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Book Review: Danse Macabre

danse macabre, death, dark fiction, horror

Images of people accosted or dancing with Death were very common after the Black Death decimated Europe’s population in the Middle Ages.

Danse Macabre: Close Encounters with the Reaper is an anthology edited by Nancy Kilpatrick and put out by Edge Publishing. These tales are about Death and its personification. Like a Harlequin romance, you pretty much know how it’s going to end. In Harlequins the woman gets her man. In Danse Macabre, every tale deals with dying. Originally I sent in a concept to Nancy for this anthology, but she rejected it. In some ways, I didn’t quite understand that she truly wanted tales where Death is personified. (However that  idea will soon be out in Bibliotheca Fantastica as “The Book with No End.”)

Death is a man, a woman, a specter with scythe and hood, a wisp of grey, a bird, or a skeletal neuter. The one form of Death I did not come across, which I thought I might, was the black dog, but perhaps that image is used more for the devil. But I was curious to see what the anthology embraced, and Nancy is a good editor so I was intrigued. There are twenty-five tales and one verse titled “Danse Macabre,” which opens the anthology, so it’s meaty.

The term “Danse Macabre” refers to the dance with death. Medieval images in paintings and engravings depicted skeletons and other forms of Death interacting with the living.  For this anthology Death is the one character who you know will be there in the end. However, Death does not always prevail and is in fact set upon in different ways. There are stories here, with Death as an unwelcome companion, or where someone pleads or tries to make a deal. In some cases they try to stay Death’s hand, seduce, understand or hunt the Reaper down. Many of these stories are from the viewpoint of the person coming to terms with or fighting Death. Yet just when I wondered if any individual story would be from the point of view of the Grim Reaper, indeed the viewpoint changed. Sometimes Death hunts, sometimes he courts his prey or feels loneliness or love.

I don’t know if I had any preconceived notion of this book but as I began to read I was delighted. You

dark fiction, horror, death, personifications of death, Nancy Kilpatrick

Danse Macabre, edited by Nancy Kilpatrick and published by Edge Publishing

might not think so but for a collection that is truly macabre and is the essence of the word, I didn’t find most of the tales depressing. This is both an indication of the skill of the authors and how they wove their tales, and of Nancy’s careful honing of just such an anthology. I’m actually hard pressed to say which tale I liked best or least, but I’ll try to point out a few that stick in my memory. The verse “Danse Macabre” by Ian Emberson was good. It didn’t grab me completely but it had a coquettish air and a wry humor. The last line delivers the punch like it should.

Another aspect of this anthology that I particularly liked was that the tales take place in different times and different cultures. They’re not all 20-21st century stories set in North America. The first story is Lisa Morton’s “The Secret Engravings” about Death visiting Hans Holbein with a commission for danse macabre engravings. This one is well crafted and has an superb twist when Holbein realizes the horror of what he’s done. Many collections and anthologies begin and end with the strongest stories, to pull the reader in and leave them with a good impression. This story stayed with me past finishing the collection.

“Death in the Family” by Morgan Dempsey looks at an unwilling apprenticeship. Yet Dominik defies and turns the tables, which are turned again. Perhaps an ironic tale of leaving a legacy. The theme is echoed, but shown differently in Dan Devine’s “The Physician’s Assistant,”  but both show how death is a constant companion to those in the healing arts.

Timothy Reynolds’ “Blue-Black Knight,” “Totentanz” by Nancy Holder and Erin Underwood, Angela Roberts “A Song for Death” as well as “An Appointment in the Village Bazaar” b S.S. Hampton Sr. address the dance with Death through art, whether painting, dancing, singing or playing music. These stories were all strong and evocative with Reynolds looking at a moment of communion with the Reaper, while a balancing of accounts takes place in “Totentanz.” Roberts’ tale of a woman working in the deathly wards of those taken by the influenza and “An Appointment” have at their essence deals and trades made with Death. Sometimes the characters win out or the trade is taken and sometimes they just do not go gentle into that good night.

Not all the stories stayed with me and I don’t have time to review each one. A few I didn’t care for but I found that even those drew me in and were well written, so really the overall level of this collection is high. The two biggest names in the collection are Tanith Lee and Brian Lumley. Lee’s “The Death of Death” is about a woman who hones herself till she can see and follow death throughout the world. She is on the ultimate hunt and this tale is rich with personality and style. Probably my least favorite story was by the best known author. Lumley’s “Old Man With a Blade” is very short but to me it relies on you knowing his Necroscope characters and premise and it left me flat, traveling the least distance of all the stories.

While I liked many of the stories a great deal Opal Edgar’s “Elegy for a Crow” stood out in intensity and horrific effects. It made me really think about what would happened if death did not come but life still tumbled through its miseries and accidents. The final story “Population Management” by Tom Dullemond is probably the only story in the collection that is more SF than fantasy. Yet as an ending it’s fitting and somewhat more sinister, even if wry, when Death is taken out of a more human hand. I would say Danse Macabre really isn’t horror despite being about death. There are a few stories that are indeed horrific or disturbing, but overall this collection, far reaching in style, eras, cultures and viewpoints, is about life and living. I give it 9 scythes out of 10.

