Faithful Frighteners is a series of interviews with persons of faith in the horror and weird fiction scenes.
Daniel Mills (http://www.daniel-mills.net) is the author of Revenants (Chomu Press, 2011), The Lord Came at Twilight (Dark Renaissance Books, 2014), The Account of David Stonehouse, Exile (Dim Shores, 2016), and the forthcoming Moriah (ChiZine Publications, 2017).
JR: How, when, and why did you get into horror culture (film, literature, video games, etc)?
DM: It’s difficult to pinpoint a “when” or a “how” since as far as I can remember I have always had an interest in horror. I can recall being four years old and watching Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People then repeatedly rewinding/re-watching the climactic scenes with the banshee and phantom coach. I was also deeply affected by Schwartz and Gammel’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark anthology series and remember reading myself into a frenzy of terror night after night long after I was old enough to know better.
But I wonder if it goes back even further. I was born with a heart defect, necessitating a series of intensive surgeries when I was a newborn. Obviously, I have no conscious memory of any of this, but a friend suggested to me recently that my lifelong leanings toward the morbid might perhaps have their origins in these surgeries, the unremembered imprint of these traumas on my body. A bit fanciful, maybe, but I do wonder sometimes if he isn’t right.
JR: What is your faith? How did you come to it (conversion, generational)?
DM: I grew up Catholic and attended a parochial school run by the Sisters of Mercy. Like many children, I didn’t question my faith until adolescence came along and I was suddenly forced to reconcile a belief in a loving God with the horrors of the world—9/11, the Iraq War, etc—as well as my own peculiarly teenage sense of operatic despair. I was probably seventeen or eighteen when I decided a genuine faith could not be reconciled with the world and yet I never ceased from trying to convince myself, somehow, that the two might be made to co-exist.
It speaks to the nature of faith, I think, that it was only after I surrendered the attempt and gave up this struggle to understand that I felt I could believe again. Years later my sensibilities remain broadly Catholic though I now attend a Presbyterian church which likewise features a strongly sacramental approach to worship.
DM: I almost hesitate to answer this question for the simple reason that the principles of my faith are fairly mainstream and probably quite familiar, but, well, here we go:
That God brought forth the Cosmos out of love; that He loved man despite his fall and in all his brokenness; that to live in a fallen world is to suffer and that we share this suffering with all Creation; that God became Man for our sake and bore for Himself the agony of existence; that He died innocent of the crimes of which He was accused; that He was resurrected; that we too can be remade by faith in Him though logic precludes this possibility; that by grace alone we may come to believe God made us, that He died for us, that we are loved.
JR: How does your faith inform your consumption of horror culture?
DM: Faith isn’t the reason I’m drawn to horror, though it does of course inform my interests inside the field. Which is to say: it’s no accident that RH Benson is my favorite horror author.
I suspect it is similarly unsurprising that I would be drawn to fiction where beauty and terror mingle in a manner which recalls (well, to my mind, anyway) the sacramental experience of the divine. I often think of those lines from Rilke’s Duino Elegies: “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure, and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.”
The best horror fiction does just that. It dazzles us. It unnerves us. We reach the end of a story like “The White People” or “Amour Dure” and have no recourse but to awe—and in that awe, there is an incipient faith, an awareness (however dimly felt) of an inhuman power which disdains, serenely, to destroy us.
An author like Lovecraft or Ligotti might chalk this up to mankind’s ultimate insignificance and make a logical and compelling case to this end. By contrast faith insists with utter irrationality that we are saved for no other reason than that we are beloved.
JR: How does your faith inform your creation of horror literature?
DM: My answer to this question is likely implied by my response to the last, but I will just mention again the importance of terror, beauty, and awe. In my own work I strive to create that moment of unendurable horror and unimaginable beauty, since it is in the crucible of this instant that we can either fall into despair or leap toward faith. Every rational impulse beats toward despair, and yet there is another force inside of us, a grace which allows us to leap. Really, it’s this moment in which I am interested. Horror merely provides me with the means of getting there.
JR: Do you see a conflict between your faith and horror culture or your own work?
DM: Not at all, no. As I see it, true faith must acknowledge the existence of suffering (mental/physical brokenness), despair (philosophical/spiritual brokenness) and horror (the wound of Creation itself) and somehow reconcile these realities with the doctrine of a divine creation and loving God. The horror genre has set itself a similar task, albeit in different terms, and I would argue that every horror story, if only by implication, asks the same question:
“What is the meaning of our pain?”
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.?
