In Pictures

Old photographs are haunting.  One thing I’ve long noticed about high school pictures from the early twentieth century is that those kids look much more grown up than today’s graduating seniors.   (Or even my graduating class, for that matter.)  We’ve extended childhood since then, now stretching it into young professional stage.  Who doesn’t want to be forever young?  It seems to me that those who spend time in bookstores know about the Images of America series of books.  These record what local historical societies collect and put them out there for public consumption.  Some day I’ll get them for all the towns I’ve called home.  For now, however, I wanted a peek at the early days of Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow.  If you’re by chance not familiar with the series, these books have captions and brief introductions to chapters so there’s context to explain it all. But the pictures are the draw.

One of the other features I noticed was that in a number of group photographs, a person or two is often listed as “unknown.”  It’s a fair bet that the other people in those antique images knew who these forgotten individuals were.  Photography, however, doesn’t really help those born before the mid-nineteenth century.  The photograph has a mysterious power.  It preserves a moment in history and as soon as the shutter clicks we’ve already become an older person.  In my work I have to locate people and I do so on university websites.  I’ve discovered that most faculty are far older than their pictures suggest.  Who has time to update the incremental changes every year?  Before you know it, your hair’s gone gray and you’re struggling to keep the pounds off.  We look at our younger selves and wonder.

At least I do.  I see pictures of a younger me and wonder what he might’ve done differently if he could see a picture of a present-day me.  One thing he would appreciate is my beard, such as it is.  Neither father nor step-father wore a beard, but young me always wanted one.  As life would have it, I couldn’t manage a passable one until after seminary while guys I knew in high school had heavy beards even then.  But this is a small thing.  The real changes take place in our heads.  Each day, each second, is a learning opportunity.  That’s perhaps the reason I like books like this.  Photographs of a place of fascination, even though I know none of the people or their families, are a real draw.  And they’re a form of haunting.

Kenyan Mourning

We ignore religion at our peril.  I may be a voice crying in the wilderness here, but just because church numbers are declining it doesn’t mean religion still can’t motivate.  And in large numbers.  A New York Times story tells how 179 Kenyans starved themselves to death because their preacher told them they’d meet Jesus that way.  It’s amazing how many demons pose as angels of light, even if well-meaning.  All it takes is to hold up a Bible.  People are religious by nature and they tend to believe what they’re told.  Jonestown and Waco taught us nothing about religion.  Universities continue to hack away at its study, declaring it no longer of importance.  Meanwhile useless deaths still occur because of something that “doesn’t matter.”  Religion is so easily weaponized you’d think the Pentagon might want to get in on the action.

How am I to read without an interpreter?

Our world is increasingly secular but that may not mean what it seems to.  Belief, whether in traditional religions or not, is still belief.  We may believe we know certain things, but knowledge is a lot rarer than we often suppose.  Religion evolved—co-evolved, more accurately—with our species.  We need it, even if its gods have lost their divine luster.  And if we don’t have people who can teach us about it without resorting to mere metrics we may be on our way to perdition.  You see, here in America we tend to be a pretty literalist bunch.  I don’t know what it is about our culture, but we’re uncomfortable with metaphor.  Even so we believe in all kinds of things and then deny that we do.

My mind keeps going back to those Kenyans who, trustfully believing, starved themselves to death.  No doubt the introduction of the Bible, without proper instruction, into their culture, meant that such interpretations would eventually arise.  Perhaps inevitably.  Religious thinking isn’t a bad thing, but taking sacred texts from thousands of years ago as roadmaps for today is.  We so want answers in black and white—we want someone to tell us that life isn’t this complex and that “it’s all really quite simple.”  But it’s not.  Religion does help us get through this complex world.  Even though he was a Transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau tried the monastic approach.  It works for a while, but if we all did it there’d be untold suffering in the world.  In other words, there’s no easy answer.  There never likely will be.  Until such a time as that, we should be studying religion more, not less.  And trying to make lives better, not worse.

