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.
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.
I’m a small-town boy.Having the opportunity to hold a book signing, even if nobody requested said signing at the event, in the oldest continuously operated bookstore in the country was an honor.This is a prelude to the Easton Book Festival next weekend, in which I have two roles—part of a panel discussion and an individual presentation on Holy Horror.Putting yourself out there when you’re a writer is important, even if nobody pays attention.I thought quite a lot about it; horror movies are almost always successful, but do people like reading about them?Well, some of us do, obviously, but the average viewer, probably not so much.And then there’s the somewhat embarrassing juxtaposition of the Bible.People know what it is, but don’t want to talk about it.
Two people stopped to chat at the signing desk.One was an adjunct geology professor.We discussed science and religion, which is something on which I used to teach classes.He thought the book idea was interesting, but not enough to read it.The Moravian Book Shop scheduled this on the evening of their sold out ghost tours.Quite a few people came in for a Saturday night, mostly for the haunted Bethlehem walks.The second conversation was with a ghost tourist who thought the book idea was unusual.It is.I admit it.As I say in the book itself, “If you see something, say something.”So it was with me, with Bibles in movies.The bookstore did a nice display, but then, I have an awareness of the smallness of my impact.No surprises here.
The thing that really struck me was just how many people avoid looking at you when you’re behind a table with your books.I know I’ve done the same thing.I’ve gone into bookstores when an event was going on, not knowing about it and having no interest whatsoever in the book being presented.That’s the way these things go.I wasn’t doing this to make sales.McFarland isn’t the kind of publisher you use to make money.For me it was all about the experience.It was like seeing my name outside a church in Manhattan.It doesn’t do anything for you materially, but at least you can say you had it happened to you once.The signing was advertised in the local paper, and on its website.Maybe someone out there took a glimpse and saw something that sparked their curiosity.It doesn’t matter if they buy the book.As a teacher at heart, it is simply the interest that I’m hoping to raise.
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.
Every great once in a while I have to pull my head from the clouds and remind myself I’m an editor.Actually, that happens just about every Monday morning.Surprisingly, academics who have trouble getting published don’t bother to consult editors for advice.Having sat on both sides of that particular desk, I certainly don’t mind sharing what I’ve learned since publishing isn’t as straightforward as it seems.It has its own mythology and authors—I speak from experience here—feel extremely protective of their books.Nevertheless, editors are under-utilized resources when it comes to figuring out how to approach a topic.They often possess valuable advice.
It’s easy to think publishing exists to preserve and disseminate ideas and insights, tout court.The idea that if you get past your dissertation committee you’ve done service that requires wide readership is natural enough.Publishers, however, have other angles to consider.Books incur costs, and not just paper, glue, and ink.There are many people involved in bringing a book from idea to object, and each of them has to be paid to do their part.(Many academics in the humanities may not understand the concept of “overhead,” but it’s an everyday reality in the publishing world.)Not only that, but even the book itself is a matter of negotiation.My latest book (and I suspect well over 90 percent of the authors with whom I work have no idea that I write books as well) had a chapter expunged and a new one written at the behest of my McFarland editor.
One of the pervasive myths in this business is that authors write whatever book they want and then find a publisher.Sometimes that works.Often when it does the authors are disappointed in the results.There are presses that specialize in cranking out such works, slapping an enormous price tag on them, selling them to libraries, and then letting them go out of print.I’ve been there.I know.Academics want prestige presses to take their books to a higher profile, but without having to change things according to the advice of an editor.There are hidden lives of editors.I can’t share much of that here, but I can expound its corollary—taking advantage of free editorial advice makes good sense.I wouldn’t be bothering you with such mundane thoughts on this blog, but when I rolled out of bed today I learned it was Monday morning.
Finally!I have sent my proofs and the index for Holy Horror back to McFarland and I find myself in that state following intensive concentration on one thing.Well, as much as work will allow such concentration.Those who write books know how difficult it is to switch gears from fifth back to first while driving at highway speeds.As soon as the email arrived stating that the proofs were ready, I dropped everything to get them read, outside work hours, of course.With mind focused on a single goal—get the job done—I’ve managed to forget where I was before being interrupted by my own work.I recall it had something to do with demons, though.
Perhaps the most taxing part of trying to write while employed full time is keeping track of where you are.The luxury of spending hours outside of class doing the index, for example, is compressed into the little free time I have between writing for this blog and work—between a blog and a hard place, as it were.Indexing, which can be quite pricey when a professional does it, ismuch easier with a searchable PDF than it ever was going through a printout page-by-page to find obscure references you forgot you ever wrote.It reminded me of the time I had Owen Chadwick over for dinner at Nashotah House.I recalled someone asking him about something he’d once written and he looked puzzled for a moment and then replied, “One writes so many things.”Indeed.Millions and million of words in electrons, if not on paper, mark the status of a life.And indexing will prove it to you somehow.
