Gothic Tales

Each year when autumn worms its way into my consciousness, I begin looking for the ideal gothic book.  I can test this by looking at the Goodreads lists of best gothic novels and noting how many of them I’ve already read. The thing now, since I’ve already covered much of the canon, is to discover modern writers who can still evoke that feeling I seek.  This is all complicated by the subjective nature of what readers term “gothic.”  Many of the books on the lists don’t fit my own working connotation, so I keep looking.  One recommended title was Jennifer Giebrecht’s debut novel The Monster of Elendhaven.  I’m still trying to decide whether it is gothic or not.

It’s a little hard to classify, actually.  It certainly has some gothic elements, as well as some horror.  There are secrets and plagues and gruesome murders.  There is a monster from a polluted sea, but not quite your grandfather’s monster.  A human monster.  Or at least partially.  The tale is written with some tongue in some cheek.  There are funny elements and there are many serious moments.  There’s magic and mayhem.  If I were to try to characterize it the closest I might come would be a Tim Burton treatment of horror.  Like Burton, Giesbrecht creates a Halloween mood, but sometimes the humor undercuts it.  This makes it difficult to pin down the work as a whole and figure out if this is the gothic I’ve been seeking.

Set in a time difficult to define and in a fictional nation, it is the kind of novel that can be read without much consequence.  The references to the Allfather make comparison with Nordic regions natural, and there is perhaps a touch of Beowulf here.  In crafting the monster Giesbrecht has made a pretty unlikeable character.  He is a monster, after all.  But not a sympathetic one.  As in other modern treatments he is a stand-in for chaos.  There’s also an environmental sensitivity here.  The monster arises from a polluted sea that derives from, of all things, human greed.  So maybe there’s a parable here.  A short book, it doesn’t take too much of a time investment, but it may leave you wondering what exactly it is that you just read.  It is dark, and gritty, and fun.  A nice combination for an October night.  Is it gothic?  That one’s a little harder to answer.  It depends on how I’m defining it on any particular day.

Remarkably Green

Fame is something most of us never experience.  In a world of billions we imagine what it would be like to have others pay attention to us.  Care what we think.  Admire us.  I can’t help but suppose that a large part of our political crisis is based on this concept.  It’s one of the reasons Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is such a timely novel.  I’ve read a couple of Hank’s brother John’s novels, mostly in the Young Adult category, and I’ve been curious about this one for some time.  April May, the protagonist, isn’t seeking fame.  In an almost parable-like way it happens to her and she becomes addicted to it.  Safety and human relationships fall aside as she follows what seems to be the next logical step in order to secure more fans, more followers.  (There may be some spoilers below.)

There’s more than that, however, going on in the story.  Tales of “first contact” with alien intelligence often pose the question of humanity’s readiness for such an encounter.  The Defenders, a group that looks an awful lot like the right wing, are afraid.  They’re afraid of what humans might face once a superior power arrives.  Their response is to attack April, who, for some reason has been chosen as the first contactee.  Her fame isn’t accidental.  I’ve watched enough of Hank Green’s excellent YouTube videos to suspect he’s not exactly looking for a Christian parallel here, but April is a kind of messiah.  The book, in many ways, could be read as a recasting of Christianity’s foundation myth.  This isn’t a book with which most Sunday School teachers would be happy—there are adult situations and adult language.  They don’t cancel out the message of the book, however; I’ve known evangelists to use these techniques as well.  They help capture attention.

With all the books I read I have to admit that many are forgettable.  I sometimes read an old post on this blog, or a review on Goodreads, and find myself having forgotten a novel completely.  Something Hank shares with his novelist brother is the ability to make an impression.  It’s too soon to tell for sure right now, but this has all the marks of a story that’s going to be my mental companion from now on.  There’s wisdom and humor in it.  There’s a touch of Qohelet as well.  Whether intentional or not, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing follows the line of a classical story arc.  And the reason that stories have become classics is that they make us think.  I’ll be thinking about this for quite some time.  Fortunately, I don’t have to deal with fame—that would only be a distraction.

