No Refuge

A convention in histories of the horror genre is to trace it to Gothic fiction.  Gothic fiction itself is traced to The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole.  Having grown up reading Gothic stories along with religious texts, perhaps surprisingly I never came upon Walpole’s oeuvre.  Some weeks back I happened on a used bookstore, which, by convention, had its cheapest fare on sidewalk carts.  I was surprised to see a negligibly priced copy of The Castle of Otranto, which I took in to the counter.  The clerk looked puzzled a moment, then asked if it was from the carts.  “Oh,” he sniffed, “that explains it.  We don’t carry Dover editions; they’re too cheap.”  Perhaps that remark haunted me a bit, but I finally got around to reading the slim book and it left a kind of unanticipated horror in my mind.

Okay, so this was written in the eighteenth century, and set further back, in Medieval times.  A spooky castle, knights and knaves, and fainting damsels all populate its pages.  Religion, particularly in debased form, became a standard characteristic of the Gothic.  Here a monk, an erstwhile lord, holds a secret that leads to the downfall of a house of pretenders who have claimed ownership of the castle.  All pretty straightforward.  Even the ghosts and talking skeletons fail to raise fear.  One aspect, however, does hold horror.  The three princesses in the story are completely at the whim of the men.  They acknowledge as much and claim it against piety to declare any different.

It would be unfair to assert that such sexism was intentional—like most human behaviors it evolved over eons—but in this era to read it is to shudder.  We have moved beyond the horror fiction that men own women and that they have any right to determine their fate.  Especially in these days, it’s embarrassing to be reminded that such was ever the case.  Despite the word from on high we cannot hide from history.  The domination of men has been a testament to how poorly civilization has been run.  Some of its benefits can’t be denied, but on a whole we see a succession of aggression and wars, suffering and poverty, generally brought on my societies that have taken their cues from patriarchical ideals.  My reading of The Castle of Otranto brought this back with a force not unlike that of the giant ghost haunting its walls.  Is it too much to hope that some two-and-a-half centuries might show some evidence of progress?

Checkmate

March has been designated as Women’s History Month.  Since history has been written, well, historically by males, women have frequently been excluded.  History as a serious attempt to describe “what actually happened” is a fairly recent phenomenon.  Yes, men (mostly) have been writing their views of what events meant from the days of the Bible and the Classics on.  A few females had made their way into the narratives, but reading history often makes it seem like males were the only people of consequence.  I was thinking about this the other day after I read a reference to the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll.  Chess, I realized, is a game with a message.  Now I don’t often have time for games, but this felt important.

I’m not a good chess player, but I know that if you lose your queen you’ve got to be far better than I am at it to win the game.  In fact, the queen is the most powerful piece on the board.  Now if you plan to come back with something like “using the bishop, knight, and rook you can surpass the power of the queen” it suggests two things.  One, you’re better than me at chess, and two, you’re missing the point.  The queen can move in both perpendicular and diagonal lines.  She can land on either color.  The range of her motion is limited only by the size of the board.  The bishop is limited to one color square only and the rook takes two moves to equal the queen’s diagonal skills.  

Think about the king—he moves one space at a time, and mostly only to avoid capture.  The queen is out there defending the realm.  Even as a kid learning to play chess, it was obvious that the queen did far more than a bishop limited to his ecclesiastical domain, or the rook with his brute force.  The knight makes a move the queen cannot, but his range in limited.  If a player retained only a queen the opponent’s king could still be captured, in my mind.  Chess should be a queen’s game.  

History is a way of looking at things.  Although it involves facts—and this is where the government narrative goes off the rails; the denial of facts is an autocrat’s game—it’s not the same as facts.  History is an interpretation of facts.  The fact is that male history of the world just could not have been possible without women.  It’s time not just to acknowledge it, but to celebrate it.

Terror Text

Dystopia reading and/or watching may be more practical than it seems.  History often reveals authors who may be accused of pessimism more as prophets than mere anxious antagonists.  Two books, according to the media, took off after November 2016.  One was George Orwell’s 1984,  and the other was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  I’d read both long before I started this blog, but I recently asked my wife if she’d be interested in seeing the movie of the latter.  While teaching at Rutgers, I had a 4-hour intensive course and to give students a break from my lecturing I’d have us discuss Bible scenes from secular movies.  The Handmaid’s Tale was one of them.  Watching it again last night, I realized the problematic nature of Holy Writ.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a movie (and novel) that involves what I call “Bible abuse” in Holy Horror.  That is to say, the Bible can be used to oppress rather than to liberate.  To cause human suffering instead of eliminating it.  Sure, to make Atwood’s dystopia work a future catastrophe of fertility has to occur, but the military state, the assumed superiority, and the will to control on the part of men are all too real.  We’ve witnessed this in the United States government over the past two years.  A lot more has been revealed than personal greed—that side of human nature that quotes the Good Book while doing the bad thing.  In the movie it’s literally so, while our “leaders” are only a metaphoric step away from it.  Although it’s not horror, it’s a terrifying movie.  I still have trouble watching The Stepford Wives.  Why is equality so easy in the abstract, but so difficult when it comes to actual life?

