The Scoop on Southern Gothic Lit

      I’m addicted to Gothic novels. I love the twisty storylines where everybody has a secret. I love the batshit romances (hello Catherine and Heathcliff); I love the romances that don’t quite make sense—Jane Eyre choosing moody, bigamist Rochester over sensible Calvinist St. John Rivers. And did I mention the architecture? Whenever I’m in England I spend way more time than normal staring at castle and cathedral turrets and gargoyles.

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            I’ve always been drawn to Gothic elements in my books. But recently, I’ve developed a particular interest in Southern Gothic lit. I live in South Carolina, so it’s a genre quite literally in my own backyard. I can take a day trip and visit the grave of Edgar Allan Poe's "Annabel Lee" in Charleston or wander through the oyster-shell ruins of St. Helena’s Chapel of Ease near Beaufort. As background research for a Southern Gothic Young Adult novel I’m working on, I arranged a tour of the old Bull Street asylum—only a five minute drive from my house.  (Talk about Gothic—I toured on a bright, hot June day and still felt goosebumps as I walked around the grounds.) My brother-in-law worked on a construction project there, and he had some CRAZY stories of things people supposedly heard or saw from the gloomy buildings—like phone calls to security from broken phones in abandoned buildings.

Are you scared yet????

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So what are the main characteristics of a Southern Gothic?

1)      A textured urban or rural landscape somewhere in the American South. Urban settings like Savannah or New Orleans crop up a lot in Southern Gothic stories. Also popular are abandoned farmhouses, crumbling island plantation houses, small barely there towns, and houses hidden away by sprawling swamps and Spanish moss.

Photo from my tour of the old Bull Street Asylum campus

Photo from my tour of the old Bull Street Asylum campus

I was a little obsessed with this creepy-looking tree on the asylum grounds. 

I was a little obsessed with this creepy-looking tree on the asylum grounds. 

2)      Eccentric Characters: Flannery O’Connor, the Queen of the Southern Gothic, once said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.” Quirkiness, mental illness, alcoholism, religious extremism and/or superstition (think witchcraft, family curses) are all common traits of Southern Gothic characters.

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3)      Hauntings—paranormal may or may not be part of a Southern Gothic novel, but characters are always haunted either by something—whether it’s literal ghosts or by family secrets. I love stories of psychological hauntings, where a character fears inherited mental illness or is weighted down by guilt. But I can also stay up all night reading a good page turner with vengeful ghosts, family curses, or voodoo spells. 

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4. Lawlessness-Southern Gothic characters can't expect any help from the law. In the traditional Gothic novel, there is no "safe" place for characters; threats are as likely to come from one's own home or church as from anywhere else. Many of the best Southern Gothic novels feature corrupt sheriffs and deputies, much more interested in settling old scores than in law and order. 

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Recommendations:

Wiseblood by Flannery O’Connor

Published in 1952, this is an oldie but goodie. About a wounded veteran turned atheist "preacher," Wiseblood showcases all the good marks of a Southern Gothic including maniacal characters and startlingly violent scenes. Characters wrestle with guilt and belief. Also, don't read this if you have a fear of losing your eyeballs. Trust me. 

Published in 1952, this is an oldie but goodie. About a wounded veteran turned atheist "preacher," Wiseblood showcases all the good marks of a Southern Gothic including maniacal characters and startlingly violent scenes. Characters wrestle with guilt and belief. Also, don't read this if you have a fear of losing your eyeballs. Trust me. 

This Southern Gothic young adult novel features a likeable heroine haunted by strange dreams. Atmospheric, the story takes place on an old plantation outside of New Orleans and features murder and voodoo spells and delicious links between past and present dramas.

This Southern Gothic young adult novel features a likeable heroine haunted by strange dreams. Atmospheric, the story takes place on an old plantation outside of New Orleans and features murder and voodoo spells and delicious links between past and present dramas.

 

Minnow by James E. McTeer II

This middle grade fantasy Southern Gothic takes place on the islands surrounding Beaufort, South Carolina. A young boy, Minnow, is desperate to save his sick father. He agrees to bring back “graveyard dust” to Dr. Crow in exchange for a medicine that will cure his father. Accompanied only by a dog, the boy braves dangers from people and the wilderness itself, Minnow is a compelling must-read for anyone into Southern Gothic.

This middle grade fantasy Southern Gothic takes place on the islands surrounding Beaufort, South Carolina. A young boy, Minnow, is desperate to save his sick father. He agrees to bring back “graveyard dust” to Dr. Crow in exchange for a medicine that will cure his father. Accompanied only by a dog, the boy braves dangers from people and the wilderness itself, Minnow is a compelling must-read for anyone into Southern Gothic.

Twilight by William Gay

This is a particularly creepy read featuring vengeful mortician who loves corpses a little too much. When two teenagers threaten to expose him after he abuses their father’s corpse, he sends a murderer to pursue them through a dense woods called Harrikin. Creepy and disturbing this is a must-read for any Southern Gothic fan.

This is a particularly creepy read featuring vengeful mortician who loves corpses a little too much. When two teenagers threaten to expose him after he abuses their father’s corpse, he sends a murderer to pursue them through a dense woods called Harrikin. Creepy and disturbing this is a must-read for any Southern Gothic fan.

Soil by Jamie Kornegay

When a young idealistic scientist tries to bring his wife and young son to the Mississippi flood basin to build a sustainable farm, he battles the elements, a local deputy, and his own mind. 

When a young idealistic scientist tries to bring his wife and young son to the Mississippi flood basin to build a sustainable farm, he battles the elements, a local deputy, and his own mind. 

 

 

                 

 

  

 

 

Staying Sane and Healthy as a Writer

Authors and artists have a long history of abusing their bodies. Virginia Woolf would essentially collapse after finishing a novel. Voltaire serial drank coffee. Ernest Hemingway and absinthe? ‘Nuf said.

For me, when I’m deep into writing or revising a book, the last thing I think about is my health. This is stupid. I always go through the same cycle—WAY too much coffee in the morning. I’m a running addict, so when the writer’s block hits, I go for a long run. Although I wake up on a writing morning telling myself I need to drink enough water before my run, not drink too much caffeine, and eat sensible meals at normal hours, I’ll admit that there have been some mornings when I’ve gone running after drinking nothing except three or four cups of coffee. Then I come back, and without drinking any more water, I dive right back into my book before my ideas evaporate. Then I tell myself to eat fresh carrots and almond butter, but my stressed self has a mind of its own. Inevitably, I find myself in the pantry, reaching for the corn chips, salsa, and Diet Coke.

“She gave herself very good advice, (though she very seldom followed it.)"

--Alice in Wonderland

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I don’t just let my physical health go. Every writer knows it’s a struggle to “turn off” the creative switch. In the thick of a book, my mind keeps going when I’m cooking dinner, when I’m playing UNO with my kids, when I’m trying to relax outside with a glass of wine in the evening. I have to fight for the mental discipline to “put it aside” even after I hit “send” to my agent or editor. I still feel like I’m going round and round even though the carousel has long stopped.

 Once I’m finished with a book, I think I’ll “get back on track.” I cut back on coffee. I return to my yoga class. I drink more water, eat less carbs. Unfortunately, in my thirties, it’s getting harder to “bounce back,” and I’m finding that the toll on my mental and physical health doesn’t go away as quickly as it used to. I fight headaches, digestive issues, and general anxiety. I feel like it takes me weeks, or even months, to get my system back.

I’m tired of this cycle. I’m working on doing things throughout the writing process to keep my body and mind sane. For my mind, I’ve been practicing mindfulness. Even if it’s just 15-20 minutes per day, I’ve found that it helps keep me “centered” so I can focus on my work. Also, when I’m doing it regularly, I have more mental discipline to stay focused on my WIP and not get distracted by social media. I also make sure to keep up with yoga. Even if my writer’s brain tells me I don’t have time for it and I can just do ten vinyasas in my den, I’ve found that by going to a class, where I’m watched by an instructor, that I’m more conscientious about my poses, and I challenge myself more. I still run 9-15 miles per week. It helps with anxiety. But I’m trying to drink more water before and after I run. Author, Gwen Hayes tries to schedule “time off” by not checking her computer after dinner and by doing things like taking weekends off.  

For my physical health, I’ve been trying to drink more water. Recently, I also tried a “grainless month” which made me more mindful of how much processed food I was eating. It forced me to eat the carrots and almond butter instead of the corn chips. I’ve been making the occasional smoothie, full of spinach, bananas, coconut milk, and I add in acidophilus powder for digestive health. The smoothie keeps me hydrated and adds essential vitamins. I also drink bone broth and kombucha tea regularly because both are restorative. I know several authors who try hitting the “reset” button on their diet. There’s not a one-size-fits-all reset so you have to decide what’s best for you. For me it was giving up grains for a while. Sometimes I give up dairy. (My name is Amy and I'm a cheese-aholic.) I know several authors have tried the Whole Thirty. Hayes recommends it for kicking the sugar dragon.

Dr. Suess Veggie Smoothie

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Bone Broth

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 I’d like to add for a final note, that although I’m trying harder, I’m by no means perfect. I have some days when I’m better and more disciplined than others. (And I do still love the occasional Diet Coke.) Also, I’ve learned that health means balance. For me that’s 80% healthy. I have to eat 100% gluten free. Otherwise, I keep a mostly dairy free, low grain, low sugar diet because I feel so much better. But I still eat dark chocolate and enjoy dark red wine or bourbon in moderation. They’re therapeutic and I’ve found that if I allow a few “treats” in my diet, it’s easier for me to stick to the 80% healthy.     