2019 Books

  Goodreads is always a little eager to put the tally on a year’s worth of reading.  This year, however, since I’ve been engaged in some larger books, they may be on target.  According to their count I’ve read 71 books this year.  (I re-read two, so my personal count is 73.)  New Year’s Eve, for me, is a time to reflect about what I’ve learned in the past year.  Much of that involves books I’ve read.  A good deal of my reading has been for Nightmares with the Bible.  To write a book you need to read books.  Frequently it means taking them on regardless of your mood—and I tend to be a mood-driven reader.  So what books stand out from 2019?  (They all have individual posts on this blog, in case you missed them.)

My first nonfiction book of the year was Christopher Skaife’s The Ravenmaster.  Animal intelligence always makes for good reading and this was reprised in Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds.  I’ve fallen behind in my Frans de Waal reading, though.  Of the many research books on the Devil and demons, Jeffrey Burton Russell’s Mephistopheles stands out.  Russell’s clear thinking and wide view make him a pleasure to read even on unpleasant subjects.  Other books in that category didn’t quite rise to his level.  Monster books, on the other hand, rocked.  I loved James Neibaur’s Monster Movies of Universal Studios, Mallory O’Meara’s Lady from the Black Lagoon, and Kröger and Anderson’s Monster, She Wrote.  These were all excellent.  Tipping toward the unusual, Guy Playfair’s This House Is Haunted and Jeffrey Kripal’s The Flip gave me pause for thought.

Perhaps because I was reading longer books, this year didn’t have fiction in the numbers I usually strive for.  Most of it was quite good, though.   David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was memorable and Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (strangely similar to Mitchell) became an instant favorite.  My young adult fix came through Christy Lenzi’s Stonefield and Lois Lowry’s The Giver.  Victor Gischler scored with Vampire a Go-Go and Cherie Priest made a fine impression with The Toll.  I mentioned Neal Stephenson’s Fall yesterday, but it will stay with me into 2020.

A couple of memories/biographies also made deep marks on my mind.  Anne Serling’s As I Knew Him brought me close to Rod Serling and Barbara Taylor Brown’s Learning to Walk in the Dark found me where I live.  America’s Dark Theologian by Douglas E. Cowan isn’t really biography, but it was thought-provoking (as his books always are) and increased my resolve to read some more Stephen King.  The books I read make me more myself.  At the end of each year I think back over it all.  And this year I pondered what got me through a difficult 2019.  I have ended the year more myself than ever, I suspect, and I looking forward to a reading through the new decade.

Dead Language

Tis the season for returning from the dead.  Goodreads is one of the few websites that I allow to send me notices.  I try to check them daily, and I even read their monthly updates of new books by authors I’ve read.  I was a bit surprised when November’s newsletter began with The Andromeda Evolution by Michael Crichton.  I really enjoyed The Andromeda Strain when I was in high school.  The fact that I was in high school four decades ago made me wonder about the robustness of Dr. Crichton, especially since I knew that he had died over a decade ago himself.  I don’t know about you, but the writing industry feels crowded enough without dead people keeping in the competition.  It’s like those professors who refuse to retire, but also refuse to teach or do research.  Some people, apparently, can never get enough.

We live in an era of extreme longevity.  In the scope of human history, people haven’t lived so long since before the flood.  Some of us—not a few, mind you—work in fields with limited job openings.  We are the sort who don’t really get the tech craze, intelligent Luddites who’d rather curl up in the corner with an actual book.  There are very few professorates available.  Even fewer editorships.  And anyone who’s tried to get an agent without being one of the former knows that there are far too many writers out there.  Now the dead keep cranking ‘em out.  I’ve got half-a-dozen unpublished novels sitting right here on my lap.  Crichton’s gone the way of all flesh, but with an active bank account.

The end result of this Novemberish turn of events is that I want to read The Andromeda Strain again.  I haven’t posted it to Goodreads since when I read it the internet itself wasn’t even a pipe dream, except perhaps in the teenage fantasies of some sci-fi fans.  Since you can’t rate a book twice on Goodreads, and because paper books don’t disappear when you upgrade your device, I can do it.  I can actually walk to the shelf and pull a vintage mass-market paperback off it.  Even if the Earth passes through the tail of some comet and all networks are down.  And I seem to recall that the original strain came from outer space.  As did the strange radiation that brought the ghouls back to life on The Night of the Living Dead.  Now if only some of the rest of us might get in on the action.

