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.

Trade Wars?

A few friends are suffering sticker shock at the cost of Nightmares with the Bible.  I offer my sincere apologies.  To those in the normal world (outside academia) such pricing appears predatory.  It is, but you’re not the intended prey.  One of the pillars upon which capitalism rests is “what the market will bear.”  You price up any product until people stop buying it, then you retreat.  I’m no fan of the dismal science, but I am certainly not in the cheering section for capitalism.  Institutionalized greed.  Still, I can explain a little of why Nightmares comes with such a high price tag.  Publishers have long indulged in “library pricing.”  Although many libraries now buy ebooks instead, the model persists.  The idea is that libraries can afford higher prices than mere mortals.  For those of you not in academia, $100 is actually on the low end.  Believe it or not.

In researching Nightmares I saw monographs I coveted.  Some of them priced at $175.  Considering that some of these were under 200 pages, my primitive math sets the rate at about 87 cents per page (single-sided).  Here’s where the disconnect comes in.  Nightmares was written for general readers.  I long ago gave up the idea that to be intelligent a book must be impenetrable.  And academics wonder why people question their utility?  Only after I signed the contract did I learn that the Horror and Scripture series, of which Nightmares is the second volume, would suffer “library pricing.”  There is a discount code for those who may not be libraries.  But please, have your library buy a copy.  That’ll give me fuel for a paperback argument.

In a “catch-22” scenario, it goes like this: a publisher tells an author, “if your book sells well enough at this price we’ll issue a paperback.”  The truth is your hardcover only sells well if you’re well known or if your choice of topic is truly compelling.  If the unit cost were actually the same as the library pricing I’d be a rich man.  Where does all that money go?  It’s a legitimate question.  It’s not royalties!  Academic publishing is an expensive business to run.  Apart from overheads—there are always overheads—you need to pay tech companies to ready your files so they can be printed.  Unless the print run (generally under 200 now) is intended to sell out you’ll have it done domestically so that you don’t have to pay warehousing costs on unsold stock.  I knew a single-man academic publisher who stored his stock in his basement.  Excuses aside, my apologies that Nightmares costs so much.  I’ll send the discount code to anyone who’d like it.

Arrival

Excitement that comes during the work week gets sublimated.  Work, you see, is like a huge ship chugging ahead at about 30 knots.  It takes some time to stop, or even change direction.  So on Thursday, while I was still at my desk, Nightmares with the Bible arrived.  Since all work—even salaried—is measured by the clock by HR,  I couldn’t take off time to enjoy the birth.  I opened the box, cursorily flipped through a copy, and got back to the task for which I’m paid.  After work it’s time for supper and I can’t stay awake much beyond seven or eight, which meant I neglected my baby.  Friday was another work day, and although I wanted to do all the things marketers tell you to do, I had other duties.

So now it’s Saturday and I can officially say Nightmares have been released.  I have a discount code flyer, about which nobody has yet emailed me, but the offer still stands.  You can get a discounted (but still expensive) copy by following the instructions below.  Feel free to share with your rich friends.  Better yet, have your library order a copy.  I’m hoping for a paperback on this one, but that’ll be a couple years and I know paperbacks seldom outsell hardcovers, even expensive ones.  Raising a child can be a costly venture, no?  Adding another book meant that my display copies had to move out of their cubby-hole onto a bookshelf.  Hopefully, if things go well, there will be more siblings.  Perhaps better priced.

A Reassessment of Asherah was published by a European academic press and put at the incredibly high price of $78 back in 1993.  Gorgias Press reissued it, with additional material, but made it even more expensive.  I can’t even afford to buy a copy.  Weathering the Psalms was only $22, but wasn’t a gripping topic for many.  Cascade Books, at least, know how to price things.  Holy Horror, at the shockingly high $45 for a paperback (McFarland), languished.  It missed its Halloween release and no reviews have appeared.  “Nightmares” might well capture my sense of the price for my second missed Halloween release.  There are other books in the works.  If any of them get completed I’ll be seeking an agent to try to bring the prices down.  Until then, Nightmares will be the final word.  It’s out there now, for those brave enough to engage with it.

