Mary Roberts Rinehart, the woman who inspired Batman

“She was a wife and mother; a nurse, feminist, adventuress, playwright, comedy writer, war correspondent, advocate for Native American rights who was initiated into the Blackfoot Tribe. She marched for women’s suffrage. She wrote about the injustice of wife-beating long before it was popular to take up such a cause. She was a breast cancer survivor who advocated for breast exams in an age when such things weren’t often talked about. She was the first female war correspondent on the Belgian Front in World War I; King Albert chose her to take his first statement on the war. She crossed the Cascades on horseback over a little-explored pass that nearly killed her, and floated uncharted rapids on the Flathead River in a wooden boat.”

William Gibson and Neuromancer

I wish I could remember the source, but years ago I read an article on predictions about technology that included one made around 1910 about the then-infant technology of aircraft. As I recall, the person being quoted was convinced that air travel would soon lead to national boundaries being dissolved and a global society of peace and good will towards men.

Within a few years, airships became killing machines. Only history buffs remember this now, but both Zeppelins (rather steampunk,don’t you think?) and airplanes bombed civilians during the First War World of 1914-1918.

Compared to what happened later as the technology improved, the casualties were light. However, by the 1930’s, the Spanish Civil War—a sort of dress rehearsal for World War II—included such horrors as Guernica. At the Nuremberg trials, Hermann Goring testified that he had seen the Spanish war largely as an opportunity to test the weaponry of his new Luftwaffe.

William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, even though it is rather dated in some respects, is still well worth reading. Gibson got a lot right. He got things right because he understood that “the street finds its uses for things.” Bad uses, generally.

In 1984, organized gangs of sophisticated cyber criminals were pure science fiction. They are now a fact. Ten or fifteen years ago, if you took sensible precautions, you could keep the kids writing amateur malware in their bedrooms out of your computer.

Now there is malware crafted by professional criminals with graduate degrees in computer science. Some of this stuff can eat security software for breakfast.

There is good reason to believe that cyber-weapons are being created—and have already been used—by nation-states. These weapons bear the sort of resemblance to the crude computer viruses and worms of a decade ago that a tactical nuclear device does to a slingshot. If you read Neuromancer, you may remember a stolen military cyber-weapon of immense power that was an important plot device. If you haven’t read the book, I won’t spoil it for you here.

Gibson’s sprawl trilogy (Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive) describes a polluted and overpopulated world where the rich can be young and beautiful almost indefinitely while most people live in toxic squalor. The vision of his early novels is not a happy one, but, in predicting the future, pessimists have a better track record than optimists.

Ghosts on Christmas Eve

Henry James began his novella The Turn of the Screw with this:

“The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen upon a child.”

In Victorian England it was customary to tell ghost stories on Christmas Eve. Think of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol.” James used that tradition as the framing story for his tale.

There is an odd sort of religious element in the genesis of Henry James’s story. I understand—I have not researched this enough to state categorically that it’s true—that the Archbishop of Canterbury, no less, told James an allegedly true story about a lady whose children were being menaced by a pair of ghosts in an old manor house. (James dined, at times, in rather rarefied circles.)

Something that has occurred to religious readers of The Turn of the Screw is that although the Anglican Church does have a rite of exorcism, and the beleaguered governess is the daughter of a vicar, she never seeks professional help in defending her charges against what she must believe is either (a) a pair of demons or (b) the unquiet souls of the damned. James decided that the story would be more interesting if his protagonist decided on a do-it-yourself approach. (As I’ve said before, plots are driven by bad decisions.)

I’ve noticed that although ghost stories necessarily require discussion of a core religious issue—life after death—modern ghost stories rarely operate within an explicit theological framework.

Such frameworks are certainly available. Some forms of Buddhism include complex models of the next world—one could, for example, wind up as a “hungry ghost” consumed by greed, envy, and unfulfilled desires. Writers can use these off-the-shelf structures for supernatural tales.

Jewish folklore is a rich source of such material, and Jewish sacred texts make it clear that, in ancient times, a rabbi’s job description included the necessary skills to dispatch demons should the need arise.

By the time the Reformation erupted in the early 1500’s, the Catholic Church had built an elaborate map of the hereafter that included Hell, Heaven, and Purgatory. The Church had developed systems and rituals to deal with escapees from the neither regions and to assist souls in Purgatory.

One way to read the 1990 film Jacob’s Ladder is that the protagonist is in Purgatory. There is a conversation in the film that explicitly references Catholic mysticism, which makes me think that is the case. In the 2001 film The Others, there is no explicit explanation for the characters’ predicament, but the frequent references, albeit not terribly pro-faith, to Catholicism make it at least possible that they are in Purgatory.

