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Five essays developed from blog posts

1. Homecoming, by Jeanne Griggs

It is the year 2050. Eleanor and Walker are bringing their families home for Christmas via interplanetary shuttle to Cloud City on Venus, where their parents live in a comfortable low gravity retirement community. The kids love being able to bounce around their grandparents’ house, chasing the cats. At dinner, everyone lifts a glass and says “schnucks!” before passing the cornbread dressing.

My picture of a good homecoming at Christmastime has always meant several generations crammed into one house, like in the Walton’s Christmas movie (Homecoming), the kind that makes a person miss the kind of Christmas they used to have with their parents in the good old days of years gone by, those years when we saw our siblings so often we could afford to quarrel with them.

Arriving home for Christmas, when I was very young, began with the crunch of our Missouri tires on my grandmother’s Arkansas gravel drive. Not once in my years of arriving did she fail to appear, hurrying down the steps from her front porch, hands dusting off on her apron, before we could get ourselves out of the car. She had made cookies and cakes and ham and turkey and the house smelled of it all. One year Santa brought me a Mary Poppins doll. I slept with my grandmother on the double bed in her spare room, made up with hot pink sheets that she always declared were “too loud” to sleep on.

For a good many years, my grandmother and my aunt and cousin came from Arkansas to our house in Missouri. We would play the piano and sing. My mother would have one entire counter filled with tins of cookies and fudge that she would bring out after supper. The tree was hung with birds and pears, and we would use my parents’ Waterford crystal glasses for Christmas dinner, the ones that only the two of them would wash by hand afterwards, in the kitchen where my cousin’s dog stayed when they came. On the day they left for Arkansas, we would go to St. Louis and out to dinner or to a play, so we wouldn’t have to be sad, left amidst the discarded wrapping paper.

Our first Christmas away from home, home came to us. We had an apartment in Rhode Island and one room had red carpet, so we taped a Christmas tree cut out of wrapping paper to the wall and put our presents in front of it. My parents and brother brought us fudge and sweaters and books to sustain us through the long New England winter, and made Arkansas cornbread dressing so it would smell like home.

We had Christmases with babies tucked up in a crib in the corner of my old bedroom or my brother’s and older children sleeping on cots or in the basement. Everybody had a stocking and there was room for them all on the long mantelpiece, along with the candlesticks with Chinese characters that my father always said probably read “I’ll sell this for too much to a stupid barbarian” in some obscure dialect. My father would make a fire in the fireplace on Christmas morning, and my mother and brother would taste the spices for the cornbread dressing, conferring.

There were a few Christmas mornings at the other grandparents’ house, where no matter how early you got up, it wasn’t too early, and there was often snow and birds to feed and stories about fishing on Arkansas lakes while we ate fried crappie.

We made a couple of quieter Christmases at our own house, with stockings for my parents and us and children and cats. There was one Christmas eve when an entire Playmobile spacehab had to be put together, and one when Eleanor asked her grandmother to tell her what Santa looked like, since she and grandfather were sleeping on the fold-out couch right in the living room in front of the fireplace. Walker was allowed to wake everyone up when it was 7 am, and he was always right on the dot.

We spent a few Christmases in Chicago and at my brother’s house, with a dog and a two-story-high Christmas tree and big-city museums and plays at some point in the trip. There was a final Christmas with my father, when we took him to see White Christmas, featuring the song he sang most often, “Blue Skies.”

This year I had an early homecoming with my mother, texting me in from the airport as her own mother would have liked to, I think, and then waving from her rehab room window as I pulled up in the parking lot.

We will have a small Christmas this year, with a new cat since the last time we hung our stockings here, and grown-up children beginning their own process of homecoming.

So, my grown-up children, here is what I know about homecoming: no matter how far you have to go to get there, home will always be the place where the people who love you best do some of the things you’ve always liked in an effort to erase the passage of time and make each Christmas the one you’ve always looked forward to most.

2. Thoughts about “Home” by Jeanne Griggs

Marilynne Robinson’s novels seem to be the sort that a person has to be in just the right mood to read and enjoy. I never found that mood with Gilead (I think the religious trappings put me off), but I did find it with Lila. So when my friend Carrie said she’d really enjoyed Home and I found an audiobook of it at the library, I checked it out.

