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I hope I don’t have to tell you how much I love this book. Love is so hard to quantify, and a look through my posting history ought to tell you that this is precisely the sort of book that I value highly. I know that some people see it primarily as a book about adultery, but that’s hardly the point. There’s an incident before the book begins, but there are no sexual acts performed by the characters during the course of the book. This is a book about justice and rehabilitation, not crime.

We begin with Hester Prynne. Back in early seventeenth-century England, she grew up in the country and was married to an old scholar. He decided to relocate to Boston, so he sent her on ahead. After two years without seeing or hearing from him, she started to give him up for dead. And then she becomes pregnant, and her troubles really begin. She has some jail time, and some public shaming on the scaffold where the stocks are kept. Then, for the rest of her life, she has to wear a red A on her chest as a constant reminder of her sin and shame. Well. We call it a red A, and Hawthorne calls it the scarlet letter, but the background fabric is red and the letter itself is in gold thread. It’s so beautiful that strangers sometimes mistake it for a badge of honor, and Hester’s artistic skill with the needle is so intense that no one can recreate what she’s done, not even by backing the thread out and tracing backwards. She takes her daughter to live in an abandoned house on the edge of town, and unleashes her artistic revolutionary soul in solitude. Hester has an acute awareness of the injustices of society against women, and dreams of being a prophet of the new age, proclaiming the equality and rights of women. Which leads to what I find to be one of the creepiest lines in the book:

The scarlet letter had not done its office.

From our position in the twenty-first century, it’s expected that we’ll admire Hester’s rebellious spirit – because she’s right. But Hawthorne is writing in the nineteenth century, when women were valued for their inactivity and endurance, and his story is set farther back still, two hundred years before his own time, when according to Virginia Woolf women were beaten and flung about the room with impunity. Besides, Hester’s rebellion drove her to break the law, and sending the attitude underground is no guarantee that she won’t break the law again. Outwardly she is a model citizen while inwardly she longs to burn the world down and start over. The town elders even begin to discuss allowing her to remove the scarlet letter, but she won’t let them take it from her. I don’t blame her – if I had a free pass out of social obligations, I would hang on to it too. The scarlet letter holds her outside of society, which helps her to have such a different perspective. She doesn’t want to be just like everybody else.

The letter represents human justice and all its inadequacies. The idea behind it is that forced suffering will teach criminals to value society and its laws, a sort of Stockholm syndrome hope. Divine justice, based on the idea that love heals and unites us, gives Hester a daughter, Pearl. Pearl is a weird kid, in a city full of weird kids. She’s light and graceful and dances all over the place, imaginative and artistic like her mother. Seeing these qualities in children often upsets adults because society trains us to pour our imagination into prescribed channels, but kids don’t know the prescribed channels, so it’s more like a flood that pours over everything. Nothing is off limits, no thought too strange, no subject too holy. She has a natural irreverence that seems to come with youth and intelligence. Hester traces all her iconoclasm to the crime that conceived her, but that’s Puritan values. Does anyone really want Pearl to be like other kids, who say things like:

Behold, verily, there is the woman of the scarlet letter; and, of a truth, moreover, there is the likeness of the scarlet letter running along by her side! Come, therefore, and let us fling mud at them!

Kids are jerks. But the town leaders worry about this one, and discuss taking Pearl away from Hester for the sake of her soul. They think Pearl will grow up better without being raised by the town harlot. But Hester argues passionately for her right to keep her child, and they relent. As the book progresses, Pearl drifts closer and closer to revealing her father’s secret, which is after all a major part of the real justice Hawthorne is portraying. And through the love of Pearl, Hester really does calm down and rehabilitate. She still sees the injustice, but she gives up the idea of changing things by herself. For Hawthorne, criminals have no place in the revolution. Women’s rights have to be won by blameless women. I understand his point, that in order for changes to happen at the top of society they need to be championed by people that society’s leaders will listen to, and it’s hard to get people to listen to a single mom with a criminal record. But if no one breaks laws, no one will realize the laws are unfair. If no one breaks taboos, society doesn’t change.

Roger Chillingworth is Hester’s husband. He didn’t die on the crossing from Amsterdam; he had been living among the Native Americans, learning their systems of healing. At the time we meet him, he’s skilled in four-humors medicine, alchemy, and homeopathy, which is the highest we could say for a doctor in the seventeenth century. He sees Hester’s public shame and convinces her to conceal his identity so he can search for the man who cuckolded him and drive him to confession. When he finds his target, he psychologically tortures him while tending to his illnesses – Chillingworth’s alchemy leads the man’s body to produce a scarlet letter on his chest, red on pale skin, the visible sign pushed out from the adulterous heart. Chillingworth frames this to himself as a quest for justice, but he’s really only interested in punishment and revenge. It reminds me a bit of the television program Lucifer, where the title character is constantly pointing out that the devil doesn’t take pleasure in sin – it’s his job to punish it, that’s all. TV Lucifer likes joy and tries to convince people to have a good time, so long as it remains innocent and consensual. I don’t mean devoid of alcohol, drugs, and sex; by innocent, I mean there is no malice. But as Chillingworth dives deeper into his vengeance, he takes joy in his victim’s suffering. For Hawthorne, this is worse than the adultery. Chillingworth learns to love malice; it becomes the only important feature of his character. By focusing exclusively on one goal, and that goal being to cause pain, Chillingworth becomes an evil caricature of his former self, twisted psychologically as much as he has scoliosis physically.

The fourth principal character is Arthur Dimmesdale, the minister who fucked Hester, both literally because he loves her and figuratively because he’s too afraid of losing his position to stand with her. Because of his fear, she has to go through all of this alone. While Hester is on the path of healing and Chillingworth is on the path of vengeance, Dimmesdale shows us the effect of hidden sin, crimes unconfessed. This theme gets a much more careful representation in Crime and Punishment, where Dostoevsky demonstrates the extreme stress of feeling guilty and holding it inside. Dimmesdale’s poor mental health affects his physical health as well, and he wastes away from the constant stress of seeming the opposite of what he feels himself to be. In many ways he’s like a closeted gay man – being gay isn’t sinful, but staying in the closet involves the same type of duplicity and vigilance. He has a secret that no one must infer; he must hide the core of who he is from everyone he meets. There is no relaxation, only self-hatred and lies. Even when alone, he just punishes himself. It’s no wonder he goes crazy and dies. The relief of confessing the reality of his soul is so intense, and the required change in his lifestyle is so extreme, that he collapses on the spot. But his confession is necessary for the closure in all the other stories as well – Chillingworth’s vengeance, Hester’s rehabilitation, and Pearl’s socialization all require it. Dimmesdale’s refusal to confess doesn’t just hurt him; it retards everyone’s progress. Secrets are poisonous, and there are very few that I find myself willing or able to keep. Those few are related to situations that I didn’t create and are none of my business, and the people I keep them for are very special to me indeed.

