Imagine a craggy footpath etched into a rugged landscape which ultimately ends at a lonely cemetery or church with ancient burial grounds. In medieval times such “corpse roads” were commonplace—established routes used to transport the dead to their final resting place. Because bodies could only be buried at designated mother churches or minsters, mourners were often forced to transport their loved ones across long distances, usually by foot.
These paths, rugged and uninhabited, became known as corpse roads, church-ways, burial roads, and bier roads. Their topography was frequently dotted with crosses and coffin stones—large, flat stones where a procession set a casket when pausing to rest—and usually crossed a bridge or marsh. Most of our ancestors believed the spirits of the departed could not cross water, hence corpse roads incorporated a path that spanned a ford or lake, preventing the deceased from returning to haunt the living. Bodies were carried with their feet facing away from home, another superstition to keep restless ghosts from returning.
Spirits, wraiths, and even nature beings such as faeries, were believed to move along special routes like burial roads, flying close to the ground on a straight line. For this reason, any direct path connecting two places was kept clear of obstructing fences, walls, and buildings, so as not to impede the flight of the phantoms. As a result, locals knew to avoid such byways after dark. Labyrinths and mazes had the opposite effect, hindering the movement of spirits.
Flickers of flame called “corpse candles” were often seen traveling just above the ground on the path between a dying person’s house, the cemetery and back again. A phenomenon reported mostly in Wales, it’s also believed corpse candles materialized in churchyards preceding someone’s death.
In some parts of the UK and Europe those endowed with supernatural abilities would watch coffin paths on auspicious dates. These “lych watches” were conducted to receive premonitions of who might perish in the coming year.
There are numerous beliefs and legends tied to corpse roads. Some country folk believe that if a body is carried across a field the ground will thereafter fail to produce a good harvest. Others, that coffin stones were sanctified and placed on church-ways to allow the body a place to rest on its journey without defiling the ground beneath it.
One particular legend involves a funeral procession that bore the body of a man who had done great evil in his life. When the procession paused to rest, they set the casket on a coffin stone for a brief time. Almost at once, the casket was struck by lightning, shattering it to bits, reducing its contents to ash, and splitting the stone in two. The procession determined God did not want such a vile soul buried in the cemetery and took actions to prevent the mans interment.
Like so many of our forgotten customs and folklore, corpse roads harken to a time when superstition ruled both day and night and simple folk placed their faith in good over evil. The echo of those beliefs and quiet voices still linger today, buried in the dusty remnants of legend. As long as we keep memory alive, old traditions will always find a place at the campfire. Do you find these old stories as interesting as I do?
Hello, and Happy Tuesday! I’ve got two wonderful books to share today, both of which kept me flipping pages. One is a twisty slow-build suspense novel, the other a snappy, breezy romance novella with a villain you’ll love to hate. You can’t go wrong with either!
MEANS TO DECEIVE BY ALEX CRAIGIE
Rating: 5 out of 5.
This is an intricately plotted mystery/suspense book that builds from simmer to a slow boil. Gwen Meredith moves home to care for her elderly grandmother who suffers from dementia. Gwen has always viewed their relationship as strained, mostly due to a tragedy in Gwen’s past for which she harbors crushing guilt. The reader sees bits and pieces of that tragedy unfold a little at a time as Gwen periodically recalls the event, allowing layers to become exposed as though she is peeling a metaphorical onion. It is this past event, an episode that has shaped her life, that factors so brilliantly into the plot, particularly the ending.
Complicating matters, Gwen has crossed paths with two men who hold a grudge against her, each for different and alarming reasons. Her home life is disrupted when she becomes a target for harassment. The attacks grow in frequency and become frighteningly malicious. While the police are involved the culprit is never pinned down. Fortunately, Gwen has the benefit of an attentive older brother who moves in temporarily, and a new neighbor with whom she begins a tentative relationship. Gwen is a strong character, constantly standing up for herself to the chagrin of both brother and suitor, yet at the same time the past has burdened her with inner fragility she doesn’t allow to show.
