Tag Archives: book reviews

Thoughts on “Big Sur” by Jack Kerouac

Recently, I was in Carmel and visited an indie bookstore. While browsing, I found this book on the shelf. Since I have been to Big Sur, and I liked On The Road, I figured I would pick it up and give it a read, even though Kerouac’s Dr. Sax was one of the worst books I have ever read.

Truman Capote hated Jack Kerouac’s work, saying: “That’s not writing, it’s typing” (Source: Wikipedia). And I have to say, Capote has a point. As I was reading the text, it was full of typos, Kerouac did not appear to spend any time editing, and usually he opted to skip superfluous stuff like punctuation. In fact, according to sources, Kerouac “typed up” this entire book in a mere 10 days (Source: Wikipedia). But that criticism aside, I kind of liked the book. The story was interesting and stylistically it was like a blend of impressionism and stream-of-consciousness.

The protagonist in the book, Jack Duluoz, who is clearly a representation of Kerouac himself, expresses that he is tired of the role of “king of the beatniks.”

Because after all the poor kid actually believes that there’s something noble and idealistic and kind about all this beat stuff, and I’m supposed to be the King of the Beatniks according to the newspapers, so but at the same time I’m sick and tired of all the endless enthusiasms of new young kids trying to know me and pour out all there lives into me so that I’ll jump up and down and say yes yes that’s right, which I cant do anymore—My reason for coming to Big Sur for the summer being precisely to get away from that sort of thing—

(p. 109)

The issue that Duluoz soon discovers is that when you go someplace to escape your problems, you end up bringing your problems with you. And these problems edge the protagonist closer to a complete mental breakdown.

For me, the most powerful aspect of this book is Kerouac’s visceral description of the pain of addiction; in this case, addiction to alcohol. The sense of hopelessness and self-loathing permeates every word as he exposes his suffering to the reader.

—The mental anguish is so intense that you feel you have betrayed your very birth, the efforts nay the birth pangs of your mother when she bore you and delivered you to the world, you’ve betrayed every effort your father ever made to feed you and raise you and make you strong and my God even educate you for “life,” you feel a guilt so deep you identify yourself with the devil and God seems far away abandoning you to your sick silliness—You feel sick in the greatest sense of the word, breathing without believing in it, sicksicksick, your soul groans, you look at your helpless hands as tho they were on fire and you cant move to help, you look at the world with dead eyes, there’s on your face an expression of incalculable repining like a constipated angel on a cloud—In fact it’s actually a cancerous look you throw on the world, through browngray wool fuds over your eyes—

(p. 111)

While this is not the greatest work of literature, by any stretch, it is brutally honest, and that is what gives the book value. While this is probably not for everyone, if you like the beat writers, you will likely enjoy this book.

Thanks for stopping by.

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Thoughts on “Piranesi” by Susanna Clarke

This is the first book that Susanna Clarke has published since Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, which was published in 2004. I loved Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, so I was eager to read Ms. Clarke’s latest, which although not as great as her first novel, it is still very good.

Piranesi is the story about a person living in an alternate reality, and the text is structured as journal entries. There are some interesting and creative aspects to the book, structurally, but I should say up front that my wife listened to the text as an audiobook and did not enjoy it. I can see how this text would not translate well to spoken word. So, if you are planning to read this book, you should read it and not listen to it.

That said, I figure we can look at a couple passages.

These are the Drowned Halls.

On the Periphery of this Region the Waters are shallow, tranquil, and covered with water lilies, but in the centre they are deep and treacherous, full of broken Masonry and drowned Statues. The majority of the Drowned Halls are inaccessible, but some can be entered from the Upper Level.

(pp. 34 – 35)

The dimension where Piranesi exists is a kind of labyrinthine house, which contains animals and water and statues. What is interesting about this passage is the implication that the house, with its rooms of water, represents the subconscious, the aspects of the psyche which grant individuals glimpses of other dimensions. The deeper you go into the waters of the subconscious mind, the more treacherous it becomes. One runs the risk of “drowning” in this other realm. And the line “The majority of the Drowned Halls are inaccessible, but some can be entered from the Upper Level” implies that most areas of the subconscious mind are not accessible to us, but some may be entered by exiting our normal state of awareness, or the Upper Level. Interestingly, certain words are capitalized, giving them a sense of being proper nouns, or names. Most intriguing is Masonry. While this might be coincidental, I could not help wondering whether it is an allusion to the secret rites of the Masonic order. Ritual is often used to evoke non-ordinary states of consciousness in individuals.