Nightmares Awake!

According to Amazon, Nightmares with the Bible has now been published.  Authors are seldom the first to see copies of their own books, strangely enough.  I probably won’t have any physical copies for a couple of weeks yet.  Until then I’ll wait like an expectant mother.  I don’t actually read my own books after they’re published.  Like some other writers I know, I’m terrified of finding mistakes.  And the older I get the less certain I am about anything.  I’m not even sure if it’s officially published yet or not.  I choose to trust Amazon’s opinion on that.

Right now I’m caught up between four or five other book projects, each a good bit along.  Since writing is often a mood-based thing, what I do in the sleepy hours of pre-dawn is what I feel like writing on any given day.  Unless you have a book contract in hand, that’s not, I suppose, that unusual.  I’m trying to guess what might most get the attention of an agent.  Both Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible were written for general readers.  I don’t have the name-recognition to command any kind of attention (or affordable prices), so I need to find a topic that’ll do the work for me.  I personally find religion and horror a fascinating subject.  Many other academics do as well, but general readers not so much.  It’ll feel more like reality when I have a copy I can have and hold.  I still haven’t reconciled myself with ebooks.

What usually makes me stick with a project for the dash toward the finish line is a book getting close enough to see the ribbon ahead.  I write incessantly, so I have a backlog from which to draw.  I know my tastes are odd, which means it’s a challenge to get others onboard with my likes.  I know horror fans love to read about movies.  I suspect most of them don’t care much about the religious aspect of what they’re seeing.  That’s why I write about it.  People get information about religion from popular media.  Even if they deny their interest, writers and directors will slip it in regardless.  I’m just calling them like I see them.  The nice thing about movies is you can have instant replay.  And with a fair number of us now publishing books in this niche, hopefully conversation will follow.  Until then, I’ll just be waiting here until my first copy arrives.

Demonic Monsters

One of the perils of writing books is that you often realize something after the book has gone to the printer.  Book production is a lengthy process.  I submitted the manuscript for Nightmares with the Bible in January.  The procedure of getting it ready has stretched eleven months.  In that time, as any writer knows, you keep thinking about what you wrote.  That’s where blogging comes in handy.  In any case, as I was pondering demons the other day I realized that they really only became the objects of horror with The Exorcist.  Now I’m not alone in noting the importance of The Exorcist in kicking off the modern interest in demons.  But what I’m now thinking is that in making them the subject of a horror film—intended to be realistic—The Exorcist made demons monstrous.  Let me explain.

Demons have generally, in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, been evil.  They cause suffering and misfortune.  They also, however, have a mischievous nature.  In other words, they can be playful.  So can grizzly bear cubs, did I hear you say?  That’s precisely my point.  Grizzly bears aren’t evil.  Powerful, yes.  Dangerous, certainly.  Evil, no.  One of the threads I take up but don’t spend too much time weaving into my book is the idea of the playful demon, or sometimes, the playful Devil.  In the Middle Ages such ideas weren’t rare.  Think about imps.  Do people really fear them?  Not so much.  And the often scatological behavior of demons in that time period made them a little less than serious.

I’m not suggesting that possession and exorcism are to be taken lightly.  I know they existed before William Peter Blatty ever decided to write a novel about them.  It was that novel, however, and the subsequent film, that made demons into monsters.  They joined the unholy pantheon of creatures like vampires, ghosts, and zombies.  They had the added frisson of being accepted as real by many religious traditions.  They continued to evolve in popular culture until they proliferated around the cinematic and television worlds.  Now we pretty much instantly recognize demons as monsters when we spot them.  I suspect they would not have been seen in a similar way in the Middle Ages.  Troublesome and evil they could be, but would they have been thought of in that mental category that we call monsters?  I have my doubts.  Perhaps it is good I didn’t think of this before sending my book off.  I doubt the publisher would’ve been happy if I’d added an extra chapter at the last minute.

