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Monday, May 14, 2018

To Wrestlemania and Back: A New Orleans Journey-Part 1


The idea came, as grand ones often do, after the drinks began to take hold. My girlfriend and I were drinking what could fairly be described as an excessive amount of alcohol for a Monday night, while watching the extremely appropriately-titled WWE Monday Night Raw. We had been discussing the possibility of going on vacation soon, when serendipitously enough, a commercial advertising the upcoming WrestleMania event howled across our television screen. Held in New Orleans, a city we both had long desired to visit, could this event be the unlikely inspiration for our next adventure?
Long story short, yes. The plan was simple: we would spend a week in the Big Easy, starting with WrestleMania and moving on to sight-seeing, exploring, drinking, eating, eating and eating over the course of the following days. And so, mere weeks later, we departed a gloomy, drizzly San Francisco and headed down south.
Our flight was largely uneventful, save for the child behind us who found great amusement in repeatedly saying "Ahhhh! The plane's gonna crash! We're all gonna die!" On the other hand, I experienced joy in its truest form when the flight attendant informed me that my canned Moscow Mule would be complimentary. A more encouraging omen I cannot imagine.
The plane landed in Louisiana amidst much the same weather we left in. If one were judging purely on atmospheric conditions, they could be forgiven for thinking we had never left our home state. But the sudden abundance of pralines and hot sauce at every airport kiosk made our arrival in Cajun Country undeniable. The plethora of massive WWE advertisements all over the walls and columns served as an electrifying reminder that we were less than twenty-four hours away from a sports entertainment spectacle for the ages! Or so we hoped. In any case, first thing was first: we needed to find our hotel.
I was every bit the gawking yokel during the cab ride into the city, pointing out pipes and buildings like they were ruins of a Martian civilization. "Look, it's a Michael's!" I said at one point. "Just like where we live!"

We arrived at our hotel during a break in the rain, and the receptionist immediately surmised that we were in town for WrestleMania (a dubious honor, perhaps) and scoffing at my half-joking desire to take a nap. "This is the Vegas of the South!" she said. "Get outta here with a nap." And fittingly enough, we soon did have to get outta there, because we were in the wrong hotel. We had foolishly mistaken the Courtyard Marriott Near the French Quarter for the Courtyard Marriott French Quarter, and the price we paid was a few blocks' walk that exposed the wheels on our suitcases to things no wheels should experience. Still, our detour gave us a chance to get a sense of our new surroundings, see a number of obvious fellow WWE fans walking the streets, and FINALLY catch a goddamn Corsola in Pokemon Go.
Our actual hotel was a comfortable retreat with the odd feature of its only window looking out into the hotel itself rather than outside. Though this was admittedly jarring initially--I didn't expect to see a twenty-something man drinking Mountain Dew outside the window when I first drew back the curtain--it was a bug that became a feature by offering perhaps the truest blackout curtains I've ever seen. Time became malleable as, so long as Sheila and I were physically within that room, we were granted the ability to pretend it was any time of day or night we desired to suit our circumstances. This would come in handy numerous times during our vacation. In any case, for the time being, we closed the curtains and shook off our travel weariness with a few Red Bull and vodkas. This is probably where I should note that this is a recounting of a personal experience, not a how-to guide.

Famished and let loose in one of America's culinary epicenters, we were nearly overwhelmed by a myriad of choices for our first official New Orleans meal. So as we headed out into the suddenly quite vigorous (but warm) rain, we opted for convenience and headed into a nearby restaurant that seemed quite popular: Willie's, a fried chicken joint with a few other locations in town. The heavenly aroma of crisp chicken skin and the whirring churning of daiquiri machines were clear indicators that we had made the correct decision. Now it was merely a matter of deciphering the somewhat unintuitive menu. Fortunately, I had essentially decided on fried chicken and jambalaya before walking in, and there was a suitable combo meal on the board to accommodate my desires. But what should we get to drink? Each individual 7-11-Slurpeeeqsue drink machine had a piece of paper taped to it with the name of the drink and some of the components therein. Think Everclear and Bacardi 151 in the same drink, a.k.a. the feverish nightmare of a college freshman. We were intrigued.
"Excuse me," Sheila said to the girl at the cash register, "what's in that orange drink over there? The 190."
"It's orange."
"OK, but...what's in it?" she persisted. "What kind of drink is it?"
"Orange."
Apparently it was the Area 51 of drinks, a closely guarded secret with details provided only on a strictly need-to-know basis. "Um, alright," said Sheila. "I'll get that one."
I went with the Willie's punch, despite the seemingly toxic nature of the labeled liquor blend within. You can seldom go wrong ordering an item with the same name as the establishment.

In any case, despite the enigmatic nature of the ordering process, our dining experience was excellent. The food was exceedingly moist and flavorful, with the jambalaya an instant favorite between us and the drinks as potent and tasty as they were mysterious. As we dined, we noted the plethora of wresting shirts adorning the chests of our fellow diners, feeling at one with our fellow travelers. This bond was cemented when the Jay-Z/Linkin Park mashup masterpiece "Numb/Encore" played on the restaurant sound system, and I found myself singing along to it with the table next to us, a group of grappling connoisseurs headed to the Ring of Honor show that night. Truly, we were all travelers on a strange, strange journey, and one last time, we all needed to roar.
After that, the weather died down again and we decided to use the evening to explore the French Quarter. Our movements were swift and somewhat blurry, and details were unimportant. We would ascertain some markers on our wanderings that would provide bearings for the rest of our vacation, like a hot dog cart that looked good but which we never patronized, a Walgreen's that would become our source of gallons of life-saving Ozarka water in the days ahead, and a statue of Jesus that cast an imposing shadow.

The final bar we visited that evening, purely by chance, was the historic Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, a structure that has existed since the 1700s and is one of the oldest bars in America.

