When I was younger, I loved the Harry Potter series. Although my ardor for them has cooled a bit with age, I still think that the series is solid and demonstrate a good degree of imagination. There are even some pearls of wisdom in their pages; nothing revolutionary but things that people sometimes needed reminded of. One of those pearls comes in the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, where Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black, tells Harry, Ron and Hermione that if you want the measure of a man, see how he treats his inferiors and not his equals. That observation could be extended to society in general: To judge the health of a society, see how it treats the weakest among itself. This does not just include the unborn and the young but the dead a well.
At the end of November, former President George H. W. Bush passed away. It was not surprising; he was 94, had not been in the best of health and his other half, Barbara, had already passed away. His death was not unexpected and neither were the usual condolences and memories which people immediately began to share online and between themselves. But what struck me, mining through the Internet, were the exceptions to the rules.
The headline probably tells you everything you need to know about what the piece was about but to give just a sample, Cillizza writes:
It’s because of Bush’s approach to politics. He was not a fire-breather. His first instinct was not to vilify anyone who disagreed with him. He believed in the idea that good people can disagree. He saw compromise as a reasonable goal of government.
In the modern parlance of Republican politics, Bush’s gentility would be read as insufficient commitment to the conservative cause. He would be labeled a “RINO” (Republican In Name Only) for his dalliances with Democrats on policy.
In another world I might say, “The irony is…” but I’m not sure if irony is the best word to describe this situation; the situation where a man who was eviscerated when he was in the White House is now lauded as a paragon of politics. An opportunistic cynicism might be a better way to describe it. Behind the facade of praising President Bush as an honorable man who put his country above his party, was the obvious ploy of using the president’s corpse as a battering ram against the current occupant of the White House. I don’t even care if Cillizza is correct in his analysis and comparison this time; a person’s death is not the time to use them as a measuring stick in order to come to a conclusion that was already believed.
Others went even lower than that. At The Nation, Steven Thrasher made no bones about his feelings when he wrote “It’s a Disgrace to Celebrate George H.W. Bush on World Aids Day.” Thrasher’s entire piece almost seemed to be a shriek against the dead man for daring to die on World Aids Day since, according to Thrasher, Bush did nothing significant to help check Aids. Never mind that the Ryan White Care Act of 1990 “provided funding for care and treatment services for those with the virus, primarily those with limited access to care,” and that the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibited discriminating against people with the disease. No, Bush had to be castrated because, back in a presidential debate in 1992, Bush said that Aids was caused by behavior, specifically, by men having sex with other men. The fact that the Center of Disease Control found that 68% of all new Aids cases in 2015 occurred among gay men is meaningless because, according to Thrasher:
AIDS is caused by broader social problems: homelessness, inadequate access to to health care, political instability, racism, homophobia, and the violence of capitalism. And on these fronts, Bush is guilty; his “behavior matters.” As a former head of the CIA, Bush created political instability in nations around the globe where AIDS would thrive. He hyped up racism with his Willie Horton ad, by replacing civil-rights titan Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court with Clarence Thomas, and by vetoing the Civil Rights Act of 1990.
It’s not even a real argument; the words and phrases like “violence of capitalism,” “homophobia,” and “racism,” are magic words in the sense that they don’t really mean anything; they’re just words that are used now to end a conversation instead of engaging in an argument. If Aids is caused by racism and homophobia (which is quite a feat since an attitude can’t cause a physical disease) and if Bush didn’t do anything to stop Aids then, ergo, he must be a racist and a homophobe. There is no attempt to take his policies and ideas or history seriously; just the a priori belief that Bush was a bad man and, therefore, was a racist and a homophobe. Here, the body of the president was used as a whipping boy against the ideologically “impure” who are still not on board with the sexual revolution’s latest permutations.
And this attitude of using the dead to make a political point or triade was not limited to the political left but could also be seen on the right; on Twitter, Ann Coulter claimed that when you break your word (as Bush did when he raised taxes after telling everyone that he wouldn’t) you don’t leave a legacy and you don’t even trend on Twitter–never understanding that to a family who has lost their father, grandfather, uncle, etc, whether their lost one trends on Twitter or not is not an important point.
