Book and Bell

The Bell Witch: An American Haunting, by Brent Monahan, is a book I’ve read before.  The subtitle was used for a cinematic version.  I discovered the book, however, through what might be considered a chance encounter with the author.  He was teaching a course on offering distance education courses at Rutgers University, and, as an adjunct teaching over eight classes per year, I’d been selected for the distance education program.  (As life goes, of course, I was hired by Routledge for a full-time job before I could actually deliver the course.)  By a strange irony, I had watched An American Haunting just the weekend before the course, and I had no idea who would be teaching it.  Neurotically punctual, I was the first one there for the class, and as Dr. Monahan and I talked, I knew I’d need to read the book.  I posted on it back when I did, but this time I decided to pay better attention than one can on a bus.

Of course, when you watch the movie first, which I had, you know “the reveal” well before it comes late in the novel.  In case you’ve done neither, I won’t give it away.  The tale is based on an historical haunting, attested in sources from near the period.  And it is a strange kind of possession story.  The “witch” is actually a demon conjured by a trauma, and although book wraps things up nicely, it leaves a few questions at the end.  I suppose that’s appropriate for a scary book.  One of my current projects involves tracing the accounts behind fictionalized narratives to their originals.  The Bell Witch was well researched, and is a good example of how the line between fiction and fact can be effectively blurred.

The Bell Witch legend is credited with influencing several horror films, including The Blair Witch Project and others which tellingly have “Bell Witch” in their titles.  The story has a fairly incredible longevity, given that it was a localized legend from early in the nineteenth century.  Monahan’s novel is written as a “confession” from the schoolmaster, and historical personage Richard R. P. Powell.  This blurring of the lines makes for the kind of ambiguity that gives horror its particular ability to stand between fact and fiction.  The early versions of the lore, combined with elements intended to offer verisimilitude, leave plenty of queries at the end.  So much so that I’ve occasionally contacted the author for clarification.  What really happened?  It depends which side of the line you prefer.

Not so Hollow

It is difficult to say how an idea might grab you.  I really have no idea why Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” took my childhood imagination prisoner and has kept it stoutly locked up over all these years.  Perhaps it was the Disney version seen as a child that left me with shivers of wonder akin to a species of joy.  The autumnal setting, the implied ghost, the ambiguity of the final scene.  I used to be as avid a philatelist as one can be in a small town, and the Sleepy Hollow stamp of 1974 held me transfixed long before I ever encountered Tim Burton’s vision of the legend.  After having watched the silent Headless Horseman a couple of times, I went back to The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent., and read the original again.  This time I followed it up with the appendix in my edition, written a decade or two after the story by an older Irving.

The 1922 movie runs fairly close to the literary original (for the most part), especially when you add the appendix.  The appendix (in the edition I have—The Modern Library, 2001) is an essay titled “Sleepy Hollow.”  It reflects on Irving’s recollections of what Sleepy Hollow was like in his youth (he returned to the area to settle later in life).  The village church, which features in “The Legend,” provides a source of much of his reverie and this is incorporated into the early cinematic version as well, in the Sunday morning scene.  I also noticed how frequently psalmody enters the original story.  The tale does not mention the Bible, but psalmody was an early form of church music, and “The Legend” has Ichabod use it when he’s afraid as well as for teaching students to sing, for a few shiny shillings.

Washington Irving is sometimes credited with the invention of the short story as a literary form.    His younger contemporary Edgar Allan Poe worked in that format, and the two of them contended with making a living (the former more successfully) purely as literary writers.  Irving’s spooky tales, however, often have something of the comic about them.  His story-telling style uses folksy, folkloric exaggeration and humor to prevent it from becoming too dark.  Poe would snuff the candle and let the fear be unhindered.  I knew of Sleepy Hollow before I discovered Poe, and this recent resurgence is perhaps a way of exploring my own literary roots.  It’s nearly half-way through September already, and Tarrytown beckons. 

Write Brothers

Work interferes with my concentration.  I suspect I’m not alone among writers in this regard.  Just last week I had two fiction pieces accepted for publication (one of which won honorable mention), but the little time I can allot to writing is divided between fiction and non.  Up until now the non has been more successful at finding publishers, but last week might’ve tipped the balance a bit.  As someone who works well more than eight hours daily, culling that time for creative enterprises can be difficult.  I’m told that Isaac Asimov, in the days before personal computers, kept three typewriters, each with one of his projects ready to go.  He would work on the one he felt like at any given time without having to reload a single typewriter with a half-finished piece.  My laptop has the dubious advantage of keeping multiple windows open in which several projects are simultaneously active.

