Beyond the Beautiful Darkness: Mark Samuels on Atheism, Christianity, Weird Horror, and the Road out of Hell
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Teeming Brain interview with Mark Samuels has long been one of our most popular features, and with this post we finally welcome Mark to our Teem of contributors. Mark’s interview was published back in 2006, and it still continues to draw a steady stream of readers these seven years later. This is due, of course, to the fact that Mark’s reputation as a significant writer of weird fiction has continued to grow in the intervening years, with his corpus having expanded from The White Hands and Other Weird Tales (2003), Black Altars (2003), and The Face of Twilight (2006) — all available at the time the interview was published — to include two more story collections, Glyphotech and Other Macabre Processes and The Man Who Collected Machen, both of which have received widespread acclaim. His work has been praised by the likes of Ted Klein and Ramsey Campbell. It has been reprinted multiple times in various “year’s best” anthologies. He was also personally fictionalized and lampooned — along with Thomas Ligotti, Ellen Datlow, Michael Cisco, Wilum Pugmire, S. T. Joshi, Gordon Van Gelder, and others — by Laird Barron in the story “More Dark,” which appears in Laird’s 2013 collection The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All (which recently won the Bram Stoker Award).
In the essay below, Mark speaks personally about the central role that religion has played in his life as a writer and a human being. As he traces his route from agnosticism to atheism to Christianity, and as he delves into the relationship between all of this and his attraction to weird fiction, he goes into greater depth and speaks more pointedly about some things he said in his interview. Like his chief literary idol, Arthur Machen, Mark’s Christianity is central to his writing (Machen was an Anglican, Mark is a Roman Catholic). And far from clashing with his weird fictional sensibility, this serves as its very source by charging the world for him with an all-pervasive aura of numinous mystery and an abiding awareness of the Hell that always accompanies the possibility of Heaven. This is, obviously, not a position unique to Mark. It doesn’t even qualify as especially rare among the ranks of his fellow horror writers. But his particular expressions of it puts him at odds with certain prevailing cultural attitudes both within and without the community of horror writers and readers, and Mark isn’t one to mince words. Time for me to be silent and let him speak for himself.
BEYOND THE BEAUTIFUL DARKNESS
I came to Catholicism when in my late twenties, having had a type of secular upbringing, at home and in school, to gladden the heart of the most fervent advocate of the neo-atheist movement. There was no Bible in the house. Christmas was just Yuletide, and wholly pagan. Easter was a time for chocolate eggs.
I do recall undergoing one term of mandatory Religious Studies classes, but these were centered around comparative religion, and the bald, white-haired teacher was regarded by the pupils as a legitimate target for some really vile abuse during his own lessons, over which he had no control. His tolerance was regarded as a fatal weakness. Strangely enough, at this hell-hole, all the other teachers would resort to corporeal punishment and thought little of maintaining order through physical violence, right up until the moment the practice was forcibly abolished in all U.K. state schools in 1983. He, however, refused to do so. In class he was shouted down, ignored, and swore at, and I joined in. We pupils learnt nothing during those classes. Looking back thirty years to those lessons now, I think I learnt more of true worth from his example of baffled dignity than from any other of the classes I took. Needless to say, every single teacher in that school was a good socialist and devout religious sceptic. And they made of me exactly the same thing.
Then, during my late teens, I discovered the works of Lovecraft. I admired his stories to the point of complete adulation. I wanted not only to write the sort of tales he wrote, but to be exactly like this great man himself. When I also obtained his selected letters and read through them, he became, as well my guide in literature, my educator. My vague, indifferent agnosticism was cast aside, and I became a militant atheist and scientific materialist. HPL knew everything (except when it came to his biological racism, but I glossed over this failing, as so many others did), and so I too knew everything, since in terms of his system anything that could not be empirically demonstrated was not worth serious consideration. All else was wishful thinking. I devoured the work of any atheist author I could discover, ignoring completely the other side, and became the master of confirming my own prejudices. Objections, rather than being looked into, were treated as mere trifles only deserving of a sneer or scornful words.