Recently, there has been a surge of people–such as Allie Beth Stuckey and Andrew Sullivan–who have reiterated the point that Leftism is not so much a political philosophy as a religion; and this is completely true. As traditional religion has receded, different things have come in to fill the hole (the “God shaped hole” as Ben Shapiro described it) because nature abhors a vacuum. Sex, drugs and alcohol are tried and true substitutes but politics have, more and more, become a substitute in and of themselves. And the religion of politics is cruel, demanding that things like the presumption of innocence be shredded and demanding that even the solemnity of death make space for it. It is also a much more subtle and wily religion because, like actual religions, the religion of politics makes you a part of something bigger than yourself that will change the world for the better.
No author, no artist is universally loved or admired. Even if fame and adulation come years or decades after the death of the author/artist, there will still be some people who will persist in their dislike. Sometimes, this is all about personal taste and, since taste is a matter of personal preference, nothing can really be done about that. Other times, the dislike is more ideologically driven; there are people today who dislike Norman Rockwell and his body of work because they claim his scenes come from an idyllic world that never existed and never can exist, forgetting that, maybe, the idea was not to represent the world as it was, but the world as it could be; even more, the world as it should be.
My personal belief as to what, at least partially, drives this is the fact that, as Edgar Allan Poe said in one one his stories, every one who reads a story, novel or poem, everyone who looks at a photograph or painting imputs his own meaning into it and then, to justify that interpretation, turns around and says that this subjective reading or interpretation is what the author intended. In this way, Poe says, if an author were to come back to life years after his death and look at the opinions written about his work he would be very surprised to find out that X was what he meant all along. Mary Shelley, for example, would be very surprised to discover that the central theme of Frankenstein was a Marxist critique of class struggle, an impressive feat seeing as Frankenstein preceded Marxism by about thirty years; and, even though this premise was denied by the author himself, there are people till convinced that the One Ring, from The Lord of the Rings, is an allegory for the atomic bomb or atomic power in general.
J.R.R. Tolkien is not exempt from this fate. It is true that Tolkien’s name has become a household one both because The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have never been out of print since their publications (in the Thirties and Fifties, respectively) and because of Peter Jackson’s films. It is also true that while most people have loved the stories of Middle Earth, either from the books themselves or the movies or both, that this love has not been universal. Even during Tolkien’s life, there were people who disliked the books; one man interviewed about the topic for a BBC biography of Tolkien in 1968, declared that the books took people’s minds away from the socio-political and economic problems of the modern world. And there are modern Scrooges who declare that, despite evidence to the contrary, the books are anti-Christian and should be destroyed. So it is not at all surprising, in this sense, that someone else has taken up the torch and declared that Tolkien and his work are the problem and not the solution.
This time around, the person in question is American science fiction and fantasy author, Andy Duncan. I have never personally read Mr. Duncan, nor do I know anything about him, except for the few bare and basic facts that a quick Google search or Wikipedia reading provide. He has written one novella, which won the … Award and he has written a few collection of short stories. Perhaps in the circle of Syfy and fantasy writers, his name is more generally known; speaking for myself, I hadn’t heard of him until his interview on the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast last week broke into the news cycle after he declared that The Lord of the Rings is racist because of how Tolkien described and portrayed the orcs, the creatures who act as the main foot soldiers for the dark lord, Sauron. Duncan said:
It’s hard to miss the repeated notion in Tolkien that some races are just worse than others, or that some peoples are just worse than others.
I can easily imagine that a lot of these people (the orcs) that were doing the dark lord’s bidding were doing so out of simple self preservation and so forth. A lot of these creatures that were raised out of the earth had not a great deal of choice in the matter of what to do. I have this very complicated sense of the politics of all that.
If we were still allowed to use religious language, I might say that have a complicated sense of things is one of the larger heresies of the 21st century. It is true, more often than not, that the truth is rarely pure and never simple, as Oscar Wilde said, but having a “complicated sense” is a quasi-sophisticated sophistry to read whatever you want into a situation or event or truth. That the sky is blue is a fact; how the sky appears blue requires a more detailed and complicated explanation but the simple fact that the mechanics of a blue sky are complicated doesn’t mean that I can say that, because of the complicated nature of the thing, I see the sky as green. But the “complicated sense” is a perfect heresy for a time of the atomistic individual afflicted with arrogant ignorance. After all, if something is complicated, then your conclusion may be perfectly true; that others don’t see it is proof of the complicated nature of the issue as well as your own superiority, since you were able to see the conclusion while others were not.
In Tolkien, yes, the Orcs are pure evil—that is the simple fact. The more complicated truth is that the Orcs were once Elves; Morgoth, the evil Enemy and the master of Sauron, the creator of the One Ring, captured some of them, took them to his fortress of Untomno and through black magic and torture, twisted them into the Orcs. Tolkien was not saying that some races are inferior to others; this would be a strange thing for the man who was a fierce opponent of racism and Nazi Germany. What he was saying, that Duncan seems incapable of understanding, is that evil cannot create, it can only twits and corrupt and that evil can corrupt what is good, turning it into a parody of what it once was. The Lord of the Rings, we have to remember, while it’s sold as fantasy today, was created by Tolkien to be a mythology for Britain because he felt that his country was deficient in myths, compared to other people, like the Irish and the Norse. As such, it deals with archtypes and themes such as the nature of good and evil and the struggle between the two forces, or, to put it more accurately (and philosophically) a force and its absence.
But Duncan is doing more than simply misunderstanding Tolkien. He is denying us a world where evil is evil, denying us a world that is rich in meaning and battle. He may not be doing this intentionally but that is the end result of his criticism. In stressing that the Orcs are basically just misunderstood, he is denying the reality of evil being evil, a twisted malformation of goodness. Evil is never something that can come from inside a person, it is always something that is pushed on by some force outside, or done for self-preservation. With this, evil becomes the result almost of an equation—if these variables were just changed, evil wouldn’t exist.
The result of this is that there is nothing to fight. If Orcs and Elves are basically the same thing, morally speaking, there can be no reason to fight evil; there is, when we get right down to it, nothing to fight. And this makes for an ugly, bleak world. It’ not an ugly, bleak world because there is no fighting per se but an ugly, bleak world because there is no good to defend. The truth is that men and women were made for fighting—we have to be because life itself is war. But if there is nothing to fight for, then there is no reason to fight in the first place and if there is no reason to fight the world and life is a drab place to wait in until we die.
What Duncan and other writers, like George R.R. Martin, are doing is offering people a choice: a world of meaning, where myth and reason can walk hand in hand, or, a world that is stripped of everything except a a utilitarian, scientism where equations are the only objective reality there is.
Today is Thanksgiving Day, the most American holiday of the year. That might seem like a bold thing to say since the list of holidays celebrated here in the States includes Independence Day, which would seem to be the quintessential American holiday. But an argument can be made that Thanksgiving is the quintessential holiday for Americans because Thanksgiving has to do with gratitude and gratitude is at the very heart of the American story, from the Pilgrims, to the thanksgiving proclamations of the Continental Congress, Presidents Washington, Adams and Madison to President Lincoln who made Thanksgiving the national holiday that we celebrate today.
It is fascinating to read the thanksgiving proclamations of the Congress and the presidents. It might seem even a little quaint: President Washington reminding the people to thank God for the tranquility and union of the country, as well as the civil and religious liberties which they enjoy to a greater degree than any other people in the world; or President Adams who, while his proclamations were more in line with calling for days of prayer and penance, also reminded his fellow Americans not to forget to thank God for the continued mercies and blessings which He bestowed on the new country.
But the passage that really struck me this year came from President Lincoln’s proclamation of 1863. In it Lincoln, in the midst of the Civil War, reminded the people that even with the War:
Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.
What struck me was that what Lincoln was saying was two things: first, that even something as horrendous as a civil war where tens of thousands were being killed and maimed, where the very survival of the country was in doubt, could not put a stop to what we call life; and second, in these ordinary events of everyday life, we can find a multitude of treasures for which to be thankful.
There are several things to draw from this.
First, the real things to be thankful for are the thing that surround us everyday. This might be one reason why we disregard them so easily. The old saying goes, “Out of sight, out of mind,” which is partially true but it is also and equally true that the regularness of something or things can make us forget about them and their importance. But, like the song says, we don’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone. And, when we contemplate about our lot, we will come to realize that we are surrounded by these wonderfully ordinary things that, if gone, would make our lives much more drab and poor. It might be family and friends and I hope that it is for all of us because those are some of the most important gifts that we can be given; but maybe it’s as simple as a hot meal, a roof over our heads, a car that gets us to and from work every day.
