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Vacuum Head

#121, 19 May 2008

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Professor Booknoodle's Scrapbook Series

It was around seven-thirty of an evening and I was relaxing - enjoying a postprandial whiskey and, coincidentally, engrossed in a periodical of some repute, when I heard the door open below, and the sound of footsteps on the stairway leading to my study. I recognized the tread as that of my friend William Deckle, fellow bibliophile and collector dementia of books on dentistry. I knew this visit boded news of his latest acquisition. My surmise was right; as Deckle bounded into the room (like an eager puppy, I thought) I espied a copy of the latest Maggs Auction Catalog sticking out of his coat pocket.

"Booknoodle, old boy! Wait till you see this! Oh well, I mean you shall see it when it arrives from London. I won! My bid topped out! Lot 244. Pierre Fauchard's Dental Surgery, published in 1728. Did I ever tell you about his commentary on the German Tooth Worm Theory? It's absolutely fascinating! I swear ...."

And, felicitously, I found that I had no need to formulate some ploy or distraction to deflect Deckle from a discourse on German Tooth Worm Theory, for he had distracted himself ... just so.

"What's this, Professor? What's this? What are you reading? The Housewife? Housewife Magazine! Oh ho! I never would have expected this of you! I'd think you would have your nose buried in The Monist or the Hibbert Journal or Scientific American - but this rag?"

"Look here, Deckle, what I read is no concern of yours. I read what I read when I read it, and what I read is what I choose to read, and my reading, as you well know, has a certain catholicity to it. Pour yourself some whiskey and calm down."

"But this magazine is a mere trifle. It is a ... a ... a housewife's magazine, full of silly romances, fashion frippery and inconsequential chatter about chair doilies, sleeve poofs, garden petunias and dinner plans."

"I can think of some people who could, indeed, do with a little more in the way of dinner plans," said I, fixing Deckle with a meaningful look, and thinking of the last time I had dined at Deckle's house, or rather, the last time I had the misfortune to sit at his dinner table. For a collector of dentistry books his lamb was most decidedly a bit too chewy. One should always be wary of bachelor cuisine.

"And what's this?" Deckle was craning his head around trying to see the page to which I had the magazine open; "Hypnotism? 'Free Book on Hypnotism!'" he read from the advertisement at the foot of the page. "'Would you like to exert a strange and magic power over others?'"

The deuce if I could understand how he managed to read such fine print from such a distance, but I had to admit, from years of observing the man, that William Deckle had the vision of a hawk.

"Don't try and cover it up," crowed Deckle. "Ha! Just that one little protective movement of your hand tells me you were reading that very ad! Ha ha!" I returned my hand to the chair's arm. He continued to read.

"'Do you desire to possess an accomplishment by which you can make both fun and money! If so, you should become a hypnotist. You can now master this wonderful, mysterious and fascinating science free of all cost in you own home. By a few hours' study you can learn all about the secrets, methods, uses and wonders of the hypnotic trance. You can surprise and mystify all your friends by placing anyone you wish under this weird and magic spell, and compel them to see, think, feel and act precisely as you wish. You can sway the minds of others, perform the most wonderful and astounding feats ....' I say, old boy, that is just simply too, too rich! Have you lost the use of your rational senses?"

"Look in my eyes, William. Look deep into my eyes. Be - quiet - and - sit - down." I wagged my finger slowly back and forth and then pointed to the chair next to mine. Deckle complied. "You see - I already have you under my spell. You are now sitting just as I ordered."

"Oh piffle. I was all ready to sit. I wanted to sit. It was my own intention to sit. Any way, why on earth are you perusing this silly magazine?" asked Deckle.

"Listen here, William Deckle, you should not be so hasty to condemn that which you do not know or have never studied."

"What do I have to know to understand that this is a rag of the lowest sort?"

"Harrumph. You go a bit far in your condemnation. It is certainly no Police Gazette; far from it."

"Oh! Police Gazettes! Say, you don't have any of those around do you? Deckle looked hopefully at the stack of periodicals on the table before us.