Some of my favorite health blogs include:

Mark's Daily Apple--(includes some awesome paleo recipes)

Woo-Woo Mommy--(great health info and low carb, kid-friendly recipes)

Highlights of 2016

1.)    This spring, I had the amazing opportunity to teach an Honors Vampire Lit seminar at the college where I worked. (Yeah, that means I got paid to teach Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) The course included a campus visit from Dacre Stoker—the great-grand nephew of Dracula author, Bram Stoker. Dacre Stoker is also an author in his own right, having co-authored the sequel to Dracula in 2009. Then in May, the students and I flew to London where we explored old cemeteries, visited the Operating Theatre Museum, and went on a Jack the Ripper tour.

 

2.)    In March, I was on a YA Author Panel with Amy Christine Parker and James McTeer at the SCASL Conference at Myrtle Beach.

 

3.)    This year I finished writing a contemporary YA Gothic novel. The novel deals with dark family secrets, murder, and mental illness and has required interesting research and footwork. Specifically, I interviewed a criminal defense attorney and a psychiatrist to get some background info on the legal and mental health issues. Then, through a flurry of e-mails and phone calls, I talked my way into getting a tour of a local abandoned asylum campus.

  

4.)    While writing the novel, I received feedback from my amazing peer critique partners and fellow authors, Kristina Perez, Kami Kinard, and Jamieson Ridenhour. In London, I finally met Kristina in the Shad Thames area. We had a lovely and long talk about the writer’s life over dinner.

 

5.   My essay about images of sex and death in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed book, Romancing the Zombie: Falling in Love with the Undead in the 21st Century.

6. In June my husband and I took our kids to South Africa. We had just enough of a long layover in London to get out and grab some greasy hamburgers and visit Platform Nine and Three-Quarters. Our game drives through Kruger Park were breathtaking. I loved having the opportunity to share these experiences with my kids. Our bungalow was right next to the Sabie River, and I’ll never forget seeing Bull elephants meandering in the water just beyond the fence of our backyard.

 

7. In July, I spoke about my research on Jack the Ripper at the Palmetto Chapter Sisters in Crime meeting.

8. This fall, I taught my dream Young Adult novels course. We read several dystopian, contemporary, horror, and historical fiction novels including Ashfall, Fracture, Anna Dressed in Blood, and A Madness So Discrete.

9. My three kids all turned a year older. *weep* *weep* For my youngest child’s second birthday, we celebrated Eric Carle style.

 

10. I finished my first attempt at crocheting a blanket. It took me just three years and more episodes of Vampire Diaries than I would like to admit.

 

11. Here in the South, it’s traditional on New Years Day to eat collards and Hoppin’ Johns. As I sat down to eat, I noticed that my sweet potato was shaped like a perfect heart. I’d like to think that this means my heart is full as I start 2017.

   

London Trip Highlights

The London trip turned out to be just as thrilling as expected. Although we embarked upon many tourist hotspots, we explored some of London’s hidden gems including Highgate Cemetery, the Old Operating Theatre Museum, and a Jack the Ripper Tour led by Donald Rumbelow.

Highgate Cemetery

We had a scheduled tour of Highgate Cemetery. Against everything on the itinerary, my students said that our day at Highgate was their favorite day. Although I’ve been to Highgate Cemetery a few times before, I forgot that it’s a good twenty minute walk from the nearest Tube station to the cemetery—much of which is an uphill trek. After getting off at the station with only five minutes to spare, we took shortcut directions from a stranger and then ran through pouring rain towards the cemetery. As always during the tour, our guide told us dark and quirky stories about the 170,000 people buried throughout the graveyard. We learned about Victorian body-snatching, the sad reality of common graves for the poor, as well as a rare and very large spider found within the vaults of Egyptian Avenue. Needless to say, I was careful not to brush my shoulder against any dark, damp walls. Yikes!  


Old Operating Theatre Museum
 

One of the strangest museums in London is the Old Operating Theatre Museum. Accessible through a narrow twisting staircase of an Old Bell Tower, the museum showcases one of the longest surviving operating theatres in Europe, cases of nineteenth-century medical devices, as well as an herb garret showing traditional herbs prescribed for various illnesses. We also heard a lecture about the brutal reality of operating theatres, about how amputations would have been performed without anesthesia for broken bones or infections, and how medical students often bet each other on whether or not the hapless patient would survive amputation. 


Jack the Ripper Tour

    If you go to London, you will find many, many Jack the Ripper tours. Many are overpriced and gimmicky. However, in my opinion, London Walks provides the best tours. If you are able, go on Donald Rumbelow’s tour. He is a former policeman, the world-leading Jack the Ripper expert, and author of The Complete Jack the Ripper. His tour is both informative and exciting. 


 

London Excursion

This week I’m super-excited to take my vampire literature class to London. The trip has evolved beyond a vampire lit themed excursion to a dark history tour. During my last trip to London, I was researching for my Ripper trilogy, and I spent a lot of time not only in old graveyards and churches, but hanging out with Daleks. This time, I’m revisiting some of my favorite hotspots in London while still keeping a lookout for Daleks.  

Here are Some Places We’ll See:

St. Pancras Old Church


This is one of my favorite little out-of-the-way places in London. The church has a quirky and dark history. The early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft was initially buried in the churchyard. Her daughter, Mary Godwin (future author of Frankenstein) met up with Percy Bysshe Shelley for romantic trysts near her mother’s grave before she eloped with him. Lord Byron’s physician and author of the novel, The Vampyre, John Polidori, was buried there before his body was later lost by the construction of the railway. The railway construction, during the Victorian period, cut straight through the graveyard. Railway workers pushed aside the graves without reverence, and architect (and future novelist) Thomas Hardy was put in charge of relocating graves. He clustered them around what is now known as The Hardy Tree.

 

Highgate Cemetery
 


My class and I are touring my one of my favorite cemeteries in the world. Hauntingly beautiful and overgrown, the Victorian cemetery is not only home to thousands of graves. One of my favorite Halloweenie-stories is about how poet and artist, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, buried a book of poems with his wife, Elizabeth Siddal, but then later had her body exhumed when he needed money. Although it’s not exactly clear in Dracula where the doomed vampire Lucy Westerna is buried, many film versions of Dracula—including my favorite 2006 BBC version—locate the dramatic scene of her “second death” in Highgate Cemetery. 

 

Operating Theatre Museum
 


One day, we’re attending a talk at the Operating Theatre Museum. As an operating theatre in the nineteenth, century, surgeries were performed before the invention of anesthesia. (Yikes!) Many of the patients were poor, and medical students and apothecaries could observe the surgeries for learning purposes from the surrounding seats. 

 

Jack the Ripper Tour
 


What trip to London would be complete without a Jack the Ripper tour? One issue we talked about in my vampire lit seminar was the many connections between Dracula and the Jack the Ripper murders ten years earlier. Specifically, we’re hoping to catch Donald Rubelow’s tour. Rumbelow is both a world-leading Jack the Ripper expert and author of The Complete Jack the Ripper.

Dacre Stoker Visit

The vampire literature course I’m teaching is continuing to be pure awesomeness! This past Monday, we were honored to have as our guest speaker, Dacre Stoker, the great grand-nephew of Bram Stoker and co-author of: Dracula: The Un-Dead. Stoker gave a fascinating presentation to my students entitled: “Stoker on Stoker: The Mysteries Behind the Writing of Dracula.” Through the presentation he separated fact from fiction regarding Bram Stoker’s life and the writing of Dracula, and shared interesting stories surrounding the many Dracula films. After the presentation, Stoker led a discussion with my students about symbolism surrounding the vampire in the media and novels. Above is a photo of me completely stoked (*heh heh*) to have my picture taken with Dacre Stoker and his book.

A Taste of My Vampire Lit Seminar

I’m very excited to teach my dream course in the spring—an honors seminar about the vampire in literature. Biting Back: The Subversive Vampire in Literature and Film will use the vampire as a springboard to discuss political, gender, and cultural tensions in a variety of books from the nineteenth-century onwards. Although I’m a British lit professor, the class is interdisciplinary, so I’m leaving several of the projects wide open. This means that if a student is interested in early forensic investigations, she might do a presentation on the influence of the Jack the Ripper investigations on Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And, the best part—at the end of the class I’m taking students to London! Woot!

           

What we’re reading:

Sheridan Le Fanu, Carmilla

(Edited by my brilliant friend and fellow writer, Jamieson Ridenhour)

 

Bram Stoker, Dracula

 

Lauren Owens,The Quick

 

John Marks, Fangland

 

Anne Rice, Interview with a Vampire

Stephenie Meyer, Twilight

 

Charlaine Harris, Dead Until Dark

Nine Auerbach’s Our Vampires, Ourselves

 

I feel like this current list highlights the touchstone Victorian vampire texts as well as current trends in popular vampire literature. Also, Auerbach provides a solid scholarly framework for class discussions.

What we’re watching?

Episodes from Buffy the Vampire Slayer

 

Flannery O’Connor meets Bram Stoker—SO MUCH to talk about in this series.

Fright Night


The vampire hits suburbia? This film is worth watching just to see a realty sign used as a stake.

 

Evangelical Mommy Wars: HALLOWEEN

 

 

I’m no longer an evangelical. I was raised in a conservative evangelical home, attended an evangelical college, and many of my Midwestern family members and friends are still in that world. Now, I’m a Christian, and I attend my local Episcopal church with my family every Sunday. This fall, I’m witnessing evangelical “mommy wars” centered around Halloween. In the same way that some moms shame other moms for using (gasp!) an epidural during labor, not breastfeeding, not breastfeeding long enough, some—although not ALL—evangelical moms like to berate other moms, like me, for letting their children celebrate Halloween. And thus, the battle lines are drawn: their children attend fall festivals while mine attend Halloween parties. Their children wear cozy sweaters and bob for apples while mine dress up as ninjas and mosh elderly neighbors for candy corn. These moms sip apple cider at the end of a hard night of keeping their little ones safe in a world of miniature goblins while I chillax with an apple mimosa. (Apple slice on the rim, thank you very much!) 

