Literature is not like fine wine

Literary magazines are not very popular these days.

That might seem like bad marketing in the pages of a literary magazine; it doesn’t reflect the sort of positive self-promotion a PR firm might recommend. That’s because we are a literary magazine and don’t make enough money to hire a PR firm that could stop us from talking about this.
There’s a tension, not just in literature but in other art like movies and music, between “pop” creations and highbrow art. One the one hand there are the action movies, the thriller novels, and the shallow songs with a contagious beat. On the other hand there are what are often called “indie” movies, books and films that have small, devoted and almost always insufferably snobby audiences.

On the one hand, fans of pop art seem to feel that if they don’t get an adrenaline rush, a shot of pure entertainment, it’s not worth their while. And art snobs seem to feel that if bands or writers make it big, their art must not be very good. Otherwise, why would so many dumb ordinary people appreciate it? This may be one reason why, if an indie band becomes successful, it is invariably accused of “selling out,” and its fans go find another band with an exclusive group of fans who are the only ones who “get it.”

On the literature side, it sometimes seems that the most praised works of writing are those that are dense, difficult to understand, and have almost zilch entertainment value. The characters are unlikable, their adventures are uninteresting, and the genius of the piece is bound up in the “lens” through which it views the world; the artists and their uniqueness then become the focus. This is not objectionable to the artist, of course, but it can be very boring for everyone else.
It seems that artists have lost their way. On the one hand, we have immensely talented people creating works that are technically very skillful, but not really that appealing or interesting (think John Updike). If a piece flops, it’s convenient, and less painful for the artist to blame the audience. Those poor plebes — I’m just too good for them to appreciate.

And on the other hand we have works that are thrilling and catchy, but not skillfully done (a good half of everything you’ll find in a bookstore, by a generous estimate).

We’re all used to the movie critics who slam films that don’t meet their high standards but inexplicably draw huge crowds. Maybe these critics would get more respect if they also tore apart works that are technically well done, full of artistic genius and soul, but virtually unwatchable.
Great art does not have to be popular, of course. There are many reasons for a creative work to never become famous — the editor wouldn’t publish it, the agent didn’t think any radio stations would be interested, the artist kept it in her attic and never tried to get it published, and so on. But some art deserves to be unpopular.

The artist’s goal should be a creation that is skillfully done, interesting, enjoyable, and meaningful. If the Sacred Cow and other literary magazines publish such pieces, we might be able to stop moaning about how nobody likes good literature anymore.


After the Worms Destroy the Skin

By Andrew Sharp

Richard Magee had sometimes wondered what it was like to die. But when he actually did, during what he had thought was going to be the middle of his life, his mind was too clouded to analyze and understand it. Does anyone know the moment he falls asleep?

They’re going to be celebrating the Fourth of July, and I’ll be gone, Richard thought as he lay in the hospital two days before he died. Thinking was about all he could still do. Without the ability to act on his thoughts, he felt increasingly as if he were living in an imaginary world, his bed a tether that kept him from roaming as far as he wanted to.

Yesterday, he had been worried about paying the gas bill, whether he could talk his wife out of a European vacation, whether he’d get caught for fudging his time sheets at work, and whether the Phillies’ pitching was really this bad.

He’d been looking forward to watching the fireworks this weekend.

Now he was watching the ceiling in the hospital, and it seemed likely the fireworks would go off after his grand finale. This was not a morbid gut instinct. He had heard the doctor tell his family the end would be soon. That was a relief. He wouldn’t want to linger on for years asking for more pain medication with eye blinks. They kept asking him if he understood, and he blinked at them, and then they still talked as if he wasn’t in the room. Why don’t you ask me if I feel horrible and want to die? he thought. I’ll blink yes for that.

And where would he be, while everyone watched the fireworks? He used to think that life must go on in some way after death. He had been raised believing in God, and had taken comfort in the chance that, assuming he got a passing grade after his expiration date, he had more future than as a skeleton in a coffin.

But that hope had gone down with the loss of all hands years ago. He saw the random disaster that destroyed innocent children and saintly grandparents alike, while criminals enjoyed wealth and happiness. He learned how hurtling space rocks changed the futures of entire planets with chance impacts. He grew to accept the hard scientific understanding that consciousness is just a complex organic computer program. Religion, he realized against his will, was a masquerade. It was useful in that it gave color to the lives of ordinary humans, a structure to order their short lives around, but it was not a truth that provided real hope. Despite all the prayers, struggles, and faith, the pious were just nasty ordinary people underneath. There were no miracles.

