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Leah Schnelbach

Modern Folk Horror: Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

I spent a long time in grad school learning the word reify. I don’t know why it was so hard for me, but the definition just wouldn’t stick: reify, to take an abstract concept and give it form.

Sarah Moss’ Ghost Wall is in a way, about reification. The crux of the book is that a group of modern, mid-1990s people—an Anthropology professor, his three students, a bus driver, his wife, and his daughter—take something they see as a symbol, the “Ghost Wall” used by Iron Age Britons to magically defend their territory, and they make it real. They build it. They commit to the destruction necessary to procure animal skulls, they commit to the construction of gathering wood and putting up the wall. But they don’t put much thought into the symbolic aspect. What is a wall for if not to keep people out, or to fence people in? Who or what are you trying to keep out? The walls were used to be real, and have a specific purpose, but as time passed they became symbols in the minds of modern people. By making them real again the characters are giving form to the fears and beliefs of their ancestors—fears and beliefs that have no place in a modern world.

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A Charlie Brown Christmas Searches for Truth in a Complicated Holiday

Charlie Brown looked into the shining void that is Christmas, and became a hero.

Here was a child who acknowledged the sadness beneath the festivity, the loneliness, the aching search for meaning under tinsel. This half hour met the challenge thrown down by Rudolph, raised the bar for the Grinch, and created the template that has been used by nearly every animated special, sitcom, and even drama since the 1960s. Charlie Brown dispensed with all merriment, demanded to know the meaning of Christmas, and got a perfect answer.

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Have Yourself a Cosmic Little Christmas with 6 Intergalactic Holiday Specials

Lots of shows decide they need a little Christmas come December, but they’re not quite sure how to do it. Do you talk about the big Jesus-shaped elephant in the room? Do you just focus on Santa? Do you, I don’t know, cast Juliana Hatfield as an angel or make miracles happen on Walker, Texas Ranger?

This late-December urge becomes extra fun when sci-fi shows try it—they don’t usually want to deal with the religious aspect of Christmas, but they still have to find a way to explain Santa and presents (and maybe just a dash of Christianity) to aliens who are already confused enough just trying to deal with humans. So most of them fall back on humans teaching aliens about “goodwill” or “being kind to others.” This leads to some amazing moments, as we’ll see.

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A Matter of Life and Death Deserves a Place on Your Holiday Watch-list Alongside It’s A Wonderful Life

In December of 1946 a film hit U.S. theaters that told a story of a world trying to hold on to love in the aftermath of war, in which a celestial emissary came to Earth to aid a man caught between life and death.

Not It’s a Wonderful Life, but Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death , set in the final days of World War II.

While there’s nothing explicitly Christmassy about Life and Death, it makes for an interesting pairing with Wonderful Life—and in that film’s 130-minute running time, only about half an hour is specifically set on Christmas Eve.

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The Stan Lee Cameo in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a Perfect Farewell

I do not want to spoil Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (unless saying it’s really really good is a spoiler) so I will simply say this here, above the cut: while the requisite Stan Lee Cameo can feel a bit gratuitous or creaky at times, Lee’s appearance in Spider-Verse is absolutely, completely, no reservations perfect.

I’ll talk about why (WITH FULL SPOILERS) below.

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Why You Should Add AD/BC: A Rock Opera to Your Holiday Movie List

Every year, people who get paid to write on the internet celebrate a very strange ritual: we try to dig up obscure Christmas specials, or find new angles on popular ones. Thus, we receive epic takedowns of Love Actually; assertions that not only is Die Hard a Christmas movie, it’s the best Christmas movie; and the annual realization that Alf’s Special Christmas is an atrocity. These are all worthy specials, deserving of your limited holiday media time. However, I have not come here to ask you to reconsider anything, or to tell you that something you watch each December 24th is actually garbage—I am here to offer you a gift.

The gift of AD/BC: A Rock Opera.

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Celebrating the Liberating Weirdness of Madeleine L’Engle

Madeleine L’Engle was my first sci-fi. Maybe also my first fantasy. I read her before Lewis, Tolkien, Adams, Bradbury. I was 11 when I read A Wrinkle in Time, and I quickly burned through all the rest of her YA, and I even dug into her contemplative journals a bit later, as I began to study religion more seriously in my late teens.

My favorite was A Swiftly Tilting Planet (I’m embarrassed to tell you how often I’ve mumbled St. Patrick’s Breastplate into whichever adult beverage I’m using as cheap anesthetic to keep the wolves from the door over this past year) but I read all of her books in pieces, creating a patchwork quilt of memories. I loved the opening of this one, a particular death scene in that one, an oblique sexual encounter in another. Bright red curtains with geometrical patterns, The Star-Watching Rock, hot Nephilim with purple hair—the usual stuff. But as I looked back over L’Engle’s oeuvre and I was struck, more than anything, by the sheer weirdness of her work.