Aggression is not a social value.  This is perhaps the most ironic aspect of using Scripture to enforce oppressive regimes.  The whole point of the New Testament is self-denial for the sake of others.  That may be why the only Bible reading in the movie comes from the Hebrew Bible, the story of Jacob and Rachel.  Although this isn’t one of the traditional “texts of terror,” to borrow Phyllis Trible’s phrase, it nevertheless illustrates the point well.  A culture that values women only for their reproductive capacities is dystopian to its very core.  When a book, no matter how holy, is divorced from its context it becomes a deadly weapon of blunt force.  Atwood moves beyond Orwell here—the government that sees itself as biblical can be far more insidious that one that only weighs evil on the secular scale.  Not only the Bible ends up being abused.

Desert Demons

After reading many popular books, coming to a scholarly tome can be a shock to the system.  This is especially the case when said academic volume contains lots of information (not all do, believe me!).  David Brakke’s Demons and the Making of the Monk: Spiritual Combat in Early Christianity has been on my reading list for quite some time.  One of the perils of being a renegade academic is that you have no university library at hand and I’m not sure I want to reveal this side of myself to the local public librarian yet.  In any case, it would be difficult to summarize all that Brakke covers in this insightful treatment.  One of the elements that struck this reader, however, is the protean nature of the demons with which the eponymous monks wrestled.

Keep in mind that although demons appear throughout the Bible in various forms there is no single definition of what they are.  They appear to be spiritual monsters, in short.  Some passages seem to suggest they are fallen angels.  Others that they are foreign (primarily pre-Christian) gods.  Later ideas add the possibility that they are children of the Watchers, or even, as Brakke explains, evil thoughts.  The desert monks didn’t dwell on trying to discern their origin myth—they were out there to purify their souls, not to do academic research.  The Hebrew Bible does suggest that demons were creatures of the desert.  As monasticism began, appropriately in Egypt, one natural resource found in abundance was wilderness real estate.  The mortgage, however, was a constant struggle with demons.

Many of these demons developed into the seven deadly sins.  Not surprisingly, men living alone in the desert found themselves the victims of sexual temptation.  This led to, in some cases, the demonizing of women.  We’d call this classic blaming the victim, but this is theology, not common sense.  Anything that stood between a monk and his (sometimes her) direct experience of God could, in some sense, be considered demonic.  Brakke presents a description of several of these early desert-dwellers and their warfare with their demons.  Much of their characterization of evil would be considered racist and sexist today.  Brakke does make the point that during the Roman Empire—the period of the earliest monks—race wasn’t perceived the same way that it is in modern times.  Nevertheless, some of this book can make the reader uncomfortable, and not just because of demons.  Or, perhaps, that’s what they really are after all. 

Xenophobia’s Children

There are consequences, it seems, for not paying attention in school.  I have no way of knowing, of course, but I suspect most of us are taught that basic fairness is the social ideal.  Xenophobia is deeply embedded in the primate psyche, but to those who claim we haven’t evolved, there seems to be no way to convince them that “racial” differences are merely a matter of differing collectives separated by natural borders.  Over time traits favorable to the region predominate, and humans therefore have what seems to be a very wide array of potential appearances.  There should be nothing in all of this that suggests one group is superior to another.  Primate evolution, however, helps to explain but not to excuse.  Xenophobia is something from which we can evolve.

Fear is at the heart of any phobia.  In a society that measures the worth of individuals by their wealth, fear that another will take it is constant.  Perhaps, in a part of our souls we’d rather not acknowledge, we know it’s wrong to have too much while others don’t have enough.  It’s very cold this Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  In Manhattan on Saturday I saw many people on the street, those who’d met the wrong end of capitalism.  I’ve seen human beings shivering in Dickensian conditions in the twenty-first century.  I’ve known capable adults who couldn’t find work, even when they’ve tried.  We fear the street person.  We know that, but for slight shifts in capitalism, that could be us.

