Reading Lights

Late one night in Wisconsin—I had just come off the train from Champaign-Urbana—one of the students from Nashotah House was driving me to my spooky apartment on campus as part of his work-study job.  He mentioned what seemed an obscure topic to me, and I asked him why he liked it.  “Who can say,” he responded, “why they like anything?”  He had a point.  Work on Nightmares requires reading current studies of horror, and one that came out just before Halloween was Darryl Jones’ Sleeping with the Lights on: The Unsettling Story of Horror.  I don’t know why I like such things, but when the book was first announced I knew I’d need to read it, and soon.  It had to wait until the Warren books were finished, however.

This little gift book (with a novelty cover, even) contains quite a bit of insight.  In fact, while reading it I discerned that Jones had spotted something that I’d begun to write down independently.  Horror does that to people.  The book is divided up into chapters addressing different genres of monsters and analyzing why they have proven so popular with both horror authors and auteurs.  The discussion is lively and even witty at times, as befits a topic that most people really misunderstand.  I myself used to misunderstand it—I went through a terrible period of repudiating the things I liked when growing up (who could say why?).  I jettisoned my interest in the Gothic even as I visited ruined castles in the Scottish highlands, and thought that horror was something best left to the uneducated.

One of the realities of my own life—perhaps some of my readers will find it true as well—is that once you’ve been put through the mill once or twice your mind starts going back to childhood in what may be a vain effort to start all over again.  The likes of your youth come flooding back—this is why I began reacquiring Dark Shadows novels.  They aren’t fine literature, but they were one of the guilty pleasures with which I grew up.  As Jones notes, vampires are one of the most enduring of monsters.  He suggests that Bram Stoker’s Dracula was among the notably influential books of Victorian English literature.  As Jones points out, there are people who back away from him when he tells them he studies horror.  He also makes a clear case for its enduring connection with religion.  I might add as a coda here, that telling people you study religion often gets the same response as telling them you study horror.

Mythic Truth

“Myth embodies the nearest approach to absolute truth that can be stated in words.”  I recently came across this quote from Ananda K. Coomaraswamy.  Coomaraswamy was a philosopher and metapmhysist from Ceylon, and like many eastern thinkers had a more holistic view of the world than western rationalism.  We’re taught from a young age that myth is something false, not true.  This colloquial use of the word is so common that those of us who’ve specialized in myth slip into it during everyday conversation.  Words, however, have uses rather than meanings.  Coomaraswamy was engaging this reality in the quote above.  Words can take us only so far in exploring reality when we have to break into either formulas or poetry.  Although they are under-appreciated poets are the purveyors of truth.

Having studied ancient mythology in some detail, it became clear to me as a student that these tales weren’t meant to be taken literally.  Instead, they were known to be true.  It takes a supple mind to parse being true from “really happened,” as we are taught in the western world that on what “really happened” is true.  In other words, historicism is our myth.  Meaning may not inhere in words, but when we use words to explore it we run up against lexical limits.  Is it any wonder that lovers resort to poetry?  On those occasions when I’ve been brave enough to venture to write some, I walk away feeling as if I’ve been the receiver of some cosmic radio signal.  We have been taught to trust the reality of what our senses perceive.  Myth, and poetry, remind us that there’s much more.

The Fundamentalist myth is that the Bible is literally true.  If they’d stop and think about it, they’d realize the mockery such thinking makes of Holy Writ.  The Good Book doesn’t look at itself that way.  In fact, it doesn’t even look at itself as a book—an idea that developed in later times.  The time and the cultures that produced the Bible were cool with myth.  They may not have called it that but the signs are unmistakable.  Ananda Coomaraswamy knew whereof he wrote.  The closest to absolute truth we can come takes us to the end of declarative, factual writing.  Scientists writing about the Big Bang devolve into complex mathematical formulas to explain what mere words can.  Myth is much more eloquent, even if we as a society, dismiss it along with other non-factual truth.

Goddess Lore

From where I sit to write this blog in this particular season (when it’s too cold to sit in an unheated attic) I watch Venus rise in the eastern sky.  While it is still dark, I notice a bright yellow glow appearing over the top of a business located on the eastern side of the block.  It hovers there a moment before disappearing briefly behind various rooftop accoutrements of the building across the street, appearing again minutes later on the other side.  The planet rises rapidly before sunrise, and with the unnatural markers of human structures, it’s fairly simple to keep track of her progress with occasional glances out the window.  Venus is, as I’ve mentioned before, both the morning and evening “star” of antiquity.  We now know her identity as a planet rather than a goddess, but we’re becoming more attuned to planets’ roles as mothers, or at least we should be.