Characters are realistically portrayed, reflecting all the ups and downs, doubts, and sacrifices that play out between them. Gwen’s relationship with her grandmother is thorny but a delight to read. I couldn’t help developing a soft spot in my heart for Granny. I also appreciated how Gwen’s relationship with Ben developed over time with plenty of hiccups along the way.
Red herrings and curve balls lead to a lot of second-guessing when it comes to the culprit. Although I did finger that person correctly (after waffling more than once) the motive left me dumbfounded. The ending was brilliant and wholly satisfying. A polished, well-written tale for fans of intelligent mysteries and slow-build suspense.
BETWEEN THE VINES Keystone Couples #3 BY STACI TROILO
Rating: 5 out of 5.
Elena is a wedding planner who doesn’t believe in love thanks to the jerks who have been sniffing around her door since high school. Aaron is her cousin Rick’s longtime friend, a cop who’s recently been dumped by his fiancée, Heather.
Heather is now engaged to Jarod, a one-time friend of Rick, until he tried to take advantage of Elena. Sound like a romantic merry-go-round? Oh, just wait until the complications/fun begins!
From the start, the underlying attraction between Elena and Aaron is clear, but several obstacles stand in their way—foremost, Heather, who decides she was hasty in leaving Aaron once she sees him take down a robbery suspect. This woman is the pinnacle of self-centered and shallow. Troilo writes her in such a way that the moment she appears in a scene, you cringe. Heather is a character you love to hate.
But all Troilo’s characters are well developed. Elena is a walking bundle of doubt buried under a core of outer strength. Aaron seesaws between exasperation and attentiveness. Poor guy has his work cut out for him, but bring out the pom-poms because you’ll be cheering for him and Elena from their very first spark of chemistry.
This is a fun novella with snappy dialogue, perfectly paced scenes, and breezy writing. It leaves you with a warm feeling and a happily-ever-after smile. All three Keystone Couples stories are superb, but I think this clever gem might just be my favorite.
Welcome to my book reviews for the week. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you may have noticed I cut book reviews back from two days a week to one day with the launch of 2022. As a result, most times I’ll be featuring more than one book with each post. For that reason, I’ll be skipping blurbs, but you can always find them by following the Amazon links.
Today, I have two books to share—both mysteries, but with very different slants. Let’s get started!
DIABLO MESA BY PRESTON AND CHILD
Rating: 5 out of 5.
This book started a little slow, but kicked in around the 30% mark and just kept getting better and better. Combining the Roswell Incident, the H-bomb, Cold War spies, UAPs, and a secret military organization, it’s a riveting adventure full of pulse-pounding moments and far-flung conspiracies.
Although this is the third Nora Kelly/Corrie Swanson adventure, you don’t need to be familiar with the previous books. Archaeologist Nora is recruited by an eccentric billionaire to excavate a dig at Roswell. When two bodies are unearthed, Corrie is called in from the FBI. This is when the train really starts rolling.
I loved the introduction of new character, adventurer/billionaire Lucas Tappan, and it was great to see the return of fast-draw sheriff, Homer Watts. Nora’s brother, Skip, gets several moments to shine, and who can resist having Mitty, the dog, tag along?
There’s plenty of danger, dollops of sci-fi, intrigue, duplicity, bad guys to “boo,” and two clever heroines to cheer for. I love the fact that neither Nora nor Corrie are written as “kick-butt” characters, but rather as smart, professional women willing to take risks.
Break out the popcorn and enjoy the ride. I can’t wait to see where this series heads next!
Thank you to NetGalley and Harper for an ARC of this book.
This is an unusual story with a bizarre assortment of characters which is what makes it so entertaining. Island Home is an exclusive resort for celebrities and A-Listers. Ultra-posh where every whim is catered to and overseen by head honcho Ned, his brother Adam, Ned’s PA, Nikki, and Annie, who handles memberships. The guests are ridiculously self-centered, pampered, egotistical, all with baggage and hidden secrets and issues. The same goes for those who run the show.
