Top Trends: The Irresistible “-ist” List

When you work at a library, some literary trends aren’t that hard to spot: you tend to trip over them. A while back we started seeing lobsters everywhere, which last year were replaced by tigers. We’ve done whole book displays over covers featuring just feet, or headless women. (One avid reader in Montreal is especially gifted at keeping an eye out for similar (or identical) covers, such as this bevy of skirts.)

The Somnambulist, by Jonathan Barnes.The latest trend that’s becoming hard to resist is the current proliferation of titles sporting the same sibillant suffix. Not sure when it began: it might have been Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist, or maybe it dates back to Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, but suddenly on a stroll through the aisles one is likely to be accosted by resurrectionists, somnambulists, imperfectionists, informationists, and lonely polygamists.

Not only that: they’re having children, though strictly along X-chromosonal lines. Imagine the lively conversations that must ensue at any gathering of The Optimist’s Daughter, The Abortionist’s Daughter, The Alchemist’s DaughterA Bigamist’s Daughter, The Artist’s Daughter, The Communist’s Daughter, and The Narcissist’s Daughter. I wonder if they talk about their dads?

Here’s some of what we’ve spotted; can you think of others?The Anarchist, by John Smolens.

Grit, Twang, Soul: Your Southern roots are showing.

Searching for the Wrong-eyed Jesus - a film by Andrew DouglasLast night, watching Jim White cruising the fecund, salvation-starved backroads of the deep South in Searching for the Wrong-eyed Jesus, I kept hazily reflecting back on my own Southern childhood. My folks and I came north to Seattle when I was just four years old. From San Francisco. Yet White’s musing, music-filled backroads travelogue is suffused with so much grit, twang and fiery Pentecostal soul that even a dyed-in-the-woolies mossback like myself feels that certain stirring deep in his Southern roots.

The film itself was made by British filmmaker Andrew Douglas for the BBC, and many of the musicians who play on it (former New York Doll David Johansen, alt-country groups 16 Horsepower and The Handsome Family) are not from the South themselves. Just as all of us have license to get enthusiastically, demonstratively Irish at least one day a year, so anyone feeling that certain strain of dark longing is allowed to draw on their authentically fake Southern roots to express that. This is why Nick Cave’s And the Ass Saw the Angel really is a Southern novel, even though its author is from way down south in Australia. It explains why my in-law with the recurring role on Justified loves to share stories from Kentucky, even though he’s from Portland, Oregon.

Image of pick up truck down south, courtesy of Bill Herndon, via Flickr
Image of pick up truck down south, courtesy of Bill Herndon, via Flickr

Lacking any factual basis, my Southern childhood carries no burden of geographical precision, ranging from the Ozarks to Appalachia, and every bayou, trailer park and holler in between. It stretches from the stark Depression-era menace of Camp Rapture, Texas to the crazed freakiness of Mystic, Georgia; from the foot-tapping front porch fiddle music, to the woofer-thumping beats of the Republic of Stankonia; from the earnest goofiness of a turkey hunter in Vernon, Florida, to the depraved denizens of Boone County. My Southern home is not a paradise on earth, but more like Eden after the fall, where the serpent is Faulker, a writer of such titanic genius he creates his own weather systems, still and hot and damp and charged with electricity. A land of music that carries you to God, and food that speeds you on your way to meet your maker. If you’re from the South, you know what I’m talking about. If you’re not, you probably know as well.

Here’s a little list with music, movies and books from the (Dirty Weird Ol’) South of my imaginary youth: tell us about your own favorite Southern artists.

Who is Fantômas?

                “What did you say?”
“I said: Fantômas.”
                “And what does that mean?”
                 “But what is it?”
“Nobody….and yet, yes, it is somebody!”
                 “And what does the somebody do?”
“Spreads terror!”

A century ago, these words unleashed reign of terror upon the literary world which continues to this day. It was in February of 1911 that Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre published the first of several novels featuring a mysterious criminal mastermind whose exploits swiftly became an international sensation. If you’ve never heard of Fantômas, you’re not alone. A few years back, London’s Daily Telegraph featured a list of the 50 greatest villains in literature, and yet the greatest villain of all is nowhere to be seen. Coincidence? Hardly: Fantômas is a known master of disguise, and would never be caught in the open so easily. Combining the anarchic savagery of Edward Hyde, the criminal genius of Professor Moriarty, the irrestistable hypnotic power of Svengali, the audacity of Richard III, and the bloodthirsty panache of Dracula, Fantômas stands unrivalled among supervillains for sheer dastardliness.

