Of Sacraments & Ghosts
The following is an edited version of a lecture given at 2021 Inklings Festival held by the Eighth Day Institute in Wichita, Kansas.
When choosing the subtitle for this talk, “A Few Comments on Christianity and the Horror Genre,” I felt the best policy would be honesty. I consider myself to be a student, not a teacher. In that light, I don’t consider it my right to proclaim a unified, all-pervasive theory into this subject, but rather, I can at best, share with you some suggestions and thoughts from personal study. Hopefully, some of what I say will be helpful and appear to arrive from reflective consideration rather than a set of incoherent ramblings. In other words, you will be hearing notes to an unwritten first draft to an introduction of a book that may or may not be written by someone who may or may not be qualified to do so.
With that health warning out of the way, let us begin.
And to start, I find it needful to discuss terminology. Of course, I don’t intend a dusty soliloquy into the specifics of etymology. In fact, I did not open a dictionary when setting out to consider the following terms, so I make no claim for lexical accuracy, but rather, my goal is to highlight in a colloquial fashion, those words which will aid us as a group to a common understanding. It will allow us to determine what we will be discussing, and perhaps, more to the point, what we will not be discussing.
So, for the sake of this talk, let us assign those narratives and tropes which depend upon murder, other forms of physical violence and an antagonist of a solely human agency under the label of terror. This, I believe, is appropriate, for in our modern idiom, we understand quite easily the concept of terrorism. So, into this category, we may file away serial killers and other elements which may also fall under the commonly accepted heading of suspense drama. Furthermore, we can extend the concept by including examples of natural agency such as disaster scenarios or animal attacks.
Every excellent story, regardless of label or genre, gains narrative impact by the introduction of crisis. In this regard, we may consider where the focus of crisis is located within the terror story. An answer may be discovered in a Greek word, bios, which refers to “earthly life.” Quite simply, the target of terroristic tropes reside in the threat to limb, liberty and most terminally, natural life. Therefore, it is a given that the loss of life is the most dreadful outcome and must be avoided at all costs. The crisis is a biologically-critical one in which a character must face a physical and material threat which requires an outward action of some kind: fight, flight, or freeze and face destruction.
Certainly, I acknowledge that an argument could be made for the utility of such material for a person of faith, yet, I must confess that it falls outside my interest. Rather, we will set terror aside and focus on another word.
Horror begins where the believer begins: we are transcendent. For a story to qualify as a work of horror, it must force an ontological crisis, that is, a crisis of being, for the characters, and to a lesser extent, for the reader. While the desire to sustain natural life is strong, it is not paramount. To put a finer point upon it, but a heavier one, horror is necessarily noetic in nature, its concern, both in its pursuit and its resolution, is that of the soul. We see, from the outset, that we have more than our lives to lose. Where the critical focus in terror lies in bios, the focus in horror is centered in a second Greek term: zoe, or “eternal life.” Terror is an exploration into fear and danger of the world as it is perceived through the physical senses; Horror – fear and danger of the world as it is, but hidden.
Now, for the last few minutes I’ve been committing a grave folly. Perhaps you’ve already sussed it out, but I’ll explain the error of which I am guilty. While I believe doing so has its uses, I have been attempting to systematize and will continue to rationalize a form of storytelling meant to bypass the faculty of the intellect. Though I believe this to be a general condition of the Western mindscape, I will speak for myself, and admit that I tend to rationalize everything I encounter, often without consistency. But, horror stories defy all attempts to do so. Time and time again, we find characters who attempt to explain away inexplicable events, but fall short.
Let turn briefly to the mystery story, and in this case, I mean specifically the detective genre. Dorothy L. Sayers and G. K. Chesterton have given us stories filled with wonderful characters while providing theological justifications for that genre. In the detective story, we find gleams of what we’ve described as terror… there is a killer who may strike again. More importantly, we are offered a game, a glorious game in which we match wits not only with the criminal, but the author, in determining the solution. It’s a fine game, a rational game, with its set of rules.