First Second

The thing about self-published books is that titles sometimes confuse.  I’d read Linda Zimmermann’s Hudson Valley UFOs without realizing it was a sequel.  Part of the reason is that her previous book was titled In the Night Sky.  Since I have a compulsion for completion, I knew I’d have to circle back to read the first book, even though it might take months to get on my schedule.  I realize the title of this book is based on her documentary by the same title (which seems to be unavailable for viewing these days), and the subtitle, Hudson Valley UFO Sightings from the 1930’s to the Present, does the heavy lifting of saying what the book is about.  So why am I reading about this in the first place?  Well, UFOs have continued to be in the news lately, which is interesting in its own right.  But also I’ve been reading about the Hudson Valley for some time.

Although I’ve never lived in the Hudson Valley (or New York, for that matter), I have family connections.  My maternal grandfather’s family had deep roots in the upper Hudson Valley and I’ve always wanted to move there but jobs never aligned with hopes.  That hasn’t prevented me from maintaining an active interest in the area.  Besides, I like weird stuff—if you read this blog that’s self-evident.  There do seem to be places where strange things seem to concentrate.  (I mentioned this in regard to the Denver Airport recently.)  I’m one of those people who’s always found New York City a weird place, and it’s the southern end of that corridor.

In any case, Zimmermann’s book is pretty much like her second one on the subject.  She provides accounts of UFOs from witnesses who responded to her call for reports in preparation for her documentary.  I tend to think that many people can tell what’s supposed to be in the sky from what’s not.  I’m also aware that many people don’t have the background of trying to identify whatever they see and that mistakes are often made.  It doesn’t help that Zimmermann includes some accounts that are pretty clearly crackpot cases.  Some editing would’ve helped (which is true of many self-published books).  What’s so interesting about this collection is that what many people report seeing is so similar.  For those of us who don’t live in the Hudson Valley and who’ve never seen anything odd on our trips there, this may be the closest we get to the strangeness overhead.

Spider Planet

Misnomers aren’t uncommon when it comes to click-bait.  I’ve fallen victim more than a few times.  But such misdirection is probably as old as humanity, and is perhaps part of consciousness itself.  (Some birds are known to practice deception, as are some other primates.)  Earth Vs. the Spider is drive-in-bait as a title.  In the 1958 horror-sci fi movie (also titled The Spider), the danger isn’t really to the earth but to one small town.  There is, however, a giant spider and somehow it’s not as scary as the real thing can be, writ small.  Occasionally, such as when a spider comes out into the open in the house, I ponder why this is such a deep-seated human fear.  I know spiders are beneficial to the ecosystem and that they pose very little danger, at least in places where I’ve lived.  So why are they so scary?

Scientists, including those of the mind, have proposed looking to our primate cousins for an answer.  They too are afraid of spiders, and it’s posited that since primates climb trees to escape danger and that spiders also climb, the phobia is hardwired.  For me it’s only certain body-plans that are scary.  I don’t mind the cute little jumping spiders that get in around the windows.  They don’t seem out to hurt anybody.  It’s the kind with long, grasping legs that bother me.  As a child I used to try to identify spiders with a picture book identification guide, but soon the guide started to scare me and I had to put it down.  I wasn’t cut out to be an arachnidologist, I guess.  The movie could’ve used one, however.  They kept calling the spider an insect.

The unblinking advocacy of DDT was the scariest part of the film.  Got a problem?  Spray chemicals all over it!  It gives me the same fear as when I see all those pallets of RoundUp every time I go to Lowes.  That stuff is deadly to the environment, and I’m kind of attached to the environment.  Spring arrived around here late this year, but it was spider season by the time I watched Earth Vs. the Spider as part of my minor quest to see the “so bad they’re good” movies.  They’re also part of the history of horror.  Apart from Psycho in 1960, horror was kind of on vacation for the fifties and into the late sixties.  Of course, movies kept being made.  It’s just that they couldn’t be taken seriously.  And even though drive-ins seem to be extinct, I still fall for drive-in bait from time to time. Even when watching alone.

Denver Memories

It may be a strange thing to say (or write, as the case may be) but I was kind of hoping to spend some extra time at the Denver Airport.  When I traveled to Denver for a conference last year, I arrived to a workload (attending AAR/SBL as an editor is all work, not play).  I had no time to hang around the airport.  I knew, however, as a recent New York Times piece states, that the airport has a reputation for the paranormal.  While the Times article focuses on Luis Jimenez’s sculpture “Mustang” to start, it quickly moves on to “conspiracy theories.”  And the parts of the airport passengers never see.  The place has a reputation for being weird.  During construction in recent years, the usually anodyne partitions that block construction from the view of passengers, housed images of aliens, bolstering rumors that Denver, and its airport, have some connection with our extraterrestrial neighbors.

