[Guest Post] God Is All Loving (Some Exemptions Apply): Religious Magic in Horror and Fantasy by Harry Connolly

I know, I know, I've been MIA lately, but there is quite a bit going on in the background. I'm hoping to share some of it with you soon. Meanwhile, Harry Connolly is taking over the helm today with a guest post. Harry is the author of Child Of Fire, which was named to Publishers Weekly's Best 100 Novels of 2009 and its sequels Game of Cages and Circle of Enemies. For his epic fantasy series The Great Way, he turned to Kickstarter; at the time this was written, it's the ninth-most-funded Fiction campaign ever. Book one of The Great Way, The Way Into Chaos was published in December, 2014. Book two, The Way Into Magic, was published in January, 2015. The third and final book, The Way Into Darkness, was released on February 3rd, 2015. 

"An Epic Fantasy that reads like a Thriller" — Kat Richardson, author of the Greywalker series.

"An Epic Fantasy that reads like a Thriller" — Kat Richardson, author of the Greywalker series.

Harry's newest urban fantasy, A Key, an Egg, an Unfortunate Remark, is scheduled to be published on March 3, 2015 and here is the blurb for you: 

After years of waging a secret war against the supernatural, Marley Jacobs put away her wooden stakes and silver bullets, then turned her back on violence. She declared Seattle, her city, a safe zone for everyone, living and undead. There would be no more preternatural murder under her watch. 

But waging peace can make as many enemies as waging war, and when Marley's nephew turns up dead in circumstances suspiciously like a vampire feeding, she must look into it. Is there a new arrival in town? Is someone trying to destroy her fragile truce? Or was her nephew murdered because he was, quite frankly, a complete tool? 

As Marley investigates her nephew's death, she discovers he had been secretly dabbling in the supernatural himself. What, exactly, had he been up to, and who had he been doing it with? More importantly, does it threaten the peace she has worked so hard to create? (Spoiler: yeah, it absolutely does.)

No stranger to myths or magic, Harry is here today to talk about vampires and why he eschews standard religious magic in his stories.

GOD IS ALL LOVING (SOME EXEMPTIONS APPLY): RELIGIOUS MAGIC IN HORROR AND FANTASY

Every time I see a vampire recoil from a crucifix, I feel a little sour.

Here's why: Imagine you're walking home from your job on the late shift. You're tired. Your feet hurt. You just want some of the leftover lamb korma in your fridge and some shut eye. 

Then, some jerk leaps out of the shadows, overpowers you, bites your neck, and kills you. After of being dead, you wake up in a grave, dig your way free, and search for blood to drink. No more lamb korma for you. 

Have you become evil? Do you take a sadistic joy in causing harm? Should you be destroyed before you spread your curse any further? Well, duh. But is this your fault? 

Of course not. That's why it bugs me in fiction when the Christian God (supposedly a god of love) allows holy symbols to be used as weapons against innocent victims. 

Let's leave aside the theological questions that are raised when a vampire does the whole hiss-and-cringe in the face of an upraised cross. Put away the idea for a moment the idea that this establishes Christianity as the sole legitimate religion. As a non-Christian myself, I'm comfortable accepting fictional settings based on Christian theology; I've been doing it my whole life. Let's instead look at what it implies about God. 

A setting where God allows God's own symbols to scorch and burn murder victims, even ones that are now driven to harm others, is a victim-blaming asshole.

I hear the objections already: vampires are unnatural evil and/or actually, it's belief that turns a vampire and/or a vampire is not the same, they have a demon in them now. Let's go through them:

First, if the novel's setting establishes a real and evident Christian God, the sort who sets fire to vampires when they step inside a church, that's typically supposed to be the same entity who created the universe. So, if it's possible to create a vampire, that's because God made it possible. If it were truly so unnatural that it was forbidden, it wouldn't even exist, rather than just being a violation of the TOS. (For settings like the one in Order of the Stick, where it's not explicitly Christian, this objection doesn't work.)

