Trading Ideas

Sometimes you read a book where the author seems to have your same experiences.  I suspect that’s why many of us keep reading, looking for connection.  I just finished Scott Shibuya Brown’s The Traders and immediately began wanting more.  Anyone who’s faced teetering stacks of rejection letters from agents will appreciate the story of Cecil Po, a bookseller in Tandomon.  Like many of us who wind up in book-related industries, Po is at heart a writer.  Like most writers, he’s down on his luck.  When he discovers a deceased, truly third or fourth-rate writer who’s acquired some level of fame, a wild plot begins to hatch.  The story is so compelling that I spent much of this past week wishing for just a few more minutes to read.

One of the things the story does exceptionally well is to point out the foibles of scholars.  Self-important and self-focused, they often fail to see the obvious right in front of them.  There are some laugh out loud moments here for anyone who’s spent time in academia.  Po’s laconic commentary is no-nonsense and witty.  It also seems to contain a rebuke for the big publishing houses that effectively limit what gets read.  Anyone who’s tried to navigate publishing knows the truth of this tale.  There are those who decide which writers will get noticed and then build them up to continuing successes.  It even happens in academic publishing.  Po, talented but uneducated, and—more importantly—unconnected, has resigned himself to a life of peddling books while knowing he has written better than some of what he has read.  Brown takes the gloves off, but gently and politely.

There are tonnes of great, but undiscovered writing out there.  Even those of us in publishing (perhaps especially so) find it difficult to spend the time we wish to on reading.  There is reading and then there is reading.  If people did more of it there might well be less pandemic to go around.  And if more people read for pleasure there would be more demand for books.  It might also lead to more people writing.  The Traders is a fascinating little parable that draws you in with possibilities.  Cecil Po is like so many of us who dream big but live small.  I won’t put any spoilers here since the novel deserves to be widely read.  And it’s just possible that the reader will discover a bit of him or herself between the covers along with Po.

X-Files Redux

So, after writing a post about The X-Files, I finished season three, forgetting up until then that the last episode was “Talitha Cumi.”  Apart from being part of the alien mythology arc, the biblically literate recognize the title as the words Jesus said to Jairus’ daughter as he raised her from the dead.  Appropriately enough, the episode features an alien-human hybrid that is able to raise the dead and to shape-shift.  This particular episode also has an intriguing dialogue between the Smoking Man and Jeremiah Smith (the hybrid) where they discuss whether the alien agenda for people, or that of the shadowy cabal, is better.  With a theology drawn from the Grand Inquisitor chapter of The Brothers Karamazov (according to Wikipedia, and which I have no reason to doubt), they argue from different perspectives.  The Smoking Man explains that they have given people science instead of God and miracles will only confuse the issue.

While not exactly Fyodor Dostoyevsky, this scene raises some very real questions.  Are people happier not believing?  Not only that, but the cynicism of the Smoking Man matches rather precisely the modus operandi of our government some two decades later.  There’s a reason we keep coming back to the classics.  The X-Files mythology is, like the Cthulhu Mythos, woven throughout a larger tapestry whose warp and weft both seem to be religion.  It ran far longer than Sleepy Hollow ever did, and it would take considerable effort to tease all of the Bible, let alone religion, out of it.  They make the story far more believable.

This particular episode also displays the staying power of the classics.  Long, ponderous books like The Brothers Karamazov require concerted effort to read in these soundbite days of internet hegemony.  That Grand Inquisitor chapter, however, has been enormously influential.  (I recall during my most recent rereading of the novel that I hit that wonderful chapter and then realized I still had hundreds of pages to go.)  We often have trouble telling God from the Devil.  Just look at today’s political scene and try to disagree.  In the X-Files diegesis there is a shadowy, high-powered group that got to the extraterrestrials first.  They keep the secrets to themselves while the masses play out their insignificant lives that enrich those in charge.  Democracy, it seems, used to be about elected representatives seeing to the will of the people.  It perhaps assumes a greater educational base than we’ve been able to retain.  But still, with chapters like “Talitha Cumi” we see that there may be some glimmer of hope after all.

