“an unknown compelling force should be considered the cause of the hikers’ deaths” – Lev Ivanov
On January 23, 1959 nine young, experienced hikers who loved adventure went on a passage near the elevations of what was named “Dead Mountain” in the Ural Mountains. The team actually had 10 hikers, one who happened to be forced to return due to his health on February 2nd. On the 12th of February when the team did not return as expected, a rescue team was sent out to retrieve them. When the rescue team found all 9 corpses, they found the bodies in a very odd situation. Some of the bodies were completely stripped down, one of the young women was missing her tongue, and one body was highly radioactive. The team leader’s name was Igor Dyatlov (1936-1959) and so the name “The Dyatlov Pass” was used when referring to the mystery surrounding the young hikers. I watched a mini-documentary on YouTube as well as one of Caitlin Doughty’s Morbid Mystery videos on this topic, and I wanted to learn more. I picked up this book by Donnie Eichar published in 2013 by First Chronicle Books and I was quite delighted in the amount of passion and research that Eichar conducted on this topic. He left the United States to not only investigate what tangible information can be pieced together about this mystery, but he also wanted to speak to the one ‘survivor’ Yuri Yudin, as well as family and friends of the nine deceased hikers. Eichar pieces together this mystery and almost allows readers to figure it out alone, by presenting the facts.
Eichar interviews everyone possible, he reads the hikers’ diary which was logged by one of the young women to track their journey, he looks at the forensic analysis, and tries to give as well-rounded a character analysis of each of the hikers from what could have been known about them. Keeping in mind that this was in pre-social media and pre-internet era, and these hikers were only university students, it truly is impressive how much information Eichar was able to piece together. He also had a Russian-English translator with him to help with each one of the interviews, and tangible information. At the end of the book he offers two timelines: the hikers’ timeline as he understands it day by day, and the rescue team’s timeline. He also offers a re-imagining or “recreation” of February 1, and the early morning hours of February 2nd, using the diary entries, weather reports, and expert scientific opinion on what he believes really happened that night.
There is a lot to unpack from this mystery and I think Eichar does a wonderful job. I think telling too much of what I learned would be, in a way, spoiling the book, if you are interested in reading it. I personally found it scarier than most fictional horror books. Some of the siblings describe the state of the corpses when they saw them, and four corpses were so mutilated they had to be in a closed casket for the funeral procession. If description of such things make you feel uncomfortable, perhaps just watch one of the two videos I mentioned and linked above.
If you like reading Jon Kakauer’s books you would probably enjoy this one (both scared me a lot). It’s journalistic and research-based, but it’s also surrounding a real story with adventure, and nature in it. I thought it was well-written and it kept my attention the whole time. I also appreciated all the attached images, and maps, and the way it was structured. I think as of right now, this is perhaps the most we can ever know about the Dyatlov Pass.
In 2013 an adaptation loosely based on this tragedy (Devil’s Pass) came out featuring a very “science fiction meets horror” take on the story. It really helps to have so many perspectives on this hike and be able to appreciate the horrors of a true story.
“A woman came to the funeral home looking for a job as a funeral director. When I learned that her dog’s name was Rigor Mortis, I hired her.”
The Life of Death is a memoir written by Ralph R. Rossell who is the owner and funeral director of the Rossell Funeral Home in Flushing (a small town near Flint, Michigan with a population of approximately 8,400 people).
In this work Rossell narrates how he got the family business, and explains terminologies in the death industry from embalmment to caskets, and everything in between. This work is autobiographical and part memoir, part-anecdotes, part non-fiction.
First and foremost I appreciated Rossell’s honesty. Knowing he is a funeral home director I expected him to try and emphasize the goodness of purchasing certain caskets or to hide the ways in which the market profits off of people’s grief. For instance, when it comes to purchasing a casket he writes an entire chapter and in it he says:
“Purchasing a casket can be stressful because it enforces the finality of life…In mortuary school, our casket-sales training course lasted about two minutes. Our instructor walked into the classroom and told us that the way to sell a casket is to go to the casket you want to sell and put your hand on it. Supposedly, this would lead the client to purchase that particular unit; that was it. Thus, the task of training a funeral director in the sale of caskets was left to the middle man: the casket salesman.”
