Foreword | September 01, 2009

I recently read Blake Bailey’s fine biography of John Cheever. Cheever grew up just in time for the Depression, managing to make a career in an increasingly unlikely occupation-writing short stories. The New Yorker paid him starvation wages through the ’40s and ’50s, until he finally found ways to piece together collections and novels. Throughout his early years and past midlife, Cheever was haunted by demons more troubling than low pay, however: he was an alcoholic, not going cold turkey until it was either that or death, and he was a bisexual who was never comfortable with his gay side, resulting in periods of shame and self-laceration.

Cheever’s life suggests how often not just writers but most of us suffer from demons. Whether or not they are as dramatic as Cheever’s, they can be both commonplace and cumbersome in our lives. The modern word “demon” comes from a proto-European term for “god” or “celestial,” yet its different usages over time refer to a variety of hidden powers or forces, from the higher self of Greek philosophy to the destructive demons of medieval Christianity. For Freud, demons were impulses arising from repression. Modern philosophers use the term “Morton’s demon” to describe our surprisingly frequent tendency not to see what belies our currently held biases.

In his story “The Path of the Left Hand,” Kent Nelson’s middle-aged pharmacist undergoes a predicament reminiscent of John Cheever’s as he anxiously tries to rediscover his true sexuality in midlife. Eleanor Lerman’s haunted character in “Persistent Views of the Unknown” experiences what appears to have been a paranormal occurrence, which becomes not just an influence in her life but the phantom that rules it. In her quietly scary story “In the Sunset,” Lucy Ferriss describes a mother who is all too aware of her own caring and sensitivity for her children-to the point that it blinds her to the truth about her relationship with one of her daughters. Karl Taro Greenfeld’s “Toddy M.” tells the story of a man who finds the life of his dreams a disappointment.

Jeffrey Schultz’s poems “The Gathering Blues” and “J. Resists the Urge to Comment on Your Blog” call attention to our collective demons of distraction, from blogging to bad films. Against the noise-polluting, thought-crowding clutter of modern living, Schultz asserts the need for meaning and connection. Traci Brimhall’s poetry has a naturalist’s scope, fueled by her desire for order and understanding. Brian Swann sets his poems in a Technicolor Mexican landscape, where scenes of deprivation are placed in sharp relief against the land’s paradisiacal mythologies, from the mirror-filled palaces of Moctezuma to the emperor Cuauhtémoc and his men.

Roberta Kalechofsky’s essay “Exit Strategies” also looks at mortality from an interesting point of view, especially regarding the paradoxes in the right to die and the right to life. Ideas about death were once grounded in religion, and as they have become increasingly embedded in medicine and technology, the argument for the right to die ironically becomes a defense of what is human. As Kalechofsky shows, however, in a world where we all have our own jinns and spirits, this should not lead to a mundane and merely utilitarian attitude toward the boundary between life and death.

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