Writer of fiction, poetry and essays.

Yes, you read that right.

I promise not to turn this into an all-Napoleon, all-the-time blog, but it just so happened that while looking something up as I was writing my review of the Ridley Scott film, I stumbled across the fact that the old Emperor of the French had written this short romance story in his youth.

The book was unpublished during Napoleon’s lifetime, and had to be gradually pieced together by scholars and collectors. That’s right; before he was renowned as a military genius, before he was Emperor of most of Europe, before he was regarded as either one of the most brilliant leaders or most ruthless tyrants ever to appear on the stage of History, Napoleon Bonaparte was, like so many of us, an indie author. Reader, how could I not review it?

The book tells the story of Clisson, a brave and accomplished young French officer, who has won great honors for his military victories, but who is unfairly slandered by enemies jealous of his success.

Um… okay, so there might be just a tiny bit of Mary Sue-ism here. Clisson is a thinly-veiled version of Napoleon himself. And Eugénie, the woman with whom he falls in love, is a thinly-veiled version of Désirée Eugénie Clary, a woman to whom he was engaged.

The story has the feel of a young man’s work. It’s big on passion and romance and adventure, and a bit short on realism. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; that’s very much as it should be.

A modern critic would no doubt rebuke Bonaparte for his reliance on telling instead of showing. But, this is just how people wrote back then, and plenty of classic works of literature do this all the time. So, maybe we can just ignore the modern critics on this point.

Still, there’s no question that drawing deep and multi-faceted characters is not Bonaparte’s strong suit. Clisson and Eugénie’s relationship feels not unlike one you might find in a YA novel. On the plus side, there are no sparkling vampires.

The story ends on a tragic note, which I wasn’t expecting. Napoleon always seems like a fellow who thought he could get out of any trouble, however dire. So the way he has Clisson’s story end up was surprising to me. (Then again, a tragic ending is in line with the original Mary Sue story.)

Overall, my reaction to the story was pretty indifferent. Not horrible, but also definitely not something anyone would find noteworthy, except for the fact it was written by Napoleon. But that in itself is pretty noteworthy! And so the next time you find yourself reading some unremarkable tale by an unknown author, just remember… you might be reading the work of one of the great icons of our age.

I was patient this summer, when all the internet was abuzz with fascination over the pink doll movie and the nerd scientist movie. I was biding my time, waiting for the moment when cinema-goers’ eyes would turn to the tale of the Corsican artillery officer.

It’s been a while since I’ve been actively anticipating seeing a movie. It brought back memories of when I was a lad, waiting for Star Wars I – III to premiere. Of course, I am not comparing Napoleon to the prequel trilogy.  Those films are about a gifted but emotionally unstable young man, trying to balance his military and political ambitions with his turbulent love life, while all around him a dying republic is giving way to an authoritarian regime. Whereas Napoleon… hey, wait a second! Maybe my tastes haven’t matured as much as I thought.

But seriously, folks; who doesn’t love a good sweeping epic, with massive battles, steamy love scenes, all telling a tale of destiny and struggle, heroism and villainy, and all the different shades of poetical feeling that form the kaleidoscope of the human experience? And who better to direct it than the versatile Ridley Scott, the director of such classic films as the sci-fi masterpiece Alien and the historical opus Kingdom of Heaven?

Then again, he has also directed such turkeys as the inane sci-fi mess Prometheus and the historical snoozefest Exodus: Gods and Kings.  Would we be getting Good Ridley or Bad Ridley for this outing? It only added to the suspense.

In case you can’t tell by now… this is going to be long. If you want a quick review, or even a moderately lengthy review, look elsewhere. Here at Ruined Chapel, we believe reviews are meant to be a little bit winding, even meandering. There’s nothing wrong with taking the long way.

Napoleon begins in the French Revolution, with the grisly execution of Marie Antoinette. In a bit of artistic license, the young officer is witness to the morbid spectacle. Unlike the jeering crowds, he seems rather put-off by the whole thing.

We then see him bravely leading the French against the British forces at Toulon, for which he receives a promotion to brigadier general and catches the eye of Josephine de Beauharnais, a striking widow with whom the youthful officer quickly falls in love.

Okay, pause right there. I said “youthful” because Napoleon was 27.  Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Napoleon, is 49. I’m not in favor of this business of “de-aging” actors, but it’s pretty disconcerting to see a middle-aged man portraying a brash young officer who is becoming infatuated with a woman who is supposed to be six years older than him, but in fact looks about 15 years younger. (Because the actress is.) I’m not saying it ruins the movie or anything, but it’s odd.

