Roman Mythology

A recent game of Redactle led to a family discussion of Roman mythology.  I had to flex some muscles unused since my last full semester at Rutgers, but I was pleased that the old learning is still there.  One of the first things people notice about Roman mythology is its lackluster nature.  Rather like current-day politicians, the Romans mostly lacked imagination when it comes to compelling stories.  Roman religion consisted largely of cult—that is the enacting of sacrifices and learning how to read omens.  They had no “Bible” and really no other collection of myths, apart from what they borrowed from the Greeks (who borrowed, in turn, much from Semitic mythology).  They mapped their various gods—some from the Etruscans—onto the Greek pantheon and made do with other peoples’ stories.

Rome’s native myths largely focused on their own history and human characters—again, the parallels with Republican sanitized American history are apt—but also deal with serious issues.  In the words of T. P. Wiseman, “How does well-meaning authority turn into murderous tyranny?”  (I resist footnoting blog posts, but this is from the preface of his book The Myths of Rome.)  Like modern politicians, they believed their origins were divine.  The gods had chosen them to be a superpower.  We might scratch our heads and ask ourselves where the Roman Empire is today, even as Italy elects hard-right leaders.  We learn nothing from history.  Nothing.

So let’s turn to mythology instead.  Or at least religion.  Roman religious writing was often kept secret—the purview of priests only.  Some of this survived into early Roman Catholic ideas about keeping Scripture to the priests.  Religious writings are dangerous if they get out there among hoi polloi (or “hot polo” as my autocorrect suggests).  Ironically, those of us sent off to specialized schools to learn this stuff are, in these days, generally ignored.  Roman officials were often anxious to know what oracles said.  Today televangelists and their ilk seem to be the ticket.  Anyone can be an expert if they talk loud enough.  And yet the Romans admired the Greek intellectual life.  The creativity with which they handled their gods.  There was much to be emulated there.  Roman Jupiter was the protector of the military (budget, one is prompted to write—forgive me if my Muse is a little unruly this morning).  And yet it was the Roman authorities who crucified Jesus.  We may indeed still learn something from Roman mythology.

Hebert James Draper, The Lament for Icarus, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Opinion Piece

There comes a time, I hope, when the opinion of someone with over four-and-a-half decades of intensive reading experience, might matter.  I say this because I’m constantly struck by those whose opinions actually count, and how little they often are to be considered experts.  For example, I watch YouTubers young enough to be my children treated as experts.  A little probing sometimes shows that their qualifications are the ability to get people to look at them.  Click that like and share button.  If enough people do like and share, you can be an expert.  Or take opinion columns in newspapers.  I notice the headlines for some of these in the New York Times.  They are opinions only, and yet the prestige of one of the great American newspapers stands behind them.  These are opinions worth listening to.

The popularity contest is an old and venerable tradition.  I wasn’t popular in school and wasn’t voted “most likely to” anything.  Meanwhile, those chosen as the likely leaders and novelists and beauty-pageant stars generally don’t get too far along that road.  As Bruce Springsteen sagely noted, those “Glory Days” pretty much all end up back in high school.  But as Bowling for Soup observes, “High School Never Ends.”  We like to look at the confident, the well-adjusted, the narcissists.  Their sense of entitlement carries over into hoi polloi.  The quiet and self-reflective sometimes get noticed, particularly after they’re gone.  The Thomas Mertons and Thich Nhat Hanhs.  The household names, however, are those who loudly claim they should be heard.  Just because they think they should.

Another part of this complex equation is finding a subject that interests people.  In my case, I know lots of people are interested in horror, but I also know that there are many experts out there.  Ironically, I still have people ask me about ancient West Asian religions—this is a field where you need to be immersed to stay on top of what’s going on.  The books and articles you have to keep reading are dense and heavily footnoted.  The articles are located in journals not always easily found.  Don’t get me wrong—I still miss it.  Ironically, now that I can’t keep up people are starting to ask my opinions on it.  Perhaps the same will happen with horror and monsters, but long after I’m able to respond effectively.  Experts on social media learn to monetize their interests so they can spend full-time at it.  And that does, in fact, make them experts in the very specific field of being an expert.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

The Daily Show

Long ago—over a dozen years now—I decided this blog would receive daily updates.  Some of the more successful blogs out there receive multiple daily updates, but I’m just one guy, and a working stiff at that.  When you do something every day a couple of contradictory things happen: one, you get better at it (if you’re a Gladwellian, it may take almost three decades, but the principle holds), and two, the quality varies.  I’ve long noticed this about daily ventures.  (I’ve also lately begun to realize that even daily shows take time out to refresh.)  I used to stay up to watch David Letterman (that seems impossible to believe in my current time warp).  When he was good he was very good, but when he wasn’t it was painful to watch.  You can’t be “on” every single day.  Emotions are funny that way.

