Friday, September 22, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 050: Amphigorey”

For my 50th review (!!!) I thought I better do something special, and in my world, there isn’t really anything more special than Edward Gorey.

Edward Gorey – Amphigorey (1972/1980)

Way back at the beginning of the Read a Damn Book project, I reviewed Gorey’s “The Gashleycrumb Tinies,” which is an ABC-style book of the various ways that children can be dispatched and released from this mortal coil. The art is absolutely chilling, consisting of remarkably detailed, black and white images of sad little faces either just about to meet their ends or having just left us. (It’s not a work for the faint of heart...) The only truly unfortunate thing about the book, thought, is how quickly one comes to the end of it. Luckily for us, Gorey wrote and illustrated a GREAT MANY little books, although as it says in the introduction to Amphigorey, the earliest of those works “are now difficult and often expensive to come by” (n.p.), which is why poor people (like me) need reprint collections.

Amphigorey includes fifteen humorous, horrifying, and beautiful works, most of which are comprised of black and white illustrations with obsessively detailed backgrounds full of freakish, repeating wallpaper patterns or looming shadows created by tight-knit, extreme cross-hatching. The tone of most of Gorey’s works is pseudo-Victorian or Dickensian, with weird, vaguely British sounding place names (like Chutney Falls, West Elbow, and Hobbies Odd), bizarre characters (Miss Skrim-Pshaw and Dick Hammerclaw), and a costume department that stopped buying new clothes in about 1929.

A couple of the books are in the ABC-style mentioned above, and some are comprised of odd little limericks with accompanying macabre illustrations, and some of the best works in the collection are freakish, unsettling short-stories, usually involving at least one untimely death. One extremely creepy “story,” called “The West Wing,” has no words at all, but is instead a series of strange set pieces inside of an old house. One illustration is a just a room with peeling wall paper, in another a body is lying on a floor, in another what looks like a sheet or blanket is floating a few feet off the ground in the air, and in yet another is a darkened doorway with just a hint of some legs visible. It’s very eerie and enjoyable (if you’re into that sort of thing.)

All of the works in this collection are entertaining in their own ways, but there are three that stand out as truly exceptional for me. The most brilliant of these pieces is “The Object Lesson,” which is an exercise in stream-of-consciousness absurdity that, despite being disjointed to the point of nonsense, somehow creates a delightfully haunting mood. It’s not a traditional narrative by any stretch just a series of tangentially related scenes that when taken together produce an uncanny effect. Here is one particularly lurid section, which takes place over the course of five separate pages/images:

“Meanwhile, on the tower, / Madame O___ in conversation with an erstwhile cousin / saw that his moustache was not his own, / on which she flung herself over the parapet / and surreptitiously vanished” (n.p.).

Why they were on the tower is never explain, nor is the reason that the cousin had someone else’s moustache, or why this would cause Madame O___ to throw herself off the tower. It’s strange and uncanny and wonderfully well illustrated. To me, this tale, which strings together one nonsense event after another but still manages to be completely unsettling and creepy, is the height of artistic perfection. (This may say more about me than it does the work, but I don’t think so.)

Another great story in this collection is “The Willowdale Handcar” in which a trio of young-adults hops on a handcar they find at the train station and proceeds to ride the rails for months and months, watching a series of bizarre things happen, like buildings burning down, figures creeping through fields in thunderstorms, and various glimpses of different people’s lives falling to ruin. Again, nothing is explicitly stated, just hinted at and suggested, but the overall tone is somehow both humorous and haunting, especially considering what happens at the end!

The third rather unforgettable story here is “The Curious Sofa,” which is subtitled “A Pornographic Work,” although not a single naked body or explicit act is actually depicted in the tale. It’s a masterpiece of suggestion and innuendo, with exceedingly pregnant lines, like the following:

“Colonel Gilbert and his wife, Louise, came in after dinner; both of them had wooden legs, with which they could do all sorts of entertaining tricks. / The evening was a huge success, in spite of someone fainting from time to time” (n.p.).

