Faithful Frighteners is a series of interviews with persons of faith in the horror and weird fiction scenes.
Scott R. Jones is owner and project editor of Martian Migraine Press, a transgressive weird small press out of Canada. His latest anthology, Cthulhusattva: Tales of the Black Gnosis is available now.
JR: How, when, and why did you get into horror culture (film, literature, video games, etc)?
SRJ: If we’re going to go all the way back to the moment I became aware of horror, I would have to relate the moment in grade school when a classmate brought in the comics adaptation of the Creepshow anthology film. Something about the artwork (I think it was a predominantly Bernie Wrightson effort, wasn’t it?); I still vividly recall the revulsion I felt at the depiction of strands of saliva stretching between the teeth and lips of screaming victims. “Father’s Day,” and that one where the murderer buries his victims up to their necks at the shore before the tide comes in. The effect on me was deep; so troubling that when I heard Stephen King’s name mentioned on the radio weeks later, I burst into tears. But, y’know, I was ten.
I’m guessing it wasn’t until my early twenties that I got into horror fiction. I consider myself fortunate that my first adult exposure was to Ramsey Campbell (his Cold Print was a revelation), and from him I moved on into the other weird authors (Lovecraft et al.), many of which fared badly in comparison to Campbell.
JR: What is your faith? How did you come to it?
SRJ: I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. So, basically, an apocalyptic millenarian cult with a bland aesthetic modeled on fin de siècle Baptist principles. The faith was dominant in my early life, to the degree that I was baptized at the age of 16, but what with one thing and another (mostly, actually reading beyond the borders of the prescribed JW texts – a big no-no in most groups of this type), the teachings did not take. Though it should be mentioned that the actual removal of the memetic hooks from my consciousness and spiritual life was profoundly painful and damaging.
Since that period, I wandered a bit, but kept returning to the Gnostic theologies of the 2nd through 5th centuries, and the modern scholarship on those systems, which I felt a definite alignment with. In many ways, Gnostic thought has a Talmudic feel to it, i.e. a kind of cosmological fan-fiction in which the practitioners hash out (through story, allegory, and ceremony) a true (or at least more true) version of the false world of perception.
JR: What are its fundamental doctrines or principles?
SRJ: I could point you to the Matrix films, but that would be a horrible way to go about it, and very probably disingenuous. Basically, the flaws that we see in reality are because reality itself is flawed; some Gnostics will claim the Demiurge as the cause/creator of this (God as blind idiot with a persecution complex), others that this is the basic nature of existence on this level of being, quite aside from how it came to be here. Our perceptions of the flaws are themselves flawed, since we ourselves are aspects of the flaw. You can’t diagnose a broken system with broken equipment that is part of that system. Things get recursive at this point, but! there is a way out, via gnosis, which is to say apprehension of the higher levels of creation from which these broken levels descend, and that wisdom (Sophia, being the feminine aspect of the original godhead that lies beyond/behind/above the Demiurge) can bring the practitioner closer to that ideal.
I’ve over-simplified here, but again, think “cosmological fan-fiction with the goal of breaking through regressive/repressive spiritual structures” and that’s a decent way of putting it. Obviously, the traditional Christian power base has had it in for Gnostics and their ilk from the get-go. Probably why I like it. Also, and this will come up later here, Gnosticism as I understand it melds nicely with certain aspects of the Cthulhu Mythos…
JR: How does your faith inform your consumption of horror culture?
SRJ: I tend to respond very well to any horror product that places an emphasis on the nature of reality and our perception of it, the power of language to shape or cloud that reality, and the various non-human ways that intelligence manifests in that reality. I don’t enjoy narratives that rely on a clearly defined border between good and evil, or that posit unrealistic value judgements on their outcomes. I like nebulous horror: the uncanny, the weird, the incomprehensible. If there is mystery and terror, then I’m onboard, for that way lies a kind of dark enlightenment. At the end of the day, I read horror (and weird fiction) to be changed, to challenge my positions and suppositions, so zombies or vampires or even standard Lovecraftian “gosh, that Other! Shore is scary, hyuk!” tropes won’t do that for me.
JR: How does your faith inform your creation of horror literature?
SRJ: Well, I try to write what I’d like to read, so see above. I’m not always as successful as I’d like to be, but the journey continues to be interesting, and has even fed back into thinking deeper about my faith.
