Devils and Witches

If you’re a regular reader (thank you!) you know that I’m currently under contract to write the Devil’s Advocates series volume on The Wicker Man.  As an editor myself I’m aware that academic series, often unlike fictional series books, tend to vary quite a bit from one another.  I want to try to get my submission close to the goal, however, so I’ve been reading volumes by other authors.  You may also know that The Wicker Man is part of an “unholy trinity” of early British folk-horror, with the other films being Witchfinder General and The Blood on Satan’s Claw.  Of the three my least favorite is Witchfinder General, so I’ve put off reading the particular volume on that film by Ian Cooper.  That has nothing to say about the author, but rather a lot to say about the base film.

The book is quite good.  Cooper is clearly aware of the controversy surrounding the movie and he points out some of the difficulties with it as well as what it does well.  His treatment is quite insightful.  The movie is violent and it’s an representation of the historical violence we thought we outgrew.  Matthew Hopkins was an historical “witch hunter” who was, in reality a serial killer,  mostly of women.  Fearing witches, while getting paid to find them, he was responsible for over 200 deaths.  As Cooper makes clear, the film lingers a bit too long on the abject nature of many of the tortures, not allowing us to look away.  For this reason many critics found the film distasteful.  I personally found it hard to watch.  Education isn’t always easy.

There’s quite a bit of film history in the book.  Cooper does a great job placing the movie in its cinematic context.  Like The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General is sometimes said not to be a horror film.  Indeed, there’s nothing supernatural about it.  Still, it fits the bill for many of those in-between movies that cross over into horror.  In this case it’s due to the violence.  For me, monsters are preferable to human monstrosity.  They’re easier to walk away from.  Although the witch hunts ended centuries ago, violence against women has remained.  Whether it’s legislative or physical or economic, women deserve better treatment than they’re offered by the male establishment.  Movies, and books about movies, like this one may be difficult to watch/read, but they carry important reminders that power continues to corrupt and it must be challenged and changed when it reverts to the mentality of Matthew Hopkins.  His spiritual kin, unfortunately, continue to thrive. 


Standard Maintenance

Something disturbing happened the other day.  My laptop started requiring constant plugging in.  I figured the battery was starting to go—it is several years old now.  Since time is the ultimate commodity in short supply, I made a weekend appointment with a genius at the local Apple store, which really isn’t that local.  I drove out on a rainy Saturday afternoon to get the battery replaced.  That’s not the disturbing part.  Neither is the fact that so many people were flocking around in an Apple store without wearing masks (although that does count as disturbing in it’s own right).  As I sat there watching the giant projection of devices I should consider buying, my daughter mentioned to me how like a dystopia it was: being subjected to advertising aimed at purchasing something you’re in to have repaired.  That wasn’t really the disturbing part, either.

No, what was disturbing occurred when our genius told me I would need to leave my laptop there for three-to-five days for it to be repaired.  I use my laptop daily and extensively each day.  I have no spare and I post daily on this blog.  (Those times when a post doesn’t appear it’s because I think I’ve hit the “publish” button but I haven’t.  That happened to me again recently and I only discovered days later that WordPress was listing it as a draft.  Sure enough, I’d gotten so busy I’d not click “publish”—which happens, ironically, mostly on weekends.)  I was hit with panic.  Could I live for three days, up to a week, without my laptop?  No email.  No blog.  No ubiquitous Zoom meetings outside of work?

Even before the pandemic the internet had become my lifeline to the larger world.  And the thing is I’m sending my thoughts out like a Pioneer probe to that outer space of the web, not sure if anyone will intersect with it and understand the gold-plated plaque within.  At least I hope it’s gold-plated.  I’ve been blogging here since 2009, at least one laptop ago (or perhaps two).  I’ve posted over 4,500 times.  What would happen if the earth went through the tail of a comet and wiped out all this electronic data?  Would there be anything left at all?  That’s the part I found disturbing.  My ambivalence about technology doesn’t mean I’m not addicted to it.  I was spared an immediate crisis since the genius at the bar told me the battery (being such an old model) was out of stock and would take a few days to arrive.  Meanwhile I could continue to live in my virtual world as normal.


