Story Shapes: Grotesque

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[Editor’s note: This is a portion of Travis’s Hutchmoot session entitled The Shape of the Stories We Tell.]

Since it’s October and Halloween is approaching, it’s a good time to talk about scary stories. “All stories are about the Fall,” said Tolkien. If this is true (it is), then one of the most important ways to shape our stories – or perhaps one of the most important shapes in our stories – is the use of the Gothic, or the grotesque, or simply put: horror.

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown,” wrote H.P. Lovecraft, godfather of the modern horror story, in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature.”

Fear and supernatural terror have been part of literature as long as story has been around. Lovecraft wrote, “Cosmic terror appears as an ingredient of the earliest folklore of all races, and is crystallised in the most archaic ballads, chronicles, and sacred writings.”

Lovecraft is interesting on this subject, because one of his most oft-used examples of this cosmic terror is distorted shapes. When the protagonist sails out to find Cthulhu, he finds his place of dwelling to be filled with shapes that he cannot even describe, that do not correspond to any of the shapes in our world, and that are terrifying. He describes “The Unnamed” in a story by that title:

It was everywhere — a gelatin — a slime — yet it had shapes, a thousand shapes of horror beyond all memory.

Why engage in this kind of terror?

In a preface to a book called Letters from Hell, George MacDonald takes up the issue of Christian engagement with horror.

I would not willingly be misunderstood: when I say the book is full of truth, I do not mean either truth of theory or truth in art, but something far deeper and higher – the realities of our relations to God and man and duty – all, in short, that belongs to the conscience. Prominent among these is the awful verity; that we make our fate in unmaking ourselves; that men, in defacing the image of God in themselves, construct for themselves a world of horror and dismay; that of the outer darkness our own deeds and character are the informing or inwardly creating cause; that if a man will not have God, he can never be rid of his weary and hateful self.[1]

MacDonald argues that horror shows us the “awful truth” of dehumanization – what happens to human beings who stray from their created purposes. We see this kind of gothic imagery in our best monster stories: vampires, goblins, zombies, and werewolves are all humans or former humans. MacDonald argues that we should “make righteous use of the element of horror.[2] Moreover, he gives a warning to those who oppose the use of horror in art:

Let him who shuns the horrible as a thing in art unlawful, take heed that it be not a thing in fact by him cherished; that he neither plant or nourish that root of bitterness whose fruit must be horror – the doing of wrong to his neighbor; and least of all, if the indifference in the unlawful there be, that most unmanly of wrongs whose sole defence lies in the cowardly words: “Am I my sister’s keeper!”[3]

In other words, when we fear the use of horror, we dismiss something of great value: an imaginative engagement with the consequences of rebellion against God. In fact, we become cowards ourselves, comfortable in our sin, committing the very evils we say we should not be reading in a story. When we throw out the horror genre altogether out of fear of Satanic influence, we give in to fear itself, become cowards, and lose a valuable conduit for truth. This is not to throw discernment out the window in our storytelling, but we err on the other side when we pharisaically rule out the genre altogether.

Christ himself used grotesque elements in his stories. Gehenna, undying worms, a rich man in the torment of hell, murder, and life after death all play roles in Jesus’ stories. He had actual encounters with demons who drove people insane, caused them to throw themselves into fires, screeched and screamed, and the evangelists did not shy away from these stories when recounting Jesus’ life. In a world where horror is real, stories must contain monsters and demons. Evil should not be celebrated, but it should be portrayed in our art, music, and movies.

Many horror films, especially those containing supernatural terror, belong to the symbolist tradition of storytelling. In other words, horror films belong in the fantasy fiction genre. They are fairy tales, in essence, because they use imaginative worlds and creatures to create a myth-like experience that conveys truth. So the Ring Wraiths of Middle Earth are gothic figures, monsters of horror that fit alongside zombies and vampires as symbols of dehumanization.

