Fear of the Other

Two things: I’ve been reading about and materials by American Indians lately, and I learned about Stephen Graham Jones through a video of him reading one of his stories.  I was immediately hooked.  It seems to me that those of us who’ve gone through trauma—either personally or ethnically—are disproportionately represented among those who like horror.  I’m not suggesting a simple equation, but simply noticing a trend.  Jones has been winning awards as a horror writer and I was anxious to get started.  Night of the Mannequins didn’t disappoint.  Jones is a member of the Blackfeet nation and, according to the author bio, a real slasher fan.  This story isn’t really a slasher but it is an exploration of what happens when an idea takes over someone’s life.

More about growing up in Texas than being First Nations, it follows a group of teens who find an abandoned mannequin and a practical joke that goes terribly wrong.  It’s a story will a real feel for what it means to grow up beneath the middle class.  The realities for those who do are somehow quite different than from those who can take some measure of financial security for granted.  It also makes a good setting for horror stories as the protagonist tries to figure out what’s going on without the aid of authorities and adults.  It makes for a compelling read.  Jones’ no-nonsense style draws you in and it doesn’t let you go.

The book is fairly recent and I don’t want to give too much away.  I do often think about how a writer’s personal experience leads to the books s/he writes.  The horror genre is wide-ranging and can be deep and intelligent.  Despite its brief extent, there’s a lot of depth here.  The straightforward writing style gives the book verisimilitude.  You could see this actually happening.  Monsters, after all, are frequently in our minds.  That doesn’t make them any less real.  Mannequins tend to inhabit the uncanny valley—they’re human and yet, at the same time they’re not.  There are aspects of growing up in “white” culture that must suggest the same to those who’ve been and who continue to be, oppressed by that culture.  There is a real fear to being controlled by others whose intentions, it must be clear by now, are to make themselves rich.  The world is a richer place, however, for having books by Stephen Graham Jones in it.  I’ll be coming back for more.


Strange Reading

What more can you say about the Bible?  A lot’s been said already.  So much, in fact, that nobody can read all of it in a lifetime.  That realization started to come to me as I was trying to find everything that had been written about Asherah—who’s mentioned in the Bible—to write my dissertation.  I didn’t find everything, but I found a good deal of it.  Enough, in any case, to write my cautionary words about the subject.  Kristin Swenson’s A Most Peculiar Book brings the insights of a fellow traveler to the fore.  In a serious yet lighthearted way, she points out, as the subtitle says, The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible.  In other words, it’s not what most people—especially those who speak the loudest about it—think that it might be.

There are many angles from which to approach the Good Book.  One size most definitely doesn’t fit all.  A book like this would benefit from being read by those who take the Bible literally, but one of the problems is that literalists have no motivation to read such a book.  Indeed, their trusted leaders actively warn against it.  Such treatments are dangerous at best, and are possibly demonic.  One of my professors once put it well: fundamentalism isn’t a theological position, it’s a psychological problem.  In any other area of life those exact same literalists will apply reason and logic.  When it comes to their beliefs, however, refusal to engage with the tools that make their lives otherwise successful becomes an eleventh commandment.

Swenson points out things that will likely be old news to biblical scholars.  Having been through all this in a way ourselves, we remember what it was like to become “woke.”   To those raised as literalists, this is no small ask.  It stabs at the heart of everything you’re raised to believe.  The fear is that there’ll be nothing on the other side, at best, Hell at worst.  These are very real fears.  They may never completely leave, no matter how long you’ve been awake or how much rational coffee you’ve drained.  Such fears deserve a sympathetic hearing.  Without it I’m not sure any progress can be made.  Strip below posturing and bravado and you’ll find fear.  I do hope A Most Peculiar Book will find its way to such folks.  Swenson shows there is life after biblical studies and her book has some fun facts for those unfamiliar with the book about which there’s somehow never enough to say.


Not Archives

There was a historical Dracula.  The cognomen of Vlad Tepes, or Vlad III of Wallachia, Dracula’s association with vampirism surprisingly dates back only to Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  And much of what I read about Vlad III as a child has been reevaluated, with much of it being reassigned to exaggeration.  (I often wonder if this isn’t part of the reason so many of my generation have become conservative—it can be unsettling to have the certainties with which you were raised topple like so many dominoes.)  In any case, I started reading about vampires when I discovered our high school library had historical books on them, and so I recently picked up Raymond Rudorff’s The Dracula Archives at a book sale, despite its lurid cover.  The reason?  The back cover classification is “nonfiction.”

