Ethics of Nations

If it hadn’t started two world wars last century, Germany would likely have a stellar reputation.  I don’t say this because of my own Teutonic blood, but rather because as a nation they seem both intelligent and troubled.  Philosophical, if you will.  A story in Times Higher Education explains how Germany is planning its reopening with the input of humanities experts as well as scientists.  The stance is driven by ethics.  We know that when strictures are loosed more cases of COVID-19 will break out.  More people will inevitably die of it.  Germany realizes that this makes it an ethical issue as well as an economic one.  And ethics are best discussed by those who study humanities.  I noticed that they’re even including theologians on their panels.  This seems smart to me.

Meanwhile Boris Johnson’s reopening team in Britain is secret.  Not wanting the public to know who’s making the decisions that will certainly kill some of them, they prefer to act under cover of darkness.  The thing about the cone of silence is that it never works.  Historians will scratch their heads over how, in the course of one century, the good guys became the bad guys and the bad the good.  Have the Allies become an—to borrow a phrase—axis of evil?  The wealthy alone are worth saving, and the economy takes presedence over the welfare of the greatest number.  Back in my philosophy classes we learned about utilitarianism and also its problems.  You see, being a humanities specialist means learning to think through thorny issues, looking at all different angles.  Being a conservative means looking only at the bottom line.

Humanities are related to the concept of humanitarianism.  I know that’s a big word, and it doesn’t bring in much mammon, but still, it encompasses all of us.  This crisis could bring out the best in humankind, or we can let the narrative go to the Clorox-eaters and those who believe winning elections are all that’s important, even if there’s nobody left to govern when its all over.  Being a politician is a zero-sum game I guess.  Looking at the numbers, Germany seems to have brought the number of deaths down when measured against the count of established cases.  That to me seems like a human goal worth striving for.  Of course, we could just incite riots in our own countries to infect even more people.  Being reelected so as to give oneself even more tax breaks is all that really matters.  At least among the axis powers.

Quiet Quarantine

I’m an introvert.  I require quiet time—quite a lot of it—to recharge and prepare myself to be social.  Some people think introverts don’t want to be around others.  That’s not true.  The fact is being with other people is enjoyable, but it requires a special kind of energy that introverts don’t have in great reserve.  When the COVID-19 outbreak began introverts collectively (yes!) felt a need to help their extroverted friends and colleagues deal with the “new normal” of isolation.  Now that we’ve been in the situation for over a month, I have seen a different pattern emerging.  Extroverts are now taking over the quiet space and trying to make it noisy.  I don’t think it’s intentional, but I do think that introverts may be the ones most stressed out by this situation.

Here’s an experiment.  Put an extrovert in self-isolation with a room full of communication devices.  What do you think will happen?  If you’re on the introverted receiving end, you already know.  Days interrupted by cheeps, dings, and chimes as someone needs to talk to you.  Why you?  You’re quiet, you know how to listen.  The extraverts can’t become quiet, and of quiet and noise the same one is always on the receiving end of violence.  Quiet shatters, noise doesn’t.  Five weeks into this and the introverts have bags under their eyes and the extroverts are exclaiming “It’s not half so bad!”

While Nashotah House ruined it for me, for many years I had considered whether I shouldn’t join a monastic community.  I need quiet as much as I need air, and although I can be outgoing when I have to, I need quiet at the end of the day to make up for it.  My case is somewhat mild.  I know introverts who truly struggle when they have to spend a lot of time in a crowded place.  The internet, my friends, is a crowded place.  It took these weeks for me to figure out why I have so much less time now than I used to.  The demand of making noise has been upped.

Sitting at home with quiet streets outside can be eerie.  It can also be rejuvenating.  Embracing the silence isn’t a bad practice.  One of the reasons, I suspect, that I still awake around 3:00 a.m. is that it is quiet.  Very seldom am I interrupted then.  Work will have its pound of flesh, of course, and from there on my day descends, or ascends, back towards quiet.  It’s not a bad way to live.  It just takes practice.

