Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Religions of Weird Fiction

I'll get right to the point: there aren't any, as far as I know--religions of weird fiction, that is. If you look to the right, you'll see a label, "The Religions of Science Fiction." You'll see also that I have written a lot on this topic, and when you read what I have written, you'll understand that when I refer to the religions of science fiction, I'm talking about religious, pseudo-religious, and quasi-religious beliefs that have arisen from science fiction and its precursors. Chief among these are flying saucers, dating from 1947, and Dianetics/Scientology, from 1950. There are also what you might call proto-science-fictional religions in Theosophy and "I AM" Activity, and there are similar beliefs that have come along since the 1940s and '50s. Shaverism came from that era, too, and though it doesn't reach the level of a science-fictional religion, it has its own religious, pseudo-religious, or quasi-religious characteristics.

At first you might think that religion and science fiction don't go together. After all, science brooks nothing when it comes to unreason, superstition, or claims for the existence of anything supernatural. The other side of that, though, is that science clearly doesn't satisfy certain basic human needs. Believers leave religion and a belief in God behind them, but because they are believers, they need a replacement, and so they search endlessly for something to stand in the place of God. (More on that in a while.) Scientists and science-minded people, then, too easily fall into belief in the religions of science--Scientism, Darwinism (alternatively, Lysenkoism), materialism, atheism, Utopianism, Marxism or "scientific socialism," environmentalism, the cult of global warming, etc. Likewise, readers, writers, and fans of science fiction also fall too easily for the religions of science fiction. At least one of those religions--flying saucers--is pretty well harmless. Another, which shall remain nameless, has done great harm and has even brought about the deaths of some of its current or former adherents.

Weird fiction doesn't have that problem. Writers of weird fiction (notwithstanding Lovecraft's materialism--more on him in a while, too) concede the existence of the supernatural even before they begin. They seem to have their heads on straight and don't fall for pseudo-religious nonsense. They don't suffer the fate of their materialistic characters, who, because they can't bend, break. And so, as far as I know, no author of weird fiction has ever spawned a real-world religion or cult. Likewise, as far as I know, no reader or fan of weird fiction has ever followed his or her favorite author down the rabbit hole of a made-up religion. So my title, "The Religions of Weird Fiction," is about nothing at all. If anyone has a suggestion or assertion that there is or might be an actual religion, pseudo-religion, or quasi-religion of weird fiction, I'm happy to listen.

* * *

In doing research for my series on Harold S. Farnese, I ran across this passage in Lovecraft: A Biography by L. Sprague de Camp (Ballantine, 1976):
He [Lovecraft] argued science and religion with his correspondents. [. . . ] With Catholic Derleth he was polite about religion. But when, in early 1931, Frank [Belknap] Long flirted with Catholicism, Lovecraft went after him hammer and tongs: "that incredible & anti-social anachronism (1) called the Popish church . . . . Popery fosters everything effeminate & repugnant." Although on other occasions he admitted religion to have some practical social value, he now declared: "I hate & despise religion" because, he said, it lied about basic, scientifically established facts. (p. 372)
I have wondered before whether Lovecraft was anti-Catholic. (I wrote on this topic in "Lovecraft and the Mass Rock" on October 21, 2015, here.) Well, if de Camp described the situation accurately, now we know that he was. Lovecraft's comments here seem to me unsophisticated and noncritical, his tone overwrought. I suspect that his hostility towards Catholicism was a kind of knee-jerk reaction that would have come naturally to an old-fashioned Yankee Protestant or Puritan. We should remember that he was also a nativist and that he lived during a high water mark of the very anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan in America. Only recently (1928) had there been a presidential campaign in which very strong anti-Catholic sentiment showed itself, not only in the United States at large but also in Lovecraft's home state of Rhode Island. (1)