For most of this tale the tone is rambunctious and humorous, populated with flapper women sporting pixie cuts and pearl necklaces and men with handlebar moustaches, all apparently enjoying themselves. However, towards the end of the story it takes a dark turn, and ends with a surprise, horrifying twist. It’s sick, but in the most inexplicit and inexplicable manner possible.

Gorey was a genius, a truly talented master of both expressive line art and of crafting a tale that could entertain or cut to the bone. His works are unlike anything else I’ve read, landing somewhere between adult fairytales and penny dreadful grotesqueries. Amphigorey itself is a remarkable collection, which will endlessly entertain anyone with a taste for the uncanny---but I should warn potential readers that the gruesomeness and heartbreaking tragedy of many of the tales may be a bit much for some sensibilities. If you consider yourself a fan of horror or of extremely dark humor, then Edward Gorey is the creator for you, and if you haven’t read anything by him yet, then this collection is the perfect place to start!

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 049: Dead to the World”

I felt kind of bad after I wrote the review for Club Dead because it wasn’t very positive, and I really do like the Sookie Stackhouse books, so I thought I’d better move along to the next book in the series and see if it might be a little more fun---and it is… (Thank goodness…)

Charlaine Harris – Dead to the World (2004/2005)

Dead to the World is the fourth book in Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series, and by this time in the series, most readers will probably have a pretty good handle on who the characters are. Unlike the previous book, which is rather downbeat and particularly brutal, this book is much more humorous and entertaining, while also having a couple of solid, intriguing plotlines, which Harris quite deftly weaves into a well-crafted, coherent story.

Like all the other books in the series, this novel is told from the point of view of Sookie, a psychic waitress who is just getting over a passionate, though short, relationship with a vampire named Bill. Things start getting weird pretty quickly in this book, however, when Sookie spots a half-naked man running barefoot in the snow on her way home from work on New Year’s Eve. She recognizes the man after a few seconds as Eric, a rich, powerful, and ancient vampire who runs a business empire out of Shreveport. Unfortunately for Eric, he has been hexed by a group of witches and can’t remember who he is or what’s happened to him. Sookie, being a good citizen, takes Eric home, contacts the vampires who work for him, and agrees to keep him hidden from the witches who are trying to find for him. Stuck with a tall, blond, god-like vampire in her care, Sookie quickly begins to have “adult” thoughts, and all manner of hilarity ensues.

This book leans pretty heavily on the “romance” angle, as the now single Sookie rather quickly falls for the “helpless” Viking vamp. And, in this book Harris has a (rather explicit) good time describing the couple’s budding romance. (I would NOT recommend this one to younger readers or for people who have an aversion to erotic adventures.) Let’s just say, things get steamy (in a slightly necrophiliac sense.) Throughout this series, Sookie is beset by a plethora of potential suitors, and by the end of this book I think she’s already racked up a solid half-dozen men, vamps, and other creatures who have stated their interest in her. Of course, part of what makes this series popular is the big question: Who will Sookie end up with? (I’m not a big fan of romance novels on principle, but I do like Harris’s characters, so watching them jockey for position can be pretty fun.)

The second important storyline in this book is the disappearance of Sookie’s brother, Jason. Because he’s a troublemaker, the police are less than excited to go looking for him, and Sookie suspects that Jason might have been kidnapped by the witches that hexed Eric. Wrapped around Eric’s amnesia, Sookie and Eric’s romance, and Jason’s disappearance are a number of crisscrossing plotlines, including a war between the witches and the supernatural creatures of Shreveport, a strange community of shape-shifters living outside of Sookie’s hometown, and a psychotic, jealous were-lynx who thinks Sookie is moving in on her werewolf.

One of the best parts of this book is the character, Pam, Eric’s second in command, but she gets to take center stage in many scenes in this novel since her boss is incapacitated. Pam is described as looking just like Alice from Alice in Wonderland, but is supposedly several hundred years old. In this book, particularly in the battle between the witches and the monsters, you get to see Pam go seriously hardcore and show a vicious and somewhat twisted sense of humor, which is quite fun. Pam is one of my favorite characters in the series, so it was fun to see her featured so heavily in a story.

