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Halloween Reflections

October 30, 2012 in Classic Literature, Classic Writers, Historical Texts

Halloween’s literature illustrates the tradition’s evolution through a convergence of cultures. The festival dates back to an ancient Celtic tradition celebrated on October 31. The Celts celebrated a festival called Samhain to mark the end of the final harvest. Food was in surplus as death lingered in the chilly fall air. These contrasting circumstances may be understood as the reason the Celts believed Samhain was the time when the veil between the dead and the living was at its thinnest.

Celtic and Christian cultures merged as Germanics began to populate Ireland and the British Isles. Christians celebrated Hallowmas, old English for All Saints Day, on November 1. All Saints Day was a time to remember the dead through prayer. Influenced by the Celtic idea of otherworldly contact, Christians felt that their prayers for the dead would be most effective if sent on the day when the spiritual world could be breached.

The tradition that took place on the Eve of All Hallow’s Day became known as All Hallows Eve. Merging two cultural perspectives on the same day, All Hallows Eve used the idea of the “otherworld’s” proximity and reverence for the dead to create the foundations for a festival we call Halloween.

Centuries of cultural confluence created the modern Halloween of costumes, jack-o’-lanterns, and candy. Ideas about religion, culture, and modernity have all influenced the tradition, but one theme has remained through it all. Halloween is the day the portal that separates the living from the dead is peeled open and the two worlds are believed to interact.

Mirrors are not often associated with Halloween, but, in literature, the two are thematically connected. In literature, mirrors are used to represent portals to other worlds. Mirrors are central in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Brothers Grimm’s Snow White, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Though mirrors are rarely used in direct reference to Halloween, they have been used in literature to provide a physical divide between the living and spiritual worlds.

Halloween is the day when that divide is believed to be as thin as the pane of glass used to represent it. This Halloween, most mirrors will be used for admiring our creepy, bizarre, and often revealing costumes, but beware the few that may become the doorways for the encroaching unknown.

Behind the Article: “On the Road” with Kat Clay

October 8, 2012 in Behind The Article, Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck, Travel Writers

Jack Kerouac display at City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco. Photograph by Kat Clay

After reading about Kat Clay’s cross country road trip in our September 24th article, “Jack Kerouac and John Steinbeck on the Californian Coast,”  we couldn’t wait to chat more with the author about her incredible experiences and how her literary predecessors paved the way for her own adventure.

Literary Traveler:  What was it about Jack Kerouac’s cross country journey that initially drew you in?

Kat Clay:  It’s the sense of freedom you get from his novels. There’s a grand sense that everything will work out, as if time stops for these young people to get on the road. I’ve always longed for that kind of freedom. The books are almost fearless; there’s no worry about getting mugged or losing your passport. Kerouac paints a picture of America that captures an era when people were making their own rules. The messages of his books still ring true today.

LT:  How has Highway One changed over the years?  What can travelers expect as they traverse it on road trips today?

KC:  Highway One has become busier, that’s for sure. When we drove it there was a lot of road work around Big Sur, which slowed the traffic down to 25 MPH. It’s not good for your sanity to drive around winding roads at a snail’s pace! And road trips themselves have changed – we now have GPS units to help instead of maps, but I think that’s a good thing. Many a marriage has been saved by the GPS. But there are still places on Highway One that haven’t changed at all. I remember stopping in at a general store when we got lost that was straight out of Jaws. There are still 1950s bungalows and weatherboard shacks. The state parks still have the same coastline. And the fog is most definitely still there.

LT:  While Kerouac’s words can’t replace the personal experience, literature seems to have a unique way of representing the magic of place.  If maps, as you so eloquently put it, “are statistics of natural beauty,” what is literature?

KC:  Good literature will always capture the feeling, the nostalgia and the wonder of a place. I could read a book and imagine a place completely different from how the author has described it, but still get the same sense that the author felt in that moment.

And good literature can somehow capture a part of you that can’t be expressed. It’s incredible when a writer connects with your soul, as if they are writing just for you and you alone. My writing instructor told me that every writer is looking for their perfect reader. I think when you discover your perfect writer you need to hold onto them!

LT:  You talk about the limited power of photographs.  Do you think writing helps to preserve aspects of a powerful experience where a camera may fail?

KC:  One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a photographer is to know when a moment is simply there to be enjoyed. Writing helps capture the spirit of place, which is infinitely more difficult to do in photography. While photography can capture the intricate details of a rock, writing can compare it to the texture of a mottled ostrich egg.

