Classic Monsters

Convergent evolution is a term that’s used for when two unrelated species, separated by some gulf, develop a smilier trait independently.  I began studying monsters in biblical reception history before I really knew others were doing so.  After I’d written Holy Horror I discovered an article by another scholar who was doing similar things, even looking at some of the same movies.  Liz Gloyn, it turns out, was also doing something quite similar with classical monsters.  Her Tracking Classical Monsters in Popular Culture just came out a couple months ago.  Having taught classical mythology for a few semesters at Montclair State University, I have retained an interest in the subject and I was delighted to find a scholar who suggested that to get at the real substance you sometimes have to look beyond the heroes to the monsters they fight.  It’s the monsters who often prove more human.

Covering both cinema and television, Gloyn considers how classical monsters are represented in modern reception.  She looks at their appearance in literary forms as well.  Obviously not all of these reception avenues can be examined, but those she chooses are entertaining and informative.  In the case of biblical studies, I long ago came to the conclusion that biblical scholars pretty much just speak to each other.  The average person doesn’t read their books and the average pastor doesn’t either.  Laity, for the most part, get their interpretation of the Good Book from pop culture.  There’s a very good case to be made that, shy of sitting down and reading through a very big book, people would have little access to the Bible, or classics, if it weren’t for media representations.

Concurrent with my teaching classical mythology, the release of the reboot of Clash of the Titans transpired. (Gloyn covers both the original and the remake in her book.)  Students were really excited, anticipating the film.  It was one of the rare times (The Book of Eli was another) when I felt compelled to watch a movie as an adjunct professor, simply to share the experience with my pupils.  Clash of the Titans had made an impact on me in high school but the reboot failed to take me to the same place.  Still, here be monsters.  Those who’d never read Hesiod, Ovid, Pseudo-Apollodorus, or Homer, may have thought they were getting the straight dope from the silver screen.  That’s what reception history is all about.  Gloyn’s treatment kept me riveted, and I used to teach the subject.  Monsters have a way of doing that to you.

Speaking of X

The project that ultimately led to Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible was an article.  Intrigued that the quasi-horror Fox series Sleepy Hollow was so solidly based on the “iconic Bible” in its first season, I wrote an article on how the Bible functioned in it.  After that was published I realized that there was plenty of material for a book on how the Good Book appears in horror films.  That book, of course, appeared late in 2018.  Nightmares with the Bible was a kind of sequel, but moving in a different direction.  It looks specifically at how ideas about biblical monsters (demons) are mediated through horror films.  This post isn’t all an introspective about past projects; in fact, it’s about present watching.

At one point in my research I noted that the X-Files wasn’t as biblically based as Sleepy Hollow.  I stand by that assertion, but my wife and I’ve been rewatching the X-Files on weekends for several months now.  Nearing the end of season two I’ve noticed just how often the Bible appears in it.  Unlike Sleepy Hollow, where the entire story was premised on (largely) the book of Revelation, the X-Files has multiple episodes that focus on religion.  What we might call New Religious Movements feature in some of the vignettes while others posit older, hidden religions.  The Good Book appears visually many times, or, and it’s often quoted, even if not shown.  Although some of the episodes are lighthearted, many of them are played as straight horror and address the question of the reality of evil.  I hadn’t been alerted by Sleepy Hollow the first time we made our way through the X-Files, but if I had more time, and if anyone were still interested, there’s a book in this.

Ironically, even in the light of a political party that takes its energy from a religious base, universities are no longer interested in the study of the subject.  I have no reason to believe that these two television series are isolated instances that I’ve just stumbled across.  American culture is biblically based, no matter how secular it may be.  To my way of thinking, when something like the Good Book has such a strong influence, the response of the rational should be to try to understand it.  I know what biblical scholars do all day; I used to be one.  Only in recent years have some of them begun to turn toward the concept of the iconic Bible and to consider how it influences American thinking.  I can only do this on a small scale, in my free time.  What I see, however, like a good X-File, defies explanation.

Writing Prophets

So I was sitting at a table with two writers I’d just met.  It was at the Easton Book Festival and since I’m new to the area I was very aware that I didn’t know anybody.  I was also aware that my book, Holy Horror, wasn’t on anybody’s radar screen, despite it being mid-October.  As we were talking my two interlocutors mentioned the advances they’d received for their books, one of whom was able to buy a house with said advance.  As I listened I kept my mouth shut, because that’s polite, even though my jaw was slack.  The other person hadn’t been able to buy a house, but after writing on a topic so obscure I can’t remember it, had been able to do something noteworthy with the advance.  My royalties from Holy Horror wouldn’t have covered the cost of this dinner.