Rivers and Books

“You can’t” Heraclitus said, “step into the same river twice.”  The same also applies to reviewing books on Goodreads.  I met my official pledge of 60 books “officially” a couple weeks back, but I had re-read two books already reviewed during the course of the previous month, so I’m actually up to 65 at the moment.  Not that this is a contest.  Well, it sorta is.  But the one thing that keeps coming back to me is that my reviews of the same book change after a couple of years.  In general I’m not a re-reader.  There are lots of books I want to read for the first time, and there are few, historically, that I’ve gone back and read again.  Right now, however, I’m working on a couple of books that require some going back and checking facts.  Whenever you write “X does not” you need to make sure X doesn’t.

Reading is a self-rewarding enterprise.  I’ve not stopped reading when I don’t post about books, but I’ve been reading bigger books.  Despite my academic background and current job as an editor, I’m a slow reader.  I always have been.  I set my Goodreads goal based on the fact that without commuting I hope to read five books a month.  I have to throw in some short ones to make such a goal, and I never count the children’s books (I read The Lorax several times this year) and I can’t count the books I read for work that haven’t yet been published.  Nevertheless I keep making my Goodreads pledge—it gives me a goal I can attain—and in a life where meeting goals is becoming more difficult all the time, I appreciate those I enjoy reaching.  Enjoy reading.

Goodreads is a community.  Some of my friends there comment on my blog posts, which is really neat because almost nobody comments on my blog itself.  It’s nice to have that little extra extension.  I skim through the reviews that come to my email inbox every day.  I like to know what others are reading and I get tips for future goals from the books my Goodreads’ buddies post.  And now that November looms—and over its shoulder I can see December—I think of the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge.  I generally meet that goal by about September.  Reading books is like meeting new friends.  And some of them, unlike Heraclitus’ river, you can meet twice.

International Standards

I risk being seen as even more of a book nerd by addressing the topic of International Standard Book Numbers, or ISBNs.  For those who’ve purchased a book in the past several decades, you’ve seen ISBNs, but perhaps unwittingly.  They’re represented by a barcode, often on the back cover in the lower left corner, or sometimes the middle.  The ISBN is the edition’s unique identifier, but it isn’t necessarily a guarantee that the contents will be exactly the same since typos corrected for new printings may use the same ISBN already purchased.  Yes, you read right.  Publishers have to purchase ISBNs.  Without them listings on many websites and distributors’ lists would be impossible.  The ISBN is what fulfillers use to order books since neither author nor title is necessarily unique.  Many book titles have been used to the point of dullness.

A typical ISBN

A colleague recently complained to me about being able to request permission to reuse something from a book without an ISBN.  Rights vendors often require them.  The ISBN came into usage, however, only in 1970.  As I’ve learned from trying to load older books into my Goodreads list, there are all kinds of complications and potential confusions if you don’t have the unique identifier for your source.  Titles cannot be copyrighted, and many are consequently overused.  The ISBN is your guide to a specific book.  If the book came before the ISBN system it’s going to take some extra work to ensure that you find the correct way to identify what you’re talking about.  This is only one of the many ways in which the book industry differs from most others.  It’s also the reason that I generally object to corrected printings.

Perhaps it’s odd to see a publishing professional take a hard line on book content.  The fact is almost always an author is given the opportunity to proofread, well proofs.  The copyedited, typeset book is given to them.  Yes, errors may creep in after this stage, but that’s not very common.  If an author didn’t catch mistakes, then a corrected edition ought to be published with a new ISBN.  But that’s not how it works.  Each ISBN should indicate the exact same content.  Although an ISBN must be purchased, just one isn’t expensive (witness all the self-publishing going on these days and that should be obvious).  Publishers that have to buy many thousands of them, however, are disinclined to waste them.  I’m not a fan of all technology, but the ISBN seems like a good concept to me.  Even if it’s not a guarantee that things are what they seem.

Croce’s Lament

So how much time is there?  I mean all together.  I suppose there’s no way to know that because we have no idea what came before the Big Bang.  Those who invent technology, however, seem not to have received the memo.  New tech requires more time and most of us don’t have enough seconds as it is.  Perhaps in the height of folly (for if you read me you know I admit to that possibility) I’ve begun uploading material to my YouTube channel  (I hope I got that link right!). These are cut-rate productions; when you’re a single-person operation you can’t fire the help.  I figured if those who don’t like reading prefer watching perhaps I could generate a little interest in Holy Horror visually.  (I like my other books too, but I know they’re not likely to sell.)

