Double the Magic

Since The Prestige came out over a decade ago I’m not going to worry too much about spoilers below.  This post also comes with another caveat: if you watch this film you’ll be left scratching your head and finding yourself strongly tempted to punch the replay button immediately.  Like most Christopher Nolan films, the movie is complex and intelligent.  It also plays on an age-old horror theme of the doppelgänger.  There be spoilers here!  

Following the rivalry of two stage magicians seeking the ultimate illusion, there’s a great deal of sleight of hand in the way this movie manipulates its viewers.  You are in the audience of a magic show and you’ve volunteered to go up on stage.  I watched this film on the recommendation of a friend without even checking the genre.  That can be a disorienting experience in itself.  One of the first questions we bring to movies as well as to texts is “what kind is it?”  I had the assurance that it was “the good kind” and that was about all.  That assessment was right.  While the credits rolled—it was already late at night, for me—I was strongly tempted to start it all over.  Sometimes people ask me why I watch horror films (and no, this is not horror) and I think the answer is related to what I find here.  Like most people I want the advice of others on what to do should things go wrong.  And in The Prestige they do go wrong.  Spoilers follow.

The crux of the film involves actual doppelgängers that result from Nikola Tesla’s experiments.  Tesla was a mysterious person in real life, and without knowing the genre you can watch this film and find it believable.  There’s a kind of faith involved in movie-going, after all.  One of the early exploiters of the doppelgänger was Edgar Allan Poe.  In “William Wilson” he narrates a tale of a double that might indeed be the real William Wilson.  The Prestige plays the same card.  Most of us live knowing that daily our senses can be fooled.  We actually enjoy it once in a while.  Stage magicians stake their livelihoods on it.  Nolan is a master of bringing complex twists to the silver screen.  In Holy Horror I briefly discuss his Memento.  I have a suspicion that I might’ve had more to say about it had I watched this film earlier, with a copy of Poe in hand.

Poe et Tree

When winter gets a little dreary with its constant chill and perpetually gray skies, I often think of Edgar Allan Poe.  There’s been so much going on lately, however, that I overlooked that today is his birthday until my friend over at Verbomania reminded me of the fact.  I’ve posted on Poe many times, but this morning I had an email concerning my work on Nightmares with the Bible stating that my use of Poe in that book was a nice touch.  Sometimes I need to be hit over the head with things, though, to make them sink in.  It seems impossible that it was 210 years ago that Poe was born.  Our Januaries have become remarkably crueler since those times, what with inaugurations and all.

I have often mused that we’ve lived beyond the era where one person can have the widespread impact (for good, that is) that influences an era.  In the area of my doctorate, for example, like him or not William Foxwell Albright rearranged the field of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies.  Nobody has been able to do it since because, well, Albright already did it.  Poe gave us many things—the struggling writer determined to make a living by his pen, the scary short story, detective fiction, the Raven.  Those of us who dabble in fiction do so in his shadow.  (I know Poe wasn’t the only writer of his era, but it’s his birthday, so let’s celebrate him!)  Other writers like H. P. Lovecraft, now a hot commodity, would draw their inspiration from Poe.  And from Poe and Lovecraft came the early work of Stephen King.

A winter storm advisory is in effect.  Outside it looks bleak and the clouds appear as if they wish to weep.  A nation founded by immigrants (my apologies, first nations) has come to believe that it was here first in a world full of need and suffering.  Building a silly, expensive, and utterly pointless wall is a telltale sign that the heart has ceased to beat.  Two centuries and a decade ago a writer was born.  He had penetrating insight into what makes people behave wickedly toward their fellows.  Just when things seemed to be making progress we find ourselves prematurely buried under masonry and rubble.  How could I have forgotten Poe’s birthday?  Too much has been crowding my January, I’m afraid.  I don’t take the time I should to gaze out at the winter and wonder.

Personal Gothic

As I continue work on Nightmares with the Bible, I am reminded just how influential Edgar Allan Poe has been in my life.  It’s not that I read Poe every day, but it’s more that his stories have stayed with me since childhood.  For an English term paper in high school, the last one I recall writing, I selected Poe as the subject.  Something of the sadness of his life made me feel as though we were kindred spirits, although I could never meet him, and never let him know that he would have had a friend if he had been born a maybe a century and a half later, and if possible, in Franklin, Pennsylvania.  If his fondness for drink came with him, he would likely have met my father in such circumstances.

