I adore my wife.
Marilyn is everything a man could want in a life partner and I am grateful every day to have spent the past 26 years in her company. Not least of her charms is her willingness — nay, eagerness — to not merely indulge the eccentricities of a frontier-obsessed scribbler and woodsrunner, but to actively encourage them.
The least I can do is to return the favor — no matter how batty a particular eccentricity may be…
Marilyn is possessed of an exceptional enthusiasm for bats. This becomes particularly acute in this season, because bats are such a fundamental part of the iconography of Halloween, mostly thanks to the Dracula legend. More on that in a moment.
She finds the critters compelling and kind of adorable. I get the first part of that equation more than the second part, but mileage varies, right? Neither Ceili nor I will ever let her live down an incident at the Oregon Zoo a few years ago, where she loudly and excitedly pointed out that one of the bats in the Zoo’s fine exhibit was assiduously grooming its nether regions. We do not know why she was compelled to point this out with obvious delight, discomfiting a large and nicely-dressed Latino family who appeared to be out for an afternoon’s outing after church and were not necessarily prepared for the narration of the Bat Lady:
“Look, he’s licking his penis! Oh, my gawd! He’s SOOOOO cute!”
The episode has entered Clan legend.
It’s one of the little cruelties of fate that when we visited Austin back in 2015, Marilyn got skunked on the Congress Avenue Bridge bat extravaganza, while the next night Ceili and I took the boat trip while Marilyn was at a business dinner and we caught ’em in full swarm. Maybe Marilyn and I should visit Captain Schwertfeger and give it another try.
On Saturday, the Deschutes National Forest hosted their annual Batacular! event in Bend. As part of Bat Week conservation education, the Forest Service throws the event featuring a variety of activity stations and information on how the Forest Service works to protect and enhance bat habitat, which is under threat from excessive human activity. We will be installing our bat box at our new home.
And we are engaging in our annual tradition of enjoying two Halloween movies that carry themes of dark frontiers — and bats: Tim Burton’s 1999 Sleepy Hollow and 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
The historical Vlad Tepes (1431-1476) was a badass Marcher Lord on the dangerous and brutal frontier between Christian Europe and the powerful and voracious Islamic Caliphate of the Ottoman Turks. The scion of the House of the Dragon (Dracul), Vlad ruled intermittently over the disputed frontier principality of Wallachia, now in southern Romania. He was a bloody bastard among bloody bastards, a virulently violent man in an age of virulent violence.
The Turks made frequent inroads into the Balkans, where they had established a substantial foothold that they would retain until 1912. They probed in force into the rugged mountains, where Vlad reigned.
Vlad was not always hostile to the Turks — as usual, political expediency and personal power were more important than religious fervor. But regardless of diplomatic maneuvering, he always ended up turning back to the sword.
Vlad was a warrior prince and probably a genuine psychopath, notorious for impaling thousands of his political enemies. He died in battle against the Turk. If he died…
Bram Stoker mined this bloody Balkan frontier history for his Gothic tale, Dracula. Stoker, who had met Buffalo Bill Cody, also threw a bit of Victorian era frontier flavor into Dracula with his Bowie knife-wielding Texan Quincy P. Morris.
It was ol’ Quincy who would forever tie the vampire Dracula to the image of the bat, regaling his vampire-hunting compadres with a tale from his sojourn on the plains of South America:
“I have not seen anything pulled down so quick since I was on the Pampas and had a mare … One of those big bats that they call ‘vampires’ had got at her during the night and … there wasn’t enough blood in her to let her stand up.”
Now, a naturalist will tell you that vampire bats are actually tiny critters, but Quincy was dealing with an entirely different breed…
Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which is really Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, came out in 1992, when Marilyn and I were dating. We both loved it immoderately, which is the only way you can love it. It’s an immoderate movie, from Anthony Hopkins’ scenery-chewing turn as Abraham Van Helsing to the ridiculously beautiful Winona Ryder’s erotically-charged plea, “Take me away from all this death!” Keanu Reeves as Jonathan Harker offers a mushy London accent and the emotive range of a block of wood. We can presume he had the life sucked out of him by Monica Belucci’s Bride of Dracula, poor fellow. Gary Oldham blows everyone else off the screen in with lurid relish.
Ah, what the hell… it works! Despite its manifest shortcomings, Coppola’s “erotic dream” is just dandy to watch with your batty sweetie on a chilly October night.
“Follow the Indian trail to where the sun dies. To the Tree of the Dead.”
Thus spoke a hideous witch to Johnny Depp’s Ichabod Crane in Tim Burton’s dreamlike Sleepy Hollow — just after she sliced the head off a bat and turned its blood into purple smoke in some obscene conjuring (sorry Marilyn).
Sleepy Hollow is our favorite cinematic tale of the season. The signature Tim Burton aesthetic is rich and spooky and atmospheric, and, unlike Dracula, the performances are uniformly excellent. (Note: Coppola was an exec producer on this one). As Marilyn says, it’s in the wheelhouse.
The year is 1799, and the new American Republic is charging into a new century, led by the burgeoning metropolis of New York, where science is supplanting superstition and commerce reigns supreme. Upstate, it’s a different story. Only a couple of days’ carriage ride north of the City, Sleepy Hollow is yet an isolated vale, a farming community perpetually shrouded in mist and fog. The fashions of the mostly Dutch settlers there are some 50 years behind the times, and the legacy of the American Revolution is still very much… alive… in the form of a Headless Horseman, the deadly, broadsword-and-ax-wielding spectre of a savage Hessian mercenary officer who fell in the West Woods back in ’79.
Sleepy Hollow is still the frontier. Log blockhouses are manned by settlers armed with an array of aged muskets. One virile young man, Brom Van Brunt, seems to have upgraded his with an 18th Century reflex sight — which is only one of the proto-Steampunk optical devices on display.
I may be putting more weight on this than the tale needs to carry, but I like it that the legacy of the Revolutionary War is a dark and forbidding presence. We tend to look back on that conflict through a gauzy veil of civic piety, forgetting that it was often a dirty and mean business. In New York, as it was in the southern backcountry, the Revolution was a civil war, and it was a nasty affair. Just a ways upriver from Sleepy Hollow, dark deeds were done in both the Revolution and the French and Indian War. Surely there are many unlaid ghosts from those sanguinary days.
Many a strange tale could come out of those dark forests…
Speaking of dark tales and the lasting legacy of war…
Deuce Richardson scouted up a spooky podcast featuring a veteran of an Iraq War Small Kill Team that is well worth the listen…
When Dallas Sanchez was stationed in Iraq, he saw danger every single day. But one night on patrol, when his small kill team took over a house in Baghdad, an unseen force had a message for them: Get. Out.
Check it out here.