Tentacly Fun

Anyone who has spent time amid scholarly religion tomes knows how cases used to be made for connections.  Similarities were seen as parallels, and it wasn’t unusual for the learned to assert that ideas were organically related.  This same style (now much out of date) was borrowed by writers proposing that what we now call “ancient astronauts” visited the earth and helped with things like the pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge.  Jason Colavito knows how to parody such writing as he demonstrates in his Cthulhu in World Mythology.  Known as a skeptic and critic of what he calls “pseudoscience,” Colavito is also a Lovecraft aficionado.  This tongue-in-cheek treatment approaches the subject with an earnestness that almost convinces the reader that Colavito actually believes what he is writing.  Meanwhile he’s poking fun at those who like to draw untenable parallels and invent unwarranted scenarios.

All of this is accomplished by using H. P. Lovecraft’s brainchild Cthulhu.  Good old-fashioned common sense tells readers that a fictional god-monster created by a fiction writer is not to be believed.  What Colavito does, with a straight face (or straight pen) is pretend all this is real.  Finding tenuous connections between ancient myths and words that can, from certain angles, resemble the name Cthulhu, Colavito takes the unwary reader down the garden path that suggests Cthulhu was the origin of nearly all world mythologies.  Or rather that all world mythologies are reflections and recollections of when Cthulhu was widely known.  Treating both fiction and factual sources with footnotes, this is a fanciful romp through “research” published by fictional characters made up by Lovecraft right next to actual sources where scholars are addressing something else, most of them in older tomes.

As an example of good fun, one thing worries me about the book.  Granted, it was published before the great Cthulhu was elected in 2016, but many people today have difficulty discerning actual facts from alternative facts.  “Fake news” can cover a host of sins.  Reconstructing the ancient past is notoriously laborious.  Not having written records means guesses are necessary.  When writing does appear it is so far removed from contemporary uses of the art that its original usages are sometimes completely opaque.  Receipts we understand.  Myths not so much.  Rituals even less.  Many scholars spend their lives in attempting some logical reconstruction of ancient cultures.  We have very little scientific means to test them.  It might make sense, in such situations, to offer Cthulhu as a suggestion for filling the gaps.

Insubstantial Reading

Because of the shortness of time, I recently bought an ebook so that I could get it done under deadline.  Although the coronavirus still has book delivery slowed down, things are much improved.  There was a book, however, I absolutely needed to read for my current research that is available only in ebook form.  Sighing, but emboldened by my recent experience, I began reading it electronically.  Shortly after I started my critical faculties kicked in and I began wondering whether the book was fact or fiction.  The author has an internet presence but is seldom addressed by scholars.  I found myself thinking, “if this was a real book, I’d stop right about now and examine my physical copy for clues.”  I’ve done that more than once when it comes to questionable material.  Books, you see, come with built-in indicators of their trustworthiness.

The ebook, however, gives you scant information.  For example, this one has no copyright page.  I may be a publishing geek, but a copyright page is essential for determining what kind of book you’re reading.  Then I would, if this were an actual book, close it and look at the back cover.  There in the upper left I would look for the BISAC (Book Industry Standards and Communications) code.  These are the words that classify the genre and subject of the book for you.  It is often a publishing professional, such as the book’s editor, who assigns the BISAC code, so depending on who the publisher is, you have an accurate description.  This ebook on my Kindle software has no BISAC code.  The publisher itself often tells you something about a volume, but this is a small press without much online information available.

I’m walking you through this because of our current crisis of critical thinking.  With a president unwilling to stick to facts and crying out “fake news” when empirically proven realities don’t match his liking, being able to assess our sources is essential.  Ebooks have eroded the possibilities.  I read esoteric stuff, I admit.  The authors had to have convinced a publisher (and don’t get me started on self-published books!) that their project was viable.  The book in my hands has a number of ways to assess whether it is accurate or not.  The ebook on my lap does not.  I’m working on a longer article on this topic.  Our ability to think critically includes the necessity of assessing the clues as to the nature of our reading material.  Right now I’m reading an ebook stripped of the helpful clues of the print book and fact-checking is limited to Google.  The truth may be out there, but if this were a printed book chances are it would be right in my hands.