Over the past year or so I’ve taken to occasionally binging on “Good Mythical Morning”—a YouTube daily show starring Rhett and Link.  These North Carolinians are inherently likable.  They’re a couple of guys who, in many ways, refuse to grow up.  They’re smart, and often funny.  And extremely popular.  Their channel has approaching 18 million subscribers.  They have off days, as do we all.  Sometimes I wake up feeling so contrary in the morning that I’m not sure I’m the same person who crawled into that bed only hours before.  Some days I don’t feel like writing a blog post.  On other days I feel like writing several.  What perhaps stands out to regular readers, if only one or two, is that some days you’re off.  So tragically human.  So wonderfully human.

I’ve often wondered if this is just a condition of life.  Pets, for example, have off days too.  I suppose the difference is that those committed to a daily show have put themselves out there so others can see them.  On one of those aptitude tests I took in high school the results suggested I should’ve been an entertainer.  Instead I took a religious and scholarly approach to things.  Maybe because I’m a middle child I always felt that nobody really paid attention to me.  So here I am, a baker’s dozen years out from writing daily on religion, ancient West Asian topics, books, and horror.  And sometimes current events, when I  feel like it.  If you’re taking the daily show route, you need to be aware that, despite the ennui, not every day will be the same.  Even someone as successful as Letterman knew that.


Hiding What?

Who are we?  Do we really show ourselves to others, or do we wear masks?  That question applies to horror films as well as to everyday life.  Alexandra Heller-Nicholas addresses this directly in the former context in Masks in Horror Cinema: Eyes without Faces.  As I write about horror films, peer reviewers suggest these more technical studies as means of adding depth to my analysis.  Most of them are revised dissertations and retain the academic language that makes such documents difficult to read in places.  Still, they contain a lot of insight.  I learned a lot from Heller-Nicholas and I was particularly impressed that she took the “shamanic imagination” as her approach to the films she analyzes.  The ritual aspect makes good use of religion and horror connections.  It’s nice to see this catching on.

Masks are more than disguises.  Yes, there’s something theatrical to them and there’s a great deal of ritual to theater.  Ritual and religion aren’t identical, but they are clearly related.  Often masks are discussed as simply a way of hiding a killer’s face.  There’s quite a lot more to it.  This is where the academic analysis comes in.  We can’t explore it in detail in the brief context of this post, but there’s a whole book out there to read on it.  Heller-Nicholas doesn’t feel constrained to major movie releases.  I did that in Holy Horror because I supposed more people would be interested in reading about movies they’d actually seen (most of them anyway).  There are a lot more examples out there.  I’m learning about more all the time.

There are many different masks in horror.  This book looks at several, some metaphorical, but most literal, and what they convey.  Or conceal.  The fact is we mask ourselves for many reasons.  It’s kind of like when we dream—our subconscious seems to know more about who we are than our waking minds do, and we really don’t share our dreams with others.  The mask in horror isn’t worn just by killers.  When it is, however, it often has a shamanic effect, or, as Heller-Nicholas points out, a trickster aspect.  This is very much like how anthropologists approach shamans in traditional societies.  Religious specialists are often tricksters and they provide an important element in cultures that are otherwise beset by rules.  Rationality is important, but so is letting go of it once in a while.  Shamans get away with things the average person can’t.  And it is just one of many masks we wear all the time.


O Viy

Viy is a most unusual movie.  I’m talking about the 1967 version, of course.  Filmed and produced in the USSR, it was, by many counts, the first Soviet horror film.  There’s been a resurgence of interest in it because of the study of folk horror—and it’s certainly an example of that.  Not really known for its plot, it’s noteworthy in its early special effects.  Since it’s a story that revolves around a monk, however, it participates in religion and horror as well.  Unusual for a Soviet-Era film.  Set in an undefined period in the past—before electricity, in any case, and perhaps the Middle Ages—a class of seminarians is released for vacation.  They’re a rowdy, unruly bunch, hardly the pious priests you see associated with orthodoxy.  When three of them get lost on their way home they end up spending the night at the farm of an old woman.

