Posts Tagged ‘sex’

Brett Halliday wrote a series of popuar mystery novels back in the 1950s and 60s featuring detective Mike Shayne. Shayne is a tough, sexy redhead, and his books are full of naked women and murder. Of course there were a few films. Of course there was a television series. Of course hardly anyone remembers him now. Halliday was a pseudonym, and when he got good and sick of writing Shayne novels, he retired and the publisher got a few other people to carry on the franchise. Guilty as Hell is post-retirement.

I was in the mood for a little mystery, cheap and easy. That’s exactly what this is. I know that I often go for the enduring and timeless, but the only reason this one has survived fifty years is that they used to print on higher-quality paper. But I enjoyed it, and I’m planning to look for more.

Mike Shayne is a private eye, the classic hard-boiled detective. The only thing that distinguishes him from any of the others is that after a gang beats him up, he has to wear a cast on his broken arm. The orthopedist implants brass knuckles and a scalpel blade in the cast so that Shayne can keep fighting. It seems like overkill, as ridiculous as anything out of Army of Darkness or that movie with the cyborg with the glowing blue cock that had to be started with a pullcord like a lawnmower or a chainsaw. People who feel guilty find him intimidating. Some women find him attractive, but he resists the naked teenager and finds her some clothes.

Candida Morse is the real antagonist, even though she’s not the killer. Her official job is secretary to the president of a corporate recruiting agency, but she has all the brains and does all the work. Many of the executives funnel secrets back to her, so she’s really running a city-wide ring of corporate spies. Candida knows that in Miami in the 1960s, women don’t have a lot of power, directly. But if a girl is beautiful and intelligent, she can make a man do whatever she likes, so her indirect power is only limited by her ambition. She also knows that if a woman isn’t that intelligent or ambitious, she can still be useful. Candida also employs a number of girls who get secrets by sleeping with the right men. I suppose this makes them sex workers, but they’re not the streetwalking type. These ladies are by appointment only.

So, someone gets killed in a ‘hunting accident’ and the typical hard-boiled tropes ensue. Candida keeps trying to trap Shayne one way or another, but he slips out of all the traps and finds the real killer. He takes a page out of the hippies’ book – he saw them having lock-ins, trust-building through forced physical proximity, kind of like churches have now only with lots of marijuana and sex. He forces all the suspects to stay in and talk, nobody sleeping, all night until the right someone confesses.

Well, well, Mr Bill of Rights in person, the guy who thinks queers and floozies are covered by the United States Constitution.

Wait, what? This minor character unexpectedly drags the book into contemporary issues. There’s a vice cop with a rather small part, mainly because Shayne is so good at dodging him. Like many Americans, he believes that people who are suspected of crimes lose their rights. This is why we have the Bill of Rights – to protect citizens from a legal system that jumps to conclusions and is quick to be cruel and unusual.

Ever since I saw you tonight, I’ve been thinking about some of those uncalled-for remarks of yours about frame-ups. Somebody’s a hooker, or a flagrant fag. Everybody knows it. They’re guilty as hell, and we can’t bring them in unless we catch them in the act.

It really bothers him that sex workers and homosexuals exist in the world without being in jail. I understand that it’s his job, and the work we do shapes our thinking, but really. What harm are these people doing to society? You don’t have to be gay or paid to pass along STDs, and the fact that they are available doesn’t force innocent straight men away from their wives or girlfriends. I’ve never understood why homosexual activity was a crime punishable by law – how is it anyone else’s business? I first considered the sex worker industry when I was in college, and I stand by the decisions I made then: the women are victims of an economic and education system that leaves them with few options for independent living, and social problems often leave women with little education, no income, and no safety at home. Don’t imprison the women; imprison the men who objectify them and limit their access to the resources they need to be independent and successful.

It was the vice-squad detective named Vince Camilli. He was tieless, but he wore a jacket over his gun, which he used far too often. He had a handsome dark face, a loose mouth. He was the department’s top scorer in both homosexual and prostitution arrests, and Shayne was sure that the total included many entrapment cases using fabricated evidence, as well as shakedowns that had failed to pay off.

Don’t be like Camilli, whose job is to convince people to have sex with him and then arrest them for it. He also tries to extort money in exchange for their freedom. He’s a bad guy, and he kind of symbolizes the hatred of average citizens for the people who are marginalized by the social systems the average citizen benefits from.

Just to be clear, there are no out-and-proud homosexuals in this book. They’re only brought up to show how rotten Camilli is.

Another minor point is the carphone. Were this book not actually written in 1967, I would have screamed about anachronistic technology. However, people were putting telephones in automobiles in the 1940s, so the fact that a private detective has one in the 60s actually makes sense. You don’t see them anymore because they can’t be tracked by the 911 service. In the United States, 911 is the number for emergency services. They need to be able to position phones so that if there is an accident and the person calling can’t speak or doesn’t know where they are, they can still get help. If you dial 911 and set the phone on the floor and don’t speak into it, the police will come directly to your home and assess the emergency, whether it’s an intruder or a health crisis. They can globally position cell phones, but not carphones. Because they can’t find where you are, you don’t get to have one.

So. Sexism. Racism. Homophobia. Murder. Drugs. Statutory rape. It might seem that the only logical response to this type of a world is to burn it all down. I don’t really fault Candida for her crimes; they seem the only reasonable way for a woman to get ahead. Things are different now, and I’m glad for that. Not necessarily better, but different. This was an entertaining little read, full of things that offend me now but were fairly normal at the time. Halliday’s writing isn’t especially beautiful, but it’s clear and communicates the story well, which is what’s required in this genre.

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I haven’t felt much like writing lately. I have a lot of anxiety and anger in my personal life right now, and I am the sort of person who enlarges his mental health symptoms instead of trying to cure them. Delaying writing about books means that it’s hard for me to recapture the feelings I had when reading, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I seem distanced from my subject matter this summer.

It is a wild adventure we are on. Here, as we are rushing along through the darkness, with the cold from the river seeming to rise up and strike us, with all the mysterious voices of the night around us, it all comes home. We seem to be drifting into unknown places and unknown ways; into a whole world of dark and dreadful things.