At one point in the story, Piranesi meets a “Prophet” who offers to tell Piranesi how his world came into existence.

He looked gratified by my interest. ‘Then I will tell you. It began when I was young, you see. I was always so much more brilliant than my peers. My first great insight happened when I realised how much humankind had lost. Once, men and women were able to turn themselves into eagles and fly immense distances. They communed with rivers and mountains and received wisdom from them. They felt the turning of the stars inside their own minds. My contemporaries did not understand this. They were all enamoured with the idea of progress and believed that whatever was new must be superior to what was old. As if merit was a function of chronology! But it seemed to me that the wisdom of the ancients could not have simply vanished. Nothing simply vanishes. It’s not actually possible. I pictured it as a sort of energy flowing out of the world and I thought that this energy must be going somewhere. That was when I realised that there must be other places, other worlds. And so I set myself to find them.’

(pp. 88 – 89)

This is an interesting concept, and it is one which I have pondered. If everything is energy, and the First Law of Thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but only changed from one form to another, and if thoughts and consciousness are forms of energy, then what happens to our collective consciousness? Does it take on new forms, or does it flow somewhere else? What is the effect of conscious energy on other forms of energy? If the energy patterns still exist, can the be “re-collected”? These are deep questions about the very fabric of our reality. I don’t claim to have any answers, but this is one of those cases where the answers are not as important as the questions.

Anyway, to close, I will say I enjoyed this book. I would recommend both of Susanna Clarke’s books.

Thanks for stopping by and have a great day.

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Thoughts on “Being Ram Dass” by Ram Dass

When I received an email from Sounds True announcing the publication of this book, I knew I would be reading it. I loved Be Here Now and could not pass up the opportunity to read a first-hand account of Ram Dass’s life, which ended on December 22, 2019.

Ram Dass was born Richard Alpert in 1932. The book covers his long and interesting life, from his childhood to his early days as an explorer of psychedelics with Timothy Leary, then his journey to India where he met Maharaj-ji and became a devotee, and finally, his later years following his debilitating stroke.

There are so many wonderful and insightful seeds of wisdom in this book, it seriously warrants reading by anyone who has even a sliver of interest in spirituality and service. I will share a couple quotes that stood out for me.

Service as a spiritual path lacks glamour. I liked moving in and out of planes of reality, esoteric teachings, secret mantras, meditation in caves, experiences of bliss. Those experiences of different planes originated in my use of psychedelics, and I’d grown attached to those experiences. It was another trap that I created for myself, another kind of spiritual ego.

I had romanticized and idealized my spiritual path—so much so that I distanced myself from the nitty-gritty of life. I wanted to transcend this earthly plane, with its imperfect humans caught in their greed and ambition and selfishness, including me. Serving God was an ideal. Serving God in the form of other people, with all their vagaries and flaws, politics and personality quirks, was a whole other kettle of fish.

(p. 280)

I confess, I am guilty of what Ram Dass describes. I know I have “spiritual ego.” In addition, I find myself constantly vexed by the attitudes and behaviors of my fellow humans. I make a conscious effort to practice empathy and acceptance, but it does not come easy for me. It is so much easier to “love and serve” those who I like, but those who anger me? That is hard. I suppose I should take comfort in the fact that I realize I still have a way to go along my path. There is hope for me yet.

This segues nicely into the next passage.

Gandhi said, “When you surrender completely to God as the only Truth worth having, you find yourself in the service of all that exists. It becomes your joy and recreation. You never tire of serving others.” Billions of acts create suffering in the world—acts of ignorance, greed, violence. But in the same way, each act of caring—the billion tiny ways that we offer compassion, wisdom, and joy to one another—serves to preserve and heal our world. When I help someone change their perspective on their individual problems, I also change society.

