Victorian Nightmares

J. Sheridan Le Fanu isn’t exactly a household name, but as a writer from the same era (and perhaps same cloth) as Poe, he was known for his gothic imagination.  Since he was Irish his work never really took off in America as some other writers’ did, and he’s certainly not likely to be found on bookstore shelves because there’s not great demand.  I have a fondness for gothic literature and Le Fanu’s name had been on my list for some time.  At a used bookstore I found one of his books, and as I was checking out the clerk said “I was just checking in another of his books,” so I bought that one too.  (When you’re paying just two dollars a pop for books, it feels like virtue.)  The latter turned out to be In a Glass Darkly, which apart from its biblical title, contains five stories loosely linked by a narrative framework.  Poe wrote that short stories should be read in one sitting, but these tale venture into novelette territory, with some requiring considerable time to finish.

That having been said, the experience was enjoyable enough.  Each story is quite different and they range from the vampire classic “Camilla” to a foiled murder mystery and a canonical ghost story or two.  While better known across the Atlantic, several of Le Fanu’s stories have been translated to film, and he was regarded as one of the best ghost story writers of his era.  Perhaps because modern readers have been subjected to much more subtle foreshadowing, some of the tales are predictable to those on the lookout for twist endings.  The Room in the Dragon Volant, for example, suggests that the mysterious lady at the masquerade is indeed the narrator’s adulteress love interest, although the final twist is nicely wrought.

Probably the most well-known of the stories in the collection is “Camilla,” the account of what’s regarded today as a lesbian vampire.  The tale is well-crafted, but the credulity of the narrator is almost unbelievable as the pieces fall together and the puzzle picture still isn’t seen.  Nevertheless, it’s a creepy account that has captured the imagination of filmmakers through the years.  It took me long enough to finish the book that the earlier stories had faded by the time I’d reached the end, but the fault lies with me, not the author.  As a gothic fix each of the narratives serves quite well.  My other Le Fanu purchase was a much larger book, so it will take some time to achieve that goal.  In the meantime, I’ll look forward to discovering more Victorian nightmares as autumn wends its way forward.

Premature Burial

I have recently finished writing an article for a collection of essays on the Bible and horror.  Have no fear—I’ll pass along details once it’s published.  I do have to wonder, though.  All those years I was teaching and publishing regularly in ancient Near Eastern studies nobody ever approached me about contributing.  It took coming out of my monster closet for that to happen.  Monsters, you see, are a guilty pleasure topic.  They’re so much fun that they hardly seem like work to write about.  Or read about.  I was a child when Dark Shadows aired as a daily soap opera on ABC.  For reasons about which I’m beginning to speculate I found this series strangely compelling.  Marilyn Ross (W. E. D. [William Edward Daniel] Ross) based some 32 of his over 300 novels on the series.  I collected them as a kid and then got rid of them when I went to college.  I’ve been collecting them again in a fit of nostalgia over the past several years.

I just finished Barnabas, Quentin, and the Crystal Coffin.  The story was actually quite different than typical Collinwood fare.  What drew me to these novels as a child was their atmosphere and, if I’m honest, the fact that Barnabas was a vampire.  Memories of youth are fleeting things at my age, but it may be that Barnabas Collins was my introduction to vampires.  I was four when the series first aired, and I’m not sure if I discovered it before I came across Dracula or if it was the other way round.  Dracula, once I was experienced enough to have an opinion on such things, was my favorite monster.  I liked the others as well, but he was rich and immortal—the things sickly kids in poverty idealize.

In my fascination with Dark Shadows I’m not alone.  Despite Tim Burton’s movie version, Johnny Depp (who is my age) admitted growing up wanting to be Barnabas Collins.  Friends about my age have discovered PBS’s recent re-release of the original series in all its campy glory.  For whatever reason, however, it is the books that always draw me back in.  They, for me, defined the Gothic novel.  Ross’s writing is formulaic and predictable.  His adjective choices feel forced and subtleness was never his strong point.  Still I can’t stop myself from occasionally dropping into the world he manages to recreate in the woods of Maine.  Afterwards I move on to more profound writing, but then, his work is the very definition of a guilty pleasure.

No Refuge

A convention in histories of the horror genre is to trace it to Gothic fiction.  Gothic fiction itself is traced to The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole.  Having grown up reading Gothic stories along with religious texts, perhaps surprisingly I never came upon Walpole’s oeuvre.  Some weeks back I happened on a used bookstore, which, by convention, had its cheapest fare on sidewalk carts.  I was surprised to see a negligibly priced copy of The Castle of Otranto, which I took in to the counter.  The clerk looked puzzled a moment, then asked if it was from the carts.  “Oh,” he sniffed, “that explains it.  We don’t carry Dover editions; they’re too cheap.”  Perhaps that remark haunted me a bit, but I finally got around to reading the slim book and it left a kind of unanticipated horror in my mind.