The question, as always, is where to find the time for this.  My nights are generally less than eight hours, but work is generally more.  What else is necessary in life, since there are still, averaged out, eight more left?  Writing has its reserved slot daily.  And reading.  Then there are the things you must do: pay taxes, get physical exercise, perhaps prepare a meal or two.  Soon, mow the lawn.  It may be foolishness to enter into yet another form of social media when I can’t keep up with those I already have.  What you have to do to drive interest in books these days!  I think of it as taking one for the tribe.  Readers trying to get the attention of watchers.

There’s an old academic trick I tried a time or two: double-dipping.  It works like this: you write an article, and another one, and another one.  Then you make them into a book.  I did pre-publish one chapter of a book once, but getting permission to republish convinced me that all my work should be original.  That applies to reviews on Goodreads—they’re never the same as my reviews on this blog—as well as to my YouTube videos.  There’ll be some overlap, sure.  But the content is new each time around.  So you can see why I’m wondering about time.  Who has some to spare?  Brother, can you spare some time?  I’ve been shooting footage (which really involves only electrons instead of actual linear imperial measures) for some time now.  I’ve got three pieces posted and more are planned to follow.  If only I can find the time.

The Truth of Fiction

The thing about reading is that it’s a lifestyle.  I record books both here and on Goodreads, but I read a lot more than books.  Although I don’t have much time for magazines or even newspapers, I read a lot on the web.  And billboards.  And sidewalks.  I’m quite content doing it.  One thing I’ve noticed in all this reading is that fiction writers tend to be more often cited as experts and intellectuals than do non-fiction writers.  Oh the non-fic practitioners get their footnotes, and other specialists mention them, but fiction writers get analyzed, probed, and explored.  Literary types wonder what they meant by some obscure doggerel they wrote.  When’s the last time a non-fiction writer drew that kind of attention?  It makes me wonder about all the time I’ve been spending on non-fiction lately.

I suffer from graphomania.  There’s no cure.  The other day I went looking for an old, pre-electric typewriter to get my fix in case the power goes out.  I have notebooks, zibaldones, commonplace books.  I carry one in my pocket.  I have one on my bedside stand.  And the thing I’ve noticed is that the ideas that come to me unbidden are often fictional.  You see, I have a hidden life as a fiction writer.  That persona is very poor since he’s never made any money from his writing.  He was nominated for a Pushcart Prize some years ago, but he never won.  That fiction writer has been suffering cabin fever because I’ve been finding publishers for my non-fiction work.  I wonder, however, if maybe I shouldn’t be spending my time on fiction.  It’ll never get me to the point I can make a living on it, but it might get quoted after I’m gone.

Writing, after all, is a stab at immortality.  Those of us who do it are legacy builders.  Even as the web has moved us more and more toward visual, iconic forms of entertainment, it has still left a few dusty corners for the written word.  When I pass the sometimes impressive graffiti on the way into New York I think I know what the vandals are feeling.  We’re kindred spirits.  We don’t want to be forgotten.  Whether with spray can, fingers on a keyboard, or fountain pen (or maybe even an old-fashioned typewriter) we are trying to say, “I was here.”  I used to print out all my blog posts in case the web failed.  It grew to thousands of pages.  I had to stop.  I was beginning to act like a fictional character.

Yearn Books

While this blog ranges over an outdated map of my mind, one of the two common elements that hold it together is books.  I don’t have many bibliophile followers, but for any who happen upon my pages, welcome.  Each year at this time I look back over the year in books.  I started doing this when I joined Goodreads.  I don’t put every single book in Goodreads, but it’s a fair register of what I’ve been up to.  This year I set a reduced goal of 65 books (I knew I’d be moving and commuting less, and I do most of my reading on the bus).  Happily I ended the year with 83 officially read, but then the first five months of the year were still spent in daily commutes.

Three years ago my wife discovered the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge.  I can’t say just how much I look forward to the new year just to begin reading the books I select to meet that challenge.  The reason I do this is to force myself into reading things I might not feel like reading, or often, books I’ve been putting off for some reason or another.  It only amounts to a dozen books and if I can’t get through twelve in a year, something’s terribly wrong.  Margaret Atwood once said something like “Show me a person who’s read a thousand books and I’ll show you an interesting person.”  I didn’t really need that quote to set a goal, and I don’t think of it as bragging for readers to share their experience with books.  I started getting into books in middle school, and although I didn’t keep track in those days I likely read a thousand books before I graduated from high school.  Branches begin to bend to the light early on.

