Dark Tide: The Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919 by Stephen Puleo

A “molasses flood” sounds like something out of an old folksy proverb, as in “Tarnation! That girl is slower than a flood of molasses!” It sounds like a euphemism for something obscene, or the punchline to a bad joke.

But a molasses flood is no joke. In fact, a molasses flood is downright deadly.

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In 1915, a company called U.S. Industrial Alcohol thought it would be a great idea to build a giant tank, 50 feet high by 90 feet wide on Boston’s busy waterfront, adjacent to a popular playground. When the tank “exploded” in 1919, spilling some 2 million gallons of molasses into the surrounding area, the wave of molasses destroyed several buildings, dismantled the nearby elevated track, and killed 21 people and several domestic animals. Think of the scene in The Impossible where Naomi Watts crouches before a glass wall as the ominous tidal wave approaches, but instead of ocean water, it’s molasses.

Molasses. Stinky, sticky, syrupy sweet molasses. Anyone who’s ever baked gingerbread knows the smell and the dark gelatinous ooze. Now imagine it in your hair, your mouth, your eyes, soaking your clothes. Imagine drowning in molasses, as so many did. A nearby firehouse was crushed in the onslaught, trapping several firefighters underneath it. One man struggled in vain to keep his head above the molasses, but eventually his strength gave way and he died, suffocating in molasses.

Puleo’s book vividly describes the moment of the flood and the suffering and horror of those caught in it, but even so, I had a hard time imagining the visceral impact of million of gallons of molasses assaulting the senses.

So I promptly went to my cupboard and retrieved a bottle from last year’s Christmas baking party.Displaying IMG_20160729_164615.jpg

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Pictured: Stinky, sticky death.

Yep. The stuff stinks, and that’s only 12 ounces of it. There’s no way that anything could be worse than drowning in millions of gallons of that putrid glop.

Except there is.

Molasses is used to distill not only rum (think about that next time you’re enjoying your pina colada), but industrial alcohol. Now after the first boil, what’s produced is call “first molasses.” That’s the good one. Do it again and that’s “second molasses.” Do it a third time and, yep, you get “third molasses.” Third molasses is the nastiest sort, used to brew industrial alcohol for use in munitions. Needless to say, molasses during wartime was a robust trade.

The bottle pictured above, the one I smelled and blacked out from for a brief second, is “second molasses.” The crap that spilled out of that giant holding tank?

Third molasses. Every drop of it. Destined to become bullets and bombs in the WWI battle.

World War I was also where chemical warfare made its auspicious debut, but I think the military missed out on an opportunity. Molasses really would have knocked the enemy off its feet.

In Dark Tide, Puleo paints a compelling portrait of the turbulent times surrounding the Molasses Disaster, from the threat of the Italian anarchists and concomitant xenophobia, to the heavy curtain of war and looming prohibition.

When the inevitable court case takes place to assign blame in the disaster, big business is pitted against the common man, as most of those who died were blue collar laborers and immigrants. The plaintiffs attempted to place the blame on USIA and its obvious disregard for public safety while the defense argued that the anarchists had blown up the tank. The case was historic in the sheer amount of plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit. “The molasses flood did for building standards,” says Puleo, “what the Coaconut Grove fire did for fire codes.”

The fascinating slice of history illuminated by Puleo’s book reminds us that nothing ever happens in a vacuum, that history is an interactive and associative project. For this particular disasters, characters include: anarchy, war, corporate greed, immigrants, courage, tragedy, and, of course, molasses.

And hey! It’s also in a Mysteries at the Museum episode!

A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

“What does that say about you or anyone else that my sister’s nationally televised psychotic break and descent into schizophrenia wasn’t horrific enough?”

There are layers upon layers to unpack in this story. A family drama of mental illness inside a reality show inside a flashback inside a meta-commentary on the nature of horror and our fascination with it.

A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay is nominally about a mentally-ill teenager whose increasingly bizarre behavior prompts her father to contact a priest, who then contacts a production company to document the family’s crisis. That is one layer of the story, which is told in flashbacks by the now adult sister of the purportedly “possessed” teen and her permeable memories of the situation; added to that is meta-commentary in the form of a blog interspersed with the narrative that analyzes the reality TV show that proved a huge success in documenting the family’s tragic breakdown.

