Category Archives: Weirdness

Strange Tales From a Chinese Studio

The cover of Strange Tales From a Chinese Studio.

Strange Tales From a Chinese Studio is a great, odd book. It doesn’t quite fit any contemporary category. Some of these stories are folktales or fairy tales; some are the kind of “I swear, this really happened!” supernatural yarns you find in books of “true hauntings;” some are news of the weird. Pu Songling never drew these distinctions; to him, they were all Strange Tales. Penguin’s volume of excerpts from his apparently massive collection of stories mixes them as randomly as he did.

The fairy tales are the most developed as stories but the least interesting. Most involve fox sprits and attractive ghosts, and once you’ve read a few they all seem pretty much the same. Usually a minor scholar or bureaucrat—actually, these were almost the same profession—meets a beautiful ghost (or fox spirit) and has sex with her. Then he meets a beautiful fox spirit (or ghost) and has sex with her, too. In the end the scholar and the fox spirit and the ghost get together in a sort of group marriage. Pu Songling was a minor scholar himself and I think he needed to get out more.

The other stories, though, are weird—and, yes, they’ve been translated from a foreign culture and there are references and allusions I’m not getting, but allowing for that these are still damn strange. In one tale, the ghost of an elderly woman is seen inexplicably hopping around a courtyard, water spraying from her mouth. In another story a man sneezes and small animal falls out of his nose; it runs up his leg and fuses to his belly, and the story ends there, inconclusive and gnomic. To find these uncanny, surreal moments, it’s more than worth skimming through pages of fox spirits helping bureaucrats salve their mid-life crises.

They May Be Slightly Too Late

Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based non-profit corporation, wants local courts to allow it to disinter a Burlington man so he can be preserved in a cryonic process.

The Burlington Hawk Eye, June 6, 2009

Unfortunately for the deceased, his family didn’t bother to tell Alcor he’d died until he’d been in the ground for months. Not that this would have mattered to him: according to his will, he wanted his remains frozen “regardless of the severity of the damage from such causes as fire, decomposition, autopsy, embalming.”


Skimming through a random selection on Project Gutenberg–the July 2, 1853 issue of Notes and Queries–I came across this weird little incident:

Curious Posthumous Occurrence.—If the following be true, though in ever so limited a manner, it deserves investigation. Notwithstanding his twenty-three years’ experience, the worthy grave-digger must have been mistaken, unless there is something peculiar in the bodies of Bath people! But if the face turns down in any instance, as asserted, it would be right to ascertain the cause, and why this change is not general. It is now above twenty years since the paragraph appeared in the London papers:—

“A correspondent in the Bath Herald states the following singular circumstance:—’Having occasion last week to inspect a grave in one of the parishes of this city, in which two or three members of a family had been buried some years since, and which lay in very wet ground, I observed that the upper part of the coffin was rotted away, and had left the head and bones of the skull exposed to view. On inquiring of the grave-digger how it came to pass that I did not observe the usual sockets of the eyes in the skull, he replied that what I saw was the hind part of the head (termed the occiput, I believe, by anatomists), and that the face was turned, as usual, to the earth!!—Not exactly understanding his phrase ‘as usual,’ I inquired if the body had been buried with the face upwards, as in the ordinary way; to which he replied to my astonishment, in the affirmative, adding, that in the course of decomposition the face of every individual turns to the earth!! and that, in the experience of three-and-twenty years in his situation, he had never known more than one instance to the contrary.'”

A. B. C.

I suspect the gravedigger had no idea what had happened and, rather than appear ignorant in front of our nameless correspondent, invented this totally specious bit of insider knowledge on the spot. The only other possibility–discounting zombies–is that some medical authority in Bath had, as often as possible for at least twenty-three years, been overenthusiastic about declaring people dead. Stupid though it is, that idea will probably still keep me awake tonight.

The Secret History

Emperor Justinian

Procopius was a respected historian back in his day. Upright. Sober. The go-to guy if you wanted to know what was up with Emperor Justinian.

So everybody was kind of surprised when, a few centuries later, somebody dug up The Secret History. Procopius hated Justinian. Hated him. Hated hated hated hated hated him. Not as much as he hated Empress Theodora, but still a lot. It wasn’t that Justinian was stupid. It wasn’t that he was corrupt. He managed to be stupid and successfully corrupt at the same time: “never of his own accord speaking the truth to those with whom he conversed, but having a deceitful and crafty intent behind every word and action, and at the same time exposing himself, an easy prey, to those who wished to deceive him.”

The Secret History was where Procopius vented the bile he couldn’t pack into his official histories without getting executed. He starts out… what do they call it these days? “Shrill?” As the pages go by he gets shriller and shriller until he reads like a steam whistle. Look at the chapter titles from the Penguin edition—I think they were added by the translator, but they give you the flavor. They start with “Belisarius and Antonina,” and progress to “Justinian’s Misgovernment,” and then “The Destruction Wrought by a Demon-Emperor,” and by “Everyone and Everything Sacrificed to the Emperor’s Greed” Procopius’s face is bright red and he’s muttering to himself and steam is jetting out of his ears and you’re sort of afraid he’ll pull out a couple of pistols and shoot up the room like Yosemite Sam. (Then you remember he’s been dead for over fourteen centuries. We’re safe!)

Continue reading The Secret History

Some Interesting Links

I won’t try to write full posts about any of these; my brain is so listless this weekend they would likely turn out as empty bloviation.

**1.** Strange Horizons has posted [an article about how fiction becomes urban legend] [tfv]. In 1888 Ambrose Bierce published a hoax article about three abrupt vanishings. Like the [Angels of Mons] [aom], the storied passed into folklore (or maybe into [fakelore] [fake]), being reproduced in book after book of weird mysteries.

My favorite detail–indicating the level of “scholarship” that goes into these volumes–is the author who salted his reference books with misinformation to detect plagiarists.

**2.** [There’s a strain of symbiotic bacteria in your elbow] [elbow]:

>The crook of your elbow is not just a plain patch of skin. It is a piece of highly coveted real estate, a special ecosystem, a bountiful home to no fewer than six tribes of bacteria. […] They are helping to moisturize the skin by processing the raw fats it produces, says Julia A. Segre of the National Human Genome Research Institute.

These are not generic bacteria, and the article isn’t using elbows as a random example body part. These bacteria *specifically evolved to live in elbows*.

>Dr. Segre reckons that there are at least 20 different niches for bacteria, and maybe many more, on the human skin, each with a characteristic set of favored commensals. The types of bacteria she found in the inner elbow are quite different from those that another researcher identified a few inches away, on the inner forearm. But each of the five people Dr. Segre sampled harbored much the same set of bacteria, suggesting that this set is specialized for the precise conditions of nutrients and moisture that prevail in the human elbow.

**3.** Kit Whitfield examines one of the rarely-identified [stock characters] [stock] of modern fiction: the [Macho Sue] [whit]. (Via [Slacktivist] [slack].)