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.

At the Rim of Daylight by Justin A. Burnett

Yes, I’m releasing a chapbook of my own stories under the Silent Motorist Media banner. Let me explain: as part of SMM’s Patreon goals, we promised patrons an exclusive chapbook once we hit $100 in subscriptions. Well, we’ve hit it, and this is the result of that promise. The paperback edition of At the Rim of Daylight is and will remain a Patreon-exclusive publication. To obtain a physical copy, all you have to do is subscribe to SMM on Patreon at $4 or more. At the Rim of Daylight will remain an ongoing bonus to Patreon subscribers. 

At the Rim of Daylight consists of four full-length stories and one flash fiction piece by me. None of these stories are set to appear in my first full-length collection, The Puppet King and Other Atonements, set to release in 2022 from Journalstone. Three of the pieces are unpublished, and one is from a collection permanently out of print. The chapbook will also feature notes, art, and benefit from all the care and attention of any other SMM publication. 

Cover art for Kindle edition

This chapbook will also be released on Kindle. This will be its only public release, and it will not be accompanied by a physical release on Amazon. This work is dedicated, with love, to SMM’s Patreon supporters, who have unwaveringly supported and encouraged us through every project. THANK YOU, and enjoy.


About the Author


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.

ANTISOCIETIES by Michael Cisco (Review)

Michael Cisco is one of many writers I’ve long intended to read but haven’t. So it goes. Over the course of Antisocietieswhich I couldn’t put down, by the way—I found myself compulsively ordering titles from Cisco’s catalogue. The majority of his publications are on the way to my house at the time of writing. The point here is important enough to state clearly: if you’re a reader of weird fiction and haven’t yet given Cisco the time of day, you need to rectify this. Right away.

“No work has been more Ligottian, not even Ligotti’s.” This is what I wrote in my notes at some point. It’s clearly one of those indefensible claims manufactured for the sheer shock of saying it, so I’ll leave it distanced by quotations.  Given, however, the permeable membrane separating outside and inside in Ligotti’s work, that element of “unreal reality,” to cite Ligotti’s description of the work of Bruno Schulz, that is “like dreams and not like them at the same time,” it’s worth keeping Ligotti close, since Cisco’s collection continues in this Ligottian key. But make no mistake, Antisocieties stands easily—fiercely even—on its own merits.

This collection’s immense power resides in the fact that it’s possible to read a story like “Intentionally Left Blank” and feel simultaneously that something horrific and momentous occurred while also questioning if anything truly happened at all. This is a Ligottian strength, the imbuing of nothing (an overlooked art exhibit in a library, a dilapidated gas station) with the weight of a world-ending. It’s a talent Cisco has made seem solely his, so seamlessly is it put to service.

A child moves in with an aunt, begins watching the neighbors, since there’s nothing else to do, and catches a glimpse of a man with a mask. What happens next is difficult to describe. The misty anti-logic of a dream assumes dominance, and every word is weighted with lead-heavy dread; Dog Scream is his name, the masked man says, and no one surrounding the protagonist can be bothered to deny or rationalize this unsettling turn reality has taken. They’re unwittingly complicit in the nightmare, observing the same events with the emotional detachment of a cardboard cutout, leaving the protagonist, just as Cisco has left the reader, with a “monster” divorced entirely from the symbolic ordering of reality. You are not told what’s to be said or thought or felt about Dog Scream; the great violence of language against alterity is prevented (as much as possible) from occurring. It is sheer otherness, then, a signifier “intentionally left blank,” which lightnings convincingly from the page to the reader’s mind. The result is disorientation, confusion, a sense of losing your way that leaves you on edge. It’s a masterful bit of manipulation, priming you to mistrust all that is to come. This is the very first story, after all. There’s much left to mistrust.