This was last spring. I was driving around listening to this story about adult children who had returned to live with their father in their childhood home, and was by turns horrified by how old and frail the father seemed to those children and swept with waves of longing for my own adult children to come home. Which they did, coming in after Walker’s college graduation, Walker for only a couple of weeks, with his girlfriend, and Eleanor for a couple of months, working part-time at the local college, getting a respite from her cockroach-infested rental house, and staying to help me through the worst parts of my knee replacement before she returned last week to move into a new apartment.

Today marks four weeks that I’ve been confined to home. Right now some of my most sentimental attachments have dimmed, in light of the fact that I’m really tired of seeing these same four walls.

In honor of getting to leave home tomorrow (for a 35th-wedding-anniversary lunch and a follow-up appointment with my orthopedist), I was leafing through a copy of Home to remember how well Robinson captures the feelings of parents and children, like the part where the father exclaims “’such times you had!’…as if the present slight desolation were confetti and candy wrappers left after the passing of some glorious parade.” I feel that way often, especially in the garage, noticing the birthday party decoration I used to bring out each August or the pogo stick still standing in one corner.

Walker says he is coming back to stay with us for a few weeks at the beginning of September, and I am looking forward to it as much as the father in Home looked forward to his son Jack’s visit, stocking the pantry with “everything he thought he remembered Jack’s having a liking for.”

We are all aware of the mixed feelings that an adult child has when he returns home, however. When Glory, the adult daughter, is thinking about her return home she wonders “did she choose to be there, in that house, in Gilead? No, she certainly did not. Her father needed looking after, and she had to be somewhere, like every other human being on earth. What an embarrassment that was, being somewhere because there was nowhere else for you to be. All those years of work and nothing to show for it.” That seems a very American attitude to me, to be embarrassed because you don’t have a clear answer to the question “what do you DO?” (for a living).

The plot of Home, centering on the return of Jack, the prodigal son, is set in the past (early 1960’s), and so extremely predictable. I guessed the reason for Jack’s unhappy love affair with the first or second letter he got, as I imagine most readers will.

The feelings about home and family, however, are so nicely delineated that the plot doesn’t matter all that much. I particularly identify with what the father says after he’s spoken a truth out loud in front of his adult children: “I wish I could take it all back, everything I’ve just said. But I supposed you did know it already. Still, it’s different when you say things like that out loud. It already seems like I didn’t mean it. Now I know I’m going to just lie on my bed and worry about it, and wish I’d held my peace. I did that for so long.”

And I will always hope to do what Glory does when my adult children come home:
“How to announce the return of comfort and well-being except by cooking something fragrant. That is what her mother always did. After every calamity of any significance she would fill the atmosphere of the house with the smell of cinnamon rolls or brownies, or with chicken and dumplings, and it would mean, This house has a soul that loves us all, no matter what. It would mean peace if they had fought and amnesty if they had been in trouble. It had meant, You can come down to dinner now, and no one will say a thing to bother you.”

Eleanor stayed to cook for me, but Walker has the faith and, perhaps, detachment to not worry about how I’ve been getting along, planning to return only when I’m able to get around in the kitchen again.

At the end of these weeks of being home-bound, when I’m depending on Ron and other friends to keep me from climbing the walls and drive me back and forth to physical therapy appointments, I feel the hard truth of the kind of joke the father shares with his oldest friend:
“The joke seemed to be that once they were very young and now they were very old, and that they had been the same day after day and were somehow at the end of it all so utterly changed.”

Maybe one of the secrets of living at home in a way that makes adult children want to return is to keep sharing the things that are the same day after day, even while everything else keeps changing—horizons, girlfriends, knees, furniture, pets, trees.

3. Thoughts on “MAKE BIG MONEY AT HOME! WRITE POEMS IN SPARE TIME!” by Jeanne Griggs

I’ve been thinking about Howard Nemerov, and how big a fan of his poetry I was as a graduate student in the 1980s, when my friend Laura and I attended a poetry conference downtown at the Folger Library in Washington, D.C. There were all kinds of big names there–including Katha Pollitt, Carolyn Forche, and Andrei Codrescue–and then there was Howard, skulking out at the same time as the graduate students to walk the downtown streets towards the Metro stop, and giving us paranoid looks over his shoulder as we seemed to follow him. I would have loved to have gone up to him and expressed my undying admiration, but clearly that wasn’t an option.