For me personally, this way of laying out facts even if they are ‘secrets of the trade’ or ‘gimmicks’ makes me respect the writer, because I can see that he is not trying to hide anything or convince people that certain companies are better than others, or that one should be obliged to embalm etc. I refrained from looking at what his funeral home offers in terms of eco-friendly services, or options, because as a book reviewer I want to look at this work as literature and judge it only as such.
Aside from the above-mentioned, the main contents of the book brings forward something new, and I enjoyed it immensely: the community. This book is about people. Each short chapter/section focuses on a different anecdote from the 45 years Rossell has worked in the industry. He highlights the humour that can be extracted from concentrated time spent with grieving people in a stressful time. Reading this book felt like I was observing different behaviours and takes on grief, and like I was present to many funerals, which was incredibly humbling and pleasant. The ‘pleasant’ part is a personal investment in the topic, and perhaps other readers will have a different experience. I don’t want to say he puts the “fun” in “funeral” but…kind of. To clarify, he is by no means at any point disrespectful. Rossell acknowledges many times how troubling a time it is when someone passes, and how devastating it is to the remaining living people, but each funeral brings its own story. Sometimes the people don’t fit in the coffin, sometimes no one shows up, sometimes there are very strange requests made, by both the living and the dead. Each of these stories is short, and Rossell extracted the main points of what made them memorable, which makes this book a great read. As a reader I was also able to feel the small-town lifestyle, and the spirit of the small Flushing community.
I read many books on death, funerals, and the funeral industry in the last few years, but this is the first one that uses anecdotal evidence to bring forward the experience of being present at a funeral, and how the people in a small community deal with death. It was a very interesting read, and I have to say, I was quite impressed with the humour levels given the heaviness of the topic. I think when you are in this industry, you simply must have a great sense of humour, or at least be able to see it through the darkness in order to make it out yourself. I received an eARC from the publisher on Netgalley, but I am certainly going to get a hard copy of this book. I will leave you with Rossell’s own concluding words:
“And remember I am the last to let you down”
October has been quite the month for me! I started a new job, which allows for the listening of Podcasts whilst working–which is perhaps the greatest job perk ever! I wanted to fully immerse myself in the spirit of October, Halloween, and the eerie supernatural forces of Victober.
I spent most of my month listening to Lore by Aaron Mehnke. I realize, that like with Night Vale, I am a little late to the party. I get happy when I’m late to a good party though, because I have the opportunity to binge-hear, binge-watch, and binge-read–fully immersing myself in the experience. The podcast features in each episode a mysterious occurrence in history and traces what we know of it from reliable sources. Unsolved mysteries, murders, or the history of mythical and folkloric creatures and stories. The podcast has just been turned into a mini-series on Amazon Prime Video (on Friday the 13th in October), and into a book deal. The first one: The World of Lore: Monstrous Creatures by Aaron Mehnke has already been released on October 10th, and the second one The World of Lore: Wicked Humans has been announced for release for May of next year. The podcast was given the award for the “Best History Podcast” in 2016.
Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and From Here to Eternity
Like with Lore, I recently discovered Caitlin Doughty in a different format: on YouTube. Her channel, Ask a Mortician is absolutely wonderful and I binge-watched five years of uploads in under 10 days. She is a mortician, founder of The Order of the Good Death, writer of two books, and leader in the natural burial community. I had my first author spotlight featuring Caitlin Doughty and I went into more details on all the places one can find her, all the formats, and brief summaries of her two books on death. Link HERE.
