Gods, Monsters, and Publication

One of life’s great ironies is that those of us not born to wealth have to spend the years we’re young enough to enjoy ourselves stabilizing our situation until suddenly we realize we’re too old to do that kind of thing any more.  I know I’m being overly dramatic, but it often does feel like life operates backwards.  My professional career began where I’d hoped it would end, as a professor.  I taught and published for almost twenty years and really nobody paid much attention.  At least I had my teaching.  I also had a family to support, so I had to accept the shift to publishing when that came along with an offer of a full-time job.  Thus it has been for about a decade now.  Within the last decade colleagues have begun to approach me, asking me to contribute to academic volumes, or to be involved in pursuits that are more associated with professors than editors.  I could do with more irony in my diet.

All of this is a long-winded invitation to check out the new Journal of Gods and Monsters.  I probably won’t be writing articles for it; lack of library and research time (both of which I had when invitation-free) assure that my scribbling will be non-technical and hopefully of the more general interest crowd.  Then why am I telling your about this journal, fresh from the box?  I’m on the Executive Advisory Committee and the first Call for Papers has been issued.  Now, this blog really has no way to include attachments that I know of, so if anyone wants in on the ground floor for this journal please contact me (the About page on this website says how).  I contributed to the first number of the first volume of the Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions and look where I am now!  You just never know.

In addition to the books on which I’ve been assiduously working, I’ve got a number of commitments to edited volumes and encyclopedias (these invitations waited until I was safely out of academe before rolling in).  The monster crowd is, I assure you, a welcoming one.  As we seem to have turned the corner into autumn a touch early this year, and I see leaves beginning to change before August is out, my mind turns toward the realm of the uncanny.  It may be less academic than ancient religions, but the world of monsters feels much more relevant these days.  If you’re a researcher in these realms I’ll be glad to send you a call for papers.

 

 

 

 

https://godsandmonsters-ojs-txstate.tdl.org/godsandmonsters/index.php/godsandmonsters

Better Places

I have to confess that I’d never heard of Ottessa Moshfegh before.  Shame on me, I know.  As a wannabe writer, I feel compelled to know other writers’ names.  Hang in literary circles.  Etc.  The good news is, however, that I found Homesick for Another World in an indie bookstore.  I’d gone in for something else that they didn’t have, but I don’t like walking out with nothing, especially when it’s a small store.  Besides, I trust the taste of most independent store owners. 

I can’t remember the last time I read a book of short stories all the way through.  As with most writers some work appeals to you more than others.  In my mind the first and last stories stick the firmest.  The latter, “A Better Place,” is haunting, almost Shirley Jacksonesque.  Others make you uncomfortable in your own skin.  This is a rare talent.

Finding a writer who, using simple words and expressions, takes you to another place is a rare gift.  The short story (the only kind of fiction I’ve actually published) is a versatile and engaging form of literature.  Books collecting them are often good for picking up when you have a little time and putting down for a while again.  I felt compelled to go through this whole work, being drawn into the weird and somehow familiar worlds of characters who seem to have no purpose, no goals.  It’s almost as refreshing as Kafka or Camus.  To be a writer who requires only one name to evoke a genre must be glorious.  These stories are strange without recourse to the supernatural, and they defy easy genre assignment.  (This makes publishers crazy.)

There’s an earnestness and a longing in this collection.  A kind of nihilistic spiritualism.  A wanting with no particular object in mind.  I read a lot of fiction, some of it very good.  The kind that leaves you a little stunned and questioning what reality is.  This is that kind of book.  Had I not gone into that indie shop that Saturday morning I never would have found it.  I certainly didn’t know to look for Ottessa Moshfegh.  Here again I’m reminded of the value of the bookstore experience.  The ability to browse without clicking or scrolling feels like a luxury to me now.  I may have to pay more than Amazon’s competitive pricing, but then this is like a finder’s fee for being in the real world.  Even if the book makes you question that reality when you’re done.

The Holy

It’s perfectly natural.  Trying to make sense of things, I mean.  It’s been a little difficult in America for the past three years or so, given that nothing seems to add up beyond greed and narcissism supported by a senate majority.  Still, as I retreat into my horror films I realize that there’s a logic to it.  Over the past several months I’ve been attempting to articulate it.  You see, I have a couple of presentations to give on Holy Horror in October and one of the questions likely to arise is why.  Why bring together the sacred and the scary?  Those who’ve studied religion formally—and many who’ve not—are aware of Rudolf Otto’s classic The Idea of the Holy.  It’s outdated and I’ve been waiting for someone to write its replacement, but we’re past the era when one scholar corners the market.  Has nothing new emerged this past century?  Nevertheless, Otto’s main ideas still make sense, before he lapses into a Christocentric view.

