It seemed fitting at this time of year to take up a literary subject that’s often understandably—though I think unfortunately—neglected entirely by Christians: Horror fiction. I’m immediately aware of some well-founded hesitations that probably just sprang to many people’s minds. But I hope after a little digging and clarifying, some profound points of contact between two seemingly distant worlds will clarify themselves. For the sake of narrowing the field, and as an interesting place to start, I’m going to focus on a single figure who’s had massive, though oft unrecognized, cultural influence and who I think might be of particular interest to a Christian audience.
HP Lovecraft (1890 – 1937) was an American author born in Providence, Rhode Island, known for pioneering what’s long been referred to as “Weird Fiction.” In some circles, he’s thought of as both ‘America’s Horror Writer’ and the true progenitor of modern science fiction. He was hugely influenced by, and often classed with, Edgar Allen Poe. And Stephen King, the name most contemporary readers associate with the Horror genre, looks back to Lovecraft as an enormous influence and inspiration.
Lovecraft was also an atheist. More than that, he was a materialist. And, as he saw it, it was this distinct aspect of his worldview that guided the philosophy and aesthetics of his fiction. Aside from considering mankind to be not much more than a cosmic speck of dust, he also—as many have noted—just didn’t seem to like writing about people. So he wrote about gothic architecture, dark foggy forests, old houses with either rats scurrying in the walls or cities of alien creatures from eons past living on vast subterranean plains beneath them.
Why, exactly, would a Christian audience find the work of a staunch atheist who practically invented a distinct branch of Horror fiction to be of particular interest?
First let’s distinguish between different kinds of “Horror” literature. One is the gore-fest kind, in which the bloodiest, most gruesome set of occurrences wins the most points. The other is subtler, more psychological, and, in many cases, supernatural. It’s the ghost story kind, the mysterious-secret-in-the-basement kind. That’s HP Lovecraft’s brand. In fact, the first line of his treatise on the genre, “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” has become a go-to expression for describing the source of the genre’s power: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
This is where Lovecraft gets really interesting to me.
Though I didn’t recognize it, as such, until I first read that line, the idea of the unknown coupled with its ability to frighten permeates all of Lovecraft’s fiction. His theory on the literary power of this coupling—succinctly captured in that one statement—eventually got me digging around for a connection between the power of the unknown in Horror fiction and the power of the unknown in all kinds of fiction. But that, alas, is for another time. (A very big ‘another time.’) Here, I want to look at Lovecraft’s unique strain of spooky fiction, where he thinks its power comes from, how this theory of his intersects with Christian thought, and what can be immensely profitable—to anyone, Christian or otherwise—about reading him.
Seemingly unbeknownst to him, Lovecraft essentially redefined the genre of science fiction, creating a sub-genre sometimes referred to as “Cosmic Horror.” The way he did this is what’s interesting. His new vision—for the old, benevolent genre of the scientifically curious—continued the far flung speculations of the past but loosed them from their former underlying certainties: that God, or some sort of force for good, was at least somewhere in the backdrop of things and would ultimately ensure they came out all right. Hence, the “horror” piece of his sci-fi innovation. Much like the twentieth-century Existentialists, Lovecraft saw the universe as an absurdly disordered place with no inherent meaning and no underlying good, without even a reliable force (natural or otherwise) holding it all together. Lovecraft’s vision of mankind’s place in this universe is one of intensely precarious luck—so far. He was somewhat of an amateur astronomer in his younger years, and though he never took a professional avenue with his stargazing, his view of the cosmos was evidently altered by what he saw.
The sheer scope of creation seemed to intellectually overwhelm him and led to such thoughts as these (an epigraph kicking off his story, “The Haunter of the Dark”):
I have seen the dark universe yawning
Where the black planets roll without aim—
Where they roll in their horror unheeded,
Without knowledge or lustre or name.
He signed this short verse, “—Nemesis” (the Greek goddess who meted out divine punishment for hubris), a point whose greater significance will crystallize in a moment.
His study of the cosmos, and his contemplation on the limits of human understanding, also spawned this famous opening paragraph to his truly influential story, “The Call of Cthulhu:”
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
Reflecting on that paragraph after first reading it, I thought: Yes. Yes, of course. What other conclusion could one draw from taking a sober, wide-angled view of the universe? If there is no God (or anything like God), then not only—as one Dostoyevsky character said—is everything “permitted,” but so too is everything unmoored, precarious, utterly teetering on the brink of obliteration.
