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.

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8 Comments

  • Travis Buchanan says:

    Garret, thank you for your post. You make an illuminating juxtaposition of Lovecraft and Tolkien and open up a fruitful means of engaging horror fiction with Christian thought in the process.

    When scanning thumbnail pictures of new movies on the Apple trailers web site, for example, I am always struck by how many horror films get made, which must be because there is a wide and eager audience for this genre. Reflecting on the proliferation of horror it seems that this apparently very lucrative industry traffics on the palpable human fear of death to which Tolkien also alludes in his comments from the BBC archives you reference as well as in his letters. There he similarly says of The Lord of the Rings, ‘if the tale is “about” anything (other than itself), it is not as seems widely supposed about “power”. Power-seeking is only the motive-power that sets events going, and is relatively unimportant, I think. It is mainly concerned with Death, and Immortality; and the “escapes”: serial longevity, and hoarding memory’ (Letters 1981, 283–84). He makes a near identical statement about LR in an earlier letter, saying ‘the real theme for me is about something much more permanent and difficult: Death and Immortality: the mystery of the love of the world in the hearts of a race “doomed” to leave and seemingly lose it; the anguish in the hearts of a race “doomed” not to leave it, until its whole evil-aroused story is complete’ (246). Tolkien’s presentation of death in his mythology is a nuanced one, where it is seen as a gift of God to men, a deliverance out of the endless cycles of the world which the elves are doomed to suffer, and so on the surface appears opposed to a Christian understanding of death as a consequence of sin: ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Romans 6:23). Though I would be quick to add Tolkien’s presentation of death it is not unable to be integrated with a Christian understanding of death on a deeper level, and the apostle Paul in the text you quote from 1 Corinthians 15 and elsewhere may view death as a deliverance from a ‘whole creation’ subjected in ‘its bondage to corruption’ and which ‘has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now’ for its redemption (Romans 8:22, 21). Death, as well as a consequence of sin, is also the gateway a believer must pass through into eternal life. Joined to the first half of Romans 6:23 given above and often less quoted is the statement ‘but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ It would appear Paul cannot discuss death without this emphasis, and thus may actually present death as ‘gain’ for the follower of Jesus: ‘For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account’ (Philippians 1:21–24; cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18).

    The text from 1 Corinthians 15:54–55 which you quote is obviously central to a Christian engagement with these themes, very appropriate to the discussion, and so rightly included above. There is one text from the New Testament I was expecting you to reference which seems peculiarly relevant to this entire discussion, however, and with which I wish to (finally!) conclude. As mentioned, that the very lucrative horror industry traffics on the palpable human fear of death, it is significant that the author of Hebrews says this is something Jesus specifically died to deliver us from:

    Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. (Hebrews 2:14–15)

    • Garret Johnson says:

      Thanks for the insightful comments, Travis,

      Ah yes, that Hebrews passage—great point. I do agree it’s central to the discussion. And while this piece doesn’t reference it, specifically, I think the same idea is essentially at work in the reference to the Resurrection. After God’s people witness, and hear about, and remind each other through the ages of the fact of the Resurrection the Son of God, they are able to slough off the fear of death and say, with Paul, “O death, where is your sting?”

      Observing the horrors of a fallen world—all of which perhaps flow from the ultimate horror of death—through a new lens (the lens of the risen Christ, the Word, who partook of our flesh and blood), with veils lifted, Christians can indeed stand in the power of Christ above and outside the old fear of death that has dominated man’s history. (Particularly because Christ’s resurrection is the “firstfruits” of the final one, a promise about our own future resurrection, one “like His.”)

      I completely agree as well with your connection of Paul’s nuanced conception of death to Tolkien’s.

      Though Tolkien’s mythology does describe death as a “strange” and mysterious kind of “gift,” his work also seems to maintain an acknowledgment of the evil of death. I can’t track down where I read this—I believe it’s in the Silmarillion, though a quick check isn’t producing anything; maybe someone knows where I can find it—but Tolkien’s work at times refers to Death as something like, “the gift, or the curse, of Men.” Further, in that same BBC interview, Tolkien quotes an obituary that struck him so deeply he cut a clipping from the paper and stowed it in his wallet: “There is no such thing as a natural death,” reads the obituary. “All men must die. But for every man, his death is an accident and, even if he knows it and consents to it, an unjustifiable violation.” Tolkien turns to the interviewer then and says, “You may agree with the words or not, but those are the key-spring of The Lord of the Rings.”

