THE THEOLOGICAL TURN IN C O N T E M P O R A RY GOTHIC FICTION
H O LY G H O S T S
The Theological Turn in Contemporary Gothic Fiction
The Theological Turn in Contemporary Gothic Fiction Holy Ghosts
Simon Marsden Department of English University of Liverpool Liverpool, UK
ISBN 978-3-319-96570-3 ISBN 978-3-319-96571-0 (eBook) https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-96571-0 Library of Congress Control Number: 2018950887 © Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018 This work is subject to copyright. All rights are solely and exclusively licensed by the Publisher, whether the whole or part of the material is concerned, specifically the rights of translation, reprinting, reuse of illustrations, recitation, broadcasting, reproduction on microfilms or in any other physical way, and transmission or information storage and retrieval, electronic adaptation, computer software, or by similar or dissimilar methodology now known or hereafter developed. The use of general descriptive names, registered names, trademarks, service marks, etc. in this publication does not imply, even in the absence of a specific statement, that such names are exempt from the relevant protective laws and regulations and therefore free for general use. The publisher, the authors, and the editors are safe to assume that the advice and information in this book are believed to be true and accurate at the date of publication. Neither the publisher nor the authors or the editors give a warranty, express or implied, with respect to the material contained herein or for any errors or omissions that may have been made. The publisher remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations. Cover illustration: Whitby Abbey and graves Credit: Kelvinjay / Getty images This Palgrave Macmillan imprint is published by the registered company Springer Nature Switzerland AG The registered company address is: Gewerbestrasse 11, 6330 Cham, Switzerland
Many friends and colleagues have helped this book to take shape by asking good questions, suggesting new directions and being generally available for lengthy conversations about vampires. The Contemporary Gothic Reading Group at Lancaster University has been a constant source of new material. I am grateful to members, past and present, for their friendship and for their generosity in sharing their own ideas and expertise, but particularly to my fellow members from the early days: Catherine Spooner, Xavier Aldana Reyes, Sarah Ilott, Stephen Curtis, Ellie Beal, Alan Gregory, Malgorzarta Drewniok, Sunday Swift, David McWilliam, Dawn Stobbart, Chloe Germaine Buckley, Enrique Ajuria Ibarra. I have benefitted enormously from conferences organised by the Open Graves, Open Minds research group at the University of Hertfordshire, the Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies and the University of Sheffield’s Gothic Bible Project, each of which has been a source of lively debate and ongoing conversation. As ever, Gladstone’s Library has been both an invaluable resource for theological research and a haven of calm in which to think and write. My thanks, too, to the many people whose knowledge, insight, encouragement and friendship have both enriched this book and made the task of writing it far more enjoyable: Jenn Ashworth, Brian Baker, Jo Baker, Linnie Blake, Arthur Bradley, Matthew Bradley, Alex Broadhead, Jo Carruthers, Sam George, Jon Greenaway, David Hering, Bill Hughes, Mark Knight, Melissa Raines, Lisa Regan, Jon Roberts, Mike Sanders, John Schad, David Seed, Andrew Tate.
1 Introduction: Spectres of the Sacred 1 2 Gothic Heresies 21 3 ‘There Were Some Stains That Could Not Be Removed’: Adam Nevill and the Stain of Sin 45 4 Much Ado About Nothing: Peter Straub and Privation 67 5 William Peter Blatty and the Presence of the Absent Christ 93 6 ‘Time to Let Go of All the Old Things’: Justin Cronin’s Radically Orthodox Christology 115 7 Sympathy for the Devil: Gothic Goes to Hell 141 8 The Sense of No Ending: (Re)Reading the Apocalyptic Stephen King 163
Conclusion: The Gothic Sacred 189 Bibliography 195 Index 207
Introduction: Spectres of the Sacred
Contemporary Gothic is haunted by Christianity. Theological themes and figures—sin, redemption, apocalypse, heaven and hell, angels and demons—are as integral to the Gothic imagination in the twenty-first century as they were in the eighteenth. Religious iconography is embedded in the Gothic aesthetic. Gothic retains a sense of the sacred, even if it appears at times in desecrated forms. Ritual, atonement and sacrifice remain prominent narrative tropes; (some) vampires still fear the sign of the cross, even if they—and we—have become less sure about why they do so. If the Gothic as a genre is defined by the coherence of its conventions, as Eve Sedgwick has argued, many of those conventions have a wider history in Christian belief, ritual, practice, architecture and iconography.1 Despite the proliferation of religious tropes, ideas and images in contemporary Gothic, however, relatively little critical attention has been paid to the ways in which recent Gothic texts have engaged with theology. If religion ‘is, once more, haunting the imagination of the West’, as the theologian Graham Ward has claimed, then its spectral presence in Gothic fiction remains curiously unrecognised by scholars, despite the significant expansion of critical work in recent years in the fields of both Gothic studies and literature and religion.2 This book seeks to expand the critical dialogue between Gothic studies and theology by exploring some of the ways in which contemporary Gothic texts have engaged with Christian ideas, tropes and images. It aims to demonstrate not only that Gothic writers continue to draw upon theology as a source of imaginative stimulation, contest and challenge but also that the Gothic offers distinctive imaginative and representational © The Author(s) 2018 S. Marsden, The Theological Turn in Contemporary Gothic Fiction, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-96571-0_1
resources with which to explore theological concepts. In other words, this book attempts to reveal not only the theological threads in contemporary Gothic but the Gothic threads in contemporary theology. The concept of the ‘contemporary’ can of course be a slippery one and, as I am taking a somewhat broader view of that term than is often the case in critical studies, it requires some comment. This book focuses on the period from 1970 to the present. This timescale has a practical convenience, as it spans the careers of prominent novelists such as Stephen King and William Peter Blatty. More broadly, however, this book is concerned with what the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has described as the ‘“re- enchantment” of the world after the protracted and earnest, though in the end inconclusive, modern struggle to dis-enchant it’.3 For Bauman and others, this ‘re-enchantment’ of the world is an aspect of postmodernity’s challenge to the cultural, philosophical and epistemological structures of modernity. Ward claims that it is ‘the re-evaluation of ambivalence, mystery, excess and aporia as they adhere to, are constituted by and disrupt the rational, that lies behind the re-enchantment of the world’.4 The renewal of cultural and artistic interest in religious tropes, images and iconography—albeit often far removed from the religious traditions within which they emerged—is consistent with this re-evaluation of mystery and otherness. For the purposes of this book, then, the ‘contemporary’ is that period from the late twentieth century to the present in which this ‘re- enchantment’ of the world is most clearly recognisable. This is not to ignore the ways in which critical theory has now begun to challenge or move beyond postmodern thought—indeed, several of the theologians discussed in this book have offered extensive critiques of postmodernism—but simply to acknowledge the ways in which postmodernity has shaped and continues to shape the encounter with religion in recent art and culture. The image of a contemporary imagination ‘haunted’ by religion is an ambivalent one. As any reader of Gothic fiction knows well, the appearance of a spectre is at least as likely to provoke an exorcism as a welcome. ‘A sceptical response’, writes Andrew Tate, ‘might be to observe, dryly, that the spectral motif…is surely a sign that the age of belief has passed away only to be reawakened as an unhappy revenant’.5 As Tate notes, the return of religion in Western cultural and political life has provoked concern (among believers as well as sceptics) about newly resurgent fundamentalisms and the threat of religious violence. Certainly, some of the writers discussed in this book and in Gothic fiction more widely are alert
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to the potential for religion to be imagined as a source and site of horror. Yet spectres of the sacred haunt Gothic fiction in other ways too: as nostalgic yearning for older forms of faith, ritual and belonging; as images of enchantment by which reality is encountered as more than the material and empirical; as tentative glimpses of redemptive possibility. ‘The ghost, post-Derrida’, writes Andrew Smith, ‘seemed to be transformed into a critically mobile figure whose presence helped to illuminate the complex origins and discrete political visions of a variety of intellectual contexts’.6 Though the ghost in Gothic criticism has more often been associated with broadly secular concerns—economics, labour, psychology, sexuality—it is my contention that religion too participates in the kind of literary haunting in which, as Joanne Watkiss argues, ‘texts are haunted by other texts through a series of uncanny inheritances that simultaneously renew the concepts afresh’.7 I will argue in this book not only that Christian theology is among the ‘uncanny inheritances’ of contemporary Gothic, but also that Gothic texts themselves provide space for the reimagining and renewal of that inheritance. This introductory chapter maps out some key areas of intersection between Christian thought and the Gothic imagination.
Gothic Fictions and the (Un)Death of God According to a familiar narrative of secularisation, Western thought and culture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries departed steadily and inevitably from their historical roots in Christian faith, theology and praxis. While some commentators have described this shift in terms of a clash between religion and science, or faith and reason, others have located the origins of disenchantment within an increasingly rationalist and materialist Christianity in the aftermath of the Reformation.8 Though the nature and causes of secularisation continue to be debated, there is no doubt that what Matthew Arnold called the ‘melancholy, long withdrawing roar’ of faith was for many people in Britain and the US a prominent aspect of the emotional, imaginative and intellectual life in the nineteenth century and beyond.9 In his pathfinding study The Disappearance of God (1963), J. Hillis Miller describes modern literature as shaped by the experience of God’s absence: The lines of connection between us and God have broken down, or God himself has slipped away from the places where he used to be. He no longer inheres in the world as the force binding together all men and all things. As
a result the nineteenth and twentieth centuries seem to many writers a time when God is no more present and not yet again present, and can only be experienced negatively, as a terrifying absence.10
Miller’s ‘terrifying absence’ of God is not quite the Nietzschean ‘death of God’. Miller does not insist on the inevitability of atheism, but rather describes a widespread suspicion that God is absent from the places in which he was once encountered. Yet there is an unavoidable link between the concepts of divine absence and divine death; at the very least, it is easy to see how the imaginative experience of divine silence and the availability of intellectual challenges to God’s existence might be mutually reinforcing. In his influential book A Secular Age (2007), the philosopher Charles Taylor argues that one of the main characteristics of secularisation is ‘a move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace’.11 In a secular culture, religious faith is not impossible, but it can no longer be held naively as self-evident or uncontested. Gothic narratives of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries reflect both the specific shift in the conditions of belief described by Taylor and the broader modern experience of disenchantment. Some Gothic writers— most notably H. P. Lovecraft—saw in the Nietzschean proclamation of the death of God a vision of nihilistic horror and a Gothic mode in which the ideological and epistemological certainties of modernity were overwhelmed by forces of uncontainable chaos and disorder. In the wider Gothic tradition, however, disenchantment was registered in other ways. Lucie Armitt observes that if one were to identify elements that specifically characterise twentieth- century Gothic, one would have to signal, in the early part of the century, the manner in which the real-life horror of two world wars takes over from the imagined horrors of the supernatural and/or superstition; those tortured individuals who, in the nineteenth century, refused to play dead, began to do so on a mass(ive) scale during and after the First World War, as spirit photographers, theosophists, spiritualists and clairvoyants pandered to the devastation felt by parents grieving for their lost sons.12
Though images of the spectral, supernatural and otherworldly remained integral to Gothic in the twentieth century, they became increasingly
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istanced from the religious traditions and worldviews within which many d of them had emerged. The Gothic supernatural provided a symbolic and metaphoric vocabulary with which to talk about the collective trauma of two world wars, new forms of economic crisis, Cold War paranoia and fears of nuclear war. David Punter sees in twentieth-century Gothic ‘a sense of being at a loss; or perhaps a sense of loss itself, of loss of certainty’.13 For Punter, this sense of loss emerges from a moment of epistemological uncertainty, ‘namely, that we cannot be certain of our knowledge of the past’.14 Though Punter is not referring specifically to processes of secularisation, his account of the modern sense of loss, or of being at a loss, resonates with the shifts away from older forms of collective believing and belonging described by Taylor.15 The supernatural in Gothic fiction can and has represented many things, but it no longer represents a commonly shared framework of belief in non-material reality. In a reading of the vampire as a figure that embodies its contemporary modernity, Stacey Abbott argues that modernity is ‘essentially a posttraditional order, and therefore being removed from the trappings of tradition is intrinsic to the experience of modernity’.16 This aspect of modernity is reflected in modern Gothic, as symbols and tropes that once had specific religious and theological resonances became increasingly distanced from the traditions and communities in which they previously had their meanings. The separation of the modern subject from older forms of belief and belonging is given Gothic representation in Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1976). Louis, the novel’s vampire narrator, begins his life as a member of a devout Catholic family in Louisiana in the late eighteenth century. A believer as a human, Louis gradually loses his faith following his transformation into a vampire. In a departure from the conventions of the vampire genre, Louis is unharmed by religious buildings or symbols. The vampire’s fear of the cross is, of course, a tradition derived from the religious status of the cross as a symbol of the holy; the cross was harmful to vampires because the object itself was understood to be invested with the power of the sacred. Rice’s novel empties its religious symbols of this power. Visiting a cathedral, Louis experiences an overwhelming awareness of divine absence: ‘God did not live in this church; these statues gave an image to nothingness’.17 For Louis, this sudden awareness of God’s disappearance is experienced as a profound existential shock: ‘Loneliness. Loneliness to the point of madness. The cathedral crumbled in my vision; the saints listed and fell. Rats ate the Holy Eucharist and nested on the sills’ (IwtV: 131).
Interview with the Vampire is not an unambiguously atheistic novel; Louis himself is never entirely sure of God’s non-existence. It is, however, a novel of divine silence. God is absent, perhaps never to return, and Louis’s existence as a vampire is defined at least in part by his acceptance of this new reality. Yet in a final irony, even the status of Nietzschean nihilistic visionary is denied to Louis when the older vampire, Armand, tells him that his alienation from his world is ‘the very spirit of your age. Don’t you see that? Everyone else feels as you feel. Your fall from grace and faith has been the fall of a century’ (IwtV: 259). Rice’s novel imagines the modern experience of divine absence as a form of Gothic undeath. Separated from both humanity and transcendence, Louis completes his passage through the nineteenth century by embracing a kind of decadence. ‘I drank of the beauty of the world as a vampire drinks’, he claims as the interview nears its end; ‘I was satisfied. I was filled to the brim. But I was dead’ (IwtV: 289). If a continuing withdrawal of religion to the margins of contemporary culture might once have seemed inevitable, however, the reality in the final decades of the twentieth century proved to be more complex. Postmodernity brought with it a proliferation of religious symbols and tropes. Magdalena Ma ̨czyńska is one of several critics to have noted ‘a surprising number of recent fictions, more often than not authored by novelists with little or no investment in theological matters, that draw on, reinterpret, or transform religious textual traditions’.18 Religious symbols in contemporary culture appear frequently far removed from their original theological and ecclesiastical contexts, but they appear frequently nonetheless. Some commentators—religious as well as secular—have been ambivalent about this cultural re-emergence of the religious. Ward, for example, sees in postmodernity the deployment of religion as a commodified ‘special effect’ that provides ‘the allure of cheap transcendence’.19 For Ward, the religious symbols that proliferate in contemporary culture are fetishised icons detached from the traditions and communities within which they have meaning: ‘Religion’ is lending a certain magical, mystical polish to contemporary forms of customized transcendence. Having come to define itself in terms of the ultimate and the void, the absence and withdrawal of God, religion enters its own kenosis and empties itself of intrinsic value and significance. Religion does not live in and of itself any more – it lives in commercial business, gothic and sci-fi fantasy, in health clubs, themed bars and architectural
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design, among happy-hour drinkers, tattoists, ecologists and cyberpunks. Religion has become a special effect, inseparably bound to an entertainment value.20
In Ward’s account, then, the dispersal of detraditioned and commodified religious symbols and tropes in postmodern culture is at least in part an outcome of the tendency of religion to accommodate itself to consumerism, political and economic liberalism and sceptical philosophy. Religion is not simply detraditioned by postmodern culture, but is in some ways complicit in detraditioning itself. Though I take a different view of the theological implications of the dispersal of religion in contemporary culture—I maintain throughout this book that even detraditioned religious tropes in contemporary Gothic are often deployed as objects of serious theological inquiry, debate and challenge—it remains the case that postmodernity is not simply a cultural phenomenon external to religion but a significant aspect of and influence upon contemporary religious thought.
Holy Hauntings: Theology and Postmodernism If contemporary Gothic is haunted by Christianity, this is due not only to a renewal of interest in religious symbols, texts and narrative tropes but also to significant shifts in Christian theology itself. Postmodernity’s challenge to the coherence of the Enlightenment project rejected not only the rationalist conceptions of God that were prominent in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but also the similarly rationalist epistemologies that had later announced the death of that God. For many theologians in the second half of the twentieth century, the ‘death of God’ announced by Nietzsche was in fact the death of a flawed concept of God born out of Enlightenment rationalism. The God that had died was the God of onto- theology: a God imagined as the Supreme Being, but a being nonetheless and therefore on an ontological continuum with other beings. Rather than signalling the end of Christian theology as a meaningful intellectual project, the ‘death of God’ opened the possibility that faith could be understood outside the limited and limiting terms set for it in modernity. Gavin Hopps and Jane Stabler write: To think God outside of the protocols of onto-theology is to allow God to ‘be’ unconstrained by the category of being. It is to throw open the idolatrously circumscribed horizons of finitude and to respect the irreducible
otherness of the divine, by not limiting it advance according to our own measure. The collapse of onto-theology therefore clears for apprehension an undelimited space and allows God to be ‘God’ – as it were ‘without’ being. This does not, it should be immediately added, exclude the divine from or rob it of anything. On the contrary, it infinitely widens its demesne.21
These attempts to rethink the divine were often based upon new kinds of attention to theological language, many of which were shaped in turn by the philosophy and methods of deconstruction. For theologians and philosophers engaged in this project, theological language required an approach of radical scepticism. Because talk about God was always mediated through linguistic structures grounded in experience of the physical world, such talk always ran the risk of idolatry; it necessarily spoke of God in terms of finite being. To move beyond onto-theology, then, required, if not different ways of talking about God, at the very least different ways of thinking about what happens in such talk. In order to avoid reducing and delimiting the divine to the order of things, it was necessary to recognise the gap between theological language and the God of which it attempted to speak. For Kevin Hart, what one finds in ‘positive theologies is a supplement of negative theology; it is needed to check that our discourse about God is, in fact, about God and not just about human images of God’.22 If the words used to speak of God were always in some way failed metaphors and allegories, this failure was, paradoxically, integral to their success. A properly theological language required hesitation, uncertainty and mystery. For many contemporary theologians, the focus of theology is not simply that which can be described and articulated in doctrinal statements, but the otherness and excess that always persists at the margins of theological language. In a quite specific sense, then, theology itself is a haunted discourse; its language gestures towards absence as well as presence and encounters constantly the excesses and mysteries at its margins. To speak of religion as a haunted discourse is, of course, to locate an aspect of the Gothic within theology. In Gothic theory following Derrida, Colin Davis argues, ‘[h]auntology supplants its near-homonym ontology, replacing the priority of being and presence with the figure of the ghost as that which is neither present nor absent, neither dead nor alive’.23 The convergence of theology with Gothic spectrality has been noted by several critics. In Haunted Presence (1987), S. L. Varnado argues that in ‘the supernatural tale, elements of plot, character, and setting exist not for their own sake but for the sake of the nonrational dimension – the numinous’.24 Drawing
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upon Rudolf Otto’s concept of the numinous as an imaginative or intuitive experience of the transcendent, Varnado reads Gothic fictions as depicting ‘the feeling of the supernatural’; the supernatural elements of Gothic, then, can be read not simply as metaphors for more naturalistic concerns but as explorations of the numinous as a ‘unique category of experience’.25 More recently, Hopps has identified a specific convergence of Gothic spectrality with contemporary shifts in religious thought and faith. ‘Most accounts of postmodern enchantment’, Hopps writes, ‘draw attention to a re-awakened sense of mystery in the world, both in terms of a corner around which we cannot peer as well as the kinds of entities that populate contemporary culture’.26 Emphasising the (seemingly paradoxical) role of scepticism in facilitating a return of the religious—postmodernity is sceptical of the rationalist scepticism of Enlightenment thought, and thus begins to doubt its own doubt—Hopps sees in the contemporary cultural proliferation of the supernatural signs of a renewed openness to wonder: ‘The return of the Gothic, the mysterious and the magical also seems to be a reflection, in some refracted sense, of changes in what people actually believe, or at least are prepared to countenance as possible’.27 Spectrality, then, provides a way of imagining encounters with radical otherness, numinous experience and, perhaps, glimpses of transcendence. Peter Buse and Andrew Stott suggest that ‘[i]nstead of saying that there is an outside of reason which has been neglected, perhaps we need to inspect the inside of reason and see how it too is haunted by what it excludes’.28 The Gothic has always occupied itself with questions of belief, not only in its explorations of particular forms of belief but in its willingness to imagine the possibility of belief in the seemingly unbelievable. As Deidre Shauna Lynch has recently observed, Gothic fiction from its origins in the eighteenth century has ‘serviced an ongoing need to experience and to believe in others’ believings’.29 To read a Gothic novel is not necessarily to believe in its spectres, terrors and glimpses of the sublime, but it is, perhaps, to imagine what it might be like to believe in them. Gothic’s capacity to imagine belief in the unbelievable gives the genre a particular kind of theological resonance even when the objects of belief in question are not conventionally religious ones (as, indeed, in contemporary Gothic they typically are not). In literature, Ward argues, we ‘slip through the thin skin of this world and glimpse, and believe in…somewhere else’.30 Gothic fiction, I suggest, makes overt this imaginative act of believing in ‘somewhere else’ that is integral to literature more generally. The narrator of King’s Duma Key (2008) adopts a religiously inflected
register to describe the challenge that faces his group as they seek to respond to the novel’s supernatural threats: ‘The biggest hurdle, after all, was belief itself, and as long as we didn’t backslide in the bright Florida sunshine tomorrow, we were over that one’.31 Believing and not backsliding; the language would be familiar to Evangelical preachers. King’s novel suggests that even seeing might not fully resolve the difficulties of believing, but it also demonstrates the extent to which the possibility and experience of believing in the unbelievable is integral to Gothic narrative. Gothic fictions register the emotional and epistemological shock of discovering that reality is not quite as one thought it was.
Religious Special Effects: The Gothic and False Transcendence If belief, or the experience of believing, provides a point of contact between religion and contemporary Gothic fiction, however, this does not in itself align the genre with any particular theology or theological approach. Theology, after all, is usually concerned not simply with the experience of believing in something but with specific kinds of belief. Put another way, what is of interest to theology is not just that one believes but what one believes. Contemporary Gothic narratives might ask their protagonists to believe in many things, but, overtly at least, these rarely include orthodox Christian doctrine. Indeed, Fred Botting has argued that a departure from traditional forms of transcendence is a defining aspect of contemporary Gothic. For Botting, the spiritual vision of the Romantic sublime has been displaced by commodified versions of romance: Romance, between males, between vampires and humans, between life and death, is evacuated and reappears in a rhythmic pulse throughout the tale of blood. Spent, used up, rendered banal, the currency of romance is repeatedly returned to by desperate vampires in search of meaning and desire. Romance, its intensities, imagined fullness, its passion, entwines desire and lack: it is sustained in the quest and dies with satiation; its locus is absence not fulfilment; it is propelled by identification and fantastic projection rather than realisation.32
The supernatural in Gothic fiction might lead us not to a version of the transcendent (however refracted from its religious histories) but back to the commodified, endlessly replicated culture to which Gothic texts themselves belong. As Catherine Spooner observes, contemporary Gothic
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‘possesses a new self-consciousness about its own nature; it has reached new levels of mass production, distribution and audience awareness, enabled by global consumer culture; and it has crossed disciplinary boundaries to be absorbed into all forms of media’.33 Gothic’s close relationship with contemporary consumer culture and mass production raises the possibility that its glimpses of otherness are illusory, that Gothic enchantment is in fact only another stylised entertainment commodified and sold by late capitalism. Veronica Hollinger writes of the vampire: ‘We look into the mirror it provides and we see a version of ourselves. Or, more accurately, keeping in mind the orthodoxy that vampires cast no mirror reflections, we look into the mirror and see nothing but ourselves’.34 Perhaps the Gothic supernatural shows us nothing other than the insatiable desires of our own consumerist culture. There are significant resonances between these critical accounts of Gothic’s relationship to commercial mass production and Ward’s claim that in postmodernity religion too becomes a commodity, marketed as entertainment and pseudo-spiritual kitsch. In postmodern culture, Ward argues, ‘religion is a matter of simulations; the simulation of a special effect’.35 The dispersal of religious tropes in popular culture is an aspect of this commodification; encountered outside of communities and traditions of faith, religious tropes become simulacra, emptied of content and depth. Is the apparent re-enchantment of contemporary Gothic, then, merely a commodified spirituality deployed as one more special effect in a genre that endlessly reproduces itself as commodity? In this context, it is intriguing that one of the most commercially successful Gothic franchises of the early twenty-first century is one that foregrounds religious themes. Religious politics have played a significant role in shaping responses to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series since the publication of the first novel in 2005. While the series’ apparent support for sexual abstinence earned it a favourable reception among some Christian groups, its sexual and gender politics received more hostile treatment from some secular commentators.36 Even religious responses were mixed. In 2009, the supernaturalism of the series was criticised by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture, giving Twilight the unusual distinction of having been attacked as both too Christian and not Christian enough.37 Yet the tendency of commentators to focus on political and sociological aspects of religion in the series has tended to obscure the limitations of Meyer’s attempts to stage meaningful theological debate. In a break with genre conventions, Twilight’s central vampire characters are Christians.
However, other than Edward’s insistence on sexual abstinence before marriage—which in the novels is attributed more to traditional cultural values than to specifically religious convictions—the only significant impact on the series of the Cullen family’s religion is a discussion of the condition of Edward’s soul: as Carlisle reveals in New Moon, Edward believes that vampires have no soul and therefore no hope of heaven.38 Rather than resolving this (admittedly less than sophisticated) theological debate, however, the series simply dodges the question by shifting the terms of its ‘afterlife’ towards the earthly paradise finally achieved by Edward and Bella. The conclusion of Bella’s narrative in Breaking Dawn makes this shift explicit: ‘And then’, she says in the novel’s final sentence, ‘we continued blissfully into this small but perfect piece of our forever’.39 Their earthly heaven secured, the question of Bella’s and Edward’s eternal souls becomes irrelevant. Jennifer Williams takes an optimistic view of the conclusion: Edward’s transformation of Bella into a vampire is ‘a gift that keeps her forever grounded on the earth, even as it raises her well above it. She, too, will possess the beauty that results from the daily sacrifices required for the godlike vampire to live as a human’. Williams thus concludes that ‘vampires today offer the possibility of religion without religion’.40 I suggest that this is precisely the problem. In harnessing its notional theological interests to the logic of the romance plot, the series sacrifices any ability to imagine the eternal as anything other than the perpetuation of the present. Meyer’s narrative is entirely consistent with Rob Latham’s claim that the vampire ‘metaphorically [embodies] the libidinal- political dynamics of the consumerist ethos to which young people have been systematically habituated during the contemporary period’.41 Though this metaphor can of course be deployed as a critique of the consumerist ethos, the Twilight series makes no such move. By the end of Breaking Dawn, Bella and Edward are living the neo-liberal dream: young and beautiful, newlyweds forever, rich from the stock market that they can manipulate without risk, their eternity is one of desire eternally fulfilled through static romance, socially sanctioned sex and economic consumption. Indeed, Twilight seems to exemplify Aspasia Stephanou’s claim that the ‘neoliberal subject and the vampire share voracious appetites that congeal around the idea of conspicuous consumption characterised by compulsion and excess’, while sanitising this consumption as romantic wish-fulfilment for its teen audience.42 The series imagines no outside, no perspective other than that of the neo-liberal consumer. It offers a suggestion of transcendence that finally transcends nothing, a counter-culture indistinguishable from the mainstream.
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In her book The Case for God (2009), the religious historian Karen Armstrong describes what she considers to be a central difficulty for public discussion of religion in the contemporary West. ‘In our democratic society’, Armstrong argues, ‘we think that the concept of God should be easy and that religion ought to be readily accessible to anybody’.43 In Armstrong’s critical reading, too much public discussion of religion misses the inherent complexity and difficulty of religious discourse, a problem that is in no way limited to sceptics or non-believers: ‘People of faith know in theory that God is utterly transcendent, but they seem sometimes to assume that they know exactly who “he” is and what he thinks, loves and expects. We tend to tame and domesticate God’s “otherness”’.44 As the Twilight series demonstrates, Gothic representations of the divine— including those written from a perspective of faith—run the risk of emptying religion of its capacity for transcendence by locating it entirely within the realm of the immanent. I maintain in this book, however, that such domestication is not inevitable and that contemporary Gothic often engages sensitively and creatively with the nuances of theological language. In a thoughtful reading of the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003), Greg Erickson argues that the theological significance of the series lies in its willingness to break free of ‘traditional forms of theodicy, mythology, and theology’ in order to create a worldview that ‘although it may not be Christian, also is not un-Christian’.45 For Erickson, Buffy disrupts a binary opposition between belief and atheism by paying attention to the ways in which those concepts might overlap: both/and rather than either/or. This disruption of secure boundaries between belief and unbelief is characteristic of postmodern theology. John D. Caputo, for example, argues that faith is always ‘faith without faith, faith that needs to be sustained from moment to moment, from decision to decision, by the renewal, reinvention, and repetition of faith which is – if I may say so – continually exposed to discontinuity’.46 If religious symbols in contemporary Gothic often appear outside of specific faith traditions, it is not necessarily the case that they are thereby emptied of theological meaning. As many of the novels discussed in this book demonstrate, religious symbols often participate in the genre’s openness to imaginative excess, ambiguity and mystery. Contemporary Gothic writers continue to engage with religious tropes in ways that are subversive, challenging and sometimes antagonistic. In doing so, however, they often revitalise—or, perhaps, re- enchant—the religious itself by reimagining its texts, traditions and imagery in new situations and asking what they might mean for contemporary culture.
In Peter Straub’s novella Mrs. God (1990), a literary scholar named William Standish works in a private library while God looks down on him from the ceiling. ‘God’, in this case, is a painted image of a ‘stern bearded’ figure that ‘leaned out of a whirling storm and levelled his index finger at Standish’.47 From Standish’s perspective, this God insists upon absolute order: the levelled index finger demands that the manuscripts that ‘lay across the desk like fragments of one great sentence fallen from the sky’ must be put back together again and worked into coherence and stable meaning (MG: 84–5). The painted God is a figure of absolute patriarchal authority who rules over a world without coincidence or creativity. Yet this figure is also a construct; a ‘god…made entirely of paint a fraction of an inch thick’ (MG: 169). Standish sets a fire in the library, burning the manuscripts and burning away with them the image of God on the ceiling. What, then, remains when the image of the pointing God is consumed by fire? Is the image a legacy of an outdated faith, now consigned to the past? Conversely, does the destruction of the painting represent an opening of possibility for the divine to be imagined in new ways? Has the narrative rid itself of an inadequate God, or an inadequate image of God? The theological ambiguity of Straub’s novella speaks directly to the concerns of this book. The writers examined in the following chapters engage with theology in ways that are subversive and challenging, but also creative. The theologian Paul S. Fiddes has described a productive tension between theological doctrine and the literary imagination: where doctrine aspires towards closure and fixed meaning, literature ‘reaches out towards mystery, towards a reality that is our final concern but which eludes empirical investigation and bursts rational concepts’.48 For Fiddes, Christian theology is animated by this creative friction between the closure of doctrine and the openness of literature, as the literary imagination allows doctrine to be rethought and reimagined in new situations. How, then, do contemporary Gothic writers engage with and reimagine theological concepts and doctrines? What becomes of those concepts when they are reimagined in the contexts of dark fantasy, Gothic terror and violent horror? The central claim of this book is that contemporary Gothic writers continue to engage with Christian theology in ways that are frequently unorthodox, often subversive and consciously heretical, but also theologically productive. Chapter 2 examines this heretical impulse in the work of contemporary Gothic writers. Focusing on three twenty-first century novels that depict religious communities in moments of crisis and transition,
INTRODUCTION: SPECTRES OF THE SACRED
this chapter explores the representation of theological heresy in contemporary Gothic fiction. In these novels, Gothic terrors haunt the margins of religious orthodoxies, exposing existing tensions within faith communities and, at times, exposing the hidden violence by which they maintain their stability and social order. They ask questions of the role of power in the construction and policing of religious orthodoxy, while also drawing attention to connections between theological orthodoxies, national identity and the politics of race. The remaining chapters are organised around key concepts in Christian theology. Chapters 3 and 4 consider aspects of theological accounts of evil. Chapter 3 reads images of staining and contamination in the fiction of Adam Nevill in relation to the doctrine of Original Sin. Nevill’s fiction echoes and illuminates a theological grammar of evil in which sin is imagined in terms of staining, contamination and contagion. Where Christian theology maintains that the stain of sin can be transformed or removed, however, Nevill depicts evil’s taint as indelible. Images of redemption and resurrection appear in distorted forms, deriving horror from the suggestion of a redemptive transformation that is never achieved. Chapter 4 considers the ontology of evil as explored in the fiction of Peter Straub. A central strand of Christian theology has understood evil in terms of privation: evil is not an existing ‘thing’ with its own ontological substance but rather a nothingness or subtraction from existence. Straub’s work engages directly with the question of evil’s ontology, while maintaining that the act of writing itself can be understood as a creative response to evil’s privations. Chapters 5 and 6 explore the concept of redemption and the centrality to it of the figure of Jesus Christ. Chapter 5 focuses on the work of Blatty and its relationship both to the ‘Death of God’ theologies of the 1960s and to the scholarly pursuit of the historical Jesus. Blatty’s fiction is populated by characters who struggle with questions of belief: his believers, atheists and agnostics alike are troubled persistently by doubt. His Jesus is an elusive figure who remains beyond the reach of scholarship or theological apologetics and can be made present only in embodied acts of redemptive grace. Chapter 6 turns to Justin Cronin’s recent Passage trilogy, an apocalyptic vampire narrative invested in concepts of the messianic. The trilogy’s reimagined Christ-figure both illuminates contemporary scholarly debates about the relationship between history and myth in accounts of the life of Jesus and explores the concept of redemption in ways that resonate with a renewed emphasis on ontology, community and gift- exchange in contemporary theology.
Chapters 7 and 8 turn to eschatological themes. Chapter 7 considers versions of Satan in contemporary Gothic and suggests that Gothic writers have deployed the Devil in consciously subversive forms. Satan has been employed in satires of contemporary Western culture that depict the conditions of late capitalism and the culture of the simulacra as works of the Devil. At the same time, the Devil has been adopted as a figure of divine rebellion able to articulate human protest and outrage against a seemingly absent God, while also being reimagined in recent ecogothic fiction as a symbolic representation of human relationships with the natural environment. Chapter 8 considers King’s relationship to the literary tradition of Christian apocalyptic and argues that King’s use of supernatural horror echoes the revelatory functions of the magical and monstrous figures in biblical apocalypses. If King’s work echoes the revelatory impulses of apocalypse, however, it displays more resistance to the apocalyptic ending. Reflecting shifts in contemporary eschatological thought—both secular and theological—towards transitions rather than endings, King’s narratives imagine glimpses of hope located in the openness of chronological time rather than in moments of closure and final meaning. The Conclusion offers some reflections on the dialogue between theology and Gothic fiction and theory that this book attempts to delineate and illustrates the concept of the Gothic sacred through a reading of Kate Mosse’s short story ‘Saint-Thérèse’.
Notes 1. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, The Coherence of Gothic Conventions (New York: Arno Press, 1980). 2. Graham Ward, True Religion (Oxford: Blackwell, 2003), p. vii. 3. Zygmunt Bauman, Postmodern Ethics (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993), p. 33. 4. Graham Ward, Theology and Contemporary Critical Theory (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1996), p. 132. 5. Andrew Tate, Contemporary Fiction and Christianity (London and New York: Continuum, 2008), p. 2. 6. Andrew Smith, The Ghost Story 1840–1920: A Cultural History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010), pp. 4–5. 7. Joanne Watkiss, Gothic Contemporaries: The Haunted Text (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2012), p. 2. 8. On the historical relationships between science and religion, see John Hedley Brooke, Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991). For readings of the rela-
INTRODUCTION: SPECTRES OF THE SACRED
tionship between Christianity and disenchantment, see Alister McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution (London: SPCK, 2007); John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, second edition (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006). 9. Matthew Arnold, ‘Dover Beach’, in Selected Poems, ed. by Timothy Peltason (London: Penguin, 1994), p. 102. 10. J. Hillis Miller, The Disappearance of God: Five Nineteenth-Century Writers, third edition (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000), p. 2. 11. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2007), p. 3. 12. Lucie Armitt, Twentieth-Century Gothic (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011), p. 2. 13. David Punter, The Literature of Terror, Volume 2: The Modern Gothic, second edition (London and New York: Longman, 1996), pp. 178–9. 14. Punter, The Literature of Terror, Volume 2, p. 179. 15. Taylor, A Secular Age, pp. 146–58. 16. Stacey Abbott, Celluloid Vampires: Life After Death in the Modern World (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2007), p. 6. 17. Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire (London: Sphere, 2008), p. 131. Further references are given parenthetically with the abbreviation IwtV. 18. Magdalena Ma ̨czyńska, The Gospel According to the Novelist: Religious Scripture and Contemporary Fiction (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), p. 11. 19. Ward, True Religion, p. viii. 20. Ward, True Religion, pp. 132–3. 21. Gavin Hopps and Jane Stabler, ‘Introduction: Grace Under Pressure’, in Hopps and Stabler (eds.), Romanticism and Religion from William Cowper to Wallace Stevens (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), pp. 1–23 (p. 2). 22. Kevin Hart, The Trespass of the Sign: Deconstruction, Theology and Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 104. 23. Colin Davis, Haunted Subjects: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis and the Return of the Dead (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2007), p. 9. 24. S. L. Varnado, Haunted Presence: The Numinous in Gothic Fiction (Tuscaloosa and London: University of Alabama Press, 1987), p. 131. 25. Varnado, Haunted Presence, p. 6; cf. pp. 130–3. On the concept of the numinous, see Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, second edition, trans. by John W. Harvey (London: Oxford University Press, 1950). 26. Gavin Hopps, ‘Introduction: The Re-Enchantment of Romanticism’, in Hopps (ed.), Byron’s Ghosts: The Spectral, the Spiritual and the Supernatural (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2013), pp. 1–29 (p. 5). 27. Hopps, ‘Introduction: The Re-Enchantment of Romanticism’, p. 6.
28. Peter Buse and Andrew Stott, ‘Introduction: A Future for Haunting’, in Buse and Stott (eds.), Ghosts: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis, History (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 1999), pp. 1–20 (p. 5). 29. Deidre Shauna Lynch, ‘Gothic Fiction and “Belief in Every Kind of Prodigy”’, in Mark Knight (ed.), The Routledge Companion to Religion and Literature (London and New York: Routledge, 2016), pp. 252–62 (p. 260). 30. Graham Ward, ‘Why Literature Can Never Be Entirely Secular’, Religion and Literature 41.2 (Summer 2009), pp. 21–7 (p. 27). 31. Stephen King, Duma Key (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2011), p. 541. 32. Fred Botting, Gothic Romanced: Consumption, Gender and Technology in Contemporary Fictions (Oxford: Routledge, 2008), p. 85. 33. Catherine Spooner, Contemporary Gothic (London: Reaktion, 2006), p. 23. 34. Veronica Hollinger, ‘Fantasies of Absence: The Postmodern Vampire’, in Joan Gordon and Veronica Hollinger (eds.), Blood Read: The Vampire as Metaphor in Contemporary Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997), pp. 199–212 (p. 201). 35. Ward, True Religion, p. 125. 36. As an example of popular Christian responses to the series, see Dave Roberts, The Twilight Gospel: The Spiritual Roots of Stephenie Meyer’s Vampire Saga (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2009). 37. Nick Squires, ‘Vatican Sinks Teeth into Vampire Film Twilight’, Daily Telegraph, 20 November 2009. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/ film/film-news/6610706/Vatican-sinks-teeth-into-vampire-filmTwilight.html 38. Stephenie Meyer, New Moon (London: Atom, 2007), p. 37. 39. Stephenie Meyer, Breaking Dawn (London: Atom, 2008), p. 754. 40. Jennifer H. Williams, ‘A Vampire Heaven: The Economics of Salvation in Dracula and the Twilight Saga’, in Sam George and Bill Hughes, Open Graves, Open Minds: Representations of Vampires and the Undead from the Enlightenment to the Present Day (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2013), pp. 165–80 (p. 178). 41. Rob Latham, Consuming Youth: Vampires, Cyborgs, and the Culture of Consumption (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2002), p. 1. 42. Aspasia Stephanou, ‘Game of Fangs: The Vampire and Neoliberal Subjectivity’, in Linnie Blake and Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet (eds.), Neoliberal Gothic: International Gothic in the Neoliberal Age (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017), pp. 21–37 (p. 28). 43. Karen Armstrong, The Case for God: What Religion Really Means (London: Vintage, 2010), p. 1.
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44. Armstrong, The Case for God, p. 1. 45. Greg Erickson, ‘“Religion Freaky” or “A Bunch of Men Who Died?”: The (A)theology of Buffy’, Slayage 4.1–2 (October 2004), para. 51. http:// www.whedonstudies.tv/uploads/2/6/2/8/26288593/erickson_slayage_4.1-2.pdf 46. John D. Caputo, On Religion (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), p. 33. 47. Peter Straub, Mrs. God (New York: Pegasus Crime, 2012), p. 83. Further references are given parenthetically with the abbreviation MG. 48. Paul S. Fiddes, Freedom and Limit: A Dialogue Between Literature and Christian Doctrine (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1991), p. 11.
In his pathfinding work The Dialogic Imagination, the Russian philosopher and literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin argues that there is a fundamental incompatibility between ‘authoritative’ discourses—of which sacred texts and religious orthodoxies are prime examples—and the dialogic text of the novel. Authoritative discourse, Bakhtin argues, comes to us as a non-negotiable whole: it ‘enters our verbal consciousness as a compact and indivisible mass; one must either totally affirm it, or totally reject it’.1 The novel, in contrast, is a dialogic form that incorporates multiple voices and allows meanings to be destabilised and challenged as these voices enter into dialogue with each other. For this reason, Bakhtin argues, ‘the authoritative text always remains, in the novel, a dead quotation, something that falls out of the artistic context’.2 On this reading, religious doctrine and the novel belong to different epistemological and hermeneutic categories. Where the former insists upon the stability and fixity of its own meanings, the latter is a discursive space in which meanings are contested. As the novelists discussed in this chapter demonstrate, Bakhtin’s suspicion of the incompatibility of religious doctrine with the dialogic language of the novel is misplaced. Far from reading theological tropes and texts as ‘dead quotation[s]’, many contemporary writers have engaged with them as sources of creative friction, struggle, challenge and hope. Indeed, Andrew Tate maintains that the ‘emphatic return of these ideas, even in antagonistic, consciously heretical forms, is part of a re-enchantment of popular culture’.3 Bakhtin’s reading of religious doctrine as a monolithic, © The Author(s) 2018 S. Marsden, The Theological Turn in Contemporary Gothic Fiction, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-96571-0_2
authoritative discourse overlooks the hermeneutic and dialogic practices by which doctrine has been formulated historically.4 As Gerard Loughlin argues, ‘the Bible has no real meaning for the church – has no authority over its doctrine – outside of that conversation which is finally the tradition of the church in all its diversity’.5 To adopt the terminology developed by Stanley Fish, doctrine emerges in the contexts of the particular interpretive communities within which the Bible is received and read.6 Historically, such consensus as the church has achieved around its central doctrines has been arrived at through debate, dialogue and, at times, conflict. This process of interpretation remains open and ongoing, as the church continues to reflect on its texts, hermeneutics and traditions in new and changing circumstances. The language of Christian doctrine has more affinity with the dialogic form of the novel than Bakhtin recognised. Nevertheless, the language and discursive practices of doctrine do have distinctive characteristics and in some contexts can be resistant to dialogue with other voices both within and outside of the Christian interpretive community (or communities). In the history of the church, one of the central functions of doctrine has been to establish the boundaries of orthodox belief and, by extension, of the church itself. Doctrine, as expressed in the Creeds, seeks to articulate the core beliefs of the church, and therefore to define both its theological identity and its membership: though the Creeds leave much scope for interpretation, they also maintain that there are limits to what one can or cannot believe if one is to be a member of the church. Definitions of orthodoxy inevitably create heretics. In a relatively conservative history of Christian heresy, Alister McGrath argues that, during the second century, early Christianity’s focus on its central beliefs and practices gave way to a new emphasis on the policing of its boundaries: As the churches increasingly defined themselves using doctrinal terms, so they identified threats to their integrity using the same categories. Orthodoxy and heresy were both conceived in terms of ‘right thinking,’ with other possible means of definition being marginalized. Ways of maintaining Christian authenticity, as well as threats to that authenticity, were now conceived of doctrinally. ‘Sound’ doctrine was edifying to the church, just as corrupt or deformed doctrine was destructive.7
The heretic, then, occupies a liminal position in relation to the Christian interpretive community. The heretic is positioned outside the sphere of orthodox belief, but not entirely outside of the interpretive community
and theological tradition within which orthodoxy is defined. Heresy has its origins within the church, not outside of it, and theological heresy is not synonymous with unbelief or atheism. Heresy challenges and contests orthodoxy from its margins, though this position carries risk to the heretic not only of rejection by the community but, in some circumstances, of violence. As McGrath acknowledges, however, heresy can also expose failures in the mainstream Christian churches: ‘Was it so surprising that people concluded that God was dead’, McGrath asks of the theological climate of America in the 1960s, ‘when the supposed communities of his habitation were so dreary and uninteresting?’8 The relationship between orthodoxy and heresy can be one of both dialogue and exclusion. Heresy can be a challenge to a stale orthodoxy, bringing possibilities of renewal and allowing Christian communities to re-evaluate their relationships with each other and with the wider society. Heresy can also threaten the stability of the community and the coherence of its beliefs. Indeed, perhaps the most complex characteristic of heresy is that it can do both of these things at the same time. Gothic fiction’s relationship with theological heresy is as old as the genre itself. Eighteenth-century Gothic incorporated British Protestant suspicions of European Catholicism; if, as Maria Purves has argued, these did not always manifest as simple hostility, they nevertheless played a part in reinforcing the imagined borders of religious and national identity.9 Though the imagining of the transgressive and disruptive is integral to the Gothic mode, this is not to say that Gothic can be aligned in any straightforward way with the theologically heretical. Fred Botting notes the ambivalence of Gothic’s representation of the transgressive, as the ‘terrors and horrors of transgression in Gothic writing become a powerful means to reassert the values of society, virtue and propriety: transgression, by crossing the social and aesthetic limits, serves to reinforce or underline their value and necessity, restoring or defining limits’.10 In religion as in other spheres, Gothic’s exploration of the transgressive has often been employed as a way of reaffirming the limits of orthodox belief and practice by depicting alternative religious formulations as monstrous threats to be resisted and expelled. The Gothic monsters of the Victorian fin-de-siècle have often been read in psychosexual terms or as images of British imperial decline, but it is less often noted that many of these texts also depict an implicit threat to specifically Christian belief and values (though of course in many of these texts religion is inseparable from national identity). Where eighteenth-century Gothic frequently reflected tensions between
Protestantism and Catholicism, late-Victorian narratives are often less concerned with the nuances of dispute between different Christian denominations than with the perception of existential threats posed to Christianity itself both by the encounter with other religions and by the gradual secularisation of Britain.11 Yet if nineteenth-century Gothic was often concerned with the reaffirmation of established social and ideological orthodoxies, it is also the case that Gothic narratives could be sites of theological challenge, contest and exploration. As Victor Sage has observed in his study of the relationship between horror fiction and Protestantism, theology ‘must be recognisable and it must transmit a set of values from generation to generation’, yet Protestantism (and Christianity more generally) ‘is always in the process of reforming itself, re-aligning its sympathies in relation to local economic and political changes’.12 Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) demonstrated the capacity of the Gothic mode to engage in serious theological critique through a subversive rewriting of a core text of Christian literature: Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667). James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) was a satire and caricature of Calvinism, but one based on a nuanced understanding and critique of early-nineteenth-century Calvinist doctrine and practice. The ‘heretical’ Gothic fictions of the nineteenth century could critique Christianity from within, drawing upon the theological resources of Christianity and the representational conventions of Gothic to interrogate the religious orthodoxies of their day while also offering (at least the potential for) a renewed Christian vision. The novels of the Brontë sisters demonstrate this use of Gothic to imagine Christianity in ways that both challenge and renew.13 When Lucy Snowe describes her story as ‘this heretic narrative’ in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (1853), she is describing not only her own ‘heretical’ status as a Protestant in a Catholic country, but (implicitly) the wider theological subversiveness of a novel that privileges the individual conscience as the primary religious authority.14 What, then, are the ‘heretic narratives’ of contemporary Gothic? What is Gothic about heresy, or heretical about Gothic, in the twenty-first century? This chapter examines three novels that depict Christian communities in moments of crisis, conflict or transition as established structures of belief and practice encounter new and disruptive ideas. In Marlon James’s John Crow’s Devil (2005), a Jamaican village in the 1950s is thrown into upheaval when a self-appointed ‘Apostle’ arrives and expels the local minister from his church in mid-service. The Apostle rapidly gains control
over the village by teaching an authoritarian, fundamentalist Christianity obsessed with the physical punishment of sin and the violent policing of orthodox belief and behaviour. The novel Gothicises this violent suppression of heterodoxy, representing religious fundamentalism as monstrous. Joyce Carol Oates’s The Accursed (2013) also explores a narrowly conservative Christianity’s attempts to preserve its orthodoxy, this time in the context of rapid social, political and intellectual change in the early twentieth century. In the tradition of American texts such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) and Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible (1953), Oates employs images of the supernatural, monstrous and demonic in order to depict the collapse from within of a Christian community in which orthodox faith is complicit in or legitimises violence. Central to the novel is the close association of conservative Christianity with white supremacism in modern American history, expressed in a persistent refusal of influential white leaders to talk about or challenge racial violence; after all, as the future US President Woodrow Wilson acknowledges early in the novel, it is difficult for him to criticise the Ku Klux Klan when many of his ‘Virginian and Georgian relatives were not unsympathetic to the Protestant organization’s goals if not its specific methods’.15 Oates employs the trope of the supernatural curse to interrogate the (still often unacknowledged) history of white supremacism in American Christian orthodoxy. Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney (2014) offers a different view of a Christian community in transition. The novel depicts members of an English Catholic congregation on an outing to Morecambe Bay in the 1970s, the story told from the perspective of the present day by a narrator who was a child at the time. The church has a new priest, whose style and approaches to Catholic practice are a departure from those of his predecessor. The holiday, in an isolated coastal area known as the Loney, exposes the tensions emerging within the community between the new priest’s attempts at modernisation and those members of the community who prefer the established traditions. At the same time, the group comes under a different kind of pressure when it encounters an ongoing history of witchcraft at the Loney. Hurley does not write from a position of faith, but his novel is a sympathetic portrayal of a religious community undergoing a difficult period of transition. ‘If Mikhail Bakhtin is right to insist on the dialogic quality of the novel’, Mark Knight argues, ‘then it is a short step to think of the novel as a hospitable form of writing’.16 For Knight, the hospitable text is one that gives space to multiple voices without necessarily
endorsing or approving of what those voices might say. Each of the novels discussed in this chapter demonstrates something of this dialogic hospitality, while also revealing the extent to which the faith communities they depict might themselves seek to resist and exclude the forces that threaten their own stability. The Gothic horrors that emerge at the margins of these carefully maintained orthodoxies represent the dangerous spectre of the heretical as that which threatens the coherence of the community, yet they also expose contradictions and destructive impulses within orthodoxy’s policing of its own boundaries. These texts imagine the heretical as horrifying while hinting that such horrors are at least in part the creation of the same orthodox communities that seek to exclude them.
