A Sea of Eyes: Horror and the Holy in Three Introductions

The purpose of this post is to present the editor’s introduction to all three existent issues of Mysterium Tremendum, our quarterly examination of the intersection of horror and the holy, in one place. Hopefully, this will prove useful as a reference point to those looking for more information about the publication. They are arranged below chronologically, as well as linked to and appended by their affiliated issue’s number and theme.

I: The Axis Mundi

La Divina Commedia di Dante, by Domenico di Michelino, 1465.

Horror and the Holy is the title of a book I stumbled across in the “criticism” section of my favorite used book store (blandly named “Recycled Books and Records”) in Denton, TX. It’s an underappreciated work by Kirk J. Schneider, a practitioner of Existential Therapy (it’s worth emphasizing that he’s not a philosopher, critic, or professor of literature). My encounter with it followed by several years my academic exposure to Noel Carroll’s theories on horror. I must be clear about Carroll here: The relation I have with his major work of horror criticism, The Philosophy of Horror, is antagonistic. I squirmed at his patronizing treatment of the genre as something that needed to apologize for existing, a thing surely impossible to enjoy without elaborate and unlikely justifications. Carroll had to turn horror inside out and strip it of its essence before he could take it seriously—why should we listen to criticism like that?

Unfortunately, much of the academic treatment of horror follows Carroll’s spiritless pragmatism. It’s almost enough to make you forget that The Bacchae and Titus Andronicus happily warm their seats somewhere in the peripherals of the canon without causing a scene. Enough to make you forget that Artaud is a thing.

The point is the “problem of horror” stuck with me through an extended period of rumination, perhaps the deepest rumination I’ve ever dedicated to any single literary subject or theme. This train of thought is now well worn, having followed me down various detours and byways into everything from comparative religion to UFO phenomena. At some point between Schneider and Carroll, I had already felt that the attraction of horror had something to do with holiness. I hadn’t yet discovered the multitude of sources that would confirm this perspective (I was seeking an answer, somewhat insanely, in Lacan at the time), but when I saw Horror and the Holy’s bright yellow spine, the moment was weighted with all the inevitability of fate. Aha, I could’ve said, so we meet at last.

I’ll save an extended exposition of Schneider’s theories for a future essay. For the purposes of this introduction, it’s enough to point out that the title of his book has become the catch phrase for this publication, the one-line response handy for sideways glances and curious inquiries.

I’ve briefly outlined my “academic” interest in the topic. Allow me to underline it with a deeper, more personal dimension:

My earliest memory of truly religious feeling is set during a late evening church service. I don’t recall the occasion, but there were candles and an atmosphere of exceptional solemnity (it felt like a funeral, but it couldn’t have been). Our pastor, a Southern Baptist on the dying end of the “old school,” was delivering a special sermon on the End of Days:

“And the first beast was like a lion,” he said in a voice that seemed to amplify as it washed across the unmoving congregation, “and the second beast like a calf, and the third beast had a face as a man, and the fourth beast was like a flying eagle. And the four beasts had each of them six wings about him; and they were full of eyes within: and they rest not day and night, saying, holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.” (Revelations 4: 7-8 KJV) Distorting the textual image in my kid brain, I imagined a sea of eyes, glimmering in a red-stained darkness. The eyes shifted as immense and horrible beings writhed beneath the bloody surface. The eternal evocation of “was, is, and is to come” rang fearfully through my imagination, filling me with an immensity I couldn’t begin to comprehend as I wept and begged forgiveness for whatever sins a boy my age could accumulate to justify such visions.

My parents didn’t notice, nor were they particularly affected by the sermon themselves. I, however, was already trained to read the Bible with the utmost conviction of its indisputable truth (that old hill Christianity seems eager to die on). I was also a creative child, despite being imbued with the thoroughly-protestant disbelief in monsters. This interplay of belief and imaginative space left me perfectly ripe for my first encounter with the holy, synonymous, in my case, with horror.

I guess you could say this early experience left me ready to draw these parallels. As it relates to this chapbook, what I want to publish are stories that echo with the sensations I remember vividly from that sermon: an intermingling of awe and horror at the doorstep of the unexplainable. Perhaps this metric is far too subjective. Perhaps it isn’t. We’ll see.

