Reviewing Nightmares

If you’ve wanted a copy of Nightmares with the Bible but the cost is a little dear, I might recommend you look on the Reading Religion website where, as of my last look, a free review copy is available.  The catch is you have to write a review.  This is, of course, first come, first served service.  I tried, more than once, to get Holy Horror listed on their website for review, so I’m glad to see one of my books finally made it.  The idea of the horror hermeneutic seems to be catching on.  Technically speaking, however, what I’m doing is more history of religions than hermeneutics.  History of religions, at least part of it, examines whence ideas arise.  Nightmares asks that question specifically about demons.

The specific focus on horror in religion is a fairly new field of study.  Biblical scholars—indeed, those who specialize in very old fields of study in general—must keep looking for new angles.  Unlike any other piece of literature, the Good Book has been the target of scholarly interest from the very beginning of the western academic tradition.  It’s easy to forget, when looking at many secular powerhouse schools, that the very idea of higher education arose from what is now the discipline of the lowest paid of academic posts.  Being so old, religious studies, known at the time as theology, is hardly a venerated field.  I tend to think it’ll come back.  If you look at what’s happening in politics in this country, it’s bound too.  And yes, there will be horror.

Horror studies in the field operates by recognizing that horror and religion share common ground.  Like religion, horror is considered backward and uninformed.  Neither is really true of either horror or religion, but perception becomes reality for most people.  Finding themselves in remedial class together religion and horror have begun to speak to one another.  Horror has quite a following, even if those who like it keep mostly quiet about it.  The same is true of religion.  Many of the most effective horror films bring religion directly into the mix, often making it the actual basis of the horror.  The first books that I know of that brought the two explicitly together only began appearing at the turn of the millennium.  At first there were very few.  Now an increasing number of tomes have begun to appear.  For better or worse, two of mine are in the mix.  If you’d like to review the most recent one, you might check out Reading Religion, and maybe spare a kind word or two for what are, after all, baby steps.


Learning from Nature

Netflix is one of those companies that has shown that new models for providing both television and movies are emerging.  Of course there are many subscription services, but Netflix rose to the top of the pile during this pandemic.  I don’t watch it much, since my time is generally otherwise spoken for, but I did have a chance to watch My Octopus Teacher, a documentary about Craig Foster’s relationship with an octopus.  The story unfolds over a year in which Foster comes to know, and to be recognized by, an octopus.  Quite apart from the Cthulhu references that may come to mind, octopuses are often skittish, highly intelligent mollusks.  Perhaps what made this movie such a surprise hit was just how emotionally attached viewers become to the cephalopod through Foster’s relationship with her.

Photo by Serena Repice Lentini on Unsplash

Almost immediately in the documentary, the viewer is struck by just how intelligent octopuses are.  The particular personality—and there is no other word for it—featured in this film is able to think and solve problems.  Not only that, but she is capable of forming a relationship with a human being she came to trust.  For many decades we’ve been taught that animals are like automatons, reacting with stock behaviors, because they can’t think.  Any claims to animal intelligence were chalked up as “anthropomorphism,” or inappropriately allowing animals to share in that coveted human trait of being “intelligent.”  The idea comes from the Bible and not even scientists would question it for the longest time.  Spending part of each day with one octopus, however, gives the lie to animals being subject to programmed behavior.  Like both Heisenberg and Schrödinger demonstrated, being involved in the scenario necessarily changes it. 

Animal intelligence has great implications for religion, of course.  This is perhaps why it is such a taboo subject.  What does it mean if animals can think and act intentionally?  Does it imply morality?  Foster implicitly raises that very question as he tries to decide whether to keep the pajama sharks away from the octopus he’s befriended.  Is he watching nature or has he become a part of it?  Our religions are often our ethical signposts.  In more recent years ethics has been shifted to the philosophy department since many people outwardly distrust the obviously mythical aspects of religious stories.  Nevertheless, the implications are clearly there.  Doesn’t it make a difference that our world is filled with other intelligent beings apart from those of us with opposable thumbs?  Watch My Octopus Teacher before deciding on an answer.


