AMERICAN GODS: King and Gaiman
In January 1981, I was on my way from Santo Domingo to Copenhagen, at that time we used to change plans in New York. This time I flew alone. I do not remember why. Probably Rose worked at the Ministry of Agriculture in Santo Domingo while I taught at a high school in Sweden. Prior to the beginning of the spring semester I had to show up at the school in Malmö, so the trip must have taken place in early January. To make it as cheap as possible I had bought a ticket which meant I had to spend one night in New York and continue traveling the following day. It was no idea to take a cab into the centre, or sleep at a hotel close to the airport, it would be both expensive and difficult. Better to find a comfortable chair somewhere in the waiting rooms at the John F Kennedy Airport and let myself be devoured by an exciting novel. The only problem was that I did not possess such a novel.
I had flown down to Dominican Republic on the 10th of December. By eavesdropping on a conversation between a couple of youngsters behind me I realized that on the plane there were quiet a number of people who hoped to join John Lennon's funeral ceremony. It never took place, but many of my grieving fellow travellers would probably end up among the 250,000 mourners who gathered outside of the Dakota Building on December 14th.
Lennon had been murdered by eleven o´clock on the evening of December 8th. Even before I left Sweden, I had read everything I had found about the murder and I could not help thinking about it while I walked from store to store on Manhattan, while looking for the swimsuit I had promised to buy for Rose. It was a cold and gloomy day, but no snow. I did not find any swimsuit, “off season” explained the shop assistants.
I saw posters for Kubrick´s The Shining. The film had premiered six months earlier, but was still presented in several movie theatres. I would have liked to see it. My friend Claes and I had seen Barry Lyndon five times and I was familiar with Stephen King after viewing Brian De Palma's excellent Carrie, though I had not read any of his novels.
Now I searched through the JFK airport's main terminal for a bookstore that was still open. The clock approached eleven in the evening and still I had no night reading whatsoever. A man stepped out of a newspaper stand and lifted his arms in front of it to pull down the iron shutter. Behind him I caught a glimpse of Stephen King´s The Shining. Even if he had closed the checkout for the night I managed to convince the guy to sell me the novel. Now I was looking forward to enjoy my purchase. The night was saved.
I found a plastic seat, sat down and watched the book cover, which was a copy of the movie poster. It´s bright yellow cover read: Now a Stanley Kubrick Film from Warner Bros, starring Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall. It was exactly the kind of book I had been looking for - a realistic, eventful horror story, with supernatural elements. The introduction convinced me that I would spend the entire night and the following morning without any sleep. A young husband and dad had, after a prestigious literary magazine had published one of his short stories, been hired as a high school teacher. However, to his great despair he soon found out that he suffered from a paralyzing writer's block. At the same time he was tormented by having a brilliant student whose stories far exceed anything he himself would ever be able to write. The failed teacher/writer began to suffer from his colleagues' inquiries about his writings, his wife's concern about their future together and what he perceived as his brilliant student's ill-concealed disdain. He took refuge in alcohol, got stuck in the addiction and became increasingly irritable.
This was brilliant! Time and space disappeared. At half past two in the morning a loud voice was heard over the loudspeakers, the airport was closing down for the night and had to be vacated before two o'clock. Closed down? Did they really close JFK, one of the world's largest airports? How could that be possible? Did no planes arrive after two in the morning?
Soon I was standing with my shoulder bag outside the terminal, my suitcase had thankfully already been checked-in to Copenhagen. It was cold, maybe ten degrees below zero, snow covered the ground, but it was not snowing anymore. No taxis could be seen. Where would I go? The only person around was a policeman talking in a walkie-talkie. I went over to him asking him if he knew where the nearest hotel was located. "A mile from here" he answered indifferently and pointed out into empty space.
- You can make a try, but I do not recommend it.
-Why not? Is it dangerous?
The policeman shrugged his shoulders. He seemed reluctant to speak to me:
- Not exactly dangerous, but there are no walkways around here. And if you end up in a place there´s no guarantee they might have a room of you. Not at this time of the night.
Behind the glass wall at our backs the lights went out in the departure hall. Would the policeman be there all night? Could he not from his patrol car call a hotel nearby? Did he have a car? Maybe he or a colleague of his could in a nice and warm car bring me to the nearest hotel? I did not dare to ask. The tall, massive man gave a dismissive impression. I thanked him. As I stepped into the darkness outside the protective roof of the platform, he muttered something I could not hear.
