Monday Writing: Re-visioning

copyright: Brandy Schillace (for "Fear of the Dark")

copyright: Brandy Schillace (for “Fear of the Dark”)

You might say that today’s post is not entirely genre specific. It applies as easily to the Reboot as the Dose, as much to fiction writing as to work in the medical humanities or elsewhere. We all must revise.

Before you scream in horror (and sometimes I do, no lie), a word about what this word means: See. Again. And again. And again. This is a far cry from editing. It means going over the same ground and figuring out 1. is this fruitful? 2. is this necessary? 3. is this “right”? On some level, I think we dislike revision because it opens the prospect that hours of work will be thrown out, uprooted, cast aside. We worked on that sentence or section for hours–now it’s not going in? And the older the writing is, the more it has matured unchanged, the harder that process becomes. Re-writing the last chapter is never as difficult as revising the first one; it’s got roots into the eternal abyss of originary thought. We may as well shift the earth on its axis.

But to be honest, the prospect of  tossing out and starting new isn’t the most troubling thing for me. See, that kind of revision is actually more like “seeing new” than “seeing again.” It’s the spark of novelty that drives creative power (and has thousands scribbling away right now for #NaNoWriMo). But how many of those new-penned novels will be brought back to the table for the much more tedious work of refitting, refashioning, re-reing?

Some will. Some won’t. But this November, I’m not writing new. I’m revising old. A three-book series, yet unpublished, has been drawing to a close–and I am suddenly facing the prospect of revising Book One to match the more substantial tone and depth of Two and Three. I know, you’re really supposed to write a book, sell it, then write the next one. I didn’t do it for the Jacob Maresbeth Chronicles, and I’m not doing it for this series, either… We all have our methods, and apparently it takes me three books to sort a story arc. I’m a long-form thinker. But that also means I’m a long-term revisioner. Bless my editor at Elliott & Thompson for a saint.

And so. Here’s to seeing again. Here’s to the hard work of digging in old trenches with new spades. Here’s to those on the other end of the novel, or the essay, or the monograph–picking away for hours at the same old lines. I leave you with Oscar, as he said it best:

I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out.’  — Oscar Wilde



Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Friday Fiction Feature

FictionReboot2_canvasHello and welcome back to the Friday Fiction Feature. As most of you now know, Tabatha (your illustrious series editor extraordinaire) is working as both a student and a teacher. Because of this she feels doubly entitled to panic about the inspiration for this week’s theme: The academic’s bianual cry of “Oh-my-the-semester-is-almost-over-oh-dear-wow-it’s-really-getting-way-too-close-oh-no-but-I’m-not-ready-ah-crap!” And so, without further ado, Tabatha invites all her fellow panicked academics to join in this week’s theme: THE END IS NIGH!

The End is Nigh (The Apocalypse Triptych #1) edited by John Joseph Adams 

The End is NighWe will begin with a broad version of the end-of-semester-panic with The Apocalypse Triptych. Covering the before, during, and after of the apocalypse, The End is Nigh/Now/Come Takes us through the various stages of “Aaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!” For a closer parallel, these novels take us on the global version of what the rest of us experience every semester: The End is Nigh showing the larger version of “Wait it’s due when?! How much grading?!” as we come to realize that it will all come crashing down around us soon. The End is Now takes us to the bartering stage, when the due dates have arrived and we are simply trying to weather the storm, hoping students won’t notice if we forget to come to class, and that teachers will decide there’s really no point in writing that twenty page paper after all, followed by the knowledge that those events are about as likely as hoping our house will be left fully intact after the tornado/hurricane/snowstorm blows through town. And finally, The End is Now covers that foolish moment of relief when we have written all our papers, when the grading is finished, and before we realize…next semester is only a few weeks away.

Famine. Death. War. Pestilence. These are the harbingers of the biblical apocalypse, of the End of the World. In science fiction, the end is triggered by less figurative means: nuclear holocaust, biological warfare/pandemic, ecological disaster, or cosmological cataclysm.
But before any catastrophe, there are people who see it coming. During, there are heroes who fight against it. And after, there are the survivors who persevere and try to rebuild. The Apocalypse Triptych will tell their stories.
Edited by acclaimed anthologist John Joseph Adams and bestselling author Hugh Howey, The Apocalypse Triptych is a series of three anthologies of apocalyptic fiction. The End is Nigh focuses on life before the apocalypse. The End is Now turns its attention to life during the apocalypse. And The End Has Come focuses on life after the apocalypse.

The End Of The World Is Nigh by Scott Lefebvre 

The End Of The World Is NighThis next book provides a view of the end-times that I really like. It is a living document which incorporates a growing number of stories from different perspectives. No one experiences the end in quite the same way: some are done in by a twenty-five page essay on the pauses in British Drama, others are subsumed in a flood of confused freshmen, still others are simply lost to us when they realize that their perfect schedules forgot to account for seven major projects, immolated somewhere in the crater formed when they fell back down to earth. To reflect the wide and varied ways we all panic and yet manage to survive, we have The End of the World is Nigh sharing the stories of death, destruction, Armageddon, (though I doubt if any of them can top having to spend writing breaks grading freshman essays. That horror is all too real for many of us).

