In Pictures

Old photographs are haunting.  One thing I’ve long noticed about high school pictures from the early twentieth century is that those kids look much more grown up than today’s graduating seniors.   (Or even my graduating class, for that matter.)  We’ve extended childhood since then, now stretching it into young professional stage.  Who doesn’t want to be forever young?  It seems to me that those who spend time in bookstores know about the Images of America series of books.  These record what local historical societies collect and put them out there for public consumption.  Some day I’ll get them for all the towns I’ve called home.  For now, however, I wanted a peek at the early days of Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow.  If you’re by chance not familiar with the series, these books have captions and brief introductions to chapters so there’s context to explain it all. But the pictures are the draw.

One of the other features I noticed was that in a number of group photographs, a person or two is often listed as “unknown.”  It’s a fair bet that the other people in those antique images knew who these forgotten individuals were.  Photography, however, doesn’t really help those born before the mid-nineteenth century.  The photograph has a mysterious power.  It preserves a moment in history and as soon as the shutter clicks we’ve already become an older person.  In my work I have to locate people and I do so on university websites.  I’ve discovered that most faculty are far older than their pictures suggest.  Who has time to update the incremental changes every year?  Before you know it, your hair’s gone gray and you’re struggling to keep the pounds off.  We look at our younger selves and wonder.

At least I do.  I see pictures of a younger me and wonder what he might’ve done differently if he could see a picture of a present-day me.  One thing he would appreciate is my beard, such as it is.  Neither father nor step-father wore a beard, but young me always wanted one.  As life would have it, I couldn’t manage a passable one until after seminary while guys I knew in high school had heavy beards even then.  But this is a small thing.  The real changes take place in our heads.  Each day, each second, is a learning opportunity.  That’s perhaps the reason I like books like this.  Photographs of a place of fascination, even though I know none of the people or their families, are a real draw.  And they’re a form of haunting.

First Second

The thing about self-published books is that titles sometimes confuse.  I’d read Linda Zimmermann’s Hudson Valley UFOs without realizing it was a sequel.  Part of the reason is that her previous book was titled In the Night Sky.  Since I have a compulsion for completion, I knew I’d have to circle back to read the first book, even though it might take months to get on my schedule.  I realize the title of this book is based on her documentary by the same title (which seems to be unavailable for viewing these days), and the subtitle, Hudson Valley UFO Sightings from the 1930’s to the Present, does the heavy lifting of saying what the book is about.  So why am I reading about this in the first place?  Well, UFOs have continued to be in the news lately, which is interesting in its own right.  But also I’ve been reading about the Hudson Valley for some time.

Although I’ve never lived in the Hudson Valley (or New York, for that matter), I have family connections.  My maternal grandfather’s family had deep roots in the upper Hudson Valley and I’ve always wanted to move there but jobs never aligned with hopes.  That hasn’t prevented me from maintaining an active interest in the area.  Besides, I like weird stuff—if you read this blog that’s self-evident.  There do seem to be places where strange things seem to concentrate.  (I mentioned this in regard to the Denver Airport recently.)  I’m one of those people who’s always found New York City a weird place, and it’s the southern end of that corridor.

In any case, Zimmermann’s book is pretty much like her second one on the subject.  She provides accounts of UFOs from witnesses who responded to her call for reports in preparation for her documentary.  I tend to think that many people can tell what’s supposed to be in the sky from what’s not.  I’m also aware that many people don’t have the background of trying to identify whatever they see and that mistakes are often made.  It doesn’t help that Zimmermann includes some accounts that are pretty clearly crackpot cases.  Some editing would’ve helped (which is true of many self-published books).  What’s so interesting about this collection is that what many people report seeing is so similar.  For those of us who don’t live in the Hudson Valley and who’ve never seen anything odd on our trips there, this may be the closest we get to the strangeness overhead.

Cat Nipped

Holy Horror began with movies from 1960 on.  You see, I had watched the 1982 remake of Cat People without ever watching the original from 1942.  The remake has Paul Gallier, the brother of Irena, as a religious leader.  He doesn’t cite the Bible, so the movie fell outside the limits I set for that particular book.  I recently watched the 40-year older original version and was surprised to find not only the religion intact, but also the Bible as part of the story.  Both versions integrate religion and horror and some of the scenes are very close between the two.  The original centers around Irena Dubrovna, a Serbian immigrant.  In addition to originating the The Lewton Bus technique, the film also introduced a religious origin for the horror.  When Irena meets Oliver Reed, she explains to him that in Serbia, in her home village, some witches were driven out into the woods of the surrounding mountains by the Christians.  There they formulated a curse leading to becoming cat people when aroused.

