Should Odd Acquaintance Be Forgot: The 2017 State of the OTIS

December 31, 2017 — This year, I’m taking the State of the OTIS in a slightly different direction. I just want to talk about cool stuff—my favorite OTIS and OTIS-adjacent things of 2017. And that’s because talking about the year’s disappointments is, well, a bummer. So let’s get to it, in no particular order, other than #1.

1. Death and Douglas: Hands down so hard they turn red and swollen, my favorite thing about 2017 was this book getting published. That one event officially made me a novelist and a kid’s author. That's been dreams of mine since I was a teenager. D&D getting published also specifically represented the goal line of a seven-year journey from word one of that manuscript. So thanks, thanks, thanks, and thanks to everyone who picked up a copy. And to those who haven't yet, here's the inevitable link.

2. 2017 OTIS Halloween Season: The OTIS Halloween Season is a highlight for me every year. Period. Period with a little jack-o-lantern face in it. Not just experiencing the season, but also sharing it with you guys. And this year’s was an all-around great time—visiting Sleepy Hollow sites in Kinderhook, New York, seeing Kirk Hammett’s It’s Alive! exhibition in Salem, hitting up Haunted Overload and Nightmare New England, trying out the first ever Halloween Die-ary. Already miss that time of year.

3. Ten Years of OTIS: June 2017 was the tenth anniversary of this site. I wrote about that milestone already here, so I won’t belabor it—as much fun as belaboring is. You guys know what OTIS has done for me and the important part every one of you has played in it.

4. The Black House: This technically falls more under the “personal” category than OTIS, but we moved into a new house this year. I’m including it on the list because home is where the art is and it’s where I do all my writing, but also because it has cameos here and there on OTIS. Basically, this past year I’ve lived in an awesome house in an awesome spot that has done more for my peace of mind than the entire catalog of Simon and Garfunkel.

5. The OTIS Club: I’m completely indebted to my fellow OTIS Club Members. We are in week 83 of the OTIS Club, and we’ve more or less maintained our membership levels. We even survived a Patreon scandal together! It also helped me get to know some OTIS readers much more personally. These days, thanks to the weekly OTIS Club Newsletter (83 straight weeks!), I write as much for the club as I do for OTIS. Join us. Seriously. As little as a dollar gets you a membership card and one issue a month of the weekly newsletter, in which I way overshare about my life and oddity hunting in general.

6. UK Trip: We took some good trips this year—Charleston and Nova Scotia stick out particularly for me—but our UK trip was my favorite. I saw the Lindow Man. A crystal skull. Returned to Highgate Cemetery (where I saw Douglas Adams’ grave for the first time). Ate at an almost 1,000-year-old pub in a cave connected to the castle where Robin Hood is supposed to have been imprisoned. Stayed at a 13th century monastery turned hotel with its own pet cemetery. Little wonder I’m such an anglophile.

7. Guillermo del Toro’s “At Home with Monsters”: I wrote about my visit to this exhibition of the movie director’s private monster collection on OTIS, but it was probably my favorite oddity of 2017.

8. The Nightmare Before Christmas Storyboards: This year, I added a piece of one of my favorite movies to my collection—original storyboards from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Made a video about ’em here.

9. Getting an Agent: Signing with Alex Slater (Trident Media Group) this year was a big deal for me. So far we’ve spent our months together in 2017 mostly strategizing, as D&D stayed the main focus, but 2018 will see our partnership gear up in earnest. Already, having a partner like him in such a lonely field as book writing has been invaluable. Don’t tell him he’s on this list, though. He’ll leverage it against me.

10. Author-y Things: This year I wrote my first cover blurb for another author's book, received cover blurbs for a book of mine for the first time ever (including one from none other than Jay Asher), wrote an introduction to somebody else’s book, and spoke at a university, a writer’s conference, a national park, and a library. I’m inch by inch feeling like a real author.

With those being the highlights of 2017, I’m excited to see what 2018 is hiding. A lot on that list above I had no clue were going to happen going into last year. The new year certainly has the potential to be my best year ever, completely par for the course, or absolutely tragic. You know, like every year.