Clearly that was a marketing ploy, and although the book cost me merely pennies on the dollar for a mass-market paperback from that era (1973), I was a little disappointed to find it was a novel.  I figured it out within a page.  (You have to understand—at a book sale the normal rational faculties don’t always apply.  Anyone who’s been to a library book sale in Scotland knows that little old ladies throw elbows to get at a book they want, and you have to think fast if you’re on the fence.)  So The Dracula Archives is intended to be the prequel to Dracula.  Mirroring the latter, Rudorff’s work is comprised of diary entries and letters, slowly building up a fictional identity for Stoker’s titular character.  It isn’t as fast paced as the cover blurbs indicate, but it does manage to sound historical although it’s clearly not.

Reading such a book during a crisis of truth makes me question the marketing wisdom of the back cover label.  Yeah, it’s kinda cute, I admit.  And Trump didn’t seem like a national threat in the seventies.  But still, the mixing of the fundamental category of book (fiction or non) doesn’t seem quite fair.  Of course, caveat emptor applies to small purchases as well as large.  I go into book sales with a list, and I try to limit myself to it.  But then, I’ve not heard of every book—not by a long shot—and finding an unknown treasure is part of the draw.  Raymond Rudorff wrote several books but hasn’t merited a Wikipedia page yet.  This one is by far his most famous novel.  It’s a fun read and a reasonable prequel, but it won’t likely scare anyone as much as Republican politics do these days.


The Price of Independence

Recently I was updating my Amazon author page.  Since this is purely a self-promotional place (my books aren’t exactly priced to move) I try to approach it with a sense of humor.  I need to be in the mood to write funny, and some followers of this blog often mistake what I’m doing when I try it here.  (Satire and irony, at least to me, have quite a bit of inherent humor.)  In any case, the trick with Amazon author pages—or any internet sites really—is being an “independent scholar.”  To both the academy and to educated laity, that moniker suggests you’ve somehow failed to impress the academic establishment.  No institution wants to claim you, and why should anyone listen to someone who “blows their own horn”?  If you sell enough books you’ll gain some credibility, but at these prices?

Still, I try.  The marketers and publicists I know all talk about building a platform (“shares” and “likes” help).  Platforms require a lot of planks.  One plank I recently learned about was JSTOR (a not-quite acronym for Journal Storage).  Well, I’ve actually known about JSTOR for decades but only recently have been able to use it.  JSTOR scans and indexes academic journals.  While that may not be exciting to the average layperson, for academics (and independent scholars), this is a great tool.  Prior to JSTOR you had to spend hours plowing through various indexes to learn what had been published on a certain topic.  Then you had to go into the stacks and look the material up.  And probably end up photocopying it.  JSTOR makes all of that obsolete with a few keystrokes.  The problem was you could only get in with your university’s subscription.

I stand and applaud JSTOR because they have now made it possible for independent scholars (we are a growing demographic!) to access 100 free articles a month.  Even though “independent scholar” often means you have a nine-to-five with no sabbaticals, that’s quite a lot of articles you can now access.  While I think this is a great move, I do wonder if it’s part of the writing on the wall for higher education.  Around the world universities (except those well endowed, or supported by federal funds) are having trouble staying solvent.  Knowledge is free on the web, until you run into that paywall at internet speed.  Well, at least for now we have JSTOR and access to otherwise inaccessible journal articles.  But that’ll have to wait until after work.  And after I update my Amazon author profile.


Paid Reading?

It’s like when you slowly pull a cotton ball apart.  Interrupted reading, that is.  Some people never cotton onto reading—we’re all different—but some of us find it such a beguiling exercise that we neglect other aspects of life so that we can engage it.  Almost an altered state of consciousness.  That moment when you have to close a good book, though.  There’s nothing else like it.  It’s difficult to pinpoint whether images or words make up the continuity a reader experiences.  For me it’s like a continuous conversation.  Since my life may be too regulated (“nine-to-five” jobs are like that), every day at work begins with interrupted reading.  If you’re awake early, you’ll find there’s no other uninterrupted time like it.  No librarian has to shush anyone at three a.m.