When Ned sets up a blackmail scheme, centered around several of his guests’ worst secrets, the situation implodes in ugly ways. Till all is said and done, there isn’t just one body that turns up, but several.
Told from multiple third person POVs, the book also uses clips from an article about what took place on the island. There is plenty of glitz, and the twists and turns in the plot are nicely executed. It’s a little slow to get off the ground, but worth sticking with, especially when everything starts to slot into place.
If I have one quibble the book is on the wordy side. I’m a reader who loves description, but I often felt like I was wading through passages of lengthy prose, many that seemed repetitious of what came before. That aside, I would recommend The Club to those who like locked room mysteries with an eclectic assortment of characters.
In closing, I know readers are often hesitant to purchase a high-end Kindle book, especially if they’ve never tried the author before. I have certain auto-buy authors (like Preston & Child) I don’t mind shelling out $$$ for, but others will give me pause. In that case, I check LIBBY and will borrow the title from my local library using Amazon to read on my Kindle.
If you’re unfamiliar with Libby (a free service), see my post on Story Empire regarding how it works. You can find it HERE. Happy reading!
Today is the International Day of Awesomeness! Who wouldn’t want to celebrate something so spectacular? I can think of plenty of things I consider awesome, and plenty of people. When you hang around in the blogosphere for any length of time, you get to know others.
One of the most generous and thoroughly supportive people I’ve “met” is Sally Cronin.
My Story Empire colleagues and I thought today would be the perfect opportunity to shine a well-deserved spotlight on Sally. She is an amazing individual who gives of her time selflessly, constantly sharing promo pieces which showcase others.
Her blog, Smorgasboard Blog Magazine, is filled with author spotlights, book reviews, weekly roundups, profiles and more—all in support of her fellow authors and bloggers. I seriously don’t know how she does it, but I’m thankful to have been touched by her generous spirit.
For the Story Empire group, today is all about Sally! It isn’t just the International Day of Awesomeness—it’s Sally Cronin Day! To celebrate, I’m sharing a trio of my reviews for Sally’s books. She has plenty more in her catalog, covering everything from fiction and non-fiction to short stories, and poetry. I’ve found her work to run the gamut from heartfelt to humorous, introspective to slice-of-life. Be sure to check out Sally’s work on her AMAZON PAGE, and find the book or books that speak to you.
FLIGHTS OF FANCY by Sally Cronin
This is an entertaining collection of short stories and one novella. It takes a strong look at relationships, some flavored with reminiscing, others firmly rooted in the here and now. Each tale offers polished writing, unique characters, and engaging plot lines.
I enjoyed the cleverness of Getting Away with Murder and Psychic Parrot, and the emotional tug of The Other Side of Heaven and Curtains. Henry’s Story was a particular favorite of mine, having met Henry and Sam in one of the author’s other works. There’s nothing like a world-wise cat to share his story.
The title tale, Flights of Fancy is deftly executed and delivers a wonderful punch. The story of a woman (now much changed) encountering two people she knew during high school, left me grinning ear to ear.
Finally, closing out the book, The Sewing Circle, is a brilliant gem. In this novella, a group of senior ladies takes it upon themselves to right a horrible wrong. You can’t help cheering for these feisty women as they use grit, determination, and a few surprises to ensure justice is meted out. A great read all around!
This is a fun, heart-warming book that tells the story of Sam—the author’s collie—from the time he is a puppy through adult life. What makes the tale especially unique is the delivery. The book is told entirely from Sam’s POV. We learn about his early life after adoption, including his friendship with Henry, a feral cat who becomes a precious friend ultimately responsible for teaching Sam to speak “cat.” Sam also has two young kittens who become special friends during their short life span (that part broke my heart).