Driving Out the Devil John Crow’s Devil, the debut novel of Jamaican-born writer Marlon James, depicts the rise of religious authoritarianism in Gibbeah, a fictional Jamaican village, in the 1950s. The name of the village recalls the biblical Gibeah, according to Judges 19 the site of an act of extreme sexual violence that both precipitates a war between the Israelite tribes and provides a political justification for the institution of a monarchy; as Judges goes on to remind its readers, ‘In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes’ (Judges 21: 25, KJV). The Gibbeah of James’s novel is shaped by individual and communal histories of sexual abuse that are closely intertwined with colonial power and exploitation. As James Polk notes in a review of the novel, ‘James uses his small- town drama to suggest the larger anguish of a postcolonial society struggling for its own identity’.17 The village church becomes the focus of this struggle for identity. The incumbent minister, Pastor Bligh, represents an uninspiring Christianity imposed by the white landowners as a means of maintaining social order in the village. Bligh, an alcoholic known locally as the Rum Preacher, is haunted by guilt over his brother’s suicide, prompted by the discovery of Bligh’s affair with his brother’s wife.18 Bligh’s shame empties his ministry of fervour, yet allows him to achieve a strange kind of acceptability in the village: ‘So tormented was he by his own sin’, the narrator observes, ‘that he could never convict them of theirs’.19 Bligh is (literally) forced from his pulpit by the arrival of a man who calls himself Apostle York. Installing himself as the new preacher, York expels Bligh from the church and begins to preach a series of fiery sermons warning of the dangers of sin and commanding his congregation to guard
themselves against the work of the Devil. Attendance at services begins to increase, initially due to curiosity about the new preacher. As York’s influence grows, however, his ministry becomes increasingly authoritarian, with dangerous consequences for villagers who fail to demonstrate the required levels of religious devotion. ‘I’m not a preacher’, York tells the congregation. ‘I came with a sword. If you’re not serving the Lord, you’re serving the Devil’ (JCD: 32). York’s rhetoric of repentance and moral purification leads to strict and sometimes brutal punishment of real or imagined sin. In the culture of paranoia that develops in the village, outsiders are turned away violently on suspicion of bringing evil into the town, and those few villagers who have remained loyal to Pastor Bligh are made to repent of their ‘sin’: ‘They also repented of witchcraft, Devilry, horoscope, bearing false witness, chocolate, perversion, fornication, bestiality, incest, dancing, music listening, wearing short dresses, and washing one’s pokie or cocky too long in the bathtub – anything to make the whipping shorter’ (JCD: 165). The Apostle shifts from pastor to cult leader, demanding absolute devotion from his followers and applying to himself words used by Jesus in John’s Gospel to describe his messianic role: ‘I am the resurrection! I am the vicar of God. Nobody can come to Him unless through me’ (JCD: 148).20 As Apostle York takes control of the church and the village, Pastor Bligh recuperates in the home of Widow Greenfield, a woman said to have cursed God at the funeral of her husband and who has never returned to the church thereafter. The widow keeps a desecrated image of Jesus in her home, the image slashed and the heart of Christ cut out. ‘Is that Jesus me pray to now’, the Widow tells Bligh, ‘Jesus that no got no heart. Jesus that no got no soul. My Jesus good fi Him word’ (JCD: 70). Bligh’s troubled faith and the Widow’s anger against God provide the basis for a strange friendship that comes to provide mutual support for their personal struggles. The house they share, on the margins of the village both ideologically and geographically, becomes a site in which a different form of faith can emerge, one that lacks the initial popular appeal of the Apostle’s rigid moral binaries, but which seeks to grapple with mystery, ambiguity and personal redemption. Bligh’s spiritual struggle pushes him beyond the boundaries of rational language; he writes on the walls of his bedroom and on his own body in what the Widow calls ‘a parade of symbols that made no sense’ (JCD: 183). Yet this inscription of an indecipherable language on the walls of the house seems to assume a sacramental or totemic significance that restores divine presence to the house. Followers of the Apostle
who come to the house with violent intent fall dead when they enter the garden. The Widow is reluctant to attribute this supernatural protection directly to God, but believes instead that Bligh ‘had drawn a line in the spirit around her house. It did not make her feel safe or protected, only secure in the knowledge of death’ (JCD: 183). Pastor Bligh and Apostle York become opposing forces representing different versions of Christianity, one characterised by collective identity and rigid hierarchy, the other by ambiguity, uncertainty and paradox. Apostle York’s authoritarianism is reflected in his reading of biblical texts, which he employs as theological and ideological justification of his violent suppression of opposition. In his final confrontation with Pastor Bligh, York refers directly to the Gospel narrative of the woman caught in adultery (John 8: 1–11). In the biblical text, Jesus challenges the religious leaders who are about to stone the woman to death: ‘He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at you’ (John 8: 7, KJV). Confronting the woman’s accusers with their own moral failures, Jesus saves the life of the woman. York, however, reads the story differently, reinterpreting it as a justification for violence against Bligh: Listen to what the Lord is saying, you followers of John Eight, verse seven. You hear the scriptures incorrectly. You misinterpret the word of the Father and as such are deceived by the Devil. When the Lord asked for he who is without sin to cast the first stone, He spoke to Jews and to Gentiles. We are neither Jew nor Gentile but Christian. To those who are reborn of the Lord we are no longer with sin. (JCD: 205)
York’s reading of the biblical text reverses its outcome, ignoring Jesus’s refusal to condemn the woman to death and redeploying the story as a vindication of violent retribution against those judged to be ‘evil’. If the Christian is delivered from sin, York argues, then the Christian passes Christ’s test and is free to throw the first stone. Moments later, York’s congregation act upon his words and stone Bligh to death. This violent and tragic conclusion to Bligh’s final confrontation with York reveals the extent to which York’s authoritarian rhetoric of judgement and moral purity has become the context for the church’s hermeneutic practices. In a discussion of hermeneutic approaches to biblical parable, Susan E. Colòn argues that the ‘frisson that makes a parable lies in the juxtaposition of an ordinary situation, plot and set of characters with an extraordinary, unpredictable turn of action, which forces a total
r econception of the whole situation in the light of the new reality imaged in that turn’.21 Though the narrative of John 8: 1–11 is not framed as a parable in the Gospel itself, both its structure and the history of its reception align it closely with the genre. Jesus’s challenge to the religious authorities provides the ‘unpredictable turn of action’ that allows the situation to be reimagined. Jesus neither defends the woman nor sides with her accusers, but rather shifts the attention to the moral character of her judges: in doing so, he undermines the position of moral and religious righteousness from which they judge. York’s rereading of the text erases the effects of this turn, allowing the Apostle and his congregation both to align themselves with the religious judges of the story and to undo Christ’s challenge to their moral authority. Kevin J. Vanhoozer maintains that biblical hermeneutics within the Church must be a moral and spiritual as well as an intellectual exercise, for ‘[t]he Word seeks, by the Spirit, to be taken to heart, to be embodied in the life of the people of God’.22 York’s theology of moral purity ironically silences Christ himself in the church’s reading of the Gospel text, a hermeneutic failure that becomes apparent in the reader’s recognition of the gap between the very different outcomes of the biblical story and York’s rereading of it. Yet the novel also shows the extent to which hermeneutic practice is inseparable from the power structures of the community. No one in the church recognises the Apostle’s reading as a bad one. The congregation participates willingly in the execution of Bligh; no one hesitates to throw the first stone. Throughout the novel, York’s version of orthodoxy is disrupted by uncontainable magical and otherworldly forces, from the traditional obeah magic practised by members of his congregation to calves found dead with their heads upside down, the latter attributed by the villagers to demonic activity. Rather than simply undermining York’s authority, however, these events paradoxically reinforce it: read as signs of the evil that York seeks to expel, the supernatural forces in the novel seem to reaffirm the need for the village to be purified. Yet the failure of the congregation to contain or expel these ‘demonic’ forces reveals the essential instability and contradiction of York’s project. Before ordering Bligh’s execution, York admits to his predecessor that he holds his congregation in contempt. As a child, York was one of the many ‘nephews’ to have been held at the home of Aloysius Garvey, the white landowner, and raped repeatedly by their supposed ‘uncle’. York’s return to the village is an act of revenge not only against Garvey, who he murders, but against the village itself. The village’s acceptance of him as minister, he believes, is a fitting punishment
for their implicit acceptance of what was happening to the boys abused by Garvey. The irony of York’s ministry—as York himself understands—is that the demonic forces that he urges his congregation to drive out are not external threats, but rather originate within the village itself. York’s rule replicates the evil for which he seeks revenge. Under his authority, rape is used by the church elders as punishment for perceived transgression. When the Apostle himself is murdered by one of his parishioners, with whom he has been in a sexual relationship and who is therefore aware of his hypocrisy, this death echoes his own murder of Garvey and reveals the extent to which York has become the thing he hated and perpetuated a cycle of abuse. John Crow’s Devil illustrates the ways in which constructions of theological orthodoxy and heresy can be shaped by and implicated in structures of power. James depicts a community in which concepts of orthodoxy are vested entirely in a leader of unknown origins and ambiguous qualification. In this context, orthodoxy and authoritarianism become mutually reinforcing. The novel dramatises a theological struggle in which orthodoxy and heresy are defined by power: the heretic is not the individual whose theological doctrines have been tested and found to be flawed, but the one who is unable to impose his will upon the congregation. In a community that ‘preferred things black or white’ and does not welcome the ‘grayness’ of Pastor Bligh (JCD: 16), Apostle York gives the people what they want: a clearly defined collective identity predicated upon simplistic moral binaries and the demonisation of dissent and otherness.
One Nation Under God Where John Crow’s Devil focuses on the relationship between religious orthodoxy and collective identity at the level of a single community, Oates’s The Accursed examines the interconnectedness of theological and social orthodoxies in the history of a nation. Published early in the second term of the Obama administration, the novel explores the historical legacies of racism in American political and cultural life and, particularly, the extent to which Christian orthodoxy has intersected with the politics of racial segregation and national identity. Based loosely on historical events, the novel is set in Princeton in 1905–06, during the tenure of future US President Woodrow Wilson as president of Princeton University. From the outset, the novel announces as among its central concerns not only the racial violence of the period but the complicity of white, wealthy Christians with
violent white supremacism. As the narrative begins, Wilson learns of the lynching of a pair of African-American siblings (a crime that Oates has described as a ‘composite’ of several historical lynchings in the area23). Challenged by his (fictional) nephew, Yaeger Ruggles, to speak out against lynchings, Wilson attempts to evade and obfuscate the issue by invoking his institutional obligations to University trustees who are ‘not, on the whole, unsympathetic to the white supremacist doctrine, though surely appalled, as any civilized person would be, by the Klan’s strategies of terror’ (TA: 16). Oates depicts a respectable social conservatism that claims to deplore white supremacist terrorism while doing little to challenge it and which offers tacit support to the ideology underlying extremist violence. The novel’s picture of collective, institutionalised avoidance of a link between culturally embedded racist ideology and extremist violence has enduring contemporary resonance. Jared Yates Sexton describes a similar process of displacement in media coverage of the 2015 murder of nine African-Americans in a Charleston church by the white supremacist Dylan Roof, when ‘[d]espite eyewitness accounts, and a manifesto in the killer’s own words, thenRepublican front-runner [for the 2016 Presidential nomination] Jeb Bush said he didn’t “know” if the killings were racially motivated’.24 In its exploration of the presence of white supremacist ideology within the mainstream of American cultural and political life, The Accursed is not simply a historical novel with a Gothic twist but an examination of the rhetoric and discursive practices employed to address—or to avoid addressing—the legacies and persistence of racism in the contemporary US. The Princeton of Oates’s novel is a microcosm of an America in which theological conservatism is indissolubly connected with parochial nationalism, segregationist politics and capitalist imperialism. Wilson believes that ‘the United States is charged by God with the evangelical mission of spreading Christian democracy throughout the world, and opening the markets of the East as well – by diplomacy if possible, by power otherwise’ (TA: 351). The novel invokes the obvious irony of this belief in ‘Christian democracy’ as an American ideal at a time when the vote is denied to women and to many African-Americans, and Jim Crow segregation remains in force. Yet in pointing out this apparent contradiction, Oates also suggests the ideological work performed by Christianity as a modifier of ‘democracy’. Christianity, for Wilson, represents a framework of moral and social order that must regulate the political structures of democracy. Religion and national identity are interconnected in Wilson’s u nderstanding of America as a nation with both a Christian cultural heritage and a sacred
calling. As the historian Kevin M. Kruse has pointed out, the idea of America as a historically Christian nation is in many ways a fiction: in reality, ‘[t]he percentage of Americans who claimed membership in a church had been fairly low across the nineteenth century, though it had slowly increased from just 16 percent in 1850 to 36 percent in 1900’.25 Though there ‘once was a time during which virtually all Americans agreed that their country was a Christian nation’, this consensus emerged only in the middle of the twentieth century, when it ‘invented a new idea about America’s fundamental nature, an idea that remains ascendant to this day’.26 The Accursed depicts Princeton as a microcosm of an America for which politics are inseparable from religion and interrogates tensions and inconsistencies within this narrative of America’s Christian identity. Oates’s version of Wilson is a believer in a moral order that is always on the verge of collapse because it is constantly threatened by the injustice and moral weakness that it seeks to ignore or rationalise. Understanding American democracy as the preservation of a particular kind of social order, Wilson can think himself a ‘friend to the Negro race’ (TA: 18) while continuing to subscribe to the view that the ‘defeat of the Confederacy was the defeat of – a way of civilization that was superior to its conqueror’s’ (TA: 21), a view that he places in the mouths of his ‘southern relatives’ (TA: 21), distancing himself psychologically from its racist implications without questioning its conclusions. Oates examines the capacity of an individual to absolve himself of the sins of racism and racial violence while maintaining the ideological and socio-economic structures of white supremacism. That the individual in question is a fictionalised version of a man who would become the twenty-eighth President of the United States locates this self-absolution of complicity in racism as a national rather than a purely individual phenomenon. Oates’s reading of modern US history in The Accursed focuses not simply on the historical realities of racial violence under Jim Crow, but on the extent to which political, cultural and religious power is complicit with racial injustice. The novel is concerned less with the actions of avowed white supremacists than with the silence of those who refuse to speak out against them. Contests between orthodoxy and heresy in The Accursed are not simply matters of theological dispute, but of national identity, socio-economic order and political power. One of the novel’s central characters, the (fictional) Presbyterian minister Winslow Slade, participates in heresy trials on behalf of the Church. Slade, whose family is related to the eighteenth-century Puritan preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards, represents a tradition
of American Christian thought in which both personal piety and doctrinal correctness are integral to the life of faith. As his grandson, Josiah, observes somewhat ambivalently, ‘their grandfather was not to be distinguished from any responsible Protestant clergyman of his day, charged with the mission that the “special character” of Anglo-Saxon Christianity be protected from “anarchist” assaults arising both within, and without, the Church’ (TA: 57). The novel, however, depicts this policing of doctrinal boundaries as a futile reaction to a context of intellectual and social change. To the theological controversies that prompt Winslow Slade’s involvement in ecclesiastical courts, the novel adds a range of modern ‘heresies’: Darwinism, Marxism, Theosophy, evolutionary psychology, feminism, civil rights. Like theological heresies, these secular texts are perceived by social conservatives as a threat to social order, as Josiah Slade’s father makes clear: ‘Those are Socialists and Anarchists – they are not to be trusted! Free Thinkers, Suffragettes, Atheists – those who would overturn our civilization, and set it to the torch’ (TA: 435). In a community increasingly conscious of the beginnings of its own fragmentation, the policing of ideological borders becomes a means of expelling dangerous ideas that are perceived as threats to social cohesion. Like John Crow’s Devil, however, The Accursed draws on tropes of Gothic supernaturalism to depict a community in which the forces of disorder are always already present. The lynching reported to Wilson becomes a recurring image in the novel, given spectral form when Annabel Slade (Winslow’s granddaughter) and her cousin, Todd, see a ‘burning girl’ with a ‘noose around her neck, that must have been uncomfortable, for it seemed tight enough to constrict breathing’ (TA: 130). Images of the lynching recur in the Bog Kingdom, the alternative world inhabited by the novel’s demonic figures. Seduced and taken to the Bog Kingdom by a trickster figure who calls himself Axson Mayte, Annabel sees ‘a great oak from which two bodies hung, by their necks; lifeless, hideously burnt, very still despite the whipping wind’ (TA: 265; italics in original). When Annabel returns to the human world and dies—according to rumour, in the act of giving birth to Mayte’s monstrous offspring—Winslow attributes her death to ‘the growing immorality of the secular world – indeed, in the very heart of Presbyterian orthodoxy’ (TA: 282). Yet the persistent spectral echoes of the lynching suggest a different reading of the novel’s demonic energies. The events of what becomes known as the Crosswicks Curse bring into view the hidden violence and structural injustices of the Princeton community, and, by implication, of America itself.
Valentine Cunningham has argued that heresy, rather than simply a category of ideas rejected as flawed or dangerous by the orthodox majority, provides a model for good reading. In Christian history, Cunningham argues, heresy is ‘the ever-present danger, the constant neighbour, of what has always been a part of Christianity: namely the search for light upon Scripture and doctrine’.27 Heretical reading—reading that challenges established, orthodox interpretations—is a necessary practice for the Church, because the Bible ‘offers itself as the text that will go on meaning only as it is reread, reappropriated, reconceived, which is to say redone heretically’.28 Cunningham sees a similarly heretical impulse in the history of literature in English, noting that it is ‘hard to name any significant writer in the tradition who is not in some way theologically heretical’.29 Cunningham’s insistence on the necessity of heresy provides a useful perspective on the multiple theological and secular heresies that permeate Oates’s novel. Heresy offers a different perspective (or, more precisely, a variety of often-competing perspectives) from which to read the orthodoxies maintained by Princeton’s social and political elite. Such ‘heretical’ reading is not new in the racial politics of the US. As Emerson B. Powery and Rodney S. Sadler Jr. have shown, many African-American slaves appropriated the Bible introduced to them by the slave-owners and used it to ‘ground their humanity, subversively to rebut biblically based supremacist readings, to validate their right to be free and function as equals in this nation’.30 Oates’s novel reflects something of this history of heresy, using voices of dissent and critique to expose the contradictions and moral equivocations within the religious and political orthodoxies of Princeton. Wilson himself gives voice to this heretical impulse when, in a moment of psychological breakdown, he deviates from the text of a speech to offer the view that the US would never be a true democracy ‘until such time, gentlemen, that a Negress resides in the White House’ (TA: 339). At the time of the novel’s publication, of course, Barack and Michelle Obama were President and First Lady of the US. This allusion to contemporary politics, however, reveals an ambivalence or limitation to the novel’s heretical impulses. Oates’s Gothic reimagining of American history draws attention to racial violence as an integral component of that history, while also making overt the ideological and rhetorical strategies by which this violence has been concealed. Yet by articulating a measure of ‘true democracy’ centred on the White House and the entrance of African-Americans into political office, the novel declines to perform a critique of social, political and economic structures
that perpetuate inequality beyond the centres of political power. It asks the contemporary reader to imagine the horrors of racial injustice under Jim Crow, but it stops short of examining the full implications of that history for the political present. In their book Racecraft, Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields argue that race is neither biology nor an idea absorbed into biology by Lamarckian inheritance. It is ideology, and ideologies do not have lives of their own. Nor can they be handed down or inherited: a doctrine can be, or a name, or a piece of property, but not an ideology. If race lives on today, it does not live on because we have inherited it from our forebears of the seventeenth century or the eighteenth or nineteenth, but because we continue to create it today.31
The Accursed reflects something of the widespread optimism that surrounded the early years of the Obama administration; the hope that the election of America’s first black president represented a decisive shift in the nation’s history of racial inequality. With the renewed public prominence of openly racist groups reflected in events such as the white supremacist rally that took place in Charlottesville in August 2017, such optimism now seems misplaced. Reflecting on the end of Obama’s presidency and the election of Donald Trump in 2016, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes of the politics of race in the US: ‘What is needed now is a resistance intolerant of self- exoneration, set against blinding itself to evil – even in the service of warring against other evils’.32 In its depiction of the strategies of evasion and wilful blindness by which Wilson and others avoid seeing and confronting the racial violence of the early twentieth century, Oates’s novel provides an imaginative resource available for a rereading of the politics of the present. Yet the novel stops short of performing such a reading. Perhaps, for all its heretical impulses, The Accursed is not quite heretical enough.
The Edges of Faith Like John Crow’s Devil and The Accursed, Hurley’s 2014 novel The Loney imagines a religious community in transition, its stability threatened at least as much by new ideas and practices emerging from within as by the Gothic forces that haunt its margins. Set primarily in a remote area of Morecambe Bay, in the north-west of England, the novel shifts between multiple timelines, with the (unnamed) adult narrator in the present recalling his childhood experiences in a London Catholic church and on
the church’s excursion to the Loney in the 1970s. An annual, Easter-time tradition under the church’s former priest, Father Wilfred, the expedition to the Loney is revived following his sudden death and the arrival of his successor, Father Bernard. The narrator remembers the annual visits as ‘our week of penitence and prayer in which we would make our confessions, visit Saint Anne’s shrine, and look for God in the emerging springtime, that, when it came, was hardly a spring at all; nothing so vibrant and effusive’.33 Despite the devotional intentions of the London pilgrims, the Loney is a Gothicised space in which ‘the neap tides would reveal the skeletons of those who thought they had read the place well enough to escape its insidious currents’ (TL: 5). The violent history of the Loney echoes the real history of tragedies on Morecambe Bay, most notably the drowning of twenty-three Chinese cockle pickers on the evening of 5 February 2004.34 Yet Hurley’s Gothicised version of Morecambe Bay also draws upon the wider historical association of Lancashire with witchcraft, a tradition with its origins in the trial and executions of the Pendle Witches in 1612 and which has been incorporated into present-day Lancashire’s construction of its regional identity. ‘To an extent unique for England’, James Sharpe observes, ‘the Lancashire witches have been appropriated by the tourist and heritage industries’.35 The Catholic pilgrims of The Loney travel to Lancashire in search of a miracle—the healing of the narrator’s brother Andrew (Hanny), who is mute—but find a place in which the visible markers and practices of their religion are being displaced and desecrated by witchcraft. The narrator detects a note of defensiveness in the devotions of the pilgrims: they ‘kept up their spirits with hymns and prayers but at times it seemed as though they were, without knowing it, warding things off, rather than inviting God in’ (TL: 34). Whether consciously or otherwise, the community maintains its boundaries by the preservation and repetition of its rituals. The Loney depicts a faith community in a state of transition that becomes for it a moment of crisis. As the novelist Sarah Perry observes, Hurley’s novel ‘grapples with faith’s position on the borderline between reason and unreason’.36 In doing so, however, The Loney examines the ways in which living on this borderline might be an unsettling experience. The narrator’s mother, Esther, embodies a version of religious belief unable to reconcile itself to mystery, paradox or challenge. Told by her husband that faith is not ‘an exact science’, Esther insists: ‘Yes it is…You either have it or you don’t. It’s quite simple’ (TL: 275). Faced with a new priest who is willing to embrace doubt and uncertainty as aspects of faith, Esther attempts to
prevent any deviation from the church’s established ways of holding and practising its faith. Both Father Bernard and the narrator recognise the defensiveness of Esther’s need to preserve traditions: ‘if one thing gave way, if one ritual was missed or a method abridged for convenience, then her faith would collapse and shatter’ (TL: 179). Like the late Father Wilfred, Esther represents an approach to faith that knows itself to be irreconcilable with its contemporary modernity and which chooses the stability of its own established forms and practices in defiance of a changing world. Esther’s faith is not threatened by the presence of witchcraft or the desecration of sacred sites at the Loney: these can be interpreted within the terms of her religion, as the results of Satanic influence. She is less able to accommodate the threat from within, as the church community begins to reshape itself under the influence of its new priest. Charles Taylor has argued that a defining characteristic of secularity is that religious beliefs, though still available and possible, can no longer be held naively. The believer might hold their faith to be true, but they also recognise that their particular beliefs represent one option among many and that they are neither self-evident nor uncontested.37 The version of Catholicism taught by Father Wilfred and practised by Esther seeks to retain the experience of faith as self-evident while acknowledging implicitly that this experience is a construct. As the narrator observes, ‘Father Wilfred had told us time and time again that it was our duty as Christians to see what our faith had taught us to see’ (TL: 127). The world is perceived as a site both of divine activity and of a perpetual spiritual struggle between good and evil, or God and Satan. To maintain this theological ‘seeing’ of the world, Father Wilfred establishes social and ideological barriers between the church and the secular world, constructing the church as a closed community within which faith and tradition can be preserved: It had been Paul’s decree that neighbour should love neighbour and this he stuck to – but only within the world he had created at Saint Jude’s. The people of the Other world would care little if he loved them or not, if he rejoiced with them or wept with them or pitied them. Paul had warned of the dangers of judging others – that only God was fit for the task – but those in the Other world needed to be shown up for what they were. (TL: 327)
Father Wilfred constructs a faith community with clear ideological borders that separate it from an external, secular world that it views as irredeemably corrupted. Within the church, he believes, ‘cause and effect continued. If they sinned, they confessed and were absolved. If they per-
formed good deeds they would be rewarded in heaven’ (TL: 327). In contrast, Wilfred sees in the Other world a loss of consequence: not simply a world of immorality, but a world that no longer recognises morality as a meaningful concept. For a church trained in this isolationist form of faith, the acts of desecration that the pilgrims discover at the Loney are entirely comprehensible. They represent the Other world’s attack on the holy, an overt manifestation of that world’s hostility to the sacred. Rather than threatening faith, these displays of overt anti-Catholicism reaffirm the moral and spiritual binaries upon which the church’s identity is founded. The real threat to faith in the novel comes not from witchcraft or anti- Catholicism, but from doubt—a reality represented in the Pace Egging, a folk tradition of mystery plays performed for the pilgrims by villagers at the Loney. One of the characters in the play introduces himself as Devil Doubt: ‘In I come to say farewell. Devil Doubt shall take his bow. Come to take your souls to hell. Where is God the Father now?’ (TL: 238). Father Bernard’s recognition of this Devil as it enters the room—‘Ah, now I know this feller’ (TL: 238)—encapsulates the difference between the new priest and the church community built by his predecessor. More willing to accept doubt as an aspect of faith rather than its opposite, Father Bernard tells the narrator that ‘the truth isn’t always set in stone…There are just versions of it’ (TL: 312). Father Bernard is finally rejected by the congregation of St. Jude’s not simply because his approach to religious practice is different to theirs but because his understanding of the nature of faith is antithetical to that taught by Father Wilfred. Father Bernard brings a view of faith that incorporates paradox, uncertainty and interpretation into a church community defined by dogmatic certainty and a clear separation between belief and unbelief. The sudden collapse of Father Wilfred’s faith occurs at the Loney, on a day when he finds the corpse of a tramp in the sea. Leaving the water after a failed attempt to recover the body, Father Wilfred experiences a revelation of divine absence: And then it came to him. He had been wrong about everything. God was missing. He had never been here. And if He had never been here, in this their special place, then He was nowhere at all. (TL: 334)
The priest who had taught his congregation to see God at work in everything now sees God in nothing. His faith is shattered not by external challenge but by a moment of spontaneous, imaginative perception in which
he sees the world emptied of divine presence. In much of his recent work, the theologian Alister McGrath has defended an approach to Christian natural theology based on ‘the classic idea of the Christian Church as the community which crystallizes around…a particular interpretation and imaginative rendering of the texts of Scripture, history, and nature, understood in terms of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, or a Trinitarian economy of salvation of creation, redemption, and consummation’.38 In McGrath’s approach, Christian metanarrative provides an interpretive framework within which to read the natural world and to understand the individual and collective human relationship to it. Father Wilfred’s reading of the landscape is consistent with this version of natural theology. His version of religious ‘seeing’—seeing what faith has taught him to see—is an imaginative response to the landscape, shaped by a Christian social imaginary. Father Wilfred, however, discovers that the interpretation demanded by his faith has become neither self-evident nor sustainable. He sees a different truth in the landscape, and his faith is fatally undermined. William Hughes observes that ‘[n]ature is a concept which may be defined with equal efficacy through reference to theological, ecological, scientific and pagan perspectives’.39 As Hughes and Andrew Smith also note, however, the ‘problem with the Gothic is that, at one level, “nature” is a more contested term as it is one which…appears to participate in a language of estrangement rather than belonging’.40 At the Loney, Father Wilfred encounters a Gothic vision of nature that he finds incompatible with the interpretation demanded by his faith. The ease with which the sea hides and anonymises the drowned tramp puts an end to Father Wilfred’s ability to see divine providence in nature. Though he never shares his doubts with the church, his parishioners see him withdraw increasingly from the public world until his death in a possible suicide. Yet the pilgrims at the Loney find ways to reaffirm their faith. When Hanny regains his voice, apparently as a result of local magic involving a child sacrifice, the church interprets the healing as a miracle performed by the agency of the late Father Wilfred. The ‘miracle’ is another act of interpretation, an event read by the pilgrims in the terms of their faith. As Father Bernard observes to the narrator, ‘You saw them in the kitchen, Tonto. He’s come back and blessed them all. I don’t think they really care how he died’ (TL: 315). Ideologically and imaginatively, the church remains Father Wilfred’s; the pilgrims’ interpretation of the ambiguous miracle allows them to resolve the uncertainties that surrounded their priest’s death and to reaffirm the
ideological structures of the community that he built. Father Bernard, representing a different and incompatible way of understanding and practising faith, leaves St. Jude’s soon after the visit to the Loney. The versions of Gothic heresy imagined by James, Oates and Hurley depict religious communities for which the policing of ideological boundaries works to preserve flawed and often socially damaging theologies. In John Crow’s Devil, James examines the authoritarian tendencies of theological fundamentalism and the capacity of this theology to be manifested as violence towards those people and groups that it construes as evil or demonic. Oates’s focus on early-twentieth-century US politics in The Accursed depicts a version of religious conservatism that, if less overtly violent than the fundamentalism of John Crow’s Devil, provides ideological and political legitimisation of racial segregation within the US and the violent exercise of imperial power overseas. Heresy in these texts is imagined as a necessary challenge to a stale and destructive orthodoxy. It is possible to see in these texts an echo of Valentine Cunningham’s observation that ‘[h]eresy and orthodoxy, orthodoxy and heresy, frequently exist as Doppelgänger, doubles of each other. Heresies and orthodoxies are often – and in classic deconstructionist style – utterly parasitical the one upon the other’.41 Hurley in The Loney depicts another version of theological conservatism preoccupied with the policing of its own ideological boundaries, yet vulnerable both to the instability of its own interpretative practices and to the emergence of change from within as a new priest brings with him new ways of understanding and practising the faith. The Gothic imagination in these narratives is less a representation of an external threat than it is a manifestation and embodiment of the shadow side of orthodoxy itself. For these contemporary ‘heretic’ narratives, the Gothic represents the paradoxes, tensions and imaginative excesses that their versions of theological orthodoxy are unable to contain.
Notes 1. Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, trans. by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 343. 2. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, p. 344. 3. Andrew Tate, Contemporary Fiction and Christianity (London and New York: Continuum, 2008), p. 16. 4. For a fuller response to Bakhtin, see Terence R. Wright, ‘The Word in the Novel: Bakhtin on Tolstoy and the Bible’, in Mark Knight and Thomas
Woodman, Biblical Religion and the Novel, 1700–2000 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), pp. 25–38. 5. Gerard Loughlin, ‘The Basis and Authority of Doctrine’, in Colin E. Gunton (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 41–64 (p. 58). 6. Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in this Class?: The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980). 7. Alister McGrath, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth (London: SPCK, 2009), p. 91. 8. McGrath, Heresy, p. 233. I discuss the ‘death of God’ movement in more detail in Chap. 5. 9. Maria Purves, The Gothic and Catholicism: Religion, Cultural Exchange and the Popular Novel, 1785–1829 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2009). 10. Fred Botting, Gothic (London and New York: Routledge, 1996), p. 7. 11. I have discussed fin-de-siècle Gothic, theology and secularisation in my article ‘“Nothing Moved, Nothing was Seen, Nothing was Heard and Nothing Happened”: Evil, Privation and the Absent Logos in Richard Marsh’s The Beetle’, Gothic Studies 19.1 (May 2017), pp. 57–72. 12. Victor Sage, Horror Fiction in the Protestant Tradition (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1988), pp. xiii–xiv. 13. See Marianne Thormählen, The Brontës and Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Simon Marsden, Emily Brontë and the Religious Imagination (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2014). 14. Charlotte Brontë, Villette, ed. by Kate Lawson (Ontario: Broadview, 2006), p. 232; cf. Lisa Wang, ‘Unveiling the Hidden God of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette’, Literature and Theology 15.4 (2001), pp. 342–57. 15. Joyce Carol Oates, The Accursed (London: Fourth Estate, 2013), p. 13. Further references are given parenthetically with the abbreviation TA. 16. Mark Knight, An Introduction to Religion and Literature (London and New York: Continuum, 2009), pp. 85–6. 17. James Polk, ‘“John Crow’s Devil”: Spiritual Combat’, New York Times, 13 Nov. 2005. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/13/books/review/ john-crows-devil-spiritual-combat.html 18. Joél Madore notes that both Pastor Bligh and Apostle York reflect a tradition in Jamaican folklore of depicting preachers as unprincipled, corrupt trickster-figures; ‘Jamaican Signatures: An Archetypal Analysis of Marlon James’ John Crow’s Devil’, Journal of Caribbean Literatures 7.1 (Spring 2011), pp. 69–75. 19. Marlon James, John Crow’s Devil (London: Oneworld, 2015), p. 9. Further references are given parenthetically with the abbreviation JCD. 20. York echoes the words of Jesus in John 11: 25 and 14: 6.
21. Susan E. Colòn, Victorian Parables (London and New York: Continuum, 2012), p. 13. 22. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text?: The Bible, the Reader and the Morality of Literary Knowledge (Leicester: Apollos, 1998), p. 440. 23. Jane Ciabattari, ‘The Devil and Woodrow Wilson: An Interview with Joyce Carol Oates’, Daily Beast, 19 March 2013. https://www.thedailybeast. com/the-devil-and-woodrow-wilson-an-interview-with-joyce-carol-oates 24. Jared Yates Sexton, The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore: A Story of American Rage (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2017), p. 31. 25. Kevin M. Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (New York: Basic Books, 2015), p. xv. 26. Kruse, One Nation Under God, p. xvi. 27. Valentine Cunningham, ‘Introduction: The Necessity of Heresy’, in Andrew Dix and Jonathan Taylor (eds.), Figures of Heresy: Radical Theology in English and American Writing, 1800–2000 (Brighton: Sussex Academic Press, 2006), pp. 1–18 (p. 6). 28. Cunningham, ‘Introduction’, p. 10. 29. Cunningham, ‘Introduction’, p. 14. 30. Emerson B. Powery and Rodney S. Sadler Jr., The Genesis of Liberation: Biblical Interpretation in the Antebellum Narratives of the Enslaved (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), p. 2. 31. Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (London and New York: Verso, 2012), p. 146. 32. Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2017), p. 366. 33. Andrew Michael Hurley, The Loney (London: John Murray, 2014), p. 4. Further references are given parenthetically with the abbreviation TL. 34. ‘Morecambe Bay Cockling Disaster’s Lasting Impact’, BBC News, 3 February 2014, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-lancashire25986388 35. James Sharpe, ‘Introduction: The Lancashire Witches in Historical Context’, in Robert Poole (ed.), The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2002), pp. 1–18 (p. 1). 36. Sarah Perry, ‘The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley: Review – A Gothic Masterpiece’, The Guardian, 28 August 2015. https://www.theguardian. com/books/2015/aug/28/the-loney-andrew-michael-hurley-reviewgothic-novel 37. Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 3. 38. Alister E. McGrath, Re-Imagining Nature: The Promise of a Christian Natural Theology (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2017), pp. 45–6. See also
McGrath, The Open Secret: A New Vision for Natural Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2008). 39. William Hughes, ‘“A Strange Kind of Evil”: Superficial Paganism and False Ecology in The Wicker Man’, in Andrew Smith and William Hughes (eds.), Ecogothic (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), pp. 58–71 (p. 58). 40. Andrew Smith and William Hughes, ‘Introduction: Defining the EcoGothic’, in Smith and Hughes (eds.), Ecogothic (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), pp. 1–14 (p. 2). 41. Cunningham, ‘Introduction’, p. 7.
‘There Were Some Stains That Could Not Be Removed’: Adam Nevill and the Stain of Sin
‘Come now, let us settle the matter,’ says the Lord. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.’ (Isaiah 1: 18) An old white gown, embroidered intricately with silvery thread around the high neckline; though stained horribly from the waistline to the hem. It had been laundered many times. Was washed out. But there were some stains that could not be removed, like where the aged fabric was black and stiff with old blood. (Adam Nevill, The Ritual)1
In the work of the British horror writer Adam Nevill, evil leaves a stain. Nevill’s protagonists inhabit a world that always bears the material traces of past transgressions. Evil quite literally leaves its mark upon the world: bloodstains testify to histories of violence; traces of decomposition and decay denote sites of past abuse; soiled furnishings, dirt and contamination bear witness to the systemic injustices of contemporary capitalism. The stain is both a literal and symbolic representation of past transgression, as one of Nevill’s characters, the anthropologist Hart Miller, observes in Banquet for the Damned (2004): He finds it hard to comprehend the sheer scope of brutality and injustice occurring within a stone’s throw of where he currently sits. Despite the © The Author(s) 2018 S. Marsden, The Theological Turn in Contemporary Gothic Fiction, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-96571-0_3
veneer of tranquillity in present-day St Andrews, he begins to imagine a power of unrest beneath the solid rock of the town’s magnificent structures and ruins. Could such stains ever be removed?2
Nevill’s characters contaminate and are contaminated by the world in which they participate. These indelible stains represent a legacy of corruption that remains active in and continues to shape the present. By imagining evil as a stain or taint, Nevill adopts a symbolic vocabulary familiar to writers in biblical literature and later Jewish and Christian traditions. As Paul Ricoeur observes, the writers of the Old Testament often thought of evil in terms of defilement, represented by ‘imagery of contact and contagion’.3 In biblical and post-biblical literature, the stain represents a material legacy of evil: the blood of Abel is said to cry out from the ground as a witness to his death at the hands of his brother (Genesis 4: 10); Isaiah prophesies that God will not hear the prayers of those whose hands are ‘full of blood’ (Isaiah 1: 15); Shakespeare’s Macbeth finds himself unable to wash from his hands the blood of the king he has murdered. The imagery of staining and contamination reflects the persistent conviction that evil leaves traces of itself upon the person and the world. For Christian theologians, the pervasiveness and persistence of evil is articulated in the doctrine of Original Sin. As Mark Knight explains, ‘Original Sin allows theologians to acknowledge that evil is endemic to human activity and indissolubly associated with the most basic aspects of our existence’.4 In the words of the novelist Francis Spufford, the concept of sin describes ‘our active inclination to break stuff, “stuff” here including moods, promises, relationships we care about, and our own well-being and other people’s, as well as material objects whose high gloss positively seems to invite a big fat scratch’.5 The doctrine maintains that an orientation towards evil is in some way integral to human ontology, a part of our common inheritance as human beings (though this ‘inheritance’ need not be understood in the biological or sexual terms often associated with medieval theology). As Alan Jacobs observes in his insightful cultural history of Original Sin, the doctrine asserts that ‘we arrive in this world predisposed to wrongdoing – that this world is a vale of tears because we made it that and, somehow, couldn’t have made it anything else’.6 Nevill’s use of images of staining, corruption and contamination to depict the presence and effects of evil in the world gives his fiction a particular resonance with the Christian grammar of sin. Nevill shares with Christian theology a view of evil as endemic to human agency and activity;
‘THERE WERE SOME STAINS THAT COULD NOT BE REMOVED’: ADAM…
indeed, his work is a striking example of the ways in which fiction by writers of no religious affiliation might nevertheless illuminate and inform theological concepts. Though his narratives often feature seemingly extreme evils and supernatural agency, these are never wholly separate from the mundane realities of ordinary human failure. Nevill’s protagonists remain implicated in the condition of the world they inhabit, as one of his characters acknowledges in The Ritual (2011): The possibilities for destruction here were not so different in any other place; they just took different forms. Nor was the intent for violence any different here; that was everywhere he had ever lived. Or the self-absorption, the pathological ambition, the spite and delight in the downfall of others – all of that was back home too. It led here eventually. It was building everywhere. It was in the blood. A few natural disasters, or the wrong people take charge, or a war gets out of hand and changes the colour of the sky, or the earth becomes irreparably poisoned and water and food run short…and skulls would be smashed, again. (TR: 342)
Nevill’s fiction depicts acts of extreme violence and abuse not as qualitatively different to the affairs of ordinary human life but rather as a tragically inevitable outworking of the destructive tendencies of human nature. His most recent novels are his most overtly political, exploring the possibilities for exploitation and abuse opened up by the politics of austerity in No One Gets Out Alive (2014b) and of environmental destruction in Lost Girl (2015). In these novels, acts of criminal violence are shown to thrive within the spaces of inequality and invisibility created by flawed social, political and economic structures. Evil in Nevill’s work is not an external force that breaks in upon human experience, but is rather a corruption and proclivity for violence that is always already present in ordinary human behaviour and social participation. Nevill’s fiction dramatises the struggle of individuals to free themselves both from their own capacities for (self-)destructive behaviour and from the histories of transgression that continue to taint the communities in which they participate. The first section of this chapter explores in detail the ways in which Nevill’s work engages and illuminates theological reflection on evil, focusing particularly on his depictions of the repetitive nature and banality of human transgression. The second section considers the relationship between evil and artistic representation. I will suggest that Nevill’s persistent interest in grotesque versions of artistic creation— painting, music, filmmaking, taxidermy and puppetry—extends his imag-
ery of contagion to show the potential for art and language to bear and perpetuate the stain of sin. The chapter concludes by examining responses to evil in Nevill’s writing. For Christian theology, as Knight observes, ‘the stain of sin is always waiting to be transformed’.7 Much of the horror in Nevill’s fiction is derived from his depiction of a world in which no such transformation is possible. As his protagonist Luke remarks in The Ritual, ‘there were some stains that could not be removed’ (TR: 351). Nevill’s writing both invokes and refuses the redemptive trajectory of Christian metanarrative, delineating the horror of a world of Nietzschean nihilism in which the stain of sin remains indelible, susceptible neither to change nor to removal.
