Okay, I’ve got to describe one more book by Richard Marsh, then I’ll move on to other authors for a while! The book of interest is Marsh’s Curios (1898), subtitled “Some Strange Adventures of Two Bachelors.” It is available, as many of Marsh’s works are, through Valancourt Books.
This book is the least conventional of Marsh’s works that I’ve read, and is a style of tale whose like I’ve never seen elsewhere. The book is a loosely-connected set of stories about a pair of collectors, Mr. Tress and Mr. Pugh, who are ostensibly friends but often at odds with each other. Below the fold I give a little more description, and as a bonus I give a description of some of my own curios that I’ve collected over the years!
The seven stories are titled as follows:
- The adventure of the pipe: Pugh tells the tale of a pipe which seems to be haunted when smoked.
- The adventure of the phonograph: Mr. Tress tells the tale of a phonograph record which becomes the world’s first ‘snuff’ recording.
- The adventure of the cabinet: Mr. Pugh describe his adventure in acquiring a very unique cabinet.
- The adventure of the ikon: Mr. Tress buys a seemingly worthless holy ikon which is more than it appears.
- The adventure of the puzzle: Mr. Tress tells the tale of an unusual puzzle box.
- The adventure of Lady Wishaw’s hand: Mr. Pugh comes into possession of the hand of Lady Wishaw, said to be cursed.
- The adventure of the Great Auk’s egg: Mr. Tress acquires the rarest of finds: the egg of a bird long thought to be extinct.
The stories are all of a different tone and even genre: some fall into the realm of horror, others are strictly humorous, some could only be called ‘caper’ stories, and one falls into the realm of a drama. One of the joys of reading these stories is not having any idea what sort of tale it is!
The stories are alternately told by Mr. Tress and Mr. Pugh, gentleman collectors who are both unscrupulous in getting a prize for their collection. Pugh is credulous and superstitious, while Tress is skeptical, cold – and possibly sociopathic.
This is a charming collection of stories, bound together by a unique concept. Tress and Pugh are interesting characters; sometimes likable, sometimes quite foul. Overall, I enjoyed the book immensely and wish that Marsh had written more about the rather eccentric collectors. (I’m sorely tempted to write some Tress & Pugh pastiches myself.)
While reading this book, it occurred to me that I have my own appreciable collection of curios! While we’re on the subject, I thought I’d give a quick tour of some of my own ‘rare’ collectibles!
1. Orthoceras fossil.
I picked up this fossil on a trip to Charleston. It is identified as a cephalopod called ‘orthoceras’, some 400 million years old, and excavated in Morocco. It sits next to my computer on my desk.
It is interesting to note that I’m not completely certain that it is orthoceras! According to wikipedia,
Orthoceras and related orthocone nautiloid cephalopods are often confused with the superficially similar Baculites and related Cretaceous orthocone ammonite cephalopods. Both are long and tubular in form, and both are common items for sale in rock shops (often under each others’ names).
In other words, I may have the wrong cephalopod!
2. Ancient Egyptian Ushabti.
This is inarguably the pride of my unofficial collection. Ushabtis are figurines which were buried in tombs and intended to work essentially as servants for the deceased. My figurine is approximately six inches tall, and was procured for me by my father on one of his business trips to Africa, from an authorized dealer. Ushabtis are common enough that many have made their ways into the hands of private collectors; there is even a website dedicated to ushabtis in private collections.
Unfortunately, I seem to have misplaced the information describing the history of this figure; hopefully I’ll manage to scare it up somewhere during my impending move!
3. Swiss army helmet.
This helmet, also procured for me by my dad, is circa World War II and is of the infamous German design. If I remember correctly, actual German helmets are expensive and hard to come by, and this is an identical model worn by the Swiss military.
4. Mazon Creek fossils.
Here’s some that I actually had to work for! Some twenty years ago, I went with my Dad on a Field Museum-sponsored field trip to the Mazon Creek fossil beds outside of Chicago. We wandered the fields all day, getting ripped up by sticky bushes and hunting for rocks to split open in search of pretty fossils. The two pictured above are the two best that I found: fossilized leaves that are perhaps 30 million years old.
It turns out that the Field Museum still does fossil hunts to Mazon, so I coerced my Dad into reserving us some tickets for this fall. Now that I’m older, and arguably more focused, I’m hoping I can find some cool and pretty specimens!
After the first Mazon Creek trip, my Dad and I had a two-decade long, good-natured argument about who ended up with the rock hammer we were using. Maybe we should bring two on this trip!
5. Buddhist prayer tile.
This item I picked up in a shop in Boston about two years ago. It is a Chinese Buddhist prayer tile, circa 1000 A.D. Such tiles were supposedly used to bless a place. Like the Ushabtis, prayer tiles are ‘common items’ that are sold to fund further archaeological excavations.
6. Megalodon tooth.
The megalodon was a giant prehistoric shark that roamed the seas between 18 million and 1.5 million years ago. Like all sharks, its skeleton was made of cartilage, not bone, and so the only fossilized pieces of the sharks which have survived are their tremendous teeth. The teeth are quite common, and can even be found near where I live. This one I picked up at a Renaissance fair last year.
Lots of museums and zoos have reconstructed the megalodon’s mouth based on the size of the teeth, as compared to the familiar great white shark. The shark itself is thought to have been some 40 feet long, so the mouth is the stuff of nightmares:
Of course, one of the funny things about collecting curios: with the exception of the Mazon Creek fossils, I don’t have the expertise to assess whether they’re authentic or not! The heroes of Curios face the same problem in their adventures, so I’m in good company at least.
Some people might be troubled by the possibility of having ‘fakes’, but I tend to take a philosophical approach, illustrated nicely in Douglas Adams’ book Last Chance to See (if you haven’t read it yet, by God, do so):
I remembered once, in Japan, having been to see the Gold Pavilion Temple in Kyoto and being mildly surprised at quite how well it had weathered the passage of time since it was first built in the fourteenth century. I was told it hadn’t weathered well at all, and had in fact been burned to the ground twice in this century.
“So it isn’t the original building?” I had asked my Japanese guide.
“But yes, of course it is,” he insisted, rather surprised at my question.
“But it’s been burned down?”
“Of course. It is an important and historic building.”
“With completely new materials.”
“But of course. It was burned down.”
“So how can it be the same building?”
“It is always the same building.”
I had to admit to myself that this was in fact a perfectly rational point of view, it merely started from an unexpected premise. The idea of the building, the intention of it, its design, are all immutable and are the essence of the building. The intention of the original builders is what survives. The wood of which the design is constructed decays and is replaced when necessary. To be overly concerned with the original materials, which are merely sentimental souvenirs of the past, is to fail to see the living building itself.
As far as my curios are concerned, I believe they’re all authentic, but I won’t be completely horrified if one turns out not to be; I have them because of the history they represent, not simply because of the materials they’re made of.