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Insensitivity to Living Things Hits a New Low

I know that we’ve had little sun in Vancouver this year and that with the last week finally revealing summerlike temperatures, people were awestruck. But I wonder if the following incidents are because people didn’t realize what sun could do or because they’re just exhibiting an ignorance and negligence which is, in fact, criminal.

On July 4th an Alberta mother left her four-month-old baby alone in the car in Kelowna. The exterior temperature was 30 degrees Celsisus (86 Fahrenheit), so the interior would have been even hotter. When the RCMP broke the window to get the baby out the mother returned and proclaimed the baby was okay. Seriously, she may as well have left her baby amongst containers of toxic chemicals as well. In a half hour a car sitting in temperatures of 90 degrees F can reach 124F, hotter than most of us could stand. Babies can’t regulate their temperature.

Another incident yesterday had a mother leaving her three-year-old child unattended and locked in a hot car while she went into a nearby house. The exterior temperature was 25 degrees Celsius. It’s not just that it’s dangerous to leave any living thing in a hot car, it’s also highly irresponsible and against the law to leave a child that young unattended at all.

The third in a week was an RCMP officer leaving his young police dog locked in a car while he went fishing for three hours. Imagine how hot that car would get. And another puppy died because it was left in a car for three hours where the temperatures reached 68 degrees Celsius. That’s four incidences in one week, and one death.

I’d like to say that the RCMP officer should have known better, but really, everyone should. Just as we must have a license to drive or to marry I think it would not be a bad idea to have a license to parent or to own a pet. We’re dealing with lives here. Granted that half of the population has an intelligence below average (okay, it’s a sliding scale with many at the “average” range) but this isn’t intelligence; it’s common sense.

Besides never leaving a living being locked in a hot metal box for more than a few minutes, parents should not be leaving children alone, period. There are a range of dire events that could affect unattended children in homes or cars. Here are just a few:

  • heat exposure
  • cold exposure
  • suffocation
  • kidnapping
  • car being hit or brakes being disengaged
  • fire
  • choking
  • falling

These are not cautionary myths to scare children. These are real, and animals and children die from the negligence. All this while RCMP are still investigating the death of an 18-month-old child left alone in a house while the parents went for a walk at 1:30 am. Their heat had been cut off so they were heating the place by keeping the oven going. Still, the child should not have been left alone. Don’t people understand that the word “parent” means that you’re in charge and the caregiver? If a living being is left in your care you are responsible for its well being. Use your brains and think about the consequences of leaving them alone, or in a hot car, or in a swimming pool.

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The Grisly Quest For Body Parts

I’m working on a story that involves research into some ancient Christian practices. And I’m reminded yet again about the weird human penchant for bones.  When people die we either bury them in dirt or burn them. Some places like Cuba and New Orleans, which have little dirt due to high water tables, bury their people in above ground caskets where there is less chance of a body floating away or unpleasantly moldering in a hot climate. Most cultures inter their dead one way or another.

But along with the ritualistic aspects of burying the dead comes the adoration, idolizing and power of those people  who gained fame and notoriety.  Ancient Celts would save the heads of their enemies, as an honor to the fighter and for the power that would be imbued to them. Drinking from skull cups (kapala) has been done as part of ritual, to honor the defeated person, or for power to pass onto the drinker in Hindu and Buddhist cultures, Celtic, Chinese, Scythian, Rus, Bulgarian, Uzbek and even Lord Byron. Shrunken heads of the Amazon also fall into this except the skull bone was removed.

People have a grisly fascination with that which supports us but yet remains invisible until we die. Bones. The early Christian church was no slacker in this regard. Any body part of a sainted individual was ready for demolition and salvation in a reliquary. Finger bones, skulls, leg bones, you name it. If it could be found and sanctified the churches and monasteries would hang on to such a reliquary to make each of them special. Never mind that the vaunted saint might not rest easy when their bones were scattered far and wide. Funny that we’re very touchy about our dead getting proper rites and their remains being undistrubed…unless their saints. Then it’s a wholesale grabfest for every pious group.

Of course any place that boasted of owning the used hanky, holey sock, or toothpick of a saint would have a chance of getting more believers to view the grisly religious tourist attractions. Of course this wasn’t just the Christian religion, with the Vatican being the biggest repository of weird sideshow bits of dead people. Buddhists often used the skull cup and other beliefs have their body parts too.

Of all the prized possessions it seems people have sought the head most of all. Coinciding with this research I’m doing CBC was talking about the stolen heads of famous musicians like Beethoven and Haydn. It was a pretty popular sport in the 1800s to dig up a grave and grab the head of a famous poet or composer. In some cases the macabre quest was for science. What had made these people so great? In some cases it was for grisly rewards. Own the head of Marie Antoinette…yours for $100,000. And in some cases it was for that nebulous religious aura. I touched the finger bone of St. Peter and therefore I’m blessed, I’m closer to heaven, I will get that X that I prayed for.

