture
1250 AD Source

I find the whole idea of a Noli me tangere iconic tradition fascinating. In the huge variety of postures in Noli me tangere art, you can see the artists' struggle to figure out exactly what the relationship was between Jesus and this woman who was both derided and exalted because of her position.

I've learned to use the two finger gesture to attack points in martial arts...
not sure what the intention is here
Spanish Noli Me Tangere, 1060-95
Further iterations:

I love that she also has a halo here.
Fra Bartolomeo 1506

Many images show Mary touching her heart centre.
Bartholomäus Spranger 1598
The labyrinth symbolizes a spiritual journey.
This is well worth viewing full-sized. Absolutely gorgeous.
Lambert Sustris 1515-20

A rare example of hands-on contact. Beautiful.
Alonso Cano 1640

13 April 2012

The Moon Hoax, 1835

For this year's A-Z challenge, I'm posting juicy tidbits of researchy goodness for your interest and edification. I intend to use these as story prompts for the terrifying writing challenge Story a Day in May. You may use them however you wish.

From Practical Talks by an Astronomer by Harold Jacoby

Astronomer John Herschel set out in 1833 to the Cape of Good Hope so he could get some peace and quiet and study the jewels of the night sky, as visible in the Southern hemisphere. In 1835, the New York Sun began publishing (completely fabricated) articles about his alleged findings. According to these reports, Herschel had discovered life on the moon. The English speaking world went bonkers. 

In his 1902 book Practical Talks by an Astronomer, Harold Jacoby reproduces some of the juicier bits of those reports:

There was animal life as well; "We beheld continuous herds of brown quadrupeds, having all the external characteristics of the bison, but more diminutive than any species of the bos genus in our natural history." There was a kind of beaver, that "carries its young in its arms like a human being," and lives in huts. "From the appearance of smoke in nearly all of them, there is no doubt of its (the beaver's) being acquainted with the use of fire." Finally, as was, of course, unavoidable, human creatures were discovered. "Whilst gazing in a perspective of about half a mile, we were thrilled with astonishment to perceive four successive flocks of large-winged creatures, wholly unlike any kind of birds, descend with a slow, even motion from the cliffs on the western side, and alight upon the plain.... Certainly they were like human beings, and their attitude in walking was both erect and dignified."

A typical moon-dwelling humanoid, circa 1835.

In fact Herschel was busy observing some 1300 new star clusters and nebulae. Jacoby doesn't record Herschel's response, if there was any, to the hoax. Jacoby does have this to say about it: "The public attitude toward matters scientific is one of the mysteries of our time. It can be described best by the single word, Credulity; simple, absolute credulity."

12 April 2012


For this year's A-Z challenge, I'm posting juicy tidbits of researchy goodness for your interest and edification. I intend to use these as story prompts for the terrifying writing challenge Story a Day in May. You may use them however you wish.

This is the first of these postings I'm writing in response to a call for stories, specifically, Brian M. Sammons's and Glynn Owen Barrass's Steampunk Cthulhu anthology, deadline coming up July 31. According to the Snell's Market Scoop interview, they're looking for feel bad stories that seamlessly blend the steampunk aesthetic with elements from the Cthulhu mythos. Pro tip: just because it's steampunk, don't feel that you have to limit yourself to a Victorian British setting. They're looking for tales outside of that setting also.

by Don Kenn, drawn on a post-it

How fun is that? I don't know about you, but I love writing stories for super specific anthologies, the weirder, the better. Something about limitations gets my imagination working overtime.

From Kevin Weir's Flux Machine

To prime the pump a little, here's a wee bit from the opening of "The Call of Cthulhu," the first of Lovecraft's Cthulhu stories (or at least, the first story in which he mentioned Cthulhu by name - the mythos includes some earlier tales). "Call" was first published in Weird Tales in 1928.
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Birth of Cthulhu
by Cyril van der Haegen
Complete list of awesome Lovecraft in-jokes here

p.s. If you are a Lovecraft noob, but want to read more, Cthulhu Chick assembled the complete works into a handy document with a smexy cover so we could all enjoy it. No copyright violations here: Lovecraft's stuff is all public domain. pdf or versions for your Nook or Kindle are yours for a few clicks. While you're there, consider sending her some warm wishes for her healing journey - she's waiting to recover from a work-related injury so she can once again take up her hobby of crocheting cthulhus. (If you download the collection and you've got a couple of dollars to spare, slide her those too - she put some time and effort into that eBook.)