(p. 360)

I must confess, I have been seriously considering ending this blog. But it is the possibility that maybe something I share might help one person, the chance that I might help spread some small crumb of wisdom or insight or inspiration to another person, that brings me back to the keyboard to write yet another post.

If you are reading this, I hope you will consider the wise words of Ram Dass, and maybe pick up a copy of his book and read it. Thanks for stopping by, and may we all contribute to spreading some happiness in the world. The world desperately needs more happiness right now.

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Thoughts on “The Overstory” by Richard Powers

When I was a college student, I took a course on Environmental Literature, where we read such writers as Henry David Thoreau, Rachel Carson, Edward Abbey, Mary Oliver, and others. It was an inspiring course and spoke to my environmentalist sensibilities. The Overstory by Richard Powers would be a worthy addition to a course on Environmental Literature.

This book is exquisitely written and full of insightful and thought-provoking passages about humanity’s connection to trees and the natural world. In fact, as I was reading this book, I took copious notes regarding sections that were of interest and worthy of writing about in this post, but there is one passage that stands out for me above all others in this book:

“You’re a psychologist,” Mimi says to the recruit. “How do we convince people that we’re right?”

The newest Cascadian takes the bait. “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

(p. 336)

As a person who takes environmental issues seriously and who feels that climate change is the greatest existential threat facing humanity, I am often baffled at the apathy and denial that I see around me. I could not understand why people would refuse to heed the recommendations of scientific experts. But Powers identifies the problem and the solution. Facts and data do not inspire. Stories do. Oscar Wilde famously wrote: “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” You can beat people over the head with statistics and argue until you are out of breath, but that will never change another person’s mind. But art, or a powerful story, these can speak directly to a person’s soul.

I had an English professor in college who told me that the books and poems we read matter. The Overstory validates what my professor told me all those years ago. This book matters, and I suspect that anyone reading this book will be a different person by the time they finish.

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“Those Who Don’t Believe in God Believe in Everything” by Umberto Eco

We live in a strange time, where large numbers of people are putting their faith in conspiracy theories, believing false information, and fervently defending lies that have been proven to be such. It causes one to pause and wonder why this is. In this essay, included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism, Umberto Eco explores the phenomenon.

Eco asks why it is that bogus information continues to reproduce itself, even after it has been refuted.

Because people are hungry for mysteries (and plots). All you need do is offer them another one. Even when you tell them that it was all cooked up by a couple of con men, they’ll swallow it right away.

. . .

When people stop believing in God, as Chesterton used to say, it’s not that they no longer believe in anything, it’s that they believe in everything. Even the mass media.

(Turning Back the Clock: pp. 300 – 301)

If this were not enough, Eco goes on to demonstrate that proving something to be false often has a reverse effect, where belief in the fiction actually increases. As an example, he talks about The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

The story of the Corpus came to mind some time ago, when Will Eisner’s The Plot was published (New York: Norton). Eisner, one of the geniuses of the modern comic strip (who died while the book was still in the proof stage), uses words and images to tell the story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The interesting part of his tale is not so much the story of the creation of this anti-Semitic fake as what happened afterward, in 1921, when the London Times—followed by serious scholars everywhere—demonstrated that the Protocols were a fake. The circulation of the Protocols began to increase worldwide at exactly that moment, and they have been taken ever more seriously (just surf the Net a bit).

(ibid: pp. 305 – 306)

Eco concludes by stating that “the difference between true and false holds no interest for those who start from prejudice” (ibid: p. 306). This really sums up the problem, in my view. Too many people approach a subject with preconceived notions of whether it is true or not, and then any subsequent research is only done to affirm what has already be decided. “Facts” are only believed when they validate and support what an individual already believes. And this is one of the reasons we find ourselves in the situation we are in now.

I hope you found this post interesting, and I hope that it inspires readers to keep an open mind and to ask questions, always seeking truth and not just affirmation.

