G.K. Chesterton is not, perhaps, the first name that comes to mind at Halloween, but he has written a marvelously evocative article on the use of scary stories in this season, titled “The Nightmare.” It’s also marvelously short — you can read it here. Here, Chesterton allows that scary stories have their place in the Christian imagination, as long as we keep them properly ordered in the hierarchy of human goods.
First penned in 1909, “The Nightmare” seems to have been prompted by his reading of Oscar Wilde’s “The Sphinx.” That poem is not primarily meant to evoke horror, but Chesterton already found Wilde terrifying (See “The Diabolist,” published in the same year). Like Wilde, H.P. Lovecraft might also terrify Chesterton, not because of his cosmic horror, or his knockoff Nietzschean philosophy, but for the same reason — that Lovecraft, like Wilde, seems to be perfectly complacent in a world devoid of good and evil.
On that red dimming October evening as “The Nightmare” unfurled, Chesterton could just as easily have been reading one of Lovecraft’s poems or stories. Like Wilde, the American writer had a youthful fascination with Egypt, and a lifelong fascination with antiquity: The Sphinx has a starring role in “Under the Pyramids,” and Lovecraft’s “Fungi from Yuggoth” has many of the same themes, and even the same rhyme scheme, as Wilde’s own work. What might Chesterton’s reply be to Lovecraft’s dark evocations of cosmic decay?
Playing with Dolls
Lovecraft’s tales bring forward unsettling apparitions of Gothic horror. Before settling on his own idiosyncratic blend of science fiction, nihilism, and horror, Lovecraft rooted his creepy concoctions in the sleepy lanes of New England or the misty vales of Appalachia. Alongside tentacled abominations, he also penned black-swathed Puritan warlocks and unsavory grave-diggers.
But Lovecraft felt that the discoveries of modern sciences, especially astronomy and physics, gave the lie to the rational universe of his ancestors, so he left traditional Gothic imagery behind and delved into new abysses — where mechanistic materialism rules all, even the brain. Where free will is an illusion; evolutionary impulses, not a divine plan, dragged our shambling protoplasmic forebears from the swamps and threw them into artificial conglomerations of social niceties meant to facilitate rutting and eating; civilization, art, beauty, all are merely the scum-like byproducts rising to the top of a sea of meaningless particulate motion.
In his fiction, Lovecraft deliberately wanted to rip human beings from the center of the cosmos: On the one hand, the universe must follow the ironclad laws of matter and energy. On the other hand, there is no reason to assume the mind of this particular primate called man should be able to comprehend all such laws. Perhaps, out there beyond the pale, animate instantiations of such incomprehensible truths scratch and gibber and sway.
In “The Nightmare,” Chesterton conjures his own nocturnal vision merely to banish it with a laugh. Such a world is all nonsense:
In the Mare’s Nest I shall discover that dim, enormous opalescent egg from which is hatched the Nightmare. For there is nothing so delightful as a nightmare–when you know it is a nightmare. That is the essential. That is the stern condition laid upon all artists touching this luxury of fear. The terror must be fundamentally frivolous. Sanity may play with insanity; but insanity must not be allowed to play with sanity.
“Mare’s Nest” is an old phrase meant to imply nonexistence. Horses don’t have nests, and cyclopean entities don’t wander silently through the night beyond a country churchyard. It’s all in our imagination.
Chesterton does not begrudge artists like Lovecraft their “outrageous deities and violent landscapes,” their “opium pinnacles and perspectives.” He simply imposes a condition of proper ordering upon them. “The old gods must be his dolls, not his idols. His central sanctities, his true possessions, should be Christian and simple … the old plain things of poetry and piety.”
Does Lovecraft know that his Great Old Ones are a great crock? He too plays with old gods and insanity, but perhaps more seriously than he should. Such a world is highly enjoyable as an atmosphere but not as a statement of fact. Indeed, the very fact that we find horror unsettling, that it is abnormal and unnatural, indicates that our experience of the world by and large does not correspond to a haunting vision. The only way to consciously experience insanity is to experience it from the standpoint of sanity.
Multitudes of Eyes
That is why Chesterton next brings up an amusing quote from Robert Louis Stevenson about the living creatures of the book of Revelation: “If that was heaven, what in the name of Davy Jones was hell like?”
Now in sober truth there is a magnificent idea in these monsters of the Apocalypse. It is, I suppose, the idea that beings really more beautiful or more universal than we are might appear to us frightful and even confused. Especially they might seem to have senses at once more multiplex and more staring; an idea very imaginatively seized in the multitude of eyes.
Chesterton understands the genre conventions of apocalyptic literature. These eyes startlingly symbolize their piercing awareness. But he also acknowledges, as Lovecraft does, that our standards of beauty, harmony, or order might not hold in a different frame of reference. A beautiful octopus is a very different sort of creature from a beautiful woman. And a beautiful chemical equation is very different from both. God’s good creation already includes the sucking and squelching invertebrates that feed on rotting flesh at the bottom of the oceanic abyss. Who are we to say that the Lord of All might not summon Great Cthulhu to cavort before him as Leviathan does? In this sense, Chesterton may say an amen to Lovecraft’s denouncement of naïve anthropomorphism.