Oh, well. That’s why they pay these actors the big bucks, right? To play someone they’re not. I won’t get mired down by a little detail like this. There are much more important things by which to get mired down.

Like the already-infamous pyramid scene. In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it treatment of the Battle of the Pyramids, the film shows French artillery blasting the top off one of the iconic monuments. This didn’t happen. It is seemingly a riff on a story that French soldiers shot the nose off of the Sphinx, which also didn’t happen. Ridley Scott, however, claims it’s a fast way of communicating that Napoleon took Egypt. And Lord knows he wants to be fast, because this movie gallops along at an insane pace. Hardly are Josephine and Napoleon married before she’s cheating on him with another officer while he’s in Egypt, so then he has to come back from Egypt and confront her, but then they make up, sort of, and then…

It’s a tall order to compress 20 years of history into a 2.5 hour movie. Which is one reason I would have been in favor of not doing it.

The famous director David Lean once said that a mistake filmmakers make when adapting a book is to try to give audiences a little sample of everything in it, but the end result is no one aspect gets its due. The better approach, Lean said, is to find the core of the story, and tell that as richly and fully as possible. I’d argue this applies also to adaptations of historical episodes generally, not just particular books.

Lean directed a number of historical epics, including Doctor Zhivago, A Passage to India, Ryan’s Daughter, and, oh yes, a little picture called Lawrence of Arabia, which I consider to be one of the greatest films ever made, and certainly the bar against which all historical epics must be judged.

Now, in all fairness, Lawrence of Arabia is close to four hours long, and Scott plans to release a cut of Napoleon that will exceed even that. But Lawrence covers only a period of a couple years, whereas Napoleon is attempting to cover the entire career of one of the most accomplished soldier-statesmen in history. It would take 50 hours to do justice to the period Scott is tackling.

Or… it would take judicious thought about what the story really is.  I know we’re only a little way into the synopsis yet, but it’s not too early to ask the question: what is Napoleon about?

Well, obviously, it’s about the titular emperor. But what about him? What we want to know is why he did the things he did.

The film has an answer. Sort of. But it hasn’t given it yet, and meanwhile, we’re getting scenes of Napoleon bit by bit working his way up the ladder in France. First, it’s a coup against the French Directory, then it’s his coronation as Emperor of the French.

About this coronation: indulge me while I tell a little story not depicted in the film. Originally, Ludwig van Beethoven dedicated his third symphony, the Eroica, to Napoleon. (BTW, it’s an absolutely gorgeous piece and in my opinion old Ludwig van’s second best, trailing only the incomparable Ninth) But when the composer got word of Napoleon declaring himself Emperor, he just about had a fit, and angrily struck Bonaparte’s name from the score, supposedly saying:

“So he is no more than a common mortal! Now, too, he will tread under foot all the rights of Man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!”

Man, when you’ve lost Beethoven, you know you’re in trouble. More seriously, this quote points us towards discovering the theme of Napoleon’s story. Namely, that he rose to incredible heights, and then lost it all.

And it’s worth pausing to reflect on how he rose to those heights. As the film depicts pretty clearly, the French Revolution was a disaster. While on paper it may have been for liberty, equality, and fraternity, in practice, it was a hellish orgy of psychopathic mass murder and weird cults. Anyone with a good head on his or her shoulders, (something the revolutionaries tried their best to eliminate) would obviously prefer being governed by the competent administration of a successful military officer to the so-called Committee of Public Safety.

To seize control of a society that has essentially collapsed into anarchy takes a certain level of drive and will and energy, all qualities which Napoleon possessed. Whenever I am accused of harboring unduly pro-Bonapartist sympathies, it is to this period in his career that I will point. Someone had to govern France. And frankly, in such a dire situation as that, it is quite believable that no amount of committee meetings or parliamentary votes would do the trick. The state of nature, Hobbes tells us, is a state of war; and who better than a daring officer to win a war?

So, we can see why Beethoven admired Napoleon up until his coronation. Even more interesting, though, is the fact that Beethoven instantly recognized that this moment signified a seismic shift in Bonaparte’s career, and not for the better. Events were to prove his instincts exactly right.