Misreading Melville

I make it a practice not to discuss books I’m still reading on this blog.  There’s no reason I shouldn’t, I suppose, but it just feels like cheating getting more than one post for a book.  Besides, there’s so much other stuff to blog about!  I’ll make an exception this time, because it involves an unusual typo.  Well, it’s not so much unusual as it is apt.  In chapter 82 of Melville’s classic, Moby Dick, “The Honor and glory of Whaling,” he discusses the mythical history of whaling.  In typical Melvillian style, he takes mythical stories to support his contention of how honorable whaling is.  After Perseus and St. George and the dragon, he mentions the curious biblical episode of Dagon and the ark of the covenant, found in 1 Samuel 5.  It’s here that my edition has a typo.  Melville writes “this whole story will fare like that fish, flesh, and fowl idol of the Philistines, Dagon by name” but my edition reads “Dragon by name.”

Image credit: Vignette by Loutherbourg for the Macklin Bible 12 of 134, via Wikimedia Commons

My very first academic publication was on this story about Dagon (I had intended to write my dissertation on that deity).  I had no idea of H. P. Lovecraft’s appropriation of Dagon at that point.  The interest was purely based on the fact that you couldn’t find much information on this curious god.  It was clear that he was well known among ancient cultures of West Asia.  He was attested at Ugarit, specifically as the father of Baal.  (Both would later be assumed to be demons.)  Further east, he was apparently a fairly major deity in Mesopotamian religions, although we are still awaiting a readable synthesis of that massive corpus of texts and the religions toward which it points.  In other words, Dagon is mysterious.  Lovecraft likely picked him up from the biblical story.

The tale in 1 Samuel is provocative.  After defeating Israel, the Philistines (who would eventually give Palestine its name) took the ark to the temple of Dagon as spoils.  The image of their god fell face-down before the ark overnight.  Disturbing as this was, the next morning after they’d replaced him, Dagon was again tumbled but also decapitated and with his hands broken off.  That meant his body was all that was left.  Somewhere along the line the name Dagon (close to the Hebrew word for “fish”) was interpreted as a maritime entity.  This seems unlikely, given what we know of his origins, but the idea stuck, leading to some compelling horror fiction.  Dagon does indeed become a kind of dragon in that realm.  My edition of Moby Dick has a typo that we today would blame on autocorrect, but in reality was likely the result of a copyeditor not knowing his or her Bible as well as Melville did.

White Rabbit

There are books that make you feel as if everything you know is uncertain.  D. W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic is such a book.  Its subtitle, UFOs, Religion, Technology, only pauses at the brink of the rabbit hole down which this study will take you.  Over the years I admit to having been jealous of colleagues who’ve been able to make an academic career stick.  The credentials of a university post open doors for you, even if you’re a professor of religion.  Pasulka has opened some doors here that I suspect many would prefer to have kept closed.  This is a compelling book, threading together many themes tied to religious studies.  There are things we might see, if only we’ll open our eyes.

Although immediately and automatically subjected to the ridicule response, UFOs are a fascinating subject.  This book isn’t about UFO religions—of which there are many—but rather it connects this phenomenon to the study of religion itself.  In Pasulka’s related field of Catholic studies, there are those anomalous accounts of saints who did the impossible.  Like UFOs, they are subjected to the ridicule response, making serious discussion of them difficult.  Might the two be related?  As you feel yourself spinning deeper and deeper down that hole, technology comes into the picture and complicates it even further.  Pasulka was a consultant on The Conjuring.  I’ve written about the movie myself, but what I hadn’t realized is how media connects with perceptions of reality.  Yes, it has a religious freight too.

