2020 Year in Review (or, I Survived)

Hello! I’ve been meaning to blog about some recent writings, but you know how it is: There’s a pandemic raging, you’re working in a corner of the living room trying to tune out the sirens and police helicopters, your nation’s democracy seems to be hanging on by a thread, and … what’s that smell? Did I leave the stove on? Nope, it’s just the forests burning because of a gender reveal party.

(The fact-checker in me feels compelled to point out that the gender reveal party only torched about 45,000 acres, give or take. The rest was climate change and people who had never gone outside before.)

Anyway, among all that I somehow did some writing. Much of it was in forms that were new for me, or at least new in terms of publishing. A larger portion than usual was in print and not at all online, which means you’ll need to buy the magazines and books below if you want to read the pieces. Sorry, but print is good for your brain.

The Nondescript (fiction) // The Ghastling

I’m back to writing short fiction again. Sometimes it has elements of horror, although I think “suburban surreal” may be a more appropriate name for the place where my imagination dwells. This story sprung from a series of prompts I laid out for myself circa 2017 that were all about islands. (I have a lot of notes on strange islands from world history.) One of the prompts was “the island of deaccessioned artifacts.” Deaccessioning is the process by which museums sell or give away items they no longer want, whether because they no longer fit the curatorial purview in some way or the institution has run out space. I wasn’t thinking about it directly, but I’m sure this prompt was also informed by my interest around human remains in museums and how the ethical standards on those have shifted. But the artifact I write about here is not a part of a human. (OR IS IT???)

I was over the moon when I got word The Ghastling had accepted my submission. They were the first place I tried—indeed the first place I’ve sent pure fiction in well over a decade—because I like their sensibility, particularly the focus on quiet horror and folk horror. The magazine is one of the few things I’ve been able to read during the pandemic where I feel completely enveloped by the fictional worlds, where I can shut out the sirens and the wildfires and the death counts and everything for just.two.seconds.

Thank you so much to Rebecca Parfitt for picking me out of the slush pile! You can buy Book 12 of The Ghastling here.

Possessed (fiction-essay hybrid) // The Happy Reader

One of the things I’d hoped to do in 2020 was return to New Orleans and work on a research project. Of course, I didn’t get to physically travel to New Orleans this cursed year, but I jumped on the opportunity to research the writer Lafcadio Hearn’s time in that great city for The Happy Reader. Who is Lafcadio Hearn? Let’s just say that if you enjoy Western retellings of Japanese ghost stories or ideas about New Orleans as a “haunted” locale, you’re following in his footsteps. I’d say more, but if his name is new to you, read Andrei Codrescu in The Paris Review. Then, of course, buy issue 15 of The Happy Reader (here), which has a number of articles and essays all about Hearn’s life (see table of contents above). All of the pieces are great, but I particularly recommend “Resurrected” by Moeko Fujii.

My piece is also about an imagined meeting between Hearn and Marie Laveau. I relied heavily on the scholarship of Carolyn Morrow Long for my account of Laveau, particularly the book A New Orleans Voudou Priestess: The Legend and Reality of Marie Laveau. Of course, no one knows if Hearn and Laveau ever met, but their time seems to have briefly overlapped—Hearn in the early days of the city he likened to “a dead bride crowned with orange flowers,” and Laveau at the very end of her famous life.

Writing a fiction-essay hybrid is risky. So let me say this: all of the details at the start of the piece are real, but when Hearn starts out on those long nocturnal walks, that’s where it becomes fiction-informed-by-research. Thanks so much to Seb Emina for inviting me to contribute to this very special project.

Gray (essay) // Wildsam Field Guides, Seattle edition

The wildfire smoke was at its worst when this was taken. It wasn’t the kind of gray I had in mind.

Here’s a little fact about me: I’m fascinated by colors. Not so much wearing or surrounding myself with them (I only like to wear about three colors), but their natural and cultural history; how we learned to make them from animals and minerals and plants, why we call them the names we do, what they’ve been supposed to mean at various places and times. I think of them like stones that can skip across the waters of history. (This is also how I think about words, which is maybe the better analogy).

