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  • Review: Mrs Wakeman vs. The Antichrist August 28, 2014

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback


    Behind the Stars and Stripes wavering over corn fields and Malborough man coughing up his lungs, there is vast hinterland of American strangeness that European countries, cursed by more measured, deeper histories, fail to compete with. Perhaps it’s the melting pot, perhaps it is the relative lack of rules, perhaps it is the welcome failure of an aristocratic political culture, perhaps it is ‘something in the water’. The fact remains, though… Choose an American city and start combing through its nineteenth-century newspapers and you will find stuff (even taking into account the penchant of American editors for lying in print) that simply game-set-match anything weird you could find in an equivalent British or Belgian or Bulgarian city. What is more, it gets stranger the further you go from the green light and the orgastic future on the shores of New England, reaching high zenith somewhere to the right of the dust bowl. There is no need to rewatch Twin Peaks. If you want the real log lady invent a time machine and go to a Nebraskan settlement just before the Civil War… What is surprising is that relatively few ‘scholars’ have dealt with this ‘high strangeness’. In Europe cultural historians would be crawling all over this stuff and arguing about whether cat killing, say, or a man with notions about angels and cheese, was best approached by maverick Marxism, the Annales, or deviant micro-histories (rather than the facts themselves)… In the US the task has been left to dilettantes: ex librarians, secondary school history teachers, journalists and divorced parents who only have to look after the kids every other weekend. These people do not care about schools of French or Italian historiography: they do not have Derrida or Foucault on their bookshelves. They are empiricists and they typically do things better than academics ever would, because they focus on facts and hang on with terrier teeth to any datum unlucky enough to come under their purview, shaking the bloody life out of it. In the UK we talk about ‘the blessed villages’, the villages that did not lose a single man in the First World War. Perhaps in history we should talk about the blessed fields: areas of the past that have not yet been sullied by the ‘professionals’. This blog has previously celebrated the work of Chris Woodyard, the once and future queen of small town nineteenth-century American bizarreness: we welcome now onto the stage a dauphin, who just arrived through the post, Robert Damon Schneck author of a new book Mrs Wakeman vs. the Antichrist (just out in the States). RDS provides ten chapters all of which take on an event or a theme and ‘shake them to death’, and there can be no greater compliment from one historian to another. These include the delusional Mrs Wakeman, the man in Room 41, and a bigfoot encounter in Ape Canyon. (Beach must confess that he skipped a chapter entitled ‘The Littlest Stigmatic’ because he doesn’t deal with body fluids very well.) Of course, mad cult leaders, men in hotel rooms and big foot sightings are common. But all of these are cases chosen carefully from the wine cellar of the past for their strange boquet and dark colour by a truly diabolical sommelier. Mrs Wakeman not only believed that she could bring the world to the end, but also convinced her followers to saw off enemies heads. The man in Room 41 patented (kind of) a machine for decapitating himself and used the hotel room to that end: did you know that at a typical beheading about two wine glasses of blood come out of the neck? And the big foot sighting involved a yeti attack on a gang of spiritualist miners, a chapter that turns into a welcome attempt to take the zoology out of crypto-zoology (perhaps not the most convincing but the most interesting pages in the book?). Watch out too for the murderous clowns in vans, wild men in pick up trucks, and climb on board. This is not a book where you will  learn something about small town America, it is not the kind of book where you learn that much about yourself. It is so much better than that because it is the kind of book where you discover just how warped human nature can become when left to its own insane devices.

    Beach is always looking for great but unusual books: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com