Whatever the reason, we are similarly repulsed and drawn to aspects of the dead. Don’t look at a corpse, and  bury the bones, but oh wait if it’s got some power, well then I will touch it, look at it, revere it. Humans are very odd, at one point fearing everything to do with death and the dead and at the other end, eternally pulled to and fascinated by it. Look at vampire fiction. There is a crossover with the dead and the living; and zombies, though not as sexy as vampires, are definitely gaining mainstream time but usually in  a more campy way. But in the true essence of humanity our natures our dichotomized by our logic and our beliefs and I’m sure in the future we’ll continue to see body parts revered in some way or another.

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Honoring the Dead: All Hallows

It is the end of October, Hallowe’en, All Hallows Evening or Samhain (pronounced sow-ain). In Celtic and early European traditions Samhain was the ending of the year, the harvest had been collected and the cold dark days began. Fears that the light wouldn’t return and that nocturnal and supernatural creatures came into the fore of most people’s thoughts. It was the time of the dead, when the veils between the worlds thinned. Those who had died the previous year crossed over and those who were dead could come through to haunt or visit their kin.

As Christianity worked its way through Europe the day came to be known as All Hallows Eve, and that which was hallow, meaning holy or to be revered, was honored. Christianity brought in All Saints Day, following on November 1st. Mexico combined their traditions into Dias de los Muertos, the day of the dead. Throughout many countries, but not necessarily at this date but often in this time of year, is the tradition of honoring the dead. Even Remembrance Day falls in the dark time (if placed on that date for different reason).

And so it is, with this dark and cold time I have found I’ve been thinking about people who I’ve known who have died. Unfortunately the list gets longer but we keep them alive through memory and love.

There was John “Bear” Curtis, part Cherokee, 6’7″, an actor, known as being a grumpy bear, but lover of art, generous and spiritual. He was a pipe carrier, had completed the sundance, and created various crafts from amazingly detailed collages to sculptures, drums and rattles. Bear was, in size and personality, larger than life. His strong spirit kept him going for over a year, after the unhygienic procedures of the hospital infected him with C-Deficil. I honor Bear for having touched my life and given beauty to the world.

I remember Lydia Langstaff, a young writer, born with a congenital heart defect and not expected to make it past infancy. White-skinned, blue-veined, as delicate as porcelain, Lydia never complained that she could never fly or even take a flight of stairs. She wrote and persevered and finished a first draft of her novel before she died at 28 in her husband’s arms. I still have the draft of her novel, and cannot find husband or family, afraid to throw it out and not sure what to do with it many years later. I honor Lydia and it was she who taught to use each day as best you can, even if I don’t always fulfill that.

I remember Jay Herrington, a bright star, a beautiful man, a powerful priest. Intelligent and gifted, he made amazing crafts and was just beginning to find his pace. He was witty and funny and did an amazing drag queen, High Joan the Conqueror. He died in a vehicle malfunction and never woke from his injuries. I honor Jay for bringing light and reverence into my life.

I remember Gerry Stevens, opinionated, strong minded, honorable and loving life. He battled cancer quite well, living longer than most. Gerry was a compulsive gadget fiddler, taking things apart and putting them together, to see how they worked, to figure out new ways to make things. A thinker, he created and changed and stayed involved. Gerry died with his boots on, staying strong till the end and saying, if it’s not fun, don’t do it. I honor Gerry for teaching something about dying with grace.

I remember Geoffery MacLean, Mischka and Berek Ravensfury who all left too soon from disease, car accidents and mental anguish. None of them were perfect men, full of complex contradiction. But all of them were impassioned, caring about people. I honor these three for seeing that heart mattered most of all.

David Honigsberg I only met a couple times. He and his wife Alexandra were vibrant, intelligent, creative, alive. They struck me as two people who lived very rich lives and only enhanced the bright flame within each other. David died suddenly of a heart attack and I was shocked, thinking someone so alive could leave so suddenly. Jenna Felice was a young editor at Tor, a firebrand not afraid to state her opinion or grab at what she wanted. She was another bright star on her way to greater heights when she died from an asthma attack. It saddened me greatly to see such a flame extinguished so soon. I honor Jenna and David for their fire and fervor.

There are more, ones I knew well, or barely knew. There are those people I never knew at all. There is my cat Figment, who was unique, maybe as all cats and people are. Intelligent, skittish, loving, playful, mischievous, I still miss him. I honor him for the unconditional love and company he gave me for 14 years.

All those who touch us, great or small, young or old, furred or flesh become part of our lives. They may not be famous but they matter to others, are loved and love. Immortality happens in memory, in honoring those who have move through the path of our lives. This is the time that the veil thins, as those who have gone beyond pass through our memories. Honor your ancestors, your loved ones, your acquaintances for we are all part of the great whole.