 

WWW

With a few exceptions I think we’ve lived beyond the time when a single name could spawn an industry.  I used to watch re-runs (itself an arcane concept) of The Twilight Zone when I was a kid.  These weird stories drew me in, and, it seems clear, not only me.  Rod Serling’s brainchild led to an industry and “twilight zone” became a household concept.  Lots of little books were written bearing Serling’s name in some way.  One of those paperbacks was Rod Serling’s Triple W: Witches, Warlocks and Werewolves.  I can’t remember where I picked it up, but it was a used book and it had Rod Serling’s name right there on the cover.  Going over my books to find unread gems, I picked up Triple W and sat down to find out what it was like.

None of the stories are by Serling himself.  He’s listed as the editor and he wrote a very nice little introduction.  The tales here reflect, as the subtitle indicates, witches, warlocks, and werewolves.  Some are old stories and some are fairly recent for a book published early in the 1960s.  Descriptive writing does tend to evoke a scene, but I’m often amazed at just how dated it can make a story seem.  What struck writers from the 1940s and ’50s as huge sums of money are likely less than we pay for our monthly internet bill.  Men all try to act tough and the ladies prepare dinner.  Stereotypes.  That’s somehow appropriate for this collection since most of the stories have to do with witches.  Serling was well aware of the tragedies of history, and these tales are told mostly for fun.  The scariest characters are the witch hunters (generally men).

Serling’s famed conscience shows in the choice of the final piece.  Not a story, not even fiction, Charles Mackay’s “Witch Trials and the Law” is an essay about the horrors of witch hunting.  It’s a rather sober piece with which to end a book of speculative fiction, but then Serling was always known for his impatience with injustice.  Also included is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” which I’ve been wanting to read for some time.  Given his shame at the Salem trials and his own ancestor’s part in them, it was mildly surprising that Hawthorne’s story seems to presuppose the reality of witches.  Of course, it condemns the respectable folk who, in reality, all participate in the ills of the society in which they find themselves.  In all, this collection made me think.  Not bad for an impulse purchase on what was probably a rainy afternoon. 

Bible Horror

The combination may seem odd, but it is definitely a valid one.  The Bible and horror, I mean.  My colleague in this venture, Brandon R. Grafius, has published the first book in the Horror and Scripture series, Reading the Bible with Horror.  This is a fascinating little volume that explores the productive use of horror films when it comes to interpreting the Bible.  The Bible isn’t all horror, of course, but a good deal of it is.  That’s one of the keys of biblical interpretation—no one method covers it all.  At least when I was teaching I used eclectic methods both because some methods work better than others in some places and because no one method is the correct one.  Using horror to interpret the Good Book is one of the newest methods out there.

The methodology involves looking at horror films (mostly) and finding biblical parallels.  Both the Bible and the movies interpret one another.  This can be a kind of reception history—the idea that to understand Scripture we must look at how it has been “received.”  The way that people read Holy Writ after it was written is as important as the way biblical specialists read it.  We all know what literalism is, and biblical scholars are well aware of its shortcomings as a method.  There are tons of other methods that seek to show the relevance of the Good Book, and one of them is to see how horror makes it so.  To get to this point the reader must get beyond our social bias about horror as a degraded, evil genre.  Some of it is quite bad, of course, but much of it has redeeming value.  Redeeming value so obvious that it can be used to interpret the Bible.

Grafius studies only limited examples here, for instance, the book of Job with its human suffering and superhuman Leviathan.  He also looks at hauntings and biblical ghosts, as well as haunted locations.  His chapter on haunted houses made me stop and think quite a bit.  He concludes with what will be the most challenging concept for many—the idea that God can be monstrous in the Bible.  He clearly can.  Apart from theodicy, one of the major reasons critics attack Christianity is the character of God as portrayed in the Bible.  Grafius isn’t attacking Christianity but rather he’s trying to show how a most unlikely source can shed genuine light onto it.  Reading the Bible with Horror is an insightful step in that direction, even if it’s a step into a rather haunted house.

Old Seas Man

Although my fiction writing has been said to resemble his by one of those websites that tell you who you write like, I’ve never read any Ernest Hemingway before.  In the wake of Melville I had a hankering to read his The Old Man and the Sea.  I honestly had no idea what it was about or how the story went.  I’d read Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” so Hemingway’s classic was the last of the holy trinity of sea-faring literary classics to remain unread.  Not knowing what to expect, I was blown out to sea by it.  Published about a century after Moby Dick, The Old Man and the Sea visits some of the same themes but also pulls into new ports as well.