To sum up, I really enjoyed this book. There are several mysteries to solve that keep Sookie in suspense, the tone is more entertaining and fast paced than the previous book, with a lot more humor (and NO rape scenes), and each of the storylines contributes to the novel as a whole this time (unlike some of the previous books, where the opening mystery has little to do with the main story.) The characters are more fully realized in this book, as well, mostly because Harris has had three previous novels to flesh out who they are. Of the first four books, Dead to the World has been my favorite on this reread through the series. The balance between humor, horror, mystery, and romance is just right, and it makes me look forward to reading the next novel---although it might be a while before I get to it. I’ve got a few other things to cover first!

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)

Thursday, September 14, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 048: Gregory”

I don’t remember how I found this particular book by Marc Hempel (who would later go on to do a stint illustrating Neil Gaiman’s “The Kindly Ones” storyline in the brilliant series, The Sandman,) but Mariah and I both loved Gregory, instantly. The book was put out by Piranha Press, which looks like a neat, indie publisher, but was actually a division of DC Comics. We have four of the little Gregory books, and as far as I know, that’s all that Hempel did before moving on to “bigger” and “better” things (like his short-lived but hilarious series, Tug & Buster for Image Comics.) I could sing the praises of Hempel’s assorted works all day long, but for this review, let’s just stick to Gregory

Marc Hempel – Gregory (1989)

Gregory is the story of a disturbed little boy who lives most of his life in a cell in a psychiatric facility, barefoot, with his arms restrained by a straight-jacket. He is incapable of speaking in full sentences, preferring to scream inarticulate grunts and guttural syllables, punctuated by the occasional, “I Gregory!” His best friend is a dirty rat that pops out of the drain in the floor of his cell, spouts interesting comments, and is then smashed flat by one of the orderlies at the facility, only to be reincarnated again a short time later as the same rat. Gregory is sub-intelligent, eats moldy cheese off the floor of his cell, and is terrified of almost everything---but for the most part he seems pretty happy.

What Hempel does so well in this VERY dark book is turn almost everything in the story on its head. Gregory is stuck in a straight-jacket, but in one short scene, his jacket pops open. He immediately strips naked, accidently slaps himself in the face several times (he isn’t used to controlling his floppy arms), sticks his hand down the drain and gets it disgustingly dirty, and ends the mostly wordless sequence cowering in the corner of his cell with the straight-jacket partially put back on. Though most of us would pine for freedom, Gregory retreats into the comfort of the familiar after exploring the unknown. (This sentiment seems completely TRUE to me…)

Throughout the book, people keep trying to “improve” Gregory’s situation. His therapist is driven insane by his lack of verbal progress and runs screaming from the room. A group of “pet therapists” show up, and Gregory is mauled by the cat that was supposed to provide him a little comfort. In one particularly disturbing sequence, Gregory is removed from his cell, taken out of his straight-jacket and given the “proper” medication for his condition, so he doesn’t injure himself. This, naturally, leaves him a drooling vegetable, without any of the life or energy that make’s Gregory who he is. Herman Vermin makes an impassioned plea for Gregory to be returned to his normal cell and mental condition, but because he’s a rat, none of the doctors understand him, and he’s smashed to death with a broom. Hilarious!!! Like I said, it’s a dark book. However, when not being bothered by those looking after his “best interests,” Gregory appears to be genuinely happy with his life.

A large part of the success of the book is Hempel’s stunning black and white art. Combining a thick, rough line with what appears to be either pencil or possibly charcoal for shading, Hempel conveys a dark and disturbed mood, which works perfectly with the existential angst saturating the storyline. But the characters, to me, show echoes of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, especially in the facial features, (although this book is nowhere near as MEAN as the Peanuts stories were.) I’ve always been amazed and jealous when an artist can convey a huge amount of meaning in just a few lines, as Bill Watterson, Schulz, and Hempel certainly can. There’s also something jarring in that juxtaposition of simple, cutesy imagery and dark, disturbing subject matter that I think really helps push the overall mood and tone.

