Sunday, September 30, 2007

When Things Didn't Seem So Lonely

This baby boomer has no stories to pass on from my elders’ experience of World War II. My father earned an exemption because of his scientific expertise regarding rubber—an extremely important war commodity in desperately short supply. (I used to joke he invented the latex condom.) He actually served by working in U.S. Government labs, finding ways of isolating synthetic rubber compounds from natural ones. His experiences, course, did not make the cut in Ken Burns’ lovely,elegiac epic documentary The War (It would be um a stretch if they did). But the heart of the experience of millions of other American citizens did.

The War is just starting to run its final episodes on American PBS stations as you read this. For those of you that have missed it (namely my international readers), the film tells this epic tale mostly from the viewpoints of American men and women, in and out of uniform, from
four American towns. Not only did Ken Burns not draw witnesses from the big cities of the day ( in old Hollywood WW II movies, half the front line grunts seem to be Brooklynites and are played by either William Bendix, Dane Clark or George Tobias) he also kept the point of view at ground level. There are no interviews with anyone much above the rank of lieutenant, and no noted scholars or experts, beyond front line soldier and author Paul Fussell, author of the provocatively titled Thank God for the Atom Bomb.

This approach is perfectly commendable: The War’s goal is to concentrate on those Americans caught at the bloody crux, those who learn the lessons that, in the words of Fussell, “can be learned nowhere else.” Burns tries to capture the universal human essence of all wars as experienced by those who have had to fight in them from Peloponnesia to Iraq.

But, honestly and reluctantly, I have to say that, at the eight-plus hour mark, I’m feeling a certain monotony setting in from time-to-time as the film heads into the final years of the conflict.

To make my point, I’ll hearken back to Burn’s masterpiece The Civil War. At eleven hours, that chronicle is not as long as The War will be, but it’s plenty long enough. What saved it from ever becoming boring was its attempt to capture all points of view, civilian and soldier, from the sufferings of slaves up the line to Abraham Lincoln himself. Every different point of view opened another window and brought another shift in tone on this great and terrible historic episode. The parade of experts brought shifts in perspective, so the film never seemed to fall into a rut.

But The War presents only its one general point of view. The why and how about the decisions that were made—both brilliant and stupid—are treated in a fly-over fashion. Most of the time is given to the front line soldiers (much of the footage hasn’t been seen since the war itself), while the rest is spent with those who worked and waited in agony at the home front. Each sequence is beautiful and moving, but when shown all together for eight hours, I find myself wishing for a different take on things.

I keep wanting to know more about the arguments among FDR, Churchill and Josef Stalin about the timing of the Normandy invasion. What were the tortuous twists and turns of Roosevelt and Churchill’s decision to ally the West with Stalin, who beats out his former ally Hitler himself as the most evil and bloodthirsty tyrant of all, based on the numbers. What were the feelings of Generals Eisenhower and Bradley as they sent their troops off to fight and die? I don’t believe all political and military commanders to be machine-tooled sociopaths: their decisions involved their emotions and they deserve explication, too. (Ken Burns appeared on The Daily Show the other night and explained his approach; he seemed to be clearly aware of these concerns.)

One more thing: Burns was criticized for failing to present the point of view of those Mexican-Americans who served in great numbers. He responded by adding a few Mexican-American veterans, but these are soldiers who lived outside of the documentary’s target geographical area and the sequences feel just that: added on. Why couldn’t they find at least a few living Hispanic veterans from Sacramento, California, one of the four featured towns.

Still, The War is tremendous and worth everyone’s while, even with its dull stretches. I’ve written in an earlier posting (July 1, 2007) about nostalgia’s perils and this documentary, showing the raw face of war, clearly portrays the pitfalls of sticking candy-colored glasses on the face of the past. But as I said earlier, what makes nostalgia still valuable is how the past can enhance and make meaningful the present (and I don’t anticipate any future nostalgia for our current era.)

During The Daily Show interview, Ken Burns stated that The War doesn’t have a political bone in its body. But, watching it, it’s impossible not to think about politics and what we’re going through now. Because The War does evoke the honest kind of nostalgia about something that America had then and doesn’t have now: the overall sense of purpose and sacrifice that most people had, a sense shared even by most of those who were otherwise ill-treated by American society (Meaning African- and Japanese Americans). From this perspective, people didn’t seem as lonely, alienated, and atomized as they do now. People had to turn to each other, rely on each other, and they did.

