The Abbey

In my efforts to satisfy the Gothic longing of October—such a melancholy month—I’ve been reading Jane Austen’s classic, Northanger Abbey.  I avoided this particular title for many years because I knew that the Gothic frights were all rationally explained.  Austen was such an accomplished writer that she was able to poke fun at the Gothic genre while participating in it, at least somewhat.  I actually read this novel with no idea concerning the plot or characters.  Sometimes for works of the western canon these elements are so well known that you kind of know what to expect.  Northanger Abbey, although appreciated, isn’t often considered Austen’s finest work.  In fact, it was her first novel finished, but was only published posthumously.  As I writer I can understand that.

The story follows Catherine Morland in a satire of Gothic novels.  In fact, Catherine’s favorite book is Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, one of the Gothic standard-bearers.  The first half of the novel (pre-Gothic) sets the story up with two love triangles formed in the city of Bath.  Austen excels at making the reader uncomfortable with characters.  So much so that the second (Gothic) part of the novel ends up making one of the formerly noble Tilneys,  father of Catherine’s love interest Henry, look downright snobbish and petty.  O, the egos of the privileged!  The fact that she threw this in just about ten pages before the close (in my edition) made the ending all the more anxious.

There are no ghosts in Northanger Abbey.  No murders or poisonings took place there.  No secret manuscripts contained cryptic truths.  No secret passages led to hidden chambers.  Austen sets readers up for all of these, only to bring the conceit down in a showcase of her satirical ability.  The novel still frequently ends up on lists of Gothic classics.  I wonder if readers don’t get the satire.  I had put off reading it for many years because I knew it to be good-natured fun-poking at a genre I unaccountably enjoy.  At least I know I’m not alone in this.  I’m glad, in any case, to have finally read it.  Jane Austen was a most capable writer, a master of portraying human foibles particularly well.  The problems of the landed gentry, however, as I’ve noted before, aren’t really of interest unless there’s actually a ghost or monster lurking in the shadows somewhere.  Without monsters even an imposing abbey owned by a spoiled petty nobility is just an abbey devoid of purpose.

Dreams and Nightmares

Since posting just a few days back about the cover of Nightmares with the Bible it has now been posted on the Rowman & Littlefield website (more on that in a moment).  I’m pleased with the cover because it includes a photo I took.  It’s a little blurry, but that adds to the effect.  In the days before my commuting began, I could easily stay awake until regular hours and one autumn weekend we arrived home to find the spooky house next door all lit up, under a full moon.  I appreciated the eerie look of the situation and snapped this photo, which I’ve used a few times on this blog.  I’m not sure the house next door was haunted, but it sure looked like it.  More to the point, it reminds me of the poster for The Exorcist.  It has always been a dream of mine to have one of my photos appear on a book cover.

I also received the happy news that the book is with the printers.  That means it will soon be available.  It will be expensive, but I should be receiving a discount code that I will be glad to share.  “Library pricing” is something publishers unfortunately have to do to make books pay themselves off.  In the past several years so many books have been appearing that the bottom has fallen out of the academic library market.  Too much supply, to put it in capitalist terms.  Many publishers, however, will give discounts to individuals who want to buy a copy.  All you have to do is ask the author.  (I don’t have the discount code yet, but I will be glad to share it once I’ve received it.)

Nightmares with the Bible is being published by Fortress Academic.  A few years ago Fortress Press partnered with Lexington Books to handle their library market books, including those in the series Horror and Scripture, in which Nightmares appears.  Lexington Books is an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield.  It’s sometimes difficult to keep track of publishing houses since there has been a lot of consolidation over the centuries, accelerating in recent years.  Publishers don’t sell as many individual books as they used to and with Amazon’s arrival a new shift in the market took place.  It tends to favor trade publishers over academic ones.  In any case, that means even books written for trade readerships, like Nightmares, are priced for libraries.  If you have access to an academic library please recommend they buy a copy.  If the book succeeds in that venue a case can be made for a paperback edition.  In the meantime, the book should be, barring an apocalypse, out on schedule.

