Houses of Light

The Lighthouse is a movie we’ve been waiting a month to see.  Since its opening weekend my wife and I haven’t had two consecutive hours free during any weekend showtime.  Now that we finally managed it, I’ve been left in a reverie.  Robert Eggers, whose film The Witch opened to critical acclaim, has repeated the feat with this one.  His movies require a lot of historical homework and the end results have a verisimilitude that pays the viewer handsomely.  The details of the plot are ambiguous and the influence of King, Kubrick, Melville, Hitchcock, Poe, and Lovecraft are evident as two men in isolation grapple with insanity.  Also obvious is Greek mythology, with one reviewer suggesting Tom Wake is Proteus and Ephraim Winslow is Prometheus.  The end result is what happens when literate filmmakers take their talents behind a camera.

Naturally, the symbolism adds depth to the story.  The eponymous lighthouse is phallic enough, but the light itself—often a central metaphor of religions—is, like God, never explained.  Encountering the light changes a person, however, and the results can be dangerous, even as Rudolf Otto knew.  This light shines in the darkness so effectively that no ships approach the island.  The monkish existence of the keepers requires a certain comfort with the existential challenge of isolation, even if God is constantly watching.  The light never goes out, even when a reprieve would be appreciated.  Having reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s Learning to Walk in the Dark since the film opened, this makes some sense.  Horror movies lead the viewer into such territory when they’re thoughtfully made.

The concept of light is central to at least two similar forms of religion that have moved beyond doctrinal Christianity.  Both Quakerism and Unitarian Universalism emphasize the light as central to their outlooks.  Whether it be divine or symbolic, light is essential to spiritual growth.  In novels like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road the idea of an inner light keeps the father and son going.  In The Lighthouse the external light, when taken internally, leads to madness.  Since I watch horror with an eye toward religion—I do most things with an eye toward religion—I didn’t leave the theater disappointed.  I knew that, like The Witch, I would need to see it again but when it comes down to the price range of one ticket for repeated viewings.  Finding the time to get to the theater once was difficult enough, despite the payoff.  

Yeti Again Again

I wish I had more time for reading short stories.  I grew up on them since, like many young boys I lacked the attention span for entire novels.  Many collections of short stories sit on my shelves, but I’ve been drawn into the world of extended stories, perhaps because so much of reality bears escaping from these days.  In any case, I find myself neglecting short story collections.  I have a friend (and I tend not to name friends on this blog without their express permission—you might not want to be associated with Sects and Violence!) named Marvin who writes short stories.  This past week his tale called “Meh Teh” appeared in The Colored Lens.  Marvin often uses paranormal subjects for his speculative fiction.

“Meh-Teh” is a Himalayan term for “yeti.”  Since we jealously guard our positions as the biggest apes on this planet, science doesn’t admit yetis to the realm of zoology without the “crypto” qualifier in front.  Still, people from around the world are familiar with the concept of the abominable snowman.  Maybe because I grew up watching animated Christmas specials, I knew from early days that a mythical, white ape lived in the mountains, and that he needed a visit to the dentist.  The yeti has even become a pop culture export from Nepal, since those who know little else about that mountainous region know that strange footprints are found in the snow there.  Apes, however, like to dominate so we tend to drive other apes to extinction.  Still, they had to be there on the ark, along with all other cryptids.

I recall an episode of Leonard Nimoy’s In Search of that dealt with yetis.  Or was it a Sun Pictures presentation about Noah’s Ark?  I just remember the dramatic earthquake scene where either the skullcap of a yeti or a piece of the true ark was buried, lost forever under the rubble.  Yeti is also a brand name for an outdoor goods company based, ironically, in Austin.  This fantastical ape has become a spokesperson, or spokesape, for the great outdoors.  All of this is a long way from the story Marvin spins about the great ape.  As is typical of his fiction, religion plays a part.  I really should make more time for reading short stories.  In a world daily more demanding of time, that sounds like a solid investment.  And free time is more rare than most cryptid sightings these days.

Author Revise Thyself

Monster fans may have noticed that, despite the season I haven’t been writing much on the topic.  One of the reasons for this is that I’m in that dread stage known as “revision.”  As an editor I often see book proposals—or even entire books—that have never been revised.  You can tell.  I learned this while writing Holy Horror.  If you’re one of the people who took out a second mortgage to buy a copy, the book you purchased was based on a manuscript rewritten thoroughly at least five times.  The idea is that like rocks in a river, all that pouring over a text smooths the words like stones over the millennia.  Few rocks emerge from volcanic or sedimentary situations as smooth and round.  That takes revision.

