Ghost Stories

Vintage reads

Everybody loves a well-told tale. Emphasis on well-told.

As we travel through the second half of October, and grotesque stories assail us on television, in theaters, and in bookstores, I will be the curmudgeon who says, “Most of what is thrown at us is garbage.” Hollywood goes for the gross-out and the gore, rarely setting up the audience for the whys and the hows of the horror to come. The best horror doesn’t need a drop of blood and leaves the listener pondering the mystery after the story has come to a close.

legend-of-sleepy-hollow

Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow is one such story. Don’t you dare run out for the Disney video! If there’s a film that can a hold flickering candle to the literary triumph, I’m not aware of it. Irving, known as the Father of the American Short Story, wrote this ghostly tale early in his career and published it as part of an anthology entitled, The Sketch Book.

Imagine his audience. The story was made to be read aloud in front of the hearth. No televisions, radios, or video games provided entertainment. The family hungered for words as the reader spun a tale allowing them to sense every detail in their minds. They could hear the footstep that caused a dry leaf to crackle. They could smell ash from the campfire in the deep woods. They could see the rosy blush on the maiden’s cheek and taste a just-picked apple.

Our generation could learn from the folks of two hundred years ago. I invite you to read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow on a family night—it might take three or four family nights—but there are great cliffhangers where you can stop each evening. Keep a dictionary handy. I have an extensive vocabulary, but the early nineteenth century Dutch farmers in the Hudson River Valley outclass me. And be prepared for discussions on race. Irving writes with a matter-of-fact view of the culture of his time. African Americans were slaves or servants, rarely landowners, and even in the northern states, anyone of color was not considered equal to the white man. Please don’t judge the writer for authentically reflecting the times he lived in.

Once I read the story out loud, how I wished I had grown up in a snug farm house with no electricity! Irving provides beautiful descriptions of that part of New York in autumn, and his ironic asides brought chuckles and some outright laughter.

credit to nomiz25.deviantart.com

credit to nomiz25.deviantart.com

Several pages prepare you for the action of the Headless Horseman: Ichabod Crane’s personality and eccentricities, his thoughts and habits, the setting of farms and forests, and the rural culture. The author hints at the macabre, the ghost stories that originated and grew from Sleepy Hollow. If you like to dwell on the subtleties of horror, Irving gets you good and scared about the possibilities. Then, he arrives at the crux of the story: a woman. One always needs conflict in a good plot, right? And even centuries ago, unrequited love was not a new literary device.

Irving’s ghost story ends in perfection. Who really was the headless horseman? Brom Bones? After all, he married the woman in question. Or did the specter really exist? Not even Ichabod Crane could be sure. Only the headless horseman himself knows the answer.

 

 

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How to Come Down from a Conference High

Tim, Lisa, Kathrese, & I just returned from Realm Makers. Next month a couple of others will be attending the ACFW conference. ‘Tis the (conference) season. So what do you do when you get home to come down from the conference high?

If you’re lucky, your firstborn will start football and junior high while your second born starts the “big kids'” elementary school. Bonus if it’s the junction of first of the month (status reports) and critical project milestones. Nothing like the outside world to pierce your enthusiasm like an arrow through a hot air balloon.

Even if your week is a bit nuts and especially if you have time to ease back in, do a few things to keep the spirit alive.

1. Post pictures on social media

You get to see the conference all over again. Also it allows you to tag people while your memory is fresh. This helps keep you in the loop.

2. Post highlights on social media

Same reason and purpose as above. If time is limited, set specific times or do this when you have down time.

3. Blog about it

Yes, everyone and their mascots will be writing them too. You may not get many views but then again you might. If nothing else, you have a record of your time there.

4. Make a to do list

Did you have appointments? If so, follow up with the materials each person requested. If the person you met with wasn’t interested, send a thank you anyway. They took their time to meet with you. It never hurts to be gracious.

Gather the business cards you received and enter them into your contacts list. Correspond with anyone who might not have your information. Organize your class notes.

You’re all rejuvenated and ready to write. Set goals and get to work. That’s why you spent the money to go.

Now I’m off to fill out permission slips and emergency contact forms.

The Antithesis of POLTERGEIST

 

Tis the season for witches and wizards, ghosts and goblins, slasher movies and celebrating the satanic. Not for me.

grinch

Don’t assume I’m the Grinch who stole Trick or Treat. Dressing up like a princess, a fireman, or a clown and begging the neighbors for candy doesn’t bother me, but our culture’s fascination with the bizarre and the occult drives me to God’s Word where I cling to Philippians 4:8-9. “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things… and the God of peace will be with you.

However, October is filled with invitations to witness whatever is false, whatever is gross, whatever is ugly, whatever is evil, and whatever is to be feared. When we think about these things, we do not enjoy peace.

I have seen first-hand the effects of Nightmare on Elm Street upon a young mind. Knowing I would not approve, one of my sons decided to watch this “thriller” at a friend’s house. We spent two days dealing with unexplainable fears and trembling (literally!) until he fessed up. He wasn’t a little guy of five or six years old. He was twelve. Only after the spiritual warfare of prayers and scripture and praise to the Savior did the spirit of fear flee.

Considering the date of this post, I decided to search for the perfect classic children’s book to represent peace and satisfaction to the soul, the antithesis to horror. Here’s what I chose:

Goodnightmoon

Good Night, Moon never mentions God, yet the essence of Philippians 4 flows through every word and illustration. Minimal text conveys the sweet peace and security that we wish for every child in the universe, including ourselves.

