Monday, July 28, 2014

Putin's gifts to the book industry

Putin's rule may be disastrous for Russia and her neighbors, but one has to give him credit for reviving the field of English-language books about Russia.

For years, new books about Russia were as sparse as hen's teeth. Now there seems to be a new one out every month.

I'm particularly interested in this one: Ruling Russia: Authoritarianism from the Revolution to Putin by William Zimmerman. It was published in April.

This book would not have been written had Vlad the Invader been a boring but fundamentally decent head of state.

This week: reminders and coming attractions

The real world intervened over the weekend, such that I will be otherwise occupied throughout much of this week, and my presence here will be a bit sparser than usual.

But never fear, I haven't forgotten about you folks. Below I have listed one reminder and two coming attractions for the upcoming week:

The Maze free on Kindle: The Maze is free on Kindle throughout the rest of the day at Amazon.  Get it while the gettin's good.

Amazon vs. the corporate publishers: Later in the week (probably tomorrow or Wednesday), I'll have a quick rebuttal for another hit piece. Amazon has done more to make books widely available and affordable than any other entity. Yet there is a crowd that hates Amazon for doing this. 

Diversity and fiction: Brian L., a frequent commenter here, sent me a thoughtful email last night about the challenges of building diversity into fiction, in ways that don't seem contrived, or deliberately and self-consciously PC. 

Brian's questions are all good ones; and the topic deserves more than a quick 300-word blog post. But I won't be able to get to it until later in the week. 

As it turns out, I have a lot to say about this topic. Diversity in fiction is a legitimate issue, not just diversity with a small "d" (which can cover a very wide swath beyond the political definition of diversity) but also diversity with a capital "D": race, gender, etc. 

I'll get back to you all on this one later in the week, and we should have lots to talk about.

Bye for now.   

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Women against feminism?

This seems to be the "latest front" in the war over ideological feminism. (Google the title of this post).

Consider the sentiment expressed by this woman, reproduced below: 

The caption reads, "I don't need feminism, because I like when men say compliments about my body."

And no--this isn't a manifestation of "rape culture" or similar claptrap. We can approach such matters with a bit of common sense. We're all adults here, aren't we?

I always feel a little ambivalent on these matters because I am a feminist in my own way. I believe in women aiming high, both in academia and on the sports field. I love to see women succeed as entrepreneurs, in the arts, etc. Some of my favorite leaders, authors, and thinkers are women: Margaret Thatcher, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Jeane Kirkpatrick, just to name a few.

I'm all in favor of creating positive role models for girls and encouraging women to compete--with each other and with men, too.

What I don't care to see are pointless, nitpicking arguments about "microaggressions", "trigger warnings", and long-winded debates about whether or not opening doors for women is sexist

Nor do I care for feminism that paints every man as a rapist or a sexual harrasser by default. 

For example, if I simply remark that the woman in the above picture is attractive, the reader may not cogently build a slippery slope argument which says that what I really want is to sexually harass her or worse. 

Bottom line: Feminism should be about about equal rights and equal opportunities--not about creating pointless and unnecessary hostility between the sexes based on an oppression narrative. Nor should feminism be about denying the natural differences between men and women--most of which are restricted to private life and are of no relevance in education or the professions.

In short: I'm a feminist, but I may not be your kind of feminist.

And I'm certainly nothing like this guy.

Sunday/Monday giveaway: "The Maze"

Get The Maze free on Amazon Kindle for two days only: July 27 and July 28:

Book description:


Amanda Kearns is a hard-driving executive with a broken heart. Her male subordinates think she is a “machine”; they have no idea of the real, hidden Amanda.

Hugh Jackson is a software salesman with a defective heart—a condition that will kill him in a matter of months or years.

Evan Daley is a young college graduate adrift in a career for which he is ill-suited; he struggles with the scars of a barren, loveless childhood.

Amanda, Hugh, and Evan were expecting another routine day on the job at the Lakeview Towers office complex just outside Columbus, Ohio. But this massive structure hides a secret—a hidden passageway that plunges the unwary into a labyrinthine network of endless, twisting hallways: the Maze.

Trapped inside the Maze, Amanda, Hugh, and Evan must battle their way through perilous corridors filled with half-man, half-wolf beasts called “manwolves”, killer robots, and demonic wraiths known as “watchers”.

But they face their greatest challenge in the snowy, earth-like wilderness on the other side of the Maze. Here a group of ragtag rebels and settlers struggle against a tyrannical demigod known as the Director. The Director is determined to enslave or annihilate everyone within his reach, using a combination of worldly and unworldly weapons.

