Lovecraft, Christian Horror, and Weird Fiction
Christian pastor and writer Mike Duran recently published a fascinating and provocative blog post titled “On ‘Christian Horror’ and Atheist Dread” in which he argues that Christian horror — which, by implication, he views as a valid form of fiction — is categorically distinct from what he calls “atheist horror.” He offers Lovecraft’s work as the epitome of the latter. He discusses Rudolf Otto’s concept of the numinous. What’s not to find interesting in a post like this?
Mike’s point is encapsulated in his final two paragraphs:
Both “Christian horror” and “Atheist horror” seek to invoke dread in their readers. However, “Christian horror” is the result of the “numinous,” while “Atheist horror” is the result of “nothingness.” “Christian horror” is based on the God Who Is There, while “Atheist horror” is based on the God Who Isn’t. “Christian horror” provides a way of escape; “Atheist horror” cannot. Heck, in the atheist’s worldview, the heroine can escape the clutches of serial killers and zombie hordes. But she must succumb, inevitably, to the Great Void.
Perhaps there is no greater horror than that of an atheistic worldview. Forget blood, gore, and ghoulies. A world without meaning and purpose is the ultimate horror. A universe that arose by chance, exists without meaning, where lives plummet toward annihilation is the worst kind of horror. The child huddled in bed, fixated upon the dark closet, becomes the adult gaping into the void of what, he believes, is a godless universe. And unlike the Christian novelist, the atheist author has nothing but more “dark closets” to offer their readers.
I also just have to quote the following two “ringer” passages, which are so very choice in their well-stated and highly debatable arguments:
Needless to say, [Lovecraftian horror] is unlike the Christian worldview. While the Bible teaches that creation is fallen, Nature is hardly at the mercy of primal forces. At the center of the Universe is not a “monstrous chaos,” but a loving God with “conscious purpose,” intimately involved in the affairs of man, extending mercy and exacting judgment. In other words, Jesus is the anti-Azothoth. [emphasis in original]
Likewise, the “dread” invoked by the Christian writer is dissimilar to that of the atheist. Scripriture warns, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). This “fear” is pivotal to “Christian horror.” Whereas the atheist author invokes the fear of the absence of God, the Christian invokes the fear of the presence of God. The “horror” is in His existence, not His non-existence. Of course, this “horror” is for those who deny Him, ignore His warnings, and refuse His mercy. Sadly, terror awaits those on the “wrong side” of the Universe.
Unsurprisingly, this has all sparked a lively conversation in the post’s comments section, including some comments by me. I simply had to offer a link to my interview with Lovecraft News Network, in which I talked a lot about the possible horror to be found in the Christian God — not by those who ignore or oppose Him, but simply in Him as He is, in His very nature. I suppose I should have also linked to my interview with TheoFantastique about my horrific reading of Isaiah, since it delves into the subject in more depth.
Then one perceptive commenter opined that Christianity is deeply compatible with horror fiction because of a shared focus on the conflict between good and evil. I simply had to respond. My comment ran to essay length, so naturally I came here to reprint it, as follows:
We should bear in mind that good vs. evil is just one of several possible themes to serve as the backbone or supervening trope in a given work of horror fiction. Editor and anthologist David Hartwell, for instance, provided a seminal taxonomy of horror types in the introduction (which is available for reading in full via Google Books) to his era-defining 1987 horror anthology The Dark Descent. From its earliest beginnings to the 1980s, he said, horror fiction can basically be divided into three types or streams: 1) moral allegorical, 2) psychological metaphor, and 3) fantastic.
It’s only the first stream that the commenter at Mike’s site refers to in identifying Christian fiction as a good match for horror fiction because of the shared good-vs.-evil trope. Hartwell describes this stream thus:
Stories that cluster at the first pole are characteristically supernatural fiction, most usually about the intrusion of evil into consensus reality . . . . These are the stories of children possessed by demons, of haunting by evil ghosts from the past . . . stories of bad places (where evil persists from past times), of witchcraft and Satanism. In our day they are often written by lapsed Christians, who have lost their firm belief in good but still have a discomforting belief in evil. Stories in this stream imply or state the Manichean universe that is so difficult to perceive in everyday life, wherein evil is so evident, horror so common that we are left with our sensitivities partly or fully deadened to it.