More interesting than my own inclination is the fact that I’m not alone. Soon after reading Schneider’s Horror and the Holy, which persuasively (if a little simply) argues that horror and the holy both operate in terms of extremes—namely, infinite expansion and constriction—I continued to look for writers willing to consider horror fiction sincerely within this obvious yet counterintuitive (thanks in large part to wrong-headed antagonism perpetrated by religion, leading to things like the “Satanic Scare” of the 80’s) context. Victoria Nelson has written two excellent books (The Secret Life of Puppets and Gothicka) that loosely explore this theme and many more; the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft has become a breeding ground for “alternative spiritualities” (see “Calling Cthulhu” in Erik Davis’ Nomad Codes: Adventures in Modern Esoterica, or Scott R. Jones’ When the Stars Are Right: Towards an Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality); horror cinema, as Douglas E. Cowan points out in Sacred Terror: Religion and Horror on the Silver Screen, is awash with conscious references to its own relationship to religion; the work of Jeffrey Kripal and Whitley Strieber posits a sense of religiosity intimately tied to the world of genre fiction, and immensely influential thinkers like Georges Bataille and Antonin Artaud have been alerting us to the transcendental potential of the horrific for half a century. The list goes on, all the way back to Rudolf Otto (yes, for the moment, we’re ignoring the Kantian and Burkean “sublime”), whose description of the experience of “the numinous” in The Idea of the Holy is fraught with horror. And it’s from this book that I’ve lifted the title of this little series.

Mysterium Tremendum: “awe-inspiring mystery.” Readers of Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature will find good weird fiction described in similar terms—a “spiritual horror” is one that transcends the “acceptance of popular standards” (53) and plunges us headlong into the abyss of the unknown. That, in this beautiful time of ours, rife with malcontent and blown wide open to a renaissance of horror fiction, is what every publisher of weird fiction and cosmic horror seeks to publish, even if they don’t view this aesthetic as particularly resonant with the mystery of the holy. It would be redundant to plant our flag on that hill and call it a day.

More than one writer of horror has spied this resonance and consciously sought to emphasize the presence of holiness at the heart of their craft. This is the horror fiction we want. We are happy to feature three such writers in this issue. This publication will have served its purpose if it creates a space that encourages further conscious exploration of this theme. It’s my opinion that the more horror can recognize its own motivations, the more likely it is to move forward. That is always the goal, isn’t it? Forever forward, forever into the unknown.

II: The Uncanny

The Straw Manikin, by Francisco Goya, 1791.

What does a puppet evoke of the divine? How has this sullen, wooden thing found its way into a conversation—however marginal—of the numinous? How indeed, if the inanimate is ontologically sealed against the secret human magnetism, that aching tug from the beyond?

But the puppet isn’t simply inanimate. It is like a god in that it is fashioned in our image—or rather, it posits us as profanations of our own Creator, needled to a throne of gilded wood. The puppet is simply us then, a weathered, baser emanation stripped of what poets and fanatics would like to call “spirit.” Its hollowness becomes an acoustic chamber for the things in us that also reside in an absence of spirit: inadequacy of faith, horror of inauthenticity, the loneliness like a cavern that always walls us, person to person, onto our own gray and rainy islands. On one hand, the puppet is us: banal, forgettable and forgotten.

But the puppet’s alien quality is equally important: Unlike ours, their presence, echoing our own enslavement to material form, is permanent. Their plight is more tragic, as Bruno Schulz suggested in his “Treatise on Mannequins.” Half formed, they outlive their creators. They persist in a state of incompleteness, suggesting agony drawn through the cruel march of years like a scaffold walk that never mitigates its shame with the spectacle of a hanging. Their prolonging is Sisyphean, and, as Raquel suggests in S. L. Edward’s tale in this volume, “The Cabin Where She Keeps Her Bodies,” “for that, […] they are better than the people they’ve replaced.”