      Related to this, Tolkien’s elves (as you mention), distinct from Men, seem to have a nature similar to angels. They don’t die (of ‘natural’ causes), but neither do they partake in the unique, peculiarly blessed redemption that follows the death of a Man sealed by God. They don’t, as far as I can see, receive the blessing of new, transformed, elevated natures (as Paul’s wheat metaphor says of mankind’s resurrected bodies in 1 Corinthians 15: “What you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel,” and “what you sow does not come to life unless it dies.”)

      The struggle you mention in Paul—between wanting to go, to die, to be with the Lord and to stay for the sake of others—seems to get at two essential facets of a Christian theology of death: though it is evil, the Lord has turned it to “good.” Recall Peter’s assessment in Acts 2 of Christ’s crucifixion, seemingly analogous to Joseph’s words in Genesis 50 that “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” Seeing death through this lens, it’s no surprise then that Paul could also talk of death being “swallowed up by victory.” Dr. Tim Keller has made a really interesting point on that passage—in relation to this whole discussion of death, its properties of being both evil and yet also used, somehow, by God and turned to a kind of gift. Says Keller:

      “When you swallow and digest things, you take them into yourself and they make you bigger. What does Paul mean when he says the resurrection is going to “swallow up” the evil and suffering you’re going through right now? Some years ago I had a horrible nightmare . . . It was really the most awful… Basically, I dreamt my entire family had been slaughtered. And then I woke up.

      “And there they were.

      “And I want you to know that when I went to sleep that night, before the nightmare, oh I loved my family. I was comforted to see them all around me. But when I woke up, having lost them, and having gotten them back as it were, I couldn’t even look at them without crying. For joy.

      “What had happened? See, having gotten them back as it were—the experience of losing them made the experience of having them infinitely greater. It’s almost like the experience of losing them had been swallowed up by the experience of having them, so that it was infinitely more precious . . . If Jesus Christ’s resurrection happened—and it did—and that means our resurrection is going to happen—and it will—then it means everything sad, everything horrible, is going to be brought up into our future glory and resurrection, and make it infinitely better than it ever would have been if we’d never had any of those experiences. And that’s the final, and ultimate, defeat of suffering and death.”

      Keller captures so well that two-fold Christian belief about death. And I think it’s the same sentiment about death threading through Tolkien’s Middle Earth mythology. I also think it’s what unites Tolkien’s diverse comments about death in his letters and interviews. On the one hand, death is an evil that never should have been; yet, on the other, death will be used by the Giver of Life to render man’s ultimate existence far sweeter than it ever could have been without it.

      Cheers, Travis,
      Garret

  • Kevin Taylor says:

    Doesn’t Lewis do something with death not being a result of sin in Perelandra or one of his other space novels?

    I’m a Lovecraft and weird fiction fan, so thanks for this.

    Travis, nice to reconnect yet again!

    • Garret Johnson says:

      You know, I’m not sure about Lewis representing death somewhere as not a result of sin. I’d be interested in checking the idea out if you–or anyone else–can recall where that was. I haven’t read the space trilogy in some years. But it was indeed ‘weird.’

      Speaking of weird, I too am a fan. In fact, there’s an in-depth discussion of its intersection with Christianity that might interest you: “Weird Fiction and Christianity: Strange Bedfellows”: http://www.hieropraxis.com/2013/05/weird-fiction-and-christianity-strange-bedfellows/

      Thanks for the comment! Glad this piqued your interest.

      Garret

      • Kevin Taylor says:

        As I recall, there is an alien race that are hunters, and one of them is killed and they carry the body, but it is without the guilt, fear, and sin of human death. Ralph Wood commented that it was a vision of death as natural and not a result of sin. I think it was in Perelandra but it’s been a long time for me too.

        • Travis Buchanan says:

          That’s an interesting thought, Kevin. I believe you are thinking of the death of one of the Hrossa on Malacandra (Mars) which Ransom witnesses in Out of the Silent Planet. I would love to compare how MacDonald, Tolkien, and Lewis all treat death in their fiction. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces is particularly interesting in this regard, and the gods message to Orual that ‘you must die before you die, for there is no chance after.’

          Thanks again Garret for generating this discussion.

  • Garret Johnson says:

    You’re very welcome, Travis. Thank you for continuing it!

    I’m also intrigued, Kevin, by Wood’s idea of the death of one of the Hrossa (a scene I believe, yes, was in Out of the Silent Planet, Travis) as a vision of death as natural and not *necessarily* a result of sin. My memory of that scene does corroborate the idea. It had that kind of sense about it. And it seems the poetic-souled hrossa (alongside the seemingly more rational, scientific-minded sorns) certainly considered death a ‘natural’ part of life, even for uncorrupted or unfallen creatures.

