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Welcome to the Odditorium
A creepy true story for your Halloweeen weekend
It was a rainy Sunday afternoon…
We were on our way to the art museum when we walked past a distinctly peculiar storefront we hadn’t seen before.
Odditorium, the sign read. Museum and Oddity Shop.
I am not one to pass up an oddity shop.
It hadn’t been there forever, but the proprietors did their best to make it seem as if it had. There were heavy velvet curtains, faded rugs, florid wallpaper. Battered tables and old tufted chairs. Murky mirrors and dim red light bulbs.
And it was crammed with oddities: creepy dolls, Ouija boards, candles claiming mysterious powers. Old photos of the long dead, back when they were young and didn’t know how ghostlike they’d appear someday. Inexplicable paintings, beetles pinned into frames, taxidermized crows, and glass eyes.
And then there was the museum. The museum was behind a door that had been made to look terrifying. It cost a little money to go in, I don’t remember how much.
Of course we bought tickets.
The museum was where they kept the good stuff, the rare and one-of-a-kind and not-for-sale. It was a hodge-podge of whatever the proprietors (who were obviously collectors as well as merchants, the two often go together) deemed odd enough to be worth putting on exhibit.
Here are just a few of the oddities we saw.
Portrait of Elizabeth Bathory, 1560-1614
Hungarian countess and alleged serial killer. The story, which you are free to believe or dismiss out of hand, is that she and four servants were convicted of the murder of hundreds of girls and women, and might have bathed in their blood, and might have inspired the novel Dracula. It’s also possible that none of this is true, and that the charges against her were a politically-motivated witch hunt.
The original portrait of Bathory is long gone if it existed at all. The painting at the Odditorium is a copy of a copy, which means that what you are looking at here is a copy of a copy of a copy that might have no original.
A later printing of Bram Stoker’s Dracula
While it looks quite ancient, this is a 1927 edition, and did not merit so much as a sniff from the rare book dealer who accompanies your correspondent on these outings.
Replica vampire-hunting kit
To be clear, this is not a real vampire-hunting kit, it’s only a replica. You’d certainly need to find the authentic version to hunt any actual vampires. Also, this was the first time I learned that there are artists in the world whose chief occupation is the construction of vampire-hunting kits and ghost-hunting kits, and I feel that this information alone was worth the price of admission.
A Vietnamese rice wine into which a venomous snake has been submerged. As the author of a book on poisons and also a book on booze, my recommendation is: Don’t drink this.
A box of little candles, roughly birthday candle-sized, with a picture of a pretty lady on the box and a hole for mounting a candle and carrying it around. The idea is that in a brothel, the candle would be lit at the bedside, and the customer would be expected to finish his business by the time the candle burned out, about seven minutes.
That’s the idea. The truth is that even back in the dim and faraway nineteenth century, they had clocks. And watches. And, for that matter, hourglasses. Brothels had ways of making sure you didn’t overstay your welcome, and those ways are older than candles, older than timekeeping itself.
These are, in fact, pocket candles, handy for carrying around if you found yourself needing to descend a dark staircase, duck into a tunnel, or confront a vampire.
Real glass that actually glows under ultraviolet light owing to its uranium content. They do give off the tiniest bit of radiation, but don’t let that bother you, your cell phone does, too.
Fortune Telling Teacups
A genuine fortune-teller wouldn’t require a specially marked teacup to do her job: she would need nothing more than tea and payment up front. But these cups are delightfully weird and the only objects in the museum that I would genuinely like to take home. Who wouldn’t like to drink a cup of tea and peer at the mysterious symbols and wonder if their fate was about to take a turn?
Fortunately, I wouldn’t have to rob a museum to acquire one: asreports right here, these cups are in circulation and ready to be put into use. The Cup of Knowledge in its many variants is all over Etsy, the Salem Witch Museum has its own specially-made version, and I can only hope that a jade green Paragon Fortune Cup, decorated with odd and delightful symbols like an umbrella, a magnifying glass, and a train (is it a cup or a Monopoly game?) turns up on a day when I’m weak-willed enough to part with a few hundred dollars.
Thus concludes our tour.
There’s much more I could report on: a house of tragedy in southern Oregon, a scrap of wood salvaged from the Titanic (movie), a collection of (reproduction) drawings made by the despondent and ultimately suicidal cereal titan Charles W. Post. A beer bottle from the set of HBO’s Tru Blood, and a painting that proports to have been painted in real blood.
Also, a portrait of Hedy Lammar, who was both the first woman depicted as having an orgasm in a film, and also the inventor, during World War II, of a frequency-jamming system that would prevent a torpedo from being thrown off-course. It involved the use of a miniature player piano. There’s a lot more I’d like to know about that, and I would very much like to draw you a picture of a miniature player piano strapped to a torpedo, but that will have to wait for another day.
Are You in Portland? Join me at Powell’s!
I’ll be in conversation with my friend Greg King at Powell’s on Monday, Nov 6 to talk about his new book, The Ghost Forest, a remarkable history of the movement to protect California’s redwood forests. Greg is not just a writer—he’s an activist who was instrumental in preserving the Headwaters Forest, and he has a long family history tied to the redwoods. I would love to see you there, and of course I’ll be happy to sign any of my books, most of which Powell’s will have on hand.
Please enjoy the free tutorial on painting autumn leaves I’m sending all of you today.
Usually the art lessons are for paying subscribers, but today it’s free, and you’re all getting it, just so you can see what you’re missing. This one is definitely made for beginning artists, and is more about mindfulness and the pleasure of watching ink bloom on the page than it is about learning a technical skill. Check your in-box, it’ll be along shortly. Subscribers also help keep this enterprise afloat, so in case you’re persuaded:
The Bit at the End
Take one of my online writing or art classes here
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