Detective Daniel

In a recent article, which will hopefully be published, I explore the origins of the horror tradition in the Bible.  That should come as no surprise since the Good Book is really the beginning of the western literary canon.  Yes, there are earlier works—the Epic of Gilgamesh may be considered part of that canon as well, for the canon has no official curator—but because of Scripture’s status literature in the western world takes off from there.  In any case, the other day I was considering the additions to the book of Daniel in the Apocrypha.  The Apocrypha is, of course, part of the Catholic biblical canon, but not the Protestant.  The additions to Daniel roughly fall into three stories, or two stories and a poem.  The two stories—Bel and the Dragon, and Susanna—involve Daniel as an early kind of detective.

Traditionally the inventor of the detective story is Edgar Allan Poe, and certainly in the modern literary canon that may be so.  One wonders, however, if Poe might have drawn his inspiration from these apocryphal stories.  Susanna goes like this: two nasty elders fall in lust with Susanna, the beautiful wife of a local prominent judge.  They stalk her, learning her habits, and when they know she’ll be alone they confront her demanding sex.  If she won’t, they’ll claim they caught her with another man and since the law requires two witnesses, well, she was screwed.  Since she won’t comply they accuse her and she is condemned until a young Daniel in turn condemns the court for not questioning the men separately.  When Daniel does so the details of their story don’t match and Susanna is vindicated.  Part courtroom drama and part ratiocination, this is an early detective tale.

Bel and the Dragon involves a couple stories together, but the story of Bel is the one involving detective work.  The priests of the god Bel take food into their temple every night to offer as a sacrifice.  Since it’s gone in the morning, they offer this as proof that Bel is real.  Daniel, however, knows Bel is just a statue and so he sprinkles a fine layer of ash on the floor around the food one night.  The next day as Bel’s followers announce the food is gone and the temple was sealed for the duration, Daniel takes them back and shows the footprints in the ash—the priests have been entering from a secret access and eating the offering.  There may not be a direct line from these stories to Poe, but they nevertheless reinforce the idea that the western canon begins with Holy Writ.  If we explore this with our own ratiocination we’ll discover, I believe, much more.

Good Monster

The little free library is a great idea.  Just after our move last year we contributed to our local many times as we discovered duplicates in the process of packing.  On one such venture, I discovered a book I wanted to read.  Not that I’d heard of it before, but any book with “golem” in the title catches my eye.  For the first (and so far only) time, I took a book.  Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman’s The Golem of Hollywood proved a fairly quick read for being over 600 pages.  I believe the industry term is “potboiler,” but it’s also a page-turner.  Nevertheless, it made me think.  The story follows a hard-bitten Jewish detective in Los Angeles.  Struggling with personal issues, he gets assigned to a bizarre homicide case that eventually takes him to Prague and Oxford, and then back to LA to clinch it.  And the killer is a golem.  (That’s not a spoiler, since it’s right there in the title.)

Parallel to the modern-day crime drama is the retelling of the biblical tale of the first days of humanity outside the Garden of Eden.  One of Adam and Eve’s daughters is headstrong and beautiful and when the tragedy between her brothers plays out she eventually takes her revenge on Cain.  Although not explicit about it, for violating the mark of Cain she witnesses the horrors that people will visit upon one another and her redemption is to become the soul that animates the golem of Prague.  Not your garden variety golem, she can transform into different shapes, and she stays loyal to the family of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the legendary first creator of the golem of Prague.

One of the frequent topics raised on this blog is how the Bible appears in everyday life, often unnoticed.  This novel is an example of that.  A further point, which is what stands behind my book Holy Horror, is that the Good Book is understood as mediated by popular culture.  Even those few biblical scholars who make it into the limelight can’t compete with the myriad representations of Scripture in the entertainment media.  Like The Golem of Hollywood, Holy Horror sees the Bible in the context of monsters.  Horror is an outsider genre.  Despite the many intelligent, thought-provoking exemplars extant, the default among the more refined is to see horror as something base and low.  It can also be a lot of fun.  Perhaps not great literature, The Golem of Hollywood is entertaining even as it underscores the continuing influence of the Good Book. 

Victorian Nightmares

J. Sheridan Le Fanu isn’t exactly a household name, but as a writer from the same era (and perhaps same cloth) as Poe, he was known for his gothic imagination.  Since he was Irish his work never really took off in America as some other writers’ did, and he’s certainly not likely to be found on bookstore shelves because there’s not great demand.  I have a fondness for gothic literature and Le Fanu’s name had been on my list for some time.  At a used bookstore I found one of his books, and as I was checking out the clerk said “I was just checking in another of his books,” so I bought that one too.  (When you’re paying just two dollars a pop for books, it feels like virtue.)  The latter turned out to be In a Glass Darkly, which apart from its biblical title, contains five stories loosely linked by a narrative framework.  Poe wrote that short stories should be read in one sitting, but these tale venture into novelette territory, with some requiring considerable time to finish.

