Poe’s Demons

In Nightmares with the Bible I use an idea penned by Edgar Allan Poe as one of the threads holding the book together.  One early reader complained that Poe didn’t write about demons, so the use of the great man was inappropriate.  That reader misunderstood me.  Today is Poe’s birthday.  As I think about the influence a writer can have on a young mind, I come back to this reader’s comments.  I can’t think of my book without Poe.  No, Poe did not write about demons, but he set the stage for what I’m trying to do in my book.  I’ve read analysts who claim Poe wasn’t a horror writer.  Certainly in the modern sense that’s probably true.  Still, he, like many others, was brave enough to suggest the tenebrous side of life was worth exploring, even if you only had a candle.  

Poe’s monsters were often interior.  They were psychologically probing, and although Sigmund Freud had not yet been born, it’s not inappropriate to say that Poe explored psychology.  Writers, I suspect, often deal with things they can’t name.  This is the way knowledge moves forward, even with fiction.  Especially with fiction.  As I’m reading books by academics who’ve done well for themselves, I often reflect how their legacy will remain within their field only.  It’s the rare nonfiction writer who manages to reach a cultural status that will find readers from other disciplines.  Most of us, however, will admit to reading a novel or two now and again.  Fiction writers, such as Poe, can claim things without backing them up with footnotes and citations.  That doesn’t mean they were any less astute at observing the world than academic writers are.  Often they’re more so.

I didn’t put Poe into Nightmares to show off.  His work has long been in the public domain.  I don’t cite him to claim that he would have agreed with my use of his insights.  No, I cite him because even if he wasn’t a horror writer my early encounter with him started me on a path of exploration.  Poe had trouble getting along in a literary world where rejection was endemic (it still is, I know from personal experience) and making a living as a literary person was unheard of.  He nevertheless knew that fiction was more honest than the alternatives, at least for some of us.  If we wish to face the world with integrity, we should admit that our heroes may have been made so in our own minds.  That doesn’t make them any less authentic, just because we’ve appropriated them for our own purposes.  We borrow what we find meaningful.

Cave Monsters

A story in Discover back in December discusses cave drawings from Indonesia.  Dating back almost 40,000 years before the creation of the world, these cave paintings represent the oldest yet discovered.  The interesting thing about such cave art is the representation of figures—both human and animal—that are instantly recognizable.  Scientists studying the art are able to identify likely species, but, as John Morehead pointed out on his Theofantastique Facebook post, there are also fantastical beasts.  We might call them monsters.  It’s interesting to see how scientific writers shift from their awe at life-like illustration to a nearly palpable embarrassment when the creatures become mythical.  Indeed, the article itself suggests such figures point to a very early sense of either fiction or spirituality.  The monstrous and religion have long trod parallel paths and we are only now beginning to explore the implications.

Monsters are beings over which we have no control.  They don’t abide by human rules and often the only recourse against them is religious.  When monsters come knocking, it’s often wise to drop to your knees.  Or at least reach for your crucifix.  Many rationalists like to claim that human civilization developed without religion.  The discoveries at sites such as Göbekli Tepe gainsay that assessment, indicating that humans first gathered for religious reasons and agriculture and all the rest followed from that.  Perhaps they came together for fear of monsters?  That’s only a guess, but I recall the defensive tower of Jericho.  The archaeologist lecturing us as we stood by this neolithic structure asked “What were they afraid of?”  He never answered that question.

Bringing monsters into the discussion isn’t an attempt to make light of these significant discoveries.  Rather, we need to learn to appreciate the fact that monsters are serious business.  Religion, whether or not literally true, is important.  Civilization has been running the opposite direction for some time now.  When surveys emerge demonstrating that the vast majority of the world’s population is still religious, analysts frown.  It does make me wonder, however, if nature itself programs us this way.  To other sentient creatures who experience us as predators, humans must look monstrous.  We come in a variety of colors and textures (clothing), we smell of deodorant, shampoo, soap, aftershave, or none of the above.  We emit strange sounds (our music).  Are we not the monsters of the natural world?  And should animals develop religion, would we not be one of the causes?  It’s just a guess, but I need to sit in my cave and think about it for a while.