My job is largely reading.  It’s also a good deal of customer service.  As an author myself I guess I get that.  Content is what the world wants, and if you find a writer who does what your press likes, well, you try to keep her happy.  Why doesn’t enforced reading feel like reading by choice, though?  It’s that reading before work that feels like the pulling apart of fibers that’ve organically grown together.  By nighttime, which is still light in summer, it’s not so much pulling apart cotton balls.  Bedtime reading is more like stumbling through a forest.  When you come to that part of the path you know you’ve been on before—perhaps multiple times—it’s time to put the book down and hopefully reboot.

There may be jobs which consist entirely of reading for pleasure.  If there are I never learned about them in high school or college.  I have a friend who’s a musician.  Many years ago I asked him what he like to play for fun.  He looked at me and said “Music, for me, is work.”  I have to believe that somewhere deep inside he still found it enjoyable, but I instinctively grasped what he meant.  Once you take your passion and convert it into a source of income the magic goes out of it.  Once I get out of work the thing I want to do immediately is read, but what I want to read. And although studies show that the reasonable way to get your best work out of your employees is to give them more time off, employers tend to disagree with the data.  The more hours you put in the more “dedicated” you are.  But then, some of us are in publishing because we love to read.  But even now, as work time approaches, the cotton ball begins to shred.


Reading Wicker

Have you ever read a book where factual errors make you question the larger picture?  I suppose being trained in research makes me more bothered by small inaccuracies.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve made mistakes myself.  Even in publications.  But when they come near the beginning it’s rather unfortunate.  That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy Allan Brown’s Inside The Wicker Man.  I actually enjoyed it quite a lot.  There’s a real treasure trove here for fans of this cult classic.  I suspect it’s the definitive treatment of the misfortunes the film faced after it was shot, and even during the shooting process itself.  It’s somewhat surprising that so many of us have even heard of it.  When the film’s production company turns against the project it must present special difficulties. Errors are human. Most of the mistakes in the book were about religion.

For Wicker Man fans this book is a great resource.  Not only does it tell the story, but it serves as a useful reference. It includes information on locations, script excerpts, and behind-the-scenes stories.  You get to feel that you know the people involved beyond simply seeing them as characters in a play.  One of the points that Brown makes, while obvious in retrospect, is crucial:  The Wicker Man works as horror not in spite of religion, but because of religion.  I struggle to articulate what the two share in common, but it is useful to be reminded that a prime example comes in this unusual movie.  I wrote about it in Holy Horror, but there’s much even there that I left unsaid.

Brown had the distinct privilege of interviewing many of the people involved in the making of the film.  Most of the cast and crew have since died—the movie was, after all, nearly half-a-century ago.  Even so, when attempting to get at what a novel, movie, song, or piece of visual art means, the realization soon dawns that it’s often in the mind of the observer.  Some songs, for example, speak intensely to some people while being ignored by many others.  The Wicker Man never swam into the mainstream.  I discovered it during an intense period of watching as much quality horror as I could get my hands on.  Immediately I was struck by its intelligence and its strong message.  I’ve watched it several times since, making me, I suppose, a fan.  Enough of one to read this book and enjoy it, in any case.  And to recommend it to others who may be interested in the fascinating film it explores, along with its religion.


To Write in Black and White

It can be seen as a black and white issue: either you’ve written a book or you haven’t.  Many people do write books.  Many more want to.  In a survey I saw sometime in the past few months—I can’t recall exactly where—a survey indicated a high percentage of Americans wanted to write a book.  What exactly does that mean?  There are many different kinds of books and several motivations for writing them.  And, depending, your work may or may not be taken seriously, even if you publish.  As someone who’s published four nonfiction books, all of them obscure, I often think about this.  Working in publishing I have some privileged access to the ins and outs of how this works, but that doesn’t necessarily help in writing success.  So what are the motivations?  Is there any way to tell the difference?