The Times story points out alien graffiti in parts of the Denver Airport where travelers can’t go.  And it also points out that although the fiery red eyes of “Mustang” are to represent Jimenez’s father’s start in the neon business, they give the giant horse a demonic aspect.  The artist died working on the sculpture.  A piece fell during construction, severing an artery.  But the conspiracy theories began earlier.  The southwest has a reputation of being the home of the shapeshifting reptilians that have made it onto mainstream television.  Is it any wonder that Trump stands a possibility of getting the nomination while yet more crimes are actively stacked on his record?

Of course, I was in Denver to work.  I claimed my bag and got a taxi on a snowy southwestern morning.  While there I worked, of course.  It was cold, in any case, back in November, so getting out to see the sights didn’t particularly appeal, especially since it was getting dark by the time the book stalls were closing and I was there alone.  I always want to be on time, and since I’m an early riser, and since Thanksgiving was just a couple days away, I went to the airport three hours before my flight home.  I was thinking I might have some time to do a bit of X-Filing while waiting.  Alas, it was not to be.  The helpful flight attendant put me on an earlier flight and I ended up with a three-hour layover in Chicago.  But I also knew that several “mothman” sightings had taken place at O’Hare over the preceding months.  When you’re a traveler, however, they keep you away from the interesting parts of the airport.

Cat Nipped

Holy Horror began with movies from 1960 on.  You see, I had watched the 1982 remake of Cat People without ever watching the original from 1942.  The remake has Paul Gallier, the brother of Irena, as a religious leader.  He doesn’t cite the Bible, so the movie fell outside the limits I set for that particular book.  I recently watched the 40-year older original version and was surprised to find not only the religion intact, but also the Bible as part of the story.  Both versions integrate religion and horror and some of the scenes are very close between the two.  The original centers around Irena Dubrovna, a Serbian immigrant.  In addition to originating the The Lewton Bus technique, the film also introduced a religious origin for the horror.  When Irena meets Oliver Reed, she explains to him that in Serbia, in her home village, some witches were driven out into the woods of the surrounding mountains by the Christians.  There they formulated a curse leading to becoming cat people when aroused.

Irena, fearing sexual arousal, spends time apart from Oliver after they marry, mainly watching the black leopard at the zoo.  One of the custodians warns her it’s an evil animal, a monster as described in the book of Revelation, which he quotes.  Of course, this leopard is an ordinary big cat, and the woman to whom he quotes Scripture is a cat woman.  Irena knows inside that she’s one of the cat people, but nobody will believe her.  The film also makes use of a quote from John Donne regarding sin.  Indeed, the film makes it clear, even after Irena dies, that she had never lied.  While she’s stalking Oliver and Alice in their office one night, Oliver pulls down a T-square, the shadow of which forms a cross on the wall, and he abjures her, in the name of God, to leave them alone.  Religion, the clash of religions, makes the monster.

Cat People, despite having had a mixed reception, was an influential movie.  Like much of early horror, it’s tame by today’s standards.  And yet it’s aged well.  I didn’t expect to be drawn in as much as I ended up being.  After all, I’d seen the remake first.  America at the time had a fear of the Balkan region, where mysterious eastern Europeans still had tales of vampires, werewolves, and cat people.  Of course, the last of these was invented for the film.  The director, writer, and producer wanted to create an intelligent horror film, which they did.  Moody, atmospheric, and based on religious tension, it is worthy of a Holy Horror sequel.

Finding Yourself

Sometimes I look, fascinated.  At tracking info, that is.  I once ordered an item from Montreal, which is, I’m told, in the province of Quebec, Canada.  The estimated shipping time was five days.  It ended up being quite the tourist package.  Its first US port of call was Plattsburgh, New York, which makes sense.  The strange thing is the Canadian tracker didn’t include the states—just town names, all of them small, as if this were a covert operation.  From Plattsburgh it went to East Syracuse, because, well, who wouldn’t want to go to East Syracuse?  From there it leapt right over Pennsylvania, where I live, to Hodgkins, Illinois.  This is a town so small that you really have to be a fan of package vacations to find it.  From there it went to Maumee, Ohio.  It seemed to be heading in the right direction, in any case.  Maumee led to Middlebury Heights, still in Ohio.  Finally it reached Pennsylvania, in New Stanton, not terribly far from my childhood home.  Then Carlisle, about halfway through the state.  Finally to Easton, from which it reached me.  Surprisingly, on time.  

