When I proposed “Revelations” to the fine folks at Cemetery Dance, my intent was to examine writers I’d encountered during a specific period in my career. Writers’ whose work had impacted me on a profound level, changed the way I thought about horror, and changed the way I wrote. Never once did I imagine I’d stumbled onto something profound or unheard of. Most folks, I’m sure, know of the writers I’ve mentioned during the course of this column.
“Revelations,” I suppose, is aimed at writers who find themselves at the same point as me when I discovered these authors. Writers who have maybe read a lot of horror by only a few different writers (In my case, my Holy Trinity: Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Peter Straub), and are looking for something different. My experience directed me back toward the masters of speculative fiction. Charles L. Grant, T. M. Wright, Robert McCammon, and Al Sarrantonio, just to name a few.
However, if you’ve followed this column, you know I’ve mixed in contemporary writers as well. Folks I also discovered during this period. Ronald Malfi, Mary Sangiovanni, and Gary Braunbeck are only a few. We’ve yet to touch upon Norman Prentiss, Rio Youers, Nate Kenyon, and more. I’ve also written about authors who have, for whatever reason, slipped through the cracks and have gone unfortunately unnoticed, like Paul F. Olson, or masters who have faded into the past, like Alan Peter Ryan and J. N. Williamson.
But what’s the future of this column? I’ve thought often on the topic over the past year. The list of writers I discovered during this transitional period does have an end, (though, as F. Paul Wilson told me recently, the list of influences never really ends), so what will happen then? Will this column screech to a halt? Will I no longer have anything to say?
I don’t believe so. As a writer, I want to grow. Stretch my muscles. Flex my voice. To do that, not only must I examine the masters, but I also need to search for new, contemporary voices. Like Paul Tremblay. Damien Angelica Walters. Gwendolyn Kiste. Kristi Deemester. Josh Malerman. And so many more.
So, over the course of the next year, I’ll be mixing more contemporary authors into the rotation. This column will hopefully grow into something bigger than just a call to examine past masters. Hopefully, it will became an examination of many different kinds of voices, voices which have impacted me as a reader and a writer.
A note: it will still be a very personal column. It will chronicle my encounters with different kinds of authors, and my reading appetite—like my train of thought (ooh, look! Butterfly!)—goes where it wants. I have no “hit list” of authors I intend to suddenly read over the next year. I just know of contemporary authors whose work has intrigued me, making me want more. The first of those newer writers?
The good Reverend Peter Laws.
I said Reverend.
Which makes this a very personal column, indeed.
If you grew up in any denomination of the Christian church in the eighties, but you liked weird stuff like superheroes, science fiction, ghost stories, and comic books, you probably felt a bit out of place, like I did. If you had parents who simply endorsed reading of all kinds (as I thankfully did) then you probably didn’t feel ashamed about that.
Regardless, church certainly wasn’t the place to talk about how cool you thought Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was. Pot-luck dinners wasn’t the time to share your love for The Hardy Boys or Scooby-Do, and you definitely didn’t ask kids in your youth group if they’d read the most recent issues of Secret Defenders and Thundercats. Later on in high school, talking about Issac Asimov’s Foundation series, or how you sorta wanted to watch a Nightmare on Elm Street movie, was likewise verboten. We were supposed to have our hearts and minds on “things above, and not of the world,” after all.
And of course, I grew up during the infamous Satanic Panic Period. Satan was everywhere. In back-masked rock and roll lyrics. Around the corner. In movies. Especially horror movies. Even our toys. The only misstep my parents made, (rather half-halfheartedly, like someone at church advised them to), was asking me to read a book from the church library called Turmoil in the Toybox, which really should’ve been titled, Satan Lives in Your G. I. Joes, because that’s basically what it was about. To their credit, when I hit the chapter accusing George Lucas of trying to seduce all children to the occult because Darth Vader’s mask was based on an ancient Tibetan ritual worship-totem-thingie, and I checked out and said I was done, I don’t remember them arguing, much.
In any case, I grew up thinking that, while I certainly didn’t feel ashamed of my draw to the weird and the strange, (which exploded when I finally discovered Stephen King in my mid-twenties), it certainly wasn’t something I should bring up in polite conversation with fellow church folk. Especially when discussion turned to my desire to write. When they asked: “What type of fiction do you write?” I’d usually wuss out and mumble something about Ted Dekker. If I was feeling really brave that day, maybe Dean Koontz.
