Monday, June 29, 2009

A Bit of Soap

Warning: one slightly gruesome picture, below, about halfway down)

There is a story in my head, certainly a conflation of two different stories. In one of the stories, a man who endowed some institution stipulated in his will that he should be preserved upon his death and seated in a cabinet in the foyer of the institution, so that he might oversee the comings and goings of the people who came after him. The other story involved a fat man who had been buried in just the right conditions that he had been turned entirely to soap. I pictured him, my conflated man, sitting in a chair in a cabinet somewhere with a suit on, a solid block of man-seeming soap, watching with saponified eyes the comings and goings of his modern brethren.

The man in the cabinet turns out to be Jeremy Bentham, an influential London philosopher (and the founder of Utilitarianism) who had his body preserved and set into a cabinet he called his "auto-icon" (see more here). The soap-man of my conflation, on the other hand, is actually a man who was dug up at the same time as the Soap Lady who resides at the Mütter Museum, that holiest of weird medical museums. Both bodies had been disinterred somewhere in Philadelphia, possibly as part of a street-widening project.

"Due to the unusual nature of the two bodies, Dr. Joseph Leidy, a prominent physician, scientist and professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, was notified. It is unclear how Dr. Leidy acquired the cadavers, but he eventually presented them to two separate museums." (link) The woman ended up in the Mutter Museum, and the man went to the Smithsonian. Unfortunately, the man is no longer on display, but the Soap Lady can still be seen, for a fee.

My early vision of a person converted into a solid block of soap, liable to dissolve in floods, is not actually accurate either. Adipocere, otherwise known as grave wax or mortuary wax, "is a water-insoluble material consisting mostly of saturated fatty acids. It is formed by the slow hydrolysis of fats in decomposing material such as a human cadaver by action of anaerobic bacteria...Corpses of infants and overweight persons are particularly prone to adipocere transformation. Adipocere formation begins within a month of death, and in the absence of air it can persist for centuries."

This process, called saponification (also used to refer to the reaction which makes common soap) happens in cold, moist environments where the lack of oxygen keeps aerobic bacteria and other agents of dissolution from doing their work. My guess is that the anaerobic bacteria actually live off some byproduct, such as the alcohol which comes from the conversion of fats to soap, and so they actually precipitate the transformation to that end.

In regular soap, fats or oils are boiled with an alkali agent, such as lye or wood-ash, and the resulting mess which comes from this combination of heat and pH is a solid substance with a curious molecular makeup. On one end of the molecule is hydrophilic, meaning it likes water: it can be dissolved by water. The other end of the same molecule is hydrophobic, meaning it doesn't like water, and this end is actually able to dissolve grease molecules. "The hydrophobic portion (made up of a long hydrocarbon chain) dissolves dirt and oils, while the ionic end dissolves in water. Therefore, it allows water to remove normally-insoluble matter by emulsification." [wiki]

In other words, it magically bridges the gap between two universes: that of oil and water, which we all know do not normally intermingle.

Interestingly, one of the beneficial uses of hot-fat saponification is in the kitchen:

"Fires involving cooking fats and oils... burn hotter than other typical combustible liquids, rendering a standard class B extinguisher ineffective. Such fires should be extinguished with a wet chemical extinguisher. Extinguishers of this type are designed to extinguish cooking fats and oils through saponification. The extinguishing agent rapidly converts the burning substance to a non-combustible soap. This process is endothermic, meaning it absorbs thermal energy from its surroundings, decreasing the temperature and eliminating the fire." [wiki]

In the ancient world, many people did not, apparently use soap for bathing. The earliest form of soap, made by boiling fat with ashes, was probably only used for washing Babylonians' clothing; and there is some evidence that the Phoenicians were producing it, probably as a hair pomade, in about 600 BC. The Greeks and other mediterranean ancients, commonly cleaned themselves by rubbing with scented oils and then scraping themselves with a metal strigil, bringing off the dead skin and dirt with the oil (this is making a comeback now as a "modern" beauty method).

