How to Be an Atheist: Working out the Worldview of a Skeptic, Free for CAPC Members
Mitch Stokes’ ‘How to Be an Atheist’ shows the work of the worldview of a skeptic.
Anyone perusing my publication history (academic or Christ and Pop Culture) will likely note my love for weird fiction, that sub-genre that occupies the liminal spaces between horror, fantasy, and science fiction. Tracing its first flourishings back to certain Gothic strands and especially to Edgar Allan Poe, weird fiction’s greatest exponent and devotee in the twentieth century was H. P. Lovecraft, whose Supernatural Horror in Literature followed the thread of such writing to his own era of the 1920s and whose work continues to inspire (in various ways) new generations of contemporary writers. In today’s book market, Lovecraft’s influence may be stronger than ever. Many well-known horror authors acknowledge a debt to his work. This debt isn’t always unambivalent, as some writers have felt compelled to wrestle with the well-recognized racism embedded in so many of his texts, leading to such critically-acclaimed works as Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom and Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country (now a forthcoming HBO series).
But if weird fiction is receiving some degree of mainstream recognition, it still hardly approaches the popularity of epic fantasy, pure sci-fi, or superhero comics. Now, as in generations past, if you want to find some of the best gems of the genre, you have to go digging. This is no sad task for me; some of my favorite texts have been well-earned, books I spent months or even years hunting down. That said, while there may be some legitimate value in acquiring a difficult-to-find volume, I won’t complain if I happen upon a rare work in well-produced form. And though I am a frequent critic of technology’s abuses and unintended consequences, one benefit of the twenty-first-century landscape is the proliferation of quality niche publishers. When I think about such small presses, one particular name springs to mind: the weird fiction imprint Hippocampus Press. This and other similar publishers keep alive memorable works that might otherwise remain in obscurity, and in the process, they may serve as a reminder of how important a broad and eclectic library of content can be.
Notwithstanding sporadic bursts of greater popularity, weird fiction has always been a niche market. In Lovecraft’s day, the American nexus of such work was the pulp magazine Weird Tales, but when the pulp market crashed (due to the collapse of the American News Company), genre fiction was increasingly forced to transition to book form. The more dominant genre of pure science fiction kept many of its signature magazines alive, while successfully erupting into the mass-market paperback market. Weird fiction survived, sometimes in the same mode as its upstart cousin, but again, the discomfiting ambivalences of its borderland status kept it from becoming quite as successful as sci-fi. The unnerving questions the genre posed were a poor fit for the post-WWII decades that emphasized cultural stability and technological scientific expertise.
The twenty-first century has seen a renaissance (or a nascence?) of the small press, across multiple genres.Fiction cannot survive on pulps alone—that mode of publication was by its very nature ephemeral, as such tales were printed in magazines that would tend to disintegrate over time. In this context, it was the small press market that kept the legacy of Weird Tales alive, most notably the publisher Arkham House. Arkham House was named after one of Lovecraft’s fictional New England towns, and it was founded by Lovecraft correspondent August Derleth to keep his stories, and others like them, in print in durable fashion. Its legacy is a complicated one, as many believe Derleth was constructing an elaborate mythology out of Lovecraft’s tales that HPL never intended or desired. But few would deny that in America, anyway, Arkham House played a major role in preserving a generation’s worth (or more) of weird fiction.
Lovecraft and a few other writers did gain a little more mainstream recognition with the rise of the cheap paperback. Imprints like Ballantine Books expanded the genre’s reach: for Ballantine’s Adult Fantasy Series, editor Lin Carter smuggled in as much weird fiction and dark fantasy as pure Tolkienian secondary-world-working. Still, while such ventures allowed these works to survive and expand their audience, they also may have served to pigeonhole them in the realm of “popular” fiction. More work needed to occur for weird fiction to be taken seriously as a literary form and for some of its more obscure or experimental masterworks to be acknowledged.
And what of cultivating new generations of writers? Horror novels exploded in popularity in the late twentieth-century—think Stephen King, Anne Rice, Clive Barker, William Peter Blatty, Dean Koontz—and many of the authors possess their own merits. But only occasionally does their writing approach the more existential terror of the “weird” as genre connoisseurs would understand it. In addition to Arkham House, other specialty publishers (like Necronomicon Press) continued the weird tradition, but some of these were limited in resources (and audience), hard to find, and at times packaged as simple stapled chapbooks.
The twenty-first century has seen a renaissance (or a nascence?) of the small press, across multiple genres. While one could enumerate countless drawbacks to the industry of online books shopping (ahem, Amazon), it has allowed niche markets to thrive in a way they simply couldn’t before, when shelf space in bookstores was often reserved for more mainstream productions. While online retail has seen the proliferation of self-published tomes, many of them wretched, it has also allowed legitimate visionary publishers the opportunity to match once-rare texts to the readers who might desperately be seeking them. In the weird genre, several such excellent presses exist, making available both old classics and new talent, companies such as Wildside Press, Night Shade Books, Tartarus Press, Valancourt Books, and my personal favorite, Hippocampus Press.
Founder Derrick Hussey first conceived of Hippocampus Press following his conversations with the prolific (if at times controversial) Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi. In 1999, seeking “to do good work in a field I care deeply about,” Hussey created the company and the next year collaborated with Joshi to release an annotated edition of Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature. In the decades since, Hippocampus has published numerous primary texts by Lovecraft, in addition to works by his literary antecedents, contemporaries, and (increasingly) those carrying on his legacy. It has also printed poetry and scholarship in the weird fiction tradition, all at a high standard while still affordable to the interested lay reader.
