Now You Don’t

Quite some time ago I realized I should read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.  What put me off, as usual, was length.  Long books take a real time commitment, but since Black History month is coming up, and we’ve just celebrated Martin Luther King, I planned ahead and read.  A profound book, at several points I felt like a voyeur reading it.  The African-American experience of life is something I always feel uncomfortable approaching.  I’m afraid of appropriation, and I’m afraid of not paying attention.  I grew up not having a sense of racism, but nevertheless am implicated in the whole.  Maybe that was intentional.  As a story Invisible Man is often described as a picaresque, but having an unreliable narrator who was a victim of my own culture was difficult to countenance.  It was hard to know what to think.

We never understand another person’s experience of life.  We sympathize, we empathize, but we can’t really get inside the head of even our best friends.  I can’t help but think we’d all be better off we recognized that race is a social construct, and a potentially evil one at that.  We are all human beings and we should act that way.  But this novel left me wondering if it’s really possible.  Good novels will do that to you.  So I’m sitting here scratching my head and a little bit flummoxed by what I’ve just experienced.  Was it authentic or can I not help but project my own experience as an non-minority upon someone else’s writing?  Even questions like this are socially conditioned.  I too am trapped in my own mind.

You might think that by this time we would have evolved beyond our distrust of those long separated from us by natural barriers.  Homo sapiens are distrustful of strangers, and even the internet hasn’t brought us the understanding we require.  Not yet, anyway.  The background to “race relations” in the United States can’t be separated from slavery and the attitudes it engendered.  On almost every page of Invisible Man its traces can be seen.  That kind of cultural memory, and other cultural memories such as Jews being routinely castigated by Christians, or monotheists being raised to combat polytheism, are deep dividers.  Our cure for these evils is understanding.  I had to keep reminding myself that this was a work of literary fiction.  It rings true, however, and although it represents a world I do not know the fact of its publication invites  those of us outside the tradition to read.  Indeed, doing so is one way of attempting to reach understanding.

Poe’s Demons

In Nightmares with the Bible I use an idea penned by Edgar Allan Poe as one of the threads holding the book together.  One early reader complained that Poe didn’t write about demons, so the use of the great man was inappropriate.  That reader misunderstood me.  Today is Poe’s birthday.  As I think about the influence a writer can have on a young mind, I come back to this reader’s comments.  I can’t think of my book without Poe.  No, Poe did not write about demons, but he set the stage for what I’m trying to do in my book.  I’ve read analysts who claim Poe wasn’t a horror writer.  Certainly in the modern sense that’s probably true.  Still, he, like many others, was brave enough to suggest the tenebrous side of life was worth exploring, even if you only had a candle.  

Poe’s monsters were often interior.  They were psychologically probing, and although Sigmund Freud had not yet been born, it’s not inappropriate to say that Poe explored psychology.  Writers, I suspect, often deal with things they can’t name.  This is the way knowledge moves forward, even with fiction.  Especially with fiction.  As I’m reading books by academics who’ve done well for themselves, I often reflect how their legacy will remain within their field only.  It’s the rare nonfiction writer who manages to reach a cultural status that will find readers from other disciplines.  Most of us, however, will admit to reading a novel or two now and again.  Fiction writers, such as Poe, can claim things without backing them up with footnotes and citations.  That doesn’t mean they were any less astute at observing the world than academic writers are.  Often they’re more so.

I didn’t put Poe into Nightmares to show off.  His work has long been in the public domain.  I don’t cite him to claim that he would have agreed with my use of his insights.  No, I cite him because even if he wasn’t a horror writer my early encounter with him started me on a path of exploration.  Poe had trouble getting along in a literary world where rejection was endemic (it still is, I know from personal experience) and making a living as a literary person was unheard of.  He nevertheless knew that fiction was more honest than the alternatives, at least for some of us.  If we wish to face the world with integrity, we should admit that our heroes may have been made so in our own minds.  That doesn’t make them any less authentic, just because we’ve appropriated them for our own purposes.  We borrow what we find meaningful.

Qohelet’s Advice

Academic hypersensitivity.  I fear it’s on the rise.  I know I’ve experienced it myself—that flushing rage and disbelief that someone has written a book on the very topic on which you also published a book, and didn’t cite you.  How could they have overlooked your contribution?  I’ve seen scholars angered to the point of wanting to ruin someone’s career for not citing them.  Now academics can be a sensitive lot.  Remember, some of them specialize to a point of general social incompetence.  Anyone publishing in their specialization is like making a claim to have slept with their spouse.  This subject is theirs!  They’ve spent years reading and researching it.  How dare some new-comer not know this!