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Bog People and Mummies

I’ve been fascinated with mummies since I was about nine. These husks of a former life, reamed, cleaned and packed were then embalmed, smeared with unguents, wrapped in yards of cotton and placed in several sarcophagi. They were sent well prepared into the next life with canopic jars for all the important organs, gold and jewels and food. What a amazing world. And some of those mummies, richer in death than you or I could be in life, continued to grow nails or hair.

Is it any wonder that these bodies, preserved for millennia, fostered a whole host of reanimated mummy movies? Disturb the grave, steal from the dead and they will come back to exact their curse upon your person. And they, like zombies, will be powerful, single-minded and unstoppable. There was a more romantic mummy in Anne Rice’s The Mummy but on whole they are unnatural forces of death or evil that try to destroy the powers of life.

It is that sense of disturbing the dead that spawned so many mummy movies, which is also the heart and soul of many belief systems. Most spiritual paths indicate that there is a transmigration of the soul at the time of death, that in fact we leave the corporeal vessel that can serve us no longer and that our ethereal, quintessential selves move on to another state of being. Whether that is heaven, reincarnation, or a great unknown depends on the belief.

So it is interesting that in all these belief systems, which of course have funerary customs for the dead, that there is sometimes more concern placed on the decaying corporeal remains than on the soul’s departing. Many people agree that the soul is what matters, that that person no longer inhabits the fleshy shell, so then why do we place so much emotion into something that no longer resembles the person we knew?

We see this over and over again, where someone was cremated but the family received the wrong ashes. That a nation’s people died maybe a century ago and for whatever reason the remains are in another country (or museum) and great efforts are made to get those people back. But it’s not a person any longer; what defines “person” is gone. It’s as if we all live a two-faced belief, one where we agree the soul is what matters and the other in which we cannot let the material aspects go, no matter whether they’re rotted, embalmed, ashes or missing.

Does the respect and superstition for the remnants of the dead extend only as long as there is someone who cares? Most likely, yes. It may be family or friends, or in some cases a nation asking for a great hero, artist or politician’s body to be returned. It might be an ancestral thing or something to do with spirituality. But how far back should such a re-appropriation of remains go? Should the primitive man found in an iceflow before there were nations be claimed by one? Should he be buried with dignity? Should he be used in research? Which religion presides over his burial (or cremation) when none existed when he was alive?

Sometimes such requests for very ancient remains have little to do with sentiment and emotion. Sometimes they are levers for politics whether to further a nation’s claim or to purport ongoing indiginities. (No one has said a thing about the two dried out husks that reside in the curio shop on the wharves of Seattle.) It’s hard to say what is right when you think of the millions (maybe billions) of dead over millions of years (yes, humans have been roaming the earth for a very long time). Not everyone is claimed or cared about and really, we’re talking about a husk of old flesh here. Don’t get me wrong. I live this conundrum too, believing that which made the person human and real dissipates at death.Yet I have a reliquary necklace with some ashes of a dead friend in it, even though I know that his soul does not reside there.

Which brings me from mummies to bog people. Bogs have a unique chemical balance that preserves organic materials far better than anything else. People who have died in bogs turn leathery, whereas most bodies will decay to just the bones. Even their fingerprints are noticeable, as well as the foods in their stomachs and intestines still being discernible. Clothing decays fast under most conditions but the bogs preserve fabrics indicating that these early peoples wore leather and woven wool. All of these things can tell us how people lived, what level their culture was at, what techniques they had and how they died.

Denmark has some of the most interesting historical bogs where clothing and bodies have been found. As well, the Netherlands, England and other places in northern Europe have bogs that hold snippets of history. A few years ago (2004) the Glenbow Museum in Calgary exhibited “The Mysterious Bog People.” I had a chance to see it where the lighting was low, but bright enough on the bodies. There were displays of jewellery and tools and reconstructed fabric from the original finds. Also, there were reconstructions of the heads of some of the bodies. The exhibit talked about where they’d been found, when they had lived, how old they were and what had probably happened to each person.

As with most bog finds, many people died violent deaths, stabbed or strangled or possibly drowned. It may be that they were robbed or that they were sacrificed in various rituals. In most cases their lives were cut short in a brutal and sudden way. After I saw the exhibit and mentioned it to someone she asked if it was right because it didn’t show respect for the dead. I found this odd as I knew her belief was the same as many people’s, that the soul leaves the body and the body nourishes the earth in an endless cycle. So I said, in fact they had gained more respect than they had in death, lying in a bog. They died a brutal death and were forgotten. Here they were remembered and we learned something of who they might have been. And that the exhibit as a whole wasn’t a spectacle so much as educational and even reverent in treating the people of long ago.

It is an interesting conundrum we have in many aspects of our lives. We know that it is love and relationships that matter most. Yet we continually grab and procure more goods. Many of us believe the soul leaves the body and that part is the person, yet we hang on to the rotting remains. I’m not sure why we do this, if perhaps we need something tangible to trigger our memories and sentiments, but it is an intriguing aspect of human customs. And it is through funerary customs that anthropologists can chart when civilization began.