That having been said, the experience was enjoyable enough.  Each story is quite different and they range from the vampire classic “Camilla” to a foiled murder mystery and a canonical ghost story or two.  While better known across the Atlantic, several of Le Fanu’s stories have been translated to film, and he was regarded as one of the best ghost story writers of his era.  Perhaps because modern readers have been subjected to much more subtle foreshadowing, some of the tales are predictable to those on the lookout for twist endings.  The Room in the Dragon Volant, for example, suggests that the mysterious lady at the masquerade is indeed the narrator’s adulteress love interest, although the final twist is nicely wrought.

Probably the most well-known of the stories in the collection is “Camilla,” the account of what’s regarded today as a lesbian vampire.  The tale is well-crafted, but the credulity of the narrator is almost unbelievable as the pieces fall together and the puzzle picture still isn’t seen.  Nevertheless, it’s a creepy account that has captured the imagination of filmmakers through the years.  It took me long enough to finish the book that the earlier stories had faded by the time I’d reached the end, but the fault lies with me, not the author.  As a gothic fix each of the narratives serves quite well.  My other Le Fanu purchase was a much larger book, so it will take some time to achieve that goal.  In the meantime, I’ll look forward to discovering more Victorian nightmares as autumn wends its way forward.

Live Long

Maybe you went through it too.  In your teenage years the fascination began.  Before you knew it, you had a stack of them tucked away, each well-thumbed and ogled over.  Guinness Books of World Records, I mean, of course.  We’re captivated by extremes.  While working on a fictional story the other day, I started wondering about longevity claims.  The Good Book suggests that once upon a time a century was the equivalent of becoming a teenager, and people were acting like teenagers well into their eighth or ninth centuries.  Modern scientific analysis provides an alternative narrative, putting upper limits at 120, with only one verified, and disputed, case putting someone over it.  Curious, I looked at Wikipedia.  Two pages (at least) address the issue, one on human longevity tout court and another on verified claims.  Since the lists include home nations, I began to notice a pattern.

The verified records tend to feature the United States, Japan, Canada, and Europe.  The unverified Russia, Latin America, and Western Asia.  This disparity struck me as perhaps a bias concerning the source of reliable information.  Not only affecting longevity reports, concerns about reliable data impact all our sources of information.  I’ve written about internet resources before, but here I’m mainly worried about the bias of “first world” records as opposed to the records of less developed countries.  Not only that, but in the case of longevity claims, those born in outlying areas—beyond the reach of official government recorders—are suspect when compared to those kept by city dwellers.  We tend to trust our own kind, especially when it comes to extreme claims.

Like John Mellencamp, I was born in a small town.  Official records, comfortably handwritten, indicate when and where that happened, to the nearest day.  (Birth is a process, of course, and doesn’t always obey conventional human time-marking practices.  Organic events are often that way.)  The fact of the existence of other people indicates that they too have been through this in some form.  The event was marked in the way of local custom.  It’s locally true.  I knew a doctor trained in Sweden.  She couldn’t practice medicine in the United States for fear of what boils down to competing forms of belief.  Xenophobia in medical practice extends to other areas of human knowledge as well.  We are taught to trust the information given by our own authorities, but not those of other cultures.  I’m suppose to accept that without question, but I wasn’t born yesterday.

Good Ground

Young adult literature gives me hope.  The quality, speaking for a guy who grew up in a small town with limited choices, has improved astronomically over the past several years.  One of my favorite (adult) novels is Wuthering Heights, and so it’s no surprise that I found Christy Lenzi’s debut novel Stone Field quite engaging.  Set in a different time and place, and with a younger readership in mind, it retells the story of forbidden love based on xenophobia.  The message has never been more relevant.  Although it avoids explicit language, it does include adult situations and features a strong female protagonist in an age of explicit gender inequality.  During the chaos leading up to the Civil War, star-crossed lovers are set against one another because prejudice is a most effective poison.

While not a religious story, the iconic Bible plays a large role in it.  One of the main characters is a preacher, but even without him Catrina Dickinson’s family and friends are ready to quote the Good Book as unquestioningly as a Republican (with my apologies to fiscally conservative friends untainted by this aberration).  This is beyond a realistic portrayal of American life of the 1860s, it reflects the way that many people continue to think of Scripture.  Nevertheless, in one crucial episode of the story set in the church at Roubidoux, Missouri, the iconic role of the Bible becomes clear.  It is deftly woven throughout the story in a way that might serve as a lesson for modern writers seeking verisimilitude.  Many authors fear to address religion, but the Good Book is alive and well in these post-frontier days.

