Annotating Irving

Really concentrating on a short story is sometimes difficult to do.  I don’t have a degree in literature (I took a few courses, but my specialization was religion).  I’ve been on a bit of a Sleepy Hollow kick lately and I wanted to move beyond just the short story by Washington Irving.  Although I’m sure working through the entire Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., the book in which “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was published, would probably be rewarding, it would also be time consuming.  Irving was trying to find his way as a writer and this particular story has been his lasting contribution.  So I turned to local historian Henry John Steiner’s annotated edition.  It has a useful introduction, but still wouldn’t be “book length” without several pages of photos and a large font size.

Sleepy Hollow may lay claim to several signs of historical importance.  It featured in the Revolutionary War.  Washington Irving did eventually settle there.  As a getaway it attracted the wealthy and powerful from New York City because it’s not that far from Manhattan.  Several movie and television renditions have been made of Irving’s story.  This book generally provides local place connections in the annotations.  A visitor to Sleepy Hollow might wonder where this or that event in the story was set.  This book will help with that.  Still, it left me looking for a bit more substantial treatment.  Not necessarily a literary-theory kind.  Let’s face it, academic writers tend to write for other academics. No, a bit more of the folklore, I suppose.

It did allow me to slow down and really concentrate on the story.  Books have an endpoint that really helps in that regard.  This little book (as was the one I recently read on the Old Dutch Church) was published when the Fox series Sleepy Hollow was taking off.  That all-important media tie-in helps to sell books.  Interestingly, the details of a closer reading are revealing.  This isn’t, in origin, a Halloween story.  It’s a tall tale told American style.  Steiner indicates it was based on an older legend—this is something I’d be interested in hearing more about.  Writers are great recyclers.  I suppose a book on the folklore of the lower Hudson Valley might have more of what I’m seeking.  Nevertheless I came away from this edition feeling as if I’d gotten to know the story better.  Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” also appears in his Sketch Book, but perhaps it’s asking too much to have both analyzed together.


Evening Out

It feels like magic.  The morning after staying up late for something special has a transcendent quality to it.  You can almost touch the veil.  Now, for me it’s an admittedly low bar.  I get up around 3:00 a.m. most days, so “late” is when I venture past about 8:00 p.m.  And I don’t mean for a board meeting where you’re trying to solve the problems of the world.  No, I mean staying up for something you anticipate.  Or even if it’s something you experience only by association.  I had to pick somebody up in Easton after an evening event recently.  It wasn’t over until after I’m normally asleep, but I made plans to hole up in Dunkin’ Donuts and perhaps even sip a coffee if I had to, for the drive home.

This was a Tuesday night so most businesses were closed.  After parking the car I found out that Dunkin’ wasn’t keeping evening hours either.  I try always to travel with a book.  The one thing I learned from my brief stint in Boy Scouts was “be prepared.”  With no Dunkin’ the only places open were bars and clubs.  Thankfully it was a warm evening, so I found a free bit of curb on which to sit to read my book.  Easton’s a college town so young people were out and about.  It was good to see other folks enjoying life.  Then a woman stopped and leaned down.  She was looking at the cover of my book.  “Just wondering what you’re reading,” she said.  “I’m always on the look out for something good.”

Reading in public

I can’t recall the last time a stranger struck up a conversation with me.  Especially about literature.  I was reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved (more anon) and she asked what it was about.  (You, dear reader, will need to wait a few more days if you don’t already know.)   I told her as best I could in a sentence or two, but I was in shock that someone I didn’t know was taking a moment out of her busy life to ask me about a book.  Her companion was ready to get going, so she left.  Shortly after that the event ended and I picked up my charge and headed home.  The next morning had that magic feeling.  I slept later than normal although it was a work day and when I went for my morning walk a startled bald eagle took off from the ground and flew less than twenty feet over my head.  Staying up late, talking about books, and a dawn-time walk in the morning.  Even everyday life can be magical, when it’s rare enough.


