Kindred Spirit?

Possession stories have a poignancy to them that perhaps other horror stories lack.  The loss of self-control is a frightful thing.  Lisa Tuttle sets this up well in her novel Familiar Spirit, a tale that has recently been reissued.  The threat against a young women—the usual target of possession—leads to some scary moments here.  As the story unfolds Sarah has to deal with personal loss as she learns that the house she’s just rented is inhabited by an unfriendly spirit that seems to be a demon.  This is a haunting story that features a strong protagonist who ultimately has to decide what she really values most.  It’s a book that stays with you.

I discovered Tuttle by reading a book on female horror writers some time ago.  One of the points I make in Nightmares with the Bible is that female victims of possession match Poe’s dictum about the most poetic topic being the death of a beautiful woman.  That may sound sexist to modern ears, but Poe was a product of his time and he was a keen observer of what made stories memorable.  Possession has largely become a female phenomenon over the centuries.  The biblical stories about possession tend to have male victims, but by the Middle Ages the balance had shifted.  That gender imbalance continues today.  A friend recently asked whether shifting awareness of the gender as not strictly binary might change this in the future.  It’s a fascinating question, especially since we really don’t know what demons are.

Possession is a clash of the unknowns, which is fertile ground for fear of the unknown.  Feminist studies have begun to share space with studies of masculinity and both have been joined by analysts who study gender as nonbinary.  I suspect many of us really didn’t know about such things before the internet began to bring them to our attention.  Many people don’t want to accept such facts.  The world is easier to live in when everything is black or white, male or female, this or that.  Most things, we’re beginning to learn, are on a scale.  Human society, as it takes this into account, will inevitably, if slowly, change.  The old guard (angry white men, mostly) refuse to accept facts, trying to equate them with the person with the loudest voice.  This too is a kind of possession.  I don’t want to give too many spoilers for Familiar Spirit, but if you’re like me it’ll give you many things to think about.


Dark Academia

Genres can be slippery things.  Those of us who dabble in fiction sometimes find it difficult to describe what we do.  Writing is individual expression and it may have elements of this and that.  Given my disposition, much of my fiction has some horror features but I tend to think of it as something else.  My wife recently sent me an article on Book Riot about the genre Dark Academia.  The piece by Adiba Jaigirdar begins by asking the question of what exactly dark academia is.  The label conjures up books about something untoward happening in the halls of learning, and that certainly qualifies.  It’s difficult to be more precise because it’s different things to different people.  Some of my fiction, in my own mind, falls into that category.  Things go wrong in higher education all the time.  Why not preserve it in fiction?

I’ve attended, and worked at some gothic places.  The contemporary university, such as Rutgers—although it’s old by American standards—has continuously modernized and although I don’t know it’s history well, I suspect gothic was never its aesthetic.  The same is true of Boston University where I went to seminary.  Edinburgh University, while also modernizing, has retained much of its gothic feel.  That’s certainly true of New College, where I studied, in the heart of the medieval old town.  There’s a gravitas to such dark settings.  They invite strangeness.  My first teaching job was at the intentionally gothic Nashotah House.  Although I didn’t agree with the politics I loved the setting.

I seem to have slipped from Dark Academia into Gothic Academia.  Indeed, it’s difficult to keep the two distinct in my mind.  When I taught I maintained the tweed jacket and somewhat disheveled look of someone who has something else besides grooming in mind (this is entirely genuine).  Indeed, that’s one of the great charms of higher education.  You need not constantly worry about each hair being in place—they’ll take care of that when they shoot the movie.  Not many people, and probably a diminishing number given the state of things, experience full-time life in academia.  It can be well lit and modern.  If done right, however, it should take you into odd places.  Discovery is generally messy.  Perhaps that’s part of the dark of dark academia.  When we use our brains we end up in unexpected places.  I’m not sure I understand dark academia, but I have a feeling that I’ve lived it even without my fiction.


