The Power of Magical Thinking

Author Shirley Jackson

Author Shirley Jackson

As of two days ago, all I read of Shirley Jackson (1916-1965) was a single short story, “The Lottery.” That should have told me something about the author, except it was so many decades ago that I read it. Then, last night I finished reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962), a novel about a family in a small town that is hated by the townspeople because of a murder by poisoning that had taken place there six years before.

The inhabitants of the house include Constance and Merricat (Mary Katherine) Blackwood, and their aging Uncle Julian, who is in a wheelchair. It was the 29-year-old Constance who was suspected of poisoning her mother and father by adding arsenic to the sugar. She was tried and acquitted for lack of evidence. The mutual suspicions remaining after the trial have isolated the Blackwoods in their old gothic house: Only Merricat goes into town twice a week to do the grocery shopping. Although the townspeople are presented as curious and mostly hateful, the Blackwoods themselves live a serene life—until something happens to disturb their peace.

That something is the arrival of Charlie Blackwood, their cousin, who has eyes on Constance and what he imagines is the family money. There quickly develops a mutual animosity between Merricat and Charlie. Here is what the former thinks:

I was thinking of Charles. I could turn him into a fly and drop him into a spider’s web and watch him tangled and helpless and struggling, shut into the body of a dying buzzing fly; I could wish him dead until he died. I could fasten him to a tree and keep him there until he grew into the trunk and bark grew over his mouth. I could bury him in the hole where my box of silver dollars had been so safe until he came; if he was under the ground I could walk over him stamping my feet.

A Book Worth Reading

A Book Worth Reading

As much as she would like to be able to do these things, Merricat has no supernatural powers. (If she did, no one would be safe.) But she decides that a particular day would be the last day of Charlie’s unwelcome visit. At that point, all hell breaks loose. I will not divulge the ending, which is strange and curiously satisfying, but I will add Shirley Jackson to the list of horror story authors I discussed in my post of two days ago entitled Thirteen More Horrors.

In addition to “The Lottery” and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson wrote The Haunting of Hill House. I highly recommend that you give her work a try.

The Lion’s Share


A lion, an ass, and a fox entered into a partnership whereby they would share in common whatever they caught by hunting. When they got their prey, the lion ordered the ass to divide it. Stupid as he was, the ass divided it into three equal parts. Wherefore at once the lion, outraged that he was made equal with the others, attacked the ass and tore him to pieces. The fox was left; the lion ordered her to make the division anew; she gave almost all of the prey to the lion, keeping for herself only a few meager scraps. The lion approved the division and asked the fox who had taught her the art of dividing. The fox answered, “The fate of the ass.”—Erasmus, Adages

We Have Nothing to Fear But …

Someone Needs to Tell This to the Tea Party

Someone Needs to Tell This to the Tea Party

Conservatives are people who are addicted to fear. They fear for the “sanctity” of marriage. They fear what else homosexuals might be planning to discomfit them and their way of life. They fear that liberals are coming to take away their guns. They fear their children will grow up hating their values. They fear that poor people will vote in large numbers to bump them out of office. They fear America will be inundated by immigrants from Third World countries. They fear for the Purity of Essence of their Precious Bodily Fluids.

I take my cue from a great Republican President by the name of Calvin Coolidge. At one point, he said, “If you see ten troubles coming down the road, you can be sure that nine will run into the ditch before they reach you.” I often think of that saying when I am twisting and turning in bed at night because I fear that something will happen.

If you should ever find yourself in Plymouth, Vermont, as I did on one day in 2005. You should visit the Coolidge homestead, which is run by the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation. You will find the former President buried in the local cemetery without an ostentatious monument slathered with grandiose sentiments. You will see the humble home in which he was born and the village where he grew to maturity. And finally, you will see a Republican who could be admired by future generations—as the present crop of Republicans will most certainly not be.

A subsequent President, FDR, told us during his first inaugural address that we had nothing to fear but fear itself:

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.

Is the United States going to be paralyzed by the fear of elderly white people who think they are the last generation that supports the values that made this country great? Or will change continue to take place—as it always has and always will—leading to a world that is different, better in some ways and worse in others?

