Taxidermy, cryptids, crematoriums and grotesque medical history: The Cult of Weird community rounds up the best weird books of 2014.
This year I learned that the Cult of Weird community loves a good, macabre book as much as I do, which helped tremendously when it came time to gather suggestions for the Fall reading list.
This year Cult contributor J. Nathan Couch’s search for the elusive Goatman hit the shelves, along with mortician Caitlin Doughty’s tales from the crematory and Robert Marbury’s quintessential guide to taxidermy art.
Here are the top 10 books most sought after by the Cult in 2014:
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory
Most people want to avoid thinking about death, but Caitlin Doughty—a twenty-something with a degree in medieval history and a flair for the macabre—took a job at a crematory, turning morbid curiosity into her life’s work. Thrown into a profession of gallows humor and vivid characters (both living and very dead), Caitlin learned to navigate the secretive culture of those who care for the deceased.
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes tells an unusual coming-of-age story full of bizarre encounters and unforgettable scenes. Caring for dead bodies of every color, shape, and affliction, Caitlin soon becomes an intrepid explorer in the world of the dead. She describes how she swept ashes from the machines (and sometimes onto her clothes) and reveals the strange history of cremation and undertaking, marveling at bizarre and wonderful funeral practices from different cultures.
Taxidermy Art: A Rogue’s Guide to the Work, the Culture, and How to Do It Yourself
In this collection of taxidermy art, you’ll find a winged monkey with a fez and a martini glass, a jewel-encrusted piglet, a bionic fawn, and a polar bear balancing on a floating refrigerator. Author Robert Marbury makes for a friendly (and often funny) guide, addressing the three big questions people have about taxidermy art: What is it all about? Can I see some examples? and How can I make my own? He takes readers through a brief history of taxidermy (and what sets artistic taxidermy apart) and presents stunning pieces from the most influential artists in the field. Rounding out the book are illustrated how-to lessons to get readers started on their own work, with sources for taxidermy materials and resources for the budding taxidermist.
Mutter Museum Historic Medical Photographs
The first book on the Mutter Museum contains artful images of the museum’s fascinating exhibits shot by contemporary fine art photographers. Here, the focus is on the museum’s archive of rare historic photographs, most of which have never been seen by the public. Featured are poignant, aesthetically accomplished works ranging from Civil War photographs showing injury and recovery, to the ravages of diseases not yet conquered in the 19th century, to pathological anomalies, to psychological disorders. Many were taken by talented photographers between the 1860s and the 1940s as records for physicians to share among colleagues and to track patients’ conditions, and demonstrate various techniques used in medical photography including the daguerreotype, micrography, X ray, and traditional portrait-style photography. As visual documents of what humans endured in the face of limited medical knowledge, these extraordinary and haunting photographs demonstrate how far medicine has advanced.
Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures and Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs
Death has never looked so beautiful. The fully articulated skeleton of a female saint, dressed in an intricate costume of silk brocade and gold lace, withered fingers glittering with colorful rubies, emeralds, and pearls—this is only one of the specially photographed relics featured in Heavenly Bodies.
In 1578 news came of the discovery in Rome of a labyrinth of underground tombs, which were thought to hold the remains of thousands of early Christian martyrs. Skeletons of these supposed saints were subsequently sent to Catholic churches and religious houses in German-speaking Europe to replace holy relics that had been destroyed in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. The skeletons, known as “the catacomb saints,” were carefully reassembled, richly dressed in fantastic costumes, wigs, crowns, jewels, and armor, and posed in elaborate displays inside churches and shrines as reminders to the faithful of the heavenly treasures that awaited them after death.
Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses
In the long run, we’re all dead. But for some of the most influential figures in history, death marked the start of a new adventure. The famous deceased have been stolen, burned, sold, pickled, frozen, stuffed, impersonated, and even filed away in a lawyer’s office. Their fingers, teeth, toes, arms, legs, skulls, hearts, lungs, and nether regions have embarked on voyages that crisscross the globe and stretch the imagination. Counterfeiters tried to steal Lincoln’s corpse. Einstein’s brain went on a cross-country road trip. And after Lord Horatio Nelson perished at Trafalgar, his sailors submerged him in brandy—which they drank. From Mozart to Hitler, Rest in Pieces connects the lives of the famous dead to the hilarious and horrifying adventures of their corpses, and traces the evolution of cultural attitudes toward death.
Goatman: Flesh or Folklore?
Legend says that all across America, a monster lives in the darkness. It lurks on the boundaries of suburbia mere miles from our homes. Huge, foul-smelling, and murderous, it has many regional names but most people refer to the creature by a simple, straightforward name – Goatman. Join author J. Nathan Couch as he explores the Goatman legends and sightings in search of the bizarre creature’s origins.
Named Best Weird Cryptid Book of 2014 by International Cryptozoology Museum founder Loren Coleman!
Cabinets of Wonder
Skulls, butterflies, hunting trophies, ancient Egyptian artifacts, the alleged skeletons of mythological creatures, and many other mysterious oddities fill cabinets of wonder. A centuries-old tradition developed in Europe during the Renaissance, cabinets of wonder (also known as curiosity cabinets) are once again in fashion. Shops, restaurants, and private residences echo these cabinets in their interior design, by making use of the eclectic vintage objects commonly featured in such collections. Cabinets of Wonder showcases exceptional collections in homes and museums, with more than 180 photographs, while also explaining the history behind the tradition, the best-known collections, and the types of objects typically displayed. Offering both a historical overview and a look into contemporary interior design, this extravagantly illustrated book celebrates the wonderfully odd world of cabinets of wonder.
Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife
Did Steve Jobs have a vision of the afterlife on his death-bed? Does quantum physics suggest that our mind might survive the physical death of our body? How do some near-death experiencers ‘see’ outside of their bodies at a time when they are supposed to be dead? In ‘Stop Worrying! There Probably is an Afterlife’, author Greg Taylor covers all these questions and more. From Victorian seance rooms through to modern scientific laboratories, Taylor surveys the fascinating history of research into the survival of human consciousness, and returns with a stunning conclusion: that maybe we should stop worrying so much about death, because there probably is an afterlife.
Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy
Welcome to Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter’s fantasy world of rabbit schoolchildren, cigar-smoking squirrels and exemplary feline etiquette in Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy. Walter Potter (1835–1918), a British country taxidermist of no great expertise, built anthropomorphic taxidermy tableaux that became famous icons of Victorian whimsy, including his masterpiece The Death & Burial of Cock Robin. His tiny museum in Bramber, Sussex, was crammed full of multi-legged kittens, two-headed lambs, and a bewildering assortment of curios. Potter’s inspired and beguiling tableaux found many fans in the contemporary art world: it was reported that a £1M bid by Damien Hirst to keep the collection intact was refused when the museum finally closed. Here, perhaps for the last time, many important pieces from the collection are showcased and celebrated with new photographs of Potter’s best-loved works. Darkly witty and affecting, Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy makes a charming, whimsical (and yes, slightly morbid) gift.
Dissection: Photographs of a Rite of Passage in American Medicine 1880-1930
From the advent of photography in the 19th and into the 20th century, medical students, often in secrecy, took photographs of themselves with the cadavers that they dissected: their first patients. Featuring 138 of these historic photographs and illuminating essays by two experts on the subject, Dissection reveals a startling piece of American history. Sherwin Nuland, MD, said this is “a truly unique and important book [that] documents a period in medical education in a way that is matched by no other existing contribution.” And Mary Roach said Dissection “is the most extraordinary book I have ever seen–the perfect coffee table book for all the households where I’d most like to be invited for coffee.”
What books are you looking forward to reading in 2015?