2021 in Books

It’s become my habit, on the last post of the year, to think back over the year in reading.  This gives me a chance to give a separate boost to the books I found particularly valuable, for a variety of reasons.  My Goodreads total for 2021 will end up being 70 (two haven’t yet shown up on my page).  It’s easiest to do this by category, so I’ll begin with fiction.  My favorite novels of this past year were Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, Stephen Graham Jones’ Night of the Mannequins, Lisa Tuttle’s Familiar Spirit, Hank Green’s A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor, and Christina Henry’s The Girl in Red.  I really enjoyed Joseph Bruchac’s Bearwalk as well, but it’s for younger readers.

For what might be called spiritual memoirs I found Ernestine Hayes’ Blonde Indian remarkable and Heather and Gary Botting’s The Orwellian World of Jehovah’s Witnesses revealing.  Vine Deloria’s God Is Red was stunning.  (It should be clear by now that I read quite a lot from indigenous writers.)  If you count love of books as spiritual I would include Andy Laties’ Rebel Bookseller as well.  As long as we’re on spiritual, books by religion professors might count, so I would add Intimate Alien by David Halperin.  If you count just memoirs, I would also add Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington.  And if reflective essays count, John Green’s The Anthropocene Reviewed.  And Thich Nhat Hahn’s Love Letter to the Earth.  I learn so much from reading about how others deal with their lives.

Books in the nonfiction category tended toward horror movie analyses (ahem), but some stood out even among the weirdness.  Daniel Ogden’s The Werewolf in the Ancient World inspired me.  Kendall R. Phillips’ A Place of Darkness was a well-written account of early horror movies.  Tanya Krzywinska’s A Skin for Dancing in was insightful and helpful to my research, if difficult to locate.  Likewise Hammer and Beyond by the late Peter Hutchings.  Mathias Clasen’s A Very Nervous Person’s Guide to Horror Movies was fun and informative.  For importance I’d rate Dag Øistein Endsjø’s Sex and Religion at the top.  So much of the world’s conflict is based on these two factors.  It’s difficult to believe that we don’t talk about them and end up fighting and killing over them.  If we can’t talk about it, at least we can read about it.  There are many other books I enjoyed over the year.  Enough that even a brief mention of each would put me over my usual word limit.  (They’re easily found, in any case, by using the “Books” category to the right.) 2021 may have been a challenging year, but books helped me make it through it.


Investigating Investigators

I firmly stand by my earlier assertion that you can learn a lot from reading badly written books.  It’s difficult not to attribute motives (particularly of the pecuniary kind) to a book apparently hastily written and self-published.  But still, but still.  Writing even a short book takes quite a bit of effort.  One thing that came through in my reading of Paranormal Investigators: The Complete Collection Books 1–10 is that Rodney C. Cannon and Leo Hardy have a legitimate interest in the topic.  Not everyone has the facility with wordsmithy that makes for pleasant reading.  Not everyone has years of research training.  Still, there were moments of eye-rolling and actual out loud snorting that accompanied reading this one.  It continues some useful information, but all of it will need to be double or triple-checked.

My reason for reading it is the dearth of good information on controversial figures.  This has bothered me for some time.  Academia tends to pretend figures such as Ed and Lorraine Warren, Hans Holtzer, and Montague Summers simply don’t matter.  The fact is they have very wide followings and they share the feature of being self-taught in the field of ghosts and/or monster studies.  I knew this book was self-published (itself a warning sign, but then many credible authors self publish because it’s nearly impossible to break into the commercial publishing world).  I had hopes that it was simply because publishers don’t like to take chances on authors without a platform, without household name recognition.

The book is, however, poorly organized and repetitive.  The grammar is bad enough to make an erstwhile teacher such as yours truly pull out his truly’s hair.  And yet there is information here.  I can’t accept anything as factual from a book loaded with grammatical errors, very very few citations, and factual mistakes.  That doesn’t mean there’s nothing of value to be found in it.  In fact, I learned a thing or two (that I’ll need to confirm) that may help me in my own research.  And besides, it’s a quick read.  Given the constraints in the publishing world, we can all be forgiven for not automatically dismissing those who have something to say but who need to sidestep the standard publishing world to do it.  Amazon and others have made self publishing as simple as clicking a few buttons.  Who can be blamed for taking advantage of what others have wrought?  I learned something and that is, after all, the point of reading.