Interestingly, though, for a materialist, Lovecraft seems to possess an unusual mistrust of the ultimate ends of “the sciences” and a profound lack of confidence in the autonomous human mind to either arrive at ultimate truths or to handle them once arrived at.
This turns out to be a critical link between Christians and those who share such a vision of the universe as Lovecraft’s—particularly those who also flock to the unique realm of literature that is “Supernatural Horror.” Here, then, is an area in which Christians can more deeply understand, and thus better converse with, those of a mindset that may seem separated from Christianity in every possible way.
More than that, Lovecraft is also interesting for his insights, in and of themselves. To people of a distinctly theist persuasion, this may sound odd. But yes, I do think Lovecraft has a particularly keen eye for certain truths. He sees a number of things clearly and deeply. Observing them, however, apart from the lens of Christ—the Word or “Logos,” the organizing principle that “upholds the universe,” and “in whom we live and move and have our being”—without such a lens, this penetrating sight gets truncated right at a certain point. It halts after its initial, bleak observations and—quite consistently, given its premise—acknowledges no higher, mitigating reality that makes a deeper kind of sense out of the potentially horrifying aspects of the universe.
I don’t mean to imply that Christianity automatically clarifies all mysteries and solves all unknown equations like some skeleton-key syllogism. That’s not the way of it, at all. In fact, I looked in depth at the very opposite idea in a previous post.
But regarding these Lovecraftian insights, I’m wondering if it’s as immediately odd to others as it is to me that an adamantly hard-nosed materialist not only attempted a serious treatise on “supernatural” literature but also specialized in writing it, himself.
It’s true that, in Lovecraft’s mind, the beastly grotesqueries he depicted—variously referred to as the Old Ones, the Great Old Ones, the Elder Gods, etc—were meant to be phenomena of strictly natural origin. But he saw such an immense gulf between the far reaches of possibility in the natural order and the human capacity for understanding such possibilities that it made for a frightening contrast: the bigness and power of the universe against the smallness and ignorance of humanity. He manifested these disturbing possibilities often in the assorted forms of these primeval ‘Gods’ who had no regard for mankind, except perhaps as a group of gnats buzzing around the domain where they had once ruled, in eons past—before whatever unexplained event(s) brought on their indefinite slumber.
The thing that’s ferociously interesting about this is that Lovecraft recognizes, and articulates (in his fiction especially), certain realities more incisively than do many of us theists who profess doctrinal convictions about them: both the frightening reality (or possibility to Lovecraft) of sentient beings with great power that exist in the universe but are not human, and the relative ignorance of an often over-confident, hubristic human race in the face of such large forces. This latter reality is compounded by another: the inability of the human mind to fully comprehend the deep things of existence.
Another great commonality, then, between Christians and readers and writers of Horror (not the gore-fest kind, but this subtle, supernatural kind) is a deep sense of, and response to, the realities of things unseen, unknown, things of deep mystery. Not the detective-story type of mystery—in which some all-clarifying answer exists, which people, right now, could fully comprehend if only given enough information—but the type of mystery referenced by the Apostle Paul who maintained that, right now, we “see through a glass darkly.”
Underlying all of this, however, is the strongest link between Christian thought and this fear-of-the-unknown aspect of Supernatural Horror… Death.
In an old interview with the BBC, JRR Tolkien argued part of his own theory about the function of fear in literature: “If you really come down to any large story that interests people or can hold their attention for a considerable amount of time—these stories, human stories, are practically always about one thing, aren’t they? Death. The inevitability of death.” Taking that idea a bit further, some Christian theologians have said that every fear mankind experiences in a fallen world is, at its root, a fear of death. The last enemy. And what, for a human, can be more unknown than the other side of the grave?
We Christians certainly believe a number of things about it, most significantly, that the Resurrection of the Son of God demonstrates the grave’s ultimate lack of power over those who are in the Son of God. As St. Paul triumphantly writes to the Corinthian church (seeing these same Lovecraftian horrors through the lens of the risen Christ), “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”
This raises an interesting point: If Christians do hold this view about the grave, and the other side of it, then the ultimate and deepest permutation of the fear of the unknown is essentially toothless.
For the Believer in Christ, Horror fiction is a genre not wholly without the virtue of tapping into profound realities. It recognizes many of the dark truths about living a fallen existence, the utter despair that would be ours but for an intervening God.
And as such, this distinct branch of literature can be an effective—and I think radically underutilized—means by which the Christian can relate to a fearful world.