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Lovecraftian Maltheism for the Pragmatic Individual: An Illustrated Guide

Last month’s “Illustrated Guide to Cthulhu Cakes” proved to be our most popular article ever, and thus our Board of Trustees have decided to try and make this a more regular feature. The purpose of this is twofold: to generate new and interesting insight into the strange world of contemporary Lovecraftian culture, and to get more people and personalities involved in this most noble pursuit by offering them a voice, location, and audience.

For this week’s guide we bring back our venerable Director of Public Relations, Mr. Charles Ward, for an unusual and perhaps slightly disturbing foray into the genre of Lovecraftian cosmic horror. Feel free to leave comments, arguments, or rants here or on Charles’ Facebook page.

We hope you enjoy it.

Disclaimer: The LNN does not necessarily endorse or support the following opinions. Neither do we guarantee the reliability or sanity of any of the content below. In fact, we will just go ahead and wash our hands of it altogether in advance, just in case it doesn't make any sense, you don't like it, or it makes you want to sue/maim/kill us. Unless, of course, you do like it, at which time we take full credit for its presentation.

[Edit: This article covers some of the same ground as our previous entry with Matt Cardin, but just to be fair, it should be noted that this post was written a little before we heard back from Mr. Cardin; we are just lazy sloths and haven't posted it until now. Also, Mr. Cardin had nothing to do with and is in no way responsible or liable for this article]

Charles Ward is the LNN's Director of Public Relations and senior phrenological correspondent. He enjoys rhetorical altercations and leverpostej. He currently lives in a state of denial but sometimes wonders if he should stockpile emotional weaponry and secede like every single one of the unquestioningly god-fearing, American Founding Fathers wanted him to. 

Don't hate me. . . I'm not the one trying to destroy the earth:

Lovecraftian Maltheism for the Pragmatic Individual
by Charles Ward

During times of crisis, the people crave a hero: a leader who can take control and bring order to the chaos. The hero often strives to not only give meaning and purpose to one's actions and unite the group, but also attempts to interpret history and provide a means of enunciation so that one's current plight is placed within some sort of context.

The desire for a suitable vocabulary with which to process one's position in the cosmos has historically been a nearly unstoppable sociological force often surpassing even the fundamental biological mechanisms of hunger, aversion to pain, and basic sexuality. Hence, many people will often choose to follow a leader who purports to offer them an answer to “why,” even if this comes at an excruciating cost.

Beyond the mere Skinnerian dynamics of Terran religiosity, which are still vehemently denied by billions of 21st century homo sapiens, the ubiquity and popularity of religious belief is not in question. For better and for worse, the contemporary heroes of religion are extremely successful in their ideological conquests.

Pat Robertson is one such hero, offering relief from the burdens of coming to terms with one's existential demons. Of course, the acceptance of his ideology comes at a steep price: one must abandon reason in favor of dogma and all the sundry implications this brings to every aspect of one's life. His dogma is notoriously gruesome, and it is why he is the perfect example for a short exercise I will now suggest.

What I propose is a nomenclatural shift of a species of thought: that the broad concept of Lovecraftian cosmic horror might be considered to be more than a literary genre or philosophical device, but as something that might be part of a pragmatic approach to contemporary life.

Maltheism, of course, has a long and rich history through dystheism, misotheism, theodicy, dualism, and fideism, due largely to the fact that religious authors through the ages have taken great pains to unapologetically anthropomorphize their gods in all the worst ways possible. Now, don't get me wrong here: we can be more nuanced than just gleefully celebrating the concept of a malevolent god like freshman in a philosophy class, though the standard exercise does prove useful to provide a starting point for my proposition. The basic tenets of maltheism might be presented the following way according to the deus deceptor analogy:

What if a malevolent space demon manifested itself to earth and demanded worship and slavery for its own selfish purposes? To string its slaves along, the demon makes two claims:

  • It is omnibenevolent
  • It is omnipotent

Whether or not these premises are true--or even possible to measure--is, of course, the whole point. With our limited resources of five highly subjective senses and less than a century of time to gather information before we die, all claims of verifiability or veracity of the demon’s claims are completely absurd.