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.

Fun and Fear

It’s curious the way people find books.  I sometimes see them advertised (the way publishers suppose people see them), but far more often I find them more serendipitously.  I’m active on Goodreads, and many times a book someone else has reviewed will catch my eye.  I like to read things that I notice in independent bookstores.  I’m always on the hunt for a bargain.  At work we have a used book rack where any volume is half-a-buck.  During lunch one day I spied Victor Gischler’s Vampire a Go-Go.  Now the title told me this wasn’t exactly a serious novel, but it had vampire in the title and when I write horror it often ends up on the funny side.  All in all it seemed like it would be worth the tiny investment, even if I don’t have a clear idea of what go-go really means.

While not laugh-out-loud funny, this is an enjoyable romp through monster land.  Kind of like Harry Potter with some adult themes thrown in.  The characters—which include ghosts, witches, wizards, a werewolf (sorry lycanthrope), a golem, and a vampire—are likable and strangely believable.  An unexpected twist came with the Battle Jesuits, a nice touch that shows yet again how close religion and horror can be.  I won’t try to summarize the action here, but I’ll simply note that there are twists and turns aplenty and smiles and splatter along the way.  It’s clear that Gischler researched the novel well, bringing interesting texture to the tale.

Like the last novel I read, also acquired in an inexpensive browsing situation, much of the story is set in Prague.  My wife and I visited Prague back when it was still in Czechoslovakia, and before it had become a tourist haven.  From reading these recent novels, apparently quite a lot has changed there.  Of course, in those days I hadn’t tapped into my love of monsters for many years.  Working on a doctorate has a way of doing that to you.  Now that I’m back, I’m enjoying the variety available in the genre these days.  I still have a soft spot for Stephen King novels, and Poe will always remain among my sacred texts, but I’m inclined to read these newer treatments as well.  There’s nothing really to scare you in Vampire a Go-Go, but there are remarkably moving moments.  And some of the monsters are quite a lot of fun.  It would restore my faith in the power of the accidental find, if it ever required resurrection.

Hidden Monsters

I don’t think much about having been born male.  I’m starting to realize that that’s because I don’t have to.  The same is true of being caucasian, although I’ve always objected to the labels of “white” and “black” as being polarizing and wildly inaccurate.  Although I grew up in poverty, my “social markers” put me in a place of privilege, even if others sharing my demographic have locked me out of the club.  These thoughts were raised by Mallory O’Meara’s excellent The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick.  As soon as I saw the book announced, I knew I had to read it.  As O’Meara would doubtlessly not find surprising, I had never heard of Milicent Patrick before.  I’m not surprised that a woman designed the Creature from the Black Lagoon, however, because woman create memorable monsters (can I get a “Frankenstein”?!).

The reason I don’t think about being male is because the crumbling society built by males assumes that it’s the default.  Men have always been shortsighted, I guess.  Having been raised by a “single mother” (she was technically not divorced because a male-made religion said it was sinful), I always believed women to be protectors, capable heads of families, and far more empathetic than the men I met.  I didn’t realize at the time that we lived so close to the brink because men devalue women.  Milicent Patrick grew up in a family where this was much more obvious.  A talented artist, she incurred her family’s lasting wrath by going to Hollywood and doing what was then movie makeup work.  That she designed the beloved Gill Man makes sense to me.

O’Meara’s book is sure to make thoughtful readers angry.  Not at the author, but at the behavior of men.  Perhaps due to my unbalanced upbringing, it has taken many years to see what others probably notice much more readily: women have to struggle for that which someone like myself can simply claim.  Bud Westmore, Patrick’s boss at Universal, claimed her creation as his own work.  There are monsters in this book, and I’ll give you one guess as to their gender.  Still, I’m glad to have read it for I know I’ve found another monster fan.  O’Meara’s clearly aware of how those of us who admit this odd passion are marginalized in a world that prefers super heroes and those good with finance over those who see monsters everywhere.  This is an important book; read it and you’ll see them too.