Falling Usher

Roger Corman is a name well known to film buffs.  The producer of many low-budget, obviously cheaply filmed movies shot over a matter of days, his early career was prolific.  Often working in genre films, he directed horror (among other projects), occasionally drawing on Edgar Allan Poe.  The problem of adapting a short story to a length required for cinema release could be solved in a number of ways, but padding out the story was common.  I had only a few minutes to watch a horror movie over the weekend, so I pulled out a Vincent Price collection I’d bought some time ago.  A number of them are Corman films and I may have seen them when I was younger, but if so the path recall is completely eroded.  I decided to watch The Fall of the House of Usher.

This story by Poe remains my favorite for its sheer moodiness and imagery.  The premise is brief and the action little.  I knew Corman would have had to have changed quite a bit.  It turns out that he’d brought Richard Matheson in as the writer.  Many films can be made or broken by the writer.  While it doesn’t improve on Poe it is certainly a watchable effort that develops a mood in its own right.  The low budget is evident, but despite that the story is a slow build using many of Poe’s famous concerns such as premature burial and isolation in dangerous locations.  While not scary in the same way as modern horror, and stretched out by a dream sequence and overture, it nevertheless works.

Given my particular angle on horror, I noticed the introduced religious aspects.  While identification is difficult due to the lack of focus, there seem to have been two large, iconic Bibles in the story.  Indeed, the Ushers have a private chapel in which Roderick prays over his dead (?) sister.  The curse of the Ushers has to do with family evil that is being punished, causing Philip Winthrop to quote the Bible in his denial of the passing down of divine wrath.  The paintings of the Usher ancestor as Roderick explains this are the scariest part of the movie.  Not all Corman adaptions of Poe work well, but with the ministrations of Matheson and the rich ground for development from the original story, this is an atmospheric contribution to early horror.  And it works if you only have a few minutes on a busy weekend for your favorite avocation.


Old Churches

I doubled its authenticity, but it was revered in a way similar to the Shroud of Turin.  The old guide, a priest if I recall, showed us an actual lantern hung for Paul Revere’s ride.  This was the Old North Church in Boston, of course.  Its history is so storied that children across the country learned about it in school.  A similar feeling comes from reading The Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow by Janie Couch Allen and Elinor Griffith.  Subtitled Legends and Lore: The Oldest Church in New York, it is clearly a celebratory work, printed in full color and with pictures on every page.  This church’s claim to fame isn’t as much historical as it’s the result of the imagination of Washington Irving.  It features in his short story “The Legend of Sleep Hollow.”

Built in 1685, it was already an old building by the time Irving had settled in North Tarrytown.  Being early enough, Irving had immense influence on the culture of a young country.  Although born in New York City, and although he lived for many years overseas, he came to represent the voice of the emerging American literary tradition.  America has been home to many writers since then, some successful, many not.  But this book is about the church, not Irving.  Irving does play a big part in its story, although he was never a member.  I kept thinking as I read how influential a single story can become.  And even a small Dutch Reformed Church can benefit from it.  This book gives a high-level overview of the history of the area and some of its colorful characters.  It turns a few times to the Headless Horseman, but it also explains the trials and triumphs of a small church.

Although most towns can’t claim such a storied structure, American churches have had an outsized influence on who we are as a people.  I’ve sat through meetings lamenting the lack of funds for the operating budget as money grows tighter even as the worldview of ancient Palestine effaces.  As an historian of religion I tend to look back.  I don’t believe our future will be entirely electronic or virtual.  If it is, I think I’d rather find myself on a chill, uncomfortable pew in the Old Dutch Church lit by candles on a Christmas Eve, shivering but still alive.  No matter what a person believes—and with the varieties of churches we can’t all be right—we know that it’s part of what makes us human.


Ode to Books

There are fewer things more personal.  Each one has a story and it reveals quite a lot about you.  Really, it’s a brave thing, putting your books out on a shelf for others to see.  Seldom have I read a book more euphoric about a book than Alberto Manguel’s The Library at Night.  A deeply literate book collector unashamed, Manguel takes the reader on a pleasurable tour of many aspects of libraries, including his personal one.  Libraries may represent many things because books are so varied.  Many of us who are bibliophiles are used to trying to justify our libraries to those who don’t care to read or to complaining movers threatening to quit.  Or even to those who write books claiming other books are clutter.  Manguel understands.

