Thoughts on a Book Signing

I’m a small-town boy.  Having the opportunity to hold a book signing, even if nobody requested said signing at the event, in the oldest continuously operated bookstore in the country was an honor.  This is a prelude to the Easton Book Festival next weekend, in which I have two roles—part of a panel discussion and an individual presentation on Holy Horror.  Putting yourself out there when you’re a writer is important, even if nobody pays attention.  I thought quite a lot about it; horror movies are almost always successful, but do people like reading about them?  Well, some of us do, obviously, but the average viewer, probably not so much.  And then there’s the somewhat embarrassing juxtaposition of the Bible.  People know what it is, but don’t want to talk about it.

Two people stopped to chat at the signing desk.  One was an adjunct geology professor.  We discussed science and religion, which is something on which I used to teach classes.  He thought the book idea was interesting, but not enough to read it.  The Moravian Book Shop scheduled this on the evening of their sold out ghost tours.  Quite a few people came in for a Saturday night, mostly for the haunted Bethlehem walks.  The second conversation was with a ghost tourist who thought the book idea was unusual.  It is.  I admit it.  As I say in the book itself, “If you see something, say something.”  So it was with me, with Bibles in movies.  The bookstore did a nice display, but then, I have an awareness of the smallness of my impact.  No surprises here.

The thing that really struck me was just how many people avoid looking at you when you’re behind a table with your books.  I know I’ve done the same thing.  I’ve gone into bookstores when an event was going on, not knowing about it and having no interest whatsoever in the book being presented.  That’s the way these things go.  I wasn’t doing this to make sales.  McFarland isn’t the kind of publisher you use to make money.  For me it was all about the experience.  It was like seeing my name outside a church in Manhattan.  It doesn’t do anything for you materially, but at least you can say you had it happened to you once.  The signing was advertised in the local paper, and on its website.  Maybe someone out there took a glimpse and saw something that sparked their curiosity.  It doesn’t matter if they buy the book.  As a teacher at heart, it is simply the interest that I’m hoping to raise.

Local Hauntings

In my on-going research (as I think of it), I watched The Haunting in Connecticut.  I recently wrote about A Haunting in Connecticut, distinguished from the theatrical version by an indefinite article.  Both claim to be based on a true story and the story itself is disputed because it doesn’t fit into a materialist paradigm.  Ah, but that’s another can of worms.  Regarding the movie, it abandons the base story to add an entirely fictional subplot that drives the horror.  Or so the writers and director think.  The tale ends up jumbled and the confusion it generates is not the kind borne of intelligent planning.  The Campbell family, struggling to pay the bills against a case of childhood cancer is real horror.  In our healthcare system that is a true story.

According to the diegesis of the movie, Matt Campbell can see the dead because he’s close to death.  In case you don’t know the story—the family has to move to be closer to the hospital where Matt is receiving his treatment.  Once ensconced in their new house they learn it used to be a funeral home and hauntings ensue.  The writer of the original book claims to have made much of it up, while interviews with witnesses make the claim that much of it actually happened.  Matt ends up in a mental hospital.  In the movie a subplot of necromancy and a young boy medium are added.  Souls whose bodies have been bound are trapped in the house until Matt figures out how to break the spell with the help of the medium’s ghost.  Instead of Ed and Lorraine Warren investigating, a local minister is added.  Also suffering from cancer, he figures it out too, but too late to help the Campbell family.

In Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible I do not treat made-for-television movies.  A large part of the reason is that they often lack the cultural impact of a theatrical release.  (Although Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead may have reached a point of familiarity with numbers to rival big screen efforts.)  In the case of the cinematic treatment of the Snedeker (“Campbell”) family, however, the television treatment might well have been scarier than the big-budget studio effort.  Whether fictionalized or not, the Discovery Channel show stays closer to the book (In a Dark Place, by Ray Garton).  Using the Usher-like ending of destroying the house doesn’t seem to offer any release in the big-screen version.  Sometimes reality is scarier than the tales we tell after dark.

Seasonal Music

Music is deeply, deeply personal.  That’s why I don’t write much about it.  There are pieces, I swear, if someone walked in to shoot me when I was listening to them I wouldn’t even notice.  This effect is amplified in autumn.  I don’t listen to music all the time.  In fact, I rarely do.  The reason is, counterintuitively, I fear that music may cease being meaningful to me.  Good things have a way of running out.  The music I like is only very slowly supplemented.  So as the clouds encroached this month, I put on some tunes and I began thinking of appropriate songs of the season.  I’ve heard attempts of more recent artists to sound spooky, but their lyrics don’t match the mood I’m seeking—remember, it’s deeply personal.  So what is autumnal music?