Sam shares how he learns to “speak” a few human words, about his favorite treats, trips to the vet, adventures on walks and even relocating to a different country. For anyone who loves animals, this is an enchanting story that leaves the reader with a feel-good glow. The author clearly loves her canine companion, an attachment that shines through in each page of this winning story. Photographs of Sam from puppy to adult collie are sprinkled throughout. He is such a beautiful dog! AMAZON LINK
LIFE IS LIKE A BOWL OF CHERRIES: SOMETIMES BITTER, SOMETIMES SWEET by Sally Cronin
This is an entertaining collection of short stories with several poems scattered throughout. The book is grouped into topics such as Technology, Animal Magic, and Connections (to name a few) with stories and poems related to their header topics appearing underneath. It’s cleverly presented and cleverly written. All of the stories are winners but there were some that really stood out for me, including The Weekly Shopping, The Nanny, The Scratch Card, and The Night Shift.
In The Weekly Shopping we get a taste of what ordering groceries might be like with when we come to rely too much on technology. It’s both hilariously funny and worrisome at the same time. I loved the argument related to the cat!
In The Nanny, a young couple discover who is watching over their baby at night. The Scratch Card left me with a lump in my throat at the generosity of others, and The Night Shift made me appreciate the special love pets have for their owners and the kindness of those who appreciate that bond.
These stories are heartwarming and touching, with scattered poetry further enriching the sections. A lovely collection and a quick read, the stories will lodge in your heart and linger.
I’m a fan reunion books, so it was a no brainer to scoop this one up. Cait DuBois, shunned by “the Populars” in her high school, is now a celebrated novelist with an amazing husband and lovely twins. Ten years after graduation she returns to her hometown and the hotel that hosted her senior prom—the scene of a tragedy that still haunts her. Returning to Hotel Lilith means encountering the girls that made her life miserable in the past, plus reconnecting with one of her oldest friends. Not long after arriving at Hotel Lilith, she meets a woman claiming to be a fan. Anna’s presence seems to be the catalyst for a series of mysterious events that grow increasingly threatening.
The story didn’t follow the path I expected, but it held my interest and kept me flipping pages. The plot moves at a crisp pace with chapters alternating between Cait’s high school years and the present. We get a group of bitchy girls both in past and present, replete with underlying pettiness and snark. There’s also relationship angst and a dark secret Cait has harbored since the night of the prom but has never shared.
I admit being frustrated with Cait’s behavior in the last quarter of the book but without giving away spoilers the reasons are hard to address. There’s also a plot hole at the end, but it’s relatively small and doesn’t distract from the climatic scenes. If you’re looking for a quick read that plays out like a Lifetime movie, The Reunion is a good fit.
AMONG THE HEADSTONES Creepy Tales from the Graveyard: Gothic and Horror Stories Edited by Rayne Hall
This fantastic collection of short stories, centered around graveyards and burials, is beautifully atmospheric. By turns spooky, dark, and lyrical—a few even tongue-in-cheek—the tales range from classic to contemporary, bringing together a variety of voices and styles. As someone who finds cemeteries equally restful and mysterious, imbued with the echoes of those who’ve lived before, I was enthralled.
Rayne Hall has done a stellar job with presentation. The entire work is professional and polished. I especially liked how each author is given a moment to share their thoughts at the end of their specific story regarding the inspiration behind it. Overall, it’s a rare anthology when almost every single work delivers.
Although I enjoyed this collection cover to cover, the following stood out as my personal favorites: Dead Person Collection, The Story of Salome, The New Catacomb, Lucretia’s Hum, Another Oldie but Goodie, The Shortcut, and Behind Him.
Take a walk among the headstones—you won’t regret it!
Weeds and thistles are woven into portents, a funeral of the fallen is a soul to collect, bound to the river by a fragile, pale vision, are the shards of a life fate failed to protect.*
The keening wail of a banshee is said to herald death. The name comes from the Irish “bean sidhe” (or Scottish Gaelic “bean sith”) which relates to a woman of faerie blood. She is “the woman of the fairy mound.”
Blessed with foresight, the banshee knows of a loved one’s demise prior to their passage, and loudly lamented their departure with sorrowful weeping and moaning.
