I assume it’s customary in a new column’s inaugural article for the writer to introduce himself. Or even if not, I’m making it a custom now.
I’m Matt Cardin, and I’ll be writing this column for SF Signal to focus on the religious, spiritual, and philosophical aspects of speculative fiction and film. To those who know me, this won’t come as a surprise.
Over the course of the past decade, I’ve written a lot about this subject, so much so that recently Mario Guslandi, in reviewing the recent anthology Dark Faith from Apex Books (which features my surreal horror story “Chimeras & Grotesqueries”), commented that I’m “becoming a kind of expert on the subject of the relationship between religion and horror.”
I take that kindly.
If you want to know where I’m coming from when it comes to such matters, you can read some of the interviews I’ve recently given: to Lovecraft News Network about my speculations on real-life cosmic horror; to TheoFantastique about my nondual spiritual reading of George Romero’s zombie movies; to TheoFantastique again about my reading of the biblical book of Isaiah as a cosmic horror story; to Dystopia Press about the general connections between “religion, spirituality, and horror.
You get the idea. This is a subject to which I’ve devoted a lot of study and reflection. I have a master’s degree in religious studies. Both of my books, the cosmic horror fiction collection Divinations of the Deep (2002) and the horror fiction-and-nonfiction collection Dark Awakenings (2010), revolve around explorations of the possible horrific metaphysical and spiritual underpinnings of religious and spiritual-philosophical traditions both Western and Eastern.
But enough about me (always a tiresome subject). What about the column’s title? What does “Stained Glass Gothic” signify? Therein lies the brief answer to what I find fascinating about the crossover between religion and horror, and more broadly, religion and fantasy/SF/horror. And it’s a connection that, as I’m frequently glad to note, many of my fellow genre fans find fascinating, too.
The beloved American religious scholar Huston Smith concluded his classic comparative religion textbook The World’s Religions (originally titled The Religions of Man, but retitled in the late 1980s to remove the gender bias) with a descriptive metaphor to explain the relationship between the world’s enduring religious traditions in a way that would both honor their distinctive differences and indicate what he views as their underlying unity. He compared the religions collectively to a stained glass window. Each one, he said, represents a single pane. Thus, each refracts a specific color, a specific wavelength of light. Each contributes its own unique shade, tone, and meaning to the overall pattern. Red isn’t green, and green isn’t blue. They’re distinct. But they all refract the same light.
With the title Stained Glass Gothic, I’m appropriating the same metaphor but conceiving the light a bit differently. The underlying unity I’m concerned with is the unity of fantasy, SF, and horror. What’s the connection between all of the speculative subgenres? Why are fantasy, SF, and horror commonly lumped together in a broad metacategory even though we all know they’re patently distinct from each other? Looking through the other end of the telescope, why do we find ourselves making even finer distinctions within these genres that are then difficult to explain, as when I spoke on a panel with four other authors about the differences between dark fantasy and horror at ArmadilloCon last August — and we found that we could not, in the end, arrive at a totally satisfactory answer.
What’s the unifying “light” behind our beloved speculative genres? And how finely can it be divided to show us different aspects of itself?
For my money, the one thing that unifies the speculative genres is their departure from the “real world” of time, space, and history. Technically, fantasy is the master category into which horror and SF could be taxonomically folded. They are all, as the label indicates, about speculation in one way or another. They’re all about imagining, about using what Colin Wilson has famously termed “Faculty X,” the distinctive quality that allows human consciousness to abstract itself from immediate sensory reality and achieve an experience of visionary transcendence over it. It’s this ability that enables us to conceive a situation or reality or principle that’s not immediately present or evident to the senses, and even — importantly — one that could never be encountered in actuality, and to draw out its implications in narrative form. Everything from magic to monsters to alien motherships derives at root from this faculty, this human endowment of imagination in something like the primary sense exalted by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Then we have the spectacle of Carl Jung devoting his career as one of the founders of depth psychology to demonstrating in word and deed that the human psyche is like an autonomous organism whose innate wholeness and drive for fulfillment we, as ego selves, must learn to recognize and honor. As part of his psychologically-based philosophy, he posited the existence of a collective unconscious, an imaginal realm containing primal archetypal patterns of meaning that emerge into our lives from the inside, not from any experiences and interactions we have with our objective surroundings.