War of Egos

As an author you have to believe in your book.  Experience has taught me that if you don’t, nobody will.  Still, there are ways of believing in your book while keeping your ego in check.  Given the ego we’ve seen along Pennsylvania Avenue these last few years it may come as little surprise that even some wannabe authors can nearly match it.  The line, as professionals draw it, is balancing between the importance of your work with the realism that few books sell well.  Your best approach, as author, is humility.  Many people don’t read the professionals.  You quickly learn this if you’re in an editorial role.  It is normal to receive emails from authors telling you how important their work is, some even claiming it as an even on a cosmic scale (I am not joking).

I often consider how much pain authors could spare themselves with just a tiny bit of research.  If a publisher has turned your book down twice already, don’t submit it a third time.  (You already crossed the line the second time you sent it.)  And don’t send your proposal with a list of demands.  What I’ve noted both on this blog and elsewhere is that editors value professionalism.  We don’t like turning down books.  We don’t want to ruin a prospective author’s day.  There are, however, safeguards you can use to prevent the worst kinds of disappointment.  Rule number one is check your ego at the door.  Do you know how many books have been published?  Do you know just how difficult it will be for your book to get noticed?  Take a reality check.

Also, scale your expectations.  How many bestsellers have come from university presses?  If you’re after bestseller status you need to aim for a trade publisher.  This is pretty basic stuff.  Those of us who publish in the academic world do believe our books are important, but many of us also know that they start only small conversations.  Biblical studies isn’t exactly a growth field.  We talk amongst each other, a collegial little group for the most part.  And to keep things on the collegial level it is helpful to remember that we’re not publishing for ego.  We’re publishing to try to move knowledge ahead, even if just by a micron or two.  Good writing, I was once told, is simply clear thinking.  Getting that writing published is part of a conversation and conversation only works if  we are willing to keep our egos on their leashes.

Keep It Covered

I’ve seen it at last.  The cover concept for my book.  I’ve been manicly checking the Rowman and Littlefield (parent company of Lexington/Fortress Academic—a roadmap would be useful) webpage to see what it might look like.  I’ve “seen a sighting” at last.  Nightmares with the Bible seems to be actually happening.  As a writer there’s always some doubt involved with your book.  You wonder, will it really come out?  Will someone pull the plug at the last minute?  Is any of this real at all?  Those kinds of things.  I’ve mentioned before that waiting is a very large part of the process.  Publishing is a slow business and the world changes so fast.  I sincerely hope it doesn’t ever leave books behind.

My waiting hasn’t been idle, of course.  My next nonfiction book is well underway but I’m focusing on fiction at the moment.  I had two short stories published within the last month and I’m inclined to follow where some success shows itself.  Besides, fiction and nonfiction aren’t as far apart as is often claimed.  Seeing the cover of the book, however, nudges me back towards nonfiction a bit.  Since I’m no longer an academic it’s a toss-up.  A few colleagues like what I’m doing, but my fiction work is secret.  So the process continues, waffling back and forth.  It’s all in service of learning how the publishing industry works.  That’s one of the many things they don’t teach you in graduate school.

It’s October and I should be thinking about monsters.  Although I’ve gone through my closet of DVDs, there are many that bear watching again.  If only I could fabricate time!  One of the things I’ve noticed about this pandemic—and I know it’s not just me—is that time seems to have been swallowed up.  A simple walk down the local biking trail now requires masking up before and washing hands after.  Less than a minute of time, for sure, but it adds up.  And if you go after work there’s not enough light left to paint the porch by when you get back.  Such are the contradictions of this wonderful season.  You really can’t pin anything down.  The colorful trees put you into rapture then they’re bare.  The bright blue sky looms under relentless clouds.  You throw off your jacket one day and it snows the next.  And there might just be monsters lurking out there.  One of them, it’s said, will be released in November.  Given the nature of this season we’ll just have to wait and see.

October Reflections

The people are dressed in their finest.  The best food and drink available are spread on white tablecloths while rats scurry underfoot.  The feasters invite Lucy to join them.  “It’s the last supper,” they say, hoisting a glass, knowing that they will soon die of the plague.  This is one of the most powerful scenes in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre.  It’s October and we’re in the midst of a plague.  The wealthy retain their fortunes while the poor die in the streets.  Do I really need to explain why someone so focused on religion and social justice finds horror films as able conversation partners?  My two books that relate to the topics don’t come outright and say it, but there are spiritual lessons to be learned here.

