Cosmic Horror, Sacred Terror, and the Nightside Transformation of Consciousness

What’s this? A discussion of current horror cinema that contrasts H. P. Lovecraft’s worldview of cosmic horror, pessimism, and despair with Arthur Machen’s worldview of redemptive sacred terror? And it’s published by — wait for it — Christianity Today magazine? The stars, it seems, are aligning.

One is rife with despair, the other clings to hope. The contrast between the two [authors] results in a remarkable tension found in the history of horror.

… Modern horror films have drunk deep from Lovecraft’s well, repeatedly depicting a dreary cycle of trying to escape the despair … Lovecraft, [Joss] Whedon [in Cabin in the Woods], and [Ridley] Scott [in Prometheus] fall into a deeper current of attempting to find meaning through horror. Whedon and Scott at least take it to the next level by asking deeper questions about how human beings find hope, but they fail because there is no way around Lovecraftian despair while playing under Lovecraft’s rules. A different playbook is needed, one written by Arthur Machen. Most modern horror filmmakers have long forgotten Machen, an under-appreciated legend.

… While Lovecraft was an atheist, Machen fully embraced the doctrines of his Anglican faith. His horror contained the mystery of abandoned places, forgotten gods, and utter terror at the unknown, but also the possibility for humans to find hope beyond despair. Unlike Lovecraft, Machen pushed toward a more holy terror, a sacred fear that could prompt a person to kneel before God. Machen felt despair could be avoided by seeing the good God who ruled over the world “behind the veil.” A person could experience holy terror like the prophet Isaiah felt when he stood before the throne of God — or, to bring it back to movies, like Indiana Jones showed in Raiders of the Lost Ark (telling Marion to respect the ark’s power by not looking at it when it was opened) and The Last Crusade (when, to reach the Holy Grail, he had to navigate a treacherous maze requiring him to kneel, to spell God’s holy name, and then take a literal “leap of faith”). Machen uses sacred terror to not only scare us, but to push us deeper to think about “unseen realities.”

— Jonathan Ryan, “Meaning to the Madness,” Christianity Today, October 10, 2012

Mr. Ryan’s article represents quite a welter of interestingness that I fully recommend you click through and read. But if you do, I also suggest that you beware its bald and, as it would appear — because the statement emerges so abruptly and incongruously — ideologically driven assertion of opinion in one key line:

Through this sacred terror, [Machen] created stories richer and more terrifying than anything Lovecraft could conceive.

Did you catch that? Mr. Ryan is saying that Machen, with his emphasis on sacred terror that finds an awe-ful warrant and fulfillment in a religious-ontological absolute, automatically and categorically trumps Lovecraft as a visionary and a literary artist simply because of that altered focus. This is the point underlying his entire article. And for what it’s worth, I humbly submit that it is not a supportable position, and especially not in its current rhetorically bombastic and dismissive (“than anything Lovecraft could conceive”) form.  This is because it sets up a false dichotomy by misreading the distinction between cosmic horror and sacred terror as a case of diametric opposition. In point of fact, no such opposition exists, and even the distinction collapses when we look into the life, psyche, and writings of Lovecraft himself.

“The most profound effects, and also the most profound insights, come when cosmic horror and sacred terror are wedded in a kind of dark enlightenment that sees the horror in the sacred and the sacred in the horrific.”

The Old Gent from Providence was fully familiar with sacred terror as well as cosmic horror — a truth evident in his frequent evocations of mythic beauty and nightmarish awe right alongside the Yog-Sothothian and Cthulhuvian horrors for which he is better known — and in fact he fused them in some ways and at some times into a kind of hybrid vision of numinous horror. He, too, offered a creative-philosophical vision of awesomeness in much the same vein as the wonderful C. S. Lewis line quoted by Ryan in his article: “Some people talk as if meeting the gaze of absolute goodness would be fun. They need to think again.” But he did it in non-theistic and cosmically value-neutral terms  by framing the life of the human race as ultimately meaningless, and this does not invalidate the force of his vision when held up against that of a Machen with his mysticism of terror. It merely indicates a difference of focus and sensibility. The difference is substantial, but it is enfolded within the general responsiveness of both Machen and Lovecraft to the intrinsic weirdness of existence and consciousness and the awesomeness of the great realm of Ominous Otherness that confronts us all.