In the weeks following the festival—always busy with AAR/SBL looming, then Thanksgiving, then December—I began some soul-searching.  What was I doing wrong?  I also did some web-searching.  One of the articles that came up, written by a business writer, suggested pulling up your socks and getting to it, demanding money for your writing.  I don’t see anywhere to put a coin slot on this blog, which is more of a labor of love than anything anyway.  Then the kicker came.  This business writer cited Hosea 4.6, “My people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge,” as the basis of why people would pay for content.  Now pardon me for taking things a little literally, but I doubt Hosea was in the business of giving business advice.  The knowledge people lack, in context, is knowledge of Yahweh.

Now here I was back on familiar territory.  I’ve taught classes on Hosea, and this intriguing prophet was commenting on Israel’s lack of knowledge of God’s ways.  There were some folks akin to prosperity gospelers back in the pre-Gospel days, suggesting that if you kept God happy rewards would roll your way, but history had other plans.  Israel fell to the Assyrians shortly after Hosea’s time, his writing advice apparently unheeded.  As I revise Nightmares with the Bible for publication—the reviewer felt it was too tradey—I have to wonder about my conversation back in October.  Neither book of my conversation partners was one of broad appeal.  In fact, the second was rather technical.  They had, however, been paid for their work.  Academic publishing is built on the paradigm that the writer already has a university job and doesn’t need the money.  Hosea also said, if I recall, something about what happens if you sow the wind.

Author Revise Thyself

Monster fans may have noticed that, despite the season I haven’t been writing much on the topic.  One of the reasons for this is that I’m in that dread stage known as “revision.”  As an editor I often see book proposals—or even entire books—that have never been revised.  You can tell.  I learned this while writing Holy Horror.  If you’re one of the people who took out a second mortgage to buy a copy, the book you purchased was based on a manuscript rewritten thoroughly at least five times.  The idea is that like rocks in a river, all that pouring over a text smooths the words like stones over the millennia.  Few rocks emerge from volcanic or sedimentary situations as smooth and round.  That takes revision.

My peer review report for Nightmares with the Bible came in a few weeks ago.  Nightmares had been revised a couple of times, at least, before I submitted it.  I understand the review process very well, as I deal with it daily.  Sometimes single blind (the writer doesn’t know the reviewer’s identity), other times double blind (neither reader nor writer know the other’s identity), the process is meant to provide feedback on a manuscript.  Having written many more manuscripts than have seen publication, I know just how useful peer review can be.  Like anything, however, it can also be treated legalistically, as if the reviewer knows more about a subject an author has just spent years researching.  No matter your impressions about this, once the reports come in, revision is in the cards.

Self editing is difficult.  And occasionally embarrassing.  You read again what seemed to make sense to you at the time, but even after you hit the “send” button you’ve continued reading.  New information comes to light.  Monographs are a very expensive form of dialogue.  Well, not so expensive as all that.  Many people are happy to pay out the cost of a monograph for a dinner out, which lasts an evening.  A book, mutatis mutandis, lasts much longer.  Like that meal, it’s taken internally and digested.  You can read the same book twice, however, without having to pay the second time around.  It’s a good idea, then, to revise before sending it to a patron’s table.  Ironically, revising a book on monsters takes time away from writing about monsters.  I also have essays awaiting revision, circling overhead like planes at Newark’s Liberty Airport.  And then there’s work, which has nothing to do with my own writing at all.  There’s a reason Nightmares occurs in the title.

Homemade Halloween

Halloween is a holiday that brings together many origins.  One of the more recent is the tradition of watching horror movies in October.  I don’t know if anyone has addressed when horror films became associated with the holiday, but Halloween hasn’t always been about startles and scares.  Histories usually trace it to the Celtic festival of Samhain.  Samhain was one of the four “cross-quarter days.”  Along with Beltane (May Day), its other post equinox cousin, it was considered a time of year when death and life could intermingle.  Spooky, yes.  Horror, not necessarily.  Many cultures have had a better relationship with their dead than we do.  We live in a death-denying culture and consequently lead lives of futile anxiety as if death can somehow be avoided.

As a holiday Halloween only became what it is now when it was transported from Celtic regions to North America.  Other seasonal traditions—some of English origin such as Beggars’ Night and Guy Fawkes Night—which fell around the same time added to the growth of trick-or-treating and wearing masks.  At its heart Halloween was the day before All Saints Day, which the Catholic Church transferred to November 1 in order to curb enthusiasm for Samhain.  As is usual in such circumstances, the holy days blended with the holidays and a hybrid—call it a monster—emerged.   When merchants learned that people would spend money to capture that spooky feeling, Halloween became a commercial enterprise.  Despite All Saints being a “day of obligation,” nobody gets off school just because it’s Halloween.

