Book Culturing

The other day I met one of the organizers of the Easton Book Festival.  Coming in October, this festival is something new.  It took the efforts of a couple with vision—the owners of a small, independent bookstore—to get other people on board, but now it’s going to happen.  A weekend dedicated to books.  I found out about the Festival as I was looking up area bookstores that might let me do a presentation on Holy Horror.  For whatever reason, my last book missed its projected autumnal publication date, and fall is when people are really thinking about horror movies.  Approaching its birthday in late December, it never really had a proper launch.  Priced the way it is, I don’t expect a sales boost, but I would like people to know about it.  When you spend years writing a book you’d like it not to be completely obscure.

In any case, when looking up one of the Easton shops—hey, book lovers, the Lehigh Valley has lots of bookstores!—I noticed that the Festival was still seeking participants.  Since it falls just before Halloween, the timing felt perfect.  I signed up.  Now this is one of the many new tricks for this old dog.  I tell authors all the time that self-promotion is key to book sales, even when a press is fairly widely known.  In fact, the store owner himself writes books and has to pay for his own tours to promote them.  Book culture is worth promoting.

On a personal level, it does me good to see that there are others who appreciate books.  They are a form of collective mind.  A communion.  When I’m feeling down, or uninspired, a trip to a bookstore—or even a library—often helps.  Reading books leads to a sense of accomplishment.  Every year I set a goal on Goodreads.  I don’t set the goal to make me read—I’d do that anyway—but to share with others both what I’ve been reading and what I think about it.  The Easton Book Festival will be a way of doing something similar, hopefully with those many others who feel the draw of books.  Writing, for me, is a labor of love.  I don’t know too many people personally, so meeting them through books is one of my own goals.  Just the other day I met an academic who wanted to read Weathering the Psalms.  Such things happen only in that wonderful land built of books.

Fun and Fear

It’s curious the way people find books.  I sometimes see them advertised (the way publishers suppose people see them), but far more often I find them more serendipitously.  I’m active on Goodreads, and many times a book someone else has reviewed will catch my eye.  I like to read things that I notice in independent bookstores.  I’m always on the hunt for a bargain.  At work we have a used book rack where any volume is half-a-buck.  During lunch one day I spied Victor Gischler’s Vampire a Go-Go.  Now the title told me this wasn’t exactly a serious novel, but it had vampire in the title and when I write horror it often ends up on the funny side.  All in all it seemed like it would be worth the tiny investment, even if I don’t have a clear idea of what go-go really means.

While not laugh-out-loud funny, this is an enjoyable romp through monster land.  Kind of like Harry Potter with some adult themes thrown in.  The characters—which include ghosts, witches, wizards, a werewolf (sorry lycanthrope), a golem, and a vampire—are likable and strangely believable.  An unexpected twist came with the Battle Jesuits, a nice touch that shows yet again how close religion and horror can be.  I won’t try to summarize the action here, but I’ll simply note that there are twists and turns aplenty and smiles and splatter along the way.  It’s clear that Gischler researched the novel well, bringing interesting texture to the tale.

Like the last novel I read, also acquired in an inexpensive browsing situation, much of the story is set in Prague.  My wife and I visited Prague back when it was still in Czechoslovakia, and before it had become a tourist haven.  From reading these recent novels, apparently quite a lot has changed there.  Of course, in those days I hadn’t tapped into my love of monsters for many years.  Working on a doctorate has a way of doing that to you.  Now that I’m back, I’m enjoying the variety available in the genre these days.  I still have a soft spot for Stephen King novels, and Poe will always remain among my sacred texts, but I’m inclined to read these newer treatments as well.  There’s nothing really to scare you in Vampire a Go-Go, but there are remarkably moving moments.  And some of the monsters are quite a lot of fun.  It would restore my faith in the power of the accidental find, if it ever required resurrection.

Hidden Monsters

I don’t think much about having been born male.  I’m starting to realize that that’s because I don’t have to.  The same is true of being caucasian, although I’ve always objected to the labels of “white” and “black” as being polarizing and wildly inaccurate.  Although I grew up in poverty, my “social markers” put me in a place of privilege, even if others sharing my demographic have locked me out of the club.  These thoughts were raised by Mallory O’Meara’s excellent The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick.  As soon as I saw the book announced, I knew I had to read it.  As O’Meara would doubtlessly not find surprising, I had never heard of Milicent Patrick before.  I’m not surprised that a woman designed the Creature from the Black Lagoon, however, because woman create memorable monsters (can I get a “Frankenstein”?!).