Mysterium tremendum et fascinans isn’t an incantation, but with a little imagination the Latin makes sense.  The holy, according to Otto is a mystery that is both terrifying (tremendum) and fascinating.  To the laity in the pews this may be strange, but chances are pretty good that your minister has read this book.  In the monotheistic west, the divine is terrifying.  It’s not splitting hairs to suggest terror and horror differ, nor is it unreasonable to suggest they have much in common.  Horror seems more embodied—a working-class variety of terror.  Still, both have that element of fascinans.  We fear but we can’t look away.  I don’t have the time to sit and ponder that a Gilded Age academic had.  Otto didn’t have to keep up with Facebook and Twitter.

Although academia required far more than eight hour days, the time during those days wasn’t spent “on the clock.”  As one intellectual I admire once quipped, staring out the window is work.  Not as far as HR is concerned, however.  Productivity in an industry under stress is its own kind of mysterium tremendum, I guess.  It doesn’t really allow for unstructured hours to read, take notes, close your eyes, and read some more.  Work measures inspiration in terms of currency, which is one of the problems that stretches past beyond these last three years.  Struggling hard with an idea is like wrestling an angel until dawn.  You can’t win, and you can’t lose.  But when the sun clears the horizon it will be time to be at your desk and ideas will have to wait another day.

Linking

So I’m active on LinkedIn.  I try to keep social media down to the essentials, but you never know when opportunity might rap its knuckles next to your shingle.  When LinkedIn began they ran the warning that you should only connect with people you actually knew, since people can say bad things about you and hurt your job prospects.  Since that kept me down to about a dozen connections (many academics, being secure with tenure, don’t bother with LinkedIn), I eventually followed the advice of a wise friend and accepted invitations from people I didn’t know because, as he pointed out, they might be the ones with jobs to offer.  That made sense.  There is a flip-side to it, however, and that is people think I have work to offer.  I don’t.  At my job I have no hiring capacity whatsoever.  (I can feel the links being broken even as I write this.)

The vast majority of people who contact me on LinkedIn want something from me.  They obviously don’t read this blog.  (See paragraph above.)  Many people send me messages wanting me to publish their books.  Editors, my dear and gentle readers, work in specific disciplines.  No one contacting me on LinkedIn has written a book about the Bible, although my profile indicates that’s my gig.  And besides, many companies, including mine, have policies against doing business over social media.  I often think of this because the book business is easily researched.  There’s a ton of information both online and on shelf about how to get published.  Messaging someone on LinkedIn is not recommended.

Writing a book takes a lot of effort.  I know, because I’ve done it a number of times.  If you’re going to put years into doing something, it pays to spend at least a few minutes learning about how the publishing industry works.  I made rookie mistakes in my younger days, of course.  But that led me to learn about publishing even before I had a job in the industry.  Quite apart from my job, I freely admit to being a book nerd.  And publishing, despite its many problems, is an inherently fascinating industry.  Although I’ve had academic books accepted for publication, I still struggle getting my fiction to press (I have had short stories published, but my novels remain unread).  I won’t contact other publishers I know through LinkedIn, though.  I’d rather have it be a personal experience whether it’s acceptance or rejection.  And that’s something social media just can’t replicate.

Reading Railroad

Rereading books takes time.  When I was a professor my reading time was largely limited to the summer and winter breaks.  Those who haven’t experienced the academic lifestyle firsthand may not realize just how incredibly busy you are during term time.  Class prep, grading, delivering lectures, leading seminars, committee meetings, office hours—it really is much more than a nine-to-five job.  Time to sit down and read through books is limited, and since those books are heady, academic tomes, they take considerable time.  (I’m reading an academic book at the moment and I can only get through a finger-full of pages at a sitting.)  All of this means I’m generally reluctant to reread books.  Not that I’m a traditional academic anymore, but because I have a huge and growing stack of books I haven’t read yet.

Nevertheless, a project on which I’m working required rereading Gerald Brittle’s The Demonologist.  I read this about two years ago, while commuting.  The thing about reading on a bus is that the quality of reading time is strained.  Recall isn’t the same as when you’re in a comfy, stationary chair, and no stranger’s head is lopping onto your shoulder as they doze.  (Yes, that happens, and frequently for those of us on the first bus of the day.)  In any case, my copy of this book doesn’t have an index and I couldn’t remember if some specific instances were discussed.  The only thing for it, then, was to read it again.  My second reading was done with more skepticism than I could conjure on a bus ride, but still my original sense remains: we willfully cut out much of human experience if we stop our ears completely.  At least in principle.