That sense of shared purpose and sacrifice seems far far away now. Of course, no one wishes for something like World War II to ever happen again (except for the usual crowd of sentimental reactionary infants and suicidal nihilists), and no matter how rough things seem now, it hasn’t happened yet.

But should things get that bad—say if Jihadists achieve their dream of taking over another government and whipping together a mass army while our current leadership blunders on in its astonishing belief that turning everyone into a foe (including your own citizens!) is the road to security (“Ohhhhh stop worrying! Moldova’s with us!”)—we won’t be ready at all.

Instead of FDR, Churchill and the alliances that they both struggled and strove to forge around the globe, we have . . . I’m afraid clever metaphors fail me, (though I’d be happy to expend endless pages comparing FDR et al with our current crop of bumbling bullies). Uncle Sam definitely does not seem to want us at all: “Shut Up and Shop” is the battle cry these days.

And it’s not all the Cheney Administration’s fault (though they are a joy to blame, aren’t they?): the lack of a draft and our exploding population, which has risen hand-in-hand with our exploding technology, have allowed us to raise unique barriers between ourselves and the reality of what’s going. Thanks to the white noise of modern media, maybe we can’t avoid news of Iraq, but we can create a world where we can believe any damn crackpot notion we want about it . . . at least until it’s someone we know that comes home in a flag-draped coffin . . . or someone who is “disappeared” because they don’t look right and their funny name winds up on some paranoid’s arbitrary list.

This, finally, may be the true real-world value of Ken Burns’ The War: History never makes a perfect model for the future, but, at its best—and sure as hell, this film is an example--in its rhymes and echoes, it can point us in directions we should be going, as individuals, as a nation and, as a world.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Readers: Their Subspecies and Behaviors

A good book is a good book is a . . .

A couple of weeks ago, the online magazine Slate hosted a celebration and discussion of the 50th anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. During this online roundtable, book critic Meghan O’Rourke made this observation: “I tend to imagine that Jack Kerouac didn't approve much of literary criticism, avid reader though he was.” (Italics mine).

That term “avid reader” made me ask, what other kinds of readers are there? There are of course, the non-readers: some of them are indifferent to reading and books; and then those others who wouldn’t open a book if  had instructions on how to save their own lives. “I never took that up that habit!” one sneered at me as though I were shooting heroin in front of the children.

There are the non-avid readers, the professionals of all stripes who read because their livelihoods depend on it, but once that chore is done, it’s off to Sunday NFL or Doom or the Sims. (One exception: President Cheney’s assistant who, last year, engaged in the odd practice of “Competitive” reading with that former White House aide who looks like a giant infant; I lay odds that both their retention rates were pretty low).

Now, let’s step up to the third level of readers, and back to the first clause in Ms. O’Rourke’s sentence: “Jack Kerouac didn’t much approve much of literary criticism, avid reader, though he was.” (Again, italics mine). This seems to imply that avid readers are those who also pay serious attention to literary criticism, but I think Ms. O’Rourke may be wrong. She may have meant another subcategory: those readers who do approve of literary criticism and take it with the utmost seriousness: Let’s call them “serious readers.”

Webster’s 11th defines “avid” as one who is “characterized by enthusiasm and vigorous pursuit.” It may also mean someone tolerant, adventuresome, and maybe even free-spirited. They may not pay much attention to “literary criticism” and when they do, it’s because they’re looking for a signpost or two to point them to their next destination or to keep track of a favorite author or genre.

I’ve not read On the Road and the Slate discussion doesn’t say what Kerouac’s reading tastes were, but I will lay a humble wager that, judging from his celebrated novel’s subject matter and setting, this avid reader and legendary author may well have been on a nodding acquaintance with  the Western novel, one of the more despised genres. As an avid reader, he may very well have devoured many genre novels—western, horror, mystery, romance, science fiction or classic. He may very well have wandered the world of fiction on the wings of the same free spirit that set him out on the open road.

Not so with most “serious readers” as I’ve known them. These folks are as discriminating as I am about the scotch I drink. For them, it’s high-minded novels only: the works of Trollope, Dickens (except for A Christmas Carol), Proust, Joyce,  Larry Woiwode, Ann Beattie, Francine Prose, among others. They can be as hot-headed as John McCain, as strict as a Christian mullah. Recently, Ruth Franklin, another Slate book reviewer, excoriated Pulitzer Prize Winner and genre champion Michael Chabon for trying to “drag the decaying corpse of genre fiction out of the shallow grave where writers of serious literature abandoned it.”