Please don’t judge the book by the films, or the appearance of the book’s characters in television. I haven’t seen all the adaptations, but I watched Bela Lugosi’s and Gary Oldman’s performances, and while I applaud the actors, I want to strangle the writers. A love story between Mina and Dracula? It’s stupid. Eliminating Lucy’s suitors? It’s weird. What’s wrong with Stoker’s story that no one seems capable of just showing it the way he told it?

Dracula is the most violently pro-Catholic book I’ve ever read. In most Gothic texts Catholics are the enemy, what with Lewis’s monk selling his soul to the devil, and Radcliffe’s Italians being sent to the Inquisition, and Melmoth appearing in the Spanish Inquisition. Think about how racist the British were toward the Irish and the Italians – Roman Catholicism was either feared or ridiculed (I’m thinking about Villette, where the romantic lead tries to convert the protagonist and she’s just not tempted). Dracula is an ancient evil, so he has to be defeated by an equally ancient religion, though considering European history neither the man nor the church is really that ancient. Regardless, crucifixes force him away, as does the host. The Catholic Church places a lot of emphasis on the little crackers they use in Mass, because they believe it magically becomes the literal body of Jesus when it’s been prayed over. Ten years ago (last time I checked), they refused to produce a gluten-free version of the communion wafer because apparently only wheat can transubstantiate. Catholics with coeliac disease either have to poison themselves on a regular basis or self-excommunicate. Prof van Helsing uses the wafers to control Dracula and poison the ground against him.

Let’s talk for a minute about the dirt. A lot of people say that a vampire has to rest in the dirt of his homeland, or at least he has to go underground. That’s not the issue for Stoker. Dracula has to rest in consecrated ground, cemetery dirt. But if you’re going to a Protestant country, how easy is it to find a Catholic cemetery? Remember, for religions based on a priesthood that has to be conferred from one man to another like Catholics and Mormons, Protestant ceremonies don’t count. It’s only holy if one of their own does it. So when Dracula comes to England, he ships thirty boxes of proper Catholic cemetery dirt so that he can be sure of finding a resting place. Van Helsing literally poisons his dirt by putting communion wafers in the boxes, turning something holy into something repellent. As a vampire, Dracula is all topsy-turvy with the good/evil thing.

Most of Dracula’s powers are as they are in other media: turning into a bat or wolf or mist, controlling animals and mental health patients, hypnotism. But he has no trouble walking around during the day; he doesn’t get all sparkly or burst into flames or anything. He is weaker during the day and so can’t change his shape, but that’s the only effect. When Dracula is away from blood, he ages, sometimes rather quickly. Drinking blood returns his youth, even making his hair darker. The thing that always confuses me about vampires in film, though, is the way they equate age with power. Surviving several hundred years could make someone more wily, better at living through whatever trials they face, but being really old doesn’t make a person physically stronger. The ability to punch people really hard isn’t the only or most important type of power, and we never see vampires in films going to the gym to bulk up. But Dracula didn’t get smarter with age. Van Helsing describes him as having a child-brain, still experimenting with his limitations after four hundred years. It might be better to describe vampires as animals with speech – Dracula is outsmarted by a group of well-meaning idiots.

And why do I call them idiots? Because of the racism and misogyny.

Ah, that wonderful Madam Mina! She has a man’s brain – a brain that a man should have were he much gifted – and a woman’s heart. The good God fashioned her for a purpose, believe me, when He made that so good combination. Friend John, up to now fortune has made that woman of help to us; after to-night she must not have to do with this so terrible affair. It is not good that she run a risk so great.

Wilhelmina Harker is amazing. She doesn’t push hard against the restrictions placed on women in her time, but works within those limits to find fulfillment and happiness. Women can’t get a job? Okay. She finds a husband with similar interests and determines to ‘help’ him with his work. She teaches herself shorthand to help him better. Just to make that clear: She learns a second language so that she can interview her husband’s clients. She may not be a lawyer in name, but I have no doubt that she’ll have a better grasp of English Law than he does, given the time to study on her own. The men’s investigation moves forward when she’s a part of it; they suffer setbacks when they leave her out. Even though women of her social standing did not travel unattended, when her Jonathan gets sick she goes to Budapest alone to take care of him. She has an independence and resolve that society didn’t claim to value in women, though the authors of the time certainly did. Her intelligence and charisma would have ensured success in any endeavor she chose, and she chose to be a wife, probably the best-paid and most secure profession for a woman in the 1890s.

Lucy Westenra is Mina’s sleepwalking best friend. She’s more into the material, boy-chasing side of life that misogynists tend to claim is natural for a teenage girl. She gets three marriage proposals in one day, and her three suitors seem to follow the Mind-Body-Soul paradigm. They’re all three friends and have gone hunting in the Americas together. Dr Seward is the mind; he runs a mental hospital, though we’d see it more as an asylum, or torture chamber for the mentally ill. Or crazy-people jail. He and Mina are probably the most prolific narrators. Quincy Morris is the body; he’s from Texas and runs the hunting expeditions. Arthur Holmwood is the soul; he’s a gentleman of no settled profession. Of course Lucy chooses the Soul Suitor. And really, why shouldn’t she love the richest man? After his father dies, he becomes Lord Godalming. Arthur and Quincy spend a lot of time together offscreen, so it’s fun to imagine that body and soul are more into each other than they are into her, but there’s no real textual evidence for that. Lucy’s suitors are paralleled by Dracula’s three brides, the female vampires who fail to seduce Jonathan (though they do get to Keanu Reeves).

Lucy dies because of male stupidity. Seward can’t figure out why she’s sick, so he brings van Helsing over from Amsterdam. Van Helsing immediately recognizes the symptoms of blood loss and arranges for multiple transfusions, but even though he knows there’s a vampire at work he won’t tell anyone. He fills Lucy’s room with garlic and crosses and tries to keep her room closed at night, but he doesn’t tell anyone why, so her mother clears all that shit out and keeps the window open. If he had just talked to people about what was going on, she could have been saved. Instead, on the night her wedding was planned, she comes to her not-yet-husband as a vampire and he stakes her. The staking releases her soul from torment and she becomes good again, just before they cut her head off and stuff the mouth with garlic. Arthur makes a comparison between the blood transfusion and sex, trying to comfort himself that at least he had that satisfaction, but he doesn’t know that she got blood from nearly every male character in the book, making her probably the most visibly promiscuous girl in Victorian literature.