Despite being a fundamentalist, I was raised on rock-n-roll.  My favorite artist growing up was Alice Cooper; in fact, to this day Alice is the only secular rock artist I’ve seen in concert.  Two tracks on Welcome to My Nightmare are among those eerie autumn songs: “Years Ago,” and “Steven.”  This album was profoundly sunk in my psyche before I discovered others.  While not scary in the same way, “Brilliant Disguise” from Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love hits a similar chord.  The melancholy of autumn must be appeased and this song begs to bring it on.  Many of Leonard Cohen’s songs are like the angst of this season bottled up for a restorative tincture, but I was quite a bit older when I discovered Nick Cave.

The Boatman’s Call with its willowy sound and occasionally explicit lyrics, walks that line between a deep-seated spirituality and fear.  There are others, of course, some even fairly recent.  Imagine Dragons’ “Demons” from Night Vision certainly qualifies, as do the first two tracks on Muse’s The Resistance.  But this is my list, and I fear to reveal too much.  Someone who knows your music knows very much about you.  I hear some people discuss music as if it’s a throw-away commodity.  For others of us it has become part of our souls and we’re reluctant to reveal too much.  New members of this autumn music club are added only very slowly, and I reacquaint myself with the long-term members not frequently enough to rob me of their impact.  So it was as the clouds thickened and the cold wind began to blow as the leaves were beginning to turn that I put on my personal songs of the season.  And there was transcendence, but it was, as transcendence tends to be, deeply personal.

Shortchanging Halloween

In a local mall over the weekend where Christmas decorations were being uncrated, I felt cheated.  Now I’m not naive enough to suppose retailers can get by without the black season around Christmas, but as a writer of books Halloween themed I felt as if my thunder were stolen.  The normal person, I suspect, thinks of scary things only about this time of year.  Monsters and horror films are on people’s minds in fall, even though a good horror flick will make a few bucks even in spring or summer.  Halloween has a very small window of appeal, however, followed on closely, as it is, by Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Why can’t we give Halloween its due?

My wife pointed out that Halloween is a big retail event.  Indeed it is.  I started noticing Halloween paraphernalia on the shelves fairly early in August.  I know that even without capitalistic prompting I start to sense the season then.  It’s in the air.  Certain early August mornings you can smell a faint whiff of autumn on a breeze slightly cooler than expected.  The first leaves start to change and fall before September.  It will be another couple of months before the season makes itself felt in full force, but the early hints are there.  A believer in delayed gratification, I hold back.  I  don’t buy, but I absorb.  The melancholy grows through September until as the calendar tells me it is now officially October I can begin to exhale.  This is the time when those of us who are horror misfits can seem somewhat normal.  I walk into a store and “Ho, ho, ho!”  The joke’s on me.

Autumn already slips by too quickly.  Every year before I know it the ephemeral beauty of changing leaves is gone and the subtle chill in the air turns frigid.  Damp leaves are raked up to make room for snow.  The swiftness of this season is perhaps one reason so many people value it.  Summer can stretch long with its uncomfortably warm days and winter can linger for nearly half the year with its opposite feel.  Halloween is a holiday that intentionally falls in the midst of transition.  That transition has been commercialized, however, into buying seasons.  Only halfway through October the price of Halloween goods drops to sale rates.  Corporate offices are chomping for Christmas cash.  What I really need is a walk through the fallen leaves and a few untrammeled moments to consider where we are rather than what we might earn.

Trolls and Tolls

Fall creeps up on me every year.  I like to have an array of seasonal books to read so that when it arrives I’ll be ready.  With house repair costs this year I’ve had to curtail book buying.  That, and most of the titles on my to-read list are used books that seem to have become extortionately expensive since the 1970s.  In any case Cherie Priest’s The Toll stood face out on the shelves of Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca and it caught my attention.  Set in the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia, this unsettling novel brings the reader into the liminal space of the dying small town.  There’s a bit of magic in Staywater, although everyone who lives there knows it hasn’t got long before it goes altogether.  And every thirteen years a monster comes.

Priest knows not to describe the nameless creature too clearly.  The monster seen in broad daylight can quickly lose its patina of fear.  This is some kind of supernatural swamp beast and everyone local seems to know it’s picking them off.  The outside authorities, however, pay no attention to small towns that have “nothing to offer” to the greater economy.  That aspect resonated with me as the erstwhile denizen of a community of less than a thousand.  I watched the dissolving of my adoptive hometown as the tax-base shrank to the point that they could no longer afford to pave the streets and decided to go back to gravel.  Once the oil refinery—what gave the town “value”—closed, outside interest disappeared.  Ah, but I digress from fiction.

