Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Sledding with the Dead

Sorry for the long delay in posting...it’s been a chaotic few weeks, with changes in the household, job changes, and other projects taking precedence. But at last I give you: Fun with Dead People!

No, not quite THAT much fun. On the other hand, you don’t have to worry about never being able to get the stench out of your Members Only jacket.

During my college years, I lived in Montgomery, Alabama, a city in the sweltering armpit of that fine regressive state. Though it does have a good art museum and the Shakespeare Festival theatre – and AUM, my alma mater – the coolest thing, by far, is the antebellum graveyard right in the heart of the city, Oakwood Cemetery. Burials date from before the Civil War through modern years, including the grave of Hank Williams, Sr., and a sobering 299 “unknown” soldiers from the south’s most bloody conflict. (I know. I personally counted them.) Kind of strange to think of that many unidentifiable bodies each given a headstone. I always wonder if their ghosts were pissed off at the irony of being reburied with honors, but anonymously.

Among the park-sized grounds which sprawl over two very full hillsides one may also discover a crowded, old-world-style Jewish burial section; imposing mausoleums; and more Victorian sentimentality than you can shake a mourning hair-ring at.

This was my absolute favorite hangout. I would frequently take a book there to read for hours, or explore the seemingly endless headstones on foot...the best way to “collect” a graveyard, as very little of it will ever be accessible by hearse-roads. I preferred to roam among the Victorian burials, as they often have the most elaborate memorials. Not for nothing did Ambrose Bierce label mausoleums “the final and funniest folly of the rich.” Certainly, the amount of marble, personalized statuary, wrought-iron, and stained glass which make up whole neighborhoods of the snootily deceased at Oakwood stagger the mind and the wallet. And yet I felt an affinity for these crumbled husks, most of them forgotten in their family plots as later generations married off and moved away. I’d scatter wildflower seeds, take photos of the most elaborate (or most bizarre) statuary, and talk to them.

What? Yes, I enjoyed being alone in a fine and private place, thank you. Hmf.

A Weeping Angel surveys her favorite magnolia tree

One March, a freak snowstorm blanketed the city...well, okay. Drew a soft fluffy knit throw over the city and made it some cocoa. It was only a couple of inches. But SNOW! In the DEEP SOUTH! While most denizens ran around seeking firewood, s’mores, and condoms, I had one purpose: to see how my beloved cemetery appeared in the clear air and whispering snowdrifts.

And it was stunning.

The wind had crafted beautiful paintwork with the snow all night, and in the grey daylight, all was still, cool, and delicately iced. Headstones bore caps like petit-fours. Wrought iron fencework boasted new fretworking of purest white. Angels beseeched heaven for some gloves and scarves, is it too much to ask since they have to keep watch over some schlep’s grave forever until the acid rain eats them, for crying out loud. Everywhere, snow coated trees, graves, monuments...and the hillsides.

The really, startlingly steep hillsides, terminating in a ravine you’d have trouble climbing back out of if you missed the footbridge, assuming you didn’t trip and hit your head on one of the granite stones on your way down and solve the problem of ever getting up the hill again. And on these scary-steep hills...kids were sledding. I have no idea who the hell in Montgomery, AL even had the prescience to own a sled, but there they were, dodging graves, whooping and laughing. Despite my love of the overblown artifice of the Victorians, this use of the graveyard was the best I’ve ever seen.

Hey you dadgum kids! Keep it down up there! We're tryin' to discuss the War of Northern Aggression!

 My advice to any of you within reach of an amazing cemetery, be it on sacred grounds or secular forty-five-degree slopes: become familiar with the place. Walk its paths, learn its names. Sow flowers, and take photos, and know every weird statue and tragic lamb by heart. Make it yours.

That way, you’ll know exactly which spots to drag your sled to when it snows. Not to mention the best escape routes when the dead claw their way up to express their annoyance with all that dadgum laughing.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Like a Cool Breath of Freak Air

Ah, summer. The time every year when my thoughts naturally turn to cooler weather, changing leaves, and pumpkin-flavored-everything. Unfortunately, for over a decade now, I haven’t been able to enjoy the first two items on that list without traveling; Tucson doesn’t have autumn. (It doesn’t have seasons, either. Sorry, “hot/dry, warm/dry, hot with occasional showers” don’t count as “seasons,” sandpeople.) I’ve always loved Halloween, but every summer I obsess over it even more, as a means of temporary mental escape from Arrakis. (And not a wormsign for months.)

I collect books and magazines featuring Halloween projects, but not the cutesy 2.5-Kid-Family Surburban-Dweller crap. Weird shit is what grabs my attention and whips it around like a nightgaunt with a new chew toy. Today I’m sharing a bit of that with you, Lucky Readers. We’ll start with old-timey crap which must have been quaint in the day, but now comes off more like wtf were these people even thinking.

