About fifteen years ago, when our kids were teenagers, we moved to the country. I’ve known places more remote, but with two teens in need of social interaction, it seemed intolerable. Looking back I recognize we were in a transitional stage on many fronts, thrown in high relief by the move. It wasn’t all that bad, really. We survived, stronger in some ways and weaker in others (sorry to be so vague but it would take too long to explain).
Anyway: in the cramped stacks of one of the small-town libraries we frequented, I happened upon what will probably be the last installment of my reading life series. In the course of examining how certain books at certain times have shaped my education as a writer, I’ve talked about character, pathos, setting, transcendence, detail and texture, life. The last element, strange as it may seem, is terror.
I’m not talking about blood and gore, or not necessarily. Horror fiction is awash in gore, with a supernatural tingle added. In horror fiction, the victim is innocent: think Rosemary’s Baby, or The Exorcist. But in “terror fiction” (I may be defining a new genre), the protagonist willingly enters into the situation. Though blood is often involved it’s not the essence. The essence is a presence of something infinitely bigger, something that could annihilate personality, swallow up self. It fell upon Abraham in Genesis 15:12, a “great and dreadful darkness.” Terror is not the exclusive property of evil; it could also belong to a being infinitely good. What characterizes terror is the sense of otherness, of something completely outside one’s own terrestrial experience, and it may be desired as fervently as it is abhorred. In fact, at the heart of all true religion is the longing for terror as defined here: a longing for loss of self.
Jesus hallowed the desire: “However finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. As always, he baptized a primeval urge. What he meant was not ecstatic dancing by firelight, but continual surrender by day, turning over to God the work of our hands as He conforms us–very slowly!–to the image of Christ. This is boring. Not only that, it’s hard. The many manifestations of New Age spirituality seem to offer a shortcut to fulfillment. But some may fling themselves headlong into the thrill without considering the very real costs. Two works of fiction opened my eyes not only to the appeal of terror, but also its cost.
The late Mary Renault is best known for her re-creation of the Hellenistic period of Alexander, but for The King Must Die she goes back much farther, to the barely-historic period between the decline of Minoan civilization and the earliest stirrings of Greek culture. Her hero is Theseus, whose exploits in the labrynth, defeating the Minotaur and escaping with Princess Ariadne, are imagined as historical incidents that passed into legend. Theseus is legendary stuff: magnetic, resourceful, promiscuous, and fearless, but above all pious.
His time is a turning point between the earthbound matriarchal deity of Crete and the sky-dwelling gods of the mainland. The crucial difference between them is this: the Earth Mother receives sacrifice, while the Father offers sacrifice. “The King must die” is the foundational rule for both; over and over in pagan theology, gods are said to die for the continuing life of their people. Understanding himself as a shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep is the first step of Theseus’s destiny. But he refuses to die on the Mother’s terms. Her day of passive sacrifice is on the wane; the age of Zeus is rising, and at some distant future all the gods may well offer themselves: “all their power and glory will rise like smoke to a higher heaven, and pass into a great god. That would be death into life, if such a thing could be.”
To Christians, such a thing could be and has been. The near-Christian impulses of some ancient myths, that which C. S. Lewis called “Good dreams,” have come to a blinding fulfillment. No more dreams, good or otherwise: God Himself has come and dwelt among us. The transcendent has invaded the commonplace, and nothing can be the same again. From now on, everything is real.
To a postmodern consciousness, “real” (in the sense of commonplace) is often perceived as “dead.” Witchcraft, Native American spirituality, shamanism, and drudism are attempts to recreate a world from which the gods have fled. The Secret History, by Donna Tartt, tells how five gifted students at an ivy-league college in New England attempt to throw themselves back into ancient sensibility. All five are known eccentrics, besotted with Homer, led astray by a brilliant teacher who won’t acknowledge the harmful effects of his teaching. The five soon discover that shortcutting devices like drugs and alcohol won’t deliver what they seek. The real thing eludes them until the missing element clicks into place: in order to invoke the gods, one must first believe in them. Those who are able to cast themselves loose from the moorings of their American middle-class upbringing receive their reward: one night of total self-abandonment. Then they come to, just before dawn, with blood on their hands and a mangled corpse at their feet.
Their leader explains, to the one member of the group who wasn’t there: “I wonder if you understand what sort of state we were in. Scarcely an hour before, we’d all been really, truly, out of our minds. And it may be a superhuman effort to lose oneself so completely, but that’s nothing compared to the effort of getting oneself back again.” The night of Dionysian revelry becomes a year of Faustian tragedy, which works out an inevitable fate for all of them.
The Secret History, published in the early 90’s, was the literary sensation of the season. I wasn’t aware of its reputation when I started reading, but, in spite of some sagging about the middle, I found it absolutely gripping. It opened doors I could not enter–even if I wanted to–but could look through with profit. It conveyed the sadness, the frustration of modern life without a center, where many feel their emptiness but don’t know how to fill it.
The allure of the gods may be lost on us today. For ancient or primitive cultures, they gilded a harsh world with counterfeit glory–they rode the sky and hunted the moon and seeded the earth. But their beauty was always tenuous, and now is utterly gone. What remains is an illusion, “the madness without the oracle,” as Theseus perceived it in The King Must Die. Even in his day, the end was always bloody, for the gods could only speak from year to year, and every planting demanded another sacrificial death.
That taste for the glory is alive and well, though. Some seek it in extreme sports, drama, fantasy gaming, spirituality, self-help–very few in ecstatic rites, or not so far. But paganism is rumored to be on the rise, and there’s a danger in it that moderns can’t appreciate. That door has closed. “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31). Primitive worship belongs to a primitive sensibility; we’re beyond that now, even if we refuse to recognize it. Those who invoke gods today will get only demons–and ultimately, terror.