Wednesday, October 31, 2012

On Christians and Halloween (So Far)

Bonfires burning bright
Pumpkin faces in the night
I remember Halloween

-Misfits, 'Halloween'

31st of October and there are some thrilling vibes in the crisp, pinched, darkening air around us.  On this night of costumes and candy and copious concatenations of fake blood, fake fangs, fake fur and so on, huge swathes of the population are having a good time with the ghoulies and ghosties – and, of course, with a number of less unsavoury and unsightly characters (although, I for one am a bit more frightened of a painted or plasticky Disney princess than bloody dripping Dracula and co.).  Yet a lot of other folks are perhaps feeling a bit more of a sinister atmosphere in these proceedings.  I have been one of this more dubious crowd for most of my adult life so far.  Lately, however, I’ve become less and less sure of my worrisome doubts and wholesale disapproval of Halloween.

For a good handful of years now, I’ve been meaning to do a whole big investigation and re-evaluation of the holiday in order to hammer out and communicate a fresh perspective on my take of whether and how Christians might observe good old All Hallow’s Eve in a way that glorifies the Holy One, who was once called ‘Isaac’s Dread’ (Genesis 31:42).  I still haven’t done so and this little article isn’t it either.  But I can’t put it off any longer.  I’ve got to at least start to say at least something about it.  Considering my very longstanding interests in a Christian perspective on horror and monsters, a number of people are starting to ask me if I’m going to come out with a public view on this holiday.  (Some of you will know I was the ‘singer’ in a 90s band that has been labelled as ‘Christian horror punk’, notable to some for the lyrics I wrote about monsters and redemption.)  As I sit here with deadlines crowding in on me for an article on a ‘theology of darkness’ for a magazine of horror fiction, for a short story submission to be considered for inclusion in a ‘ghost story’ anthology, and for a university English literature essay on apocalyptic monsters, it strikes me as rather ridiculous that I let yet another Halloween slip by with nary a word from my pen on the matter. 

Let’s try to get it started this way then:  my father was a pastor and our parents did send my sister and brother and I out on Halloween evening with the other neighbourhood kids, all dressed up as horror story characters as well as other fictional and non-fictional personages (I think I was everything from Frankenstein and Dracula to Spiderman and Hulk to a ‘punk rocker’, fireman, and astronaut).  We collected huge bags or buckets full of candy like everyone else, came home and poured out our respective piles, had each and every piece of candy carefully inspected by hand by our parents (hundreds of ‘em!) for safety, then bartered and battered and beguiled our way through trades, and finally re-bagged it all and went off to our bedrooms to begin a one by one consumption of delights that would take weeks to complete.  Our parents handed out yummy sweets to all who came to the door, often along with brightly wrapped ‘gospel tracts’ (the content of which I remember not at all).  But even more crucial to the question at hand, my parents played the Disney Halloween record over and over throughout the proceedings, flipping from side A to side B and back again for hours – 80s kids, you know the one:  sound effects of a guy sawing a branch, ‘Chinese water torture’, the scary winds, the terrifying barking dogs, etc.  And they decorated the house, windows, front door, and yard accordingly – cobwebs, ghosts, and the like.  We weren’t in any way obsessed or over the top with it, I’d say, but as a family we were right into it.  It was definitely one of my all-time favourite moments of each year. 

Both of our parents appreciated a movie or book with a healthy dose of horror or terror in it.  I mean, they weren’t reading Stephen King or anything – but chills and spills you could get from, say, the television and cinematic thrillers of Serling, Hitchcock, Lucas, and Spielberg were alright with them.  It was all part of an entertainment (and, deeper than that, storytelling and aesthetic) mosaic that also included comedy, drama, romance, action, heroic adventure, and so on.  When seen altogether, such a mosaic, of course, portrays human life as we know it – horror included.

So I would say, though I don’t recall a lot of strong discernment or critical engagement with Halloween, our parents rather implicitly contextualised the horror genre in general for us year in and year out and the holiday fit naturally into that rhythm.  Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t mean to practice parental hagiography here.  Our family definitely went unresistingly with the flow of culture far too often:  we watched (like most Americans in the 80s) way too much television, ate too much junk food, befuddled our feelings and bemuddled our minds in top 40 radio and TV sitcoms, wished we could buy too many clothes and home amenities (we were kind of poor, so we had to mostly settle for game show and catalogue window-lusting), and so on.  We fought, sure.  We weren’t mindless zombies.  But we often lost the battle.  So I’m not saying my parents have now shown the way for all of us, ‘look no further for how to celebrate Halloween as a Christian!’  No.  But I think I do find some intriguing hints and suggestions in their example.