Irena, fearing sexual arousal, spends time apart from Oliver after they marry, mainly watching the black leopard at the zoo.  One of the custodians warns her it’s an evil animal, a monster as described in the book of Revelation, which he quotes.  Of course, this leopard is an ordinary big cat, and the woman to whom he quotes Scripture is a cat woman.  Irena knows inside that she’s one of the cat people, but nobody will believe her.  The film also makes use of a quote from John Donne regarding sin.  Indeed, the film makes it clear, even after Irena dies, that she had never lied.  While she’s stalking Oliver and Alice in their office one night, Oliver pulls down a T-square, the shadow of which forms a cross on the wall, and he abjures her, in the name of God, to leave them alone.  Religion, the clash of religions, makes the monster.

Cat People, despite having had a mixed reception, was an influential movie.  Like much of early horror, it’s tame by today’s standards.  And yet it’s aged well.  I didn’t expect to be drawn in as much as I ended up being.  After all, I’d seen the remake first.  America at the time had a fear of the Balkan region, where mysterious eastern Europeans still had tales of vampires, werewolves, and cat people.  Of course, the last of these was invented for the film.  The director, writer, and producer wanted to create an intelligent horror film, which they did.  Moody, atmospheric, and based on religious tension, it is worthy of a Holy Horror sequel.

The Goodreads Zone

It happened on Goodreads.  I suspect she had no idea how much that simple “like” meant to me.  Social media is too big to be everywhere, so I primarily engage with those who reach out to me (without trolling), on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Goodreads.  Even with my activity on these venues, comments are rare.  Likes a bit more common, and always appreciated.  Several months after I posted a review of her book, As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling on Goodreads, Anne Serling liked it.  That may not seem like much, but this was the actual daughter of Rod Serling himself, liking something I wrote.  If you feel the way I do about The Twilight Zone this will be a personal brush with greatness.  Almost as if Serling himself approved.

I’ve met a few famous people in my time.  Mostly they are ordinary people and act like ordinary people.  Only those of us around someone famous know that millions of people have heard of one of us.  Heard of and admire.  The rest of us manage to get along, but we do so without notice.  Unless someone “likes” what we do.  It’s kind of like having someone famous blurb your book.  In any case, my childhood consisted of many snippets of things that made me who I am.  One of those snippets was The Twilight Zone.  I watched a lot of television growing up.  We were not a reading family (neither parent finished high school), so the television was the item of choice after work/school.  Much of what I watched washed off.  Not The Twilight Zone.

Like reading through the Dark Shadows novels, I’ve been slowly watching my way through The Twilight Zone alone.  Nobody else in my family cares for it and since I don’t have much free time I only get to it on rare occasions.  Now that mowing time is here, those occasions are even fewer.  I guess I feel that I have to justify why I’ve come around to writing about horror as an adult.  You don’t get to be an adult without having some kind of childhood first, and mine involved The Twilight Zone.  Anne Serling’s involved being raised by the creator of The Twilight Zone.  To me, that’s a validating kind of fame.  To be seen by someone who could, if she wanted, have an instant and ready-made audience.  A reverie, started by something that happened on Goodreads.

Childhood History

It looked just like I remembered it.  Having recently read the account of a Hiroshima bomb survivor, I had a hankering to read it.  John Hersey’s Hiroshima was my brother’s book, growing up.  He read it and told me about it, but I’m not fond of war stories or accounts of human suffering.  Still, having read a contemporary account at work I realized how little I knew about what had happened to the survivors.  So when I saw this little book at a local AAUW book sale, I picked it up.  Even after all these years it’s still a page-turner.  In my mind, ever hoping for merciful resolutions, the atomic bomb had killed just about everybody instantly.  A lifelong pacifist, I believe war morally unjustifiable (prisons should be for autocrats, not for minor offenses).  Those who start wars, such as Vladimir Putin, should be required to read this book.