It’s ten years after the world as we know it has ended in the wake of a worldwide overpopulation problem and food scarcity. Food-rationing results in panic and the downfall of society as we know it. The world is taken over by the dead and the living must fight for survival against the remainder of the world population after society has collapsed. The first crowd-funded, crowd-sourced, post-apocalyptic, zombie epidemic, novel-length book project, For an affordable contribution, you can have your life story written as a survivor in this post-apocalyptic world.

Countdown!…or How Nigh Is the End? by Patrick Moore

Every teacher knows (or knows of) the creative student. No, not the one who comes up with interesting paper topics or inspires really great class discussion. The other creative kid. The one who has an intricate & amusing story every week to explain why his/her homework is not done. The one who can weave global events, local catastrophe, and a broken shoelace into the explanation of why he/she forgot a thesis in the last paper. Well take heart long-suffering teachers for in Countdown I have found the illustrious career path awaiting these most frustrating of students where their creativity and persuasive skills will really shine.

Light-hearted but informative guide to the eccentrics, visionaries, rabble rousers and fanatics throughout history who have predicted the end of the world. Subjects under discussion include the threat from outer space, astrological predictions and even some scientific evidence of the world’s end.

The Darwin Awards Countdown to Extinction by Wendy Northcutt

The Darwin Awards Countdown to ExtinctionWhether it is your own writing or a student’s, there will always be essays that make you wonder if the writer is trying to see just how badly they have to do before the staff breaks down and literally boots them out off campus. When the ideas have all the focus of a toddler in a toy store, and the grammar can only have come from a cell phone keyboard, spectacular self-immolation seems the only possible rationale.
So when writing/grading really makes you wonder, you can always pick up The Countdown to Extinction and just remember, at least there will always be someone to rival the metaphorical spectacular self-destruction of end of the year writing with a literal version of their own.

Fully illustrated and featuring all-new tales of the marvelously macabre, “The Darwin Awards Countdown to Extinction” chronicles the astonishing acts of individuals who have taken a swan dive into the shallow end of the gene pool. From attaching a five-horsepower engine to a barstool, to hammering a metal hook into an explosive device, to using a taser to treat a snake bite, these gloriously gruesome incidents prove that the countdown (to human extinction) is well under way. And we won’t exit this mortal coil without one last laugh.

Guidebook to the End of the World: The End Is Nigh by Cj Kuehler

Guidebook to the End of the World: The End Is NighFinally, our altruistic streak is going to peek through again with the Guidebook to the End of the World. It falls to us yet again to see that our beloved readers are prepared for every eventuality, and it is no different today. The end is nigh, and so we’ve brought you a handy-dandy instruction manual for getting through it!
Now I know what you’re thinking: building an underground bunker stocked with twelve years worth of beans, army surplus weaponry, and tinfoil hats is not going to ease my end-of-semester workload. But let me just ask you this: how many professors & students do you think will follow the crazy person down into that bunker to discuss the final essay? See? I told you we had all the answers.

Is the end of the world coming? Are you prepared? Here’s your guidebook to help you survive. Learn what to expect and what you are about to experience when the economy collapses. This is a work of fiction and contains adult situations.

Posted in Friday Fiction Feature, The Fiction Reboot | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

MedHum Mondays Presents: Spanning Genres


Nature and Time, copyright Schillace

Q: What do you call a medical humanities scholar having an identity crisis?

A: Interdisciplinary.

I’m a PhD, a researcher and curator for a medical history museum, an editor for an anthropology journal, and a fiction writer. I’m frequently asked how that’s even possible… surely these things are too disparate to work?

Not as much as you might think. I spent this past weekend at the 40th annual World Fantasy Convention in Washington D.C. If you’re not familiar, WFC is an annual gathering of professional writers, editors, agents, collectors, and others interested in the field of Light and Dark Fantasy art and literature. It’s also a wonderful place to meet and catch up with your fiction colleagues, and in that way, is not unlike most of the academic conferences I attend. There are other similarities, too; for instance, I sat in on a panel about the ethical treatment of historical figures in fiction–and that’s not radically different from the discussions I encountered at the American Association for the History of Medicine. When we write history, fiction or non-fiction, we find ourselves having to channel key figures, to hear and recreate their voices, and to do so without compromising truth.

Oh, there’s that tricky word again… “truth.” It’s often accompanied with it’s equally problematic brother, objectivity. In a recent conversation about my cultural history of death (Feb 2015), I was asked how I could be objective if I was also choosing what to represent, which stories to tell, which details to include…and which to leave out. “I’m not objective,” I explained. “No one is.”


Trial history of Lizzy Borden

But that’s not the whole story, either, is it? In my life as an academic–with my PhD in literary history and my curatorial work for the medical history museum–I am always striving for objectivity. Historians are sticklers for facts and details. But even with all the facts aligned, we must tell a story, provide a narrative. And on the other side, when writing fiction, we nonetheless aim to provide a kind of truth, however we understand that.