"No. Listen here, Deckle, one can learn a great deal about things - about society and its tastes - by studying publications such as this. They represent the interests and concerns of a broad strata of American culture and social class. The stories are really not so terrible as you want to make them out to be. "

Deckle lifted the magazine from my hands and proceeded to leaf through it. "Oh, sure : "Uncle Zebedee's Will" - high stuff that. And look at this!" He pointed to one of the illustrations accompanying a story. "Why the man in that picture is in a swoon. A man! Swooning! What rubbish!"

"I believe Etta Pierce was merely having some sport with her readers ... turning the tables on the men folk, as it were; and Mary Denison certainly knows her audience," said I. George Eliot and Henry James are not to everyone's taste."

I pointed to the title of an article on the open page. "Look there: "The Seamy Side of Marriage." I find it interesting that it is placed right next to an article called "Etiquette During Courtship and Engagement." What sort of conclusions do you think we could draw? And look here - further on: "Two Sides of the Question" ... see, the authoress complains of being uncomfortable in marriage ... and reading further we find that it is all because of the need to keep up with the Jones ... as the saying goes."

"Oh well, I suppose there are things to be learned. But look at these titles - "The Haunted Boot" - "The Puttering Woman" - "Cats and disease" - "Woolen Dresses and Odors" - "The Training of Children" - "Choice Bits from my Cook Book" ... I mean, please, Booknoodle! it is all so ... so ... domestic!"

"Haw. It is my own experience that there is much to be said for domesticity," said I, taking a sip from the Highland Park.

"If you say so. I must say that you and Missus Booknoodle seem content with one another."

"Yes. We are most decidedly so. But, Deckle, you stopped before listing "Preserving the Teeth of Children," I said, pointing to a short piece on the page. "Even in such a lowly rag, as you call it, there are things to be discovered and connections to be made. I didn't think you could miss that one."

William Deckle laughed. "You've got me there, Professor. But just look! Half of these magazines are made up of wretched, overblown advertising. For so many cheap baubles and useless objects. And, so much of it seems so predatory. It is all just so much quack cures and false hopes!" He batted his hand against an especially outrageous advertisement on the rear cover which announced a cure for consumption.

"Harrumph. They are indeed mostly egregious. And the rascals are taking people's hard earned money. Any intelligent person knows there is no cure for consumption. But people need hope. They thrive on dreams."

"Oh? Like the dream of controlling all one's friends through hypnosis. Such a sham. It's all a sham." Hypnotism. To borrow your favorite word - harrumph!"

"And right you are to borrow it," laughed I.

"So - where did you get this pile of ... ahem ... interesting literature, and he named the magazines easily seen on the table top: The House Wife, The Hearthstone, Good Literature, Modern Stories - my god, Booknoodle, where in the world did you find all of these? What made you purchase them? What are you up to?"

"Deckle, Deckle, my good friend - I did not need to purchase them. You see, they are a gift from my neighbor. He gives them to me when he is through with them."

"A gift? Your neighbor? You mean Phylander? Crazy old bald-headed Phylander?"

"But, William, crazy is an opinion, and I'm not so sure I share that opinion. In fact I know I don't. Phylander certainly has his quirks. He may be rightly considered eccentric. And he has gone off on some curious tangents, pursued some ... ahhh ... peculiar notions. His farm sits there, a monument to projects started and abandoned. But crazy is a bit harsh, no?"

"So he gives you these? And you actually read them? But why? Why does he think you would be interested in them?"

"Because I told him I was interested? Because I am interested in them? Could that be it? Good grief, Deckle, you must widen the scope. The world is not all dental picks and German Tooth Worms. Did you know Louisa May Alcott has been published in Good Literature? You would not shrug off such an historically important authoress would you?"

"Well, no, but ..."

"Leave all buts out of it." I am quite in debt to Phylander for widening the horizons of my own reading. You may be surprised to learn that his reading extends beyond books on manure, composting, subsoil plowing and chickens. "

"Phylander's chicken's eggs are tasty ..."

"Yes. But I felt it could do no harm to let him see there was more to read in the world. I presented him a few issues of various literary magazines and a few Scientific Americans and general interest magazines - all of good quality. He thanked me and informed me that he had decided to subscribe to as many as he could. I was gratified ... then I was surprised. Surprised at the wide range and sheer number of magazines he ordered; and particularly surprised at the focus of his magazine subscribing. He subscribes willy-nilly and with hardly a thought to content beyond the advertisements. It is no concern of Phylander's what stories might appear in an issue (although I think if a good Verne or Conan Doyle story appeared that would certainly appeal to him). No, it is all about advertising and free offers."

