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.

Dolls and Puzzles

Maybe you’re anticipating it too.  Annabelle Comes Home, I mean.  My latest book, Nightmares with the Bible, has a chapter on The Conjuring universe, and with the recent death of Lorraine Warren I’ve been working on another piece trying to fit this whole puzzle together.  “What puzzle?” did I hear you ask?  The puzzle, I answer, between what really happened in the Ed and Lorraine Warren investigations.  You see, the paranormal is one of those things we’ve been taught to laugh at, and we’re told that people who “see things” are dweebish kinds of gnomes that don’t see the light of the sun enough.  Reality television has brought some of these ideas into vogue, what with ordinary people gathering “scientific” evidence of ghosts and the rest of us scratch our heads while hoaxes are revealed on the B reel.  But still, Annabelle lives.

It has also been announced that The Conjuring 3 is in development.  For some of us—and I’m well aware that movie-making is an industry and that profit is its goal—the question of what’s real can be as haunting as any ghost.  You see, I buy into the scientific method, as far as it goes.  That caveat is necessary, however, since science is neither able to nor interested in assessing all the strange things people see.  Our senses can be fooled, and a great many people haven’t developed the critical ability to scrutinize their own observations skeptically.  Skepticism itself, however, need not become orthodoxy.  It’s like any other tool in our mental box—each has its own purpose.  A car engine is dismantled in order to rebuild it in working order.  And there may be a ghost in the machine.

That’s what gets me about this whole Conjuring thing, and beyond that the contested livelihood of the Warrens.  There may be such a thing as mass hysteria (the current state of the US government can hardly be explained any other way), but the Perron haunting that was the subject of the first film provides, I think, a good test case.  A family of seven living in a house where they experienced things not only collectively and individually but also in different combinations would seem to be a place where multiple angles could be used.  According to Andrea Perron’s written account, the Warrens’ investigation never really took off there.  That didn’t prevent a very successful movie franchise from being launched, loosely based on their story.  And getting at the truth is never as simple as buying your ticket online and waiting for the show to begin.

Drowning in Words

One of the features of this blog, which as inclined more lately toward books of all sorts rather than simply religion, is that I only write one post per book read.  There’s no law that says this should (or must) be the case, but I’ve held myself to that standard for about a decade now, and if I have trouble recalling a book this blog is generally a kickstarter for my memory before hauling myself off to the attic to find the physical copy—long live print!—to do a bit more detailed work.  This method sometimes leads to crises of my own making.  Long books take some time to get through.  And despite the action-packed picture you get of my life from this web log, many long weeks are spent doing work and I can’t really share the details here.  And so it goes.

Like many people I read multiple books at a time.  Although I have a kind of general plan, the actual books being read at any one time often depend on my ability to lay my hands on a copy.  And since I’m in the final stages of Nightmares with the Bible, I tend to prioritize books I really should read in whole for that tome.  I also read (and write) fiction.  Normally I reserve my fiction for bedtime reading; it’s more pleasant to prepare for sleep with an engaging story that I know isn’t factual enough to haunt me.  Sometimes the fiction is a long book too.  Two lengthy books going simultaneously feels like trying to pass a truck going uphill.  Or swimming underwater.  The insistence of the necessity of taking a breath (writing a blog post on a book) strains against me as I look up and see the surface still some distance away.  Drowning in words, however, isn’t that bad.

As I confessed to a friend the other day, I am a graphomaniac.  I write incessantly.  To do that it helps to read incessantly.  At any one time I’ve got several books going, and I’ll let you know when I reach the end of any of them.  This is, I suppose, the bookish life.  Ironically I read more now than when I was a professor.  Those days were filled with lesson prep, teaching, and reading student papers.  Grading tests.  Fulfilling administrative duties.  On the days when I feel like lamenting my lack of time (and those are most days) I need to remind myself that a great deal more of my effort is now spent with books than it used to be.  You’ll have to trust me on that since I don’t always get to write about reading until the long books are done.  And that’s okay by me.