Genre is a convenient, perhaps even necessary, means of making sense of the vast creative output of humankind.  We write fiction, poems, and songs.  We film movies.  We produce these forms of entertainment at a stunning rate, especially when we consider the large number of pieces made that never find official publication.  Genre helps us sort through—this is like that, etc.  Still, some of my favorite pieces of literature, and movies, don’t really fit into neat genre divisions.  Take Herzog’s Nosferatu.  There are definitely horror elements here, but it is also an art film.  Some scenes, like that described above, are suffused with religious meaning.  When circumstances align correctly we can see it and say, “ah, now I understand.”  That was what came to me recently.  I haven’t seen the movie for years, but circumstances with Covid-19 brought it to mind.

October is a month of poetry and transitions.  We turned the furnace on only to find ourselves in the midst of a string of days reaching near 70.  The cerulean sky which looks so different this time of year suddenly disappeared with nearly a week of heavy cloud cover.  There’s beauty in the daytime and monsters in the night.  Outside lurks a plague.  Lacking the willpower to overcome it, people are growing weary of the restrictions.  We’re not used to being locked up.  The thing about the last supper is that life goes on even after it’s over.  Changed, yes, but October is all about change.  We’re anxious, wondering if it was indeed a vampire that bit us.  Meanwhile the leaves continue their journey from green to yellow, orange, and red, their litter becoming the food for next year’s growth.  Yes, there are spiritual lessons here.

Moral Imperative

It was a walk up a long, steep hill, but it was worth it.  Last Saturday my wife and I voted.  It had the feeling of accomplishment.  The long, steep hill was also a symbol.  Wearing masks, sucking breath in through fabric in the single nation hardest hit—this great rudderless ship—we went to say “enough.”  The clearest indication of evil in the present administration (and here we’re starved for choices) is the open attempt to sabotage voting.  Some GOPers are placing fake ballot boxes in public locations while the pretender-in-chief has encouraged his followers to vote twice and has tried to prevent his “fellow Americans” from having their legitimate say.  Sometimes you have to climb a high hill, but the view from the top may just be worth all that effort.

We are a suffering nation.  Not only have we become divided, that division has been stirred, and prodded, and poked by a man who knows the only way to win is to divide and conquer.  Untie what used to be the United States for personal aggrandizement.  Voting is more than a right, it’s an absolute duty.  All who do it are patriots.  In this we can be united.  Perhaps a bit winded, stop to take a look at the trees on the hills showing their true colors.  We woke up stuck in a nightmare four years ago.  We’ve lost four years of our lives.  We’ve climbed so many hills and sunk into dark, deep valleys.  Does that flag look a little tattered to you?

Back in high school we all wondered how autocrats like Hitler and Mussolini came to power.  We’ve watched it happen in a nation that was the avowed enemy of fascism within living memory.  And for what?  The right to wear red baseball caps that claim our nation wasn’t great to begin with?  Great is not the same as perfect, to be sure.  We were producing the technology (that is by definition “progressive”) that the world craved.  We were ensuring the rights of all people.  We were cleaning the environment.  What within all of this isn’t great?  How has it become better in these four misspent years of worry and weariness, bringing us to the brink of nuclear war without a thought of the incredible effort it took to build all of this.  Or the effort it took to walk up this long, steep hill.

Ode to Bookstores

The pandemic has changed everything.  You knew that, of course.  Like many people in fields of regular job uncertainty, we’ve curtailed spending as much as we can.  Never very securely established after Nashotah House, we’ve managed to get by by not thinking too far ahead.  I can’t imagine retirement (if there’s still a job left to report to).  Even more, I can’t imagine a life without books.  The only way I get through each day is by trying not to think about it.  Still, I miss bookstores.  Pre-pandemic, when jobs at least felt somewhat secure, we’d often nip into one of the many local independents of a weekend.  Missing browsing shelves sorely, we stopped into Book and Puppet over in Easton, when on a trip to buy produce at the outdoor farmer’s market.