By way of exploring some of the deeper complexities of Lovecraft’s worldview and its resonance with and/or application to the very emotion and soul-state of sacred terror that Ryan writes about, I direct readers to the interview I gave to Lovecraft News Network, “Dark Awakenings and Cosmic Horror,” and also to one of the interviews I’ve given to John Morehead at Theofantastique, “Matt Cardin – Gods and Monsters, Worms and Fire: A Horrific Reading of Isaiah.” Additionally, for a look at an under-appreciated but psychologically and artistically central aspect of Lovecraft’s character, see my paper about his influence on Thomas Ligotti, “The Masters’ Eyes Shining with Secrets,” and my two-part article for Art Throb, “Lovecraft’s Longing – Part One” and “Part Two.”

Cosmic horror and sacred terror don’t have to be set up as opposites. For my money, and more pointedly, in my own experience, the most profound effects, and also the most profound insights, come when they’re wedded in a kind of dark enlightenment that sees the horror in the sacred and the sacred in the horrific. Therein lies the real subversion of our customary daylit worldviews by darkside realities, and the real transformation of dayside consciousness by its ever-lurking nightside daemon.

Image: “Shadow of Azathoth” from Desktop Nexus

About Matt Cardin


Posted on October 22, 2012, in Liminalities and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 41 Comments.

  1. I posted these comments at Facebook but will repeat them here. Thanks for the commentary, Matt. A respondent at Facebook suggested that perhaps the author is more comfortable with Machen’s sacred terror than Lovecraft’s atheistic cosmic horror. I think this is likely correct in that as an evangelical, Jonathan is indeed more comfortable with a horror that postulates a divine being as the ground of sacred terror possibly in connection with some kind of good/evil where evil/darkness are ultimately defeated in tidy fashion. I know Jonathan through Facebook exchanges, and that would be my guess. I appreciated the piece, if for no other reason than that the flagship periodical of evangelical Christianity ran something positive on horror, and in connection with the sacred, without demonizing or overly christianizing the concept.

    • Johan Herrenberg

      I am the respondent John W. Morehead refers to. What I wrote was: I was at first quite impressed by the distinction ‘sacred terror’-‘cosmic horror’, but on closer reflection I find, like you, that the difference is spurious. I shall have to read Jonathan Ryan’s piece, but I think that his faith (yes?) is verbally more comfortable with ‘sacred terror’ than the rather cold, impersonal ‘cosmic horror’. It is the sacredness he wants to save more than either the terror or the horror.” After finally reading Jonathan Ryan’s piece, I find it amazing that he ignores (historical) experience. As a writer (or a director, for that matter), you are not just influenced by other writers and their views, but also by (historical) experience itself. After the horrors of the twentieth century, the most ‘sensational’ occurring after Lovecraft’s death, you do not simply go ‘back to Machen’.

  2. You are right to reject Jonathan Ryan’s conclusion that Machen takes us deeper and creates richer and more terrifying stories than Lovecraft. However, I don’t think your diagnosis of a ‘false dichotomy’ gets at where Ryan has gone wrong: he has favoured one half of the opposition over the other. The opposition is real – as his example of Kubrick vs King shows. But this favouring of sacred terror in his assessment of Lovecraft’s writing is inconsistent with his praise of the ‘mix of cosmic horror and holy terror’ in Stephen King’s work – which I think agrees with your preference for a ‘dark enlightenment’ wedding.

    Further, a Christian should find at least as much horror in God’s absence as anyone else. (I’m thinking of Peter Rollins’ amazing work on the importance to being a Christian of embracing atheism and betraying God.) So Ryan’s conclusion is ideological (and existential – it defends against cosmic horror and nihilism) but I think his opposition is worth preserving, even for atheists. I don’t think the ‘wedding’ you (and I – although I admit to having only just begun to read this stuff) admire is possible without it!