Banning Banning

Banned Book Week gets me all aflutter.  There have been years at I’m so busy that it slips by before I notice it, but each year I try to incorporate it somehow into my reading challenges.  This year my book was Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, by Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell.  Yes, it’s a young readers’ book.  Most banned and challenged books are.  Why censorious adults feel the need to keep ideas out of print is pretty obvious in these Trumpian times.  (Please note, dear Republicans, many Democrats criticize Biden on a regular basis; we do not worship him.  American Marxist my donkey!)  Book censoring only serves fascist tendencies.  Ideas will find a way to be born, regardless.

Scary Stories, of course received a shot in the arm by Guillermo del Toro and his interest in making a movie based on it.  The stories themselves are drawn from folklore—they’re populist, you might say—and reflect what passes around from perhaps less insane times.  As an adult a reader tends not to find these stories frightening.  For one thing, many of them are stories we’ve heard before.  For another, life has already thrown many scary things at us.  Not only that, but we try to ban books to make adulthood even scarier.  You see, folklore doesn’t go away just because children are kept from the books.  These stories find the gaps just as water does.  They get told in the dark.  Instead of trying to censor them we should try to talk about them.

Adults’ own discomfort with ideas such as death and decay often stand behind our efforts to “protect” our children.  Then they reach maturity not prepared for the adult world of sex, exploitation, and dying.  Our modern comfort-based lifestyle tries to shut away the unpleasant aspects of existence.  Books, however, are the food of the imagination.  To ban them is to try to suppress the truths that authors have uncovered.  Growing up in a conservative household, we weren’t subjected to censorship.  I couldn’t afford many books, but my mother never said “No, you can’t read that.”  Some of my early reading faced uncomfortable facts.  I read both Jaws and The Godfather long before I ever saw the movies.  I read Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark as a form of solidarity with young minds.  There are benefits to learning to deal with fear early on in life.  And Scary Stories, even if not so frightening, has an appropriate place in it.


Festive Books

The Book and Puppet Company, a small independent bookstore in Easton, Pennsylvania is unique.  Other bookstores may have puppet shows and other forms of theater.  Others may have the obviously tasteful and intelligent selection of books.  Others offer items other than books.  Book and Puppet is unique in at least three ways.  First, and most (I promise) self-serving, it is the only bookstore in the world with Holy Horror on its shelves.  I know how it got there, which ties into the second unique feature—the Easton Book Festival.  The Easton Book Festival is the brainchild of the third unique element, the store’s owners—Andrew Laties and Rebecca Migdal.  

So let’s piece this all together.  The Easton Book Festival launched in 2019.  Being local to the event, I volunteered to present because Holy Horror had missed Halloween in 2018 when it came out, and it was still technically a front list book.  As with any event that wishes to grow, the Festival was extremely inclusive.  Despite its price point Andy had ordered copies to have on hand to sell.  He assigned me to a panel discussion and even gave me a time slot to talk about the book.  The event was one of the highlights of my true calling—being a writer of books.  Weathering the Psalms was less expensive but more technical.  Holy Horror is for a general readership, although the publisher sees it differently and prices it accordingly.  You have to start somewhere.  In any case,  it was part of a book festival that contains memories that still make me glow.

his year, like many events, the Easton Book Festival (October 16-24) is going hybrid.  As we start to regather, is there any better place to coalesce than around books?  Wouldn’t the world be a better place if that were true?  A recent visit to the shop led to a conversation that seems likely to result in a chance to plug Nightmares with the Bible, the more expensive sequel to Holy Horror.  Well into the writing of my next book, my attention has momentarily turned from demons to more human horrors.  Nevertheless, books are what my lifelong goal has always been.  I thought that I would be writing as a professor, but even editors can make some modest contributions, I hope.  Regardless, since much of the Festival will be online, it’s accessible from the comfort of your chair.  Why not tune in?   In any case, supporting your local bookstore will do nothing but improve society.


Reading Memory

I recently wrote about writing too much (as if such a thing were possible).  After posting that I thought of how much the same can be said of reading.  I like to believe that whatever I’ve read is stored in my brain somewhere, rather like my writing on all those external drives.  I get some hopeful hints of this when a fragment of something read long ago suddenly reappears.  It’s good to know it’s there somewhere.  What brought this to mind is that a book I’m currently reading used a significant term.  Overly confident as I only am when reading, I figured I’d remember where it occurred.  A few days later I’d forgotten.  “No problem,” I thought, “the index.”  Indexes are never perfect and I’m always amazed by what strikes me as being so important failed to make the author’s cut.  So it happened.