It felt strange, the thought of going into a store that wasn’t dedicated to groceries or hardware.  Masked, of course, but would there be lots of people there, crowding the air with germs?  No.  There was maybe one other customer in the place.  I have to admit that I was a bit disoriented, trying to read over spines on a shelf, not wanting to touch anything.  I’ve tried hard to curb any spending during these highly uncertain times, but could I imagine a world with no bookstores?  Would I even want to?  Books, you see, give me hope.  My vision of heaven is October and a never-ending stack of books (and, of course, friends).  Books allow for escape and exploration.  Life will continue after the pandemic in books.

The fear has gripped many of us, I suspect.  I’m old enough to retire, but not well-off enough to do so.  Our house requires a two-person income at our level (highly educated, under-employed), and the pandemic rolls on.  I think of the Black Death—I’ve read about that too—and how history changed because of it.  In this pandemic we’re dying (all but the wealthiest) piece by piece.  The most vulnerable first, of course, but the middle class may well be in the sights.  The owner of the bookstore said he wasn’t sure how long he could hold out.  Just last year at this time I was participating in the Easton Book Festival that he’d organized.  I had a book-signing at the nearby Moravian Bookshop.  I can’t remember a time I felt so hopeful, knowing I had another book coming out, and if we survive long enough, another after that.  I really shouldn’t, but I’m in a bookstore.  I’ll buy one in hope that the future may just offer a place to keep it.

The End of Snow Days

It’s a chilling thought.  An article in the New York Times said it, but we were all thinking it.  Snow days may well have become another victim of Covid-19.  No, it’s not snowing yet (but give climate change a chance!), but New York City schools have figured out that if students can learn from home then one of the truly treasured memories of our youth may no longer be necessary.  In fact, snow days ended for me when I began working remotely.  My supervisor had suggested, even before that, that I take my company laptop home daily, in case of inclement weather.  The idea of awaking, wonder-eyed, at the world covered in white—that cozy feeling of knowing you had no obligations for the day but to enjoy the pristine world out your window—is a thing of the past.

Technology has changed our lives, and some of it is even for the better.  It hasn’t made work easier for some of us, but has made it longer.  We used to talk about kids and their continuous partial attention, but now work is always at home with you and that time signature on your email says something about your work habits.  As the days are now shorter than the nights, as they will be for six more months, finding the time to do what you must outdoors (it may be cooler, but lawns still insist on growing) is always a bit more of a challenge.  And when the snow does fall you’ll still have to shovel the walk.  All time has become company time for a truly linked-in world.

The real victim here, it seems to me, is childhood.  Snow days were a reminder that no matter how strict, how Calvinistic our administrators wanted to be, the weather could still give us a smile now and then.  A legitimate excuse not to have to go to school and, if parents couldn’t get you to daycare, a day off for everyone.  The strict number of limited holidays allotted by HR had limited power in those days.  Although we all know that well-rested, happy workers tend to do better jobs than those who are constantly stressed out and who have trouble sleeping, we’ve now got the means to make the sameness of pandemic life the ennui of everyday life, in saecula saeculorum.  Thanks, internet.  At least now we work where we have a window and can look out on nature and can see what we’re missing.

Hot Breakfast

Cooking in a pre-dawn kitchen has a certain appeal as the weather cools.  Knowing that something with warmth will set you right before the nighttime cold forces the furnace on for the next six-to-nine months.  After a recent tooth extraction I was told to keep on a soft diet until the wound healed.  A fan of crispy breakfast cereals, I faced a new dilemma—what to eat before work?  Being vegan means bacon and eggs won’t do (there is passable vegan bacon available, but so far the plant-based eggs haven’t managed not to taste like mung beans).  On a recent frenzy of nostalgia I had purchased a box of (now mostly empty) farina.  Often known by its commercial name “Cream of Wheat,” farina is more like flour and milk (many vegan options available) but with a better texture than paste.  It reminded me of childhood Saturdays.  Then the box was empty and grocery day was the better part of a week away.

Grits seemed a little more challenging.  The particle size is larger and might cause problems in the healing wound.  Still, I gave it a try.  Since my father was from South Carolina I grew up eating things like grits and black-eyed peas.  This makes for a hearty breakfast as long as you keep the grits on the other side of your mouth.  When the black-eyed peas were gone, I turned to oatmeal.  Bigger pieces yet, but still soft.  Oatmeal works best with some kind of sweet accompaniment.  Brown sugar and cinnamon is a standard. Sweets bother my teeth, however, so I need to be careful there.