It’s gotta be around here somewhere…

Logistics baffle me.  I had it drilled into me as a child that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.  Montreal is about 400 miles from here, pretty much straight north.  I wouldn’t venture to tell UPS (the carrier in this instance) how to do its job, but when you’re ordering something carbon neutral (that, of course, you can’t get close to home) it feels kind of excessive to have to stop in so many small towns only to skip the destination state by flying from New York to Illinois so you can drive it back to Pennsylvania.  Logistics people need jobs too, I guess.

Amazon has made many people ask why things can’t arrive more quickly.  The fact is, shipping companies have their own protocols.  It’s like when you have to fly south from a regional airport to get onto a flight north.  You have to reach a hub where they know how to direct your package.  And if your item requires sea freight, well, all bets are off.  There may be no tracking points between Shanghai and Los Angeles.  No matter how much some people may say they hate it, we live in a global society.  We rely on China, and Canada, and everywhere else, to make life go in these United States.  Even following your tracking information can, in that way, be an exercise in thoughtfulness as well as a learning experience. 

The Goodreads Zone

It happened on Goodreads.  I suspect she had no idea how much that simple “like” meant to me.  Social media is too big to be everywhere, so I primarily engage with those who reach out to me (without trolling), on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Goodreads.  Even with my activity on these venues, comments are rare.  Likes a bit more common, and always appreciated.  Several months after I posted a review of her book, As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling on Goodreads, Anne Serling liked it.  That may not seem like much, but this was the actual daughter of Rod Serling himself, liking something I wrote.  If you feel the way I do about The Twilight Zone this will be a personal brush with greatness.  Almost as if Serling himself approved.

I’ve met a few famous people in my time.  Mostly they are ordinary people and act like ordinary people.  Only those of us around someone famous know that millions of people have heard of one of us.  Heard of and admire.  The rest of us manage to get along, but we do so without notice.  Unless someone “likes” what we do.  It’s kind of like having someone famous blurb your book.  In any case, my childhood consisted of many snippets of things that made me who I am.  One of those snippets was The Twilight Zone.  I watched a lot of television growing up.  We were not a reading family (neither parent finished high school), so the television was the item of choice after work/school.  Much of what I watched washed off.  Not The Twilight Zone.

Like reading through the Dark Shadows novels, I’ve been slowly watching my way through The Twilight Zone alone.  Nobody else in my family cares for it and since I don’t have much free time I only get to it on rare occasions.  Now that mowing time is here, those occasions are even fewer.  I guess I feel that I have to justify why I’ve come around to writing about horror as an adult.  You don’t get to be an adult without having some kind of childhood first, and mine involved The Twilight Zone.  Anne Serling’s involved being raised by the creator of The Twilight Zone.  To me, that’s a validating kind of fame.  To be seen by someone who could, if she wanted, have an instant and ready-made audience.  A reverie, started by something that happened on Goodreads.

Childhood History

It looked just like I remembered it.  Having recently read the account of a Hiroshima bomb survivor, I had a hankering to read it.  John Hersey’s Hiroshima was my brother’s book, growing up.  He read it and told me about it, but I’m not fond of war stories or accounts of human suffering.  Still, having read a contemporary account at work I realized how little I knew about what had happened to the survivors.  So when I saw this little book at a local AAUW book sale, I picked it up.  Even after all these years it’s still a page-turner.  In my mind, ever hoping for merciful resolutions, the atomic bomb had killed just about everybody instantly.  A lifelong pacifist, I believe war morally unjustifiable (prisons should be for autocrats, not for minor offenses).  Those who start wars, such as Vladimir Putin, should be required to read this book.

I wasn’t really quite sure of what to expect.  I’d heard that the account involved the interwoven stories of six survivors.  It wasn’t quite as complete as I supposed it would be.  Of course, it was published in 1946, after appearing as a New Yorker article.  As I came to the end, I wondered what had happened to these people.  None of the six, a year later, had any semblance of a normal life, and scientists even then didn’t understand the consequences of what might happen to those the bomb didn’t directly kill.  I guess, in my mind, the city had become an irradiated wasteland.  I didn’t realize it had been rebuilt and that over a million people now call it home.  The was a blank in my mind after the dropping of the bomb.  Hersey’s book has started to fill in that blank.