Several years ago I started thinking about gray as a non-color, and its many cultural associations—gray zones and gray hair and Gray Ladies and Grey Gardens and even gray aliens. I started writing something that was partly about gray in cultural history and partly about my experience of it in the Pacific Northwest, but I was in Brooklyn then, and I wasn’t quite sure where I wanted the essay to go. Fast forward a few years and the wonderful editor James Ross Gardener was helping to put together the Seattle edition of the travel guides-miscellanies-anthologies known as Wildsam. With his encouragement, I wrote more in the essay about Seattle history and Seattle gray, and explored my thesis that we need gray—we need its subtlety and nuance, its liminality, its sometimes lunar shimmer. I’ve admired the Wildsam guides for years and I’m so glad the essay found a home there. You can buy the Seattle edition of Wildsam here. I still have a lot to say about gray, so I may return to it, and other colors, down the road.

Uncertainty Bootcamp (essay) // Seattle Met Magazine

What to say about this one? My illness is by far the most frustrating experience of my life, and one that continually tests my will to survive. But I think I can say I’m doing significantly better than I was a year ago, so that’s something. (Please do not email me with your miracle cures.)

I wrote this essay toward the start of outbreak in the Northwest. As I saw the able-bodied folks around me freak out about their lives upended and plans derailed, I thought about what it meant for me to have lived with such variable health for the past six years or so. Basically, a lot of the illusions of control healthy folks enjoy have been punctured for me. I’m sure that my interest in mortality awareness has helped soften the blows of this, just a little.

This one was a bit of a balancing act: I didn’t want to lean in to the treacly illness-as-teacher metaphor, which can become very problematic very quickly. I’m not at peace with my illness, but I am grateful for how it’s made me a more compassionate—and yes, better—person. I don’t take anything for granted anymore. And I wonder if a number of us will come through the pandemic having had a similar experience. I know that after all this I will never take peaceful neighborhood strolls, clean air, or my lungs for granted again.

This one you CAN read online! It’s very short—I initially wrote much more—but that’s probably for the best. Thanks so much to Stefan Milne for his patient editorial work on this one.


I also wrote many other things this year, a good deal of it unbylined content in the trivia and education space, which is how I survived. I’m grateful to work with wonderful editors, and very grateful to have flexible work. I also researched for a whole stack of podcasts, some of which you may be hearing more about in 2021. I’m cautiously hoping for a much better year. But of course, years are not magical units of time with some kind of inherent essence; they take the flavor and hue of the events that the humans alive during that year lend them. It is always up to us, together and singularly, to work for a better future for everyone.

Announcing “The Eye of the Beholder: Julia Pastrana’s Long Journey Home”

front cover

New book alert: The Eye of the Beholder: Julia Pastrana’s Long Journey Home, edited by Laura Anderson Barbata and Donna Wingate, with contributions by me, Jan Bondeson, Grant Hester, and others, is out now.

Julia Pastrana was a 19th century indigenous Mexican woman and a gifted singer and dancer who toured Europe and the United States billed as “The Ugliest Woman in the World.” She was born with what we now call generalized hypertrichosis terminalis and severe gingival hyperplasia, conditions that covered her body in thick hair and gave her an overdeveloped jaw. Several prominent doctors of her day testified that she was part-woman, part beast (although others were well aware of the truth—she was entirely human). After her death due to complications from childbirth in 1860, Pastrana’s embalmed body and that of her infant son were exhibited off and on for over a century, appearing as late as 1972 in United States fairgrounds. They later spent decades in storage in Oslo, where they were vandalized and her son’s body destroyed.