A desolate landscape - snow, street lights, wide roads that ran in different directions; no footpaths, no sidewalks. A landscape made for cars, but no cars could be seen. I assumed I had caught a glimpse of a neon sign in the distance, possibly a hotel. Although I was not entirely sure that could have been the case. Anyway, I walked in the direction of the weak light. Initially, I kept myself by the edge of the roads, but after a while I did not care much about the risks and began to walk on the highways. There were no cars, no people, only snow and street lights. I do not remember if the wind was particularly biting, just the cold, the emptiness and the lack of planning for strolling people. It was a hotel sign I had seen. I do not remember the name anymore. Ibis? Jamiaca Inn?
The hotel lobby was warm and quiet. The only light came from the hotel reception and the fluorescent lamps by the entrance, the rest was shrouded in darkness. Behind the dark brown counter stood a robust, rather old black man with short-cut white hair and a dark green uniform. He watched me as I approached across an empty, polished marble floor. He had probably through a security camera seen how I had arrived at the hotel entrance. Leaning forward, he kindly wondered:
- Can I help you, Mister?
In the deserted lobby his words came out as strangely subdued.
I told him about my dilemma and wondered if they had any rooms available. However, I had realized that they would be hopelessly expensive, though I did not mention that to him. Instead I told him that my flight was due to one o'clock the following day. The receptionist shook his head:
- I'm so sorry, sir. Not even a broom cupboard.
He was a friendly person, at the same time we turned our faces towards the glass wall by the entrance, watching the darkness, the snow.
-It's completely against the rules. But, let's do like this. You lay down and rest on the couch over there in the corner. If you fall asleep I´ll wake you up when the first guests arrive in the lobby and we´ll take it from there. Would that be OK for you?
I found it to be an extremely friendly and generous gesture. The nice receptionist stepped out from a side door, took me by one shoulder and brought me over to a black leather sofa that was placed in a dark corner of the immense lobby.
- You just sit down right here. I´ll be right back.
I felt lost and somewhat ridiculous. The old man returned with a pillow in a white case with a fragrance of cleanliness and a grey blanket and placed them next to me on the couch, while he asked me:
- By the way, what's your name?
- Nice to meet you John. I'm George. Now ... make yourself comfortable. Take a nap. No worries, just relax.
He turned on a foot lamp next to the sofa and then disappeared through the door by the front desk. There the lights was extinguished and the only glow now came from the entrance outside the glass windows and the foot lamp, which in the lobby's darkness created a safe circle of light around me. I took off my shoes, straightened out and pulled the blanket up to my chin. For a short while I lay comfortably under the cover, feeling warm inside, grateful for the goodness of people, overwhelmed by what have been called the comfort of strangers.
Could not fall asleep and returned to Stephen King's novel. Everything slopes downhill for the frustrated teacher. He mismanages his work, becomes unfocused, moody and even dangerous for people around him. When his five-year-old son messes up his papers with drafts for a hopelessly messy and clumsy novel, he does in an uncontrollable outburst break the arm of the horrified boy. When he by the school finds that the tires on his car have been slashed, the miserable teacher decides that the culprit must have been his hated pupil, the skilled short story writer, and beats him up. The situation becomes unsustainable and he is finally dismissed from his position.
However, the headmaster continues to believe that under his unbalanced surface the failed teacher is actually a future great author. He succeeds in persuading an acquaintance of his to hire the unfortunate Jack Torrence as caretaker of a seasonally closed down high mountain resort. Perhaps the potential writer might retrieve the concentration and calm he needs to be able overcome his alcoholism and the destructive writer's block.
In the winter abandoned hotel, Jack Torrence becomes obsessed by the dramas that have for decades been stockpiled in every room, by the vast amount of memories of mind boggling tragedies that an old grand hotel harbours. A fascination fuelled by his find of a multitude of yellowed newspaper clips which content suggests captivating and scary events that over the years have taken place within the hotel. Here is material for a powerful novel. Jack moves from room to room and his overheated, alcohol powered fantasy is gradually turning into vivid hallucinations. Visions that increase his obsessions, twisting reality into a distorted dream world. Madness takes hold of Jack Torrence's and eventually affects the only people in his presence - his wife and son, who are becoming helpless victims to Jack's delusions, confined as they are by the snow that separates the hotel from the living. Especially the son is suffering. Like his father he is a psychic and can sense, even see and experience, the horrors that have taken place in the hotel. Nevertheless, instead of perceiving his son as s confident when it comes to recognizing the hotel's distinctive character, the father considers him to be a threat to the inspiration and creativity he experience. Through isolation, obsession and an inspiration that still refuses to turn into writing, Jack Torrence's alcoholism is exacerbated and his hatred towards his own family is becoming uncontrollable. He now perceives his wife and son as annoying obstacles to his self-realization and the ultimate cause to his paralyzing writer's block.