The basis for their argument against celebrating Halloween is that Christians represent God’s light in a very dark world. If we’re Christians we must eschew all things evil, wicked, or scary. Much of this is based on the New Testament verses about being light in the world. As a Christian, I get this whole “light bearer” idea. What I don’t understand is how being a light bearer means being anti-Halloween; the “evil” symbols of Halloween: ghosts, goblins, witches, zombies, are all parts of lore. I don’t get it because these monsters are not real. Most children aren’t dressing up as actual villains like Hitler or Charles Manson. Instead, on my street I see adorable children inserting themselves as scary, brave, or silly characters in their favorite stories—the vampire ruling a castle, Dorothy off to see the wizard, or Harry Potter, defeater of Voldemort. And if they are dressing up as actual people, they’re dressing up as their heroes—like my friend’s adorable little girl who rocked out as Amelia Earhart last Halloween. Or (shudder) the tween babysitter dressing up at Snooki. Bottom line: I don’t see a celebration of evil, but a celebration of stories and of people.

“But these stories are so dark,” one of my evangelical friends said to me recently. She argued that if we’re truly light bearers then we keep our children away from “darkness”—at all costs. Many of my Christian friends claim that the creepy stories and costumes will harm children or make them commit evil acts. One rather high-strung Religious Right friend from college went so far as to say that if I let my children trick or treat, it’s the same as when the Israelites in the Old Testament committed child sacrifice to pagan gods like Moloch.(I’m pretty certain this friend isn’t around anymore. He imploded when “Obamacare” went into effect because affordable healthcare was too dystopian for him.) I’ve heard some anti-Halloween mothers claim that if we let our children enjoy scary zombie stories we shouldn’t be surprised by school shootings. (Why yes, clearly watching zombies eat brains makes a person take advantage of the lax gun laws these same people support.) Yet another friend, both a mother and teacher, told me she won’t allow Harry Potter books in her classroom or her home because “witchcraft is evil and bad.” (Interestingly, she doesn’t ban C.S. Lewis’s marvelous Narnia series which, last time I checked, contains a pretty bad-ass witch. Semantics.)        

As a writer, I’m here to defend the scary stories we celebrate at Halloween because stories, of any kind, are empowering. Reading and exploring stories makes us more moral, empathetic, and brave human beings. G.K. Chesterton wrote: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” In the young adult dystopian zombie apocalypse novel, the point isn’t that zombies are real, that they’re cool, or that brains are delicious and you should pick some up for dinner—it’s about the struggle to maintain your humanity in the worst of circumstances. The most haunting and best ghost stories don’t show us that ghosts exist. Rather they make us question how much we can truly know about our world—and about love or fury that’s powerful enough to buck against the known boundaries of death. Essentially, in navigating these fictional worlds, we walk around in the shoes of characters doing stupid, risky, silly, wonderful, and brave things. We’re motivated to be heroes in our own extraordinary real world.

And in this real world, let’s focus on real evils. Because my children are more likely to get mowed down at school by a bullet than a broomstick, any light bearer should be focused on real and tangible solutions—passing reasonable gun control and making healthcare available for the poor and mentally ill. This makes more sense than arming ourselves against bogeymen. 

“I want my children to read books where characters are clearly good and evil and always do the right things,” an evangelical relative told me once. Although I respect her a lot, I was puzzled by her words, mainly because somehow no one ever sent me a handbook telling me exactly what is right and wrong, good and evil. (And don’t tell me the Bible is this handbook, with clear, easy-to-get messages—it isn’t!) Personally, I think there’s a lot of yin and yang in all of us, and life is often a struggle to try to do the right thing when the answer isn’t always clear. Life is just more complicated than that.  

This is why I’m drawn to writing. Toni Morrison said in an interview that she likes to “put [her] characters on the edge of a cliff and see what they do.” I can relate well to this statement. Navigating life’s moral flyballs is tricky business, and I like to watch how my characters fight their way through while making mistakes and messing up and falling in love. This is more exciting than oversimplifying a world that just isn’t black and white.

And the light bearer business becomes a lot more inspiring and actually effective when instead of snatching scary stories and costumes from our children, we boil it down to trying (as clumsily as we can) to alleviating as much suffering as possible. Rather than being inspired by the women who strike all semblance of demon lore from their children’s lives, I still think the best light bearers to me are Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Theresa, Rosa Parks, Bartolomé las Casas, Mr. Rogers, and—yes— Jesus.

So this Halloween, I’ll be running through my neighborhood with pint-sized goblins, fairies, and ghosts. And afterwards (feel free to join me!) I’ll toast my apple mimosa to the power of story.      

   

On Gun Control...

In the wake of several campus shootings in the past week and the continuing LACK of any legislation for reasonable gun control, today, I e-mailed the following letter to Congressman Joe Wilson, Senator Tim Scott, and Senator Lindsey Graham:  

As a mother of three young children and as a professor, I’m increasingly concerned about the rising problem of gun violence. I’m concerned specifically about how my children and I are forced to “accommodate” the new normal of gun violence while nothing is being done at the legislative level to keep guns out of the hands of mass shooters. My children come home from their public school telling me about their “bad guy drills,” where they hide in a dark closet with their classmates to prepare for the possibility of a “bad man with a gun” coming into their school. Faculty at universities and colleges across the country are being trained about how to deal with mass shooters, while, unbelievably, gun rights have been extended so that students can now carry concealed weapons on universities and colleges in eight states.

The mass shootings and gun related homicides continue to rise—clearly the status quo is not working. As your constituent, I am asking for you to support reasonable gun control such as a ban on specific types of assault weapons, banning the sale of high-capacity magazines, and closing loopholes on background checks including the one that recently allowed Dylan Roof to purchase a gun and proceed to kill nine people. I am asking that you not cave to the NRA or to the small, but loud fraction of “gun culture” Americans who will decry any reasonable measure to regulate guns.

Sincerely,

Amy Carol Reeves        

So I Visited an Insane Asylum This Summer....

 

 

      One of my favorite parts of being a writer is the "field" research. I experienced this two years ago when I explored London graveyards in the rain for my young adult book, Resurrection. Now, I'm working on a Southern Gothic young adult mystery with mental illness at the heart of the story. Although most of the storyline is contemporary, several scenes of the novel take place in the late 1960’s at the old Bull Street Asylum in Columbia, South Carolina. Aside from diving into various areas of research including postpartum psychosis, the treatment of patients in asylums, anti-psychotic medications, I thought a tour of the grounds of the Bull Street Asylum, would be helpful. After making some calls and sending a few e-mails, I got in touch with Dr. Woody Harris, who worked at the asylum as Director of Education for over thirty years. One hot day this summer, Dr. Harris met me and another writer and walked us around the Old Bull Street Asylum Campus.

            Walking around the campus was like stepping back in time (or at least onto the set of The Walking Dead.) The campus was as much an abandoned self-sustaining community as an insane asylum and included a library, church, auditorium, cantina, hospital, and morgue for patients. In the earliest days of the asylum, patients also had a dairy, small farm, and a mattress factory on campus.  Interestingly, because the campus was so self-sustaining and protected by a large wall, during the Civil War many local South Carolinians sought temporary refuge on the grounds. (There are stories about subterranean tunnels created during the Civil War connecting the asylum to the South Carolina Statehouse for the Governor’s safety--although I can't find anyone who has discovered the tunnels.) Most of the buildings are abandoned in “as is” condition—as if the patients and workers just walked out one day. A hospital gurney sat eerily across the padlocked doors of the Babcock building, one of the oldest buildings on campus—predating the Civil War and in use until the mid-nineties. Peeling paint, ivy, and broken windows mark many of the buildings. 

               Although my camera didn't reveal any ghosts (drat!) here are some of the creepier photographs from my visit:

The Williams Building--where staff would admit patients and determine their treatment plan. 

Cantina

Auditorium--where patients could watch plays or concerts. 

Auditorium--where patients could watch plays or concerts. 

Library-where patients could read or check out books. 

Library-where patients could read or check out books. 

Psychiatrists and nurses lived on campus in these little houses. 

Psychiatrists and nurses lived on campus in these little houses. 

I'll have to write a scene around this malicious-looking twisty tree!

I'll have to write a scene around this malicious-looking twisty tree!

Asylum Church

Grounds where Union soldiers were kept as prisoners of war. 

Grounds where Union soldiers were kept as prisoners of war. 

Front of Babcock Building-one of the two oldest buildings on campus. 

Front of Babcock Building-one of the two oldest buildings on campus. 

Rear view of Babcock. 

Rear view of Babcock. 

From Fear to Fearlessness: Researching and Writing about Jack the Ripper

This year, I had the honor of serving as the Visiting Gerding Author at Newberry College. In the the fall, all freshmen at Newberry College read Ripper, then on March 19, I was invited to speak at the Newberry Opera House. Below is the text from my talk entitled: "From Fear to Fearlessness: Researching and Writing about Jack the Ripper."  

 

From Fear to Fearlessness: Researching and Writing about Jack the Ripper  

By Amy Carol Reeves 

Donald Rumbelow in his book The Complete Jack the Ripper, claims that a surveyabout fear reveals that Jack the Ripper is the number one killer people fear meeting in the dark. When it comes to fear, we tend to fear most what we don’t know or understand.

 Jack the Ripper would never carry the weight of terror that he (or she) does if we ever definitely solved the mystery. Yes, there’s the speculation: George Chapman, a local Whitechapel barber, the Duke of Clarence, Alice in Wonderland author, Lewis Carroll. But doubt, questions, serious problems exist with every single “certainty” surrounding the Ripper’s identity.