He remembered the day he finally knew, against his will, deep down to his very core, that when he prayed, no heavenly being heard it. That his father was not “safe in the arms of Jesus” but very literally becoming a worm, or rather a worm’s feces, his atoms redistributed to the eager benefit of the life that was still lucky enough to be squirming.


The doctor was right. Richard’s last day did not procrastinate. He recognized it when it came, and knew the light streaming in through the cracks in the curtains was his last sunrise, which he had missed because he was flat on his back. He watched the light crawl up the opposite wall, and he breathed disinfectant fumes instead of the foggy morning air that was a few feet away on the other side of the drywall and brick.

Death stripped away sentimentality like a nest of beetles. For the victim, anyway. His wife and two of his children were gathered in the room, ready to send him out with tears and ceremony.
He wished they would just go to work like usual. They would die too; why make such a fuss about his passing and waste the time they had left? This sentiment was too complicated to blink, so he let it be.

It became hard to form thoughts. He knew his wife was holding his hand. His chest hurt, even through the drugs. There was a baseball game. A bowl of oatmeal. A commotion on a highway with yellow stripes, and he was tripping on something. Wings flapping. He was falling. A weight pushed down on his chest and he tried to grab it and push it off. He worked to remember something important. Then he felt as if he were in tiny pieces, specks spread far, spread everywhere, a great horrifying gap, too much distance, too much space. Everything was a mist that was rushing inward, growing tighter and more solid. His perception was not a thought, but a restless knowing, like a dream during sickness.

Something is pushing all over my body, he thought. The weight. Then he knew what he had been trying to remember. I’m dying. I don’t want to die.

He fought to breathe and tried to thrash his arms. No one came to help. Suddenly the weight gave way and he sat up, gasping in breaths of air. He was up to his waist in black, leafy dirt in a patch of ferns. A mosquito whined at his ear and bit his neck. He crushed it.

He brushed a long tendril of moss out of his face and looked around.

“Christ!” he said.

The Walkers

By Ben Herr

Tree spinI crouch between two holly bushes, breathing heavily. My hiding spot is nestled between two houses within the sprawling development I’ve spent this wild night in. I may not be in the best hiding place, but at least I can clearly see the only two ways to get to it. The coast is clear on both, yet I can’t escape the feeling of being watched. But it’s probably just paranoia. As much as the movies love the jump scares and surprises, they never capture the feeling that every bush, corner, tree, building, or garbage can hides a nemesis. At least, not to the level you actually feel it when you find yourself dead center in the first known, real life zombie outbreak.

I hear the dreaded music again, and I hit the deck, scooting as close to the wall as I can. I can picture what is coming perfectly, for I’ve seen it at least a dozen times tonight. Yet I feel the need to get another look, that somehow, this is also the first time. I crawl along the wall to the house’s front corner and crouch behind another decorative holly, peering around the corner to get a better view.
The well-paved, marking-free road is empty, but not for long. As the tinkling music box tune becomes more audible, he rides around the corner. It’s one of what I call pipers. The zombie pedals a rickety bike around the community, ever so slowly, and ever so unsteadily, an old music box playing a repetitive, eerie tune from the basket in front. The music is accompanied by a mild chorus of growling from the ever growing crowd of walkers not far behind. The music seems to draw them together; avoid the pipers and you can avoid the zombies, I’ve learned. But I notice a hobbling figure come out of the darkness on the far side of the street to join the crowd. My heart pounds as I twirl around, having forgotten to check behind me. There are still more out there who haven’t yet joined to packs.

I think about how I got stuck in this disaster. I suppose it’s no different than Little Red Riding Hood. A simple trip to Grandma’s house landed me in great peril. And now I’ve been running around for hours, lost and disoriented in the development, unable to find a way out, and turned back by a piper whenever I get close. Perhaps this is why I can’t shake the feeling of being watched.
With the pack almost even with my hiding spot, I realize it’s time to get out of there. I scurry to the back of the house and scan the terrain. A joint system of back yards, with the next row of houses about 50 yards away. An old shed stands about halfway through the open space. I’ll make it there first.

I take a few more breaths, then dart to the back of the shed. My head goes on a swivel, looking to see if I drew any attention, but the night remains still. I creep to the front of the shed, ready to run to the next row of houses. I take a few breaths, trying to keep my breathing quiet and under control, when the shed door flies open, slamming into my forehead, and a growling zombie stumbles out.

