Saturday, November 14, 2009


I freely admit I'm a total science nerd, and Sherlock Holmes should be near and dear to every Dust & Corruption reader. I'll be honest, I don't plan on covering much about Holmes here, mainly because there's tons of other sites that do it much better than I do. But we're Holmes-friendly here.

And forensic science is fun. Of course, there's the whole CSI phenomenon. But for me, it goes even further back. When I was a tender youth, in the late 70s and early 80s, I remember getting a plastic "Crime Lab" set one Christmas and immediately going mad taking fingerprints and bagging "evidence." Later I got a "Build-Your-Own Lie Detector" set that I loved, and I recall my high-school friends having fun with it at gatherings.

So looking at Victorian-era forensics is right up my alley. And author E. J. Wagner does a good job. This isn't in-depth; it's light pop science, but it's good light pop science.

Chapter by chapter, he examines different facets of criminal science in Victorian times, not only looking at their development but where they went in more modern times. Autopsies, superstitions, insects, toxicology, disguises, crime scene analysis, the Bertillon method, ballistics, goes on and on. She gives glimpses into the personalities of those involved, like Bertillon's arrogance, or Edmond Locard's dry sense of humor.

Oh...who was Bertillon? Alphonse Bertillon was a French police officer and biometrics researcher who established a system of measurements (finger length, width of head, etc.) that were recorded at the time of arrest and later used to identify criminals. He predated fingerprinting and when they were developed, he resisted adding them to his system...and as we're all aware, fingerprinting is now the most prevalent ID system used by the police. However, Bertillon established the standards for mug shots and crime scene photography, so he's not completely forgotten.

Edmond Locard was "the Sherlock Holmes of France," a pioneer in forensic science who established "Locard's exchange principle," or "every contact leaves a trace," and also founded the first police laboratory in Lyons. He died in 1966, with a huge career behind him.

Wagner peppers the book with all sorts of true crime stories from the past, such the story of Jessie M'Lachlan, a Scottish woman convicted by way of a footprint in Glasgow in 1862, or the Tulle poison-pen case, a 20's affair in which a French town was flooded with vicious, obscene letters accusing townspeople of various affairs and sexual transgressions; the perp turned out to be highly religious, leading Locard to comment, "There is nothing so dirty as the dreams of a saint." (The Tulle case served as inspiration for Henri-George Clouzot's 1943 film LE CORBEAU, which I may review someday.)

It's a fun, zesty read that goes along at a good pace. Not too gristly, to be sure, but good gruesome fun for your commute, or at bedtime.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Ten Years Later: Hikin' in Blair Witch Country

One day, the week before Halloween, I decided to take a hike up at Seneca Creek State Park, where the majority of the forest footage in THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT was filmed. I'd been there before the film was made, and always meant to go back at some point, but now that it's the film's tenth anniversary, I thought what the hell, laced up the hiking boots, packed a lunch, and drove up there.

The area had been the site of a mill in the 1700s, then was a prosperous farm and mill, and even had a woolen factory in the mid-1800s. The business went into a decline, and the land was acquired by the state in 1955, with a reservoir being created twenty years later. Much of the forest there is new-growth; this isn't the deep primal woods you'll find in the mountains to the west, but it's still evocative.

I thought that maybe, just maybe, they'd have something about the movie at the ranger's office...but nada. Instead, the focus there was mostly on frisbee golf and preparations for a drive-through holiday light display.

It was a gray, overcast day, and it had been raining for a few days previous, so it was fairly damp conditions for hiking. I'd watched the film the night before so I kept my eyes open for any locations that I recognized. However...only a small portion of the park has hiking trails; much of the rest is undeveloped and it was probably that portion that was the BWP locations.

Still, I got some good snaps...

This rock grabbed my interest...looks like a great landmark for secret meetings.

This pine grove might have been the place where the BWP kids found all those stick figures hanging from tree branches. But I can't be positive. The trails took me through several pine groves, but this one looks like the best candidate.

The trail crossed a road that led to a picnic area, but it was barricaded for whatever reason; probably closed in the off-season. From here I could see all the lights they were setting up for the holiday, but I did my best to keep them out of my photos. I found it slightly obscene to be walking through the woods, my thoughts deep in supernatural terrors, only to emerge from the woods and find signs pointing to "Teddy Bear Land."

