Skin In

It took me back to my younger years.  Tanya Krzywinska’s A Skin for Dancing In: Possession, Witchcraft and Voodoo in Film.  Wide ranging and insightful, this book was a delight to read.  Published in 2000, it discusses many movies that I watched in the eighties and which had somehow managed to be overrun by other stimuli since then.  I like to think that, even if recall isn’t instant, that we never truly lose the books we’ve read or movies we’ve watched.  (Some we may wish to forget, but that seems a sure way not to achieve that goal!)  As her subtitle says, Krzywinska’s book analyzes possession, witchcraft, and voodoo.  Since there are so many examples of these the discussion has to be selective, but she’s got a keen eye for choosing evocative films.

As any of my regular readers know (both of you!) I don’t really review the books in my “reviews.”  I limit myself to about 500 words and I don’t like to give spoilers.  A Skin for Dancing In would require quite a few words even to summarize.  Krzywinska covers demonology, possession, sacrifice, paganism, witchcraft, voodoo, and more, in several movies.  What really struck me in reading this was that she comes to a similar conclusion to what I’ve found—people learn about these things through film.  Scholars tend not to write much about such things (although this has improved somewhat since the turn of the millennium).  The average person doesn’t read academic books, and since culture has become “rational” there’s not much talk about such things from discoursing heads.  Still, movies.

These topics make for great movies.  One of the points I’ve made in my own work is that what we know about demons comes from the cinema.  It seems that we should pay close attention to what movies tell us.  They’re the “public intellectuals” that many academics want to be.  A Skin for Dancing In is a good example—it’s compelling, if a little academic, but very hard to find.  It’s difficult to lead public discussion if your book is limited to university libraries and those who have access to them.  Of course, you don’t need a talented scholar to tell you how to watch a movie, but I was reminded here of many films I thought I had forgotten.  And what’s more, I have a deeper understanding of how they fit into the larger world of cinematic possession.  This is one of those books I wish I’d found sooner.


New Monster

The Babadook is a horror film about loneliness.  Written and directed by Jennifer Kent, it has an arthouse cinema feel to it.  I missed it when it came out in 2014—it didn’t receive major billing and publicity in the United States—but it gained critical acclaim as intelligent horror.  It follows the small family of Amelia and her son Samuel, who has special needs.  I’ll try to avoid too many spoilers here because I think you should see it if you haven’t already.  Amelia’s husband died in a car crash taking her to the hospital to have their first child.  That haunting tragedy drives the film.  And when you throw a monster called the Babadook into the mix, loneliness and sleeplessness make the dark something to fear again.

With wonderful acting, the story of childhood monsters highlights the continuing plight of single mothers.  How are you supposed to survive when you have a child that requires constant supervision and yet you need to make ends meet?  And if sleeplessness begins to distort your sense of reality all kinds of things seem possible.  

Hollywood hasn’t been a friendly place for female directors.  This film was shot in Australia.  I’m not sure that sexual parity is better there, but this movie is a great example of what can happen when a woman shows what horror means to her.  Not too many horror movies have female directors, yet.  It seems to me that women have many things to fear and have much to show us about what horror can be.  It seems to me that loneliness, although often part of horror, isn’t often the focus.  We would rather look away than to see it because it’s too painful.  Horror compels us to look at what we’d rather not see.

Aside from all of this, the film gives us a new monster.  The Babadook was invented for this film and although we don’t have to worry about whether it’s real or not, the issues it brings to the fore certainly are.  There is darkness inside people.  Even those of us who try to do what is right struggle against it.  Often it takes quite a lot even to admit as much.  This movie lets the dark out and finds a new narrative path through which it might flow.  Although a box office success—earning more than it cost—The Babadook is still little known.  It should be discussed more because intelligent horror has some important lessons to teach us.


Interview Two

October turns the northern hemisphere mind toward Halloween.  It must be strange to receive northern media while living in the global south—Halloween occurs just as spring is getting underway.  I guess that’s what May Day’s for.  In any case, in the United States Halloween thinking is in nearly full swing.  My last two books, while not Halloween themed, look at horror films which, in keeping with October, are on everyone’s mind this season.  And it’s been quite a week for interviews.  The second half of my podcast interview on The Incarcerated Christian was posted yesterday.  If you want to hear more fun Q & A with Robin and Debra, click here.  I’ll post more about this Friday, but tomorrow my interview with Eric Ziolkowski of Lafayette College will air as part of the Easton Book Festival.  The festival’s going on right now, so be sure to check out the offerings online.