Clearly, Michael Chabon isn’t a “serious” reader, either and we can safely bet that Ms. Franklin never poisons her eyes with a mystery novel and if she does, she probably keeps it hidden with the porn.

You readers, of course, know which subspecies I am. Do I oppose “serious literature?” like one of those knuckle-dragging reverse snobs (“Ha! I only read Shopping-and-Fucking Novels! Ha! I stare down from the balcony of my nose upon you miserly snobs!”)

Of course not. I’d be the blindest of fools and a worse hack than I am now if not for reading The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, Ulysses, Great Expectations, David Copperfield, Pale Fire, Gravity’s Rainbow, A Bend in the River and many more. I love books that “are good for me.” The sheer challenge of many of them is an inspiration in itself. Bring on Don Quixote! Bring on War and Peace!

Just last week, I snapped shut Elmore Leonard’s 1950s western The Bounty Hunter with a happy smile and whipped right around into Vladimir Nabokov’s first novel Mary (which promises to be the start of a long-lasting obsession with Nabokoviana). I did this without a blink. I suffered no helium swell of nobility. And I read both these books with an equal amount of attention (but not, I emphasize, the same kind.)

The puzzle for serious readers is how do I stand the cognitive dissonance? It’s not that there is no difference between “serious” literature” and “genre” literature (sadly, I haven’t the time, nor you the patience, for that discussion.) Because Leonard’s world, and his way of writing it, differs so much from Nabokov’s, (except for the employment of stream of consciousness; yes, it’s true.), his best books call on a different corner of my consciousness, call on me to exercise different brain muscles. I respond to Elmore Leonard with different thoughts and emotions, and different set of no-less
stringent standards. Genre readers can be as discriminating as any New York Review of Books critic.

To avid readers like myself, it’s not the categories that count, although I’m aware of them, but the specific work itself on its own terms. Call us anarchists, if you want. Genre hopping is an act of near-absolute freedom. It’s the freedom to turn from the crystalline world of homesick exiled Russians in 1920s Berlin to, say, the corkscrew supernatural Liverpool of horror master (and passionate Nabokov reader) Ramsey Campbell that inspires us. We seek new worlds, always, whether it be the Wild West or a windswept moor.

In this crowded world that seems to be turning more and more toward murderous and authoritarian absolutes, art and literature are likely the last bastions of freedom our souls can ever hope to find. It’s sure looking that way to me. The last thing us avid readers need is the hectoring of high-strung critics.

Gotta go, now. I hear a Charlie Chan mystery calling!

(Redited 3/13/13)

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield is the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, Scribed and at the Red Room bookstore. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, and reads at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.


Sunday, September 16, 2007

Shop Talk#4: The Back Trails of Research (Part of a Series)