Whew. So my first question in reading this: If something acknowledges that it’s derivative, does that merit forgiveness of its transgressions? Ecclesiastes 1:9 posits that “there is nothing new under the sun” and while that’s certainly true, does acknowledging the story’s unabashed adherence to every demon-possession trope induce the reader to accept the rehash as a necessary evil?

So much of horror in the 21st century is derivative, self-referential, parodic, and satirical that we forget that the concept was once fresh in the days of ScreamIt’s as though on one hand we are desperate to qualify our horror with a wink and nod, cramming in pop culture references in place of originality or even quality work. Everything is an homage to something else, so that the film or book can be appreciated as clever and not merely a copy.

Also, is there any better way to appease our ambivalence over enjoying horror by sheltering it with comedy? While I love Shaun of the Dead and Cabin in the Woods to the death, they’re the high points in an exhausting onslaught of Scary Movies and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and George Washington: Werewolf (is that last one a book? It feels like it should be.)

A Head Full of Ghosts actually includes an “Extended Liner Notes/DVD Extras” to explain character names and references in the book, as though the reader needed to know exactly which of the author’s friends garner shout-outs in the form of minor characters (although it did vindicate one particular theory of mine regarding the main character’s name).

The majority of the referential apologism in the book is served in the form of a blog written by a mildly obnoxious horror buff analyzing the six-episode run of The Possession, the title of the reality show that follows the family as they attempt to exorcise their daughter in the tradition of every exorcism movie ever (and the book ensures that you know that it knows all about the puke and spider-crawling and demon-speak cliches that it nevertheless employs). This is one lens through which the story is viewed.

On the next layer, we have the story as retold by the now-adult Merry, who was 8 at the time of her sister’s “possession.” Through her eyes we witness firsthand events that take place off-camera, although she admits: “it’s the story itself I don’t fully trust.”

The reliability of the narrator is further cast into doubt as she goes on to explain:

“…my memories mix up with my nightmares, with extrapolation, with skewed oral histories from my grandparents and aunts and uncles, and with all the urban legends and lies propagated within the media, pop culture, and the near continuous stream of websites/blogs/YouTube channels devoted to the show…So all of it hopelessly jumbles up what I knew and what I know now.”

Yes, poor Merry is cast in the same vein as the famously troubled and fractured psyches of female characters rendered by Shirley Jackson in The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I was delighted to read the allusions to what are two of my favorite novels of all time. It’s no surprise, considering author Tremblay presides over the board of directors for the Shirley Jackson Awards.

As character, though, Merry tends to be a little too quippy and clever; sometimes this reads as annoying, sometimes, given what we know of mental illness and heredity, evidence of mania.

The engrossing family drama is complicated by the arrival of film cameras and national attention.  Merry asks the novelist interviewing her for a non-fiction account of her family’s travails : “What does that say about you or anyone else that my sister’s nationally televised psychotic break and descent into schizophrenia wasn’t horrific enough?”

In the endnotes, the author proclaims this question to be the thesis statement of the novel. Themes of performance and mental illness as entertainment remain a constant background tension. Horror as entertainment is one argument that’s been done to death, but reality, particularly the misfortunes of others presented for our viewing pleasure, remains a prescient issue (think poverty porn, Extreme Home Makeover type reality shows, presentation of the “other” as fodder for laughter and entertainment and a feeling of superiority, in particular the “white trash” entertainments of Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty and a hundred other iterations.)

So, given that this is a horror novel, is it scary? I can’t help but return to The Haunting of Hill House where the existence of an actual supernatural presence remains ambiguous. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether there are ghosts or if the main character is just crazy, because either way it’s terrifying. It’s terrifying to watch your loved one slip into mental illness and become a stranger, or to believe that you could lose your own mental faculties in this manner. Aren’t demonic possession stories on one level just metaphors for this fear? I won’t even enter into discussing the political implications of demons and exorcism, because that leads to the Catholic church, the patriarchy, fear of female sexuality, etc…

I have a complicated relationship to stories of demonic possession, thanks to a little book I read called The Demonologist. Therefore I tend to find portions of the novel to be a little creepy, but I was too distracted by certain parallels between this novel and another in the denouement to be totally immersed into it.

I haven’t decided if the derivative nature of the book is vindicated by self-awareness, but I’ll admitted I devoured it in two days like a woman possessed (yeah, see what I did there?). So does that make me one of the hungry hordes, devouring tales of the misfortunes of others? Who is it really who is sick? Who is well? Are any of us?