11 April 2012


For this year's A-Z challenge, I'm posting juicy tidbits of researchy goodness for your interest and edification. I intend to use these as story prompts for the terrifying writing challenge Story a Day in May. You may use them however you wish.

This is Beth. In the video from which this still is taken, she's six and a half.

Beth is a killer. She hasn't killed a person, but she talks very candidly about wanting to kill her brother and her parents.

***This post gets a little bit graphic and a lot horrible, though it does have a positive ending. Click through to read the rest if you wish.***

10 April 2012


For this year's A-Z challenge, I'm posting juicy tidbits of researchy goodness for your interest and edification. I intend to use these as story prompts for the terrifying writing challenge Story a Day in May. You may use them however you wish.

Once upon a time, copying a document was a matter of re-writing it out by hand, or going through an expensive and difficult process of typesetting. For a single person, duplicating and distributing multiple copies of a document in short order was impossible (although in 1780 James Watt kludged a single-copy process involving pressing damp tissue paper onto a handwritten document, as did I when I was six and bored and playing with magic markers).

Enter William Perkin. While trying to create synthetic quinine in 1856, Perkin was cleaning out one of his flasks. The gunk in the flask turned bright mauve when he mixed it with alcohol. Thus mauveine, the first synthetic organic chemical dye, was created. (Wiki)

This was important for two reasons: one, it changed the 1862 fashion season when Queen Victoria wore a gown dyed with Perkin's mauve.

Mauveine dress, circa 1870-73

According to Kinky Graphic Design History, the same dye appeared on a penny postage stamp, and simply everywhere.


More pertinently to this post, Robyn Tait, writing for the Bulletin of the Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material, notes that Perkin's dye had the right chemical properties for a transferable ink. Soon upon the heels of this discovery, the jellygraph, also known as the gelatin duplicator or hectograph (for its supposed ability to produce a hundred copies), was born.


The jellygraph was a precursor to the Ditto machines that, if you're of the right vintage like me, or if you grew up in a school district that was limited in its technologies, you'll remember your teachers using to produce copies of tests and whatnot. Remember that purple ink? That's Perkin's mauve, although the Ditto machine used a different technology to transfer the ink.

If you've had a tattoo, your artist might have used a transfer to get the design onto your skin. The ink was probably purple - also Perkin's mauve.

The jellygraph is especially fascinating because if you have access to Perkin's mauve or some other aniline dye and a source of gelatin, you can make one yourself in a tray. In other words, you can gain somewhat easy access to a duplication device that is completely disposable. WWII Prisoners at Stalag Luft III and Colditz Castle used jellygraphs to copy documents so they could plan their escape. I can think of all kinds of situations where a jellygraph might come in handy.

Make yours today!

Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition

For this year's A-Z challenge, I'm posting juicy tidbits of researchy goodness for your interest and edification. I intend to use these as story prompts for the terrifying writing challenge Story a Day in May. You may use them however you wish. 

I was going to write a post about the Inquisition, but all I could think about was this.

Now that that's out of my system:

The Inquisition - more properly, Inquisitions - were established in order to seek out and eliminate heretics - i.e., anyone who didn't fall in line with official church policy and political goals. When the Catholic Church formed the Medieval (and first) Inquisition, one of the main groups they targeted was the Cathars.

The Cathars followed a Gnostic model of belief, which held that there were, essentially, two Gods: a corrupt one that ruled over creation, and a benevolent one to whom we really owe our loyalty. (The first time I learned about this theological theory was by reading Philip K. Dick's Valis trilogy. I thought, well, that explains a lot.)

