Category Archives: Popular Culture

Posts that revolve around modern media and popular perceptions

Fighting with Monsters

GothicThe Lady and Her Monsters reminded me of Gothic. A friend of mine in seminary showed me this “shocking” movie by Ken Russell just after it was released on VHS (I always was fond of ancient history). To my young eyes this was a challenging film, but it rated higher in moodiness than scariness. Roseanne Montillo’s book brought the movie to mind because, it turns out, several of the incidents in the movie were based on fact. Perhaps I need to take a step back because Gothic never made it big, and many may not realize that the movie is about the legendary night Mary Godwin (soon to be Shelley) came up with the idea for Frankenstein. In an early nineteenth-century walk of fame, Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin, Lord Byron, and John Polidori decided to write scary stories, as a kind of contest. Only two ever made it to print, Polidori’s The Vampyre, which inspired Bram Stoker’s Dracula many decades later, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The movie, with Ken Russell’s famous flamboyance, traced an unlikely story of the friends conjuring a ghost and then banishing it once again before the stormy night is over.

Ken Russell had the reputation for being obsessed with the church and sexuality. These interests are certainly well represented in Gothic, where Percy Shelley, famously an atheist and believer in the supernatural, struggles to make sense of it all. Polidori, Byron’s personal physician, is presented as a Catholic who admits, when each has to confess his or her deepest fears, that God terrifies him. The friends (perhaps in an unwitting prelude to a television series by that name) explore sexuality and the supernatural through the long night. Waking nightmares meet them at every turn. They even have a skull of “the black monk,” a character attested in all sincerity, at one time, at the most gothic seminary in the Wisconsin woods.

“He who fights with monsters,” Friedrich Nietzsche opined, “might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.” That which we worship is that which we fear. Certainly the Christianity of the Middle Ages had as much of Hell as of Heaven in it. Bursting out into the light of rationalism, it seems, did not banish the darkness after all. We still have many questions left unanswered, and many intelligent people have begun to question whether any one paradigm fits all of the evidence. I suspect not. Human experience goes in multiple directions at once. We have ladies, we have monsters, we have scientists, we have God. And on rainy nights we have movies that make us see that we have combined them all into a tale often repeated but never fully understood.

Dark and Stormy Night

LadyAndHerMonstersI miss my monsters, especially when I stay away too long. I had eyeballed Roseanne Montillo’s The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley’s Masterpiece nearly a year ago in a busy Port Authority bookshop, and wanted to curl up with it right away. Well, work and the world intervened, but finally I found time for the beast. Although a member of the monster kid generation, as a child I never felt much kinship with Frankenstein’s creation. I think it is because there was so much human intention involved in his origins. Almost ungodly. Too godly. Vampires and werewolves, and even mummies, seemed to have come up on the wrong side of a curse and couldn’t be blamed for being what they were. Frankenstein’s monster had a willful, if neglectful, creator. A human being, and fully so. There was, it seemed, some kind of blasphemy at work here.

Montillo’s book, however, gives me pause to rethink this. I had never realized, foe example, that Shelley’s book unfolds over nine months, and that Mary Godwin Shelley had suffered as her own fate unfolded—or unraveled—after Percy Shelley’s death. Nor had I stopped to consider that in the lifetime of these young lovers scientists and poets were overlapping careers with philosophy holding them together. I also hadn’t realized that Percy Shelley also shared his beau’s enchantment with the fantastic. But Montillo gives us so much more, wandering through the seedy world of body-snatchers and scientists who experimented on the dead, often with an eye toward a secular resurrection.

Frankenstein’s monster has, of course, become an instantly recognizable fixture in our society. Indeed, it is almost the definition of monstrosity: the ultimate mischwesen while being technically only one species. A creature that crosses boundaries and is both dead and alive, a miracle and a curse, innocent and evil. Morillo places this creature in the context of a world where galvanism was thought to bring life and medical schools scrambled to find corpses to dissect and on which to experiment. A world where the Shelleys would visit Lord Byron and Polidori, literally on a stormy night, and give the world both Frankenstein and the prototype of Dracula. Where the three men of that night all died prematurely and tragically, survived by a struggling Mary who lived only to fifty-three and who gave the world one of its most memorable nightmares. Horror fiction was, and is, considered lowbrow entertainment, but there is something profound here. And we are richer, if more unsettled, for having it.

Dystopian Paradise

Dystopias resonate with me. As I ponder why, two factors seem to rise to the surface: dystopias are inevitably populist in orientation, and I was raised religious. Each of these factors requires some explanation, but so does the choice of addressing dystopian topics on a cheerful September day. In an article by Debbie Siegelbaum in the BBC News Magazine, Project Hieroglyph is featured. Project Hieroglyph, which involves some people I know, is an attempt to write a more optimistic future back into science fiction. To understand my reservations, I have to confess to having grown up as a nerdy science fiction reader. The stories from the 1950s and ’60s to which I had access (growing up poor, and buying books at Goodwill and second-hand shops) tended to be optimistic—people colonizing other planets, creating great labor-saving inventions, traveling time itself. In the meanwhile I slept in torn sheets in a ratty room and had to work to buy my own school clothes, inevitably cheap. For a few years our house didn’t even have a bathtub or shower. It wasn’t an easy existence, and I found solace in religion and science fiction, both of which promised a better future.

