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Dance Around in Your Bones

San Francisco-based Morbid Curiosity lets average folks tell their own true twisted tales.

Loren Rhoads, a new mother at 41, doesn't look very morbid. With perky, fifties-era glasses and neat silver hair cut short, Rhoads is publisher and editor of the annual review Morbid Curiosity. Entering its ninth year (and ninth issue), the magazine hews true to its title: anything that's weird, sick, scary, inexplicable or macabre is fair game for its writers, all who tell true first-person tales.

Sporting shiny Doc Martens boots that matched her silver hair, Rhoads gathered some of those writers this week for a Halloween reading at the Canvas Cafe in the Inner Sunset, as unmorbid a spot as one can find. The weather tried to help with the mood, as small gusts blew some rain and leaves down the street, but it really wasn't that spooky.

Turns out, neither is Morbid Curiosity. Despite its fondness for car crashes, ghost stories, and botched grave robberies, the collections have a homespun feel. The subject matter is intense; the writing sometimes is not.

Monday's reading bumped along until the final two stories, both taken from the latest issue. One described a car crash that involved a burnt-faced truck driver and a load of decomposing road kill; the other, a near-death, white-knuckle ride in a discount airline's bucket of bolts. A couple other readers ginned up the creepiness, but in general the magazine's tone is matter-of-fact, if not a little tongue-in-cheek.

In her introduction to Monday's reading, Rhoads said she finds the magazine "funny." OK, I can see that. One reader, a huge woman spilling out of a bustier, told of the erotic anticipation of pain-blocking spinal injections. The morning before her procedure, "I masturbate when my alarm goes off. It's a freakishly hot day in Daly City."

If that's too much information -- or if details of a doctor trying to insert a needle between vertebrae make you squirm -- then Morbid Curiosity is not for you. But if you can see the humor in the juxtaposition of "masturbation" and "Daly City," if you understand the absurdity of a lapful of rotting raccoons, or if you are drawn to the loveliness of cemeteries, it's a magazine worth tracking down.

SF Station caught up with Rhoads the day after the reading to find out more.

Q: How did Morbid Curiosity start?

In 1988, my husband and I moved out here, and in January of '89 we went to a slide show at SF Camera Works put on by Re/Search [an independent publisher of classic counterculture collections such as Modern Primitives, Pranks! and Bodily Fluids]. [Re/Search publishers] V. Vale and Andrea Juno were finishing a book and we went up to talk to them. They were a big reason we came out here. There was all this stuff going on in San Francisco and we had to be here. I was a Michigan farm girl; my dad's a pig farmer with about 400 pigs and 100 cows. I went to college in Ann Arbor, but I was pretty much straight off the farm. So A.J. pulled out pictures from <a href="">Modern Primitives</a> and said, "Do you think these will make it through customs?" I had never seen anything like it in my life.

So we helped them to do everything, but mostly I schlepped books around and saw how it was possible for two people to do this amazing thing. Inspired by that, my husband and I started Automatism Press in 1994. We published two books. The second was Death's Garden, which was all first-person stories about cemeteries. It really got me addicted to getting stories from strangers in the mail, so that's where the magazine came from -- a way for me to get first-person stories from strangers. Plus, the problem with doing books is dealing with book distributors. Every time you do a book you have to start over again with the distribution process. With a magazine, you just deal with the distributor once and then they re-order. I call it what I want. If I go to 'zine convention it's a 'zine, if I go to something more serious it's a journal.

Q: A journal? Do academics read you?

The first issue of Morbid Curiosity had an introduction from a professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee who spent his entire life studying morbid curiosity. But mostly, the people on my mailing list are just names. I have a friend who works at the research library at 20th Century Fox, so I know it's gone into production offices. I peripherally did some research for the X Files. It's amazing how you could spend all day doing research, and it ends up as just one line in the script.