One bit of advice that I give as an editor: if you want to make it as an author you need to promote your own work.  Some of us were reared to believe that it’s in poor taste to do this, but in the internetted world it’s pretty much a requirement.  Something I learned from political activism is that every election is local.  Getting noticed also has to start in your own backyard.  I love doing interviews.  It’s always flattering to know that someone’s read your book and wants to know more about it.  I’ve started to explore the newish area of religion and horror.  From what we see in the news, it seems like it’s an area that’s likely to take off.  But only if those who work in it get their stuff out there where it can be seen.  (Or heard.)

Neither Holy Horror nor Nightmares with the Bible have sold very well.  They’re expensive, and academics, who will spend money on books, are still trying to decide if this area’s worth exploring.  I admit that there’s a puerile kind of naughtiness to taking monsters and “low brow” entertainment as a subject of study.  Horror, however, has lots of fans.  Perhaps not in the academy, but in the real world.  I like to think such marginal areas bring people together.  Horror, like demons, isn’t going away any time soon.  Instead of running away from what you fear, why not try embracing it?  If not even that, please consider the free content available on The Incarcerated Christian and the Easton Book Festival.  After all, Halloween’s just about here…


Kindred Spirit?

Possession stories have a poignancy to them that perhaps other horror stories lack.  The loss of self-control is a frightful thing.  Lisa Tuttle sets this up well in her novel Familiar Spirit, a tale that has recently been reissued.  The threat against a young women—the usual target of possession—leads to some scary moments here.  As the story unfolds Sarah has to deal with personal loss as she learns that the house she’s just rented is inhabited by an unfriendly spirit that seems to be a demon.  This is a haunting story that features a strong protagonist who ultimately has to decide what she really values most.  It’s a book that stays with you.

I discovered Tuttle by reading a book on female horror writers some time ago.  One of the points I make in Nightmares with the Bible is that female victims of possession match Poe’s dictum about the most poetic topic being the death of a beautiful woman.  That may sound sexist to modern ears, but Poe was a product of his time and he was a keen observer of what made stories memorable.  Possession has largely become a female phenomenon over the centuries.  The biblical stories about possession tend to have male victims, but by the Middle Ages the balance had shifted.  That gender imbalance continues today.  A friend recently asked whether shifting awareness of the gender as not strictly binary might change this in the future.  It’s a fascinating question, especially since we really don’t know what demons are.

Possession is a clash of the unknowns, which is fertile ground for fear of the unknown.  Feminist studies have begun to share space with studies of masculinity and both have been joined by analysts who study gender as nonbinary.  I suspect many of us really didn’t know about such things before the internet began to bring them to our attention.  Many people don’t want to accept such facts.  The world is easier to live in when everything is black or white, male or female, this or that.  Most things, we’re beginning to learn, are on a scale.  Human society, as it takes this into account, will inevitably, if slowly, change.  The old guard (angry white men, mostly) refuse to accept facts, trying to equate them with the person with the loudest voice.  This too is a kind of possession.  I don’t want to give too many spoilers for Familiar Spirit, but if you’re like me it’ll give you many things to think about.


Documenting Horror

Watching documentaries always seems to raise questions.  I recently found A History of Horror with Mark Gatiss on YouTube.  Produced by the BBC in 2010, the set of three episodes is a selective walk through the horror genre through the eyes of an insider in the film industry.  Divided over three segments, he covers early horror (primarily Frankenstein-related movies), British horror, and the American horror revival beginning in the late 1960s.  It occurred to me while watching this that horror is often—but not always—an intellectual genre.  Many of the plots and ideas are sophisticated and puzzling.  At one point Gatiss says it is nearly the perfect genre for movies.  I would tend to agree.  Many of the payoffs of horror are the reasons I go to see a movie.

