Monday, July 16, 2007

Realistic Mormon Supernaturalism

On the AML-List Mormon literature discussion group, there's been some conversation about how two Zarahemla titles that I published—D. Michael Martindale’s Brother Brigham and my own Kindred Spirits—both include a fairly straightforward presentation of the supernatural that is consistent with Mormon folk doctrine and about how that could represent a new literary genre. Here's a somewhat longish brain dump I did on this topic:

I see that one of my main impulses as an author and publisher is indeed a desire for the supernatural. I'm so bored on some levels with today's corporate, PR-obsessed Mormonism—although I can see some reasons for why things are the way they are—and in some ways I long for the 19th-century days when Mormonism was more raw and magic, and I anticipate the days when it will become so again in what I term the latter-latter days. At the same time, I also dread the corresponding dangers and privations that seem to accompany the gift of the supernatural, almost as if God grants extraordinary supernaturalism to galvanize people to endure extraordinary trials. I'm certainly not asking for those trials, but where much is expected, much is given.

The main reason I was so attracted to D. Mike's BB is indeed because of its provocative treatment of the supernatural, which I hadn't seen done in that way before (and I do hope it represents an emerging genre or sub-genre—maybe I'd call it "supernatural realism"). And I thought people could swallow BB all the better because it turns out to be a cautionary tale. But the LDS bookstores don't like it—I just got back a box of BB from a sweet lady in Arizona who read the whole book, mind you, but didn't think it was appropriate enough to stay in her store. In my Kindred Spirits, the writing of which was driven more by subconscious impulses than by a strategic, conscious message of the type Orson Scott Card lets control most of his stories that I've read—which I think weakens his literary effectiveness, by the way—I managed to fold in nearly all the real-life supernatural manifestations to which I've personally been privy in some way, either directly or just a step or two removed. And I think my inclusion of a Wiccan foil character was in some ways an admission of envy of how colorful and free and imaginative the Wiccan movement seems compared to Mormonism, although in the end I couldn't endorse it, even to the degree of doing a Mormon/Wicca hybrid like Stephen Carter suggested. The only other fiction I've personally published, a short story in Irreantum, also featured a supernatural manifestation, and I wonder if I'll ever write any fiction without the supernatural, since I don't get enough of it in real life, and imagining it and portraying it is a fairly effective way to get it vicariously.

I guess it was mainly being reared as a Mormon that developed this desire for the supernatural in me, since both scriptural and Church history lessons are shot through with the supernatural—or maybe we're just spiritually hardwired to desire the supernatural. But then I devoted my early teens to Dungeons & Dragons, which definitely fed that hunger for magic. And then in my late teens I got into the mid-80s punk/new wave scene—which was simply the hippie scene after twenty years of evolution—and joined others in taking psychedelic substances, which are about as close to magic as you can get in the real nonspiritual world. I suppose I latched onto D&D and psychedelia because Mormonism wasn't feeding my hunger for supernatural magic, after having helped create the need.

But both of those petered out after a while. D&D was just a game, after all, and I eventually got tired of it. And then I had a disturbing LSD experience when people around me were turning into animals, and I felt a very real persuasive force trying to get me to accept the idea that humans are just animals, the world is just random natural phenomena, etc. Despite my worldly state of mind at that time, this diabolical attempt at brainwashing ground against my deeper spiritual core and helped set me on the path back to the Mormonism of my youth.

I guess on some level I'm still pretty dissatisfied spiritually, though, and on some level I still crave more supernaturality—and I don't think it's as bad to feel that way as it is to actually seek signs, as my belief is not conditional upon it. Since doing your home teaching and avoiding porn doesn't seem to invite much supernatural reward these days and participating in the church often seems about as magical as shopping at Wal-Mart, I guess I seek out the magical through literature. (Yes, I know individuals must still have supernatural experiences in this day and age and maybe even the institutional leaders themselves do, but it's all so private and hidden now, if and when it happens at all. And by "supernatural" I'm talking about real audiovisual stuff, not just impressions and inspirations or even dreams, etc. I personally doubt that today's Mormon prophets have actual audiovisual revelations, by the way—I think it's probably all committee work mingled with spiritual impressions, judging by contemporary descriptions of revelations that I've heard or read.)

I don't think Zarahemla will focus only on stories that address Mormon audiovisual magic in some way like BB and KS do. Todd Petersen's Long After Dark doesn't delve into any supernaturalism that I can remember. Coke Newell's forthcoming autobiographical novel has some spiritual and psychedelic content but nothing that I remember being audiovisually supernaturalistically real—well, maybe there are a couple of elements that come close. And Jessica Draper's Hunting Gideon has plenty of imaginative content on a cyberpunk level, but not supernatural.

However, Mormon supernatural realism is definitely the kind of story that interests me most—or is "supernatural Mormon realism" a better way to phrase it, or "realistic Mormon supernaturalism." While Kindred Spirits largely stuck to supernatural reality as I know it, now that I've got those somewhat-unresolved autobiographical elements out of my system, my next novel is a latter-latter days novel with lots of potentially plausible imagined supernatural elements. In fact, I'm pretty torn right now between doing Z. stuff and doing my own novel—lately, it's been all Z. But if another author's good realistic supernatural story arises, that's when I'll likely drop whatever I'm doing to jump on it...

As far as nonmembers reading realistic Mormon supernaturalism, I could see it having all kinds of effects, from reinforcing the idea that Mormons are crackpots to prompting some productive spiritual questioning. Who knows—the chips can and will fall everywhere, and I lean toward the camp that holds that it's not really the author's problem or responsibility what people choose to do with her or his work, as long as the author's own integrity remains reasonably intact. People misinterpreting or misappropriating an author's work doesn't affect the author's integrity, I don't think—it affects the integrity of the people doing the misinterpreting or misappropriating.

Here are some other ideas that I like to play with: I think Mormonism's 20th and 21st century corporate-style cultural bubble that we're currently living in—this donut hole, this eye of the storm—won't last forever, and I think authors can creatively help people prepare psychologically for the coming days of tribulation and the accompanying return of more widespread supernatural activity, including visitations of key otherworldly personnel. Artists can be culturally prophetic on some levels, I like to think. There will be supernatural counterfeiting as well, so we need our own real Mormon stuff to offset that. I like Harry Potter well enough and can joke that modern-day Mormonism is hopelessly Muggle, but on another level I think ol' godless Harry Potter is helping get people ready for supernatural counterfeits in coming times, in whatever form they may take to get the whole world to the point that the Nephites had reached by about 325 A.D.: "And it came to pass that there were sorceries, and witchcrafts, and magics; and the power of the evil one was wrought upon all the face of the land" (Mormon 1:19). We need to do some cultural rehearsing for heaven-sent supernaturality as well—after all, what could be more supernatural than the return of Christ himself? But I think there will be some more interesting, widespread Mormon supernaturalism prior to that as well, and I'm not just talking about the wishful-thinking, faith-promoting rumors we sometimes promulgate to fill the supernatural void that many of us evidently feel in today's church.

1 comment:

C. L. Hanson said...

I was hit by kind of this same impression while reading Brother Brigham: that the supernaturalism allowed by the Mormon framework is underexplored in literature.

I doubt such works would contribute much to the impression that Mormons are crackpots. After all, the Christians have that whole "Left Behind" series which is wildly popular, yet Christians aren't generally dismissed as a bunch of crackpots.

Come to think of it, a novel that covers the Mormon version of the second coming might be interesting. It seems like there's quite a lot of material to work with in terms of uniquely Mormon prophecies.