Incorporeal

I’ve been struggling with the concept of incorporeality.  Well, not me personally, but in how it fits into demon movies.  Specifically the Conjuring universe.  I’ve recently been watching the series through again and the corporeality of demons strikes me as problematic.  As spiritual entities demons don’t have bodies—that’s why they possess people.  Yet in these films they can be contained by blessed spaces, or objects.  The doll Annabelle, in particular, has to be kept in a locked glass case to prevent the demon (apparently Valak) from gaining its full power.  Annabelle Comes Home discusses this directly.  After the priest blesses the doll, Lorraine Warren says it’s not enough.  The evil has to be encased in another layer.  In this case, glass from “Trinity Church” which has, ironically, been torn down.

Watching the entire series, as it currently stands, Annabelle appears in four of the eight films and is named in a fifth.  Annabelle: Creation implies that the demon in the doll is Valak (a.k.a. “The Nun”), and she has her own movie as well.  In each case the demon has to be contained within a sacred space.  Once out, it manifests in corporeal form with the ability to harm, or even kill, human beings.  Now, I know this is movie magic.  I also know these movies have been carefully pieced together.  The corporeal/incorporeal question is a standard of seminary training.  While the topic of ghosts, and demons for that matter, was never raised in the curriculum, we did have to deal with God and angels and what it means for a being without a body to become incarnate in one.  These movies could use some seminary.

Is it like this?

In Holy Horror, and especially Nightmares with the Bible, I wrote quite a bit about The Conjuring and the universe it’s building.  I’ve seen demons physically attacking characters, and even taking on classic demon shape.  The viewers wants to see the monster.  If they’re truly incorporeal they can cross between glass cases, doors, windows, and walls.  Some of them do, when it suits their purpose.  Yet they can be quieted by being locked into a glass case, as long as it’s been blessed.  Of course, I’m trying to figure this out on my own.  There are entire fandom wikis out there based on the films and they probably have much more detail than I could ever find on my own.  But then, in a sense, information on the internet is, well, incorporeal.


Being Vigilant

While keeping to a budget, I’ve been tying to sample some new movies as therapy.  Interestingly, Hulu has had three on my long-time “to see” list, including The Vigil.  I heard about this one as soon as it came out.  Religion and horror have been a recent area of fascination, so how could I not?  A horror film partly in Yiddish is a novelty for me, and the haunting, endlessly haunting holocaust is never far from the surface.  Jacov, a young man with psychological issues caused by the death of his much younger brother, has left Orthodox Judaism.  He’s hard up for money, however, and agrees to sit as a shomer, a watcher who keeps vigil with a corpse of a person who has no family to do it, for pay.  The rabbi informs him the shomer he hired left because he was afraid, but since Jacov has done this before, he’s sure he can handle it.

Sitting in a creepy Brooklyn house with a corpse is made even more difficult by the widow’s Alzheimer’s disease and Jacov’s seeing things.  Unsettling events take place.  The problem is revealed to be a mazzik, a kind of Jewish demon.  As I explore in Nightmares with the Bible, and Holy Horror, the Jewish idea of demons took quite a different track from the Greek-inspired Christian concept.  Jesus was Jewish, but living in a Roman context.  What we in the west understand as demons is largely based on The Exorcist.  In Judaism demons weren’t the same obsession they were for Christians.  The dybbuk tends to be the soul of an evil person that can’t rest after death.  A mazzik is more a demon sent to harm, as a form of divine punishment.

The Vigil presents Jacov in that pincer of having left a religion only to find himself needing it in a time of crisis.  His Orthodox upbringing hasn’t prepared him for the world of having to interact with women, or even gentiles (as wicked as they can be).  The mazzik has haunted the man who’s just died—a holocaust survivor—and is now looking for another broken person.  Ever since the death of his brother, Jacov has been broken.  The film make effective use of several horror tropes, and is quite claustrophobic in the small house.  Even though set in New York City, isolation is the real threat.  More than that, the movie eloquently articulates how religion and horror rely on one another.  And how they might learn from each other.


