Sunday, July 14, 2019

417. Kill


BROWDERBOOKS


My latest book, the fourth title in my Metropolis series of historical novels set in nineteenth-century New York.


 The Eye That Never Sleeps eimage.jpg


A story of the strangest friendship that ever was: a dapper young bank thief and the detective hired by the banks to apprehend him

Reviews

"What a remarkable novel!  Clifford Browder's The Eye That Never Sleeps is an exciting cat and mouse game between a detective and a bank thief that is simultaneously so much more.  A lively, earthy stylist with a penchant for using just the right word, Browder captures a city pullulating with energy.  I loved this book right down to its satisfying, poignant ending." --  Five-star Amazon review by Michael P. Hartnett.

"New York City in the mid-nineteenth century is described in vivid detail. Both the decadent activities of the wealthy and the struggles of the common working class portray the life of the city."  --  Four-star NetGalley review by Nancy Long.  

"Fascinating!"  --  Five-star NetGalley review by Jan Tangen.

For the full reviews of the above three reviewers, go here and scroll down. 

"Well written, flowing with a feeling for the time and the characters."  --  Reader review by Bernt Nesje.  

The Eye That Never Sleeps is certain to amaze and engage not just historical mystery fans, but anyone seeking an exciting new read.  --  Five-star Readers' Favorite review by K.C. Finn.


My nonfiction work Fascinating New Yorkers has been reviewed by The US Review of Books. Reviewer Gabriella Tutino says, "There's something for everyone here in this collection of profiles, and it serves as a source of inspiration for readers who love NYC." For the whole review, click on US Review.

For more about my other books, go here.


                              Kill


Kill: the word in English, a monosyllable, has a directness to it that no other language I know of can match.  It is blunt, keen, harsh.  Shakespeare is aware of this when, in 
Act 4, Scene 6, he has Lear say

And when I have stol'n upon these sons-in-law,
Then, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill!

         But we also use it more gently.

·      “He made a killing in the market.”
·      “We’re just killing time.”
·      Fred Trump to his son Donald: “Be a killer.”
·      “You kill me.”

In none of these is it a matter of depriving someone or something of life.  What the last one means depends on the context.  It is very twentieth-century, very American; I heard it in the movies.  It means “You’re overdoing it, but I’m not fooled.”

         Have I ever seen a killer?  Yes, but not a human.  At the Aquarium at Coney Island I have seen a shark swimming in a tank.  His supple, streamlined body, his eye, his jaw with jagged, inward-curved teeth – all these features suggest a living machine designed to hunt and kill.  And the more a victim struggles to escape, the more those teeth cut into him, rendering escape impossible.

File:Las Vegas, Shark Reef Aquarium, 2018.11.24 (35).jpg
Vahe Martirosyan
         Humans have tried to create machines for killing, so they don’t have the grim responsibility of hacking off a head, or firing a gun, or pulling a lever that sends the doomed man’s body plunging into space.  The electric chair, once so highly esteemed in progress-addicted America, has proven untrustworthy, as evidenced by gasps and twitchings of the victim.  

File:Man in electric chair.jpg
Man in an electric chair, 1908.

But the French came up with a far more efficient device, evidently invented by a surgeon named Antoine Louis, but promoted by a deputy in the National Assembly, Dr. Joseph Ignace Guillotin.  A child of the Enlightenment, Guillotin was shocked by the thought of the condemned being broken on the wheel, or drawn and quartered, or burned at the stake, or drowned.  He hoped that a more humane method of execution would ultimately lead to abolition of the death penalty.  On October 10, 1789 – three months after the storming of the Bastille – he  addressed the reform-minded Assembly, declaring, “With my machine I take off your head in the twinkling of an eye, and you never feel it.”  He and his machine were mocked at first, but on June 3, 1791, the Assembly made the guillotine the only means of legal criminal execution.  Workers shunned the job of making it, until a German harpsichord maker agreed, on condition of anonymity, to manufacture it.  It was tested on animals and human corpses, perfected, and then busily employed in killing the Revolution’s innumerable victims, the king and queen among them, followed by the fanatical Robespierre.

