A Cheerful Holiday

The New Year is a cheerful holiday. It’s more trifling, perhaps, than the sacred holidays and even weighty days of remembrance like Memorial Day and July Fourth. But if more trifling, it’s also lighter, and that also has its charm. The turn of the year is a hopeful time, turning people to the future, to dreams and wishes and resolutions. The New Year is so cheerful it is, in fact, almost sad. We are a little too eager to sweep up the old year and discard it.

Some more eager than others, of course. Still, no one’s happiness is so pure as to entirely exclude relief. Welcome the New Year, and good riddance to the old. Everyone likes New Year’s because the New Year is about change, and we could all use some of that.

The celebration of New Year’s is more free-form than that of other major holidays – and, let us add, more voluntary (another reason for its popularity!). Our society has only a few broadly established traditions. There is, of course, the ball drop in Times Square, which has a rich history and symbolism and, anyway, it’s sort of fun to watch heavy, glittering objects fall. We have our one certified New Year’s song, “Auld Lang Syne”. Admittedly, no one understands more than two lines of the song, and sometimes one suspects that there are only two lines. Nevertheless, it’s nostalgic.

Even more universal: New Year’s resolutions. I am firmly opposed to breaking New Year’s resolutions, which is why I never make them. And I already think of things I ought to do and then don’t do them, so it doesn’t really seem necessary as a holiday tradition. Many people do make New Year’s resolutions, though. Sometimes the same ones, year after year, because the idea is good even if the flesh is weak. New Year’s resolutions come from that sense of change, that same stirring of hope, that makes the holiday so attractive. In this manifestation, though, it is change from ourselves and even change of ourselves. Here is another truth we edge up to on New Year’s: We could all be better, all try harder.

We probably won’t, of course. That’s another truth we come up against, usually shortly after the New Year. But every holiday consists at least half in remembering, in certain realities brought to celebration and thus, perforce, to mind. And for all we know – for, though the world is old, it is still a place of miracle and wonder – we may even keep those New Year’s resolutions.

So Happy New Year. I hope that 2019 was good to you, and 2020 will be even better. I hope that you will have the change you want, and the change that you need, and that your heart will be refreshed as the new year brings us that much closer to the day when everything will be new.

And I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year:
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied:
“Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

– Minnie Louise Haskins, “God Knows”

The All-Time Great

The western world has been determinedly turning out pop-culture Christmas stories for a solid 150 years. There is the classic It’s A Wonderful Life, the overrated Frosty the Snowman, and the classically overrated Gift of the Magi. But the best of them all – possibly even the first of them all – is A Christmas Carol. Its greatness is made of many parts; I will here name five of them.

The characters. Ebenezer Scrooge is immortal. Dickens sketches his portrait in sharp, strong strokes – the covetous old sinner – and embellishes it with detail and variegated colors. He’s triumphantly awful in the beginning, in an entertaining sort of way; his sympathetic side emerges as soon as the spirits do, because it is rather gaming of Scrooge to debate the ghost of Jacob Marley over whether it actually exists, and you must admire anyone who responds to a haunting with personal insults (“There is more of gravy than of the grave about you!”). The rest of the story effectively shows his souring and then his softening.

Other characters occupy their own territory in civilizational memory. Jacob Marley and the Ghost of Christmas Future are chillingly evocative, and if Bob Cratchitt and Tiny Tim live under the accusation of being saccharine, they still live.

The writing. There are excellent film versions of A Christmas Carol, by which I primarily mean the one with George C. Scott. But the narrative and description of the written story are a delight that cannot be replicated in any movie. Dickens’ story breathes with color, wit, and feeling; he could – and did – describe an apple and give it character. If you can read Marley or the Ghost of Christmas Future without your blood being a little chilled, you were cold-blooded to begin with. If you can read his descriptions of food without getting hungry, you’re not even alive.

The supernatural character of the story. Technically, only Marley was a ghost. The other three were spirits. Still, the Ghost of Christmas Future is as harrowing an apparition as old Marley. A Christmas Carol is captivating in part because it seamlessly weaves Christmas story with ghost story, sentiment with horror. The story aims for the heart. It makes no qualms about playing on the nerves as well. A Christmas Carol creates, for its stage, a nexus of the spirit world and the world as humanity has made it – and it is unforgettable.

