Friday, December 21, 2012

Why I Am Not A Fundamentalist Christian

  This is part of a series of Essays from a Christian Perspective.

I've got that old time religion in my heart,
Way down inside.
I've got a new kind of feeling in my heart:
Rejoice, abide.
Nobody knows what it means to me,
Nobody knows but my Lord and me.

I received the following response from an item I posted on Facebook (about leaving fundamentalist Christianity without leaving behind everything good about it):
Let me begin by stating that I don't have a full knowledge of church history, and thus do not know when fundamentalism began. However, post-modern teachings, such as those by Rachel Held Evans, are far more recent. The problem that I have with this type of teaching is that it reads a post-modern world view into the Bible instead of allowing the Bible to speak for itself. Also, if by scientific advancement you are talking about creation, this is something I too struggle with. [...] See, I believe precisely the opposite of what you believe, and I would say that the post-modern views strike me as false. I would say that if the Bible doesn't mean what it says, then what does it mean? Can it mean whatever I want it to mean (because I can make it mean some pretty crazy things)? Who is the authority? I would say in a post-modern view, it would be society, and I think that is inherently wrong. Quick question as well: if fundamentalism doesn’t adhere "to age-old tradition and practice" what view does? Or should we even?
I pointed out in an earlier post that Christian fundamentalism, like all religious fundamentalism, is a new phenomenon. I referred my friend to this post, to which the above is partially a response.

My reasons for leaving behind Christian fundamentalism, and particularly Biblical literalism, are complex, and doing so was an important stage in my life. I wanted to share here my response to my friend: 
First, let me say thanks for engaging with me on this topic. It's important for me to figure out what I really think, and that's hard to do on my own without someone to disagree with. For this, I hope we can continue to speak in a friendly manner: these things are important, sure, but they are also mysterious, and perhaps ultimately the truth of the matter cannot be known in this life, so we should be forgiving and understanding with each other. (Not just you and me, but people on both sides of this issue in general.)
Okay, speechifying done. I'm going to try address the stuff in your post in the order it appears in to keep it all straight.
  1. "However, post-modern teachings, such as those by Rachel Held Evans, are far more recent." Post-modernism is recent; I don't have a problem with recent ways of interpreting the Bible. My problem with fundamentalism is that it claims to be the original, oldest, purest way of "doing" Christianity when it is actually quite new. Refusing to accept any non-literal interpretations of the Bible, which is the basic premise of Christian fundamentalism, is new. Christians have been trying to make sense of scripture in other ways for much longer than they have been relying on literal interpretation alone; see, for example, the Fourfold Sense of Scripture (about which you can find more here) that was already in operation over a thousand years ago. (This fourfold sense is basically what I mean when I talk about "age-old tradition and practice." For example, some great Christian thinkers from ages past used metaphorical and allegorical interpretation to understand Genesis. And yes, I think we should be trying to adhere to, or least engage with, such tradition and practice.)
  2. "The problem that I have with this type of teaching is that it reads a post-modern world view into the Bible, instead of allowing the Bible to speak for itself." My experience is that modern and post-modern Christian thought seeks to understand the context of scripture, to know what was going on in the world around the person writing the words. It then tries to use that to help understand scripture better; perhaps even to decide which portions of scripture are still applicable to our daily lives in their literal meaning, and which portions are applicable no longer. I see this process as the opposite of imposing a modern worldview on an ancient text: instead, we are trying to understand an ancient text and adapt it to the world we actually live in today (and that, I think, is really "letting the Bible speak for itself"). 