Why have I been thinking about that conference? Because of an article in this month’s Writer’s Chronicle entitled “Darth Howard, Ashurbanipal & a Defense of Poetry,” in which the author, David Wojohn, recounts the experience of acting as Nemerov’s assistant at a Breadloaf Writer’s Conference in the mid-1990s: “the Nemerov that I saw during those weeks was embittered and misanthropic. The charitable characterization would be curmudgeonly, and in some respects, Nemerov was expected to act this way–he was the conference’s elder poet, trying to fill the shoes of Frost, that most curmudgeonly of curmudgeons, and his great Breadloaf predecessor.” Wojohn sees how “it pained him to see students so wrong-headed and so ill-read, to have to teach people who had no knowledge of poetry written before about 1970.” In short, he paints a portrait of Nemerov as an embittered human being.

I like to think that Nemerov’s old-fashioned manners would have kept him from publicly expressing his disdain for naive readings of his poems preserved in blog posts, but he was certainly capable of spewing vitriol. Wojohn observes that “the sorts of gestures that might have worked in one of Howard’s satirical epigrams came across as boorish when practiced on human subjects.”

The tone of self-deprecation at the beginning of his poem “MAKE BIG MONEY AT HOME! WRITE POEMS IN SPARE TIME!” shows a perspective that he might have lost in his later years, as famous as he became.

It took a good amount of self-confidence to be able to articulate what became his trademark mix of humility and satire in the late 1950s, when he was still relatively unknown:
‘Oliver wanted to write about reality.
He sat before a wooden table,
He poised his wooden pencil
Above his pad of wooden paper,
And attempted to think about agony
and history, and the meaning of history,
And all stuff like that there.”
The last line of the first stanza, of course, is his attempt to be not only self-deprecating but folksy, as if poetry isn’t something only a few, highly educated people can do.

It wasn’t years of reading other peoples’ poems but a sudden whim that inspires him, he claims when he says “Suddenly this wooden thought got in his head/A Tree. That’s all, no more than that,/Just one tree.”

After considering possible metaphoric and/or symbolic possibilities for the tree, this poet turns outward instead, seeing his place in the world, even as he would years later, a public figure watching his fans out of his peripheral vision:
“’A Tree,’ he wrote down with his wooden pencil
Upon his pad of wooden paper
Supported by the wooden table.
And while he sat there waiting
For what would come next to come next,
The whole wooden house began to become
Silent, particularly silent, sinisterly so.

We have to admire the cruel humor of the ending, in which the would-be poet starts to perceive he has been played by what he regarded as his instruments.

And we can all breathe a sigh of relief that we never came across this poet’s field of vision for long enough that he actually turned his burning gaze our way and made an Example of Us.

4. Thoughts on “The Barber’s Fingers Move October” by Jeanne Griggs

I’ve been sitting through a lot of awards ceremonies, watching in a kind of half-daze as the children of friends and acquaintances and strangers move across the stage, shaking the presenters’ hands and accepting envelopes. While I’m glad that my children are doing well in school, I’m not sure that these kinds of ceremonies are a terribly good thing, especially when a couple of kids dominate all the awards or the same group of kids and parents have to go to two ceremonies a week in a three-week period in May. Because such school celebrations usually offer cookies, my kids have taken to referring to any celebration of their scholastic merits as a “smart fat kids” event.

But I do think that if someone wants to give you an award, you should show up. So we do. And I sit there in a haze, sometimes not clapping–I don’t mean to be rude, but I get distracted. There’s a lovely lemon-yellow dress! There’s a kid I haven’t seen for two years since he was in an after-school club with my older child! Look, there’s a teacher with mismatched socks, and the clock on the wall is ten minutes slow and the curtain on the side of the stage is such a deep, deep red….

These occasions for reverie made me think of a few of the beginning couplets from “The Barber’s Fingers Move October,” by Samuel Amadon:

“If I watch two white cats play in a window
which is not the window I should be watching

when a window I watch through is the window
I should be washing, then we know today

is going to be a difficult to listen to all his talking
when his shirts are open, when his face is

pulsing.”

And the ending couplets, with thoughts spilling from one sight to the next:

“see how I can make my chair stop or keep
my chair spinning, either way I must be up for something

has made one white cat try hard his face against
the glass until a vein appears which, followed, leads

us back to apparently my bicycle was taken off
the shelf. What if I rode it with my knees spread down

the four flights of stairs out this building
into the street without checking the cars’ side

mirrors for if I still pedal with my mouth open?
Better you leave it too precarious in the doorway

for me to follow after the door is knocked
by the wind from a window I will open now

that it’s safe to say this has been a full morning
of staring through the half-reflection of my face

figuring out how it would sound
to understand every word you were saying.”

