The Living Dead

Economist Paul Krugman talks about “zombie ideas” — that is, notions that have long since been disproven either by economics or just experience but which nonetheless continue to be part of political discussions, possibly because they just sound right and possibly because they provide a political or social reward for their adherents.

I think about this at Halloween, not just because zombies are seasonally appropriate but because the story of Halloween itself is something of a zombie idea.


That is, anyone who knows anything about European history knows that the idea that “Halloween is an ancient pagan festival” is pretty much guff — it is on the same date as a pagan celebration, but there’s no evidence they have anything in common, and there’s no continuity between the two (note that the Ronald Hutton article I’ve linked has a headline that suggests some kind of deeper meaning to Halloween, but the text of the article doesn’t support it).

And yet, it’s an incredibly persistent idea, together with the broader idea of pagan survival in Christian Europe. Presumably, then, it fulfills some kind of other need. But what? I don’t know, other perhaps than that it’s just a better story that way. People do like a good story.

The Living Dead

Enthusiasm and astronomers.

When I was in high school, I remember reading the poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman. Even then, reading it made me mad. Observe:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Now perhaps I am being uncharitable to this poem; perhaps it is just the record of an emotion, the expression of a particular experience. To me at the time it symbolised the idea, to which I was constantly exposed, that you can’t appreciate the beauty of something if you study it or know a lot about it — that analysis and beauty, or analysis and art, are opposed. If you’re reading this, I expect you disagree with that too.
Anyway, I was reminded of that while I was reading a book I’m doing a review of. It’s Werewolf Histories, and I am really looking forward to finishing it up and seeing my review come out:

As it happens, I know one of the contributors to this volume and I happen to know for a certain fact that he is not only the man to deliver an in-depth analysis of shape-changing and animal identities in medieval north-western Europe, but also a dude who just likes werewolves. Like, enjoys a good werewolf movie, digs on werewolf games, just likes monsters. And I don’t want to speak for him, but I know that I wouldn’t have wound up studying the things I studied if I weren’t excited about them, if I didn’t appreciate and enjoy them on a fundamental level.
And for a certain type of person — perhaps not everyone — when you really like something, one way you can express that enjoyment is by studying it. And knowing a lot about doesn’t affect how much you enjoy it — in fact, to me it usually enhances it, unless it turns out that the thing is fundamentally boring.
There are people who struggle to communicate that joy when they talk about the thing they love, but that can also just be because they’re explaining advanced material. That doesn’t mean they’ve taken all the fun out of the thing — sometimes it just means you need to get on their level.
Enthusiasm and astronomers.

Movie Monday: Helen Keller vs Nightwolves (2015)


If you’re a product of the American educational system, you’ve probably been through the story of Helen Keller at least once — usually in the form of the play The Miracle Worker  (which is in turn based on Keller’s autobiography). This heartwarming, inspirational stuff about a dedicated teacher helping a deaf and blind girl learn to communicate is the image most of us have of Keller. What most schools don’t mention is Keller’s lifelong career of radical activism; she helped found the ACLU, supported Eugene V. Debs and was a member of the IWW.

That’s the usual course for a historical icon — the controversial aspects get smoothed over and they get Hollywood-ised. We’ve seen it happen to others, so it’s no surprise it happened to Keller.

But there’s another part of Keller’s history that doesn’t get mentioned much in schools, and that is her complex history with wolf attacks. Until now, that is: director St. James St. James has finally brought the tale of Keller’s battle with these unholy predators to the small screen. You can check out the whole thing free on Youtube:

I learned a lot from Helen Keller vs Nightwolves, mostly about the dangers of nightwolf attacks in small-town America in the early 20th century and the heroic measures needed to resist them. I also didn’t realise that there were quite so many swords or Tombstone references around the Keller household. I found it nearly as informative as Jesus Christ, Vampire Hunter. There are a lot of similarities, although the bitchin’ theme song in Helen Keller comes at the beginning rather than at the end, which I feel is probably an improvement.

Movie Monday: Helen Keller vs Nightwolves (2015)

I am throughly weary

Some combination of talking a lot and being ill has laid me low today, so don’t expect anything very exciting from me until next week (but my post for Movie Monday will hopefully be very exciting). I am mainly catching up on paperwork, drinking lots of chamomile tea and feeling sorry for myself.

Sorry, everyone. I have some time off next week, so I will try to make up for it with some more detailed blog posts.