Note well that to think about such things is hardly an idle pastime. The uses of human imagination have a real impact on real life as it’s lived on the ground. In a May 2010 article for The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “The Pleasures of Imagination,” Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom emphasized the enormous role that imagination plays in everyday human life for Americans and Europeans — and, by reasonable extension, for most peoples on the planet:
How do Americans spend their leisure time? The answer might surprise you. The most common voluntary activity is not eating, drinking alcohol, or taking drugs. It is not socializing with friends, participating in sports, or relaxing with the family. While people sometimes describe sex as their most pleasurable act, time-management studies find that the average American adult devotes just four minutes per day to sex.
Our main leisure activity is, by a long shot, participating in experiences that we know are not real. When we are free to do whatever we want, we retreat to the imagination–to worlds created by others, as with books, movies, video games, and television (over four hours a day for the average American), or to worlds we ourselves create, as when daydreaming and fantasizing. While citizens of other countries might watch less television, studies in England and the rest of Europe find a similar obsession with the unreal.
This is a strange way for an animal to spend its days.
I find all of this fascinating, because it plays right into my lifelong engagement with fantasy, horror, and science fiction, and helps to inform my understanding of the “light” that shines through the “stained glass panes” of the speculative genres. Maybe they’re all just different modes of using our imagination, different ways that we refract the light of the whatever-it-is, whether it’s “real” or not, that we encounter whenever we look around at the world, or look inside ourselves, or both, and see not what is or was, but what could be or might have been, or even what could never literally, factually exist but could only be encountered in imagination.
As for the “gothic” in the title, I chose it partly because I’m personally drawn to horror more than to any other wing of what we’re talking about. But bear in mind that the original meaning of the word as applied to storytelling, reaching back to the middle and late 18th century, refers not just to darkness and grue but to a kind of heightened and exaggerated emotional state that combines horror with “romance,” the latter term referring to fantastic stories of adventure featuring larger-than-life heroes who undertake epic quests. Gothicism was a substream of romanticism, which was all about celebrating the experiences of beauty, terror, and awe. Again, we’re in pure speculative fiction territory, as attested by the simple fact that one of the towering gothic novels, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, offers as perfect a fusion of fantasy, science fiction, and horror as one could hope to find.
Stained Glass Gothic, then, will be all about recognizing, considering, and enjoying the religious and spiritual side of the speculative genres. Have you noticed that questions of religious and/or philosophical meaning crop up everywhere you look in popular speculative fiction and film? Have you noticed that these genres have been absolutely driven by major works that are explicitly about religious or spiritual themes?
The Exorcist was instrumental in launching the late 20th century horror fiction boom (or in laying the foundation for Stephen King and Peter Straub to launch it). Its cinematic adaptation was instrumental in launching the modern-day blockbuster movie (or in laying the foundation for Jaws to launch it). Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and Philip K. Dick — to name only four relevant SF authors out of many — were eaten up with questions of religion’s role and future. They laced their work from top to bottom with personal philosophical-spiritual questions about human identity and destiny. Tolkien and Lewis, as we all know, embedded Christian themes throughout their most famous works. Anne Rice eventually brought Lestat to the point of meeting the devil and drinking the crucified Christ’s blood — soon after which she abandoned vampires and reclaimed her childhood Roman Catholic Christianity (and then, most recently, abandoned and repudiated the institutional church in favor of a more free-form Christian religiosity). Stephanie Meyer built Twilight around an explicitly Genesis-oriented theme embodied in the novel’s famous cover image. Lovecraft was gripped by overarching questions and speculations about the (non)meaning of the cosmos, and he created a fictional universe populated by extradimensional and extraterrestrial monster gods — even as he went on and on (and on) in his personal correspondence about his awesome longing for a spiritual-type experience of transcendent beauty and ultimate liberation from the galling prison of space-time.
And so on.
What does it all mean? That’s precisely what we’ll be talking about.
Welcome to Stained Glass Gothic.