This Way

The more I get to know myself—pleased to meet you, sir—the more I realize that my childhood was cobbled together from small but repeated exposures to my favorite things.  I knew Dark Shadows from watching a limited number of episodes and reading a limited number of cheap novels.  I knew Alice Cooper from just two of his albums.  And I knew Ray Bradbury from a couple collections of his short stories.  No doubt this is in part because we weren’t exactly affluent and I found my books, by chance, at Goodwill.  I had no way of collecting Bradbury’s oeuvre, and besides, I was trying to get to know Edgar Allan Poe as well.  I knew Bradbury as a short story writer, and that’s still how I primarily think of him.

I felt compelled to read Something Wicked This Way Comes recently.  Since I’m used to Bradbury the short story author, it felt overdrawn to me.  I know this is heresy.  Great horror writers point to this novel as highly influential and inspirational.  Maybe if it were read closer to when I was born, when it was published.  Too many long paragraphs, especially early on, contain almost abstract descriptions without clear actions, leaving me confused.  Once the story got underway it was quite good.  As someone who writes, I know the dilemma of trying to freeze poetry into prose, and to make a coherent story from thousands of separate impulses.  Believe me, I know.  These days such things are edited out and stories become as thin as Bradbury’s Skeleton Man.  I guess I’m just out of practice.

The plot is great, but it feels so 1950s.  So boy/male oriented.  So American.  I suppose I attended my fair share of carnivals as a kid.  We didn’t go often, and I never knew one to settle on the edge of our small town.  And although we were free to ride our bikes or run as far as we cared to, home was never that far away and, I knew, there were scary things in the ubiquitous woods.  Ray Bradbury’s short stories were likely the main source behind my own early attempts at fiction.  Even today I’ll be scribbling along and think, “this is kind of like Bradbury.”  But I always have his short work in mind.  There are some great parts in Something Wicked, and it does build the tension toward the end.  Still, when it’s said and done I’ll be thinking of Bradbury’s short stories and how they formed my own nostalgia, even if only in little fragments.


What Lurks

One question that I get asked by those who don’t understand is “Why horror?”  The asker is generally someone that knows I’ve been “religious” all my life, or affiliated with religion—which people think means sweet and light—and who associates horror with bitter and dark.  I know Brandon R. Grafius has been asked such things too, because I’ve just read his Lurking under the Surface: Horror, Religion, and the Questions that Haunt Us.  Like me, Grafius has been writing books on the Bible and horror—I’ve reviewed a few on this blog.  As in my former life, he teaches in a seminary.  People find this juxtaposition jarring.  This little book is Grafius’ struggle with various aspects of this question.  He’s not anti-religion, but he’s drawn to horror.

For those of us familiar with Grafius’ other work, this offers a more detailed explanation of what one religion scholar finds compelling about horror.  Specifically, he shows how various films deal with similar issues to his Christian faith.  The book deals with that for about half its running time, and the other half discusses similar themes in horror.  You get the sense that Grafius has been at this for a long time.  Scooby-Doo seems to have been his childhood gateway to horror and it raised some deeper questions as he explored further along the line.  If you read this blog, or search it, you’ll find such things as Dark Shadows and The Twilight Zone in my background, but then, I’m a bit older.  The point is, being a religious kid doesn’t discount finding monsters fascinating.

As usual with books like this, I’ve come away with several films to watch.  And more angles of approach to that tricky question of “Why horror?”.  A recent post on a panel discussion titled “Religion and Horror” led to an online exchange about religion and fear.  Grafius deals with that here as well, but from a more distinctly Christian point of view.  Although he’s an academic, this book is written (and priced) for wider consumption.  I found it quite informative to hear the story of someone else who grew up with monsters and the Bible.  He had the sense, however, to start addressing this early in his academic career.  We each have different paths to walk and for some of us it will take a jarring experience to chase us back to our childhood monsters.  And being religious is no barrier to that, as this brief book demonstrates.


