Book Culturing

The other day I met one of the organizers of the Easton Book Festival.  Coming in October, this festival is something new.  It took the efforts of a couple with vision—the owners of a small, independent bookstore—to get other people on board, but now it’s going to happen.  A weekend dedicated to books.  I found out about the Festival as I was looking up area bookstores that might let me do a presentation on Holy Horror.  For whatever reason, my last book missed its projected autumnal publication date, and fall is when people are really thinking about horror movies.  Approaching its birthday in late December, it never really had a proper launch.  Priced the way it is, I don’t expect a sales boost, but I would like people to know about it.  When you spend years writing a book you’d like it not to be completely obscure.

In any case, when looking up one of the Easton shops—hey, book lovers, the Lehigh Valley has lots of bookstores!—I noticed that the Festival was still seeking participants.  Since it falls just before Halloween, the timing felt perfect.  I signed up.  Now this is one of the many new tricks for this old dog.  I tell authors all the time that self-promotion is key to book sales, even when a press is fairly widely known.  In fact, the store owner himself writes books and has to pay for his own tours to promote them.  Book culture is worth promoting.

On a personal level, it does me good to see that there are others who appreciate books.  They are a form of collective mind.  A communion.  When I’m feeling down, or uninspired, a trip to a bookstore—or even a library—often helps.  Reading books leads to a sense of accomplishment.  Every year I set a goal on Goodreads.  I don’t set the goal to make me read—I’d do that anyway—but to share with others both what I’ve been reading and what I think about it.  The Easton Book Festival will be a way of doing something similar, hopefully with those many others who feel the draw of books.  Writing, for me, is a labor of love.  I don’t know too many people personally, so meeting them through books is one of my own goals.  Just the other day I met an academic who wanted to read Weathering the Psalms.  Such things happen only in that wonderful land built of books.

Good Monster

The little free library is a great idea.  Just after our move last year we contributed to our local many times as we discovered duplicates in the process of packing.  On one such venture, I discovered a book I wanted to read.  Not that I’d heard of it before, but any book with “golem” in the title catches my eye.  For the first (and so far only) time, I took a book.  Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman’s The Golem of Hollywood proved a fairly quick read for being over 600 pages.  I believe the industry term is “potboiler,” but it’s also a page-turner.  Nevertheless, it made me think.  The story follows a hard-bitten Jewish detective in Los Angeles.  Struggling with personal issues, he gets assigned to a bizarre homicide case that eventually takes him to Prague and Oxford, and then back to LA to clinch it.  And the killer is a golem.  (That’s not a spoiler, since it’s right there in the title.)

Parallel to the modern-day crime drama is the retelling of the biblical tale of the first days of humanity outside the Garden of Eden.  One of Adam and Eve’s daughters is headstrong and beautiful and when the tragedy between her brothers plays out she eventually takes her revenge on Cain.  Although not explicit about it, for violating the mark of Cain she witnesses the horrors that people will visit upon one another and her redemption is to become the soul that animates the golem of Prague.  Not your garden variety golem, she can transform into different shapes, and she stays loyal to the family of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, the legendary first creator of the golem of Prague.

One of the frequent topics raised on this blog is how the Bible appears in everyday life, often unnoticed.  This novel is an example of that.  A further point, which is what stands behind my book Holy Horror, is that the Good Book is understood as mediated by popular culture.  Even those few biblical scholars who make it into the limelight can’t compete with the myriad representations of Scripture in the entertainment media.  Like The Golem of Hollywood, Holy Horror sees the Bible in the context of monsters.  Horror is an outsider genre.  Despite the many intelligent, thought-provoking exemplars extant, the default among the more refined is to see horror as something base and low.  It can also be a lot of fun.  Perhaps not great literature, The Golem of Hollywood is entertaining even as it underscores the continuing influence of the Good Book. 

The Price of Writing

Academic writing strives to remove personality from your work.  It can be soul-crushing.  I remember well when my daughter—a talented writer—came home in sixth grade with a note from her teacher.  An otherwise ideal student, she was writing her science projects with *gasp* her own voice!  Mr. Hydrogen and how he joins Mr. Oxygen—that sort of thing.  Granted, it would never be published in a scientific journal, but it was a personalized expression that demonstrated an understanding of the concepts.  Having been the recipient of an old school education, I also learned that academic writing should lack personality.  Those who’ve bothered to read my academic papers, however, may have noted that I don’t always obey the rules.  Subtle bits (very small, I’ll allow) crept in amid the erudition.  And now I find myself wishing I’d persisted a bit more.