My mind tends to trace things to their origins.  I’ve always thought that way.  Those who enter into politics ought to be required to pass a test on corruption.  They should be required to study diplomacy.  They should have to read books like Hiroshima to see what the consequences of their selfish acts can do.  Considering the real life horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is important to me to see that the cities are rebuilt.  It’s like looking up the bio of an actor who dies in a movie, just to make sure s/he is really okay.  Why is it so difficult to treat other human beings as human beings?  Why do we still allow war mongers to become national leaders?  Have we learned nothing since 1945?

More Water Monsters

Monster from the Ocean Floor, one gets the sense, wouldn’t have merited a Wikipedia article were it not for the fact that it was the first film Roger Corman produced.  Despite its B-movie quality, there’s quite a lot to like about it.  First of all it has a strong female lead.  Julie Blair is the only gringo in Mexico to believe the locals that there’s a monster just off shore.  Steve Dunning, the scientist, is an avowed skeptic.  The plot is cheesy—the monster is an overgrown amoeba irradiated by the Bikini Island underwater nuclear tests, and it’s killed by getting a submarine in the eye—but there are some very effective cinematographic moments.  When the young boy talking to Julie in the opening turns to stare at the ocean where his father disappeared, the framing and emotion are perfect.

The theme music for the approach of the shark, and then the amoeba, anticipate Jaws by a couple of decades, and I have to wonder if John Williams hadn’t watched Monster from the Ocean Floor.  (I’m sure even cultured people watch the occasional B-movie.)  There’s also an unexpected religion angle.  A series of episodes in the film have a couple of locals trying to kill Julie as a sacrifice to the monster.  Despite the holes in the plot, it’s remarkable that in 1954 there could be dialogue suggesting that the Christian God (“the other god” according to a local woman) isn’t the God that Quetzalcoatl is.  All the same, the sacrifice is based on the folklore that the sacrifice of the “fairest” (Julie is, naturally, blonde) will appease the monster.  Maybe not the most solid theological basis, but still, not bad for a bad movie.

I’ve recently published a piece on Horror Homeroom about women and water monsters.  Having a strong woman in a 1954 film is especially remarkable.  Julie, despite the skepticism of the scientists, takes the initiative to dive right down and see the monster for herself.  It’s only when she comes up with physical proof that the men consider that she may be right (and in danger).  Of course, the men do have to rescue her—you can’t have it all.  Yes, it’s a cheaply made movie with a paper-thin plot but it was beginning to show that a woman could take the reins and with good motives (if nobody else will do something about the monster, she will).  Although she’s the love object of the movie, she’s so much more.  And a submarine in the eye—that’s gotta smart.

Young Reading

It was more the lede line than the story.  Melissa Kirsch’s “The books we read when we’re young help shape the adults we become in ways we don’t always grasp” caught my attention.  My own current rereading of Dark Shadows books certainly reflects that.  As my You Tube video on Dark Shadows considers, it was the books more than the television show that shaped my young mind.  Consciously, I know that’s probably the main reason I’ve always wanted to live in Maine.  It may seem strange to some to want to move where a vampire frequently visits, but there was more going on in those stories than I realized.  It would be enough to make me tremble were I a young persons’ fiction writer.  They have so much influence.  Spending my younger years searching for a father took me some strange places.

My other young reading was, naturally, the Bible.  I can’t remember how young I was when I began to try to read through the King James.  Eventually I did get through, and then I started all over again.  Clearly my entire life has been impacted by that early fear of Hell that drove me to the Scriptures.  Perhaps that combination of Bible and Dark Shadows novels led to Holy Horror and its aftermath.  In other words, my youthful reading led to what has become a vocation, of sorts.  That elusive university, or college job in Maine never came to fruition.  I tried many times to get a toehold there, Bible in hand.  I’ve ended up back in Pennsylvania, where I started.  And I’m still reading.