My peer review report for Nightmares with the Bible came in a few weeks ago.  Nightmares had been revised a couple of times, at least, before I submitted it.  I understand the review process very well, as I deal with it daily.  Sometimes single blind (the writer doesn’t know the reviewer’s identity), other times double blind (neither reader nor writer know the other’s identity), the process is meant to provide feedback on a manuscript.  Having written many more manuscripts than have seen publication, I know just how useful peer review can be.  Like anything, however, it can also be treated legalistically, as if the reviewer knows more about a subject an author has just spent years researching.  No matter your impressions about this, once the reports come in, revision is in the cards.

Self editing is difficult.  And occasionally embarrassing.  You read again what seemed to make sense to you at the time, but even after you hit the “send” button you’ve continued reading.  New information comes to light.  Monographs are a very expensive form of dialogue.  Well, not so expensive as all that.  Many people are happy to pay out the cost of a monograph for a dinner out, which lasts an evening.  A book, mutatis mutandis, lasts much longer.  Like that meal, it’s taken internally and digested.  You can read the same book twice, however, without having to pay the second time around.  It’s a good idea, then, to revise before sending it to a patron’s table.  Ironically, revising a book on monsters takes time away from writing about monsters.  I also have essays awaiting revision, circling overhead like planes at Newark’s Liberty Airport.  And then there’s work, which has nothing to do with my own writing at all.  There’s a reason Nightmares occurs in the title.

Quiet Now

The funny thing about my movie watching is that it’s a reflection of my scattered lifestyle.  While I was teaching my career progression was linear with a goal of moving beyond Nashotah House to a college or university that shared my values better.  Publishing was a fallback, and I’ve learned a lot but I haven’t unlearned my academic leanings.  So, like the rest of my life, my movie watching is piecemeal.  I found a copy of A Quiet Place in a Halloween sale.  My wife bought it for me and on a weekend on my own I watched it.  I had no idea what it was about, but I’d read that it was an intelligent horror film, and that was good enough for me!  There may be spoilers here if you live in a cave, like I do (metaphorically), so be warned.

The backstory isn’t fully spelled out, but the monsters in this movie are blind and attracted to their victims by sound.  The focus is on a family in upstate New York that’s trying to survive without making any noise.  Since there are kids involved, you’ll see how tricky this could be.  John Krasinski’s film builds the suspense wonderfully.  Borrowing from M. Night Shyamalan at his best, and Alien and even Stranger Things, the movie has a odd effect.  When it’s over you don’t want to make any noise.  I watched it while my wife had to work over the weekend, and I put the DVD away as quietly as I could, and then went to bed.  Awaking alone the next morning, I continued the vigil.  Critics praised the movie for its silence, perhaps what we’re most afraid of in this noisy world.

I spend a lot of time saying nothing.  Editing is a quiet job.  Telecommuting is a quiet lifestyle.  At Nashotah House we had mandatory quiet days, which, if they weren’t mandatory I would’ve loved.  I’d seriously considered a monastic lifestyle when I was younger—there’s great value in being quiet.  A horror film that teaches that lesson, despite many obviously unanswered questions, is worth paying attention to.  Horror films have continued to grow more intelligent over the years.  This one is rated PG-13 and will have you on the edge of your seat (or under the bed) anyway.  And it’s got an important message.  For those of us who don’t say much (maybe that’s why I write all the time) a movie like this acts, if you will, as a loudspeaker.  Does anybody hear me?

Panic at the Bookstore

Usually it works like this.  I go into a used bookstore with a list of titles I’d like to find.  Yes, I know I can look them up on Amazon and pay some price gouger more than the book’s worth, but you sometimes find things forgotten on a shelf out of the reach of technology.  When I went into a used bookstore in the vicinity of Ithaca last month I didn’t have my list with me.  When I visit such a store, especially the first time, I don’t like to walk out empty-handed.  The word “Exorcism” on both the spine and cover of Ken Olson—excuse me, Dr. Ken Olson’s book on the subject, well, how could I not?  Exorcism: Fact or Fiction? is published by Thomas Nelson.  That immediately told me something of what the book would be like.  It wouldn’t be an academic treatment, and it would be somewhat evangelical.  Still, I didn’t have my list with me.

Olson hasn’t had an easy life.  His license to practice psychology was revoked after he performed an exorcism and my sympathies are always with those who have lost jobs.  Rejection is, after all, a form of violence.  The book, however, isn’t so much about exorcism as it is about evangelical views of it.  Written around the time of the satanic panic in the 1990s, the book takes seriously the claims of the alleged victims and also the physical existence of the non-corporeal Satan.  This actually leads to a few logical brick walls.  Referring to the body parts of non-physical beings can be an exercise in metaphor, but evangelicals tend to be literalists otherwise.  This discrepancy begs for discussion but receives none here.

