Tag Archives: Death

Blood, Bones, and Brushstrokes: A Review of Daniele Serra’s Veins and Skulls

Veins and Skulls, Daniele Serra’s beautiful, dark, and hauntingly surreal study on the complex layers of the human condition, is both a visual and emotional masterpiece. From cover to cover, this book is a stunning display—a gorgeous publication in which one could easily be lost for hours upon hours, again and again, finding threads and ties that bind each theme to its respective imagery.

As Jeff Mariotte says in the introduction, Serra “opens our hearts to the suffering of others… By showing us his dark side, he makes us feel better about our own. Precious humanity is his gift, and we, viewing his art, are the lucky recipients.”

Serra’s graceful artwork translates seamlessly onto the page. The watercolor feel and texture from his canvas is captured in consistent somber hues that lure the viewer in by becoming, for lack of a better word, familiar. Perhaps this lends itself to Serra’s evident connection to us all; as humans, as artists, as lovers of dark beauty and concepts and imagery which might be deemed taboo by others who do not share our fascination with grimness and morbidity. Or rather, it might be his innate ability to understand what it takes to truly draw us into his art: finding a way to connect—to make us want to keep searching, feeling, dreaming—losing ourselves in these portraits and landscapes to interact with and imagine what lies beyond with infinite possibilities left unsaid by his brushstrokes. These are not still-lifes, sculptures, or conceptual art forms we are seeing here—they are essences, ideas, specters and shadows—they are places to which we are transported and presences we need to understand more about on a profound and unsettling level.

Yet in all its macabre gloom, Serra’s artwork is delicate, elegant, and strangely comforting. His lines are soft and fluid, lending themselves to the feminine forms and erotic undertones he showcases in the first two parts of the book. The depth Serra creates on an artistic level is exquisite; particularly in Part One, where many of the figures are set against a backdrop of some sort and successfully convey varying layers of perception. But the depth is also one which transcends space and reaches an intimate, emotive level where the figures and images have no borders, no boundaries—no definitive meanings or messages, nothing blatant to be gleaned. They are black veiled allusions to the most organic of elements—Water, Breath, Seeds—to arcane notions such as Love and Goodbye.

Serra’s erotic pieces in Part Two are reverent and tender tributes to the female form in keeping with those which precede them; yet these are void of the colors, textures, and structures present in the others and direct all attention to the innate but elusive dichotomy of the female body—and perhaps its very essence. The ability to create life, which is inherently sexual—for one does not exist without the other—and the somewhat alluring, intriguing inevitability of death, as we see portrayed here in Serra’s sensual relationships between voluptuous women and lifeless skulls.

The breathtaking scenic landscapes in Part Three are a perfect way to close. However melancholy, these depictions give way to a rebirth of sorts—a renewed sense of hope—for the viewer. We have seen veins and skulls, blood and dust, life, death, and many unspoken things in between. But Serra leaves us with Light…a sun rising in the distance. This says a great deal not just about the intended journey and evolution of the story told in the illustrations, but perhaps that of the artist himself.

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Mr. Shivers

The Great Depression was a turning point in American—make that world—history. In the years prior to World War II, a series of events led to one of the lowest periods ever recorded. It was a blight, a plague upon the land and its people.

The landscape of the struggling nation was wounded and changing. Robert Jackson Bennett uses this period as the stage for his brilliantly dark debut, Mr. Shivers.

The novel follows Marcus Connelly, an uprooted man on a revenge-fueled quest for the man who murdered his little girl. Riding the rails and running with the hobo nation, he discovers many terrible things about his quarry, Mr. Shivers, also known as The Gray Man, the scarred man—his aliases are nearly as endless as the train cars that carry the transients from place to place. Connelly connects with a ragtag group of hobos, all on a similar quest for a similar result. They want to find and kill the man who has taken someone near and dear to each of them—Mr. Shivers.

Over the course of this 324-page novel, Connelly and his group meet varying obstacles. It appears that the villain they track is a little more than they bargained for. He has minions and cunning and skills that are a little more than natural. Guided by that ferocious beacon that is vengeance, our heroes follow him across a landscape so bleak and tragic it seems almost post-apocalyptic. Haunting and peppered with despair.

I will say that this is one of the strongest debuts I have read in some time. Bennett’s prose and use of language is fantastic. Poetic and downright lyrical, at times. I loved the details regarding the etiquette of hobo society and the starving beast that was America in the thirties. I was riveted the entire time, could not read fast enough, which is something I don’t often get to say.

The climax, while somewhat expected, was deftly handled and a good fit for the story. I suspect if Steinbeck had penned The Stand, it would have shared the same gritty feel as this novel. No higher praise than simply declaring Mr. Shivers a wonderful read.

Mr. Shivers, as well as Bennett’s follow-up, The Company Man, are both available from Orbit Books.

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Through the Dollhouse, Darkly

With a sharp mind and a keen knack for realism, as well as the ability to recall the most minute of details, Frances Glessner Lee should have been destined for greatness. The wealthy young heiress should have been a force to contend with, in the history of law enforcement and forensic sciences, and to some extent, she is.

However, being a woman during the depression era, she was denied a formal education based on her gender. It was not until she was in her fifties that a friend, Dr. George Burgess Magrath, was elected to the position of Medical Examiner of Suffolk County, MA. One of his new duties was to report on the probable causes and circumstances surrounding unexplained deaths.

During conversations with Magrath, Lee was fascinated by the details and descriptions of unsolved cases, and she came to the conclusion that there was a need for training in the field of murder investigation.

The focus of the period seemed to be mainly through police science and eschewed most medical approaches. In fact, there were only a few states that required their coroners even possess a medical degree. Lee hatched a plan. She funded and set up a Department of Legal Medicine and based it out of Harvard University. She gave seminars and lectures and began a curious and helpful hobby—building dollhouses.

These were no ordinary dollhouses. They were re-creations of crimes scenes, full of death and mayhem. The attention to detail, astounding. The tiny wooden cupboards were stocked with miniature food packages, the lights worked, minuscule pencils had lead tips and could be used to write with, they were fully functioning houses on a smaller scale.

Then the dolls were added, and the tone of the pieces changed. A doll-sized bed splashed with blood as the victim sprawls across it. Another lays face up in a basin tub as tap water pours into her open mouth drowning her. A doll lays on a kitchen floor, before a small stove with a smaller pie cooling on its top, a knife planted in her back. A doll of a man lays face down in front of a re-created liquor store. The meticulous details, all executed by the wrinkled hands of this sad genius. Lee dubbed these models, these perfect re-creations of actual crime scenes, “The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,” after a popular police saying.

Lee continued to work and assist the law enforcement community until she died in 1962 at the age of 83. She was in the midst of a final and very personal model. She called it “The Swedish Porch,” and it was a delicate and accurate model of a room in her own house where she liked to sit and reflect. This model had no dolly corpses or blood stains, no foul play or dark deeds, just closure.

This final model went unfinished.

There is a book available about this fascinating woman and her work, entitled “The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,” by Corrine May Botz, and was published by The Monacelli Press.

You can find that book here.

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