Obviously, I can’t speak for others’ motivations but I can see the results.  Most of the writers with whom I work are academic writers.  Their books are generally written for fellow academics and they’re the result of years of research in specialized libraries often off-limits to non-academics.  Those are pretty easy to tell at a glance.  Another class of nonfiction writer is the journalist.  It’s assumed by the industry that someone who majored in journalism is a talented writer.  If, after reporting on a topic for a few years, a journalist wants to write a book based on experience, that frequently gets a publisher’s interest.  The results may not be academically reliable.  I recall that as a grad student it was assumed there were even certain established publishers not to trust—mainly those that weren’t university presses, but not exclusively.

The self-published book has a more difficult trajectory to trace.  Some authors, no matter how good or insightful, just can’t get a standard publisher’s attention.  Others are convinced of their own wisdom and now have an easy route to become a published author.  Yet others realize some money can be made from writing (although making a living at it is very hard work).  I’ve been reading a book by a journalist that has lots of factual errors in it.  I try not to judge, but I do wonder when I know it’s shelved as nonfiction.  Now, these aren’t the kinds of errors that will cost a life if dosed incorrectly or will set off a war between dominant personalities that are heads of state.  I also know that most books do contain inadvertent errors—books are written by humans and we don’t have all the answers yet.  Still, I think of the readers and how we define nonfiction.  What counts as a book anyway?  Things are seldom black or white.

Writing my first book

Magic Color

Terry Pratchett was known for his quirky, funny writing.  I’ve only ever read his collaboration with Neil Gaiman before, Good Omens.  I’d heard of Pratchett’s Discworld series and I decided to give his first novel in the series, The Color of Magic, a try.  There can be little doubt that Pratchett was a clever writer with great turns of phrase and imaginative plots.  Something I’m discovering about myself, however, is that fantasy as a genre isn’t working well.  I suppose a case could be made for calling Discworld science fiction, but the world-building seems definitively fantasy—warriors, dragons, supernatural beings—the whole lot.  The story is well told and the writing’s great.  It just didn’t grab me as I hoped it might.

Having said that, one thing I noticed was that Pratchett realized something I’ve written about many times before—if you’re going to do world-building incorporating religion makes it believable.  There are gods here, often distant and mainly unconcerned with human beings (and various other beings), but clearly part of the diegesis.  And, of course, magic.  Maybe that’s the part of fantasy that I find disconcerting.  I read through the Harry Potter series, and although it was funny in parts, it was mostly played straight.  Was it fantasy?  I’ve been writing quite a lot about genre lately, and I’m beginning to run up against its limitations.  Discworld is clearly a fantasy environment. Rincewind and Twoflower are great characters, and so is the luggage (if you haven’t read it yet, let that be an enticement).

I ran into the same sense of disbelief recently with Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, and there’s little doubt that it’s science fiction.  Maybe as I’m aging I’m getting more and more mired in this familiar, if not tired, world in which I find myself. Horror, however, retains its fascination.  The Color of Magic follows the hapless wizard Rincewind and how his life changed forever after he met the tourist (a rarity on Discworld), Twoflower.  Together they face and overcome (with sometimes a little deus ex machina) obstacles of others with agendas that simply don’t accept misfits.  The literally cliff-hanging ending does encourage the reader on to book two and the characters won’t soon be leaving my mind.  It’s just with fantasy too much seems possible.  Anything can happen and it’s almost a matching of wits with the writer.  Not that that’s bad, but maybe it just isn’t the escapism I tend to think fantasy is intended to be.


Used or New?

A recent post on a used book got me to thinking.  Back when I was acting like a trained researcher my reading was very specialized and focused.  Even so, my personal reading was eclectic.  I think that’s the result of having been raised poor.  With no bookstore in our town, and no Amazon (or Bookshop.org), book purchasing was catch as catch can.  Since my fortunes haven’t dramatically increased in life (long story), my purchasing habits have remained pretty much the same.  I’ll buy used books or movies if I can.  Since these are about the only things I buy, they loom large in my mind.  And the thing about buying used is that it’s often opportunistic.  I can pretend it’s intentional and say I’m trying to be well-rounded, but the fact is I try to save money where I can.

This really struck me as I was reading something written by a film maker.  Now, I’ve penned two books about horror films, and I tend to watch them quite a lot.  What struck me about what I was reading was just how many films the writer knew.  Academics can be that way—knowing everything about a subject.  When researching my first book, A Reassessment of Asherah, I read everything I could find in pre-internet days about the goddess.  That is a thoroughly researched book.  When you’re a graduate student your job is to become as familiar as possible with your subject, no matter the language of the research (within reason).  As just an editor my movies and my books are a matter of what I find in my eclectic life.

