Thursday, September 27, 2018


Chico area novelist H.J. Bennett, "heavily inspired by pop culture, comics, video games, the horror genre, and classic literature," has created an alternative realty in what publicity materials call an R-rated story full of "drugs, violence, sex, language, and unsettling themes." There are enough f-bombs in the first chapter alone to populate a wheelbarrow full of more conventional modern novels. Yet, strangely enough, the larger story is one of resilience, self-discovery, and the true meaning of friendship.

Imagine a music group composed of a guitar-playing monkey, a pregnant young woman called Denver, a hulking monster stitched together from body parts, and a fading but gorgeous 1980s pop star who has died many times (literally). "Franken-Fatale" ($19.99 in paperback from Blurb; also for Amazon Kindle) is the name of the band and the name of the novel. (The cover is by Wamberto Nicomedes.)

Best known locally as a mixed-media artist ("primarily acrylic, but I am known for using strange media as well such as eyeshadow, wine, tea, hair dye, and coffee"), Bennett has created a world with bits and pieces of our own (including a narrator, that pop star named Rita Venus, obsessed with celebrity) but that is definitely not our own.

It's a world in which reanimation is common so death is no deterrent. Body parts are bought and sold. Those with the bucks (like Rita Venus) can afford to be reanimated in style; others have to make do with standard reanimation chambers. Marilyn Monroe still lives, as provocative as ever, but those who have died once and are reanimated are no longer quite human. It's not exactly blood that courses through their veins, but a blackish substance, and no one has to eat. 

In fact, there are few "warmbloods" populating the earth, and Denver's quest to find an island of non-dead humans animates Bennett's story. In an author's introduction, Bennett writes that while humans are ego-driven, the "desire for belonging and social validation … drives us to behave in more charitable ways." Along the way the self-absorbed Rita is murdered multiple times, finds help in a floating brothel, and confronts a Victor Frankenstein figure that would make Boris Karloff shudder.

Then the story gets weird.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

"The Function Of Evil Across Disciplinary Contexts"

In 2014 Chico State University grad Brian Johnson, now Assistant Professor of Humanities at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio, helped convene a most unusual conference. "Evil Incarnate" brought together presenters from many academic specialties, from Shakespeare to South African crime fiction, and the papers have now been published in book form. 

"The Function Of Evil Across Disciplinary Contexts" ($95 in hardcover from Lexington Books; also for Amazon Kindle) is edited by Johnson and Malcah Effron, a lecturer in the Writing, Rhetoric, and Professional Communications program at MIT. It's a scholarly treatment, from a variety of perspectives, of how evil is to be defined in a secular age.

As the introduction says, "evil was, at one time, a supernatural force … well-defined by theology"; but as "the supernatural has dropped away" the "narrative of evil" has been fragmented. In fact, the editors suggest, evil "as a palpable force is … a metaphor for … social scorn…." 

An example is given by Johnson's chapter, entitled "Ghosts of the Old South: The Evils of Slavery and the Haunted House in Royal Street." The house, in New Orleans' French Quarter, was set on fire in 1834, allegedly by the house cook, one of a group of slaves kept in the building and repeatedly tortured by one Madame Delphine LaLaurie, "a twice-widowed French Creole woman." 

A crowd gathered at the fire. "Seeking justice, the citizens of New Orleans threatened to turn violent against Madame LaLaurie for her crimes." She escaped, but the crowd pressed in, "destroying what remained." Stories arose that the property was haunted by the ghosts of those slaves; the story was featured in 2013 as part of the third season of American Horror Story. To this day it is "considered one of the most haunted places in America."

Ghosts, real or not, Johnson says, "act as evidence of a white supremacist vision of the history of New Orleans." The ghosts "return from the grave because their treatment was beyond divine justice," as if what LaLaurie did was an isolated social evil policed by upstanding slave owners, thereby minimizing the evil of slavery itself.