Some ancient peoples considered our own earth as a mother.  It is the womb in which we gestate as living beings.  Without the warmth she gives we could not survive, and even our forays into nearby space are possible only with the replication of her body heat through artificial means.  It may be metaphor, yes, but metaphors may be truer than bald statements of chemical compositions and mathematical formulas.  Scientist, politician, or theologian, none of us survive without our planetary nurture.  This thought is sobering in the light of government policies over the past two years, which have denied that human pillaging of nature is problematic.  The Republican Party, which collectively lacks respect for our earthly home, has followed thoughtlessly in the tracks of a man proud of his refusal to read.  And so I look to Venus.

Venus is beautiful.  We know, however, that her surface is hot enough to melt lead.  Soviet-era probes landed there and melted.  Planets, it seems, can unleash fury that mere humans can’t hope to withstand.  One of the forgotten graces of nature, it seems, is the warning sign.  Even as the rattlesnake warns before striking, our mother has been sending messages that we’ve been going too far.  Hurricanes are growing stronger and threaten to scour us off the very face of the land we disrespect and exploit.  Venus, it turns out, is too hot to handle.  Mars, whom the ancients feared for his propensity to irrational war, is too cold.  It’s difficult to imagine where politicians think we might go when our own mother turns us out.  I would invite them over to watch Venus perform her morning dance outside my window, but to see it you must first believe in goddesses.

Museum Monsters

Timing has never been my strong suit.  As soon as I stopped my daily commute to New York City, the Morgan Library and Museum opened a display titled “Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders.”  To appreciate the irony of this fully, you need to realize my office was just across the street from the Morgan Library, and the daily visits would’ve provided a good opportunity for a lunch-time break with my beloved monsters.  Instead I was spending the time moving further west and unpacking.  Still, displays like this are a tacit form of validation.  Those of us who admit, as adults, that we like monsters huddle under a cloud of suspicion.  Monsters are a matter for kids—like dinosaurs and fairies—not something on which an upwardly mobile adult spends his time.  We’ll take whatever validation we can get.

Perhaps we’ve been too hasty to dismiss our monsters.  Even the Bible, after all, has them.  They help us cope in a chaotic and uncertain world.  A world of hurricanes and Trump.  A world lacking compassion and sense.  Monsters have always been symbols of the borderlands.  Creatures that cross boundaries and that shouldn’t exist but somehow do nevertheless.  Science has helped us understand our world, but in our desire to grow up enough to use Occam’s razor, we find that it shaves a little too close.  Besides, what can be more unnatural than shaving?  When we lose our ability to believe in monsters, we lose a piece of our ability to cope with an unpredictable world.  Monsters have their practical uses indeed.

If the world were more predictable, I would still be teaching instead of editing.  Or I’d still be living in an apartment rather than a house.  Moving is chaos embodied.  Like monsters, it’s best left to the young.  It’s just like this world for a monster display to open just across the street right when you’ve moved out of town.  I should expect no less in a cosmos marked by uncertainty.  Medieval Monsters isn’t the only museum display of the weird and wonderful.  Monsters have a way of showing up again once you think they’re safely gone.  Family and friends share with me their visits to other monster exhibits at other museums.  They may wonder at my fascination with them—an adult with a sober doctorate in the field of history of religions, biblical studies, ancient Near Eastern religions, whatever.  It’s kind of a monster in its own right, on display here daily.  If you happen to miss it, don’t worry.  It’ll remain lurking in its own corner of the internet.

Somebody Else’s Heaven

Ailanthus is known as the “tree of heaven.”  It’s an introduced species in North America and, like many such species, it outcompetes its rivals.  The tree of heaven isn’t bad to look at—in fact its handsome appearance was one of the reasons it was brought to these shores.  Heaven isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, however.  The tree is aggressive and resilient, and difficult to eradicate.  Among the many unexpected “gifts” the former owners of our house left us was a back yard full of ailanthus trees.  At first I thought they were pleasant but then I had to remove a small one.  The smell almost knocked me off my feet.  I then learned that the Chinese name for it translates to “foul smelling tree.”  Whose version of heaven is this?

Over the weekend I spent some time lopping off trees of heaven.  Mosquitoes, I found out, love its shade.  It keeps the kinds of friends you might expect.  Heaven is, after all, a construct.  The word can refer to either the great dome of the sky in which the ancients believed deities dwelled, or the realm of blessedness to which the righteous go after death.  In either case, it was assumed to be a pleasant place.  Any trees there (and there are some according to the Good Book) would likely have a pleasing fragrance.  The ironically named version we get down here didn’t get the memo, it seems.  As best as I can determine, the name of the tree refers to its rapid growth, as if it’s grasping for the sky.