Often the desire to avoid religious motivations leads to stories that lack a key element of the social fabric.  In my own attempts at fiction religion is seldom absent.  It is the way average people live.  Lenzi presents Cat as being aware of but unwilling to be cowed by the Bible.  Indeed, as the story unfolds with several tragic events (remember, Wuthering Heights) she demonstrates that Catrina knows but doesn’t accept the strictures of Scripture.  The issue of theodicy hangs heavily in the atmosphere of the novel.  To me, this makes stories appear more life-like than tales that simply suppose religion doesn’t impact people.  When tragedy strikes, many people question what God, or their stand-in for the divine, is doing.  Anyone who’s asked “why me?” has directed that question into the world of theodicy, whether intentionally or not.  Reading this story while going through a family illness may have drawn this to the surface, but it underscores just how effective it may be for a realism that is otherwise lacking, whether in fact or young adult fiction.

Ghostly Thoughts

Ghosts tend to be on my mind in the autumn.  Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts, however, has been on my reading list for quite some time.  As a novel about possession, it has some scary moments, but it’s difficult to compete against The Exorcist in that regard.  Tremblay handles the topic with an ambiguity worthy of Shirley Jackson, however, and there are a few clear nods to her work here.  At the risk of giving out spoilers (you have been warned!) although it’s pretty clear by the end that much of the demonic was a cry for attention, the family member behind the tragedy is clearly left obscure.  We find out whodunit, but we’re left unsure as to the real reason behind it.

For fear of giving away too much (although my Goodreads assessment might be guilty of this), I’d like to consider something that I address in Nightmares with the Bible.  Demonic possession is largely coded as a feminine phenomenon.  The reasons for this are likely complex, but they are clearly related to the idea behind witch hunts and fear of women’s power in “a man’s world.”  Possession narratives, while they predated William Peter Blatty, became an essential part of the revived interest in demons brought on by The Exorcist.  Tremblay’s story is clearly aware of this, as he has his characters citing both fiction and non-fictional treatments of the topic.  Since researching the subject on my own, I’ve been wondering if anyone else has been able to handle it as deftly as Blatty did, and although Tremblay has two girls under threat, the question of whether it’s real or not tends to outweigh the pathos of believing Marjorie really has a demon.

In the end, it seems as if her father might be the real source of the family’s haunting.  An unemployed man looking for a way to support his family, he turns to religion.  This scenario is all-too-real to life.  And religion gives us not only a rationale for demons, but also a solution in the form of procedures and proper responses.  There are priests here—the males who alone can deliver the females—but whereas Blatty clearly made them the target of a demon that was pretty obviously real, Tremblay doesn’t play that card.  The priests come and go, and deliverance takes a form not expected for such a narrative.  A Head Full of Ghosts raises lots of questions and, like all good fiction, leaves us pondering at the end.  There’s still time to read it this coming fall.

Dark Theology

I’ve been struggling for several years, I expect it’s no secret, with how horror and religion relate to one another.  Many think the task itself pointless, as if pop culture can simply be brushed off like an annoying bug.  But flies keep coming back.  They won’t be ignored.  Almost a decade ago I discovered Douglas E. Cowan was also walking this spooky path past the cemetery.  I also know that as an academic he must demonstrate his chops in technical projects.  America’s Dark Theologian: The Religious Imagination of Stephen King was extremely welcomed by me.  Like many people I’ve read some Stephen King.  Like Cowan, I’ve noticed how often and how deeply religion is entangled in his story-worlds.  Before King is simply dismissed, we must reckon with the fact that movies based on his novels and stories have a long  pedigree and almost canonical status.

This is not the place to analyze America’s Dark Theologian in depth, but it is a place that would highly recommend the book.  Cowan takes several aspects of King’s works and shows how they tie explicitly to traditional religious thinking and longing.  I haven’t read nearly all the books Cowan cites here, nevertheless, the analysis he offers is compelling.  Scholars of disciplines outside religious studies have tended to dismiss it as being moribund.  Cowan shows that those who make a living in pop culture disagree.  King makes no bones about the fact that he sees the application not only of religion, but also theology, as one of the driving forces for his fiction.  We dismiss such observations at our peril.  Think of you favorite King novel and ponder; is there religion there?

Clearly religion’s not always the cause, but Cowan gives a careful consideration to much of King’s oeuvre, and there’s no denying he’s onto something.  As he points out, King is far more interested in the questions than in the answers.  Those who know religious studies—theology, if you must—know that the same is true there.  I’ve studied religion my entire intellectual life.  One of the reasons students evaluated my teaching so positively, at least I hope, is that because I encouraged the questions and did not privilege the answers.  In this field, answers are merely speculations.  We only really fall into serious danger when we cease asking questions.  Cowan does an excellent job of parsing out some various pieces that will make some kind of basis for a systematic theology of Stephen King’s thought-worlds.  We would be wise, I believe, to pay attention.