There was the controversial Diary of Jack the Ripper—most likely fraudulent—which would lead one to believe that cotton merchant James Maybrick was the murderer.

Author, Antonia Alexander claims Queen Victoria’s surgeon Sir John Williams was the Ripper.

Mystery author, Patricia Cornwell, went to great lengths to try to prove the troubled painter Walter Sickert was Jack the Ripper.

Most recently, Russell Edwards claims DNA evidence on a shawl supposedly found near the body of one of the victims conclusively proved that Polish immigrant Aaron Kosminski was the Ripper.

However, not a single one of these theories is conclusive: historical inconsistencies and questions about the DNA evidence abound in each case.

Because even our current technology and science cannot solve the case, Jack the Ripper has come to represent everything we fear about the dark. When we walk down lonely streets at night, he’s the unknown lurking in foggy alleyways—that irrational fear channeling our childhood fears of the dark. At a deeper more primal level, Jack the Ripper represents anything that can overcome us when we least expect it, eviscerate us, tearing us apart so that we lose control of all that holds us together.

I know what it means to confront fear head on.

I began writing Ripper during a time of personal depression. I was a newly minted PhD and the mother of two very small children; in the course of a few days, my world went from hanging out with other graduate students and talking about everything from feminism to Foucault to holding down mighty toddlers as they threw tantrums or cried over ear infections. I traded in foreign films for PBS cartoons. To make matters worse, just days after my graduation, my husband and I moved to a small coastal town where I struggled to make friends.

At that time, I felt, career-wise, like I was met by nothing but closed doors. I wanted to be an author, but I kept my foot in the door in the “safer” career of teaching.

Within months of moving there, I had an agent who tried to sell one of my picture books then one of my middle grade book with no success. The world of writing is difficult and very slow. There are no guarantees. With each rejection, doubt took over me, and then even worse—fear.

The world of writing was lonely. I did it between my children’s naps, during drop-in nursery programs. Still, the rejections kept pouring in. When the depression hit, suddenly I didn’t care about things I normally cared about. My world darkened and I let myself wander through the dark alleyways of my mind. Depression is horrible, but for me at least, it spurred a certain creative recklessness where I explored these alleyways.

I had felt a certain disconnect with my previous books, a detachment from the main characters. Once I was depressed, I couldn’t revise these books anymore, in fact I couldn’t read them anymore. I almost deleted the manuscripts on my computer, thinking they were flat and silly.

I read young adult book after young adult book, both to learn more about the genre and to keep my mind active between pottytraining my children. I felt drawn to writing something edgy.

I began to wonder what, with a PhD in 19th century British literature, I had to offer to the young adult genre. Fortunately, 19th century British literature was the site for the birth of many of the monsters of our time: The Gothic revived a flush of werewolf stories. Mary Shelley channeled today’s science fiction and zombie genre through Frankenstein where a human is brought to life from dead body parts; Shelley also predated current dystopian novels in her book The Last Man, about a world wiped out by a plague. John Polidori, Sheridan LeFanu, and Bram Stoker all revived the ancient bloodsucking monster—the vampire--from oral tradition. The Victorians were obsessed with murderers, conartists, and lunatic asylums as some of the first detective and sensation novels hit the scene—specifically The Woman in White and, my personal favorite, Lady Audley’s Secret.

I made lists of high concept creatures that I could write about and then considered the market. The young adult scene was swollen with werewolf and vampire stories. Dracula had evolved into a hot sparkly high school lab partner. There was the popular book series and now television series, The Vampire Diaries where two vampire brothers compete for the heart of a high school girl. (I never, ever, watch it. Or…maybe just a few times.) Zombie apocalypse stories abounded. Even hot zombie—pretty teenage girl love stories. My personal favorite was the zombie apocalypse retelling of Romeo and Juliet called Warm Bodies. Soon after, there was this lovely steampunk dystopian zombie love story, Dearly Departed.

I started listing serial killers. Jack the Ripper immediately came to mind as a high concept “monster.” I had developed a strange interest in the Ripper in graduate school—even attending a Jack the Ripper guided tour in London.

Also, I noticed that any dry conversation became more interesting when I brought up Jack the Ripper. For instance, when others moms talked too much about their latest recipe fails or children’s serial ear infections, I learned that mentioning Jack the Ripper could turn our talk in a whole more enlivening direction. (Although sometimes it also meant that I wasn’t invited to the next park playdate.)  

I wrote the plot summary pretty easily. I knew from the beginning that I wanted there to be more at stake than just the identity of the Ripper. I wanted a Secret Brotherhood, I wanted a teenage heroine who, as she solved the mystery of the Ripper, confronts her own “darkness”—unveiling secrets about her family history.

Then, one day, as my husband and I navigated a busy airport during Christmas time with our little ones, I told him the whole story from beginning to end. “Write it,” he said.

This is the part where I wish I could say that the depression got better, where I banished all of my fears and my self-doubt for good. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

Immediately after the holidays I dove into writing the novel. I ordered through interlibrary loan research books about East End London and about medical practices during the nineteenth-century. I also read about Victorian forensic investigations—at infant stages during the Jack the Ripper murders.

I researched and wrote, researched and wrote, creating my version of Jack during my children’s naptimes and channeling my own fears and unsettledness into the pages of the book.   

My existential anxiety increased. I was investing in a project that seemed too fun, something that now as responsible Dr. Reeves, I wasn’t supposed to do.  

I was taking time away from my family, from personal scholarship, jeopardizing any future tenure track teaching career for a book that might or might not hit the shelves of a bookstore.

I knew all the statistics about how difficult it was to get published even after I had an agent. It could take years if it happened at all. Was I prepared to sacrifice everything my graduate studies had worked for to pursue a career in which I might very likely fail?  At that time, my answer was no. I feared failure.

“Do you know what it’s like…” I asked my sister one time when she was in town, “for people to ask me what I do, and to tell them, well…I’m working on a young adult book about Jack the Ripper. It sounds ludicrous.”

My favorite reaction from a good close family friend when I told her about the book I was working on was: “Is this really what you want to do with your life?” she asked me.

And yet I couldn’t stop writing. Unlike my previous stories, I couldn’t abandon this one. I became obsessed. I stayed up late at night. I worked on weekend nights when my husband could watch the children. I worked late into the early hours of the morning when he was out of town for work.

One stormy night when my husband was out of town, I couldn’t sleep so I worked obsessively writing the entire attic scene featuring Mariah, Abbie, and the Ripper in one sitting. I borrowed many details for this scene in Ripper from Dracula. I’m fascinated by the main female characters’ vampire transformations in Dracula; I love how in an era when Victorian women who were supposed to be “well-behaved” Bram Stoker had made them into monsters. Writing this scene though wasn’t easy. I like Mariah. She bucked against the Victorian system of separate spheres, and truthfully, I hated myself for dooming her. I actually remember muttering under my breath, “Sorry Mariah, but you have to go.”  

Still, as I wrote the book, my personal fears didn’t go away. I began seeing a therapist for my depression. She handled my obsession with the book, my depression and anxiety with a certain therapeutic dose of dark humor. I remember one particular session where she said, “Come on now Amy. If you kill yourself, who’s going to finish Ripper?”

Although I felt off track at the time, in retrospect, this was a critical time in my personal and creative development.

It’s not so much that I was connected to my main character Abbie. I only wish that I knew how to bare-knuckle box and throw knives. (Truth be told, I just cut myself with them while chopping vegetables in the kitchen.)

But I believe that I was so obsessed with the essential story in Ripper because it represented a safe wandering ground, a labyrinthine world where I could confront multiple fears about myself and my future—fears and anxieties that I didn’t even understand myself. 

In Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, she talks about insomnia-producing middle of the night anxieties. About them she asks, “What if I could learn to trust my feelings instead of asking to be delivered from them? What if I could follow one of my great fears all the way to the edge of the abyss, take a breath, and keep going? Isn’t there a chance of being surprised by what happened next?”

Although I didn’t know it at the time, writing Ripper was that point where I was following my own fear at the “edge of the abyss”; doing something a little bit reckless and wondering if I was going to be “surprised by what happened next.” The part that scared me was the “next” part. What if so much work represented failure?

 I moved on. I continued writing the book. After I finished and proofread a first draft I sent it to my agent and crossed my fingers. Two days later, she called me.

“Amy, you need to write this kind of book. This is amazing.”

 I almost fell on the floor in relief.

She told me that she had stayed up late into the night to read it, and then she couldn’t sleep, so she watched a documentary on Jack the Ripper. And then she still couldn’t sleep.

She started going through the process of selling it. Unfortunately, all of her sales had been picture books and middle grade books. She called me up one day to tell me that she didn’t have the connections for this type of book, that she felt like she was holding me back, and that I should find another agent.

Once again, I wish this was the point where I could say that I stood up confidently, and began working like She-ra to find another agent. Instead, I let the fear take over. I cried in my bathrobe one morning to my husband that I’d made a terrible hash out of my life and that my career was at an end. I’d spent six years working on a Masters and PhD, three years trying to be a writer, and now I had to find a new agent.

Writing wise, I felt like I was back at square one. Finding an agent is difficult. Any reputable agent works on commission, so an agent has to make certain that she has a good chance of selling your books before representing you. In the industry, it’s almost as hard to find an agent as it is to find a publisher. I knew that the process might take a while.

Together, my husband and I decided to make some changes.

First of all, we moved back to the city.

I began a Visiting Assistant Professor position at Columbia College while he started his own law firm.

I began the process of querying agents for Ripper. I had a plan: query twenty agents, and if I receive all standardized rejections, I would know that the book would need more work before I sent it out again. If that was the case, I thought perhaps I could join a writing peer critique group somewhere to work on it.