Dark and Light

I perhaps have nothing new to say about Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.  It was published before I was ten, and although I grew up reading science fiction I really didn’t read any of Le Guin’s work until this year.  It wasn’t intentional—in a small town you read what you can get your hands on, and cover art designed to attract young boys often worked on me.  Now having read it, I’m left in a reflective mood.  Everyone, of course, comments on the gender aspect of the novel.  I guess I’ll be forgiven for doing so as well.  After all, it is the most striking feature of the story.  As we know from our lives on earth, gender affects pretty much everything about our lives.  The biological imperative is strong.  It’s no less strong in Left Hand of Darkness, but it is different.

In case you’re like me and haven’t read it (until now), it’s not a spoiler to indicate that it is the story of a male envoy to a planet where the people (and only large mammals) are genderless until once a month they enter “kemmering” when one becomes temporarily male and another temporarily female.  The genders aren’t fixed, but fluid.  Since the kemmering stage comes only once a month, during that time it become an urgent need among those experiencing it.  The novel isn’t about only that, of course, but it is the noteworthy feature that relates to the religion and daily life of the inhabitants of the planet Winter.

It might seem that this idea of shifting genders is itself science fiction, but it is not.  There are species on earth that change change gender, bringing into question the statement taken for universal that “male and female he made them.”  While gender seems to be evolution’s solution of choice for reproduction, that’s not universal either.  In other words, nature provides us with multiple ways in which plants, animals, and things in-between, can continue their existence on this planet.  The writers of the Bible weren’t great observers of nature, nor were they scientifically minded.  At a glance it looks like animals all conform to the model presented by Genesis.  In reality, the world is much more complex than that.  Religions aren’t always as comfortable with complexity as writers of science fiction tend to be.  Left Hand of Darkness is fine world-building and provocative at that.  This may be nothing new, but it is worth pondering again.


The Cost of Content

Those who don’t read this blog (you, my friend, are in a rarified crowd) aren’t aware of my antipathy to tech for tech’s sake.  Many people mindlessly go after the latest technology without stopping to think of the consequences.  I was reluctant to get a cell phone.  Not a decade ago I got along fine without one.  When I finally succumbed, I found I didn’t use it much.  I still don’t.  Nevertheless, many have charged ahead.  It’s not the first time I’ve been let behind.  I recently wrote about an organization I joined that unilaterally decided to make all members sign up for Slack.  “It’s better than email,” they said.  What they didn’t say is that it doesn’t replace email.  In fact, what it does is gives you yet another communication medium you have to constantly check.  Why?

Not that long ago—a year or two perhaps—it was recommended that you ask people what their preferred form of communication was.  Phone call?  Text?  Email?  Well, my cell phone plan charges by the call and text so please don’t use that.  My preference, since about the last century, has been email.  I check it regularly and I respond as long as emails don’t get buried by others on top of them.  What did my organization do?  Went to Slack.  How long, I ask, will it be before advertisers and others figure out how to do the Slack stack?  How long before a new technology (giddy giggle) comes along and we all have to do that instead?  I’ve lost track of the number of software packages and apps I’ve had to learn for work.  Several dozens at least.  What suffers?  The content does.

Now I get three or four, or nine or ten Slack notifications a day, through my email. (My computer has no room for a nw app.)  It has compounded the premature burial issue I’ve got.  That email that arrived just yesterday is now on page two.  When will I have time to navigate to it?  I guess I’ve been slacking off.  So now I check my email to see if there’s another system that I have to check to find out someone wants to contact me.  I miss the days when humanity drove communication instead of technology doing it.  Learning some new system isn’t always the solution to complex problems.  Or at least we can find out the preferences of the individual before making them learn (and probably eventually forget) a new communication system.  It seems to me that we should be spending actual time on the content of the communication itself instead of playing with new toys.


More about Nightmares

I became aware of TheoFantastique many years ago.  Being new to social media myself, I was impressed at how professional and intelligent the site was.  Eventually I decided to introduce myself to John Morehead, the creator behind it.  (It is possible to be shy on the internet, so this took a few years.)  When Holy Horror came out I asked if TheoFantastique would post a review of it and got an even better response with an interview.  Now that Nightmares with the Bible is out the tradition has been kept going.  If you’d like to see an interview on the book take a look here.  One of the topics that comes up in discussion is how popular culture—TheoFantastique is cleverly named in that regard—influences the way we think about religion.