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Thoughts on “The Western Canon” by Harold Bloom

This is one of those books which was an impulse buy over 20 years ago, which I bought while wandering the aisles of a Borders Bookstore (that should put things into perspective). It has sat on my shelf all this time, waiting to be read, and I finally got around to it. One of the benefits of COVID for book nerds is that it forces us to read what we have and not wander aimlessly in search of more books.

While I was in college, Professor Bloom came and held a lecture at the community college I was attending; quite a coup for a small campus to get a speaker of his eminence. Very few people attended, but I of course showed up early and got to sit with him and have a one-on-one discussion about literature. His knowledge was formidable, to say the least.

In this book, Prof. Bloom addresses what he sees as a dilemma for readers: “What shall the individual who still desires to read attempt to read, this late in history?” (p. 15) He strives to answer this question by focusing on 26 writers that he feels are representative of the 3 key ages of literature: the Aristocratic Age, the Democratic Age, and the Chaotic Age. Understandably, Bloom places Shakespeare at the center of the canon, arguing that all writers who followed Shakespeare are either influenced by his work, or seek to distinguish themselves by trying to contradict his work. He makes a good argument, and as a Shakespeare buff, I am OK placing Shakespeare at the center of a literary canon.

Since this book is essentially literary criticism, it is probably not something a casual pleasure reader would find enjoyable to read; but if one is a lit-nerd, such as myself, it becomes easy to get absorbed into the pages of this book. But again, as Bloom points out in the beginning of the book, it causes one to ask: What else should I read in my limited time here on Earth? I already had a “to-be-read” list that I could never complete, and after reading Blooms book, that list has grown three-fold. But at least I had the satisfaction of having read a good number of books which he references. That gave me a little boost.

Although Bloom was an eminent literary scholar, he stresses that this book is not intended for academics.

This book is not directed to academics, because only a small remnant of them still read for the love of reading. What Johnson and Woolf after him called the Common Reader still exists and possibly goes on welcoming suggestions of what might be read.

(p. 518)

If you are a deep lover of literature, then you may want to give this book a read, or at least refer to the long list of books and writers at the end which Bloom considers canonical (I believe you can find the list on the internet). While I may not agree with all of his choices, it is a good list of stuff to choose from.

Thanks for stopping by, and may you find lots of books to interest and inspire you.

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“I Was Cleopatra” by Dennis Abrams

My friend Robert sent me this book, knowing that I am a bit of a Shakespeare buff. It’s a work of historical fiction intended for a young adult audience. The story is a fictional memoir of a boy actor, John Rice, who assumed the female roles in performances during the rule of King James I.

Similar to what the world is experiencing now with COVID, the plague was rampant in the Jacobean period, and this led to the closing of theaters as a way to control the spread.

In 1603 the plague once again struck London with a terrible ferocity, bringing about the deaths of thousands of innocent men, women and children. To help stop the spread of the dreaded disease, which at its height was laying more than thirteen hundred innocents dead from one Sabbath to the next, it was ordered that theaters in London be closed.

(p. 17)

As John begins his apprenticeship and is groomed to transform himself into female roles on stage, he must confront questions of gender identity and seems to accept the idea of gender fluidity.

This was, or so it seems to me, at the heart of the questions that has haunted my thoughts and even my dreams throughout my life on stage. What exactly is it that makes one a man? Or a woman? Or is it possible to be composed of elements of both? Is there a difference between how you are seen by the world and how you see yourself?

(p. 50)

Some of the more interesting aspects of this book, for me anyway, are the fictional dialogs between Shakespeare and John Rice, as Shakespeare provides insight into the plays and various roles to help John better embody the role. One in particular stands out, where Shakespeare claims that the Guy Fawkes conspiracy helped inspire the themes he would explore in Macbeth.

“What concerns me, John, now that all involved in the nefarious Gunpowder Plot have been given the justice they deserved, is how and why it could have happened. Not merely the specific political and religious reasons for the plot, but in a larger sense how does a seemingly normal if ambitious Scottish nobleman become a murderous tyrant and perform such truly unthinkable and unutterable acts of violence? What sort of lies and stories and pretended reasons do such men tell themselves to justify their actions? Is the source of evil within themselves, or are they being acted upon by outside forces?”

