No Dolls Required

Moving is a never-ending process.  We’ve had some new neighbors move in next door over the past couple of weeks.  Seeing their boxes reminded me that we have many we still haven’t unpacked and sorted after over two years.  (That’s what attics are for.)  One of the novelties I found while doing so recently was one of those bookstore impulse buys at the checkout counter, “Voodoo Lou’s Office Voodoo Kit.”  This was actually a joke gift given to my wife some years ago.  In all probability it was me that insisted we not throw it out.  Perhaps I was saving it as an object lesson.  One of the religions I very briefly discuss in Nightmares with the Bible is Vodun.  This African diasporan religion is frequently demonized as “voodoo” because of its supernatural beliefs.

Many religions, of course, harbor supernatural beliefs.  The ballots are still being counted on whether such things exist because we can never wrestle them into the laboratory to measure them with instruments designed for physical applications only.  Vodun isn’t the source of evil perpetrated by the cheap (and often exploited by horror) “voodoo doll” narratives.  It is a complex blend of traditional African religions brought into forceful contact with Roman Catholicism.  We shouldn’t treat it as exotic, nor should it be a codeword for evil.  Like most religions vodun is an attempt to navigate the world of the gods and spirits that people everywhere believe in, even if they can’t be quantified.  The religion was mysterious when first noticed by travelers from the United States and it quickly became fodder for horror films.

We tend to judge religions just because they’re different.  One of the more insidious aspects of global religions is that they create the illusion among their believers that they are the “only true religion.”  Those who study religion professionally know that all religions are “syncretistic.”  There is no such thing as a “pure” form of any religion.  Just try getting a Calvinist and Catholic to come to a common understanding of what Christianity is.  Both want to claim their version as the true one.  Religions, however, have developed as ways for people to cope with the world as they’ve experienced it.  Just because fewer people believe one way we can’t assume their religion is inferior.  Vodun, in which I’m no expert, is far more complex and sophisticated as might be suggested by and impulse buy for frustrated office workers.  Still, it works as an object lesson.

New Twilight

The strange thing about The Twilight Zone is its ability to endure in the minds of those exposed to it at an early age.  Often it’s more the image of it, that feeling of awe and wonder, that remains with me.  Rod Serling cut a sophisticated figure with what, for the time, was an unbounded imagination.  New Stories from the Twilight Zone was the last of the three standard collections of his tales.  Another book of stories published the same year, From the Twilight Zone, is a little difficult to pin down from online descriptions.  It’ll probably be the subject of a future nostalgia-laden post.  Reading the current collection is like déjà vu; some of the stories I remember from seeing on television, and others I’d probably read before.

In some ways these stories are time machines.  A slice of the early sixties.  The cover of my edition emphasizes that dramatically with Serling’s head hinged open and colorful ideas (“weirdies” in the copy) flying out.  Over half a century later the Zone continues to fascinate, despite the obvious context in which Serling originally wrote.  The enduring nature of his contribution somehow validates me, and probably many other kids of the sixties too.  The stories all suggest that the world isn’t quite what it seems.  It relates to what I posted on a couple days back, the weird, the eerie.  In other words, these are good stories.  Timeless in their own way.  Reaching back toward childhood, they help with the aging process.  

Weird tales have become a popular genre, and I suspect the popularity is due largely to the internet.  Those of us who liked stories such as these were an earlier generation of nerds (of the non-technical variety), those who didn’t find sports or girls or controlled substances—the more mainstream forms of diversion—to our liking.  We were perhaps misfits, but we knew we could well find a place in The Twilight Zone.  This may have been its great, subliminal draw; anyone could find her or himself in the Zone.  Some of the narratives were scary, some were funny.  Others were just odd (“weirdies”).  But they could sell books and Serling was able to make himself a household name through his imagination.  The internet has, in turn, made it more difficult to get noticed in its democracy of expression.  Indeed, it has become a twilight zone of its own.  At least it’s one where it’s a simple matter to still find the books that made us who we are.

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.