Religious studies was, not so long ago, a growing field.  Many of us have been trying to understand why interest began to sag, somewhat abruptly, and came to the point that it now feels like an endangered species.  Two of the consequences of this are important: one is that we don’t invest in studying what motivates just about everything in American politics and society, and the second is that the average person gets her or his information about religion from popular culture.  Movies, for example, are impactful, brief, and entertaining.  Humans are visual learners and although books punch above their weight in the learning division, having someone show you something is faster and requires less commitment than reading.  Academics, most of whom love reading, have been very slow to cotton onto this fact.  Society learns by looking.

That observation stands behind both Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible.  Both of these explorations look at how people come to understand two aspects of religion: the Bible and demons.  Instead of attempting to tackle all of religious studies (nobody can) or all of cinema (ditto), these books look at the horror genre to see how fans come to understand the Good Book.  As the interview explores, other scholars—mostly younger ones—are beginning to realize this is where people live.  It’s rare to find someone who commits to reading an academic monograph unless they’re in the academy.  Even academics, however, watch movies.  When the locus of information shifts to popular culture we need to start taking seriously what popular culture says.  More people will watch The Exorcist than will ever read an academic monograph about demons.  If we want to understand how people understand religion—what religion is—we need to pay attention.  And TheoFantastique is a great place to start. 


Creepy Houses

Definitions, I’m learning, are often a matter of one’s experience and taste.  I’ve read a lot of gothic novels and have tried to pinpoint what it is that creates a gothic feel for me.  I say “for me” because other people sometimes suggest works that I would put into a different category.  In any case, it’s clear that The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters, is a gothic novel by any measure.  A large, isolated house.  A tainted family slowly fading away.  A remorseless, 400-page winter.  Inevitable decay.  The story is ambiguous and moody as Dr. Faraday, the narrator, falls in love with Caroline Ayres, the only daughter of an aristocratic family in decline.  The house may be haunted.  Or the family may be breaking down mentally.  Like The Turn of the Screw, it’s up to the reader to decide.

My preferred gothic has elements of the supernatural in it.  Melancholy without existential threat isn’t really enough to tip the scale for me.  The Little Stranger has enough of both to keep the reader guessing right up to the end.  Reader-response theory—the underlying basis for what’s being called “reception history”—posits that the reader assigns meaning.  The author has her idea of what happened in mind, but the reader contributes their own understanding.  This idea has influenced my own writing.  Once a piece is published the readers will make of it what they will.  In this way I can read Little Stranger as a haunted house story.  Although it was made into a movie I have to confess that I only heard of the novel recently while searching for gothic novels I might’ve missed.

The ambiguity fits the ambiguity of life.  The same circumstances can be interpreted by one person as entirely natural while another will add a super prefix.  No one person has all the answers and reality can be a matter of interpretation.  In that way Sarah Waters’ art follows life.  Interestingly, religion plays very little role in the story.  Church, when it appears, is perfunctory.  The source of tension here is on a rational, medical interpretation of events versus the gloomy lived experience of the Ayres family.  They believe themselves haunted and the scientific answers have difficulty convincing readers that there’s nothing more going on.  This is a gothic novel with a capital G.  Nevertheless, the debased cleric would have been welcome, but you can’t have everything.


He’s Dead, Jim

So there’s this thing called Spotify.  Like most modern contraptions, I approach it warily.  I’m not sure how it works.  Do the artists get paid?  What’s the catch?  Is it only having to listen to a commercial for Amazon every three or four songs, like the radio?  I don’t have a lot of time to listen to music, but when I do have time I like to discover something new.  Then there’s the oldies.  And I can’t help but feel a deep sense of loss at the death of Jim Steinman.  I discovered Steinman earlier than I realized it when “Total Eclipse of the Heart” came out the year my first romantic relationship ended.  That song can still reduce me to a quivering lump of emotion.  All I knew at the time was that it was a Bonnie Tyler song.

Growing up fundamentalist, even album titles like Bat out of Hell, Meatloaf’s Steinman breakthrough, were enough to scare said toponym right out of me.  I never knowingly listened to any of the songs on that album until after earning my doctorate.  When I did I was hooked.  My research skills had grown by that time to include finding out who the writer of a song was.  I discovered that “Wagnerian rock” really spoke to me.  And the only guy who seemed to know how to write it was Jim Steinman.  Most kids, I suppose, settle into their music tastes much younger, but in my thirties and forties I found Steinman a most compelling artist.  I listened to his older stuff, and his newer stuff.  I found out some surprising things, such as that even Air Supply’s “Making Love out of Nothing at All” was a Steinman song.