I’ve read a good number of good books, but it has been some time since one set my life off on a different trajectory.  Some books have lead me to write books, and books I read often suggest even more books.  Whether I die today or thirty years from now, books will have defined my life.  I grew up reading them and wanting to write them, with no real idea how to do the latter.  One of those childhood books convinced me that a career outside the church was one not worth having.  Indeed, were I clergy now my enjoyment of horror would certainly garner more attention than it does in my current role as “some guy.”  I am, however, that person who grew from a worried-looking kid who’d not yet figured out that my reading choices would lead to a life measured by books.

The ultimate adventure…

Many Days

Science fiction.  I used to consume it by the bookful, and even now I occasionally turn back to it.  Having read Doris Piserchia’s A Billion Days of Earth, I do have a confession to make.  I don’t know why I read it.  Literally.  As I’ve indicated many times before, I keep a reading wishlist.  It’s comprised of books that others recommend and things that catch my eye.  Every now and again a used book sale will bring something unexpected into the mix, but overall, I rely on my list.  I can’t remember who recommended A Billion Days of Earth, or why.  The cover is striking in that 1970s sci-fi way, and it took me back to the actual seventies when I was reading sci-fi quite a bit.  Some of that cover art still mesmerizes me.  So, about the book…

I didn’t know what to expect and received what I was expecting.  This is a philosophically heavy novel that, in the style of some other seventies fiction I read, was a bit difficult to follow.  The main idea (and there will be spoilers) is that Sheen, a silvery, shape-shifting being, emerges a billion days along.  Evolution has taken multiple tracks with animals such as dogs and rats becoming essentially what humans are today (or were in the seventies) and humans evolving into what the other animals call gods.  Sheen slithers about the world taking the egos from all creatures, kind of assimilating them.  A rat person and a dog person resist the relinquishing of their egos while the world around them begins to collapse.  The “gods” refuse to help.  Then, at the end, the gods board their spaceship, and released by Sheen, leave for another planet.

Although I was confused most of the way through, the book leaves a lot to exegete.  This is definitely a retelling of Genesis 1–3.  Sheen offers people (and animals) paradise in exchange for their egos.  Nearly everyone, except those who think (a small number) accepts this offer.  Even the gods are tempted.  We’ve got the snake (Sheen), the expulsion from paradise, and the gods who separate themselves from humanity.  But still, I’m sure there’s something more that I missed.  There are subplots for Rik (rat man) and Jak (dog man) and the rich Filly family that seem to evade conclusion or resolution.  Or maybe once the gods are gone there’s nothing more to say.  This seventies classic left me thinking.  And wondering who it was that recommended it to me.

Wicker Proofing

I’m currently reading the first proofs of The Wicker Man (due out in August).  While necessary, proofreading is a pain (and I work in publishing!).  You have to put everything else aside and concentrate on what you’ve already written, and if you’re like me, moved on from, to get your earlier work out.  I’m extremely time conscious.  I have many things that I would like to accomplish in the time I have left.  Right now one of my priorities is book six.  It’s already written, but I’m revising it for the umpteenth time.  Then the proofs come.  This is one of the issues a graphomaniac faces.  It’s part of trying to make a life from words.  And it distorts time.  I submitted my Wicker manuscript back in December.  Since then my mind has largely been elsewhere.

Proofreading—or is it proof reading?  I’m not a proofreader—isn’t the same as it used to be.  These days you proofread a PDF and use the markup tools for changes.  I had developed a kind of nostalgia for the old-fashioned proof markings.  Now you highlight the offending text and add a note to explain what you would like changed.  This makes me worry about time too, since I’m probably among the last generation who will even known what proof markings are, apart from historians of publishing (and yes, there are historians of publishing).  I am fortunate in having had a good copyeditor for The Wicker Man.  S/he didn’t change much but pointed out where my wording was ambiguous.  Those of you who’ve read me for a while know that some of that ambiguity is intentional, no?

A quick turnaround time on proofs is necessary.  Of course, mine would arrive on a Wednesday.  That very same day I was asked to be a reader-responder to a journal article, also with a brief turnaround time.  I wanted to say “No,” but as an editor I know how difficult it is to find reviewers.  Anyone who publishes should consider it a moral obligation to review when asked.  Just like jury duty.  Thursday and Friday mornings were spent reviewing the article (which I hope will be published, whoever wrote it).  All of this was done without picking up a pen (as much as I wanted to) or leaving my laptop.  As much as I enjoy those proof markings, nobody has the time for them anymore.  Even now I’m playing hooky from proofreading to write this blog post.  I’d better get back before someone notices that I’m gone.

