I'm so excited to have one of my favorite people on the planet here at Murderati today. Laura Benedict is a classy chick in every sense of the word and a superb writer, a cross-genre darling who dabbles in thrillers, horror and the supernatural all at once. She should definitely be on your To Be Read list if she isn't already. Her latest is CALLING MR. LONELY HEARTS, and it's just plain fantastic.
Laura and I are on the "Blonde and Blonder Tour" this week. We'll be in Houston at Murder by the Book at 7 tonight, so if you're in the area, stop in. We'd love to see you.
And without further ado, presenting one of the more fascinating blogs we've had at Murderati, I give you… Laura Benedict.
HORROR AND THE “R” WORD
by Laura Benedict
A reviewer got me thinking. Usually, reviewers either delight me, make
me cry, or just piss me off—rarely do I get past those emotional stages
with reviews of my work. And I speak as someone who has reviewed books
for over a decade. (For many years I fancied that I was writing for the
writer’s improvement. Now I work for the reader.)
Here’s the quote that intrigued me: “One thing interesting about the horror genre is that it is not afraid to work with Christian elements.”
it is interesting. The word “afraid” struck me as well. But what is it
about religion that makes it so well-suited to the genre?
read a horrifying story? I read classic horror–Matheson, Jackson,
Stoker, Poe, Lovecraft—to indulge my senses, to experience a deep and
satisfying tension. Good horror possesses me in a state of almost
constant nervous stimulation. When I was in college I called a friend
of mine to come over one night because I was too frightened to be
alone. He found me sitting in the dark watching Friday night monster
films on television, an open copy of The Shining on the couch beside
me. Terrible acts, mortal danger, forces beyond human control,
irrationality: they speak directly to that old, old part of my brain,
where the fight or flight mechanism first appeared in our
millennia-distant ancestors. The nice folks at the National
Institute of Health posit that our susceptibility to danger signals may
be related to how long or short our copies of various gene variants may
be. I expect I must have a couple copies of the short variant
because I am highly, highly susceptible. I watch the most frightening
scenes of horror films from behind my hands. I anticipate that any
household object might cause my death, and almost any stranger could be
Not long after I found Poe, I read a
then-contemporary novel by Jeffrey Konvitz. The Sentinel featured a
grim, blind priest who did little but sit in a chair in a Manhattan
apartment building that just happened to contain the entrance to hell.
Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen and The Exorcist quickly
followed. The books and the films were steeped not just in religious
symbolism, but in the acts of religion, and characters who were
motivated by intense faith of one kind or another. The settings were
read these novels (and saw the films) when I was in my early teens, a
time when I was struggling with my own religious experiences. I was
Roman Catholic and the churches of my early memories were urban-gothic
and always beautiful and mysterious. But my family had moved to the
suburbs, to churches that were either bright and antiseptic or dull and
seemingly hungry for cash to build gyms. And I couldn’t abide Guitar
Mass. Church had lost its romance, its aesthetic appeal. I’m old enough
now to admit that, yes, aesthetics matter to me.
But this isn’t a description of my personal spiritual journey.
the heart of every religion is at least one mystery. In the
Judeo-Christian tradition, there is no darker mystery than sin. Sin is,
of course, an offense against God. But—and this is kind of a big leap
here—if one accepts the theory (common to many religions) that God
dwells in each one of us, then our crimes against one another are
always an offense to God, and thus are anathema. One of my off-scene
characters in Calling Mr. Lonely Hearts espouses my personal religious
philosophy (which, after years of religious study, I may actually have
gotten from a bumper sticker). It all comes down to “Jesus says, ‘Don’t
be an asshole.’”
of my very favorite horror novels combines the power of sin with my
beloved aesthetics. In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian
Gray wishes that he would forever remain beautiful and unsoiled by
life. His wish is granted. (In the film, it was by way of an Egyptian
statue of a cat, maybe? But I don’t remember such a thing in the novel.
Does anyone?) Thereafter Dorian is able to engage in any heinous
activity he chooses, harming whoever he will, without any change in his
physical self. He doesn’t even age. It is the portrait that becomes
ugly and deformed by his deeds. The portrait is his very soul, and
when, in despair, he slashes it with a knife, he dies.
Rosemary’s husband in Rosemary’s Baby makes a Faustian bargain to
fulfill his dreams: he sacrifices his wife’s body and sanity for
commercial success. It works out better for Guy. Not so well for his
What of Flannery O’Connor? Her characters are often
steeped in sin, their actions horrific and difficult to watch. With
O’Connor, though, there is nearly always redemption. In so many true
horror stories, there is punishment without redemption. (Wise Blood is
my favorite. Do you have one?)
So, what is it about the combination of horror and religion that makes it so powerful?
go back to the brain….Still, I’m no kind of scientist. But I always
assumed that religion was sympathetic with the emotional part of the
brain, the limbic system, where the amygdala lives—the same part that
is responsible for my deepest fear reactions. I was interested to learn
that it’s not necessarily so. I’ll link to an Economist article about
It seems that religion/faith-related activities in the brain occur all
over the brain, engaging complex thought processes—including deduction
and reason—and not just the regions linked to emotion.
read this, it made a great deal of sense to me when I thought about the
interplay between the terrible and the sublime in works of dark
fiction. Horror. The crimes are all the worse to the characters
involved because there is always more at stake than a life or lives,
love, money, or even the earth’s survival. The unseen and unknowable
come into the picture. The issues for the characters are complicated by
not only centuries of tradition, but also often by years of speculation
and doubt, or reflections on what might or might not be in the
universe. It is emotion–plus. And as an added bonus, there are always
two endings: faith or disbelief.
Laura Benedict is the author of CALLING MR.
LONELY HEARTS and ISABELLA MOON, both from Ballantine Books. Her short
fiction has also appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and several
anthologies, including the SURREAL SOUTH series, which she edits with
her husband Pinckney Benedict. For the last decade, she has reviewed
books for The Grand Rapids Press in Michigan. She lives with her
husband, two children, two dogs, and the occasional intrepid bobcat in
rural southern Illinois.