The coronation is the great turning point, and the film indeed uses it as such. Not least because it’s the last time in this movie that we get to see a glimpse of color. Enjoy those red robes and glittering jewels, because after this, we slide straight into blue-gray filter hell. They actually did the meme.

What has happened to modern filmmakers? Where does this absolutely hideous palette come from? Personally, like so many of our present social ills, I blame it on the Harry Potter films. They made a ton of money with this horrible washed out aesthetic, and now all the studios unthinkingly copy them. Talk about a situation where we need a heroic figure to break the fetters of unthinking consensus! Where is the brave director who will stand up and give us once more the vibrant hues of color cinema?

Anyway, back to Napoleon. After the coronation, things go wrong in a hurry. It does have a certain Faustian irony to it: the point the film makes consistently is that Napoleon loves Josephine; that she is the main guiding force in his life. And yet, when he “finds the crown of France lying in the gutter, and picks it up with his sword,” his political ambitions ultimately lead him to distance himself from the one person he cares about most. In his quest for an heir, he divorces Josephine and marries Marie Louise of Austria, who bears him a son. In a very telling moment, and possibly my favorite scene in the film, when Napoleon gets his heir, the first thing he does is run off and show him to Josephine.

From there, the inexorable downfall begins, as Napoleon learns that the Tsar is cheating on his continental embargo against English goods. Naturally, in Napoleon’s mind, the only reasonable thing to do is raise a massive army and invade Russia.

You know, I’m not as much of a free trade absolutist as I was in my younger days, when I bought unreservedly into what the Econ books told me. I think there can be good arguments for restricting trade. Nevertheless, it’s worthwhile to understand the Ricardian arguments against barriers to trade. And it’s especially worthwhile, if you find your barriers to trade can only be maintained by marching across Europe and into the desolation of Russian winter, to ask yourself whether the whole thing needs to be rethought.

And this is where I want to say a word about the little-heralded heroes of the story: the French Army. We don’t see much of the ordinary French soldier; they’re just a mob of extras that the Emperor directs with waves of his hands. Yet, once you realize that those gestures could be translated into deeds only by the well-practiced discipline of thousands of men, all drilled to work together as a unit in the face of gruesome death, do you understand the sheer awesomeness of his army. Whether it’s overthrowing the Directory, crushing the Austrians at Austerlitz, or the iconic moment on the road to Grenoble, the French soldiers loved their commander, and they came through for him time and time again. Napoleon may have been nothing without Josephine, but he was also nothing without his soldiers. If there isn’t anything else that may serve as evidence of his greatness, I think the fact that he had the loyalty of these men right up through Waterloo says quite a lot.

As Napoleon’s final words suggest, the three things he loved most were France, the Army, and Josephine. And here again we see the tragic irony of his life: France was left weakened at the time of death, its army shattered after the losses in Russia and at Waterloo, and its great enemy Britain ascendant. Josephine died during Napoleon’s first exile, without even being able to call herself his wife. Everything that Napoleon loved, he unwittingly destroyed.

By the time the film is slogging through Waterloo, which takes place in some sort of Mordor-esque hellscape with, again, NO COLOR, you can feel the weight of the inevitable bearing down. It feels like a chore, not helped by the one-dimensional and hammy performance of the actor playing Wellington, who seems like a sneering British aristocrat from central casting. Christopher Plummer did so much better in the film Waterloo.

Waterloo feels more like a doomed last gasp than a legendary clash of great generals, and so in short order, Napoleon is packed off to St. Helena to ponder where it all went wrong.

And where did it all go wrong? I found myself musing, if I could go back in time and give Napoleon some advice, what would I tell him? (Curiously, this is also the premise for an episode of I Dream of Jeannie.)

Remember how I said that it takes a gifted individual of tremendous talent to build something out of nothing, to craft a working society out of an anarchic horror show like the French Revolution? Well, I very much believe that’s true. But the corollary to that is, after the functioning society has been built, it takes more than one person to maintain it. Once the rule of law and order has been restored, and peace and stability established, it is beyond the abilities of anyone, no matter how supremely gifted, to keep it all running for long.

And this is where you need to have a good succession plan. I once read in some philosophy book somewhere about the importance of a great leader having a good officer corps; someone to whom he can hand off what he has built. Napoleon wanted to do that with his heir, which is why this became such a fixation for him, but this was because he had fallen into his enemies’ way of thinking. He was still in the mindset of the European aristocracy he so despised, believing that this was the only way to ensure his posterity.