What we are left with, as beings with a least some time and hopefully a bit of reason available, is to--for lack of a better vocabulary--test this hypothesis by means of the fruits of the tree a la Matthew 7:16 (Too see a concise depiction of this argument, watch this internet pundit’s take on the deus deceptor)

This proposition is not even that controversial in religious circles outside of modern Western culture. Remember Zeus? While an inscrutable and unquenchable lust for human worship is a nearly universal trope of the divine amongst all religions, at least some imagine this to be a rather mundane and mostly nonthreatening process.

This is not the case with Christianity and Islam, the two most dominant religions in the Western world, whose beliefs derive from some of the most violent and terrifying texts ever written. Weird fiction author Matt Cardin wrote an interesting piece for TheoFantatique recently that discusses how “the biblical God is often portrayed as a source of horror.”

In particular, the diplomatic Cardin is intrigued by Isaiah:

Isaiah can be understood as a cosmic horror story, a la Lovecraft etc., in its entirety. All that’s required is a shifting of one’s surface focus and underlying assumptions. It’s not that some parts are horrific and others aren’t, but that the whole thing can be read and — importantly — emotionally experienced that way, while remaining entirely true to its concrete content.

This seems hard for any even slightly reasonable person to argue with. But quite frankly, I don’t think this train of though goes nearly far enough. Let’s cut the diplomacy and jump down the rabbit hole in a way only a pseudonymous avatar like Charles Ward can.

Let’s talk about the practical implications of acknowledging the monstrosity of a god whose track record includes murder, advocating rape and incest, torture, genital mutilation, mass drownings, and whose “big plan” for the earth’s near future consists of global immolation.

Consider the following passage by Lovecraft in "The Call of Cthulhu":

That cult would never die till the stars came right again, and the secret priests would take great Cthulhu from His tomb to revive His subjects and resume His rule of earth. The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and reveling in joy.

Quite frankly, to its credit, the entity known as Cthulhu is not nearly as big of an ass as the god of the Old Testament, and evil is not a term that would even really apply. However, what we are after here is a means of enunciation to attempt to contextualize our position in the cosmos and cope with the calamity we see around us.

This brings us back to Pat Robertson, our previously mentioned hero of linguistic law and order. He serves the important position of being a messenger of the god of the Bible, and he provides a vocabulary and precedent for the visible horrors of existence. In all seriousness, taking it at face value, I think he must be right: it is quite logical that, according to his system of beliefs, his god would curse the people of Haiti for their sins. In fact, it is exactly the sort of thing the god of the Bible would do. Robertson just happens be brave enough to eschew the bounds of civilization and political correctness while others cower in its confines. And by brave, I mean stark raving mad.

Thus, to complete my circuitous train of thought, Pat Robertson is a hero in precisely the same way that Wilbur Whateley is a hero for the cult of Yog-Sothoth, or that Trap Jaw was a champion for Skeletor: he is a harbinger of doom and the servant of a malevolent space demon.

I'm not claiming this kind of paranoia to world events is what Lovecraft was trying to elicit with his fiction, but I am claiming that his fiction has great utility in providing a pragmatic means of enunciation for the current state of Terran life. And I propose that we can adopt this vocabulary with sacrificing our reason; to be totally honest, we can even do it without hyperbole.

The fact that the latter is true is not very good news.

If one can step aside from millennia of cultural conditioning that makes one feel inclined to exhibit a maniacal sensitivity towards other people’s dangerous superstitions, a simple analysis of Robertson and his religious colleagues’ beliefs suggests that the case for maltheism is more than strong. It is, as Cardin says about the horror of the Bible, entirely “self-evident.” The point here is not to advocate some kind of bitter anti-religious sentiment or even to advocate atheism at all. For the sake of this argument, whether or not these space beings are real is irrelevant. Quite the contrary, in fact: for the sake of our basic survival, we have to take this seriously either way--at least in a somewhat lugubrious fashion. I don’t claim to have all the answers; I merely wish to point out that, as usual, Lovecraft was right all along. To be more concise, if my sentiment was tritely condensed to a bumper sticker, it might look something like this:

Maltheism: . . . because dangerous cultists really are trying to bring about the bloody apocalypse of their malevolent, space alien gods.