I wasn’t really quite sure of what to expect.  I’d heard that the account involved the interwoven stories of six survivors.  It wasn’t quite as complete as I supposed it would be.  Of course, it was published in 1946, after appearing as a New Yorker article.  As I came to the end, I wondered what had happened to these people.  None of the six, a year later, had any semblance of a normal life, and scientists even then didn’t understand the consequences of what might happen to those the bomb didn’t directly kill.  I guess, in my mind, the city had become an irradiated wasteland.  I didn’t realize it had been rebuilt and that over a million people now call it home.  The was a blank in my mind after the dropping of the bomb.  Hersey’s book has started to fill in that blank.

My mind tends to trace things to their origins.  I’ve always thought that way.  Those who enter into politics ought to be required to pass a test on corruption.  They should be required to study diplomacy.  They should have to read books like Hiroshima to see what the consequences of their selfish acts can do.  Considering the real life horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is important to me to see that the cities are rebuilt.  It’s like looking up the bio of an actor who dies in a movie, just to make sure s/he is really okay.  Why is it so difficult to treat other human beings as human beings?  Why do we still allow war mongers to become national leaders?  Have we learned nothing since 1945?

Young Reading

It was more the lede line than the story.  Melissa Kirsch’s “The books we read when we’re young help shape the adults we become in ways we don’t always grasp” caught my attention.  My own current rereading of Dark Shadows books certainly reflects that.  As my You Tube video on Dark Shadows considers, it was the books more than the television show that shaped my young mind.  Consciously, I know that’s probably the main reason I’ve always wanted to live in Maine.  It may seem strange to some to want to move where a vampire frequently visits, but there was more going on in those stories than I realized.  It would be enough to make me tremble were I a young persons’ fiction writer.  They have so much influence.  Spending my younger years searching for a father took me some strange places.

My other young reading was, naturally, the Bible.  I can’t remember how young I was when I began to try to read through the King James.  Eventually I did get through, and then I started all over again.  Clearly my entire life has been impacted by that early fear of Hell that drove me to the Scriptures.  Perhaps that combination of Bible and Dark Shadows novels led to Holy Horror and its aftermath.  In other words, my youthful reading led to what has become a vocation, of sorts.  That elusive university, or college job in Maine never came to fruition.  I tried many times to get a toehold there, Bible in hand.  I’ve ended up back in Pennsylvania, where I started.  And I’m still reading.

I’ve read a good number of good books, but it has been some time since one set my life off on a different trajectory.  Some books have lead me to write books, and books I read often suggest even more books.  Whether I die today or thirty years from now, books will have defined my life.  I grew up reading them and wanting to write them, with no real idea how to do the latter.  One of those childhood books convinced me that a career outside the church was one not worth having.  Indeed, were I clergy now my enjoyment of horror would certainly garner more attention than it does in my current role as “some guy.”  I am, however, that person who grew from a worried-looking kid who’d not yet figured out that my reading choices would lead to a life measured by books.

The ultimate adventure…

Many Days

Science fiction.  I used to consume it by the bookful, and even now I occasionally turn back to it.  Having read Doris Piserchia’s A Billion Days of Earth, I do have a confession to make.  I don’t know why I read it.  Literally.  As I’ve indicated many times before, I keep a reading wishlist.  It’s comprised of books that others recommend and things that catch my eye.  Every now and again a used book sale will bring something unexpected into the mix, but overall, I rely on my list.  I can’t remember who recommended A Billion Days of Earth, or why.  The cover is striking in that 1970s sci-fi way, and it took me back to the actual seventies when I was reading sci-fi quite a bit.  Some of that cover art still mesmerizes me.  So, about the book…

I didn’t know what to expect and received what I was expecting.  This is a philosophically heavy novel that, in the style of some other seventies fiction I read, was a bit difficult to follow.  The main idea (and there will be spoilers) is that Sheen, a silvery, shape-shifting being, emerges a billion days along.  Evolution has taken multiple tracks with animals such as dogs and rats becoming essentially what humans are today (or were in the seventies) and humans evolving into what the other animals call gods.  Sheen slithers about the world taking the egos from all creatures, kind of assimilating them.  A rat person and a dog person resist the relinquishing of their egos while the world around them begins to collapse.  The “gods” refuse to help.  Then, at the end, the gods board their spaceship, and released by Sheen, leave for another planet.