"Ha! I see that almost every third ad in this issue of The Housewife seems to be offering something for free."

"Yes! Phylander claims to be meticulous in his financial planning. Proud of his penny pinching. But all this magazine subscribing puts the lie to that. Just let there be some free offer ... let there be an enticement to subscribe ... such as this one."

I picked up an issue of Good Literature and indicated a prominently featured promotional come-on.

Deckle read the ad copy, "'FREE TO EVERY SUBSCRIBER! A Large and Handsome Book Entitled TWENTY COMPLETE NOVELETTES BY POPULAR AUTHORS! An Entirely New Book, Just Published. (Not the Same that we Gave Away Last year!)' Look here - there are some creditable authors in this list ... Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mrs. Southworth, Francis Hodgson Burnett ... why there is even a Wilkie Collins and a Conan Doyle! That is really a capital offer."

"If one looks past the shoddy construction of their book. It looks suspiciously like one of those wrappered jobs - bad paper and stapled construction. A print size that even an ant would find miniscule. It would fall apart in your hands if you were to attempt reading it more than once. I warrant these books will have turned to yellow powder in another mere hundred years. Such cheapness. Such ...."

Deckle interrupted. "But, Professor, one could hardly expect them to offer a half-leather quarto with marbled boards and Japan paper as a free offer. Say, that Southworth title seems interesting, The Spectre Revels ... and what do you suppose that Moaning Bar is that Mrs. Burnett is writing about?"

"You are right. Free offers - but one gets exactly what one pays for. In fact what one pays is the cost of subscription. So old Phylander pays good money for a magazine just to get a cheap dime paperback. And ... let me tell you, that is not the half of it."


"You see, Phylander is attracted to the large font size. The larger, the more the attraction. Barnum dreamed about people like Phylander! He either doesn't see the finer print ... or the large print so fills up his sight that he has no room to comprehend the import of the smaller print. I'll tell you now, he was sorely disappointed with Twenty Complete Novelettes. In fact he was literally hopping mad!"

"Oh you mean he was disappointed that the book was so poorly made?"

"Harrumph. No. I've never known Phylander to have an eye for true quality ... at least in such matters as this. He can spot a laying hen from a slack-feather across the yard. But such things as grades of binding and paper are foreign to him. No, Phylander only reads the LARGE PRINT. He thought he was going to get twenty books for free. When he received only a single book with twenty stories, he was chagrined to a degree of discomfort that anyone in close proximity would have felt also. I pointed out to him the fine print, and he snarled back that 'fine print was for lawyers.' When I pointed out the results of his ignoring the fine print he stomped around the room like one of his banty-hens. 'Twenny novelettes! It sez twenny novelettes!' he fumed" (I did my best Phylander imitation). "It did no good reminding him that a novelette did not necessarily mean a book."

"I can understand how a man could be mistaken in such a matter," said Deckle.

"Disappointment does not long deter Phylander from pursuing his ends and dreams," said I." Why, it is precisely the free offers and the gaudy advertisements and promises of cheap cures that keeps Phylander coming back. It is that big, bold block font. It gets him every time." I chuckled. "Look at this one: 'BIG BOOKS FOR 2 CENTS EACH'. Naturally Phylander only read the large print and completely ignored the smaller print which gave the 32 page book length, the bound in 6 inch by 9 inch wrappers ... but what did Phylander see and expect?"

Laughing, Deckle answered, "I imagine he hit the roof when he received flimsy paperbacks. Let me guess - he ordered the entire batch of 36."

"That he did. Harrumph. They are shredded now and part of the chicken's nest."

"Oh that is too bad, really. I've never heard of this publisher, Hartz & Gray Company, but just look at some of these titles! Cavalry Curt, or The Wizard of the Army - Human Wolves - Jerry the Weasel - Moll, the Tigress - Sam the Wharf Rat - Through the Earth, or Mystery of an Unknown World ... say, do you suppose that last one could be a pirated Verne? Some of this stuff looks pretty exciting. Wasted on chickens. Too bad."