File:Hinrichtung Ludwig des XVI.png
Showing Louis XVI's head to the crowd.  A German engraving, 1793.

         Legend has it that Dr. Guillotin not only gave his name to the machine, but died by it as well.  No, he died in 1814 of natural causes at age 75.  Embarrassed by their connection to it, his family asked the government to change the machine’s name, and when the government refused, they changed their name instead.  But the guillotine was the standard form of execution in France until the death penalty was abolished in 1981.  And Hitler loved it; during his rule, thousands died by it.

         If the guillotine is so painless and efficient, why hasn’t it been adopted here?  Because, I think, it’s messy.  Heads roll, blood flows, the body is mutilated.  With hanging, at least the corpse is intact.  We like neat, bloodless executions, even if the victim gasps and twitches.  A nasty business, no matter how you look at it. 

         Dr. Guillotin wanted executions to be private, but the Revolution made them public, so the populace could cheer when the executioner showed them the severed head of the king or some other victim of significance.  The tricoteuses of the executions, those fiercely knitting Madame Defarges, have themselves become legendary.

         There is, buried deep in many of us, a delight in watching others being put to death.  Throughout history governments have turned executions into public events, ostensibly to show that crime doesn’t pay, to display the fate of its challengers, those who presume to threaten its security or that of society.  In Tudor England executions were well-attended public events, and victims pronounced what they hoped would prove to be memorable utterances.  Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth wife, facing execution for adultery, is said to have humiliated Henry by proclaiming, “I had rather be the wife of Culpeper than queen of England!”  Memorable indeed, though not supported by any eyewitness account.  More likely, knowing her last words would be reported to the king, she asked for forgiveness, hoping to protect her family.  She was only 18.

         In this country executions were also often public.  As for lynchings, by their very nature they were public events, and even celebrations.  Postcards often showed the dangling hanged bodies of the victims, usually  black males, with a host of smiling white witnesses, including even women and children.  One wonders at the state of mind not only of those posing proudly near the dangling bodies, but also of those who sent the postcards by mail.  Who did they send them to, and with what scribbled message?  One appears online, on a postcard from Waco, Texas, dated 1916: “This is the barbecue we had last night.  My picture is to the left with a cross over it.  Your son, Joe.”

         The postcards were also kept as souvenirs and in time became collectors’ items.  It is worth noting that the Nazis never stooped to selling souvenirs of the death camps.  In the U.S., by 1908 the postcards had become so common, and to many so repugnant, that the U.S. Postmaster General banned them from the mails.  After that they continued to be sold in antique stores whose proprietors whispered to prospective buyers that they were available, though not on display.  These souvenirs so offend me that I cannot reproduce them here.  Nor would they be appreciated today by the residents of the communities involved, which were by no means all in the South.  These celebratory killings occurred also in Cairo, Illinois (1909), Anadarko, Oklahoma (1913), Duluth, Minnesota (1920), and Marion, Indiana, 1930.  They are accessible online at Wikimedia Commons, for those who want to see them.  I have seen them and received their message, and that is quite enough.

         I have told elsewhere, and more than once, how my father was a hunter and fisherman, and raised his two sons to be the same.  With me, it didn’t take.  Though he taught me to use a shotgun at age 16, I had no desire to kill the blackbirds that he hoped would appear overhead in autumn fields where we patiently waited, or the occasional rabbit that scurried away from us.  And I hated the pain in my shoulder from the recoil of the shotgun, when fired.  Though in his will he left his guns to his sons, we were quite happy to sell them.  Sad.  In this regard (and others), we were not the sons he had wanted.  The guns involved, by the way, were shotguns used for trap shooting and hunting.  He had no interest in handguns, much less automatic weapons (unheard of in his time), and would be dismayed by their availability today.

File:Annie Oakley shooting at Pinehurst.jpg
The legendary Annie Oakley shooting a shotgun before spectators
in Pinehurst, NC, date unknown.  What she's shooting at isn't clear.
  
       So I am not a killer?  Wrong.  Under certain circumstances I can kill with gusto.  But only the roaches that infest my apartment, in an old building whose cracks and crevices – too many to ever be filled – provide them with nesting spaces where they can rest up by day and prepare for their nocturnal forays.  When, heeding the bladder imperative, I go to the bathroom at night, I surprise gangs of them in the wash basin and tub and either chase them into a waiting glue trap, or – BAM BAM BAM – pound them with the smooth cap top of an empty medicine bottle.  Many escape, but not all.  Still, I am not an indiscriminate killer.  Roaches, yes; spiders, no.  Spiders I always spare, though I may relocate them to a green plant or release them to the world outside.  Any bug that kills flies and mosquitos is a friend of mine.

File:Parcoblatta zebra P1440306a.jpg
My enemy.
Robert Webster

File:Spider coorg-2.jpg
My friend.
L. Shyamal
         When to kill and when not to is a problem besetting us all.  It comes up repeatedly in regard to abortion and the death penalty.  Both involve human life, and for this reason both of these issues perplex me.  All my friends here in New York support freedom of choice, meaning they support a woman’s right to have an abortion.  When women say that men should not tell them what to do with their bodies, I listen and agree.  But when the pro-life camp declare that life begins at the moment of conception, I also agree, and cannot easily dismiss their emphasis that human life is sacred, and not to be taken lightly.  Which puts me in a bind

File:Anti-abortion protest, 1986.jpg
Anti-abortion protest, San Francisco, 1986.
Nancy Wong

        Similarly, I am troubled by the taking of life by the state through the death penalty.  If life in an unborn child is sacred, why not in a convicted criminal as well, no matter how heinous the crime?  And the all-too-frequent miscarriage of justice – the absence of DNA testing, the evidence never presented at trial, the subsequent recanting of witnesses – make the death penalty all the more questionable.  Yet the pro-life people tend to support it, and the pro-choice people tend to oppose it.  And I’m caught in the middle, open to the arguments on both sides.

File:Asb.jpg
Anti-death penalty protest at the Governor's Mansion, Austin, Texas, 2005.
Texas Moratorium Network

         And the debate rages on.  In the Sunday Review section of the New York Times of June 23, a whole series of letters to the editor, responding to an article against the death penalty, present the pros and cons.  A New York resident tells of serving on a jury for a murder case where there was no doubt that the accused did slit the throat of an elderly woman and let her bleed to death in front of her lifelong partner.  Would the writer have voted for the death penalty, had it not been abolished in New York?  Absolutely.  But a pro-life practicing Catholic in Florida opposes it, convinced that it is neither a deterrent nor less costly than life imprisonment.  And the others support either the one view or the other, citing cogent reasons for their stance.  And there I am again, right in the middle, sympathetic to arguments both pro and con.  What I don’t understand is how, when human life is involved, people can make up their mind quickly and emphatically, without hesitation.  I’m  wishy-washy, if you like, but keenly aware of the complexities involved.  Regarding both abortion and the death penalty, the two sides have a point to make, and they make it with conviction.

         Here’s a positive note to end on.  From time to time I have what I call a kill day.  No, I don’t go out on the street and start shooting; that’s not my style.  A kill day is when I leave to one side my usual practices and devote myself to tasks that may seem negative and destructive, but are necessary and, in their way, positive.  I may make a long-delayed decision that involves canceling some commitment – maybe a donation to a nonprofit that no longer makes sense to me, or attending some worthy but irrelevant affair.  Above all, I throw things out.  I go to my desk, look for clutter.  A file with clippings for a blog post I’ve decided not to write?  Out.  A record of requests for reviews from reviewers who said they would, but didn’t?  Out.  A file of items pertaining to BookCon, the two-day book fair at the Javits Center, that I’ve decided not to do again?  Out.  A big cardboard folder that I thought I might use, but haven’t?  Out.  You get the idea.  Far from being savagely destructive, kill days can be a time for cleaning and clarifying, for de-cluttering your apartment and your mind, for achieving focus.  We all should have one from time to time.  They simplify, they cleanse.


Coming soon:  The Fourth: how we really celebrate it.  And then: AIDS.

©   2019   Clifford Browder


Sunday, July 7, 2019

416. Descent into Darkness: Revelations, Fecundity, and Death



BROWDERBOOKS


My latest book, the fourth title in my Metropolis series of historical novels set in nineteenth-century New York.


 The Eye That Never Sleeps eimage.jpg


A story of the strangest friendship that ever was: a dapper young bank thief and the detective hired by the banks to apprehend him

Reviews



"What a remarkable novel!  Clifford Browder's The Eye That Never Sleeps is an exciting cat and mouse game between a detective and a bank thief that is simultaneously so much more.  A lively, earthy stylist with a penchant for using just the right word, Browder captures a city pullulating with energy.  I loved this book right down to its satisfying, poignant ending." --  Five-star Amazon review by Michael P. Hartnett.

"New York City in the mid-nineteenth century is described in vivid detail. Both the decadent activities of the wealthy and the struggles of the common working class portray the life of the city."  --  Four-star NetGalley review by Nancy Long.  

"Fascinating!"  --  Five-star NetGalley review by Jan Tangen.

For the full reviews of the above three reviewers, go here and scroll down. 

"Well written, flowing with a feeling for the time and the characters."  --  Reader review by Bernt Nesje.  

The Eye That Never Sleeps is certain to amaze and engage not just historical mystery fans, but anyone seeking an exciting new read.  --  Five-star Readers' Favorite review by K.C. Finn.


My nonfiction work Fascinating New Yorkers has been reviewed by The US Review of Books. Reviewer Gabriella Tutino says, "There's something for everyone here in this collection of profiles, and it serves as a source of inspiration for readers who love NYC." For the whole review, click on US Review.

For more about my other books, go here.


Small Talk



While walking along University Place the other day, I was slow in getting across the street, causing a yellow cab to blast its horn at me as I reached the curb just as the light changed.  This did not endear me to yellow cabs.

One block later the light changed and I waited as traffic began to flow.  But a young woman of about 18 or 20 resolutely started across the street, even though the light was against her.  Another yellow cab blasted its horn at her.  She stopped in the middle of the street and turned to face the cab, forcing it to stop.  She then gave the driver the finger and, having made her point, continued blithely across the street, finally allowing the cab to proceed.  

Moral: If two feisty New Yorkers collide, it's the one with the most chutzpah that wins. If anyone can be said to win.




Descent into Darkness

Revelations, Fecundity, and Death


This will be a strange kind of post, because I know where it begins, but I don’t know where or how it will end.  It will be a mix of myth and memoir and I don’t know what else.  So if you have a moment and are curious, come along on my journey, a descent into the depths of darkness.  Let’s see what we find down there.

How it began: the Underland

         In the New York Times Book Review section of the Sunday Times of June 16, 2019, there is a review entitled “What Lies Beneath” by Terry Tempest Williams.  The book reviewed is Underland: A Deep Time Journey by the British author Robert Macfarlane.  Above the review is a large illustration by the distinguished artist Armando Veve that demands our attention.  Veve’s work is subtle and intricate; the more I look at it, the more I see.  That his name appears only in the smallest print is shameful.

         At the top is the above-ground world we know, with a spade and a pile of dirt (someone has been digging), a butterfly and a plant, and a dog sniffing the ground.  Just below is a tunnel leading to three cartoon-like mice, two playing instruments and one singing.  We also see a rabbit snug in its burrow, an onion or turnip growing underground, and a bunch of mushrooms pushing their roots deep.  Just below that is a ribbed monster – dead? alive? – its open mouth with sharklike jagged teeth, and some birds flying toward it.  Under that is a man in goggles creeping along a tunnel whose wall is lined with stacks of skulls and bones.  The man’s helmet has a light flashing ahead of him to reveal a small insect or spider.  Beyond that is what the man is probably looking for: a cave wall with stick-like human figures in a boat, and an animal they may be hunting, suggesting the art of prehistoric humans.  Beyond that is a manmade tunnel leading into a dark interior, and a window, embraced by creeping roots, showing a modern room with a computer screen, wires, and dashboards on a counter.  And below all that, at the very lowest level, is a pipe with twists and turns whose mouth oozes a yellowish fluid.  Crouching next to the pipe  are three demonic creatures, one with clutching clawlike hands seizing severed human heads impaled on spikes, as all three devour with gusto a heap of tiny naked humans.

         Confused?  So am I.  But I’m also fascinated.  Armando Veve’s fantastic illustration suggests biological growth and fertility, prehistoric monsters, a cave explorer, the latest tech, and infernal demons committing some kind of monstrous human sacrifice.  A world of underground darkness, but what does it mean?

         Maybe Ms. Williams’s review will help.  Macfarlane’s Underland, she says, is an epic exploration and examination of darkness and underground caverns.  The author takes us to ancient barrows in Britain’s hills, the understory of a forest, a physics lab investigating “dark matter” from a mine, underground rivers in Italy, and pictographs found in Norwegian sea caves.  Darkness, Macfarlane suggests, may bring revelation.  He is concerned about the loss of biodiversity, the cost of development on a plundered planet.  He follows a guide into the catacombs of Paris, sees hundreds of skulls once evacuated from the city’s cemeteries, and even spends several night in this lightless, hidden world.  How, he asks, can we communicate to future generations the dangers of the world we today are creating?  “Are we being good ancestors?”

         Which clarifies a little, but only a little, the illustration’s myriad allusions.  And with this inspiration from a review and illustration of a book I haven’t even read – and am almost afraid to read – I commence my own personal journey down into depths of darkness.

Descent into Darkness: Revelations

         I have never had a thing for caves and catacombs and underground exploration.  Mammoth Cave in Kentucky never tempted me.  Yet when I walk the streets of Greenwich Village, on the sidewalk I see steps leading steeply downward into darkness, and am fascinated by the thought of what may be down there.  Darkness breeds mystery.  I know, of course, that in basements one finds boiler rooms, meters, furnaces, and storage space for stores.  But the darkness still piques my curiosity, though never to the point of tempting me to go down there.  In fact, those steep descending stairs rather frighten me; the thought of suddenly losing my balance and plunging headlong is almost terrifying.   Dark basements – not to mention caves and catacombs -- are not for me.


File:MammothCaveNPS.jpg
Mammoth Cave

        With one exception long ago in my childhood, when a dark basement enticed me and brought me revelations.  This was in the house I grew up in, in Evanston, Illinois.  On rainy afternoons when I had the house to myself, I explored the basement.  I knew that I could reach it going down exactly twelve steps, just as I knew that sixteen steps would take me up from our living room to the second floor.  And at the foot of the basement stairs were two closets that I explored many times.  The first closet was well lit by an overhead light, and its shelves were jammed.  There were Christmas decorations put away for another year, an old Philco radio, one of my mother’s hats in a hatbox, a fan, old shoes, and a box labeled “Mother’s hair” that did indeed contain her shorn locks, retained I don’t know why.  But the great find was my parents’ love letters, my mother’s calm and reasonable, my father’s crackling with humor and wit.  Above all I found a letter of hers listing thirteen numbered reasons why their marrying might not be a good thing.  It was the calm appraisal of a woman not deeply
in love, but tempted by the belated courtship of a man whose temperament and habits might be incompatible with her own.

         All this came to mind when my parents erupted into verbally ferocious quarrels.  To my father’s taunting accusation that she had dominated her childhood and adolescent friends, my mother replied defiantly, “I had spunk!”  And when, on another occasion, he reproached her bitterly for “the letter with the thirteen points,” I got the allusion at once.  Some years later, when I was home from college for Christmas, I found my father drugged with some new medication that made him talkative and reminiscent.  When I was alone with him in the living room, he told me, “A woman doesn’t fall in love the way a man does.”  Meeting her when he was in his forties and seemingly satisfied with a carefree bachelorhood, he had fallen head over heels in love with her, courted her devotedly, and when she was out of town, wrote her letters that sparkled with wit.  The letter of the thirteen points had shocked and dismayed him.  Though no mama’s boy, he had always been close to his mother, to whom he showed the letter.  “I can’t believe Mabel really means this,” she reassured him, and he continued the courtship and won her over; the result was my brother and myself.  My parents were close in some ways, and far apart in others; not a perfect match, somehow it endured.  Did my father remember that he had once, under medication, told me these things?  I doubt it; he never mentioned them again.

         And the other basement closet?  Deeper in the basement, it had no overhead light and no shelves, was simply a big space plunged in darkness.  With a flashlight I discovered there my mother’s musty old steamer trunk that had accompanied her to Europe in 1919, and another empty old trunk.  And in the shadows behind them, a deflated football that I had flung there once, after an officious uncle, thinking my brother and me unathletic and risking sissyhood, had given my father, to assist in our manly development.  Burdened with glasses as I was, and hating sports as I did, I had consigned it to oblivion, and there I delightedly left it.  So much for my childhood explorations of our basement’s dark depths.

         Look how far from Robert Macfarlane’s fascinating book we have come.  But my digression stems from his discovery that darkness can bring revelations.  In my basement explorations I learned things that my parents never knew I had discovered, things too private and too painful for them to have ever, under normal circumstances, revealed to me.  I have kept them secret to this day.

Fecundity
        
         I have said that I was never one to explore caves and catacombs, but when visiting Gothic  cathedrals in Europe, I was fascinated by crypts, the deepest part of the church, and the oldest.  (The Greek adjective kryptos  means “hidden.”)  Not quite a cave, perhaps, but a cool, dark, secret place dating back to the present church’s predecessors, and often containing a tomb.  

         No less than five churches were built on the same site as the magnificent Gothic cathedral of Chartres, most of the earlier ones destroyed by fire.  When, long ago, I visited the cathedral to stare in awe at its stained-glass windows, I also descended to the crypt.  In that deep, dark space I found a Christian bas relief, the subject of which I don’t recall, and also, I believe, some Romanesque frescoes, but little else.  There is also a deep ancient well, though back then it may not have been accessible to visitors.  The oldest part of the crypt dates from the ninth century, but long before the Christians came, the Druids considered the site and the well sacred.  Pagan worship on the spot of a Celtic mother goddess may have inspired the Christians to dedicate a church there to the Virgin Mary.


File:Chartres - cathédrale - puits.JPG
The well in the Chartres cathedral crypt.
Guillaume Piolle

         So there she is, worshiped in a dark, secret place: the Virgin Mary, preceded by a Celtic mother goddess, the two of them evoking in my mind the ancient, cosmic, and inescapable Wonder Woman, Eve the temptress and slut who has not three faces but ten or twenty or a thousand: the Aztec goddess Coatlicue, with her skirt of snakes and necklace of severed human heads, who both regenerates life and consumes it, and the Virgin of Guadalupe; Gypsy Mystical Rose Lee and a host of other Queens of Quiver titillating throngs of lustful males; the well-named Mother Monster, Lady Gaga minus her raw-beef garb, plastic bubbles, and tattoos (or maybe with them); the strutting and palpitant Madonna (yes, that Madonna) whom multitudes of gay boys flock to, exalt, and revere; the Bitch of Chaos, out of whose messy flux of matter (materia, mater, mother) the Creator (more of Him another time) fashioned this baffling but fascinating heap of atoms in which we find ourselves immersed.  She is Earth itself, that pulsing dark matter of the universe, that mix of bones and seeds, skulls and spore, whose muggy late-summer growth of wormwood and mugwort and sneeze-provoking ragweed threatens to overtop and hug and smother us, until we're rescued by the merciful decay of autumn and the chill of winter.  They, thank God, beat back her hot intensity into a sullen and resentful sleep, months of it, broken at last by the stark brash brat of spring leaping naked from her groin to flaunt his genitals and startle and renew us, creating new pain, new life, new miracles, and new religions to redeem us and inspire.

         Whew!  I didn’t really see that coming.  Rehearsed?  Not at all.  Subsequently, a little light editing to eliminate a repetition, insert a comma, or change a word or two, but otherwise untouched.  It spewed out of my head between 5:10 and 5:25 a.m. on June 20, 2019, the last day of spring.  I warned you that I didn’t know where this post might go.  I still don’t.



File:Anonymous Adam and Eve.jpg
 Eve tempting Adam with the apple.  
After Albrecht Dürer, early 17th century.


File:Coatlicue.jpeg
Coatlicue, the monster-headed Big Mama of the Aztecs.
etnoboris


File:Lili St-Cyr.jpg
Lily St-Cyr, circa 1946.


File:Earth Goddess sculpture, Atlanta Botanical Gardens.jpg
Earth Goddess, plant sculpture by Eric Yarnell
in the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, 2014.
Eric Yarnell

Death

         Yes, crypts were used, among other things, for burials.  And the dark lower regions have always been associated with death, while the upper ones offer light and life.  In Greek mythology the poet and musician Orpheus sings his grief for his deceased wife Eurydice so poignantly that it moves Hades, lord of the underworld, to give her back to him on one condition: when he leads her out of the land of the dead, he must not look at her.  Only when they reach the upper world of the living, does he look back at her, but she still has one foot in the realm of the dead and so is lost to him forever.  For me, one of Greek myth's most poignant stories: to almost, but not quite, cheat death.


File:Orpheus and Eurydice, by Frederic Leighton.jpg
Orpheus and Eurydice, by the English artist Frederic Leighton, 1914.

         Hades was also a place of punishment and horror: Sisyphus repeatedly rolls his rock up the hill, only to see it roll back down again, and Tantalus, ever hungry, tries to reach fruit on a branch that always recoils from his grasp.  The Christians would double up on this, hurling unrepentant sinners into fire and brimstone and demonic torture in the depths of hell.


File:Coppo di Marcovaldo, Hell.JPG
Hell, a mosaic by Coppo di Marcovaldo, circa 1301, in the Florence baptistery.
Resembles the monstrous trio of human-devouring demons in Veve's illustration.

         Are the tombs of the dead to be violated?  Today we assuredly say no, but artifacts from ancient tombs have a way of ending up in modern museums, their provenance doubtful, or in the elegant homes of the wealthy, no questions asked.  When I was growing up I heard of the discovery, in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, of the tomb of the young pharaoh Tutankhamun, dubbed King Tut in the press, and of a curse put upon anyone who should disturb a pharaoh’s tomb.  Disturbed it was, in 1922, by a team of British archaeologists who marveled at its contents and shipped them off to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.  A few years later, it was said, all those archaeologists were dead. 


File:Tuts Tomb Opened.JPG
Opening the inmost shrine of King Tut's tomb, 1922.

         The story of the curse is dubious, but its popularity reflects our lingering discomfort at the thought of a tomb being ransacked.  Hart Island, at the western end of Long Island Sound in the Bronx, is where New York City’s anonymous unclaimed bodies, identified only by a number, are buried in stacks of plain pine coffins by inmates from Riker’s Island.  Yet even there, in this mass cemetery on a remote island closed to the public, the inmates have been known to caution one another: “Respect, guys, show respect.”  As well they might.  In former times the dead were thought to hover about, especially on All Hallows Eve (Halloween), causing trouble if disrespected.  

          In 2012 the Field Museum in Chicago offered a new show of its Egyptian mummies with CT scans penetrating the sarcophagi to reveal the most intimate details: genitals, decayed teeth, missing limbs.  “You’ve never seen mummies like this!” the museum declared; visitors flocked.  Among the mostly positive comments of the public on websites advertising the show, one stood out: “Bury the dead, you sick people!”  Rare is the mystery of darkness that modern technology fears to penetrate.  Even the dead aren’t safe.

         Such are my thoughts on descent into darkness, revelations, fecundity, and death.  Much, though by no means all, of what is shown in Veve’s illustration for Macfarlane’s Underland has been touched on.  If you have the Times Book Section for June 16, have a look at the illustration and see what I have missed.  But a glance won’t do; take time.  And if you’ve ever descended into darkness and had adventures there, be sure to let me know, especially if they involve a womb/tomb room.


File:Dark sky, 2014.jpg
Mystery of darkness: a sky photographed by Philippe Alès, 2014.
Philippe Alès

 Coming soon: Kill.



©  2019  Clifford Browder