  3. Matt, thanks for reposting the article. I find it interesting people would object to me being “ideologically” driven in the article. Of course I am. So is everyone else. Sadly, the article and assignment did not allow me to fully explore Lovecraft’s work or ideologies. Given the format, I had to paint a broad brush. However, I would still argue with the basic premise. Adding further to the irony, Lovecraft himself was ideologically driven and so was Machen. That in of itself doesn’t nullify their writing. If it did, no one would write anything.

  4. Further, I in no way intended to say “Lovecraft sucks, Machen rules”. The point was to explore the differences in their worldview, not set them in opposition as writers. I happen to prefer Machen over Lovecraft; not just for the worldview, but for the stories. I could make a very good argument why they are better without the resorting to religious discussion.

    Also, I’m not a tradtional evangelical. I happen to lean more Anglican/Orthodox, so I’m way more comfortable with paradox. I would be a fool not to appreciate Lovecraft’s contribution to terror in film and books. He brought the idea of “local” terror across the pond, a fact all American horror writers must accept and love.

    So, please don’t take my article as a rejection of Lovecraft as a writer. I just reject his worldview as he rejected Machen’s. It’s funny to see how more modern writers are afraid to talk about their worldviews. The Masters (such as Lovecraft and Machen) fully embraced those discussions by point out how it affected their art. Are we going to say this makes their work null and void? I would certainly hope not.

    For the record, I loved Cabin in the Woods. I hate Prometheus because I thought it was dumb storytelling. The irony is, I laughed more at Prometheus and “jumped” more during Cabin in the Woods.

    • The great Cthulhu, master of interior depths, Hastur the destroyer, he who walks on the wind and who must not be named. Nyarlathotep, crawling chaos. The mindless and amorphous Azathoth which blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity. Yog-Sothoth, Azathoth’s co-ruler. “All-in-One and One-in-All.” Such are the principle elements of Lovecraft’s mythology that were to mark his successors so forcefully and that continue to fascinate today. These are the coordinates of the unnamable. This is not a coherent mythology, precisely drawn; it is unlike Greco-Roman mythology or this or that magical pantheon whose very clarity and finitude is almost reassuring. These Lovecraftian entities remain somewhat tenebrous. He avoids precision with regards to the distribution of their powers and abilities. In fact, their exact nature is beyond the grasp of the human mind. The impious books that pay homage to them and celebrate their cult only do so in confused and contradictory terms. They remain fundamentally unutterable. We only get fleeting glimpses of their hideous power; and those humans who seek to know more ineluctably pay in madness or death. — Michel Houellebecq

      When Lovecraft brings our consciousness towards the threshold before the infinite, right there to the brink, he brings us to the ultimate sacred.

      When other writers reveal the ultimate as a human conception of the safe embrace of God, they are cheating God. They fail utterly to approach the sacred. The sacred is what lies beyond us. Not what is before us.

  5. Johann,

    Thanks for your comments. I would like you to explain more, if you are open, to what you mean by “historical experience”. Im not trying to be “thick”, but I’m a bit confused by the argument you are making. It seems to me you are saying, “because we know more historically after the horrors of World War II, Machen’s propsective on horror is completely wrong. We can’t go back to it.”

    If I oversimplified your argument, I apologize. I’m really trying to understand your point.

  6. Johan Herrenberg


    Of course I am open to discuss this further.

    Matt asked me (on FB), in response to my remark about ‘historical exoperience’:

    “So you’re saying, Johan, that the likes of Joss Whedon, Ridley Scott, and the other filmmakers that Ryan brings into his argument are telling certain kinds of stories and producing certain kinds of films not only because of the influence of Lovecraft or anybody else but because of antecedent and current historical-cultural circumstances, and that this plays directly into the philosophical and psychological worldview that underlies and filters through their work and serves as the target of Ryan’s criticism. Yes?”

    To which I answered:

    “Yes. As an artist you are not only shaped by your predecessors but also by the moment in history you find yourself in. History is a vast chain of dreams, nightmares, hopes and traumas. We can’t go back to a time pre-Auschwitz, for example. But – if you have no memory, no knowledge of history, or simply a bias… I seriously doubt whether that is a good thing for the human species. Though it may make an individual life easier.