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Who Watches the Watchmen: Police Investigating Themselves

Canada’s police have been going through the ringer lately and rightfully so. We have both civic police and the RCMP. In some cities and jurisdictions the RCMP are the only police force where there is no other policing body. They are spawned from Canada’s oldest police unit, the NorthWest Mounted Police (NWMP). They began with the fur trade, the frontier and the Gold Rush. There are romantic images of Mounties on their horses, dressed in the traditional red serge uniform with the brown stetson hat. They were considered noble and strong, and the Mounties “always get their man” was a tagline for years.

Now, a cumulation of mismanagement, inferior training, bad judgment calls and arrogance have come back to smack the force in the face. Their reputation has deteriorated so much in recent years that they are becoming a laughing stock. It didn’t help that they sold the copyright to their image to Disney. Yes, perhaps Mickey Mouse could do better in red serge.

What has lead to this now lamentable record and public scorn? There are several very public cases, the most notorious, that of Robert Dziekanski who was tasered to death at the Vancouver airport by four RCMP officers. Dziekanski’s biggest fault: he didn’t speak English and was confused from hours of being lost in the airport with inept handling from airport staff. And he picked up a desk stapler. The ensuing inquiry that wrapped up recently showed a farce of statements by the supposedly well-trained Mounties who should be able to resolve many situations with communication and not escalated violence.

Besides statements that contradicted the video footage (and without it Dziekanski would be dead and we would never have come close to the truth) the big, strong and supposedly fit officers feared for their lives and that of their fellow officers, because Dziekanski picked up a desk stapler. As I’ve said before, if these guys get scared so easily then they have no right being a police officer. And this statement, them fearing for their lives, is a crucial phrase that probably every RCMP officer ever investigated for a death at their hand has uttered.

Other notable cases were that of Kevin St. Arnaud, shot dead after being chased through a field and surrendering. The officer, a rookie, said St. Arnaud looked threatening and was overtop of him where he fell, when he fired. Witnesses (including 24-year veteran officer) and forensic evidence indicated the officer was standing and five meters away when he fired, and that St. Arnaud had raised his hands in surrender. The outcome: the officer was not found to have committed any wrongdoing.

The other case was Ian Bush, shot in the back of the head while in police detention. Again, it took place in northern BC and a rooky copy said it was self-defense because he was being choked. Yet Bush was shot in the back of the head, not the side or front. Forensic evidence and character witnesses didn’t match up to what happened. Yet again, the officer feared for his life.

These are just three cases that took place in BC, and rookie cops were involved in two of them But in all three a man died and the officers feared for their lives in questionable circumstances. And in all three, charges were not laid, though the Dziekanski case could still see charges brought against the officers because of its high publicity if nothing else. And in all three cases the police investigated their own.

There have been outcries of biased investigation, which the RCMP adamantly deny. Of course they would but the evidence stacks against them. Questionable outcomes, officers never found in the wrong and a system that perpetuates itself in negligence and inefficient training have knocked the RCMP down to little better than some criminals. Still, this is not the majority of officers, but bad and very notorious publicity hurts their image as a whole.

Some areas in Alberta use retired police officers to investigate deaths involving officers but even so, there is still the possibility of the police protecting their own and staying loyal to an ethic that has been passed down through the years. Having different officers from other regions investigate an event has the same problem. Sometimes junior officers have investigated senior officers, where inexperience will lend itself to abuse or misjudgment.

The recently completed report on RCMP self-investigation recommends “that serious cases involving sexual assault, death or serious injury cases should, in some cases, be turned over to outside investigators to ensure independence.” Absolutely. And though the RCMP are balking at some of these recommendations, there shouldn’t be a problem if an investigative body was set up. These situations are still relatively rare and no matter where a death or sexual assault happened in the province investigators could fly there within two hours.

It will be extremely rare where there could be two cases at once. The RCMP should welcome a nopartial investigation. As well, as I’ve said before they need to look at themselves and their training all over again. New drivers in BC have to display an “N” for a year or two and have certain restrictions. Perhaps rookies in the RCMP should have the same and not be allowed out on their own or maybe even carry a gun until they know how to handle themselves. (Ireland actually runs with no police officers carrying guns.) And some retraining in nonagressive means needs to be carried out. A friend who was once a police officer said that officers are not given much training in martial arts or even negotiation, which means they’ll often go for weapons before negotiation.

I hope the RCMP will see this as a way to buff up their now very tarnished image (especially in BC) and accept the recommendations gracefully. I hope they’ll look at retraining and extended training in peaceful negotiations and in disarming someone without escalating violence. And I hope they will be able to live up to the former image of being Canada’s finest and noble security force.

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Society and Death

We have moved into a period in this culture where death is not part of life, nor the every day. Although death continues to happen to young and old, ill and hale, through accidents, disease and murder, still we talk about it in an all-encompassing way but ignore it in the intimate of the every day.