Every once in a while I reflect that my decision—if it was a decision; sometimes I feel certain my field chose me—to study religion might not have been misplaced.  Perhaps all of this does tie together in some way.  American Cosmic is a mind-expanding book that assures me all those years and dollars learning about religion weren’t wasted after all.  I had a discussion recently with another doctoral holder who’s been relegated to the role of editor.  We both lamented that our training was in some sense being wasted on a job that hardly requires this level of training.  Still, if it weren’t for my day job I probably wouldn’t have known about this book, and that is perhaps a synchronicity as well.  Life is a puzzle with many thousands—millions—of pieces.  Some books are like finding a match, but others are like informing you that you’ve got the wrong box top in hand as you try to construct the puzzle with the pieces you have.  If you read this book be prepared to come close to finding the white rabbit.

WHO Believes?

These days it’s pretty clear that if you want to listen to anyone for advice it shouldn’t be the government.  I suppose that’s why I spend so much time on the World Health Organization’s page.  I’m no medical person and I certainly don’t understand epidemiology.  Contagion I get, because religion operates that way.  So WHO has been making somewhat frequent references to faith.  A recent status report noted that 84% of the world’s population reckons itself as religious and that many coronavirus outbreaks have taken place because of continued religious gatherings.  To that I suspect they’ll need to add political rallies supporting governments you shouldn’t trust, but what is such blind faith in leaders who don’t know what they’re doing if not religion?  People want to believe.

Religious gatherings also provide crucial support.  The community with which I associate has been using Zoom gatherings since mid-March.  It’s not perfect, of course, but during our virtual coffee hour I’ve been put in breakout rooms with people I don’t know.  I’m starting to get to know people I might be too shy to speak with in “real life.”  More than that, I’m asking myself what real life really is.  Technology has been pushing us in this direction for some time.  We relate virtually rather than physically.  I’ve never met many of the people with whom I have some of my most significant exchanges.  The internet, in other words, has an ecclesiastical element to it.  The words “church” and “synagogue” both go back to roots meaning “to gather.”  Faith, despite the stylites, is not lived alone.

WHO suggests that since religious leaders influence millions of people, if they would turn their message to prevention it could have a tremendous human benefit.  Consider how one man’s personal crusade in the mid-nineteenth century led to elections being decided on the basis of abortion alone.  If faith leaders were to take the good of humankind to heart and spread that message, it could well outstrip the virus.  Alas, but politics interferes.  Many religions also want to determine how people live.  There’s power in that.  We’ve seen it time and again with televangelists.  WHO has faith that these leaders might set aside their scriptures for a moment and read situation reports based in science and rationality.  WHO apparently has faith as well.  Until someone smarter than politicians sorts all of this out we’re probably safest meeting virtually.  Who knows—perhaps there are hidden benefits to that as well?

Bats and Bloodsuckers

In what looks (somewhat cynically) like at attempt to add newness to frightfully old news, the World Health Organization has renamed COVID-19 to the much scarier SARS-CoV-2.  The basics remain the same: the virus is transmitted the same way.  If it lands on a non-organic surface it soon dies without a host, rather like the elected officials of an old party once grand.  Like any parasite, it requires the life of another to prosper.  And so we find Mitch McConnell telling states to declare bankruptcy in a move taken from the Bible’s own playbook.  You see, during a famine in Egypt Pharaoh bailed out the food banks, and by buying all the land made peasants in essence slaves of the state.  The Good Book has all the answers.  A few generations later, however, and Pharaoh had to learn how to swim in the desert.  The divine economy is not without humor.

The WHO report also states that the vector has been traced to bats.  Bats make me think of vampires—I can’t help it, I’m a late monster boomer.  While WHO doesn’t make any connections with vampire bats, I researched them when I was younger.  Unlike elected members of the gOP, vampire bats aren’t selfish.  Nor are they greedy.  Finding a victim, the make a small incision with their sharp little teeth and lap up enough blood to survive.  If another bat goes a night or two without success, vampire bats will share their success, realizing in a way that politicians don’t, that helping one another is an assured way of establishing communal strength.  Or you could just be capitalist about it, let the unsuccessful starve, and go seeking another victim of your own.  Bloated bats don’t fly well.