Today, forward-looking literature tends to be pretty bleak. With reason. Optimistic futures are the luxury of the elite. The average working person labors under a constant threat of unemployment and no jobs to replace the one you have. Hey, some of the people I see begging in Midtown are not dressed in the rags of the classic ne’er-do-well. Their signs asking for help are articulate and neatly written. The elite may look to a brighter future, but from street-level things appear a bit more challenging. There’s no question that politicians long ago lost touch with the commoner. They have no idea what life is like for most of us. Same is true of most university folk (cited in the article); unless they’ve been cast out, I suspect, they can conjure a pretty rosy future. With tenure.

That’s the populist angle. Now for the religious. The basic idea of Project Hieroglyph is as old as Buddhism, or perhaps even older than that. Salvation. Religions promulgate the idea that people require salvation. Otherwise it’s pretty difficult to get people up on a Sunday morning and convince them to drop their money in the plate. Look, however, at what has been happening to mainstream churches. So technocrats and other elites think technology, rather than the gods, will save us. Those devices of optimistic 1950’s and ’60’s sci fi have turned on us, and we have become slaves to our own technology. Gee, it’s awfully gloomy in here! Perhaps we need a brighter vision of the future where technology makes things better. It sounds like a return to the stories I read as a child. Still, I can’t help noticing all the closed churches I see, and how much the penmanship of the indigent has improved with the passing of time. If only I could decipher hieroglyphs my future might look shinier too.

Is this paradise or what?

Is this paradise or what?

Disco Duck

From the Roman Empire, Holy or otherwise, to the British Empire upon which the sun once never set, human endeavors are inevitably temporary. We like to think we’re making lasting contributions. Not so long ago Phil Robertson could make claims on vast amounts of media attention for his homiletical, gun-toting brand of family values. Despite not being a television watcher, even I was drawn into the drama as Happy! Happy! Happy! became a bestseller. Perhaps because my pursuit of religion has never earned me three such exclamation points, I read the book to find the secret of success. It is a combination of unquestioning belief and a willingness to blow the heads off of ducks in flight. Not that I would know about such things. The Dynasty made its way into Time magazine and other media outlets as the most interesting thing reality television, which is anything but, could throw at us.

Then Phil made a statement that set many viewers off. Mistaking intolerance for true religion—rather a constant in the algebra of faith—Robertson expressed his views on homosexuality and the ratings began to slip. Last year as I walked into a department store, I found Duck Dynasty bobble-head dolls and even fake Dynasty beards for those with no gumption to grow their own. Golf balls and beer glasses and all sorts of merchandise. Yes, you could partake of the good life without even cocking or pumping your shotgun. Other members of the family wrote books. (I have friends who produce quality literature who can’t find publishers.) We love the self-made genius of a simple guy and his make-believe world. Happy. Happy. Happy.

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It has been some time since I’ve seen Duck Dynasty mentioned in the media. I wandered into the same department store this year to find stacks of Dynasty merchandise drastically reduced. You could buy Phil Robertson’s memoirs for even less than Amazon prices. In bulk, if you desired. My historically inclined mind turned to the great empires of antiquity. Did Alexander, I wonder, really know what he wanted? What about when you finally reach the ocean? What is off on the other side? Once you’re out of sight of land, you’ve lost your control back home. Next thing you know, Diadochi have fractured everything. The gods of empire, it seems, don’t have it all together after all. Happy? Happy? Happy?

Retro Progress

LittleOrleyIn these days of high technology, remembering childhood might be seen as cowardly nostalgia. When driving my daughter back to college, however, sometimes I need a little nostalgia. So it was that we passed a pleasant couple of hours listening to Little Orley stories told by Uncle Lumpy. Having read ancient history for years, I don’t mind saying that I was a devoted fan of Captain Kangaroo as a child, and Mr. Green Jeans was one of the reasons. Before the Captain, Green Jeans (Hugh Brannum) had recorded a set of radio stories about Little Orley, beginning in 1946. (Lest readers get too driven by nostalgia, I wasn’t around for the original broadcasts.) In the small town of Franklin, Pennsylvania, across the state from where Brannum died, our library had a record of some of the episodes from his radio show. As a child I listened to these tales so much that I still have parts of them memorized to the word. The web brought Little Orley back to me, and now anyone can purchase the tales that I had gone for decades without hearing. Driving through eastern Pennsylvania on an emotionally laden journey, Uncle Lumpy seemed the perfect fare.

