Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Allure of the Dark

Lately I've become fascinated with a BBC television program from few years back, Wire In The Blood. It is based on the novels of Val McDermid, one of my favorite writers. The series follows the work of psychologist/criminal profiler Dr. Tony Valentine Hill (brilliantly played by Robson Green, left) who helps the police in the fictional town of Bradfield on the Scottish border. For such a remote area they sure have a lot of serial killers up there but I'm a firm believer in suspension of disbelief. The series is very dark. Very, very dark and Dr. Hill, for all his boyish charm, is the darkest part of the series. In the books Tony was severely abused as a child by the evil grandfather who raised him. The years of abuse have left him hyper-aware of the evil mind. It has also left him sexually repressed which is bad news for the female detectives he works with who are always falling for him.

As I have been watching each episode I am aware of two things – the sexual tension is almost unbearable at times and the darkness of the minds of the killers that Tony can enter with such facility is utterly, utterly fascinating.

I have been thinking about why we are so drawn to darkness in entertainment. The popularity of the Twilight books and movies is one example. The decades of books from writers such as Anne Rice is another. Some months back I got involved in an online discussion forum which involved a number of discussions about Catholicism. Ms Rice is also a member of that forum and we got into a rather exciting (for me) discussion of darkness, its allure and its meaning, very much framed within the traditions of the Catholic Church. Both of us grew up Catholic, spent years rejecting our Catholicism and have, in recent years, felt drawn back in to the Church. Her last several books have been very Catholic in theme, two about the life of Jesus and her latest, Angel Time, the first in a series called The Songs of the Seraphim. After years of writing about vampires, witches, and other paranormal subjects, she has chosen to now write about angels which has caused some of her long-time fans to be upset but has also gained her a new fan-base, people who appreciate the new tone of her books.

I recently started Angel Time and, though I am only a few chapters into it, I can tell you none of the delicious darkness she is so good at is missing. The story, briefly, is about an assassin who is steeped in his own darkness when he encounters an angel named Malachai who sets about helping him to atone for his sins. The whole concept is clever and delicious and I'm enjoying the story. The thing is while I was engaged in our discussion, I realized something I've always known but had never been consciously aware of, the Catholic Church makes a place for darkness and, in doing so, provides a place for redemption. Darkness is the entry point of redemption and I am beginning to think that is a large part of its allure.

Throughout the centuries the redemption that pierced so much of the literary and cinematic darkness was, of course, love. This dark and brutal creature, hideous in all his perversity, is saved by love - “'Twas beauty that killed the beast.” And whether it is a damaged man with the power to enter into the mind of serial killers, a handsome vampire who longs to be good, or an assassin like Toby O'Dare, we are tantalized by the darkness. Darkness is not the same as blackness. Blackness is full rejection of everything redeemable. But darkness longs for redemption. Darkness is lush and sensual and filled with transcendence. Darkness is infused with Eros and, though in recent decades Eros has come to be synonymous with sex, that is not its full meaning. Eros is fertile, fecund and, above all, creative.I recently wrote about Pope Benedict's invitation to artists --- the Church has a long tradition of recognizing the fecundity and transcendence of creativity.

We live in times when people have polarized opinions about religion. Some despise it and call it useless and corrupting and others use it as a means of bullying and controlling and belittling. Neither is correct nor ultimately satisfying. People are hungering for something they don't even understand and so they are drawn to the tantalizing, lavish, mysterious darkness. I suspect they long to be pierced to the core as St. Theresa (right) describes in writing about her ecstasies.

As a writer I've always been in love with that darkness. Over and over and over readers have told me how luscious they found the dark, dangerous character Baptiste in The Old Mermaid's Tale. He's every woman's dream and every woman's nightmare. Now, as I am impatiently awaiting the debut of Each Angel Burns, I try to imagine how readers will react to the darkness and eventual redemption at the core of that story, too. I can only wait and hope....

Thanks for reading.


  1. Interesting article, I am also enticed by stories of redemption. Ian McEwan's Atonement, for example, is brilliantly written. Then there are films, such as Road to Perdition that are fascination to watch.
    I hate to be annoyingly critical, but apart from saying that you like stories of redemption, I didn't feel that you actually made any other points... I'm struggling to find the usefulness in this article. But, maybe I'm missing the point? Maybe you just wanted to share your love for these stories. I just wondered if you were meant to say more, or that was all.

  2. It's amazing that I stumble across your article which was posted by Anne Rice herself. I recently felt very hurt by a friend who had commented that 'Her God was not apart of this Vampire stuff being popularized now.' As a fan of Anne Rice, (all her work), Rad Bradbury, Charlaine Harris, etc.. you can see I am drawn to darker books. I am a practicing Catholic too BTW and you have shed some light on the appeal. Thank you for such a very well written article.

  3. "For the Light shineth in the darkness,and the darkness comprehended it not".As a writer of poetry and short stories,I have explored the darkness within myself and the world around me at great length.In fact i 'tinkered ' with Satanism and Witchcraft as a teen.Believe me it is very dark and colder than we know.Being raised Pentecostal,it was more than a deviant turn for me.God has spared me more than once miraculously!The Light shines into our understanding,if we desire to know.It is often more easily to understand darkness than the light.In the Light,there is no darkness,no shadow except in our hearts and minds!

  4. Hi Nice article! I found you via Anne Rice whose books have always been steeped in Catholicism from what I have seen. Maybe it just takes one to know one.
    This is a potent subject for some people and you discuss it beautifully.
    I was born with a very sensitive conscience, and was s nightmare as a child because anything that had even a tinge of violence or evil or darkness terrified me. It was so easy to be "good" and stay in the safety of the light -- but ultimately the darkness must arrive. All my questions about it were answered through art -- in fact all of my artistic endeavors were very dark -- I suppose it was contained that way.
    I'm only bringing this up,not to go on about myself, but because if others don't know how painful the dark side can be for some people, they might be led to believe that everyone starts out in the dark and is redeemed by the light. Some of us go the other way around -- and discover just how rich, wise, sensual and deepening the dark can be. I believe this is very important if you want to create anything of value as an artist.
    The darkness is redemptive too.

  5. Wonderful Articale Kathleen - I will be contemmplating your thoughts!! very astute!


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