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used book stores

Personal (Krypton)
Thursday, after substituting at my old high school, I made a stop at one of my favorite books stores. The Priceville Bookmark is a cramped strip mall storefront with Harlequin romances and Dean Koontz thrillers piled into shopping carts out front, four for a dollar. I hadn't been there in a couple years, and since then, they'd expanded into the old tanning salon next door. Inside, books cover almost every square inch of space. They're piled on the floor and tables, stacked two deep on the shelves, and fill old jewelry display cases. Tight little nooks are dedicated to westerns and World War II histories. The corridor between the two stores is cramped passage with classics pressing in from both sides.

After an hour of browsing, I picked up three books of mythology, one on Shakespeare's comedies, one on life in a Medieval castle, one of endangered species in Alabama, an anthology of "gothic fantasy," a novel based on a murder that occurred in my home town, and a Babysitter's Club graphic novel by an artist I really like.

I didn't walk into the shop looking for any of these things, and that's what makes used book stores fundamentally different from regular book stores. Regular book stores are set up with order and care. They assume customers come in looking for something specific, and they're designed to allow you to walk in, find what you want, and leave quickly.

Used book shops--the good ones, at least--are more chaotic and eclectic. They're set up (to the extent that they're set up at all) for browsing, for poking into dusty corners, for getting lost. You walk in not looking for anything in particular, and most of what you see is uninteresting. Then your eyes land on one book in the pile that you never knew you needed, but suddenly realize you can't live without.

There's no experience like it.


Personal (Krypton)
In 1972, the city of Verona, Italy, installed a bronze statue of Juliet in the courtyard of Juliet's House, a fourteenth-century estate turned into a Shakespeare-themed tourist attraction.

Over time, a tradition developed around the statue: rubbing its right breast would make you lucky in love. Now, I'm a single guy who hasn't given up on finding that special someone someday. Still, I would be hesitant to partake of this tradition for two reasons…

1. It involves groping the statue of a pubescent girl. This action rarely brings luck. More often, it brings court orders forbidding you from getting within 500 yards of schools or playgrounds.

2. Even in fondling this particular statue makes you lucky, "lucky" here apparently means "stabbing yourself in the heart after your boyfriend of three days kills your cousin, kills your other suitor, and commits suicide in your lap."

But apparently, my qualms put me in the minority here. Not only do people flock to Juliet's House to rub the statue, so many show up that they've damn near rubbed her boob off, turning her right breast into an innie.

The Telegraph reported earlier this year:

The wear and tear to the statue, which is of modern creation and has stood in the courtyard since 1972, included a crack in Juliet’s right breast, which has been worn shiny by contact with so many hands, and another fracture in her right arm, which people often lean on as they have their photographs taken.

The statue has been moved to a museum within the Juliet House, and a local foundry is casting a new, identical statue to stand in the courtyard. Will people flock to rub up on this statue too? Probably. Will it grant them the sweet, passionate, murder-y, suicide-y love that made Juliet so famous? Let's hope not.
Personal (Krypton)
About ten years ago, I walked into the Books-a-Million in my hometown, looking to buy a copy of Othello for English 102. I was, in academic terminology, a "non-traditional student," meaning I was 23 and working full time. Maybe it was the excitement of finally getting to college--a hunger for words and thoughts--that compelled me into buying The Complete Penguin Shakespeare for fifty bucks instead of the paperback Othello for a tenth of that.

I remember just barely getting home before the buyer's remorse set in. I did not have fifty bucks to spend on books. I barely had fifty bucks to spend on food. And besides, the thing was a cinder block, heavy and unwieldily. How was I supposed to carry this thing back and forth to class?

But there wasn't much I could do at that point, so I lugged it to class, highlighted lines and scratched notes in the margins. After English 102, I carried it through British Lit, World Lit, and Drama classes, adding more and more marginalia. I was also an untraditional student because I left college several times for extended periods. During one of those times, determined to continue learning on my own, I decided to read the entire book straight through. It took me a year, but I did it, jotting in question marks plenty of places, but also underlining lines that I really loved.