Rather than the seven Catholic sacraments (baptism, confirmation, eucharist, penance / confession, marriage, holy orders, anointing of the sick), the Cathars had only one: consolamentum, or consolation. A credente, or believer, would take consolamentum once, and become a "parfait" or Perfect. There were no do-overs, so the Parfait had to uphold the highest degree of behaviour and belief.

After years of persecution and outright warfare, the Cathars were finally massacred and rooted out by Inquisition forces.

Before the massacre at the Cathar stronghold of Montségur, a small number of Cathars escaped with something called le tresor cathar. No one knows what exactly this treasure actually was - some say it was the Holy Grail. Some researchers link the treasure to the sudden and inexplicable wealth of Bérenger Saunière, a 19th century priest.

(I realize this is a little bit more of a Cathar-ish post than an Inquisatorial one. *shrugs* I trust you'll recover eventually.)


09 April 2012

Aitch Eeee Double Hockey Sticks

For this year's A-Z challenge, I'm posting juicy tidbits of researchy goodness for your interest and edification. I intend to use these as story prompts for the terrifying writing challenge Story a Day in May. You may use them however you wish. 

Oh, hell. That darkest of dark places goes hand in hand with horror and dark fantasy. Clive Barker featured it recently in Mister B. Gone, that devil in novel form. (One of the most lovingly designed volumes I've seen in recent years. If you want to read it, do not buy the audio book version. Seriously, you need to hold it in your hands to fully enjoy it.)

Neil Gaiman did it in his short story "Other People." If you've got the time, here he is reading it:

Of course, earlier authors spent a lot of time in hell. Milton's Paradise Lost starts there, as does Dante's Divine Comedy. There is much to shrug your shoulders at in Dante, since he was taken up with writing social satire, and spends a lot of time putting real people of his day in the various circles of hell for kicks. He does, however, manage to slide some absolutely weird and enduring imagery into his Inferno. For my money, it doesn't get better than the Wood of the Self-Murderers, in the seventh circle. Here's a passage:
I heard wailings uttered on every side, and I saw no one who might make them, wherefore, I, all bewildered, stopped. I believe that he [Virgil, Dante's guide in hell] believed that I believed that all these voices issued amid those stumps from people who because of us had hidden themselves. Therefore said the Master, "If thou break off a twig from one of these plants, the thoughts thou hast will all be cut short." 
Then I stretched my hand a little forward and plucked a branchlet from a great thorn bush, and its trunk cried out, "Why dost thou rend me?" When it had become dark with blood it began again to cry, "Why dost thou tear me? hast thou not any spirit of pity? Men we were, and now we are become stocks; truly thy hand ought to be more pitiful had we been the souls of serpents." 
As from a green log that is burning at one of its ends, and from the other drips, and hisses with the air that is escaping so from that broken splinter came out words and blood together; whereon I let the tip fall, and stood like a man who is afraid.
If you were writing hell, what would it be like?

William Blake, The Wood of the Self-Murderers (1824-7)

07 April 2012

Gabriel Hounds

For this year's A-Z challenge, I'm posting juicy tidbits of researchy goodness for your interest and edification. I intend to use these as story prompts for the terrifying writing challenge Story a Day in May. You may use them however you wish.

From Abbey Lubbers, Banshees & Boggarts by Katharine Briggs:
"In the late Autumn great flocks of wild geese and other birds fly down the wide rivers on their way south, and in the early Spring they come up again to their nesting places in the north, and the quick beat of their wings and the cries they make to each other to keep together sound like the yelping and barking of hounds high up in the air. In old days people used to believe that these noises were made by ghostly hounds with human heads who flew high up in the air, hunting the souls of unrepentant sinners."

Illustration by Yvonne Gilbert

"If they hovered over a house it was thought to be a death token, and people who were out alone at night and heard them pass overhead were terrified. They were called different names in different parts of the country: the Gabriel Hounds, the Gabriel Ratchets, the Devil's Dandy Dogs, the Sky Yelpers and, in Wales, Cwn Annwn. Whatever they were called, people were glad to seek the shelter of a house when they crossed over, but most people now know that they are only birds and wish them good fortune on their perilous journey."