A truly lovely and striking venue, it felt like the original concept that the Pirates of the Caribbean ride was based on. I made a toast to buccaneers past with the first of many (many) bottles of Abita Amber we would consume during our trip. It was damn near magical. But then, we were seized with an inevitable impulse that would draw our night to a close. In short, we were hungry.
We ventured toward our (actual) hotel room, fueled by the twin realizations that we were due for additional sustenance and that we needed to not feel like absolute death in order to fully enjoy the next day's WrestleMania festivities. So we preemptively checked off one of the boxes on our figurative tour checklist: visiting a Popeye's in New Orleans. Based on an article we had read in anticipation of our trip, we were operating on the information that while visiting a fast food chain restaurant touting Louisiana cuisine in its home state would seem on the surface to be heresy, it was actually an example of a franchise elevating its food within its home state. As fans of Popeye's, we had to test this theory, and it ended up being true and then some. It was not only elevated, it was just...different.
Any Popeye's I've ever been to in the Bay Area has a standard fast food restaurant setup: you order at the counter, and when your food is ready, they bring it out of the kitchen and serve it to you at that same counter. This Popeye's ran on a different system. You ordered at one counter, paid for your food at a second counter, and then went to a third counter for condiments and food bagging. It was a lot for us to process, particularly in our somewhat foggy state of mind, but at the very least it seemed a clever way to provide more employment opportunities in the fried chicken industry.
We ate our Popeye's in our hotel room, on top of a towel we spread out on the bed. It was every bit as delicious as we could have hoped, and was sure to prove a valuable ally in the anti-hangover wars ahead. Sleep came swiftly soon after.

We awoke with no clue as to what time it could be, feeling surprisingly less than terrible. Some combination of poultry grease, Texan bottled water and excitement for the event to come fortified us for the day ahead. Still, we needed some breakfast, and so decided to try out the restaurant across the street from our hotel,  Serio's Po-Boys. As it happens, we would end up eating here multiple times during the trip, yet neither Sheila nor I ever actually purchase one of the sandwiches for which the establishment is named. The blame for this falls squarely at the feet of the most unexpected foodstuff we encountered during the course of our vacation: the muffuletta.
The muffuletta is a sandwich as delicious as it is difficult to spell. A combination of soft ciabatta bread, Italian meats, Swiss and provolone cheeses and a truly impressive olive salad, this particular version of the muffuletta apparently was judged to be superior than that of esteemed celebrity chef Bobby Flay. I can certainly see why...it was a remarkable dish: tasty, tangy, meaty, huge (I don't believe I've ever seen another sandwich you can purchase by the quarter, half or whole) and unique. Yelp turns up only one restaurant around San Jose that serves these, but after my experience at Serio's, I'm definitely motivated to go try it and see how they measure up.
Our bellies full, the time had come for final Wrestlemania preparations. Our remaining Red Bull supply served us well as we shook off the lingering effects of the previous night's frivolity and, with the NXT TakeOver special that had taken place just hours before playing on the iPad, we donned our Shinsuke Nakamura shirts and prettied ourselves up. The Superdome awaited.

Contrary to popular belief, the first match of Wrestlemania was a battle between Sheila and stadium security over her clutch allegedly being a quarter of an inch larger than stadium regulations allowed. Sheila insisted that she had looked up said regulations in advance and measured the bag with a ruler to ensure compliance, but the lady at the gate was having none of it. What she did have was a stick she was using to measure bags. It had no units of measurement on it, or really any markings at all, but she assured us that it was an accurate gauge of clutch size, and said gauge showed that we were in violation. Sheila vehemently disagreed, and given the length of the line and the sheer amount of time we had already waited in order to gain access to the building, the proposed solution of leaving the line and buying a new bag at the team store was not exactly ideal. The people in line behind us were less than sympathetic for our cause, grumbling that we should just leave the line, but after some increasingly strained back-and-forth, the gate attendant grabbed her supervisor, who quickly cleared up the situation and had Sheila empty the clutch and put it in her pocket as a condition for entry. There was no championship belt awarded for our victory, but the sweet taste of triumph was reward enough. Plus, you know, we didn't have to wait in line again.
For as long an event as it was (as I recall, it clocked in at somewhere around seventy-three hours, give or take), I don't have a ton to say about WrestleMania. Part of this can be attributed to our seats being situated right by the liquor vendors, who were more than happy to suggest we make our every vodka/soda order a double (for efficiency's sake, of course). This added immeasurably to our enjoyment of the event while detracting immeasurably from my ability to recount it in detail, but frankly there are a million write-ups of the show online, and I'm writing this a month after the event, so I'd hardly have the most timely analysis anyway.
What I would like to note, though, is the feeling of being at WrestleMania. When we walked in, we were greeted with a view of the gorgeous set.

Now, unless you buy some absurdly expensive tickets, any live viewing of Wrestlemania will likely include you squinting at the ant-like size of the in-ring performers from your vantage point before finally giving up and just watching things unfold on one of the big stadium screens. In a sense, you're probably missing out on some things by being there. If you were watching the show at home instead, you'd likely have a clearer picture of the action and the benefit of running commentary (annoying though the commentators can be at times) to give context to the action.
But what this ignores is the feeling of being at WrestleMania. You're in a giant Stadium, watching the Super Bowl of professional wrestling with excited fans from all over the world. Everyone mutually rejoices when Daniel Bryan comes back from retirement to wrestle as though he was never concussed into a forced exit from the ring for years. You join the chorus of applause when Ronda Rousey proves herself to be quite capable and formidable in her in-ring debut, and sort of murmur when massively popular (and just plain massive) Braun Strowman selects a random child from the crowd to be his tag team partner in a championship match. Yes, the second half of the show was largely lacking in comparison to the first, ending with a main event that no one was excited about due largely to the perceived predictability of its outcome and the lukewarm enthusiasm for the characters involved.
Even when the finish of the match went contrary to nearly everyone's expectations, the gasps of surprise were somewhat mitigated by the sheer exhaustion of the crowd. But in a way, individual match results are nearly beside the point. WrestleMania is an entity far bigger than than any individual match, or even any one year's card. It is a spectacle drawing on decades of history, fueled by the enthusiasm of fans from every corner of the globe who just want to spend some money to see people beat each other up in elaborate and dramatic ways. And until Cirque Du Soleil starts allowing powerbombs, there truly is nothing else like it. If you ever get the chance to experience a WrestleMania for yourself, I highly recommend it.
Oh, and you'll want to get seats close to the booze and the bathroom. Trust me on that.
Back at the hotel that night, we were thoroughly drained from a full day of watching other people being athletic, and grappled with the idea that we really needed to eat something approximating dinner before we went to bed. As we stood at the elevator, waiting to go down to street level in search of grub, a child and his father passed by, on the way to their room. As they did, the boy turned to Sheila and me, gestured toward the paper bag his father held and declared in a surprisingly intense monotone, "We got Willie's." Then the pair departed. Laughing on the way down about the child's Village of the Damned-esque personality, we nonetheless drew inspiration from his unprompted statement and, well, we got Willie's. For the second straight night, flakes of deep-fried chicken skin would nestle among the fibers of a bath towel draped over the foot of a hotel bed. As is only right and proper.