Needless to say, I was terribly excited when I received my first personalized rejection from an agent, who liked the book, but didn’t feel like it was quite right for her. Then out of the twenty agents, pretty much all at once, I received three requests to see the book.

One of the agents got back to me immediately, in fact, she kept e-mailing me almost daily, asking me to let her know if anyone else wanted to represent me. Then, after she met with her team, she called me, offering representation. We clicked immediately. I liked her enthusiasm for Ripper, and she discussed how she wanted to help me in a long term career—not to simply sell this book and move on.

After deliberating with my husband for a couple of minutes, I called her back to tell her that I accepted her representation offer. I’ve heard since, that after she hung up the phone from me, she screamed in excitement and her intern thought she was crazy. I signed her contract and we immediately conferenced about a few revisions she wanted me to make before sending it out. Then once she submitted it to editors, we received an offer from my publisher within a month. I was ecstatic. Overjoyed. I had thought it would never happen.

A book contract though was just the beginning of a new kind of fear.

I had never thought about what would happen after a book deal. This was a whole new world. My agent had initially negotiated a two book deal for the series, so suddenly, I had to work on a deadline, pushing out the second novel within a year.

My editor sent me thirteen pages of single space revision notes for Ripper and I had about three months to revise. I stayed up late, got up early, worked revisions into my office hours between classes. I started asking for an extra shot of espresso in my coffee at Starbucks.

The stress and lack of sleep made me sick. But I did make the deadline, and then I had just enough time to rest before copy edits arrived. Then there was the whole world of publicity and social media.  Although I had a publicist and my publisher flew me to a major librarians conference in Texas to sign advanced reader copies, I was also responsible to promote my book. Suddenly I had to learn how to use social media, Twitter, Facebook. I had to learn about author blurbs and how to network with other authors to get one.

Then once the Advanced Reader Copies of Ripper were distributed to major bloggers, journals, and reviewers, I realized that reviewers didn’t care about my feelings. Yes, I received positive reviews from Voya, Booklist, School Library Journal. But another major reviewer recommended that readers “skip” the book. I had a few bloggers tweet their one star reviews to me. Some of the snarkier reviews made me eat half a bag of dark chocolate chips. At least one review made me stomp around the house for an entire evening.

I contacted another author my agent represented in another part of the country asking her how she handled bad reviews. My “agency sister” assured me that reviews are subjective, that we can’t take them too seriously, and yet at the end of the day we’re still human…

Writer, Anne Lamott in her book Bird by Bird describes the process of early reviews well. According to her:

“Not long after [publication] you get your early reviews, in Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews, and sometimes they sound like your mother wrote them. Other times they suggest that you are a show-offy vacuous loser, and they hope you die so that they won’t have to read your work anymore. I have gotten prepub reviews that said I was a treadmark on the underpants of life. Perhaps this is not exactly what they said, but by reading between the lines, I could see that this is what they were implying. You survive that. Possibly you’re still drinking, so you have a pitcher of martinis just to take the edge off, or you’ve quit drinking, so you eat your body weight in pastries and Mexican food.”             

I tried to take the wisdom of my agency sister and Lamott to heart. This time, as the reviews started pouring in, I had to battle with fear again. I decided to stop reading most of the reviews. They were only distracting me, draining me of emotional and creative energy that I needed to write the second book in the series, Renegade.

 One of my priests says that “The root of most of our sins is fear.” As the Queen of Anxiety, I know exactly what this means.

Finally, in my early thirties, I was beginning, just beginning , to learn that fear was not something outside myself. I was not a mere boat in a stormy ocean. Fear is something that I create.

In Greek mythology, the god of fear is, Phobos. He’s the son of Ares and Aphrodite and was often associated with war and terror. Like Mary Shelley who summoned up her own monster during a time of personal depression and terror, I was beginning to realize that I had conjured Phobos up myself and as long as I stayed fearful, he would always be with me.

After my agent negotiated the deal for the third Ripper book, Resurrection, I allowed myself, as much as possible, to try to enjoy my writing career without only thinking about the next writing project, reviewers’ opinions or the possibility of screwing up the entire Ripper series by failing on the last book. (Yes, I did have nightmares about this.)

So I plunged into writing and researching for Resurrection. Although I had already been to England, I realized that a second trip would be necessary to research certain scenes. With my sister accompanying me as a research assistant, I booked a flight to London and explored Highgate Cemetery, even sweetalking a tour guide to take me back to the Rossetti family gravesite after a tour. For those of you who have read Ripper, you’ll know why the Rossetti gravesite intrigues me. You’ll also know that Christina Rossetti is a main character in the book. Historically, she was more stable than her drug addicted artist brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. When his wife, Elizabeth Siddal, died of an overdose in his early thirties, Dante Rossetti buried several unpublished poems with her. Unfortunately, a year later he needed money, so he had her body dug up. There’s all these Halloweenie stories claiming that her hair had grown longer, and that she was even more beautiful a year after her burial than when alive. However, as Highgate Cemetery politics would have it, many of the guides refuse to talk about that story, and it is not included on the tour. When I was at Highgate Cemetery several years ago, I had a guide tell me to be “careful about who I talked to about that story here.” Apparently, some of the guides believe the story tarnishes the reputation of the graveyard. My guide who took me back to the Rossettis’ gravesite on my research trip told me that Highgate Cemetery was still trying to recover its reputation after several people broke into the cemetery in the early 1970’s trying to stake a vampire. Really. That happened.      

My sister and I also walked through dodgy East End London and I asked her to guard me and my camera while I photographed certain places of relevance to the Jack the Ripper murders.

I wandered both in and around St. Pancras Old Church for several days, even speaking to the church historian one evening about the property. At 1700 years old St. Pancras Old Church is one of the oldest sites of Christian worship in England. Excavations of church foundation and walls have revealed fragments from the Roman occupation.  

It was on the grounds of St. Pancras Old church where my sister and I went on a hunt through the rain one morning trying to find the early feminist writer, Mary Wollstonecraft’s tombstone. Wollstonecraft was a champion for women’s rights, particularly for education for women in the late 1700’s. After giving birth to a daughter with her American lover Gilbert Imlay, Wollstonecraft met and fell in love with the writer and radical philosopher William Godwin. Although both were against marriage in theory, they married shortly before she gave birth to their remarkable child Mary Godwin, or as she is now known as, Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. Mary Wollstonecraft, however, was only one of many famous figures buried in the church’s graveyard.

Unfortunately, many graves at Old St. Pancras were lost during the construction of a railway near the church during the 1860’s. Wollstonecraft and William Godwin’s bodies were moved elsewhere by their spunky daughter-in-law, but many other bodies, including Wollstonecraft’s sister’s body and the body of the physician and vampire writer, John Polidori were lost.

I learned while at the old graveyard there that the ill-treatment of the graves by railway workers shocked the Victorians. The young architect and later novelist and poet Thomas Hardy, moved many of the gravestones around an old ash tree in the graveyard of St. Pancras Old church, the tree is known now as The Hardy Tree. The gravestones remain clustered to this day around the base of the trunk like crowded dominoes.

While in London, I read Hardy’s poem called “The Levelled Churchyard,” ; it is believed to have been inspired by his work relocating the gravestones. Here are my favorite stanzas:   

               "O passenger, pray list and catch

                   Our sighs and piteous groans,

Half stifled in this jumbled patch

                   Of wrenched memorial stones!

            "We late-lamented, resting here,

                   Are mixed to human jam,

            And each to each exclaims in fear,

                  'I know not which I am!'

The trip represented the exciting part of research, where I got outside of my books, and wondered around sketching scenes for the Ripper and Abbie inside my head. I finally understood when years ago back in graduate school, an elderly professor told me over a glass of scotch one afternoon that as a professor and writer, I would never be rich, but I would have an interesting life.

As I conclude this talk, I have to admit that I think perhaps the title of this paper is misleading. “From Fear to Fearlessness”—implies that I’m no longer fearful, ever. That I never conjure Phobos.

The truth is that I still fear everything from failure when I write to hissing Canadian geese when I jog. (They’re really, really scary.)

I think it’s more accurate to say that my life experiences have made me more capable of turning around and facing my fears; I haven’t banished the monsters of fear, anxiety, crippling self-doubt. But now instead of running away, I run into the dark alley to face my monsters head on, and so far I haven’t been defeated.          

 

“Why the Faithful Need Feminism” #FaithFeminisms

This summer my family vacationed in the New England area, and we spent a few days in Salem. I’ve always wanted to go there as I’m interested in crazy historical cases (yeah, I write books about Jack the Ripper). Also, my husband, Shawn, has ancestors who lived in Salem Village at the time of the witch trials.

Visiting the Salem Witch Museum with our eight-year-old son, Atticus, and six-year-old daughter, Amelia, we discovered that a large part of the tour involved standing in a huge round room surrounded by mannequin stage displays of the historic figures—one of a looming winged, horned Lucifer hovering ominously above our heads. A voice narrated the chronology of events in each of the stage display cases. The presentation was both cheesy (lots of thunderstorm sound effects, a glowing pentacle on the floor) and informative, but my kids loved it. As we left the room to see the rest of the museum, Atticus, slurping Sprite loudly through his straw, looked up at Shawn and exclaimed about the Puritans: “Wow! They would have killed Mama and Amelia.” Shawn replied, “Well…they would have killed your Mama for sure.”

I chuckled because it’s true. I’m pretty certain I would have been hung as a “witch.” Shawn knows that when he gives me advice there’s a 90% chance that I’ll weigh it, obsess a bit, and then do what I want. I drink bourbon on the rocks, and I’ve been known to speak up in religious settings when I hear thorny teachings about wives submitting to their husbands or how birth control contributes to immorality. 