It is hard to calculate the impact of this book. Samuel Richardson’s Pamela has been called the first British novel because it was the first piece of extended prose fiction that delved heavily into the psychology of its protagonist; The Scarlet Letter holds a similar position in American literary history. I don’t mean to imply a bad opinion of Irving or Cooper; it’s just that Hawthorne popularized the inward look in a way that they didn’t. Charlotte Temple and Hope Leslie aren’t quite as meditative either, but the critics who defined The First Great American Novel would never have ascribed that title to one written by a woman, even though Charlotte Temple was the first American bestseller and Hope Leslie has an exploding pirate ship.

It’s fairly well-known that The Scarlet Letter changed the course of Melville’s career – he seems to have had a bit of a crush on Hawthorne, from the extreme praise he printed of Mosses from an Old Manse and Hawthorne’s discomfort on meeting him in person. People hear that he read The Scarlet Letter while writing Moby-Dick and then blame Hawthorne for all the cetology, but have you ever looked at White-Jacket? It’s the book before Moby-Dick, and it’s all about describing the mundanities of life on a man-of-war and drawing parallels to life in general. Hawthorne didn’t teach Melville to do allegory; he showed him that it’s possible to combine allegory with a good story. There doesn’t have to be a separation between the two. And, of course, critics at the time hated Moby-Dick, so The Scarlet Letter led to the bitterness that flowers so uncomfortably in Pierre and the later works.

It also had a strong effect on George Eliot. Her first full-length novel, Adam Bede, is a retelling of The Scarlet Letter in a Hardy-esque Wessex. Arthur Dimmesdale becomes Arthur Donnithorne, Hester Prynne becomes Hester Sorrel, and Roger Chillingworth becomes Adam Bede. Eliot focuses on the suffering rather than the justice, because she’s writing a tragedy rather than a journey. When I think of Adam Bede, though, I tend to focus on Dinah Morris’s story, the young woman preacher who marries Adam in the end. She reminds us that Eliot’s previous fiction is the Scenes from Clerical Life. Dinah shows us graphically that a woman can be a prophet, though she is the type of ‘pure’ woman that Hawthorne imagines central to gaining respect for women’s issues. In her own life as mistress to an unhappily married man, Eliot must have had a lot of sympathy for Hester Prynne, more than I could muster for Hettie Sorrel back when I read Adam Bede for the first time. Hester is intelligent and artistic, two qualities I value, but Hettie’s just a pretty face masking a pile of discontent. I never understood what Adam Bede saw in her.

The biggest effect, though, is in the way Hawthorne taught us to think about the Puritans. By all accounts they were never as ugly, joyless, and strict as he represents them. But The Scarlet Letter is more often and less critically read than historical documents, so people assume Hawthorne knew what he was talking about. He was closer to us in time than to his subject. It’s like the whole Jonathan Edwards thing. In school, we read “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God” and assume that he and all the other Puritans were obsessed with hell and believed in a God of hate, disappointed in our goodness because he longs to throw us into the fire like unwanted spiders. But if you read Edwards’s journals, you find that he was a mostly happy guy who loved nature, God, and the people around him. He was a lot closer to modern evangelicals than people think when they only read the one revival sermon. In fact, we’re so similar that a few years ago someone made a movie of Emma Stone as Hester Prynne in a modern California high school.

Of course, with me being who I am, I see it as a story of two people who fall in love in a society that tells them that they can’t. And despite all of the bullshit, Hester and Arthur really do love each other.

And, as if the gloom of the earth and sky had been but the effluence of these two mortal hearts, it vanished with their sorrow. All at once, as with a sudden smile of heaven, forth burst the sunshine, pouring a very flood into the obscure forest, gladdening each green leaf, transmuting the yellow fallen ones to gold, and gleaming adown the gray trunks of the solemn trees. The objects that had made a shadow hitherto, embodied the brightness now. The course of the little brook might be traced by its merry gleam afar into the wood’s heart of mystery, which had become a mystery of joy.

Such was the sympathy of Nature – that wild, heathen Nature of the forest, never subjugated by human law, nor illumined by higher truth – with the bliss of these two spirits! Love, whether newly born, or aroused from a death-like slumber, must always create a sunshine, filling the heart so full of radiance, that it overflows upon the outward world. Had the forest still kept its gloom, it would have been bright in Hester’s eyes, and bright in Arthur Dimmesdale’s!

Love is love. Hester’s marriage to Chillingworth, which even he admits was a mistake, creates some legal troubles, but her love with Arthur is as real and intense as anyone else’s. Hidden, but real. It draws my attention back to my own situation, of being in an affair with a man who is still legally married to his wife. I’ll admit that I don’t completely understand why he lives as he does, especially when I see how little happiness it brings him. I guess Norman Bates is right, that some people get stuck in traps and can’t get out of them. I’m doing my best to motivate him, but he has to get out of this on his own. I can’t do it for him.

I read this book during my transition to a new house in a new town. I’ve been having to take a lot of self-care time these last few weeks, but hopefully I’ll be able to put more time and attention into being a student and less into being a ball of anxiety. Getting my financial aid check will help – food insecurity makes everything else seem unimportant.

Speaking of perceived unimportance, I want to put in a good word for “The Custom House.” A lot of people skip it, but I find it a delight. Hawthorne describes his time working for the government as a customs agent and a few of the incredibly aged people who work there with him. He stresses the importance of paying attention to daily life, which is a skill I don’t always have.

The fault was mine. The page of life that was spread out before me seemed dull and commonplace, only because I had not fathomed its deeper import. A better book than I shall ever write was there; leaf after leaf presenting itself to me, just as it was written out by the reality of the flitting hour, and vanishing as fast as written, only because my brain wanted the insight and my hand the cunning to transcribe it. At some future day, it may be, I shall remember a few scattered fragments and broken paragraphs, and write them down, and find the letters turn to gold upon the page.

It’s hard to understand what’s important as we’re going through the daily round. When do changes take place inside us? How do our desires and needs change? Why is literature so interested in moments of change rather than moments of stasis? When it comes to life, I’m better at the big picture, the broad strokes. Other people are good at the diurnal continuity. I think that a life well lived needs both; I value the part that I’m good at because I value myself, and people who are good at the everyday stuff should do the same.

I hesitate to make sweeping generalizations, like Everyone should read this book, but everyone should really read this book. It’s about justice, forgiveness, and living openly and honestly without fear. We all make mistakes, so it’s important to learn how to restore our sense of ourselves when we’ve violated our internal laws. None of us lives up to our own standards all the time, so we have to forgive ourselves and press forward. It’s a book about how to go on living when you start to hate yourself, as well as how to stop hating yourself once you start. It also stresses the importance of gender equality, and we’re still working on that nearly two hundred years later. The long sentences and advanced vocabulary can be a challenge, but I think it’s worth it.