What if, instead of crowning himself emperor, he’d just retired to the countryside with his beloved Josephine, secure in the knowledge that he had saved his country, and turned over the administration to the most capable hands in his officer corps? Probably the allied coalitions would have tried to crush France anyway, but maybe a true republic, governed by the people who had fought alongside Bonaparte for the security of France, would have been more robust, and better able to cope with the threat. And Napoleon could have gone down in history as a man who knew when to hold ’em, knew when to fold ’em, and knew when to walk away.

Well, c’est la vie. Hindsight is 20/20, and it’s easy to say all this from the viewpoint of an armchair historian 200 years later. I’m sure at the time, there were good reasons why Napoleon did what he did. It’s hard to stop once you’re riding the tiger.

The movie is good to the extent it makes the audience ponder questions like these, but too often, it just gets lost in trying to show all the highlights of Napoleon’s career, and ends up not giving you enough time to process it before we’re on to the next thing. Vanessa Kirby is fantastic as Josephine, and Phoenix does a solid job as Napoleon, but it’s all so hurried it’s hard to get to know them as characters. Maybe the Director’s Cut will be better. Maybe with the miracle of modern science, they will even discover a way to capture the full spectrum of visible light.

Ultimately, everything hinges on whether this movie is the beginning or the ending of your study of the Napoleonic era. If everything you know about Napoleon comes from this movie, then I’m sorry to tell you you’ve just been given a wildly distorted version of history. But if it sparks your interest to learn more about the story of the Corsican officer and the woman he loved, then it’s well worth the time and money.

Making a film is rather like building an empire, come to think of it. It takes a director leading a motivated crew to make it in the first place, but it is ultimately up to the masses to determine whether it has any lasting impact.

It’s always tough to review sequels. Especially a sequel to a sprawling book like Sunder of Time, that has a large cast of characters and multiple different timelines. Thus, there are not only a lot of characters, but different versions of the same character. (Probably this is one of those books where it’s helpful to keep notes, so you can remember who is who.) And when you add in that I don’t want to spoil what happens in the first book, it’s pretty hard to explain the plot of this one.

So, what’s a poor book reviewer to do? I could just say that if you liked the first book, you’ll probably like the second one, too. And that’s true. But, of course, probably not very helpful. Especially if you haven’t actually read the first book yet. (My review is here.) I highly recommend it.

But as to this book, it carries on the story of the first one, although in an interesting way. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that while the first book takes place mainly in the distant past, this one is largely in the far future. But still, the same kind of intrigues and political machinations are there, as is the brisk pace and intense action.

I think what I’ll focus on here, to avoid giving away major plot spoilers, is McTiernan’s keen grasp of psychology. Everything the characters do is informed by this, perhaps most notably in the way one character uses subtle psychological tricks to manipulate people into giving him loyalty he really doesn’t deserve. There are people like this in real life, and knowing how these kinds of mind games work is helpful in dealing with them.

This is an excellent sequel to a very good book, and I’ll be interested to see where the series goes from here.

Sorry, no book review this week. Haven’t had much reading time lately. But I will try to have something next week.

In the meantime, tomorrow is Veterans Day in the USA, and so in recognition of this, I thought I’d provide a list of books authored by military veterans. I know a few warrior-bards whose work is worth your time:

-The Ethan Chase series and the His Name Was Zach series, by Peter Martuneac.

Peter is a U.S. Marine Corps infantry veteran, and this comes across in his books. He writes some of the best action scenes I’ve ever read. I recommend starting with his Mandate of Heaven and going from there.

-The Widow’s Son, by Ryan Williamson.

A phenomenal weird Western adventure. Williamson’s military background (Army) comes through most clearly in the banter among the soldiers.

-Intrusion Protocol by B.R. Keid.

This one is military sci-fi, a genre near and dear to me. A tech-heavy adventure that’s a thrill for all of us who grew up playing games like Halo.

-Sunder of Time by Kristin McTiernan.

A sprawling, epic time-travel novel with some heavy religious overtones. McTiernan does a good job of bringing the harshness of medieval life home to the reader.

-Forbidden Kisses by Sha Renée.

We’ve heard of military sci-fi, but military romance? Hey, why not! It’s a cute, light-hearted story.