Second, the wonderful thing about these ordinary treasures is that we all have them. They may not be plentiful and they may be far between but we all have things in our lives for which we can be grateful. As I wrote above, it may be as simple as a good meal today or a job–even a job that is not our favorite but which allows is to pay the bills and save a little for one of the proverbial rainy days. But no matter how small or few, every single one of us alive today, reading this post or eating our Thanksgiving meal, or being with family or friends, has some ordinary treasure, even if it is as basic as the fact that we are still alive and have warm blood in our bodies which allows us to fight again tomorrow.
There is a line from The Fellowship of the Ring which captures this especially well:
They (the hobbits) were washed and in the middle of good deep mugs of beer when Mr. Butterbur and Nob came in again. In a twinkling the table was laid. There was hot soup, cold meats, a blackberry tart, new loaves, slabs of butter, and half a ripe cheese: good plain food, as good as the Shire could show, and homelike enough to dispel the last of Sam’s misgivings (already much relieved by the excellence of the beer).
In the scene, the hobbits have just escaped from the Black Rider and they have just realized what being carriers of the Ring means and what forces are after it and them. And yet, in the middle of this awakening into a dark and terrible world, far away from the safety and comfort and peace of the Shire, they have a moment. It is not very large or important and it won’t protect them from the terrors which will continue to pursue them or the evil that will begin to wear on them, particularly Frodo, the Ringbearer. All it is a simple meal. But it is “homelike” enough to feed not only their stomachs but their spirits as well.
Thirdly, it reinforces the crime that is perpetuated every year when stores and people engage in the macabre dance called “black Friday.” The crime, actually, goes well beyond black Friday sales. It is more appropriately called commercialism or merchandising, wherein stores strip Hallowe’en down before October can be extinguished and rush to setup Christmas in the hope that the earlier their products are out, the more people will buy. In this rush, Thanksgiving is hardly given a nod and, if it is, it is given the terrible moniker of “Turkey Day” as though the entire holiday was created to as an excuse to cook a bird native to North America. The insatiable rush that this creates makes us think that we have to hurry, hurry, hurry to the next sale, the next deal, the next holiday before we rush home to make a change of decorations, make meals, invite people over we don’t know or don’t particularly like before we rush out again for the next deal. In this mad rush, the ability to be grateful for the ordinary treasures which we have been given is snuffed out; we are so wrapped up in the future that we can’t give any thought to the present which is where our ordinary treasures are stored.
The Pilgrims and the Founders knew that virtue was needed for a society to survive and for people to be truly happy. Gratitude, being one of the treasures, is needed for that truly happy life and for that we will need to slow our pace and be truly thankful for the ordinary treasures which we have been blessed with.
This past Sunday was Veteran’s Day. It was also the centenary of the Armistice that ended World War I, the war to end all wars. I was able to spend the day at the National WWI Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri to pay my respects to the millions of men who died in the trenches and air and sea of the war as well as to one man in particular: my great-grandfather, who won his citizenship fighting in the American Army in the Great War.
There is a line in the beginning scene of the movie PATTON that has always stuck with me. Addressing the new recruits of the Third Army, General Patton (George C. Scott) says that,
Americans love to fight…All real Americans love the sting of battle. Americans play to win all the time…that’s why the very idea of losing to an American–is hateful.
I think that this was true in the days of the Great War. Touring the museum reminds the visitor that the entire country mobilized for conflict after Congress declared war in April of 1917, whether they joined the military or not: there were war bonds to buy, victory gardens to plant, days of abstinence–of meat and sugar and the like–were created throughout the week; women, including the First Lady, knitted socks and other cloths for the men oversees; former president, Theodore Roosevelt, even requested from President Wilson that he be assigned to lead a group of volunteer forces to fight in Europe, much as he had done in the Spanish-American War.
