I Contain Multitudes

I Contain Multitudes

By Rivka Crowbourne

There’s an old(ish) saying: “Everyone makes fun of the Catholics until they need an exorcism.” The complex and mysterious ritualism of the Catholic Church has always fascinated horror writers, regardless of their personal convictions: the Irish Protestant Bram Stoker (Dracula) fell back on Latin orthodoxy to inter the undead, and the non-denominational demi-Buddhist James Wan (The Conjuring) idealized a Roman Catholic couple to expel the unclean. What is it about the Church that seems to keep her cheek by jowl with the various things that go bump?

As a horror-writing cradle Catholic, I’ve always insisted that one of the great scary story benefits, along with catharsis, is inoculation: a mind that’s been exposed to evil in trace amounts, thus building up a certain tolerance, is arguably better equipped to withstand a real-life encounter. I’ve also always feared that the depicting of evil, though inevitable and necessary, is a somber undertaking for the storyteller. Evil is, by its very nature, tempting; you can’t portray it in any meaningful way without becoming a vessel for its allure. Catholics are notorious for not knowing their Bibles, but I often reflect on Jesus’ remark: “Woe to those by whom temptations come! It were better for them to be cast into the sea with a millstone hung about their neck” (Luke 17:1-2).

To a nonbeliever, the point may seem moot, but consider: even if the serpent on the knowledge tree is a metaphor, there’s still a reptile coiled around your brainstem. H.P. Lovecraft was an atheist, but he clearly managed to net a few of the massive shadows gliding through the icy murk of our collective unconscious, or his work wouldn’t resonate with such wide, still-spreading ripples. And, like his good friend Robert E. Howard (suicide by gunshot), he neither lived nor died in happiness. Their fate is not, of course, unavoidable—but it’s a stern admonition to those who strike matches in the basement of the intellect. We all know Nietzsche’s maxim about the hazards of the gaze; an exorcist or vampire-hunter might well add that when you enter the Abyss, the Abyss enters also into you.

So, what is one to do? J.R.R. Tolkien’s answer was to show evil only by its effects, like Perseus gazing at the Medusa through Athena’s mirror-shield. We’re shown the wasteland of Mordor; we’re shown the mindscape of Gollum. But around the enticing mysteries of Barad-dur is a fence with a sign: “Please keep back 100 meters from edge of Abyss!” What happens if you peek inside? Well, as Elrond observes, “It is perilous to study too closely the arts of the Enemy, for good or ill”—and by way of example, we see Saruman and Denethor succumb to that peril in ways that are tragic but ultimately contemptible. C.S. Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters (which was dedicated to Tolkien), answered the dilemma by making the Devil a ridiculous figure, noting that “Milton’s devils, by their grandeur and high poetry, have done great harm”—have, in other words, made evil too alluring.

JRRT and CSL, along with G.K. Chesterton (the Three Brits, as I like to call them), are my favorite writers in all of space and time. However—to me, at least—their answers on this particular problem are profoundly unhelpful. GKC once said of writing horror, “I will ride on the Nightmare; but she shall not ride on me.” But Chesterton never created a singular, seminal monument of fiction—in fact, neither did Lewis. The one who brought forth an absolutely unparalleled monolith of creation was the quiet scribbler in the corner, the deeply depressed and truly obsessed Professor Tolkien, the one possessed by a vision: the one who most definitely took fair and regular turns as both the Nightmare’s rider and her steed. In his correspondence—i.e., when his rational mind was driving—he often hinted at a tugging sense of guilt for the heathen undercurrents in his fiction; and he denounced The Screwtape Letters for taking a demonic viewpoint character, even as a literary device/joke. Clearly, he was a man with a fundamental conflict, even a bifurcation, in his soul. And I’ve come to believe that his incredible power as a writer arose, not despite that conflict, but precisely because of it.

Look at our immortals. Homer wrote epics praising war and the gods, yet matter-of-factly portrayed human life as a miserable chessboard for Olympus, and routinely referred to Ares as “the curse of men.” The Beowulf-poet, demonstrably an educated Christian (despite attempts by later scholars to make him a pastiche of illiterate pagan scops), toiled heroically to make space in a post-evangelized universe for his noble pre-Christian forbears. Shakespeare, vehemently claimed by modern Catholics and Protestants as a closet Jesuit or a proud Elizabethan (respectively), has also been credibly represented by Harold Bloom as a fricative neo-Gnostic; and the tension between his Christian upbringing and his heretical personal beliefs may very well have been the genesis of Macbeth. Even Milton, a browbeatingly severe Puritan, certainly felt some attraction to the Fallen Archangel to make him the subject of a twelve-book epic. All of these literary titans were inspired, willingly or not, by the struggle between professed convictions and nigh-irresistible visions of an irreconcilable reality.

Homer and his rough contemporary Hesiod spoke often of being thus inspired, even indwelt, by personal spirits which they called muses. Plato described the poetic state of mind as being outright possessed. It’s interesting that Homer, like the Beowulf-poet and even Shakespeare himself, is still theorized by some academics to have been not one person but several, or even many. Again, as a Biblical Catholic, I can’t help thinking of the demon-swarm in the tomb-dweller, who infamously told Jesus, “My name is Legion” (Mark 5:9).

So, again, how does one resolve this friction between the opposing selves that smash together as the echoes of Good and Evil vie for voice in a creative work? I would argue that the only hope for the art (as distinct from the artist) is the tenuous maintenance of that exact friction. Not a balance! Rather just the reverse: a wild, precariously swaying seesaw right on the brink of a ten-thousand-foot drop onto spikes. Let one voice hold the upper hand too long, and your work becomes mere polemic. Owen Barfield, longtime friend of Lewis and Tolkien, said that to write love poetry, you must be in love—but to edit the results, you must be out of it. In the same way, we must let ourselves be at one moment wave-thrown jetsam, red meat in powerful, merciless jaws—and at the next moment, coolly in command of the dueling cyclones within. No doubt this is true of any meaningful artistry, but I suspect it’s especially crucial for the horror writer, constantly working with the radioactive materials of ancient racial memories, ancestral dreads, and subconscious hatreds and rapacities. And, if you believe in such things, with the charred, mesmerizing raw materials of Hell.

But, well—someone has to do it. Someone has to tell the stories, because stories are how we work out the business of existing, how we encapsulate and extrude our being into reality—how we are. Someone has to tell them, and that means talking about evil. Tolkien once said every story is, ultimately, about the Fall. How dare we talk about it? How dare we not? How the fuck, and why the fuck, are we all so multitudinous?

St. Paul was the great writer of the early Church. He wrote the Epistles, the letters to various nascent Christian communities, that make up about half of the New Testament. He once said, “I have become all things to all men, so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). Maybe that’s what writing is. Maybe that’s especially what horror writing is. If my work inoculates you, even just a tiny bit, against the darkness, then maybe I can help you to survive it when it comes. Because it always comes, and there’s always a part of us that doesn’t recoil—a part that welcomes it, takes down the crucifix and garlic, and invites it in. The trick is not to be that part of ourselves in the moment when it counts. And if I can help you do that, then it’s worth whatever price I have to pay.

You may also like...