Thirteen More Horrors

These Are My Favorite Horror Novels and Stories

These Are My Favorite Horror Novels and Stories

Three weeks ago, I posted a list of my thirteen favorite scary films. You can catch it by clicking here. This time, I will give you a list of equivalent novels and short stories that are guaranteed to send chills up your spine. They are presented here in alphabetical order by the last name of the author:

Algernon Blackwood: Just about anything by this prolific author is great. My favorites are “The Willows” and “The Wendigo.”

Ray Bradbury: Something Wicked This Way Comes and The October Country.

Wilkie Collins: I am particularly partial to The Woman in White.

Henry James: The Turn of the Screw. Utterly brilliant!

M. R. James: I like the collection entitled The Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. Be sure to read “Casting the Runes.”

Sheridan Le Fanu: This Irish writer wrote my favorite vampire novel, Carmilla.

H. P. Lovecraft: Read just about anything by this great short story writer. The Library of America edition of his works is your best starting point.

Richard Matheson: I Am Legend combines sci fi and vampires in a curiously effective mix.

Edgar Allan Poe: You can’t beat the original. Try his only complete novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which isn’t read much these days, but which I love. His short stories are, of course, brilliant.

Mary Shelley: Everyone reads Frankenstein, but I think The Last Man is even better.

Robert Louis Stevenson: What else but The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?

Bram Stoker: I liked Dracula, though it can be a bit tedious at times. See Le Fanu and Matheson above for better vampire novels.

John Wyndham: Another sci fi and horror combo worth reading is The Day of the Triffids, which is not at all like the movie.

You may have noticed the omission of several prominent names, especially such current purveyors of horror as Stephen King, Clive Barker, Dean Koontz, William Peter Blatty, and so on ad infinitum. I just don’t happen to like any of them. I used to like Anne Rice, but lost interest in her years ago. The above writers will, I think, outlast many of the current practitioners.

For some writers I must admit ignorance: I suspect Shirley Jackson is great, but I haven’t read any of her works yet. (Note to self: Maybe now’s the time to start.)

Umm, Texas …

Rep Blake Farenthold (R-TX)

Rep Blake Farenthold (R-TX)

It is a well established fact that America only tolerates Texas because it has oil and Austin and probably something else of value that I can’t think of off the top of my head. Let’s see …. nope … I got nothin’. But there are times when Texas gets on our last nerve (to be fair, that is usually reserved for Florida) and we just shake our heads and start to wonder if maybe Mexico would be willing to take Texas back if we can find the receipt in a drawer somewhere , and even if we  have to pay a 15% restocking fee.

I know I’d chip in.

Which brings us to  Texas’s own Blake Farenthold (R-Golden Corral), who barely squeaked into office in his first go-around, but then his district was redrawn (moar whitez, less brownz) and now he will hold his seat until the End Times, who is here to explain that America’s disabled vets need to suck it up and take one for the team and that they should rub some dirt on it and put whatever skin they didn’t leave behind on the battlefield into the game when it comes to “sacrifice”.—TBogg

What’s Happening Here?

Rioting WWU Students Twerks Bellingham Squad Car

Rioting WWU Student Twerks Bellingham Squad Car

This is a story that has received extensive coverage in the Washington State news media, but does not seem to have made a dent in the national media yet. According to a story in the Daily Mail, some four hundred students at Western Washington University threw a party on October 12  that quickly turned into a riot. Bottles were thrown at the police. One coed (above) twerked a Bellingham squad car. Finally, the police went into riot mode and dissipated the crowd with smoke bombs.

The University responded by threatening to discipline the students involved in the riot with expulsion.

Although I am sure it was an unpleasant scene for both the students and the police, I cannot help but wonder what was behind it all. College students around the country must feel that they are getting the short end of the stick. A college education now costs a fortune, and there is no guarantee that a nice plum of a job is waiting for the graduates. At the same time, universities around the country are suffering budget cuts, which in turn affects the quality of the high-priced education that the students are receiving.

