Sometimes, you can judge a book by its cover. Case in point: Dr. Paul Koudounaris' The Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses (Thames and Hudson, 224 pgs., $50), a hefty black tome emblazoned with shiny gold letters and a photo of a skeleton posed with its arm raised, clad in a helmet and suit of armor.
Sold! So, uh, what's this book about, now? Koudounaris, whose credentials include a PhD in Art History from UCLA and an innate curiosity about things he terms "bizarre and suspicious," spent five years traveling the globe learning more about the ancient (and primarily Catholic) practice of massing bones in charnel houses, often with eerily artistic results. He'll be in town for a series of Empire of Death-related events starting Thurs/20.
To gather the book's 260 photos (plus dozens of illustrations), the author traveled across multiple continents to 70 different locations, many of which are off-limits to the public. Lest you think he's some kind of ghoulish Ed Gein type, Koudounaris explains his motivation on his website (a companion source for the book): "The Empire of Death [contains] hundreds of photographs and a text which not only recovers their history, but the history of the religious movement which gave birth to them. This is not a book about the macabre or death. It is a book about beauty and salvation. If you understand that when looking at these photos, then I hope you will choose to read the book."
And the photos are beautifully presented, with accompanying text to contextualize, and share the significance of, exactly what you're looking at: a wall of skulls arranged behind a "plague crucifix" in Switzerland; mummified monks posed beneath the memento mori symbol of an hourglass with wings ("time flies") in Rome; painted skulls and a spectacularly bejeweled skeleton in Germany; and that fellow from Empire of Death's cover, martyr St. Pancratius, articulated using a "fine mesh fabric" and dressed in gleaming armor, forever on guard at the Church of St. Nikolaus in Wil, Switzerland.
Koudounaris' author bio reveals that while he was working on the book, "he managed to become cursed, exorcized, arrested, and manacled by a deranged Italian monk," so expect some hair-raising storytelling during his Bay Area appearances. Also on tap: slide shows, book signings, and a chance to check out prints of original photos from the book.
Thurs/20, 6:30 p.m., free
824 Valencia, SF
Thurs/20, 9 p.m., $20 (part of a larger event)
Trickster Salon, SF
For location information, RSVP here)
Fri/21, 7 p.m., free
Dark Carnival Imaginative Fiction Bookstore and Escapist Comic Bookstore
3086 and 3090 Claremont, Berk.
Sun/23, 8 p.m., free
Dog Eared Books
900 Valencia, SF