Okay, so this was written in the eighteenth century, and set further back, in Medieval times.  A spooky castle, knights and knaves, and fainting damsels all populate its pages.  Religion, particularly in debased form, became a standard characteristic of the Gothic.  Here a monk, an erstwhile lord, holds a secret that leads to the downfall of a house of pretenders who have claimed ownership of the castle.  All pretty straightforward.  Even the ghosts and talking skeletons fail to raise fear.  One aspect, however, does hold horror.  The three princesses in the story are completely at the whim of the men.  They acknowledge as much and claim it against piety to declare any different.

It would be unfair to assert that such sexism was intentional—like most human behaviors it evolved over eons—but in this era to read it is to shudder.  We have moved beyond the horror fiction that men own women and that they have any right to determine their fate.  Especially in these days, it’s embarrassing to be reminded that such was ever the case.  Despite the word from on high we cannot hide from history.  The domination of men has been a testament to how poorly civilization has been run.  Some of its benefits can’t be denied, but on a whole we see a succession of aggression and wars, suffering and poverty, generally brought on my societies that have taken their cues from patriarchical ideals.  My reading of The Castle of Otranto brought this back with a force not unlike that of the giant ghost haunting its walls.  Is it too much to hope that some two-and-a-half centuries might show some evidence of progress?

OBSO

Oxford Biblical Studies Online is a subscription service for institutions that gives access to many biblical studies resources produced by the press.  It also features current essays that stand on this side of the paywall, written on contemporary issues.  In a shameless self-promoting plug, I’d direct you to this link to see my latest publication.  You see, I’m not alone in looking at Bible through the lens of horror.  As the acknowledgements to Holy Horror reveal, many conversations were going on that led to that book.  While the ideas contained in it are my own, I’m by no means the only one to have noticed that the Good Book makes guest appearances in genre fiction.  One of the points I made to my students when I held a teaching post was that the Bible is ubiquitous in our culture, whether we know it or not.  Just look at the Republican Party and beg to differ.

The idea is not without precedent.  For those who read the Bible real horror isn’t hard to find.  The Good Book can be quite a scary book.  Consider for just a moment the final installment—Revelation, apart from being full of amazing imagery, is an amazingly violent book.  Attack helicopters and atomic bombs may not yet have been invented, but there was no shortage of ways to kill people in the pre-gunpowder world.  Revelation paints the world in the throes of horrible suffering and death.  Indeed, the completely fictional Left Behind series rejoices in the death of the unrighteous who are, well, left behind.  Even today there’s a significant segment of “Christianity” that rejoices in the chaos Trump has unleashed.

In the OBSO article I sketch a brief history of how this came to be.  The history could work in the other direction as well.  The fact is the Bible and horror have always gone fairly well together.  Among genre literature, however, horror is a distinctive category only after the eighteenth century (CE).  Early horror novels, under the guise of Gothic fiction, often involve religious elements.  Culture was already biblically suffused then.  This is a natural outgrowth of a would steeped in violence.  Personally, I don’t like gore.  I don’t watch horror to get any kind of gross-out fix.  My purposes are somewhat different than many viewers, I suspect.  What we do all have in common, though, is that we realize horror has something honest to say to us.  And it has been saying it to us since from in the beginning.

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.

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.

Growing Shadows

As summer wends its way slowly toward autumn my reading becomes more gothic.  It feels as natural as the progression of the seasons, I suppose.  While waiting for the turn I’d been holding onto Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind.  Not having read any Zafón before, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  My copy had been blurbed by Stephen King, and I figured that was pretty high praise.  I found the book through one of my web searches for the most gothic novels and this one takes a while, but I can see why it makes some of those lists.  I wasn’t sure at first if it was intended to be comic or serious, but that combination is an imitation of life itself.  We laugh, we cry, we shudder.

The story slowly builds, and I’ll address this further on Goodreads.  What I want to consider here is the nature of place.  Human beings—and I would argue animals as well—have a sense of place.  Space becomes sacred through events both dramatic and quotidian.  That’s why we make pilgrimages to places where our heroes lived.  Just to be there.  To think about it.  To feel it.  The Shadow of the Wind is a story of Barcelona during a time of war.  There’s no escaping the moody sense of old Europe in this tale.  In that sense religion is quite often casually mentioned.  It’s part of place in a way many Americans overlook.  The church bells I can hear everyday beg to differ, no matter how empty the pews may be.  Zafón wants to share his gothic Barcelona with a story that leads to real shivers.