 

 

 

 

White Trash by Nancy Isenberg

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We no more live in a post-class society than we do a post-racial one. Evidenced by recent movements like Occupy Wall Street and #Blacklivesmatter, America is still battling a stratification that makes it very difficult for those at the bottom to claw their way up.

Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash tells a story that those who champion American Exceptionalism don’t like to hear. The myths of our founding fathers and their glorious ideals are pounded into us from grade school on, and the idea that they were just an elite group of educated white men who wrote eloquent treatises on an America that existed only in their minds is difficult to digest. The truths are far more weedy.

For example, Pilgrims. It’s an enduring and seductive myth: America was built by individualists who resented monarchical reign and sought to eke out a living in a new, uncharted country, building their lives and government anew. The truth is that America was a dumping ground for criminals and the poor. As Isenberg puts it: “Embarrassing lower-class populations have always been numerous, and have always been seen on the North American continent as ‘waste people.’”

The idea in shipping all these “waste people” to America was that either the backbreaking labor would inspire them to become more industrious or Natural Selection would have its way. Eugenics proves to be an idea older than Darwin and Galton and the hideous atrocities of the 20th century. Isenberg writes:

“Breeding determined who rose and who fell. The analogy between human and animal stock was ever present. As Jefferson wrote in 1787: ‘The circumstance of superior beauty is thought worthy of attention in our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals. Why not in that of man?’”

Benjamin Franklin analogized humans to ants and pigeons; Jefferson literally compared them to levels of soil. Again and again Isenberg elucidates ugly threads of class superiority in the men we paint as heroes.

The main thrust of Isenberg’s book illuminates the dissonance between our idea of America and reality, how the poor are simultaneously invisible and necessary. From the wilderness of pioneer days to the trailer parks and ghettoes of modern times, the poor are hidden yet without them our most menial jobs would go unfilled. Somebody cleans those toilets. Somebody makes your Big Mac.

Isenberg highlights the way in which we seek to eliminate the appearance of poverty from the American landscape while also reveling in “white trash” entertainment and “slumming.” Think Duck Dynasty, Sarah Palin, and country music.

The trickiest part of writing about “white trash” is that one cannot write about poverty in America without writing about race. Systemic class oppression cannot be disentangled from systemic racial oppression. The focus on poor whites is at times discomfiting, for, as poor as they are, they’re still white. In America, that’s still an inherent privilege. Isenberg goes into some detail about the racial aspects of poverty and the relations of poor whites and poor blacks.

Isenberg’s book comes at a time when class is being brought to the forefront in this year’s presidential race. A rich, white man who appeals to the lowest common denominator, the “white trash” with a racist, misogynist message, and a rich, white lady who panders to corporate interests and represents the reviled “liberal elite.” Even our dark horse candidate, the one who was most willing to confront class disparity was a rich, white man.

He was outvoted. “White Trash” contributes to a conversation that America’s been having, acknowledged or not, since the first colonists, the dregs, the castoffs, the “waste people,” crawled ashore.

 

 

The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin

Some years ago, I was inspired to read Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes. The urge had been driven by a single phrase, that life is “nasty, brutish, and short” that I kept running up against in various readings, most notably in the excellent The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker.

It isn’t surprising that all that remains in public consciousness from Leviathan is that phrase and a Hobbesian notion of social anarchy in the absence of an autocratic government. Apparently, I even wrote a glowing review of the book, so great was my revulsion for the book.

Despite that epic waste of my kindle battery life, it’s not a bad thing to go back to the source every once in a while.

Everyone knows The Origin of Species. Everyone knows Darwin. His theory of evolution forms the basis of our understanding of our past and our hopes for the future. He is in everything from biology to psychology. There are echoes of Darwinism in our understanding of great acts of altruism to the atrocities of eugenics and racial hygiene.

Here are my 3 takeaways from The Origin of Species.

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1. Darwin skips the Homo Sapien

On discussing the origin of species, Darwin notably omits the mention of one specific species: humans.

Oh there is talk of horses and cattle, insects, flowers, trees, birds, bats, dogs, butterflies, pigeons. You don’t even know about pigeons until you read the Origin of Species (Darwin was a member of a pigeon club, which is still a thing).

The allusions to humans however are few and veiled, an implied extension of the principles of natural selection and Darwin’s hypothesis that many species evolved from a few, or even one. The closest he gets to mixing humans into the equation is this quote:

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.”

If we assume we are those “higher animals,” then we also must accept that we are just that: animals.