This was true during WWII as well. The meatless days and the like were reinstated, as well as victory gardens and war bonds and all able bodied men, again, enlisted into some branch of the service. People made do with old cloths, old cars (there were no new cars put on the market between 1942 and 1945, factories focusing exclusively on wartime materials). In both wars, Americans–men and women, native or naturalized, young and old–did their duty, putting the love of country above themselves. The entire population did not become saints, but, for the most part, a national spirit did come to unite Americans of all walks of life against the Reich and the Imperial Japanese.
Can Patton’s words be said to be true today? They cannot. In so many ways, a spirit of lethargy and, even worse, indifference has taken hold of so many people as well as a spirit of entitlement. We see the latter, especially, on collage campuses where students will explode if anything approaching even a mild critique of their mentality and world-view; just this week, students at Ohio State University protested Ben Shapiro’s visit because, they claimed, his ideas are threatening to the students. We see both in the welfare epidemic where people no longer see it as a necessary evil for a brief amount of time but a right, something that is owed them (entitlement) and where people no longer feel the need to improve their fortune and get off welfare (lethargy).
And this is why Americans now, contrary to what Patton expressed, lose wars. And the wars do not have to be actual, physical wars, although Americans seem to do a good job of losing those as well, or, at least, not winning them; after seventeen years in Afghanistan and fifteen years in Iraq, the United States seems no closer to actually winning those wars than it was when it began. Certainly steps have been taken towards victory; ISIS has suffered defeats and the Taliban is no longer in charge of Afghanistan but there seems to be no end in sight for when the wars themselves will be over as in the great wars.
But wars, like mentioned, do not have to specifically be external wars against nations. Life, itself, can be seen as a war with every individual his own general. Authors like Robert Greene have made this point in popular books, such as The 33 Strategies of War wherein the lives of warriors, generals and leaders from all times and places and backgrounds are examined and distilled into general principles for waging the war against life. And this warfare is needed. In Greene’s first chapter he notes that warfare is necessary first because without the friction of conflict, people become dull and begin almost a process of devolution; but, warfare is also needed because the conflict of warfare brings us enemies and enemies are what we are able to contrast ourselves with and so help discover who we are. By knowing who we are not, we can better know who we are.
And why have we lost the love for the sting of battle? I mentioned entitlement and lethargy above but where did these cancers come from in the first place? Perhaps one answer is that we have lost the will or the desire or the capacity to love. That may sound like a New-Age mantra but the more I daydream about the matter, the more I think that the answer to so many problems is love. Perhaps that initial disbelief or revulsion at that idea is because we think of love as the warm-butterflies-in-the-tummy feeling that we have when we start a new relationship, or a new job or the like. But this isn’t what love really is; it may be a feeling of love; it may be a stage of love-one of the first-but it is not what love itself actually is. In one of his short stories, Graham Greene has one of his characters, a former priest who is now an atheist say that one of the reasons that he became an atheist is because he had a revelation of the love of God which so terrified him that he fled to the safety of atheism. I cannot remember the title of the story nor can I remember the actual quote but the spirit of the quote says that the Love which caused the bush to burn for Moses, which split the sea and calmed the storm and that raised the dead is a terrible Love which will burn and consume whatever and whoever allows it to come in and so knowing that the Love of God would do that to him, he fled because he was afraid. That is the Love I am speaking of here–a force so powerful that we are willing to sacrifice whatever is necessary for what or who we love.
Divorcing ourselves from that kind of love is definitely safer but it makes us men without chests, like C.S. Lewis described them. It imprisons us inside of ourselves so much that we lose sight even of ourselves. The men who fought and died and were mutilated in both of the Great Wars and all the wars fought, had this love, for country, family, home and ideas; that is what gave them the courage to fight in the first place. It is only by rediscovering this love and acting upon it, will we be able to match them.
There is a saying I read years ago; where I read it and the author who originated it I’ve forgotten. But the quote in question says: When we are safe at home, we wish we were on an adventure and when we are on an adventure we wish we were safe at home. It captures the human spirit perfectly, or, at least, the spirit that is in most of us. There are and have been rare individuals who never wished that they were safe at home when they were on an adventure, one of these people being Theodore Roosevelt.
