RAY BRADBURY, THE DEVIL, & THE LOVE OF MONSTROUS THINGS
In 1950, seminal American sci-fi author Ray Bradbury published a short story called “Carnival of Madness” (later reprinted under the title “Usher II”), and in the process he made me a Satanist.
Not directly, of course; but it tipped over the first dominoes. Bradbury set this story in the same dystopian future as his book Fahrenheit 451, when society has outlawed horror stories, fairy tales, and other themes deemed too antisocial by overweening censors.
“Nothing to be produced which in any way suggests ghosts, vampires, fairies, or any creature of the imagination,” a bloodless officiant warns in the tale.
“They lined them up, St. Nicholas and the Headless Horseman and Snow White and Rumpelstiltskin and Mother Goose, and shot them down, and burned the paper castles and the fairy frogs and old kings” his opposite, a subversive eccentric, complains. And worst of all, they “put a stake through the heart of Halloween.”
Our heroic crank defies the law by building a multi-million dollar haunted house, which he uses to exact murderous revenge. At the age of ten I was perfectly horrified–not by the murders, but by the very suggestion of outlawing ghost stories. As an adult I still am, for perhaps different reasons.
This theme appears in other Bradbury stories: In 1948’s “Pillar of Fire,” a man mysteriously comes back from the dead and is furious to discover a future world where nobody remembers old gothic stories.
“‘You destroyers of Edgar Allan Poe and fine big-worded Lovecraft, you burner of Halloween masks and pumpkin jack-o-lanterns! I will make night what it once was, the thing against which man built all his lanterned cities,'” the dead man swears.
That character also becomes a murderer, but this was again somehow less disturbing to me.
In 1949’s “The Mad Wizards of Mars” (later retitled “The Exiles”), the ghosts of those burnt and censored authors–Poe, Ambrose Bierce, Algernon Blackwood, even Shakespeare–are banished to live on Mars, having nowhere left on Earth to haunt.
(Charles Dickens is there too, but offended by the company he’s forced to keep.)
Again the old ghosts kill to push back the tide of sterile thinking, and again it doesn’t work.
As a kid I was very sensitive about this sort of thing, perceiving both that I loved the macabre and monstrous more than anything, and also that at least some of my elders disapproved of it.
(This in spite of the fact that their generations had produced all of the materials I was enamored with in the first place, which struck me as entirely two-faced. If Thomas Harris wrote a story about eating people he got millions of dollars, but if I did it I got a long-suffering look from the principal; where was the justice?)
I was also aware that some people really did want to burn out my favorites; growing up at the tail-end of the Satanic Panic, I inherited a lot of rhetoric about the supposedly damaging devilish influence of things like Halloween and Dungeons & Dragons. (Making Satan sound incredibly fun in the process, of course.)
I was scared not of the devil, but of growing up into a world where things like this–and by extension, people like me–would not be welcome.
I want to stress that this did not happen: Halloween is now a multi-billion dollar industry. People spend less on Halloween than other end-of-year holidays, but report to the National Retail Federation pollsters that Halloween spending makes them happier.
Horror movies have over the last decade become a prestigious Hollywood genre and compose 10 percent of Rotten Tomatoes’ best-reviewed films list for last year.
CNBC reports that Dungeons & Dragons sales increased 33 percent in 2020, part of a growth streak that’s lasted six years running.
And it was still less than five years ago that Guillermo Del Toro won a Best Picture Oscar for a movie about fucking the Creature From the Black Lagoon.
The Halloween-hating book burners of my Bradbury-tinged youth nightmares did not take over. In truth, for as much of an unyielding piece of shit JK Rowling turned out to be, I think she had a big part in this: The fundy crowd spent an entire generation railing against her kids’ books, but Harry Potter walked out of the culture war without a scar on him.
However, this doesn’t mean that the problem has gone away. In fact if anything, it may have gotten worse if you’re, say, queer, or an immigrant, or mixed-race, or a person with a disability, or who faces mental health challenges–the list goes on.
What really frightens fundies are not ghosts and ghouls, or even Satan himself: They’re scared of allowing people to be different. As I’ve noted over and over again, “heresy” means “choice”; “orthodoxy” means (roughly) “conformity.”
Where is the religious messaging telling us not to surrender ourselves but to be ourselves, or that we are not “one” but in fact are many, diverse, individual, and multifarious? You have to look much harder for a church to preach that.
Or, you could preach it yourself, as a Modern Satanist.
Aforementioned Oscar-winning director and oversized hobbit Guillermo Del Toro told the Guardian in 2016, “I love monsters the way people worship holy images.” (It should surprise no one that Del Toro also loved Ray Bradbury.)
I think I too am lucky that I learned to love monsters at a young age. Because some “monsters” are not monsters; some monsters are people, and the world does not always love and keep them safe them the way that they deserve.