I often imagine what my life would be like if I could’ve remained a professor.  In those days I read fewer full books—research is often a matter of reading only the parts relevant to your project—and certainly less fiction.  I was never a well-paid academic, teaching at a small school that considered on-campus housing a large part of the compensation package.  I didn’t buy many books then, either.  Some of the most important ones were, you guessed it, used.  I wonder if I would’ve ever have shifted my interest back to horror.  During those days I didn’t need horror (it was a gothic campus and I was beginning family life).  Since then I’ve become an even more eclectic person.  My fascination with geology began then and still comes back when the stars are just right.  And even they, I suspect, might be remnants of even older, used stars.

Photo credit: NASA

Shifting the Narrative

Wide ranging.  That’s a phrase that comes to mind to describe Vine Deloria Jr.’s book God Is Red: A Native View of Religion.  Another phrase is very important.  I know this book has been available for several years and it’s been on my reading list for many of those.  What is it about?  Some books are just difficult to summarize, but the basic answer is that it’s an American Indian view of how Christianity has distorted the world.  An accomplished academic, student of law, and activist, Deloria knew of what he wrote.  His book explains articulately the view of Christianity from the outside and what a religion that reverences the earth really looks like.  What makes the book so fascinating is that Deloria had theological training and could engage with the Christian worldview over a considerable range of topics.

Controlling the narrative is of primary importance and the fact is white men have controlled the narrative and normalized one view of history, science, and our place in the universe.  First nations peoples had, and some still have, a radically different outlook.  Deloria makes the crucial point that even our science developed out of our religion.  That science, in turn, supports the worldview that created it.  It is possible to look at things differently.  In fact, for much of human history those alternate views were predominant.  The triumphalist view of Christianity claims it’s successful because it’s right.  A native view takes a longer view, saying “we’ll see.”

Very concerned about the state of the planet brought on by the Christian/capitalist partnership, Deloria advocated for not only Indian rights, but environmental protection s well.  Not only is the environment central to Indian spirituality, the concept of sacred spaces is very real.  Many of us not raised with indigenous points of view have experienced this as well.  Some places are special to us.  We hesitate, because of that very science created by the Christian worldview and its view of God, to call such spaces objectively sacred.  Even the “objectively” part is determined by a Christian perspective.  Deloria ends up by asking whether this form of religion has improved the state of the world.  There’s no doubt that some of Christianity’s achievements have lessened human suffering.  It is also true that science has achieved great things.  If I understand correctly, Deloria isn’t disputing this.  His point of view is much more essential.  Is this the only way to live on this planet?  From the indigenous point of view, which is far more important that we want to admit, the question is—is this the only way to see it?


Scary Folk

Genre is a useful category.  It can be misused, however.  Straightjacketing a piece of literature, music, or film can lead not only to confusion, but to constraining creativity itself.  Nevertheless, the category of Folk Horror is certainly expansive enough for a book-length treatment, such as Adam Scovell has given it.  Unless you’ve read quite a bit about the subject you might wonder what folk horror is.  A good part of Scovell’s work is definitional—providing the reader to an answer to that very question.   Although it has earlier roots, folk horror was initially a British genre that became particularly noticeable in the late sixties and early seventies.  It comprised movies and television programs that dwell on specific aspects of the landscape—particularly the rural—and isolation within it.

What I find particularly compelling about folk horror is that it is often based on religion.  In the countryside you encounter people who think differently about things.  Believe differently.  Their convictions are enforced upon the stranger who may be there by design or by accident.  Ironically the genre largely emerged in a nation that prides itself for its role in civilized behavior.  It speaks volumes about belief.  Civilization has produced more refined strains of religion, but on its own religion will tend to grow wild, even as the weeds in your yard are distantly related to the cereal grains we cultivate.  Examples of this are everywhere.  Fans of horror can name them off, but even those who don’t care for the genre know the kinds of belief this indicates.