Some books deservedly get submerged by history; others, however, become unjustly obscured (for a variety of reasons). For readers like me whose tastes skew toward eldritch, nameless terrors, acquiring texts of such arcana was once an arduous task, a task made much easier by niche publishers. For example, when I was in graduate school, I spent years attempting to locate the poetry of Nora May French, an early-twentieth-century California poet whose work Lovecraft and many of his contemporaries admired. I was finally able to acquire them by interlibrary loaning a 1910 first edition through the library at Baylor (where I was doing my PhD work). But for those without access to such resources, pursuing French’s rare (and undeservedly forgotten) volume would prove a challenge, to say the least. Imagine my delight, then to learn that all of her work had been printed in The Outer Gate, a scholarly edition released in 2009 by Hippocampus.
Part of me will miss the quixotic quest for genre esoterica and the thrill of locating, months or years later, the object of my searching. Such difficult-to-find books will doubtless always exist—small presses can only do so much—but even so, I am grateful to know there are like-minded readers committed to keeping these works in the public consciousness. My own personal collection of nearly two dozen Hippocampus publications should testify to this.
I could write about the ways in which the advent of professional small presses could feed a market for thoughtful, literate Christian fiction (genre or otherwise), but that’s another (worthwhile) article. Yet why should I, a devout Christian, celebrate a horror publisher? It’s a consideration that ought not be brushed aside in too cavalier a fashion. As a teacher, writer, and critic, I take seriously James’s warning that I may “be judged with greater strictness” on such matters. Weird fiction may not be morally salacious for every believer, and even for those like me who have acquired the taste, it shouldn’t be an exclusive diet. I can speak to what I have read but cannot claim that a Christian could benefit from everything Hippocampus Press (or its sister publishers) has printed.
But, as I have already explored in some past pieces, Christian interaction with horror generally and Lovecraft specifically can prove valuable. Whether by forcing us to confront our fears and their implications, by teasing out the bleak implications of nihilistic philosophy, or by reminding us of the existence of realms beyond our disenchanted secular viewpoints, religious readers may find important insights in these dark corners. Paul tells the Philippian church, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (NIV). While this verse is often leveraged against reading horror, I would argue that, on the contrary, the best weird tales can be an elegant part of this process and prepare us to be better readers of Scripture.
While I cannot embrace every idea or product of every author at Hippocampus, I have found much of their work good, true, and beautiful in significant ways.For the Bible itself was written across 1,500-odd years by dozens of authors in various cultures and three languages, and it switches fluidly (or at times dramatically) between genres. Weird horror in the modern sense did not, of course, exist during those times, yet Lovecraft may not have been too far off when he opened Supernatural Horror in Literature with the famous line, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear . . .” Any document that purports to speak to the human condition must acknowledge that fear.
And in many of its genres, the Bible does just that. The apocalyptic literature of Ezekiel, Daniel, Zechariah, and Revelation shares some affinity with fantasy but also involves imagery that can be truly horrific (at least if we don’t tame our reading of it). The poetic language of some psalms and prophets is likewise stark and visceral. The ESV Study Bible’s introduction to Joel, for instance, rightly notes that “Joel’s imagination amplifies literal locusts into images of apocalyptic horror.” And then there are the constant refrains enjoining us to the fear of our sublime God, which, though a reverence distinct from outright terror, nonetheless overlaps with the cosmicism of the best weird writers.
To employ a common maxim, the Bible is a library—a single book with one Word, yes, but also undoubtedly a collection of diverse texts. As in any library, there are many sections, some well-stocked and others with a more specific and selective offering. Of course, “perfect love casts out fear,” as John reminds us. To be sure, God’s holy love is the greatest theme of the gospel and the Scriptures that proclaim it. But our human loves are still imperfect, and fear remains, and so there will be space in the library for those texts that reckon with it.
Is this indulgent? “Of making many books there is no end,” Ecclesiastes warns. Like self-publishing, niche markets and small presses can mean that books best left unseen may be foisted on poorly discerning readers. And given my longstanding love of weird fiction, there is always the danger I may be reverse-engineering my theology to fit my preferences (or worse, my idols).
Yet humans manifest splinters of God’s image in their cultural productions. Christ and Pop Culture exists “to edify the Church, glorify God, and witness to the world by encouraging and modeling a biblical presence within culture that is characterized by nuance and appreciation while resisting the extremes of thoughtless condemnation and uncritical embrace.” While I cannot embrace every idea or product of every author at Hippocampus, I have found much of their work good, true, and beautiful in significant ways. Nor have I, as an unapologetic Christian, found the Hippocampus community antagonistic or unreceptive to me as a religious scholar, even when their own worldviews might conflict with mine.
And so, in the midst of all the trials of our age, I assert that Hippocampus Press and its brethren represent one aspect of our era that we can celebrate. Thanks to their work, we have a fuller (and better) library than might otherwise exist. However weird it may be, that is a truth we can be grateful for.
For as low as $5/month, you’ll get access to free offerings from creators and authors we love, exclusive access to our member’s only forum, and exclusive content and podcasts — and you’ll help ensure that CAPC keeps getting better and better.