Most people, though, are split. To use imagery from J.R.R. Tolkien, most are people are split between the Took side, which wants to go on adventure, and the Baggins side, which wants to stay safe and quiet at home. The Baggins side is very powerful because comfort means safety (at least in our minds, a connection between the two has been made) and if there is one thing that we crave more than anything else, it is safety. We know how crazy the world can be; more than that, we know how terrible the world can be. In the 21st century, an era which people in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties looked forward to as some new Golden Age, free from the weaknesses and troubles of the past, terror can appear while doing something as holy and mundane as going to worship, as Pittsburgh demonstrated to us. Chaos and unpredictability can strike at any time and so we try to stave it off with habits, routines and mantras, fueled by a level of superstition worthy of a medieval peasant.
On second thought, we are less logical than the medieval peasant. He had his superstitions because he believed that there was an invisible world that surrounded the world he could see, a world brimming with witches, elves, spirits, old, forgotten gods, angels and demons. His superstitions then were meant to influence these invisible powers that swarmed around him. Postmodern man has his rituals to forestall the chaos but, with his general disbelief in the supernatural, to what are those rituals directed? Maybe to chaos but, if chaos can be appeased and controlled, it is not really chaos.
Going on an adventure invites the chaos to come to us and swallow us up. Going on an adventure means that we relinquish control and make ourselves subject to the mercy of the forces which we have no hope or chance of controlling. It is a complete surrender which means, to a people who have been conditioned and trained to desire as much control as possible over everything (I include myself in that category), that it is one of the most terrifying things a 21st century person can do.
But adventure is absolutely necessary in life. Years ago, when I was a kid, I saw an old Disney live-action movie starring Rodney McDowell called THE ADVENTURES OF BULLWHIP GRIFFIN and in that movie the Girl says that people are 70% water and if they don’t get stirred up once in awhile they become stagnant. I’ve always thought that that is good imagery for the need of adventure: stagnant water is safe in its bed but it is rancid; nothing can live in it except mosquitos and flies, not the best representatives of the Animal Kingdom. Running water may not know where it is going but it is alive.
As good as that imagery is, I have come to like the image of the Knight Errant, the wondering knight, as the archetype for adventure. Part of the reason is because, earlier this year, I stumbled upon a blog by an Italian author, Giovanni De Feo and one of his blog posts dealt with errancy and the knight errant. In it, De Feo uses the Knights of the Round Table as an example: when the vision of the Holy Grail appears to them, the Knights take it as a sign from God that they are to seek and find it and they immediately leave Camelot for that very reason. But, as De Feo points out, they do not know where they are going. The vision didn’t come with instructions, or a map, or a voice from a burning bush. The Knights have no idea where they are going and none of them know if they will be successful or not (we, the readers and the people familiar with the story, know that only Sir Galahad will actually succeed). And yet they are willing to go on the Quest. They incorporate erranza, the Italian word for errancy and knight errant within themselves.
The beautiful thing about adventure is that you don’t have to look very far for it. Reading fairy tales and fantasy books may make us think that we have to strap on a sword and leave for unchartered lands or take the one step that will put us the farthest from home that we’ve ever been. That may be true in a sense; moving to a new country, a new state, even just a new city can be an adventure because, again, we do not know what will happen to us once we get there, what challenges will await us, what monsters (of every and any variety) we will have to face. But adventure can happen without moving: it can be starting a new relationship, a new job, a new hobby, a new friendship, it can be doing something which you have never done before. It can be as simply as walking out the front door in the morning. Because the real spirit of adventure is openness, an openness to whatever will befall you, good and bad. This is not easy. If I can slip into a personal strand for just one minute—the last two years have not gone according to plan at all, either professionally or personally. But perhaps the way to look at it is an adventure. Perhaps the best spirit to have is erranza, an openness to the good and the bad and the foreknowledge and acceptance that mistakes will be made but that the Quest—whatever it may be—will go on.
With that sense, we will all be errant knights on our Quests.
If you were a kid growing up in the Nineties, GOOSEBUMPS was a part of your childhood, whether it was the actual book series, the TV show (which aired from 1995 to 1998) or any piece of the affiliated merchandise. It was impossible to escape from it. I hated the series as a kid and it still was a part of my childhood through my younger brother.
