New Twilight

The strange thing about The Twilight Zone is its ability to endure in the minds of those exposed to it at an early age.  Often it’s more the image of it, that feeling of awe and wonder, that remains with me.  Rod Serling cut a sophisticated figure with what, for the time, was an unbounded imagination.  New Stories from the Twilight Zone was the last of the three standard collections of his tales.  Another book of stories published the same year, From the Twilight Zone, is a little difficult to pin down from online descriptions.  It’ll probably be the subject of a future nostalgia-laden post.  Reading the current collection is like déjà vu; some of the stories I remember from seeing on television, and others I’d probably read before.

In some ways these stories are time machines.  A slice of the early sixties.  The cover of my edition emphasizes that dramatically with Serling’s head hinged open and colorful ideas (“weirdies” in the copy) flying out.  Over half a century later the Zone continues to fascinate, despite the obvious context in which Serling originally wrote.  The enduring nature of his contribution somehow validates me, and probably many other kids of the sixties too.  The stories all suggest that the world isn’t quite what it seems.  It relates to what I posted on a couple days back, the weird, the eerie.  In other words, these are good stories.  Timeless in their own way.  Reaching back toward childhood, they help with the aging process.  

Weird tales have become a popular genre, and I suspect the popularity is due largely to the internet.  Those of us who liked stories such as these were an earlier generation of nerds (of the non-technical variety), those who didn’t find sports or girls or controlled substances—the more mainstream forms of diversion—to our liking.  We were perhaps misfits, but we knew we could well find a place in The Twilight Zone.  This may have been its great, subliminal draw; anyone could find her or himself in the Zone.  Some of the narratives were scary, some were funny.  Others were just odd (“weirdies”).  But they could sell books and Serling was able to make himself a household name through his imagination.  The internet has, in turn, made it more difficult to get noticed in its democracy of expression.  Indeed, it has become a twilight zone of its own.  At least it’s one where it’s a simple matter to still find the books that made us who we are.

Eerie Weird

We each approach the world from a unique angle.  It’s bewildering if you stop and think about it—billions of individuals (more by orders of magnitude if we add animals) looking at the world like no-one else.  Given the numbers it’s no mystery that some individuals will share fascinations, and I was glad to learn of Mark Fisher’s book The Weird and the Eerie, since it tries to capture the essence of these two terms that characterize so much of my reading.  The introduction explores what these words might mean in regard to Freud’s unheimlich, a term with which many writers are familiar.  What makes many stories interesting is their unusualness.  Fisher considers what it means to be inside or outside, and these categories often play into our perceptions of the weird and the eerie.

The study is divided into two sections (weird and eerie) and explores these concepts through a variety of media—literature, film, and popular music, especially.  Here’s where the unique angle comes in.  While I’ve read quite a bit of “weird fiction” and certainly eerie tales, Fisher has a different spectrum of materials than I do.  We share some resources, of course, such as H. P. Lovecraft, but The Weird and the Eerie gave me a new set of books to read and movies to watch.  Or read and watch in new ways.  Fisher’s reading of these various sources is sharp and perceptive, and he has a wealth of experience on which to draw.  The intertextuality here is rich.

When I think of reading for leisure or pleasure, it occurs to me that without something unusual happening in a tale, I have little with which to gain a grip.  The unheimlich makes for compelling reading.  Fisher sheds considerable light on this—what is it that we mean by saying something is weird or eerie?  It’s not that we should avoid them.  Humans are innately curious creatures, and we’re drawn to the strange in a way that we can seldom help.  Learning to avoid the weird and eerie means missing out on opportunities to learn.  And stories that we might tell to reflect our individual experience of the world.  This brief book contains more than first appears from a cursory glance.  There’s depth here, and for those of us individuals drawn to these aspects of both human and literary expression, much to mine.  The Weird and the Eerie is a flashlight for going into areas sometimes considered dark and learning much along the way. 

Timely Terror

Fear comes in many colors.  Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic was getting such positive press that I didn’t wait for the paperback.  At first the title threw me a bit, but creepy old houses can be found in many places around the world, and the gothic often lurks in such structures.  The story builds slowly until the supernatural begins to seep in steadily and the reader realizes they’ve been hooked along the way.  In some ways it reminded me of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, but the setting in Mexico gives Moreno-Garcia’s tale its own kind of zest.  Having a strong hispanic, female protagonist is a nice corrective to the political rhetoric we’ve been fed for the past four years.  As I said, fear comes in many colors.

Perhaps I’m not as afraid as I used to be when I read fiction.  Gothic, however, is all about setting the right mood.  It’s a creepy sensation that boundaries are being crossed and such things often take place in isolated locations.  The house owned by the Doyles—not exactly colonialists, but symbols are seldom exact matches—is marked by greed and power.  A kind of rot is everywhere evident, but the family must keep power within its own circle.  The parallels to a Trumpian outlook were perhaps not intentional, but national trauma can make you see things in a different way.  As Noemí attempts to rescue her cousin from the house, High Place itself participates in thwarting their escape.

Reflection after reading draws out some further insights.  Not only is the white Doyle family the  oppressive element here, they do so by religion.  Secret rituals and practices have made the patriarch a god—and here let the reader ponder—who builds his power on the oppression of others.  I have no idea if Moreno-Garcia was influenced by the nepotistic White House we’ve just experienced—eager to use political office for overt personal gain, and yes, worship—but she’s laid bare the ugly truths of white power.  I dislike racializing people, but race was invented by Europeans as a mean of oppression and keeping wealth within the grasp of a few individuals who would be surrounded by an empowered “white” race.  It worked in Nazi Germany and it came close to working officially in the United States that fought to vanquish it just seventy years ago.  Mexican Gothic is a moody book indeed.  It’s also a book, whether intentionally or not, that is an object lesson for our times.

Raven Wisdom

Just twenty pages in and I was reflecting on how Christianities and the cultures they cultivated have caused so much suffering in the world.  Assuming there is only one way to be, and that way is pink, European, and monotheistic, has led to so many displaced people thrown aside as collateral damage.  Ernestine Hayes’ The Tao of Raven is a remarkable book.  A native Alaskan, Hayes participated in the colonialist venture of higher education to try to also participate in the “American dream.” If this book doesn’t make you feel uncomfortable in your own skin, I don’t know that you’re human.  As I mentioned in a recent post, I have a deep interest and lasting guilt to learn about indigenous peoples of the country where I was born.  About the culture that is so Bible-driven it can’t see the human beneath.  The capitalism that takes no prisoners.

The Tao of Raven is one of the most honest books I’ve ever read.  Hayes refuses to sugar-coat the alcoholism, the broken promises, the poverty offered to native Alaskans.  Even as Trump’s final rages go on, he has opened the Alaskan Wildlife Refuge for drilling, to the highest bidder.  Apart from those whose wealth will increase as a result, we will all suffer.  Those who lived in Alaska before the colonists arrived the most.  The idea of colonizing, without which capitalism just can’t work, reveals its evil here.  When a voice like that of Hayes is able to make itself heard we cannot but feel the condemnation.  When over seventy-million people vote for a hater, we all tremble.

The book ends much as it begins.  A sincere regret for those who’d been fed the contradictory messages of missionaries.  Those told to accept suffering on earth so that they could go to the white person’s Heaven, while those inflicting the suffering lead comfortable lives with modern conveniences.  The double-standards that allow people to die on the street like dogs.  The double-standards that can’t see that you need not be Christian to upend the tables of money-changers.  Indeed, the last time someone dared to such a thing was two millennia ago.  When Christianity slipped its fingers between those of capitalism a monster would surely be born.  The cost would come in human lives, even as a quarter-million lay dead in this country from a virus a rich man can’t be bothered to address.  Do yourself, do the world a favor.  Read this book.  Read it with your eyes open and learn from Raven.

Another Turn

I have read The Turn of the Screw before.  Henry James’ most famous ghost story is a classic of ambiguity.  My previous reading, maybe a decade ago, was in an edition of James that insisted on stuffing other stories into the same binding, most of which I’ll probably never read.  I located a reasonably priced edition containing only the novella I wanted and it is published by Heathen Editions.  Obviously priding themselves on the unorthodox, Heathen Editions provides books with some little commentary, particularly pointing out unfamiliar words or explaining circumstances that many modern readers lack the training to spot.  The edition ends with James’ own afterword to the story, something my larger James volume lacks.  The story I remembered in part, but the notes also engaged me.

These notes aren’t numerous and they don’t distract.  In my case I understood the words defined, but I appreciated some of the historical or literary context supplied.  With so much literature available these days modern readers have to be drawn back into the classics.  James’ style tends toward the choice of more words than would be strictly necessary to tell the tale.  The fact that it was serialized helps to explain that.  Like Middlemarch and The Woman in White, both of which I’ve posted on in the past, being serialized encourages a kind of verbosity that modern publishers of fiction eschew.  At least in my limited experience.  For The Turn of the Screw the slow building to the climax requires spreading out.  The story itself could be summarized in a paragraph (which I won’t do, because you should read it yourself), but the feeling of dread has to grow as bits are slowly revealed.

One of the notes particularly caught my attention.  In an oblique reference to David and Saul, the editor expanded the footnote a bit.  The scene is when Saul is being tormented by an evil spirit sent by God and David is called in to help him with a kind of music therapy.  David plays his lyre and Saul’s demons temporarily leave him.  This is subtly referenced in chapter 18 of the Heathen Edition.  The note briefly explains Saul and David and then, for the only time in the book, goes on to provide a reception history of the reference by informing the reader that Leonard Cohen also refers to this episode in his song “Hallelujah.”  I’m sure the opening lines are familiar enough that I don’t need to risk violating copyright to quote them.  So it was that while reading a ghost story the Bible was introduced, which, of course has been my research agenda for a few years now.  A turn of the screw indeed.

Strange Reading

The internet has changed things.  Perhaps forever.  I’m thinking particularly of the way we read.  Not just ebooks, either.  I’m primarily a book reader.  That is to say, I prefer long-format, print writing.  Since we’re fairly isolated (this applied to me even before Covid-19), one of the ways we discuss books is via social media.  There are any number of sites where this takes place such as Book Riot or Goodreads.  I tend toward the latter because that’s what publishers tend to pay attention to.  Each year I participate in a couple of reading challenges.  On Goodreads my goal is a set number of books.  But this has a hidden aspect as well.  What counts as a book?

As a matter of course I don’t count the odd Dr. Seuss book I pick up and read in a matter of minutes.  Nor do I count the many, many books I read as part of my job.  The ideal method of tracking reading on Goodreads is to use the ISBN.  Older books, especially, come in multiple editions, often with differing content.  One way that publishers make money on public domain books is by adding a new introduction or preface to which they own the copyright even though the majority of the text is in the public domain.  The first commandment of capitalism includes the phrase “what the market will bear.”  You can price up until people stop buying.  In order to get value for money, short books are often bound together with other material.  This especially applies to novellas.   Who’s going to pay ten bucks for a book of under 100 pages?

The problem is counting them on Goodreads.  In order for the ISBN to count, you really need to read all the stories in a book.  In steps Amazon.  Making it simple to self-publish, many individuals have rushed in and have saturated the market with public domain material bound and distributed by their own print-on-demand editions.  If I want to read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the older dilemma was you couldn’t buy it alone.  It was almost always bound with some stories I didn’t want to read.  Now, however, some savvy book smith can download an electronic copy, word-process it, format it and sell it to you at a nice markup.  And you can enter the ISBN and get credit for only what you actually did read.  This is a strange new way of reading.  Before I had challenges to complete I’d read a short story or novella and not worry about the rest of the book.  For now, anyway, my reading patterns have changed just to keep up with the challenge.

The Abbey

In my efforts to satisfy the Gothic longing of October—such a melancholy month—I’ve been reading Jane Austen’s classic, Northanger Abbey.  I avoided this particular title for many years because I knew that the Gothic frights were all rationally explained.  Austen was such an accomplished writer that she was able to poke fun at the Gothic genre while participating in it, at least somewhat.  I actually read this novel with no idea concerning the plot or characters.  Sometimes for works of the western canon these elements are so well known that you kind of know what to expect.  Northanger Abbey, although appreciated, isn’t often considered Austen’s finest work.  In fact, it was her first novel finished, but was only published posthumously.  As I writer I can understand that.

The story follows Catherine Morland in a satire of Gothic novels.  In fact, Catherine’s favorite book is Ann Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho, one of the Gothic standard-bearers.  The first half of the novel (pre-Gothic) sets the story up with two love triangles formed in the city of Bath.  Austen excels at making the reader uncomfortable with characters.  So much so that the second (Gothic) part of the novel ends up making one of the formerly noble Tilneys,  father of Catherine’s love interest Henry, look downright snobbish and petty.  O, the egos of the privileged!  The fact that she threw this in just about ten pages before the close (in my edition) made the ending all the more anxious.

There are no ghosts in Northanger Abbey.  No murders or poisonings took place there.  No secret manuscripts contained cryptic truths.  No secret passages led to hidden chambers.  Austen sets readers up for all of these, only to bring the conceit down in a showcase of her satirical ability.  The novel still frequently ends up on lists of Gothic classics.  I wonder if readers don’t get the satire.  I had put off reading it for many years because I knew it to be good-natured fun-poking at a genre I unaccountably enjoy.  At least I know I’m not alone in this.  I’m glad, in any case, to have finally read it.  Jane Austen was a most capable writer, a master of portraying human foibles particularly well.  The problems of the landed gentry, however, as I’ve noted before, aren’t really of interest unless there’s actually a ghost or monster lurking in the shadows somewhere.  Without monsters even an imposing abbey owned by a spoiled petty nobility is just an abbey devoid of purpose.

Gothic Tales

Each year when autumn worms its way into my consciousness, I begin looking for the ideal gothic book.  I can test this by looking at the Goodreads lists of best gothic novels and noting how many of them I’ve already read. The thing now, since I’ve already covered much of the canon, is to discover modern writers who can still evoke that feeling I seek.  This is all complicated by the subjective nature of what readers term “gothic.”  Many of the books on the lists don’t fit my own working connotation, so I keep looking.  One recommended title was Jennifer Giebrecht’s debut novel The Monster of Elendhaven.  I’m still trying to decide whether it is gothic or not.

It’s a little hard to classify, actually.  It certainly has some gothic elements, as well as some horror.  There are secrets and plagues and gruesome murders.  There is a monster from a polluted sea, but not quite your grandfather’s monster.  A human monster.  Or at least partially.  The tale is written with some tongue in some cheek.  There are funny elements and there are many serious moments.  There’s magic and mayhem.  If I were to try to characterize it the closest I might come would be a Tim Burton treatment of horror.  Like Burton, Giesbrecht creates a Halloween mood, but sometimes the humor undercuts it.  This makes it difficult to pin down the work as a whole and figure out if this is the gothic I’ve been seeking.

Set in a time difficult to define and in a fictional nation, it is the kind of novel that can be read without much consequence.  The references to the Allfather make comparison with Nordic regions natural, and there is perhaps a touch of Beowulf here.  In crafting the monster Giesbrecht has made a pretty unlikeable character.  He is a monster, after all.  But not a sympathetic one.  As in other modern treatments he is a stand-in for chaos.  There’s also an environmental sensitivity here.  The monster arises from a polluted sea that derives from, of all things, human greed.  So maybe there’s a parable here.  A short book, it doesn’t take too much of a time investment, but it may leave you wondering what exactly it is that you just read.  It is dark, and gritty, and fun.  A nice combination for an October night.  Is it gothic?  That one’s a little harder to answer.  It depends on how I’m defining it on any particular day.

Twain Shall Meet

On a slightly hazy fall day, when the autumnal colors were alive, we stopped in Elmira.  To understand the significance of this stop, I should explain that from the time my daughter could appreciate it (and probably even before) we used to make fall literary trips.  We would take a long weekend and drive to where a famous author had lived.  Laura Ingalls Wilder in Pepin, Wisconsin, or Mark Twain in Hannibal, Missouri.  When we moved east we visited Edna St Vincent Millay at Austerlitz, New York, and Washington Irving in Sleepy Hollow.  More recently, in the spring, we went to see Rod Serling in Interlaken, New York.  So it was that we stopped in Elmira, New York, where Mark Twain rests.  I had always assumed Samuel Clemens was buried in Missouri, but his most productive literary period was his time in upstate New York, and it is here he remains.

His tombstone was covered with pennies and a few higher denomination coins, a rock or two, and a guitar pick.  People want to show their respects to the writers who’ve meant something to them.  I find this a moving tribute.  I suspect it happens at the tombstones of many famous people, but in Highgate Cemetery in London we found Douglas Adam’s small plot filled with pens stuck in the ground as mementos.  I travel through the world lightly, seldom carrying anything extra with me.  Somehow I never stop to think to bring a memory to the cemetery.  Fortuitously I had found a penny on the ground the morning we left for Elmira and I placed it among the others on Twain’s marker.  

What would make the appropriate calling card to leave?  I often wonder that.  If I had such a token, I suspect I would feel the need to revisit the various cemeteries of years past to leave a sign of my respect.  There are lots of them.  Edgar Allan Poe in Baltimore.  George Orwell in Sutton Courtenay.  H. P. Lovecraft in Providence.  Is there anything that ties them all together?  Pens seem an obvious choice, but stones are far more traditional (especially in Jewish settings).  The tradition is traced back to building cairns in biblical times, and the idea survives in that stones are more permanent than flowers and are a sign of respect.  Writers often have more elaborate items left, but it’s clear that they are removed from time to time by the grounds keepers.  Before I visit my next literary grave, I’ll give some thoughts to symbols and tokens and the importance of celebrating writing.

Not Sleepy Yet

Over a recent weekend I watched four versions of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”  (I have two excuses.  One is that it’s October, and the second is that I have an article on Sleepy Hollow coming out on Horror Homeroom.  For the second, read on.)  The story is one that made an impact on me as a child, probably because of Disney’s Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad.  The cartoon version, which was one of the four I watched, is silly and scary both.  It leaves it to the imagination whether the headless horseman is real or not.  Before that I watched the silent 1922 Headless Horseman staring Will Rogers.  Clearly in that film the headless horseman is what we’d now call a liberal hoax.  It was Brom Bones scaring Ichabod Crane away from Katrina Van Tassel.

The canon of characters grows with Tim Burton’s 1999 film Sleepy Hollow.  Although Burton is hit or miss for me, this strikes me as one of the best October movies I’ve seen.  The headless horseman is quite real and the spiritual world intersects with the rational, crime and punishment world in the haunted western wood.  I didn’t have time for the 1980 television movie this time around, but I decided to watch the 2007 television movie Headless Horseman.  A rather puerile splatter film set in Missouri, it posits that this is the real headless horseman behind Washington Irving’s story.  It has a lot of religious imagery, which is often what I’m looking for in horror.  The writing is poor and the characters shallow, but it isn’t a total waste of time.

What all of these films demonstrate is that Washington Irving’s story, as simple as it is, really resonated with Americans.  How can you reason or plead mercy from a headless man?  Look closely, for there is a parable here.  The headless are merciless and they have the ability to frighten.  The story is generally set in the harvest season.  The 2007 movie makes the horseman’s appearance as a crucified scarecrow.  Although the original story had no such religious elements, they’ve become a standard part of its accrued cultural heritage.  The headless horseman has gone from secular to religious, for it is an American story.  Originally set in the period after the Revolutionary War, it was part of an unsettled nation’s frustrated attempt at normalcy.  This, I believe, remains.  When we can’t make sense of our surroundings, we look back to those stories that seem to have some insight into who we are.  Headless horsemen are quite useful in that regard.

Ghosts, of a Sort

What happens when we die?  That question is perhaps THE question that drives just about everything we do.  Evangelicalism, masked behind love of Jesus, is really the desperate attempt to avoid Hell.  That idea is powerful and insidious.  The question of what happens, however, has also inspired a tremendous amount of literature.  Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders, is a recent example of how diverse such views may be.  Written mostly epitaphicly, it is a conversation among the spirits in the cemetery the night Willie Lincoln arrives among them.  Fearing what is beyond, these ghosts don’t admit they’re dead, but rather think themselves sick, awaiting recovery.  When the profoundly bereft Abraham Lincoln arrives to mourn his son, things begin to change.  

All through my reading of this book I found myself wondering about the many ways we conscious creatures reassure ourselves about death.  Materialists say it’s like the turning off of a lightbulb.  All goes dark and there is no soul to remember anything.  Many of them claim science for proof, although science has no way to measure the non-physical.  Various religious sentiments of the eastern hemisphere posit reincarnation until one’s soul reaches the point of no longer having to cycle through all of this again.  Here in the western world, influenced by a Zoroastrian-inspired Christianity, we posit a Heaven and Hell.  Some include various shades of Purgatory, which, to the classic Greek, would’ve sounded familiar.  Those who’ve undergone Near Death Experiences often suggest a more dream-like reality of acceptance.

There are many more shades and nuances, of course.  We’ve entered the shadowy half of the year.  Those of us in temperate regions spend half of our lives with nights longer than the days.  Death, however, is generally a shunned topic.  We try to avoid talking about it since we really don’t know what comes after.  We have beliefs.  We have hopes.  We really just don’t know.  We often look to literature to help us explore these topics.  Lincoln in the Bardo does so with some humor, some sadness, and some soul-searching.  Those of us drawn to ghost stories naturally think about them as we wait later for the morning sky to lighten, and find it dark before we turn in for the night.  A great many options await us, some with a kind of historical anchor, and others that are completely made up for our edification.  The one thing they all have in common is they force us to think of that which we really don’t know.

Unintentional Patterns

Time, they say, is what prevents everything from happening at once.  I’ve noticed something about my reading life (is there any other kind of life?).  One of my favorite topics on this blog is books.  Both reading and writing them.  When I wake up and try to clear the cobwebs of sleep from my head to think about the day’s post, I always feel relieved when I have a book I’ve just finished because that’s an eager and ready topic.  When I’m in the middle of a large book, it seems like a long time until I’ll be able to jot down some thoughts on it, and the ideas don’t always flow.  It’s here that I’ve noticed a strange kind of pattern and it has to do with the way I read.  Interestingly, it isn’t intentional.  It goes back to my post-commuting literary lifestyle.

I read nonfiction in the mornings.  I awake early and after about an hour of writing I try to get in an hour of reading before thoughts turn to work and its unraveling effect on the fabric I’ve been weaving before the sun rises.  The nonfiction I read depends, to a large extent, on my writing projects.  Not exactly the kind of research that time and libraries afford academics, but still, research in my own way.  Often these nonfiction books are large—400 pagers seem to be the trend.  I’m a slow reader, so they take some weeks to finish.  At night (or actually evening, for I retire early) I read fiction.  It isn’t unusual for my fiction choices to be briefer than the nonfiction books of the morning.  It always seems, however, that I finish two books very near the same time.  Then I have two book posts in a week and many days without any.

Since we married over thirty years ago, my wife and I read to each other.  Usually she reads while I wash dishes.  Those reading choices are by mutual consent.  They sometimes make their way into my research, but more often they show up in my fiction writing.  In any case, they also seem to fit this same pattern.  When I finish a large nonfiction book in the morning, the same day, or the next day, I generally finish my fiction book.  Shortly after that our dishes-reading book finishes.  I’ve noticed this happening over the past couple of years and I always wonder about unexpected patterns that I find.  It doesn’t always happen this way, but it does often enough to make me wonder.  If I intentionally set out to do this it would be understandable, but as it is, it simply happens.  As they say, things tend to occur in threes.

BBW

It’s a measure of how busy I am when Banned Book Week has started before I realize it.  Most years I make it a point to read a banned book at this time, but my reading schedule is so crowded that I seem to have missed the opportunity this year—I didn’t see it coming.   I’ve read a great number of the top 100 banned books over the years, and I’m sure I’ll read more.  I’ve recently been reading about America’s troubled history with free expression.  Probably due to a strong dose of Calvinism combined with Catholicism, many of the books challenged and banned, as well as prevented from ever seeing the light of day, have to do with bodily functions.  Sex, especially.  In American society, as freely as this is discussed, we still have a real problem when someone writes about it.

Why might that be so?  Many religions recognize the privacy aspect of sexuality without condemning the phenomenon itself.  The Bible (which is on the list of Banned Books) talks of the subject pretty openly and fairly often.  Our hangups about it must be post-biblical, then.  Much of it, I suspect, goes to Augustine of Hippo.  Although he had a wild youth, Augustine decided that nobody else should be able to do so guilt free, and gave us the doctrine of original sin.  Add to that the legalistic interpretation of Paul and his school, and soon the topic itself becomes difficult to address.  Victorian values, obviously, played into this as well.  Literature, which explores every aspect of being human, is naturally drawn to what is a universal human drive.

Banned Books also treat race—another topic that haunts America—or use coarse language.  Some challenge religious holy grails, such as special creation or Christian superiority.  It seems we fear our children being exposed to ideas.  The wisdom of such banning is suspect.  The publishing industry has many safeguards in place to create age-appropriate literature.  Banning tends only to increase interest by casting the “forbidden” pall over something that is, in all likelihood, not news to our children.  American self-righteousness tends to show itself in many ways, making much of the rest of the world wonder at us.  We seem so advanced, but we fear a great number of rather innocuous books.  The reasons are similar to those behind why we can support tax-cheating, womanizing, narcissists as leaders: our faith blinds us.  I may be late in getting to my banned book this year, so I guess I’ll just have to read two next time.

In Black

When autumn rolls around my hankering for gothic literature ratchets up.  It’s really my gothic sensibilities that make me watch horror films, seeking some kind of transcendence.  Some time ago I heard about the movie The Woman in Black, but I’ve never seen it.  I learned about the novel by Susan Hill, on which it’s based, and decided to check out the written form.  (I almost always like the book better than the movie anyway.)  The story is indeed moody, set in, as these stories often are, a remote part of the coast of England.  A lonely house cut off by the tide.  A hidden past full of secrets.  The plot is one of a vengeful ghost, and therefore the whole is somewhat supernatural.

I couldn’t help comparing it to Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney, which is also set on the coast of England, and also features a house cut off by the tides.  The storylines are quite different beyond that, but it is often the setting that makes gothic tales so, well, gothic.  The Woman in Black builds up the story slowly, intimating that something is wrong near the start, but not really giving too much away until near the end.  It isn’t really the conclusion, however, that a gothic reader is after, as much as the feeling.  Being immersed in a spooky setting where you’re not sure what’s going on.  There’s a kind of release in that.

I’ve often tried to figure out why this type of story appeals to me.  It’s certainly something to do with my childhood.  We didn’t live in a very gothic place.  My hometown was working-class normal, it seemed to me.  When we moved into the first apartment I remember, the setting did become gothic to an extent.  It was an older building that still had gas jets jutting through the walls from the days before electricity.  One of the bedrooms was painted black.  There was a huge crack in the linoleum in the hall that had the potential to trip you if you weren’t paying attention.  It was there that I first became aware of liking gothic settings.  It was the place I discovered Dark Shadows and began to find it strangely homelike.  Many of us, even with less-than-ideal childhoods, often look back to them with a kind of happiness that we just can’t seem to attain as adults.  Mine included some gothic elements, and reading novels like The Woman in Black takes me back there, if only for a little while.

Bird Land

Since I like to blog about books, my usual reading practice is to stick with a book once I start it.  This can be problematic for short story collections because often there’s one in particular I want to read.  Somewhat embarrassed about it, I have to confess that sometimes it’s because I saw the movie first.  So it was with Daphne du Maurier’s “The Birds.”  Du Maurier, the daughter of a father who also wrote horror, caught Alfred Hitchcock’s attention.  Several of his movies were based on her works.  Not all of them can be called horror—a genre that’s difficult to pin down—but they deal with gothic and thriller themes that had an appeal for Hitch.  In fact some analysts date the modern horror film to the period initiated by this iconic director.

I have a collection of du Maurier’s short stories, written in the day when 50 pages counted as a short story rather than “product” that could be “exploited” in various formats.  (Today it’s not easy to find literary magazines that will publish anything over 3,000 words, or roughly 10–12 pages.)  In any case, “The Birds” is an immersive tale.  The movie is quite different, of course, set in America with a cast of characters that can only be described as, well, Hitchcockian.  Du Maurier’s vision is much closer to the claustrophobic pandemic mindset.  A single English family, poor, tenant farmers, far from the centers of commerce, must figure out how to survive the bird attacks on their own.  The suddenly angry birds attack their hovel in time with the tides (they live near the coast) so the family has to gather supplies between attacks and try to last another night of pecking and clawing.

The story is quite effective.  Reading it suggests the importance of self-reliance and willingness to accept a changed reality on its own terms.  No explanation is given for the birds’ change of attitude.  Human intervention in the environment is supposed but how would a simple family living of the fringes of the fabric woven by the wealthy know?  Forced to react, they try to keep the kids calm while knowing, at some level, this can never end well.  The movie maintains the ambiguous ending, which is probably what makes it so scary.  Corvid or covid, there are things out there that drive us into our homes where we must shelter in place.  Although I didn’t read the whole book, this choice of story seems strangely apt for the current circumstances.