A problem with our own species is that we seem to think we know more about this world than we do.  We introduce species from other parts of the planet without considering how they impact the local environment.  In the case of a property with lazy former owners, it can translate to a real problem with heaven trees.  We’re often taken in by the innocence of names.  The first time I saw a tree of heaven, in a public park in New Jersey, I thought I should write a blog post about it.  It took being invaded by heaven, however, to make it seem relevant.  Heaven is a foreign nation, it seems.  It should smell nice and be open to people of all nations and creeds.  According to Revelation the trees up there bear fruit every month of the year.  Presumably in heaven someone else has to take care of the yard work.

Enoch Enough

For a person referenced so little in the Bible, Enoch captured popular imagination in a way difficult to comprehend.  Even in ancient times speculation about him was rampant.  The seventh generation from Adam, and great-grandfather of Noah, Enoch lived a remarkably short 365 years before “he was not, for God took him.”  Now, there are lots of obscure people in the Bible.  Many of them have very little afterlife in later tradition.  Enoch, however, became the putative author of a collection of booklets that goes by the name of 1 Enoch.  This book fed speculation in antiquity and became a vehicle for many esoteric traditions that continue even into the present day.  It might seem that there’s little information to go on for an entire book, but James C. VanderKam’s Enoch: A Man for All Generations finds plenty of material with which to work.

A careful scholar like VanderKam doesn’t delve much into speculation, and he rather cautiously examines many of the ancient texts that discuss Enoch and draws some basic conclusions.  There’s a lot of information in this book.  With my own fascination concerning the Bible and popular culture, what stood out to me was how Enoch went from the “mere” man who didn’t die to become, in some traditions, the Metatron, or “the lesser Yahweh.”  Having been a fan of Dogma since teaching at the perhaps too sanctimonious Nashotah House, I’d never researched the late, great Alan Rickman’s character.  I supposed the Metatron was a character like the Muse—some extra-biblical quasi-divine functionary thrown in for fun.  I didn’t doubt such a figure was known in early Jewish or Christian writings, but I had no idea that Enoch had been promoted to that level.

Since I’ve been researching demons lately, the book of 1 Enoch has been a major source of interest.  One of its sections, The Book of the Watchers, expands on that odd story from Genesis 6 where the sons of God lust after the “daughters of men.”  Ever coy, the biblical passage doesn’t directly say that their offspring were giants, but this idea was developed by sources like 1 Enoch.  And these fallen angels—the nephilim—in some traditions, become demons.  Studying Enoch is a fine introduction to a mythological world every bit as rich as Dogma.  These characters—Enoch, nephilim, watchers, and demons—populated the imagination of early readers of the Good Book as much as they do modern speculators’ worlds.  Not bad for a character barely mentioned at all in the Bible.

Mythologies

Now that Holy Horror will be appearing soon, I’ve been neglecting my horror movies. It’s not on purpose, I assure you. I don’t feel comfortable speaking as a writer—publishers tend to agree with that, and besides, my job is more of being a reader—but my experience of it suggests you never have enough time. (Or money; movies never come with no costs.) With another book under contract and a lot more going on behind the scenes than I reveal on this blog, as Morpheus says, “Time is always against us.” So when my wife showed me a story about Hereditary, I knew my list of must sees would only continue to grow. I haven’t even seen Get Out yet!

Beyond being simple guilty pleasures, horror films area also a means of coping. I know this because although they’re generally very successful at the box office, I’ve rarely met anyone who admits to watching them. Horror thrives on secrets. We act one way in public, and a different way when we shut the door and pull the drapes. Since we’ve outlived our belief in gods and heroes, cinema has taken the role of mythology in modern life. Crammed with archetypes—and yes, stereotypes—movies act out age-old themes in impressive displays of color and sound. You might even learn something without trying. Mythology may have originated in stories told around the campfire, but science never displaced the need for hearing them again and again in different media.

I’ve taken to writing books about films because it’s clear that meaning lies there for many people. The invention of cinema and television forever changed culture. Yes, there’s cheap, thoughtless material available in both formats. Still, movies have an ability to convey truths in a way that sermons often fail to do. The values they depict are often very human ones. Horror, for example, isn’t about blood and gore. It’s about survival. That’s not to say the protagonists always reach a happy ending, but we learn from their mistakes. There’s a reason you shouldn’t open closet doors in a house not your own. Those who do, however, often find uncomfortable truths inside. Holy Horror looks in the closet at the way the Bible functions iconically in horror. Since writing it I continue to notice the Bible in horror and I feel affirmed in the conclusions I drew. And if only I had a bit more time, I’d be watching more mythology. And the list only keeps getting longer.