Remarkable and Beautiful

Last year I read and commented on Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing.  I knew there’d be a sequel, but it took some time for it to come out in paperback, and it took a day of flying to give me dedicated time to finishing it.  A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor picks up where the first novel left off, bringing April May back to life.  It’s a story about good and evil and how humans, as flawed as we are, are nevertheless worth saving.  This story takes a further sci-fi and dystopian turn than the first part, moving it more into the regular novel than the “new adult” that seems to better fit the initial book.  Really only six months have passed since the first story, but the still young protagonists have aged in the way experience doles out to people who think they understand the world better than they do.

The world of A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor is dystopian in the sense that corporations have too much power and can (and do) drive the direction of human development.  It’s clearly a novel written after a couple years of repressive Trump rule where autocrats will do anything to keep in the public eye, even destroy their own world.  It becomes Manichaean, or maybe even Zoroastrian in that the extraterrestrial entity Carl, who was the subject of the first novel, reveals that he has an evil “brother” that encourages the corporations in their efforts to rule the world.  The goal of this evil intelligence is to get humanity to destroy itself as a failed experiment.  There’s plenty of metaphor here since the way to get people to destroy themselves is through virtual reality.

As someone who finds quotidian reality difficult enough, I have no desire to see how well some technocrats can imitate what nature already does so well.  Stepping outside with a cold November wind blowing down my collar, threatening snow and driving me back indoors I know I’m in a world not custom built for our comfort.  I am one of billions of scurrying, resistant, persistent creatures doing my best to survive.  I’m sure that virtual reality is an amazing experience, but so is stepping out into that November wind.  Hank Green is gifted at writing compelling, conflicted characters.  From his own internet platform he’s become a significant influencer, gathering the interest of even the White House.  His two novels form a thoughtful set that, like the books of his brother John, make us stop and think what it is to be human.


Abominable and Biblical

In many ways Holy Horror was an initial volume.  The Bible  is fairly prevalent in horror, and had the book done any better I might’ve considered a sequel.  Take The Abominable Dr. Phibes.  I’d literally never heard of it until I saw on a website listing states’ favorite horror films that it was number one in Pennsylvania.  At that point I decided I would have to see it one day.  That day came and I later found out that quite a few critics hold it in high regard.  It is very campy, almost worthy of the live action Batman series with which I grew up.  Phibes is out for revenge and kills his victims (more on this shortly) with vampire bats and acid.  It may have been the first movie I’ve seen with death by brussels sprouts and locusts.  None of this makes it fit Holy Horror’s premise, however.

Phibes is a serial killer using the Bible as his road map.  About halfway through the film we learn Dr. Phibes’ doctorate is in theology.  He is using the ten biblical plagues to kill his victims.  The police consult a rabbi to learn about the plagues but even here the Bible’s misquoted.  Interestingly for this period, the inspector refers to the plagues as a myth.  The first plague shown is of bats.  There is also a plague of rats.  Neither of which occur in the Good Book.  The Bible’s a fairly easy tome to find, but it takes quite a bit of ingenuity, I guess, to murder by gnats or the death of cattle (which doesn’t prevent The Reaping from trying).  Plot holes are large enough to drive a chariot through, but the Bible clearly has a starring role in the narrative.  And Vincent Price is able to pull it off because he’s, well, Vincent Price.

Drawing some inspiration from The Phantom of the Opera, and featuring a scene set in Highgate Cemetery, this movie has its fingers all over the place.  I do have to wonder why so many people in Pennsylvania picked this as their favorite horror film.  I grew up in the state watching horror, much of it camp, and much of it worse, but never heard a thing about this.  It’s not really scary.  Perhaps it appeals to those who think they know the Bible but really don’t.  Of course, having amulets inscribed with Hebrew letters to symbolize the plagues is classy.  I doubt The Abominable Dr. Phibes will give anyone nightmares, but it could stand a bit of analysis in its use of the Good Book.


Not Shopping

Santa Claus arrived at the end of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade yesterday.  I actually began seeing Christmas paraphernalia in stores before Halloween.  It feels like we could really use Christmas this year.  We all thought 2020 was a difficult year and 2021 hasn’t been much easier.  The capitalist response—so shallow, but it’s all we’re left with—is to shop to make yourself feel better.  Sometimes it’s the simple things: time off work, time with family, time for reading, time itself.  Time heals most things.  People, however, aren’t the most patient of creatures.  Our desires seem so urgent and cash or credit seems to offer a way of achieving them.  Black Friday is entirely from the business perspective.  A day off work to get people out and spending.  Outspending.