Not all folk horror is about religion, of course.  It can be rural ways in general.  No matter how you classify it, most people can identify Deliverance and the danger it implies about being far from civilization where those who live in the woods can do as they please.  Scovell delves into the urban settings of folk horror as well—most of his examples are British—because it is possible to hide in the city also.  Although the genre reached a high point in the 1970s, it didn’t die out.  The book ends with consideration of some more modern examples, such as Robert Eggers’ The Witch.  The problem, as those of us who write about film know, is that just because you’ve written a book it doesn’t mean future examples won’t change the picture.  The Lighthouse and Midsommar were both released in 2019, after the book was published.  And they demonstrate that the scary folk haven’t gone away.


Is It Thursday?

Jasper Fforde is an author I discovered because of a friend’s recommendation.  One of the more literate of fiction writers, he is clever and funny, but also difficult to find in many bookstores.  (Believe it or not, some of us prefer to shop in actual bookstores.)  I tend to pick his books up when I find them, whether used or new, and wait until I have time to indulge in a good book.  Well, I seldom have time to indulge, so I decided to go ahead and read Lost in a Good Book.  Now, this involves some mental gymnastics on my part.  Part of Fforde’s Thursday Next series, this is actually the second book after The Eyre Affair—not his first book that I read, but the first of this series I had.

I tend to find used copies of Fforde in certain used bookstores, and so my collection has grown through the years.  I’ve read four of the first seven novels in this series, but in this order: one, seven, six, and two.  Each is understandable on its own, but it occurs to me after finishing the second in the series that things might make better sense if read in order.  The good news is that the next one I have to find should fall in order after this one. Unless it’s one of the others.  That’s the nature of finding things in secondhand stores.  It’s not that I object to buying books new—do you even know me at all?—but that I have some authors that I can find in used stores from time to time and I read them when I do.  Fforde is one of them.

How I find the books probably impacts how I engage with them.  Perhaps because they’re funny I don’t consider the implications too seriously if things don’t always make sense.  I can see myself, if I ever get more time, coming back to the series.  Then I’ll do so in order.  The real pity is that I don’t have time to read all the books by authors I enjoy.  Nor all the money.  Libraries in small towns tend to have collections that reflect local tastes, and besides, I like to come back to my books at my own time, without having to wait for inter-library loan and somebody else finishing it up before I can get ahold of it.  All of which is to say I enjoyed Lost in a Good Book very much.  Thursday Next is a compelling character, and it’s always a pleasure to read an author who, like you, clearly reads a lot of classics.


Highgate Cemetery Again

Vampires can distort your thinking.  For example, whenever I hear of Highgate Cemetery in London, my mind immediately goes to the Highgate Vampire.  (There was somewhat of a comment kerfuffle on that topic right here on this blog some years back that resulted in several comments being removed.)  Highgate is the amazing final resting place of a remarkable number of famous people.  Still, when I visited a few years back I couldn’t get the vampire out of my mind.  (A friend of mine lives a short walk from the cemetery and that made the visit possible.)  This all came rushing back when I saw a book on Highgate Cemetery up for review on Reading Religion.  (And hey, Nightmares with the Bible has been available there for free, for any interested takers!)

Given my current vocation, writing actual book reviews is considered conflict of interest.  More’s the pity, since that’s how I often managed to get ahold of expensive books back in the day.  I’m pretty sure the book advertised (edited by Marie-Therese Mader, Alberto Saviello, and Baldassare Scolari) has nothing to do with the vampire, but I can think of it no other way.  Highgate is an architectural marvel for a necropolis.  It is spooky, inspiring, and impressive.  When something happens in a place, even if the facts are in dispute, it takes on an atmosphere that reflects such happenings.  At least that’s the way it feels for Highgate.  I’d heard about the vampire incident before visiting, but didn’t have the details.  Besides, you’re only permitted in on guided tours and the docents don’t point out such things.

Nevertheless, having been there I still have an interest in the cemetery itself.  It’s odd in a way.  Nobody I know personally is buried there.  No ancestors, as far as I know.  It’s the sense of place.  I’ve written about this many times before—there are numinous spaces in the world.  Science may deny it, but even scientists feel it.  Some places transport you somewhere beyond just the physical dimensions of where your body happens to be at the moment.  Cemeteries are filled with the memories of lives past.  They remind us that our time is limited, and that we too will cross that numinous threshold some day.  We all contribute.  Well, I can’t review the Highgate book and I can’t afford to buy it.  I nevertheless suspect that there’s nothing about the vampire in it.  I’m sure it’s my thinking that has been distorted by vampires.