In horror, the board is set up quite differently. To use an imperfect analogy, we may shift to the fantasy genre and consider The Narnia Chronicles by C. S. Lewis. His “real world” characters step into the wardrobe and enter a world that is perhaps more real. I’d defend that suggestion. In the horror tale, the ghost story, and fairy tales of the type Arthur Machen wrote, the wardrobe empties out into our world. A hidden agent initiates the game, yet we aren’t given the rules. We cannot rationalize our way through the puzzles. Is there a rational explanation for why the clock flies off the mantelpiece? For the door creaking open? Maybe. But again, we find our explanations, and those of characters, to be incomplete.
So, if the horror story is meant to bypass the rational faculty, how does it engage us? Its effects are sprinkled throughout our daily language: “I felt it in my gut” / “Shivers down my spine” / “goosebumps.” These physical responses are not controlled by the intellect.
Horror hits us elsewhere. It offers us an opportunity to suspend belief, to not be belabored with attempts to rationalize the immaterial forces at play. If we can enter into the story without that scoffing voice in our ears, we may find wonder and danger there. I do not need to believe in ghosts or other bogies to recognize the hieroglyphs, the symbols at play. And fantasy works similarly, for one is not required to literally believe in the existence of Elves to engage with Tolkien’s’ Middle Earth. If I were able or willing to believe only a little in ghosts or Elves, then… I may need professional help, or… it may be that I would be capable of bearing a modicum of childlike innocence during my withered over-analyzing decline. Be all that as it may, we are only required to believe in Mystery.
And, of course, there is opposition to my attempts to rationally or non-rationally describe the genre. There is a school of modern horror, which while tacitly accepting the premise of spiritual danger, nonetheless weds it with a sort of atheistic despair: God is dead, has left the premises, or else, He was never there at all. Yet, there is evil. This incoherent morass of nihilism and despondency is a stare into the abyss which overtakes the viewer. All is unredeemable; there can be no possibility for redemption. In the work of H. P. Lovecraft, the denial of transcendence reaches such a degree that his bogies, at their core, amount to nothing more, in most cases, than powerful biological entities akin to alien or ancient races. Sometimes this is referred to as cosmic horror, though it fails to take into account the true depth and breadth of the cosmos, seen or unseen.
Using our rubrics, this can not truly be considered horror at all, more akin to dark science fiction or dark fantasy, yet, that philosophy, for the time being has seemingly won the argument as modern culture, desiccating in its own spiritual desert not only accepts these premises, but practices it to absurdity. If there is no transcendence, the only route to ecstasy lies in the temporary condition of the body as experienced through hedonism, which leads to the outright jettison of objective reality of who we are as persons. For a clever and prophetic tale on that theme, I suggest Owen Barfield’s Night Operation. Perhaps, in an unintentional way, this school of thought has contributed to the ultimate noetic horror-scape, outside its own dubious narratives.
In any case, I’m a traditionalist, so I return to my previously-cited definition of horror, that it must be concerned with transcendence of the human person, and to those authors who expertly worked in the genre or worked its characteristics into stories commonly understood to be outside its boundaries.
How does a truly noetic horror story, rich in hieroglyphics, work?
Traditional folklore can give us clues. I take inspiration from a good friend who pointed out the first example to me. So, I openly declare my secret: surround yourself with wiser, more talented people, then unashamedly steal from them.
My friend once mentioned the topic of vampires. He noted that in Christian theology, through the sacrifice, Christ gives us eternal life by sharing with us His Body and Blood… Zoe. Vampires, however, take our blood, and in return, grant us a living death. It is the substitution of damnation for salvation. By its perverse and counterfeit actions, a vampire reveals itself to be a little antichrist.
For another, and perhaps a more original instance, we may briefly mention the nature of the folkloric zombie. Now, I stress, I am not speaking here of its conflation with the modern concept of the living or walking dead, itself a perfect symbol of consumption and emptiness, or the delightful Tiki drink of which I strongly recommend you consume, but I am speaking of the original zombie from Haitian Voodoo. Through magic, a sorcerer raises a dead body for his own purposes. The result is the substitution of captivity for Resurrection. Here, again is a counterfeit, an antichrist.