A haunted hotel, isolated by impenetrable snow masses. A small family completely in the hands of an increasingly mad head of family, who furthermore believes he is acting on behalf of supernatural powers - and more. An ingenious idea, a relentless, constantly intensified story. No wonder that a master movie director like Kubrick made a remarkable film of it and that another skilful narrator, and like King a former alcoholic, the Swedish author P. O. Enquist has recommended Stephen King for the Nobel Prize in literature:
Why? I have read almost everything by him. His strength? He has written, among other things, The Shining a masterpiece about the unproductivity of authorship - he really understands an author's dilemma - and many other good stories.
Though Enquist made the reservation that he assumes his suggestion would never be accepted by any member of the Swedish Academy.
From time to time I lifted my eyes from Stephen King´s novel and looked around in the dark, desolate hotel lobby, through the large glass panels by the entrance, where the snow shone in the moonlight. What strange coincidence had put King's horror vision in my hands? I had not had such a strong literary experience since I, as a twelve-year-old with high fever and meningitis, had read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Around six o´clock in the morning the first hotel guests showed up. The light was lit. I folded the blanket, placed it over the pillow, sat up in a corner of the soda and tried to make myself as unnoticable as possible.
The friendly receptionist appeared by my side, leaned forward and told me as discreetly as possible:
- If you don´t mind sleeping in an unmade bed, there is one available on the fifth floor. Was your flight at one o'clock?
- It´s really one thirty.
- Great! Then we can do like this. The cleaning lady lets you in. You have to be on your feet by eleven o´clock and then I have arranged for your breakfast in the dining room and you may catch the hotel shuttle to JFK by a quarter to twelve.
Deeply moved I wondered how much it all would cost.
- Not a cent and don´t you dare to tip me.
I am still plagued by the fact that I never sent George the thankyou card I intended to write when I arrived in Sweden.
I am remembering that strange night now when we are in our condo in Dominican Republic. Before I left Sweden this time, I found a worn pocketbook at the Landskrona library - Neil Gaimans American Gods from 2002. A sticker was attached to the cover, declaring As good as Stephen King or you money back. Of course, the offer had expired more than ten years ago and that's not why I exchanged the book for a Swedish whodunit, the novel was namely on a shelf declaring “exchange a book of yours for another one”. It was the memory of The Shining that awoke my interest for Gaiman´s novel. I knew that the American Gods recently had been filmed in the form of a TV series, and I suspected that, as Kubrick's movie had been different from King´s novel, Gaiman's book would probably not be quite the same as its TV adaption and I wanted to read the book before I saw its screen version.
I have recently enjoyed the TV adaption of The Man in the High Castle, which was both similar to and very different from Philip K. Dick´s masterpiece. Just like Kubrick did not explain Jack Torrence´s madness by mentioning his writer´s block, something that is essential in the novel, does the TV series to a great extent avoid Dick´s master stroke to describe a totalitarian state from the perspective of “common” men and women. Furthermore, both King´s and Dick´s novels deal with how a writer´s creation intertwines with and mix up the reality.
Both Kubrick´s The Shining and Frank Spotnitz´s The Man in the High Castle constitute alternative versions of captivating novels, something that is quite OK with me. Faithful and detailed renderings of enjoyable books are seldom good. The reader has his/her own inner vision of the lecture. An effective version of a novel is a director's own, highly personal interpretation of a great reading experience, something that has often been the case with movie versions of Stephen King´s stories, with great films like Carrie, The Shining, Misery, Stand By Me, Secret Window and The Shawshank Redemption, exceptions are also common, many movies based on King´s are unbelievably bad. Not that least is Stephen King himself guilty of a full-fledged turkey.
I was thinking about all those films when I just a week ago, together with Rose, flew down to the Dominican Republic, where I am now writing this block entry. On the flight I was confronted with a lousy film version of Stephen King's complicated series of eight books called The Dark Tower. The movie turned out to be an overheated, hectic mess going berserk, completely devoid of the calmer, mysterious and often religious super structure that occasionally breaks through in the often absurd and genre transgressing, but nevertheless quite fascinating, book series.