Aging Music

Poignant is the word that comes to mind.  Perhaps in stark contrast to my listening to My Chemical Romance, I’ve also been listening to the latest albums by artists such as Bruce Springsteen (Letter to You) and Meat Loaf (Braver Than We Are).  And Leonard Cohen (Thanks for the Dance).  In the last case the album was so late as to be posthumous.  Before that I spend quite a bit of time with David Bowie’s Blackstar.  These albums are, at least in part, about growing older and dying.  Now death is nothing new to rock-n-roll, but it seems as if as some of my favorites age they’re sending a message out from the autumn of their careers.  We may still be here, but we won’t be forever.

 

I’ve never really been afraid of dying.  In fact, as a kid I often imagined myself as an older man with some anticipation.  Now that I’m approaching that threshold of elderhood the view is just a touch different than it was to a small boy with a lifetime in front of him.  Leonard Cohen, at least, was dealing with aging as early as Various Positions, the album where he gave the world “Hallelujah.”  And Springsteen has toyed with it in various places, such as Devils & Dust.  What I’m hearing in these songs, however, is a kind of acceptance that isn’t really fearful at all.  It’s as if rock suddenly matured.  So many of the original pioneers died young and tragically, and those who survived have been calling to us like ghosts to let us spend our worn-out days in peace.

Perhaps it’s just that it’s November.  Light is becoming a rare commodity, and it will remain in short supply until around the middle of March or so.  Music helps us through the transitions.  There are albums that convince me I’m immortal.  If I weren’t so tired at the end of the day I might continue to believe that.  On a weekend when I had a few free moments I went to a local CD store.  Wearing mask and gloves, I could see that only people about my age were there to buy actual discs.  We’re not the streaming generation.  It gave me some comfort to see the names of bands I’d almost forgotten.  These artists, of course, will continue to live on after they’re gone.  They’ve left us a legacy.  We’d be wise to consider their advice from time to time.  And take a moment or two to reflect on the coming of December.

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.

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.

Just Joking

I’m not sure when I’ll ever get back into a movie theater, given that our government plans to do nothing about Covid-19.  Still, I recently watched Joker for the first time.  In an eerily prescient move, Todd Phillips envisions the character as tapping into public dissatisfaction with the exploitative and unfeeling power of the rich, who often lead, through their greed, to outbreaks of public unrest.  The character of the vigilante clown coalesces the oppressed of Gotham and leads to riots in the streets.  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of the film since I’d only briefly heard of it secondhand.  It is one of the most uninterrupted stretches of darkness that I can recall seeing in a movie, which, in some respects, makes it believable.

Comic book character films have taken on a life of their own.  Joker explore the backstory of mental illness in a culture that is bent on cutting care for those in need.  Not only that, the movie doesn’t let you think anyone is good.  All the heroes are flawed, and most of them fatally so.  Joaquin Phoenix’s acting, of course, solidifies the story and make the Joker sympathetic.  And there’s a fair amount of truth to the way that a capitalistic society is driven to hold down the many who need to be exploited for the system to work.  Although it is dark and gritty there’s a strong social commentary here.  It doesn’t surprise me that it was the highest grossing film of last year.  You don’t have to be a comic book fan to be drawn in.

Not too many other major films since One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest have attempted to stare unwaveringly at mental illness.  It is an extremely common condition, especially if we consider the number of people who require antidepressant, anti-psychotic and anti-anxiety drugs.  The culture we’ve created isn’t healthy for our mental development.  It’s often cruel and uncaring.  It never helps when people lie to us.  Joker addresses these  realities, exploring the “perfect storm” of factors that might lead to a psychopathic crime lord.  Of course, living through the Trump administration, led by an unfeeling, money-driven “president,” it’s obvious that we’ve set up a system that refuses to confront those who have no business making important decisions.  A system that could conceivably set up such pathological “leaders.”  None of the privileged people in the film cares for anyone beyond themselves.  And they wonder why violence erupts in the streets.  I think I have some recommended viewing to suggest to them.

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.

Ghosts, of a Sort

What happens when we die?  That question is perhaps THE question that drives just about everything we do.  Evangelicalism, masked behind love of Jesus, is really the desperate attempt to avoid Hell.  That idea is powerful and insidious.  The question of what happens, however, has also inspired a tremendous amount of literature.  Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders, is a recent example of how diverse such views may be.  Written mostly epitaphicly, it is a conversation among the spirits in the cemetery the night Willie Lincoln arrives among them.  Fearing what is beyond, these ghosts don’t admit they’re dead, but rather think themselves sick, awaiting recovery.  When the profoundly bereft Abraham Lincoln arrives to mourn his son, things begin to change.  

All through my reading of this book I found myself wondering about the many ways we conscious creatures reassure ourselves about death.  Materialists say it’s like the turning off of a lightbulb.  All goes dark and there is no soul to remember anything.  Many of them claim science for proof, although science has no way to measure the non-physical.  Various religious sentiments of the eastern hemisphere posit reincarnation until one’s soul reaches the point of no longer having to cycle through all of this again.  Here in the western world, influenced by a Zoroastrian-inspired Christianity, we posit a Heaven and Hell.  Some include various shades of Purgatory, which, to the classic Greek, would’ve sounded familiar.  Those who’ve undergone Near Death Experiences often suggest a more dream-like reality of acceptance.

There are many more shades and nuances, of course.  We’ve entered the shadowy half of the year.  Those of us in temperate regions spend half of our lives with nights longer than the days.  Death, however, is generally a shunned topic.  We try to avoid talking about it since we really don’t know what comes after.  We have beliefs.  We have hopes.  We really just don’t know.  We often look to literature to help us explore these topics.  Lincoln in the Bardo does so with some humor, some sadness, and some soul-searching.  Those of us drawn to ghost stories naturally think about them as we wait later for the morning sky to lighten, and find it dark before we turn in for the night.  A great many options await us, some with a kind of historical anchor, and others that are completely made up for our edification.  The one thing they all have in common is they force us to think of that which we really don’t know.

Belief and its Discontents

In this day of self-driving cars and instant, world-wide video conferencing, it is difficult to believe we still prejudice belief in God.  Village Atheists: How America’s Unbelievers Made Their Way in a Godly Nation isn’t exactly what I thought it would be.  Leigh Eric Schmidt is an historian, so this is an historical treatment.  Specifically focusing on four characters from the nineteenth (to early twentieth) century (Samuel Porter Putnam, Watson Heston, Charles B. Reynolds, and Elmina Drake Slenker), Schmidt focuses on a term I’d seldom heard before his book, “the village atheists.”  These men and women objected to the preferential treatment accorded to Christian believers in a nation founded on religious equality.  In the epilogue Schmidt shows that we are still not a nation committed to fairness.

The only crime these people committed (and two of them were clergy) was honesty in their search for the truth.  This was an actionable offense into last century.  Such was the hold of biblical religion in America that holding public office, being on a jury, or even protection under the law was disallowed for those who questioned the existence of the Almighty.  For sure Schmidt has picked out some colorful characters to sketch, but their common theme was that they were simply following where reason led.  In America this was a crime.  Secularists today who claim it’s not still haven’t come to terms with the power of religious ideology.  A deep distrust of the unbeliever remains, even after the four horsemen of earlier this millennium.

For me the question comes down to honesty.  Belief shifts over life, depending on your circumstances and your outlook.  Most people unreflectively stay with the religion into which they’re born.  Those who study it learn to ask questions and the result is belief that may shift over time.  Making what you believe a measure of your integrity is therefore a temporary thing.  This is well illustrated in Village Atheists; some of these people began as fervent ministers.  They, however, were honest about their thought process and were counted criminals.  You have to wonder about a religion that punishes honesty.  Perhaps it’s no wonder that evangelicals have no trouble with Trump’s incessant lying.  To be honest is to be vulnerable.  The people profiled in this study, tried for things we would have trouble believing count as a crime (consider what 45 has been able to get away with), came out of their trials with integrity.  It would be great if the same thing could have been said about their accusers.

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.