With these two simple examples, preceded by the consideration of our terms, we may discern three crucial aspects to noetic horror: 1) the crisis of the narrative is dependent upon the reality of transcendence; 2) through counterfeit operations evil exposes itself as a parasite and incapable of independent creation; and 3) by existence of the first two, there is a true, goodly cause and safe harbor. A crucifix defeats the counterfeit because it is both a symbol of the truth and the truth. The cross protects us. So, does prayer. Noetic horror, to be successful, must however openly or subtly, have a divine reference point, even if great loss is incurred.
How do these aspects read in a great story of this type?
Well, last night, I spent a bit of time speaking on the work of Arthur Machen. This morning, I will limit my examination to a single story, The Inmost Light, first published with The Great God Pan in 1894. It has suffered a notable lack of critical review namely due to being overshadowed by the notoriety of the latter story. However, I would suggest that The Inmost Light is the superior of the two, and in fact, along with The Great Return and Fragment of a Life, this short story presents the pinnacle of execution in terms of Machen’s cosmological vision. I highly recommend reading it, and it happens to open the Dreamt in Fire collection – now available at your favorite bookstore.
A brief synopsis with spoilers is required, but I’ll hold back as many of the secrets as possible. The story begins on the dim streets of London with the serendipitous meeting of two old friends Salisbury and the main protagonist, a man named Dyson. Dyson is a dreamer, a dabbler, a writer wrestling with the great art of literature. On the other hand, Salisbury is a man of practicality and prefers to remain comfortable in modest materialism. After dinner, Dyson relates a fantastic story, but one without a resolution to the unimpressed Salisbury. The center of Dyson’s tale focuses on a ramble he took about the city. Coming into a section of London unfamiliar to him, he decides to rest on the turf behind a house.
From the story: “I thought I should like to sit down on a bank and have a smoke. While I was getting out my pouch, I looked up in the direction of the houses, and as I looked I felt my breath caught back, and my teeth began to chatter, and the stick I had in one hand snapped in two with the grip I gave it. It was as if I had had an electric current down my spine, and yet for some moment of time which seemed long, but which must have been very short, I caught myself wondering what on earth was the matter. Then I knew what had made my very heart shudder and my bones grind together in an agony. As I glanced up I had looked straight towards the last house in the row before me, and in an upper window of that house I had seen for some short fraction of a second a face. It was the face of a woman, and yet it was not human. You and I, Salisbury, have heard in our time, as we sat in our seats in church in sober English fashion, of a lust that cannot be satiated and of a fire that is unquenchable, but few of us have any notion what these words mean. I hope you never may, for as I saw that face at the window, with the blue sky above me and the warm air playing in gusts about me, I knew I had looked into another world—looked through the window of a commonplace, brand-new house, and hell open before me.”
Upon their parting, Salisbury experiences his own unwanted adventure in which a paper comes into his possession which contains a rhyme: “Once around the grass, and twice around the lass, and thrice around the maple tree.”
Again and again, this gibberish repeats itself incessantly in his mind to point of driving him mad. “Once around the grass, and twice around the lass, and thrice around the maple tree.” It will not give him peace. Meeting up again with his friend, Salisbury, in what is quite reminiscent of confession, unloads the event and its damnable rhyme. Once purged of it, Salisbury departs freed.
Through more adventures in the wilderness of London, Dyson unravels the mystery of the rhyme and it yields him a most unusual jewel. Additionally, he gains possession of a diary. Thus all threads are woven together in a fantastic tapestry. The writer of the diary is a doctor who is so obsessed by occult practices, it drives him to imprison the soul of his wife into the jewel without killing her body. However, nature abhors a vacuum, and something else takes up the abode. This is the face from the window. And the jewel glows before Dyson with the inmost light. Read it. It is a satisfying story.
Now, let’s take a moment to examine what Machen is showing us. Recall Dyson’s feelings at the sight of that horrible visage: “…my teeth began to chatter… I had had an electric current down my spine… Then I knew what had made my very heart shudder and my bones grind together in an agony – hell opened before me.”
