Monday, March 29, 2010

Which Witch is Which?

I've been thinking about witchcraft lately. I know, that's bizarre, but there's a reason (two, actually). First, I've got a fantasy/horror short story, "The Burning of Sarah Post," under consideration by a couple periodicals, and it's a tale of witchcraft set in a quasi-Puritan past and full of archaic diction and psychedelic imagery. If anything comes of it, you'll be the first to know.

The other reason my thoughts have turned to witchcraft recently is that I was asked to contribute an essay about The Exorcist to a forthcoming book commemorating the film (and the novel on which it was based). The invitation sort of came out of the blue, and I've been trying to think of an angle to approach the essay, something that hasn't been said a hundred times before (always a challenge when dealing with a text that's become such a cultural icon). It seems to me, though, that one might approach the story of The Exorcist as a continuation of a very old tale we've been telling in America for hundreds of years, dating at least back to the Salem witchcraft hysteria: the tale of pre-pubescent girls whose supposed dalliance with malign powers confounds the social order. I won't go into great detail here--in part because I'm still formulating my ideas--but I do wonder why this tale has proven so durable. In an earlier post ("Domestic Terror"), I commented on the pervasiveness of invasion stories in American literature and culture: perhaps because our nation was founded on invasion, we Americans seem to have an obsession with the idea that some alien threat is trying to invade us. But the witchcraft story poses an intriguing variant: while on the one hand it's consistent with the invasion narrative's broad outlines, involving an invisible agent's insinuation into a domestic enclave and the ensuing collapse of personal and social boundaries, its focus on girls just entering sexual maturity is striking.

Maybe this says nothing more than that women historically have been the prime suspects of witchcraft accusations--but that still doesn't answer the question of why adolescent women are featured so prominently in these American versions. What is the particular cultural threat embodied by these youngsters? What is the particular cultural fascination in seeing their bodies spectrally ravaged (and ravished)?

I'll have to do more thinking about this, obviously--in some ways, I'm using this post just to get some of my thoughts on the page--but I'm as eager as anyone to see how it all turns out.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Random Thoughts on the Health Care Bill

I've been reading some of the (mostly hysterical) responses to the House passage of the health care bill, and they've frankly shocked me. Oh, the far-right nuts who are ranting about socialism can safely be ignored, but then there are the basically mainstream, basically decent people who are up in arms about universal health care's impact on their own plans or pocketbooks. Leaving aside the fact that these folks are mostly uninformed--no one who has insurance is going to lose it, only the priciest of plans are ever likely to be taxed, and overall the plan will control costs and lower premiums--their reaction does raise certain questions. Such as:

1. When did we become so selfish?

2. Why do we believe health care is good enough for us but not for other people?

3. How have we managed to forget that all the inalienable rights named by the Declaration of Independence--"life," "liberty," and "the pursuit of happiness"--are inseparable from health?

4. What sort of society are we when we have no qualms about funding the means of death--in the form of our bloated military--but panic at the thought of funding the means of life?

5. Where are we headed as a people if we fail to ask or answer these questions appropriately?

The health care bill, in short, is a test of our nation's morality. That so many oppose it so vehemently and unthinkingly suggests that as a people, we're failing that test.

Friday, March 19, 2010

An Oldie But a Goodie

An earlier blog post of mine, "E-Pocalypse? Not!," was just published in the environmental zine Canary. It's been revised and expanded to take into account the mega-phenomenon of James Cameron's Avatar, which I see as another faux-environmentalist fantasy. (Though some conservatives, I was astonished to discover, see the film as a recruitment vehicle for eco-terrorists. I guess conservatives see terrorists everywhere they look.) Personally, I think the additions--not only about Cameron's film but about real-life space colonization schemes--make it a stronger essay. But read for yourself and let me know what you think!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

And More Stupid People

For those who were wondering about the identity of "D'Andre Dour" in my last post, that would be South Carolina lieutenant governor Andre Bauer, who earlier this year justified his opposition to reduced-price lunches for poor students with the following words of wisdom:

"My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that. And so what you've got to do is you've got to curtail that type of behavior. They don't know any better."