. . . . And the moral allegory has its significant extra-literary appeal in itself to that large audience that desires the attribution of a moral calculus (usually teleological) deriving from ultimate and metaphysical forms of good and evil behind events in everyday reality.
. . . . In speaking of stories and novels in this first stream, we are speaking of the most popular form of horror fiction today, the commercial bestseller lineage of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, and a majority of the works of Stephen King….This stream is the center of category horror publishing.
By contrast or distinction, Hartwell’s second stream, psychological metaphor, is composed of
stories of aberrant human psychology embodied metaphorically. [These] may be either purely supernatural, such as Dracula, or purely psychological, such as Robert Bloch’s Psycho. What characterizes them as a group is the monster at the center, from the monster of Frankenstein, to Carmilla, to the chainsaw murderer — an overtly abnormal human or creature, from whose acts and on account of whose being the horror arises.
Then there’s the third stream, stories of the fantastic, which, as Hartwell’s excellent discussion indicates, really does categorically elude identification with the other two:
Stories of the third stream have at their center ambiguity as to the nature of reality, and it is this very ambiguity that generates the horrific effects. Often this is an overtly supernatural (or certainly abnormal) occurrence, but we know of it only by allusion. Often, essential elements are left undescribed so that, for instance, we do not know whether there was really a ghost or not. But the difference is not merely supernatural versus psychological explanation: third stream stories lack any explanation that makes sense in everyday reality — we don’t know, and that doubt disturbs us, horrifies us. This is the fiction to which Sartre’s analysis alludes, the fantastic. At its extreme form, from Kafka to the present, it blends indistinguishably with magic realism, the surreal, the absurd, all the fictions that confront reality through paradoxical distance. It is the fiction of radical doubt.
Returning from this to the main thrust of Mike’s post about Christian horror and atheist dread, I submit that while Lovecraft, definitely invoked some of Hartwell’s second category (psychological metaphor) with his various monsters and psychologically abnormal characters, he completely and absolutely avoided the first category, moral allegory, since its basic assumptions and attitudes had precisely no place in his outlook or sensibility. And he mainly, obviously, worked in the third category.
So the deep disjunction that Mike notes between Lovecraft’s fiction and the classically and typically Christian worldview, which is almost all about category one, is really and definitely there. And/but what Lovecraft and the other writers working in the vein of fantastic or weird horror have done is not necessarily — and notwithstanding the incisive comments of Jason Colavito, whom Mike quotes about the role of science and materialism in Lovecraft’s horrific worldview — to dispense with religion or supernaturalism altogether in favor of “atheist dread,” but to find and convey something resembling, fundamentally, a true sense of Otto-esque numinosity in the very fact of their stories’ worldview-upending and -exploding conceptions, whether they’re atheistic/materialistic or something else.
In my own case, for instance, I have explicitly and deliberately brought together in some of my stories the classical Christian emotional and theological emphasis on Hartwell’s first stream with the ontologically and epistemologically subversive thrust of the third stream, to convey to the reader a sense that the classic Christian theological antitheses of God and Satan, good and evil, etc., are myopic because they emerge from and are preceded by a more basic and primal reality that can be likened to the “chaos” of ancient mythological cosmogonies, which necessarily appears horrific, in a quasi-Lovecraftian sense, to the human sensibility. (See Brian McNaughton’s unpublished introduction to my first book, Divinations of the Deep, for a detailed discussion of these things.)
So I guess at bottom what I’m getting at is that while horror can definitely be found compatible with conventional Christianity in a Hartwellian first category, moral allegorical sense — the seminal modern example being, of course, the already-mentioned case of William Peter Blatty and The Exorcist, since Blatty wrote that novel with explicitly Christian theological intent — there really is a (quasi- or pseudo-) religious or spiritual attitude to be found in horror fiction like Lovecraft’s that categorically eludes and/or subverts this connection. What Mike has termed “atheist dread” can actually be a bit more complex and nuanced than a mere Pascalian fear of the meaningless void of infinite, empty space, and can have direct implications for Christianity through its interaction with the worldview of Christian readers, whom it confronts with uncomfortable moral and metaphysical speculations and implications.