Forbidden Things

I owe Douglas Cowan a debt of gratitude.  Spending evenings at the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting curled up with his then new book, Sacred Terror, I was amazed.  Vaguely in the back of my mind I knew that film scholars were writing about horror, but I didn’t know that religion scholars even could.  Of course, later I discovered that Cowan had predecessors, as do we all, but that still didn’t change the fact that he opened my eyes to possibilities.  Being a slow reader with an unrelenting 925, I can’t keep up with any one author’s total output but I knew I’d need to read The Forbidden Body as soon as it was announced.  Subtitled Sex, Horror, and the Religious Imagination, it covers many aspects of what’s being called embodiment studies.  And there are, of course, monsters.

Where he finds the time to read so much and watch so much I can only guess.  This book covers a lot of territory that I can’t even begin to summarize here, but it goes without saying that Cowan’s many observations are worth paying attention to.  If I were to try to find a main theme I think it would be bodies out of place.  At least that what it seems to me.  Bodies out of place can mean many, many things.  Horror isn’t shy, of course, about showing you many of these.  As always, the unexpected part is religion.  Better, religious imagination.  I’ve been trying for years to articulate how religion and horror are related, and this is obviously something I haven’t been the only one pondering.  Cowan offers trenchant thoughts on this and even gives you some glimpses of unexpected monsters along the way.

Horror is often considered puerile, I know.  You get an image of a bunch of guys in business suits or military uniforms shaking your shoulders and saying “grow up!”  But what is it we’re growing up for?  To feed the monster.  So that those who are the monster can pamper their bodies with the luxuries everyone else works to provide.  Religion often serves to motivate those who are on the production end of this scale, but there is a truly Ottoian fear that compels us, lying not so very far beneath the surface.  Religion reaches out to those who encounter the monster.  And those people have bodies.  Cowan touches on many aspects of horror here from Corman to Lovecraft to Sade.  My response, perhaps appropriately, is that my head feels like it’s exploding.  I have so much yet to learn.


Scary Cosmology

In many ways a harrowing book, A Cosmology of Monsters, by Shaun Hamill, is a real achievement.  A monster story, it’s less a story about monsters than it is about people—which, upon thinking it over, is generally the case.  This story is about the suffering people undergo, sometimes simply for being who they are.  Hamill gets his hooks in early and drags you through this wonderful, terrible story.  Even now that I’ve finished it I’m not quite sure what to make of it.  What’s it about?  Maybe I can try to give you a few signposts and pointers.  To find out more you’ll need to read it and check my work.

The Turner family, through no fault of its own, has been living under a strange kind of curse.  It involves monsters, from what is probably another dimension, kidnapping and enslaving them.  The Turners aren’t alone in this.  Others who’ve been suffering from various causes are also targeted and treated.  Perhaps this is partially a parable on suffering and depression.  The Turner family faces death, missing children, forbidden love, and regret.  They run a local haunted house around Halloween, which the father’s regular job finances.  They do it for fun and it’s free.  It keeps them going when a terrible diagnosis is given.  Stressed financially and emotionally, they barely manage to stay together.  Noah, the narrator and only son, checks out the competition, including a Christian Hell House.  There he meets the girl he’ll eventually marry.  But the monsters don’t stop coming.  He befriends one.

An intricately interwoven story, you might call this horror but you would probably be closer to the truth with literary fiction.  There are uncomfortable facts about families.  Things we tend to overlook or ignore in order to keep society running smoothly.  These kinds of issues are brought out into the open here and mixed in with monsters.  On both the human and monster sides, the emotionally wrenching ideas have to do with relationships.  Noah, who was born just as his father was dying, establishes relationships both with his family and a monster.  As the story progresses over the years, his wife is added to this complex of relationships and they all end up, in a way, competing.  Decisions have to be made and someone you love must lose.  This novel makes monsters and humans the objects of the reader’s sympathy.  What’s more, it works.  I hope I haven’t given too many spoilers here, because this is quite an accomplishment, and well worth a reader’s time.