Also, there's a lot of evil in this world, especially among regular people. Would God burn and scar John Wayne Gacy if he picked up a cross? Would God scar the owner of that factory that knowingly shipped and sold peanut butter tainted with salmonella because it would have cost too much to recall them? 

Frankly, there's an interesting story idea there, but that typically isn't the way it works. Regular killers get to kneel in church and pray for God's mercy, vampires do not. 

Second, is the issue of belief. There are a lot of stories where the religious symbol isn't enough: it's the belief of the person holding it that gives it power. This has a number of advantages: It gives characters an arc, like Roddy McDowell's in the original Fright Night.  It also lets creator's fudge the whole idea of a explicitly Christian setting; it's not that there's an objectively established God that the vampire's responding to, it's the power of the characters themselves. 

Except I can't figure out how this makes any sense, given the way vampire stories work. If vampires flee from crosses because the person with the cross believes they will, why don't they crumple over and die when they're shot full of 9mm hollow points? If you want to talk about the power of belief, shooting someone before you even know they're a vampire is a bedrock foundation for honest belief, more so than holding out a cross. If a vampire is supposed to respond to it, they should clutch their bullet wounds and fall over. 

Unless the belief merely accesses the power of God, in which case see previous point. 

The third objection is the Joss Whedon version, where the vampire retains some of the dead person's qualities, but the person's soul has been replaced by a demon or is completely transformed in some other way. 

I can see why people like this one. Traditionally, demons are not murder victims cursed to commit murder themselves, they're failed revolutionaries. Every one of them that leaves hell to take over a vampire body is an escaped convict of sorts, and God hates demons. 

You know what? I still don't like it. I think it's narcissistic to portray a loving God as withholding that love from part of creation. It reminds me of a scene from a climactic episode of the TV show REAPER (which was good!), in which one of the supporting characters, a demon, is about to help the bad guys kill the lead character. This particular demon is still filled with grief and anger over the death of his boyfriend, and he angrily tells the protagonist that God's love is so powerful it's beyond human understanding, and yet it still doesn't extend to him.

Then, he has a vision of his dead lover, who tells him that he has not been sent to hell after all. His goodness has been rewarded, and the grieving demon is suddenly relieved of his despair and realizes that he does not have to commit evil. 

That scene right there? That was created by a writer who had really thought this stuff through. That writer took his Christian theology seriously.

To sorta change the subject but not really: I admit that I have no problem with Twilight's sparkly vampires. I've never read the books or seen the movies (and probably never will) but the complaint that they move too far from the one-note, ultra-evil, blood-sucking parasites of yesteryear is a complaint that the characters have not been dehumanized enough. It's a call for them to be orcs—character who can be treated with ultimate violence with no regrets.

In fact, vampires are orcs who are so orcish that even God wants to destroy them. 

This isn't to say there's no place in fiction for the monstrous. I've certainly written about creatures that want to kill and devour—creatures that had to be stopped at all costs, the way a shark circling an injured child has to be stopped. My Twenty Palaces series dealt explicitly with the difference between things that are evil and things that are hungry. There will always be a place in fiction for enemies that must be fought.

I've also written about vampires; that's why this issue if at the top of my thoughts. In my upcoming novel A Key, an Egg, an Unfortunate Remark vampires are powerful, dangerous, damaged people. They talk and think. They remember their lives. They're both monsters and human beings. They don't deserve to be murdered in their sleep any more than you or I do.

And that's my complaint. It's one thing for an author to create an enemy that is murderous and must be dealt with. It's another to create a (semi-)human enemy that can suffer any amount of violence because they are so debased that even God rejects them. That doesn't seem much like Christianity to me.

The urban fantasy I mentioned above won't come out until March 3rd, but I do have an epic fantasy trilogy available right now. It's about a sentient curse that brings about the collapse of an empire, and it received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. As for the main villains being rejected by god, well, this book goes in the opposite direction.

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Harry Connolly lives in Seattle with his beloved wife, beloved son, and beloved library system. You can find out more about him at his website where you can read more about his first book in the The Great Way series along with a sample chapter from The Way Into Chaos. You can also find him on TwitterFacebook, and Google+