Santiago has hooked a massive fish after nearly three months with no luck.  To do so, however, he has gone out too far from land.  This watery hubris leads him to make fast to a reasonable stand-in for God.  I don’t know Hemingway’s religious outlook, but sea-faring novels already have such a large dose of Jung that it’s difficult to imagine there’s nothing divine in the massive marlin Santiago snags.  With many classics the end is known before beginning to read.  I wasn’t sure if Santiago was going to make it back to land, or indeed, if he would kill the fish.  The old man’s conversations with himself are the heart of the novel.  And one in particular turns to the religious idea of sin.

Not a religious man, Santiago bargains Hail Marys and Our Fathers for the successful catching of the fish.  Then he begins to reflect on sin.  In words similar to lyrics discussed in a recent post, Santiago declares everything a sin, even though he doesn’t believe in sin at all.  His view of life is stunning at this point, and commentary on which theologians would do well to chew.  Sin is a concept meant to impute guilt to mistakes, often made unintentionally.  What might’ve begun as a form of social control has grown into a mass neurosis for those who believe humans are capable of no good.  This is especially worth pondering if the reader considers the marlin to be God.  Try it and see what you come up with.  I know little about Hemingway, but having read his Nobel Prize-winning novel, I do feel that I have learned something worthwhile.  And I also feel the trilogy is complete.

Weather Gods

It’s funny how old fascinations have the power to reemerge with the slightest provocation.  I guess writing a book will do that to you.  I just finished Peter J. Thuesen’s Tornado God: American Religion and Violent Weather.  There’s a certain kinship among those of us enamored of this relationship.  Thuesen finds himself in Indiana, and I was in Wisconsin during my research and writing of Weathering the Psalms.  I still haven’t reconciled myself with tornadoes, which were far too likely during my years in the Midwest.  As Thuesen explains, there’s just something about them.  Neither scientist nor theologian can fully explain them and the feeling of awe spans both disciplines.  The book covers a wide range that includes early Protestant settlers and their ideas of providence as well as modern understandings of atmospheric dynamics.  Still, the tornadoes…

Randomness also lies behind both tornadoes and science.  The eerie function of quantum mechanics makes it seem if there’s a kind of willfulness to even particle physics.  Too quick to join in are those among the evangelical camp that want to raise the flag of intelligent design.  Thuesen interrogates their theology as he asks questions about both theodicy and global warming.  Tornadoes are notorious for killing one person and leaving another right next door completely unscathed.  Literally tearing families apart.  Some of those we meet in these pages have turned to black-and-white religion for answers.  Others tend to see things more in shades of gray.  Does God send storms or merely allow them?  Are victims singled out or simply unfortunate to be in the wrong place at the right time?  America’s armchair theologians have their ready answers, but the weather remains unpredictable.

Readers will find interesting connections throughout.  The celestial orientation of religion is pretty obvious as well.  Even though modern believers don’t accept a heaven directly overhead, the orientation is still there.  Their maddening obtuseness when it comes to global warming is more than just a little naive.  Either that or they’re secretly gunning for armageddon.  Whichever it is, Thuesen treats all comers with respect.  Storms are awe-inspiring events.  I recall standing on the edge of a farm field in Illinois and staring up at a lightning display in clouds towering thousands of feet above me.  Looking out the south window one night as a cloud continuously lit by lightning made its slow way from west to east just south of where I stood.  It was a religious experience.  How could it not be?  If any of this resonates with you, this is a book you ought to read.

Rainbow of Reading

Reading in a time of plague is more than just a pastime.  It’s an opportunity to learn.  I keep fervently hoping that an occupation might be made out of reading, but those I’ve tried always have many long strings attached, most of them tied to capitalism.  Early on in the social distancing phase, a group in my town began posting children’s stories on lawn signs in the park.  Each sign stands six feet from the last one, and if you linger a few minutes you can take in a children’s book, presumably for the benefit of your child.  Such signs have cropped up in a couple of the parks here in town.  I’m pleased to see the attempts at literacy education continuing.  If anything’s going to get us out of this crisis, it’s going to be reading.