The sentiment. A Christmas Carol beats with sentiment – richly, warmly human sentiment. It ranges without shame from lunges at primal human sympathies to refined elocution. Tiny Tim is the height of the first; the second is scattered throughout the text, one of my favorite examples being the Ghost’s rebuke to Scrooge’s dismissal of the poor as surplus population: “Oh God! to hear the Insect on the leaf pronouncing on the too much life among his hungry brothers in the dust!”

To be fair to Dickens, his sentiment was not entirely without a sterner note. Marley strikingly refused Scrooge’s plea for comfort: “I have none to give. It comes from other regions, Ebenezer Scrooge, and is conveyed by other ministers, to other kinds of men.”

Which is the sort of thing that really lets you know where you are in life.

The joy. I’ve written before how Scrooge’s cold heart is manifested in his joyless life, and his return to human sympathies is a return to fun. Scrooge is recalled to charity; he is also recalled to joy. One of the charms of A Christmas Carol is how innocently and wholeheartedly it rejoices in the material pleasures of Christmas. There is nothing ascetic or gloomy about its view. The story makes no difference between goodness and happiness, between high sentiment and simple pleasure. They flow simply, naturally together – and that is wonderfully attractive.

The Least Dangerous Men

Today’s subject is ghost stories, because ’tis the season.

Ghost stories would, under modern classification, be sorted into horror. But they inhabit the outer fringes of that category and have a stronghold in more reputable categories (see: Hamlet and A Christmas Carol). There is nothing niche about the ghost story. Ghosts are immemorial and omnipresent in human stories, older than writing and haunting every culture. They make the flesh crawl, whether you believe in them or not.

One peculiar aspect to the phenomenon of ghost stories is how little they have to do with the next world. As a matter of pure logic, ghost stories imply an immortality of the soul, even if a kind of immortality that no one wants. But immortality is for the living, and ghosts are nothing but dead. Ghost stories offer no glimpse of the other side. It is, after all, the special tragedy of ghosts that they don’t make it to the other side but linger, without point or place, on this one.

The potency of ghost stories comes from how simply, but powerfully, they play on human instincts about death. People enjoy ghost stories because (this is the kind of creatures we are) people are afraid of ghosts. And it’s a singular kind of fear, half nerves and half spiritual. C.S. Lewis defined the fear perfectly in The Problem of Pain – the strange fear we have of dead men who are, as he points out, “assuredly the least dangerous kind of men”:

Suppose you were told there was a tiger in the next room: you would know that you were in danger and would probably feel fear. But if you were told, “There is a ghost in the next room,” and believed it, you would feel, indeed, what is often called fear, but of a different kind. It would not be based on the knowledge of danger, for no one is primarily afraid of what a ghost may do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost. It is “uncanny” rather than dangerous, and the special kind of fear it excites may be called Dread.

In Miracles, Lewis digs into the source, and meaning, of our fear of the dead:

It is idle to say that we dislike corpses because we are afraid of ghosts. You might say with equal truth that we fear ghosts because we dislike corpses – for the ghost owes much of its horror to the associated ideas of pallor, decay, coffins, shrouds, and worms. In reality we hate the division which makes possible the conception of either corpse or ghost. Because the thing ought not to be divided, each of the halves into which it falls by division is detestable. … [O]nce accept the Christian doctrine that man was originally a unity and that the present division is unnatural, and all the phenomena fall into place.

The existence of ghost stories tells us nothing about ourselves except that we have noticed that we die and wondered if something might survive. It is our reaction to ghost stories that is revelatory. It is the shudder, the flesh-crawling horror. It is the dread and the sense of the uncanny that show how instinctually and how inexplicably we feel about death, about the broken unity of a human being.

It’s not all grimness. Even ghost stories have their happy endings, or at least their hopeful ones – when the ghost is able to leave this world, to finally travel to the other side. And that also tells us something of ourselves, doesn’t it?

A St. Valentine’s Poll

So I was thinking about what might be a good or at least passable topic and suddenly I realized: this post will go live on St. Valentine’s Day. It seemed appropriate, then, to write a post themed on this great holiday of love, and anyway I was having trouble scraping up passable topics. Whether this post will be pro- or anti-Valentine’s Day will be up to you.

First of all, we should consider how ironic it is that the holiday of romantic love is named after a Catholic priest, a class of people who are ideally preoccupied with other concerns. Second, we should consider the intersection between romance and speculative fiction. As a fan of SF among other fans, I’ve seen a fair share of hostility directed toward the romance genre. Christian fans, at least, seem sometimes to regard it as the (regretfully ascendant) rival of Christian SF. But romance looming so large in human nature and human experience, it inevitably finds its own place in speculative fiction.