Of course, documentaries involve interviews.  While discussing religion and horror—the two are closely related—in the third segment, he considers the impact of what I termed the “unholy trinity” in Holy Horror: Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, and The Omen.  His primary interview for this set was with David Seltzer, the screenwriter for the last of these.  At this point my memory took me back to an interview on one of the extras for my DVD edition of The Omen.  In that interview Seltzer mentions that the antichrist is at that moment (clearly this was shot shortly after the movie came out) walking the earth.  In my mind I compartmentalized this to interpret his stance as that of a religious conservative.  The idea of the Antichrist, after all, is post-biblical, at least in the sense that end-time scenarios are developed.

The Gatiss interview was filmed many years later and he asked Seltzer if he believed in the Devil.  “No,” Seltzer laughed, stating that if he did he wouldn’t work on movies like The Omen.  People’s opinions change over time, of course.  And the Devil and the Antichrist are two separate characters as they develop after the Bible was completed.  Still, I had to wonder if his earlier interview included that comment about the Antichrist being alive now wasn’t intended as a bit of spooky propaganda for the movie.  It’s difficult to know what someone really believes.  Most people mouth what their ministers say, not really considering where said clergy get their information.  For these many years I’ve been thinking that The Omen was considered as some kind of documentary by the screenwriter.  Documentaries always seem to raise questions.


It’s Thorpe, Jim

On a rainy fall day we found ourselves in Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.  We’d been through the touristy town before, but had never had any luck finding parking so getting out to explore was problematic.  Named after perhaps the greatest all-round athlete America has ever produced, the town bore the American Indian name of Mauch Chunk prior to the communal name change.  Once the greatest eastern vacation attraction after Niagara Falls, it’s now a town that caters to a regular stream of tourists and supports the small, boutique shops that thrive in such an environment.  Whenever I’m in a new place, I look for books.  Perhaps an illness, it is one I have no wish to cure.  Sellers Books is small but I didn’t walk out empty-handed.

A few yards later a sign at Emporium of Curious Goods caught my eye.  A store of mystical, magical whimsy, it had a posted note saying the owner had been friends with Ed and Lorraine Warren.  I hadn’t anticipated such a thing—we were here with friends and really just expecting to enjoy the quaint ambiance.  Being October, nearly every house and shop on Broad Street was decorated for Halloween, creating that frisson that only this time of year offers.  I stepped inside the shop and looked around.  I asked the owner how he’d met the Warrens.  He said that many years ago they’d lectured at East Stroudsburg University.  Introducing himself, he’d invited them over to his place and soon they became long-time friends.  They agreed to do a talk there in Jim Thorpe.

The brief conversation made me aware that as much as reading reveals, it never conveys the full story.  The store advertised having all the Warrens’ books.  I have all of them myself, but I had never seen all of them together in a single store before.  I wished I had something magical or mystical to buy to support the owner so willing to share information, but I had little time to look around with friends waiting outside, probably wondering what I was doing in such a place to begin with.  The Warrens are both deceased but their legacy lives on through the Conjuring movies.  More than that, in the lives they’ve influenced.  Yes, they may have been using their fame as a way of making living, but many celebrities do that.  It doesn’t mean they were any less sincere in attempting to help people with their ghosts and demons.  A rainy day in October reveals so much.


Taking Part

It’s always a pleasure to be invited, even if not as a proper guest.  To an academic conference, I mean.  Most of us sit around feeling pretty obscure most of the time, even if we do write books.  I am literally genuinely surprised when sometime contacts me to tell me they’ve read my work.  It was, therefore, a complete surprise to be asked to attend the “Ancient and Modern Ideas of Possession” conference hosted by the University of Innsbruck.  I wasn’t an official participant, but the organizers, somewhat surprisingly, knew of Nightmares with the Bible and thought I might be interested in, well, possession.  Because I work “nine-to-five” and because Austria is several hours ahead of the Eastern Time Zone, I couldn’t Zoom in for all of it, but what I did hear I really appreciated.

One of my suspicions was confirmed, and that is that the idea of possession remains an outlier in academia.  The sixteen or so presenters represented several academic fields, none of which boasts of being interested in such things.  What surprised me, but then really didn’t, was that a comment or question came up several times: do any of us believe in the ontological reality of demons?  At least for the time I was able to sign in the question was never fully discussed but I had the sense that one or two of these academics were willing to lean in that direction.  We all know that individual observation is often faulty and subject to biased interpretations.  We may, however, know that many such accounts have been written by highly reputable individuals with nothing to gain by making spurious claims.  Academics should remain curious.