Xenophobia has come under threat with globalization.  We’ve made travel to remote locations affordable in order to spread capitalism to regions ready to be exploited.  And we see nothing wrong with taking from those who can’t prevent us from doing so.  Then we wonder why people just like us turn out to march in the cold.  Civil rights marches took place half a century ago.  Crowds thronged the nation’s capital seeking basic human treatment.  Fifty years later over a million women and supporters had to show up to make the same point again.  Fair treatment should not be a commodity.  Those who have fear the stranger.  Those who have don’t wish to share.  They claim the name of “Christian” and mock the very tenets upon which that belief system was founded.  It’s cold outside today.  As we huddle inside, we should have time to think.  It is a waste of a national holiday if we don’t at least ponder for a few moments what it is we celebrate.  And the real costs of xenophobia.

Truth Is Marching On

A funny thing happens to human minds when they’re in a crowd.  They begin thinking collectively.  We’ve all heard of “mob mentality” and dismiss it as so common that we don’t stop to think how remarkable it is.  Maybe we’re afraid to.  Yesterday I attended my third Women’s March, this time in New York City again.  Being an introvert, I find the prospect of putting myself into a large crowd daunting, and with a winter storm warning posted, worries  about getting home provided a convenient excuse.  My wife knows me well enough, however, to sense when my enochlophobia kicks in and tries to kick out that part of me that’s passionate about social justice.  You see, women are still not counted equal citizens in this “land of equality.”  The Equal Rights Amendment has never passed.  Pay is still based on gender rather than qualification.  And we have an unrepentant misogynist in the White House.

Once I’m in a likeminded crowd, supporting social justice, it’s clear that my thinking is influenced by the activity of all those brains around me.  Scientists know this happens in nature.  Ant colonies, for example, “know” more than a single individual does.  Recent studies have even suggested this “hive consciousness” can exist beyond a lifespan, creating an archive of learning that exceeds the lives of an entire generation.  If only we could teach Republicans to do that.  In any case, being in the crowd of bright, intelligent, hard-working women found me in a good head-space.  The men in DC are certainly doing nothing to make the male gender proud.

Although crowd estimation isn’t an exact science, the media has consistently underestimated the sheer numbers of these marches.  The National Park Service, on duty in Washington in 2017, estimated 1.3 million had shown up for the march.  It’s still not unusual to see the number cited as 500,000.  Regardless, with the sister marches it was the largest single-day protest event in U.S. history.  We have to keep marching as long as men continue to elect the most ignorant of their gender to high office.  There’s nothing controlled about the chaos in the White House.  Fake news, alternative facts, a revolving door of staff, and Fox News’ nose so brown you could grown corn on it is not the way to run a democracy.  I may have been part of a hive mind for a few hours yesterday, and it was a far better mind than those that abound in the federal government seeking only their own glory.  Let’s hope the collective mind outlives this generation.

Carrie On

Stephen King was still a fairly new writer when I first read “Lawnmower Man” for an English class in high school.  Carrie had been published by then, but I didn’t read any more Stephen King until after my academic job ended.  (There is, for those who are curious, a correlation between that traumatic change and my interest in horror.)  Like many, I suspect, I saw some of the movies before reading the King books behind them.  With a writer as prolific as King there’s always the issue of where to start, and I’m often subject to the selections independent bookstore owners make.  I seldom buy fiction through Amazon—I have to see the book for it to grab me (a kind of King thing to happen).

A used copy of Carrie recently came my way.  Now, I’ve seen the movie (both versions) many times; it is discussed at some length in Holy Horror.  I’d not read the novel until now.  Obviously there are differences between book and movie, but as this was Stephen King’s debut novel it struck me just how central religion was to the fearful scenario he paints.  That’s pretty clear in the film, I know, but it’s even more so in the novel.  Carrie is made into a monster by religion.  One could argue that she was born that way—telekinesis as a genetic marker is also a theme in the book, although absent from the films.  Still, it is Carrie’s rejection by others, largely because of her religion, that leads her to use her powers to destroy Chamberlain, Maine.

In a strange way, Carrie is a coming-of-age story from a girl’s perspective.  Strange because King is a man and some literary magazines won’t even accept stories written from the point-of-view of someone of the opposite gender.  Men can’t know what women go through.  Indeed, most of the male characters in the story are less than admirable, while some are downright wicked.  The real question is whether religion saves from wickedness or causes it.  There’s not much ambiguity here on the part of Mr. King.  Holy Horror, although it deals with movies and not novels,  makes the point that films based King don’t infrequently use religion as a source of horror.  Long-time readers of this blog know that I frequently make the point that this genre, more so than most, relies on religion as an engine to drive it.  And religion also has a role in repressing women.  Coincidence?  Ask Carrie.