Things are lot different these days. I’ve been around long enough to encounter more than handful of Christians who love horror and Stephen King just as much as me. One of my pastors (and a good friend) and a bunch of guys from our church went to Reaper’s Revenge for the first time this past October. We had an absolute blast. This same pastor and his wife double date my wife and I for all the major MARVEL movies. I have formed great relationships with horror writers who share my faith, both locally and across the country. My usually non-horror wife loves Stranger Things. For the first time, I’ve come to a great sense of peace about the coexistence of my love of the weird and my faith.
Enter The Frighteners: A Journey Through Our Cultural Fascination With the Macabre, by Reverend Peter Laws. I saw it on Amazon and immediately asked my wife to buy for my birthday. Because Reverend. When I read the description and saw Peter Laws was a former atheist, now ordained Baptist Minister in the UK who claimed horror led him to his faith, I knew this was a must-have. Books on the somewhat uneasy alliance between horror and faith (in the perception of many Christians, that is) are few and far in between. The only other one I’ve found is Christian Horror by Mike Duran, which is a great book also, though a bit more conservative than The Frighteners (I gather Baptist Ministers are a bit more free-wheeling in London than they are in America, which suits me just fine, ya kennit?).
In any case, Laws has written a profound exploration of our culture’s fascination with horror, darkness, death, decay, and all things morbid. It’s a very personal exploration, as Laws speaks also of his journey, how his love of horror eventually led to him asking the questions which led him to his faith, and how he’s worked to reconcile his love of all things dark and strange with his love for God.
Even though I no longer feel any dissonance between my own faith and my love of horror, his points resonated with me, deeply. It was like I was receiving confirmation and affirmation of thoughts and ideas I more felt than understood on an intellectual level. In this book, Laws hits a lot of the same points Stephen King does in Danse Macabre: that those who love horror, Halloween, and all things dark and spooky do not worship death by any means. Our love of horror and our interest in the weird reaffirms our values and reminds us of the things we hold dear, and confirms our desires and gratitude for life. It also reinforces to us how fleeting life can be.
In The Frighteners, Laws covers a lot of ground already touched upon by plenty of writers, but his story is compelling as he weaves in personal experiences. Plus, he connects horror tropes with cultural movements, and again, his own personal exploration of these connections made for compelling reading.
One of Peter Law’s main points in The Frigtheners is an assertion horror fans will find familiar: we are, on a neurological level, very likely wired with a fascination for the macabre (your mileage may vary, of course, because everyone is different). We are drawn to it, as a culture. While the response of many faith institutions is to say that’s our “sin nature” working its evil black magic on us, or others to call morbid-lovers “disturbed,” Laws offers several good reasons for our cultural fascinations with dark, spooky, disturbing things.
Survival instinct. That we must watch and absorb tragedies around us, so we’ll be better forearmed against them. The relief we feel after “surviving” a horror movie or scary attraction. The strange feelings of both shock and empathy for horror victims, and the relief at not being them. Or, a subconscious desire to relieve ourselves of tension and fear. Association with either the victim’s plight, or with the monster’s desires. Facing our mortality—the realization that death comes to us all—by reminding us we’re alive.
Avid horror fans won’t find these ideas foreign. However, Laws delivers these ideas through his own personal accounts and experiences, giving this a similar feel to King’s Danse Macabre. Also similar to King, Laws asserts that our attraction to morbid culture isn’t something to be shunned or feared, because it is healthy, and natural. Like Greg Ruth’s article on TOR.com—“Horror is Good For You (And Even Better for Your Kids)”—Laws keeps coming back to all the ways morbidity can be reaffirming of life, rather than demeaning it…
Through spooky tales of ghosts, I’m reminded that there is hope in the face of death – it may not be the end. Morbid culture does us a service because it keeps this subject on the table…. (pg. 80)
Perhaps morbid culture exists because deep down we know that we ought to gaze on these things (too.) Once in a while. Not to glorify death, but to prepare for the inevitable, to appreciate while we can. In other words, we look to death to elevate life. (p. 82)
Throughout, Laws examines the most common tropes—vampirism, zombies, witches, ghost stories, and serial killers—through a cultural lens aimed at examining the big picture about why these tropes are so common, and why so many people connect with them. Some of these assertions are ones that, again, horror fans will find familiar. Zombies representing consumerism and our never ending appetites, as well as our slavish devotion to jobs and duty, an obsessive interest in ghost-hunting as a search for meaning and life after death, and vampirism’s allure coming from the primal understanding that there’s “power in the blood.”