Even today I feel a kind of fiercely protective interest in Poe, as if his poems and stories had been written exclusively for me.  Seeing a handwritten fine copy of “The Raven” on display in the Morgan Library and Museum brought tears to my eyes.  Like Poe, I strive to make a living as a writer, but unlike Poe, I cop out.  I’m too afraid of losing everything.  Jobs necessarily interfere with writing, and some jobs actively discourage it.  Nevertheless, I still feel the shudder when I think about the first time I read many of his stories.  This was, I suspect, what fed my young interest in horror.  It wasn’t the blood and gore of the slasher film, it was the quiet, sad, disturbing atmosphere of Poe.  It has been recaptured by few, in my experience maybe only by Shirley Jackson.

Those who write are connection seekers.  Writing is a way of testing to see if we alone see the world in our own way.  Will others respond?  Poe somehow, mainly after his own lifetime, touched a responsive chord with many.  His work is now very widely known.  His visage appears on everything from bandages to socks.  His stories and poems are endlessly retold, adapted, and parodied.  When I read Poe I hear someone speaking from a life of hard knocks.  His response was to strike back, through his writing.  The life story written by one of his relatives suggests that he wasn’t as gloomy and tortured as he is generally portrayed.  Perhaps not.  Nevertheless, those of us who find gothic literature somehow redemptive know, once we close the cover, who it is we should thank.

Halloween Mood

As America becomes scarier and scarier, I appreciate the fact that I grew up loving Halloween.  I don’t know why the dark mood appeals to me—I don’t like being scared, and I certainly don’t want others to suffer.  It’s more the mood that appeals; think of it as Halloween in the abstract.  I begin to feel it in August when I walk into stores already beginning to stock their black and orange wares.  It grows stronger through September as the dark comes on noticeably earlier each day, culminating after an October of anticipation.  Unlike some consumers of horror, what I’m after is the mood.  I started reading Poe as a young person, and “The Fall of the House of Usher” remains my favorite short story.  It’s the mood.  The narrator riding his horse through the woods toward dereliction.  There’s a sublimity in it that’s hard to match.

Yes, I watch contemporary horror.  I even write books about it.  Still, it’s difficult finding others who share my sensibility concerning horror.  I don’t like the jump scares or the gore.  I’m after the mood.  Poe knew about mood—he wrote stories that maintained it throughout.  A kind of beautiful hopelessness.  It’s a feeling in the air around Halloween when it’s clear nothing is going to stop the leaves from falling and the onset of a long and lonely winter.  Writers will shiver in their garrets, allowing their thoughts to flow despite the pale sky and feeble sun that is the only hope of continued life on this isolated planet.  Halloween tells us there is a spirit world no matter what the scientific authorities say.  It’s a world you can feel, but you can’t find it rationally.

Masquerading is a theme in some of Poe’s work as well.  We, as social beings, tend to excel at it.  We hide our real feelings so that others won’t hurt us, or so as not to hurt them.  We all know the childhood feeling of putting on that Halloween mask that permits us to act as we really feel, within limits.  Even as a Fundamentalist, I knew the catharsis of masquerading.  I read Poe and I understood him in my own way.  As an Episcopalian, I saw how fear of death was hidden behind All Saints and All Souls.  Masquerading.  Halloween was the Eve of All Hallows, but it usurped the master in its own form of beautiful dereliction.  The holidays following this are more comforting and heimlich, until the solstice comes to remind us that light will return, no matter how feeble at first.  We need Halloween.

Cthulhu You Knew

Humans tend to be visually oriented.  Arresting images stop us cold, causing us to focus on what we’re seeing.  As a tween I could be transported by large, lavishly illustrated, full-color books of other worlds.  While these went the way of Bradbury, I still sometimes recollect scenes that stopped me in my young tracks, making my juvenile mind wonder, what if…?  As an adult I realize “coffee table” books are heavy and a pain when you’re moving.  Printed on specialized paper, they have more heft than your mass-market paperback, or even most academic tomes.  Nevertheless, Gothic Dreams Cthulhu was a book that carried me, like a time-machine, back to my younger years.  Unlike in those days, however, I read the text as well as lingered over the images.  And I wondered about Cthulhu.

You see, I didn’t know about Lovecraft as a child.  The only reading regularly done in my family was Bible-oriented.  I discovered science fiction and gothic literature as a tween and, living in a small town, had no one to guide me in my choices.  Rouseville (the town pictured in the background on this website) had no public library.  My reading was left to my own, uninformed devices.  I discovered Cthulhu through my long fascination with Dagon.  I’d pitched Dagon as my dissertation topic, but settled on Asherah instead.  While teaching religion at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, I discovered Lovecraft, and Cthulhu, through Dagon.

