On “Christian Horror” and Atheist Dread

by Mike Duran · 42 comments

Perhaps the best argument for “Christian horror” is atheism. While both believing and unbelieving novelists acknowledge, and write about, the horrific — they share distinctively different views as to its nature. And ultimately, those different worldviews are what makes their stories genuinely dreadful.

Of course, the debate about “Christian Horror” rages on. Is the label congruent with Christian values, sustainable, and ultimately productive? Those things are worth discussing. But something that hasn’t been discussed as much is the deeper, more compelling philosophical reasons why Christian authors should be at the forefront of the horror genre. That reason is “Atheist horror.”

Behind every work of fiction is a worldview that frames it. Yes, Christian fiction tends to wear its worldview on its sleeve. But what is often unacknowledged is how much contemporary horror writers incorporate an equally pronounced, diametrically opposed, worldview.

A prime example  is H.P. Lovecraft, often considered one of the masters of horror. Lovecraft was an atheist. His stories are full of cosmic dread and ancient terrors, a combination of monsters and modern philosophy. In one of the greatest essays on horror ever penned, Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft writes:

The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain — a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space. (emphasis mine)

In the early twentieth century, German theologian Rudolf Otto, in his book “The Idea of the Holy,” coined the term “numinous” to describe religious experience of the “wholly other,” the divine. Here’s Wikipedia on numinous:

According to Otto the numinous experience has two aspects: mysterium tremendum, which is the tendency to invoke fear and trembling; and mysterium fascinans, the tendency to attract, fascinate and compel. The numinous experience also has a personal quality to it, in that the person feels to be in communion with a Holy other.

Notice that while both men acknowledged an “awful mystery” at the core of the universe, Otto defined it in terms of Something, while Lovecraft defined it in terms of Nothing. Thus their “fear and trembling” was qualitatively different. While Otto is drawn to commune with the “Holy other,” Lovecraft is mortified by “the daemons of unplumbed space.” As Lovecraft saw it, it was a “suspension” of belief in the “fixed laws of Nature” that sheltered us from “the assaults of chaos.” Science, once our only “safeguard” against madness, inevitably rouses “unexplainable dread.”

No wonder, the “deity” at the heart of Lovecraft’s fiction, Azathoth, is little more than cosmic protoplasm. In “The Whisperer in Darkness” (1931), the narrator describes this god as a “monstrous nuclear chaos beyond angled space.” The word “nuclear,” as used by Lovecraft here, refers to nucleus, rather than nuclear power, implying a monstrous chaos exists at the nucleus of the universe. Is it any wonder that Azathoth is most commonly pictured as an amorphous mass of tentacles, bone, teeth, gristle… whatever? Writes Joseph Morales, “Lovecraft’s description of Azathoth makes use of our childhood image of a God in charge of all things, but then subverts that image by investing it with the most essential attribute of the mechanistic-materialistic worldview: a total lack of conscious purpose” (emphasis in original). In this sense, Lovecraft is remaining true to his non-religious roots.

For the atheist horrorist, nothing but a “monstrous chaos” without “conscious purpose” can exist, godlike, at the center of the universe. This is true terror.

In Atheism’s Mythographer, Jason Colavito writes:

The key to the abyss in Lovecraft’s world was Science itself. It was through science that the well-spring of horror arose, and this is what captivated the minds of those who read him. Lovecraft introduced a new brand of horror that dispenced with the supernatural as an opposition to the natural order.

In other words, for Lovecraft, horror was not antithetical to the “natural order” — the natural order was horrifying; horror was not irrational, but the byproduct of rationality. In the atheistic model, when we see our Universe for what it really is, we should be very, very afraid.

Needless to say, this is unlike the Christian worldview. While the Bible teaches that creation is fallen, Nature is hardly at the mercy of primal forces. At the center of the Universe is not a “monstrous chaos,” but a loving God with “conscious purpose,” intimately involved in the affairs of man, extending mercy and exacting judgment. In other words, Jesus is the anti-Azothoth.

Likewise, the “dread” invoked by the Christian writer is dissimilar to that of the atheist. Scripture warns, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). This “fear” is pivotal to “Christian horror.” Whereas the atheist author invokes the fear of the absence of God, the Christian invokes the fear of the presence of God. The “horror” is in His existence, not His non-existence. Of course, this “horror” is for those who deny Him, ignore His warnings, and refuse His mercy. Sadly, terror awaits those on the “wrong side” of the Universe.