In the end, the book is brilliant. There are several extended sequences where the artwork alone tells the story, others where the dialogue can be hilarious but you see almost nothing that’s happening. Some sections show us Gregory’s perceptions of the world, which makes clear how detached he is from reality (but it’s his MIS-perceptions that help keep him happy!) And there’s even a strange, “experimental” section where a person trying to READ the comic is interrupted by another person who keeps asking questions about what’s going on. It’s weird and funny and completely unexpected. My one negative note is that there is a section in which Herman Vermin is reincarnated as a homosexual, and that short storyline is somewhat insensitive to the LGBTQ community, (although, to be realistic, the LGBTQ community hadn’t really moved into the open yet in the late ‘80s.) In addition, I suppose especially sensitive people who have family members who have been diagnosed with some forms of mental illness might find this entire book offensive, but my family is very familiar with mental issues, and I still found the book to be extremely funny. Gregory’s thoughts and reactions seem very REAL to me, and the tone, while dark, is also somewhat positive and “up.” If we could just let Gregory be himself, instead of trying to FIX him and make him “normal,” then EVERYONE would be better off, especially Gregory.

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 047: Cured”

I became a Cure fan back in high school, right about the time the band recorded a rerelease video for their song “Boys Don’t Cry” to promote their Standing on a Beach (1986) hits collection. By my sophomore year of high school (1987) I was ratting my hair up and wearing button down shirts with cardigan sweaters and had built a shrine to The Cure in my bedroom out of posters, magazine clippings, and t-shirts, which was so impressive that people from different schools in the area would come to look at it. (It was a little weird.) Anyway, flash forward to me being an old man, (I no longer rat my hair), who is still a massive fan of the band, as is my wife. My older daughter, on one of her shopping flings to Portland, Oregon, spots a new memoir by one of the founding members of The Cure, and she buys it for us. (Thanks Frankie!!!) Cured – The Tale of Two Imaginary Boys.

Lol Tolhurst – Cured (2016)

Cracking into a book like this, a candid look at a band that I’ve idolized and loved for three decades, can be a fearful experience. I’ve read autobiographies before that actually diminished the authors some in my eyes, but this book doesn’t take any luster away from my heroes. There are a ton of anecdotes from the history of The Cure in this book: formative moments, family history, run-ins with the law, riots at concerts, crossovers with performers from other bands---the types of things one would expect (and enjoy) in a band member’s autobiography, but what this book is REALLY about is Tolhurst’s personal journey from childhood to Cure-hood and beyond. It’s a somewhat tragic story, but with a solid redemptive ending, which, in the face of all the bullshit going on in the world right now, was nice to read.

Tolhurst’s writing style is conversational, and he knows how to tell a story. He includes an impressive amount of detail, while sticking to the backbone of his tale, which is, ultimately, his battle with alcoholism. You could say that this was a “typical” alcoholics’ tale, the fun leads to despair and such, except for the fact that Tolhurst was a founding member of one of the most important rock and roll bands of the last forty years, and his story is inextricably intertwined with the story of the band.

For most people, Robert Smith IS The Cure, but as Tolhurst points out in this memoir, The Cure is not a solo project, and the evolution of the band has always been a product of Smith's collaborations. From the original formation of the band all the way to their status as world class superstars, Tolhurst was the OTHER original collaborator, a link that connected Smith and the band back to their roots in a small town, south of London, called Crawley. Without Tolhurst, there might not have been a Cure, and even if there were, it wouldn’t have evolved the way that it did. (The underappreciated album, The Top, was JUST Smith and Tolhurst when they started doing the demos, and it marks some of their best work and most original songs: “Let’s Go to Bed,” “The Walk,” “The Caterpillar,” “Upstairs Room,” “Shake Dog Shake,” and “Give Me It” are all brilliant and come from that album.)

