Monthly Archives: December 2018

I’ll Be Googled

It’s a strange sensation to do an innocent web search only to find yourself cited.  (And no, I was not googling myself.  At least not this time.)  I was searching an obscure publisher and my own pre-publication book, Holy Horror, came up on Google books.  Now, the computer engineers I know tell me that Google remembers your searches, and this has a way of being unintentionally flattering; when I search for my book it pops up on the first page because I have searched for it before.  Still, it was a bit of a surprise to find myself where I had no idea I’d been cited.  All of this drew my mind back to my “post-graduate” days at Edinburgh University.  To how much the world has changed.

One of the first things you learn as a grad student is you can’t believe everything you read.  Granted, most of us learned that as children, but nevertheless, with academic publishing a new bar is raised.  That which is published by a university press is authoritative.  So we’re led to believe.  But even university presses can be fooled.  This prompts the fundamental question of who you can really believe.  Our current political climate has elevated that uncertainty to crisis levels, of course, and the vast majority of people aren’t equipped to deconstruct arguments shouted loudly.  Where you read something matters.   Even publishers, however, are fallible.  So what am I to make of being cited by the web?  And is my book already available before I have seen a copy?

Even credibility can be bought and sold.  Colleagues make a much better living than me with the same level of training, but with more influential connections.  It was just this reason that I decided to try to shift my writing to these who don’t need credentials to impress each other.  Some of the smartest people I ever knew were the janitors with whom I started my working life.  As a fellow post-grad in Edinburgh once said, professors are always ready to fail you for your lack of knowledge but most can’t tell you what an immersion heater is.  (That’s one of those Britishisms that no amount of graduate courses at Harvard will teach you.)  I suppose when it’s all said and done nobody else will ever search for the obscure publisher that brought my book to Google’s attention.  No matter, at least Google will always flatter me.

Long Nights

Before I really knew who Ed and Lorraine Warren were, I watched a made-for-television movie called, I think, A Haunting in Connecticut.  Unlike many television movies, it was actually quite scary.  Fast forward several years and I find myself writing a book that involves the Warrens.  I felt obligated to read all the books they “wrote”—all of them ghostwritten—and I’d been holding off on the one titled In a Dark Place, which is the story behind this television movie which was subsequently made into a theatrical movie.  The book is by Ray Garton and the parents of the family involved (Carmen Reed and Al Snedeker) are also credited.  The story is indeed a dreary one, not something I expected would bring any holiday cheer.  About that I was correct.

Why do I do it, then?  A concern with veracity drives me.  Throughout history enough people have told stories like this that either we have to lump our species together as a bunch of lying attention-grubbers, or there might be something to what they say.  The academic and official responses have long been to state that such things can’t happen, so they don’t.  When compared with how we come to know other things about life, we quickly realize that it involves experience.  In cases where experience is anomalous we tend to dismiss it.  We are great conformers.  What if there really was a demon in the Snedeker house?  Others have told similar tales.  If there’s any reality to it, shouldn’t we know?

As a former academic, I always thought that if we really wish to learn the truth, no subject should be off-limits.  That’s not the same thing as credulousness.  We don’t have to believe everything overwrought people say, but the subject should be worth consideration.  Of course, those who ghostwrote for the Warrens claim that they were given liberty to stretch the truth to make a better story.  They also tend to claim that the basic elements of the story are true.  When someone’s writing a book, there’s likely some hope of remuneration involved.  And sometimes the truth isn’t quite flashy enough for major presses with the bottom line in sight.  Still, the question of what really happened is left open.  The internet is a place where credulity reigns.  We can seek truth there only with great caution.  Maybe that is the lesson to apply to books like this as well.  Although In a Dark Place is scary, there was money at stake, and as the wise say, money changes everything.

Editing the Week

Every great once in a while I have to pull my head from the clouds and remind myself I’m an editor.  Actually, that happens just about every Monday morning.  Surprisingly, academics who have trouble getting published don’t bother to consult editors for advice.  Having sat on both sides of that particular desk, I certainly don’t mind sharing what I’ve learned since publishing isn’t as straightforward as it seems.  It has its own mythology and authors—I speak from experience here—feel extremely protective of their books.  Nevertheless, editors are under-utilized resources when it comes to figuring out how to approach a topic.  They often possess valuable advice.