Not Really New

It’s called the New Books Network.  I have no idea what its stats are, but it is a place to get word out about your book that the academy has apparently overlooked.  I pitched Nightmares with the Bible to them some months ago and I recently had an interview about it.  I’ll keep you posted when it appears.  I suppose those who read this blog for the horror content sometimes think I may’ve forgotten about it.  The fact is I think of horror every day but there’s more to my psyche than just that.  This blog is a romp through part of what’s on my mind.  Sometimes it’s the quotidian horror of everyday.  At times it’s full of curiosity and wonder.  Sometimes I just trying to figure out how to work this thing.

So with the New Books Network.  I found out about it from an interview I heard with the guy who started it.  Funny—one interview leads to another.  He encouraged those listening to pitch their books.  I don’t have an institution to support mine, or students to have to buy a copy (and I’ve received zero royalties for it), so I figured what’ve I got to lose?  It was quite a nightmare (speaking of which) to arrange a time that worked for both interviewer and interviewee.  I think we rescheduled about half-a-dozen times, but then finally we both had a few free minutes together to chat.  Perhaps it’s a good thing I’ve been reading about the Devil.  

This was actually my third interview about this book.  Perhaps it’s a measure of how small the impact it’s had has been that I can recall each one so precisely.  You’ve got to start somewhere, so why not here?  The last question asked was about the next book.  I do hope I have a few more left in me.  I started writing early but publishing late.  Just because you write doesn’t mean people will read what you produce.  I find writing the most hopeful avocation ever.  Like a sower with his or her seeds, broadcasting them across the air, hoping they’ll land legible.  If there’s anything worth reading here there’s always the possibility it’ll be discovered someday.  That’s optimism with a glass half empty!  In any case, check out the New Books Network.  There are hundreds of books there to learn about.  And, I suspect, many authors who’d like the world to know what they’ve written.


Whose Baby?

Some books are better known as movies.  I suspect that I, like many, saw the movie Rosemary’s Baby without ever reading the book.  It turns out that they’re very similar.  The book takes the action a few minutes beyond the end of the movie, but otherwise they’re quite close.  Reading a horror novel where you know everything that’s going to happen isn’t exactly the recipe for thrills and chills, but I’m nevertheless glad to have done it.  For a book published as long ago as it was (1967) it still isn’t easily found used.  New copies tend to be just as expensive as new books.  I just wanted to have a read to see if Roman Polanski stayed close to Ira Levin or not.

Levin had a string of successful novels, but Rosemary’s Baby is probably still his best known.  He is quoted as saying he didn’t believe in the Devil and felt guilty that his book (and movie) may have led to many people taking on that belief.  In many ways Polanski’s movie kicked off the age of modern horror, being released the same year as George Romero’s Night of the Living DeadRosemary, however, opened the door to horror with overt religious themes.  It paved the way for The Exorcist and The Omen.  The latter, written by David Seltzer, was another example of a movie based on the Devil by an author who didn’t believe in him.  Personal belief aside, that trinity of movies remade the horror scene and led to one of the strangest cooperations in cinematic history.

In the book versus movie scenario often there’s a clear winner.  On other occasions the movie is so powerfully made that it overshadows its novel.  Rosemary’s Baby, along with The Exorcist, tended to do so.  (The Omen was novelized from the screenplay by the screenwriter.)  I wonder if that might not be because religion pays right into cinematic representation.  The novels, after all, can take several days of reading on a normal workaday schedule.  The film, if well done, transports the viewer there for a couple of hours and leaves you feeling as if you’ve been through, in the case of Rosemary, a traumatic pregnancy.  It so happened that the unholy trinity of religious horror tapped into that rapt storytelling of which celluloid proves so capable a medium.  Still, reading the novel fills in many of the gaps and brings to mind the benefits of the written word.  And this is, like a birth, something to be celebrated.


Are Ghosts Monsters?