What Tolhurst also does well, besides tell a good story, is point out the humanity behind the superstars. A lot of people forget that the PERFORMERS we see in music videos or in concert or even appearing on television shows (like South Park, remember?) are personas. Beyond the concert footage, beyond the albums and the photo shoots, the people in a music group are HUMANS, with lives and worries and personalities (that sometimes conflict), and that working together and touring together for months or years at a time can be extremely difficult. Some people seem to be born to it. Robert Smith, who is the only full-time member of The Cure who has continuously toured and performed with the band since 1976---and continues to even as I write this---seems to be born to the life, but he’s a rarity. For Tolhurst, the strain and the emotional toll required…lubrication. He turned to alcohol and drugs to help get through the incredible stresses of life in a high-profile band, but the “self-medication” got out of control. It’s a familiar story, sure, but the backdrop for his narrative (life with The Cure) is fascinating.

The book is good. Well written, interesting details, with a quirky tone. There are a ton of Cure anecdotes in here that any fan will enjoy, and there is a solid redemption narrative for people looking for a bit of a pick-me-up in our dark and dreary times. The story does dip several times into the “sentimental” pool, which I usually don’t care for, but if we think of it in Tolhurst’s terms, it’s the only way this book could have been written. He lost family members, he lost friends, he (very sadly) lost a daughter, lost his association with the band (and the only identity that he’d ever really known because they had been The Cure since they were teenagers!), and he almost lost his own life on several occasions. There’s no way to tell this story without getting a little emotional, so I’ll forgive him. And yes, Robert Smith comes through it all like a hero, and I still love The Cure!

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)