Black Friday has traditionally been one of my favorite days for staying home, reading and writing.  Indeed, Thanksgiving is the only annual four-day weekend most of us are given.  I haven’t used this day for shopping.  Crowds are about and so is an insidious virus that we can’t seem to contain.  It feels more comfy and secure to stay in my drafty house and use the time to recover from the capitalism that dominates the rest of my days.  A day to not shop.  A day to think.  The idea of having quiet holidays to ground oneself seems like a progressive idea.  We all find our own ways of centering, even if we don’t call it that.  For some I suppose that’s shopping, but that’s just not me.

This year I’m spending the day with extended family in Iowa.  I flew out on the busiest travel day of the year to ground myself in the heartland.  It’s a day I need not work and I need not shop.  I find my meaning elsewhere this Black Friday.  The term began with a negative connotation, referring to workers in the early fifties calling in sick that day in order to get a four-day weekend.  It was also used in the next decade to describe the traffic congestion as people went out to start their shopping.  It was really only in the eighties that the term took on its current meaning of a day when retailers go into the black by earning profits from the influx of cash the day brings.  Santa had come the previous day and wallets were open and those with the day off work wanted to spend it spending.  I’m here in Iowa, glad to be avoiding the stores and the contagion, and enjoying the quiet of not having to clock in.


Flight Path

It’s been some time since I was on a plane.  Or in a hotel.  These things seem strange and foreign to me now.  Covid-19 is now a fixture in life and we, as humans typically do, have adjusted.  Of course I was flying for Thanksgiving on the busiest travel day of the year.  Seeing all those people standing in line at 4:30 a.m. at the airport made my lifestyle seem a little less weird.  I’m used to being up at this time.  They did have to de-ice the plane at Lehigh Valley International Airport.  I’ve never been on a plane that was taking a shower before.  I also didn’t touch anything but my book.  And it seemed that those who “don’t believe in” masking weren’t making a fuss because you can’t win an argument with the FAA. I’m thankful for that.

I’d almost forgotten how to fly.  On the first leg of the journey I was the only one whose “hand-held device” was made of paper.  Connecting out of O’Hare, however, quite a few more books made an appearance.  I sit in front of a device all day at work, so on a rare day off I don’t really want to have to stare at a screen.  Although the total air time was under four hours I brought seven books in my personal item.  I finished one of them (the longest) on the trip.  I still have plenty of choices for the flight home on the weekend.  Thanksgiving, even more than Christmas, is the time for family gatherings.  We’re all vaccinated on this side, so it feels mostly safe.

This Thanksgiving I’m thankful that no turkeys were harmed on my account.  If you knew how “thanksgiving turkeys” are raised it’d put you off your feed, as the saying goes.  I’m also thankful that travel is possible, even if with added restrictions.  Frankly, I’m glad for them.  Anti-vaxxers don’t seem to realize that it’s not just themselves they’d be protecting, but others as well.  Vaccines and masks aren’t just about selfish desires.  Last year we couldn’t even consider traveling.  Covid-19 has changed the way we do things, perhaps permanently.  We can be thankful that we learn to adjust.  I’m no fan of crowds, but there was something a bit exhilarating about being among other goal-oriented individuals all focused on being with loved ones.  It gives me renewed faith in humanity, and that is something for which to be thankful.


Celts and Gods

We’re accustomed to religions being written out.  Indeed, many world religions have sacred texts from the Avestas to Dianetics.  Some ancient cultures, however, didn’t have written traditions and when they disappeared, as all cultures eventually do, their religion became nearly impossible to understand, or reconstruct.  Miranda Green has tried to provide, in written form, a summation of her understanding of The Gods of the Celts.  Celtic mythology, interestingly, had long ago caught the attention of New Religious Movements, as well as the New Age movement.  Much of the Wiccan calendar is based on Celtic religion and many New Age practices trace their roots to the ideas of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales lost to the mists of time.  What we actually do know about these cultures is about as fascinating as what’s been reconstructed.

