The Essex Serpent isn’t what it appears to be. Sarah Perry’s debut American novel (although it’s her second elsewhere, publishing being the strange beast that it is) was much anticipated. Like the serpent itself, the novel is difficult to describe. It comes down to a minister, a widow, and the people with whom they associate. Instead of going through the complex storyline, I would instead note that once again a novel that explores religion has garnered quite a lot of attention. It’s difficult to believe the official narrative that we’re constantly fed that religion is well beyond its expiration date when it continues to appear in print media as a prime motivator for people in all kinds of situations. Novels, however, aren’t popular in the way television, movies, and video games are, so this is worth pondering.
While novels are sometimes disparaged in higher education, their clientele tends to be an educated one. It takes more commitment to sit down and read a 400-page tome than it does to flip on some device and meander from app to app, channel to channel, or website to website. Novel reading takes some concentrated effort. Remembering characters and connections across a span of days or weeks as you wend your way through. And one thing novelists do, at least in my experience, is explore the way religion makes us who we are. I don’t choose novels for that reason; I thought The Essex Serpent would be a monster story (remember, I don’t read reviews before reading the book).
My guess is that if you read this blog you’re a potential reader of novels like this, so I won’t offer any spoilers. The book is suffused with biblical language, as befits a story with a clergyman as a major character. The protagonist, however, is an irreligious widow on a journey of self-discovery. Having been dominated by a wealthy husband, she now explores paleontology in a Victorian context. Although the year is never stated, the novel manages to find that Gothic near-ghost-story feel with the close interplay of death by consumption and fear of the dark. It’s not a scary book by any means, although there’s plenty of mist in Essex, and a little gruesome detail of what people can do to each other. The novel caught my attention via reviews I never read and has left me pondering what I’ve just experienced. And it has reinforced my conviction that, despite what the critics may say, religion is what motivates us, whether we admit it or not. And serpents may not be what they seem.
So, I’m packing. Have been, on and off, since January. One of the most dreaded moments of packing is the closets. You know how in horror movies the villain often hides in closets? We have no danger of that. Any monster foolish enough to try it would be suffocated under tons of stuff. Some houses may have walk-in closets, but I am inclined to call a mining company whenever I need to find anything in ours. Our closets have led full lives. It’s almost 100 degrees outside and I’m excavating. We’re at that stage of “absolutely need to keep?” instead of “do we want this?” Then I came upon it. The layer of SBL tote bags. Like a paleontologist of ancient academia.
If you’ve been a member of the Society of Biblical Literature you know what I mean. Every year the Society wants you to realize value for your money, and they give you a tote-bag to help you haul home the books you’re going to buy. Long-time attendees know to pack an empty suitcase inside their regular one just to accommodate the books. (That could also account for about ninety percent of my packing—we have more books than a small town public library.) But it’s not the books that are the problem today, it’s the bags. I’ve been attending SBL since 1991. Do the math. I seem to recall that they didn’t do tote bags back in Kansas City, but soon after they became part of the agenda. And I have an impressive pile of them in my closet.
Too small for groceries—especially in the early editions, back when we could meet in smaller venues—and too impractical for anything other than books, they multiply in our closets. What professor doesn’t have his or her iconic briefcase already? Reduce, reuse, recycle they say. At least half of my totes have never been reused. Zippers? Who thought of that? Pulling handfuls out of the closet, I marvel at their colors. I can’t remember everyone walking around with a red bag—what year was that? (San Francisco, 2011.) The black leather edition—remember that one? (SBL, n.d.) The bags aren’t really useful for packing, on a movers’ scale. You can imagine the burly guys outside their truck scratching their heads at this impractical conveyance. Like so much else in life they’ve become mere souvenirs. From the French word for something like “remembrance,” souvenirs are meant to take us back to the place in vivid detail. I fear that many past meetings have run together into a blend of biblical arcana. I’m sure that’s just me. Still, I’m responsible for this new discovery. I’d I’ll need shortly to decide whether these totes go into the museum or back into the landfill that moving inevitably creates in a throw-away world.
Posted in Posts, Just for Fun, Bible, Books, Memoirs, Environment
Tagged Society of Biblical Literature, Books, recycling, San Francisco, Kansas City, Environment, moving, SBL
Although I don’t read movie reviews until after I’ve seen a film, I have a confession to make. With rumors swirling of The Conjuring 3, and since a chapter of Nightmares with the Bible will involve The Conjuring, I was a little curious what it might be about. Word on the street—and by “street” I mean “internet”—is that it will feature the case of Ed and Lorraine Warren that’s presented in Werewolf. Co-written by William Ramsey (the victim) and Robert David Chase, the book describes the strange malady of Ramsey, who never actually changed into a wolf, but for inexplicable reasons (at the time) thought himself a wolf and took on a wolfish look as he attacked people. The reports suggest he had preternatural strength at such times.
Since most of the Warrens’ books are concerned with demons, it should come as no surprise that in this case that was the diagnosis as well. With no real reason given, once upon a childhood evening Ramsey was possessed and occasionally broke out into violent fits. He landed in a psychiatric hospital a couple of times, but was eventually released. Noticed by the Warrens on one of their trips to England, Ramsey was invited to come stateside for an exorcism. According to the book, the rite was successful at least up until the time of publication. That’s the thing about demons—you can’t always tell for sure when they’re gone.
It’s pretty obvious why such a story line would appeal for a horror flick. You’ve got a werewolf, an unnamed demon, and an exorcism—there’s a lot to work with here. Weird things happen in the world, and there’s not too much to strain the credulity in this case. It would seem possible that a mental illness could cause much of what’s described as plaguing Ramsey, though. Its episodic nature is strange, I suppose, and the Warrens had a reputation for spotting demons. I did miss the conventional elements of the exorcism, however. No demon forced to give its name, no levitating and no head-spinning. Not even a bona fide bodily transformation. They’ll be able to fix that in Hollywood, I’m sure. Credulous or not, there will always be people like me who feel compelled to read such books. And since there’s no final arbiter but opinion in cases of the supernatural, that can leave you wondering.
Posted in Books, Monsters, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged demons, Ed and Lorraine Warren, exorcism, Nightmares with the Bible, Robert David Chase, The Conjuring 3, werewolf, William Ramsey