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If you asked me who is the greatest artistic genius my home state of Ohio has ever produced, I’d say Bill Watterson without hesitation. The creator of Calvin & Hobbes ranks close to Wodehouse in my mind for his sheer mastery of his medium. But really, Watterson was an expert practitioner of two forms, both the language and the art. He married his wit and his complex philosophical musings with gorgeous images, especially in the Sunday comics, which allowed him to show off his abilities in full color.

I loved Calvin and Hobbes as a kid, not least because Watterson captured beautifully the Ohio landscapes I would wander, much as Calvin does. It made the strip feel relatable to me. What’s really amazing is how I remember enjoying it when I was about nine years old, but upon revisiting it as an adult, I started to understand it differently; jokes that just seemed funny for their big words and philosophical abstractions now make sense to me on a deeper level.

For ten years, Watterson ruled the comics world, leveraging his creative talent to convince the papers to give him more colors and more control over the layout of his strip, until at last he could create the grand adventures he imagined for the boy and his tiger.

And then, in 1995, he stopped. He sent Calvin and Hobbes off into a vast empty white space to fill with their considerable imaginative power. The world he created lives on, of course, on the internet, where new generations of fans still enjoy the vibrant, hilarious, poignant wonder of that magical decade-long run.

But Watterson himself largely disappeared from the public eye. With good reason have other cartoonists compared him to Bigfoot; as he seldom gives interviews and only very rarely produces any art for public consumption. Indeed, he had in a sense passed into the realm of legend.

And now, in this, the year 2023, up he shows! It is as if one of the dinosaurs Calvin so vividly imagined has materialized in the park, trotted up to us, and said, “Well, I’m back! What’d I miss?”

Watterson returns from his 28 years of self-imposed exile with a peculiar volume; a “fable for grown-ups” called The Mysteries, co-illustrated with John Kascht. The book is short, only about 400 words in all, and illustrated with haunting black-and-white images. The story is this: the people of a kingdom are plagued by forces known only as “Mysteries”. The King sends his knights out to capture one of these “Mysteries.” When a lone knight returns with a Mystery in tow, the people study it and come away unimpressed.

One by one, “the Mysteries” become not so mysterious, and the people gradually believe themselves to have mastered the world, and bent it to their will. Indeed, they revel in their dominion over The Mysteries.

I won’t tell you how it ends up. But then, do I even need to? Yes, this is a classic Hubris Will Be Your Downfall story, and in the few words within, it tells a suitably cautionary tale.

The real showstopper here is the artwork, which is striking and memorable. If the goal was to create a story where each sentence is associated with a memorable image, so that it sticks in the reader’s mind, well, mission accomplished.

But what about the moral of the story? It is a fable, after all, and fables are supposed to teach some lesson. What lesson does this teach? That, as people have gradually lost the superstitious fear of the dark that medieval peasants possessed, they have become arrogant and vain, believing themselves somehow apart from nature? Have they, in attempting to use scientific rationalism to explain wild nature, stripped it of its beauty and romance, and set the stage for the world to be devoured by machines? (“Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice…” I hold with those who favor gray goo.)

Well, I mean, obviously that’s my interpretation. But it’s not like it’s a novel idea. The sense of looming techno-apocalypse is plain to see on every street. In the memorable words of H.P. Lovecraft:

A sense of monstrous guilt was upon the land, and out of the abysses between the stars swept chill currents that made men shiver in dark and lonely places. There was a daemoniac alteration in the sequence of the seasons—the autumn heat lingered fearsomely, and everyone felt that the world and perhaps the universe had passed from the control of known gods or forces to that of gods or forces which were unknown.

That was in 1920. It’s no secret! Why, everybody knows!

The question is, what do we do about it? Here, Watterson’s story grows rather vague; almost fatalistic or nihilistic. Which is a really odd thing for a fable.

Then again, maybe not. In a way, it’s the same as one of the most famous sayings in history. A pearl of wisdom that has been quoted many times many ways, but perhaps one of the best versions is from Abraham Lincoln:

It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!

In the words of the Stoics, Memento mori. In the words of the Church, “Remember, Man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” In the words of Clint Eastwood, “We all have it comin’, kid.” I could go on, but you get the picture.

But again, this awareness of mortality implies a question: what, then, do we do with our lives? Which is of course the question. Watterson doesn’t give us the answer in this text, but since this is perhaps the most fundamental question of all of human existence, asking for it to be answered in a short picture book is perhaps unreasonable.

And yet… in a way, Watterson did give us the answer. Not in this book, but in the body of his work. Famously, Watterson fought to preserve his control over Calvin & Hobbes, and refused to sign away licensing rights, likely forfeiting millions of dollars by doing so. That is why we don’t have Calvin & Hobbes 2, or Calvin & Hobbes: The Animated Series, or The Gritty Origin Story of Miss Wormwood: A Calvin & Hobbes Prequel. (It would star Emma Stone and be available for streaming on Disney+.)

Watterson insisted on integrity. He wanted to make something great that was his, and share it with the world, and not have it diluted through commercialism or commodification. He just wanted to create art he cared about, and do it well. And he did. There’s a lesson in that.

And thus we see that the meaning of The Mysteries is in the careful work that Watterson and Kascht poured into it. Could they have made something not unlike it in a few minutes with an AI image generator? Sure, but the goal was to see what they could do by challenging themselves, pushing themselves (and each other) to find new ways of realizing their vision.

Like all the great artists, Watterson’s work is his philosophy, and his philosophy is his work. Is The Mysteries, on its own, a work of great art? Well, maybe. Some may complain that it is a rather slight piece, after nearly three decades of waiting for Watterson’s next act. Then again, isn’t the most famous painting in the world a small portrait of an ordinary-looking woman in muted colors? Like the fella once said, “There’s treasure everywhere!”

Picture this: a movie that takes place mainly during the day, on a picturesque Scottish island. There is very little action in the movie; it’s mainly a police procedural, with a stony-faced, prim and proper policeman questioning the local population. The film contains almost no violence, except for a very brief scene towards the end. Indeed, what earns it its “R” rating is nudity; a few scenes of naked women dancing. Other than that, it could air on broadcast television with no cuts. 

Moreover, did I mention this film has a number of songs? It’s not exactly a musical, but there is fast-paced nursery rhyme-like patter, a few ribald drinking songs, and a ballad performed by one of the aforesaid nude dancers. 

There’s almost no blood, no sinister torture chambers, no howling dogs on desolate foggy moors; instead there is only a quaint little village in a quiet part of the world. I ask you, with such a setup, can a film really be scary?

Comes the answer: this is possibly the scariest movie I have ever seen.

It follows Sgt. Neil Howie, a devout Christian police detective, who is dispatched by seaplane to the remote Summerisle to look for a missing girl. The townspeople are not unfriendly, but not exactly helpful either, referring Howie to Lord Summerisle, the nobleman whose family has administered the island’s affairs for generations.

During Howie’s investigation, he sees odd things. Strange rituals out of centuries past, like maypoles and disturbingly explicit fertility rites, quite at odds with his conservative Christian beliefs. When at last he meets Lord Summerisle, he confronts him about the unsettling things he has witnessed, and Summerisle acknowledges that, as part of a program to revive the island’s agricultural output, his grandfather gave the people back their ancient, pre-Christian folkways, to entice them to believe in the Old Gods of the Harvest.

Howie is appalled and horrified, and in view of everyone’s refusal to aid him in finding the missing girl, begins to suspect that she has been sacrificed to their Old Gods in some sort of bizarre druidical ceremony. 

I really liked Howie, who is played perfectly by Edward Woodward. His refusal to compromise his beliefs, and unwavering resolve to find the missing child no matter what stands in his way, make him easy to root for. And also perhaps easy to… but no, that would be saying too much. This is not exactly an unknown film, but it would be wrong to spoil it.

The late, great Sir Christopher Lee is also fantastic as Summerisle. Offhand, I’d say it’s his best role. In fact, he said it was his best role. Of course, playing a charming but sinister aristocrat was pretty much Lee’s standard, but the devil is in the details, and it’s how he plays it that makes this interesting. He seems relaxed, almost easygoing, compared to the straight-laced Howie. But, let’s just say he has another side to him…

Okay, but what makes this movie so scary? I did say it might be the scariest film I’ve ever seen, after all. I can’t spoil it, but if I’m going to make such a bold claim, I have to try and justify it somehow.

Those of you who made it all the way through the sprawling post I wrote about the Metal Gear Solid 2 book a while back may remember that I made reference to a non-fiction book called The Meme Machine, by Susan Blackmore. Blackmore is a student of Richard Dawkins, the well-known evolutionary biologist. Dawkins coined the word “meme” as an analog for “gene” in the realm of culture. A “meme” is a unit of information; a word, a phrase, a song, a mannerism, a belief, that is transmitted through human culture, by a process not unlike evolution.