Screening the Dark

We’re spoiled.  The intensity of our media experiences makes it nearly impossible to imagine the truth of stories that viewers fainted at films such as Frankenstein even less than a century ago.  This change in outlook, this sense of being over-stimulated, occurred to me while reading Kendall R. Phillips’ excellent A Place of Darkness.  In keeping with the subtitle (The Rhetoric of Horror in Early American Cinema) Phillips primarily addresses pre-Dracula films, beginning in 1896 and demonstrates how horror themes emerged early and evolved along with society’s norms.  There is so much insight here that it’s difficult to know where to begin.  For me one of the big takeaways was how Americans at this stage were eager to appear non-superstitious and how they used that concern to keep the supernatural out of early ghost films.

Phillips isn’t afraid to address the role of religion in horror.  Other cultural historians note this as well, but many pass over it quickly, as if it’s an embarrassment.  Since my own humble books in the field of horror are based on the religious aspects of such movies, I’m always glad to find specialists who are willing to discuss that angle.  As America grew more and more enamored of the idea of rationalism, less and less energy was put into suggesting that anything supernatural might be at work.  Supernatural was considered foreign and cinema followed society’s lead.  This led to—and I want to add that this isn’t Phillips’ terminology—the Scooby-Doo Effect where every seeming monster had to be revealed as a hoax.  As a kid I watched Scooby-Doo in the vain hope that the mystery might turn out to be real.

Studies of horror films generally acknowledge that the first real member of that genre is Tod Browning’s Dracula of 1931.  Phillips demonstrates the valuable pre-history to that and does an excellent job of explaining why Dracula was such a singular movie.  Horror elements had been around from the beginning, but Browning’s film made no excuses—the vampire is real.  Audiences were shocked and thrilled by this and other studios didn’t quite know whether they should follow Universal’s Depression-Era success or not.  Mostly they decided not to.  The Universal monsters seem innocent enough today, but we go to theaters where the floors shake when heavy footsteps fall and the sound of a door creaking open comes from behind us.  Special effects make the horror seem real.  No excuse is made for religion and its monsters.  We’re spoiled. 


Electronic Ritual

Religion and horror go naturally together.  Perhaps that’s something I instinctively knew as a child, or perhaps it’s something only mature eyes see.  It’s clearly true, however.  While reading about The Wicker Man lately I felt compelled to read David Pinner’s 1967 novel Ritual, upon which the movie is loosely based.  In many cases it is better to read the book before seeing the film.  In other cases the movie ends up being the superior project.  I had to keep on reminding myself as I read the novel that it couldn’t be measured against a superior vision of what it could have been.  Having written seven novels myself (all unpublished) I hope that I have a sense of the process.  Unless you’re into the commercial side of things you don’t write for the movie potential—you have a story to share and this is your way of telling it.

The novel isn’t bad.  It’s written in a punchy style that I don’t really enjoy, but the story drew me in.  It almost wasn’t to be.  Like many novels of this era, print copies are difficult to find.  Those available on used book websites, or even on Amazon, probably because of rights agreements, sell for over $200.  That’s a bit much, considering that over two dollars per page is excessive for a novel.  I finally had to cave and get a Kindle version.  I don’t have a Kindle, but I have the software on my computer.  Reading it again reminded me of how superior a print book is to an electronic one.  Reading ebooks tends to be faster but like eating snack food, doesn’t really satisfy you.  

At one point the navigation function stopped.  Confused, I couldn’t go any further in the story and wondered if I’d reached a sudden but unexpected end.  With a physical book I could’ve paged ahead to find out.  In this case, with the controls frozen with that obdurate computer attitude, I had to find another way to make the illusion of reading continue.  I eventually got it going again after clicking here and there, but reminded myself again that ebooks should only be the last resort.  As for the story itself, it was okay.  I read it as a parable about intolerant religion.  I’m not sure it was intended that way, but it certainly seems like a reasonable interpretation.  It ends differently than the movie does, so I won’t put any spoilers here in case you decide to spring $200 to get a used copy.