How to respond to the gargantuan stupidity, cruelty, and downright hatefulness of such sentiments? How to talk to someone who likens poor children to "stray animals"? How to reason with the sort of mind that imagines the solution to poverty in this country is to let the utterly blameless victims of that social malignancy starve?

But you know, Bauer's stupidity has a noble pedigree. Charles Darwin, in The Descent of Man (1871), came to pretty much the same conclusion:

"Man scans with scrupulous care the character and pedigree of his horses, cattle, and dogs before he matches them; but when he comes to his own marriage he rarely, or never, takes any such care. He is impelled by nearly the same motives as the lower animals, when they are left to their own free choice. . . . Yet he might by selection do something not only for the bodily constitution and frame of his offspring, but for their intellectual and moral qualities. Both sexes ought to refrain from mariage if they are in any marked degree inferior in body or mind; [and] all ought to refrain from marriage who cannot avoid abject poverty for their children."

Darwin's argument, which would later be picked up by eugenicists on both sides of the Atlantic, suggests that the theory of natural selection may have been less revolutionary than many imagine: it may, that is, have been little more than an extension into the biological realm of principles that were already firmly believed about human society. (Thus Social Darwinism, rather than being an outgrowth of evolutionary theory, may in fact have lain at the root of that theory.) Such arguments would be used in the twentieth century not only to justify draconian immigration laws (which conservatives such as Bauer also support) but to advocate and in some cases actualize the sterilization of "inferior" individuals. Only in the most repressive of regimes--Nazi Germany being the preeminent example--would such theories be carried into widescale practice. But the principle is the same: the principle that innate genetic characteristics, operating entirely independent of social forces, dictate the reproductive tendencies, the future productivity, and the social value of persons or peoples.

Which is not to say that Bauer is a Nazi. Just that he's an incredibly stupid idiot who should be deprived of all nourishment until he's no longer capable of breeding.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Just a Theory

Building on new initiatives that would require the teaching of evolutionary and climate science to be counterbalanced by competing theories (intelligent design, climate skepticism), Republicans have now set their sights on an even more pernicious (though widely accepted) scientific theory: the theory of gravity.

"The prevailing orthodoxy among liberal elites is that some mysterious, invisible, unmeasurable force actually sticks our bodies to the planet," said conservative talk-show host Lush Rimshot. "We maintain that our children must be taught both sides of the debate."

When asked to specify the alternative to the theory of gravity, Rimshot mumbled something about tiny invisible angels sent by the Apostle Paul to gently lower true believers to earth.

Similar attacks on the so-called "GraviNazis" were afoot in Texas, where a bill was introduced in the state legislature that would require children to hang upside down from monkey bars for six straight hours until loss of consciousness enabled them to experience a condition resembling weightlessness, and in South Carolina, where the lieutenant governor, D'Andre Dour, likened belief in gravity to the practice of withcraft. "My ol' granny done tole me ya don't feed mincemeat to snappin' dawgs," Dour told the Columbia Star-Centinel. "If'n ya do, them bad boys'll jist keep on breedin'." When asked to elaborate on the relationship this piece of folk wisdom bore to the science of gravity, Dour dropped to the floor, making the sign of the cross and foaming at the mouth.

Opponents of gravity-only science education note that the scientific community is deeply divided over the validity of Newtonian physics, the heliocentric theory, and indeed everything that isn't written down plain in the Good Book. Senator James Inahuff of Oklahoma went even farther, likening gravity-deniers to the Founding Fathers, whose radical and unprecedented defense of individual liberty for free white property-holding aristocratic male Virginian slaveholders was viewed as radical and unprecedented at the time.

"We will win in the end," Inahuff predicted. "Truth always wins over falsehood. The theory of gravity will go down to bitter defeat when enough people come to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior." Were the theory of gravity legitimate, Inahuff noted parenthetically, the Good Lord would never have been able to walk on water.

