Sunday, October 27, 2013

Classic vs. Contemporary "Christian Horror"

I was recently interviewed for Radio National's Encounter program on the intersection of horror & religion. (You can download a podcast of the one hour program on "Sacred Hour" HERE.) I was the lone representative for "Christian horror." Among other topics, I broached the difference between "classic" and "contemporary" versions of the genre.

Admittedly, the term "Christian horror" is seldom used by execs and readers of Christian fiction. Nevertheless, there's so much overlap between a biblical worldview and horror tropes that the connection between "Christian" storytelling and the horror genre seems inescapable.

In The Grotesque in Art & Literature, Theological Reflections, "theology" and the "grotesque" are seen as intrinsically connected. The two pivots of biblical history that involve horror and the grotesque are:

  • The Fall of Humanity (and all its ensuing fruits)
  • The Suffering, Death, and Resurrection of Christ (i.e., the redemption of Fallen Humanity)

As I stated in the above interview, perhaps the greatest of all "horror," biblically speaking, is that humanity has turned its back on God. Those created in God's image have become unmoored to their Maker, the most hideous of all realities. In so doing, we have become monsters. In fact, it could be argued that an even greater "horror" superseded and spurred these: the Fall of Lucifer. Because of these three overarching biblical themes, not only is the grotesque and horrific regularly invoked in Scripture, some of the greatest Christian artists and writers employ grotesquery and horror in their work.

So when did "classic Christian horror" start? It's hard to say. Some trace it back to the Renaissance:
In the visual arts, Renaissance painters such as Hieronymus Bosch demonstrated the vivid connection between religious faith and the horrific imagination. The Bible and the Catholic Church were the driving inspiration behind Bosch’s art, yet many of his more surreal works, such as the right-hand panel of the triptych The Garden of Delights, offer nothing less than an all-out horror show. His paintings are a veritable ‘Where’s Wally?’ of horrific images. Men have arrows rammed into their anuses and fish-headed monsters devour people whole, only to defecate their remains into a pit filled with other people’s vomit. This is horror at its most extreme – and it is informed by religious ideals.
On the fiction circuit, Dante's Inferno (completed in 1314) and Milton's Paradise Lost (originally published in 1667) could, I think, rightly be considered Christian Horror. I've even suggested elsewhere that Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), in some ways, fits under the "Christian horror" mold. Even more contemporary is Charles Williams. Williams was a member of the Inklings (along with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien) and wrote novels with overtly religious and horrific themes. Two of his novels which are most commonly associated with the Christian horror genre are:

  • Descent into Hell (1937) — Generally thought to be Williams’s best novel, Descent deals with various forms of selfishness, and how the cycle of sin brings about the necessity for redemptive acts. In it, an academic becomes so far removed from the world that he fetishizes a woman to the extent that his perversion takes the form of a succubus. Characters include a doppelgänger and the ghost of a suicidal Victorian labourer. It is illustrative of Williams’s belief in the replacement of sin and substitutional love.
  • All Hallows' Eve (1945) — Opens with a discussion between the ghosts of two dead women wandering about London. Ultimately explores the meaning of human suffering and empathy by dissolving the barrier between the living and the dead through both black magic and divine love.

The above descriptions were cribbed from Wikipedia.

So was Williams the last of the great classic Christian horror writers? I ask this for several reasons, mainly because the contemporary Christian fiction market seems so detached from its historical (and perhaps, biblical) roots.

"Contemporary Christian horror"  emerged within a new, growing, industry. In many ways, I think this industry is still finding its sea legs. However, our industry's early  conventions, which include lack of a biblical apologetic and Fundamentalist leanings, have tainted our view of the genre, more specifically, the horror genre.

Still, one of Christian fiction's biggest selling, most influential novels, could rightly be considered, horror. As far as I can tell, the first significant step back into the classic Christian horror tradition was Frank Peretti's This Present Darkness, which continues to be one of the best-selling Christian novels of all-time.
Which leads me to several questions:

  • When did we turn this corner from "classic horror" to "contemporary Christian horror," and what did that turn involve?
  • What is the primary differences between "classic Christian horror" (like Dante or Charles Williams), and "contemporary Christian horror"?
  • Is it safe to say that Frank Peretti is the "father of contemporary Christian horror"?
  • Is it also safe to say that This Present Darkness was the first real contemporary horror novel?

Of course, since Peretti, the canon of Christian horror has expanded. Tosca Lee’s “Demon: A Memoir.” Melanie Well’s “When the Day of Evil Comes.” Ted Dekker's Boneman's Daughter. Robert Liparulo’s “Comes a Horseman.” Tom Pawlick’s “Vanish.” These are just a few on a fairly extensive list.

It is troublesome, at least to me, that our industry continues to shun the "Christian horror" label. Especially when we have so rich a history of, not to mention biblical precedence for, producing horror lit. So when did we turn the corner? And will we ever turn to embrace the label?   

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Mike Duran is a monthly contributor to Novel Rocket, and is represented by the rockin' Rachelle Gardner of Books & Such Literary. Mike's novels include The TellingThe Resurrection, an ebook novella, Winterland, and his newly released short story anthology Subterranea. You can visit his website at


Edie Melson said...

Mike, I'm so glad to see you bring this out. We do have a rich history of Christian horror and it's something we need, IMHO, to embrace and explore. Great post!

Nicole said...

Good descriptions and examples, Mike. I find it interesting that most of the examples you've given fall into the Thriller genre currently. I'd add Mike Dellosso's novels to the list of Christian horror. The typical CBA reader thinks the term is an oxymoron and the two words cannot exist in the same label/context. It's not surprising, because of this, that some of the novels mentioned will fall under labels such as Thriller or perhaps Supernatural Suspense. I don't see the label of Christian Horror being embraced by skittish CBA publishers anytime soon. Especially when you get an uproar over redemptive novels (My Stubborn Heart) that show up using a very few contemporary slang words.

~michelle pendergrass said...

I think I've gotten rather good at ignoring the industry. I was told by an agent that Christian horror would never find a place in Christian publishing and then a few years after that asked my friend to write a Christian vampire novel.

I'm satisfied staying (mostly) out of the constant talk and instead walking the walk by helping further the careers of authors like me, who explore the stories that need to be told.

Nicole--the ACFW changed my name tag from "horror author" to "thriller author" in 2006 at their conference. I never went back.

Ian Acheson said...

Interesting post Mike. I love Peretti's Darkness series but have never thought of them to be horror. A lot of Ted Dekker's works could also fit into the category and some of Mike Dellosso's too.

I struggle with Christian novels that delve into vampires and werewolves. I'm sure it won't be long until we see some Zombie novels too. In saying that Mary Shelley's masterpiece "Frankenstein" could probably be included as a Christian horror novel.