If the Old Party learns from nature we’ll all benefit.  Greed is hardly the basis for sound government.  Nature would suggest that ingesting disinfectant isn’t the best advice to dole out to a nation about which you truly care.  The Old Party refuses to do anything, of course.  Having proven themselves unable to govern, they’re busy pulling together campaigns for November’s election.  With a leader who’s already said on national television that Republicans can’t win without gaming the election process itself, they don’t even blush.  I’m no expert, but it may be because they don’t have enough blood to rise to their cheeks.  If they’re short on blood it might be worth their while to learn a thing or two from vampire bats.

Paper or Electronic?

Publishers are scrambling (and who can blame them?) to get ebooks out.  Since bookstores have been closed (I’d classify them as essential businesses, in an ideal world), they need to get “product” to customers.  Still, I’m thinking back to my recent interview with an undergraduate about Holy Horror.  She told me the cover really generated interest as she walked around school with it.  (This was before the pandemic.)  That’s old school book advertising.  Although I do learn about lots of books online, I very, very seldom buy ebooks.  It seems like buying air to me, and I wonder if publishers are missing out on the free advertising of the person carrying an interesting book around.

Back before the pandemic I’d noticed how just about everybody was walking around with that awkwardly proud “I’ve got a cup of Starbucks in my hand” look.  It was everywhere.  No matter where I went, for there was free travel in those days, people had only one hand free, showing the world their craft coffee.  If only it were so cool to be seen carrying books!  I stopped commuting about two years ago, for all practical purposes.  When I did get on a bus, however, I always had a book in my hand.  Did publishers see any bumps from curious New Jerseyans who saw the strange cover of the weird book I happened to be reading at the time?  You never got a seat to yourself on New Jersey Transit, and I know I was always curious about other readers (there weren’t many).  I hardly have the profile to define “cool” and “some guy on the bus” probably doesn’t cut it for many people, but still, the thought of someone curious about a book because of the cover is very compelling.

Book covers are artworks.  At least some of them are.  I recall the ennui I felt approaching some academic books with just words on cloth for the cover.  (I later found out the cloth is usually paper made to look like cloth—there are layers in everything.)  It was difficult to muster the energy to open the book because you knew there would likely be hard slogging ahead.  That’s why I decided to stop writing academic books.  The next trick is to find nonacademic publishers so that prices in the range of real readers might be offered.  If people opt for the ebook version, how will others see it?  And viruses only last on paper for about a day.  That’s a quarantine I can live with.

Ancient History, Part 3

It was an old idea.  I had it when I was still teaching at Nashotah House, that’s how ancient it is.  It seemed to me that if brains evolve with the rest of us, our perceptions of gods might change over time.  I’d been working on this for an Ugaritic conference held in Sherbrooke, Quebec.  The conference took place, but I’d been ousted from my position at Nashotah House.  The conference organizer, in what was an amazingly magnanimous move, came up with funding for me to attend.  I delivered the paper and Jean-Marc Michaud, of blessed memory, encouraged me to submit it to the tome with the very academic title Le Royaume d’Ougarit, de la Crète à l’Euphrate. Nouveaux axes de recherche, Actes du Congrès International de Sherbrooke 2005, Faculté de théologie, d’éthique et de philosophie, Université de Sherbrooke, 5-8 juillet 2005 (Coll. POLO–Proche-Orient et Littérature Ougaritique 2).  Unemployed and unable to access libraries, I had to decline the publication.