It’s a question as old as my interest in horror.  As a child I kept ghosts distinct from monsters.  Ghosts may be scary, yes, but they’re people who’ve died.  Then zombies came along.  I was too young to watch Night of the Living Dead when it came out (I was only six).  Depending on how far you want to go with this, among the classic monsters they’re pretty much all human.  Dracula is undead, but originally human.  Frankenstein’s creature is dead folks stitched together.  The mummy is a person reanimated.  The invisible man is, well, a man.  So is the wolf-man.  The latest of the Universal line-up, the gill-man was more a human-like reptile with gills.  To add a few other favorites, Mr. Hyde was Dr. Jekyll.  Witches were magical women.  For sure, there are plenty of non-human monsters (Godzilla, the blob, and those various giant spiders) but it seems much of what we fear is warmed over human.

So ghosts—are they monsters?  I still have a difficult time sorting that out.  They seem different from other revenants, don’t they?  Uncle Joe or Aunt Sally don’t really pose an existential threat, do they?  (Unless one of them was a psychotic killer or something.)  Yet we still fear ghosts.  Many horror movies and novels feature them.  It seems more because they represent the unknown in a kind of ultimate way.  We can’t die to find out and then come back.  Although, it seems, that’s just what ghosts do.  That liminal line, or terminal line in the sand is the point of no return for the human imagination.  Yet on a dark night in a creaky old house it feels like more than just imagination.  Of course, other monsters could be lurking in the dark.

Image credit: Henry Justice Ford, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The thing about horror is that it holds up a mirror.  We see what really does scare us and what we see reflected back is human.  We all die and most of us don’t like to think about that.  Ghosts force us to.  They make us confront perhaps the most primal of fears.  There are, of course, bad ghost—dybbuks and hungry ghosts and whatnot.  Of course they’re monsters.  But considering the garden variety, or perhaps haunted-house variety ghost suggests maybe our fears are misplaced.  Monsters can be scary.  Ghosts don’t have to be.  We classify them all together as horror, but that may be a hasty judgment.  As least for someone who used to be, and maybe still is, simply human.


A Haunting Story

The last book I finished in 2021 didn’t quite make it under the wire for my year-end blog post.  It was the second Stephen Graham Jones novel I read in the year.  I guess I’ve been reading a lot of American Indian books lately.  The Only Good Indians is a horror story and more.  There’s reconciliation.  There’s tradition.  There’s hope.  As part of the privileged “white” class, I’m always a little afraid that writers from oppressed cultures will take it out on me.  It may’ve happened here, but if so it was done in a way that I didn’t feel the sting.  This is a story of friendship, mistakes made, and a monster who has a righteous cause.  There’s a lot going on here.

One of the persistent cultural fears of the unwoke, I suspect, is that there’ll be payback if all things were to become equal.  Perhaps on the scale of karma that’s true, but in reality the people that’ve been oppressed simply want the oppression to stop.  To be recognized and acknowledged as being human.  As if that decision is up to white folk to make.  This novel simply deals with American Indian life as it’s lived.  The characters all pretty much live in poverty but they lack the greed so many white protagonists have.  They’re happy if they have a few hundred dollars, or even a few twenties.  Life is more than playing the capitalist game.  It really all comes down to relationships.  And family.

Stephen Graham Jones writes with a deft hand.  He offers some humor amid scenes of violence and loss.  He speaks plainly and without pretense.  And there are parts of this novel that are genuinely scary.  Since I had no idea how it might end, I wasn’t even sure even while I was on the last page.  

The best monsters are those that teach us to be better human beings.  Quite often they teach us that the truly monstrous ones are those who look and act like people usually look and act.  We take the natural world, assuming it’s ours.  We think our small problems are those of the entire world.  Monsters help to fix our perceptions.  Without them we carry on as if it’s business as usual.  This is a good novel to read in the midst of a pandemic.  There’s hope here that we’ll come out of the crisis better than we went in.  Perhaps scarred and changed for good.  In every sense of the word.


