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Night Crawler 

As the Wormwood Turns

Wednesday, May 24 2000
A sepulcher is a burial vault or tomb, most widely popularized by Jesus Christ. Sepulchritude is the morbidly biased, highly attitudinal Web site that includes a collection of well-read wits and artists -- mostly living in San Francisco -- who share a passion for the peculiarities of centuries past. Designed and maintained by Kallisti, a voluptuous raspberry-haired beauty with a satirical eye and nimble tongue, Sepulchritude is indispensable to all self-effacing creatures of the night and to most casual dilettantes of 17th-century esoterica. It offers art, literature, advice, humor, and brassy lessons in European history, as viewed through the splintered lens of a 21st-century Gothic sensibility. There is historic smut, including well-endowed illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley and 69 elegant ways to address a whore, as culled from the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (bat, cattle, dishclout, wasp, convenient, and Covent Garden nun are among my favorites); there are bawdy jokes and poetry from the 16th century, such as the faultless "Sodom's Palace of Pleasure" and "The Dying Lover to His Prick" ("O Prick, how great thy Victory? O Pleasure, how sweet thy stings"), complete with etchings; there is an extensive gallery (sweetly titled "Décolleté" or low, plunging neckline) that is devoted entirely to severed heads -- beginning with the biblical tales of Judith and Salome, winding through the bloody reign of the English Tudor family, dropping in on the French guillotine craze of 1793-94, and ending with photographs of the gruesome White Trash Trailer Murder victim. Sepulchritude also hosts the guilty reading pleasure Suffering Is Hip, an e-zine that exposes "the lighter side of dark" with in-depth articles such as "I, Claudius: The Drinking Game and Debacle," "A 19th Century Ladies Afternoon Picnic at the Monster Truck Show," and "Bats: A Personal Essay on the Order Chiroptera With Parenthetical Tangents," as well as frothier fare, including online tarot card readings, Lit Libs (readers are invited to rewrite Crime and Punishment, Pickwick Papers, and The Satanic Bible, among others), "Horrorscopes,"and the Goth Hanky Code. There are, in fact, countless delights to be found within the shadowy electric catacombs of Sepulchritude, but there is one portico in particular to which I have returned time and time again: It is "La Fée Verte" ("The Green Fairy"), within the Chapel Perilous, an ode to absinthe.

Born in Berkeley, Kallisti had her interest in absinthe -- the verdant alcohol favored by Van Gogh, Baudelaire, and Verlaine, among other artists -- stirred while residing in New Orleans, a city still seemingly saturated by liquor's inebriating glow. Discouraged by the inaccessibility of fact regarding the drink, Kallisti set about compiling what she had gleaned, mostly paintings and writings inspired by the "green muse," along with information drawn from Barnaby Conrad III's seminal Absinthe: History in a Bottle. With the help of friends, she posted images and text on Sepulchritude, taking care to painstakingly credit and annotate each entry. Soon, e-mail was pouring in from all over the world, and the site was expanded to include brewing instructions, cocktail recipes, history, sociopolitical assessments, herb-and-oil (raw materials) vendors, book-poster-and-accouterment sellers, and, most popular of all, the regularly updated absinthe buyers' guide. Here, one can find thorough evaluations of at least 30 varieties of ready-made absinthe from nine countries, with details on packaging, alcohol content, flavor, shipping, and availability. Among the numerous contributing critics, many of them anonymous, the reigning expert is Absintheur, a man rumored to be a professional restaurant critic, whose appraisal of the Spanish Segarra Absenta begins this way: "It louches beautifully, even at room temperature -- soy-milk white and opalescent. ... The scent is distinctively one of wormwood. Unquestionably. The flavor is strongly anis with just the slightest hint of artemesia pontica's bitterness. The product is woodsy and unsweetened, but is mild enough to be consumed without sugar (though sugar improves it greatly). This absinthe competes favorably with Lasala."

Over the years, Kallisti has become something of an expert herself, gathering a lovely collection of antique wares that assuredly heightens the absinthe sampling experience, and abets a slip through time, back to an era when the tablecloths in Parisian cafes were dappled with an emerald glow, and artists murmured over slotted spoons.

"There is a certain romance in the ritual," says Kallisti. "The ritual always draws people back to it." An invitation would be difficult to disregard.