I learned that at least two of the presenters had written books that it would’ve been useful to have read for my own book.  Books are part of a conversation.  Seldom is any single volume the last word on a subject.  It was a privilege to be among other academics, if I may classify myself as one, even if erstwhile, that had come to a similar place in their explorations of the world of spirits.  Women and men who were willing to ask that most shunned of questions, “what if?”  Human experience moves ahead and some ideas are left behind.  That doesn’t mean those ideas should never be revisited.  Nobody at the conference mentioned my book, but at least one person in the room was aware that it was, in some form, part of the discussion.


Book or Movie?

The funny thing about people, or at least one of the funny things, is that when individuals get together we notice different things.  It can happen at in-person meetings or “virtually” through books.  I’m working on a book on The Wicker Man, as I recently noted.  Others have written on the movie, of course, and I’ve read some of their analyses already, but I’m continuing to read more.  Recently I finished Studying The Wicker Man by Andy Murray and Lorraine Rolston.  This particular book—more along the lines of a booklet, actually—has quite a few observations about the movie that I had missed.  Connections, or interpretations, that I’d failed to make despite having watched the movie many times.  It takes the meeting of the minds to bring many things to light.

One of the questions they raised (and there will be spoilers here) is why the movie bears the title it does.  Obviously the climatic moment of the film features a wicker man.  Murray and Rolston noted, however, that more could be going on in this title than is obvious.  Sgt. Neil Howie, the protagonist, is a lot like a wicker man himself.  I won’t repeat their wonderful work here but I will say it’s convincing.  The literary trope of “the hollow man” (it could be woman, or hollow person, but I’m writing from personal experience) can be a poignant one.  We know that life may carry on biologically, but what makes us who we are is what goes on inside.  The hollowness may be intellectual or emotional.  Either way it’s a trial.  It’s something that I wouldn’t have thought of without help.

Studying The Wicker Man may be slim, but it has some powerful ideas.  As a society we’re often impressed with size.  When a promotional photo wants to show an author with gravitas, they generally ask him or her to hold a thick book.  There is certainly a place for large books, but insight can come in any size.  This particular book is obviously designed for film studies courses focusing on this particular movie.  It does point out that “cult classics” become such by not being widely seen, so I realize many of my readers (presuming there are many) won’t be terribly interested in a book that analyzes a movie they haven’t seen.  If you’re one of them, and if you don’t mind a movie with an ending that will stay with you, I would recommend watching the film before reading the book.


Podcast Live

Have you ever had one of those weeks where you forgot what day it was?  (Come on, now, it’s a pandemic—you can admit it!)  I spent yesterday unaware that it was Tuesday.  Tuesday is important because I knew that The Incarcerated Christian was going to be posting my interview on Holy Horror on their podcast.  It’s live now—give a listen!  I’ve been toying with rebooting my own podcasts, but like most other things in life I just can’t find the time to do it.  I still enjoy talking about my ideas and I thank Robin Mitchell Stroud and Debra Levy Martinelli for allowing me to yak their ears off for an hour.  There are many interesting podcasts on their site, so it you decide to listen the interview be sure to hang around a while and explore.

My hosts understand that Holy Horror was written for general readers, if not priced for them.  Being asked questions keeps you sharp, and sometimes it feels like my blade has been dulled from sitting in the drawer too long.  At the risk of sounding too biblical, iron sharpen iron, right?  Conversation is increasingly important in a polarized world where minds are already made up and the preferred solution is to hate others based on differences of opinion.  Why not talk about things?  Interviews also keep me sharp in asking about things I wrote years ago.  It may not seem like it, but the main body of Holy Horror was finished nearly five years ago.  Books take a long time to write and then a long time to publish.  It’s good to be asked about what one has written.

The questions asked on this interview were well thought out and reflective.  I can only hope that my responses were the same.  If you decide to listen and like what you hear, please share it with others.  The interview actually spilled over into a part two that will be posted in a couple weeks.  There’s a lot to say about religion and horror.  I’ve continued to watch movies since the interview and I notice further affirmations.  The Wicker Tree, for example, is a very biblical movie.  Or at least it quotes from the Bible quite a bit.  Holy Horror was very much an experiment on my part to find out if there was any room for a book like this.  After I wrote it I found others shared some interest in these topics, and two people cared enough to schedule an interview about it.  Please give it a listen.


