Remaking King

Pet Sematary is (or was), according to Stephen King, his most bleak book.  The first movie made from it (Mary Lambert, 1989) never reached the iconic status of The Shining or Carrie, but it nevertheless conveyed the dread of resurrection.  It also followed the novel pretty closely.  The new movie version, which came out last year, uses the more slick, modern horror style that just doesn’t have the same feel as the slow pace of dread.  The whole thing feels rushed to fit too much in.  It does add some nice touches, however.  Borrowing the creepy animal masks of The Wicker Man, it adds a religious procession of children to the eponymous cemetery right at the start and uses a mask to add menace at the end.  There will be spoilers here, so if you’re even slower than me at getting to movies, be warned.

The main source of fear, which is only shown a couple of times before the accident, is the speeding Orinco trucks along the road that kill people and pets.  Since horror is an “intertextual” genre there are several knowing nods toward the 1989 film, sometimes lulling the viewer into a false sense of security.  (Can you have security watching horror?)  King’s novel, and the original movie, point to the impending death of Gage, the young son of the family.  Faking out the viewer, the new film has the truck killing Ellie, Gage’s older sister, instead.  While this must’ve made Jeté Laurence’s role fun to play (for the dead child comes back—and when the monster is a fragile little boy of four or five it’s hard to believe) but it interferes with the explanation of death to her that makes up so much of the story.

Why the wendigo is brought in only to be dropped is a mystery.  The wendigo would make for a great movie monster, but trying to squeeze mention of it into an already crowded plot doesn’t really help.  The ending of the new movie is well set up, and the realization that she’s living dead on the part of Ellie is well played out.  Otherwise the film assumes the watcher already knows how it goes.  I suppose that’s a perennial problem with remakes.  The source of horror in the novel and in both films is the idea that the dead can come back.  It’s an ancient fear and one with which all of us eventually deal.  Now that the nights and early mornings are turning cooler and darker, movies like Pet Sematary come readily to mind and we know the horror season has begun.

Documentary

It all comes down to people and honesty.  Given the bald-faced lies that come from the White House these days, honesty is at a premium.  There are, however, always people involved.  And with people you never know.  This issue arises because I’ve been watching documentaries.  A documentary is classified as a nonfiction genre, but it will nevertheless have a point of view.  You need to question yourself about the motives of the writers and directors.  What are they trying to say?  Are they slanting the narrative a little too much in their own direction?  In cases like Ken Burns’ works, there’s little doubt everything is well researched and well funded.  They inspire confidence.  But I also watch more questionable films.

Recently I saw My Amityville Horror, a prolonged interview with Danny Lutz, the oldest child featured in the book and film.  In true documentary style, others are interviewed, some of them skeptics.  The film pointed notes that Lutz’s brother and sister declined to be part of it.  Lutz makes the case throughout that these things really did happen.  He’s obviously not a rich man—he drives truck for UPS—but he’s sincere.  Others interviewed cast doubts on the memories of over three decades’ fermentation.  The point of view here is one that seems to believe Lutz, who is a no-nonsense kind of guy.  At the very end when asked if he’d take a lie detector test, however, the subject seizes up.  It leaves the viewer wondering if we’ve all be taken down the garden path.  Is he an honest man or is he hoping to supplement his income?

A couple weeks later I watched Hostage to the Devil, a documentary on the life of Malachi Martin.  Martin was never a figure without controversy, and it seems that he enjoyed it.  Interviews with friends, and even the agent who did quite well from his book that shares the title of the documentary, argue for his sincerity.  The major players in the field, those who are still living, in any case, all make appearances.  The question that hangs in the air, although the documentary seems to lean towards his validation, is whether Martin was an honest man.  We always have to ask that question when money is involved.  Martin’s book, Hostage to the Devil, has sold over a million copies.  It made a living for an ex-Jesuit who then became part of the media circuit.  It leaves more questions than answers.  I wonder how Ken Burns would handle such topics.

Setting the Mood

I can’t recall how I learned about Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney, but it was one of those books I knew I wanted to read.  One thing I do recall is that I didn’t know it had anything to do with religion until I started it.  It became quite clear that the story—which is difficult to classify—revolves around religion and a kind of gentle horror of things not being what they seem.  Set on a lonely stretch of English coastland where strange things happen, a family takes their mute son to a shrine to have him healed.  The younger brother, not mute, narrates the events.  There are many creepy suggestions of what may be happening, but a full explanation is never given.  That’s kind of like religion itself.