Although I was confused most of the way through, the book leaves a lot to exegete.  This is definitely a retelling of Genesis 1–3.  Sheen offers people (and animals) paradise in exchange for their egos.  Nearly everyone, except those who think (a small number) accepts this offer.  Even the gods are tempted.  We’ve got the snake (Sheen), the expulsion from paradise, and the gods who separate themselves from humanity.  But still, I’m sure there’s something more that I missed.  There are subplots for Rik (rat man) and Jak (dog man) and the rich Filly family that seem to evade conclusion or resolution.  Or maybe once the gods are gone there’s nothing more to say.  This seventies classic left me thinking.  And wondering who it was that recommended it to me.

Wicker Proofing

I’m currently reading the first proofs of The Wicker Man (due out in August).  While necessary, proofreading is a pain (and I work in publishing!).  You have to put everything else aside and concentrate on what you’ve already written, and if you’re like me, moved on from, to get your earlier work out.  I’m extremely time conscious.  I have many things that I would like to accomplish in the time I have left.  Right now one of my priorities is book six.  It’s already written, but I’m revising it for the umpteenth time.  Then the proofs come.  This is one of the issues a graphomaniac faces.  It’s part of trying to make a life from words.  And it distorts time.  I submitted my Wicker manuscript back in December.  Since then my mind has largely been elsewhere.

Proofreading—or is it proof reading?  I’m not a proofreader—isn’t the same as it used to be.  These days you proofread a PDF and use the markup tools for changes.  I had developed a kind of nostalgia for the old-fashioned proof markings.  Now you highlight the offending text and add a note to explain what you would like changed.  This makes me worry about time too, since I’m probably among the last generation who will even known what proof markings are, apart from historians of publishing (and yes, there are historians of publishing).  I am fortunate in having had a good copyeditor for The Wicker Man.  S/he didn’t change much but pointed out where my wording was ambiguous.  Those of you who’ve read me for a while know that some of that ambiguity is intentional, no?

A quick turnaround time on proofs is necessary.  Of course, mine would arrive on a Wednesday.  That very same day I was asked to be a reader-responder to a journal article, also with a brief turnaround time.  I wanted to say “No,” but as an editor I know how difficult it is to find reviewers.  Anyone who publishes should consider it a moral obligation to review when asked.  Just like jury duty.  Thursday and Friday mornings were spent reviewing the article (which I hope will be published, whoever wrote it).  All of this was done without picking up a pen (as much as I wanted to) or leaving my laptop.  As much as I enjoy those proof markings, nobody has the time for them anymore.  Even now I’m playing hooky from proofreading to write this blog post.  I’d better get back before someone notices that I’m gone.

Entitled Titles

Movies have a tremendous impact.  Nowhere is this more obvious than in movie titles moving into standard vocabulary.  “McGuffin” (which autocorrect thinks is “McMuffin”) and the Wilhelm scream may not be household terms, but many people know what they are without being movie experts.  Even more impressive is when a movie title becomes its own noun.  I learned about the Rashomon effect not from movies, but from history.  When a story is told from more than one point of view, often with contradictory accounts, this is known as “the Rashomon effect.”  It’s named after a movie, Rashomon, that I’ve never seen.  I suspect I’m not the only one to use the phrase who hasn’t.  Movies can become points of reference.  We’re quite often visual creatures and movies can reach large audiences. The title plays a crucial role.

As the writer of a small blog with a small readership, and of books with small circulation, I often think of how movies manage to reach so many people.  I’m constantly discovering movies from before when I was born, or from countries far away.  They ask, like this blog, for only a little bit of time and yet they provide so many things to think about.  In many ways they are the mythology of our age, and no matter whether you watch on your phone or the big screen, you’re joining the ranks of believers.  Sometimes a movie becomes a cultural reference, such as is the case of “the Rashomon effect.”  But this can lead to its own set of problems.  Movies, like some bestselling books, often have one-word titles.  Sometimes that word fits many movies (as in Entity/The Entity).  Or sometimes it has a wider meaning, such as Avatar.  Or it refers to another well-known reference, such as Titanic.  I’m not picking on James Cameron here, but making a point that movies may make meaning, but they also bear the weight of their titles.

