Faithful Frighteners is a series of interviews with persons of faith in the horror and weird fiction scenes.
Leeman Kessler is a Nigerian-born American actor who, since 2010, has been depicting H.P. Lovecraft on stage and online as part of his popular web-series, Ask Lovecraft. He is a co-host on the horror podcast Miskatonic Musings as well as the Christian/Pop-Culture podcast Geekually Yoked. He is a missionary kid married to an Episcopal priest and spends most of his day chasing after his daughter Amanda. His short fiction has appeared in Resonator, Cthulhu Lies Dreaming, and Weirdbook #32.
JR: How, when, and why did you get into horror culture (film, literature, video games, etc)?
LK: I was a Blockbuster junkie in high school and even wound up working there over many summer and winter breaks during undergrad. The horror section was one I returned to again and again. I loved the cheese and the ridiculousness and the sense that those movies were getting away with something. I was more a fan of the comic supernatural series like Leprechaun or Child’s Play or Night of the Demons than slashers or suspense horror.
With books, I actually didn’t read that much horror and still don’t apart from what I read to review for my web-series and podcast. I was more a fan of the whimsical humour of Terry Pratchett and Evelyn Waugh and didn’t read Lovecraft until my twenties and still haven’t read any King. I did read some of the Xanth books which in retrospect are terrifying beyond all get-out but I don’t think that was their intention.
As to horror games, I played some Call of Cthulhu and Delta Green but not a ton. I loved the horror aspects of Ravenloft and Iron Kingdoms and as a GM, horror would very often intrude in games I ran. There is definitely a part of my brain that is wired for a certain level of creepiness and while I write a little, gaming was one of my major creative outlets for a long time.
JR: What is your faith? How did you come to it (conversion, generational)?
LK: I often answer that I’m a nondescript protestant Christian. My parents were Baptist and Methodist and worked for the Southern Baptist Mission Board in Nigeria where I was born so I definitely grew up steeped in a very evangelical environment even if my parents themselves were not quite so intense. There is a lot of Methodism that I like but I’ve never spent a lot of time in Methodist churches or communities. For the last ten years, I’ve been attending Anglican and Episcopal churches as my wife found her spiritual home there after growing up in a similar situation as the daughter of a Southern Baptist Navy chaplain. She is actually an Episcopal priest now after having been an Anglican priest in Canada for a number of years. While I have never been confirmed as an Anglican or Episcopalian and there are still some aspects I don’t completely identify with, it’s been where I pray and where I have found a family of believers and I find it very comforting and challenging. (You can read more about this here. – Ed.)
JR: What are its fundamental doctrines or principles?
LK: Because I’m in this sort of hazy area, I don’t really know how to lay out fundamental doctrines of any of the churches I’ve been part of but I’ll try to kluge something together. Christianity’s prime doctrine as I understand it is of the ultimate Grace of God through the person of Jesus Christ. I can recite you the Nicene Creed which I cleave to but I think that gets to the core of it or as Karl Barth said when asked what was his central underpinning theology, “Jesus loves me, this I know.” Christianity recognizes a broken hurt in the world and sees Jesus as God entering the world to share in that brokenness and ultimately overcome it. This of course raises a lot of questions about why there is suffering and why God allows brokenness in the first place but luckily I am not a theologian so it’s not my particular job to square those circles. I am content living with a certain level of mystery and paradox, holding fast to that sense that the ultimate force in the universe is fundamentally good.
JR: Did your experience in a missionary family help set the stage for your appreciation of Lovecraft and weird and horror fiction?
LK: Being raised outside of the bounds of America as a kid definitely helped shape everything about me. I was ten when we left Nigeria for good and prior to that, I had lived two years in Baltimore and three sets of three years in Africa. Going back and forth during a time when you’re trying to figure out just who you are before returning to the States right as adolescence was about to kick into gear for sure primed me to be a little off and to seek out strangeness. It also helped that my parents and my two older brothers were huge readers so there was so much in the house to stimulate my tiny brain. Whether it was my parents’ VHS copy of Name of the Rose which I watched way too young as a kid or my brothers’ gaming books which I tried to reverse engineer to figure out just how they worked, I was primed to be a strange, geeky kid with somewhat out-there interests.