“We have a responsibility to the collective understanding of historical figures,” said panelist David Coe (D.B. Jackson). “I don’t own Samuel Adams. If I want to use him in my fiction, I have to be faithful to what history says about him, and how he is received and understood by the public.” Historians also have an ethical responsibility; if facts emerge that cast a historical figure in a radically different light, we cannot be afraid to share this new information. On the other hand, we must never manufacture our own conjecture as though it were factual. (A case in point might be the spurious claim that 18th century anatomist and physician William Hunter murdered his patients, something which has been thoroughly debunked from numerous quarters, but which still occasionally shows up in print as “fact.” For more, see here.)


The Analysis Machine, copyright Schillace

Fiction and non-fiction writing may seem divergent, but my work on the academic and non-academic side of the word processor bring me often to the same set of questions. My work on the anthropology journal brings me back to them, too, as does museum exhibit creation, where we must tell big stories in small spaces. Curiosity and attention to what we include and exclude, what stories we tell and which ones we don’t, should not be niche specific. Ethics and narrative don’t just belong to medical humanities. They belong to humanity, period.

So, here’s to conferences and colleagues that remind us of our mutual interests–and our mutual needs. Do I sometimes feel I’m suffering an identity crisis? Somewhere between grading papers, writing fiction, proofing monographs and editing anthropology…yes, yes, I do. But that’s okay. The more people I meet, the more I am convinced that, deep down, it’s what we are all doing all the time.

Posted in MedHum Monday, The Daily Dose | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fiction Reboot Author Interview: Matthew Thomas


Welcome back to the Fiction Reboot! No Friday Fiction Feature this week (Tabatha is busy recuperating from Halloween), instead we bring you the inside scoop on fiction; an interview ith Matthew Thomas, author of We Are Not Ourselves, which was released just this last August. Welcome Matthew!

Born in 1941, Eileen Tumulty is raised by her Irish immigrant parents in Woodside, Queens, in an apartment where the mood swings between heartbreak and hilarity, depending on whether guests are over and how much alcohol has been consumed.
When Eileen meets Ed Leary, a scientist whose bearing is nothing like those of the men she grew up with, she thinks she’s found the perfect partner to deliver her to the cosmopolitan world she longs to inhabit. They marry, and Eileen quickly discovers Ed doesn’t aspire to the same, ever bigger, stakes in the American Dream.
Eileen encourages her husband to want more: a better job, better friends, a better house, but as years pass it becomes clear that his growing reluctance is part of a deeper psychological shift. An inescapable darkness enters their lives, and Eileen and Ed and their son Connell try desperately to hold together a semblance of the reality they have known, and to preserve, against long odds, an idea they have cherished of the future.


Author Interview:

I have always identified with the Asimov quote: “I write for the same reason I breathe—because if I didn’t, I’d die.” Does this describe you? Could you say a bit about your early writing experiences? Your favorite work?

I was a regular kid. I played in the street and wanted to be a baseball player. I was a reader, though. I liked adventure stories: Around the World in Eighty Days; Robinson Crusoe; The Three Musketeers; Kidnapped; Captains Courageous. I had a vague notion, even then, that I wanted to write. I suppose I wanted to generate that feeling that books put in my chest. But it was the vaguest idea, until my early teens, when I started writing some poems. I do remember, at a pizza place on the way back from baseball practice, looking at a picture of T.C. Boyle in Time magazine and thinking, I want to do this with my life. I was probably fourteen. I wrote a lot of “poetry” throughout high school and into college, though I did read a good deal of actual poetry. In high school I remember being moved by Hesse’s Demian; A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; The Grapes of Wrath; Kennedy’s Ironweed; and e.e. cummings Six Nonlectures, a compilation of the Charles Eliot Norton lectures he gave at Harvard. In college I began writing short stories. These were rudimentary efforts, nothing I would ever show anyone now, but I look back on them with affection.

Not unlike many an author, I come from an academic background where writing fiction is a somewhat closeted affair. Can you talk about when you decided to “write for real”? How and when did you make the decision to write for publication and give your work the time and energy it so deserves?

I guess I started writing for real in college, in the sense that I began to shape a life trajectory that would include writing and largely exclude a good deal else. I wasn’t pursuing summer internships, for instance. I wasn’t studying economics. I wasn’t considering applying for a job at any of the corporations that visited the school’s jobs fairs. And I began to deliberately avoid taking the sorts of jobs that might be absorbing and creatively fulfilling. I looked for jobs that would provide a paycheck and leave something in the tank when the workday was over. I was a guard at a library for a while, for instance. After graduate school, however, I had to make enough money to be able to afford living in the city, so I took a job as a teacher, which was something I enjoyed and found absorbing, and there was more danger that I would just fall into that life, because it is a good life, and a life in which one feels one is doing some good. But I kept wanting to write and kept making the time to do it.

Your novel begins in the 1950’s and spans 60 years. What made you decide to tackle this particular era in history? Did you find it challenging to aptly represent so much of American history?