Isolation is Dracula’s greatest weapon. Getting people alone gives him his best opportunity to prey on them. The female isolation in this book is just baffling. People were talking about “The Surplus Woman Problem,” because Englishmen were sent all over the world to fight in wars and extort resources from the colonies while women were expected to just stay at home. This led to an extreme gender imbalance on the English homefront, and explains why Victorian novels are full of older women who never married. They were considered surplus, extra, unnecessary and unwanted, old maids. There’s a convent in Budapest where the nuns nurse Jonathan and facilitate his marriage to Mina, there are those three vampire women who never leave Transylvania, but there are really only three female characters in the book, and Lucy’s mother is very minor. So, for about half the book, Mina is the only real female character, surrounded by seven men. It’s just not realistic.

Then again, that does leave us plenty of time to explore male homosocial bonding.

I comforted him as well as I could. In such cases men do not need much expression. A grip of the hand, the tightening of an arm over the shoulder, a sob in unison, are expressions of sympathy dear to a man’s heart.

I read a theory once that Dracula is about internalized homophobia, a representation of Stoker’s fear that he might be gay. It’s an interesting theory, but I don’t see a lot of evidence for it. Vampiric activity is highly sexualized in a we-can’t-talk-about-sex kind of way, which makes it disturbing that female vampires seem to prefer children even though they can hypnotize men and enforce their cooperation. Among adults, vampires bite people of the opposite sex; Dracula is a rapist, but he’s not a gay rapist. He plans to leave Jonathan Harker to the ladies, but he doesn’t bite the man himself. The staking is also highly sexual (curing a woman’s rape trauma by fucking her properly?), with Arthur doing Lucy and van Helsing doing all three of Dracula’s brides. When it comes to killing Dracula, Jonathan cuts his head off without staking him to the ground first; it denies him spiritual peace by not returning his soul, and it reasserts Jonathan’s heterosexuality because men don’t penetrate other men in this book.

Dracula is exciting and modern (for its time), oddly feminist if you look at it from that angle, and I love an epistolary novel with several different perspectives. This isn’t the first vampire story, but it is the most famous and influential. I strongly recommend it for anyone who likes Gothic novels or who feels vindicated when a Dutch Catholic teaches English Protestants how to destroy Slavic monsters. Can’t trust eastern European immigrants, apparently. So racist.

After reading a few literary novels and the memoir, I have to admit that I was ready for some brain candy, and the skeleton hand clawing the gravestone on the cover promised that this would be just the ticket. And of course, the tagline

To possess the amulet is to be possessed by evil beyond imagining

meant that this book was going to be way too lurid to be thought-intensive. And man, were my preconceived notions justified. I know that old adage about judging a book by its cover, but in this modern world of marketing and maximizing customer experiences, I feel like book covers can be pretty reliable.

I’m not sure if they ever use the word, but this is a book about a zombie attack in a small village in the UK. There are some aspects of this town that are strange to start with – both the head librarian and the police inspector are far too young to occupy such roles of authority. Maybe that wasn’t such a big deal in the 1980s, but these days we don’t expect a twenty-two-year-old man and a twenty-one-year-old woman to do that sort of job. We value age and maturity, which these two lack. They’re a married couple, so I suppose that most readers would rather read a sex scene between two people young enough to have strong metabolisms. I mean, I’m in my late thirties and my new guy is nine years older, but the sexual experience is just as intense for me now as it was back in my newlywed days. In writing, we describe sex as the characters perceive it, so they don’t have to be porn stars like Neville’s protagonist and his wife, the Lamberts.

You know, it’s a trope of horror stories that people who have sex end up dead, and that’s seen as proof that the writers/directors/producers need to punish the beautiful fuckers, but this book made me doubt that interpretation. Yes, the teenagers who engage in premarital intercourse get zombified immediately, but the married couple are fairly sex-positive and have quite a few graphic scenes without getting killed. You could argue that they survive because they’re married, but I think there are two strains converging: (1) nearly everyone dies in these stories, so whether a person has had sex on camera or not isn’t really the best way to differentiate, and (2) guys like sex just as much as women do, but most of your sexually graphic material is contained in romance novels and directed at women. A book like this gives men a chance to read some juicy bits in a story where they can recognize themselves as the obvious hero, where the emotions are simple and not harped on about.

So, the action starts with a grave digger finding a magic amulet on a corpse buried outside the cemetery. I think they were preparing the ground for consecration or some such. The amulet turns him into our Zombie Zero, the origin of the plague. From there, things progress as they do in zombie pictures – people disappear while the undead take over the streets at night. The amulet provides the opportunity for some anti-occultism, because this was the ‘80s. I think there’s some social commentary going on here as well; the prevailing narrative seems to be that the British lower classes are only waiting for a tiny spark to turn on each other in heartless violence, and that it’s necessary to preserve the aristocracy to protect them from themselves. While the police inspector and his wife have personalities, most of the characters are fairly unimportant and flimsy. This is the story of an entire community, so the individual faces aren’t often significant. Zombie stories are, after all, about losing a sense of individual identity, and it doesn’t seem to make much difference whether a person is alive or undead, they’re all part of the mass.

I’m an American, but I consume a lot of British media, so English ways don’t always seem foreign to me. However. I had forgotten that the British police don’t carry guns on a regular basis. I know that there’s the stereotype of the gun-crazy American, and I don’t usually fit that, but during a zombie outbreak you need some guns because cricket bats just don’t have enough range to keep you safe. So when Simon Pegg and Nick Frost run to the Winchester in Shaun of the Dead, it’s because the rifle over the bar is the only gun they’re aware of in town. Lambert and his officers have to go to Nottingham to get some guns, and then they have to train with them because none of them are any good at shooting. As an American, this seems appalling. Our law enforcement officials are prepared for zombie outbreaks at all times. Or, you know, outbreaks of normal peaceful living by people of color.