The history of moral panics is interesting.  We live in the midst of them pretty much constantly now.  The internet doesn’t really help.  Moral panics are times when particular concerns spread rapidly (for which the web is ideal) without having any critical questions asked.  They often lead to a mob mentality that can victimize the innocent.  Although that’s clearly not his intent, Olson’s book tends to do this too.  If a victim is female, as is often the case, conservatives blame her for such things as abortions, forgetting, it seems, that a male was involved.  Since abortion scares are another example of a moral panic, it’s not surprising Olson treats them along with other forms of spiritual warfare.  Those who turn to the book looking for The Exorcist will be disappointed.  You might find a copy of that, however, at your local used bookstore.

Homemade Halloween

Halloween is a holiday that brings together many origins.  One of the more recent is the tradition of watching horror movies in October.  I don’t know if anyone has addressed when horror films became associated with the holiday, but Halloween hasn’t always been about startles and scares.  Histories usually trace it to the Celtic festival of Samhain.  Samhain was one of the four “cross-quarter days.”  Along with Beltane (May Day), its other post equinox cousin, it was considered a time of year when death and life could intermingle.  Spooky, yes.  Horror, not necessarily.  Many cultures have had a better relationship with their dead than we do.  We live in a death-denying culture and consequently lead lives of futile anxiety as if death can somehow be avoided.

As a holiday Halloween only became what it is now when it was transported from Celtic regions to North America.  Other seasonal traditions—some of English origin such as Beggars’ Night and Guy Fawkes Night—which fell around the same time added to the growth of trick-or-treating and wearing masks.  At its heart Halloween was the day before All Saints Day, which the Catholic Church transferred to November 1 in order to curb enthusiasm for Samhain.  As is usual in such circumstances, the holy days blended with the holidays and a hybrid—call it a monster—emerged.   When merchants learned that people would spend money to capture that spooky feeling, Halloween became a commercial enterprise.  Despite All Saints being a “day of obligation,” nobody gets off school just because it’s Halloween.

My October has been particularly busy this year.  One of the reasons is that Holy Horror, as a book dealing with scary movies, is seasonally themed.  As I was pondering this, weak and weary, upon the eve of a bleak November, I realized that home viewing of horror—which is now a big part of the holiday—is a fairly recent phenomenon.  Many of us still alive remember when VHS players became affordable and you could actually rent movies to watch whenever you wanted to!  Doesn’t that seem like ancient history now, like something maybe the Sumerians invented?  People watch movies on their wristwatches, for crying out loud.  I suspect that John Carpenter’s Halloween had a good deal to do with making the holiday and the horror franchise connection.  Horror films can be set in any season (Wicker Man, for instance, is about Beltane, and three guesses what season Midsommar references).  We’re so busy that we relegate them to this time of year, forgetting that we still have something of the wisdom of the Celts from which we might learn.

Rescued, Technically

One of the scariest tropes in horror (or other) movies is where the protagonist has to rely on the monster (or antagonist) to be rescued.  All the time the viewer is wondering if the monster is going to turn on the hero since, well, it’s a monster.  The tension builds because the situation is untenable to begin with, but there is no other way out.  So lately that’s the way I’ve been feeling about technology.  The first and only time I drove to Atlantic City (it was for a concert some years back), navigating by GPS was still new.  In fact, I didn’t have a device but my brother did so he brought it along.  I remember not trusting it to know the local traffic rules, but once we got into an unfamiliar city I had to rely on it to get us to the venue.  The fact that I lived to be writing this account suggests that it worked.

I no longer commute much.  Still, I’m occasionally required to go into the New York office for a day.  It’s a long trip from here, and to handle the true monster of New York City traffic, I have to leave the house before 4 a.m. to get a spot on the earliest possible bus.  If I do that I can justify catching the bus that leaves the Port Authority before 5 p.m., the daily urban traffic apocalypse.  The last time I did this, just this week, it was raining.  Rain almost always leads to accidents in New Jersey, where the concept of safe following distance has never evolved.  And so I found myself on a bus off route because the major interstate leading into Pennsylvania was completely closed.  The driver announced he wasn’t lost, just trying to find the back way home.  When the streets turned curvy and suburban he asked if anyone had a maps app on their phone.

Lately I’ve been complaining about smartphones.  Truth be told, I do use mine as a GPS when I get lost.  It’s at that stage in an iPhone’s life when it shows you a full battery one second and the next second it’s completely dead, so I let my fellow passengers—every single one of whom has a smartphone—do the navigating.  People on the narrow, off-route roads might’ve wondered what a bus was doing way out here, but we finally did get to the park-n-ride.  The monster had helped us to escape.  And people wonder why I like horror movies…