Tag Archives: monsters

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Genre Fiction Saved My Life

I gave up many things for graduate school, and popular fiction was one of them. Training to be a religious historian meant that reading became my job rather than my beloved hobby. I only had time to read the 30 plus books assigned for seminars each semester. I’ve never read so much in my life as I did then. History, theory, methods, and studies of gender and race crowded my book shelves and took over my dining room table. Reading for pleasure no longer fit neatly into my schedule. Instead, I trudged through the books that now defined my life. If I read anything beyond the assigned, I found it necessary to read things labeled serious or literary. At parties, faculty and students would chat about the author of the moment, that critical darling reviewed by NPR or the New York Times. I would nod at appropriate moments. Literary fiction was the only fiction appropriate for scholars in training. Most of what I liked to read was not deemed literary. Trade paperbacks seemed less than serious. Intriguingly, the Harry Potter books were allowed, so I could discuss them without tarnishing my serious image.

I abandoned the books that kept me company from childhood to fledgling adulthood. I loved romance, horror, and that whole genre now labeled young adult fiction. I followed the girls of Sweet Valley High through eating disorders, romantic entanglements, and social strivings. I wanted to be a member of the Babysitters Club, even though I was ambivalent about other children. I devoured anything written by Christopher Pike, R.L. Stine, and L.J. Smith. I first gained awareness of reincarnation via Pike, and garbage disposals still scare me of Stine. I worked my way through J.R.R. Tolkien’s complicated world of hobbits, elves, humans, and dwarves, though it took many attempts. I read and reread Smith’s Forbidden Game and Dark Visions books. Their covers creased and fell apart. The pages were dog-eared and torn. These books materialized my rough-handed devotion. (I’m still hard on books.) Smith’s books were my favorites. The strength and angst of the female protagonists resonated with me. These were girls who seemed ordinary, but were anything but. They were flawed but heroic. In Smith’s book worlds, the supernatural creeped unexpectedly into our lives, and no one was ever the same.

More importantly, the universes of these young adult books made sense. You could figure out the heroes and the villains (mostly), though sometimes the villains would redeem themselves through profound sacrifice. For me, they were beautiful escapism. These books permitted me to step away from the constant shuffle of life as a divorced kid. My week parceled between my mom and dad. I moved back and forth between two families. Tuesday, Friday, and every other weekend was my dad’s time; the other days went to my mom. Different houses, different rooms, different family members, and different responsibilities. The trade paperbacks moved to and fro with me. I tucked them in my backpack, or purse, before school at one house and read them in the evenings at another. They offered escape from the fraught complexity of living in two places, but never quite feeling at home. I could dwell in realms of extra-sensory perception, vampires, witches, and killer teenagers to avoid the emotional work of being one person who was actually two daughters. Fiction gave me purchase in entertaining simplicity; it allowed me to remove myself from the painful work of being the remnant of a failed marriage.

It should be no surprise that horror emerged as my favorite genre. By my teenage years, I had a firm grasp on how terrible people could be to one another; horror confirmed my bias. Characters harmed and killed one another. They broke down from the weight of the world, and sometimes they escaped terrible situations. I always knew that the monsters were the least of our worries. It is no surprise that I transitioned to Dean Koontz, Stephen King, Isaac Asimov, Tami Hoag, and Patricia Cornwell. Thrillers, mysteries, and horror showcased the seedier side of humanity, and I couldn’t seem to get enough. The clear cut morality of these genres also appealed. It was easy to predict what would happen. Popular fiction soothed me as it entertained me. King remains one of my favorites because he knows that horror is about losing who you love. His books tell us something we don’t want to think about: the capacity to love opens us to the experience of horror. (There’s a reason I’m so fascinated with zombies.)

I lost something important, then, when I gave up reading familiar books for serious scholarly pursuit. I would occasionally consume a tale of horror when I couldn’t stand to read another academic monograph, but I always felt guilty and anxious. What if someone found out? When I submitted my dissertation to my advisor, my response was to read the Twilight series. This is not quite the celebration I imagined I would have. I routinely scoured the shelves of the local bookstores to find anything with a supernatural edge. I finally felt free to read whatever I wanted, so I binged on popular fiction. I flew through Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse books, which I read again and again. I picked up books by Patricia Briggs, Kim Harrison, Cassandra Clare, Rachel Caine, Ilona Andrews, Seanan McGuire, Holly Black, and Devon Monk.

I uncovered a swoony love for urban fantasy as I rediscovered my love of science fiction. Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels and John Scalzi’s Old Man War series are my favorites for escapism. I found that I love some books as much for their particularities and their flaws as I do their triumphs. I like the smart-ass characters that Scalzi specializes in, and I wish I were an unrepentant badass like the mercenary Kate Daniels. When I read Scalzi’s Red Shirts and Seanan McGuire’s Indexing, I ponder tha narrative structure of our lives and our various attempts to make our own stories fit into limited molds. These books let me dream and imagine. They also help me think. I hunker down with books when I need time to process what’s happening in my own life. Books give me the space to breathe.

Yet, I read on my Kindle now, so I can’t see the wear of each book from every rereading. No more torn covers or dog-eared pages. My books no longer fall apart before my eyes. I do see the passages I highlighted that spoke to me, and I wonder what it was about each passage that caused me to mark it. The lines that seemed so important in one reading become less pressing in another. My transition out of academia could be narrated by the books I read and the books I refuse to read. I missed popular fiction. I needed it. Maybe we all do.

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On Chomsky and Zombies

It’s only a field of study if recognized by Chomsky.
Image by Chris Baker.