The gun thing doesn’t seem like a big deal in the long run, because most of the zombies are killed when Lambert burns down the cinema. George Romero’s zombies congregated in a shopping mall because conspicuous consumption was the cultural attitude he was protesting; I guess Neville feels that the English are obsessed with American media (sorry, we make more movies than you do) and thus losing their individuality.

The ending sort of displays some of the plotting issues Neville had with the novel as a whole. We spend most of the book thinking of Zombie Zero as the principal antagonist, and he does lead the zombie recruitment brigade, but Lambert shoots him as part of a crowd of zombies. There’s no big emotional death match. But then there’s Mathias, the medieval wizard who created the magic amulet. A minor zombie escapes and places the amulet around the dead wizard’s neck, resurrecting him for a big one-on-one battle in an ancient church. But the thing is, Mathias only appears here in the final battle. Debbie Lambert, the porn star head librarian, spends a good part of the book translating a Latin text about him, which shows the problem of fighting zombies before the internet, but we get so few details about him that it’s hard to generate the kind of feelings that we want in a final battle. Tom Lambert is supposed to be redeeming himself – he was driving drunk and wrecked his car, killing his brother in the process – but fictional emotional catharsis follows the same law as homeopathy: like cures like. Defeating Mathias and saving the town isn’t similar enough to the car accident to make it feel like it should cancel the preceding guilt. The bait-and-switch takes place at the wrong moment – it would have been better if Mathias had arisen at the beginning of Act III instead of at the end. And, the Lamberts aren’t smart enough to destroy the amulet, so the epilogue implies that the whole story will begin again years later. He’s such an idiot he can’t even save the town right, guns or not.

Amazon doesn’t have any other titles for this author, so it may be a pseudonym, or the contemporary reviewers may have been unwarrantedly harsh and crushed his career. Either way it’s unfortunate, because it’s really not a bad little book. It was precisely what I wanted when I picked it up, and while I am planning to give it away at my earliest convenience, I don’t think of it as a waste. We need pleasant little interludes, a break from the heavily literary diet.

 

The Glass-House Murder (T. Neilson)

Posted: March 28, 2018 in fiction
Tags: , , ,

When I finished Berdyaev over the weekend, I really wanted a novel I could devour quickly, preferably in one day, a book that wouldn’t tax my mind too much. This book was precisely what I needed. A quick little gay-themed mystery, set sometime vaguely in the late 1920s or early 1930s.

Our protagonist is Lord Hal, a younger son of the aristocracy who spends his time in London as a promiscuous homosexual and part-time amateur detective. The story-to-sex ratio is such that this isn’t erotica, so during his time in the country he’s less active than it is implied he is in the city. He doesn’t really have any quirks that would make him memorable; it’s like being gay is his gimmick. His servant Beagle is perfectly correct in all possible ways. He likes to read Wodehouse in his spare time. Beagle is not sleeping with Hal, but he does create opportunities.

Hal’s parents are a little more symbolic than present, the aged lord and his mystery-novel-reading wife. Hal and his mother share books, but he seems not to have anything in common with his father, who wants to see him well married. Hal’s sister Vivian is also a homosexual, but she conducts her affairs in Bath. She’s most notable for her absence. The murder victim is a poor relation who lives with the family as Vivian’s companion, in more than one sense, but with Vivian running up to Bath all the time they don’t see each other as often as that title would suggest. Hal and Vivian have an older brother who is stiffly conventional and whom Hal successfully avoids for the duration of the mystery.

The son of a local clergyman is on the household staff, and he and Hal have some history. He also has a girl in the town, so while the two men do reconnect, there’s no happy ending to be expected. An injured soldier and his sister recently moved into a neighboring house, and Hal spends more narrative time with them than with his own family. Charles is badly burned over a large portion of his body, and the pain keeps him in a bad mood. Hal penetrates the shield of pain and bad manners, but the two do not hook up. Several people rumor that Hal is after the sister, but of course they’re just friends. He talks the mystery over with them in rather more detail than I think is wise. Detectives should be discreet, and promiscuous gentlemen of the homosexual persuasion would have been well schooled in discretion.

The police inspector William Sayers seems pretty conventional at first, so I imagined him as having a stern demeanor and a big fluffy mustache starting to go grey, but then it’s revealed that he and Hal were at university together, so I had to refigure the ages. Sayers has worked his way through the ranks of the police service, which usually takes more years than most men use being promiscuous in London. People who can get sex whenever they want it seem to get bored with it after a while (I’m going off what I’ve been told – I’ve not been so fortunate in that area), so the combination of the two men’s stories makes it difficult for me to gauge just how old they are. They met at a gay orgy and didn’t seem to interact afterward, so it seems unreasonable to me that Will is angry at Hal for not recognizing him immediately. Again, I’m imagining him to have grown a big fluffy mustache since uni (completely unauthorized by the author), so that might explain it.

Here’s the story (all spoiled): Caroline is probably what we’d today consider a transman (it’s hard to project contemporary labels into the past) – s/he feels more comfortable dressed in men’s clothing, and goes about town in a suit pretending to be a schoolteacher from a neighboring town. There’s a brief courtship of a local widow, until the beloved figures out the whole gender-bending thing and kills him/her. We then sift through layers of secrets and confusion because the storyline is unthinkable in that time.

There are a few graphic gay sex scenes, but of the type that makes me think that the author is a woman. The lovers use only one position, and the movements are either poorly described or anatomically impossible. If your characters are doing it doggy-style and you want to stifle their cum-screams by sealing their lips together, your bottom has to be able to turn his head all the way around like The Exorcist Girl. Yes, we can kiss in that position, but out of the corner of the mouth, not with that kind of lip-lock. Or, your lovers shifted position and you didn’t tell us.

Speaking of poor editing, the proofreading is fairly awful. It’s clear that several sentences were revised, but revised poorly, so that traces of the original are still present, like using ‘a children’ – in one version you used a child, but then you wanted to make the child plural and didn’t delete the article. This seems to be a pervasive problem with small, LGBT-themed presses. It reminds me of all the awful Christian music and movies out there – making art for a minority group does guarantee you an audience, but that’s no excuse for doing poor work. It makes me want to write a letter to the press demanding a job as an editor.