Joey Marsilio would like to remind you that by purchasing his novel, Henry Garrison: St. Dante's Savior, you are not only getting yourself a great book to read, but also adding to his "traveling to places and then posting inane musings about it online" fund.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Thanksgiving 1996

   
     I awaken with a simple desire: to pick up where I left off in Final Fantasy III. I am finally getting around to playing the game, two years after its initial release, in the fallow period before I get my Nintendo 64 for Christmas. I am borrowing my friend's copy, as well as a gargantuan strategy guide he has downloaded from the primordial internet that is approximately the size of the FBI's file on the John F. Kennedy assassination. These few late autumn days off from school give me the precious time I need to take on this adventure that some say lasts upwards of a hundred hours. I have spent the last several wandering back and forth through a small patch of forest fighting dinosaurs.
     I'm still adjusting to my environment. Just a few months ago, my family moved on up from our mobile home of ten years to a two-story townhouse on the other side of the city. Though I'm still rather annoyed that we never went back to retrieve the rest of my belongings as promised (R.I.P. Teddy Ruxpin and Grubby), we did snag the important stuff, and I no longer have to remain on the same floor as my parents. A fair trade, I suppose.
     From downstairs, the orchestral refrain of the Fox Sports anthem announces the commencement of the several hours of jabbering that precedes the holiday football games. It is accompanied by other traditional Thanksgiving noises: the clink of ice in a glass, the fizzy gurgle as Captain Morgan and Coca-Cola join it within the vessel, the murmured obscenities from the kitchen that will crescendo into a roar by the afternoon. I turn up the volume on my bulky black tube television, neon green dots on the screen expanding into bars as the score of FFIII swells. I make sure to keep it within reason; my mother hates video game music, and I'd like to avoid unnecessary confrontation today.
     The morning passes as planned, with a minimum of contact with my family (it's a rookie mistake not to pace oneself in terms of exposure on the holidays). The Chiefs and Lions game is well underway when the hunger pangs begin a'pangin'. The roasting turkey's succulent aroma has begun wafting into my quarters, and I can resist its siren smell no longer. Reluctantly, I tear my admittedly weary eyes away from the television to head to the kitchen. It's time to indulge in the traditional Thanksgiving snacks.
     I don't know when or how it started, but the selection of pre-dinner Thanksgiving treats in the Marsilio household has long been set in stone. As I approach the kitchen table, I see the goofy serving dish we've been using for years, a plastic blue flower with each petal a separate section containing a different food item. I smile, knowing the culinary joys enplated therein. The menu, as it were, consists of the following:

-Deviled eggs. These hard-boiled, silky smooth delights, their creamy yolks accentuated by a hint of smoky paprika, are ironically simply heavenly.
-Celery sticks, with their green ravine filled to the brim with Kraft Bacon & Cheddar spread. The celery is merely a vessel, as is often celery's lot in life, to showcase the incomparable spread. Were I only to know that it would be discontinued years later, replaced by inferior spreads like the Handi-Snacks-esque Pub Cheese, I would relish the moment and consume even more. On the plus side, the lack of this future sight is likely sparing me some future gastrointestinal distress.
-Black olives. Just black olives, straight from the can, onto the dish, and into my mouth.
-Two items in separate sections meant to be enjoyed together: Saltine crackers and smoked baby clams that had been packed with cottonseed oil in a tin. The technique here is to pile as many clams on a Saltine as possible, add a dash of Tabasco sauce on top, and savor the flavor of Poseidon's own barbecue. The only thing greater than the taste is the degree of difficulty involved in not dripping a viscous oil/Tabasco mixture on the other foods at the table. In the years to come, as my sister would embrace veganism as a lifestyle, my father would taunt her by eating these slowly in front of her, while gleefully inquiring how upset she was that he was consuming "smoked babies" in front of her. This bit would be about as well-received as one would expect.
-Beside the bottle of Tabasco, a separate bowl contains a heaping selection of nuts, including filberts, almonds and Brazil nuts, which my relatives refer to by a name containing a horrific racial slur. I always enjoy them, but having to hand-crack each one grows tiresome, and after a while I just go back for more deviled eggs and clams.