Pure objectivity, anyone living in a post-modern world knows, is a chimera.  It doesn’t really exist.  We all have points of view, whether they eschew adjectives or not.  I still write fiction, but since my publication history has been “academic” I indulge in it while trying to break through where someone’s voice isn’t a detriment.  I’ve been reading non-fiction by younger women writers and one of the things I’m finally catching onto is that your own voice shouldn’t be the enemy.  It may be so for most publishing houses, but I’m wondering at what cost.  So many ideas, just as valid as any staid publication, never see the light of day beyond some editor’s desk.  That’s not to suggest that anyone can write—I’ve read far too many student papers to believe that—but that those who can ought not be shackled by convention.  If only I could get an agent who believes that!

Holy Horror isn’t exactly flying off the press, but it does represent a kind of hybrid.  It’s transitioning to a kind of writing that allows some personality onto the page (yes, I’m old enough to still believe in pages).  A now departed family friend—he’d known my grandfather—was determined to read Weathering the Psalms.  He didn’t make it through.  It was an academic publication.  In the humanities, it seems to me, we need to allow authors to be human.  It’s in our title, after all.  Please don’t take this as professional advice; careers are still broken on the wheel of tradition.  Writing, however, shouldn’t be a caged bird.  But then again, the clock says it’s now time to get to work.

Sighs

Suspiria is a movie intentionally difficult to follow.  The original 1977 version was an Italian film about witches posing as dance instructors.  After watching it, I felt I didn’t have enough backstory to understand the action.  Then a remake was released last year and I felt I needed, like a dancer, to try again.  I have to confess I’m not a dancer.  Luca Guadagnino’s remake left me scratching my head again, although it underscored a point I make in Holy Horror: in horror films with remakes the role of the Bible changes.  Now, it’s been years since I’ve seen the first Suspiria, but I don’t recall the Bible appearing.  It does, however, in the 2018 remake.  The protagonist, Susie Bannion, is an American enrolled at a German dance school.  She is, in the remake, a Mennonite from Ohio.

Not only does this situation allow religion to take once again an important role in a horror film, it is also the opportunity to show the Bible visually.  Susie’s mother, who objects to her daughter engaging in such a showy profession as dancing (and given the performance of Volk in the film, the nature of this objection can be easily guessed), is dying as the film begins.  Her Mennonite community watches and prays over her, sitting with Bibles clutched in their hands.  To take a page from Holy Horror, this suggests that the Good Book is powerless to save.  While the movie itself is a little confusing on this point, it seems that Susie’s mother dies as her daughter becomes the head witch of the dance academy.  Since Holy Writ famously contains verses condemning witches, the impotence of Scripture is underscored.

Italian folklore about witches appears to be remarkably robust.  From Strega Nona to Suspiria, the wizened women of society have power against which men are powerless.  Some of the bleakest moments in the film (from the point of view of the male gaze) are when the witches taunt powerless, naked men who cannot in any way defend themselves.  Turnabout, of course, is fair play—at least if folk sayings have any validity.  Here it’s worth considering that if male religions hold females down—the Mennonite women are shown in bonnets and uncomfortable clothes—then being a witch is remarkably freeing.  Indeed, there is the energy of a life-force evident in the dancing of the young women and the academy is closed to men, apart from public performances.  I’m still scratching my head over Suspiria, but it seems that the direct engagement with religion and the power of women makes this a movie worthy of rewatching and attempting to understand.

Fearing Errata

Well before I became an editor, I noted mistakes in books.  I go through phases of marking up books as I read them—in pencil only, please!—and not doing so, but I used to mark mistakes when I found them.  At that point I hadn’t realized the complexity of the process of book production and I had no idea of the many ways in which errors might creep in.  I’m a bit more forgiving now.  In any case, errors are a regular part of book publishing.  Older books used to carry pages with incantational-sounding titles like “errata” and “addenda et corrigenda.”  Errors, in other words, were considered inevitable because every time you have another set of eyes look over the manuscript it adds to both the costs and time for the production schedule.  Then I started writing books.

Now, before I get too far I should explain that many book editors don’t line edit submissions.  The standard “editor” is an acquisitions editor, which means you sign up books for your press, but you don’t necessarily (if ever) actually edit them.  I still have the sensibilities of a copyeditor, however.  That’s the main reason I fear to read my own books after they’re published.  I’m afraid I’ll find mistakes.  I do take the proofreading stage seriously, but often a writer has little control over when proofs arrive with a tight turnaround time.  You have to drop everything to get them returned by the deadline.  I’m always worried that errors might’ve crept in.  For example, with Holy Horror, I corrected with website copy for the book.  The errors, however, remain online.  They’re minor, but as the author you’re always considered culpable for such oversights.