  3. "Also, if by scientific advancement you are talking about creation, this is something I too struggle with." Creationism was actually my starting point for rejecting fundamentalism. From a young age, I realized that either I had to utterly reject many of the findings of science, or start interpreting at least some of the Bible as not literally true. I was worried about this for a while, but I talked to my dad about it, and he pointed out that scripture can make more important points than "X happened," and in fact is usually doing so, so why should I be concerned? I don't care if God created everything in literally six days; what I care about is the other big ideas the creation story is very clearly telling me, though not in a literal list of items: God is in charge of everything and is in some strong sense its author and master; humans are special because of our relationship to God; we are charged with taking care of what God has made. I don't need to think that the creation story is historically accurate to think those things are true. And the story is a beautiful, memorable way to learn those truths. They would not benefit from just being written out in a list at the beginning of the Bible.
  4. "I would say that if the Bible doesn't mean what it says, then what does it mean? Can it mean whatever I want it to mean (because I can make it mean some pretty crazy things)." Here is how I view the Bible: the Bible is God's word. (Note: this is not a particularly post-modern view, if I understand correctly.) God has ultimate authority to determine what humans should and should not do, and God's main medium for telling us this is the Bible. But trying to hear God speak using only the literal meaning of the words is tricky. There are times when God speaks directly to people in the Bible and tells them what and what not to do: sometimes they are things we Christians think we should pay attention to (like the Ten Commandments) and others aren't (like how we should kill witchesthis is a clear case where "letting the Bible speak for itself" in a literal sense doesn't work and Christians don't do it). But for pretty much any other story, you have to do at least a little work to make it matter at all to you (who cares if God literally saved Daniel from the lions' den? No one, unless we do a little interpreting and say that we believe God will also save us from harm if we are faithful to God) That meaning is pretty obvious though, which is true of much of the Bible. I don't think, and most people don't, that you can just make up a meaning that you like and put it with a text. Who will buy it? The meaning has to make sense from reading the story, and from knowing its cultural and textual context. That said, there may be parts of the Bible that were intended for ancient people and are just not relevant to modern people (like, say, rules about hwo to treat your slaves). One of the big problems for modern believers is figuring out what those parts are.
  5. "Who is the authority?" When, in my own life, I combined number 3 (some of the Bible can't literally be true if the modern world is to make any sense) and number 4 (literal sense is less important in many, many cases than the meaning behind the story) I stopped seeing the Bible as needing to be literally true. So I turned to a way of thinking that says "let's try to get the meaning and richness out of it anyway." Like you, and pretty much every fundamentalist, I was worried about who was in charge of determining what those meanings were (and, as I mentioned above, whether there are parts of the Bible that just don't apply to our lives anymore). My answer is that the person in charge is, first, Godwe can trust God to help and guide us as we try to live in 2012 AD and not 2012 BCand second, the Church, the body of believers, praying, discerning, and communicating with each other, just as we have these last two millennia.
Arriving at these conclusions took a long time, a lot of personal reflection, and, especially, a great deal of reading. If I could recommend any book to read on the subject of there simply being more, as well as more important, meanings in the Bible than the literal sense, it would certainly be The Meaning in the Miracles, by Jeffrey John. It's a beautiful book.  