In 2013, after nearly a decade of efforts, artist Laura Anderson Barbata succeeded in having Pastrana’s body retrieved from storage in the Schreiner Collection at the University of Oslo and repatriated to a cemetery near her birthplace in Sinaloa, Mexico. There, Pastrana was buried in a secure tomb amid a Catholic ceremony and thousands of flowers sent from all over the world.

Our new book covers Julia’s story from a variety of angles, including what we know of Julia’s life and discovery in storage (Jan Bondeson), what she has to tell us about our responsibility to the dead (Grant Hester), the ethical dilemmas stories like hers present for museums today (Nicholas Marquez-Grant), her story as viewed through the lens of feminist and disability studies (Rosemarie Garland-Thomson), how the repatriation was accomplished (Barbata), and other bodies with similar tales still stored in museums today (me).

While Pastrana’s story may seem like an isolated case, I believe it has important things to say about how far we’ve come—and how far we have to go—in terms of viewing all members of the human family as equally worthy of respect. I hope you’ll check it out.


back cover

2016 Year in Review

Here are my favorite Mental Floss stories from 2016, at least the ones from my watch. Producing well-researched, well-crafted stories on internet time isn’t always easy, and I’m hugely grateful to all my wonderful writers, not to mention the rest of the team over at MF. Working on stories that connect people to history and place continues to be the thing that gets me out of bed every day. (Well, that and coffee.)

Anonymous engraving of the Mademoiselle de Beaumont or The Chevalier D'Eon.  Orig. in the London Magazine, via Library of Congress, Public Domain
Anonymous engraving of the Mademoiselle de Beaumont, or The Chevalier D’Eon. Orig. in the London Magazine, via Library of Congress, Public Domain

The Chevalier d’Eon, a.k.a. Mademoiselle de Beaumont, was a big star in 18th century France and England who served as a diplomat, spy, pamphleteer, and fencer. D’Eon also lived the first half of life as a man, and the second half as a woman. By Stassa Edwards. (Part of our Show & Tell column highlighting interesting objects in museums and archives.)

Robert Peary has been celebrated as the first man to reach the North Pole, but it was probably Matthew Henson, his assistant, who deserves that distinction. Here’s a retrobituary, as we call them, in honor of the 150th anniversary of his birth. By Michele Debczak.

Canada’s longest-serving prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie, took advice from dead people, his dogs, and the patterns in his shaving cream. By Don Rauf, in celebration of Canada Day.

The dangerous and highly competitive world of Victorian orchid hunting included violent deaths, peeing on competitors’ specimens, and blooms growing out of human bones. By Claire Cock-Starkey.

Odontoglossum harryanum, Frederick Sander via Wikipedia, Public Domain
Odontoglossum harryanum, Frederick Sander via Wikipedia, Public Domain

The Delano grape strike has been heralded as one of the nation’s most important labor struggles, but the Filipinos who started the strike, especially leader Larry Itliong, have long been overlooked. By Kyla Cathey.

On a kayak swamp tour near NOLA in June, I heard the legend of a voodoo priestess whose wrath supposedly destroyed a whole town. I dug into her tale (with the help of mental_floss researcher Jocelyn Sears) to find out the real story, which was just as dark as I imagined—although a little less supernatural.

Rasputin via Wikimedia, public domain
Rasputin via Wikimedia, Public Domain

100 years after Rasputin died, the story of how—and why—he died is still more myth than reality. At this point, I doubt we’ll ever know the whole truth. By Andrew Lenoir.

Le Karnice was the Victorian “safety coffin” designed by Count Michel de Karnice-Karnicki to save lives at a time when fear of premature burial was at an all-time high. By Claire Voon.

This ancient 20-sided die looks like it could have been used for Egyptian D&D, but its possible function as an alphabet oracle might be even more interesting. By Erin Blakemore.

Tintype portrait of Olive Oatman. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library via Wikimedia, Public Domain
Tintype portrait of Olive Oatman. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library via Wikimedia, Public Domain

Olive Oatman was a mid-19th-century Mormon teenager who lived with the Mohave tribe for several years before being “freed” by the federal government. She spent the rest of her life a marked woman. By Meg van Huygen.

