Category Archives: Literature

The Maelstrom

Some monsters can’t be destroyed. Today is Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday. Poe had his demons, for sure, but the twentieth century took personal fear and made it universal. Atomic bombs and mutually assured destruction were concepts any of us born since World War II have lived under our whole lives. Kids in the 1950s were drilled in schools about what to do in case of nuclear attack. We didn’t have such drills in the ’60s, but the Fallout Shelter sign was still quite familiar and frightening in its frankness. There are people out there that want you dead, and we tend to elect them to positions of power. Duck and cover. It’s all in vain.

Then came peace. Ever so briefly. When I started seeing newspaper articles about what to do in the event of a nuclear attack—not in my childhood, but just this week—I shuddered. We’ve apparently made no progress at all. When we’re all decaying corpses glowing eerily in the night there’ll be no point in figuring out who’s to blame. A species as endlessly inventive as our own spends its time and resources on distrusting, hating the other. “They” might get what’s ours. The acquisitive mind trembles. You see, there’s no end to the things you can own. As long as anyone else owns anything you can always hope to get it for yourself. Say you read the Bible and evangelicals will forgive you daily for breaking the tenth commandment. Just don’t let those foreigners have it.

Poe imagined nightmare worlds. Most of his stories, however, were on the individual level. Our monsters, on the other hand, are international in scale. Radioactive fallout with its slow decay and devastating effects on frail flesh may be the stuff of good horror, but they make for decidedly poor governance. Perhaps it’s no wonder that this comes up under a president who ran on a platform of hatred. Last weekend the people of Hawaii lived through fearful moments that were all too believable with the incompetent pretender of Pennsylvania Avenue. A man who can’t keep his tweet shut and who gets away with offenses that would easily impeach a democrat. I grew up watching Godzilla, the famed radioactive dinosaur, rising from the oceans to remind us of the consequences of atomic sins. For the too brief era of Clinton we felt that the world might be safe at last from such monsters. Problem is, some monsters just can’t be destroyed.

Playing Piano

It must be very difficult to write books that make the future believable. With the speed of technological change, it’s getting more difficult all the time. Some exceptions are modern dystopias that take civilization back to square one. We’ve come close enough in reality already to be able to imagine such things. While not really a dystopia—although it kinda is—Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Player Piano extrapolates what a future in the service of machines might look like. Some elements are incredibly 1950s—everyone still smokes, all communication is on paper, computers run by punchcards, and attitudes are hopelessly parochial—while others are on point for today. The world has been mechanized and an even more obvious class system than our current one has been established. Of course, those top few reap all the rewards and wonder why those below them are dissatisfied.

What’s really noteworthy, though, is that Vonnegut uses religion to address the situation. In this, his first novel, he has a minister leading the revolution against the system. This clergyman does so by finding and nominating a “messiah”—a figure around whom the dissatisfied might coalesce. In a world many characters characterize as evil, the solution is offered by religion. Well, not exactly. Vonnegut’s famous satire is beginning to appear even here and the revolution that religion fuels can’t overcome the human love of machines and gadgets. In many respects, this book is an extended parable. I can’t help but think that Vonnegut would’ve recognized our love of devices as a symptom of his humanity being declared useless by machines.

Kurt Vonnegut isn’t a religious writer, but like many authors he recognizes the motivating power of belief. There are agnostics aplenty in Player Piano, Indeed, the protagonist is never sure of what he believes. The larger questions, however, still persist: do we advance human potential by making things easier? All of us now have to be varying degrees of experts on computers to find even the most rudimentary jobs. There is really no opt-out anymore, and what’s more, few would take it if there were. The phone in my pocket has changed my life in ways I can’t call entirely good. As we get closer and closer to our media, we’ll want more intimate contact—implants are already starting to exist. Vonnegut, in his sardonic way, was asking even in the early 1950s if we had really improved our lot via such invention. In the end, of course, it doesn’t really matter because for better or worse, our tech is here to stay.

The Big Shill

Once in a while I have to shill. As an erstwhile academic I’m aware of the cachet my employer bears for colleagues and the elite among the general public. Still, I find articles on the Oxford Dictionaries blog irresistible. I don’t work for the Dictionaries division, but I sometimes wish I did. A recent post by guest blogger Rebecca Teich discusses pulp fiction neologisms that have made their way into mainstream vocabulary. It’s not so much the individual words that interest me as much as does the phenomenon itself. Pulp fiction is antithetical to the sophisticated literature of the cultured class. Yes, there is status snobbery involved in such an assessment—we know those who find anything “common” to be vulgar and indicative of a lack of good breeding. The fact, however, that pulp fiction words make it to the mainstream belies the singular direction of cultural influence.