It may seem odd that I assumed the author to be a woman, but it is an odd fact that most gay male romances are written by heterosexual women for heterosexual women. Gay men tend to both write and read either super-graphic erotica or self-consciously literary fiction. Genre fic with a gay romance subplot is a female thing. I can’t explain to you why. I guess it’s like all those men watching supposedly lesbian porn (I say supposedly because it’s not targeted at lesbians), but I don’t understand that either. Why watch or read sex between two (or more) people when there is no place for you in the scenario? Where is the enjoyment in that? The author has gone on to write four or five more gay romances, dropping the period mystery thing and going for contemporary society. If she’s writing more straightforward romances, though, I hope her sex scenes have gotten better.

As I said earlier, this book was precisely what I was looking for – short, untaxing, disposable. The details are vague enough to imply inconsistency, but I didn’t care enough to read closely to determine how consistent the author was being. There’s very little memorable about this book, so I’m glad it didn’t become a series. It’s like the piece of peppermint candy you get at a restaurant after your meal – sweet, but insubstantial, best not examined too closely.

The people marketing this book claim that it completes a trilogy begun by The Rainbow and Women in Love, which is of course complete bollocks. The previous two are joined by having the same major characters, and there isn’t even a hint of Brangwens in this book. If we’re talking about theme instead of character, well, doesn’t Lawrence work through issues of love, marriage, sex, and freedom in all his novels? If it were theme, what would separate these three from the rest of the oeuvre?

Aaron is a Midlands coalminer, and on the surface things seem all right – wife, children, tradition, etc. But at Christmas his daughter breaks a glass ball that he had been putting on trees since he was a kid, and without this symbol of unbroken tradition he goes completely off the rails. He runs out to buy candles for the tree and maybe have a pint, but he ends up sleeping with one of the gentry instead of going home that night. From there, he goes deeper and deeper into the Bohemian world, first to London and then to Italy, because there’s a certain inevitable attraction between Lawrence characters and Italy.

The title references the Biblical story of Aaron, Moses’s brother. Aaron used a staff to perform Moses’s magic tricks, including the one where the staff buds and grows flowers like a tree without being rooted in earth. Our Aaron has a flute, and while it’s not magical, it is often the source of Aaron’s power. His friend Lilly makes the comparison explicit and wonders what flowers will grow from the flute – the answer seems to be that with musical talent and a handsome face all sorts of doors are open to one, no matter what his background. His rootlessness begins with sleeping with a man (the first time?), and he has several other opportunities of the same type. This being Lawrence, there’s nothing graphic or explicit about same-sex lovers, but he creates the opportunity for it, and there are some men in his book that seem like gay couples, even though we didn’t talk about that sort of thing in 1922. Aaron has a major emotional crisis the first time he sleeps with a woman – he had had affairs before he left his wife, so I guess he only had to get away from her to sleep with men. It’s the going back and forth that he has a hard time with at first, like bisexuality is harder to swallow than being at either end of the Kinsey scale. By the time he gets to Italy, though, he’s past that. So yes, I suppose you could also argue that Aaron’s rod is his cock because this book is more about what he does with that than what he does with his flute, and we are revving up to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, published a few years later.

In his own powerful but subconscious fashion Aaron realised this. He was a musician. And hence even his deepest ideas were not word-ideas, his very thoughts were not composed of words and ideal concepts. They too, his thoughts and his ideas, were dark and invisible, as electric vibrations are invisible no matter how many words they may purport. If I, as a word-user, must translate his deep conscious vibrations into finite words, that is my own business. I do but make a translation of the man. He would speak in music. I speak with words.

The inaudible music of his conscious soul conveyed his meaning in him quite as clearly as I convey it in words: probably much more clearly. But in his own mode only: and it was in his own mode only he realised what I must put into words. These words are my own affair. His mind was music.

Don’t grumble at me then, gentle reader, and swear at me that this damned fellow wasn’t half clever enough to think all these smart things, and realise all these fine-drawn-out subtleties. You are quite right, he wasn’t, yet it all resolved itself in him as I say, and it is for you to prove that it didn’t.

I don’t recall Lawrence speaking quite so directly to the reader like this in his other books, but I might be wrong. As with his other novels, there’s a little bit of action and then a lot of analysis of that action, and a lot of dialogue about abstract concepts, which I suppose is Lawrence’s way of selecting his audience. A lot of the ideas center around Lilly, either because he’s giving them voice or because Aaron is trying to understand his friend’s influence over him. Aaron goes to Italy because he’s following Lilly, and he really loses his sense of peace when he’s too much away from him. It’s sort of like how I’m feeling for New Guy – he works six days a week, so we don’t see each other as often as we’d like. And I get lonely and sad when I don’t see him, as if my equilibrium is becoming dependent on him. This process kind of scares me; with the Midwestern Man, he was only attracted to me as long as I didn’t need him. Once my emotional wagon got firmly hitched to his star, he lost interest, and things only got really great again after I decided to leave him. New Guy doesn’t have the same issues, so maybe he’ll still love me if I rely on him, but it’s hard for me to trust that.

At first, Lilly’s talk about relationships focuses on independence. The ideal is two people who can stand on their own two feet, emotionally, economically, rationally, and in all other ways, but who choose to stand close together. I like the sound of it, it’s an image that appeals to me strongly — probably because I spent eight years being needed, but a lot of that time I didn’t feel wanted. I have no desire to get back into a relationship where I am undesired but necessary. Lawrence’s discussion of Aaron’s relationship with his wife feels uncannily familiar, where a marriage ends up being a struggle for one party to feel powerful and the other to feel loved. In the end, though, Lilly changes his mind and decides that it really is about power and submission – either you’re strong enough to bend the entire world to your will or you find someone you can submit to. This leads to the sort of elitism that I’m not fond of, the sort of thinking that creates Hitlers of us all, and it ends the book with the same sort of abruptness that Women in Love did – that one ends with Birkin realizing he believes in the possibility of romantic love between men, this one ends with Aaron realizing he is in deep submissive love with Lilly, both of them steps too far to pursue at that time. It’s like the book has to end when it gets to the point that society won’t accept, even though that point has been the goal the entire time.

