Ray Bradbury (1920-2012), RIP

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Photo of Ray Bradbury.

Photo of Ray Bradbury. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

[Reblogged from my literary blog at http://michaelpotts.livejournal.com%5D
Ray Bradbury died today, and even with his long, productive life this is a great loss to the literary world. He was a bridge builder between genres: horror fiction, science fiction, fantasy, and literary fiction–a writing jack-of-all-trades, and skilled at them all. He began as a writer influenced by H. P. Lovecraft’s writings, and August Derleth helped him begin his writing career. It would be impossible to cover the breadth or depth of his writings, so I will mention some that I found especially meaningful. DANDELION WINE is a masterpiece, a coming of age story as beautifully written as any I have read. The only work to which I would compare it is James Agee‘s A DEATH IN THE FAMILY. How a writer can bring out the sense of nostalgia without falling into the trap of sentimentality is difficult to understand, but somehow Mr. Bradbury pulled it off. By sitting on the edge of sentimentality without falling over, Bradbury created a poignancy so palpable that is is painful and joyous at the same time. DANDELION WINE is a book for all those people who wish to relive vicariously a happy childhood or experience vicariously the happy childhood they lacked. I think of it as Bradbury’s masterpiece.

The story from THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES, “Mars is Heaven,” creates a childhood happiness that is illusion. From a story of an astronaut who finds himself in an idyllic version of his childhood home with his relatives returned, the plot shifts at the end to the crush of understanding that this heaven, at least, is a trap. The Martians have programmed the images into the astronaut’s mind–when he realizes that, the realization that the young man in his bedroom is not his brother is one mixed with the chill of fear and the heart-brokenness of disappointment. What is Bradbury suggesting? Is Heaven an illusion? Is an attempt to re-live what is past a pipe dream? Whatever Bradbury is suggesting, this story will leave the reader pondering for a long time.

THE OCTOBER COUNTRY is classic horror sometimes hidden by the beauty of Bradbury’s language. Its high literary quality can be used as a model today. Those contemporary writers of the “New Horror,” with its combination of literary fiction and horror elements, would be well-served to study Bradbury’s early horror stories.

All of Bradbury’s writing is strongly driven by well-developed characters in recognizable settings, even in his science fiction and fantasy stories. The combination of the familiar and the strange makes for an intriguing reading experience.

Ray Bradbury’s own struggles with world view surely affected his writings and their deep longing for meaning in a universe that often seems to lack meaning. Mr. Bradbury eventually joined the Unitarian Church, quite a switch from his traditional Protestant background. Like Ingmar Bergman or Woody Allen, his writings are fueled in part by his doubts about faith. That internal struggle reflects the struggle of his characters, and is one of the strengths of his writing that will help Ray Bradbury’s work to live long after his earthly passing. REQUIESCAT IN PACE.

On “Guilty Pleasures”

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Estonian heavy metal group Remote Silence perf...

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I enjoy listening to classical music and jazz, especially bebop. I also enjoy listening to heavy metal music, something that I count among my “guilty pleasures.” I cannot explain the attraction, although the groups I like the most (Anthrax, Zao) tend to write more intellectual lyrics than are found in other heavy metal bands. Another guilty pleasure may relate to this interest–I love horror fiction and horror movies. Black Sabbath became successful when they tried to reach horror fans with their music, and other groups followed. From Rob Zombie to black and death metal, horror themes are found in heavy metal music. Now some people would say I should be ashamed of this guilty pleasure, and perhaps they have a point. Richard Weaver, the author of the fine book¬†Ideas Have Consequences, thought jazz to be decadent, and he would have rolled over in his grave if he had lived long enough to have heard heavy metal music.

As for horror fiction, I prefer books of higher literary quality–not only the classic works such as Frankenstein and Dracula, but also works of fine contemporary horror writers such as Ramsey Campbell and, yes, Stephen King. Dean Koontz is not as strong, though his writing has improved over the years. I love his Frankenstein series. Now and then I don’t mind reading a trashy horror novel–or seeing a trashy horror movie. With a red face I admit I like both the movies Reanimator and Bride of Reanimator. H. P. Lovecraft would have fainted if he saw how his work was adapted, but there is a campiness to these movies that eases the shock of their graphic imagery.