The local library, again early on, began giving away books that normally make up part of the book sale.  Libraries, which have proven their worth over and over, have been doing what they can to get people through the difficult times of loneliness, and in some cases, joblessness.  Those of us who cottoned onto reading at a young age realize just how much problem-solving you can glean from reading a novel.  Instead of encouraging writers, however, the capitalistic system makes agents and publishers interested only in those writers who are deemed to have commercial value.  All the rest, who often find a core audience after their deaths, are left to obscurity since money makes the world go round, right MC?  And yet where would we be without our formative fiction.

I’ve quite often admitted that Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is my favorite novel.  I’d always assumed that it was a success but I recently learned that it too was a flop.  At first.  There was little interest in what has become the prototypical great American novel.  Its draw is in the lessons it teaches.  A bit too long to put on signs in the park, it explores what drives some people.  Indeed, for the owners of the Pequod it is money.  But there are more important things.  As the weather has been improving, it makes me glad to see the signs of summer.  The signs posted with books.  While I have no small children to take to the park, I am made happy by the efforts of those who take the initiative to show young people the way out of any crisis.  You must read your way through.

Under the Plague

Some events transform a society.  While we keep waiting for things “to get back to normal,” many of us have already come to realize that there is no normal to which we can get back.  That’s my main impression after reading Albert Camus’ The Plague.  The story is set in 1940s Algeria where the Bubonic Plague breaks out in a single town that has to isolate itself from the rest of the world.  As the months and realizations of long duration develop, the emotions the characters go through are very much in line with what seems to be happening with Covid-19.  Indeed, that’s why the novel seems to be going through a surge of popularity right now.  I’ve always associated Camus with the great existentialist writers, but that slipped to the back of my mind while reading this poignant story.

Existentialism is all about making one’s own meaning in a meaningless universe.  This is precisely what Dr. Rieux does in Oran as his former life becomes one long ward call of service to the town.  He befriends characters who represent the best and the worst of human nature as they respond to the pressures of isolation and boredom.  Camus pointedly notes that despite the equalizing forces of death and hardship, the rich manage to make sure they have it better than the poor although they all end up in the same common grave.  There are morals to this story, and it’s clear that “leaders” in Washington have never read it.  Literature quite often teaches important lessons, but to get at them you have to read.

Rieux befriends Tarrou and it seems to me that Tarrou’s lengthy monologue on why he has volunteered to stay in Oran and help those who are suffering is the main message of the book.  Tarrou understands the lessening of suffering, the attempt to bring peace, as the main purpose of human beings.  He says at one point that it’s like becoming a saint.  Despite the ways saints are often worshipped these days, that is at the heart of their canonization.  Care for others.  Rieux points out that Tarrou doesn’t believe in God, and yet, as the story winds down it is clear that he has become a kind of savior figure.  The novel is disturbing in its simplicity and in its timeliness.  It would seem that if we’re to get anything at all out of being under the cloud of a modern plague that we need to take the view that others matter, despite what Washington says, perhaps even more than ourselves.

Weathering Frights

It reminded me of a nightmare.  The box, containing a book, was soaked through.  A sudden thunderstorm had come before we knew the box was even there on the porch and memories of several boxes of rain-ruined books came back uninvited.  Water and books just don’t mix.  This particular book, I knew, was Peter Thuesen’s Tornado God, which I had ordered back in December and which has just been released.  The irony wasn’t lost on me.  My own second book, Weathering the Psalms, was a rather inelegant treatment on a similar topic and I’ll discuss Thuesen’s book in further detail here once I’ve read it.  The point is that no matter how arrogant we become as a species the weather just remains beyond our control.  The rainbow at the end of this small storm was that although the packaging was soaked, I found the box before the book itself had time to get wet.

My research, ever since my first book, has largely been about making connections.  The weather is so quotidian, so common, that we discuss it without trepidation in casual conversation.  It is, however, one of the most dangerous things on our planet.  Severe storms kill both directly and indirectly.  Cyclones, typhoons, and hurricanes can do so on a massive scale.  So can their dramatic opposite, drought.  Snow and melting ice caps also threaten life, as do floating chunks of ice in chilly oceans.  It’s no wonder that the weather has been associated with gods from the earliest times.  Even today literalists will say God is in the sky although meteorologists and astronomers can find no pearly gates when they look up.  We just can’t shake the idea that weather is some kind of reflection of divine moodiness.