     Having been provided adequate sustenance by the White Trash Classics tasting menu, I return to my room to sit on my ass and continue my epic virtual journey. Yet within minutes, the turkey's tantalizing fragrance bamboozles me into thinking that I'm famished. I shake off the poultry hypnosis and try to focus on my game. There are still more dinosaurs to kill, and one of them surely must have the item my adventurers have been fruitlessly hunting for.
     A sudden commotion downstairs indicates that my father either burned himself, cut himself, or that the team that won the football game didn't cover the spread. I don't let it distract me.
     As evening creeps closer, the clatter of pots and pans rises above the cloud of boozy profanity and fragrant meat bouquet emanating from downstairs. The finishing touches are being put on dinner, and I can hardly wait to gorge myself upon the feast that is to come. I turn off the television, rub my dry, tired eyes, and head into the maelstrom below.
     The golden roasted turkey carcass greets me with an almost certainly imagined smile as I descend the staircase. My father is removing the last bits of stuffing from inside the bird with a large wooden spoon and plopping them into some sort of amber dishware. He complains that it is likely undercooked and that we're welcome to eat it if we want, but we may die of salmonella. I'm not terribly concerned; I've been conditioned by now to expect an unending stream of self-deprecations from the architect of this dinner, each in search of a refutation and effusive praise. I will prudently ration those out through the course of the meal.
     A din of dishes hitting dishes, of silverware tinkling against other utensils, of paper towels getting ripped and tumblers getting accidentally knocked over all falls away when I lay my eyes upon what my mother is removing from the refrigerator. A giant but unassuming Tupperware bowl, schoolbus yellow and covered in barely-clinging plastic wrap, joins the assembling feast. Within is the greatest treasure of Thanksgiving, a decadent jewel that smells of the sea and tastes of enchanted kingdoms. The crab salad.
     To the layman, the crab salad looks like a milky, briny slop. But one bite is enough to convince the disbeliever of its deceptive charms. A slaw containing iceberg lettuce, shredded crab and enough mayo to choke a horse, it is the holy grail of my Thanksgiving meal. Rest assured, I partake of the turkey and all the other assorted goodies, but the crab salad is the alpha and the omega of the holiday, the dish that I look forward to the most and that, when all is said and done, I feel like I cannot eat again until a year has passed. Some may think it best eaten on crackers or toast, but I just eat it with a fork. By the time Thanksgiving dinner has concluded, I have eaten three bowls. A simple tally shows my Cool Hand Luke-level egg consumption to be worrisome.
     The family serves ourselves at the counter, plucking selections from the platter of carved turkey, the pot of mashed potatoes, the warm, buttery biscuits, the cranberry sauce that still has hints of embedded lines from the can if you know just where to look. My mother, father, sister and I all sit down at the table, a cramped glass disk atop a white wicker base, and offer a half-assed prayer. Then my father points out that there are two gravy options, one made traditionally from the turkey drippings, and one from a seasoning packet. Despite my father's assertions that his hand-made gravy is "inedible," I both eat and enjoy it, making sure to note that he did a good job and that it is indeed tastier than the powder-based option. I am again informed that I should probably not eat the stuffing, but I have a perhaps naive amount of trust in the old man's drunken cooking skills. My faith is rewarded with a delicious, moist dish and a living streak that continues for decades to come.
     For the grand finale, I cut myself an excessively large slice of pumpkin pie. It's still chilled from the fridge, just how I like it, and I pass on the option to spray real aerosol whipped cream on top in favor of shoveling several dollops of Cool Whip atop its custardy crown. With each bite, I am positive that I absolutely cannot possibly take another. And then I take one more.
     When the feast is finished and the dirty dishes left lurking in the sink, awaiting the next morning's laborious cleaning, I crawl upstairs, lying in bed as the meal slowly begins to break down. Home Alone is on TV, so I shift to lie on my side and watch it, half-focused in the onset of food coma and lamenting that the line "I'll rip off your cojones and boil them in motor oil" is sanitized for broadcast to an awkwardly dubbed "I'll boil ya in motor oil!" My Thanksgiving meal is consumed, and though there will be turkey sandwiches and soup cobbled together from leftovers in the days to follow, the Christmas season is now upon me. I drift into blissful, bloated reverie as I rest up for the day ahead. After all, there is still so much adventuring to do.


Speaking of leftovers, please enjoy some copied, pasted and minimally altered text from a previous Thanksgiving blog! I hope you and yours have a happy Thanksgiving and find some time to just relax and enjoy the season. If you're bored, you can always read my other seasonally-appropriate articles about a book of Thanksgiving poems illustrated by the guy that did Scary Stories to Tell in the Darka book of Thanksgiving stories from the early 20th century and Trader Joe's turkey lunchmeat. And read my book, Henry Garrison: St. Dante's Savior! It's a cornucopia of shameless plugs!





Saturday, October 28, 2017

Carve-O-Lantern 3: The Return of the Kits

When I was walking down the street today, I saw this:


Now this could mean one of two things: either someone is preparing to burn Tobey Maguire in effigy for that dance scene in Spider-Man 3 (which I liked, suck it, haters), or it's Halloween season again! This is perfect, because it gives me an excuse to drone on at length about one of my favorite things: pumpkin carving! Avid readers of my blog may recall my earlier installment about pumpkin carving pioneers Carve-O-Lantern, as well as the sequel post about their product line expansion. Well, there's still plenty of meat on this bone, so I'm diving into a pumpkin PIE-le of patterny goodness to bring you this retrospective!
Carve-O-Lantern (and later, Pumpkin Masters) have released so much material over the decades that I could-and possibly might-write about this stuff forever. So let's go waaaaay back to the early days of the brand to take a look at how their pumpkin carving kits have evolved through time. I've procured a veritable bushel of new stuff since the last article, so this is a great opportunity to share some of them.
To review: the protozoan state of this august October line was the original Carve-O-Lantern book, she of the spiral binding and self-assembled tools:


I covered this book and its assemblage of cool, festive and at time downright bizarre patterns before. So let's move on to the next product in the Carve-O-Lantern line; their streamlined, non-spiral bound pumpkin carving kit:


I reviewed this one before as well, but what I haven't covered yet are the many, many, MANY pumpkin carving kits to follow. We're talking bunnies on some crazy NIMH fertility meds numbers. OK, NIMH didn't really deal with fertility drugs, but maybe they branched out and formed NIRH or something. Just let me have this semi-esoteric reference.
Anyway, Carve-O-Lantern was not releasing products at a breakneck pace at first. They were, after all, pioneers in the field of jack-o'-lantern crafting, and if pioneers try to venture too quickly and recklessly into the unexplored, they might pay dearly. Just ask Lansford Hastings. So the second carving kit came out in 1989, three years after the initial publication of Carve-O-Lantern, and the third would not arrive until 1992. Here it is:


Carve-O-Lantern's designated graphic designer clearly had quite a cushy job, as a product designed to come out once a year would look almost identical for many editions to come. As for the included patterns:


This is a nice assortment, albeit largely the same as the designs in the Pumpkin Carving Patterns supplemental book released the same year. It appears that the intent at this point was to give consumers who already had a set of carving tools an option to buy most of the patterns in a cheaper, tool-less package. This was the first and last time this would be an option, because why sell one product to completionists when you can sell two? Probably because nobody knew such completionists existed back then, a quaint notion in 2017 when some people (cough, cough) feverishly monitor eBay auctions for rare pattern books like the Busch Gardens/SeaWorld assortment.
Somewhat confusingly, the fourth pumpkin carving kit also came out in 1992, though I suspect there may have just been an error in the copyright date on the packaging, since the fifth set came out in 1994. So either we got two of these in one year and then none the following year, or we didn't. GREAT JOURNALISM, JOEY.


Again, we see some staggering creativity in terms of graphic design, as this one looks nearly indistinguishable from set #3 at a glance. Unlike that set, however, these patterns were unique to this release, aside from Mr. Lips, who was continuing his journey to become the drunk guy at the party who can't take a hint when it's time to go home.


Possibly the best kit yet in terms of patterns, this one truly offered a variety of options for carvers at all skill levels, from a sassy fanged variation of the traditional jack-o-lantern for babies, to the moaning souls of the damned ironically spelling out the word "happy," which challenged veteran carvers to keep the profanity in check while nervously attempting to not slip and sever one of the thin strands of pumpkin holding the delicate image together.
By 1994, the Carve-O-Lantern name had perished, and from its ashes arisen the mighty moniker "Pumpkin Masters," which endures to this day. With the name change came a shockingly minor facelift to the carving kits, with the primary innovation being the convenient display of patterns on the front rather than the back. No longer would consumers waste precious seconds flipping cardboard in search of these coveted candlelit images.


This is a solid assortment, with all-time classic Screamin', another cute kitty and more, though it escapes me why Trick or Treat '95 needed the premature, 2K games-style yearly branding. Not to ruin the suspense, but it's still just as effective in '17.
BUUUUUT hold on just a minute, buckaroo! We're skipping something here. Even though this was the next traditional carving kit to hit the shelves, the year prior had actually marked the official debut of the Pumpkin Masters name, with this unique product:


Yep, a Deluxe Pumpkin Carving Kit. Totally different than a non-deluxe one, and I'm only being half sarcastic here. A bit of a hybrid between the saw-yielding carving kits of yore and the independent pattern books sold alongside them, this softcover marvel boasted not only a full set of carving tools, but by far the most designs of any release since the original, with a whopping seventeen patterns (including the bonus Night Owl, not pictured on the back).


Admittedly, many of the patterns were reprints from prior years, but come on! For one thing, once any given year's Halloween season was over, the corresponding carving kits were gone. They tended to stay gone, meaning that if you missed a release you were pretty much out of luck. Now you had a second chance to own some of these ephemeral classics. And even considering the volume of reprints, such a wide variety of patterns sold alongside the tools with which to carve them made for quite the package. Oddly enough, only one more Deluxe Pumpkin Carving Kit was released before the line died off. Perhaps the train to Valuetown only runs one way.
1995's big release was marked by the presence of Garfield, whose cool, well-designed pattern was only slightly undermined by his rather lame joke on the cover. What's supposed to be scary about Garfield being on a pumpkin? His licensing fees?


But the real story of 1995 was a product so innovative that Leonardo Da Vinci's ghost secondkilled itself in shame: Melon Lights. Have you ever wanted to carve a pumpkin in July? Well now you can, with Melon Lights! I hope to carve one of these someday and bring it as a wedding gift for someone I desperately want to just stop contacting me.


OK, we're running a bit long here, and I'm sure you have some last-minute costume prep/massive holiday drinking to do, so I'll end with one more tidbit. This last product I'm about to show you may be been the nadir of the original Carve-O-Lantern lineup, and possibly forced them to change their name for fear of ever being identified with it again. I speak, of course, of Pumpkin Pals.


These inane things make Melon Lights look like the internal combustion engine. Too lazy or crippled by carpal tunnel syndrome to carve a pumpkin? Here are some stupid pieces of cardboard and tissue paper to make your pumpkin look like a low-rent Teen Wolf! Choose from other classic characters like Vulcan Vampire and Lady with Her Hair on Fire! And as far as the collection as a whole, there were four of these abominations, including fairy tale variations that would make Mother Goose asphyxiate herself with a potato chip bag. I only have one of them, because to hell with paying ten bucks or more online for this crap. If the art of pumpkin decorating is an ass, Pumpkin Pals is half of it.
I hope you've enjoyed this festive look at the evolution of a Halloween institution. Do yourself a favor and pick up one of these oldies if you happen to see them at Goodwill or something. You won't regret it! Or maybe you will. Life is funny like that. Happy Halloween!


Don't let him fool you. Joey Marsilio is still attempting to sell enough copies of his debut novel, Henry Garrison: St. Dante's Savior, to buy the full line of Pumpkin Pals. You can help him achieve this wretched dream today!

Saturday, July 8, 2017

World's (Insert Adjective Here) "True" Ghost Stories




No, I'm not dead, despite what my online presence, or lack thereof, may suggest. And speaking of the undead, I'd like to reflect today on a particularly strange series of books about the supernatural. In this case, the strange thing is not the content of the books themselves, but rather the series' origins and evolution. Perhaps the oddest thing about these books is that there are nine books in the series (well, arguably...I'll get to that), yet there is almost no information about them anywhere. Most of the Amazon pages for them have no reviews, and even a Google search reveals little more than used book sales. Isn't it unusual that such a lengthy series seems to have not a smidgen of the dedicated, borderline obsessive fandom afforded even the nichest of long-running franchises?