Next Year’s Reading

One of my year-end rituals, apart from looking back at the past year’s books, is to look ahead for the next year’s reading.  This is such a pleasant exercise because Christmas often comes with gift cards from Bookshop.org or Amazon.  Until this year I’ve used the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge to push me into some areas I might not read, but that challenge has now been discontinued.  I participated (this is strictly self-monitored, of course) in six of the seven years that challenge ran, starting in 2016.  Part of each late December was spent in visiting book stores, planning new reading projects, and thinking about the year ahead.  Of course, you can’t predict anything with too much accuracy, but I start the year with a stack of books and a head full of literary dreams.

Also in 2016 I began doing the Goodreads book challenge.  This is merely numerical—you pledge a certain number of books to read in the year.  According to my Goodreads stats (there are some books I don’t publicly admit reading, of course), I’ve read 517 books in the past six years.  Numbers were higher in the commuting days, of course, but I try to read more than a book a week and that practice gets me through some difficult times.  It always looks sunny when planning ahead for a year’s reading, but you never know where the other parts of life will actually take you.  Anyway, this year I’m planning my reading without Mrs. Darcy, mostly culled from my Amazon wishlist, which is unwieldy and constantly growing.  I try to buy the books from Bookshop, however, as it benefits independent bookstores.

This year I may set a slightly lower Goodreads goal.  The main reason for this is that books seem to keep on getting longer.  Novels grow to multiple hundreds of pages but time doesn’t increase in proportion to that number, unless it’s an inverse proportion.  Even with a lower goal I won’t plan on slowing my reading down.  In my commuting days it was fairly easy to read a hundred books per year.  I still tend to get over sixty without those hours on the bus, and hopefully all that reading is doing something useful to the world as a whole.  I write to give back for all the good I’ve been given.  If this in any small measure offsets the headlines that meet us daily, it will have been time well spent.


Many Moons

Once you get beyond the very basic level, astronomy quickly become all about numbers.  It’s both fascinating and a shame.  Fascinating because scientists have been able to send probes millions of miles away, calculating, for example, where the multiple moons of Jupiter and Saturn will be so that they can fly by for an interplanetary peek.  The shame is that many people star-struck by the concepts can’t pursue it as a career.  That’s where books like David A. Rothery’s Moons: A Very Short Introduction come in.  I’ve read a number of books on the moon, but I’ve fallen behind on what we’ve learned about the moons of the outer planets.  This short treatment covers them in just enough detail.  I certainly learned a lot by reading it.

Rothery points out that apart from Earth, in our solar system the likeliest candidates for life are actually some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.  Heated by tidal action and volcanism, and having under-surface oceans, conditions may be right for such worlds to spawn life.  Even if microbial, finding life elsewhere would confirm what this dreamer has supposed all along—we’re not alone in the universe.  As Rothery also notes, there are far more moons than planets in our solar system, so that may also apply to other systems as well.  Exoplanets have been discovered for decades now.  If other suns have planets and those planets have moons, who knows what might be out there?  And all this has been happening for billions of years, whether or not we notice it.

For me, it’s concepts such as these that make astronomy so fascinating.  Also, as the book points out, there are all kinds of oddities in our own astronomical back yard.  Asteroids that have their own moons.  Moons that have unusual geological (or lunar) features that haven’t been explained.  Moons that have been torn apart by their host planet.  Moons that have been captured in orbit when passing by.  Probes have been landed on moons other than our own, and the ethics of doing so (since we might transmit microbes unintentionally) are topics of discussion.  There’s a lot crammed into this brief study.  I also can’t help but wonder what amazing things the next generation will discover.  Our knowledge of this universe, impressive as it is, doesn’t even break the crust of ice moons out there, where there is nitrogen ice and methane ice.  Parameters beyond imagination.  It may all come down to numbers in the end, but moons are so much more than that.


Love Letter

One of the more insidious things about religions is their claim to exclusivity.  The belief than any religion is the “only true religion” is bound to run up against the fact that there are many religions in the world, most of them sincerely believed.  We have much to learn from religions outside the one (if any) we were raised in.  I’ve known about Thich Nhat Hahn for quite a few years now.  One of his books was published (perhaps republished) by Routledge.  As their religion editor I was familiar with it, but as he was not “my author” (that’s the way publishing works), I didn’t contact him.  One of the most famous Buddhist religious teachers, Thich Nhat Hahn strives to transcend religion, which seems like a noble goal.  His Zen approach is simple and important.