I have a friend who’s working through similar ideas of bisexuality and polyamory in her life. She’s currently got a boyfriend and a girlfriend, and they all know about each other and accept the situation as it is. In talking about it, it seems that she needs to be both dominant and submissive – she’s a forceful person, so she needs someone she can order around and control, but she also needs the experience of being with someone who awes her, who can take command of the situation and make her obey. It’s a little more sadomasochistic than I want in my relationships, but I think about my experience on both sides of the sexual fence, and I can understand it. Being a top makes me feel powerful, but also anxious about my performance. Being a bottom makes me feel loved, but also a little passive. I’m not balancing them both at the same time, though. I don’t need to use sex to make me feel like I’m in control of my own life, and I certainly don’t want to be with someone who will overwhelm me into subjection. A bedroom is one place where I want to be able to set aside issues of power and control and just relax with someone I love.

This is also a novel about coping with World War I. The war is over before the book begins, but everyone is still thinking about it, talking about it, seeing the immediate effects of it. The war may be part of the reason for Aaron to embark on this quest for identity. It’s like the war blew up the entire world, and people haven’t figured out how to put it back together. Aaron didn’t fight because the country still needed coal to operate during the war, but it still left him unmoored, like Darl or Shadrack. And eventually historical events break his flute, so the only thing he has in the end is this friend who will never commit to anything, the one person who refuses to let anyone rely on him. Ultimately we are all alone, which is why it’s so important to enjoy one’s own company. If alone is our natural state, we should learn to love it.

Maybe alone isn’t everyone’s natural state. Maybe not everyone’s nature is the same. Learning to love myself in solitude has been a hard lesson, though, and it’s something I don’t want to lose, no matter whom else I fall in love with, no matter how many times.

This book took entirely too long to read. Ferguson’s writing is very similar to an encyclopedia: very clear, very informative, sort of dry and abrupt, and lacking in unity. She takes the eight major celebrations of the pagan year and analyzes their history, including the ways they have been absorbed into Christianity.

She starts with the winter solstice, and all the assorted Christmas associations. It’s the shortest day of the year, so we think about the death of the sun and plot ways to bring him back. Hence all the lights – drawing the sun back toward ourselves with light and heat.

Imbolc was this week – celebrating the return of the moon. This celebration is for the goddess Brigid (Christianized as St Brigid) – we leave out food, drink, and bedding for her to rest on as she comes around to everyone’s house. We also leave an article of clothing outside, which she will bless with healing and protective powers. Brigid is honored by a perpetually burning flame tended only by women – not having any women at my house, I had to light my own candle, but hopefully that’s okay. On February 1, we watch the weather. See, she gathered wood at the beginning of winter, and by Imbolc she’s run out. The aging fertility goddess has to get more wood if the winter is going to last longer, so the day will be bright and sunny. If spring is coming, she can sleep in, so the weather gets overcast and rainy. Today’s yucky weather may actually be a good sign.

The spring equinox celebrates day and night as equal halves – it’s often symbolized by the marriage of the masculine sun and the feminine moon. One of the things that bothered me in this book is the extreme heteronormativity. For a homosexual investigating the pagan community, this book makes it seem like the way is barred because all the religious traditions are about procreation and fertility: the Goddess is eternal, like the earth, and the sun-god is eternally dying and being reborn as a sort of husband-son, like the corn. He plants his own seed in the earth, and the result is himself again. The gendering is so heavy that the gays are pushed to the margins.

Beltane (May Day) celebrates the full moon. It’s like the spring equinox, but instead of focusing on marriage, this is a festival of sex. Some of the rituals seem to emphasize heterosexuality, but there’s a freedom to the day that creates possibilities for the rest of us.

At the summer solstice the sun is at its most powerful, but that also means that it begins its decline. More fires, because fire is cool.

Lughnasadh is the beginning of the harvest. It celebrates the waning moon – traditionally a good time for harvesting because this influence was believed to be dry, as opposed to the wet influence of the waxing moon. Plant when the moon is growing, pick when it’s declining.

The autumn equinox is another equally balanced day, but it’s also a continuation of the harvest celebration.

Samhain (Halloween) marks the beginning of the new year – days start when it gets dark, and so does the year. This celebration honors the dark moon, those few days of the month when it is completely obscured by the earth’s atmosphere. It’s also a time to celebrate the dead, because at the hinge of the year there’s an opportunity for the dead to return. That doorway is also open at Beltane, the other hinge of the year, but we’re generally too busy fucking to notice. But at Samhain you could be carried off to the Upside-Down, so keep your wits about you.

And then the book just sort of ends. Like any reference book, there’s not much of an effort at presenting a unified message or a meaningful conclusion; you get to the end and you run out of pages. There are some lovely photographs, not all of which contribute meaningfully to the text. The pictures make it seem more like a coffee-table book. I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting, but this book was hard to get through. There’s a lot of information, but no help digesting it. It’s better as reference than as something you’d read through from beginning to end.

If the idea that Judaism and Christianity grew out of previously established Middle Eastern religions offends you, or if you’re upset by the acknowledgment that Christianity was transformed by the Celtic religions it sought to displace, then just stay away. Part of Ferguson’s goal is to present a tradition, one that incorporates elements from all over Europe and the Middle East in the last five or six thousand years. She also discusses the changes to the calendars and the effect that has had on our holidays, but there’s really not that much to say about that.

As I was looking around one of the local bookstores for books about Wicca, the selections seemed nauseatingly self-promotional: Let me enthrall you with the story of how I abandoned corporate America to become High Priestess of my own coven, moving effortlessly between privileged positions in two very different societies. That is not my kind of story, so I left the store without buying anything. A few days later, I looked up the Wicca books at the library where I work, and there was exactly one. This one.

I am not what you would call witchy. Raised in Manhattan, I confirm plenty of the stereotypes of a New Yorker: an overeducated liberal, a feminist, a skeptic long suspicious of organized religion, surrounded by friends – several of them artists, writers, and filmmakers – who consider agnosticism an uncomfortable level of devotion. I’m not prone to joining groups of any stripe, particularly the spiritual variety. I believe in something transcendent, but I’ve yet to meet someone with a convincing label for it.