I seem to be hopeless at playing musical instruments.  I’ve studied piano and taken guitar lessons, leaving bewildered teachers in my wake.  My wife tried to teach me the recorder.  Despite my failure as a player, music means a lot to me.  I don’t listen to it unless I can pay attention to it.  For me it’s not background noise.  When I learned to identify operatic rock, I soon came to realize that it was the work of a singular genius who was covered by a wide variety of artists.  No one else, it seems, could capture the feeling of being young like Steinman could.  Now he’s gone.  In my noodling around with this thing called Spotify, I wonder if I can discover any more of his songs.  Meanwhile, I’m thankful that I found him when I did.


Leap Night

I was quite young when I saw Night of the Lepus for the first time.  Well, I had to have been at least ten, but when I recently sat down to watch it only one or two scenes looked familiar.  Like most poorly done horror films, Night of the Lepus has gained a cult following.  The story is loosely based on Russell Braddon’s comedic novel Year of the Angry Rabbit.  Without the comedy.  Or at least without intentionally being funny.  In an effort to control rabbit overpopulation in Arizona, a new virus is released into the population.  Instead of killing off the bunnies, it makes them grow as large as wolves and become carnivorous.  They go around attacking people with big, nasty, pointy teeth (to be fair, Monty Python and the Holy Grail wouldn’t be out for three more years).

Night of the Lepus was criticized for not being scary at all—a cardinal sin for a horror film.  I was kind of embarrassed when my wife walked in and found me watching it.  Nostalgia can do funny things to a person.  It is almost painful to watch the public officials make such obvious missteps each time they start to get an idea of what’s happening.  They’re almost as imbecilic as the Trump administration was.  Meanwhile rabbits are hard to make scary.  Perhaps William Claxton should’ve read Watership Down.  Ah, but Richard Adams’ classic was only published in 1972, the year the movie was released.  What was it about the mid-seventies and rabbits?  

Part of the problem is that Night of the Lepus takes itself seriously without the gravitas required to do so.  Who can believe actual rabbits are vicious when, to make them monstrous, the movie simply shows rabbits against miniature scenery?  Their human handlers occasionally smear their mouths with red, but a rabbit doesn’t appear cunning and vicious.  And to get them to attack people they had to use human actors in rabbit suits.  I’m a fan of nature going rampant as a vehicle for horror.  Hitchcock’s The Birds did it effectively.  So, I’m told, did Willard (which is remarkably difficult to access with HBO never having released it onto DVD).  The seventies were when ecology began to be recognized as perhaps the most important of global issues.  Half a century later we’re still struggling to reconcile ourselves with it.  Meanwhile the rabbits have begun to appear in our back yard.  They may nibble our perennials, but I’m not afraid.  At least as long as they don’t watch Night of the Lepus and start to get some ideas.


Scary Thoughts

The kinds of places I hang out, online, dictate my reading.  It’s not that I like to be scared, it’s just that I’m honest.  Besides, even when hanging out in person was possible I didn’t do much of it.  So I became aware of Peter Counter’s Be Scared of Everything: Horror Essays.  Like me, Counter’s a blogger (among other things), but unlike me his blog is themed horror.  (This blog has an element of horror but is very roughly themed religion.)  Counter’s book is a fascinating collection of thoughts.  Some of the essays are funny, some are sad, and a few are downright profound.  It’s clear that what gave Counter his crisis was watching his father get shot.  Even those of us who grew up not knowing our dads can see how that experience would traumatize a life.  My own traumas were less focused than this, but we learned the same lesson—it pays to be afraid.

When I was young I never met a phobia I didn’t like.  As I grew older and left home, I came to bring them under control.  You can only get so far in life hiding under your blanket, secretly afraid you might suffocate.  I learned that if I wanted to be a minister—something that never happened—I had to overcome my fears.  Being a parent did it even more.  In order to try to teach your child not to be afraid, you find yourself doing things like scooping up bugs in your bare hands to show that they won’t hurt you.  Like putting a brave face on a truly scary situation.  Like carrying on when everything you’ve built crumbles around you.  Counter’s essays don’t shy away from the difficult things in life.  He’s right: there are many.