The problem with all of these options is that one serving of these hot cereals was too little to keep me going.  I wake early and eat breakfast early, so I need about six hours of energy from this meal.  Two servings are too much.  Ratios are beyond me.  So I turn to my religious roots.  Whenever I think of breakfast I’m reminded that our cereal-eating culture (hot or cold) was largely influenced by Seventh-Day Adventist sensibilities.  Adventists are vegetarians, and some prominent among them by the name of Kellogg launched massive, religiously motivated campaigns to have the day begin with grains, back in the day.  It stuck.  I suspect Kellogg was good with numbers.  I wish I could figure out how third-cups and quarter-cups relate to one another.  Like most things in life, it’s falling midway between that is difficult.  It’s chilly in here and I too hungry to do math.  At least the religion part I partially understand.

Electricity

After the oven incident (see last Monday’s post), I took some time to examine the burned out bake element from the range.  Clearly a break in the piece led to some arcing like you might get in Frankenstein’s laboratory.  By the time I’d arrived on the scene (I always seem to be behind my time), the fire was snaking along the element itself and now that the piece is cooled and removed I was fascinated by the damage it caused.  I suspect this is why I leave any electrical repairs to experts.  This is dangerous stuff.  Interestingly, in the realm of monsters electricity is most frequently associated (in my mind, anyway) with Frankenstein’s creature.  Mary Shelley’s novel isn’t explicit about how galvanism resurrected the patchwork human, but it was clearly part of the tale.

Electricity retains a certain element of mystery for some of us.  If we stop and reflect on how recent our understanding and harnessing of it is, that further adds to the drama.  People have been thinking about and trying to understand religion for thousands of years.  Like early electricity, religion involves invisible forces.  Of course, lightning and sparks and arcing oven elements can be seen, but seeing isn’t the same as comprehending.  We are a curious species and we want to understand.  Being inside the situation, however, our understanding will never be complete.  We can get a pretty good grasp, a functional one even, but our brains will always limit just how much we can understand.

It should come as no surprise that those of us who chose to study religion are intrigued by mysteries.  The divine, the transcendent—no matter what you want to call it—can never be fully understood.  Thus the impatience with evangelicals and others who pretend they’ve got all the answers.  No, we’re all still attempting to get to the bottom (or top) of this mystery.  Like electricity, religion can do an enormous amount of damage.  Motivating those who have only a cursory understanding how it works has historically led to debacle after debacle.  It has generated wars and perpetuated human misery.  Like electricity, when used properly religion has done a tremendous amount of good in the world as well.  The thing is, as my bake element shows, we have all come to learn that electricity should be handled by those who know what they’re doing.  Ironically, religion has never gathered the same level of respect for the specialists.

The Good of Others

On a recent trip to visit family in upstate New York, the Sunday we had to leave (for work Monday is an implacable law), we decided to have lunch in a local park.  The weather was fine and there was plenty of social distancing, given the size of the grounds.  After a nice picnic and stroll, we realized it was getting late to start out in order to get home by my oddly early retiring time.  We headed back to our hosts’ car only to find it wouldn’t start.  They had a new battery and so we popped the hood and hoped to find something obviously wrong as we waited for the long response time for AAA in a rural area on a weekend.  We were a little concerned because we still had a long drive and no real way to get back to our own car, parked at our hosts’ residence.  A stranger came up and asked if we were having trouble.  Listening to the symptoms he said, “Do you mind?”  Putting his head under the hood, he said, “I’m a mechanic.”  He had our host try again and the car started right up.  He refused to take payment and wouldn’t even give his name.

Despite the fear the Republican Party tries so hard to spread, it has been my experience that good Samaritans abound.  When I’ve had car trouble far from home, I’ve never waited long beside the road before a stranger has stopped and asked if they could help.  Technology may make us feel more self-sufficient (we have smartphones and can call for our own help), but it doesn’t always work that way.  My wife had accidentally left her phone at our hosts’ place, and I’d forgotten to charge mine so the battery was depleted.  Uber would require an active, charged phone and our hosts were using theirs to communicate with AAA.  If the stranger hadn’t stopped by we would’ve been stuck, likely for hours.

