Reviewing Nightmares

If you’ve wanted a copy of Nightmares with the Bible but the cost is a little dear, I might recommend you look on the Reading Religion website where, as of my last look, a free review copy is available.  The catch is you have to write a review.  This is, of course, first come, first served service.  I tried, more than once, to get Holy Horror listed on their website for review, so I’m glad to see one of my books finally made it.  The idea of the horror hermeneutic seems to be catching on.  Technically speaking, however, what I’m doing is more history of religions than hermeneutics.  History of religions, at least part of it, examines whence ideas arise.  Nightmares asks that question specifically about demons.

The specific focus on horror in religion is a fairly new field of study.  Biblical scholars—indeed, those who specialize in very old fields of study in general—must keep looking for new angles.  Unlike any other piece of literature, the Good Book has been the target of scholarly interest from the very beginning of the western academic tradition.  It’s easy to forget, when looking at many secular powerhouse schools, that the very idea of higher education arose from what is now the discipline of the lowest paid of academic posts.  Being so old, religious studies, known at the time as theology, is hardly a venerated field.  I tend to think it’ll come back.  If you look at what’s happening in politics in this country, it’s bound too.  And yes, there will be horror.

Horror studies in the field operates by recognizing that horror and religion share common ground.  Like religion, horror is considered backward and uninformed.  Neither is really true of either horror or religion, but perception becomes reality for most people.  Finding themselves in remedial class together religion and horror have begun to speak to one another.  Horror has quite a following, even if those who like it keep mostly quiet about it.  The same is true of religion.  Many of the most effective horror films bring religion directly into the mix, often making it the actual basis of the horror.  The first books that I know of that brought the two explicitly together only began appearing at the turn of the millennium.  At first there were very few.  Now an increasing number of tomes have begun to appear.  For better or worse, two of mine are in the mix.  If you’d like to review the most recent one, you might check out Reading Religion, and maybe spare a kind word or two for what are, after all, baby steps.

Welcome the Stranger

Welcome, sibling! Have you ever contributed to a genealogy online?  I know not everyone’s into their ancestry, but there’s enough of the treasure-hunt to it, and enough mystery to keep you turning the pages.  Some time ago—it was when I was a professor, because I actually had some leisure time—I posted a bit on WikiTree.  WikiTree is a free communal effort to map the world of relationships.  Just about every week there’s a newsletter emailed around, offering how many degrees of separation you are from someone famous.  Often this is tied into the news cycle, so recently Prince Philip was among those measured.  Then Carrie Fisher.  Without fail, over the past several weeks, the family member through whom I’m connected to the famous is a great uncle.  The same great uncle.

I usually lose interest when the relationship starts to get to siblings and spouses.  There are webs everywhere.  Still, this intrigued me.  I’d never knowingly heard of this great uncle (and certainly never met him) but he was under 20 degrees of separation from several famous people.  It made me consider how you never can tell what relationships might lead to connections.  My direct ancestors, as far as I know, were all humble, work-a-day sorts.  One branch of the family had an engineer a couple generations removed, but for the most part they were farmers, laborers, truck drivers, and such.  The web of human relationships includes everyone, of course.  At some point in our family trees, we share a common ancestor, be they Neanderthal or Cro-Magnon (or a blending of the two).  When we harm or hate another person we’re harming or hurting a sibling, distant or close.

Getting along with everyone may be too much for which to hope, but at least tolerating seems worth stretching for.  I once found a long-lost cousin.  This was accompanied by a wonderful feeling of having found a family I didn’t even know.  Genealogy made that particular reunion possible.  Before that I might have passed this cousin as a stranger on the street.  It made me stop and think.  Is that stranger actually someone related?  Traveling back to the areas my ancestors lived I occasionally glimpse a face that could be a distant uncle or aunt.  My mental calculus kicks in, but there’s really no way to know just how close they might be.  Now, if I were my unknown great uncle chances might be somewhat better that I’m only a degree or two removed.  Even so, I should try to treat the stranger as though that were the case.

We’re all interconnected.