The strain of horror that lies at the center of the numinous emanates from the otherness prerequisite to the traumatic shattering of reality. The puppet houses this otherness in human form. Its very lack of life suggests the latency of narrative, meaning submerged beneath the listless pool of the cold surfaces constituting its material existence. As such, the puppet is a signifier that can point to the empty expanses beyond the mundane, as in Tom Mavroudis’ “Dinner and a Show.” It can trap the imagination in the gray in-between, a place where transcendence means disillusionment with the façade of subjectivity: This is the puppet’s mirror function, once again, a Solaris that chastens the self with its own truth. This is Thomas Ligotti’s playground of maddeningly functionless machines.

More often than not, the puppet awakens to a weird and malevolent existence, if only temporarily. In Douglas Ford’s “I Will Not Eat the Son of God,” the inanimate becomes fully biological, complete with the all-too-animal stain of disease. It would do here to recall the Book of Job: The numinous is beyond good and evil. If it must be said to have a function, it can only be to destroy. What is destroyed—restraints, assumptions, communities, physical and ideological bodies—is always a matter of circumstance and perspective.

In Madeleine Swann’s “Dreamscribing’s Not for the Weak,” destruction is creation—”Dreamscribing” occurs in a weird space subject to laws that lack the clarity of explicit articulation. What happens is yet another act of mirroring, and then a mirroring within the mirroring. The heights of strangeness dizzy us—the extreme ontological complexity of the puppet suggests a being far surpassing humanity. It is they, perhaps, who justify our existence. It is under their gaze, recalling the sightless multitude of gazes in S. L. Edwards’ story, that we can imagine a narrative under which we may arrange the empty events of our lives. The greatest terror in imagining the absence of God is the suggestion that no one is watching.

Yes, we need not mime Kleist’s paean to the kinetic elegance of the puppet dancer to make a case for its holiness. The fluidity of ballet has more to do with the flow of life than an encounter with the holy. The puppet is a creature of stasis, a thing of both solidity and darkness. The hard and stiff, as Tarkovsky pointed out in Stalker, are qualities in abundance within the land of the dead. And what is death if not the Zone, the ultimate Beyond, a mere encounter with which often conjures the numinous? And if religion began with the decoration of graves with ochre, as the anthropologists suggest, then death is the mysterium tremendum itself.   

It is within this ill-defined key of associations that the four tales here have been assembled. The mysteries of the puppet, just like Otto’s mysterium tremendum, are not subject to laws or dogma. The puppet represents a way of looking at the human, an alienated gaze inward that emphasizes our inherent affinity with death. In a way, thinking and reading about the puppet is like inhabiting a dreamland in which the flesh has been recast as an impenetrable veil, behind which is pure Other, the weird we can only hope to suggest with indirect glances and suggestive descriptions. When we wonder what is behind their wooden textures, it’s the well within us—the fact of our subjectivity coupled with the impossible absence of all the quantifications that science demands of facts—that we consider. If the divine resides in every human, the very inscrutability of the human is the Holy Temple. It’s a labyrinthine palace of mirrors, a great expanse of impossible geography burrowed inside the wood made flesh.

This place is what these stories suggest. There is no map or key. There is only the blind groping of insensate fingers.

III: Metamorphoses

The Lament for Icarus, by Herbert Draper, 1898.

The numinous can’t help but enforce an alteration upon any system it contacts. It’s an “event” in the philosophical sense, an encounter of the kind that justifies Zizek’s question: “is an event a change in the way reality appears to us, or is it a shattering transformation of reality itself?” It is a class of transformation that leaves nothing untouched. Its fingerprints are everywhere. In a reversal of causality, it may as well have been encoded from the beginning; a latent gene that skipped the mapping, so inherent is its inclusion in the system.

When the Other (God, the stranger, mysterium tremendum, death, whatever we need to call it) materializes, what occurs in every case is change. We’re told in the Bible that Saul was struck blind by a heavenly beam. Over the next three days, he waited in Damascus until God appeared to a man named Ananias with instructions to seek out and heal the fearsome persecutor of Christianity. The holy servant quietened his misgivings, divined his duty, and out one end like the answer to an equation comes Paul’s conversion to Christianity.

