A Wrinkle In Mind

Picture of space with text by Madeleine L'Engle: A book, too, can be a star, a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.The problem with deciding to write about books by Madeleine L’Engle is that many of them are connected via characters or families of characters. Even when Cat and I decided that we had to include what we thought of as the Wrinkle In Time books, we immediately hit the issue of her having grown up with a set that included the first four of (according to the internet) five books in a series (that link to another half dozen or more books via shared characters) and I had grown up in a home that had purchased a set prior to 1986 and, thus, included only three books. Because of that, in Cat’s mind there are four books and in my mind there are three. And, in the minds of others, as I’ve said, it’s a larger number than that. (Plus, we have a different opinion about the right order of the last two books for that same reason.)

Because the fifth book (which I’ve not read) is more about an O’Keefe descendant and just the Murray parents but the first four are focused on the Murry children, and because we were both really more familiar with the first four, we drew the line there. (Though I’d have drawn the line at three, both out of my initial conditioning and because the fourth book focuses on two different Murry children than the first three.) So, as you can see, even choosing what to do here was sort of a wrinkle in mind. (Yes, I’m a laugh.) The one thing we absolutely and strongly agreed on was that these are important books and we welcomed a reason to re-read them and share our thoughts.

Fortunately, though we both love all four books (A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and Many Waters), we each love a different two best. It’s easier to let go of writing about one of them when you know it’s in the talented hands of someone who might love it a little more than you do…

I’ll try to avoid spoilers, just in case you haven’t read these. I want you to have the same experience of discovery that I did. Cat will do the same, bringing up just the barest of plot points to give you a slight tease (and maybe to stir the memory if you’ve read them but it’s been a while). Most discussion will focus on L’Engle’s brilliance, on personal connection, and on themes. Hopefully, this will only enhance any reading you choose to undertake.

A Wrinkle in Time – Amber

Cover of the edition of Wrinkle In Time that Amber grew up withIn A Wrinkle in Time, time travel is achieved by people folding space/time via a tesseract. It seems this is done simply using a mental power…And, really, the time folding/travelling isn’t as important as you’d think given the title of the book. To my mind, only the part where people are returned home just before they left for adventures is clear time travel use. For me, the most interesting time travel, if you will, comes from the real world, not the story. This book was published in 1962. 1962. If you don’t feel like that’s forever ago, read this and pay attention to what a different place 1962 United States was. And then, as you read the other books, notice how many years there are between the publication (and the writing) of each. For instance, A Wind in the Door was published in 1973 (and a note in the book makes it clear that it wasn’t written until 1970). Reading the books all in a row, decades later, you might notice how L’Engle doesn’t try to write later books in a tone that is the same as 1962 or that places the books in (or as close as would be realistic in terms of time passed for the characters) years close to that. New aesthetics, new household items, new ways of speaking that are modern to when she writes are there.

Another interesting aspect, especially of the first few books, is the state of young adult literature. Specifically, that it didn’t really exist. L’Engle had a hard time finding a publisher for this first book because it wasn’t a children’s book (too smart for kids, they said…and I can see how some of it is even smarter than more recently written adult fiction) and it wasn’t an adult’s book (I’m guessing due to having kids as the main characters). She insisted all along that she was writing for people. Full stop. Not for kids specifically, nor for adults specifically.

The other thing that was unexpected (and unremembered) was the unabashed religiosity of the author and some of her characters. In modern times, that’s not the norm. On the other side of it, for the time she wrote it in, it wasn’t Christian enough. There was some hubbub over the fact that she actually dared to have her characters put people such as Buddha, Michelangelo, and Einstein on the same level as Christ. For me, neither the overt religiosity nor giving importance to scientists and thinkers and the like is a problem. In fact, some of what was likely a political statement on L’Engle’s part resonates with some of my own spiritual beliefs, which gives me some extra glee.

Somehow, though, she wrote this story and got it published…And it’s one that I loved as a child and love as an adult. One that, among other themes, taught me that too much forced conformity is bad, that sacrificing oneself for the greater good is a high purpose, that faith and belief and love (all in a broad sense) are powerful, that those things can live in harmony with science, that even small or “different” people can make a great impact, that we humans can be important even in a universe with spectacular creatures, and that doing things to shine light and hold back the darkness (which we see in violence and unkindness and other negative human behaviours towards other humans and the rest of creation) is something we all have part in. Lessons that can speak to us, no matter our age or the decade in which we live as we read this.

Want to read a little bit of unpublished stuff from the book (some that calls out the politics a little more clearly)? Just in time for us, they’ve found a cut passage! A passage that should be mandatory reading for politicians, fear-mongers, and the humans who are being kept in check by security theatre and other false shows of “keeping things safe.”