Those of us with many books but little of anything else can tell you the story behind most individual books we have.  Where we bought them and why.  Why we’ve kept them even if we haven’t read them.  Manguel understands that not all books are reading books.  There are reference books.  There are episodic instructional books.  There are books laid up against retirement or incapacitation.  Books for work, books for play.  Books bought to help you prepare for that event that never took place but might, in some remote future, still happen.  Yes, books take up space, but so do pets, furniture, and children.  There’s a cheerfulness to rooms with books, unrivaled even by elegant spaces.

On a recent dentist visit the television was set to one of those shows where a couple is given their dream home.  I’ve watched those before in other waiting rooms and medical facilities and one thing I’ve never seen is a couple saying, “I want a home to fit my books.” And yet those homes with books occasionally make the news and garner thousands of clicks on the internet.  Those of us who are bibliophiles know we’re a minority.  Some of us actually enjoyed those high school reading assignments that so many of our classmates despised.  Our educational system, undervaluing teachers as we do, often fails to inspire the love of reading in the young.  Manguel’s book is for those who were inspired, who remain inspired by books.  Those of us who categorize and move them around.  Take them with us.  Who love them.  The Library at Night is a beautiful book full of wisdom.  It is a love letter to books. Happy National Independent Bookstore Day!


Places and Books

I recently had the opportunity to travel to a new town and spend the night there.  This is a rarity in the days of pandemic and I’d forgotten the magic of waking early in a new place and looking out the windows at the deserted, artificially lit streets.  It’s so peaceful and full of wonder.  The place we were staying was next to a public library and I noticed that there was a light on in the cupola in the pre-dawn hours.  I like the idea of books watching over us in the night.  Often when I’ve traveled to conferences I’ll arise early and look out on that orangey, artificial light while most other people are still asleep.  Even the city in pre-dawn can be a peaceful place.  This is a pleasant displacement since it’s only temporary.

One of the things about the pandemic is that it has accustomed us to life just so.  The controlled environment of home.  There’s a comfort to routine, but there’s wonder in breaking it as well.  When it’s not a conference and still a new city, I begin to look for a bookstore.  One of the common misconceptions—perhaps bolstered by the cookie-cutter experience that has been Barnes and Noble—is that bookstores are all the same.  They aren’t.  Each reflects the minds of the owners.  They reflect their knowledge of their public.  New ways of looking at things.  I suppose this fascination with books has been enhanced by my starting to read some Jorge Luis Borges again.  Those of us who read for pleasure are in the minority and we find the open book to be open arms welcoming us in.  Welcoming us home.

I always travel with books.  My travel bag carries my laptop and my reading.  New technology having to learn to adjust to the old.  I’m not a particular fan of technocracy.  I’ve always preferred paper to plastic.  In a new town I look for authenticity.  We lived for many years in Somerville, New Jersey and one of my concerns was that it couldn’t seem able to support a bookstore in the shadow of that equalizing Barnes and Noble.  The new owner, James Daunt, believes that bookstores should reflect local interests.  His own stores in Britain are cathedrals to books.  Unlike other industries, bookselling isn’t all about the business.  Much of it is about the place.  We travel to see new places, and we read to visit them as well.  And perhaps to reflect in the artificial orange glow before the city awakes.


Ghost History

Books on art are often eye-opening to me.  When I was young and trying to escape the working-class hell in which I grew up, I discovered high culture.  This was mostly through local libraries.  I would check out classical music LPs and look at books of classical art.  I did the latter until I could identify several artists by their styles.  (It was probably originally because they’d painted pictures of Jesus and I went to see what else they’d done.)  In any case, I never studied art history.  I recently read an art-historian on the Devil, and now I’ve read one (Susan Owens) on ghosts.  The Ghost: A Cultural History does not address the question of whether ghosts exist, but rather traces the history of how they’ve been portrayed in literature and art throughout time.

Owens quite ably takes us through ancient to modern, pointing out that ghosts change to fit the Zeitgeist—the spirit of the times (not her pun).  In the early modern period ghosts were portrayed as physical revenants.  They were dead bodies that came back to physically harm the living.  We know this fear was widespread because some burials were clearly intended to keep the dead in their graves.  The idea of the physical ghost still comes up in modern horror as the monster you can’t kill because it’s already dead.  It was only gradually that ghosts became spirits and this was largely through emphasis on purgatory, which made it possible for the dead not to be in Heaven or Hell.  Once the idea caught on the literature and art began to focus on the spiritual nature of revenants.  As cultural interests turned towards ruins ghosts inhabited haunted houses.