Both “Christian horror” and “Atheist horror” seek to invoke dread in their readers. However, “Christian horror” is the result of the “numinous,” while “Atheist horror” is the result of “nothingness.” “Christian horror” is based on the God Who Is There, while “Atheist horror” is based on the God Who Isn’t. “Christian horror” provides a way of escape; “Atheist horror” cannot. Heck, in the atheist’s worldview, the heroine can escape the clutches of serial killers and zombie hordes. But she must succumb, inevitably, to the Great Void.

Perhaps there is no greater horror than that of an atheistic worldview. Forget blood, gore, and ghoulies. A world without meaning and purpose is the ultimate horror. A universe that arose by chance, exists without meaning, where lives plummet toward annihilation is the worst kind of horror. The child huddled in bed, fixated upon the dark closet, becomes the adult gaping into the void of what, he believes, is a godless universe. And unlike the Christian novelist, the atheist author has nothing but more “dark closets” to offer their readers.

Donald S. Crankshaw August 15, 2010 at 5:39 PM

I wrote on this topic, though more briefly, a while ago, on my blog, at http://www.donaldscrankshaw.com/2010/06/what-is-christian-horror.html. It’s an interesting question, how Christian horror differs from atheistic horror. I certainly disagree with those who argue that Christian horror is an oxymoron.

John W. Morehead August 15, 2010 at 5:46 PM

Interesting thoughts. Of course, many Protestant evangelicals, and not a few atheists, would argue that horror and Christianity together represent an oxymoron, a thesis which I challenge as I have argued on my blog TheoFantastique. I think you are spot on with the mention Rudolf Otto, a source often missed by those who critique the connection between religion and horror in general, and Christianity and horror in particular. Keep up the interesting posts in this regard.

Mike Duran August 15, 2010 at 6:41 PM

John, thanks so much for visiting. I really enjoy your blog, and have subscribed on Bloglines. I’m beginning to believe that those who argue that “Christian” literature and the “horror” genre are incompatible can only do so by narrowing the definition of “Christian” literature. The way today’s religious fiction market is constituted, Christian horror IS virtually an oxymoron. Thanks again, John!

David James August 15, 2010 at 7:09 PM

Wow! Mike, this is a really great post! I’m going to provide a link to it on my Facebook Wall. Outstanding showing of the difference between the two viewpoints! Good job! 🙂

Nicole August 15, 2010 at 7:53 PM

Well done, Mike.

Donald S. Crankshaw August 15, 2010 at 8:00 PM

One thing I quibble with is the implication that there’s nothing scary about God for the believer. I’m not sure that the Bible supports that. It seems that meeting God is a frightening experience, whoever you are.

Mike Duran August 16, 2010 at 5:31 AM

Perhaps I should be clearer, Donald. I’m not inferring that the Christian has nothing to fear when it comes to God. On the contrary, the Book of Hebrews was written in part to Christians who were tinkering with the Faith. It’s full of warnings. In fact, the verse previous to the one I quoted is, “The Lord will judge his people” (Heb. 10:30). So part of the fear invoked by the author has to do with the believer, or professing believer, encountering their God. Thanks for pointing that out.

Matt CArdin August 16, 2010 at 5:13 AM

Lovecraft, Christianity, Otto, religion, theology, horror — what’s not to love about a post like this? Many thanks for an engaging read to start the day.

You wrote: “Needless to say, [Lovecraft’s view of the natural order as inherently horrific] is unlike the Christian worldview. While the Bible teaches that creation is fallen, Nature is hardly at the mercy of primal forces. At the center of the Universe is not a ‘monstrous chaos,’ but a loving God with ‘conscious purpose,’ intimately involved in the affairs of man, extending mercy and exacting judgment. In other words, Jesus is the anti-Azothoth.”