There may be somebody who will say death is not part of life and for the person who dies, life indeed is no more part of them. But for those who know someone who has died, death is very much part of their lives. It used to be that in small communities, such as mining or fishing towns, when someone died they were laid out upon the table in the family home. A table is where people break bread, eat of the earth, communicate and come together, and it is a place big enough to lay a body. Where it will be cleaned and dressed by family members. A place where a person lays in state for people to pay their last respects before being taken to the church and then buried. Funeral parlors weren’t in every small town.

Death now is the last great taboo of the Western world. When someone dies, people have no idea what to say and so say nothing at all. They’re uncomfortable with the concept of death and avoid it like the plague. Veer around the person whose loved one has died, maybe send an innocuous card. A brave soul might say, I’m sorry to hear about your mother/brother/wife.

The griever is expected, after missing a few days of work, to act normal, to show no emotion that may be seen as sad, maudlin, angry, or grief-stricken. Crying is verboten. After all, people will feel edgy and avoid the grieving. So act like it’s life as normal.

The truth is, grief takes time. There is no set limit but it often takes a year to process through a person’s emotions. People who deny their grief and don’t go through the process can actually do physical damage to themselves. The storing up of such emotions, rather than releasing them through a natural process, can also affect the person’s psyche for the rest of their lives. Studies have shown that you can’t put off your grieving for too long, that there is a crucial period when the grieving should take place.

And yet our society tries to make everyone a stoic, free from any emotions except those that are uplifting and bright. By doing this, we cauterize ourselves from the full range of what it means to be human, effectively castrated from all but the most superficial feelings. You cannot have joy without experiencing pain. A constant state of euphoria cannot last and becomes the norm on which a person then judges bad or good, happy or sad. What would normally be sad becomes huge trauma and depression, with no end in sight to it.

I believe it is this unhealthy avoidance attitude that society has to death and negative emotions which have caused an increase in drug use, both recreational and with anti-depressants, to handle what once our bodies could do on their own. We have fewer ways to cope naturally and must go to the drugs. Drug addicts cannot find that constant euphoria so they hunt it in the addiction, afraid to face a life that encompasses happiness and pain.

And death–we can’t avoid it. It will happen. I never knew what to say to anyone when their family member or friend died. We don’t hug our coworkers, we don’t pat them on the shoulders. We maintain distance. We don’t wail at funerals and beat our breasts. And yet we should, for in those acts we express the grief that otherwise builds up in us. We have an outlet that lets us return to a healthy mentality faster.

I regret that when my sister-in-law’s parents died (at different times) that I didn’t know what to say and said nothing at all. How callous. How ignorant. It took the death of a friend for me to experience the grieving process and to understand how people can feel, and just how long it can take to think of that person without crying and feeling as if someone has crushed your heart. I began to understand that a person grieving can feel very cut off and alone, and as if no one cares.

It is almost like being shunned, when someone has to grieve. Letting a person or a community grieve publicly, sharing memories, talking about the person who passed can help. It validates the feelings and a person will recover faster from mourning if they are allowed to express themselves. And yes it can take a year or longer. I have only lost friends and that affected me greatly. I can’t imagine the depth of the pain and loneliness that their spouses felt.

We can all change this debilitating trend by not being so scared of death and the process that we pretend doesn’t exist. The TV show Six Feet Under took a black humor look at death, from the death that opened each episode to the dysfunctional and very real lives of the mortician family that dealt with their own issues and the mourners for the dead. It was an adventuresome show because it touched on death in a very real way that we shy away from. And the show was a hit; witty, tender, irreverent, strange and examining some aspects of life we would rather avoid.

Now, when I know someone who has lost a loved one, I try to let them grieve, to make sure they know it’s all right, to help them and to express my condolences so that they don’t feel isolated. It is the best way to make life more meaningful, by acknowledging the death of friends, family and coworkers.

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Canadian SF Giant Dies

Phyllis Gotlieb left the mortal coil on July 14. She is probably not a name known to many in the world of speculative reading yet she was known by many writers. She was a steady writer; though not as prolific like Rob Sawyer or Charles de Lint, she was in her own way a pioneer in the field.

Judith Merril was known as the grandam of science fiction and Phyllis as the mother of Canadian SF. She began writing and publishing when there were fewer writers in the field altogether and very few women. Canada was a pipsqueak next to the US, yet Phyllis was making her mark. She was a founding member of SFWA, and the only Canadian at its time of inception in 1965.

Phyllis began writing when science fiction wasn’t as popular as it is now, but was a fan of the early pulps. She was known for her poetry and during a writing block in the 1950s her husband suggested she write science fiction. She sold her first novel Sunburst in 1964 and the Sunburst award is named after Phyllis’s book.

Phyllis was known for her no-nonsense, wry wit and intelligence. She was an active member of SF Canada and has been quoted as being instrumental in encouraging such young writers in their careers as Robert Sawyer, Cory Doctorow and Sandra Kasturi.

