Tag Archives: W. Scott Poole

Lovecraft Legacies

Although long fascinated by popular culture, I’ve not really been part of any fandom. I suppose this is because my interests tend to be quite broad, and finding one piece of pop culture over which to obsess is difficult. I might miss something somewhere else! While not really a “fan” of H. P. Lovecraft, I’ve read much of his writing and I’m amazed at how pervasive his cultural influence has been and continues to be. W. Scott Poole, who’s taken us into realms historians often shun, has done a great service to those interested in Providence’s most famous son. In the Mountains of Madness: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of H. P. Lovecraft is a thoughtful, honest, and in-depth consideration of both the man and his fiction. The basics of Lovecraft’s life are easily accessed, but the probing questions Poole puts to the evidence are thought-provoking and, in many respects, revelatory.

Perhaps the largest Lovecraft demon that Poole tackles is H. P.’s racism. There’s no secret about this, but fans often find ways of excusing it or explaining it away as being a product of his time. Those of us who write can understand that Lovecraft didn’t get out much. When he did get out he preferred it to be among people like himself. (Male, white, and gentrified.) It’s difficult to say what the origins of prejudice are, beyond the natural tendency to fear those who are different. Still, intelligent people can generally figure out that such biases are based on lack of experience or willingness to learn about other cultures. There are many, many cultures in the world and it’s often hard to think that yours isn’t the best. A large part of today’s political turmoil is based on this very thing.

An added benefit to reading Poole’s book was the realization that although Lovecraft really didn’t travel much (he didn’t live very long either, and the two are at least partially related) he did at one time visit the small town in New Jersey where I live. That came as a bit of a surprise. The last time I visited Providence, there wasn’t much in the way of signage or plaques to mark where Lovecraft had left his stamp. That may have changed in recent years as his literary star has continued to ascend. Still, to find out that he’d passed this way once upon a time was a nice little bonus in the investigation into who this man was. There’s a lot more to dig out of Poole’s book, and fan or not, if you’re interested in Lovecraft this is a must read.

Devil’s Workshop

SatanInAmerSome of us prefer taking our monsters neat. With Old Scratch, however, we have a slippery, protean beast. This is amply demonstrated in W. Scott Poole’s Satan in America: The Devil We Know. Not only the Devil, but vampires, demons, and the human minions known as Satanists and witches populate this study of American culture. The Dark Lord is difficult to pin down. This is true even concerning his obscure biblical origins. As I’ve noted before, there is no Devil in the Hebrew Bible. By the time of the Gospels he’s alive and well and on planet earth. Or at least what passed for planet earth in those days. Tempter, father of lies, prince of the power of the air—he was a pretty ambitious fellow, seeking like a lion those he might devour. Those were early days, however, and Poole focuses specifically on his development in American culture. It is, as he shows, a rich culture indeed.

Beginning with the colonial era, with the Matherses, Jonathan Edwards, and their ilk, and bringing the figure up through fairly contemporary times, Poole shows us how the Devil defines America, in many ways. Please don’t misunderstand; Poole does not say America is evil or Satanic, only that our culture has had an undying fascination with Satan. Not everyone agrees, of course, with who he is or how to interpret him. Although theologians have largely left the Devil in the dust, polls tend to show about half of the American population believes in the Beast (yet another character in the mixed martini of evil Poole serves up), or more properly, Satan. It really might help to have a diabolical score card here: is the Antichrist the Devil? Is he the same as the Beast? What about demons? As a child I was taught there is only one Devil, but lots and lots of demons. Legions of them, in fact. There can be only one morning star, one Lucifer.

One thing we can say for certain about Satan, at least in the context of Poole’s study, is that he is evil. Not that some haven’t had sympathy for him. Popular culture has helped to keep the character alive. Sometimes comically, sometimes with dead seriousness, novelists, cartoonists, film-makers, and playwrights come time and time again to the font of the inexplicable evil we all seem to sense, in some sense, exists. The evidence is all around us. Whether conceived as an external agent of supernatural origin, or as some inborn tendency for—at least some—committing atrocity, we do have to explain evil. Satan has been a convenient way of doing so for centuries. But, as Poole intimates, it might be a defense mechanism. Perhaps we need to take a closer look at ourselves. Perhaps trumping our exceptionalism in the face of a world in need is a symptom that requires a serious exorcism.

