Faithful Frighteners: Tom Breen

Faithful Frighteners is a series of interviews with persons of faith in the horror and weird fiction scenes. You can read the first interview with Scott R. Jones here.

Tom Breen is the author of Orford Parish Murder Houses: A Visitor’s Guide and co-author of Old Gory: Two Tales of Flag Horror. He also co-manages Orford Parish Books, which “specializes in the unsettling, the weird, the subtly troubling. Short fiction, illustrated books for strange children, themed chapbooks, [and] fake newspapers[.]”

JR: How, when, and why did you get into horror culture (film, literature, video games, etc)?

Tom BreenTB: When I was a kid, I was fascinated by collections of ghost stories, books about “real life” hauntings, and horror movies. This lasted until 6th grade, when I was 11 or 12, and my teacher decided all of these things, plus Dungeons & Dragons, were making me a danger to myself and others. Well, it was a different time (the 1980s, to be specific).

So I had to make weekly visits to the school psychologist, and any interest in the macabre was pretty much therapy’d out of me by the helping professions. This lasted until I was in college. For reasons that are now obscure to me, I started reading H.P. Lovecraft, an author my father liked. That was really it, though; I still had an aversion, bred by that early adolescent experience, to anything horror-related. I remember being 23 years old and driving to Chicago with friends, and being legitimately worried about reading a Ramsey Campbell book I had brought with me. I don’t know what I was worried about, I just had some deep, weird anxiety about plunging into this (literally, when I was younger) forbidden world.

Anyway, long story long, that book—Ghosts and Grisly Things—was the gateway to what’s now been 15 years of reading horror fiction and watching the occasional horror movie. My real interest is in literature, and I’ve found that attempts to seriously engage with other types of genre fiction have mostly been unsuccessful.

I like horror because I think it’s a way to explore central existential questions—who are we? Why are we here? What happens when we’re not here anymore?—in appropriately direct and intense ways. It speaks to me, I suppose, in ways that most other fiction doesn’t it, although the things I admire in horror fiction I find easy to spot in works that don’t usually get the tag—Beckett, for instance, or Dino Buzzati or Etgar Keret.

JR: What is your faith? How did you come to it (conversion, generational)?

TB: I was baptized into the Catholic Church but wasn’t raised in any kind of religious tradition beyond what C.S. Lewis called “mere Christianity.” My mother was the religious one in the family, and she died when I was five years old. My father had many, mostly good, reasons for keeping his distance from the Catholic Church. The identity “Catholic” was something that was purely tribal: we were Catholic because our ancestors had been Catholic, but that was it. I was attracted to the idea of Catholicism but did nothing to make that attraction real.

In 2001, I was working for a newspaper in Massachusetts and the child abuse scandal inorford1 Boston broke. My editor assigned me to cover the local implications of the story, and I found that I really knew nothing about the faith into which I was ostensibly enrolled. So, like the conscientious reporter I wanted to be, I started learning all I could about the Catholic Church: reading books, interviewing priests, joining online communities that were lively venues for debate. It all started to make a great deal of sense to me, and I became more and more aware of the fact that my membership in the church was purely notional.

I started going to weekly Mass in July 2005, and since then I’ve only missed it twice, both times because of catastrophic weather. I moved around the country for work and became more active in parish life, and in 2010 I decided to go through the Rite of Catholic Initiation for Adults, a year-long process of learning and discernment that I had always avoided, probably out of a combination of shyness and arrogance about my level of knowledge. At Easter 2011 I was formally received into the church at a parish in Raleigh, N.C.

All told, I guess you could say I’m both a cradle Catholic and a convert. Although my response when people ask if I’m Catholic is still “I’m working on it.”

JR: What are its fundamental doctrines or principles?

TB: TO CONQUER THE WORLD. No, wait. I can’t put the statement of belief better than the words of the Nicene Creed, but in a broad sense Catholic Christianity is the belief in an omnipotent creator whose most important intervention in human life was via Jesus of Nazareth, who was both God and the son of God, and whose execution and resurrection have set human beings free from death and guilt.

This is believed, more or less, by most Christians, but Catholics further believe that Jesus established a living community guided by God in the person of the Holy Spirit, and that today’s church is this same community. God is most directly present in this community in the form of seven rites, or sacraments, the most important of which is the celebration of the Eucharist, during which, Catholics believe, the common substances of bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus.

