The Devil’s On His Way

Friday the 13th is nearly upon us. We’ve got a special group post lined up for tomorrow to celebrate, but — as a writer with a(n un)healthy fondness for the macabre — I thought I’d take the opportunity to talk a bit about superstition.

Though my work often dabbles in the supernatural, I’m something of a skeptic in real life. That’s what I tell myself, at least. But if you were to watch a Pats game with me, you’d come away with another impression entirely. If my cat’s on my lap when we find the endzone, she’s not allowed to leave. If we fumble while I’m drinking my beer, the remainder of it will sit untouched. And on the rare occasion the announcers deign to compliment our play, I knock wood in an effort to undo the jinx.

Do I really believe I’m impacting the game in any way? Nah. (Half the time, I’m not even watching live.) But on the other hand, why chance it?

Do you see what I see?

Baby or savior? OR BABY SAVIOR?

The fact is, superstition’s baked into our DNA. Our brains are designed to recognize patterns, and evolution has selected for a hair trigger. If a warm wind’s blowing from the east and every animal in the forest is headed west, the caveman who fails to recognize a fire’s coming doesn’t last long enough to pass along his (blissfully carefree) genes. Wash, rinse, repeat… and a few thousand generations later, we’re seeing Jesus in old pictures and blaming bad days on the movements of the planets.

While I enjoy recreationally indulging my superstitious side*, I try not to let it alter my behavior in real life. I cultivate good writing habits, but push back whenever I sense they’re ossifying into rituals. I don’t buy into lucky hats or socks or pens or chairs, and I sure as hell don’t wait around for my muse. Writing isn’t magic. It isn’t luck. It’s work. (Fun work, but work nonetheless.) So, at every turn, I endeavor to treat it as such.

Although, okay, I’ll confess: if my prior day’s writing was like pulling teeth, I’ll usually swap out my coffee mug. That’s not superstition, though; it’s psychology. I’m making a symbolic change to my environment to signal to my subconscious that OH, WHO AM I KIDDING? OF COURSE IT’S SUPERSTITION.

So… where do you fall on the spectrum? Are you a believer or a skeptic? What silly writing rituals do you adhere to? IRRATIONAL MINDS WANT TO KNOW!

*If you’re fond of recreationally indulging your superstitious side, too, allow me to point you toward two of my current obsessions: TANIS and The Black Tapes. Both are podcasts produced by Pacific Northwest Stories. Both are free to download on iTunes. Both are works of fiction, although they work hard to sound as if they’re nonfiction (and do a remarkable job at it, too). The Black Tapes is best described as Serial meets The X-Files. TANIS is a little harder to pin down. But if, like me, you’re a fan of the creepy, the supernatural, the unexplained, give the first episode of each a try. (I listen while I run, but I’m told they’re also great for commutes.) My guess is, you’ll wind up hooked.

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9 Responses to The Devil’s On His Way

  1. Very interesting! It took me a while to see the baby in the photo.

    • Chris Holm says:

      I hear you, Ruth. I know it’s there, and I still have trouble seeing it. (Google “apophenia” or “pareidolia” if you want to see more weird, mind-bendy pics.)

  2. Skye says:

    Chris, this is a very curious post and one that hit me right between the eyes. Superstition is a very unusual/usual occurrence and some of us have had a wealthy dose of it. I am very interested in your books, and superstition is part of human existence ( you only need to watch a baseball game to see that).

    • Chris Holm says:

      One of my favorite writers, Skye, is a guy named Tim Powers. He wrote a marvelous book called LAST CALL that features a game of poker played with a Tarot deck. Famed for his hands-on research, he worked out the game meticulously at a local coffee shop… because he refused to bring the deck into his home. When asked why, he said his position on the supernatural was, “I’m totally skeptical and totally scared of it at the same time.” I can certainly relate.

      • Skye says:

        Chris; this runs through my family on my mother’s side, and my great grandmother was the local shaman in a village in the Carpathian Mountains ( Ukraine); they practiced an abundance of unusual activities and were very devout Orthodox Byzantine Rite, Catholics. My daughter played around with Tarot Cards and both children engaged in a very intense incident with a Ouija Board which had long lasting consequences. Tim Powers, huh, Chris?

  3. David Plimpton says:

    Thanks, Chris. Great discussion of the power of superstition and related phenomena.

    My experience with my mother’s superstitious nature was much on my mind for a recent narrative nonfiction I wrote recently about our many trips to play the horse together, starting when I was 15. I’ve submitted it to umpteen literary journals and await positve word. Every time I get a rejection I send our another so there are always 10 or so outstanding.

    Here’s a few excerpts dealing with the subject:

    The concern with jinxes, superstition, luck signaled another legacy of my mother’s poor rural Kentucky genesis – the power of myths, omens, talismans, premonitions, the occult. She’d never attend the races on Friday the 13th and a number 7 or 11 horse often received a kicker bet. If she found a bill on the sidewalk and couldn’t find the owner, she’d save it, earmarked for the next trip to play the horses. On the charm bracelet she wore to the track was a horseshoe. Who am I to say it didn’t work.

    She built in time to arrive early, handicap the first few races, and reserve grandstand seats located near the finish line with unneeded parts of the Daily Racing Form (data and expert tips for every racetrack known to man) draped over the seat-backs, which saved the extra cost of comparable Clubhouse seats.

    “Now we’ve got a coupla extra bucks for a bet, so it should be a lucky one,” she said with satisfaction.

    “When you figure out which bet it is, please let me know,” I said.

    She never did. But in the second race, when she won on a longshot filly, Sew, Wash and Wear, she exclaimed, “Hot damn, that was it! Now I’m playing with the track’s money.”

    I couldn’t see any basis for her choice except sewing. She loved to sew and was an accomplished seamstress. Sewing, learned from my grandmother on an ancient foot-pedaled Singer, was one of the few positive legacies of her childhood on a dirt-poor, tobacco-road Kentucky farm.

    Over her career, she seemed to take home the track’s money more often than not. It was as if some mysterious energy transmitted messages, omens, premonitions, from the thoroughbreds, jockeys and trainers to her sixth sense. Maybe she had an uncanny ability to absorb and synthesize that energy, the Form’s data, her observations and lucky tips – producing a handicapping virtuoso.

  4. Julianne Spreng says:

    Great post. Saw the face and couldn’t figure out why it was in the photo. Then shifted focus, saw the baby and it all made sense. My mother-in-law was an avid card player. If she was experiencing a string of bad deals, she would get up, walk counter-clockwise around her chair three times to break the string, and sit down. It worked often enough that she believed it did.

    • Skye says:

      I was unable to see the baby. I am handling this Friday the 13th with a new focus; this will be a lucky day. I do know that this day has spooky connotations, and sometimes I wonder if we set ourselves up to expect something to happened.

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