You can call Lovecraft's stories of cosmic horror mere fiction if you want, but only in the same sense something like Miller’s The Crucible is mere fiction. One only has to summon the temerity to crack open a newspaper to find that the allegories are so thinly veiled as to be nearly biographical; in other words, the names have been changed to protect the author from being burnt at the stake by the guilty. Lovecraftian cosmic horror is not just a metaphor for life on earth, it provides a pragmatic political vocabulary we would do well to adopt. Let's not forget that the stakes are extremely high. It might seem reasonable to strive for a live and let live policy, but keep in mind that this is a luxury that has not, is not currently, and will not likely ever be afforded to you by any race bloodthirsty space tyrants. History is nothing but a testament, if I might borrow the phrase, of how literally and how easily people are willing to spill blood and worse for their non-Terran overlords. As the Philistines, the citizens of Dunwich, or any of He-Man's allies might tell you--those that are still alive, at least--these monstrosities cannot be reasoned with, their beliefs are not open for debate, they are impervious to science, and they are plotting right now to establish a brutal theocracy in your home city at the expense of your flesh.

Think I'm exaggerating? How is the threat of global immolation at the hands of a purported prophet an exaggeration? (See 2 Kings 1:10, and don't give me this "it's figurative" nonsense--they've already burnt scores of people in recent history!)   In other words, in every case I can think of, eschatology is synonymous with war crimes and should be looked upon in the same light.

So what does one do with maltheism? Does one go mad with the realization when your mind finally begins to correlate its contents and you depart from the placid island of ignorance to view not only the black seas of infinity, but the fact that there are violent, highly aggressive, politically powerful, and terrifying mainstream forces literally preparing to bring about the end of the world. . .

I don’t think one has to. Would it be too trendy to call for a sense of Post-Lovecraftian Cosmic Horror in which one faces the blind, idiot god Azathoth or Michele Bachmann and then says,

“To hell with it. I’m not going to let that bitch ruin my day.”

Is it denial?  Maybe.  Considering the low percent of neural matter we humans have available to process information, I am not totally sure we can get around it.  But that's okay, too.  Remember, from a biological perspective, we are just trying to avoid the death our species by religious genocide.

At the very least, as I suggested earlier, we can shift the terminology we use. If a group believes in a superstition that involves one or more malevolent entities of an extraterrestrial or multidimensional origin, and their beliefs or "holy" texts overtly call for the destruction of the earth and/or violent subjugation and torture of non-believers, let's quit coddling them by pandering to "faith" and "religion." These people are doomsday cultists who worship evil space monsters. This change in terminology is not intended to be hostile or vengeful, though such reactions would not seem unwarranted at this point, but it would serve two clear purposes:
  1. From a linguistic perspective, it would be a more precise demarcation of the group.
  2. It would help slowly shape public opinion. Just think: currently, though there are many exceptions, it is generally socially unacceptable to make racist comments without being rejected by mainstream society. This has not stopped racism, but it has helped deal it a powerful blow. Racism is now, at least in many areas, generally frowned upon in public. Let's make doomsday cults uncool as well by implementing the negative connotation to the language we use to describe them that their blood-stained history deserves. Lovecraftian fiction provides the terminology we need to implement this.

This is not a polished argument, and it is certainly not a definitive one. It is merely a collection of thoughts and reactions to recent world events I have been processing for the last month of so. Putting them down in writing helps me to think things through more clearly, which hopefully leads to the successful reevaluation and refinement of my ideas so I can better deal with the temporality of my existence—whether it is enforced by malevolent forces or those of a more benign variety. If this exercise turns out to be for no other reason than for my own selfish, intellectual pleasures, then so be it.