Amanda, Hugh, and Evan each find love and momentary comfort on the other side of the Maze. But they cannot escape the ultimate battle with the Director. The three Ohioans find themselves forced to choose—between the draw of love and loyalty, and the instinct for self-preservation.

A riveting emotional tale wrapped within a fantasy adventure, THE MAZE is sure to appeal to adult readers who fondly recall childhood “parallel universe” stories like “Through the Looking Glass” and “The Chronicles of Narnia”.

Stephen King's epic fail on Twitter

Stephen King Criticizes Christians, Tea Party Reaction to Border Crisis on Twitter, Gets Owned by Conservatives.

I've been following a little bit of Stephen King's back-and-forth's on Twitter myself. To put it mildly, King's Twitter performance is cringeworthy.

The problem isn't that King is a left-leaning Democrat. Plenty of novelists are left-leaning Democrats. Moreover, King has been in the public eye for decades now, and most people are at least vaguely aware of his political views.

The problem is that rather than presenting thoughtful arguments, King is simply sloganeering.

Whereas his novels represent original thinking, his tweets represent the parroting of other people's views.

The result is that King comes off like a typical rich elitist--the ultimate "limousine liberal".

King probably doesn't care at this point: He's 67, and has more money than he could ever hope to spend. But as one Twitter follower tweeted back at King: "Seriously, offending everyone is maybe not a good plan."

Writing: Give your villain a reason for being bad

If you paid attention during your high school English literature classes, you'll remember the concept of the tragic flaw: This is an innate weakness that compels a basically decent person to make bad decisions. 

Shakespeare is full of examples: Macbeth's overpowering ambition, Othello's jealousy. 

I recently read Dan Brown's Inferno. This book is full of villains, but the most interesting one is Bertrand Zobrist, a brilliant, fabulously wealthy geneticist. There is much about Zobrist that the reader can admire: his brains, his achievements--but Zobrist has a fatal flaw that turns him into one of the book's chief antagonists.

Zobrist is obsessed with a neo-Malthusian theory of overpopulation. He believes that humanity is on the verge of breeding itself into extinction. So Zobrist decides to remedy the situation:  Using his skills as a geneticist, he invents a plague that will wipe out over half of the world's population.

Of course, there is nothing admirable about a man who would kill millions of innocent people. But Zobrist believes that he is working for a higher good--that the ends justify the means. 

This makes Zobrist sympathetic to readers: Don't we all struggle with ends-justifies-the-means conundrums in daily life? Don't we all have obsessive ideas that occasionally override our better judgment? These might be ideas about politics, religion--or maybe an old jealousy or personal slight that we simply can't relinquish. 

This is only one example--and probably not the best one--taken from a recently popular novel. Crime writer Michael Connelly is also skilled at crafting sympathetic villains. Michael Connelly's villains are often driven by motivations that seem--within a highly specific context, at least--to be semi-rational. This is part of what makes Michael Connelly such a successful writer: Readers love his recurring main character, LAPD detective Harry Bosch; but they are also fascinated by his memorable villains.

Stephen Hunter is another crime novelist who knows how to write compelling, human villains. The best example is his novel Dirty White Boys. This novel contains a flawed hero and three villains who--while thoroughly evil--are almost as engaging as the novel's protagonist.

The opposite of the sympathetic villain is the cardboard cutout villain in a black hat. For me, this caricature has always been symbolized by the Snidely Whiplash character in the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons. 

This is the sort of villain who closes each scene with a sinister but cartoonish bwah-hah-hah!

The cardboard villain in the black hat can also be found in a lot of fiction, much of it entertaining but ultimately forgettable. Clive Cussler's villains commonly fall into this mold: Dirk Pitt (an unrealistic hero to begin with) does battle against one villain after another who is both supremely evil and completely devoid of any characteristics that make him human. If you've read a lot of Cussler's fiction, you may occasionally suspect that Cussler is simply renaming the same villain for each novel, and changing superficial attributes like nationality. You wouldn't be too far from the truth. (Don't get me wrong: I enjoy Clive Cussler's books from time to time, but as literature--even genre literature--they leave much to be desired.)

Since I've written a number of novels and short stories myself, you might fairly ask me if I practice what I preach. My answer is: I try. My favorite villain has always been the sort of villain who reacts badly to a less-than-perfect situation. 

Eleven Miles of Night is a horror novel. The main plot concerns a young filmmaker's trek down a haunted stretch of rural Ohio roadway--the so-called Shaman's Highway. Jason Kelley is the main protagonist of the novel. During his walk down the Shaman's Highway (as part of a paid contract job for a cable TV series, Ghost Hunting with Simon Rose) Jason encounters numerous supernatural phenomena.