I suppose at this point I should mention the name of this series of books. Don't worry, you probably won't recognize it unless you're one of the six people searching for information on them online and this post showed up by default. The nine books comprise the, for lack of a better term, World's (Insert Adjective Here) "True" Ghost Stories series. Basically, each book proffers an assortment of "true" stories of the supernatural-the quotation marks are their addition, not mine-that best exemplify some descriptor (for example, "mystifying" or "bone-chilling"). I'm sure the selection process for these was thoroughly scientific and their placement is definitive and by no means arbitrary. But this is all very abstract, so let me get into some concrete details before you click away from the page in annoyed bewilderment.

The first book in the series is 1988's World's Best "True" Ghost Stories by C.B. Colby, though it's not really where the series began. No, the true origins of the series go back into the 1950s, when Colby, "an avid adventurer and sportsman" per his bio, wrote a syndicated newspaper column called "Adventure Today." The column dealt with unexplained happenings, supernatural phenomena, mysterious disappearances, lost treasure and what would at the time be referred to as "ripping yarns." The veracity of each story was certainly debatable, as Colby himself would remind the reader, but he presented them with the appropriate zeal and bombast. Eventually, the column gave way to books collecting some of Colby's best offbeat tales: 1959's Strangely Enough! and 1965's somewhat inaccurately-titled Weirdest People in the World. The stories in it are weird, sure, but oftentimes the people within them are completely ordinarily and as perplexed by the events around them as anyone would be. I'd ask Colby what the thought process was behind the name, but I'm afraid I'm about forty years too late for that.


Anyway, several decades after that, Sterling Publishing released World's Best "True" Ghost Stories, a compilation of stories from Strangely Enough! and Weirdest People that dealt with ghosts and the supernatural. Well, mostly. 


There are also stories here of, among other things, a disappearing indigenous tribe in Alaska, an old woman who apparently spontaneously combusted, and a weird tale about talking cats that isn't very good and yet has been retold in more volumes of horror tales than I can remember. So while there's a general theme of uneasiness to the proceedings, there are less ghosts than you might think.



And speaking of titular inaccuracies, let's address the "true" portion of the title. That gets explained in the note to the reader that starts off World's Best, a note which is largely repurposed from the Introduction to Strangely Enough! There are some changes to the text, most notably a few additional sentences written by Colby, or more likely someone posing as Colby, considering he died more than ten years before the book was published. So either way, you could say they used a ghostwriter. The additional lines explain to the reader that "all the accounts in this book have, at one time or another been passed off as 'true'...and who shall say they never happened?" So basically, a very liberal definition of the truth, which in 2017 is more or less the factual standard. Colby never really gets enough credit as a pioneer in the field of truthiness.

That's the book in a nutshell. A mix of accounts of unexplained events, spooky anecdotes and classic folklore, all presented in the matter-of-fact style of a newspaper article and accompanied by simple black and white illustrations that heavily rely on shadows and isolation to convey the otherworldliness of the events described. It is remarkably effective, and what it lacks in florid language it makes up for in efficiency. In the same vein as the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series, the brevity of the stories makes them easy to recount, and the journalistic presentation makes them feel more authentic and less like utter flights of fancy. For the most part, at least...I'm still not buying the talking cats thing. It's a great collection of oddball tales in the spirit of Ripley's Believe It or Not! and a nice greatest-hits collection of Colby's two prior greatest-hits collections.

In 1991, a similar collection of Colby's old works with a different theme, World's Best Lost Treasure Stories (I would have preferred World's Best "Lost" Treasure Stories, but that's splitting hairs) was released by Sterling, suggesting their intention of building a World's Best... franchise around Colby's old material. They got a franchise, alright, but it was not the one they were expecting.

Shortly before the publication of Treasure Stories, Sterling released another installment of spooky tales. This one, World's Strangest "True" Ghost Stories, drew on different source material, bypassing Colby entirely by excerpting stories from John Macklin's 1967 book The Strange and Uncanny.


Perhaps a bit more grim than Colby's work but just as compelling, here we learn of the psychic horse that solved a child's tragic disappearance, the cursed mummy that was allegedly on board the Titanic when it sank, and the sleepy English crossroads that bore both a terrible curse and a name that probably wouldn't fly in America in 2017.

The next year would see the release of World's Weirdest "True" Ghost Stories, written by John Beckett.


This was a milestone: the first installment of the series to apparently be an entirely original creation rather than an abridged rehash of a book from decades before. Still, it continued along the same lines, and probably benefitted from being able to draw from events that had occurred within the previous twenty-five years.

With 1992's World's Most Spine-Tingling "True" Ghost Stories, the series introduced yet another author, Sheila Anne Barry, and perhaps its greatest asset, artist Jim Sharpe.


Whereas the books before had all contained effective but relatively indistinct artwork, Sharpe's illustrations are bold, unique and very evocative. From screaming faces to ominous spirits to a malicious killer doll in a sailor suit, Sharpe would go on to illustrate the remaining installments of the series and elevate even the more mundane stories with his detailed, semi-insane renderings.


But it should really come as no surprise that the guy was talented, considering Time, TV Guide, and many other respectable publications had hired him to do cover artwork for them. He even created a portrait for the presidential gallery! Frankly, given his resume, it seems like he was slumming it a bit for these books, but maybe he just loved this kind of crap as much as I do.


Oddly enough, after two consecutive original books, 1993's World's Most Bone-Chilling "True" Ghost Stories went back to the repurposing well, revisiting John Macklin's work and lifting stories from his awesomely-named 60's books Brotherhood of the Strange and Dwellers in Darkness.


But after that, subsequent titles went back to being original works. Well, mostly...by this point, the series was getting pretty tired, revisiting the same themes time and again and even repeating some of the same stories (albeit with different authors) as the books continued to roll out every year like macabre installments of Madden.