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As an undergraduate, I found writing feminist literary criticism to be incredibly simple. You begin with the assumption that somewhere in this text, a man is oppressing a woman, and then you look for the evidence to support that fact. There’s always evidence. I think I would have been a better thinker if I had trained myself to examine the text for what’s there before imposing my narrative on it, but I was more concerned with reading than with writing intelligently. I’m not saying that every feminist literary critic did that, but I know that I sure did. Whenever you start with a narrative and then impose it on the world, you really will find evidence to support your narrative. It’s called confirmation bias.

Martin Grotjahn was a Freudian psychoanalyst in the 1950s. Freud applied a narrative to human development, and his followers kept telling the same story over and over again, as if all human beings were the same. Boys (the significant gender) are born and derive nourishment from their mothers. Their fathers intervene at some point and the boys are weaned. This creates hostility between the child and his father and strengthens the boy’s desire for his mother, while at the same time also creating hostility for the mother as well. The mother is simultaneously loved and hated, while the father is merely hated. As the child grows, all desire is merged with the desire for the mother, so when we call someone a mother fucker we’re merely saying that he’s accomplished what we all want to do. In the mind of the growing child, all authority is merged with the father, whether religious, political, or professional. We men rebel against authority in order to kill the father (symbolically) and thus enjoy the satisfaction of our desires, permanent access to our mothers’ breasts. They call this narrative the Oedipal complex, because of that Greek myth where the guy accidentally killed his father and married his mother.

How is this related to humor? I’m glad you asked. As you can tell from their story, we all hate everyone all the time, but we can’t all live in isolated cells, so we mask our hostility in wordplay and veil our insults in wit. Jokes are a disguised form of aggression. We laugh because of the frisson between the hostility and the playful disguise. Sometimes the hostility is itself a mask for attraction (see above for why we hate and love the same person), as in the cases of Beatrice and Benedick, Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, Britta Perry and Jeff Winger. The quality of the disguise determines the quality of the humor.

Grotjahn does acknowledge that this style of wit is masculine in our culture, and that women can joke without hating each other – cross reference that to Deborah Tannen’s comments on gendered forms of workplace communication – but women are different to men. According to the Freudians, men are afraid not only that their fathers are going to make them starve to death, but that their fathers are going to cut their penises and/or testicles off. A girl looks down at herself, sees that she has no penis or testicles, and assumes that the worst thing that could happen to her has already happened, so there’s no use fussing about it. The Freudian woman can thus accept the world as a terrible place where incredible violence is being done to women without complaining. I think that Freud followed this interpretation by shouting, “Bitch, make me a pie!” Seriously? Grotjahn doesn’t see women as rebelling?

I find it unfortunate that our ancestors didn’t think to define ‘man’ as ‘a human being lacking a vagina.’ I don’t have one, but society doesn’t see that lack as anything to be lamented. Why is penis the default? According to Grotjahn, men are seriously envious of women’s ability to bear children. Creativity comes from the uterus, which means that as men we can only embody destructive impulses. As I said, we hate everyone and everything. Men who create art are really only expressing their jealousy that we can’t get pregnant. Grotjahn takes some time here to make sure we understand the difference between art and entertainment: art helps us to deal with our hostilities in a disguised fashion, while entertainment only distracts us from our hostilities. With this simple formula, it should be easy to confront your video collection and divide them into movies that are art and movies that are entertainment. Try it; you’ll see how easy it is.

A complication of the Oedipal narrative is ‘the primal scene,’ meaning that at some point every boy watches his parents having sex. I never did, but that’s probably because I’m not European (we all know that Freud was Austrian, and with a name like Grotjahn, he has to be Dutch). The mother’s cries are interpreted as pain rather than pleasure, so the child believes the mother is being attacked or killed. This is yet another reason not to use the missionary position. The child believes that the father is murdering the mother at night, but then she’s awake and happy in the morning, which is incomprehensible (see Hitchcock’s Vertigo). Every crime, every mystery, every murder is a return to the primal scene. Murder mysteries and westerns are apparently our attempts to understand the fact that fathers fuck mothers, which sort of explains rape culture as well. If little boys see consensual sex and confuse it with rape, then of course they’ll stay confused about the importance of consent unless someone talks to them about it. In the United States, parents seem to have decided that talking about sex with their children is too uncomfortable, so every group of teenagers has to reinvent the wheel, making the same mistakes and committing the same crimes over and over again.

What’s that you say? You know a man whose life and psyche don’t fit this narrative? Well, he’s probably gay. Homosexuality gives the Freudians an out, a reason for data points that don’t conform to their line. Grotjahn says that gay men are helpless in the face of their own perversion, so they shouldn’t be discriminated against. It sounds sort of advanced for the 1950s, but in today’s terms it’s not. This is why I don’t get excited about Pope Francis arguing that discrimination is bad – he still thinks we’re freaks, his church still teaches that we need to stay celibate or burn in hell, he just thinks it’s important to love the hellbound aberrations. For the Freudian, gay men are as incomprehensible as women.

Okay, so how much of this shit do I actually believe? Not a whole lot. I think of children as pre-sexual, so I don’t think infants are having Oedipal fantasies of mother fucking. I can agree that a lot of wit is inspired by hostility, whether directed at the self or others, but I don’t think that’s the only source of humor or enjoyment. If there’s a song that I like, not because it helps me deal with my deep-seated issues but because I like the melody, does that mean it isn’t art? Of course not. Psychology and psychiatry, as professions, have moved beyond Freud. His ideas started the modern form of these professions, but now we also think of Freud as someone with a screwy childhood who became famous by trying to convince women they weren’t being raped by their fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles, or cousins. Freudianism explains male objectification of women, but doesn’t fight against the objectification. It treats objectification as the normal state of things, as if it’s natural to see the penis as the source of all power in the universe.

Obviously I have many problems with Freud’s theories, and Grotjahn’s book reminds me of most of them. For students of Freud, this is a great introduction to his ideas. Grotjahn was writing for a general audience, so the style is very approachable and he seldom uses phrases like ‘penis envy.’ And, he’s analyzing jokes, and humor makes everything better. He does spend a lot of time talking about Jewish jokes, which can seem a little racist – frankly, every minority I know of tells self-deprecatory jokes that highlight society’s injustices toward them, so singling out Jews is a little weird to me. I guess this is the minority community he had the most access to. So, this book is interesting, dated in offensive ways, and not to be read uncritically. For instance, have you considered the fact that the God of the Bible does not laugh, and have you wondered why that is? Might explain why so many conservative Christians have a hard time with humor. After all, people in the Bible who laugh are generally punished for it. Now, measure that statement against your own experience and beliefs. You’re saying that there are people who believe that someone created a duck-billed platypus without laughing during the process?

Platypus mothers have little channels built into their bodies. They lie back and excrete their milk into the channels and the babies lap it up, because you can’t nurse with a duck bill. Tell me, Freud, what do you make of that?

