Real life horrors and the totally bizarre just in time for Halloween with author Varla Ventura. Known for her books on bizarre real life stories and several collections at Weiser books on the paranormal. We will discuss this and more in this journey through the underworld in our interview. It is interviews like this that make me darkly glad about what I do. Puts a new dark flare into my body and warped soul. Just in time for our jovial time of doom and glee, as we approach the almighty All Hallow's Eve. I hope you will enjoy this thrilling dash of blood and gore as much as I have. Also if you have any paranormal tales or tales of horror you'd like to share to be featured in future articles you can email them to firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Could you tell us what your prime motivation was in creating your two books Book of the Bizarre: Freaky Facts and Strange Stories and Beyond Bizarre: Frightening Facts and Blood-Curdling True Tales?
VV: I’ve always been a fan Ripley’s Believe it or Not and strange science and trivia, and I tended to retain these odd stories for years and years. I’d pull them out at a cocktail party—did you know that duck dander was once believed to be hallucinogenic?—and at one party my friend Pirate Chris asked me if I’d ever thought about writing a book of these odd facts. A light bulb lit up over my head! So my prime motivation was selfish: I just wanted a place to collect all the odd stories and trivia I’d gathered over the years. Scaring people, entertaining them, and grossing them out is just a little bonus!
2. Would you tell us about the series of books Weiser Books: Magical Creatures and Paranormal Parlor and what themes they exactly touch on?
VV: Both of these collections are resurrections of volumes of forgotten lore. The Magical Creatures collection focuses on supernatural creatures—including changelings, pookas, vampires, banshees, werewolves, mermaids—their habits and habitats, classical myths, and in the case of something like a vampire or werewolf even some old fiction stories. The Paranormal Parlor series is a collection of true tales of haunting, séances, psychic phenomena, as well as ghost stories, particularly of the Victorian drawing-room era.
3. In your Book of the Bizarre you mention the Transylvanian Tablets and since I have a Dracula aka Vlad the Impaler fetish would you tell us the tale?
VV: Yes! That is such a cool story. In 1961 archaeologists digging into a prehistoric mound in the Transylvanian village of Tartaria discovered several small clay tablets with bizarre inscriptions on them. Some believed the inscriptions to be sigils or magical signs, and others believed that they were important documents left behind for the singular purpose of being found—time capsules, perhaps. Using the modern method of carbon dating, the objects’ origin was placed at around 4000 B.C. The writing was believed to be of Mesopotamian origin, specifically Sumerian, the first written language. This suggests that the first evidence of writing could have begun in the backwoods of Transylvania!
The tablets were found in the lowest layer of the dig, in a sacrificial pit within a burial mound, and the pit also contained some scattered human bones. The bones bore symbols quite similar to the inscriptions on the tablets; the symbols were both from Sumer and from the highly advanced Minoan civilizations of Crete. But if the carbon dating is accurate, the tablets were made by a primitive Stone Age agricultural tribe known as the Vinca. The Vinca predated Sumerian writing by one millennium and the Minoan writing by two thousand years. Most scholars believe that the inscriptions were magical ciphers—spells and secret codes of this ancient farming tribe.
As an aside, if you are a Bram Stoker fan, in the Magical Creatures series I have several things of interest. One, The Vampyre, is the first vampire story published in English, predating Dracula by 70 years. It was written by John William Polidori who was, among many things, Lord Byron’s personal physician. Also, Stoker’s widow released a collection of short stories just after his death, and I’ve included two of them in my collection. The Burial of Rats and Dracula’s Guest. They are both amazing!
4. With Halloween vastly approaching out of all of your books what story would you like to share to get us in the mood of ghosts and ghouls?
VV: How about a story of real life horror?
Dr. Joseph McDowell was a prominent Missouri doctor widely considered to be a brilliant surgeon in 1840s St. Louis. Having taken up residence in Hannibal, Missouri, the doctor also gained a reputation for being eccentric. When his own daughter died as a young girl, he preserved her in a cask and hid the cask in a cave. He was also a reputed bodysnatcher, who would remove bodies from cemeteries for the purpose of teaching his students medical science—a practice not unusual for doctors of the time. But when the body of a young girl went missing, the townspeople demanded that he return it. McDowell, forewarned by the ghost of his own mother, hid the body before anyone could find it. In addition to his gruesome practices, McDowell was also reputed to keep a pet bear.
5. What exactly is the Magickal Skull of Doom and how did you come about the story?
VV: Ah, the skull of doom! The story goes that in 1920s this crystal skull turned up under an altar in an archeological excavation in the great Mayan city ruins of Lubaantun, what is now known as Belize. While other crystal skulls have been discovered in Central American ruins, none can match the Skull of Doom for its perfection of craftsmanship and likeness to a real skull. It actually is made refract light in such a way that the eye sockets glow!
Mystery surrounds the skull. It is debated if it is actually pre-Columbian. It is said it is made of crystal that appears to be from what we now call California, not in the Mayan territory, lending to the theory that it is not actually a remnant from Lubaantun and was “placed” there by its “discoverer.” Who knows, for certain? Certainly the archeological practices of the 1920s had very different standards than archeology of today.