Dr. Ann Blaisdell Tracy believes that “the Gothic world is above all the Fallen world, the projection of a post-lapsarian nightmare of fear and alienation.”[4] She wrote,

…novels with Gothic overtones might best be identified not as those which contain some superficial trapping like a ruined monastery or the rumor of a ghost . . . but as those . . . which contain imagery or action pertinent to the Gothic/Fallen world., i.e. wandering, delusions, temptation.[5]

Horror and Gothic stories, then, help us put symbols and images onto the many nameless and shapeless fears we experience in this Fallen world. They give us an imaginative context for thinking about what it means to live in a chaotic world that is not as it was created to be.


[1] George MacDonald, Preface to Letters from Hell, Anonymous. (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1887), Vi-vii.

[2] MacDonald, viii.

[3] MacDonald, ix.

[4] Ann Blaisdell Tracy, Patterns of Fear in the Gothic Novel, 1790-1830 (Ayer Publishing, 1980), 313.

[5] Tracy, 327.


15 Comments

  1. Ashley Barber

    Thank you for this, Travis. I’m always glad for the ways my thinking is stretched here in the Rabbit Room and this post is no different.

  2. David

    Wonderful post. I’ve recently been coming at the issue of horror in literature via three back doors: through Tolkien’s lecture “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”; through his The Children of Hurin, which is a horror story on multiple levels; and through the figure of Leviathan in Job. This excerpt was quite clarifying for me. Thank you.

  3. yankeegospelgirl

    Interesting. I will simply say that between Tolkien’s black riders and the monsters of today’s hottest teen fiction (whatever it is—I’m not up on it, sorry), there is a great gulf fixed.

  4. J.H. Friedrick

    G.K. Chesterton defended monsters in children’s stories because it teaches them that they can overcome their fear (as well as the evil in this fallen world). He made the argument that if a child knows that St. George defeated the dragon then that child will come to the conclusion that he can defeat his own dragons.

    Excellent point about the exclusion of horror that leads to the feeding of our own fear.

  5. Chris

    Just curious Travis, would you make a distinction between types of horror media? For example, would you say that someone like Lovecraft represents more of a “true horror” in contrast to say, what I see as a horror-for-horror’s sake approach in just about every modern horror-slasher film today?

  6. Nikole Hahn

    The supernatural fascinates me, but I’m careful not to dwell to much on it. However, it’s what I write so in the end I guess I do dwell alot on it.

  7. Will

    Fabulous article sir! I believe that you brought up some excellent points about horror and evil that should absolutely be considered in writing/art, etc. I do think that it is essential to the Christian worldview that good ultimately triumphs over evil, because without accurately portraying evil in whatever form, Good will tend to seem ineffective or weak. So ultimately we are faced with the challenge of being true to the actual nature of both Good and Evil in our art & writing.
    Thank you for your great article!

  8. Loren

    Very interesting. As I read I was thinking of the evil giant my four-year-old daughter recently created who has become a part of her play/real world and our conversations. It’s fascinating to see how she deals with this monster (and his minions), and I hope it helps (or will help) her deal with the reality of evil, too.

    I’d love to hear your input in answer to Chris’ questions.

  9. Aaron

    Great to see this being discussed here. In the last couple of years, I’ve become a huge fan of Stephen King. I believe he once said that in order to write evil well, you have to truly know what good is. I think he’s an excellent example of the kind of writing you’re talking about here, and I’ve found beautiful insights into both true heroism and fearful cowardice in his stories.

    Any recommended or favourite stories of this genre?

  10. Luke W

    I couldn’t physically watch a scary movie until I was in my twenties. Even the commercials gave me nightmares. Looking back, I believe the constant, breathless warnings about Halloween, Freddie Krueger, even Gargamel, the Smurfs’ black-robed nemesis–this constant panic about every representation of darkness created an irrational fear about such things. These well-meaning fundamentalist preachers did more than just keep me on the straight and narrow. They unwittingly empowered these things, instilling a fear these dumb movies and cultural detritus did not merit. Even though I didn’t watch horror movies, they generated a fear in me that probably surpassed the jolt you’d get from actually watching the stupid thing.

    I can watch pretty much anything now and enjoy a good jump-scare from Paranormal Activity or the Ring. But those momentary scares don’t hold a candle to that ever-present, low-boil terror of believing the world is full of demons straining to come in through the TV.

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