Yet a place shaped by the contours of the genre, and not always a proud one. Science fiction, in its young days, was a man’s genre, and the woman of the old stories was inevitably young and inevitably beautiful and inevitably belonged to the hero; she was also the daughter of the sage old man, and the sage old man and the strong young hero spent all kinds of time explaining things to her. In another vein, not a very deep one but at least bright, girls were tossed in along with all the other things a healthy-minded boy could desire: a quest, an adventure, a cool weapon, a fast ship, a righteous cause.

Fantasy, molded by the ancient traditions of fairy tales, has been less male-centric but not necessarily more sensible. Even moving away from the eternal puzzles of the archetypal fairy tales (could the prince really not identify Cinderella except by her shoe size?), certain ideas have thrown long shadows over the genre – true love that is instant and unmistakable, fated love that can’t be thwarted or resisted. Being rescued from a tower or a dragon or an evil wizard may seem like a clear sign, but on sober reflection, it may not be the soundest basis for a lifelong relationship.

When it comes to balanced and realistic portraitures of romantic love, speculative fiction has not, as a genre, clothed itself with glory. Neither has romance, but that is not our topic, just an aside I couldn’t resist. Over the years, science fiction and fantasy have made progress away from the old tropes and stereotypes. I’ll offer no predictions on where the genre is going. But on this Valentine’s Day, I wonder – where do you want it to go? What, in your ideal book, is the intersection between romance and speculative fiction?

So on this St. Valentine’s Day, cast a vote for or against romance in speculative fiction.

Do you want romance in sci-fi/fantasy?

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A Notable Lack

A notable lack in speculative fiction, and one that cuts across the divide between Christian and secular, is that of genuine, fully-realized religion. There may be religious belief and religious feeling; in Christian speculative fiction, there usually is. There may be scraps of religion – vague expressions of faith, a benevolent priest, a fanatic, a cross or a stray invocation of the gods. But genuine religion – religion that possesses a structure, doctrines, holidays, customs, stories and rules, and all the physical artifacts from temples to jewelry? That is rare.

This lack is hardly crippling. Great speculative fiction may exist without practical religion and even be deeply spiritual. Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia exhibit little of religion as it is practiced in actual life and possess spiritual depths rarely matched. Complete religion isn’t necessary. But its scarcity in our novels is a loss.

You may ask, Why Snoopy? And I answer: The other images Google gave me were too ugly.

To gain an idea of the loss, let us consider Halloween, because ’tis the season. There are surely people in this great nation whose favorite holiday is Halloween, and I frankly worry about these people. At best, it’s a half-holiday. There is a version of Halloween for children, and a version for adults, but no version for everyone. As a popular holiday, it makes no pretense of religion or meaning; it has no songs and most Halloween stories could be told without Halloween and probably would be.

And out of even this poor half-holiday you could dig a tale that teaches us who we are. The origin of Halloween is taken to be Samhain, the Celtic holiday that marked the journey of the dead into the otherworld. Ghosts were near on Samhain, too near for anyone’s comfort. The inhuman, both demons and fairies, were also believed to be abroad with power, perhaps because the journey from this world to the next suggested a general weakening of boundaries. A spiritual anarchy hangs about the whole day, and to the extent that there was real belief there must have been real fear.

The Catholic Church later established All Saints Day and All Souls Day, days that commemorate the dead without fear of the dead, or horror of death. It’s long been said – very plausibly, though I admit I all-saints-daydon’t know on what evidence – that the Catholic Church did this to replace Samhain. And Samhain did fade away, leaving only vestiges of customs and superstition where powerful belief once ruled. Yet All Saints Day and All Souls Day never replaced it. These are just days on the church calendar, occasionally observed but never celebrated.

Much can be gleaned from the history of Halloween – the revolution of a civilization changing from one religion to another, humanity’s elemental horror of the dead who do not stay properly dead, the dread of the inhuman, the evolution and mixing of beliefs and practices. It is strange that, although many people believe the saints are happy in heaven and few think ghosts travel on Halloween, Halloween has so much greater a presence than All Saints Day. An empty holiday with concrete practices has more power than a holy day with abstract joy, and we see how instinctively humanity demands, and perhaps even needs, physical expression of spiritual things.

What can be illustrated through a holiday – from the history of a civilization to religious beliefs to fundamental human nature – is extraordinary. Holidays, and all the expressions of a whole and genuine religion, offer a wide and rich opportunity to speculative fiction authors. I don’t demand that they take it, but – well, would you consider it?