I am throughly weary

TV Tuesday: “The Girl Who Died”

I have made no secret of my ambivalence about the new version of Doctor Who — I recognise that it isn’t for me, and clearly people do like it, and yet I still can’t quite get over its combination of fun, creative episodes, strong performances, cringe-inducing schmaltz and absolute disregard for the basics of plot construction.

But this one has Vikings in, so let’s have a look.

The opening is a fun little bit of business, but I confess to being unreasonably annoyed by the horned helmets. Goofy-looking ornate helmets were OK when you did them in 1964 (or ’65, whatever), but in 2015 it is literally the one thing that everyone knows about Vikings.

The houses of the Viking village are OK, which makes me wonder if they filmed it at some kind of open-air museum and then added a bunch of dipshits in studded-leather jerkins. Also, the Vikings thump themselves on the chest like primitive warriors do in every TV show ever.

Aliens show up in actual wobbly, goofy power armour and do a Valkyrie bit. I am legit astounded that they did not make them sexy lady valkyries. There is a mid-episode cliffhanger — does this show have ad breaks? It doesn’t, right? Anyway, Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones is in it and she doesn’t have a lot to do initially.

Guys in early medieval outfits necking vials of glowing stuff makes me think of Terminus.


Anyway, the baddies are apparently “one of the deadliest warrior races in the galaxy,” a field which, as a colleague points out, is getting pretty crowded.

It seems petty to quibble about these characters identifying themselves as “Vikings,” which is of course a much more complicated term. But then we all use it generically even when we say we shouldn’t.

There’s a runestone in the background of one shot that’s painted in bright primary colours, which is a nice touch — but then there are wooden dummies with Roman helmets on them. So it’s got these little touches that are quite clever, but most of it is just panto.

The plot hinges on the Vikings having a load of electric eels in some buckets, which is impressive considering that electric eels only live in South America. Again, it seems churlish to complain, but this is the kind of kiddy science and kiddy history that used to be the only thing Doctor Who could kinda-sorta get right. I guess they do do some schoolkid science with an electromagnet.

I wonder if you could make a list of all the Doctor Who villains who have snarled “what trickery is this?!” at the Doctor.

Everyone is very happy at the end considering all their dads and husbands and brothers and neighbours were rendered into a testosterone-laden slurry yesterday. But I guess not dying is important.

There is a completely uncalled-for Giant Emotional Moment, of course, and a last-minute twist that is not set up at any point earlier in the story. It’s like they write them as they film them. Look, guys, I am not an award-winning screenwriter, but here’s a thought — when you have an idea for a shocking revelation, that’s cool. Now go back and put in some words in the script earlier that make it seem like you didn’t just pull it out of your asses. It’s easy and it’s fun! Like, if you are going to use a device that has miraculous powers, maybe mention its existence before your main character suddenly and inexplicably remembers it right at the end. For instance, he could refer to that technology when describing the alien race who created it. See how easy and fun that was? Now you try it!

Doctor Who historicals have always been about blending science fiction with historical adventure stories, more or less, and this is no exception. It would have been nice to be able to say that the modern show, with its huge budget and prestige, was doing a better job of the history than the show in the Hartnell era, but no such luck.

TV Tuesday: “The Girl Who Died”

Things I know nothing about.

At the moment I’m teaching and tutoring a lot of different students doing a lot of different subjects. In addition to the class I teach — which is your basic overview world history class — I’ve also got kids doing a range of different historical periods, including at least two that, I’m gonna be frank, I know less than I’d like about. One includes an area I have pretty good coverage on, so I’m just waiting for the war to start so that I can be knowledgeable again. The other … pffft.

I mean, I take my teaching seriously so I’m doing my reading and trying to catch up — and most of what I teach is ‘how to history’ rather than dates-and-places stuff anyway. But it’s been a long time since I had to really stretch my brain outside my comfort zone like this. It’s an interesting feeling.

I am not really a real teacher, but I do spend quite a lot of my life teaching and tutoring; funny how that works out. But it’s amazing how much you discover you don’t know. I would be astounded if anyone came straight out of a history degree knowing all the areas you’re supposed to cover. Some of them are very specific (that’s the nature of the British system; anyone who’s taken an American high school history class could theoretically teach one as long as they could teach, but British courses go very deep on a very narrow set of subjects). There’d definitely be areas you’d need to read up on, and probably at least one topic you knew absolutely nothing about.

I don’t know how true that is in all subjects — I’m sure English teachers wind up being asked to teach books they’ve never even heard of too.