I wanted to write about this period of time because it was one in which the experience of women in America changed dramatically from the beginning to the end of the years I cover in the book. I remember as a young boy being impressed by my mother, her friends and colleagues, and the women whose exploits as corporate professionals and elected officials I read about in the newspaper. Even then, before I could put the pieces together with any real understanding, I knew that there was something remarkable about the way that generation’s women were remaking civilization. They were the first to hold positions of authority in the workplace in any real numbers. They seemed able to balance so much—pursuing high-powered careers, being mothers and wives—and they possessed apparently inexhaustible reserves of energy. This wasn’t yet the era of sensitive, duty-splitting fathers; the expression “Mr. Mom” was significant for the divergence from expectation it conveyed. Women ran households in the evening and still marshaled the fortitude necessary the next morning to win workplace battles in the fight for equality. Maybe they were heeding the encouraging arguments feminist thinkers were making, or maybe they were individually answering a more personal call that happened to become collective, that they simply weren’t going to stand any longer for the prevailing conditions of inequality.
Eileen is intimately aware of how much the power structures in America favor men. Throughout her career, she’s seen male colleagues take their place atop the pyramid for granted. And part of why she’s frustrated with Ed, I think, is that she sees how many more opportunities for advancement American society wants to offer him than her, opportunities he turns down. I see her as taking pride in how far her generation has come.
I did find writing historical material challenging, but I overcame that challenge by remembering that I wasn’t attempting to write a work of history, but rather a novel. I could pick moments—Eileen’s cousin Pat going off to Vietnam, for instance—that would bring the historical backdrop to life without having to foreground it. And the truth is that most people’s lives are lived off to the sidelines of history. So while the world as it was needs to be rendered accurately, and while the specific historical conditions of any given moment yield specific responses, conscious or unconscious, in the people who live through them, there is something about individual lives that resists the sweeping, synthesizing impulse that gives rise to the delineation of eras in history. So I made a particular point of leaving the Kennedy assassination out of this book, even though Eileen is Irish-American and takes such pride in Kennedy’s election. I wanted by doing that to suggest that while the assassination was a watershed moment, and would have hit her hard, in the context of the book I was writing it could take a backseat to some more pressing material from her personal life. And while there is a notion (accurate, I find from anecdotal evidence) that everyone alive then remembers where they were when Kennedy was assassinated, there is a different truth about the ways we relate to historically significant moments that I wanted to capture in setting this important moment offstage. Eileen has a life to live, a career to carve out. And I guess I’m making an implicit argument that individual lives are just as important as the lives of historically significant figures.

As an author and medical humanist, I am always interested in the intersections of history and fiction. Given your recent novel, can you say a bit about the relationship between research, history and the creative process?

Research aids the writing of fiction by shoring up the writer’s confidence in the story he or she is telling. The more authority one grants oneself through research, the more willing one is to take full command of the story and arrogate to oneself the right to speak on behalf of people who lived in eras different from one’s own. But research can also be a crutch. It’s not hard to give in to the temptation to spend a good deal of the time one has earmarked for writing in research, because it feels productive, but it’s easier than sitting down and digging into the work. In the end, no matter how rich the source material, writing fiction comes down to the imagination, the ability to tell a story, and the willingness to inhabit the subjectivities of the characters one is writing about. Research can provide a skeleton, but the only thing that puts flesh on the bones is the hard work of imagining a world and endeavoring to bring it vividly to life.

As the mentor for a university writing club, I often preached to my students about the value of workshopping. Could you say a bit about your own responsive readers and mentors? Your approach to criticism? Beta readers?

As an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, I received a wonderful education in the sensibility of a working writer in the workshops taught by Richard Stern. My literature classes were also invaluable in my development as a writer. William Veeder taught me how to read critically and sensitively. He taught me how to think as a reader, which is fundamental to thinking as a writer.
During my graduate education, I benefited from the perspective of a great network of extraordinary teachers: Alice McDermott, Stephen Dixon, Jean McGarry, Tristan Davies, and Judith Grossman at Johns Hopkins; Geoffrey Wolff, Michelle Latiolais, Jim Shepard, and Mark Richard at UC-Irvine.
I submitted short stories to workshop at Hopkins, and later at Irvine, and as my last submission at Irvine I turned in part of what became We Are Not Ourselves. Then I was off to write it in the world. I was excited to be on my own, to be working on a novel without the expectation that anyone would see it for a long while. I wanted to fall into the world of the book, to take the time to work at my pace in every corner of the canvas without having to produce anything like the presentably spit-shined work one has to generate for workshop.
An ability to see what wasn’t working was probably my greatest ally when I was writing without feedback. It gave me faith that I wasn’t going down blind alleys. I could see I had a lot of work ahead of me, and I figured potential readers were probably going to tell me the same things I was telling myself, so I simply cut that step out by deciding to keep the book to myself as long as possible. I wanted to be as hard on the book as I could, for as long as I could, until I handed it over. Teaching made it easier to see the weak areas, because in spending the day analyzing stories with the kids and going over how to improve their essays, I inhabited a mindset not unlike the one an editor would bring to a text.
And then, after I turned the book over to my early readers, I quickly saw that no matter how honed you think your own perceptions are, no matter how clearly you think you see your work’s flaws and blind spots, there are always problems you’re unaware of. That’s the bedeviling nature of writing fiction. There’s a limit to one’s own unaided perceptions. A few conversations with my wife and a couple of other readers helped me to see all the work I still had to do to fix the book. You can only take something so far on your own, but it’s important that you take it as far as you can, because doing so builds confidence in your instincts and craft.
Eventually there came a time when I would read the book over and not hear the nagging voice that had told me to change this, fix that, cut this, add to that. I found I was just reading it. That was when I knew it was time to send it out.