Friday, December 14, 2012

In Defense of Boring Movies

Part of a series of essays In Defense of Boring Movies.

It’s just a life story, so there’s no climax,
No more new territory, so pull away the IMAX.
—"Our Life Is Not a Movie, or Maybe," Okkervil River

One of my favorite films of all time is Stalker, directed in 1979 by Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. It is, in a word, boring.

Oh, there are more eloquent, poetic words an expert reviewer could use to describe this film—and I use those words, often with great relish. But "boring" is my personal description of choice for Stalker and its ilk; in fact, there are a whole class of movies that I love dearly that I group together as "boring movies."

Before I get into what makes a "boring movie" in the sense that I mean, let's back up and talk about Stalker. It's a science fiction film: it takes place in a world where, somewhere in rural Russia, an unknown, but clearly very strange, event occurred, creating a "Zone," said to drive people mad or kill them and cause mutations in their children. At the center of the Zone, supposedly, there is a room that, if you enter it, will make your dearest wish come true. It's illegal to go to the Zone, but in the film two men do, guided by a "Stalker," who knows the Zone's many (invisible) traps and pitfalls.

If that premise sounds intriguing, good, because it is. It is not, however, exciting, and, in its execution at least, is never entertaining. Instead, the movie ... takes ... its ... time. Through long stretches of dialogue-free scene- and mood-setting, it bores you into either turning it off and doing something else more fun, or to settling down, relaxing, and beginning to think. Take this scene as an example: the long, wordless ride to the Zone (filmed in beautiful color) from the world outside it (in sepia tone):

Sequences like that let you know that the director's goal is not to entertain, but to induce a meditative state and provoke thought. To quote Tarkovsky, "If the regular length of a shot is increased, one becomes bored, but if you keep on making it longer, it piques your interest, and if you make it even longer a new quality emerges, a special intensity of attention." In this film, you can focus this attention on a variety of subjects; I tend to pay attention to certain details and use them to debate with myself whether the Zone is real or made up (there is almost never any direct, visible evidence that anything is amiss: for most of the film, we have only the Stalker's word that the Zone is not wholly illusory), but a viewer can spend her time pondering many other questions, including another personal favorite: what does it mean to truly desire something—are our "dearest wishes" made consciously or unconsciously?

A boring movie, in this sense, is a movie with a subversive purpose. Many of my favorite movies in this category advertise themselves as genre fare—the science fiction film, the western, the frontier epic—almost as if they are hoping to draw in the unexpecting viewer, not prepared or wanting thought but an escape. Instead of offering the usual transport to another world, though, where you can forget your own life and its attendant troubles in a sea of fun, tensions quickly followed by resolutions, and the promise of a happy ending, they confront you with questions to ponder and problems to ruminate on. Such confrontations are necessary, and it is good to have pieces of art that will approach us, offer us the opportunity to think deeply, and provide some directions in which answers may lie. I am happy that films like this are out there. And I think you should be, too.

If what I've said on this subject interests you, here is a short list of my favorites, with articles linked to explain what each is about more thoroughly and with more expertise than I can here.

Stalker: I've explained this one to you, but see also Solaris by the same director.
Dead Man: an "acid western" wherein Johnny Depp confronts his own mortality.
The New World: the story of Pocahontas and John Smith as meditation on humanity's relationship to nature.

Photo source:

Friday, December 7, 2012

Story Lab Recording II

Part of a series of Live Story Recordings.

Art by my friend Alex

This week, I'm posting a story I told on stage at Story Lab Chicago in June of this year. I had a lot of fun telling it! If you're interested in reading instead of listening, I've told it in slightly altered form here. (The art above, which is from a collection of stories I made into an album, was made by my friend Alex; you can find more from her here.)

Friday, November 30, 2012

Good Fences Make Good Fences

Good fences make good neighbors.
—17th century proverb

                                    ...I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows. 
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out, 
And to whom I was like to give offense. 
Something there is that doesn't love a wall, 
That wants it down.'
 —"Mending Wall," Robert Frost

I've lived in cities most of my life. I enjoy city life very much: the diversity of human experience on display, the range of entertainments and intellectual engagements available, having many friends a short train ride away—I find these and other advantages endlessly appealing. There are disadvantages, too: dealing with strangers whose behavior can be unpredictable, a deep separation from nature, difficulty seeing the stars at night. Normally, though, I take these in stride, and I rarely think about them, apart from occasions when I meet with an unreasonable person on a bus or suddenly miss the sound and smell of wind in the trees.

Lately, the big drawback to city living on my mind is the lack of connection I feel to my neighbors. I don't know their names, I see them very rarely, and when I do, I feel guilty for not taking the time to try to get to know them. Trouble is, when you live in a city, there are too many people: not enough time to get to know everyone, not to mention the feeling that people who are too friendly, too familiar, out in public, may be after something more mercenary than simple friendship.

I could get to know my neighbors if I really tried, no doubt. My shyness and laziness are the main obstacles. Occasionally, though, there have been bigger barriers to my knowing a neighbor.

I once lived on the second floor of an apartment building in Hyde Park, Chicago, with three roommates. Our red brick building was old and a bit shabby, but because our apartment was roomy and not un-conveniently located, we generally enjoyed living there. Throughout the years I lived there, various folk came and went in the neighboring apartments, and while at times they could be noisy or otherwise slightly bothersome, as a building we typically got along fine.

