Monthly Archives: October 2018

Halloween Mood

As America becomes scarier and scarier, I appreciate the fact that I grew up loving Halloween.  I don’t know why the dark mood appeals to me—I don’t like being scared, and I certainly don’t want others to suffer.  It’s more the mood that appeals; think of it as Halloween in the abstract.  I begin to feel it in August when I walk into stores already beginning to stock their black and orange wares.  It grows stronger through September as the dark comes on noticeably earlier each day, culminating after an October of anticipation.  Unlike some consumers of horror, what I’m after is the mood.  I started reading Poe as a young person, and “The Fall of the House of Usher” remains my favorite short story.  It’s the mood.  The narrator riding his horse through the woods toward dereliction.  There’s a sublimity in it that’s hard to match.

Yes, I watch contemporary horror.  I even write books about it.  Still, it’s difficult finding others who share my sensibility concerning horror.  I don’t like the jump scares or the gore.  I’m after the mood.  Poe knew about mood—he wrote stories that maintained it throughout.  A kind of beautiful hopelessness.  It’s a feeling in the air around Halloween when it’s clear nothing is going to stop the leaves from falling and the onset of a long and lonely winter.  Writers will shiver in their garrets, allowing their thoughts to flow despite the pale sky and feeble sun that is the only hope of continued life on this isolated planet.  Halloween tells us there is a spirit world no matter what the scientific authorities say.  It’s a world you can feel, but you can’t find it rationally.

Masquerading is a theme in some of Poe’s work as well.  We, as social beings, tend to excel at it.  We hide our real feelings so that others won’t hurt us, or so as not to hurt them.  We all know the childhood feeling of putting on that Halloween mask that permits us to act as we really feel, within limits.  Even as a Fundamentalist, I knew the catharsis of masquerading.  I read Poe and I understood him in my own way.  As an Episcopalian, I saw how fear of death was hidden behind All Saints and All Souls.  Masquerading.  Halloween was the Eve of All Hallows, but it usurped the master in its own form of beautiful dereliction.  The holidays following this are more comforting and heimlich, until the solstice comes to remind us that light will return, no matter how feeble at first.  We need Halloween.

Body or Soul?

Something’s wrong with Buddy Love.  He doesn’t act like a professor.  Meanwhile, Sherman Klump, heavyset but brilliant, feels that human companionship is passing him by.  Still, he’s a professor and has the support of a major university—at least as long as he brings the grant money in.  The Nutty Professor, a re-envisioning of the 1963 Jerry Lewis film, is instructive to watch.  One of the immediately obvious things to those of us who’ve been professors, is that movie makers don’t really understand what it’s like.  And it’s not just comedies—Indiana Jones doesn’t get it any more than Dean Richmond does.  Academics who watch these films shake their heads, if they think about the presentation of their profession.  Indeed, for being high profile, it is a job the public does not understand.

That’s not really what this post is about, however.  Although it’s been a few years, I suspect The Nutty Professor still has some currency.  In case I’m wrong, here’s the gist: it’s a modern, funny version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  An overweight professor invents a formula that leads to instant weight loss.  The formula, however, also has side-effects, such as a boost in testosterone levels that leads to instability and violence.  In the climactic scene of the movie, Eddie Murphy transforms back and forth from Sherman to Buddy while on stage at the alumni ball.  Papa Klump, who has paid to attend, calls out, “Someone had better go and call the exorcist!”  

Now, this is screwball comedy.  Still, it reflects something that I’ve been struggling with in my current book—the public view of possession.  Demons aren’t generally known for changing body mass indices.  They’re after the soul, after all.  Still, there’s an element of truth, according to church teaching, about what Papa Klump says—demons are bodily afflictions.  Traditionally, they can’t impact a person’s soul.  In fact, possession is not considered a sin, and those under demonic influence aren’t held responsible for sins they commit while under that influence.  The soul is considered, unlike the physical body, something that cannot be “possessed.”  I know not to take movies like this seriously, but they do contribute to the pool of public “knowledge” about possession.  In this way, at least, it’s important to pay attention.  Such films may not really comprehend what the lives of professors are like, but they do reflect, even if in a nutty way, what people believe.

Organic Experience

Holy Horror, it looks like, has been delayed until January.  That doesn’t mean that I have to wait to find some relief in the escape to film.  Over the weekend my wife surprised me by being willing to watch The Exorcist with me.  As we settled in to see it, a few things occurred to me—watching horror with someone else isn’t nearly as frightening as watching it alone.  I know this from experience, and it seems that it has something to do with the willing suspension of disbelief.  It’s harder to do when someone is with you.  Left to one’s own devices, it’s possible to believe what you’re watching, even if intellectually you know that it is merely a movie.  That tells us something about the way brains are wired.