Although men were also hung during the Salem Witch Trials, the overwhelming majority of “witches” killed in New England and in Europe during the Middle Ages and subsequent years were women. Specifically, women who were different—widows, midwives, the mentally ill, women who just couldn’t keep their mouths shut. In fact, the first of the accused to be executed was Bridget Bishop—a mother known for her outspoken views and her proclivities for *gasp* playing shuffleboard and sassing her husband. Bottom line: there were certain “right” and “wrong” ways to act, behave, and dress in these early religious communities. If you pissed off the wrong person or seemed like a misfit in the community, particularly if you were a woman—well, you’d better watch your back. 

Human rights have advanced since the seventeenth-century, so fortunately (at least in the United States) it’s illegal to burn women as witches. But within earlier religious patriarchal communities, there was very little legal protection for women and, as in the Salem trials, your very life could depend on “spectral evidence”—like someone says they saw you riding around on a broomstick just before their dog bit the dust. I’m a Christian (specifically, liberal Episcopalian), but I was raised as a conservative evangelical. My background has made me fascinated by both religious extremism and the continuing push by many (but by no means all) evangelical and fundamentalist leaders to keep women in their “proper” roles.

I’ve learned, through my experiences in conservative religious settings that those prescribing “biblical” (aka Victorian) gender roles have a greater sense of fear than others. Christianity has always been split by the fearless, the ones willing to break away from nonsensical or immoral traditions to advance justice and human rights and the fearful—those claiming that certain rigid rules or traditions are very backbone of faith. One of my priests recently said that the root of most sin lies in fear. Along these lines, an essential Gospel message, I believe, is fearlessness—where Jesus heedlessly broke apart traditional rules; specifically, he included women, even mentally ill women, adulteresses, Samaritan women, where others would exclude or execute them based on fear of breaking from tradition.

One reason I’m a Christian feminist is because I believe religious communities should live beyond fear. Fear is powerful and dangerous. While walking around in the cool air-conditioned Salem Witch Museum, I kept staring at the horned Lucifer figure dangling from the ceiling—a symbolic representation of fear. Elaine Pagels in her book, The Origin of Satan, claims that the Satan figure isn’t a looming outsider, but rather someone close, even a friend or neighbor, someone within the community who becomes a threat to it.  Anyone who doesn’t conform to “biblical” gender roles, to specific religious beliefs, anyone who is set apart by race or by sexual preference transforms from fellow human being to monster. Lines are drawn in the sand. Within such communities, fear gives birth to discrimination, to abuse, and sometimes to violence. Regarding gender roles, I believe that feminism, because it asserts that women are equal to men, is an essential moral component to faith communities because it rights gender discriminations; feminism must be a part of any church as it bucks against fearful men who manipulate religion and play the God card to their own benefit—those craving “submission” of their wives, demanding purity of their daughters, who would want women uneducated or uninformed. Such a system not only discriminates, but also opens the door to the sexual abuse that has been plaguing so many patriarchal denominations. 

The Salem Witch Trials are just one of many, many historical examples—a mere tip of the iceberg—showing that we need feminism not just in society, but in faith communities as well. Fear and discrimination break apart communities that should instead demonstrate Jesus’s radical inclusion.

 

Interview with Jamieson Ridenhour: Author, Scholar, and Musician

Super pumped today to publish my interview with my good friend and fellow author, Jamieson Ridenhour! Read on to find out about some of his current projects involving Victorian zombies, werewolves, and aging punk rock musicians.

Bio: Jamieson Ridenhour is the author of the werewolf murder-mystery Barking Mad (Typecast, 2011), the short horror films Cornerboys (Best Animated Fantasy, 2010 Fargo Fantastic Film Fest) and House of the Yaga (Best American Short Film, 2012 Nevermore Film Festival), and the ghost play Grave Lullaby. His fiction and poetry has appeared in Strange Horizons, Mirror Dance, Architrave, and TheNewerYork, among others, and his fiction has been podcast at Pseudopod, Cast of Wonders, and Radio Unbound. He lives and writes in North Dakota.

1. Like me, you’re both an academic and a creative writer. How do you switch gears from scholarly writing to creative writing? Do you find that your academic mind enriches or stilts your creative work?

I love crossing the line between teaching and writing. I don’t do as much academic writing nowadays (though I did publish a book and two articles in 2013), but I do teach British literature, creative writing, and some basic introduction courses. Reading Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dickens, Austen, Forster, Heaney--all these powerful and influential writers—certainly inspires and pushes me forward. And the act of responding to students’ writing is a good way to stay engaged with craft. I have smart writers who keep me connected to the practical act of writing.

2. I know you were influenced by authors like P.D. Wodehouse for your Barking Mad mystery series. What other authors influenced you?

Lots of writers in ways that I’m probably not even aware of. Dickens, surely. Peter Straub’s novels taught me a lot about how to develop plot and suspense without sacrificing elegant prose. I think fiction writers can learn a lot about economy of language—Heaney, Keats, and Yeats are favorites. Lots of fantasy writers from the 70s and 80s, people like John Crowley. More recently, my favorite writers are people like David Mitchell, Michael Chabon, Zadie Smith, Sarah Waters, Joe Hill, and Neil Gaiman. Kelly Link and Karen Russell write short fiction that I’d kill small animals to be able to pull off. I’ve been reading a fair amount of YA fiction lately as well, and particularly love Courtney Summers, Kendare Blake, and Holly Black. I don’t consciously think about these writers as influences, but they can’t not be.

3. Also, you’re working on some young adult books. Do you want to tell us about your projects?

I’ve just finished revisions and beta response for a YA novel set in Victorian London, which features reanimated corpses, mad scientists, secret agents for the Queen, and a 15-year-old maidservant as protagonist. The manuscript is with an agent right now, so I’ve got my fingers crossed.

I’m working on a new play right now about an aging punk rock musician and a young woman who tries to interview him. It’s non-supernatural, a first for me, and deals with fame, aging, suicide, and punk rock. I’m hoping to get that drafted by the end of July.

4. Do you feel like there are any unique challenges in writing for a young adult audience?

Not really. The sort of things I write—fantasy and horror, mainly—don’t change tremendously across those categories. My London Dead book has a fifteen-year-old protagonist, and obviously her age shapes her worldview and reactions, but other than that, it’s not radically different than the same book written for adults. I think one of the reasons so many adults read and write YA is that it’s not really that far removed from any book in a given genre.

5. You’ve recently written and directed a play, Grave Lullaby. Can you talk a bit about that experience?

Yeah, I not only wrote Grave Lullaby, I got to direct a wonderful cast in its debut as well. I learned quite a bit—writing for the stage is shaped by dialogue in ways that other writing isn’t, and I feel like I sharpened my understanding of character speech. Having been primarily a fiction writer, it was a grand and surreal experience to see my characters walking around on a stage, and to have actors insert their own interpretations and suggestions on motivation and delivery. It was probably the best, or fullest, artistic project I’ve been involved in. Grave Lullaby is being considered for production by a theater company in SC right now; like most writing projects, it’s reached the hurry up and wait stage. And in addition to the play I’m working on at the moment, I’ve got two others planned.

6. And now, for the most important question: what do you think of the Twelfth Doctor—Peter Capaldi?

I think he looks fabulous! I would have preferred a woman or POC, because it’s just time, for crying out loud, but I am quite happy to see an older actor playing the part. I’ve been really disappointed in the writing during the last season—Clara’s plot effectively erased any development or agency for her character, and the Doctor merely retread old ground. I was losing faith in Stephen Moffat. I think Moffat is great for one-off ideas (“Blink” or “Girl in the Fireplace”), and with focus can sustain a long narrative, but I don’t believe the show is going to recapture the sorts of things Russell Davies was able to do during the 2nd or 4th season. But the 50th was pretty brilliant, and the Christmas special, though not as good as the 50th or parts of Amy and Rory’s arc, was solid and well-done. I do have high hopes for the future.

That may be more than you wanted. I’m fascinated by serial storytelling, and tend to watch shows in those terms. We’re big Doctor Who fans at my house. Can’t wait to see Capaldi in action.

Jamie's short film, Cornerboys, rocks! It's haunting, creepy, and beautiful. I always show it to my British lit classes when I teach Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market." 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IOd_Fzck7CM

Why I'm a Christian Feminist...

I’ve been reflecting upon and reading the #YESALLWOMEN and the #YESALLBIBLICALWOMEN tweets. The conversation highlights not only the historical and current violence and misogyny women experience, but it also reasserts and reclaims feminism as a positive movement. I’ve read and witnessed too many rants against feminists, and as a Christian feminist, I’m doubly judged—not only by misogynists in popular culture but also by the conservative religious community. My evangelical background has shown me that while misogyny and rape culture reigns in popular culture, these issues thrive within religious communities where “biblical gender roles” and “complementarianism” pit gender equality against God’s will. So if you’re a Christian feminist you’re not just “wrong,” you’re “hellfire and brimstone wrong.”

Most horrendously is the way the religious patriarchy has caused and covered up rape and sexual harassment crimes against women. We’ve seen this in the case of Doug Phillips, where his position as the “biblical leader” within his home established a household where his decisions and authority remained unquestioned—allowing him to sexually abuse his children’s nanny. Numerous Bible colleges such as Bob Jones University and Patrick Henry College have lately gained national attention for not taking rape and sexual abuse cases seriously, for blaming the victim, or for demanding the victim “forgive” her abuser.

Then there is the concept of “biblical gender roles” espoused by many conservative evangelical churches. Referred to also as “complementarianism,” the belief upholds that men and women are equal in terms of moral responsibility and in terms of their need for God’s grace and salvation, but they must have different roles within the household where the woman is the nurturing wife and mother and the man is the breadwinner. Although upheld as “biblical,” complementarianism is really nothing less than the Victorian system of separate spheres—where the woman is idealized as the “Angel of the House” while the man maintains his “manly” duties working outside the home.