At the moment I have three book projects going; two nonfiction and one that will become novel number seven, if it ever gets finished.  Not only that, but my short stories file has many contenders for my rationed time.  Long ago I lost track of just how many tales there are—some are on disc and others are on paper.  Some are finished, awaiting revision, and others have just begun clawing their way into written form.  The problem is finding the time to work on them.  The oft-heard lament of the working writer is that life is more working than writing.  And having had some minor affirmation of my fictional functionality recently, I’d love to explore that a bit more, but who has time right now?  Even as I finish typing up my blog post for the day the hour to begin work is looming.

Stephen King’s advice to wannabe writers is to read.  A lot.  Although I do my best to keep this dictate among my personal commandments, I run into the immobile object of nine-to-five-plus repeatedly.  If I take a vacation (which is seldom) it is often “to get away,” but writing is more a matter of aging in place.  Finding your comfortable spot where your thoughts flow freely and where the coffee pot’s just in the kitchen and if an idea catches you before sunrise you can spend time wrestling it even after light filters in through the curtains.  Those are rare days since weekends are for doing the chores neglected in your forty-five-plus hour work week.  And settling between fiction and non is never an easy decision, especially when one has just received a vote of confidence before login time on a Monday morning.  For now, however, I have to concentrate on work.

Horseman Horror

Yesterday was distinctly autumnal around here.  Cloudy and cool, the overcast was definitely moody although the equinox is still a couple weeks away.  Still, the mood was right for the Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  The earliest full cinematic adaptation of Washington Irving’s story is the 1922 silent feature The Headless Horseman, starring none other than Will Rogers.  Now, Irving’s story is fairly brief, and to get nearly a full seventy-five minutes out of it, the tale lends itself to some padding.  The film makes a great deal of Ichabod Crane knowing Cotton Mather’s A History of Witch-Craft, and even being accused of being in league with the Devil that leads to a  disturbing scene where he’s nearly tarred and feathered.  In reality Mather’s book was Wonders of the Invisible World, but the point of the film is better made with the fictional title.

Having watched Tim Burton’s 1999 version—Sleepy Hollow—many times, I was taken by the introduction of the Bible into the story.  The groundwork, however, was laid by Edward D. Venturini’s version.  True to the story, Ichabod teaches Psalmody in his role as schoolmaster.  Venturini’s film has a contrived scene in the church on Sunday that includes a lengthy sermon with everyone—even the usher—falling asleep.  The episode, which is lacking in Irving’s original rendition, introduces the Bible into the narrative.  The connection is thin, but nevertheless present.  Burton picked up on the religious element and built it firmly into the plot as Ichabod Crane’s backstory as a skeptic, raised by “a Bible-black tyrant.”

As someone interested in the integration of religion and horror, early examples, despite the comic aspect of Venturini’s version, are often instructive.  The comedic spirit is actually in the original; Irving’s tale gives a caricature description of Crane that gives the lie to the handsome protagonists beginning with Jeff Goldblum on through Johnny Depp and Tim Mison.  Will Rogers plays the homely image to its hilt, and although lighthearted, the movie has some classic horror elements.  To arouse his dozing parishioners, the minister yells “Fire!” When they awake asking where, he states “In Hell,” which sleeping churchgoers can expect.  Although the eponymous headless horseman is shown to be Brom Bones, a remarkably effective early scene presents a skeletal, ghostly rider that haunts at least the imagination.  The sun is out this morning, and the brooding skies of yesterday have passed.  They will be back, however, as the season for ghost tales is only just beginning.

Significant Places

Upstate New York may not get the attention that the state’s largest city does, but it is a place of wonder.  One of those sources of significance is the unique blend of individuals who’ve impacted both American culture, and, in turn, my life, that called this region home.  It’s difficult to describe what I’m feeling as I’m standing next to Rod Serling’s grave.  This is a man who held a profound influence over my outlook by letting his imagination go where it would.  It’s more than the Twilight Zone—although its theme is one of the ringtones on my phone—it’s the sense that I somehow knew this man I never met.  It’s also the sense that his gravesite is so humble, in a rural area outside a small town, the kind that often featured in the stories he wrote and presented.  It’s the sense of connection.

As I young person I practiced writing short stories based on the mood set by the Twilight Zone, with a dash of Ray Bradbury thrown in.  From a small town myself, imagination was my means of enlarging my world.  We didn’t have the money to go many places but the magic box in our living room could take me to weird places alive with transcendence.  The results were beyond price and there was something deep and liberating here, even for a kid whose religion said it was all nonsense.  Even religion requires escaping sometimes.  I know the publishing world has moved beyond what was fashionable in the sixties and seventies, but that can’t dislodge the shard in my chest right now.  If there are spirits in cemeteries, they are here.

