Like many reading aficionados, I never have fewer than three or four books sitting on my nightstand, waiting to be read. Recently, my boyfriend looked through the stack of titles and asked me, not entirely joking, “Should I be concerned?” That was when I realized the books I was eagerly looking forward to covered a rather disturbing array of topics: from cannibalism to medical oddities to adventures in the American funeral industry.
At this point I should probably reassure you that I am a perfectly happy, well-balanced individual with a largely positive outlook on things – not a closet psychopath. I just happen to be fascinated with things that make humans uncomfortable – the dark, the mysterious, the just plain creepy. Somehow, reading about the macabre from the safety of my own home makes the terrifying a little less so. The scariest things are those which we understand least, and we owe these intrepid authors a debt for exploring the unfamiliar and giving us an opportunity to better know the unknown.
If you’re looking to ease into the world of the squeamish, start with Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz. Practicing medicine in antebellum America, Dr. Mütter had a deep interest in patients who suffered physical deformities and, more importantly, dedicated his life to alleviating the suffering caused by such maladies. In doing so, he revolutionized modern surgery, patient care, and attitudes in the medical field. I highly recommend this insightful study of early modern medicine to anyone who can tolerate descriptions of cleft-palate surgery performed on a fully conscious patient in front of a live audience (seriously).
If you’re ready to delve straight into the world of death and dying, Dr. Judy Melinek wrote a memoir of her path to becoming a medical examiner – the folks who perform autopsies to determine how an individual died. Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner (also available as an audiobook) details her training in New York City … a two year period that started just days before the 9/11 attacks, resulting in a highly stressful yet wholly unique learning experience.
Whether the circumstances of death were mysterious or not, pretty much all North American bodies end up in the same place: a mortuary. In her memoir, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory, Caitlin Doughty explains – with humour and poignant sympathy – what really happens to dead bodies after we turn them over to the funeral home. Further, she presents a compelling argument for Western society to return to the kinds of rituals which provide closure after the death of a loved one, instead of hiding bodies away like something to be feared. Or, if that’s a little too real for you, try Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy, which looks at the unusual fates of some famous former people.
As fearsome as death is, it always seems worse when people just vanish into thin air – although, few stories are more intriguing. In the mid-1920s, the whole world watched with bated breath as renowned South American explorer Percy Harrison Fawcett entered the Amazonian jungle … and never came back out. Hundreds of search parties have since tried to uncover his fate, and none have been successful – many never returning themselves – in a testament to human fascination with the unexplained. David Grann details Fawcett’s story, and Grann’s own search, in The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon (also available as an ebook). For another tragic jungle disappearance, and beautifully researched attempt at solving the mystery, check out Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art by Carl Hoffman.
More disturbing than unknown fates are unknown motives – what could drive someone to commit heinous crimes, let alone commit them repeatedly? Serial killers are well-trod subjects in both fiction and true crime, perhaps because we are desperate for someone to explain to us why these people do the things they do. Even decades, or centuries, after the fact, we still look for answers, despite the fact that the distance of time has made the perpetrators that much more unknowable, the cases that much more unsolvable. And if you think you’re bored with rehashed theories on Jack the Ripper, he wasn’t the only historical serial killer. Consider Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Nazi-Occupied Paris by David King and The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson.
If all this talk of murder and mayhem makes you uneasy, perhaps you’ll find some reassurance with books that look at how we learned to catch these killers, such as The Killer of Little Shepherds: A True Crime Story and the Birth of Forensic Science by Douglas Starr or The Inheritor’s Powder: A Tale of Arsenic, Murder, and the New Forensic Science by Sandra Hempel.
Finally, lest you think you are alone in your morbid curiosity, Bill James and Judith Flanders will reassure you that society as a whole has long been intrigued by the dark and deadly, in Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence and The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime, respectively. And of course, don’t forget that people weren’t always as scared of dead bodies as we are today – just take a look at The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses by Paul Koudounaris for proof.