JR: Do you see a conflict between your faith and horror culture or your own work?
SRJ: I think this would be true were my faith more traditionally Christian, but since so much of Gnostic thought basically allows for a world and a god that is, essentially, broken (and horrific in its brokenness!) the conflict is minimal. Gnostic theology is grim! and weird! and unashamedly psychedelic, even, all things that are also marks of good horror, to my mind.
JR: How does being a person of faith affect you amidst the weird lit community’s prevailing popular notions of cosmicism, atheism, anti-natalism, etc.?
SRJ: Interestingly, since the publication of my non-fiction book of auto-ethnographic spirituality, When The Stars Are Right: Towards An Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality, I have found that some facets of the weird fandom, and particularly the Lovecraftian folk, have offered some resistance to my essentially theistic take on the Cthulhu Mythos. Understand, though, that I do not promote that old chestnut of “Lovecraft was right, the Great Old Ones exist and are watching, waiting,” but choose to interpret the deities and godforms therein as models for consciousness and for shaping new and interesting ways to interact with the world.
My faith is such that the statement “if it can be imagined, it has a reality that can be weighed and measured and utilized” holds true; all things are potentially existent, even the Old Ones, especially in a memetic form, so why not use them to learn and grow? And again, this makes nihilists itchy. As for anti-natalism, considering the career of Life and its apparent goal of conquering new realms and dimensions, I find it a strange kind of narrow and flimsy ego-scaffolding, and ultimately very concerned and caught up with the centrality of the individual human.
But again, very little of this puts me at actual odds with the rest of the community.
JR: Do you view the horror/weird lit communities as hostile or welcoming to diverse perspectives on faith, including more traditional viewpoints?
SRJ: I think it would be untrue to say that there’s no hostility present, but what’s there is minimal and hardly enough to worry over. Though horror folk tend to be conservative in their views, I think there’s enough awareness that without outsider perspectives finding their expression, the genre would quickly die a deserved death. So, if an effect can be achieved decently through a “traditional” approach, why shouldn’t it be? I’m less likely to enjoy it as much as a more non-traditional approach, though.
JR: Do you see your faith as being a part of your work in any way, including in a missional sense?
SRJ: The joke after the release of When The Stars Are Right (and the more recent Cthulhusattva: Tales of the Black Gnosis anthology, which I edited for Martian Migraine Press) was that I was laying the foundation stones for a true-life Cthulhu cult, something which would never fly, at least not on my watch. I’m a Jones, and fellas with my last name and the drinking of the Kool-Aid don’t mix well, historically. That being said, if my unique take (at least, I’ve been told it’s unique) on gnosis and the Cthulhu Mythos helps a particular sub-set of weirdos feel like they can have more agency in the world, and perhaps beat back some of the anguish and depression that comes from perceiving how awful existence can be, then I feel that’s a good thing. And I hope that comes to pass for some who encounter my writing.
JR: How do others in your faith group view horror culture?
SRJ: Gnostics as a whole are down with this stuff, for sure. We have zero issue with the idea that God and Reality are both Good and Terrible, and not one after the other, but simultaneously. I’ve been asked to appear on Gnostic podcasts and so on to talk about these ideas, so I’d say it’s welcome.
JR: How would/do you evangelize or explain horror to other, perhaps more conservative, persons in your faith group? Can a faith-based argument be made for engaging with horror?
SRJ: Oh, absolutely it can. Honestly, I find folks who profess a more traditional view of their belief constructs (angels, demons, and so on) and claim that to, say, encounter an angel would be wonderful, haven’t really thought things through. Because (and both scripture and wisdom traditions worldwide back me up on this) that would be a terrifying experience. As a primal emotion, fear is a sublime catalyst for recognizing the numinous in life. If such an experience can be approached through fiction, it can be a preparation for deeper initiation. It carries with it an honesty that a “love all things” and “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” viewpoint cannot. Fear is merely one tool in the spiritual toolbox, though, and I wouldn’t recommend its overuse, either.
JR: What are your past or future projects that are informed by your faith? How have your past projects with these themes or ideas been received?
SRJ: I’ve already mentioned When The Stars Are Right and Cthulhusattva. I’m considering putting out an annotated Call of Cthulhu / Dagon with a focus on the spiritual themes therein, within the next year or so. So far, reception has been keen, and positive, and I’d be grateful if that trend continues!