Ligotti’s best tales tend to involve subjects who fixate on elements in their surrounding object-world that have ceased fulfilling their proper function. We could say Ligotti’s characters find themselves maniacally obsessed with signs that no longer signify as they should. When Ligotti’s protagonists investigate further, they discover in the misbehaving object a reflection of their own disintegrating interiority. It is a violence to the illusion of self that Ligotti seeks to inflict, and he does it by enacting a play between the cracks in subjectivity and the abysmal nature of the object.

Cisco’s work pursues a similar ontological deterioration, but the cursed, reflective objects in Antisocieties reside even further than Ligotti’s from the language of categories that structure the social sphere. “The Starving of Saqqara” involves the disappearance of an ancient Egyptian sculpture that seems anachronistic in its realistic depiction of suffering. It is explicitly acknowledged as either “pre-Dynastic Egyptian art, or a modern fake,” and thematically paired with, of all things, Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” It is precisely these details undermining the plausibility of the object that imbues them with a kind of super-charged strangeness. They are tainted things that can’t quite be grasped by the mind, entities withheld just beyond the cognitive Tantalus grip, generating a psychical distance typical of works of high art. If this collection has a signature move, it’s Cisco’s masterful distortion of the mundane, an alchemical metamorphosing of the everyday into the profoundly weird.

Cisco’s (mis)handling of objects, however, is never itself the target; the real assault is always on the self, as is made extraordinarily clear in stories like “Saccade,” “Antisocieties,” and “Water Machine.” In each, Cisco demonstrates with terrifying vividness that our bodies and minds are strange, potentially alien things, ready, with just a few adjustments, to exchange the invisible maintenance of equilibrium for vistas of unimaginable agony. “Saccade” suggests levels of signification that lie beyond perception, a symbolic order we can only glimpse when our bodies stop lying to us; “Water Machine” posits a similar edifice, decodable only with the paranoiac’s insanity (which Cisco depicts almost too convincingly). Both stories pull the primacy of the subject up short, suggesting that we live everyday lives only at the expense of truth.

Other writers have suggested this, including Ligotti, but Cisco has a way of recasting the inherent weirdness of consciousness with more urgency than ever. “Antisocieties,” the last story I’ll discuss here, is a horrifying portrayal of the body as a prison. The story begins, benignly enough, with descriptions of an area surrounding a park. A black car pulls up, and a man named simply “the administrator” walks up to a man sitting on a bench. The man on the bench—we are not told why—is nearly paralyzed with terror over the course of the administrator’s seemingly inconsequential attempts to interact with him. A lesser writer than Cisco would succumb to the temptation to record the seated man’s subjective mental process; a lesser writer still would lapse into flashbacks to justify his fear of the administrator. Cisco passes over subjectivity and history to focus on surfaces:

“The man nearly sighs through his nose and stops abruptly in a windless snort. He draws his lips into his mouth and presses them shut. His eyes fail to receive impressions. He struggles to keep himself completely still. Sitting without breathing, without moving.”

It is this excruciating corporeal detail that deprives the human body of familiarity. The horror of “Antisocieties” is this sudden nakedness, this uncanny alienation of our own flesh. Our bodies must operate in invisibility for life to be bearable—this very invisibility is taken from the man on the bench, along with the invisibility of his subjectivity (“The man winces at the word ‘you.’”) and the all-too-subjective assumption that the ego tunnel will continue linking the past and present with the future without interruption. Cisco accomplishes a brutal dehumanization here, a relentless objectifying of the human body that far trespasses the borders of comfort. We are back to the problem of objects, except this time it is the human body itself that is butchered into ungraspable otherness.

Horror, according to Eugene Thacker, “is about the paradoxical thought of the unthinkable.” No other characterization of horror feels truer, even if most horror fiction itself appears to challenge this standard by groping clumsily towards it without ever reaching (which isn’t meant to sound as critical as that—how, after all, can one reach the unreachable?). Antisocieties is an unqualified victory for Thacker’s definition of horror, since it convincingly posits terrors beyond thinkability without telling the reader about them. Antisocieties is also a victory for Grimscribe Press, for Cisco’s already-standing reputation as a master, and for readers who enjoy their horror unforgettably outré. It may seem overwrought, but I mean it: this collection is as close to perfect as they come.

