Title: Bibilo-Curiosa, No. 4
Author and Editor: Chris Mikul
Availability: You need to contact Chris directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. The ‘zine itself is $5 Australian, so those outside of Australia need to get a quote from him directly. For Americans, if I recall correctly, it is $8 USD an issue, shipping included.
Comments: Last year was a complete waste for me. Dozens of books were left unread, dozens of discussions never happened here. Truly pitiful. But in the spirit of not dwelling on the past and various failures, I want to begin 2014 with a discussion that is long overdue and about a writer whose work inspires me. I’ve said several times that I really envy Chris Mikul’s writing style and research expertise, and his fourth issue of Biblio-Curiosa further cements my opinion of him (I also have two books of his I really want to read and discuss this year – fingers crossed).
For those unfamiliar with Biblio-Curiosa, Mikul’s ‘zine is part book review, part in-depth research. He reads genuinely strange and obscure books and writes about them, but he also engages in deep research into the lives of various writers, sometimes trying to track down authors whose names are very nearly lost to history. Every issue is a fascinating read.
Issue 4 has four articles, and begins with a look at what can only be called a lunatic book. The Werewolf vs The Vampire Woman doesn’t sound that loony on its face – just sort of pulpy. Written by Arthur N. Scarm (yes, Scarm, though it is spelled “Scram” on the title page) in 1972, it is a novelization of a Spanish film called La Noche de Walpurgis, released in the USA as The Werewolf vs The Vampire Woman or Werewolf Shadow. The movies, going by title, sound cheesy enough, but as Mikul notes, the novelization is… not entirely true to its source:
…the book bears only the most passing resemblance to the film. Instead, it takes off on innumerable mad tangents of its own, and brims with cartoonish sex and violence, ludicrous dialogue and scenes that border on the surreal.
The book changes the protagonist’s name from Waldemar to Waldo, changes his personality from a shaggy, animalistic creature into an urbane, sophisticated wolf-dude, and introduces all sorts of previously unknown and probably created on-the-spot werewolf lore. It is here I feel I should mention that Waldo can do all sorts of nefarious and odd things, like shrink boobs with his mind. Montague Summers would weep if he read this book.
Waldo ends up with a vampire woman, as described in the title, but before he does he engages in all kinds of strange seduction. Take this snippet Mikul shares from the book:
Handling the girls like toys, he planted them on their backs, one on top of the other, and with Elvira on top, got on top of her. Ruth was on the bottom and he made love to her through Genevieve and Elvira, with all three girls screaming because it was so uncomfortable.
Yeah. This hilarity aside, this article gets even more interesting when Mikul looks into who “Scarm” really was. The next article, “The Sardonic World of Tiffany Thayer,” is the money article. This one was especially fascinating to me because of Thayer’s link to Charles Fort. Tiffany Thayer was “a self-styled anarchist, contrarian and atheist, a man with more crank ideas than you could shake a stick at.” F. Scott Fitzgerald considered his work slime, Dorothy Parker thought he made sex boring, and Thayer, if he is remembered at all, is remembered mostly as the founder of the Fortean Society. But, as Mikul demonstrates, his book Doctor Arnoldi is “one of the most grotesque and repulsive works of science fiction ever written” and he should definitely be remembered as the author of such a strange book.
Mikul painstakingly discusses Thayer’s life and works – Thayer wrote over a dozen novels that were more along the line of murder mysteries and romances and he was an actor, marrying and divorcing several times, and engaging in high level whack-jobbery. This article is over 20 pages long, but I don’t want to spoil too much because it’s quite interesting. However, I want to show you all just a bit of what makes Doctor Arnoldi such a weird, unsettling book (and unlike many of the books Mikul discusses, you can actually buy a copy of Doctor Arnoldi – Mikul wrote the introduction to this reprint).
Doctor Arnoldi, if one were to engage in extreme reductivism, would be best described as a book about a dystopia wherein no one can die. After a bombing in a subway, a reporter named Happy Suderman discovers that no matter how sick, injured or damaged, no one can die. He consults with an old, fat Russian doctor, the eponymous Dr. Arnoldi, and while the old man has no explanation, he does mention that he can see how it is that people will be uneasy burying even the most destroyed of remains because they won’t be technically dead. Happy decides this is a good time to open a repository so that people can deposit their loved one’s remains rather than bury people who, for all intents and purposes, are technically dead except their hearts are still beating.
It’s pretty dire.
When it is discovered that prisoners can no longer be executed, the state engages a doctor to find a way to kill. His experiments include putting a prisoner through a meat grinder, but all that happens is …”the pile of – of human hamburger – went up and down, up and down, like that!” Eventually he admits defeat. Hideously wounded people, called “miraclants,” become a familiar sight in the streets.