I oftenconsider how Calvinistic GOP thinking can be—assuming the “total depravity” of everyone and declaring that we must be kept in check by laws that maintain outdated concepts of both humanity and justice.  To be sure, there are dangerous individuals out there.  Would you want Trump to stop by if you were having car trouble?  What selfless behavior could you expect from that quarter?  Sucker!  In general, however, people are good.  They are motivated by what they think is right.  We’re in a pandemic.  The mechanic didn’t know us (we outnumbered him), he had no obligation to help.  Good Samaritans exist, and they are frequently found outside the yellowed leaves of Scripture.

Balthasar van Cortbemde – The Good Samaritan, via Wikimedia Commons

No Way Out

Racism is evil.  The grading of the shading of humans degrades us all.  Robin DiAngelo knows much about the subject and as we watch Trump rally the openly racist, she gives us all pause for thought.  Our entire culture is one of white supremacy.  Progressives, determined to combat it, are also part of it.  White Fragility is not an easy book to read.  It allows no escape for anyone “white” to use.  We must confront our racist culture and admit that we benefit from it.  When we try to explain that we’re misunderstood, she anticipates.  She has heard it all before.  The only thing we can do is confess, interrupt, and try to break down the system that continues to support the systemic evil we’ve embraced.

One thought occurred to me as I was reading.  No doubt DiAngelo would suggest I’m deflecting, and it may be that I am, but those of us who struggle with a perpetually low self-image, even if “white,” may not participate in feeling superior to anyone.  There are individuals whose natural assumption is the superiority of others.  I’ve experienced it time and again in my professional and personal life.  I assume the other is more adept and worthy than me.  In such circumstances a bit more carrot and less stick might’ve been helpful.  I know many both at work and more voluntary activities, for whom a word of encouragement is rare.  For those of us who assume the superiority of others, such encouragement goes far.

Even as I was thinking this I saw a post on Nextdoor.com.  The app, intended to help you find contractors or dentists or whatever, receives many posts on all kinds of topics from identifying animal droppings to alerts regarding crime.  The post to which I refer was from a security camera showing a “prowler.”  The young man seemed more to be walking than prowling to me.  His skin tone and the time of night led to a string of assumptions built on assumptions.  Since I’m often awake just an hour after the alleged “prowling” took place, I knew that were I caught on a security camera I’d merely be considered an insomniac.  Add some melanin and some racism and suddenly a walker is a prowler.  The words I was reading in White Fragility hit me with incredible force.  We have a massive amount of work to do.  “White” people have to own their history.  Own it and overcome it.

Back to Tarrytown

The very name “Hollow” takes me there.  It’s a resonant geonym.  Near Franklin, Pennsylvania, my early hometown, runs a route called Deep Hollow Road.  For me, with its lush, thick trees and shadowed valley, it always exemplified what the term “Hollow” intended.  And of course, there was Sleepy Hollow.  Now that my article on various movies based on the Irving story has appeared in Horror Homeroom (it’s free), I’m again thinking about my dance with that particular story.  In fact, after I submitted the article I watched yet another version of the tale, Pierre Gang’s 1999 The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  This film on Sci Fi (before it became SyFy) purports to follow the original closely.  It nevertheless has to pad out the story and does so with religion.

Religion—specifically the Bible—and the tale as represented in Fox’s four-season series Sleepy Hollow is what started me on the current leg of my journey.  I sent an article to the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture on the topic and when it was accepted I expanded the idea into the book Holy Horror.  So it is that I’ve tried to watch as many versions of the story as I can.  There have been many made-for-television renditions.  Some are available for free on the various services that draw from my pocket monthly.  Others cause me to debate whether I want to pay for seeing a sub-par effort for the sake of completeness.  The scholar’s heart still beats within me, I guess.  The Gang version expands the story with a church scene, not in the original tale.  To inculcate the Bible, however, Tim Burton’s film of the same year was necessary.

For me no story better encapsulates October.  Perhaps it’s the crucial role of the pumpkin.  Perhaps it’s the ambiguity of the headless horseman himself—is he a hoax or something more?  These kinds of questions are answered by various filmmakers but since the viewer ultimately decides the question is left up to us.  If I were still an academic my next book project would be clear.  Instead I’m trying to bask in the wonder that is October—the season of transition from bright blue skies and colorful leaves to long, chill nights and bare trees.  Our time outdoors becomes more focused so that we might get back to the warmth inside.  And if we’re looking for a tale to read that’s not really that scary, but which captures the ghosts of the American imagination, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” beckons.