It would be a stretch to call this a horror novel, but it is in the sense that V. C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic is.  It reminded me at several points of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (my copy of which was destroyed in a flooded garage).  Many lives, I suspect, have quiet gothic elements to them.  I know that mine does.  While there may be a little supernatural at work in The Shadow of the Wind, most of the action is believable.  This is the way people behave.  The way they treat, and mistreat one another.  While the days are still hot around here, the angle of the sun in the sky doesn’t lie.  We’re fast approaching the equinox from which we’ll slide into the long nights of winter.  And reading, the more gothic the better, will help us make it through no matter where we are.

Bitten by Religion

The Essex Serpent isn’t what it appears to be.  Sarah Perry’s debut American novel (although it’s her second elsewhere, publishing being the strange beast that it is) was much anticipated.  Like the serpent itself, the novel is difficult to describe.  It comes down to a minister, a widow, and the people with whom they associate.  Instead of going through the complex storyline, I would instead note that once again a novel that explores religion has garnered quite a lot of attention.  It’s difficult to believe the official narrative that we’re constantly fed that religion is well beyond its expiration date when it continues to appear in print media as a prime motivator for people in all kinds of situations.  Novels, however, aren’t popular in the way television, movies, and video games are, so this is worth pondering.

While novels are sometimes disparaged in higher education, their clientele tends to be an educated one.  It takes more commitment to sit down and read a 400-page tome than it does to flip on some device and meander from app to app, channel to channel, or website to website.  Novel reading takes some concentrated effort.  Remembering characters and connections across a span of days or weeks as you wend your way through.  And one thing novelists do, at least in my experience, is explore the way religion makes us who we are.  I don’t choose novels for that reason; I thought The Essex Serpent would be a monster story (remember, I don’t read reviews before reading the book).

My guess is that if you read this blog you’re a potential reader of novels like this, so I won’t offer any spoilers.  The book is suffused with biblical language, as befits a story with a clergyman as a major character.  The protagonist, however, is an irreligious widow on a journey of self-discovery.  Having been dominated by a wealthy husband, she now explores paleontology in a Victorian context.  Although the year is never stated, the novel manages to find that Gothic near-ghost-story feel with the close interplay of death by consumption and fear of the dark.  It’s not a scary book by any means, although there’s plenty of mist in Essex, and a little gruesome detail of what people can do to each other.  The novel caught my attention via reviews I never read and has left me pondering what I’ve just experienced.  And it has reinforced my conviction that, despite what the critics may say, religion is what motivates us, whether we admit it or not.  And serpents may not be what they seem.

Monsters and Men

dreadful-pleasuresHorror films are something you either “get” or you don’t. I have no empirical evidence for that, but then again, “getting” is hardly a precise verb. In my recent desire to find some explanation for my own fascination with the genre, I turned to James B. Twitchell’s Dreadful Pleasures: An Anatomy of Modern Horror. This is a smart book. Twitchell, an English professor, knows to include Gothic novels in his accounting for this strange addiction. He has several insightful things to say about the differences between terror and horror. He gives a fairly complete analysis of the “big three”—vampires, Frankenstein monsters, and werewolves/wolf men/Jekyll and Hydes. Still, at the end, I have to wonder if he really “gets” the monsters he explores. Part of this is his early admission that he didn’t grow up with monsters, but that he was introduced to them academically. Another part of it is his sometimes dismissive style when talking about movies that meant a great deal to us monster boomers when they came out. Either you get it or you don’t.

Still, I recommend this book for those who want to make sense of some of the hidden dynamics of classic monsters. That the analysis is sexual should come as no surprise. Twitchell finds evidence for a sublimated incest in many of his creatures, but the true fan knows there is more to them than that. The monster does indeed cross boundaries—that’s what monsters do, after all—but that’s only scratching the surface with their claws. Of course, the book suffers from having been written perhaps a little too early. Although there is protest to the contrary, horror films have grown up considerably since the 1980s. Not all of them, of course. The same thing could be said of the kids I knew in high school.

Having a single theory to approach a phenomenon is respectable. So respectable that it’s called Occam’s Razor and everyone is expected to shave with it. I’ve never liked shaving. The more I reflect on reality, the more it seems to me that answers are more complex than single causation. Sometimes the simplest answer isn’t the most parsimonious. Sometimes there is far more going on than meets the cyclops’ eye. In my experience, limited though it may be, the horror movie has unexplored dimensions. One of them is the coping ability that they offer when evens such as 11/9 occur. There’s no simple way to understand monsters, but if we see them around enough, we might just be able to survive them.

Identity Crisis

womaninwhiteSince at least my middle school days I have been in search of the great Gothic novel. I can’t claim to have found it just yet, but I’ve read many notable samples along the way. Somehow Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White remained completely unknown to me until earlier this year. The title was evocative enough to make me pick it up, daunting though its 600 pages might be. Like many novels of its period it was serialized, which likely accounts for its length. Honestly, it took a while to get into it fully. Once ensconced, however, it kept me reading for over a month. (I took some breaks for work and sleep.) I wouldn’t say it was my ideal of the great Gothic novel, but the character of Count Fosco is amazingly drawn and seriously compelling. As the huge man lets mice run over his massive body and treats birds with conscientious gentleness, he is plotting ruin to his fellow human beings to benefit himself. He is an accomplished egotist.