This book’s title, Love Letter to the Earth, indicates what it is.  A reflection on environmental sensibility, it includes literal love letters to the planet.  Arguably it is probably a book best read in small batches with time to contemplate between each reading.  Although some aspects are clearly Buddhist, there are also noticeably Christian elements as well.  Christian spiritual leaders, such as Thomas Merton, knew there was no inherent conflict between Christianity and Buddhism.  Thich Nhat Hahn is also remarkably prolific, having written over 150 books.  World religious leaders need to take a lesson here concerning speaking out about environmental justice.  Certainly there are those who will disagree with aspects of his theology, as reasonable and important as it is.  The message is larger than that.

This book is based on the truth that we are all made of this universe and we contain within ourselves that universe.  The earth is our mother, understood by Nhat Hahn in an almost, if not literally, literal way.  While this isn’t news it is nevertheless profound.  When religions are used as excuses to attack the earth they cease to be true in any sense.  Those who don’t buy that perverted outlook are being condemned by those who do.  The earth is our home and it is our responsibility to preserve it not only for our own sake, but that of all creatures.  This Nhat Hahn does without being judgmental.  He instead calls for a religion that takes other religions as part of a non-conflictual belief system.  Religion starts wars.  Wars, of course, come at great cost to the planet, quite apart from the human suffering.  There is much wisdom in this slim book which would benefit many to read.


Ghosts Again

In keeping with my holiday ghost interest, I read John Kachuba’s Ghosthunters: On the Trail of Mediums, Dowsers, Spirt Seekers, and Other Investigators of America’s Paranormal World.  Yes, that subtitle is a mouthful.  The book is a series of essays without an overarching thematic arc, but it does contain some interesting accounts.  If you’re hoping to walk away with proof of ghosts this probably isn’t your book, but a few of the people the author interviews have some pretty convincing stories.  Ghosts remain one of the great unknowns.  People of all intellectual backgrounds, every socio-economic class, and every religion have encountered them, and this is true throughout history.  Ghost hunting isn’t a science and has no developed methodology, but then ghosts don’t seem to perform on demand.

I was particularly interested to see what Kachuba had to say about Ed and Lorraine Warren.  They were the original ghost hunters and their work was controversial from the beginning.  One of the consistent problems with the paranormal is that advanced degrees tend to make you quite skeptical.  You look for proof in the fields recognized by your peers and although a few departments of “parapsychology” have cropped up from time-to-time, mainstream science is doubtful and drives doubt into all comers.  Those who investigate ghosts suggest that if you don’t believe you won’t see.  Here’s the basic paradox between faith and proof.  And it only raises questions when you learn that science doesn’t prove but rather provides the best answer, given the data as currently understood.

Kachuba presents himself as neither a firm believer nor a dismisser.  He clearly enjoys ghost hunting himself and several times mentions his Ghosthuntermobile.  He interviews not only Lorraine Warren (Ed had had a stroke by this time) but also a variety of mediums, Spiritualists, and ghost whisperers.  He writes about various haunted locations, but in the accounts he shares he doesn’t see anything that can’t be explained.  Some of the essays are written with a humorous take on the subject, while others are entirely serious.  It’s kind of a grab-bag of a book in that regard.  Like many readers, I suppose, I hope to pin down something certain when it comes to the unknown.  My guess is that if anything definitive appeared we’d know about it.  Given the goings on in the world these days it probably wouldn’t be front-page news, as much as any information on eternity should be.  In the meanwhile we can read and wonder.


Twilight on Christmas

We have too many ornaments for the single Christmas tree we can afford.  There are few reasons for this.  One is that I married into a family with Christmas ornaments.  While on my own I never set up a tree and I owned very little beyond books and some LPs.  Besides, I went home for Christmas.  Another reason is that although I seldom think of Christmas before December, we tend to buy ornaments as souvenirs.  Not for everywhere we go, but we did start a ship sub-collection when visiting coastal locations.  We also have a moose sub-collection.  I spent quite a bit of my early adulthood out in the woods looking for moose, generally in Maine.  Then there’s the “other sub-collection.”  The one that’s be relegated to it’s own mini-tree.

