theology in dark fantasy

In writing dark fantasy or Gothic or horror stories (yes, I know there are all sorts of subtle distinctions), something came up that I hadn’t expected. I find I must decide on a theology for my fictional universe.

It’s true, of course, that such issues also come up in non-genre fiction, but it seems to me that in more “mainstream” tales, such matters usually get bundled into the point of view of the protagonist.

Unless such tales explicitly touch on religious or philosophical issues characters are struggling with, the default position in mainstream fiction is a religious apathy that comes across as a lazy agnosticism. I mean lazy because the character, and possibly the author, adopted it without any serious effort to understand the issues involved or what the traditions she rejects actually have to say.

In our increasingly polarized society, I seem to encounter either otherwise well-educated young adults who have never carefully read any of the core religious texts of a major religion– say, the Book of Genesis or one of the Synoptic Gospels or the Bhagavad Gita or the Dhammapada — or fundamentalists who have read only texts of their specific tradition and nothing else whatsoever. No wonder we can’t talk across the cultural divide. Too few of us know the vocabulary of the other camp.

However, if you are writing fiction that includes supernatural elements, this is one area where you can’t afford to be lazy. If your fictional universe permits demons or ghosts or magic, whether you like it or not, you must think carefully about the rules involving gods and spirits. That means theology.

There are many different approaches to handling this in your fiction. The least acceptable is to employ fiction as propaganda for your religious position. J. R. R. Tolkien wrote much better fiction than his friend C. S. Lewis. This was partly because, while you can detect the influence of Tolkien’s devout Roman Catholicism in his stories– the theology and morality of his fictional universe borrow heavily from Catholicism — when writing fiction he stuck to crafting the best tales he could. Lewis never stopped being a Anglican apologist for a second. It made him a third-rate fiction writer.

If you are going to explicitly address these topics in fiction, you need a deft hand. A couple of examples of religious world views that serve the needs of the story very well would be Stephen King’s The Stand and William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist. The saintly Mother Abagail and Father Merrin respectively represent Protestantism and Catholicism at their best and serve their stories well by providing reasonably consistent theologies for fictional worlds where devils and magic are possible. The characters even explicitly discuss their beliefs, but King and Blatty didn’t beat their readers to death with them.

The problem I find myself wresting with in my dark fantasy work is theodicy: what cosmology underlies my fictional world that contains so much suffering and evil?

If you are a writing “realistic” materialist fiction without the supernatural – and therefore without a God or some kind of meaningful non-theistic spirituality such as you find in some of the Asian traditions – such questions never come up.

If you are writing adolescent nihilistic horror, where everything eventually turns to shit and kindness is something to sneer at, you can ignore these problems.

However, if your fiction includes supernatural beings doing terrible things, and your fictional universe is one where ethically meaningful actions are possible, then you must think carefully about the implicit theology of the tale you are spinning.

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2 thoughts on “theology in dark fantasy

  1. Good point! Things can get just a bit out of hand. I just won’t join — or start — any organized religion with such low standards that its officials would accept me as an adherent. Good luck with the submission to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

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