I object to the word “wired,” really.  As organic beings, we are not computers.  What invented consciousness would watch a scary movie for pleasure?  What is the rationale for it?  It was a gray and rainy Saturday evening in late October.  In human experience that may be all that it takes.  Seeing orange and black in the stores sets a mood that computers, I strongly suspect, simply can’t feel.  They lack the human experience of childhood trick-or-treating, or throwing on another layer as the days grow chillier, or watching the leaves turn and slowly drift down from weary trees.  No, these aren’t wired experiences—they’re very organic ones, and often those that mean something even to adults as the seasons wend their way through the calendar.

The author waiting for proofs is rather like an expectant parent.  Well, that analogy’s not quite right either, but you get the point.  I know the book is coming.  It was accepted and submitted long ago.  The publication process, however, is more complex than most people might assume.  In fact, in the publishing industry it is often the main role of the editorial assistant to assure that manuscripts make it through all of the necessary hoops to move from finished manuscript to printed book.  Johannes Gutenberg likely had a simpler process worked out, although, in the early days of book-buying you could purchase the pages and have them bound by your choice of bindery.  Now cover and content are glued or stitched together in what one hopes is a seamless way.  Still, that stitching can’t help but to recall Frankenstein’s monster.  It is, however, another gray, rainy day in October.  It’s just a shame my computer can’t share the experience with me.

Like One of Us

Some envision America as a nation of—God help them!—only people like themselves.  This is Trump’s America, and therefore, the America of the Republican Party.  We can’t quite say it’s a white male America because there are many white males who simply don’t share that vision, but it is hate-filled enough to rouse bombers and shooters and Mitch McConnell.  American terrorists, in a word.  Yesterday, the Sabbath, saw a shooter in my familiar city of Pittsburgh who left 11 dead.  The response of Trump?  The synagogue should’ve had armed guards.  I propose that we ought to put walk-through metal detectors outside churches—better yet, full body scanners like they use at airports.  Might as well see everything the faithful bring with them.

Apart from the obvious tragedy of the innocent victims, another disturbing element of this horrific event is that Trump can’t see that his own rhetoric encourages it.  His mouth may say we shouldn’t hate, but his mouth says a lot of things.  Most of them lies.  His public posturing as the angry white man, the “Christian” bully, the Rambo of the Lord, has jarred people across the world.  When you rail against the media daily from the highest position in the land, you’ve got to expect sycophants (e.g. Republicans) to try to please you with their own acts of outrage.  What more cowardly way can one devise than to shoot those at worship?  Does 45 not understand that armed guards would make a very mockery of what goes on inside?  What do they teach at his church?

Coming up on two years ago, after election day, many people warned that just this sort of thing would happen.  Knowing that the Manchurian candidate they’d nominated couldn’t think for himself, the GOP decided it was a good time to polish up their hit-list.  Those who don’t belong in their white bread, white face, white male country.  This is evangelicalism gone wild, no, Rev. Graham?  Those who can think for themselves are not welcome in a party run by hatred so pure and rife that decent people feel they must take a shower after they leave its presence.  And what of the dead?  For the “party of Lincoln” they have died in vain.  They should’ve had armed guards, as if worship were some kind of dangerous, subversive activity.  The party of the NRA, formerly known as the GOP, has never watched The Witness.  It has never shed a tear for the dead.  And it most assuredly has never been to church, or synagogue.

Image credit: Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme, via Wikimedia Commons

Café Américain

What with the Republican approved method of mailing bombs to Democrats (and, interestingly, not vice-versa) I have to wonder if democracy is gone for good.  I recently watched Casablanca again with my wife.  What struck me about it this time around was how, although many of the characters clearly hated one another, they were civil—downright polite—unless safely locked out of sight by the Nazis.  It also struck me that in the 1940s Nazis were bad whereas now they are the legitimate nickname of the GOP.  It used to be calm, collected enemies playing by the rules even with their hatred intact.  Now politics has become gaming the system itself so that the other side can’t win to the point that Major Strasser looks like Colonel Klink.

I suppose what’s most distressing about all of this is that moderate Republicans have so quickly acquiesced to Trump’s agenda of hatred.  Not one speaks out against him, fearing his money.  Somehow they manage to sleep at night.  I’m guess that if they watch Casablanca they don’t see what some of us do.  There comes a point, when a game gets too serious, that most of us know to back off and do something else for a while.  When we were kids we knew it instinctively.  What began as playful rivalry started to feel like hatred.  The twelve year old knows that at this point it’s time to back away, otherwise it will come to blows and we will feel regret.  There is no regret in the Grand Old Party.  They only regret that Tricky Dicky didn’t get away with it.  Welcome to the most unfair democracy in the world.

