Prejudices of the Time

When my daughter was in middle and high school, I made an effort to read every book she was assigned for her English classes.  This gave us something to talk about during the years when many teens grow laconic and uncommunicative.  Some of the books I’d read before, but one frightened me off.  Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest pressed the wrong buttons.  You have to understand that I saw the movie for a class in college.  It disturbed me.  Even before encountering H. P. Lovecraft, one of my deepest phobias was insanity.  Children of alcoholics sometimes fear those who are out of control, and mental patients had become, in my head, associated with the non-rational behavior of my father that frightened me so.  During a clown ministry event we visited the local state hospital for mental patients.  I trembled for about a week after we left.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is in many ways a sixties novel.  One reflection of that is the fact that the religious imagery in the novel is presented in the form of punishment.  Everyone knows the narrative of R. P. McMurphy’s battle of the wills against Nurse Ratched.  The latter uses electroshock therapy as punishment and she tries to wear McMurphy down by using it repeatedly after the fight in the shower.  The electroshock table is described as a cross.  The metal headset is a crown of thorns.  Indeed, one of the patients is described as being crucified to the wall of the ward where he hangs throughout the novel.  The sixties frequently saw religion—especially the staid, conservative evangelicalism of the 1950s—as a form of punishment.  That’s pretty clear here.

Although the novel celebrates the freedom of the sixties, it also reflects the prejudices of the times.  The African-American attendees on the ward aren’t portrayed sympathetically.  The women—nurses and prostitutes alike—are there for the pleasure of the male patients’ gaze, exemplified in the leering laugh of McMurphy.  Still, there’s a kind of catharsis to this tale.  The Chief, from whose point-of-view the story’s told, is arguably cured by the antics and special attention McMurphy shows him.  Beneath the callous, self-serving conman there is a human decency that “the system” fails to find.  Indeed, McMurphy is a kind of Christ figure.  A fallen savior, no doubt, but a liberator nonetheless.  This was a difficult novel to read.  I couldn’t make myself pick it up half-a-decade ago, but I suspect somewhere beneath the surface I’m glad I’ve finally read it.  It didn’t cure any of my phobias but it made me think.

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.

Just Sagan

Perhaps the most famous resident of Ithaca, New York, during his career at Cornell was Carl Sagan.  The astrophysicist had had a noteworthy career, becoming a household name with his popularizing television programs and books.  When he died prematurely, there was a real sense of loss among many of us who appreciate those who dumb down science so the rest of us can understand.  Over the weekend in Ithaca, which still bears his physical legacy in a scale model of the solar system, we went to find his final resting place in Lakeview Cemetery.  There is something oddly peaceful about passing time among the dead.  It was late afternoon and we were the only ones in the graveyard.  We also had no idea where his plot might be, so we surveyed a good bit of the grounds, finding the Cornell family mausoleum along the way.

When my wife found his plot, with a simple tombstone laid into the ground, it was impossible not to notice the grave goods.  The leaving of mementos at the burial places of the famous is nothing new.  Douglas Adams’ grave in Highgate Cemetery in London had a profusion of pens pressed into the ground.  H. P. Lovecraft’s final resting place in Providence likewise had remembrances scattered about.  Among the items at Sagan’s grave were various bits of money, a teddy bear, and a somewhat lengthy letter written to the late scientist, expressing how much he had influenced the life of the writer.  After paying our respects, it struck me how even in a cemetery where death, the great leveler, has visited all, we still seek out the famous.

I couldn’t help pondering the implications of leaving behind something for the dead.  Money is of no use where goods and services can’t be traded.  Approaching the cemetery from the upper entrance, we first encountered a Jewish burial area where many of the tombs had rocks characteristically laid on top.  Sagan’s grave is on the border where stones on tombs begin to give way to crosses.  The custom of placing rocks on gravestones is ancient, but the reasons it’s done are disputed.  One of my favorite explanations is that flowers die but rocks do not.  There’s a simple elegance to it.  Many Christian graves appear neglected by comparison.  We don’t live in Ithaca, and it’s difficult to guess how often this somewhat hard-to-find cemetery is visited.  When it is, however, it is in the spirit of remembering a life that was ever focused outward, to an infinite yet expanding universe.

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.

Trending Horror

It’s not often that I can claim to be ahead of the curve.  A “late bloomer,” I was a timid child whose reaction to most of the world was a species of phobia.  It probably didn’t help that I watched monster movies and was an early fan of the original Dark Shadows.  As I learned to relate to others and take consolation in religion, these more macabre interests became latent rather than obvious, only to come out into the open when working at a Gothic seminary in the woods of Wisconsin and then being fired from said seminary, casting me into the outer darkness.  I found myself being interested in horror again although I’d put it aside from bachelor’s to doctorate.  Now it started to feel therapeutic.

