Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The politics of horror fiction

Writing in National Review, Tim Cavanaugh suggested that the horror genre is reflexively conservative, even if the explicit political ideologies of some horror authors are not:

“The King of Horror himself, of course, is a political lefty who calls Maine governor Paul LePage a “stonebrain,” but his work is shot through with hard-headed pragmatism and traditional morality that, if viewed from a certain angle (i.e., directly), seem clearly conservative. Few horror creators (Clive Barker being an occasional exception) ask us to root for the devil.”

Stephen King isn’t the only horror author who reflects conservative values—perhaps subconsciously. Brian Keene (author of The Rising and Ghoul) is a self-declared independent. But when he does sound off on political issues in his Twitter feed, he usually criticizes conservatives and Republicans rather than liberals and Democrats.

Yet one of Keene’s recurring protagonists is Levi Stolzfus, an ex-Amish magus who begins each battle against the supernatural with an explicitly Christian prayer. Keene’s two linked zombie apocalypse novels, The Rising and City of the Dead, contain an (Judeo-Christian) theological subplot.

All horror fiction (as opposed to science fiction or fantasy fiction) is based on a fundamentally realist (and therefore conservative) message: that individual human lives are fragile, and that much of the universe is beyond human control.

In some novels, that “much of the universe” is supernatural (The Exorcist). In other works, the “beyond our control” element is naturalistic, more or less. The well trodden subgenre of zombie film and fiction has become reliant on the convention of animating the undead by viruses, radiation, or toxic chemicals.

Other works seem to attempt (with varying degrees of success) to adopt a middle position. H.P. Lovecraft declared himself an atheist; and there is no trace of a recognizably Judeo-Christian cosmology in his stories.

However, it is difficult to imagine Lovecraft’s fictional universe without some version of supernatural (i.e., spiritual) beliefs. Lovecraft saw humanity as pawns at the mercy of impersonal but undeniably supernatural forces. The main difference between Lovecraft’s worldview and a Christian’s worldview was that Lovecraft saw the triumph of evil as a foregone conclusion. H.P.’s spirituality was dark and nihilistic, without any hope for salvation or redemption. There is no concept of “heaven” in Lovecraft’s work, but there is a fair approximation of hell.

Any variety of horror fiction strikes a contrast to the hyper-optimism and hubris that surrounds the contemporary cult of science. Horror authors do not deny the practical, limited benefits of science, it should be said. But scientific advances often bring untended and negative consequences—like nuclear weapons and zombie plagues. Science, moreover, has its limits. Science cannot conquer the inevitability of death, nor answer the question: “What happens when we die?”

And for some problems, conventional science is useless: In The Exorcist, numerous doctors attempt to find out what is wrong with Regan MacNeil. They end up mostly doing more harm than good. What Regan MacNeil finally needs is a priest—i.e., spiritual faith.