This morning I awoke with the proofs and index safely emailed back to the publisher.What was I doing before that?I know that work is looming just a short hour or two ahead, and I need to accomplish part of my life’s work before going to work.I can’t afford to waste this time.Nightmares with the Bible is coming along nicely.A very drafty draft of the book exists.I have some more research to do, however, and the annotated bibliography—ah, that’s where I left off!—is still a shambles.Not only that, but I’ve got a stack of reading on the topic next to my chair.Time to put on a pot of coffee and warm up those typing fingers.I’ve got real work to do.
Herostratus, it is said, tried to destroy the Temple of Artemis so that he might become famous. His name is now associated with gaining fame at any cost. In case any of my readers suppose I might be like Herostratus, I would be glad to confirm that I’m not the Steve Wiggins in the headline below. While I do have a beard, I’ve only been to Tennessee once that I know of. When a friend contacted me to ask why I’d shot the deputy (but I did not shoot the sheriff) it reminded me of a post on this blog from many years ago about sharing the name of the gospel singer Steve Wiggins. He’s always at the top for any Google search, which is why I always tell people to use my middle initial when seeking even more than you can find on this blog: “Steve A. Wiggins” usually brings me up. I’m not as desperate as Herostratus yet.
Names can be tricky that way. I’ve written a number of books in my life, and three of them are either published or in production. Holy Horror, which is now available on McFarland’s website (the book itself will be out in August) is listed on Amazon. It isn’t paired with my other two books yet, perhaps because it is so different. My Amazon author page brings up A Reassessment of Asherah and Weathering the Psalms, but it’s a little coy about Holy Horror. This blog isn’t quite like trying to destroy Artemis’ temple, but then, it isn’t exactly a Twitter-follower magnet either.
I have a friend who has a fictional Twitter account. He has more than twice the number of followers I do, and his Twitter persona is made up. I follow people who don’t follow me back. I do hope this isn’t how Herostratus got started. It is tragic that a deputy was shot and killed by an armed Wiggins in the south. I’m no friend of the NRA, and like most of the world I believe we’d be better off with far fewer guns, and Herostratus is pretty much forgotten today. In fact, every time I want to mention him I have to do a Google search to find his name. Destroying property of the gods, apparently, doesn’t always give you lasting fame. Looking at what’s happening in DC these days I see confirmation of that all the time. But then don’t take my word for it—I’m only a blogger with a tiny Twitter following. Just don’t accuse me of having a gun or trying to sing in public.
So, I’m getting ready to update this website. I’ll give you a warning before things change. Another update, however, is in order. I’ve been promising that I’d let you know when my forthcoming book with McFarland received its final title. Well, drum roll please! The final title is actually the first title I proposed—Holy Horror: The Bible and Fear in Movies. And it has an ISBN: 978-1-4766-7466-7. And a cover design too, but I can’t share that just yet. It is appropriately lurid, matching the subject. But in all seriousness, the book makes a case for the fact that many people understand their religion via popular media. Being a bad boy, I look at it through horror movies.
The title Holy Horror was a play on Douglas Cowan’s excellent book, Sacred Terror. I recall reading that book, starting the night I bought it as SBL, curled up in the swank conference hotel bed, turning pages until I couldn’t hold my eyes open any longer. It had honestly never occurred to me that religion scholars could get away with writing about horror movies. Cowan had the natural advantage of being a Canadian, something I’ve always longed to be. He also has a secure university post. I was, at the time, just a guy trying to feel secure in what seemed like (and turned out in reality to be) a threatening seminary position that was shortly to end.
It may be difficult to understand how horror can be consoling. It can. I’m a squeamish guy. I don’t like blood and gore. I hate being startled. Nevertheless, I took comfort in this genre as my career was falling apart. Holy Horror was a cathartic book for me to write. There’s more than a little metaphor in it. One thing that will become clear to readers is that the Bible is no stranger to horror movies. Ironically, many of them are strangely conservative—Carol J. Clover’s classic Men, Women, and Chainsaws (which I’ve reviewed on this blog) made that point clearly. Horror often has the same message as your typical Disney film, although it’s presently slightly differently. How so? Well, I can’t say very much here or you’ll have no reason to read my book. McFarland does a great job with publishing this kind of title. You won’t find it in Barnes and Noble, and not likely in your local indie either, but it’ll be available on Amazon and these days that’s enough. And before long these pages will change to reflect its coming.
One of my greatest phobias is that people will think I’m arrogant. Those who know me realize that I’m highly self-critical, as befits a lapsed Fundamentalist. Self-image isn’t my strong suit. So it is with great trepidation that I celebrate a tiny bit at another book contract. Book number three (still not officially titled) now rests with McFarland Books. Shortly after I signed the contract for the book nameless here forevermore, Lexington and Fortress Academic announced a new series: Horror and Scripture. Maybe you know the feeling too. You’ve just done something you’re proud of and then you’re upstaged. My book deals with the Bible and horror films—what could be more Horror and Scripture than that?