To understand this, let me begin by noting that Christmas is the birthday of Rod Serling (shoutout to my friend John Morehead for pointing this out).  Rod Serling is one of the reasons—he can’t take all the blame, of course—that I’m interested in strange things.  The Twilight Zone affected me profoundly as a child, and probably had more impact on my life trajectory than I might’ve realized.  The “other sub-collection” consists of the weird ornaments.  It began with a Cthulhu ornament I found online a few years back.  Then, at a fair trade shop in Ithaca, I found a yeti ornament.  How could I not support fair trade?  This year at Christkindlmarkt I found an alien head made from a recycled Christmas tree trunk round.  It seems my strange Christmas ideas aren’t unique.

Bethlehem styles itself “Christmas City.”  The celebration in the Lehigh Valley is palpable.  My family generally spends a December Saturday strolling up and down Main Street, visiting the quaint shops.  Last year one of them had ornaments of sasquatch skiing.  I didn’t buy it, thinking someone might pick up on my pointing it out.  This year I went back to the store but they didn’t have it any longer.  A quick online search, however, revealed many options for a cryptid Christmas.  What can I say?  These things make me happy!  This year I’ve been thinking quite a bit about ghosts and the holidays.  It’s an ancient connection that has been lost to the commercialization of Yule and Saturnalia and other December celebrations.  So, Rod Serling was actually born on Christmas day.  I hope that however you celebrate this day it will bring you joy, no matter how weird.


Salvation by the Book

I’ve never been to Iceland.  Part of me says that if I ever get to go I’d want it to be on Christmas Eve.  Ah, the light would be in short supply, no doubt, and it would be cold.  But the draw of Jolabokaflod is strong.  Jolabokaflod isn’t a difficult word to figure out, if you’re familiar with Indo-European languages. “Jol” (maybe the “a” is included) looks a lot like Yule.  “Bok” is English book missing an “o” (again, maybe the “a” is part of it).  And “flod,” likewise with another “o” becomes “flood.”  The Yule Book Flood.  The tradition is to give books on Christmas Eve and spend the long hours of darkness reading.  Iceland has the reputation for being a very literate culture.  I’ve read a number of books (in translation) by Icelandic authors.  If there’s ever to be peace on earth and goodwill to all, it will be through books.

If you observe Christmas, today is that great time of anticipation, Christmas Eve.  Churches, whether virtual or in person, will be humming places this day.  Last-minute shoppers will be out and frantic.  Some will be insisting we keep Christ in Christmas while others will be dreaming of sugarplums and fairies.  Some will be tracking Santa on NORAD.  In Iceland they’ll be exchanging books.  Politicians will continue their calculated plotting but I dearly wish they’d spend the day reading instead.  Perhaps there would be fewer tanks at the Ukraine border if those in Moscow would curl up with a good book.  Check the progress of their Goodreads challenge.  Open up the flood-gates and let the books pour in.

There are those who believe this world should be consumed by God’s awful fire, and that right soon.  But God, as I understand it, is a writer of books.  Perhaps the divine plan is different than so many suppose.  Even the angels sang about peace on earth in one of those books.  You never know what’s going to be under the tree, but in our house books are always a certainty.  The words that describe this season—joy, peace, goodwill—can come in a few ounces of paper, ink, and glue.  And if God’s own book tells us to love one another, who are we to argue on Christmas Eve?  And if it’s true today won’t it be true also tomorrow and every other day beyond that?  Iceland has grown out of its warlike past.  And today they’re exchanging books.  Perhaps there’s a lesson there for all of us.


Literary Thoughts

A book is a physical object.  It is printed on paper and has a cover.  It has a publisher who undertakes to have it printed and bound (and with any luck, marketed and publicized).  This, I would contend, it what most authors have in mind when they sit down to write a book.  It isn’t just “content,” of which you can find far too much on the internet.  It is an object of pride that you can slot onto your shelf with a great sense of personal achievement.  It has taken a lot of work, and headaches, to get to this point.  Several months or even years of your life.  An idea that can’t be addressed in a couple dozen pages.  A book is born!