This particular book was compactly written, but even so, it was more than sixty pages ago.  It took a few days of skimming, and finally going through line-by-line to find the word again.  It was a capitalized word and I thought mere skimming would be able to pick it out.  No such luck.  Part of the problem, I suppose, is that since I’ve left academia I’ve pretty much stopped writing in books.  I always did it in pencil, but still—there’s something about that pristine page so carefully typeset and laid out.  Well, if I had all the time in the world I could re-read those first sixty pages again, but I don’t have time to read all the books I need to, so I grabbed my old Pentel and began marking the spots I wanted to remember.

When we age it’s recall that suffers.  I tend to think the memories themselves are still there, sometimes distorted, sometimes altered, but present.  Books, after all, can be reread.  If I read something while commuting to Manhattan, there is a good likelihood that some of it was occluded by the worries of work lying ahead, coupled with the anxiety of catching the bus back home at the end of the day.  Not to mention anything that might’ve been happening in real life—that place outside of work that you really care about.  I’m glad for the commute reading; I regularly read over 100 books a year.  You couldn’t take notes while on a New Jersey Transit bus, though.  It’s not possible to read too much, but reading memory, it seems, is a sometimes a scarce resource.


Mental Health

Dark Shadows was a formative part of my childhood.  I don’t recall specifics, or even how I found out about it, but I do recall watching it after school and being completely taken by it.  When I do the math I realize I had to have been watching it primarily before I was ten, and then after that I started reading the books when I found them in the used bin at the local Goodwill where they usually cost a quarter or less.  Now they’re collector’s items.  That fact doesn’t change the reality that they are journeyman writing through and through.  William Edward Daniel Ross, under the pen name Marilyn Ross, wrote thirty-three novels in the series as part of his oeuvre of over 300 books.  The stories are formulaic and feature odd word choices, but they are gothic.  Sometimes gothic is just what you need.

Barnabas, Quentin and the Scorpio Curse is a fun romp through a period when Barnabas has—with no explanation in the novel—overcome the vampire curse.  It introduces some Collins cousins who come to an asylum conveniently located next door to Collinwood where murder breaks out and mayhem ensues.  I have to keep reminding myself to put my critical faculties aside when I read these guilty pleasures.  There are gaps and incredulities that are simply glossed over, and that’s part of the world in which they take place.  Astrology plays a part in this episode, as the title indicates.  It features a psychologist who, it would seem, doesn’t know how to do background checks.

The truly scary part of this Scooby-Doo tale is that the protagonists, Diana and Barnabas Collins, aren’t believed because they’re voluntarily admitted to the asylum.  Mental illness is a serious matter, of course, and it can be difficult to diagnose.  The difficulty here is that it’s used simply to dismiss what Diana observes.  Time and again, as the Scorpio murders continue she’s dismissed as “a mental patient.”  It’s all part of a plot, of course.  It does raise serious issues, though.  In the late sixties and early seventies there was a real stigma attached to mental illness.  There still is, in fact.  Ironically, the more we learn about mental disorders the more common they become.  Just about everyone has some neurosis or worse.  In our efforts to define the “normal” we dismiss those with actually diagnosed conditions.  We’ve come a long way since then, but we still need to work at dispelling the stigma.  One way to do it is, I suppose, to put conflicted vampires into the mix.


Witches of September

I’ve never read any John Updike before.  I understand that his novels foreground religion, which I didn’t realize.  I have watched The Witches of Eastwick, in movie form, a time or two.  In fact, I wrote a bit about the film in one of my books.  This got me curious to read the novel and I found a copy at a used book sale up in Ithaca some months back.  Now that September’s here, it seemed like an opportunity to see what the original story had to say about witches.  There is a problem, of course, in having watched the movie first.  Not only does it tell you which actors the characters should look like, but it also predisposes your orientation to what will happen.  In this case up that will mislead you.

