Barack Obama will never write an acclaimed vampire novel because he has no respect for ritual.
To make sense of that statement and explain why the indictment within it matters, let’s examine a few examples of genre fiction before sifting through evidence offered by the president himself.
Other literary genres have charms of their own, but the choices that horror novelists make are especially important because they often touch on questions of ritual. As any priest, liturgist, relief pitcher, band leader, wedding planner, barista, chef, musician, teacher, bonsai gardener, or tea ceremony devotee could tell you, it is human to take comfort in ritual. A local Starbucks said exactly that before ceding space on its door to an announcement about the return of the pumpkin latte.
It’s hard to blend genres successfully, so my hat’s off to Stephanie Meyer and her bestselling “Twilight” series of vampire romances. That said, I sympathize with horror writer Stephen King, who took a swipe at Meyer for mixing “ethical and sensitive” with “undead.”
King thinks vampires should be scary, and seems discomfited by people who flout literary custom for artistic rather than satirical purposes, as Meyer has done. One assumes he has no quarrel with Terry Pratchett, because when Pratchett had a female vampire renounce bloodsucking to join the City Watch that polices the metropolis in his Discworld fantasy novels, he was playing amusingly against (blood) type. But Meyer’s undead “Edward” is another story.
Edward is freakishly strong and preternaturally quick, as vampire lore suggests that he must be. Yet we meet him in high school. However long he is alleged to have lived before being smitten with a classmate named Bella, Edward acts like a lovestruck teenager afterward, even seeking advice from a vampire father-figure. In the Twilight saga, romance trumps horror, so it seems fair to ask whether literary mashups of that kind make one genre or the other a junior partner. Unfortunately, Zombie Jane Austen does not provide helpful guidance in this area.
The vampire “family” in Stephanie Meyer’s fiction owes a debt to “The Twilight Zone.” Remember the episode of that iconic TV series where the unresolved question was whether a monster visible only to William Shatner was destroying the wing of an aircraft in flight? That was innovative for its time, because an “old-school” monster would have been visible to everyone on Shatner’s side of the plane. It’s no great leap from that inverted convention to the way that Meyer now treats favorite vampires and werewolves as models of self-discipline.
Anyone with misgivings about Meyer’s approach might find vindication in John Steakley’s “Vampire$,” which looks at the battle between good and evil from a conservative point of view. Writing more than a decade before Meyer hit it big, Steakley updated customs of the horror genre rather than ignoring them. Steakley’s vampires are evil creatures utterly incapable of love, angst, or protective impulses. His tale of mercenaries who hunt them with the backing of the church and the personal blessing of the pope depends in part on ritual. His vampires do not cast reflections, but can be hurt by wooden stakes. A crossbow-carrying priest is part of the mercenary team, and whether they’re Catholic or not, the vampire hunters attend Mass before doing battle with particularly loathsome fiends. One member of the team is an expert pistol shot, but Steakley bows to convention by having the gunman discover that blessed silver bullets make better ammunition against the undead than standard hollow-point rounds.
It will be obvious from what I’ve said so far that although Stephanie Meyer is a bestselling author and John Steakley is not, he has more respect for ritual than she does. That predisposition combines with his talent to make his story more engaging than hers. The critic who called “Twilight” a “misogynistic piece of hardboiled crapola” was being unduly and hilariously harsh, but it would be fair to say that Stephanie Meyer has done more to subvert the art of horror writing than to advance it.
That brings us back to Barack Obama, whose penchant for informality is such that he torpedoes ritual even without meaning to, as when presenting other heads of state with self-aggrandizing gifts, or privately seething over rather than celebrating the prowess of U.S. Navy SEAL teams, as Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer (in their new book, The Post-American Presidency) report happened when a SEAL sniper on the fantail of a destroyer dispatched the Somali jihadist pirates who had been holding a merchant marine captain hostage.
While that reaction was little-known because difficult to substantiate, President Obama’s musical tastes have made headlines. He nixed the playing of “Hail to the Chief” by an ensemble from the U.S. Marine Band. As his Press Secretary explained at the time, this president “is not a ‘Hail to the Chief’ kind of guy.” He prefers to be introduced like a lounge act with access to a piano, entering White House conference rooms over the strains of songs like “Desert Rose,” and so another American ritual was benched.
If you broaden the definition of “ritual” to include those times when it is synonymous with “custom,” our president’s aversion to both becomes even more obvious. Having confused informality with authenticity, and grown by dint of community organizing and bad sermons into an adversarial relationship with competence, Obama stands alone among recent presidents in making private-sector experience a disqualifier for top jobs on his economic team. He is also alone in bowing to dictators, and alone in describing the Muslim call to prayer as “one of the prettiest sounds on Earth.” Ironically, that last remark (delivered to Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times in March, 2007) might describe the only ritual about which Barack Obama is publicly enthusiastic. We already know that his enthusiasms don’t extend to common American observances like the Seventh-Inning Stretch or the hand over your heart during the Star-Spangled Banner. Yet Kristof’s column bore the fulsome title, “Obama: Man of the World.”
The presidential mania for informality would be a small thing if all it meant was that even with ghostwriting help from F.O.B. (Friend of Barack) Bill Ayers, Obama won’t intrude on territory already settled by writers like Stephanie Meyer and John Steakley. But anyone who dismisses ritual as fluff, shoehorns mere rhetoric into places where ritual should be, or sneers at the pomp and circumstance with which ritual sometimes travels, is chopping at more than the foundations of horror literature. Willingness to perform ritual when appropriate is a mark of respect. Ritual bridges past, present, and future in ways that informality and improvisation cannot. Anyone dead-set against ritual bears watching, but perhaps not listening to.
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