When I returned to college, there was Shakespeare and the Elizabethans with Dr. Shaw and Drama Production with Dr. Elmore. More highlighting, more notes. There were education classes and student teaching where I had to stand in front of a class of ninth graders and talk about Romeo and Juliet. Now there are notes about words to define and foreshadowing to point out.

Recently, after watching a production of Merry Wives of Windsor, I threw myself once more into the breech, pulling the book off the shelf and delving between its rubbed-raw covers. Flipping through it, I noticed how many notes I've added over the years. In some places, they fill the margins and spill across the text. They're made in pen, pencil, and five different colors of highlighter.

My academic career moved in fits and starts, and took a lot longer than I ever thought it would. But I carried this book through the whole thing. In a way, it became a record, as impressive as any college transcript or diploma, of what I learned and asked, and the depths I plumbed. I think that's well worth fifty bucks, even for a broke college student.

When I took my first drama course, I was assigned Othello again. On my second read through, I noticed some bit of symbolism or character aspect I hadn't noticed the first time I'd read it for English 102; I can't remember exactly what it was. What I do remember, though, admitting, somewhat chagrined, that I hadn't noticed it the first time around, and the professor saying, "That's the thing about Shakespeare. You never see everything. You could read this play twenty times, and you'd discover something new every time." As I transition from learning about Shakespeare's plays to teaching them, I certainly hope that's true, and I'm glad to see that there's still plenty of margins in this book left to fill up.

the uselessness of YA authors

Writing (Fox)
Sometimes I wonder about the point of young adult authors. I really don't know what any of us have to say to kids except, "Sorry we messed everything up." (And I think this is a partial explanation for the popularity of the Hunger Games, presenting a world were adults have completely abandoned their responsibility to protect their children.)

I think, at best, YA authors are akin to John the Baptist, preparing the way, keeping the next generation reading and thinking until one of THEM is ready to step up and really say something new, something worth saying. And when that messiah arrives, we will be pushed aside and forgotten. That's probably for the best.

"But John tried to deter him, saying, 'I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?'"


Cabinet of curiosity (key & lock)
I was reading some of H.P. Lovecraft's letters when I stumbled on the legend of the Luck of Edenhall. "The Luck" is a enameled drinking glass, made in Syria sometime in the mid-fourteenth century. Possibly brought to Europe by a knight returning from the Crusades, it eventually made its way to Cumberland, England, and Eden Hall, the ancestral seat of the Musgrave family. (Lovecraft claimed to be a distant relative of the Musgraves, which is why he was so interested in this legend, although historians can't trace any connection.)

Over the centuries, the real origin of the drinking glass was lost, and a new--more fantastical--one sprung up to replace it. In 1791, Reverend William Mounsey wrote, "A party of Fairies were drinking and making merry round a well near the Hall, called St. Cuthbert's well; but being interrupted by the intrusion of some curious people, they were frightened, and made a hasty retreat, and left the cup in question: one of the last screaming out, If this cup should break or fall, Farewell the Luck of Edenhall."

An 1844 journal entry from Georgiana Rosetta Smyth, the nine-year-old god-daughter of Sir George Musgrave reveals some of the precautions (and risks) taken with the glass. "At our dinner Sir George brought the enchanted Cup, he told us that Duke Wharton used to throw it up in the air, and have a manservant to catch it again. We all drank out of it, the little Musgraves were not allowed to come into the room for fear of breaking it. Sir George showed us where the cup was kept, there was an Iron door and stone wall, in case of fire, the Cup was then put into a tin box."

The Luck of Edenhall currently resides at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

exlaining madness

Johnny Cash
On Reddit, somebody asked "What makes the eldritch abominations like the Old Ones so incomprehensible?" User mikekozar_work comes up with one of the best explanations for the horror of the Cthulhu Mythos I've ever read:

"Big ugly squid." I wish I was still that innocent, still unaware of what...they really are. Once you know, once you really understand - or if you are among those damned to witness it yourself - once you know, you will never forget. It keeps me up at night, and if not for my physician's pity I would never sleep at all.