There’s more to it than that—virgin birth, apostolic succession, fish on Fridays—but that’s sort of the core, although I realize the repetition and familiarity of words like “God” and “Jesus” make this language difficult for outsiders, and even insiders, to take seriously. Our vocabulary for religious faith has been impoverished from overuse, which is why I find myself turning to the writings of early Christian communities, who were grappling with the questions of the faith at a time when everything was new. They seem a great deal more contemporary to me than the bromides and platitudes of the last 100 years.

JR: How does your faith inform your consumption of horror culture?

old goryTB: It enhances my appreciation for horror culture, since so much of horror is preoccupied with the same existential questions at the heart of Christianity. The “problem of evil,” for example, is a major preoccupation both for Christian theologians since basically the first century, and for most horror writers/creators. The ideas of life after death, of powers beyond human comprehension, of whether human life can be said to have any purpose, are integral both to Christianity and to horror culture. Above all, Christianity and horror are united in insisting on the centrality of death to human existence—our deaths are guaranteed, so what does that mean? What is death? What is the purpose of life lived under the certainty of a death sentence? Christianity typically has very different answers to these questions than most horror culture, but they’re united in taking them seriously, which is very difficult to find in other sectors of contemporary culture.

JR: How does your faith inform your creation of horror literature?

TB: Mainly, I think my religious faith informs the horror stories I write in the sense that I try to take the themes seriously, even if the stories themselves have a pronounced humorous edge to them. There’s a great line in the surrealist fantasia “20th Century Dreams” by Nik Cohn and Guy Peellaert in which someone asks Andy Warhol (in real life, a devout Catholic until the day he died) if he’s ever read the Bible and he replies, “It’s such a freaky book. Everyone dies in it.” I take that as my brief for both religious faith and horror literature—Everyone dies, so what does that mean?

JR: Do you see a conflict between your faith and horror culture or your own work?

TB: Not really. The conflict that most people see between Christianity and horror is usually rooted in a simplistic understanding of either, or both. Dante’s Inferno is simultaneously a work of profound religious devotion and a catalog of grotesque horrors. The contradiction only exists for people with a shallow, unreflective Christianity or a simplistic notion that horror is primarily concerned with freaking out the squares. There are plenty of both kinds of people, which is why there’s a strong notion that horror is incompatible with Christianity, but I see the reality as the opposite: horror is much more germane to Christianity than the limp materialism of most contemporary “literary” fiction, say.

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.?

TB: Calling me a marginal member of the weird lit community is like saying Ross Perot didn’t win a lot of electoral votes—it’s a significant understatement. So for me, there hasn’t been much of an effect because most people in the community have no idea who I am. Certainly I’ve known a few people for years who are prominent in weird/horror/whatever literature whose views on life are sharply at odds with mine, and we get along fine. In fact, they’ve been generous supporters of my work, for which I’m grateful. Maybe as I meet more people and so forth I’ll encounter a posse of militant anti-theists, but I can’t imagine the environment in weird lit will be more challenging than the worlds of journalism and academia that have been my livelihood.

JR: Do you view the horror/weird lit communities as hostile or welcoming to diverse perspectives on faith, including more traditional viewpoints?

TB: I don’t, really. I don’t think people make a huge deal about it, but there’s an underlying hostility toward religious believers—Christians, really, since that’s generally who we’re talking about—among a lot of people in this niche. Much of it is based in politics rather than theology—I don’t know many people who are really mad about the doctrine of the Trinity or the Immaculate Conception or something, but I know a lot of people who disagree with the Catholic Church on lots of issues that are seen through a political lens.

Certainly, the blame for that mostly lies with the big Christian denominations, that have enthusiastically let themselves be wedded to the agendas of the two political parties, which has mostly resulted in a backlash against Christianity while leaving most of what those churches want from government out of reach. But seeing only through the prism of politics has led to a haughty disdain from nonbelievers that often engages with a caricature of Christianity instead of the thing itself, which is generally what I see from people in the horror/weird lit community who take the time to criticize Christians. I don’t recognize Christianity in most of those critiques, so I don’t take it personally.

JR: Do you see your faith as being a part of your work in any way, including a missional sense?

TB: I think of everything I create as being in some way an offering to God. It’s not great stuff. I’m certainly not Michelangelo or Mozart or Graham Greene, but it’s what I have, and so that’s how I think of it. But that doesn’t mean I think of the stories as Christian allegories or something like that—the stories I write aren’t intended to have any kind of message or underlying agenda, they’re just things I produce to pass the idle time before leaping into the grave. At the same time I’m aware that Pope Benedict XVI once said the only two genuinely effective forms of evangelism are the quality of Christian art and the good examples of believers. I’m not much of an artist, so I try (and generally fall short of) the latter: if I’m the guy non-Christians and anti-Christians know and like as a decent dude and a not-terrible member of the weird/horror world, then I’m happy with that. I’m not trying to convert anyone, but if I can hover in the back of someone’s mind as a counter-example every time they think of the Westboro Baptist Church or something, that’s a check mark in the win column as far as I’m concerned.