The director of the apparently video game contaminated concoction that plagued me on the plane seemed to have been devoid of any clue of what he was trying to achieve. The movie was filled to the brim by continuously shifting angles and perspectives, kept together by clumsy, foreseeable storytelling, unmotivated special effects, shallow characters and ungainly editing. “Kept together” are wrong words, the experience was almost incomprehensible and taxing on my nerves. Puh!
It was a relief to return to a Gaiman´s novel and sink into a world of imagination that inspired my own mental imagery, instead of being helplessly thrown around by another person's crazed picture tornadoes. Like several of Kings' stories, American God's is multidimensional and often surprising through its unexpected focus on US peculiarities and phenomena. King has, for example, in Needful Things dealt with the American obsession with collecting memorabilia, Christine is about car fetishism, Pet Sematary highlights fear and denial of death, Cell underscores the overriding dependency on cellular phones, Misery illustrates engagement in invented characters, make-belief and celebrities, to mention just a few contemporary themes in King´s books. In American Gods, the Englishman Neil Gaiman illuminates the role of the United States as an immigrant country where ancient traditions and lifestyles have changed and are threatened to succumb to mass consumption and mass communication. A nation where celebrity worship, the pursuit of wealth and the replacement of real life by make-believe, destroys people's respect and fear for the unknown, the transforming power of mystery and a true religion reflecting the diversity and unpredictability of life; its pain, joy and greatness.
Gaiman's American gods were brought to the United States by the Irish, Scandinavians, Africans, Russians, Jews, Indians and Chinese, only to be forgotten in the strange, demystified environment, turning into mediocre, incompetent and disrespected immigrants, suffering a miserable existence as marginalized have-beens. Just like King, Gaiman depicts an American everyday existence that conceals depths of horror and mysteries, which gates may occasionally be smashed to let demons and insecurity invade home-grown, idyllic small towns.
With a smile of recognition, I found that Odin, the gangleri, "the hiker tired of traveling", skollvaldr, con man, sanngetall, truth seeker, and Allfather in Gaiman's novel appears as an immoral swindler, yet concealing an all-encompassing wisdom.
Mr. Ibis (Toth) and Mr. Jacquel (Anubis) are a couple of funeral morticians in a small town by Mississippi,
while Czernobog, a Slavonic god I wrote about in my last blog entry, is a retired butcher who lives in a rundown apartment in Chicago, together with the three Zorya sisters, Slavonic deities as well.
Mr Nancy, a slightly alcoholic storyteller from the American South, is in fact the West African trickster Anansi, and many other deities from the Old World are constantly appearing in different shapes. Gaiman presents several, small cameos describing the arrival of immigrants and their gods. Most impressive was a cleverly compressed version of the inhumanity of slave trade. How West Africans often were sold as slaves by their own kinsfolk and during inhumane suffering, tightly packed in smelly, infected ships, were brought across the Atlantic to unceasing misery on Caribbean and American plantations, where they were beaten, mutilated and driven into death and misery. In a few sentences he succeeds in capturing the Haitian slave rebellion and Mackandal. the one-armed, eloquent vodun priest who initiated the struggle for freedom and also tell the story of how a raped girl grows up to become a respected vodun priestess in Louisiana's bayou. Reading that I remembered how I unexpectedly found an equally compressed and admirably summarized description Soviet Union's Great Patriotic War in Colum McCann´s Dancer, a novel based on Rudolf Nurejev's life.
American gods? Do they exist? The philosopher Xenophanes from Colophon stated:
But if cattle and horses and lions had hands, or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do, horses like horses and cattle like cattle, also would depict the gods' shapes and make their bodies of such a sort as the form they themselves have. […] Ethiopians say that their gods are snub–nosed and black. Thrachians that they are pale and red-haired.
Obviously, people create gods influenced by heritage, environment and tradition. We need deities responding to our needs and if our desires and demands change we adapt our gods to them. Farmers have fertility gods, while consumers have consumption gods. Gods become templates depicting functions we equip them with.
The postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard would probably argue that gods are simulacra, distorted copies/interpretations of reality, which turn into truth, acquiring a presence of their own. They exist, but do not really have any connection with "reality".
Religion changed in accordance with the place where it was practiced, I experienced this when I studied religious notions concerning a peasant leader called Olivorio Mateo, who is worshipped as God in the border areas between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. In 1922, Olivorio was killed by American marines, but a cult of legends, hymns and rituals in his honour has grown strong around him. Several years ago, I gained the privilege of being personally acquainted with people who had known Olivorio, who had walked with him within Hispaniola's mountain areas, yet they were firmly convinced that their friend and leader continues to live in another existence. That he even is identical with God.