Now I have to take the story in a more singular and less familial direction.  I, from a young age, was outright fascinated and besotted with horror and monsters (found not only in the ‘scary’ movies and stories I took in, but also in all the science fiction and heroic fantasy I consumed as well).  The contextualised place of horror and monsters in the overall mosaic of Story wasn’t enough for me.  I specialised in them.  The same way some other child might have ‘specialised’ in Westerns or detectives or romantic comedies or what have you.  Most of us probably tend to magnify certain pieces of the mosaic, and I think that’s perfectly healthy, part of our diversity and community.  Anyway, I’m one of the Monster People.  Pleased to meet you.  Apologies if I scratch you with my claws when we shake hands or I scare your children when I smile my fangy smile. 

A couple from church actually introduced me to the Friday night horror movie double feature on our local TV station, hosted by the wonderful Sammy Terry.  I watched it faithfully for years, encountering both old and new films, both classics and B-movies, all creature-featuring the whole gamut of vampires, werewolves, ghosts, giant Japanese monsters, Victorian slashers, mad scientists, alien blobs, giant tarantulas, and so on.  My juvenile reading consisted mostly of epic heroic fantasy novels, but you may have noticed that books like Lord of the Rings are densely populated with a rich variety of awe-inspiring monsters and horrors.  Reading some of the macabre tales of Edgar Allen Poe also made its impression on me and C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters also pleasurably introduced my young mind to the beginnings of a distinctly Christian sense of horror, even though it is mainly a work of satire.

Well, with my young imagination thus formed, when it came to starting to write songs for a punk rock band around age 18, the lyrical pictures that immediately sprang to my mind had to do with horror and science fiction.  But I was also a zealous young Christian, so I tried to ‘preach the gospel’ through these strange and ghoulish metaphors.  The horrifying curse of sin and damnation loped and lurched in the monstrous characters of the songs.  And redemption from death and judgment through the bloody beautiful horror that is the cross of Christ was splattered all over the band’s lyrical landscape.  It was a joy, to be honest.  All the vampires, werewolves, out of control robots, man-made creatures, giant monsters and so on were suddenly a terrifying and gruesome gospel choir in my imagination singing (roaring, growling, howling) the praises of Jesus.  Hey, it worked for me. 

So I guess you could say I was sort of just naturally exhibiting a ‘Christian view and celebration of Halloween’.  But here’s the trick.  Around the same time that the band was getting started, I came to a new awareness of Halloween as a cultural phenomenon.  I remember just kind of looking round me one year at what was being promoted commercially – and it seemed to me that all these little kids were being introduced to bloody axes, hideous masks, devil horns, mass murderers and horrifying beasts – gore and evil, gore and evil, all over the place.  I was shocked and sickened and feeling some ‘righteous anger’ coming on.  And, as was my wont at that point in life, I overreacted.  I renounced the celebration of Halloween forthwith as my Christian duty.  I didn’t go on a crusade about it, but I was pretty adamant.  My soon-to-be-wife felt exactly the same way as me.  And yet she too was a long time appreciator and producer of the creepy and grotesque in her own artwork.

So there we were, committed Christians who were monster fans and creators but who didn’t celebrate Halloween at all.  We, of course, raised our kids this way, taking them to ‘alternative’ events put on by churches on Halloween nights.  So they still got candy, games and playtime with other kids, and even some costumes sometimes.  And they got horror and monsters in their lives too because that aesthetic influenced our d├ęcor at home and our intake of entertainment. 

But in recent years the idea of an ‘alternative’ to Halloween, where Christians just drop right out of a national holiday and in no way seek to sanctify and redeem it has been less and less satisfying as a stance and practice for me.  The Dutch prime minister, Abraham Kuyper, famously said that there is not one square inch of all creation over which Christ does not declare ‘Mine!’  That is, biblical theology proclaims that Jesus is Lord over all the earth.  Not just the ‘pretty’ and ‘safe’ bits.  All of it.  From freakish deep sea creatures to never-ending mega-storms on the planet Jupiter, all creation glorifies and praises the Creator, even in a Fallen and sin-broken universe such as ours – and Christ shed his priceless blood to redeem every last bit of it.  That seems like more than robust enough of a context in which to situate the darker, stranger shades of a holiday like Halloween, in which to actually celebrate that Holiday in holiness and truth and goodness and beauty. 