The new Lexington/Fortress series has two editors. One of them is a friend of mine. (Monsters and horror don’t often mix with the Good Book, and those few of us interested in such things receive glances askew.) She asked me if I’d consider contributing to the series. This takes a lot of careful thought on my part. I have a sum total of about an hour a day to write, often less. I can read research-related material on the bus, if I can stay awake, but other than weekends—already quite busy catching up from not being home all week—I have very circumscribed writing time. Nevertheless, I do get up at 3:00 a.m. so that I can have that vital hour to write. Why not focus my efforts onto another book? Perhaps insanely, I submitted a proposal. This week a contract came.
In the short span of one year I’ve gone from being able to claim two books to four, almost like a parable. My untitled book is written and submitted. My contracted book is already half-drafted. After my McFarland book I’d already begun work on a sequel, you see. It lacked form and substance, but the proposal forced me to bring it together. Now, barring any unforeseen disaster, I should be able to submit this new book within a couple of years. By admitting this to you, dear readers, I fear I open myself to accusations of either arrogance, or at least greed. It is, actually, rather like this: my wife often tells me “we must cut the coat to fit the cloth.” I don’t have an academic position, but I’ve learned a lot about the publishing industry over the past decade. Research is a constant in my life, as it is with most credentialed people, no matter their jobs. So it is with fear and trembling that I announce my next book: Nightmares with the Bible. Watch this space for cryptic updates as the details unfold. And please don’t think less of me for it.
An occupational hazard of the editor is paying obsessive attention to publishers. That stands to reason. Many academics are less concerned than some publishers think they are about such matters as who publishes their book. I suspect that many have, for whatever reason, found no welcome home among elite publishers. This happens often enough to make many scholars less worried about reputation than the practical matter of getting a publisher interested at all. There are a lot of original thoughts out there, and some of them occur to a person and just won’t let her or him go. An example: what terms are used for weather in the Psalms and why? Before you know it you’ve awaken before the sun for five years and written 75,000 words on the topic and you want to get it published without having to pay someone to do it. That kind of thing. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the number of scholars who understand this kind of reasoning.
Also, it’s a matter of scale. I work for a premier publisher in the academic world. It may surprise many people to find out just how often when someone asks what I do (not very often, for the record) and then follows it up who I do it for, the interrogator has never heard of my employer. Academic presses, even important ones, are really only known among academics. Keep scale in mind. If you’ve ever walked passed Norton’s offices in Manhattan, and then those in which I spend my days, you know what I mean. Academia is small scale. For the average person reading a book is something they generally choose not to do. Of those who do read, very few read academic books. Those who read academic books tend to stick to their own discipline, or related ones. You get the picture—smaller returns at each step.
So, having written a book about horror movies, where do I take it? This isn’t one of those footnoted, look-how-erudite-I-am kind of books. It’s more of a I-noticed-something type. The question then becomes, who publishes such kinds of thing? I do worry about academic reputation—who doesn’t?—but this is a book I want the correct readers to find. That’s why McFarland suggested itself. People reading on pop culture, know to keep an eye on their offerings. Hopefully enough people will find it to have justified the effort. It won’t impress those enamored of collecting (academic) names. It isn’t the kind of book my employer would publish. Nor would I want them to. Call it an occupational hazard. Like any subject, knowing too much about publishing can take away from the fun.
I’ve been offering a few teasers about my forthcoming book. One of the reasons for not making an announcement is that the title hasn’t been settled yet. It’s pretty hard to promote a book without one. I’ve written enough about it that readers can tell it’s about horror movies. The publisher is McFarland, an independent academic publisher that specializes in pop culture and has an impressive list concerning monsters and other frightening things. Once we get a title down, I’ll say more. In the meantime, I can take the opportunity to say a bit more about the publishing industry. Not that people generally ask me about it, but I suspect many authors secretly want to know some insider tips. If not, I suspect there’s one or two other blogs to read today.
I’ll admit up front that I tried unsuccessfully to interest agents in this book. At least four wrote back to tell me it was a great idea, but a writer without a platform is like, well, an editor. I help other people get their ideas published—always a bridesmaid, as they say—physician heal thyself. When I realized I was wasting months trying to find a professional to promote my book, I decided to revert to the tried and true. When you want to know who to approach about your book, look at the spines of the books you read to write yours. Who are the publishers who produce books in this area? Sometimes the interests of a publishing house will change with the editors, so the more recent your comps, the better.
Horror sells. My project wasn’t really mercenary in that way, but rather it was the result of years of watching horror, usually by myself, and finding some commonality in the films. What exactly that commonality is will, I hope, become clear once I can freely write about my book topic. Others, you see, could swoop in and take my thesis—a perpetual fear of someone who barely has time to scribble out a blog post a day. Finding the time to write books in the off-work and off-commute hours is a real juggling act. In my case, perhaps a jugular act. Without an agent, I turned to McFarland. Many of their books helped me form the ideas for my own. Besides, they have a Scottish connection, and that means something to this old Edinburgh alum. If you want to get published, it helps to know the players. That may become even a bit easier once I’ve got a title.