Nightmares with Poe

A review of Nightmares with the Bible recently appeared in which the reviewer said he didn’t get the Poe references.  Indeed, the anonymous reviewer said the same thing.  What neither of them understood is that Edgar Allan Poe has been formative for my life and that book was a tribute to him.  Did Poe write about demons?  Not really.  Did he once claim that the death of a beautiful woman was the most poetic theme?  Yes.  I saw the opportunity, in discussing possession movies, to draw Poe’s observation into the conversation.  Could the book have been written without it?  Yes and no.  Yes, I could’ve written a book on demons without mentioning Poe.  No, I would likely not be writing books at all were it not for Poe.

Today is Poe’s birthday.  What is this strange attraction I have for him?  It began, as most things do for me, with growing up poor.  We couldn’t afford bookstore prices, and that’s even assuming there was a bookstore nearby (there wasn’t).  I found the majority of my reading material at Goodwill in Seneca, Pennsylvania.  The shop had a book bin or two with prices I could afford (books were a quarter, if I recall).  I found a copy of Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Terror there.  I probably heard about Poe from my big brother—he’s a good source for scary information.  Reading Poe, I wanted to read more.  We couldn’t afford Scholastic school fare rates, but I did find a four-or-five volume collection of Poe’s writings at Goodwill.  Foolishly, I bought only two—those with his stories.

By high school I was checking out biographies of Poe from the library.  Perhaps as the child of an alcoholic I identified with a man who seemed so tormented.  I count his stories still among my favorites.  My favorite short story is, I believe, “The Fall of the House of Usher.”  It has come back to me at several points in my life and I find myself thinking about that gloomy house.  Particularly the narrator’s arrival there.  So full of possibilities.  So much potential fear.  Those of us who consume horror have a gateway to it—some event, or influence, or person who introduced the aesthetic of fear to us.  For me it was Edgar A. Poe.  Nightmares with the Bible is of a piece with Holy Horror.  To leave Poe out of it would’ve been the worst kind of sacrilege.


Taking Part

It’s always a pleasure to be invited, even if not as a proper guest.  To an academic conference, I mean.  Most of us sit around feeling pretty obscure most of the time, even if we do write books.  I am literally genuinely surprised when sometime contacts me to tell me they’ve read my work.  It was, therefore, a complete surprise to be asked to attend the “Ancient and Modern Ideas of Possession” conference hosted by the University of Innsbruck.  I wasn’t an official participant, but the organizers, somewhat surprisingly, knew of Nightmares with the Bible and thought I might be interested in, well, possession.  Because I work “nine-to-five” and because Austria is several hours ahead of the Eastern Time Zone, I couldn’t Zoom in for all of it, but what I did hear I really appreciated.

One of my suspicions was confirmed, and that is that the idea of possession remains an outlier in academia.  The sixteen or so presenters represented several academic fields, none of which boasts of being interested in such things.  What surprised me, but then really didn’t, was that a comment or question came up several times: do any of us believe in the ontological reality of demons?  At least for the time I was able to sign in the question was never fully discussed but I had the sense that one or two of these academics were willing to lean in that direction.  We all know that individual observation is often faulty and subject to biased interpretations.  We may, however, know that many such accounts have been written by highly reputable individuals with nothing to gain by making spurious claims.  Academics should remain curious.

I learned that at least two of the presenters had written books that it would’ve been useful to have read for my own book.  Books are part of a conversation.  Seldom is any single volume the last word on a subject.  It was a privilege to be among other academics, if I may classify myself as one, even if erstwhile, that had come to a similar place in their explorations of the world of spirits.  Women and men who were willing to ask that most shunned of questions, “what if?”  Human experience moves ahead and some ideas are left behind.  That doesn’t mean those ideas should never be revisited.  Nobody at the conference mentioned my book, but at least one person in the room was aware that it was, in some form, part of the discussion.