While I don’t normally read the discussion points or classroom/book group discussion material after most modern novels, I found Hurley’s included essay on “Nature, Faith, and Horror” to be of interest.  Several of us, it seems, find the combination of religion, or faith, ties in well with fear.  That was a large part of what I was trying to get at in Holy Horror.  Hurley goes in a different direction with it.  A family under the overbearing religion of the matriarch does her bidding in the hopes of either keeping peace or participating in the healing her son.  We learn from the opening pages that her son Hanny develops into a minister, and therefore has some degree of normalcy.  Hurley is a master of revealing important factors only gradually.  It keeps the tension rising as the story goes along.  There’s no bloodbath, but there is unsettling mystery.

The story is probably best characterized as gothic.  That’s rare these days, and it is the sub-genre of horror that most attracts me.  The mood it casts is kind of a spell and it’s difficult to break.  The Smith family insists on the sacredness of place and on strict religion of the Catholic species.  Evangelicalism could easily lead to horror, and not infrequently it does.  The Catholic variety, however, feels older.  More arcane.  There are things only a priest knows.  And that knowledge can be a challenge to both the knower and the seeker.  The Loney will leave the reader with questions ticking away about what really happened.  These are things we’ll never know.  Those of us who’ve ever entertained religious vocations understand this feeling well.  It stands behind certain kinds of horror and in front of religion, tying them together.

Laughing Maher

I recently rewatched Bill Maher’s Religulous.  I posted on it some years ago, but time changes perspectives.  Thinking back over the fun he makes against the religious, it is really only the Fundamentalist stripe that he scorns.  Whether Christian, Islamic, or even Jewish, he has little tolerance for those who take their sacred texts literally.  The Vatican scientist he interviews makes it through unscathed, but mainly because he’s arguing Maher’s point that the Fundamentalists aren’t at all stable.  Having noted that, Maher barely scratches the patina of the whole wide spectrum of religious outlooks.  Many of them are quite sensible, and some don’t even rely on the supernatural.  What he seems to have overlooked is that there is a vast complexity to religious thinking and people who believe aren’t always benighted.

Long, hard reflection on religion may be rare, but traditionally the seminary was the vehicle for those with the capacity for such thinking.  (Today seminaries are likely to accept just about any applicant and churches are facing shortages of clergy, making the rigorous thinking an elective course.)  It’s easy to make fun of the monks in their scriptoria, but those who learned to think logically—scientifically even—about matters of belief informed the best philosophers and other ”thought leaders” of the time.  If religion was the inspiration of scientific thinking (which then developed into humanism), it can’t be all bad.  Certainly there are and always have been abuses of the system.  Like science itself, thinking through this is a complex exercise.

Religulous is a fun movie.  Bill Maher is a likable narrator and he admits, at several points, to not knowing whether there is a God or not.  It is pretty easy to spot those whose religious beliefs are really more scarecrows than solid granite.  Literalism is pretty indefensible in the age of smartphones and the internet.  We’ve been far enough into space to know there’s no literal Heaven “up there.”  But this doesn’t mean religion has no value.  Many, many sensible religious people exist.  Most of them don’t cause trouble for society or embarrassment for their co-religionists.  Extremists, however, do both.  Unswayed by the damage they do, convinced with no evidence beyond personal feeling, they are willing to risk very high stakes indeed.  Those are the ones Maher is trying to take to task in his documentary.  On the ground religions are complex and psychologically helpful.  Complex subjects, as any thinker knows, bear deep reflection.

Summer of Horror

Summer vacation—or at least what used to be known as summer vacation—is winding down.  Unlike most years when the season is marked by a carefree sense of time off and travel, many of us spent it locked down while the Republicans have used revisionist history on the pandemic, claiming against all facts that America handled it best.  Is it any wonder some of us turned to horror to cope?  My latest piece in Horror Homeroom has just appeared (you can read it here).  It’s on the movie Burnt Offerings.  The movie is set in summer with its denouement coming just as vacation time ends.  I’ve written about it here before, so what I’d like to mull over just now is transitions.  The end of summer is traditionally when minds turn to hauntings.