-Justin A. Burnett

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.  

Thelma (2017) by Brian O’Connell

Cinematic adolescence has had a psychic tinge since at least 1976, when Carrie White first unleashed her pent-up rage upon her peers to the terror and delight of viewers across the world. From de Palma’s early box office smash to modern television variations in shows like Stranger Things and I Am Not Okay With This, filmmakers and audiences alike have proven to be enduringly fascinated with teenage narratives that take detours into telekinetic madness. The link makes sense: what better way to represent the baffling discoveries, physical and mental transformations, and dizzying shifts in selfhood of youth than through the unearthly, uncontrollable manifestations associated with paranormal phenomena?

Thelma, the eponymous protagonist of Joachim Trier’s 2017 supernatural drama, is technically exiting her adolescence—the main action of the film finds her as a first-year university student at Oslo—but in most ways retains the paralyzing angst, emotional disorientation, and restricted agency of a teenager. Trier introduces her to us with an ominous overhead shot of the college campus, ever so slowly zooming in to single out Thelma among the wandering groups and couples of fellow students: a skillful conjuring of the gnawing social anxiety that underlies every moment of the film. A closer view doesn’t help us know her much better. As embodied by actress Eili Harboe, Thelma is a bit of a riddle, her unassuming face ambiguously evoking something that alternately registers as acute vulnerability or stone-faced opacity. (Critic Sheila O’Malley’s comparison to a young Isabelle Huppert is not unwarranted.) The only thing that is immediately clear is her agitation; before she’s even said a word, her physical bearing alone—somewhere between the rigidity of the devoutly religious and the gawkiness of a nervous middle schooler—communicates her inner unease.

Whatever is going on, it surely can’t be helped by her parents, who call her every night to check up on what she’s doing. Oh, they’re impeccably polite, quiet people, a far cry from the fanatical Christian histrionics of Margaret White in Carrie. Still, there’s something subtly sinister in the way they probe her, gently but insistently, with questions about her daily doings. And later on, we sense a simmering tension at a dinner table conversation between the three, during which Thelma’s father Trond (Henrik Rafaelsen) sternly chides her for looking down on creationists. The viewer is already well aware that this man specifically knows more than he’s letting on: that much has been clear from the film’s chilling prologue, an expertly crafted piece of menace that casts a hanging dread over even the most innocuous subsequent scenes.

Helpfully, Trier doesn’t take too long to let us in on the exact nature of the game we’re playing here, though he certainly takes his sweet time moving the pieces into place. From the moment a bird flies into Thelma’s classroom window and triggers what appears to be an epileptic seizure, most viewers will have at least a moderately good idea of the territory the film is operating within. Trier and co-screenwriter Eskil Vogt know that this is part of the fun. Their script quite self-consciously toys with the typical tropes we’ve come to expect from this subgenre, and despite the solemn pacing, they never really try to hide what they’re up to from the viewer. The pleasure is in seeing how the chips will fall, and in experiencing the deeper emotional trajectory of the narrative beneath all the supernatural shenanigans.

The key element in Thelma turns out to be a girl called Anja (Kaya Wilkins), a fellow student on the college campus who begins to befriend Thelma. Friendly, outgoing, and sunny, she is everything that our dour protagonist is not, and sighting her inspires in Thelma the first anguished pangs of a confused, inarticulable desire. After a stifling upbringing in a conservative home and a period of intense loneliness at college, Thelma seizes on her new friendship with the desperation of a starving man sighting food. It’s quickly clear that her longing has more intimate connotations than mere friendliness, as when, to cope with a seizure, Anja sleeps chastely next to Thelma in bed, Thelma stroking her companion’s dark locks of hair with an almost childlike fascination. This sudden woozy rush of love coincides with, or more probably triggers, the other strange awakening gradually manifesting in her life. Shortly following her initial encounters with Anja, the uncanny hallucinations and disturbances in her surroundings start to intensify, perhaps most viscerally and memorably embodied by the nightmarish appearance of a black snake in her bed at night, which slithers up her thighs and later toward her lips.