Green’s study shows us a religion that grew out of profound respect for nature as well as human prowess at fighting.  (The “fighting Irish,” indeed may touch on an historical pulse.)  Celtic gods reflected a large swath of thinking throughout western, and parts of eastern, Europe.  Their names may be less familiar to us, and some may well have been lost to the vicissitudes of time, but there was a vibrant devotion to them that went as far as human sacrifice.  We know that it occurred, but it probably wasn’t frequent.  Although polytheistic, Celts were moral in their own understanding of their world.  Morals tend to come from human understanding of their place in a world they didn’t create.  How do you live in somebody else’s property?

Unlike the more literate Greeks, or even the Semitic religions on which they drew for their stories, we have no narrative Celtic mythology.  We have fragments and glimpses.  Nobody had a recorder while sitting around the fire, recounting the activities of the gods.  Later, sources such as the Mabinogion were written down, which surely held some memories of such fireside tales.  The originals, however, we’ll probably never have.  Such is the way of conquered peoples.  What the Romans started the Christians finished.  We’re left with some deities, such as Brigit, made into saints, but their stories forgotten and not originally written down.  Our time looking back isn’t ill-spent.  It teaches us who we are and guides who we might become.  Our own violent politicians, threatening to murder those who are different, clearly have learned nothing from history, ancient or modern.


Learning to Like

The shout-out is an always appreciated gesture.  Among the guests on The Incarcerated Christian podcast, I’m pretty clearly the one with the smallest following.  That makes me doubly grateful to Robin and Debra for the work they’re doing.  If you want to get a sense of what their initial year involved, please take an unrushed moment or two and listen to their year-end reflection.  Better yet, follow them wherever you follow podcasts.  I’ve been watching some YouTube lately (I know, I know, the world has gone after TikTok instead) and I’ve come to realize that even those channels with millions of views have to remind people every single episode to click like, share, and/or notification.  Nobody knows it’s worth their time if readers/watchers don’t share!

One of the things about writing is that is craves readers.  There’s an almost Hebraic sense in which my writing is intended as a statement, whether or not it’s even read.  Ideas build up until they must be expressed.  You start to get to know other people by their words, written or spoken.  I sincerely wish I had more time to listen to podcasts.  I’m one of those people who can’t write with music or talking going on.  Nor can I work that way.  Those two activities make up the majority of my waking hours (perhaps I’m trying too hard, if there is such a thing).  Even the smallest Who, however, has his “Yop” to express.  In that case, however, he ended up saving the world.  I suspect many people have no idea what this blog’s about.  If you know, please tell me.  (There’s a comment section below.  Don’t forget to click like and share when you’re down there!)

The Incarcerated Christian has had everyone from evangelical pastors to obscure religionists such as yours truly on their podcasts.  People who aren’t afraid of the dark.  There’s an episode about the divine feminine.  There’s another by a blogger who used to follow my blog and comment on it in the early days until his own efforts took off.  And there are the hosts, Debra and Robin, whose stories are intriguing in their own right.  They approached me not knowing my own history with abusive religions—perhaps it comes through in my writing, or at least my choice of subjects?  There’s a strange comfort in knowing that others have had similar experiences.  Religion can be a monster, devouring people and spitting them out, all in the name of sanctity.  Listen to the Incarcerated Christian podcast, and don’t forget to like and share alike.


Erase This

Over the years I’ve read a fair bit about Eraserhead without having ever seen it.  Approaching it I had little idea what to expect—normally classified as body horror, there’s a fair amount of debate as to whether it should be considered horror or not.  Now that I’ve finally seen it, I’d probably call it existential horror.  There are no jump startles, and the quirkiness makes it almost funny at times.  To me it suggests the horror of finding oneself in a world where the most desirous things are also those that scare us the most.  If you’ve not seen the movie this may not make sense to you.  David Lynch, the writer and director (and producer), went on to find fame in more mainstream media, but Eraserhead made the National Film Registry’s preservation list, which says something about it.