From another point of view—that of my generation—these kids are just out of control. They’re spending their parents’ hard-earned money on booze and drugs and going wild at the drop of a hat.

Who’s right?

Rioters in Bellingham

Rioters in Bellingham

Perhaps both are right. I tend to think that the drunk students who are identified to the university’s administration be disciplined, but not expelled with an arrest on their permanent record. I feel that things are grim enough for millennials across the U.S. Some decades ago, I received a great education at an Ivy League college for a small fraction of what the students are paying today for a somewhat less-than-great education. It was a different society then. When we graduated, there were jobs waiting for us. Now what’s waiting for tomorrow’s grads is a return to their parents’ house where they will continue to be infantilized, despite best intentions.

The American education system, like our health care system, is broken. No one knows yet how to fix them. Until such time, we need to understand what is happening and remain flexible in our response.


Fish Story

The Stefnir Preparing to Sail from Isafjördur

The Stefnir Preparing to Sail from Isafjördur

One of the stories I tell my friends about my recent trip to Iceland is that, at most of the seafood restaurants where I ate, I could look out the window and find ships of the fishing fleet. Here, I am standing outside the Cafe Edinborg in Isafjöordur, where I had the most flavorful and moist halibut of my life. Sure enough, right in front of me was the fishing trawler Stefnir ready to sail. According to a bus driver with whom I was speaking, the ship was idle for a long time because it had caught its quota of fish early and was only now ready to work on its next period’s quota. You can find out more about these quotas, which are big news throughout the island and strictly enforced, by visiting the website of the Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture.

When roughly half of the gross national product is attributable to the fishing fleet, it behooves Iceland to carefully guard fishing stocks so that the tiny nation doesn’t suddenly find itself out of luck as a result of overfishing.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, Iceland actually fought several engagements with Britain because the latter’s trawlers ignored Iceland’s territorial water claims. You can read about the so-called Cod Wars on Wikipedia. In Reykjavik, I actually saw one of the Coast Guard ships involved in the hostilities (see below).

Icelandic Coast Guard Vessel

Icelandic Coast Guard Vessel

Iceland does not have an army nor a navy, but it takes its Coast Guard seriously. How else can it continue to maintain its fishing presence in the territorial waters against the encroaching vessels of other countries?

The War Against the Borg

I Think I’m Finally Beginning to Understand This Phenomenon

I Think I’m Finally Beginning to Understand This Phenomenon

My thinking on the whole issue of America’s rightist wingnuts is finally beginning to jell. First of all, they have no real expectation of winning elections, or even of winning most congressional spats such as the recent one over the Shutdown and Obamacare. They really do not care what the majority of Americans think. They know or at least suspect that theirs is a losing fight. When you can’t win battles any more, all that’s left is sheer obstructionism. I am sure that they all think of themselves as if they were General Nathan Bedford Forrest in the last days of the Civil War, going up against the Union knowing they would be outnumbered in every encounter: Their sole hope is to win a few anyhow. Then they can go to their eternal rest (most of them are white and pretty old) knowing they’ve done their best to stem the tide, at least for a while.

There are about fifty so-called bullet-proof seats in Congress occupied by Tea Party types and their running dogs. The voters who elected these intransigent representatives must be made to change their minds, even if it means having other Congressmen gang up on them to vote down laws that would benefit their constituents. That is the only thing that would change their minds, knowing that their man in Congress is not helping their districts. No amount of petitions or snarky attacks on talk shows will have any effect on these people. They don’t care. They have their Tin Pot Jesus who is a great comfort to them in a bewildering world.

Disruptor, Dementor, Borg—They All Amount to the Same Thing

Disruptor, Dementor, Borg—They All Amount to the Same Thing

You may recall the Borg, Captain Picard’s fearful adversary on Star Trek: The Next Generation. The Borg essentially fought without caring whether they won or lost (though they mostly won): It was just in their programming that they would overcome and assimilate all the Non-Borg. As a registered Non-Borg, I do not want to be assimilated. Hence, I will resist—even if they think it is futile.