I found that Olivoristas living in Santo Domingo participated in olivorista rituals when they visited their areas of origin, though when they are staying in the capital or in the United States, most of them identify themselves as Pentecostals. They claim that Olivorio belongs to their original homes, though in modern cities he manifests himself as the god of the Pentecostals.
So why would not the American immigrants forget or adapt their faith in gods and spiritual beings to the conditions they were confronted with in the New Country? Where a new faith emerged, based on myths of success, bodily perfection, eternal youth, glamour, wealth and celebrity. With role models like Superman, Superwoman, Kim Kardashian and other superstars, being admired for being "known to be famous". Many dream about meeting with such celebrities, imagining it would be like a state of grace, like being close to Jesus, God's Mother or any legendary saint.
The United States is a country where religion may equal sending hundreds of dollars to a TV evangelist, who in an elegant suit preaches prosperity theology, ensures you that if decently remunerated he can pray to God for you to get well, get a top job, or a luxury car. Where the height of happiness is to be seen on television, meet your idol or win millions of dollars on the lottery. Where a belief in God means that you are a fundamentalist believer in biblical truths, a patriot, gun owner, against abortions and gay rights, while you vote for Trump. Once I saw a bumper sticker in Florida that summarized those beliefs: Good, guns and guts made America great. Let's keep all three.
The God of fundamentalists is completely different from the powerful, dangerous, irreconcilable god of the Old Testament, or the New Testament's forgiving Father. Gaiman´s Odin is also an evasive character. He is both human and divine. Nobody trusts Odin, but everyone knows that his knowledge is more encompassing than theirs. That he, in his capacity of Allfather, has a plan for his Creation and knows how the future will be, but nobody understands what the plan really is about, or what the future will look like.
American Gods also confronts us with the great land's own gods, divinities of its native population, who now have a gloomy life underground, or endure in mobile homes or desolate shacks, where they drink beer and spirits while scrutinising the surrounding decay, wondering what Odin is up to. They represent the virgin land, the nature that once was. They are united with the forests, the mountains and the soil, moving from one world to another like someone walking through sun and shadow. They know how to enter into the spiritual sphere that is hidden behind what we call "reality".
In Gaiman's novel, Mr. Wednesday, i.e. Odin, convinces the weary, aged gods who once came to the United States from all over the world, to stand tall and participate in a final battle against the new divinities that have been created in the New World – the gods of the entertainment industry, the TV evangelists, the PR firms, the junksellers, the web, the sex industry, the drug industry, NRA, the Ku Klux Klan, the Fox Channel, the reality shows, the fashion and cosmetics industries, etc., etc. A Ragnarök through which the spiritual sphere of existence will be resurrected; fresh, strong, renewed and dangerous.
In the Andes and the Caribbean, I have met people who told me they were living in two worlds. Our daily lives and the boundless world where we meet gods, demons and spirits of the deceased. A sphere we common people experience when we dream, but that they are able to visit even when they are awake. It is such an interaction between different spheres we witness in Gaiman's novel, where the body builder coach Shadow meets his deceased wife while he is working as chauffeur and right-hand man for Mr. Wednesday and through this work meets various shabby and humble gods, while he in his spare time has a fairly casual existence in an American small town, where he succeeds in finding a solution to why a large number of young people over the years have disappeared from the seemingly idyllic place.
It is through such seamless passing between imagination and reality I have learned to appreciate stories by Gaiman and King. I honestly do not know if they are world-class authors, though they rarely disappoint me. King can swing violently between quite sloppy storytelling and what I perceive as masterly writing. An interaction between fantasy and reality is indeed present in the work of world literature's brightest shining fix stars - Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes and Bulgakov.
I do not know if there are any gods around, an uncertainty that, unfortunately, has not been transformed into certainty through my meetings with remarkable men and women, people firmly convinced about the existence of a divine sphere and who have assured me that they are in daily contact either with several gods or one, omnipotent God.
However, through my reading, my appreciation of art, music and dreams, I have been able to enter into a sphere which I am inclined to believe have something to do with another, a spiritual existence and sometimes I wonder how life seems to be for those of my fellow beings who state they do not believe in anything. Who tell me they are unable to enter into that resplendent, artificial paradise of art, religion and literature.
Baudrillard, Jean (1994) Simulacra and Simulation (The Body in Theory: Histories of Cultural Materialism). Ann Arbor MI: University of Michigan Press. Xenophon of Colophon (2001) Fragments: A Text and Translation with a Commentary by J.H. Lesher. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.