But he also encounters various humans--both good and bad. The main human villain of Eleven Miles of Night is Terrence Coyne. We first meet Terrence Coyne in Chapter 8 of the book:

While Jason Kelley was pondering the wildlife along Route 68, Terrence Coyne was finishing his second can of Miller Light. His wife, Bridgette, regarded him with what he perceived to be an accusatory stare. He glared at her and she quickly looked away.
“Don’t look at me like that,” he said. He opened his refrigerator—their refrigerator, technically speaking—and saw that there were no more beers left. The one in his hand was the last one.
“I’m not looking at you,” she said.
“You were.”
“It’s just that you got drunk last night again. And this is already your second beer tonight.”
“I thought you said that you were taking no notice,” he retorted sharply. He knew that this was not exactly what Bridgette had said; but never mind that. His wife’s holier-than-thou attitude about his drinking never failed to infuriate him. All day he had to endure the tedium of working in his father’s feed store in Wagosh. Wasn't he entitled to a little bit of compensatory drinking? Wasn't he entitled to little bit of fun, for Chrissakes?
He heard his son begin to squall from the far end of their rented house and he felt his anger rise. “Can’t you keep that kid quiet?” he said, in a voice that was a fraction below a shout. He noticed that while there was no beer in the refrigerator, there was plenty of baby formula, and all the healthy crap that his wife liked: low fat milk and cottage cheese. Yogurt and lean ham. Bridgette was responsible for the grocery shopping and she knew that he liked to kick back with a few beers of an evening. Would it kill her to pick up a twelve-pack of Miller Light?
“I’m sorry,” Bridgette said, going out of her way to be conciliatory even though they both knew that he was being an asshole. This was just another part of Bridgette’s holier-than-thou act. It was a stratagem that she employed when he was in an obviously bad mood: She went out of her way to be nice so that he would not have an immediate excuse to vent and lose his temper. Then when he finally did lose his temper, he would feel like even more of an asshole because she had given him no just cause. “I’ll go check on Jeremy.”
He swallowed the last mouthful of beer and watched her walk past. Eighteen months after delivering the baby—their son, he reminded himself—she had lost the last traces of her post-pregnancy weight, and he had to admit that she looked not half bad. Of course, noticing her in that way was the thing that had gotten him into trouble to begin with, if you wanted to get technical about it, and thereby trace the circumstances that had brought about the ruination of his young life. Bridgette Coyne might be holier-than-thou about her husband’s drinking; but she had not been too holy to have sex with him back when she was Bridgette Mackey, a girlfriend whom he had seen as a temporary if enjoyable source of amusement. This side of Carey County wasn't known for its nightlife or its abundance of single young women. And Bridgette Mackey, then barely nineteen years old, had been one of the prettiest of those available. She had been young and sweet and ripe—oh, so ripe.
So Terrence had dallied and he had had his fun. All the while, Bridgette had seemed to be very impressed with him. And why shouldn't she have been? After all, he had been something of a sensation during his days as a running back on the Wagosh High School varsity football team, still less than ten years ago. He was also a scion of the moderately prosperous Coyne family of Carey County.
Then a positive pregnancy test had changed everything. Now he was twenty-six, and trapped with a wife who no longer interested him so much. His son was cute enough in certain moments; but he mostly ate and shat and cried a lot.
He was too young for all this. Wives and children and their associated responsibilities were for some men, he supposed—but not him. Not yet, at least.
Terrence’s days were spent in the tedium of his father’s feed store. Hour upon hour of checking store inventories and waiting on customers. Then balancing the store’s books, sweeping the floors, and setting up new displays. Pretending that a stupid question from a customer wasn't stupid, but the most important thing in the world.
And another thirty years of that were all that was waiting for him, thank you very much.
It was all because of Bridgette. Bridgette and her faulty birth control. When Terrence had met her, she had claimed that she was preparing for college. She had said that she wanted to attend the University of Dayton or Ohio State. A girl like that, Terrence had believed, would take pains to assure that she never got pregnant. Until the day she had informed him that the proverbial rabbit had died.
Bridgette came back into the kitchen. Her displeasure was written on her face. Not displeasure at the baby, of course. She cooed and fussed over Jeremy as if he were an angel descended from heaven. (Terrence wondered, for perhaps the thousandth time, if Bridgette had allowed herself to get pregnant in order to entrap him.) No, Bridgette was upset because he wasn't acting like Father of the Year and Mr. Happy Husband. He wasn't joining the party. Well, it was a party that he had never wanted to attend.