(Un)Original Sins The protagonists of Nevill’s fiction occupy social and domestic environments marked by the material traces of their histories of violence. These physical taints work to destabilise the borders between past and present; the domestic space becomes a site of ‘[t]he past contained and reluctant to leave’.8 This persistence of the past within the private space both invokes Gothic images of spectrality—Julian Wolfreys tells us that ‘haunting is nothing other than the destabilization of the domestic scene, as that place where we apparently confirm our identity, our sense of being, where we feel most at home with ourselves’9—and functions to enclose the present within the transgressive and destructive histories of the domestic space. Images of staining and contamination in Nevill’s fiction serve not only to signify the alienation of the individual from his or her home by the persistent intrusion of the past but to construct the domestic space itself as a site in which histories of violence are endlessly renewed. In Apartment 16 (2010), Seth returns from his work as a night porter in an exclusive apartment block to a rented room quite literally marked by its history: a mattress that ‘distinguished itself with Auschwitz stripes and gang-rape stains’; a cabinet ‘coated in mug rings and make-up’; a ‘single radiator, painted yellow and speckled with dark droplets. Dried blood. He’d never been able to get rid of the stains’ (A16: 21–2). Linear, chronological time is disrupted by these indelible stains, which signify histories of violence not simply as past events but rather as endlessly fixed in a static present. This fixing of past suffering in the present is embodied in Seth’s glimpse of the spectral image of the ten-year-old girl, raped by her step-father, whose blood stains the radiator:
‘THERE WERE SOME STAINS THAT COULD NOT BE REMOVED’: ADAM…
The hooded boy turned to Seth. ‘She always says the same thing. She’s stuck.’ ‘But…but how can she always be there?’ ‘Cus she is.’ ‘Not at the same time as me?’ The hood nodded with enthusiasm. ‘Always. Now you’ll be able to see her too. And all kinds of stuff that’s stuck, with more and more coming in all the time.’ (A16: 148)
Nevill revisits the trope of the domestic space ‘stuck’ in an endless moment in House of Small Shadows (2013). Invited to the Red House on the pretext of appraising its contents for sale, Catherine Howard begins to suspect that she is infected by the Mason family’s grotesque domesticity: ‘[t]he arrested time, the deranged artefacts, the expectant silence, and the tragic history, had all insinuated themselves inside her’.10 The Red House is figured as a source of contagion: ‘[a]ll here was unhealthy, toxic…The Red House had corrupted then killed the village’ (HoSS: 203). Rather than being simply contaminated by a place that is ‘damaged and infectious’ (HoSS: 203), however, Catherine is incorporated into the Red House by the imbrication of her own troubled past into that of the building. Her history of psychological illness, childhood bullying and the unexplained abduction of a childhood friend becomes merged with the story of the Mason family, of which Catherine finally discovers herself to be a member. Her own experience and agency are ultimately inseparable from the tainted legacy of her family. The revelation of the extent to which Catherine’s experience and agency have been shaped by the legacy of her family history—even in the absence on her part of any knowledge of this history—speaks to a central tenet of theological reflection on evil. Most modern theologians who remain committed to belief in Original Sin would want to maintain that a propensity for evil is in some way part of our common human inheritance while avoiding a crude association of evil with biological transmission or sexual reproduction. The ethical dangers of a simplistic view of children as heirs to the guilt of their parents’ transgressions have been illustrated memorably in narratives such as The Scarlet Letter (1850), Nathaniel Hawthorne’s fictional treatment of America’s Puritan past. In more sophisticated constructions, however, the concept of inheritance affirms our status as temporal beings situated within a history and, therefore, as heirs to the failures of previous generations. Gary A. Anderson offers an example from American history:
The sins of the fathers, the Bible records, are visited upon the sons and grandsons up to the fourth generation (Exodus 20: 5). Like slavery, these unfortunate actions have left an enduring legacy. It is no longer simply a matter of identifying the guilty and seeking a confession. Some “thing” will still be left, even after the wrongdoers have been singled out. Even after a war of emancipation and much corrective legislation, the hands of the American people retain their stain.11
The point here is not that human beings enter the world bearing responsibility for the specific sins of their parents but rather that human agency occurs in the context of a history of failure that it seems to repeat continually. As the theologian Colin Gunton observes, ‘[t]he plight of the individual is that he or she – he and she, and all of the rest of us – adopt, inevitably but voluntarily, the inheritance that we have received. Sin is a social reality because that inheritance is mediated to us by our history and by the social setting in which our lives take shape’.12 This intersection of history with individual agency is one of the central insights of House of Small Shadows. Catherine’s agency and moral freedom occur within the context of a corrupted history that shapes her understanding of the choices available to her and which she ultimately chooses to repeat. Nevill’s fiction is persistent in its refusal to separate its extreme and otherworldly horrors from more mundane human failure and fragility. Seth articulates something of this interconnectedness of circumstance and individual agency in Apartment 16: Below in the street the beggars sat, their legs under dirty white blankets on the cold pavement; but at least they seemed capable of salvation, of a second chance, when he had finally been consigned to an incurable demise, a disintegration both physical and mental. That’s what it felt like. A long and tangled series of disappointments, habits, unfortunate choices and periods of introspection had brought him to this. (A16: 84–5)
This consciousness of individual complicity with horror—the sense that in some way his protagonists have conspired in the damage of the world they inhabit—is integral to Nevill’s fiction. It is reflected in Banquet for the Damned (2004) when musician and amateur occultist Dante discovers that his bandmate Tom accompanied him to Scotland, and ultimately into a destructive encounter with demonic powers, as a way of abandoning his pregnant girlfriend:
‘THERE WERE SOME STAINS THAT COULD NOT BE REMOVED’: ADAM…
You poor, sweet girl, he wants to say. We deserve everything we get, he wants to shout. Guilt chokes him. And beneath that, and not for the first time since he’s befriended Tom, he feels like a rueful parent, summoned to a headmaster’s office after school hours because his child has been disruptive again. (BftD: 335–6)
Nevill’s characters carry their own brokenness with them into their broken environments; if they inhabit a world made strange by seemingly extreme evil, they always remain implicated in the condition of that world. In Nevill’s fiction, even the most seemingly extreme evils become manifestations of an ancient and universal human propensity for destruction. In Banquet for the Damned, the demonic forces that inhabit present-day St. Andrews are rooted in a history of persecution and violence. The town is ‘built upon land…that seethed with unrest’ (BftD: 352); ‘[e]very monument to a martyr burned slowly for heresy speaks of injustice, and every skeletal ruin of church and tower hints at death’ (BftD: 166). Instances of supernatural and otherworldly evil in Nevill’s fiction give representation to histories of violence that remain always on the verge of renewal. Yet this very insistence upon evil as repetition leaves even its most extreme expressions imbued with banality. As one present-day ritualistic murderer in St. Andrews observes (failing ironically to recognise her own exploitation by the demonic forces she serves): ‘[t]o think, they were here all this time. Never went away. All they needed was a fool’ (BftD: 469). ‘A striking feature of sin…is its unoriginality’, observes Robert Jenson.13 Nevill’s fiction offers a similar diagnosis of human evil. If sin can be held to be ‘original’ in the sense that it is always already there, it is nevertheless unoriginal in the sense that each manifestation, however distinctive in its historical specificities, becomes, at one level, a banal repetition of what has gone before. Nevill depicts this view of evil most overtly in The Ritual. Luke’s kidnappers, members of a Scandinavian black metal band named Blood Frenzy, confront this problem of originality: We shit on the Christian altars. No problem. Then we kill faggots like you! No problem. But it’s not new. It’s very much fun I can tell you, to be this evil. But it is not…not…Fuck it! The words, the words! Original! It is not original. (TR: 284)
Blood Frenzy’s attempt to summon an old god of Norse mythology by offering Luke as a blood sacrifice is an attempt to commit a new and origi-
nal act of transgression. As Luke observes, however, the attempt and the language in which it is expressed are themselves clichéd. ‘Perhaps [Scandinavian black metal and satanism] was a protest to being the most spoiled people in Europe’, Luke reflects; ‘an act of rebellion against having everything’ (TR: 281). The aspirants to radical evil are ‘children, Luke thought. Kids. Damaged kids’ (TR: 288). Observing satanic tattoos on one of the band members, Luke identifies their language of cultic devotion as a rhetorical cliché that undermines its own claim of significance for their actions: [Y]ou once believed in the devil. In Satan, Loki. But then you also have pagan tattoos. Heathen runes and shit like that…Pre-Christian. A different belief system. So I’m guessing that you and Fenris are all about Odin these days. Yeah? Which implies you do not believe in the Christian God, or the devil any more. So vandalizing those churches was a waste of time? Places raised by a depth of belief, centuries ago, that I doubt you can even begin to understand, Loki…Symbols of a more lasting devotion than your fads and your fashions, mate. Because now you’re into something else. (TR: 317)
This is the irony of transgression upon which Nevill’s fiction insists: even the most monstrous evil is always tinged with banality, is always the expression both of universal human brokenness and of a corrupted social and linguistic inheritance. Luke reaches this conclusion during his imprisonment by Blood Frenzy: he ‘had just been caught up in the way of the world; on one of its lunatic fringes perhaps, but had still been swept away by the true and deeper undertow of tragedy nonetheless’ (TR: 342). An impulse towards destruction is the way of things, reflected in the indelible stains of past violence that mark the landscapes of Nevill’s fiction.
Tainted Arts One of the implications of a view of evil as endemic to human agency and activity is that linguistic and artistic representations are always at risk of perpetuating something of the evil that they seek to depict. Words might invoke histories of oppression and violence; visual images might summon up offensive, demeaning and derogatory stereotypes. The necessity of finding ways to speak about evil and suffering inevitably raises the possibility that the act of representation itself might add to the problem. Knight describes this difficulty:
‘THERE WERE SOME STAINS THAT COULD NOT BE REMOVED’: ADAM…
While the problem of evil presents more disturbing dilemmas than finding the right words to describe what is taking place, the problem of evil remains closely entangled with the problem of language. Our talk about evil adds additional layers to an already complex situation, ensuring, perversely, that we never find our way to the root of the problem. Rejecting religious discourse as a means of describing reality does not remove this dilemma; it merely causes us to substitute another set of assumptions as we seek to make sense of the world. Language is unavoidably contaminated.14
Knight’s argument is not that meaningful representation of evil is impossible but rather that our representations are always prone to bias, misunderstanding, self-justification and partiality. This bias is inherent to language as well as to the people who speak or write it. Words are freighted with the echoes and legacies of the histories in which they participate. This is as true of religious language as of any other: as Rowan Williams notes, the ‘almost infinite corruptibility of religious discourse’ leaves religious talk of sin and evil always at risk of becoming narrow judgementalism and moralistic oppression.15 The theological concept of Original Sin does not stand apart from the problem of language, but rather offers a means of reflecting upon the ways in which language and representation—including those of theology itself—are tainted by their participation in the world. The capacity of art and language to perpetuate the evils that they seek to represent is a particular preoccupation of Nevill’s fiction. Many of his novels focus on the ways in which evil is preserved and renewed by specific forms of representation: popular occultism (Banquet for the Damned); painting (Apartment 16); music (The Ritual); documentary filmmaking (Last Days); and puppetry and taxidermy (House of Small Shadows). These media function not only to represent past experiences of trauma and destructive nihilism but also to renew and reproduce these experiences in the present. Nevill’s interest in this artistic reproduction of trauma is further signalled by intertextual allusions within his oeuvre: in Last Days, the filmmaker Kyle’s previous projects include documentaries about ‘witchcraft at a Scottish University’ and ‘Blood Frenzy, about three missing British hikers who vanished in the Arctic Circle’, suggesting, respectively, the plots of Banquet for the Damned and The Ritual.16 Similarly, the morbidly insane taxidermist E. H. Mason in House of Small Shadows is a correspondent of the nihilistic painter Felix Hessen (Apartment 16) and the occultist Eliot Coldwell (Banquet for the Damned). These intertextual allusions establish a network of connections between multiple artists and
art forms, presenting them as repetitions of each other and drawing a parallel between artistic representation and the repetitive nature of evil itself. The potential for representation to perpetuate the evil that it records is explored in Last Days, in which the filmmaker Kyle is commissioned to make a documentary about a religious cult that called itself the Temple of the Last Days. Founded in London in 1967 and taken over by a charismatic and manipulative leader known as Sister Katherine, the Temple destroyed itself in a ritual of violence in the Arizona desert in 1975. Kyle and his cameraman, Dan, retrace the history of the Temple by visiting its bases in London, Normandy and Arizona. They find the locations literally stained by their history, with the extent of the staining increasing in parallel with the abuses and occultism practised by Sister Katherine and her allies. The Temple’s second base at a Normandy farmhouse is ‘[a] place more dramatically marked than the London house; in [Kyle’s] imagination it even began to appear tainted as if by some invisible presence that had once passed through, or even resided’ (LD: 122–3). The most vivid stains are left by the passage into the physical world of the Old Friends, supernatural entities summoned by Sister Katherine in her pursuit of power and immortality. The outline of one of the Old Friends is ‘scorched’ into the wall of the Normandy temple, ‘where a crucifix would hang in a chapel’ (LD: 141); the stain of evil becomes, perversely, an object of veneration. As Kyle works on the documentary, he sees himself as contaminated increasingly by the history that he records. While examining the Normandy farmhouse, he begins to suspect that ‘some kind of permanent stain had been smeared across his eyes inside the temple barn’ (LD: 144–5). This ‘staining’ of Kyle’s vision is paralleled by the contamination of the film itself. Dan’s camera, left overnight in the Temple’s London house, records an image of one of the Old Friends. Alluding deliberately to found-footage horror films such as The Blair Witch Project (1999), the novel illustrates the capacity of the documentary to perpetuate evil by recording it; the film bears the stain of the Temple’s evil and therefore becomes a medium by which its taint might be disseminated further. Nevill draws upon the resonances between the images of contagion associated with the Temple and the ‘viral’ distribution made possible by the internet: Perhaps this kind of distribution was more fitting for the project, and for his role as a perennial film-industry misfit. Blair Witch this, brothers and sisters. It ain’t a hoax. Make it as viral as the Black Death. He wanted three in four
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on the planet to see it. He cut his megalomania off at that point and ate four spoonfuls of brown sugar to stay awake. (LD: 446; italics in original)
Though Kyle’s intention is to bring public attention to the scale of Sister Katherine’s crimes, his description of the film in terms of contagion identifies its status as a carrier of the Temple’s taint. Max, the project’s financial backer and a former Temple member, understands what Kyle does not: the film can never be shown because ‘fools will try to speak with the old friends again’ (LD: 493). Kyle himself recognises that by pursuing the story of the Temple he has in some way become complicit with it; he wonders if ‘the Last Days had somehow become entangled with all of the unresolved ambition and angst and disenchantment inside him’ (LD: 314). The novel’s insistence upon a wider complicity—its refusal to hold Sister Katherine solely responsible for the evils of the Temple—is inseparable from its depiction of evil as infinitely repetitive. The Temple’s crimes are repeatable because Sister Katherine is not the monstrous Other of her contemporary society, but rather its extreme manifestation. As Kyle observes: It was the thrust, the constant thrust of other personalities, the desperate need for attention, for their own reality drama, for their own public relations rituals to be seen, heard, remembered. A white noise of self-interest. Sister Katherine was just one endgame in an age of pathology. (LD: 320–1)
Kyle’s film is dangerous because human nature is such that there will always be another Sister Katherine, another individual willing to collude with atrocity in pursuit of narcissistic self-interest. Max observes that ‘there is something demoniac in human nature that we are unable to stop revering…This is our greatest tragedy. A tragedy because it is universal, and it is timeless, as all true tragedies are’ (LD: 464–5). Nevill’s fiction is consistent with Paul W. Kahn’s claim that evil ‘is not simply a condition to be eliminated. It is the point of the “all too human”’.17 For all its depictions of extreme violence and supernatural evil, the existential horror of Last Days lies in its portrayal of humanity as locked in a perpetual cycle of self-destruction from which we are unable to free ourselves. In this context, art becomes one more way in which evils are perpetuated and repeated. I will argue in the final section of this chapter that the philosophical nihilism of Nevill’s fiction deviates deliberately from the redemptive trajec-
tory of Christian metanarrative. At this stage, however, I want to note the close affinities between Nevill’s work and Christian theology in their accounts of human evil. In rejecting a view of evil as wholly otherworldly or external to human agency, Nevill echoes and illuminates a central strand of theology that has understood evil in terms of privation. Theologians in this tradition have conceptualised evil as deviation from or corruption of the good, rather than as a metaphysical ‘thing’ that exists in its own right. Human evil is seen as arising from the misorientation of the agency and freedom possessed by human beings, as Rowan Williams explains: To say that a Goebbels – or a Radovan Karadžić or a Saddam Hussein – exemplifies lucidity, coherence, effectiveness and so on in his actions is certainly not to claim that his pursuit of his desires is a simple instance of homogenous ‘evil’, exercising power and effectiveness. It is to recognize that, if evil itself is never a subject or substance, the only way in which it can be desired or sought is by the exercise of the goods of mental and affective life swung around by error to a vast misapprehension, a mistaking of the unreal and groundless for the real. The more such a pursuit continues, the more the desiring subject becomes imprisoned, enslaved, hemmed in; the more the typical excellences of will and intelligence are eroded. However, that does not mean that the effects of this nightmare error are lessened.18
Evil, then, is understood theologically as a misalignment of the will; it is desire orientated towards immanence alone without reference to the transcendent Good. This tradition re-emerges in secularised form in Hannah Arendt’s influential account of the ‘banality of evil’, which interprets the misalignment of the will as the deferral of individual moral autonomy to the objectives of the state. Reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann for his role in the orchestration of the Nazis’ Final Solution, Arendt notes the persistence of the defendant’s belief that his actions were justified because they were carried out in service of the state: his ‘astounding willingness…to admit his crimes was due less to his own criminal capacity for self-deception than to the aura of systematic mendacity that had constituted the general, and generally accepted, atmosphere of the Third Reich’.19 As Williams observes, however, Arendt’s account leaves unresolved the problem of where to locate moral innocence in the absence of a transcendent referent; her ‘priority is to overcome the passivity…that allows atrocity to flourish by positive political association and action’.20 Yet to insist upon the goodness of human agency as the antidote to destructive passivity is to elide the ontological status of evil as emerging from
‘THERE WERE SOME STAINS THAT COULD NOT BE REMOVED’: ADAM…
within human agency. I want to suggest that Nevill’s fiction similarly illuminates the problem of where to locate the possibility of moral innocence in immanent reality. For Nevill, the answer is one of Nietzschean nihilism: in a world emptied of transcendent reference, there is only the further imprisonment of the individual within the confines of his or her own misaligned agency. In Apartment 16, the work of the late nihilistic painter Felix Hessen gives visual embodiment to the disillusionment experienced by Seth, a night porter in the luxury apartment building in which Hessen once lived. Forced by circumstance to live in poverty while serving the wealthy residents of the building, Seth reflects Nevill’s interest in depicting the systemic violence of contemporary capitalism, particularly in the context of the period of economic austerity that has followed the financial crash of 2008. He is a victim of social and economic inequality long before he becomes a victim of supernatural evil, and his vulnerability to the latter is in many ways a consequence of the former.21 Seth finds in Hessen’s paintings an expression of metaphysical hopelessness and the absolute negation of meaning. Hessen painted what he called the Vortex, a region of infinite emptiness in which souls would suffer endless, meaningless torture and distortion. For Seth, as for Hessen, the Vortex represents not only an appalling vision of an afterlife but also a nihilistic truth of the world that ‘he knew himself capable of recreating’: He too had glimpsed the first signs of this bestial rage, this annihilation of reason and decency, in the most prosaic of places. On a bus. On windy London streets. Browsing in the bright aisles of a supermarket. This terrible contamination made up of ugliness, cruelty and self-destruction, of compulsive narcissism, greed and hate, of bright flaring madness, had begun to emerge and crowd about him in the city. He observed it in others now they were stripped of the inscrutable facade of skin. He’d learned to see through, and down, to where the Devil lived. Hell was a living place inside every membrane of flesh that temporarily passed itself off as human. (A16: 229–30)
The discovery of Hessen’s paintings is for Seth the culmination of a growing inability to perceive the world as anything other than corrupted and contaminated. He sees only the indelible stains of the city and the contamination left by human contact, to such an extent that he will eat only food that is ‘sealed inside metal that had not been tampered with or touched, sniffed at, breathed upon’ (A16: 123). As Seth becomes alien-
ated from society by his nihilistic perception, he becomes willing to commit murder in order to protect Hessen’s artistic legacy. Seth’s willingness to kill is the expression of a perception that sees human life only in terms of contamination, without redemptive meaning and therefore emptied of its sanctity. As Seth confronts his own paintings—his attempts to continue Hessen’s work—on the walls and ceiling of his rented room, he experiences a moment of existential crisis in which he begins to question his own sanity: Falling to his knees, his eyes and teeth and fists clenched hard, he bit down on the hysteria that tried to burn its way up his throat. ‘Jesus, God. Jesus, God. Jesus, God. What am I?’ he muttered and then began to sob. He’d never seen so many tears. His soul was sick and melting away through his eyes. (A16: 265)
Seth’s prayer is never answered. In the world of Apartment 16, there is no transcendent referent, no other agency by which human agency might be renewed or reaffirmed. Hessen’s Vortex is the only true transcendence in the novel; the only glimpse of elsewhere is a window into ‘nothingness’ and ‘absence’ (A16: 437). Nevill returns to the relationship between art and philosophical nihilism in House of Small Shadows. The novel’s protagonist, Catherine, is invited to the home of the late puppeteer and taxidermist E. H. Mason in order to value Mason’s surviving work for sale. Mason’s home, the Red House, is a place frozen in time; as Alan Gregory points out, the house is a textual echo of Satis House in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, and Mason’s niece and heir, Edith, is a figure frozen in time like Miss Havisham.22 The house embodies nostalgia for a turn-of-the-century bourgeois luxury prior to the experiences of the First World War that shattered E. H. Mason’s belief in human or divine goodness. A parish priest and military chaplain, Mason lost his two younger brothers in the war and was broken by the experience, as Edith explains: ‘[h]e lost his faith. Not just in God. But in men. In society. In humanity. His loss of faith was colossal. You could say it was total’ (HoSS: 54). Like Hessen, Mason used his art to represent his nihilistic vision of a world emptied of all meaning and given over to suffering. The private collection of dioramas that Catherine is asked to appraise contains scenes derived from the worst horrors of the war, with the soldiers represented by rats. Following the disappointment of Mason’s initial hopes that by show-
‘THERE WERE SOME STAINS THAT COULD NOT BE REMOVED’: ADAM…
ing the horror of the war he might avert another, he began to embrace the vision of absolute hopelessness depicted in the dioramas. His art becomes a distorted version of his priesthood, the mediation of a negative transcendence. Mason’s role as a self-appointed prophet of nihilism is reflected in the overtly religious terms in which Edith describes him to Catherine: You may ridicule what I tell you, but your doubts are the doubts of a blind and unfeeling world. One that has lost touch, that is unseeing. Sightless before enchantment and mystery. Much of this died in my uncle’s time. But he sought it out in a world determined to destroy its innocence and magic. And he kept it alive. He made the unknown known and the unseen seen. There is no greater skill. And you must relearn the fidelity and openness of a child, or all of this will be lost on you, for ever. (HoSS: 127)
Edith echoes the words of Jesus in Matthew 18: 3: ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’. The stasis of the Red House is a parody of innocence, a world in which horror is mistaken for beauty and illusion for substance. When Catherine tries to escape from the house, she sees it momentarily for what it is: ‘[t]he Red House was derelict’ (HoSS: 351). The house’s luxury is an illusion, an embodiment of nostalgia for a world of innocent ease that never existed. Yet Catherine, fleeing her own history of abuse and psychological illness, finally chooses to live in the illusion. The ruined house is transfigured before Catherine’s eyes as she enters willingly into self-deception: the ‘place of decay began to fall away in the swift tide of transforming light, that rushed through to alter every brick within the brightness of a world older than the one she was about to leave, for ever’ (HoSS: 371). The Red House is a fantasy, a place of imagined innocence and safety for those who flee the trauma of the real. Outside of the house is a world in which Catherine can see no redemptive hope or possibility. Unable to contemplate the return to such a world, she chooses instead to embrace the fantasy of the Red House and to live in its stasis as if it were the restored Eden of which it is a grotesque parody.
Indelible Stains Catherine’s decision to remain in the Red House is a denial of the possibility of a redemptive future in the world outside of the house. By embracing the fantasy world constructed by the Mason family, Catherine accepts
complicity with their destructive and manipulative actions—of which she is herself a victim—in order to live within their illusion of tranquillity. The Christian philosopher Marilyn McCord Adams argues that participation (voluntary or otherwise) in horrific and traumatic events ‘degrades embodied persons by prima facie destroying their personhood, by furnishing prima facie reason to believe that no positive sense can be made of their lives’.23 By becoming part of the Red House, Catherine implicitly accepts the impossibility that her experiences of trauma in the real world can be worked into positive sense or order. Unable to locate hope in the real world, Catherine chooses a retreat from the world into the stasis and illusion of the Red House. The ending of House of Small Shadows exemplifies the most significant point of departure from Christian metanarrative in Nevill’s work. Though the concept of Original Sin attempts to take seriously the presence and destructiveness of evil in the world, the eschatological perspective of Christian metanarrative enables evil to be viewed optimistically as always open to redemption. The central image of this redemptive transformation of evil is the death and resurrection of Christ, in which the meanings of death and resurrection are understood to be each determined by the other: the suffering and death of Christ make possible the new life of the resurrection, while the resurrection gathers into its new life the suffering and death that came before. ‘Why then is Christianity such a unique religion of joy’, asks Jürgen Moltmann, ‘even though at its center stands the suffering of God and the cross of Christ? Because we remember the death of Christ in the light of his resurrection, and we remember his resurrection in the splendor of the divine, eternal life that is embracing our human and mortal life already here and now’.24 Moltmann is one of many prominent theologians to have challenged popular notions of Christian eschatology as focused on a disembodied afterlife, calling instead for a recuperation of the Christian tradition’s belief in the renewal of the material world.25 Christianity’s eschatological perspective enables the reality of evil in the world to be taken seriously, but also to be seen in the context of redemption and renewal. The Red House is a parody of the biblical narrative trajectory from crisis to ekstasis.26 It offers only the illusion of renewal, the appearance of order and safety superimposed upon a corrupted reality. Moreover, its fantasy of upper-class ease is founded upon violence, a reality that Catherine and the Mason family choose to ignore. Catherine’s choice of the fantasy is framed in overtly religious terms, as a ‘broad comprehension of some-
‘THERE WERE SOME STAINS THAT COULD NOT BE REMOVED’: ADAM…
thing significant that remained indefinable’ (HoSS: 333) and as a ‘light of salvation’ (HoSS: 339). Yet if House of Small Shadows parodies Christian eschatology, in doing so it illustrates a point with which many theologians would want to concur: an eschatology that seeks only to forget and retreat from the evil and suffering of the world is hopeless. Catherine finds release from the suffering and trauma of her life only by escaping into an illusion sustained by the horror and violence that it conceals from itself. The Red House is an eschatology based on self-deception, not redemption. Nevill’s fiction depicts a world in which the escape into self-deception is the only alternative to participation in the stained, corrupted landscapes of mundane reality. Several of his novels suggest the redemptive trajectory of Christian metanarrative in order to subvert it. By simultaneously invoking and refusing the possibility of a redemptive ending, Nevill recalls the metaphysical nihilism of Nietzsche: he portrays a world in which God is dead and humanity dies with him, a world in which there can be no redemption or atonement. Nevill’s protagonists often seem helpless in the face of extreme evil. When Apryl and Miles uncover the extent of Hessen’s occult influence in Apartment 16, they are left with a single, seemingly unanswerable question: ‘if this is truly the case, then what in hell are you going to be able to do about it?’ (A16: 361). Often, the best possible outcome is that the extremes of evil can be survived and contained, though, as we have seen, the ‘viral’ nature of evil renders its containment difficult: at the close of Last Days, Kyle is left trying desperately to prevent the upload and online distribution of his own documentary, which now implicates him in a murder. The extreme manifestations of evil might be resisted and even defeated, but they are always on the verge of return as the mundane, banal realities of everyday evil gather destructive momentum once again. There is no voice from outside, no transcendent perspective that might interrupt the patterns of recurring violence. The bodyguard and former soldier Josh registers this absence in No One Gets Out Alive, when he responds to Stephanie’s epithet ‘Jesus Christ’: ‘I sometimes wish he’d stop by and say enough is enough, people’.27 God is silent, and humanity is left to confront its own destructive proclivities. The same epithet is used to ironic effect in Apartment 16, when the spectral child that has tormented Seth appears to its still-living father: ‘Jesus.’ Stephen took a step back from the grinning apparition. ‘Jesus Christ.’ ‘You wish,’ the blackened head said. (A16: 444)
The revenant child becomes a parodic image of the risen Christ, an overt instance of a Gothic trope in which, as John Sears observes, ‘whatever returns is never Christ’.28 This Gothic return stands for the absence of Christ and thus for a redemptive ending that never arrives. This simultaneous echo and refusal of Christian eschatology is developed more fully in House of Small Shadows. As Catherine is gradually incorporated into the world of the Red House, her human body is remade in the likeness of the animate taxidermy subjects that occupy the house: the same technique by which the Masons preserve their own existence. The Masons refer to this preservation as a ‘blessed resurrection’ (HoSS: 302). The transformation of Catherine’s human body into an artificial likeness of itself recalls Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15: 53: ‘For the perishable must cloth itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality’. The remaking of Catherine’s body is a parody of Christian resurrection, a grotesque version of eternal life to be lived out in the fantasy of the Red House. Catherine embraces the fantasy as a return to the remembered tranquillity of her childhood trances: Against the silhouette of the distant doorframe, as if a new sun of a new world was beaming onto the rear of the Red House, other figures moved and threw their small shadows onto the increasingly visible walls inside the building. Bright-blooded walls that soon reached the hall as it too was filled with a glorious light. A light she remembered from childhood, a light of comfort and confirmation and of safety and love that vanished whenever she’d awoken from a trance. (HoSS: 371)
The Red House becomes for Catherine a return to a lost, imagined Eden—a ‘new world’ in which the trauma of her human experience can be forgotten. Instead of the new heaven and earth of biblical apocalyptic, however, the Red House represents a parody of resurrected life, founded upon suffering and injustice. The Mason family are served by a maid whose own body has been distorted into a ‘hobbled ruin’ and who is now compelled to work in the Red House until ‘the time came when the housekeeper would also be opened and emptied into the grass outside, and put in the sack by the man in the mask’ (HoSS: 370). The house embodies not only pre-war bourgeois luxury but also the systemic oppression and exploitation of labour upon which that luxury was founded. Entering into her role as a member of the Mason family, Catherine is able finally to embrace the Red House as a paradise only by closing her eyes to its horrors.
‘THERE WERE SOME STAINS THAT COULD NOT BE REMOVED’: ADAM…
In Nevill’s fiction, the stain of sin is indelible. Individuals corrupt and are corrupted by the world in which they participate. Histories of violence repeat themselves endlessly, symbolised in The Ritual when Luke’s blood is added to the stains of a robe worn by previous victims, ‘new blood on old blood’ (TR: 384). With the eschatological hope of redeemed, renewed life available only in grotesque, parodic forms, Nevill’s protagonists are left only with the struggle to survive and to make whatever fragile meaning they can of their lives, as Luke acknowledges at the close of The Ritual: Nothing mattered at all but being here. Himself. There was still some life in him. His heart beat. Air passed in and out of his lungs. One foot followed another. Knowing how quickly and suddenly and unexpectedly life could end, how irrelevant life was anyway to this universe of earth and sky and age, how indifferent it was to all of the people still in it, those who would come to it and those who had already left it, he felt freed. Alone, but free. Freed of it all. Free of them, free of everything. At least for a while. And that’s all anyone really had, he decided, a little while. (TR: 417–8)
Nevill depicts the metaphysical horror of a world in which Original Sin is real and redemption is impossible. His narratives invoke the redemptive trajectory of Christian metanarrative to emphasise the impossibility of a genuinely redemptive return in a world for which the only transcendence is a nightmare vision of chaos. Incapable of originality even in their evil, Nevill’s characters inhabit environments stained by past sins that are repeated and renewed in a cycle without end.
Notes 1. Adam Nevill, The Ritual (London: Pan, 2011), pp. 350–1. Further references are given parenthetically with the abbreviation TR. 2. Adam Nevill, Banquet for the Damned (London: Pan, 2014), pp. 280–1. Further references are given parenthetically with the abbreviation BftD. 3. Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, trans. by Emerson Buchanan (Boston: Beacon, 1969), p. 29. 4. Mark Knight, An Introduction to Religion and Literature (New York and London: Continuum, 2009), p. 97. 5. Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense (London: Faber & Faber, 2012), p. 27. 6. Alan Jacobs, Original Sin: A Cultural History (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), p. xvii.
7. Knight, An Introduction to Religion and Literature, p. 105. 8. Adam Nevill, Apartment 16 (London: Pan, 2010), p. 31. Further references are given parenthetically with the abbreviation A16. 9. Julian Wolfreys, Victorian Hauntings: Spectrality, Gothic, the Uncanny and Literature (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002), p. 5. 10. Adam Nevill, House of Small Shadows (London: Pan, 2013), p. 167. Further references are given parenthetically with the abbreviation HoSS. 11. Gary A. Anderson, Sin: A History (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), p. 4. 12. Colin E. Gunton, The Christian Faith: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine (Oxford: Blackwell, 2002), p. 61. 13. Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology: Volume 2: The Works of God (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 139. 14. Knight, An Introduction to Religion and Literature, p. 96. 15. Rowan Williams, Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement (Edinburg: T & T Clark, 2000), p. 162. 16. Adam Nevill, Last Days (London: Pan, 2012), pp. 14–15. Further references are given parenthetically with the abbreviation LD. 17. Paul W. Kahn, Out of Eden: Adam and Eve and the Problem of Evil (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 52. 18. Rowan Williams, On Augustine (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), p. 88. 19. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (London: Penguin, 2006 ), p. 52. 20. Williams, On Augustine, p. 103. For a fuller critical response to Arendt’s reading of Augustine, see Charles T. Mathewes, Evil and the Augustinian Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 149–97. 21. For a fuller discussion of literary responses to and representations of the financial crash and its aftermath, see Katy Shaw, Crunch Lit (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2015). 22. Alan Gregory, ‘“Surrounded by the Relics of a World…Long Gone”: Dickensian Visions of Frozen Time in Adam Nevill’s House of Small Shadows’, unpublished conference paper, presented at the Contemporary Gothic Study Day, Lancaster University, May 2014. I am grateful to Dr. Gregory for sharing his research with me. 23. Marilyn McCord Adams, Christ and Horrors: The Coherence of Christology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 271. 24. Jürgen Moltmann, ‘Christianity: A Religion of Joy’, in Miroslav Volf and Justin E. Crisp (eds.), Joy and Human Flourishing: Essays on Theology, Culture, and the Good Life (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), pp. 1–15 (p. 15).
‘THERE WERE SOME STAINS THAT COULD NOT BE REMOVED’: ADAM…
25. See the detailed discussion in N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (London: SPCK, 2003). 26. Valentine Cunningham argues that the narrative trajectory from struggle to ekstasis is a legacy of the modern novel’s inheritance of biblical narrative structure. See Cunningham, ‘The Novel and the Protestant Fix’, in Mark Knight and Thomas Woodman (eds.), Biblical Religion and the Novel, 1700–2000 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), pp. 39–57. 27. Adam Nevill, No One Gets Out Alive (London: Pan, 2014), p. 468. 28. John Sears, Stephen King’s Gothic (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011), p. 16.
Much Ado About Nothing: Peter Straub and Privation
And what does a narrative need? The presence of evil, that’s what. Think of the first story, the one about Adam and Eve and the Garden. The first human beings decide – they choose, out of their own free will – to do the wrong thing, to commit an evil act. And because of that, they are driven from the sinless Garden into this place, the good old gorgeous (GAW-juss) fallen world.1 (Peter Straub, A Dark Matter)
The American novelist Peter Straub is a horror and crime writer with a persistent interest in the relationship between evil and narrative. Straub’s fiction is concerned not only with acts of individual and structural violence—child murder, sexual assault, industrial pollution, the Vietnam War, serial killings—but also with the capacity of narrative to speak meaningfully about such acts. The fictional writer Lee Harwell, narrator of Straub’s 2010 novel A Dark Matter, confronts this question directly when he begins to write about a sadistic killer who was also a college acquaintance: But of that I did not wish to think – it involved a young man named Keith Hayward who had been, it seemed, a sick, evil child tutored in his sickness and evil by a truly demonic figure, his uncle…The immense theological question of evil felt too great, too complex to address with the tools and weapons I possessed. What I knew best had only to do with stories and how they proceeded, and a mere instinct for narrative wasn’t enough to take on the depths of the Hayward story. (ADM: 8–9)
© The Author(s) 2018 S. Marsden, The Theological Turn in Contemporary Gothic Fiction, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-96571-0_4
The concerns of his narrator notwithstanding, Straub’s fiction is persistent in its exploration of the ‘immense theological question of evil’ and the ways in which narrative might work both to obfuscate and illuminate this question. His work resonates with Andrew Tate’s observation that ‘[a]s a genre, the novel, which of all literary forms best represents the movement of the individual consciousness through the disarray of history, seems most to need original sin’.2 Indeed, the demon who explains the significance of the Fall myth in A Dark Matter makes precisely this point: ‘[y]ou can’t have a story without including a bad deed or a bad intention, you certainly can’t have redemption without you got some bad behaviour to make it juicy, and decent behaviour only exists because of the tremendous temptation provided by its opposite’ (ADM: 411). Yet if evil is in some way a necessity of story, Straub’s fiction reminds us persistently that narrative provides no unmediated access to a core truth of the evil that it recounts. Implicitly or overtly, Straub’s narrators—many of them also writers of fiction—bring into view the writer’s tendency to invent and reshape the stories that they tell and thus signal the limitations of the storyteller’s capacity to depict and make sense of traumatic events. Like their creator, these fictional storytellers seek not only to narrate specific acts of transgression but to understand and make sense of evil itself. What Lee Harwell calls the ‘theological’ question of evil is one that theology itself has often considered in terms of ontology. Rather than limiting his story to a discussion of specific evil actions, Harwell’s intention is to say something about the metaphysics of evil: not only its effects upon the world but its nature and substance, and the motivations and psychologies of its perpetrators. Harwell frames this as a choice between two alternatives: ‘[i]s evil innate, and a human quality, or is it an external entity, and inhuman in nature?’ (ADM: 169). Evil, he suggests, might have a genetic cause, rooted in a ‘Bad Seed’: ‘Hitler could have been born with it, and Stalin and Pol Pot, and every other dictatorial ruler who set about imprisoning and killing his own subjects, but so would plenty of everyday citizens’ (ADM: 168). On this view, the capacity for extreme evil is a genetic abnormality inherited by a minority of people; it is qualitatively different than the capacity for more mundane transgression common to all of humanity.3 Harwell’s second definition is a theological one: The other point of view, which lots of religious people believe, is that from birth every single human being is corrupt and sinful, but that true evil, the real sulfurous Satanic thing, is timeless, comes from outside, and exists
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING: PETER STRAUB AND PRIVATION
independently from human beings. To me, this always seemed a primitive way to think. It absolves you from responsibility for your actions. A devout Christian would say that I had it all wrong. (ADM: 168–9)
In at least one important respect, Harwell does indeed have it all wrong. His account of religious thought misrepresents the ontology of evil as understood by a central strand of Christian theology. As we saw in Chap. 3, many of the most influential Christian theologians have followed Augustine in theorising evil in terms of privation. Charles Mathewes summarises this account of evil: [T]he Augustinian tradition interprets evil’s challenge in terms of two distinct conceptual mechanisms, one ontological and the other anthropological. Ontologically, in terms of the status of evil in the universe, it understands evil as nothing more than the privation of being and goodness – “evil” is not an existing thing at all, but rather the absence of existence, an ontological shortcoming. Anthropologically, in terms of the effect of evil on a human being, it depicts human wickedness as rooted in the sinful perversion of the human’s good nature – created in the imago Dei – into a distorted, misoriented, and false imitation of what the human should be.4
For privation theory, evil is not the ‘real sulfurous Satanic thing’ described by Harwell, but is rather a subtraction from the plenitude of being given by the creative work of God. As the theologian John Macquarrie points out, evil is viewed as a ‘slipping back toward nothing, a reversal and defeat of the creative process’.5 Evil is quite literally nothing: it is an absence where there should be a thing, an empty space that should rightly be filled by the goodness, plenitude and variety of being. Despite Harwell’s oversimplistic formulation of the ‘theological question of evil’, Straub’s fiction performs a sophisticated investigation of the ontology of evil that can be situated conceptually within the tradition of privation theory. Evil in Straub’s work appears as spectral, graspable only in words and images that seem never to lead to a substantial reality. Evil is also a distortion of the goodness of being: it diminishes the humanity of its perpetrators and, in some circumstances, its victims. Straub’s exploration of abusive parents and child-murder—a recurring theme in his novels since the turn of the century—presents abuse not simply as pathological cruelty but as a corruption of natural human affection into the distorted intimacy of violence. This chapter examines Straub’s engagement with the conceptual question of evil and its relationship to privation theory. Mark
Knight has observed that the ‘concept of privation makes it hard for us to imagine what evil is like’.6 The chapter begins by exploring the ways in which Straub’s work confronts this difficulty by drawing attention to the ghostliness and insubstantiality of the words with which we attempt to speak about evil; words that seem frequently to displace the substance of evil instead of bringing us closer to it. The second section examines Straub’s depiction of evil as a distortion of a specific good, focusing particularly on his stories of familial abuse. I conclude the chapter by arguing that for all his attention to the difficulties of representing evil in narrative, Straub views the writing of fiction as a creative response to the destructiveness of evil, and therefore as an act of grace.
Spectral Words Straub’s fiction makes explicit the intertextual echoes, allusions and returns that are characteristics of the Gothic mode. While Gothic literature has always revived spectrally the tropes and topoi of its own textual history— even the work usually considered to be the first modern Gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), presents itself as a rereading of a much older manuscript—the persistent intertextuality of Straub’s work reflects postmodern interests in the status of language and narrative as well as the Gothic genre’s rewriting of its own textual past. John Sears has observed of Straub’s occasional collaborator, Stephen King, that even the first reading of his novels is already a rereading.7 The same is true of Straub, though for subtly different reasons. Like King, Straub draws attention to the numerous intertextual allusions contained in his fiction, but where King emphasises Gothic’s persistent rereading of its own textual history, Straub uses this overt intertextuality to interrogate the provisionality and artifice of all narratives, including those that deal with real events. This is perhaps best illustrated in lost boy lost girl (2003) and In the Night Room (2004), his pair of linked novels about the (fictional) child murderer Joseph Kalendar. In these novels, the narrator and novelist Tim Underhill not only tells the story of two murdered children, but also foregrounds his own continual rewriting and reimagining of that story, the merging of its principal characters with other people in his own life and the final impossibility of establishing a clear boundary between truth and invention. ‘What active reading discloses’, argues Geoffrey Hartman, ‘is a structure of words within words, a structure so deeply mediated, ghostly, and echoic that we find it hard to locate the res in the verba. The res, or subject matter,
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING: PETER STRAUB AND PRIVATION
seems to be already words’.8 Straub’s fiction foregrounds this spectrality of language by drawing attention to the ways in which each narrative alludes to, rewrites and merges with others. The imaginative landscapes of Straub’s fiction are constructed from the literary histories of America, recalling the Transcendentalism of Emerson as well as the American Gothic of Poe, Hawthorne and Lovecraft. These literary ghosts haunt Straub’s novels in ways that disrupt the boundaries between their different narrative worlds. The protagonists of Straub’s novel Ghost Story (1979) are amateur storytellers named Hawthorne and James. The latter tells a story that is both a rewriting of his namesake Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898) and the immediate history of the world of Straub’s novel: it introduces the protagonists and tragedy that drives much of the novel’s action. The reader familiar with The Turn of the Screw is thus invited to recognise Sears James’s story as s imultaneously a literary allusion and a part of the fictional history contained within the narrative. In this way, Ghost Story works to remind us that the texts by which we are invited to suspend temporarily our disbelief are always haunted by other texts: the novel is not only itself a ‘ghost story’ but a text haunted by the ghosts of other stories. A similarly overt intertextuality appears elsewhere in Straub’s fiction. In Mr. X (1999), the eponymous character is an obsessive reader of the works of H. P. Lovecraft who has come to believe in the Lovecraftian mythos as sacred truth. The novel is less an Austenesque satire of overindulgence in Gothic narratives than it is a warning against an overly literalist hermeneutic: the problem in the novel is not that Mr. X reads too much Lovecraft, but that he does so in a simplistic way. Straub revisits the American literary landscape again in A Dark Matter. One of Harwell’s childhood friends, Howard ‘Hootie’ Bly, has the ability to remember precisely everything that he reads. During his teenage years, Hootie’s memory of texts begins to overpower his command of language: he becomes unable to speak except in quotations from Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) and the unusual words found in the fictional Captain Leland Fountain’s Dictionary of Unknown, Strange, and Preposterous Words. Hootie’s obsession with these texts becomes for him a kind of mysticism: ‘Captain Fountain transformed Howard Bly’s life by the simple mechanism of demonstrating to him the existence of a secret code that if fully understood would surely reveal the unknown and hidden structure of the world, or at least of what was called reality’ (ADM: 53). Hootie seeks a core truth within language, a point at which words connect with and reveal a fuller reality. Yet his
search for this truth leads him further into quotation and imitation. A Dark Matter thus makes explicit the ghostliness of language and the historicity of words that have animated Straub’s fiction throughout his career. The difference between Hootie Bly and everybody else, we might say, is that Hootie knows that we can speak only by quoting other people and in words bequeathed to us by the past. Straub’s work registers what Knight calls a ‘metaphysical convergence between language and evil’.9 The ghostliness, insubstantiality and historicity of language echo the negative ontology of evil as imagined by privation theory. Straub recognises that when we speak about evil and suffering, we do so in words haunted by the histories in which our language has participated. The ghostliness of language adds another layer of complexity to the challenges of representation posed by the ontological nothingness of evil and its all-too-real destructive effects. Straub navigates this problem of representation in his 1983 novel Floating Dragon. In the novel’s opening chapters, the ‘Floating Dragon’ of the title refers to a toxic cloud of the chemical DRG-16, released into the atmosphere by an industrial accident concealed by the production facility’s corporate owners. The most common effects of the chemical cloud are the inducement of paranoia, delusions and both suicidal and homicidal behaviour in the residents of the contaminated town of Hampstead, Connecticut. In the most extreme cases, the cloud’s victims are literally subtracted from existence, their bodies dissolved and consumed by the chemical. As the narrative continues, however, the Dragon becomes an ambiguous signifier, the meaning of which is rooted both in Hampstead’s history and in the stories and texts by which this history is mediated. Hampstead’s Dragon is Gideon Winter, a seventeenth-century farmer and landowner whose arrival had coincided with a series of failed harvests and the deaths of most of the town’s children and livestock. Winter himself was killed by the townspeople, who believed him to be a devil. Yet he continues to exert a spectral influence upon the town, in parallel with that of the toxic cloud. One of the ways in which this influence is manifested is as a series of visionary experiences in which the world is seen as distorted and ruined, a dark parody of Emersonian Transcendentalism that recurs elsewhere in Straub’s fiction. Once again, however, the novel expands the signification of the ‘Dragon’, as a scene in which the Dragon’s present-day incarnation gazes at its own reflection begins to incorporate Hampstead’s past into a broader history of horrors:
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING: PETER STRAUB AND PRIVATION
What it saw in the mirror were scenes of devastation and ruin – smoking rubble and heaps of shattered bricks – the timeless scenes of its landscape. Streets heaved upwards into impassable mounds of broken concrete, buildings burned down to their foundations, bridges sunken into the water they were supposed to cross, huge piles of ash flaring up, tongues of fire flickering around their circumferences as a bitter wind rustles through, then subsiding again, breathing out a sullen smoke… Then a shuffled deck of pictures rolled across the surface of the mirror. The faces of screaming children, troops moving across a wide street, the trenches and mud and barbed wire of the First World War, the emaciated bodies of concentration-camp victims – bodies starved down to catgut and gristle…these images too were timeless, and represented both past and future. Children with swollen stomachs and the faces of old men, hunched men and women picking their food off a barren hillside.10
The Dragon becomes a symbol that is at once historically specific and timeless. As a signifier and personification of evil, it functions as a metaphysical abstraction manifested in the actualities of innumerable horrors. This use of the Dragon as the symbolic and metaphysical representation of evil is further expanded at the novel’s conclusion. The narrative closes with a quotation from the book of Revelation: ‘And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the devil, and bound him a thousand years’ (FD: 655; Revelation 20: 2). The cloud of DRG-16, Gideon Winter and the tragedies of Hampstead are thus identified with the history of an ancient personification of evil. Yet though this concluding biblical quotation appears to be offered as a final explanation or core truth of the novel—the Dragon was the devil all the time—it appears only when the novel has already deconstructed its explanatory force. Though much of the novel is narrated in the third person, this assumed omniscience is revealed as a construct at the beginning of the third chapter, when the narrator admits that ‘[i]nstinct tells me that now is the time to emerge from the cover of the godlike narrator who knows what all his characters are thinking and doing at all times and who takes an impartial stance towards them’ (FD: 82). The novel’s narrator is Graham Williams, one of its protagonists and a resident of Hampstead during its contamination by DRG-16. As Williams acknowledges, any connection between Gideon Winter and the toxic cloud might be the creation of his own imagination: an imagination already rendered suspect by the hallucinatory effects of the cloud itself. Indeed, Williams records his initial reluctance to write the story of the Dragon. ‘I’d be too tempted to
invent things’, he says; ‘I’d make up dialogue. I’d speculate about what happened to certain people. Pretty soon I’d be writing a novel’ (FD: 650). Like many of Straub’s narrators, Williams recognises that the act of narration might obscure as much as it reveals, adding layers of interpretation and invention rather than simply guiding the reader to the objective reality of events. If the quotation from Revelation does disclose a core truth of the novel, this truth is that the Dragon has always been textual, always already a symbol. The novel itself has cautioned us that ‘Devils did not exist, except as metaphors’ (FD: 603). Rather than offering the final explanation that it seems to promise, the biblical quotation reminds us of the textual history of the novel’s central metaphor. Indeed, it recalls John Hick’s observation that the effect of invoking satanic forces as an explanation of evil is ‘to throw the discussion into metaphysical regions in relation to which the already sufficient difficulties of knowing whether we are talking sense or nonsense are compounded to a point that is, literally, beyond all reason’.11 For all its pervasiveness and destructive influence, the Dragon is an indeterminate figure in the novel, an ontological and epistemological lacuna paralleled by the perpetual failure to move conclusively from signifier to signified. As Geoffrey Hartman observes, in the search for the ‘absolute word’ there ‘is bound to be a noncorrespondence of demand and response: an inadequacy or lack of mutuality that relates to our drive to make words into things’.12 Seeking an explanation of the horrors to which they must bear witness, the protagonists of Floating Dragon discover instead an endlessly malleable symbol. Yet we might here recall the words of April Brookner in Straub’s novel The Throat (1993), who once ended an engagement because ‘I couldn’t live with someone who would never understand that metaphors are real’.13 If the Dragon is a signifier that never resolves conclusively to a single signified, this openness performs its own hermeneutic work by providing a metaphor that symbolically unites a toxic cloud and corporate cover-up with failed harvests, starvation and witch hunts in the seventeenth century and with No-Man’s Land and Auschwitz in the twentieth century. The metaphor allows these distinct, historically specific evils and atrocities to be understood as also expressions of the ancient event and reality of evil. Evil both transcends its specific destructive manifestations and is unknowable except in these manifestations. Rather than granting evil an independent metaphysical existence, Straub’s Dragon reaffirms its nothingness and indescribability. Evil in Floating Dragon is not the ‘real sulfurous Satanic thing’ imagined by
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING: PETER STRAUB AND PRIVATION
Harwell in A Dark Matter, but rather an ontological absence, visible never as itself but only as a series of metaphors and in its destructive effects in the world. Luke Ferretter sees in postmodern theory a rediscovery of ‘the theological problematic of using language to denote the wholly other than that to which language applies’.14 Straub’s version of postmodern Gothic works to deconstruct a naive view of the relationship between events and their narration. Yet his work also illustrates the theological insight that the negative ontology of evil poses a particular kind of representational problem. Straub shares with Christian privation theorists a philosophically robust insistence that though the circumstances of particular destructive acts and events are open to description and explanation, evil is not and cannot be wholly explicable. John Milbank observes that evil for the Christian tradition was radically without cause – indeed it was not even self-caused, but was rather the (impossible) refusal of cause. In this way privation theory offers not an ‘explanation’ of evil, but instead rigorously remains with its inexplicability, for ‘explanation’ can pertain only to existence, and here evil is not seen as something in existence. Indeed it is regarded for this reason as not even explicable in principle, not even explicable for God.15
One of the central theological insights of Straub’s work is its recognition of the parallel between the ontological nothingness of evil and the ghostliness of the words with which it is described. The quotation from Revelation at the end of Floating Dragon tells us that the Dragon is the Devil, but the novel has already told us that devils exist only as metaphors. The novel thus closes with another deferral of meaning; in doing so, it reminds us that our theological metaphors might not be explanations of evil, but necessary ways of living with and articulating its inexplicability.
Bearing Witness For privation theory, then, evil is ‘inexplicable’ in a specific and limited sense.16 Evil’s negative ontology places it outside of the logic of causation. For the Augustinian tradition, human evil occurs not simply as a result of the exercise of free will, but because the sinful will is less free than it should be. As G. R. Evans has shown, Augustine understood human evil both as a misorientation of the will and as participation in evil’s negative ontology:
Only when evil works upon created things do they change, and such change must be for the worse, because evil is stealing its very existence from the good; only by making good things like itself can it exist at all. It has a borrowed existence, by inhering in something which exists; its effect upon its host is to diminish its existence, and to push it further and further in the direction of non-existence. It is impossible for absolute evil to exist at all, for if it has entirely deprived its host of goodness it will have no existence left; host and parasite will disappear together.17
On this view, then, individual human evil is seen primarily not as a free choice to commit a destructive action, but rather as a gradual diminution of one’s freedom and agency as the individual will is corrupted and misaligned by evil. Hannah Arendt draws upon this view in her account of the Eichmann trial and its disclosure of ‘the dilemma between the unspeakable horror of the deeds and the undeniable ludicrousness of the man who perpetrated them’.18 Eichmann emerges in Arendt’s account as a pathetic figure, rendered ridiculous by his persistent deferral of individual moral agency to the requirements of the state. ‘Despite the best efforts of the prosecution’, Arendt observes, ‘everybody could see that this man was not a “monster,” but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown’.19 Crucially, the clownishness that Arendt ascribes to Eichmann resides in the words and attitudes of the perpetrator of horrors, rather than in the horrors themselves. Marilyn McCord Adams says of horrendous evils that ‘[i]n most (if not all) cases their destructive power reaches beyond their concrete disvalue (such as the pain and material deprivation they involve), into the deep structure of the person’s frameworks of meaning-making, seemingly to defeat the individual’s value as a person, to degrade him/her to subhuman status’.20 It is all too easy to see this dehumanisation of the victims in Eichmann’s administration of the Nazis’ Final Solution. In viewing the perpetrators of extreme evil as pathetic, privation theory does not seek to diminish the horror of their actions, but rather to see the perpetrators as themselves diminished by their own collusion with evil. As Milbank points out, ‘the horror of Auschwitz, for Arendt, is not the revelation of evil perpetrated for its own sake, but rather a demonstration that even the most seemingly absolute evil tends to be carried out by people who imagine, albeit reluctantly, that they are fulfilling the goods of order, obedience, political stability and social peace’.21 The Eichmann of Arendt’s account has deferred to his political masters his own capacity for moral
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING: PETER STRAUB AND PRIVATION
judgement and action; the murder of millions has become for him an administrative and bureaucratic problem to be solved in service of the state. Arendt writes: To be sure, the judges were right when they finally told the accused that all he had said was “empty talk” – except that they thought the emptiness was feigned, and that the accused wished to cover up other thoughts which, though hideous, were not empty…The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.22
Eichmann thus becomes for Arendt an embodiment of evil’s diminution of the human subject and its misorientation of the will towards a false image of the good. Straub’s fiction follows the privation theorists in viewing the perpetrators of extreme evil as pathetic figures enclosed within the worlds of their own narrowed and misaligned perceptions. In The Throat, the final novel in the Blue Rose trilogy, the narrator and fictional novelist Tim Underhill confronts his former army buddy John Ransom, who has attempted to conceal his murder of his wife and her lover by disguising them as the work of the Blue Rose killer. Underhill sees in Ransom a figure of tragic pathos whose misdirected desire is leading him towards literal self-destruction: No matter what you say, we used to be friends. You had a quality I liked a lot – you took risks because you believed that they might bring you to some absolutely new experience. But you lost the best part of yourself. You betrayed everything and everybody important to you for enough money to buy a completely pointless life. I think you sold yourself out so that you could keep up the kind of life your parents always had, and you have scorn even for them. The funny thing is, there’s still enough of the old you left alive to make you drink yourself to death. Or destroy yourself in some quicker, bloodier way. (TTh: 675)
Ransom is a banal figure, diminished by his own pursuit of a lifestyle for which he has no respect. Rather than handing Ransom to the police, Underhill walks away, leaving him ‘[shut] up in what he had made for
himself’ (TTh: 675). A few weeks later, Ransom is dead, killed by crashing his car while driving drunk. In Ransom, Straub offers his own version of the banality of evil: a murderer who kills to maintain the stability of an existence he despises, and destroys himself because he is unable to live with the tension between his better nature and his diminution of himself. Ransom illustrates Augustine’s concept of evil as a parasitic existence driven towards its own destruction; the banality of his crimes—murders committed in pursuit of a false, unsatisfying good—renders him as much clown as monster. By identifying human evil as misoriented desire and the pursuit of a false notion of the good, privation theory insists upon continuity between acts of extreme violence and more mundane instances of human failure: they differ in the severity of their consequences, but not in their ontological or metaphysical substance. To return to Lee Harwell’s definitions in A Dark Matter, there is no ‘true evil, the real sulfurous Satanic thing’ that exists in a manner that is qualitatively different from other kinds of corruption found in humanity as a whole. This refusal of a metaphysical distinction between different kinds of evil is illustrated in Black House (2001), the second of Straub’s two novels written in collaboration with Stephen King. Like several of Straub’s novels, Black House focuses on a serial murderer of children. When the body of one of the victims is discovered—a ‘discovery’ to which the reader is given privileged access prior to the arrival of the characters within the narrative—the novel begins to interrogate the ethics of spectatorship, and to implicate the reader in the act of violence, by examining the spectator’s response to the scene. Initially, the narrative invites us to participate in a moment of contemplation: We are not here to weep…A tremendous mystery has inhabited this hovel, and its effects and traces hover everywhere about us. We have come to observe, register, and record the impressions, the afterimages, left in the comet trail of the mystery. It speaks from their details, therefore it lingers in its own wake, therefore it surrounds us. A deep, deep gravity flows outward from the scene, and this gravity humbles us. Humility is our best, most accurate first response. Without it, we would miss the point; the great mystery would escape us, and we would go on deaf and blind, ignorant as pigs. Let us not go on like pigs. We must honor this scene – the flies, the dog worrying the severed foot, the poor, pale body of Irma Freneau, the magnitude of what befell Irma Freneau – by acknowledging our littleness. In comparison, we are no more than vapors.23
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING: PETER STRAUB AND PRIVATION
The narrator’s insistence that the scene and the event of Irma Freneau’s death must be approached with humility is contrasted with the public and media response when the murder becomes known. The discovery of Irma’s body brings a crowd of spectators to the shack, demanding glimpses of the body and the opportunity to remove souvenirs from the crime scene. This voyeuristic spectatorship is embodied most fully by the photojournalist Wendell Green: The photograph Wendell wants most…and for the sake of which he is prepared to bribe every cop, county functionary, state official, or innocent bystander capable of holding out his hand, is a good, clean, dramatic picture of Irma Freneau’s naked corpse. Preferably one that leaves no doubt about the Fisherman’s depredations, whatever they were. Two would be ideal – one of her face for poignancy, the other a full-body shot for the perverts – but he will settle for the body shot if he has to. An image like that would go around the world, generating millions as it went. (BH: 317)
The contrast between these two versions of spectatorship makes explicit the potential for the observer to become complicit with the original act of violence. In inviting the reader to approach the scene, the narrator reminds us that an improper response demeans the spectator as well as the victim (‘Let us not go on like pigs’); if we fail to acknowledge the magnitude of Irma’s murder, we diminish both her humanity and our own. Wendell Green’s actions manifest this diminution. Irma is literally objectified, viewed as a commodity to be sold around the world. The boundary between legitimate journalism and voyeuristic pornography is obscured: given the choice between a ‘poignant’ shot of Irma’s face and ‘a full-body shot for the perverts’, Wendell would opt for the latter. Wendell’s thinking reflects an ideology of mass-media populism by which tragedy is transformed into sensation and exploited for profit, with the consumers as well as the producers of sensation implicated in the exploitation. By emptying Irma’s death of any significance other than its commercial value as an object of consumer gratification, Wendell repeats and becomes complicit with the killer’s initial act of violence. The novel refuses to hold the act of seemingly extreme evil—the murder of a child— entirely apart from wider societal and economic practices that reduce Irma to a commodity available for the entertainment of the consumer. In both cases, Irma is dehumanised, her worth seen only in terms of another’s gratification.
Straub’s fiction, then, deconstructs the categories of evil offered by Harwell in A Dark Matter. Harwell’s competing definitions of evil—a genetic ‘Bad Seed’ or an external, demonic entity—share the same fundamental problem: they each take for granted that extreme forms of evil are to be regarded as qualitatively different from the more mundane moral failings of ordinary human activity. Straub’s implicit refusal of this distinction is made explicit in the concluding chapters of A Dark Matter. Harwell’s wife, Lee Truax (known as the Eel), describes a vision that she witnessed during a mystical experienced shared with their school friends, the killer Keith Hayward, and the mystical guru Spencer Mallon. In the vision, a demon asks the Eel to name the opposite of love. Her answer, ‘hate’, is rejected by the demon: Hate can’t be the opposite of love, dummy. You still don’t get it, do you? Hate is love. The opposite of love is evil. Of course, evil does include hatred, but it’s only a small subset. When love goes bad and wrong, that’s when evil is created. (ADM: 413)
In the same vision, the Eel is given a glimpse of the process of indoctrination and distorted affection by which the young Keith Hayward—the sadistic killer whose history had prompted Harwell’s initial interest in the ‘theological question of evil’—was inducted into the depravities of his uncle, a serial murderer known as the Ladykiller. Hayward’s abuses of his victims are represented as a distortion of his desire for his uncle’s love and for a form of intimacy with others. In the vision, ‘[t]he Eel visited Hayward’s memories of his private room, one grotesque animal mutilation after another, and saw that a variety of tenderness and connection, a sick love, did bloom in that awful place’ (ADM: 405). The desire of love to transcend the boundaries of the self and enter into reciprocal relationship with the other is perverted into the destructive intimacy of violence.
Words of Grace If evil is parasitic upon being, a destructive impetus of existence towards non-existence, then its converse is the work of (re)creation. For Christian theology, the response to evil is rooted in the restorative work of divine grace. As G. R. Evans points out, Augustine’s belief in the creative power of grace enabled him to take a ‘supremely optimistic’ view of the problem of evil that had troubled him throughout his life: ‘[p]aradoxically, the
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING: PETER STRAUB AND PRIVATION
problem of evil had shrunk from him as his perception of its ramifications grew, because he had come to recognise more fully the size and power of the Good, its ready and vigorous activity against evil. He had found in his idea of an overwhelming divine grace a principle which so diminished evil that it had come to seem to him, not insignificant, but ineffably ridiculous’.24 Because grace was active in restoring what had been lost to evil’s nothingness, the problem of evil could be seen from the perspective of redemption and recreation. In this sense, Augustine’s theological project is not to explain evil causally—as we have seen, privation theory places evil outside of causal explanation—but to situate it within a narrative that imagines the possibility of its reversal. This approach shapes the contemporary privation theory developed by Milbank, who argues that ‘evil can only pass away, be forgiven and forgotten, if not only the past can be revised, but also what is deficient in the past can be revised out of existence’.25 If evil is understood to be a deficiency or ontological lack in the good order of things, then the response to evil must concern itself with restoring the good that has been lost and erasing evil’s taint. What then becomes of the response to evil in a context where belief in divine grace is uncertain or absent? The difficulty for a non-theological privation theory is not simply the absence of God’s grace as the means by which evil’s ontological negation is reversed; this could, perhaps, be countered with an appeal to the possibility of human grace to perform the work of renewal. There is a prior problem of how to affirm the goodness of being as such—a necessary affirmation if evil is to be understood in terms of a subtraction from being—when this goodness is not seen to be rooted in the status of being as given by God. Milbank argues that this difficulty is insurmountable: where good is not identical with being as such, willed good has only an ‘ironic’ fictional status – and in the end no one acts in the name of a fiction. This is one crucial reason why there cannot really be a secular privation theory: secularity will not see being as such as good and so will have to identify the Good in terms other than the full presence of the actual. The nearest one gets to such a secular theory is Spinoza, and later Nietzsche, but Spinoza still has an immanent God, and being and power remain convertible with the Good. Nonetheless, his immanentism means that evil in the cosmos, which is deficient weakness, is fated and inevitable, and in this way it would seem that evil does get lodged in being and privation is compromised, unless the perspectives of becoming have no true reality. One can conclude, therefore, that privation theory does require transcendence and creation ex nihilo.26
Milbank’s objection to the possibility of a secular privation theory speaks directly to the reading of Straub’s fiction that I have developed in this chapter. I have argued that Straub’s representation of evil is rooted in the tradition of privation theory. Yet it is clear that his literary exploration of the ‘theological question of evil’ is not situated within the context of theological orthodoxy. In this final section, I will argue that Straub’s view of the response to evil is consistent with privation theory’s concept of the creative work of the Good. Yet rather than demonstrating the possibility of a secular privation theory, this response calls into question the status of Straub’s fiction as secular; or, more precisely, it shows that the boundaries between the categories of the religious and the secular are less clear than is often assumed. Gary K. Wolfe and Amelia Beamer see in Straub’s fiction a ‘revisionist approach to horror [that] breaks through both horror and fantasy tropes to arrive at a kind of transcendence: a heightened sense of reality laced with deeper, more difficult, and more powerful meanings than are available through traditional narrative techniques or genre protocols’.27 Straub’s work does not simply imagine a world in which God is dead but one in which, to use John Caputo’s phrase, ‘the language of God is very haunting’.28 Because the language of God persists as a spectral presence in Straub’s work, his imaginative response to evil is one that it is not inappropriate to call grace. This textual ‘haunting’ of Straub’s work by the language of theology is demonstrated by two differing accounts of the visionary experience shared by the members of Spencer Mallon’s group in A Dark Matter. For Hootie Bly, of all Straub’s characters the most aware of the intertextuality and mediatedness of his own language, the vision discloses an appalling absence of meaning: ‘Hootie had been dropped into the paralysis of a confrontation with utter entire blankness, in which no action, no combination of words, no emotion however powerful or refined, had any meaning, could make a bit of difference’ (ADM: 298). Hootie, who has always believed that the words of Captain Fountain’s dictionary are the key to a hidden, core truth of reality, receives the appalling revelation that there is no core truth to be revealed; he glimpses the horrifying absence of signification behind all signifiers. His only defence against this semantic void is a retreat into the play of signs itself, a retreat figured as the loss of embodied being: ‘[h]e slipped out of his body, which was consumed, and threaded into a comforting subject-verb-object sequence; thence into a concatenation of independent clauses that scattered him amongst a hive of semicolons’ (ADM: 299). Derrida writes that even in ‘its most impoverished syntax,
MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING: PETER STRAUB AND PRIVATION
logos is reason and, indeed, a historical reason’.29 Hootie’s retreat into the ‘comfort’ of words, sentences and syntax is an attempt to escape the terrifying absence that lies behind language by turning to the rational order of language itself. Yet the novel provides another perspective on Hootie’s vision, one that recalls the theological meaning of logos as divine self-disclosure.30 This perspective is provided by Meredith Bright, a former devotee of Mallon who is now a successful businesswoman and the wife of a politician with presidential ambitions. Meredith has taken her own kind of revelation from the experience in the meadow, articulated in three principles: “One. If something is free to be taken, take it. “Two. Other people exist so that you may use them. “Three. Nothing on earth means anything, or can mean anything, but what it is.” (ADM: 264–5)
Unlike Hootie, who seeks a core truth behind signs, Meredith sees the world as emptied of symbolic signification. Her perspective is not only wholly secular, in that it refuses any possibility of transcendent signification, but reflects an exploitative, hyper-capitalist adoption of the postmodern condition described by Fredric Jameson as ‘the free play of masks and roles without content or substance’.31 Meredith herself has become a sign without content, her appearance altered by extensive plastic surgery. She is, says Harwell, ‘[t]he emptiest human being I’ve ever met. There’s nothing there but hunger and the desire to manipulate’ (ADM: 269). When Meredith glimpses Hootie’s vision, then, she shares something of Hootie’s horror, but for a very different reason: When Meredith turned her gaze to Hootie, what she saw, a mighty blazing sun crowded stuffed crammed jammed with words and sentences, nearly flattened her. She thought it may have been the face of God burning through all those humming writhing coiling sentences and paragraphs, all of them making their claim and all of them sacred…Hootie was too much for her. She knew that if she looked a moment longer into God’s massive, sentence- packed face she would crack and fall asunder, a broken vessel, so she did what she had to do and took off running. (ADM: 263)
Where Hootie fears the vision for its revelation of absence behind words and sentences, Meredith fears it for its disclosure of the sacred as immanent within those same words and sentences. Rather than setting up a
choice between these alternative readings of the vision, however, Straub allows us to hold them in tension and, indeed, to see the ways in which they might be true simultaneously. This tension depends upon the rejection of the modern paradigm according to which theological language was held to be straightforwardly descriptive, with God becoming another object in the world of objects to be described more or less accurately in propositional terms.32 As Rowan Williams points out, ‘the old-style longing to get behind authority and tradition and revelatory claims was in some degree an effort to find ways of speaking about God that were not vulnerable to history – to the contingencies of politics and power and social imagination that had shaped the doctrine of believing communities’.33 Yet the modern view of theological language as descriptive is in many ways anomalous and inconsistent with both premodern and postmodern theology. As Janet Martin Soskice has shown, Christian theology has traditionally recognised its language as metaphoric or allegorical: words used to speak about God rely upon recognition of the inadequacy of those words as applied to God, so that, for example, to say that God is ‘king’ is also to say that God is not like a human king.34 Some postmodern theologians have extended this hermeneutic and epistemological scepticism in the direction of what Gerard Loughlin calls ‘nihilist textualism’: ‘God is wholly inside language, make-believe like everything else; God is language. God is the play of signs upon the void’.35 Loughlin himself argues for an account of theological language that acknowledges postmodernity’s critique of modernist epistemologies without consigning God to the realm of fiction. On this view, God is not susceptible to ahistorical, propositional truth-claims, but is known in the context of story. ‘For Christian faith’, Loughlin argues, ‘God is known only as that which happens: not as a being or as a thing, but as an event’.36 The two accounts of Hootie’s vision, then, are suggestive of the extent to which Straub’s writing is alert to the nuances of theological language. Rather than setting up a contradiction that must be resolved, Straub shows that both accounts might be true simultaneously. Hootie finds no core of truth behind the words, because the transcendent escapes epistemological closure. There is no final, definitive framework of meaning waiting to be uncovered but rather an apophatic moment that ‘peels away the linguistic accretions…of finite images’.37 At the same time, Meredith’s vision suggests that Hootie was looking in the wrong place: there is no definitive, knowable reality behind words, but words nevertheless gesture beyond themselves. In her own vision, the Eel learns what Hootie does not: ‘the
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Great Mystery and the Final Secret is that we cannot tolerate the Great Mystery and Final Secret’ (ADM: 426). Hootie’s vision is terrifying to Meredith because it suggests meaning beyond the surface reality of the symbol, and it is terrifying to Hootie because it suggests that this meaning cannot be grasped.38 The vision in the meadow draws attention to a conceptual parallel between evil and the divine. Both God and evil are ineffable; both are figured in the novel as an ontological absence behind the words used to represent them. The distinction between the two lies not in their ontological status but in their orientation towards creativity or destruction. Meredith, described by Harwell as ‘empty’, embraces the emptiness of words and uses them to manipulate others in pursuit of power. Hootie, in contrast, begins to see the creative power of language. In the years that follow the vision, Hootie begins to expand the sources of his literary quotation and, crucially, to draw upon individual words rather than whole sentences and to combine the quoted words into new sentences. Hootie thus discovers that all words and combinations are available to him; that by speaking in quotation, he can say everything. This creative impulse is reflected in Hootie’s response to another aspect of the vision, one witnessed only by Hootie and the Eel. In the meadow, they see a darkness that the Eel names ‘the savage demon of the second rate, the demon of everyday evil…As the demon of what was grasping and inferior and unappeasable, it could never be sated, satisfied, pacified, or put to rest. Probably she had breathed its fumes all of her life’ (ADM: 393). The demon is an echo of Harwell’s description of Meredith: ‘there’s nothing there but hunger and the desire to manipulate’. Hootie and the Eel are able to see the demon for what it is because, of all the participants in the vision, they are the least infected by its consuming emptiness; they, Harwell notes, ‘had loved Mallon the most, and the most purely, without Boatman’s neediness, Don’s ambition, and Meredith Bright’s tendency to keep score’ (ADM: 366). This language is echoed by the Eel when she describes Hootie’s response to the demon: ‘Hootie, who could feel compassion for something like that, must have one of the purest hearts in the world’ (ADM: 391). Hootie’s compassion for the demon is a moment of grace, echoed by the narrative’s willingness to understand Keith Hayward not simply as a monster, but as a boy whose natural desire for human affection was distorted into the false and unsatisfying intimacy of violence. Despite Harwell’s initial belief that a ‘mere instinct for narrative’ is inadequate as a means of addressing Hayward’s crimes, Straub’s novel maintains that the
act of narration can itself be a creative response to evil by serving as a medium of human (and, perhaps, divine) compassion. The idea that narrative might provide a medium with which to respond creatively to evil’s privations is integral to Straub’s interlinked novels lost boy lost girl and In the Night Room. The novels are fragmentary texts in which multiple forms and/or layers of narration are accumulated. In lost boy lost girl, the narrator, Tim Underhill, relates the disappearance of his nephew, Mark Underhill, and its relationship to the murders perpetrated by the late serial-killer Joseph Kalendar, a cousin of Mark’s mother (Mark is revealed to have been murdered by Ronald Lloyd-Jones, a copycat killer who now lives in the house formerly owned by Kalendar). The narrative combines extracts of Tim’s journal with his imagined reconstruction of Mark’s final days, though here as elsewhere Straub resists easy distinctions between fact and fiction. ‘You write your journal like it was fiction’, one of Underhill’s friends observes, to which he replies: ‘What makes you think it isn’t?’.39 In Tim’s retelling, Mark meets and falls in love with a mysterious girl named Lucy Cleveland, who lives in the Kalendar house. Yet ‘Lucy Cleveland’ is a kind of fiction, a reimagined version of Lily Kalendar, Joseph’s daughter and apparently one of his murdered victims. In In the Night Room, Straub employs a different mode of structural complexity. The novel introduces a woman named Willy Patrick, author of the prize- winning children’s novel In the Night Room and a bereaved mother. As the narrative develops, however, Willy is revealed to be a character in Tim Underhill’s latest novel, also titled In the Night Room. The boundaries between the multiple narrative worlds become increasingly permeable, to the extent that Willy slips through into Tim’s reality. As Tim himself recognises, Willy is an imagined version of both Mark Underhill and Lily Kalendar: he tells her that ‘[i]n my book, your real name was Lily’, but also realises that ‘I didn’t even know I was doing that, but I gave her Mark’s face!’.40 These multiple rewritings of Lily Kalendar and Mark Underhill are an attempt to excise the horrors of the past. Storytelling becomes a creative response to evil’s destructiveness. Willy sees this redemptive impulse in Tim’s work: ‘that’s what you’re doing, you old writer. You’re washing away his crimes, and you’re doing it through me’ (ItNR: 354). As God of his own imagined world, the novelist seeks both to restore being and life to the dead and to enter into the reciprocity of relationship with them. Tim makes the theological analogy explicit when he says to Willy: ‘These simple words, all this deep feeling. I hope this is what God feels for his
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creatures’ (ItNR: 250). In fact, the relationship between Tim and his creations parallels the view developed by several contemporary theologians of God’s relationship to his creation as one of gift. Loughlin writes: ‘[l]ove’s gift of being is more commonly known by way of the doctrine of creation. Thus creation is another name for gift, another name for Eucharist’.41 Tim himself adopts the language of the gift in lost boy lost girl when he recognises a young man and woman as his imagined Mark Underhill and Lucy Cleveland: It was a gift. Not the only one, but the first. Mark and his “Lucy Cleveland,” whose real name I knew, had exited their elsewhere long enough to display themselves before me in all the fullness of their new lives. After all, the elsewhere was right next door. […] God bless Mark Underhill, I say within the resounding chambers of my heart and mind, God bless Lucy Cleveland, too, though already they are so blessed, they have the power to bless me. (lblg: 296)
The scene imagines a relationship of mutuality in which Tim receives from Mark and Lucy the blessing that he has also bestowed upon them. ‘A share of that blazing joy resided in me now’, he writes, ‘and I thought it would be mine for eternity. It partook of eternity’ (lblg: 296). Underhill’s story gives to Lily Kalendar and Mark Underhill a form of resurrection, allowing them a fullness of life denied to them in Tim’s reality. The symbolic significance of this new life becomes clear in the final appearance of the two murdered children in lost boy lost girl. Tim receives an email containing a link to an online film of Lucy and Mark together, a ‘webcam…broadcasting to an audience of one from a world where there were no webcameras’ (lblg: 330). As Tim watches the film in his brother’s house, the police excavate the garden of the nearby Kalendar house. The afterlife glimpsed in the film thus occurs simultaneously with the discovery of the bodies of victims of Kalendar and Ronald Lloyd-Jones. The novel’s final line offers an uncanny juxtaposition of these two endings, with the uncovering of the bodies described in imagery that hints at resurrection: ‘The [Underhill] brothers retreated to Philip’s lot line and looked on as the first of the adolescent dead began his journey upward into daylight’ (lblg: 336). If the story of new life for Mark and Lily is challenged by the uncovering of their physical remains, it is not dismissed entirely. Rather, it is located in what Tim calls ‘the space between…The space between
dreaming and wakefulness. Between imagination and reality. Between no and yes. Between is and is not’ (ItNR: 314). Underhill’s ‘space between’ echoes what the postmodern theologian John Caputo calls the ‘religious sense of life’. ‘To have a religious sense of life’, Caputo argues, ‘is to long with a restless heart for a reality beyond reality, to tremble with the possibility of the impossible’.42 In rewriting the stories of Mark and Lily, Tim stakes his hope in an impossible resurrection, giving them the gift of being in the ‘space between’ reality and unreality. Alert as Straub is to the ways in which narrative can work to obscure, complicate and perpetuate evil, in lost boy lost girl and In the Night Room he charges the novelist with the sacred duty of making all things new. Tim Underhill’s stories, motivated by love for the murdered children, are acts of grace. Yet the novels offer a further twist, another rewriting. In In the Night Room, Tim discovers that Lily Kalendar is still alive. Her father gave her up to foster care as a way of protecting her from himself; she lives under a false name and was assumed dead when her father’s crimes were discovered (‘I knew he loved her’, Willy remarks [ItNR: 308]). Tim tracks down Lily, whose surname is now Huntress. What he finds is a story of hard- won, painful and ongoing redemption that exposes the limits as well as the aspirations of Tim’s creative work: The thought came to me that I was the one man in the world who could restore what was missing, and make Lily Kalendar whole as she had never been. In the next second I realized that many, many men had known the same impulse, and that none of us could offer her anything commensurate with her beauty, her pain, or her history. To the extent that these had been overcome, it had been done by her own efforts: she had so thoroughly absorbed the cruelty and wickedness visited upon her that they had been rendered all but invisible, and she paid for what she had absorbed with a hundred daily acts of kindness and generosity. I could not rescue her. When devotion still had an effect, she’d had [her foster carer] Diane Huntress; after that, she had simply rescued herself, and done it, with her magnificent intelligence, as thoroughly as she could. (ItNR: 337–8)
This depiction of the difficult work of redemption is a counterpoint to Tim’s creative work as a storyteller. Where the novelist seeks to undo evil’s privations through the creative work of the imagination, the living Lily’s story brings into view the more difficult and painful work of living with and redeeming past trauma. Yet both are aspects of the same drive towards renewal in Straub’s fiction. If this renewal does not occur within the
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framework of orthodox faith, neither is it wholly outside of faith. Instead, it explores the ‘space between’ belief and unbelief, resonating with a postmodern theological perspective for which, as Arthur Bradley observes, ‘theism and atheism [are] fragments of one other’.43 For theologians in the Augustinian tradition, John Milbank argues, [n]ot only do being and knowledge participate in a God who is and who comprehends; also human making participates in a God who is infinite poetic utterance: the second person of the Trinity. Thus when we contingently but authentically make things and reshape ourselves through time, we are not estranged from the eternal, but enter further into its recesses by what for us is the only possible route.44
For all of its ambivalence towards the language and doctrinal structures of Christian orthodoxy, Straub’s fiction does suggest that the novelist’s act of retelling and renewal might, like Tim Underhill’s glimpse of Mark Underhill and Lucy Cleveland, partake of the eternal. Confronting the destructive nothingness of evil, its banality and its diminution and distortion of the human, Straub’s fiction implicates the imagination in the work of recreation. Aware of the hauntedness of language, its capacity to perpetuate corruption and misunderstanding, Straub maintains hope that words might also mediate the possibility of an impossible grace.
Notes 1. Peter Straub, A Dark Matter (London: Phoenix, 2011), p. 411. Further references are given parenthetically with the abbreviation ADM. 2. Andrew Tate, Contemporary Fiction and Christianity (New York and London: Continuum, 2008), p. 41. 3. The psychologist Andrew Silke points out that a tendency to view the capacity for extreme violence as a psychological abnormality is common to representations of terrorism, in which the terrorist is often assumed to be a psychopath incapable of empathy for his or her victims. See Silke, ‘Becoming a Terrorist’, in Andrew Silke (ed.), Terrorists, Victims and Society: Psychological Perspectives on Terrorism and its Consequences (Chichester: Wiley, 2003), pp. 29–53. 4. Mathewes, Evil and the Augustinian Tradition, pp. 5–6. 5. John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology, revised edition (London: SCM, 1977), p. 255.
6. Knight, An Introduction to Religion and Literature, p. 99. Knight offers a fuller discussion of the literary implications of privation theory in Chesterton and Evil (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004), pp. 48–54. 7. Sears, Stephen King’s Gothic. 8. Geoffrey H. Hartman, Saving the Text: Literature/Derrida/Philosophy (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), p. 129. 9. Knight, An Introduction to Religion and Literature, p. 101. 10. Peter Straub, Floating Dragon (London: HarperCollins, 1984), pp. 395– 6. Further references are given parenthetically with the abbreviation FD. 11. John Hick, Evil and the God of Love, second edition (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 1985), p. 13. 12. Hartman, Saving the Text, p. 129. 13. Peter Straub, The Throat (New York: Anchor, 2010), p. 85. Further references are given parenthetically with the abbreviation TTh. 14. Luke Ferretter, Towards a Christian Literary Theory (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2003), p. 36. 15. John Milbank, Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon (London and New York: Routledge, 2003), pp. 17–18. 16. To describe evil as ‘inexplicable’ in this limited sense does not rule out the project of theodicy, that is, the question of how the presence of evil in the world can be consistent with the existence of God. See, for example, Hick, Evil and the God of Love; D. Z. Phillips, The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God (London: SCM, 2004). 17. G. R. Evans, Augustine on Evil (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), p. 154. 18. Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. 54. 19. Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. 54. 20. Marilyn McCord Adams, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1999), pp. 26–7. 21. Milbank, Being Reconciled, p. 2. 22. Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. 49. 23. Stephen King and Peter Straub, Black House (London: Orion, 2012), p. 45. Further references are given parenthetically with the abbreviation BH. 24. Evans, Augustine on Evil, p. 149. 25. Milbank, Being Reconciled, p. 54. 26. Milbank, Being Reconciled, pp. 16–17. 27. Gary K. Wolfe and Amelia Beamer, ‘Peter Straub and the New Horror’, in Gary K. Wolfe, Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature, ebook (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011), pp. 127–36 (pp. 128–9).
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28. John Caputo and Gianni Vattimo, After the Death of God, ed. by Jeffrey W. Robbins (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), p. 145. 29. Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. by Alan Bass (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978), p. 54. 30. See John 1: 1: ‘In the beginning was the Word [Gk. logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’. 31. Fredric Jameson, The Seeds of Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), p. 18. 32. For a helpful overview of shifts in thinking about religious language in modernity and postmodernity, see Gavin Hyman, A Short History of Atheism (London: I. B. Tauris, 2010). 33. Rowan Williams, The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 2. 34. Janet Martin Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985). 35. Gerard Loughlin, Telling God’s Story: Bible, Church and Narrative Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 16. 36. Loughlin, Telling God’s Story, p. 179. 37. Chris Boesel and Catherine Keller, ‘Introduction’, in Chris Boesel and Catherine Keller (eds.), Apophatic Bodies: Negative Theology, Incarnation, and Relationality (New York: Fordham University Press, 2010), pp. 1–21 (p. 4). 38. For a fuller critical discussion of deconstructionist accounts of language and their relationship to theology, see Valentine Cunningham, In the Reading Gaol: Postmodernity, Texts, and History (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994). Against deconstructionist views of language as signifying absence, Cunningham argues for a view of language as a site of contest between presence and absence. 39. Peter Straub, lost boy lost girl (New York: Ballantine, 2003), p. 289. Further references are given parenthetically with the abbreviation lblg. 40. Peter Straub, In the Night Room (New York: Ballantine, 2006), pp. 260, 268. Further references are given parenthetically with the abbreviation ItNR. 41. Loughlin, Telling God’s Story, p. 237. 42. John D. Caputo, On Religion (London and New York: Routledge, 2001), p. 15. 43. Arthur Bradley, ‘“Until Death Tramples It to Fragments”: Percy Bysshe Shelley after Postmodern Theology’, in Gavin Hopps and Jane Stabler (eds.), Romanticism and Religion from William Cowper to Wallace Stevens (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), pp. 191–206 (p. 203). 44. Milbank, Being Reconciled, p. ix.
William Peter Blatty and the Presence of the Absent Christ
In William Peter Blatty’s novel The Redemption (2010),1 a neurologist named Moses Mayo is troubled by a New Testament miracle. The text that disturbs him comes from Mark’s Gospel and tells the story of Christ’s healing of a blind man: They came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spat on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, ‘Do you see anything?’ He looked up and said, ‘I see people; they look like trees walking around.’ Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. (Mark 8: 22–25)
For the agnostic Mayo, the unsettling aspect of the story is the need for a second act of healing before the man’s sight is restored fully; only with Christ’s second touch does the man move from partial, blurred sight to clear vision. Mayo sees in this detail a note of medical accuracy that causes him to question his own unbelief: ‘In the time of Christ, cures for blindness were medically unknown. So if the healing at Bethesda [sic] hadn’t actually happened, how could Mark have known the symptoms of post-blind syndrome?’2 Mayo is a sceptic who is unable to rest easy in his own scepticism; he doubts even his own doubt. The complexities of the relationship between faith, doubt and scepticism have been integral to Blatty’s horror fiction ever since his entrance © The Author(s) 2018 S. Marsden, The Theological Turn in Contemporary Gothic Fiction, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-96571-0_5
into the genre with his most commercially successful novel The Exorcist (1971), which he also adapted into the screenplay of the 1973 film directed by William Friedkin. Though The Exorcist has often proved controversial among religious audiences—controversy that resurfaced in summer 2017 when the Belfast Film Festival was criticised by a Catholic priest for scheduling screenings of The Exorcist and Richard Donner’s The Omen in a former Catholic church3—Blatty’s most famous novel is rooted both in his own Catholicism and in the religious contexts of 1960s America. In 1974, Blatty responded to religious critics of the film in an article for the Jesuit magazine America: At the end of The Exorcist, the mother can believe in the devil because “he keeps doing all those commercials”; but Dyer responds: “Then how do you account for all of the good?” And that is the question that my novel and film implicitly ask: namely, if the universe is clockwork and man is no more than molecular structures, how is it there is love as a God would love and that a man like Jesuit Damien Karras would deliberately give up his life for a stranger, the alien corpus of Regan MacNeil? This is surely an enigma far more puzzling and far more worth pondering than the scandalous problem of evil; this is the mystery of goodness. It is the point all critics miss.4
Blatty’s writing returns frequently to the ‘mystery of goodness’ and its relationship to the more familiar problems of evil. His protagonists are conflicted figures who struggle as much to make sense of glimpses of grace as of the horrifying evils to which they bear witness. Blatty’s writing resonates with Michael Edwards’s claim that literature is part of our ‘dispute’ with a fallen world, ‘and of our search for its and our own regeneration’.5 Throughout his career, Blatty’s horror fiction has staged this dispute overtly. Like William Kinderman, a Jewish detective introduced in The Exorcist who becomes the central protagonist of its sequel Legion (1983), Blatty’s novels are preoccupied with the suspicion that ‘[s]omething had gone wrong between man and his creator’.6 His protagonists are troubled characters who occupy liminal spaces between belief and unbelief, seeking redemptive hope in the face of the world’s suffering and, frequently, in the face of God’s apparent silence. Blatty’s novel The Ninth Configuration (1978) includes a character who wears a black armband because, he claims, he is in mourning for God,7 and Blatty’s fiction is often in overt or implicit dialogue with a wider cultural suspicion that God is absent or dead. On 8 April 1966, which was
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also Good Friday, Time magazine published the first text-only cover in its history, posing the provocative question ‘Is God Dead?’ in red lettering on a black background. Though the cover prompted angry responses from many readers who read it as an attack on faith, the accompanying article by religion editor John T. Elson focused primarily on theological and philosophical movements that were attempting to reimagine Christianity in ways that challenged many of its creedal traditions.8 In the 1960s, the Nietzschean language of the death of God had been adopted by a small group of self-styled ‘radical theologians’ who had proposed a Christianity without God. Thomas J. J. Altizer, perhaps the most prominent of the ‘Death of God’ theologians, argued that Christianity must abandon its commitment to an eternal, transcendent God and rediscover a divine Word incarnate in humanity and history. The transcendent God of Christianity’s established forms had become, Altizer argued, a theological endorsement and reinforcement of oppressive human power structures. ‘It is’, he writes in The Gospel of Christian Atheism (1966), ‘precisely because a primordial and religious deity is the antithesis of life and history that its sacred name can so naturally and spontaneously be evoked to sanction evil and injustice’.9 In order for the authentic Kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus to become incarnate in history, the transcendent deity of orthodox Christian metaphysics had to pass away. Only then could Christian love be fully realised as ‘an incarnate love, a self-giving to the fullness of the world, an immersion in the actuality of time and the flesh’.10 The central figure of Altizer’s theology is not the transcendent God, but the incarnate Christ. For Altizer and his fellow radical theologians, the death of God was both a necessary stage in the renewal of Christianity and an event integral to Christianity itself: the supreme image of the death of God was the crucifixion of the incarnate Christ. It was also an event with significant political implications. The God of Christian orthodoxy, Altizer believed, had too often been used to legitimise unjust power structures; too many of the Christian churches in the US had aligned themselves with the powerful rather than the marginalised. Drawing on the radical theology of William Blake, Altizer argued that the ‘Christ of orthodox Christianity is not the breaker but the upholder of an absolute Law; He sanctions the “justice” of rulers and the institutions of society, and He redeems only to the extent that His believers submit to His sovereign and transcendent power’.11 In the context of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, Altizer believed that a truly incarnational Christianity would be a movement of solidarity with the disenfranchised.
The Exorcist, then, was written at a time when the concept of the ‘death of God’ could be understood not simply as a metaphor for the decline of faith but as a reassessment of the place of religion in contemporary America and—in academic theology, at least—an attempt to reimagine Christianity outside of its established forms. Blatty’s novel does not align itself in any straightforward way with either of these positions, but, like much of his horror fiction throughout his career, it does enter into dialogue with them. Joseph Laycock asks us to approach the novel as a ‘cultural moment’: the ‘authentic folk piety depicted in The Exorcist likely appealed to audiences in the early 1970s because it was a welcome alternative to rationalized religion and a cultural myth of universal secularization’.12 The novel’s eponymous exorcist, the Jesuit priest and psychologist Damien Karras, embodies tensions between faith and rational scepticism. This crisis of faith is ultimately resolved neither by a movement into atheism or an intellectual accommodation of belief. The demonic possession of Regan MacNeil is for Karras a revelation of the truth of orthodox Catholic metaphysics; whatever symbolic significance they might have, the novel’s demons are literal. As Sean M. Quinlan points out, however, this reassertion of traditional Catholic demonology is not associated with a renewal of communal Catholic religious practice; like other possession narratives of its era, such as Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1971) and David Seltzer’s The Omen (1976), The Exorcist promotes ‘a new vision of religious faith, one in which individuals abstracted it from actual practice or community participation’.13 Though the novel can be regarded as a reassertion of orthodox theological belief, it nevertheless reflects one of the characteristics of secularisation described by Charles Taylor: it depicts the modern individual as disembedded from structures of collective religious practice, even when the individual in question holds theistic beliefs.14 If The Exorcist depicts a world in which the metaphysics and demonology of the Catholic Church are vindicated, at least for the small group of people who are witnesses of Regan’s possession, the novel is less clearly an apologia for the Church itself. Blatty’s Catholic protagonists are able to draw on the theological traditions and intellectual resources of the Church in order to respond to their encounters with the demonic, but we do not see them attempt to win converts to the Church and they typically confront their spiritual struggles alone. Preoccupied as they are with what Kinderman calls ‘the evil in the fabric of creation’ (L: 14), Blatty’s novels are animated nevertheless by the hope that redemptive meaning can be recovered from extreme suffering as well as from the more banal, quotidian evils of everyday life. His writing exem-
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plifies Andrew Tate’s observation that if ‘fiction is, by definition, a human construct, it will always constitute a jumble of sacred longing and ordinary failure’.15 Blatty’s fiction situates the human longing for the sacred within the context of extreme horrors, yet it is in this context that his novels locate openings of hope. Though Blatty does not follow the Death of God theologians in their rejection of transcendence, his work nevertheless echoes something of Altizer’s insistence that ‘the Christian is called to share or to coexperience Christ’s death, where a sharing of the passion of Christ becomes a participation in the process of salvation’.16 This chapter examines this redemptive participation in the passion of Christ, and its relationship to religious doubt and uncertainty, in Blatty’s work. Focusing primarily on The Exorcist, Legion and The Redemption, I will argue that Blatty offers a Christology in which the Christ who often seems invisible or absent is made present in embodied experience. The first section considers Blatty’s depictions of religious doubt and their creative frictions with Death of God theology and with the wider religious contexts of the US in the 1960s and beyond. The second section examines his approaches to the problem of evil and its relationship to theodicy, the branch of theology concerned with understanding evil in relation to divine sovereignty (or, in Milton’s more famous phrase, justifying the ways of God to men). The chapter concludes with a reading of the Christology of The Redemption and its significance for Blatty’s literary explorations of the problem of evil.