One thing many academics don’t realize is just how much material is published.  The flip side of this is just how obscure their work is.  Trade publishing and academic publishing aren’t the same thing, and the former are the books that really get noticed.  When I wrote my dissertation, back in the early 1990s, I had read everthing I possibly could on the goddess Asherah.  When I proposed the dissertation topic there had been a total of about three books written on Asherah that I knew of.  Enough to have a research base, but not enough to suggest it was a crowded field.  While I was whiling away my time in Edinburgh, another American ex-pat was writing on the same topic in Oxford.  The day of my doctoral defense, the outside examiner came in with a book just out on Asherah—in German, no less—and asked how my dissertation related to it.  Even today when I see a book on Israelite religion I flip to the back to see if my book’s listed.  Generally it’s not.  Today it’s impossible to read everything published on Asherah.

In my own case, however, I’m slowly coming to perceive the reality of the situation.  Books continue to be produced.  Articles are published at a blinding rate.  Even Google has to take a little time to find them all.  An overly inflated sense of self-importance can be a painful thing when it meets with the sharp pin of reality.  Your academic book may well go unnoticed.  Even if it’s good.  It may be priced at over a hundred dollars—I still pause and fret and kick the dirt a few times before buying any book that costs more than twenty.  Silently and slowly, I suspect, the frustration builds.  You see a book, then two, then three, that seem to be oblivious to your contribution.  A new book for review lands on your desk and Vesuvius erupts—why am I not cited?!  Has my work been forgotten?  Calm down.  Breathe deeply.  The book of that neophyte before you will also become obscure in due course.

Strange Powers

Some books take you to strange places.  Not all of them are fiction.  I began Nightmares with the Bible as a way of understanding the many, disparate ideas of demons I encounter in popular culture.  (I can’t tell you too much about my conclusions, otherwise you wouldn’t be tempted to buy the book!)  One of those nagging questions is: what does “based on a true story” mean?  I’ve known of Walter Wink’s powers trilogy for many years.  Because of my research I’ve now settled down to read Unmasking the Powers (number two, for those keeping count).  This book will take you into strange places.  Wink was very much a Christian in his outlook and orientation.  At the same time, he raises questions I’ve had other Christians put to me—were the “gods” of other nations, as in the Bible, real?  That word real is slippery, and Wink tries to hold onto it.

Unmasking the Powers is a kind of systematic exploration of the various “spirits” found in the universe we inhabit.  One of these is the Devil, and although Wink doesn’t see him as necessarily a “being,” neither does he find the Bible making him entirely evil.  Indeed, one of the great conundrums of monotheistic belief is theodicy; how is it possible to justify the goodness of a single, all-powerful deity in a world with so much suffering?  Wink approaches this question from an angle we might not anticipate.  He then deals with demons.  Since this is my subject in Nightmares, I found his discussion apt.  And yet again, strange.  Powers emanate from the institutions we create (you might have correctly guessed this was the book I wrote about on Tuesday).  Wink is willing to challenge materialism and take such powers seriously.

Finding a new perspective when we’ve been reared in a materialistic one, can be difficult.  For those of us raised religious, there was an inherent schizophrenia involved.  Our teachers told us of a mechanistic universe, but had Bibles on their desks.  (Yes, this was public school, but let’s not kid ourselves.)  While physics taught us everything could be quantified, church taught us that spirit couldn’t.  At least not by any empirical means.  Wink will unblinkingly take you there.  He offers both scientific and spiritual points of view on these entities, although he tries to refrain from calling them such.  Still, he records many people who have seen angels.  And although quantum entanglement wasn’t really known when he wrote this book, if it had been, Wink would’ve been nodding his head.

New Year Reading

Childhood has a powerful draw.  I first started reading Dark Shadows books when they were published for (I kid you not) 60 cents.  I got them for cheaper than that at Goodwill.  Every time I read one I wonder what my young imagination found so compelling in them, but in an effort to trust my younger self I keep on.  So I read Marilyn Ross’ Barnabas, Quentin and the Witch’s Curse.  The book doesn’t really say anything about a witch’s curse, providing as it does some of the backstory for Quentin.  If you aren’t familiar with that background, and you want to be, Barnabas is a vampire and his cousin Quentin is a werewolf.  Both were made so by curses, a plight the Collins family has long faced.  

In recent years I have read the 19 volumes in the series preceding this one.  They tend to be formulaic, and often show the signs of having been written quickly.  W. E. D. Ross is sometimes listed as the most prolific Canadian author ever.  He wrote over 300 books, mostly in genre fiction.  It’s no wonder many of them sound the same.  Still, I have to admit that both from watching Dark Shadows and from reading these novels as a kid, I liked Quentin.  Yes, he was smug and self-confident, but as a werewolf he had the ability to become someone else.  Unlike other books in the series, this one focuses on Quentin and points a pretty heavy finger to him being a Satanist.  That seemed pretty harsh to me.  There’s a difference between being the victim of a curse and being a Devil worshipper.