I also particularly like the middle lines about how “sometimes listening takes/stealing a bus, or finding a way to parking lots/large enough in which to fishtail.” They really evoke the feeling of drifting through an awards ceremony until the moment when someone trips and loses a shoe, or a kid flashes a grin and frames his face with his hands in a show-offy way. It pulls you back.

Or am I the only person who sits through such things watching the mouths move but not always focusing enough to “understand every word”?

5. Greater Than His Nature Will Allow: A Survey of Reanimation, Resurrection, and Necromancy in Fiction since Frankenstein by Jeanne Griggs

Victor Frankenstein, in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, says “Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.”
Victor’s warning to other would-be creators of life is based on two suppositions less familiar to us today than they were to readers in the early nineteenth century:
–That nature itself (or a nature-creating divinity) has intentions and goals.
–That humans are made in the image of God and are to rule the rest of creation.

Victor Frankenstein feels that he should not have tried to imitate the power that only God can properly employ to create life, and the subtitle “The Modern Prometheus” indicates that Victor has stolen the power to create life. Shelley’s introduction to the 1831 edition denigrates the reanimation Victor manages as a “slight spark of life” which can only “mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”

In subsequent works of fiction, mortals who dare to attempt the god-like power of resurrection suffer similar disappointment, finding that the re-created life is a corrupted version. For instance, at the end of W.W. Jacobs’ 1902 story “The Monkey’s Paw,” the protagonist realizes that the reanimated body of his son cannot possibly retain anything of the person he knew and loved. And in H.P. Lovecraft’s 1922 story “Herbert West—Reanimator,” repeated attempts to restart bodies produce increasingly horrifying results.

In the twentieth century, stories about created beings made of flesh and bone began to move away from science fiction and towards fantasy. They are less about human ambition and the search for forbidden knowledge, and more about magic and being born with the power to raise the dead.

In Ursula K. LeGuin’s 1968 novel A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged has ambition–he is a seeker of knowledge who is drawn in by the use of dark magic he can’t control. He is the only one with the knowledge and talent necessary to repair the damage he has inflicted by letting an undead creature into the world of the living.

The seeker of knowledge who is drawn in by dark magic he can’t control is one of the main tropes of necromancy stories, from 1818 until today. While it sometimes has to do with the intellectual temptation of talking to the dead to find out about the afterlife, it’s also the impetus for the god-like thrill of re-animating dead bodies. Over-reachers who can’t resist the temptation to prove their mastery over death include the necromancer figure in Tolkien’s The Hobbit and LOTR, Lewis in Bellairs’ The House With a Clock in its Walls, Tammy in Martinez’s Gil’s All Fright Diner, Howard’s Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, the ancient Grisha named Morozova in Bardugo’s Ruin and Rising, Paulsen in Gjevre’s Requiem in La Paz, and Jamie in Stephen King’s Revival. These are traditional necromancer figures, ones who find out, one way or another, that necromancy never pays.

But starting with Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, in 2009, we begin to get more first-person accounts of necromancy. We sympathize with Johannes Cabal and find out what drives him. In more recent YA novels featuring a traditional necromancer figure we see young people who have learned how to reanimate dead bodies struggling with the ethics of using their powers. In F.M. Boughan’s Cinderella Necromancer, we see a lonely young girl trying to resist using the full extent of her newly-discovered dark power. The young necromancer Finn Gramaraye in Randy Henderson’s novel Finn Fancy Necromancy also wrestles with the question of whether a necromancer can ever defeat death and mentions “Monkey Paw consequences.” Even when it’s clear that necromancy doesn’t pay, these YA stories offer their young necromancers a redemption arc if they can resist the temptation to see their power as unlimited.

An enduring trope of necromancy tales is the overwhelming desire of a lover or relative to bring the dead person back to life. The father in Pet Sematary, by Stephen King, wants his wife and son back so much that he ignores the horrible way his cat came back to life, hoping against hope that it will be different with the people he loves. Andrew, in Beuhlman’s The Necromancer’s House, literally sells his soul to the devil in order to continue living with his lover Sarah and their dog after they have died. The Jinni turns aside the wish of a little boy who wants his mother back in Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni, because he knows what horrors such a wish can produce.

