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. Read the rest of this entry
A living person is forgiven everything, except for being present among the dying ones of this world. “Oh, holiest sacrifice of the (children) of the unique one.”
— Louis Cattiaux
It is odd to step out of my personal reality and into a fantasy world much more mundane than the mere act of making coffee in the morning at the Liminal Analytics Georgia offices. But so it was last week as I entered the neo-Babylonian hotel complex that hosts Dragon Con in downtown Atlanta each year. “There are no real freaks* here,” I murmured to my traveling companion at the convention, Dr. Tim Brigham, a professor of experimental psychology at Georgia Perimeter College, as we looked around at the nervous faces of conference attendees who were dressed as their favorite characters (or as those most convenient to their sense of outward escape). “Maybe once it gets dark, we’ll get some spirited folks in here,” I opined aloud as the agitated buzz of students, executives, and average Americans bent on an escapist weekend began getting on my nerves, making me wish I could leave for a nice, normal afternoon at a local Botanica to study the beautiful skeletal visage of la niña bonita, Santa Muerte.
Upwards of 60,000 people converged on Atlanta this year to attend one of the largest fantasy, science fiction, comic, and gaming conventions in the world. I mused and milled among the Dragon Con attendees with Dr. Brigham as we awaited an opportunity to see how the realms of anomalous science might fare in such a heady environment. The convention played host to two well-stocked tracks of paranormal and skeptical speakers, and so it seemed a perfect opportunity to understand how the ideas that Dr. Brigham and I are used to experiencing through laboratory work, statistical analysis, and philosophical discourse play out in the public domain. And play they did, to the abrasive tune of crass commercialization and the repetitious mantra “I am here to escape.”
Having spent time with some of the world’s leading parapsychologists, I’ve often been confused as to how the skeptical subculture can exist in such seeming disconnect with everything that I’ve encountered during my reading, travels, and conversations. Dragon Con provided me with an unpalatable answer by revealing the illusory landscape of fantasy and fandom that the skeptics inhabit, far afield from those liminal, but legitimate, climates where anomalistic science holds proper court. If this is what the skeptics consider a reasonable place to air their ideas, then I’m not surprised that they express such dismay at the state of anomalistic science. I’ve never seen even one of these people at any of the serious parapsychological events that I’ve attended or hosted, and nothing I’ve attended or hosted has ever been so fraught with fiction as this Dragon Con convention. Yet here among the cosplay and comic books were such leading lights of the skeptical subculture as Michael Shermer, Ben Radford, Michael Stackpole, and Massimo Pigliucci.
Without going to Dragon Con, you can get a sense of where many popular skeptics are coming from in the fact that Ben Radford is a staff writer for Discovery News, a subsidiary of Discovery Communications, the company that has received attention recently for its decision to run television specials claiming the existence of living megalodon sharks (which have been extinct for upwards of 2 million years) and mermaids (which have probably never existed). The cognitive dissonance that’s palpable in this promotion of pulp fiction as fact by what purports to be a leading science education platform fact gives writers like Radford the leeway to make strange claims, such as his contention that the legendary Stanford Research Institute (SRI) Remote Viewing project returned no valid results. At Dragon Con I was unable to find anyone who had even heard of SRI, let alone who had looked at the research itself, and so skeptics like Radford, when pitted against a paranormal panel track stocked with ghost hunters, professional psychic mediums, a demonologist, and some UFO experts, were able to weave their web of rationalized irrationality with ease.Read the rest of this entry
I remember the last time I consulted a soothsayer. ‘Twas in the early of the year, and sorrow had wont to call upon my home.
Where, I thought dimly, shall I find succor now my very rooms themselves speak to me of tragedy? Aye me, the pains of a soul lost in this ill-lit world of dark delirium!. Fain would I press forward, if only I could find some wane and wanton hope, yet such seeking brought only more sorrow.
Strolling the thoroughfare, my hobnailed, haggard shoes tapping out a beleaguered fugue upon the chipped and sullied cobblestones, I saw what I mistook, I do admit, for a white and luminous dove: my fated angel, strange savior, black and white winged, read all over.
Lo, ’twas nay a bird, but a breeze-blown bit of newspaper! How odd that this scrap could become so like an oracle to me, proof of providence in that strange synchronicity. Upon it, writ in print full clear, this message, which would become so dear to my heart:
Online Psychic Readings – 3 Million 5-star Ratings Don’t Lie.
Huh? When, exactly, was the last time you encountered a “soothsayer”? Perhaps down the street, next to the local smithy, or across the way from old Elias Nottuman the Tanner? What century are we living in again?
Still, someone out there is encountering them, at least according to a recent piece at Yahoo! News titled “Psychic Devastates Dead Student’s Family,” which highlights the failure of a couple of self-proclaimed psychics to solve missing-person cases and then holds this up as an example of a supposed pervasive plague of psychism and superstition infecting Western culture: Read the rest of this entry