As for how it set the stage for Lovecraft, I can’t really say. There are some parallels with being left a lot to my own devices to read and explore things but I didn’t have quite the traumatic childhood he did. We both shared a passion for Greek and Roman mythology and I definitely had to deal with my own bizarre racial prejudices being a white kid in Africa but I think that’s really where parallels end. One thing for sure that messed me up and set the stage for fascination with horror was finding another of my parents’ VHS tapes, Vincent Price’s The Oblong Box. Man alive did seeing that when I was eight do some strange things to my brain.
JR: How does your faith and experience inform your engagement with horror culture?
LK: It isn’t something that comes up unless someone directly asks or finds out I have a Christian podcast so it hasn’t had too much overt interaction. There is a lot of anger at religion and at Christianity, much of which I understand because I’ve felt it at various points in my life and I find jumping in to start saying, “Well actually…” is seldom a useful tactic so I tend to just allow folks to vent but from time to time, I will engage or offer my perspective as a believer if I feel it can add to the conversation. I certainly feel welcome within the horror world although folks will often quirk a brow upon finding out I’m Christian, especially since I portray a very emphatic atheist and someone whose atheism is often held up as one of his stronger virtues among his more infamous vices.
JR: How does your faith inform your creative pursuits in horror as a writer, critic, and impersonator of Lovecraft?
LK: I ultimately want to create something that does no harm, perhaps in a subconscious channeling of my surgeon father. I don’t feel a particular nihilistic despair or sense of hopelessness so my work doesn’t often channel those notions. I have played with those themes in trying to create a semi-accurate depiction of Lovecraft but even he, for all his doom and gloom, genuinely liked people and meant them no ill and so I try to hold fast to that. One area where I feel a responsibility is being very honest and open about Lovecraft and his flaws and trying not to offer excuses or to redeem him through my show. I think it’s important that we wrestle with his complexity. He wasn’t a saint or a demon but a brilliant and thoughtful man who held to some odious truths which still impact our world and society today and as someone who dresses up as and profits from him, I feel especially beholden to be willing to have some very uncomfortable conversations about his racial views and other unseemly aspects.
JR: Lovecraft’s atheism and cosmicism are very closely linked. How do you reinterpret that through your own perspective?
LK: My portrayal of Lovecraft tries to keep very close to that and to other aspects of his life and philosophy as I’ve gleamed mostly from reading his letters. I am not out to make the Christian Lovecraft or to try and fool people by having Lovecraft secretly disseminate the Gospel in my episodes. I think it’s important to present him in an honest light and while I am obviously playing up aspects or downplaying them for comic purposes, ultimately I try to be as truthful as I can and to have him operate from his historical perspective.
JR: Do you see a conflict between your faith and horror culture or your own work?
LK: I don’t think so although obviously there is an element of horror, and especially cosmic horror, which rests on the notion that we are not loved or held in esteem by any force in the universe, certainly not an almighty deity who looks out for us. However, I do think that there is a place for examining the vastness and terror of the universe within a Christian mindset.
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.?
LK: I have been very welcome within the world of weird fiction and horror, even when my faith is known. Truth be told, I’ve had more arguments dealing with issues of representation and social justice than theological fights which I think shows where more of the insecurities and fault lines are felt within the community. It also doesn’t help that I’m not drawn into discussions of anti-natalism or the like so I don’t really have a dog in those fights. When my faith does come up, it tends to be discussed in a very polite and thoughtful manner. I was interviewed for an upcoming issue of Thinking Horror and we talked about faith at length and in a really enjoyable manner, just like here.
JR: Do you view the horror/weird lit communities as hostile or welcoming to diverse perspectives on faith, including more traditional viewpoints?