The woman comes after Khoma (one of the three) that night and bewitches him.  Riding him like a horse—and this is common witch lore—when she finally releases him, he beats the old woman severely.  But she has turned into a beautiful young woman.  Khoma returns to the seminary but is sent to say prayers over a dying young woman—one guess who it is.  Between getting drunk and trying to escape, Khoma seems to guess his fate.  At the compound of a wealthy merchant, the girl’s father, he learns she has died.  The father insists he keep vigil for three nights, praying over her corpse.  In the church scary things happen, not least her return to life.

On the third night all kinds of monsters appear after she calls on the god Viy.  Viy means something like “spirit of evil.”  Each night Khoma has drawn an effective magic circle around himself, which keeps the dead witch at bay.  The last night the monsters make it through, with predictable results.  There’s so much folklore at play here that it’s easy to see why the story by Nikolai Gogol suggested itself for a film.  It was poignant to watch because it’s set in Ukraine (Gogol was a Ukrainian writer).  Gogol had a tremendous influence on other writers, but isn’t as widely cited among western authors in contemporary times.  The film is fairly easily found online, and an updated version was released in 2014.  Even in the USSR, when horror emerged in the late sixties, it was doing so with religion, even before Rosemary’s Baby.


Tuning Up

Climate change is marked by its erratic behavior.  I can relate.  Nevertheless, one of my favorite things in the whole wide world is the slow transition of summer to winter.  Autumn includes that honeymoon time between air conditioning and furnace when you have perhaps a month of reasonable utility bills.  After that hot summer we had around here, this weekend showed why we call it “fall.”  I awoke yesterday morning only to feel the indoor temperature slipping into winter range.  (Seriously.  The furnace isn’t on yet.)  It was 41 degrees outside, a full five degrees lower than projected.  There’s a subtle insidiousness to morning chills.  I tend to wake around three or four, but that’s not the coldest part of the night.  No, that comes just before sunrise.  Morning connoisseurs know that.  It’s always coldest before the dawn.

Weather forecasting is a dicey business, not for the faint of heart.  When it’s getting uncomfortably chilly, a degree or two can make a difference.  You see, I get out of bed, throw on some lounging clothes, and go into another room where I won’t disturb anybody.  That means if I underestimate how cold the house will be, I’ll spend some time shivering until those who awake on normal schedules get up.  That, or I have to wear a jacket indoors.  I’m not above that, of course, but it’s only September.  Honeymoon time.  Global warming doesn’t mean it’s going to be hot all the time.  So all of this has me thinking about winter already.  It’s only September and I’m already wearing fingerless gloves.

I’m extremely sensitive to cold.  I attribute it to a case of mild frostbite I had as a teen.  The cold didn’t bother me so much before then.  My brother and I, dutifully awaiting the school bus, stood for the required half hour or so at the bus stop.  It was bitterly cold and there was no bus shelter.  When we were finally allowed to head home the pain was incredible.  My extremities are still chilled at the slightest suggestion.  On all but the hottest days my feet can count on being cold.  The  morning skies were a beautiful blue yesterday, suggesting that the predicted cloudiness of the previous night had not performed, allowing full radiational cooling.  Yes, global warming is real and all of us alive today will be dealing with it for the remainder of our time here on earth.  That doesn’t mean it’ll always be hot outside.  It does mean the honeymoon may be over. 


Ode to Auld Reekie

Edinburgh is a sizable city, although not large like New York, more like Boston, but smaller.  Like Boston, it has had an outsized influence globally, even apart from its world-class research university.  I think of the creatives that are from, or spent considerable time there (J. K. Rowling, take a bow) and the many great thinkers who’ve called it home.  Our three years there went by too quickly, but money being what it was (and is) and laws dictating how long we could linger, we had to leave it in 1992.  If you’d have asked us when we were there we’d have told you we’d’ve stay if we could’ve.  We had no money, no car, no television, but we had Edinburgh.  Somehow that seemed to be enough.