    It seems this could have bearing on the old discussion of ‘animal death before the Fall,’ seen in some ‘Old Earth’ formulations of the Biblical account of creation. At least it might have bearing on Lewis’s perspective on the matter. But whatever Lewis’s actual perspective on the issue was (which I’m sure might be traceable in other places), this raises another question for me: “Would the naturalness of ‘animal’ death in general be the same as the essential naturalness of ‘human’ death?” It seems that God’s pronouncement to Adam and Eve that they would die IF they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil clarifies the matter on whether they would have ever died otherwise.

    But aside from that–not to go too far afield–I’ve often wondered about Lewis’s essentially Edenic vision of another planet that had a similar kind of arrangement with God to our planet (seen most clearly in Perelandra with the “King” and “Queen” as analogues of Adam and Eve). I remember wondering whether Lewis really meant the parallel to be exact. I assumed not. It seems there are lots of ways in which the parallels are obviously not meant to be taken that way (as in: What happens on Perelandra is exactly what would have happened on Earth had Adam and Eve not fallen). But it’s hard to be precise about why I thought this, having not read these works in a while.

    One way or another, this discussion is making me want to read the Ransom Trilogy again (especially Out of the Silent Planet). I’m intrigued by the ideas as I haven’t been in some time.

    Thank you, gentlemen!

  • Travis Buchanan says:

    Garret,

    I was thinking a little more about death in the work of MacDonald, Lewis, and particularly Tolkien: regarding his fateful reading of MacDonald’s Phantastes when he was 17 (begun near 7 March 1916: see CL I, 169), Lewis famously said,

    the whole book had about it a sort of cool, morning innocence, and also, quite unmistakably, a certain quality of Death, good Death. What it actually did to me was to convert, even to baptize (that was where the Death came in) my imagination. (1946/60, 21)

    Reflecting on MacDonald and death in his essay ‘On Fairy-stories’, Tolkien said ‘Death is the theme that most inspired George MacDonald’ (OFS, 153). Tolkien wrote:

    And lastly there is the oldest and deepest desire, the Great Escape: the Escape from Death. Fairy-stories provide many examples and modes of this—which might be called the genuine escapist, or (I would say) fugitive spirit. But so do other stories (notably those of scientific inspiration), and so do other studies. Fairy-stories are made by men not by fairies. The Human-stories of the elves are doubtless full of the Escape from Deathlessness. But our stories cannot be expected always to rise above our common level. They often do. Few lessons are taught more clearly in them than the burden of that kind of immortality, or rather endless serial living, to which the ‘fugitive’ would fly. For the fairy-story is specially apt to teach such things, of old and still today. Death is the theme that most inspired George MacDonald. (OFS, 153).

    This perspective is reflected in his own sub-created world of Faërie, of course. From a 4 November 1954 draft of a letter to the Jesuit Robert Murray, in answer to further comments on The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien discussed the sense in which ‘Death’ was understood to be ‘the Gift of God’ to men—‘mortal by right and nature’—in his greater mythology (part of which was published posthumously by his son Christopher Tolkien in The Silmarillion). Writing as a Catholic and to a Jesuit, and to one whom he had earlier claimed ‘The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work’ (Letters, 172), Tolkien says such an understanding of death as a divine gift to men ‘might or might not be “heretical”, if these myths were regarded as statements about the actual nature of Man in the real world’, which of course they are not (in the strict sense, at least). Tolkien was writing a story. And human stories are always about the Fall, he thought. But he nonetheless was writing what he felt to be true, or as he elsewhere said, employing ‘an imagination capable of elucidating truth, and a legitimate basis of legends’ (189n). Indeed, he goes so far as to say ‘one object’ he had as the writer of the stories was ‘the elucidation of truth’ (193). Therefore he wrote:

    In the cosmogony [of his sub-created universe and related in The Silmarillion] there is a fall: a fall of Angels we should say. Though quite different in form, of course, to that of Christian myth. These tales are ‘new’, they are not directly derived from other myths and legends, but they must inevitably contain a large measure of ancient wide-spread motives or elements. After all, I believe that legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth’, and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode; and long ago certain truths and modes of this kind were discovered and must always reappear. There cannot be any ‘Story’ without a fall—all stories are ultimately about the fall—at least not for human minds as we know them and have them. (Tolkien, Letters, 147)