No "fun" for Writer Tom, This Time
I have just returned from four days in Alpine County, California. “Gee,” you might well ask, “doesn’t this call for another episode of ‘Them Thar Hills’? Another hapless Laurel-and-Hardyesque escapade about being pursued by bears and burning down campsites—no, entire national forests ala Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire?” No, not this time. My primary goal had little to do with basking in Nature’s Glory and divining Her Secrets (though a little divination did go on). This time it was all about research. The collection and absorption of information about the people of Alpine County. All in preparation for the approaching conclusion of my work on that fabulous, sure-to-be bestselling novel all of my readers are Morally Obligated to purchase or face the Onslaught of Various Rashes and Bizarre Deformities: The Vampire of Alpine Canyon. People live in the country, often close to, and within, wilderness itself. I know this is strange to many of my readers who are probably mostly urban dwellers. Maybe one or two of you feel the same way about the country as H.L. Mencken: Nature “is a place to throw empty beer cans on a Sunday.” It’s a funny thing about the supernatural tale. The more realistic, the more grounded in quotidian detail it is, the stronger the sense of surprise, awe and terror at the appearance of the fantastic. Nathaniel Hawthorne seems to be the first to notice this, and, no one’s proven him wrong yet. (Fantasy horror efforts, like the awful awful The Mummy and Van Helsing don’t even deserve the term ‘horror.’ They’re action comedies, and bad ones at that.) I need enough of those everyday details to make my story, its characters and the world it takes place in, believable, to you, my loyal readers, who will make yourself twenty-to-thirty bucks poorer to fulfill your solemn duty to me, your hard-working author (unless you wait for the paperback). And to get those details, and get ‘em right, I had to return to the scene of my original inspiration. Now, as you might imagine, the Alpine County of quotidian reality has, in the rich soil of my mind, morphed into another place that resembles the magical place I love, but is still very different. Firstly, it was missing a couple of significant geographic features I want for my book—one of them the titular canyon. But I knew that things would have to really change when, on a trip I took a couple of years ago, I learned from a curator at the County Museum, that Alpine County completely lacked a certain kind of Rural Professional, who had become central to my tale. (Apologies for my coyness here, but I really don’t want to spoil it for you.) At that point, I realized I could no longer use real-world Alpine County as my backdrop. I would have to “make a place up,” a normal practice among novelists of all genres (read Joyce Carol Oates’ Bellefleur, another great Gothic, which is set in an imaginary Upstate New York.) First off, I changed the name of the county. Next, I doubled its land area and its smallest-in-the-state population of around 1,200. Increasing the population meant creating another whole new town and actually demoting the remote, charming, bucolic county seat of Markleeville (population 150) to a remote, charming, bucolic village, also bearing a new name. Still, I need a realistic baseline to build my new fictional world from and there is still plenty that Alpine County can teach me. (Another note: The next biggest California county in population, Sierra County, is around 3500, which is way too much. In fact, Alpine County is so small, California's state government considers it “unclassifiable” in terms of state funding.).
My Front Yard (See last week's posting for back yard.)
I arrived on Sunday afternoon and camped in Grover Hot Springs State Park, a place I’d hiked around on a couple of occasions, but this trip, as a camper, I found myself falling stoned in love with: I decided to make it my base for my entire stay. (With a four-square mile golden meadow surrounded by the towering looming Sierras as my front yard, what fool am I to sneer?) In my previous posting on this subject, I shared a profound dread of the hostile resistance I might face in response to my questions. I couldn’t have been more wrong, I’m grateful to say. From the County Health Services, through the Washo (Southern Band) tribal headquarters, on to the Sheriff’s Department and the County Library, all my questions were answered with patience, utter politeness and everyone’s best effort (though the Sheriff’s spokesperson did worry about whether if they would be reading about yet another crooked, spineless, inept small-town sheriff; I assured her not). Not all questions, of course, could be answered and correspondence with a couple of the people I spoke to will continue. One insight I did gain that I can share: not all the facts I learned about how things are done in Alpine County, will become facts in my book. By now, my fictional location has taken on a shape of its own. Practices regarding say, law enforcement, vary, from county to county. In Alpine County, the California Highway Patrol handles all traffic matters on all roads . . . but that will not be the case in my story. Still, just that scrap of info helped to clarify a few things. Still, I have to be careful. Critics complain, often rightly, how genre writers blithely ignore reality just to keep our fanciful plots moving. Fair point, but too much attention to too much detail can create a doorstop book: a kind of Á la Recherché du Temps Perdue Meets Edgar Rice Burroughs that doesn’t get moving until page 300, because I’ve spent too much time describing how the deputy cleans what kind of pistol while reflecting on his latent transexualism and problems with his pregnant wife: I’m not doing either Tom Clancy-ville or Marcel Proust, here. I returned home on Thursday with over a dozen pages of chicken scratching and a tremendous case of exhaustion—I hardly slept the whole time I was there—part of the reason I did very little hiking around. I’m still catching up. Sleep? Oh yes, more please . . . . Nevertheless, this time, I crossed one of the biggest mountains. I’m well into the Valley of the Third Draft (the Reader’s Draft.) of The Vampire of Alpine Canyon. Despite all the work that remains, I do believe I see a little light up there, just over those peaks, yonder.
There. See it? Yonder . . . .

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Curse of the Propertied Class

Yes, I really am trying to write a novel with this outside my window
Maybe it’s my venerable fifty-two years; maybe it’s because I’ve been living in Emeryville,California, for five years—though it feels like fifty especially with the racket of that goddamn condo construction project right outside my office window; maybe it’s the gentle nudging of my dear darling wife; and there’s that current implosion of the market . . . but . . .

We’ve decided to go buy ourselves a house.