The movie centers on Jack Nicholson’s Darryl Van Horne—like most Nicholson movies, his character takes over—whereas the novel is definitely centered on the three witches, Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie.  They don’t fall into the background, but neither do they always work in concert.  The movie tells, in other words, a very different story.  Updike’s literary treatment focuses on female characters and the mischief they cause.  Nor is it entirely clear that Van Horne is demonic, as in the movie.  A church features prominently in both versions, amusingly Unitarian in the novel, with Van Horne not upstaging the sermon but giving an invited one himself.  No fear of sacred places here.

The wrath of the witches isn’t directed toward Van Horne either.  A character left out of the film, who marries Van Horne and whose brother is his real target of affection, is hexed and killed by the witches instead.  In many ways this could be construed as a kind of gentle horror story, although it’s never marketed that way.  I kept waiting for certain scenes in the movie to be narrated, as it were, in the flesh.  This led to the revelation that these scenes were invented for the cinematic version.  Both novels and movies are stories.  When shown on the big screen, we expect them to be adapted.  My personal preference is for the film to present the same story.  It can’t always be done, of course.  In this case the movie left some questions open that I hoped the novel would answer.  Since the stories are so different, the questions remain.  I have a feeling I’ll read more Updike down the road, but I’ll avoid watching the movie first.


Bookshop

I still remember when I first heard of Amazon.  It was getting on in my years at Nashotah House and one of my students, a former university faculty member that I’d know prior to his decision to attend seminary, mentioned that’s where he ordered books.  I used the internet with caution in those days and I still ordered books by mail directly from publishers.  My library grew slowly back then, in part because faculty pay wasn’t exactly competitive.  Amazon quickly grew to the point that it became a household word, and, like Google, became an internet giant.  Publishers have felt the pressure from Amazon’s bargaining power and, arguably, its market dominance led to the downfall of Borders.  Despite my love of independent bookshops, I do miss Borders still.

I don’t have a similar, singular memory about Bookshop.org.  It may very well be because I found out about it online and studies have shown that online learning is less effective than the old fashioned way.  We put up with it because it’s convenient and we can cram more stuff in that way.  It’s all about getting more.  In any case, I do recall that I was impressed with what Bookshop was doing.  At a recent seminar I learned it was even better than I’d previously heard.  The organization supports independent bookstores so that when things become more normal again they’ll still be there.  The book industry is a rather strange one, and it operates a little differently than many others.  Places like Bookshop really do help when one vendor becomes too dominant.

Reading widely is a form of education, and the key, it seems to me, is to get books people find interesting to them.  I stopped by a local independent on a recent Saturday to find it quite full.  The weather was good, of course, and lots of people were out and about.  Still, nothing is quite as encouraging as finding a bookstore doing good business.  When that happens it’s clear society is improving itself.  I’m trying to make a habit of stopping by Bookshop before the default of ordering on Amazon.  Amazon clearly has the logistics of delivery down to a science, but the world is a less rich place for not having physical bookstores in it.  Making one’s name synonymous with the product on offer is a sign of success, at least on the business side.  Balance, however, is important too.  And that’s where the Bookshop story has to fit.


Existential Horror

It’s a strange and disturbing novel.  I leaned about Kathe Koja’s The Cipher from a book about women horror writers that I read some time ago.  I figured I’d get around to reading it eventually and now that I have I’m wondering what I just read.  In that regard it reminds me of House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, which I really didn’t find that scary.  The thing about Koja’s novel is that it leaves you feeling empty.  It is perhaps the most nihilistic fiction I’ve ever read.  A slow build to nowhere and really no explanation either.  If you like your coffee dark, this is a story for you.  It’s a story of slow decline and loss of self.  In that respect it’s pretty scary.

One of the points I made in Holy Horror—although it’s about movies instead of books the same principle applies—is that different things scare different people.  The Cipher is existential horror.  There really aren’t any moments of sudden gasps of surprise—this is a train you can see coming—but that doesn’t mean the inevitable is pleasant.  My edition comes with an afterword by Maryse Meijer that really helped name the horror.  There are no heroes here, as she points out.  These are characters who get themselves into bad situations and sometimes don’t even know why they do what they do.  As I said, this is existential horror.  It all swirls around an unexplained “Funhole” that takes over the characters’ lives.

