The first English dictionary is commonly thought to be compiled in 1755 by Dr Samuel Johnson of Blackadder fame. But that’s not really true. There were plenty of dictionaries before him. The most accurate guess at the earliest English language dictionary was one written by Robert Cawdrey in 1604 which was the first to include definitions albeit of only 2 thousand four hundred and 99 words. Put in contrast the Oxford English dictionary today has over 170 thousand words. The key difference between Dr Johnson’s dictionaries and the ones who came before him was the number of definitions and the level organisation.
Johnson dedicated his life to lexicography and died in 1784. 83 years later Ambrose Bierce, a writer of excellent gothic and supernatural short stories embarked on the serialised satirical exploration of the dictionary. Some of these definitions popped up in his weekly columns in ‘Town Crier’ and ‘Prattle’ and also in his personal letters. He wasn’t the first to take on the idea of a satirical dictionary, but Bierce certainly was dedicated to building and collating his own glossary of irreverent definitions.
Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce was born June 24th 1842, in an Ohio settlement called Horsecave. One of 13, all beginning with the letter A. Marcus Aurelius Bierce (1799–1876) and Laura Sherwood Bierce Had 13 kids named Abigail, Amelia, Ann, Addison, Aurelius, Augustus, Almeda, Andrew, Albert, and Ambrose… and that’s how you make sure one of your kids is going to write some kind of dictionary. It just so happened that this particular kid was a bit of a smart arse as he grew up.
As a kid, he was a printer’s devil, which is a little guy who mixes ink and generally getting things to the printer as quickly as possible because of those printing presses and typesetting dealies technical term, are massive and complex. He was 15 at this point and the printing operation he worked at was for an abolitionist paper called the Northern Indian
I’m terrified of delving into military history as always so here are the bare bones facts that we need from Bierce’s military service:
He fought in the Union army from the age of 18 until 24
He sustained a pretty serious head injury and some serious psychological damage
He saw some shit and it definitely had an impact on his writing. The horror of war was something he would come back to multiple times during his time as a writer.
He got married and had 3 kids. The marriage came to an end when he discovered letters to his wife Molly from an admirer, the separated in 1888, but did not divorce until 1904, 16 years later. She died the next year. His 3 kids were 2 boys, Day and Leigh and a daughter named Helen. Day and Leigh both died as young men, Day duel a romantic rejection and Leigh’s alcoholism and a nasty bout of pneumonia got the better of him in 1901. So by 1905 it Helen was Ambrose’s only surviving child.
Ambrose is typically framed as a Soldier, Journalist, writer and hardened cynic.
We will be revisiting Bierce’s amazing short stories at some point and there is an earlier episode of the Frankenpod which is just me reading A Vine on a House which is one of Bierce’s shorter stories. He is one of the wittiest, creepy and concise writers of American gothic fiction. He had a misadventure in Mining getting involved as a manager without experience and at the end of the mining boom so that didn’t go well.
Bierce at the age of 71 went to Mexico while it was in the middle of a revolution. He joined one of the armies as an observer, the army of Pancho Villa. The last known correspondence was from Chihuahua in Mexico and then poof! He vanished!
And that, in very broad strokes is the life of Ambrose Bierce, and if anyone knows a lot more about Mr Bierce and would like to come on the podcast I’d love to talk to you!
Three things you need to know about The Devil’s Dictionary
It is intensely self-indulgent
It is quite misogynist
It is incredibly racist.
Particularly when it comes to Native Americans and Aboriginal people.
Thanks to the U.S. Army Jazz by for making the song Kelli’s no. available in the public domain.
I was lucky enough to be joined by Olivia of the women’s history podcast What’sHerName which draws attention to stories of women who get consistently overlooked. Olivia teaches women’s studies and also has a website on travelling with small children called Around the World in 80 Diapers,
We discussed the often overlooked novel by Richard Marsh, The Beetle. The Beetle was published in 1897, the same year as Dracula and outsold it six times over. Bram Stoker’s Dracula would go on to be adapted, studied and re-imagined throughout the 20th century, whereas The Beetle has been almost lost, like all but a few of Richard Marsh’s 80 pieces of fiction.
The Beetle explores colonialism, politics, religion, gender, race and human exceptionalism. At its core, it is a deeply visceral gothic horror that defies many conventions of Victorian and gothic literature.
The story is told in 4 testimonies, one from Robert Holt a man used as a slave of a character called the Arab who is bent on destroying the life of a quite gifted and liberal politician called Paul Lessingham, the second testimony is from a rival of Paul Lessingham, who is also vying for the affections of his soon to be fiance, Majorie Lindon, the third testimony is from Majori Lindon herself and the final is from a detective called Augustus Champnell who is pulling the whole mystery together.
The story is not the sad tale of the tragic and violent figure of Sweeny Todd. It begins really with the story of Lieutenant Thornhill who is bringing the Titular string of pearls to the fiance of shipmate he believes to be dead. His mission to deliver the pearls entrusted to him by Mark Ingestrie to his sweetheart Joanna Oakley is rudely interrupted when he decides to go for a shave as soon as he arrives in London and has the misfortune to choose Sweeny Todd as his barber. Something happens, we don’t quite know what and Thornhill is gone. Thornhill, however, did not arrive in England alone and his faithful dog remains to wait at the barber’s door bitterly mourning his owner. This does not go unnoticed. And one of the more unfortunate souls who are at the heart of this mystery is a little guy called Tobias. He is a young boy who Todd has taken on as his apprentice. Todd beats the boy when he gets out of line or questions the increasing number of men disappearing from the shop to the point at which Tobias ends up a shivering crying wreck in the corner. When Tobias goes to inform authorities Todd has him sent to an asylum, where it is implied that he is not the first of todd’s apprentices to enter the facility if we can even call it that. A large portion of the narrative is devoted to heavily implying, in fact, they come out and say explicitly at one point that they aren’t so much treating or confining people as actively killing them off.
Meanwhile, Thornhill’s disappearance is noticed by his friends Colonel Jeffrey, who not only begins to investigate the disappearance, he also takes it upon himself to get the message of her sweetheart Mark Ingestrie’s death to Joanna Oakley. Joanna is upset obviously but doesn’t believe that Mark Ingetsrie is actually dead because Colonel Jeffery had never met him and was just conferring the information from Thornhill. Joanna begins to believe that the missing Thornhill is actually Jeffery in disguise. She also begins to investigate his disappearance. Her mother is also a religious zealot who is in the thrall of this cultish reverend who believes that he is the chosen one and Joanna is his chosen bride, which ends up resulting in her father and his beefeater cousin turning the reverend out of the house. Her mother then poisons her father and the cousin, survivable poisoning, but there is a bunch of full-blown misogyny in here as well like the cousin telling the story of how he will never marry because even women who seem sweet and supplicant to the whims of men have their own self-determination (that is not his words, he are grosser). At some stage, Joanna decides that her best course of action to dress as a boy and enter into an apprenticeship with Todd, who is, as luck would have it in need of a new apprentice because the last one went mad don’t cha know.
This episode we talk about the last story written by Charles Dickens, the characters, the story, the adaptations…
Brent gets a little emotional.
Stay past the outro music for some extra bits including Brent getting excited about theatre stuff and a promo for 6 Degrees of Wiki
The bleak, cold and unfeeling city of London and it’s sometimes monstrous inhabitants, corrupt power structures and labyrinthine streets and alleyways place the work of Dicken’s squarely within Victorian Gothic and The Mystery of Edwin Drood is no exception.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood is the story of the disappearance and potential murder of the titular Edwin Drood who had recently quarrelled with a guy named Neville, broke off an engagement with Rosa and has the misfortune to be a relation to a very unsavoury character named John Jasper. Rosa and Edwin seem to have ended their betrothal by their fathers on friendly terms and it is possible that Drood and Neville Landless managed to patch things up before his disappearance, which just kind of leaves Jasper.
But is Drood really dead and what is the deal with that weird guy Dick Datchery who just turned up out of the blue?
First things first, I’m so grateful to Linzi for making the time to not only talk to me about the book but taking the time to reread it! Linzi’s amazing podcast is called 33% Pulp in which she, her cohost Daniel and a rotating third host recap a work of pulp fiction one third at a time. It is very funny and I listen to new episodes as soon as they come up in my podcast feed.
Linzi shares some very interesting theories and insights into this amazingly ambiguous text and talks about how her view of the novel has changed since her first reading.
‘Rebecca’ was released in 1938 and owes much of its success to the possible straight romantic reading, but when you complicate the narrative by drawing attention to the unreliable narrator and the subversive themes that hide just below the surface there is something very strange, gothic and wonderful going on.
An unnamed young girl with no family meets a dark, broody Mr Rochester of Jane Eyre type, the widower Mr Maximillian Dewinter type while in Monte Carlo, he proposes to her after like a week or two and they go to his estate and Mansion Mandalay.
His first wife called him Max but he tells our named narrator she must call him Maxim
But the first Mrs De winter, the titular Rebecca has not quite left. Her presence is felt everywhere and her former personal maid Mrs Danvers is of the firm opinion that our unnamed narrator has in someway usurped Rebecca’s role in the house and we as readers think that this is going to be the plot, the pseudo haunting of the unnamed narrator by the more elegant, sophisticated and attractive Rebecca. But…
It’s 1881 and 2010 the toll of the war in Afghanistan is being felt by returning veterans who are struggling to find their place within a society that has no frame of reference for their recent experience. One of the more disenfranchised of these returning veterans is one Doctor John Watson, a medical man who is suffering physically and psychologically due in large part to an injury he sustained to his shoulder/leg. He has no real home, no real family or friends. He is a man adrift waiting for the nearest high functioning sociopath to sweep him off his feet and into an implausible mystery.
Tonight we are talking about the character that his own creator resented, the man who popularised a fallacy about deductive reasoning, the frequent ejaculator Sherlock Holmes.
Actually, I lie Watson is the frequent ejaculator that was rude of me.
Just a warning, this is NOT going to be a comprehensive exploration of holmes, we’re probably going to do other holmes episodes at some point, and I know that there will be people who know far more about Sherlock Holmes listening to this, so I can only apologize for any inaccuracies and omission, and I extend an open invitation to come on the podcast and share your knowledge.
For this month’s episode, I read A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle.
Brent watched the 2010 episode of BBC’s Sherlock and the unaired pilot.
Full disclosure, I have viewed the BBC Sherlock on numerous occasions, probably more often than I have read the story, but it’s pretty close. This is the story at the very beginning, the story in which Watson meets Sherlock, their eyes meet and a marketable franchise is born.
John Watson served in the Second Anglo-Afghan war. So the bulk of my information about this comes from the story itself and reading an article on garenewing.co.uk. Definitely not knowledgeable about war history so please bear that in mind. The conflict lasted for 2 years from 1878 to 1880
John Watson is said to be in Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers as an Assistant Surgeon. He was playing catch up of a kind, I’m sure that’s the technical term, and when he arrived at Bombay they were already in Kandahar. Then getting attached to another unit called the Berkshires. It’s after this that he goes to into the battle of Maiwand and incurs the injury and PTSD that he will be dealing with when he meets Holmes. He cites his orderly Murray as being instrumental in his survival after being wounded by a bullet.
Turns out that some war history research types have basically said nope, wrong place wrong time no Murray to nearly all of this, and have gone about systematically providing the actual information associated with Arthur Conan Doyle’s assertions and I just wanted to point out that we live in a world where someone bothered to do that and it’s beautiful and the internet is just swell sometimes. You can find that info here
Also, Holmes says in his whole showing off how brilliant he is that he can tell all of the things about Watson including that ‘He has just come from the tropics’ which is bullshit because Afghanistan isn’t in the tropics so suck on that Sherlock.
In the novel, we meet Gregson and Lestrade who Holmes says try jealousy to outdo each other and are rivals on the police force.
The emphasis on the ring is in both the novel and television show In the novel it is because it is the proof of the injustice and cruelty of the victim to the woman that is at the centre of the mystery.
Rache is German for revenge and Jefferson Hope adopts the use of this term and the crime scene as it is the modus operandi of a criminal in the United states that baffled the police and he hoped that he could utilize the same pageantry to throw off Scotland Yard.
There is a similar murder weapon, the two pills and the gun to enforce the choice.
The victims are Stangerson and Drebber. Drebber took the pill choice, stangerson attacked Jefferson Hope and so Hope had to stab him.
The cabby is still the murderer and he is about to die from an aneurysm in the aorta
Part two is very strange, we find out about Jefferson Hope’s motivation for murdering the two men. I’m going to do a bare-bones summary are you ready. There is lots of Mormon hating coming up:
John Ferrier and a tiny 4-year-old Lucy are dying of thirst and starvation on the plains of Utah, they were part of a larger group including Lucy’s parents, but they are the only two left alive. They are rescued by a large caravan of Mormons headed by real-life Mormon leader brigham young, who basically says that he will only save them if they follow all the tenants of the Mormon faith. John Ferrier Does pretty well out of the situation when they get to the ‘promised land’ he gets a portion of land and becomes very wealthy. He adopts Lucy and years pass with her growing up in a super creepy male gaze montage. She goes out one day on horseback and some shit goes down and she is rescued by Jefferson hope, who falls in love with her. He kind of proposes and then goes away for a job. Meanwhile Brigham young tells John Ferrier that Lucy will have to marry a Mormon dude or John Ferrier will be killed and lucy forced into matrimony. She has two to choose from, Drebber or Stangerson, both of whom are already in polygamous relationships They give them 30 days to comply, like some sort of weird notice to vacate and John Ferrier sends for Jefferson Hope to see if he can come and help. He turns up just in time in a weird face planting and crawling along the ground type situation which is ridiculous and I have a quote
They go on the run. But the Mormons catch up and while Jefferson hope is away from Lucy and killing John Ferrier and abducting lucy. Lucy dies not long after being forced to marry Drebber and so Jefferson Hope goes seeking revenge, even after Drebber and Stangerson go to England. And so that is the motivation of Jefferson Hope. He knows one of them killed John Ferrier and they forced Lucy into a marriage that was the apparent cause of her death. The ring at the crime scene is Lucy’s.
This is the point where I need to talk about the representation of Mormons. It’s pretty brutal, the taking of Lucy by force and the way Christianity is held up as the ideal and Mormonism is seen to be criminal and debauched is bad enough, but Conan Doyle attributes awful behaviour to real live people apparently based on sensationalised reports of the time that demonised the Mormons. As an atheist, I don’t think it’s fair for me to make value judgements about anyone’s religion, but the portrayal was so bad that apparently, Arthur Conan Doyle extended a personal apology to Brigham Young.
I’ve never felt more Like we need a prepared statement. We have seen the trailer for Mary Shelley! Thank you so much to everyone who emailed and a special thank you to Nick of Nick and Vince’s podcast on Twitter, I love that I’ve been fan girl enough about Frankenstein that people saw the movie come out and though, shit I wonder if The Frankenpod has seen this. I’ll be honest I’ve been nervous about the theatre release of this one since I heard about it being screened at the Toronto Film Festival last year.
I’ll be honest I saw some things included that made me happy, but a few that really made me concerned that I may not like this film. I’ve also seen some interviews that lead me to believe that there was a very passionate Mary Shelley enthusiast in Haifaa Al-Mansour and I looked up the pronunciation but I bet I’ve botched it anyway and that is entirely on me.
Early reviews do not seem to be favourable, and they do seem to have gone for a sensationalised approach, but at least it seems to be intended as a feminist reading of the events so even if it’s a bit outlandish, there might be some value to it. That being said there seem to be no definitive dates for an Australian release so if anyone gets to see it in late May in the U.S. and June in the U.K. you must tell me what it is like!
This actually ties in quite nicely with the story I’m going to tell you tonight actually, sort of…
This time we are going back to our origins, both the podcasts and my own with My Life as A Fake by Peter Carey an entry into the Australian gothic literary canon.
I was obsessed with a Bushranger, other countries read horse stealing, bank robbing outlaw type called Ned Kelly at about the age of 10 or twelve. During this time I read every book on the Kelly gang I could get my hands on, except one. There was one book that I was warned about, a book never to read, a book that crossed the line… IT EMBELLISHED THE FACTS. It is impossible to convey exactly how repulsive that book was to me as a result, creative nonfiction and historical fiction are two of my great genre loves, but back then I viewed the whole matter as a betrayal.
That book was Peter Carey’s True Story of the Kelly Gang. I still haven’t read it, I kind of still fear that I might turn to dust or explode if I tried.
A little more recently I was introduced to the novel discussed today, My Life as a fake. Still incensed by the horror of his Kelly gang book I assumed it was an autobiography. I am not joking.
I was glad he was admitting to his transgressions.
Then I found out it took inspiration from both Frankenstein and one of my favourite literary scandals, yes I have a favourite literary scandal (Welcome to The Frankenpod) the publishing of the posthumous works of Ern Malley
To explain the book in any real way you need to know about Ern Malley
And to tell the tale of Ern Malley you need to know about Angry Penguins
Angry Penguins was an artsy experimental Avante Garde literary publication started by Max Harris in 1940 in Adelaide Australia. He was just 18. The magazine flourished and took submissions, art, prose and poetry. The publication had been going for 4 years when Ethel Malley contacted him via letter, offering up her brother Ernest’s Poetry as a submission to Angry Penguins.
Max Harris was very excited by the works and even commissioned artwork by Sidney Nolan for the front of a special edition featuring Ernest’s poetry.
Sadly Ernest had passed away in 1943, so he would never see his work published. Would you like to hear a little of one of his poems?
Opening of Perspective Lovesong
It was a night when the planets
Were wreathed in dying garlands.
It seemed we had substituted
The abattoirs for the guillotine.
I shall not forget how you invented
Then, the conventions of faithfulness.
It seemed that we were submerged
Under a reef of coral to tantalize
The wise-grinning shark. The waters flashed
With Blue Angels and Moorish Idols.
And if I mistook your dark hair for weed
Was it not floating upon my tides?
The poetry was fresh, new and exciting and the poet was completely oblivious of his own talent, coming from working-class roots. A real diamond in the rough, and Max Harris was determined to give this underdog poet his moment to shine. Ernest, known as Ern to his friends was born in Liverpool in 1918 and migrated to Sydney Australia with his mother and sister just after his father’s passing in 1920. They lived in Perth until his mother’s death in 1933, after which the Young Ern Malley dropped out of school to become an auto mechanic, then moved to Melbourne at the age of 17. In Melbourne, he held a series of jobs before being diagnosed with Graves disease. He moved back to Sydney to be with his sister and died at the very young age of 25, refusing to get treatment for his illness. It seems that unbeknownst to those closest to him the young man had been writing a compilation of poetry called the Darkening Ecliptic. His sister had found his poetry in his belongings and sent it to the magazine.
Except she hadn’t.
Ern Malley wasn’t dead,
No one dies of graves disease
In fact he never existed
He was a hoax by two quite conservative modernist poets named Stewart and McAuley who met during military service, they thought that Angry Penguins and Harris published ridiculous rubbish and put together the most ludicrous submission they could come up with.
And the editor bought it, hook, line and sinker. would you like to hear part of one of the poems?
This is the opening verse of Culture as Exhibit
“Swamps, marshes, borrow-pits and other Areas of stagnant water serve As breeding-grounds …” Now Have I found you, my Anopheles! (There is a meaning for the circumspect) Come, we will dance sedate quadrilles, A pallid polka or a yelping shimmy Over these sunken sodden breeding-grounds! We will be wraiths and wreaths of tissue-paper To clog the Town Council in their plans. Culture forsooth! Albert, get my gun.
The opening lines are from an Army Directorate on mosquitoes, called Anopheles.
The scandal destroyed the magazine
The press had a field day and then the fuss died down and the incident became a bizarre part of Australian literary history.
Except not quite… in Peter Carey’s version of events, with names and details changed subtly. The hoaxer, by creating this tragic poet out of whole cloth creates an actual person, like Victor Frankenstein creating his creature Christopher Chubb has conjured up Bob McCorkle with words alone, and the man has been rendered flesh and blood by the publisher Jack Slater through the simple act of printing the works, and like any act of tremendous hubris in a gothic setting, disaster ensues.
This is another one of those books that I would loathe ruining the story.
However we do have unnatural creation, a crazed creator, the resurrectionists are name-checked, there is murder, kidnapping and aloof hyper-sexualized poets galore. Sound familiar?
Also, this clearly falls in with our theme the gothic city as the bulk of the early action takes place in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia which is depicted from a self consciously post-imperialist British viewpoint. Kuala Lumpur is depicted as a gritty monsoonal labyrinth that smells mainly of fish and tries to reject the visiting Brits, making them ill. There is racism within these pages, and the brutality of the 1969 race riots, is not long past when the books take place, as our narrator Sarah reflects on as she sees a resident using a machete during harvesting.
Sydney and Melbourne also get the Gothic treatment, the gravesites, bleak working-class residences and bohemian multistory abodes. Not quite as vibrant as Kuala Lumpur, or maybe I just don’t find the description of Melbourne that gothic and outlandish, bare in mind I spent about a third of my goth phase passing the time broke and stupid in the alleyways of Melbourne. The book is rife with depictions of the cultural cringe, from Australian ex-pats wanting to deny their heritage to an artist called Noisette actually being Mary Moriss from Wangaratta. We also get a British character saying that an Australia has a tiny antipodean brain.
There are lots of grim gothic allusions, webs, blood, the man upon the stair, a quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost and the stitching together of the visage of Ern Malley.
There are still those who see something remarkable about the poems. In fact, the work of Ern Malley inspired postmodern poetry overseas, particularly in America where the context of the hoax was easier to disassociate from the work itself. The conservative poets McAuley and Stewart accidentally wrote a pivotal piece of experimental poetry and helped inspire poets and painters for years to come.
Sidney Nolan cited the Ern Malley hoax as the inspiration for his Ned Kelly paintings… see what I did there.
Here is a talk about why we shouldn’t let the story of Ern Malley die.