A few facets of the program struck me anew. Little Orley stories, for those unfortunate enough never to have heard them, are tall tales about a farm boy that involve all manner of hypostatized natural phenomena. Animals, plants, the moon, clouds, and even pancakes talk and act like humans. Or gods. Orley encounters these all with no hint of surprise, and yet goes to church on Sunday and Wednesday night for prayer meeting. The God in these stories is anything but a jealous deity, sharing the stage with a king of the oceans, lakes and seas that can transform a person to a fish, or with mysterious voices that can make a boy a worm and a worm a boy. Leprechauns gambol through the woods, and snowmen amble about trying to help with farm chores. Stories like these in the Bible are now considered factual, right Balaam? In the 1940s they were standard fantasy for children.

Now we’ve come to an era of biblical literalism that fears and despises challenges to the single God of sacred writ. In Little Orley, however, a message of tolerance (with some notably politically incorrect caricatures) predominates. Orley is time and again in situations where those who are different should be, and inevitably are, treated as equals. Even God gets some help from talking bats who ring the bell to bring the faithful to church when the sexton breaks the bell-rope. Change, I know, is inevitable. As these miles disappear behind me, I can feel it keeping pace, eventually to eclipse me. Progress is good, but sometimes the way ahead is best found by looking back in wonder.

Watchers and (Un)holy Ones

HiddenOnes Angels, demons, djinn, watchers, giants, and a healthy dose of fantasy pervade Nancy Madore’s novel, The Hidden Ones. In this present world where, I’m told, the supernatural is irrelevant, it is pleasant to come across a work of fiction that delves so deeply into the pagan roots of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Monotheism does have its own skeletons in its capacious closets. Madore is a novelist who insists on prying open those doors long shut, and spinning a tale that involves first responders, shady military officers, and a band of rather hapless archaeologists. And Lilith. Throughout the story Madore comes up with clever etiologies for stories that will appear in canonical form much later, and at one point I couldn’t help wondering if the screen writers of Noah had read her book. Well, actually, The Hidden Ones is the first of a trilogy, Legacy of the Watchers. I’m sure the next two books will contain many surprises as well.

The Hidden Ones put me in mind of Michael Heiser’s novel, The Facade. Both take on the mythology of the Nephilim, the fallen ones about which the Bible tells us enough only to leave us hungry. The early chapters of Genesis are like that. There’s so much going on that those of us reading it many centuries after it was written are left wondering what the full story was. The writers of the Bible had no compunction to disbelieve in monsters and beings beyond the human ken. Nor does the Bible attempt to systematize them in any sustained way. These creatures just are. As the old saying goes, however, fiction has to make sense—those who write with gods and angels have to make them fit into a system.

No doubt, the uncanny occasionally intrudes upon our rational world. The Hidden Ones presents one such intrusion that, ironically, takes some of the fact of the Bible while leaving the theology suspect. We know that even before the Hebrew Bible was complete ancient scribes were attempting similar things. The book Jubilees, for example, tries to fill in some of the unanswered questions of Genesis, including the watchers and details of the flood. Jubilees, however, never made it into the Bible thus depriving canonical status to the backstory that demonstrates how religion often chooses for ambiguity, leaving it to theologians to bring it all into a system. And novelists. And among those novels that tread where even J, E, P, and D quail, is The Hidden Ones.

A Run-By Fruiting

Photo credit: Eva Rinaldi, Wikimedia Common

Photo credit: Eva Rinaldi, Wikimedia Common

I’ve never been enticed by the cult of celebrity. Becoming famous is frequently a matter of being in the right place at the right time to get noticed. Interviews with stars inevitably come across as lacking in substance. Some of the funniest people I’ve known have worked in camera shops, administrative offices, and IT departments. Still, the suicide of Robin Williams a week ago has impacted a wide swath of the nation. We hate to see a funny man die. It is such a truism as to be trite that those who are clowns often host inner demons. Laughter, Reader’s Digest proclaims monthly, is the best medicine. Who better to heal than those who know what it’s like to have been wounded? Yet we want the funny to keep on making us laugh until we move on to the next diversion.

For this past week I’ve been pondering how one man’s tragic death has jolted a nation into a reflective moment of silence. I can’t say I was Robin Williams’ biggest fan, but I’d seen a number of his movies, and I was devoted to Mork and Mindy growing up (aliens have a way of getting prime-time exposure that has never really been explained). I thought he was good at what he did. He was famous and had money, but it wasn’t enough to buy off the demons. Suicides hit me hard since I’ve known a few and have struggled with depression myself. There are times, truth be told, when no direction is up. It is at those times, however, that others tend to ignore you, lest you bring them down. People like to laugh.

There is something profoundly religious about the idea of a wounded healer. Anthropologists as well as theologians have noticed it. They need have only looked as far as the Bible to find examples. Yet the Christian tradition treats suicide as a great sin against God and the plan is that we all live to die either at the hands of nature or of someone else, so the guilt doesn’t cling to us. Death always leads to a remorse that entails such guilt. And yet it is inevitable. As a nation we are used to seeing comedians overdose or live reckless lives that end tragically. Deliberate action, however, feels the most horrendous of all. We’ll ask “why?” for a while, and we’ll make tributes and tearful speeches. And meanwhile some of the funniest people we can claim will be sweeping our floors or asking “would you like fries with that?”