Monthly Archives: October 2015

Halloween Special: Spooky Stories from China (and Elsewhere)

Luo Ping, Skeletons

I’m currently attending graduate school at the Boston University College of Communication. One of the best things about BU COM is that it’s full of international students, most of them from China. As a result, I have a lot of Chinese classmates and friends. A few of them shared their favorite ghost stories with me for this year’s Halloween special. Continue reading

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Let Sleeping Gods Lie: The Forbidden Necronomicon

(Recently, I was asked to create a faux blog for my Writing for Media Professionals course. Because the resulting “site,” Libris Obscuriis tonally similar to my author blog, I’ve decided to reproduce three of its “posts” here. It’s a shame to let content go to waste, after all!)

That is not dead which can eternal lie.
And with strange aeons even death may die.”
Abdul Alhazred, the Necronomicon

The Necronomicon is no doubt the most famous grimoire ever to have existed. Penned in 738 A.D. by a Yemeni cultist, the book is said to contain magic spells, forbidden knowledge, and a system for summoning ancient gods known collectively as the Old Ones. Though heavily suppressed from its inception, the Necronomicon spread through underground channels. It was translated into Greek in 950, into Latin in 1228, and into English by Elizabethan magician John Dee in the early seventeenth century. Its dark influence is subtle but inescapable, even today.

The Necronomicon, H.P. Lovecraft

Except not really. As entertaining as it is to believe that such a book might exist, the Necronomicon remains stubbornly fictional. The concept of a cursed manuscript that drives its readers insane originated with author H.P. Lovecraft and his cronies, who began mentioning the Necronomicon in their work around 1922. Contemporary horror writers and directors have continued the tradition—references to the Necronomicon have popped up in Friday the 13th, the Evil Dead, and even Archie Comics.

Even Harvard University has gotten in on the fun. According to Lovecraft, Harvard’s Widener Library is one of only five institutions worldwide to house a copy of the dread tome (the others being the British Museum, the Biblioteque nationale de France, the University of Buenos Aires, and the fictional Miskatonic University). If you poke around on the Widener website, you’ll find several listings for the book. None of them are the genuine article, of course.

Where Do I Find It?

Unreadable: The Mystery of the Voynich Manuscript

(Recently, I was asked to create a faux blog for my Writing for Media Professionals course. Because the resulting “site,” Libris Obscuriis tonally similar to my author blog, I’ve decided to reproduce three of its “posts” here. It’s a shame to let content go to waste, after all!)

In 1912, Polish book dealer Wilfrid Voynich bought a manuscript. It was 240 pages long, contained hundreds of full-color illustrations, and seemed just the sort of dusty tome that would appeal to Voynich’s antiquarian clientele. There was just one problem: Voynich couldn’t read it.

He showed it to some professional academics. They couldn’t read it either.

Neither could the amateur cryptographers. Or the professional codebreakers.

Voynich Manuscript

When Voynich died in 1930, the mystery of his eponymous manuscript was still unsolved. To this day, no one knows what language the text is written in, or even how many distinct characters it consists of. The Voynich Manuscript has seduced and stymied generations of researchers, none of whom have been able to determine where it came from, what it’s about, or who on earth wrote it.

What We Know
Little is certain when it comes to the Voynich Manuscript. It appears to consist of six different sections covering herbs, astronomy, biology, cosmology, pharmaceutics, and recipes. None of the plants pictured are identifiable, and the biology illustrations are just a bunch of tiny naked women in bathtubs.

Carbon-dating indicates that the book was written in the early 1400’s, but even that’s tentative. The first known reference to the Voynich Manuscript is from 1666, while one of its previous owners stated that it was written by a Franciscan friar in the thirteenth century.

Where Do I Find It?

  • Title: Voynich Manuscript
  • Genre: Pharmacopoeia(?)
  • Location: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library
    Yale University Library
    121 Wall Street
    New Haven, CT 06511
  • Hours: Closed for renovation until September 2016.