Some time ago I began, as I had time, uploading my photos of famous writers’ graves (along with those of other recognized names) on Pinterest.  On the way to Interlaken, I wondered aloud why nobody seemed to show an interest.  I find cemeteries peaceful places, and sacred spaces are those where people significant to us have been, in some form, at some time.  I know Rod Serling loved upstate New York.  It was his escape from the busy life of a writer whose cachet was marketable back in the days when anything seemed possible.  Retreats are those places we go to restore ourselves when work simply won’t allow creative people to have unstructured time.  I wasn’t expecting a huge mausoleum or towering monument here.  Others have found their way to this place nevertheless.  I am in a sacred place and the quiet here is kind of a prayer.

Better Places

I have to confess that I’d never heard of Ottessa Moshfegh before.  Shame on me, I know.  As a wannabe writer, I feel compelled to know other writers’ names.  Hang in literary circles.  Etc.  The good news is, however, that I found Homesick for Another World in an indie bookstore.  I’d gone in for something else that they didn’t have, but I don’t like walking out with nothing, especially when it’s a small store.  Besides, I trust the taste of most independent store owners. 

I can’t remember the last time I read a book of short stories all the way through.  As with most writers some work appeals to you more than others.  In my mind the first and last stories stick the firmest.  The latter, “A Better Place,” is haunting, almost Shirley Jacksonesque.  Others make you uncomfortable in your own skin.  This is a rare talent.

Finding a writer who, using simple words and expressions, takes you to another place is a rare gift.  The short story (the only kind of fiction I’ve actually published) is a versatile and engaging form of literature.  Books collecting them are often good for picking up when you have a little time and putting down for a while again.  I felt compelled to go through this whole work, being drawn into the weird and somehow familiar worlds of characters who seem to have no purpose, no goals.  It’s almost as refreshing as Kafka or Camus.  To be a writer who requires only one name to evoke a genre must be glorious.  These stories are strange without recourse to the supernatural, and they defy easy genre assignment.  (This makes publishers crazy.)

There’s an earnestness and a longing in this collection.  A kind of nihilistic spiritualism.  A wanting with no particular object in mind.  I read a lot of fiction, some of it very good.  The kind that leaves you a little stunned and questioning what reality is.  This is that kind of book.  Had I not gone into that indie shop that Saturday morning I never would have found it.  I certainly didn’t know to look for Ottessa Moshfegh.  Here again I’m reminded of the value of the bookstore experience.  The ability to browse without clicking or scrolling feels like a luxury to me now.  I may have to pay more than Amazon’s competitive pricing, but then this is like a finder’s fee for being in the real world.  Even if the book makes you question that reality when you’re done.

Fun and Fear

It’s curious the way people find books.  I sometimes see them advertised (the way publishers suppose people see them), but far more often I find them more serendipitously.  I’m active on Goodreads, and many times a book someone else has reviewed will catch my eye.  I like to read things that I notice in independent bookstores.  I’m always on the hunt for a bargain.  At work we have a used book rack where any volume is half-a-buck.  During lunch one day I spied Victor Gischler’s Vampire a Go-Go.  Now the title told me this wasn’t exactly a serious novel, but it had vampire in the title and when I write horror it often ends up on the funny side.  All in all it seemed like it would be worth the tiny investment, even if I don’t have a clear idea of what go-go really means.

While not laugh-out-loud funny, this is an enjoyable romp through monster land.  Kind of like Harry Potter with some adult themes thrown in.  The characters—which include ghosts, witches, wizards, a werewolf (sorry lycanthrope), a golem, and a vampire—are likable and strangely believable.  An unexpected twist came with the Battle Jesuits, a nice touch that shows yet again how close religion and horror can be.  I won’t try to summarize the action here, but I’ll simply note that there are twists and turns aplenty and smiles and splatter along the way.  It’s clear that Gischler researched the novel well, bringing interesting texture to the tale.

Like the last novel I read, also acquired in an inexpensive browsing situation, much of the story is set in Prague.  My wife and I visited Prague back when it was still in Czechoslovakia, and before it had become a tourist haven.  From reading these recent novels, apparently quite a lot has changed there.  Of course, in those days I hadn’t tapped into my love of monsters for many years.  Working on a doctorate has a way of doing that to you.  Now that I’m back, I’m enjoying the variety available in the genre these days.  I still have a soft spot for Stephen King novels, and Poe will always remain among my sacred texts, but I’m inclined to read these newer treatments as well.  There’s nothing really to scare you in Vampire a Go-Go, but there are remarkably moving moments.  And some of the monsters are quite a lot of fun.  It would restore my faith in the power of the accidental find, if it ever required resurrection.