Call It Therapy

For many years, about all I ever pursued, research-wise, was ancient Near Eastern studies.  It’s still the reason people visit my Academia.edu page.   From the stats it’s clear that not many people are interested in the horror aspect of my work.  Still, I know what motivates me (most of the time).  I recently read a piece that features a brief interview with Peter Counter, discussing the therapeutic value of horror.  Since my interest in the genre has been rekindled (starting, not coincidentally, around 2005), I think I’ve known all along that horror is therapeutic.  The people I know who watch horror aren’t the kind many people picture—creepy troglodytes who don’t come out of their houses where the shades are always drawn.  No, they are normal folks, at least for academics.  They find the genre profound, for the most part.

The interview with Counter (in the Nova Scotia Advocate) makes clear that Counter uses horror therapeutically.  The first reason that he gives is that it’s honest.  I agree.  You see, I grew up with more than my fair share of phobias.  I could go into the reasons here, but I don’t know you well enough to trust you with them just yet.  In any case, I worried a lot about things that could go wrong, often involving everyday circumstances.  I didn’t think watching monster movies was a coping technique—I didn’t even know what a coping technique was.  I just knew that somehow those kinds of movies made me feel better.  I began reading gothic novels in my teens, even as I was becoming very religious.  I never saw a conflict between the two.

Now, as an adult, I feel that I have to explain this “unusual” interest to people who know me.  Now I can more clearly see the therapeutic value in such movies.  I can even see elements of it in movies that are classified otherwise.  I recently watched Groundhog Day (back around, well, Groundhog Day).  It had been many years since I’d viewed it, and the elements of horror in the film struck me.  Being trapped in the endless return, Phil Connors contemplates, and indeed commits suicide many different ways only to reawaken in the same scenario the next morning.  The look on Bill Murray’s face when he snaps the pencil before getting a couple hours sleep when he begins to realize what is happening says it all.  A similar realization same came clear on a recent rewatching of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  Watch it with an open mind.  The interview with Counter makes the point that a pandemic like this is an opportunity.  Isolated, we can watch horror and we can learn to cope.


Gothic Dreams

There’s something that compels a large number of people to consume material in the horror genre.  Whether it takes the form of movies, books, or music, it is a genre widely spread.  The gateway to adult likes seems to be in childhood.  As a young person I read about how many adults wanted to “re-live their childhood” and at the time I wondered why.  Now, as an adult of long standing, I think I can begin to see the answer.  In any case, my gateway into appreciating horror was the Gothic.  But what is gothic?  Like many abstract concepts I know it when I see it, but what exactly is it?  I’m not sure Nick Groom has fully answered that in The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction, but then the reason may well be in the “very short” part.  Nevertheless, this is a remarkably broad treatment of the subject in not so many pages.  It also helped me to understand my own fascination a bit better.

Groom begins with the historical Goths.  Like the Celts, they are a people without a prodigious written record, so the imagination takes over.  They valued freedom above all else, and that, it seems to me, is the beating heart of the Gothic.  Recognized through its architecture, especially in notable cathedrals, the incipient Romanticism in the style made its way into works of fiction.  In that realm it is remarkably widespread.  Shakespeare participates in it.  It becomes more fixed in later generations, but it still returns in popular format even today.  At several points in this brief treatment I found myself wondering at the connections.  Gothic is so huge and sprawling that it informs quite a lot of literature that isn’t even categorized with that title.

The story Groom sketches takes the Goths from their Germanic roots to their Anglo-Saxon influence in England.  For English readers, the genre really takes shape in Britain before spreading out into the many forms in which it exists today, including several species of American Gothic.  While the modern mind tends to turn toward the dark and melancholy aspects—and they are clearly there—the underlying theme of freedom comes through.  Thus the separation of ways between “Classical” culture with its rules and strictures and symmetry and the Gothic with its mystery, wonder, and romance.  By the end we’ve passed through Poe and on to modern horror.  And through it all I catch glimpses of what drew me to all this in a childhood of longing for freedom.


