Homemade Halloween

Halloween is a holiday that brings together many origins.  One of the more recent is the tradition of watching horror movies in October.  I don’t know if anyone has addressed when horror films became associated with the holiday, but Halloween hasn’t always been about startles and scares.  Histories usually trace it to the Celtic festival of Samhain.  Samhain was one of the four “cross-quarter days.”  Along with Beltane (May Day), its other post equinox cousin, it was considered a time of year when death and life could intermingle.  Spooky, yes.  Horror, not necessarily.  Many cultures have had a better relationship with their dead than we do.  We live in a death-denying culture and consequently lead lives of futile anxiety as if death can somehow be avoided.

As a holiday Halloween only became what it is now when it was transported from Celtic regions to North America.  Other seasonal traditions—some of English origin such as Beggars’ Night and Guy Fawkes Night—which fell around the same time added to the growth of trick-or-treating and wearing masks.  At its heart Halloween was the day before All Saints Day, which the Catholic Church transferred to November 1 in order to curb enthusiasm for Samhain.  As is usual in such circumstances, the holy days blended with the holidays and a hybrid—call it a monster—emerged.   When merchants learned that people would spend money to capture that spooky feeling, Halloween became a commercial enterprise.  Despite All Saints being a “day of obligation,” nobody gets off school just because it’s Halloween.

My October has been particularly busy this year.  One of the reasons is that Holy Horror, as a book dealing with scary movies, is seasonally themed.  As I was pondering this, weak and weary, upon the eve of a bleak November, I realized that home viewing of horror—which is now a big part of the holiday—is a fairly recent phenomenon.  Many of us still alive remember when VHS players became affordable and you could actually rent movies to watch whenever you wanted to!  Doesn’t that seem like ancient history now, like something maybe the Sumerians invented?  People watch movies on their wristwatches, for crying out loud.  I suspect that John Carpenter’s Halloween had a good deal to do with making the holiday and the horror franchise connection.  Horror films can be set in any season (Wicker Man, for instance, is about Beltane, and three guesses what season Midsommar references).  We’re so busy that we relegate them to this time of year, forgetting that we still have something of the wisdom of the Celts from which we might learn.

After Easton

I’m still recovering.  The Easton Book Festival was a fine example of liminal time.  Ordinary time—the day-to-day, or “workaday” variety of time—may pay the bills but comes up short on meaning.  Literary time is rare and sacred.  No, there weren’t great crowds at my two sessions.  In fact, the crowds were modest.  More people showed up for my church presentation on Sunday morning than came to either of my more “secular” presentations.  The festival, however, wasn’t about numbers.  It was about the love of books.  Much of the time those of us who love reading are perceived as “Poindexters” who deny the excitement of a life spent in sports and adventure.  There’s no reason, however, that the two can’t get along.  After all, authors write about adventure and sports as well as religion and philosophy.

As Halloween nears and November encroaches on the days of trees losing their leaves, I reflect on how my entire October was leading up to this.  Half a year ago I was contacting libraries and bookstores about doing Holy Horror presentations in the autumn.  Only the Moravian Book Shop and the Easton Book Festival took me up on my proposal, but they allowed me, as my wife expressed it, “to put myself out there.”  To be part of the conversation.  People are busy, I know.  Still, I came away with the business cards of a few more successful writers, and I gave away a handful of bookmarks for my too-expensive tome.  I was after conversation, not fame.

Although I met the director of the festival a couple of times, I don’t know the results.  I do sincerely hope that another will be offered next year.  Gatherings of the bookish are dicey affairs.  I attended the banquet not knowing a soul, but left having learned of others nearby who practice the craft.  Many had made that transition from workaday to writer.  I learned that getting the pennies I do for my books is, really, an aberration of the academic publishing scheme.  Most academics have good paying university jobs and don’t really need the cash.  Book festivals are opportunities to learn, classrooms in everyday life.  I met authors of topics more obscure than my own who’d earned healthy advances.  This was liminal time indeed.  I feel honored to have been included among those feted for putting their words out there for reading and possible rejection.  Books are conversations, and in a world far too busy, book festivals are a source of truly significant discussions.  Long may they continue!

Clean Thoughts

Brainwashing, it seems, does not exist.  Many of us who remember at least bits and snatches of the Vietnam War and the subsequent fear of cults, grew up hearing the term.  Someone’s personality had changed after some kind of trauma—slow or fast didn’t matter, but it had to be slightly prolonged—so that they were no longer recognizable as their former selves.  Scholars began to work on this idea and found it lacking.  Since the 1990s, at least, we’ve known there’s no such thing as “brainwashing.”  When you get right down to it, there’s no such thing as a mind to brainwash since it’s merely an actual brain making up a story to keep itself from being lonely in this cosmic wasteland.  Anyway, there’s no such thing as forcing someone to think something weird.