Thanks to everyone who hung out with me 2017, read something I wrote, attended a talk, bought a book, joined the OTIS Club, dropped me an email, or followed me on the socials. I really hope you stick around these parts. Wouldn’t be the same here without you.

Brrrrrrl Ives: ICE! Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

December 10, 2017 — Two million pounds of purified, colored ice. A troupe of master ice sculptors from Harbin, China, home of the mindbogglingly magical Harbin Ice Festival. One beloved, time-tested Christmas intellectual property. That was the formula that pulled me into Gaylord Resort’s ICE! at the National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Maryland in 2010. That IP was The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, and walking through the regulated nine-degree temperature space adorned in one of their signature pale blue parkas that you wear over your own coat and makes you feel Santa-sized while wandering and wondering with open mouth and frozen tonsils at the life-sized and larger-than-life brightly colored ice sculptures, completely immersed in the world of the Whos and the Grinch and Mount Crumpit, was as astounding an experience as this sentence is long. OTIS article here.

Enough so that when I had the opportunity to attend it again in 2014 (after four years waiting for my core temperature to return to normal), I dashed at it, to the top of the porch, to the top of the wall. This time it was for Frosty the Snowman, which despite the messy philosophical quandary the special shoves me down into every time I watch it, is still a show I really, really dig. OTIS article here.

And then I thought I was done with the event. It was great, but it was a great that I got. But then this year, I was in Maryland again during December, and the theme for this year’s Gaylord ICE! event was the Rankin/Bass Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, my favorite Christmas special of all time. For two reasons.

One, the Bumble. I love monsters. And I love Yetis as Christmas characters. And I love watching him get all his teeth pulled by freezing cold plyers at the tiny hands of an elf with bad leverage asking him over and over, “Is it safe?” Just kidding. That’s the only part of the show I hate. Well, that and Santa’s hypocrisy toward Rudolph.

But the other reason is my real reason for the season. The Burl Ives Snowman. I love that guy. I want him to be a recurring character in all of our Christmas mythology, not just this one special. Kind of like how Coke Santa and Rudolph got promoted at some point in the past and like how Krampus is currently getting promoted. Burl Ives Snowman is everything I love about intellectual property Christmas.

Seeing Burl Ives and the Bumble carved in colored ice at life-sized proportions was too hard for me to resist, so I talked my family into braving both a snowstorm and the Beltway to hit up the Gaylord Resort at the National Harbor.

The experience overall was the same as my previous ones, a big joyful crowd and an artificial cold so cold that exiting the refrigerated building into the 35-degree snowy outdoors felt like stepping into a warm air current. No hyperbole on that one. It really felt warm. Also, this time, I made a fool of myself on the ice slide when it turned out my posterior and/or my pants fabric weren’t ice-o-dynamic enough to let me slide, so I had to repeat an awkward, inching scoot 40 times to get to the bottom in front of about 50 people taking footage of their kids sliding with glee down the other slides—and, inadvertently, me.

But all of it was worth it for the glittering sculptures of stop-motion Christmas icons and the payoff for my kids of making them watch the special every night for the past week. They still were just in it for the ice slides, though.

But I saw my Bumble. And my Burl Ives Snowman. And Santa can take the rest of the year off as far as I’m concerned.

It’s a Dead Man’s Party: The Lindow Man and the Gebelein Man

“Do you know where the Lindow Man is?” the woman asked the British Museum staff member hesitantly. I was a few steps away and stopped with a squeak of boot rubber on polished stone tile when I heard the question. I totally understood her hesitancy. See, she’d just asked to see a dead body.

Here was the answer from the staff member. Imagine it in a thick British accent (I’ll write it as dropping the H’s, but there’s more to it than that): “I believe ’e’s on ’oliday. Feeling a bit under the weather.” For a second, my heart dropped. It wouldn’t be the first time an artifact I came to see was off gallivanting in a traveling exhibition or pulled from display to undergo a years-long preservation in some off-limits back room of the museum.

But then the man winked and said, “Follow me.” The woman did, and so did I, albeit ten steps back. I have less courage than her when it comes to inquiring about dead guys. Even if he was the number one reason I was at the museum. Possibly number two. The museum also has a crystal skull.