(p. 115)

These are questions that are just as important today as they were in the 1600s. People somehow convince themselves that the cruel and violent acts they commit are somehow justified, even heroic. Is this a part of who we are as a species, or do we allow the words of others to enter our ears and poison our thoughts?

As always, thanks for stopping by and sharing in my musings. I hope you are well, and please stay safe and sane in these turbulent days.

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“The Crucifix, Its Uses and Customs” by Umberto Eco

In this short essay, included in the book Turning Back the Clock, Eco discusses whether it is appropriate to display religious iconography, specifically the crucifix, in institutions of public education. I found this to be particularly interesting, given that there seems to be a growing tension between religion and state institutions in the US. Heated debates have erupted over the inclusion of texts in schools, or the display of the Ten Commandments at government buildings, and there does not seem to be any abatement in this tension.

Eco uses examples from his home country of Italy to make his point.

In Italian universities there are no crucifixes in the lecture halls, but many students are members of Catholic groups like Communione e Liberazione. However, at least two generations of Italians spent their youth in classrooms where the crucifix was hung between portraits of the king and Mussolini, and out of every thirty students in every class some became atheists, others fought with the resistance, and others again—the majority, I believe—voted for the Republic. All anecdotal evidence, if you will, but of historical importance, and this tells us that the presence of religious symbols in schools does not affect the spiritual development of the students.

(Turning Back the Clock: pp. 274 – 275)

Eco makes a great point here. The exposure of young people to religious iconography and doctrine in no way ensures that those individuals will internalize the ideas, and conversely, the lack of these symbols does not mean that individuals will not develop along spiritual pathways. But what Eco adds later in the essay, which to me is the key point, is that tolerance of others is what must be taken into consideration in this issue, and that in a diverse society, if religious topics are to be taught in school, they should be inclusive of all religions.

School curricula of the future must be based not on the concealment of diversity but on teaching the techniques that lead youngsters to understand and accept it. For some time now people have been saying it would be nice, along with religious instruction (and not as an alternative for those who aren’t Catholics), if schools devoted at least one hour a week to the history of all religions, so that Catholic kids might understand what the Koran says or what Buddhists think, and so that Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists (and even Catholics) might understand how the Bible came into being and what it says.

(ibid: p. 276)

I agree with Eco. Personally, I enjoy reading religious texts from diverse traditions and faiths. The idea that one tradition has a monopoly on the truth has led to centuries of warfare and hatred. I feel that every spiritual or religious text has valid insights to share.

Anyway, I think I’ve said enough on this topic. Thanks for stopping by and reading my rambles. Have a great day and keep on reading interesting stuff.

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Thoughts on “The Dunwich Horror” by H.P. Lovecraft

This is a great short story to read for Halloween. In fact, some of the events in the story take place on Halloween.

That Hallowe’en the hill noises sounded louder than ever, and fire burned on Sentinel Hill as usual; but people paid more attention to the rhythmical screaming of vast flocks of unnaturally belated whippoorwills which seemed to be assembled near the unlighted Whateley farmhouse. After midnight their shrill notes burst into a kind of pandaemoniac cachinnation which filled the countryside, and not until dawn did they finally quiet down.

Essentially, this is a tale about the crossbreeding of a human with a creature from another dimension of existence, the result of which was the birth of something that could no longer be classified as human.

“Inbreeding?” Armitage muttered half-aloud to himself. “Great God, what simpletons! Shew them Arthur Machen’s Great God Pan and they’ll think it a common Dunwich scandal! But what thing—what cursed shapeless influence on or off this three-dimensional earth—was Wilbur Whateley’s father? Born on Candlemas—nine months after May-Eve of 1912, when the talk of queer earth noises reached clear to Arkham—What walked on the mountains that May-Night? What Roodmas fastened itself on the world in half-human flesh and blood?”

When attempting to describe beings or forms of consciousness that exist beyond our realm of reality, one must rely on symbols because the ineffable nature of these manifestations cannot be captured using the limited means of communication with which humans rely. Communication with divine beings are therefore non-verbal by nature. What Lovecraft does in this tale is express the ineffable sounds produced by a being from another dimension, which cannot be comprehended or duplicated by beings in our plane of existence.