Everyone in this book is working class and creative.  They don’t find any recognition, of course, because that’s the way of working class life.  They do, however, find meaning in the art they make, after work.  Indeed, as everyone gets more and more drawn toward the Funhole one of the worries that constantly hangs over their heads in the face of sometime truly supernatural, is work.  When to quit your job because something not natural is taking over your life?  Who’s going to pay the rent?  In my own existential crises, I often think that capitalism with it’s unvarying nine-to-five certainly doesn’t help.  When something extraordinary happens, you’d better hope it’s not during a weekday, or if it is you’d better have some vacation days you can cash in.  So it is that the young characters here, drinking and dreaming, have to come up with some way of dealing with an unexpected existential threat.  I’m trying not to give too much away.  This is unlike any other horror story I’ve ever read.


Fear of the Other

Two things: I’ve been reading about and materials by American Indians lately, and I learned about Stephen Graham Jones through a video of him reading one of his stories.  I was immediately hooked.  It seems to me that those of us who’ve gone through trauma—either personally or ethnically—are disproportionately represented among those who like horror.  I’m not suggesting a simple equation, but simply noticing a trend.  Jones has been winning awards as a horror writer and I was anxious to get started.  Night of the Mannequins didn’t disappoint.  Jones is a member of the Blackfeet nation and, according to the author bio, a real slasher fan.  This story isn’t really a slasher but it is an exploration of what happens when an idea takes over someone’s life.

More about growing up in Texas than being First Nations, it follows a group of teens who find an abandoned mannequin and a practical joke that goes terribly wrong.  It’s a story will a real feel for what it means to grow up beneath the middle class.  The realities for those who do are somehow quite different than from those who can take some measure of financial security for granted.  It also makes a good setting for horror stories as the protagonist tries to figure out what’s going on without the aid of authorities and adults.  It makes for a compelling read.  Jones’ no-nonsense style draws you in and it doesn’t let you go.

The book is fairly recent and I don’t want to give too much away.  I do often think about how a writer’s personal experience leads to the books s/he writes.  The horror genre is wide-ranging and can be deep and intelligent.  Despite its brief extent, there’s a lot of depth here.  The straightforward writing style gives the book verisimilitude.  You could see this actually happening.  Monsters, after all, are frequently in our minds.  That doesn’t make them any less real.  Mannequins tend to inhabit the uncanny valley—they’re human and yet, at the same time they’re not.  There are aspects of growing up in “white” culture that must suggest the same to those who’ve been and who continue to be, oppressed by that culture.  There is a real fear to being controlled by others whose intentions, it must be clear by now, are to make themselves rich.  The world is a richer place, however, for having books by Stephen Graham Jones in it.  I’ll be coming back for more.


Not Archives

There was a historical Dracula.  The cognomen of Vlad Tepes, or Vlad III of Wallachia, Dracula’s association with vampirism surprisingly dates back only to Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  And much of what I read about Vlad III as a child has been reevaluated, with much of it being reassigned to exaggeration.  (I often wonder if this isn’t part of the reason so many of my generation have become conservative—it can be unsettling to have the certainties with which you were raised topple like so many dominoes.)  In any case, I started reading about vampires when I discovered our high school library had historical books on them, and so I recently picked up Raymond Rudorff’s The Dracula Archives at a book sale, despite its lurid cover.  The reason?  The back cover classification is “nonfiction.”

Clearly that was a marketing ploy, and although the book cost me merely pennies on the dollar for a mass-market paperback from that era (1973), I was a little disappointed to find it was a novel.  I figured it out within a page.  (You have to understand—at a book sale the normal rational faculties don’t always apply.  Anyone who’s been to a library book sale in Scotland knows that little old ladies throw elbows to get at a book they want, and you have to think fast if you’re on the fence.)  So The Dracula Archives is intended to be the prequel to Dracula.  Mirroring the latter, Rudorff’s work is comprised of diary entries and letters, slowly building up a fictional identity for Stoker’s titular character.  It isn’t as fast paced as the cover blurbs indicate, but it does manage to sound historical although it’s clearly not.