“Why was there a zombie hiding in a tool shed?” I wonder, losing precious moments as the creature closes the few paces separating us. I frantically backpedal to stay out of reach, creating enough space to turn and run. Yet as I turn, my feet tangle and I start to fall. My head turns forward just in time to grab onto the tire swing directly in front of me. I hold on as I swing forward, then start to spin as gravity pulls me back. I’m heading straight for the zombie. Fortunately, the swing rotates my legs forward, and I’m able deliver a strong kick to the thing’s chest, knocking it down. I let go and drop to the ground.

For the first time, my thought is not to flee, but to fight. Though I have nothing to fight with apart from the tire I regain control of as I stand up. The zombie is coming back. With no other option, I push the tire over its head and down around its arms, forming more or less of a straight jacket. Then with a strong shove, its feet leave the ground and it starts swinging back and forth. I give it a strong kick to add a spin to the zombie pendulum. Inspired by the weak growl that escapes its lips at the peak of each swing, I take mental note to patent an idea for an undead grandfather clock.

I’m not sure what to do with the zombie now. This is the first one I’ve encountered and dealt with, instead of simply running away. I haven’t yet considered the ethics of killing a zombie. I don’t even know what’s making them zombies. Virus? Supernatural miscue? I think of the pipers. Hypnosis? I understand nothing of the situation, nor can I formulate any guesses that make logical sense. The whole situation reeks of an elaborate explanation that will never be made clear.

I figure the zombie won’t be going anywhere soon, especially if zombies are still affected by inner ear function, so I decide to check to the shed for anything useful and leave poor creature in its swinging prison. I am surprised to find a well stocked tool shed. Rakes, hoes, shovels, sledgehammer, pickax, screw drivers, crow bars, hedge clippers, machete, rope, weedwhacker, and chain saw. My hand hovers ironically over the chain saw for a few moments of consideration, before I pass over it and choose the pickax.

After dashing away from the shed and the immobilized zombie, I find a dark corner to hide in. I spend some time trying to retrace my steps, trying to regain a sense of direction, but I am irreversibly lost and confused. The roads loop around too much and end in too many dead ends to make any sense of where I have gone. What was a large housing development before now seems like an endless jungle of identical buildings, with legions of chiming pipers patrolling the paths. There is but one option: Keep going. I look around once again, searching for the invisible pair of eyes that I keep sensing, but see nothing.

Pickax over my shoulder, I move forward, now more deliberately, trying to track where I was going and where I had come from. For the next 10 minutes there was neither sign of life nor unlife. I follow roads, cut through properties, and double back when I suspect I’m going in circles. But I still feel no closer to finding my way out by the time I see another piper.

This time, I see them even before I hear them. A massive pack is scattered along the road in front of me, walking from my left to my right. The piper is already so far past, he disappears from view shortly after becoming visible to me. I think through my options to go back, but it is a long way. I would try to wait it out and let them pass before I keep going.

I drop to the ground and crawl the remaining 30 feet from my vantage point in a cluster of trees to the nearest house, ending behind the glass-enclosed back porch. I then follow it to the back corner where I can watch what is happening without risking much visibility. From my spot, I watch them file past like an unending row of stumbling ants. Again, I wonder, what were they? Was there anything human left? Were they animal, lower than animal, or still almost human?

A twig snaps behind me, throwing my heart into a frenzy. Involuntarily, I spring up and spin around. I am frightened by one thing, and terrified by another. I am frightened by a lone zombie hobbling toward me, no more than 20 feet away. I am terrified, however, by the sound of shattering glass. The pickax is still over my shoulder when I spin.

Surprisingly, the lone zombie stops in its tracks. Startled? Scared? Or just distracted? I am frozen, still tense, still kicking myself for blowing my cover. I sneak a glance over my shoulder. The parade has stopped following the music box and has turned off of the road and toward the houses, approaching in a wide, sweeping wall. Going forward, or even sideways, is no longer an option; I have to, once again, turn back.

But the lone zombie still stands in my way. I would do my best to make quick work of it, but we seem mutually frozen. It stands there, staring at me, looking almost uncertain, and I stand still because I don’t understand why. I look into its vacant eyes and see nothing flicker, no gleam of humanity as I had hoped. A few moments later it again starts forward, coming for me with a growl. I lift the ax and give it a broadsided blow, knocking it off balance enough to run by.

It doesn’t take long before I have once again put good distance between myself and the zombies. I no longer have a plan for where I am going. I no longer feel I can do anything but aimlessly wander. I can only think about what is really going on, and about that lone zombie. It looked completely unlike a human, yet did not look completely brainless and dead. It looked somewhere slightly in between, or at least, like it was battling to become so. What was it?