Dawkins derived his neologism “meme” from the Greek word mīmēma, which means “imitation.”  And just as Dawkins described genes as “selfish,” memes likewise seek only to replicate themselves, so much so that we can analogize memes as if they were beings with conscious desires.

It’s all quite interesting, and Blackmore takes Dawkins’ idea and runs with it, arguing that the human brain evolved as a kind of super-powerful meme replicator, and our capacity for imitation of memes allowed us to evolve into the dominant life-form on the planet.

As she explains: 

Memes spread themselves around indiscriminately without regard to whether they are useful, neutral or positively harmful to us… they are selfish like genes, and will simply spread if they can.

Elsewhere, Blackmore proposes the following thought experiment:

Imagine a world full of hosts for memes (e.g. brains) and far more memes than can possibly find homes.

Of course, as Blackmore takes pains to point out, it’s not as if these memes are literally flying around the world, taking over human brains and using them to replicate themselves. It’s just that, ah, they might as well be. It’s not literally true, but it’s a good model for approximating the behavior we see in the world. (Anyone who has studied Economics will be familiar with this sort of thing.) 

However… there is something curious about all this. Because there is another Greek word Dawkins might have used instead, that describes much the same phenomenon. The Ancient Greeks tended to model human thought as the work of external entities—e.g. inspiration being given from Apollo, lust from Eros, and so on. 

The Ancient Greek word I’m thinking of is daimōn, from which we get the modern word “demon.” “Meme” and “demon” even sound somehow similar, with the same phoneme as the central component.  Now consider Blackmore’s hypothetical rewritten:

Imagine a world full of hosts for demons (e.g. brains) and far more demons than can possibly find homes.

In an instant, we have transformed the work of modern scientists (one of whom is famously an atheist) into something that sounds like what the wrinkled old woman living in a strange cabin in the woods tells the horror movie protagonist.

And this is what I find curious: the superstitious ancients described the world as inhabited by invisible spirits that took hold of people’s minds. The modern memeticists describe the world as inhabited by invisible memes that take hold of people’s minds.

If I tell you that I got an idea for a story when “out of the blue, it just popped in my head,” you would nod understandingly. If I said I got the idea when “the God of Fiction whispered it in my ear,” you’d think I was a bit of an oddball, at best. Yet, for practical purposes, the two are the same.

So if you say someone is possessed by a demon, it seems strange, but being possessed by an idea is totally normal. 

Coming back around to The Wicker Man, this is what makes the film so scary. At the end, we see people who are possessed by something. We could argue all day about whether it is some true supernatural force or merely certain memes which they have learned to imitate; memes handed down from an ancient tradition dating back millennia. The film, like all great horror, leaves much to the audience’s imagination.

Practically speaking, it doesn’t much matter, does it? The fact is, there is something—call it a demon, a meme, an idea, a fashion, a spirit, whatever name suits you—that can take hold of human minds and compel them to do things that seem unthinkable to those immune to the phenomenon. 

And that’s the ultimate horror of The Wicker Man.  Here, in this bucolic setting, we gradually uncover the darkest impulses that lie in the hearts of human communities; primitive urges predating everything we call civilization. A base need for rituals that give meaning and provide a sense of power, of grandeur, even, to those craving it.

Unnerving, unsettling, disturbing and uniquely memorable, The Wicker Man is one of the greatest horror films ever made.

Richard Pastore recommended this book to me when I asked for suggestions regarding “the best” Halloween book. Well, while it’s an inherently subjective concept, I’d have to say that this is about as Halloween-y of a Halloween story as there can be.

The story is narrated by a dog named Snuff, the familiar of Jack the Ripper. Jack, along with many other figures of classic horror lore, are engaged in something they refer to as “The Game,” which is sort of ritualistic competition spanning the month of October, in years when the moon is full on Halloween. Gradually, it becomes clear that the objective of the game is a ceremony which will either summon or defeat the Elder Gods.

In other words, it’s Universal Monsters meet Cthulhu. That’s right; we’ve got Larry Talbot, Dr. Frankenstein and Count Dracula here, but also references to H.P. Lovecraft’s world of Yog-Sothothery. Frankly, I have no idea how I never heard of this before now.