Hypersensitivity

Tell people you’re hypersensitive and the first thing they’ll say is “I’m sorry.”  The way I use the term is, however, somewhat literal.  Some of us experience sensory input in especially intensive ways.  Psychologists say that those of us who do often stop and assess in new situations.  We can become overstimulated and sometimes “shut down” if too much is going on.  It doesn’t mean I’m going to burst into tears if you insult my haircut.  (It’s homemade, we’re in a pandemic, after all.)  The reason I bring hypersensitivity up at this point is two-fold.  The first fold has to do with the fact that I no longer get out much, which means much of the “ordinary” now seems new.  The second fold is that I wonder if hypersensitivity had a role in leading medieval people into monasteries and convents.

Back to point one.  If sensory stimuli can overwhelm one, going back into TMI territory can be almost traumatic.  I commuted into New York City for about seven years.  Manhattan is difficult for a hypersensitive person to take.  Over time I became accustomed to it, and familiar environments are more easily navigated.  The pandemic, however, has me spending about nine or ten hours a day in the same small room at home.  Actually, working remotely had already done that, but I used to get out on weekends.  We recently took a safe weekend trip, stopping only at places with few people and staying with family.  Less than 24-hours out from home I realized I was feeling overwhelmed.  Too much interaction.  We had stopped at a town I’d never visited before.  The trees were spectacular.  I soon regained my bearings, because no matter how late I stay up, I still awake early to write.

This leads to the second point.  I suspect things moved much more slowly in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, but I can see why certain individuals might like to cloister themselves.  While I disagreed with the theology, I taught for fourteen years at Nashotah House, a cloistered seminary.  You saw the same people day in and day out.  The campus was suspicious about this thing called “the internet” for quite a long time.  You ordered books through the mail and waited a month or more for it to arrive.  In some ways this was a comfortable existence.  Of course, it blocked me from much of what was happening in the wider world.  The pandemic has, in some measure, brought me back to that space.  I wonder if, historically, they might be connected.  But right now it’s time to get to my ten-hour room and work.

Gothic Tales

Each year when autumn worms its way into my consciousness, I begin looking for the ideal gothic book.  I can test this by looking at the Goodreads lists of best gothic novels and noting how many of them I’ve already read. The thing now, since I’ve already covered much of the canon, is to discover modern writers who can still evoke that feeling I seek.  This is all complicated by the subjective nature of what readers term “gothic.”  Many of the books on the lists don’t fit my own working connotation, so I keep looking.  One recommended title was Jennifer Giebrecht’s debut novel The Monster of Elendhaven.  I’m still trying to decide whether it is gothic or not.

It’s a little hard to classify, actually.  It certainly has some gothic elements, as well as some horror.  There are secrets and plagues and gruesome murders.  There is a monster from a polluted sea, but not quite your grandfather’s monster.  A human monster.  Or at least partially.  The tale is written with some tongue in some cheek.  There are funny elements and there are many serious moments.  There’s magic and mayhem.  If I were to try to characterize it the closest I might come would be a Tim Burton treatment of horror.  Like Burton, Giesbrecht creates a Halloween mood, but sometimes the humor undercuts it.  This makes it difficult to pin down the work as a whole and figure out if this is the gothic I’ve been seeking.

Set in a time difficult to define and in a fictional nation, it is the kind of novel that can be read without much consequence.  The references to the Allfather make comparison with Nordic regions natural, and there is perhaps a touch of Beowulf here.  In crafting the monster Giesbrecht has made a pretty unlikeable character.  He is a monster, after all.  But not a sympathetic one.  As in other modern treatments he is a stand-in for chaos.  There’s also an environmental sensitivity here.  The monster arises from a polluted sea that derives from, of all things, human greed.  So maybe there’s a parable here.  A short book, it doesn’t take too much of a time investment, but it may leave you wondering what exactly it is that you just read.  It is dark, and gritty, and fun.  A nice combination for an October night.  Is it gothic?  That one’s a little harder to answer.  It depends on how I’m defining it on any particular day.