Titles are often sticking points with authors.  Many academic writers like the draw of the clever or pithy title, but such titles often hurt the sales of their book.  Using a quote as a title, apart from making confusion, also runs into duplicates.  Titles can’t be copyrighted, so multiple books (or movies) can use the same one. Quotes have long been favorites, so using them for titles is not a good idea.  I was distressed (mildly) when I realized that my fifth book, The Wicker Man, would bear the same title as the movie.  (That’s the way the series rolls.)  I’m now reading the proofs and thinking about titles.  My next book may not have a one-word title, but I hope I’m getting close.  And maybe it will have a little impact?


What really goes on in somebody else’s mind?  At best we can guess, and when that person’s been dead for a long time that guessing involves some reasoned speculation.  I enjoyed Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky’s reasoned speculation in Adrift in the Old World: The Psychological Pilgrimage of Washington Irving.  The book itself is a few decades old now, but it does raise many relevant issues.  For me personally, it was, in parts, like reading my own psychological profile.  Irving is an interesting study.  (Unlike me) he had early success as a writer but he was a continual self-doubter.  He was also a poor investor, making money on his writing only to lose large sums investing in ventures that failed.  He also had a sense of not belonging which would seem strange for a New Yorker today.  Although he finally felt he fit in when he settled, as a famous writer, in Tarrytown, this book really only covers his European years.

While traveling for seventeen years in mainly Britain, France, Germany, and Spain, Irving wrote four very different “Sketch Books.”  These weren’t really short stories as we’ve come to understand them, at least not always, but they affirmed his place in the literary firmament.  Adrift in the Old World covers these four books while bringing incidental mention of several others into the picture.  Irving must be a difficult writer to cover.  He was not only prolific, but he wrote about diverse topics and sometimes at great length.  Of course, he was trying to make a living as a writer and people in those days had more time to read.  Breaking out a set of only four of his books makes this more digestible.

Even though I learned a lot from this book, it wasn’t always easy reading.  It gets a bit academic in parts and the paragraphs are far too long.  Still, there’s good information here.  I’ve been trying to wrap my head around Irving for some time now, as a glance at the books I’ve covered recently ought to suggest.  Although he’s not ignored by literary scholars, there aren’t many general interest books written on him.  There are other writers that more capture the modern imagination.  Still, literary history of the early United States is a fascinating venture in its own right.  For those who like to try to figure out what other people are thinking (and I have to admit to that avocation) this is a good entryway into what may have been the mental world of Washington Irving.

Lost at Sea

Where do books come from?  It still comes as a surprise to many authors, but books tend to be shipped by, well, ship.  When publishers use overseas facilities, it’s far too expensive to send books across the ocean by air.  I had many people express disbelief when I explained their books were delayed by the Suez Canal blockage, but if most of the world’s international goods are sent by ship (and they are) what might seem like a quirky news story has very real ramifications worldwide.  I was reminded of this by a recent NPR story of two new cookbooks having been lost at sea.  The ship from Taiwan, bound for New York, ran afoul of a storm in the Azores, resulting in the loss of 60 shipping containers—including those holding the newly printed books.  There is a worldwide shortage of shipping containers (seriously) and one of the problems is they keep falling off ships.

Photo by Elias E on Unsplash

If you haven’t googled “cargo ships” and looked at the image options, do.  You’ll see astonishingly large ships with what look to be entire cities worth of cargo containers stacked on the deck.  Many of these containers are lost at sea.  Current estimates are that about 1,000 containers fall off of ships per year.  Although the authors of these particular cookbooks took a lighthearted approach to the news, the book that really brought this home to me was Moby-Duck, which I blogged about some years back (you can read it here).  That book was about trying to follow the plastic “rubber duckies” that fell off a ship back in 1992.  This isn’t, in other words, a new problem.

