Edmund Trebus

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As a packrat, Edmund Trebus took the cake. He also took washing machines, rotting clothes, wood, motorcycles, windowpanes, and old refrigerators. Before the Polish émigré died in 2002, at age 83, he had filled his four-story London house with mountains of garbage collected at local junk shops and building sites. One room was full of vacuum cleaners, another with cameras. He collected Elvis Presley recordings maniacally.

In their garden, his wife used to sit in a deck chair among towers of crap. When she left in 1981, he filled in the hole. In the end Trebus was living in one corner of the kitchen, with only a Jack Russell terrier for company. He needed ladders to get in and out of the house, which had no running water, working bathroom or electricity.

In 1997, after being buried under one of his own “litter traps,” designed to catch burglars, he was hospitalized for gangrene. When he got out, he found that the town council had finally got a court order declaring the house unfit for human habitation. Six men and five trucks took 30 days to remove 515 cubic yards of waste.

He’d filled it up again by 2001.

Spring Heeled Jack

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A villain worthy of DC Comics, Spring Heeled Jack leapt liberally around England between 1837 and 1904, attacking isolated victims who described him as a muscular devil in an oilskin.

If he was the devil, he wasn’t a very ambitious criminal, generally just crashing carriages and groping women. But he could jump 9-foot walls, perhaps using spring-loaded footgear, judging from some ill-preserved prints.

An anonymous letter implied that a human prankster was terrorizing London on a bet, and incidental reports began to mount. In 1838 four witnesses saw him breathe fire and jump to the roof of a house, and in 1845 he threw a 13-year-old prostitute from a bridge, his first killing. On the night of Feb. 8, 1855, long trails of hooflike prints were seen in the snow throughout Devon, crossing roofs, walls, and haystacks. By 1873 thousands were gathering each night to hunt the ghost.

Nothing seemed to stop him, including bullets, and he even attacked a group of soldiers at Aldershot Barracks in 1877. He was last spotted in 1904 in Liverpool, leaping over a crowd of witnesses and disappearing behind some neighboring houses.

There’s no good explanation. Some suspected the Marquess of Waterford, who was known to spring on travelers to amuse himself, but the attacks continued after his death. Others have suggested a stranded extraterrestrial, a visitor from another dimension, or a real demon. We’ll never know.

The Green Children

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“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious,” wrote Albert Einstein. “It is the source of all true art and science.”

That was true even in the Dark Ages, though the mysteries were a lot iffier back then. William of Newburgh records an “unheard-of” prodigy in East Anglia around 1150, when reapers were gathering produce during the harvest near some “very ancient cavities” known as the Wolfpittes. “Two children, a boy and a girl, completely green in their persons, and clad in gaments of a strange colour, and unknown materials, emerged from these excavations.”

Taken in by the villagers, they learned to eat beans and bread, which in time “changed their original color” until they “became like ourselves.” The boy died shortly after he was baptized, but his sister continued in good health and eventually married.

On being taught English, they told this story:

  • “We are inhabitants of the land of St. Martin, who is regarded with peculiar veneration in the country which gave us birth.”
  • “The sun does not rise upon our countrymen; our land is little cheered by its beams; we are contented with that twilight, which, among you, precedes the sunrise, or follows the sunset. Moreoever, a certain luminous country is seen, not far distant from ours, and divided from it by a very considerable river.”
  • “On a certain day, when we were feeding our father’s flocks in the fields, we heard a great sound, such as we are now accustomed to hear at St. Edmund’s, when the bells are chiming; and whilst listening to the sound in admiration, we became on a sudden, as it were, entranced, and found ourselves among you in the fields where you were reaping.”

William closes: “Let every one say as he pleases, and reason on such matters according to his abilities; I feel no regret at having recorded an event so prodigious and miraculous.” It’s poetic, in any case.

Harry Stephen Keeler

http://staff.xu.edu/~polt/keeler/jackets/ducracksman.jpg

Harry Stephen Keeler (1890-1967) wrote mystery novels so bad they’ve been called “coincidence porn.” In The Ace of Spades Murder he introduces the guilty character on the third-to-last page; in X. Jones of Scotland Yard he explains on the last page that Napoleon Bonaparte is the culprit.

And his gifts extend beyond plotting. His characters are called Criorcan Mulqueeny and Screamo the Clown and Scientifico Greenlimb and Wolf Gladish and State Attorney Foxhart Cubycheck, and he writes titles like Finger, Finger!, The Yellow Zuri, The Amazing Web, Find the Clock, and The Face of the Man From Saturn.

Even at the level of simple prose, he’s entirely helpless. Here’s a typical passage from The Case of the 16 Beans:

The door now opened, revealing, as it did so, a strange figure — a half-man, no less, seated on a “rollerskate” cart! — framed against the bit of outer hallway. But no ordinary half-man this, for he was a Chinaman; quite legless, indeed, so far as the presence of even upper leg stumps went; but amply provided with locomotion, of the gliding kind, anyway, in the matter of the unusually generous rubber-tired wheels under the platform cart.

There’s even an appreciation society now, which is fortunate, because most of Keeler’s numerous works are now out of print. In 1942, the New York Times wrote, “We are drawn to the unescapable conclusion that Mr. Keeler writes his peculiar novels merely to satisfy his own undisciplined urge for creative joy.” Amen.