Oh, my. I humbly submit that you might find an interesting counterpoint to your words in some things that I said to Lovecraft News Network earlier this year, which basically serve as a lengthy amplification of the point Donald makes above:


Mike Duran August 16, 2010 at 7:36 PM

Matt, thanks so much for visiting. Your new book looks fascinating, as was your interview. I think we might diverge theologically, at points. At their root, fear of the numinous and the nothingness may seem the same. Indeed they do to the recipient! Ultimately, however, Christianity and atheism do frame very different types of horror. The horror of atheism is inescapable. The horror of Christianity isn’t. Yes, this doesn’t lighten the potential terrors of a Judeo-Christian universe. It just depends on whether one is coming or going. Again, thanks for commenting!

Brezeal August 16, 2010 at 7:22 AM

Totally agree. The worst horror is what will happen if atheists are right about the way things are. If there is no god, then all earthly horrors are a wash.

Jay August 16, 2010 at 9:56 AM

I heard the same barebones debate before, when Christian death metal bands first started to get noticed. There were people on the secular death metal side that thought it was oxymoronic and who wanted to keep the genre “evil”, and the reactionary and conservative side of the church that thought these dudes were really devils in…Satan’s clothing. Both extremes are wrong, as usual, because sounds coming out of speakers aren’t religious-specific…but I think a lot of parallels can be drawn between the debates.

David James August 16, 2010 at 1:38 PM

I fully agree, just look at what happened to Saviour Machine in the early nineties. Not to mention since then too. A lot of other bands have had equal problems, mainly in America, with a greater acceptance in European and other overseas English speaking countries. I have been comparing the current “emergence” of Speculative Christian Fiction to the “emergence” of the harder music of the nineties for quite some time now too. One of the main reasons I started Beyond the Charts – http://www.beyondthecharts.com – Speculative fiction and hard music, both from Christian perspectives, I just saw the two as a perfect match! 😉

Nikole Hahn August 16, 2010 at 11:46 AM


I’ve never been fond of Horror except for the occasional Edgar Allen Poe story or other classical ghost stories.

RJB August 16, 2010 at 1:54 PM

I always thought horror was a perfect match for Christian fiction. Horror is primarily good vs evil. (Most of the time good is portrayed as the winner, although lately evil has been winning more and more, think The Ring , the Drudge and Paranormal Activity).

I think horror is far less ethically muddled than say your average drama, comedy or even action movie, which often show morals and ethics as having slipper boundaries.

In your good horror story, evil is bad and must be destroyed by good. I think that presents a wealth of opportunities for a creative Christian writer to explore.

Mike Duran August 16, 2010 at 7:41 PM

“I think horror is far less ethically muddled than say your average drama, comedy or even action movie.” Excellent point, RJB. Even when “evil wins,” as in the films you referenced, we are aware that EVIL won, not good. This, in itself, is a small victory for Christians. As always, thanks for commenting!

Matt Cardin August 17, 2010 at 8:11 AM

This is an excellent subtopic.

We should bear in mind that good vs. evil is just one of several possible themes to serve as the backbone or supervening trope in a given work of horror fiction or film. David Hartwell, for instance, provided a seminal taxonomy of horror types in the introduction to his era-defining 1987 horror anthology THE DARK DESCENT. From its beginnings to the 1980s, he said, horror fiction can basically be divided into three types or streams: 1) moral allegorical, 2) psychological metaphor, and 3) fantastic.

The first stream is what you’re referring to, RJB, when you see a good match for Christian fiction in the good-vs.-evil trope that characterizes a lot of horror fiction. Hartwell describes it thus:

“Stories that cluster at the first pole are characteristically supernatural fiction, most usually about the intrusion of evil into consensus reality . . . . These are the stories of children possessed by demons, of haunting by evil ghosts from the past . . . stories of bad places (where evil persists from past times), of witchcraft and Satanism. In our day they are often written by lapsed Christians, who have lost their firm belief in good but still have a discomforting belief in evil. Stories in this stream imply or state the Manichean universe that is so difficult to perceive in everyday life, wherein evil is so evident, horror so common that we are left with our sensitivities partly or fully deadened to it.

. . . . “And the moral allegory has its significant extra-literary appeal in itself to that large audience that desires the attribution of a moral calculus (usually teleological) deriving from ultimate and metaphysical forms of good and evil behind events in everyday reality.

. . . . “In speaking of stories and novels in this first stream, we are speaking of the most popular form of horror fiction today, the commercial bestseller lineage of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, and a majority of the works of Stephen King . . . . This stream is the center of category horror publishing.”