More Ethnic Monsters

There seems to be a real interest, this haunting season, for cultures to claim their monsters.  I recently wrote about a story on the Jewish background to Frankenstein.  I also saw an article in Greek Reporter titled “The Ancient Greek Origin of Werewolves,” by Tanika Koosmen.  Earlier this year I read a book about the werewolf in the ancient world.  Unlike Frankenstein, or even Dracula, the werewolf has no defining novel.  Perhaps one of the reasons is that human-animal transformation stories have been around a very long time and have been extremely common.  Since monsters are finally becoming a (somewhat) respectable area of academic study, and since the standard role of the werewolf is well established, it’s too late for anyone to write the defining novel now.

As the article, as well as many books, point(s) out, Lycaon was transformed to a wolf by Zeus as punishment.  The ancient Greeks liked stories of such transmutations, as the work of Ovid clearly shows.  Although these aren’t monsters in the Greek way of thinking—they had plenty of monsters—there is a real wonder in the ability to transform.  Becoming something else.  People have long found the idea compelling.  Almost religious.  Animals, although closely related, have incredible abilities we crave for ourselves.  The werewolf, of course, represent the freedom of the beast.  Outside society it lets the pent up violence and frustration out through attacking others.  It’s very primal.  And so very human.

What makes most monsters monstrous is their occluded humanity.  They’re scary sometimes because we wonder what they’re thinking.  Are they thinking of us as humans or as prey?  Do they intend us harm or are they innocently trying to communicate with us?  Are they evil or just misunderstood?  Werewolves, for all of their violence, don’t seem to have been evil in antiquity.  By the late Middle Ages into early modernity, however, they’ve been associated with the Devil rather than with the gods.  People who’ve purposely decided to transform, via a pact with evil, are a different class of monster.  Like the concept of witches at the same time period, Christianity demonized them by making them associates of Satan.  Part of the problem is that werewolves have no origin story that we can point to, no myth that says “here’s what they really are.”  As Koosmen’s article points out, transformations go back much further in history, to ancient Mesopotamia.  The beast, it seems, has always been with us.


Jewish and Christian Frankenstein

Among my many potential book projects already started (I tend to work on several at any given time) is one on Frankenstein.  I’ve read several studies of Mary Shelley’s novel and its afterlives, and I have at least three awaiting my attention on my “to read” shelf.  One of the ideas regarding Frankenstein’s monster, about which I’ve written for Horror Homeroom, is whether it might’ve been influenced by legends of the golem.  The golem was a Jewish monster that was animated clay or mud, brought to life to protect Jews from persecution.  The golem, however, is soulless.  As such, he (and he’s generally male) eventually goes berserk, killing indiscriminately.  The tale has been around for centuries and one of the questions asked by Seth Rogovoy in “The Secret Jewish History of Frankenstein,” is whether Shelley could’ve known of the legend.

Frankenstein’s monster and the golem have quite a bit in common, so the question makes a lot of sense.  Shelley and family friend Lord Byron were certainly well read.  The article points out something I hadn’t realized—one of the Grimm brothers (Jacob, according to the piece on Forward) published a version of the golem story a decade before Frankenstein. Whether Shelley knew of it or not is the question.  The two tales might well have been a case of convergent evolution.  Frankenstein’s creature wasn’t intended as a protector.  He was made of body parts, not mud.  The main thing the two stories have in common is the god-like power to animate inanimate matter and the lack of ability to control what one has created.

Over time Frankenstein’s creature has become a classic monster.  The golem, until about a century after Shelley’s novel and its endless adaptations, remained fairly obscure. A silent film series on the golem appeared in the 1920a.  The golem has, however, more recently come into the light.  Several novels feature a golem and two of my favorite monster-of-the-week shows (The X-Files and Sleepy Hollow) had episodes featuring one.  Frankenstein, it seems to me, has a Christian worldview behind it.  The horror, as noted by Shelley—herself leaning heavily atheistic—was in animating something that nature had declared dead.  Victor Frankenstein, as the subtitle indicated, was a modern Prometheus—a human standing in for a Greek god.  The poetic justice here is that this atheistic, yet Christian context, monster ends up doing the same thing as the Jewish golem.  Both throw society into chaos.  Both warn that creating can be a real problem for those who don’t think through the implications of what they’re doing.  This is a message all people could still stand to learn.