Squids. It's charming, frankly - the Old Gods, with bloated and frowning faces writhing with tentacles like the beard of Neptune. Like a God of Egypt, with a man's body and an animal's head. A curiosity, and little more.

The truth...well, I cannot tell you the truth, not properly, as a man of science should. These things are beyond our science. Still, I understand things about them that explain some of the reports, and perhaps you can carry on my research now that I can no longer pursue it.

It comes down to dimensions. We possess three - height, width, and depth. Grip a billiard ball, feel your fingers wrap around it, and you will understand. Now imagine a creature that existed in only two of those three dimensions, in a universe that described a simple plane through our own. To that creature, the billiard ball would appear to be a simple circle, growing and shrinking as it passes through the plane of the creature's universe. Imagine how our hand would look - strange fleshy circles filled with pulsing fluids, shards of bone, glistening meat. The creature could never understand what it was really seeing, as it could no more conceive of a hand than it could imagine a creature like us, moving freely in three dimensions and gripping billiard balls on a whim.

The Abominations, as you aptly described them, are to us as we are to that benighted creature. They exist in dimensions beyond our own, whose nature we can hardly guess. When they appear to us, we see only fragments of their bodies - long stretches of writhing flesh, glistening with juices that should not exist outside of a body, which whip through the air and vanish back where they came from in a way that our minds simply refuse to accept. Witnesses have tried to describe these as great tentacles, words failing them in the presence of such incomprehensibility. Those who heard the stories seized on this, and explained them as resembling cephalopods. This is a comforting lie, as there is nothing in the most stygian depths of the darkest sea that is not our beloved brother compared to the horrors of the Abominations.

This is a creature who is incomprehensibly alien, and our only glimpse is a sickening flash of writhing, elongated flesh that slips into our world and back out. Worse than the appearance of the creature, though, is it's disappearance - your mind knows, on some level, that this creature - this hateful, hungry god of a creature - is not moving it's body between "here" and "away", but between being a glimpse of a writhing horror, and a horror that watches unseen.

Imagine our two-dimensional creature again, and imagine yourself to be a cruel child. If you chose to torment the creature, it would be powerless to resist. It cannot perceive you unless you chose to intersect it's plane - you can watch it's every move, and it cannot hope to escape your gaze. It would be the simplest thing in the world to push a pin through it, like a butterfly on a card. Take a glass of water and push it into the creature's plane and it will find itself trapped, drowning, in an inescapable sea. The creature is entirely at your mercy, and always will be.

Same as you. Same as me.

two-toed tom: the man-eating gator

Cabinet of curiosity (key & lock)
While writing The Drowned Forest, I researched a lot of Southern folklore and history. Some of it didn't make it into the final draft of the book, but it was too interesting to ignore completely. For the next week or so, I'll be writing about some of the stories, superstitions, and mysteries that make the South a strange and wonderful place to live.

When Carl Cramer wrote his travelogue of Alabama, Stars Fell on Alabama in 1934, the legend of monster alligator Two-Toed Tom was already established in the swamp country along the Alabama/Florida border.

When Pap Haines bought his forty from the lumber company twenty years ago, folks told him he better not keep any stock on account of old Two-Toe. Two-Toed Tom is a red-eyed 'gator and about fourteen feet long, and he can knock a mule into the water with just one flip of his tail. When a farmer sees that track with just two toed on the left fore foot (the rest was cut off by a steel trap long ago), that means he has shore got to pen up his calves and pigs, and he can't be too careless with his mules or grown cows either. . . . If the farmer's got a dog old Two-Toe Tom just says dog-meat is dessert for a 'gator.

The farmers in south Alabam were particularly wary of red-eyed alligators. Red eyes was a sure sign the creature was a man-killer, and possibly a rapist. Cramer points out, "A red-eye goes after a man on land, and he will more than go after a woman if he catches her off by herself. The farm boys and the lumberjack boys can tell of time after time when an alligator has raped a woman before he ate her. They say old Two-Toe Tom has had more than one."