The strangest part, with both Lore and Doughty’s works, is that one common theme runs through both: the scariest stories are true and most often done by people…which makes for a very thematic October.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
This was a re-read for me but I picked it up for Victober as my “Scottish Writer” entry. The first time I was shocked at how small it was. It’s currently in the public domain and accessible via Project Gutenberg if you want to read it in a sitting. This tale begins with a Mr. Utterson who is trying to figure out a ‘mystery’ –word in town is that a Mr.Hyde is behind it all. He calls upon one close friend Dr. Jekyll to help with the case. I think I enjoyed this the first time a little more than now. It’s atmospheric, and certainly a treat for October, but the execution of it could have been better. I think Stevenson tapped into something incredible with the dual personality, and the term in itself is so prevalent now that ‘the spoiler’ is already known before one can sit down with the novella properly. I did come across a very well-written article from Tor.com on “What Everybody Gets Wrong about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” where Steven Padnick states that not only should Hollywood understand that Hyde is not a separate entity, but:
Jekyll did not create a potion to remove the evil parts of his nature. He made a potion that allowed him express his urges without feeling guilty and without any consequences besmirching his good name. That’s also why he names his alter ego “Hyde,” because Hyde is a disguise, to be worn and discarded like a thick cloak. He might as well have called Edward “Mr. Second Skin,” or “Mr. Mask.”
Another explanation is that Stevenson was tapping into what we now know to be Dissociative Identity Disorder (Borderline Personality Disorder) a little ahead of his time–seeing it as a different manifestation than other kinds of illness.
Poetry (Everyman’s Pocket Library) by Emily Brontë
Emily is my favourite of the Brontes and I always wished there were more novels written by her in addition to Wuthering Heights. Emily Bronte’s poetry was published in her lifetime under the pseudonym of ‘Ellis Bell.’ She often wrote poems located in fictional Gondal (similar to Tolkien’s Middle Earth verses). Gondal was a shared fiction between Anne and Emily, but Emily dedicated more of her time and poems to it. This collection incorporates some of the Gondal poems, but also her works more philosophical in nature.”The Old Stoic,” or “Death” touch on important themes like wisdom, and grief with such elegant usage of the English language. Her verses are like a maze the reader must navigate, and ready to be fragmented and dissected, branching off like Plath’s fig tree vision. I found her poem “Hope” very reminiscent of the more famously known (yet later written) Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is the thing with feathers” Here’s an excerpt from Bronte’s:
Hope was but a timid friend;
She sat without the grated den,
Watching how my fate would tend,
Even as selfish-hearted men.
I created a “Hope Poems” PDF with both poems on it, if you would like to see them side by side. I also linked them all above if you click on the titles. Two contemporary, single, strong Emilys separated by an ocean, writing poems about hope. Beautiful. This was also a Victober choice. This was chosen for a work with few reviews on Goodreads. It had 170 when I selected it.
The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon
I didn’t plan to read this book, but someone told me it would be scary or spooky so I took a chance on it. I read parts of it in the text, and most of it via audiobook at work. It was good company. For the synopsis I had to copy/paste the one from Goodreads because it’s told really well:
“West Hall, Vermont, has always been a town of strange disappearances and old legends. The most mysterious is that of Sara Harrison Shea, who, in 1908, was found dead in the field behind her house just months after the tragic death of her daughter, Gertie. Now, in present day, nineteen-year-old Ruthie lives in Sara’s farmhouse with her mother, Alice, and her younger sister, Fawn. Alice has always insisted that they live off the grid, a decision that suddenly proves perilous when Ruthie wakes up one morning to find that Alice has vanished without a trace. Searching for clues, she is startled to find a copy of Sara Harrison Shea’s diary hidden beneath the floorboards of her mother’s bedroom. As Ruthie gets sucked deeper into the mystery of Sara’s fate, she discovers that she’s not the only person who’s desperately looking for someone that they’ve lost. But she may be the only one who can stop history from repeating itself.”