The reason I don’t think about being male is because the crumbling society built by males assumes that it’s the default.  Men have always been shortsighted, I guess.  Having been raised by a “single mother” (she was technically not divorced because a male-made religion said it was sinful), I always believed women to be protectors, capable heads of families, and far more empathetic than the men I met.  I didn’t realize at the time that we lived so close to the brink because men devalue women.  Milicent Patrick grew up in a family where this was much more obvious.  A talented artist, she incurred her family’s lasting wrath by going to Hollywood and doing what was then movie makeup work.  That she designed the beloved Gill Man makes sense to me.

O’Meara’s book is sure to make thoughtful readers angry.  Not at the author, but at the behavior of men.  Perhaps due to my unbalanced upbringing, it has taken many years to see what others probably notice much more readily: women have to struggle for that which someone like myself can simply claim.  Bud Westmore, Patrick’s boss at Universal, claimed her creation as his own work.  There are monsters in this book, and I’ll give you one guess as to their gender.  Still, I’m glad to have read it for I know I’ve found another monster fan.  O’Meara’s clearly aware of how those of us who admit this odd passion are marginalized in a world that prefers super heroes and those good with finance over those who see monsters everywhere.  This is an important book; read it and you’ll see them too.

Good Monster

The little free library is a great idea.  Just after our move last year we contributed to our local many times as we discovered duplicates in the process of packing.  On one such venture, I discovered a book I wanted to read.  Not that I’d heard of it before, but any book with “golem” in the title catches my eye.  For the first (and so far only) time, I took a book.  Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman’s The Golem of Hollywood proved a fairly quick read for being over 600 pages.  I believe the industry term is “potboiler,” but it’s also a page-turner.  Nevertheless, it made me think.  The story follows a hard-bitten Jewish detective in Los Angeles.  Struggling with personal issues, he gets assigned to a bizarre homicide case that eventually takes him to Prague and Oxford, and then back to LA to clinch it.  And the killer is a golem.  (That’s not a spoiler, since it’s right there in the title.)

Parallel to the modern-day crime drama is the retelling of the biblical tale of the first days of humanity outside the Garden of Eden.  One of Adam and Eve’s daughters is headstrong and beautiful and when the tragedy between her brothers plays out she eventually takes her revenge on Cain.  Although not explicit about it, for violating the mark of Cain she witnesses the horrors that people will visit upon one another and her redemption is to become the soul that animates the golem of Prague.  Not your garden variety golem, she can transform into different shapes, and she stays loyal to the family of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the legendary first creator of the golem of Prague.

One of the frequent topics raised on this blog is how the Bible appears in everyday life, often unnoticed.  This novel is an example of that.  A further point, which is what stands behind my book Holy Horror, is that the Good Book is understood as mediated by popular culture.  Even those few biblical scholars who make it into the limelight can’t compete with the myriad representations of Scripture in the entertainment media.  Like The Golem of Hollywood, Holy Horror sees the Bible in the context of monsters.  Horror is an outsider genre.  Despite the many intelligent, thought-provoking exemplars extant, the default among the more refined is to see horror as something base and low.  It can also be a lot of fun.  Perhaps not great literature, The Golem of Hollywood is entertaining even as it underscores the continuing influence of the Good Book. 

International Standards

I risk being seen as even more of a book nerd by addressing the topic of International Standard Book Numbers, or ISBNs.  For those who’ve purchased a book in the past several decades, you’ve seen ISBNs, but perhaps unwittingly.  They’re represented by a barcode, often on the back cover in the lower left corner, or sometimes the middle.  The ISBN is the edition’s unique identifier, but it isn’t necessarily a guarantee that the contents will be exactly the same since typos corrected for new printings may use the same ISBN already purchased.  Yes, you read right.  Publishers have to purchase ISBNs.  Without them listings on many websites and distributors’ lists would be impossible.  The ISBN is what fulfillers use to order books since neither author nor title is necessarily unique.  Many book titles have been used to the point of dullness.

A typical ISBN

A colleague recently complained to me about being able to request permission to reuse something from a book without an ISBN.  Rights vendors often require them.  The ISBN came into usage, however, only in 1970.  As I’ve learned from trying to load older books into my Goodreads list, there are all kinds of complications and potential confusions if you don’t have the unique identifier for your source.  Titles cannot be copyrighted, and many are consequently overused.  The ISBN is your guide to a specific book.  If the book came before the ISBN system it’s going to take some extra work to ensure that you find the correct way to identify what you’re talking about.  This is only one of the many ways in which the book industry differs from most others.  It’s also the reason that I generally object to corrected printings.