The Celts, on the other hand, seem to have had soap from a relatively early period. While the Romans had baths, and seem to have looked down on soap's crude smelliness, the Celts may have had a cruder approach to cleaning altogether. When one is crouched in a cold stream, in a cold country, one tries to get on with the job as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Castile soap came to London in the 1500s, the first true hard soap to be seen in those parts; it was made by boiling wood ash and olive oil, and then adding brine to make the soap float to the surface. By adding salt, the soap separates itself more thoroughly from the lye and the other byproducts of the soap-making - creating a hard, white soap which grows harder with time (without losing its whiteness).

Which is interesting, because people who have observed saponified corpses have often compared them with this kind of soap. Sir Thomas Browne describe it this way:

"In a Hydropicall body ten years buried in a Church-yard, we met with a fat concretion, where the nitre of the Earth, and the salt and lixivious liquor of the body, had coagulated large lumps of fat, into the consistence of the hardest castle-soap: wherof part remaineth with us."

In Lake Crescent, Washington, a murdered woman's body came to the surface of the lake three years after her death in 1937, and a witness said, "She had the consistency of... Ivory soap."

The Higgins children, from the Hopetoun Quarry murder case, Edinburgh

But how could a body, submerged in water, be acted upon by anaerobic bacteria? One would think the oxygen in the water would preclude it. A very likely answer is that there is a thermocline, a layering effect where the upper, changeable parts of a body of water separate out from the deeper, colder, temperature-stable areas; these remain undisturbed for long periods of time. This means the oxygen mixing that goes on at the upper reaches of the water doesn't make its way to the lower reaches. I suspect the cold environment and the stillness, also mean that any aerobic bacteria use up extra oxygen until there isn't enough to support more oxygen-thirsty life forms.

So when Hallie Illingworth's body was pulled out of that cold Washington lake, she looked almost perfect. "She was full formed as in life; what had been an attractive woman; even her mass of auburn hair seemed strangely natural, almost untouched in appearance by the watery grave from which she had just been removed." She was white as marble, almost shiny in her perfection. If she were a saint, it would be safe that she would be designated incorruptible.

Grave wax (adipocere) tends to be a strange substance, smooth and, when it's had time, relatively hard and brittle (not always; it depends on the conditions). The Soap Lady is considered so fragile that they don't dare move her unless absolutely necessary. It tends to begin on the outside of the corpse - the longer the body has been interred, the deeper the saponification penetrates. This has led to some rather extraordinary mistakes. Augustus Granville, for example, in 1821, performed the first really scientific dissection of an egyptian mummy, taking six weeks to unwrap it and examine every inch of the remarkably beautifully-preserved corpse. He very accurately surmised a number of things about her: that she was in her mid-50s, that she had been quite well-fed, that she had an ovarian tumor. However, in examining the body he found she had been preserved in a way not described by Greek historian Herodotus' 5th-century eyewitness accounts - that being the record which Granville was working from.

There were, according to Herodotus, two ways of preserving a corpse: the cheap way and the expensive way. Both ways involved removing the organs from the corpse - and yet, Granville's mummy's organs were still almost entirely intact and in place.

"Granville concluded that the embalmers had used a method Herodotus had missed. One clue to the technique was the softness of the skin and muscles and the pliable joints. Another was the presence throughout of a waxy substance, which Granville believed was a mix of beeswax and bitumen. He deduced that the body "must have been plunged into a vessel containing a liquefied mixture of wax and bitumen and kept there for some hours or days, over a gentle fire." He tried the treatment on stillborn babies. It seemed to work." [from New Scientist's article on same]

Granville decided to give a scientific presentation of his findings, but was unable to resist his flamboyant urges, and made his presentation in a room lit entirely by candles made from the "wax" he scraped from the corpse. It wasn't until Egyptologist John Taylor joined the British Museum in the late 1980s that Granville's sample cases were found again, and the "wax" discovered to be the saponified flesh of the mummy herself.

