House of Horrors

Mummified Corpses in Guanajuato’s Museo de las Momias

In this month of Halloween, I thought I would make mention of the most horrific museum I have ever visited, the Museo de las Momias (that is, Mummies) de Guanajuato.

Imagine to yourself a museum consisting of corpses dug up in a Mexican mining town that have been naturally mummified because of the mineral content of the soil. Many were interred during a cholera epidemic which filled the local cemetery to such an extent that the town had to charge a fee for the right to remain buried. According to Wikipedia:

The human bodies appear to have been disinterred between 1870 and 1958. During that time, a local tax was in place requiring a fee to be paid for “perpetual” burial. Some bodies for which the tax was not paid were disinterred, and some—apparently those in the best condition—were stored in a nearby building. The climate of Guanajuato provides an environment which can lead to a type of natural mummification, although scientific studies later revealed that some bodies had been at least partially embalmed. By the 1900s the mummies began attracting tourists. Cemetery workers began charging people a few pesos to enter the building where bones and mummies were stored.

When I visited Guanajuato in the late 1980s, my introduction to the museum was itself grim: A young father was carrying a child’s coffin on his shoulders to be buried, with no one else in the family following him.

Shades of Edgar Allan Poe: The Wikipedia entry continues with this grim fact:

One of the mummies who was buried alive was Ignacia Aguilar. She suffered from a strange sickness that made her heart appear to stop on several occasions. During one of these incidents, her heart appeared to stop for more than a day. Thinking she had died, her relatives decided to bury her. When her body was disinterred, it was noticed that she was facing down, biting her arm, and that there was a lot of blood in her mouth.

The only way I kept the contents of my stomach under control while I was in the museum was the extent to which I busied myself taking pictures. None of these are in this post, as they have yet to be converted to JPEG files from the Kodachrome slides I was then shooting.

Even a writer like Ray Bradbury had trouble seeing the displays of mummies in the museum:

The experience so wounded and terrified me, I could hardly wait to flee Mexico. I had nightmares about dying and having to remain in the halls of the dead with those propped and wired bodies. In order to purge my terror, instantly, I wrote ‘The Next in Line.’ One of the few times that an experience yielded results almost on the spot.

A Movie for 2020

Vincent Price as Prince Prospero and Patrick Magee as Alfredo

As we approach Halloween, I propose a 1964 film by Roger Corman as the perfect paradigm for our year of coronavirus and Trump—namely, The Masque of the Red Death.

The story concerns a gathering of wealthy friends (let’s call them billionaires) of Prince Prospero at his castle while the Red Death plague rages through the land. It is my favorite Roger Corman film, with elegant color photography by Nicholas Roeg.

Unfortunately, the character of Vincent Price’s Prospero, nasty as he may be, is played by too interesting an actor to be a stand-in for Donald J. Trump—though he wealthy guests are perfect. One can imagine the My Pillow Guy and the founder of Goya Foods at this party.

You might also want to read the Edgar Allan Poe story from which the film is drawn. You can find it here.

Death Is Stalking the Land in Masque of the Red Death

In the end, Prince Prospero and all his guests come down with the Red Death, which they had so studiously tried to avoid. And curiously, the character is plays the personification of the deathly plague is, once again, Vincent Price.

“Perhaps the Most Interesting Book of Travel Ever Published”

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

As soon as I saw that one of the fans of travel writer John Lloyd Stephens was none other than Edgar Allan Poe, I was intrigued. Although I have the lengthy Library of America collection of Poe’s Essays and Reviews, I could not find any mention of Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán among the reviews, I did find this intriguing note on the Internet. It is from an 1841 issue of Graham’s Magazine:

We are not prepared to say that misunderstandings of this character will be found in the present “Incidents of Travel.” Of Central America and her antiquities Mr. Stephens may know, and no doubt does know, as much as the most learned antiquarian. Here all is darkness. We have not yet received from the Messieurs Harper a copy of the book, and can only speak of its merits from general report and from the cursory perusal which has been afforded us by the politeness of a friend. The work is certainly a magnificent one — perhaps the most interesting book of travel ever published. An idea has gone abroad that the narrative is confined to descriptions and drawings of Palenque; but this is very far from the case. Mr. S. explored no less than six ruined cities. The “incidents,” moreover, are numerous and highly amusing. The traveller visited these regions at a momentous time, during the civil war, in which Carrera and Morazan were participants. He encountered many dangers, and his hair-breadth escapes are particularly exciting.

I find it interesting that Poe committed himself so far without actually having a copy of the book in hand. Perhaps he saw the proofs or an advanced copy, as he hints above. I will continue to search to see whether Poe actually did write a more comprehensive review of the book.