Turns out, asking was probably the right thing to do as said dead body was on display in a corner, facing away from the rest of the room. I could have walked right by it.

And then I would have missed one of those most famous bog bodies in the world.

Bog bodies, besides being an exquisite exercise in alliteration and vivid evocation, are ancient corpses dredged from peat bogs, mostly in northern Europe. The unique combination of chemical elements, environmental structure, and flora that makes up these bogs can preserve bodies for thousands of years in fine detail, down to hair and facial features and clothing.

Bog bodies are basically naturally occurring mummies of the sort that for some reason Hollywood hasn’t made 500 horror movies about (Bog Body 7: For Peat's Sake, starring Eric Roberts and Elisabeth Shue).

The Lindow Man himself was found in Lindow Moss in Cheshire, not too far from Liverpool and Manchester. That was back in the halcyon days of 1984. A peat company was divvying up the bog and its cutters came across him.

Now, 33 years later and after some freeze-drying, he’s in a waist-high glass case in the corner of one of the most auspicious museums in the world, resting on a bed of stony mulch.

My first impression of the Lindow Man was that I was looking at a deflated person. A puppet prop discarded after a movie production. As set of sloughable skin that missed the laundry basket by a few feet. That’s because, as with most bog bodies, elements in the bog had assimilated his calcium. It makes your body eternal, but requires your bones in exchange. Not a bad deal.

He was only complete from the waist up, plus a detached leg from the knee down. He was a yellowish-brown, like he’d been rinsed in coffee. But his face was almost clear enough to recognize in a crowd. You could see the curve of his ear and the beard on his chin, the interplay of cheek and forehead and nose. In fact, there’s enough left of him for scientists to guess a good amount about him.

The Lindow Man died in his mid-20s, was about 5’7”, and is naked except for a fox-fur armband and a loop of animal sinew around his neck. Because of his young age, seeming health, and the wounds on his head and neck, experts hypothesize that he was murdered. So possibly the peat bog was a place to dispose of the body.

Not a bad bit of forensics for someone who died 2,000 years ago.

Fun fact: There is also a Lindow Woman. Only her head was preserved, but she was found the year before her male counterpart. She helped solve a modern-day murder. The head was so well preserved that police thought it was the remains of a woman who had gone missing in the 1960s. They used it as evidence to confront her husband, who then confessed. When later it was learned the true nature of the head, the powers that judge decided the confession was strong enough to stand on its own. The world is a strange place.

I initially thought the Lindow Man might be displayed as he was to shield people of more delicate sensibilities and/or stronger beliefs about the display of dead bodies in museums. But then I met the Gebelein Man, another naturally occurring mummy, who was more brazenly displayed in the Egyptian wing.

That’s right. There, surrounded by the purposefully and intricately preserved bodies of one of the more death-obsessed cultures the planet has spawned, was an accidental mummy. Instead of getting an ornate sarcophagus, he’s naked and contorted and displayed in a cube of glass on the floor.

The Gebelein Man was a red-haired youth who died in his late teens or early twenties 5,500 years ago. He was discovered in 1896 and thought to have lived near the Nile a little south of Thebes. His mail has been forwarded to the British Museum since 1901.

And while this mummy was preserved by the hot sands of the African desert as opposed to the mushy moss of the European wetlands, the Lindow Man and the Gebelein Man have something in common besides being accidental artifacts: The Gebelein Man was also a murder victim.

According to experts, one of his ribs and his shoulder is damaged in such a way as to suggest a stab wound from the back. They go even further to suggest that since they can find no defensive wounds, it was possibly a surprise attack. The evidence was then buried in the sand, inadvertently providing the opportunity for us to conjecture about thousands of years later as we stare down into his environmentally-controlled glass case at his desiccated form.

Whether it’s the Lindow Man surreptitiously displayed or the Gebelein man unabashedly so, I get the same feeling from each of them as I get every time I see a dead body in a museum: I hope that thousands of years in the future, my fate is similar. You know, minus the murder part.