It was okay, but it really wasn’t for me. I thought it would be a lot spookier (because you know…Halloween) but it wasn’t all that scary or spooky. The dialogue was a bit off too. I’m not sure what else to elaborate on because I would spoil it.
Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire
This is one of my favourite plays of all time, and I wanted to revisit it this October and find out what it is that I love about it so much. I took my time, and ended up writing a very spoiler-filled review in more detail. HERE is a link to it if you’d like to read more about it.
Long story shortened: a glimpse into the life of a young couple currently mourning the loss of their four year old son. Becca and Howie are both grieving in different ways and have a hard time understanding the other. Family members and friends are waling on eggshells around them. Lastly, the teenage driver who accidentally killed their son tries to reach out and communicate with them. He is an equally complex character.
Books I’m currently in the middle of but will not finish by the 31st
- I’ve been reading The Light Between Oceans as a buddy-read so we are only doing about 5 chapters per week.
- I watched the HBO show and I have a few unanswered questions, so I am reading Big Little Lies. Really enjoying the book and finding many differences between the two formats. I will try to read more of Moriarty.
- My non-fiction October-themed book is The Witches (Salem, 1692). It’s taking a bit longer than i anticipated it would. I may actually finish this by Halloween. We will see.
- I recently discovered Geza Tatrallyay, an author who is incredibly gifted. I’m reading his collection of poems Cello’s Tears. A full review of this work will follow.
“Rabbit Hole is not a tidy play. Resist smoothing out its edges” – David Lindsay-Abaire
I’m not really sure where to begin with Rabbit Hole. I loved it so much. This play was written by David Lindsay-Abaire, published in 2007, and yes, that makes it 10 years old right now. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2007 and in 2010 was turned into a film featuring Nicole Kidman in the leading role. I really want to discuss the details of this play, and figure out what it is that I love about it—in doing so, I will most likely spoil the play for you, so if you want to read it without spoilers, I suggest you don’t read ahead on this blog post. Consider yourself warned.
Rabbit Hole is told simply, but contains a complex narrative with complicated relationship dynamics. Beeca and Howie are two young parents who have just lost their 4 year old son Danny. Danny chased the dog into the road and got hit by a teenage driver. This play is a glimpse into their daily life several months after the tragedy and the ways in which they cope with it. Howie likes to constantly celebrate Danny’s life and look at home-made videos of him, and he needs to talk about it so he goes to support groups. Becca on the other hand can’t stand the constant reminders of Danny in the house. She wants his fingerprints gone from the windows, his drawings off the fridge, the dog away from the house, and eventually to move out. Howie on the other hand loves all those things in the house. Above all, Becca refuses to talk about it with anyone. The subtle ways these things come up are shown in the little interactions Becca and Howie have with extended family, neighbours, and friends. While others tiptoe around them and either avoid them completely or try to be extra sensitive and offer advice, Howie and Becca feel awkward around them. Advice is transparent, and ‘relatability’ goes right through them because no one grieves the same way. The worst is when people try to draw comparisons between what happened to them personally when they encountered death, and what is happening to Becca and Howie now. On the other hand, Becca gets irritated by little things, like seeing a mother ignore her child at the grocery store when he asked for candy (a fruit roll-up). The lady’s parenting style got to Becca. She wanted to grab her and tell her to appreciate her child while he is there, not take him for granted, and explain why he can’t have the candy, rather than ignoring him. Becca sees Danny everywhere in the details of her home and wishes she could just ignore the details and the memories, but this woman is purposely ignoring her living, breathing child.