Fantômas was beloved of Dadaists and surrealists, who were inspired by his motiveless nihilistic glee, and by his ingenious inventive variations on perfidy. The definitive anti-hero and ultimate mischief maker, he’s the sort of devil who will derail a train full of people to cover his tracks (or just for the fun of it), and Original cover to Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre's Fantômasloves nothing more than to frame innocent bystanders, sending them to gallows and guillotine for his crimes while he looks on. The dogged Inspector Juve and his journalist friend Fandor are ever in hot pursuit and often seem to have the Lord of Terror right within their grasp, only to be outfoxed by their mercurial prey, who doffs personae like hats. Meanwhile, the rich Lady Beltham remains in his thrall, despite the fact that he kills her husband in the first book. Once you get into the maniacal spirit of the thing, his exploits can be addictive: last week I chain-watched the recently released collection of Louis Feuillade’s Fantômas films of 1913 and 1914, beautifully restored with a perfectly ominous soundtrack; now am reading the first novel. Only seven of the 32 original Fantômas novels were ever translated from their original French into English, but five of these are available for free download from Project Gutenberg.

So, who is Fantômas? As his laughter trails away down the gaslit alleyways of Paris, we realize that we can never know, for the essence of Fantômas is mystery.

Stretching his immense shadow
Across the world and across Paris,
What is this gray-eyed specter
Rising out of the silence?
Fantômas might it be you
Lurking on the rooftoops?

                               ~ Robert Desnos, “Complaint of Fantômas.”

Bigfoot Sighted at the Library

Many of us look back at the 70’s with fond embarrassment. Feathered hair, down vests, CB radios. This was the decade in which Clint Eastwood co-starred with an Orangutan, and we liked the idea so much that for three years we tuned in to watch Greg Evigan and a truck-driving chimpanzee in BJ and the Bear, a show that arguably jumped the shark in its opening credits. In celebrity news, a drunken Grizzly Adams’ beard was set alight by a drink called the Flaming Eddy, while another famous big hairy guy did some even more embarrassing things, and I don’t mean Chewbacca.

The 70’s were a heady time for Bigfoot, with movie and TV deals and all the attendant merchandising, and stunned by the glare of Hollywood (or the omnipresent nose candy), Image of Bionic Bigfoot Doll Courtesy of JD Hancock via Flickrthe famously reclusive creature made some very bad decisions. I was reminded of this the other day when I noticed the library’s newly purchased Bionic Woman DVDs included a couple of episodes in which Bigfoot guest starred. I used to be the proud owner of a Bionic Bigfoot action toy, the necessary foil to my truly awesome Major Steve Austin doll, with its creeply peel-back-able arm and bionic eye you could peer right through. The pair could fight just like on TV, or even drag race! In The Six Million Dollar Man franchise, bigfoot actually turned out to be an android scarecrow left behind by space aliens, which was kind of a stretch, but these were crazy times remember, when the pairing of bigfoot and aliens seemed as natural as pairing roller & disco; The Captain & Tennille; BJ & the bear.

Employing my librarian skills, I ventured a subject heading: “Bigfoot – drama.” And hit gold, of a sort. The Bigfoot Terror Collection is a suite of downloadable films which casts its merciless glare on the nadir of Bigfoot’s filmography, before Harry and the Hendersons resurrected his career as a loveable, overgrown plush toy. The best title for true Bigfoot aficionados has to be Legend of Bigfoot, a 1976 shlockumentary in which noted sasquatch paparazzo Ivan Marx – a man who truly has bigfoot on the brain – scours the earth in hopes of capturing the gentle giant on film. When at last he corners his leading man in some far northern desolation, bigfoot is typically camera shy. Sadly, this was not always the case.

Just two years before, Bigfoot’s cousin the Yeti had appeared in Shriek of the Mutilated, a low budget slasher movie that falls well within the realm of so-bad-it’s-good. To attempt to explain the inspired illogic of this bizarre cinematic fever dream is beyond me. I loved every minute of it. In 1979, Bigfoot made another regrettable appearance in The Capture of Bigfoot. By far the scariest part of this movie is the gnashingly bad overacting of Richard Kennedy as the town baddy, Mr. Olsen. (You may remember Kennedy from his equally galvanizing appearances in C.B. Hustlers, Ilsa: Queen of the SS, or Invasion of the Blood Farmers). The less said about The Search for the Beast the better. Made in 1997, it is a softcore drive in flick featuring a goggle-eyed, amorous Alabama swamp ape. (Not that I watched the whole thing, or anything). You’ve been warned, or tempted.

A book I’d overlooked

Walking around the library I have to deliberately ignore the shelves sometimes, shutting out the siren song of all those stories crying out to be read. Some I’ve always meant to read, but many more are perfect strangers to me: little worlds languishing on the lower shelves, waiting to be opened.

One especially beguiling title I just couldn’t ignore was a reprint of Walter de la Mare’s curious 1921 novel Memoirs of a Midget. I mean, once you’ve seen it, how are you not going to pick that up? The otherwise nameless Miss M’s bucolic childhood ends when her parents die, forcing her to make her way into an unfamiliar world that is inclined to view her as a curiosity, given that she is somewhere around two feet tall.  Continue reading “A book I’d overlooked”