Dark Faith, ed. Maurice Broaddus and Jerry Gordon

December 19, 2010

The Apex anthology Dark Faith, edited by Maurice Broaddus and Jerry Gordon, collects almost 400 pages of religion-themed horror, both short fiction and poetry. Broaddus writes in his introduction that “we all believe in something”, signalling the wide ambit given here to the idea of faith. As is common with such themed anthologies,  such an extensive range risks producing some unevenness and superfluous material. But conceding the inevitable weak spots, there is compelling work here that keenly explores both specific faiths and faith as such.

Dark Faith begins at the US’s most prominent sacred site, with falling spectres locked into their desperate escape from the burning twin towers. The repetition of this traumatic event is haunting, but by approaching such ghosts supernaturally (rather than through the mediatised images that in fact captured them for the melancholic archive), this story itself becomes hollowed and spectral. More religious violence against tyrannical power follows, whether the revenge is attempted in this world, at the end of days, or in the afterlife. There are ineffective or misdirected militant attacks on God and pacifist refusals of his judgment and reach. Of course the messiah, when he comes, is rarely what we expected: instead we share a smoke with a decrepit “Jeezy” grown bored with heaven, or we wait for an Elijah with too many glasses of wine under his belt. Come, Lord? On second thought, maybe not.

The antho takes a step up a quarter of the way in with Nick Mamatas’s “The Last Words of Dutch Schultz Jesus Christ,” which mediates the divine through biology and spectacle. The God Film with its infinity of reds produces mystical experiences in a group of students-cum-experimental subjects. The resulting campus cult makes an extreme neurotheological sport of their improvised attempts to encounter God. Then Mamatas shows us the film, beginning the intertextual play with the Burroughs novel struck through in the story’s title. He straps us in to gaze at red, as if he is trying to induce a noumenal experience in the reader, and he damn near triggers it, too.

The book delivers a mixture of such encounters with the absolute, down through the chain of being from the celestial and demonic to the earthly and animal. In Richard Dansky’s story, the sovereign Other with its regal, alien intelligence is found in the mad eyes of a heron. Characters struggle at the whim of capricious, otherworldly forces, suffering, degenerating, giving birth, losing themselves. They face the inhuman; sometimes they become it. Matt Cardin’s “Chimeras & Grotesqueries” describes, in a refined yet detached voice, the “perpetual solitude and miniature demiurgic activities” (113) of a grotesque derelict taken to fashioning monstrous figures from flotsam, amid the mass hysteria of a decaying urban milieu. Again, the religious sublime must broach the biophysical substrate—worming its way into the brain and the gut—with broken, finite creatures and worlds set askew by the touch of the transcendent.

As might be expected, there are plenty of apocalypses, some all too familiar but others less so. In Catherynne M. Valente’s “The Days of Flaming Motorcyles” the narrator is able to take the end of the world in her stride—after all, as she insists on not a few occasions, there is a marked continuity between the disaster and the world she once knew, from late capitalist urban decay to ordinary, instinctive, familial violence. This undecidably angelic or viral outbreak, rather than devolving into primitive survival, settles into a reflective way of life from where she can watch the unsettlingly sensitive zombies contrive their own solution to the pain of existence and the loss of community. It is a pragmatically hopeful story about ritual and making do amid catastrophe.

Not all the stories are as innovative or well-executed. A trio about creativity and death or sex, as well as a pair about grief and immobility, detract from the thematic integrity of the volume. Some of the writing approaches the tedious, and some of the (anti-)spirituality verges on the adolescent and preachy. There is much in the familiar glut of carnage that is about as subversive as a metalhead preacher’s son. Yet where the theme of dark faith is actively explored—check the Bible, or a newspaper, if these terms seem incongruous—avenues open up for truly interesting speculation. Character studies from the perspective of final judgment offer insights into the ever theological notion of the self. The enumerated paragraphs of Brian Keene’s “I Sing a New Psalm” add up and take away the parts of a life and then weigh the remainder against the absolute (with predictable consequences). In Douglas F. Warrick’s story, a life recounted through the tortures of hell is gradually eluded via zen, with pain, rage, grief, sorrow, all the wounds of a named, known and evaluated soul dissolving into asubjective nothingness. Perhaps most often, we are faced with religion as war and destruction. There are priests and patriarchs, moralists and authorities, getting their just desserts—or sometimes not, however deserved. Indeed, too often the relatively innocent reap the wages of others’ sins. In this volume, the unjust agonies of a damaged world are  exposed, refused, scorned and mourned with unrepentant regularity.

The anthology closes with Gary A. Braunbeck’s “For My Next Trick I’ll Need A Volunteer,” an ambitious piece of cosmic noir filled (at points overstuffed) with rambling banter between a detective and a priest. Like so many of the previous stories, it confronts the existence of excessive suffering, searching for some minor redemption in a godless, entropic multiverse. Its solution is hardly agreeable: apart from one brief moment of soon-forgotten empathy, it is apolitical, moralistic, and enthusiastically vengeful, with one character opining that “Evil is a human matter, fashioned by ignorance, brutality, addiction, emotional trauma—the list is endless.” (371) Yet what reconciliation of pain with the good would satisfy? The volume canvasses many strains of misotheism—the omnibenevolence of God being quite plainly bogus, even if his existence isn’t—with practical solutions to the problem of evil ranging from deicide to multiple homicide. Yet sometimes nonviolent escapes from the cycle of blame and retribution are sought and even found, as in Valente’s utopian rituals, Warrick’s enlightenment, Lucy A. Snyder’s mutinous truth or the anthology’s numerous moments of dark and absurd humour. We are shown a range of faiths and gods, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and pagan, totalitarian and childlike, fierce and fickle, inept and feeble. If little ultimately holds them together, the regular flashes of suffering and defiance, futility and hope, do witness to the everyday persistence of vital religious instincts.

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