Pricing out of Business

Maybe you’re like most normal people and don’t pay much attention to who the publisher of a book is.  If you read a lot, and can get behind the glitz and glam of an Amazon page, you might come to trust certain publishers over others.  The fact is, despite the difficulty some of us have getting published, there are a lot of presses out there.  Some are clearly self-publishing vehicles, but many are small, independent houses that focus on specialized topics.  The sheer numbers can be bewildering.  I was looking for a reputable book on a certain subject the other day and, given my job, I always check the publisher.  Several in a row came up that I had never even heard of before.  I guess there is money to be made in publishing yet, if only one could find the matching pieces.

With academic publishing you can spend five or more years of your life writing a book and you’ll earn royalties that literally won’t cover a month’s rent when you’re done.  Even while this is happening there are people who make a living publishing books with presses you’ve never heard of.  They know how to get average citizens to buy their books.  I’ve been working in publishing for over a decade now and I guess I still don’t have it figured out yet.  It’s complex, and even with online publishing helps like agent-finding sites or Duotrope, you’ll find that each day brings its own changes.  I’ve learned through personal experience that many publishers simply don’t last.

What many of these fly-by-night publishers understand better than established academic presses is that price matters.  Well, let me put that in more precise terms, for all publishers need money—fly-by-night publishers know that average people will buy only the books they can afford.  These presses I’ve never heard of sell books for the industry standard of about sixteen bucks.  My least expensive book sells for about twenty-two and I’ve been told more than once that it’s too expensive for most mortal budgets.  Collectively, my four books cost almost $250, averaging out at sixty per pop.  Two of them were written for general readers who have no hope of being able to afford them.  I tried to find an agent for one of them, and the other was a series book (no agent will touch such a thing).  Perhaps I should’ve tried a lesser-known press that could afford to offer my books at affordable prices.   You could do worse.

As Nature Directs

The news about the “stampede” in Israel last week is tragic.  People like to gather in large crowds once in a while.  Religious events are sometimes such occasions (although not so much the case among mainstream religions anymore).  In this case the celebration, largely among the Ultra-Orthodox, was Lag BaOmer, a festival with unknown origins.  It has to do with counting the omer, a measure, in a biblically based instruction regarding grain offerings.  Since it’s based on the lunar Jewish calendar, it doesn’t fall on the same date of the solar year every time.  To be honest, I’d not heard of this celebration before the tragedy that occurred last week.  Having been confined for over a year, many religious groups are anxious to be back together in numbers.  Nothing reinforces belief better than having the size to be taken seriously.

A few years back, if I recall correctly, it was Muslim faithful at Mecca who experienced a tragic uncontrolled panic.  Religious ideas bring people together, but they can’t always control the results.  I’m reminded of what a Protestant clergyman told me many years ago: after a Billy Graham crusade came to town, the regular ministers were ill-equipped to handle the large numbers of emotionally charged members who normally sat still in the pews.  Religion stirs people, but its psychological nature shows when it leads to tragedy.  No particular group is immune since we are all emotional animals.  One slip on the stairs, one panicked individual, and those nearby can be infected.  Already emotional from the event itself, nature takes its course.

Stampedes are an evolved flight response.  Herd animals, when perceiving a threat, begin to run.  Others, not even directly aware of the threat, join in.  Other animals, not aware of their “herd mentality,” seem to handle this more naturally than do people.  Indeed, our religions often instruct us not to think of ourselves as animals at all.  Our religious events are often removed from our familiar surroundings.  I suspect that may be one reason people don’t find “Zoom church” very satisfying.  The emotion of religion is more easily spread in person.  In a place specifically designed as being outside the norm.  You take your hat off in church.  You sit quietly, reverently, in church.  You do not use coarse language in church.  In a pandemic you try to join in while physically in the environment where the rest of everyday life occurs.  When we gather again, we must do it while being aware of our nature.  Being part of nature itself can often be, if well thought out, cause for celebration.  We mourn those who fall victim to it.

Learning from Nature

Netflix is one of those companies that has shown that new models for providing both television and movies are emerging.  Of course there are many subscription services, but Netflix rose to the top of the pile during this pandemic.  I don’t watch it much, since my time is generally otherwise spoken for, but I did have a chance to watch My Octopus Teacher, a documentary about Craig Foster’s relationship with an octopus.  The story unfolds over a year in which Foster comes to know, and to be recognized by, an octopus.  Quite apart from the Cthulhu references that may come to mind, octopuses are often skittish, highly intelligent mollusks.  Perhaps what made this movie such a surprise hit was just how emotionally attached viewers become to the cephalopod through Foster’s relationship with her.