No Skin Off My Nose: The Unappetizing Narrative of the Life of James Allen

(Recently, I was asked to create a faux blog for my Writing for Media Professionals course. Because the resulting “site,” Libris Obscuriis tonally similar to my author blog, I’ve decided to reproduce three of its “posts” here. It’s a shame to let content go to waste, after all!)

In a room at the Boston Athaeneum, there is a locked box; and in that box, there is a book. Take the book out. Run your hands over its cover. See how pale it is. Feel how bumpy. Raise it to your nose and inhale the dust of two centuries. Imagine the author and his surroundings. Get drunk on nostalgia for a time and place you’ve never visited.

Now listen to me as I reveal the following: The book you’re holding is made of human skin.

Narrative of the Life of James Allen, bound in human skin.

You didn’t throw the book on the ground just now, did you? That was a bad idea. Pick it up. Dust it off. Stick it back in the box and hope nobody noticed. Narrative of the Life of James Allen is one of the rarest volumes in the Athaeneum’s collection.

Penned in 1837 by condemned highwayman James Allen, Narrative is both an autobiography and a confession. Allen, it seems, was a bit of a self-promoter. If he was going to be executed by the state, he was going to leave society something to remember him by—particularly one member of society, Mr. John A. Fenno.

It was Fenno who turned Allen in after Allen unsuccessfully tried to rob him. Allen didn’t nurse any hard feelings, though. He was impressed. So impressed, in fact, that he had a personalized copy of his opus sent to Fenno with his compliments—and three square feet of his skin.

Binding books in human skin wasn’t unheard of in those days. But a criminal requesting his skin be put to that purpose? That was something special.

Where Do I Find It?

  • Title: Narrative of the Life of James Allen
  • Genre: Autobiography
  • Location: Boston Athaeneum
    10 ½ Beacon Street
    Boston, MA 02108
  • Hours: Mon-Thurs 9 am – 8 pm
    Fri 9 am – 5:30 pm
    Sat 9 am – 4 pm
    Sun 12 pm – 4 pm

Candy in a Bowl: A Social Experiment in Harvard Yard

Reese's Peanut Butter Cups

Here are some Reese’s peanut butter cups. If you saw a bowl of them sitting out on a stool, positioned invitingly near a sidewalk, beckoning to passers by and clearly unattended, would you take one? What if you left for an hour, came back, and they were still there? Would you rationalize it? (“I’m in the center of a college campus, and it’s almost Halloween. Maybe some student activities group put them here for people to take?”) Or would you moralize? (“Stealing is stealing, no matter the circumstances.”) Your answer may depend on whether you think you’re part of a stupid social experiment.

I’m not a fan of social experiments. I’m enough of an asshole without being manipulated into unethical behavior.

Are humans inherently greedy?

“Yep!” I say, stuffing eight peanut butter cups into my mouth.

Will humans compromise their morals if they think they can get away with it?

“Definitely,” I say, cramming the remaining peanut butter cups into my pockets.

What are the limits of the human capacity for self-justification?

“Boundless,” I say, swiping the bowl and sticking it down my pants to enhance my already full posterior.

To be honest, I’m actually more likely to behave poorly if I think I’m part of a social experiment, because screw you, sociologists! You don’t own me. Your results don’t count if I corroborate your thesis intentionally. What now?

Taking a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup-Social experiment

I’m so counterculture.

When I saw the bowl of candy sitting out in Harvard Yard, I went from hungry to pissed almost instantaneously. I began scanning the area for any suspicious characters–sociology students crouching in the shadows with a camera and/or notepad, congratulating themselves on finally exposing the rotten core of humanity. I walked away for a while. I came back. I watched from afar as other people examined the bowl, probably asking themselves the same question I’d asked: Is this a social experiment?

People don't take any candy from the bowl in Harvard Yard.

These people didn’t take any candy. (background, center)

“How dare they?” I told my friend, Caitlin. “How dare this social scientist try to control us? I didn’t consent to be a part of this experiment!”

“I don’t really feel like candy right now,” said Caitlin.

“That’s not the point!” I replied. “It’s the principle of the thing!”

These people didn't take any candy, either.

These people didn’t take any candy, either.

So I finally took a peanut butter cup. And I ate it. And it tasted like freedom.