By contrast or distinction, “The second group of horror stories, stories of aberrant human psychology embodied metaphorically, may be either purely supernatural, such as Dracula, or purely psychological, such as Robert Bloch’s Psycho. What characterizes them as a group is the monster at the center, from the monster of Frankenstein, to Carmilla, to the chainsaw murderer — an overtly abnormal human or creature, from whose acts and on account of whose being the horror arises.”

Then there’s the third stream, stories of the fantastic, which, as Hartwell’s excellent discussion indicates, really does categorically elude identification with the other two: “Stories of the third stream have at their center ambiguity as to the nature of reality, and it is this very ambiguity that generates the horrific effects. Often this is an overtly supernatural (or certainly abnormal) occurrence, but we know of it only by allusion. Often, essential elements are left undescribed so that, for instance, we do not know whether there was really a ghost or not. But the difference is not merely supernatural versus psychological explanation: third stream stories lack any explanation that makes sense in everyday reality — we don’t know, and that doubt disturbs us, horrifies us. This is the fiction to which Sartre’s analysis alludes, the fantastic. At its extreme form, from Kafka to the present, it blends indistinguishably with magic realism, the surreal, the absurd, all the fictions that confront reality through paradoxical distance. It is the fiction of radical doubt.”

I submit that while Lovecraft — to return to one of the main figures in your discussion of Christianity and horror, Mike — definitely invoked some of category two with his various monsters and psychologically abnormal characters, he completely and absolutely avoided the first category, moral allegory, since its basic assumptions and attitudes had precisely no place in his outlook or sensibility. And he mainly, obviously, worked in the third category. So the deep disjunction that you note between what he was writing about and the classically and typically Christian worldview, which is almost all about category one, is really and definitely there. And/but what he and the other writers working in the vein of fantastic or weird horror have done is to find and convey something resembling, fundamentally, a true sense of Otto-esque numinosity in the very fact of their stories’ worldview-upending and -exploding conceptions. And of course Hartwell’s taxonomy allows us to speak concisely about what August Derleth did to Lovecraft’s mythos (as referenced by, for instance, Kevin Lucia in his interesting comment below) by saying that Derleth remade Lovecraft’s third category, fantastic-oriented mythos into a first category, moral allegorical one.

In my own case, I have explicitly and deliberately brought together in some of my stories the classical Christian emotional and theological emphasis on Hartwell’s first stream with the ontologically and epistemologically subversive thrust of the third stream, to convey to the reader a sense that the classic Christian theological antitheses of God and Satan, good and evil, etc., are myopic because they emerge from and are preceded by a more basic and primal reality that can be likened to the “chaos” of ancient mythological cosmogonies, which necessarily appears horrific in a quasi-Lovecraftian sense to the human sensibility. (See Brian McNaughton’s unpublished introduction to my first book, Divinations of the Deep, for a discussion of this issue: http://theteemingbrain.wordpress.com/2006/11/06/brian-mcnaughtons-lost-introduction-to-my-book/).

So I guess what I’m getting at root in this really windy comment is that while horror can definitely be found compatible with conventional Christianity in a Hartwellian first category, moral allegorical sense — the seminal modern example being, of course, the already-mentioned case of Blatty and The Exorcist, since Blatty wrote that novel with explicitly Christian theological intent — there really is a religious or spiritual attitude to be found in horror fiction that categorically eludes and/or subverts this connection — but that still has direct implications for Christianity through its interaction with the worldview of Christian readers, whom it confronts with uncomfortable moral and metaphysical speculations and implications.

Matt Cardin August 17, 2010 at 9:13 AM

I just turned my comment above into a blog post:

“Lovecraft, Christian Horror, and Weird Fiction”

What I wrote here was a hasty job, so I thought I’d smooth it out and make it clearer. Your comment space on this post, Mike, is serving as quite a handy place for people to work out some valuable thoughts. 🙂

Mike Duran August 17, 2010 at 2:23 PM

Matt, thanks so much for the linkage and the lengthy comment. I am not a student of Lovecraft, though I enjoy much of his stuff. This post comes out of reading the author through my personal lens of faith. As such, I assume (as do most believers, I think) that the Christian worldview is superior to an atheistic worldview, grounded in objective fact, scientifically sustainable, intellectually coherent, practically applicable, and in harmony with the way things are. In reading Lovecraft, I have found myself bumping into something more than just cosmic terror or an ethereal numinous. Perhaps this is the uncomfortable “interaction” with “the worldview of Christian readers” you speak of in your last paragraph. Nevertheless, I have come to believe, whether right or wrong, that Lovecraft’s Mythos is the logical outworking of his atheism. And rather than disturb my faith assumptions, it affirms them.