 

The Crown Prince of Grade Z Films

Masque of the Red Death (1964)

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

The first time I ever heard of him was when I was a student at Dartmouth. At that time (the mid 1960s) I subscribed to Films and Filming. One issue contained an article entitled “The Crown Prince of Z Films,” referring, of course, to Roger Corman. I was intrigued by what I was hearing of the cheapster director who made so many interesting films for American International Pictures. What I liked most were the Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, usually starring Vincent Price.

Perhaps my favorite was The Masque of the Red Death (1964), about the attempt by a group of dissipated nobles to escape the plague. There were others in the series, including House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Premature Burial (1962), The Raven (1963), and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964).

A Young Roger Corman (Left) with Vincent Price

A Young Roger Corman (Left) with Vincent Price

When I first met Martine in the late 1980s, I discovered that she was a hard-core Corman addict, liking such films as Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957) and the original The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), which was shot in under a week on a shoestring budget. There are in all about a dozen films he directed that are worth seeing and hold up well over the years. (He also made not a few clinkers, but that’s showbiz!) After he stopped directing around 1970 he continued to produce films and was responsible for some 300+ films over his half century career.

Other than the Poe features, I also enjoyed I, Mobster (1958), A Bucket of Blood (1959), The Intruder (1962) starring William Shatner, Tales of Terror (1962), X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) starring Ray Milland, The Wild Angels (1966), The Trip (1967), and Bloody Mama (1970).

Corman introduced us to Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Bruce Dern, to name just a few. In his films were such stars as Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre.

Perhaps I had a misspent youth, but I sure enjoyed it—and continue to do so….

“Eternal Brood the Shadows on This Ground”

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

There is no doubt that H. P. Lovecraft owes a debt of gratitude to Edgar Allan Poe. He made an interesting attempt to pay a tribute to his forebear with this sonnet, which was published in Weird Tales in May 1938:

Eternal brood the shadows on this ground,
Dreaming of centuries that have gone before;
Great elms rise solemnly by slab and mound,
Arch’d high above a hidden world of yore.
Round all the scene a light of memory plays,
And dead leaves whisper of departed days,
Longing for sights and sounds that are no more.

Lonely and sad, a spectre glides along
Aisles where of old his living footsteps fell;
No common glance discerns him, tho’ his song
Peals down thro’ time with a mysterious spell:
Only the few who sorcery’s secret know
Espy amidst these tombs the shade of Poe.

If you look closely, the first letters in each line spell out the poet’s name.

“A Dream Within a Dream”

Is all that we see or seem But a dream within a dream?

Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

We tend to undervalue the poems, stories, and essays of Edgar Allan Poe. Currently, I am reading a slim volume of his complete poem; and I am amazed at what simple means he uses to achieve such strong and vivid effects. Take this one, for example:

A Dream Within a Dream
By Edgar Allan Poe

Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow —
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand —
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep — while I weep!
O God! Can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

This is a poem even a child can understand. Yet few adults, however brilliant, could put it so well.

Against Speed Reading

PICEdgar-Allan-Poe-stamp(1)I have seen many computations respecting the greatest amount of erudition attainable by an individual in his life-time; but these computations are falsely based, and fall infinitely beneath the truth. It is true that, in general, we retain, we remember to available purpose, scarcely one-hundredth part of what we read; yet there are minds which not only retain all receipts, but keep them at compound interest forever. Again:—were every man supposed to read out, he could read, of course, very little, even in half a century; for, in such case, each individual word must be dwelt upon in some degree. But, in reading to ourselves, at the ordinary rate of what is called “light reading,” we scarcely touch one word in ten. And, even physically considered, knowledge breeds knowledge, as gold gold; for he who reads really much, finds his capacity to read increase in geometrical ratio. The helluo librorum [“glutton of books”] will but glance at the page which detains the ordinary reader some minutes; and the difference in the absolute reading (its uses considered), will be in favor of the helluo, who will have winnowed the matter of which the tyro mumbled both the seeds and the chaff. A deep-rooted and strictly continuous habit of reading will, with certain classes of intellect, result in an instinctive and seemingly magnetic appreciation of a thing written; and now the student reads by pages just as other men by words. Long years to come, with a careful analysis of the mental process, may even render this species of appreciation a common thing. It may be taught in the schools of our descendants of the tenth or twentieth generation. It may become the method of the mob of the eleventh or twenty-first. And should these matters come to pass—as they will—there will be in them no more legitimate cause for wonder than there is, to-day, in the marvel that, syllable by syllable, men comprehend what, letter by letter, I now trace upon this page.—Edgar Allan Poe, Marginalia