But for me, writing and photography are inextricable. On display in the art gallery in Jackson, Mississippi are some of Eudora Welty’s photographs – who knew she was a photographer as well as a writer? She inspired me, because I’ve always struggled with the thought that I might need to separate my two passions in order to have a career in one. Lewis Carroll was also a prolific photographer. I think the two art forms compliment each other perfectly; photography is a wonderful tool for documenting moments to inspire later writing. I use it as much as I would take notes.

LT:  What are some of the other highlights from your trip across America?  What was the most inspiring thing you saw or experienced during your travels?

KC:  Can I say the whole trip? Three months in the states is a long time! The southwest National Parks are incredible reminders of our own small place in the universe. I fell in love with Utah. I also got to celebrate many of the American holidays that we don’t have in Australia, like Halloween in New Orleans and Thanksgiving in New Jersey. One particular highlight was giving an impromptu rendition of Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire in a Louisiana Cajun Café.

The most inspiring moment: One of my husband’s relatives is a flight instructor and he took us up in his Cessna over New York City at night. I got to co-pilot the plane. It was incredible and also very moving to fly over the city.

If you’d like to read more, my husband and I documented our USA trip (and our continuing travels) on our travel website, Two Monkeys in a Tent.

LT:  Navigating roads once traveled by Kerouac and spending the night in a campground once frequented by Steinbeck seem like incredibly profound experiences.  How did the knowledge that you were following in the footsteps of these literary greats impact your experience?

KC:  Traveling to these places made the books more real for me. I think it’s important not just to follow the same paths as writers like Kerouac, but instead to pursue the same spirit. For me following in their footsteps wasn’t always a literal go-here-do-that, it was also a spiritual pursuit at emulating that great sense of freedom you get from being on the road in America.

With Steinbeck it was the opposite. A month after Highway One I was reading Travels With Charley in Search of America and I realized we’d stayed in the same place as Steinbeck. It was an epiphany, because I had felt the same as he did atop Fremont Peak. He also expressed a lot of my feelings about traveling in America.

LT:  It seems as though Kerouac acted as a muse of sorts in inciting your desire to drive across America and take your own journey.  What advice do you have for literary travelers looking to find their own travel inspiration?

KC:  Take inspiration from literature to blaze your own trails. The most important lesson I learned from Steinbeck and Kerouac was to break free of expectations.  Break free of the clutches of television and social media— because someone’s status update about being stuck in traffic seems pointless when you’ve just seen elks playing in the sunrise over Yellowstone Lake.

I met a lot of people in America who were amazed by our trip and wished they could do something similar, but there was always an excuse. My career won’t survive.  I don’t have the money . I’m going to do it when I’m old.  Do you know what the RV crowd told us repeatedly on our trip? You’re so lucky to do this when you’re young.

The same goes for writing. If you’ve ever longed to be a writer, you need to travel. Gather experiences— experiences are more valuable than any graduate school. I love reading stories of how writers became writers, and for many of them it was the experiences that made them. Try reading about James Ellroy’s road to publication, which involved stealing ladies panties and passing out in a public park (I don’t suggest you emulate this!). Travel is an investment in yourself and your person. You can’t put a price on that.

LT:  I think I have just found my travel inspiration in this interview! Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences with us.  Readers, check out more from Kat Clay at her fabulous website and then power off your computer and find your own adventures.

Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland

February 16, 2010 in Uncategorized

Friday, March 5 marks the release of Tim Burton’s “Alice In Wonderland.” After checking out the Tim Burton exhibit at MoMA in New York at the end of January, I predict a scrawling, blubbering, rubberized, colorized interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s hallucinatory Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Burton’s muse Johnny Depp plays a rouge-enhanced The Mad Hatter. Burton’s longtime partner Helena Bonham Carter bursts as The Red Queen. Alan Rickman, the “voice of God,” plays The Caterpillar.

It was easy to imagine how Charles Dodgson, who wrote “literary nonsense” under the Carroll pseudonym, influenced Burton’s work as we walked down museum-white hallways of edible stripes, chomping hoses, and sordid baby dolls. But Burton doesn’t liposuction the books he makes into films, he builds a lard house out of them and then lights it on fire to fuel his own eager, weird intellect.

I wonder how Carroll, back in the 1860s fueled his stories. When I was in primary school, my math teacher said he did his writing in opium dens. That would explain it. But his personal diaries indicate he simply liked children. They’re cool. He concocted labyrinths of hazy yet heightened rhetoric—the kind of sophisticated, wacked-out language kids get, because their impulses detect non-sense and their minds read pleasure.

It’s with that feeling Carroll and Burton capture the sensory part of our collective brain, the pleasure center. Stories that are capable of blowing open the prolific, complex chapters of our childhoods tend to not leave out the simple joys in life.

 

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