There's more to that passage from de Camp's book, though. Here is another passage:
When we hear the ancient bells growling on a Sunday morning we ask ourselves: Is it really possible! This, for a jew [sic], crucified two thousand years ago, who said he was God's son? The proof of such a claim is lacking. Certainly the Christian religion is an antiquity projected into our times from remote prehistory; and the fact that the claim is believed--whereas one is otherwise so strict in examining pretensions--is perhaps the most ancient piece of this heritage. A god who begets children with a mortal woman; a sage who bids men work no more, have no more courts, but look for the signs of the impending end of the world; a justice that accepts the innocent as a vicarious sacrifice; someone who orders his disciples to drink his blood; prayers for miraculous interventions; sins perpetrated against a god, atoned for by a god; fear of a beyond to which death is the portal; the form of the cross as a symbol in a time that no longer knows the function and ignominy of the cross--how ghoulishly all this touches us, as if from the tomb of a primeval past! Can one believe that such things are still believed? (2)
That's not from Lovecraft--it was actually written by Friedrich Nietzsche, and it comes from his Human, All too Human (1878). Note the same hostility and incredulity as in Lovecraft. Note the similar words or phrases, too, Catholicism as an "anachronism" and Christianity as "an antiquity projected into our own times from remote prehistory." In addition, Lovecraft sensed what Nietzsche articulated when the former wrote, "Popery fosters everything effeminate & repugnant," for Nietzsche famously criticized Christianity as a religion that feminizes men, or at least unmans them, for example:
Christianity [. . .] has waged a deadly war against this higher type of man; it has placed all the basic instincts of this type under the ban; and out of these instincts it has distilled evil and the Evil One: the strong man as the typically reprehensible man, the "reprobate." Christianity has sided with all that is weak and base, with all failures; it has made an ideal of whatever contradicts the instinct of the strong life to preserve itself. [Emphasis in the original, from The Antichrist (1888).] (3)
There are of course lots of other quotes like this from Nietzsche. Unlike Lovecraft, however, Nietzsche was not so keen on science. Both, however, were conservative and aristocratic. Anyway, I wonder, was Lovecraft familiar with the writings of Nietzsche? Or did he arrive at some of the same conclusions and for some of the same reasons (at whatever intellectual or philosophical level he may have occupied) as did Nietzsche?

* * *

It seems to me that human beings have a need to believe in things that are infinite, eternal, and absolute, and that when we give up on a belief in God as the source of these things, we are faced with one of two choices: we can either try to find a replacement for God, or we can can try to live without them. Both paths lead to the same destination, for it seems to me also that we have a drive in us towards annihilation, especially self-annihilation, as well as self-defeat and self-destruction. Both paths are blocked, I think, by belief, but if there is no belief and no block, we generally proceed towards self-destruction. Whether Lovecraft would have been saved by a different belief system than the one he held, and whether we would now have his art as he created it if he had believed in something different, we can't really say. But he was certainly lost in the end by believing in what I guess was essentially nothing.

* * *

I came across a really interesting idea recently, but I can't say where I found it. The idea is that there are those among us who are convinced that the Creation is flawed and that it must be corrected. We see this on a small scale in popular culture when we go to a Batman or Superman movie and are treated yet again to the character's origin story, now overhauled by the newest moviemaker. We see it also in the Star Wars saga, in which George Lucas, who is the creator, goes back and alters the original form of his own creation, moreover, when the makers of every new Star Wars movie lay waste to what was done by those who came before them. Anyway, the problem with the idea that the Creation is flawed comes about when we as human beings believe that we can make it right, that we are smart enough, wise enough, and visionary enough to remake it all according to our own ideas, schemes, and systems. This goes beyond the concept in tragedy of hubris and into the territory of an extraordinary arrogance and rebellion. People who dream up these things--intellectual ideas, intellectualized schemes or systems for living, prescriptions on how the rest of us must live--are in love with their own minds and their own ideas. They are possessed of a pride so extreme that the word "pride" no longer applies. We might ask, what is the source of this extreme pride and arrogance? How did your ideas and schemes and systems get to be so fine? How do you know these things so well and with such conviction? The answer that seems to come back is this: I know because I know. This is a Gnosticism for the modern age. Marx is a perfect example of this kind of thinking, but Madame Blavatsky, Richard Shaver, and L. Ron Hubbard also fit the bill to one degree or another. In any case, last week in the U.S. Senate, we saw this phenomenon at work. We saw a group of people who appear to be in love with the fineness of their own minds, their own ideas, their own schemes, their own systems, their own innovations. Their pride is in themselves. They seem convinced that they are in possession of the knowledge and wisdom necessary to correct the perceived flaws in the Creation. They know because they know. There need not be any other explanation or justification, and nothing must stand in their way in the deadly serious business of remaking it. Their belief seems to be that they are God or gods and that they possess God-like or god-like qualities. Their quest is for power, as one of their company so easily saw and diagnosed as the condition running like an epidemic among them. What they don't realize is that they can never and will never have that kind of power. They will never be able to remake the Creation, for it is what it is intended to be. It is unalterable by human effort. They cannot bend reality to their wills, and, falling well short of their imagined godhood, they will all die in the end. Weak, frail, crippled--bed-bound, failing, necessarily mortal--they will one day, we can only hope, be chastened and disabused of their notions of themselves and the fineness of their own minds and ideas. Yes, they will all surely die in the end and the unaltered Creation will go on without them.