And I couldn’t pass up a chance to posit this: A Wrinkle In Time was published in 1962, and one of it’s main time travelling characters goes by the name of Mrs. Who. The first episode of Doctor Who aired in November 1963. Coincidence?

If you’ve already read the book (and, seriously, I wouldn’t watch this otherwise, as it is a massive spoiler and I also wouldn’t want its silliness to taint your reading experience…these books are all Very Serious for me) and you are in need of a laugh, some kids did a silly 90 second video re-enactment of the book. (I’m so serious about you not watching if you haven’t read that I’m opting not to embed the video. Very Serious!)

A Wind in the Door – Amber

Cover of the edition of Wind in the Door that Amber grew up with(Don’t worry; having said all my “thoughts about the series in general” in the previous section, this one won’t be nearly as verbose.)

In A Wind in the Door, time travel is achieved by supernatural powers that aren’t really detailed (hello, cherubim and Teacher). As with A Wrinkle in Time, the time travel isn’t super important (time that flows at a different rate is more important here). But it’s there and I’m happy to call that enough to talk about these books in hopes that you’ll read them. One thing to note about this “series” is that L’Engle wrote them such that you could read just one, any one, of them and be fine. The stories aren’t connected in a way that you need to read multiple to understand fully or even to get plots tied up.

One thing that, to me, was clearest in this book (though it permeates all four) is the author’s interest in scientific theories. She weaves bits of science in. As I mentioned before, there’s unabashed religiosity (she didn’t like being called a Christian writer, but she saw no need to set aside some of what she knew/believed as she wrote), and, to my delight, it’s side-by-side with a love of science. The parents of the sibling protagonists in this series are both (both! even the woman…even in 1962!) highly educated and brilliant scientists. As someone who feels no struggle with having love for both spirituality and science, I love this. And the little ideas L’Engle uses as the science springboards for her fictions are intriguing, even if not up-to-date with current understanding.

With this book, though the story is important, I seem more likely to recall lessons learnt than to recall actual events. Even though I just re-read it last week and connected enough that I cried. Actual “tears running down my face” crying. (I’m not really a massive cry-er, but I did get choked up with A Wrinkle In Time and A Swiftly Tilting Planet as well.)

This book shares some themes with the first. It has some important self sacrifice…which, now that I think about it, is an interesting balance to the lesson about the worth of individuality (of not giving oneself up in a way) and the value of people who are different that I also find in both books. But the unique lessons here speak to me and my personal experience at least as strongly.

  • “If someone knows who he is, really knows, then he doesn’t need to hate.” This is a truth I have lived. When I really came to know who I am, I stopped hating myself and others. Does L’Engle have the secret to world peace in that sentence?
  • In the whole of creation, all things are known, named, and needed. In fact, one of the running themes in all four books is the interconnectedness of all creation.
  • “Where” doesn’t matter and doesn’t stop the things that do matter (like love and light). As a girl with loved ones, creative companions, and inspirations spread all over this world, I feel that deeply.
  • “Time isn’t any more important than size. All that is required of you is to be in the Now, in this moment which has been given us.” I am pretty horrible at living in the now, but the fact that I see that there are very small things of great importance/impact and large things of lesser importance/impact and that we can, if we try, do some good and connect in spite of size, gives me hope I’ll one day do better at disregarding time, at making the most of this moment…my Now.

Many Waters – Cat

manywatersConfession time: this was absolutely my Most Read book of the entire series when I was younger. My copy is trashed, the pages wrinkled and torn, the spine so warped that the book looks twice as thick as it actually is. But what can I say? I loved it. Going back as an adult and revisiting L’Engle’s remarkable series, I can finally see that this is by far the worst of the lot. It’s more similar in spirit to the overwrought soapy romances L’Engle went towards later in her career (I’m thinking A Ring of Endless Light type material) and lacks the resonating depth of the other works in the Time series. I’ll admit that straight up. It diverts from Meg and Charles Wallace, the themes aren’t as groundbreaking and full of scope for children and adults, and quite frankly the relationships are kind of creepy when you dwell on them for too long.

Bu, as a kid, I ate up the tale of Murry twins Sandy and Dennys like it was a hot fudge sundae with extra whipped cream. An apt metaphor, particularly when you think of the other books as the hearty elements of a meal—the meat, vegetables, vitamins—and this as the frothy dessert that feels good in the moment but leaves some lingering regret and/or shame.

Still, there are things to appreciate. For one, it’s one of the more overt usages of time in the series, with the twins being transported back millions of years to the era of Noah. With that comes some fascinating musings on Biblical culture. Many Waters was the first time I had heard of seraphim or nephilim, and it was kind of rad to read Bible verses later on and see these terms pop out at me, now with a highly individualized, but completely fleshed out world behind them. L’Engle’s thoughts on the relationship between mortals and the divine is wonderful, as always. She has this method of widening the possibilities in Christianity, resisting narrow interpretation and making it the more welcoming, warm religion that I personally identify with. Using the singing of the stars, creating angels that have feelings (even if they are, again, somewhat questionable), these were traits that made Heaven less scary and more familiar.