So, were there memorable books this year?  My reading, due to contractual obligations (I brought them on myself), has tended to be dark.  There were, nevertheless, spots of light.  Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and Paul Bogard’s The Ground Beneath Us were early favorites.  I managed to stop my ears enough to miss spoilers from Jeff Vandermeer’s wonderful Annihilation.  Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World was artfully done, and Gregory Alan Thornbury’s Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music? was a saunter down memory lane.  Selections from my reading challenge fiction that I really enjoyed were Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, and Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves. And Lee Irby’s Unreliable.  And and Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind.  The last inspired non-fiction title I read was Susan Fair’s American Witches.  I always appreciate suggestions, just sayin’.  Reading is the balm in my personal Gilead, and I look forward to a 2019 full of books, even if I can’t keep the pace of years past.

Better Late Than

It seems that Holy Horror is now available, although I haven’t seen it yet.  According to the McFarland website it’s in stock just in time for the holidays.  Those of you who know me (few, admittedly) know that I dabble in other social media.  One of my connections on Goodreads (friend requests are welcome) recently noted that he does not like or watch horror.  Indeed, many people fall into that category.  His follow-up comments, however, led me to a reverie.  He mentioned that reading the lives of the saints and martyrs was horrific enough.  One of the claims I make in Holy Horror is that Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ is a horror film.  My friend’s comment about martyrs got me to thinking more about this and my own revisionist history.

Traditionally horror is traced to the gothic novel of the Romantic Period.  Late in the eighteenth century authors began to experiment with tales of weirdly horrific events often set in lonely castles and monasteries.  From there grew the more conventional horror of vampire and revenant tales up into the modern slasher and splatter genres.  I contest, however, that horror goes back much further and that it has its origins in religious writing.  Modern historians doubt that the mass martyrdoms of early Christianity were as widespread as reported.  Yes, horrible things did happen, but it wasn’t as prevalent as many of us were taught.  The stories, nevertheless, were written.  Often with gruesome details.  The purpose of these stories was roughly the same as the modern horror film—to advocate for what might be called conservative social values.  The connection is there, if you can sit through the screening.

Holy Horror focuses on movies from 1960 onward.  It isn’t comprehensive, but rather it is exploratory.  I’ve read a great number of histories of the horror genre—a new one is on my reading stack even as I type—and few have traced this phenomenon back to its religious roots.  Funnily, like horror religion will quickly get you tagged as a weirdo.  Perhaps it’s no coincidence that both goths and priests wear black.  As I’ve noted before on this blog, Stephen King’s horror novels often involve religious elements.  This isn’t something King made up; the connection has been there from the beginning.  We may have moved into lives largely insulated from the horrors of the world.  Protestants may have taken the corpus from the crucifix for theological reasons, but for those who’ve taken a moment to ponder the implications, what I’m saying should make sense.  Holy and horror go severed hand in bloody glove.

Moving Books

One of my anxieties about moving is that commuting time was my reading time.  Enforced sitting for over three hours a day meant consuming book after book.  Now I have to carve out time to read.  Life has a way of filling the time you have.  I say the following fully aware that you’re on the internet now, but one of the biggest time drains is the worldwide web.  Humans are curious creatures and the web offers to answer any and all queries.  (It still hasn’t come up with a satisfactory answer to the meaning of life, however, IMHO.)  Even when I’m working on my current book, a simple fact-check can lead to surfing and before I know it, I’m out to sea.  That’s why books—paper books—are such a good option.  A footnoted source meant another trip to the library, and libraries led to more reading.

I’m a Goodreads author.  I like Goodreads quite a lot, and I actively accept new friends there.  In the past I set goals of reading 100+ books per year.  Aware back in January that a move might take place, I lowered my expectations.  I figured, even without commuting, that 65 books would be attainable in a year.  Of course, Goodreads doesn’t count the books you write, only those you read.  I had to tell even Amazon Author Central that Holy Horror was my book.  Moving, however, is a liminal time.  Every spare minute is spent packing.  And you still owe “the man” eight hours of your day.  That rumble that you feel is the moving truck growing closer.  Reading time has become scarce.  I fear I’m becoming illiterate.