“Read a Damn Book List (with Chit Chat from Sept. 2017)” by Richard F. Yates

About seven months ago, I decided to start writing reviews of the various books that I read. Since 2013, I’ve been making Reading Lists, so that the people who read my stories or enjoy my art can see “where I get my ideas.” (I steal them, of course…) Unfortunately, as I was getting ready to post my 13th reading list, I did something stupid, had to reformat my tablet, and lost the entire list… (I’m better with paper and ink than electronics.) So, instead of trying to remember what I’d read and recreate it (not possible), I went in a different direction.
My rules were simple: read a damn book, cover to cover (no skipping bits,) and then write an honest review. If I’d already read the book at some time in the past, I still had to read it again before putting fingers to keyboard. RE-reading is actually much cooler than most people think. There are a lot of words in most books, and no one can remember them all. In addition, if it’s been a long time since you read a book, YOU might be different now, even if the book isn’t, so what you take away from the rereading may be different than what you got from the book the first time—or second or third… Sometimes books get better—and sometimes they don’t.
The BENEFITS of writing reviews are numerous. First, I like to share stuff that I enjoy with other people. It makes me feel good, and I often read old or obscure or forgotten books that a lot of people don’t remember or might not have heard of, and I’ve made it my policy not to keep these things hidden for myself. I like to share. Another benefit of writing a review is the boost you get to understanding. (Writing IS thinking.) It’s important for people to analyze and consider what they take in instead of just passively consuming it. If you love a story, ask yourself WHY you loved it? If there was something about it that made you uncomfortable, what was it? What elements made the book really work, and where did it fall short? The secondary result of this type of reflection, especially when you bother to write these thoughts out, is that others, whether they’ve read the book or not, can benefit from an honest examination of a text. Does the book sound like it’s worth reading? Was there something going on in the book that I totally missed last time I read it? “Literary analysis” sounds like a scary thing (and I know most people HATE writing papers), but it’s what I was trained to do, and I love doing it.
Since I started doing these reviews (back in February), I’ve finished 46 books. Some of those books were short, but some seemed EXTREMELY long to me, even if they weren’t. (I read slowly—even MORE slowly if the book isn’t keeping my interest.) Either way, 46 is a lot of reviews, and unfortunately, my reviews were getting lost amidst the drawings and photos and poems and stories at The Primitive Entertainment Workshop where they were originally posted. They were getting buried rather quickly because I post anywhere from 3 to 7 items per day at the Workshop, sometimes more. To help keep the reviews above water, I started a new site, Read a Damn Book, which is ONLY for the reviews, but even there, with all those words stacked one on top of the other, most people probably don’t go all the way back and read the reviews of the earliest books very often. And thus, I have created this “Table of Contents” thing, so people can quickly and easily see which books have been reviewed and click on the ones they want to see. (Consider it a public service.) Enjoy!
001 – Scientific Progress Goes ‘Boink’ (Calvin and Hobbes) by Bill Watterson
002 – Dada: The Revolt of Art by Marc Dachy
003 – This Ain’t No Disco by Jennifer McKnight-Trontz
004 – The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey
005 – The Atomics: Spaced Out & Grounded in Snap City! by Mike Allred, Martin Ontiveros, J. Bone, Chynna Clugston Flores, and Lawrence Marvit
006 – Dead Until Dark (Sookie Stackhouse) by Charlaine Harris
007 – Doctor No (James Bond) by Ian Fleming
008 – The Amazing Spider-Man: Hooky by Susan K. Putney and Berni Wrightson
009 – The Willows by Algernon Blackwood
010 – Snake ‘n’ Bacon’s Cartoon Cabaret by Michael Kupperman
011 – The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
012 – All This and Snoopy, Too (Peanuts) by Charles M. Schulz
013 – Getting Even by Woody Allen
014 – Krazy & Ignatz (Krazy Kat) by George Herriman
015 – Martian-American War by Daniel T. Foster and Michael J. King
016 – Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg
017 – Spy vs Spy: Casebook of Craziness by Antonio Prohias
018 – We Must Remain Focused When Waiting for Thunder by Jesse Reno
019 – Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them by J.K. Rowling
020 – Madman Volume 1 by Mike Allred
021 – The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
022 – The Far Side by Gary Larson
023 – Please Kill Me – The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil
024 – Krazy Kids’ Food! by Steve Roden and Dan Goodsell
025 – Duchamp by Janis Mink
026 – Unsolved Mysteries by Joel Levy
027 – Swag – Rock Posters of the ‘90s by Spencer Drate
028 – The Robot Who Looked Like Me by Robert Sheckley
029 – Flaming Carrot’s Greatest Hits by Bob Burden
030 – Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book by Shel Silverstein
031 – KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money by JMR Higgs
032 – Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud
033 – Living Dead in Dallas (Sookie Stackhouse) by Charlaine Harris
034 – Metropolis by Osamu Tezuka
035 – The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen
036 – Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
037 – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
037a – Fear and Loathing… (Revisited!) – [Guest Review by Shane Grove]
038 – The Dot and The Line by Norton Juster
039 – Principia Discordia by Malaclypse The Younger / Rev. Timothy Edward Bowen
040 – Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
041 – Octopus Girl by Toru Yamazaki
042 – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
043 – Club Dead (Sookie Stackhouse) by Charlaine Harris
044 – Super Aces by Mark W. Counts and Michael J. King
045 – The Book of Hallowe’en by Ruth Edna Kelley
046 – Spiders (Little Fears) by Peter Edwards
047 – Cured by Lol Tolhurst
Before I decided to write individual book reviews, I would publish LISTS of the books that I was reading. Some of these, especially towards the later lists, started to have mini-reviews of the more interesting books. To me, they’re still interesting to look at, even if they aren’t quite as substantial as the full reviews. (Meanest thing I wrote: “I liked the cover.” That was the entire review.)
In addition to book reviews, I’ve also started writing VIDEO reviews. Part of what I like about books is that the reader has to participate in the work in order for the story to come to life, whereas a film or television series really just jumps out at you. Still, there are certain shows (films, television programs, documentaries) that I really enjoy, and because I like to share stuff that I enjoy… Heck, why not?
And that’s about it for now…
—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 046: Spiders”

As a busy writer / artist / editor / husband / father / and apprentice screen-printer, I don’t actually spend a lot of my free time surfing the web or cruising social media. When I do spend time online, I want to KNOW that I’m going to get an enjoyable experience, and Little Fears, a great cartoon-a-day site, is ALWAYS fun. In addition to his online creations, the artist has also put together a few books of his cartoons for readers to enjoy (available in both physical and electronic formats.) Spiders is his most recent collection...