You mention that in some of your own stories, you seek to subvert a classical Christian view of “Satan, good and evil” as being “myopic.” I realize this could turn into an unnecessary theological discussion. And I don’t want that. But when you suggest that the Judeo-Christian God is “preceded by a more basic and primal reality,” this doesn’t disturb me in an existential sense. It strikes me as antithetical to Scripture. The Jews were different from their surrounding cultures in that they broke from the “ancient mythological cosmogonies,” reverencing a God above gods, an Uncreated One who existed outside time and space and brought order to it. These are not only basic distinctives of the Judeo-Christian worldview, they are fairly non-negotiable. And this is the type of grid I / we bring to my / our reading.

All that to say, while much horror fiction does not employ (at least, not consciously) a moral universe with God at its center, Christian readers can’t help but bring theirs with them and be on guard against authors / stories that might attempt to deny, contradict, or “subvert” it. While I agree that Lovecraft’s Universe can create “uncomfortable moral and metaphysical speculations and implications” for the Christian worldview, it is nothing the average atheistic worldview doesn’t already present. Furthermore, I would also suggest that the Christian worldview presents just as many “uncomfortable moral and metaphysical speculations and implications” for the Lovecraft fan as well.

Once again, Matt, thanks so much for the great conversation!

Kaci August 17, 2010 at 7:23 PM

Thank you! I was actually going to ask you how “horror” was being defined, because, well, um, a lot of supposed “horror movies” kind of annoy me (Ex: The Grudge, The Strangers, The Ring–although The Ring at least made for a creepy drive home after midnight down a dark farm road). I just don’t really like it when I can say a line or announce the next move before it happens. So yeah. Anyway. That was all. I like dark, creepy stories, but not the ones that go for shock value.

I’ll finish reading before saying anything else. That was my prerequisite question.

Kevin Lucia August 17, 2010 at 5:32 AM

What’s interesting about the Mythos – and Matt will have to correct me if I’m wrong, because I’ve only been reading heavily in the Mythos during the past two years – is that you can sense a distinct difference between Lovecraft’s work and August Dereleth’s, who continued Lovecraft’s “legacy” (though lots of hardcore Lovecraft folks don’t like what he did with it).

Dereleth was a pretty staunch Roman Catholic, from my understanding, so he reorganized the Mythos along vague moral guidelines, so that folks like the Ancient Ones or the Old Ones and the Deep Ones were far more malevolent, and the Elder Gods were more benevolent, even going so far as to say the Ancient Ones were cast into exile for the use of forbidden or “black magic” (his own little Garden of Eden story, basically).

Derelth’s “Lurker at the Threshold” reads much like Lovecraft’s work with all the expected elements – creepy ancestral manor, forbidden knowledge that drives a curious fool insane – but ends a bit differently, with a scholar showing up just in time to shoot the guy who’d gone mad and was now trying to summon some Lovecraftian beasties; ergo: the “good” beating the “evil or bad”. So a worldview does make a difference.

I can admit to not liking the “Christian Horror” label simply because I’m not a fan of labels, period. I like what author Ray Garton said recently in a mini-interview, when asked why he chose horror, he said, “I didn’t really choose it. My stuff just didn’t seem to fit in anywhere else.” Sometimes I feel the same about my work.

I guess it comes back down to defining “Christian” fiction in general, which is as muddling as defining “horror” itself. And who decides something is “Christian Fiction”? When I was growing up, The Chronicles of Narnia and Lewis’ science fiction trilogy wasn’t really considered “Christian fiction”. Now, it’s the hallmark of “Christian allegory”.

For me, depending on how you define it….I’m not a fan of Christian fiction, or of Christian horror. The trip-switch for me – even as a Christian myself – is when an author’s own positions and personal points of doctrine overwhelm the plot itself, and the story comes off as proselytizing. This, to me, pushes something into the realm of Christian Fiction, and is not something I want to read or write.