“I’m going to have a few beers with Glenn tonight,” he announced. “We made plans.” This was, in fact, a lie: A night of drinking with his buddy Glenn was a spur-of-moment decision, a reaction to the unexpected depletion of the house’s beer reserves. That and the sudden weight of his domestic claustrophobia. He knew that Glenn would be available. Glenn was always up for a few beers at the Parrot Inn.
“You mean Glenn Rutledge?” she asked.
“No, I mean Glenn Frey, the guy who played guitar with The Eagles. Ol’ Glenn wants to talk with me about his next solo album project. Of course I mean Glenn Rutledge. How many Glenns are there between Wagosh and John’s Mistake?”
“I was just asking,” she said sullenly.
“Well, it was a stupid question for you to be just asking.” He noticed that she recoiled from this rebuke as if his words had physically stung her. Good. That would repay her in part for what she had done to him. He could tell that she was thinking about talking back but thought better of it. She didn't want a repeat of what had happened to her one night last April. Truth be told, neither did he: His father had given him hell about that—and her parents, also. A county sheriff’s deputy had questioned him. “Domestic violence,” the uniformed prick had called it. Only his father’s clout in the county, and a promise to never, ever, ever strike his wife again—no matter what—had kept him out of jail.
“It’s already well past ten,” she said, as if he needed a town crier.
“Well, I won’t be gone late. I’ll be home around midnight,” he said.
Bridgette sighed, resigned. “Okay, Terrence. Have it your way.”
“I ought to get to have somethin’ my way,” he said. Before she could respond to him, he turned on his heels and headed out of the kitchen, through the living room and towards the front door. The main door was already open to let in the fresh air and the smells of the rural summertime. A screen door kept out the mosquitoes and the gnats.
Terrence pushed open the screen door, making a bit of a show of tossing the door back against its hinges. He let the door fall back against the doorframe with a loud slap of wood against metal. The air outside was warm and mildly humid. A trio of moths were fluttering around the front porch light.
It’s a good night for having a draft beer with a buddy. A damned good night for beer. He thought about how good it would be to see the familiar crowd at the Parrot Inn; and then he thought about their new waitress—a hot little number named Tina, or Riley, or something.
These thoughts were still in his mind as he climbed behind the wheel of his Chevrolet Camaro. It was a 2001 model. His car was more than ten years old. He had purchased it only last summer, using the little he had managed to save from his paycheck at the feed store, plus a supplementary loan from his father. A loan that both he and the old man knew would never be paid back.
From the driver’s seat of the Camaro, he surveyed the farmhouse in which he, Bridgette, and Jeremy lived. The rent was eight hundred per month—for space in a house built sometime around World War II, a house that stood too close to Route 68, a house built just a few years after a group of WPA workers had supposedly found ancient human remains while paving the roadway for automobile traffic.
He glanced upward, at the full moon that shone through the branches of the many trees that surrounded the house. The house was practically enveloped by woods. There had once been a farm here—many years ago—but the backyard now gave way to undergrowth a stone’s throw beyond the rear porch. There were a few long-fallow fields in the back that had been taken over by weeds, scrub bushes, and maple saplings—and serious woods beyond that. Almost any spot in Carey County was “country” by Cincinnati or Columbus standards; but this part of Route 68 was really out in the country.
Like practically every resident of the area, Terrence knew all about the Shaman’s Highway and its many legends. He had heard about the demonic witch that supposedly haunted the covered bridge farther down the road; he had heard about the hellhounds and the ghostly voices that were said to emanate from the woods late at night.
“And I ain’t never seen or heard a damned thing,” he said to himself, dismissively. The Shaman’s Highway caused him no fear whatsoever. His friend Glenn had once admitted that the highway creeped him out sometimes, and Terrence had badgered him about it mercilessly. The Shaman’s Highway was a campfire tale for children and imbeciles. No real man would be afraid of anything out here—unless he was a pussy, he had reminded Glenn.
Speaking of his drinking buddy: Before he started the Camaro’s engine, Terrence removed his cell phone from his pocket and typed out a brief message to Glenn Rutledge: “Meet me at the PI. 15 minutes.”
He started the Camaro, backed it up into the yard rather than the gravel turnaround, and then pointed the car at Route 68. He was about to pull onto the main road when his cell phone chimed with a new text message.
“See you there,” Glenn had responded.
Terrence smiled as he gunned the accelerator and the Camaro pulled out onto the Shaman’s Highway. As he had expected, Glenn was up for a beer. Glenn was always up for a beer. 