Then enter Trump.  I know many intelligent, educated people who cannot see the stark, naked contradictions.  Nothing, it seems, can convince them that simply saying “no I didn’t” doesn’t make it all right (alt right?).  The fact that well over a thousand pending lawsuits stood against him before he laid his hand on that Bible and swore—let’s call it swearing—to uphold the constitution, seems not to have registered.  I’m reminded of being a kid and crossing my fingers behind my back and believing that made a temporary lie okay.  Thing is, most of us outgrew that.  As the evidence of criminal activity while in office stacks up until it teeters, the supporters shout that the truth is just a lie and Jesus love me, this I know.  Too bad brainwashing doesn’t exist anymore.  It might help to explain a thing or two.

Following the news is something for which I simply don’t have time.  Or the fortitude.  Faced with blatant criminal activity, the Republican Party launches countersuits saying that investigating a crime is itself criminal.  There’s no such thing as brainwashing, though, so you can sigh in relief.  Still, as I go through the day and headlines pop up, as they will, I pause and wonder.  Not that things were better when we believed in brainwashing—for what good does it do you to believe something that’s not true?—but I’ve become strangely nostalgic for Watergate.  I see the lawsuits piling up behind the intrepid base, unfazed by any baptism in reality, and think about the explanatory value of brainwashing.  Maybe it doesn’t exist, but it sure could explain a lot.

Rivers and Books

“You can’t” Heraclitus said, “step into the same river twice.”  The same also applies to reviewing books on Goodreads.  I met my official pledge of 60 books “officially” a couple weeks back, but I had re-read two books already reviewed during the course of the previous month, so I’m actually up to 65 at the moment.  Not that this is a contest.  Well, it sorta is.  But the one thing that keeps coming back to me is that my reviews of the same book change after a couple of years.  In general I’m not a re-reader.  There are lots of books I want to read for the first time, and there are few, historically, that I’ve gone back and read again.  Right now, however, I’m working on a couple of books that require some going back and checking facts.  Whenever you write “X does not” you need to make sure X doesn’t.

Reading is a self-rewarding enterprise.  I’ve not stopped reading when I don’t post about books, but I’ve been reading bigger books.  Despite my academic background and current job as an editor, I’m a slow reader.  I always have been.  I set my Goodreads goal based on the fact that without commuting I hope to read five books a month.  I have to throw in some short ones to make such a goal, and I never count the children’s books (I read The Lorax several times this year) and I can’t count the books I read for work that haven’t yet been published.  Nevertheless I keep making my Goodreads pledge—it gives me a goal I can attain—and in a life where meeting goals is becoming more difficult all the time, I appreciate those I enjoy reaching.  Enjoy reading.

Goodreads is a community.  Some of my friends there comment on my blog posts, which is really neat because almost nobody comments on my blog itself.  It’s nice to have that little extra extension.  I skim through the reviews that come to my email inbox every day.  I like to know what others are reading and I get tips for future goals from the books my Goodreads’ buddies post.  And now that November looms—and over its shoulder I can see December—I think of the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge.  I generally meet that goal by about September.  Reading books is like meeting new friends.  And some of them, unlike Heraclitus’ river, you can meet twice.

Read a Book

A huge shout-out to Andrew Laties for conceiving and organizing the Easton Book Festival!  Easton may not be the largest city in the state, but the Lehigh Valley is Pennsylvania’s fastest growing area.  As we discovered when we moved here almost a year-and-a-half ago, it is a region that supports bookstores.  Even before the Festival we’d explored some six or seven and after moving from central New Jersey—where keeping a small shop or two open was a struggle.  We’ve become spoiled for choice.  Writers may not be the easiest people to herd—many of us are quiet and tend to live in our own heads quite a bit—but the festival has brought some 200 of us together, and we write on all kinds of things.

Although the panel on which I participated had religion as one of its themes, my wife and I noticed that at each session we attended religion was mentioned.  Either it was in an author’s background, or it figured into their writing, or most embarrassingly, it objected to and tried to silence them through censorship.  Although my book’s subtitled The Bible and Fear in Movies, it was evident that I wasn’t the only person who found the Bible’s effect on people scary.  And the theme continued into the evening as I attended the author’s banquet solo.  Many of the people I met had religion in their background or in their present motivations for writing, and not one of them was judgmental toward a guy like myself who’s trying to find his way.