Many of us who grow up in working class families aspire to better things. We see (or used to see) on television and in movies how other people live. They have things and experiences that we covet. We work hard for many years to try to get there, often being kicked back down the stairs along the way. And yet we find some of our cheap, common vocabulary creeping into the consciousness of those who can afford better. There’s even a phrase for it. Guilty pleasures are those enjoyable books or other media that are really “beneath us,” but which we secretly enjoy. I post once in a while about Dark Shadows novels which are, quite literally, among the pulp fiction I grew up reading. They reached cultural cachet with a decidedly disappointing Tim Burton movie based on that universe, but regardless, they reached mainstream respectability.

Respectability. I suspect that’s what it’s all about. We want to be shown that our dirty collars and rolled-up sleeves mean something in this world of billionaire playboy presidents and congress that aspires only to greater wealth for itself. My first job, which I started when I was 14, involved physical labor. Brooms, paint rollers, and sledge hammers. I spent my evenings watching television and some of my weekends writing fiction. Pulp through and threw. Part of me finds its bliss in knowing that other rough-hewn writers have stamped their hallmark on the literary world by pounding out gritty stories of authentic human experience. Yes, I may be a corporate shill in this respect, but then, the shill is a respected member of the pulp fiction community.

2017 in Books

At the end of each year I think back over the books I’ve read in the past twelve months. Since I don’t blog about every single book, I use Goodreads to keep track of my numbers. I pushed my reading challenge at that site to 105 books for last year, and the meter stopped at 111. In 2018 I’m planning on reading some bigger books, so I’ll scale the numbers back a bit, I think. In any case, what were the most memorable books of 2017? It’s perhaps best to divide these up into categories since the number of books has become unwieldy. I’ve written a book about horror movies, and much of this year’s reading has been in support of that. Since my book addresses, among other things, possession movies, I’ve read several tomes on the topic. Noteworthy among them have been the three books by Felicitas D. Goodman that I read over the year. J. H. Chajes’ Between Worlds was exceptional, and Jeffrey Burton Russell’s The Devil, was likely the overall best on the topic. Also noteworthy for purposes of my book research were Catherine Spooner’s Post-Millennial Gothic and Monstrous Progeny by Lester Friedman and Allison Kavey.

For books on religion, Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy was an important start. Amy Johnson Frykholm’s Rapture Culture and James William Jones’ Can Science Explain Religion? addressed aspects of the topic that will continue to bear further exploration. God’s Strange Work by David L. Rowe and American Apocalypse by Matthew Avery Sutton stand out in my mind as a memorable treatments of William Miller, and of understanding American religion respectively. Chris Hedges’ American Fascists is remarkably urgent and should be read widely, especially since he has shown where current political posturing will lead if it’s not stopped cold. We will be struggling against a situation like Nazi Germany for many decades to come, and forewarned is forearmed.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, however. Much of the fiction I read was excellent. Bill Broun’s Night of the Animals, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s Butterflies in November, Robert Repino’s D’Arc, Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, Christobel Kent’s The Crooked House, and Leah Bobet’s An Inheritance of Ashes all stayed with me long after I read them. And of course, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Some non-fiction read just as engagingly. The autobiographies by Carly Simon and Bruce Springsteen were deeply engrossing. The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleneben and John Moe’s Dear Luke, We Need to Talk were great guilty pleasure reads along with Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing, W. Scott Poole’s At the Mountains of Madness, and Mathias Clasen’s Why Horror Seduces. The latter title brings us full circle. I suspect that’s appropriate for rounding out a year. Many of the other books were also quite good; I tend to rate books favorably. Read the revolution—make 2018 a memorable year with books!

Let the Memory

One of the rare and long-anticipated treats of being near New York City is the prospect of a live show. For practical reasons we don’t go to shows very often—years separate the occurrences—but once in a great while we manage to afford such a boon. Yesterday we attended the penultimate performance of the Cats revival on Broadway. The experience was transcendent. I’ve seen the movie version a number of times, and over the years I’ve caught a few live performances here and there. For whatever reason, this musical speaks to me. Although it doesn’t really have much of a plot—it’s more a series of vignettes—it is about redemption and being comfortable in one’s own skin. T. S. Eliot was a poet who knew spirituality intimately. Andrew Lloyd Webber, no one needs me to say, writes stirring music.

Cats, unlike many shows I’ve seen, requires athleticism as well as vocal ability. The performers are in nearly constant motion as they play out their roles, often with acrobatic flourishes. Most of the parts are for the young, while those dwelling on the experience of older characters—Gus, Grizabella, and Old Deuteronomy—tend to be recollections of youth as a commodity that slips away leaving as residue the wisdom that comes with age. It’s quite biblical in that respect. Even the old can appreciate back flips and double cartwheels and the grace of ballet. For this particular production the lighting stood out as an integral part of the story. Illumination, I might add, is a powerful metaphor.