Final Stretch

There comes a point, in my experience of book writing, when you can think of nothing else.  This is near the end of the process.  For months and months you’ve been working at it in increments, and the sudden realization hits you that other people are (you hope) going to read what you’ve been scratching out for a couple of years.  My interlocutors tend to be in print or email form.  I don’t work day-to-day with colleagues who know about the book, nor, I suspect, would they care very much.  In my case this comes as I’m trying to generate attention for Holy Horror, with very limited results.  But I don’t have time to think about that now.  Nightmares with the Bible is almost ready to submit.  If only I had more time to read everything.  If only.

Writing is a challenging form of expression.  Let me qualify that: getting writing published is challenging.  The actual craft flows.  The book that is intended to pass scholarly muster, however, must be full of notes and quotes.  I’m trying to leave those behind as much as possible since I’ve been reading about these topics for decades and that ought to count for something.  Still, that nagging doubt awakes you—haven’t you overlooked something?  Some vital source that you should’ve cited?  Some argument that knocks your book off its stilts?  Near the end of the process it’s hard to concentrate on other things such as blog posts and tweets.  Yet you need to build your platform while you’re standing on it.  And then there’s the small matter of work that will demand well over forty of your waking hours this coming week.  And the index—you can’t forget the index!

In the intervening months you might’ve read some newspaper headlines, read some books off-topic, read other people’s blogs, kept up with social media.  Now, however, you have tunnel vision.  You’ve said what you have to say, you think.  You must check it.  And recheck it.  Did you leave a sentence open for later comment?  What chapter was that in?  Have you figured out how to close it?  Woe betide those to whom this happens at tax time.  Or before a business trip.  Making a living as a writer you do not.  This avocation, however, is your life.  Your legacy.  Editors who’ve been remembered are few.  A book is a stab at immortality.  There are meetings.  There are work deadlines.  There’s a lawn to mow.  Those, however, are mere distractions at this point.

Suddenly Spring

Maybe it’s just a sign of passing years, but spring seems much more sudden to me now.  One day I’m wearing multiple layers and shivering in the mornings and the next day I need to take a machete to the lawn for its first mowing.  Those weeds along the fence, which weren’t there a day ago—I swear!—are now two feet tall and aching for an appointment with the weed whacker.  I mean, the snow shovel’s still on the porch.  When did this happen?  How did we go from brown grass to sprouting trees of heaven just overnight?  I haven’t had time to build up my calluses yet for pushing the lawn mower (we have the environmentally friendly kind, powered by naught but human effort).  Morpheus was right, I guess.

This past week was so unexpectedly busy that I haven’t had time to stop and muse over some important happenings.  My current project, Nightmares with the Bible, involves trying to sort out The Conjuring universe, and I wanted to reflect on the passing of Lorraine Warren.  Her obituary in the New York Times  by Neil Genzlinger was surprisingly respectful.  Whether or not she was really onto something, people in general seem to believe she and Ed were sincere in their convictions.  There are those who claim they were charlatans, but those who perpetrate hoaxes tend to leave telltale signs.  Those who claim they couldn’t have experienced the paranormal because there’s no supernatural to experience are entitled to their opinions, of course.  Being tolerant of those who see differently, however, has never been more important.

The natural cycles of the earth never fail to surprise me.  Supernatural or not, the explosion of life following one warm, wet week is nothing shy of astounding.  I walked around to the seldom visited north side of the house to find a veritable jungle that wasn’t there just the week before.  Staring at the flowers and weeds, I can’t help but think of the hackneyed phrase “pushing up daisies.”  Much happened this past week.  The mower was oiled up and played the grim reaper to the grasses and other plants of my neglected yard.  Life, as Jurassic Park (which my lawn resembles) teaches, is persistent.  I never met or in any way corresponded with the Warrens, but I feel that in some sense I have gotten to know them.  And just yesterday it still felt like winter.