*        *        *

As you can discern from the above, Terrence is not exactly what most of us would describe as a nice person. He doesn't appreciate his wife and son. In fact, it's apparent that he's even a bit abusive.

However, it's also apparent that Terrence is a supremely unhappy individual: He feels trapped--in an unwanted marriage, and by economic dependence on his father...A job that he hates but must neverthless endure.

As a reader, you certainly won't approve of the way in which Terrence reacts to his situation. I certainly didn't while writing the book. But you can probably relate to Terrence's feelings of being "trapped" by life's circumstances. Most of us feel trapped at one time or another--if not by an unwanted relationship, then by the lack of a relationship that we do want.

Readers (I hope) will find Terrance to be a sympathetic, human villain, because he isn't a cardboard caricature in a black hat, bellowing bwah-hah-hah while he plots the downfall of civilization. Terrence is a human character who reacts badly to a bad situation. He has an alibi for the bad decisions he makes in Eleven Miles of Night. But the reader knows (or at least believes) that he or she would have made better decisions if placed in Terrence's shoes.

The sympathetic villain who is corrupted by a fatal flaw is a cousin of Shakespeare's tragic hero. There are other kinds of villains, too. For example, there is room for the thoroughly evil, unredeemable character, so long as that character has human touches that make him believable. 

I'll explore this in a subsequent post.

The Female Villain in Horror Fiction (Part 1)

My short story “Whatever” contains one of my favorite types of villains: the female villain. “Whatever” is a story about a young woman who is a sociopath—and quite possibly a homicidal sociopath. But more about that later. First we need to talk about the traditional roles of the female villain in a broader sense—especially as she appears in horror fiction. (I am going to discuss some films here, as well.)

I first became aware of the potential of the female villain in horror fiction back in 1987, when I watched Fatal Attraction. This is the movie that stars Glenn Close as Alex Forrest, the seductress turned stalker. Michael Douglas was cast as a happily married attorney, Dan Gallagher, who gives into an all-to-common temptation: He decides to have an illicit extramarital affair, believing that it would be a “no strings attached” encounter.

Alex, however, is playing by a different set of rules. When Dan attempts to leave and go home to his family, she slits her wrists in a bid for sympathy. Dan patches her up; but there is much more awry with Alex besides a couple of razor cuts. She begins showing up at the most inopportune moments and places. Her obsession escalates, finally turning violent. One of the creepiest scenes of the movie occurs when Alex furtively enters Dan’s home and boils the family’s pet rabbit.

Fatal Attraction turned out to be one of the highest grossing films of 1987, striking a unique chord with audiences as well as critics. From one perspective, the premise of Fatal Attraction was by no means unique. There are plenty of movies about stalkers, and spurned lovers who become enraged, and then violent. But most of these movies have a common characteristic: The villains in most stalker movies are men.

Can a male stalker be scary? Sure he can—especially if you happen to be the woman who is the object of his obsession. About twenty years ago, Julia Roberts starred in a particularly suspenseful stalker movie called Sleeping with the Enemy (1991). This film was tense, filled with edge-of-your-seat scenes like the famous “bathtub scene” that is depicted on the movie’s theatrical release poster.

Sleeping with the Enemy was another high-grossing film; but audiences tended to remember the tense scenarios and the emotions of the victim more vividly than they recalled the performance of Patrick Bergin, who was cast as Roberts’ abusive ex-husband. This wasn’t because Bergin did a poor job of the role, nor can the reason be attributed to a weak script.

The problem, as I see it, is that the male stalker has become something of a stock character. He almost always falls into one of two prototypical categories: The first is the socially inept male loner who develops an obsession for an acquaintance or stranger. This was the real-life John Hinckley Jr., who stalked Jodie Foster for months before shooting President Reagan in a bid to “impress” her.

The second is the charming, more socially adept man who is a hyper-egotistical control freak. Many women find him more frightening: Until he shows his abusive and manipulative side, this sort of stalker might have the skills to win a lady over. Depending on what you believe about the truth behind the most famous celebrity trial of the 1990s, this sort of stalker might be an O.J. Simpson.

O.J. and John Hinckley Jr. might be scary under the wrong circumstances; but the mere idea of either man isn’t going to keep anyone awake at night. The male stalker’s basis in cold, hard reality limits his potential for becoming a truly effective horror movie/fiction antagonist. He is kind of like a car crash: A car crash is frightening enough in real life; but it makes mundane material for horror fiction (unless the car crash happens to take place in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, as was the case during the opening scene of Dawn of the Dead (2004).)