    P.S. Had Lovecraft lived until after WWII, I am certain ‘Auschwitz’ and all it stand for and the Bomb would have had an effect on his thinking about race and science.”

    To expand on this: Machen and Lovecraft express ‘terror’ and/or ‘horror’ in their own way, and both their times and their temperament inform their writings. God may reveal Himself through History, but so does Man. That’s why I submit that everything that becomes fact has (and ought to have) repercussions for the way we view ourselves and the world. That’s my ‘ideology’, if you like. We live on the axis of the eternal and the temporal, and it is the task of an artist to express the eternal in its temporal manifestation, to show the world its own face (to paraphrase Hamlet), also to aid people in their understanding (a didactic trait not many writers would like, but which I find of paramount importance in a time of growing confusion).

    P.S. During the Victorian era, writers and poets grappled with the problem of faith vs. science, how to reconcile our growing understanding of and mastery over nature with religion. I see Machen as a part of this ‘movement’ and as a writer who gave his own unique expression to that problem. I think great writing transcends its moment, even if the problem it expresses may be have been superseded by newer ones.

    I hope this clarifies my position. For the record: I am a (Dutch) writer, but not of weird fiction.

  7. “The most profound effects, and also the most profound insights, come when cosmic horror and sacred terror are wedded in a kind of dark enlightenment that sees the horror in the sacred and the sacred in the horrific.”

    Well, I’ll throw in my two cents. “Sacred terror” doesn’t work for me, as I suspect the idea of a literal god or gods is an outgrowth of our hierarchical social primate heritage (“God” being the ultimate silverback, the fear of God basically being the ultimate fear of incurring the wrath of Daddy/the boss/the state).

    (Note: trying as hard as I can to not to be a troll here…please trust that I’m trying my little heart out not to be inflammatory, while at the same time being honest about my point of view).

    To me, the most effective horror fiction is the “existence equals nightmare” variety put forward by Thomas Ligotti. I’ve gotten the deepest shivers from his notions that consciousness, itself, is something of an obscenity. I’m not even 100% certain I buy into the idea…I go back and forth on it…but it horrifies me to the marrow of my bones.

    I suspect what Ryan really doesn’t find appealing in Lovecraft is the bleakness of it all. Fair enough. In addition to Machen, he may want to explore Algernon Blackwood’s work. To me, “The Willows” seems not so bleak, but still capturing the fear that’s derived from an encounter with something perceived as transcendent.

    • You’re oversight is that Lovecraft doesn’t bring our mind to ‘God’, he brings it to ‘Chaos’. the one who gave birth to ‘God’, the Creator of creators, creatio-ex-nihilo , Lovecraft was a very sensitive person, the emotional experience you ought to get when reading him is that he proves that something really does come out of nothing.

      Lovecraft brings our mind as close to the Nether World as possible, and lets your creative imagination do the rest.

      that is why he was such a genius

  8. I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit, and I wonder if “Sacred Terror” versus “Cosmic Horror” are arguing two sides of the same coin? To me, the question seems to be a matter of faith – faith in “something” or faith in “nothing”, both of which stem from an ultimate Unknowing.

    The question is, how comfortable is each person in the Unknowing? I’m not referring, necessarily, to the Christian Mystical work “The Cloud of Unknowing”, though I agree with parts of it – namely that God/The Divine/Whatever (if He/She/It exists) is inherently not bound by our preconceived notions. This is where I think Lovecraft succeeded (for me, anyway) as a story teller, in that his beings (Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, Azathoth, etc.) were so Other as to drive one to madness. They shattered any pre-conceived notions of what humanity thinks of itself and its place in the universe. This is why Derleth frustrates me. He attributed human motivations to Things that are simply Beyond and truly Alien. Or, as Pinhead said… “Angels to some…demons to others.”

    So, how does one deal with the fact that we’re alive, and conscious; what I like to call “The Primal Terror of Awareness”? Sure, we can make maps, we can make obsessively ridiculous diagrams (Wilber), we can try to pin the blame on Gods, we can write a 2000 page suicide note like Mitchell Heisman and call it a day, or we can admit that we, frankly, Don’t Ultimately Know, and be okay with it (though this should NOT by any means, deter one from trying to find out – it hasn’t deterred me at all).