So, there you have me up to the age of about twenty-six. These were my principles, and for these alone I stood. There was no such thing as “God.” Jesus Christ, if he ever existed, was just another wandering preacher. The apostles were either lunatics or liars. What was all that nonsense compared to my iron certainty? Death meant oblivion, an end to all suffering. At any moment I could put an end to my life and embrace absolute nothingness! I was truly free. I had no master but myself. I controlled the real power in this universe: death, not life.
“I loved my beautiful darkness, with nothing in it but myself, and I loved having no doubts whatsoever. I then began to undergo certain experiences, mystical if you like, that to a good atheist could only be described as crazed hallucinations.”
And yet what had I really done? I had locked myself into a prison cell with nothing but the darkness I had come to love. I knew everything that could be known, because it was everything I had chosen to know.
And then the cracks in the walls of the cell began to show, and a little light poured through them. It was painful to behold. I had been too careless in my reading, and had ventured into the pages of authors, the likes of Machen, C. S. Lewis, Belloc and Chesterton, who did not think as I did. I don’t think I picked up any single book or work by any of these authors and said, “Now I believe!” The thing was cumulative. Indeed, I am convinced that their works would have no effect whatsoever on a person unless one had reached a particular moment in life. We all carry with us gigantic mental superstructures that do not turn easily from the direction our thoughts have long been accustomed to chart. Anyway, I became perturbed. I loved my beautiful darkness, with nothing in it but myself, and I loved having no doubts whatsoever. And yet I found myself agreeing with some of their criticisms and objections to the all-knowing atheistic worldview. Only a few of them struck home at first, but enough to raise doubts.
Unfortunately, to make matters worse, I then began to undergo certain experiences, mystical if you like, that to a good atheist could only be described as crazed hallucinations. The really odd thing was that I had experienced actual hallucinations before (while under the influence of hash and LSD in my early twenties, in both good and bad trips), and this was nothing like them. Nor were they like dreams. When you look back on a dream, you remember it was a dream. But when I look back on these experiences, which began incrementally, only achieving grandeur later on, they remain as vivid and powerful as any real event in my life, such as my having been in Paris or Rome, or my knowing what an orange tastes like. It would require rather more time than I have to describe these experiences to my satisfaction here, and I am not sure they would convince skeptics any more than I myself, when aged twenty-six, would have been convinced. Suffice to say they are of an order requiring detail probably greater than that required by someone who resolutely contended that “Samuels (who cannot even communicate to us in words what an orange tastes like) has probably never been in Rome or Paris! He is deluded religious crackpot!” Something of their character can be found, albeit dimly, in my stories “The Tower” and “In Eternity – Two Lines Intersect.”
And now I am going to be controversial. It has lately occurred to me that I am not sure anyone but an ex-Catholic could have written something like Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy against the Human Race. Lovecraft could not have done so. He saw the universe as something essentially indifferent rather than malignant with regards to humanity (see, for example, his letter to James Morton, October 30th, 1929). With Ligotti, as far I can tell, it’s a personal thing between him and the universe. He doesn’t want to be here. I blame whichever priest or nun told him that being naughty would end up in his going to a literal Hell of brimstone and fire where the damned are physically tortured for all eternity. I am not going to enter into a dissertation on the true nature of Hell here except to say that any right-minded Catholic would hold that it consists solely of a state wherein the individual, at death, when all truths are revealed, freely rejects God, who is Love. Hell exists, but we choose to go there. It is our own final choice and no-one else’s. It is the final affirmation of our possessing free-will and not being mere puppets who can be made to be happy (or made to be miserable). We are not put in Hell for being naughty boys and girls. We are not put in heaven for being “nice” to everyone. We are never required by the Church to act against our own informed consciences. Personally, I think Hell is a pretty empty place. Rather like a pitch-black cell, in fact. I often feel I’ve been there before.
“Personally, I think Hell is a pretty empty place. Rather like a pitch-black cell, in fact. I often feel I’ve been there before.”