The early Protestants would have none of Purgatory. Some of them, like the early New England Puritans later on, refused to let a clergyman anywhere near a funeral. They didn’t want anything that smacked of Catholicism, such as a religious funeral rite or prayers for the dead. For these people, the soul was already in either Heaven or Hell, and no clergyman could do anything about it. A funeral was merely an exercise in waste disposal. (And, by the way, during the few years the Puritans ran England, they outlawed Christmas, and, in general, tried to outlaw fun. H. L. Mencken once described a Puritan as someone who lived with the haunting fear that, somewhere, someone was happy. )

It’s difficult to say anything about Protestant maps of the hereafter that covers all cases. It’s like trying to say something definitive about desktop Linux computer systems. There are hundreds of different roll-your-own versions that can be very different from each other, and there are exceptions to the exceptions to the exceptions. However, to oversimplify for purposes of this blog, Protestants tend to either believe that the souls of the dead remain unconscious until Judgment Day (not terribly helpful for a writer of ghost stories) or get shipped off to either Heaven or Hell right after death. Not a lot of wiggle room for a writer of ghost stories.

Most of us who write spook stories avoid even implicit religious issues. There are exceptions.

I haven’t seen the movie, but I understand that the recent film Possession is about a rabbi attempting to exorcise a dybbuk that has possessed a child.

Russell Kirk’s story “The Invasion of the Church of the Holy Ghost” operates very much within a High Episcopal/Anglo-Catholic religious world view. It is about a contemporary priest in an inner-city church who finds himself at war with the damned souls of a vicious street gang.

A somewhat less clear-cut case that I’ve decided to include is Joyce Carol Oates’s splendid story “Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly.” It’s The Turn of the Screw told from the point of view of the ghosts. Particularly as regards Miss Jessel, it conveys the horror and degradation of damnation in especially visceral and disturbing terms.

In case you have never heard of it, for my money the best film adaption (with the creepiest children) of The Turn of the Screw is the 1961 movie The Innocents. The screenplay was written by Truman Capote. Yes, that Truman Capote. Actors get all the attention in movie land, but a good screenplay is the foundation upon which everything else is built. Happy Holidays!

That will teach Amazon to send me emails!

I got an email from Amazon the other day offering me a chance to click on a list of their 10 best-selling books for 2012. I did. I found that I have read none of them.

I’m glad.

I am basing my comments on blurbs of the books from the Amazon website and on the comments of reviewers who allegedly did read these books. As I have said before, anything like a star rating or a review should be treated with extreme skepticism, so my assessment of these books may not be fair. Anyway, here goes:

Fifty Shades Freed by E. L. James AND the Fifty Shades Trilogy sold as a set.
Spank me again, O Rich Master, I’m a bad little girl unworthy of your virile greatness!

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Has the husband murdered his missing wife? Okay, kids, if you believe you could sit down right now and sketch out the plot in about five minutes, raise your hands.

No Easy Day by Kevin Maurer and Mark Owen
How we killed Bin Laden. Excuse me, but didn’t good newspapers cover all that at the time?

The Marriage Proposal by Jennifer Probst
Obscenely rich guy has to quickly marry somebody to keep his billions. Yeah, that happens a lot. I’m not sure if the prospective bride has to show up in a pumpkin coach at a ball while wearing a gown made by magical mice, but I wouldn’t bet against it.

Reflected in You by Sylvia Day
One reviewer said this was very similar to 50 Shades except it has a story line . . . of sorts. I’m not sure I would have added an actual plot. Why tamper with perfection?

The Racketeer by John Grisham
A Federal Judge has been murdered. Who did it? Why am I seeing Pelicans wearing briefs?

Defending Jacob by William Landay
An attorney’s fourteen-year-old son is charged with murdering a fellow student in a small New England town. I will not make light of this one. It’s too similar to the recent horrors in Connecticut. In one of my jobs, I sometimes had conversations with real murderers. I didn’t find it entertaining.

The Innocent by David Baldacci
Hit man decides to take a pass on an assignment and must run from his employers. How many hands do I see, class?

Amazon is a huge seller of books, so this sample of what sells is statistically significant.

It tells us that if you want to become a best-selling author your books should include lots of gunfire, a statistically improbable number of lawyers among the characters (when was the last time you saw a best-selling novel where the protagonist was a chemist or bricklayer or short-order cook or clerical worker or licensed practical nurse or mail carrier?) and women who yearn for insanely rich, narcissistic men who will paddle them and send them to their rooms without their suppers.

To be fair, as I said, I haven’t read any of these books. For all I know, some of them may be models of beautiful prose. Maybe some of them contain an idea or two or address some ethical or even spiritual dilemma in a meaningful way. But I doubt it.