I also kind of loved the diversion away from Meg and Charles Wallace. Meg was sometimes so close to my own self that spending time with her was occasionally wearying. And Charles Wallace can be too remote, too intimidatingly wise. They’re wonderful, and I’ve learned to grow into Meg comfortably, as I’ve grown into myself comfortably, but, as a kid, it felt better seeing characters so unlike me and who had previously been everything I disliked (popular, athletic, irksome in their cold rationality) learn more about their place in the world and soften towards the unknown. Sandy and Dennys became bastions of hope, signals that with a little time—or a little time traveling—everyone can learn and everyone can contribute to the unifying splendor of this earth.

A Swiftly Tilting Planet – Cat

swiftlytiltJust as Many Waters was my Most Read book, A Swiftly Tilting Planet was my Most Favorite. To my delight, it remains so to this day. Which shouldn’t be surprising, because this book is incredible. Absolutely incredible. It takes L’Engle’s typical themes of family, humanity’s interconnectedness, and the conflation of religion and science, and uses all of them to full potential. To me, this book is the culmination of L’Engle’s work. I know that there’s technically another book following the O’Keefe family. But to me this is the end, perfect and shining and whole (again, later Many Waters publishing date notwithstanding).

A Swiftly Tilting Planet is the only book in the Time series to deal only with time, not with space. In that way it’s thematically similar to Here, the comic I touched on earlier, with one location constant throughout a relentlessly shifting time. Charles Wallace tries to piece together the history of America and fictional Latin American country Vespugia, while also discovering the connections between Welshmen and Indians and the intricate history of the O’Keefe matriarch, all set against a backdrop of impending nuclear destruction. Through it all he technically does not move. Everything is improbably set in the same area. In fact, messing with space is highly discouraged. It’s an interesting plot point that serves to drive home the importance of each and every place. Yes, while all these threads diverge in the same Connecticut meadow, it could be any location with a history as rich and as impactful. It’s a rendition of time whose weight stays with me, long after the reading is done.

Beyond having an interesting time twist, the book itself is full to bursting with beauty. L’Engle gets to stretch her authorial wings a little, bringing in the power of mythology and poetry and literature. She emphasizes how the slightest choices can be vitally significant, manifesting that concept through a steady appreciation for story as a method of warning and teaching. Her characters, each group throughout the ages, rely on songs and poems and books to carry on their belief and help build up moral reasoning. It’s a message that deeply resonates with me as someone who believes that, without story, civilization is lost.

The struggle between light and dark, a persistent motif through the Time series, and interpreted through both science and the power of the Divine, is also expressed in a clear and chillingly lovely way in this novel. One thing I appreciate about L’Engle is the diversity she brings to the heavens. Each book has a different manifestation of heavenly messengers—Wrinkle has the Mrs’s, Wind has Progo, Waters is full of seraphim and singing stars, and Planet has the majestic unicorn Gaudior. These are all agents of light, and they aren’t the homogeneous throngs that exist in most Christianity. It’s a touch that perfectly exemplifies all that is right and good with this series. L’Engle’s work, as Amber discussed, is incredibly ahead of its time, an imaginative and increasingly prescient vision of the world. Her view of humanity, of faith and ration, of goodness in all forms and sizes, adds to an overwhelming message of hope, a clarion call of our capability for positive change as a people.

Like Sands Through the Hourglass

I have always been a time traveler.

It’s the way my brain works, constantly circling back through my history. Where was I a year ago? Two years ago? How have I changed? Where was I then? Every moment measures against the one before, even so incrementally—from now to yesterday, one month, a year, five years. How did I spend Halloween as a child? What was I doing a year ago today? And more importantly, have I grown?

meThis manifests in an uncanny mind for dates and occasions. I remember the dates of those huge relationship moments, my first kiss, first betrayal, first moment of soul-crushing “what am I even doing right now?”. Those are compared against each other every year (spoiler: for most I prefer where I currently am on that date). But there are less monumental moments that stubbornly resist slipping away. There’s the day a friend cancelled on a concert during a season of incredible loneliness, and I can’t forget the date when I sobbed on my dorm room floor over the abandonment. There’s the perfect day of napping on blankets in the park after camping, sun and water and the freedom of summer. There’s childhood and the formation of adulthood, all housed in some wrinkle or turn of brain matter.

It gets a little chaotic living throughout time. There’s a tension between how much attention I’m giving to the present and how much of myself is mired in the remembrances of the past.

