Author: Chris Mikul
Availability: Chris is in Australia and does not have a merchant website, but you can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org – he charges $8 per issue, postage included.
Comments: This is not technically a book review, but my usual off-topic title of “This is Not an Odd Book Discussion” does not apply either. This is very much going to be a discussion of odd books. Chris Mikul noticed I had read his book about cults last year (and I still plan to discuss it here though it’s now been a year since I read it, and, also, fuck my life) and sent me the first two copies of his ‘zine Biblio-Curiosa. He later also sent me issues of another ‘zine of his, Bizarrism and a copy of his book, Tales of the Macabre and Ordinary. Please do not misinterpret my delight in receiving these items as a tacit admission that I am going to discuss a lot of Mikul in the future because I am easily bought. I read and eventually discuss everything people send me. But Mikul may have jumped the line a little bit because he is an incredible writer and I didn’t want to sit on these until they came around in the review queue.
I think Biblio-Curiosa is what I wish IROB could be when it grows up, if it grows up. Mikul’s analysis of the strange books and odd authors he encounters manages to be both scholarly and entertaining, a skill borne from years of authoring non-fiction books about the strange among us. I would do well to exercise some of his organizational skills when I write. I’ve always said I resent being inspired but there is something about Mikul’s ‘zines that make me want to be a better writer. I sense my innate verbosity and inability to focus will prevent any emulation transformation but I can always hope.
Biblio-Curiosa‘s subtitle is “Unusual Writers/Strange Books” and covers both with equal ease. The breadth of his interests and the scope of the topics he discusses puts to shame my passive procurement of odd books. Mikul has access to a huge mountain of strangeness most of us would never know about. I know when I see pulp paperbacks from the ’50s, I often look at the lurid covers and think, “I bet my dad would have read that and liked it.” Mikul’s perspective on the pulp paperbacks from before either of us were born showed me how very wrong I am to dismiss such books because even the pulpiest of them may have interesting mysteries behind them for those astute enough to look for them.
Biblio-Curiosa No. 1 has provided me with a new Holy Grail: The Pepsi-Cola Addict. I will not die happy unless I have a copy of this book. In the first article in issue 1, Mikul discusses the book, and though the book is not wholly odd, the author, June Gibbons, is a woman with a decidedly odd history. June Gibbons had a twin sister, Jennifer. Born in Barbados in 1963, their family relocated to Wales when the girls were still very young. Perhaps the shock of being relocated caused them to become so insular because before long the twins spoke in a language no one else could understand and spent every moment in each others’ company. I think accounts of “twin talk” and the psychic bonds of identical twins are reasonably well known, but the Gibbons twins took those odd phenomena to unique and astonishing ends.
The Gibbons twins left school at 16 and seldom left their bedrooms as they played with dolls and wrote books. They paid to have June’s effort, The Pepsi-Cola Addict, published. Jennifer also wrote two books but they appear to be lost to time. The twins were sent to jail after some antisocial behavior and a publisher tried to contact Jennifer, wanting to publish her book, but ended up trashing it when they received no reply. Both girls were eventually sent to Broadmoor, a mental hospital, and while at Broadmoor they came to a startling conclusion. They could not continue on they way they were living. One would have to die, and they decided it would be Jennifer.
On March 9 1993 the twins boarded a mini-bus which drove them through the gates of Broadmoor, where they had spent the last eleven years. During the journey, Jennifer fell asleep with her head resting on June’s shoulder. When they arrived at the unit in Wales, she did not regain consciousness and was taken to a hospital where she died half an hour later. The postmortem found that her death was caused by ‘acute myocardiatis’, a severe inflammation of the heart muscle.
Creepy, creepy, creepy. But even more interesting is that in the midst of the intense, unhealthy relationship with her twin, the teenaged June managed to write an interesting novel that showed talent and promise.
You can’t deny June wasn’t ambitious with her first novel. She works hard to make the American setting convincing, peppering it with cultural references picked up from books and television, and while there are inevitably some slips (a Big Mac with Worcestershire Sauce?), she does manage to convey a picture of Miami during a long hot summer surprisingly well. It’s a juvenile work, of course, full of odd turns of phrase and words that aren’t always used correctly (yet it is never intentionally funny – June’s seriousness of purpose is evident throughout). And somehow this awkwardness of style complements the subject matter and reinforces the inner turmoil of her intensely imagined hero.
Because I have books about eccentric people and have certainly read about twin Forteana in terms of psychic connections and similar, I had heard of the Gibbons twins. I had not, however, known about the book she wrote. I do know I will probably spend a lot of time and far too much money to get a copy of this book, if such a thing is possible.
Issue 1 also discusses an obscure but utterly lunatic book from 1944 called The Fangs of Suet Pudding, an article about the life and works of a writer called Hanns Heinz Ewers, and a fascinating article discussing a book about medical students by one Dr. Ralph Hodgson (in which we learn that “the tuberculoses… are greatly overrated organisms.”) Each article entertaining and fascinating.
Issue no. 2′s stand out article for me was “The Strange Case of F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre.” In 2008, Mikul stumbled across a website, “an alleged website” for MacIntyre. The site was suitably odd enough and the writings he found there interesting enough that Mikul kept MacIntyre on his radar. He noticed his name popping up from time to time online, on places like the Fortean Times. Then it all took a very dark turn.
Then, in December 2010, I read that six months earlier MacIntyre had burned himself to death in his New York apartment.
Holy crap! This strange and horrible death spurred Mikul on to find out as much about MacIntyre as he could.