Ghosts of Faith: Blatty and the Death of God As Stephen Prothero has documented in his book American Jesus, the popular perception in the 1960s that the US was becoming increasingly secularised co-existed with the reality that by many measures ‘the sixties were as spiritual a decade as the United States has ever seen’.17 A range of factors were reshaping the religious landscape of the US, as the lifting of restrictions on immigration from Asia brought an influx of Eastern religious practices at the same time that the popular Christian emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus led many American Protestants away from the traditional denominations and either into the emerging Evangelical megachurches or away from institutional Christianity altogether.18 Many Americans of the hippie generation found their devotion to Jesus entirely compatible with the spiritual individualism and non-conformity inherited from the Beats of the previous decade: their Jesus was a spiritual seeker in the tradition of Jack Kerouac and the nineteenth-century Transcendentalists,
‘an itinerant dropout who left his job and family in order to seek God’.19 Followers of New Age spirituality drew freely upon Eastern religious as well as pagan and occult practices in order to shape their individual spiritual pursuits, though Paul Heelas notes a coherent idea underlying these diverse practices: ‘New Agers make the monistic assumption that the Self itself is sacred…There is thus general agreement that it is essential to shift from our contaminated mode of being – what we are by virtue of socialization – to that realm which constitutes our authentic nature’.20 Chris MacNeil’s secretary in The Exorcist, a self-styled ‘seeker after serenity’ whose spiritual fads have incorporated self-hypnosis, incense, Buddhist chanting and meditation, embodies the spiritual culture of the New Age movement.21 Chris herself, an atheist, is amused by Sharon’s New Ageist search for serenity, but more disturbed when she discovers that Sharon has been talking to Regan about God. In the fashionable, prosperous middle- class culture in which the MacNeils move, one’s spiritual practices are a matter of private choice rather than public proclamation. The Exorcist incorporates multiple aspects of the secularised spirituality of the 1960s, depicting a contemporary US in which scientific rationalism is disenchanting the world at the same time as folk religion and New Age practices offer their own versions of often-superficial transcendence. As a scientifically trained Jesuit who finds his modern scepticism increasingly at odds with his faith, Karras embodies many of the religious and intellectual tensions of his time. His growing scepticism leaves him bereft of his meaning-making structures; in sharp contrast to the faddish spirituality practised by Sharon, in which spiritual practices are discarded as easily as they are taken up, Karras’s loss of faith undermines the foundations of his identity and his ability to make sense of his world. If, as Altizer argued, ‘God has died in our time, in our history, in our existence’, then The Exorcist depicts the profound existential shock of that death.22 The death of God is an event in Karras’s experience, renewed each evening in what was once a moment of transcendence: End of day. The burnished rays of the setting sun flamed glory on the clouds of the western sky before shattering in gold and vermillion dapples on the darkening waters of the river. Once Karras met God in this sight. Long ago. Like a lover forsaken, he still kept the rendezvous. (TE: 175)
Karras experiences the loss of faith not as a simple movement from belief to unbelief but as a life haunted perpetually by ‘the crushing weight of
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caring and that meeting each twilight with the ghost of his faith’ (TE: 308). Arthur Bradley and Andrew Tate have argued that ‘it is often religious novelists – rather than atheists – who offer the most compelling imaginative depictions of non-belief, precisely because they know what it means to have believed in the first place’.23 In The Exorcist, the same sacraments that once made God present in Karras’s experience have become signifiers of divine absence. Karras’s inability to reconcile his faith with his scientific rationalism is depicted as a reversal of the Eucharist: seeking to encounter the body and blood of Christ, ‘Karras sadly watched blood turning back into wine’ (TE: 293). Death of God theologians such as Altizer and William Hamilton had maintained that ‘however acute the experience of the death of God may be for us, however much silence and loneliness are entailed during our time of waiting for the absent God, we are not particularly cast down or perplexed by this’.24 Blatty’s fiction takes a rather different view. Karras finds nothing redemptive in his experience of God’s death. He is diminished by it. Altizer believed that the death of the transcendent God would be the birth of a new faith in the power of human solidarity as the God of sovereign, patriarchal power gave way to the Christ incarnate in humanity. ‘When the Christian bets that God is dead’, Altizer writes, ‘he is betting upon the real and actual presence of the fully incarnate Christ’.25 Freed from the constraints of a wholly transcendent deity, Christ could be embodied in human love and solidarity: ‘The Christian disciple cannot seek the presence of Christ in a moment of time that is irrevocably past; he must open himself to the Incarnate Word that is present in his own time and space. Faith in Jesus Christ demands a response to a Word that is present in the life of every human hand and face’.26 In The Exorcist, however, the death of God leads Karras not towards new expressions of human solidarity, but away from the suffering of others. This failure of solidarity is encapsulated in Karras’s response to a drunk beggar who recognises him as a priest: He winced. Sagged. Couldn’t turn. He could not bear to search for Christ again in stench and hollow eyes; for the Christ of pus and bleeding excrement, the Christ who could not be. In an absent gesture, he felt at his coat sleeve as if for an unseen band of mourning. He dimly remembered another Christ. (TE: 49–50)
Karras’s religious doubts have their origins in his perception of suffering not only as the result of seemingly extreme evils, but as bound up in
the ordinary and quotidian of modern life. He attempts to articulate the causes of his loss of faith by referring to events such as the scandal of thalidomide births in the 1960s and the brutal murder of an altar boy by strangers, yet he also dismisses these as ‘too emotional’ to be used as explanations presentable to his superiors in the Church (TE: 52). Shifting his internal discourse to a more intellectual register, he focuses on the silence of God in response to ordinary human suffering. In Blatty’s later novel The Ninth Configuration, a psychiatric patient describes a logical proof of God’s existence as convincing him intellectually but not emotionally (TNC: 62). Karras implicitly acknowledges the same distinction between intellectual and emotional conviction. Though he is able to frame his doubts in the language of philosophy, and considers this mode of discourse more appropriate as a public explanation of his struggles, in reality they are rooted at least as much in an emotional response to suffering as in logical argument. Though Blatty’s fiction frequently incorporates intellectual debate about the existence of God, it nevertheless refuses to reduce either belief or unbelief to matters of intellectual conviction alone. Both faith and doubt are grounded as much in the emotional life as in the intellect. The ‘problem of evil’ that haunts several of Blatty’s protagonists, then, is not simply a problem for theological apologetics or rational resolution, but also an emotional and imaginative response to a suffering world. In The Redemption, Sergeant Peter Meral grieves for the deaths of his young son, killed by a Palestinian rocket as he ran to greet his father, and his wife, who died of cancer a short time later. Like many of Blatty’s characters, Meral occupies a liminal, shifting position between belief and unbelief, seeking the consolation of a hope to which he is unable to commit himself. He recalls a conversation with a US Army chaplain who uses the refusal of Christ’s disciples to deny his resurrection even at the cost of their own lives as evidence of the reliability of their claims. This argument gives Meral a momentary glimpse of hope, but ‘by the time the osso bucco and the salad had been served, he had lapsed back into the dryness of doubt and that night, as he did on every other, he knelt down in the hostel’s chapel to pray to a God he wasn’t sure existed that his little boy somehow, somewhere, did’ (TR: 140). Meral, Karras and Blatty’s other mourners for lost love and lost faith are not at home in the worlds of either modern rationalist naturalism or the superficial spirituality of faddish ‘seekers after serenity’. They have experienced the death of God not as the birth of a new religion of humanity but as the disordering of reality prophesied by
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Nietzsche’s madman. They feel the breath of empty space, and their world has become colder.27
Hurrah for Karamazov: Blatty and Theodicy Where The Exorcist depicts suffering and evil as destructive to Karras’s faith, its sequel, Legion, is more concerned with asking whether God must be held accountable for the suffering of the world. Corresponding with its date of publication in 1983, Legion is set twelve years after the events of The Exorcist and involves many of the same characters. Its central protagonist is detective Kinderman, a man preoccupied with the problem of evil both as a theological question and as a matter of practical urgency: as the novel begins, he is hunting a killer who has crucified a twelve-year-old boy on a cross made of kayak oars. The novel signals its theological intentions from its opening paragraph, as Kinderman incorporates the fact of the murdered boy into his philosophical speculations: He thought of death in its infinite groanings, of Aztecs ripping out living hearts and of cancer and three-year-olds buried alive and he wondered whether God was alien and cruel, but then remembered Beethoven and dappling of things and “Hurrah for Karamazov” and kindness. He stared at the sun coming up behind the Capitol, streaking the Potomac with orange light, and then down at the outrage, the horror at his feet. Something had gone wrong between man and his creator, and the evidence was here on this boathouse dock. (L: 11)
These opening sentences introduce several key strands of the novel’s theological project. They introduce the tension between evil as a violation of the sacred and beauty as imbued with transcendent and sacramental significance; the construction of the scene allows divine meaning to be simultaneously glimpsed and denied. The assertion of a breach between humanity and its creator invokes the Fall as a narrative trope that, as Karen Armstrong observes, ‘represents a near-universal conviction that life was not meant to be so painful and fragmented’.28 Blatty’s allusion to Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov (1880) situates Legion within the tradition of fiction that wrestles with evil and the justice of God. Indeed, where the Jesuit Damien Karras represented a contemporary Christian crisis of faith, the Jewish Kinderman reflects what Richard Harries calls ‘the Jewish tradition of protest against God, of questioning
God’.29 Where Karras doubts the existence of God, Kinderman believes but questions God’s justice. Legion is a modern horror novel that inherits the theological protest of the Old Testament book of Job. This spirit of protest is encapsulated in the narrator’s initial description of the crucified body of Thomas Kintry as an ‘outrage’. Kinderman responds to the murder not only as a crime with a human perpetrator but as a horror for which God himself stands accused. Kinderman sees the full horror of Kintry’s death not in its exceptional status as a manifestation of extreme human violence but rather in its consistency with the violence of nature. He recalls a hospital ward on which children with extreme physical and psychological disabilities were restrained in beds where they lay shrieking. ‘Could the glory and beauty of creation justify the pain of one such child?’ Kinderman wonders. ‘Ivan Karamazov deserved an answer’ (L: 15). The question of a moral justification for suffering, which Blatty here picks up from Dostoyevsky, responds to the line of theological apologetics offered by Kinderman’s friend Father Joseph Dyer (who was, like Kinderman, close to Karras in The Exorcist). For Dyer, the human tendency to respond to evil as unjust is evidence that humanity was created for something else: ‘You can’t say a line looks a little bit crooked’, he tells Kinderman, ‘unless you’ve got a notion of a line that’s straight’ (L: 52). Whatever one thinks of the merits of Dyer’s argument, it misses the point of Kinderman’s questions: for Kinderman, the reality of evil is not a challenge to God’s existence but to God’s goodness. Drawing on the language of his profession, Kinderman claims to approach the world ‘as if it were the scene of a crime’ in which he is ‘putting together the clues’ (L: 53). Yet whether his investigation will justify the ways of God to humanity or see God indicted for the suffering of the world remains ambiguous. In a Catholic church where a priest was murdered in the act of hearing confessions, the Jewish Kinderman addresses his complaints to the image of the crucified Christ: That you ever existed is a thought that gives me shelter; that men could make you up is a thought that gives me hope; and the thought that you might exist even now would give me safety and a gladness that I could not contain. I would like to touch your face and make you smile. It couldn’t hurt. So much for tea time and pleasantries. Who are you? What is it that you want from us? To suffer like you did on the cross? Well, we’re doing it. Please don’t go sleepless with worrying about this problem. We are all in good shape on that score. (L: 121)
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The Exorcist and Legion explore different approaches to the same fundamental problem: the apparent silence of God in the face of human suffering. Both Karras and Kinderman have come to regard suffering not as exceptional or extreme but as part of the ordinary fabric of life. For Karras, this recognition is sufficient to erode his faith. For Kinderman, the ‘outrage’ of suffering prompts a protest against God’s tolerance of evil. Kinderman’s questioning of Christ addresses one of the central problems of theodicy. If God is sovereign, are the evil and suffering of the world willed by God? Conversely, if evil is contrary to the will of God, does this suggest that divine sovereignty is limited? Can God allow that which is contrary to his own will? Karl Barth’s discussion of the nature of evil in his Church Dogmatics (1932–67) demonstrates something of the complexities of this problem. ‘There is amongst the objects of God’s providence an alien factor’, Barth argues. ‘It cannot escape God’s providence but is comprehended by it’, yet it ‘can never be considered or mentioned together in the same context as other objects of God’s providence’.30 Evil—in the tradition of privation theory, Barth calls it ‘nothingness’—is contrary to the will of God yet also contained within the scope of divine sovereignty.31 Kinderman interrogates this tension, demanding, Job-like, an explanation of God’s willingness to allow that which is contrary to his will. Though the problem of evil remains a consistent theme of Blatty’s fiction, Legion differs from The Exorcist and The Redemption both in the formulation of the question and the ways in which it is addressed. By the end of the novel, Kinderman has arrived at a theory that satisfies (to himself, at least) his complaints against the justice of God. He speculates that all of material being began as a single, unified force, ‘a person who long ago tore himself into pieces because of his longing to shape his own being. That was the Fall…the “Big Bang”: the beginning of time and the material universe when the one became many – legion’ (L: 332). Kinderman’s theory draws upon several biblical images: the Fall narrative of Genesis 3; Christ’s claim to have seen ‘Satan fall like lightning from heaven’ (Luke 10: 18); and the healing of a demon-possessed man who gives his name as ‘Legion…for we are many’ (Mark 5: 9). In Kinderman’s theory, ‘Legion’ becomes a metaphor for the existential condition of humanity, fallen from an original harmony into division and fragmentation. ‘And that is why God cannot interfere’, Kinderman argues: ‘evolution is this person growing back into himself’ (L: 333). This process of growth towards the restoration of an original unity is exemplified, Kinderman believes, by the ending of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov:
So now Alyosha – he’s a monk, by the way – he makes a speech to the boys at the gravesite and mainly he is telling them that when they’re grown up and face the evils of the world they should always reach back and remember this day, remember the goodness of their childhood, Atkins; this goodness that is basic in all of them; this goodness that hasn’t been spoiled. Just one good memory in their hearts, he says, can save their faith in the goodness of the world…Then Alyosha tells them something that is vitally important. “First, and above all, be kind,” he says. And the boys – they all love him – they all shout, “Hurrah for Karamazov!” (L: 331–2)
Legion, then, depicts evil not as inflicted directly upon humanity by an act of divine will but as the necessary condition of a world in which human subjects, fallen from a state of original union by their desire to shape their own being, aspire and struggle to regain the lost harmony. Paul Ricoeur has argued that myths of the origins of evil are always representations of humanity’s division from what we consider sacred and serve to situate this experience within a narrative trajectory that points towards the restoration of what has been lost.32 Kinderman’s theory echoes this mythical and biblical narrative trajectory from Fall to Apocalypse. Evil and suffering are not punishments imposed upon humanity by God, but necessary conditions of being in time. Legion ends on Kinderman’s glimpse of a diner-owner giving food to a beggar, a small moment of human kindness to close a narrative of extreme violence. ‘Hurrah for Karamazov!’ (L: 333), he whispers to himself in the novel’s final words. Kinderman’s theory of evolution as a movement towards the reunification of a divided universe has a precedent in The Exorcist. Father Lankester Merrin, the experienced exorcist who assists Karras in the case of Regan MacNeil, holds a similar view, though with the difference that Merrin frames the process in explicitly Christological terms. Karras observes of Merrin that ‘[h]is books had stirred ferment in the Church, for they interpreted his faith in terms of matter that was still evolving and destined to be spirit that at the end of time would join with Christ, the “Omega Point”’ (TE: 319). Though Merrin is in some ways a figure of tradition—an experienced exorcist at a time when few Catholic priests still believe in literal demons—his theology is a radical reinterpretation of orthodox doctrine and eschatology. This apparent tension between tradition and innovation is the crux of Merrin’s theology and distinguishes him—and Blatty’s fiction— from the work of Altizer and the Death of God theologians. Where Altizer saw in the death of the transcendent God the beginning of a newly incarnational faith, Merrell grounds his ethical convictions in transcendence:
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I think the demon’s target is not the possessed; it is us…the observers… every person in this house. And I think – I think the point is to make us despair; to reject our own humanity, Damien: to see ourselves as ultimately bestial, vile and putrescent; without dignity; ugly; unworthy. And there lies the heart of it, perhaps: in unworthiness. For I think belief in God is not a matter of reason at all; I think it finally is a matter of love: of accepting the possibility that God could ever love us. (TE: 345)
To accept this possibility of divine love, Merrin believes, is also to recognise the call of God to love others; love grounded primarily in the will rather than the emotions: ‘He was asking that I act with love; that I do unto others; and that I should do it unto those who repelled me, I believe, was a greater act of love than any other’ (TE: 346). Merrin describes faith as a life of embodied praxis that bases its behaviour towards other people upon the conviction that those people are loved by God. In this view, a theology of transcendence is the necessary grounding of the individual’s actions towards other people. Rowan Williams makes a similar point: ‘what I recognize in recognizing the dignity of the other is that they have a standing before God, which is, of its nature, invulnerable to the success or failure of any other relationship or any situation in the contingent world’.33 The plural is significant in Merrin’s claim that faith begins with acceptance of ‘the possibility that God could ever love us’: his point is that acceptance of divine love for humanity necessitates acting towards others as individuals already loved by God. In this respect, The Exorcist rejects a fundamental premise of the Death of God theologians. Blatty’s novel depicts embodied human solidarity not as beginning with the death of the transcendent God but as grounded in the love of the transcendent God for humanity. The Exorcist and Legion depict faith not as a matter of certainty, but as a hope staked in the possibility of divine love and human dignity. Faith based on rational conviction remains fragile: even as Karras watches Merrin confront the demon that possesses Regan MacNeil, his rational mind turns to scientific explanations that deny the reality of what he is seeing. Blatty represents faith as an act of the will, a choice to live as if God’s love for humanity were a reality. The ‘problem of evil’ in Blatty’s fiction is not primarily an intellectual problem to be solved by theological apologetics, but an existential reality that demands an active response of love. Blatty’s theology is incarnational in the general sense that it sees divine love as at least potentially embodied in human relationships and actions. Is it, then,
also incarnational in the more specific Christian sense of seeing divine love embodied in the figure of Christ? What do Blatty’s novels have to say about Jesus of Nazareth?
The Other Christ The characters in Blatty’s most overtly Christological novel, The Redemption, seem at times to suffer from a surfeit of Christs. The hospital in Jerusalem in which the agnostic Moses Mayo works has two patients on its psychological ward who each believe themselves to be Christ—at least until one of them kills the other in mid-sermon. Also in the hospital is Eddie Shore, a writer working on a novel set in the time of Christ. The protagonists of The Redemption seem preoccupied with Christ and, particularly, with the historicity of the New Testament. Sergeant Meral, seeking reassurance that there is hope for his dead family, checks off ‘facts about the resurrection as if conducting the most methodical of police investigations’ (TR: 175). Yet perhaps the clearest metaphor for the place of Christ in the novel is provided by a text from Luke’s Gospel, quoted by the would-be Christ who has murdered his rival. In the biblical story, a crowd is enraged by Jesus’s words and attempts to seize him in order to put him to death, but ‘he walked right through the crowd and went on his way’ (Luke 4: 30; cf. TR: 248–9). The Jesus of The Redemption is a similarly elusive figure, at once present and absent. Images and echoes of Christ are scattered throughout the text, yet Christ seems constantly to escape the grasp of those who seek him. There is another Christ in The Redemption, as the killer on the psychiatric ward admits when Meral suggests to him that he is now the only Christ in the city (TR: 114). Though most of the novel is set in Jerusalem in 1974, the story begins in Algeria a year earlier, where a prisoner is interrogated and tortured by the police and state officials. The police have unusual difficulty in identifying the prisoner, not only because the name on his identity card belongs to a dead man, but because witnesses who have seen him (or photographs of him) have remarkable difficulty in agreeing upon what he looks like. One man initially agrees that the prisoner is in fact Selca Decani, as his identity card states, before looking again and admitting that ‘he’d somehow made an error, for until that moment it had slipped his mind that Selca Decani had been dead for many years, and that our fellow looked nothing like Decani at all’ (TR: 16). This uncanny reaction, from a witness who had known Decani well, is echoed by others
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throughout the novel. Some see the prisoner as a big man, others as thin; witnesses give differing descriptions of the colour of his eyes and hair. The prisoner is a CIA agent and sometime assassin named Paul Dimiter, whose method is to gather as much information as possible about the lifestyle, habits and personality of his targets to the extent that ‘when he had finished with his preparation Dimiter virtually was the target’ (TR: 312). When he arrives in Jerusalem in 1974, however, Dimiter has a different kind of target: he is hunting Christ. A series of seemingly inexplicable events—largely seen from the perspective of Meral and other investigators—recall key events in the Passion of Christ, the period in the Gospel narratives from Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem to the crucifixion. Blatty’s Jerusalem is a city in which the sacred has been commercialised, where people listen to pop music under the Stations of the Cross and American tourists make plans to sell water from the River Jordan. Dimiter’s imitation of Christ represents an ambiguous glimpse of authentic devotion in a city of spiritual tourists and religious kitsch. Dimiter’s appearance, identity and history shift throughout the novel. Under interrogation in Algeria, Dimiter produces at least five different stories of his background and origins, all of which are confirmed by a polygraph test (TR: 62). When Meral searches an apartment he believes to have been used by Dimiter under the name Joseph Temescu, he finds five passports: ‘one Italian, one British, one Swedish, one Cambodian, and one American, all issued in different names, although none in the name of Temescu; and all bore the photo of a man who, while generally resembling Temescu, also differed from the photo on his driver’s license, just as each differed one from the other’ (TR: 196). The plethora of images and narratives associated with Dimiter is integral to the novel’s engagement with Christology. From the earliest Christian writings, the story of Jesus has always been told in different ways and from different perspectives: the New Testament itself, after all, includes not one Gospel narrative, but four. Jesus has been reread and reinterpreted by a vast range of cultures and traditions; artistic representations have depicted him as representative a wide variety of ethnicities and social groups.34 From the early nineteenth century, biblical scholarship came to be shaped increasingly by a historical-critical methodology that sought to distinguish the real, historical Jesus from the layers of cultural interpretation that seemed to surround him in the New Testament and beyond. Texts such as David Friedrich Strauss’s The Life of Jesus, Critically Examined (1835–36) established a scholarly approach to the Gospels as
human-authored documents open to critical analysis and, crucially, to a methodological scepticism that sought to demythologise the Gospel narratives. Despite its intentions, however, the historical-critical method failed to produce a single, definitive image of Jesus. By the early twentieth century, proponents of historical criticism such as Albert Schweitzer recognised the extent to which critical views of Jesus continued to be shaped by the cultural and political perspectives of the interpreters.35 In the 1980s and 90s, in a bid to achieve a measure of critical consensus, a number of prominent biblical scholars were brought together under the auspices of the Jesus Seminar, founded by Robert Funk in 1985. Over two decades, members of the Seminar were asked to vote on the authenticity of sayings and acts of Jesus recorded in the New Testament. Those words and events voted authentic would form a reliable account of the historical Jesus. Despite its search for a kind of consensus, however, the work of the Jesus Seminar remains highly controversial. Thomas Altizer, who was himself no respecter of traditionalist orthodoxies, suggested that ‘a real goal of this scholarly version of the gospels is to give us a Jesus who can neither shock nor offend’.36 The crucial error of the Seminar, for Altizer, was its neglect of the apocalypticism of Jesus, which Altizer understood in terms of an absolute transformation of the relationship between humanity and the divine. If, Altizer argues, the Seminar ‘is wholly indifferent to the question of the relation between Jesus and God, and proceeds as if the question of God is of no real significance at all in the language of Jesus, it is difficult to imagine how it would be possible to create a more nonhistorical Jesus’.37 While historical scholars debated the historicity of the Gospel narratives, other theologians focused their critical attentions on Trinitarian theology and, particularly, the orthodox Christian belief that Jesus of Nazareth was the incarnate Son of God. In 1977, the ten essays in The Myth of God Incarnate, edited by the philosopher John Hick, questioned the necessity and the theological foundations of the incarnation. The introductory essay by Maurice Wiles noted that incarnation, ‘in its full and proper sense, is not something directly presented in scripture. It is a construction built on the variegated evidence to be found there’.38 For the contributors to the collection, the New Testament language traditionally interpreted as speaking of incarnation could be better read as articulating the effect of Jesus on the speakers. ‘We may describe his felt effect’, argued Leslie Houlden, ‘as the revitalizing and reshaping of people’s sense of God. There was heightened awareness of God’s reality, God’s claims, God’s promises, God’s
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power. Those affected now knew God differently than before’.39 The language of incarnation was part of the living tradition of the Christian community through the ages; it articulated something of the transformed awareness of God in the lives of the believers. It was not, however, a reliable guide to the ontological status of Jesus as the divine Word made flesh. The multiple images and stories of Dimiter echo the cultural status of the Christ he seeks. As Stephen Prothero observes, it is ‘highly unlikely that Americans will ever come to any consensus about who Jesus really is, but they have agreed for some time that Jesus really matters’.40 Images of Jesus continue to proliferate in the contemporary world across a range of political, ethnic, cultural and religious lines. Jesus has been a conservative and a socialist, a pacifist and a warrior; he has joined presidents in the Oval Office and waded through rivers as a refugee. His cross has been carried by white supremacists and he has died at the hands of lynch mobs. As biblical scholarship continues to yield differing accounts of the ‘historical’ Jesus, so numerous groups—religious and secular—continue to stake claims for the authenticity of their own images of Jesus. That the imitator of Christ in The Redemption is a figure of no fixed appearance, image or story reflects both the cultural ubiquity and the contested reality of Jesus of Nazareth. The Redemption is not simply a novel about Jesus: it is a novel about the reception of Jesus in culture and theology. Rather than offering a specific historical or theological view of Jesus, The Redemption explores responses to the figure of Christ. In this respect, Dimiter both exemplifies a particular kind of response—the imitation of Christ—and becomes a Christ-figure to whom others respond as the final events of his life parallel those in the Gospel narratives of Jesus. Dimiter is not Christ, but the novel allows something of Christ to be glimpsed in him. The Jesuit theologian Gerald O’Collins argues that Christology must take account of ‘the living presence of Christ brought to us through all the men and women around us’, and that, in particular, ‘we can expect those who suffer to be privileged carriers of his presence’.41 Dimiter’s imitation of Christ is connected closely with suffering—both his own, and that of the Christ whose path along the Via Dolorosa he follows literally as well as symbolically. Grieving for his wife, Jean, Dimiter discovers in Jerusalem that she has faked her death in order to disappear with her lover, the rogue CIA agent Stephen Riley. Riley and Jean plan to murder Dimiter in the mistaken belief that he has come to Jerusalem in pursuit of them. In his last moments before Riley shoots him dead, Dimiter offers forgiveness to his killers:
And as Dimiter moved to the side with a fond stare settled upon the face of his wife, Jean Dimiter suddenly burst into tears and raced forward to her husband with her arms outstretched to embrace him just as grace and a bullet exploded white fire into her brain. “Jesus Christ!” Riley uttered in shock. Dimiter looked down at his wife’s crumpled body. And then back up at Riley. “And I forgive you too.” (TR: 295)
These words of forgiveness—an echo of Christ’s words on the cross, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’ (Luke 23: 34)—are Dimiter’s last. Riley’s choice of epithet, of course, carries more truth than he knows. In his final, sacrificial act, Dimiter has entered fully into the Passion of Christ. Following Dimiter’s death, Meral finds a letter he had written to Jean before leaving for their meeting. The letter, apparently left deliberately for Meral to find, makes clear that Dimiter understood that the meeting would end in his death: I am coming to your meeting. I’ll be there. And I will make no resistance. I am coming to tell you and to show you I forgive you, for who knows then what blithe and unexpected grace might one day beckon your heart to where it’s always belonged. And then finally allow you to forgive yourself. (TR: 318)
Going willingly to his own execution in order that another might find grace and forgiveness, Dimiter embodies the redemptive suffering of Christ. Jean is not the first to find a moment of grace through an encounter with Dimiter. Vlora, the Albanian interrogator whose son Dimiter had killed while escaping from his cell, tracks down Dimiter in order to avenge his son’s death (albeit reluctantly, as Vlora himself had despised his son’s cruelty). Dimiter, however, risks his own life to rescue Vlora from a burning car and nurses him back to health in his own apartment. As Meral observes in his summary of the case, Dimiter’s behaviour towards a man who had tortured him entirely reverses the honour code on which Vlora has based his own pursuit of vengeance: ‘Vlora changed. He was overcome. Made new’ (TR: 309). Indeed, Vlora performs his own Christlike act of sacrifice. Suffering already from terminal cancer, Vlora disguises himself as Dimiter and poisons himself in the hope of convincing Riley that Dimiter is dead. Completing the symbolism of this death in the place of another, Vlora’s body is found lying on the Tomb of Christ in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
WILLIAM PETER BLATTY AND THE PRESENCE OF THE ABSENT CHRIST
Christ is an elusive figure in The Redemption, always slipping through the crowd and out of reach of those who seek him. Yet the absent Christ of Blatty’s fiction is made present in the actions of those individuals who incarnate divine love and become means of grace to others. ‘For Christian faith’, writes Gerard Loughlin, ‘God is known only as that which happens: not as a being or as a thing, but as an event’.42 Blatty in The Redemption shows the event of incarnation repeated and renewed in present experience. When Meral finds Dimiter’s final letter, the narrative shifts unexpectedly into a theological register. The letter is described as ‘a single sheet of paper on which the love that had created the beauty of things had now written a letter of its own’ (TR: 317). The narrative at this point draws no distinction between Dimiter’s love for Jean and God’s love for his creation. The one is continuous with the other. Divine love becomes incarnate in human action. The Christology of The Redemption provides a useful perspective from which to read the ending of Karras’s story in The Exorcist. Karras, the perennial doubter, finds his own resolution—and, perhaps, his redemption—not through theological apologetics or even his experience of the demonic but through a final act of embodied, Christlike love. Taking upon himself the demon that has possessed and tortured Regan MacNeil, Karras throws himself through Regan’s bedroom window, killing himself and defeating the demon. As Karras dies, Father Dyer hears his final confession and sees ‘the eyes filled with peace; and with something else: something like joy at the end of heart’s longing. The eyes were still staring. But at nothing in this world. Nothing here’ (TE: 368). Faith in The Exorcist, and in Blatty’s writing more generally, was always primarily a matter of love rather than reason. The absent Christ, invisible to Karras in the sacraments, silent before Kinderman’s questions, and perpetually elusive to those who seek him in Jerusalem, is finally made present in acts of embodied love. Dimiter’s spiritual mentor, Cardinal Ricci, observes that ‘[s]ometimes suffering turns out to be the dirty window that at last allows grace to enter the heart’ (TR: 214). In Blatty’s fiction, the outrage and horror of evil occur in a world always open to the possibility of grace.
Notes 1. Published as Dimiter is the US. 2. William Peter Blatty, The Redemption (London: Piatkus, 2011), p. 78. Further references are given parenthetically with the abbreviation TR.
Mayo refers several times to the healing as taking place at the Pool of Bethesda; he would appear to be confusing the healing at Bethsaida in Mark with the healing of a lame man beside the Pool of Bethesda in John 5. 3. ‘Horror at The Exorcist Screening in Former Church’, BBC News, 6 July 2017, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-40520316 4. William Peter Blatty, ‘There is Goodness in The Exorcist’, America, 23 February 1974, pp. 131–2. 5. Michael Edwards, Towards a Christian Poetics (London: Macmillan, 1984), p. 12. 6. William Peter Blatty, Legion (New York: Tor, 2011), p. 11. Further references are given parenthetically with the abbreviation L. 7. William Peter Blatty, The Ninth Configuration (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), p. 37. Further references are given parenthetically with the abbreviation TNC. 8. John T. Elson, ‘Toward a Hidden God’, Time, 8 April 1966, archived at: http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,835309,00. html 9. Thomas J. J. Altizer, The Gospel of Christian Atheism (London: Collins, 1967), pp. 80–1. 10. Altizer, The Gospel of Christian Atheism, p. 156. 11. Thomas J. J. Altizer, The New Apocalypse: The Radical Christian Vision of William Blake (Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 1967), pp. 132–3. 12. Joseph Laycock, ‘The Folk Piety of William Peter Blatty: The Exorcist in the Context of Secularization’, Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion, 5 (2009), article 6, p. 23. 13. Sean M. Quinlan, ‘Demonizing the Sixties: Possession Stories and the Crisis of Religious and Medical Authority in Post-Sixties American Popular Culture’, Journal of American Culture 37. 3 (September 2014), pp. 314– 30 (p. 328). 14. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2007), pp. 146–58. 15. Tate, Contemporary Fiction and Christianity, p. 18. 16. Altizer, The Gospel of Christian Atheism, p. 51. 17. Stephen Prothero, American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), p. 125. 18. Prothero, American Jesus, pp. 124–57. 19. Prothero, American Jesus, p. 139. 20. Paul Heelas, The New Age Movement: The Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), p. 3.
WILLIAM PETER BLATTY AND THE PRESENCE OF THE ABSENT CHRIST
21. William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist: $0th Anniversary Edition (London: Corgi, 2011), p. 26. Further references are given parenthetically with the abbreviation TE. 22. Thomas J. J. Altizer and William Hamilton, Radical Theology and the Death of God (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1966), p. 95. 23. Arthur Bradley and Andrew Tate, The New Atheist Novel: Philosophy, Fiction and Polemic After 9/11 (London and New York: Continuum, 2010), p. 110. 24. Altizer and Hamilton, Radical Theology and the Death of God, p. 50. 25. Altizer, The Gospel of Christian Atheism, p. 145. 26. Altizer and Hamilton, Radical Theology and the Death of God, p. 123. 27. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. by Thomas Common (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2008), p. 103. 28. Karen Armstrong, In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis (London: Vintage, 2011), p. 21. 29. Richard Harries, After the Evil: Christianity and Judaism in the Shadow of the Holocaust (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 62. 30. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, III. iii, trans. by G. W. Bromiley and R. J. Erlich (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1961), p. 289. 31. Barth, Church Dogmatics III. iii, pp. 289–368. 32. Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, pp. 5–6. 33. Rowan Williams, Faith in the Public Square (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2012), p. 171. 34. For a discussion of some theological implications of cross-cultural Christology, see Volker Küster, The Many Faces of Jesus Christ, trans. by John Bowden (London: SCM, 2001). 35. For a detailed survey and critical assessment of the historical critical method in Jesus scholarship, see N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (London: SPCK, 1996), pp. 1–124. 36. Thomas J. J. Altizer, The Contemporary Jesus (London: SCM, 1998), p. 23. 37. Altizer, The Contemporary Jesus, p. 29. 38. Maurice Wiles, ‘Christianity Without Incarnation?’, in John Hick (ed.), The Myth of God Incarnate (London: SCM, 1977), pp. 1–10 (p. 3). 39. Leslie Houlden, ‘The Creed of Experience’, in John Hick (ed.), The Myth of God Incarnate (London: SCM, 1977), pp. 125–32 (p. 127). 40. Prothero, American Jesus, p. 300. 41. Gerald O’Collins, Interpreting Jesus (London and New York: Mowbray, 1983), pp. 8–9. 42. Gerard Loughlin, Telling God’s Story: Bible, Church and Narrative Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 179.
‘Time to Let Go of All the Old Things’: Justin Cronin’s Radically Orthodox Christology
For the school of New Testament criticism that has come to be known collectively as the quest for the historical Jesus, the real life, activities and words of Jesus of Nazareth must be separated from the Gospel narratives in which he becomes the Christ of faith. The Jesus of history is pursued as a kernel of historical reality at the heart of the mythologised narratives and traditions that grew up around him in the early decades of the Christian Church. Precisely where and how these divisions might be drawn, however, remain troublingly contested questions. As Gerard Loughlin observes: Historical positivism understands the Gospels as testaments of faith. For positivist historians (and nearly all biblical historians have been and are positivist historians) the Gospels do not testify to Jesus Christ, but to the faith in Jesus of their writers and audiences. This is why the historians have to get behind the Gospels, behind the faith that produced them, in order to determine what ‘really’ happened. They seek to produce a ‘neutral’ narrative of Jesus, a story told without faith.1
The range of such ‘neutral’ narratives produced by historical Jesus scholarship reveals not only the inherent difficulties of distinguishing between history and faith in the study of biblical texts that recognise no such distinction, but also the ways in which historical criticism is itself shaped by ideological commitments. As the biblical historian Walter Wink points out, the historical quests ‘were not recovering Jesus as he really was; rather, they were forging the myth of the human Jesus’.2 In seeking to rid the Gospel narratives of what the critics believed to be their mythological © The Author(s) 2018 S. Marsden, The Theological Turn in Contemporary Gothic Fiction, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-96571-0_6
accretions, historical criticism constructed versions of Jesus that conformed to the secular humanist frameworks within which the critical investigations were themselves conducted. In his recent book Re-Writing Jesus (2015), Graham Holderness points out a parallel between the prominence of the historical-critical method in biblical scholarship and the emergence of the novel in the rationalist culture of the eighteenth century. ‘The Jesus of the novel’, Holderness argues, ‘tends to be…a historical human being prised away from theological doctrine and ecclesiastical dogma. He may be prophet, poet, teacher, Carlylean hero, Nietzschean superman, moral exemplar and martyr, but he is not the crucified and risen Christ’.3 This demythologising tendency in fiction is not simply a reflection of atheistic or anticlerical views of writers but a characteristic of the realist tradition in fiction itself. In a discussion of the dual nature of Christ as both human and divine, the theologian Kathryn Tanner argues that ‘the divinity of Christ has a kind of invisibility: divinity makes no obvious appearance in the form of some identifiable empirical or metaphysical feature of Jesus’ life’.4 This ‘invisibility’ of Christ’s divinity presents a clear problem for the representation of Christ in fiction, even for writers motivated by relatively orthodox theological concerns: how might one represent invisible divinity within a literary genre shaped by its concern with the visible, empirical and observable? In this respect, less conventionally mimetic genres such as Gothic might offer advantages for theological representation. Gothic fiction’s openness to the non-rational and otherworldly would seem to offer resources for exploring the figure of Christ that are unavailable to realist narration. This is not to say that Gothic versions of Christ necessarily bring us closer to theological orthodoxy than do other modes of representation, but rather that Gothic’s characteristic interests in the limits of the rational and empirical have a particular kind of resonance with the ‘invisible’ aspects of Christology. Borrowing a phrase from John Milbank, Graham Ward proposes that the work of Christology is to ‘make strange’ the figure of Christ. Theology, Ward argues, ‘must run risks because understandings and receptions of the Word frequently atrophy; they cease to surprise and they cease to scandalise. The Word then must be made strange again’.5 On this view, the difficulty faced by contemporary Christology is not that the historical Jesus has been obscured by mythological accretions, but rather that the strangeness and scandal of Christ have been obscured by his cultural ubiquity and, perhaps, by the doctrinal and institutional structures of orthodox Christianity itself. If this is the case—if the problem is not a Christ ren-
‘TIME TO LET GO OF ALL THE OLD THINGS’: JUSTIN CRONIN’S…
dered mysteriously Other by the faith of the first century, but one domesticated by both the religion and the scepticism of the present—in what ways might the imaginative resources of Gothic fiction serve to make this Christ strange again? The focus of this chapter is on Justin Cronin’s Passage trilogy (2010–16), a post-apocalyptic vampire narrative that draws extensively on Christological themes and narrative tropes. Cronin depicts a near-future America in which a secret military research project creates a virus that gives extraordinary physical strength and resilience—along with extreme ferocity—to infected humans. The aim of the project is to create super-soldiers, but the military loses control of the virus, which unleashes a swarm of vampires (virals) that rapidly destroys the human population of America and then the world. The virals are organised into twelve collectives, each controlled by one of the original test subjects (the Twelve): death row inmates offered the chance to save their lives by participating in the experiment. The Twelve, in turn, are controlled by a viral known as Zero, originally a scientist named Tim Fanning who was a participant in the research expedition that formed the basis for the military project. Each of the Twelve exerts a form of mental control over his collective (or ‘Many’), forcing them to relive and repeat the memory of his crime. The remaining human resistance to the virals comes to be organised around the ambiguous figure of Amy Harper Bellafonte. A child at the time of the viral outbreak, Amy is infected with a variant strain of the virus that one of the scientists believes can become an antidote. Almost a century later, Amy—still physically a child—appears at a survivor settlement. From the opening sentence of the first novel, The Passage (2010), Amy is represented in terms that echo both the messianic language of the New Testament and the history of critical tensions between the human Jesus and divine Christ: Before she became the Girl from Nowhere – the One Who Walked In, the First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years – she was just a little girl in Iowa, named Amy. Amy Harper Bellafonte.6
The structure of this opening sentence ensures that for the reader, at least, there is no ‘before’: we read Amy’s messianic titles before we read her name. In the distant future, Amy has become the saviour-figure of a new religion; the summaries of the story so far at the beginnings of The Twelve (2012) and The City of Mirrors (2016) are narrated in a style and structure
that mimics the King James Bible.7 Yet, rather than framing these later religious narratives as mythologised versions of a historical reality in the manner of historical Jesus scholarship, the narrative depicts Amy as always imbued with otherness and ambiguity: from the inclusion of her messianic titles in its opening sentence, the trilogy never allows the reader to encounter a ‘historical’ Amy wholly distinct from what we might call the ‘Amy of faith’. Amy’s otherness is not imposed upon her by later religious mythologies, but is perceived by some of her closest friends and followers. One of these, Peter Jaxon, describes Amy in terms that echo Christian accounts of the dual nature of Christ: ‘It was as if she were part of two worlds, one that he could see and one that he could not; and it was within this other, hidden world that the meaning of their voyage lay’ (TP: 604). This chapter examines the Christological themes in the Passage trilogy and considers the ways in which they might interact with and inform contemporary theological approaches. The first section examines specific Christological parallels and allusions in the trilogy, and argues that Amy represents a version of Christ ‘made strange’. The second section situates the trilogy in relation to the contemporary neo-Augustinian theologies associated with Radical Orthodoxy, a loosely defined theological movement most commonly identified with the work of Milbank, Catherine Pickstock and Ward. The final section considers the versions of redemption explored in the trilogy and argues that these parallel Pickstock’s account of redemption as non-identical repetition. Where Zero embodies a destructive and privative nihilism that seeks to transform all being into an identical repetition of his own despair, Amy reintroduces the possibility of variation and change. In the context of a trilogy in which evil is imagined as nothingness—literally, as ‘Zero’—redemption is understood as a work of creative renewal.
‘Amy, Whose Name Is Love’: Cronin’s Vampire-Messiah In the ‘Book of Twelves’, the sacred text of the religion devoted to Amy in the trilogy’s far-future framing narrative, the viral plague has become an act of divine judgement like the flood of Genesis 6–8 (TT: xi–xii). The virals are a manifestation of human violence; they are the ‘monsters of men’s hearts’ (TT: xi) given physical form. In this scriptural retelling, Amy is framed overtly as a messianic figure chosen by God to rescue humanity:
‘TIME TO LET GO OF ALL THE OLD THINGS’: JUSTIN CRONIN’S…
7. But also I will choose one among you who is pure of heart and mind, a child to stand against them; and I will send a sign so that all may know, and this sign shall be a great commotion of animals. 8. And this was Amy, whose name is Love: Amy of Souls, the Girl from Nowhere. (TT: xii)
Though this reimagining of Amy’s story as a scriptural narrative bears a superficial resemblance to the processes of mythological accretion proposed by historical Jesus scholars, Cronin’s narrative suggests a different kind of relationship between history and myth. The sequence of events in the scriptural retelling does not deviate significantly from that of the main narrative; it condenses, but it does not invent. What is at stake in the shift between the two narrative forms is not what happened but what the events mean. The virals, created as weapons by a secret military research project, are indeed the products of human violence. A ‘great commotion of animals’ does take place in Amy’s (pre-viral) childhood, when her presence at a zoo causes polar bears to gather around her as if communicating with her (TP: 96–7). The ‘Book of Twelves’ has not invented events, but interpreted them. The viral outbreak has become God’s judgement upon corrupt and violent humanity; the reaction of the animals to Amy is read as a sign of her messianic calling. In the latter case, at least, the reading is entirely retrospective. If the reaction of animals to Amy is a sign, it is one that remains largely unread by her contemporaries. The story of Amy written from the perspective of faith does not interpolate new events, but rather situates the events of her life within a theological framework that seeks to fix their meaning. In constructing Amy as a messianic figure, then, the Passage trilogy brings into view the question of how such a figure is to be read and understood. Rather than offering a clear distinction between history and mythology, the trilogy suggests that all responses to and interpretations of Amy are culturally embedded. In this way, the trilogy resonates with contemporary reassessments of the quests for the historical Jesus. As Gerald O’Collins argues, ‘there never was an uninterpreted, “untheological” Jesus. Here, as elsewhere, there was no given that was not yet interpreted’.8 The trilogy both incorporates the processes of interpretation by which individuals and communities attempt to make sense of Amy and, through its use of Christological allusions, participates in the contemporary cultural interpretation of Jesus. Amy’s arrival at the survivor community known as
First Colony, ninety-two years after the initial viral outbreak, occurs at a time when the traditions of Christian religious practice are largely forgotten: the copy of Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol that Amy carries prompts one of the survivors to recall being told that ‘Christmas was a kind of gathering in the Time Before, like First Night. But no one really knew’ (TP: 413). The trilogy’s messianic figure appears at a time when the traditions and theology of Christianity have faded from the collective cultural memory. Amy’s own messianic role—one that overtly re-enacts several key events in the Gospel narratives—is performed in the context of a culture that possesses few established theological resources with which to make sense of it. The reader, of course, might detect Christological allusions that are unrecognisable by characters within the narrative, yet the reader also sees these allusions embodied both in a female Christ-figure and through the Gothic idiom of vampirism. In all of these ways, the Word is made strange in the novels. In a systematic examination of the theological concept of incarnation, Kathryn Tanner argues that the divine nature of Christ remains concealed in its nature even when glimpsed in the events of Jesus’s life: The divine image that sets the pattern for Jesus’ own human life cannot be captured in that it remains invisible in its divinity even as it surfaces in the organizing principle of now perfected human life. The divinity of Jesus’ life is an inference, hidden behind the fact of a human life dedicated to our salvation, hidden behind the fact of human acts that save. All one sees is a human life with an unusual capacity to heal and forgive, unimaginable apart from divine powers, powers that one consequently must affirm by faith rather than sight.9
On this view, incarnation does not simply embody, and therefore make visible, that which was previously invisible. Christ’s divinity remains hidden, an inference to be drawn from the life and actions of Jesus. Whatever else the concept of divinity might mean, it is in this sense an interpretation; it is a reading of the person and life of Jesus that sees in them the presence of the divine Son, the second person of the Trinity. In the Passage trilogy, Amy’s ambiguous nature is similarly a matter for interpretation. The response to her of the polar bears at the zoo suggests an otherness about her that cannot be explained by her subsequent status as carrier of a variant strain of the virus. When asked why the bears responded to her, Amy says only that they ‘know…[w]hat I am’ (TP: 97). Yet what Amy is
‘TIME TO LET GO OF ALL THE OLD THINGS’: JUSTIN CRONIN’S…
remains a contested question throughout the trilogy. Sister Lacey, the nun who takes Amy to the zoo and attempts to protect her from the FBI agents sent by the military to retrieve her, interprets Amy in the terms of her Christian faith: Amy is ‘a mystery, sent to them by God – and not even to them, but to her’ (TP: 60). For Brad Wolgast, the FBI agent who takes Amy from the convent but later becomes her protector and father figure, Amy is a symbolic return of his daughter, Eva, who died in childhood: ‘And then you came, Amy, he said. Then I found you. Do you see? It was like she’d come back to me’ (TP: 186). This identification of Amy as another Eva recalls the New Testament image of Christ as a second Adam: the female messianic figure becomes a new Eva/Eve.10 The trilogy never gives us a version of Amy that is not already interpreted. Amy’s status as a saviour-figure has a scientific explanation. She is the carrier of a variant strain of the virus, given to her by Jonas Lear—the leader of the project that discovered the virus—in the hope that it will eventually become an antidote to the destructive strain propagated by Zero and the Twelve. Yet though her status as a carrier of the virus remains integral to her ability to overcome the virals, the narrative persistently complicates materialist explanations of her nature and actions. Amy does not simply perform her prescribed role as an antidote to the virus. She redefines that role, shaping it into a task of redemption and recreation. Amy becomes a messianic figure for a world in crisis. Her arrival in the survivor community is marked by hints of providence. The elderly woman known as Auntie, a child at the time of the viral outbreak, sees in Amy’s arrival an act of divine rescue: ‘the God I know about’, Auntie tells Peter Jaxon, ‘He wouldn’t give us no chance’ (TP: 382). Moments later, Peter is summoned to the defensive wall by a commotion caused by the presence outside of three virals and Amy. Auntie’s final words to Peter, before he hears the alerts from the wall, strike a prophetic tone: “Just so you know. She comin’.” He was taken aback. “Who’s coming, Auntie?” A teacherly frown. “You know who, boy. You known it since the day God dreamed you up.” (TP: 383)
Auntie is not the only character who seems to have some awareness of Amy before her existence is known to any of the survivor communities. Later in The Passage, the military officer Lucius Greer admits to Peter that Amy is familiar to him from childhood fever dreams (TP: 661–2). The
narrative thus associates Amy with a discourse of prophetic anticipation without presenting that discourse as wholly reliable, coming as it does from an elderly woman whose speech is often confused and from remembered dreams provoked by a childhood fever. Two sequences in The Twelve make overt the Christological analogies at work in the novel. The first takes place in the Homeland, a settlement under the totalitarian control of Horace Guilder, a director of the original military project who has prolonged his life by feeding on infected blood. When the Twelve are summoned to the Homeland by Guilder in order to feed publicly on citizens accused of insurgency, Peter and his companions—survivors from First Colony and former members of the military unit known as the Expeditionary—plan an attack. Amy, however, deviates from the plan. She surrenders herself to Guilder, who offers her to the Twelve. In a scene loaded with echoes of the crucifixion narratives, Amy is suspended in chains—‘high in the air, her arms held from her sides’ (TT: 517)—above the arena in which the executions are to take place. Amy appears as the innocent sacrifice, giving her life for her friends. Yet as the Twelve approach, she senses the presence of Brad Wolgast, the FBI agent who became her protector and father figure and who is now a viral: — Father. Yes, Amy. I am here. A rush of love swelled her heart. Tears rose to her throat. — Oh, Daddy, I’m sorry. Look away. Look away. (TT: 521)
Amy’s words suggest an indirect allusion to the Cry of Dereliction, the final words of Jesus on the cross in Mark’s Gospel: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Mark 15: 34). These words have usually been understood in Christian theology as signifying the separation of the Father from the Son as the Son endures a form of execution that in Jewish tradition rendered its victim accursed.11 Amy’s words deviate from the Cry of Dereliction yet still recall something of its traditional interpretation: Amy, the innocent sacrifice appalled by what she must now become, pleads with her father/Father to turn away from her. Amy sacrifices not simply her life, but her human life. She embraces the virus and is transformed fully into her viral form: ‘Amy Harper Bellafonte, fully weaponized’ (TT: 524). Having become one of the virals, she is able to fight the Twelve, destroying some and luring the remainder into the blast range of the explosives planted by her companions. The Christological
‘TIME TO LET GO OF ALL THE OLD THINGS’: JUSTIN CRONIN’S…
allusion here rests upon the trilogy’s consistent depiction of the virals as corrupted, dehumanised versions of humanity; the virals are images of privative evil (a point to which I will return in the remaining sections of this chapter). In this ‘crucifixion’ scene, then, Amy takes upon herself the evil that possesses humanity and, by doing so, becomes able to overcome it. Though Christian theology has produced multiple theories of atonement, almost all have understood the crucified Jesus as in some way taking upon himself the evil of the world. As N. T. Wright observes, this view was present in the earliest Christologies, which held that ‘Jesus, as Israel’s Messiah, bears Israel’s curse in order to undo the consequences of sin and “exile” and so to break the power of the “present evil age” once and for all’.12 In her sacrificial ‘death’, her plea for her father to look away, and her transformation into the very thing that she must defeat, Amy echoes the theological tradition in which Christ is understood as having taken upon himself the evil of the world in order that it might be overcome. The Christological allusions of Amy’s battle with the Twelve become more overt in the battle’s end and aftermath. Moments before the explosives are detonated, Alicia Donadio sees Amy tethered to the body of the viral Martínez by the chains she had used to restrain him: She never knew how Amy got loose. One moment she was there and the next she wasn’t. The empty shackles would be found just where Amy had left them, attached to chains still hopelessly lashed to Martínez’s body; in the ensuing days, as each of them puzzled over the meaning of this fact, opinions would differ. To some it meant one thing, to some it meant another. It was a mystery, as Amy was a mystery; and like any mystery, it said as much about the seer as the seen. (TT: 530)
Amy’s absence at the end of the battle, following the explosion in which many observers believe her to have died, points towards a resurrection narrative; the inexplicably empty shackles recall both the empty tomb of the Gospel narratives and the folded burial clothes of Jesus that, according to John’s Gospel, are found inside the tomb (John 20: 6–7). Yet this allusion to the empty tomb draws attention to the curious silence of the Gospel narratives on the resurrection itself. As O’Collins notes, the New Testament ‘never attempts to describe the actual event of the resurrection in the way that it tells the story of various appearances of the risen Christ’.13 The resurrection is narrated in the Gospels using symbols of absence: an empty tomb; folded grave clothes; the words of an angel who says that ‘He
is not here’ (Luke 24: 6). Cronin’s novel similarly hints at the resurrection of the body using signifiers of the body’s absence. In the Gospels as in The Twelve, the reader is confronted not with the event of a resurrection but with an absence that requires interpretation. Like his New Testament namesake, Cronin’s Peter bears witness to an impossible return. On a ‘night of miraculous things’ (TT: 554), Peter sees Amy, now fully transformed into her viral self. Yet she remains a mystery, an overdetermined object that provokes a proliferation of signifiers: She crouched before him, in the manner of her kind. Her transformation was complete; even her raven mane was gone. Yet as their eyes met and held, the image wavered in his mind; it was not a viral he saw. It was a girl, and then a woman, and then both of these at once. She was Amy, the Girl from Nowhere; she was Amy of Souls, Last of the Twelve; she was only herself. (TT: 554)
These multiple signifiers are used here not as competing interpretations of Amy but in recognition of the failure of any single linguistic register to provide an adequate account of her. Each of the signifiers applied to Amy says something about who and what she is: the blending of physical detail with messianic titles signifies an ontology that requires both empirical and mythic discourses for its proper articulation. The Christological allusions of the Passage trilogy align Amy with neither the Jesus of history nor the Christ of faith. Instead, they point to the inadequacy of those categories, refusing to distinguish between the empirical and the mythological. There is never an Amy—or a Christ—that exists prior to interpretation. In her ‘resurrection’ appearance, Amy is as much a viral as she is the Girl from Nowhere, as much a woman as she is Amy of Souls. Rather than offering these signifiers as versions of Amy between which the observer must choose, Cronin employs them collectively as signs of an irreducible ontological plenitude. In this way, as I will argue in the next section, the trilogy illuminates the ontological and Christological perspectives of the contemporary theological movement known as Radical Orthodoxy.
Being and Gift For the theologians most closely associated with Radical Orthodoxy, as Daniel M. Bell Jr. observes, ‘revelation is primarily a political category. Grace and transcendence are not found unmediated in the interior recesses
‘TIME TO LET GO OF ALL THE OLD THINGS’: JUSTIN CRONIN’S…
of the soul but through the encounter with very public material objects, persons, and practices’.14 Radical Orthodoxy is a political theology that seeks to ground its politics in ontology. In their introduction to the 1999 essay collection Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology, editors Milbank, Pickstock and Ward summarise one of the movement’s defining ideas: ‘all there is only is because it is more than it is’.15 Across their differing theological and political emphases, Milbank, Pickstock and Ward have defended a neo-Augustinian ontology in which the material and temporal are understood as grounded in and participating in the eternal. The relationship between material existence and the divine are conceptualised in terms of gift-exchange: God is the giver of being, which is also returned to God in the communion of the human with the divine. Milbank writes: ‘in Creation there are only givens in so far as they are also gifts: if one sees only objects, then one mis-apprehends and fails to recognize true natures’.16 To recognise the ‘true natures’ of things in the world, then, is to acknowledge their participation in the eternal and, therefore, their capacity to act as signs that point beyond themselves. Pickstock develops a similar point in her book After Writing (1998), arguing for a ‘doxological brand of scepticism when regarding all things – so as never to assume, nor to claim to know securely, that the way a thing appears is the way it substantially and exhaustively is’.17 This scepticism differs from that of deconstruction in that its aim is not to uncover an absence behind every signifier but rather to expand ontology so that the nature of material things is allowed to incorporate the invisible, eternal and mysterious in addition to the empirical and observable. From the perspective of Radical Orthodoxy, then, there is no need to separate the Amy who is ‘only herself’ from ‘Amy of Souls’ and the other messianic titles with which she is inscribed (TT: 554). The different kinds of discourse employed in Peter’s encounter with Amy signify a nature that is not contained or limited by the empirical facts of her physical being. The mythological or messianic names given to Amy are expressions of the need for a linguistic register with which to approach the ambiguities and paradoxes of her nature. Central to the project of Radical Orthodoxy is an attempt to develop a political theology based on an ontology of gift-exchange. The concept of the gift grounds a view of human subjectivity as realised most fully in relationship with the divine and with other people. Radical Orthodoxy rejects what it regards as the bounded, univocal subject of modern liberalism in favour of communitarianism and participation.18 Milbank writes:
Suppose it is the case that to be ethical is not to possess something, not even to possess one’s own deed. Suppose it is, from the outset, to receive the gift of the other as something that diverts one’s life, and to offer one’s life in such a way that you do not know in advance what it is that you will give, but must reclaim it retrospectively. A total exposure to fortune, or rather to grace.19
The politics of Radical Orthodoxy, then, emphasises communal participation and a commitment to the common good. It views the emphasis on individual rights and freedoms within the politics and economics of liberalism as failing to attend to relationality as integral to human ontology and flourishing. Ward describes the ‘economy of the gift’ as ‘[t]hat sociality which moves beyond ourselves and into a permanent journeying towards the other’, without becoming either ‘endless sacrifice…or a lust that only consuming the other would satisfy’.20 This relational personhood is realised in the giving of the self to an other and the reciprocal return of the other as gift. Unsurprisingly, then, the Christology of Radical Orthodoxy is closely related to its ontology. Jesus is understood as a relational figure who builds community. Ward sees in modern Christology a tendency to represent Jesus as other and alien, removing him from the ‘matrix of relations’ in which the New Testament situates him.21 Yet if this tendency necessitates a rereading of the Gospel narratives in order to recuperate a ‘social’ Jesus, Ward also argues that the relationality of Jesus requires a Christology that is not concerned simply with historical reconstruction or theological exegesis, but which seeks to inscribe the relationality of Jesus within the present. Christology becomes ‘relational praxis’22: ‘Jesus is the Christ only in relation to other human beings; the act of redemption is a relational act; Christology needs to pay more attention not to the identity of the God-man, but to the redemptive operation effected in and through this complex co-abiding’.23 Both the nature of the incarnation and the redemptive work of Christ must be understood in relational terms. Incarnation is realised fully not simply in the event of God becoming human but in ‘the participation of God in human life and the participation of human life in God’.24 Similarly, redemption must be understood as making possible the restoration of relationships through the offering of radical forgiveness and grace. The task of Christology, then, is to enact and incarnate the relational work of redemption in the present.
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The relationship between ontology and Christology in Radical Orthodoxy provides a useful conceptual framework within which to make sense of Amy’s role as a Christ-figure in the Passage trilogy. Cronin’s narrative shares with neo-Augustinian theology a view of human personhood as relational; as in Radical Orthodoxy, then, this relational ontology provides the context within which the work of redemption can be understood. The trilogy consistently depicts human being as realised most fully in relationship, and relationship as constructed in the reciprocity of gift. In The Passage, the abortive romance between Peter Jaxon and Sara Fisher is depicted as a failure of gift exchange: ‘There was a part of him that simply didn’t feel alive enough to deserve her, to offer in kind what she was offering him’ (TP: 433). Similar language is used later in the novel, as Peter recognises Sara’s growing love for their mutual friend, Hollis: ‘It wasn’t a small thing, to love a person. That was the gift she had offered him, had always offered him. And yet he had refused it’ (TP: 625). A different kind of romance, the love between Jonas Lear and the virus-infected nun Sister Lacey is similarly figured in terms of reciprocal gift: ‘It seemed a small thing, to offer him this love, this taste of forgiveness; and when this came about, as it did in due course, she understood that the love she had tendered was also love sought’ (TP: 700). The trilogy’s relational ontology is also reflected in its depictions of familial relationships and parenthood. ‘It’s children’, Michael observes in The City of Mirrors, ‘that give us our lives’ (TCOM: 462); parental love is understood not as the sacrifice of the parent for the child but as realised in reciprocal relationship with the child (there is a resonance here with Milbank’s argument that the concept of sacrifice cannot be the basis of Christian ethics as the greatest sacrifice— the sacrifice of one’s own life—defeats the possibility of relationship; unlike the gift, the sacrifice cannot be reciprocated25). The economy of the gift is integral to Cronin’s depiction of human relationality. Love is offered as a gift, whether to a person or to the world; relationships break down or remain unconsummated because of a failure either to receive the gift that is offered or to return it reciprocally to the giver. The relational economy of the gift is similarly apparent in the sharing of stories that is a central theme of the trilogy. Those people who become virals are compelled to relive and re-enact psychologically the story of the member of the Twelve into whose Many they have been incorporated: they not only see the endlessly repeated memories of the murders for which the Twelve were sentenced to death in their human lives, but experience it from the perspective of the killer and, in spite of their attempts to
resist, perform the murder themselves. This is a sharing of stories not as gift but as ontological violence. The stories of the Twelve efface the subjectivity and personhood of the virals in their Many, rendering them extensions of the minds and will of the Twelve. This loss of personhood is articulated in the repeated question that Amy is able to hear in the minds of the virals: ‘who am I who am I who am I’ (TP: 351). Behind the Twelve, and manipulating their stories within his own, is Zero, the viral who in his human life as Tim Fanning was a member of the research expedition that discovered the virus. In the final volume of the trilogy, The City of Mirrors (2016), Fanning tells his story. The story begins with his entrance into Harvard University in 1993 and his first meetings with Jonas Lear, his future scientific collaborator, and Lear’s girlfriend Liz, with whom Fanning falls in love. Fanning describes two decades of unrequited love for Liz, who marries Lear after college, followed by a brief affair. By the time the relationship is consummated, Liz is suffering from terminal cancer; her husband, now a prominent biologist, is absent on a scientific expedition motivated by his desire to find a way of reversing cellular degeneration and thus extending Liz’s life (this is, of course, the project that will be militarised and result in the viral outbreak). Fanning and Liz arrange to go away together on a final trip from which they know Liz will not return; Fanning admits that he intended to take his own life after her death. But Liz never arrives, and Fanning, assuming that she has chosen not to leave her husband, goes to a bar where he meets and goes home with a former student. The encounter turns violent and Fanning kills the young woman. Later, he learns that Liz died before leaving for their planned rendezvous. Fanning’s narrative offers a different history of the origins of the viral outbreak, which has been explained previously only in terms of the disastrous consequences of unauthorised military experimentation. It also brings into full view the significance of grief and mourning to the philosophical and theological themes that are implicit from the beginning of the trilogy. As the original source of the virus, Zero’s control extends further than that exerted by the Twelve: he seeks to reshape the whole of reality in the image of his own loss. As Anthony Carter, the only one of the Twelve to have been wrongfully convicted of the crime for which he was sentenced to death, observes, Zero ‘wouldn’t rest until the whole world was a mirror to his grief’ (TCOM: 267). Zero reads the death of Liz as a revelation of cosmic indifference; his orchestration of humanity’s end is an enactment of the meaningless tragedy that he believes to be the final truth of the world:
‘TIME TO LET GO OF ALL THE OLD THINGS’: JUSTIN CRONIN’S…
I see from your expression that I appall you. Believe me, I appall myself sometimes. But the truth is the truth. There’s no one watching over us. That’s the cold heart of it, the grand delusion. Or if there is, he’s the cruellest kind of bastard, letting us believe he cares. I’m nothing, compared to him…What God would let Liz be all alone at the end, not the touch of a hand or a single word of kindness to help her leave her life? I’ll tell you what kind…The same one who made me. (TCOM: 482)
The end of the world, then, begins not with malevolence but with mourning. Fanning becomes Zero and seeks to remake the world in the image of his own despair. Though his name is given to him by the military research team—he is ‘Subject Zero’ in the laboratory—it also recalls the Augustinian account of evil as privation (see Chap. 4), particularly as it is articulated in Karl Barth’s concept of das nichtige (‘nothing’).26 Simultaneously narcissistic and nihilistic, Zero’s attempt to empty the world of everything but his own grief embodies the privation and negative ontology of evil. As Alicia, one of his antagonists, observes, ‘His was a nightmare of infinite waiting in a universe barren of pity – without hope, without love, without the purpose that only hope and love could bear upon it’ (TCOM: 229). Yet the trilogy persistently undermines Zero’s nihilism through depictions of love displayed in the face of seemingly overwhelming suffering. One such instance occurs in the aftermath of the viral outbreak, as a group of survivors attempts to flee the quarantined zone. One of the survivors, a former US Marine named Kittridge, tells the story of a suicide attack in Afghanistan that ended his military career. Two adult attackers were killed, but they had left a child strapped with explosives in the back seat of a car; as Kittridge recalls, ‘The kid’s wailing, reaching out for me. This little hand…He’s only four, but it’s like he knows what’s about to happen’ (TT: 111). Kittridge ran from the car, but was injured in the explosion and discharged from the military soon after. The use of the child as a weapon is an event that possesses the same meaning-destroying potential for Kittridge that Fanning/Zero sees in the death of Liz. The crucial difference between the two men lies in their responses to the horrors that they experience. Kittridge is haunted not simply by the ‘pointless cruelty’ of the child’s death but by his own failure to show active compassion in the midst of horror: “What else could you have done?” The question was rhetorical, he understood; she expected no reply. What else could you have done? But Kittridge knew his answer. He’d always known.
“I could have held his hand.” (TT: 113)
Where Fanning/Zero sees in Liz’s death confirmation of his nihilism—of the nature of a universe without hope and without love—Kittridge sees in the death of the boy a moment that calls for an act of self-giving love in the face of the world’s cruelty. A short time after telling his story, Kittridge leaves the group of survivors, who are attempting to escape the quarantine zone before it is bombed, in order to find a boy who has become separated from the group. He finds the boy, but too late to take him to safety. This time, as the bombs fall, Kittridge stays to comfort the boy. Later, April Donadio, the boy’s sister and briefly Kittridge’s lover, tells their son about his father, and how, ‘though their time together was brief, he had imparted to her the greatest gift, which was the courage to go on. That’s what love is, she told the boy, what love does’ (TT: 166). The philosophical and theological themes of Cronin’s trilogy, then, are organised around two kinds of response to trauma. Almost all of the t rilogy’s characters experience the kinds of event described by Marilyn McCord Adams as those in which ‘their destructive power reaches beyond their concrete disvalue (such as the pain and material deprivation they involve), into the deep structure of the person’s frameworks of meaning-making, seemingly to defeat the individual’s value as a person, to degrade him/her to subhuman status’.27 Zero is the embodied expression of Tim Fanning’s absolute acceptance of the meaning-destroying capacity of the horror that he experiences. Yet if the trilogy never seeks to diminish the reality of extreme suffering, it does suggest that Fanning’s response to it is flawed; as Anthony Carter observes, ‘[w]eren’t the question the man had wrong, it was his way of asking it’ (TCOM: 268). In the face of suffering that seems to efface the value and meaning of human being, the gift-exchange of love becomes a reaffirmation of human personhood. Zero himself acknowledges this even as he denies its possibility: ‘It is love, of course, and only love, that restores us to ourselves, or so we hope, but that is taken away. What is left when there is no love? A rope and a rock’ (TCOM: 233). In his own way, Carter, the only one of the Twelve who was innocent of the crime for which he was sentenced to death, confronts the same question. Carter loved the woman he was accused of killing; attempting to save her from suicide by drowning, he found himself convicted of her murder. As one of the Twelve, Carter is exposed to Zero’s nihilism through their telepathic link. Yet he discovers a metaphysical alternative that breaks in upon him from outside:
‘TIME TO LET GO OF ALL THE OLD THINGS’: JUSTIN CRONIN’S…
That was when he felt her: Amy. Not dark, like the others; her soul was made of light. A great sob racked his body. His loneliness was leaving him. It lifted from his spirit like a veil, and what lay behind it was a sorrow of a different kind – a beautiful, holy kind of sorrow for the world and all its woes. (TCOM: 267)
The trilogy constructs Zero and Amy not simply as antagonists but as representatives of opposing views of reality. Zero embodies a nihilistic perspective that sees in Fanning’s experience of suffering a revelation of the futility of human existence and seeks to reshape the world in the image of this revelation. Amy, conversely, embodies the response of love and solidarity that seeks the affirmation of human significance and the renewal of community. One represents the privation and nothingness of evil; the other the faith that what has been lost might yet be restored. Zero himself acknowledges the metaphysical implications of this contest: ‘She must come to me in ruins. That will be the truest test. To feel what I feel…To know despair. A world without hope, without purpose, everything lost’ (TCOM: 403). Zero seeks not only to destroy Amy but to discredit what she represents. By reshaping reality in the image of Fanning’s despair, Zero will show a ruined world that it was never worth saving. His story of overwhelming grief will become, quite literally, the story of the world.
‘It Was a World You Gave Us’: Redemption Reimagined The Passage trilogy’s emphasis on the repetition of memory and story is closely connected to the redemptive agency of the narrative’s Christ- figure. Redemption is imagined in the trilogy as an intervention into the cycles of identical repetition within which individual identities and histories are effaced. Each of the Twelve (with the exception of the innocent Carter) forces his Many not only to relive his crime but to experience it from the perspective of the killer; the individual is incorporated into the Many when the endless repetition breaks down their resistance and they perform the killer’s act as their own. Zero’s story is the metanarrative behind the individual stories of the Twelve. Though he does not share their pleasure in the repeated memory of violence, their stories correspond with and reinforce his nihilistic belief in the meaningless cruelty of the world. In this way, Zero’s nihilism is ironically self-fulfilling. By reshaping the world in his own image, he effaces the possibility of variation and dif-
ference upon which authentic personhood is predicated: in the context of a world in which human being is realised fully only in relationship, Zero rejects the possibility of relationship by attempting to transform all others into repetitions of himself. Pickstock has argued that the existence of being in time is predicated upon non-identical repetition, as the unity of any existing thing ‘involves both iteration and variety’.28 For neo-Augustinian theology, variety is integral to the plenitude of being given in creation. Evil can therefore be understood specifically as the privation of variety, as Pickstock argues in terms that resonate with the Gothic register of the Passage trilogy: For if evil is privation, as for Platonism and Christianity, the only variation in malice comes from the diversity of the good that is being depleted or hollowed out. But the hollowing out, the diminution, is always the same, with the radical sameness which pertains uniquely to lack and nullity. A tendency to evil, or original sin, amounts to the contagious repetition of a vampiric leeching upon the natural fullness of things.29
The communitarian politics of Radical Orthodoxy are rooted in an ontology that regards variety and difference as aspects of the plenitude given by the creative activity of God, and the reciprocal giving of self to other as the basis for human flourishing.30 Evil, conversely, is understood as a diminution and distortion both of the plenitude of being and of the orientation towards the other. Rowan Williams, a sometimes critical associate of Radical Orthodoxy, draws on Eastern Orthodox traditions to interpret original sin as the desire to ‘dominate and absorb things in such a way that it becomes impossible to treat them as a gift’.31 As the antithesis of the gift, this domination or assimilation of the other renders fully realised human relationality impossible and is therefore destructive of community. In the Passage trilogy, evil’s ‘vampiric leeching’ upon fullness and variety is embodied in the corrupted versions of community associated with the virals. Cronin’s writing has a strongly communitarian perspective, often represented by images of domesticity. The social structure of First Colony is organised around the ‘First Families’—descendants of the original refugees who arrived at the Colony in the aftermath of the viral outbreak—each of which has a representative on a governing council known as the Household. The orientation towards the home endures even in those people who become virals, a fact that troubles Peter during his years as a member of the Watch at First Colony:
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Why did they do it? Peter wondered – as he had wondered through all the nights he’d stood. Why did they come home, the ones who’d been taken up? What force drove the mysterious impulse to return? A last, melancholy memory of the person they’d once been? Did they come home to say goodbye? (TP: 270)
The tendency of newly made virals to return to their former home is consistent with Cronin’s depiction of human ontology as orientated towards community and (broadly defined) family. It also reflects something of what Jan Willem Duyvendak identifies as a ‘crisis of home’ in contemporary American society and politics: ‘while many idealize home in the past as a safe haven’, Duyvendak argues, ‘today it is an unstable and overburdened place for parents working long hours, often combining several jobs and starved for time to spend with their children. American society is deeply nostalgic for better times at home’.32 Moments of happiness in the Passage trilogy are closely connected with ideas of home: as Amy observes of the home she shares with Peter prior to his death in the closing chapters of The City of Mirrors, ‘[i]t was just a room, like any other – simple furnishings, a hearth blackened with long use, candles on the tables, books – but it meant vastly more…Here they had lived’ (TCOM: 551). The concept of home in Cronin’s writing incorporates both place and relationship, but is defined primarily by the latter. ‘Home’ is not simply a matter of rootedness in a particular place but of the ways in which a place is rendered sacred by the history of the relationships shared within it. In contrast, the versions of collective identity associated with the virals are distortions of community in which individual identity is effaced. This distortion is exemplified by the Homeland, the settlement built by Guilder’s totalitarian regime in collaboration with the Twelve. In an echo of the loss of individual identities within the Many controlled by each member of the Twelve, the Homeland seeks to control and dehumanise its inhabitants by eliminating their individuality. One of the ways in which this is done is by the shaving of labourers’ heads, as Sara Fisher recognises: ‘In their disfigured semibaldness, something private had been stolen, melding them into an indistinguishable collective, like animals in a herd’ (TT: 310). The Homeland is a perversion of home, a distorted image of community built to eliminate variety and genuine relationship. Guilder’s authoritarian rule seeks to achieve politically what Zero and the Twelve accomplish through psychological control: the elimination of all variety and the reshaping of reality in their own image.
The virals represent a condition of stasis: an endless, identical repetition of a single narrative that effaces all other stories. Pickstock has argued that ‘[w]here divine transcendence is occluded, one finds oneself in the domain of the buttressed immanence, in which nothing new can occur, since the ontological bounds of finitude have been transcendentally set once and for all’.33 The repeated dreams of Cronin’s virals are analogous to this state of buffered immanence. By incorporating all people into the repetition of their own stories—and thus to make all people identical repetitions of themselves—the virals seek to efface the possibility of transcendence or change: reshaping the whole of reality into the image of their dreams, they deny the possibility of an ‘outside’ from which interruption or change might come. Yet this attempt to shape reality in accordance with their own stories is, ironically, a denial of story. Pickstock writes: Above all, there is only story because of the resurrection. Resurrection is the process at work in non-identical repetition by which that which is repeated is not unmediably different, but analogously the same. This redemptive return is what allows a person to tell a story, since for there to be a story, there must be “analogous” subjects and objects, persisting as same-yet-different.34
The identical repetitions performed by Zero and the Twelve seek to exclude the possibility of newness or change and, therefore, the possibility of redemption. As the narrative’s messianic figure, Amy represents the interruption from outside; Babcock, the first of the Twelve to encounter her, calls her the ‘shadow behind the shadow, the tear in the fabric of night’ (TP: 587). In the redemptive role that earns her the title ‘Amy of Souls’, Amy embodies the variety that Zero and the Twelve seek to exclude. She carries within her the individual stories of all of the people infected by the virus: she does not simply destroy the virals but restores to them their identities and their histories. This gift is depicted as a restoration of the everyday sacred: Amy felt their sorrow, but it was different now. It was a holy soaring. A thousand recollected lives were passing through her, a thousand thousand stories – of love and work, of parents and children, of duty and joy and grief. Beds slept in and meals eaten, and the bliss and pain of the body, and a view of summer leaves from a window on a morning it had rained; the nights of loneliness and the nights of love, the soul in its body’s keeping always longing to be known. (TP: 722)
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As the bearer of these stories, Amy is the redemptive antitype of the Twelve. She holds the stories of others not to replace them with her own, but to give them back. Amy’s redemptive agency, however, extends beyond this restoration of human identity and history to the dying virals. As Amy herself has been depicted as belonging to two worlds or two orders of reality, so the stories that she carries are enabled to continue in the other world. In this other reality, stories of grief are transformed by glimpses of grace. For Carter, this grace brings to an end the repetition of his memory of the suicide of Rachel Wood, the woman he loved and for whose murder he was wrongly convicted. In this changed version of the story, Rachel remembers her suicide, which for her is a memory of guilt at leaving her children. The story ends not with Carter saving Rachel’s life, but with him offering her forgiveness. It is, he tells her, ‘[t]ime to let go of all the old things’ (TCOM: 436). This new openness to redemptive change, or to grace, is represented most overtly in the resolution of Amy’s conflict with Zero. Zero’s death in his final battle with Amy is somewhat anticlimactic: pulled from a collapsing building by a falling crane, he ‘exited the world in a blink’ (TCOM: 506). Yet Zero’s death was never really the point: his contest with Amy was always about the ontologies that each represented. Zero represented a world without love or meaning, in which Fanning’s grief over Liz’s death was an expression of the final truth of an endlessly cruel reality. The narrative finally rejects the privation embodied by Zero not simply by killing him, but by granting to Tim Fanning a moment of redemptive grace that gives his story a different ending. In a brief scene following Zero’s death, in the narrative’s other reality, Fanning returns to the beach where he had once failed to tell Liz that he loved her. Liz is present again, and their reunion becomes a means of grace: “It’s all right,” she said softly. “You can let it out now.” Suddenly his mind seemed to plunge. He remembered everything. The past reared up inside him, complete. He saw faces; he inhabited days; he lived the hour of his birth and each that followed. He felt as if he were choking; his lungs could find no air. […] “Everything is forgiven, my darling, my love. All is forgiven, nothing is lost. Everything you have loved will come back to you. That is why you have come.”
[…] It took some time. It took days, weeks, years. But this was unimportant. It would pass in a blink, not even. All things fell into the past but one; and what that was, was love. (TCOM: 521)
The final sentence is an allusion to Paul’s claim in 1 Corinthians 13 that love will endure beyond all gifts of the Holy Spirit and his conclusion that ‘now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love’ (1 Cor. 13: 8, 13). In the narrative’s version of eternity, Fanning is given the life with Liz that he was denied in his temporal existence. The relational ontology and nostalgia for home of the temporal world is echoed in eternity, as Amy herself explains to Carter: ‘that’s what heaven is…It’s opening the door of a house in twilight and everyone you love is there’ (TT: 563). Amy’s defeat of Zero opens space for a renewal of human community. As a small group of survivors establish a new life for themselves on a distant island, Amy waits for their return in a now-deserted America, first living with the viral Peter, and then alone following his death. The abandoned continent becomes a site of renewal, a new Eden. Humanity’s return to this remade Eden takes place centuries later, when the descendants of the survivor settlement—for whom Amy has become first a mythic saviour-figure of a new religious orthodoxy and then the object of doubt for a new modern scepticism—discover Amy’s cottage in reconnaissance pictures. Logan Miles, a scholar of the viral catastrophe, is the first to speak to Amy, who is now a thousand years old and close to death. ‘It was a world you gave us, Amy’, he tells her; ‘We are your children. Your children, come home’ (TCOM: 598). For the sceptical, rationalist Logan, this moment partakes of the sacred and the eternal: A quiet moment passes – a holy moment, Logan thinks, for within it he experiences an emotion entirely new to him. It is the feeling of a world, a reality, expanding beyond its visible borders, into a vast unknown; and likewise does he believe that he – that everyone, the living and the dead and those yet to come – belong to this greater existence, one that outstrips time. (TCOM: 598)
The Passage trilogy, then, ends with a homecoming that is also a new beginning in a restored Eden. Meeting Amy face to face, Logan glimpses an expanded reality in which the finite and material participate in the eternal and invisible. His experience is one of ontological plenitude, of the
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fullness and variety of being, and of himself as part of it; it is a final image of the endless creativity that has overcome the privation embodied by Zero. ‘The greatest atrocity’, writes Milbank, ‘requires all the more an access of hope, the greatest evil calls out all the more for an impossible forgiveness and reconciliation, else, quite simply, such evil remains in force’.35 The redemptive work of Cronin’s vampire-Messiah is to undo the privations of Zero and the Twelve, restoring to the virals the human personhood that has been diminished and degraded. Amy is a Christ-figure who makes possible an impossible forgiveness; a Christ-figure whose divinity—whatever that term means—is glimpsed in a life of embodied grace that calls human beings into the reciprocity of gift. In Cronin’s Gothic version of apocalypse, the Word is made strange again, and the world is made new.
Notes 1. Gerard Loughlin, ‘Living in Christ: Story, Resurrection and Salvation’, in Gavin D’Costa (ed.), Resurrection Reconsidered (Oxford: Oneworld, 1996), pp. 118–34 (p. 122). 2. Walter Wink, The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), p. 9. 3. Graham Holderness, Re-Writing Jesus: Christ in 20th-Century Fiction and Film (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), p. 18. 4. Kathryn Tanner, Jesus, Humanity and the Trinity: A Brief Systematic Theology (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2001), p. 17. 5. Graham Ward, Christ and Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), p. 19. Ward alludes to the title and argument of John Milbank’s book The Word Made Strange: Theology, Language, Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997). 6. Justin Cronin, The Passage (London: Orion, 2010), p. 3. Further references are given parenthetically with the abbreviation TP. 7. Justin Cronin, The Twelve (London: Orion, 2012), pp. xi–xv; The City of Mirrors (London: Orion, 2016), pp. xiii–xvii. Further references are given parenthetically with the abbreviations TT and TCOM respectively. 8. Gerald O’Collins, Christology: A Biblical, Historical, and Systematic Study of Jesus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 52. 9. Kathryn Tanner, Christ the Key (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 56. 10. Cf. Romans 5: 12–21; 1 Corinthians 15: 22, pp. 45–9. 11. Cf. Deuteronomy 21: 23. In some views of substitutionary atonement, particularly in contemporary Evangelical thought, God the Father is held to be separated or to turn away from the crucified Christ as a result of the
latter taking human sin upon himself; see, for example, John Stott, The Cross of Christ, second edition (Leicester: IVP, 1989), pp. 79–82. 12. Tom (N. T.) Wright, The Day the Revolution Began: Rethinking the Meaning of Jesus’ Crucifixion (London: SPCK, 2016), p. 241. 13. O’Collins, Christology, p. 86. 14. Daniel M. Bell Jr., ‘Postliberalism and Radical Orthodoxy’, in Craig Hovey and Elizabeth Phillips (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Christian Political Theology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. 110– 132 (p. 121). 15. John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock and Graham Ward, ‘Introduction: Suspending the Material: The Turn of Radical Orthodoxy’, in Milbank, Pickstock and Ward (eds.), Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), pp. 1–20 (p. 4). 16. Milbank, Being Reconciled, p. xi. 17. Catherine Pickstock, After Writing: On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), p. 257. 18. Bell, ‘Postliberalism and Radical Orthodoxy’, pp. 117–20. 19. Milbank, Being Reconciled, p. 147. 20. Ward, Christ and Culture, p. 79. 21. Ward, Christ and Culture, p. 12. 22. Ward, Christ and Culture, p. 61. 23. Ward, Christ and Culture p. 106. 24. Ward, Christ and Culture, p. 106. 25. Milbank, Being Reconciled, p. 159. 26. Barth, Church Dogmatics, III. iii, pp. 289–368. 27. Marilyn McCord Adams, Horrendous Evils and the Goodness of God (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1999), pp. 26–7. 28. Catherine Pickstock, Repetition and Identity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 23. 29. Pickstock, Repetition and Identity, pp. 128–9. 30. In the UK, the political influence of Radical Orthodoxy can be seen most clearly in the Blue Labour movement, which incorporates aspects of Radical Orthodoxy (particularly the work of John Milbank) and Catholic Social Teaching into the democratic socialist politics of the Labour Party. See Ian Geary and Adrian Pabst (eds.), Blue Labour: Forging a New Politics (London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2015); Adrian Pabst and John Milbank, The Politics of Virtue: Post-liberalism and the Human Future (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2016). 31. Rowan Williams, Faith in the Public Square (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2012), p. 178. 32. Jan Willem Duyvendak, The Politics of Home: Belonging and Nostalgia in Europe and the United States (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), p. 3.
‘TIME TO LET GO OF ALL THE OLD THINGS’: JUSTIN CRONIN’S…
33. Pickstock, Repetition and Identity, p. xi. 34. Pickstock, After Writing, p. 265. 35. Milbank, Being Reconciled, p. 55.
Sympathy for the Devil: Gothic Goes to Hell
If Christ remains an ambiguous figure in contemporary Gothic fiction, defined as much by his absence and hiddenness as by his presence, his traditional antagonist has often been far more visible. Christians in the twenty-first century may be less likely than their medieval predecessors to believe in the existence of a literal, embodied Satan, but Christianity’s fallen angel retains a prominent place in the cultural imagination. As Robert Muchembled has argued, from the seventeenth century onwards the ‘chief innovation’ in ideas of the Devil ‘consisted of the various and chaotic processes by which the demonic concept was internalized’.1 The notion of Satan as a supernatural embodiment of evil shifted gradually towards ideas of the demonic as an aspect of humanity. In this way, the demonic retained imaginative and artistic significance even as belief in a literal Devil came to seem increasingly untenable in European intellectual culture. By the end of the eighteenth century, Romanticism had begun to reimagine Satan as a heroic radical, the ultimate rebel against the ultimate authority. Yet if modernity never entirely displaced the Devil as an object of imaginative interest, it did seem to rob him of much of his power. As Richard Hand has documented, the British Broadcasting Corporation attempted to summon Satan during a live radio broadcast on Halloween 1953 and left the microphone open for a full two minutes in case the Prince of Darkness wished to address the nation (he did not).2 This incident seems to exemplify the place of the Devil in twentieth-century modernity: still clothed in something of his medieval garb, still in some ways an object of quasi-superstitious fascination, yet incorporated easily © The Author(s) 2018 S. Marsden, The Theological Turn in Contemporary Gothic Fiction, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-96571-0_7
into popular entertainment. An attempt to summon Satan on BBC Scotland becomes conceivable only when few people imagine that he might make an appearance. Contemporary authors might not share their medieval predecessors’ beliefs in a literal Satan, but the idea of Satan continues to haunt the literary imagination. Rather than simply disappearing, the Devil has been reimagined in ways that allow him to speak to contemporary social, political and economic concerns. As one of Satan’s recent biographers, Henry Ansgar Kelly, has pointed out, the history of the Devil is in many ways a history of the ways in which the Devil has been reimagined: The most significant retro-fitting that has occurred in the history of Satan is the thorough-going re-interpretation of the Satan of the New Testament, identified with the various satanic figures of the Old Testament, as a rebel against God. More than any other, this interpretation has bedeviled the history of Satan, transforming him from a merely obnoxious functionary of the Divine Government into a personification of Evil – a personification that really exists as a person.3
The Satan of the Bible—a figure who appears infrequently and in different roles, as a (sometimes malicious) servant of the divine, a tempter and accuser—became in post-biblical theology and culture the chief adversary of God and a source or explanation of evil in the world. Satan’s biography coalesced around some key points: Satan was the fallen angel, cast out of heaven for his rebellion against God; he was the tempter of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and therefore at least indirectly the cause of humanity’s Fall; he remained active in the world, leading people into immorality and, at times, granting supernatural and magical powers to those who worshipped him.4 In the Romantic period, Satan’s fall from heaven was reimagined as an act of radical rebellion against a distant and unjust authority, an image of Romanticism’s own revolutionary tendencies. In the radical theology of William Blake, Satan embodied subversive creative agency and imaginative vision, the antithesis of a Christian orthodoxy that Blake depicted as restrictive and moralistic. Blake’s work made overt an often-implicit truth of post-biblical accounts of Satan: the Devil has always been available for reinterpretation in shifting religious and political contexts. Contemporary popular culture inherits a long and varied tradition of imagining who and what the Devil is.
SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL: GOTHIC GOES TO HELL
What, then, has become of Satan in contemporary Gothic fictions? As the novels discussed in this chapter demonstrate, the Devil in the twenty- first century often bears striking resemblance to his medieval predecessors. When Gothic writers imagine the Devil, they tend to do so using recognisable conventions: the Devil continues to appear as a horned demon with cloven hooves, red-skinned and furnished with a pitchfork and legions of supernatural minions. Familiar images of the Devil are deployed irreverently and ironically. The return of an articulate, embodied Satan as a trope of Gothic fiction is (perhaps paradoxically) enabled by the decline of widespread popular belief in his literal existence; in the absence of such belief, Satan is more readily available for depiction as a figure of dark comedy. For writers including Glen Duncan and Chuck Palahniuk, the Devil is less a heroic rebel against the divine than he is a sarcastic critic of both contemporary Western culture and mainstream religion. As the eponymous narrator of Duncan’s I, Lucifer (2002) observes, God, ‘whatever else He might have going for Him, has absolutely no sense of humour. Perfection precludes it’.5 The Devil, it seems, has all the best jokes. Where Satan became for the Romantics a symbol of rebellion against unjust authority, the Satans of contemporary Gothic are more likely to embody experiences of alienation and isolation in a fragmented and superficial culture. Many of these Gothic narratives echo the critiques of late capitalism developed by cultural theorists such as Jean Baudrillard and Fredric Jameson. They depict cultures of surface without depth, in which human subjectivity is reduced to the roles of consumer and spectator. In Simulacra and Simulation (1981), Baudrillard describes a postmodern culture for which ‘the real is no longer what it was’.6 Simulation is no longer an imitation of the real, but instead has become ‘the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal’.7 In Gothic fiction, Satan appears as both creator and critic of this fragmented, postmodern culture. ‘You wouldn’t believe the things I’ve invented’, the narrator of I, Lucifer (2002) claims: ‘Everything in the world that distracts you from thinking about God. Which…pretty much…is everything in the world, isn’t it? Gosh’ (IL: 1). These narratives reflect something of what Linnie Blake and Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet have described as Gothic’s ability to ‘articulate the social and existential consequences of thirty years of globalised laissez-faire capitalism’.8 Satan in contemporary Gothic embodies the fragmented subjectivity of the individual in the depthless, hyperreal culture of twenty-first-century capitalism.
This chapter examines five novels in which the Devil is featured as a protagonist or prominent presence. The first section explores the darkly comedic social satires in Duncan’s I, Lucifer and Palahniuk’s Damned (2011) and its sequel Doomed (2013). In these narratives, Satan embodies a culture of relentless consumption, commodification and social fragmentation; the Devil is an ironic commentator on socio-economic alienation and shallow consumerism. As an embodiment of social and structural failures, however, the Devil is not entirely removed from his traditional role as the personification of evil. This role becomes more overt in Joe Hill’s Horns (2010), discussed in the second section. Ig, the protagonist of Hill’s novel, begins a gradual transformation into the Devil when he curses God following the rape and murder of his girlfriend, a crime of which he is widely, but wrongly, assumed to be guilty. Though it employs the conventions of the Devil as a corrupter, Hill’s novel subverts this externalisation of evil: Ig’s demonic appearance is contrasted both with the hidden evils of respectable society and with the apparent passivity of a God who refuses to intervene in the suffering of the innocent. The Devil becomes God’s accuser, giving voice to human protest against divine injustice. The final section considers Andrew Michael Hurley’s Devil’s Day (2017), a narrative animated by nostalgia for a world in which belief in the Devil seemed plausible. Where the other texts discussed in this chapter focus on failures of contemporary urban life, the Devil in Hurley’s novel occupies an isolated rural community in the north of England. The Devil becomes symbolic of a return to the land and to a way of life rooted in family, community and tradition. If the Devil in contemporary Gothic appears most often as an embodiment of the structural failures of twenty-first-century society, Hurley’s novel imagines the desire for an alternative way of life that rejects the urban in favour of a community in which older forms of belief still seem possible.
Satanic Simulacra: The Postmodern Devil In Duncan’s I, Lucifer, a tell-all account of Lucifer’s temporary possession of an author named ‘Declan Gunn’ (an anagram of ‘Glen Duncan’), the Prince of Darkness boards a flight from New York to London and observes his fellow passengers. He is struck by their indifference to the act of flight and to the range of experiences that it offers:
SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL: GOTHIC GOES TO HELL
A glance out of the window would have revealed furrowed fields of cloud stained smoke-blue and violet as night and morning changed shifts – but how were they passing the time in First, Business and Coach? Crosswords. In-flight movies. Computer games. E-mail. Creation sprawls like a dewed and willing maiden outside your window awaiting only the lechery of your senses – and what do you do? Complain about the dwarf cutlery. Plug your ears. Blind your eyes. Discuss Julia Roberts’s hair. Ah, me. Sometimes I think my work is done. (IL: 23)
Duncan’s Lucifer is an affectionate critic of humanity’s predilection for distraction. The superficiality and banality of contemporary urban life make Lucifer’s job easier; the alienated subjects of the (post)modern city have little perception of even the possibility of transcendence. God, Lucifer informs us, hates the London Underground: ‘chiefly the surrender to despair and vacancy the rattling tube demands, chiefly the tendency of London’s human beings to collapse into a seat or hang from a rail in a state of bitter capitulation to the sadness and boredom and loneliness and excruciating glamourlessness of their lives’ (IL: 71). The city distracts its inhabitants from everything except their own roles as producers and consumers of the contentless culture of the city itself. Though Duncan’s version of the Devil continues his traditional role as a tempter who provokes some individuals into acts of extreme evil, he is also at work in shaping the structural conditions of a society that produces alienated subjects. Congratulating himself on his invention of money, Lucifer notes that ‘[w]ealth breeds boredom and boredom breeds vice; poverty breeds anger and anger breeds vice’ (IL: 77). In Lucifer’s account, contemporary culture exists to manufacture distractions from the loneliness, isolation and fragmentation that characterise life in the twenty-first- century city. Duncan’s theologically nuanced Devil’s-eye view of world history depicts contemporary culture as the inevitable outcome of the freedom claimed by humanity at the Fall. Given the gift of free will, the novel suggests, humanity consistently chooses the banal and superficial. Palahniuk’s infernally themed novels Damned and Doomed take a similarly satirical view of contemporary society. Eduardo Mendieta has described Palahniuk’s fiction as ‘a mortician’s report on American culture’.9 In Damned, Palahniuk’s report on the corpse of American culture is voiced by a narrator whose own body has been a victim of that culture. Madison Spencer, a thirteen-year-old girl killed by accidental autoerotic asphyxiation, narrates the novel from her afterlife in Hell. The daughter of
a film star and a billionaire business executive, Madison is a wry critic of her parents’ fashionable, publicity-seeking liberalism. Camille and Antonio Spencer are ecological activists who arrive at public events in electric cars, ‘but really, when nobody’s looking they go everywhere in a leased Gulfstream jet, even if it’s just to pick up their dry cleaning, which they send to have cleaned in France’.10 Madison describes a culture of extreme consumption in which death is the only remaining taboo: ‘they seemed heavily invested in the belief’, Madison says of her parents, ‘that if one could constantly maintain one’s personal appearance and mitigate the signs of aging, then death would never be a pressing issue’ (Damned: 89). Justin Garrison’s observations about Palahniuk’s best-known novel, Fight Club (1996), are equally applicable to Damned: The characters…express Palahniuk’s general intuitions about the inadequacies of American life, and they connect their unsatisfying experiences with the shallow materialism of America’s consumer culture to a more serious problem. They sense that dissatisfaction with American capitalism is actually a symptom of a deeper spiritual crisis. This insight shapes the manner in which the characters in the novel attempt to overcome despair and create meaningful lives.11
Palahniuk’s fiction imagines individual responses to and acts of rebellion against a shallow and unfulfilling culture. In Damned and Doomed, the media-friendly activism performed by Madison’s parents represents the hollowing out of authentic human relationship and community. Madison observes that the primary ‘criteria my parents sought in any dependent relationship was impermanence. They wanted homes, employees, businesses, and adopted Third World orphans of which they could divest themselves at a moment’s notice’.12 Zygmunt Bauman has described the increasing transience of interpersonal relationships as mirroring a similar transience of labour in contemporary capitalism. ‘Unlike in the times of long-term mutual dependency’, Bauman argues, ‘there is hardly any stimulus to take acute and serious, let alone critical, interest in the wisdom of the common endeavour and related arrangements which are bound to be transient anyway’.13 Madison’s actions in Hell are explicit rejections of the contemporary culture of impermanence that shaped her mortal existence. She builds close friendships with a group of fellow loners—friendships with the potential for genuine permanence in light of the eternal circum-
SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL: GOTHIC GOES TO HELL
stances of the friends—and, when put to work as a telemarketer (most telemarketers reside in Hell, Madison informs us), she uses her telephone privileges to counsel the terminally ill through their impending deaths and maintains relationships with them following their arrival in Hell. In Damned, Madison leads a growing army of her friends and supporters through Hell, defeating and humiliating a series of dictators and tyrants (among them Hitler, Caligula and Vlad the Impaler) before mounting a final challenge to the authority of Satan himself. Madison’s actions are a rejection of the shallow, media-friendly activism practised by her parents. By attempting to lead a revolutionary army of the damned, Madison rebels not only against the power structures of Hell but against the empty charity of her parents’ celebrity lifestyle: charity designed and marketed for consumption within the same economic structures that sustain global inequality. In Palahniuk’s satire, Hell provides a space for the genuine community and authentic moral action that were absent from Madison’s life in America. The outcome of Madison’s rebellion, however, is ambiguous. J. C. Lee includes Palahniuk among a group of contemporary American writers who ‘employ satire not to initiate rebellion or cultural change, but to reflect the problematic role of institutions in modern life and, in turn, the potential, even hope, for personal growth’.14 Palahniuk, Lee argues, ‘advocates reform through the potential of the individual to develop and find him/ herself through creative acts’ but provides no systemic alternatives to the American society that he satirises.15 Damned and Doomed demonstrate both this emphasis on the possibility of individual growth and ambivalence about its potential to yield meaningful structural change. Madison’s individual growth is reflected in her refusal of narratives shaped for her by God, Satan or her parents: ‘I am no single narrative’, she asserts; ‘As neither Rebecca de Winter nor Jane Eyre, I am free to revise my story, to reinvent myself, my world, at any given moment’ (Damned: 201). This claim, however, is doubly ironic. Madison says of Jane Eyre that ‘it’s pathetic that she believes she’s real’ (Damned: 111), but of course Madison too is a character in a novel, no less than Brontë’s Jane Eyre a simulation of independent subjectivity. Within the narrative, Satan reveals a screenplay of Madison’s life of which he is the author; her acts of rebellion, he assures her, have always served his ultimate purpose of leading more souls into Hell. In the final chapter of Damned, Madison asserts hope located in individual agency:
And yes, I am thirteen and dead and a girl. I might be a touch of a sadist and a little bit jejune…but at least I’m not a victim, not any longer. I hope. I hope, therefore I am. Thank God for hope. (Damned: 246)
To hope remains as the final act of rebellion available in a world in which structural reform seems impossible. Palahniuk’s Hell functions as a metaphor for contemporary America as an environment in which individual growth and creativity remain ambiguous possibilities within prevailing conditions that are both infernal and seemingly unchangeable. Duncan and Palahniuk, then, employ traditional depictions of Satan as the corrupter of humanity within satirical critiques of contemporary urban life. If Satan were to shape a world with the purpose of turning humanity away from authenticity and transcendence, these novels suggest, that world might look very much like the world of late capitalism in the UK and the US. Duncan’s Lucifer describes himself as the originator of an idea new to Heaven: ‘freedom to imagine existing without God’ (IL: 11). This idea is at the heart first of Lucifer’s expulsion from Heaven and then of humanity’s Fall in Eden. Its end-point in I, Lucifer is a world in which evil has become entirely endemic to human society and economics. Claiming to be the inventor of multinational parent companies, Lucifer describes an economy in which complicity in evil has become unavoidable: The beauty of the concept is that it takes the wind out of so many would-be ethical sails: the company that owns the porn-mag owns the company that makes the washing powder. The company that owns the munitions plants owns the company that makes the budgerigar food. The company that owns the nuclear waste owns the company that picks up your trash. These days, thanks to me, unless you pack up and go and live in a cave, you’re putting money into evil and shit. (IL: 134)
The Christian philosopher Marilyn McCord Adams makes a similar observation when she notes that ‘[f]ew individuals would deliberately starve a child into mental retardation. But this happens even in the United States, because of the economic and social systems we collectively allow to persist and from which most of us profit’.16 In Duncan’s novel, these contemporary economic and political structures are figured as quite literally Satanic. Lucifer remains active in the corruption of individuals, but his most productive innovations—what he calls his ‘Big Picture operation[s]’ (IL: 152)—are structural and systemic.
SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL: GOTHIC GOES TO HELL
As Philip C. Almond has observed, Satan in contemporary culture exists beyond Christianity, adopted in popular culture as ‘an objectification of the oft-times incomprehensible evil that lies within us and around us, threatening to destroy us…The Devil now has new domains and new borders’.17 The new domains of the Devil in popular culture include an economy of hyper-consumption inhabited by the postmodern subject. For Fredric Jameson, postmodernity is, among other things, the loss of integrity of the subject itself. In postmodernity, Jameson argues, there is a ‘shift in the dynamics of cultural pathology [that] can be characterized as one in which the alienation of the subject is displaced by the latter’s fragmentation’.18 The postmodern subject has lost its capacity to ‘organize its past and future into coherent experience’; if it escapes the alienation of the subject in modernism, it does so at the expense of its own coherence and depth.19 Duncan and Palahniuk depict versions of contemporary urban life in which authentic human emotional exchanges and relationships are displaced by simulation as—to adopt Olivia Burgess’s account of Palahniuk’s social critique in Fight Club—the body is ‘reduced to a consuming object’.20 Declan Gunn, the writer whose body is commandeered by Lucifer in Duncan’s novel, embodies this shift towards consumption and simulation. Gunn’s relationship with his long-term girlfriend, Penelope, breaks down as a result of his performance of a ‘writerly’ identity that she recognises as false. Penelope, Lucifer observes, is ‘simply one of those human beings for whom dishonesty destroys everything’ (IL: 156). Gunn’s next relationship, with an aspiring actress who hopes to exploit his professional connections, embraces the cultural and emotional logic of simulation. Violet ‘looks less like a real woman and more like a pornographic model’; Gunn no longer feels sexual desire for ‘anything that focuses on the genuine rather than the fraudulent’ (IL: 31). For Gunn and Violet, sex is situated entirely with an economy of consumption and simulation, a hollowed-out parody of Gunn’s previous relationship with Penelope. In a ‘culture given over to consumption’, Fred Botting argues, an ‘excess’ is required: ‘expenditures beyond the restraints of need or use value become the norm, or even the imperative. More, more. A repetition. To excess’.21 Consumption ‘to excess’, of course, never exceeds the economy of consumption itself, predicated as it is upon the endless renewal of desire. The consumer might freely consume images of transcendence in what Graham Ward calls ‘a re-enchantment of the world in which religion provides a symbolic capital, empty of content’, but in such transactions the
consumer necessarily fails to transcend the structures of consumption within which they remain embedded.22 Duncan’s Lucifer personifies this logic of consumption. His goal is distraction; he seeks to stop people from thinking about God. Yet there is little suggestion in the novel that humanity’s situation might be changed by a return to religious orthodoxy. Duncan’s God is a remote figure, grieved by human suffering but unwilling to intervene to prevent it, while the Church is depicted as an increasingly irrelevant institution with a violent history: ‘I do a deal, a great deal of my work in churches’ (IL: 35), Lucifer claims. The novel imagines no transcendence or transformation of the culture of hyper-consumption, commodification and distraction that it satirises. Lucifer claims to exist outside of traditional moral binaries: ‘The point, my dears, is not good nor evil – but freedom’ (IL: 210). Freedom, however, proves illusory. Duncan’s Lucifer offers only the freedom of the hyper-consumer in a world in which everything, including the human subject itself, is commodified. The self- conscious irony of Duncan’s novel is that Lucifer himself belongs to the order of simulation. ‘When the real is no longer what it was’, Baudrillard argues, ‘nostalgia assumes its full meaning. There is a plethora of myths of origin and of signs of reality – a plethora of truth, of secondary objectivity, and authenticity’.23 Lucifer’s story is another simulation, a theological metanarrative in a world emptied of theological metanarratives. When Lucifer exploits Declan Gunn’s literary connections in order to write a screenplay of his story to be developed into a film, he makes overt what has been implicit throughout the novel: Lucifer himself is a sign without referent, his story a myth of origin to be commodified and reproduced by the commercial media industry. Like Duncan’s Lucifer, Palahniuk’s Satan is active in shaping the movement of contemporary culture in the direction of commodification and simulation. Madison’s acts of rebellion against Satan are never wholly outside of his influence; her recollections of her early life reveal that the telemarketers of Hell have manipulated her family’s behaviour for at least three generations in order to bring about Madison’s damnation and rebellion. In Doomed, Madison discovers that she has inadvertently founded a new world religion. Calling her parents from Hell, Madison encouraged them to embrace a life of crude, boorish behaviour, telling them that by doing so they would be sure of places in Heaven (from where Madison assures them she is calling). Aiming only to ensure a reunion with her family in Hell, Madison discovers that Camille and Antonio have publicised her teachings, which have become a religion—Boorism—with a global
SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL: GOTHIC GOES TO HELL
following. Madison, it seems, has unwittingly carried out Satan’s ultimate scheme: she has persuaded humanity to condemn itself to Hell in the confident assurance that it is bound for Heaven. Palahniuk depicts Boorism as the logical outcome of a culture of simulation and superficiality. Madison sees in her mother’s film roles a commodified religious significance: ‘Camille Spencer’, she observes, ‘is the closest thing our world has to a secular martyr…ritualistically sacrificed time and time again’ (Doomed: 170). As the modern saint of a detraditioned world, sacrificed repeatedly on screen, Camille is an icon of a secular religion emptied of transcendence. Embedded already in the realm of the simulacra, Camille and Antonio create a religion of the artificial, the central icon of which is a repeated simulation of Madison. They create a new continent out of waste plastic, its coastline shaped in Madison’s image. The messianic figure of Boorism is another simulation of Madison, a supernaturally animated plastic figure ‘with a skin as perfect as only plastic can be perfect’ (Doomed: 233). Unlike its human counterpart, who refers often to her physical imperfections, the simulation is an image of flawless beauty. The real is rejected in favour of the artificial; Madison is displaced by her own simulation. ‘It’s clear’, she observes: ‘My parents don’t love me. My parents don’t even recognize me. They love this, this skinny, Barbie-dolled version of me’ (Doomed: 302). In Palahniuk’s satire, the world of the simulacrum is the Devil’s own handiwork. Madison’s rebellion is an act of resistance against the multiple simulacra of her body and history. Insisting that ‘[h]enceforth I will prove my own existence’ (Doomed: 327), Madison destroys her plastic doppelganger. Madison rejects the versions of her story constructed by her parents (who have misrepresented her age and history for media consumption) and by Satan. As the novel ends, Madison declares her newly Blakean ambition: ‘My new goal’, she claims, ‘is the reunion of all opposites. I will strive to reconcile Satan and God’ (Doomed: 329). Madison will attempt the ultimate structural reform—a reshaping of the metaphysical conditions of reality itself. Her narrative, however, ends with this announcement, and it is far from clear that her latest act of resistance will yield any more long- term change than did her earlier attempt to reshape the landscape of Hell. If, as Baudrillard argues, ‘all of metaphysics…is lost’ in the era of simulation, then the God and Satan that Madison seeks to reconcile are already symbols emptied of content.24 Neither Palahniuk nor Duncan offers any clear possibility of reform or change to the culture of consumption and commodification that they satirise as Satanic. On the contrary, their
arratives signal repeatedly their own participation in the order of simulan tion: their stories of Satan are liquified theological origin-myths, emptied of authentic transcendence and recycled as cultural commodity. Their narratives do imagine glimpses of hope, located in individual acts of resistance: Penelope’s instinctive belief in honesty and authenticity; Madison’s insistence on telling her own story and her attempt to heal both her own fragmented subjectivity and the community in which she finds herself. Like the narratives in which they appear, however, these characters remain embedded within the cultures that they seek to resist. In these satirical readings of postmodernity, the Earth is the Devil’s and everything in it.
Living Hell ‘Hedged in by the traditional Christian story on the one side, on the other by modern secular agnosticism’, argues Almond, the Devil ‘“prowls around, looking for someone to devour” yet again, both delectable and dangerous, fascinating and terrifying, familiar and alien, in a newly enchanted world’.25 The Devil occupies a seemingly paradoxical place in contemporary popular culture, remaining embedded within a traditional Christian narrative yet often deployed far outside cultures of orthodox Christian belief. The familiar roles of the Devil—tempter, corrupter, seducer, accuser, adversary—retain imaginative force beyond the faith communities and theological traditions within which they emerged. As the Satanic satires of Duncan and Palahniuk demonstrate, one need not believe in the literal, embodied Satan of the pre-modern period in order to imagine contemporary cultural, political or economic realities as hellish. The belief that Hell existed on earth became an increasingly prominent part of the Western cultural imagination in the twentieth century. Rachel Falconer observes that ‘twentieth-century history makes it hard for us to do without a concept of Hell’.26 Though the modern Hell draws extensively on older theological and artistic representations, it no longer belongs exclusively (or even primarily) to an afterlife or eschatology. Falconer writes: Medieval Christians believed Hell to exist, but elsewhere, beyond this life; Hell could only be invoked in the present, then as now, by the power of the imagination. Indeed, it might be argued that although medieval Christians believed in the existence of Hell, only secular moderns believe in Hell. Only for us is Hell actually here, whether in the mind, or in actual, twentieth- century historical events.27
SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL: GOTHIC GOES TO HELL
The modern Hell, Falconer argues, is imagined primarily as a place of suffering rather than of punishment. Though the ‘crowded, chaotic spaces of the Catholic Baroque inferno still provide the dominant images of Hell in our time’, these are now deployed frequently in ‘factual as well as fictional accounts of ghettoes, war camps, prisons, hospitals, undergrounds, mines and other spaces of entrapment’.28 The concept of Hell provides a way of imagining extremes of human suffering, particularly the suffering of the innocent. Hell, it seems, remains a necessary part of the Western cultural imagination in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. As Falconer argues, ‘We invoke the name of Hell to conjure a sense of collectively- recognised evil; but more than this, Hell is the name we give to the absolute evil that defines the limit of the known or thinkable world’.29 As an image of the extremes of human suffering and a way of imagining evil at the limits of the imaginable, Hell belongs to no single literary genre or artistic tradition. Gothic fiction is distinctive not in making use of Hell as a metaphor for suffering and evil but in its tendency to literalise the metaphor. In Hill’s Horns, the metaphor of a Hell on Earth is employed to depict the experiences of the protagonist, Ig, in the year following the rape and murder of his girlfriend, Merrin Williams. Grieving for Merrin, and wrongly suspected of her murder, Ig desecrates a collection of religious icons left as a memorial to Merrin on the anniversary of her death. Ig objects to the presence of a cross at the site of Merrin’s murder: ‘It bothered him that someone wanted to bring Christ out here. Christ was a year too late to do any good’.30 When Ig wakes the following morning, he finds a pair of horns has begun to grow from his forehead, the beginning of a physical transformation into a (or the) Devil. Ig initially interprets the horns as divine retribution for his desecration of the icons, though his transformation also gives literalised expression to the community’s perception of him as monstrous. As he realises the power and freedom that his newly demonic identity gives him, however, Ig begins to embrace it as an opportunity to avenge Merrin’s death. ‘If you were going to live in hell on earth’, Ig observes, ‘there was something to be said for being one of the devils’ (H: 381). People who see the horns begin to confess their secret desires to Ig and to ask his permission to act upon them. Ig quickly discovers that he ‘couldn’t make people do anything they didn’t already want to do’ (H: 44); the Devil is a tempter and a tester of virtue but is not the source of human evil. Hill’s novel is alert to ambiguities and tensions in the familiar Christian story of the Devil: a story that emerged later, and is less clearly rooted in biblical texts than is often assumed by believers and sceptics alike. Henry
Ansgar Kelly points out that the Devil in the New Testament remains an agent of the divine, albeit an unwelcome one: the Devil tests the virtue of humanity, but does so with God’s permission and (in the Pauline epistles) as both the ‘punisher of wrongdoing and the means of rehabilitating the wrongdoers’.31 The later recasting of Satan in the role of a fallen angel and rebel against God obscures the tendency of biblical writers to depict Satan as a servant of God. In Horns, Merrin’s father, Dale Williams, draws attention to the ambiguity of Satan’s role in Christian tradition: Even Christians can’t really decide what to do with him. I mean, think about it. Him and God are supposed to be at war with each other. But if God hates sin and Satan punishes the sinners, aren’t they working on the same side of the street? Aren’t the judge and the executioner on the same team? (H: 372)
Dale’s argument illustrates tensions in Christian thought between the (relatively scarce) biblical references to Satan and later narratives that came to be established as cultural and theological orthodoxies. ‘By the end of the second century’, Almond notes, ‘what was to become the dominant story of the origin of Satan and his angels had taken shape. Created before the world or mankind, the chief of the angels, with a number of others, rebelled against God through their own pride and were expelled from heaven’.32 Satan’s new biography as a fallen angel allowed him to be incorporated into theological debates about evil and divine creation—a supernatural embodiment of evil had not existed eternally as God had—but with the consequence of obscuring the role ascribed to him in biblical thought as a servant of the divine. In this respect, Hill’s novel identifies tensions and ambiguities already present within the historical development of the Christian story of Satan. Beyond its engagement with specific aspects of the Satan tradition, Horns demonstrates that in contemporary Gothic the Devil no longer belongs securely to Christianity. Hill’s version of the Devil is a trenchant critic of the Christian God. ‘I see God now as an unimaginative writer of popular fictions’, Ig claims in a sermon delivered in his demonic form, ‘someone who builds stories around sadistic and graceless plots, narratives that exist only to express His terror of a woman’s power to choose who and how to love, to redefine love as she sees fit, not as God thinks it ought to be’ (H: 259). The Devil, then, is ‘first a literary critic, who delivers this untalented scribbler the public flaying He deserves’ (H: 260). Ig con-
SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL: GOTHIC GOES TO HELL
demns God’s failure to protect Merrin from her killer; he interprets her rape and murder as divine punishment of female sexual agency. Subverting Satan’s traditional role as accuser against human transgression, Ig places God on trial and finds him guilty. ‘I do not claim that God is dead’, Ig states: ‘I tell you that He is alive and well but in no position to offer salvation, being damned Himself for His criminal indifference’ (H: 260). Hill reimagines the Devil as a figure of conscientious objection to divine passivity. Accusing God of failure to prevent Merrin’s suffering, Ig sets out to find and punish her killer. No longer simply a rebel against God, the Devil becomes the voice of human outrage against a silent God who refuses to intervene in human suffering. Despite its spirit of theological rebellion, however, Hill’s novel both retains a sense of the sacred and identifies it with Christian symbolism. Ig’s first meeting with Merrin takes place in church, where she flashes sunlight at him reflected from a gold cross that she wears as a necklace. The cross reappears frequently throughout the novel. Merrin wears it throughout her relationship with Ig, though he notes its absence on the night when she tells him that she wants him to see other people, which is also the night of her death. The cross has become a symbol of their relationship; its absence represents the breaking of that relationship (Ig learns later that Merrin was suffering from terminal cancer and had wanted to spare him from her illness and death). The next time Ig sees the cross it is worn by his childhood friend Lee Tourneau, who, he discovers, raped and murdered Merrin after becoming sexually obsessed with her. The cross blocks the power of the horns: while Lee wears it, Ig is unable to hear his thoughts or to manipulate his desires. When Ig regains possession of the cross, he discovers that by wearing it he can undo his demonisation: the ‘cross looped about Ig’s throat was his own humanity, burning brightly in the morning light’ (H: 360). The cross remains a symbol of the sacred, antithetical to the power of the Devil. As a sign of the sacred, however, the gold cross is related ambiguously to the Christian tradition from which it derives. Though Merrin wears the cross at least in part as a symbol of faith, its meaning shifts as it becomes associated with her relationship with Ig. Later, when the now-demonic Ig regains the cross, he imagines that it might burn him, but concludes, apparently correctly, that ‘nothing that had been hers could really ever do him harm’ (H: 355). Ig’s realisation that the cross can restore his humanity draws on both its theological and personal significance:
But his humanity was of no use to him, not in this situation, nor any other. It had been of no use to him since the night Merrin was taken. Was, in fact, a weakness. Now that he was used to it, he far preferred being damned. The cross was a symbol of that most human condition: suffering. And Ig was sick of suffering. If someone had to get nailed to a tree, he wanted to be the one holding the hammer. (H: 360)
Ig’s interpretation of the cross disrupts stable boundaries between the sacred and the secular. Ig reads the cross as a Christian symbol, but he does so from a perspective outside of Christian faith. On this reading, the cross is a symbol of universal human suffering embodied in the crucified Christ. This interpretation is one with which many theologians would concur. Rowan Williams, for example, writes of the wounded Christ: ‘The familiarity of his pain is not simply the familiarity of our own; it is the all too recognizable face of the world whose suffering we have helped to make, and which we cannot therefore draw into ourselves’.33 Ig’s point of departure from Christian thought is his refusal to find anything redemptive in the suffering of the crucified Christ. He sees in it only the cruelty of Merrin’s death and his own loss. The cross is not a detraditioned religious symbol—its Christian heritage remains integral to its meaning—but rather a religious symbol employed in an act of theological rebellion. Horns, then, illustrates contemporary Gothic’s capacity to adopt the texts, traditions and iconography of Christianity for purposes of theological critique and challenge. Hill’s novel acknowledges the histories of the Devil and the cross in Christian belief; rather than merely removing them from this tradition, the novel allows their meaning to be constructed through dialogue and contest with that tradition. Neither the Devil nor the cross is interpreted in the novel primarily from the perspective of orthodox faith, but this does not mean that they are emptied of religious significance or that they are merely instances of religion appearing as ‘special effect’ in postmodern culture.34 Hill draws on Christian theological traditions and allows them to perform theological work that is both serious and subversive. His Devil is a rebel against God, but a rebel motivated by experiences of undeserved suffering and anger at God’s failure to protect the innocent. The Devil, who in Christian tradition has often appeared as the accuser of sinful humanity, turns his attention to God. The Almighty is charged with wilful negligence, and Hill’s Devil finds him guilty.
SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL: GOTHIC GOES TO HELL
The Devil in the Valley The Devil in contemporary Gothic occupies a liminal space between belief and unbelief. As the novels discussed in the previous sections of this chapter demonstrate, Gothic writers draw upon traditional images of the Devil as the personification of evil and a rebel against God, but in doing so they also reimagine the Devil outside of the context of medieval and early- modern theological orthodoxy. The contemporary Gothic Devil may be a representation of cultural crisis or a figure of rebellion against unjust authority and cosmic indifference, but he is not imagined primarily as a threat to the Christian’s immortal soul. As Almond observes, ‘[t]he re-emergence of the Devil in popular, if not in elite, Western culture is part of a new Western engagement with the imaginary enchanted world of preternatural beings both good and evil – of vampires and fairies, witches and wizards, werewolves and wraiths, shape-shifters and superheroes, angels and demons, ghosts and dragons, elves and aliens, succubi and incubi, hobbits and the inhabitants of Hogwarts, and zombies’.35 The return of the Devil in contemporary culture is illustrative of a moment in which religious and folkloric traditions are providing languages for the narration of contemporary experience. The Devil appears in popular culture as a figure of radical disaffection, not only a rebel against God but a symbol of the perceived inadequacies of a fragmented and alienating society. The Devil, however, takes many forms and inhabits landscapes outside of the urban. In the twenty-first century, the Devil has reappeared in the American wilderness where the Puritans of the seventeenth century once found him—a history suggested by the haunted forest of The Blair Witch Project (1999) and revisited overtly in Robert Eggers’ 2015 film The Witch.36 British Gothic has shown a similar willingness to engage with the histories of its liminal spaces. Novels such as Jo Baker’s The Telling (2008), Hurley’s The Loney (2014), Jenn Ashworth’s Fell (2016) and Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent (2016) have explored rural and coastal landscapes haunted by histories of social inequality, religion, superstition, industry and economic decline. Britain’s ‘edgelands’—a term used by the poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts to describe a British wilderness of spaces neither city nor countryside—have become haunted in twenty- first-century Gothic.37 In Hurley’s second novel, Devil’s Day, the rural north of England is haunted by the Devil himself. The novel is set in and around a fictional
farming hamlet known as the Endlands. The narrator, John Pentecost, a schoolteacher in Suffolk, returns to his childhood home in the Endlands with his pregnant wife, Kat, following the death of his grandfather. John’s intention, concealed initially from Kat, is to return permanently to the Endlands and raise their child in his family’s traditional way of life on the farm. John’s nostalgia is not simply for the landscape itself but for a life and identity rooted in place, family and heritage; he wants a way of life that can be passed on from each generation to the next, despite his father’s warning that ‘I pity the poor bastard you’d lumber with this job’.38 The Endlands represents an alternative to urban life and to an economy based on commodification and consumption. John observes that ‘a farmer in the Endlands was only ever a custodian. Nothing ever belonged to anyone, but was always in the act of being handed on’ (DD: 83). The landscape and resources of the Endlands are imagined in terms of stewardship rather than ownership, ‘handed on’ between the farming families in the valley and from parents to children. If John’s return to the Endlands is motivated by nostalgia for a way of life outside of urban modernity, this nostalgia is not naïve. He embraces the physical hardships and economic precarity of the valley as aspects of the community and rootedness that it represents. The traditions handed on at the Endlands include stories of the Devil. Indeed, John suggests that the Devil haunts all their stories: ‘in the Endlands’, he claims, ‘one story begs the telling of another and another and in all of them the Devil plays his part’ (DD: 8). Christian belief has largely disappeared from the valley, its symbols and icons fragmented and dispersed: parts of the windows in the pub have been replaced by ‘random fragments of the holy tableau that had once sat behind the altar. Here, the eyes of the Virgin. There a nailed hand’ (DD: 117). John’s family name, Pentecost, is itself a residual symbol of earlier Christian influence. Belief in the Devil and in proverbs drawn from folklore and traditional superstition remain far more common in the Endlands, though John cautions against the assumption that the endurance of these traditions represents naïve belief. ‘[N]one of the Endlands proverbs were meant to be taken literally’, John claims: ‘They weren’t predictions so much as an acceptance of life’s capriciousness’ (DD: 104). The language of the Devil provides the farming community with a way of imagining and narrating their experiences of a harsh, unpredictable and physically demanding landscape. In this tradition, the Devil is not an embodiment of evil but an adversary active in the environment itself:
SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL: GOTHIC GOES TO HELL
The Devil has been here since before anyone came, passing endlessly from one thing to another. He’s in the rain and the gales and the wild river. He’s in the trees of the Wood. He’s the unexpected fire and the biter of dogs. He’s the disease that can ruin a whole farm and the blizzard that buries a whole village. But at least here we can see him at work. (DD: 291)
The Devil embodies and personifies the hostility of the landscape and the fragility of the farmers’ subsistence upon it. Christianity has little hold upon the collective imagination at the Endlands because the farming families are concerned not with redemption but with the perpetual struggle to survive. The Devil, rather than God or Christ, provides the most compelling theological metaphor for existence at the Endlands. Devil’s Day draws upon the complex religious history of Lancashire as a site of both Christian revivalism and magic. ‘They’d all passed this way’, John observes: ‘Methodists and Baptists, Congregationalists and Spiritualists. And it was the view from Pendle Hill across the Ribble Valley that had conjured up the vision of the great people to be gathered in George Fox and his Quakers’ (DD: 105). Notably, in John’s account, Fox’s vision in 1652 is ‘conjured’ by the landscape itself rather than given by God. John’s association of the landscape with magic recalls another prominent part of the region’s history: the trials and executions of Pendle women accused of witchcraft in 1612. In his history of the witch trials, Almond notes that by the early seventeenth century ‘Lancashire was known generally as a dark corner of superstition, witchcraft, and popery’.39 Popular magic had long co-existed with Christian belief and practice in the county. The aftermath of the Reformation, however, brought heightened hostility towards both traditional magic and Catholic ritual, the two being easily conflated in the eyes of some Protestants.40 Kirsteen Macpherson Bardell notes that ‘in Protestant countries such as England, the Reformation had involved the destruction or removal of various quasi-magical props which the people could rely on in time of need – such as praying to certain saints, using holy water and relics, and going on pilgrimages to holy shrines’.41 Macpherson Bardell shows that though magic and witchcraft were readily identified as demonic by the Protestant witch-finders, attitudes in Lancashire communities seem to have been more complex. Magic was often regarded as benevolent rather than threatening, capable of bringing cures as well as curses. In his fictionalised version of Lancashire, then, Hurley invokes the county’s religious history to depict a community whose relationship with
the landscape is constructed primarily through folklore and magic rather than Christianity. The farmers in the Endlands have little interest in Christianity, but they know how to live with the Devil: they know that they must set out a bowl of stew on Devil’s Day to keep the Devil from entering the kitchen, because ‘he’d never leave if he got his knees under the table’ (DD: 215). Such rituals endure beyond the end of belief in a literal, embodied Satan because they have become part of the community’s story. Like everything else at Endlands, the Devil is ‘handed on’: he is part of the inherited tradition within which the farmers understand themselves and their relationship to their environment. Kat agrees finally to stay with John because she ‘realised that what we pass on in the Endlands isn’t only the privilege of living here, but the privilege of living itself. Seeking out the struggle, I mean, rather than hiding from it’ (DD: 291). Choosing Endlands, John and Kat reject detraditioned urban modernity for a world in which old beliefs persist and the Devil still walks. Like Duncan, Palahniuk and Hill, Hurley identifies the tradition of the Devil as one that no longer belongs exclusively to Christianity. The Devil takes many forms in contemporary Gothic fictions: he embodies a postmodern culture of hyper-consumption within which the human subject itself is commodified and consumed; he appears as a protester against the world’s unjust cruelties and against a God who refuses to prevent them; he haunts the edgelands and wildernesses of Britain and America, connecting the present to older ways of living and believing. If the Devil today is no longer the figure of terror that he was in the era of the witch trials, he endures nevertheless as a symbol of alienation, disillusionment and outrage. He wanders freely in our cultural imagination, showing us ourselves and the world of our experience.
Notes 1. Robert Muchembled, A History of the Devil from the Middle Ages to the Present, trans. by Jean Birrell (Cambridge: Polity, 2003), p. 162. 2. Richard Hand, Listen in Terror: British Horror Radio from the Advent of Broadcasting to the Digital Age (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014), pp. 108–9. 3. Henry Ansgar Kelly, Satan: A Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 2. 4. See Owen Davies, Witchcraft, Magic and Culture, 1736–1951 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999).
SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL: GOTHIC GOES TO HELL
5. Glen Duncan, I, Lucifer (London: Scribner, 2003), p. 3. Further references are given parenthetically with the abbreviation IL. 6. Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, trans. by Sheila Faria Glaser (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1994), p. 6. 7. Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation, p. 1. 8. Linnie Blake and Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet, ‘Introduction: Neoliberal Gothic’, in Blake and Monnet (eds.), Neoliberal Gothic: International Gothic in the Neoliberal Age (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017), pp. 1–18 (p. 1). 9. Eduardo Mendieta, ‘Surviving American Culture: On Chuck Palahniuk’, Philosophy and Literature 29.2 (October 2005), pp. 394–408 (p. 394). 10. Chuck Palahniuk, Damned (London: Vintage, 2012), p. 17. Further references are given parenthetically. 11. Justin Garrison, ‘“God’s Middle Children”: Metaphysical Rebellion in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club’, Humanitas 25.1–2 (2012), pp. 79–106 (p. 81). 12. Chuck Palahniuk, Doomed (London: Jonathan Cape, 2013), p. 208. Further references are given parenthetically. 13. Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity, 2000), pp. 148–9. 14. J. C. Lee, ‘Contemporary US-American Satire and Consumerism (Crews, Coupland, Palahniuk)’, CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 14.4 (2012), http://docs.lib.purdue.edu/clcweb/vol14/iss4/6 (p. 2 of 10). 15. Lee, ‘Contemporary US-American Satire and Consumerism’, p. 9 of 10. 16. McCord Adams, Christ and Horrors, pp. 35–6. 17. Philip C. Almond, The Devil: A New Biography (London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2016), p. 221. 18. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism; Or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (London and New York: Verso, 1991), p. 14. 19. Jameson, Postmodernism, p. 15. 20. Olivia Burgess, ‘Revolutionary Bodies in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club’, Utopian Studies 23.1 (2012), pp. 263–80 (p. 270). 21. Fred Botting, Limits of Horror: Technology, Bodies, Gothic (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008), p. 215. 22. Ward, True Religion, p. 138. 23. Baudrillard, Simulation and Simulacra, pp. 6–7. 24. Baudrillard, Simulation and Simulacra, p. 2. 25. Almond, The Devil, p. 221. 26. Rachel Falconer, Hell in Contemporary Literature: Western Descent Narratives Since 1945 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), p. 16.
27. Falconer, Hell in Contemporary Literature, p. 14. 28. Falconer, Hell in Contemporary Literature, p. 14. 29. Falconer, Hell in Contemporary Literature, p. 17. 30. Joe Hill, Horns (London: Gollancz, 2011), p. 5. Further references are given parenthetically with the abbreviation H. 31. Kelly, Satan, p. 323. 32. Almond, The Devil, p. 47. 33. Rowan Williams, Resurrection (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1982), p. 89. 34. Ward, True Religion, pp. viii–ix. 35. Almond, The Devil, p. xiv. 36. See Tom J. Hillard, ‘From Salem Witch to Blair Witch: The Puritan Influence on American Gothic Nature’, in Andrew Smith and William Hughes (eds.), Ecogothic (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), pp. 103–19. 37. Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness (London: Vintage, 2012). 38. Andrew Michael Hurley, Devil’s Day (London: John Murray, 2017), p. 167. Further references are given parenthetically with the abbreviation DD. 39. Philip C. Almond, The Lancashire Witches: A Chronicle of Sorcery and Death on Pendle Hill (London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2012), p. 7. 40. See Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Popular Beliefs in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century England (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971). 41. Kirsteen Macpherson Bardell, ‘Beyond Pendle: The “Lost” Lancashire Witches’, in Robert Poole (ed.), The Lancashire Witches: Histories and Stories (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2002), pp. 105–22 (p. 107).
The Sense of No Ending: (Re)Reading the Apocalyptic Stephen King
Around we go, back to the start and the start is there again. (Stephen King, The Gunslinger)1
Few novelists have taken their readers and their characters ‘back to the start’ quite as often as Stephen King. For a writer whose work draws extensively on literary and theological traditions of apocalypse, King has a penchant for narratives that revisit and reread their beginnings rather than embracing their end. Many of his characters are haunted and threatened by what lies behind them, both in their own histories and in those of the places they inhabit. The past in King’s fiction is never quite dead; it is resurrected continually not only in a series of spectral and monstrous returns, but also in the seemingly mundane events of storytelling and memory. John Sears finds these persistent returns not only in the narrative shape of King’s individual novels but throughout an oeuvre ‘deeply structured…by its own engagement in the Gothic habit of rereading and, consequent on these rereadings, rewriting what it has read and reread’.2 King’s fiction persistently rereads and rewrites both his own earlier texts and a plethora of intertexts. If the ending of a work of fiction is always the beginning of another reading, as deconstructionists such as J. Hillis Miller have argued, then King’s approach to storytelling enacts this process of reading and rereading more overtly than most.3 Many of his narratives resist their own ending not only by their use of Gothic returns but also because the story itself is continued, expanded or revised in other texts. King’s fiction often seems to refuse even the possibility of what the © The Author(s) 2018 S. Marsden, The Theological Turn in Contemporary Gothic Fiction, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-96571-0_8
protagonists in his series The Dark Tower (1982–2012) request: a tale told ‘[a]ll the way to the end’.4 Despite its frequent use of apocalyptic tropes, then, King’s Gothic does not belong in any straightforward way to the category of what Frank Kermode has termed ‘end-determined fictions’.5 Such fictions, Kermode argues, offer the kind of ending that imbues the present with significance and ‘gives each moment its fullness’.6 These narratives are shaped by what Kermode has famously called ‘the sense of an ending’: they are structured by their movement towards an ending in which is revealed the fuller meaning of all that has gone before. The Bible’s movement from Genesis to Revelation—origins to apocalypse—is for Kermode an archetype of narrative shape, proceeding from the beginning of history to an end (the apocalypse, or unveiling) that is also a moment of renewal.7 In Kermode’s account, as belief in a literal end to history has waned in the modern era, literature has responded to the human need for a meaningful end by offering its own version of narrative shape. Yet with the lack of confidence in a universal end of history comes scepticism towards endings in fiction. Living in the regular, continual flow of chronological time, we seek meaningful endings, but we do not entirely trust them. Developing Kermode’s analysis, Paul S. Fiddes suggests that our modern relationship with endings is further complicated by the fact that ‘in our modern Western society we also find it hard to face the fact of death’.8 We resist closure in our fictions both because time for us has come to be shaped by transitions rather than endings and because we suspect that the end is synonymous with death. ‘Whether in the crisis of death or transition’, Fiddes argues, ‘the end is now immanent, rather than imminent’.9 King’s fiction often reflects this experience of history as shaped by transitions, not a world that moves towards a decisive and meaningful ending, but a world that has ‘moved on’.10 Yet if the eschatology of secular modernity is more concerned with immanent crises and transitions than with expectation of a ‘new heaven and earth’ to be inaugurated at the end of history,11 contemporary Western culture remains preoccupied with the task of imagining its own end. As Andrew Tate has observed, ‘popular contemporary narrative is haunted by dreams of a future that is a place of ruin’.12 That this should be the case is hardly surprising. To the spectre of nuclear holocaust that haunted the latter half of the twentieth century has been added the prospect of anthropogenic climate change, the growing possibility of pandemics caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria and, particularly in the aftermath of 9/11, the
THE SENSE OF NO ENDING: (RE)READING THE APOCALYPTIC STEPHEN…
threat of large-scale terrorist attack. ‘To know that death awaits each of us individually is one thing’, writes Robert Wuthnow. ‘To contemplate the possibility of human extinction or death and disease on such a scale that survival itself may no longer be welcome is quite another’.13 Contemporary apocalyptic fictions imagine futures in which the nightmare scenarios of the present have come to pass, often without reassurance that a new world can be built from the ruins of the old. Though the apocalyptic tendencies of contemporary fiction span a range of genres, the popularity of Gothic catastrophe narratives such as Justin Cronin’s Passage trilogy and the AMC television series The Walking Dead demonstrates the extent to which contemporary culture has come to imagine its own end as a time of horror. In these and other apocalyptic narratives, viral outbreaks and zombie plagues represent the end of modern social organisation and of late capitalist economics, with survivors left to establish new kinds of community amidst the ruins of the modern urban and technological landscape. King’s fiction has often visited such moments of crisis. As James Egan notes, ‘[o]ne of King’s favorite forms of horror is apocalyptic – he is adept at describing the end of the world and the destruction of life as we commonly know it’.14 Novels such as The Stand (1978), The Mist (1980), Cell (2006) and Under the Dome (2009) are narratives of global or local catastrophe that belong within the broad category of contemporary apocalypticism.15 The bleak futures imagined in these novels illuminate a key aspect of the contemporary apocalypse: the end, rather than ushering in a longed- for new world as it does in biblical apocalypse, has become a calamity to be averted or survived. Though some of these narratives retain hope that something might be saved or rebuilt on the other side of the end, such moments of renewal typically occur against the odds. In this way, the contemporary apocalypse is a departure both from the biblical vision of a new heaven and earth that would be inaugurated when God intervened decisively to bring an end to the present reversals endured by his people, and from the more secularised apocalyptic of Romantic radicalism that imagined a new Jerusalem built by human hands in England’s green and pleasant land.16 For the authors of apocalyptic texts within the canons of Jewish and Christian scripture, apocalypse offered a literary mode in which to imagine possibilities of radical transformation initiated by divine action. Christopher Rowland observes of New Testament apocalyptic that ‘there are signs that the present becomes a moment of opportunity for transforming the imperfect into the perfect; history and eschatology become
inextricably intertwined, and the elect stand on the brink of the millennium itself’.17 Indeed, as Lois Parkinson Zamora notes, anticipation and expectation are integral to the narrative perspective of biblical apocalyptic: In both the canonic Hebrew apocalyptic texts (Ezekiel, Daniel, Zecharaiah) and the Christian apocalypses (the thirteenth chapter of Mark, the twenty- fourth chapter of Matthew, the Second Epistle of Peter, the Revelation of John), the end of the world is described from the point of view of a narrator who is radically opposed to existing spiritual and political practices. Whether Jew or early Christian, his narrative reflects not only his opposition to existing practices but also his political powerlessness to change them. His is a subversive vision: He is outside the cultural and political mainstream (in John’s case, literally in exile on the Greek island of Patmos), awaiting God’s intervention in human history, when the corrupt world of the present will be supplanted by a new and transcendent realm.18
Biblical apocalypse offers visions of a flawed and disordered world set to rights (from the perspective of the writer, at least) by decisive divine action. The wicked are punished, while the virtuous enter into new life in a remade world. In these texts, the apocalypse is the consummation of history and the final vindication of the faithful remnant who face suffering and alienation in the present age. The apocalypse gathers up time into eternity, and God’s eternal purposes are revealed in full. As Kevin Mills notes, the book of Revelation locates its narrator at ‘the nexus of worlds – an indefinable cosmic embrasure from which he can look out on two worlds, seeing beyond the confines of time and space into the eternal’.19 The apocalyptic visionary sees both the present world and its consummation: the end is witnessed not only as an event that will happen but as one that has happened and is happening now. This ending is not simply an event that occurs within time but an event in which the eternal breaks in upon time and history. The apocalypse reveals a future in which the present order of things is undone and something new—and better—is inaugurated. In this way, Rowland points out, the apocalypse is ‘the perspective from which all else is viewed – culture, economics, religion, power and status’.20 This investment in the concept of revelation, however, seems frequently to be at odds with the obscurity of the apocalyptic texts themselves. As Zamora points out, the book of Revelation is ‘as much about the capacity of language to conceal as to reveal’.21 Apocalyptic texts draw on a wide
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range of symbols, fantastical events and otherworldly beings, many of them derived from earlier apocalypses. This practice of rewriting and reinterpretation contributes both to the hermeneutic difficulties of apocalyptic and to its ongoing creative vitality. The very openness and indeterminacy of apocalyptic symbols make them available for reinterpretation and redeployment in new cultural and political contexts. The city of Babylon, a persistent political and military threat to Jerusalem in the Old Testament, could reappear in the Book of Revelation as a representation of Rome, and become thereafter a symbol of whatever the interpreter considered to be the corrupt power of the day. As David Seed has observed, the use of apocalyptic in modern literature illustrates the ways in which ‘the apocalyptic paradigm is modified again and again to serve a whole range of interpretive and speculative purposes’.22 Like Gothic, apocalyptic is a genre predicated upon the persistent rereading and rewriting of its own tropes. The focus of this chapter, then, is not primarily on King’s depictions of the end of the world but rather on the ways in which his fiction engages with apocalyptic as a literary and theological tradition. King’s fiction adopts several prominent tropes of apocalyptic: the use of supernatural and otherworldly figures as a means of revelation; the disordering of chronological time; and the disruption of boundaries between worlds or between different orders of reality. The first section reads King’s It (1986) as a revelatory text that both echoes and reverses the ‘unveiling’ promised by biblical apocalyptic. Where traditional apocalyptic uses visions of the otherworldly to reveal the fuller, eternal contexts of present reality, King’s use of the supernatural unveils the corruption and violence beneath the civilised veneer of small-town American life. This is a version of Gothic apocalypse that gazes not outward into the eternal but down into the dark recesses of the present. The second section turns to Revival (2014), a novel that combines scepticism towards popular religious revivalism with a horrifying version of apocalyptic vision. In this novel, King asks what might become of the ‘sense of an ending’ when apocalyptic vision reveals an ending that nullifies rather than fulfils the desire for divine meaning. The final section examines the apocalypticism of The Dark Tower, a series based on Robert Browning’s nineteenth-century apocalyptic poem Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came (1855). Of all of King’s fiction, The Dark Tower is perhaps the work that draws most overtly upon the literary conventions and traditions of apocalypse. Its protagonists are wanderers between worlds who seek the ending represented by the Dark Tower; an
ending that never quite arrives. Fiddes has argued that eschatology is ‘the basic mood of theology and literary creation’.23 This chapter considers the eschatological and apocalyptic ‘mood’ of King’s fiction and asks whether these narratives find glimpses of hope for the future, or only a vision of times that are always out of joint.
‘The Wall of Time Grows Suddenly Thin’: Revelation and Endlessness in It From its opening sentence, the narrator of It foregrounds the disruption of temporal structure and chronological order that persists throughout the novel. Rather than beginning at the beginning and ending at the end, the novel’s opening posits both beginning and end as impossible to locate securely: The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years – if it ever did end – began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.24
Like much of King’s fiction, It identifies this difficulty of situating beginning and end as bound up both in the human need to make meaning of our experiences within time and in the capacity of narrative to organise and shape this experience. In this respect, the novel recalls Kermode’s observation that ‘there is still a need to speak humanly of a life’s importance in relation to [time] – a need in the moment of existence to belong, to be related to a beginning and to an end’.25 Like Kermode, King seems to adopt a position of critical scepticism towards this narrative shaping both in the uncertain beginnings and endings of several of his plots and in the persistent rewriting of his own narratives that leave the stories themselves without a secure point of origin or closure. The difficulty of locating a beginning and ending in It, signalled in the novel’s opening sentence, is mirrored in the experience of the reader: the novel ‘begins’ before its first page (a key event in its narrative involves Dick Hallorann, a central character in King’s The Shining , and can make full sense only to readers of that earlier novel aware of Hallorann’s psychic powers) and continues beyond its own ending: its mythology and chronology are incorporated into subsequent novels, including Dreamcatcher (2001) and The Dark Tower.
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At one level, then, King’s fiction seems to reflect what Fiddes, following Kermode, calls ‘a “wearing out” of the paradigm of concordance [between beginning, middle and end] on the world scene’.26 I want to suggest, however, that rather than simply illustrating a modern decline in popular apocalyptic belief, King recuperates different strands of the apocalyptic tradition and illuminates the limitations of contemporary criticism’s tendency to understand apocalypse primarily in terms of endings. In It, King enacts an apocalyptic unveiling that both echoes and inverts the revelatory mode of biblical apocalyptic. Where Christian apocalyptic seeks to set the troubles of the present in the fuller context of the eternal, King’s novel uses revelatory moments to bring into view the corruption and abuses concealed within the social and political order of the present. The point of this Gothic apocalypse is not that a disappointed group might see its struggles in the context of eternity but rather that a complacent community might be made to see the abuses and injustices from which it has chosen to avert its collective gaze. Revelatory moments in It are invested with moral and political urgency by the novel’s persistent emphasis on the Derry community’s refusal to see its own structural failures: the cycles of abuse, violence and corruption that have become part of the ordinary fabric of life in the town. At moments of extreme violence—the homophobic murder of Adrian Mellon, the near-murder of eleven-year-old Beverley Marsh—the narrative dwells on the presence of spectators who ignore or decline to intervene in the abuses taking place before them. This communal refusal to see is exemplified in librarian Mike Hanlon’s interview with a surviving witness of the townspeople’s murder of the notorious Bradley gang in 1929. ‘Wasn’t no cover up’, the man recalls. ‘It was just that no one talked about it much…Besides, it happened in Derry, not in New York or Chicago’ (It: 786–7). Mike recognises in this response a familiar rhetorical device by which the violence of Derry’s history is rendered invisible even to those who have participated in it: Besides, it happened in Derry. I’ve heard it before, and I suppose if I continue to pursue this I’ll hear it again…and again…and again. They say it as if speaking patiently to a mental defective. They say it the way they would say Because of gravity if you asked them how come you stick to the ground when you walk. They say it as if it were a natural law any natural man should understand. And, of course, the worst of that is I do understand. (It: 787)
Supernatural figures and images in It bring into view the violence and abuse that the Derry community chooses not to see. King employs the tropes of supernatural horror as a revelatory discourse that unveils what the people and institutions of Derry have been complicit in concealing. The being known as ‘It’ appears as multiple objects of childhood fear— Pennywise the Clown, the leper, the werewolf, Dracula—but its shifting appearances are always displaced representations of the abuses that have become normalised in Derry. Many of the people (most of them children) murdered by It are already victims of child abuse, domestic violence, bullying, racism or homophobia. The monster manifests the undercurrent of violence already present within the town. Don Hagarty, who sees Pennywise watching as his lover Adrian Mellon is murdered in a homophobic assault, recognises the unsettling familiarity of the clown: ‘It was Derry’, he claims; ‘It was this town’ (It: 42). Like the fantastical creatures of biblical apocalyptic, then, King’s Gothic monsters are symbolic representations and revelations of the oppressive powers and corrupt institutions of the present age. Fred Botting and Catherine Spooner observe that Gothic monsters ‘come to manifest the effects of systems of domination and dehumanisation that create them’.27 In It, supernatural monstrosity manifests and makes visible the violence and abuse carried out by the inhabitants of Derry and largely ignored by its political and legal systems. Though much of the novel’s supernatural imagery is derived from Gothic convention, it is often mingled with biblical language and imagery. This is perhaps best illustrated when eleven-year-old Beverly Marsh sees blood flowing from a bathroom washbasin. Though the blood covers the bathroom, it is invisible to Beverly’s father: He turned off the water, grabbed a towel on which two fans of blood from the drain had splashed, and began to dry his hands. She watched, near swooning, as he grimed blood into his big knuckles and the lines of his palms. She could see blood under his fingernails like marks of guilt. […] There was blood…blood everywhere…and her father didn’t see it. (IT: 477)
King’s imagery recalls the biblical tradition of the bloodstain as a material sign of guilt visible to God yet unseen by the one it stains.28 In Isaiah 1: 15, God refuses to hear the prayers of Israel because their collective hands are stained with blood: they have performed religious rituals while allowing
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injustice to fester in their midst. God issues an injunction: the people must ‘[w]ash and make yourselves clean’ (Isaiah 1: 16) before their prayers will be heard again. As King’s novel insists, however, one must learn to see the blood on one’s hands before such cleansing is possible. Beverly’s father beats his daughter in assaults that betray his barely suppressed sexual desire for her, yet he does so while maintaining his self-image as a protective father: ‘Daughters, Al Marsh said, need more correction than sons’ (IT: 479). Literally and figuratively, Al Marsh fails to see the blood on his own hands. As the child protagonists prepare to confront the town’s supernatural monster, they recognise that they cannot seek help from the town’s adults because ‘They won’t see, they won’t hear, they won’t know’ (IT: 1177). The novel here recalls the words of Christ in Luke 8:10: He said, ‘The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that, “though seeing, they may not see; though hearing, they may not understand.”’
The biblical text identifies the inability or unwillingness to see and understand as a moral failure. To ‘see’ and to ‘understand’ parable is not simply to perform an act of interpretation but to recognise the ethical and spiritual claim of the parable upon one’s own life.29 King’s novel similarly identifies the refusal to ‘see’ as a moral failure. In refusing to see the abuse taking place in their town, the people of Derry become complicit in that violence. There is blood on their hands, and they do not—will not—see it. King’s socio-political critique in It, then, is aimed not simply at the specific forms of abuse that take place in the narrative but at a collective and structural refusal to see either the abuse itself or its victims. This emphasis on the need to see concealed abuses complicates the objection to King’s fiction raised by Jesse W. Nash, who argues that the ‘very real problems’ that postmodern Gothic writers such as King seek to address, ‘such as the nature of the American family, child abuse, crime, and gender, are addressed in such mythologically-exaggerated worlds that those worlds become the problem to be overcome, and not the issues that first inspired them’.30 King in It delineates a world in which abuse and violence are concealed by existing social, economic and political structures and perpetuated by a community that benefits from those structures and so refuses to interrogate them. The supernatural in the novel makes visible Derry’s hidden abuses and so offers a different way of looking at contemporary
urban life. The children in the novel recognise a ‘sightline’ below which adults do not look; ‘[b]ullies like Henry could get away with hurting other kids quite a lot if they were careful to stay below that sightline’ (It: 1138). As Sara Martín Alegre observes, ‘[i]n It children understand the monsters that threaten them because of their familiarity with the monsters of their private fears, which they must eventually forgo and forget as adults’.31 As they grow older and leave Derry, the children themselves lose the memories of their childhood traumas. Their return to the town as adults makes possible the recuperation of those memories that is necessary in order that their and the town’s collective trauma might be overcome. As they grow up, the children, ironically, emulate the adult behaviour that placed them in danger as children: they stop seeing and talking about the suffering and abuse endured by children, even when those children are their own younger selves. When the adult Beverly tells the story of her childhood self’s narrow escape from the increasingly violent bully Henry Bowers, she omits its most disturbing aspect: She would not have to tell him about how Mr. Ross had simply folded his paper and walked into his house. She didn’t want to tell him about that. It was too scary. (It: 1139)
Too scary to be spoken, an adult’s refusal to see or intervene in violence against a child becomes another part of the untold and unspeakable history of Derry. Much of the novel’s horror, then, is rooted in its depiction of social, political and economic structures of modern urban America that not only fail to prevent abuse, but at least tacitly collude with it. A need for renewed vision—a moral imperative for contemporary urban society to see itself more clearly—drives the narrative’s engagement with the apocalyptic tradition. The novel deploys more conventional apocalyptic allusions: Derry itself is destroyed during the final battle with ‘It’, and one resident, Harold Gardener, ‘later told his wife he thought maybe the end of the world had come’ (It: 1318). Yet King repeatedly undermines this notion of apocalypse as ending. The fact that Gardener tells the story to his wife retrospectively, of course, signals the fact that the end of the world did not come. King’s resistance of the contrived or conventional ending is perhaps seen most clearly in the death of Eddie Kaspbrak in the final confrontation with ‘It’:
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‘Richie,’ he whispered. ‘What?’ Richie was down on his hands and knees, staring at him desperately. ‘Don’t call me Eds,’ he said, and smiled. He raised his left hand slowly and touched Richie’s cheek. Richie was crying. ‘You know I…I…’ Eddie closed his eyes, thinking how to finish, and while he was still thinking it over he died. (IT: 1295)
Death thus occurs as an interruption, an event that denies Eddie’s attempt to construct his own ending. Eddie’s death, in the middle of ‘thinking how to finish’, discloses a tension in the narrative between the desire for a meaningful, appropriate ending and the suspicion that death cannot be that ending. Death overtakes Eddie’s attempt to perform his own version of the good death. Yet if King refuses the contrived ending as a meaningful conclusion to lives or stories, he nevertheless holds open the possibility that the human experience of chronological time might be disrupted and transformed by kairos. For Kermode, the experiences of chronos and kairos are represented by a clock: chronos by the perpetual ‘tick, tick’ of passing time and kairos by the anticipation of the ‘tock’ that closes and defines the intervening moment. ‘The clock’s tick-tock’, Kermode explains, ‘I take to be a model of what we call a plot, an organization that humanizes time by giving it form’.32 For King, the irruption of kairos appears not simply as an anticipated closure but rather as a moment of unknowable variation, marked not by the imminence of a fixed ending but rather by a disturbance in the flow of chronological time. On the day of the final confrontation with ‘It’, the Derry town clock first fails to strike the hour and subsequently strikes thirteen. This interruption of the clock’s regular chiming symbolises not only the disruption of chronological time but the breaking of the social and political order of the town. This moment of rupture is registered by Derry resident Dave Gardener: Grace Church clock didn’t chime the hour…What’s wrong? He felt a large ill- defined fright. Dave had prospered over the years; in 1965 he had purchased The Shoeboat, and now there was a second Shoeboat at the Derry Mall and a third up in Bangor. Suddenly all of those things – things he had spent his life working for – seemed in jeopardy. From what? he cried to himself, looking at his sleeping wife. From what, why you so goddam antsy just because that clock didn’t chime? (It: 1256)
The silencing of the clock represents the arrival of unimagined newness, a moment of rupture in the social order of Derry, figured as a disruption in the flow of chronological time. For adults such as Dave Gardener, invested in the preservation of the social and economic order in which they have ‘prospered over the years’, this sudden openness to unknown possibility is a cause of fear. Growing up, for King, is characterised by a loss of imaginative vision that is also a loss of openness both to the wonders and horrors of the world and to the possibility of its transformation.33 This shift is reflected in the novel’s twin timelines. As children in the summer of 1958, the novel’s protagonists take a stand against ‘It’ and win a partial victory. When they return to Derry as adults in 1984, they are vulnerable because the idealism of childhood has been displaced by pragmatism. As Bill Denbrough approaches the reunion, he is ‘suddenly uneasy – almost terrified – at the thought of seeing them all again, their children’s faces almost worn away, almost buried under change as the old hospital had been buried. Banks erected inside their heads where once magic picture- palaces had stood’ (It: 583). This process of coming to terms with the world, becoming enmeshed in its structures of power and economics to the extent that one becomes dependent upon them and blind to their injustices, is precisely what allows the barely recognised horrors of Derry to be perpetuated. As Mike Hanlon speculates, ‘Can it be that It protects Itself by the simple fact that, as the children grow into the adults, they become either incapable of faith or crippled by a sort of spiritual and imaginative arthritis?’ (It: 1081). The destruction of the monster requires faith in the possibility that the established order can be transformed. It requires the faith of children that the violent world of their experience can be remade; faith that is lost with the movement into adulthood and prosperity dependent on the social and economic structures within which violence is perpetuated. Though it preserves something of the conventional model of apocalyptic ending, the novel’s fullest engagement with apocalyptic eschatology lies in its openness to the imagining of renewal—to the possibility that the established order of things might be transcended. After generations of cyclical feeding and slumbering, ‘It’ is threatened and defeated by the emergence of creative possibility; as ‘It’ itself recognises, ‘something had happened which was totally unexpected, utterly unthought of’ (It: 1221). The final defeat of ‘It’ is achieved by adults able to confront it with the belief and idealism of children, to see the concealed horrors of Derry for what they are and to believe that the community’s cycle of violence can be
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broken. The novel adopts an apocalyptic register in its depiction of moments in which ‘the wall of time grow[s] suddenly thin’ (It: 198); apocalypse not as ending but as a revelatory moment in which past, present and future are brought into harmony and a new openness to possibility is created. In subverting the ‘sense of an ending’ theorised by Kermode, then, King’s novel recuperates the mode of apocalyptic revelation in its insistence upon bringing into view the structural failures and concealed abuses of contemporary urban society, and of apocalyptic eschatology in its imaginative openness to the possibility that the existing order might be transformed. If King’s fiction resonates with Kermode’s claim that modern writers must be conscious of the artifice of narrative closure in the face of the lived experience of chronological time, it also stakes hope in the openness of lives and narratives to creative possibility. ‘It’ is finally destroyed by the appearance of newness that transcends and overwhelms the established order of things. The novel thus recuperates apocalyptic as a resourceful, even prophetic, language in which to interrogate the conditions of the present socio-economic order and to imagine the possibilities that might lie beyond.
The World Behind the World: The End As Horror In Gothic versions of apocalypse, of course, imagining what might lie beyond present reality is as likely to produce visions of horror as of hope. The Gothic trope of apocalyptic vision as revealing infinite emptiness or chaos owes much to Nietzsche’s madman gazing into an eternity without God, but has been developed extensively by writers such as H. P. Lovecraft in the early twentieth century and Thomas Ligotti in the twenty-first.34 These writers draw upon the tradition of the apocalyptic visionary who is able or allowed to see beyond the limits of the finite world and into the eternal but who finds there the negation rather than the affirmation of a higher purpose or meaning. In place of the redemptive vision offered by biblical apocalypses, these Gothic narratives imagine the eternal as horrific. Instead of a new heaven and earth, their visionaries glimpse nightmare worlds of disorder. Though King’s oeuvre does not consistently follow the Lovecraftian (or Nietzschean) mode of horror as nihilistic vision, he does employ this version of Gothic apocalypse in his 2014 novel Revival. The novel’s narrator, Jamie Morton, tells the story of his relationship with Charles Jacobs,
whom he meets for the first time in 1962 when Jamie is six years old and Jacobs is the newly appointed minister of the local Methodist church. Jacobs is a keen student of electricity and uses his experiments not only to illustrate the Bible lessons that he shares with the children in the church but also to heal Jamie’s brother, Con, when he is left unable to speak by an accident that damages his vocal chords. When Jacobs’s wife and young son are killed in a road accident, he publicly renounces his faith and attacks Christianity’s failure to offer a meaningful response to loss. Jacobs rejects the Christian concepts of heaven and hell as a grand deception perpetrated by the churches and sustained by the human need to believe in a heavenly future that will make sense of our experience on earth. ‘Religion’, he argues, ‘is the theological equivalent of a quick-buck insurance scam, where you pay in your premium year after year, and then, when you need the benefits you paid for so – pardon the pun – so religiously, you discover the company that took your money does not, in fact, exist’.35 Jacobs’s consciously heretical sermon has a significant impact on Jamie, who largely abandons his own Christian faith. In the decades that follow, Jamie encounters Jacobs several more times. The first of these meetings takes place in 1992 when Jamie, now a professional musician and a heroin addict, sees Jacobs performing as a fairground entertainer using one of his electrical experiments. Jacobs uses electricity to cure Jamie of his addiction, one of many electrical ‘miracles’ that Jacobs—who later reinvents himself as a revivalist preacher in a parody of his earlier vocation—carries out on people with chronic and terminal illnesses. Though many of his experiments are successful, some have serious side effects: a young woman commits suicide after taking part in Jacobs’s fairground act, while several of the people he cures of physical disease and injury subsequently display forms of extreme psychological illness. As a Christian, Jacobs had believed electricity to be ‘one of God’s doorways to the infinite’ (R: 29). Though he loses his faith in God, Jacobs retains his confidence that electricity is a means of accessing the eternal. His research leads him to a phenomenon that he calls the ‘secret electricity’, a quasi-mystical force that he believes to be capable of penetrating the barrier between the material world and another order of reality. Jacobs seeks to lift the veil between the finite world and the eternal in order to discover what lies beyond death and, perhaps, to see a glimpse of his lost wife and child. He manipulates Jamie into assisting with his final experiment, which succeeds in a way that neither of them had anticipated. The afterlife that they see is a vision of humanity existing in a state of eternal horror:
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They marched beneath the howling stars, they fell, they were punished and chivvied to their feet with gaping but bloodless bite wounds on their arms and legs and abdomens. Bloodless because these were the dead. The foolish mirage of earthly life had been torn away and instead of the heaven preachers of all persuasions promised, what awaited them was a dead city of cyclopean stone blocks below a sky that was itself a scrim. The howling stars weren’t stars at all. They were holes, and the howls emerging from them came from the true potestas magnum universum. Beyond the sky were entities. They were alive, and all-powerful, and totally insane. (R: 351)
Indisputably no heaven, this world behind the world is not hell either, at least as that concept has usually been understood in Christian eschatology. There is no judgement in this afterlife: the vision of eternal horror is the future of all, not a punishment reserved for the immoral or ungodly. King’s apocalyptic visionary glimpses an end that destroys the possibility of divine meaning. This is an ending without sense, a promised future that empties the present of significance. It is the distorted image of a Christian eschatology that, David Fergusson claims, ‘instils into [the] present, despite its miseries and trials, a sense of joy and celebration’.36As Jamie acknowledges, ‘the thought of going to the place I saw has done more than cast a shadow over my life; it has made that life seem thin and unimportant’ (R: 364). Revival critiques a fundamentalist Christianity that relegates the emotional and intellectual challenges of human suffering to a distant afterlife in which all will finally be revealed; as if, Jacobs claims, ‘life were a joke, and heaven the place where the cosmic punchline is finally explained to us’ (R: 65). Jacobs dismisses conventional Christian ideas of the afterlife as Christianity’s way of dodging its own most significant questions. The novel’s depiction of Christianity, however, is complicated by the direction of Jacobs’s career after leaving the ministry. Rather than offering a moral or philosophical alternative to the Christianity that he condemns as inadequate, Jacobs replicates its faults. Jamie recognises in Jacobs a growing contempt for the people he heals: people seeking miracles, and willing to accept the revivalist rhetoric that Jacobs deploys because they want the blessing that he offers. Jacobs adopts a religious vocabulary in order to describe the secret electricity, calling it ‘that power which binds the very universe into one harmonic whole’ (R: 131).37 The secret electricity becomes another name for the numinous, and Jacobs crafts his own priestly role as the possessor of secret knowledge.
The problem with Jacobs’s atheism, we might say, is that it is not atheistic enough. In theological terms, he has exchanged Christianity for Gnosticism, a religious philosophy that values otherworldly spiritual experience above a material world that it regards as corrupt and which privileges those who claim special knowledge of this spiritual realm. The Anglican theologian N. T. Wright sees in contemporary Christianity a tendency to affirm traditional orthodox doctrines while still working within ‘a narrative which colludes with Gnosticism’. For Wright, this contemporary Gnosticism is revealed perhaps most clearly in popular notions of eschatology: We can criticize the second-century Gnostics for their redefinition of the word ‘resurrection’ so as to mean, not a new bodily life after a time of being bodily dead, but a spiritual life in the present and hereafter; but this position is, worryingly, held just as much by those post-Enlightenment pietists and evangelicals whose major and overriding concern was to stress ‘heaven’ as the Christian’s true home, and who used the word ‘resurrection’ as a metaphor for going to that home at last.38
In Wright’s view, then, classical theology’s commitment to the resurrection of the body and the redemptive renewal of creation has been replaced in much of modern Christianity by the idea of eschatology as concerned with the soul’s departure to heaven at death. In this context, King’s interrogation of revivalist Christianity speaks directly to contemporary theological conversations. If Jacobs represents a voice of protest against a popular version of Christian eschatology, his repetition of the church’s failings after renouncing his faith suggests the difficulty of thinking outside of its conceptual frameworks. Jacobs criticises the heaven of the church that he leaves as a hoax perpetrated upon the gullible to make them forget their worldly troubles. Yet his own actions mirror this failure. In his single-minded pursuit of the secret electricity and the world beyond, Jacobs isolates himself from human community and becomes increasingly insensitive to the consequences of his experiments for his human subjects. His career after the loss of his faith becomes—ironically, given his distaste for the idea of heaven—even more world-denying than the Christianity he leaves behind. In the twentieth century, the work of theologians such as Jürgen Moltmann and Emil Brunner challenged the increasingly widespread view of Christian eschatology as concerned primarily with the soul’s
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departure at death to a spiritual afterlife. What Moltmann called a theology of hope understood eschatology in terms of a redemptive future towards which present reality was orientated and which was already reshaping the world.39 Eschatology, often understood only in terms of the ‘four last things’—death, judgement, heaven and hell—came to be seen as integral to the whole of Christian theology. In giving an account of eschatology in which the future was held to be already transforming the present, these theologians rejected the world-denying implications of a faith based on the hope of escaping the earth for a distant heaven. For Brunner, ‘the Christian faith is concerned with world history…[f]or to believe in Jesus Christ means to hope for a universal redemption and consummation of humanity and all that is human’.40 More recently, Wright has argued that eschatology understood as a future for the world rather than as a future deliverance from it restores to Christianity a social and political imperative: ‘What you do in the present – by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbour as yourself – all these things will last into God’s future’.41 Understood in this way, the scope of eschatology incorporates the future of the world and not simply the future of individuals at and beyond death. As Elizabeth Phillips observes, ‘[e]schatologies that emerged in the twentieth century focus on these things that last: the equality, community, and freedom in and for which human sociality was created and toward which earthly powers must be pointed in light of the ultimate justice of the Kingdom of God’.42 To this extent, then, King’s critiques of contemporary Evangelicalism and revivalist preaching in Revival resonate with and illuminate similar critiques that have come from within Christian theology itself. In rejecting an inadequate Christianity, Jacobs embraces a secular, scientific eschatology that echoes and amplifies the faults of the religion he abandons. Jamie recognises the possibility for faith to be imagined and lived in different ways, observing that Jacobs’s curing of his drug addiction was ‘a plain old Christian hand up from a guy who had been able to reject the label but not the two basic tenets of Jesus’s ministry: charity and mercy’ (R: 203). As Jacobs is drawn ever further away from these values by his obsession with the secret electricity, Jamie encounters his own tension between Jacobs’s experiments and the different kind of ‘revival’ offered by a return to home and family. Arriving in his childhood hometown for a family birthday,
Jamie finds the present filled with significance not by a promised end, but by memory and history: I had to look at every old landmark – the farms, the rock walls, Brownie’s store, now closed and dark – and marvel over them. It was as if my childhood was still here, barely visible under a piece of plastic that had become scratched and dusty and semi-opaque with the passage of time. (R: 259)
For Jamie, as for the protagonists in It, a kind of redemption is offered by a return to the associations and imaginative sensibility of childhood. The human associations, community and rootedness in place represented by the return to home and history remain present, available for recovery as an alternative to Jacobs’s obsession with gazing into the afterlife. Jamie’s decision to join Jacobs in his final experiment—motivated, Jamie admits, by his own desire to see beyond the door between this world and the next—finally destroys the possibility of his full return to family and home. The vision of horror that he glimpses overshadows everything in his life, leaving him unable to return to a family life that he now believes will be poisoned by his presence. Sears observes that in King’s Gothic ‘death is monstrous, an unrepresentable, faceless otherness constantly threatening the teeming, contemporary, living world of his fictions’.43 As Jamie acknowledges, in seeking knowledge of the afterlife he has lost the fullness of his life in the present. ‘This is how we bring about our own damnation’, he observes, ‘by ignoring the voice that begs us to stop’ (R: 344). In Revival, the final apocalyptic vision is only the culmination of an obsessive pursuit of the afterlife that becomes destructive long before the afterlife is revealed as horror. Despite its critique of contemporary Christianity, then, the novel does speak theologically. If, as Colin Gunton argues, it is ‘in the political sphere that we best identify the specific character of biblical eschatology’, then it is possible to read King’s novel as an interrogation of a theological error.44 King does not simply reimagine the end as a nihilistic denial of meaning but depicts a single- minded obsession with the ending and the afterlife as a denial of the worth of life in the present. If the Christianity depicted in the novel offers little hope of redemptive possibility for the present world, Jacobs’s version of secular mysticism reproduces its faults and proves equally hopeless. Jacobs’s eschatology is fundamentally world-denying long before its full horror is revealed.
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‘Ending Is Just Another Word for Goodbye’: The Apocalyptic Endlessness of The Dark Tower This tension in King’s work between different kinds of eschatological and apocalyptic vision is integral to The Dark Tower, a series of eight novels published between 1982 and 2012. A generic hybrid that incorporates elements of Gothic, fantasy, science fiction, Arthurian legend and the western, The Dark Tower tells the story of Roland of Gilead, the last of the modern-day knights-errant known as Gunslingers, and his quest for the Dark Tower, the semi-mythical structure upon which the fate of all existence hangs in ways that are never explained fully. Roland is joined on his quest by three companions—Eddie and Susannah Dean, and eleven-year- old Jake Chambers—who are drawn from three different versions of New York. As Roland nears the end of his quest, his companions are lost to him. Eddie is killed in a battle, Jake sacrifices himself to save the life of ‘Stephen King’ (who appears in the series as a fictionalised version of himself and is initially killed in the 1999 road accident in which the real King was injured), and Susannah chooses to leave the quest and return to New York. In this alternative New York—one of multiple versions of the ‘real’ world that feature in the series—Susannah is reunited with Eddie and Jake. King offers this reunion as a form of narrative closure rooted in a return to home, family and life: And will I tell you that these three lived happily ever after? I will not, for no one ever does. But there was happiness. And they did live. Beneath the flowing and sometimes glimpsed glammer of the Beam that connects Shardik the Bear and Maturin the Turtle by way of the Dark Tower, they did live. That’s all. That’s enough. Say thankya.45
The ending given to Roland’s companions makes overt a reality that has been implicit throughout the series: the narrative of The Dark Tower incorporates not one quest, but two. Roland’s group have completed the first of these quests by saving the Tower from collapse and therefore ensuring the continued existence of the worlds. Roland, however, has a further goal: he seeks to enter the Tower, to climb its staircase and to see what is at the top
(there are suggestions throughout the narrative that at the top of the Tower might be God, or something like God). By leaving Roland before he reaches the Tower, Susannah chooses to build a life in the world that they have saved. In a final coda, King’s narrator warns the reader to read no further, knowing, of course, that most will read on and follow Roland into the Tower. ‘You are the grim, goal-oriented ones’, the narrator tells us, ‘who will not believe that the joy is in the journey rather than the destination no matter how many times it has been proven to you’ (TDT: 661). As Alaya Swann points out, ‘King does not just tell us about the power of story, but shows us our own epistemological fascination with it’.46 In ending The Dark Tower, King both reveals to us our imaginative investment in endings as integral to narrative structure and warns us that the end is a moment of rupture that separates us from our lived experience in time. As King observes in the coda, ‘Ending is just another word for goodbye’ (TDT: 662). This framing of ending as a parting constructs the narrative itself as communal and participatory, a perspective reflected in the multiple acts of oral storytelling within the series. Storytelling is depicted both as an act that takes place within community and one by which community and fellowship are created. Roland’s isolation as he nears the Tower makes clear that by choosing to continue to the end he has turned away from the community built in and through story. Inside the Tower, Roland climbs the stairs, passing through a series of rooms in which the history of his life is recorded. His journey to the top of the Tower is literally a movement towards the end of his own story, rendering the ending synonymous with death. King’s narrative, however, evades even this closure. When Roland opens the final door at the top of the Tower, he sees the desert that he crossed in the first book of the series, The Gunslinger. Too late, he realises that he has reached the Tower many times before, only to be returned each time to the middle of his quest. As he steps through the door again, he hears a voice tell him that the outcome might be different this time and, indeed, something has changed: Roland is carrying the horn of his legendary ancestor, Arthur Eld, which he had dreamed of sounding upon his arrival at the Tower. Yet if the presence of the horn is a hint that things might be different this time, this alternative outcome is left to the reader’s imagination. The final sentence of the series—‘The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed’ (TDT: 672; TG: 3)—is a repetition of its first. Instead of providing an ending that reveals the fuller meaning of all that has gone before, King returns both Roland and the reader to the beginning.
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This ending seems to reflect the scepticism towards narrative closure that is common both to King’s work and to contemporary literature more generally. Paul Ricoeur has described the apocalypse as ‘a prediction that is continually invalidated without ever being discredited’ and, therefore, a model of ‘an end that is itself constantly put off’.47 The revelatory ending—the ending that unveils the full meaning of all that has gone before and ties up all the loose ends—is at odds with the modern, secular experience of chronological time emptied of what Charles Taylor calls the ‘higher time’ experienced in pre-modern belief and ritual practice.48 The ending of The Dark Tower is, quite literally, the beginning of the next rereading. As Roland steps through the final door of the Tower and into the wilderness, the reader knows that we too have been here before. Swann sees in the ending a suggestion that things will be different this time: though the coda is ambiguous, ‘the presence of Arthur’s horn allows us to dream of an ending where the past can be remembered and the future can be saved’.49 As much as we might dream of such an ending, however, we cannot read it. If we follow Roland back into the wilderness and resume the story in The Gunslinger, we will ultimately find ourselves back where we (re)started, leaving the Tower only to begin the story yet again. Recognising the resistance to closure that characterises much modern fiction, Fiddes maintains that ‘despite an ambiguous or open ending, frustration will not be the last word if the reader can make order where the author denies it’. Rather than simply refusing the possibility of order or meaning, this is ‘the kind of end that open possibility; like the ends in Christian apocalyptic it will have an openness about it, but it is the opening of hope’.50 For all the ambiguity of its ending, The Dark Tower is animated by hope. Roland knows that his quest for the Tower is a movement towards his own death. The ending that he seeks is ‘silence. That will be enough. An end to…this’.51 He recognises, too, that his quest is destructive and that he must make unconscionable choices in pursuit of it. He allows Jake to die in The Gunslinger, and in Wizard and Glass tells the story of how the beginnings of his search for the Tower led to the death of his first love, Susan Delgado. ‘I am damned already’, Roland tells Eddie early in their friendship, ‘[b]ut perhaps even the damned may be saved’.52 The narrative does not grant Roland his redemption, but, by denying him the ending that is also death, it holds open possibility. As Roland leaves the Tower and touches the horn that he now carries, he hears a voice say, ‘This is your promise that things may be different, Roland – that there may yet be rest. Even salvation’ (TDT: 671). In returning to its own beginning, the
narrative invites Roland and the reader to imagine a different ending; it constructs its own narrative time as cyclical while gesturing to the possibility that the cycle might yet be broken. Glimpses of redemption and resurrection occur often in The Dark Tower. The narrative belongs to the genre of apocalypse not simply as a depiction of a world that is coming to an end but as a text that discloses a fuller reality behind the individual worlds of King’s fiction. As Roland tells the fictional version of King when they meet in Song of Susannah, ‘You’ll write many stories, but every one will be to some greater or lesser degree about this story’.53 King seems to associate The Dark Tower with the book of Revelation when his narrator claims in the coda that the tale he has told is ‘the kind only a good God would save for last, full of monsters and marvels and voyaging here and there’ (TDT: 661). The series interacts with many of King’s novels, rereading and sometimes rewriting them. Roland’s group encounter a man they discover to be Pere Callahan, the Catholic priest whose faith had failed as he confronted the vampire Barlow in Salem’s Lot (1975). The Dark Tower allows Callahan’s story to be continued and grants him a chance of redemption when he again confronts monsters in order to save Susannah. This time, his faith proves equal to the challenge, and the ‘shadow of shame that had hung over him ever since Barlow had taken his cross and broken it was…gone’ (TDT: 10). The renewal of Callahan’s story is one of several resurrections that take place in The Dark Tower, as King the author-god calls his characters out of the grave. Susannah’s reunion with Eddie and Jake (the latter of whom has been resurrected already, returning to the narrative after his death in The Gunslinger) is an image of resurrected life: a communal, participatory ending that stands as a contrast to Roland’s solitary pursuit of the Tower. The Dark Tower, then, reveals a heavily symbolic narrative and mythological world that connects and stands behind the individual stories of King’s oeuvre. It speaks both to the extensive influence of the apocalyptic tradition upon King’s fiction, and to the ways in which the apocalypse itself has been reimagined. Where the book of Revelation seeks to lift the veil on eternity and to reread world history in its light, King’s apocalyptic metanarrative rereads only his own imagined worlds. Roland’s return to the beginning of his own story reflects the denial of secure narrative closure that persists through much of King’s fiction. Yet for all its ambivalence about endings, King’s fiction does offer glimpses of redemption. If those of his protagonists who seek to lift the veil on ultimate revelation are denied or disappointed, others find a redemptive future for themselves in
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family and fellowship. King depicts this choice of life as a kind of resurrection, most literally for Eddie, Susannah and Jake in The Dark Tower. In doing so, he echoes a Christian eschatological vision of the future as participation in renewed life. As Fiddes observes of the heavenly city imagined in Revelation, ‘the gates of this city are open, promising that there will be journeys to be made, adventures to be had, strangers to be welcomed and homecomings to be enjoyed. This is no static eternity, no simultaneity, but a healing of time’.54 When Roland’s former companions are reunited in New York, Eddie and Jake have no memories of their lives in the other worlds, yet they recognise Susannah and each other. They are created anew, yet they remain themselves. Leaving Roland alone to enter the Tower and seek the final revelation, they choose a renewed life of family and friendship. If ending is just another word for goodbye, King’s narratives find human meaning and significance in the community created in and by stories. ‘Around we go, back to the start and the start is there again’ (TG: 165), King tells us, but his stories also hint that in this return to the beginning, as in the images of new creation glimpsed in biblical apocalyptic, there might yet be an opening of hope.
Notes 1. Stephen King, The Gunslinger (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2003), p. 165. Further references are given parenthetically with the abbreviation TG. 2. John Sears, Stephen King’s Gothic (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011), p. 2. 3. J. Hillis Miller, Fiction and Repetition: Seven English Novels (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982). 4. Stephen King, Wizard and Glass (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2003), p. 423. 5. Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 6. 6. Kermode, The Sense of an Ending, p. 6. 7. Kermode, The Sense of an Ending, pp. 6–7. 8. Paul S. Fiddes, The Promised End: Eschatology in Theology and Literature (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), p. 12. 9. Fiddes, The Promised End, p. 10. 10. This expression is used frequently throughout The Dark Tower, beginning with TG: 3.
11. The ‘new heaven and earth’ appears in Isaiah 65: 17–25 and Revelation 21–2, where it represents the establishment of a new religious, social and political order that will undo the injustices of the present age. 12. Andrew Tate, Apocalyptic Fiction (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2017), p. 2. 13. Robert Wuthnow, Be Very Afraid: The Cultural Response to Terror, Pandemics, Environmental Devastation, Nuclear Annihilation, and Other Threats (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 8. 14. James Egan, ‘Apocalypticism in the Fiction of Stephen King’, Extrapolation 25. 3 (Fall 1984), pp. 214–27 (p. 214). 15. Johan Höglund has examined depictions of 9/11 and its aftermath in King’s fiction. See ‘Cell, Stephen King and the Imperial Gothic’, Gothic Studies 17. 2 (November 2015), pp. 69–87. 16. For a detailed discussion of Romantic apocalypticism, see Morton D. Paley, Apocalypse and Millennium in English Romantic Poetry (Oxford: Clarendon, 1999). 17. Christopher Rowland, ‘“Upon Whom the Ends of the Ages have Come”: Apocalyptic and the Interpretation of the New Testament’, in Malcolm Bull (ed.), Apocalypse Theory and the Ends of the World (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), pp. 38–57 (p. 43). 18. Lois Parkinson Zamora, Writing the Apocalypse: Historical Vision in Contemporary U.S. and Latin American Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 2. 19. Kevin Mills, Approaching Apocalypse: Unveiling Revelation in Victorian Writing (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2007), p. 164. 20. Christopher Rowland, Radical Prophet: The Mystics, Subversives and Visionaries who Strove for Heaven on Earth (London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2017), p. 31. 21. Zamora, Writing the Apocalypse, p. 15. 22. David Seed, ‘Introduction: Aspects of Apocalypse’, in David Seed (ed.), Imagining Apocalypse: Studies in Cultural Crisis (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000), pp. 1–14 (p. 12). 23. Fiddes, The Promised End, p. 6. 24. Stephen King, It (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2011), p. 3. Further references are given parenthetically. 25. Kermode, The Sense of an Ending, p. 4. 26. Fiddes, The Promised End, p. 9. 27. Fred Botting and Catherine Spooner, ‘Introduction: Monstrous Media/ Spectral Subjects’, in Botting and Spooner (eds.), Monstrous Media/ Spectral Subjects (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), pp. 1–11 (p. 2). 28. See Chap. 3 for a detailed discussion of this tradition.
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29. Robert Morgan, ‘Does the Gospel Story Demand and Discourage Talk of Revelation?’, in Gerhard Sauter and John Barton (eds.), Revelation and Story: Narrative Theology and the Centrality of Story (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000), pp. 145–73. 30. Jesse W. Nash, ‘Postmodern Gothic: Stephen King’s Pet Sematary’, Journal of Popular Culture, 30.4 (spring 1997), pp. 151–60 (p. 158). 31. Sara Martín Alegre, ‘Nightmares of Childhood: The Child and the Monster in Four Novels by Stephen King’, Atlantis 23. 1 (June 2001), pp. 105–14 (p. 110). 32. Kermode, The Sense of an Ending, p. 45. For further examination of the relationship between clock-time and narrative form, see Stuart Sherman, Telling Time: Clocks, Diaries, and English Diurnal Form, 1660–1785 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1996). 33. This theme is present in much of King’s fiction but is given perhaps its most overt treatment in Hearts in Atlantis (1999), a novel that describes King’s perception of his own generation as having failed to live up to the social and political idealism of its youth. 34. See, for example, Ligotti’s short story collection Teatro Grottesco (London: Virgin Books, 2008). 35. Stephen King, Revival (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2014), p. 67. Further references are given parenthetically with the abbreviation R. 36. David Fergusson, ‘Eschatology’, in Colin E. Gunton (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 226–44 (p. 240). 37. A similar concept of the divine as a source of integration and organic unity in the universe is common in Romantic versions of Christianity. For a fuller account, see Bernard M. G. Reardon, Religion in the Age of Romanticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985). 38. Tom Wright, Creation, Power and Truth (London: SPCK, 2013), pp. 10–11. 39. See Jürgen Moltmann, A Theology of Hope: On the Ground and Implications of a Christian Eschatology, fifth edition, trans. by James W. Leitch (London: SCM, 1967). 40. Emil Brunner, Eternal Hope, trans. by Harold Knight (London: Lutterworth, 1954), p. 38. 41. Tom Wright, Surprised by Hope (London: SPCK, 2007), p. 205. 42. Elizabeth Phillips, ‘Eschatology and Apocalyptic’, in Craig Hovey and Elizabeth Phillips (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Christian Political Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. 274–95 (p. 292). 43. Sears, Stephen King’s Gothic, p. 183. 44. Gunton, The Christian Faith, p. 167.
45. Stephen King, The Dark Tower (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2004), p. 658. Further references are given parenthetically with the abbreviation TDT. 46. Alaya Swann, ‘The Once and Future Earth: Ecology and Narrative in Stephen King’s Dark Tower Series’, Journal of Popular Culture 48.6 (2015), pp. 1327–45 (p. 1336). 47. Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, vol. 2, trans. by Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1985), p. 23. 48. Taylor, A Secular Age, pp. 54–9. 49. Swann, ‘The Once and Future Earth’, p. 1342. 50. Fiddes, The Promised End, p. 50. 51. Stephen King, The Waste Lands (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2003), p. 206. 52. Stephen King, The Drawing of the Three (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2003), p. 453. 53. Stephen King, Song of Susannah (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2006), p. 313. 54. Fiddes, The Promised End, p. 287.
Conclusion: The Gothic Sacred
In Kate Mosse’s short story ‘Saint-Thérèse’, a woman named Hermione enters a church in Montolieu, in the south of France.1 Hermione ‘didn’t much like churches’ (‘ST’: 109) and finds the building unsettling. The church is decorated with ‘scenes of suffering and torture, nothing of faith or forgiveness’; the crucifixion is depicted graphically, ‘the reds and blues obscene against the grey of the stone’ (‘ST’: 110). Hermione encounters the sacred space as oppressive and weird: ‘She couldn’t shake the idea she was being watched, the sense of activity just suspended, as if she’d interrupted something’ (‘ST’: 111). The church embodies a tradition of belief that Hermione can experience only as alienating and other. The church is a Gothic building—Hermione observes gargoyles that seem to watch her from the walls—but it is also a building in which the sacred becomes Gothic. Hermione’s feeling of having ‘interrupted something’ locates her as an intruder into a faith tradition that she recognises but to which she does not belong. The art and iconography of that faith, with its emphasis on vengeance as well as the torture and abjection of the body, seem out of place in the modern world and reinforce Hermione’s spiritual and emotional discomfort. The church is both a relic of the past—instead of living people, it is inhabited by an ‘army of plaster statues, like a fossilised congregation’ (‘ST’: 111)—and an oppressive spectre that haunts the present with its ancient warnings of judgement. The Montolieu church becomes an uncanny space, a relic of an older form of belief that has persisted into the
© The Author(s) 2018 S. Marsden, The Theological Turn in Contemporary Gothic Fiction, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-96571-0
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present. Hermione has enough familiarity with the traditions of Catholicism to recognise and understand its iconography, but she cannot be at home in the church; she imagines initially that ‘her discomfort would fade once she was inside, playing the bona fide tourist’ (‘ST’: 110). Hermione seeks to distance herself from the disturbing influence of the church by defining her relationship to it and, by adopting the role of the tourist, constructing herself as the observer rather than the observed. The problem is that Hermione is not there simply as a tourist. She has entered the church in search of temporary respite from a husband who constantly criticises her appearance, decisions and actions. Instead, she finds another kind of criticism, this time in the images of saints that she sees as ‘accusing her, judging her’ (‘ST’: 111). This religious iconography is unsettling not simply because it is alien and other but also because it is so much like Hermione’s experience outside of the church. At once strange and familiar, the religious becomes uncanny. Mosse’s story reveals something of the complexity of contemporary Gothic’s engagement with Christianity. Religious iconography, after all, belongs to the familiar and homely of Gothic, both as an influence upon Gothic aesthetics and as a convention of encounters with the supernatural. Contemporary Gothic writers inherit a set of conventions that include religious symbols and are therefore able to ask questions of the place of these religious symbols in contemporary culture. In Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series, for example, the effectiveness of the cross as a weapon against vampires is dependent upon the faith of the person wielding it. ‘Unfortunately’, Anita points out, ‘the cross had to be blessed, and backed up by faith. An atheist waving a cross at a vampire was a truly pitiful sight’.2 By offering a faith-based explanation of the cross’s power over vampires, Hamilton illuminates the complexities of her novel’s Gothic inheritance in the context of declining religious affiliation. That the cross has power over vampires is a relatively consistent convention of the genre. In a culture without a common framework of Christian belief, however, this power seems to require more explanation than was necessary in the nineteenth century. For all its familiarity as an aspect of Gothic aesthetics and imagery, however, the religious continues to surprise with its strangeness and otherness. As Mosse’s story demonstrates, religious art and iconography can appear in the present as a kind of spectre—an intrusion into the present of ancient forms of belief. This spectral return of religion may invoke unwelcome images of religious violence, dogmatic belief and regressive politics.
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Certainly, Gothic writers in the twenty-first century are as capable as their eighteenth-century predecessors of imagining corruption and violence within religious institutions. Yet Gothic fiction also registers the return of the religious in other ways: in struggles with human failure, transgression and guilt; in images of redemptive hope, sometimes located in refracted and reimagined Christ figures; in otherworldly and, at times, infernal beings who embody and make visible the flaws of human power structures. There is no single, homogenous story of Gothic’s engagement with theology. Gothic writers have often approached Christianity in subversive, consciously heretical ways, giving space to voices of protest against the divine. At the same time, the fiction of a believing writer such as William Peter Blatty reminds us that such voices of protest are not the sole preserve of atheists or sceptics. I concur with Andrew Tate’s view that contemporary fiction written by ‘atheists, agnostics and itinerant spiritual seekers…particularly when it addresses, explicitly or otherwise, the central moment of the Christian metanarrative, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is capable of challenging both religious and secular complacency’.3 Theological challenge and protest are in no way unique to Gothic fiction, but Gothic does provide a particular set of imaginative resources with which to examine theological questions. To borrow a phrase from John Milbank, which I discussed in more detail in Chap. 6, Gothic narratives continue to ‘make strange’ the Christian story. In doing so, they serve to remind believers and sceptics alike of the strangeness that was always inherent in that story and which has, perhaps, been diluted by familiarity. ‘The theologian’, Rowan Williams writes, ‘will have an eye for kinds of discourse that set up unmanageable paradoxes, either in the sciences or in the humanities; discourses that insist on irony – on some irreducible disjunction between what is said and what is true but – in one way or another – unsayable’.4 Exploring the strangeness of religious language, its irreducibility to the categories of literalism or reason, Gothic writers such as Blatty, Peter Straub, Justin Cronin, Joyce Carol Oates and a range of others challenge easy assumptions about the nature and meaning of such language. In Mosse’s story, Hermione’s visit to the Montolieu church takes one more surprising turn. Fleeing the sacred space in which she feels herself scrutinised and condemned, she collides with a statue of Sainte Thérèse— the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic Teresa of Ávila (1515–1582)—and experiences a moment of unanticipated grace. In this moment, the church becomes a different kind of sacred space, its silence now ‘a calm and peace-
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ful silence that seemed to go on for ever’ (‘ST’: 112). Unable to name or fully articulate what has happened, Hermione finds herself changed by an experience that for her is literally beyond belief: ‘even though she didn’t believe in living saints or spirits, she knew that her world had shifted’ (‘ST’: 113). Hermione’s moment of contact with the long-dead female saint yields a spiritual peace that both transforms her perception of the church and gives her the resolve to leave her emotionally abusive husband. In a church filled with images of judgement and the promise of condemnation, Hermione discovers another, hidden tradition of compassion and spiritual solidarity. Fleeing warnings of damnation, she finds a moment of grace. What kind of theological sense might we make of this encounter with the Gothic sacred? Hermione’s experience in the church does not bring her to faith; she does not convert to Catholicism or become a member of a religious community. Indeed, a community of faith seems strangely absent from the story, except in the haunting of Hermione’s present by a female saint from the past. If secularism is characterised by the disembedding of individuals from communities of shared belief and practice, as Charles Taylor has argued, then Hermione is as much a secular subject when she leaves the church as when she entered it.5 Nevertheless, something has changed. Hermione has not become a believer, but she has, perhaps, become a little less secure in her unbelief. Depicting a church that embodies a narrative of patriarchal domination and judgement, the story hints at another Christianity that stands in solidarity with the marginalised.6 This alternative Christianity emerges not as a theological formula but as a numinous encounter in which the present is haunted—and transformed—by the faith of the past. Responding to critics who see in recent Gothic a reflection of an exhausted culture that can only recycle images emptied of meaning, Catherine Spooner argues that ‘[i]n order to fully appreciate the multivalent meanings of Gothic in twenty-first-century culture, it is necessary to stop thinking of Gothic as a once clearly defined genre which has suffered dilution or decline’.7 Pointing to Gothic’s history of adapting itself to changing cultural contexts, Spooner maintains that Gothic in the twenty-first century has continued to reinvent itself and to re-emerge in new situations. This book has argued that the current popularity of the Gothic is an aspect of a widely recognised ‘re-enchantment’ of contemporary culture that has also been characterised by a return of religion and a renewed openness to mystery. There is little evidence that the dispersal of Christian imagery in recent
CONCLUSION: THE GOTHIC SACRED
literature, film, music and other art forms is indicative of a widespread return of belief, at least in its traditional forms, but it does point to a renewed encounter with ideas of the sacred. There is no reason to assume that Gothic fictions should be in any way ‘about’ religion, even when those fictions draw on Christian imagery and iconography. As this book has attempted to demonstrate, however, many Gothic writers continue to draw on Christian tropes in ways that invite serious theological reflection. Gothic’s engagement with Christianity frequently takes place far outside the sphere of orthodox belief and often in ironic, parodic and satirical forms. The imagined worlds of Gothic are scarred by human failure, violence and imperfection, often without hope of transformation. Even narratives which deny the possibility of redemption can speak theologically, however, not least in their attention to the nature of evil and to the political and structural conditions of an unjust world. Jürgen Moltmann maintains that ‘Christians participate in the public affairs of their societies and the world because they hope for the kingdom of God and anticipate the justice and peace of the new earth as much as they can’.8 Yet if Gothic narratives of crisis and horror can provide resources for imagining the work of redemption by depicting its absence, fictions by writers such as Straub, Blatty and Cronin show that Gothic can also entertain possibilities of radical hope, embodied in acts of human and divine grace and, particularly, in Gothicised images of Jesus Christ. Drawing upon the conceptual and imaginative resources of both Gothic and Christianity, these fictions offer theologically nuanced perspectives on faith, forgiveness and redemption. In making the Word strange again, these narratives of the Gothic sacred remind us that it was so from the beginning.
Notes 1. Kate Mosse, The Mistletoe Bride & Other Haunting Tales (London: Orion, 2013), pp. 103–13. 2. Laurell K. Hamilton, Guilty Pleasures (London: Headline, 2009 ), p. 15. 3. Tate, Contemporary Fiction and Christianity, p. 129. 4. Williams, The Edge of Words, p. 181. 5. Taylor, A Secular Age, p. 156. 6. Mosse’s story has a particular resonance with the work of feminist theologians. For a useful discussion of feminist theology’s relationship to other accounts of feminist theory, see Serene Jones, ‘Companionable Wisdoms:
Conclusion: The Gothic Sacred
What Insights might Feminist Theorists Gather from Feminist Theologians?’, in Graham Ward (ed.), The Blackwell Companion to Postmodern Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), pp. 294–308. 7. Catherine Spooner, Post-Millennial Gothic: Comedy, Romance and the Rise of Happy Gothic (London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2017), p. 9. 8. Jürgen Moltmann, ‘European Political Theology’, in Craig Hovey and Elizabeth Phillips (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Christian Political Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. 3–22 (p. 14).
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A Altizer, Thomas J. J., 95, 97–99, 104, 108 Apocalypse, 1, 15, 16, 62, 104, 108, 117, 137, 163–170, 172, 174, 175, 177, 180, 181, 183–185 Arendt, Hannah, 56, 76, 77 Atheism, 4, 6, 13, 15, 23, 33, 89, 96, 98, 99, 116, 178, 190, 191 Atonement, 1 Augustine of Hippo, 69, 75, 78, 80, 89, 125, 127, 129, 132 B Bakhtin, Mikhail, 21, 22, 25 Barth, Karl, 103, 129 Baudrillard, Jean, 143, 150, 151 Bauman, Zygmunt, 146 Blatty, William Peter, 2, 15, 93, 94, 96, 99, 100, 111, 191, 193 The Exorcist, 94, 96–99, 101–105, 111 Legion, 94, 97, 101–105
The Ninth Configuration, 94, 100 The Redemption, 93, 97, 100, 103, 106, 109, 111 Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 13 C Catholicism, 23–25, 35–38, 94, 96, 104, 159, 190, 192 Christology, 97, 104, 106–109, 111, 116–119, 122, 124, 126, 127 Cronin, Justin, 15, 117, 119, 127, 130, 132–134, 137, 165, 191, 193 The City of Mirrors, 117, 127, 128, 133 The Passage, 117, 121, 127 The Twelve, 117, 122, 124 D Death of God, 4, 7, 15, 23, 82, 94, 95, 97–100, 104, 105, 155 Deconstruction, 8
© The Author(s) 2018 S. Marsden, The Theological Turn in Contemporary Gothic Fiction, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-96571-0
Derrida, Jacques, 82 Devil, the, 16, 27, 28, 37, 52, 57, 73–75, 103, 141–145, 147–149, 151–160 Duncan, Glen, 143, 145, 148–151, 160 I, Lucifer, 143, 144, 148, 150 E Eschatology, 16, 60–63, 88, 104, 152, 164, 168, 174, 175, 177–181, 185 Evangelicalism, 10, 31, 97, 178, 179 Evil, 15, 27–30, 35, 37, 40, 45–47, 49, 51–57, 60, 61, 63, 67–70, 72–74, 79, 80, 85, 86, 94, 96, 100–105, 111, 141, 142, 144, 148, 153, 154, 193 banality of, 47, 51, 52, 56, 61, 76, 78 ontology of, 68, 69, 72, 75, 78, 80, 81, 89, 129 as privation, 15, 56, 69, 72, 75–78, 81, 82, 86, 88, 103, 118, 123, 129, 131, 132, 135, 137 See also Sin F Fundamentalism, 2, 25, 40, 177 G Gnosticism, 178 H Hamilton, Laurell K., 190 Heaven, 1, 12, 38, 148, 150, 151, 176–179, 185
Hell, 1, 145–148, 150–153, 176, 177, 179 Heresy, 14, 15, 21–24, 26, 30, 32–35, 40, 51, 176, 191 Hermeneutics, 28, 29, 71, 84, 167, 171 Hill, Joe, 144, 160 Horns, 144, 153–156 Hurley, Andrew Michael, 25, 35, 36, 40, 160 Devil’s Day, 144, 157, 159 The Loney, 25, 35, 36, 40 J James, Marlon, 24, 26, 30, 40 John Crow’s Devil, 24, 26, 30, 33, 35, 40 Jameson, Fredric, 83, 143, 149 Jesus, 15, 27–29, 39, 59–62, 89, 93, 95, 97, 99, 100, 102–104, 106, 107, 109–111, 122, 123, 153, 156, 159, 171, 179, 191, 193 dual nature of, 116–118, 120 ‘historical Jesus,’ 107–109, 115, 116, 118, 119, 124 Jesus Seminar, 108 Judgement, 28, 118, 177, 179, 190, 192 K King, Stephen, 2, 9, 10, 16, 70, 78, 163–165, 168–171, 173–175, 178–180, 183–185 The Dark Tower, 164, 167, 168, 181–184 Duma Key, 9 It, 167–172, 180 Revival, 167, 175, 177, 179, 180
L Lovecraft, H. P., 4, 71, 175 M Meyer, Stephenie, 11, 12 Twilight, 11–13 Milbank, John, 75, 76, 81, 82, 89, 116, 118, 125, 127, 137, 191 Modernity, 2, 4, 5, 7, 37, 84, 100, 160, 164 Mosse, Kate, 16, 190, 191 ‘Saint-Thérèse,’ 189 N Natural theology, 39 Nevill, Adam, 15, 45–48, 50–53, 56, 57, 61, 63 Apartment 16, 48, 50, 53, 57, 58, 61 Banquet for the Damned, 45, 50, 51, 53 House of Small Shadows, 49, 50, 53, 58, 60–62 Last Days, 53–55, 61 Lost Girl, 47 No One Gets Out Alive, 47 The Ritual, 45, 47, 48, 51, 53, 63 New Age movement, 98 Nietzsche, Friedrich, 4, 6, 7, 48, 57, 61, 95, 101, 175 O Oates, Joyce Carol, 25, 30–32, 34, 40, 191 The Accursed, 25, 30, 32, 33, 35, 40 P Palahniuk, Chuck, 143, 147–149, 160 Damned, 144–147
Doomed, 144–147, 150, 151 Fight Club, 146, 149 Pickstock, Catherine, 118, 125, 132, 134 Postmodernity, 2, 6, 7, 9, 11, 70, 75, 83, 84, 88, 89, 143, 145, 149, 152, 160, 171 Postmodern theology, 13 Protestantism, 23–25, 97, 159 R Radical Orthodoxy, 118, 124–127, 132 Re-enchantment, 2, 9, 11, 13, 21, 149, 192 Rice, Anne, 5, 6 Interview with the Vampire, 5, 6 Ricoeur, Paul, 46, 104, 183 S Sacrifice, 1 ‘Saint-Thérèse,’ 189 Scepticism, 8, 9, 13, 84, 93, 96, 98, 108, 117, 125, 136, 164, 167, 168, 183, 191 Secularism, 3–6, 11, 16, 24, 33, 37, 83, 96, 98, 151, 152, 164, 165, 179, 180, 183, 191, 192 Sin, 1, 15, 25–28, 32, 37, 46, 48–51, 53, 60, 63, 68, 154 Spectrality, 1–4, 7–9, 26, 48, 70–72, 82, 189, 190 Straub, Peter, 14, 15, 67–72, 74, 75, 77, 80, 82, 84, 88, 89, 191, 193 Black House, 78 A Dark Matter, 67, 71, 72, 75, 78, 80, 82, 85 Floating Dragon, 72–75 Ghost Story, 71 In the Night Room, 70, 86, 88
Straub, (cont.) lost boy lost girl, 70, 86–88 Mrs. God, 14 Mr. X, 71 The Throat, 74, 77
T Tanner, Kathryn, 116, 120 Taylor, Charles, 4, 5, 37, 96, 183, 192 Teresa of Ávila, 191 Theodicy, 97, 103 Time, 16, 48, 164, 166–168, 173–175, 183–185
U Uncanny, the, 3, 190 V Vampires, 1, 5, 10–12, 15, 117, 120, 132, 190 W Ward, Graham, 1, 2, 6, 7, 9, 11, 116, 118, 125, 126, 149 Williams, Rowan, 53, 56, 84, 105, 132, 156, 191 Witchcraft, 25, 36–38, 159