Cramer on to describe a decades-long battle south Alabama farmers waged against Tom, using guns, steel traps, and finally offering a $125 bounty, which attracted a hunter who "used a blind and a high-powered rifle, and he had a sharp-shooter pin that he got back in the army," with Tom always escaping in the end.

One morning, Pap Haines discovered a freshly slaughtered mule and Two-Toed Tom's distinctive tracks leading to a pond. Working with his grown sons, Haines set to work...

They filled about fifteen syrup buckets with dynamite, packed the sticks tight in dirt and cottonseed and cut off some fuses. They lighted three at a time and threw the buckets in the pond. The water shot way up in the air and roots and trees came up from the bottom. Nothing could have been left alive in that pond. Just the same everybody, and there were eight of them, went stepping pretty careful.

After they threw the last bucket, Pap Haines said, "We got him now. He'll be floatin' belly up in this pond by morning'."

They had all started back toward the house when they heard a big splashing. . . . Then somebody began screaming. Everybody ran as fast as he could and the screams kept up but it was a good ways down there. Pap Haines is over sixty but he got there first, just in time to see two red eyes sinking under the water. Beside the pond was what was left of his twelve-year-old granddaughter. She had heard the blasting and was coming down to see what it was about.

Cramer's account of Two-Toed Tom and Pap Haines ends on a note of Faulknerian tragedy, man and nature destroying themselves in an endless, unwinnable conflict. He writes, "Pap Haines lives alone now. His son and family have moved up north to Tuskegee. They want him to come there for he can hardly scrap a living by himself, but he says he has never been above Montgomery and he can't get 'round to it. Besides, he says he has plans to kill that red-eyed hell-demon before he dies."

These days, the legend of the monster gator is memorialized by the Two-Toed Tom Festival, held every summer in Esto, Florida.

the devils tramping ground

Cabinet of curiosity (key & lock)
While writing The Drowned Forest, I researched a lot of Southern folklore and history. Some of it didn't make it into the final draft of the book, but it was too interesting to ignore completely. For the next week or so, I'll be writing about some of the stories, superstitions, and mysteries that make the South a strange and wonderful place to live.

Soon after the first English settlers arrived in what is now Chatham County, North Carolina, they noticed a peculiar sight: In the midst of the thick pine woods that covered the area, they found a circular barren patch roughly forty feet wide. Despite lush vegetation on all sides, nothing would grow within the circle.

Soon, people began calling it the Devil's Tramping Ground. The North Carolina secretary of state's homepage explains the legend…

Though no one ever saw him stalking there, it was believed to be the haunt of the Foul Fiend, who came at night to tramp around and around and around in a circle, his head lowered, his expression intense.  It was during these hours that Satan planned his evil schemes to undo mankind.  At the first light of morning he was gone, winging his way like a bat across the world to carry out his nefarious purposes.  Yet so scorching had been his footprints on the ground of his circular pathway that the soil became infertile, and the nocturnal retreat of the hellish Prince of Darkness was shunned and avoided.

The barren area is more likely caused by a natural salt deposit below the soil, but that minor fact hasn't stopped generations of North Carolinians from visiting the spot for creepy thrills. The website Devil Jazz has a list of newspaper articles and books about the Devil's Tramping Ground going back to 1882, and the legend was mentioned in two of Poppy Z. Brite's books, Lost Souls and Drawing Blood.

But unfortunately for lovers of spooky stories everywhere, the circle appears to be shrinking, and most modern pictures show the area surrounded in litter. The excellent North Carolina Ghost Stories and Legends sums up the Tramping Ground's pitiful fate…

The site has shrunk significantly this century, it's diameter now measuring around twenty feet. The salt content of the soil also seems to have naturally faded enough so that grass now grows in the circle, and the chief thing keeping the clearing free of other vegetation is the constant tramping it receives not from the Devil, but from local kids who use the place as a party spot. It also seems that the Devil has moved on, or modern litter is simply too much for him to cope with, as the site is well-litered with empty Slim Jim wrappers and beer cans.

moss hill methodist church

Cabinet of curiosity (key & lock)
While writing The Drowned Forest, I researched a lot of Southern folklore and history. Some of it didn't make it into the final draft of the book, but it was too interesting to ignore completely. For the next week or so, I'll be writing about some of the stories, superstitions, and mysteries that make the South a strange and wonderful place to live.