The evening is appropriately damp, with fog clinging to the crowns of the trees in Golden Gate Park and drizzle creating stoplight halos that vanish with a blink. The apartment house, with its hallways papered in the red velvet of a turn-of-the-century brothel, sits on a hill overlooking the gloom. It's the home of Anna Noelle Rockwell, an artist whose large canvases lean in piles among substantial foliage, animal bones, and statues of the Buddha. A fire crackles in the sitting room, which is stuffed with layers of Persian carpets, tapestries, saints, animal skulls, twinkling candles, and red roses arranged among human bones. An affable collection of guests, among them Terrance Graven, co-author of the Goth Hanky Code, dressed in a wine-colored velvet long coat, Suffering Is Hip co-editor Elizabeth Myrddin, dressed in midnight blue velour with a jeweled bindi decorating her third eye, and several other Sepulchritude contributors. They chat pleasantly, over tobacco and wine, about the technicalities of the horror-movie script Rockwell is preparing while several bottles of absinthe are laid out with decanters of iced water and antique settings: saucers from Parisian bistros, glassware dated between 1890 and 1910, and antique slotted spoons that cost between $45 and $100 each on today's market. The absinthe vessels -- a pale yellow bottle of Bediba Anisada Deva Absenta from Barcelona, a fluorescent green bottle of Mari Mayans from Ibiza, and a pomegranate-red bottle of Betina's Aromatherapeutic Elixir, a bootleg absinthe made by Swiss farmers -- sparkle like liquid gemstones.

Graven begins preparing cocktails for the crowd, filling the crystal reservoir in the bottom of each glass with absinthe and straining ice-cold water through a sugar cube placed on a slotted spoon. As the water drips through, it forms cloudy pearls that pierce the green pool, then rise again to diffuse the absinthe with a shimmering translucent glow. This is the louche, a principal component to absinthe enjoyment. The Deva is most beautiful; it is clear how artists were inspired to re-create the almost supernatural shade of green in their work, but everybody is eager to try the Swiss red variety, for novelty's sake. The crowd sips and discusses the merits of each individual brand, the complexity of the flavor, the subtlety of layers.

Made from the extract of wormwood, absinthe was once thought to cause absinthism, characterized by addiction, hyperexcitability, and hallucinations. Proponents of the drink, however, note that the symptoms are as likely to be attributed to the high alcohol content (up to 75 percent) as anything else. Though the intoxication from absinthe is noticeably different from that of most alcoholic beverages -- slightly more lucid and empathetic to intent observation -- the hallucinatory aspect, so often attributed to the quaff by those who have not had it, is largely overemphasized.

"I've drunk a lot of absinthe in my life," admits Myrddin, "and only once have I had even mild distortions in perception -- trailers and slight wavering around my peripheral vision."

"The studies that outlawed absinthe were conducted over 100 years ago by injecting guinea pigs," sighs Kallisti. "There is more thujone [the active ingredient in wormwood] in your average turkey stuffing than in a bottle of absinthe." According to Matthew Baggott's Frequently Asked Questions about absinthe, vermouth, chartreuse, and benedictine all contain small amounts of thujone, and wormwood has been a longtime favorite flavoring for vodka in Sweden.

"If you get into the history of absinthe," continues Kallisti, "you realize that the temperance movement was started by French wine producers who were hysterical because absinthe had become the drink du jour. Their sales were plummeting, so they concocted absinthe hysteria."

The partygoers sip their milky green cocktails and recall the dark days when they had to concoct their own absinthe from half-complete recipes.

"You ever smell valerian root?" asks a blue-tressed lass between tarot card readings. "It smells like a cemetery and dirty socks, but it doesn't make you jump back. It's vaguely enticing."

"Homemade absinthe tastes like dish detergent," suggests another guest.

"You don't really want to drink more than four glasses, even of the good stuff," warns Kallisti as the third round is poured. "The hangover is awful, a little like Jagermeister."

More guests arrive with a very harsh-tasting Portuguese brand. They flounce about in corsets and bloomers, draping themselves over armchairs, trying to look drawn and desolate, like the woman in Degas' The Absinthe Drinker, but it's no good; the party is in full swing. The delicate ritual of absinthe pouring gives way to absinthe martinis and a New Orleans favorite, absinthe and 7UP.

"It's hot there," says Myrddin with gravity as the fire crackles, the tarot cards shuffle, and the absinthe gently glows.

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Silke Tudor


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