In our family discussions afterwards, comparison with other versions dominated. Although my wife and I saw a community theater production long ago (placing us, I reluctantly suppose, in the ranks of the older characters), our main introduction was through the filmed adaptation. Again, like the Bible, we tend to think of canonical versions. This is how it should go. Because of both its running time and its demands on the players, not all vignettes are included in each production. The character who narrates the story may change. Choreography is adjusted. Each show, as is the case with live theater, is a little different. Standing in the snow on a cold, New York City December afternoon awaiting the opening of the doors, we wondered what would be changed. The original Broadway run had ended while we lived in the Midwest, so this was both our first exposure but also our fourth rendition over the decades. None, it turns out, could be called canonical. That, however, took nothing away from the inspiration of the event unfolding before our very eyes.

Reading Preferences

How do you decide on a favorite author? The question has been looming in my head as I’ve been reading through old novels on my shelves. It’s a question that strikes me whenever I walk into a bookstore. You see, my parents weren’t readers. As a child my literature was selected from the book table at the local Goodwill. I had no literary advice of ancestral pedigree. Teachers had assigned some books I’d liked, but nothing that really grabbed me. How was I to go about finding a favorite author? My favorite novel, hands down, was discovered in seminary. Moby-Dick is, to my way of thinking, the perfect novel. But I’ve never read anything else Melville wrote. I’d discovered Edgar Allan Poe as a child, but he was no novelist. Who suggested these books on my shelf?

Among those responsible was a young woman I knew when I was in college. She was in high school, but she’d grown up in an educated family and she was passionate about her authors. Thomas Hardy and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Were among her favorites. I was startled to realize that among the books I found myself reading as 2017 draws to a close were both Hardy and Vonnegut. A blast from the past. Then, of course, my wife has suggested many books to me. We still read together—a practice we started as newlyweds (today commemorates the start of that status, by the way, which occurred 29 years ago today). There’s an intimacy involved in sharing books.

For the past few years I’ve been participating in Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge. Since it involves only a dozen books it’s seldom a problem to finish it. We go to our local independent bookstore and seek advice. I encounter writers unfamiliar to me. I still struggle, however, with that favorite author question. As I lay down each book I say to myself—was that the best I’ve ever read? Maybe the point is that there is no favorite author. If I were to sit down and try to list everything I’d ever learned from the fiction I’d read, I’d never stand again. The list would be endless. The lingering longing after closing a book, feeling as if I’d just had an intimate evening with the author, requires a certain literary promiscuousness. I enjoy many authors in many different ways. More often than not, they have changed my life. I look forward to the reading challenge of 2018. No matter the disappointments of politics and human folly, I’ll have good books to read as the world wobbles onward with no particular goal in mind.

Honest Doubt

Kurt Vonnegut was never required reading in my high school English classes. I read Slaughterhouse-Five when I was in seminary, and picked up a few of his other titles in the dearly departed Boston Book Annex. A couple of these used books have been waiting patiently over the decades, and so I selected Cat’s Cradle to be perhaps the last book I finish this year. As far as I can recollect, the Vonnegut books I purchased while in seminary had no particular order or reason. A friend had recommended The Sirens of Titan, but Cat’s Cradle was what would now be called an “impulse buy.” Reading it, I rediscovered why I like Vonnegut so much. I also found out the book revolves around religion.

Regular readers know that I tend to find religious themes in secular books. It’s partially human radar and partially an unfortunate occupational hazard. Occasionally I’m pretty certain the author had no intention of including or developing the themes I discover. Cat’s Cradle, however, places religion front and center. The story involves a journalist on the trail of one of the developers of the atomic bomb. He unintentionally coverts to Bokononism, a religion made up by a castaway on the island of San Lorenzo. The religion, based on the teachings of a still-living sage, revolves around the idea that all its sacred writings are lies. Think about that a moment.

Lies, in which we’ve all had a crash course since January, are among the most insidious of human accomplishments. We value and crave the truth. We all believe that we believe it, but there are differing opinions as to what it is. Some opinions are backed with evidence, and others with flimsy fabrications. To declare a religion based on lies is, of course, to undermine the whole enterprise. Vonnegut was a noted iconoclast, but there’s a brilliance in declaring a religion to be knowingly based on falsehood. In fact, we’re seeing it happen before our very eyes. The religion formerly known as Christianity, once upon a time, took into account the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, as recorded in the gospels. Modern Christianity—Evangelicalism—has completely thrown Jesus out of the equation in all but name. Branding, after all, is everything. This modern faux religion suggests hating your fellow creature, taking advantage of the poor, and believing falsehoods to be the most sincere of truths. It’s alive and released on the earth even now. And it is far more scary than even ice-nine.