My October has been particularly busy this year.  One of the reasons is that Holy Horror, as a book dealing with scary movies, is seasonally themed.  As I was pondering this, weak and weary, upon the eve of a bleak November, I realized that home viewing of horror—which is now a big part of the holiday—is a fairly recent phenomenon.  Many of us still alive remember when VHS players became affordable and you could actually rent movies to watch whenever you wanted to!  Doesn’t that seem like ancient history now, like something maybe the Sumerians invented?  People watch movies on their wristwatches, for crying out loud.  I suspect that John Carpenter’s Halloween had a good deal to do with making the holiday and the horror franchise connection.  Horror films can be set in any season (Wicker Man, for instance, is about Beltane, and three guesses what season Midsommar references).  We’re so busy that we relegate them to this time of year, forgetting that we still have something of the wisdom of the Celts from which we might learn.

After Easton

I’m still recovering.  The Easton Book Festival was a fine example of liminal time.  Ordinary time—the day-to-day, or “workaday” variety of time—may pay the bills but comes up short on meaning.  Literary time is rare and sacred.  No, there weren’t great crowds at my two sessions.  In fact, the crowds were modest.  More people showed up for my church presentation on Sunday morning than came to either of my more “secular” presentations.  The festival, however, wasn’t about numbers.  It was about the love of books.  Much of the time those of us who love reading are perceived as “Poindexters” who deny the excitement of a life spent in sports and adventure.  There’s no reason, however, that the two can’t get along.  After all, authors write about adventure and sports as well as religion and philosophy.

As Halloween nears and November encroaches on the days of trees losing their leaves, I reflect on how my entire October was leading up to this.  Half a year ago I was contacting libraries and bookstores about doing Holy Horror presentations in the autumn.  Only the Moravian Book Shop and the Easton Book Festival took me up on my proposal, but they allowed me, as my wife expressed it, “to put myself out there.”  To be part of the conversation.  People are busy, I know.  Still, I came away with the business cards of a few more successful writers, and I gave away a handful of bookmarks for my too-expensive tome.  I was after conversation, not fame.

Although I met the director of the festival a couple of times, I don’t know the results.  I do sincerely hope that another will be offered next year.  Gatherings of the bookish are dicey affairs.  I attended the banquet not knowing a soul, but left having learned of others nearby who practice the craft.  Many had made that transition from workaday to writer.  I learned that getting the pennies I do for my books is, really, an aberration of the academic publishing scheme.  Most academics have good paying university jobs and don’t really need the cash.  Book festivals are opportunities to learn, classrooms in everyday life.  I met authors of topics more obscure than my own who’d earned healthy advances.  This was liminal time indeed.  I feel honored to have been included among those feted for putting their words out there for reading and possible rejection.  Books are conversations, and in a world far too busy, book festivals are a source of truly significant discussions.  Long may they continue!

Book Festival

So it’s here.  The Easton Book Festival begins today.  The weather?  Partly sunny, temps in the mid-60s.  There’s no excuse not to go!  (Well, actually, there are plenty of reasons, but if you’re in the area please consider it!)  I have to admit that my involvement with it was opportunistic.  I contacted the organizer because I was looking to promote my autumnally themed book, Holy Horror, in the season for which it was written.  I understand delayed gratification.  What author isn’t delighted when her or his book arrives?  Thing is, mine came around Christmas time, and, while a wonderful gift, nobody was thinking about scary movies during the joyful winter season.  My observation is this: books are lenses to focus thoughts.  I enjoy Halloween, but I also enjoy Christmas.  One follows the other.  The Easton Book Festival just happens to be during the former rather than the latter.

It’s heeerrreee…

My own involvement with the festival doesn’t start until tomorrow.  Today’s a work day, after all.  Employers don’t give days off for self-promotion (or even for writing books) so festivals are extra-curricular activities.  I’ll be on a panel discussion tomorrow at the Sigal Museum and on Sunday afternoon I’ll be doing a presentation on my book, same venue.  Maybe I’ve got this backwards (nobody tells you these things), but I’m not doing this primarily to sell books.  I’m doing it to promote dialogue.  During my less-than-stellar book signing last week at the Morvarian Book Shop I had only one brief conversation of substance.  It was with a scientist who pointed out that science and religion had nothing to do with one another.  I guess my hopes for the events of the next two days are that folks might want to discuss the ideas in the book.  Or at least think about them.

Sunday morning I’ll be giving a church presentation on the book as well.  Being in the publishing biz I’ve learned the importance of authors getting out there to talk about their books.  Hands up, who’s read a McFarland catalogue lately?  Case in point.  The only problem with all of this is that I still have to get my weekend errands done.  My daily schedule doesn’t allow for trips to the grocery store or even putting gas in the car.  And no matter how much time I put into work, there’s always more to do.  Festivals, of course, are intended to be time set apart from regular pursuits.  So I’m going to put on respectable clothes and I’m going to speak about what’s on my mind this time of year.  If the Lehigh Valley’s in your orbit, I’d be glad to see you there.