However, Laws examines some different ground as well. Like funeral practices, how preparing the dead for burial was something once encouraged for children to see and experience. It is his assertion that so many people struggle with a search for identity, and these tropes—especially those involving physical or spiritual transformations—help give many that sense of belonging they’re missing.
Again, like Greg Ruth’s article, Laws hits on a point which is near and dear to my heart: that scary stories are actually good for kids (again, your mileage may vary). He talks about the often horrified knee-jerk reactions of parents and teachers to macabre interests among children, and how he believes it’s unwise to automatically assume these interests are unhealthy. In fact, he asserts that kids need scary stories because…
…kids are in a constant state of categorizing their world so that they can navigate it better. They use scary stories as a way of identifying their fears. Then, in the retelling, they seek to master the fears they’ve identified. (pg. 184)
I could go on about this section, but I won’t, because I want you to read it yourself. Suffice to say, as a father and an English teacher, the chapter “Deadtime Stories” is the most heavily-annotated section of my copy of The Frighteners.
Laws offers also his story about how his love of horror—and, in particular, the movie The Exorcist—led him to his faith. A double caveat: for those wary of this being only a thinly-veiled attempt at evangelicalism and proselytizing, set your minds at ease. Laws has no interest in converting anyone. He’s simply offering his personal faith journey, and also recounting the story of how he realized that coming to faith didn’t by any means prohibit his love of the macabre and the spooky, rather enhanced it. And also, for those looking for something more theological and doctrinal, Laws doesn’t go there either. Again, this book is his personal epistle to how his faith and his love of the macabre meet.
However…this isn’t all Peter Laws has to offer. There’s his series of thriller novels chronicling the adventures of Matthew Hunter, a former pastor turned atheist who is now a professor of world religions. He no longer believes in God (or, at least, that’s what he tells himself and others quite often), and no longer seeks to understand his “mysteries,” but rather wants to understand humanity’s obsession with religion, wants to know how this obsession has shaped our culture and our world.
Matt’s religious past and his present in academia leads to his regular work with the police as a consultant in crimes of religious or occult nature. In Purged, Unleashed, and Severed (Matt Hunter novels to date), Matt is entangled with dangerous cases involving different facets of the Christian faith and the supernatural. It’s interesting that Reverend Peter Laws would choose an atheist as a main character, but in my opinion it’s a brilliant move. It gives him a vehicle to address many of these things that can be troubling about faith and institutions of faith.
However, Laws has been very careful in his characterization of Matt. He’s not a straw-man meant to satirize atheists or Christians, but a man harboring serious doubts about what he believes…doubts all of us harbor. This character is not meant to demean either atheism or Christianity or belief in general; I believe he’s meant to represent the struggles we all have when it comes to grappling with belief and disbelief, and the unfortunate and disheartening truth of fanaticism and its dangers.
I don’t want to spoil anything for potential readers, but another reason why I’m fascinated with this series is wondering where Laws is going with it. Despite all the mundane explanations Matt offers for the “supernatural” events in these novels, Laws is very content to leave us guessing as readers. Is Matt haunted simply by his successive involvement in these horrific cases? Or does something else linger on the periphery? A great truth threatening to unseat Matt’s convictions? We’ll just have to see where Peter Laws takes us.
On a final note, make sure to check out Peter’s YouTube channel, “The Flicks the Church Forgot,” which offers wonderful podcast reviews of horror movies and books.
Get on the Matt Hunters series early, and for a great examination of culture’s fascination with the macabre, check out The Frighteners. Honestly, I’ve only be disappointed in one thing: when I read on the back-cover jacket of The Frighteners that Laws had written something called Preaching in the Dark: The Homiletics and Hermeneutics of Horror, I rushed off to Amazon to find it…only to realize it was his thesis, and not something else I could buy and read. Maybe someday he can release that as well….
Kevin Lucia is the Reviews Editor for Cemetery Dance. His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies. His first short story collection, Things Slip Through, was published November 2013, and his most recent short story collection, Things You Need, was released September, 2018. He’s currently working on his first novel. For free monthly fiction, book reviews, YouTube commentaries, and three free ebooks, visit www.kevinlucia.blogspot.com and sign up for his monthly email newsletter.