Johnson calls us to see through those ghosts.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

"Free Speech On Campus"

How can public colleges and universities encourage the free expression of ideas yet also protect individuals from being harmed? It's no small task, write Erwin Chemerinsky and Howard Gillman in "Free Speech On Campus" ($26 in hardcover from Yale University Press and also for Amazon Kindle; a paperback version, just published, contains a new preface). 

Gillman is Chancellor at UC Irvine; Chemerinsky is Dean of UC Berkeley's School of Law. They lay out a vision for public higher education: "Campuses cannot and should not accommodate the language of safe spaces when the focus is protecting members of the campus fromthe expression of ideas, rather than creating a safe environment forthe expression of ideas."

The authors note that "this generation has a strong and persistent urge to protect others against hateful, discriminatory, or intolerant speech, especially in education settings." What they don't understand is the "historic link between free speech and the protection of dissenters and vulnerable groups."

Tracing the history of free speech in the US, the book argues that "social progress has come about not as a result of silencing certain speakers, but by ensuring that previously silenced or marginalized groups are empowered to find their voice and have their say."

But no voice can be heard in chaos, so the second half lists practical ways campus communities can respond to unpopular speech (as opposed to harmful actions), including hate speech. Speech should be regulated in "a professional zone" (like a classroom) "which protects the expression of ideas but imposes an obligation of responsible discourse…." 

But there should also be a "free speech zone" where "members of the campus community may say things … that they would not be allowed to say in the core educational and research environment." 

Tomorrow's leaders, the book concludes, must understand that if society is "to remain free, diverse, and democratic … free speech matters."

Author Erwin Chemerinsky is scheduled to present "Free Speech On Campus," the Constitution Day Lecture, at Chico State University's Laxson Auditorium on Thursday, September 27 at 6:00 p.m. Tickets are available through Chico Performances (; $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, free for youth, Chico State staff, faculty, and students.

Thursday, September 06, 2018

"Bigfoot Nation: The History Of Sasquatch In North America"

According to Wikipedia, author David Hatcher Childress refers to himself as a "rogue archaeologist"; his newest book also identifies him as a "cryptozoology researcher" who has compiled accounts from all over the United States, and beyond, of a mysterious human-like creature.

Filled with photographs, some in color, "Bigfoot Nation: The History Of Sasquatch In North America" ($22 in paperback from; also for Amazon Kindle) traces the first mentions back to the early 1800s in the Canadian Rockies, with reports of a "wild man of the woods."

Much later, in Bluff Creek, California, in 1958, a construction worker "noticed a very clear footprint in the mud along the side of the road." He called the maker of the print "bigfoot," and the name stuck.

For Childress, "bigfoot" is not a proper name, but a type, like "bear, cougar or unicorn," and the term is both singular and plural.

In 1969 there was an encounter in Oroville "where Ed Saville and Eldon Butler reported to the local newspaper that they had seen an 8-foot-tall bigfoot with greenish eyes that came to investigate their rabbit call one night."

In 1994, east of Quincy, two friends say around midnight they saw a creature "covered in hair with a rounded human-like head and no snout." A man named Tim Ford told officials in 1998 that "he and six of his friends saw a 9-foot-tall, yellow-eyed, man-like creature close to their campsite" in Hayfork. In 2006 a retired herbalist said she saw bigfoot near the Hoopa Indian Reservation and tried to talk with it, but no response. In 2017 "Claudia Ackley claims she and her daughters witnessed a sasquatch while hiking near Lake Arrowhead."

Childress acknowledges bigfoot hoaxes down through time, and his writing doesn't take itself too seriously, but he does write that "somewhere, right now, a bigfoot is lurking in the shadows, keeping his eye on those who encroach on his territory, and any nearby dumpsters. He knows his place in Bigfoot Nation and it is a place in the shadows. For him it's no big deal, the struggle for national sovereignty is over--except for the yelling and the screaming."