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6 Sad, Depressing, and/or Horrifying Things I Saw While Thrifting in Cape May


October 28, 2012 by J.C. Lillis

I saw these all in one thrift store. I won’t name it, because almost everything in there was fun and lovely and the owners sold me a 1970 LOOK magazine for a dollar less than the asking price, and I wouldn’t want others to assume the entire store is a hothouse of nightmare seeds waiting to sprout.

However. That said.

1.)    The Housewares Clown

I realize a clown phobia is the must-have aversion these days; confessing to clown-fear is kind of like saying you breathe oxygen or hate the word moist. And it’s not like there’s a national shortage of creepy clown photos—Google Images turns up five quintillion of them, including a distressing photoshop of Hugh Laurie in greasepaint and fangs that’s probably part of a House/Wilson slashfic challenge I don’t want to know about. (OR DO I?)

But look: there’s something special about encountering an upsetting clown in a place you don’t expect one. If you’re watching It or Poltergeist or Killer Clowns from Outer Space, you pretty much know you’re signing up for a couple tough nights where you white-knuckle it past the McDonald’s and check the closet eight times before bed. But when you’re browsing a bland shelf of housewares in a thrift store, your gaze bouncing lightly from chipped china teacup to fat-kitty cookie jar, you don’t expect THIS:

Can’t sleep. Clown will eat me.

It’s not the MOST horrifying clown I’ve ever seen, but stare too long at the yellow teeth and the troll-doll hair and the wonky half-focused eyes, and you might get a nice little Category 2 nightmare brewing. If this clown doesn’t do it, try the one on the next shelf, who is apparently being tempted with booze and empty promises by a hobo that plays “Send in the Clowns” before yanking your intestines out through your navel.

“Do not shun me, for I was once like you.”


2.)    The Hope Rock

What do you think hope looks like? If you had to paint it, what would you come up with? A single sun-ray beaming through stormclouds? A child’s trusting smile? A birthday cake aglow with a hundred bright candles?

You would be wrong. Because hope is actually a cracked brown rock crowned with dying buttercups and the ghosts of two deceased sparrows, languishing on a shelf of broken electronics in the hopes that someone will rescue it.

Behold it now, before Eeyore realizes his doorstop is missing:


3.)    The Aspic Loaf

You know how they say those who forget history are doomed to repeat it? Let’s try really, really hard to remember the culinary commandments of America’s mid-twentieth century, particularly the one that goes THOU SHALT ENSLAVE THY SAVORY EDIBLES IN A MEMBRANE OF ASPIC.

I get it, kind of. I mean, back then we thought we’d be living on the moon by 1994, so outfitting our meatloaves in gelatinous space helmets must’ve seemed cool and aspirational. “Aspic: While You’re Waiting for Your Jetpack.” But it seems like an awful lot of effort for something fundamentally revolting. Check out the back of the recipe card:

Or you could save yourself eight hours and serve a meatloaf that doesn’t call to mind prehistoric bugs trapped in amber. Jesus H. Christmas, I could illuminate an entire medieval manuscript in the time it takes to follow this recipe. Then again, since this comes from a box of Weight Watchers cards, maybe that’s the idea. You see the instructions, think “eff this,” and reach for something faster and less caloric, like a can of tuna and five Lucky Strikes.

4.)    Charlie Brown vs. the Black Vacuum of Existence

What’s that up on the high shelf, guarded by a phalanx of cloudy glassware?

Is it a black velvet painting of Charlie Brown, pitching a curveball into the eternal void?

Yes. Yes, it is.

This thing is inherently sad and depressing in the way all black velvet paintings are. Black velvet paintings are never found anywhere you’d want to be; they’re native to ironic hipster kitsch dens, junk store shelves with Garfield-hates-Mondays mugs, and giant vans with neon BUY “ONE” GET ONE “FREE” banners. But as a lifelong Peanuts fan, I will say that this particular painting skillfully captures the black cloud of gloom and futility that envelops Charlie Brown’s entire existence, and not just because his nonexistent mother has apparently washed his baseball uniform with the red towels. What’s the point of this pitch—of any pitch, for that matter? Every kite ends up in a tree, every football goes unkicked, every little red-haired girl moves out of town before she even knows your name. Cue an AUUUUGGGGGH and another round of “Failure Face.”