I was a monster boomer, but I only really came back to horror after losing my long-term teaching post and longed for career.  Horror helps you cope with trauma.  It gets a bad rap, but mostly from people who don’t understand its therapeutic value.  I don’t like being scared.  Horror, however, reminds me of that cozy childhood feeling of watching monster movies and knowing when it was over the threat would be gone.  Only it never was.  Not really.  Sleepless nights and their febrile dreams may’ve been triggered by the movies, but the realities happening behind the scenes were their real source.  I couldn’t know that at the time, and most of the time I’m not conscious of it now.  Still, I read books like Be Scared of Everything and I think maybe I’m on the right track.


Who’s Upstairs?

The other day the New York Times ran yet another article on UFOs.  This topic, which has been maligned since the 1940s, is now being discussed without mockery in the mainstream media.  Perhaps following the Trump presidency nothing’s impossible to believe.  There are, interestingly enough, many writers who connect UFOs with religion.  And these aren’t all writing about UFO religions, of which there are many.  Exploring the Outer Edges of Society and Mind ran a piece on biblical UFOs earlier this month.  The topic was taboo, of course, when I was teaching (I remember a colleague laughing when I told him I covered it in a course called Myth and Mystery) but it too is now becoming mainstream.  I don’t need to summarize the Outer Edges piece here since it’s easy enough to follow the link and read, but I would point out that a longstanding connection exists between UFOs and religion.

A spate of books on UFOs came out in the seventies and eighties.  Some of those more or less overlooked by the media focused on religion—often the Bible—and how UFOs play into it.  Quite often the biblicist writers identified these unknown objects in the skies as either angels or demons.  This continues to this day with some congressional leaders (many of whom are too religious for the good of the nation) averring that UFOs are “demonic.”  Frankly, if demons are incorporeal, I wonder why they need to fly around in saucers.  Perhaps they too grew up eating too much Quisp for breakfast.  In any case, the connection was made early and it remains.  When we see something in the sky we used to give it a religious explanation.  Now we chant “drones.”

In his article David Metcalfe begins by noting the forthcoming publication of Alan Steinfeld’s Making Contact: Preparing for the New Realities of Extraterrestrial Contact with the mainstream publisher St. Martin’s Press.  The difference between yesteryear with its Quisp and its flying saucer houses, and today is that people are starting to be serious about the topic.  This, I expect, is one of the benefits of increasing technology.  People are seldom without a camera in their pocket these days and although there are plenty of drones and other strange things flying around, the classic UFO hasn’t gone away.  A generation of people endured ridicule and scorn for being gullible.  Now the gray lady herself is asking questions with nary a smile.  Perhaps we’re becoming more tolerant and perhaps we’re more willing to believe we’re not alone in the universe.  Some would claim that even the Bible got in on the act millennia ago.

Image credit: George Stock, via Wikimedia Commons

Helpful Horror

It’s pretty obvious when you meet one.  A horror fan, that is.  For one thing, they’re mostly decent people who often feel like outcasts for their tastes.  They also tend to have a well-developed critical sense for films.  While I’ve never actually met S. A. Bradley, I feel like I know him after reading Screaming with Pleasure: How Horror Makes You Happy and Healthy.  This is a must-read for horror fans and it comes with enticing descriptions of movies you’ll want to see afterward.  Bradley’s range is truly exceptional.  Not only that, but his taste in films leads to an inherent trust that he won’t steer you wrong.  The movies he recommends—the ones that I’ve seen—wholly bear him out.  The man’s a connoisseur.

Perhaps it was because I, like Bradley, was raised in a very religious household, but his recognition that horror and religion are closely related really spoke to me.  With a similar radar toward the religious impact of horror, he notes at several points how the two interact. His discussion includes horror in music and literature as well as cinema.  The benefits of the genre are unapologetically discussed, including the relatively high proportion of women who direct horror compared to other genres.  Unlike other movie genres, horror suffers from a perennial bad image.  Bradley confronts why this is so and also why it is misguided.  The bias is deep and undeserved.  Ironically, many of the same kinds of criticisms are now being leveled at religions as well.

Bradley’s book isn’t about religion and horror.  As someone raised in a religious household and who used horror to cope, however, he understands how the two are related.  Horror can heal.  When those of us in similar settings come to realize that horror is offering a means of getting along in a cruel world, it answers questions in a way that theodicy can’t.  Horror can be an intellectual experience.  It can be thoughtful.  But what comes through here is that it is also honest.  Life is complex and difficult.  Horror doesn’t shy away from that, but brings it out into the open.  I’ve read many books that analyze horror, and there are many more yet to read.  Bradley does something a bit different from many of them—he writes from a broad experience both in life and in the genre and comes up with an eloquent statement about a genre often dismissed.  And those willing to read it come away the better for it.


Movie Demons

There’s an old tradition regarding demons that even discussing them is dangerous.  This was certainly in my mind as I wrote Nightmares with the Bible, as the topic is an uncomfortable one, at best.  A recent story by Paul Seaburn on Mysterious Universe references this danger in the title “Exorcist Claims ‘The Exorcist’ and Other Horror Movies are Sources for Actual Demons.”  Others have made similar suggestions that merely mentioning a demon is a form of summoning.  The post focuses on Fr. Ronnie Ablong, a Catholic priest in the Philippines, and an exorcist to boot.  Fr. Ablong claims that a number of recent cases involve fictitious demons from horror movies that possess those who watch them.  This is scary by implication and indeed is similar to what I learned growing up.

One of the things researching  Nightmares revealed was that demons in the ancient world come in many varieties.  There wasn’t one origin story behind them and ideas that make it seem that way had to evolve over time.  Of course, you can’t write a book like that without watching the movies and reading lots of books about demons.  It is a creepy thing until you start to reach the point where the material starts to break down.  In the case of Fr. Ablong, the demons come from movies, but often movie demons are based on ancient grimoires that name various entities.  The real question, and one which Seaburn raises, is whether such demons are real.  Given that we don’t know what demons are, and that some of the movies mentioned use made-up demons, such as Annabelle, it becomes suspect.

After finishing Nightmares with the Bible I was ready to put the subject aside for a while.  I’ve got other projects going and it’s important to have some balance, even in horror watching.  Still, the article caught my attention because it was one I’ve frequently heard—the danger of “opening doors.”  Often this is done unintentionally.  There’s no doubt that in the biblical world demons were frightening.  They still are.  Part of the reason is that they are so poorly defined.  In many more recent treatments they’ve become somewhat secularized, but they are, by their nature, religious monsters.  There is some truth to the Mysterious Universe story, however; our modern conception of demons goes back to the movie The Exorcist.  This is something I discuss at length in Nightmares and I don’t want to give too many spoilers here.  The topic, it seems, remains relevant even in our technological era.


Visualizing Twilight

Graphic novels still feel like cheating.  That childhood message that comic books “aren’t really reading” has proven difficult to dislodge.  That, and the fear that we are entering a post-literary world, keep me from reading many of them.  Koren Shadmi’s The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television, however, caught my attention right away.  Like many other people my age, my thinking was heavily influenced by The Twilight Zone.  As a kid, television had a kind of authority to it.  This is what adults were feeding us.  Although I was hardly intellectual then, I thought deeply about things and one of those things was The Twilight Zone.  The episodes were profound.  The twist endings certainly were among the best on the tube.  Shadmi’s graphic novel of Rod Serling’s life is a tribute to the influence the man had.

For a graphic treatment, The Twilight Man is strangely affective (yes, that’s spelled correctly).  I tend to shy away from hagiographies, and Shadmi’s treatment isn’t one.  It does illustrate, however, how Serling fought against a commercialism that would eventually win out.  Those who control the money control what we see.  Granted, the democratizing influence of the internet has let competition arise from unseen quarters—there are young people who watch YouTube to the exclusion of television altogether—but few shows manage the impact that The Twilight Zone had when there were only essentially three large networks.  Now we have so many choices that cultural reference points are rare.  Those who’ve never seen it, at least for the time being, know what The Twilight Zone is.

This book is biographical, based on published biographies.  There’s something about knowing, however, that the episodes actually happened.  Being in combat (as Serling was) puts some people into their own kind of limbo.  At least one person in my own family was irrevocably changed by fighting in a war.  The remarkable thing is that Serling came out of it wanting justice for all people. The book even points out that he became a Unitarian, although it doesn’t dwell on that point.  Some things, such as spiritual insights, are difficult to illustrate I suppose.  I can  see why Shadmi’s tribute receives good press.  Graphic novels are a means of telling a story that moves people.  I re-learn this each time I read one, which is something I rarely do.  Now that I’m starting to explore this genre I’m perhaps learning to address my own prejudices.  As long as there are still words to read.


Story Over

Despite my penchant for speculative fiction I tend to read a lot of what’s usually categorized as literary fiction.  These tales don’t fit into any genre and are often colored with realism.  More than one person had recommend Richard Powers’ The Overstory, not least the Pulitzer Prize committee.  In the style of novels these days it’s pretty long and that meant I had to build up the courage (and time) to get to it.  I support the environment.  I have a great respect for trees and try to support conservation any way I can.  The Overstory is, however, a bleak vision of what we’re doing to the planet and to other living beings.  It certainly helps to have read Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees first.  It helps to know the main premise of the novel is based on non-fiction.  There may be spoilers below.

The first part of the book, Roots, introduces us to the various characters—most of whom will interact in the remaining pages.  Most of them are marked by tragedy in their lives and come to realize the longevity of trees has a perspective that can make sense of what, to our lifespans, seems inexplicable.  Several, but not all, of them end up in a conservation group trying to defend old growth redwoods from the insatiable greed of lumber companies and politicians.  The novel ends happily for none of them.  Trees, however, have the ability to outlive us.  While we cause real damage, they have the ability to regenerate, but in ways that none of us will live to see.  Trees see beyond the short, tragic lives we lead, into what may be a more hopeful future.

The other sections of the book, Trunk, Crown, and Seeds, follow events chronologically as the people age.  Some notable deaths among the group have a great impact on the small coterie of those protecting trees.  An unfeeling state and the corporate nature of laws are clearly on display.  They serve the will of those who can’t, or won’t, think differently about the world and our place in it.  Although the novel doesn’t ever cite the source, one of the eco-heroes finds a verse from Job to be of tremendous consolation: “For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease.”  I was glad to see the connection made, but the book left me emotionally exhausted.  With speculative fiction at least you can escape the real problems of this world for awhile.


Holy or un?

It’s either brave or stupid.  Maybe both.  Writing about a movie you haven’t watched, I mean.  Multiple people (do I have a reputation, or what?) have pointed out to me that Good Friday (for some) is the release date for The Unholy.  Since Good Friday’s a week away I guess we’re getting an early start this year.  The Unholy is a new horror movie and although I try not to watch trailers before seeing a movie—too many of them show too much in advance—I already have a sense of what it’s about.  This post isn’t really about the movie, however.  It’s about the bigger issue.  The concern many have is that it’s being released on Good Friday.  One thing I’ve learned is that to get attention you have to shock people, no, Donald?  Getting noticed is difficult and outrage generally works.

Friday, for many, is movie night.  Good Friday is, for some Christians, a day for church.  I’ve yet to have an employer (other than Nashotah House) that recognized it as a special day at all.  Easter always falls on Sunday so there’s no need to give time off work, at least in this capitalist, Christian culture.  But if you try to release a horror movie that day, people notice.  Mel Gibson knew that crucifixion could make the basis of a horror film, and people noticed.  Sitting over here in the backwaters just outside academe, I took to horror as a means of keeping my book writing active.  One reason was that horror gets people’s attention.  (It also helps if your books are reasonably priced.)

As a young man I used to spend a good deal of Good Friday in church.  Since I was serious about school I’m thinking we probably had the day off in my district.  Attending a Christian college, followed by seminary, I suspect these also paid attention to the liturgical year.  Then in the real world I learned the truth—it’s just another day.  A day for going to work and increasing the profits for whatever company may have hired you.  When the day’s over you’ll be inclined to relax, and perhaps watch a movie.  Right now going to a theater opens the possibility for horror itself so I won’t be there on opening night for The Unholy, but I think there was some savvy thinking going on, in any case.  And it may just be that the movie was titled specifically to fit the occasion.