She often appears in the guise of an old crone on the side of a stream or river, washing the blood-drenched clothing of the one doomed to die. Other times, she may be young and beautiful, or appear in the form of a hooded crow, hare or weasel. Sometimes she is not seen, only heard, her eerie wailing enough to make those who catch it on the night air, cower in terror.
Traditional folklore paints the banshee as an ancestral spirit attached to the five great families of Irish heritage—the Kavanghs, O’Briens, O’Gradys, O’Connors, and the O’Neills. She would only wail for members of these families, with some believing each had its own banshee. Likely more curse than blessing.
As with most legends, myth is contorted and changed over time as it passes from generation to generation. I don’t recall my first exposure to the banshee myth but whenever I hear the name, I picture a woman with unkempt red hair, keening as she washes bloody clothes on the bank of a rock-strewn stream or river.
Why red hair? I’m not sure. Maybe it meshes with the idea of blood-soaked garments. Maybe I associate her with battle, as attributed in some ancient myths. There are other folktales that depict the banshee as a young woman who uses a silver comb to attend to her flowing white hair as she weeps. Certainly, the more poetic of the two versions. Somewhere among my many years of reading fantasy and myth, the weeping washer-woman must have ingrained her image into my subconscious.
I’m a visual person whether I’m reading, writing or having a discussion. What about you? What do you see when you hear the word banshee?
*Verse taken from the poem, Funeral for the Fallen Copyright Mae Clair
I have a number of book reviews to catch up on, but I so enjoyed my most recent read, I couldn’t resist bumping it to the top of the list. The Biblical account of Joseph’s life has always ranked among my favorite of the Old Testament (David is a close second), but strangely, there are few offerings. I pre-ordered this book the moment I saw it, and hated for it to end. One of those books where you want to reach the end, but you don’t because then the story is finished. You know what I mean, right?
THE PRINCE AND THE PRODIGAL BY Jill Eileen Smith
BLURB: Joseph is the pampered favorite son of the patriarch Jacob. His older brothers, deeply resentful of his status in the family, take advantage of the chance to get rid of him, selling him to slave traders and deceiving their father about his fate. It seems like their troubles are over. But for Joseph and older brother Judah, they are just beginning.
While Joseph is accused of rape and imprisoned, Judah attempts to flee the memory of his complicity in the betrayal of his younger brother. After decades apart, the brothers will come face-to-face in a stunning role reversal that sees Joseph in a position of great power while Judah begs for mercy. Will forgiveness or vengeance win the day?
Bestselling and award-winning author Jill Eileen Smith brings her considerable research and imaginative skills to bear in this vivid retelling of one of the most popular stories found in Scripture–a story of jealousy, betrayal, and a reconciliation that only God could bring about.
Rating: 5 out of 5.
MY REVIEW: For a long time, I’ve looked for a novel about Joseph, my favorite person from the Old Testament, but there are few to be found. I was therefore ecstatic when I learned about the release of The Prince and the Prodigal, and immediately placed it on pre-order. The book is everything I’d hoped it would be and more.
Anyone familiar with the Old Testament knows the animosity Joseph’s eleven brothers felt for him as the first son of Rachel and the favored firstborn of Jacob. Not everyone, however, may realize the role Judah played in Joseph’s being sold into slavery, or the guilt Leah’s fourth-born surely carried afterward for years. Smith uses this as the basis for his splitting off to start his own tribe.
Joseph’s story is shown side-by-side with Judah’s, revealing the tribulations and growth of both men—as Joseph goes from slave to ruler of all Egypt, second only to Pharaoh, and Judah learns to return to God only after years of strife within his own family. The story of Tamar and Judah is covered in detail (Tamar is one of only four women mentioned in the lineage of Jesus according to the Gospel of Matthew).
While Dinah’s backstory with Shechem is hinted at, the events are set before The Prince and the Prodigal takes place, but Dinah (Jacob’s only daughter) is also a POV character.