The obvious symbolism of the snake—sin, eroticism, danger, desire, penetration—is possibly the least subtle one could come up with for an allegory of this type, but it works, both because of its sheer imagistic force and because of its real resonance with the emotional experience of queerness in a homophobic society. For most queer people, even those of us who weren’t raised in a repressive religious household and who grew up in a comparatively tolerant time and place, sexual awakening will at least briefly pass through this phase of terror, peril, and bewilderment. The snake, with its clear satanic connotations and mingled associations of both pleasure and death, is a particularly potent and effective representation of those initial troubled, overwhelming sensations of love and lust. When, during an all too short-lived experience of ecstasy and pleasure, Thelma finally allows the snake to enter her mouth, it stands for that beautiful and terrifying moment in almost every queer person’s life when a desire, heretofore regarded with fear, doubt, and loathing, is at last accepted and integrated into one’s sense of identity and autonomy.

At this point we might easily assume that Trier is sketching out a simple allegorical narrative about religious guilt and queer coming-of-age. In this formulation, Thelma’s burgeoning telekinetic powers stand for her repressed sexual desires, both of which had been subdued and suppressed by her bigoted, dogmatic parents. She struggles with this awakening in all its terror and wonder, but eventually comes to accept both her powers and her feelings, liberating herself from the strictures of her parents once and for all and achieving self-actualization and happiness in her relationship with Anja.

Not so fast. This basic trajectory, which has been applied in similar forms to several contemporary horror films (The Witch, Midsommar, and Suspiria perhaps being the most obvious), is certainly a valid and arguable framework to read the film by. But I think it’s an overly simplistic one, especially when we’re dealing with the horror genre, in which the process of becoming is always loaded with violence, control, and death. “Empowerment” is assuredly part of the way these films function, and there’s no shame in taking pleasure in that fantasy, especially for populations like women and queer people who have been historically denied many empowering representations onscreen. But given that empowerment in these films (as it often is, unfortunately, in life), is typically predicated on the assertion of violent (usually murderous) dominance, we should be wary about applying such clear-cut interpretations to films that are often operating in much richer and murkier thematic spaces.

Thelma is especially problematic when viewed through the reductive “empowerment” lens, because, again like Carrie, it goes out of its way many times to show that the protagonist herself is, in fact, incredibly dangerous. And these dangers cannot be disentangled from her desires: the danger is the desire. Across the first half of the film, Trier drops increasingly explicit hints that Thelma’s powers have more troubling potential than a couple of dead birds or trembling inanimate objects. When the full extent of these powers is revealed—first in a white-knuckle suspense sequence, the first time the film fully veers into horror, and later in a hauntingly grief-wracked flashback—the effect is genuinely awful and upsetting. Thelma, the young woman we have been invited to empathize and identify with, proves to be capable of (if unwittingly so) the most astonishingly terrifying deeds. Her parents, meanwhile, experience a converse arc; those cold and menacing authority figures regarded with suspicion and doubt from the very first scene become increasingly sympathetic and even tragic, to the point where, by the final act of the film, we are no longer dealing with a relatively clear binary between liberation and repression but with a handful of deeply wounded and emotionally anguished human beings. This proves to be Thelma’s cruelest and most heart-wrenching “twist.”

