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Bill Crisafi for BloodMilk Exquisite Corpse “The Comfort of Dust”. Limited Edition prints available via BloodMilkExquisiteCorpse.com
Haute Macabre’s Stacked : What we’ve been reading this month
American Afterlife by Kate Sweeney
I’ve had a morbid fascination with the macabre (and so must you, dear Haute Macabre reader), for as long as I can remember, and happily read anything on the subject of death, decomposition, and the customs left to the living I can find. American Afterlife was a hit and a miss for me – some chapters I felt touched on important and moving cultural customs, and others I I felt were a bit … well, American. Perhaps I an in uppity, snobbish place and I should stop looking down my nose and my fellow Americans, but I do find many of the “traditional” funeral customs of my country rather vulgar. I appreciated the multiple chapters devoted to alternative burials – but was put off by the entire chapter on an online reseller of cremation urns. Although well written and fully accessible, I don’t fully recommend this as a whole, but if you do come across a copy, the chapters on the obituary writers were wonderful.
The Babysitter at Rest by Jen George
I’m struggling with properly saying how these shorts made me feel, and what strange world they gave me access to. Each was almost a distortion of a young woman’s reality, taken into those far places that anxiety stirs up just before dawn on sleepless nights. There were no monsters under the bed hidden here, but dystopian art school orgies. The author used the word “fuck” as a well placed accent point, and writes erotic scenes with a sharp, cynical detachment. I’ll be keeping my eye on the author, as this is her first publication, and I expect more great things from her in the future.
Witches of America by Alex Mar
Alex Mar takes you with her on her journey to find her place in the magical world, traveling through various covens, orders, belief systems, and the like. I didn’t dislike this book, and I refuse to judge someone seeking out their spiritual self, but it felt a little witch-of-the-week in some aspects. The author explores a number of different areas of witchcraft and Wicca, testing the waters of each sect and teachings. Certain parts of the book hit me literally and psychically close to home: the narrator eventually found her way to New Orleans (unsurprisingly), to an occult society here in town. This memoir felt slightly like a forced effort on the writer’s part, actively seeking out something that may not have been actively seeking out her.
Dandy in the Underworld by Sebastian Horsley
Dandy in the Underworld is the autobiography of Sebastian Horsley, a truly terrible artist you’ve probably never heard of. He mostly painted sharks,, did a great deal of heroin, spend an inordinate amount of money on hats, and had deeply debaucherous sex with people you have an only slightly better chance of having heard of, like nefarious gangster Danny Boyle. Some books are junk food- this book is a handfull of mixed pills you picked up off the floor of gay bar. It will probably kill your brain cells and you’ll feel a little gross when it’s over, but it’s a great deal of fun at the time.
Do What Thou Wilt: A Life of Aleister Crowley by Lawrence Sutin
I have to admit I made it 40% into this giant tome before giving up. Who knew that Aleister Crowley was both insufferable and boring? Perhaps you all knew and never told me; I had naively assumed that while he might be terrible, he would at least be interesting. Other things I learned, before fleeing for greener pastures: Crowley’s mom had a sense of humor. While he was hiding in… London? … Somewhere using a Russian alias of Count Something-or-another his mother shows up and announces herself as the Mistress of Stars, or similar. Also, Crowley did not actually have very much sex. All in all, a life-changing book. The most reflection to come out of it was about artists and their means of survival now and in past centuries. Though Crowley spent some time poor, he was born to a wealthy-enough family and asked his various contacts for money during much of his life — it makes me feel a tragic sort of reverse saudade, a longing for something that never existed, thinking of all the possible writers born to lives where they worked all day, where the barrier to a creative pursuit was just too high to climb. If only Crowley had worked his magic on that instead.
The Pale Brown Thing by Fritz Leiber
Last summer, Swan River Press put out a “reissue” of sorts of Fritz Lieber’s The Pale Brown Thing, which is really a shorter version of his later novel Our Lady of Darkness. It appeared in a magazine in 1977 and was then lost to time, especially after the success of Our Lady of Darkness — so in a way, it’s more like a first edition. I enjoyed it immensely, and in some ways it had exactly the things Aleister Crowley’s biography lacked: pretentious characters (I’m Russian; “pretentious” is always a compliment), secrets and their societies, plausible magic (megapolisomancy!), and — finally! — a name for that elongated pile of books that lives on the beds of those who sleep alone: a “Scholar’s Mistress.” It was a really enjoyable read that I definitely recommend.