I’m not the only time traveler. It seems like there are a couple different ways to manifest this fascination with what’s come before.

One way is to let the past consume you and to drag it like a fifty-ton albatross on your back. This type of time traveler is the over-enforcer, not learning from the magic of flying through the eons, but forcing the ages to bend to a personal view of what life should be. It’s Doc Brown going to the Wild West and putting flux capacitors on trains. Yes, let’s drag along all the accoutrements of what we want and completely debilitate any lessons to be learned in the time-hopping.

"Perfect on Paper" -- Ted (Josh Radnor) and the gang celebrates Halloween, on HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER, Monday, Oct. 31 (8:00-8:300 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network. Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS © 2011 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved.I think the perfect example of this is Ted Mosby in How I Met Your Mother, particularly in the Slutty Pumpkin storyline, a.k.a. the most anti-climactic payoff of a bit throughout the show (and that’s saying something for a program that regularly introduced great concepts only to drive them into the ground). After meeting “the Slutty Pumpkin” at a rooftop Halloween party and promptly losing her number, Ted becomes obsessed with finding this girl he’s pinned hopes and dreams and impossible expectations on. For the next several years, he shows up at the same place with the same stale hanging chad costume. Dated, hopeless, and obstinately past-bent, Ted encapsulates the danger of the wistful time traveler. Sometimes the machine gets broken, the expectations get too large, and they can leave you irreparably damaged. Or at the very least, looking like a fool in a costume of outdated cultural references.

This is like obsessing over that first kiss, or setting aside August 18th as a remote date because that’s when you got your heart broken. There’s joy in bittersweet look-backs, but there’s dangerous track ahead if that wistfulness gains control.

The best version of nostalgic  time-traveling comes when the moments and the weight they carry are allowed to coexist alongside each other, the sweet memories rubbing elbows with the present and making it all the better.

HereRichard McGuire’s comic Here shows this remarkably. Originally published as a six-page spread in 1989, then expanded into full color and 300 pages in 2014, Here breaks with linear development in favor of illustrating how time and space work with each other. Here takes place entirely in one space, showing one room (or, where one room will be/was), and illustrating its existence throughout hundreds and thousands of years. McGuire doesn’t tell a story through characters, there’s no connecting narrative thread, it’s just the space and whatever occupied it in 1963, or 1607, or hundreds of years in the future. Sometimes a single panel will possess several fractures, showing the different eras bumped up beside each other, a cut out of the 1930 surrounded by events from 2003, showing that age old tale—the more time changes, the more time stays the same.

It’s a view that could be interpreted cynically. That we as humanity are insignificant blips, that our actions don’t have repercussion, that, regardless of ambition or genius, we are all boats borne back ceaselessly against the tide of time. But there’s another, far more comforting view, the kind of lovely, hippie, metaphysical lens that indicates, hey, we’re all part of this tapestry. We’re weaving something. In the crazy quilt of life we are slight patterns contributing to a whole.

2001This is the time traveling I approve of, and the type I strive to do in my constant rememberings. I’m not trapped in the past. I’m whizzing past the wormhole of time, instances stacking on top of each other, connecting with my past, using the lessons in the present, and seeing them all as shades of the future. I look at the entirety and can’t help being awed.

Books with Bite

I love movies, and there’s something to be said for the actual image of sinuous vampires on the screen, but for some reason these creatures always felt more real to me when they jumped off the page. Perhaps it’s the whole “dark and stormy night” aspect of it, where the descriptions of night and terror leave more scope for my imagination. Perhaps, to get all snotty on you, it’s because this was a concept told through tales, an idea with such a rich literary history that I can’t help but nod respectfully to the works that came before (slightly covered in my Dracula piece) and the wealth of material that followed. Whatever it is, vampires and books go together like peanut butter and jelly, or monsters and disemboweling, and I love it.

Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer-001

Right now, vampire lit is nearly over-saturating the market. Young Adult literature is stuffed to the rafters with books that have glowing eyes or pale-skinned beauties on the cover. Thanks Twilight! It can be almost exhausting to wade through the stack of Vampire Academy or Vampire Assistant or Vampire Gangster* books out there. Adult books are similarly plagued. Thanks, Sookie Stackhouse!

* I don’t think this one is real, and I’m claiming my intellectual property rights here and now.**

**Well, shoot.

Despite the abundance of vamp books, enough for anyone to fully gorge on whatever type of undead lover they fancy, it still takes finesse to get the stories exactly right. And even when the stories aren’t exactly right, there are only a finite number of ways they can be told. Vampires have been around for centuries. You’re not going to find an utterly fresh telling. There can be fresh stories, but the methods fall under the same basic structures.