A female stalker, conversely, is extraordinarily frightening because she is doing what women are not supposed to do. The rules of courtship ordain that men do most of the pursuing, while women do most of the choosing, rejecting, and “playing hard to get.” The overly aggressive pursuit of a love object is a distinctly male form of misbehavior. When a woman won’t take “no” for an answer, it is disorienting. It contradicts our paradigms regarding gender roles. (Even though the role of stalker is decidedly negative, it is still a “role;” and it has usually been associated with men.)

Another suspenseful movie that shows the dark side of obsessive female desire is The Hole (2001). This movie stars Thora Birch (the teenaged daughter in American Beauty) as a private school coed who orchestrates a devious—and ultimately deadly—deception in an attempt to place herself in the arms of the popular boy on whom she has a crush. The female antagonist in this film is less immediately threatening than Glenn Close’s obsessive Alex character. However, the fundamentally mundane nature of her motivation is in some ways even scarier. Many young people (including young women) are capable of engaging in darkly manipulating behavior when hormones and adolescent crushes are involved. Some of this behavior has the potential to turn deadly.

There are only a handful of movies about female serial killers. Among these, Monster (2003) is the one that most often comes to mind. Monster stars Charlize Theron as an unattractive, drug-addicted, mentally ill streetwalker who murders her clients. Based on the real-life case of Aileen Wournos, Monster is disturbing enough. But a better job was by James Patterson in his 2005 novel Honeymoon. Patterson’s lady serial killer, Nora, is drop-dead gorgeous and methodical. Her victims are not the patrons of low-cost prostitutes, but highly successful men who believe their lives to be safe and secure.

Thus far we have talked about worldly female villains—evil female characters that technically could exist. Now we’re going to delve unto the otherworldly. Supernatural films and literature provide additional possibilities for the female villain, because she can be endowed with extraordinary powers and a deeper level of evil. A female murderer is bad enough; but what about a female murderer sent from Satan himself?

The supernatural female villain is a construct that storytellers have recognized since time immemorial. One of the secondary supernatural villains in Beowulf is Grendel’s mother. An Anglo-Saxon heroic poem composed in Old English, Beowulf was conceived for a pre-Norman society that afforded women a relatively high status by the standards of pre-modern times. Women, however, were not expected to be warriors in Anglo-Saxon England; and the original audience for Beowulf may have had their imaginations stretched by the notion of a creature that was a woman, a mother, and also a monster. In addition, this female creature is one of the first examples in English literature of the sympathetic villain. Although the narrator of Beowulf is clearly against her, it is not difficult to understand her desire to kill the tale’s eponymous hero. After all, Beowulf has killed her son.

Even older than Grendel’s mother is the demonic creature known as Lilith. Her legend can be traced back to ancient Mesopotamia. Like the story of the Great Flood, Lilith’s precise nature was transmuted as she was adopted by different cultures in the regions.

Lilith likely originated with the Assyrians. The Assyrians described female demons known as lilitu. These had the basic body of a woman, but also the talons and the wings of bird. The lilitu were believed to sexually prey upon men.

The concept of the lilitu was subsequently adopted by the Hebrews, who converted multiple demons into a single entity. Lilith is referred to in a number of ancient Jewish texts, including the Dead Sea Scrolls. In a Jewish legend that serves as an alternative twist on the traditional story of Genesis, Lilith is Adam’s first wife. She was created at the same time as Adam. Unlike the subsequent Eve, Lilith was not created from Adam’s rib. She is a completely independent person in her own right.

Adam wanted Lilith to be subservient to him, but she refused. She then left Adam, and took up with the archangel Samael, who is usually depicted in the Talmud as “the angel of death.” In this way, Lilith was an early, malevolent version of the willful feminist.

Lilith later assumed her place in early Christian lore. The sexual anxieties of the European Middle Ages gave rise to the succubus, a female demon who tempts men (especially priests) with the promise of illicit sexual intercourse. Lilith, the wayward first wife of Adam, was associated with the succubi, and believed to be one of their number.

In more recent times, Lilith has appeared as a demonic antagonist in various horror movies and novels. The HBO series True Blood even cast Lilith as the “mother of all vampires.”

The ancient Greeks also had their share of supernaturally endowed and fearsome women. Medusa is the best known of these; but she is by no means the only mythological lady in this category. As ancient Greece was a pre-Christian society, many of these figures are supernatural femme fatales rather than more blatantly demonic creatures. In one leg of the journey of The Odyssey, Odysseus must be lashed to the mast of his ship in order to resist the song of the sirens, a group of female entities who lured (male) sailors to their deaths on the rocks that surrounded their home island.