Making candles of the flesh of the dead is not unheard-of, however, though it is usually done more intentionally than Granville's dubious debut. The Hand of Glory, for example, is a sort of grisly candle holder made from the cut-off hand of a hanged man. Take a candle made from the fat of a (possibly the same) hanged man and put it into the grasp of, or attach it to the fingers of, the hand. Now light the wick (preferably made from the hair of the dead man), and all the people in the house will sleep without waking while you plunder their treasure. It cannot be put out by any means except dousing with fresh milk, and there are many stories (rather startlingly like urban myths in their repetition and style) of intelligent chamber-maids putting out the candle and waking the house when the thieves were busy.

The recipe for preparing the hand, which must be cut from the corpse while it is still hanging in the gibbet, goes as such:

"Squeeze the blood out of the hand; embalm it in a shroud and steep it in a solution of saltpetre, salt and pepper for two weeks and then dry in the sun. The other essential for its use is a candle made from hanged man's fat, wax and Lapland sesame." (This according to the Whitby Museum in Whitby, England, where such a hand is housed. There is also, supposedly, one in the museum in Walsall, England).

Hangings these days are rare, and when executed are rather brief and hygenic. It is hard to imagine there would be an opportunity for cutting off the hand while the body is still in the gallows (since gibbets are no longer used, this would be your only option). Still, it is tempting to consider a discreet proviso in one's will about where you will be buried - in the hopes, someday, that your remains might be turned to soap. As a contribution to science, of course.


James G. Mundie's awesome photos and drawings of exhibits in the Mütter Museum

A Short History of Soap: fascinating stuff!

Soap Lady, a children's book by underground comics writer/artist Renee French, about a dirty boy who meets a naked woman made of soap who has washed up near his town. With its storyline about friendship and acceptance, it was apparently a departure from her usual style, which has been described as "surreal" and "grotesque."

A thirteenth century description of soapmaking by King Al- Muzaffar Yusuf ibn `Umar ibn `Ali ibn Rasul

A creepy post-mortem love/obession story

Germany's modern problem with their corpses not rotting properly

Top 10 famous corpses

An interesting article about a corpse garden created for forensics students at the University of Tennessee to learn about rates of decomposition (WARNING: Not for the squeamish)

Make your own castile soap with these soap recipes.

The Hand of Glory in the Harry Potter Wiki, which I only just discovered.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Ze Widow, She Is Black

One of the not-so-great joys of my new trailer is that it came with an infestation of black widow spiders. We would open the galley, and there one would be: black, and shiny, with horribly pointy legs and a big, fat abdomen. And a few days ago, for the first time, I saw the Hourglass. Red and very clear, it shone on her chitinous tummy. She quivered in her web, horrified that we had opened the lid on her lovely darkness.

We don't see a lot of black widows here; they tend to like it warm and dry, like in the central valley, and they don't like being disturbed. They like the dark. They like it still and they like hard, close places like the spaces between woodpiles or behind cabinets.

Latrodectus hesperus, the Western black widow, is, like all widow spiders of the Latrodectus genus, very shy. If you intrude on her life she will flee first and ask questions later. Though her bite is incredibly venomous, she prefers not to bite unless grabbed, pinched or squeezed. I have seen black widows (in my precious trailer, no less) with abdomens more than a quarter inch across, and leg-spans close to one and a half inches (the males look very different, smaller and differently-colored and -patterned, so when I say "she" I know for sure that it's the female I'm talking about).

The male black widow isn't even black, most of the time

Unlike brown recluse spiders, whose venom is cytotoxic, meaning it is meant to slow down the prey, partially digesting the tissues and making for failure of the prey's systems, the black widow spider's venom is based on a neurotoxin, which I would much prefer. In mammals, when they are bitten by a spider with cytotoxic venom, it means the tissue surrounding the bite turns necrotic (dies) and is often unable to heal afterwards. There are some truly horrific pictures on the Internet of brown recluse spider bites several months on, which I would rather not contemplate.