1. Build off a previous story.

When in doubt, stretch out something that has been proven over time. Elaborately fan-fic the crap out of classic literature, and voilà! You’ve got a story cooking! In all seriousness, this concept can lead to some incredible reading. When done skillfully, continuing from the foundation of Carmilla or Dracula can allow for the author to get all kinds of creative, but within a limited structure. It’s been posited that the best creativity happens when there are boundaries, and these kinds of books can prove that.

One of the most successful versions of this is Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. Weighty, time-weaving, and at times a little lagging in the narrative, The Historian uses the Dracula myth to tell a story about scholarship, about history, and about family. Kostova used the legends of Vlad Tepes to jump start this, her first novel, but made the character of the Count a shadowy villain. The result is something that can appeal to fans of the books, because it still has that stalking terror just in the shadows, but the drama surrounding the decades of involvement between this one family and the Count is the main attraction. In this way, it’s a thoroughly modern book, expanding on an ancient premise.

anno_dracula

This is done even more joyfully in the Anno Dracula series by Kim Newman. Full disclosure—I have only read the first in this series, and even that was difficult at times. Newman’s prose is positively purple, a lush tone that fits the Victorian landscape, but you have to be in precisely the right mood to push through it. Once that happens, however, the story is thrilling. This also builds on Dracula (the book, not the legend), but in a “what if?” way. What if the heroes of Dracula failed? What if Dracula actually succeeded in spreading vampirism all over England? What would a society of humans and vampires look like? Newman fleshes this out with awesome detail and tells the story with all the Victorian luridness a vampire fan could want. Spiritual sister to Penny Dreadful, tone-wise. Also, Jack the Ripper. I’ll say no more, but check this one out.

2. Take the name but change the game.

This is what happens when the beasties are still vampires, but everything else has completely changed. This is definitely the Twilight category. They’re called vampires, but they sparkle. Or don’t drink blood. Or aren’t possessed by demons. Essentially, it’s the reverse of the last category. Results are the same (ish), but origins may vary.

Westerfeld_-_Peeps_CoverartI find that YA lit does this best. Scott Westerfeld, he of Uglies fame, played with vampires in two books: Peeps and The Last Days. I’m surprised that these books haven’t taken over the world, because they embody everything hot in teen lit. Smart,
sassy protagonists that speak with real but overly smart voices, a la John Green. Vampire monsters, a la everything. Set against the impending apocalypse, giving a slight dystopian feel, just like the Hunger Games. How is this not more well known? It’s all those things and readable to boot. Give Westerfeld a medal. Regardless of whatever YA bingo Westerfeld was playing when he wrote these, they are great vampire books, where the vampire is actually a human infected with a parasite. A secret society has known about this disease since Colonial times, fighting against the infected and keeping the world safe, but now Hell is about to break loose on earth with a sudden spike in infestations. Changing vampirism into an actual disease—one backed up with snippets of real parasitic science—is a cool twist and adds a new layer of depth to the vampire story.

In further YA news, Robin McKinley (you might know her from The Hero and the CrownThe Blue Sword, or Beauty) also got on the vampire train with Sunshine. These vampires are slightly more traditional, in that they are ancient beings created through trading of blood, but McKinley severely separates them from any human bonds. Her story is set in a supernatural other-world reeling in the wake of the “Voodoo Wars,” a magic monster v. magic human battle. Sunshine, a lovely baker of cinnamon rolls, is captured by vampires and escapes, but not before rescuing her fellow captive, who just so happens to be a vampire. They have a connection, she has power, but she also already has a boyfriend. Twist! Think Twilight, but if Bella had a personality and a life beyond her romantic entanglements. The most subversive part of Sunshine is how it establishes that vampires aren’t human. They might have the same basic shape, but the differences are tangible and noticeable. Placing the vampire inside a world that is already magical lessens the hyper-intense fear of the other, but the richness of the telling makes up for it.

3. Hybridize!

Just like the best stews, vampire books benefit from having a little bit of everything thrown in there. In this case, the most enduring books, the ones I find most fascinating, are those that keep the old but push forward into the new. It’s like Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles—there are aristocratic vamps, ones that date back to Drac and keep the same basic back story and structure, but the characters and situations she’s working with are so new and vibrant it’s impossible to look away.

American_Vampire_02_Cover_by_rafaelalbuquerqueart

My ultimate favorite example of this is a graphic novel series. American Vampire, by Scott Snyder and Rafael Albuquerque (with a special assist from Stephen King in the first issue), tells one of the greatest vampire stories I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t hurt that the first issue seemed particularly tailored to my tastes. Cowboys? Check. The 1920s? Check. Hollywood? Check. Smart, capable female protagonist? Check. Gangsters? Check. Jazz? Check. Strangely magnetic bad boy? Check. Extreme gore? Checkity check.