Women have always had sexual power, and men have always been uneasy about it. The ancient Greeks considered feminine temptations to be a distraction; the Victorians of the late nineteenth century viewed them more darkly. During this period, the view of femininity was sharply split along the lines of the old whore-Madonna dichotomy.

In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the motherly Mina Murray Harker is the personification of the Madonna. Mina is devout, prudish, and platonically admired by Dr. Abraham Van Helsing. In the novel’s closing paragraph, Van Helsing reflects on Mina’s goodness while bouncing her young son on his knee:

“’This boy will some day know what a brave and gallant woman his mother is. Already he knows her sweetness and loving care. Later on he will understand how some men so loved her, that they did dare much for her sake.’”

Attacked by Dracula, Mina is threatened with the horrible prospect of becoming a vampire herself. But she is able to resist with the help of Van Helsing. Another female character of Stoker’s famous vampire novel is not so fortunate. Juxtaposed against Mina is the flirtatious and flighty Lucy Westenra. Only nineteen years old, Lucy attracts more than her share of male attention. She is as sexy as it is possible for a young woman to be within the constraints of Victorian morality. Lucy has three suitors, who find themselves hopelessly drawn to her. For a while she frustrates all of them, before finally agreeing to marry Arthur Holmwood, the dashing son of a British lord.

But Arthur is not to have Lucy, either. Before the two can marry, Lucy succumbs to the darkness of Count Dracula. Unlike Mina, Lucy is transformed into a female vampire. Her fiancé, Arthur, is compelled to drive a stake into her heart, lest Lucy suffer eternal damnation.     

The link between unchecked feminine sexuality and damnation is established more overtly in one of Dracula’s earlier scenes. Jonathan Harker, the love interest of the pure and motherly Mina, encounters three female vampires while staying in Castle Dracula during his journey to Transylvania. One does not have to be a professor of English Literature in order to detect the sensual undertones in the following passage:

“They whispered together, and then they all three laughed, such a silvery, musical laugh, but as hard as though the sound never could have come through the softness of human lips. It was like the intolerable, tingling sweetness of water glasses when played on by a cunning hand. The fair girl shook her head coquettishly, and the other two urged her on.

One said, ‘Go on! You are first, and we shall follow. Yours is the right to begin.’

The other added, ‘He is young and strong. There are kisses for us all.’

I lay quiet, looking out from under my eyelashes in an agony of delightful anticipation. The fair girl advanced and bent over me till I could feel the movement of her breath upon me. Sweet it was in one sense, honey-sweet, and sent the same tingling through the nerves as her voice, but with a bitter underlying the sweet, a bitter offensiveness, as one smells in blood.”

This is one of the creepiest and most memorable scenes of Dracula, and it retains its power a century after the book’s original publication. I liked the scene so much that I adapted elements of it for my own vampire story, “The Vampires of Wallachia.” (My female vampires, however, are more modern; and they appear in a Chinese restaurant rather than in a European castle.)

To be continued….

The haunted road and "Eleven Miles of Night"

One of my recent novels, Eleven Miles of Night, is a story about a haunted road in rural Ohio. (This is only part of the story, of course, but it's a big part.)

While the haunted road in Eleven Miles of Night, the so-called "Shaman's Highway", is completely fictional, there are plenty of roads in the real world that have spooky reputations. 

A few years ago, Jamie Frater wrote an article entitled "10 Roads That Will Scare You Stupid". This article is worth checking out if you're interested in learning about roadways with dark reputations.

As chance would have it, one of these roads, Dead Man's Curve in Clermont County, Ohio, is less than five miles from my front door. (This road is number 8 on Frater's list.) I've been over it many times.

The haunted road is particularly scary, I think, for two reasons:
1.) Sometimes you can't avoid it: If you want to avoid a reputedly haunted house, the solution is simple: Don't go in there. Don't like graveyards? No problem. Modern life seldom requires you to enter one. 
But what do you do if a haunted roadway is the only way of traveling between say--your house and your workplace? 
In that case, you don't have much of a choice. 
Dead Man's Curve in Clermont County, Ohio isn't located along some lonely, obscure county road. It is part of a major highway (albeit in a rural section of that highway). Each day, thousands of people travel over Dead Man's Curve on their way to and from work, school, etc.  
According to local legend, those who travel over the road around 1 a.m. might see something disturbing.
2.) The haunted roadway contradicts our notions of the secular and modern: Roads are symbols of modernity, of humankind's ability to tame the forces of nature.  
But when a road becomes a source of persistent supernatural phenomena, that undermines our assumptions regarding modern society. 
Supposedly, modern civilization banished the unknown to the realm of "superstition".  
Tell that to the people who live on or near Kelly Road, in the vicinity of Ohioville, Pennsylvania. As Frater writes:

"A one-mile section of Kelly Road, Ohioville, Pennsylvania is an area that has had numerous reports of paranormal activity and bizarre happenings. Reports say that when animals have entered this haunted stretch of road they suddenly turn from peaceful and quiet to violent (think Cujo), chasing after other animals and even people. The road is surrounded by dark, thick and creepy forest where white apparitions and noises that can’t be explained have been seen and heard. No one is quite sure why this short section of road is haunted but theories suggest that is could be somehow connected to cult activity that was once taking place in the area and curses that have been put on the land for some reason."

A haunted roadway is therefore invasive: Sometimes there is only one way to travel from point A to point B, and that is via a stretch of road that has a nasty history and an equally nasty reputation. 

The conveniences of modern automobile travel won't save you. There are no shortcuts or detours . You simply have to drive and take your chances, and hope that the stories are only legends.

Why many readers dislike speculative fiction

It is no secret that so-called "speculative" fiction--horror, fantasy and science fiction--is generally regarded as "lower grade" fiction. I know many avid readers who refuse to touch it, in fact.

The problem is not that people aren't open to speculative elements. Most readers, in fact, are open to speculative elements in their fiction. They've been trained to be open to it, in fact, ever since their first grade school and high school literature classes. 

Speculative elements can be found throughout the body of Western literature. Consider, for example, the ghost of Hamlet's father and the witches in Macbeth. A fair number of "classical" literary works contain fantastic and supernatural elements. 

The problem, rather, is that so much of modern speculative fiction is simply poor writing--plodding plots, wooden characters, and repetitive themes. (How many teenage vampires have we see in books and film in recent years? And how many more will the publishing industry throw at us in the years to come?)

But what about Stephen King? Here is a horror writer who has developed not only a cult following--but who has also made inroads among general readers. His sales numbers prove as much.

Stephen King succeeds so lucratively not because his stories are particularly "frightening". There are a few spooky moments in King's assorted novels, but nothing to compare to The Exorcist. I've never had a sleepless night over a Stephen King novel. I suspect that most of his readers would report the same.

King finds a wide readership because he creates compelling characters with whom readers can identify. His plots, moreover, involve basic human dilemmas that are not far removed from the experiences of everyman and everywoman--even if they occur against a supernatural backdrop. 

When writing speculative elements, it is important to create compelling monsters, supernatural villains, and other worlds. But never at the expense of creating a compelling story. 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The kappa and the giant salamander

From the Kamogawa River of Japan. Giant Salamander of Japan not the Largest in the World

"These giant salamanders are rarely seen because they seldom come out from their aquatic habitats in cool, well-oxygenated mountain streams. They can't see too well too but have special photosensitive cells in the skin that give them pretty good perception. 
 Some people say that these animals inspired tales of the legendary kappa in Japan."

The Japanese characters for kappa are 河童 , in case you're interested.

India and the real "war on women"

Woe is the Indian subcontinent. This is absolutely barbaric--and in 2014Thousands of women, accused of sorcery, tortured and executed in Indian witch hunts

Life after Harry Potter

This I didn't know: JK Rowling also writes crime fiction under a pseudonym: JK Rowling plans crime bookspree

She must truly love the work; she certainly doesn't need the money!

Ghosts in the suburbs

From my neighboring state of Pennsylvania:

VIDEO: ‘Ghost’ attacks news reporter in Pennsylvania home

Watch the entire video. While many of these "ghost videos" are undeniably hoaxes, this one does raise some interesting questions. 

If this one is a hoax (which who knows--maybe it is), it would have required the collusion of multiple parties, including the reporters who filed the story.

Brad Thor vs. Eric Holder

Brad Thor makes plenty of money on his novels alone, which already have a large following. 

Thor could simply sit back and collect his royalty checks. He doesn't have any business-related need to wade into the arena and fight the good fight, in which he usually takes the conservative, politically incorrect side on the key issues of our day.

Thor is to be commended for doing so--all the more so because he doesn't have to.

Fouad Ajami 1945-2014

I'm a little late on this one, but you should read a book on the Middle East from Fouad Ajami if your schedule allows. 

Dr. Ajami truly understood the conflicts of that region both from an insider's as well as an outsider's perspective: