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The Real Divide in the “Christian Horror” Debate

I’ve been gearing up for my quarterly 10 Great New Christian Fiction Book Covers list and, frankly, I’m having a hard time finding ten. Sure, there’s a lot of pretty Christian fiction book covers out there — gauzy, lacy, blue sky, dandelion, doe-eyed, sassy, flowery, fair-skinned, book covers. But after several dozen, it just seems like so much of the same.

Is it any wonder “Christian horror” is such a hard sell?

In my recent interview with Jason Sizemore, founder of Apex Publications, I asked him what advice he’d give to Christian authors who enjoy speculative stuff but struggle with the “ultra-conservative strictures” of the current Christian market. He answered,

My suggestion to the writers who frequent your site is to repackage their work. Don’t market it as faith-based. Use words paranormal fantasy and religious horror. Describe it as having a bit of an edge. That should boost you out of the ultra-conservative gutter.

Please note: Jason’s advice is not to strip the story of religious elements but to “repackage” it. This distinction is important and points to a fundamental struggle for the Christian horrorist: The issue is the market, not religious content.

Perhaps this is obvious to some of you. Forgive me. I’m slow like that. As someone who has attempted to outline a theological basis for the “Christian horror” genre (see THIS, THIS, or THIS), it is a bit disheartening to realize that the issue has nothing (or little) to actually do with theology. The issue is the Christian market.

“Religion” and “horror” are tethered in very natural ways. Whether it’s fallen angels, animal sacrifice, demonic possession, the slaughter of innocents, plagues, brimstone, antichrists, or the fires of hell, Christian Scripture and history supplies sufficient fodder for volumes of ghastly tales. Elsewhere I have suggested that the best argument for “Christian horror” is the Bible itself. Heck, after reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula, one of the seminal pieces of horror lit, I expressed surprise at how inherently religious it was.

So why can’t “Christian horror” gain any traction? It’s the market, stupid. Zombies, vampires, and ghosts don’t stand a chance against parasols, buggies, and golden tresses. And here all this time I’ve mistakenly believed that articulating a theological basis for works of horror would help expand the genre.

The truth is theology doesn’t matter.

The real divide in the Christian horror debate is not between whether the horror genre is compatible with Christian fiction, but whether Christian horror is compatible with the current religious market. Those like myself who hope so, may be spinning our wheels. Apparently, no apologetic in the world can overcome our insatiable appetite for “pretty” covers.

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{ 24 comments… add one }
  • xdpaul May 17, 2011, 7:19 PM

    Yes, yes and amen.

  • Eric May 17, 2011, 7:36 PM

    Perhaps a fusion genre would serve the purpose, something along the lines of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.” How about, Love Comes Softly With Dripping Fangs?

  • xdpaul May 17, 2011, 10:22 PM

    Mike, it is a 2004 release, but have you read Doug Ten Napel’s Creature Tech? If I’m not mistaken, it is his most successful published work (outside of Earthworm Jim – the video game) and its details are amazing. Highly recommended for anyone needing hope that the market for strange doesn’t exclude the strangers in this strange land.

    • Mike Duran May 18, 2011, 5:38 AM

      Dan, I scanned some of Ten Napel’s stuff when you and Johne last mentioned him. My kids and I used to play Earthworm Jim, and I loved the graphics back then. I just ordered Creature Tech from Amazon. I’ll let you know what I think.

  • Grace Bridges May 17, 2011, 11:04 PM

    Well said, Mike! Agree wholeheartedly. I rather suspect that Christian horror will have more appeal to non-religious audiences for these very reasons – the other horror they read is already more religious than not. We will have to go outside the “Christian ghetto” to get the readers we seek.

    • Jessica Thomas May 18, 2011, 5:40 AM

      Speaking covers, the upcoming release looks great!

    • Mike Duran May 18, 2011, 5:43 AM

      Ironic, isn’t it, that “Christian horror will have more appeal to non-religious audiences”? Not sure what all that means, but it’s worth pondering. Appreciate your comments, Grace!

  • Patrick Todoroff May 18, 2011, 5:28 AM

    If the current religious market is defined/dominated by bonnet rippers and Baptisneyland thrills, then no, it’s not compatible.

    I suspect that to be authentic to the genre, you’ve got to push the envelope way beyond that particular audience’s comfort zone.

    But… as you’ve noted, there seems to be an audience of Christians who dislike “Christian” fiction and there certainly plenty of spiritually-aware non-believers who enjoy genre fiction.

  • Jessica Thomas May 18, 2011, 5:36 AM

    Hmm… Kind of a sad commentary. But I can’t find anything to argue with.

  • KT May 18, 2011, 5:57 AM

    Are you really saying that theology doesn’t matter to mainstream Christian fiction? Because that’s what it sounds like.

    • Mike Duran May 18, 2011, 6:36 AM

      Hmm. Maybe I am saying that. My point in this post is to confess that establishing a biblical foundation for a “Christian horror” genre has been futile. Perhaps it’s indication of my own bent. I don’t know. But when it comes to horror, it just doesn’t seem like theology is the thing that is keeping it from gaining traction in the religious market.

  • Carradee May 18, 2011, 7:15 AM

    Honestly, I think marketing is always the primary issue with fiction. How many people believe that the Left Behind series had bad theology, but they read it anyway?

    People will read a book in their preferred genre if it interests them, even if they disagree with the theology. I can’t think of any fiction I’ve ever read with which I’ve agreed, theologically—I’m a sabbatarian, for example—but that doesn’t stop me from reading unless a book outright offends me, and I’m not the easiest person to offend.

    Does theology affect fiction? Yes. Do readers care about what they notice in the theology? Yes. Does that mean that someone who believes in predestination will throw a heavily-“free will” novel across the room? No. (I use quotes because that’s a false dichotomy between those two—the core issue is can man choose God in and of himself, or does God have to enable man to choose him?)

    But nobody can read a book they don’t know exists, and that’s where marketing comes in.

  • Jill May 18, 2011, 8:55 AM

    His repackaging idea struck a chord w/ me as well, but partly because I was already there in my thinking. I wonder, though, what’s your tactic going to be? Will you target the mainstream market? I think I would if I had an agent who was willing to work w/ me.

    Btw, attractive covers sell books, no matter the genre. But more than that, they reveal book content to consumers. The Resurrection book cover is attractive, one might even say pretty. It’s also very Gothic and decidedly lacking in buggies, bonnets, and bodices. The Gothic elements tell readers that your books isn’t going to be funny, light, or sparkling. I’m bringing this up for a very important reason. Our culture recognizes symbology.

    I went to a conference session w/ Lois Duncan many years ago, in which she showed the different covers publishers used for her multiple print runs on her numerous novels. She paused on one series of covers that showed realistic, almost photographic images of the protagonists. She said that particular line of covers sold more books than any others. Her genre hadn’t changed–she’s always been a YA horror author, but that particular style of cover resonated w/ her readers. The covers demonstrated, in my opinion, the human element in her horror/suspense stories. They told the readers that along w/ mystery, Duncan would also give them relationships and characterization.

    Your book cover, on the other hand, is gorgeous, but it indicates that the mood of the book will take precedence over relationships and/or characterization.

  • Greg Mitchell May 18, 2011, 10:24 AM

    Okay, I hear ya on the blog. Good thoughts. I agree. Yada yada yada.


    Dude. You just whipped out some Kolchak. I love you.

    That is all. 🙂

    • xdpaul May 18, 2011, 6:12 PM

      Amen to that.

      My life would be much, much poorer had Darrin McGavin* never been born. R.I.P.

      *The Night Stalker, X-Files, Milleniu, Billy Madison, Murphy Brown, The Martian Chronicles, Mike Hammer and of course… A Christmas Story.

      His almost universally underrated take on Mike Hammer:

  • Nathan May 18, 2011, 4:51 PM

    You know, I’ve been wrestling around with a story idea that has a strong CBA-bent for a while now–a story that is definitely speculative fiction. And I’ve been unsure about pursuing it because of what I’ve believed to be the state of spec fic in the CBA industry.

    But today, 1 Timothy 4:7-8 came to mind–about avoiding godless myths and old wives’ tales. This got me to asking: what if the more traditional types of fantasy (such a Tolkien) aren’t doing so hot these days in CBA because God wills it to be so. Many traditional fantasy elements arise out of Celtic and Germanic mythologies, which themselves came from religions that are enjoying a nice comeback these days (probably because we’re approaching the end…though I doubt it’s this Saturday) We have brothers and sisters who have left paganism to become Christians. We also have brothers and sisters who could be tempted to explore paganism “just a little” if they read enough fantasy novels (I know–I was one of them. By God’s grace I’ve gotten stronger and can now enjoy those stories again). We also have brothers and sisters who haven’t left paganism, who wouldn’t be tempted to explore it, and who choose to not read this type of story because they don’t want to be a stumbling block.

    These factors lead me to question whether, if we want to write spec fic for the CBA market, we should instead focus on saturating our stories with Biblical imagery (angels, demons, etc.) rather than traditional fantasy tropes. It also makes me wonder whether God gave each of us this interest in spec fic because he knew that he could use us to wrap Christianity up in such a way as to sneak it past peoples’ defenses–thereby planting seeds of faith that will eventually grow.

    Just some thoughts…

    • xdpaul May 18, 2011, 5:59 PM

      Nathan, nothing draws me nearer to becoming a pagan than seeing the idolization of a problematic sect (the Amish) held as the Christian ideal for temporal romance.

      Furthermore, God doesn’t universally stop abortions, genocide, or any other symptoms of sin and the devil, so I’d find it somewhat remarkable to discover that he’s focused all his attention on the market choices of the CBA.

      Having said that, it is fundamentally a market decision. Amish fiction sells well, so the CBA sells it. When spiritual warfare stuff was the hot ticket, the CBA sold that. The CBA is less of a gatekeeper and more an investment resource manager.

      I understand what you are saying about weak Christians being tempted by worldly trifles, but such trifles (temporal romance, the comforts of tradition, the attraction of strange doctrine) abound in what is popular now. Horror and fantasy are not unique to the possession of minor distractions that seem so large to our newer and weaker brothers. It is our job to help them navigate away from such things, not the job of the CBA, and it has never claimed as much.

      Otherwise, it would have never, ever put out the Shack.

      • Nathan May 18, 2011, 6:49 PM

        While I will agree wholeheartedly with your comments on Shake and Amish…my point was simply this: if enough CBA buyers feel “convicted” by 1 Timothy 4:7-8 to stay away from fantasy fiction because of all those common fantasy elements that could appear to constitute “godless myths, that could easily squash any potential market for fantasy fiction. I’m not saying that the CBA is perfect or that any Christian is perfect. You are completely correct in saying that sometimes the worst of theology can masquerade as a seemingly uplifting novel (Shack). I’m just saying that people may feel convicted to stay away from the “godless myths” that gave birth to modern fantasy elements. And in a way, that could be God indirectly at work.

        I just thought I’d toss out a thought I had earlier to stir up lively debate. I can be a bit of an instigator, after all 🙂

        • xdpaul May 18, 2011, 11:47 PM

          I suppose, but considering that modern fantasy fiction is innately a Christian invention*, that an enormous volume of fantasy symbolism from the unicorn to the rainbow to the dragon find origins not in pagan pantheism but in Christian tradition**, it seems like you have to stretch 1 Timothy 4 a very long way for its “myths and genealogies” of 1 Timothy 1 to include fairy tales and fantasy fiction. These were false teachings and deceptive gospels that were being addressed, _things believed by the godless_. I’ve never heard of anyone seriously addressing fantasy fiction as either an intentional nor effective false gospel.

          Even if there were a Christian somewhere tempted to, uh, worship Hobbits or something (more likely the Istari, but still, a stretch) after reading LOTR, it still wouldn’t constitute a 1 Timothy style deception…because Tolkien’s _intention_ and _general effect_ are not to deceive followers away from the Gospel. This is not true of the heresies and mythologies that people were being asked to believe in the context of Timothy.