How then are we respond to charges that our experiences are not valid? We face the same difficulty in convincing someone who has never tasted an orange that there is an experiential difference between he who has and he who has not done so. All the verbiage in existence cannot delineate the actual experience in and of itself. Now it may be claimed that I am simply begging the question and creating an analogy of a real experience that anyone may undertake with one that not everyone may undertake. (I don’t allow this objection, incidentally, and believe anyone with a genuine desire to know God can come to know him or, conversely, willfully choose not to do so). But I am not here claiming that a particular religion is validated by my “tasting the orange” analogy. Rather am I claiming that the experience of the numinous is intrinsic to all forms of monotheism.
No serious thinker holds that an experiential insight holds true when it is applied to such Aunt Sallys as the tooth fairy, Father Christmas, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Were anyone to attribute the numinous to such peripheral phantasms, they would be swiftly locked up in psychiatric institutes. I hope that any truly impartial truth-seeker would allow that adherents of Hinduism (in its ultimate, that is, in its monotheistic form), of Judaism, of Islam, and of Christianity, are quite another case from those suffering true mental illness. These traditions all partake of an essence apprehended or filtered through cultural spheres, and share in thousands of years of mystic perception startling in their common conclusions.
What folk who wish to reduce the experience of the numinous to mere hallucinations do is to mimic what the pagan Romans did: to take all aspects of the divine as something one must not take too seriously, except as a measure of maintaining a prevailing civic and philosophic order. The pagan Romans worshipped not the God of a million masks, but the million household gods who are nothing more than empty masks. In pagan Rome it was the Jews and the new cultus of Christians who were irritants, for they alone refused to reduce their God to the level of the Romans’ gods, as merely one amongst a multitude. If their God was real, there could be no others, and even to pretend so was an affront to truth.
And here we have some idea of the difference between those who have undergone hallucinations and later dismissed them for what they are, and those who have encountered the numinous and found themselves willing to live and die for it: the encounter with being-in-itself. When considering the competing claims of the major monotheistic religions, the skeptic concentrates wholly upon their differences, when, really, it is their similarities that are their most striking aspect.
In all essentials, the theology of monotheism consists in affirming that we are able to apprehend the mystery of our own being by reference to some greater form of Being that informs our own state. We acquiesce to a higher purpose. Our consciences damn us internally when we refuse to act in accordance with them. No mere hallucination will suffice in this regard, and only the cosmic truth, mysterious as it is, will do. Moral and religious relativity may be true when we view particular details in contradistinction or isolation to the cultural forms of other civilizations, but rarely will it prove to be in absolute opposition to them, for it is the spirit and not the word that prevails.
“It is only in the Christian theology that the Creator himself partakes of our own mortal agony, and fully enters into human history, tortured, tormented, and put to death by the very souls he came to save, driven to despair to the extent of crying out on the cross in a paroxysm more blasphemous than any atheist’s doubt.”
Now I am afraid I must embark upon some definite theology regarding the faith I hold, and it is at this point that many of my readers will abandon all hope and sympathy for my position, as I leave behind me the truism that all of the monotheistic faiths contain a final insight into truth. For it is now my duty to narrow my claims regarding all such religions and claim a special status for the religion I myself hold, and make the claim that mine is the axis upon which reality turns. Unfortunately, this tends to alienate those who are comfortable with the idea that God may possibly exist but that he should be confined to philosophic deliberations, being as indefinite as possible and thus of equal standing throughout all shades of monotheistic thought.
And the idea I am going to put forward is this: a God who does not himself experience the utter degradation and suffering under which man can labor, with all of the attendant doubts and limitations of man, is not God. It is only in the Christian theology that the very Creator himself, the source of all souls and He that sustains reality, is crucified and suffers the iniquity of a criminal’s death, rather than that of a King. It is only in the Christian theology that the Creator himself partakes of our own mortal agony, and fully enters into human history, tortured, tormented, and put to death by the very souls he came to save, driven to despair to the extent of crying out on the cross in a paroxysm more blasphemous than any atheist’s doubt — “Father, why hast thou forsaken me?” and “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It is only Christ, our redeemer and living God, whose nature it is to partake of Hell itself for our sake.
Image: “The Temptation” by Angela Marie Henriette via Flickr under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Posted on May 26, 2014, in Arts & Entertainment, Religion & Philosophy and tagged atheism, Christianity, h. p. lovecraft, horror, laird barron, skepticism, Thomas Ligotti, weird fiction. Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.