Trolls and Tolls

Fall creeps up on me every year.  I like to have an array of seasonal books to read so that when it arrives I’ll be ready.  With house repair costs this year I’ve had to curtail book buying.  That, and most of the titles on my to-read list are used books that seem to have become extortionately expensive since the 1970s.  In any case Cherie Priest’s The Toll stood face out on the shelves of Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca and it caught my attention.  Set in the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia, this unsettling novel brings the reader into the liminal space of the dying small town.  There’s a bit of magic in Staywater, although everyone who lives there knows it hasn’t got long before it goes altogether.  And every thirteen years a monster comes.

Priest knows not to describe the nameless creature too clearly.  The monster seen in broad daylight can quickly lose its patina of fear.  This is some kind of supernatural swamp beast and everyone local seems to know it’s picking them off.  The outside authorities, however, pay no attention to small towns that have “nothing to offer” to the greater economy.  That aspect resonated with me as the erstwhile denizen of a community of less than a thousand.  I watched the dissolving of my adoptive hometown as the tax-base shrank to the point that they could no longer afford to pave the streets and decided to go back to gravel.  Once the oil refinery—what gave the town “value”—closed, outside interest disappeared.  Ah, but I digress from fiction.

The Tool is a moody novel that doesn’t take itself too seriously.  There’s backstory here that remains untold.  Two of the protagonists are elderly female cousins who are comfortable with the spiritual world.  They are the past saviors of this little town in the swamp.  The other characters have all come to an uneasy peace with their periodic tormentor and they have nowhere else to go.  When the monster strikes against unwary outsiders the locals don’t welcome outside attention.  Those acquainted with small communities know that’s what life is like.  Attention brings cash, but often unwelcome change as well.  One of the more haunting aspects of this novel is the number of threads left dangling in the wind.  Not everything is resolved, and life goes on much as it always has, without or without the monster.  A moody read, this ghost story has, it is clear, a deeper message.

Dayglow

Yellow and orange leaves on a damp pavement.  A sky claustrophobically occluded with gray clouds.  A decided chill in the air.  All you have to do is add a few pumpkins and the feeling of October is complete.  I don’t know why this particular image of the change of seasons grips me the way it does.  As a homeowner I don’t want to turn the heat on too soon because the gas bills will jet up and will stay that way for seven or eight months.  I get depressed when skys are cloudy for days at a time.  Around here the leaves have only just begun to change.  In other words, there’s a decided difference between the way I imagine October and the way that it feels on the ground.  In my imagination there are Ray Bradbury titles, The October Country, The Autumn People, but here in the physical world I shiver and add another layer.

Over the past several weeks I’ve been struggling to figure out why horror appeals to me.  It seems to be the Poe-esque mood rather than any startles or gore.  The sense of mystery that hangs in the air when you simply don’t know what to expect.  Will it be a warm, summer-like day or will it be rainy and raw, a day when you wouldn’t venture outside without the necessity to do so?  October is like that.  It is changeable.  Beginning in late September it is dark longer than it is light and for much of the rest of the year I will go to bed when it’s dark outside.  It’s always still dark when I awake.  Is it any wonder that October has its hooks in me?

Short stories, of which I’ve had about twenty published, seem to be the best way to capture this mood.  You see, it isn’t a sustained feeling.  It’s piecemeal like that extra quilt you throw on your bed at night.  The urge to hibernate creeps in, but capitalism doesn’t allow for that.  October is an artist, and I’m just the guy wandering the galley, pausing before each painting.  This feeling only comes after summer, and it is fleeting.  In November the leaves will be down and the cold will settle in quite earnestly.  The candles we lit for Halloween will be our guide-lights to those we hold out to Christmas when the dayglow will begin to return at an hour that reminds us change is the only thing that’s permanent.  And in this there’s a profound hope.

Im Peaches and Whatnot

Like most thinking people I’m wondering what’s wrong with our government.  If such wrong-doing were so out in the open any of the rest of us would be in jail, but because 45 stacks the courts the way GOPers want them, they think he’s God.  Using the Constitution for toilet paper, the Republican party believes itself above the law so it can, well, make up the law.  These are some angry, messed up people we’ve got in elected office.  I’ve seen some interviews with the key players, and it’s clear they literally—and I mean literally in the literal sense—think of politics as a game.  They don’t care how many lives get ruined; they just want to win.  They give the male gender a bad name.