When my boys were tiny, Good Night, Moon was their favorite bedtime story. I could whisper the words as we said good night to all that was familiar and safe: clothes, toys, furniture. Then I would tuck them in, knowing they would drop off into slumber safe and secure in their beds, in their home, with their parents, and under the watchful eye of a good and loving God.

child sleeping

What books have you found to be balm to the soul? What have you used for bedtime stories to invite the God of peace to rock your children to sleep?

 

How Do You Define the Horror Genre?

Mary Shelly created the modern monster character, Frankenstein.

Mary Shelly created the modern monster character, Frankenstein.

 

I’ve been “bear baiting” a bit in my last posts on horror. Yes, I have tried to be evocative, but I want to alter the tone for this blog. There are people that actually enjoy horror and probably don’t know it. Recognizing and defining horror fiction has become difficult in the new millennium, and not because it’s really hard. The true reality of horror as a genre has been eclipsed by the successful marketing of  the modern horror slasher and spatter films. Talk about horror as a genre and no one brings up Universal Studios “B” monster movies anymore. What everyone thinks of are films that are wall-to-wall blood and gore. Movies and movie franchises like the Saw films, Friday the 13th, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Evil Dead, and others have done a lot to obscure modern horror stories of the 18th and 19th, and 20th centuries. Maybe that’s because we have a hard time defining what “horror” as a literary or film genre is.

How should we define the horror genre? One of my favorite working definitions of horror comes from Dr. Donna Casella, instructor\scholar of film theory, film studies, and early American Literature at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Casella states that horror is an, “An atmospheric genre — populated by creatures of dread – that plays on human and cultural fears.” Give a story a creepy atmosphere (whatever that is) to give it legs, while making sure the themes play against cultural fears and throw in creatures of dread (monsters, but monsters that can be human, or natural creatures, as well as supernatural).frankenstein-cartoon-character_zJJoosvu

The first recognized modern horror genre is known as Victorian Gothic horror. Reading those books says a lot about what got under the skin of the people of that time, especially women. During the Victorian era, significant amount of horror was written by women for women. That’s pretty progressive, considering society of that time didn’t allow women to vote, hold property, or even have checking accounts. I fell in love with Gothic horror when taking a graduate course on women authors. As tough as the stories from that era could be to read, many that were preserved had rich payoffs and were completely worth the effort.

If you accept Dr. Casella’s definition as a primary definition, and I do until someone comes up with a better one, horror as a genre can be about every day things, as well as the paranormal. Remember Stephen King’s Cujo? An adorable St. Bernard becomes one of the scariest monsters in twentieth century literature.

Horror can also contain the fantastic or mundane, but to be sure, horror isn’t always about ghosts, vampires, zombies, blood and gore, or flesh-eating monsters. Creatures of dread can be rats (Willard 1971), sharks (Jaws 1975), bears (Night of the Grizzly 1966), rabbits (Night of the Lepus 1972), relatives (Uncle Silas by Le Fanu), and even ordinary people turned murderous for one night every year (The Purge 2013).

Best selling author from the late 18th century. Her mysteries of Udolpho was ground breaking.

Best selling author from the late 18th century. Her mysteries of Udolpho was ground breaking.

One of my favorite all-time horror movies is Jack the Bear with Danny Devito. Devito’s character is a host for late night horror movies on television. There was no blood or gore, but when a neo-fascist shows up to indoctrinate a vulnerable neighborhood kid in Hitler style Aryanism, the atmosphere amps up and propels the creature of dread theme forward.  And yes, I consider neo-facists creatures of dread. Remember, horror has to play against personal or cultural fears. That doesn’t mean horror is always intended to incite fear, sometimes it’s an incredible tool for evaluating fears.

Lest you think horror can’t be humorous, you should check out Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahme-Smith. I laughed a lot in spite of the “bone crunching” scenes. The novel can very tongue-in-cheek in parts, at least I thought so. See what I did there? I didn’t say whose tongue in whose cheek as this is a zombie novel, right? Let’s move on.

A very hilarious and clever book is a grammar textbook called The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed by Elizabeth Gordon. I have used this to successfully tutor college students in English grammar. Yes, infinitives, prepositional phrases, gerunds, passive voice, and everything else English can be truly terrifying, but Gordon successfully mimics the Gothic horror style and uses it to teach English. Pretty useful for a genre blacklisted in the minds of many .

The Deluxe Transitive Vampire:

The Deluxe Transitive Vampire:

 

Douglas Winter, horror author and critic once stated,“Horror is not a genre, like the mystery or science fiction or the western. It is not a kind of fiction, meant to be confined to the ghetto of a special shelf in libraries or bookstores. Horror is an emotion.” But if you think the only strong emotion allowed in horror is horror, terror, or dread, you’ve not read very much. Pathos is just as much a part of horror as the emotion of horror itself. Consider a truly iconic horror/monster movie of the twentieth century, King Kong (2005). Personally, I find a lot to dread in this scene as to what it says about humans.

One of the founders of the Horror Writers Association, Robert McCammon, once said, “Horror fiction upsets apple carts, burns old buildings, and stampedes the horses; it questions and yearns for answers, and it takes nothing for granted. It’s not safe….Horror fiction can be a guide through a nightmare world, entered freely and by the reader’s own will. And since horror can be many things and go in many, many, directions, that guided nightmare ride can shock, educate, illuminate, threaten, shriek, and whisper before it lets the readers loose.” (Twilight Zone Magazine, Oct 1986).

Once horror is allowed to grow beyond zombies, vampires, werewolves, and Amish vampires in space (author Kerry Nietz is my hero) in the minds of the audience. The genre of horror becomes a potent agent of confrontation and change. So let’s remember there’s more to horror as a genre than just wall-to-wall gore.