The first issue of American Vampire tells the story of Skinner Sweet, an outlaw in the Wild West of the 1800s. A run-in with a train full of Romanians leaves him a new species—the first American vampire. This origin story is cut up with the tale of Pearl, a flapper and aspiring actress who gets embroiled in events way over her head. There are bad guys, semi-bad guys, and those fighting against the forces of evil. It has layers to the vampires, making some sympathetic while never forgetting these are beings with awful destructive power, power shown through gorgeous, animalistic spreads drawn by Albuquerque. It’s awesome.

I love it because it does seem so very written for me, but it’s more than that. I love it because it’s a book that respects the concept of a vampire, evil and fangs and all. I love it because it has that respect but dares to do something new. I love it because it has a sense of starry-eyed optimism (there is good and evil, and the forces of good battle tirelessly against the darkness). I love it because those set parameters get messy, there are stark contrasts but it allows the characters to blur and play with those lines. It manages to take the old Carpathian creatures (seriously, Dracula shows up in one arc a few issues in) and blend it naturally with bold myth-making of its own.

And that’s what the best books do. They create something new. Yes, films are doing this with vampires. Less often now, since even my favorite vampire films have roots in novels, but there are original vampire tales being told on screen. And yet, books are the source of the latest and greatest. Books are the things pushing the myths forward. Those pages give the undead life.

Oh Master, My Master!

nosfertuIt’s an autumn night, circa none-of-your-business, and thirteen year-old Cat is cowering in her bed. The covers are strategically pulled over her throat, creating a cave around her head. Her breath roars raggedly in the confined space, and her heart is echoing through the mattress and up into the pillow, an assault of noise that does nothing to conceal the infinitesimal creaks near her window. She knows that each groan of the house and sound of the street outside is the announcement of something coming for her. Suddenly she’s acutely aware of every entry point into her room, each crack beneath the door and just how level her windows are to the ground. On the nightstand beside her lay the culprit for such heightened paranoia, a fresh copy of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. There’s a definite scratching on the window and Cat prays for sleep to come.

Dracula is a book that’s managed to retain freshness for over a hundred years. It’s the tale of a shadowy Transylvanian count, Dracula, a vampire who seeks to spread his reign of horror to London. In this process he traps and terrorizes Jonathan Harker, preys on Lucy Westenra (much to the chagrin of her three hunky suitors), and generally flies against the face of science and London’s new modernity.

It’s a fabulous book. And the most influential piece of vampire media, hands down.

In the end, nothing is as chillingly long-lived as Dracula.  There are older vampire novels—like John William Polidori’s The Vampyre (the original preying aristocrat), or Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (an exploration into female, and thus lesbian, vampirism). There are older examples of lurid Gothic Romanticism—like Horace Walpole’s spooky, mad, twisting The Castle of Otranto. Yet no other tale has become so synonymous with itscommunity central monster.  Vampires are Dracula. When I was a wee little child, there were essentially four monsters in all of existence: mummies, werewolves, Frankensteins (a fallacy for another day and another discussion), and Draculas. Not vampires. Draculas. It’s entered the lexicon. It is the legend. The idea has become one with the character.

With good reason. Stoker’s novel is absolutely captivating, conveying the villain in a way that is straight-forward and accessible while still delivering the spine-shivers. The other vampire tomes are delicious and taboo but err on the side of becoming lost in their own hype, as it were. The pages and pages of description and gore are titillating, but in the end leave less of an impression. They’re the slasher film equivalent to Dracula‘s classic jump horror. In the novel, everything is conveyed through letters, diaries, news clippings, so all the central action occurs on the periphery. It’s like seeing the alien for a split second turning a corner, or barely registering the dismemberment before the camera turns. Still horrifying, and arguably more so because the scenes are more disturbing as they sink in retroactively, but seen blurrily through a second lens. Dracula himself is only viewed through the eyes of others, so the reader is piecing together his power, his appetite, and his grand scheme as slowly and methodically as any film plotting.

I first read Dracula, when I was right on the cusp of wanting to become more well-read with the classics, but young enough to be intimidated by overly wrought sentence structure and the stigma of anything older than the 20th century. Color me shocked at how easily Dracula went down. My nervousness at the secondhand storytelling was abated as I became immersed in the story of our heroes fighting against evil. I had to make a personal rule—no reading after dark. Not so much out of fear over Dracula, but fear over his acolyte, Renfield. Renfield served as a reminder of how twisted humanity could be, the so-called “zoophagous” madness triggering the same personal panic and fascination that Hannibal Lecter would capitalize on years later. While the pure supernatural was unnerving, it was nothing compared to the cold hand of reality offered from Seward’s insane asylum. Dracula’s predatory nature did become more unsettling on future reads, when the full weight of his torture of Jonathan Harker and Lucy Westenra sunk in, but the tale of an ordinary person willing to trade humanity for the false power constructed by consuming others still takes the cake.