I think a critical, discerning, cautious, and exploratory approach is warranted.  But approach it we must I feel!  In addition to the children participating in trick or treating, I’ve thought of having wee parties in our home where we do traditional games like dunking for apples and so on, but where we also do kind of ‘spooky’ readings from various classic, contemporary, and biblical texts (plenty material in the latter).  But I don’t know!  It’s a work in progress.  I welcome your input.

There.  Finally.  It’s a start at least.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Creeping Towards a Theology of Darkness (Part 1)

The latest episode of a theology podcast that I've started doing begins to engage with a 'theology of darkness'.  This follows on from thoughts on a 'theology of wildness' in the previous episode.  These begin to do some of the groundwork for a theology of horror and Christian philosophy of horror.

(You can follow the podcast on Facebook at Theophilus Theologue.)

itunes pic

'You make darkness, and it is night, when all the beasts of the forest creep about.' (Psalm 104:20)

Friday, July 27, 2012

A Report On Writing Horror Fiction

It's funny:  I've been known for writing 'sci-fi/horror' lyrics in punk rock bands over the past two decades.  However, as I've been trying to make the transition into prose writing these last few years, somehow I didn't actually expect that I might write some horror fiction of some sort.  I guess it just goes to show how often we don't know ourselves – even what should be obvious to us!  But, as I say, the fact that I’m writing some horror fiction comes to me as something of a surprise.

From the time I was young I think I always thought I would write science fiction and possibly some ‘heroic fantasy’ (a la Lord of the Rings).  I now know I almost certainly will never write either - I haven't the capacity for them.  I still love s.f. as a genre or idea and some of my favourite authors and books will always be from this 'camp'.  And I do think I have a penchant and capacity for writing things of a fantastic nature, even if not of the heroic or ‘high fantasy’ variety.  But hold that thought for a moment.

Now, add to this that in the past decade I've come to greatly appreciate some 'non-genre' fiction (sometimes called 'mainstream' or 'straight' or 'literary' fiction).  The great Southern writers Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy are probably the main culprits, all of whom, admittedly, come near genre fiction in being mythic, Gothic, and even sometimes slightly science-fictional.  I also love mainstream modern 'classics' like Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea, Steinbeck's The Pearl, and Golding's Lord of the Flies.  Yet again, each of these tales has a mythic resonance, so we're still not a million miles away from my first love of fantastic genre fiction.  (Another of my all-time favourites from the 'classics' of English Literature is Milton's Paradise Lost – and if any written work is an epic science-fictional and fantastical tale, that certainly is!)

So this allegedly more 'realist' sort of fiction has crept into my bones as well now.  This has the result that when I think of writing, I think as much of everyday tactile details and settings and characters as I do of the fantastic and strange.  (S.f. and fantasy writers of course have always thought about these ‘realistic’ details, but I mean I’m interested in them in the same way many ‘straight’ fiction writers are – not only to build up the verisimilitude of the world you’re creating but for their psychological and social interest and implications, which have not always been of interest to s.f. and fantasy writers.)

What happens then when you mix this 'mainstream' tradition with a proclivity to also write of the ‘weird’ – i.e. the strange events and entities that occur in and occupy the mysterious and preternatural places our imaginations are free to roam and encounter?  Well, nowadays you have this whole explosion of 'urban fantasy' and 'magical realism' and their endless permutations:  steampunk, mythpunk, 'slipstream', the 'new weird', 'noird' (noir detective fiction meets weird fiction), dark fantasy and so on.

But before the occurrence of this contemporary profusion of the fantastic-realist hybrid, possibly the main writers doing this sort of thing were horror writers.  Stephen King is the most ready-to-hand example, of course.  His uber-famous 1970s novels like Carrie and The Shining were about detailed realistic contemporary settings and characters infused with paranormal powers and events and atmosphere.  And really, the reigning master of horror before Stephen King – H. P. Lovecraft in the 1920s and 30s - also wrote in painstaking realistic detail about his then contemporary New England settings, in which took place his horrific wonders 'from beyond'.  Lovecraft didn't do nearly as much characterisation or social commentary as King, but his creeping terrors were firmly framed in an everyday setting that was at that time ‘modern’.

My point is that horror fiction and its fantastical offshoots and cousins are the natural place a writer with both everyday 'realism' as well as the supernatural or magical boiling in his or her soul may find a writing home.  At least, for a writer like me who has always deeply loved monsters and terrors and the dark and Gothic as well as other themes of wonder and fantastical imagination (such as space, future technology, and aliens in s.f. or ‘ancient realms’ of magic and fabulous creatures in high fantasy).

