My new column about religion and philosophy in fantasy, SF, and horror
This month I started writing a new column for SF Signal, the massively popular blog about fantasy, horror, and science fiction. The title is Stained Glass Gothic, and the column is devoted to exploring the mutual meanings and implications of fantasy, horror, science fiction, religion, philosophy, and spirituality. I think it’ll be of considerable interest to those who have enjoyed my writings about these things over the past four years here at The Teeming Brain, especially since I’m taking it in a direction that will expand my focus from mainly horror to the realm of speculative fiction and film in general, which has always been a passion of mine.
Today the third installment was published. Here’s a rundown, with excerpts, of all the entries so far, beginning with the inaugural one. Click the titles to be taken to the actual columns.
1. Stained Glass Gothic: Dark Light through Rainbow Panes (October 7, 2010)
Stained Glass Gothic will be all about recognizing, considering, and enjoying the religious and spiritual side of the speculative genres. Have you noticed that questions of religious and/or philosophical meaning crop up everywhere you look in popular speculative fiction and film? Have you noticed that these genres have been absolutely driven by major works that are explicitly about religious or spiritual themes?
The Exorcist was instrumental in launching the late 20th century horror fiction boom (or in laying the foundation for Stephen King and Peter Straub to launch it). Its cinematic adaptation was instrumental in launching the modern-day blockbuster movie (or in laying the foundation for Jaws to launch it). Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and Philip K. Dick — to name only four relevant SF authors out of many — were eaten up with questions of religion’s role and future. They laced their work from top to bottom with personal philosophical-spiritual questions about human identity and destiny. Tolkien and Lewis, as we all know, embedded Christian themes throughout their most famous works. Anne Rice eventually brought Lestat to the point of meeting the devil and drinking the crucified Christ’s blood — soon after which she abandoned vampires and reclaimed her childhood Roman Catholic Christianity (and then, most recently, abandoned and repudiated the institutional church in favor of a more free-form Christian religiosity). Stephanie Meyer built Twilight around an explicitly Genesis-oriented theme embodied in the novel’s famous cover image. Lovecraft was gripped by overarching questions and speculations about the (non)meaning of the cosmos, and he created a fictional universe populated by extradimensional and extraterrestrial monster gods — even as he went on and on (and on) in his personal correspondence about his awesome longing for a spiritual-type experience of transcendent beauty and ultimate liberation from the galling prison of space-time.
And so on.
What does it all mean? That’s precisely what we’ll be talking about. Welcome to Stained Glass Gothic.
2. Fantasy, Horror, and Infinite Longing (October 28, 2010)
The archetypal mood that I and millions of other people have come to associate with autumn in general and October in particular touches on a peculiar emotional/spiritual upwelling that’s central to the concerns of fantasy and horror, and that I first began consciously experiencing as an early adolescent.
It makes itself known as a peculiar longing of an especially poignant and piercing sort.
….If C.S. Lewis and Colin Wilson are right (contra H.P. Lovecraft) — and many years of experiential and intellectual engagement in philosophical, religious, and spiritual explorations leave me, at least, with no doubt that they are — then this effect isn’t just a private emotional experience that has no meaning beyond the feeling of it, but a genuine window on a wider reality than most of usually recognize in our workaday mode. It literally expands our personal horizon. In other words, and in short, it’s possible to argue without hyperbole or silliness that the greatest works of fantasy, horror, and science fiction serve as religious or spiritual texts — not only, not even primarily, in terms of their specific content, but in terms of the potent effect they have on our outlook (and inlook), simply because they’re aimed at inflaming what Wilson called “Faculty X” and expanding the domain of our imaginings.
3. The October Mystique: 7 Authors on the Visionary Magic of Ray Bradbury (October 29, 2010)
Bradbury is a master at both arousing and confirming this experience of heightened inner intensity. My first readings of The October Country, The Illustrated Man and Something Wicked This Way Comes as an early adolescent left a permanent mark on me, both intellectually and emotionally. More than just the sum of their parts, his books and stories conveyed to me then, and convey to me now, an entire vision of the world in which darkness and light both intensify to new heights and depths of vividness, and all the daily details of life assume a kind of mythic numinosity. Which is to say that his work exemplified then, and still exemplifies now, what I take to be the deep raison d’être of fantasy and horror.
….Maybe this is why I find that in his case, I really don’t want to think of the longing as sehnsucht. It’s a wonderful word, but I feel that the version of the experience he arouses deserves it own special name. So I hereby coin “the October Mystique” as the preferred term for referring to Bradbury’s signature inflection on this crucial emotional-affective experience of longing-and-terror that’s so very central to the speculative genres. In his hands, it serves as a kind of spiritual solvent that he’s been using for over six decades to cleanse our inner eye.