Since that first read, Dracula has remained with me, stalking in the shadows of my life. My first college paper was a five-page treatise on Dracula and sexuality. I talked about feminism, the New Woman, and how the vampire myth completely corrupted Christian ideals of intercourse. My last paper of graduate school was twenty pages on Francis Ford Coppola’s terrible film version, describing how it fit into the vampire myth as a whole (spoiler—it fits in rather well, paying proper credence to the novel’s themes and the cinematic tropes surrounding vampires. This fact doesn’t make it a good movie, not in the least, which we’ll talk more about soon). This book has been a beating heart at the center of my favorite literature, held up there with East of Eden  and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It captures terror and history and contains a labyrinthine exploration of religion, technology, sexuality, feminism, imperialism, queer theory…in essence, the rabbit holes of discussion in this book are many, varied, and enthralling.

BelaThe sheer scope of how many things people can discuss in the novel is part of why the specific Dracula telling of the myth is so tied up with modern descriptions of vampires. Sure, vampires have taken their own angles and shoot-offs, been twisted into new and sometimes baffling directions, but they all have this kernel of the Count. Dracula’s weaknesses have become every vampire’s weaknesses: his nocturnal activity translated into the familiar creature-of-the-night motif, thanks to him (and a certain Bela Lugosi years later) vampires became attractive foreigners, the copious amounts of garlic Van Helsing used to protect Lucy is now so well-known it’s almost a joke, and of course, the bat-morphing thing was all thanks to Stoker. These traits have become a shorthand for what the mind sees when it visualizes a vampire, and it all boils down to the novel.

When young Cat emerged from a rest full of nightmares, did she throw away her book? Did she run away from the fear that vampires instilled? No. Dracula merely planted a fascination with the myth, a deep love and respect for the tales. It’s a standard that every piece of vampire media has had to live up to. Dracula might not be the original vamp,  but he’s the king.

Star-Born Shams and Saviours

Ancient egyptian image: Wisdom beaming down from spaceOne of the themes with aliens we see some people treat as both fiction and non-fiction is that of the gods really being aliens. How that plays out varies, and, technically, if God/the gods/the higher power of your choice aren’t from this planet, I guess it’s the truth. Whether we’re handling this belief as a fiction or a non-fiction, I suspect part of the appeal for modern man is that we know there are a lot of big problems that we are unable or unwilling to fix ourselves. But, surely, out there among the stars, someone has the capability to fix it for us. I want to call out just a few of the extraterrestrial god figures from TV, film, and books (though, for someone who has read so much and who loves reading, I have a rubbish recall if it’s been more than a month or so…sadness!). I’ll be dividing them into two camps: the ones who are just advanced and taking advantage of us, and the ones who seem to legitimately be gods (or at least Saviours).

Shams

Arthur C. Clarke, a great scifi writer, famously said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Now, this doesn’t mean all magic is technology, but the kind of technology advanced enough to look like magic is part of how this fake god ruse works. Throw in differences in physiology sometimes that make them seem immortal, and watch the primitive mortals fall! Don’t tell me, if you discovered you had the ability, you wouldn’t at least be tempted to pass yourself off as god-like to your fellow humans or other beings who aren’t as gifted.

Even in this group, you’ve got two main divisions: the intentionally and brutally exploitative deceivers and the ones who just don’t bother to correct the misunderstanding or to apologise once the humans get smart enough to know the truth.

Stargate screenshot: The Goa'uld who passes himself off as Ra.The Goa’uld in the Stargate franchise are obvious examples of the former type. These nasty parasites are all about universal domination. One of their usual ploys is to show up on a planet, use their technology to pass themselves off as gods, and then enslave the native population. Which, hey, is nicer than the ravages of war, right? Playing god lets them live in a little luxury instead. And, if they do it right, they manage to feign immortality. Of course, given they first showed up pretending to be Egyptian gods (I have a soft spot for ancient Egypt) and the actor playing Ra was a pretty boy (we covered this soft spot in Glam month), I wasn’t entirely opposed to them. (So, aliens, if you want to turn me against the rest of the humans, be pretty. That’s the lesson here. Also, I won’t pretend I think your tech is magic, but I’ll still be impressed.)