From the dusty tents of Jacob to the confinement of Pharaoh’s prison and the lavish palaces and gardens of Egypt, scenes are painted with vivid detail. Chapters are short and keep the action moving forward at a brisk but engaging pace. The people who populate the narrative (both historical and fictional) are given depth that draws the reader into the struggles they face, both spiritual and physical. I loved the way Joseph and Judah are portrayed, and as the two female POV characters, Dinah and Tamar are equally well defined.
This is a story of family. Of brotherhood, forgiveness, and redemption. Strength in the face of adversity, healing, and most of all, the belief that God is ever faithful and will deliver. Old Testament fiction is one of my favorite genres. I rank this book as a favorite, not only in the genre, but among my favorite reads of all time. I will certainly go back and read this again. A superb retelling of Joseph’s story and one I highly recommended.
I’m pleased to have my short story, Winter Reckoning, among the tales in this anthology. A straight mystery set in Medieval England (no supernatural elements or the cryptids I favor), the story takes place at a holiday gathering in a snow-bound castle. Did I mention there’s a body, scheming nobles, plenty of suspects, and a killer to identify?
I hope you’ll join in the sleuthing! 🙂
BLURB: Murder comes in 7 different genres. By 7 different authors.
Are you a fan of courtroom drama? In the anthology’s first story, Abraham Lincoln defends a friend’s son against a charge of murder.
For lovers of speculative fiction, Jason Fogg dissolves into mist to sneak through open windows and snoop for clues.
How about a cozy? Jazzi, Jerod, and Ansel discover a dead body while renovating a kitchen, dining room, and half bath.
Have a craving for a Regency? Lord Peregrine and his wife, Elizabeth, use their sharp minds and quick wit to solve a murder at a garden party.
Need a bit of literary fiction? A young, lonely widow must deal with the theft of a valuable butterfly collection.
And what about a little psychological horror? Twin sisters discover that their attic is haunted by not one, but two ghosts.
Last, but never least, the anthology concludes with a historical mystery. A young, newly married knight is accused of murdering his obnoxious host at a holiday gathering in his castle.
Murder They Wrote offers a variety of clever tales in which there are clues to be found, red herrings to avoid, and villains to unmask. And because each short story is a complete mystery, you can engage your detective skills a little at a time, or all at once as your mood dictates.
I’ve closed comments on this post, but hope you’ll. . .
Happy Guest Author Thursday! It’s my pleasure to welcome friend and Story Empire colleague, Jan Sikes with her newest release Jagged Feathers.
Jan has been burning up the blogosphere with the launch of book 2 in her White Rune Series, and I’m delighted to participate in her tour. You can find my review of Jagged Feathers (which BTW, reads perfectly fine as a standalone) HERE. I was smitten with her two leads, Vann and Nakina, and Vann’s dog, Champion. I also enjoyed the layers of symbolism and folklore in the book. Today, Jan shares how some of that came about in her post below. Take it away, Jan!
Thank you, Mae, for inviting me to your blog site today to talk about my new book, JAGGED FEATHERS! I appreciate your generosity.
I have always been fascinated by Native American Folklore and spent a lot of time reading and researching different beliefs, especially concerning animals. Birds are believed to be messengers between worlds. My late husband had a strong connection with owls. To some tribes, the owl is an omen of death while to others it is a sign of wisdom.
In my story, Nakina Bird spent many summers of her youth on the reservation with her grandmother, so it was natural that she’d adhere to some of the Native American beliefs and traditions. The blue jay held special significance for Nakina. Not only are the blue feathers striking, but they are unique songbirds in that they mate for life. She recalled many of her grandmother’s teachings throughout the book, but this one seemed to stand out.
“Tell me about the shooting incident in your past that freaked you out so much.”
Nakina recounted the incident when the boys taunted her, and then how she accidentally shot the bird. “It made me physically sick. When the blue jay fell to the ground after I fired, it took every ounce of energy in me not to throw up right there in front of those boys.” She drew in a sharp breath. “After they left, I performed a sacred ceremony and buried the bird, but not before taking a special feather from him.” She twisted her hands together on her lap. “And now you understand why I reacted the way I did when you found the blue feather in the bottom of the boat. Ever since that day, blue feathers have been a good sign for me. Almost like the bird’s way of forgiveness.”