It’s no easy thing to be a writer in a country with a small population, be a woman, and be writing in a field that wasn’t very popular, yet Phyllis was pretty much the first Canadian speculative writer published and continued unabated, publishing her last novel in 2009. Her matter of fact Valentine’s poems to her husband Kelly were often amusing and hilarious. She gave insights that made one think deeper and longer about topics and sometimes cut straight to the chase without the sugary coating.

SF Canada will miss Phyllis greatly, and I’m glad that we had a chance last year to award her with a Lifetime Achievement Award. Her contribution to SF and Canadian writers will be felt for a very long time.

Condolences and memorial messages can be added here: http://www.benjaminsparkmemorialchapel.ca/MemorialBook.aspx?snum=125855&sid=134769

An Interview with Phyllis from Challenging Destiny: http://www.challengingdestiny.com/interviews/gotlieb.htm

CBC’: http://www.cbc.ca/canada/toronto/story/2009/07/15/phyllis-gotlieb.html

The Sunburst Award: http://www.sunburstaward.org/

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The Death of Rock Stars

Untimely deaths in the world of entertainment may not be every day, but they are a little too common, and of course because these people are famous we hear of all the sensational aspects that went along with the death. Looking at three stars of the music world, we have Elvis Presley, John Lennon and Michael Jackson, to name a few but perhaps the most famous deaths.

Elvis made it to 42 and died from complications of obesity and drugs. His life of fame ate at him and like many stars, brought out the hollowness of always being in the spotlight and having money to satisfy every desire but a happy heart. His funeral was big and his grave still gets many fans at Graceland.

John Lennon, didn’t die by his own hand, but was shot down by a nut, at the age of 40 (and Lennon actually said in a interview that day that he would probably be popped off by a loony). I remember when he died and I was incensed that the local paper didn’t even mention it on the front page of the newspaper. But some deaths hit the front pages because they sell newspapers.Because Lennon had moved on from the Beatles to a new phase of his life, his death was big but probably not as big as Elvis’s though they had been contemporaries.

Michael Jackson made it to 50, so did relatively well of the three big stars. He too died from drugs, addiction and who knows what else. His funeral this week was a spectacle with rock and movie stars and the thousands who attended being chosen through a lottery. It was in one sense a big dead concert, with booklets being given out as souvenirs or mementos of his memorial.

Comparing funerals and the splash that any of these men made in death could be difficult. Even Sarah Bernhardt’s death in the 20s held a spectable. Jackson has died in the age of computers and internet, blogging and tweeting. That his death will have hit more media forms than any other big stars death is obvious. This will of course increase his impact on his fans, or the number of people influenced by him. On TV, there must be at least five stations with long, dedicated shows to dissecting Jackson’s life. Not to mention every news hour covered Jackson’s death in detail.

Although stars often do charity and public works, funneling some of the gross amounts of money they make into good deeds, they are not overall big on world impact. That often takes world leaders and the power of their countries behind them to make those changes. But the King of Rock n’ Roll, the King of Pop and the Fab Four were known for their music, for touching the hearts and souls of millions of people. On TV, in movies, on stage, they were more visible, more beautiful and more charismatic than our world leaders.

Is it any wonder then, that we idolize them, place them on pedestals and call them our modern gods? People must place their faith, hopes and dreams on someone. We may not all be famous but we can fantasize of these princes of music and try and dig into evey aspect of their lives. And we can hate them enough to pull them down or shoot them, should they show a flaw or just somehow be what we can’t be.

Michael Jackson, like Elvis and John Lennon, left a huge legacy. It will stay in the hearts and minds of people for a long time. It will be a hundred years or longer before they fade from memory. But other stars will rise and shine and burn brightly for a time, then fade. And amongst those supernovas, there will be millions of other stars, not so bright, but the lives of you and me and those around us who deserve attention and love while alive. The price of fame and fortune was that Elvis and Michael at least, sought drugs and were unhappy. So we, the little stars, should remember this and be happy that we have the ability to be obscure and not always in a spotlight that can singe us to the soul.

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Michael Jackson: Shooting Star

I grew up with Michael Jackson, or his music anyways. But that’s not hard to say for most of us. After all, when a career spans forty-five years, many people can say the same thing.

As the news rolled in, people and media have expressed their shock, that they were stunned. Sadly, I can say I was not. I have said that I expected that Michael would die an early death, like Elvis, than live to a ripe old age. I have called him a shooting star for years, for he is and was exactly that. A shooting star ascends high into the heavens, or so high up that everyone can see that light. But such a bright light eventually comes to an end. As opposed to a star that shines constantly and brightly for eons and then fades out at the end of a long lifetime, a shooting star seems all the brighter for its briefer lifespan, and that it will descend much quicker. The candle burned out long ago, to paraphrase Elton John.

That Michael Jackson was a brilliant musician and stage presence, the greatest pop icon of his time, is obvious by the number of albums he sold and the money he made. It’s irrefutable. That he lived a happy and normal life is arguable. The signs are not so hidden at all that Jackson was a troubled and unhappy individual. Like many of us, I’m sure he had his moments of happiness, but like many of us he was also unhappy with who he was. And he had the money to do something about it.