More Conjuring

It was an almost surreal experience.  First of all, it’s been well over a year since I’ve been in a movie theater.  Secondly, I’ve never been to this particular theater before.  And in the third place, I’m absolutely alone in here.  I didn’t rent the theater out or anything, but I’ve been wanting to see The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It since June 4.  Actually, since September when it’s initial release was delayed due to the pandemic.  Everyone else around here must’ve seen it already.   I knew the story of Arne Johnson and the Warrens, having found and read Gerald Brittle’s book, The Devil in Connecticut.  Loosely based on that event, this story focuses on the actual fact that this was the first time not guilty by reason of demonic possession was proffered in a US courtroom.  The story is a strange one and the movie, as movies do, makes it even stranger.

I’ve been anticipating The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, despite the title, for a few years now.  If you’re familiar with Nightmares with the Bible you’ll know that an entire chapter is devoted to The Conjuring franchise.  You may also know that it is the most lucrative horror series of all time, apart from Godzilla in its many, many iterations.  One of the points in Nightmares was to try to make sense of the demonic world presented in the Conjuring universe.  The franchise, for the most part, deals with actual case files from Ed and Lorraine Warren.  Some of the episodes are pure fiction, however, and the explanations given in the films are all, well, conjured for the big screen.  The movies call attention to the Warrens’ work, but in a way that requires an entire chapter to untangle.

My initial impression is that this isn’t the best movie in the series.  I can’t replicate my previous work here, and I’ve only seen the movie once, so there are details I certainly missed.  The demon isn’t named this time.  Indeed, the backstory proposed is drawn from the spin-off film Annabelle.  A fictional satanic group called Disciples of the Ram is posited as causing the trouble.  Like the demon behind Annabelle, they’ve placed a curse on the Glatzel family for some unknown reason.  During the opening exorcism Arne, in an Exorcist move, asks the demon to take him instead of the young David, the brother of his girlfriend.  The movie leaves the Warrens to find out who put the curse on the Glatzels in the first place, and break it.  With some time for pondering I’ll likely come back to this movie again.  I do have to say that the book was probably scarier, although sitting in a theater alone to watch a horror movie is not something I hope to make a habit of doing.


Just Justice

Like many people raised to believe in democracy, I’m distressed to see that the right wing, worldwide, has taken to a full-on attack against it in an effort to keep power.  In the United States Republicans that stood up against the cult of Trump (who was no architect, but a figurehead only) are now being run out of Dodge by their own party.  Meanwhile a friend in Britain sent me an article about the open and obvious corruption of Boris Johnson and how the Tories are completely overlooking it in an effort to keep “democratic authority.”  It wouldn’t be so bad if the right wing came right out and said “we want to run things, no matter what it takes,” but instead they appeal to religious ideas and try to make it seem like their side alone appeals to “justice” while doing the exact opposite.  Paging Mr. Orwell…

The best test case is Jesus.  Have you noticed how Jesus has fallen out of right-wing Christianity?  Apart from occasionally taking his name in vain, the principles they stand for generally go against the core teachings of the Gospels.  The fascism of the right wing has taken what good there was in Christianity and jettisoned the kernel to keep the shell.  It’s like a bag of pistachios where all the nuts have been discarded, leaving only the hard casings behind.  The really sad thing is that both in the US and in Britain, these power-mongers are in the minority.  They use political loop-holes to make their strong-arm tactics look like the will of the people.  Things like restricting voting access, made possible by courtroom politics.  Isn’t Justice supposed to be blindfolded?

We know for a fact that many of these same people are fully cognizant that fascism led to World War II.  They know Hitler used the same tactics to gain power.  They know that millions and millions of people died.  And now they trumpet the one thing that brought this nation together—the recognition that fascism was evil—as the way of true Christianity.  I’m sometimes asked if I believe in demons, having written a book on the subject.  Demons are, if you look closely, are considered the source of evil in the world.  Quite often stories about them have them possessing good people by pretending to be something that they’re not.  Can demons take over entire political causes?  Did we not see naked evil in the Nazi regime?  How do we not recognize it now that it has taken root in one political party that has claimed the name of “Christian” while simultaneously discarding the teachings of Christ?


