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Morbid Curiosity Cures the Blues

True Stories of the Unsavory, Unwise, Unorthodox and Unusual from the magazine "Morbid Curiosity"
By Loren Rhoads

Read an Excerpt

Morbid Curiosity Changed My Life


“In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

—commonly attributed to George Orwell


I grew up on a farm. As a girl, I caught snakes bare-handed and watched my dad dress slaughtered rabbits. I wasn’t allowed to get attached to the farm animals, because they were around only to appear on the dinner table. When I graduated from my small-town high school, I attended two years at the local branch of the University of Michigan. In Flint. In 1981. Between the auto industry closing factories and the crack epidemic, there were vast stretches of the city where a farm girl could be pulled over by the police, just for driving while white. It took me a while to realize that I had to get out.

When I first moved to San Francisco in 1988, my husband Mason Jones and I attended a slideshow about the early days of RE/Search Publications. At the time, RE/Search was notorious for the books Incredibly Strange Films, which introduced filmmakers Russ Meyer and Herschell Gordon Lewis to the larger world, and the Industrial Culture Handbook, which featured the noisy, challenging electronic punk of musical terrorists Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire. RE/Search was the cutting edge. I hadn’t yet realized they were San Francisco–based.

The highlight of the evening was editor V. Vale’s home photos featuring William Burroughs, machine apocalypse artists Survival Research Laboratories, and every punk band who’d ever played San Francisco. Afterward, copublisher Andrea Juno (AJ to her friends) announced that they were close to finishing their next book and could use some help. I wouldn’t have had the courage to step forward on my own, but Mason volunteered us.

This was how we found ourselves going out for a vegetarian dinner in Chinatown with Vale, AJ, and Catherine Reuther (RE/Search’s assistant editor). The three of them comprised the company’s entire staff. We discussed publishing, starting with Vale’s punk rock zine Search and Destroy, and dissected the small press world of the late eighties.

On our walk back through North Beach to their apartment, we stopped off at the RE/Search Typography office. Their books were not selling well enough to support anyone yet, which came as a shock. I had assumed that if we’d been able to find the books in Michigan, RE/Search must have been a huge organization.

On a small table, AJ laid out some page proofs that would become their next title, Modern Primitives.

She was struggling to lay out photos of a pierced labia. The plan was to have the books printed in Hong Kong, then shipped to the United States for distribution. AJ worried that if the Customs Office deemed the book pornographic, they might hold it up at the Port of Oakland. She wondered if she “split the split beaver” over facing pages, could it offend anyone? Could anyone find it prurient?

Here I was, a Michigan girl not long off the farm. It had never occurred to me that someone might wear jewelry in her genitals. I felt lightheaded as I stared down at the photographs.

Then AJ said, “If we have a split beaver, don’t you think we ought to have a split penis, too?” She placed another page on the table. The photograph of a bisected penis dominated the text.

Morbid Curiosity magazine was born in that moment.

Of course, it took some time to work up to publishing my own magazine. Volunteering for RE/Search was a good education. It taught me how much of running a small publishing company involves carting around boxes of books, making trips to the post office, transcribing cassettes, maintaining a mailing list—basic clerical tasks, necessary to sell books.

In 1994, Mason and I founded Automatism Press and published our first book, Lend the Eye a Terrible Aspect. Grander in concept than execution, Lend the Eye was a collection of short stories, nonfiction essays, and artwork by underground artists from across North America. Mason’s musical connections (he’d founded the Charnel Music record label in 1991) allowed us to solicit pieces from Dead Kennedys’ former front man Jello Biafra, industrial musician Deborah Jaffe of Master/Slave Relationship, animator Stephen Holman (the Phantom Investigators cartoon on the WB), and Canadian prankster and performance artist blackhumour. RE/Search introduced us to spoken-word author Don Bajema (Boy in the Air) and Elizabeth Borowski, who debuted her excruciating Personal Tarot in our book. Science fiction author Gregor Hartmann had been a coworker of mine at Pacific Bell. Writing for zines put us in touch with Mark Lo of the estimable File 13. Lend the Eye introduced me to contributors who later appeared in Morbid Curiosity up to its very last issue.

The Lend the Eye project came together more easily than we expected and left me eager to do a second book. When he was dying of AIDS, San Francisco photographer Blair Apperson gave me a shoebox of snapshots he’d taken in graveyards from the Caribbean to Yosemite. Originally, I planned to write the text for the book and simply showcase Blair’s photos, but as I discussed the project with people, everyone had a cemetery story to tell. I found I wanted to explore the ways people related to graveyards: either places near where they grew up, destinations they’d sought out on vacation, or sites where their family members were interred.

When I finally finished the book, Death’s Garden: Relationships with Cemeteries contained more than two dozen essays about graveyards from Argentina to Wall Street. The authors considered their own mortality, the loss of family and friends, the transience of fame, and the nature of death itself. Contributors included legendary spoken-word artist Lydia Lunch (Paradoxia: A Predator’s Diary) and performance artist Pleasant Gehman (The Underground Guide to Los Angeles), and featured a gorgeous cover by artist Jane Handel (Swimming on Dry Land: The Memories of an Ascetic Libertine).