The play takes a turn when the character of Jason is introduced. Jason is seventeen years old and was the driver who ran over Danny. He wants to talk to Becca and Howie. He tries to reach out several times. The first time is by means of a letter and in it he encloses a science fiction story he wrote about parallel universes, which he dedicates to Danny. The story is called Rabbit Hole. The first time we see Becca truly discuss her grief and have a good cry about it is in the presence of Jason. Jason is intriguing to her, because he seems equally broken. There are a few parallels between Jason and Danny, and (in my opinion) Becca looks at Jason as what Danny might have become if he was given the chance to grow up. For one, Jason draws a few parallels between him and Danny in the letter by referencing robots and how he too liked them as a child. Danny’s favourite book was The Runaway Rabbit, whereas Jason writes Rabbit Hole. It was so strange to me the first time I read this, and even when watching the movie, that Becca loses her temper with everyone else except the person who actually killed her son. We get only glimpses into Jason’s life but we know that he is broken by what happened, that he’s trying to be normal and can’t and has a desperate desire to have a different life. He contemplates parallel universes, because he likes to think that there is a world where he didn’t kill Danny. One can also look at Rabbit Hole as a direct reference to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, as it being a portal into madness for everyone involved.
There are two other characters constantly present. The first is Izzy, Becca’s irresponsible sister who gets to be pregnant and one can sense that Becca feels like Izzy doesn’t deserve to be a mother—Izzy feels that judgement herself. The second character is Nat, Becca’s mother. She too had lost a son, Becca’s brother, who killed himself at the age of 39. He was a cocaine addict. Whenever she tries to compare the loss of her son, with the loss of Danny, Becca shuts her up right way. She can’t stand comparison. Most importantly, she can’t stand the thought that a 39 year old man who self-harmed and lived a “sinful life” can be compared to, or be the same as an innocent four-year-old.
Lastly, I was taken aback by the author’s note at the end of the play. He is very direct about his instructions to future actors, but in it he reveals just a little more about Jason’s character. He writes:
“It’s a sad play. Don’t make it any sadder than it needs to be…if the stage directions don’t mention tears, please resist adding them…I KNOW Jason shouldn’t cry, ever. (Yes, he’s haunted by the death of Danny, but his emotions aren’t especially accessible to him…please, no choked-up kids openly racked with guilt. That’s not who he is. Restraint, please.)”
I am completely astounded at how David Lindsay-Abaire managed to pack so much depth, detail, and complexity while using such simple dialogue. No one talks too much—the longest being maybe two sentences at a time. The interactions are brief and subtle, but carry with them a back story. It’s rivaling Hemingway’s style (particularly in his short stories), and dare-I-say, I think I enjoy Rabbit Hole more. There is so much to discuss. I wish I could go into the details of parallel universes and their significance, the backstory we can piece together for Jason, the potential affair Howie had, the differences in the ways all these characters grieve, attempts at healing, and the ending of the play slipping into normality. There is so much to discuss, and I think this play is so important. If they ever stop teaching A Streetcar Named Desire in schools, they should replace it with this one. This was a perfect 5-star play for me.
“The Order is about making death a part of your life. That means committing to staring down your death fears- whether it be your own death, the death of those you love, the pain of dying, the afterlife (or lack thereof), grief, corpses, bodily decomposition, or all of the above. Accepting that death itself is natural, but the death anxiety and terror of modern culture are not.” – The Order of the Good Death
Caitlin Doughty is one of the most wonderful women I stumbled upon on YouTube, and I am so glad I did. Since I was five years old, I’ve had many encounters with death. Born and raised in Romania, open casket funerals and three-day wakes in the home are followed by so many practices that I can say I was very much involved with the handling of many human corpses from death to burial. Washing the corpse, preparing food and serving it to more than half the town, kissing the corpse’s forehead, guarding it night and day for three days, and covering all the mirrors in the house in a black shroud for the whole time the corpse is in the house were all perfectly normal requests in rural Romania. Most importantly, death was (and is) very much a part of daily conversation. In the West however, bodies are hidden and even worse: death is hardly discussed. I constantly feel like a morbid weirdo (in Canada) talking about something that had been a huge part of my childhood and the many ways in which it confronted me to question my life, and prepare for my inevitable death. When I encountered Caitlin Doughty on YouTube it was like meeting a long-lost friend.
