Lord High Executioner

 

Howard Engel is a writer most known for his fiction, and here in his first foray into non-fiction, it shows. And it’s really quite delightful, as far as books about death go. His presence in the text can be felt so much that it’s positively gonzo, and some parts of it read more like the narration of a movie than a book, as he takes you here and there to show you different things and introduce you to different people. I’m sure you’ve noticed how much I appreciate personality in writing style. It’s important to me. It really can’t be underrated and I have to say that this book is extremely successful in this area. Howard Engel comes across as very friendly and highly interested in his chosen subject.

Now there is of course a flaw here that unfortunately nobody could avoid, and that’s the fact that the information the book is about can be very hard to come by. It tries very hard to introduce us to certain executioners and give us a bit of a bio and understanding of their personality. This is fascinating and exactly why it’s being written about. But part of that fascination comes out of mystery, and some mysteries just weren’t meant to be solved. Not very many executioners are known to us, so as a result we get a lot of more general information about how and why executions were performed rather than the book being completely devoted to specific people.

But even here, the author makes the most of it. While most books focus on Western Europe to the point of excluding almost every other part of the world, Engel has done his best here to bring us some diversity and show us a bit about capital punishment in other countries such as Canada and Japan. Could this be because the book itself is Canadian? Probably. But that doesn’t mean we can dismiss it. It’s very refreshing and something we really should see more often.

Dare I say this book was a fun read? Yes. Because as long as we’re not the ones getting killed, death as a general area of interest can’t not be deeply fascinating. It’s mysterious. It’s scary. It’s why we love horror movies. And this is really about as close to that kind of little ride as a non-fiction book can get. And isn’t it so much better when it’s real anyway? Totally.

Other recommended reads: The Last Gasp, Edison and the Electric Chair, Public Executions.

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Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty

Ever wonder why babies are cute, why gentlemen prefer blondes, or why the human ballsack is the size that it is? Hmmm, ok maybe not that last one, but the answers are pretty interesting.

The subject of beauty is far from only skin deep, and it strikes me how very perfect the book’s title is. Beauty isn’t just incidental, and the source of frivolous fun or petty envy. It’s deeply tied into our instincts as living things, something we share with even the flowers, and goes back virtually as far as we do. This book leaves no stone unturned, and encompasses science, sociology, and of course biology in a way that’s truly fun to read. Not only that, but Nancy Etcoff’s own personal touch is extremely compelling, and this alone makes the book worth a read. This combined with the huge amount of learning inside is likely to leave you with a whole new perspective on a subject you once held strong and long-lived opinions about.

What’s interesting here is the particular way that this information offers up new meaning to the subject of beauty. To understand how beauty has transformed us biologically and culturally into the creatures that we are, it becomes both more important and yet less important all at once. Without beauty, we simple would not be, but who we have become also gives us the power to appreciate it in the most enlightening way possible. This isn’t a book so much about sitting in front of the mirror, putting on makeup and poking at your belly as it is about humanity itself. It strikes me as extremely valuable, and it can and should be read by people of all genders and ages. This book is awesome, and as it meets both my demands of educational and entertaining, I can’t recommend it enough.

Rather just see the movie? Well, there isn’t one exactly, but you might want to check out The Human Face.

Other recommended reads:  The History of Beauty, Sex in History.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

When I got my new copy of the first in this series in the mail today (because it doesn’t look too much like the other one is going to get returned to me), I felt I really had to write a review on these. Is there a person alive who doesn’t remember and love these books? Is it possible to show one of these to anyone born in the 80s and not be met with a squeal of remembered joy?

I’ll tell you. And the answer is no. No it’s not.

There are two things that set these books apart from all the other horror stories from your childhood. First, obviously, is the art. If you remember nothing else, the truly creepy illustrations by Stephen Gammel are surely etched into your brain forever. I want to frame these things and hang them on my walls. Surely this artwork has inspired scores of artists in love with the macabre ever since these first came out in 1981. 33 years later these illustrations as well as the stories themselves remain a top childhood favorite. I don’t need to mention what a shame it is that these books were re-released in 2011 with illustrations from Brett Helquist. We’re all angry about it. Sorry kids, but if you just can’t handle the first generation of Scary Stories I’m afraid you’re just not going to make it in the world. Shame.

 

 

The art stands alone, but the stories retold from folklore by Alvin Schwartz are great too. I think these are a perfect example of the difference between scary and creepy, and how creepy can’t be underestimated. The creep factor here is evident in the way these books toy with your imagination, and let you fill in the blanks with the most horrible things your brain can conjure up. These stories don’t try too hard. It’s their subtlety that makes them so chilling. And they remain so well into adulthood.

There isn’t more I can say that you can’t say yourselves. Comment below with your own memories of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and why you think they remain a childhood horror classic.