    For me, the ultimately fascinating thing is that we can make a choice. That choice (to remain alive and live this life, or to opt out and die) speaks of a power that transcends the something/nothing debate – us. I mean this neither optimistically nor pessimistically. We have the power of choice – to live, to die, to believe, to believe in something else, or to not believe at all. This should not be underestimated or forgotten.

  9. “there is no way around Lovecraftian despair while playing under Lovecraft’s rules.”

    I’m no expert on Lovecraft, but how about if you’re playing by the rules of “The Dunwich Horror”? It’s probably not a typical Lovecraft tale and I don’t claim to remember all the details of the story, but from what I recall brains, guts and ingenuity send the monster back to its own dimension where it will be trapped forever so long as no one is daft enough to conjure it up again through black magic rituals and shagging a malignant cosmic entity. (Actually, it’s getting impregnated by the cosmic entity that’s the problem; presumably if a woman could find a suitable contraceptive she could shag the cosmic entity as much as she liked. Although I’m not sure what form of contraceptive would be effective — an amporphous diaphragm? An eldritch birth control pill? A non-Euclidean condom to cover the entity’s Cyclopean monster?)

  10. As a former Evangelical, I sense more than just a bit of rationalizing on the part of Jonathan Ryan, as horror – true, philosophical horror, not this slasher cotton candy – is shunned (at best) by the tenants and flag bearers of the Evangelical community and all their related pseudo-political tentacle organizations (Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, etc.).

    So, faced with the choice of championing one of the early Weirdists, Ryan opts for the more cuddly and God-friendly of the group, when the racist atheist Lovecraft is clearly the more compelling, harrowing, and fantastical (if one loves cosmic horror, which I get the sense that Ryan does) of the two. Yes, this is an opinion, but one borne out by the respective influence of the two authors on everything from films/film festivals to anthologies to music to pop culture.

    It’s akin to a God fearing Christian lad deeply loving heavy metal, and really wanting to give yourself over to Iron Maiden and Black Sabbath and Judas Priest, but instead ending up at the Stryper show, because that won’t ruin your “saved” prayer and your eternal life pact with God.

    It’s a cop-out combined with a rationalization. I can spot ’em a mile away, because I used them most of my young life.

    As for sacred terror vs. cosmic horror, HPL’s “Dreams in the Witchhouse” is filled with much Christian imagery and mentions, while Machen’s “The Great God Pan” – to me – shows that Greek myth is just as valid and real (and potentially dangerous) as Judaic/Christian myth.

    I don’t think Lovecraft and Machen fit into the neat, tidy boxes that Jonathan Ryan has created to justify his love of horror (even that which is most cosmic and spiritually nihilistic) to the rest of the Evangelical community, which – as evidenced by the comments section of the linked article – is clotted with a vast, seething majority who find the horror genre (and they most likely have no idea how Weird and bleak true horror can really get) to be the carefully orchestrated leavings of Lucifer himself.

  11. Fascinating and slightly heated discussion here since I first chimed in. I was most struck by Grau’s comments as a former Evangelical. Sadly, I think he is largely correct. As a current Evangelical, but a very different one and more comfortable with its cultural expressions in the UK than US, horror and the dark elements of religion and faith are largely ignored or eschewed. However, as I and a few others have argued this need not be the case, and I take issue with the tendencies in the Evangelical subculture to subdue the genre or create a “Christian horror” subculture alternative that defangs the genre and removes the wonderful subversiveness of it all.

    There have been interesting discussions on my blog related to this after I’ve posted on Christianity and horror and my critique of it in light of an essay Rue Morgue did on the topic which even came to the attention of Cinefantastique Online when an atheist and I went back and forth. It seems this issue pushes buttons for both Christians and others who see an impossible impasse between cosmic horror and sacred terror.

    This would make for a great podcast discussion with the right people at The Teeming Brain or my own TheoFantastique, or perhaps at a future film festival, Matt.