Frankly

Even in the 1960s, if I recall, Dracula and Frankenstein really weren’t that scary.  I mean this in the sense of the 1931 Universal movies that began the entire trend of “horror” films.  They were, nevertheless, monarchs among those of us who claim the sobriquet “monster boomers.”  (I’ve never considered myself as part of any generation, but there’s so many people that you’ve got to sort us somehow.)  Recently I talked my wife into watching/re-watching these two films with me.   The pacing makes it seem like everything in the 1930s was stuck in slow motion.  The frights are difficult to feel, given what we’ve seen in movies since then.  And they are both, it occurs upon reflection, movies in which religion is the norm against which we measure monsters.  God is assumed.

Dracula, of course, fears the crucifix.  His chosen home in England is a ruined abbey.  Although the source of his monstrosity is never discussed, he is intended to be an embodiment of evil, draining the life of innocents.  Renfield craves flies and spiders in order to ingest their life.  Christianity can’t tolerate such evil and Dracula must be staked (off screen).  Frankenstein’s monster is much more obviously theological.  Opening with a warning to the audience that the film may shock due not only to its frights, but also because of Henry’s desire to create life, the film has philosophical discussions between Henry and his associates, and ends with the moral dilemma of what to do with an evil created by human hands, yet clearly alive like other people.

Metaphorically speaking, these first two horror films set the stage for later developments in the genre.  It isn’t so much fear and startles that define the genre as it is a deep dread of offending the powers that be.  Childhood was so long ago that I can no longer recall just which movies I saw on Saturday afternoons, but these two were among them.  Even as I was beginning the spiritual journey that would assure my job was never far from the Bible, I recalled with fondness the frissons of watching Dracula and Frankenstein—and then the host of other Universal monsters such as The Wolf-Man, The Invisible Man, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon (the last being scary in the classical sense).  The world in which they operated was deeply religious, for even the gill-man was an implicit condemnation of evolution.  These monsters were informing a religious outlook that would last a lifetime.  Going back to Dracula and Frankenstein is like turning back to the first page of Genesis and beginning again.

New Horror

Now that Holy Horror is out I’ve been noticing an increasing number of scholars who are writing on the topic of monsters.  Book writing takes several years, as a rule, and when I began work on my contribution to the discussion the bibliography was a touch slim.  There weren’t many books out there and academics who addressed the topic did so warily.  Now scarcely a day or two will pass when I won’t find another book I should read on the topic.  Publishing may be an industry in crisis, but there’s no dearth of new books being produced.  Monsters—which define horror—are a means of coping with the realities of a world out of control.  Since 2016 many of us have felt a vague, if at times pointed, sense that something is seriously threatening out there.  Horror seems a logical response.

Academia tends to run behind trends rather than setting them.  Academic books in general don’t sell too well, and monsters often have crossover appeal.  The longer I’m at this, the more I think of how knowledge as a whole is gathered.  Having that shiny Ph.D. doesn’t do so much anymore when it comes to credibility.  It may get you in the publisher’s door, but to attract readers it helps to pick topics that scholars have typically avoided.  Monsters are a calculated risk in this regard.  Those who publish in the field become somewhat suspect among their colleagues, as if the subject is one that can only play itself out in naivety, an under-developed sense of sophistication.  Anything popular tends to be devalued in the academic mindset.  It is, therefore, encouraging to see others addressing my beloved monsters.

A new year is starting and, like many people I have high hopes that it will show some improvement over the past.  I can actually dream of a world without monsters and although pleasant it isn’t realistic.  We have evil with which we must deal.  Horror allows for a fair amount of practice in that regard.  I’m very well aware that many people find the topic repugnant, or at least distasteful.  Academics, it seems, are following their restless curiosities to the darker corners of the mind.  It’s getting difficult to keep up with the monster books appearing, even from reputable presses.  Holy Horror is my first contribution to the discussion and Nightmares with the Bible, which I hope to finish this year, will continue the conversation.  It looks like it’s becoming trickier to find a voice in this crowd already.  I wonder if that implies a better 2019, as we run behind the times.