Another guilty pleasure is that I collect animal skulls–so far I have several dog, cat, and deer skulls, a cow skull, a horse skull, a goose skull, and perhaps more if my old brain could remember them. I do not know the source of that interest entirely–as a child I was afraid of skulls and skeletons when they appeared in horror movies or shows. I remember watching, in the late 1960s as a child, an episode of the horror soap opera Dark Shadows. Someone was sitting down and glanced up to look at a bookcase. Several skulls floated in the air. I screamed, got in trouble, and eventually was…. punished….. for insisting on continuing to watch the show. While an interest in skulls could be explained by my fear-fascination with death, such a pleasure becomes less guilty due to my fascination with form in nature. So many patterns repeat in nature, not only in different living organisms, but inanimate ones, too. That’s the excuse I give myself to feel better about this interest.

Last but not least is ghost investigations. I have no idea whether or not ghosts exist.  I do believe (and have experienced) things that are difficult to explain via conventional science. But I enjoy being in the dark, feeling like a child in the woods listening to ghost stories. It is not that I do not take this activity seriously, but I find it to be lots of fun despite the work involved.

Everyone probably has at least one guilty pleasure, something he enjoys that seems incongruent which his known character and interests. Someone who likes fine wines may have a cheap white Zinfandel now and then. A person who enjoys fine dining may enjoy the occasional splurge as a cheap, greasy fast food restaurant. I’m not convinced that these guilty pleasures are worth feeling guilty about. They reveal human beings to be interesting and complex creatures who can tie together disparate, even contradictory, interests together in their minds. If quirks and guilty pleasures do not harm a person and make this short life a little more interesting, then more power to them.

Horror Movies

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One of my pleasures (some people might consider it a guilty pleasure) is watching horror movies. But as Noel Carroll notes in his fine book, The Philosophy of Horror, there is a paradox in enjoying horror. How can something frightening and sometimes violent be a source of entertainment? Another paradox is that to actually be afraid we must “suspend disbelief” and, for the time of the film, believe that the horrific entities described in the film exist. Fear in real life is not a pleasant thing. If I were being chased by a deranged serial killer who desires to eat my tongue for dinner, it would be one of the worst moments of my life, and if I survived, I would not wish to remember or relive that experience. Yet watching the same scene on film is exciting. If ghosts existed (I am open minded, but neutral) and a hostile ghost who could cause harm to me existed, it would not be pleasant if I suffered bodily harm or was scared half to death during the night.

If Aristotle had been familiar with horror films, he most likely would have pointed to catharsis, the cleansing of emotions, in this case negative emotions of fear and dread, as the reason that some people enjoy these films. The emotions I feel seem to be real fear–my heart pounds (usually more in anticipation than when the horrid looking entity pops out), I breathe fast, I feel the adrenalin rush. But I realize that the film is fiction and even if it were not fiction, it is only a film. Nothing will jump out of the projector and attack the audience.

I tend to prefer ghost stories most of all–Ghost Story (with Fred Astaire) is my favorite horror movie; The Shining is also an excellent flick, as is the original The Haunting. Notable also are The Others, the recent film, Insidious, and the first Paranormal Activity. The Exorcist, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Rite, and Frailty are examples of top-notch theological horror.

Horror originally was influenced by the latent Christianity remaining in Europe, and Dracula by Bram Stoker basically operates with a Judeo-Christian point of view, and this is reflected in the classic Dracula films. In the older horror films, and in some of the recent ones, there is hope at the end of the film. Lately, with the decreasing influence of Judeo-Christian culture, horror films have become more negative, often ending in despair. I remember a movie from the 1970s in which the audience thinks a couple has gotten away from rampaging people in their van–but the movie ends with their van surrounded. The ending of the recent movie, The Mist, was also one of despair, as a man kills his son and two other people to spare them from being eaten by Lovecraftean-style monsters–yet right after he killed them the army clears the area. Despair is the cry of those without hope, of people without faith who believe, as did Bertrand Russell, that all human hopes and dreams will die in the death of the universe. Since I am in the Christian tradition which is ultimately optimistic, I find those films too much in tension with my values to enjoy. There are still many recent horror films that have a more optimistic ending, though the Judeo-Christian element is omitted or replaced by neo-Paganism or other pantheistic religions.