This is a fascinating study of the way ghosts have evolved over time.  One of the things that struck me was that early commentators often didn’t distinguish clearly between ghosts, demons, and devils.  Demons, as we think of them, really depend quite a bit on The Exorcist.  The use of “devils” in the plural complicates the spiritual geography where we have God v Devil as the main poles of spiritual rivalry.  These ideas, and also those of ghosts, likely blended throughout most of history until a renewed emphasis on literalism came in.  Medieval scholars composed angelologies and demonologies, trying to keep everything straight.  They puzzled over ghosts, however, which don’t fit the scheme very neatly.  They would have benefitted, perhaps, if they had had Susan Owens’ book to help guide them.  It’s an exciting nighttime journey.


Quiet Company

Even as a lifelong fan of speculative fiction, some of the most effective horror is that where a reader is kept guessing.  One of the acknowledged masters of this is Henry James, whose The Turn of the Screw is considered a classic.  There are perhaps too many writers active today to predict who will be considered authors of classics a century or two down the road—writing has to take a long view.  Nevertheless Laura Purcell’s The Silent Companions is, in this reader’s opinion, quite effective.  And ambiguous.  I’m on the constant lookout for gothic novels that work and this is one that surely does.  I’ll try not to give spoilers here, but I do recommend it for those who want a gothic atmosphere.  It is also genuinely scary.  A great deal of this is because the reader is never quite sure what has happened.

The eponymous companions are decorative curios purchased to impress royal visitors in the seventeenth century.  Life-like cutouts of people, they are silent.  Throw in an old, sprawling house in need of repair and a widow who had abusive parents and who’s inherited resentful servants and you’ve got a recipe for an eerie atmosphere.  The novel splits its time between the nineteenth and seventeenth centuries, focusing on the former.  Elsie Bainbridge is a protagonist with many secrets, and not a few skeletons in her closet.  The house she inherited also has a past that included accusations of witchcraft and cruel masters interested in self-promotion.  Told from the point-of-view of the women in a patriarchal society, there is an authenticity to the victimhood even of strong women.

It would be difficult to tell too much of the plot without giving away some of the creepier moments.  There’s a lot going on here and although it’s not a short book it doesn’t drag the reader down with filling too many gaps.  It’s also a novel that allows imagination to outstrip rationality.  Good speculative fiction will do that.  Even some of Poe’s work makes the reader wonder just what is happening—is this in the mind of the observer or is it objectively real?  Think “The Tell-Tale Heart.” Literature takes us into such places and gothic literature does so with more shadows and ambiguity.  Throw in some betrayals, and keep a few well-placed secrets and the recipe is in place for a creepy novel that will keep you reading.


Looking North

As organized religion continues its slow decline, mythology remains.  Indeed, it seems to be growing in interest.  The problem with many mythologies, for monolinguals, is that they come in languages other than English.  Translation always loses something, which is why, I suspect, Neil Gaiman was tapped to retell the Norse myths.  A very talented story-teller, Gaiman has written about gods before.  He knows their literary potential.  Norse mythology is rather odd in the canon of western thought.  The stories feature gods with as many foibles as humans and with conflicting motivations.  In some ways they are more believable than the monotheistic tradition.  They are both fun to read and poignant.

At the same time Norse Mythology is a somewhat perplexing book.  It’s difficult to tell, without being an expert, what is Gaiman and what is ancient.  In fact, the book sits next to another one with the exact same title on my shelf.  That one is labeled nonfiction, and it’s a bit more academic.  Perhaps it’s an occupational hazard that I tend to want to approach mythology in original languages, if possible.  I’ve never studied Nordic tongues and it would be a little difficult to justify starting now, with all the other things I’ve got to do.  It’s not that I don’t trust Gaiman, it’s just that every retelling is an interpretation.  Still, I’m sure the book gives the flavor of the records that survive.  One of the fascinating features of Norse mythology is that gods die.  Since it ends with Ragnarok, that seems inevitable.