One year, though, a family moved into the apartment below us, who we found harder to understand and live with. It consisted of a middle-aged woman and her teenaged son, with regular visits from what I assumed to be the woman's boyfriend. They kicked things off poorly by installing a camera at the front of the house to monitor who was at the door; this made us uncomfortable (who wants to be recorded at home by their neighbor?) and we questioned what sort of person needed such a camera in our relatively safe area. They later added such annoyances as smoking weed in the room beneath my friend's bedroom—forcing him to deal with the smell, which he loathed—and blasting loud music at odd hours, in addition to, interestingly, horror movies turned way, way up. Needless to say, we grew to resent these people.

Which led to an interesting time one night when the woman downstairs came to our door and knocked on it vigorously. It was very rare for residents of the building to knock on each other's doors, so it was always with a bit of trepidation that such a knock was answered. Occasionally, we'd just wait quietly and hope the knocker would go away, as it was rarely anyone with good news. In this case, we could not do so. She knew we were there: she hollered as much through the door before any of us answered.

The woman's complaint was that we had been stomping around our apartment and we needed to stop, because she had to sleep. A less gracious group of people might have replied that her family had been smoking weed and playing loud music and they needed to stop, because we had to live above them. Instead, we insisted, truthfully, that no one had been stomping around and that the floors creaked a lot when we walked because the building was old. She accused us of lying and insisted she was right.

This established a pattern for the coming months. We would live our lives relatively quietly apart from, yes, walking around in our apartment. And our neighbor would come up to our house, bang on the door, and tell us off. Later, she added the charge that we were throwing water on the bathroom floor and it was coming through her ceiling, and when we insisted we were doing no such thing, but that there was likely a problem with the pipes that she should call the landlord about, she accused us of lying and insisted she was right.

In retrospect, I have always wished that I could have solved—or at least addressed—this problem with a little courage, inviting this woman to sit down with me and get to know me, to understand that I was a kind person who had no wish to make her unhappy, that she was simply mistaking me and my roommates for callous, unthinking people. I still sometimes mentally run through the conversation we could have had, never really able to imagine her response, but always a little afraid that talking would have helped nothing. I'm more afraid, though, that it would have helped a great deal, and that I missed a chance to reach out to someone different from me, to establish a connection with a neighbor.

One night, we overheard a loud, sustained argument between the woman and her boyfriend, which, from the sound of things, not only involved vehement accusation, shouting, and bickering, but but also throwing things crashingly around the apartment, and perhaps worse. We called the police, who came and settled things down, we assume, though we didn't know any details. What we did know was that our neighbor stopped complaining to us.

I like to think that she understood, eventually, that we were just people trying to live, and that her family's activity was just as audible and bothersome to us as ours was to her. I suspect, though, that she just saw us as people who could not be reasoned with, who would rather call the police than involve themselves with their neighbor's life in any way. I think that, to her, we were not neighbors, but enemies.

The saying quoted at the top of the page is supposed to mean something like, "to keep on good terms with your neighbors, keep your life from interfering with theirs in unwanted ways." Robert Frost questions this idea in his poem; I wonder with him if our impulse to "mend fences" in this way may keep us from knowing each other at all, may make us miss opportunities for deeper connections with people. Indeed, I've often found that the fences are the only neighbors I have.

Photo sources:
Phtoto 1:
Photo 2: Google Maps

Friday, November 16, 2012

A Thanksgiving Day Tradition

Sleighbells in the air,
Beauty everywhere,
Yuletide by the fireside,
And joyful memories there
—"Christmas Time is Here," Vince Guaraldi Trio

Thanksgiving in my family growing up was a bit different from how it generally seems to work. We didn't always have relatives over, and often didn't make a big meal and eat it together. The only consistent Thanksgiving tradition my family had was putting up the Christmas tree.

Let me explain: my parents are ministers. Thanksgiving is the start of the busiest season of the year for many people, none more so than those in non-profit work. Thanksgiving Day was, for my parents, usually a time to feed people who couldn't get a big meal on their own. That left us kids at home by ourselves most Thanksgivings.

Just about every day between Thanksgiving and Christmas growing up was full of activity for my parents, and often equally full for us kids: counting donation money at the police station and sorting toys at the donation center were frequent and, in my view, unwelcome additions to our schedule during this period each year. So Thanksgiving was the last day available for putting up the tree.

