I found Geoffrey Abbott’s treasury of trivia, A Macabre Miscellany (Virgin Books, 2004), entirely by accident. I was gift shopping at the local chain bookstore, and somehow found this morbid little book in the Reference section. After reading the back cover — which calls it “a compendium of carnage, a treasure chest of torture and terror…the very best of the very worst things that can happen to a person” — I immediately knew that I had indeed found a gift…for myself!
Published by the quirky book division of UK outfit Virgin Entertainment, this 4×6″ title manages to collect “a thousand gruesome and gory facts” culled from world history by none other than a former Beefeater at the Tower of London. In his introduction to the book — which is essentially a compendium of bizarre historical factoids revolving around torture, mutilation, and capital punishment — Abbot explains that in his work at the Tower of London, he would most often get lurid questions from tourists who would want to know more about the execution chambers than the Crown Jewels…and so he began to research the answers, which led to a lifelong obsession. The book is divided into chapters with titles like “What a Way to Go!” and “Bones, Brains and Body Parts” which catalog the extreme lengths that “civilized” cultures have gone to in order to exact punishment, cruelty and revenge. The book is filled with “little known facts” that would make for delightful dinner conversation. Here’s a typical entry (and one of the tamer ones, I might add):
“Before severed heads were displayed in public on London Bridge, they were preserved by being parboiled in salt water and cumin seed to deter the sea birds from eating the flesh.”
There are nine hundred and ninety-nine more where that came from. Reading this book I learned about virtually every execution method tried by man (I particularly like the “Brazen Bull” (which boiled victims inside a golden calf) and the ancient Chinese punishment of sawing a man in half, vertically, starting at the head); bizarre medical experiments (like the time a dog’s head was sewn onto a freshly guillotined corpse…and momentarily brought to life!), and numerous freakish delights (like the story of Peter Kuren, the “Monster of Dusseldorf,” whose blood fetish was so neurotic that even at the guillotine he expressed regret, “not for his crimes, but because he would not be able to hear his own blood pumping out after the blade had fallen”). I learned how long it takes a body to be cremated and when the last beheading was performed in Germany. Abbott’s talent for digging up history’s horrors — from the banal to the absurd — greatly impressed me.
If you like true crime, you’ll get a kick out of this book. The old cliche, truth is stranger than fiction, is proven once again…and as a horror writer, this book really inspired me in ways I can begin to imagine. And it made me laugh, of course, too. I highly recommend this title. I’ll be looking for Abbot’s other book, The Executioner Always Chops Twice, the next time I go gift shopping…and I’ll definitely be picking up More Macabre Miscellany: 1000 MORE Hideous And Horrifying Acts when it’s released this September!
A Macabre Miscellany is $7.95 from Amazon.com or from Virgin Books in the UK.