Videos posted of these massive ships being tossed about and losing cargo are impressive in their own right—they make the ocean seem omnipotent.  But the fact is, we’ve littered it pretty badly.  Books, in their defense, will decompose naturally.  We live in a society defined by consumerism.  We see things and we want them.  In order to make them inexpensive, American companies buy the items from overseas where labor costs are much cheaper (and where many nations have socialized medicine, I might add, making employees cheaper to pay).  As ships grow larger we might expect these kinds of accidents to increase.  The older I get, the more I pay attention to economics.  The dismal science does hold a macabre fascination, especially when entire printings of a new book end up at the bottom of the ocean.  Authors, if they’re curious, ought to consider where books come from.

Know Your Books

Used books have many virtues.  They’re good for the environment, being the ultimate primary duo of the triad “reduce, reuse, recycle.”  They feel like handling the wisdom of the ages itself with their brittle pages and scuffed covers.  These books didn’t have a quiet life just sitting on the shelf.  I understand and respect that.  Still, when classifying such books for sale, I often find myself at odds with the sellers’ descriptions.  I wrote earlier of a book that had been listed as “very good” having two pages stuck together by a wad of gum.  What if what I needed to read was beneath that gum?  And no, not all books are available electronically online.  Copyright still exists.  You see, I once toyed with the idea, while trying to live as an adjunct professor, of selling used books.  There are accepted standards for poor, acceptable, fair, good, very good, and like new.

A recent “good purchase” arrived battered and a bit too well loved for my liking.  “Good,” however, indicates that a book is readable—the underlining shouldn’t obscure text, and God help us, there should be no gum.  This one, however, had several ripped pages.  That’s not good.  Then I came across a page where the corner had obviously been dog-eared only to eventually fall off before it reached me, carrying the page numbers with it.  Writing in books I understand, but bending down pages ought to be a crime.  Further along, another dog-eared missing bit took some text with it.  That part, at least wasn’t readable.  This puts us in “poor” territory, in fact.  Then I came to the page that was two-thirds missing, apparently ripped out from top to bottom leaving only a tonsure of text.  Who rated this book?

Those who buy used books can be tough customers, I realize.  Sometimes they are forced to be.  A used book in good condition, by definition, is missing no pages.  Technically I suppose that’s true—a stub of the page is there.  I suspect the real problem, however, is that the seller doesn’t take the loving time with each and every book that s/he should.  Books are meant to be read, yes.  They convey knowledge.  And once you buy one (this was, however, ex libris, and from a university library, no less) you are free to bend, fold, spindle, or mutilate.  Perhaps someone preowned this poor orphan of a tome once it left the library, and if so they were a cruel owner.  If not, libraries, it appears, should be making more aggressive use of fines.  But mostly, sellers should spend some time getting to know their books.

Wicker Wondering

Why The Wicker Man?  It’s a fair question.  My book is now starting to appear on Amazon and other venues (it’s on Goodreads!), so it’s time to try to get the word out.  The BBC ran a recent story, “Why The Wicker Man has divided opinion for 50 years,” and that offers a springboard into the “why” question.  I’m not Scottish, but my wife and I lived in Scotland for a little over three years.  That’s one reason.  While there I did some research into Scottish folklore—historians of religion are curious people—and traveled widely, and that’s another.  As one of those writers who’s never been able to break out of the academic market, the third and most direct reason is that I’d begun a book on holiday horror.  A friend pointed the series Devil’s Advocates out to me.  Back then the series books were priced in the twenty-dollar range, but the pandemic put an end to that!

I’ve always thought The Wicker Man derived its fear from the strangeness of the holiday.  I’ve also often wondered why Anthony Shaffer and Robin Hardy didn’t make more use of “Beltane” in the dialogue.  Maybe the unfamiliar was too unfamiliar?  I suggest a different reason in my book, but I won’t reveal that here.  Writing a book on The Wicker Man would allow me the opportunity to share my thoughts about holiday horror without trying to convince an agent that people actually do like to read about horror as well as reading horror itself.  Come on, agents!  It’s called pop culture because it’s popular!

I pitched the idea and the series editor liked it.  So did the reviewers.  They were tired of hearing/reading about The Wicker Man as folk horror, as if there was nothing more to the movie.  Like most films that grow an afterlife, this one is complex and can be approached from many angles.  In fact, there’s another book, one by John Walsh, coming out on the movie just weeks after mine.  I wasn’t the only one who knew the fiftieth anniversary was on the horizon like a Beltane sunset on Summerisle.  For those who prefer a more television-like explanation, I’ve posted a video on The Wicker Man on my YouTube channel.  This blog, I realize, doesn’t get enough hits to drive traffic that way, but it’s nevertheless part of the package.  Why The Wicker Man?  The answers likely lie in several posts on this blog, a few years in Scotland, and a love of strange movies.