Complementarianism thrives among many of my conservative religious friends’ families and I have seen intelligent women attend churches where they are forbidden to teach men. I’ve seen women brainwashed by the concept into following their “spiritual leader” even if their leader’s decisions and beliefs harm their family unit—to protest or question their leader would not be practicing “submission.” I respect a woman’s decision to be a full-time mother, but I’ve seen women frustrated and depressed when they desire to work or pursue a degree outside of their home, but they feel too guilty because doing so would be “selfish” or against God’s will. Most disturbingly, I’ve had women fiercely defend their role as the submissive, nurturing partner to me because even though they might not like it, “it’s God’s law” and should not be questioned. They line out an avalanche of carefully chosen verses in the Bible while ignoring other verses upholding women as leaders, as the first witnesses to the Resurrection, as savvy business negotiators. They also ignore the stories in the Bible where “biblical leaders” rape or try to sell their daughters as prostitutes, where a father burns his daughter alive because he believes it’s God’s will. They ignore the fact that the “spiritual leader” in a home can be morally corrupt or brutal, because well…this would disrupt the essential foundation of their “biblically prescribed” ideology.

Biblical patriarchy and complementarianism assert the worst traits of human nature. We all want to be the boss, to have our way—this is part of human nature and why relationships are so difficult. As a Christian feminist, I believe in fundamental gender equality, that as creations of God men and women have equal value when it comes to giving a hundred percent to the economic and domestic well-being of a household. It would be just as wrong for me to try to rule over my husband as it would be for him to try to rule over me, and thisegalitarianism, this complete mutuality, is what makes our relationship and our household work.

My Easter Reflections on an Off-Kilter World

As always on Easter, this past Sunday our family arrived early to church. Unsteady on my super-duper high-heels, I ushered my two grumpy sleep-deprived children (diving into Easter baskets at 5:30 AM is so darn fun!) into a pew near the front of the church. Because we were so early, my husband and I let them bring books to read before the service.

Sitting between my eight-year-old son, Atticus, and six-year-old daughter, Amelia, so they wouldn’t fight, my husband, Shawn, and I talked quietly to people around us and admired the beautiful flower arrangements around the altar and balconies of our Episcopal cathedral. The drizzling cool morning was supposed to give way to a brighter warmer afternoon. I had a spiral cut ham seasoned and ready to pop in the oven when we got home. I had a coconut cake ready to slice. And miraculously, I had cleaned my house. (Well…at least the living and dining rooms.)

By the time the organ music started and we stood to sing the first hymn, Amelia was already whining that she was hungry. I looked down to see Atticus hunched over, fast asleep over his Where’s Waldo book in the pew beside me. He was particularly cute in his brown tweed jacket, red bow tie, and his untamable blonde curly hair. Chuckling, Shawn and I just let him sleep. Then, just as the choir processional began down the Cathedral aisle, Atticus, slumped further into the pew, I turned to pull him back up but he went rigid and fell hard onto the wooden floor—hitting his head on the pew wall and drooling excessively, he began convulsing in a grand mal seizure.

“He’s having a seizure,” I hissed as Shawn and I struggled to get him off the floor in the narrow pew aisle. Quickly, Shawn whisked him outside through a side door. Telling Amelia to stay where she was, I slipped outside the church to make certain that the seizure had stopped. I found Shawn outside holding him—Atticus was still, his pupils dilated. We’d been through this before and we knew what would happen. Soon he would fall asleep, so Shawn took him to the church library, where he waited with Atticus as he slept through the rest of the service.

Returning to my seat, I wiped Atticus's drool off my open hymnal and whispered to the concerned and kind parishioners around us that our son has epilepsy and he is alright. But I was distracted—throughout the hymns, throughout the Eucharist, throughout getting sprinkled with Holy Water, I kept seeing Atticus falling hard into the pew aisle.

At this point, we’re used to dealing with these seizures. He has a childhood form of epilepsy where sometimes he has seizures when he falls asleep. Usually he’s in bed when he has one. This was the first time he had one during a nap and in public.

For me, the Easter service suddenly became difficult. My mind was on Atticus and how managing this epilepsy has become part of our lives. I thought of how we’ve been told that Atticus will likely outgrow these seizures, but they’ll likely peak when he’s eight and nine years old. So we’re at the beginning of about a two year span where they’ll be more frequent.

I think the season of Lent has helped me to accept things that I don’t want to accept—like Atticus’s epilepsy. Since leaving evangelicalism and becoming Episcopalian, practicing Lent before Easter forces me to face truths that I don’t want to about suffering. A Buddhist friend of mine said once that the only thing we can know for certain about everyone around us, strangers or friends, is that they suffer. It’s universal. Inescapable. We cannot live unscathed.

A few years ago, I posted a wonderful NPR interview with Anne Lamott about Easter on my Facebook wall. She describes Easter and the season of Lent. She talks about how we’re living in a Good Friday world and Lent is that time where we face this reality and instead of soothing ourselves with divergences such as IKEA runs, we use it as a time for reflection and spiritual growth. I posted the interview on my Facebook wall, hoping to inspire and comfort friends, but within a few minutes, some evangelical friends and family members started criticizing the post, claiming that she never mentioned the “resurrection”—that she never affirmed the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Too weary for a Facebook fight, I sighed, pushed myself away from my laptop, thinking that’s what you get from the interview? Really?

Growing up evangelical, we didn’t celebrate Lent. Easter was the day when my siblings and I got baskets loaded with candy. It was the one day of the year when we wore hats to church and at the service there was a bit more extra fanfare—a few more songs, lots of lilies around the altar. My sisters and I, high on chocolate bunnies, squabbled and pinched each other in the pew. Our preacher described the resurrection and, depending on what denomination of church we were in at the time, sometimes there was an altar call. Not always, but often the sermon was defensive, in the same way that our Christmas sermons sought to prove that the virgin birth was authentic—a real deal event—on Easters, I heard countless arguments about why Jesus was really, literally resurrected. Maybe this is comforting to some and I respect that. But by the time I was fifteen, I wearied of such sermons. In my own spiritual experience, these sermons never motivated me.

I recite the Nicene Creed every Sunday. Truth be told, I often struggle to believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, an afterlife, or that people will one day be resurrected Lazarus-like in the Gospel stories. It isn’t that I don’t believe these things, but like I said, it’s a bit of a fight for this natural-born skeptic. Truth be told, I’ve become OK with my doubt. I’ve begun to feel less guilty about it. For me, this uncertainty, this not knowing, has become an essential part of my faith. In my view, it’s the most marvelous truths about the world that would defy our comprehensive understanding.

What I do know, what I do see clearly with my own eyes, is that something is fundamentally off-kilter with the world around me. It’s why we miscarry babies, why so many of the mentally ill are homeless. It’s why we have drones, famines, drunk drivers, school shootings, and yes—why little boys get epilepsy. Lent forces me to reflect upon these afflictions. I can never ever make sense of them, but I can step back and face them—acknowledge this world often does indeed seem more Good Friday than Easter.

After the Easter service, shaken, and honestly—feeling sorry for myself as a parent that I have to deal with this—I found Shawn and Atticus in the church courtyard. Atticus, his bowtie crooked, sat on a stone bench, slumped and pale as he tried to eat an iced cinnamon roll. The sun had broken through the clouds and several of our friends stood nearby comforting us and sharing some stories of friends or relatives who also had epilepsy—many of them worse forms than the type we’re dealing with.

In that courtyard and throughout the afternoon, I kept reminding myself that after Lent comes Easter. Even though on Maundy Thursday, our Cathedral altar is stripped, the communion wafers and wine taken away, the crosses all covered in black material, there is always Easter. And in spite of my doubts, my skepticism, my sarcasm, and my general limitations as a human being, I do believe that the Gospel story of sacrifice and resurrection is true in a much greater sense than a literal one. The Gospel story of Jesus is the story of how we’ve been offered undeserved grace in spite of ourselves and our world. Because of this, I choose to embrace hope amid the shitty cards dealt to us by our genes or the world. It’s not a rose-colored glasses view, but a fundamental belief that compassion, honesty, and our sloppy attempts to be unselfish have genuine and radical implications in an off-kilter world.

R2-D2 Wants to Take Communion—So Why Can’t I?: Some Thoughts on Gluten-Free Religious Living

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One of the “perks” of easing into my thirties was developing a terrible gluten sensitivity. Like supersensitive. Like if you hate me, just sprinkle some breadcrumbs into my coffee, and I’ll be sick for a couple of days.

Unfortunately, my devotion to a gluten free diet has caused some other devotional drama. (And no, I didn’t cheat on my husband with a bread baker. Though Peeta would be pretty tempting.) This drama involves not eating the wafer during Eucharist at my Episcopal church. The last time I tried taking a bit of bread at Communion was during Lent two years ago, and I was felt awful. I somehow thought that “blessed” wheat—unlike other wheat—wouldn’t poison me.

I felt strange just outright refusing the wafer at the altar rail so my husband, Shawn, and I decided that after taking the wafer in my hand, I would sip the wine from the celebrant’s cup and then slip Shawn my wafer. So now Shawn takes not only his wafer, but my own. (One of my priests describes our solution as very “one-flesh.”)

At first I obsessed about this. By only taking one-half of the communion offerings would I then only benefit from one-half of this Christian ritual? Would one-half of myself become a little bit more corrupt each day so that (and yes, I’m an British lit professor) in one-half of my days, I would be like Thomas Hardy’s Alec d’Urberville—harboring bad thoughts about seducing dairy maids—and for the other one-half of my days, I’d be morally strong like Jane Eyre. (And yes, I know that there is an avalanche of poor theology in this line of thinking, but I’m a neurotic—not a priest.)