With all due respect to Katharine Briggs, I find that there's a certain condescending tone to some folklore reports. It seems extremely unlikely to me that people from long ago, whose lives depended on the changes of the seasons and access to wild animals for food, would mistake a goose for a spectral hound. Whenever I hear of legends like the Gabriel Hounds, I think that people back then must have had access to a more extensive range of perception than we currently enjoy.

On the other hand, Yvonne Gilbert's illustration there makes me wonder how hilarious it would be to find and raise a Gabriel Hound puppy.

Not a Gabriel Hound, just our Boston at one month.

06 April 2012

Fanfic and the Face of Glory

My friends, I have passed a strange milestone in my writing career. It is not one that I expected to pass quite this early, if ever, and certainly not before I published at least a book-length work.

I have inspired fanfic.

See, a while ago, a certain pink-haired goddess named Mrs. Cookie Mick got in touch with me about the story I published in One Buck Horror, "The Last Nephew." She had a bit of an objection to the open-endedness of that story and proposed a solution:
I paused for a moment or two. What do I think about fanfiction? I've never written any, but I've read a bit here and there. (Dear K/S slashers, you are perverted and you are still my favourites.)

What did I think about having a fanfiction written based on my story? I thought "woohoo!" Seriously, how fun is that?

Mrs. Cookie wrote me soon after with the banner art she (and her co-author, I think) had designed:

Yes, that's Haley Joel Osment in the upper righthand corner.

And a little while ago they posted their first chapter at The Writer's Coffee Shop Library. (You have to register to read it.) It's taking the narrative in a whole new direction and building a mythology of magic around it. I have to say it's really, really cool to see how something I wrote inspired someone else. Seriously, super cool.

On to the researchy goodness portion of the program:

The Face of Glory
Also known as Kīrttimukha, the face of a lion-headed monster which embodied the destructive power of the universal god. It was the only part which survived his self-consumption. The Face of Glory has become a symbol of protective wrath, but does not inspire fear in the Hindau devotee.

More info on Kīrttimukha 

The face of a lion-headed monster, created by Shiva when he was challenged by Jalamdhara It embodies the powers of the universal god. The ravenous monster intended to devour Rāhu but when he was deprived of his prey, Shiva suggested he feed on his own flesh. He started with his hands and feet, then his arms and legs, belly, chest, and neck until finally only the head remained. Shiva declared that the head would be known as Kīrttimukha, the Face of Glory, and object of worship. It was placed on the lintels of Shiva's temple and as guardian of thresholds.
From Encyclopedia Mythica

Jyostna Kamat of Kamat's Potpourri compares the Face of Glory to the green man motif in English church architecture. She also notes,
Every Hindu temple has the face of lion at the apex entrance carved artistically. This lion-face appears at the top of the door, niche, and windows as well. The countenances of man and lion are fused and it is also know as Simhamuka or Simhalalata. It is supposed to lead worshippers to Supreme Reality.
A common view of the Face is that it has a warding effect, like an anti evil eye.


05 April 2012

This Way to the Egress

For this year's A-Z challenge, I'm posting juicy tidbits of researchy goodness for your interest and edification. I intend to use these as story prompts for the terrifying writing challenge Story a Day in May. You may use them however you wish.

From The Lost Museum

In many ways, P.T. Barnum's American Museum (1841-1865) was the epitome of our modern era in which the media manages to both manipulate and disappoint on a consistent basis - and yet we still flock to the movies and gather round the television in massive numbers.

Barnum's genius was in combining gimmicks and fakes with genuine information and the popular moralizing of his day. He was the king of false advertising. According to The Lost Museum, he used the above image of three fishy hotties to lure people to the museum, and delivered the "Fejee Mermaid," which looked like this:

From The Lost Museum
If it looks like a monkey sewn onto a fish, it probably is.

The American Museum was insanely popular, hosting by some estimates up to 15,000 visitors a day. (That is, until it burned down in 1865.)

My favourite part of Barnum's flair for crowd control was the egress. Noticing that people were lingering a little too long at the exhibits and cutting into profits, Barnum put up a sign that said, "This Way to the Egress." Counting on people to not know that "egress" is another word for "exit," he deftly deposited them back onto the street.