In one of those great ironies of life, I began to be approached to take on projects after I lost my academic position.  (This continues to happen; I received an invitation to contribute just last week.)  I often have to turn them down because I still have no access to an academic library and academics generally have no idea just how draining a nine-to-five is, with or without the commute.  In any case, a Festschrift for Simon B. Parker was announced.  I knew Simon as a student at Boston University School of Theology, and he wrote many letters of recommendation for me.  His sudden death shocked many of us.  Herb Huffmon, of Drew Theological Seminary, asked me to contribute to the Festschrift.  I still had this article that required some work, so I decided to try to finish it.  I received a note that the volume is about to go to press with Pickwick.  Academic publications won’t let me go.

If I had my druthers, I’d be getting along with my fiction.  I’ve had over twenty short stories published, and I’ve got many more in the works.  Every time I think, “Now I’m in the clear, I can focus on writing that is fun to read,” I get another academic invitation.  Those invitations don’t come with job offers, so I wonder why I have such trouble saying “no.”  Anyone who writes wants to be remembered.  We have ideas that we hope others will find engaging.  In academia you publish to keep your job.  Most of your work will be forgotten unless you’re groomed as an academic superstar (yes, they exist!).  I’ve never been groomed.  I write because I have ideas that beg to be expressed.  One of those ideas, many years old, will soon be available for consumption at Pickwick Press.

Thoroughly Earth Day

It’s difficult to say, since I don’t get outside much, but reports have come in that the earth is healing itself while we’ve been sequestered.  Rivers usually polluted have begun to run clean.  Smoke-smuggered skies have turned blue.  Animals have begun to explore human-made environments abandoned while we all shelter in place.  Could there be a more poignant statement about the reason for Earth Day?  If our worst behaviors are ceased even for a little while, the damage we do to our home planet begins to come undone.  To me that has been the most profound hope brought to light by this crisis.  Living more simply might be a virtue after all.

From NASA’s photo library

Going without can be difficult.  Every time the fleeting thought comes that I need to run to the store for this or that—and I’ve been taught that shopping is normal and natural and good for everyone—I have to stop and weigh the options.  Do I really need whatever it is?  Can I do without it?  Even bank accounts, for those fortunate enough to be able to keep working, have started to recover.  The frenzy we normally live under—earning money to keep buying things we don’t really need—is suddenly cast into perspective.  Times like this Earth Day I think of Henry David Thoreau.  Sometimes we like to laugh about our American saints, but his desire to live more simply does have appeal.  

Like many students who find themselves in Boston, I once made pilgrimage to Walden Pond.  The day I went there with some friends I believe we were the only car in the lot.  We lived simply in the way that grad students do, being under the sword of educational debts and loans, but we had come to see the place where nature had called one harried philosopher to solitude.  I knew, even as I stood by the marker of the cabin site that we couldn’t all live like this and still enjoy the benefits of medical science and technology (such as it was in the 1980s).  Perhaps it is possible, however, to reflect on better ways of living now that we’ve all been placed in a kind of enforced solitude.  I’ve begun reading more poetry.  I’ve started painting again.  Life has, in the midst of a pandemic, begun to feel more healthy.  It’s Earth Day.  Normally I’d be looking for an opportunity to join a community cleaning event, or even to go out and pick up trash on my own.  Since these are ill-advised, I stand before my bookshelf and reach for Walden instead.

Moralizing Gods

In my more radical moods I sing along with John Cougar about fighting authority.  Living in society means never being completely free.  This pandemic only amplifies that.  What I want may not be best for others.  Not to mention excessively corrupt authority *ahem* Washington DC [coughs into elbow].  Still, a friend sent me an article titled “Did judgmental gods help societies grow?  The piece by Lizzie Wade appeared in Science recently.  The article begins by noting that judgmental gods are rare.  It then suggests complex societies seem to have had judgmental gods at their beginnings.  Moralizing gods demand cooperation.  People want to do what they want.  If we’re going to reap the benefits of a highly specialized society we all need to play our part, however.  Authority always does win, I guess.