Photo by Serena Repice Lentini on Unsplash

Almost immediately in the documentary, the viewer is struck by just how intelligent octopuses are.  The particular personality—and there is no other word for it—featured in this film is able to think and solve problems.  Not only that, but she is capable of forming a relationship with a human being she came to trust.  For many decades we’ve been taught that animals are like automatons, reacting with stock behaviors, because they can’t think.  Any claims to animal intelligence were chalked up as “anthropomorphism,” or inappropriately allowing animals to share in that coveted human trait of being “intelligent.”  The idea comes from the Bible and not even scientists would question it for the longest time.  Spending part of each day with one octopus, however, gives the lie to animals being subject to programmed behavior.  Like both Heisenberg and Schrödinger demonstrated, being involved in the scenario necessarily changes it. 

Animal intelligence has great implications for religion, of course.  This is perhaps why it is such a taboo subject.  What does it mean if animals can think and act intentionally?  Does it imply morality?  Foster implicitly raises that very question as he tries to decide whether to keep the pajama sharks away from the octopus he’s befriended.  Is he watching nature or has he become a part of it?  Our religions are often our ethical signposts.  In more recent years ethics has been shifted to the philosophy department since many people outwardly distrust the obviously mythical aspects of religious stories.  Nevertheless, the implications are clearly there.  Doesn’t it make a difference that our world is filled with other intelligent beings apart from those of us with opposable thumbs?  Watch My Octopus Teacher before deciding on an answer.

Dark and Light

I perhaps have nothing new to say about Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.  It was published before I was ten, and although I grew up reading science fiction I really didn’t read any of Le Guin’s work until this year.  It wasn’t intentional—in a small town you read what you can get your hands on, and cover art designed to attract young boys often worked on me.  Now having read it, I’m left in a reflective mood.  Everyone, of course, comments on the gender aspect of the novel.  I guess I’ll be forgiven for doing so as well.  After all, it is the most striking feature of the story.  As we know from our lives on earth, gender affects pretty much everything about our lives.  The biological imperative is strong.  It’s no less strong in Left Hand of Darkness, but it is different.

In case you’re like me and haven’t read it (until now), it’s not a spoiler to indicate that it is the story of a male envoy to a planet where the people (and only large mammals) are genderless until once a month they enter “kemmering” when one becomes temporarily male and another temporarily female.  The genders aren’t fixed, but fluid.  Since the kemmering stage comes only once a month, during that time it become an urgent need among those experiencing it.  The novel isn’t about only that, of course, but it is the noteworthy feature that relates to the religion and daily life of the inhabitants of the planet Winter.

It might seem that this idea of shifting genders is itself science fiction, but it is not.  There are species on earth that change change gender, bringing into question the statement taken for universal that “male and female he made them.”  While gender seems to be evolution’s solution of choice for reproduction, that’s not universal either.  In other words, nature provides us with multiple ways in which plants, animals, and things in-between, can continue their existence on this planet.  The writers of the Bible weren’t great observers of nature, nor were they scientifically minded.  At a glance it looks like animals all conform to the model presented by Genesis.  In reality, the world is much more complex than that.  Religions aren’t always as comfortable with complexity as writers of science fiction tend to be.  Left Hand of Darkness is fine world-building and provocative at that.  This may be nothing new, but it is worth pondering again.

Joyous Beltane

Every year around Beltane, I think of The Wicker Man.  Of course, the holiday itself, aka May Day, is no cause for alarm.  What makes the movie so effective—and I mean the original film, of course—is the fear of others’ religions.  My last two books have explored the nexus of horror and religion and The Wicker Man always stands out as an example of how naturally the two go together.  May Day, or Beltane, represents one of the cross-quarter days.  It falls roughly halfway between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice.  Days are noticeable longer now than they were back before the equinox, and Beltane, like many cross-quarter days, uses the symbolism of light to remind us of the seasonality of life.  While the light is here we should make use of it.