LK: The most overt hostility I’ve seen has been against Muslims which I think that speaks more of a general problem of xenophobia than one unique to the horror world. There are traditional boogeymen like the Catholic Church and hard core evangelicals but I think they tend to be brought up more as straw men than they are actually engaged with directly. I can imagine being a part of those faiths can be challenging, especially in having to decide how and if to out oneself as part of them. No-one really knows what to think about Episcopalians or Methodists beyond “Mostly Harmless” so aside from a wide-sweeping anti-Christian mindset which mostly comes about in fairly obnoxious but forgettable memes, I really don’t feel anything but welcome from others.
JR: Do you see your faith as being a part of your work in any way, including in a missional or evangelical sense?
LK: Only in so far as creating good art is an act of honouring God’s own creation. I would be very confused and probably concerned if someone recited the Sinner’s Prayer after watching an episode of Ask Lovecraft but if I can create laughter or make someone think in a new way about something or add to the wonder of the world, then I believe that is a good and righteous thing and I try to lean into that. My parents were educators and doctors and that was the focus of their mission work as opposed to the machete and bible combo that I think a lot of folks envision when they hear “missionary.” One of my father’s many go-to quotes is, “Preach the gospel always. Use words only when necessary,” and that really struck me and I’ve tried to live up to that ideal with mixed results.
JR: How do others in your faith group view horror culture?
LK: I really didn’t grow up with any objections to horror, at least not in any way that I noticed. The closest I can remember was when I was playing Magic with a cousin and his dad got mad and made us stop when he saw a pentagram on what I think was the Unholy Strength card. Other than that, I didn’t experience any of the anti-Halloween or anti-Harry Potter mania that swept through the evangelical world. On the Episcopal side, I experienced absolutely none of it. My daughter’s god-father was actually the man who finally got me to read H.P. Lovecraft and one of our best friends from the Anglican world writes horror novels set in Edwardian Toronto.
So far no-one has tried to exorcise me yet!
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?
LK: I don’t know if I would. Horror is such a subjective thing and you either dig it or you don’t and I’m much more likely to try to get someone to read Jonathan Strange & Mister Norrell than to get them reading Lovecraft or watching Critters. If it did somehow come up or if someone challenged my salvation by engaging in the Devil’s Genre then I suppose I would point out how much horror is present in the Bible. I mean, it’s kind of bizarre that we consider Noah’s Ark to be the default kid’s story when it’s about mass death followed up with weird drunk nudity. Same goes with the story of David and Goliath which is one tiny portion of a larger tale that also includes necromancy, bags of foreskins, and golden hemorrhoids. There is a lot of pain and darkness in the world and horror is a way to explore it and to wrestle with it in a somewhat safe and controlled manner and I think there is a lot to be gained from engaging with it.
My most explicitly Christian project is the podcast I do with my wife, Geekually Yoked where we look at the intersection of faith and pop culture. We’ve tackled how books and movies and TV shows explore themes of death and redemption but we also will just go on large jags about Farscape and the Vorkosigan Saga so it’s a mixed bag. I’ve also been involved with multiple stage adaptations of Loring Mandel’s Conspiracy, an HBO movie about the Wannsee Conference and the formalizing of the Nazi’s Final Solution. I worked with my wife’s church to stage the show multiple times to very positive responses. Some were curious why it was being put on in a church – two times in the sanctuary – but I felt that gave a powerful witness to just where we find evil and how we are confronted with it.
Other than that, as I said above, the main way I try to mold my faith and my art is just to make good art. Growing up in the evangelical world, I quickly saw how much explicitly Christian art was mediocre but managed to sell themselves on being the “Christian” version of whatever secular phenomenon was going on. In many ways it’s a captive market and it creates this impression in the rest of the world that Christian artists are by default mediocre so I hope that I can do a small part to battle against that idea.
Going forward, I’m getting more involved with recording audiobooks which is very new and fun and I’m learning a lot on the fly. I’ve also started getting invited to various horror conventions to put on the live show of Ask Lovecraft as well as participate in panels and interviews and those are really enjoyable and allow me to interact with a wider range of horror fans and artists. My hope is to carry on making the world a little weirder and little more wonderful and I’m excited to see just what happens next.