For that matter, what am I? How do I know I am fully human? I think of the events of the evening. They seem far from sane. I look at the pickax in my hand. I have ended up with far from the most practical weapon from the tool shed. Had I made the selection because it seemed awesome, or was there some unknown factor in the decision? I think of how I was seemingly blocked at every turn in my attempt to escape from a place that makes a corn maze seem like Alcatraz. Either I am the unluckiest of unlucky survivors, or I am doing, thinking, or perceiving something wrong. So something, perhaps, is working to keep me in.

What did the movie characters do? When things went wrong, they always found a way or a reason to keep going. But this brings another thought to mind. In the movies, they often have the same pop culture knowledge of zombies as the real world. They reference the knowledge of zombies, but act as though they are seeing them for the first time. It seems scripted to us, the viewer, but seems real to them.

I think again to unshakable feeling that someone or something is watching me. I realize it’s not just the fear that zombies are near that I just don’t see. It’s something bigger. The puzzle pieces fall together. Am I just a character being written, or more likely filmed, into existence?

The Nations Underfoot

By Andrew Sharp

Two books have greatly shaped my thinking about the history of the United States, and they vary wildly in style. One speaks in barely suppressed rage, and the other calmly analyzes.

The calm one is “1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus,” by Charles C. Mann. He examines new scholarship that contradicts the story about how the “New World” was lightly populated by roving “savages.” Instead, Mann reports, it was full of established agricultural communities, permanent settlements, and highly advanced cultures.

The enraged book was “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” a horrifying (if sensational) account of how the last few of the North American native cultures were exterminated in the West. It’s full of stories of greed, lies, betrayal, and cold-blooded murder that often amounted to genocide.

If the Americas were not wilderness, then “settlement” is the wrong word. In the interest of accuracy, we need to use the word “conquest.” And then we need to confront the way in which that conquest was done, and ask if some justice is overdue.

While “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” certainly has a sensationalist slant, painting the white advance with as black a brush as possible, it contains a great deal of uncomfortable truth, along with an invaluable telling of events through the eyes of the conquered, not the conquerors.
You could argue that the U.S. war on American Indians was bad, but it might not have been quite as bad as the book says. If saying that theft and murder were exaggerated helps you sleep better at night, by all means dismiss this book. But that doesn’t work for me.

A simpler way to examine the issue is to ask yourself, “Would I switch places with these people? If my ancestors were the original inhabitants, would I be pleased that things turned out as they did?” You can nit-pick over some of the generalizations made by historians sympathetic to Indians, but to argue that whites had a right to all the land they ended up with is not sober historical analysis. If you’ve never read the Cherokee appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to avoid deportation from their lands, I recommend you take the time.

The United States has held itself up as a “city on a hill,” an example for the world to see. It’s no wonder, then, that we have had to gloss over our history.

Henry Whipple, chairman of the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the wars with the Sioux, summed it up well.

“I know of no other instance in history where a great nation has so shamefully violated its oath. Our country must forever bear the disgrace and suffer the retribution of its wrongdoing. Our children’s children will tell the sad story in hushed tones, and wonder how their fathers dared so to trample on justice and trifle with God.”*

The scope of the injustice perpetrated calls for more than regret and apology. It calls for practical steps to make restitution as much as possible. Although cultures cannot be unmurdered, things that have been stolen may be returned. Why do we return art and jewelry stolen by Nazis but not return Indian land? World War II occurred only decades after the Indian Wars.

Far from being comfortably buried in the remote past, the defeat of the American Indian occurred in the late 1800s, decades after slavery had been abolished. Apache warrior Geronimo died in 1909 (a year after Ford began manufacturing Model Ts). Red Cloud (Oglala Lakota) died the same year. Scattered armed uprisings continued until 1924. To put this in perspective, my grandparents (most still living) were born in the 1920s. There are still people alive — albeit very few —who were born while Geronimo was still living. My father remembers visiting an elderly woman who had gone out to the West on a stagecoach around the time of the Western Indian wars.

Many American Indians today live marginalized on small reservations, a sort of glorified cattle corral, where they have no real chance to rebuild a nation (or sovereign tribe) in any dignified sense of the word. You can argue until you’re blue in the face that it’s their fault if they aren’t making meaningful lives for themselves (many of these arguments are encores of “drunk worthless savages”). But would you be happy if your people had the leftovers?

Any honest attempt at genuine restitution is likely to be very painful, as is only natural when attempting to redress great pain. It will also be complex and difficult to sort out.

But it’s past time to start.