And Goodreads makes me think of Twitter.  I’ll just click over there a while and wonder why I can’t seem to grow a following.  Ah, it turns out that you have to tweet often and incessantly, with erudite and trenchant things to say.  The birds chirping once a second outside my window can’t even keep up.  Problem is, I have a 9-to-5 job, and I’m trying to write Nightmares with the Bible.  And there’s just one more fact I have to check.  Wait, what’s the weather going to be like today?  Gosh, is that the time?  I have to get packing!  That moving van will be here only hours from now.  I need to calm down.  The way to do that, in my case, is to read a book.

Books and Editing

My life has been about books. It was only as I became what is now known as a tween that the passion took hold, but since that time I’ve been addicted to them. As some readers know, I have a Goodreads account. Each year I try to take out a Goodreads challenge on how many books to read. That recently got me thinking; as an editor you read lots of embryonic books, but they don’t count. Being an editor’s a funny job. Not ha-ha funny, but the other kind. When I was having trouble breaking back into higher education, I ran across a quote that went something like this: What’s an editor? A writer who actually has a job. (Rimshot.) I have a tendency to take things literally, so I thought I’d discover lots of writers among professionals in the publishing world. I haven’t.

It could be that other writers keep it well hidden. I publish my fiction under a pseudonym and it may be that the other editors I know live hidden lives too. Somehow I doubt it. They check their email at midnight and all day long on weekends. One thing I know about writers is that we need time to write. If your workday is already eight hours and your commute is three-plus hours more, you won’t be checking work emails on weekends if you want to get any writing done at all. But what about the reading? Does it count when you read books that aren’t even born yet?

On Goodreads I enter my books by the ISBN. The International Standard Book Number (for which you have to pay, I’ve learned) is a tool used so that booksellers can keep track of titles with a unique identifier. The system is fairly recent (at least according to some of the books I read), and not all books have one. For those of us who read ancient documents, those can’t count either. Ilimilku didn’t think to stamp 13-digits on the bottom of his clay tablets. There’s no way to trace just how much s person reads in an actual year. I measure myself by my books. I get a profound sense of fulfillment when I finish one. That’s why I so often post about them on this blog. Books mean something. Call it a bad habit if you will. We’re outgrowing our apartment because I find it hard to part with books. There are those who spend their lives building arsenals. Then there are those who spend theirs building libraries. I know which I prefer.

2017 in Books

At the end of each year I think back over the books I’ve read in the past twelve months. Since I don’t blog about every single book, I use Goodreads to keep track of my numbers. I pushed my reading challenge at that site to 105 books for last year, and the meter stopped at 111. In 2018 I’m planning on reading some bigger books, so I’ll scale the numbers back a bit, I think. In any case, what were the most memorable books of 2017? It’s perhaps best to divide these up into categories since the number of books has become unwieldy. I’ve written a book about horror movies, and much of this year’s reading has been in support of that. Since my book addresses, among other things, possession movies, I’ve read several tomes on the topic. Noteworthy among them have been the three books by Felicitas D. Goodman that I read over the year. J. H. Chajes’ Between Worlds was exceptional, and Jeffrey Burton Russell’s The Devil, was likely the overall best on the topic. Also noteworthy for purposes of my book research were Catherine Spooner’s Post-Millennial Gothic and Monstrous Progeny by Lester Friedman and Allison Kavey.

For books on religion, Stephen Prothero’s Religious Literacy was an important start. Amy Johnson Frykholm’s Rapture Culture and James William Jones’ Can Science Explain Religion? addressed aspects of the topic that will continue to bear further exploration. God’s Strange Work by David L. Rowe and American Apocalypse by Matthew Avery Sutton stand out in my mind as a memorable treatments of William Miller, and of understanding American religion respectively. Chris Hedges’ American Fascists is remarkably urgent and should be read widely, especially since he has shown where current political posturing will lead if it’s not stopped cold. We will be struggling against a situation like Nazi Germany for many decades to come, and forewarned is forearmed.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, however. Much of the fiction I read was excellent. Bill Broun’s Night of the Animals, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s Butterflies in November, Robert Repino’s D’Arc, Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, Christobel Kent’s The Crooked House, and Leah Bobet’s An Inheritance of Ashes all stayed with me long after I read them. And of course, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Some non-fiction read just as engagingly. The autobiographies by Carly Simon and Bruce Springsteen were deeply engrossing. The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleneben and John Moe’s Dear Luke, We Need to Talk were great guilty pleasure reads along with Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing, W. Scott Poole’s At the Mountains of Madness, and Mathias Clasen’s Why Horror Seduces. The latter title brings us full circle. I suspect that’s appropriate for rounding out a year. Many of the other books were also quite good; I tend to rate books favorably. Read the revolution—make 2018 a memorable year with books!