The eighth book in the series, 1996's World's Most Mysterious "True" Ghost Stories, could well have been called Weird War Tales for its heavy focus on military themes (which, funny enough, would likely have met with noted armed forces buff C.B. Colby's approval). Even Sharpe's artwork looked oddly rushed by that point.



Finally, things wrapped up in 1997 with World's Most Mystifying "True" Ghost Stories, as the series drifted off into the aether like an unfed Tamagotchi, likely to the tune of Elton John's "Candle in the Wind 1997."

Or did it? 1998 saw the release of The Little Giant Book of "True" Ghost Stories, where the series did what it did best: repackaged old material. Basically books five through seven of the series crammed into one volume, The Little Giant Book kept the series...well, not alive exactly, but undead at least. And that, after a decade, marked the last volume of "True" Ghost Stories.

Yet it still did not mark the end of the stories themselves. C.B. Colby's original material persists to this day, published in various compilations of spooky stories, but the strangest part of this saga involves an overlap with a completely different series of books.

Following the huge success of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series, Short & Shivery, and others of their ilk, a new contender in the youth-focused horror short story arena emerged in 1991's Scary Stories for Sleep-Overs. The big hook of this book and its numerous sequels were their sheer nihilism. Whereas the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books would often feature protagonists that got thoroughly heebie-jeebied but ultimately survived, Scary Stories for Sleep-Overs was a slaughterhouse where no one made it out alive. If you wanted to read about a child getting ripped apart by a werecat, or an entire family being strangled to death by their own shadows, or extraterrestrials burning kids to death before summoning their compatriots to Earth to do the same to the entire human race, you were in luck. This series persisted through the 90's, with almost as many volumes as the "True" Ghost Stories series until it finally petered out, possibly because they ran out of children to murder.

You may be wondering why I bring this up. Well, apparently long after the demise of the original series, someone published a book simply called Scary Stories for Sleepovers.


And, lo and behold, it contains some of the very same C.B. Colby joints printed in Strangely Enough! and Weirdest People in the World and reprinted in World's Best "True" Ghost Stories. Nearly sixty years after their original publication, the stories are still going strong, veritable literary body snatchers hopping from series to series, assuming their identity while never losing their own.

So, to recap: a newspaper column was repurposed into two books, which were then repurposed into another book, which begat a series of books with similar titles that at times repurposed material from other books and at times consisted of original material (albeit said material consisting of retellings of events recounted elsewhere). After the conclusion of this series, several of the books were repurposed into a giant compilation book, and long after that, the original stories that were repurposed into the first book in the series were repurposed again under the title of an entirely different series of books. It's a truly fascinating web of use and reuse that, in the end, boils down to the simple fact that people love a good story. And ghosts. And cursed mummies. And psychic horses.

A final note: there was a television show years back called Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction?, hosted at first by James Brolin and later by the illustrious Jonathan Frakes, master of the wry smile.


The show would present reenactments of stories, then call upon the viewer to determine whether or not they had actually occurred. Many of the stories reenacted on that show were the very same ones described in these books, so I would often have a bit of an unfair advantage in determining which of the tales I was witnessing were Fact...or, I suppose, "True." Whether due to coincidence or fandom, the subject matter of this low-key series of ostensible ghost stories (yes, including the psychic horse) had made it to primetime network television, a.k.a. the American Dream.

Well done, "True" Ghost Stories. You "truly" are the (insert adjective here).



Joey Marsilio would like to cordially request that if anyone out there, anyone at all, has read these books, that they please let him know about their memories and experiences with them. And also that they purchase a copy of his novel, Henry Garrison: St. Dante's Savior.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Frightful Flashback: The Haunted House and Other Spooky Poems and Tales (But Mostly Poems)

In a dark, dark mobile home, there was a dark, dark cupboard...

And in that dark, dark cupboard, there was a dark, dark shelf...

And on that dark, dark shelf, there was a goofy, rainbow-colored record player...

And in that goofy, rainbow-colored record player, there was...

THIS RECORD!



I've spilled a lot of virtual ink in my numerous online missives about scary stories, particularly Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and its two sequels. But Alvin Schwartz was not the only author to produce collections of scary stories for younger audiences, and he certainly wasn't the first. Maria Leach, for example, had been doing an excellent job laying the groundwork for macabre collections to come in her compendiums of chilling folklore like Whistle in the Graveyard. And then there's this curious little number: 1970's Scholastic release The Haunted House and Other Spooky Poems and Tales.
I was introduced to The Haunted House long before I ever read it. In fact, for years I didn't even know it was an actual book.
You see, at some point during my childhood, my mother bequeathed unto me the sweet vinyl pictured above, mentioning that it was a scary record she used to enjoy in her childhood. We listened to it together, and I was entranced. It was like nothing I had ever heard before: the soft, haunting voices of a man and woman alternating recitations of classic horror poetry and prose. Well, the vast majority was poetry, really, but that's how you knew this stuff was classy. The record's natural pops and snaps evoked the eerie ambiance of sitting fireside, listening to ghost stories and peering out into the darkness, wondering what lurked there watching you back. It was a brief but spellbinding experience (you don't get a lot of auditory mileage out of 7" vinyl). And now you can hear it too, thanks to the magic of Youtube!




Several years later, when I would acquire a copy of the text version of The Haunted House, I would discover that the recording barely scratches the surface of it, covering only about a third of what appears on the page. Plus the book's cover is all trippy and colorful in comparison to the album cover's admittedly fitting bleak monochrome.



The Haunted House is a mixed bag, like a goodie sack after a rigorous night of trick and/or treating. As I mentioned before, there's a plethora of poetry here, regarding topics ranging from feuding cats to still, frosty November nights to gleeful cannibalism. In one jolly limerick, a woman becomes frustrated with her inability to become a witch and commits suicide.



And naturally, there's some good old atomic age technophobia at work here:


Who know comic books were so informative in regards to nuclear weaponry? As you can see from these examples, shockingly dark gallows humor is abundant here. In the spirit of how Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark always had some humorous entries, this book never lets you forget what a hoot horror can be. I mean, what's funnier than a fatal auto accident?