Wade’s article suggests that this kind of orthodoxy is now being called into question.  Moralizing gods, it’s suggested, appear after a complex society gets started.  Interestingly, these gods tend to be males.  (That point’s mine, not Wade’s.)  I have been wondering for quite some time just how the data from Göbekli Tepe will influence the re-construction of models concerning how civilization began.  It seems that long before settled populations emerged, back in hunter-gatherer days, people still came together to build temples.  Were they afraid of judgmental gods?  Certainly they thought it was important to gather occasionally at numinous places and ponder the larger questions.  Since they left no written records and they’ve all died out the best we can do is make educated guesses.  Who knows what might’ve been their motivation?

The one thing that seems certain to me, no matter how we nuance it, is that religion is integral to society.  Science is necessary for our survival (ancient people weren’t backward rubes, by the way—they had a kind of scientific outlook, but without all the advanced math).  Religion, however, seems originally to have brought us together.  Outside our comfort zones.  Hunter-gatherer societies limit their sizes to people you can know reasonably well.  They tend not to have private property and they share things most people in “civilized” settings wouldn’t.  To grow larger than a roving band that can sustain itself by moving from place to place once the food’s gone, agriculture was necessary.  But Göbekli Tepe suggests it only followed after religion began bringing people together in the first place.  Were their gods authoritarian?  There’s really no way of knowing that.  So when I’m feeling radical I have to remember than when it’s over I turn the volume down, comb my hair and go back into society.  Well, once the pandemic’s over.

See Monster

What happens when someone encounters something anomalous?  In real life this is often described as a religious event.  In fiction that sometimes happens as well, as in Christopher Coleman’s The Sighting.  Set on a beach somewhere along the Atlantic, the story is about a woman who encountered a sea monster and decided it was a god.  Gods, of course, require sacrifice, and thus the tale turns on her effort to placate the beast in its current appearance cycle.  Such sacrifice doesn’t come willingly, and this introduces a murderous main plot.  Unlike the gods of lore, however, this one literally eats, tipping the reader off that its divinity is somewhat of an illusion.  The hungry beast becomes the divine only to its blind follower.

I’ve not read any of Coleman’s fiction before, and this self-published novel appears to be a good introduction to his story-crafting.  His monster, like a god, comes with no explanation.  It simply is.  Since religion isn’t really susceptible to being examined under a microscope, the truth of not being able to locate an origin for gods seems natural enough.  Still, people are curious about monstrous origins.  Mary Shelley tells us the genesis of Frankenstein’s monster, but Bram Stoker leaves Dracula’s ultimate origins somewhat misty.  In the present day, with its ubiquitous cell phones and information, we do wonder if monsters can’t simply be explained.  Even if that simple explanation is complex.  Coleman’s title page tells us this is book one, so further elucidation perhaps comes later in the series.

The sea, in classical thought, gives rise to monsters.  Coleman’s creature comes from the Atlantic.  All the world’s oceans are organically connected, and their surface area is so massive that we really haven’t figured out all of what’s under there.  Stories still appear in newspapers announcing this or that unidentified creature that has washed out of the sea.  Its depth and relative impenetrability make it a natural birthplace for monsters.  By the end of The Sighting the reader is really still only given a glimpse of what this god might be, or why, indeed, it is considered a god at all.  Origin stories make monsters less scary sometimes—Shelley’s genius was to take it in the opposite direction.  Often in horror stories, the humans are more frightening than the monsters.  So it is here.  What makes this story so disturbing is the unquestioning human acceptance of belief, for it is often here that gods can become monsters.

Who’s To Blame?

Back at Nashotah House Episcopal Seminary, we were a closed community.  Well, not completely closed, as much as some may have desired it.  When a communicable illness came to campus it quickly spread.  No wonder—we were required to all gather twice daily in the chapel, and there was the passing of the peace during mass.  And the sharing of a common chalice.  The germs of the Lord were readily spread.  One of the faculty members would refer to the vector of the illness as “Typhoid Mary,” a rather sexist remark in the mostly male environment.  Still, Mary Mallon came to mind as the current crises has settled in.  “Typhoid Mary” was an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever.  A working-class girl from Ireland, outbreaks of typhoid followed her in the various houses in New York City where she worked.