We had a seriously gigantic metal-and-plastic tree. It took about a day for us to set up and decorate properly. We would break it out of its box (increasingly worn out over the years, and often inhabited over the course of the day by the cat, who loved the feel of the scratchy branches), first assembling the huge center pole and placing it in the stand, then sorting the branches out into their various lengths with a color-coded chart, always having to remember which layers were missing one branch (who can say how they were lost?). We'd put the branches on row by row, and, once finished, open our ludicrous treasure chest of ornaments.

Our Christmas tree was an eccentric place. We had little time for color-coordinated bulbs and tinsel; what we had was much better: a combination of odds-and-ends ornaments picked up over the years as gifts, donations to the church, and what-have-you, and an array of homemade ornaments, many of them created in classrooms or of our own accord when we were small. The latter category included a series of polaroids of each child framed in construction paper in 1996, a wreath I made from pretzels and green paper (which since has lost at least one pretzel), some hideously child-painted figurines, various reindeer in classic arts-and-crafts syle (composed primarily of googly eyes and brown pipe cleaner), and some geometric paper figures I constructed on my free time sometime in the 90s. Truly, it was a prodigious and excellent collection, and it made for a great tree.

Unfortunately, the old tree is gone. I miss it. My family will not be together for Thanksgiving this year. And this tree-putting-up is a tradition that I have yet to replace with anything else, so I feel a little twinge of sadness every year at Thanksgiving. The pain diminishes a little each year, though, and I hope one day to start my own little rituals around the holidays with a new family.

Friday, November 9, 2012

How to Reddit

Part of a series on Stuff You Might Not Know About.

Troublesome waters, much blacker than night,
Are hiding from view the harbor's bright light.

"Troubled Waters," Iris DeMent

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine asked me to explain the appeal of Reddit to him. (Reddit, if you're not familiar, is a place to get news, links, discussion, and opinions from other people on the internet. Folks can submit links or topics for discussion, and other folks can vote those topics up or down and respond to them in comments sections on each one.) From the outside, it can look a lot like everything that's bad about the internet.

In the first place, everyone on Reddit is anonymous unless they choose to be otherwise; internet anonymity tends to bring out the worst in people, and Reddit is no exception: there's plenty of bile, casual misogyny, and even racism to be found in the comments section of popular items. And perhaps even worse, it is a breeding ground for vapidity in the way of many internet hubs, generating captioned cat pictures, all manner of silly nonsense videos, and the like. As I write, the front page of the website has, in order of popularity, (1) A picture of a toddler stealing candy, (2) a picture of a woman in an orange dress jumping really high, (3) a link to a somewhat interesting-sounding Wikipedia article, (4) a picture of something weird that claims to be from a Japanese vending machine, and (5) yes, a captioned picture of a cat.

My friend knew this, and he wanted to know if there is any reason to ignore all of these obvious flaws and go to Reddit anyway. My answer: emphatically yes. 

Reddit is also a place to discover people having insightful debates on meaningful issues, and to engage with them yourself. It is a place to see things others have created, and get insightful feedback on creations of your own. You can find communities of people interested in practically every subject, many of them pulsing with commentary, content, and life. Reddit, if you know where to look and what to do, is an extremely valuable, and even beautiful, corner of the internet.


If I've piqued your interest, and you want to start using Reddit, I'm going to tell you how to do it. Before I do that, I need to briefly explain the mechanics of Reddit, and how it can be a hive of vapidity and a beacon of hope for insight on the internet at the same time.

Reddit is composed of communities of people, some large, some small, some active, some dead, but all created by people around a common interest or theme, be it politics, religion, images, knowledge, or anything, really. These communities are called subreddits.

Reddit, when you first go there, looks like this:

That's the frontpage. It's where everything that gets lots of attention (or "upvotes") from Redditors goes. It's also the most likely to be full of drivel, and it's where most ignorant commenters go to be ignorant.

The front page is a compilation of the most popular material from the most popular subreddits. In order to get away from the bad stuff and start finding the good stuff, you need to get away from the front page and find less crowded, more interesting subreddits. That's the key to having a good time on Reddit.