Gordon Kerr, the author of Gothic Dreams Cthulhu, might be forgiven his hyperbole about H. P. Lovecraft.  Lovecraft was not a great writer—that’s not intended as any kind of slight, I hasten to add.  Classically, however, he didn’t have the level of literary finesse of Edgar Allan Poe, for example.  Still, Lovecraft created credible worlds.  His was a life of imagination—one might almost say divinity.  He was a creator.  Cthulhu has become a cultural icon.  With the magic of the internet bringing a writer still obscure to international attention, many people who never read horror fantasy nevertheless know who Cthulhu is.  Or they think they do.  As Kerr explains, the descriptions by Lovecraft himself are spare, thus the variety of ideas represented in the delicious artwork on every page of this book.  As Lovecraft earns more academic attention, surely others will notice the religious potential of the Great Old Ones that were, in their time, gods.  A guilty pleasure read, to be sure, Gothic Dreams Cthulhu fits well into this serious world of chaos we’ve created for ourselves.

False Memory

One of the reasons our recent loss of books hit me so hard is that each volume contains memories.  Among the more disturbing developments of memory studies in recent years is the fact that what we remember has a tendency to be unreliable.  In other words, our narratives about ourselves contains a good deal of fiction that we remember as fact.  Even if we write down our impressions shortly after an event, such scribbles are just that—impressions.  Lee Irby explores this dynamic in his novel Unreliable.  Now, since the narrator may be the most unreliable I’ve ever read, I don’t want to give away too much.  Irby knows what it’s like to be a professor (something that some of us share with him) and he has a good sense of Edgar Allan Poe.  It’s one of those books that touched on a number of things in my own life.  I think.

First of all, this was an impulse buy at Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca, New York.  I soon discovered why they stocked it.  Edwin Stith, the narrator, teaches at a fictional college in Ithaca.  The story, however, is set in Richmond, Virginia, where Prof. Stith has gone for his mother’s second wedding.  With characters compellingly drawn, he meets his new step-family, runs into an old-girlfriend, and tries to both avoid and hook up with a student of his that he’s dating, more or less.  He claims from the start, however, that we shouldn’t believe him.  The largest part of the story takes place over one feverish day following a very late arrival in town, with plenty of Poe references sprinkled throughout the tale.

Apart from the Ithaca and former professor connections, the book also mentioned, rather spookily, meeting a girl from Slippery Rock University—a rather obscure school from my old neighborhood.  I had dated a Slippery Rock co-ed who’d proved about as unreliable as our narrator, so this single, brief reference managed to jump-start some of my own memories, reliable or not.  Our pasts, along with the books we read, make us who we are.  I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve thought of a scene I’d supposed I’d forgotten from a book I’ve read years ago.  Just the other day I recalled, completely out of of the blue, apropos of nothing, a scene from a Doc Savage novella I’d read as a tween.  Was it a reliable memory?  I have no way to judge, I guess.  And that’s the scary part, as I’m sure Poe would’ve agreed.

The Maelstrom

Some monsters can’t be destroyed. Today is Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday. Poe had his demons, for sure, but the twentieth century took personal fear and made it universal. Atomic bombs and mutually assured destruction were concepts any of us born since World War II have lived under our whole lives. Kids in the 1950s were drilled in schools about what to do in case of nuclear attack. We didn’t have such drills in the ’60s, but the Fallout Shelter sign was still quite familiar and frightening in its frankness. There are people out there that want you dead, and we tend to elect them to positions of power. Duck and cover. It’s all in vain.

Then came peace. Ever so briefly. When I started seeing newspaper articles about what to do in the event of a nuclear attack—not in my childhood, but just this week—I shuddered. We’ve apparently made no progress at all. When we’re all decaying corpses glowing eerily in the night there’ll be no point in figuring out who’s to blame. A species as endlessly inventive as our own spends its time and resources on distrusting, hating the other. “They” might get what’s ours. The acquisitive mind trembles. You see, there’s no end to the things you can own. As long as anyone else owns anything you can always hope to get it for yourself. Say you read the Bible and evangelicals will forgive you daily for breaking the tenth commandment. Just don’t let those foreigners have it.

Poe imagined nightmare worlds. Most of his stories, however, were on the individual level. Our monsters, on the other hand, are international in scale. Radioactive fallout with its slow decay and devastating effects on frail flesh may be the stuff of good horror, but they make for decidedly poor governance. Perhaps it’s no wonder that this comes up under a president who ran on a platform of hatred. Last weekend the people of Hawaii lived through fearful moments that were all too believable with the incompetent pretender of Pennsylvania Avenue. A man who can’t keep his tweet shut and who gets away with offenses that would easily impeach a democrat. I grew up watching Godzilla, the famed radioactive dinosaur, rising from the oceans to remind us of the consequences of atomic sins. For the too brief era of Clinton we felt that the world might be safe at last from such monsters. Problem is, some monsters just can’t be destroyed.