“S. D. Watkins, Painter of Portraits”—A Short Story by Steve Rasnic Tem, 2010

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S.D. Watkins, Painter of Portraits

Steve Rasnic Tem, 2010

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THE OLD PRIEST WAS DRUNK, but Watkins did not think he would pass out soon. The priest was pouring himself his sixth, or seventh glass of wine. The portrait painter had been so engrossed in his sketches of too many lines, too many choices, that he had lost count. But he had carefully watered the wine down beforehand so that the priest would get drunk, yet still remain conscious through this, the first portrait sitting.

Watkins himself did not drink at all, but after hours of intense drawing he would not have called himself sober. He watched as his wounded hand made lines that leapt away from the body, rose from the shoulders as if the old priest’s arthritic joints and twisted bones were reforming themselves into something that might launch the failing body toward Heaven. Here and there his blood spotted the page.

“So many lines, why do you make so many lines? Did they teach you that in art school?” The priest’s boozy breath against the side of his face made him feel ill.

Watkins twisted in his chair. “I told you this is all preparation. I begin the painting tomorrow. This is nothing for you to see. You should be in your chair—this is a portrait sitting, remember? You should be sitting, posing.”

The priest staggered back to his chair in front of the fire, his voluminous black cassock casting broad shadows over Watkin’s front room, alternating with the warm, sudden flushes of firelight. It brought an otherworldly illumination to the paintings covering every inch of the walls: all of them of angels in various poses, all of them gorgeous, and none of them by Watkins himself. They had all been painted by his father Martin, who had been a genius.

The priest had his hand affectionately around the wine bottle, gazing at this patchwork hallucination of angelic obsession. “When I came here looking for a painter, I thought it would be your father.”

“The fact that no one at St. Anthony’s knew my father has been dead more than ten years speaks volumes.”

The priest nodded sadly, tipping dangerously forward. “He painted most of the murals in the church, and the fine details in the transepts. Admirers come from thousands of miles.”

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“Truman Capote’s Trilby: The Facts”—A Short Story by Gary Kilworth

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Art for “Truman Capote’s Trilby: The Facts” by Anne Stephens (Back Brain Recluse, Issue #15, Spring 1999).

Truman Capote’s Trilby: The Facts

Gary Kilworth, 1990

Originally appeared in Back Brain Recluse (BBR), Issue #15, Spring 1990.

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I have never been a great lover of hats. For one thing they tend to crush one’s hair and leave it looking like sweaty straw. For another, individual hats are never thoroughly in fashion these days and wearers are considered faintly eccen­tric. Even in the city they draw the occasional amused smile or nudge, unless seen on the head of someone stepping out of a Rolls Royce. Of course, there are places where a hat is completely acceptable, such as at sporting events – Ascot, or the boat race – but for people like me, on a modest income, buying a hat for a single occasion is an extravagance. Finally, I think my head is the wrong shape for most hats. Its sup­ports headgear which moulds itself to the skull, like a ski hat, but tends to reshape less obsequious millinery into something almost grotesque in outward appearance.

It was, therefore, with some surprise that I found myself staring at the trilby in the window of Donne’s of Oxford Street.

Purchasing a trilby requires special nerve and should really only be undertaken by a person with a charisma impossible to influence, like Bogart or the Orson Welles of The Third Man. The trilby has a personality, an ego, all of its own. If the wearer is not strong enough to resist alteration, it is better to steer clear of such forceful dominant items, the demi-gods and despots of hatlands and the high country.

In any case, the trilby has a dubious history, which is difficult to deny. It flaunts an ancestry which most of us would prefer to keep locked in a cupboard with all the other skeletons: forefathers that witnessed – let’s not mince words – took part in such infamous deeds as the St Valentine’s Day Massacre, and later attended the funerals without so much as a droop of the brim. The Roaring Twenties and the trilby are inseparable. A gangster’s hat. Phillip Marlowe gave it back some fictional respectability, but the taint remains. Of course, women too have worn the trilby, but since women tend to be promiscuous in the use of headwear we can assume that any honour regained from that quarter is open to question. In the forties, again, its reputation sank to a very dark level when the Gestapo adopted it (along with its constant companion, the trench coat) as part of their uni­form, not to mention its sinister association with Papa Doc’s Haitian secret police, the terrible Tontons Macoute. So, the trilby is not exactly a gentleman’s hat, its motives are ques­tionable to say the least, and it often ends its days perched on the back of an Australian head in some sweltering out­back creek, keeping off the flies.

It is a hat given to swaggering gestures and sloping cuteness, famed for its slouch.