Every writer has a different writing strategy—or so I tell my novel-writing students. How do you approach the writing process? Revision? Writers’ block?

I write by hand, on legal pads. It’s the easiest way to eliminate distractions, and it provides tremendous forward momentum, because it’s harder to stop and edit when you’re writing by hand, and it’s especially difficult to get caught up in trying to perfect every sentence as you write it. There is plenty of time to edit when it’s time to edit. I did an enormous amount of editing in the final three years of composition. Much of that editing involved wholesale rewriting or the generation of large chunks of new material.
Teaching shaped my writing routines. With essays to edit and classes to prepare for, I ended up writing a good deal of the book late at night, after I’d gotten all my other work done. I couldn’t sit with a clear head until after the papers were graded, which often meant I was sitting down at the kitchen table at midnight to write for a couple of hours. I found that it was easier to stay up later and work and then catch a few hours sleep than it was to try to rise early and write, because I already had to be up so early to teach.
I worked in libraries, in classrooms, wherever I could. I wrote a big chunk of the book at Paragraph, a workspace for writers on 14th Street in Manhattan. When my twins came around, my wife and I were living in a one-bedroom apartment, with the kids in the bedroom and us in the living room, so sometimes I would go to a coffee shop to work so that my wife wouldn’t have to be quiet on the other side of the room. I didn’t think I’d be able to work effectively at coffee shops with all the distractions, but I was happy to find that the low-level, ambient noise helped my concentration. And now that I live in a house, I write in an office, looking at a blank wall.

Who do you consider your inspiration? (Literary or otherwise?)

I guess at this point my children are my biggest inspiration. The exuberance and joy with which they greet the world in the morning is something to behold; it provides a useful corrective to the tendency to take life for granted. They also make me want to write the best books I can, so that I might leave a legacy they can be proud of.

Finally, are there any forums, books, blogs or other sites and services you would recommend to new writers?

 The Millions is a terrific site. It aggregates so much useful news about the literary world, and the original essays it runs are often superb. It’s no surprise that many of its staffers have gone on to great success as fiction writers—Emily St. John Mandel, Garth Risk Hallberg, and Edan Lepucki come immediately to mind, though that list is by no means exhaustive—because collectively the site has been making a vital contribution to letters for years now.


Posted in Author Interview | Tagged | Leave a comment

MedHum Mondays Presents: Reflections on the Biomedical Body

DailyDose_PosterWelcome back to the Daily Dose and our Medical Humanities segment, MedHum Mondays! Today we present a short article by Julia Balacko, a graduate students in anthropology.


As of late, I’ve been composing three projects that consider the meaning of the human cadaver in American medical education. Although this research has led me down many paths, all three works pose the same question: before we ask about anatomy, what is the biomedical conception and image of human bodies?

In answering this question, I’ve found many critiques from social scientists, journalists, and bioethicists that deride biomedicine for treating bodies—especially cadavers—as mere material objects. They argue: why does biomedicine too often forget the deep subjective value of the bodies whose lives, whose stories, fall silent in laboratory and clinical environments?

These issues are raised by the public as well as within academic circles. Medical anthropologists and scholars of scientific culture are quick to problematize biomedical visions of the human body, and our conception of scientific truth profits from their assessments. Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Myths of Gender unmasks the cultural and historical pressures latent in biological conclusions about male strength and female fragility. Sing Lee’s research on eating disorders in China defies widely-held notions in Western psychiatric nosologies that assert fat phobia as an essential component of the illness, meaning that the body is implicated in the condition in ways that biomedicine in the cultural West does not account for.

Such analyses, among many others, have demonstrated the limitations of the biomedical model as it is employed throughout the world to describe the human condition. We should continually ask and demand to know how humans as subjects of the scientific gaze are configured and acted upon. We cannot forget that the objects of medicine—our bodies—are themselves reservoirs of symbolic, ritualistic, and personal meaning that cannot be quantified. Yet while these revelations challenge and even upset us, we sometimes admonish biomedicine without pausing to realize what an impressive—and beautiful—picture of the human body it paints when it considers the corporal body as a mechanical operation.