Reading such a book during a crisis of truth makes me question the marketing wisdom of the back cover label.  Yeah, it’s kinda cute, I admit.  And Trump didn’t seem like a national threat in the seventies.  But still, the mixing of the fundamental category of book (fiction or non) doesn’t seem quite fair.  Of course, caveat emptor applies to small purchases as well as large.  I go into book sales with a list, and I try to limit myself to it.  But then, I’ve not heard of every book—not by a long shot—and finding an unknown treasure is part of the draw.  Raymond Rudorff wrote several books but hasn’t merited a Wikipedia page yet.  This one is by far his most famous novel.  It’s a fun read and a reasonable prequel, but it won’t likely scare anyone as much as Republican politics do these days.


Paid Reading?

It’s like when you slowly pull a cotton ball apart.  Interrupted reading, that is.  Some people never cotton onto reading—we’re all different—but some of us find it such a beguiling exercise that we neglect other aspects of life so that we can engage it.  Almost an altered state of consciousness.  That moment when you have to close a good book, though.  There’s nothing else like it.  It’s difficult to pinpoint whether images or words make up the continuity a reader experiences.  For me it’s like a continuous conversation.  Since my life may be too regulated (“nine-to-five” jobs are like that), every day at work begins with interrupted reading.  If you’re awake early, you’ll find there’s no other uninterrupted time like it.  No librarian has to shush anyone at three a.m.

My job is largely reading.  It’s also a good deal of customer service.  As an author myself I guess I get that.  Content is what the world wants, and if you find a writer who does what your press likes, well, you try to keep her happy.  Why doesn’t enforced reading feel like reading by choice, though?  It’s that reading before work that feels like the pulling apart of fibers that’ve organically grown together.  By nighttime, which is still light in summer, it’s not so much pulling apart cotton balls.  Bedtime reading is more like stumbling through a forest.  When you come to that part of the path you know you’ve been on before—perhaps multiple times—it’s time to put the book down and hopefully reboot.

There may be jobs which consist entirely of reading for pleasure.  If there are I never learned about them in high school or college.  I have a friend who’s a musician.  Many years ago I asked him what he like to play for fun.  He looked at me and said “Music, for me, is work.”  I have to believe that somewhere deep inside he still found it enjoyable, but I instinctively grasped what he meant.  Once you take your passion and convert it into a source of income the magic goes out of it.  Once I get out of work the thing I want to do immediately is read, but what I want to read. And although studies show that the reasonable way to get your best work out of your employees is to give them more time off, employers tend to disagree with the data.  The more hours you put in the more “dedicated” you are.  But then, some of us are in publishing because we love to read.  But even now, as work time approaches, the cotton ball begins to shred.


Magic Color

Terry Pratchett was known for his quirky, funny writing.  I’ve only ever read his collaboration with Neil Gaiman before, Good Omens.  I’d heard of Pratchett’s Discworld series and I decided to give his first novel in the series, The Color of Magic, a try.  There can be little doubt that Pratchett was a clever writer with great turns of phrase and imaginative plots.  Something I’m discovering about myself, however, is that fantasy as a genre isn’t working well.  I suppose a case could be made for calling Discworld science fiction, but the world-building seems definitively fantasy—warriors, dragons, supernatural beings—the whole lot.  The story is well told and the writing’s great.  It just didn’t grab me as I hoped it might.

Having said that, one thing I noticed was that Pratchett realized something I’ve written about many times before—if you’re going to do world-building incorporating religion makes it believable.  There are gods here, often distant and mainly unconcerned with human beings (and various other beings), but clearly part of the diegesis.  And, of course, magic.  Maybe that’s the part of fantasy that I find disconcerting.  I read through the Harry Potter series, and although it was funny in parts, it was mostly played straight.  Was it fantasy?  I’ve been writing quite a lot about genre lately, and I’m beginning to run up against its limitations.  Discworld is clearly a fantasy environment. Rincewind and Twoflower are great characters, and so is the luggage (if you haven’t read it yet, let that be an enticement).