A couple of these poems also received the ultimate compliment: they were quoted on Magic: The Gathering cards. Back in 1994, when Magic was more elegant and sophisticated (*SHOTS FIRED*), the cards would often quote classic literature, Bible verses, etc. to add some flavor to the denizens of the world that Wizards of the Coast were creating. Two of the cards from the Legends set just so happened to include flavor text derived from poems featured in this book. Might someone on the design team have been a big The Haunted House fan? If only we had gotten a "Cradle That Rocks by Itself" artifact (foreshadowing!).


Then again, it could just be a coincidence. I've seen Roethke's poem a few times elsewhere, and Shakespeare is, well, Shakespeare. And rightfully so; these are both exemplary works in the field of creepiness. One thing we can all agree on: the art is better on the Magic version.


One thing, though...I've seen bats, we've all seen bats, and if Roethke thinks bats have a human face, he should probably get his eyes checked, because from the sounds of it he's blind as a...well, you know.

Speaking of artwork, let's address The Haunted House's. The competent, cartoony illustrations are a far cry from Scary Stories' sanguine, betendriled nightmare visions, having more in common with In a Dark, Dark Room's youngster-friendly relative zaniness. It does, however, effectively convey a certain mood, and at times somehow manages to make a story much more creepy by its contrasting playfulness. For example, take the case of The Wreck of the Hesperus, a poem so grim and depressing that it makes Upton Sinclair's The Jungle seem like The Berenstain Bears Learn to Embrace Communism. The bleak saga of a shipwreck that claims the life of a young girl and her father because the father in question is a prideful moron is made all the more disturbing by its somewhat basic, juvenile illustration. Turns out the way to make a picture of a dead child even more disturbing is to make it kind of look like said child drew it.


Overall, the art does the job just fine. Still, there is something very of-its-time about it...for example, I can't help but hear ABBA in my head when I look at this picture:


The art above is from "The Velvet Ribbon," which is one of the most famous stories here and was wisely selected for the record.  It's a classic tale that can be found in many such collections of horror folklore, such as In A Dark, Dark Room, which I referenced earlier but have helpfully linked to my article about once again. The details between the versions are different, but the payoff is just the same: a woman's head falls off. As an added bonus, the one here continues wailing as it rolls across the floor! It's a real treat for decapitation aficionados.
The other four stories here vary in quality. There's the so-so "The Devil's Pocket," about two boys who hang out in a quarry their parents have forbidden them from approaching; the comical "The Ghost Catcher," a goofy tale of spectral deception from India; and the masterful "The Red Room," abridged from a longer story by none other than sci-fi legend H.G. Wells, which serves as an incredible exercise in extracting maximum suspense from the most basic setup: a dark, candlelit room in a spooky house. They're all breezy and fun to read, and even the weakest of them has a certain charm.

The best story here, though, is "The Cradle That Rocked by Itself." I mentioned Maria Leach earlier in the article, and I cannot overstate what an excellent job she did compiling and retelling spooky tales from all over the globe during her career. "The Cradle" is possibly my favorite of them all. It concerns a family who hears what sounds like a baby crying outside during a terrible storm. Reasoning that it must be seals or something, no one goes out into the maelstrom to investigate. Once the storm passes, the family finds a nice cradle washed up on the beach and, seemingly unable to form a connection between it and the distinctly babyesque sounds they heard during the storm, takes the cradle inside and puts their baby in it. They continue using it for more babies over the years despite the cradle's quite unusual trait of rocking itself. Rather than immediately chop it up and throw it in the fire due to an exceedingly apparent ongoing haunting, the parents hand-wave the whole thing. Their blasé attitudes become decidedly UN-blasé, however, when a visiting family member is able to somehow perceive the reason behind the inexplicable rocking...the pale, dark-haired phantom of a mourning mother has been tirelessly rocking away for all these years. Rather than celebrate the gift of a laborer that never eats, sleeps or demands pay, the family...chops up the cradle and throws it in the fire. As a final, skin-crawling memento, a baby cries from somewhere within the flames the entire time the cradle burns. Pretty unsettling stuff, and it was rightly chosen to conclude the audio version. Do yourself a favor and check it out if you never have before.


Other than that, it's just poems, poems, poems. Fortunately, editors Gladys Schwarz and Vic Crume have good taste, and selections include works from such luminaries as Langston Hughes and Robert Louis Stevenson. There are some astonishingly morbid works here, like Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe's "The Erl-King" and its depiction of a child's murder by supernatural forces, or "Dust," which describes a woman's literal journey from dust to dust as she transforms from cleanliness-obsessed housewife to open-eyed corpse covered in the sort of grime that bedeviled her living days. Then there's "Voices," which gives me the heebie-jeebies even though I can't quite put my finger on why:


Of course, there's plenty more to savor here. You got Vic Crume's superb titular poem, and a shark inviting an impressively naive flying fish to dinner, and rhymes about death that my grandparents used to recite...


It's all great stuff, and well worth checking out if you get the chance. You can probably find a used copy pretty cheap, or up in your grandmother's attic for free! It's a deserving addition to any library of strange and scary tomes, disco illustrations and all. The record is also a great pickup, if you can find it. Unfortunately, my copy was lost (along with the rainbow-colored record player) when my family abandoned our mobile home; it was among the many items my father promised he would go back to retrieve but never did. I eventually purchased two more copies on eBay, giving one to my mother to replace the original record (which was rightfully hers) and keeping one for myself. Both copies mysteriously disappeared, though we suspect my grandfather may have pilfered them during a period of time he was staying with my folks. He denies this fervently. In the end, perhaps that which we should fear most is not ghosts, ghouls or goblins, but rather the dread specter of kleptomania.

Until next time, I leave with with a simple image demonstrating what this book would look like had it been illustrated by Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark's Stephen Gammell, just for kicks. Happy October!


For further October reading, consider Joey Marsilio's novel Henry Garrison: St. Dante's Savior. It's the grooviest! Check it out here!