Now I know I shouldn’t take this as belles lettres.  Ross is not remembered as a great stylist, master of character development, or for being all that creative.  Dark Shadows was a soap opera—one of the more intelligent of the genre—and there’s only so much you can do with it.  Satanism was a cultural concern in the 1970s.  In the following decades it would bloom into an outright panic.  I’m pretty sure that I never read this particular volume when I was young.  Even now as a relatively mature man I found the implications somewhat disturbing.  The Scooby-Doo ending doesn’t do much to ameliorate the undercurrent of evil.  Quentin always seemed like such a sympathetic character to me.  Maybe it just goes to show what happens when you go for a quick read rather than choosing a book of substance.  Childhood can be that way.

Hereby Resolved

Photo credit: chensiyuan, Wikipedia Commons

New Year’s resolutions have never been my thing.  Having had a good Calvinistic upbringing, I’m a natural self-corrector.  If I’m aware I’m doing something wrong, I attempt to change my behavior right away.  This makes annual reviews at work exceptionally uncomfortable for me.  I’d much rather have my boss point out foibles as they happen so that I can stop doing them right away.  I realize my mindset here may be weird to those who were raised in more normal ways, and employers love process.  So I sit here in Ithaca on New Year’s day, preparing to drive home to face all kinds of unfinished business from 2019.  I’m still doing research for Nightmares with the Bible, thus it’s not ready to go back to the publisher or series editors yet.  I’ve started a new round of queries to agents about one of my novels, but I haven’t sent them yet.  And don’t even mention projects that need to be done to the house.

Life is busy.  I’ve taken on some new duties at the church I attend, exemplifying that old saw “If you want something done, ask a busy person.”  As the pressures from that obligation mount, I start to think that most people don’t have any idea just how all-consuming writing a book can be.  I work long days and although I don’t commute much any more, most of the rest of each day is taken up with writing and reading so as to write some more.  I hesitate to call myself a writer since I make laughably little lucre from it.  I can’t stop myself from doing it, though.  And although it’s the season for resolutions, I don’t plan to stop.  I know from work that graphomaniacs can be a problem.  Anything can be overdone.  On days when I don’t have to work I have to be pried away from my computer.  Otherwise I’ll write all day long.  It’s an issue, I know.

Perhaps because life on the national scale is so depressing, writing about things like horror movies is a great release.  I’ve been so busy lately that I haven’t had the chance to write pieces for venues like the excellent Horror Homeroom.  I used to contribute to Religion Dispatches.  That time has been sucked into getting my books that nobody will read finished.  Having written that self-disparaging remark I have to remind myself that one of my alumni magazines published a notice about Holy Horror without me having to send said notice personally.  That self-disparaging thing requires some fixing, I guess.  And were I not too busy already in 2020, I’d start on it right now.

2019 Books

  Goodreads is always a little eager to put the tally on a year’s worth of reading.  This year, however, since I’ve been engaged in some larger books, they may be on target.  According to their count I’ve read 71 books this year.  (I re-read two, so my personal count is 73.)  New Year’s Eve, for me, is a time to reflect about what I’ve learned in the past year.  Much of that involves books I’ve read.  A good deal of my reading has been for Nightmares with the Bible.  To write a book you need to read books.  Frequently it means taking them on regardless of your mood—and I tend to be a mood-driven reader.  So what books stand out from 2019?  (They all have individual posts on this blog, in case you missed them.)

My first nonfiction book of the year was Christopher Skaife’s The Ravenmaster.  Animal intelligence always makes for good reading and this was reprised in Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds.  I’ve fallen behind in my Frans de Waal reading, though.  Of the many research books on the Devil and demons, Jeffrey Burton Russell’s Mephistopheles stands out.  Russell’s clear thinking and wide view make him a pleasure to read even on unpleasant subjects.  Other books in that category didn’t quite rise to his level.  Monster books, on the other hand, rocked.  I loved James Neibaur’s Monster Movies of Universal Studios, Mallory O’Meara’s Lady from the Black Lagoon, and Kröger and Anderson’s Monster, She Wrote.  These were all excellent.  Tipping toward the unusual, Guy Playfair’s This House Is Haunted and Jeffrey Kripal’s The Flip gave me pause for thought.

Perhaps because I was reading longer books, this year didn’t have fiction in the numbers I usually strive for.  Most of it was quite good, though.   David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was memorable and Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (strangely similar to Mitchell) became an instant favorite.  My young adult fix came through Christy Lenzi’s Stonefield and Lois Lowry’s The Giver.  Victor Gischler scored with Vampire a Go-Go and Cherie Priest made a fine impression with The Toll.  I mentioned Neal Stephenson’s Fall yesterday, but it will stay with me into 2020.

A couple of memories/biographies also made deep marks on my mind.  Anne Serling’s As I Knew Him brought me close to Rod Serling and Barbara Taylor Brown’s Learning to Walk in the Dark found me where I live.  America’s Dark Theologian by Douglas E. Cowan isn’t really biography, but it was thought-provoking (as his books always are) and increased my resolve to read some more Stephen King.  The books I read make me more myself.  At the end of each year I think back over it all.  And this year I pondered what got me through a difficult 2019.  I have ended the year more myself than ever, I suspect, and I looking forward to a reading through the new decade.