As weather becomes more and more extreme—it’s already a system that we’ve tipped seriously off balance—I suspect more and more people will start to assign it some kind of divine agency.  This June we’ve already gone from shivering mornings with frost on the roof to nights when sleep is impossible because it’s so warm and humid, all within a matter of a couple of days.  And this isn’t that unusual.  Wait’l the gods really get angry.  Weather is closely related to the water cycle, of course.  We can learn about such things from books.  We can’t take them out during a storm, however, and homeownership is all about keeping water out, or only in prescribed locations indoors.  When the delivery driver leaves a box on your porch, however, it remains within reach of the storm gods.

Ahab’s Garden

One of my motivations, I have to admit, for re-reading Moby Dick this year was my wife’s gift of Ahab’s Rolling Sea: A Natural History of Moby-Dick, by Richard J. King.  I wanted to read the latter, and I’d been toying with the idea of reading the former.  So I did both.  King’s book explores the oceanic world introduced by Herman Melville’s classic.  The various creatures and natural phenomena mentioned by Melville are examined in the light of what we now know today and a few key finding emerge.  We continue to know little about our oceans, even as we deplete them.  The book is about whales, but not only about whales.  Anyone who’s read Moby Dick knows the novel encompasses about a year at sea and describes the many sights experienced by a crew that sets out with few port calls and many long hours on the open ocean.

King does a fine job here.  It’s particularly refreshing that he doesn’t hide from what he calls Melville’s natural theology.  Many science writers fear to go to such places.  Clearly Melville looked at the world through such lenses, however.  The novel is one of the American philosophical masterpieces.  Not only philosophical, but also theological.  We can only guess what Melville’s true beliefs were, but he described the book to Nathaniel Hawthorne as wicked, and he knew that he was butting heads with orthodoxy throughout.  Natural theology was, of course, an early form of science.  Today scientists tend to be embarrassed by their heritage, but King shows that in the hands of a genius like Melville the results can be extraordinary.

This is also a disturbing book.  Any volume dealing with the natural world these days likely is.  The over-exploitation of the ocean, our use of it as a dumping ground, and global warming have combined to make the recovery of whales, as well as many other species, slow if not impossible.  While commercial hunting of whales has largely ceased, the leviathans haven’t made much of a comeback, and several species are well on their way toward extinction.  Sea birds are less common than they were when Melville was writing.  We’ve influenced our world in such a bad way that we’ve likely set the clock ticking on the extinction of our own species.  In a sense then, natural theology is facing its own apocalypse.  Ahab’s Rolling Sea is not a dour book—it is a celebration of the world as it was once known, even if that world was less than just two hundred years ago.

Wandering

Sarah Perry seems to be a writer who refuses to be pinned down.  Some of us are careful in our fiction to make sure things progress logically, almost factually.  With Perry you’re never quite sure.  Was there a sea monster in The Essex Serpent?  I’m not sure how this played into my decision to read Melmoth.  I knew the title had to have drawn its inspiration from the gothic classic Melmoth the Wanderer, a book I’ve never read.  (The internet has, in some ways, taken the sport out of wandering used book stores, where the possibility of finding such things was once a part of their charm.)  In any case, I saw Melmoth on the front table of Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca, and you learn which bookstore front tables to trust.  It was back when bookstores were open and autumn was in the air.

The concept of the wandering Jew (which I address in Holy Horror) is one that has the power to offend.  By emphasizing the atrocity of the Holocaust, Perry parries that here while maintaining the concept.  The wandering Jew committed some ancient crime and is sentenced to roam the earth until, well, usually the end times.  Perry makes Melmoth one of the women at the empty tomb of Jesus who, when asked to confirm the truth of the event, denies what she saw.  Condemned to walk the world on bleeding feet, she finds sinners and invites them to join her.  Not only finds, but watches—she is the one who sees all your transgressions—and insists that you come to her.