Photo credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), National Institutes of Health (NIH), via Wikimedia Commons

The current coronavirus outbreak in New York City seems strangely similar in some regards.  Although COVID-19 is less likely passed by asymptomatic carriers, according to what I’ve read from the World Health Organization, it is still a possible vector.  While out getting necessary supplies in the area I recently noticed store employees without gloves or masks, both of which I had on.  One of us was underdressed.  I went home, washed my hands thoroughly, and pulled my copy of The Andromeda Strain from the bookshelf.  Self-medication can come in several forms.  Some people still look at me funny for wearing a mask, but many other customers are now doing the same.  The Center for Disease Control recommends it.

Before I’d ever heard of Nashotah House, I worked in a grocery store.  I was a college graduate with facial hair that had to be removed.  “Customers don’t trust a man with a beard,” I was told.  Back then if you walked into a store with a mask on there would’ve been trouble.  Contagion can drive you crazy.  Nobody wants to be a “Typhoid Mary,” and yet it’s difficult to be out in public with a mask on.  “Who was that masked man?” they used to ask of the Lone Ranger.  From the theater and psychology I’ve studied, I know that hiding behind a mask can be a liberating experience.  Aware that nobody knows who you are, you are free to act most any way you please.  But this is different.  Maybe it’s because my mask is made of a paisley-ish bandana,  the kind old westerns show outlaws wearing.  Or maybe it’s because of the guilt a religious upbringing so generously left with me.  After all these years the old cliches are coming back to life.

Connecting Connecticut

One of the many lessons of the current pandemic has been that my appreciation of horror is not misplaced.  Horror Homeroom has just published my piece “Demons or Ghosts?  Hauntings in Connecticut,” available here.  I’ve noticed that Horror Homeroom has had a surge of pieces since all of this began, which seems tacit evidence that horror is a coping mechanism.  It’s no wonder, really.  Horror often deals with “worst case scenarios” and specializes in isolating victims.  Now that we’re all practicing social distancing we’ve entered into one of the main framing plots of the horror movie.  Contagion isn’t an unusual trope either.  My article is about neither of these, but I still maintain that watching horror is therapeutic.  As with most therapy there’s good and bad varieties.

The films I write about in this instance aren’t good movies.  The Haunting in Connecticut franchise misses on so many levels that it doesn’t seem bound for classic status.  Yes, there are classics in the genre.  When the outbreak started many people referred to The Shining as how they felt being cooped up all the time.  There are those who vehemently deny that The Shining is horror, but given the association with Stephen King it seems difficult to deny.  Horror doesn’t have to involve slashers or bug-eyed monsters.  It isolates.  It imagines worst case scenarios.  All Jack Torrence needed was an inept national administration to put us all in the Overlook, one at a time.  

The pandemic has slowed down the release of new movies, of course.  The much anticipated A Quiet Place Part II has been pushed out to September.   Sitting here in isolation I wonder if that’s long enough.  Politicians with money in mind over their human constituents are chomping at the bit to get us mingling again.  Exposing one another.  Horror, however, knows all about aftershocks.  I don’t like jump startles.  I prefer my movies to built thoughtful, moody situations.  Despite their many sins, the Connecticut haunting movies do that correctly.  While they have other problems, they do throw us into a world where things aren’t quite right and we know it.  Elaborate plots really aren’t necessary, though.  The mind is pretty adept at filling in the story.  Like children asking to have the same book read over and over, we know how it goes.  We just like someone else to show us exactly how.  Isolation should continue for some time.  And horror provides a reasonable narrative to help.