Here's a step-by-step guide to how to have an excellent Reddit experience:

  • Go to Create a username and password for yourself.
  • Unsubscribe from the default subreddits. 
    • These are listed along the top of the page: pics, funny, politics, and so forth. 
    • (You can keep some of them if you like: r/IAmA is interesting, as people with interesting personal history and celebrities come there to be interviewed by the Reddit community; r/askscience is also pretty cool, in my opinion, as is r/TIL (Today I Learned). In my opinion, though, there are better places to explore in most of the content areas covered by those subreddits.) 
    • To unsubscribe, click on the name of the subreddit, and hit the red "unsubscribe" button on the right once you're in the subreddit. 
  • Find some subreddits you're interested in and subscribe. 
    • There are several ways to do this. One way is to click on the default subreddits with subjects you're interested in (r/worldnews, e.g.) and look along the right-hand side for related subreddits. Subreddits will have a number of subscribers listed next to the "subcribe" button; if the number is over million, you should probably go elsewhere. Same if the number is under 100: those subreddits aren't full enough to have meaningful levels of activity. 
    • Another way is to look over the list of the 250 most popular subreddits, which you can find here (on the left hand side of the page) along with some other interesting Reddit data, and start clicking on ones that interest you. (Don't click on red links in that list if you know what's good for you. Also, note that, strangely, subjects with an ordinary word [e.g, "history" or "earth"] plus the word "porn" actually refers to interesting pictures of that subject to ogle, offensive though this naming scheme may be to some. Lastly, note that r/trees is about marijuana, not trees. I don't know why.)
    • Finally, you can use the Reddit search bar to look for subjects that interest you and see what subreddits turn up.
  • You're now set to Reddit! Any time you log in, your frontpage will display the most popular links from the subreddits you're subscribed to.

  • If you want to use Reddit on a regular basis as a place to get information and engage with communities of people, you can make your experience more enjoyable and smoother by adding the Reddit Enhancement Suite to your browser; it works for Safari, Firefox, Chrome, and Opera. It has a bunch of great things to make browsing, commenting, and general Reddit use easier, and when you install it, it will tell you all about them. I recommend it.
  • Once you're subscribed to different subreddits, you'll notice that there are some specifically built to invite people to create and engage in discussions. So pick some and add your voice! Note that it's considered polite to upvote people's comments that you think add to the discussion, and to reserve downvotes for comments that are out of place or destructive, not for things you happen to disagree with.
  • You can submit links yourself by clicking the "Sumbit a Link" button on the frontpage. Once you've done so, try to come up with an engaging title (if it's an article, pull a very brief but interesting snippet of text if you can) so that people will pay attention. Lots of great stuff gets passed over on Reddit because the submitters don't take a moment or two to try to hook people. Then, choose a subreddit to submit it to; the page should provide suggestions.
I hope you consider taking a look at Reddit. It's a unique place in my experience, and it rewards investigation immensely.

Here are the subreddits I'm currently subscribed to, if you're interested:

Here are some others I've discovered recently:
Needlessly Specific Subreddits:
r/thesuperbowl (not what you would think)

Friday, October 26, 2012

A Halloween Tradition: Storytelling

"Minos, King of Crete," Gustave Dore, illustration for the Divine Comedy
Everything you can think of is true,
And fishes make wishes on you.
We’re fighting our way up dreamland’s spine,

Red flamingos and expensive wine...

Out along the edge is
Always where I burn to be:
The further on the edge,

The hotter the intensity. 
"Danger Zone," Kenny Loggins

For the last several years at Halloween, my roommates and I have gathered our varied acquaintances in our home to do something that adults rarely do these days: read aloud together.

I personally love reading aloud; I enjoy the feeling of community it generates, the opportunity to discuss something read immediately after reading it, and the chance to use one's voice to, to almost become someone else. I suppose it's like acting, but more accessible to non-actors.

Here's the thing, though: my roommates and I aren't really trying to revive some lost cultural institution of communal reading aloud, withered on the vine of human entertainments as radio, film, and television have sucked up its nutrients. (If you'd like to read a brief opinion piece on that subject, this one is good.) No, what we're trying to do is freak each other out.