Doing the various household repairs that summer affords the time and weather for, I was recently masked up and in Lowe’s.  Although it was only mid-August at the time, Halloween decorations were prominent.  Since this pandemic—which the GOP claims isn’t really happening—has tanked the economy, many are hoping that Halloween spending (which has been growing for years) will help.  My own guess is that plague doctor costumes will be popular this year.  Unlike the Christmas decorations that we’ll see beginning to appear in October (for we go from spending holiday to spending holiday) I don’t mind seeing Halloween baubles early.  There is a melancholy feel about the coming harvest and the months of chill and darkness that come with it.  Burnt Offerings isn’t the greatest horror film, but it captures transitions well.  (That’s not the focus of the Horror Homeroom piece.)

Many of us are wondering how it will all unfold.  Some schools have already opened only to close a week or two later.  Those in Republican districts are sacrificing their children (this is the point of the Burnt Offerings piece) in order to pretend that 45’s fantasy land is the reality.  The wheels of the capitalist economy have always been greased with the blood of workers.  (Is it any wonder I watch horror?)  As I step outside for my morning jog I catch a whiff of September in the air, for each season has its own distinct scent.  I also know that until the situation improves it will likely be the last I’ll be outdoors for the day.  It has been a summer of being cooped up and, thankfully, we’ve had movies like Midsommar and Burnt Offerings to help us get through.

The Birth of Horror

In both Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible I concern myself with horror films that have appeared since 1960.  I’m not enough of a cinema studies type to argue eloquently about the various stages of the horror genre on celluloid, but the many histories I’ve read settle on 1931, the year Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein both appeared.  Dealing with more contemporary fare, I often use that as a mental benchmark.  Gary D. Rhodes has changed  that perspective, however.  The Birth of the American Horror Film is a somewhat sprawling treatment of a subject that’s more involved than I had supposed.  Early films didn’t suddenly appear, of course, and Rhodes spends some time surveying what came before the film that eventually produced what we recognize as cinema.  One of the things he notices is that which we call “horror” was pretty much there from the beginning.

Call it morbid curiosity.  While not everyone admits it, it is a pretty widespread human condition.  After surveying literature, theater, and visual culture, Rhodes moves on to consider many different genres of pre-1915 horror.  Some of them don’t strike every reader as horror today, but that’s a point I tried to make in Holy Horror.  The definition depends on the viewer.  Rhodes suggests throughout that American viewers tended to prefer non-supernatural horror.  While statistically this may be true, he devotes several chapters to genres that fall into the supernatural category.  These were, in the opinion of this reader, the best in the book.  One of the reasons is that horror and the supernatural naturally go together.  Many of us working in this field have noticed, some with embarrassment, that the two are closely related.

What might strike other readers as starkly as it did me, is just how terribly prevalent “horror” films were before there was a proper genre.  Rhodes makes the point that even if we like to think otherwise of ourselves, if there hadn’t been a substantial market for such movies they wouldn’t have thrived.  Some of them, like murder mysteries and other dramas, we might cast more as “thrillers” today.  I included a few of them in Holy Horror.  The real terror, however, often arises from subjects that were somewhat taboo in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  Religion was handled with all seriousness.  I wonder if this might be one of the reasons that the supernatural didn’t appear, in the early days, as much as it would later.  This is one of those books that raises many questions such as this, and that makes me glad that the author is working on a sequel.

Creation of Horror

I recently read the article “The Christian Worldview of Annabelle: Creation” by Neil Gravino on Horror Homeroom.  I’m pleased to see that the complex world of religion and horror is being addressed by other scholars.  (I know that many actually work in this area, but if you don’t have access to an academic library finding their articles can be impossible.  Also, did I ever think I would miss Religion Index One and Two so much?)  Since I have a piece that is scheduled to appear on Horror Homeroom concerning the 1976 movie Burnt Offerings, I’m glad for the company.  As in my article, Gravino makes the case that the relationship between horror and religion (the Christianity of Annabelle: Creation and its need to be a horror film) is fraught.  This is something I describe in some detail in Nightmares with the Bible.