  12. TE,

    Your comments are base on a number of assumptions about myself that you couldn’t possibly know. First, that I’m your typical evangelical who supports the said organizations you listed. I am not. I consider myself more in the Anglican/Catholic camp. Given that fact, I feel no need to justify myself in the categories you attempted to lump me in (Stryper loving Focus on the Family advocate). I dont recognize myself there.

    Two, you assume I’m trying to “justify” my love of horror. I’m not. It needs no real justificaiton.

    Three, while I do prefer Machen over Lovecraft, the reasons you stated for my choice are wrong. You might ask me instead of assuming.

    Four, you are projecting your own issues as a former evangelical on to me. I would appreciate you not doing so. I don’t know you, so I will not dishonor you with patronization. I’ve got my own issues with the evangelical church which has motivated my stepping down the Caterbury path, so to speak.

    My whole point of the article is to get Christians of the evangelical stripe to look beyond their aversion to Horror. Further, this article was meant to explore, in very broad and general terms, how worldview infects the said writers. I believe my general observations are correct. Does that mean there is no nuance or blurred lines? Of course not. Most certainly there are. I had no intention of saying Lovecraft is a worthless and unworthy writer. Not at all.

    • Jonathan:

      Of course I’m basing my opinions on you and your piece on assumptions. That is the nature of opinion, and I stated that it was nothing more than an opinion, based on my own decades living in and amongst Evangelicals. I obviously do not know you, and was going on a hunch/intuition. I wasn’t attempting to label based on fact.

      I take more issue with your characterization of the philosophical underpinnings of Machen compared to Lovecraft, and think they are intellectually light. I don’t get the feeling that Machen’s work is informed by Judeo-Christian belief. If anything, it seems more Druidic/Humanist, powered by a celebration of unbridled nature, the mind, the unknown/supernatural, and a sensual, fleshy mysticism that seems at odds with Christian teaching. The embrace of the fantastic unknown would seem to clash with those who find the Bible to be the unerring word of God (not saying that you do, but most of your team does), where the afterlife is set based on earthly choices, and exploring spiritual avenues outside of God are heresy.

      Maybe you should have compared Lovecraft to Derleth if you were looking for a “Atheist/Nihilist vs. Christianity-informed Writer” match-up. Perhaps not, but that seems to be the better discussion, and one that has been ongoing for decades.

      Regardless, I do thank you for bringing horror into circulation amongst your Christian peers. Anything to get Christians thinking outside of the box is to be applauded, and the discussion of Lovecraft, Machen, and other true Weird fiction legends is always welcome.

      And the Canterbury trail is to be more admired than that leading to the heated Revival tent.

      • Arthur Machen was a member of the Hermetic Order Of The Golden Dawn. they were open to other religions and ways of looking at things. Calling him a straight up Christian would seem to be all kinds of wrong. but I am not well versed on what the Golden Dawn are all about… from what I gathered they’re interested in a hodge podge pan-global kinda perspective.

  13. John, great idea on the podcase/film festival discussion. I’m game.

  14. After rereading Lovecraft’s essay on Supernatural Horror, along with some of his letters, I’m hard pressed to think he would object to my summation of his world view or his intent with his stories. I believe I presented him fairly and the type of horror he preferred. He loved Machen, but found his worldview detestable. Yes, I prefer Machen’s worldview. Yes, I prefer Machen’s story’s over Lovecraft, but maybe not for the reason’s being described here.

    • Your opinion of H. P. Lovecraft is superficial.
      from The Whisperer In Darkness,

      “Besides, there was a strangely calming element of cosmic beauty in the hypnotic landscape through which we climbed and plunged fantastically. Time had lost itself in the labyrinths behind, and around us stretched only the flowering waves of faery and the recaptured loveliness of vanished centuries – the hoary groves, the untainted pastures edged with gay autumnal blossoms, and at vast intervals the small brown farmsteads nestling amidst huge trees beneath vertical precipices of fragrant brier and meadow-grass. Even the sunlight assumed a supernal glamour, as if some special atmosphere or exhalation mantled the whole region. I had seen nothing like it before save in the magic vistas that sometimes form the background of Italian primitives. Sodoma and Leonardo conceived such expanses, but only in the distance, and through the vaultings of Renaissance arcades. We were now burrowing bodily through the midst of the picture, and I seemed to find in its necromancy a thing I had innately known or inherited and for which I had always been vainly searching.”