Saul to Paul, from sight to blindness and onto the unblind, Christian-killer to resurrector of the dead–all shattering transformations of the holy variety. In the building-block way we’re inclined to manipulate our material surroundings, it’s easy to think of the process of metamorphosis as moving from one discrete state to the next. But this isn’t a very divine causality, and it’s worth noting that, in this case (as occurs more often than you’d imagine), “divine” is synonymous with “weird.”

“Religious” events have a strange way of reversing time. Saul’s hate of Christianity, in retrospect, is exactly what makes him ripe for conversion. The History of Saul, as if history stands there like pages bound in leather, undergoes a metamorphosis itself. If anything’s allowed to whitewash the blood of martyrs from Saul’s hands, it’s the blinding light that seared him into Christianity’s collective consciousness. Ananias’ fear—overlooked though it may be in the Sunday School curriculum—is an integral aspect of the tale, lending a deep flavor of destiny to these events: Saul’s hatred of Christians primes him for Christianity, which in turn—in God’s infinite wisdom—sets Ananias up for a chance to prove his faith to an apparently finitely knowledgeable and surprisingly unconfident God.

The metamorphosis resulting from an encounter with the numinous—which shouldn’t, by the way, be situated here in the context of any specific “religious” tradition—isn’t a linear exchange between states of being. It is a step outside of linearity itself, a transposition to a vantage point where past, present, and future exist simultaneously in an interrelated, Spinozian matrix. The weightier elements of “destiny” and “justification” have asphyxiated way up in the thin atmosphere, and sights that were hidden to all but the birds lay brutally exposed.

Since we’re forced to grapple with such a perspective from a distance, it’s necessary to use metaphors like tongs.

At the core of transformation lies a tension between dualities, since the movement from one physical state to another implies a relationship between two bodies. But the physicality of any transformation is of secondary importance in the context of the numinous, which tends to treat the body allegorically. Different beings see different things; the physical shift entails shift of perspective. This is the value of divine metamorphosis.

According to the well-known Greek tradition, Minos, King of Crete, employed Daedalus to design a labyrinth to hide the Minotaur, the monstrous offspring of the illicit liaison between Pasiphaë—Minos’ wife—and a bull. Periodically fed into that darkness were Athenian youths, offered as tribute to the victorious Minos, until Theseus vanquished the Minotaur with the help of Ariadne, who was promptly abandoned by her opportunistic hero.

A labyrinth is always a multitude: a testimony to the architect’s mastery, a hopeless prison, a marvel of artistry, the ultimate representation of interiority, and more (you can imagine, given the outline of the Greek tale above, how it was once a cautionary symbol of carnal passion). A labyrinth is as multifaceted as life itself, rich with significance, horrific and beautiful at once, depending on your vantage point. If, like Daedalus and his son, Icarus, at the vengeful hands of Minos, you become trapped inside, it is necessary to grow wings to escape. With these new wings—I like to imagine the wings of a moth—you transcend the confining walls. What has really changed here is your perspective: where once you knew darkness and confusion, you now see the whole, a dazzling work of skill and great complexity. Revelation is always a metamorphosis.

Each of the stories presented here are metamorphoses. All of them remind me of Icarus, who rose from the confusion of the labyrinth and plunged, moth-like, into the sun, overstepping the bounds of humanity to the point of physical dissolution. These are horror stories, certainly—slithering parasites manipulate their human hosts for the sake of a colony; a stone impregnates the mind of a boy with something not of this world; a strange mound consumes a man in order to birth him anew—but they are also stories of revelation, of awakening to a reality so far beyond the labyrinth walls you can only tremble at the limitless vistas they suggest.

How could one suggest that the divine has nothing to do with horror?


Justin A. Burnett is the author of The Puppet King and Other Atonements, to be published by Trepidatio Publishing in 2022. He’s also the Executive Editor of Silent Motorist Media, a weird fiction publisher responsible for the creation of the anthologies Mannequin: Tales of Wood Made Flesh, which was named best multi-author anthology of 2019 by Rue Morgue magazine, The Nightside Codex, and Hymns of Abomination, a tribute to the work of Matthew M. Bartlett. His quarterly chapbook, Mysterium Tremendum, explores the intersection between horror and the holy. He currently lives in Austin, Texas, with his partner and children.

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