When we bought a house by a cemetery, I made my share of jokes about haunting and zombies. Truthfully, I have never thought of cemeteries as creepy places. I loved taking night walks through Athens, OH cemeteries when I was in grad school. When I mentioned that fact to Leslie, she told me that she has always thought of cemeteries as "adorable" because they are huge, impractical monuments dedicated to humans remembering each other. It's true. My office window faces the cemetery and three times now I've seen someone park, get out, pick leaves and weeds from a loved one's grave and then just stand or kneel with a hand on the stone. One, I think, was praying. One just knelt there and seemed to be chatting. One left fresh flowers. Occasionally, I see these visitors look around half-embarrassed to be doing something clearly intimate in a public space. Living next to a cemetery ranges from adorable to moving to contemplative. I am not a religious person, but it's hard to deny my own associations between burial and the sacred. The association isn't necessarily about the dead. It's more about the living and seeing ritual at work, ritual in a very basic form that seems rooted in thankfulness and love. It's also about people grappling with the impermanent and employing hard stone as a barrier against transience. I've always felt like cemeteries are special and living next to one is really prompting me to examine why. The only places I've ever felt a "spiritual" connection to are wild places outside of civilization. The cemetery next to me is also an arboretum. It's an interesting mix of wilderness and structured religious practice. It's a peaceful, thoughtful place and so far I enjoy sharing a fence with it.
I've wanted to try podcasting for years, but there's a bit of a learning curve to contend with when you're first starting. I absolutely don't believe that I'm closes to really understanding audio production, but we have (finally) achieved audio quality that doesn't make me actively cringe. We just recorded Episode 4 of News Goblins and I think we're starting to hit our stride.
The concept is nerdy news/talk show. Leslie likes to do in-depth dives on nerd news, science, and gaming and I'm... also there. If you you have the time to give it a listen, I think you'll have fun and I'd love to hear what you think!
I enjoyed John Hodgman’s Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches on an emotional level. Maybe that’s too obvious a statement, but I say this upfront simply to warn you that I have no pretense of objective evaluation in this review. I was and am moved by this book. It spoke to me in my current context (entering my late 30s worried about family and future) and asked the questions I ask myself. I found the book to be insightful, moving, and funny, but I’m not sure that it is (or wants to be) universally so. Okay, enough lame caveats. I liked the book and you should too. Not sure why I’m worrying about the book review police throwing me in book review jail.
Vacationland is a fast read, but leaves a lasting impression. It gave me one of those magical time-travel evenings in which I sat down to read and suddenly five hours were gone and I stared at the final page thinking, “wait, how did you do that?” Those experiences, at their best, leave me feeling fundamentally changed in some way. It’s also the kind of book that, once finished, prompted me to sit with the big questions and leave my warm house on a cold, damp night for a rambling 1AM drive to think about the nature of human endeavor and impermanence. Am I selling this as a fun book yet? Because it is. It is a fun book. It’s just not fun merely for the sake of fun like many of Hodgman’s earlier works (which I also enjoyed). Vacationland is fun in an honest, real life sort of way that marries silliness with tragedy and pain with absurdity. It is, in my opinion, what grown-up American humor should be at this moment in our history, a moment when earnestness and sincerity seem to be on the ropes at the highest levels of government and public life. This book is not one man’s truth used as a cudgel to beat back any opposition. It is an essay in the original sense of the word, a work of trying, a strenuous attempt to find a truth -personal or universal. It isn’t hard to understand how in the current political/social context, Hodgman isn’t interested in throwing more fake facts onto the pile. You sense him living with the question of, “okay, what now” in these pages, and that’s a question that resonates with most of us.
The last point I want to make is that Vacationland is one of those books that works (in part) because its author is just good company. John Hodgman has a voice and knows how to use it. John is brilliant and observant and self-deprecating and aware of his own nonsense. He can go from truly poetic to ridiculous in the span of a sentence and the tension between those peaks and valleys creates an enjoyable narrative rhythm.
This book made me cry. It made me laugh at surprising moments. It made me want to walk out onto the sharp-edged Maine beaches of my own uncomfortable questions and wade out into the nickel-gray water and find myself stronger and more whole from the experience.
Lately, I've been revisiting the works of H.P. Lovecraft. I adore Lovecraft and I don't think I'll be saying anything terribly surprising or controversial if I refer to him as the father of weird fiction. He gave us elder gods waiting on the doorstep of reality, waiting and eyeing our sunlit existence with hungry malice. It makes me all warm and fuzzy with happy reading memories just thinking about it. But, it also calls to mind a great literary tradition of cosmic otherness and outsiders.
The speculative fiction trope that calls on us to question the nature of our own existence by placing that existence in stark contrast to something else, something horrifyingly unknown and ineffable, has always been my favorite brand of cosmic epistemological horror. It's the thing that drew me to Lovecraft in the first place and has kept me coming back again and again for most of my reading life. That said, Lovecraft isn't my favorite master storyteller to place angry monsters in the grumpy waiting room on the cusp of existence. No, that title goes to a certain blind poet who, I feel sure, probably ranks pretty high on Lovecraft's heart-doodled list of dreamiest writers. Mr. John Milton.