Peter Edwards – Spiders (2017)

Little Fears is a fantastic site with a recurring cast of regular characters and a GROANER sensibility. Each day, Edwards posts (at least) one cartoon, drawn with paint pens over a different public domain photo. Accompanying each cartoon is a short story, usually in the form of a dialogue, and often with a goofy pun or what my family would call a “Dad Joke” as a punchline, or if Edwards is in a spooky mood, the tale might have a gruesome or creepy twist. I’m fairly certain Edwards considers these posts flash fiction, but to me, they seem like cartoons with extra words. (Six in one hand, half-dozen in the other?) Between the simple but always cool images and groaner jokes, and regardless of what category this art form might fall under, Little Fears has become one of my favorite online destinations.

Spiders, which is the third Little Fears collection, contains 94 individual cartoons, and includes some of my favorite of Edwards’s drawings. The Spiders that he draws, and who appear frequently in this collection, are hilarious to me---so round, so sinister with their glowing red eyes, so six legged! Brilliant... There is also a red eyed squirrel with blood dripping from his fangs, and creepy clouds and creepy flowers and a creepy light bulb, etc. And although Edwards’ art style is composed of apparently simple lines, the style can be extremely expressive, even haunting...

As for the overall tone of this book, it’s mostly jokes and groaners, and that’s great. If you have ever grabbed a Far Side collection and just flipped through laughing at the (sometimes dark) humor, then this book will be right up your alley. The recurring characters, like Sprite, Red, Yuffie, Spectre, Fuen, and Cloud, each have their own personalities, which adds to the fun once you get a feel for them. (Also of interest, though not necessarily related to this book, Edwards has started doing little videos for many of his cartoons, and hearing him read the various voices is a real hoot! I recommend looking the videos up online if you want to add yet another dimension to your Fears…)

The book is fun, has a few recurring / running themes that make it more than just a joke a day collection, and has extremely cool artwork (of which I am extremely jealous!) There are maybe one or two jokes that some of the little kiddies won’t get or might find uncomfortable in here, but there’s certainly nothing worse than what they watch every day on YouToob! Something else to consider, it’s super-cool to support independent artists, and as Edwards has self-published each of the Little Fears books so far, you’ll get the satisfaction of having contributed to a NON-corporate form of entertainment! You should buy this book for that reason alone! But there’s also this to consider: you can pillage some spectacularly awful jokes from this book to break out at parties, guaranteed to make you the unforgettable guest of the evening!!! It’s a quick read, immensely entertaining, and with fabulous artwork created by someone who obviously loves what he is doing. Get it now!

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)

Sunday, September 3, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 045: The Book of Hallowe’en”

Fall is almost upon us, and my favorite holiday is already in the air. But what’s really going on with this great, spooky, crazy day dedicated to ghosts and monsters and candy? (And how much has the holiday changed in the last 1,000 years???) Let’s find out.

Ruth Edna Kelley – The Book of Hallowe’en (1919)

I did some searching, and couldn’t find out much about Ruth Edna Kelley, except that she was a librarian, and that she put out one of the very first book-length examinations of the history of Halloween. I started reading this book, almost half-heartedly, but I liked the cover and love the topic, so I thought, “Why not?” And within the first ten pages, as Kelley is tracing the Celtic elements that contribute to our modern holiday, she writes this about the Druids (the Celtic priests):

“Their chief god was Baal, of whom they believed the sun was the visible emblem…To Baal they made sacrifices of criminals or prisoners of war, often burning them alive in wicker images” (p. 9).

And I went, “WHAT?! Baal? He was a middle eastern god, Canaanites and all that. What the hell was he doing in northern Ireland? This lady doesn’t know what she’s talking about…” So I did some research, and I discovered that the worship of Baal spread throughout the middle east, into north Africa and Europe, although in some areas, instead of Baal, the god was called Beil or Bel---and I knew that BELtane was one of the Celtic holidays in which fires were lit and sacrifices offered…so I suddenly thought, “Maybe this lady DOES know what she’s talking about. I’m going to start paying a bit more attention here.”