Ed and Lorraine Warren were self-taught ghost-hunters.  More often than not, their cases turned into what they believed were demonic cases.  Since academics tend not to publish much about such things, the self-taught are pretty much free to declare themselves experts—just switch on reality TV and check me on this.  Experts are those with experience who are willing to share it.  The other day I met someone who, like me, used to live the commuting life.  We both agreed that telecommuting was a more authentic way to exist—your otherwise mandated three or four daily hours traveling can be more sanely used at home.  Still, we had to agree, bus time could be used for activities like reading, and once you stop commuting you have to carve time out for it.  In such a situation rereading a book is at times necessary.  When I was a professor, I reread frequently.  But then, it was mostly articles or books that I wouldn’t take on in their entirety.  In the reading life there’s never enough time.

Meatings

It was almost a little too real.  As I looked at the fake blood—this wasn’t a horror movie—I had a hard time accepting this wasn’t the real thing.  I mean Beyond Meat’s vegetable-based sausage.  My daughter recently sent me a captivating article about artificial meat.  Unlike many paeans to its virtues by fellow vegetarians and vegans, this was written by an omnivore who unabashedly stated that we’ve reached the point where synthetic meat has surpassed the real thing in flavor and the eating experience.  The piece on Outside made me glad.  Feedlots, apart from being the largest industrial polluters in this country, are a horror film based on a true story.  The way we treat “food animals” violates just about every ethical stance in the book, and it’s a big book.  We do it for profit, of course.  Now that artificial meat is turning a substantial profit, those who slaughter are starting to pay attention.

I recently ate at a local restaurant where our waiter recommended the cauliflower burger.  The thought wasn’t appealing.  Don’t get me wrong, I do like cauliflower.  I prefer it raw, however, since cooking brings out its more cruciferous qualities.  In any case, our server said, “It’s new on the menu.  We offered it once before and so many people requested it that we’ve made it a regular item.”  Now we don’t exactly live in a hippie haven here.  Still, enough people are asking for alternatives that we’re discovering it pretty easy to find plant-based protein in some pretty remarkable places.  It put me in mind of my most challenging course in college: biomedical ethics.

A class that asked, and then pressed on very sensitive questions, biomedical ethics required a term paper.  I wrote mine on animal testing.  This was back in the 1980s, and technology has moved on since then.  Even back in those dark ages of Reaganomics, artificial tissue was being lab grown, eliminating the need for animal testing on many products.  Now we’re reaching the point where the same may apply to comestibles.  I’ve long used vegetarian alternatives (now vegan ones) and they’ve increasingly improved.  When I had the most recent alternative, however, I couldn’t believe it wasn’t meat.  It was too real.  I’m not morally opposed to verisimilitude, I assure you.  The closer they get to the real thing, the better it is for the animals who’ll never need to be born to be killed by us.  It’s just I find the fake blood upsetting, and I’m happy to be reminded that this is only a simulacrum after all.

Clear Thinking

I first heard of Norman Ohler’s Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich before it found a publisher.  Even at that point I found the idea fascinating.  My knowledge of the Second World War isn’t deep.  I was born less than two decades after it happened, so it was still heavy in American consciousness, but as a child I wasn’t much interested in history.  (I was a fan of monsters even then.)  Like many people, since November of 2016 I’ve had a renewed interest in how the Nazis rose to power, and how a highly intelligent nation could follow someone as unstable as Hitler.  When I spotted Blitzed on a discount table at the Moravian Book Shop I figured it was a good opportunity to learn more.

Never a drug user myself, I grew up in a culture where such use was prevalent.  I had never realized, however, just how ubiquitous drugs were in Nazi Germany.  Ohler begins by noting the use of crystal meth in keeping German soldiers awake and alert for days at a time, thereby allowing Blitzkrieg to take place.  The offensive on the western front would likely not have worked without it.  The story gets seedier from there.  Hitler, a vegetarian who eschewed drugs and alcohol, had a personal physician who began giving him daily injections of vitamins and what we’d likely recognize as placebos for a number of physical ailments.  Even as decisions were made for genocide, der Führer was being injected with hard drugs of the opiate family, eventually becoming an addict.  Decisions about the fate of an entire nation were being made by a leader so high that straight thinking wasn’t a possibility.

Ohler is careful not to claim that Hitler’s excesses of hatred and megalomania were the results of his drug use.  They were there well in advance of his decline.  Outside the bunkers in which Hitler spent much of the war, drugs were widely used, and abused, in the German military.  In order to try to entice young men into what would become suicide missions, high doses of drugs were provided, often enough to prevent the effective outcome hoped for.  This is a fascinating, sordid story.  It’s a side of the tragedy of the war that we don’t often hear, and it’s a further indication of just how easily madness spreads.  Reading the descriptions of Hitler’s personality, in this particular era, was frightening.  Especially since history has a nasty tendency to repeat itself.