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.


Slow Jinn

You can sort of tell when an author has a background in religion.  Early on in my blog writing, I made note when novels had religious elements.  It’s so common that I seldom do that anymore.  Matt Ruff’s father was a minister.  His understanding of the religious landscape comes through in The Mirage.  It wasn’t on my reading list, but someone gave me a copy and the story drew me in.  In case, like me, you only know Ruff from Lovecraft Country, this tale’s quite different.  There may be some spoilers here, so if you’re thinking of reading it fresh, you’ve been warned!

Set in an alternate reality in which the superpower in the world is the United Arab States, the story follows three police agents of Homeland Security as they uncover a perhaps unwelcome truth: the world they know is a mirage.  It is, in fact, the work of a jinn.  Before commenting on that, I would say that you don’t learn about the jinn until a good way into the story.  Up to that point I’d call this simply literary fiction.  The jinn adds a speculative element to it, and also explains, mostly, how things ended up the way they did.  Jinns, by the way, are often considered demons in Arabic culture.  They are quite different from Christian demons, and that point makes itself clear as the story unfolds.  Our three protagonists begin to uncover hints that the twin towers didn’t actually stand in Baghdad, and that Christian terrorists didn’t fly planes into them on November 9 (11/9).  They have run-ins with Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden as warring factions vie for power in the UAS.

This is a great story for trying to understand the world from the point of view of a different religion (unless you’re Muslim).  This is a world where Christians are terrorists (you get to meet David Koresh as well) and the United States is a backward country divided over religion.  Reading this as events unfolded in Washington, DC last week was a little bit disconcerting.  Alternative realities are often just a heartbeat away.  The plot is a bit complex at points, but it’s a fairly quick, if profound read.  Religion is the heart and soul of this book.  That religion could be either Islam or Christianity.  Perhaps even something different.  The way it plays out is very much like real life, dividing people against each other until reality becomes difficult to bear.  For anyone interested in what a Muslim-run world might have looked like, this is a good starting place.


Demonic Monsters

One of the perils of writing books is that you often realize something after the book has gone to the printer.  Book production is a lengthy process.  I submitted the manuscript for Nightmares with the Bible in January.  The procedure of getting it ready has stretched eleven months.  In that time, as any writer knows, you keep thinking about what you wrote.  That’s where blogging comes in handy.  In any case, as I was pondering demons the other day I realized that they really only became the objects of horror with The Exorcist.  Now I’m not alone in noting the importance of The Exorcist in kicking off the modern interest in demons.  But what I’m now thinking is that in making them the subject of a horror film—intended to be realistic—The Exorcist made demons monstrous.  Let me explain.

Demons have generally, in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, been evil.  They cause suffering and misfortune.  They also, however, have a mischievous nature.  In other words, they can be playful.  So can grizzly bear cubs, did I hear you say?  That’s precisely my point.  Grizzly bears aren’t evil.  Powerful, yes.  Dangerous, certainly.  Evil, no.  One of the threads I take up but don’t spend too much time weaving into my book is the idea of the playful demon, or sometimes, the playful Devil.  In the Middle Ages such ideas weren’t rare.  Think about imps.  Do people really fear them?  Not so much.  And the often scatological behavior of demons in that time period made them a little less than serious.

I’m not suggesting that possession and exorcism are to be taken lightly.  I know they existed before William Peter Blatty ever decided to write a novel about them.  It was that novel, however, and the subsequent film, that made demons into monsters.  They joined the unholy pantheon of creatures like vampires, ghosts, and zombies.  They had the added frisson of being accepted as real by many religious traditions.  They continued to evolve in popular culture until they proliferated around the cinematic and television worlds.  Now we pretty much instantly recognize demons as monsters when we spot them.  I suspect they would not have been seen in a similar way in the Middle Ages.  Troublesome and evil they could be, but would they have been thought of in that mental category that we call monsters?  I have my doubts.  Perhaps it is good I didn’t think of this before sending my book off.  I doubt the publisher would’ve been happy if I’d added an extra chapter at the last minute.