This might sound like a mere pastiche, and in the hands of a lesser writer, it easily could be, but Zelazny makes these classic characters his own. The fact that the story is told by Snuff, and focuses heavily on his interactions with the other “players’” familiars. This perspective makes the old characters feel fresh and new.

I read this shortly after Richard mentioned it to me in late September, because I wanted to finish it in time to write this review. But, I think the ideal way to enjoy it would be to read a chapter each day in October, since each chapter covers the events of one day, all building towards the final rite on Halloween night.

I especially like the way Zelazny carefully teases out the mystery. Snuff is clearly familiar with “The Game,” having played it many times before, but he never just gives an info-dump on how it all works. Rather, we have to piece it together gradually, following the hints of mystical artifacts and allusions to arcane rules. This is easily the best book I’ve ever read that hinges on a twist of magic wand law.

Richard was right, this is an excellent book for the Halloween season, and I’m grateful to him for recommending it. I was a little reluctant to read it, because I typically dislike stories involving Jack the Ripper and the like, but Zelazny handled it well. I’ll probably be re-reading this in many Octobers to come.

Occasionally, I see movies I enjoy, but don’t have enough to say about them to merit a full review. But, they still deserve to be acknowledged. What follow are my mini-reviews of four such movies. Any or all of these are good choices for the Halloween season.

Hocus Pocus (1993): Classic Halloween fun from the ‘90s. Reminds me a little of the Wishbone special of the same era, expanded into a full-length film. A great one to watch every year.

Beetlejuice (1988): Typical Tim Burton. Parts very funny, parts in questionable taste, parts just bizarre. Arguably, the titular character is the weakest part of the film. Still, it’s a reasonably enjoyable horror comedy as long as you don’t mind a few scenes that feel like a fever dream on acid.

Coraline (2009): Another one I found out about from Lydia Schoch’s list of horror movies for those who don’t like horror. It features gorgeous animation and an excellent message, as the young protagonist finds herself confronted with making a Faustian decision. It contains good lessons for adults and children alike. It’s rated PG, but I wouldn’t want anyone under 12 watching it.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947): This is a supernatural romance rather than horror, but still has one of the best and funniest haunting scenes I’ve ever seen. Also, the atmosphere of the little seaside cottage is wonderful, and Rex Harrison was fantastic, as always.

Now, the question is, will I be able to write a proper full-length review of some scary movie in time for next week? Has the quality of scary movies deteriorated so thoroughly that there’s nothing left except disgusting slasher garbage and what MAD Magazine called “Devil flicks”? Or will I be able to find something worthwhile in time to save Halloween? Stay tuned.

This is a collection of short stories about various cryptids. Some of the stories are creepy, some are funny, some are just mysterious.

I admit it, I’m a sucker for tales of legendary creatures. I think I’ve watched every episode of the TV show Boogeymen, which could spin a compelling yarn about nothing more than an oversized otter. How much more fun is a cryptid legend when imbued with the dramatic structure that fiction allows?

I think what really makes this collection so strong is how easy it is to relate to the characters in every story. Engelhardt makes sure never to forget to make them interesting, even when it might be easy to rush to the bit about the legendary creatures.

It’s hard to review short story collections because you can’t necessarily discuss the stories without also spoiling all of them. So, let me borrow a technique from H.R.R. Gorman, and quickly discuss my favorite, least favorite, and the most memorable stories from the collection:

Favorite: “Serpent in Paradise.” This is a story about two monster hunters who visit a resort where they hunt for a sea monster. I really liked this story; it has a good balance of characterization and plot, and all of it is very economically done. The dynamic between the two main characters helps ground the story in reality, which is important when telling a tale of the outré and bizarre.

Least Favorite: “How Jackrabbit Got His Antlers.” Let me clarify that just because it’s my least favorite doesn’t mean it’s a bad story. It’s not at all. It just felt more like a fairy tale than the rest of them. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s just not my thing.

Standout: “Oh, the Places You’ll Hide: A Brief Guide for the Library Specialist After the Undead Uprising.” A mock-scholarly treatise on the changing role of the librarian in a post zombie-apocalypse world. The funniest story in the whole book.

The collection is almost perfect. The only thing it is missing is, of course, the greatest cryptid of them all: the Mothman. I’m always up for a Mothman story. I wouldn’t mind seeing the two monster hunters featured in the first and last stories in this collection take him. Just an idea.

Still, lack of Mothman aside, this collection is a fantastic tale to read of an October’s e’en. Highly recommended.