In the last analysis, it is difficult to read the film as a mere allegory for awakening queer sexuality, in the same way that The Witch, for example, is often talked about as a direct feminist emancipation narrative. Those narratives are obviously in there, but they’re embedded within a more complex series of overlapping systems and thematic contexts. There’s too much going on in Thelma to cover in the space of this single article, but it’s plausible to suggest that, rather than being solely about unjustly stigmatized desire, the film conducts a deeper inquiry into the uncontrollable nature of desire itself. Thelma’s powers don’t arise from conscious exertion, but from the anarchic, selfish underworld of her subconscious, where morality doesn’t apply. She creates and destroys with the impetuous rashness of a child, every single whim spontaneously manifesting in reality to devastating effect. Love, hate, want, rejection: all her most basic impulses and longings are staged on a frightening scale. Her heart is an abyss.

A little around the midpoint of the film, when Thelma is researching the psychogenic seizures she’s been violently afflicted with, Trier shows us a montage of historical illustrations. They are all images of women, and they are linked by their connection to the spiritual, the otherworldly, the transcendent. Joan of Arc, witches, saints, visionaries, mystics—all pass before our eyes in flickering succession. These are women to whom both great holiness and great evil were ascribed. They are, to borrow the blasphemous phrase Thelma comes up with in an early conversation with Anja, “Jesus-Satans”: they contain both heaven and hell within them. It’s coming to this realization near the end of the film that seems to allow Thelma to attain some sense of control over her own life. Not peace, not comfort, not even happiness: hers, it is heavily implied, will always be a fundamentally lonely and solipsistic existence. But in the final scene it at least appears a certain equilibrium has been attained—for the time being, anyway. The viewer might recall the eels swimming beneath the ice in the first sequence, both a beckoning toward and warning against the seductive, dangerous forces that lurk beneath a seemingly stable surface. If there’s any “message” in Thelma, it must be—as in the best horror—that ordinary appearances conceal fearsome depths.

by Brian O’Connell

Brian O’Connell is a writer living in New York. He has been published by Plutonian PressMuzzleland Press, and Planet X Publications. He regularly cohosts the podcast Celluloid Citizens with Sean M. Thompson.

The Box by Scott J. Couturier (Upcoming Release)

Greetings! It’s been a while since we’ve announced an official update here, but it hasn’t been for a lack of exciting developments. Among the latest is our upcoming publication of Scott J. Couturier’s fiction collection, The Box. This book will contain 16 of Couturier’s distinctive and flavorful weird tales collected from previous anthologies, along with 5 new works. This is a particular delight to announce, since Couturier’s classic-minded weird fiction has long caught our eye. We’re more than confident that readers who have enjoyed our previous publications—Mannequin: Tales of Wood Made Flesh, The Nightside Codex, and two (at the time of writing) issues of Mysterium Tremendum—will find much to admire in these pages.

Presses, reviewers, and authors of horror and weird fiction can request a digital advance review copy of Couturier’s collection by contacting us at silentmotoristmedia@gmail.com.

Another announcement is necessitated by details regarding a release timetable previously posted on social media: The Box, originally scheduled for August of this year, is now a 2022 release. This has become necessary because Silent Motorist Media has (quite quickly and almost unexpectedly) relocated to Austin, Texas. While we consider this move fortuitous and most welcome, it has inevitably set us back a bit. We apologize for any inconvenience arising from this, and assure you we will keep you updated as an exact release date becomes available.

There’s so much more to come! Stay in touch by subscribing to our newsletter, or by joining us on Patreon, where you can subscribe to Mysterium Tremendum, gain exclusive early access to stories from Hymns of Abomination: Secret Songs of Leeds, our tribute anthology to Matthew M. Bartlett, and other exciting things designed just for patrons.

Scott J. Couturier is a poet & prose writer of the Weird, grotesque, liminal, & darkly fantastic. His work has appeared in numerous venues, including The Audient Void, Spectral Realms, Eye To The Telescope, The Dark Corner Zine, Space and Time Magazine, & Weirdbook. Currently he works as a copy & content editor for Mission Point Press, living an obscure reverie with his partner/live-in editor & two cats.