Welcome Guest Blogger Laura Benedict!!

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

Laura Headshot

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.”

Yes,
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?

Why
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,
the

Murderatiamygdala

amygdala, 
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
the agent.

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
powerfully gothic.

 

Murderatirbaby

I
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. 

At
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.’”

One
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. 

Murderatidorian

Guy,
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
wife.

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?

Let’s
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 here.
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.

When I
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 Cover

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 Magazi
ne 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.


 

10 thoughts on “Welcome Guest Blogger Laura Benedict!!

  1. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Laura and welcome to Murderati!

    What a fascinating topic. Humans seem to be constantly motivated by a combination of fear and hope.

    Best of luck to you and JT on your tour. Knock ’em dead ;-]

    Reply
  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I second the rave about MR. LONELY HEARTS – you’ll be enticed in by the Santeria, but you’ll stay for the devastating psychological portraits of these three troubled women.

    And as for Ms. Benedict, well… I’m a fan! So bummed that I am not near enough the Blonde and Blonder tour stops to come out and get you both drunk – I mean, be there to support your books.

    Laura, I couldn’t agree more that horror is a spiritual genre – THE most spiritual genre, really. I didn’t grow up with religion – just whatever I managed to pick up when I was dragged along to whatever church or temple my friends happened to go to, but somewhere I picked up the same love for the aesthetics of Catholicism (Judaism and Sufism, too!) that you talk about, and I am, obviously, completely obsessed with good and evil.

    I’m pretty sure I’m working out all my spiritual questions and struggles by writing about the supernatural.

    Reply
  3. Mary-Frances Makichen

    Hi Laura,Great post! Okay, so I’m behind a book, but can I rave about Isabella Moon. I just finished it. Wow, a ghost story, murder mystery, character study, really beautifully written. Wow, I don’t want to give anything away but it’s a wonderful read. Great to see you here a Murderati!

    Reply
  4. Louise Ure

    Wonderfully thought-out post, Laura. And I agree that some of the best stories — and not just horror stories — are all about bargaining with the devil. That’s character development done in spades.

    Reply
  5. toni mcgee causey

    Welcome to Murderati, Laura! So great to see you here, and what a fantastic post. And I, too, can tout what a wonderful book Isabella Moon is — can’t wait to read the new one.

    I loved your analogy and the reasonings behind such a predominance of religion iconography in horror stories. I think religion is one of those very few subjects that almost everyone will have to have not only thought about, but made some sort of decision about–whether it’s to believe or not or somewhere on the spectrum. It makes sense, then, that we each have a personal identification at some level with religion, and feel more invested in that topic (by way of having spent time with it) than we might feel for almost any other topic out there, except, maybe, love and friendship. We bring our own religious identity into a horror story with us, and as soon as that story starts plucking away at those presumptions and beliefs, we’re there, *in* the story, in a more profound way.

    Fascinating subject.

    Reply
  6. Allison Brennan

    Hi Laura! Wow. A most excellent blog. I had noticed the connection, but never gave it much thought until I started developing my own supernatural thriller series which is darker and with far more religious overtones than I expected. I’ve read virtually ever book you mentioned and suspect my reading choices as a teen-ager impacted my writing today. Now, I don’t consider my supernatural series horror, but I don’t think Stephen King is all horror (some is, some isn’t), but it definitely has the classic supernatural overtones as opposed to the new paranormal.

    I completely agree about Catholic churches. I love the dark, brooding, gothic style with ornate paintings, brilliant stained glass where you see something different depending on the light and the angle, the reverence. One of my favorite churches was actually Episcopalian (my best friend growing up was Episcopalian and we didn’t know we weren’t supposed to go to communion in each others churches, I just thought it was cool they got wine so I liked going with her!) Her church was long, narrow, dark, with carved arches and old marble. I haven’t stepped inside it since I was 11 or 12, but I remember everything. The new, bright, sterile warehouse churches leave me cold.

    Don’t be an asshole. I love it.

    I suppose I shouldn’t admit this, but the spark for my seven deadly sins ideas is a religious joke. The one about the man drowning in the ocean. A fisherman comes to rescue him and he says, “No, God will save me.” A yacht comes by and throws a lifeline. “No, God will save me.” An ocean liner comes by and throws a vest. “No, God will save me.” He drowns, goes to Heaven and asks God, “Why didn’t you save me.” God says, “I sent you three boats.” It’s always been a great parable to me because we don’t always see solutions and both our faith and our biases can blind us so we don’t do what’s right.

    Anyway, I’m so glad you’re here! I can’t wait to catch up in person in NY. You ARE going to Thrillerfest, right?

    Reply
  7. Allison Brennan

    Grr, I re-read my post and realized I rambled and didn’t even get to my main point. No surprise there.

    I think it’s fascinating the researchers discovery that matters of faith use all parts of the brain, but I’m not surprised. I think human beings, regardless of our upbringing, the religion we were raised with or what we practice (or don’t practice) now, are always looking for answers about self and our existence. Why are we here, what is expected of us (if anything), what is after this, how to we get to it, is this all there is, why are people evil, how can some people be heroic, etc. Because the believe in heaven and hell, God and gods, is so powerful and ingrained in our culture for thousands of years, because we’ve heard of supernatural phenomena or experienced it ourself, because there are some things that can not be explained or can’t be explained to our satisfaction, stories that explore these themes tend to be universal. Humans naturally are seekers–we seek answers, reasons, ideas, knowledge. We thirst for it, crave it, and thinking there is something else, something more, something better, something worse, something unexplained, is both reassuring and wholly terrifying.

    Reply
  8. pari

    Laura,Welcome, welcome to Murderati!

    Please say, “Hey,” to JT and the folks at MBTB.

    This post in fabulous and is going to take more than one read to really digest and think about.

    My niece is earning her PhD in psychology. One the grants she’s received focuses on religion and whether it works on the brain differently in conflicts than, say, politics.

    I’m going to be very interested to find out what her research shows because I think religion is different — the passion may seem and feel similar.

    Reply
  9. Laura Benedict

    Hi from Houston, everyone! Zoe, Louise, Mary-Frances, thank you so much for making me feel so welcome here. I was a little nervous about this post because it does bring in the “R” word–such a personal subject. Toni, when you say that we bring our religious identity into our work and are absolutely “in” or present in it is dead-on. Allison–you crack me up! My favorite is about the guy who begs God for years to let him win the lottery, then dies and asks God why he didn’t win. And God’s reply is: “It would’ve helped if you’d bought a ticket!”

    Alex–Keep working it out! You know I love to read the results.

    Pari–That’s so cool about your niece. It would be great to see her conclusions when she publishes them.

    The Blonde and Blonder Tour picks up again in a couple of hours (hmmm I feel a nap coming on!). We’ll happily give everyone’s best to the MBTB folks and then escape town before they can tag us for the damage to our hotel rooms!

    Reply
  10. J.B. Thompson

    Fantastic post, Laura, so thought-provoking, original and real – and what an honor and pleasure to meet you in Nashville. Can’t wait to get my hands on your books. Hope you and JT are having a ball on your B&B tour!

    Reply

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