The Origin of Species was published in 1859. By the time he published his follow-up, The Descent of Manin which he explicitly stated Homo sapien’s place in the evolutionary ladder, acceptance of the idea was widespread, as evidenced by this contemporary review of the book.

2. Survival of the Fittest: Darwin the Poet

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“As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever-branching and beautiful ramifications.”

If “nasty, brutish and short” distills the essence of Hobbes’ work, then “survival of the fittest” is certainly Darwin’s most enduring soundbite. I’ll admit I felt a chill the first time I read that phrase, as though I were witnessing the birth of a new age in those four words.

But “survival of the fittest” doesn’t tell the whole story; in fact it is oversimplification at best, a lazy shortcut at its worst. To ponder the beautiful complexity of the eye, for example, and to chalk it up to “survival of the fittest,” is downright boring. Of this complexity, Darwin writes:

“Almost every part of every organic being is so beautifully related to its complex conditions of life that it seems as improbable that any part should have been suddenly produced perfect, as that a complex machine should have been invented by man in a perfect state.”

Darwin could be a poet; however large parts of the book are devoted, necessarily or not, to tedious discussions on sterility and hybridism, what constitutes a species, and various breeds of pigeons, horses, plants, etc…What Hobbes is to mundane theological debate, Darwin is to stamens and pistils. However, one can infer that Darwin had to read books way more boring than his to gain his knowledge. He often spares us the worst of it.

Regardless of the dull passages, it takes someone with imagination to ask, as Darwin does:”How have all those exquisite adaptations of one part of the organisation to another part, and to the conditions of life, and of one organic being to another being, been perfected?”

It takes imagination to ask, and imagination to answer.

3. Incipient Species

Darwin opens the book discussing differences between what constitutes a “species” vs. “variety.” He cites various sources with disparate opinions on the rules for a species. One rule of thumb is that members of the same species can produce fertile offspring, but Darwin easily finds exceptions. Several times, he mentions the possibility of “incipient species.”

I find the concept of “incipient species” fascinating because it promises hope.

In my workplace, leadership is modeled on the acronym SERVE. When I am asked to choose a letter and explain how I seek to embody that principal, I always choose “E” for “Evolve” because I believe evolution is possible, both on the grand scale and in individual lives. I believe that in spite of modern life short-circuiting the efficacy of “survival of the fittest,” we can still evolve. Like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, many of us in the modern world have all of our basic needs met; we can choose to stop there, or we can choose to continue to improve and evolve. Evolve the world around us and evolve in ourselves, in tiny, incremental changes, just the way Darwin proposed life on earth evolved.

Darwin asked where we came from. It’s our job to ask where we go.

We like to think of ourselves as the top of the food chain, the human species as nature’s pinnacle, but there’s a warning in Darwin’s work too, as he writes “…the general rule being a gradual increase in number, until the group reaches its maximum, and then, sooner or later, a gradual decrease.” If we aren’t careful, extinction will one day stare us right in the face, which would be a shame for a species that has harnessed the power that enables me to send these words out into the world.

 

Booknado 2016: July

Theme: A book on both of our Goodreads Lists

 

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Ring by Koji Suzuki

Let’s begin with my complicated relationship with J-Horror. Although a horror buff for most of my life, I wasn’t introduced to the concept of J-Horror until I watched the American remake of Ringu in theaters in 2002. Nowadays the cliches of J-Horror (creaky ghosts, long black hair, grudges of all sorts) are well tread, but back in its day The Ring scared the crap out of me. So much so that I took the TV out of my room that night and put it in the hallway. And I won’t lie, I was grown.

One of the blurbs inside the book pronounces Suzuki the “Japanese Stephen King.” I’m wondering if something got lost in translation. To put it bluntly, the prose is bland, the characters are nasty, and misogyny is rampant. There’s a weird and unnecessary “twist” that seems to borrow from The Crying Game amidst muddled themes of hermaphroditism, viral contagion, and paranormal abilities. The clock is always ticking, yet the characters only occasionally seem to feel a sense of urgency.

I don’t remember much about Ringu, but The Ring as a film left an indelible imprint on my psyche. For a horror movie, it did a fine job of evoking atmosphere and dread. It probably ruined me for the book. All along I anticipated the endgame, so I wasn’t even able to enjoy the mystery. I’m prepared to express the rarest of sentiments:

The movie was better than the book. 

Oh yes, I did.