Growing up, my father had a plastic model of a human heart on his desk. As a child, I was transfixed by the inner cavities when I opened the model to peer within. The heart, mounted on a metal post, floated feather-like above the wooden base. My parents—a nurse and a cardiologist—described the motion of blood through the organ, deeming it a human engine. I imagined that it was a pump, outfitted with tubes and pipes, tucked under skin just as the plumbing that brought water through the faucet concealed itself behind the walls of my childhood home. I wondered, if my own skin became invisible, if I could watch my muscles tense and my lungs rise and fall and my heart thump: the fairytale that my parents told me, of this secret, kinetic, lively anatomical kingdom, made real before my eyes. I would pluck my mother’s aged copy of Gray’s Anatomy off the shelf in the living room and trace the nerves, the veins in the illustrations with my fingers, unsure how else to internalize that this body in the pictures was my body, too.

With my initial training in literature and history, perhaps it is the humanist in me who embraces this mechanical model of the human body as an incredibly touching one. I cannot help but gaze in wonder at Gunther von Hagen’s Body Worlds, where plastinated cadavers pose as basketball players and ballerinas hail the resilience of a body that serves as a mechanism for resplendent dance routines and exhilarating sport. The anonymity of the cadavers, while it removes one human dimension, focuses viewers’ attention on something of equal reverence: our imperfect, organic, nonetheless extraordinary structural machinery. The body as an object is no less poetic, no less arresting, than the body as a vessel for subjective human experience.

When I read medical student narratives of their first dissections, or flip through the volumes of Frank Netter’s anatomical illustrations that populate my bookshelves, the biomedical vision of bodies stirs my mind and my spirit. I carry this picture of the human body, the corporal vision held by my mother, by my father, and all of those who have shared their stories in the dissection lab, with me always.


Julia Balacko is a second-year PhD student in medical anthropology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Her research focuses on the historical and cultural development of anatomy and human dissection, with an emphasis on contemporary American medical education. She holds her BA in English Literature from Washington & Jefferson College and her MA in Humanities from the University of Chicago, where she completed her thesis on dissection in the early modern English theatre.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Friday Fiction Feature- Halloween Speed-Read Edition!

FictionReboot2Hello & welcome to the Halloween Friday Fiction Feature!
When we were children, Halloween marked that special place on the calendar when you were rewarded with candy for doing what you did all day anyway: dressed up and played make-believe. But hey, we all have busy lives these days… it sneaks up on us, and in the rush to find a last-minute costume (you’ve done it, admit it!) we scarcely have time to slow down and read. No problem! Tabatha is here to help with a Halloween speed-read through the holiday hauntings!

The first on our speed-reading Fiction Feature was going to be Maplecroft, but because great minds think alike, Ms. Borden has already had a starring role on the Daily Dose, so we’ll leave her to her 81 whacks and move on to… Some variations on a theme. Or two.

Depressing Adventures in the Early & Life of Edgar Allan Poe!

No Halloween is complete without Edgar Allan Poe. His poems & stories have set generations of children (and adults) teeth on edge and sent us checking up on every squeaky floorboard in the house armed with a flashlight & our most intimidating teddy bears. So to honor the great scarer we’ve got a lineup of stories featuring the old favorite in some new adventures. These novels trace Mr. Poe’s life story from the early dreadful & macabre events of his childhood to the later dreadful & macabre events of his adulthood. Thanks to these intrepid authors we can finally understand the real reason for the nature of his work, because while we can blame “The Fall of the House of Usher” & even “The Pit & the Pendulum” on tuberculosis, something bigger has to be responsible for “Bernice!”
*fun fact: if you Google “Poe teeth” it knows you mean “Bernice”! (Or maybe it just hopes…)

The American Boy by Andrew Taylor

The American BoyInterweaving real and fictional elements, The American Boy is a major new literary historical crime novel in the tradition of An Instance of the Fingerpost and Possession. England 1819: Thomas Shield, a new master at a school just outside London, is tutor to a young American boy and the boy’s sensitive best friend, Charles Frant. Drawn to Frant’s beautiful, unhappy mother, Thomas becomes caught up in her family’s twisted intrigues. Then a brutal crime is committed, with consequences that threaten to destroy Thomas and all that he has come to hold dear. Despite his efforts, Shield is caught up in a deadly tangle of sex, money, murder and lies — a tangle that grips him tighter even as he tries to escape from it. And what of the strange American child, at the heart of these macabre events, yet mysterious — what is the secret of the boy named Edgar Allen Poe?

The Blackest Bird by Joel Rose

The Blackest BirdIn the sweltering New York City summer of 1841, Mary Rogers, a popular counter girl at a tobacco shop in Manhattan, is found brutally ravaged in the shallows of the Hudson River. John Colt, scion of the firearm fortune, beats his publisher to death with a hatchet. And young Irish gang leader Tommy Coleman is accused of killing his daughter, his wife, and his wife’s former lover. Charged with solving it all is High Constable Jacob Hays, the city’s first detective. At the end of a long and distinguished career, Hays’s investigation will ultimately span a decade, involving gang wars, grave robbers, and clues hidden in poems by the hopeless romantic and minstrel of the night: Edgar Allan Poe.

(Are you guys seeing a theme, here?)

