About Steve Wiggins

Associate Editor, Oxford University Press.

Yeti Again Again

I wish I had more time for reading short stories.  I grew up on them since, like many young boys I lacked the attention span for entire novels.  Many collections of short stories sit on my shelves, but I’ve been drawn into the world of extended stories, perhaps because so much of reality bears escaping from these days.  In any case, I find myself neglecting short story collections.  I have a friend (and I tend not to name friends on this blog without their express permission—you might not want to be associated with Sects and Violence!) named Marvin who writes short stories.  This past week his tale called “Meh Teh” appeared in The Colored Lens.  Marvin often uses paranormal subjects for his speculative fiction.

“Meh-Teh” is a Himalayan term for “yeti.”  Since we jealously guard our positions as the biggest apes on this planet, science doesn’t admit yetis to the realm of zoology without the “crypto” qualifier in front.  Still, people from around the world are familiar with the concept of the abominable snowman.  Maybe because I grew up watching animated Christmas specials, I knew from early days that a mythical, white ape lived in the mountains, and that he needed a visit to the dentist.  The yeti has even become a pop culture export from Nepal, since those who know little else about that mountainous region know that strange footprints are found in the snow there.  Apes, however, like to dominate so we tend to drive other apes to extinction.  Still, they had to be there on the ark, along with all other cryptids.

I recall an episode of Leonard Nimoy’s In Search of that dealt with yetis.  Or was it a Sun Pictures presentation about Noah’s Ark?  I just remember the dramatic earthquake scene where either the skullcap of a yeti or a piece of the true ark was buried, lost forever under the rubble.  Yeti is also a brand name for an outdoor goods company based, ironically, in Austin.  This fantastical ape has become a spokesperson, or spokesape, for the great outdoors.  All of this is a long way from the story Marvin spins about the great ape.  As is typical of his fiction, religion plays a part.  I really should make more time for reading short stories.  In a world daily more demanding of time, that sounds like a solid investment.  And free time is more rare than most cryptid sightings these days.

Author Revise Thyself

Monster fans may have noticed that, despite the season I haven’t been writing much on the topic.  One of the reasons for this is that I’m in that dread stage known as “revision.”  As an editor I often see book proposals—or even entire books—that have never been revised.  You can tell.  I learned this while writing Holy Horror.  If you’re one of the people who took out a second mortgage to buy a copy, the book you purchased was based on a manuscript rewritten thoroughly at least five times.  The idea is that like rocks in a river, all that pouring over a text smooths the words like stones over the millennia.  Few rocks emerge from volcanic or sedimentary situations as smooth and round.  That takes revision.

My peer review report for Nightmares with the Bible came in a few weeks ago.  Nightmares had been revised a couple of times, at least, before I submitted it.  I understand the review process very well, as I deal with it daily.  Sometimes single blind (the writer doesn’t know the reviewer’s identity), other times double blind (neither reader nor writer know the other’s identity), the process is meant to provide feedback on a manuscript.  Having written many more manuscripts than have seen publication, I know just how useful peer review can be.  Like anything, however, it can also be treated legalistically, as if the reviewer knows more about a subject an author has just spent years researching.  No matter your impressions about this, once the reports come in, revision is in the cards.

Self editing is difficult.  And occasionally embarrassing.  You read again what seemed to make sense to you at the time, but even after you hit the “send” button you’ve continued reading.  New information comes to light.  Monographs are a very expensive form of dialogue.  Well, not so expensive as all that.  Many people are happy to pay out the cost of a monograph for a dinner out, which lasts an evening.  A book, mutatis mutandis, lasts much longer.  Like that meal, it’s taken internally and digested.  You can read the same book twice, however, without having to pay the second time around.  It’s a good idea, then, to revise before sending it to a patron’s table.  Ironically, revising a book on monsters takes time away from writing about monsters.  I also have essays awaiting revision, circling overhead like planes at Newark’s Liberty Airport.  And then there’s work, which has nothing to do with my own writing at all.  There’s a reason Nightmares occurs in the title.

Seventies

It’s pretty rare for me to be out on a week night.  Like a kid on a “school day” I’ve got to get up early the next morning.   And yawning a lot at work is bad form, even if nobody can see you.  I risked it recently, however, to meet with some colleagues from the Moravian orbit in Bethlehem.  As we talked, current projects came up, as they’ll do when doctorate-holders get together.  Demons are a conversation stopper, but I nevertheless asserted that our modern understanding of them derives directly from The Exorcist.  The insight isn’t mine—many people more knowledgable than yours truly have noted this.  One of my colleagues pointed out the parallel with The Godfather.  Before that movie the mafia was conceived by the public as a bunch of low-life thugs.  Afterward public perception shifted to classy, well-dressed connoisseurs who happen to be engaged in the business of violence and extortion.

The insight, should I ever claim as much, was that these films were both from the early seventies.  They both had a transformative cultural impact.  Movies since the seventies have, of course, influenced lots of things but the breadth of that influence has diminished.  I noticed the same thing about scholarship.  Anyone in ancient West Asian (or “Near Eastern”) studies knows the work of William Foxwell Albright.  Yes, he had prominent students but after Albright things began to fracture and it is no longer possible for one scholar to dominate the field in the same way he did.  Albright died in the early seventies.  Just as I was getting over the bewilderment of being born into a strange world, patterns were changing.  The era of individual influence was ending.  Has there been a true Star Wars moment since the seventies?  A new Apocalypse Now?

You see, I felt like I had to make the case that The Exorcist held influence unrivaled by other demon movies.  We’re still too close to the seventies (Watergate, anyone?) to analyze them properly.  Barbara Tuchman suggested at least a quarter-century has to go by for the fog to start clearing.  Today there are famous people who have immense internet fame.  Once you talk to people—some of them my age—who don’t surf the web you’ll see that internet fame stretches only so far.  It was true even in the eighties; the ability to be the influential voice was passing away into a miasma of partial attention.  The smaller the world gets, the more circumscribed our circles of influence.  And thus it was that an evening among some Moravians brought a bit of clarity to my muddled daily thinking.

Who Cares?

America’s all about money.  I read quite a bit about care-related exhaustion, and being in a situation where several family members are requiring care I’ve begun to notice that our government just doesn’t care.  Talking with a family member recently, his exhaustion was clearly evident.  Not affluent, he has to care for a spouse with Alzheimer’s and continue to work ten hour days because nobody pays you simply to help another human being in need.  Care can be monetized, of course.  Then Republicans sit up and take notice.  Until then, however, I try not to be overwhelmed by what is clearly a growing crisis.  Some call us the “sandwich generation”—we support our children longer as more and more jobs become obsolete, and we care for our parents longer as lifespans extend and extend.  For the working poor, the benefits do not keep pace with life expectancy.  And what child wants to see his or her parent suffer?  Why doesn’t our government care?

Instead of devising new ways to deal with a massive crisis (I know many people who are constantly running on empty from having both to caregive and to work), Washington tweets about how the wealthy are the objects of “witch hunts.”  Those with too much are so oppressed, but they just can’t see their way to share what they have.  Meanwhile even those of us with educations find ourselves not knowing what to do.  Politicians play their games forgetting that the pieces they move about the board are alive and sentient.  After all, there’s only one king on each side.  And who feels too bad if a pawn or two gets bumped off, as long as the monarch is kept safe?

There are solutions.  Not perfect, of course, but societies with a dash of socialism realize that if those on the bottom can’t do their jobs, those on the top will tumble too, when the foundation fails.  Any builder knows the importance of secure footings.  One guy, often cited by the GOP but never really listened to by them, said houses built on sand fall.  Giving care takes time, money, and energy.  Employers want those exact same things and should you fail to provide them, you will find yourself also requiring care.  Even if your reason was that you were caring for another.  Meanwhile policies will be made to favor those who line the pockets of the political.  Who cares?  Certainly not the officials we “elected” to “lead” us.

Frozen Streams

I was walking in Ithaca, with my feet not far from Sagan.  Winter had settled in prematurely, as it often does in upstate.  I was wearing a hoodie and old fleece combo and I suppose I looked a bit tatty.  My wife and daughter had gone to see Harriet, but movies about how badly people have mistreated others, strangely for a guy who watches horror, really depress me.  Ithaca, until recently, supported three independent bookstores, so I figured I could pass the time easily enough.  It was growing dark and breezy, and I visit bookstores only with a list, otherwise it’s too dangerous.  Autumn Leaves, a used vendor, I’ve visited many times.  Their religion section is disappointingly small, but I tend to find offerings in other areas when I blow in.

Buffalo Street Books is the last remaining indie that handles new books, but I stopped by The Bookery, now closing, on my way.  This was saddening.  Ithaca houses both the ivy league Cornell and the highly regarded Ithaca College.  I suspect many of the street sweepers hold doctorates.  Has book culture entirely bent the knee to Amazon?  At the end of the last millennium, Ithaca housed 25 independent bookstores.  Today it’s evident that Buffalo Street (formerly The Bookery II) struggles to keep its hold.  I feel ethically obligated to buy something there, to take one for the team.  I had a short list and the shelves in The Bookery had been nearly bare.  It was just too depressing to stay there.  I found an inside bench and sat to read until the movie was over.

Or so I thought.  I ventured back outside and now it was fully dark, being six p.m., and I wandered back to the familiar Ithaca Commons.  I went into a couple of shops, but they looked at me as if I were homeless.  (I suppose I was, in a sense.)  I haven’t had a haircut in a while, and my beard is scruffy and white.  My hoodie and fleece don’t speak to affluence.  I had unconcealed books—I routinely refuse bags—and I suppose I could come across as a touch eccentric.  (I don’t have enough money to be authentically eccentric.)  I wondered how street people do it.  Outside the east wind was decidedly sharp and windbreaks on the pedestrian zone are few.  I came to the monument to Martin Luther King Junior.  I was walking in Ithaca but I really felt that books could make that dream come true.

The Happy Science

Many seem to be wondering, if the media are to be believed, why America, like REM, is losing its religion.  (And yes, I know that the expression for the latter means to lose one’s temper, not literally to lose one’s faith.)  Derek Thompson at the Atlantic recently wrote about how the more literal loss took place around 1990.  He posits that the rise of the Christian Right, the Cold War coming to an end, and 9/11 are behind the loss.  As an historian of religion, even with a more ancient focus, I have to wonder if his gaze goes back far enough.  Being born early in the sixties was an opportunity to have a front-row seat.  My family was very religious.  To us, the rest of the world may have been going to Hell, but locally we were trying to please God, as most everyone we knew was.

Theologians and sociologists thought God had died.  Nietzsche, always ahead of his time, had declared as much nearly a century before the sixties got underway.  The public face of religion, however, is never the same as what’s going on below.  The religious right was built on a deep-seated hypocrisy from the beginning.  Now hypocrisy is so very human it’d be easily forgiven were it not for the constant insistence on self-righteousness followed by the revelation of some base human vice.  Time and time again televangelists didn’t cover the tracks of their peccadillos well enough, and Catholic priest couldn’t fight that feeling.  They were doing what humans have probably always done, but while wearing the vestments of public respectability.  Like Cthulhu, it seemed like God was dead but dreaming under the sea.

Religion, as all scholars of the phenomenon know, changes only very slowly.  Church attendance began dropping in the seventies, but back then there was such a thing as the rule of law and a real concern that your neighbors didn’t think you a Commie.  Fast forward to the era of Trump when the rule of law broke down completely and religions rank right up there with Republicans as being the most dishonest elements of humankind.  We look back at when the slow trickle seemed to breech the dyke in the 1990s.  The real game changer (since 9/11 was still in the future) was the birth of the internet.  People began to talk freely about the two subjects—religion and politics—that those of us from the sixties were taught assiduously to avoid in polite company.  Nietzsche published Die fröhliche Wissenschaft in 1882.  It would take about a century to sink in, and human religious leaders would be the ones to prove his point.  At least in this world of choosing our confessions.

TMI

Recently I was left alone for the entirety of a Saturday.  On rare days when I feel affluent, I’ll go and purchase supplies to take on the many tasks that need doing around the house—most of the books on my office are still stacked on the floor for lack of shelves.  I can build them, but that takes money.  Often when I have an unclaimed day I plan it out weeks in advance.  Things have been busy enough of late that I didn’t even have the time to do that.  All the sudden I woke up on a November Saturday with tabula rasa in front of me.  Then I realized one of the constant pressures I face: TMI.  One of my nieces—the one who started this blog, actually—first introduced me to Too Much Information (TMI).  I don’t get out much, you see.

Like most people who flirt with tech, I snap photos with my phone.  When we go somewhere that I suspect we’ll never be able to afford to go again, I take an actual camera and let fly like I work for National Geographic or something.  Since my laptop’s on a data diet, all of these end up on a terabyte drive, hurriedly downloaded as IMG or DSCN files, waiting to be sorted later.  Do this since the inception of digital photographs and you’ll get a sense of the magnitude of the problem.  My laptop says it’s full and I have to delete images with that dire warning they’ll go away forever.  I back them up.  When was the last time I did this?  I wrote it down, but I forgot where.  What did I even name the file?  Did I back it up or is it on my hard disc?  Why are there eight copies of the same photograph?  I spent the day sorting, virtually.

Before I knew it, the sun was beginning to set.  I’d awoken at 4:00 (being a weekend I slept in), and after a day of organizing electronic photos into electronic folders, I’d barely made a dent.  Deduping alone takes so much time.  Some of the pictures, while nice, I couldn’t remember at all.  I shudder, though, thinking about grandparents that burned old photos because nobody remembered who they were any more.  Then I realized that our lives are the most documented of any in history (so far) but nobody really cares.  You could learn an awful lot about some stranger just by going through their photos—where they’ve been, what they thought important, and just how obsessive they could be.  As I wound up the day, I realized why I don’t get out much any more.