"Spider venom falls into two categories: neurotoxic and cytotoxic. Neurotoxic venoms interfere with the transmission of nerve impulses to the muscles, frequently causing spasm and paralysis. Neurotoxins act rapidly, important to spiders confronted with large or dangerous prey intent on escape or retaliation. Cytotoxins, on the other hand, act more slowly. They principally act to slow down the prey, and actually begin the process of digestion by liquefying the tissues of the prey. Such venom can cause tissue necrosis in mammals, wherein the flesh surrounding an injection site dies, and heals very slowly or not at all."

The venom of a black widow, being a neurotoxin, has a more widespread effect, entering the bloodstream and being deposited at the nerve endings where the endings insert into the muscles. This causes intense, painful cramping and muscle spasms, and is very painful. It lasts a few days and then disperses, leaving only a few minor symptoms - spasms, tingling, nervousness and weakness - to remember her by. For me - though I would not want to encounter a black widow bite - the biggest fear has been for my children, because the smaller the body mass, the more likely the venom is to cause shock to the system and death.

Ultimately, though, I think black widows have gotten a bad rap. They really, really do not want to bite you. And only one kind of widow has been sighted as actually devouring the male of its own species after sex, in the wild. And although they are not artistic - building sticky, tangled and irregular webs from which they hang upside down to catch their prey - their silk is, like many spiders, stronger than its own weight in steel. If you built a bridge of spider silk, I remember hearing, it could be a hundred times thinner than the steel cables used in modern suspension bridges, and still just as strong. Less brittle, too. In fact, the strands are so fine and strong that for many years they were used in the crosshairs in the reticles for rifles and navigational instruments.

The chitin of the black widow, her exoskeleton, is so shiny and tough that simply spraying her living quarters with Raid will not kill her; you must spray it directly on her body for the insecticide to take effect. Even then, you have to use some pretty strong stuff for it to work. And it means you can't kill her without a little personal, face to face combat. Some people say that any strong essential oil will drive the spider away, as they prefer unlively quarters with little or no smell. Personally, I'm a big believer in a tightly-constructed house and a live and let live mentality; usually, I catch them in a glass (or get someone braver than me to do so) and release them far from where my children are likely to be. Sometimes, when I'm enraged (usually because I've been taken by surprise), I squash one - and then immediately regret it, because it always feels like I am killing someone, not something, when I kill a spider - they are so very much smarter than flies and their ilk. Plus, those widows are big, and it just isn't pleasant.

I remember once, in a shop in southern San Francisco where I went to buy a lizard when I was younger and had more time to be interested in the impression I made on others, I saw a large tank full of black widow babies. The shop was either displaying them (presumably under the same youthful impulse to be cool that made me buy a tegu, one of the world's most hostile lizards - sorry, another story) or they were selling them. I remember being in awe that the store owners, or the future pet owners, could be that hardcore. Despite the heavily-tattooed and pierced person behind the counter (very much less prevalent then than now), and the array of odd pets on display, I hadn't considered that anyone would be into selling poisonous spiders. Now, when I look back, I can't help seeing it as a little irresponsible, spreading poisonous beings who are pretty good escape artists via people who probably have no idea how venomous their new pets really are.

In any case, we tend to live side by side, the spiders and I, and I try to keep to the busy light and let them live in their quiet darkness. And if I or my children enter or move those dark places, we check carefully to see who we're disturbing before we go there. We demand the same awareness of the denizens of the dark, and if they cross that line, we do not forgive them. But all in all, we leave each other alone, living our lives and raising our children as if the other side did not exist.


Stringybark graphics has a fabulous redback spider pattern which they will put on t-shirts, linen dress shirts or any clothes they produce (click on the "prices" link). Guaranteed to stop conversations when you walk in. My friend Gwyan has had one for years and loves it.