5.)    Paperback Horror Child

No comment required. I’m actually afraid to talk about this one, for fear that the shrieking phantasm on the cover will come to life and rap on my window in the dead of night.

Thanks a whole bunch, Mike St. Clair.

6.)    Giant Ceramic Elf of Probable Malevolence

So I was minding my own business, flipping through a shoebox of vintage wedding photos, when I got the distinct impression that someone—or some THING—was watching me. I pivoted my head and jumped directly out of my everloving skin:

Ever since this Elf on the Shelf business started, I have found elves EXTRA creepy; I had no idea their main function in life was to record your wrongdoings and report them to a higher authority. No wonder they look so smug. The photo doesn’t really do his sinister I-know-what-you-did-last-summer grin justice, but take my word for it. This thing was messaging me with its all-seeing Manson lamps. “Go ahead, voyeur. Flip through those eighty-year-old wedding photos and postcards. Someday your eighth-grade journal will be in a Goodwill in Cockeysville, and then we’ll see who’s laughing.”*


*Note to bloggers of tomorrow: If my eighth-grade journal does end up in a thrift store, please feel free to scan pages and ridicule me. My junior-high self deserves it. In fact, if three or more people comment below in the affirmative, I will post an excerpt of said journal RIGHT HERE on the blog, along with the most embarrassing young-me picture I can find. Offer good for a limited time; velvet painting not included.


  1. James says:

    You showed me clowns. Your penance shall be the posting of the embarrassing journal and embarrassing picture. Make it so.

  2. Megan says:

    Please post excerpts of journal!

    Aspic … *shudder*

  3. Lenalena says:

    I have an entire collection of ’50s recipe cards. It’s a miracle the human race is still here.

    If I get to look at your journal, maybe I won’t burn mine.

    People over on goodreads are raving about your book. I am going to start it tomorrow! Looking forward to it.

  4. joe says:

    Neat thrift store finds! Thanks for sharing. The gross, gelatinous wiggle of aspic (meat jello?) is in my head.

  5. Brian says:

    Show that journal! (BTW this post is amazing)

  6. Courtney says:

    everything about aspic is revolting…especially that picture. also, i love the way that the recipe calls for you to “cover a lamb loaf”, as if to say “dude, get that recipe elsewhere…this is just instructions on how to make the lamb loaf inedible.”

  7. J.C. Lillis says:

    thanks, guys. . .journal excerpts to come tomorrow! And a photo of me in my truly terrible 8th-grade graduation outfit.

  8. Mom says:

    Your post was hysterical!! I am thrilled that your talent is finally getting out there where others can enjoy…and for the record-I have NEVER cooked with aspic!!!
    Keep up the great work, sweetie! (I bet I know which picture you are going to post. I think you were always cute)

  9. Bob says:

    Crap, that was funny post. I haven’t laughed so much in a long time.

  10. g8torgrrl says:

    You are pure unadulterated evil. CLOWNS? I’ve had a phobia of clowns ever since an family outing to a local fair when I was six where my mother (yes, my MOTHER) threatened that if I wandered off, a clown would catch me and kidnap me. Thanks mom. I was terrified from that moment on. *NOTE: do not ever tell your child a clown will kidnap her. Just sayin’*

    A few years later, my “bestest, best friend” gave me a clown doll at my eighth birthday sleep-over. The sleep-over when we watched a brand new “scary movie” called Poltergeist. (My parents also let me watch Nightmare on Elm Street. Parental control, not a big buzz-word in the 80′s.) We stupidly shoved the doll UNDER THE BED and then were too freaked to go and get it out. My father had to come in the middle of the night to see why our gaggle of little girls were still up, whimpering and scared to death. He retrieved the doll for me and proceeded to rip it’s little plastic head off before dumping it in the outside trash can, promising that a headless clown is a harmless clown. Ahhh…. thanks daddy.

  11. Was the smiling elf chalkware? A bank? I’d love to learn more. It’s a long story but I’m on a bit of a hunt for an elf that looks like one from a friend’s childhood photo and well, this one looks just like it – and it’s the first that I’ve seen. Any info that you remember would be appreciated! Thanks – Eartha Kitsch :)

    • J.C. Lillis says:

      Hi, Eartha! I hightailed it away from the elf as soon as I took the picture, but I THINK it was a cookie jar. Pretty certain it wasn’t a bank; it was too big for that, and it was in with the kitchenware. Good luck with the hunt; sorry I can’t be more specific!

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