Photo by Ameen Fahmy on Unsplash

Agricultural festivals—and many ancient holidays began as such—acknowledge the importance of the lives of animals pastoralists depended upon.  Imbolc, the start of spring, was marked by sheep beginning their lambing.  Beltane was the point at which cattle could be driven to pasture.  It stands opposite Samhain, the origin of our Halloween, with Lughnasadh falling between.  These holidays were often celebrated with bonfires (thus The Wicker Man), but fire was understood as protective rather than destructive.  Although the Celts seem to have originated in east-central Europe, they were pushed to the northern fringes of the British Isles by other invading peoples.  Their location in chillier climes suggests that fire may have also held a practical purpose.

May Day is celebrated throughout much of Europe as a day associated with fertility.  This, it seems, was a major cause of concern among Christian missionaries.  Fertility is, of course, a natural hope.  Agrarian peoples rely on it to survive.  Fire served to bless the animals and to keep away the mischief of the little people, or nature spirits.  Much of what we know of Beltane, as with other Celtic holidays, has to be reconstructed since the Celts didn’t leave a scholarly archive that could be farmed for information.  Indeed, prior to widespread literacy what would’ve been the point of writing down what the folk already knew?  It was obvious that summer was on the way.  Even in years when the temperatures struggle to warm consistently, there are hints that “the light-soaked days are coming.”  The bonfires of Beltane represent the warmth and light that are on their way.  And what religion could object to that?


To truly understand a religion, you must be part of it.  This is the dilemma that underlies the entire discipline of religious studies.  And it all comes down to that slippery concept of “belief.”  One of the books that has been on my reading list for years now is Heather and Gary Botting’s The Orwellian World of Jehovah’s Witnesses.  What finally prompted me to read it was the (relatively) recent receipt of an invitation to spend what many call Good Friday (for it is today for the Orthodox) with the local Kingdom Hall crowd.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, the last people to come to my door before the pandemic began were the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  I’ve read about them before, but scholarly literature on the sect is rare, despite their obvious influence.  One reason for this, I suspect, is that to understand you have to partake.

This is where the book by the Bottings comes in.  They were raised as Witnesses and eventually left.  They have been on the inside.  This book takes the interesting hook of comparing that inside world to the vision of the Party in George Orwell’s 1984.  Not only that, but the math regarding the end of the world, or Armageddon, more properly speaking, showed that 1984 was the terminus for the next phase of Witnesses’ history inaugurated by the spiritual return of Jesus in 1914.  It is no accident that this book itself was published in 1984.  The world of the Watchtower is explored creatively and somewhat thoroughly here.  The only problem with reading it nearly forty years later is that I’m left curious for updates.  The Witnesses are, after all, still out there.

The thing about beliefs is that we all have them and we can’t always explain them.  They are part of our rational faculties, but also part of our emotional thinking as well.  No one is totally objective and even Mr. Spock gives in to feelings once in a while.  No system of belief is entirely rational.  Since we don’t have all the data it necessarily can’t be.  We tend to believe what we feel is right.  Those raised in traditions of NRM (New Religious Movements) absorb the beliefs their parents and guardians teach them just as much as Catholic school kids do.  They are often warned about those outside the tradition and what they will inevitably say about it.  This makes them look prophetic.  Once a child has been raised in an exclusionary system, getting her or him out of it is not only difficult, but often damaging to them.  So it is with belief.  This book really made me think.

The Cost of Content

Those who don’t read this blog (you, my friend, are in a rarified crowd) aren’t aware of my antipathy to tech for tech’s sake.  Many people mindlessly go after the latest technology without stopping to think of the consequences.  I was reluctant to get a cell phone.  Not a decade ago I got along fine without one.  When I finally succumbed, I found I didn’t use it much.  I still don’t.  Nevertheless, many have charged ahead.  It’s not the first time I’ve been let behind.  I recently wrote about an organization I joined that unilaterally decided to make all members sign up for Slack.  “It’s better than email,” they said.  What they didn’t say is that it doesn’t replace email.  In fact, what it does is gives you yet another communication medium you have to constantly check.  Why?