Anyway, that is my teaching-related thought for today. Come back next week when we’re going to be doing some TV-watching … and the week after that, I’ve got a special American history episode of Movie Monday!

Things I know nothing about.

Movie Monday: Howl (2010)


OK, so James Franco plays Allen Ginsberg in a movie that is both about “Howl,” an adaptation of “Howl,” and a film about the 1957 Ferlinghetti obscenity trial. Basically, at this point you’ve decided whether you’d like to see it or not.

So, yeah, there are three or maybe four plot threads: we have Ginsberg reading the poem for the first time in 1955, we have Ginsberg talking about it in 1957, we have the obscenity trial in 1957, with David Strathairn for the prosecution and Jon Hamm for the defense, and we have this animated adaptation.

I think the interesting thing about the film is that it actually tends to cast its players against type — David Strathairn is the prissy baddie, for instance, while noted scumbag-player Jon Hamm is the pillar of liberal rectitude (and allegedly the inspiration for Perry Mason — the TV version, that is). And, perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t try to turn Ginsberg into a romantic James Franco type of character, instead portraying him as a big old dork.

Now, I have only a little familiarity with the case, but based on what I do have it seems pretty straightforward.There’s nothing you could get from the trial scenes that you couldn’t get from reading about it or, for that matter, just sort of imagining what the trial might have been like. The Ginsberg scenes are interesting, but again I imagine (I am not an expert) that there are umpteen biographies and exegeses out there that would tell you the same things. So you’re basically here for Franco’s performance (which is good!) and the animated sequences (which are mostly, again, pretty much what you’d expect if you just imagined the animated version of the poem and therefore kind of forgettable).

What’s odd to me is all the talk about jazz and the almost total absence of it in the film — perhaps because bebop lacks transgressive power in the 21st century because of its status as a dignified form of high culture? Ginsberg would talk about that stuff blowing your mind, and of course it would if you hadn’t grown up in a culture steeped in its descendants. That type of shock is hard to convey and empathise with. (As an aside, that’s what’s so interesting about Lovecraft, since he should suffer from the same effect.)

I suppose that’s what makes a movie like this so risky — it’s very hard to convey the impact of that work precisely because of its impact; it was so influential that it made every seventeen-year-old boy at my high school with a spark of artistic integrity and an underdeveloped contrarian impulse put on a silly little hat and wear chinos and/or cords and a button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up (well, OK, that was On the Road, but the principle is the same). It’s on a pedestal, and like 50% of this movie falls victim to that, but the rest is a lot more interesting.

Movie Monday: Howl (2010)

Contemporary settings and historical fiction

My enjoyment of the work of H. P. Lovecraft is well known. I’ve recently been reading Lovecraft Unbound, an anthology of Lovecraft-inspired fiction that I picked up on Kindle for 78p, and it’s been interesting so far. I think when I was a kid I would have been disappointed by it, because what I wanted was more of the same. Or, more accurately, more Deep Ones, more Cthulhu, more monsters, rather than fiction inspired by Lovecraft per se. But that’s not the point!

The point is that for the most part, these stories are set in the modern day — and are often concerned with features of modern life such as global warming, creationism and so on. This got me to thinking about the division among Lovecraft fans between those who believe that because Lovecraft wrote in his present day, Lovecraft-influenced stories should be set in the present day and those who, perhaps fascinated as much by the writer’s life as by his work, are interested in his stories as period pieces. The H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society are an interesting example of the latter; Stuart Gordon is a staunch proponent of the former.

See, this. It's this kind of thing I'm talking about.

And I was just wondering if there are a lot of other authors of whom this is true? There was that updated version of The Big Sleep that was set, for some inexplicable reason, in the UK, for example, but most modern noir stories have some kind of reference, stylistic or otherwise, to the inter- or post-war periods. So clearly for a lot of people there’s a whole class of period fiction that is not historical fiction and yet appeals to people in the same way.

The way the question appeared in my mind was “has anyone made an updated version of an Agatha Christie story? And if so, why?”

Contemporary settings and historical fiction

Class preparation blues

I am teaching tomorrow, And I have spent at least some of the evening worrying about how to present tomorrow’s topic.

One of the challenges of teaching history is that teaching to younger or inexperienced students requires you to simplify greatly. But if you teach history, chances are you have a history degree, which means you are the kind of person who doesn’t like it when people simplify history.

I am not saying that I have a hell of a lot of history to cover in a short time tomorrow, but …

Class preparation blues