A gruesome article, in the vein of the tegu store people, from the oh-so-reliable Sun tabloid where, of all the poisonous species in a man's home, the Widow takes the rap.

The Black Widow Hearse Club is a group of people who love funeral coaches.

Arachnids poster from the Big Zoo

Spider web ear wrap, covers your ear with a silver spider web

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Travels and Travails

Life the past month has been unending chaos, so my apologies for the silence. Summer vacation starts NOW, this MINUTE - so I will work to remedy things, as soon as my head reinflates. Expect something in the next week or so, as I've had numerous posts churning around in my head for ages now!

On a (hopefully not too) prosaic note, LOOKIT my NEW TRAILER!! This is my investment in cheap travel, for the economic travails ahead. I have long loved teardrop trailers, as they are called, and this is a nice one, made by a man who creates hot rods in the Central Valley of California.

The typical teardrop is basic, just a bed and a little galley (kitchen) area, and this one is no exception, except for the extra-wideness of it and the spoke tires, apparently a sign of hot-rodness incarnate (and to be honest, not a selling point for me, though I get many admiring remarks - about the trailer - from certain kinds of men at gas stations, probably for that reason particularly).

The teardrop trailer was a phenomenon popular from the 1930s through the 1950s, an era (interrupted by a war) where the streamlining of lifestyle was a popular pursuit; the Ayn Rand vision of individual freedom and the pursuit of aesthetic practicality were in full swing, and Gernsbackian visions of shiny, teardrop-shaped futuristic vehicles were sending ripple effects throughout American culture.

My own reason for liking these trailers is more practical. Cuteness and coolness aside, I like the fact that they are still about "real" camping (well, car camping anyway) - in other words, about being outside. You live outside, you cook outside, you only go into it to sleep (which feels a bit like being in a tiny, round cabin. And we all know I love tiny spaces). But mostly, it's a practical place for your stuff to live, so you don't have to spend a lot of time packing and unpacking, setting up and taking down. I am rubbing my hands at the mere thought.

Full of plastic bins: not the cool way to go.

Now that I have a bit of time, I want to put a little work into the galley, making shelves and little spaces for storing things so they don't rattle around on the journey, and every object, like in a ship's galley, has its place. Bwahaha. It will be like a Camping Wunderkammer. I might even try a mod or two, think of ways to get it really weird and fun. Any suggestions?

But then, I do awfully like it how it is...

Monday, June 1, 2009

Book Signings R Us

Just for the sake of formality, I've got two short stories coming out in anthologies, and will be at four different related events in the coming months (who am I to turn down opportunity?):

July 18th (6-8 pm) I will be at Borderlands Books in San Francisco for my story Artifacts, which is coming out in Footprints, an anthology from Hadley Rille Books. Jay Lake, author of Mainspring and Escapement, who edited the anthology, will be there too.

Then July 20th I'll be in Berkeley at Dark Carnival, for the same story, from 6-8 pm. This will actually be the anniversary, nearly to the minute, of the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing, the first time man ever set foot on the moon.

I believe both of these events involve some reading and signing, though I don't know how much.

At WorldCon in Montreal, I will be reading for Hadley Rille at some so-far unspecified time. Uh, signing, too, if anyone wants that.

August 29th, the Writers of the Future awards ceremony (I got second place for my story The Candy Store) is going to be an enormous bash because it is the 25th anniversary of the award. All kinds of notables are expected. I'll be there, receiving the award and signing afterwards and generally trying not to look too horrible in an evening gown thingie; and I believe they have a book signing the next day at some so-far unspecified book store, probably in Hollywood somewhere. Although it's been in Pasadena and elsewhere around L.A., so there's no knowing. I'll post it when I know.

It's all very exciting and a little scary. I only just figured out about two days ago that getting a story in an anthology actually means critics might mention the story and say bad things about it. Believe it or not, I never thought about that part of it, thinking so much about actually getting in the anthology that I didn't look that far ahead...!

Come if you can, I'd love to meet some of you!