It’s easy to think publishing exists to preserve and disseminate ideas and insights, tout court.  The idea that if you get past your dissertation committee you’ve done service that requires wide readership is natural enough.  Publishers, however, have other angles to consider.  Books incur costs, and not just paper, glue, and ink.  There are many people involved in bringing a book from idea to object, and each of them has to be paid to do their part.  (Many academics in the humanities may not understand the concept of “overhead,” but it’s an everyday reality in the publishing world.)  Not only that, but even the book itself is a matter of negotiation.  My latest book (and I suspect well over 90 percent of the authors with whom I work have no idea that I write books as well) had a chapter expunged and a new one written at the behest of my McFarland editor.

One of the pervasive myths in this business is that authors write whatever book they want and then find a publisher.  Sometimes that works.  Often when it does the authors are disappointed in the results.  There are presses that specialize in cranking out such works, slapping an enormous price tag on them, selling them to libraries, and then letting them go out of print.  I’ve been there.  I know.  Academics want prestige presses to take their books to a higher profile, but without having to change things according to the advice of an editor.  There are hidden lives of editors.  I can’t share much of that here, but I can expound its corollary—taking advantage of free editorial advice makes good sense.  I wouldn’t be bothering you with such mundane thoughts on this blog, but when I rolled out of bed today I learned it was Monday morning.

Taking It Seriously

It would be incorrect to say that I choose to watch and read horror.  What would be more correct would be “Horror compels me to read and watch it.”  Those of us mesmerized by the genre tend to be a reflective lot.  We ask ourselves the question others frequently ask us—why watch it?  And yet, horror films tend to do very well at the box office.  Some even become cultural icons.  Of the many books analyzing horror, it would be difficult to suggest one more influential than Noël Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror: or Paradoxes of the Heart.  It has been in just about every bibliography I have read in the subject.  It’s easy to see why.  There are lots of gems in this book, and it does indeed address the paradox at the heart of it all.

Philosophy, due to the very fact that there are competing schools, doesn’t attempt to provide the answer.  It offers an answer, one that hopefully makes sense of the overall question.  What question?  The one with which I began: why do people get into horror?  Carroll comes down to a deceptively simple answer, but I would make bold to suggest it does so at the cost of having undercut the religious element.  As in nearly every book on horror, Carroll does address the connection with religion.  He finds it lacking, but the reason seems to be his definition of religion.  He follows, perhaps a little too closely, Rudolf Otto’s Idea of the Holy.  No doubt, it’s a classic.  Still, it doesn’t encompass the broad scope of religion and its genetic connection to horror.

At many points of The Philosophy of Horror I felt compelled to stand up and cheer.  I didn’t, of course, since much of the reading was done on the bus.  My ebullience was based on the fact that here was an intellectual who gets it, one who understands that horror is pervasive because it is meaningful.  Sure, it’s not to everyone’s taste.  It’s not, however, simply debased imagination, or arrested development gone to seed.  There is something deeply compelling about horror because it helps us to survive in a world that is, all paranoia aside, out to get us.  Yes, it engages our curiosity, as Carroll asserts.  It satisfies more than it disgusts.  It also defies explanation.  Perhaps that’s the deep connection with religion.  It can never be fully explained.  That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.  And this book is a valiant effort indeed.

Reasonable Religion

Part of the pushback against religion, it seems to me, is based on the fear that there might be something rational to it after all.  Sorry to get all philosophical on you on a Saturday morning, but the idea has been bothering me all week.  You see, reductionist thinking has already concluded that religion is “emotion” and science is “reason,” and only the latter has any validity.  When’s the last time you met somebody and asked “How are you thinking?” instead of “How are you feeling?”  Neurologists are finding that reason and emotion can’t be divided with a scalpel; indeed, healthy thinking involves both, not reason alone.  Funnily, this is a natural conclusion of evolution—we evolved to survive in this environment—our brains developed rational faculties to enhance emotional response, not to replace it.

I know this is abstruse; go ahead and get a cup of coffee if you need it.  What if emotion participates in reality?  How can emotion be measured outside of individual experience?  We experience it all the time without thinking about it.  From the earliest of human times we’ve had religion in the mix, in some form.  Perhaps we are evolving out of it, but perhaps neurology is telling us that there’s something to it after all.  Something immeasurable.  Chaos theory can be quite uncomfortable in that regard—every coastline is infinite, if you get down to nano-divisions.  When you measure something do you use the top of the line on the ruler or the bottom?  Or do you try to eyeball the middle?  And how do you do it with Heisenberg standing behind you saying there’s always uncertainty in every measurement?