This whole shambles reminds me of something I learned a few administrations ago—nobody really has the answers.  A low-functioning president is one thing (we’ve survived them before), but one who refuses to obey the law is quite another thing.  Subpoenas ignored, catastrophic foreign policy decisions made, and rallying since day one, we are being led by lawmakers who stand in contempt of the law.  All of this makes me think of deals with the Devil.  While I await the results of the peer review of Nightmares with the Bible, I recall what the outcome of diabolical deals always is.  It’s not true that “cheaters never prosper,” but it is new that it is being codified into law.  Hammurabi is rolling in his grave.  Even Caligula would be giving his forehead a palm smack.

America’s desire to become inbred has made us the spectacle for the world.  Growing up in the sixties the message of inclusivity was in the air.  I had no idea that those a generation older were resenting it, holding grudges, waiting quietly until they could throw inequality back into the mix and use it to stay in power even as they flouted the very law that was used to put them into office.  It’s no wonder that three biographies of Adolf Hitler have been published this year.  I guess there’s a fairly easy way to tell the difference between an average person and a politician.  The average person is fed up with this charade and ready for some actual leadership.  A politician, on the other hand, revels in the game he is playing, not concerning himself in the least with the consequences.

Digital First

Publishers these days are all yammering about being “digital first.”  Now, I use technology when I write these days, despite the fact that I am coerced to shut down programs at 3:30 a.m., my writing time, because tech companies assume people are asleep then and that’s when upgrades happen.  Still, even as an author of the modest academic sort I know the unequalled thrill of seeing that first printed copy of my book.  Authors live for that moment.  It’s our opiate.  Publishers don’t understand that.  Five years back or so I had a novel accepted for publication.  (It never happened, but that’s a long story.)  At one point the publisher changed its mind—post-contract!—and decided that my story would be only an ebook.  They tried to make me feel better by saying they thought it would do well in that format.

Who wants to hold up a plastic device and say “Look what I wrote!”?  It makes about as much sense as smoking a plastic device.  No, writing is intended to lead to physical results.  Even those of us who blog secretly hope that someday someone will say, “Hey, I want to publish your random thoughts as a book.”  As long as it’ll be print, where do I sign?  In some fields of human endeavor there are no physical signs that a difference has been made.  Is it mere coincidence that those who work in such fields also often write books?  I suspect not.  Writing is a form of self-expression and when it’s done you want to have something to show for it.  All of that work actually led to something!

Since I work in publishing I realize that it’s a business.  And I understand that businesses exist to be profitable.  I also know that technology sits in the driver’s seat.  Decisions about the shape of the future are made by those who hold devices in higher regard than many of us do.  I’m just as glad as most for the convenience of getting necessary stuff done online.  What I wonder is why it has to be only online.  The other day I went looking for a CD—it’s been years since I bought one.  At Barnes and Noble about all they had was vinyl.  I’m cool with records, but my player died eons ago.  I had to locate a store still dedicated to selling music that wasn’t just streamed or LP.  That gooey soft spot in the middle between precomputer and 0s and 1s raining from the invisible cloud.  I went home and picked up a book.  Life, for a moment, felt more real.

Spiritual Fear

There’s an old adage that if a headline asks a question the implied answer is “No.”  I’ve found that to be true, largely.  I hoped differently when I saw the article titled “Are Horror Films Secretly Spiritual?” by S. Rufus in Psychology Today.  Rufus, admittedly not a fan of horror, ponders whether it might not meet a spiritual need for some.  She would not count herself among that number, should the assertion prove to be the case.  Indeed, her post has more sentences ending in question marks regarding this assertion than it has straightforward declarative ones.  Rufus notes that ancient religions involved a kind of fear-based response appropriate to the lifestyle of those open to constant threat by the natural world.  She seems to believe that civilization has saved us from that.

Now one of the questions with which I constantly struggle is why I watch horror.  I do not like being afraid, and when people find out about my fascination with horror they tend to treat me as if there’s something wrong with me.  I guess maybe I think that civilization has not so much eliminated the sources of threat so much as changed them.  Those who grow up poor know fear.  Fear of want is extremely prevalent in our capitalist society.  I see the “street people” when I go into New York City.  They are not few.  Once you start to get away from affluent suburbs just about anywhere you start to see the run-down houses of those who can’t cope with the demands of a consumerist society.  Even those of us with an education are liable to joblessness and the very real terror that attends it.

Civilization, in other words, comes with its own costs.  Religions originally began—some of them at least—largely from the fear response.  Yes, people were afraid.  The gods, properly propitiated, stay the hand of disaster.  For now.  Some religions, such as those in the monotheistic family tree, tend to suggest higher principles like love can be the motivation.  These religions, however, quickly begin to make threats against those who are heterodox, and reintroduce fear into the formulation.  I suspect, from my own experience of all of this, that the answer to the question may actually be “yes”—horror films do offer something spiritual.  There is a catharsis, if I may borrow a term from psychology, in them.  The spiritual element may, however, run much deeper than that.  Until human society truly takes love and justice as its operating principles, we will have horror films to help us learn to cope.