I suppose I really like horror because it brings into play the transcendent–what goes beyond ordinary experience–whether it be a ghost, a demon, or a serial killer who transcends most human beings in his evil. There is a sense in some horror films of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans of Rudolf Otto. Combine that with being “just plain scary,” that combination creates a powerful horror film. That is difficult to do, which is why so few horror films are good films–but those that are good have given me and millions of other people enjoyment.

I also enjoy the Frankenstein theme, both in the old 1930s movies as well as in the more perverse Reanimator and Bride of Reanimator. I wish more movies would be made with a Lovecraftean element. Some have, but other than the recent silent film, The Call of Cthulhu, none captures for me the cosmic horror from Lovecraft’s writings. I prefer older vampire flicks when the vampire is an evil entity rather than (gag!) vampire romances. Japanese horror, with its references to popular Buddhist legends, is particularly entertaining and frightening, especially Ringu and Juon and their American remakes.

How “Christian Fiction” Can Improve

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Adam (2008 novel)

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Christian fiction” is a problematic term, for it raises the danger of literature becoming preachy rather than being good art. Good fiction does not tell; it shows. Didactic fiction is usually poorly written, as the overrated Uncle Tom’s Cabin reveals. There are writers in the Christian fiction genre who write very well–Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker immediately come to mind. They get their message across without being preachy, they have read widely in contemporary mainstream fiction, and they have worked hard on the craft of writing. When I look through fiction at a Christian bookstore, I turn to the first page, then a few random pages, to check the quality of the writing. Most of the time, it is so bad that I have to put the book down. Some books are preachy. Others have dialogue so unrealistic that it strains credulity. Dialogue tags are misused: “He said excitedly”; “She shouted angrily.” This is an elementary mistake that novice writers often make. Adjectives and adverbs are overused. H. P. Lovecraft had the skill to get away with using a plethora of adjectives; most writers do not. Modifiers should never replace images.

On the other hand, some books are so conservatively edited that they come across as stiff. Good style in a novel is not the same as good style in an academic piece, and not all authors or editors understand this. It is obvious that some Christian writers, and most likely some editors, are unfamiliar with contemporary literary fiction. They should read classic modern authors such as Hemingway as well as more contemporary authors such as Raymond Carver or Tobias Wolff. A good writer knows the basic rules of writing, but also knows when to break the rules. If Christian fiction is ever to rise to a higher literary level, writers should become skilled enough to know when to break the rules and when to abide by them.

The main temptation for the Christian writer remains didacticism–preachiness. It might be a better strategy for traditional Christians involved in writing to write “mainstream fiction” and show their world view, rather than preach it. Ted Dekker’s fiction, though more suspense than so-called “literary” fiction, has broken through the mainstream market due to its excellent quality. I have heard people who would never darken the door of a church praise Dekker’s fiction. Who knows? Perhaps Dekker’s books, by showing rather than telling, can do more to communicate the Christian message than a didactic work. Flannery O’Connor once said that the Christian message can only be communicated indirectly for modern secular people to understand it. Perhaps contemporary writers in the Christian genre can take her advice.

The Emptiness of Atheism

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Atheism symbol

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Imagine a world with no objective values. In this world, people who get away with horrific crimes such as child abuse, rape, and murder never find justice. It is a world in which there is no meaning over and above individual or societal whims. In this world, people seek their own pleasure without boundaries. If sex between men and men, between women and women, or between people and animals satisfies someone, there is no law in this world that could condemn it other than someone’s individual moral whims. And if something inconvenient gets in the way of one’s pleasure, such as a pregnancy, in this world a woman can find a “doctor” to murder her baby under the full protection of the law.

All that ultimately exists in this world is matter and energy. Human beings evolved not under God‘s guiding or planning or creating the evolutionary process, but through chance and necessity alone. They are an accident in a meaningless universe. Death is annihilation. Any good someone does for mankind will ultimately dissolve, as Bertrand Russell noted, when this meaningless universe ceases to be. Or as the American horror writer H. P. Lovecraft recognized, this universe is similar to one ruled by a blind god of cosmic chaos, with monsters dancing to dissonant music around a mindless center.