Now…am I saying a Christian or someone else shouldn’t allow their values or worldview to influence the story? Absolutely not. But the story shouldn’t wind down into something derivative of a Sunday School lesson, not in my mind. This is bad fiction.

I remember reading several years ago – no names – a CBA novel that was moving along pretty well, until the author, in some exposition fleshing out their character, started going on about how this character “loved vampire fiction and based her life on it, so much so that she thought it was real and her life was hollow and empty compared to the glittering fantasy portrayed in her vampire novels…”

I stopped. Blinked. Thought: “Wait. Is this person ACTUALLY ripping on ‘Twilight’ through their novel?”

Finishing that novel was a chore, and I haven’t read anything by that author again. I just consider that bad writing, period. Are people too obsessed with vampire culture? Sure they are. It just could’ve been handled and written with much subtly, which of course leaves a lot more up to the READER to judge, which is something that I’ve noticed “Christian Fiction” is also often loathe to do. That brings up the question whether Christian Fiction is a “ministry” or an “art”….but that’s a whole other blog post.

I’m a Christian. I have a certain worldview. I have values that reflect that. Because of this, those values will be played out in some fashion in my work. The only negative review I’ve received for Hiram Grange & The Chosen One – and it wasn’t too bad – was a gripe that my version wasn’t bad or gritty enough, that it was too obvious he was going to make the right choice in the end. But…that’s just my type of character, coming to the forefront, without sermonizing.

On the FLIP side, how many movies and books and short stories haven’t been afraid to characterize all Baptists or evangelicals as right-wing crazies who’d rather strap bombs to themselves and commit kamikaze suicides (AKA Jake Busey in ‘Contact’) than pursue scientific progress? Also, how many more stories do we need where there IS no hero, because everyone is a jaded, corrupt, conflicted misanthrope?

There’s an imbalance there, and yes it’s directed against Christians, but I sometimes think – especially in fiction – it’s directed against any idea of a set of standards or values. This term is so overplayed it’s ridiculous, but here it is: we’re in a very post-modern age. Thanks to massive cultural diffusion – which, how can you really stop that, honestly? – we’ve been exposed to so many different types of values and belief systems and differing cultural standards that a prevailing theme I’ve noticed in horror fiction cycles back to Lovecraft’s original themes: there is no hope because there’s no absolute standard of truth or morality, everyone is free to believe what they want, and everything is doom and dark and death and blah because we have no absolute ‘Truth’ to count on.

That just doesn’t work for me. I don’t need a “happy ending”, but I need resolution, or at least SOMETHING to make trudging through the darkness worthwhile. Life is awful and disturbing and dark and scary. Don’t need to convince me of that. And yeah, sometimes in life there is no resolution. I get that, too. But sometimes I have to cancel out of horror and trip back to good old Dean (Koontz) because despite the fact it’s become vogue in a lot of horror circles to slam him as a sellout, Dean has vocally stated that he refuses to back away from his beliefs of goodness, harmony, loyalty and love.

So, now….my continued problems with the label “Christian horror”. This has rambled. Let me do a separate post…

Kaci August 17, 2010 at 7:28 PM

That just doesn’t work for me. I don’t need a “happy ending”, but I need resolution, or at least SOMETHING to make trudging through the darkness worthwhile. Life is awful and disturbing and dark and scary. Don’t need to convince me of that. And yeah, sometimes in life there is no resolution. I get that, too. But sometimes I have to cancel out of horror and trip back to good old Dean (Koontz) because despite the fact it’s become vogue in a lot of horror circles to slam him as a sellout, Dean has vocally stated that he refuses to back away from his beliefs of goodness, harmony, loyalty and love.

I haven’t read much Koontz, but I agree wholeheartedly on needing some reason for digging through shadows. (My mom’s suddenly become a Koontz fan, which kinda amuses me. Hehe.)

Borrowind August 17, 2010 at 11:16 AM

Lovecraft’s view seems very clear to me — worshipping believers are power-seeking degenerates or weak-minded primitives. But the springboard that takes him beyond religion or supernaturalism is that these cultists are _not_ simply deluded zombies, such as might in other hands serve as a convenient plot device to allow a glamorous female to be rescued by a jut-jawed hero. The horror really _is_ there, even though the cultists often worship it only indirectly via the medium of idols and chanted names — rather than truly comprehending ‘the terror of monstrous chaos’ that lies behind it. For a man of science to discover the same horrific truths of cosmic-indifferentist beings — to coldly see past the half-glimpsed cultist deities to the bigger picture, and to realise the insignificance of mankind — that is to invite madness. Lovecraft does have a touch of humanism in the fact that (a certain advanced part of) mankind has evolved to such a pitch that they can really ‘know of’ such things against a scientific background.

Lovecraft was in that sense making an ‘inoculating vaccine’ for mankind — required if our insatiable scientific curiosity about the elder places of the earth or the reaches of outer space was not to risk springing the trap of civilisational madness. For Lovecraft, growing knowledge of ancient civilisations seems to have implied a twofold risk to ‘belief’. On the one hand if Western civilisation stepped beyond a surface admiration of ancient architectures to a true understanding the minds and belief-systems of the builders, then it risked unleashing a cultural relativism into the yearning void left by the collapse of Christian belief — which would accelerate the decay of Lovecraft’s beloved rationalist Western civilization. On the other hand there was also danger in the knowledge that the most sparkling and worthy ancient civilisations had been swept away by a seemingly inevitable decay and collapse. This risked infecting the fragile Western civilisation of the 1920/30s with self-doubt about its own ultimate fate, a doubt that could develop a dangerous symbiosis with cultural relativism.

I’m still a beginner at Lovecraft, but it seem to me that he cared deeply about ‘belief’, but it was not traditional religious belief. Superstition was just a springboard which enabled him to express his fears for a more ineffable and dangerously-fragile ‘civilisational’ self-belief.

wrath August 24, 2010 at 6:46 AM

As an atheist, I strongly disagree with your categorization of atheist horror. I cannot think of any atheist writing horror today who writes about the horror of non-existence or “The Void” as you termed it. The great fear in most atheistic horror is in being overcome by the mindless masses most recently represented by zombies or what the world would be like if Christians were right and there was some vain, jealous, vengeful, insecure, omnipotent guy in the sky watching and judging every move we make. As you said, your opinions are based on a reading of Lovecraft and not on other atheist horror authors (of which there are many.) I didn’t want to clutter up your comment box so I put my opinions here:


Mike Duran August 24, 2010 at 6:20 PM

Thanks for commenting, wrath! While you may believe that the greatest possible horror is a world ruled by Christians, that horror pales in comparison to the fact (according to atheism) that you are an accident, with no real reason for existence (other than to eat, poop, and procreate), who will be swallowed by Nothingness. Furthermore, if Christians happen to be right about the world, your eternity could be, far worse. However, if atheists are right, nothing — including this conversation — will matter.

wrath August 24, 2010 at 7:18 PM

I would say that the fact that we are an accident with no real purpose is not a horror at all. Just a fact. No more horrible then the fact that we breathe air instead of carbon monoxide or consume .The idea that we are all slaves to the capricious whims of a vain and insecure deity is far more horrible. And if Christians are right about the world then we are all screwed, depending on which version of Christian mythology you ascribe to. Of course, just to be safe, I guess we should worship any and all of the more than 4,000 gods man has invented over the course of history. Just in case one of them happens to be right we wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of any of them. There’s a particularly nasty Aztec God that would grind the entire universe to a halt if he doesn’t get his daily ration of virgin sacrifices. We wouldn’t want to piss him off and doom the cosmos. I mean, what if the Aztecs were right? And we certainly wouldn’t want to miss our chance at joining Odin in Valhalla so we should all make sure we die in battle. After all, what if the Vikings were right? The whole idea of any of these gods, Jesus, Allah, Odin, Huitzilopochtli, lording over us and doling out rewards and punishment is the most horrible thing imaginable. As I said, non-existence cannot be horrible because it is something we will never experience.

Mike Duran August 25, 2010 at 6:21 AM

Sorry, wrath, I can’t let this post become a debate about atheism. (Although I like to discuss the topic and have done so elsewhere, like HERE.) I will say this, resorting to caricatures does not help your position. If the Christian god is a “vain and insecure deity,” then he should be rejected. Problem is, you have to ignore lots and lots of Bible passages, and over-emphasize others, to make your point. Portraying the Christian God as good, wise, kind, merciful and gracious (which Scripture reveals Him to be), doesn’t serve you well. Which is why you hope that type of god doesn’t actually exist. Hey, thanks for visiting!

Tony Phillips September 16, 2010 at 8:41 PM

You can’t really argue as as to whether atheism or Christianity is more horrific without talking about the doctrine of hell. If I beleived in universalism, then yes, atheism is certainly the more horrific. But think about the traditonal picture of hell really means for those already there. What purpose is there in even existing? Think about it–Christ’s sacrifice means absolutely nothing to these people once they are there. So I have to agree with wrath that the Christian view is more horrific in that sense. Almost all athiests beleive in oblivion after death, and I’d take that any day over hell. Wouldn’t you? Think about being separated from God and all things good FOREVER!

That said, I belong to an online communit which belives in annhilationism. I’m not sure whether hell is eternal or not myself, but I did pray for an answer last Novemeber, and I got a definite response form the Lord that man is not MEANT to know the answer!

wrath, you’ve got it all wrong about the Lord. The fact is, you’ve been lied to about Him. Lots of Christians, unfortunately, give a picture of Christ that makes him out to be just that–vain and capricious, and keeping us and mind-slaves. This is all false. I found that out last November when I REALLY became a Christian. God does not want us to ignore science. He doesn’t decide who goes to heaven on the basis of club-membership. He only declares acts as sinful are all things which bring harm to those who indulge them and to other humans–there are no “harmless sins.” God is not a narrcissist. He is not a tyrant. These things are the lies of Satan. If that sounds extreme, think about it. What would be a greater strategy for Satan than to make the Lord out to be the bad guy? Too many Christians and non-Christians have swallowed these lies.

A lot of atheists disbeleive in God becuase they feel it’s not rational to beleive in any sort of supernatural deity. If that’s your postion, then you won’t be concerned with any of this. But you’ve got the wrong picture of God.

MidnightCrew October 8, 2010 at 1:53 PM

Nice post, Mike – and I enjoy the replies. From my experience with atheists (both friends and family) I believe the foundation of their belief system is hopelessness. You live, you die and then there is nothing. There is no real hope in such a belief system. There is only relative enjoyment of the “living” part of their equation. So horror, to the atheist, is really confined to that living experience and therefore becomes quite intense since it is compressed into such a short timeline.

However, I also feel many who define themselves as “atheist” are really agnostics, and their uncertainty of what may exist after death really feeds into their sense of dread. Because for an atheist the only REAL hope they would have would be in defeating terror, and becoming triumphant in their short life span, since nothing else matters. But the opposite seems to be the case: Atheist horror is normally filled with dread, hopelessness, terror and utter despair – it is a reflection of a greater fear beyond life or death. This is where atheist horror meets Christian horror, because both are genuinely rooted in the supernatural .

the night watchman January 18, 2011 at 12:52 AM

Came into this late, but if anyone hasn’t quoted it yet:

“It is easy to remove the mind from harping on the lost illusion of immortality. The disciplined intellect fears nothing and craves no sugar-plum at the day’s end, but is content to accept life and serve society as best it may. Personally I would not care for immortality in the least. There is nothing better than oblivion, since in oblivion there is no wish unfulfilled. We had it before we were born, yet did not complain. Shall we whine because we know it will return? It is Elysium enough for me, at any rate.” –H.P. Lovecraft

the night watchman January 18, 2011 at 12:59 AM

Also, talk to a couple of atheists. I’m free.

Tarran November 14, 2011 at 2:39 PM

WOW!! This was fascinating! As a christian author and writing fiction myself, i was very intrigued by what you shared as a difference and i agree completely. God bless you for encouraging me and reminding me what the differences are so i am able to explain when i tell people i am a Christian horror writer…at least, better explain.

I also want to think everyone who made comments, it was very encouraging to read and learn more about atheists.

Celestial Elf December 8, 2011 at 12:06 AM

Great Post 😀
Thought you might like my Cthulhu machinima tribute
The Highlander; Cthulhu Enigma

Skadi meic Beorh April 28, 2012 at 5:51 AM

After years of trying, as a writer, to find that perfect jab that would help in our concerted effort to topple the cosmology of Lovecraft, some brilliant animator beat me to the punch. Enjoy!


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