The Tool is a moody novel that doesn’t take itself too seriously.  There’s backstory here that remains untold.  Two of the protagonists are elderly female cousins who are comfortable with the spiritual world.  They are the past saviors of this little town in the swamp.  The other characters have all come to an uneasy peace with their periodic tormentor and they have nowhere else to go.  When the monster strikes against unwary outsiders the locals don’t welcome outside attention.  Those acquainted with small communities know that’s what life is like.  Attention brings cash, but often unwelcome change as well.  One of the more haunting aspects of this novel is the number of threads left dangling in the wind.  Not everything is resolved, and life goes on much as it always has, without or without the monster.  A moody read, this ghost story has, it is clear, a deeper message.

Digital First

Publishers these days are all yammering about being “digital first.”  Now, I use technology when I write these days, despite the fact that I am coerced to shut down programs at 3:30 a.m., my writing time, because tech companies assume people are asleep then and that’s when upgrades happen.  Still, even as an author of the modest academic sort I know the unequalled thrill of seeing that first printed copy of my book.  Authors live for that moment.  It’s our opiate.  Publishers don’t understand that.  Five years back or so I had a novel accepted for publication.  (It never happened, but that’s a long story.)  At one point the publisher changed its mind—post-contract!—and decided that my story would be only an ebook.  They tried to make me feel better by saying they thought it would do well in that format.

Who wants to hold up a plastic device and say “Look what I wrote!”?  It makes about as much sense as smoking a plastic device.  No, writing is intended to lead to physical results.  Even those of us who blog secretly hope that someday someone will say, “Hey, I want to publish your random thoughts as a book.”  As long as it’ll be print, where do I sign?  In some fields of human endeavor there are no physical signs that a difference has been made.  Is it mere coincidence that those who work in such fields also often write books?  I suspect not.  Writing is a form of self-expression and when it’s done you want to have something to show for it.  All of that work actually led to something!

Since I work in publishing I realize that it’s a business.  And I understand that businesses exist to be profitable.  I also know that technology sits in the driver’s seat.  Decisions about the shape of the future are made by those who hold devices in higher regard than many of us do.  I’m just as glad as most for the convenience of getting necessary stuff done online.  What I wonder is why it has to be only online.  The other day I went looking for a CD—it’s been years since I bought one.  At Barnes and Noble about all they had was vinyl.  I’m cool with records, but my player died eons ago.  I had to locate a store still dedicated to selling music that wasn’t just streamed or LP.  That gooey soft spot in the middle between precomputer and 0s and 1s raining from the invisible cloud.  I went home and picked up a book.  Life, for a moment, felt more real.

Spiritual Fear

There’s an old adage that if a headline asks a question the implied answer is “No.”  I’ve found that to be true, largely.  I hoped differently when I saw the article titled “Are Horror Films Secretly Spiritual?” by S. Rufus in Psychology Today.  Rufus, admittedly not a fan of horror, ponders whether it might not meet a spiritual need for some.  She would not count herself among that number, should the assertion prove to be the case.  Indeed, her post has more sentences ending in question marks regarding this assertion than it has straightforward declarative ones.  Rufus notes that ancient religions involved a kind of fear-based response appropriate to the lifestyle of those open to constant threat by the natural world.  She seems to believe that civilization has saved us from that.

Now one of the questions with which I constantly struggle is why I watch horror.  I do not like being afraid, and when people find out about my fascination with horror they tend to treat me as if there’s something wrong with me.  I guess maybe I think that civilization has not so much eliminated the sources of threat so much as changed them.  Those who grow up poor know fear.  Fear of want is extremely prevalent in our capitalist society.  I see the “street people” when I go into New York City.  They are not few.  Once you start to get away from affluent suburbs just about anywhere you start to see the run-down houses of those who can’t cope with the demands of a consumerist society.  Even those of us with an education are liable to joblessness and the very real terror that attends it.

Civilization, in other words, comes with its own costs.  Religions originally began—some of them at least—largely from the fear response.  Yes, people were afraid.  The gods, properly propitiated, stay the hand of disaster.  For now.  Some religions, such as those in the monotheistic family tree, tend to suggest higher principles like love can be the motivation.  These religions, however, quickly begin to make threats against those who are heterodox, and reintroduce fear into the formulation.  I suspect, from my own experience of all of this, that the answer to the question may actually be “yes”—horror films do offer something spiritual.  There is a catharsis, if I may borrow a term from psychology, in them.  The spiritual element may, however, run much deeper than that.  Until human society truly takes love and justice as its operating principles, we will have horror films to help us learn to cope.