DM: I believe I’ve hinted at this already, but I really do see atheism/antinatalism and faith as disparate responses to the same problem of a broken and unendurable reality. Lovecraft and Ligotti—and the other atheists, antinatalists, etc—have reason on their side whereas I have only unreason (that’s very Kierkegaardian of me, isn’t it?), and anyway, you can’t make an argument based on unreason. What you can do, I think, is attempt to impart something of beauty to the horrors of existence in the hopes of bringing your characters (and the reader too) to a place where one can either embrace the absurdities of faith or retreat into the logic and security of despair.
JR: Do you view the horror/weird lit communities as hostile or welcoming to diverse perspectives on faith, including more traditional viewpoints?
DM: I don’t see it as hostile, no. I have nothing but love for the genre and its practitioners and have never been treated with anything but kindness and respect by Christians, atheists, cosmicists, and antinatalists alike.
Of course there is a lot of anger—much of it justified—toward Christians, especially here in the US where political involvement by Christians has tended toward thinly-veiled forms of bigotry, so you do see intemperate comments from time to time—from the religious and non-religious alike—but for the most part, I count myself very lucky to be part of this community.
Because we are all wrestling with the same essential problems, regardless of our beliefs. We are all in pain. We are all going to die, as will our friends, spouses, children, grandchildren. We all must reconcile ourselves to eternity or its absence, each in our own way. The best thing we can do for each other, then, is to proceed with kindness and humility.
JR: Do you see your faith as being a part of your work in any way, including a missional sense?
DM: “Missional,” yes, but not “missionary.” Plainly, art can be a source of great solace, a means of finding human connection in times of loneliness or isolation. You hear people say things like that “that record saved my life,” and if it’s an exaggeration, it’s only a very slight one, and besides, I am one of those people (in my case you might hear me say it about Sparklehorse’s Good Morning Spider or Jason Molina’s Pyramid Electric Co).
So I suppose I do see writing as mission-work of a kind, though it is not “missionary work.” I’m not interested in proselytizing or “winning converts” (the phrase alone leaves me nauseated), and what’s more, I’m under no illusions about my own talents or abilities. I am no Mark Linkous or Jason Molina and so I can only hope that my work for all its inadequacies might give some small measure of comfort to a reader, even if this is only the recognition of a shared despair or a half-acknowledged hope.
JR: How do others in your faith group view horror culture?
DM: Hmm. The church I attend is fairly liberal and thus blissfully free of some of the rhetoric you might encounter in mainstream Evangelical or Pentecostal churches. In such churches you often find a literal belief in demons, black magic, etc, as well as a stubborn unwillingness to acknowledge the horror of existence or the work of fear and trembling. Doubt is not addressed but silenced, preferably by belting out CCM songs at the top of one’s lungs of a Sunday. Of course, even in liberal churches, there are some who will look askance at anything “horror,” but in my experience, most recognize there is value in “gazing into the abyss,” as it were, for the simple reason that the abyss exists inside of all of us.
JR: How do they react to your own work, or your profession as a horror writer?
DM: Again this might just be a function of the particular church I attend but people are almost always intrigued to learn of my connection to the horror world (I gather it seems an unintuitive pairing) and generally respond quite positively to my work—though I will admit here that I’m not always eager to share some of my more challenging or enigmatic stories for fear that my intentions might be misconstrued.
But that kind of gets us to the next question.
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?
DM: Yes! I have said elsewhere that weird/horror fiction constitutes a literature of despair and here I would suggest again that despair and faith represent twin responses to the same existential problem. How do we go on? How are we to live when life is all one horror?
Every person of faith, liberal or conservative, has experienced “a Moriah moment” (to invoke Kierkegaard again) where a decision was reached, a choice made, a movement performed. This is the moment of crisis where an individual falls or leaps and this moment is itself the inevitable result of life in a broken world.
A great horror story, I would argue, has the power to return us to that moment in Moriah when reality can no longer be endured and the logic of despair becomes inescapable: we are confronted with the absolute impossibility of belief at the same time that we are reminded of its absolute necessity.
Horror reminds us “the black abyss” is inside all of us: liberal and conservative, religious and non-religious alike. It never leaves us but is always there, always hungry, and it is for us to leap or perish.
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?
DM: I dare say faith informs the whole of my body of work in various ways though recent and forthcoming works like The Account of David Stonehouse, Exile (Dim Shores, 2016) [Available now. – ed.] or Moriah (ChiZine Publications, 2017) are certainly more direct in their approach than Revenants, say, or the stories in The Lord Came at Twilight.
In both Moriah and Stonehouse we have narrators who are maneuvered by circumstance into untenable positions as Abraham was and likewise forced to act. I won’t say anything more except to note that the two works are in some respects quite similar and in others very different and I can’t wait to see what readers make of them.