          Same goes for horror. Horror makes no sense as a self-sustaining genre without the reality of Christ. “Don’t play God.” “Resist the devil.” “Sin has consequences.” “Evil prowls the earth.” “Man is fallen.” These are the core elements of every decent tale of terror since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But Bram Stoker doesn’t expect you to believe that Dracula is a) real or b) the Messiah.

          I think I follow what you are saying. If what you say is true, it is unfortunate and disconnected from biblical reason that that would be the theological direction of the CBA, so I hope that the speculation is unfounded. Interesting to think about, though.

          *George MacDonald.

          **And not, as is so often presented, the other way ’round.

  • Bruce Hennigan May 18, 2011, 7:52 PM

    First, my favorite episode of all time is the Millennium episode with the depressed demons! Awesome stuff!
    As to book covers, I worked with a publisher who claimed that you have 3 seconds to impress a reader with your cover. My cover for my upcoming book came right out of my imagination. The graphic artists at Realms did a fantastic job and I would put it up agains any “secular” horror novel.

    But, to your initial point. We MUST repackage ourselves! We have a product but our intended audience isn’t seeing the product. I’m talking about all those “fringe” readers who never darken the door of a CBA bookstore but who are searching and questioning. My book, “The 13th Demon” coming out in October was initially a self published book in 2006. It penetrated the secular marketplace and I was amazed at reviews that praised the horror elements and the way in which the inspirational element was “just right”. They claimed that reading the book actually INCREASED their willingness to consider a Christian worldview. To me, that is why I write. I don’t just want to entertain Christians. I want to penetrate into the unbelieving world and open up minds and hearts to the possibility of Truth! I say we should find a way to rename ourselves. I like the “religious horror” idea. That might keep my book out of the back corner and closer to the front of the bookstore (B&N, not LifeWay!)

  • Patrick Todoroff May 18, 2011, 9:06 PM

    I’m getting weary of the ‘blame-game’ wherein things like sci-fi, fantasy, and horror novels are the prime suspects for inciting paganism or the occult in “seekers” or “weaker brethren”. By that logic, Monopoly will turn a soul away from truth to a life-long pursuit of filthy lucre and bondage to Mammon.

    I understand about catalysts, impressionable people and critical junctures in life, but people make their own decisions and follow the currents of their own hearts. “It’s not what enters a man that makes him unclean…”

    There are also those whose hearts have turned toward God and sound thinking due to the principles and themes in fiction, C.S. Lewis being the first example that comes to mind. Why aren’t fellow Christians as quick to dole out recognition and see potential there? Because it’s easier to be critical? A victim? To strain gnats in the name of sanctification?

    God forbid we join the ranks of little men clothed in angry piety hurling indignation on every spark of creativity and individual conscience.

  • Lynette Sowell May 20, 2011, 8:14 AM

    Just popping in to comment, after stumbling onto your blog. Not that I have anything to add to the interesting comments. As an author, though, I have felt the distinct pull between writing speculative fiction and continuing to write for the CBA masses. I love my homespun, sweet readers and appreciate their loyalty. I like my pretty covers too (thinking of your post higher above this one on horror). But one of my first major writing awards was in a speculative fiction category. I love writing about the sweet, but there are those stories I have in the back of my mind that definitely have those undertones of light v. dark, good v. evil, especially that which we can’t see or easily explain. The Bible is full of the un-explainable, and I think that does scare some people, so they either make up what’s comfortable for them or ignore it altogether. Anyway, that’s my pair o’ pennies on that topic.

  • Katherine Coble May 20, 2011, 12:10 PM

    Sorry for being late to this party; i was chemically detained.

    I hold to the Diet Coke theory of Christian fiction in general. It’s an imitation of the tastier thing with all the bad stuff removed. We hope.

    For years Tab and Diets Coke and Pepsi were marketed as low-cal. They sold marginally well, mostly to a captive audience who was watching its waistline. Then along came Nutrasweet and Diet Coke started marketing its TASTE, of all things. Sales went up as people started realising the taste was different but not altogether bad.

    I think of marketing Christian Spec Fic the same way. Focus on the taste, or in your cases the story.

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