At the same time, we each have a dimension hidden beneath our carefully cultivated surface, a piece of ourselves that we can’t shake off or explain away. For me, it’s this: I’ve always been drawn to the outer edges, the fringe – communities whose esoteric beliefs cut them off from the mainstream but also bind them closer together. As a writer, I took a stab at a novel about the life of David Koresh, in part because I envied the plain certainty of his followers; I cooked up thin excuses to report on a Billy Graham revival in Queens, visit a New Age commune in California, move into a convent in Houston. On one level, I’ve been driven by an easy curiosity, an attraction to the exotic and far-out – which the whole spectrum of belief has long seemed to me – but I’ve also been looking hard for those intangibles I might have in common with even the most alien congregation. As a natural outgrowth of this impulse, I am setting out to make a documentary about American forms of mysticism. Finally, through the drawn-out, painstaking production of a feature-length film, I’ll come to understand what I’ve been chasing, beat it into a tangible product, a neat conversation piece, and move on.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I opened this book, but I sure as hell wasn’t expecting to find myself. Alex Mar is a very different person from me, with a radically different background, but this approach to belief is very similar to what I’ve been feeling. As I read the book and followed her journey through American Paganism, there’s a formlessness to her spirituality that I relate to very powerfully.

I want to stop sublimating this religious drive and instead embrace it, pitch forward into it, see how it might better serve me. Stop being this spiritual dilettante, a professional “seeker.” If I have a natural talent for belief, I must be a natural fit for something to believe in – some system somebody has laid out somewhere. I imagine a near future in which all my parts might align. For the first time, I find myself surrounded by people who assume just such a thing is possible.

I keep getting Poison’s song stuck in my head, asking the world to “give me something to believe in,” and I’m still working toward that. I’m figuring things out, a little at a time, and there are traditions in this book that seem appealing and others that don’t. Part of this is Mar’s own story, but she also explains the origins of the most common pagan traditions, and these stories all seem to revolve around a single charismatic leader, as I imagine most stories about the origin of belief systems do.

Gerald Gardner is the first of these leaders; he started Wicca in England sometime in the last century. He seems to have traveled around the world and cobbled together a practice, a lot of stuff from the Freemasons and traditional religions from Southeast Asia and Africa, and some of his own inspiration. There’s nudity and sadism and the kind of stuff Christians like to spread rumors about, but for most of the followers it’s about believing in power and accessing it through ritual, and some of those rituals involve sex and violence. His ideas spread around, and eventually led to the type of earth-loving mother-goddess worship we think of today.

Victor Anderson is another important leader, this one from the Pacific Northwest – you know, suicide country. He brought forth the Feri strand of Wicca, something more primal and less old-man-sex-fetish. There is sex involved, but there’s a stronger element of consent, and you can complete that part of the ritual with your regular partner in the privacy of your own home. The name hints of the old-world traditions about Little People, but the connection there is more related to the sense that nature is wise and magical and unforgiving, not so much to tiny people with wings. When I first came out six years ago, a couple of friends (who don’t know each other) suggested I go to a retreat, and I think it was Faerie rather than Feri, but they both presented it as a weeklong gay orgy in the woods. As if I have ever had the money for a weeklong retreat of any type. I’ve often marveled at the fact that people think they know me and yet think I’d be okay with that, as if I would be comfortable having several partners in a single day, as if it doesn’t take me a great deal of contemplation to move from one to the next. Yes, there’s a lot of power in sexual energy, and I do enjoy it rather a lot, but I think I’d be too easily overstimulated. It’s an intense experience, so it takes time for me to assimilate it. I’m just not promiscuous. And while I enjoy going skyclad in the privacy of my own home, I don’t think I’d like it in public. I feel a little outré just taking my shirt off at a public swimming pool.

The chapter about Dianic Wicca, the part that grew out of the feminism of the 1960s, feels less strongly dominated by a single overwhelming personality, and that actually makes a lot of sense. In our culture, we’re taught that women are more communal and less ego-driven than men, so a religion born in our culture that doesn’t focus on men logically should reflect those values. Notable names include Zsuzsanna Budapest, Selena Fox, and Ruth Barrett. As one of them remarked, this movement isn’t anti-men, it’s just not about us. There’s a little blip of a hetero wedding ceremony in this chapter, so men aren’t excluded, and even those few lines had me in tears. If I ever get married again, I want it to be like that.

Will you cause him pain?

I may.

Is that your intention?

It is not.

There are some areas of the faith that make space for men, but there are others that don’t. I agree that it’s important for women to create their own spaces where they can feel comfortable without any men around. I taught a class a few years ago where all the students were female, and it had a dramatically different feeling than my classes usually have. I try to treat my students as equals, because that creates a camaraderie that I respond well to. It sometimes involves swearing in front of the class (informal language creates a sense of intimacy) and giving the “tough love” that tells them that I have confidence they can do more and be better than they are. But with the class of women, there was no question of equality. It was more like having a non-sexual harem – there was an element of submission before authority that I am unused to, and it evoked a much gentler response from me. As the only man and the teacher, they all looked to me to lead the discussion and make pronouncements from on high – there’s nothing natural about this. What I’m saying is, even one man in the room can disrupt the sense of community and produce a strong sense of conformity to gender roles, no matter how gay he is. There’s a freedom that can only be found in single-gender environments.

The last of the big names from the past is Aleister Crowley (of course). I’d heard his name in literary criticism – late Victorian authors were really into the paranormal, and Crowley dated a friend of Aubrey Beardsley and joined the same order as W. B. Yeats. He quickly spun off and started his own thing, though; his order is a very explicit reaction against Christianity, much more directly than the others. It is anti-Christianity, with the parody of the Mass and the liturgy, flipping it into a worship of gods Christians would consider demonic. Crowley was also really involved with the tarot, and it sounds like some elements of his Mass are living representations of the pictures on the card set he designed. This chapter was the most troubling for me – reading it felt a bit like sticking my finger in an electrical outlet, the electric charge and the sense that something is wrong – which either means (a) it’s definitely not for me, and I’ll never join this group, or (b) I’m not ready for it, and now is not the time. The thing that bothers me most is the way that it defines itself in opposition. The description of the Mass felt like enacted hatred. I understand that all of these groups were started in supposedly Christian countries, and so to some extent they’re all at least slightly reacting against Christianity, but Crowley’s crowd were the only ones I thought were nasty about it. When she describes the people she meets there, they do seem like nice people, but that service is clearly meant as a Fuck-You-Jesus in a way the others are not. It’s presented as much more temple-oriented, less natural.