Back when I was writing Holy Horror I realized that putting individual horror films into a series creates continuity issues.  Annabelle: Creation is part of the wildly successful Conjuring franchise, the latest installment of which has been delayed by the pandemic.  Depending on how you count it, there are already seven films in that particular universe and the shifting of the story is the focus of an entire chapter in Nightmares.  The reason it requires such sustained attention is that, apart from being the most successful horror franchise after Godzilla, these movies are squarely based on Christianity.  Lacking the unrelenting gravitas of The Exorcist, they feature (in the main branch of the diegesis) the Catholics Ed and Lorraine Warren.  In an almost Dantesque view of Heaven and Hell, the characters struggle with monsters that hover between ghosts and demons.  They’re closer to the latter.

Many horror films—but by no means all—are based on fears associated with religion.  That religion isn’t always Christianity, as both The Wicker Man and Midsommar show, but the warnings against extremism apply equally to belief systems across the board.  Another thing I miss, being outside the academy, is the funding to do some in-depth research on this.  It’s good to know that others are seeing what I’m seeing as well, as is appropriate when you encounter something unexpected.  Our religion haunts us.  The reasons we believe are often tied to the self-same fear that the religions themselves generate.  And like religions, horror movies hold the possibility of earning quite a lot of money.  The parallels should not, I believe, be overlooked.

Mummy’s Daddy

Now that I’ve broached the subject of the Agade listserv, I’m bound to find some interesting stories therein.  The title of this blog “Sects and Violence in the Ancient World” is an artifact that demonstrates eleven years ago I was still keeping up with Ancient Near Eastern studies.  I was calling it “Ancient West Asian studies” then, but I’ve been in publishing long enough to know that shifts in terminology are frowned upon by those in an industry that moves at a glacial pace.  (Just remember that the tortoise wins in the end.)  In any case, one of the recent articles on Agade had to do with the “curse” of Tutankhamen’s tomb.  This is an idea that goes back to the 1920s and was in some respects expressed in the Universal monster film The Mummy.  In pop culture the idea lives on.

Photo credit: The New York Times (public domain)

It seems that some, but not all, of those involved in opening Tut’s tomb died in unusual ways shortly thereafter.  The deaths were not concentrated within a day, let alone a week or a month, and some of them were natural but premature.  The ideas of curses, however, fit the spiritual economy of the human psyche so well that they suggest themselves in such circumstances.  A run of bad luck may last for years, causing the sufferer to think they might be living under a curse.  It is, in many ways, the pinnacle of magical thinking.  No matter how scientific we become the idea never goes completely away.  Just when Mr. Spock seems in control of the Enterprise Harry Potter beams aboard.  Our minds are funny that way.

The particular article I saw was one that had clearly followed on an earlier piece that I had missed.  It mentions “the documentary” but doesn’t say which one.  I suppose there are many such filmed attempts to make sense of memes such as the Pharaoh’s curse.  From my teaching days I have documentaries about a number of weird things that the History or Discovery channel, and maybe A&E, spun out back in the Dark Ages.  I’m not convinced that scientific thinking is really under any threat from such journeys down the paths of speculation.  I’m also not sure that there really is any connection to the various deaths surrounding the Carter expedition in 1922.  In just two years’ time we’ll be at the centenary of the discovery of the tomb and I’m sure there will be plenty of information on offer then.  As long as the curse doesn’t get us all first.

Back in the Zone

In general I’m a fan of reading the book before seeing the movie.  In some cases, however, the written version comes later.  A few months back I started to have a hankering for stories written by Rod Serling.  I’m aware that he mainly wrote scripts, but I also know he had a rare talent for doing so and most of the books I’d collected as a child were collections connected to Serling but not written by him.  He had, during his lifetime, “novelized” three volumes of Twilight Zone scripts into books of short stories.  The second of those books, More Stories from the Twilight Zone, is one I’d not read before.  I remembered some of tales from episodes I’d watched while others were new to me.  All that they have in common is that something isn’t as it “should be.”

This “oughtness” is an illusion, as we’ve learned over the past four years.  Each day has an incredible sameness even as everything changes radically, almost daily.  To me that’s one of the comforting aspects of the Twilight Zone in these days.  Not only does it take me back to my childhood, but it also prepares me for the unexpected.  Rod Serling was a great metaphorical writer.  Quite often on this blog I try my hand at it, writing posts that are apparently about one thing but that are really about something else.  I think most of us tend to be literalists when we read (thus the crisis literalism has wrought when it comes to the Good Book).  Unless we know to shift our focus we take things at face value.  These stories try to teach us otherwise.