Places have great significance to people, but it’s not reciprocal.  I occasionally find out a famous person was from Edinburgh and say “I didn’t know that.”  Having spent three years and the cost of a doctorate there, I was a mere drop in the Firth of Forth.  I’m frequently in contact with faculty members at the Divinity School for work.  None know that I studied there—I suspect most university folk don’t sit around talking about long-ago post-grads.  Indeed, there may be no faculty left from the time I was there.  New names, new faces, new research agendas appear.  Indeed, you wouldn’t choose Edinburgh as a place to study Ugaritic now, even though there was once an “Edinburgh school” of thought in the discipline (and I can footnote that).

Still, when I hear “Edinburgh” my ears prick up like those of a dog who’s been called.  It is a part of me.  I’ve only been able to return once since our original stint there.  It was a strange sort of homecoming.  Familiar and foreign all at the same time.  Some shops were right where we’d left them, others now merely ghosts in our memories.  Fortunately Edinburgh hasn’t had the building mania that often causes old cities to try to reinvent themselves.  It was already great to begin with.  More and more I hear about the Edinburgh Festival, and the Fringe.  People are starting to notice this jewel in the crown of the United Kingdom.  On a molecular level there may still be a little bit of me there.  We’re constantly shedding, I suppose.  And someday perhaps we’ll be able to return.  It may not remember me, but I can’t forget her.


Fictional Truth

In honor of Banned Book Week I read Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  Funny and poignant, it tells the story of Arnold Spirit Junior, a Spokane tribe boy on the reservation.  Born with a disability, he nevertheless overcomes adversity to become both a good student and excellent basketball player.  I suppose you’d classify this as young adult literature since the protagonist is a teen and many of the issues are those of kids in that age group.  Although it’s funny, and the illustrations underscore this, there’s a realism that account for various people wishing to ban it.  First of all, it reminds readers that white men put Indians on reservations and, despite our national guilt about this, we still refuse to do anything to try to lift them out of poverty.  And, like most boys his age, Junior likes to talk about sex once in a while.

Fiction can be the most nonfictional form of writing.  Junior describes the realities of reservation life.  Alcoholism, poverty, and violence are part of his everyday experience.  He attends far more funerals than his white counterparts.  This particular point gave me pause.  A New York Times article that appeared pointed out, statistically, that American Indians had much higher death rates from Covid than many other demographics.  It was like the genocidal introduction of European diseases during the “age of discovery.”  I suppose people would’ve grown curious and explored their world, regardless of the distorted Christian belief that they were to take it over.  At least we could’ve treated those we met with respect, as equals.

I think about the missionary mandate quite a lot.  Based on an undying literalism, it became an excuse for behaviors explicitly condemned by Scripture itself.  There’s a real danger when conviction comes with guns.  At least modern-day missionaries try to help those they’re attempting to convert with hospitals and medical care.  Still, that doesn’t help the American Indians.  They still struggle and our policies still ignore their problems.  Their plight stands in the way of capitalistic exploitation.  And when an Indian writes a fun book, honest about the experience of his people white critics begin to raise their voices to ban it.  How do we think the situation of the Indians will ever improve if we refuse to listen?  And what better time to get people to listen but when they’re young enough not to have been corrupted by our system of entrenched unfair treatment?


All Things Being

“Equal” and “night,” in their Latin forms, give us the word “equinox.”  Today we enter the darker half of the year.  Interestingly, of the so-called “quarter days”—the equinoxes and solstices—this is the only one for which we have no ancient indications of celebration.  Like a birthday that goes by unnoticed, this feels odd.  Why, among the set of only four days—longest, shortest, and two equal—did this one fail to be noticed?  Well, perhaps noticed, but not celebrated?  The failure of ancient records may be one explanation, and perhaps other, near dates of note subsumed it.  In Judaism, for instance, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur come around this time.  The ancient Celts celebrated August 1 and November 1, or thereabouts.  September is a particularly busy time.