But the best part of the story is the doom part, of course. Frederick Mitchell Hedges, one of the archaeologists present at the discovery, is the one rumored to have planted it. He proclaimed that the skull was “used by the high priest of the Maya to concentrate on and will death,” that it was “the embodiment of all evil.” He also said anyone who scoffed at the skull’s powers have died or “have been stricken and become seriously ill.” He is the one who declared it the Skull of Doom.
One of the later owners of the skull, Frank Dortland, swore it gave off an eerie perfume and emanated a sound similar to chiming bells! He also said it could change color at will and that it it sometimes was filled with ever-changing, cloudy images and at other times it contained crystal-clear images of temples, mountains, and myriad other striking scenes. Other folks who observed the skull when it was under Dortland’s watch said a hazy aura would occasionally enshroud it. Still stranger are the reports of physiological phenomena, such as a quickening of the pulse, muscle spasms in the legs and arms, and even eye twitching, affecting people who were near the skull.
Don’t you just want one all your own?
6. In your second book Beyond Bizarre you have a chapter called Gross Anatomy: Hospital Horrors. What does it embody exactly horror wise?
VV: That chapter is all about medical maladies and other medicine-related atrocities as well as a few haunted hospitals and asylums. There are details of a woman with a worm in her brain, a baby born with part of a foot in its brain, the use of maggots as medical devices (you can even get a prescription!), horrific diseases like the “lousy disease” where your skin erupts to reveal thousands of writhing bugs, body snatchers, phobias, and stories of shock-therapy. I think that covers the horror aspect fairly well.
7. Would you tell us a story involving corpses? Those are always fun.
VV: With pleasure. How about the origins of the guillotine, so we’ll get corpses and execution.
Joseph-Ignace Guillotin is credited as having introduced a swift and painless device designed to execute people in a humane fashion. He tested this device on the necks of corpses in the Bicêtre Hospital in Paris and, by 1789, concluded that it was significantly more rapid and effective than the common axe. Although Guillotin, after whom the guillotine is named, is widely credited as having been the inventor of this device, it was, in fact, used in Italy, Germany, Scotland, and
France throughout the 16th century. He just perfected it.
8. Beyond Bizarre has a chapter called Tales from the Cryptids. What Crypto story could you share with us?
VV: My favorite is the story of Chessie, the American version of Scotland’s Loch Ness monster, Nessie. Chessie makes her home near Chesapeake Bay, near the nation’s capital. Reported sightings of Chessie describe her as 30 to 40 feet long and snakelike, with a football-shaped head. One Chessie sighting took place in the summer of 1984, when a fisherman idly observed some bluefin jumping clear of the water as he floated past Caddy Corner. All of a sudden, all bluefin activity stopped, and the ocean was eerily quiet for a moment as Chessie soundlessly glided past.
The term cryptozoology—the science of hidden animals— was invented in the 1950s by Bernard Heuvelmans. And right now I’m working on a book about mermaids. I guess they’d fall in that category. Kind of the most overlooked of the cryptids. A lot of people have accounts and sightings, but few come forward with the information. I find it fascination, especially stories of menacing mermaids. Not so pretty afterall…
9. Who are some famous personalities that you could share some strange facts about?
VV: Katharine Hepburn suffered from a phobia of dirty hair. When she was shooting films for Twentieth Century Fox, she would sniff the heads of the cast and crew to make sure their hair was squeaky clean. And Bela Lugosi, the actor who famously portrayed Dracula in the 1931 film, was buried wearing his Dracula cape. My favorite story is about Ulysses S. Grant and his wife’s prophetic leanings. She woke up on the morning of April 14, 1865, with the intense sense that she and her husband should get out of Washington, D.C., as soon as possible. They left that day, even though it meant standing up President Abraham Lincoln’s invitation to the theater. Remember what happened that evening? The bullet of John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln. Papers discovered later revealed that Grant was also on the hit list. So this story not only encourages you to pay attention to that “gut-feeling” it also shows that you really should listen to your wife.
10. What are you up to in the future book wise or project wise and any links you would like to share? Also any last words as this interview closes in its final finale of gloom and glee? Thank you.
VV: Well I guess I already mentioned I have a book coming out in the summer of 2013 all about mermaids, called Among the Mermaids Facts, Myths, and Enchantments from the Sirens of the Sea. Following that I have a book called Banshees, Werewolves, Vampires, and Other Creatures of the Night. Both of these draw on and were inspired by my research for the Magical Creatures collection. Watch my blog, The Blog of the Bizarre, for upcoming dates, call for entries, and current giveaways for my books! You can also find me on Huffington Post, where I blog for their Weird News site, as well as on facebook and twitter.
Aye, we know there are many predators out there in the great, vast world. If we aren’t worried about the Zombie Apocalypse we are clutching our purses in fear of getting mugged. And thanks to medication, many of us who might stay up all night wrought with anxiety can get some sleep. I can tell you that what I’ve been reading, researching and writing about will not help ease any of your fears. In fact, it may well add to them. There are things lurking in the basement, outside the window, scratching at the door. There is no remedy, though there are some precautions you can take. Keep your silver bullets handy and your deadbolts locked. Consider yourself warned. And good luck.
Jeffery Pritchett is the host of The Church Of Mabus Show bringing you high strange stories from professionals in the carousel of fields surrounding the paranormal.