* * *

Finally, I have written before about weird fiction against the materialist (see here). Well, I have found another example in a writer who should have been in Weird Tales but never was. His name was Stefan Grabiński, and he was a Polish author active during the pulp-fiction era in America, from 1906 to about 1930. Born in 1887, he was a rough contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft. Like Lovecraft, he died young, in 1936 at age forty-nine. (Nietzsche also died fairly young, at age fifty-five, five days after Lovecraft's tenth birthday.) In our weird fiction book club last week, we read Grabiński's story "The Frenzied Farmhouse," from 1908. The narrator of the story is a man, once a husband and father. Near the beginning of his tale, he tells us, "I am not sick, nor was I ever sick," likewise, "I am not, nor was I ever, a psychopath." We learn not to trust him very well in these claims by what he relates later on. One significant thing about these reverse confessions is that the narrator appears to head off a scientific or medical explanation for what he has done: "I am not sick, I am not a psychopath." He continues:
Instead, I was a complete skeptic. I did not adhere to any principle or doctrine; my temperament was not a suggestible one. In this respect, my friend K., whom I had always considered to be extremely superstitious, stood at the opposite extreme. His strange, at times crazy views and theories constantly raised strong opposition on my part, and we quarrelled [sic] continually, which resulted in us frequently severing contact with each other for long periods of time. And yet, it appears, he was not mistaken in everything.
So here is the former skeptic (note the past tense), now speaking (in the present tense) and telling us that he is not sick or a psychopath, implying that in and by his skepticism he was wrong, conceding that his friend K. (shades of Kafka), who is "extremely superstitious," is right, at least in some small way. In other words, as the materialist usually does in weird fiction, the narrator comes in contact with something that he cannot explain in purely scientific or materialistic terms, and he receives his comeuppance because of it. But this is a strange and not a simple story. It can't easily be categorized, explicated, or explained away. In the inexorableness of the narrator's actions, it puts me in mind of The Stranger by Albert Camus, which is a strange thing to do for a tale of weird fiction.

(1) "Finally, the early 1920s saw the first great 'Red Scare,' the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in Rhode Island, and the bitter Al Smith campaign in 1928, all of which produced a new level of anti-Catholic bigotry and heightened tensions between faltering Republicans and the rising Democrats." From "Ten Turning Points in Rhode Island History" by William G. McLoughlin, Rhode Island History, May 1986 (Vol. 45, No. 2), quote from pp. 48-49.
(2) Note the elements of the tale of supernatural horror or weird fiction: things still living out of antiquity or prehistory, a "god," a "sage," Christ as a fortuneteller, human sacrifice, the drinking of human blood (so that we might live forever, like vampires), prayers, miracles, "a beyond," death as "a portal"--"how ghoulishly all this touches us, as if from the tomb of a primeval past!" [Emphasis added.] Might we say that Christianity, or religion in general, is the religion of weird fiction? Or is it actually the other way around, that the genres of weird fiction and supernatural horror are actually protrusions of an internal religious impulse, however primitive it might be, into the very secular and outward world of books, commerce, and pulp magazines?
(3) If Nietzsche's criticism is accurate and Christianity sees "the strong man as the typically reprehensible man, the 'reprobate'," and if our current president is by some measure this kind of "strong man" (thus a "reprobate"), then the reaction to him, especially considering that it comes from so many who are themselves so deeply anti-Christian, is curiously Christian. But then I think that we live in a world teeming with non-believers and atheists who have been set up in their beliefs by two-thousand years of Christianity. I guess you could call them "secular Christians," even "atheized Christians," in any case Christians of one kind or another who are ignorant or unaware of their very origins or what ultimately lies behind their beliefs and actions.

Original text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley


  1. Ironically, there is one pseudo-religion spawned by the Weird Tales writers -- by H.P. Lovecraft his own self, in fact. I've met more than one self-proclaimed "Magician" who venerate Azathoth or Cthulhu. Apparently, if you're a hip modern "Chaos Magician" it doesn't matter if the gods you invoke are completely made-up by an author who called them "puerile" in letters to friends.

    1. Cambias,

      I considered the possibility that there are people in the real world who claim to worship Lovecraft's deities, just as there are people who claim "Jedi" as their religion. I don't take these things seriously and I doubt they do either. They're kind of like the people who claim belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Like you say, it's about seeming cool, hip, smart, and ironic.

      Thanks for writing.