Haunted State

Some few years back, when FYE was still a thing, I’d hunt for bargains at our local.  I came across a two-for-one DVD that seemed promising, but when I got it home I discovered it was a made-for-television combo, and movies of that ilk often fudge on many angles.  I watched them nevertheless.  These were the Discovery Channel’s first two specials in what would become a series titled “A Haunting.”  I have to admit A Haunting in Connecticut freaked me out so much that I decided to trade the disc back in—something I rarely do.  (The other feature, A Haunting in Georgia, I could barely remember.)  As is usual with things I get rid of, I grew curious once again—this time a decade later.  Fortunately both movies are included in Amazon Prime, so I was all set.  I just needed that rarest commodity of all, time.

You might think that a guy who gets up at 4 a.m. on weekends would have plenty of extra time.  That’s not the case.  Nevertheless, I squeezed the clock to watch these shows again for research purposes.  Neither one was so scary as I recall—I’ve seen quite a few movies since then—but they did get October off to a moody start.  Of the two I recalled far less of the Georgia story.  Perhaps part of the reason is that it left so much unresolved.  The Wyrick family apparently experienced many ghosts and their investigator, William G. Roll, took their claims seriously.  While not an Ed and Lorraine Warren film, like its sibling, it follows the pattern of repeated, reported activity, investigation, and, well, not quite resolution.  The family attends a Pentecostal church, and, interestingly, the documentary treats it respectfully.

Unlike A Haunting in Connecticut, A Haunting in Georgia films some events in real time—notably the church service.  The pastor is interviewed and he, unlike Dr. Roll, believes the entity to be demonic.  The documentary treats him with the same gravitas as it does the Berkeley-trained psychologist.  There’s too much going on here to make a memorable narrative, though.  Stories, at least in the classical fictional sense, have some kind of resolution.  The Georgia narrative has too much complexity and too little sense that anything has been solved.  To me the amazing thing was that I had watched this film before and I remembered maybe only the first fifteen minutes.  Both films went on the bigger things, getting remade into theatrical features that I’ve never seen.  But then again, I barely have time for my own unresolved story.  Maybe FYE offers its own brand of local haunting.

Anthropocene

The word “Anthropocene” has been showing up quite a bit lately.  For a period of many years I was an avid, self-taught amateur geologist.  In my dreams I still am, I guess.  My interest in the ages of rocks began when I, like Charles Lyell, began to consider the implications of their extreme longevity.  The Bible, of course, famously intimates we live in a comparatively new neighborhood.  Having grown up believing that literally and firmly, and also having started a modest fossil collection, I failed to see the conflict.  I mean, there were fossils right down there by the river.  Tons of them.  Some Young Earth Creationists had already begun, by that point, to suggest they’d arisen because of Noah’s flood, but dinosaurs still seemed to be a problem.  In many ways rocks broke me out of my fundamentalist stupor.

While at Nashotah House I taught electives on Genesis 1-11.  I read about the geologic ages of the planet and would fall into Devonian dreams of a world entirely different from ours—a world in which there was no Bible for there were no humans to make God in their image.  I knew that we lived in the Quaternary Period of the Holocene Era.  I don’t think the term Anthropocene was in wide use then.  Parsing it is simple enough—it is the “human age.”  The age in which the planet was, has been, and is being altered by human behavior.   There’s no agreed-up start date for the Anthropocene, but it will likely be set in the twentieth century; the twentieth century in our way of counting.  There have been millions of centuries before that.

A couple of weekends back I attended a church program on plastics.  These useful polymers are deeply, deeply integrated into our lives and are promoted by the far too powerful petroleum industry.  The problem with plastics is that they break down and invade the bodies of animals and humans.  And although they do decompose it takes many centuries for them to do so.  Naming the Anthropocene is an effort to get us to see that a human perspective is far too brief to deal with the many issues we raise.  Our practices on this planet will likely not destroy the earth, but they may very well make it uninhabitable by us, or by creatures we like to see.  Life is persistent, and rock lasts for eons.  Even stone’s not eternal, however, and the idea of the Anthropocene is to get us to look at ourselves and realize that our use of this planet, as toxic as it is, is shortsighted.  We will someday be the fossils under a bridge long crumbled to dust for those in the future who know of no such thing as Genesis.  Perhaps we should act like it.