Now, I haven't combed through Lovecraft's papers. I like to think they probably smell like a basement and are mostly geometric nightmares densely covered with eldritch runes. But, I haven't studied them. I haven't visited his boyhood/manhood home or tried to dig up corroborating extra-textual evidence of his literary influences. I haven't done my academic due diligence here, but I would like to make some suggestions about the debt Lovecraft owes Milton.
Let's start with an explicit example in the form of a fishy-fan-favorite. Our buddy Dagon. Certainly, Milton didn't invent Dagon. Dagon goes way back, like Mesopotamia way back. And, while there is some debate among scholars concerning the original depiction of Dagon as part fish, it seems he has always been related to the sea and fishing. Yet, the idea that Dagon is actually a demon "sea monster," well, I'm gonna give that one to Milton. Like much of Paradise Lost, here Milton starts with the Bible and builds upon it:
…Next came one
Who mourn'd in earnest, when the Captive Ark
Maim'd his brute Image, head and hands lopt off
In his own Temple, on the grunsel edge,
Where he fell flat, and sham'd his Worshipers:
DAGON his Name, Sea Monster, upward Man
And downward Fish: yet had his Temple high
Rear'd in AZOTUS, dreaded through the Coast
Of PALESTINE, in GATH and ASCALON,
And ACCARON and GAZA's frontier bounds. (1.457-466)
In the Bible, Dagon is simply the false god of the Philistines. In Paradise Lost, Dagon is counted among the demons who fall with Lucifer and he's listed among the fallen who are particularly successful in luring human followers into unholy worship. A sea monster who seduces human followers away from God? Remind you of any Lovecraft tales? Me too. And, of course, Lovecraft alludes to Paradise Lost directly in his short story Dagon:
I felt myself on the edge of the world; peering over the rim into a fathomless chaos of eternal night. Through my terror ran curious reminiscences of Paradise Lost, and of Satan’s hideous climb through the unfashioned realms of darkness.
Okay, so that's a somewhat superficial example. I would also like to examine those "unfashioned realms of darkness" as portrayed in Paradise Lost and suggest a deeper level of influence, an influence centered on that favorite trope of mine. Existential Otherness. In Paradise Lost, Milton does something truly fascinating; he builds a narrative universe in which sentient beings with their own lives and agency exist outside of the created space of God. He builds a space for otherness, for outsiders. In essence, I'd argue that Lovecraft's nameless things owe Milton for the doorstep upon which they sit.
Lucifer is not the only enemy of God in Paradise Lost. Chaos and darkness are ancient, living, thinking beings and they are not happy with God who, in their eyes, is a hated usurper. Personified Chaos co-rules his realm with personified "eldest Night" (2.894), a character described as "eldest of things" (2.962), not simply the eldest creation of God. In addition, the poem refers to "the wide womb of uncreated night" (2.150). Similarly, the realm of otherness is a "wilde Abyss, / The Womb of nature and perhaps her Grave, / Of neither Sea, nor Shore, nor Air, nor Fire, / But all these in thir pregnant causes mixt" (2.909-913). Otherness is uncreated; it is eldest; it is very different from the works of God. In short, Paradise Lost presents a kind of existence outside of human perception and understanding, yet it is awake and aware and doesn't much like us. This is a foundational concept for Lovecraft.
It's hard for me to believe that Lovecraft's concept of old gods, ancient and other and outside our reality, isn't informed by Milton's depictions of Chaos and Ancient Night. Consider Lovecraft's depiction of Chaos as a mad ruler in his sonnet Azathoth. "Till neither time nor matter stretched before me, / But only Chaos, without form or place. / Here the vast Lord of All in darkness muttered."
Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that this creative relationship takes anything away from Lovecraft. For me, this observation doesn't water down the accomplishments of the godfather of weird. Rather, I'm suggesting that Milton provides a really interesting lens through which to read stories like Dagon and The Call of Cthulhu (among many many others).
Lovecraft is awesome and Milton is awesome. I just hear a lot more talk about Lovecraft than I do about old John Milton these days. Maybe I get a little indignant on Milton's behalf.
So, beyond my suggested link between Lovecraft and Milton, I might also be suggesting that, if you haven't for a while or if you hated it in English class, maybe you should give a second look to Paradise Lost and the other works of John Milton. The language can be dense and difficult, but if you like speculative fiction I think you're going to like Paradise Lost. It's got angels and devils and war in heaven with uprooted mountains being tossed around and fallen angels mining minerals to build giant weapons of war.
If the language gets in your way, try listening to an audio version. That's what hooked me. I like the version read by Anton Lesser. Try it while playing video games. If you think slaying dragons in Skyrim is epic, imagine how much more epic it will be when you're listening to an account of demons plotting to overthrow heaven. Trust me. After all, just look at what it did for Lovecraft.
Originally published in Innsmouth Free Press.
Hello friend. We have entered the evening times. We have changed out of our work shirts and ties and put on our after-work shirts and ties. We have nestled our dogs snuggly into our armpits, vowing that their precious little feet shall not feel the cold, toothy bite of the floor while we are present. We have seen the light dimming outside the windows of our hidden tree-top studies and secret society parlors. We have winked at the blood-red sunset kindling our whiskey tumblers and making all the clouds blush. We have felt the changing of the hour and acknowledged it in our words, deeds, and bones. Every third thought is of pajamas. The evening times.