Now that I’m working on a presentation to give for Holy Horror, I find myself facing my fears.  I need to go back to a book already published and look inside.  Since writing it I’ve completed another book, Nightmares with the Bible, and my mind can’t help mixing up a little in which book I said what.  To make sure I don’t tell potential readers the wrong information, I need to go back and reread parts of my own work.  What if I find errors?  Will I have to mark up my own copies like I used to do to those of others?  Will I need to compile an errata sheet?  I tend to be a careful reader, especially with proofs.  But facing possible errors is nevertheless a terrifying prospect, even if it’s a regular hazard for those who attempt to write books.

Making Monsters

It’s not so much I’ve been away from monsters lately, but that life has intervened between them and me.  Life can be scarier than monsters sometimes.  In any case, the summer is when my mind turns back to haunting even as on the breaks during heat waves a whiff of autumn can be caught on the air of a July morning.  Yes, we’ve past the solstice and days are getting shorter.  Slowly, of course, but that’s what builds suspense.  And there are local signs that I need to get my haunting in gear.  It is finally time to get Holy Horror out of wraps and give the book a proper launch.  Being published around Christmas last year was poor timing for a subject so readily coded for fall.

I received the welcome news this week that the Moravian Book Shop—the oldest continually operating bookstore in the country—will be hosting a book signing for Holy Horror in October.  This is a fortuitous turn of events because when I first approached them with the idea the price of the book made the idea look unrealistic.  But we’re now thinking of autumn, and with autumn comes Halloween.  There have been a spate of horror films this summer, all of which I’ve unfortunately missed.  Time, as Morpheus notes, is always against us.  There does, however, seem to be a lively interest in the genre and the curious wonder what it has to say about what we believe.  Horror loves religion, and indeed, thrives on it.  So it’s been from the beginning.

October will also see the Easton Book Festival in this area.  I will be on the program for that as well.  While none of this is earth-shattering, these events represent the first successes in trying to build awareness of Holy Horror.  This was a book written for a general readership, but not priced for one.  Working in the academic publishing world, this is a phenomenon with which I’m all too familiar.  Many colleagues offer to read and spread news about your book.  It seldom happens, though.  Academic presses can’t afford book tours (especially if they have to price books at $45), but these self-driven presentations are opportunities to spread the interest in ideas.  That’s what those of us who write really want—to be part of the conversation.  We’re in the midst of a heat wave here.  It’s the height of summer.  Even so, those who know about monsters can feel them coming, even from here.

Best If Used

Used bookstores are like a box of books—you never know what you’ll get.  I perhaps overindulge this particular vice, but it doesn’t feel too sinful to me.  Part of Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge for the year is three books by one author.  I decided since I’ve been on a Kurt Vonnegut kick that he would be the one.  I figured (mostly wrongly) that his books would be all over the place in used bookstores.  I always found a plentiful supply at the now mourned Boston Book Annex.  At a used shop in Easton I asked where they might put Vonnegut.  “In science fiction,” the owner promptly replied.  I don’t think of Vonnegut as a science fiction author.  Some of his work does fit, but this little exchange got me to thinking about genres again.

Writers, unless they’re strictly commercial, don’t think of genre.  We write.  The novel I’ve been trying to get published for the last decade doesn’t fit into any neat category at all, and that’s probably part of the problem.  Neither fish nor fowl—what is this thing?  I’ve noticed this with my brother-in-law’s books.  Now, I’m holding out on retirement to dig into Neal Stephenson’s books because they require more time than I have in my workaday world, but they aren’t always science fiction.  Still, that’s often where you find him in bookstores.  I was in a local shop in Bethlehem the other day and there he was, in sci fi.  Although I understand why booksellers (and critics) want to use genres, but it seems to me that they limit human creativity.

The past couple of non-fiction books I’ve written aren’t really in genres.  They’re not academic books, but academics (once guilty, always guilty) have a hard time convincing publishers they can do anything else.  Non-fiction may be a more difficult gig than fiction after all.  Holy Horror and Nightmares with the Bible don’t comment on horror necessarily, at least not directly.  They’re not religious books either.  When I try to explain them in one sentence, it quickly becomes run-on.  I began both the same way—I noticed something and began writing about it.  With a little structuring and a little time, you’ve got an entire book.  It may not find a publisher.  It may not fit a genre.  Nobody on Medium is going to come looking for your advice.  And if you’re lucky you’ll find yourself put on a shelf with others who don’t conform to genre expectations either.