Looking back over Stevenson’s previous novels, the predominant feeling I get about this one is, What the fuck? Picaresque boys’ adventure stories are done. Instead, we get a philosophical allegory out of nowhere. Maybe his short stories prepared readers for this, but even though I’d read it before, I was completely taken aback. Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Prince Otto, and The Black Arrow did not make me think this was coming.

Of course, a lifetime of watching this theme being played out in movies and television shows didn’t really prepare me for the book either. If I think of it, I can name five or six other important characters, but they’re almost completely forgettable, even the narrator. There are no female characters of any consequence, and surprisingly little action. There’s just the mystery, Why does your friend have friends that you don’t like?

First of all, let me say that Dr Jekyll is not the good side.

And indeed the worst of my faults was a certain impatient gaiety of disposition, such as has made the happiness of many, but such as I found it hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high, and wear a more than commonly grave countenance before the public. Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures; and that when I reached years of reflection, and began to look round me and take stock of my progress and position in the world, I stood already committed to a profound duplicity of life. Many a man would have even blazoned such irregularities as I was guilty of; but from the high views that I had set before me, I regarded and hid them with an almost morbid sense of shame.

Most stories begin with problems or needs that have to be fixed or fulfilled, and Jekyll’s problem is that he wants to look more pious than anyone else. Note the emphasis on the external – he doesn’t actually want to be a good person, he wants everyone to think he’s a good person. There’s actually a big difference. The typical spiritual disciplines don’t help Jekyll be the man he wants people to think he is, though I don’t think he actually tried fasting and prayer to overcome temptation. He relies on science instead; he devises a medicine that will suppress the parts of his personality he doesn’t approve of. He relies on the drug more and more often, but it has a side effect he wasn’t prepared for: it periodically releases the evil parts of himself that he’s been afraid to reveal. His evil is personified in Mr Hyde, and Mr Hyde starts taking over more often so that Jekyll has to keep overdosing. Eventually he realizes that he can’t control Hyde and commits suicide to save the world from the two of them.

These days Mr Hyde’s portrayal is radically different from what Stevenson imagined. His Hyde is little, being only a small part of Dr Jekyll, and by ‘evil’ Stevenson means physically violent. He hits people, sometimes to the point of killing them. These days there are things that we consider much worse, but Hyde’s evil is only in physical violence, most of it not sexual. Hyde was ugly, and people thought of him as having some kind of birth defect but they were unable to say what it was. This is part of what I find interesting in the story – people lose their ability to speak and describe Hyde. It’s like Stevenson’s time didn’t have vocabulary for the type of evil he imagined, so he couldn’t represent it on the page. But in films, nothing exists if we don’t see it. There are two ways of portraying Hyde. In the first, he’s a monster, generally larger with scoliosis and other malformed joints. He’s kind of like the Incredible Hulk. In the second, he’s kind of smooth and sexy, so still taller with a deeper voice. This Hyde isn’t an animal; he’s a more pronounced version of stereotypical masculinity. Evil no longer shrinks and tramples little girls in the street; it seduces, it overshadows, it is strength. Hyde is so successful that some directors give him the nobility and strength of character as well as the muscles. Evil is a more nuanced, complicated, difficult problem than it seems to have been for a Victorian writer of children’s stories.

I feel more connections with Dr Jekyll’s story than are perhaps complimentary. I’ve never wanted to seem better than others, but I like being the best I can be, and when I was a religious person I wanted to be the best religious person possible. I tried really hard, and I was good at it. I became an expert in self-denial because that’s what my deity expected (in this sentence, ‘my deity’ is a set of cultural constructs that is pretty close to an amalgamation of my perceptions of my parents – my dad’s physical distance, my mom’s emotional distance and judgmentalism). Unfortunately, being religious creates this internal divide – like Dr Jekyll, I labeled some parts of myself as evil and crushed or ignored them. But, as in the Langston Hughes poem, parts of the self that are denied don’t just dry up like a raisin in the sun, they explode.

Six or seven years ago, my entire life collapsed. The first part was losing the religion. I was a good and faithful member of that church for more than thirty years; it was the most important part of my cultural identity. I had given everything I had to them, until something in me just broke and I couldn’t do it any more. I was severely depressed and no amount of service was changing that (they tell you to forget about yourself and work for others and you’ll find peace, but it’s a lie). I thought God hated me, and when I tried communing with him he was sort of unfeeling and cruel about the whole thing, which I now take as evidence that the voice in my head was just me. As they say, you know you’ve created God in your own image when he hates all the same people you do. My wife was a big help and support during this time. She had always seen my church as pulling us apart, so when I got rid of it she thought we were growing closer. She had reached a relationship goal, and we started going to churches together, with her settling on Catholicism. I guess she didn’t notice how often I used the baby as an excuse to leave Mass.

A few months later, I told my wife that I’m gay and she left me. She insists that she had no idea it was coming; I insist that she must have been willfully blind. If I had been looking for evidence that I was evil, this was it: not the whole gay thing, the fact that I broke the heart of the only person I felt truly loved me. I suppose I did have some self-hatred for being gay, but the way that the fact I’m gay hurt her is the thing I hated. If I could have taken a pill that would force me to be straight, I would have done it, for her. We had the kind of codependent relationship where each only exists as an extension of the other – I didn’t know who I was in isolation, or whether I existed at all. I had lost my self.

There are those who say suicide is never an option. That’s dumb; suicide is always an option. It’s not a good option, but it’s there. I actively wanted to die for a long time. I had several lengthy, detailed fantasies about killing myself. Most involved cutting, a few were burning, drowning, or hanging. When a friend gave me some sleeping pills, I couldn’t take any because I knew I’d overdose. There were some times the only reason I left the house was to get away from all the kitchen knives. I used to walk around the city at night trying to get up the nerve to jump in front of a truck. Fortunately, I’m also lazy, and the idea that suicide is always an option was really helpful. Because it was always there, there was no rush. I can live through today and try it tomorrow. I’m alive now because I kept procrastinating suicide until I didn’t want to do it any more. Some people say that suicide is selfish and we shouldn’t do it because of the pain it will bring to others; that seems like another dumb thing to say. Living my life for other people is what drove me to suicidal depression, so it wasn’t going to help me get out of it.

Counseling helped. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy wasn’t the path for me – it felt like I was Jekyll-and-Hyding again, naming a part of myself as evil and containing it, partitioning my self like a hard drive. The Emotional Freedom Techniques of Henry Grayson were better, but the most useful idea of his was the warm-up, where I say out loud that I love and accept myself even if I still think I’m not that great. I started visualizing myself as having separate people who live inside me, like The Ego Pirate or The Crying Boy. I stopped trying to correct any of these weird partial selves I have and just focused on loving them as they were, loving myself as I was. I started treating myself as I would my kids, with the same patience for my own vulnerability that I have with theirs. The little boy in me cried all he needed to and then stopped, my ego stopped trying to kill off the parts of me that were hurting, and I stopped feeling so fractured. I don’t need the visualizations any more.

