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.

Pop Culture

Something I was reading recently made me ponder how we become acquainted with culture, particularly pop culture.  I can really only speak for myself, but I know television had a lot to do with it.  We were a family of humble means and with three young boys to entertain, television often came to the rescue.  There were the usual Friday night Brady Bunch and Partridge Family lineup and Sunday’s Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and perhaps Wonderful World of Disney duo.  Lots of other stuff got mixed in there, too, I’m sure.  I watched Dark Shadows after school and the original series of Star Trek. Gilligan’s Island was a big influence, as was Get Smart.  All of these have come back to me as an adult, and in some ways define my outlook.  It’s kind of scary, actually, the power television has.

Specifically, however, I had recently read something mentioning James Bond.  How did I find James Bond?  It must’ve been on commercial television broadcasts of the Sean Connery movies, but I knew enough to pick up these titles at Goodwill when we went there on a Saturday, clothes shopping.  Always more interested in books than other things, I remember running my eyes over the spines in the book bins.  I quickly learned to recognize, and snap up, the Dark Shadows books.  I also somehow learned the canon of Ian Fleming James Bond novels.  Perhaps there were lists inside the cover of the paperbacks I bought.  Little boys and spies require no explanation, but how did I learn there were twelve Fleming novels?

From Dr. No trailer, Wikimedia Commons

Since the first film, Doctor No, came out the year I was born, I was a bit late to the party.  Still, as a child I recall being scandalized, and confused, by the sex scenes in the books.  I was after the spy action, not the “mushy stuff.”  Reading TV Guide like Holy Writ, I tried to make sure I could see the movies when they happened along.  In my mind there was one corresponding movie to a book.  Whoever got there first cast it in bronze.  I was offended on seeing Casino Royale for the first time.  It was a comedy.  And what was David Niven doing as 007?  And was that Peter Sellers in there too?  The Fundamentalist brain, it seems, understands only one way of doing things.  Growing up I spent entirely too much time watching television.  I shouldn’t be too harsh about it, however.  It’s likely how I came to know anything about popular culture, even if it was seen through the humble lens of the working poor.

The Persistence of Unity

I came across some Ray Bradbury books while unpacking.  I recently learned that Ray Bradbury was a Unitarian.  Now, the religion of a writer is only ever an ancillary bit of information, yet for someone of my combination of interests, it’s compelling intelligence.  Having grown up reading Bradbury, my own fiction often comes out seeming like an imitation of his.  I discovered him the way I found most of my early, influential writers—through Goodwill.  Living in a town with no bookstores, Goodwill was a great venue for walking out with a good handful of books for under a buck.  Since Mom was there looking for “practical” stuff, I hovered over the book tables and discovered a new world.  Then I grew up.

Embarrassed by my childish interests, I gave away or sold most of my Bradbury books after college.  I was more sophisticated than that now.  I read Greek and was soon to learn Hebrew.  Books were meant to have footnotes, and lots of them.  Who wants to be seen with Bradbury on their shelves?  But the indiscretion of youth does come back to haunt one.  About two decades later I began to yearn for something missing from my life.  Perhaps like a good Unitarian I wasn’t exactly sure what it was, but I knew it was lacking.  Then my daughter was assigned Fahrenheit 451 for school reading.  I tried to read whatever she was assigned, and once I did memories of Bradbury flooded back.  I no longer had his books, but that could be remedied.

Occasionally I’m criticized for having too much in the way of books.  I’m sometimes asked if I will ever read some of them again.  The answer is how should I know?  I jettisoned Ray Bradbury with Episcopal pretention, only to find that behind the ceremonial there was a more unified version of things waiting.  A continuity with my younger self.  A lust for imagination.  A desire to remember what it was like to walk on Venus.  Or to see a man presciently covered with tattoos.  Or simply to thrill at the idea of October.  I began to acquire the old books again.  The newer editions lacked the visual resonance of the old, but the essence was still there.  Orthodoxy, I discovered, often isn’t true to life.  What’s true is what we discover early on.  Sophistication isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.  And yes, I may well just read that again after all.

The Danger of Books

Yesterday the Hunterdon County Library booksale began. I did not grow up as a reader. As a child, television was my primary source of information. For reasons unclear to me, I took to books when I started junior high school. Suddenly I couldn’t get enough of them. I lived in a town with no bookstores, so I usually depended on what I could find on our periodic trips to Goodwill to look for clothes. While my mother was looking for apparel for my brothers and me, I hovered over the quarter-a-piece book bin, buying up to a dollar’s worth of used books at a time. I kept my books in a ratty old suitcase under the bed. There were no bookshelves at home, nor any room for them. Besides, I liked to keep my books separate from other aspects of my life. Perhaps it is an illness, but from that day on, I have not been able to resist the draw of books. It is perhaps natural that I would go into higher education (although my field might have been chosen a bit more wisely). In any case, yesterday I drove to Flemington, New Jersey, with, at least to judge by the traffic, three-quarters of the population of the county.

One of the books I purchased had a slip of paper tucked between the leaves. When I got home I read on it, “The naked witches have been regarded either as a jokey press gimmick or as a complete non-event. The truth of the matter is that the witches played a very important role in a whole series of monster invocations.” Intrigued, I wondered what the source of this unusual quote might be. Then I was struck by the religious imagery implicit in the piece: witches, no matter how defined, are a religious subject. Monsters, as I have frequently noted, share intense neural territory with religion. And invocation? It is a liturgical term! I can only wonder what the original context of this quote might have been, but the book in which it was stuck was in no sense religious. I am a very eclectic reader (so it is perhaps unusual that I would go into higher education) and no books I purchased had anything to do with religion. It seems that religion never fails to find me.

My devotion to books often reminds me of the day when Amazon used to include bookmarks when you purchased from them. My favorite bore a quote from Erasmus: “When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.” It sometimes drives my wife to frustration that I still wear clothes I purchased before we were married some twenty-two years ago. My informal student evaluations on Rate My Professor sometimes comment on my out-of-date fashion sense. The reason is, however, that I buy books before clothes, and yes, even food. And when you buy used books at a library book sale, you may learn that naked witches invoke monsters, and that may be valuable information. And my clothes are never in a condition Goodwill would consider accepting when I’m finally forced to relinquish them for lack of functionality.