New Horror

Now that Holy Horror is out I’ve been noticing an increasing number of scholars who are writing on the topic of monsters.  Book writing takes several years, as a rule, and when I began work on my contribution to the discussion the bibliography was a touch slim.  There weren’t many books out there and academics who addressed the topic did so warily.  Now scarcely a day or two will pass when I won’t find another book I should read on the topic.  Publishing may be an industry in crisis, but there’s no dearth of new books being produced.  Monsters—which define horror—are a means of coping with the realities of a world out of control.  Since 2016 many of us have felt a vague, if at times pointed, sense that something is seriously threatening out there.  Horror seems a logical response.

Academia tends to run behind trends rather than setting them.  Academic books in general don’t sell too well, and monsters often have crossover appeal.  The longer I’m at this, the more I think of how knowledge as a whole is gathered.  Having that shiny Ph.D. doesn’t do so much anymore when it comes to credibility.  It may get you in the publisher’s door, but to attract readers it helps to pick topics that scholars have typically avoided.  Monsters are a calculated risk in this regard.  Those who publish in the field become somewhat suspect among their colleagues, as if the subject is one that can only play itself out in naivety, an under-developed sense of sophistication.  Anything popular tends to be devalued in the academic mindset.  It is, therefore, encouraging to see others addressing my beloved monsters.

A new year is starting and, like many people I have high hopes that it will show some improvement over the past.  I can actually dream of a world without monsters and although pleasant it isn’t realistic.  We have evil with which we must deal.  Horror allows for a fair amount of practice in that regard.  I’m very well aware that many people find the topic repugnant, or at least distasteful.  Academics, it seems, are following their restless curiosities to the darker corners of the mind.  It’s getting difficult to keep up with the monster books appearing, even from reputable presses.  Holy Horror is my first contribution to the discussion and Nightmares with the Bible, which I hope to finish this year, will continue the conversation.  It looks like it’s becoming trickier to find a voice in this crowd already.  I wonder if that implies a better 2019, as we run behind the times.

Holly Days

Thirty years ago today, my wife and I were penniless grad students.  Trying to be logical about when to marry—I’d been accepted at Edinburgh University shortly after we’d decided on a May wedding and the latest I could matriculate was April—we decided the holidays would be the best time.  Not Christmas, of course.  Or New Year’s Day.  As students we held to the illusion that others observed the natural caesura between the two.  We considered it from the feast of Stephen to New Year’s Eve, days when everyone is recovering from the intensity of Christmas or staying up late to welcome in 1989.  We settled on December 30.  The church was already decorated for Christmas, saving that expense.  Having moved up the date by some five months we did ask them to remove the banner that read “For unto us a child is born.”  Our reasons were purely academic.

I generally avoid writing too much about my personal life on this blog, but a thirty-year wedding anniversary is somewhat extraordinary.  Being a working-class kid I told my wife when I proposed that I couldn’t promise much but I could assure her our life together would be interesting.  That slippery qualifier has proven correct time and again.  Our first three years as a couple were spent in Edinburgh, and quite unexpectedly, the next fourteen at Nashotah House.  The first two of those years involved being apart from Sunday through Wednesday as I commuted from Champaign-Urbana to Delafield to teach my courses.  And, of course, to attend chapel.  Our daughter was born while we lived at the seminary and a Fundamentalist takeover led to the loss of my first (and to date only) full-time academic job.

The academic job market had been tough when I started and it had tanked in the meantime.  We had to uproot and move to New Jersey to find any work at all.  Publishing proved remarkably unstable and yet we stuck together.  This year we bought a house and moved to Pennsylvania.  It took three decades, but we’ve finally achieved what some would term normalcy.  The fact is, though, that long-term marriages are to be celebrated.  Many of the vicissitudes we’ve faced could easily have capsized our little boat.  Looking back over the years I can see that we never did prosper in any kind of financial or career situation.  Life has indeed been interesting.  I don’t blog much about my personal life, but today I can’t help but think of how incredibly fortunate I am to have found a soul-mate willing to stick with a guy who still thinks like a penniless grad student.  Thirty years of schooling and it’s not nearly enough.

A young couple’s anniversary in Wales.

Poppins Fresh

The holiday season often means doing things out of the ordinary.  Despite writing books that deal with movies, I can’t afford to see them in theaters often, but we went as a family to see Mary Poppins Returns.  A few things about that: I grew up never having seen Mary Poppins (I first encountered it in college).  The new movie is neither a remake nor a sequel proper.  It follows the same basic pattern as the original but with new songs and animations, and all of it based on a somewhat darker premise—the death of the mother (which allows Jane and Michael, as adults to both be back in their childhood home) has led to financial straights that threaten to leave the Banks family homeless.  The bank has turned cruelly capitalistic and wants as many foreclosures as possible.  Sinister stuff.

The reason I mention the movie here, however, is a premise that it shares with Hook: children can see things that adults can’t.  Or more precisely, that adults learn not to see.  Some investigators of unusual phenomena suggest that as we grow we’re taught not to believe what we see if it’s impossible.  I’m in no position to assess the validity of such an assertion, being an adult, but it does give me pause for wonder.  We regularly shut out the vast majority of stimuli we experience; our brains are not capable of taking in every little detail all the time.  Instead, we’ve evolved to pay attention to that which is threatening or rewarding to our survival, and we tend to ignore many of the mundane feelings, sights, sounds, and smells that are constantly around us.  Perhaps we do shut out what we’re taught is impossible.  Mary Poppins Returns says it outright. 

In many ways this is behind the materialism we’re spoon-fed daily.  The only reality, we’re told, is that which can be measured and quantified with scientific instruments.  Any apparent reality beyond that is simply illusion.  We all know, however, that our experience of life doesn’t feel that way at all.  There seems to be no counter-argument, however, since we have no empirical evidence to offer.  Experience, we’re told, is unreliable.  Perhaps we’re not too old to learn a few things from the movies.  Mary Poppins Returns won’t likely become the cultural sensation that its forebear was, nevertheless it contains a message that may be worth preserving.  Childhood may hold the keys to understanding reality.

The Cult of Relaxation

Relaxation comes with a price.  As with most people who work hard, I find taking more than a day or two off work tricky.  It’s not that I want to go to work, but that I feel the need to keep improving my mind.  I read quite a bit on holidays, and, being of the opinion that movies are the modern mythology, I like to watch what I can.  Last night I saw a film I’m too embarrassed to name, but which was so utterly awful that I can’t get it out of my head.  Call it an experiment in relaxation.  Or call it madness.  Either way, I came to realize just how much impact a movie might have without really containing anything to give back.  This particular film is often listed as a cult classic.

I’ll confess right now that I loved Attack of the Killer Tomatoes the first time I saw it.  (This is not last night’s feature.)  It is a bad movie—so bad that it’s good.  My professional reputation may suffer for it, but I have to admit to having watched it multiple times over the years.  I’d heard that last night’s film was like that.  So bad that it’s good.  And that made me ponder the blurring of these categories.  Without a universal deity to declare the terms, good and bad are matters of consensus.  No quantitative means exists for making, a movie for example, good or bad, beyond the human judgment of viewers.  We tend to listen to critics, who experience more cinema than the rest of us can afford, but I’m sure we all have our secret likes that don’t match the decrees of the experts.

Films that flaunt convention so radically, and which gather disciples, are, as I mentioned, called “cult classics.”  This is the language of religion.  Although religionists have moved away from the use of the word, cult implies irrational intensity of devotion toward that which is clearly, in the eyes of the majority, bad.  Again we come to the question of who defines value.  For most of human history it has simply been majority opinion.  Cults, however, give meaning to those who “get it.”  Cult classics have faithful followers.  In the line of duty some months back I watched Exorcist II: The Heretic.  I later found out that it also frequently makes the list of all-time worst movies, despite starring Linda Blair, James Earl Jones, Paul Henreid, and Richard Burton.  It’s a cult classic.  The unnamed film from last night has no known stars.  Hideous acting.  Ludicrous writing.  I watched it to relax.  Now I wonder if I’ve joined a cult, or if I just need a vacation.

Puzzling Traditions

Like most families, we have tried over the years to develop our own holiday traditions.  These, like all things, evolve.  When I was a professor the semester break meant, after a flurry of grading, a month of a more relaxed schedule.  We would travel to family outside of Wisconsin every year, and worked on what a “usual” holiday might look like for our small family in the remaining time at home.  Now that I work for a company, and my wife works for a company, the holiday break is severely curtailed, but it has allowed us the opportunity to invent our own traditions.  One of them is to put together a quality jigsaw puzzle on Christmas Day.  (Two of these puzzles were destroyed in the flood that ruined so many books, and will need to be replaced eventually.)

I’m aware how nerdy puzzle-solving might sound.  I’m not spending the day out riding an ATV through the woods, discharging a firearm, or watching sports on television.  Piecing together a puzzle is a quieter pursuit, and the puzzles we have are of quality artworks, and completing one makes it feel like all is right with the world for a little while.  As with most things on this blog, it also serves as a metaphor.  Yesterday as we watched the movie The Man Who Invested Christmas (which portrays very well the life of those who try to write; the exception being that Dickens had little trouble finding publishers and the benefit of early success), it occurred to me that as we put together the puzzle of our lives, we do so with the box top missing.  We don’t know what the picture is.  Slowly some sections start to come together, but overall, we don’t know what we’re doing.