Publishers are more and more pushing the ebook, however.  The ebook is not a book in the same sense as a printed object is.  In some sense it may be more durable.  It’s certainly easier to get quickly.  But how do you get excited over writing an ebook?  Whenever I’m writing a book, there’s clearly an object in mind, not a cloud of electrons.  Ebooks have their place, but as people start talking about a post-literate future I start seeing visions of my own tombstone.  It gives me a strange kind of comfort to know that all of my books so far reside in the Library of Congress.  Some university libraries even buy copies.  Would a carpenter take pride in an electronic table she built?  Can you set your book on it?  If you don’t carve your “Kilroy was here” in stone, how will you ever prove it?

As handy as ebooks are, nothing matches the sensation of walking into a room full of books.  The sense of rapture is palpable.  Such rooms are monuments to our culture.  A screen with metaphorical tons of content may be a tribute to technology, but is any of it real without ink connecting with paper?  There’s nothing wrong with “content;” I produce some every day.  The thought process is different from book writing, however; just like the process of writing poetry differs yet again.  The publisher always looks at the bottom line.  (And I don’t mean the last line of a poem.)  And to keep “books” profitable the conversion to “content” seems attractive.  It breaks down, however, if writers no longer think in terms of books.  The book has a storied history and a long future, if we keep in mind that it’s something far more refined than mere content.


Another Article

Some insecure people feel the compulsion, but really don’t know why.  Speaking strictly for this insecure person it’s because (I think) I’ve been ignored most of my life.  I didn’t cause trouble so teachers seldom paid me any mind.  (I’m pretty good about obeying rules.)  I was a middle child with less than a year at youngest status.  I was abandoned in a house at the age of one for God knows how long when my father went out on a bender.  Who knows?  In any case, this piece isn’t really about any of that.  It’s about the compulsion to write articles.  I don’t know why I keep volunteering to do this.  They get me nowhere.  You’re not paid for them, and you get little exposure.  I seem to be addicted to appearing in print.

This blog is purely an electronic phenomenon.  It exists nowhere in print.  I post on it every day in the hope that, like a Pioneer probe, it will connect with somebody who comprehends.  As a non, but erstwhile, academic I am not compelled to write.  In fact, it sometimes complicates things.  (If you believe that freedom of written expression exists you’ve never read a publishing contract.)  So print publication appeals to me.  I had an email from a volume editor the other day and I couldn’t place the name.  I opened it to read that the volume had been accepted as I was struggling to remember what I promised I would write for him.  I had to do an email search to locate the chain.  So that’s what I said I’d do! (The previous article I’d committed to I remembered well, since the proposal was long overdue.) 

Print publication, you see, takes a long time.  An erstwhile editor (likely an academic), gets an idea.  They wrestle with it a while and then write it down.  Pitch it to a publisher.  The in-house editor has to pitch it to the editorial board.  Often after peer review.  It can, in my defense, take months—plenty of time to have forgotten I said I’d contribute.  Then the book has to be written.  That part can take years, but in edited collections many hands make light work.  After the disparate pieces are finally cajoled in (one editor had to keep after me for four months), the editor, well, edits them.  Then they finally get sent off to the publisher.  The production process takes about a year.  The volume comes out and you get a congratulatory email or two, and then it’s forgotten.  I’m not sure why I do it, but I’ve been published by university presses for taking these on.  When I was teaching I couldn’t seem to get their interest.  Now that I’m writing about horror they’re starting to notice.  But then, that’s how monsters behave.


At Last, Yule

It all depends on how you look at it.  Today is either the longest night or the beginning of the return of the light.  It’s the winter solstice, that time that has been considered haunted for centuries, when the spirit world is once again close to the “material world.”  Slowly, incrementally the light will increase from this point on.  It will take a couple months for the effect to be really noticeable, and the weather here in the northern hemisphere will trail a bit behind and grow colder as the sky starts to lighten up a little.  This juxtaposition likely led to the germanic festival of Yule, which has become conflated with Christmas.  Carols tell us of Yule logs at Christmas and some cultures call Christmas itself Yule.

If you consider this day there are again two ways to ponder—appreciating the dark for its own benefits or looking for the return of light.  No doubt, lights are everywhere.  My town has the central part lit with holiday lights and just this weekend Bethlehem had hundreds of luminaria lining the sidewalks, encouraging the return of light.  Yule, it seems to me, catches people at their best.  Christmas isn’t quite here yet and people are still kindly disposed to others, coming out to see the lights and feeling carefree, assured that light will return but making the most of life before it becomes humdrum again.  We put out our lights, perhaps a little afraid of all this darkness, but at the same time trying to appreciate the restfulness of long nights.  Darkness isn’t evil, even if it works that way as a metaphor.