Some of these stories anticipate Stephen King.  Others reflect Ray Bradbury.  They are eclectic but unified by a voice that was able to see that the world could actually stand some improvement.  People could treat each other better.  Without being preachy, they are often like morality plays.  Of course that is my experience of reading them.  Readers differ in their responses.  The Twilight Zone was an influential series in a world open to new experiences.  If the twentieth century has taught us nothing else it has shown us that we can take nothing for granted.  To go deeper than the surface, that’s as it should be.  What are the stories really about?  A large part of it will depend upon what the reader takes away from them.  All of this is very helpful, at least to this reader, in times like these.

Fear Writing

Unless your publisher is good at marketing, that book you spend years on will remain unknown.  That “share” button in the right hands can make all the difference.  The other day while searching for reviews on Holy Horror I came across Scriptophobic.  The website had started a column titled “Holy Horror,” and so I contacted them asking if they’d like to review my book that shared the title.  They graciously accepted.  I want to drive traffic (in as far as I can drive anything) to their website, so I’ll simply say the review may be found by following this link.  It’s too early to tell if it will raise much awareness, but I’m glad to see a review at last.  I suppose I should let the publisher know.

Reviews are one way to get notice about a book out there.  It may not help that the idea behind the volume is a strange one: what can we learn about the Bible by watching horror?  (Or, as the reviewer points out, some not-quite horror.)  I’ve always had a bit of an issue, I suppose with strict genres.  Movies I consider horror may not be so for someone else.  I’ve read enough theory to know that even the experts have a difficult time pinning it down.  The real unifying factor behind the book is actually the Bible.  If I’d waited a little longer to write it I would’ve had more material to use, but I’m not getting much younger, and I needed to get the ball rolling or continue to wish I had.  Holy Horror really falls into the category of reception history, and more specifically as the study of iconic books.  Many biblical scholars, I’m discovering, have no interest in horror, or pop culture.

Books that bring unusual ideas together have always appealed to me.  Were I in a university department I would’ve asked colleagues to comment and critique, but this was a book done solo.  Appropriate to horror, perhaps, I was pretty much isolated when I wrote it.  Still, all things considered, I’m pleased at how it turned out.  No reviews have appeared on biblical sites, and I’ve always found the horror community to be so much more welcoming anyway.  That should be saying something right there.  Think about it.  In any case, if you’re interested in what intelligent horror fans think of a book like my humble effort to start a discussion, I encourage you to take a look.  Don’t wait for the biblical studies reviews unless you care to wait a very long time.

No Smoking

I have never smoked anything in my life.  As a kid with chronic bronchitis few things scared me as much as being unable to breathe.  I have not assassinated anyone or consorted with aliens—at least not that I know of.  Otherwise I think I understand the Smoking Man.  As far as my X-Files rewatching saga goes, I recently reached “The Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man.”  I remember the first time I saw it I found it improbable that the assassinations of the 1960s were the work of a single man.  What hit me this time around, however, was the Smoking Man’s real frustration in life.  He wants to be a writer.  Having completed several novels myself, none published, I have received pin-head letters very much like those he does in this episode, only in greater quantities.  When he finally finds a publisher, he writes his resignation letter to whomever hires assassins and those who change the course of history.  I know just how he feels.

You’d think that by the logic of any reasonable system that those who work in an industry might have some inside tracks.  Some, no doubt, do.  Others of us in publishing are just like the average, uninformed person on the street.  Publishing is a cliquish place.  A friend with some success getting novels published advised me to look at the names of editors and editorial boards on the literary journals that get noticed.  “You’ll see the same ones coming up over and over,” he said.  It is, as the Smoking Man discovered, a kind of cabal, which is, I suspect, the point of making him out as a frustrated novelist.  He can set the course of history, but he can’t get a legitimate novel published.  Cue the X-Files theme. 