Chesterton denies a naïve anthropomorphism only to introduce a second naïveté. These living creatures can take whatever shape of mysterium tremendum they like, but it is man who is made according to the image of God, that fullness of divinity who is the Man Jesus Christ. God assumed human nature, and sits in that human nature on the throne at the center of infinity. This Man is the measure of all things.
Lovecraft’s existential misery is a matter of record. His life was not, of course, unrelentingly horrid. He had many friends. He enjoyed art, music, and literature. He loved his home. But from the standpoint of his own worldview, these were all baseless pleasures. The things that made Lovecraft’s life worth living were the very things he spent his life trying to kill.
Lovecraft’s denial of this fact is exactly what leads him into the “evil faiths” and “human sacrifice” of racism, xenophobia, antisemitism, and nihilism. What, then, is the place of a monster? What are the rules for a Christian sort of horror, properly oriented before the throne and pursuant spiritual health and sanity?
G.K. Chesterton’s Rules for Righteous Horror
Chesterton offers rules, and a few cautions when it comes to horror.
The first rule, unsurprisingly, is not to make the monstrous the main thing.
Man, the central pillar of the world must be upright and straight; around him all the trees and beasts and elements and devils may crook and curl like smoke if they choose. All really imaginative literature is only the contrast between the weird curves of Nature and the straightness of the soul.
If we are careful to maintain a reverence and respect for the image of God, we can create whatever other potential terrorizers of that image we like. Perhaps, sometimes, the monstrous or evil might even win. But it should always be a temporary triumph, and one that the audience is meant to bemoan. Final victory rests with Christ, not Satan. The existence of goodness as goodness, and evil as evil (that is, something to be denounced), must always be protected.
So let us by all means enjoy the “weird curves” of our imaginary monsters, of Lovecraft’s shoggoths and night-gaunts. But “devils” are not imaginary. When we cast them in our tale, let us make sure to represent them accurately: as dangerous and soul-destroying. That is why The Exorcist is a better film than Paranormal Activity. Evil is real, and so is goodness. And goodness is stronger.
This brings us to the second rule:
Man may behold what ugliness he likes if he is sure that he will not worship it.
We should never glorify wickedness or delight in depravity. The sort of delicious, luxuriant caress of evil that Wilde and the Decadents pursued, the thrill of the forbidden as forbidden, is repugnant. This is why shows like American Horror Story, for example, can be spiritually harmful. It is not merely that the show depicts sinful actions, but that it invites its audience to feel a thrill and fascination for such actions.
There are some so weak that they will worship a thing only because it is ugly. These must be chained to the beautiful. It is not always wrong even to go, like Dante, to the brink of the lowest promontory and look down at hell. It is when you look up at hell that a serious miscalculation has probably been made.
Here I wonder whether Chesterton’s pen has slipped. Does he mean to write “look up at hell,” or perhaps “look up to hell”? The point, regardless, is the same.
Much of our diet of fiction is a matter of conscience. Some people can watch Alien and be spiritually edified. Some might be spiritually harmed. (Most are in the middle and are simply entertained.) Some people can understand Milton’s intention to portray Satan as a sophist and self-deceiver in Paradise Lost. Others come away “looking up at hell” as an admirable example of Promethean self-creation, independence, and noble defiance.
It is possible, as with Lovecraft, that a reader or viewer may be able to take something — some applicability or nourishment — from a piece in ways that the author never intended. We are concerned with the terrors inside the text only insofar as they begin to corrupt the world outside the text. Even if Lovecraft consciously seeks to inculcate us into his cosmicist cult, into the worship of nothingness and the denial of God, we ourselves as Christian readers can laugh at his one-eyed universe and treat it as a “doll.” We are free, like Dante, to listen to the devils of Malebolge, but let us keep our Virgil (who represents Reason) close to hand, and eventually move into more celestial climes. If we stare too long, indulge too deeply, we might end as ghoulishly as the eponymous painter from “Pickman’s Model.”
Riding the Nightmare
From the non-existent mare’s nest Chesterton extracts an egg which hatches into a nightmare. He adopts a well-worn pun between a female horse and a word etymologically unrelated to anything equine. (These beings, akin to the incubi and succubi of antique mythology, sat on the chests of sleepers and cursed them with evil dreams.)
Therefore I see no wrong in riding with the Nightmare to-night … We will rise to that mad infinite where there is neither up nor down, the high topsy-turveydom of the heavens. I will ride on the Nightmare; but she shall not ride on me.
Lovecraft’s own “mad infinite,” the directionless and amoral universe, is here given an orientation. It exists for a brief foray into carnival, but we must move on into Lent and Easter. Chesterton will ride on his fantastical steed, born from something fanciful and non-existent, but he will not allow the mære demon to corrupt his mind. The Nightmare remains under the rein of Christ.