I still get depressed sometimes, but it’s not constant. It’s been a long time since I thought about killing myself. With all the high-profile suicides, the thing that people seem not to be talking about is the fact that suicidal ideation isn’t a constant thing. It hits like a thunderstorm; sometimes it lasts for days, but sometimes only for a few minutes. Sometimes there are triggers, sometimes there aren’t. Sometimes memories are the trigger, and it can take a while for them to surface. For example. When I first came out, my brother called me on the phone, already a drastic step because he only has about a third of his hearing. He yelled at me for twenty minutes and threatened to kill me, and we haven’t spoken since. While that memory hurts, he’s not the one that’s bothering me right now. It’s my mom. When I told her about this, she didn’t react. She still tells me about what’s going on in his life as if nothing happened. No one else in my family responded either, except to agree that he’s an asshole and to say there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Not that anyone’s tried.

The Mom thing brings up a couple of important habits of hers that contribute to my depression. The first is her habit of ignoring everything she doesn’t like or approve of. She doesn’t have any photographs of my adolescence because I was weird and awkward-looking. This is where the partitioning began; to get parental approval, I had to lock away the aspects of myself that my mom didn’t like. “Don’t walk like that – you look like a fairy.” The second thing is the way that she blamed me for everything that happened to me. If I had a problem, it was always my fault, and usually my responsibility to get out of it myself. I can understand the desire to teach her kids to be independent and to think critically, but sometimes a kid needs a hug and to hear that everything is going to be okay. We need to feel that our mother is on our side, but I rarely felt like she was biased in my favor. More often, it went the other way. “And what did you do to deserve it?” Why do you assume that I always deserve it? She got a little hurt a few years ago because I never take my problems to her now, but she is the least sympathetic person I know. Why would I take her anything? With these attitudes growing up, of course I ended up feeling like there was an evil inside me that was going to consume the entire earth, and that it was my duty to protect everyone from me. Of course I wanted to commit suicide like Dr Jekyll.

I’m not evil. I’m gay and angry, but I don’t damage or poison people just by being in the same room with them. I’m fairly quiet with people I don’t trust, so most people (including my family) see me as a mirror of themselves – they’re shocked when I suddenly have different opinions than they do, but that’s not my fault, and it’s not proof of hidden evil. The more I embrace the parts of me that my mom doesn’t like or see, the more I like myself, and the more my real friends like me too. Even the worst parts of me can be loved.

So, if Stevenson’s story is about good and evil, what is evil? And what is good? Dr Jekyll’s evil is rejecting himself. His locked-up desires get stronger and stronger and burst out in violent and unexpected ways, but those desires didn’t start out as evil. His vices are initially so mild that other people brag about them. Evil is naming part of yourself evil and hating yourself because of it. And good? Well, like so many stories that people say are about good and evil, this isn’t a story about good. People talk of Hyde as the evil and Jekyll as the good, but he’s only one person, and Jekyll isn’t that great.

This book is short and strange, but not David Lynch strange, it’s what-does-Stevenson-think-he’s-doing strange. He’s writing something different than his usual books, and the result is weird, like he doesn’t know how to write this kind of story. Worth reading, but don’t assume you’re going to know anything useful about the author’s style or habits of storytelling. Obviously it’s helped me articulate things I’m experiencing, but that’s more to do with my response and less with the book itself. He’s tapped into something universal and collective, much more than ever before, but he doesn’t handle it with the skill that he did earlier novels. With all the retellings, I feel like I shouldn’t be surprised, especially since I’ve read this before, but it’s still unexpected and weird, every time.

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.

I do love the television series based on Charlaine Harris’s novels, True Blood and Midnight, Texas. So when I saw this one in a used bookshop, I grabbed it right up. It’s the first of Ms Harris’s stories I’ve read, so I didn’t know quite what to expect.

As ever, the dramatized version and the written version are quite different. The two most obvious and pervasive changes are the level of action and the level of competence among the characters. On television, each of the many characters has her own story arc and exciting moments of action. The book focuses on Bobo Winthrop’s storyline, so I’m not sure if the other narratives are in the later books of the series or if they’re inventions of the screenwriters. So, Bobo is a nice guy living in this small town in Texas, and Act I introduces us to the town and its residents through the eyes of new arrival Manfred Bernardo. Act II begins with the discovery of the body of Aubrey, Bobo’s missing girlfriend. He gradually learns that she was involved with a white supremacist terrorist group looking for a large supply of weapons and money that he supposedly inherited from his grandfather. He admits to his friends that his family was into the racist stuff but that he left them behind to get away from it. Eventually the townspeople discover the real murderer and take care of it without involving professional law enforcement. Bobo’s friend Fiji gets kidnapped, as she does on the show, but it’s by one guy who takes her back to his parents’ house, and she uses magic to freeze the family and escape (instead of being held underground by a biker gang, getting drugged with a Fentanyl patch, and nearly suffocating). So, all that stuff in the TV series about Olivia’s father, Lem’s past, Manfred’s grandmother, and the demon after Fiji are not present in this first book. Maybe that’ll come later.

Compared to the show, the characters in the book are babies. Fiji only has one or two tricks up her sleeve, the freezing spell and a healing potion. Manfred comes up with one vision of the dead, but is otherwise powerless, just an internet faker who tells people what they want to hear. None of that hanging out in an RV with his dead grandmother. And the actor who plays him is eleven years older than the character in the book. The other characters are still pretty mysterious, their natures hinted at rather than revealed. The reverend delivers a weird sermon on human/animal shape-changers in a restaurant during dinner, but we don’t see him transform, and Joe and Chuy likewise seem pretty normal for a gay couple in small-town Texas.

Speaking of ethnicity, in the book it’s easy to imagine that everyone is white, either Hispanic white or traditional white. And yes, in the United States our obsession with race means that I have to identify myself on official forms as White (non-Hispanic), because listing Hispanics as simply White would mean that they are the same as us, which erases their unique culture (offensive to them) and affords them the same privilege that I receive (offensive to white supremacists). Yet, their genetic material is frequently similar to that of other southern European groups that are simply White, like Italians. It’s a weird, convoluted situation, product of a weird, violent past. I lived in rural Texas for a year without seeing very many people of color, so Harris’s town feels pretty accurate to me. On the show, Lem has very dark skin, but in the book he looks more like Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Fiji has light brown hair, so it’s unlikely that she also has light brown skin as in the show. She is also described as being a bit out of shape and has a harder time with physical activity, so I’d guess that the television Fiji is also rather thinner than the one in the book.

