The idea from this story came from a phrase Hulver icon and RPG (as in "roll save versus poison" and not "shoulder launched anti-tank weapon") aficionado Kellnerin used to describe something she encountered in a D&D game: "regulation sarcophagus." Though a series of mental leaps, that became this story. If you enjoyed it, she deserved some praise. If you thought it sucked, the blame for that rests squarely on my shoulders.
Ironically, this is the first story I've written in a long time that I actually enjoyed. Normally, I hate everything I write. This, however, I thought was quite good. Ultimately, it was, of my three entries to the WFC, the lowest ranked one. There is probably some lesson here about the crappy results of artistic self- indulgence and the inability of writers to judge the merits of their own material.
Since you've probably already read the story, I'll just give away the gimmick. The idea was to write a story with an ignorant 3rd person narrator. Sort of the opposite of an omniscient narrator: the narrator with a huge blind spot. I was hoping that the story worked on two levels. If you didn't realize the narrator was missing a bunch of connections, then the story could be read as a sort of Borges-lite sketch about a bizarre fantasy museum. If you figured out that the narrator was not making connections about Campbell's past, then you might discover a "plot" of sorts, which is that Campbell was the hack resurrection man Skeleto the Magnificent. He is filled with self-loathing because he is the self-appointed guardian of a history he feels tarnished. The hope was that you didn't need to make any such connections to enjoy the story, but that these little, purposefully inconclusive hints would be there as a treat for those who did read the story that way.
The Resurrection Man Hall of Fame is located near the corner of Montana and Allesandro, in Los Angeles' Echo Park.
These streets are real. The museum is not. Being buried alive for the amusement of others was actually a minor act on the sideshow circuit of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Prior to his Hollywood career, Tod Browning, who later gained fame as the director of "Dracula," performed the stunt as part of a traveling carnival. However, the act as presented here, including the whole terminology of resurrection, is fake. The museum is loosely inspired by the real Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles.
The literary inspiration was primarily Calvino's "If on a winter's night a traveler . . ." My favorite Calvino book. In that book, one is given tantalizing hints of other narratives, none of which are resolved. Somebody, I believe 256, suggested that this is a sort of cruel tease. I can see how it could be understood that way. I find it remarkably liberating. Instead of giving the reader one story, Calvino gives the reader a million different potentials, all to be filled or left unresolved as he or she sees fit. I felt it was an unusually generous sort of narrative. I tried to do something like that here – but I'm hardly a Calvino so it is hardly the same thing.
Other inspirations include Sorrentino's "Lunar Follies," Millhauser's "The Barnum Museum," and Marcus' "Age of Wire and String."
The museum sits between a checking cashing joint and an empty storefront that, for several years now, has seemed resistant to the developmental efforts of any would-be tenant. The backs of display cases fill the museum's windows, blocking all light from entering the space and preventing any passerby from looking into the museum. The only items on display are a single paper-back book on an adjustable white wire bookstand and a single framed photograph. The two items are displayed several feet from one another, as if the window designer wanted to ensure that each item is studied individually. Instead of reinforcing the importance of each item, the overall impression is one of isolated irrelevance. The book's title, barely legible because of the curled cover, is "The Great Resurrection Men." Joel Campbell is given as the author's name. Once black and white, and now almost entirely a uniform ghostly gray, the photo shows a young man in formal clothes. He's wearing a top hat and carries a cane. Careful study of his smile reveals pride mixed with competent, disdainful humor. His left hand is extended in presentation. Standing up next to him is an open and empty coffin. Once there was a rich, velvety curtain visible behind the figure and his coffin, but the sun has burned it away.
This window display is loosely based on the less than impressive display in the storefront window of the Rosicrucian Temple near Union Square in Manhattan. The title of the book ties into the whole "plot" of Joel Campbell being Skeleto and being the shameful steward of a legacy he could never live up to. He thinks they're "great" and that he's shit.