Not that long ago—a year or two perhaps—it was recommended that you ask people what their preferred form of communication was.  Phone call?  Text?  Email?  Well, my cell phone plan charges by the call and text so please don’t use that.  My preference, since about the last century, has been email.  I check it regularly and I respond as long as emails don’t get buried by others on top of them.  What did my organization do?  Went to Slack.  How long, I ask, will it be before advertisers and others figure out how to do the Slack stack?  How long before a new technology (giddy giggle) comes along and we all have to do that instead?  I’ve lost track of the number of software packages and apps I’ve had to learn for work.  Several dozens at least.  What suffers?  The content does.

Now I get three or four, or nine or ten Slack notifications a day, through my email. (My computer has no room for a nw app.)  It has compounded the premature burial issue I’ve got.  That email that arrived just yesterday is now on page two.  When will I have time to navigate to it?  I guess I’ve been slacking off.  So now I check my email to see if there’s another system that I have to check to find out someone wants to contact me.  I miss the days when humanity drove communication instead of technology doing it.  Learning some new system isn’t always the solution to complex problems.  Or at least we can find out the preferences of the individual before making them learn (and probably eventually forget) a new communication system.  It seems to me that we should be spending actual time on the content of the communication itself instead of playing with new toys.

More about Nightmares

I became aware of TheoFantastique many years ago.  Being new to social media myself, I was impressed at how professional and intelligent the site was.  Eventually I decided to introduce myself to John Morehead, the creator behind it.  (It is possible to be shy on the internet, so this took a few years.)  When Holy Horror came out I asked if TheoFantastique would post a review of it and got an even better response with an interview.  Now that Nightmares with the Bible is out the tradition has been kept going.  If you’d like to see an interview on the book take a look here.  One of the topics that comes up in discussion is how popular culture—TheoFantastique is cleverly named in that regard—influences the way we think about religion.

Religious studies was, not so long ago, a growing field.  Many of us have been trying to understand why interest began to sag, somewhat abruptly, and came to the point that it now feels like an endangered species.  Two of the consequences of this are important: one is that we don’t invest in studying what motivates just about everything in American politics and society, and the second is that the average person gets her or his information about religion from popular culture.  Movies, for example, are impactful, brief, and entertaining.  Humans are visual learners and although books punch above their weight in the learning division, having someone show you something is faster and requires less commitment than reading.  Academics, most of whom love reading, have been very slow to cotton onto this fact.  Society learns by looking.

That observation stands behind both Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible.  Both of these explorations look at how people come to understand two aspects of religion: the Bible and demons.  Instead of attempting to tackle all of religious studies (nobody can) or all of cinema (ditto), these books look at the horror genre to see how fans come to understand the Good Book.  As the interview explores, other scholars—mostly younger ones—are beginning to realize this is where people live.  It’s rare to find someone who commits to reading an academic monograph unless they’re in the academy.  Even academics, however, watch movies.  When the locus of information shifts to popular culture we need to start taking seriously what popular culture says.  More people will watch The Exorcist than will ever read an academic monograph about demons.  If we want to understand how people understand religion—what religion is—we need to pay attention.  And TheoFantastique is a great place to start. 

Literary Life

Trying to live a literary life is, I suppose, irresponsible.  Especially if your efforts and writing bring basically no money.  It takes considerable effort to make daily time to read and write, and so much else remains to be done.  At times I feel guilty for trying.  My books have all been published, for various reasons, with academic publishers.  Academic publishers don’t try to sell many copies of an individual book, relying as they do on the long tail philosophy.  Most academics have good paying jobs that expect research and writing in return.  For the outsider, however, there are other pressing matters.  The nine-to-five being the largest among them.  And any social organizations you join to keep you sane and connected.  Then there’s social media to take your time.  And the lawn’s ready for mowing.

I’ve always believed lack of time was (is) a theological problem.  I came up with that when I was an academic and had time to ponder such things.  Unlike many of my colleagues, I did research and write.  Now I want to move into that world where you might earn a little from all the effort.  And yet, that old Protestant guilt has a way of getting its talons around you.  You’re reading?  Shouldn’t you be doing those minor repairs you can handle without a contractor?  (Or at least think you can handle?)  Or maybe shouldn’t you be looking for a job that pays enough to hire someone to do such things?  And don’t you dare let that word “retirement” anywhere near your head.  What are you, irresponsible?