Hic Sunt Dracones

Even a visionary like Thomas Edison can’t know the directions in which an invention might be taken. The idea of the moving picture has immersed human beings in an alternate reality that is sometimes difficult to separate from the physical world we daily inhabit. As soon as movies were invented, producers and directors began to explore the depths of fear with the monster movie. What they were really exploring was the mystery of religion. I frequently write of the nexus of religion and the monstrous, and Timothy K. Beal wrote a book on that subject a decade ago in which I found another affirmation of my suspicion. Forthrightly titled Religion and its Monsters (Routledge, 2002), Beal’s playful yet serious exploration of the scary traces the origins of monsters to Genesis, and even earlier. Taking on Leviathan, the biblical sea serpent, Beal demonstrates the pre-biblical pedigree of this fierce monster and shows that, like most truly frightening entities, it began as a god. Indeed, what we call religion today grew up around fear of those forces beyond our control, a nature so harsh it could be none other than divine. The writers of the Bible clearly knew this story as Beal traces it from Genesis to Job, from Psalms to Jonah, from Leviathan to Devil.

In a shot/reverse shot formation, Beal takes us to modern-day monsters and shows their religious origins. Those things that frighten us on the big screen crawl there from their origins in the temples, shrines, and chapels of religions that don’t manage to subdue evil completely. The claims are made that the gods are stronger than the chaos that surrounds us, but they are still fighting nevertheless. From Dracula to Godzilla, the monsters have the gods on the run. And when the human protagonists finally get their monster pinned down, they discover that it is often God wearing a mask. Our monsters are gods gone bad. How else could they revive from the dead at the end of the reel? They never truly disappear. And if they do, there’s always more where they came from. The reason, Beal concludes, is that we are, in fact, the monsters.

According to the analysis of W. Scott Poole, Timothy Beal, like myself, falls into the “monster kid” generation. As I grew up, I quickly learned that to confess my interest in monsters was to risk the labels of juvenile, naïve, and immature. Grown ups are interested in money and sex and power. Only kids have any interest in dinosaurs, mythology, and monsters. An epiphany of sorts, however, seems to be unfolding. Scholars of religion in my generation are peeling back the rubber masks of our movie monsters and are discovering the face of the divine. Perhaps we are all adolescents at heart, fixated on the weird and bizarre because the paths to money, power, and temptations of the flesh are blocked to us. Or perhaps we are the Magellans charting a course for regions off the map. It is those regions, as Beal reminds us, that are illustrated with sea serpents and inscribed hic sunt dracones, “here be dragons.” Doubt it? Read your Bible and find out for yourself.

National Fear

Back in my full-time teaching days, the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting was an excuse to buy books. Not that we were flush with money, but the prices were so good (we’re talking academic books here) that they simply couldn’t be passed up. Those days are long gone. This year I limited myself to a single book: W. Scott Poole’s Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting. I was not disappointed. Poole gives us a smart study with considerable insight into American culture. Not only that, but it also proved an excellent source of self-understanding. I had never come across the phrase “monster kids” for those of us born in the blue light of the television when the Universal monster movies were released for television viewing in the 1960s and 70s. Poole classifies himself in that camp, and it is clear that we share this “guilty pleasure.”

Categorizing our monsters into types that fit various aspects of the American self-image, we find our national phobias reflected in our fictional fears. Throughout the book the uneasy sense of uncertainty towards sexuality, science, and death, like the revenants described, keep arising from the ground. Although Poole is a historian, it very soon becomes clear that one of the main driving forces behind both identifying and challenging these monsters is religion. It is a view Poole shares with Douglas Cowan and Stephen Asma and other analysts who take seriously the origins of our fears. Monsters creep out of the same mental space as gods. That which is not real is no less scary for its non-existence.

Particularly insightful was Poole’s analysis of the subversive nature of monsters. They challenge convention, forcing a cultural catharsis. The notable exception, Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, also has a religious rationale. Meyer, a conservative Mormon, effectively extracts the fangs of the vampire to make it a safe, if not Christian, monster. Monsters make establishment believers uncomfortable, for they remind us of the darkness that always follows the light. Humanity responds with efforts, religious and scientific, to banish the dark. But at the end of even the longest day, night will come. When it does, I would recommend curling up with Poole for an evening of cultural self-understanding. Followed by a bowl of popcorn and a movie from his filmography.