Learning from the dark is under appreciated.  As a species we rely heavily on the benefits of sight.  It’s natural to be a little afraid when we can’t see.  Still, the dark has its own regenerative value.  Our bodies actually benefit from being in the dark a few hours each day.  Our minds can benefit from the rest.  I always think back to the days before electricity allowed us to chase away the night.  How much more intensely the night would’ve been felt.  Even with our artificial lights nothing can compare with the light scatter of our own skies as the sun’s powerful lumens flood our hemisphere.  Yule seems the appropriate time to think about the contrast, but not conflict between light and dark.  The idea that opposites must fight doesn’t really help us in this world of many contrasts.  Isn’t it better to ponder how we might learn from the dark?


Rats

Small town living had its benefits but one of them wasn’t seeing movies.  In the seventies, before the local mall came in, there were scattered movie theaters about.  You could sometimes see reruns on television, if you were free and awake when they were aired.  VCRs weren’t widespread and DVDs and streaming were decades away.  One horror film I very much wanted to see was Willard.  Released in 1971, it did quite well at the box office.  I was only 9 at the time so I never saw it and by the time I became aware of it theaters had long lost interest.  Kids were still talking about it years later, probably from television showings.  When my second resurgence of interest in horror came around, it was still difficult to find.  The DVD wasn’t available and it took some time for it to appear on a streaming service to which I subscribe.

I have to wonder how we got through the seventies, but I finally had a chance to stream it.  The story, since there was a new millennium remake, is probably familiar.  A young man (the eponymous Willard) who doesn’t fit in eventually befriends some rats in the run-down property of his once opulent home.  He teaches them to understand him and eventually has a virtual army of rodents.  He’s a good lad, however, and only uses the rats to redress social inequities.  His boss, a real old school bad guy, stole the steel mill from his father and is trying to drive Willard out.  You can see the boss’s fate coming from afar.  It’s not much of a horror film by present-day standards, but it does have its moments.  It would likely have more impact had I seen it fifty years ago.

The theme song from the sequel, “Ben” (also the title of the next movie), performed by Michael Jackson, rose to number 1 on the charts.  Those of us in the seventies knew it was a song about a rat.  Well, at least some of us knew.  Horror, despite its detractors, often influences mainstream culture.  Indeed, Willard seems to have had some lasting knock-on effects, including the remake just into the new millennium.  Movies from the seventies, although some are excellent, often bear the brunt of the malaise of that period.  Did we ever think big, boxy cars were attractive?  Were men really such chauvinistic pigs?  Still, the story is a good one.  I wasn’t really interested in the 2007 reboot, but having seen the original I’m now curious.  It is, at least, fairly easy to find.


Not Really Nervous

Embarrassment is a not uncommon reaction.  People who knew me as a religion professor or who now know me as a volunteer leader in my local congregation wonder why I watch and read horror.  It helps to know that you’re not alone.  Mathias Clasen is an author I’ve mentioned before.  I read his first book on horror and I was excited to see his A Very Nervous Person’s Guide to Horror Movies, recently out.  I’m not really a very nervous person in this particular regard.  As those who know me will attest, I’m nervous in many aspects of life, just not this one.  Still, after having heard the author describe what his university sponsored fear lab does I was curious how he’d approach horror for the nervous.

Clasen is an academic who clearly enjoys writing.  He’s fun to read.  He admits to being somewhat nervous around horror himself, not watching horror alone.  In fact, the book has several tips—such as not watching horror alone—on how to survive the experience for the curious but cautious.  What I inevitably take away from studies such as this is a couple of things: watching horror isn’t something only I do, and it’s actually good for you.  Studies (and here’s where Clasen is able to point to actual sources) have repeatedly demonstrated that horror has adaptive benefits.  Kids like scary stories, and there’s a reason for that.  The interest in horror generally peaks at the onset of adulthood and tends to decline from there.  Some of us, however, are perhaps arrested at that stage.  Or rediscover it.