This reaction of Dyson in The Inmost Light is a dark antithesis to the reaction experienced by the narrator in The Great Return where he sees a simple farmer, transfigured by a visitation of the Holy Grail. I quoted this last night, but I repeat it here: “I had not noticed his face as I stood on the platform, but now I saw it as he pointed down the hill towards Llantrisant, and I think I was almost frightened. It was an illuminated face, glowing with an ineffable joy, and I thought it rather gave light to the platform lamp than received light from it.”
In The Great Return, there is the truth: the revelation of paradise with its forming and reforming glory. This can be referred to as holy dread: or rightful fear before the face of the loving God. Yet, in The Inmost Light, we are given the counterfeit: A parasitic darkness of twisted habits leading to bad ends. In both stories, the character in question experiences a crisis, one which shakes him to the core of personhood and leaves him changed.
Regarding some of Machen’s stories such as The Inmost Light, some critics have questioned the use of fortuitous circumstances, yet coincidence was neither a belief nor a method employed by Machen, for that is the mistake made by Salisbury in the story. If judged so simply, certainly, his narratives of the 1890s collapse, but this would necessitate an ignorance or denial of the Light moving amidst the darkness. The adventures of Salisbury and Dyson are not fortuitous, rather mysterious events meet the characters demanding a response. It is not mere coincidence that guides the one to seek refuge from the rain in a particular place at a particular time, nor is it logic that solely aids the other in his final weaving of the strands in the strange story. This is the most spectacularly demonstrated in Dyson’s speech to the shopkeeper. In Machen’s horror story, there are consequences to the acceptance of evil, but there is also deliverance from it. The good wills out.
So, to summarize, we find that 1) though a life is lost, the greater concern deals with a trapped soul; 2) evil only confines, it cannot liberate; and 3) the Light overcomes the darkness.
Now, I’d like to shift focus to a handful of other writers who worked within the confines of the horror genre, yet imbued it with Christian themes.
First, it seems appropriate to mention M. R. James, the architect of the modern ghost story. He, and in fact, all the figures I will be discussing, were contemporaries of Arthur Machen. Religiously, James practiced as a conservative Anglican with a keen interest in, and knowledge of apocryphal literature. His translation of the New Testament Apocrypha is still highly regarded today. An antiquarian at heart, James thrived academically as a cataloger of cathedral libraries.
However, James is best remembered today as the man who defined the classic ghost story in its essential form. His knowledge of history and antique subjects creates an air of authenticity to his specter-haunted homes, churches and landscapes. Digging into the past often causes misery for his characters who are woefully too modern and ill-equipped to deal with the supernatural forces they foolishly unleash. His technique was so successful that it launched a Jamesian school of of imitators which included E. G. Swain, an Anglican cleric and architect Thomas Graham Jackson. James’s ghosts are not warm and fuzzy manifestations, favored by the then-popular Grand Poobahs of Victorian and Edwardian Spiritualism. Rather, they are dangerous haunters who lack sympathy for the living. Simply stated, these tales are cautionary in nature. And while the ghost stories of M. R. James are not openly doctrinal from a Christian point of view, his narratives would be inconceivable without Christianity. They remain rooted in the cosmology of the Faith and therefore subject to its rules.
Perhaps more germane to our concerns, are the works of two brothers, Arthur Christopher and Robert Hugh Benson. These siblings were the sons of an Archbishop of Canterbury, and so were raised within the Christian worldview. Both were compulsive writers in a number of genres, but understandably, we’ll focus on their contributions to fantastic literature.
A. C. Benson published two collections of fantastic tales during his lifetime with a third released posthumously. The first two, Hill of Trouble from 1903 and Isles of Sunset of the following year contain stories which range from medievalist fantasy to fictitious hagiography. Also, we find fine examples of noetic horror. For the most part, his stories tend to unfold more gently than that of James, due to the fact that as an educator at Eton, he penned his stories with an audience of young boys in mind. Yet, this is not say the tales are utterly light-weight. A few of the pieces pack a punch as if A.C. desired to drive home a hard word to his audience. Naturally, we’ll discuss those examples.