Another major trope of necromancy stories is the puppet master, who has the power to reanimate bodies and uses it to supply more bodies for war, the purposes of another (usually a boss or ruler), or his own profit. The Death-Lord Arawn uses the power of the black cauldron, in Lloyd Alexander’s story of that name, to supply bodies for a war. Piers Anthony’s Jonathan of Xanth and Garth Nix’s Abhorsen can raise and command obedience from the dead. The Purple Emperor of Herbie Brennan’s novel is raised from the dead in order to keep the crown prince from ascending to his throne. Hades raises undead warriors to fight for his side in Riordan’s The Last Olympian.

The puppet masters in more recent fiction have a few qualms about animating their undead puppets. Although it’s Anita Blake’s job to raise the dead in Laurell K. Hamilton‘s Vampire Hunter series, she objects to removing too much of their free will. The evil necromancers in Jim Butcher’s novel Dead Beat have no qualms, but his hero Harry has plenty, being undead himself. In Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, Karou’s foster father Brimstone didn’t have too many qualms about raising the souls of his dead people so they could continue fighting a generations-long war, but when Karou becomes the resurrectionist of her people, her friend exclaims “you’re freaking Frankenstein!” and Karou indicates that her creations have free will by saying “If a human created ‘life,’ there could be no soul, only a poor benighted monster with no place in the world” whereas “I have the souls already….I’m just making the bodies.”

Related to the puppet master trope is the idea of the undead creature as a chimera, put together from parts of different bodies and also an impossible or foolish fancy. Although in Shelley’s novel Victor Frankenstein uses alchemy to create his monster, subsequent versions of the story of Frankenstein’s monster present him as a creature stitched together out of parts of different bodies (an image that gets comic treatment in the 1974 movie Young Frankenstein). The demon in Wells’ I Am Not a Serial Killer keeps himself alive with body parts he takes from different victims, chosen for their arms or eyes or whatever part he needs next. The Whatsitsname in Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad is also made and continually re-made from parts of bodies found blown up in the streets. Maggie Stiefvater’s hero Gansey is resurrected as The Raven King in a body miraculously patched together by a combination of nature and magic. Rather than a foolish fancy, Gansey’s resurrection is a necessary part of the power balance in his world.

Lust for power drives another common type of necromancer–the seeker of forbidden knowledge who keeps seeking because he or she wants to live forever. At first, the creatures created by these seekers exhibit a lack of soul or human feeling. They have no sense of agape, or love for fellow humans, like Frankenstein’s monster who says “if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear.” Stoker’s Dracula preys on humans with no sign of remorse. Vampire stories often feature creatures who have no human feeling, like the vampires in Holly Black’s The Coldest Girl in Coldtown.

Other seekers of knowledge who want to live forever and exhibit a lack of human feeling include the Dark Magician Cob in LeGuin’s The Farthest Shore, Voldemort in Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and The Elementals in Francesca Lia Block’s book of that name. This kind of knowledge-seeker can also become a creature who possesses another in order to continue his own life, like Curwen in Lovecraft’s “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” Ephraim Waite in Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep,” and the demon who possesses Kate’s first husband Eric in Kenner’s Deja Demon.

Recent vampire stories usually twist this trope, featuring undead characters who want to live forever and can do it without much loss of human feeling and with very few adverse effects, like Rice’s vampire Lestat, Betsey and her vampire and werewolf friends in Davidson’s Undead and Unwed series, and members of the Cullen family in Meyer’s Twilight series.

Recent zombie stories also feature undead characters who exhibit no loss of human feeling, often because they played no part in their own reanimation. Like the vampire stories, many of these imagine happy endings for the originally-innocent monster like Frankenstein’s. The zombies in Waters’ Generation Dead are as bewildered about why they’ve come back to life as anyone else, and they struggle in a very human way with prejudice from the living—they prefer to be called “living impaired” or “differently biotic.” Carey’s Girl with all the Gifts, who doesn’t even know she’s a zombie at the beginning of the story, turns out to be a new and hardier kind of human, and is the key to the survival of a new kind of life on earth.

The girl in Wasserman’s Skinned, who wakes up to find that a download of her brain has been installed in an artificially-made but still flesh-and-blood body, exhibits no loss of human feeling. The long-dead general in Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit, whose consciousness is downloaded by the main character, Cheris, helps his flesh-and-blood host assimilate some of his knowledge.

Many cyborg, robot, and Artificial Intelligence stories also show this progression away from an emphasis on the creator’s over-reaching or the creature’s lack of soul and towards an imagined happy ending for the brave new creature; this is still explored by science fiction writers today.