Perhaps it’s odd to see a publishing professional take a hard line on book content.  The fact is almost always an author is given the opportunity to proofread, well proofs.  The copyedited, typeset book is given to them.  Yes, errors may creep in after this stage, but that’s not very common.  If an author didn’t catch mistakes, then a corrected edition ought to be published with a new ISBN.  But that’s not how it works.  Each ISBN should indicate the exact same content.  Although an ISBN must be purchased, just one isn’t expensive (witness all the self-publishing going on these days and that should be obvious).  Publishers that have to buy many thousands of them, however, are disinclined to waste them.  I’m not a fan of all technology, but the ISBN seems like a good concept to me.  Even if it’s not a guarantee that things are what they seem.

Infinity

It occurred to me the other day that I will never read all the books on my list.  Only in my fifties, it’s not as if I’m knocking at death’s door, but who hasn’t been aware that that gentle rapping might come at any time?  Macabre?  Maybe.  Realistic?  Definitely.  Perhaps I’m a little old to be thinking about prioritizing, but it’s pretty clear that between work, writing, and the requirements of daily life (taking the car to the shop, scheduling a dentist appointment, trying to find time for a haircut, lawn care), that something’s got to give.  Work’s the non-negotiable since without it avoiding starvation (or perhaps getting medical coverage) becomes a full-time job.  Best to leave that sleeping dog slumber.  Then come the other three Rs: relationships, reading, and writing.  After that the time left to divide is pretty petty indeed.

My reading list grows almost daily.  Reading is a form of relationship.  I’ve recklessly written to writers after finishing their books, convinced that they’d written it to me.  I’ve also read material that, when done, makes me regret the time spent.  Still, I don’t, I can’t give up.  Writing is a form of giving back.  The other day an editor who’d accepted one of my fictional stories wrote that she couldn’t stop reading it.  It doesn’t matter that the magazine doesn’t pay—I’ve received back already what I’d planned for all along.  A kind of relationship with a reader.  If WordPress is to be believed, there are some followers on this blog.  Most think I write too much, and some, perhaps, too little.  Writing, however, like reading, is the formation of relationships.

Like relationships, reading takes time.  I carve out a spot for it daily but that doesn’t really make a dent in the growing reading list.  I can’t claim that it’s because I’m no longer a professor.  Except during the summer I read more now than I did when I was teaching (the professor’s life isn’t what most people think).  It is, I believe, that there are so many interesting ideas out there that one person simply doesn’t have time to think them all.  Reading and writing are a form of very slow conversation.  Of course, with technology the rest of life is speeding up.  Things seem now to happen instantly.  The world of books is slower, and the pace is far more sane.  I may never get through my list of books to read, but at least I have good conversation with those I don’t know, and that’s what really matters.

Victorian Nightmares

J. Sheridan Le Fanu isn’t exactly a household name, but as a writer from the same era (and perhaps same cloth) as Poe, he was known for his gothic imagination.  Since he was Irish his work never really took off in America as some other writers’ did, and he’s certainly not likely to be found on bookstore shelves because there’s not great demand.  I have a fondness for gothic literature and Le Fanu’s name had been on my list for some time.  At a used bookstore I found one of his books, and as I was checking out the clerk said “I was just checking in another of his books,” so I bought that one too.  (When you’re paying just two dollars a pop for books, it feels like virtue.)  The latter turned out to be In a Glass Darkly, which apart from its biblical title, contains five stories loosely linked by a narrative framework.  Poe wrote that short stories should be read in one sitting, but these tale venture into novelette territory, with some requiring considerable time to finish.

That having been said, the experience was enjoyable enough.  Each story is quite different and they range from the vampire classic “Camilla” to a foiled murder mystery and a canonical ghost story or two.  While better known across the Atlantic, several of Le Fanu’s stories have been translated to film, and he was regarded as one of the best ghost story writers of his era.  Perhaps because modern readers have been subjected to much more subtle foreshadowing, some of the tales are predictable to those on the lookout for twist endings.  The Room in the Dragon Volant, for example, suggests that the mysterious lady at the masquerade is indeed the narrator’s adulteress love interest, although the final twist is nicely wrought.

Probably the most well-known of the stories in the collection is “Camilla,” the account of what’s regarded today as a lesbian vampire.  The tale is well-crafted, but the credulity of the narrator is almost unbelievable as the pieces fall together and the puzzle picture still isn’t seen.  Nevertheless, it’s a creepy account that has captured the imagination of filmmakers through the years.  It took me long enough to finish the book that the earlier stories had faded by the time I’d reached the end, but the fault lies with me, not the author.  As a gothic fix each of the narratives serves quite well.  My other Le Fanu purchase was a much larger book, so it will take some time to achieve that goal.  In the meantime, I’ll look forward to discovering more Victorian nightmares as autumn wends its way forward.