GOOSEBUMPS was the brainchild of author R. L. Stine who began his career writing joke books and only wrote his first horror novel, BLIND DATE, in 1986; three years later he starred his first series, the Fear Street books which were horror books for young adults. And then, in 1992 with Parachute Press, Stine started the Goosebumps series with WELCOME TO DEAD HOUSE.
The funny thing is that in spite of being the Harry Potter if it’s time in terms of fan dedication and popularity and cultural status, the Goosebumps series is actually very weak. The plots of all the books follow the same basic pattern, the main characters are often times practically carbon copies of each other and on more than one occasion, Stine will just recycle the same book (look at NIGHT OF THE LIVING DUMMY I, II, III, for example). This is not to say that there weren’t some genuinely good stories or good ideas in some of them; THE HAUNTED MASK is an example of the latter and WEREWOLF SKINS is an example of the former. But for the most part, the books wavered from the mundane to the bad.
Of course, despite the weakness of the series, it’s popularity made it inevitable that a movie would be made. The first attempt came in 1998 but fell through so that the first real Goosebumps movie was released in 2015, way after the hype for the series had dissipated.
Dylan Minnette plays Zach Cooper who, with his mother, moves to Madison, Delaware after the death of his dad; he discovers that their new neighbors are the mysterious Mr. Shivers (Jack Black) and his daughter, Hannah (Odeya Rush). Of course, with a name like Shivers, it’s not too long that we discover along with Zach and his new best friend/comic relief, Champ (Ryan Lee) that Mr. Shivers is actually author R. L. Stine who has a habit of continually moving because the monsters in the Goosebumps series are actually real, imprisoned in their books which are all secured by locks. But locks cannot hold Slappy the Ventriloquist Dummy (who, somehow, became one of the best known monsters of the series) who escapes, releases all the other Goosebumps monsters, burns their books (so they can’t be in imprisoned again) and begins the hunt for Stine and his new friends.
This is, honestly, a great movie. The funny thing, of course, is that it has no right to be a great movie, given the source material. Three elements, though, save it.
First, the characters are actually characters. All the characters feel like they’re part of a Goosebumps book in that they are archetypes—the Hero, the Girl, etc—but they aren’t as flat as the ones Stine made in the series. They all have personalities that make them stand out and different from each other which, consequently, makes you care about them all. Jack Black’s Stine is particularly well written, becoming an almost tragic figure, trapped, in a sense, in the hell of his own making.
Well written characters lose a lot when portrayed by mediocre actors but the casting in GOOSEBUMPS is spot on. Watching the movie, when the kids are supposed to be scared, I believe that they’re scared, when Zach and Hannah are developing their relationship, I can believe that they’re two teenagers beginning to like each other. But, again, Black’s Stine takes the medal, combing the right amount of comedy (it is Jack Black) with menace and vulnerability. He comes across not as weak but as a man trying to do what’s best and not exactly sure what that looks like; a man needing some “personal development” like a Goosebumps character.
And finally, there’s the story. The reason Tim Burton’s Goosebumps movie failed in 1998 was because the writers couldn’t decide which book to adapt and they soon realized that the books were too short to turn into a full length film. Here, writers…solved the problem ingeniously—don’t make the movie an adaptation of a Goosebumps book but a Goosebumps story itself and the turn it into the biggest story yet with all the monsters together. It was the idea that made the movie work. The movie could feel like a Goosebumps book but, at the same time, was not confined to the more than likely lame story conjured by Stine the author. Not only that, but the movie could become a subtle attack on the fourth wall: the plot revolves around Stine writing a new Goosebumps story to recapture all the monsters released by Slappy which is exactly what the movie itself is.
Of course, nothing is perfect and this decision made it necessary to concentrate only on a few, specific monsters; many of the others are seen briefly and then disappear. And, of course, the plot immediately falls apart once you start thinking about it for more than a few minutes. How, for example, did Stine get his books published after writing the manuscripts if opening those manuscripts releases the monster of the story? But we’re not watching the movie so that it makes logical sense; we’re watching the movie to have laughs and a good time. In that category, the plot more than holds up.
GOOSEBUMPS is a perfect Hallowe’en movie for the whole family, spooky (but not horrifying) for kids and witty for adults. Even for people like me who hate the books series, the movie wins.