Absolute reality is beyond the grasp of creatures evolved to survive in a specific environment.  Religion, in some form, has always been there to help us cope.  Yes, many religions mistake their mythology for fact—a very human thing to do—but that doesn’t mean that emotion has nothing to do with rational thought.  It seems that instead of warring constantly maybe science and religion should sit down at the table and talk.  Both would have to agree on the basic ground rule that both are evolved ways of coping with an uncertain environment.  And both would have to, no matter how grudgingly, admit that the other has something to bring to that table.  Rationality and emotion are entangled in brains whose functions are simple survival.  Pitting one against the other is counterproductive, even on a Saturday morning.

Russian into Things

It’s the holiday season.  The people I overheard at the bus stop the other day were discussing shopping on the bus.  It can be a long trip from here, and evening traffic out of New York (ironically) is quite heavy this time of year.  Bored commuters, sitting on the bus with their phones, shop.  I couldn’t help but notice that I was the only one with the overhead light on during the fully dark ride home this week.  At one point the driver seemed to think it was a mistake on my part and snapped it off.  I carry a book light with me for just such eventualities, but I had that odd feeling one gets when everyone else got the memo but you didn’t.  In any case, I was reading a physical book, not shopping.

Then I read about a book I need for my research.  Problem is, I don’t have an institution, or a wealthy sponsor, so I often buy books used.  Back in my teaching days Amazon was new, and the idea of buying books online foreign and unfamiliar.  Now you can’t find a bookstore when you want one.  In any case, this particular book was on offer on eBay.  Now, I haven’t used eBay for quite a while.  I never think of it as a place to find reading material, but there it was.  Who would’ve thought research would ever lead in this direction?  The price was reasonable, so I signed in as a guest and placed my order.  With out of print books like this you run the risk of price-gouging or sudden unavailability—the independent researcher’s nightmare.

When the confirmation page came up, I couldn’t help but notice that the header was in Russian.  I wondered if Trump’s dream had really finally come true, or if the eBay on which I ordered an out-of-print book was really a trap.  How do you find out?  Who do you tell when your current government is completely at the beck and call of the Russian government?  I was in a brown study for a while.  The book, used, on Amazon was listed at over a thousand dollars, and this for a paperback published in 2009.  People will pay quite a lot for certain books, even if they don’t retain their resale value.  Ideas, it seems, are worth more than money.  But we no longer have a government to protect our interests.  Not even research, it seems, is safe any more.

If you squint, he could be St. Nick

Christmas at the Bus Stop

I had to make one of my periodic treks into New York City this week.  Unlike most years when a warm spell comes after the onset of winter, we’ve kind of fallen straight to the heart of the season this year and those of us standing in line for the bus were experiencing it via wind chill.  The cold got some regulars to talking about Christmas.  Although I’m not the oldest one who makes this long trip, the majority of the commuters this far out have yet to attain my years.  Those chatting at the stop had kids at home that still believe in Santa Claus.  It made me recall how we trick our kids with all kinds of quasi-religious folkloric figures, but also how seriously some adults participate in the mythology as well.

Among those chatting, the leaving out of cookies and carrots was almost canonical.  The cookies are for Santa, of course, and the carrots for the reindeer.  The more I pondered this, the more it became clear that this is a form of thank offering.  The story of Bel and the Dragon, in the Apocrypha additions to Daniel, tell of how priests leave out food for an idol.  The offering is gone in the morning and the credulous worshippers assume the statue has eaten it.  Religious offerings, except those entirely burnt up, were often used to support priesthoods.  Santa has his elfly acolytes, of course, but the priesthood for his cult is that of parents eager to make Christmas a special time for their children.  Capitalism’s big pay-off.

Then one of the commuters mentioned how she had her husband leave a footprint in the fireplace ash to add verisimilitude to the ruse.  We never had a fireplace when I was growing up, and I often wondered how Santa got in when we had no chimney to come down.  In any case, my hazy morning mind thought once again of Daniel and Bel.  The way that wily Daniel exposed the fraudulent priests was by sprinkling—you guessed it—a fine layer of ash around the offering after the priests had “left” for the night.  In the morning he showed the people the footprints of the deceptive heathens to the people.  The statue hadn’t eaten the food after all!  Serious consequences followed.  Christmas, despite its commercialization, brings fond childhood memories to many of us, and we’re reluctant to let that go.  The one man in on the discussion (it wasn’t me) said that when he was growing up they had a somewhat different offering.  “My dad,” he said, “told us to leave Santa a beer and a sandwich.”  This guy’s name might’ve been Daniel.