Bug Eyes

Science fiction and horror are close kin.  Once relegated to the cheap rack of “genre fiction,” both have now developed considerable literary sophistication, perhaps in the wake of their ability to bring in money.  I used to attend used book sales.  Two of the big ones in central Jersey were the Bryn Mawr sale, held just outside Princeton, and the even larger Hunterdon County Friends of the Library sale.  Both were springtime events and highlights on my calendar.  I always had a list with me when I went, but there were also so many books I’d never heard of and that looked fascinating.  One such book was the science fiction anthology, Bug-Eyed Monsters, edited by Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg.  The garish cover was half the appeal, and, well, monsters go without saying.

Although I’ve mostly moved to the horror end of the spectrum, there were some good stories here.  Bug-eyed monsters were a staple of 1950’s sci-fi, gracing the covers of pulps, often menacing women with their tentacles.  Some of the tales here share that kind of wide-eyed wonder at the sheer power of imagination, while others are much more subtle.  Monsters, of course, lurk between genres, bursting into consciousness when something unexpected is discovered.  They also have strains of religious awe associated with them.  That’s obvious in a couple of the stories as well.  Since I’m trying to read through my own books while stores are closed, I decided to spend some time with my monsters.  The problem with story collections, however, is you can’t discuss them all in the short format to which I limit myself here.  Besides, some of them I didn’t like.

Monsters deserve to be treated with respect.  In the “golden age” of sci-fi they were often played for titillation.  Most of the monsters in this collection are from outer space.  Some are homegrown, generally in the scarier tales.  We are afraid of those who are different.  Monsters, as more than one of these stories indicate, can be more humane than humans often are.  It’s no surprise that they tend to represent the foreigner, the person whose culture and appearance are different than our own.  Titillation apart, these narratives often ask us to stop and consider what might happen if we really did listen.  Would we not improve ourselves if we could learn from those we fear?  In these days of government-approved xenophobia, perhaps we should dust off our copies of the old genre fiction.  Even in those days we were encouraged to be open minded like our monsters.

Peaceful Lessons

We are all, I think, looking for hope.  Probably due to the way I was raised, I often seek signs.  There’s no way to know if said signs are mere coincidences or the more intense variety known as synchronicities, yet we have a hopeful sign here at home.  On our front porch we have some plant hangers.  Spring crept up on us this year and we haven’t got around to putting any pansies in them yet.  The other day when I was stepping out to get the mail, I noticed feathers in one of them and feared there’d been a bird-related accident there.  As I took a step toward the planter, the head of a mourning dove popped up.  She blinked at me curiously, but didn’t fly away.  I knew then that she had built a nest in the as-yet unused planter and she was sitting on her eggs.

Monday was fiercely windy around here.  And rainy.  I wondered how any birds could fly in such weather.  A mourning dove flew up—perhaps one of the pair on our porch—and landed on the electric wire leading to our house.  The wire was swaying and bucking so furiously that the dove constantly had to shift and fluff and flutter just to stay in place.  The poor bird was in constant motion.  Then it showed a sign of animal intelligence.  There’s a much larger wire that runs down our street, from which other houses are supplied.  It’s more stable in the wind due to its girth.  The dove flew up to that wire instead.  There it was able to perch without having to constantly adjust itself to the gusts.  Peaceful and intelligent.  That’s what the world needs.  I have hope.

The dove has long been a sign of peace.  It’s understood that way in the Bible.  It was the dove that brought an olive twig to Noah, indicating that although all he could see was water there was, somewhere, dry land.  These days we need to be reminded that although it seems that the storm will last forever, even hurricanes eventually exhaust themselves.  The dove, clearly not happy about the horrendous wind buffeting it on that wire, nevertheless persisted in a kind of stoic optimism that things are as they should be.  There is great wisdom in the natural world.  If we can get to a window we can see it playing out before our very eyes.  Now when I step out the door, I glance at the dove, and she looks back at me.  We wink at each other.  She doesn’t fly away, for she understands.  She has a wisdom to which we all should aspire.