My wife sent me an NPR story by Ruthanna Emrys titled “Reading Horror Can Arm Us Against A Horrifying World.”  The premise is one I’d read before—we find horror compelling because it gives us skills that we need to survive.  It teaches us how to separate evil from mere shadow and how to (or not to) fight such evil.  In other words, horror can be heuristic.  Those who know me as a generally calm, quiet—shy even—individual express surprise when I confess to my secret fascination.  One of the most common responses is the question of “why?”  Why would anyone want to watch such stuff?  My observation is that those who ask haven’t tried.  Horror is not often what it seems.  Or perhaps they have better coping mechanisms than I have already in place.

The names of many writers of what might be considered horror have gained mainstream respectability.  Stephen King’s name alone is enough to assure the success of a novel.  These days you can mention the name Lovecraft and a fair number of people will have at least heard of it (him) before.  Jorge Luis Borges has respectability for having been Argentine.  Joyce Carol Oates for being both an academic and a woman.  If you’ve read their works, however, there’s no doubt that something scary is going on here.  As Emrys points out, with our world becoming a more polarized and frightened place, horror may be ready to hang out its shingle saying “the mad doctor is in.”  In fact, it may become even more popular than it is already.  We human beings set ourselves up for horror constantly and repeatedly.  I’m seldom ahead of the curve.  I hang back to see what might happen to those out in front.  Call it a survival technique.

Jedi Bible

A long time ago in a galaxy far away there was no paper. This is something I didn’t realize until I read a book of essays by Ryan Britt a couple years back. George Lucas, although a limited visionary, saw a Star Wars universe without paper. When I thought back over the original trilogy, and the harsh prequel trilogy, that seemed to be true. Nobody picks up a piece of paper to read anything. Like many people I went to the theater to see The Force Awakens and left stunned. After being battered by episodes I through III, it was good to see the old form return. It was as if the force really had awakened. Then I went to see The Last Jedi.

Overly long and often plodding, I wondered, after it was over, what was so different this time. Not only was Luke Skywalker annoyingly noncommittal to the force, but backstory and counter-backstory made the truth hard to discern. There was a lot more talk of the Jedi religion as a religion. From my perspective, of course, this isn’t a bad thing. I would like to know more about this. There’s a secret tree on Luke’s island wherein are the sacred Jedi scriptures. Yoda shows up and calls down lightning like a little green Elijah and burns the Jedi library and its Keebler home. Then it hit me: not only is there paper in this universe, there are actual books. Scriptures.

We’re never shown the inside of any of the books, but if the fact that fans tend to fill in the blanks holds true we may well see future publications of the Jedi Bible. H. P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, a fictitious tome, now exists because his devotees couldn’t live in a world without it. And paper scriptures add an entirely new dynamic to any religion. Most world religions (at least on this planet) have some form of text. Books tell us what to believe and how to live our lives. Given enough time people will realize that they were written by other people and need to be interpreted by people. After all, if God could write the Bible, what would prevent him from writing the Qur’an, or the Book of Mormon? So stuck here in the middle of a trilogy the rules have changed. First paper has appeared in Star Wars. And although it’s a little too early to be sure, it looks like Jediism will never be the same.

Home of Cthulhu

Travel by train seems to be so much more civilized than flying. You don’t need to arrive at the airport two hours in advance for the privilege of standing in long lines to be practically strip-searched. You just hop on the train and find a seat. The wifi is free and you don’t have to set your phone on “train mode.” Amtrak isn’t perfect, of course, but it’s not bad. When I’m flying I often wonder where I am. I guess at each large town we fly over, although some natural features can’t be mistaken from the air. The Great Lakes, Grand Canyon, and even Niagara Falls are all pretty obvious. The names of many towns, however, remains unknown from above. On the way from New York City to Boston, each stop is announced, small towns and large. I noted that one of the later latter was Providence.

Providence is, of course, many things to many people. To me it will always be the home of Cthulhu. Yes, I know that Brown University and Providence College are both located there, but higher education doesn’t seem to have a room for me, so I revel in the imagined monsters of H. P. Lovecraft. You can’t help but experience a bit of Lovecraft’s New England on the train. Skirting not far inland, the tracks take you through swampy lowlands with grand houses and dilapidated hovels overlooking them. Miskatonic University, as is widely known, is based on Brown, which Lovecraft never attended. He was a writer keenly aware of place. These tracks take me through the world of his murky water gods on the way to Boston.

The train station in Providence turns out to be subterranean. Well, not really, but it is under the street level with no noticeable distinguishing features. Lots and lots of graffiti cover every concrete surface along the tracks coming into the city. It’s hard to tell from the train, but none seem to make reference to Cthulhu. I thought of Lovecraft’s gravestone with it’s famous epitaph, “I am Providence.” Idling in the shadowy station, unable to see anything of the enjoyable town I recall from my few visits here, it’s easy to suppose that this might be Cthulhu’s home after all. Caught somewhere between civilization and the sea, in the half-light of a late autumn day, buried under what we think is somehow progress, I think perhaps Lovecraft was right. Cthulhu may be dead, but he is dreaming still.