Melmoth is, like the original story, a set of nesting dolls.  The frame story contains other documents that shed more and more light on this dark wanderer.  Characters must own up to their shortcomings.  Indeed, confession is a large part of the story.  Although set in modern times, the book is quite biblical, both in sensibility and in some of the plot elements.  It even has several quoted snippets from the Good Book.  This caught my attention partially because a recent article I wrote (there will be notice here when it appears) suggests that the horror genre goes back to the Bible itself.  Those uncomfortable with the darkness may not realize just how much the two have in common.  Not all the strings are tied up neatly by the end, but this novel will perhaps inspire the reader to do a bit of wandering their own. 

Eternal Returns

Nightmares with the Bible has been submitted.  Those of you who read this blog regularly know that it is my fourth book and that it is a kind of sequel to Holy Horror.  Nightmares looks specifically at demons.  I was inspired—if that’s the right word to use for it—to write the book because the chapter on possession movies in Holy Horror was clearly overflowing.  Not only that, but at the time I started writing the book not many resources were out there on demons.  Almost nothing, certainly, that asked the big question of what they are.  To answer that we need to go to the movies.  People get their information from popular culture, especially when it comes to trying to understand the arcane and even esoteric field of theology.

Movies, studies have shown, often participate in the reality our brains conjure.  Back when Reagan was president—is it even possible to believe those seem like halcyon days compared to these?—he was caught occasionally citing events from movies as historical realities.  We all do it from time to time, but then, most of us, if pressed, can tease movies apart from facts.  Church attendance has been going down for some time (and on Zoom you can tune in and tune out without having to “stay in the room”), and so people have to get their information on demons somewhere else.  Reality television and the internet also play into this as well, of course, but Nightmares sticks with movies because I’ve only got so much time.  The message is pretty straightforward though, we must consider where people get their information.

After you submit a large project, if you’re anything like me, you’re mentally exhausted for a while.  I’ve been working on this book for nearly five years—I started it before Holy Horror was submitted to McFarland.  I had already begun work on my next book, but I yet have to decide which one it will be.  I have several going at any one time.  Hopefully this next one won’t be coming out with an academic publisher.  I’d like it to be priced in the realm where individual buyers might consider it worth the investment.  I know from experience that even books just over twenty dollars are a stretch for most people, especially if they’re on academic topics.  Nightmares will come back, I know.  There will be proofs and indexing and all kinds of further work to be done.  I’m hoping that by that point I will have the next book nearly done.  If only I could decide which one it will be.

Nothing To Eat

Some stories are unsettling to the point of spirituality.  That’s my impression of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian.  My wife wanted my opinion of it and when she used the adjective “Kafkaesque” I knew I had to comply.  The comparison is eerie in that Franz Kafka essentially starved to death because no way could be found to feed him with his underlying medical condition.  The Vegetarian shifts focus in its three parts, but the protagonist, Yeong-hye, is a young woman who finds her life run by other people in her family after she decides to become a vegetarian (in actual fact, a vegan).  Basing her decision on disturbing dreams she has, those in her Korean culture cannot accept vegetarianism and attempt, by various forms of coercion, to change her decision.  Throughout the account, Yeong-hye becomes silent—we’re never given her point of view—but those around her can’t accept her decision.

This is a challenging book to read, given my own personal history, but after scratching my head a bit when I finished it I came to reflect on this spiritual side of it.  My own vegetarianism was an ethical decision.  I realize that I can’t and shouldn’t impose my ethics on others, but I’ve not had much resistance from others (apart from colleagues who occasionally make reservations at eateries with no hint of the concept).  Likewise, I became a vegan a few years back based on further reflection of an ethical kind.  This is actually a spiritual practice.  I don’t often express it in those terms, but clearly it is.  In the novel when Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law tries to direct her life, he takes her to a Buddhist restaurant because he knows nowhere else to find vegetarian offerings.

Yeong-hye believes herself to be becoming a plant, and that leads to the next logical step in this progression of thinking.  Eating is, or at least can be, a spiritual exercise.  Many religions advocate fasts of various durations to derive the benefits to the soul.  Daily life is a matter of routine for many, often based around our culturally driven mandate of three meals a day.  I’m not alone at working through lunch while trying to get more done at my job.  By the final meal of the day I find myself exhausted.  It’s about more than food.  This strange little book has put me into a reverie about the ethics of eating.  I don’t know if Han Kang is a vegetarian or not, but she does understand the soul of one.