Visiting Scholars Series: Horror Fiction and Christian Thought

Lovecraft1934One of the most notable writers of horror in the 20th century was H.P. Lovecraft. And the unique brand of Cosmic Horror he pioneered went hand in hand, as he saw it, with his hard atheism. His study of the cosmos, along with his meditation on the limits of human understanding, led to the famous opening paragraph of his massively 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.[1]

After reading this for the first time, and reflecting on Lovecraft’s worldview, I thought: of course. What other conclusion could a solitary human mind draw from taking a sober, wide-angled view of the universe? If there’s no God, then not only—as Dostoyevsky said—is everything “permitted,”[2] but so too is everything unmoored, precarious, utterly teetering on the brink of obliteration.

For a materialist, though, Lovecraft displays a profound lack of confidence in the ability of “the sciences”—and the autonomous human mind—to either arrive at ultimate truths or to handle them once arrived at. This is a critical link between Christians and those who share Lovecraft’s vision of the universe, particularly those who flock to the kind of Supernatural Horror Lovecraft wrote.

Underlying the genre of Supernatural Horror is a distinct kind of fear, what Lovecraft famously called “the oldest and strongest kind of fear . . . fear of the unknown.”[3] And underlying the fear of the unknown is the one thing that unites all of us—Death.

In a 1968 interview with the BBC, JRR Tolkien put forth a bit of his own theory about the role 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.[4]

Some Christian theologians have even argued that every fear mankind experiences is, at its root, a fear of death.

Christians 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. Thus, seeing the same horrors Lovecraft saw, but through the lens of the risen Christ, the Apostle Paul can actually encourage the church: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?”[5]

It seems essential, while maintaining distinctions, to recognize that unexpected and powerful points of contact may exist between classical Christian thought and something as seemingly far from it as horror fiction. For the believer in Christ, this genre is 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 it seems radically underutilized—means by which the Christian can relate to a fearful world.

Garret Johnson teaches creative writing at Houston Baptist University and for Writers in the Schools, and has taught previously at the University of Houston-Downtown. Aside from being a longtime devotee of theological and philosophical study, and of the works of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, he holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston and is currently touching up his first novel.


[1] Howard Phillips Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu,” in The Tales of H. P. Lovecraft, ed. Joyce Carol Oates (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2007), 52-76.
[2] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Karamazov Brothers, trans. Ignat Avsey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 739.
[3] Howard Phillips Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1973), 2.
[4] “BBC Archival Footage—In Their Own Words British Authors J.R.R. Tolkien Part 2,” uploaded November 13, 2010, video clip, accessed November 11, 2013, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ca5TUYB1nlw.
[5] 1 Corinthians 15:54b-55, ESV.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

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