"Yes. And you know, being so cheaply made, I warrant few copies survive the passing years. I can picture book dealers in the future getting quite excited at finding a cache of these that have survived."

"What is Phylander doing now?" asked Deckle, "Has he given up on these subscriptions?"

"Oh no, no, no. I'm afraid the rural delivery carrier is getting more exercise than he really wants from the number and weight of magazines arriving daily at Phylander's farm. Of course, Phylander thinks that such delivery is a great deal, since it is free."

"Well, it is a good deal. But maybe he taxes the system." William shook his head.

"Phylander has recently been struck and impressed by the marvels of electricity and electro-magnetic technology. When you browse through these magazines you cannot help but notice the large number of advertisements for dubious cures. Of course you and I know they are nonsense ... sham enticements promulgated by scoundrels who know the simple gullibility of people. It is as if the world - overnight - has been transformed into a Jules Verne fantasy. Electric cures for this, electric cures for that. Electric belts, electric corsets, electric brushes - there are even home medical kits that are entirely dependent on the transference of electrical power to the body by means of wires and various attachments.

Professor Booknoodle's Electro Shock Home Medical Kit

I myself ordered one of these last, just to examine it and probe its operational apparatus, mind you. There it sits on that table in the corner. The world has gone electro-crazy! Just look at some of these ridiculous claims."

"This one seems pretty straightforward, and it has no electric gadgetry," said Deckle, indicating a small ad at the edge of a page. He proceeded to quote from the ad: "'I GROW HAIR IN ONE NIGHT. Famous Doctor-Chemist has Discovered a Secret Compound that Grows Hair on Any Bald Head.'"

Deckle could not keep from laughing. "How many bald chuckle-heads do you think are taken in by ads such as this?"

"More than you would expect. Or maybe you have no such delusions as to the perspicacity of the American population. There have always been promised panaceas for hair problems, although from my own perspective I don't consider baldness a malady. "

"Many men seem to feel it so," observed Deckle.

"Yes! Exactly. A sad truth. We are now fully into the Scientific Age - the Age of Jules Verne - and the bogus products have taken on the guise of scientific and technological authority. Look at these ads for Electric Belts. One sees them in just about every popular magazine. Sheer bunk! Total tommyrot. Complete nonsense. One wonders that anyone other than the grossest dullard could possibly be taken in by them."

"That is shocking," said Deckle with a smile and a wink, proceeding to read the ad copy. "'Supreme Electric Belt - It Will Cure You! FREE!' It says right here that it is no deposit scheme. That must mean there is a scheme. How could something like that be safe to wear? Look at this one: Oxien Electric Plaster. It cures everything! - it does everything! it is a universal panacea, it seems, except it doesn't claim to establish world peace! But since it promises to 'impart giant strength,' maybe one doesn't need to worry about the dangers of the world. Ha, ha."

"Look, my friend, Phylander is not stupid, but he has spoken to me of his belief in the efficacy of these products, and so I fear he is as gullible as the next man. The baldness 'cure' is the one that is particularly occupying his days right now."

"He ordered the Secret Compound?" asked Deckle.

"He most certainly did. Of course, as I warned him, there was no effect - other than that he smelled worse than even his chicken coops after he had slathered that wretched stuff over his pate. Even Phylander could not stand the smell. I do not know what he did with the Secret Compound, although I have noticed a couple of roosters with nary a feather on their bodies lurking about in the corner of his yard. Phylander continues to pursue a baldness cure. Just last week he ordered a device advertised in the very magazine you are holding - turn the page there ... Look at that! Is that not remarkable? I think this is proof that the world has entered a new phase of craziness."

Deckle looked, he started, and then executed a perfect double take.

"Professor! I fear you have once again proven to me the absolute strangeness of this world! I swear that is the looniest thing I have ever seen. Was its inventor an inmate in Bellevue? An escapee from Bedlam? You say Phylander ordered one of these? Oh no! How could it be safe? It is altogether too zany! What fool would try it on, let alone turn it on whilst wearing it?"