As the new guy in town, Manfred seems like the obvious protagonist. He also appeared in a few of Harris’s other novels, the Harper Connolly series. But his perspective is limited, and he’s not that bright, so a good many scenes have to come from someone else’s point of view. Fiji is the other central character, and the two of them come into contact a lot, but not as peacefully as they do in the show. A woman in her late twenties who devotes her life to women’s spiritual and emotional health is not likely to be entertained by the self-centeredness of twenty-two-year-old boys.

She looked back at him, her eyes narrowed and her hands clenched. She huffed out a sound of exasperation. “Listen, Manfred, would it kill you to say the magic words? And sound like you mean them?”

Magic words? Manfred was totally at sea. “Ahhh . . .” he said. “Okay, if I knew what they were . . .”

I’m sorry,” she said. “Those are the magic words. And yet no one with a Y chromosome seems to understand that.” And off Fiji stomped, the drops from the previous evening’s shower blotching her skirt as she passed through the shrubs and flowers.

“Okay,” Manfred said to the cat. “Did you get that, Mr Snuggly?” He and the impassive cat gave each other level stares. “I bet your real name is Crusher,” Manfred muttered. Shaking his head as he crossed the road, he was relieved to get back to his house and to resume answering queries for Bernardo.

But he stored a new fact in his mental file about women. They liked it if you told them you were sorry.

And yet this stored fact doesn’t alter his behavior. In the end, he’s about as clueless as he was in the beginning.

The bookstore has a label that identifies this book as Paranormal & Steamy, but there is nothing steamy about this book. I don’t know what her other stories are like, but there are very few sexual encounters in this book, and the only one I can think of gets a parenthetical mention while the narrative is focused on something else. That parenthetical mention only says that Joe and Chuy are “fooling around” without going into what that means. I like the sexiness of the show, but it’s not here in the book. Manfred and Creek don’t get together, and neither do Bobo and Fiji. Olivia and Lem may have something going on, but we never see it, just as we rarely see them at all. Maybe that will come in the other books, but I can’t speak to that just yet.

In both the show and the book Joe and Chuy share a business as well as a home and bed, and in both Chuy’s side is a nail salon. But the show changes Joe’s antique store into a tattoo parlor, which I find strange. I’ve come up with two possible reasons for this. (1) People outside the South may not find it realistic to have both an antique store and an extensive pawnshop in the same one-stoplight town. I’ve lived down here most of my life and I can assure you, this is completely realistic. I have no idea how we keep so many antique stores open, but we do. Southerners like tradition, and that means loving old-timey stuff, even if it looks like garbage to me. (2) Portrayals of gay characters in American mainstream media have not caught up with the realities of gay life in America. There was a time when being openly gay limited one’s options to Wilting Flower or Leather-Obsessed Biker, a caricature of one gender or the other. These days, while those two stereotypes still exist, there’s a much wider range of expression for male homosexuals. Most of us are pretty normal, at least where I am now. The older crowd I ran with in Dallas relied on the polarized model of self-expression, but they came out back in that time when that was their reality. So, how do you persuade America that Joe is a masculine human being who is in love with another man? Make him “tough”, because moving furniture all day doesn’t do the trick. It’s easier to force Joe and Chuy into traditional gender roles if Joe draws pictures on people’s skin instead of selling them century-old teapots. I would like to say that the actors don’t portray them as inhabiting gender extremes; that seems to come from somewhere else.

There’s a thing here that bothers me, so I’d like to mention it briefly. Fiji and Creek go to Aubrey’s funeral, but they get there early and don’t know anyone else there, so they sit in the car for half an hour playing around on their phones. I realize that they are in a church parking lot in broad daylight, but I still worry about this being unsafe behavior. Hanging out in cars is a way that women become targets of violence. Most of the violence prevention programs I’ve been a part of reference this habit specifically. When you get to where you’re going, get out of the car and go into the building immediately. When you finish your business inside, get into your car and leave immediately. Many women who loiter in their automobiles become victims; I’m not blaming them for that, but it worries me when people I care about (real or fictional) engage in behaviors that I perceive to be unsafe. I also know that I do this myself, and there are times when I even go to sleep in my car, but I’m a white man and the ability to sleep in my car in a partially darkened gas station parking lot is part of my white male privilege. I also drive a twenty-year-old car with paint beginning to chip, which lets potential thieves and murderers know that I have nothing worth taking.

In the book, life in Midnight is dramatically more peaceful and normal than it is in the television series. The book is a nice comfortable little Southern murder mystery with an honest look at social problems and just a hint of the supernatural element. I really enjoyed it, and I’ve already started looking for the others in the series. And if I want more after that, Harris has a ton of publications, so I should be well satisfied for quite a while.

witches of eastwick

Continuing to celebrate Halloween, here’s one of those novels whose title has gotten stuck in my head somehow and is as closely associated with October as Frosty the Snowman is with December, but is quite different from the Mitchell novel I read earlier in the week.

The first question is one of style. I tried to sit down and read it all at once, but Updike’s sentences resist being read quickly. Halloween being the season of personifying the inanimate, one could argue that they don’t like to be read at all. There is a profusion of detail that can seem ponderous, all those subordinate clauses pushing their way in so that it is sometimes hard to see what the subject and verb are, or maybe that heart of the sentence is intentionally hiding, enfolding itself in the extraneous as a means of self-preservation. Which sounds ridiculous, because the only life words have is when someone reads them. Stories are a complex act of shared creation between a writer and a reader – he suggests a shape, and I breathe life into it with my imagination, a complex, unique spiraling shape of personal experience and genetic memory. But Updike is seldom content to suggest; his riotous excess of description leaves little for the imagination, and since the imagination works more quickly than the reading eye, the process is slower. It was very challenging for me to take Updike’s mind into my own, and his style is very indicative of the Literary Novel of his time, the 1980s, and I’d say that it continues to influence the self-consciously literary writers of today.

Another issue is that of subject. Witches? In New England? How original. Updike is a man writing about women’s lives from women’s perspectives, which always seems highly suspect to me. It’s in many ways a book of all the things men accuse women of doing, like the way that most of the book is a transcription of gossipy phone calls. Some of it also seems like men’s fantasies of what women do, like the unspoken bisexuality of the witches, where it seems that every woman is trembling on the cusp of lesbian porn. The climax of Act One is a hot tub orgy with one man and three women (we know Updike is a heterosexual man because he never mentions the size of the penis with such power).

Maybe it was modish in the 1980s to refer to homosexuality a lot in your book, but the way his characters talk about it pushes men like me away. That word for us that I find the most upsetting, a British cigarette, gets tossed about like it’s as normal and inoffensive as iron or book. I’m not sure why I find this word so much more upsetting than all the other ways people describe me, nor why the shorter version is so much more upsetting than the word that means a bundle of sticks, but I’m apparently having a rainbow snowflake moment and I’ll thank you to respect my feelings, Mr Updike. The reviewers talk about his great sympathy for his characters, but as a homosexual male I felt outside the realm of his empathy. It seems natural for me to be angry at being the only one included in the book but excluded from sympathetic treatment, so maybe the rest of you (meaning women or heterosexuals) won’t feel the same way that I do. This book is about as pro-gay as the Christopher Reeve film Deathtrap.