Comparison is sometimes fittingly made to Kafka.  Life itself can be traumatic.  Body horror tends to focus on the abject aspects of being incarnated.  We associate intimately with our bodies, but they do things we don’t understand and which sometimes alarm us.  The absurdity of this situation wasn’t lost on the great existentialist writers of the last century.  Faced with these circumstances we carry on because it’s not clear what else to do.  So Henry Spenser doesn’t emote very much.  Life does weird things to you and sometimes just watching the strangeness unfold is the best option.  This level of vanity brings old Qohelet to mind, for even the Bible realizes that some things just can’t be explained.

In an interview on the film Lynch cites the “little torments” of those in the workaday life.  It’s difficult not to feel like a mere cog when your wage is premised upon the amount of time you spend on the clock.  Even for professionals.  The stark divide is like the industrial wasteland the film so ably portrays.  This isn’t where anybody wants to be—no, it’s where one finds oneself.  Comforts are few and the background noise is constant.  Although Eraserhead isn’t widely known among the general public, its influence on other filmmakers is clear.  I could help thinking “oh, this is where that idea comes from.”  Probably most strongly that related to Brazil, a film I saw twice in one week in the theater (something I’ve not done with any other movie).  Having worked within the system, following all the rules only to find they don’t really mean you’ll end up where you hope, the theater of the absurd has always felt natural to me.  I should’ve watched this sooner.


Rel Stud 101

There’s no such thing.  Religious studies, that is.  I first heard this a decade ago while working as religious studies editor for Routledge.  My supervisor stared at me with such knowing eyes that all I could do was nod.  I figured that since I’d spent my entire career in religious studies I’d probably know if it existed or not.  I’ve heard the statement a number of times since then and have come to realize that what it means is this: unlike other academic disciplines, religious studies has no single, central topic of study and no agreed upon methodology.  It consists of scholars trained in a variety of fields looking at different aspects of religion from different perspectives.  There’s even little agreement as to what religion is.

Religious studies is an outgrowth of biblical studies.  Studying the Bible was a long preoccupation with Jews and Christians.  Long before there were universities there were places you could study the Good Book in depth.  When enough time had passed history of Christianity and theology were added to the mix.  It was only fairly recently, about the late nineteenth century, that scholars of Christianity began to wonder about other religions.  The earliest religious studies were Christians studying other faiths.  Now, of course, religious studies exists in a number of universities and colleges (but by no means all of them) and nobody really stops to think how this came to be.  Students are very interested in religions, but as a major it offers few career options (yours truly is a case in point).  It’s a discipline under duress.  Pretty stressful for something that just doesn’t exist, isn’t it?

My suspicion is that many who entered this limbo started out as I did—a curious Christian wanting to know as much as possible about what I’d been taught.  You learn to think along the way, with somewhat predictable results.  Sometimes it takes years to dawn on you.  In other words, I doubt that many entered this field consciously thinking “I want to learn religious studies as a discipline.”  Like a pitcher plant, however, once you fly in there’s no way out.  Instead we have to find tools to study this strange and slippery environment into which we’ve fallen.  Otherwise we’ll simply be digested.  I made it through three degree programs in this field without ever encountering this idea that apparently has been long known.  Numbers are declining, which makes those of us in here how long our odyssey might continue.  If it even exists.


Mag Dash

I don’t do much magazine reading.  Back when I had more time (mainly before buying a house), there were a few with which I attempted to keep up.  Mainly, however, I’d buy a particular issue that I wanted to keep.  I suspect that’s because I’m a book reader and my time for pure reading is limited.  Strange thing for a professor/editor hybrid to write, but there you have it.  Each year I “pledge” a number of books to Goodreads to keep me honest, and achieving that goal adds a kind of friendly pressure on my reading time.  Magazines don’t count, and mostly I never read the whole thing.  My current book project is an analysis of the movie The Wicker Man.  This led to some magazine reading.

Horror movies, especially, have been traditionally treated as ephemera with little lasting cultural value.  Fan magazines, therefore, often provide most of the periodical treatment for some of these “B movies.”  The Wicker Man suffered legendary distribution problems and that may have been what prompted Cinefantastique to devote all its feature space to this particular movie back in 1977 (the movie came out four years earlier and was still struggling).  The article is a lengthy one, not quite to the extent of The Atlantic, but still several pages.  It was the origin of the much repeated epithet “the Citizen Kane of horror films.”  To read this I had to locate a copy of the magazine.  There was, fortunately, a seller in Beloit, Wisconsin who wasn’t extortionate (thank you!).  My experience in buying print materials from the seventies has often proven the opposite.