Recently, a contributor to the Daily Kos noted that Noam Chomsky, the “legendary linguist/philosopher,” analyzed the zombie apocalypse for a group of students in a Skype session. What students? What kind of class? Where? (There’s no mention of these salient facts). A student asked Chomsky about the current preoccupation with zombies and the apocalypse in American culture, and the philosopher responded that these shambling monsters seem to represent “fear” in “an unusually frightened country.”

Most of Chomsky’s off-the-cuff response centers on H. Bruce Franklin’s work, War Stars (2008), about manifestations of fear in popular culture, though Franklin appears to be primarily interested in superweapons. Chomsky explains that chosen enemies differ in particular time periods. Anxiety about Native Americans overrun the colonial era, slave revolts terrified antebellum slave owners, and Red Dawn fantasies of teenagers as our only hope (please, let this not be true) against Communists resonated in the 1980s. In 2012, this cinematic fantasy was updated to replace Russians with North Korean soldiers. Americans, we learn, are very afraid and paranoid too. I feel like I’ve heard this before.

Chomsky explains:

I suspect that what you’re bringing up is part of that.  I think it’s, much of it is kind of just a recognition, at some level of the psyche, that if you’ve got your boot on somebody’s neck, there’s something wrong.  And that the people you’re oppressing may rise up and defend themselves, and then you’re in trouble.  And another is strange properties the country has always had of fear of invented dangers.  There is a kind of paranoid streak in the culture that’s pretty unusual. (Emphasis mine.)

 Zombies become the newest outlet for our multitude of fears. His analysis is pretty good considering the randomness of the student’s question. I mean, really, how often do you think he fields questions about zombies? (Rarely would be my guess.) Chomsky lays out histories of oppression and fears of retribution by channeling another scholar’s work. He’s quotable. After all, he’s Noam Chomsky. When he speaks about any topic, suddenly the discussion has new gravitas. By the mere act of speaking, he makes the news (here and here). He’s not just a linguist or philosopher, he’s a LEGENDARY linguist and philosopher. The implication should be clear: When he talks, we all should listen.

Okay, Chomsky, I’m listening but not willingly.

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2013: Year in Review

2013 was more eventful than other years. I won the Chancellor’s Award in Teaching Excellence, and then, I quit my job as a lecturer. My family moved to my home state of Florida. We bought a house. The Zombies Are Coming! was published in July (Listen to me talk zombies with Carol Howard Merritt and Derrick Weston of God Complex Radio.)

In August, my big girl started voluntary pre-Kindergarten. In September, I had a healthy baby boy. Just two days ago, I celebrated twelve years of marriage with my husband.

It was a big year.

I also started writing more, including a column for Chronicle Vitae. Here’s the list of my pieces that were published in 2013. I’m proud of all of them because they signal a move to try new things and maybe start a new career. I’ve listed them in chronological order.

1. Evil Religion? Then & Now, The Christian Century, May. It was sixth most read post for this column.

2. Can Brad Pitt save us from the (secular) apocalypse? Then & Now, The Christian Century, July. Pitt’s manscarf cannot distract from the reliance on yet another white savior.

3. Walking Dead and Zombie Ethics, Religion Dispatches, October. We save the world, bullet by bullet, and we feel fine.

4.  After Halloween, more zombies, Then & Now, The Christian Century, November. The zombies, they won’t go away, which is good for me but bad for the rest of you.

5. The zombie preppers among us, Washington Post’s On Faith, October. Some people believe that the zombie apocalypse could really happen, and I document zombie preppers.

6. My Post-Academic Grace Period, Chronicle Vitae, November. This is, hands down, my most important piece of the year followed closely by Not A “Real” Academic.

7. How to (Not) Avoid the Job Market, Chronicle Vitae, December. Ever wonder what the job market does to someone psychologically? I explain.

8. The Creepy Surveillance of Elf on the Shelf, Religion Dispatches, December. This was the funnest piece to write. Elves, even creepy ones, were a nice distraction from zombies.

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Elf Surveillance

Yesterday, Religion Dispatches posted my piece on Elf on the Shelf as a prelude to surveillance culture. Here’s an excerpt:

“I need to be good because of the elf that lives my room,” my five-year old explained.

“The what? Who lives where?” I ask.

“The elf that knows if I’m bad or good,” she replies.

 “There is no elf in your room,” I say.

“Yes, there is. He’s invisible,” she notes.

I sigh wearily.

I lost this argument, like many other Christmas-related debates in our household. When I told my daughter that Santa can’t fulfill every gift on her list, she declared that “he’s magic” as if that would solve the problem. Her imaginary elf is a version of The Elf on the Shelf, an androgynous, rosy-cheeked elf toy that monitors children as Christmas approaches. 

The elf emerged from The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition co-authored by mother and daughter, Carol Aebersold and Chanda Bell. The book alone has sold over six million copies since it was released in 2005. The story presents a “scout elf,” who journeyed all the way from the North Pole to watch children to find out whether they are naughty or nice. The elf surveils children during the day to uncover bad behavior, then it returns to the North Pole every night to report back to jolly old St. Nick.

For $29.95, parents can purchase the book and toy to start a new tradition—it is available in light or dark-skinned varieties and accessories allow families to transform the elf into a boy or girl. There are two rules that govern children’s interaction with their elf. First, the elf is magic, and a child’s touch can compromise its ability to return and report—its enchantment disappears if a child touches it for any reason. Second, the elf cannot interact with children during the day because its role is to observe and listen. The creators, however, encourage children to talk to their elves—especially to share secrets. The elf can learn more about the children, the more they share. Telling the elf secrets seems to secure a space on the nice list.

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