Every holiday has its own unique personality, a nature that holds it apart from all the others. Hallowe’en is no different. It’s nature careens more than most to the side of chaos but that’s all part of the fun. But, it would seem, fun is something which we are no longer allowed to have, at least without the blessing of the powers that be.
Megyn Kelly found this out the hard way earlier this week. To listen to the headlines that blared the story throughout the Internet, one might have thought that she was defending the old minstrel shows of the 19th century and the Thirties and Forties since most of them declared that she was defending blackface. Roxanne Jones at CNN even used Kelly’s moment to declare that she had shown her true face as an unapologetic racist. NBC seems to have taken Miss Jones’ analysis as gospel since it was announced that Kelly would no longer be hosting her NBC show and had been shown the door.
But what exactly did Megyn Kelly say that was so terrible that it completely terminated her career?
But what is racist? Because you do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface on Halloween, or a black person who puts on whiteface for Halloween. Back when I was a kid that was OK, as long as you were dressing up as, like, a character.”
Many people jumped to the conclusion that Kelly was defending the practice of blackface itself but that is not at all what she was doing. This is the part of the blog where I say: Yes, blackface was a distasteful part of American entertainment during the time it was practiced and during 19th century style minstrel shows today would be rude, crude, offensive. If Kelly had actually defending blackface as it was done in the minstrel shows, she would have earned the coal racking which she took from the Internet. But that is not what she was doing since, as her comments bear out, she was talking specifically about blackface in the context of Hallowe’en. Some might say that that does not make it any better; blackface is offensive to black people by its very nature, regardless of what context you put it in. But the nature of Hallowe’en itself is what keeps that from being true.
As I said, every holiday has its own flavor, its own nature and personality but what makes Hallowe’en unique, even among the gaggle of holidays, recognized and forgotten today, is that its purpose is inversion. This has, to an extent, been true from the very beginning. Samhain, the ancient Celtic feast which serves as the root of Hallowe’en, was a festival of the dead, not only because the dead were remembered, but because the line between the world of the living and the world of the dead become thinner, allowing the dead to cross over and warm themselves by the fires of the world again. It was even believed that the dead could try to bring their loved ones back with them to the land of the dead, which is why masks and costumes were made and worn, so that the dead would not recognize the living and why turnips were carved with faces to scare away the dead when they came. Hallowe’en, from the start then, has been a feats and holy day that celebrated and espoused the opposite of what we usually cherish: the dead, rather than the living; falseness (masks) rather than truth; fright instead of cheer.
Hallowe’en, as the centuries slip away from the ancient, Druidic past, changed, of course, becoming a fall festival, a time for innocent magic when young people would try to divine their future spouse to a children’s holiday in the 1930s. But the basic elements of the day remained the same. Death still plays a part; why else do zombies and vampires and ghosts–in other words, the dead–make Hallowe’en their night of frolics? Masks and costumes are the night’s signature. It is still, in other words, very much a carnival holiday, the most carnivalesque holiday which we have in the United States today.
This inversive and carnival nature of Hallowe’en seems to declaw the racism of blackface done specifically for Hallowe’en. In fact, it does not do it justice to even call it blackface since it is not even blackface. Blackface did perpetuate a racist stereotype about black people (even though, it should be mentioned, that there were black minstrel performers, all black minstrel shows and that people from all ethnicities attended the shows and segregationists did not like the shows since they made runaway slaves sympathetic characters) but on Hallowe’en, people don’t dress up as stereotypes (or, at least, they are not supposed to). Rather, they dress as actual characters from movies, comics, books, and history. Are we really saying that a ten year old boy who wants to darken his skin so that he can go out Hallowe’en night as John Henry, or Mr. T, or the Falcon is the same as performers of 19th century minstrel shows?Have we really become so politically sensitive, not even correct, that the child-like and carnival aspect of Hallowe’en has to be beaten back and denied?
This is not just about keeping the child-like nature of Hallowe’en. People need culturally appropriate opportunities of inversion, to turn the order of things upside down for a few hours at the very least, just as people need humor and comedy. Without that, people will become stale and brittle, or to put it put it better, stagnant.
Let kids be kids; let be heroes and characters of whatever color they want. Let’s celebrate the carnival. It only comes once a year.