Ah, but I digress from Rick’s.  It we come downstairs we will hear Victor Laszlo leading the band in “La Marseillaise,”a national anthem far more robust than bombs bursting in the air.  These, after all, are patriots, not panderers after personal power.  Even Major Strasser doesn’t start lobbing pipe-bombs in Rick’s Café Américain, and he orders Captain Renault to find a legal reason to shut the place down.  This is the rule of law, no matter how crooked.  In the end, however, Victor Laszlo and Ilsa Lund are on a plane to Lisbon, and Rick and Louis are planning their flight from the city to take on more noble pursuits.  The swamp in the desert has been left by those of any integrity, save the underground.  Casablanca, after all, translates to “white house.”

Masses and Markets

The other day I had to go somewhere that I knew would involve a wait.  I’ve always thought of waiting as a theological problem—time is very limited and I don’t have it to squander while dallying about for my turn.  That’s why I take a book.  The problem is that many books I read, I feel, require explanation.  That’s because many of them are the 6-by-9 format preferred by publishers these days.  The idea behind the paperback that fit into your pocket—the “mass market paperback”—was that it was essentially disposable.  Cheap, easily printed in large quantities, it was handy for taking along while on a bus, plane, or submarine.  It didn’t take up too much space.  It was easy to keep private.  I miss the mass market paperback.

The majority of my books—fiction as well as non—are larger than the mass market.  That’s the price you pay for reading books that don’t sell in those quantities.  If your interests aren’t the lowest common denominator, you have to buy a copy that won’t easily slip into a pocket.  And everybody can see what you’re reading.  I work in publishing, so I get it.  The idea is that the book cover is a form of advertisement.  The thing is, reading is generally a private activity.  I post on this blog most of the books I read (but not all!).  I want to support those who write and actually manage to find publishers to advocate their work.  But I’d really like to be able to put the book into my pocket between appointments.  

The waiting room is a kind of torture chamber of daytime television and insipid magazines.  Most of the people in here are looking at their phones anyway.  I have a book with me, and I’m vulnerable with everyone freely able to read my preferences.  I want to explain—“I’m writing a book about demons, you see.  It’s not that I believe all this stuff…” and so on.  It would be so much easier if the book were small enough to be concealed by my hands.  If others want to know what I’ve been reading, they can consult this blog.  Well, the stats show they haven’t been doing that.  They might, however, if my own books had been published in mass market format.  Available in the wire-rack at the drug store or vape-shop.  Then the readers could easily hide their interest by putting it into their pocket.  None would be the wiser.

Changing Times

Demons are an embarrassment.  The typical scholar of the historical Jesus can’t avoid the fact that one of Jesus’ main activities is exorcism.  You can go the whole way through seminary not hearing about that aspect even as you become very well acquainted with the two-source hypothesis.  That’s why I found Graham H. Twelftree’s Jesus the Exorcist: A Contribution to the Study of the Historical Jesus so refreshing.  Here is someone willing to address the topic generally swept off the table.  If the gospels are to be believed, then Jesus was an exorcist.  And if he was an exorcist, that must imply a thing or two about demons, no matter how embarrassing.  There’s a lot to this question, of course, and things are never as simple as they seem.

Many of those who look for the Jesus of history suggest that the Galilean sage simply accepted the framework of his era in which various diseases such as epilepsy were considered demonic.  As he healed such people—also somewhat of an embarrassment since it implies the supernatural—he understood their maladies in the same way his contemporaries did.  That tidy package, however, doesn’t sit well with narratives that assume a world full of demons.  Things have changed since the first century, of course.  After the Middle Ages demons fell out of favor.  And yet, the gospels remain pretty much unchanged, trying to fit into a new worldview.  This is the uncomfortable place in which those who seek the historical Jesus find themselves.

Twelftree approaches and analyses the text at its word.  The casting out of demons was an eschatological (end-times) act.  It was the beginning of the end for the evil spirits that torment this world.  Of course, two thousand years have come and gone and, according to some, demons are still with us.  The number of requested exorcisms has been on the rise.  The end times have lasted a lot longer than anyone anticipated.  It’s beginning to look like politicians can do what God seems reluctant to affect.  Bringing about the end of the world is no matter of clearing the house of demons, but rather letting evil take the helm.  If that’s a mixed metaphor, let’s just say demons are masters of confusion.  Since medical science has given us a great deal of comfort and relief from suffering, we’re glad to let demons go as the explanation of diseases.  But that doesn’t make things any easier for those looking at the first century when, as Twelfree demonstrates, Jesus was an exorcist.