      • Context context context, I know the story, and its a twisted part to quote because the context is not exactly what is happening. but H. P. Lovecraft feels as much for the vanished centuries as this character in the story is experiencing at that moment.

        I’ll quote his journey to the Endless Caverns in Virginia,

        “But the climax of the whole Odyssey was my excursion, by train, to the ‘Endless Caverns’ in the exquisite Shenandoh Valley. Despite all the fantasy I have written concerning the nether world, I had never beheld a real cave before in my life – and my sensations upon plunging into one of the finest specimens in the country may be better imagined than described. For over an hour I was led spellbound through illimitable gulfs and chasms of elfin beauty and daemonic mystery – here and there lighted with wondrous effect by concealed lamps, and in other places displaying awesome grottoes and abysses of unconquered night; black bottomless shafts and galleries where hidden winds and waters course eternally out of this world and all possible worlds of mankind, down, down to the sunless secrets of the gnomes and night-gaunts, and the worlds where web-winged monsters and fabulous gargoyles reign in undisputed horror”

        Lovecraft found enjoyment, wonder, in darkness.

        That terrifying things come out of the Abyss, as well as beautiful things, is not Lovecraft knocking the Abyss.

        for Lovecraft, humanity is frail , and pathetic , but that does not mean you can take a giant paintbrush and paint the man’s heart black.

  15. Jonathan Ryan wrote:

    “My whole point of the article is to get Christians of the evangelical stripe to look beyond their aversion to Horror.”

    The irony is that a great deal of Christian imagery can certainly strike someone outside of the Christian community as horrific. (Bodily resurrection after crucifixion; walking, talking serpents in the Garden of Eden, the Angel of Death visiting the Hebrews in exile, to kill their first born sons, a Force commanding a patriarch to sacrifice his son, not to mention the entire Book of Revelations).

    Hell, I was raised Christian (and even Anglican, Episcopalean) and the whole “End Times” thing literally gave me nightmares when I was a small child.

    I have a hunch that horror fiction exists to help folks receive some validation that they aren’t alone in experiencing certain kinds of fear (be it cosmic or mundane) and loss. If this is the case, then is it possible that Christians (or members of *any* organized religion) have a lesser *need* for horror fiction because they already have a rich canon of stories and myths (in the Joseph Campbell sense of the word) to refer to?

    It seems to me that for many Christians (particularly in the U.S.), the canon has centrality. It’s the go-to frame of reference. While all of us are informed by our worldviews, as an atheist I don’t have to worry about committing blasphemy-against-atheism if I write a piece of fiction suggesting the existence of a deity (in fact, recently I’ve written one story and one novella in which pagan/magick beliefs are prominent…despite the fact I don’t believe in any of that stuff).

    But it seems to me that, for Evangelical Christians, the Bible will always have its place at the center and fiction can only, at best, revolve around it like the a planet around the sun. I think this is the reason many Christians appreciate allegorical works that basically re-work something that’s already in the canon. (The obvious example, C.S. Lewis and Narnia; the less-obvious examples, Stephen King and The Stand, which is essentially an allegory for Christian apocalyptic scripture, and old-school vampire/exorcism movies enshrining priests as monster-hunters).

    Over the years, I’ve met a handful of Christians who were at least somewhat into horror — but I think that the field probably tends to attract a disproportionate number of “heathens” 😉 (of one stripe or another) as both readers and writers.

    • Nicole, thank you for your contribution to this discussion. I have noticed among conservative Christians that their is either ignorance of how elements of the biblical tradition come across as horrific, or this idea is sanitized by a process of holy amnesia so as to cleanse the tradition from horror labels. Of course Evangelicalism is not very self-reflective, so there is little awareness of how others see it.

      Matt Cardin and others have argued that elements of the Judeo-Christian scriptures do indeed qualify as falling under the label of horror, so you are spot on with that observation, and hence, the irony that some of us have to argue for the legitimacy of the genre for Christian involvement, enjoyment, speculation, and even perhaps spiritual formation.