Entitled Titles

Movies have a tremendous impact.  Nowhere is this more obvious than in movie titles moving into standard vocabulary.  “McGuffin” (which autocorrect thinks is “McMuffin”) and the Wilhelm scream may not be household terms, but many people know what they are without being movie experts.  Even more impressive is when a movie title becomes its own noun.  I learned about the Rashomon effect not from movies, but from history.  When a story is told from more than one point of view, often with contradictory accounts, this is known as “the Rashomon effect.”  It’s named after a movie, Rashomon, that I’ve never seen.  I suspect I’m not the only one to use the phrase who hasn’t.  Movies can become points of reference.  We’re quite often visual creatures and movies can reach large audiences. The title plays a crucial role.

As the writer of a small blog with a small readership, and of books with small circulation, I often think of how movies manage to reach so many people.  I’m constantly discovering movies from before when I was born, or from countries far away.  They ask, like this blog, for only a little bit of time and yet they provide so many things to think about.  In many ways they are the mythology of our age, and no matter whether you watch on your phone or the big screen, you’re joining the ranks of believers.  Sometimes a movie becomes a cultural reference, such as is the case of “the Rashomon effect.”  But this can lead to its own set of problems.  Movies, like some bestselling books, often have one-word titles.  Sometimes that word fits many movies (as in Entity/The Entity).  Or sometimes it has a wider meaning, such as Avatar.  Or it refers to another well-known reference, such as Titanic.  I’m not picking on James Cameron here, but making a point that movies may make meaning, but they also bear the weight of their titles.

Titles are often sticking points with authors.  Many academic writers like the draw of the clever or pithy title, but such titles often hurt the sales of their book.  Using a quote as a title, apart from making confusion, also runs into duplicates.  Titles can’t be copyrighted, so multiple books (or movies) can use the same one. Quotes have long been favorites, so using them for titles is not a good idea.  I was distressed (mildly) when I realized that my fifth book, The Wicker Man, would bear the same title as the movie.  (That’s the way the series rolls.)  I’m now reading the proofs and thinking about titles.  My next book may not have a one-word title, but I hope I’m getting close.  And maybe it will have a little impact?


What really goes on in somebody else’s mind?  At best we can guess, and when that person’s been dead for a long time that guessing involves some reasoned speculation.  I enjoyed Jeffrey Rubin-Dorsky’s reasoned speculation in Adrift in the Old World: The Psychological Pilgrimage of Washington Irving.  The book itself is a few decades old now, but it does raise many relevant issues.  For me personally, it was, in parts, like reading my own psychological profile.  Irving is an interesting study.  (Unlike me) he had early success as a writer but he was a continual self-doubter.  He was also a poor investor, making money on his writing only to lose large sums investing in ventures that failed.  He also had a sense of not belonging which would seem strange for a New Yorker today.  Although he finally felt he fit in when he settled, as a famous writer, in Tarrytown, this book really only covers his European years.

While traveling for seventeen years in mainly Britain, France, Germany, and Spain, Irving wrote four very different “Sketch Books.”  These weren’t really short stories as we’ve come to understand them, at least not always, but they affirmed his place in the literary firmament.  Adrift in the Old World covers these four books while bringing incidental mention of several others into the picture.  Irving must be a difficult writer to cover.  He was not only prolific, but he wrote about diverse topics and sometimes at great length.  Of course, he was trying to make a living as a writer and people in those days had more time to read.  Breaking out a set of only four of his books makes this more digestible.

Even though I learned a lot from this book, it wasn’t always easy reading.  It gets a bit academic in parts and the paragraphs are far too long.  Still, there’s good information here.  I’ve been trying to wrap my head around Irving for some time now, as a glance at the books I’ve covered recently ought to suggest.  Although he’s not ignored by literary scholars, there aren’t many general interest books written on him.  There are other writers that more capture the modern imagination.  Still, literary history of the early United States is a fascinating venture in its own right.  For those who like to try to figure out what other people are thinking (and I have to admit to that avocation) this is a good entryway into what may have been the mental world of Washington Irving.