The Pale Blue Eye by Louis Bayard

The Pale Blue EyeAt West Point Academy in 1830, the calm of an October evening is shattered by the discovery of a young cadet’s body swinging from a rope just off the parade grounds. An apparent suicide is not unheard of in a harsh regimen like West Point’s, but the next morning, an even greater horror comes to light. Someone has stolen into the room where the body lay and removed the heart.
At a loss for answers and desperate to avoid any negative publicity, the Academy calls on the services of a local civilian, Augustus Landor, a former police detective who acquired some renown during his years in New York City before retiring to the Hudson Highlands for his health. Now a widower, and restless in his seclusion, Landor agrees to take on the case. As he questions the dead man’s acquaintances, he finds an eager assistant in a moody, intriguing young cadet with a penchant for drink, two volumes of poetry to his name, and a murky past that changes from telling to telling. The cadet’s name? Yup. Edgar Allan Poe.

Impressed with Poe’s astute powers of observation, Landor is convinced that the poet may prove useful—if he can stay sober long enough to put his keen reasoning skills to the task. Working in close contact, the two men—separated by years but alike in intelligence—develop a surprisingly deep rapport as their investigation takes them into a hidden world of secret societies, ritual sacrifices, and more bodies. Soon, however, the macabre murders and Landor’s own buried secrets threaten to tear the two men and their newly formed friendship apart.

A rich tapestry of fine prose and intricately detailed characters, The Pale Blue Eye transports readers into a labyrinth of the unknown that will leave them guessing until the very end.


“It Can’t Be!” With Arthur Conan Doyle

In our next set of Halloween adventures I bring you Arthur Conan Doyle! A far cry from the tidy investigations of his hero, it seems Dr. Doyle’s own criminaled past was full of mystery and mysticism. It would be too easy if the man who made a name with the scientific and logical was able to solve crimes with equal detachment- oh no, the Dr. Doyle of these tales is pitted against all manner of ghoulies & ghosties & creepies & crawlies as he valiently tries to save the day and prove that it all it all has a logical explanation. It does! All of it! Science can explain all of…oh dear what is that!? 

The List of Seven (The List of Seven #1) by Mark Frost 
The List of Seven (The List of Seven, #1)On Christmas Day 1884, a desperate plea from a mysterious woman leads Arthur Conan Doyle—struggling physician, aspiring writer, and part-time demystifier of the occult—to a seance in London’s East End and into a fiendish and deadly trap. Stunned by a shocking display of black magic, Doyle witnesses a murder, nearly falling victim himself before being rescued by a secretive stranger: Jack Sparks, a man who claims to be special agent to Queen Victoria. He tells Doyle that he has been targeted by a diabolical coven of Satanists—the Dark Brotherhood.
As they track their attackers across the length and breadth of Britain, assailed by forces of darkness both human and supernatural, Conan Doyle and Sparks unmask a terrifying conspiracy that threatens not only the Crown but the very fabric of modern civilization. Their only clue: a list of seven names, the leaders of the Brotherhood.

Skeptical by nature and profession, Doyle labors to prove that the events he has witnessed—horrifying visions, zombies, ghouls, molecular alteration—are elaborate ruses with logical explanations. But if so, why? Simply because Doyle’s anti-occultist writings, never even published, have inadvertently exposed the Brotherhood’s intentions? Who is the elusive, seemingly superhuman mastermind behind the Seven? Most important, as Doyle continues to put his life in the hands of Jack Sparks, the question persists: Can Sparks be trusted?

The Patient’s Eyes (Arthur Conan Doyle and Dr. Joseph Bell #1) by David Pirie

The Patient's EyesWhile a young medical student at Edinburgh, Arthur Conan Doyle famously studied under the remarkable Dr Joseph Bell. Taking this as a starting point, David Pirie has woven a compelling thriller, which partners Bell and Doyle as pioneers in criminal investigation, exploring the strange underworld of violence and sexual hypocrisy running below the surface of the Victorian era. The Patient’s Eyes moves from Edinburgh and the strange circumstances surrounding Doyle’s meeting with the remarkable Joseph Bell to Southsea where he begins his first medical practice. There he is puzzled by the symptoms presented by Heather Grace, a sweet young woman whose parents have died tragically several years before. Heather has a strange eye complaint, but is also upset by visions of a phantom cyclist who vanishes as soon as he is followed. This enigma, however, is soon forgotten as Doyle finds himself embroiled in more threatening events – including the murder of a rich Spanish businessman – events that call for the intervention of the eminent Dr Bell. But despite coming to Doyle’s aid, perversely Dr Bell considers the murder of Senor Garcia a rather unimportant diversion from the far more sinister matter, which has brought him south: the matter of the patient’s eyes and the solitary cyclist…

And of course we’ve featured another Doyle-esque mystery here before! Vaughn Entwistle’s The Revenant of Thraxton Hall. You know what a revenant is, right? Vampires, people. Vampires.

Happy Halloween!!!