Occasionally someone glimpsing my books will cattily ask, “Have you read them all?”  No.  But then not all print matter is for reading all the way through.  Reference materials, for example, are consulted.  The way my mind works, I need to keep things around so I can find them again.  Studies have shown that retention for electronic media isn’t as reliable as it is for print.  That may change some day as we evolve more and more into extensions of our machines, but for now I use it to justify keeping books.  Since I can’t predict the future, I never know when some forgotten tome might come up again in a new project.  That has happened a few times already while working on my small book on The Wicker Man.  And that includes magazines with good articles.  This one is a keeper.


Global Swarming

It’s a veritable horror trope.  The swarm, that is.  We fear being overwhelmed by vast numbers of apparently innocuous insects or arachnids, although they are much smaller than us.  It’s their logistical superiority, and perhaps their utter disregard of personal space.  Summer at Nashotah House was the time of the earwigs.  They came out in such numbers that no room in the house was safe from them.  There was a horror element to pulling your toothbrush out of the holder only to find one hanging onto the place you were about to put your fingers.  Or opening the refrigerator to find that one had crawled into the butter.  Any time you picked something up you might find an earwig under it.  They would crawl up the walls and across the ceiling.  Other places on campus would be overrun with ladybugs or black flies.  It was in the woods, after all.

Most places we’ve lived since then have had their native bug that gets in, often in numbers.  Our current nemesis is the box elder bug.  Although harmless, it is a true bug in every sense of the word.  I’m Buddhist in my desire not to kill and there are too many to catch and take them back outside.  Fortunately they’re pretty localized—they like my study, probably because its southern exposure means it gets sunshine even into December.  We’ve had some cold days but November has been experiencing global warming and the box elder bugs, clueless, wander all over the place.  Most of them are near the end of their life and die after poking around for a few days.  Others are quite frisky.  Some remind me of horror movies from the fifties.

I have one of those desk set Stonehenge models.  I don’t have the space to set it up fully, and the die for the model was obviously done with poorly sculpted clay, so it takes some imagination to think the trilithons resemble those of the actual site.  When I noticed a box elder bug crawling over one, however, it took me back to Tarantula and other such films where the menace wasn’t just a little old bug, but a huge one.  Our monsters these days have shrunk, however, and fear comes in small packages.  Box elder bugs are harmless but annoying.  Of course, they’re still out this year because we’ve warmed the place up for them and even in November they, well, swarm.


Numbers Game

I once asked a movie expert—this must’ve been when I was regularly on a campus somewhere, but not Nashotah House—how many movies had been made.  He sighed and said “There’s no way to know that.”  What I was thinking at the time was the Motion Picture Association of America (now the Motion Picture Association) number that comes near the end of the credits.  I wondered how many of those there were.  Of course, the number keeps changing.  It doesn’t account for television movies or straight to video, although, I see it does now include Netflix.  In any case, I was really interested in the statistics.  I still am.  I may not be a math person, but big numbers are intriguing.

The more I read about movies, and I seem to be moving in that direction, the more I realize how nobody can be an expert on all of them.  Even those of us with decades of experience watching horror can’t keep up with that genre.  Many of the books I’ve read are by authors whose families don’t like horror, so they have to carve out time alone to see the films.  This is on top of their jobs, which for some, admittedly, is film analysis—perhaps they’re the lucky ones.  I selected many films to discuss in Holy Horror.  There’s no index of the Bible in films, as useful as such an index would be.  As I continue to watch, and sometimes rewatch, I keep finding more and more material.  At some point, however, you just have to say “what I have written, I have written.”  But how many movies actually engage the Good Book?  There may be a way to know that, but it will take a lifetime of research.

Speaking of large numbers, the stats for how many Bibles are sold each year is a phenomenon unto itself.  It seems inevitable that it would find several of the cracks in American culture and leak in like rain water.  At times it’s the antidote to horror, while at others it’s the dote itself.  Holy Horror was never intended to be comprehensive.  It limited itself in intentional ways.  As I was writing it my naive question kept coming back to me.  When I research a topic I like to read as much written on the topic that I possibly can.  Of course, I spend over eight hours a day for most of the year doing something else.  The number of days like that, I suspect, is frightfully large.