"A fool like Phylander, I fear. And I fear we may have to rescue him from his own foolishness, lest he do serious damage either to himself or to his home."

We both peered down at the advertisement for The Evans Vacuum Cap hair growth apparatus.

Pictured were two men wearing outlandish bulbous metal contraptions like giant turbans, from which tubes ran. Both men looked like all conscious awareness had been sucked from their heads. They stared blankly forward. At the top of the page was written in large print:

"WILL HAIR GROW? Ten minutes test will tell."

"At least, Deckle," said I, "at least these scoundrels have changed their ad copy. For I have seen earlier ads for this contraption that stated unequivocally that this devilish device actually works! I see they still claim the bank will back them."

"Such a thing could never work. Could never work. Never." Deckle repeated his words shaking his head slowly.

"Well I think we shall soon find out, for I believe Phylander was intent on visiting. I believe he has a pile of magazines for me. I know he has been using the device. I know it has not killed him as I have heard him talking and still hear the sound of activity, so he is up and about and has not been laid out by some electric shock, or mummified by some vacuumic action."

"Electric shock? I thought this was a vacuum machine?" asked Deckle.

"Well it is, but it still needs power to operate. And there is this. Phylander told me he was going to combine processes."

"Combine processes?" Deckle looked worried.

I explained. "Phylander figures that if the Evans Vacuum Cap works on its own, then how much more efficacious might it be, if he were to combine the Vacuum Cap with the Electric Belt, and use the two simultaneously."

"Gosh. He is crazy!" Deckle glanced nervously toward the door, for no sooner was that pronouncement made, when we heard the door open downstairs, and the sound of a heavy-shod individual coming up the stairwell. I peered at William over my spectacles; he peered nervously back. The presence of Phylander always seemed to make Deckle a bit nervous.

The door swung open with the energy of Phylander's entry. He shambled into the room, tiny feathery bits of fluff swirling minutely like dust about him. No matter how far from his farm Phylander ventured there always seems to be fine bits of feathery fluff floating about his person.

A strange suggestion of ozone was noticeable in the air. Phylander's eyes seemed to be bulging out of their sockets, beneath his beetling brow. He was carrying a large pile of magazine. I could swear there were just barely discernible small wisps of smoke rising in vague tendrils from his belt line.

I laughed. I could not help it. A loud guffaw that felt like it had been stored up in my personal root cellar burst out. Deckle was frozen - half risen from his chair, his whiskey held forgotten in his hand - incredulously staring at the apparition that had appeared before us.

Old, crazy, bald Phylander stood there twitching noticeably - an insane grin spasmodically appearing and disappearing on his mouth. I say insane, not that insanity guided Phylander's thoughts and movements, but that it was purely an insane grin. No other way to put it ... an insane grin more in the nature of a grimace. But I was not laughing at his visage, which was, indeed, risible.

No. I was laughing at the amazing - astounding - miraculous! - full head of hair that was sticking out in all directions from Phylander's scalp. Long, stiff, and ... yes ... insane! ... insane hair was wildly extending from the entire surface of his scalp. Hair that seemed to have a life of its own. Hair that seemed to writhe as if related to Medusa's herpetological coif. Hair that seemed to be of no discernible color - was it gray? was it brown or white or silvery? ... I decided it was the color of vacuum. Vacuum-produced electric hair. Vacuum produced miracle of mad science. Somehow his out-dated clothing no longer seemed so eccentric.

Deckle and I stared aghast.

"Whut you starin' at?" asked the apparition standing in the middle of the room. "Brought you more moggozines, perfessa. Eyuh." Phylander was always, if anything, economical of speech.

With that he plopped the load of magazines onto the table, spun about and lurched out of the room. I say lurched, but it was smoother than a lurch. If Mary Shelley's creation had moved with smoothness, then that is what it would have moved like. Phylander left the room - with a twitching, shambling inexorable gait. He clomped slowly down the stairs. The outside door slammed shut.

A trace of ozone remained. A few small downy feathers swirled softly and wafted to the floor.

Deckle looked at me. I looked at Deckle. We both peered down at the magazine lying open on the table.

The ozone lingered.

The words seemed to twitch slightly on the page.


One of the men in the picture was smiling ....


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