Let us do the laughing here (and believe me, there’s plenty to laugh at, but little of it is at our expense). Those of you who have known me awhile may be chopfallen to learn this, and a certain subset may wonder if perhaps I might be rousing from slumber some Cthulu-oid monster of American materialism who will devour every penny in my pocket and every bit of brain matter before reaching saturation; have I not seen Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House and other cautions about this corner of the American Dream? I’ve also seen Roman Polanski’s The Tenant and if that doesn’t put you off renting, them maybe you’re the one who needs medication.

So, what the hell’s spurring this decision anyway?

I could give you the address of all the thirty-five plus apartments I’ve lived in during my life. You could go visit most all of ‘em (whatever hasn’t been torn down). But you’ll find no trace of me, not even the cold sweet scent of a ghost.

I’ve grown tired of moving and leaving nothing and taking little. Renting is easy, goes the song, but it’s a level of impermanence I’m finding unlivable. (Yes yes I know, everything is impermanent . . . God, I’m so sick of hearing we’re all going to die anyway, it makes me want to strive for immortality just to spite fashionable despair.) If a roommate isn’t moving on (or going batshit), it’s the property being sold from under me; if not the sale, it’s condo construction erupting ten feet away. (My moves have only ended happily twice: the first time when I got my very own place by myself; the second time, when I married Elizabeth.)

I believe most everyone feels this way (except for bin Laden and his evil minions, scuttling from cave-to-cave; and anxious antsy jet-setters and other of life’s chronic perambulators), at least eventually. Sure, change is normal and inevitable, but why make a fetish of it like Americans seem to? Gracefully accepting it as a fact of life is one thing, but change for change’s sake is to live like a psychopath. Life is full of “existential” moments (i.e.; unpredictable), but living that so-called “philosophy,” I’ve learned, leads to its own prison: drifting and cold, like an asteroid,waiting only to get bumped by other asteroids. Slackerhood has its own ennui.

Make no mistake, this is not a scheme for warp-speed profits—especially in this market-- but an actual quest for an ancient, nostalgic concept known as a home. For nihilistic reductionists, this may be only a reactionary expression of the territorial imperative, a license to make like Dustin Hoffman swinging that man trap in Straw Dogs (that wasn’t his house, BTW, if you watch it closely).

I believe my reasons have more to do with nostalgia for my Christopher Robin boyhood in that old Andrew-Jackson-era house on Red Mill Road outside of Mohegan Lake, New York. Officially, it was three-acres of fields and woods; unofficially, it was miles and miles: To boys, trespassing is an adult’s abstract legalism; remember the “TRESPASSERS W” sign in Winnie-the-Pooh? My buddies and I weren’t concerned about doing anything wrong. I only worried about getting yelled at. (A Google map search shows that, amazingly, much of those woods and fields remain!)

Of course, if I ever do find that world again, I won’t experience it as wandering with the forest creatures to the Enchanted Places. In earlier posts (July 1, '07), I’ve quoted that line from The Wild Bunch about being a child again, but that, in its pure form, is neither possible, nor morally right. Home ownership will be full of existential moments as Mr. Blandings knew, too. But God’s gonna go “Ha!”, whether or not we make plans. His laughter is not a call to passive surrender—no one, not even a monk, dies saying, “Well, at least I didn’t do anything”—but, I hope, a call to courage, grace, and flexibility. A Main Street businessman’s practical sense bred with a nose for life’s best surprises and possibilities and the guts to meet them.

The loan documents have been submitted. Monsters and man traps lie ahead. So does possible joy, satisfaction, and a sense of accomplishment. Sure, I’ve got plans. And I’ll make new ones, if I have to. I’ll make some place of my own to wander.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

A Hell House Revisited

The time: Winter, 1980. While preparing for a long bus ride home to Minneapolis from Winona,Minnesota, I buy a paperback at a small bookstore: a horror novel, a genre I loved as a boy, but now consider myself too highbrow and hairy-chested to read much anymore. I’d dug Stephen King’s The Shining, plus his two other earlier novels Salem’s Lot and Carrie, but—sniff sniff—no, my earnest sensitive young man’s ego would not allow me to even touch the notion that this childish fiction deserved the dearly sought label of “literature,” a category that only, in the last hundred years, had been defined as books read only by a relative few.

What snares me about this particular volume is its five pages of praising blurbs—not only from Stephen King, but also such high-brows as Christopher Lehmann-Haupt at, yes, The New York Times! One review even claims that “ . . . it tells us something about ourselves.”

