Frightening visions of the past and future…and past again…in books.

(credit to the BBC for the above still from The Man in the High Castle)

I spent the past month reading (or re-reading) four of the most frightening books I’ve ever read and I haven’t even cracked open my collection of “penny dreadfuls” for Halloween yet.

It might seem a bit strange to go on like this about fiction, especially when well…its fiction and can’t hurt you, but they make the mind wonder and connect the dots. One of the four is actually nonfiction. While there are moments of triumph, the stories have elements that creep out my free spirit, and reveal some uncomfortable parallels.

The first book is the oldest of the four, called It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis. He wrote it in 1935 with amazing insight into what Nazism was or would become in Germany, let alone if a similar fascist element took over the United States. I’d read the book once before, maybe a year or two ago, but something about this election cycle prompted me to pick it up again. I think I dropped it in shock when I went through to read it slower and more thoroughly. The agony of the depression, seeing what was going on overseas with fascism, the “professional every-man” Windrip that promised everything to everybody and was swept into office…only for all criticism to be stifled, the constitution suspended during a “period of national emergency” (a.k.a., forever), and party loyalty is all that matters.

This book frightens me because if things had gotten much worse in the 1930s, and we didn’t have the leaders who were willing to try anything (and yes, I’ll give FDR some serious credit here), then who knows what could’ve happened to the country. Lewis’ reckoning was pretty well on, I think. When the Windrip candidate ups the ante on his speeches, gets more forceful and darker, and some characters predict the worst (suppression, kangaroo courts, concentration camps), all the supporting characters keep saying is “it can’t happen here.” Uh…yeah, it can. Hell, I wonder how close we came sometimes. I highly recommend the book for its insight into populism-turned-fascism and the fragility of democracy in bad times.

The second book I’d read once before, called The Plot Against America by Philip Roth in 2007. It’s an interesting book about a young Jewish boy and his family in New Jersey, their life, and how things change when one party nominates Charles Lindbergh for president. The family hopes for FDR, but as events progress, regular Americans become more blatantly anti-Semitic. Young Philip tells how events after the election are hurting his family, how his world is splitting, and when Lindbergh goes missing at one point, massive “pogroms” occur all over the country. Now, the revelation at the end doesn’t quite feel right–to me. But all the events leading up to it, with the slow burn of a “folksy anti-Semitism” that explodes into violence and this family caught in the middle of it with divided loyalties, is a pretty incredible picture. I’m not Jewish, but the feeling that this could be any group, anywhere, is scary.

The third book I just finished a little while ago, and I’m still thinking on it–The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick. I can’t watch the series, and wanted to read the book anyway, but when I heard the premise, it creeped me out and I kept it on my shelf for a year before I picked it up. The idea that someone assassinated FDR early on, we were weak with ineffective leaders, and lost World War II, only to have the United States divvied up by the Japanese and Nazis was creepy as hell. Contemplating that scenario just makes me shudder, and the lives of the basic Americans living in this system. PKD shows an America where Black slavery is legal again, the few Jews left are in hiding or passing as other, the Japanese and Germans have all the good jobs, and relics of American products and culture sold in curio shops to Japanese collectors. The homegrown Americans have poor diet, education, and are 2nd class citizens in their own nation (unless they look Japanese or German), and the Germans have gone into space to colonize other planets while this one’s being destroyed. Yowza. There’s not a ton of info as to how exactly the U.S. lost the war (and this takes place 20 yrs after), but the plot leads to some crazy stuff. PKD’s stuff makes me have to really slow down and read because I know I’m going to miss things otherwise. His writing style takes getting used to. It’s not that thick a book, but wow. I’m still not sure about the ending and will probably re-read it later tonight, but damn!

The fourth creepy book is nonfiction, and I was determined to read it before the movie hits a theater near me—read it cover to cover in a day. It was History on Trial: My day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, by Deborah Lipstadt (Now you may find the movie tie-in retitled “Denial”). I’d had the book a while, but when I heard about the movie I rushed to read it, in hopes of getting a question or two answered. It’s not a crazy courtroom drama like in the movies, not really, but the crap that the “historian” who sued her for libel said…well, if I were listening to him in that courtroom, I’d have to take a long shower and scour myself until I bled. My jaw kept dropping the further I went, and I have to say for someone unfamiliar with the British legal system, Prof. Lipstadt did an excellent job giving us a basic understanding of it. I couldn’t believe what was going on, and what the man’s contemporaries allowed him to get away with stating in his books for about 20 years. In some areas, he was sloppy at best, deliberately falsifying conclusions at worst. I just shook my head and HAD to keep reading it yesterday until I finished. And the conclusion was rather satisfying, but I felt the words given by other historians at the trial’s conclusion were dismaying…and I’d love to know the reasons for them, as I’m sure she would (if she doesn’t know yet).

Okay, that last one, one might be wondering why it’s so scary. As a trained historian myself, it makes me nauseous to think what it would be like if the trial went the negative way, if this guy’s blatantly wrong conclusions were allowed to stand uncontested and he was able to keep spewing his falsified conclusions to a public that was uncertain. Lipstadt had it right when she said you really couldn’t debate deniers—that you have to look at the other side of the issue. What other side? The Holocaust happened; that’s not up for debate. No, what’s frightening is when you have apologists or sympathizers trying to explain away the worst aspects or diminish their meaning. There is truth, something happened, and it’s not right to explain it away. It may not be comfortable, damn it, but it is truth, and as she said (paraphrasing because I lost the exact quote), you can have opinions, but you cannot present them as facts.

What’s scary is it sounds a bit like some issues we’re having with sound bites in politics today, that a certain someone keeps saying “I heard…” or “I read…” when they get up to the podium and they have no sources. Why not–you have a staff, so look up the facts! It’s scary because people pass the words around, they’re printed, and then are used as facts, re-posted, and re-tweeted all over. It’s lazy, and unfortunately seems to be effective in many ways. If they’re blatantly wrong, there’s a half-assed apology and life goes on…but the words are still out there. It’s like the moment in every courtroom drama where a lawyer says something shocking and/or objectionable and the judge “instructs the jury to disregard that remark.” But do they really? It’s out there, and I’m sure it plays a factor in what happens next.

These four books have had a tremendous impact on me because I’ve seen too many parallels to what’s happening today in different places and areas. Well, maybe not “the man in the high castle,” which is quite different from my other picks. Even that book gives an awful glimpse of being on the losing end; similar to the other books, the wolves have taken over and made us all sheep.

And if we’re eaten in the process, who cares?

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