An Iowa Republican Congressman named Steve King made what I consider to be an interesting comment about the shutdown:

“I want what’s best for the long-term best interest of this country,” the Iowa Republican explained. “I want it to be on Constitutional underpinnings.”

And I want to continue to unleash human nature,” he added. “And I’m afraid we’re going the other direction here. And that is troubling to me.”

Why is it important to “unleash human nature”? And, more important, whose “human nature” does he want to unleash? If he unleashes mine, he may find himself being slugged in the head with a baseball bat.

Another interesting contributor to my thinking on this is that the Rightists are willing to go up against women and the young, which constitute more than half the voters. An interesting article on Salon.Com interviews political consultant Theda Skocpol about the recent fracas. At one point, she says:

We actually did the research, both by pulling together national [data] and by doing observations in groups in three regions. There’s no question that at the grass roots, approximately half of all Republican-identifiers who think of themselves as Tea Partyers are a very conservative-minded old group of white people, some of whom do go all the way back to Goldwater and the Birch Society. They are skeptical of the Republican Party as it has been run in recent years. But they both hate and fear the Democratic Party and Obama. We argued in many ways that anger comes from alarm on the part of these older conservatives that they’re losing their country — that’s what they say. That they’re the true Americans, and they’re losing control of American politics. So that’s the grass-roots component.

All this time, I have been attacking the Republican Party. They have merely been assimilated by the Borg and, in the process, lost their souls, such as they were. Boehner, Cantor, and the other GOP House leaders are dancing to Borg tunes and drawing upon themselves a horrible vengeance from the voters. That is, if the voters remember what happened this time next year.

Unmoved by Crowds

Not for Me

Not for Me

I belong to that class of unhappy people who are not easily affected by crowd excitement. Too often I find myself sadly unmoved in the midst of multitudinous emotion. Few sensations are more disagreeable. The defect is in part temperamental, and in part due to that intellectual snobbishness, that fastidious rejection of what is easy and obvious, which is one of the melancholy consequences of the acquisition of culture. How often one regrets this asceticism of the mind! How wistfully one longs to rid oneself of the habit of rejection and selection, and to enjoy all the dear, obviously luscious, idiotic emotions without an after-thought. And indeed, however much we may admire the Chromatic Fantasia of Bach, we all of us have a soft spot somewhere in our minds that is sensitive to “Roses in Picardy.” But the soft spot is surrounded by hard spots, the enjoyment is never unmixed with critical disapprobation. The excuses for working up a communal emotion, even communal emotion itself, are rejected as too gross. We turn from them as a cenobite of the Thebaid would have turned from dancing girls or a steaming dish of tripe and onions.—Aldous Huxley, Complete Essays, Vol. I.

Rocking with the Hungarians

Members of the Kárpátok Hungarian Folk Enesemble

Members of the Kárpátok Hungarian Folk Ensemble

Last Sunday, Martine and I went to the First Hungarian Reformed Church of Los Angeles in Hawthorne for their annual harvest festival. It was a good opportunity to catch up with L.A.’s Hungarians, who are all spread across the landscape of Southern California. And it was a great opportunity to have some home-cooked Magyar dishes (kolbasz and hurka) and enjoy the energetic dancing of the Kárpátok Hungarian Folk Ensemble (pictured above).

I am always pleasantly surprised to find out how musically talented my people are. (And me with a tin ear!) In addition to the dancing, there are always several musicians playing musical instruments from the accordion to the violin. The small church hall fairly rocked with all the musical acts.

Although I do not belong to the Hungarian Reformed church, my mother did. My Mom and Dad had an agreement between themselves that any sons in the family would be brought up as Catholics, and any daughters as Protestants. Well, it turned out there were only my brother Dan and me. We were both were baptized Catholic and attended Catholic elementary and secondary schools. For some reason, the Hungarian Catholics in L.A. don’t seem to have any festivals—at least, none of which I am aware. As a result, Martine and I usually hang out with the Protestants.

Martine may have been born in France, but she loves Hungarian food and music. And she loves Hungarian pastries. So these few local church events are high points in our year.