Moss Hill Methodist Church in Washington County, Florida, is the quintessential "old country church." Built in 1857, it remains in regular use today. The sturdy wood structure (only the second building in Washington County to have glass windows) lacks electricity. Parishioners light the church with kerosene lanterns hanging from the ceiling, the way they have for over 100 years.

The church was built from pine heartwood, cut from the middle of the tree and sticky with sap. The sap preserved the handprints of the slaves who built the church, as well as the footprints of several children who'd been playing around the boards. (It's nice to know that little kids have always been fascinated by construction sites.) As the sap hardened, the prints remained visible in the church's walls and ceiling.

Read more on Atlas Obscura.

the clay-eaters

Cabinet of curiosity (key & lock)
While writing The Drowned Forest, I researched a lot of Southern folklore and history. Some of it didn't make it into the final draft of the book, but it was too interesting to ignore completely. For the next week or so, I'll be writing about some of the stories, superstitions, and mysteries that make the South a strange and wonderful place to live.

Geophagy--the practice of eating dirt, sand, or clay--is common across the world. In America, it's closely associated with pregnant women, slaves, and poor white Southerners.

Usually the dirt is simply scooped out of the ground, and in modern times, sterilized by cooking it before it's eaten. Not all dirt is equal, and "good dirt" is highly prized. In 1934, a Memphis newspaper reported that town residents had noticed part of a riverbank was disappearing. Police kept an eye out for somebody hauling dirt away from city property. Rather than one person, they saw a whole group of people slip out at night to eat the clay, gobbling up the riverbank "like so many cheese hills." Others took dirt home in buckets to eat later, and one man estimated that his wife ate ten pounds a week.

In the South, geophagy became associated with addiction and moral degradation. In The Journal of Southern History, Robert W. Twyman quotes an antebellum school teacher, saying, "When a person has once seen a clay-eater, he can ever after, instantly recognize any one of their number by their sickly, sallow, and most unnatural complexions."

Southerners also believed that, once somebody began eating dirt, they wouldn't be able to stop. Twyman goes on to say that slaves "easily became addicted, and once addicted, they persisted in the habit regardless of the severity of the punishment inflicted by the master. Negroes who acquired the habit became sluggish and debilitated, their skin changed to a whitish hue, and many of them eventually died. In desperation, planters attempted to effect cures by confining the afflicted slaves in stocks, by attaching metallic masks or mouthpieces to them, and by other preventative measures to the break the habit; but once the physical restraint was removed the 'patient' invariably returned to his old ways."

The motivation for geophagy isn't clear. Researchers have proposed that clay-eaters are making up for an iron deficiency caused by poor nutrition or hookworms, the pallid complexion of some clay-eaters possibly being due to anemia. (The urge to eat non-organic substances in order to get missing vitamins is called a pica.) However, not all clay-eaters suffer from a lack of nutrition, and even after the hookworm was largely eradicated from the South in the 1910s, clay-eating persisted.

Other researchers believe it's a cultural practice, perpetuated by superstition and folk beliefs. Twyman writes, "Some men apparently believed [geophagy] increased their sexual prowess. Women claimed 'you have to eat clay when you are carrying your baby, or it won't be born right.' Some said that 'the baby will carry a "mark" if its mother has not eaten clay.'"

Personally, I've have several female friends admit to eating dirt while pregnant, not because they thought their babies would be born with a mark if they didn't, but just because they had a sudden craving for dirt. One nurse I knew said that she'd scoop spoonfuls of potting soil out from one of her potted plants. (She also believed that the cravings were more common if you were having a boy rather than a girl.)

Maybe most surprisingly, all the sources I read claim that, once people get over the initial inner disgust of eating dirt, they start to really enjoy the taste. In a 1902 St. Louis Post Dispatch article about a dirt-eating "cult" that had sprung up in that town, the reporter chuckles, "After awhile the dirt eater develops his appetite. He comes to relish his dirt as a girl loves her fudge."