I know many academics who write fiction.  My second novel (depending how you count these things—this one was never finished) was a pet project while I worked at Nashotah House.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to publish it when I worked there.  In fact, my first fiction publication only came three years after being shoved out of the nest of academe.  I’ve completed seven novels now and I’ve managed to get some short stories published.  Then again, I don’t have clandestine knowledge from a lifetime of access to the truth about alien-human interaction.  I don’t shoot people for a living.  I’m not even a professor any more.  Still, I think I can begin to understand why someone might turn toward a more interesting career, given the situation when it comes to getting published.

Potboilers

“Potboiler” is used in publishing to describe a book written merely to keep a writer going.  Full-time authors are comparatively rare, and many occasionally resort to churning out books simply to generate income.  I have no doubt that most of them start out as most artists do—creative, and looking for a career that allows them to be so.  If you want to earn money, to keep your pot boiling, you need to follow the formula.  Those are my thoughts on having finished the last book for this year’s Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Reading Challenge.  One of the categories was three books by the same author and I had three unread Dark Shadows books by Marilyn Ross.  Barnabas, Quentin and the Frightened Bride, number 22 in the series, was clearly a potboiler.

As I’ve confessed before, these books are guilty pleasure reads for me.  My literary tastes have changed over the years, however, and such journeyman writing sometimes betrays itself.  Even if a book has vampires and werewolves.  Dark Shadows was a melodramatic soap opera of my youth.  Still, it was moody and gothic—something these books manage to convey, even if the stories don’t live up to their promise.  Some of the plot elements in this particular installment don’t even line up, and having read Jane Eyre I’d guessed the ending shortly after the beginning.  I often wonder how the book series might have turned out with a truly literary attempt to tell the story.  Writing takes time.  Good writing takes a lot of time.  But even writers have to eat.

I’m not a Dark Shadows connoisseur.  I haven’t bought the original television series on DVD and I haven’t watched it since I was about ten.  Early memories, however, are formative.  With a remarriage, a death in the family, and a move, childhood got swept away rather swiftly, and along with it, watching Dark Shadows.  The series ended in 1971 after over 1200 episodes had been filmed.  Ross’ serialization began during the six-year run of the series, and, I suspect, he had to keep up a hectic pace.  Books 13 through 24 were all published in 1970, a rate of over a book a month.  I’ve suggested before that academics ought to take pop culture seriously.  Even before this era of fandom becoming mainstream, Dark Shadows spun off a small media empire and it continues to retain public interest.  The daily show struggled, despite being partially modeled on Jane Eyre, until the supernatural was introduced.  Although the Ross novels may not always show it, the hunger remains for supernatural explanations.

In the Zone

Since it lies somewhere between waking and sleeping, between youth and old age, the Twilight Zone is often where I find myself.  I’m hard pressed to say why the show made such an impression on a young and otherwise religious mind.  Maybe it was because religion itself deals with the Twilight Zone of human experience.  In any case, reading Rod Serling’s Stories from the Twilight Zone, as I continue to make my way through the books of my childhood, was a trip down memory lane.  While living in coronapocalypse, these short stories, novelized from Serling’s teleplays, take you back to a different time.  The late fifties and early sixties seem so very different from where we are now.  And reading about them, I’m not sure why some people want to go back there.

At the same time, reading the physical book takes me back.  My edition was printed in 1964.  It smells like an old book.  It has that unmistakable feel of pulp fiction.  Reading a book is so much more than scanning the words with your eyes.  It’s the lying on your back on a lumpy couch on a hot, humid summer day after being at work for endless hours.  It’s the foxing of the pages and the almost laughable cover design.  But more than that, it’s a signpost back to childhood.  This is a book I first held before leaving home.  It was a refuge from a tense life never knowing what might happen in a day.  Believing that escape was possible could save a soul from a ton of grief.  At the same time, those characters who do escape often learn why that isn’t the best option after all.

Some of these stories I remembered from the shows I watched, while others seemed unfamiliar.  There really are no surprises here.  You see, the Twilight Zone was long ago and the stories have entered our national consciousness.  Some have been borrowed, adapted, and parodied by others.  Others, such as “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” were even part of anthologies we read and discussed in school.  Why are human beings so distrustful of others?  I remember us talking about that in class.  Serling’s version has a more grim ending, it seems, that the one I recollect as a youth.  Sitting here in coronapocalypse, however, I see it playing out around me every day.  We don’t know who might be infected.  And suddenly reading about the Twilight Zone seems like a most sensible thing to do in the circumstances.

