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El Dia de los Muertos (or: Halloween Extended)

By Denise Dumars     November 02, 2000

El Dia de los Muertos
Here in Alta California del Sur as well as in much of the Southwest U.S., Halloween is followed by El Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, on Nov. 2. Like the Celtic Samhain, upon which our Halloween is based, this Mexican holiday is a celebration of the loved dead, and is often commemorated with a trip to the cemetery to visit the departed. Special foods, such as pan de muertos and sugar skulls are made, and often altars are decorated with calaveras and marigolds as offerings (ofrendas) to the departed. So what this means is that the Halloween season isn't really over until November 3, which gives me an excuse to write another Halloween column.

Spent Halloween on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, home to L.A.'s largest costume parade. Though it pales in comparison to those in San Francisco and New York, this annual event compels thousands of people to lose their common sense and go out into the night air dressed in little more than g-strings and body glitter.

Popular costumes this year ran toward gladiators and other Roman types, as well as Egyptians and various versions of clergy. I did see the Grim Reaper carrying a Bush/Cheney sign, a couple of centaurs (one male, one female) and in true Guy Fawkes tradition, Dr. Laura Schlesinger was hung in effigy.

Lookiloos nearly outnumbered the costumed, unfortunately. Sometimes it was hard to see the guys dressed as Carmen Miranda or Madonna for all the Japanese tourists. The nearly forgotten band Berlin played for free to an enthusiastic audience, while a couple of miles east a radio station blared disco music. About four miles of one of the busiest streets in L.A. was shut down for the event, which only became treacherous after 11 PM when fellas could really get hurt tripping over empty beer bottles in size 14 spike heels.

I Know I'm Scared

Scary books just keep coming despite the fact that Barnes & Noble doesn't recognize horror books anymore. Was giddy at the site of Fatalis, the new novel by Jeff Rovin, who had already given us Vespers, a book about giant attack bats. Bats as big as bulls! Never did figure out how one that big would get off the ground; Rovin explained that they had really big muscles, but that would just make them heavier so...aw, to hell with it. Fatalis is a story of two guys who get lost in California's Santa Ynez Valley (easy to do after too much wine tasting), end up in an earthquake and confront...a saber-toothed tiger! Big kitties! Look out! Soon to be a major motion picture!

For more sophisticated horror tastes try out Raveling by Peter Moore Smith, which should really be called 'Unraveling,' I suppose since that's what happens to the protagonist's family after his sister disappears at a family party and is never seen again. This thriller-Gothic-murder mystery has as its protag a schizophrenic named Pilot, whose mother sees ghosts and whose brother is a brilliant neurosurgeon. Was the sister abducted? Murdered? A story of family secrets with baroque characterswhat fun! The author has had stories in the Pushcart and the Best Mystery series anthos, so this should be good.

My all-time favorite 'unexplained' phenomenon is Spontaneous Human Combustiona condition in which a person supposedly just burns up for no reason, with no apparent accelerant (although photos of victims inevitably show a nearby ashtray, stove, or fireplace), and is found usually with the surroundings virtually unscathed by fire. Several such incidents have been documented, and no one can explain themwell, unless you count Skeptical Inquirer. This is the set-up for Spontaneous, a new novel by Diana Wagman. The story concerns two sisters who inherit their neighbor Aunt Ned's house after she dies apparently of SHC. Amy has huge appetites, and Gwendolyn, the more moderate of the two, tries to cope with them while a doctor of Pyrophenomena is nosing around for the truth about Aunt Ned's death. Some creepiness is ensured. Jerry Stahl liked it so I guess that means it appeals to both literary types and people with bad livers.

Still not sick of horror? Try the new collection edited by Nancy Kilpatrick and Thomas S. Roche. Graven Images is a collection of horror stories delving into 'myth and magic,' and most likely creeping us out about aspects of the old gods and goddesses. Seems they're a bit cranky. Oh well, 2000 years of demonization will do that to you. Looks like some good stories in there, however, by folks such as Robert Silverberg, Kathe Koja, and Gene Wolfe. Expect an interview with Nancy and a review of her new collection of vampire tales.