Strange Happenings

It all began with a lazy Saturday, back in those days of trying to make a living as an adjunct professor.  People often ask why such folks don’t do more publishing, but the fact is that as an adjunct most of your time outside class prep and teaching is spent looking for a full-time job.  On a weekend, after all the job postings had been examined, I’d sometimes head to the local FYE and look through the bargain bins.  I’d taken to watching horror as an inexpensive kind of therapy years before.  I came home with a two-fer A Haunting in Connecticut and A Haunting in Georgia.  I hadn’t heard of either one, but hey, this was bargain bin entertainment.  It turned out they were television movie documentaries and they were scary, but not what I was looking for.  I resisted watching the theatrical movies when they came out.

Eventually curiosity got the better of me, and I watched The Haunting in Connecticut and its sequel long after their release.  The strangely named The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia dramatized the story of Heidi Wyrick almost beyond recognition.  Since the documentary had been based on a true story I wondered what had happened.  This wasn’t an Ed and Lorraine Warren case, so I turned to The Veil: Heidi Wyrick’s Story, written by two of Wyrick’s aunts.  Much of the book follows the documentary, only, strangely, with less detail about some of the hauntings.  It’s a quick read, and it’s fairly well paced.  It is, however, self-published.

A real dilemma, I imagine, for anyone wanting to publish their paranormal activities (unless they’re already influentially famous), is how to find a publisher.  From my own experience (and I work in the biz), finding a publisher isn’t getting any easier.  Self, or vanity publishing offers a physical book, but the usual gateways to believability (editors, editorial boards, etc.) are missing.  Established presses have reputation to worry about, and why take a chance when you can afford the luxury of buying projects that come to the top of an agent’s pile?  I enjoyed The Veil—I appreciate the effort of those who have a heartfelt story to tell.  But I couldn’t help thinking how much better it could’ve been with an editor’s guidance.  Those of us who write are often too close to our own work to see the problems—this is the real danger in self-publishing.  Hiring an editor is expensive and you need to have the income to do so, often creating a cycle of unaffordability.  I’m curious as to what really happened in Georgia, and I’m still curious after both the book and movie.


Banning Banning

Banned Book Week gets me all aflutter.  There have been years at I’m so busy that it slips by before I notice it, but each year I try to incorporate it somehow into my reading challenges.  This year my book was Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, by Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell.  Yes, it’s a young readers’ book.  Most banned and challenged books are.  Why censorious adults feel the need to keep ideas out of print is pretty obvious in these Trumpian times.  (Please note, dear Republicans, many Democrats criticize Biden on a regular basis; we do not worship him.  American Marxist my donkey!)  Book censoring only serves fascist tendencies.  Ideas will find a way to be born, regardless.

Scary Stories, of course received a shot in the arm by Guillermo del Toro and his interest in making a movie based on it.  The stories themselves are drawn from folklore—they’re populist, you might say—and reflect what passes around from perhaps less insane times.  As an adult a reader tends not to find these stories frightening.  For one thing, many of them are stories we’ve heard before.  For another, life has already thrown many scary things at us.  Not only that, but we try to ban books to make adulthood even scarier.  You see, folklore doesn’t go away just because children are kept from the books.  These stories find the gaps just as water does.  They get told in the dark.  Instead of trying to censor them we should try to talk about them.

Adults’ own discomfort with ideas such as death and decay often stand behind our efforts to “protect” our children.  Then they reach maturity not prepared for the adult world of sex, exploitation, and dying.  Our modern comfort-based lifestyle tries to shut away the unpleasant aspects of existence.  Books, however, are the food of the imagination.  To ban them is to try to suppress the truths that authors have uncovered.  Growing up in a conservative household, we weren’t subjected to censorship.  I couldn’t afford many books, but my mother never said “No, you can’t read that.”  Some of my early reading faced uncomfortable facts.  I read both Jaws and The Godfather long before I ever saw the movies.  I read Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark as a form of solidarity with young minds.  There are benefits to learning to deal with fear early on in life.  And Scary Stories, even if not so frightening, has an appropriate place in it.