The thoughts about seducing dairy maids stayed at bay. (Mostly.) But I started worrying about the behavior of my children at the communion rail. Was my unorthodoxy spilling out upon them? First case: Easter service, I kneel at the communion rail next to my seven-year-old at the front of the Cathedral. Amid the swelling organ music, he looks up at me, grinning as he holds two of his Star Wars Lego men on the rail. “R2-D2 wants to take communion,” he whispers. “Put those away!” I yelp, keeping my hands folded piously. The next week, he comes out of his bedroom dressed as Darth Vader, insisting that he was going to take communion as the evil character. After a long argument, Shawn and I told him that our priests don’t give communion to Darth Vader. (Although a friend made a good point that if anyone needs Jesus, it’s Darth Vader.)

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Soon my adorable strong-willed daughter got some ideas. One week, she decided that she didn’t “like the taste of the wafer” so she started sticking her nose up at it and refusing to put it in her mouth. Our male priests thought her behavior endearing, patting her head and smiling as Shawn took her wafer from her and ate it himself, before she tossed in on the floor. (For those of you good at math, he was now averaging three wafers per week.) No matter what we did, her behavior continued until one of our female priests, who doesn’t put up with such nonsense, stopped the communion line and leaned across the rail with authority: “Sweetie, you put that in your mouth.” My daughter ignored her. “Put that in your mouth!” the priest insisted. Trembling as I hid my own wafer in my palm, I prodded my five-year-old. “Eat the wafer!” I whispered as she looked from me to the priest glaring. She held her ground and a holy crisis averted as Shawn picked her up and whisked her away from the rail eating her wafer himself. Yet again.

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I obsessed about this bad behavior, wondering if my gluten-free communion practice was a corrupting influence. A bit of research showed me that when it comes to communion, some think that the devil is in the details. (Heh. Heh.) Apparently, Catholic communion only “counts” if the wafer has wheat in it. Ugh. The line of thinking being that since Jesus ate gluten-infused bread, our wafers must, by all that is holy, contain gluten also. My acupuncturist, a Catholic, smugly tells me that for him it’s not actually an issue because of transubstantiation—the wafer becomes the literal body of Christ so it’s always gluten free after the blessing. Double ugh. So this is a lingering curse of the Reformation. Thank you Martin Luther.

And then my line of thinking plummeted and I started asking my husband questions like: “Perhaps I should become Catholic. I mean if I didn’t love my contraceptives so much I could be Catholic, right?” “Am I a corrupting influence on our children?” “Why can’t my digestion take one tiny bit of gluten?” “Is gluten intolerance a result of original sin?” “Do you think my thoughts have been less pure since I’ve stopped taking the wafer?” “I’m not fit to be a mother.”  (Usually this is the point where he rolls his eyes and tells me to get a drink.)

Because yoga is healthier than drinking, I try it first. (Although when I come home, still aching from my lizard pose, I’m not opposed to pouring a glass of wine.)

In my yoga class, when I’m twisted like a pretzel and (let’s be honest) cursing quietly under my breath because I can’t stop shaking and bobbling, my instructor reminds us that yoga is not about being perfect, but it is a lovely mix of striving and self-acceptance. During my more enlightening yoga practices, I have thought about how I demand perfection from every area of my life whether it’s my digestion or my faith—and because of this, I miss out on the whole point of grace—that possibility of embracing undeserved clemency for myself, my stomach, and my semi-feral children.

Lent starts today on Ash Wednesday. I’ll confess, that recently when I started ticking off to Shawn all of the things I could give up: chocolate, alcohol, Facebook, The Vampire Diaries—he quipped, “Hey, I have a better idea: why don’t you stop trying to be perfect and give up anxiety?” At first I froze, chuckled. “You know me—I can’t possibly do that...oh wait…”

So here it goes: this Lent I’m officially going to (try) to take on my husband’s challenge. Wish me luck, pray for me, chant, or just laugh your ass off, because I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of bobbling.

Just for Fun:

The Reeves Family’s Annual Gluten-Free Shrove Tuesday Pancake Dinner

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My favorite recipe is for these gluten-free vegan pancakes. I love these because they’re easy to make, hearty, and slightly sweetened with honey and apple sauce so you don’t need much syrup. I make them according to the recipe except I use almond milk for the milk and I substitute almond flavoring for vanilla.

My Bakers (and Batter Tasters!)

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The batter:

Time to Eat!

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Evangelical Mommy Wars: Halloween

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I’m no longer an evangelical. I was raised in a conservative evangelical home, attended an evangelical college, and many of my Midwestern family members and friends are still in that world. Now, I’m still a Christian, and I attend my local Episcopal church with my family every Sunday. This fall, as in so many previous years, I’m witnessing evangelical “mommy wars” centered around Halloween. In the same way that some moms shame other moms for using (gasp!) an epidural during labor, not breastfeeding, not breastfeeding long enough, some—although not ALL—evangelical moms like to berate other moms, like me, for letting their children celebrate Halloween. And thus, the battle lines are drawn: their children attend fall festivals while mine attend Halloween parties. Their children wear cozy sweaters and bob for apples while mine dress up as ninjas and mosh elderly neighbors for candy corn. These moms sip apple cider at the end of a hard night of keeping their little ones safe in a world of miniature goblins while I chillax with an Appletini. (Cinnamon on the rim, thank you very much!) The basis for their argument against celebrating Halloween is that Christians represent God’s light in a very dark world. If we’re Christians we must eschew all things evil, wicked, or scary. Much of this is based on the New Testament verses about being light in the world. As a Christian, I get this whole “light bearer” idea. What I don’t understand is how being a light bearer means being anti-Halloween; the “evil” symbols of Halloween: ghosts, goblins, witches, zombies, are all parts of lore. I don’t get it because these monsters are not real. Most children aren’t dressing up as actual villains like Hitler or Charles Manson. Instead, on my street I see adorable children inserting themselves as scary, brave, or silly characters in their favorite stories—the vampire ruling a castle, Dorothy off to see the wizard, or Harry Potter, defeater of Voldemort. And if they are dressing up as actual people, they’re dressing up as their heroes—like my friend’s adorable little girl who rocked out as Amelia Earhart last Halloween. Or (shudder) the tween babysitter dressing up at Snooki. Bottom line: I don’t see a celebration of evil, but a celebration of stories and of people.

“But these stories are so dark,” one of my evangelical friends said to me recently. She argued that if we’re truly light bearers then we keep our children away from “darkness”—at all costs. Many of my Christian friends claim that the creepy stories and costumes will harm children or make them commit evil acts. One rather high-strung Religious Right friend from college went so far as to say that if I let my children trick or treat, it’s the same as when the Israelites in the Old Testament committed child sacrifice to pagan gods like Moloch.(I’m pretty certain this friend isn’t around anymore. He imploded when “Obamacare” went into effect because affordable healthcare was too dystopian for him.) This anti-Halloween blog post by an evangelical mother claims that if we let our children enjoy scary zombie stories we shouldn’t be surprised by school shootings. (Why yes, clearly watching zombies eat brains makes a person take advantage of the lax gun laws these same people support.) Yet another friend, both a mother and teacher, told me she won’t allow Harry Potter books in her classroom or her home because “witchcraft is evil and bad.” (Interestingly, she doesn’t ban C.S. Lewis’s marvelous Narnia series which, last time I checked, contains a pretty bad-ass witch. Semantics.)

As a writer, I’m here to defend the scary stories we celebrate at Halloween because stories, of any kind, are empowering. Reading and exploring stories makes us more moral, empathetic, and brave human beings. G.K. Chesterton wrote: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” In the young adult dystopian zombie apocalypse novel, the point isn’t that zombies are real, that they’re cool, or that brains are delicious and you should pick some up for dinner—it’s about the struggle to maintain your humanity in the worst of circumstances. The most haunting and best ghost stories don’t show us that ghosts exist. Rather they make us question how much we can truly know about our world—and about love or fury that’s powerful enough to buck against the known boundaries of death. Essentially, in navigating these fictional worlds, we walk around in the shoes of characters doing stupid, risky, silly, wonderful, and brave things. We’re motivated to be heroes in our own extraordinary real world.

And in this real world, let’s focus on real evils. Because my children are more likely to get mowed down at school by a bullet than a broomstick, any light bearer should be focused on real and tangible solutions—passing reasonable gun control and making healthcare available for the poor and mentally ill. This makes more sense than arming ourselves against bogeymen.

“I want my children to read books where characters are clearly good and evil and always do the right things,” an evangelical relative told me once. Although I respect her a lot, I was puzzled by her words, mainly because somehow no one ever sent me a handbook telling me exactly what is right and wrong, good and evil. (And don’t tell me the Bible is this handbook, with clear, easy-to-get messages—it isn’t!) Personally, I think there’s a lot of yin and yang in all of us, and life is often a struggle to try to do the right thing when the answer isn’t always clear. Life is just more complicated than that.

This is why I’m drawn to writing. Toni Morrison said in an interview that she likes to “put [her] characters on the edge of a cliff and see what they do.” I can relate well to this statement. Navigating life’s moral flyballs is tricky business, and I like to watch how my characters fight their way through while making mistakes and messing up and falling in love. This is more exciting than oversimplifying a world that just isn’t black and white.

And the light bearer business becomes a lot more inspiring and actually effective when instead of snatching scary stories and costumes from our children, we boil it down to trying (as clumsily as we can) to alleviate as much suffering as possible. Rather than being inspired by the women who strike all semblance of demon lore from their children’s lives, I still think the best light bearers to me are Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Theresa, Rosa Parks, Bartolomé las Casas, Mr. Rogers, Antoinette Tuff, and—yes— Jesus.

So this Halloween, I’ll be running through my neighborhood with pint-sized goblins, fairies, and ghosts. And afterwards (feel free to join me!) I’ll toast my Appletini to the power of story.