Throughout the book, the most important figure (beside the author) is Morpheus, a priestess from California. She’s in the now, not the historical parts of the book. Over the course of their friendship, Morpheus goes from a more nature-centered approach (she built her own henge) to focusing primarily on one of the ancient Irish Goddesses, the Morrigan. As she’s described here, I do not connect with the Morrigan at all. She’s a warrior queen, and I have no ambitions to be either a warrior or a queen. I’m much more likely to follow a wise woman gathering herbs than a sword-wielding shield-maiden, despite my near-total ignorance of botany. While I don’t identify with Morpheus’s journey, I do think that she gives Mar excellent advice:

I also don’t think everyone’s experience is the same or should be. Just because you may not have had a dramatic moment of being chosen by the Goddess doesn’t mean the Gods don’t want you, if you know what I mean. […] So I think it isn’t always helpful to look for a dramatic “calling” or marking experience . . . If the tradition speaks to you in a meaningful way, that is a good place to start.

Which is important to me, because I don’t have a strong sense of vocation right now. I’m looking for starting points.

Skepticism can be really toxic, because it makes you not trust your own lived experiences, the evidence of your senses, without outside verification.

Which is also important to me, because I’m coming out of a time of skepticism back into belief, and trusting myself is an important part of that.

There’s a footnote that I’d like to comment on:

It’s unclear how a graphic book on the Craft made it into the library of a very Christian town – though I’ve heard similar stories from a few people around the country.

It’s because librarians are magic. Even those operating in the Christian tradition seem to have something witchy about them. There’s something about libraries that seems to promote free thinking and a distance from societal expectations, which creates a space for witchcraft even in the rural South.

I’m here, there’s no holding back.

I don’t feel converted to the types of paganism I saw in this book, except maybe that early bit about the henge. Looking in the spaces between, though, I think there would be room for me in that community, if I chose it. I have a friend who describes herself as a “kitchen witch,” and that phrase makes a lot of sense to me. If there’s magic in the world, isn’t it a more worthwhile practice to pour love into the food you feed your family and friends than to hex the bitch who is trying to steal your man? Obviously, one practitioner can do both, but I disagree with the metaphors people use to justify cruelty. Frankly, it seems like many people get into witchery for the sake of doing spells, accessing power for its own sake rather than for the purpose of doing good. Magic represents a bending of natural laws, and that’s not something I want to do. I want to feel whole, to understand my place in the Web of Wyrd instead of trembling it. The emotional cleansing that is deemed necessary before training really appeals to me – I want to feel connected to the earth and to myself; joining soul to ground by means of the body may be more of a martial-arts thing than a Pagan thing, but they’re not mutually exclusive. I want to spread beauty and make the world a better place; I believe evil has to be healed, not punished or destroyed.

I also believe very strongly that dead people should be left alone. Don’t bother them with your problems; being dead doesn’t make them smarter than you. And if it’s someone you love, then let them go. Don’t bind them to earth with your pain. That’s not a kindness to them. There’s a guy she meets that goes around robbing graves – decapitating the body and turning the heads into oracles – and I know he’s probably not using those skulls for sexual purposes, but it still feels like he’s raping corpses. One more reason to be cremated and use the ashes as fertilizer. After I’m gone, I want my body to rise up as a tree.

I think this is a great book as an introduction to Paganism in contemporary America. Many of the experienced practitioners, on the other hand, were rather angry about it. They felt it was exploitative, like she was an identity tourist who betrayed them by only pretending to be sincere. I didn’t get that feeling, though. She threw herself into the Craft as much as she could, and I don’t blame her for not finding an identity there. Five years is a good length of time; if she didn’t find her niche, maybe she doesn’t have one in that community. Some others complained that the historical sections weren’t academic enough, but I don’t think that was really her goal. This is a deeply personal book, so she tells the history the way she understands it. I have the same response to those people who didn’t like the way they were portrayed in the book – other people don’t see us as we see ourselves, they see us through the lens of their own experiences and emotions. So when someone tells a story about me, I don’t always recognize myself in the depiction (Early on, The Ex used to say, But it makes a better story this way). If you didn’t write the book, if it’s not your journey, then of course you look like just a flat character in someone else’s story. That person only saw a small part of you, so they can’t write you the way you really are, in your fullness. For that, you’d need to write your own story. Think back to what she learned about faith: you have to be true to your own experience, and I think Alex Mar was that. The problem people have with her book is that her experience doesn’t match theirs, and I think it’s unfortunate that they would expect it to. How can we see things the same way when the lenses of our experience are different?

In the end, she’s still an outsider. She hasn’t found a shape for her belief yet, which is something else that makes me feel close to her. I think I’m not the only one that this formlessness would appeal to; when you’re on the outside of a tradition, it can be hard to read a book about it by someone who’s on the inside. Authors writing about their own religious beliefs are usually writing for their own community; there’s something incommunicable and unapproachable about spiritual experiences that we as readers have not experienced, kind of like how hard it is to carry on a conversation about Saudi Arabia with someone who’s never left the South. How can I describe air that is so dry it has no life in it, when you live so much with humidity that you don’t notice how nourishing your breath is? How can I share the feeling that my value in the world was reduced to a single activity, one which I valued less and less?  How can I make you see the discomfort of living in a society that rejects you without repelling you so much you end the discussion? How can I give you a flavor of the foreign that is still real enough to you that you can understand it? So yes, in some ways the book ends up being reductive because it’s intended for a specific audience, one that doesn’t have experience with the rituals and magic of modern American Paganism.

There’s a lot of conflict and competition in the occult subculture. They’re still just people, so they think that what’s right for them is right for everyone. Many of them also make their living through teaching or practicing, so they become defensive and protective of their livelihoods, just like traditional priests and pastors. I’m not jumping straight onto the Wicca bandwagon just yet; I’m trying to be deliberate and understand what I believe before I take any initiations or that sort of thing. This isn’t an energy I want to take lightly.