What makes the novel so profound to me is the question of identity. One of the characters in the novel, the eponymous woman in white, has a double in the love interest of the protagonist. Doubles are common in Gothic tales, but in this instance when the woman dies and others believe her double to be her the question of identity is raised. Who am I, really? In the day before DNA evidence, it was impressively difficult to prove you were who you said you were, if your appearance was altered. Emaciated, abused, and drugged, Laura doesn’t look like herself and even her own uncle doesn’t recognize her. In the end her identity is established by legal testimony alone, without benefit of any biological proof.

Identity has been on my mind lately. Especially on a national scale. Brexit and Trump were both movements fueled by distrust and distorted notions of national identity. In short, Britain and the United States, so the reasoning goes, should belong to white men. As Monty Burns famously said, “Well, for once the rich white man is in control!” I personally like a little color in my field of view. I value deeply those I’ve met whose experiences and skin tones don’t match my own pallor. I want our national identity to include more than just fifty shades of white where women are objects and men are some kind of noble studs. Back when I started to read this novel I had a grip on that view of reality. Now that I’ve finally finished it, I wonder who we really are.

The Friar’s Tale

Being a fan of Gothic fiction, I recently read an anonymous story from 1792 entitled, “The Friar’s Tale.” Those who linger among Gothic conventions know that the monastery is a common trope in the genre, often with debased clerics who use their authority to make their charges miserable. (Hmm. I wonder why I keep coming back to this kind of fiction?) Literary scholars tend to point to the late eighteenth century as the origin point of Gothic sensibilities which coincide with the Romantic movement. This then, is an early example of what people feared as industrialism and modernity encroached on a world once natural and full of mystery. The tale contains nothing to frighten a modern reader, but it does offer compelling commentary on the one organization that would seem most to benefit from retaining a pre-scientific worldview—the church.

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The story involves lovers separated by a cad who is after the lass’s money and who connives with the mother superior of a convent to lock the girl away from both her money and her lover. She comes to the realization that religion has ruined her prospects. The friar narrating the tale refers to religion as “that constant comfort of the good, and powerful weapon of the wicked.” Of course we had already experienced Reformation vitriol by this point in history, and rage against the use of religion as a means for personal gain had been thrown out for any who would care to utilize it. Clearly the author of “The Friar’s Tale” found it essential to the plot.

The truly interesting aspect of all this is how, in the intervening centuries, religion has continued to present this opportunity to the greedy and corrupt. Not all religion succumbs, of course, but when it becomes a hierarchy of any description there will follow those who find it a means of personal gain. The Prosperity Gospel movement comes immediately to mind. Those who putatively follow a man who is recorded as having said to give away all that you have in order to be his disciple have somehow missed the message and keep their treasure where moth and rust pose constant dangers. We think ourselves advanced since then, but the words of a fictional friar from centuries ago may still hold some wisdom for Gothic readers in the present.

Lost and Found

As a young lad I was fascinated by the supernatural. This may explain, but in no wise excuses, my choice of a career in religion. As I grew in years and skepticism, this interest began to feel like a security blanket in a college dormitory — an embarrassment to be jettisoned as quickly as possible. Along the way, of course, I’d given away what I thought to be the detritus of childish fantasy, including my collection of cheap, pulp fiction, tending toward the Gothic.

As I grow more ancient, and more observant, I see that sometimes the impetuousness of youth cradles a profound wisdom. Sometimes we do get it right the first time. I still haven’t figured out if that’s the case with me, but it seems to be a hypothesis worth the exploration. Part of my current search for reality is the reassessment of my childhood learning in the school of classical Gothic fiction. The books are no longer as cheap as they used to be, and when I take them out in public I hide them inside a larger, more academic book so that no one really knows what I’m reading. As a friend once observed, people think that those of us who hang out in the religion sections of Borders are immediately suspect. More so the adult toting a beaten-up paperback written for a teen readership a number of decades ago.

One of my lost memories was a juvenilized version of Rod Serling’s Stories from the Twilight Zone. I had shoveled my copy off to Goodwill along with many other shards of my childhood when I “grew up.” The memories of the angst that the very cover generated in me led to a frantic online used book hunt a few years back. Inside the stories seemed flatter than I’d recalled, but the larger ideas they generated were still worth paying attention to. Perhaps the real lesson is that childhood should not be dismissed as wasted time playing and indulging in carefree amusements. Our childhood proclivities, it now seems, preset the trajectories for our lives. So I still have a quasi-career in a religion department, and I have a copy of a book that started me asking the bigger questions.

Anybody else remember this?

Anybody else remember this?