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Meet the ‘Catholic Gothic Club’

Meet the ‘Catholic Gothic Club’

A trio of books illustrate how Catholic writers are addressing the perennial battle between good vs. evil. (photo: Courtesy book covers)

Three Catholic writers encounter vampires.

There are currently a number of devoutly Catholic authors who happen to be writing fiction that is about the supernatural and, in particular, about vampires.

Meet Karen UlloEleanor Bourg Nicholson and Fiorella de Maria. All are Catholic writers who have written novels with supernatural themes.

The Catholic Gothic Club has assembled.

Why have these women chosen supernatural themes for their fiction? “I find the classic Gothic tradition highly entertaining,” admits Bourg Nicholson. “The trappings of the supernatural/preternatural provide a fictional setting where an author can explore themes of sin and grace, redemption through violence, spiritual warfare — and with such outrageous theatricality — without becoming preachy.”

“When fiction is at its best, it expands us: our minds, our souls, our ability to empathize with others,” says Ullo. “It allows us to enter into lives and ideas beyond our own, to experiment with emotions, philosophies and moralities we would not necessarily be able — or even want — to experience in real life. … With speculative fiction — science fiction, fantasy and horror — we can take this one step further.” She maintains that by creating something that does not exist in the real world, it can be imbued with a purely symbolic meaning. “You can take something abstract like evil or addiction or fear — or goodness or truth or kindness — and not only magnify it, but incarnate it; you can give it a body, a way of operating in the world.” She suggests that only speculative fiction can do this, as there is only so far everyday things can be stretched to stand as “symbols.” For her, it is at this point that mythic subject matter, such as vampires, comes into to play.

De Maria considers that many supernatural themes are present in her books, if in a subtler way than in her recently co-authored horror novel: This Thing of Darkness. “As a Catholic,” she says, “it seems natural to write about the supernatural, as I am acutely aware of the existence of the supernatural and the influence of both angelic and demonic forces on the world.”

How do these authors reply to the criticism that “vampires” and such are unsuitable for Catholics to read, let alone write, about? “I would say that Catholics should write in the horror genre because Catholics should explore most genres,” says de Maria. “It is particularly important for Catholics to write about dark subjects because the faith gives them an appropriate context. We know that the forces of darkness are real; the devil is real. But we do not have to face the darkness alone. We are also protected by the sacraments, the intercession of the saints.”

“Most modern horror is nihilistic, gratuitous and artistically lacking,” admits Ullo. “But that does not make the mere idea of the vampire, or monsters, in general, unsuitable for Catholics.” She suggests that the vampire, in particular, has a specific role to play in the Catholic imagination: “It drinks blood in order to escape the grave. It is a direct, deliberate inversion of the Eucharist: the vampire’s selfish gluttony [feeding on] of unwilling victims to achieve being un-dead, versus the perfectly unselfish sacrifice of our willing Savior to give us eternal life. It’s incredibly fertile artistic ground for the Catholic author.”

Bourg Nicholson agrees. She sees this inversion of the Eucharist as dating from the time of Bram Stoker, the writer of the 1897 seminal vampire novel Dracula. “There is also a long history, especially in England, of anti-Catholic writers indulging in an aesthetic appropriation of things Catholic as a means of capturing the supernatural/preternatural,” she continues. “Ironically, this mostly anti-Catholic tradition has provided us with an amazing opportunity to articulate the reality of the war between guilt and grace that takes place in each and every soul.”

Bourg Nicholson is the assistant executive editor for Dappled Things and assistant editor for the St. Austin Review. In 2018 Ignatius Press published her novel A Bloody Habit: A Novel, a Victorian vampire tale. Fiorella De Maria has published four novels with Ignatius Press and, in addition, created the Father Gabriel mystery series. In 2021, Ignatius Press published her co-authored novel This Thing of Darkness, a tale of the supernatural set in 1950s Hollywood. An editor for Chrism Press, Karen Ullo is the author of two horror novels, Jennifer the Damned (2015) and Cinder Allia (2017).

Why is there such a plethora of orthodox Catholic writers working in the horror genre today? “For Christians, there is really only one story that matters, which is the story of salvation — and it is a very bloody story,” says Ullo. “Ultimately, there is only one horror in all of human history: It is the Fall and our separation from God through sin. And there is only one path to resurrection: through the cross. As Catholic writers, if we understand that all sin is horror and all horror is the result of sin, then suddenly the horror genre becomes not only a natural fit for storytelling, but a genre that is truly ours.” She suggests that it is Catholic writers more than anyone else who understand this. She thinks the many Catholics working in the horror genre today realize how its conventions and tropes echo this and “can use the darkness to point the way toward the Light.”

Furthermore, de Maria feels that Gothic horror is a “rich genre for exploring the spiritual life in a skeptical and materialistic world.” She also sees it as ironic that today’s audience needs ghosts and vampires to have an adult conversation about the existence of the supernatural, the reality of sin and evil. Interestingly, she also points out that “only in the horror genre are men given the freedom to be good fathers or faithful priests. You will almost never see a positive portrayal of a priest anywhere else, perhaps because horror reminds us of the need for strong fathers to protect their families and faithful priests to confront the demonic.”

“Classic Gothic is one of the few remaining arenas in which a novelist can still express truth without immediately being dismissed by non-Catholic readers,” contends Bourg Nicholson. She senses that Catholic novelists writing in this genre speak to the daily reality of spiritual warfare. “We see the horrors of this fallen world. We know the monstrousness of man without grace. We also love a thrilling redemption plot, and Gothic can provide it.”

All three women are part of an online group: Catholic Vampire Fiction. Perhaps unexpectedly, Ullo says the online group is primarily one of “fun.”

“We laugh a lot,” she says. “The idea that there’s such a thing as a ‘Catholic Vampire Fiction’ group at all is kind of hilarious.” But it is helpful, she feels, that there is a meeting place for writers who understand the power of combining Gothic monsters with faithful Catholicism. “Because the thing about horror is that you have to remember to laugh.” The Crucifixion, she points out, is not “the final scene of the story. The Resurrection is. The devil is defeated, and we should laugh. So we do.”

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