Fantasy writers usually head in a different direction. One of these is an increasingly common twist on the trope of the necromancer who is drawn in by the intellectual temptation of talking to the dead. The twist is that there’s a chosen one whose communication with a dead person results in that chosen one being compelled to continue a quest. The degree to which the living retain any free will varies. The people who work as “bodies” in Murphy’s novel The Possessions take a drug to summon the spirits of the dead so their loved ones can talk to them. Their job is set up to keep the dead from taking over the bodies of the living, but it turns out that someone else’s life can start to look good after they’ve lived it for long enough. Archivist Wasp, in Kornher-Stace’s novel of that name, survives by trying to get information from “ghosts.” When she succeeds, she is able to not only lay some of those ghosts to rest, but is armed with information that frees her from her former life. Mike, in Aric Davis’ A Good and Useful Hurt, gives himself a tattoo with ink that has ashes from the body of his murdered girlfriend and is then able to find her killer. Tara, who works for a necromantic firm in Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead, finds that bringing a god back to life means derailing her own career in order to see the life she has brought back to the god take hold in her city. Even the quest of Odessa, a court necromancer in the kingdom of Karthia in Marsh’s Reign of the Fallen, is to find out who has turned her undead king into a “Shade,” making him unfit to continue his rule. Occasionally the quest is continued by the dead person himself, as in Amy Plum’s Die for Me, where a hero come mysteriously and spontaneously back to life so he can continue his heroic acts, saving good people who would otherwise die before their time.

Sometimes, in 21st century fiction, resurrection goes right–or at least not as wrong as when a person tries it–because it is performed by a god. This happens in Gaiman’s 2001 novel American Gods, Hawkin’s 2015 novel The Library at Mount Char, and Drayden’s 2017 novel The Prey of Gods.

I think the culmination of the necromancy tropes in 21st-century fiction comes with novels in which the seeker for knowledge manages to contain dark knowledge or destroy dark magic. This happens in the comic YA novels by Lish McBride, Hold Me Closer, Necromancer and Necromancing the Stone. The hero, Sam, doesn’t even know he is a necromancer until he is visited by a scary-looking older guy who tells him that he is. When Sam confronts his mother, he finds out that she is a witch and was afraid of his powers when he was born, afraid enough to bind them. His quest is to decide how to act once his powers can no longer be hidden from the world by his mother’s protective spells. The main thing he does in the novel is loose the spirits that the older guy, the evil necromancer Douglas, had resurrected, so they can help him rid the world of Douglas. Between pop tunes used as chapter titles, references to pop culture, and a comic perspective on young adult life, this is a new treatment of the old tropes, showing that the modern way to dispel darkness is to laugh at it and try to fix what has been previously twisted by fear.

In the sequel, Necromancing the Stone, Sam and his supernatural teen friends learn how to incorporate their powers into everyday life. When his sister begs him to resurrect their dead father, Sam explains that “it doesn’t really seem right, calling him up for no reason. Kind of, I don’t know, disrespectful.” By the end, Sam gets a tattoo to remind himself of the distinction between good and evil use of his power. In this world where magic is real, the teenagers have to learn how to use it to produce good that can replace the evil of the past. Sam is not working against Nature, but trying to restore the balance of magic in his world.

The effort to contain dark knowledge also happens, in a more serious way, in Nick Harkaway’s latest novel Gnomon, a novel about the urge to resurrect a picture of the universe that includes a particular person—a longing so intense that the person who has been left alive will try to break the rules of the universe itself. Although the effect is metaphoric in the novel, the character with the most literal urge for resurrection is Athenais Karthogonensis, a 4th-century alchemist with a dead son. She often thinks about bringing things back from the dead, once even considering it to prevent the waste of a duck she had planned to cook, thinking she could “speak to the duck and make it fresh again, though always careful not to push too hard and bring it once again to life.” The alchemy of this novel, harkening back to Victor Frankenstein’s original area of study, is based on making the metaphor of resurrection literal, as “there’s a very real chance the basic unit of our universe is information. Meaning is as fundamental as matter.” What we think we know and want individually is just one piece in the larger picture of how we can function collectively, as a society.

All of these stories of “the modern Prometheus,” after Shelley’s, have increasingly contained a degree of postmodernist play on the horrors of alchemy or magic, which were originally thought to produce only “imperfect animation.” The creation of a simulacrum of a human has spawned more simulacra in a growing body of fictional treatments. Both the creator and the creature become chimera, composed of various parts from different films, drawings, songs, stories, and novels.

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