The ravens at the Tower of London get a lullaby every night. That’s one of the 13 behind-the-scenes “secrets” Christine Colby gathered from the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London.

Les Waas, writer of the Mister Softee jingle, was a perennial prankster. He died in 2016, but I’ll always remember the ice cream truck song as his longest-lasting joke. By Michele Debczak.

Operation Cone of Power, also known as the time British Witches tried to attack Adolf Hitler. By Tom Metcalfe.

The story behind a conman with multiple fake identities, and the Alabama tombstone that reads DAMN THE STATE DEPT. By Meg van Huygen.

One of the nutshell studies of unexplained death. Via the Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
One of the nutshell studies of unexplained death. Via the Maryland Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Despite not being allowed to attend college, Frances Glessner Lee was a forensic science pioneer whose intricate doll houses helped revolutionize police training. By Christine Colby.

Mount Everest, and summits like it, are home to a surprising number of spooky stories: mysterious figures, phantom radio transmissions, and more. Jane Rose rounded up some ghost stories from the world’s tallest peaks.

Here’s the delicious history of the nation’s oldest Chinese-American restaurant—in Butte, Montana. By Kirstin Fawcett.

In June 1945, a group of kids playing on a Liverpool street discovered a skeleton inside a metal cylinder. Some think the body belonged to a disgraced paint manufacturer, but the case has never been solved. By Luke Bather.

In the 1960s, Yetta Bronstein was an imaginary Jewish housewife who ran for president. One of her slogans: “Vote for Yetta and things will get Betta.” By Meg van Huygen.

 The Foundling Hospital, Holborn, London. Colored engraving by T. Bowles after L. P. Boitard, 1753 via Wikimedia, Public Domain.

The Foundling Hospital, Holborn, London. Colored engraving by T. Bowles after L. P. Boitard, 1753 via Wikimedia, Public Domain.

This heart-breaking 18th-century rebus token was left for a child abandoned at London’s Foundling Hospital. By Erin Blakemore.

In 1863, a legless man washed up on a beach in Nova Scotia, unable to speak. The town adopted him, but no one ever figured out who he was. Meg van Huygen wrote about “Jerome” and other mysterious people without a past.

A few months after we published that story, a former nuclear physicist and forensic genealogist solved the case of identity thief Lori Erica Ruff, who was actually Kimberly McLean, a Pennsylvania woman who left her family at age 18. By Jake Rossen.

I’m sure there’s a bunch of other fantastic stories I’m forgetting, too. Certain of it.

In non-mental_floss news, I wrote “What Do the Scary Clowns Want” for The New York Times, a brief history of medical cannibalism for Lapham’s Quarterly Roundtable, and a long chapter about human remains in the world’s museums for a forthcoming book about Julia Pastrana, which is being spearheaded by the amazing artist and human Laura Anderson Barbata. (The book is called The Eye of the Beholder: Julia Pastrana’s Long Journey Home, and will arrive summer 2017). I appeared in a German TV show called “History” on the network ZDF; the episode retold several of the stories in Rest in Pieces, and did a great job.

I also edited, for Feral House, two books that I highly recommend: Al Ridenour’s The Krampus: And The Old, Dark Christmas (essential for understanding the fuss about Krampus) and the latest editions of Mel Gordon’s Theatre of Fear and Horror, The Grisly Spectacle of the Grand Guignol of Paris 1897-1962 (essential for understanding, oh, the whole horror genre, probably).

Favorite book I read this year: Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote.


Favorite movie I watched: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders 

Favorite album (that’s actually from 2016): Ancient Youth by Double Echo. Yup, it’s 1986 goth all over again, you got a problem with that? Runner up is My Friends Bury Their Souls For The Devil To Find, by Ritual Howls.

I have Bad Feelings about 2017. Still, with courage and imagination, maybe we’ll get through it.