Silly hats optional.

 Halloween Merrymaking: an Illustrated Celebration of Fun, Food, & Frolics from Halloweens Past by Diane C. Arkins is valuable not only for the tons of photos of old-school decorations crammed into it for the wonderment of any Halloween ephemera collector, but also because it features a number of photos which prompt thoughtful reveries on just how stoned our grandparents must have been every October. This features chapters on home decor (think more corn than Children of, and enough pumpkins to stock your trebuchet for a week’s siege), costumes (who knew crépe paper could be made to look so ridiculous?), teacup fortunes and more. Covering the period from the late Victorian era through the turn of the century and into the 1930s, the cards, decorations and paper goods reproduced in the book’s many illustrations prove once and for all that our ancestors’ celebrations were indeed as cheesy as we thought and then some.

I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for this brand of cheese. I love that vintage-style decorations are back in vogue (á la Martha) simply because I find them adorably strange. A popular party help text from the 1910s through the ‘30s, Dennison’s “Bogie Book,” showed hausfraus of middle America how to use its crépe paper products to make their own honeycomb-tissue pumpkins, pipe-cleaner-armed goblins, and cutouts of black cats and witches to haunt their laundry rooms and dinner tables. Much of the festivities shown have a decidedly amateur-crafty flair, like a precocious but not-yet-skilled four-year-old exhibiting on Etsy. Especially fun when you realize that extant items from the period sell for fantastic prices to collectors. Not that I would ever buy them. (I can’t afford any...)

Scariest Fact: this party was BOOZE FREE!

 Honestly, the only gripe I have about this book is that although there are hundreds of great photos, many of them are reproduced in tiny size on page sidebars. What’s up with that? Sure, the history lessons in each chapter are informative and cool, but really, what we wanna see are big goofy photos of our great-gramps frolicking with pretty gals, all of them dressed as rejects from a Halloween taping of The Price Is Right. MOAR PIKSURES!

The next two books are both by marvellous sicko Tom Nardone: Extreme Pumpkins and Extreme Halloween. Yeah, get those lame Mountain Dew X-Games analogies outta your heads: this stuff is fun. You’ve undoubtedly seen the cannibal pumpkin and the puking pumpkin by now, as these have been around a few years. Nardone’s the guy who invented them, as well as a host of other screwed-up projects designed to freak the hell out of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who stop by your house during October. The projects he presents are creatively twisted, and best of all, he outlines steps and materials needed with a sense of humor and even a nod to OSHA. (Though only a passing nod, like, Hey, bro, gonna douse this pumpkin in kerosene and light it up like a Tiki torch, cool?)

 All the jack-o’lanterns in this book are worthy of sitting on your doorstep (or maybe the front yard...some are pretty gooey, watch your step through the guts there), but my faves are the “Property Defender Pumpkin” (who stands like Mad Max over the corpses of those he’s slain to emerge the bloody champion of all pumpkinkind), and the “Moldy Beard Pumpkin.” The latter is simple but gruesomely effective: half-carve it, and let parts of it grow mold. Display proudly! Each of these spawns numerous other ideas, as all good creative weirdness ought to. (Ooo...rotted cannibal zombie pumpkin...)

In his followup book, Extreme Halloween, Nardone shows off more creepyfun pumpkin designs, many of them on a grand scale (pumpkin yard Nessie! Scorpion pumpkin!) and also shares time-honored pranks great for creeping the hell out of neighborhood kids (or adults with harvest corn too far up their butts). At least two of these involve a jump-out-n-scare, but they’re inventive and well-presented. There are instructions for making a pulley-operated yard ghost and a block-party-sized BBQ’d dead body (formed of enough meats to make your local butcher love you). Party food more disgusting-looking than anything you’ll find in cutesy grocery-store magazines. And, again, inspiration for your own creepdom on every page.

 Nardone has a site with more of this freakshow stuff. Great for haunters on a budget and those who like to dream big but don’t want to simply buy pre-made stuff from Fright Catalog. (Yes, I’ll do a post on home haunt sites soon! This one’s about books. Deal.) I personally would love a big glossy coffeetablebook full of pics of home haunt projects from hundreds of artists; if anyone knows of such a book, please drop a comment to let me know!

Sorry for the long delay in posting, guys... I recently took on a second job, so now I work two with completely irregular schedules. But it’ll all be worth it to get up north, where I can indulge my fetish for falling leaves and cool winds for real instead of having to rely on my imagination! Now... *turns fan on high and eats a cinnamon donut* back to the pumpkin orgy...

UPDATE: Rick Gualtieri has a new Bill the Vampire book out! Goddamned Freaky Monsters is now available for purchase! WTF are you doing here still? Go BUY IT AND SUCK IT DRY!

Next time on Victorian Zombies: fun with dead peeps!