Oh yeah! We’ll see about that, we will!

That novel is Ghost Story. Its author is Peter Straub. The opening lines sink their cold fangs into my nerves, right away:

“What was the worst thing you’ve ever done?”

“I won’t tell you that. But I’ll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me. The most dreadful thing.”

(Never mind the chill you feel; consider the moral implications of that exchange; the evasion of responsibility it implies).

After that, for maybe the first hundred pages, I am treated to an undeniably extremely intelligent, literary, well-written, if a little plodding, novel. For a time, I worry that it might be a “shaggy ghost” stories where the threat turns out to be only a hologram image concocted by some evil, but very reality-based, trickster, or caused by LSD in the water supply, (these almost always make me groan; even then, I believed literary and cinematic monsters should be “real,” even though I don't believe in their real-world existence.)

Then somewhere after page 100, a switch flicks on in a far corner cave of my mind. Two nights later, in a sweat of ecstatic horror and suspense, I close the book and think something like, Golly . . . that's best book I've read since Gravity’s Rainbow.

Now, at last close to completing a horror novel of my own (with several worthy, but unproduced,screenplays between), I decided to open the door to this haunted monument for the fourth time. Of my two precious signed first editions, I chose the British Jonathan Cape one with its terrific hallucinatory dust jacket. (But, unfortunately, the text is poorly proofread in spots.)

Ghost Story’s plot, like most in the genre, is simple. Here, four old white men, rural representatives of a generation of courtly conservatives now seen only in the likes of Senator John Warner, are struggling with their fears of aging, death and the changes ringing through 1970s American society. After the death of one of their own, they seek solace and therapy by telling each other ghost stories during their monthly get-togethers.

Bad idea, because, instead of comforting them, this tale-telling conjures up a militantly angry feminine demon seeking revenge for an insult suffered fifty years ago. After another member of their “Chowder Society” mysteriously dies, they dig themselves a deeper grave by inviting one of the dead men’s nephews in to help them investigate what is happening. The nephew, a writer himself,named, significantly, Don Wanderley, tries to grasp the weird events swirling around the upstate New York town where the novel is mostly set through his own writing, but they find this only empowers the demon even more, as she and her minions cut a bizarre path of destruction through their snug little world.

Like all good literature, Ghost Story is about more than its plot and story, more than scaring its readers: It’s fear with psychological, social and literary context and themes throughout its densely gothic and wintry prose: aging, loneliness, death, romantic obsession, misogyny, the long implacablle shadow of the past, the changes happening in society at large and their impact on insular, rural worlds. Peter Straub's book is deeply grounded in classic American gothic fiction of the past: Poe, Hawthorne and Henry James (two of the characters are named after the last two authors.)

Horror fiction is a conservative genre, in both the good and bad sense of the term (which maybe explains the angry scorn it faces from utopian, politically progressive readers) and this novel worries about the good things that may have been lost: for example, a cultured sense of human dignity and restraint, which has its roots in Anglo-European bourgeois society. Considering the brute cacophony of so much twenty-first century American culture, Ghost Story may have a point. (A simple trip to the movies these days requires earmuffs and Valium. Yeah, right: It marks me as an old white fogy. Well, fuck ‘em if there aren’t enough explosions in The Seventh Seal.)

Three decades later, I find Straub’s novel as intense and eerie than ever. (It’s a great book for a cold, snow-swept night.)As with all long books, some parts seem rushed while others rustily grind and clank. The novel’s gory climax—set in a movie theater showing Night of the Living Dead—seemed clever and daring when I first read it, feels a little ham-fisted now, though thankfully, the book never sinks into sniggering post-modernism. I was happy to read it once again.

Ghost Story opened my mind to the literary value and potential of genre fiction; it taught me that art and entertainment are never really in opposition. While most of the field does remain the junk our parents and professors wagged their fingers about, the best of it—and it’s a long list that weaves its way from Poe to John LeCarré—provides more than the lazy wish fulfillment of the routine popular novel. In genre fiction, unlike the inward turning—sometimes frozen--characters of other forms of literary fiction, people make big choices and take big actions . . . and they often lead to very human dilemmas. The worlds of genre fiction, whether cold war Berlin, a haunted snowbound New York town, or the Wild West, may not be “real-life” but, in the hands of wizards, they may be no less real, complex,and, yeah, even profound.