Looking to the Stars

American Indian culture fascinates me.  As my usual readers know, so does the unusual.  A few years back I read Ardy Sixkiller Clarke’s Encounters with Star People.  Clarke is an American Indian who holds a Ph.D. and had several years of university teaching and administration to her credit.  She has degrees in psychology and education.  In other words, she’s credible.  Being American Indian she’s also aware of the cultural belief in star people.  Those of European descent, often expressing their self-supposed superiority, deny such things exist.  Interestingly the mainstream media seems to have taken an interest in the subject of UFOs lately, and that is also the phenomenon that Clarke investigates in her books.  Her follow-up More Encounters with Star People: Urban American Indians Tell Their Stories is another compelling glimpse into a different way of looking at the world.

The book consists of contextualized interviews with people of American Indian ancestry, and, as Clarke points out, with nothing to gain by telling their stories.  They don’t want their names or locations to be revealed.  They don’t want money.  Many of them don’t even want to be mentioned in a book.  These stories will take you into very strange places.  Places without the filters most of Anglo culture puts before anything that might hint at the paranormal.  I’m intrigued by the nearly universal (outside a narrow European outlook) belief that the world is not as it seems.  Because European-based cultures developed the most sophisticated weaponry and an economic system that takes no prisoners, its view, by default is considered the accurate one.  Time may tell on that.

I read quite frequently about indigenous cultures.  Often widely separated and not in any direct contact, such groups often drew very similar conclusions about the world.  These views are actually shared by those of European stock, but only when carefully labeled as fiction: fantasy, science fiction, speculative stories of any sort.  All of these are widely consumed.  They are also safely considered “not real.”  I’ve been rewatching The X-Files over the past several months.  Its success and its continuing fan base show that as long as we can agree that we’re watching something not true, we enjoy monsters and aliens.  And besides, Halloween wasn’t that long ago.  Still, I wonder if we’re missing out on things we might learn if we’d be willing to consider what the original inhabitants of this continent have believed.  It would take us to some strange places, but we might just emerge wiser.

Please Vote

If you haven’t done so already, please vote.  This day has never felt so portentous before.  I’ve been voting since the 1980s and we’ve had some real unsavory choices in some past years.  Never had we had a monstrous incumbent set on destroying the very nation that made him what he is.  Those who don’t, or won’t read the facts haven’t learned what’s obvious even to lifelong Republicans I know—Trump cares only for himself.  His family confirms it.  His policies, such as they are, show it.  He provides lip service to anti-abortion while using stem cells from fetuses to cure his own case of Covid-19 that he caught only by ignoring the science that tells us masks and distancing are necessary.  Even as our infection rates pass what they’ve ever been before, he fiddles while America burns.

Some of us have noticed a profound quiet for the past week or so.  It’s like the country’s running a low-grade fever.  Republicans have been attempting to prevent people from voting, wanting a country more like them, mean and unforgiving, that they can call “Christian.”  To me this feels like 9-11 did, only we have known the plot all along and have been too stunned to do anything about it.  Democracies are founded on the principle of the choice of the electorate.  The only way that we can make that choice known is to vote.  It’s the only way left to be a patriot.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was faced with a similar situation in his native Germany.  An evangelical Christian, he didn’t acquiesce to Hitler, glorying in the rush of power.  He wrote that when a madman is driving the wheel must be wrenched from his hands.  Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Nazis he tried to displace, but his spiritual eyesight was clear.  Faith can blind believers to the truth.  We’ve seen this happen time and time and time again.  Instead of condemning we need to help them since they cannot help themselves.  This is the truest form of what Jesus stood for.  Read the gospels if you doubt.  This year the decision isn’t for Democrat or Republican, it’s for clear-eyed assessment or self-adoring narcissism.  If a mirror’s held too close, we can’t see what’s truly reflected.  We must vote today to show what we want America to be.  The eyes of both the past and the future are upon us.  How will we want them to be remembered?

Dreams and Nightmares

Since posting just a few days back about the cover of Nightmares with the Bible it has now been posted on the Rowman & Littlefield website (more on that in a moment).  I’m pleased with the cover because it includes a photo I took.  It’s a little blurry, but that adds to the effect.  In the days before my commuting began, I could easily stay awake until regular hours and one autumn weekend we arrived home to find the spooky house next door all lit up, under a full moon.  I appreciated the eerie look of the situation and snapped this photo, which I’ve used a few times on this blog.  I’m not sure the house next door was haunted, but it sure looked like it.  More to the point, it reminds me of the poster for The Exorcist.  It has always been a dream of mine to have one of my photos appear on a book cover.

I also received the happy news that the book is with the printers.  That means it will soon be available.  It will be expensive, but I should be receiving a discount code that I will be glad to share.  “Library pricing” is something publishers unfortunately have to do to make books pay themselves off.  In the past several years so many books have been appearing that the bottom has fallen out of the academic library market.  Too much supply, to put it in capitalist terms.  Many publishers, however, will give discounts to individuals who want to buy a copy.  All you have to do is ask the author.  (I don’t have the discount code yet, but I will be glad to share it once I’ve received it.)

Nightmares with the Bible is being published by Fortress Academic.  A few years ago Fortress Press partnered with Lexington Books to handle their library market books, including those in the series Horror and Scripture, in which Nightmares appears.  Lexington Books is an imprint of Rowman & Littlefield.  It’s sometimes difficult to keep track of publishing houses since there has been a lot of consolidation over the centuries, accelerating in recent years.  Publishers don’t sell as many individual books as they used to and with Amazon’s arrival a new shift in the market took place.  It tends to favor trade publishers over academic ones.  In any case, that means even books written for trade readerships, like Nightmares, are priced for libraries.  If you have access to an academic library please recommend they buy a copy.  If the book succeeds in that venue a case can be made for a paperback edition.  In the meantime, the book should be, barring an apocalypse, out on schedule.

Keep It Covered

I’ve seen it at last.  The cover concept for my book.  I’ve been manicly checking the Rowman and Littlefield (parent company of Lexington/Fortress Academic—a roadmap would be useful) webpage to see what it might look like.  I’ve “seen a sighting” at last.  Nightmares with the Bible seems to be actually happening.  As a writer there’s always some doubt involved with your book.  You wonder, will it really come out?  Will someone pull the plug at the last minute?  Is any of this real at all?  Those kinds of things.  I’ve mentioned before that waiting is a very large part of the process.  Publishing is a slow business and the world changes so fast.  I sincerely hope it doesn’t ever leave books behind.

My waiting hasn’t been idle, of course.  My next nonfiction book is well underway but I’m focusing on fiction at the moment.  I had two short stories published within the last month and I’m inclined to follow where some success shows itself.  Besides, fiction and nonfiction aren’t as far apart as is often claimed.  Seeing the cover of the book, however, nudges me back towards nonfiction a bit.  Since I’m no longer an academic it’s a toss-up.  A few colleagues like what I’m doing, but my fiction work is secret.  So the process continues, waffling back and forth.  It’s all in service of learning how the publishing industry works.  That’s one of the many things they don’t teach you in graduate school.

It’s October and I should be thinking about monsters.  Although I’ve gone through my closet of DVDs, there are many that bear watching again.  If only I could fabricate time!  One of the things I’ve noticed about this pandemic—and I know it’s not just me—is that time seems to have been swallowed up.  A simple walk down the local biking trail now requires masking up before and washing hands after.  Less than a minute of time, for sure, but it adds up.  And if you go after work there’s not enough light left to paint the porch by when you get back.  Such are the contradictions of this wonderful season.  You really can’t pin anything down.  The colorful trees put you into rapture then they’re bare.  The bright blue sky looms under relentless clouds.  You throw off your jacket one day and it snows the next.  And there might just be monsters lurking out there.  One of them, it’s said, will be released in November.  Given the nature of this season we’ll just have to wait and see.

October Reflections

The people are dressed in their finest.  The best food and drink available are spread on white tablecloths while rats scurry underfoot.  The feasters invite Lucy to join them.  “It’s the last supper,” they say, hoisting a glass, knowing that they will soon die of the plague.  This is one of the most powerful scenes in Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre.  It’s October and we’re in the midst of a plague.  The wealthy retain their fortunes while the poor die in the streets.  Do I really need to explain why someone so focused on religion and social justice finds horror films as able conversation partners?  My two books that relate to the topics don’t come outright and say it, but there are spiritual lessons to be learned here.

Genre is a convenient, perhaps even necessary, means of making sense of the vast creative output of humankind.  We write fiction, poems, and songs.  We film movies.  We produce these forms of entertainment at a stunning rate, especially when we consider the large number of pieces made that never find official publication.  Genre helps us sort through—this is like that, etc.  Still, some of my favorite pieces of literature, and movies, don’t really fit into neat genre divisions.  Take Herzog’s Nosferatu.  There are definitely horror elements here, but it is also an art film.  Some scenes, like that described above, are suffused with religious meaning.  When circumstances align correctly we can see it and say, “ah, now I understand.”  That was what came to me recently.  I haven’t seen the movie for years, but circumstances with Covid-19 brought it to mind.

October is a month of poetry and transitions.  We turned the furnace on only to find ourselves in the midst of a string of days reaching near 70.  The cerulean sky which looks so different this time of year suddenly disappeared with nearly a week of heavy cloud cover.  There’s beauty in the daytime and monsters in the night.  Outside lurks a plague.  Lacking the willpower to overcome it, people are growing weary of the restrictions.  We’re not used to being locked up.  The thing about the last supper is that life goes on even after it’s over.  Changed, yes, but October is all about change.  We’re anxious, wondering if it was indeed a vampire that bit us.  Meanwhile the leaves continue their journey from green to yellow, orange, and red, their litter becoming the food for next year’s growth.  Yes, there are spiritual lessons here.

Electricity

After the oven incident (see last Monday’s post), I took some time to examine the burned out bake element from the range.  Clearly a break in the piece led to some arcing like you might get in Frankenstein’s laboratory.  By the time I’d arrived on the scene (I always seem to be behind my time), the fire was snaking along the element itself and now that the piece is cooled and removed I was fascinated by the damage it caused.  I suspect this is why I leave any electrical repairs to experts.  This is dangerous stuff.  Interestingly, in the realm of monsters electricity is most frequently associated (in my mind, anyway) with Frankenstein’s creature.  Mary Shelley’s novel isn’t explicit about how galvanism resurrected the patchwork human, but it was clearly part of the tale.

Electricity retains a certain element of mystery for some of us.  If we stop and reflect on how recent our understanding and harnessing of it is, that further adds to the drama.  People have been thinking about and trying to understand religion for thousands of years.  Like early electricity, religion involves invisible forces.  Of course, lightning and sparks and arcing oven elements can be seen, but seeing isn’t the same as comprehending.  We are a curious species and we want to understand.  Being inside the situation, however, our understanding will never be complete.  We can get a pretty good grasp, a functional one even, but our brains will always limit just how much we can understand.

It should come as no surprise that those of us who chose to study religion are intrigued by mysteries.  The divine, the transcendent—no matter what you want to call it—can never be fully understood.  Thus the impatience with evangelicals and others who pretend they’ve got all the answers.  No, we’re all still attempting to get to the bottom (or top) of this mystery.  Like electricity, religion can do an enormous amount of damage.  Motivating those who have only a cursory understanding how it works has historically led to debacle after debacle.  It has generated wars and perpetuated human misery.  Like electricity, when used properly religion has done a tremendous amount of good in the world as well.  The thing is, as my bake element shows, we have all come to learn that electricity should be handled by those who know what they’re doing.  Ironically, religion has never gathered the same level of respect for the specialists.

Back to Tarrytown

The very name “Hollow” takes me there.  It’s a resonant geonym.  Near Franklin, Pennsylvania, my early hometown, runs a route called Deep Hollow Road.  For me, with its lush, thick trees and shadowed valley, it always exemplified what the term “Hollow” intended.  And of course, there was Sleepy Hollow.  Now that my article on various movies based on the Irving story has appeared in Horror Homeroom (it’s free), I’m again thinking about my dance with that particular story.  In fact, after I submitted the article I watched yet another version of the tale, Pierre Gang’s 1999 The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.  This film on Sci Fi (before it became SyFy) purports to follow the original closely.  It nevertheless has to pad out the story and does so with religion.

Religion—specifically the Bible—and the tale as represented in Fox’s four-season series Sleepy Hollow is what started me on the current leg of my journey.  I sent an article to the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture on the topic and when it was accepted I expanded the idea into the book Holy Horror.  So it is that I’ve tried to watch as many versions of the story as I can.  There have been many made-for-television renditions.  Some are available for free on the various services that draw from my pocket monthly.  Others cause me to debate whether I want to pay for seeing a sub-par effort for the sake of completeness.  The scholar’s heart still beats within me, I guess.  The Gang version expands the story with a church scene, not in the original tale.  To inculcate the Bible, however, Tim Burton’s film of the same year was necessary.

For me no story better encapsulates October.  Perhaps it’s the crucial role of the pumpkin.  Perhaps it’s the ambiguity of the headless horseman himself—is he a hoax or something more?  These kinds of questions are answered by various filmmakers but since the viewer ultimately decides the question is left up to us.  If I were still an academic my next book project would be clear.  Instead I’m trying to bask in the wonder that is October—the season of transition from bright blue skies and colorful leaves to long, chill nights and bare trees.  Our time outdoors becomes more focused so that we might get back to the warmth inside.  And if we’re looking for a tale to read that’s not really that scary, but which captures the ghosts of the American imagination, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” beckons.

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.

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.

Behind the Exorcist

Some books from the 1970s are difficult to locate.  Since that was some half-century ago I suppose that’s not at all unusual.  One of those that I had been anxious to read since working on Nightmares with the Bible was Diabolical Possession and Exorcism, by John J. Nicola.  The main reason for my desire was that many people involved in the narrative about demons in the modern world are difficult to document, at least on the internet.  For academics, or even journalists, with budgets and release or research time, there’s the possibility of travel and interviews and archive searching.  I have none of those things, and I was curious about Nicola’s book since he wrote a forward to The Amityville Horror, vouching for its authenticity, and he was also technical advisor for The Exorcist.

I didn’t locate a copy of his book until after Nightmares was well into production, but research, even as I conduct it, is never-ending.  The book is kind of a memoir and kind of a “you should listen to your priest” lecture.  What’s fascinating about it is Nicola has no difficulty accepting both the paranormal and the standard Catholic teaching in matters of faith.  He does come across as somewhat credulous, and somewhat academic in this book.  His chapter on his role in The Exorcist is quite informative.  One of my main questions regarding both the man and his book was what his particular expertise is/was (even finding out if he’s still alive, via the web, is difficult; he is on the 2017 honor roll of giving for a Catholic charity).  The book provides a partial answer, but it also raises many questions.

This book is rare enough to have given rise to its own kind of mythology.  I would classify that in the same category as the various stories about The Exorcist production being plagued with curses and strange phenomena.  They’re all part of a culture of creating a belief structure that allows the supernatural back into an overly materialist worldview.  Kind of like Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance,” it causes pleasant shivers because it doesn’t really explain anything.  The book itself is though-provoking, but like the books of Gabriele Amorth, expends pages on the wonders of the Virgin Mary and building up a Catholic outlook on the spiritual world as the basis for combatting evil.  Nicola, correctly in my opinion, points to the (then impending) influence of The Exorcist movie.  This is a topic that I take up in Nightmares, for those interested in knowing more.