S. Elizabeth’s Reads
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
Nothing is as it seems this twisty Victorian tale of passion and perseverance (unless, of course, you first saw Chan Wook Park’s ravishing, dizzying 2016 adaptation, The Handmaiden, in which case you think you may know the story and can foresee the wildly winding paths the narrative takes, but I’m here to tell you, you still don’t know the half of it.) The long and short of it is this: Sue Trinder, a young, orphaned woman brought up in blowsy Mrs. Sucksby’s house of pickpockets (or “fingersmiths”), petty criminals, and babies for sale, is enlisted by an elegant conman in a devious scheme to defraud an heiress of her fortune. Told in three parts from varying perspectives, you will find yourself utterly shocked and unnerved, realizing how little you know about these characters and how little they know about each other (no matter how cunning they believe themselves to be) and thoroughly enjoying this tale of unexpected and fearful intimacy, brimming with “terrible plots… Laughing villains…Stolen fortunes and girls made out to be mad”.
How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran
(In which I talk about a book I’d rather strike from my list, but I’ve only read two books this month, so, hey, here we go.) Do you have a vagina?” asks the author. “Do you want to be in charge of it? If you said yes to both, Congratulations! You’re a feminist.” I don’t argue with that. I think that’s a pretty great declaration. I want to be in charge of my own vagina, as I am sure you do of yours. So, in theory, I should love this book, right? In her decidedly un-academic manifesto/memoir Moran writes/rants spiritedly and hilariously on this and all manner of topics as they relate to feminist issues, some of which you will agree with–perhaps you will even cheer her on!–but then some of her other ideas and observations did not resonate with me at all and even moved me to anger (see her thoughts on: sex work, strippers, etc.) Also, the tone of the book begins to wear thin after awhile; she write with an enthusiastic, joyous snark and while I love that, the wacky humor, at a certain point, feels like she’s amping it up so that she’ll trick us into eating our vegetables. I’m an adult woman! You don’t have to make something funny so that it’s palatable for me. Give it a rest! I was left, at the end, with conflicting feelings about the book, and I am not certain I would recommend it… however, I was recently reminded that author and commentator Roxane Gay wrote in her book Bad Feminist, “I’d rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.” So…I guess there’s that?
And at the very least, now I know what I am reading next month.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Written in 1985, I should’ve read this book ages ago. But, considering our current fraught and frightening political climate, now is actually a profoundly fitting time to delve into one of the most upsetting yet eerily plausible dystopian stories I’ve read yet. The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a not-so-futuristic United States in which the government has been overthrown by an extreme Christian movement that establishes a totalitarian theocracy under which human rights become severely limited and extreme class divisions are created. Women are stripped of all their rights (they aren’t even allowed to read) and, for the class known as “handmaids”, even their personhood is lost. These women are breeding stock, valued only insofar as their ovaries are viable, kept for reproductive purposes in order to aid the ruling class during a period of sharply declining births. Our titular Handmaid is a woman named Offred, who remembers what the world was like before as she endures what it has become. Hers is a tale of survival, resilience, and resistance. Right now Offred’s story feels less like dystopian satire than a dire warning and a rallying call. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.
So believable and upsetting was The Handmaid’s Tale that I was in urgent need of a mental palate cleanser as soon as I finished reading it. For this reason my very next read was How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran. As for my review of that book, please look no further than at what our very own S. Elizabeth had to say about it above. I agree with every single word.
House of Penance by Peter J. Tomasi (writer) and Ian Bertram (artist)
This eerie, blood-soaked tale is set during the construction of a very real place: the vast and curious Winchester mansion in San Jose, CA, known today as the Winchester Mystery House. Owned by Sarah Winchester, widow of gun magnate William Wirt Winchester, construction of the Winchester house began in 1884 and continued for 38 years, until Sarah’s death in 1922. According to tabloids of the time, during a séance in Boston a medium informed Sarah Winchester that the vast fortune she’d just inherited from her husband was cursed by the countless deaths caused by the Winchester Rifle. The medium instructed Sarah to move to California and build a house to appease the angry spirits of the rifle victims. Once in California, Sarah conducted nightly séances herself in order to receive building instructions for the mansion. Construction was funded by the tremendous wealth from her inheritance, including 50% ownership of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, which provided an income of “roughly $1,000 per day, equivalent to about $23,000 a day in 2013.” Because Sarah feared that she would die at the hands of the angry spirits should construction ever stop, work on the Winchester house went on nonstop 24 hours a day, all year round. House of Penance is a lurid and macabre tale of a haunted house, a haunted, grief-stricken woman, and her desperate efforts to atone for the bloodshed caused by the source of her wealth.
Tell us what you’ve been reading and what’s in your to-read stacks!