Harvesting, in many places, gets its real start in September.  In more modern times, school starts up again.  Work schedules once more take priority and those “relaxed” summer hours are a thing of the past.  It’s easy to overlook this seemingly insignificant day.  It is important nonetheless.  For those of us who watch horror, it’s now more easily explained—it’s darker and that brings on one of the most primal of fears.  Halloween is coming, and if you haven’t prepared already, discounted pricing on picked-over merchandise will begin in coming days.  More and more houses will prepare for the haunted season.  Around here leaves are just beginning to change, but in more northern latitudes they’re well on their way already.  Pumpkins are already on hand at grocery stores and farm stands.  The days of summer sweet corn are over.

Not all holidays receive equal attention, of course.  Less romantically inclined adults simply work through Valentines Day.  And who even notices May Day anymore?  If you don’t spend money on holidays they don’t seem to count.  Who goes out and buys things for the forgotten autumnal equinox?  Nevertheless, many people say that fall is their favorite time of year.  It has a trickster element to it.  You awake and have to throw on some extra layers, but by mid-afternoon short sleeves may be sufficient.  Hurricanes may come ashore.  Some days will feel like winter, and others summer.  Transitions are like that.  The autumnal equinox signals the inevitability of winter but also the yearning and melancholy of the shortening days when color springs to light once again.  Forgotten or not, today is the harbinger of things to come.


Express Yourself

Do you ever get excited by an idea only to be let down when it comes to the execution?  I suspect that’s a standard human experience.  For me it often happens with books.  Especially academic books.  I get excited about the ideas that are sure to be lurking between the covers only to discover that the author has unimaginatively fallen into bad academic habits, such as “scholar A says, but scholar B says.”  Just tell me what you say!  Reflecting on this I realize that building a case has become conflated with taking a test.  A doctoral dissertation is a years’ long test.  Your ideas are being compared to those who’ve gone before you—the fact that they’ve published has proven that—and you are expected to show your work.  Did you read Smith?  Have you struggled with Jones?  Is Anderson in more than just your bibliography?

This kind of extended citation leads to turgid writing that slays any interest in the subject by the end of page one.  I’m not alone in this critique.  Some famous academics, such as Steven Pinker, have noted this.  In a not nearly frequently enough cited article, “Why Academics Stink at Writing,” Pinker lays out the bad habits that get perpetuated throughout the modern academy.  It comes down to, in my humble opinion, the fear of the exam.  Test anxiety.  Recently my draft of The Wicker Man came back from peer review.  While the comments of the reviewers were helpful, and quite complimentary, they felt there should be more academic dialogue going on.  I push back at this: if you don’t believe I’ve done the research, why approve the book for publication?  Most academic writing stinks and there’s no reason it should.

I’m a slow reader.  My average rate is about 20 pages per hour.  I know this because my morning routine sets aside about an hour for reading each day, and I note how many pages I consume.  Lately some of the academic books I’ve read have hobbled me down to 10 pages per hour.  I keep waiting for the narrative flow to kick in, something that I can follow and absorb.  Instead I’m learning what everybody else, often except the author, thinks about each minute point of his or her thesis.  Please, just tell me what you think!  I trust that you’ve done the research.  You wouldn’t have been granted a doctorate if you hadn’t.  The last thing I would want from my, admittedly few, readers is for them to close my book and say, “I’d rather be reading something else.”


Novelization

It must be both difficult and easy writing the novelization of a movie.  I suppose it depends on the movie as well.  Sleepy Hollow is a film based on a story already, but Washington Irving’s tale isn’t a novel and the movie was a collaboration between Irving’s original, re-envisioned by Kevin Yagher, Andrew Kevin Walker, and Tim Burton.  The novelization was done by Peter Lerangis and it, naturally enough, follows the movie.  As a novelizer, however, you need to try to make sense of some scenes where a film only implies what’s going on.  Now, in this case I’ve seen the movie many times and any deviations come across as “that’s not the way it goes” moments.  Still, it’s competently done.  It  even helped me make sense out of some things that had me puzzled since the start of the millennium.

In the “book or movie” debate I tend to think a book should be read first.  Sometimes it should go the other way around.  Novelizations are, of course, intended to increase the profits for a film.  You’ve got the box office take, and if there are advertising tie-ins or other merch, you can add to the haul.  A novelization can also help.  In this case, the movie has a somewhat complex plot with revenge and double-crossing, and so a novel helps to make all that clear.  However, when the novelist asks you to accept what a character is thinking you may have already come up with your own ideas on that point and any postmodernist would tell you that your opinion is just as valid as that of the writer.