Vann whistled. “I can understand how you felt when you shot the jay.”
She stared out the window. “When I told Grandmother what happened with the bird, she said that to Native Americans, the blue jay represents trickery or mischievousness. Then she told me that blue jays mate for life, and that was symbolic for me. Of course, as a teenager, I dismissed all of it as folklore. But I did keep the beautiful blue feather to always remind me of what I’d done. And I never painted on it.”
“That’s quite some story. I’ve observed plenty of jays, and they’re generally aggressive and noisy birds, but I never thought of them as being symbolic of anything. I’ve watched them run off birds twice their size to get a ripe berry.”
“The Native American people have a story or some sort of symbolism for most everything, and they believe in spirit animals that walk with us and help us on our journey.”
Have you ever had a spirit animal or an experience with an animal that went beyond the norm? I know D.L. Finn has with bears and C.S. Boyack with Eagles. I’d love to hear about your affinity to a certain animal and what it means to you.
BLURB: Vann Noble did his duty. He served his country and returned a shell of a man, wounded inside and out. With a missing limb and battling PTSD, he seeks healing in an isolated cabin outside a small Texas town with a stray dog that sees beyond his master’s scars. If only the white rune’s magic can bring a happily ever after to a man as broken as Vann.
On the run from hired killers and struggling to make sense of her unexplained deadly mission, Nakina Bird seeks refuge in Vann’s cabin. She has secrets. Secrets that can get them all killed.
A ticking clock and long odds of living or dying, create jarring risks.
Will these two not only survive, but find an unexpected love along the way? Or, will evil forces win and destroy them both?
Today’s Cabinet of Curiosities is a look at… well, cabinet of curiosities!
I have a curio cabinet in my home that’s filled with all manner of odd collectibles—an antique teacup, a crystal lion, a hand-painted wine glass, a beautiful carousel horse, a kachina doll I picked up in Arizona, an antique stein and shaving cup that belonged to my grandfather—you get the idea. It’s an assortment of items that mean something to me, many of them gifted or dating back generations in my family.
The modern curio cabinet has a history that begins in the sixteenth century, a time when a “cabinet of curiosities” was the be-all/end-all of after dinner entertainment. With little to do for amusement, aristocrats began collecting oddities which they displayed in a “wonder room.” This became a place of diversion, alleviating boredom, while astounding guests.
The German name for these rooms was wunderkammers. Collectible objects were tucked wherever they might fit and be displayed—walls, floor, even ceilings. Imagine walking through a room where most every surface is covered with peculiar and eclectic oddities. Can you hear the oohs and aahs from awestruck visitors?
A forerunner to museums, wonder rooms usually focused on science and/or history, often including a slant toward the bizarre. This was especially true as centuries progressed. You might find the skeletal remains of a mythical creature, or perhaps a unicorn horn, side by side with experimental medical instruments, dried insects, fossils, and shells. Eventually, rooms became smaller cabinets ideal for displaying curiosities. Taxidermy animals, feathers, and “monsters” including animals with multiple heads were a particular favorite. The same with quirky science devices.
Robert Ripley followed with his “Believe it or Not” museums which showcased the weird and wonderful. Who hasn’t been in a Ripley’s museum? Still popular today, they’re a staple at many beach towns in the U.S., with twenty-nine locations (including Ripley aquariums) around the world.
Our passion for the strange and the unusual has carried from the sixteenth century to modern day and shows no sign of abating. Maybe we don’t gather in “wonder rooms,” strolling among exotic plants, dried fish heads and dragon scales, but we easily reach for Google, books, or TV, to feed our interest in the peculiar.
To me, it says we’ve never lost our sense of wonder. Moving forward, I’ll be diving back into specific curiosities again, but I thought a tip of the hat to the cabinet of curiosities in general was due. We owe a lot to those bored aristocrats of the sixteenth century who had no idea how to pass the time after a dinner party. And to Mr. Barnum and Mr. Ripley.