But then again, maybe what seemed like sympathetic treatment in 1984 won’t seem sympathetic today. I believe that many women of my acquaintance would take umbrage at the idea that femininity requires taking the place of a man’s mother, just as I find it offensive that many people even today believe that men are perpetual children in need of mothering. For an example, watch the later seasons of Arrow. In the first season The Green Arrow is very Batmannish, but by season four he’s surrounded by women, a little sister and a few friends, and one of them takes over as CEO of his family business and they all boss him around as if he were a child, despite being younger than he. They all talk about how dumb and helpless he is, despite the fact that they know he’s a fucking superhero. He might be a filthy rich masked vigilante with serious top-shelf hand-to-hand combat skills and an amazing body, but he’s still ‘just a man.’

Healing belonged to their natures, and if the world accused them of coming between men and wives, of tying the disruptive ligature, of knotting the aiguillette that places the kink of impotence or emotional coldness in the entrails of a marriage seemingly secure in its snugly roofed and darkened house, and if the world not merely accused but burned them alive in the tongues of indignant opinion, that was the price they must pay. It was fundamental and instinctive, it was womanly, to want to heal – to apply the poultice of acquiescent flesh to the wound of a man’s desire, to give his closeted spirit the exaltation of seeing a witch slip out of her clothes and go skyclad in a room of tawdry motel furniture.

Our witches are three divorced women in their thirties, which was quite shocking in the late 1960s, when the book is set (distanced from author and reader in either time or space, as a Gothic novel should be). And yes, they set about having affairs with married men, and frankly it seems that everyone in town is having an affair with someone else and they all whisper about it but no one does anything about it but talk. When another woman in town gets left, they remark on the fact that she’s now gained the power if she’ll do anything with it, but they don’t make any effort to invite her to the coven. Sukie is the youngest, a bright redhead who writes for the local paper; Jane is the angry one, a cellist who also teaches piano; and Alexandra is the leader, being the oldest and most powerful.

The portrayal of Alexandra got on my nerves, too. This is entirely personal: she’s my age, height, and weight, and she thinks of herself as old and fat, and no one disagrees with her. I’m actually not sure how much I weigh – I haven’t weighed myself since I dated that guy in Texas, when I gained twelve pounds during a two-month relationship – but Lexa is the weight at which I no longer feel like I need to lose weight. He of the Midwest asked me the other day how much weight I’ve lost in North Carolina, and again I have no way of knowing, but I will say this. I can no longer grab an entire handful of excess at my side, and the tendons in my hands and feet are showing themselves again. I don’t have one of those sexual foot fetishes, but a man’s feet can be a pretty good indicator of how much body fat he’s carrying, and when I lived out there I had these thick pads of fat on top of my feet, and now they’re almost completely gone. My belt is getting loose, and when I put on my trousers yesterday I just pulled them up and fastened them without holding my breath or lying down or trying to stretch the waistband an extra inch or two. In Illinois I thought my trouser zippers were going to kill me, and now I don’t think of them at all.

On the first page they’re talking about a new man who’s moving to town, and while you may remember this as the same beginning to Pride and Prejudice, it’s not really anything like. At first they think he must be gay because he’s from Manhattan and has never been married, but once he gets there they all fall for him and he encourages all three. It’s never made explicit, but he’s very much a Satanic figure, and the name Darryl van Horne does sound a bit devilish. He fills in the wetlands, displacing the egrets that nest there; Alexandra doesn’t always see his aura when she’s surrounded by the peacock tails of color that other people’s emotions manifest; at one point his legs seem to be jointed the other way, as if he had goat legs; his face always seems cobbled from disparate pieces that don’t belong together; and he takes charge of their art and ends up controlling the witches. They eventually suspect that they’ve been serving him all along, but with no proof, they drift away from each other. There’s also all the magic going on that they’re not doing, and the way that their lovers end up dead. I also think it’s weird that his hot tub room and bedroom are both completely black. I suppose this draws more attention to the white bodies on display in those rooms, but it’s a little strange.

I don’t remember what gender politics were like in 1984; I was still too young to attend school back then. Maybe this sort of portrayal was normal or enlightened back then, but it’s not any more. It’s a book about women’s power, but the power comes from ceasing to have loved a man, so it’s still very anti-Bechdel. They may be empowered to the point that they have uncoupled copulation from procreation, but they freely admit to neglecting their children, and while the witches all have progeny, none of those children are main characters. Their pets are more important to the book than the children are. Their power makes them independent, outsiders in their own families and community, reliant on each other and no one else. It’s as if being a feminist requires (or induces) social isolation.

I suppose part of this review should mention love as the binding between the sexes, but I don’t see much of it in this book. I see desire and attraction, control and power and a lot of things that have nothing to do with love but get substituted for it. I think the lack of love is part of my trouble with the book. People are selfish and isolated and horrible to each other. In the beginning, Alexandra reminds herself that magic always has a price, a sacrifice necessary to maintain the balance of nature, and it bothers me that as we roll along they forget that. Maybe the dissolution of the coven is a result of their lack of sacrifice, their desire to get something for nothing, but Updike doesn’t address that explicitly.

He does address suicide. The only time we see something from a man’s perspective is when a guy kills his wife and then hangs himself. If this is a trigger, be ready to skip ten pages or so from the middle of Act Two.

I keep trying to wrap this up in a nice summative fashion – a story that builds and builds but doesn’t go anywhere, no Act Three climactic finish, the worst kind of realism – but all I can think of are more things to disagree with. I wonder how much of it is the book and how much is me. Recently someone told me that I’ve been saying No too much lately, so the other night I decided to say Yes to the drag show in a neighboring town. I had only been to one other drag show, and while the entertainment hadn’t been very interesting to me, the man I’d met there was amazing. So I tidied my apartment and cleaned myself up and went, only to find a crowd of around twenty people loosely centered around the door to the club. I walked through and stood for a moment directly in front of the door, cocking my head inquisitively at the handsome man stationed there. He told me that they couldn’t admit any more people, and I heard some of the students around me muttering about how shocked they were that any place in this town would be full, so I nodded at the handsome man and walked on down the street. I decided to find something else I could say Yes to, but there’s not much in that town, and I didn’t feel like drinking with a lot of straight college students (I wasn’t in a talkative mood), so I drove back to this place where I live, but I don’t know this town well – I’ve been in and out of the area for almost twenty years now, but I’ve never spent much time in this town – so I got lost and didn’t find downtown and eventually just came back home, thinking, This is why I keep saying No to the world. I did say Yes to the deer wandering in the road, meaning I didn’t hit her, and when I got home I looked up at the stars and said Yes. They’re always so amazing, out here away from streetlights, and I saw one suddenly rush to the ground, and I made a wish. The same wish I always make: Love.