Another pine grove had this alarming find, a deer leg hooked over a branch. Someone has a sick sense of humor, I thought, but I made sure to move on as quickly as I could, just in case.

Although the colors are past their peak, Clopper Lake was still pretty. (I was VERY careful to keep the light-display sea-serpent and jumping fishes out of the frame!)

Another view of Clopper Lake; you could imagine some horrible phantom rising from the depths. The lake is an artificial reservoir that covers the remnants of the woolen factory, as well as the ruins of a mill and flume. Hm...perhaps there's a story waiting to be told there?

Another interesting old rock, in slightly clearer land. Perhaps the meeting place of a witches' coven?

This lonesome pine tree stands in a clear area by the lake.

I ate my lunch in another pine grove, this one a picnic area. It was a Thursday so there was hardly anyone there at all, and those who were, were technicians working on the holiday lights. I read a few stories in the book I had with me, munching a sandwich and an apple, and then just sat, taking in the forest air. There's so much about the deep dark forest that excites the imagination, and depending on my mood could have me thinking of horror movies, or fairy tales, or anything. And that's probably why so many people found BWP to be so effective...the forest, so deep and primal, evokes much of our imaginations, and for too many who only know urban or suburban existences, the forest is a haven for our deepest fears.

The ironic thing about Seneca Creek is that suburban development is only a few miles down the road. It's really become developed up there since I was last through, alarmingly so. Thank goodness for parks, I thought, driving home.

As an aside, Friends of the Montgomery County Library has a bookstore not far from the park, so I went shopping after I was done. Cool find: a 30's edition of the Hardy Boys mystery THE SINISTER SIGN POST. And for you bibliophiles out there, have you discovered Book Sale Finder? And another aside, I used the route described in Alan Fisher's Country Walks Near Washington, so if you're in the DC area, go scrounge up a copy.

So take time out and go explore the woods near where you live. You may find some fun and adventure, or at least stimulate your imagination.

Monday, November 9, 2009


A treasured memory I have is of a blissful day spent in Charleston, SC, just wandering the streets of the old town, poking here and there. I took a ghost tour in the evening that was entertaining, with some fun old stories told by a local folklorist. (As it turns out, there's about a half-dozen different kinds of ghost tours in Charleston, making for quite a vacation if one is in the mood.) So when I stumbled on a very old copy of John Bennett's THE DOCTOR TO THE DEAD at the local library, I pounced on it.

Such a great subtitle: "Grotesque Legends & Folk Tales of Old Charleston." And it certainly delivers.

The title story is the longest, the tale of a man with the unlikely name of "Hein Ryngo" who becomes a doctor obsessed with death, to the point of falling in love with a ghost, and doing unspeakable acts in his attempts to bring her back. It's all very Southern-Gothick, and almost seems like something out of Hoffmann or Erckmann-Chatrian. The book's only illustration is a depiction of the doctor's narrow house, that certainly looks intriguing and Gothick...

Another intriguing story is "The Death of the Wandering Jew," that holds that the legendary character is buried in a Charleston cemetery after achieving forgiveness. There's also tales of deals with the devil, like "Madame Margot," in which a mixed-race mother makes a deal for her daughter to be white (and have better chances in life), and "The Black Constable," where a reckless lawman pays the price for his arrogance. And three "Tales from the Trapman Street Hospital" that tell of restless spirits, thirsting for water or simply going through the motions of life.

The rest of the book is tales told to the author by various African Americans of Charleston. Bennett is never condescending or patronizing of African American people or their culture; he allows them their dignity and from what I can tell, he was very open-minded and forward-thinking for his time. (I caught a bit of gossip that although he collected his stories in the 1920s, this book was never published until the 40s because so few people were interested in reading about the tales of African Americans, due to sheer racism.) The tales range from fairy tales (like "All God's Chillen Has Wings") or humorous morality stories ("The Young Wife Whose Vine Meloned Beyond the Fence") or simple ghost stories ("When the Dead Sang in Their Graves"). There's stories of "Rolling Rio," a heroically strong fisherman, that make me think of tales I've read of "Lickin'" Bill Bradshaw, a sort of folk hero of the Chesapeake, and I wonder if these tales of tall strong fishermen are just part and parcel of the areas where that's how folks made their living.