Coronation Bible

The scene from The King’s Speech doesn’t show it at all, but there was even more drama around the coronation of George VI than the movie reveals.  It may not be obvious, especially to Americans, but there is a great deal of prestige in being the supplier of a coronation Bible.  The two ancient presses in the United Kingdom, Cambridge and Oxford, vie for that honor.  In 1937 Oxford had won out.  Coronation Bibles are works of art and are extremely rare.  You’ll never find one at your local library’s used book sale.  As a recent Oxford University Press blog post indicates, the Bible at George VI’s ceremony was a last-minute replacement.  What could possibly go wrong with a ceremonial Bible, of all things?  Quite a lot, but this one had to do with an aging cleric.

Despite being the eve of war time, an elaborate Bible had been designed and manufactured.  Symbolism is important.  Britain faced not only the aggression of Hitler, but also the abdication of Edward VIII.  Instability was in the air.  In such times, as we’ve seen in American politics, leaders look to the Bible for support.  Printed on special paper, chased with gold on its cover, the coronation Bible was a work of art.  However, the Bishop of Norwich, Bertram Pollock, couldn’t lift it.  At 73 he wasn’t in the best of health, and he had a role in the ceremony.  At the last minute a lighter, replacement Bible was sent.  According to the OUP blog post, the Archbishop of Canterbury issued a rare apology to the press, but also noted “I cannot but wish that you had given some more consideration to the physical infirmities of those who would have to carry it.”

A big Bible

Swearing on the Bible is an archaism that seems likely to persist into the foreseeable future.  The future of the British monarchy (which I do not follow) itself seems in doubt, but to quote the Good Book, “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever.”  As long as many people believe this, such swearing will persist.  Even if such belief fades, the solemnity of swearing on a Bible is likely to continue.  The Bible has, in its tangible way, become a stand-in for God.  And as another archaism, a king, is sworn in today, it is to be hoped that the bishops involved have kept their muscle tone intact.  At least to heft, for a little while, a ceremonial Bible.

Insane Illusionist

The Dark Shadows novels supplemented my early watching of the television series.  It’s funny, but when I remember watching the show, in my mind I watched it alone.  During a conversation with one of my brothers recently, he assured me that he had watched the show too, pointing to the selectiveness of memory.  What I do know is that I was the only one who read the novels.  I bought them when I could find them used, and I kept them in an old pasteboard suitcase (we had no bookshelves and my parents didn’t read).  I didn’t have the entire collection by a long shot and I can honestly say I don’t know which ones I read back then.  I am now, however, two novels from finishing the entire series—a project I began around 2006.

Barnabas, Quentin and the Mad Magician follows the usual formula, although this time around Barnabas is temporarily cured of his vampire curse and Quentin doesn’t turn into a werewolf at all.  They are on friendly terms and both are being set up by the rather obvious antagonist, the mad magician.  I guess you can begin to see the series winding down.  Most of the thirty-two stories are broadly similar and the writing is that rushed, breathless kind that seems characteristic of those who make a living delivering pulp fiction.  There have always been people like me who will buy it.  That’s the reason I typically use the phrase “guilty pleasure” when describing these novels.

As I note in my YouTube video on the phenomenon, Dark Shadows was quite popular in its day.  It’s what we might now call a cultural meme.  Television series, novels, two movies, comic books, lunch boxes—the whole coffin.  The monsters were likable.  That was true of some of the greats—you felt sympathetic toward them.  As horror began to “grow up” the monsters often became entirely reprehensible, with no redeeming qualities.  So as Barnabas and Quentin do their best to expose the true monster, their supernatural powers currently on hold, they have to rely on their money and connections.  Even at the end the “confession” is made suspect by the longer tacked on ending.  If you’ve read enough of these, you grow suspicious when there are ten pages left after the antagonist dies.  Stories such as this aren’t great literature, but they do fill a gap in the world of monsters that nostalgia leaves for those who knew Dark Shadows in the late sixties.