Long ago I learned the folly of planning out a life.  Moving forward is good, yes, and making plans wise.  You cannot, however, know the way those plans might fit elsewhere in this decades-long unfinished puzzle.  There’a a fairly large section of mine called Nashotah House.  I would never have planned that intentionally, and thinking back, it was being there that renewed my interest in horror.  I thought I’d be at a university where I might continue my research into ancient deities and how the world of biblical Israel developed its own conception of that world.  That’s what I thought the cover of the box would look like.  Instead I’ve found myself editing the books that others write and using the scant time left over to write my own, on a topic far different than that in which I earned an advanced degree.  As the last piece slips into the puzzle, I feel a sense of accomplishment.  I may not have done much, but I’ve used the limited time off to step back and try to take, however briefly, the larger view.

Christmas Lights

How many people read a blog on a major holiday?  The process of writing takes no vacations, however, and I often think of holidays as a time to write.  It doesn’t really matter if anyone reads it; writing is our witness to the cosmos that “Kilroy was here.”  Even if most of us have no idea who Kilroy was.  So I find myself awake earlier than most children on Christmas morning.  My long habit of rising early to catch the bus hasn’t been easy to break.   I creep down the stairs and water the tree before turning on its colorful lights.  I make a cup of coffee and wash the dishes left in the sink after a festive Christmas Eve.  And I think.  There’s always the thinking.

The meaning of Christmas, as the holiday classic tells us, eludes Charlie Brown.  Linus van Pelt gives one rendition—that of the Gospel of Luke—as the canonical meaning, but in my experience it shifts during a lifetime.  Christmas, after all, is one of a host of solstice celebrations.  My thinking these days is that it’s all about light.  Shimmering angels, glowing stars, light coming into the darkness.  These ideas seem to have, for the most part, Zoroastrian origins, but they’ve been thoroughly appropriated and, in true American style, commercialized.  The news headlines read how disappointed retailers always are.  The take could’ve been bigger.  Capitalism relies on Christmas to make the third quarter.  Light in the darkness, in its own distorted way.

As I sit for these quiet moments in the glow of only a tree, I think of those for whom the holiday has become a kind of disappointment.  Not a cheery Christmas thought, I know, but an honest one.  As families grow and diversify the childhood Christmas of excited children scrambling under the tree to excavate the next gift for me starts to fade.  Our economic system separates, and the dearth of days off around the holidays makes travel back to childhood homes difficult.  We do the best we can, but the fact is the sixties (speaking for me) are over.  Our reality is colder and darker than it used to be.  I part the curtains and look for any sign of dawn.  It will be a few hours yet before the sun brightens this winter sky, but then, that’s what the holiday has come to mean for me.  At least this year, it is the hope of light returning.  And that, alone, makes it a holiday.

The Night before Reading

Like many people bound to their circumstances by work (and now a mortgage) I see travel to far-off places is a dream.  On my personal bucket-list is Iceland.  Perhaps that’s a strange place to yearn for in winter, but it’s on my mind today because of Jolabokaflod.  I’ve posted on Jolabokaflod before, but in case the concept is unfamiliar I’d summarize it by saying Icelanders, who are exceptionally literate, give each other books on Christmas Eve and spend the dark hours reading.  For the past three years I’ve taken part in a reading challenge that lists a book in translation, and invariably I choose one by an Icelandic author.  Publishers in Iceland, being less corporate than our native species, accept books for publication somewhat more readily—I’ve been shopping a novel around for nearly a decade now and I’ve read worse.  If it doesn’t jack up the dollar signs, so nobody around here’s interested.

I’m sure it’s not all sweetness and light in Iceland.  I suspect, for one thing, it’s hard to be vegan there.  Then there’d be the need to learn Icelandic.  The nights would be even longer in winter, but then, those long nights would be filled with books.  I sometimes imagine how different America would be if we loved books that much.  I remember well—as you may also—the classmates who grumbled about “having to read” as part of their school curriculum.  And this began well before high school.  Young people’s bodies are full of energy and they want action (which can be found in books, I might add) and new experiences (ditto).  Our culture feeds them the myth that such things lead to happiness.  Instead, they find sitting still tedious.  When life leads them to commute, they fill bus time with devices.

The other day I had an electrician in our house—the previous occupants had some strange ideas about power distribution.  He, as most visitors do, commented that we have a lot of books.  I’m beginning to feel less apologetic about it than I used to.  We have books not only because it’s been part of my job to read, but because we like books.  One of the painful memories of 2018 was the loss of many volumes due to a rainstorm that flooded our garage right after our move.  It still makes me sad to go out there, remembering the friends I lost.  Nevertheless, it’s Christmas Eve, at least in my tradition, and the thought of books combined with the long hours of darkness brings a joy that I’d almost characterize as being Icelandic.  At least in my mind.  Jolabokaflod might well be translated, “silent night, holy night.”