"The Apothecary and the Mermaid" has vague echoes of Lovecraft, or even Fitz-James O'Brien, maybe. And I've read "The Man Who Wouldn't Believe He Was Dead" before, adapted as a children's story, but it's a wry, humorous gem of a contrary man who dies, and won't be convinced that he's dead.

The last three stories are told entirely in Gullah dialect. Some people don't have a problem, but I can't stand dialect stories, even Stevenson's "Thrawn Janet." Emily Bronte pushes me a bit with her dialect passages in WUTHERING HEIGHTS. I tried, I really did, but they're too much for me.

THE DOCTOR TO THE DEAD has been reprinted and is available on Amazon, so if you're a fan of folklore, or fond of Charleston, or southern culture, go pick one up. This is a delightful gem, unjustly forgotten.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Halloween Debriefing

Sheesh, what a season.

I took the week before Halloween off, and I needed it. Work's been more than a bit insane, and I love, love, LOVE taking time in fall. You can enjoy the colors and take in all the local attractions because in DC the tourists clear out in fall.

On Friday the 23rd, I went to Belly Horror, a Halloween belly-dancing show that is growing every year, and this time encompassed a series of performances and workshops. Performers came in from Georgia, California, New York, and Massachusetts to take part, and it's hoped that this will develop into an even bigger belly-dance festival.

It was a great show, with lots of fun, innovative performances. The one down part, for me, was a scene that used the David Bowie song "As the World Falls Down," from the movie LABYRINTH. It wasn't a bad performance, actually one of the nicer ones, but...well...that song Has Memories, and I was feeling a little vulnerable that evening. We'll just leave it there.

The next night was the Second Annual Silver Spring Zombie Walk. That was a lot of fun, although a different experience from last year. I was totally on my own this year; several friends had expressed interest but in the end nobody could make it, so I was the Lonesome Ghoul. (That's me above.) We had about four times as many people participating this year as last year, so when I tried to get a burger in the Quarry House, it turned out to be too insanely crowded for me to get anyone's attention. I ended up ducking out and going to the Big Greek Cafe nearby, where they know me (I get lunch there a lot), and they greeted me with amused affection. And when it started...well, it didn't have some of the shock value that it had last year. Actually, as we lurched down the Ellsworth Promenade, with the "norms" on either side, snapping pics, I kinda felt like I was in a parade. At one point I held up my arms so a toddler in arms could chop at me with a plastic axe; the warm smile from his parents cheered me up a little. But some of the spontaneity was gone.

We staggered into the AFI Silver for a showing of SHAUN OF THE DEAD, which was OK although I missed the opening remarks and some of the pre-show chaos because I was stuck in the beer line for freakin' ever, and didn't get my booze and a seat until after the movie had started. Ugh. Eventually I got home and cleaned up, but am even more determined to build up a posse for next year.

As for my week...I roamed downtown, did some housecleaning, did a bit of hiking (actually to be described in a later post) and had a pleasant, relaxing time. DC in the fall is great...uncrowded, easy to get around. Screw the cherry blossoms...the Tidal Basin in autumn is lovely...

And then on Friday was the yearly tradition of NOSFERATU with live music from the Silent Orchestra, which is always a good time. I assembled with some friends, grabbed dinner at another of my favorites, Thai Flavor, and we all enjoyed ourselves. It's interesting going to multiple performances, as the score always varies a bit, a constantly evolving piece of work.

Halloween night was spent at a friend's party, having a fun time and reconnecting with some friends I hadn't seen in a while, and talking smack about people who weren't there. Yes, I mean you. And you. And...yeah, you over there.

And then this past week has been spent catching up on all the stuff I missed at the office while I was out. And I'm still not caught up. I am close, though.

So it's shaping up to be a nice November here, and I'm already making plans for Thanksgiving. I've got more stuff to talk about, some books to read, and all sorts of fun to have....