Now, when I consider my own take on horror fiction as I begin to try to write it, I realise there are distinctions and shades even within this genre.  One element of horror that a reader or viewer might well be expecting when they come to a work labelled as such is the horror of violence, gore, and very scary and twisted human evil and murder – ‘slasher' stuff, I guess.  On the other hand one might be anticipating supernatural terror in its many varieties:  ghosts, vampires, or what have you.  (Of course, there is also the possibility of non-supernatural monsters too, such as 'scientific abominations' or surviving prehistoric monsters or the monstrous effects of a passing comet and so on – but I think it's crucially important to note that these latter sorts of more 'naturalistic' monsters still have nearly the same aura of the hauntingly inexplicable and preternatural hovering over them as do more overtly 'supernatural' entities.)

And, of course, these 'slasher' and 'monster' varieties of horror are no doubt often mixed – indeed, there is almost guaranteed to be a strong amount of gore or macabre in a tale about monsters.  But the violence of the encounter between the human and non-human, the natural and the supernatural or extraordinary, is to me far different than the violence of a human to human encounter – two very different kinds of scary to me.

Furthermore, it seems to me that these two sorts of horror tackle two different things:  'slasher' horror faces head-on the suffering, brutality, pain, evil, and terror we bring upon ourselves as the human race, in person to person encounter.  It chronicles the way humans can become inhuman and the horrific plight of the victims of this grim reality.  It explores in its uniquely visceral way the seemingly obvious fact that we humans are physically made of skin and blood and guts and that these intricately woven bodies of ours can come shockingly, wrongly apart.  At the same time it explores the way our souls can correspondingly come shockingly, wrongly apart – a psychologically gory mangling of our 'insides' into something equally gruesome and deformed and disgusting as that of our mangled ‘outsides’.

'Monster' horror faces head-on something different.  (I know these labels are misleading – ‘slasher' stuff is very much 'monster fiction' in that the psychotic killers are a classic example of 'the monster'.  I'm just trying out this shorthand for the time being.)  'Monster' horror explores the human encounter with the truly mysterious - usually sinister and always dangerous, but that which is darkly and bizarrely extraordinary and inexplicable.  It imagines the hardly nameable stuff that lurks around in the deep, muddy dark of our dreams - really frightening and freakish possibilities that we 99% of the time don't even remember that we've ever contemplated, or that we have only ever intuited at a subconscious level that has never seen the light of day in our waking thoughts.  It's probably a realm many feel is better left ignored and buried.  But horror-merchants of this monstrous variety take a perverse delight in dragging it all out before our eyes to make us shudder and scream.  And hence we have monsters – exquisitely weird and horrifying physical and spiritual combinations of form and function calculated to make our skin crawl and our minds recoil.

And yet, and yet... monsters also somehow calculated to pique our interest, to make us peep between our fingers for another morbidly curious glimpse.  Indeed, for many of us, after the initial chill and repugnance is gotten over, some of these monsters can become our occasional companions, hideous pals that give us a certain grotesquely piquant key of company that just can't be had elsewhere.  So monster horror isn’t just about the recoil – it’s also about curiosity and fascination with the Other.

'Monster' horror then is largely, to me, a certain dark sort of sense-of-wonder fiction.  It explores what we humans do not know and how we choose to live with that unknowing.  It explores the fact that our hearts respond so very strongly to what is apparently not even real or possible and what this experience might be trying to hint at about reality.

All this is prefatory to saying that I've discovered my own burgeoning horror writing is very much of the Monster and not Murderer class.  I write about the creepily inexplicable, the darkly fantastic, not about serial killers and the like.  When I write, I delight in the way realism can either subtly or disruptively break into the weird – or, more often, be broken into from the realm of the weird – violated, or just visited, by dark strangeness.  To be perfectly honest, though, most of the writing I’m attempting in this vein is probably better described as ‘dark urban fantasy’ or some such thing as it’s not really aiming to achieve a classic horror effect.  It just naturally gravitates into that realm in varying degrees.  (Then again, in my reading of Stephen King, for example, he’s very much the same – he’s known as the master of horror, but half of what he writes, despite scarifying book covers and blurbs, just aren’t really horror at all – they are fantastic and supernatural and so on, but only have tinges of classic horror and are really just a form of modern fantasy writing set in everyday scenarios – but more on that in another post.)

This is my report from the land of horror writing thus far.  I shall send another missive when I have reached a point further North in my explorations.  Until then… be afraid, be very afraid.