Insanity was a constant threat for even the most accomplished resurrection men. Whenever he was buried, the Bostonian great resurrection man Christopher Michener used to suck on randomly selected puzzle pieces that his wife and assistant, Iris, would hand him before his coffin was nailed shut. In the endless silence and unfathomable darkness, he would worry the small wooden pieces with his teeth and tongue (this was before cardboard puzzle pieces) Using only the sense of taste, Michener would attempt to discern what was on the individual piece and creatively extend the piece to hypothesize the image on the completed puzzle. A display of two hundred of his pieces is on display at the Hall of Fame. Mounted in a hanging display case like pinned exotic insects and organized by some cryptic taxonomic scheme understood solely by the museum's curator, these tiny bits of color, seemingly random lines and curves connect us to the master's mind as he struggled against psychological collapse. On one piece, known to scholars and enthusiasts as Piece 37, a small water wheel, perhaps from an old mill, is visible.
I don't know where the puzzle piece idea came from. I wanted something that would be an allegory for the reader (all apologies to de Man) trying recreate the world of the resurrection men from these tiny hints and, perhaps, trying to figure out the Skeleto/Campbell connection the few clues in the work. After it came to mind, it struck me as a sort of crazy way to fight insanity and I hoped that paradox would be humorous.
Taped to the back of the Hall of Fame's front door is a yellowed, hand-written sign. The spidery handwriting betrays the effort and care that went in forming the words, though the shaky, uneven shape of the letters mockingly undermines that very effort. In all caps, underlined, slightly off-center, the sign reads "The Resurrection Men Hall of Fame." Under that, following the standard rules of capitalization and lacking the aggrandizing underline, the sign reads, "Joel Campbell, curator."
I thought this would be a nice detail to suggest the run down nature of the place. It also touches on Campbell's self-negating personality.
The era of competitive resurrections ended tragically in 1928. It was a horrific end to one of resurrection's most splendid rivalries. After years of acrimonious remarks to the press, Leo "Red" Groves had challenged his long-time rival, Richard Domenica, to a showdown. The event was held at B. F. Keith's Palace Theater in Times Square, New York City. According to vaudeville scholar Robert W. Snyder, ten tons of soil was transported to the theater. Groves and Domenica were buried simultaneously. Sometime during the night, nobody can be quite sure when, Groves's coffin imploded and the star was crushed. Always the gentlemen, Domenica declared the contest a draw and, even to his death of natural causes in 1979, refused to accept that he had ever defeated his rival.
B. F. Keith's was a real vaudeville hall in New York. It is discussed extensively in the very real Robert W. Snyder's excellent history of vaudeville, "The Voice of the People." Snyder, to my knowledge, has never written about burial entertainments. The incident described here is completely fictional. Turn of the century magicians used to have competitions all the time – something magicians should do these days, but sadly do not – so I thought it would be cool if resurrection men did the same sort of thing. The funniest thing here for me is that I never say how you could "win" a resurrection man bury-off. I have no idea how you could. I guess you could see who stayed down longest. But, since it requires coordination with a ground crew to dig you up, your competitor would know how long you planned to be down there for. It is all pretty silly. I thought some of the humor would be the absurdity of the idea of competitive burials.
Prior to housing the Hall of Fame, the shop that now holds the museum was a pharmacy. The once mint green, now scuffed dull gray vinyl floor tiles and smoke-yellowed fabric roof tiles date back to that era.
Again, just some descriptive writing to give people the mood neglected shabbiness. There's sort of a rhythm of period discussion and descriptive detail about the current museum and its curator. In the absence of a narrative arc, I thought an easily recognized pattern would help hold things together for the reader. However, trying to keep to the pattern was too confining and was distractingly artificial. Ultimately, not every section is clearly one sort of passage or the other. Perhaps a better writer could have kept it going.
During the Great Depression, a horde of marginally talented semi-amateur resurrection men swelled the ranks of the profession. Unable or unwilling to devote themselves to the special disciplines unique to resurrections, they relied instead on specially designed trick coffins to accomplish their resurrections. These over-sized coffins were known as "cheaters." The cheater on display in the Hall of Fame belonged to a justifiably obscure hack that performed under the name Skeleto the Magnificent. The coffin uses its extra space to incorporate a battery-powered electric light, a small ice box, a system of fans driven by an ingenious collection of pedals, and a modest bookshelf. While the technological cleverness of the cheater begs for some sneaking admiration on the part of museum goers, genuine resurrection men detested the use of cheaters. The cheater's bookshelf includes a volume of Herbert Spenser, several books by Mark Twain, a novel by Booth Tarkington, and one anonymously edited collection of lewd poetry.
This seems like a suitably dated collection of works. In retrospect, it is actually a bit too old for a young man in the 1930s, but it is too late now. Hopefully the list will simply suggest out-of-datedness and the reader will let it go at that. Tarkington might be the least remembered man on this list. His once popular "The Magnificent Ambersons" is now better known as an Orson Welles directed film. The plot of the novel involves a family that finds themselves fading into obsolescence as the 20th century dawns. This links to the whole aura of faded glory that pervades the museum.
This is the first mention of Skeleto. Campbell has the cheater because it was his.
Though he is a bottomless pit of information on the lives of resurrection men, the culture in which they thrived, and secrets which they tried to keep, there is one topic which Joel Campbell will not discuss with museum patrons. He refuses to be drawn into a conversation about the Still. This is the term for the possibly mythological class of resurrection men who opted to be buried forever. Of this shadowy subculture, the most famous example is the mysterious performer Adolfo, who was active in the American travel show circuit during the Reconstruction era. This elusive, but apparently prolific, performer disappears from the published records in 1878. Popular legend has it that he was willingly built into the walls of the Winchester home. Despite lack of any hard evidence and repeated denials by the Winchester estate, the rumors persist and Adolfo has become something of the patron saint of the Still. Campbell says he finds the whole idea distasteful. He'll tell curious patrons that the persistent interest in the Still is the disease symptom of an era that is morbidly compelled to replace artistry with pathology. A people so interested in death do not deserve resurrections.
In the earliest draft of the story, the Still were called the Permanent, which, on thinking back, is a cooler name. I included this bit about the Still because the notion seems to have so clearly suggested itself that avoiding the idea of suicidal, death seaking resurrection men would have seemed, to me anyway, as a distraction – a sort of obvious absence.
Among the small and shattered clan of resurrection enthusiasts, it is a widely held that Joel Campbell was himself a resurrection man. The old man vigorously denies it, but the theories persist. Some erroneously claim the man into photograph on display in the Hall of Fame's front window is a shot of Joel from his resurrection days. Even the most cursory research positively identifies the subject of that photograph as Brian Constance Hale, a minor figure on the Atlanta resurrection scene in the first decade of the twentieth century.
He doesn't consider himself a resurrection man because he was a hack. The phrase "small and shattered" was a typo that I kept because it read better. It was supposed to be "small and scattered."
A Chicago-native of Irish and German heritage, Charles Robertson was buried and exhumed several hundred times as Huang Hongdau, the Famous Chinese Resurrection Man. His photograph hangs in the Hall of Fame. When Robertson first started performing resurrections in 1878, he spent two years being buried and exhumed under his own name. However, fame eluded Robertson until he moved to London and adopted the persona of Huang Hongdau. He took the idea from a newspaper article about Huang Yuanyong, a little-known but extremely talented resurrection man who performed in China. Ironically, during a short tour of United Kingdom, Yuanyong, the genuine Chinese resurrection man, was denounced as a fake and pretender. The British press, which was used to having their Gilbert and Sullivan-informed ideas of the Far East pandered to by Robertson, found Yuanyong unconvincing. Robertson kept up the racial deception both on and off stage. He was not the only resurrection man to completely submerge their own identity in a fictional persona. British resurrection man David Chelsa disappeared into Ivan the Undying, a fake Russian. New Yorker Mort Finkelstein was swallowed by Houdin Feuillet, a supposed Frenchmen. The Canadian Gerald Michaels vanished into the role of Grant Bolster, another Canadian, but a more interesting one.
The story of Robertson is based on the real life exploits of William Robinson. Robinson was an American who performed as the Chinese magician Chung Ling Soo. At the turn of the century, Robinson convinced the British press to declare him the authentic Chinese magician in a contest against a real Chinese magician. I've always been fascinated with that odd tale and what it says about seeing your expectations against seeing the evidence before you. The full story can be found in Jim Steinmeyer's "Glorious Deception."
Perhaps it is obvious enough not to need saying, but the idea of stage personas is linked to the Campbell/Skeleto theme.
Cost of admission – $7.00 adults, $3.50 children and seniors, ask about discounts for groups of ten or more – includes the curator tour. Despite the Hall of Fame's diminutive size, the tour takes almost two hours. Sadly, much of this is due to the curator's failing health. He walks between exhibits with the determined but enervated focus of a bumblebee that one might find, in the last moments of its life, trudging pointlessly on foot. When the museum first opened in 1986, Joel greeted patrons in the too-large tuxedo and top hat of the aforementioned hack Skeleto the Magnificent. As Joel's body thinned with age, the suit grew too cumbersome and Joel was forced to retire it to the collection. Joel now tends towards style-inert tennis shoes, khaki slacks, and a rotating collection of garish panama shirts. The only hold-over from the formal days is Skeleto's top hat which he wears throughout the tour. The hat still fits perfectly.
This section contains the most blatant links between Skeleto and Campbell, though I tried to not make it so obvious that readers were forced to see it. It is an interesting problem. Trying to keep a "secret" from the reader, you oscillate between worrying that the reader could never pick up the clues and worrying that you're way to blatant about it. By virtue of knowing the "secret" you really lose your perspective on how well you're playing your hand. I didn't want a story that needed the revelation of the Skeleto/Campbell connection, so, in theory, I could be as subtle and obscure as I wanted. But I did want there to be enough material so that some folks could maybe guess at the backstory. Whether it worked or not, you're in a better position to know than I.
There were almost no female resurrection men. In the Swados Playbill Collection at the Seattle Academy of Music, diligent researchers have found a performer who went by the name of Diamond Jill. According to the short biography in the playbill, she was first buried as part of a father and daughter act in Chicago in 1923. The biography goes on to list several performing venues where Diamond Jill was buried and resurrected, though researchers have yet to confirm her appearance at any of these venues. It is possible that Diamond Jill's biography was faked for promotional purposes. Unfortunately for the meticulous historian, less than honest marketing was a hallmark of resurrection men biographies. Two photographs of an unidentified hack resurrection woman can be found hanging, framed, next to the cheater. The first photo shows the young woman, light hair, clinging evening gown made of some shiny fabric, standing next to a coffin, her arms raised in a "V." The coffin is shut. On its lid is the carved shape of a crescent moon. The second photo is a less professional and staged shot. The nameless performer is in standard street clothes. She's wearing circle-rim glasses and a small beret-style hat. She is sitting on a coffin, perhaps the same one. She's leaning back slightly, her hands are stuck out behind her, palms flat on the coffin lid, propping herself up. From the camera's angle, you can see the side of the coffin. There are several clearly visible seams, tell-tale signs that she's sitting on a cheater. She's smiling at the camera. There's writing in the lower right corner: "S – The worst thing about it is being so alone. You are MAGNIFICENT!!! I love you." Historians have searched for the identity of this performer for years, but all efforts have been in vain.
Swados is a nod to short story master Henry Swados, author of the collection "Nights in the Gardens of Brooklyn." This story is nothing like something he would have done, but the fictional collection bearing his name I had originally located at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, making the allusion slightly more sensible. I don't even know if there's a Seattle Academy of Music.
Diamond Jill is based on nobody in particular. I liked the somewhat macabre idea of a father/daughter burial act, so she exists mainly to work that into the story. She also alludes to the faked identities theme that brings us back to Skeleto/Campbell.
The "S" is for "Skeleto." The unwritten story is that this nameless woman gave the photo to Joel during their performing days.
The Resurrection Men Hall of Fame closes around 7:00 or 8:00, depending on the how busy the place is and whims of Joel. These days, Joel says, even standing around and doing nothing is tiring. After locking up, he walks home alone. He lives ten blocks away. He says that even when the neighborhood was bad, he was never bothered on the way home. "I'm lucky that way," he says.
Originally, I had Joel living in the museum. The story ended with him turning off the lights, dusting all the displays, and retiring to a tiny room in the back. That added to the sense of museum as tomb, but the ending was unsatisfying. Having him walk off so clearly ends the story without being overly dramatic. Anyway, that was the thinking.
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