Earlier, I mentioned the power of the cross and prayer as fortifications against darkness. A. C. takes up these themes with vigor. Perhaps due to the formidable legacy of his father the Archbishop, we often find a pair of repeating motifs: the “priest as hero” and the “Sacraments” as weapons of light and liberation. Often our priest is up against it, seemingly outgunned by the force with which he must contend, but that only suggests that his strength comes from outside himself. This is a radical departure from the current themes of our day which delve deeply into the stupefying and deluding quagmire of high self-esteem and the power of heroes masquerading in fancy dress. But, anyway, I am perhaps too harsh a critic on such matters.
In the story entitled Out of the Sea, we find an elderly Father Thomas at odds with a rampaging beast horrifying the countryside. Through investigation and discernment, he uncovers the truth: the horror is the physical manifestation of unconfessed sin. Maybe it’s just me and the state of my poor soul, but I find that possibility horrendous in its consequences, yet I think we can guess what finally vanquishes it: confession and repentance.
Benson shifts from brute force to seduction in a second story, The Grey Cat. In this tale, a boy is entranced by the title creature, yet, our author does not deny free will. Symbolically, the narrative highlights the practicing of secret sins and the subsequent deformation of character. When uncovered by the village priest, battle lines are drawn. The cleric encourages the boy’s mother to depart and pray, clearly emphasizing that we do not defeat the darkness alone. As a reader I could not help feeling that while the priest wished to save the boy’s life, he seemed to be primarily concerned with the long game, namely the child’s soul.
We should be kind to our priests and pastors. Lord knows we give them more than their fair share of cares.
Two horror stories were published after A. C.’s death, both are darker in tone, so perhaps, he had personal reservations about these works. Yet, they represent his most technically accomplished genre stories. In Basil Netherby, the title character is harried by dark forces, yet by the end, it is gently suggested that angelic intervention is about, or as it is stated in the tale: “And in their hands, they shall bear thee up.”
In the end, A. C. Benson’s tales are filled with adventure, friendship, sacrifice and the inevitability of God’s Love to overturn the darkest night of the soul.
His youngest brother Robert Hugh was the only son to follow their father into holy orders. However, R. H. caused some social controversy in England after his conversion to the Roman Catholic Church. That event is admirably covered in Joseph Pearce’s Literary Converts. Like his sibling, R. H. was a prolific writer in a number of genres including Roman Catholic apologetics, but he did also pen some fine horror stories. The Traveller revisits the theme of release through confession, however, in this case, the penitent is a ghost who while in life committed a serious crime. Parenthetically, this plot was used for In the Confessional by Amelia Edwards. Both are enjoyable. In Consolatrix Afflictorum, a child is seemingly comforted nightly by the ghost of her dead mother, but in reality, it is the Mother of God, who offers succor.
These stories are framed as remembrances of an old priest After reading some of these stories and considering the man’s vocation, (R. H. Benson eventually attained the rank of Monsignor), it is interesting to speculate how much in these tales may not be fiction.
Along similar lines, Mystic Voices is a fine collection of stories published by a Roger Pater, the pen name of a Benedictine monk. The tales center around a fictional English Catholic priest who is clairaudient: instead of seeing, he hears ghosts. In De Profundis, Father Phillip visits a troubled convent in Italy and while praying in the church sanctuary he hears a voice in anguish: “No, do not ask me to pray for you. It is all wrong. A Saint! My God, it is I who need your prayers. I am punished indeed for my folly, my pretenses, my hypocrisy. Do not pray to me, pray for me, the wretchedest of sinners.” Upon investigation, a secret chapel is discovered. Though forbidden to venerate a former abbess of the convent who practiced fraudulent miracles, some had nonetheless perpetuated a cultus with disorder in the community as the result.
Now, I will commit a faux pas, and briefly leave the United Kingdom, to discuss an American. Ralph Adams Cram is best remembered as an architect of religious buildings including work on the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. Closer to our current location, he designed Sacred Heart Cathedral in Dodge City, Kansas. As an author, Cram worked chiefly within his field, but he also wrote several interesting essays of social criticism, an Arthurian drama and a handful of excellent ghost stories, most of which were collected in Spirits Black and White.
Cram was a gifted wordsmith and his stories are colored by richly poetic descriptions of structure and place which work to effortlessly draw the reader deeply into the action. For our purposes, I’ll make mention of one story: Sister Maddelena. Here, Cram nicely juxtaposes a character who is a believer with one who is a skeptic. A ghost wanders a residence which once served a Carmelite convent. Her soul will not rest until her remains are found. She is finally granted peace through the performance of a Mass, which beyond the gates of death comforts and liberates her. Liturgy is the ultimate art and work of mankind, and in this tale, it overturns tragedy and saves both the living and the dead characters.
Most of these stories can be read for free on the Darkly Bright Press website. I would like to make a brief mention of the story Markheim by Robert Louis Stevenson, who was not particularly religious, yet in this case, he crafted a masterwork of Christian horror. I will only say that that I wish it were possible for me to read it again for the first time.
Before I conclude, I’d like to address a tricky issue.
In conversation, I’ve been asked how horror relates to young children. Is it acceptable or even desirable to allow young children exposure to horrific subjects? In this area, I offer no hard advice. I make no recommendations. It would be foolish to do so, for I’ve never raised children. For me, children are mysterious creatures, perhaps more frightening than anything I’ve read. Yet, I will not entirely skirt this issue, so I offer an observation through an anecdote.
I know a man who is a good father of three children. Not along ago, he enthusiastically introduced them to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. When the time came to meet the White Witch, one of the children balked. In some way or other, he implied that he was no longer interested in hearing the story. His father, a discerning man, chose not to force the issue. Later, the child approached him and asked him to complete the book. A parent knows what is best for their child.
Now, I first read the Narnia Chronicles while in my late twenties… long devoid of childlike innocence, a firmly and hopelessly jaded Gen-Xer.
But, oh, how I envy this child. I envy his ability to so completely enter into the story and truly encounter the White Witch. To see her for what she is. As only a child could, he was able to take her at her word and to see her actions for what they were. Even if they are not able to articulate it, children understand symbols, and naturally intuit that there are real things behind them.
You see, I wonder, if he felt this way when it came to her, what was this child’s interior reaction to hearing Aslan for the first time? What thrill must have strummed his little heart? It does no good to fool ourselves. Aslan is good, but he is not safe. Narnia is not a safe space. There, we may find shades of noetic horror and holy dread. Horror is closer than we think.
For his part, Tolkien, like Lewis, does not spare us of horror. If we take him at his word, it is not sufficient to view Sauron as simply a geopolitical leader. The fallen Maiar, either through force or seduction, is the ontological threat to the peoples of Middle-Earth all throughout the Second and Third Ages. Going back further to the First Age, in a brilliant symbol of both noetic and anthropological horror, The Silmarillion informs us that orcs were formed by the breaking and twisting of Elves. Morgoth, Sauron, orcs… They are counterfeits and antichrists.
If we adults know anything, we understand, often through experience, that dark and creeping things are about in the world. Perhaps we are able to take to heart the famous tagline of a great horror radio program from the 1930s: It is later than you think.
But in the dark, let us not forget what we saw in the light. For the Light does move in the darkness and cannot be overcome by it. Whether it takes upon itself the hieroglyph, the icon of a Lion or of Gandalf, transfigured from Grey to White, the Light accompanies us in the best of our stories, and that includes horror. It may move gently and quietly, as to guide a seeker through the gaslit streets of obscurest London in order to release a trapped soul. Or, it may burst through the wilds of Wales in its ineffable glory.
Finally, if horror as a mode of storytelling, of myth-building, is to be useful to us beyond a temporary thrill, it must provide us with that crisis which we all face – the abyss is real – while providing the antidote to the poison. Horror, as we’ve defined it, deals with a concerted attack upon the human person, personhood in its entirety, and therefore, the forces at play in such narratives strive to make a desperate, but ultimately futile attack upon Incarnational Reality. It is the Incarnation, the greatest event in the cosmos, which overcomes the abyss. Great horror, overtly, covertly or even inadvertently, illustrates this truth. As with all universal stories, it should orient the reader toward truth, to reclaim it and to walk in it.