The Essex Serpent isn’t what it appears to be. Sarah Perry’s debut American novel (although it’s her second elsewhere, publishing being the strange beast that it is) was much anticipated. Like the serpent itself, the novel is difficult to describe. It comes down to a minister, a widow, and the people with whom they associate. Instead of going through the complex storyline, I would instead note that once again a novel that explores religion has garnered quite a lot of attention. It’s difficult to believe the official narrative that we’re constantly fed that religion is well beyond its expiration date when it continues to appear in print media as a prime motivator for people in all kinds of situations. Novels, however, aren’t popular in the way television, movies, and video games are, so this is worth pondering.
While novels are sometimes disparaged in higher education, their clientele tends to be an educated one. It takes more commitment to sit down and read a 400-page tome than it does to flip on some device and meander from app to app, channel to channel, or website to website. Novel reading takes some concentrated effort. Remembering characters and connections across a span of days or weeks as you wend your way through. And one thing novelists do, at least in my experience, is explore the way religion makes us who we are. I don’t choose novels for that reason; I thought The Essex Serpent would be a monster story (remember, I don’t read reviews before reading the book).
My guess is that if you read this blog you’re a potential reader of novels like this, so I won’t offer any spoilers. The book is suffused with biblical language, as befits a story with a clergyman as a major character. The protagonist, however, is an irreligious widow on a journey of self-discovery. Having been dominated by a wealthy husband, she now explores paleontology in a Victorian context. Although the year is never stated, the novel manages to find that Gothic near-ghost-story feel with the close interplay of death by consumption and fear of the dark. It’s not a scary book by any means, although there’s plenty of mist in Essex, and a little gruesome detail of what people can do to each other. The novel caught my attention via reviews I never read and has left me pondering what I’ve just experienced. And it has reinforced my conviction that, despite what the critics may say, religion is what motivates us, whether we admit it or not. And serpents may not be what they seem.
Although I don’t read movie reviews until after I’ve seen a film, I have a confession to make. With rumors swirling of The Conjuring 3, and since a chapter of Nightmares with the Bible will involve The Conjuring, I was a little curious what it might be about. Word on the street—and by “street” I mean “internet”—is that it will feature the case of Ed and Lorraine Warren that’s presented in Werewolf. Co-written by William Ramsey (the victim) and Robert David Chase, the book describes the strange malady of Ramsey, who never actually changed into a wolf, but for inexplicable reasons (at the time) thought himself a wolf and took on a wolfish look as he attacked people. The reports suggest he had preternatural strength at such times.
Since most of the Warrens’ books are concerned with demons, it should come as no surprise that in this case that was the diagnosis as well. With no real reason given, once upon a childhood evening Ramsey was possessed and occasionally broke out into violent fits. He landed in a psychiatric hospital a couple of times, but was eventually released. Noticed by the Warrens on one of their trips to England, Ramsey was invited to come stateside for an exorcism. According to the book, the rite was successful at least up until the time of publication. That’s the thing about demons—you can’t always tell for sure when they’re gone.
It’s pretty obvious why such a story line would appeal for a horror flick. You’ve got a werewolf, an unnamed demon, and an exorcism—there’s a lot to work with here. Weird things happen in the world, and there’s not too much to strain the credulity in this case. It would seem possible that a mental illness could cause much of what’s described as plaguing Ramsey, though. Its episodic nature is strange, I suppose, and the Warrens had a reputation for spotting demons. I did miss the conventional elements of the exorcism, however. No demon forced to give its name, no levitating and no head-spinning. Not even a bona fide bodily transformation. They’ll be able to fix that in Hollywood, I’m sure. Credulous or not, there will always be people like me who feel compelled to read such books. And since there’s no final arbiter but opinion in cases of the supernatural, that can leave you wondering.
Posted in Books, Monsters, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged demons, Ed and Lorraine Warren, exorcism, Nightmares with the Bible, Robert David Chase, The Conjuring 3, werewolf, William Ramsey
Now that Holy Horror will be appearing soon, I’ve been neglecting my horror movies. It’s not on purpose, I assure you. I don’t feel comfortable speaking as a writer—publishers tend to agree with that, and besides, my job is more of being a reader—but my experience of it suggests you never have enough time. (Or money; movies never come with no costs.) With another book under contract and a lot more going on behind the scenes than I reveal on this blog, as Morpheus says, “Time is always against us.” So when my wife showed me a story about Hereditary, I knew my list of must sees would only continue to grow. I haven’t even seen Get Out yet!
Beyond being simple guilty pleasures, horror films area also a means of coping. I know this because although they’re generally very successful at the box office, I’ve rarely met anyone who admits to watching them. Horror thrives on secrets. We act one way in public, and a different way when we shut the door and pull the drapes. Since we’ve outlived our belief in gods and heroes, cinema has taken the role of mythology in modern life. Crammed with archetypes—and yes, stereotypes—movies act out age-old themes in impressive displays of color and sound. You might even learn something without trying. Mythology may have originated in stories told around the campfire, but science never displaced the need for hearing them again and again in different media.
I’ve taken to writing books about films because it’s clear that meaning lies there for many people. The invention of cinema and television forever changed culture. Yes, there’s cheap, thoughtless material available in both formats. Still, movies have an ability to convey truths in a way that sermons often fail to do. The values they depict are often very human ones. Horror, for example, isn’t about blood and gore. It’s about survival. That’s not to say the protagonists always reach a happy ending, but we learn from their mistakes. There’s a reason you shouldn’t open closet doors in a house not your own. Those who do, however, often find uncomfortable truths inside. Holy Horror looks in the closet at the way the Bible functions iconically in horror. Since writing it I continue to notice the Bible in horror and I feel affirmed in the conclusions I drew. And if only I had a bit more time, I’d be watching more mythology. And the list only keeps getting longer.