Promotional picture of Thor and Loki for Thor: The Dark WorldIn the other camp, and more familiar to most people these days, we have the Asgardians. It’s no longer just comic book lovers who’ve heard of this version of Thor, Loki, Odin, Freya, etc. Nor is it just those Nordic people whose religious heritage was an inspiration for those comic book characters. You’ve likely sat and cheered on Thor (whilst maybe secretly not being entirely against Loki). We haven’t taken the time to define what it means to actually be a god, and my tenure as a student of philosophy and my readings of assorted cultures’ beliefs as a child tell me that we could spend days on that topic and never reach full consensus. So, are Thor et al gods? They sure seem to think so, but they are also arguably just extraterrestrials with a better constitution, longer life, and more advanced technologies than Earthlings. Fortunately for us, they’ve mostly stopped meddling in our lives. Or had until Thor got kicked out and suddenly made our pale blue dot interesting again. (I’m not going to complain. I like the Asgardians, and not just because of Loki.) Of course, you can see in the reaction to Loki trying to get god-like on us that we humans are unlikely to actually fall for the sham gods again.

Saviours

The Day the Earth Stood Still screenshot: Klaatu and GortThe saviours are an altogether different group. In this group, whether or not they succeeded, I’m placing the extraterrestrials who show up with good intention and the ability to do some actual saving of humanity. For this, in order to narrow things down, I’m including those who worked their mission with what appeared to be “magic” (not just advanced tech). So, for instance, in The Day the Earth Stood Still, Klaatu came to save us from ourselves (arguably), but he came with tech. So, whilst I dig him, he can’t count here. Who does count? Well, here are a few different examples, each a little different from the other and each fitting a different definition of alien.

Animated gif: Leeloo shows us her MultipassLet’s start with an easy one to argue. In The Fifth Element, Leeloo is actually a saviour. The everyday man of that film might never hear about her (poor sods), but that Supreme Being came from the stars with a mystical power and one mission: to save us from a Great Evil that will, otherwise, destroy our world. Given her power is meant for that one purpose, and the Great Evil appears only once every 5,000 years, the power isn’t going to qualify her to be a superhero (though she’s got some fighting skills that might). She has her one moment of releasing divine light…Given her pose in that moment is arms out in an iconic Christ pose whilst in a cross of light? Yeah, saviour.

V screenshot: the Starchild saves the planetA step less alien, the original V TV programme brought us the Starchild, aka human/alien hybrid and product of crossbreeding experiments, Elizabeth Maxwell. We never got to see the full extent of what she could do, because this was TV and the story got cut off when the programme was cancelled (you can find what story we did get on DVD). But the message was clear: this rapidly-aging and powerful girl was destined to save us from the Visitors (the alien threat) and lead us to a peaceful future. There was an un-aired series finale where she was revealed to have a destiny to find an artefact of the Visitors’ gods and do just that. I’m going to call that a saviour, even if the network didn’t let viewers see the final pay-off of her mission.

Cover of Stranger In A Strange LandContinuing to get a little more questionable here in holding to straight-forward definitions of both “alien” and “saviour,” we’ve got Valentine Michael Smith from Stranger In A Strange Land, the influential book by Robert A. Heinlein. First, I’ll acknowledge that there are problematic things in this book (though I won’t get to read the uncut version until it shows up in the post…maybe that solves some of the philosophically problematic things I found in the cut version?), so this isn’t an endorsement of the philosophies that Heinlein is advancing here. No need to fire any shots in my direction. Now, that aside…Smith is a human, but he wasn’t born on Earth and he was raised by aliens (Martians). Arguably, he fits some definitions of alien. Smith is the first example listed that tried to bring salvation to humanity via religion. I’d say that the psychokinetic powers he developed when raised by Martians (and his ability to speak from the afterlife) add some credence to him as a saviour, not just a prophet. Though he manages to teach other humans some of what he can do and the god he brings us to is the god that each of us are, so that might weaken the case in some minds. It might also be harder to argue his case given the enemy he’s trying to save us from is less clear-cut than Leeloo’s Great Evil or the Starchild’s Visitors. I’d feel wrong leaving him out though, so, here he is…

Screenshot from David Lynch's Dune: Paul Atreides in a Fremen stillsuit and blue-in-blue eyesFinally, I’d love to put Paul Atreides in here, the Kwisatz Haderach, but I’m pretty sure that his humanity is part of the point of the books (plus, one of Herbert’s running themes in the 6 Dune books was the way that humans manage to cock it up when given great amounts of power, no matter their best intentions), so I might be stretching to wedge in one of my absolute favourites. Or maybe his son, Leto II, the God Emperor could fit here…But that would take too much explaining. Instead, look at me, managing to make a nod to Dune anyway! (If you haven’t read the books by Frank Herbert yet, I hope your curiosity is at least piqued enough that you’ll go watch David Lynch’s film adaptation of the first book or maybe even treat yourself to reading all those books. Then, come back and let’s talk about whether Maud’ib belongs here. Is he alien? Is he a saviour? What about Leto II? Is he alien? And is he a sham god or a saviour?)

Confession: This month is turning into a great excuse to re-read and re-watch a load of favourites. I hope you follow my lead. Let me be a saviour (or at least a wise sage) to show you the way out of grey reality and into the promised land of great media!