He was a good looking, handsome black child who grew to adulthood and was still attractive. Looking at those early pictures of Michael, you can see he is still black, his hair curly yet fashionable. Slowly his wide, broad nose, narrowed and narrowed again to the skeletal aberration that it became. I certainly hope that the plastic surgeon who mangled Jackson’s face doesn’t advertise that he did the great Michael Jackson. Of course, Jackson also had surgeries to change the shape of his jaw, his lips, his cheekbones, his eyes until the face does not resemble the earlier Michael Jackson at all. How much plastic surgery is needed for a burn of long ago? Not that much, I would think.

He took to straightening his hair, getting rid of any semblance to the negroid curl. And his skin turned white. It’s said that he suffered from a skin pigmentation problem, vitiligo. On white people this sometimes shows as a darker patch, or a pinker patch of skin. On black people, it shows as white or pinkish skin. This could possibly be true but any person I ever saw who had this condition, where the melanin starts to leave the skin, had it in patches, not an overall and even discoloration. Though it’s possible that he started with this and had a chemical depigmentation performed using monobenzone, to even out the skin tone. He also did not exhibit conditions of albinism, evident by the darkness of his hair and eyes. (The Philipines, as one example, sells many skin lightening soaps.) There are numerous ways listed on the internet on how to lighten your skin tone. Michael Jackson had the money, which gives you the means, to do this to the extreme. Perhaps it started as a pigmentation problem but I believe he went in search of being a white man.

These extreme examples of changing his body indicate how unhappy he was with who he had been born. And proves that money can’t buy you happiness. He was too famous to walk anywhere without being recognized, therefore negating his chances of having normal life experiences. As Michael grew farther away from a normal life (even as a child in a performing family he was more used to spotlight than to family life) it became more unattainable.

Where were the family and friends that could bring him back to center? His family wasn’t a good example as they all lived in the limelight to one degree or another as well. If Michael’s only friends were other stars (as often is the case) then they may have been his yes men, only telling him how wonderful he was, never saying, Michael you’ve gone too far. Or Michael, you’ve got to eat or you’re going to die. But if there were those who tried to balance Michael’s extremes, maybe he just didn’t listen. After all, he was rich and powerful in the music world.

Michael lived in fantasy palaces, with private zoos and was probably happiest when he took his creative genius into the realm of  music where he was an innovator and a leader. I was never that in to pop music but I would argue that there is no better music for teenagers, because pop music is catchy, upbeat and fast enough to engage a young mind. Yet Michael was seen as a god, not as a man. I’m sure he was a romantic icon for enough teens as well.

We have a tendency in our world today to put rock/music stars and movie stars upon pedestals. They are our modern gods. But we (people, the masses) are a fickle lot, that get bored too quickly and demand too much. If our gods slip up, we will pull them down, we ridicule them and we hate them for the fame and money and beauty that we cannot hang onto ourselves. We will pick at their every flaw and as their pedestal crumbles we will hack it to pieces.

And then Michael, the unfathomable recluse who invited children into his palace, was charged with child molestation. Whether true or not, such an accusation is devastating and scarring to the core. It could not do other to a man estranged from a normal life who could only live on the idolization of his fans. Even the supposed three children he had with the rather plain woman (who disappeared from the scene shortly after) were suspect. No matter how a man bleaches himself, or suffers pigmentation problems, they won’t transfer to his children. And black being more dominant than white would show in the features, yet these kids (the few pictures that exist) are more white than anything else, one especially being extremely white.

Michael Jackson’s life had become a circus, the star on its descent. The millionaire who owed millions. When I recently looked at a progression of pictures of Jackson through his life and I saw how thin he was (not just slim, but very thin) I knew he suffered an eating disorder as well. This fits in with someone so desperate to change into someone else. Anorexia starves the body on all sorts of levels. Not enough nutrients to feed the muscles or the organs and then those organs must work harder. Anorexics, unless they try to seek help and recover, often die of heart attacks when the strain on their hearts become too much. It really was inevitable.

Michael Jackson may have had other conditions too; it’s not clear. But one thing that is, is that he was fighting his body his whole life. To be so gifted and die so conflicted. Could most of us ever hope to shine so brightly? Could any of us fear to burn so painfully? I feel sad for his life, that he couldn’t have loved himself more. Michael Jackson joins the other shooting stars, the famous who died suddenly before their flame burned out naturally: Jimmy Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, River Phoenix, Princess Diana, John Lennon and many others.

Reports are saying that he died of a drug overdose or a cocktail of deadly proportions. Not really a surprise. Jackson was reportedly addicted to painkillers (Vicodin, Demerol, etc.)  since the face burning episode. Put on top of that, the numerous surgeries and his anorexia and you have a collapse just waiting to happen. A bit of a star’s standard way out, whether planned or accidental. This shopping list of pharmaceuticals does support my theory of a man disenfranchised and unhappy with the way his life continued to unfold. So he closed the book.

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