Mermaid

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Encounter with a Newfoundland mermaid, recorded by Richard Whitbourne, 1610:

“Now also I will not omit to relate something of a strange Creature that I first saw there in the yeere 1610, in a morning early as I was standing by the water side, in the Harbour of Saint Johns, which I espied verie swiftly to come swimming towards me, looking cheerefully, as it had beene a woman, by the Face, Eyes, Nose, Mouth, Chin, eares, Necke and Forehead: It seemed to be so beautifull, and in those parts so well proportioned, having round about upon the head, all blew strakes, resembling haire, downe to the Necke (but certainly it was haire) for I beheld it long, and another of my companie also, yet living, that was not then farre from me; and seeing the same comming so swiftly towards mee, I stepped backe, for it was come within the length of a long Pike.

“Which when this strange Creature saw that I went from it, it presently thereupon dived a little under water, and did swim to the place where before I landed; whereby I beheld the shoulders and backe downe to the middle, to be as square, white and smooth as the backe of a man, and from the middle to the hinder part, pointing in proportion like a broad hooked Arrow; how it was proportioned in the forepart from the necke and shoulders, I know not; but the same came shortly after unto a Boat, wherein one William Hawkridge, then my servant, was, that hath bin since a Captaine in a Ship to the East Indies, and is lately there imploied againe by Sir Thomas Smith, in the like Voyage; and the same Creature did put both his hands upon the side of the Boate, and did strive to come in to him and others then in the said Boate; whereat they were afraid; and one of them strooke it a full blow on the head; whereat it fell off from them: and afterwards it came to two other Boates in the Harbour; the men in them, for feare fled to land: This (I suppose) was a Mermaide.”

Wilhelm Scream

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The next time you see Star Wars, watch for the scene when a Death Star stormtrooper falls into a chasm before Luke and Leia swing across it. That stormtrooper’s scream is more than 50 years old — and a time-honored in-joke among Hollywood sound designers.

The “Wilhelm scream” was originally recorded for the feature Distant Drums in 1951. From there it went into the studio’s sound effects library, where it was rediscovered in 1977 by Star Wars sound editor Ben Burtt. Burtt adopted it as his personal signature, and he enlisted a group of like-minded Hollywood sound-effects people to keep it alive.

You can hear the scream in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Poltergeist, Beauty and the Beast, Reservoir Dogs, Titanic, Spider-Man … more than 100 features, including this summer’s Revenge of the Sith.

It’s called the “Wilhelm scream” because that’s the name of the original screamer, a man who’s dragged underwater by an alligator in Distant Drums. Remember that when Buzz Lightyear is knocked out of the bedroom window in Toy Story — it’s the same sound.

The First Blast of the Trumpet

The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558) may be the most misogynistic screed ever written:

For who can denie but it is repugneth to nature, that the blind shall be appointed to leade and conduct such as do see? That the weake, the sicke and impotent persons shall norishe and kepe the hole and strong? And finallie, that the foolishe, madde and phrenetike shal governe the discrete and give counsel to such as be sober of mind. And such be al women, compared unto man in bearing of authoritie. For their sight in civile regiment is but blindness; their strength, weaknes; their counsel, foolishnes; and judgment, phrensie, if it be rightlie considered.

That’s ironic, because the author’s real beef was religious: John Knox opposed female sovereigns like Mary, Queen of Scots, and Mary Tudor because of their Catholicism. When Elizabeth Tudor succeeded Mary, his plan backfired — she was sympathetic to his cause, but offended at his words. Hell hath no fury.

The Great Gadsby

Gadsby is a 50,000-word novel that doesn’t use the letter E:

“But a man has to think of that, Allan. And you will, as you grow up. My two big sons just put off on that big troop train. I don’t know how long Bill and Julius will stay away. Your big cannon might go Boom! and hit Bill or Julius. Do you know Frank Morgan, Paul Johnson and John Smith? All right; that big cannon might hit that trio, too. Nobody can say who a cannon will hit, Allan. Now, you go right on through Grammar School, and grow up into a big strong man, and don’t think about war;” and Gadsby, standing and gazing far off to Branton Hills’ charming hill district, thought: “I think that will bust up a wild young ambition!”

The author, Ernest Vincent Wright, notes that he could mention no numbers between 6 and 30. And “When introducing young ladies into the story, this is a real barrier; for what young woman wants to have it known that she is over thirty?”

Extreme Ironing

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Extreme Ironing is an outdoor activity that combines the danger and excitement of an ‘extreme’ sport with the satisfaction of a well-pressed shirt.”

The sport reportedly started in Phil Shaw’s backyard in Leicester, England, but his promotional tour quickly attracted followers in Australia, Austria, and Germany, and the 2002 world championship drew 80 teams from 10 countries. Following the 2004 Summer Olympics, British rowing champion Sir Steve Redgrave backed high-stakes ironing to become an Olympic sport.

“Ironists” have performed atop Mount Kilimanjaro, 100 meters underwater off the Egyptian coast, during the London marathon, and in a David-Blaine-style box 20 meters above Christmas shoppers in Leicester. And like any noble calling, this one has inspired others, including downhill vacuuming, inner-city clothes drying, and “apocalypse dishwashing.” Helen Keller wrote, “Life is either a great adventure or nothing.”

Underground Cinema

In September 2004, French police discovered a hidden chamber in the catacombs under Paris. It contained a full-sized movie screen, projection equipment, a bar, a pressure cooker for making couscous, a professionally installed electricity system, and at least three phone lines. Movies ranged from 1950s noir classics to recent thrillers.

When the police returned three days later, the phone and power lines had been cut and there was a note on the floor: “Do not try to find us.”

01/25/2012 The likely explanation. (Thanks, Nina.)