Despite the fact that this last weekend’s episode of American Gods (“A Murder of Gods”) featured a bloody massacre and multiple people falling into vats of molten steel, there was only one particular scene that truly scared me.
While Shadow and Mr. Wednesday drive into the town of Vulcan, Virginia (which is a real place that you can apparently go to,) Wednesday explains how Vulcan, the Roman god of fire, blacksmithing, and the forge, founded the town and the bullet factory that powers the local economy as a way of creating a microcosm of the world where he could still be a revered deity. While the concept is a thing of beauty and an addition to American Gods that wasn’t part of the book, the actual look of (Vulcan the location) made my blood run cold.
Put simply, Vulcan’s a small, secluded, southern town populated entirely by white people, all of whom are armed with some manner of gun. As Shadow and Wednesday make their way through Vulcan, Shadow repeatedly makes uneasy eye contact with the locals—charged, pregnant glances made all the more tense by the eerie sense that the people of Vulcan are neither accustomed to nor friendly towards outsiders or people who aren’t like them.
“Everyone in this particular town is a dedicated citizen. Dedicated to one sticky belief: America. Their America. There are’t just two Americas. Everyone looks at Lady Liberty and sees a different face, even if it crumbles under question. People will defend the warm, safe feeling their America give them. They will defend it...with bullets.”
For Wednesday, the pilgrimage to meet Vulcan is an important, but also friendly one. As two old gods still fighting the good fight, their reunion is, at least at its beginning, an amicable one. There’s an unshakable sense of dread written all over Shadow’s face, though, that only intensifies when he sees a funeral procession making its way through town that culminates in everyone firing dozens of shots into the air that quickly fall back to the earth in a deafening rain of deadly bullets.
The visual language in “A Murder of Gods” speaks to a number of the ideas that have defined American Gods like glory, pageantry, and death, but this week, it also became a shorthand for the American legacy of using fear to encourage gun worship in the name of “patriotism.”
When you look at the numbers on American gun ownership, an interesting story begins to unfold about the nature of contemporary gun culture that’s more complex than “some people love the Second Amendment.” It’s no secret that we Americans, as a whole, love our guns. We own more guns than any other country and per capita, we have the highest rate of gun ownership in the entire world. It’s estimated that there are nine guns for every 10 people in America, but while gun sale are skyrocketing in U.S. markets, the number of gun-owning households is actually down meaning that, as a whole, the American gun-owning community is becoming more concentrated and distinct.
Mike “The Gun Guy” Weisser has been one of the most vocal proponents of American gun rights and gun ownership for over 50 years now, not only working as a gun importer and retailer, but also cultivating one of the most active online gun news sites. While Weisser still very much advocates for people exercising their Second Amendment rights, he’s become an outspoken critic of the NRA, an organization he’s joined in 1965 at 11 years old.
In a 2016 interview with NPR’s Weekend Edition, Weisser explained that he feels as if the NRA’s has drifted away from proper, safe gun advocacy in favor fo stoking of societal fears to push gun sales.
“Frankly, if they would get off this kick of the armed citizen and using guns for protection against crime, they wouldn’t hear any noise from me,” Weisser said. “I just don’t happen to like the position they’ve been taking over the last several decades to promote the sale of guns.”
It’s difficult to disagree with Weisser’s contention when you look at the evolution of the NRA’s messaging over the past 40 years in particular. What began as advocacy for using guns for hunting as a sport in the 1920s has over the years morphed into “Should You Shoot A Rapist Before He Cuts Your Throat?”
The NRA’s vision of a community made safe by the fact that everyone is armed is realized in Vulcan, Virginia, but beneath the town’s veneer of Stepford-like “safety,” there’s something darker, more insidious, and damning about America and our reverence for guns.
While Wednesday is preparing to ask Vulcan for his assistance in the coming war against the New Gods, Vulcan casually taunts Shadow about being hanged by the Technical Boy. Vulcan knowingly asks Shadow if he likes the old hanging tree—from which a noose is dangling—that stands in his front lawn. When Shadow insists that he and Wednesday should leave, Vulcan dismisses him, saying that everyone loves it in his neighborhood.
Later, when the two elder gods are sharing celebratory drinks over their professed alliance, Vulcan snaps at Shadow that he isn’t allowed to drink with them, making it clear that even though he knows Shadow is Wednesday’s man, he’s being kept apart. It’s when Wednesday, Shadow, and Vulcan are gathered in his bellows, though, that Vulcan stops merely being a clever symbol for an NRA utopia, and becomes something more realistic. Vulcan is a god, yes, but he’s also an old white man, desperately afraid of change who finds strength by clinging to his guns and seems to delight in terrorizing a black man with threats of lynching.
“You saw what I was. I was a story people forgot to remember to tell. And they gave me a gun,” Vulcan says to Wednesday. “They put power back in my hands and I gotta tell ya: it feels good.”
Taken as the words of a once-dying god, what Vulcan’s saying here makes perfect sense. Reinventing himself as the god of guns and fire power quite literally saved him from death. But Vulcan isn’t just a god, he’s a white, working class pseudo-patriarch who brought jobs to a town by capitalizing on an industry built on of iron, blood, and racialized fear.
Vulcan, isn’t just any American god, but rather a god tapping into some of the most powerful forces that have shaped our country. He’s the most American god we’ve met so far, he’s dangerous, and he terrifies the hell out of me.