Death’s Garden struck a chord. It sold out within nine months. Even though the book has been out of print since 1997, it was mentioned in a 2004 issue of Artforum. Death’s Garden remains a sought-after collectible on eBay, going for many times its cover price.

Its completion left me casting around for a new project. The part I’d liked best about assembling both books for Automatism was reading submissions. I loved going to the post office to find entertaining, detailed, and emotionally wracking manuscripts from complete strangers.

So… how could I arrange to receive confessions from strangers? What kind of magazine would I have to publish? The title of the project was never in any doubt: Morbid Curiosity was the only one I ever considered. The title captured my motive in assembling the short memoirs and summed up the feeling I wanted to inspire in potential readers.

With a preacher’s zeal, I feel that curiosity is the single most important attribute with which humans are born. More than a simple desire to discover or know things, curiosity is a powerful tool, like a scalpel or a searchlight. It allows us to look at something as abstract as behavioral patterns or as grand as history: to study it, dissect it, marvel over its component parts. Curiosity changes us. It is also a way to effect change, perhaps even on a global level.

While I’ve yet to turn up a definition of morbid curiosity per se, the American Heritage Dictionary has some interesting things to say about the concept morbid. From the Latin morbus, disease, which in turn comes from the root mori, to die, morbid is related to or caused by disease, a state that is psychologically unhealthy or unwholesome, characterized by preoccupation with unwholesome thoughts or feelings. Unwholesome, we are told, means injurious to physical, mental, or moral health, suggestive of disease or degeneracy, and offensive or loathsome.

The OED (my bible) says that morbid is chiefly applied to “unreasonable feelings of gloom, apprehension, or suspicion. Hence of persons: addicted to morbid feelings or fancies.” Usage dates back to 1656.

To my surprise, I discovered that morbid does not imply an obsession with death. It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with death, only with sickness and “unwholesomeness.” From the quotes collected in the OED, morbid suggests a condition from which one is likely to recover.

In 1750 Dr. Johnson, that feel-good rascal, wrote, “Every man comes into the world morbid.” If that’s true, how can a universal state possibly be unhealthy? To me, curiosity—even about “morbid” topics—is ultimately life affirming.

The goal of Morbid Curiosity was to explore the unsavory, unwise, unorthodox, and unusual—all the dark adventures that make life worth living. I made it my mission to convey that all curiosity is absolutely necessary.

When I began the magazine, my chief concern was how I would fill its pages. I contacted everyone who had submitted to the earlier books we’d published and asked them to pass the word. Then we set up a rudimentary Web page. Stories tumbled in.

I thought it would be best to start with a conservative print run for the first issue. Those thousand copies have been sold out for years. A year later, I bumped up the amount printed of issue #2. Those also sold out. The third and fourth issues followed suit. It’s rare for a week to go by that I don’t get another letter begging me to reprint the early issues so fans can complete their collections.

I appeared to be on to something.

• • •

So what was Morbid Curiosity magazine? I tried to create a forum where people could step forward and tell their own stories—not in the sense of a Jerry Springer freak show, but because “normal” people don’t often have the opportunity to examine and discuss their lives. The magazine turned out to be cathartic both for authors and the audience, because readers definitely got a sense of “There, but for the grace of God …” I adored the confessional nature of the stories I read for the magazine.

The “reality” of TV reality shows is that they choose people because they aren’t representative of you and me. They’re prettier, or more messed up, or don’t have any sense. Contributors to Morbid Curiosity were students and computer programmers, artists and file clerks, professional writers and people published for the first and only time. In other words, they’re just like you and me, trying to make sense of events that changed their lives.

That said, there were many times I accepted a story for publication while privately wondering why the author would choose to share that particular aspect of himself. Of course, those were the people who astounded me by reading their confessions at a Morbid Curiosity event. I applaud and am inspired by that level of courage.

Over the course of its life, Morbid Curiosity developed several running themes. For a while, every issue had a dead pet story. Several issues visited concentration camps. Many contributors mourned their relatives. As the magazine (and its contributors) grew up, submissions shifted from doing drugs to surviving medical procedures—to such an extent that I dropped the Illicit Substances subject header for Medical Adventures. By their nature, good drug experiences are hard to record; they are fleeting. Most medical interventions unfold over hours, days, or months. There’s plenty of time to think. Or… it could just be a factor of the encroaching middle age of Morbid Curiosity’s contributors.

One of my favorite sections of the magazine was called Childhood’s End. Initially, I planned to limit that section only to stories about childhood, but the definition expanded to include any growing experience. Unless you’re Ray Bradbury or Michael Hemmingson, the thrills and terrors of childhood can be tricky to recapture. And growing up, if done right, is a series of epiphanies and narrow escapes. The Childhood’s End stories featured in this book include everything from sexual awakening to visiting mom in a mental hospital, from growing up in the bathtub of the dead to surviving having your face slashed at a bus stop. They’re stories of the moments that created the people who contributed them.

