Frankenstein, Frankly

The classics.  No matter how much I read more contemporary fiction, the classics keep me coming back.  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a classic in more than a single sense.  It was a novel that had tremendous influence in the nineteenth century and has continued its impact to the present.  Chris Baldick’s In Frankenstein’s Shadow can be considered a classic in its own right.  Although it only dates from the 1980s, it contains exhilarating analysis of Frankenstein in a number of authors and genres of the nineteenth century.  And I’m a fan of literary scholars who write accessibly.  I’ve read modern literary studies that I simply don’t understand and they leave me feeling alienated and cold, as if they were written for a private audience.  One that didn’t include me.  Baldick’s treatment is wide-ranging and full of moments of blinding insight and is open to all.

Often I put the book down thinking that I’d had my world changed.  Baldick’s no hero-worshipper.  He notes the weaknesses in Shelley’s writing (and they are admittedly there), but he does so respectfully.  The astonishing part of this study is the sheer breadth of the influence Baldick finds for Frankenstein.  A word or phrase, a theme here or there, and yet he makes an excellent case that these can be traced back to their monstrous forebear.  His section on Melville made me want to stand up and cheer.  (I have to admit to being more of a hero-worshipper than the author.)  This is literary criticism done right.  It makes you want to read the books you haven’t.

Since the book deals with literature, it doesn’t really address how the creature morphed into something completely different in the twentieth century.  I know I grew up thinking Frankenstein’s monster was part robot.  I suppose it was the bolts in his neck, according to the Universal script, that convinced me.  That, and his stiff-jointed lumbering about.  Shelley’s story is, however, very much a human one.  In many respects the monster is more humane than his creator.  Various aspects of this tale, including that one, are taken up in other classics and turned over, examined, and reapplied.  Suddenly quite a bit of what I’d read elsewhere made immediate sense.  Interestingly, although I grew up not so much a fan of this particular monster, books on him have become among my favorites as an adult, if I am such.  I think Baldick may have had his fingers on that revivified wrist when he wrote this book.  It certainly did for me what literary criticism always should.  At least for the classics.

A Stiff Salute

From the way he writes, Charles F. French was a Marine.  I don’t know that for certain, but those of us who venture into fiction put ourselves into our stories.  Those who blithely reject something into which you’ve poured yourself are either boorish or unfeeling.  Yes, even literary types can be so.  This year’s reading challenge includes a book from a local author.  Since I live within a (long) commuting distance of the city, I suppose I could count New York as local.  That felt like cheating, though.  To find local authors you have to haunt independent bookstores.  I do that anyway, and a few weeks ago I found a copy of French’s Maledicus.  It fit the bill.

Although the story is about the titular demon, the ensemble protagonists are mostly military men.  There’s a strong sense of combat-readiness among them, and a good deal about military honor.  I have to admit this made me a little sad.  Don’t get me wrong, I have respect for those who are willing to fight to protect their country.  I’m sad because we need military forces at all.  I’m also a born pacifist.  My father was a veteran of the Korean War.  The military was present at his otherwise sparsely attended funeral.  I grew up reading the Bible and committed to the peaceful resolution of disagreements.  In my idealized world, we really wouldn’t need weaponry at all.  There are bad people, yes.  But like Eli Lapp, I wonder how humans can judge such things.  There are good people too.  More of them than there are bad.  More often than not, they are the victims of weaponry.

Given my work on demons, I’m always interested in their origin stories.  Maledicus gives us an evil Roman lieutenant to emperor Caligula (ahem), who is a climber and a sadist.  After his nasty and brutish life, he’s approached by a demon in the next world and joins it.  This even worse Maledicus is then taken on by the Investigative Paranormal Society, which consists of three old men, two of them retired Marines.  So you see how the military comes into it.  I won’t give any spoilers, although to my knowledge I have no local followers here in eastern Pennsylvania.  It’s a nice area for peace, actually.  The same could be said for the rest of the world.  If we put our fears aside and pooled our resources to help the vast majority of good and innocent a good number of our demons would be banished naturally.

The Tube

I’m sitting in a medical facility waiting room.  I’m not afraid of dying, but medical stuff terrifies me.  To calm me down, inane daytime television is on.  I may be one of the very few who brings a book to such places, but I can’t read with the insipid chatter going on.  This time, since I’m waiting for someone else, I brought my laptop.  Nevertheless, I can’t help but think of Ray Bradbury at times like this.  Many people think Fahrenheit 451 is about burning books.  Bradbury did write about burning books in his short stories, and it does happen in Fahrenheit 451, but that’s not what the book is about.  In interviews he said that he intended, as is pretty obvious from a straightforward reading of the text, to warn about the invasive nature of television.  It was, metaphorically, burning books.