    Now, there is no getting around the basic disagreement between how death is initially understood in the Christian and Tolkienian myths. Death is originally presented as a result of sin and the Fall in the Bible, whereas Tolkien’s mythology views it as the gift of God to men and not a result of a fall. In the Christian story of origins death is given as the consequence of sin or for transgressing God’s original prohibition in the garden of Eden (Genesis 2:17; 3:19), an idea also reaffirmed in the New Testament (Romans 6:23, e.g.). For the Christian myth, therefore, death may be rightly regarded (in man at least) as an unhappy result of the Fall. Tolkien is explicit, alternatively, that in his myth ‘Death—the mere shortness of human life-span—is not a punishment for the Fall, but a biologically (and therefore also spiritually, since body and spirit are integrated) inherent part of Man’s nature’. ‘The attempt to escape it’, therefore, ‘is wicked,’ Tolkien said, because it is ‘unnatural’, not to mention ‘silly because Death in that sense is the Gift of God (envied by the Elves), release from the weariness of Time’. The understanding of ‘Death, in the penal sense, is viewed as a change in attitude to it: fear, reluctance’, and as such an indication of a degeneration in man’s perspective: ‘A good Númenórean died of free will when he felt it to be time to do so’ (Letters, 205n). As I mentioned in a previous comment, Tolkien’s understanding of death in his mythology is not entirely incompatible with a deeper Christian understanding that sees death (as highlighted in your original post) swallowed up in the victory Christ won through his death and resurrection (Tim Keller’s comments you gave were helpful in showing one way that might be understood to affect our perspective of death): its sting has been removed, and now instead of terrorize the believer is but the door through which she must pass to enter into eternal life (1 Corinthians 15:50–56). Death, therefore, may be said to be ‘gain’ for the one who loves God (Philippians 1:21–23). That death is a good for fallen creatures is hinted at even in the story of origins, however, in the reason God gives for expelling man and woman from the garden: lest man in his fallen state ‘“reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden’ (Genesis 3:22–23). The purpose God gives for man’s exile from the garden is to prevent him from living forever in his now fallen and sinful state. Based upon God’s statement here, death—although a punishment for sin—already could be seen as a mercy, a divine gift to now fallen man. This perspective is then picked up and enlarged by the understanding of death given in the New Testament in light of Christ’s vicarious death and resurrection.

    Nevertheless, death remains a ‘problem’ for man, one Tolkien’s work is very interested to explore. ‘In fact exterior to my story’, he wrote, ‘Elves and Men are just different aspects of the Humane, and represent the problem of Death as seen by a finite but willing and self-conscious person’ (Letters, 236). The problem or scandal of death for us is powerfully articulated by Simone de Beauvoir in her short book A Very Easy Death (1964/66) in the quotation Tolkien gave in the BBC interview in 1968 to which your post very helpfully drew attention:

    There is no such thing as a natural death: nothing that ever happens to a man is ever natural, since his presence calls the world into question. All men must die: but for every man his death is an accident, and, even if he knows it and consents to it, an unjustifiable violation.

    And as your above longer comment also helps to draw to our attention, how much more significant is this sentiment about death by de Beauvoir when felt in light of Tolkien’s comment to the interviewer that ‘We may agree with those words or not. But those are the key-spring of The Lord of the Rings’?

    Finally, here is another longer quotation from a letter (which I will make you and any other person who might for some morbid reason still be reading this very happy by not offering any further comment on!) where Tolkien further discusses the difference between death as viewed in the Christian myth and his own mythology:

    In this mythical ‘prehistory’ immortality, strictly longevity co-extensive with the life of Arda, was part of the given nature of the Elves; beyond the End nothing was revealed. Mortality, that is a short life-span having no relation to the life of Arda, is spoken of as the given nature of Men: the Elves called it the Gift of Ilúvatar (God). But it must be remembered that mythically these tales are Elf-centred,* [*In narrative, as soon as the matter becomes ‘storial’ and not mythical, being in fact human literature, the centre of interest must shift to Men (and their relations with Elves or other creatures). We cannot write stories about Elves, whom we do not know inwardly; and if we try we simply turn Elves into men.] not anthropocentric and Men only appear in them, at what must be a point long after their Coming. This is therefore an ‘Elvish’ view, and does not necessarily have anything to say for or against such beliefs as the Christian that ‘death’ is not part of human nature, but a punishment for sin (rebellion), [end of 285] a result of the ‘Fall’. It should be regarded as an Elvish perception—of what death—not being tied to the ‘circles of the world’—should now become for Men, however it arose. A divine ‘punishment’ is also a divine ‘gift’, if accepted, since its object is ultimate blessing, and the supreme inventiveness of the Creator will make ‘punishments’ (that is, changes of design) produce a good not otherwise to be attained: a ‘mortal’ Man has probably (an Elf would say) a higher if unrevealed destiny than a longeval one. To attempt by device or ‘magic’ to recover longevity is thus a supreme folly and wickedness of ‘mortals’. Longevity or counterfeit ‘immortality’ (true immortality is beyond Eä) is the chief bait of Sauron—it leads the small to a Gollum, and the great to a Ringwraith. (Letters, 285–86)

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