During this time, the USA declares war on China and Japan and spread whatever it is that makes people live forever and before you know it we’re all screwed. Wrecked corpses from the war are tossed into the ocean and, still living though not conscious, the bodies begin to drift together and create a sort of living, floating island. What is the world to do? People won’t die, oceans of comatose people making islands, not even war can thin the numbers.
Dr. Arnoldi has the solution: cannibalism. But even as the conscious consume the unconscious, the world still becomes a stark, barren place after all the animals and vegetation are consumed. The end.
It sounds like a mess and in a way it is:
The plotting and characterization of Doctor Arnoldi are haphazard in the extreme. It’s as if Thayer, having gotten his fearsome idea for the book, just wrote and wrote until it was done. The most interesting character is the lugubrious Arnoldi, given to gnomic utterances such as the fact that he has felt dead for a long time, who seems to have wandered in from another book. That’s not surprising because he had. Dr. Arnoldi was a character in a gloomy novel by the Russian writer Mikhail Artsybashev, published as Breaking Point in the US in 1920. In a typically Thayerian meta-fictional touch, one of the characters in Doctor Arnoldi, having met the enigmatic doctor, makes enquiries as to whether or not this could be the same man featured in Artsybashev’s book – his favorite Russian novel.
Nothing I can write here can do justice to how interesting Thayer himself was. You really need to get a copy and read this article.
The third article is “The Mysteries of Mark Hansom,” an article written by John Pelan. This is a lovely bit of research as Pelan tries to track down the identity of Mark Hansom, a nom de plume used to write a number of supernatural and horror novels in the 1930s. I cannot hope to do this article justice, so I will just summarize as best as I can: all records about Mark Hansom’s real identity were destroyed in a bombing in WWII and there is some possibility that the person behind Mark Hansom was called to fight in the war, as his last novel was published in 1939, and never returned to write again. Pelan has some theories about who Hansom may have been and though all records about Hansom were destroyed, Pelan’s speculations about who he could have been are compelling.
The final article is “The Joss: A Reversion by Richard Marsh,” a look at a deeply odd book from 1901. Richard Marsh was the pseudonym of Bernard Heldmann, who began to use the name Marsh after he was released from prison (he evidently wrote some forged checks). Evidently, he was quite a writer of the weird.
His masterpiece was The Beetle, a remarkable novel about a loathsome, evil-smelling creature that shape-shifts between male, female and insect, has no idea of personal space, and turns out to be the incarnation of an ancient Egyptian princess. Published in the same year as Dracula, 1897, it was for decades more popular than Stoker’s novel, and some still think it’s better. I wouldn’t go that far, but it’s a masterpiece of weird fiction.
The Joss: A Reversion tells the story of Pollie, an ill-used shop assistant who inherits a house just as she and her friend Emily are fired from their job. Some old uncle had died and left it to her but there were conditions. She may never sleep a night away from the house and must be inside the house by 9:00 each evening. She can have one friend to live with her but other than the one female friend, she can have no visitors. If her friend scarpers, she can have no one else live there and must stay there alone for the rest of her life. No other woman can ever step into the house. If she disobeys, there is a curse that will keep her in line.
The house is a suitably gothic nightmare, on a bad side of town, untouched for years, and when Pollie finds the key, it comes with a label that states:
“If you lose the key, or let it go for a moment from your possession, may the gods burn up the marrow in all your bones.”
And much like the heroines in modern horror films, she doesn’t run for the hills. She and Emily move in. There are rats, lots of dust, some roaches, but they find a clean bedroom so at least there is that. Emily thinks she can break the rules and they experience some terror and the best part comes when Pollie goes to sleep that night, leaving Emily awake to watch the rats scurry. Emily is confronted by a female ghost who is somewhat Far Eastern in appearance and who, more or less, comes on to poor Emily. This woman serves at the temple of the “Most High Joss” and says she is really named Susan and from there it all gets sort of vague and Emily goes to sleep. Then the narration of the book is taken over by the lawyer who gave Pollie the house and all is explained, sort of. This book is a corker, to be sure.
Hopefully I’ve inspired some of you to contact Chris to get a copy of this ‘zine. The ‘zine is pretty meaty, coming in at 44 pages of excellent writing, diligent research and weird literary glee. Highly recommended, go get yourself a copy.
And if things go according to plan (hahahahahaha!), I really hope to have Mikul’s The Eccentropedia read and discussed sooner than later. I found my copy in a book shift we did at New Years and am eager to read it and am sort of shocked I didn’t read it last year, but this is what happens when you have thousands of books in your house and are sort of a disorganized wretch. But even taking into account my messiness, I think this review is the best way to kick off 2014 – a favorable review of a great ‘zine from a great writer. May the rest of the year be this enjoyable!