Skywalker Arises

Maybe, if you’re like me, you find the Star Wars franchise a little hard to keep straight.  Ever since the end of Episode VI the number of characters with strange and oddly short names jumped.  The rate of light saber duals skyrocketed, and the story grew more complex (and not always with any payoff).  I suspect that like many I kept watching the second trilogy of episodes I through III out of a sense of duty, longing for that pathos that stayed with me after leaving the theater (remember theaters?) following episodes IV through VI.  Hope awakened along with the Force in Episode VII under the able hand of J. J. Abrams.  Then the stinker of Episode VIII, which my wife and I watched in a cold theater in Bernardsville, New Jersey, dropped us back into the realm of I through III.  I didn’t even notice when Episode IX, The Rise of Skywalker came out last year.  DisneyPlus, to which many people subscribed just to watch Hamilton, made it possible for us to round out the trilogy of trilogies on the small screen.

While better than The Last Jedi, the story ran into the standard sequel problems of probing relationships between characters that a crisp story tends to leave ambiguous.  But there were, to my religious eye, many themes that seemed quite Christian.  There was buzz when Kylo Ren’s cruciform light saber appeared in The Force Awakens, but the Christian tropes were more obvious as the series wound down.  Rey, for example, finds out about the wayfinder from the first physical book of the series.  It’s old and leather-bound and iconic.  This is a kind of Bible.  Jedis are shown to be increasingly messianic, and I thought having a female messiah was a nice touch.  I was going to write “as the series closed,” but with the money made there’s little doubt that more will come from a galaxy far, far away.

Rey’s impressive Jedi feats look like miracles and her ability to raise the dead (or dying) and to heal in a time of an evil empire (for ancient Christians, Rome) rings familiar to those with Bible radar.  The name Skywalker should’ve been a clue from the beginning (as it was for those of us who crowded the theaters in 1977), and the final shot of Rey on Tatooine where the setting of the binary stars make a halo around her head should eliminate any doubt.  There are many throwbacks to the original trilogy in this final installment, and although the plot was more complex than necessary, it leaves the armchair theologian in a nice place.  But some of us will always think of the holy grail as that found back when the evil in our own empire seemed, if briefly, to be waning.

Contrariwise

When you set out to research a topic, reading is the first step.  These days you can’t possibly keep up with everything that’s written—particularly on the internet with its endless iterations and reiterations, and incipient plagiarism.  Even books often come at you in great numbers, from angles you don’t expect.  Apart from holidays, daily life doesn’t give much time for reading.  So how does one get a handle on H. P. Lovecraft?  I’d been aware of Michel Houellebecq’s essay, H. P. Lovecraft Against the World, Against Life for some time, but as always, finding time is the trick.  This short book, however, is profoundly insightful.  Not a biography and not literary criticism, it is more an appreciation of a misanthrope.  One of the things that Houellebecq makes clear is that Lovecraft was a man out of his time.

Continuing the tradition of French writers appreciating the more macabre of American writers (Poe was celebrated more in France than his native country), Houellebecq pays tribute, but doesn’t fawn over, Lovecraft.  In this series of brief essays he manages to highlight much that might remain hidden to those who know H. P. from either only his writing or from the somewhat small circle of experts on him.  Sometimes it helps to break away from the experts to get a fresh view.  I’ve read quite a lot of Lovecraft’s fiction, and when you do this you tend to think you know the author.  You may or you may not.  To know is to delve.  And delve Houellebecq does.  

Serious reflection is too often considered a luxury.  With the exception of a few privileged occupations, think of what would happen at work if you took to reflecting while on the clock.  Those who dole out the lucre prefer to see signs of busyness—fingers clacking keyboards and numbers being lined up, preferably in the black.  Time thinking, so capitalist thought goes, is time wasted.  If you can sell enough copies of your book to afford a little time off for reflection you can make connections, I presume.  You can see things that those who are too busy cannot.  There are many astute observations in this slim volume.  While not making excuses for Lovecraft’s faults, Houellebecq doesn’t attempt to correct him either.  That’s difficult to do with a person, if the author is correct, who hated life itself.  Books like this also demonstrate that a huge word count isn’t necessary for erudition.  And it is still possible to learn, even with limited time.