Hands up, anyone who’s heard of David Felt. Until just recently my hand would’ve remained down too. In his day, however, Felt was famous enough to have a town named after him (Feltville, New Jersey) and wealthy enough to leave it when it failed. Today the Deserted Village is a small tourist attraction, a wooded site on the National Register of Historic Places, and the residence of a few locals who prefer the quiet life. David Felt settled in Union County back in the days when it was rural, and established an industry around a mill. The available literature is frustratingly silent on what kind of a mill it was, but it was important enough for him to build housing to accommodate his workers out in the middle of nowhere. While many of the houses no longer stand, including that of Felt himself, the property has a few remaining buildings and a sense of history.
Upon walking into the park, part of the Watchung Reservation, the first building you meet, after a private residence, is the Union Church. Felt was a Unitarian. He nevertheless insisted that residents—his employees, remember—attend services weekly. The church, which is one of the few buildings open to the public, was a center of communal life. The timeframe here is the mid 1800s. Today employers are more likely to try hard to distance themselves from any religious activities, renaming any holiday gatherings with more neutral titles and hoping, rather than praying, that they won’t offend anybody. Of course, Felt’s business venture failed. Others that followed, sans church, didn’t fare much better.
The man that employees knew as “King David” went on to other ventures and has largely faded from history. Incredibly in this age of internet fame he doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia page. Symbolically, the only building that remains accessible to the public in the church—now a museum with a few artifacts from a century-and-a-half ago. Having lived not far from Feltville for nearly a decade now, I had no idea of its presence until a chance meeting held there brought it to my wife’s attention. We can build our own little kingdoms, it seems, and call them after our own names. They are no guarantee, however, that what we leave behind will not become a ghost-town as the interests of civilization move in directions we had never anticipated.
The generous folks at Exterminating Angel Press graciously sent me a copy of Tod Davies’ The Lizard Princess to review. A fantasy novel that includes a conflict between a world that admits of the supernatural and skeptics who deny anything beyond the material, it is a tale for our time. Indeed, the antagonism is real enough. We live in a world where fantasy can bring in untold wealth while we are taught that not an atom of it is true. Clearly material explanations fit the physical world we inhabit. It’s the world inside our heads that often rejects such materialism being taken to its “logical” conclusion. Davies clearly feels the angst of this discord. The Lizard Princess is a fantasy in the face of harsh reality. And we still need fantasy—perhaps we need it more than ever.
Throughout The Lizard Princess, whether intentional or not, biblical imagery pervades. The Bible offers classical stories that, no matter how we might receive them, continue to influence our ideas and ideals. Here, in a world created especially for the reader, the battle between good and evil is an everyday reality. The turns taken along this path are unconventional, and at times even uncomfortable. The awareness that there is a larger story in the background, however, offers some consolation. Angels, the Devil, and even a subtly veiled God are all players in this fantasy world of Arcadia. Mythical creatures abound, and transformations lead to new perspectives along the way.
In my conversations with other scholars I’m reminded that academics don’t often turn to novels for escape. Some do, of course, but the academy recommends a steady diet of technical non-fiction for those who wish to make an impact upon the world of knowledge. I have always been grateful for literature, however. During my years in graduate school and early in my teaching career I neglected the kinds of books that were my constant companions growing up. In a rural setting far removed from any institutions of higher learning, novels were often the only reading readily available. I never considered the time between their covers wasted. I found in The Lizard Princess a vivid world strangely like our own, but different enough to be more a parable than a simple piece of fiction.
It’s Tuesday morning and I have been listening to authors pitching their books for three solid days now. Truth be told, I am a bit jealous. I’ve got a few more books in me yet, but research time simply does not exist in the world of capitalism and its discontents. Not that I envy being on the author’s side of the table—I remember how it felt to pitch Weathering the Psalms to several editors and to receive an icy “no” in response. I think now I begin to understand. Yesterday one of my appointments asked if I was “book deaf” yet. It was a term I’d never heard, but I immediately knew what he meant. Editors hear pitch after pitch. I pull out my phone and look at my calendar and see a new project every half-hour throughout the day, but no, I’m not book deaf. In fact, I have to constrain myself to keep my credit card firmly inside my wallet. Being surrounded by books is like being in a jungle teeming with deadly animals.
From the exhibitor’s booth, Tuesday is a day of relief and worry. Most of the papers are over at AAR/SBL, and most of the participants have already left. As at any conference, fair, or exhibit, we are strictly forbidden from taking down the booth before closing time. We stand about, straining our ears to hear that first transgressive ripping of strapping tape from its roll, indicating that someone in another booth is being naughty. We’re tired, weary even, but not book deaf. Never book deaf.
In my unguarded moments I sometimes think that maybe some day I’ll have a book here that others will clamber to find. Maybe someone like me will prowl to a pre-selected booth with a specific title firmly in mind, and that title will bear my name. I suppose it could happen, although it isn’t likely at this point. I hear each pitch and more. I hear the dreams and deep desires of every author. We want to be heard. We want others to think us respectable, honorable even. There are publishers out there who will publish anything. They will accept books to fill catalogues and websites and you’ll never hear from them again. Still, you’ll find some interesting things if you wander by their table. And if someone sees that you’re an editor while you’re browsing you’ll never turn a deaf ear. This is what religion scholars live for. Books are our reality.