Consequently, when I saw this particular trilby in the shop window, and felt a strong urge to buy it, I tried to allow my intellect to govern my emotions. I was shocked by the strength of those emotions. They produced fantasies the kind I used to have in my youth. I saw myself travelling on the Paris metro, men staring at me in envy and women attempting to attract my attention. These pretty pictures used to preceed a lot of purchases as a young man. Appar­ently they were still powerful enough to rule my head, because I found myself in the shop, self-consciously trying on the trilby. I left the place wearing it.

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Scientists Now Believe “Octopuses Are from Outer Space” (from Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology, 2019)

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(New York Post)

A New Paper Tests The Limits of Science by Claiming Octopuses Came From Space



Click the image below to access the actual scientific paper:

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A summary of decades of research on a rather ‘out-there’ idea involving viruses from space has recently been published, and it’s raising questions on just how scientific we can be when it comes to speculating on the history of life on Earth.

It’s easy to throw around words like crackpot, rogue, and maverick in describing the scientific fringe, but every now and then a paper like this comes along, leaving us blinking owlishly, unsure of where to even begin.

A total of 33 names are listed as authors on this review, which was published by Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology. The journal is peer reviewed and fairly well cited. So it’s not exactly small, or a niche pay-for-publish source.

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Science writer Stephen Fleischfresser goes into depth on the background of two of the better known scientists involved: Edward Steele and Chandra Wickramasinghe. It’s well worth a read.

For a tl;dr version, Steele is an immunologist who already has a fringe reputation for his views on evolution that relies on acquiring gene changes determined by the influence of the environment rather than random mutations, in what he calls meta-Lamarckism.

Wickramasinghe, on the other hand, has had a somewhat less controversial career, recognised for empirically confirming Sir Fred Hoyle’s hypothesis describing the production of complex carbon molecules on interstellar dust.

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Reblog: “Witchcraft Should Mean Something” by Jason Mankey (+Link)

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Artist unknown (threehandspress.com).


When I was a five years old I had three warts on my right hand, and every night for about six months my father applied Compound W to them. After many treatments the warts would burn away into nothing, and then as soon as they were destroyed they would immediately grow back in the same place at the same size.

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The Witches’ Sabbat by Frans Francken, II (WikiMedia).


After a year of frustration and disappointment someone at work gave my Dad a copy of what they called “The Moon Trick,” which was guaranteed to get rid of warts (so we were told). I don’t remember all the details of the trick, but it involved exposing my warts to the light of the full moon and reciting an incantation over them. A couple of days later they were gone, and this time they didn’t come back. (Thinking about this today, I can’t help but think how cool it is that my first exposure to magick was in the first grade, and with my Dad!)

Considering how the words “Witch” and “Witchcraft” are used by many people today, I could probably claim that my father was a Witch and used Witchcraft on my warts. However, my father is not a Witch, probably doesn’t believe in magick (even though he’s seen it work at least once!), and didn’t think what we were doing that night was Witchcraft. But more and more I see this strange and growing tendency to label any magickal operation Witchcraft and to label any magickal practitioners Witches.

I came across a comment from a friend online the other day who claimed that members of his family had been practicing Witchcraft for centuries while remaining committed Christians. He mentioned his family was from Central Pennsylvania, and due to that association I’m going to guess his family has a history of brauche or braucherei (sometimes called Pow-Wow), which is a magickal tradition amongst the Pennsylvania Dutch. (If you’ve ever read or heard of the book The Long Lost Friend you’ve been exposed to some of the ideas in this tradition.)

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Young Witches on Brooms. Artist unknown. (Public Domain)

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The Beginning of the New England Vampires Legend? “Therapeutic Exhumation”: Uncovering an Age-Old Therapy from the Grave

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Long before there were antibiotics, lung-collapsing surgical operations or even mountaintop sanitariums, rural New Englanders may have devised a macabre treatment for people suffering from tuberculosis (TB).

The therapy involved the exhumation of a TB victim’s body and the manipulation — occasionally desecration — of the remains. This, the practitioners believed, would stop transmission of the disease to surviving family members and neighbors, and slow the decline of those already infected.

That, at least, is the theory propounded by several anthropologists who have employed their analysis of a 19th century grave from Connecticut to interpret tales of “vampires” in early New England.

Most European folk cultures contain stories about people who, though officially dead, periodically rise from the grave and harm the living. In order to protect the latter these “undead” must be killed, immobilized or incapacitated.

The modern idea of the vampire has almost entirely been taken over by the image of Dracula, the ardent, formally dressed nobleman who will undoubtedly make many appearances on Sunday night, Halloween. The vampires of folklore, however, were a far more heterogeneous crew.