Movie scripts tend to be a bit short for novels—if the movie isn’t based on a novel, of course—and sometimes extra material is needed.  This novelization includes the public domain story by Irving as well, even though the movie completely recasts all the characters into unfamiliar roles.  Brom, for example, is a minor part, whereas Katrina is a witch and Ichabod a constable from New York City.  All of that having been said, there really aren’t many surprises here.  I read this because I’m interested in the life of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”  Its many retelling and re-envisionings.  The original story was published less than fifty years after American independence and has memories closer to the time.  It tells us something of what it was like in those early days.  And this novel both retells and redacts a movie already a couple decades old itself.


Who’s Calling?

The first twenty minutes are impossibly scary.  I didn’t see When A Stranger Calls back in 1979, when it came out.  I prefer my monsters in non-human form, thank you.  But still, to be writing books on horror movies without ever seeing what is widely regarded as being the scariest opening ever?  Although the first twenty minutes were indeed scary, and extremely tense, for me the scariest part came after that because I didn’t have any idea what else would happen.  Of course I knew the initial calls were coming from inside the house.  That urban legend seems to have been around since I was a kid.  I wasn’t sure who survived, if anyone.  And psychopaths are scary in real life, let alone in fiction where they can break into locked houses pretty easily.

The story, as laid out, is better than most critics give it credit for being.  The only part that seemed difficult to believe (and don’t get me wrong—I love Charles Durning) was that an overweight John Clifford could do all that running (particularly up stairs).  It’s believable that the criminally insane can escape—Michael Myers seems to do it every couple of years—and even that they could blend in on the streets of any city.  I do have to agree with the critics that the writing isn’t great, but those who say it’s not scary enough, well, they’re made of sterner stuff than me.  Or perhaps they lack empathy, which is a scary thing in itself.

Curt Duncan, perhaps because he’s clearly killed at the end of the movie, never became the serial boogyman that the aforementioned Myers, or Jason Voorhees, or Freddy Kruger, or Hannibal Lecter became.  Although sequels were made, once you’ve seen that first twenty minutes of Stranger, you get the sense that they’re not going to be able to do it any better.  Snopes tells us the legend began in the sixties.  It was clearly a reaction to the proliferation of telephones and the potential to abuse such technology.  That’s an object lesson we still haven’t learned.  We now seem never to be more than inches away from a device at all times.  Except maybe when in the shower, but that’s a scary story for another time.  Although I won’t be going back to rewatch or analyze this one over and over, still I feel I somehow earned a stripe or bar for watching it.  And I now feel even more appreciative of caller ID.


Banning Together

Banned Book Week starts today.  As the political situation in this country continues to deteriorate into a Republican fascination with fascism, we find books challenged and banned for suggesting real fascists were anything other than nice, white boys misunderstood.  It will take decades, if not another World War to undo the damage Trump unleashed.  Instead of sitting in my corner worrying about the future, I read.  Banned books make up quite a bit of my reading, but I do try to read one every September intentionally in honor of the occasion of Banned Book Week.  It’s misguided to suggest children shouldn’t grow up.  A deep-seated fear of education reveals the hypocrisy at the very heart of book banning.  Adults should know better.  They should read.

I love America, but nationalism is poison.  Just like those who believe that only their religion can be right, many believe only their nation can.  Divide that up among the almost 200 nations of the world, with individuals in each thinking this way, and conflict logically arises.  Those who look at other cultures—read about them—and try to understand them, realize we each have our own way.  One of the major problems is that capitalism insists all must trade and barter the way that we do.  We think of people in terms of their “net worth”—which is, in reality, infinite—and want to know who owns more and is therefore more powerful.  Lackeys will always follow the wealthy, kissing posteriors and professing loyalty until they have enough of their own to challenge the more wealthy.  It’s enough to send any Bible-reader back to Ecclesiastes.

Books have stirred up ideas ever since they were invented.  The Bible wasn’t the first book, but it too appears on Banned Book lists.  Many of those who thump it read it with the acumen of a kindergartener.  That’s not why it’s sometimes banned, however.  It is full of sex and violence.  The bits about love and hope are far outweighed by it.  Books contain ideas and ideas will get out.  There’s a reason I surround myself with books.  They are a strange sort of castle that invites others in even as it protects.  It’s not comfortable to challenge the way that you think, but nothing fascinates like a new idea taking root and growing.  One of the best ways to meet people far distant and explore the way they think is to read.  Banning reflects our small-mindedness, and even worse, our desire to keep that small-mindedness intact.