Novelty Religion

Religion is dead. So they say. They have been wrong before. One of the great things the web has given us is book fan sites. There are a number of them, and my wife frequently sends me stories from BookRiot. Often they are lists, and the most recent one is Teresa Preston’s “100 Must-Read Novels about Religion.” As I scanned through the tons of tomes to see which I’d read, it struck me once again just how many novels touch on—at the very least—religion. Many are based on it. That’s because religion is an inherently fascinating phenomenon. We don’t really understand it, and even the staunchest of atheists believe something, no matter how secular. Novelists are those who, successfully finding a publisher, express their views of living on this planet in terms of fiction. It’s often factual fiction.

One of the best bits of advice I can give to academics who want to write for a wider readership is this: read fiction. There’s been a time-honored stigma, of course, outside literary studies, of academics reading fiction. Once, at a conference, I was awaiting an author meeting. It was a small conference so I had taken a book to read between appointments. When my author came up, he asked what I was reading. (I’d cautiously removed the book jacket before taking my novel along, not wanting this topic to come up.) “Just some fiction,” I explained. His eyebrows shot up and he questioned why an academic should be reading fiction at all. I have known academics successful in the fiction market, but they’ve had to use a pseudonym because their real name might discredit their scholarship. We are a divided, perhaps schizophrenic, society.

Not all academic novels, of course, are cases involving religion. Still, it’s often there. I recently finished Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News and Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Both involved religious themes at various points. This is so much the case that unless it’s really obvious or unusual I don’t always discuss such tropes on this blog. (Although I do register the books I read on Goodreads, yet another excellent book fan site.) If they want to appeal to the deepest of human needs, novels must address religion from time to time. Paying respect to the dead is, after all, a very human thing to do. And should it prove true that rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated, we shouldn’t be surprised. Like they say, reading is fundamental.

Superstar Detective

One of the reasons I accept reading challenges is that they take you places you otherwise wouldn’t go. Not all the books I read for the Modern Mrs. Darcy 2017 challenge make it onto this blog (to find the full list you need to see what I post on Goodreads.com), but some I can’t help but talk about. My wife had noticed a book that ended up in her Christmas stocking and for which I had admitted curiosity: J. Bradley’s Jesus Christ, Boy Detective. Now, Jesus is no stranger to fiction. In fact, he appears in lots of books as either the main character or as fulfilling some supporting role. In some books you have to really squint to find him. In others he’s obvious. In Bradley’s novel he’s a bit of both.

There’s a good bit of theology going on in the background of Jesus Christ, Boy Detective. As the title suggests, Jesus functions through a new incarnation in the body of a, well, boy detective. With some assistance from a criminal uncle and Saint Peter, he investigates bizarre murders and other crimes. There seems to be an ulterior motive, however, since he’s trying to get his father to own up for all the suffering he’s caused humanity. That’s right, this book is a modern theodicy.

Theodicy is a word for considering how a single deity can be both all powerful and all good. Since there’s plenty of suffering in the world we all experience, the question naturally arises: why doesn’t God do something about it? Theologians are fond of reminding us that we can’t see the bigger picture. It’s like global warming—it’s easy not to believe since we only live a few decades and the climate takes a lot longer than that to react to our pouring toxic stuff into the ecosystem. Maybe, theologians say, we have to suffer because we don’t see everything. Only God does. The boy detective disagrees. The deity in this story is truculent and culpable. A strong-willed divinity. If he doesn’t sound familiar, take another look at the Bible. I don’t know if J. Bradley has any theological training—I don’t even know his first name—but it’s clear that he’s down here with the rest of us wondering how all the pieces fit. And where there are clues it’s not a bad idea to call in a detective.