Reading takes commitment.  I try to read, on average, at least a book a week.  It requires a lot of time.  And a literary life includes giving back.  You want to share your writing with the world.  Hoping that either your fiction or nonfiction might eventually bring you some notice.  That’s the plan anyway.  The starving artist paradigm doesn’t feel so comfortable when you’ve got a mortgage.  Still, the imagination refuses to be tamed.  I’ve often said I could be content on a desert island as long as I had a huge stack of paper and never-ending supply of pens.  But that’s not the reality I inhabit.  That mortgage pays for a roof over my books and writing computer, always complaining it’s full.  It may not be glamorous.  In fact, it’s about the exact opposite of that.  But it is, after all, a literary life.

Time To Think

Although I’m not Roman Catholic, I often thought about joining a monastery as a teen and twenty-something.  The idea of spending all my time devoted to contemplating the ultimate reality still has a strong appeal.  I know quite a few rationalists who have no time for spirituality, but it seems to me that we all need it for facing death.  Most people, I know, avoid the topic if at all possible.  Contemplatives, on the other hand, spend quite a bit of time preparing for it.  Since it’s inevitable that makes sense.  I often wonder why people consider the most common thing in human experience with such trepidation.  If it’s a source of anxiety, shouldn’t it be confronted?  That’s not to say we need to look forward to it, but it does mean we shouldn’t run from it either.

Carlos Schwabe, Death of the Undertaker; Wikimedia Commons

The combination of Christianity and rationalism, it seems to me, lead to this terror.  Christianity because it views death as an enemy, and rationalism because it has no comfort to offer.  I’ve been reading about how pre-Christian cultures thought of death.  They didn’t display the fear that Paul seems to have introduced into the equation.  Since American culture is so heavily influenced by the Bible (as was European culture before it), we have adopted the scriptural view that death is a problem.  The Hebrew Bible, in which there was no real afterlife, was less concerned with making sure you avoided Hell—they had no Hell to avoid.  The anxiety seems to have been introduced by, ironically, the concept of resurrection.

I’ve noted on pieces I’ve written for other websites that resurrection is among the favorite themes for horror films.  One of the reasons is precisely this discomfort in taking death at face value.  Our religions keep us aware of the spiritual side of our nature.  They have developed around the world in different forms and all of them address death in some way.  Most without a profound sense of anxiety.  There is some irony in cultures that adopt resurrection as a theological tenet are among those that try to avoid death most assiduously.  It plays into those cultures’ views on abortion and capital punishment.  As well as their performance of social justice.  While Paul asked death where its sting was, and seems legitimately not to have feared it, in the centuries following his position seems to have eroded.  There seems to be plenty to contemplate here, if only secular society had monasteries.

You Are Data

The dark web.  The very idea conjures up images of extremely seedy technophiles with ambitions that run from illegal to just plain inhumane.  It’s a place I never want to go.  Still, it was brought to mind by a recent article in Threat Post.  (If you ever want an excuse to unplug and curl up with your head under the blanket, Threat Post might be a good place to start.)  The particular story was about the theft of millions of users’ data from LinkedIn.  This followed shortly after major data theft from Facebook.  In the world of the web-addicted the hacker is king.  Data are used for who knows what nefarious purposes, but primarily, I suspect, to try to sell you stuff.  Anyone who’s produced something (such as, say, a book) knows how difficult it is to get that product noticed.  Forcing it into someone’s inbox is one potential way.

What bothered me the most about this story was a line from an official in cyber-protection research (not a choice of major when I was in college).  It was noted there that although the data contained no financial information, it does contain information of value, “which is why it’s not published it for free.”  Those last two words: “for free.”  Data are, apparently, available for sale.  The computer people I know (all of whom are younger than me) tell me data mining is common on everything from social media to web browsers.  When you choose to go online you’re offering information about yourself to others.  Some of them dwell in the dark web.

Personally, I don’t know what they’d want from me beyond the scary thought of getting ahold of the digits that define me.  I’m not a fan of shopping and tend to buy only what I need.  (Yes, books are a necessity.)  I have probably succumbed to purchasing something seen in an online ad once or twice, but it is generally only if a holiday’s approaching or if it’s something I’d already thought I needed.  The fact is we can get along with a lot less.  If only we knew how to grow our own food.  Which is something, I suspect, that we could look up online.  But beware, your agricultural interest will be noted, and likely sold.  There’s money to be made on the web.  And before long you’ll end up with John Deere ads tailor made to suit your interests, and liquid assets.

Lessons from Mars

It’s a parable.  This week, on a planet weeks away, earthlings achieved heavier than air flight.  Considering that we flew for the first time on our own planet only 118 years ago (within feasible limits of a very successful human lifetime), the achievement is remarkable.  What I found most fascinating about the live stream provided by NASA, however, was the human element in the control room.  Not only did all the engineers look young enough to have been my children, I was cheered almost to tears to see several women among them.  We’ve come a long way.  And I don’t mean just to get to Mars.  There’s a lot of work yet to be done on the planet on which we evolved, but it does me good to see scientists recognizing the contributions women make to progress.

While many cultures worldwide still consider women the property of men, that scene showed that with women in leadership roles we can achieve remarkable things.  Only with the priorities of diversifying the workplace could we realize a dream that began long before Kitty Hawk.  People of all genders and all ethnicities have much to offer our growing sense of accomplishment.  Mars is millions of miles away.  Perseverance and Ingenuity are being controlled across this godlike distance by a group of humans that consists not just of angry white men who want to rule this world.  Although the palpable  excitement in the room was for what was happening far away, my spirits were buoyed by what was happening here.

Our biology defines us, but it becomes a sin when it confines us.  We are capable of more.  We’ve flown on another planet, and yet we still need to learn that on this planet all people deserve fair and equitable treatment.  It boggles my mind that on that reddish speck I can see on a clear night, a speck so small that my pinkie held at arm’s length can obliterate it, we have landed a car-sized rover and a helicopter.  The math involved staggers this old mind, but the imagination inspires it.  We come to moments like these when women and men of various backgrounds come together and dream.  Double-masked and socially distant, young people have shown us a world far beyond what angry white men could even imagine.  Watching the video of a helicopter taking off, hovering, and landing on another planet, looking at the people in the room, I realize there is a parable here.

Creepy Houses

Definitions, I’m learning, are often a matter of one’s experience and taste.  I’ve read a lot of gothic novels and have tried to pinpoint what it is that creates a gothic feel for me.  I say “for me” because other people sometimes suggest works that I would put into a different category.  In any case, it’s clear that The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters, is a gothic novel by any measure.  A large, isolated house.  A tainted family slowly fading away.  A remorseless, 400-page winter.  Inevitable decay.  The story is ambiguous and moody as Dr. Faraday, the narrator, falls in love with Caroline Ayres, the only daughter of an aristocratic family in decline.  The house may be haunted.  Or the family may be breaking down mentally.  Like The Turn of the Screw, it’s up to the reader to decide.

My preferred gothic has elements of the supernatural in it.  Melancholy without existential threat isn’t really enough to tip the scale for me.  The Little Stranger has enough of both to keep the reader guessing right up to the end.  Reader-response theory—the underlying basis for what’s being called “reception history”—posits that the reader assigns meaning.  The author has her idea of what happened in mind, but the reader contributes their own understanding.  This idea has influenced my own writing.  Once a piece is published the readers will make of it what they will.  In this way I can read Little Stranger as a haunted house story.  Although it was made into a movie I have to confess that I only heard of the novel recently while searching for gothic novels I might’ve missed.

The ambiguity fits the ambiguity of life.  The same circumstances can be interpreted by one person as entirely natural while another will add a super prefix.  No one person has all the answers and reality can be a matter of interpretation.  In that way Sarah Waters’ art follows life.  Interestingly, religion plays very little role in the story.  Church, when it appears, is perfunctory.  The source of tension here is on a rational, medical interpretation of events versus the gloomy lived experience of the Ayres family.  They believe themselves haunted and the scientific answers have difficulty convincing readers that there’s nothing more going on.  This is a gothic novel with a capital G.  Nevertheless, the debased cleric would have been welcome, but you can’t have everything.