Mystic Connections

Those of us who find rationalism a bit too constricting sometimes find solace in mysticism.  My reading of late, which is mostly research for Nightmares with the Bible, frequently touches on mystics of the past.  This isn’t a new fascination.  All the way back in college, as a religion major, I mentioned to one of my professors that I found it appealing.  A frown settled across his academic face.  “Mysticism is dangerous,” he said.  He went on to explain that churches (he was Presbyterian, and I Methodist) had belief systems into which mystics—those who experience the divine directly—didn’t fit.  A direct experience of the divine could cast doubt on church doctrine and nothing, as you might guess, is more important to true believers than dogma.

That discussion at such an impressionable age set me aback.  Here as we enter (for the non-orthodox) the Triduum, or “Great Three Days” the faithful are hoping for some kind of divine experience, I expect.  Many of us will spend two-thirds of it working.  In any case, if nothing mystical happens why do we bother?  Mysticism is equally deplored by science since it suggests something that doesn’t fit into rationalism’s toy box.  A universe where the unexplained—and oh so subjective!—direct experience with naked reality threatens to undo all the neat columns and tidy formulas that describe the entirety of existence.  Conventional churches tend to agree because you never know what God might do if you open that box.

There are religions that welcome mysticism.  They recognize that human-built systems are only approximations—Platonic shadows, if you will, cast upon the cave wall.  Mystics are those who, temporarily unchained, dare to turn around and face the fire directly.  Who knows?  They might even catch a glimpse of the sun itself.  More conventional religions are run like businesses.  You come to a certain building at a certain time.  You perform prescribed actions on cue.  You place your money in this specific receptacle at this specific time.  Leave and forget it all until next week.  Our younger generations don’t find this engaging, just as they see through the lie of the inherent fairness of capitalism.  I can still see the frown of my theology professor.  The old systems are falling apart even as those not too weary after work will head to Maundy Thursday services for a slip of bread and a sip of wine.  The mystic, however, doesn’t know what might happen next.

Bookmark This

I haven’t forgotten about horror.  In fact, this past late winter my list of must see movies has continued to grow.  I don’t subject you, my kind readers, to endless barrages about Holy Horror since I believe the idea behind the book is novel in its own right and can stand on its own.  The other day I even ordered bookmarks to be made, for free distribution.  Thing is, days are getting longer, and warmer, and people are thinking the opposite of horror just as spring is the equinoctial opposite of fall.  Like a good monster I’m biding my time.  And doing so on an editor’s budget.  (The pay scale’s not the same as that of a professor; believe me, I know.)  Horror’s funny that way—it is seasonal, at least in most people’s minds.

I make the point in the book that fear serves a useful function.  It occurs in other genres quite frequently, although they bear the outcast label less overtly than horror.  Perhaps this gets to the root of my fascination.  Having grown up as part of the pariah social class of the poor, my sympathies are with the genre that often fails to find respectability.  Many of those who criticize horror do not watch it.  Some of these films are quite sophisticated, and the genre blends into other “speculative” categories such as science-fiction and some action, as well as into the more naturalistic thriller.  And thrillers are merely dramas with an elevated pulse rate.  This difficulty of distinguishing genres sharply is one reason Holy Horror addresses some films that aren’t strictly horror.

Work continues apace on Nightmares with the Bible.  Again, the ex-professorate never receives sabbaticals during which concentrated work might be done on books.  In the pre-dawn hours, however, I steadily make progress.  Very shortly an article I wrote for Horizons in Biblical Theology on the topic will appear.  Safely during the spring.  As the days grow longer more of my weekend time is demanded by the outdoors aspect of home ownership, cleaning up after the freezing and thawing of a long winter when infelicities were safely covered under snow.  Sometimes I fear for the progress made on my next book—it is the first advance contract I have ever had—but then I remind myself that fear does serve useful functions.  It’s not called a deadline for nothing.  So even as the darkness fades I prepare for the next round to begin.