Preorder Alert

Although you can buy most anything from Amazon, the book industry is particularly under its hegemony.  I have to admit that I enjoy browsing there, and often dream of the books on my wishlist.  I suppose that’s why I was pleased to see that Nightmares with the Bible is now available for preorder on Amazon.  I like to give updates for those interested, and the proofs have just arrived.  There’s kind of an inevitability to seeing your book on Amazon, a prophecy almost.  It now exists out there somewhere on the internet.  I do hope that it might stir some interest in Holy Horror, but like that book it will miss its sweet spot of a release before Halloween.  That means it also misses the fall catalogue.  The next one comes in spring, and who’s thinking of horror then?  Something all publishers of horror-themed books know is that minds turn toward these topics in September and October.  Just look at the seasonal sections of stores.

Horror films come out all year long, of course.  Halloween, however, serves as an economic lynch pin.  People spend money on being afraid in the early fall.  By mid-November thoughts have moved on to the holiday season and the bright cheer of Christmas.  Holy Horror arrived days after Christmas two years ago, and although I was delighted to see it, I knew we’d missed the boat for promotion and by the time it was nearing the backlist at the next Halloween it was old news.  That doesn’t dampen my enthusiasm for the books, of course.  It just means they won’t get the attention they might have had.

Nightmares with the Bible is about demons.  Primarily demons in movies, but also a bit of a history of how they develop.  There’s a lot of academic interest in the topic at this point in time, so hopefully it will get checked out of academic libraries that will make up its primary home.  According to Amazon you get five dollars off the exorbitant price if you order it there.  Although it’s standard practice in the industry, I’ve always disagreed with “library pricing.”  It comes from presses publishing too many books, I suspect.  Since few of them are pay dirt they have to recoup their costs by overcharging for the rest.  Nightmares with the Bible is reader friendly.  It’s non-technical and, I hope, fun to read.  Amazon seems excited about it (it’s an illusion, I know, but one for which those of us who do this kind of thing live), and is happy to take preorders.  Have your library order one, and if you do, be sure to check it out.


Nightmares’ Progress

Ironically for someone who works in academic publishing, I have my own issues of how books are priced.  I understand why, however, because I can see sales trends.  When it comes to authoring my own books I’ve learned how to write for general readers.  Not all publishers know how to price for that.  Already I’ve had one friend blanch at the price of Nightmares with the Bible and the hope is that it does well enough in the library market to earn a paperback.  I also know paperback sales seldom reach the level of hardcover sales from academic presses.  Much of it is driven by demand.  If people know about the book and ask their libraries to buy it, and this is key—check it out—that has a way of sometimes snowballing enough to convince a publisher that there’s an individual market.

Since I’m plotting the progress on Nightmares here on this blog, I’ll point out that the book has its own page on my website (located here).  Actually, all my books have their own page, but since my website is in the low-rent district of the internet not many readers venture here.  Yesterday I added the back-cover blurbs to the page.  I did so with fear and trembling.  Life has taught me not to take well to compliments.  They make me uncomfortable, like strangers entering my house without masks on.  Since I have no institution backing me, however, I need the praise of colleagues to convince others to buy this book.  In my long-term thinking on the topic, I’m hoping Nightmares gets reviewed and people will get interested in Holy Horror, which didn’t get reviews but which is half the price.

In the biz we call this “platform building.”  Those with healthier egos than mine hire their own publicists who boost their number of Twitter followers and get their names out there on the internet.  My own platform building has been of the budget kind.  I’m active on Goodreads to get followers.  I’ll engage with any comments I get on social media.  But I’m also a working stiff hoping desperately not to lose my job during this pandemic.  The blurbs on Nightmares are very nice, and they note that I write for non-specialists.  This blog is open to all comers, after all.  Likes, shares, and comments all help.  My thanks to my endorsers—you know who you are!—you made my day with your kind words.