For those who are interested in cultural history, religious practices, the history of magic, and how to seriously throw down at a party, this book by Kelley can seriously help you out. Kelley writes about the regional superstitions and practices from a great many places: Ireland, England, Scotland, Germany, France, the Roman Empire, the Scandinavian lands, and points out the elements that most likely contributed to Halloween. Many of these cultures believed in supernatural creatures, like fairies, goblins, demons, and various gods, as well as believing in the possibility that the spirits of the dead could, on certain nights, communicate with or even walk amongst the living. (Usually, daybreak will dispel any supernatural effects.) Kelley looks at the regional versions of these beliefs in wonderful detail, often quoting from poems or stories that illustrate the beliefs in question.

Catholic conquerors, who would later come into these pagan lands, often attempted to overlay Christian symbols onto pagan beliefs, but in doing so would still managed to keep the spirit of the old superstitions and festivals alive, and the Catholics even added some of their own weirdness to the mix with practices such as “souling.” It was believed by Catholics that some spirits, who in life were not good enough to go to Heaven, but who were also not evil enough for Hell, would be trapped in Purgatory until such time as their souls were purged of sin and released to go upstairs. One thing that could help was praying for the souls of those trapped in Purgatory, and at some point, “soul cakes” were invented, either as a bride to get people to pray for souls trapped in Purgatory or as PAYMENT for praying for those souls, and children would, during the “Hallows” festival, go door to door either begging for soul cakes or for money to buy soul cakes, and for each cake that the children ate, a corresponding soul was believed to be released from Purgatory to fly to Heaven. (Weird!)

Another interesting thing that Kelley points out is that for many cultures, the presence of fairies or ghosts or other supernatural creatures during the fall festival meant that you could use their magic for various fortune-telling rituals. Most of the cultures that Kelley discusses had rites or spells that can be used to determine when someone would be married, what their future spouse would look like, if they would have good fortunes over the next year, or if they were likely to die before the year was out. (Some of these rituals remain today in the form of games, like bobbing for apples.) It can be pretty shocking as a reader in our modern era of science and good sense to see how earlier ages believed so much in magic! (Cough! Cough! Clears throat…) But Kelley does a VERY thorough job of examining these rituals and beliefs, pointing out the differences in various regions, and showing how they have led to our “modern” celebrations…

Oh, and about that idea of “modern” Halloween... It might be of interest to some of you to know that Kelley doesn’t mention the phrase “Trick or Treat” at all in this text. The book was published in 1919, and Trick or Treating didn’t become a THING in the United States until the very late 1920s or 1930s, and that was only in a few areas. In fact it wasn’t until after World War II that the practice of dressing up in costumes and going door to door asking for candy really took off. Before that, Halloween in the United States was mostly kids pulling pranks---and Trick or Treating was invented, primarily, to BRIBE kids not to destroy or set fire to anything for the night. (None of this comes from Kelley’s book, of course. I recommend reading David Skal’s Death Makes a Holiday (2002) if you want a history of All Hallow’s Eve that cover the evolution of the holiday throughout the 20th century!)

So, to wrap up, Kelley’s book is excellent if you’re looking for a thoroughly researched history of pagan and occult practices in Europe over the last thousand years or so. What Kelley really does well, is that most of her assertions are actually backed up by snippets of poems or stories from the region in question that illustrate her point. (Again, being a librarian means she knew how to back up her argument with primary sources!) The edition that I have (my wife bought it off Amazon for me for my birthday) has no publication information and one or two typos, but nothing so egregious that it made reading difficult. In addition, it should be pointed out that Kelley occasional indulges in some very outdated language that comes across as a bit racist (particularly in the short section where she discusses African-American folk beliefs), but if we consider WHEN this book was written, it’s not particularly surprising, and the few somewhat racist moments don’t really interfere with the argument that Kelley is making---but I did cringe a few times while reading, and the language may upset some particularly sensitive readers. Overall, the book is well written, extremely well researched, and entertaining, and I found myself reading sections of it aloud to my wife, who was also entertained by the weird practices and beliefs that some humans have held---way, way back in the deep past---back before we KNEW any better. Right? Back when people thought that the forces of nature were controlled by gods who needed to be placated and sacrificed to in order for them not to be angered, and so they wouldn’t send horrible, natural disasters to destroy our cities… Glad that kind of ignorance is all over, aren’t you?

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)