Many mythologies have the world ending with the establishment of the happy reign of a singular deity.  Ragnarok, which Gaiman (and perhaps the originals) sets in the past, sees the gods dying on the battlefield against Loki and the giants.  As the earlier myths make clear, however, death in battle is the most glorious way for the Norse to end their lives.  (And seeing how it has led to a pretty peaceful adult nation, one wonders if the mythology had a calming effect.)  I’ve not read extensively in other versions of Norse mythology so I don’t know if Gaiman’s ending with Balder returning and the world starting anew is his innovation or part of the original.  Having gods who die, however, seems like a potential leveler for humans who suffer from greater powers.  There’s a sobriety to it that lends gravitas to the whole.  And like all good books, Norse Mythology has left me hungry for learning more.


Collecting the Past

Some readers, probably, react with embarrassment when I go on about Dark Shadows.  The fact is, however, that our childhoods somehow define us and mine included frequent doses of Dark Shadows after school.  This was complemented by the series of potboiler novels by William Edward Daniel Ross, writing as Marilyn Ross.  We didn’t have much money when I was a child (some things never change) and the only means I had of procuring the books in our small town was Goodwill.  The novel series ran from 1966 to 1972, roughly concurrent with the television show.  Since I was buying them second-hand I could never tell which, if any, I would find in the book bins.  If I did find any, I’d buy them.  I got rid of them when I “grew up.”

Dark Shadows, however, has come back to me at various points in my life and about a decade-and-a-half ago I began, somewhat shamefacedly, trying to rebuild that earlier collection.  The individual volumes are considerably more than the nickels and dimes I’d originally paid for them.  In fact, the rate of change has been somewhat astronomical.  Some of the volumes are rare.  Given the prices, I suspect I’m not the only nostalgia-poisoned child of the sixties and seventies who’s buying them.  There’s a sense of satisfaction that comes with having finally completed a task years in the making.  When the box containing the last volume arrived, it was a moment of private ecstasy.

All of this has me thinking about other influences Dark Shadows has had on me personally.  It is probably responsible for my lifelong love of Maine.  The television show was filmed mostly in Terrytown, New York, better known by the name given in Washington Irving’s tale, Sleepy Hollow.  I wasn’t aware of this on my visit to Terrytown—which was before the more recent television series based on, but not filmed in that location, aired.  My first publication regarding religion and horror was based on Sleepy Hollow.  There’s a sense of connectedness here.  To get the final volume, which is rare, I had to buy a collection of several of the books.  Like a man who found a pearl of great price went and sold all that he had so that he could buy the field in which the pearl was.  We’re never told what he did with the rest of the field.  If I had to venture a guess I’d say he used it to house his Dark Shadows collection.


Future Ministry

I’ve been on the Green Committee at work almost since I started the job.  Occasionally for Earth Day we’ll have a book discussion.  Usually it revolves around nonfiction books that my press publishes.  This year they selected Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future.  It’s an environmentalism tale of what global warming may well be like and the political machinations it might take (and the millions of deaths along the way) before we stop burning carbon.  It’s a long and detailed and political story.  Robinson is known as an intellectual science fiction writer and there are sci-fi elements to the book, but its style is realist and its outlook, while ultimately hopeful, is staid.  Even when humans start to move in the right direction.  It’s also a very long book.

Reading it got me to thinking again of a somewhat bewildering truth: environmentalism books tend not to sell overly well and sustained reading, even by supporters, is difficult.  Many of us know that we’re beyond the tipping point for environmental disaster.  The Trump years assured us that it is coming.  One of the elements Robinson makes clear is just how politically entrenched it is.  Perhaps that’s one of the reasons for the despair.  The vast majority of people in the world want a more environmentally conscious government, but plutocracy tends to bring narcissists to the top and the needs of all others are less important.  In Robinson’s version of the story, targeted violence is the only thing that works.  Near the end of the story an interesting idea is raised: the Ministry of the Future (which is a government ministry, not the church kind) concludes a new religion is needed.