Doughty was born and raised in Hawaii and after witnessing a death at the age of eight she became fascinated with the topic. She studied the medieval period at University, and after attending mortuary school, apprenticed at a crematory in Los Angeles. Becoming more and more familiar with the practices of embalming, cremation, and funeral practices in America, Doughty began to notice some red flags regarding the funeral industry. Funeral home directors taking advantage of mourning family members by pushing upon them caskets worth thousands of dollars (all to make money of course, and so the people cutting the grass don’t have to go over uneven ground), pushing embalming practices, as well as presenting these topics in a light that make the remaining family members believe it is legally enforced. Imbuing bodies with toxic chemicals, and incorporating them in non-biodegradable caskets have damaging consequences for the environment. In addition, taking bodies away and hiding them from the moment of death hardly allows the family to process the death of a loved one. Lastly, people disengaged from discussion about and around death live in a constant dread. Thinking of human remains boxed in a rigid casket six feet under as a possibility (at least for me) is really quite frightening.
When I heard that one could be buried in a pod in fetal position organically decomposing beneath a tree–it was the first time I got excited about my death (weird to say out loud). Just the thought that with my body I could nourish the Earth, and live in a different form in a ‘Sacred Forest’ makes me happy. But not just me, ‘many’ according to Caitlin want to become trees and have an organic death in different forms. She gave two TED Talks focusing on The Corpses that Changed My Life (which in text format–with far more details–became Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Other Lessons from the Crematory) and most recently: A Burial Practice that Nourishes the Planet which is a summary of what she now encourages: a natural burial. Caitlin herself repeats that what she is suggesting is not ‘her idea,’ ‘new,’ or ‘an invention’ because it’s a practice that has been done in different forms all over the world, and in history. She now works on advocating for an environmentally friendly burial, a burial practice that respects the wishes of the dead person, and most importantly on educating the public about their options, their rights, and the opportunities available. Doughty became the founder of The Order of the Good Death. If you click on the title you can find more about it from the website itself, run by a large team advocating for educating the public on ‘the good death.’ There are links there that can lead you to other books written on topics like ‘death,’ or ‘ghosts’ which are academic in nature. Caitlin’s YouTube channel “Ask a Mortician” is absolute gold! In videos ranging from 4-10 minutes Doughty tackles topics like “What happened to the dead bodies on Everest?” “How is Vladimir Lenin’s Body Preserved?” or “What’s the deal with La Pascualita?” — seriously I binge-watched 5 years of YouTube in a week.
One of my favourite lines in her book is this:
“In many ways, women are death’s natural companions. Every time a woman gives birth, she is creating not only a life, but a death. Samuel Beckett wrote that women “give birth astride of a grave.” Mother Nature is indeed a real mother, creating and destroying in a constant loop.”
The support from viewers of her work for The Order of the Good Death on Patreon, and encouragement from a large number of people reading her first book, motivated Doughty to travel to several countries, and some American States to learn about their burial practices–Indonesia, Bolivia, and California among them. On October 3rd of 2017 her book From Here to Eternity was published by W. W. Norton & Company. In this book, Doughty dedicates a chapter to a different location and examines how the role of death fits into the larger conversation, how burial practices are carried through, and how/what we can learn from them.
The book is accompanied by wonderful illustrations executed to perfection by Landis Blair. His artwork is dark and highly atmospheric. Blair himself is a member of The Order of the Good Death.
If you are fortunate enough to live in the United States, Doughty will be going on a book tour very soon, and the dates have been listed HERE. If you are near one of them I highly encourage you to go. I must emphasize that no one asked me to review this book or promote Doughty, this is what I would genuinely recommend, and what I genuinely enjoy/believe in. I am grateful that people like Doughty exist. I highly recommend her books, her YouTube channel, and her message.
I will close off as Doughty always does on her channel:
“and remember: you WILL die.”