Posted in Friday Fiction Feature, The Fiction Reboot | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

MedHum Monday Presents: Lizzie Borden Took an Axe…

DailyDose_darkstrokeWelcome back to the Daily Dose and MedHum Mondays! As we enter the week before Halloween, it seemed only appropriate to season our series with the still-much-repeated tale of Lizzy Borden, a young woman accused of murdering her father and stepmother in Fall River, Massachusetts, 1892. Some suggest the matter had to do with transfer of property rights to the girl’s stepmother and her family. Some point to the killing of pigeons with a hatchet by Lizzy’s father (she was fond of them and had built a roost for their use). Others suggest that Mr. Borden had enemies outside his own household who may have perpetrated the crime. In any event, Lizzy was later acquitted, but speculation about the case remains to this day–and has been the subject of fiction adaptations as well. One of these has featured on the Fiction Reboot: Maplecroft by Cherie Priest. Horror at its finest so frequently borrows from reality, and today I’ve invited Hanna Clutterbuck-Cook to share with us a bit about body horror and the intertwining of fact and fiction. Welcome Hanna!

part 1

Lizzy Borden Took an Axe…

…And in Cherie Priest’s alternate telling of the tale of the Borden sisters, Lizzie has excellent reason to grab that axe. Maplecroft, the first of the “Borden Dispatches,” reimagines the murder and the after-lives of the Borden sisters as part of a much wider, much stranger, much scarier story.

9780451466976MI’ve never been a devotee of the ‘true crime’ genre, so I’ll admit right now that I’m no expert on the Borden story; I’m probably more familiar with the jokes made about it in The Man Who Came to Dinner. But I’ll give you the bottom line on this post right now: if you’re a fan of horror, if you’re a fan of Mythos horror, and you haven’t gotten to Maplecroft yet, do so. Library, bookstore, friend’s copy, whatever.

Priest pulls together a number of relatively disparate elements to create Maplecroft, including historical events, medical history, disability politics, and body horror; the world of Maplecroft is strongly influenced by the traditions of the Cthulhu Mythos created by HP Lovecraft. If you’re not familiar with the latter, I suggest picking up any good collection of Lovecraft’s short stories  or checking out this free ebook created by CthulhuChick. You can absolutely enjoy Maplecroft without knowing Mythos — but it’s more fun if you do.


Fall River

Regardless of your tastes in fiction, one of the strongest elements in Maplecroft is the interchange between the supernatural and disease. The core of the story, in fact, is wrapped around the (unwilling?) transformation of the human body into…something else. Some of the inhabitants of Fall River, Massachusetts, where the Bordens live are changing. Their bodies are altering over time into something inhuman and, as time goes on, inhumane. Part of the essential fright of the story, of course, as with any misunderstood or un-understood disease, is the horror of transmission: how do you get it? where do you get it from? what happens if you get it?

This might all sound familiar from recent news coverage — many of the same questions have been coming up in regard to the Ebola virus, along with a level of unease any horror writer would be proud to provoke. While the question of transmission is answered for Ebola, it isn’t for what is affecting Fall River. If you happen to come into contact with what might appear to be an everyday object — a fragment of beach glass, a washed up bit of sea life — than you will change. There’s no vaccine and there is no cure, at least not in this first volume; once exposure has taken place, the effects are sure to follow and not solely for the person affected: coming into contact with someone who is suffering the touch of this illness is damaging, enough to shake sanity if continued long enough.

Fear of the more direct contamination is compounded by the fact that the effects are not the same person to person: one person mutters “out” to herself all the time; one locks herself away and commits suicide; another begins to shamble and shuffle and change his physical shape in an almost Edward Hyde-like fashion. Once noticed, despite the prompt attentions of the town doctor, Owen Seabury, there’s no way to reverse these symptoms. The transformation from the healthy body of a teenage boy into a shambling, bloated horror is inevitable and incomprehensible and the change is not only bodily, but mental. The boy himself is gone, missing, changed into something so completely other that his family can no longer make sense of him. The transformation into something different and horrible is complete when water begins leaking out from under his bedroom door accompanied by strange, mechanical noises. I won’t spoil the reveal for you: suffice it to say, the young man who used to beach-comb for pretty bits of glass is gone forever.


Lizzy Borden on trial

Alongside this is the story of Emma Borden, Lizzie’s older sister and a survivor of the deaths of their father and stepmother years earlier. Emma is struggling with the late stages of what appears to be a tubercular infection (that will have to wait for a second post…stay tuned!) Meanwhile, of course, behind all  of this fiction we have the actual story, the real Lizzy and Emma Borden, their private lives and their family frustrations… and an entire town that, even after the acquittal, continue in their belief that Lizzy herself has changed into something “unnatural.” The line not only between fact and fiction, but between contagion and dread, victim and villain, are as deeply problematic today as ever they were.

Happy Halloween!


Hanna Clutterbuck-Cook works processing history of medicine collections at the Center for the History of Medicine of the Countway Library and as the Project Co-ordinator for the Medical Heritage Library. In between times, she’s an Irish history scholar, a crochet enthusiast, and a F/SF/Weird/Horror devotee. Find her at @CrowGirl42


Posted in MedHum Monday, Reboot Review, The Daily Dose, The Fiction Reboot | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments