Monday, May 6, 2013

Monday Papers: Part the Fouth

Resurrection Men

 "Resurrection Man" is an obsolete term now, thank God, but it is still one that interests me. I first heard it when my father described the Robert Louis Stephenson story "The Body Snatcher".  My father and I have a particular affinity for Stephenson which coalesced mainly over Treasure Island which was a particular favourite.  We both still maintain that all really great books contain a map.

I recall in my mid twenties, the particularly shocking moment, when Dad having told me that it was time for me to inherit his collection of Stephenson's, brought me down to the library that he kept in the basement and we discovered that it had been burgled.

Boris Karloff as the eponymous Body Snatcher

I have slowly begun to reconstitute that library which has been a wonderful opportunity to re-read those Stephenson's that I had forgotten. Re-reading "The Bodysnatcher" brought a classic horror film to mind. Boris Karloff is often only remembered today for his portrayal of Frankenstein's monster, but I think his performance in this RKO classic is as fine a thing as you could find.  A compelling testament to the power of pure acting ability.

It has occurred to me that being an archaic term, Resurrection Man requires some explanation. In the early 19th century, there was a serious shortfall in the number of cadavers required for medical training and no legal way for medical schools to get their hands on bodies for the teaching of anatomy. As a result, there grew up an illicit trade in body snatching, where grave robbers or "resurrection men" as they were known would steal bodies to supply the medical schools.

Two Irishmen, Burke and Hare, are the most famous examples of the breed - though to be fair they were not representative. Grave robbing was a comparatively minor crime at the time and Burke and Hare decided to cut out the middleman and began to indulge in a spot of murder, sixteen in total, to supply their customers.

Resurrection Man is also the name of a powerful novel by Irish crime writer Eoin McNamee about the Shankhill Butchers, a particularly nasty chapter in our history. McNamee is a fine writer and his prose has a sort of hallucinatory clarity that I always find compelling. He's written several other books of Irish crime and is well worth tracking down.

May the Fourth be with you. 

There's been something of a celebration of Star Wars online over the last few days which is no bad thing.   I rather like Star Wars, at least the first three films. They have a bravura and sense of old fashioned story telling that is completely lacking in the second three.  I think the problem with the second set of films is that they set out to be good Star Wars films rather than good films or even good science fiction films. There comes about where the entire enterprise becomes so self referential as to be completely pointless.

What is definitely lacking is the edge present in the great Space Opera that inspired the films.  The "planetary romance" has a bit of a bad name in science fiction circles, but I think that there is a lot of fine work in that field and none better than that of Catherine Lucille Moore.  CL Moore wrote some of the finest science fiction that I have ever read and some of her best tales concern Northwest Smith, a Sam Spade of the Spaceways, who slouches through a Burroughsian Solar System with a heat ray on his hip.

Probably the best known of her stories is Shambleau, which isn't available online, so you will have to track a hard copy down.  This is high quality story telling in the old style, told with a lightness of touch and eye for human folly that leaves it as sharp and surprising as it was when it was first written.


The Phoenix Park Murders

Terry Eagleton is an odd fish, I often disagree with him, but his concision and most of all his humour would make it a sin to deny him a hearing.  I read him recently and came across the following passage, which I rather liked.

"The Kantian imperative to have the courage to think for oneself has involved a contemptuous disregard for the resources of tradition and an infantile view of authority as inherently oppressive."

There's quite a bit to be said for that approach to my mind, but today I observed a tradition that is a little odd. It's not a tradition of my family, but rather of Mrs. Kinch's.  On the the sixth of May 1882, an ancestor of Mrs Kinch's was working in the Vice Regal Lodge in the Phoenix Park, when a group of men known as "The Invincibles" attacked Lord Frederick Cavendish and Thomas Burke, slashing both men to death with surgical blades.   Burke was the intended target of the attack and the attackers were eventually caught and convicted, through the work of Superintendent John Mallon, and several were hung.

Mrs Kinch's ancestor observed the aftermath and helped carry the bodies inside.  Curiously enough, he then returned to the site and cut a small cross into the turf and marked it with a flower that he had taken from the lodge. On the anniversary each year a member of the family returns (I suspect a few have been missed) and places a flower on the spot.

This year, I have been deputised.

Flowers from Mrs. Kinch's Garden

There is official site marked with a small cross of white stones, but family legend places the actual site some distance from there. I sloped up to the Park and paid my respects to Lord Cavendish and Mr. Burke this afternoon.


  1. What a wonderful post today!

    Best Regards,

    Heinz-Ulrich von B.

  2. Enjoyed your post . . . but RLS's last name is spelled with a "v", not a "ph". I'm from the Monterey, California area where he lived for some time.

    Robert Louis Stevenson.

    -- Jeff

  3. Not all tradition is bad as your post well illustrates. Thanks for the book recommendations too.




  4. Thanks for the recommendation of Moore. Another read I shall have to investigate.


  5. I forgot to mention that I really like the tradition of Mrs. Kinch's family. . . . and I'm glad that you got to be a part of it.

    -- Jeff

  6. At one time C.L.Moore was married to Henry Kutter who was one of my favourite authors - although, to be fair, I have a lot of favourite authors.

    Very strong on Lovecraft.

  7. "We both still maintain that all really great books contain a map." I agree wholeheartedly with this! :)

  8. A great post, Conrad. I am certainly a subscriber of the view that a map definitely helps any book up a notch, and is frequently present in the books I love. There's a whole blogpost about maps in books somewhere, I am sure!

    As for the nod to tradition....well done Sir! Walking through Smithfield this morning, I noticed someone had also placed some fresh wild heather on the memorial to William Wallace. Thoughts, memories and actions such as that, and Mrs Kinch's family tradition, enhance the world for all of us.

  9. Sounds like a good read. If you like resurrection men stories - give The Edinburgh Dead by Brian Ruckley a try - if you haven't already.

  10. A very fine and eclectic roudup, young Kinch. First, thank you for reminding me of C.L. Moore. I had a dog-eared copy of her prose for many years, sadly discarded, and I remember her novella "The Vintage Season" as proof that SF could be highly literary. It is a pity she's not as well known as her contemporaries, and the same could be said of her characters, including the wonderful Jirel of Joiry. Moore would have been a fascinating dinner companion.

    Eagleton was much in vogue when I was in grad school in 80s/90s, though his Marxism was often disparaged by those in the frivolously nihilistic camp of French theory, which seemed to hold that nothing meant anything, so we might as well have fun talking about it. I didn't realize TE had taken on the New Atheists in his old age. Has he gone back to his Catholicism? I must look into that.
    It is quite wonderful that Mrs. Kinch (and, be delegation, yourself) keeps that family tradition alive. I quite agree with Sidney. I once found myself strolling through Baltimore and coming across the grave of Poe, where, in proof of all the stories I had heard, there was indeed a fresh red rose.