Another section that was fun to put together was Far from Home, which originally contained travelers’ stories, but swelled to include adventures outside one’s comfort zone. I usually allowed each issue to sort itself by theme and mood, then gathered the stories loosely together, as one would a bouquet. Sometimes, I strained my metaphors. It couldn’t be helped.

Curious Behavior was the catchall heading. In most issues, it was the biggest section of the magazine. Stories there might range from drinking blood to surviving a carjacking. Those stories tended to be the funniest, especially when read aloud.

For the purposes of organizing Morbid Curiosity Cures the Blues, I created the Gainful Employment section. Tales of bad jobs, crazy bosses, and unreasonable expectations for low pay recur throughout the magazine, but only after I started to sort things for this anthology did I realize how many I’d published. It’s almost enough to convince you to become a stay-at-home mom.

The final section of each magazine was Beyond Death. Those stories explored what it’s like to stare death in the face, but they were also about people who tried to peel back the curtain to see who was manipulating the machinery beyond. Hugues Leblanc wondered what lay inside the crumbling coffins in the local graveyard, so he looked. Leilah Wendell wondered what it would be like to make love to Death. Trilby Plants and Jill Tracy, among others, shared messages they received from beyond the grave.

Each issue of the magazine ended with an essay I called the Epitaph. Often these essays were entirely unlike anything else that appeared in the issue. Usually they conveyed something that I wanted to remain stuck in the readers’ minds when they put down the magazine.

Three years after the magazine’s final issue, the problem was not too few contributions, but so many it was hard to winnow them down to fit into this collection. I would have loved to include more of the earliest pieces here, but I’ve lost touch with their authors. That seems to be how things go. Some people appeared out of the ether with a story to tell, then vanished, never to be heard from again.

Which, I suppose, was the best aspect of Morbid Curiosity, the part that drew readers back issue after issue: the contributors’ burning desire to share their experiences. The best stories were the ones where the author had some guilt or terror that could only be expiated by confessing it in a public forum. I love the stories that reveal the authors, that make me feel as if I know these strangers because I’ve seen their adventures reflected in myself.

This collection you hold in your hands represents some hard choices on my part. Each issue of Morbid Curiosity contained about 60,000 words’ worth of essays. In the magazine’s 10 years, that totaled more than 300 stories; over 250 authors, artists, and reviewers; and 600,000 words—all of which had to be pared down to a reasonable-sized book. (This isn’t the phone book, after all.)

Some of the contributors complicated the selection process by submitting more than one strong essay. It was hard to choose Brian Thomas’s piece about exploring Auschwitz over his touching burial of a very special feline or his work with the prop corpse who turned out to have a real human skeleton or his visit to Poland’s Black Madonna or his night sleeping in the coffin or his excursion to buy a shrunken head in Venezuela. Claudius Reich’s story “Why We OD” was a very strong contender, but in the end I had to pick his near escape from a pub bombing in London. And selecting that one meant I couldn’t have his tale about hitchhiking with the “Crazy Mofo” through Oklahoma or what it’s like to work with the San Francisco Needle Exchange or to grow up in a graveyard. In the pages of Morbid Curiosity, Dana Fredsti explored the origins of her fascination with darkness, hunted ghosts, learned to surf, starred in a B-movie, and petted a tiger. However, her experience in the Sunset Boulevard bikini bar remains my favorite meditation on the differences between the sexes that I’ve had the opportunity to publish.

Hardest of all was limiting myself to a single essay by Sacramento blood artist M. Parfitt. She was the only person to contribute to every single issue of the magazine. Her piece “Why,” which ended the first issue of Morbid Curiosity, is such a perfect summation of what I tried to do with the magazine that I had to include it in this book. Still, I struggled with the decision. How could I pass up her eulogy to her muse and companion, Wilbur? Or the “Secret, Dirty Places” of her childhood? Or her discovery of the artistic possibilities of her monthly “curse”? Or dancing on the little girl’s grave? Or her fascination with public toilets? Or shaving her legs for the very first time?

In the end, I wanted to incorporate as many contributors here as possible, to showcase the widest variety of the voices who’ve spoken in the pages of Morbid Curiosity. I wish I had the space to include everyone. That said, these are all stories that I would have loved to read anywhere. I’m thoroughly jazzed to have had the honor of publishing them again.

I find the world endlessly fascinating—from the ways people hide and reveal who they are to the elegant mechanisms of the human body to the mysterious workings of nature. I hope Morbid Curiosity will inspire you to look at the world with new wonder—despite discomfort or difficulties or the fear of what you might find.

Yours in search of satisfaction,
Loren Rhoads
San Francisco

© 2009 Loren Rhoads

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