This is the world more and more Americans are living in. It is the world of many academics, the world of many East Coast intellectual elites, and the world of many who work in Hollywood. It is the utterly empty world of atheism.

Although books on atheism abound these days, they mainly mock the excesses and evils of religion without recognizing the greater evils caused by atheistic systems. Nazism and Communism reeked havoc on Europe before both were defeated. But in their place has arisen a consumer society that values “the sweet life” that only ends in nothingness. How, then, is it “sweet.” The atheistic existentialists such as Sartre and Camus were at least honest enough to admit the loss of objective meaning in atheism. They tried to make up for it by saying that a person should find his own meaning in life–but this will ultimately end in coming to naught. So one is left only with Sisyphus and his rock, making his own meaning out of meaninglessness. Even the atheistic existentialists, then, remain in denial–what good will “finding one’s own meaning” do if it all ends in cosmic emptiness?

In the world of atheism there is no ultimate justice. Mass murderers and torturers die in peace, then only face the same nothingness that a saint such as Mother Theresa will face. Is this world fair, or is it one, as Nietzsche said, that is “beyond good and evil”?

I am amazed at atheists saying that they do not fear the annihilation of death. It is not just the annihilation of the self, not being conscious at all that is the issue–it is the annihilation of all beloved family members and friends. But if there is an all-powerful and all-good God who loves us enough to grant us an undeserved eternal life, all will be redeemed and made good. Without such a God, without an afterlife, what is left? “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die,” as St. Paul put it. If I were an atheist, I would be a moderate hedonist, gaining as much pleasure as I could while not doing things destructive to my health. I remember a liberal Protestant once becoming furious at me for saying that–but his fury means nothing–if there is no God, no afterlife, no accounting for one’s deeds other than for illegal actions for which we are caught, why not seek all the pleasure we can? “Live for today,” “Eat, drink, and be merry,” “You only go around once in life, so grab for all the gusto you can.” The only problem is that “gusto” will end, perhaps peacefully, perhaps (sadly) in pain and agony, but if atheism is true, humans are ultimately nothing but bits of second-hand stardust who will recycled in the meaningless processes of nature.

For an intellectually honest person, atheism is a road to madness and horror. I choose to believe in God, in a universe that is ultimately good, a universe in which there is cosmic justice, in which good will triumph over evil, in which there is real, objective meaning in life, and in which God will grant us–out of sheer grace–the gift of eternal life.

 

Azathoth the Postmodernist

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Azathoth

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“….the spiral black vortices of that ultimate void of Chaos wherein reigns the mindless daemon-sultan Azathoth”–H. P. Lovecraft, “Dreams in the Witch House”

Since postmodernist relativists are so inconsistent–they say there is no metanarrative even though their denial of a metanarrative is itself a metanarrative–I decided to search for a consistent postmodernist. Such a consistent creature would be mad–indeed It would be Madness Itself since a deconstruction of all narratives includes a deconstruction of the self–and thus the destruction of the self. If only fragments of self really remain, where can we find a god that consists of such chaos. H. P. Lovecraft, the great American writer of fantastic fiction has the answer–the blind mindless deity Azathoth.

Azathoth inhabits the void of chaos which is his being, or lack thereof. He has no mind per se; at best, he is an uncordinated series of mind-fragments (if even that). Around him mad musicians pipe a tune so dissonant that Arnold Shoenberg’s atonal pieces would sound like Mozart in comparison. The most frightening part of Lovecraft’s fiction is the suggestion that ultimate chaos is the principle behind the entire universe. There are other elder gods, but Azathoth, the Anti-Order, Defeater of ALL metanarratives, is the “top god.”

If academic postmodernists and their followers were consistent, they would emulate Azathoth. Their lives would be as disorderly as Azathoth’s–they would be insane to the point that the worst current case of schizophrenia would seem normal by comparison. But most of these postmodernists live orderly lives–they get married, have families, teach for many years until they retire, grade student papers according to a standard–they do not literally try to deconstruct everything. They are hypocrites. When I see a mindless postmodernist sitting catatonic in the center of a circle of raving postmodernists playing dissonant pipes, I will take these pseudo-academics seriously. Otherwise, they should work to be more consistent in their madness. Until then, may Azathoth rant and scream mad non-words that echo through the mindless postmodern universe.