Next Books

The other day an older friend asked about my writing.  My answer was brief because it’s complicated.  Not because I do it from three to four a.m.  Not because many of my older friends don’t know what a blog is.  No, it was complicated because my next book is about a movie few Americans know, especially many of my friends.  I really don’t know many horror fans.  Academics, yes, but normal folk, no.  This is a little odd because statistically most adults like horror.  I feel I always need to explain why I bother writing such books.  (There is a reason and there’s even a book I’m working on to try to explain it.)  It’s easiest, in such circumstances, just to say “I’m keeping busy with it.”

The fact is the draft of my book on The Wicker Man is done.  It has been for a few weeks.  None of my published books are the same as their drafts initially were.  (This is the difference, say, between a dissertation and a first monograph.  Let those seeking advice take note.)  The draft follows the approved proposal pretty closely, but I now kind of do research backwards.  Or at least while the book is in process.  Unlike a professor with a library and sabbatical and summers off, I find my sources as I write.  My books, despite what might seem a narrow focus, range pretty widely.  My reading goes in directions not even I anticipated when I began.  Ideas lead to other ideas.  Soon there’s enough of them for an entirely new book.  So I’m reading my draft and reading other books and creating the Frankenstein monster that will be a codex.

Every time I reach that point where I say, “this will be the last book I need to read for this project,” only a matter of days later I find another.  And another.  Book writing involves both creativity and distillation.  It takes a lot of books read to make one book written.  All writers know that.  Some have trouble knowing when to cut off the research because, and this is a truth for all of life, there’s always one more.  The very month of my doctoral defense a new book on Asherah was published.  The external examiner brought it to my viva.  Obviously he knew that I couldn’t have read it by then (it had to be in German, of course).  It ended up on my bibliography.  So I plod along with my book already written, but not yet begun.  I said it was complicated.


Ghost Publishers

Ancient Near Eastern studies, where my academic work has the widest recognition, is still an area of fascination.  I have to hold myself back when I see a new book published in the area.  You see, I learned when I researched in this field that there is little academic opportunity in it.  As per usual, the public seems quite interested so academia is not.  A few practitioners, however, have been able to break through.  One of them is Irving Finkel, a curator at the British Museum.  He’s been writing popular books about ancient ideas and getting respectable press for doing so.  His most recent book (The First Ghosts), as described in an article in the Smithsonian, deals with the earliest depiction of a ghost.

Perhaps because of copyright complications, his book on the subject doesn’t seem to be widely available in the United States, despite having been published by a trade house.  It could be that the publishers don’t think anyone will be interested.  Hello?  Ghosts and Mesopotamia?  Haven’t you been paying attention?  This is part and parcel of the academic publishing world.  The editorial board has to decide which books see the light of day and which won’t.  And how to price them.  Is this primarily a library book or can it somehow claw over into the crossover market?  Academic publishers will casually add five or ten dollars to the price, assuming it won’t hurt sales.  Guess what?  It does.  As much as I’d like to read Finkel’s book, my interest doesn’t hover around the 60 dollar range.

When I first studied Hebrew I wanted to buy a textbook my professor mentioned, but it cost nearly $100 in the US.  This was back in the 1980s, so that really was steep.  When we moved to Scotland I discovered the same book was available there is paperback for a reasonable price, so I bought it.  That’s when I began to realize copyright laws direct the shape of scholarship.  Publishers decide what makes it into reputable book form and who will be able to afford it.  That’s power.  You see, people have believed in ghosts from as long as we could convey the idea.  The dead never really leave us.  Finkel’s book examines a clay tablet used to exorcise ghosts and may contain a line drawing of a spirit.  Who wouldn’t want to read such a book?  It’s getting press coverage but those who make such decisions have decided, apparently, there’s no market for it.  When that happens a book hasn’t a ghost of a chance.

Postscript: Checking Amazon one last time before clicking “publish,” I see the book has now come down to the $30 range. I can’t take credit for that, but my point still stands.