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.

Golem

GolemReduxI read a lot of books. About a hundred a year. At the end of the year I go over them all again and many of them, I see, failed to make a deep impression. Some, I know, before I close the back cover, will stay with me. Maybe even haunt me. I count Elizabeth R. Baer’s The Golum Redux: From Prague to Post-Holocaust Fiction among those that will linger long. My regular readers will know of my predilection for monsters, so a golem book will hardly be a surprise. I realized, however, upon completing my academic paper on Sleepy Hollow, that my reading on the golem was rather slim. I’m no longer sure that it’s even a monster. As a goy who’s spent a good deal of his life among the Hebrew Scriptures, there’s a natural resonance, it seems, with those oppressed for being who they are. Golems are created in times of crisis but have unexpected, or at least unwanted, repercussions. Baer offers a thoughtful, intertextual study of the golem, largely through the lens of Jewish fiction.

Having dealt with the Bible as portrayed in Sleepy Hollow, I treated the episode where its significance truly unfolds (“The Golem”) as the entryway into the culmination of the first season. Now it appears likely that season three will be the erasure of the aleph, it seems appropriate to give golems their due. The story begins with the oppression of the Jews in early modern Prague. Rabbi Loew makes a golem from mud to protect the beleaguered community. This soulless, selfless protector becomes an archetype for various superheroes and literary characters ably summarized by Baer. The book put me in mind of my only visit to Prague, too brief and too ill-informed to truly appreciate what I was seeing. To see you have to learn to read.

While some writers have fun with the golem, others understand it in more serious tones. Those who can’t forget the Holocaust see things in a way that others cannot. Not that only Jews can summon a golem, but its origins and reuse have a special place in a community that longs for a protector. I’m reminded of the book of Job, and there’s a good reason for that. While reading The Golem Redux on my commute, I came home to find a copy of Pete Hamill’s Snow in August on my wife’s stack of books to read. As it is one of the titles studied by Baer, I felt an odd synchronicity at play. The book had been recommended by one of the booksellers at our local indie shop just a few weekends back. Tied in with all the other golem-based thoughts in my head recently, I’m inclined to think that this was no mere coincidence.

Zombies, Golems, and Robots – Oh My!

A truly great metaphor is hard to kill. Despite detractors and naysayers, the zombie has clawed its way into the modern psyche as a denizen of the living death of a world we’ve created for ourselves. Joblessness, environmental disasters, tea parties – just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, the dead refuse to stay dead. Elsewhere on this blog I’ve written about the origin of zombies in Voodoo, and I mentioned in passing the connection with the golem. The golem is a mythical Jewish creature that serves the role of protector of the oppressed (one can’t help but think of the Democratic Party). It is strong, dedicated to its task, brainless and soulless (one can’t help but think of the Religious Right). Like the zombie, the golem has no inherent ability to think for itself, and it must be animated by a magical word written on its forehead.

Golem around the corner

One of the most famous golem stories involves the Golem of Prague, defender of the oppressed Jews in that city in the Middle Ages. The Prague connection also forever ties the golem together with robots in Karel Capek’s 1921 play, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), the very origin of the word “robot.” Like the golem the robot putatively has no soul. It too is controlled by a code written precisely for it. Unfortunately on my one trip to Prague back in 1991, I didn’t know to look for the golem – I did find the statue of Jan Hus, however. Right around the corner the golem lurked, standing guard over the oppressed. It is a powerful image when the world is in such a state.

We need a hero

With the recent release of George Romero’s Survival of the Dead, the zombie has been given renewed life. Watching the Republican Party gearing up for a major thrust at the very soul of America, lining up the local BP station to support big oil, spouting false rhetoric about what the Bible says, I think I’d rather take my chances with the zombies. Does anyone out there happen to have a golem for sale, just in case?

Care of the Dead

Stretching back before the advent of writing, back before civilization itself began, people have shown reverence for their dead. Paleolithic era grave goods attest to care of the dead residing among the earliest strata of human behavior, and it is a behavior that continues to evolve to reflect the belief structures of the Zeitgeist. The idea of constructing cemeteries in a garden where family and friends might visit their departed is a relatively recent innovation. Increased population and concerns about epidemics led to the landscaped, garden-variety cemetery outside of populated areas in the 18th century. Before that graveyards could be located within the city itself, often near a church or sacred location.

While visiting Swan Point Cemetery in Providence, my niece asked me why people left pennies on gravestones (H. P. Lovecraft’s tombstone had one on it, and others around it). My thoughts went to Wulfila’s recent blog post on the Black Angel tomb in Iowa City and the pennies scattered there. I also recalled La Belle Cemetery in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin where a “haunted statue” was always richly endowed with pennies in her cupped hands. LaBelleThe specific form of penny offerings seems to go back to Benjamin Franklin’s burial, at least in America. A few years back while in Philadelphia, I saw for myself that people still leave pennies on Franklin’s grave in Christ Church Cemetery.

Franklin

Franklin pennies (and a few nickles)

There is no universally accepted reason explaining why Benjamin Franklin should have been the first to have received such treatment — in fact, I would argue that it is much older than Dr. Ben.

Money to accompany the dead has a long history. Pennies on the eyes or under the tongue of the deceased originated in the need to placate the ferryman across the river of — what’s it called? — Oh, yes, the river of forgetfulness. The classical Greek form of this mythic character is Charon, the boatman who punted the dead across Styx. He required payment, and since coinage had been invented, it was a convenient way to pay. (Today the truly devoted might leave a credit card in the casket.) The ferryman must have his pay, as the movie Ghostship warns, but the idea is much older still. The earliest references to being poled across the river go back to ancient Sumer, the earliest known civilization. As soon as people became civilized they began to pay homage to the gloomy captain of souls.

While in Prague just after it opened to western visitors, my wife and I stopped by the famous Jewish cemetery where the tombstones are so tightly packed in that they are barely legible. My wife asked why so many of the tombstones had smaller stones on top, placed there as dedications.JPrague I recalled having seen stones on tombs outside Jerusalem some years back, and I even had a student bring me a stone from Israel to keep as long as I promised to put it on her grave after she died. This practice in its recent form is associated with Judaism, but again, it has ancient roots. The building of cairns, or piles of stones, is often associated with the Celts or the pre-Celtic inhabitants of the British Isles. On our many wandering through the highlands and islands we saw several Neolithic examples in Scotland, particularly in the Orkney Islands. The practice of putting stones atop the dead also goes back to ancient times. One plausible suggestion is that it was intended to keep the dead in their graves. A more prosaic conclusion is that digging deep holes takes more work than hauling over a pile of rocks.

No matter what the origin of the practice may be, one of the surest signs of civilization is care for the welfare of the dead. Today a penny is easily left, costs the bearer little, and creates a memorable image for all who follow.