Whence Dawn?

It’s rare, but that’s often what makes things so special.  Because of the way my mind works, I can’t have background music on when I work.  My concentration suffers.  The only real exception is when I have a mindless, repetitive work task that I have to do that lasts for an hour or more.  Then I can slip on the phones and start up Spotify.  I can only afford so many premium accounts, so I have the free version.  That means ads.  The thing about Spotify ads is that they too are repetitive.  I guess that’s how marketing people try to get things stuck in your head.  I can remember many jingles from childhood.  Mostly for products I never use, and a few from products that no longer exist.  They live on in memory.

The other day I had a repetitive task to do that was aided by a lack of early emails at work, so I was able to begin shortly after login.  You see, I tend to start work before seven.  An early riser, I like to work when I’m still able to concentrate well.  I had the headphones on and was listening to Spotify.  One of the ads, about insomnia (ahem), started out by stating they had to choose between a daytime ad and a nighttime ad.  They said something like “obviously we chose nighttime.”  It was seven a.m.  The sun was up.  Some of us were already at work.  Since my task took several hours, I was still at it after nine a.m. when the ad switched to its daytime version.  So night now lasts until work starts?  Whatever happened to dawn?

Perhaps the ads come from a different time zone.  Some of them are regionally specific, though.  Work defines much of our lives, and it also seems to dictate when Spotify switches to its daytime advertising.  For those of us who wake early, dawn is an almost magical time.  It has been many years now since I’ve awoken to find it light outside.  Although I get quite a lot of my personal work done before starting my paid job, I still keep an eye out for the first lightening of the sky.  At some times of the year, before the autumnal equinox sets in, it signals the time for my jog to start.  In September that gets delayed to 6:30 when many others are out and my work’s about to begin.  If I happen to be listening to Spotify when I start work, they’ll confirm I should still be sleeping.  Instead, I embrace the dawn.


Scary Holidays

One of the real wonder of books is that they can spawn ideas outside their specific topics.  While revised dissertations can be somewhat difficult to read, Derek Johnston’s Haunted Seasons: Television Ghost Stories for Christmas and Horror for Halloween contains quite a few such moments of birthing ideas.  While being largely British-focused, it nevertheless explores holiday horror, a phenomenon that I’ve been researching for some time.  Not really a television watcher (not any more—as a child things were quite different), I don’t really keep up with many programs.  Still, I learned a lot from this book.  One of the main questions it addresses is something I’ve long wondered about—why is there a connection between Christmas and ghost stories in England?

Johnston points out that Celtic areas tended to have Halloween or its precursors to supply an occasion for otherworldly thinking.  The English, not wanting to think of themselves as these outer-lying cultures (I’m simplifying and abstracting a bit here), developed their own tradition of the Christmas ghost story.  It pre-dates Dickens and probably goes far enough back in history that there’s no way to trace it.  Telling ghost stories around the shortest day of the year makes its own sense.  Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was perhaps the most famous example, but M. R. James’ habit of telling ghost stories (later published) to students and fellow enthusiasts on Christmas Eve also plays into it.  In Britain this led to a series of BBC Ghost Story for Christmas shows.  Meanwhile, in America, where there was quite a lot of Celtic immigration, a taste for Halloween grew.

There are so many ideas that swirl around holidays.  I’ve been exploring the topic for nearly two decades now.  Publishers, always with their eyes on the bottom line, don’t produce much like this, figuring people will only buy it one season a year, and for books that means usually the first year only.  Some people (yours truly, for one) will buy books about holidays out of season.  So much of life is preparing for special times.  I suspect that ancient people also fell into humdrum daily existences also.  Humans require stimulation, we like variety and novelty.  Holidays are a great solution—they don’t occur every day.  If they did they wouldn’t be special.  They bring something different into our workaday world and, in modern times especially, we brand them so that each one is at least slightly different.  I don’t mind seeing the seasonal displays so early in the stores—it reminds me that haunted seasons are just around the corner.