The Easton Book Festival is in its first year.  Although by late afternoon the weather had deteriorated into the rain we can’t seem to shake around here, it was wonderful to see people walking around with festival booklets (there are enough events to warrant one) and not bothering to conceal and carry.  Books, that is.  For a moment, they were cool.  My second session is this afternoon.  As I learned both last weekend at my book signing and at sessions yesterday, a sell-out crowd is unlikely.  This is a free event and even authors who had more fingers than attendees were gracious and glad for the opportunity to explain what they were trying to do with their writing.  And they unstintingly shared what they’d learned with one another.  This was community, centered around books.  It was a small slice of what Heaven could be like, if we’d all just take an interest in each other.  Even if we’re shy and secretly would rather be home writing.

Rescued, Technically

One of the scariest tropes in horror (or other) movies is where the protagonist has to rely on the monster (or antagonist) to be rescued.  All the time the viewer is wondering if the monster is going to turn on the hero since, well, it’s a monster.  The tension builds because the situation is untenable to begin with, but there is no other way out.  So lately that’s the way I’ve been feeling about technology.  The first and only time I drove to Atlantic City (it was for a concert some years back), navigating by GPS was still new.  In fact, I didn’t have a device but my brother did so he brought it along.  I remember not trusting it to know the local traffic rules, but once we got into an unfamiliar city I had to rely on it to get us to the venue.  The fact that I lived to be writing this account suggests that it worked.

I no longer commute much.  Still, I’m occasionally required to go into the New York office for a day.  It’s a long trip from here, and to handle the true monster of New York City traffic, I have to leave the house before 4 a.m. to get a spot on the earliest possible bus.  If I do that I can justify catching the bus that leaves the Port Authority before 5 p.m., the daily urban traffic apocalypse.  The last time I did this, just this week, it was raining.  Rain almost always leads to accidents in New Jersey, where the concept of safe following distance has never evolved.  And so I found myself on a bus off route because the major interstate leading into Pennsylvania was completely closed.  The driver announced he wasn’t lost, just trying to find the back way home.  When the streets turned curvy and suburban he asked if anyone had a maps app on their phone.

Lately I’ve been complaining about smartphones.  Truth be told, I do use mine as a GPS when I get lost.  It’s at that stage in an iPhone’s life when it shows you a full battery one second and the next second it’s completely dead, so I let my fellow passengers—every single one of whom has a smartphone—do the navigating.  People on the narrow, off-route roads might’ve wondered what a bus was doing way out here, but we finally did get to the park-n-ride.  The monster had helped us to escape.  And people wonder why I like horror movies…

Book Festival

So it’s here.  The Easton Book Festival begins today.  The weather?  Partly sunny, temps in the mid-60s.  There’s no excuse not to go!  (Well, actually, there are plenty of reasons, but if you’re in the area please consider it!)  I have to admit that my involvement with it was opportunistic.  I contacted the organizer because I was looking to promote my autumnally themed book, Holy Horror, in the season for which it was written.  I understand delayed gratification.  What author isn’t delighted when her or his book arrives?  Thing is, mine came around Christmas time, and, while a wonderful gift, nobody was thinking about scary movies during the joyful winter season.  My observation is this: books are lenses to focus thoughts.  I enjoy Halloween, but I also enjoy Christmas.  One follows the other.  The Easton Book Festival just happens to be during the former rather than the latter.

It’s heeerrreee…

My own involvement with the festival doesn’t start until tomorrow.  Today’s a work day, after all.  Employers don’t give days off for self-promotion (or even for writing books) so festivals are extra-curricular activities.  I’ll be on a panel discussion tomorrow at the Sigal Museum and on Sunday afternoon I’ll be doing a presentation on my book, same venue.  Maybe I’ve got this backwards (nobody tells you these things), but I’m not doing this primarily to sell books.  I’m doing it to promote dialogue.  During my less-than-stellar book signing last week at the Morvarian Book Shop I had only one brief conversation of substance.  It was with a scientist who pointed out that science and religion had nothing to do with one another.  I guess my hopes for the events of the next two days are that folks might want to discuss the ideas in the book.  Or at least think about them.

Sunday morning I’ll be giving a church presentation on the book as well.  Being in the publishing biz I’ve learned the importance of authors getting out there to talk about their books.  Hands up, who’s read a McFarland catalogue lately?  Case in point.  The only problem with all of this is that I still have to get my weekend errands done.  My daily schedule doesn’t allow for trips to the grocery store or even putting gas in the car.  And no matter how much time I put into work, there’s always more to do.  Festivals, of course, are intended to be time set apart from regular pursuits.  So I’m going to put on respectable clothes and I’m going to speak about what’s on my mind this time of year.  If the Lehigh Valley’s in your orbit, I’d be glad to see you there.