Anyway, the professor had done a lot of media studies to look at how things are covered in the news, but I'm much more interested in how people tell their own stories. When they're first asked, people think, "Nothing morbid has ever happened to me." But my focus is so broad, anything really can be morbid. Even the most innocuous rituals in society, like when the bride stands up at weddings and hikes up her dress and takes her garter off. That's pretty weird. I'm more interested in how people don't examine their own lives and then have these realizations.

Q: Have you ever refused to publish something that was just too sick?

The new issue starts out with the story of guy who killed his girlfriend with a baseball bat. It was a story he wrote in prison. In the initial version, he totally blamed her, he said she was argumentative, she had it coming, anyone in my position would have done the same thing. But in his cover letter, he said the story was written a long time ago and his feelings had changed. I wrote back and asked how his feelings had changed, so we exchanged letters and the story I published was a revision. I wouldn't have been able to publish the original version. No one deserves to be beaten to death with a baseball bat.

I've gotten a couple other stories from prisoners that I couldn't publish because they were too creepy. More common, though, is that a writer will only get to the surface of story. I'm looking for a sense that the reader could identify with the author if the reader were in the same situation. It all comes back to empathy. I don't want the magazine to be a freak show where readers gawk. I want a sense of exploring a larger world.

Q: When did you first know you were morbidly curious?

Very early on. The town I grew up in was very white and Christian, but my friends and I did seances and all sorts of stuff in elementary school. I was levitated by my elementary school girlfriends. They put two fingers under you and lift you up, and there was no way they could have had the strength to lift me. Even now I can't figure out how they did it. One girl had a high-school-age sister who was kind of a hellraiser, she taught them how. I was pretty much the strangest thing that came out of that little town.

Q: What's really scary to you?

It took me a while to realize I like being scared. I like to put myself in situations that are scary. I'm kind of a nervous person to begin with, so every time I withstand one of these events I feel better. I hate getting in front of an audience, hate it, hate it, hate it.

One story for the upcoming issue is about a woman who was undergoing surgery and woke up as they were cutting her open and removing her organs. She was completely paralyzed by the anesthesia but it didn't numb her. This came right after I had a C-section, for which I had been awake but couldn't feel anything. It amazes me that people go through things like this.

Q: You write in issue eight that giving birth was the most morbid thing you've ever done. What else from your life would make good material for the magazine?

We have a haunted house. We bought it from the family of an ltalian woman who lived all by herself for 20 years. When we first moved in, things would happen -- books would come off the shelf or doors would open by themselves. The TV would come on by itself and Dan Rather would start talking. Appliances should behave themselves.

When something happens once you think, OK, that was weird. But when it happened every day, and just kept on happening, I got the sense that someone wanted my attention. It got to the point where we could hear people walk down the length of the house. We live down the street from a mortuary, so I thought, oh no, if this is people from the mortuary haunting us it'll go on forever.

I finally had a talk with her one night. My husband was away a lot touring with his band, so I was home alone. I said, "I'm going to sit down and watch The Wizard of Oz. You're welcome to join me. But if you're going to live here, no more sneaking up behind me, no more startling me with things out of the corner of my eye."

Things still happen now and then, but it's not things falling behind me to make me jump. Whether people survive after death, I don't know. But if someone lives someplace for a long time, the energy stays contained there. It's a whole lot easier to deal with than gangbangers robbing people on Mission Street.

Q: Is this a full-time job for you?

I go back and forth between freelancing and doing my own writing. For three or four years I wrote a column about visiting cemeteries for an online magazine. It was the greatest thing in the world, I would have done it for free, but they paid me. There's so much more about going to the cemetery than lurking around in the shadows. You can look at art, look at wildlife, meet people -- they're always very nice, whether you're talking to groundskeepers or people visiting graves. The year before our baby was born we did a road trip: 22 cemeteries in 17 days. It was the height of spring, everything was in bloom, it was so beautiful. My poor husband's very long suffering. He's a musician, so we accommodate each other's quirks. He goes to graveyards with me, I go to noise shows with him.