C.S. Lewis and gothic horror? One of these things does not sound like the other. That’s what I was thinking five years ago, where I started reading a book called Terence Fisher: Horror, Myth and Religion by Paul Leggett. Among other things it suggested that Fisher, probably best-known today for his gothic horror films made for Hammer Film Productions in the 1950s-1970s, had a particularly Judeo-Christian worldview that mad him a kindred spirit with his contemporaries, The Inklings.
Since I enjoy exploring connections that others haven’t dug into, I started diving into Fisher’s films. I found that they had a lot more in common with Lewis’ stories than even Paul Leggett seem to have noticed. I began composing an essay that extended Leggett’s ideas, along with some sidetrails that he hadn’t explored.
My ideas could have made for a full book, but I realized that it was too niche a topic for that. So it became a series of projects
- an essay presented at the 2019 Taylor University Making Literature Conference
- a research paper I completed research on during a Young Inklings seminar at Taylor University’s Center for the Study of C.S. Lewis & Friends
- a presentation in 2021 for The Inkling Folk Fellowship
I was even able to turn some side research into a 2-part blog post series for The Oddest Inkling. By the time I did the presentation, I was drafting the bulk of my research into an essay for Mythlore, an academic journal that publishes Inklings studies.
The project had changed in substantial ways by the time I did my 2021 presentation. For one thing, I found that the themes Leggett saw in Fisher’s films were all easy to see in the films, but Fisher wasn’t quite the “Christian brother of the Inklings working in film” that Leggett cast him as. Interviews (many of which have fortunately been republished in the magazine Little Shoppe of Horrors) show he consistently talked about good and evil as real things, and evil being dangerous because it appears attractive. In a Cinefantastique interview, he called the Biblical story about the serpent in the Garden of Eden a story, but one that captures the essence of evil: clever, tempting, charming. These details (especially his belief evil truly existed) make it impossible to call Fisher an atheist – nor for that matter could he be a consistent Christian Scientist, the religion he was raised in. One of Christian Science’s core tenets is evil is illusion.
While these beliefs (and others, like his recurring comments about Dr. Frankenstein as an image of amoral science) give Fisher something in common with the Inklings, it’s hard to say what he truly believed. In interviews (like this one in 1969) he tended to answer questions about God or his faith with “I don’t know” or something equally noncommittal. The authorized Fisher biography (not released until 2021) records one conversation where Fisher disregarded a common argument for God’s existence. Whether these comments are proof he was a full-blown religious skeptic or just uncomfortable talking about his private beliefs with interviewers is hard to say. After all, he was English, and as Holly Ordway observed in her recent award-winning book on Tolkien, Englishmen tend to be guarded interviewees unless they have a good rapport with their conversation partner.
So, I had to draft an essay that admitted Fisher wasn’t perhaps an orthodox Christian, but had some distinctly Christian values, and show he really did have some surprising thematic overlaps with them. And I had to explain why it was worth digging deeper into those overlaps. I sent my essay in April 2022. The peer reviewer didn’t link it, feeling (quite rightly) that I didn’t connect the ideas together enough. However, Mythlore informed me that they would accept the essay, provided I made some specific changes. Many, many revisions (with extensive help from Dr. Sorina Higgins of Signum University) followed. During on revision, I realized Russell Kirk, a writer I had discovered thanks to a Mythlore seminar, had written an essay on ghost stories that I could use as a framework to connect the essay’s different ideas together.
I resubmitted the essay. It was accepted in August. Mythlore‘s new issue was sent to the printers in early October, and I got my contributor copy this weekend.
It has been a long journey this five years. However, I don’t think I have any other project I’m prouder of.
Here’s where you can read my essay, “Tellers of Dark Fairy Tales: Common Themes in the Works of C.S. Lewis and Terence Fisher,” online:
In a very strange twist of fate, the same issue published a short book review I wrote about Roy Schwartz’s very interesting book Is Superman Circumcised?: The Complete Jewish History of the World’s Greatest Hero. You can read that review here:
And, in a very delighting surprise, the Mythlore seminar on Russell Kirk that gave me so much help with my final draft became an essay published in the same issue as well. Here’s where you can read “Delight in Horror”: Charles Williams and Russell Kirk on Hell and the Supernatural by Camilo Peralta:
Here are some other places where I’ve written about Fisher in the last couple of years:
And last but not least, here’s a recent Halloween movies article where I talk about three of Fisher’s greatest films:
Note: if you watch the Mythlore seminar video about Russell Kirk, you can hear Camilo Peralta saying, “Thank you Connor” for no clear reason. This is in fact me saying something random in an online chat as he was talking over Zoom. This is not the ideal way to get your name passed around in academia, but, well, I take what I can get.