There’s a great utility in being able to discuss horror intelligently.  Another point Clasen addresses is that horror is often intelligent but since those who don’t watch it often set the social standards it’s addressed as if it’s juvenile and unsophisticated.  Yes, there’s trash out there.  There is in every genre.  For many people, however, the popularity of slashers in the eighties forever defined horror as naughty teens getting murdered by a bloodthirsty maniac with some kind of blade.  That’s only part of the picture.  Horror has a history as old as cinema itself and the earliest exemplars were based on literature.  It has been an innovative genre from the beginning and when a particularly noteworthy horror film comes out critics and pundits are quick to relable it as a thriller or drama or anything but horror.  We need to give horror its due.  It’s always a pleasure to read a book by someone who has an appreciation of what horror has to offer, even if he’s nervous about it.


Masking Identity

Who am I, really?  Identity has been on my mind quite a bit during this pandemic.  With millions dying I suppose it’s important that “the officials” know who we are.  At the same time I don’t feel comfortable taking my mask off in front of strangers.  It’s kind of like a facial striptease that puts you at risk for some communicable disease.  Because I had to fly for Thanksgiving this year I got to put my Real ID to the test.  I removed my mask for the photo—at the DMV, of all places—so there was risk involved to prove that I am who I’ve always been.  When I went to get a Pennsylvania license three years ago, the system remembered me from when I got my permit and asked if I still lived in the county where that had occurred.  They seem to know a lot about me.

At the airport the TSA guy told me to take off my mask.  He had to confirm that I was the same person my Real ID stated I was.  I wish our government would tell me who I am.  And of course my passport decided to expire also during this pandemic.  I went to a local pharmacy to get my passport photo taken.  (I know you can do this at home, but you need a printer that handles photo paper.)  Then you can send the application in by mail.  How do they know it’s really me in the photo?  I had an uncanny experience many years ago when a visiting team from the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) visited Nashotah House for an accreditation visit.  One of the inspectors looked very like me.  I think we both noticed the resemblance immediately.  It was like we were twins.  Later I found his photo on the school website and asked my pre-literate daughter who it was.  She said “Daddy.”

Who is that masked man?

So I’m standing here with my mask off in a store for confirmation that I am who I claim to be.  I wonder if this other guy’s photo were sent in would they know the difference?  In fact I’ve had the experience I suspect many people have had of being mistaken for someone else.  Helping a friend move to Kentucky after college, I had several people in a small town I’d never visited before identify me as Joe’s son.  I looked just like him.  Of course, that was way before the pandemic when our faces were public property.  Now I just wish I could put my mask back on so that I could feel a little less naked.


Ghosts and Puritans

One of the victims of capitalism is the tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas time.  We tend to relegate such downers to Halloween.  Christmas is a cozy time of getting new things, right?  Who wants to think of ghosts?  I recently read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.  An article in the Smithsonian  a few years back makes the point that Dickens was cashing in on a venerable tradition.  Instead of sending children to bed expecting Santa Claus, it used to be the custom to tell ghost stories on Christmas Eve.  That makes sense in context.  Christmas was established near the date of the Roman festival Saturnalia and the germanic Yule.  These festivities celebrated the passing of the equinox and the slow, but steady increase in light.  A liminal period.  It seems a natural time to tell ghost tales, no?

Image credit: Arthur Rackham, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The article by Colin Dickey (who has a history of writing about ghosts), calls for bringing back the tradition.  Do we want our cozy capitalism interrupted by revenants?  Why not?  For me the Christmas season is largely about time off of work.  I spend the time working on fiction writing that I tend to put off when I have a book under contract.  Most of those stories I write are some species of horror, often ghosts.  The real haunting factor is I don’t have time during the rest of the year to do the amount of writing that recharges my batteries.  Work seems to take more and more time and the Scrooge-like results are, I think, pretty obvious.  It’s time to bring back the Christmas ghosts.

Dickey points out that one reason Christmas ghost stories never caught on in America was that Puritans had little taste for them.  The more I look at society the more amazed I am at how Puritan we still are, but without their religious ideals (apart from various prohibitions of human behavior).  The fact that this article appeared in the respectable Smithsonian makes me feel a little more accepted for my disposition.  I know there are many horror fans out there.  Poll after poll indicates that people like horror, but, it seems, most don’t like to admit it.  At least among those I know in the neighborhood.  There are a slew of Christmas monsters.  For those who keep track of holiday horror as a sub-genre the most common holiday represented is Christmas.  In fact, I just had a Christmas horror story published (under a pseudonym, of course).  Maybe ghosts will be able to frighten off the specter of capitalism and bring us back the holiday spirit.