This list tells me that even if a book sells by the ton, that doesn’t mean I should take it seriously.

Time travel is now illegal in China

I started a new story yesterday. Right now I’m thinking of something done by a time traveler as a trigger for the events in the story. I got 1,400 words down in a couple of hours, but I then realized that what I remember about early post-Roman European history from college classes forty-something years ago (Charlemagne? Lots and lot of monks? A lovely bit of filth over here?) would fit on the back of a 3X5 card. I’m going to have to do some serious research before I continue.

By coincidence, the same day I stumbled across a mention of this news item while reading a review of Hari Kunzru’s God’s without Men.

The government of China has banned stories about time travel? I guess I won’t have to translate my story into Mandarin. I always hate it when I must do that.

The powers-that-be in China must understand that time travel fiction is one way to discuss the past.

Writing about the past is a mine field for writers. If you are in Turkey, avoid writing anything about starving Armenians. For Germans, the period 1932 – 1945 is radioactive and best handled with tongs. The Spanish Civil War is a volatile topic for Spaniards, while, in the U. S., you risk being pilloried by one end of the political spectrum or the other if you make more than a passing reference to our history of kidnapping Africans into slavery and nearly exterminating the Native population of North America. For some historical subjects, even in cases where all the perpetrators and victims are mercifully long dead, you are going to piss off somebody no matter what you say about it

So if you want to drop your characters into the past, either because you are working in the historical fiction genre or like time-travel stories, you are going to step on toes.

Don’t believe me? Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall (great book, by the way), set in the early 1500’s, includes Thomas More as a minor character. When he wasn’t writing Utopia, More roasted people alive for being what we now call Protestants. That much is historical fact. It was his day job, but Mantel suggested he rather enjoyed it. On top of that, she portrays him as the sort of man who took advantage of his wife’s lack of any real education to say hateful things about her in Latin to his male dinner guests while she sat there wondering what the guys were laughing about. Nice.

More has been taking a dirt nap for close to 500 years, so you would think no one would care. Wrong! Ms Mantel has evidently taken flack for her treatment of More. After half a millennium, More still has passionate fans poised to leap to his defense. All writers should be so lucky.

No wonder people create Middle Earths or have adventures on other planets or affairs with sexy vampires. Pure fantasy is less likely to get you into trouble than fiction that overlaps reality. Then again, unless you live where where grim men will come for you because of what you write, who cares?

Funny you should ask about the jar

My wife, who also acts as an excellent first reader and copy editor, thought that I had been far too explicit in describing some horrific events in my current project. I thought about it and decided that she was right. I replaced a scene with a few lines of narration.

Dealing with that raised what I believe is a good point about when one ought to tell rather than show.

I am not very squeamish. This may be because I worked for decades in both medical and social-service related jobs where I saw things that fried my nerve endings.

Things that I consider not that unusual horrify normal people. And they should.

I am going to be vague about where and when some of the following events occurred. The reasons for my reticence should become obvious.

Many years ago, I ran EEGs for a living. I sometimes had to figure out where to place the electrodes because the places they would normally go weren’t there anymore. If you try to kill yourself with firearms, miss the brain stem (you probably keep breathing), but send chunks of your head across the room, that tends to happen.

On the social-services side, I remember a doctor who had found a way to ensure domestic tranquility.

He kept his wife on a cocktail of drugs that left her with just enough cognitive function for simple housework. She never argued, and was, well, cooperative, when he wanted to have some fun. (And people thought Ira Levin was making this stuff up.)

The case, which wound up being handled by adult protective services, began as an investigation of child neglect because during freezing weather she sent her first grade child to school dressed for summer. Too few of her neurons were firing for her to notice.

I also saw three separate cases of a child under the age of ten who had attempted suicide because the poor kid saw death as the only escape from a life of continual sexual abuse. In one of the cases, the father was a clergyman.

Deal with stuff like that for a few decades, and I promise you won’t see the world as a place filled with happy bunnies in sunlit meadows.

I do sometimes include graphic scenes of horrible events in my fiction—I’m not writing for children or unusually sensitive adults—but I don’t do it lightly. I do it only when it either (a) develops the character or (b) moves the plot forward.

Ethical issues(exploitation of human misery) aside, scenes with very disturbing material that don’t drive the main thrust of the story risk pulling the plot off course. The scene my wife objected to was about a secondary character. It was such an emotionally charged scene that it almost turned her into the protagonist. That just didn’t work for my story.

As long as I’m on the subject of the grotesque, I’ll finish by quoting Robert Block. Block is remembered as the author of Psycho and as the youngest member of H. P. Lovecraft’s circle of correspondents. He is supposed to have said, “Despite my ghoulish reputation, I really have the heart of a small boy. I keep it in a jar on my desk.”