Waiting rooms always bring that to mind.  Not only that, but it’s Valentine’s Day and all the talk shows are going on about how it’s “the day of love” (every day should be).  It’s not a day off work; I had to cash in a sick day to be here.  The word “holiday” keeps cropping up on the television, to which I have my back. Ever since leaving Nashotah House I haven’t watched television.  On our recent move to Pennsylvania our cable company didn’t offer a non-television option.  It was unthinkable.  We pay for something we don’t use.  Burning books.  I don’t have time for television.  I see shows that have proven their worth via DVD well after they’re off the air.  And that only when I can read or write no more in a day.  I guess I’m a Bradbury disciple.

Like any disciple, I have changed certain teachings of my leader.  Bradburyism is a religion objecting to ubiquitous television.  At the same time, I grew up watching the tube, and to this day I’ll stop just about anything to watch DVDs of The Twilight Zone.  Rod Serling, however, selected stories and teleplays that were well written.  This was a literate show.  Besides, my daily life often feels like the Twilight Zone.  Like Valentine’s Day in a waiting room.  The book beside me remains unopened.  It’s the same when I take the car to the garage, or go in for an oil change.  You can’t escape it, even though everyone else is paying attention to their phones.  How long until we learn to switch off?  Of course, medical waiting rooms are the places where I may need brainless distraction the most.

Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution

VFD

It’s been a few years since I read Fahrenheit 451, the classic novel by Ray Bradbury.  Like so many dystopias, it’s seen a resurgence of interest since 45 was elected.  (I can’t help but notice the shared digits.)  Bradbury was a writer of his time.  So much, I suppose, could be said of all of us who write—how can we be anything else?  Still, it’s difficult not to see that his fear was of television decimating reading.  And intelligence.  We’ve got the internet now, so the effect has been magnified a bit.  The tale, despited being dated, is poignant.  The more electronic we become the more of what used to be termed “real life” we miss.  At this reading it was clear that The Book of Eli was largely based on the last pages.

When Montag confesses to his wife that he’s been secreting books away, and she finds him insane for doing so, he takes the book in his hand to a former acquaintance, Faber.  It turns out that the book is the Bible, perhaps the last in existence (see what I mean?).  On the subway ride he tries to memorize the Good Book.  Now, I’ve been on the New York City subway, and I know the delays can be long, but there’s an error of scale here.  The Bible’s a big book.  Still, he gets pieces of it down.  Now, in the 1950s, when Fahrenheit 451 was published, the Bible was known for its liberating qualities rather than its darker side.  Also the atomic end of World War II was clearly still a painful living memory.  The two may not be unrelated.

Given the age of the story, I won’t worry about spoilers.  In case, however, it’s on your list proceed with caution.  The war that’s been building the entire story takes place the night of Montag’s escape.  Along with the intellectuals forced out of the cities, he becomes part of a human library.  Each person is, through a memory recovery technique, capable of recalling the books they’ve read.  Montag becomes, appropriately enough, Ecclesiastes.  Perhaps the least evangelical book in the Bible, along with Job (with which most evangelicals find themselves cheering on Job’s friends), Qohelet has long been one of my favorites.  It’s an honest book.  The same can be said for Bradbury’s novel.  Primarily a short story writer, Bradbury didn’t sustain the narrative to novel length very often.  But when he did he fashioned a book that, particularly now, needs to be read.

Bookkeeping

I can’t express just how happy I was when I first read the word “bookkeeping,” and it wasn’t because it had three repeated letters in a row.  I was strangely joyful at learning there was such a profession.  That joy quickly plummeted when I found out what bookkeeping actually is.  This memory came back to me this tax season.  I realize the word “book” has a storied history and multiple meanings.  I’m one of those people who likes to read books about books.  In “keeping” books, of course, we mean ledgers that show assets, profits and losses, accounting.  These are among the most boring things on the planet for some of us.  My imagination dances around all over the place, but it seldom sways to the realm of business.  As a young person faced with what bookkeeping is, I was crestfallen.

The idea that you could keep books—not necessarily as a librarian or bookseller—and have that as your job, seemed like an almost Platonic utopia.  A world where it was recognized that reading books is a virtue.  Even being around them can make me happy.  I still live in the world suggested by that form of the word bookkeeping.  When I’m sad a trip to a bookstore can usually bring me out of it.  Although I have difficulty finding publishers interested in my own books, writing them is a form of therapy.  Even this little blog is a way of participating in the keeping of books.  At least in an ideal world.  Tax season looms when many of us will find out how much we owe to a government we no longer trust.  If only more people would read.

Books began, in their earliest forms, as receipts.  Marks on clay to prove what you owned.  Shortly, however, those mud tablets began to house myths and stories.  That’s when the mud became clay.  Stories are what conscious minds crave.  Even the word “Bible” means “book” (via the circuitous route of naming books after the papyrus reed, which along the northeastern Mediterranean coast was called “Byblos”).  These stories, books, came to represent what we hold sacred.  Writing is a divine act.  Many centuries later books became commodities that could be sold.  Ah, and when money enters the equation, bookkeeping soon follows.  Perhaps in some distant future utopia we’ll come to a place where words like bookkeeping mean something more than just numbers.  Maybe someday bookkeeping will be recognized as far more valuable than mere money.

Patina

When reading three books by the same author, most of the time, it seems, it’s good to spread them out.  For the past few years my wife and I would visit an independent bookstore in January to pick up a few books for the year’s looming reading challenges.  We slipped behind this year and I happen to have three unread Marilyn Ross books at home.  Barnabas, Quentin and the Haunted Cave was the second of them.  Since, unbelievably, I didn’t have books to fit into the other categories, I read my second Dark Shadows book of the season shortly after the first.  It is a revealing experience to come back to a childhood influence as an adult.  I’m pretty sure I hadn’t read this one as a child, and as much as I like Barnabas Collins, this particular story was somewhat tedious.  And that’s saying something, considering how formulaic the series is.

One of the reasons I found it slow going—especially for a book of less than 200 pages—was that Ross relied too much on dreams to move the plot along.  I read quite a bit of fiction and I always find writing about dreams tricky.  Even within the diegesis of the story you don’t know whether to believe what’s going on in dreams or not.  Just as in real life, dreams are a break from the tedium of consciousness and they permit the mind to wander.  The dreamer can go anywhere, do anything.  Generally without consequence.  You awake back in the more continuous narrative of your life and the dream is forgotten.  In fiction, which is largely made up, dreams often act as filler.  Given the number of times Ross repeated himself in this particular book, it seems that he had to pad the story out quite a bit.  It would’ve worked just fine without the dreams.  Might’ve fallen short of contracted length, though.

It also continues the conceit of Quentin as a Satanist.  I have to confess that the original series was so long ago I don’t remember much about it.  The theremin music of the opening, with the waves crashing against the cliffs of Maine, yes.  Barnabas, tortured but not evil vampire, yes.  Much beyond  that, no.  I’ve had friends discover Dark Shadows as adults.  I watched it on commercial television during its first run and I haven’t seen it since.  I certainly don’t have time for soap operas in days crowded with other demands.  Still, these little books can take me back to a dusty corner of childhood that has a pleasant patina over it.  But it is best to keep such experiences separated a bit in time.

Religion, He Wrote

A friend recently sent me the New York Times obituary for Carol Serling, the wife of one of my heroes, Rod Serling.  Perhaps it’s a personal weakness, but I often wonder about the religion of my favorite writers.  More often than not I discover that they’re affiliated with tolerant faiths, sometimes unattached to any specific tradition.  Rod Serling grew up Jewish but became a Unitarian-Universalist by marriage, and—it doesn’t stretch the imagination—remained one by conviction.  I’ve read a bit about the UU tradition, and it is based primarily on values rather than beliefs.  In fact, the idea that religion is a matter of what you believe is only one way of defining it.  Historically one’s religion was a matter of what one did, not necessarily what she or he believed.

Authors that I read often deal with religious issues.  It’s important to confess that I don’t select fiction based on its having religious themes.  Anyone who’s read more than one or two of my posts will know my reading is eclectic and many of the books represented here have shown up because of wildly different circumstances.  Reading challenges, friends’ recommendations, and preparations for educational presentations are often driving forces.  In the fictional realm I’m drawn to the speculative, but also often to the catch-all category called “literary.”  Stories that feel authentic in either category have an element of religion in them.  Life portrayed without it doesn’t seem believable.  I’ve been re-reading some Ray Bradbury.  There’s often suggestive material there.

Raised a Baptist, Bradbury is often also claimed as a Unitarian-Universalist.  Apparently he didn’t like the label, but his behavior was more a selection of tenets that he found compelling from various religions.  All of this may sound strange in a context where “religion” is increasingly a dirty word.  (To be honest, it has been doing much to earn such a reputation.)  Still, it is a very deep part of being human.  Rod Serling’s stories advocated fair treatment of all people and often his sense of justice landed him in trouble with advertisers for The Twilight Zone.  Religions comfortable with maintaining prejudice, or turning a blind eye to lawbreaking in the name of false virtue would certainly not understand refusing to take money from questionable sources.  I suppose there’s a reason I enjoy the stories from the days when America still had a conscience.  The legacies of such writers, it is to be hoped, will outlast what passes for religion these days. 

Any other gods before me…