Gods and Fans

The blog Theofantastique started a couple of years before this one.  I remember that sense of childhood wonder that flooded me when I first saw its posts about books and movies with monsters—the kinds of things l always liked to read and watch.  But it was more than that.  This particular blog presents the very tangible connection between religion and horror.  Not only horror, though.  As the title indicates, this is a place for genre fiction of three closely related kinds: science fiction, fantasy, and horror.  The three are separated by mere degrees of semantics, and all three play very near to the third rail we call religion.  In my way of thinking, horror is probably the closest of the three, but I shift among this secular trinity and often wonder in which genre I am at the moment.

For someone who grew up being taught that religion was all about history—including a history of the future, mapped, plotted, and planned just as carefully as a summer vacation—seeing the connection with genres that are all acknowledged to be fiction was, at first, a little shocking.  I’d been taught in literature classes that genre fiction wasn’t really literature at all.  “Pulps” were printed on cheap paper because, as you might again guess from the name, they weren’t worth much.  Many of those books are now collectors’ items and cost a pulp mill to purchase.  My list of books from my childhood that I’d like to recover has me looking with some worry toward my bank book.  The thing is, these are often insightful statements about religion.

Monsters were always a guilty pleasure for me.  Being small, shy, and insecure, it was easy to understand things from the monster’s point of view.  And very often religion was implicated.  Sitting in my apartment in New Jersey, at times unemployed, I began to explore the connection between religion and horror.  I thought I was the only one.  Eventually I discovered kindred souls, and soon came to understand that monsters are perhaps the purest representations of what religion can do.  Even after writing two books about this subject, Theofantastique is a place unlike any other I know.  It has far more readers than I ever will, but this isn’t Godzilla v. Mothra.  No, we’re all in this together.  And we’re gathered together for one purpose.  In any other circumstances you’d say it was religious.


Dandy Lions

O great—just what I need right now.  I knew lawn care would soon become a necessary avocation after buying a house, but this I did not expect.  Over the weekend I found myself pulling up dandelions that were growing out of cracks in the front steps.  Since we compost, I laid them out on a slab, figuring when they dried out I could make them into more soil.  (From which more dandelions will grow, I know, but still it just feels right.)  I came back a day later to find that the dandelions had returned to the vertical position.  Zombie dandelions!  They apparently couldn’t stay dead.  Now, I’ve been writing about demons for the past several months and I’d forgotten about zombies.  Well, I did post about resurrection on Easter, but my short-lived digression left me unprepared for this.

Really, the persistence of life is a sign of hope.  Perhaps dead zones, such as morality in Washington DC, will someday come back to life.  There’s hope for a tree, Job tells us, even if cut down.  These dandelions were a message for me.  Don’t give up.  Prior to religion being hijacked by theology it was a system intended to make life better for people.  Human beings were more important than heretical thoughts.  You help those who need it, regardless of what they believe.  Or don’t believe.  That was the point behind resurrection, I suspect—we can rise above all this dirt in which we find ourselves.  There’s a nobility to it.  Then again, fear trumps hope just about every time.  The dandelions are rising and we have no hope of outnumbering them.  

The ancients feared the dead coming back.  It’s a primal phobia.  All those things we buried with tears we hoped would stay the way we left them.  Life, as Malcolm says, will find a way.  Politicians, it seems, will find a way around it.  Call it executive privilege or whatever you will, the end result is the same.  The yellow-headed fuzzies will threaten you even when uprooted and left to dry in the sun.  Now, our lawn isn’t pretty.  Grasses of different varieties contend with weeds I’ve never seen before for scarce resources.  I’ve never minded dandelions.  They don’t ask much, only they now seem to be demanding the right to come back from the compost.  And if we let that happen, all hope is lost.