Without warning came those deep, cracked, raucous vocal sounds which will never leave the memory of the stricken group who heard them. Not from any human throat were they born, for the organs of man can yield no such acoustic perversions. Rather would one have said they came from the pit itself, had not their source been so unmistakably the altar-stone on the peak. It is almost erroneous to call them sounds at all, since so much of their ghastly, infra-bass timbre spoke to dim seats of consciousness and terror far subtler than the ear; yet one must do so, since their form was indisputably though vaguely that of half-articulated words. They were loud—loud as the rumblings of the thunder above which they echoed—yet did they come from no visible being. And because imagination might suggest a conjectural source in the world of non-visible beings, the huddled crowd at the mountain’s base huddled still closer, and winced as if in expectation of a blow.

I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone, so I will end the post here. I’ll conclude by saying this is a very creepy story which also has some interesting social criticism woven in, as well as occult references to texts and mythologies. But most importantly, it is extremely well-written and can be enjoyed by anyone who likes to curl up with an eerie tale at this time of the year.

Thanks for stopping by, and enjoy your reading.

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“Dracula” by Bram Stoker: Exploring the Vampire Archetype

The vampire is a powerful archetype and one that is manifest in our modern society—that being that lives in darkness, feeds of the life-force of others, and is motivated by selfishness and the baser animalistic instincts. This archetype is fully explored in Bram Stoker’s classic horror story, Dracula.

There are such beings as vampires; some of us have evidence that they exist. Even had we not the proof of our own unhappy experience, the teachings and records of the past give proof enough for sane peoples.

(p. 227)

I suspect we have all had experiences with individuals who embody the vampire archetype. They are the ones who drain us when we are around them, with whom we must always keep up our guards, and who seem to thrive on the fear and pain of others.

The nosferatu do not die like the bee when he sting once. He is only stronger; and being stronger, have yet more power to work evil.

(p. 228)

Vampiric individuals do not feel remorse when they inflict pain or suffering on another. On the contrary, they feel empowered. It is a lack of empathy that allows these people to sting again and again, each time feeling more emboldened by feeding on the sense of power experienced over the domination of another person.

One of the best ways to understand the vampire archetype is to contrast it with its opposite.

Well, you know what we have to contend against; but we, too, are not without strength. We have on our side power of combination—a power denied to the vampire kind; we have our sources of science; we are free to act and think; and the hours of the day and the night are ours equally. In fact, so far as our powers extend, they are unfettered, and we are free to use them. We have self-devotion in a cause, and an end to achieve which is not a selfish one. These things are much.

(p. 229)

This paragraph describes the characteristics of individuals who are not vampiric in nature. They are thoughtful and motivated by science and logic. They are free from their baser desires and can therefore act in the best interest of themselves and of those around them. They are balanced (symbolized by the equal parts of night and day), and they are selfless and devoted to causes which further humanity, as opposed to striving solely after personal gain.

While the drinking of blood and transformation into an animal are well-understood symbols of the vampire archetype, another aspect worth noting is the ability to turn into mist.

He can come in mist which he create—the noble ship’s captain proved him of this; but, from what we know, the distance he can make this mist is limited, and it can only be round himself. He come on moonlight rays as elemental dust—

(p. 230)

Here, mist becomes a symbol of obfuscation. When we find ourselves in close proximity to the vampire archetype, our humanity begins to become obscured, our thoughts unclear. Our minds are in essence affected by the presence of a toxic individual. Thankfully, our minds are also affected when we are close to a positive and nurturing person. But we should always be aware of the subtle changes in our personalities that result from our associations with others.

There are many expressions of the vampire archetype in our modern culture: the news, social media, advertising, politics, all sucking our life-blood and draining us of our humanity, driving us to embrace our lower instincts and discard our empathy for others. The good news is, once you learn to recognize the vampire, you don’t need garlic to protect yourself; logic, compassion, and when necessary, distance, are all sufficient to ward off the vampire’s effects.

Thanks for stopping by, and stay safe.

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