The masses of people, you see, are followers.  Religious leaders reinforce the idea that God told their founders—and by extension their followers—the only truth.  Their jobs (and ministries are jobs) include reinforcing those ideas to people who’ve been raised or converted to that particular brand of religion.  A number of New Religious Movements, and even a couple of prescient ancient religions, have been purposely constructed.  The trick is to get followers to accept that the religion is legitimate.  Most western religions around today have been based on the idea that humans can do whatever they want with the planet—even destroy it to force God to return.  I kind of like Robinson’s idea better.  Perhaps that’s why religions form around movies like Avatar.  Not a bad thought, when your job has you reading a sci-fi novel.  A religion saving the earth feels like a novel idea.


Horror Shortly

Some short books have an outsized punch.  Especially when dealing with a large topic such as “horror.”  This isn’t just horror movies, which could easily fill such a book, but also literature and other media as well.  Darryl Jones has proven himself on this topic before and this Very Short Introduction is a showcase of what is a fascinating genre.  I’ve read a number of books in this series and this stands out as one that works admirably within extreme limits—they are very short—in making good decisions about representative aspects in what is really a sprawling field of inquiry.  The introduction lays the task out well and I came away from each chapter feeling inspired.  Of course, not all of horror can be covered in less than 150 pages.  Some may find their favorite fear unaddressed, but they’ll learn something nevertheless.

In his first content chapter, Monsters, Jones focuses on vampires and zombies.  These are both forms of cannibals as they’re currently conceived, zombies being relative newcomers to most favored monster status.  His next chapter, on the occult and supernatural, takes on the Devil himself before addressing satanists, demons, and ghosts.  These are, of course, religious monsters.  Although Jones doesn’t dwell on that aspect, the close relationship is nevertheless evident.  For those of us who explore religion and horror this framing proves helpful.  It’s worth pausing here to consider how all of these entities overlap a bit.  As anyone familiar with ghost hunters knows, ghosts and demons may both be found haunted places, and the Devil is the head demon.  Of course, horror is a fiction genre but many people believe in these entities.  That brings religion and horror within the same room.

Body horror occupies the next chapter, and here werewolves come into the picture.  Other aspects of body horror are also discussed, but the painful transformation of the shapeshifter is prime territory.  Horror and the mind brings us to psychological thrillers and the gothic fear of madness.  The topic segues nicely into science, which the next chapter covers.  Not only science itself but the mad scientist.  Finally, the lengthy afterword looks at where horror has gone, and may be going, in the new millennium.  Something that struck me, and which brings this back into religion, is how frequently Darwin and evolution are mentioned.  This concept challenged the human place in the divine hierarchy and led to much of what we think of as horror.  This book is a great resource in a small package.


Whose Baby?

Some books are better known as movies.  I suspect that I, like many, saw the movie Rosemary’s Baby without ever reading the book.  It turns out that they’re very similar.  The book takes the action a few minutes beyond the end of the movie, but otherwise they’re quite close.  Reading a horror novel where you know everything that’s going to happen isn’t exactly the recipe for thrills and chills, but I’m nevertheless glad to have done it.  For a book published as long ago as it was (1967) it still isn’t easily found used.  New copies tend to be just as expensive as new books.  I just wanted to have a read to see if Roman Polanski stayed close to Ira Levin or not.

Levin had a string of successful novels, but Rosemary’s Baby is probably still his best known.  He is quoted as saying he didn’t believe in the Devil and felt guilty that his book (and movie) may have led to many people taking on that belief.  In many ways Polanski’s movie kicked off the age of modern horror, being released the same year as George Romero’s Night of the Living DeadRosemary, however, opened the door to horror with overt religious themes.  It paved the way for The Exorcist and The Omen.  The latter, written by David Seltzer, was another example of a movie based on the Devil by an author who didn’t believe in him.  Personal belief aside, that trinity of movies remade the horror scene and led to one of the strangest cooperations in cinematic history.

In the book versus movie scenario often there’s a clear winner.  On other occasions the movie is so powerfully made that it overshadows its novel.  Rosemary’s Baby, along with The Exorcist, tended to do so.  (The Omen was novelized from the screenplay by the screenwriter.)  I wonder if that might not be because religion pays right into cinematic representation.  The novels, after all, can take several days of reading on a normal workaday schedule.  The film, if well done, transports the viewer there for a couple of hours and leaves you feeling as if you’ve been through, in the case of Rosemary, a traumatic pregnancy.  It so happened that the unholy trinity of religious horror tapped into that rapt storytelling of which celluloid proves so capable a medium.  Still, reading the novel fills in many of the gaps and brings to mind the benefits of the written word.  And this is, like a birth, something to be celebrated.