Lots of equally stupid people were unavailable for comment.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Another short--VERY short--story of mine has been published, this one in the journal Writers' Bloc. The story, titled "Review," has a somewhat interesting history: it began as the first chapter of a novel, then morphed into a short story when it became evident to me that the concept was more suitable for a short work than a long one. That's unusual for me; typically, ideas present themselves to me immediately as either story-length or novel-length (I've got a bunch of the latter written down, awaiting the time when I'll be able to devote myself to them). I'm not certain what makes one idea novel-worthy and another story-worthy, but I think you'll see when you read this one that the decision to pare it way down was the right one.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Ye Gods!

I saw the first Percy Jackson movie with my daughter today (she's a big fan, and we've been reading the books together, having completed the Harry Potter series last year). For those who haven't heard of it, the conceit behind the Percy Jackson series is that the gods of Olympus are very much alive and well; they've settled in America (for some reason having to do with their affinity for freedom or world dominance or something like that); and they've continued to parent half-blood children like young Percy, son of Poseidon and a mortal woman. In the first book, The Lightning Thief, Percy discovers his lineage and embarks on a quest to find the lightning bolt Zeus believes he's stolen. If he doesn't return it to Zeus by the summer solstice, immortal warfare will ensue and the world as we know it will probably cease to exist.

The book isn't bad, rather hip and arch and American, very unlike the stolidly British HP series. The author, Rick Riordan, is a somewhat better stylist than J. K. Rowling; he says more with less. And Percy, though he's essentially a demigod version of Harry--an abandoned, lonely child who discovers he's actually the most important person in an alternative world he hadn't known existed--is an appealing character, his pre-teen angst convincingly drawn and his quest to find his godly father and vanished mother emotionally resonant.

The movie wasn't half bad either--my daughter scored it a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10, and that's about where I'd have put it too--though of course it weeded out much of the interesting plot and character development in favor of strangely unconvincing CG monsters and frenetic car chases. Its deepest problem was that there was no real sense of urgency to Percy's quest; though we were told that divine warfare would decimate the planet, the most the movie could muster to suggest this threat was a bizarre storm cloud that slowly expanded till it covered most of North America. Maybe it's just me, but big dark computer-generated clouds don't exactly give me the heebie-jeebies.

Watching that cloud, though, I did wonder why the Olympian gods are back this year--not only in The Lightning Thief but in the soon-to-be-released remake of the 1981 Ray Harryhausen classic Clash of the Titans. Maybe it's no more than the perpetual fascination of these timeless myths, which I devoured as hungrily as any child from age 7 to 14. Or maybe it's our equally perpetual need for otherworldly explanations to the troubles of our own time; maybe that looming stormcloud signifies our anxieties concerning such god-sized problems as the economic crash, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the collapse of our planet's climate.

Fantasy, as I've argued in other posts, points both toward and away from the cultural crises of its time; it tells us what we're worried about while simultaneously telling us there's no need to worry. So instead of global warming we get warring godheads. Instead of war in this world we get the war of the worlds. Instead of corporate thieves we get lightning thieves. It's a handy trick; it may even be a necessary one. Who can face the realities of life without a little fantasy? Who can resist calling on the gods, beseeching their aid, cursing them for our fate?

In the myth of Perseus, the hero defeats Medusa by watching her reflection in his shield, thus avoiding direct contact with her petrifying gaze. Fantasy is like that: it shows us the horrors of the real world as if in a mirror, and in so doing places us at a safe distance from them. But in doing so, of course, it also gets them backward.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

On Looking at My Daughter's Breasts

Don't let the title of this post fool you: it's the title of a new creative nonfiction essay/memoir of mine, published in Quicksilver, and it's not what it seems. I think I mentioned in a previous post that I had lots and lots of pieces accepted at the tail end of 2009, and now they all seem to be coming out in a rush, so I'm posting them here as fast as they arrive. This one is the tiniest bit dated--my daughter's now eleven, not ten as in the piece--but the feelings expressed therein haven't changed.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Cats in the Backyard

Following close on the heels (hells?) of "Your Name Here," another fantasy/horror story of mine, "Cats in the Backyard," has just appeared in the e-zine Niteblade. I'm especially thrilled because this is a.) one of my favorite stories of all time; b.) the first paying story I've published; and c.) illustrated! Thanks to the editor and artist at Niteblade for doing such a terrific job!