Discount Nightmares

Now that we’re past the equinox it’s officially okay to obsess with monsters, right?  (Any excuse will do.)  Nightmares with the Bible was officially a pandemic book.  Academic publishers (especially) found out that books released in 2020 tended to flop.  People weren’t thinking about much other than the pandemic (or crying about losing an election fair and square).  Books, of course, take a long time to write and a long time to produce—it’s not as simple as it looks.  And if your production schedule falls during a pandemic, well, be prepared.  In the case of Nightmares there was the added burden of price point.  When all you’re thinking about is survival, cashing out a Franklin to read about demons seems hardly wise.

Just yesterday I received a flyer, that I’m passing along to you, for the book.  It has a discount code on it (look at part 2 below) so that the book is merely expensive rather than very expensive. Nightmares is part of a series titled Horror and Scripture.  The series, published by Fortress Academic and Lexington Books, is now coming out with its third volume.  The publisher, starting to recover from the pandemic, is promoting all the books in the series.  You see, Nightmares was not only a pandemic book, it also missed that highly sought-after pre-Halloween release.  Books that deal with horror get a boost during the holiday season.  Ironically the same thing happened with Holy Horror.  Both books came out in December when nobody but Charles Dickens is thinking about scary things.

Academic book pricing is based on a model that’s beginning to crumble.  It’s that capitalistic trope of what the market will bear.  The market is academic libraries, and it has been demonstrating lately that even they aren’t made of money.  I don’t know if libraries get to use discount codes or not—it can’t hurt to ask your librarian.  Fully employed academics, however, will sometimes pay a hefty price for a book they really want or need.  My shelves upstairs are filled with books that were overpriced but were required for the books and articles I wrote when it was an expectation of my job.  My next book, which is now in the negotiation stage with the publisher, will be more reasonably priced.  It will likely have a smaller appeal, but you’ve got to start somewhere.  I sincerely hope I’m through writing hundred-dollar books.  Please pass the flyer along to all your rich friends—it’s just in time for the haunting month of October.


Mental Health

Dark Shadows was a formative part of my childhood.  I don’t recall specifics, or even how I found out about it, but I do recall watching it after school and being completely taken by it.  When I do the math I realize I had to have been watching it primarily before I was ten, and then after that I started reading the books when I found them in the used bin at the local Goodwill where they usually cost a quarter or less.  Now they’re collector’s items.  That fact doesn’t change the reality that they are journeyman writing through and through.  William Edward Daniel Ross, under the pen name Marilyn Ross, wrote thirty-three novels in the series as part of his oeuvre of over 300 books.  The stories are formulaic and feature odd word choices, but they are gothic.  Sometimes gothic is just what you need.

Barnabas, Quentin and the Scorpio Curse is a fun romp through a period when Barnabas has—with no explanation in the novel—overcome the vampire curse.  It introduces some Collins cousins who come to an asylum conveniently located next door to Collinwood where murder breaks out and mayhem ensues.  I have to keep reminding myself to put my critical faculties aside when I read these guilty pleasures.  There are gaps and incredulities that are simply glossed over, and that’s part of the world in which they take place.  Astrology plays a part in this episode, as the title indicates.  It features a psychologist who, it would seem, doesn’t know how to do background checks.

The truly scary part of this Scooby-Doo tale is that the protagonists, Diana and Barnabas Collins, aren’t believed because they’re voluntarily admitted to the asylum.  Mental illness is a serious matter, of course, and it can be difficult to diagnose.  The difficulty here is that it’s used simply to dismiss what Diana observes.  Time and again, as the Scorpio murders continue she’s dismissed as “a mental patient.”  It’s all part of a plot, of course.  It does raise serious issues, though.  In the late sixties and early seventies there was a real stigma attached to mental illness.  There still is, in fact.  Ironically, the more we learn about mental disorders the more common they become.  Just about everyone has some neurosis or worse.  In our efforts to define the “normal” we dismiss those with actually diagnosed conditions.  We’ve come a long way since then, but we still need to work at dispelling the stigma.  One way to do it is, I suppose, to put conflicted vampires into the mix.