You see, I've never liked haunted houses, and I don't usually go in for horror movies or suspense films (exceptions: Alien, The Thing, and early-middle M. Night Shyamalan movies). My roommates have similar tastes. Reading scary stuff aloud is a nice way to freak ourselves out without having to venture into those danger zones.

It is also, admittedly, a good excuse to get a bunch of people into our house and eat gigantic quantities of baked goods and other treats (viz. puppy dog chow1). BUT let us not go into that; instead, allow me to narrate a typical Halloween at our house for you, if you've never joined us.

As the guests arrive, the iPod speakers in the living room are set up with a playlist of more-or-less lighthearted Halloween mood music, e.g., Tom Waits' Everything You Can Think (Of Is True), Dead Man's Bones' My Body's a Zombie for You, or Sufjan Stevens' John Wayne Gacy. People mill about, cupcakes and brownies and the like are distributed. After a period of socialization, the readings begin.

When we read, the book or papers with the story are passed around the circle of folks, each person who wants to read taking a turn. I usually take on the role of "guy who knows about this sort of thing" and give people advice about how to read aloud effectively (read a little slower than you feel is natural, try to speak clearly and deliberately, and have fun with it).

We usually start with something quite short, often with a sort of twist ending; something that's not obviously horrible all the way along, but ends up nasty. The Chaser by John Collier2 has often filled this role, but this year I'm considering trying out Skin by Roald Dahl.3

After this come one or two longer stories, usually marked by more suspense and intensity throughout. We often use science fiction for this, having read the unsettling Inconstant Moon by Larry Niven4 and the mesmerizing Nightfall by Isaac Asimov,5 though we have also filled it with The Adventure of the Speckled Band by Arthur Conan Doyle.6 This year, I think I'm going to try M.R. James' Oh, Whistle and I'll Come To You, My Lad, 7 but I don't know; I might go track down a copy of Neil Gaiman's Smoke and Mirrors and pick out something. Also, we'll probably do The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allen Poe.

All this time there's usually some background music going, something atmospheric but not necessarily terrifying. But with the last thing we do, that changes a bit.

The last story is always H.P. Lovecraft's The Colour Out of Space. This may seem like an odd choice to end things with, as it is quite long, quite old, and very slow, not to mention full of obscure words and occasional weird, nigh-unintelligible rural speech approximations.8

However, what this story lacks in momentum it more than makes up for in slow-building, gut-wrenching horror; and it's the best kind of horror: the horror of the unknown. What exactly is at the back of the terrible events of the story is never made completely clear, as Lovecraft builds a series of increasingly unusual, unpleasant, and upsetting events into a mysterious, terrifying climax.

As we read the story, I put on the most unsettling ambient music I can scrounge up out of my archives, typically some William Basinksi and some music (called, improbably, "Pasibutbut") from Taiwan's native people that is really, really unnerving, at least to me. When the end finally arrives, and strange lights are flashing in the sky, the earth is trembling, and the trees are swaying in a wind from some other dimension, I put on the really weird stuff, take the story in hand, and read in my most wild-eyed, burning voice. People, including myself, tend to freak out. And it's great.

1. AKA "mud buddies," apparently.
2. A very brief story about a young man buying a love potion he doesn't understand the consequences of.
3. About a homeless man with a tattoo on his back done by a famous painter.
4. About a night when the moon is suddenly fiercely bright, indicating that the sun has expanded or flared, destroying the day side of earth, and that this likely is the narrator's last night, along with everyone else's.
5. About a place where night only happens once every several thousand years, causing madness among the planet's population and the destruction of civilizations.
6. A creepy Sherlock Holmes story about a mysterious death, a weird uncle with exotic pets, and a young woman stuck in a huge freaky old mansion.
7. About a dude who finds a whistle that summons a ghost.
8. E.g., " must a’ come in that stone . . . pizened the whole place . . . dun’t know what it wants . . . that round thing them men from the college dug outen the stone . . . they smashed it . . . it was that same colour . . . jest the same, like the flowers an’ plants . . . must a’ ben more of ’em . . . seeds . . . seeds . . . they growed . . . I seen it the fust time this week."