Too Close?

Some time back I did a Google search on something like “best novels about possession,” like one does.  I was in the midst of writing Nightmares with the Bible at the time.  One of the titles that came up was Sara Gran’s Come Closer.  I hadn’t heard of it before, but I started to look out for it.  I finally found and read a copy.  It is a page-turner.  A first-person narrative, it is a story about how a woman became possessed and how her life changed because of it.  Creepy and moody, it isn’t your typical Exorcist-type story.  What it highlighted for me (I don’t want to give too many spoilers) is the dilemma of those who a) live in an era when such things are routinely dismissed, and b) who have no religious background on which to fall.

While there are some quasi-religious characters in the story, there are no priests.  There’s no Catholic Church with its reassuring, if disturbing ritual.  Nobody seems to know how to handle a powerful demon.  One of the features that fuels exorcism movies (and presumably many novels on the subject) is the uncertainty of success.  Will there be deliverance or not?  I’m not going to tell you the answer here for Gran’s novel, in keeping with the spirit of the genre, but the dilemma of where to turn is believably laid out.  Amanda, a well-employed professional, lives without religion.  She acknowledges that strange things happen, but when she gets an inkling that a demon is after her, she doesn’t know where to turn.  As the story builds the loss of personal control is convincingly portrayed.  What do you do without the church?

I often ponder the particular power of The Exorcist narrative.  The threat to a young woman (as I discuss in Nightmares) is part of the key.  Another is the knowledge that the Catholic Church has packed away a powerful ritual that is only brought out in what are clearly extreme circumstances.  Like Amanda, the MacNeils aren’t church-going individuals.  The difference is that they live near Georgetown University where help may be found.  Unveiling this ancient rite was perhaps the greatest brilliance behind the story.  We live in a different age, however.  Simultaneously both more religious and more secular.  With the old certainties now under question, people wonder what they are to do when the impossible happens.  That is the driving pathos behind Come Closer.  It is a scary story on many levels.


Eternal Returns

Nightmares with the Bible has been submitted.  Those of you who read this blog regularly know that it is my fourth book and that it is a kind of sequel to Holy Horror.  Nightmares looks specifically at demons.  I was inspired—if that’s the right word to use for it—to write the book because the chapter on possession movies in Holy Horror was clearly overflowing.  Not only that, but at the time I started writing the book not many resources were out there on demons.  Almost nothing, certainly, that asked the big question of what they are.  To answer that we need to go to the movies.  People get their information from popular culture, especially when it comes to trying to understand the arcane and even esoteric field of theology.

Movies, studies have shown, often participate in the reality our brains conjure.  Back when Reagan was president—is it even possible to believe those seem like halcyon days compared to these?—he was caught occasionally citing events from movies as historical realities.  We all do it from time to time, but then, most of us, if pressed, can tease movies apart from facts.  Church attendance has been going down for some time (and on Zoom you can tune in and tune out without having to “stay in the room”), and so people have to get their information on demons somewhere else.  Reality television and the internet also play into this as well, of course, but Nightmares sticks with movies because I’ve only got so much time.  The message is pretty straightforward though, we must consider where people get their information.

After you submit a large project, if you’re anything like me, you’re mentally exhausted for a while.  I’ve been working on this book for nearly five years—I started it before Holy Horror was submitted to McFarland.  I had already begun work on my next book, but I yet have to decide which one it will be.  I have several going at any one time.  Hopefully this next one won’t be coming out with an academic publisher.  I’d like it to be priced in the realm where individual buyers might consider it worth the investment.  I know from experience that even books just over twenty dollars are a stretch for most people, especially if they’re on academic topics.  Nightmares will come back, I know.  There will be proofs and indexing and all kinds of further work to be done.  I’m hoping that by that point I will have the next book nearly done.  If only I could decide which one it will be.


