Author: J.W. Ocker:
The New York Grimpendium: A Guide to Macabre & Ghostly Sites is a book that I was excited to read as soon as I heard the name. I was already familiar with the author thanks to his wonderfully weird blog Odd Things I’ve Seen, and had the good fortune to read his previous work The New England Grimpendium a few years back. The fact that I was most excited about was that unlike it’s New England counterpart, The New York Grimpendium focuses on an area that I grew up in, so you can imagine my absolute glee when this book showed up on my doorstep for review. What I’m trying to say here is that clearly, I had some very high hopes for this book, ones that I’m happy to say were not only met but exceeded.
Right from the get-go, Ocker gives us a hint of what we’re in for when we crack the spine – this is not a travel book you recommend to someone who might enjoy a Sex and the City sightseeing getaway. There’s no guided jaunts through the Empire State Building or leisurely wine tours here. No, the places we’ll be going and the events we’ll be recounting, well, they’re going to be a little darker.. and we’re going to love every minute of it. Ocker aims to present a New York sampler platter of the grim, and his three rules for doing so are simple: it has to be macabre, it has to have some form of physical representation to actually visit, and finally, Ocker has to have stepped foot on the property himself.
It’s worth noting that when it comes to books that delve into locations involving haunted properties, monster reports, and UFO crashes (the Grimpendium has an entire section dedicated to these things) a good portion of writers are content to research the history and interview eyewitnesses without ever leaving their laptops or libraries, so Ocker’s third rule of visitation is an important one that immediately sets the book apart. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve picked up a travel guide filled with bad directions to weird locations that have gotten me lost, confused, or almost arrested. Happily, Ocker is a fantastic guide with concern for the pilgrimage of the weirdo. He’ll keep you out of jail.
The Grimpendium is divided into five distinct parts, each with a focus that varies from macabre personalities, sites of noteworthy crimes (including murders and those that committed a lot of them), intriguing final resting places, horror movie filming locations, and legendary monsters. While the chapters are likely to be filled with plenty of New York staples you might already be aware of (any self respecting fan of Ghostbusters hasn’t been to Manhattan without seeking out the famous firehouse), it’s the special attention given to the lesser known locations that really makes the Grimpendium shine as a travel guide; places like the Boyd-Parker Torture Tree, where it’s said that angry Native Americans took revenge on soldiers during the Revolutionary War, or the grave of a young boy who died from kisses, or even one of my personal favorites – the filming location for Sleepaway Camp, one of the all-time best worst horror films. Who would possibly want to visit the place where a 30 year old Halloween rip off was shot? People like me, of course, and the Grimpendium has us covered.
Perhaps your interest lies in seeing some dead bodies under glass. Done. Parts of dead bodies floating in jars? Easy. A bar with a werewolf theme? There’s directions. Ok, how about a little cave off the beaten path with a history of evil spirits? Yes, if you’re brave enough, you can even see that too.
I could go on and on listing all of the gloriously grim things that Ocker has somehow crammed into the 334 pages of this book, but that would be depriving you half of the New York Grimpenium‘s charm. You see, while you could easily sit down and flip through the pages one by one, enjoying a roller coaster of emotional responses to people, places, and things, I’ve found it to be a delightful experience to pick the book up, gently bend the cover, and after a short fluttering, let my thumb surprise me with a new topic. It’s happened to me now more times than I can count, which is why it’s taken me until January to review a book that came out in October. I’ve never really felt “done” with it, in fact, I still don’t. Even though I’ve read every entry multiple times at this point, I’ll notice the book sitting quietly in the last place I left it, get hypnotized by the cover, and the next thing I know I’m 20 pages deep into dead things.
The writing in the NY Grimpendium comes across as the musings of a man who’s genuinely fascinated by the macabre, something not always easily pulled off without reading like a 9th grader’s presentation on serial killers. Whether it be in his ability to effortlessly describe the alluring aesthetics of a skull, or in his lamentations of long lost buildings, his excitement and interest in the locations and people he’s sought are are infectious, so be forewarned – if you don’t go into the book with a travel plan, you just might finish with one.
For a book dedicated the the darker corners of tourism, it’s also pretty damn funny to boot, which keeps the tone mostly light and easy to follow. But don’t let the humor fool you, as I said, there are some downright bummer inducing reads as well. Ocker even jokingly suggests in the introduction that we skip the chapter on death and murder altogether. While places like the 9-11 memorial, or the site of the American Airlines Flight 587 might still be fresh enough in our minds to sting a bit, Ocker handles these subjects with grace and maturity. After all, whether we’re laughing about it or crying about it, just talking about death, seeking it, studying it.. it’s just a way to prepare for the inevitable. As Ocker says, “most of us are coffin-shaped in one way or another.”
If you’re the kind of person who can enjoy the peaceful beauty of a quiet cemetery, seek a morbid fascination in the obituaries, or just like stuff that’s a little weird (you’re here reading this, after all), The New York Grimpendium: A Guide to Macabre and Ghastly Sites is a book I can’t recommend highly enough. That goes double especially if you’re from the New York area, or plan on visiting, in which case, you might just want to keep it in the car for any impromptu adventures to the creepier parts of the state. After all, death can be pretty spontaneous.
Grab your copy at Amazon and ensure Ocker keeps working his weird way through the country.
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