Secret Formula

When writing fiction, I’ve never tried a series.  Some, such as Harry Potter, can set a writer for life.  I’ve always had the sense that the Dark Shadows novels were more potboilers.  There was a built-in fan base, and somehow in the sixties and seventies we didn’t expect Rowling-level writing.   It was the entire package: the Gothic, the recurring characters, the moody setting of Collinwood.  And of course, Barnabas Collins.  These novels may be journeyman writing, but here at number 25 in the series, Barnabas, Quentin, and the Magic Potion, there are some signs of literary improvement.  They are slight, rather like the first tinging of leaves with yellow as August begins to settle in, but they are there.  The series is nearing its end for me (provided I can actually find the last few books), but maybe it’s getting better.

What’s my reason for such a burst of enthusiasm?  Well, in this episode we see some features of Quentin that are more in line with how I remember him.  First of all, Ross tries some misdirection.  Quentin is presented as a master of disguise in the series and here there’s some clever hinting that, if you’re trying to think it through, leads you to mis-guess early on.  Not only that, but there’s a more positive view of Quentin here.  He’s not the evil satanist that he is earlier in the series.  Perhaps Ross had figured out by now that if people liked the idea of a Barnabas who is a conflicted victim, the same might apply to Quentin.  He’s not evil, but when you’re a werewolf, well, what can you do?

The “magic potion” is just as contrived and sketchy as most of the plot devices in this series—Harry Potter this is not.  It’s just a get rich quick scheme for a reprehensible old man and serves to move the plot along without really adding anything to it.  Carolyn here discovers that Barnabas is a vampire and, it seems to me, some of the plot devices for the Tim Burton movie might’ve been picked up from this particular novelization.  Although still not belle lettres by any stretch, the story here seems to have made some progress over the previous 24.  As a child, of course, I didn’t read these in order.  I relied on what I found at the bin in Goodwill, when I could find them.  I never had the whole series.  While trying at times, reading them may be a worthy exercise as an adult.  Perhaps series too grow up.


Banning Ideas

It’s been in the news lately that some communities, in keeping with the current fascist trends, are starting to ban books.  One of the plays in the Nazi book was to burn them, followed soon after by destroying the people who read them.  Ideas are, by their very nature, dangerous things.  Trying to destroy them by banning books, however, doesn’t work.  The kinds of books being banned are predictable: those that portray races as equal, those that offer understanding and acceptance of those differently gendered or oriented, and books that show the white man caught with his pants down (metaphorically, although in actual life this happens quite often literally as well).  Books premised on lies are just fine, but as soon as we get to ideas that make us think, well, we ban and burn.

Book banning is normally presented as protecting the children.  Something any attentive parent knows is that children understand a lot more than we think they do.  I suspect they realize that books are prohibited because they contain the truth.  Nobody bans a book of “harmless” fantasy—books where white men have all the answers and solve all the problems.  And when they lose their tempers they start wars, which, of course, the white guys always win.  Such stories, based as they are on basic untruths, are fantasy indeed.  Our slow move into the new millennium from the growing awareness of the sixties, has shown us the necessity of looking deeper.  Expanding beyond the stories white men tell to comfort themselves.  Those invested in this narrative are very reluctant, of course, to let it go.

The more we move into the new millennium the more determined we seem to repeat the last one.  That one had a pandemic near the beginning and wars and white men only on the front pages.  The younger generation, thankfully, by and large doesn’t share these poison biases.  They were read to as children.  Teachers and other heroes didn’t ban books, but encouraged reading them.  Local communities are making a concerted effort to break down learning and then we wonder why the United States has the highest infection rates in the world.  If only there were some way to figure out why that might be!  Reading books with uncomfortable truths might be a good start.  Ideas that can’t stand up to logical challenges may not be the best ones for building a society.   Read a book rather than banning it, and see if we all might learn something.