A Stiff Salute

From the way he writes, Charles F. French was a Marine.  I don’t know that for certain, but those of us who venture into fiction put ourselves into our stories.  Those who blithely reject something into which you’ve poured yourself are either boorish or unfeeling.  Yes, even literary types can be so.  This year’s reading challenge includes a book from a local author.  Since I live within a (long) commuting distance of the city, I suppose I could count New York as local.  That felt like cheating, though.  To find local authors you have to haunt independent bookstores.  I do that anyway, and a few weeks ago I found a copy of French’s Maledicus.  It fit the bill.

Although the story is about the titular demon, the ensemble protagonists are mostly military men.  There’s a strong sense of combat-readiness among them, and a good deal about military honor.  I have to admit this made me a little sad.  Don’t get me wrong, I have respect for those who are willing to fight to protect their country.  I’m sad because we need military forces at all.  I’m also a born pacifist.  My father was a veteran of the Korean War.  The military was present at his otherwise sparsely attended funeral.  I grew up reading the Bible and committed to the peaceful resolution of disagreements.  In my idealized world, we really wouldn’t need weaponry at all.  There are bad people, yes.  But like Eli Lapp, I wonder how humans can judge such things.  There are good people too.  More of them than there are bad.  More often than not, they are the victims of weaponry.

Given my work on demons, I’m always interested in their origin stories.  Maledicus gives us an evil Roman lieutenant to emperor Caligula (ahem), who is a climber and a sadist.  After his nasty and brutish life, he’s approached by a demon in the next world and joins it.  This even worse Maledicus is then taken on by the Investigative Paranormal Society, which consists of three old men, two of them retired Marines.  So you see how the military comes into it.  I won’t give any spoilers, although to my knowledge I have no local followers here in eastern Pennsylvania.  It’s a nice area for peace, actually.  The same could be said for the rest of the world.  If we put our fears aside and pooled our resources to help the vast majority of good and innocent a good number of our demons would be banished naturally.


Bodies and the Fall

Less common than it once was, the term “Dark Ages” was formerly used to denote what in Europe was known as the Medieval Period.  We now know that the pervasive darkness ascribed to the time was only partial: science, legal thinking, and rationalism were well underway.  Nevertheless, the sway of the church was enormous, and even until and beyond the days of Isaac Newton, the supernatural was assumed to exist.  Dyan Elliott’s Fallen Bodies: Pollution, Sexuality and Demonology in the Middle Ages is a fascinating journey through this contradictory time.  Elliott explores how the mysteries of sex (nocturnal emissions and menstruation loom large among them) played important roles in the development of Catholic theology that ultimately led to the close association of demons and witches.  Concerns with priestly purity, largely due to concerns about transubstantiation, led to enforced celibacy and the (further) denigration of women.

It would be difficult to summarize this insightful book.  Although relatively brief, it packs a wallop.  Concerns about purity go back to the Bible and before.  Ancient cultures had recognized aspects of contagion and knew that some diseases spread by contact.  Their perception of biology was “scientific” according to their current understanding, but it lacked microscopes and knew no shortage of supernatural entities.  Demons had great explanatory value in such a world.  As Elliott shows, they often appear in disquisitions about sex.  How can spiritual beings engage in physical relations with human bodies?  What were they made of?  Were they all bad?  Although demons had explanatory value they also raised many questions.

Fallen Bodies draws correlations between the dismissal of priests’ wives and the evolution of witches.  As the Eucharist became more and more holy, stricter controls had to be placed on consecrating hands.  Sex was the great source of pollution, and the Virgin Mary became rather less human through her own miraculously sterile conception.  The implied misogyny may not have been so much intentional as a reflection of the struggle to understand what modern medical science generally explains materially.  We still grapple with the mystery of life.  Conception can be viewed clinically, and biological responses can be “explained” scientifically (anyone who’s been in love will admit to the mystery of it, though).  Denizens of the Middle Ages worked with the tools they had to make sense of a world often bewildering.  Even physics still has to deal with quantum realities.  History teaches by its unfortunate missteps.  Someday those who “govern” the world may learn to read it and exorcise demons now otherwise readily explained.