Writing 2023

I don’t put a great deal of stock in either round numbers or random passings of time, such as New Year’s Day.  Don’t get me wrong—I’m glad for the holiday—but time is like an ocean; who can say where it begins or ends?  Many people use this occasion to correct bad behaviors, but I was raised with enough of a Calvinist outlook that I tend to be self-correcting along the way.  I certainly corrected myself at several points in 2022 and still ended up spending a couple of its final days in the hospital with an ill family member.  The way I get through is by living in a world that’s largely fantasy.  I awake early (even on holidays) and spend the first few hours of the day writing and reading.  Without this I fear I might become a monster.  A self-correcting one, of course, but a monster nevertheless.

Looking ahead is too scary, so I read and watch horror instead.  If recent reading is correct, such activities are taking part in creating modern myths.  Who knows what 2023 might bring?  It’s safest to take things one day at a time.  I am hoping that my Wicker Man book will appear in this, the fiftieth anniversary of the film.  I also hope to get some more YouTube videos posted, as well as continuing this blog.  As last year unspooled I intentionally did not accept any more academic writing assignments.  The stress levels run too high for that kind of thing, and my CV’s not going to get me back into academia at any point soon.  Life’s too short, and it is better to spend it writing what I want to write.

Writing one’s future isn’t a bad idea, I suppose.  I’ve learned that plans almost never work out the way intended.  I’m not sure if that’s because growing up poor plants ideas too high to grasp in your head, or if life is inherently populated by unseen tricksters.  It’s best to try to keep them happy in any case.  And at least this year begins with a four-day work week.  We can be thankful for small mercies.  Even as it starts I’m casting my eye hypocritically toward the next Christmas break, for which I save up my scant vacation days, and which I anticipate all year long.  In the meanwhile there’s the lion’s share of 2023 to get through.  It feels daunting at this point, but with books and those I love, I hope to reach that point unscathed as I write my future.

Wicker or Wicked?

While I continued officially unemployed I keep to a strict regimen of not watching television except on the weekends. Since we don’t have cable or even a digital conversion box, my viewing is limited to grainy VHS tapes or DVDs. Many of them I’ve watched over and over. Last night I picked out one of perennial favorites, The Wicker Man (1973, of course!) for late-night viewing. Although classified as a horror film, the only terror comes at the very end in a scene that I always find difficult to watch. What keeps me coming back to this film is its unrelenting criticism of religious hypocrisy. (That and the longing evoked by the footage of a Scotland I left many years ago.)

Briefly told, a Highland police sergeant, Neil Howie, is lured to a fictional Summerisle in a mouse-and-cat game where he ends up the victim of a neo-pagan cult. The stunned Christian constable cannot believe the superstition evident on the island could still exist in modern Britannia, leading to one of the highlights of the film. Questioning Lord Summerisle, played by a striking Christopher Lee, Howie accuses him of paganism. “A heathen, conceivably,” Summerisle concedes in a tight shot, “but not, I hope, an unenlightened one.” Howie is shown growing increasingly rude and unsympathetic, forging a makeshift cross to lay over a Druidic burial. He threatens Lord Summerisle with being investigated by the authorities of the Christian nation under whose aegis he falls. The tensions between religions grow until the final scene.

The constant interplay between control and conviction raises again and again what the true nature of religion is. Summerisle reveals that the neo-paganism began as an expedient way to encourage the locals in growing new strains of crops. The images of palm trees in the Hebrides may seem unwarranted, but having strolled among them on the Isle of Arran nature itself belies the orthodoxies of convention. Does religion rule by force of law, depth of conviction, or pure expediency? The makers of the film were wise enough to leave that to the viewer to decide. No wonder that on many a bleary-eyed weekend night, ousted from my once stable career by the overtly religious, I choose to watch, yet again, The Wicker Man.

Horror and Head-colds

Religion is such a pervasive vehicle for movies, whether disguised or blatant, that pointing out such connections might seem too easy. Finding these connections in horror movies is child’s play since religion constantly probes our deepest fears. Trying to get over a lingering head-cold and suffering from lack of sleep, I pulled out Ken Russell’s 1988 film, Lair of the White Worm. The film itself is not unlike a Nyquil dream, disjointed with sudden shifts of setting and context. The immediate connections with The Cult of the Cobra and Stuart Gordon’s Dagon – based on H. P. Lovecraft – were unexpected bonuses.

Through all of the B- special effects pulses a strong religion subtext. The crucifixion vision juxtaposed with Roman soldiers raping nuns was a dead giveaway. The supporting female characters bearing the names of Eve and Mary could not be more obvious. And the snake wrapped around a tree – is this Sunday School 101? Lacking the sophistication of Robin Hardy’s Wicker Man, Lair of the White Worm nevertheless does strike some similar religious chords. When archaeologist Angus Flint discovers a Roman temple dedicated to Dionin under a convent in England’s north-country, a mosaic of the great white dragon wrapped around a cross tells the viewers all they need to know.

Like Marduk, Baal, Yahweh, Zeus, and St. George, Lord James D’Ampton becomes the dragon-slayer. Chaoskampf (god slays dragon motif) is perhaps the most ancient form of religion, alongside the world-wide flood and dying gods returning to life. These archetypical images populate many films to the point of saturation and Lair of the White Worm is a treasure trove of them. The plot successfully invents an ancient deity, Dionin, whose name and cult have clear connections with that of Dionysus, himself a dying and rising god. This religion is in conflict with Christianity, and the film is opaque enough not to reveal the winner. I need to ponder this some more. In the meantime, I think I need another dose of Nyquil.

Take it with a dose of Nyquil