      I personally am not a fan of Christian allegory and have argued in a twofold response that 1) Christians should appreciate horror in its own rights without recourse to altering it or trying to find alleged gospel connections within, and 2) that just as Lewis and Tolkien are appreciated for their work within fantasy and science fiction that Christians can find a place for the exploration of the dark aspects of their religious tradition within horror without the need for allegory.

      In a bit of shameless self-promotion, some might be interested in the new volume I co-edited with Kim Paffenroth, The Undead and Theology (Pickwick, 2012) that tries to plow fresh theological and cultural ground:

      Thanks again for your comments.

    • Excellent response, Nicole.

      “Hell, I was raised Christian… and the whole “End Times” thing literally gave me nightmares when I was a small child.”

      You and me both. I knew and feared cosmic horror before I ever ran across the name Howard Phillips Lovecraft.

      End Times theology terrified me more than any non-Biblical work of fiction ever has, or probably ever will.

      The Bible deserves a yearly Stoker.

  16. John and Matt,
    Want to be in on this podcast thing!

  17. I’d enjoy being part of this podcast, as well.

  18. Regarding the proposed podcast, things are in the works!

    And for an additional salvo that lands right in the middle of this conversation, see “Christians and cosmic horror: Linked by Lovecraft?” Trust me: you will find it relevant.

    • I wrote a small paper for school on Dostoevsky’s Dream Of A Ridiculous Man which can be read on my blog. I’m not a professional by any means nor was my essay all that important. but I hammered out my thoughts on it none the less.

      When he speaks of communion with the dead and worshipping other people in that story, the messenger that carries him through his ecstatic journey of his dream has a satyr-like face, one not quite human, it is not an angelic face but it is interpreted by Dostoevsky narrating himself into the story and happenings as an angelic figure. Recalling Rudolf Otto’s idea of the numinous, daemonic dread, it is a figment of the imagination which is beyond Christian. It is a universal value.

      I find it grating that these writers blogging about Lovecraft have taken his worldview, that Lovecraft stretched literally as much as humanly possible towards the cosmos, and try to cram it into Biblical thought.

      A number of the replies spoke as much, leave Christians to the Bible, everything they need is in there, leave Lovecraft to the pantheists, or risk losing everything as a Christian.

      • I think there is a tendency for us all to read things through our personal worldview filters to find points of connection. This may be the case with some Christian writers, as well as those looking to find points of connection between Lovecraft and an esoteric worldview as in the previous discussion on my blog:

        The challenge is being aware of those bias filters and accounting for our biases accordingly. If they go too far then in some cases non-existent connections are drawn, and beyond that, extremely problematic interpretations are drawn, as in the Christian tendency to see Christ figures almost everywhere in film, television, and literature.

        That being said, surely Christians can find value in things beyond the Bible in making connections between genre and the sacred. One need not necessarily leave Lovecraft to the pantheists or the atheists, if one is careful in analysis, reflection, and application.

        • It’s not really a bias. At the root of it is a drive through envy to appropriate it. like Christian heavy rock bands.. William Blake said that Energy is the domain of Satan, and totally-metal bands like My Dying Bride or Virgin Black cannot help but invoke extreme feelings when piling on the furious double bass drums. You can’t pummel Energy into an LP and sing the praises of Christ.

          Lovecraft has a primal Energy to his work that the Christians might have tried to sap out of the pagan city of Corinth but doesn’t belong to them.

          • I respectfully disagree. It is bias, and not so much envy as the unfortunate feeling that such things are unholy and the separatist tendencies of evangelicalism from its fundamentalist origins leads to the creation of “Christian horror” and other alternatives for the Christian subculture. And we disagree on what is possible or not for Christianity. As my blog indicates, I believe its dark aspects must be embraced as much as its light, and that we need to not sanitize the tradition like many evangelicals do with the idea that horror is somehow incompatible with it. I also believe very strongly that a Christian can pummel the drops and experience sacred terror with an energy that overlaps and surpasses that of the pagans.

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