MacIntyre had a life worthy of a novel. Born in Scotland in 1948, he was a twin but he had a minor birth defect so his alcoholic parents gave him up for adoption. He was sent to Australia as a part of a “child migration scheme.” His parents later contacted him because his twin brother needed a kidney but he ignored them. MacIntyre became a ranch hand and steeped himself in aboriginal culture. He later moved to England and evidently wrote pulp science fiction novels for Badger Books and worked writing for Monty Python’s Flying Circus and The Prisoner. He moved in the 1970s to New York and changed his name to Fergus Gwynplaine MacIntyre. He eventually settled in Bensonhurst and worked as a telemarketer as he wrote his stories and novels.
According to Mikul, MacIntyre’s first “proper” novel is actually quite good.
The Woman Between The Worlds is a rattling good read. The early scenes, with the narrator tattooing the invisible Vanessa, are nicely handled, and towards the end it reaches grand heights of surrealism. It received good reviews and is today regarded as an early example of steampunk (a genre which basically re-imagines the Victorian era with more advanced technology).
But it seems to me that his writing is the least interesting thing about MacIntyre. For example, MacIntyre was a film enthusiast and posted reviews of silent films to IMDb. Other reviewers on the site questioned him because he somehow had managed to see and review non-extant silent films. When challenged, he spun a yarn that rivals his story about being given up for adoption to Australia, becoming a ranch hand and turning his dying twin down for a kidney.
He said that, while working in television in England in the 60s, he had met a wealthy financier who collected rare films. MacIntyre told him about a cache of old nitrate films he had stumbled on at a farm in Queensland, and the collector managed to acquire them. He was so impressed that MacIntyre was put on retainer and told he would be well paid for any unusual films he discovered in his travels. His finds included a collection of old Hollywood films owned by a former opera singer in Budapest, and a large cache of German films looted by Russian soldiers during WWII and stored in a warehouse in Moscow. The collector also asked him to review the films in his collection, evaluate their condition and advise which were worth restoring. While he would let MacIntyre review his films, he would not let anyone else see them. Few silent film aficionados bought any of this.
After his suicide in June of 2010, an article about MacIntyre by Corey Kilgannon was published in The New York Times. People came forward and told wildly differing stories about MacIntyre – he evidently did not keep a united front with all of his friends and acquaintances. The most interesting MacIntyre refutation came from a man called P. Toad MacIntyre in September, 2010 on sff.net. The name alone seems worthy of skepticism, but Mr. Toad claimed to be MacIntyre’s brother. Bearing my skepticism in mind, here is what Mr. Toad had to say:
He dismissed almost everything MacIntyre said about himself and his life: he had not been rejected by his family, he did not have a twin, he did not have webbed fingers, he was not sent to an orphanage in Australia. From an early age he had displayed symptoms of “a severe psychotic illness”, and told his parents that he had been born on another planet. The posting’s author went on to say how remarkable he had found his brother’s ability to channel his symptoms into his fiction, and that many characters in his stories “are very reminiscent of many conversations I had with him, when the succession of sinister, shape-shifting selves would vie for control of his consciousness, and the usual boundaries of space and time – between history and fiction, or past, present and future – became so irrelevant as to be merely notional.”
It is interesting to speculate as to why a man who had obvious talent and clearly some amount of charm would need to create an entirely new Walter Mitty-like existence, changing key elements of his identity every few years, writing an ocean of reviews of movies he had never seen. Channeling his mental illness into his work makes sense only so far – the rest of it seems like psychological inferiority. I once was involved in a strange young woman’s online scam – a pretty girl I knew peripherally from the last real job I had, she stole pictures of another girl who was not as attractive as her, passing them on to men online and starting elaborate relationships. It was more Munchausen by Internet than Baron Munchausen’s tall tales, but the fact remained that the elements she stole of my life (surgical x-rays, cat pictures, stories about my grandparents) were in and of themselves not very interesting, but she took on elements of other people’s lives like a coat she would wear for a short period and then take off when it suited her. I often wonder who she is deceiving now because it has been my experience such people never really stop. I also wonder if I would have found MacIntyre’s story so interesting had I lacked experience with my own strange fabulist.
This incredible article makes me want to track down as much of MacIntyre’s works I can and see how much of his created lives shine through in his works. That’s the power of these articles of Mikul’s – you’ll probably find at least one book or writer per issue that will absorb you so deeply you will want to submerge yourself in the mystery. Mikul makes that much easier in the case of MacIntyre because he provides a complete bibliography, including MacIntyre’s many short stories.
Issue 2 also includes an absolutely fascinating pulp fiction investigation, tracking down the true authorship of a novel called The Yellow Yasmak. Many writers would write under a single nom de plume for the pulps and tracking down who wrote what made for a very interesting article. Mikul also includes a look at a largely forgotten writer, T. Millett Ellis, and one of his novels, called Zalma. This article is not to be missed if only for the reproduced drawings from one of Ellis’ books for children, The Earl’s Nose, which is the most unintentionally (I hope) phallic book every written for kids.
Mikul’s ‘zines embody the best of what I hope to achieve with this site – a look at fringe, strange or largely unknown authors that is both investigative and sympathetic when warranted. His research is accessible and makes for excellent reading and his choices of books and authors are genuinely unique. Had I not at least 800 books in queue to be read at the moment, probably more, I would follow his example and start combing the paperback and collectible racks at used book stores and finding similar gems, familiarizing myself with the pulps and popular writers from 150 years ago whose names have faded. Who knows? In a decade or so I may be caught up and can do what Mikul does. Until then I will just have to live vicariously through him.
And since I lack amazing ‘zines and published books to send him to thank him for his kindness in sending me so many wonderful things to read, the least I can do is tell all of you how to get your hands on these two ‘zines and hopefully send a little money his way. By all means, contact Mikul at email@example.com and order one, if not both of these ‘zines.