Someone from the Today in Tabs commentariat pointed out that I might want to send out a short excerpt of Women and Other Monsters as a newsletter, which was a really good idea! I was going to send some slaughtered darlings to paying subscribers, but honestly it seems more generous to send you guys the parts I decided were good enough to keep in, rather than the parts I cut. This is the opening of the chapter that goes on to be about the monster Scylla and the inescapably corruptible human body.
All I did in Vienna was eat cake and look at medical oddities. It’s a wonderful city for the history of medicine, a field I’ve been drawn to since college—and in particular, it’s a wonderful city for my preferred interaction with the history of medicine, which involves less learning dates and more looking at slightly gruesome displays in haunted-looking museums and cluttered Wunderkammers. Vienna’s museums specialize in wax moulage. The rooms that circle the Narrenturm, the ring-shaped building that houses the Museum of Pathological Anatomy, are adorned with lovingly crafted wax faces, buttocks, and genitals, each peeking from a cradle of pinstriped cloth, each crusted or warted or eaten away with disease. The history of medicine museum at the University of Vienna’s medical school, known as the Josephinum, features rows of wax bones in cases, severed legs with veins made of wax-dipped thread, and full fleshless bodies standing in upright glass boxes as though you’ve caught them in the shower. It’s like a cross between Madame Tussauds and an abattoir.
In the middle of one of the rooms, laid out in a glass coffin like Snow White, is the figure of a beautiful nude woman. She lies on her back, in a pose suggesting intoxication or orgasm more than sleep: one knee slightly bent, hands rucking the silk sheets beneath her, her head tilted back in abandon or ecstasy. She has been slashed open from throat to groin. Her breasts hang to the sides, just flaps of wax, and her guts are a bulbous dark mass against her alabaster skin, coils of intestine resting on a pristine hip. On top of her long blonde hair, which spills prettily around her shoulders, is a delicate circlet of gold.