Friday, August 30, 2013

Spooky Time

Part of my summer’s reading list:  Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (actually a re-read), Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, and Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods.  I’ll genre them as ‘spooky stories’.

I’ve never had the type of imagination to be creeped-out by a book.  In the back of my head I’ve always remembered it was a book.  The only book that frightens me is The Revelation of Jesus Christ.  Maybe this has to do with the sobering complexities of being a German-American.  Who knows?

Frankenstein makes me think and feel every time I read it.  Aside from the rambling monologue of Dr. Victor Frankenstein, Shelly puts it out there.  She challenges readers with ideas about science and creativity: ethics and the lack thereof, how a creation can develop a life of its own, unintended consequences, and individual responsibilities.  Remember, Frankenstein is the doctor, not the monster.  His motivation and the monster’s are on display, as is the motivation of the narrating letter-writer Robert Walton.  Walton is on his own quest to change the world and fails.  Either this is a big oof-da for Walton, or a blessing in disguise.

Ghost Story came highly recommended and I bought it new (a rarity in our ever-recovering economy).  This was the first work by Straub I’ve read.  I wanted to like the story more than I did.  Without giving spoilers, the underlying tale is about a small fraternity of men, the Chowder Society, who entertain themselves (though entertain isn’t necessarily the right word) with ghost stories.  What they are doing is avoiding the question, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”  They don’t answer that because the worst thing they’ve ever done is a shared experience.  Instead, they tell one another about, “…the worst thing that ever happened to me.”  Soon there appears a prescient element that begins haunting them and the town of Milburn, New York.  Interestingly, this presence is interwoven in each of their individual stories.  The plot involves revenge and (remember, no spoilers) several something elses.

Finally, in the free pile at the college, I found Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods.  The only reason I picked this up is because I had previously read The Things They Carried (a great guy book if ever there was) by the same author.  I had a hard time setting down In the Lake of the Woods.  The level of diction is brief and sharp, the story is ambiguous, and what happens at the end?  It is timely and brings to mind just what happens when a rising star politician (John the protagonist) has his rear-end handed to him because of a scandal.  There’s guilt and shame (spillover from an event in Viet-Nam), and the entropy of a sociopathic magician-man with daddy-issues who decides to run for higher office with a wife mostly along for the ride.

Each of these novels are non-linear.  That’s English Major jargon for ‘frame story’.  In other words, it’s not A happened, then B happened, then C.  Rather, the authors decided to start with C or B, or B-and-a-half, and then move back, and forth, in time, completing the action in different ways with different devices (yawing yet?).  In even other words, the writers are messing around with time.  And there’s the rub.

One way to look at life is to see it through the prism of accumulated experiences.  And isn’t it true that some memories are just as vivid today as they were twenty years ago?  Or what about the impact of past actions upon the future.  Ever play, ‘Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both’ (Robert Frost, btw)?

So that, while the flesh lives in linear (A, B, then C) mode according to the turns of sun and moon, the mind itself doesn’t always play by those rules.  In any given day, my brain wanders the hallways of what I have already experienced, while all around me life happens and hopefully, wisdom allows me to appreciate that what I do or fail to do today can impact others years from now.

And remember, these are spooky books.  They’re meant to bring horror and suspense to the reader.  They would be far different had the writers decided to go in a straight line.  Stop and think about how many horror movies involve prior events.  And thus, the idea of being haunted by something in the past, the specter of regret, the question of fate, and the gamble of unintended consequences based on decisions only partially of your choosing.

By the way, The Book of Revelation also hops around in time.  And let's not forget the unbreakable law of the harvest which simply states, 'As a man reaps, so shall he sew.'   Just sayin’.

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