And now for something entirely different: fantasy writer Dave Duncan has a new one out, the last installment in a trilogy. Sky of Swords: a Tale of the King's Blades promises to clear up some stuff that the fans were a little confused about in parts one and two. This one concerns Princess Malinda (obviously named after the very popular karaoke bar in Paramount...no, wait, Dave's Canadian; my bad). Malinda grows up in a time and place where women are mere ornaments, and when her King dies suddenly, she finds herself ill equipped to ascend the throne and deal with a very nasty civil war. This is swords and magic and pledged troths and all that stuff. Probably some good costuming ideas in here. Expect an interview with Dave Duncan.

Stranger Than Fiction?

The nonfiction shelf promises much but delivers little this week. The Cases That Haunt Us, by veteran profiler John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, discusses theories regarding some of the biggest murder mysteries ever: Jack the Ripper, the Black Dahlia, the Lindbergh Kidnapping, Lizzie Borden, et al. Sounds cool, especially since I've met more than one middle-aged guy who was convinced he was the Lindbergh baby all grown up. On examination, however, Douglas pulls his punches a little too much for my taste. And in the current JonBenet Ramsey case, he whitewashes the situation so much that angry reviews are appearing. It's good to see what a pioneer in the field of profiling has to say about unsolved mysteries, but at the same time it's a little disappointing when he waffles and demurs.

Another nonfiction title that looks really exciting is Voyage to Mars: NASA's Search for Life Beyond Earth by Laurence Bergreen. He studies mainly not the search for life on Mars but the obsession that many of us have with the planet. I know I fit into that category ever since my Dad told me (when I was as a kid) that our name meant we were from there (I'm still not sure if he was kidding)! The book, upon closer examination, proved disappointing. Just no interesting pictures and a lot of rambling, not very exciting prose mostly about the people who study the 'last frontier,' as Bergreen calls it, but little about the frontier itself. I did like Bergreen's description of the planet as 'pumpkin-colored,' however. I guess we'll still have to wait for the definitive book about Mars, probably by someone who actually goes there. Hope it's soon.

My Glamorous Life

Went to a screening of Book of Shadows: Blair Witch Part Deux or whatever the other day. All the Wiccans in the audience hated the sanctimonious Wiccan chickie in the film, and everyone else was scratching their heads over the confusing plot. And speaking of scratching one's head, I ran into Bill Moseley there, who played Choptop in Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part Deux and who now has a role in Rob Zombie's first film, House of 1000 Corpses. Moseley said that Universal was so impressed by the first glimpses of Rob's film that they gave him an extra $1 million to shoot more footage. The film is due out in June 2001. Moseley was impressed with Zombie's professionalism and his ability to keep up with rigors of the shoot. He said that Rob keeps in shape by running, so if you're in the vicinity of Third and Larchmont in L.A. and see a guy with dreadlocks in a jogging suit, that's Rob Zombie.

My old pal Quentin Tarantino (yeah, I knew him before he was famous) finally has something new in the works, reports E! The new film will star Uma Thurman, and is described as a 'genre film' called Kill Bill. They hope to get the film done before the projected actors and writers' strike this coming spring. Tarantino's last film was 1997's Jackie Brown, and yeah, that's me in the black and white dress in the food court of the Del Amo mall in the film.

Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

Well, we're sliding inexorably into the holiday season, and at this time of year many organizations are vying for your charitable donations. One of the best ways a booklover can donate dough to a good cause is the British Library's Adopt-a-Book project. The British Library considers itself the 'world's greatest collection' of books, maps, documents, etc. For as little as 15 pounds sterling (about $23) you can adopt a rare book and help preserve it. To learn more about the project, go to www.bl.uk/adoptabook. This site also acts as a gateway to the British Library's site, through which you can access some amazing information and see what impressive items the British Library has in their collection.

Speaking of collections, a good collection of horror authors will be signing at Dark Delicacies bookstore in Burbank, CA, on Saturday, Nov. 4. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Robert Devereaux, Mick Garris, Rain Graves and artist GAK will sign their latest works from 2-4 PM. I'll see you there.

The Rock Bottom Remainders, the rock group that counts as its band members Stephen King, Dave Barry, Amy Tan and many other noted authors, is going on tour again. The tour begins on Nov. 14 in Colorado and ends in Washington, DC on Nov. 17. King is supposedly well enough to go on tour with the group; I can't think of a better rock concert for book fans to attend, unless of course it's one by former high school English teacher Gordon Sumner (that's Sting, to you folks).

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