 

This was originally published as Volume IV of Barker’s Books of Blood, but here in the U. S. it was given its own title as an independent story collection. Of the five stories here, four are about the same length as Gilgamesh, so I don’t know if I should call them short stories or novellas. This is why I generally borrow a term from music and call them ‘pieces.’

The Inhuman Condition

Karney finds a piece of string with three knots. As he unties them, monsters appear and do horrible things. The idea here is that we are an amalgam of the three: as humans, we are part reptile, part ape, and part child. It’s a karma story: bad things happen to bad people, while less-bad people are witnesses. The word condition echoes on in the other stories, which keeps pulling me back to this question, What is the human condition? What does it mean to be what we are? This story also introduces the idea of liberation; indeed, all these stories can be seen as breaking free.

The Body Politic

Hands revolt against the rest of the body. Protagonist glances down in an elevator to find himself holding hands with his boss. Eventually the hands start cutting themselves off to lead independent lives, leaving their humans to die of blood loss. The fear we’re playing on here is the idea that our bodies betray us, and don’t actually do what we want. It’s a rational fear; life is like when I (an unskilled player) try to play the guitar while drinking – I know where my hands go, but my fingers refuse to cooperate.

Dr Jeudwine came down the stairs of the George house wondering (just wondering) if maybe the grandpappy of his sacred profession, Freud, had been wrong. The paradoxical facts of human behavior didn’t seem to fit into those neat classical compartments he’d allotted them to. Perhaps attempting to be rational about the human mind was a contradiction in terms.

Freud claimed that there weren’t any accidents, that the subconscious mind always knows what it’s doing and acts on purpose, sometimes at cross purposes with the conscious part of our minds. Dr Jeudwine lives (briefly) in a world where the hands are no longer at the will of either conscious or subconscious; they have their own thoughts and their own wills. So I guess sometimes Freud was wrong. Now, that’s sort of a commonplace suggestion, and we talk more of his shortcomings than credit him for his good ideas.

Revelations

This story felt deeply meaningful to me, surprisingly powerful. It’s about the unhappy wife of a traveling evangelist, and the ghosts she encounters at a motel. Thinking back over it, I can’t put my finger on why this story felt so significant to me, but it really did. The ghosts are here on a quest for reconciliation: thirty years ago, she shot him in the chest at this motel and went to the electric chair for it. But the thing is, she’s still not sorry she shot him, and he’s still not sorry he cheated on her. People are themselves, and that doesn’t really change. Sometimes breaking up is the right thing to do. It’s unfortunate when murder is the only way to do say good-bye.

Everybody leaves something behind, you know.

I thought that I’d brought everything with me when I came back to North Carolina, but apparently I left most of my summer wardrobe in the Midwest, along with my winter coat and winter hats. It’s got me a little upset, not having the hat my best friend got me for Christmas eight months ago, or my favorite camouflage Superman T-shirt, but I think he’s going to bring them down, or possibly mail them. My car’s been acting up, so I only get out to see my friends on the three days that I work, which means that I’m quite sufficiently lonely to miss him and hope to see him again. The longer we’re apart the more those feelings will fade. I can recognize the fact that he isn’t good for me and still care about him; I guess that makes me strange in some ways. Then again, I’m on High Alert for other possibilities, so maybe it’s not him specifically that I miss.

Down, Satan!

This is the short one, only a sixth the length of the others. The title makes me think of some of the research I did into pre-Adamite religious groups in the Middle Ages, which sort of led into my briefly researching Medieval pornography (I was still a good Mormon back then, so I swear it was an accident, Mr Freud). But that’s not actually connected with the story. A man wants to have some sign from God, some personal communication, but feels ignored. He’s rich, so he donates a lot of money to charity, thinking that the visible signs of piety will attract God’s notice. It doesn’t work, so, after glancing back at his Old Testament, he decides to induce a divine intervention by flirting with the devil. Not just flirting, I suppose. He tries to build a replica of hell, and traps people there to torture them. Moral of the story: supernatural stuff is imagination, and nothing is more frightening than real people.

The Age of Desire

Scientists finally create an aphrodisiac that works, but it’s too strong. Their test subject was only interested in sex a couple of times a month, but after the injection it’s the only thing that exists for him. He attacks everyone he meets at first, even a cop who’s trying to arrest him. The cop enjoys it more than he’ll admit out loud, but the women end up dead. It’s sad. When he’s not having sex, he does enjoy the beauty of the world more than he ever had before, as if sexual desire amplifies aesthetic appreciation. But you can’t just rape women to death, so he eventually gets tracked down. During the chase, one of the law enforcement goes by a cinema, with the posters for a horror film in the windows:

What trivial images the populists conjured to stir some fear in their audiences. The walking dead; nature grown vast and rampant in a miniature world; blood drinkers, omens, fire walkers, thunderstorms and all the other foolishness the public cowered before. It was all so laughably trite. Among that catalogue of penny dreadfuls there wasn’t one that equaled the banality of human appetite, which horror (or the consequences of same) he saw every week of his working life. Thinking of it, his mind thumbed through a dozen snapshots: the dead by torchlight, face down and thrashed to oblivion; and the living too, meeting his mind’s eye with hunger in theirs – for sex, for narcotics, for others’ pain. Why didn’t they put that on the posters?

While it is true that I’m a good reader, so I react the way I should, and there were parts of the book that were really creepy, none of this made me as uncomfortable and disturbed as an utterly realistic film I watched the other night. One of my friends whom I met in Saudi Arabia told me that I couldn’t really be a Licensed Homosexual Male until I’d seen What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? I reacted the way I always do when someone else tells me I must do something – I agreed outwardly, but it’s taken me four years to getting around to watching the film. It bothered me much more than any of Barker’s fantasies. I guess it speaks to things that actually worry me: being dependent on my family, which is also a web of unwilling obligations, and being destroyed by them. I was too uncomfortable to go to sleep afterward, so I stayed up watching Community, but I started to hear this heavy breathing, as if some large animal were in the room where I thought I was alone, and I got myself good and scared until I realized that I had dozed off and it was my own breathing that was scaring me.

If you like horror, this is a good little collection. It’s got blood and guts, supernatural weirdness, and monsters, and what else do you need? There are also places where you stop and think, about what is really frightening and what isn’t. If you know these stories were written by a man who wasn’t yet public about being gay, then you see the evidence: emphasis on liberation, the reversals of what is monstrous and what is safe, the interest in male bodies, the unwelcome pleasure of touching and being touched. But you can ignore all that and just see it as mainstream horror, and that’s fine too. It was a good way to pass a Sunday afternoon, waiting for the laundry machines to do their work.