JR: How do others in your faith group view horror culture?

TB: It’s hard to generalize about Catholics. The church has people who think The Exorcist is a great recruiting tool, and people who think having a Parker Brothers Ouija Board in the house is more or less the same thing as sacrificing a virgin to Satan. The Catholic Church has a frank and unstinting approach to the physical reality of death that can often seem downright creepy, far more Goth than the gothiest Goth could ever be: the faith that produced the crypt beneath the Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini, which freaked out even the Marquis de Sade, is never going to be a true stranger to horror.

At the same time, that kind of Catholicism is pretty rare in the United States, where everyone is sort of a Protestant, regardless of their theological views. So there’s often a censorious disapproval of horror culture in any form that you encounter in the U.S. church. Nobody in my parish knows that I write and publish horror stories, and while most of them wouldn’t care, I’m sure a few would disapprove.

I will add that in one of the parishes I belonged to in North Carolina, which was strongly Protestant-influenced both because of the surrounding culture and because of a high number of converts in the congregation, people were really suspicious of the fact that I was a reporter for the Associated Press. The mainstream media is a much bigger bogeyman in a conservative Catholic parish than the actual bogeyman, is my guess.

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?

TB: In general, I think the resistance in a lot of Christian communities is a misunderstanding of horror as basically nothing more than lowest common denominator gore films, because that’s how most people outside the community experience it (or, I guess, the Twilight franchise, which presents a different set of problems for traditional Christian believers). Part of the explanation would have to start with expanding your interlocutor’s grasp of what horror is, how it works in literature and film and other media, and how it’s more than just cheap shocks and dismembered teens. I don’t think traditional Christians would have any objections to, say, M.R. James, and might even have their own ideas about death and morality engaged with by reading his ghost stories.

The thing to avoid, at least from my perspective, is resort to the “Christian horror” subgenre of Frank Peretti et al, because, while they may be fine, they’re not “real” horror in the sense that they’re written primarily to frighten or to use macabre and supernatural themes to explore existential questions.

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?

TB: I’ve mostly avoided direct engagement with faith, apart from one of the stories in Orford Parish Murder Houses, mostly because I worry that would come across as didactic, or dull, or inauthentic. I’ll be honest: I’ve read very few horror stories that engage with Christianity that come across as profound or insightful. Most of the time it’s some kind of nutty backwoods preacher, or hypocrite evil priest, or strict fundamentalists who get their comeuppance, with theology that’s usually a sad hash and no plausible reason for any character to define their lives by it.

If you read Zora Neale Hurston’s The Sanctified Church or Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain or Randall Sullivan’s The Miracle Detective, you get a sense of what it means to belong to a thriving community with one foot in the world of the divine and one foot in the mundane. Those are non-fiction books written by nonbelievers, or at least by authors who didn’t share the specific beliefs of the people they wrote about, but they give a much better sense of WHY people are religious believers than the vast majority of weird/horror treatments of the subject that I’ve read.

In a lot of those stories, there’s no sense of tragedy, that anything worth losing has been lost. The atheism of Nietzsche or Camus has always been more of a challenge to me as a Christian because they wanted to be able to embrace Christianity, but couldn’t. Camus didn’t believe in God because he loved God, and found no evidence in the brutality of the 20th century for the God he loved. That is a powerful basis for a philosophy, but also for horror fiction. “Imagination is much stronger when pressed by the terrors of hell,” as Lucio Fulci said. If you’ve always seen hell as a ridiculous tale told to frighten gullible hicks, your fiction is not likely to be particularly deep in this regard.

So, that’s why I’ve avoided direct engagement with faith: I’m afraid my own faith is too shallow, and that I won’t do it justice. But it’s impossible to keep out entirely; the great Eugene O’Neill, in his debauched Greenwich Village days, would, after some all-night drunken revelry, unsettle his fellow bohemians and free-thinkers by reciting in his doomy baritone Francis Thompson’s poem “The Hound of Heaven” – “All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”

O’Neill—a good tormented Irish Catholic from old Connecticut—was making the point that the things you love have a way of catching up with you, and I believe he was right. I hope it shows in the meager things I make.

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