Aging Tech

When I get an idea my first impulse is to grab an envelope and pencil and start scribbling.  I run around with an older crowd.  Many of my generation don’t appreciate how much a single “share” can do for a blog post, or what a simple link to a page can do.  I have college friends who have no email addresses and who are invisible on the web.  I guess this is a young person’s playing field.  I suppose one of my reasons for writing about horror is that it keeps me in the younger demographic.  I don’t know too many people my age who are fans of “the genre.”  Sci fi is a little more acceptable, I suppose.  Still, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about why I find horror so fascinating.  There’s actually something redemptive about it, at least in my reading of the material.  It’s also a coping mechanism.

One reason that people tell stories (and read stories), according to psychologists, is to learn how to handle situations they might encounter.  This is on a subconscious level most of the time, otherwise speculative fiction simply wouldn’t apply.  I can’t recall having been in a crisis situation and stopping to think what a Stephen King character would have done in such circumstances, but I suppose that might be in the back of my mind somewhere, along with information about all the things I’ve mislaid over the years.  The older you get, in a technologically rapacious society, the more things there seem to be worthy of horror stories.  I haven’t even figured out the last round of devices before the new generation’s introduced.  No wonder so much of horror has to do with being attacked by monsters that look innocent.  Clinically engineered in a clean room.

Image credit: Pattymooney, via Wikimedia Commons

Some of the horror comes from the inherent instability of a constantly upgrading tech.  My laptop’s a few years old.  While a little younger than that, the device that sits on my laptop is also not fresh from the factory.  The last time I tried to back up the contents, the external hard drive (new from the factory) refused to do what I commanded.  While I did eventually figure it out, I wasted a good deal of my scarce free time working out how a device I couldn’t control was in fact controlling me.  Younger folks grew up with this kind of problem solving drilled into them from kindergarten on.  Now I find myself in a world of devices I can’t comprehend and which don’t even react the same way they did last time I bought the exact same one.  I ask my fellow quinquagenarians what to do and I watch as they grab an envelope and pencil.


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?


The Problem with History

The problem with history is that it shows foundational views are constantly shifting.  Let me preface this statement by noting that although I taught Hebrew Bible for many years my training was primarily as an historian of religion.  More specifically, the history of a religious idea that shifted over time.  My dissertation on the topic of Asherah required specialization in Ugaritic and in the religions of the ancient world that included Israel.  I have subsequently been researching the history of ideas, and my current, apparently non-sequiturial books on horror and the Bible are simply a further development of that interest.  The focus has shifted more toward the modern period, but the processes of uncovering history remain the same.  Many people don’t like horror.  I get that.  It is, however, part of the larger picture.

History, to get back to my opening assertion, is not fixed.  It’s also tied to the dilemma that I often face regarding religion.  Since Jesus of Nazareth never wrote anything down, and since Paul of Tarsus was writing to specific groups with their own issues, no systematic theology of Christianity emerged during that crucial first generation.  What eventually grew was an evolving set of premises claimed both by Catholicism and Orthodoxy to be the original.  Neither really is.  Then Protestantism made claims that the establishment had it wrong and the Bible, which was a bit ad hoc to begin with, was the only source for truth.  It’s a problematic source, however, and systems built upon it have also continued to evolve.  Herein lies the dilemma.  With stakes as high as eternal damnation, the wary soul wants to choose correctly.  There is no way, though, to test the results.

Eventually a decision has to be made.  Christian history is full of movements where one group or another has “gone back” to the foundations to reestablish “authentic” Christianity.  The problem is that centuries have intervened.  That “original” worldview, and the sources to reconstruct that worldview, simply no longer exist.  The primitivist religions have to back and fill a bit in order to have any foundation at all.  What emerges are hybrid religions that think they’re pristine originals.  Historians know, however, that no originals exist.  We have no original biblical manuscripts.  Teachings of Catholicism, and even Orthodoxy, change in response to the ongoing nature of human knowledge.  History contains no instructions for getting behind the curtain to naked reality itself.  At the same time the stakes have not changed.  The consequences are eternal.  Those who choose must do so wisely.