If whatever underhanded undergraduate set up this experiment is reading this now, know that you have have lost. I behaved in an unethical fashion on purpose. I ate your candy. I ATE IT UP. You can report that to your professor, if you want, but the truth will burn out your insides: I knew exactly what I was doing, which invalidates your results.

You’ve been dunked on, sucker!

The Witch Trails Revisted: Descendants of Giles Corey

Eighty-one-year-old Giles Corey was an accused witch, the only victim of the Salem witch hysteria to have been pressed to death. For two days, his tormentors piled heavy stones on top of his supine body, demanding that he confess to consorting with the devil. Corey wasn’t an idiot, though–he knew a confession wouldn’t save him. Each time he was commanded to enter a plea, his response was: “More weight!” Apart from that, he was silent, despite the extreme pain caused by this form of torture. So, yeah: it’s safe to say that Giles Corey was kind of a bad-ass.

Giles Corey memorial, Salem

This is his memorial in downtown Salem. The first thing you probably noticed is all the pennies–it’s some kind of Massachusetts thing. I’ve seen coins stacked on grave markers in Boston, too. I’m not sure if it’s meant to be an offering, a request for protection, or a general symbol of well wishes. Regardless, Giles Corey’s memorial had more pennies than anyone else’s.

It also had this:

Dear Great Grandpa Corey

Call me a sap, but this made me cry the most macho of macho tears. I’m not religious. I don’t believe that Giles Corey is up in heaven, looking down on his memorial and thinking, “Man, nice flowers.” But there’s something sweet and humanizing about the gesture, nevertheless. The dead aren’t truly gone until they’re forgotten, and it’s nice to know that–at least in the hearts of his descendants–Giles Corey lives on.

Who Loves a Corn Maze?

Corn maze

I am a Midwestern girl through and through. There’s no denying it–my quasi-Canadian vowels and insistence on thanking the bus driver always give me away. Being Midwestern means making vague, self-deprecating gestures with one hand, while voting against your own interests with the other. It also means going to corn mazes.

Are corn mazes fun? That’s a surprisingly philosophical question. The idea of a corn maze–wandering around in the dark, eating cinnamon donuts, giggling with your friends as you run up against yet another dead end–is certainly appealing. The reality, though, is often hellish. Blame it on my bad sense of direction, but I always end up stuck in a corn maze for three or four hours. During that time, I can’t pee, or drink, or stop to rest. I can’t even kill myself, unless someone invents a way to make a pipe bomb out of corn. I’m trapped. Stranded in purgatory without any hope of salvation. Buried so deep in crops that not even God can find me.

Corn Maze, Danvers

This is the end.

Here are some experiences I’ve had in corn mazes:

  • I was trapped in a one maze for 2.5 hours while a group of boombox-wielding teenage boys elsewhere in the field played Gangnam Style on repeat. A monster jumped out at me and my husband, at which point my husband panicked and accidentally pushed me into a mud puddle. The monster paused for a moment to question my husband’s masculinity.
  • A girl I was with suddenly got the runs and decided to crap in the middle of the path. We got lost and wound up walking past the same pile of crap five times.
  • A golden retriever appeared in the maze, and my sister and I were so desperate that we decided to follow it, reasoning that the dog was bound to find its way out–because of its acute sense of smell, I guess? Eventually, the dog decided to cut through the corn instead of sticking to the path, and my sister swore at it.

Somehow, though, I always manage to forget all this by the time the next corn maze season rolls around. You know how a new mother’s brain floods with bonding hormones to efface the memory of her labor pains, thus encouraging her to breed again (or maybe not)? It’s like that. But with corn.

But I was with friends, several of whom are from China, and I wanted them to have an authentic Midwestern autumn experience. So into the corn maze I went.

Corn maze, Danvers

Last known photo.

And…it actually wasn’t that bad. I don’t know if it was smaller than the corn mazes I’ve been to before, or if my companions just had a better sense of direction than me, but we were out in less than 45 minutes.

So maybe the lesson here isn’t to avoid corn mazes. Maybe it’s to always enter corn mazes with people who are smarter than you are.