I ran into the same sense of disbelief recently with Ursula K. Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness, and there’s little doubt that it’s science fiction.  Maybe as I’m aging I’m getting more and more mired in this familiar, if not tired, world in which I find myself. Horror, however, retains its fascination.  The Color of Magic follows the hapless wizard Rincewind and how his life changed forever after he met the tourist (a rarity on Discworld), Twoflower.  Together they face and overcome (with sometimes a little deus ex machina) obstacles of others with agendas that simply don’t accept misfits.  The literally cliff-hanging ending does encourage the reader on to book two and the characters won’t soon be leaving my mind.  It’s just with fantasy too much seems possible.  Anything can happen and it’s almost a matching of wits with the writer.  Not that that’s bad, but maybe it just isn’t the escapism I tend to think fantasy is intended to be.


Is It Thursday?

Jasper Fforde is an author I discovered because of a friend’s recommendation.  One of the more literate of fiction writers, he is clever and funny, but also difficult to find in many bookstores.  (Believe it or not, some of us prefer to shop in actual bookstores.)  I tend to pick his books up when I find them, whether used or new, and wait until I have time to indulge in a good book.  Well, I seldom have time to indulge, so I decided to go ahead and read Lost in a Good Book.  Now, this involves some mental gymnastics on my part.  Part of Fforde’s Thursday Next series, this is actually the second book after The Eyre Affair—not his first book that I read, but the first of this series I had.

I tend to find used copies of Fforde in certain used bookstores, and so my collection has grown through the years.  I’ve read four of the first seven novels in this series, but in this order: one, seven, six, and two.  Each is understandable on its own, but it occurs to me after finishing the second in the series that things might make better sense if read in order.  The good news is that the next one I have to find should fall in order after this one. Unless it’s one of the others.  That’s the nature of finding things in secondhand stores.  It’s not that I object to buying books new—do you even know me at all?—but that I have some authors that I can find in used stores from time to time and I read them when I do.  Fforde is one of them.

How I find the books probably impacts how I engage with them.  Perhaps because they’re funny I don’t consider the implications too seriously if things don’t always make sense.  I can see myself, if I ever get more time, coming back to the series.  Then I’ll do so in order.  The real pity is that I don’t have time to read all the books by authors I enjoy.  Nor all the money.  Libraries in small towns tend to have collections that reflect local tastes, and besides, I like to come back to my books at my own time, without having to wait for inter-library loan and somebody else finishing it up before I can get ahold of it.  All of which is to say I enjoyed Lost in a Good Book very much.  Thursday Next is a compelling character, and it’s always a pleasure to read an author who, like you, clearly reads a lot of classics.


Electronic Ritual

Religion and horror go naturally together.  Perhaps that’s something I instinctively knew as a child, or perhaps it’s something only mature eyes see.  It’s clearly true, however.  While reading about The Wicker Man lately I felt compelled to read David Pinner’s 1967 novel Ritual, upon which the movie is loosely based.  In many cases it is better to read the book before seeing the film.  In other cases the movie ends up being the superior project.  I had to keep on reminding myself as I read the novel that it couldn’t be measured against a superior vision of what it could have been.  Having written seven novels myself (all unpublished) I hope that I have a sense of the process.  Unless you’re into the commercial side of things you don’t write for the movie potential—you have a story to share and this is your way of telling it.

The novel isn’t bad.  It’s written in a punchy style that I don’t really enjoy, but the story drew me in.  It almost wasn’t to be.  Like many novels of this era, print copies are difficult to find.  Those available on used book websites, or even on Amazon, probably because of rights agreements, sell for over $200.  That’s a bit much, considering that over two dollars per page is excessive for a novel.  I finally had to cave and get a Kindle version.  I don’t have a Kindle, but I have the software on my computer.  Reading it again reminded me of how superior a print book is to an electronic one.  Reading ebooks tends to be faster but like eating snack food, doesn’t really satisfy you.  

At one point the navigation function stopped.  Confused, I couldn’t go any further in the story and wondered if I’d reached a sudden but unexpected end.  With a physical book I could’ve paged ahead to find out.  In this case, with the controls frozen with that obdurate computer attitude, I had to find another way to make the illusion of reading continue.  I eventually got it going again after clicking here and there, but reminded myself again that ebooks should only be the last resort.  As for the story itself, it was okay.  I read it as a parable about intolerant religion.  I’m not sure it was intended that way, but it certainly seems like a reasonable interpretation.  It ends differently than the movie does, so I won’t put any spoilers here in case you decide to spring $200 to get a used copy.