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Religion and Rocketry: How German Theology and Russian Mysticism Shape Our View of Outer Space

While researching the history of the space program for a previous article, I ran across the phrase “Godspeed.” Uttered spontaneously by Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter in the early days of NASA, it’s a phrase that, while not overtly religious, feels prayer-ish—and its repetition, and use as sort of secular benediction in the SFF community, became increasingly interesting to me the more I researched. The more I looked into it, the more I came to think the phrase itself sets the tone for our coverage of space exploration, both in contemporary news reports and fictional portrayals. Where you might expect films about feats of engineering and math to be quite secular and scientifically rigorous, there was often an interesting spiritual dimension to our space media. What I began to realize was that the vast majority of US-made space films use the space program to explore the German concept of the Heilige, or numinous.

As a person who used to study religion for a living (and who still studies it in their off-hours) I found this—excuse my use of a technical term—neat. In pursuit of this neatness I’m embarking on a journey across 40 years of film to look at how films have created a conversation between the realm of religion and the realm of rocketry. Join me, won’t you?

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A Love Note to Mystery Science Theater 3000, on The Occasion of Its 30th Birthday

Thirty years ago, on November 24, 1988, Mystery Science Theater 3000 premiered on KTMA, a cable access channel in Minneapolis. This very Thanksgiving is the show’s anniversary. It’s out of college by now (probably), maybe trying to buy a home, or start a family. It bristles when Cheers calls it a millennial—it’s always felt like an old soul, with the references to Get Christie Love and Charlie McCarthy, and it gets frustrated when other shows consider it shallow. It’s not just a reference factory, after all. There’s real depth and heart here, if you know how to pay attention.

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The Surprising Depth of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving

A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving is the least of the Big Three Peanuts holiday specials. The Peanuts Gang’s take on Halloween gave us The Great Pumpkin, and A Charlie Brown Christmas became the standard by which all other Christmas specials were judged. When the Gang tackled Thanksgiving, however, there just wasn’t as much to dig into.

Or so I remembered.

But when I rewatched this one I found that the show packed a surprising amount of depth in between all the Snoopy shenanigans and toast-buttering montages. In fact if you look closely enough, I think you might find a statement about what it means to be an American.

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Learning Empathy From Robots: How MST3K Helped Explain My Parents

This week marks a milestone for all of humanity—Saturday marks the 30th anniversary of the first broadcast of Mystery Science Theater 3000. The first ever episode, “The Green Slime” was shown on a small Minneapolis cable-access channel called KTMA on November 24, 1988.

There are many things to say about MST3K, (and eventually I plan to say all of them) but since this is Thanksgiving week I wanted to thank the show’s writers for helping me with a very specific issue I had as a kid.

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The 17 Best (and Worst) Cartoon Sidekicks of the 1980s

After years wandering the wilderness, Princess Adora and her bad-ass alter ego—She-Ra, the Princess of Power—is starring in a series of new adventures on Netflix. While I’m thrilled to binge the new show, I’ll always have a soft spot for the original 1980s series—partly because of the amazing sidekicks that tagged along her adventures in Eternia. This got me thinking about some of my favorite sidekicks from across the varied landscape of 1980s kids’ cartoons, which, naturally, resulted in a ranking list post.

THESE ARE MY OWN PERSONAL VIEWS. IT’S OK IF YOU LIKE SNARF.

I mean, I think you might want to talk to a therapist, but it’s probably OK, cosmically speaking.

But by all means tell me about your faves in the comments.

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Fractured Fairy Tale: Northwood by Maryse Meijer

For so long literature was dominated by the idea of the Huge Fat Novel with teeming casts of characters, multiple points of view, and overarching themes that Say Something About How We Live Now. The characters lives would often intersect with historical figures, to give the author a chance to show off their research. Sometimes the action would slip into the near future so we could get a taste of the Dystopia To Come. Sometimes there would be an Event that was so Important the author Capitalized Its Name. Often, the main character was a philandering male.

While these books aren’t always written by guys, they were emblematic of that intensely flag-planting type of masculinity that wanted to put their stamp on the hottest issues of their day. And to be fair, I love these kind of books. (I’m kinda sorta writing one of these kind of books at the moment.) But lately I’ve become much more interested in ‘smaller’ works—not in theme, but in length: books that act as scalpels cutting down to the bone of a story, and often pack a far more emotional punch than the hefty tomes that are usually called ‘important.’ Maryse Meijer’s dark fairy tale Northwood is one of these.

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A Heroic Journey Inward: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Farthest Shore

This week, Saga Press releases a gorgeous new omnibus edition of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Books of Earthsea, illustrated by Charles Vess, in celebration of A Wizard of Earthsea‘s 50th anniversary. In honor of that anniversary, this week we’re running a different look at Earthsea each day!

When we first began discussing a week-long celebration of Earthsea, I knew immediately which book I wanted to tackle. Depression is difficult to write about—if you want to capture it well you risk alienating your readers, and I’ll admit that there are a few points in The Farthest Shore that are hard to keep reading. But when I revisited the book I was reminded of just how perfectly Ursula Le Guin writes about the unwritable. What Le Guin does with The Farthest Shore is take the trappings and structure of a heroic quest narrative, and send her hero inward on a quest through his own mind and will. What results is one of the greatest portraits of depression that I’ve ever read, and I’ll attempt to talk about why it’s so great below.

Be warned this post talks about depression and gets pretty personal, so please duck out if you think this might pull any threads for you.

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