Interview: the writers of Carmilla

  Carmilla, J. Sheridan LeFanu's 1871 novella that predates Bram Stoker's Dracula, is a seminal work of genre fiction.  It introduces the idea of the lesbian vampire, something that later writers would expand into its own genre (check out Hammer's The Vampire Lovers for a fairly faithful, if overtly sexed-up, version).  It's also surprisingly contemporary in its writing style.  So Read more

Movie Review: Mythica, A Quest for Heroes

Back in 2011, I stumbled on Arrowstorm Entertainment's Dawn of the Dragonslayer, a low-budget fantasy epic that had the look of a much more expensive film. But what really got my attention was the care given to the performances: leads Richard McWilliams and Nicola Posener really dug into their characters, and director Anne Black gave them the time to Read more

Dramatics Interreptus

My younger son turns seven in about a month, and the other day I realized that I was about that age when I realized just how important stories were to me. My parents left me to stay with friends of the family for an afternoon; I have no memory why. But while I was there, I started watching the TV Read more

Seeing It a New Way

In my teen writing class at the Mount Horeb Public Library last week, we segued into discussing Catcher in the Rye, and one of my students made the following observation (which I'm paraphrasing): Some of my friends have said that, since the characters in the book were rich, Holden's problems weren't that significant. But in so many other books I've read, Read more

A True Story of Frog-Gigging and Disappointment

I wrote the following piece for a memoir class taught by Michelle Wildgen, best-selling author of Bread and Butter and You're Not You (soon to be a movie starring Hilary Swank). When I was a kid growing up in rural Tennessee, my dad determined that I would follow in his footsteps and leave a trail of dead small animals behind Read more

Response to the NYT: Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?

Posted on by Alex in criticism, fantasy literature, fiction, Hamlet, pop culture, tennessee, Teresa Frohock, Tufa, writers, writing | 7 Comments

Recently in the New York Times, writer and editor Paul Elie bemoaned the lack of depictions of Christian faith in modern fiction. He trotted out numerous examples of past masters (Flannery O’Connor, Anthony Burgess, etc.) and then mentions how current literary novelists simply don’t, apparently, have faith in Christianity. They don’t depict it because they don’t believe it.

In part, he said:

Now I am writing a novel with matters of belief at its core. Now I have skin in the game. Now I am trying to answer the question: Where has the novel of belief gone?

Well, to be blunt, it’s gone to those genres you look down upon. You know, the books people actually read: fantasy, science fiction, horror and romance.

Elie adds, The most emphatically Christian character in contemporary American fiction is the Rev. John Ames, who in Marilynne Robinson’s novel “Gilead” [published in 2004, and winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize--AB] writes, in old age, to his young son as he prepares for death in 1957.

Illustration from Paul Elie’s NYT essay.

Really? I mean, I can instantly think of two other examples of Christian faith depicted, rather emphatically, in recent fantasy novels that meet all Elie’s vague criteria. One is by me: in The Hum and the Shiver, from 2011, I have Craig Chess, a young Methodist minister new to his post and faced with the task of reaching out to a group of people who don’t believe in the same things he does (they have beliefs, but that’s another topic). Craig’s Christianity is genuine and heartfelt; further, he uses it as the touchstone for all his actions. He is content to let his Christianity show by example, not by proselytizing or haranguing. And this gets results: the novel’s protagonist, a young woman known for her past sexual exploits, is willing to honor his beliefs in their courtship. He neither demands nor expects her to change, and because of that, she both loves and respects him (and importantly, doesn’t change just to please him).

The other example is Miserere: An Autumn Tale, by Teresa Frohock. In this novel, she creates a cosmology that incorporates all the world’s religions, and more, shows them working together. The only place they don’t get along, in fact, is on Earth. In this universe, prayer functions as a real power that gets real results, and the strength of a prayer is measurable and crucial. Hell is a real place, and so is Heaven; and free will, the ultimate gift from God, has consequences. But there’s also redemption, God’s other ultimate gift, available to those who want it bad enough to truly change themselves and embrace the standards they have sworn to uphold.

I asked Teresa her thoughts on her approach to religion. She said, in part:

“I had to abandon the group-think mentality in order to write Miserere. I also want to be very clear: when I see or use the phrase “Christian belief,” I think of the teachings of the Christ and I automatically eliminate from my mind the trappings of doctrine and dogma, which were essentially organized and formulated long after the Christ’s death. Christian belief—as in love being the one rule of the law, protect the weak and those who stand outside the mainstream—those were the essential teachings of the Christ, and those beliefs heavily influenced Miserere.”

So, Mr. Elie, perhaps you should not bemoan quite so loudly. “Emphatically Christian” characters are all around you, just not in your myopic view of literature. Or, to paraphrase: there are more things in heaven and earth, Mr. Elie,* than are dreamed of in your limited literary philosophy.

*I was unable to find any website or contact information for Mr. Elie. I would love to include his response, if any.

Bloomin’ Shakespeare, part 1

Posted on by Alex in Antony and Cleopatra, Hamlet, Harold Bloom, Kim Stanley, Laurence Olivier, Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare | 1 Comment

In the process of cleaning out my study for its current use as the boys’ playroom (already the scene of an epic Nerf-sword battle between the Squirrel Boy and me), I came across Harold Bloom’s ginormous Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. As only someone absolutely certain of himself could do, Bloom gives you the correct (i.e., his) interpretation of every single Shakespeare play, with specially large sections on Hamlet, King Lear and Henry IV (a.k.a. The Adventures of Falstaff). And in his case, the ego of such an undertaking seems backed up by some serious insights. Don’t you hate it when that happens?

The ones that stuck with me the most enhanced my appreciation of both my favorite Shakespeare play (Antony and Cleopatra) and the one that always set my teeth on edge (Romeo and Juliet). I’ll talk about A&C first.

Specifically, Bloom points out that Cleopatra is, in the vast emotional range she displays (tragic lover, mercurial friend, queen, spoiled brat, mature woman), the feminine equivalent of Hamlet and thus Shakespeare’s greatest female role, the more so for being, in his opinion, virtually unplayable. I’m not sure if he means that no actress is capable of it, or that simply because it’s a female role there can be no actress capable of it. Certainly it’s never attained the universal status of the Denmarkian Dynamo; perhaps it’s because we don’t allow actresses the same prestige as actors? I mean, even people who’ve never seen it know Olivier was “the best Hamlet ever.” But who recalls Kim Stanley, whose recent biography was called Female Brando in recognition of her enormous talent? Katherine Cornell played Cleopatra in what was probably the only successful American run of the play, back in the late 1940s; I can hear the voices now saying, “Katherine who?”

The late Charlton Heston often chastised fellow movie actors like Robert De Niro for not attempting the great roles on stage. He himself constantly returned to the “man-killer” stage parts like Macbeth throughout his career, a process he called “waltzing with the Old Gentleman.” Are there no actresses who see the gold in a part like Cleo? I mean, in a world where Ethan Hawke can make a passable Hamlet, surely someone like Charlize Theron should make a run at Cleopatra.

There are several film and video versions of the play, including one directed by and starring Mr. Heston as Mark Antony. My favorite, though surely not the best, is this one for its absurdist casting. While Timothy Dalton and Lynn Redgrave make a perfectly adequate Antony and Cleopatra, it’s in the supporting cast that the head-scratching begins. Star Trek alumni Nichelle Nichols as Charmain and Walter Koenig as Pompey? General Hospital heartthrob Anthony Geary as Caesar? It has to be seen.

Next post, how Bloom helped make me able to stomach Romeo and Juliet.