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The 19th-century New England “Vampire Panic” resulted from an outbreak of tuberculosis and a fight between burgeoning scientific theories and old-world superstition. Read more here:
New England Vampires

Usually of peasant stock, they had gained their benighted state by having been suicides, alcoholics, the first victims of epidemics, babies born with teeth, or by having any of several other marks of misfortune, which differed from culture to culture. Only some sucked blood. In many cases, the undead drained life from a victim solely through the act of psychological possession.

References from Folklore

[Click here to read more about the Mercy Brown Vampire Legend]

New England folklore contains occasional references to the undead, and the efforts to dispatch them. In one of the better known ones, a pre-Revolution Rhode Island farmer, named Stukeley, had 14 children. The eldest, Sarah, died. In succession five more died, each complaining of visitations by Sarah during their illnesses.

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When a seventh child became ill, Stukeley dug up all the bodies. Five were decomposing, but Sarah, the longest dead, lay with her eyes open and had red blood in her heart. She was judged a vampire, and her heart was removed and burned. The ill child died, but the seven remaining Stukeley offspring lived, according to the account.

Though the folk tales call people such as Sarah “vampires,” they may not have been viewed as such by contemporaries. Some researchers believe the idea is largely a dramatic way of describing the effects of a chronic illness whose symptoms resemble those that might be produced by a blood-sucking vampire. Desecration of their bodies was a combination of therapeutics and spiritualism.

“In my eyes, this is really a folk medical practice,” said Michael Bell, an anthropologist with the Rhode Island Heritage Commission, who has studied the tradition. “What the people involved were trying to do was stem the tide of a contagious disease. They were following what was obviously a very ancient practice. The people never called it vampirism.”

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The tuberculosis connection was suggested by the contents of a grave that was exposed by erosion in the town of Griswold, Connecticut in 1990. The bones had been rearranged after death, with the skull separated from the vertebral column and the femurs, or thigh bones, moved up from their anatomical location and crossed on the chest.

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“The Maiden-Tree”—A Short Story by Catherynne M. Valente

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Art by Hans Zatska.


The Maiden-Tree

Catherynne M. Valente, 2005

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It is remarkable how like a syringe a spindle can be.

That explains the attraction, of course. A certain kind of sixteen-year-old girl just cannot say no to this sort of thing, and I was just that measure of girl, the one who looks down on the star-caught point of a midnight needle, sticking awkwardly up into the air like some ridiculous miniature of the Alexandrian Lighthouse and breathe: yes. The one who impales herself eagerly on that beacon, places the spindle against her sternum when a perfumed forefinger would be more than enough to do the job, and waits, panting, sweating through her corset-boning, for a terrible rose to blossom in her brain.

Well, we were all silly children once.

They could not get it out. I lie here with the thing still jutting out of my chest like an adrenaline shot, still wispy with flax fine as ash. Eventually the skin closed around it, flakes of dried blood blew gently away, and it and I were one, as if we had grown in the same queen’s womb, coughed into the world at the same moment, genius and child, and I had spent those sixteen years before we were properly introduced chasing it like a dog her own bedraggled tail. My little lar domestici, my household god, standing over me for all these years, growing out of me, the skin-soil of my prostration, as swollen with my blood as everything else within these moss-clotted walls.

And these are the thoughts of a sleeping woman as she breathes in and out in a haze no less impenetrable than if it had been opiate-bred; these are the thoughts of a corpse kept roseate by the rough symbiosis of spindle and maiden, a possibility never whispered of in all the biology texts she ever knew, or hinted at by the alchemists who whittled sixteen years away burning spinning wheels to lead and ash.

I have been arranged here as lovingly as the best morticians could manage, my hair treated with gold dust so that it would lose none of its luster, even as it tangled and grew wild across the linen, and the parquet floor, up to the window-frames and dove-bare eaves. My lips were painted with the self-same dyes that blush the seraphs’ cheeks in chapel frescoes, and injected with linseed oil so that my kiss would remain both scarlet and soft. My skin was varnished to the perfection of milk-pink virginity, violet petals placed beneath my tongue to keep the breath, no matter how thin it might become, fresh. From scalp to arch, I have been tenderly stroked with peacock-feather brushes dipped in formaldehyde (specially treated so as not to offend the nose of any future visitor, of course). The place where my breast joins the spindle has been daubed with witch-hazel and clover-tincture, cleaned as best as could be managed—all this was done with such love, devotion, even, before the briar sprouted beneath the first tower, and the roses put everyone else to sleep with me.

But they were not prepared, and this has become a tomb with but one living Juliet clutching her nosegay of peonies and chrysanthemums against her clavicle, her back aching on a cold stone slab.

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