In the meantime, while I sort this all out, this I know: cultists really are trying to enslave me and destroy the world.

And so I say to them--with a gleam in my eye--what I imagine the professorial staff of Miskatonic University might have said to Wilbur Whateley,

Viva la Résistance.
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Interview with Matt Cardin: Dark Awakenings and Cosmic Horror

Between devastating earthquakes rattling people's faith in god, Glenn Beck's maniacal fundamentalism rattling people's faith in democracy, and Kevin Smith's dual inability to direct a film or fit in an airplane seat rattling people's faith in cinema, this is a pretty rough time to be an earthling.

But have no fear. It's nothing a strong, cool draught of the Lovecraft News Network can't cure.

Author, scholar, musician, and guerrilla theologian Matt Cardin stopped by a while back to talk about his new collection, Dark Awakenings, which will soon be released by Mythos Books. Cardin is a rising star in the world of Weird Fiction, and he has been lauded for his ability to bring both literary and intellectual context to his horror fiction in unique, often surprising ways. Thomas Ligotti had this to say of the current project: "In Dark Awakenings, Cardin proves himself to be an adept in the fullest sense of the word."

Matt's interest in religion parallels his study of horror, which we enjoy tremendously.  This heterodoxy recently culminated in a wonderful discussion with the fine folks at TheoFantastique, in which Cardin discusses his article "Gods and Monsters, Worms and Fire: A Horrific Reading of Isaiah," which of course makes us want to go track down a copy of Ken Russell's 1988 religious masterpiece featuring Hugh Grant's superlative performance.

Following the press release, we have included our intriguing discussion with Cardin regarding his book, Lovecraft, and reconciling cosmic horror with humanism.


From its earliest origins, the human religious impulse has been fundamentally bound up with an experience of primal horror. The German theologian Rudolf Otto located the origin of human religiosity in an ancient experience of "daemonic dread." American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft asserted that weird supernatural horror fiction arose from a fundamental human psychological pattern that is "coeval with the religious feeling and closely related to many aspects of it." The American psychologist William James wrote in his classic study The Varieties of Religious Experience that the "real core of the religious problem" lies in an overwhelming experience of cosmic horror born out of abject despair at life's incontrovertible hideousness.

In Dark Awakenings, author and scholar Matt Cardin explores this primal intersection between religion and horror in seven stories and three academic papers that pose a series of disturbing questions: What if the spiritual awakening coveted by so many religious seekers is in fact the ultimate doom? What if the object of religious longing might prove to be the very heart of horror? Could salvation, liberation, enlightenment then be achieved only by identifying with that apotheosis of metaphysical loathing?

This volume collects nearly all of Cardin's uncollected fiction, including his 2004 novella "The God of Foulness." It contains extensive revisions and expansions of his popular stories "Teeth" and "The Devil and One Lump," and features one previously unpublished story and two unpublished papers, the first exploring a possible spiritual use of George Romero's Living Dead films and the second offering a horrific reading of the biblical Book of Isaiah. At over 300 pages and nearly 120,000 words, Dark Awakenings offers a substantial exploration of the religious implications of horror and the horrific implications of religion.

LNN: Your new collection, Dark Awakenings, raises the following questions:

What if the spiritual awakening coveted by so many religious seekers is in fact the ultimate doom? What if the object of religious longing might prove to be the very heart of horror? Could salvation, liberation, enlightenment then be achieved only by identifying with that apotheosis of metaphysical loathing?

Disregarding the knee jerk emotional reactions these questions might elicit from those whose concept of cosmology is based on bumper stickers and slogans, is it really that farfetched? The god of the Old Testament, for example, is unquestionably more malevolent than the apathetic entities of Lovecraft. You discussed this a bit in your interview with Stuart Young in Terror Tales when you asked, "Why does the New Testament author of Hebrews assert, 'It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God?'" I mean, is not conventional Christian teleology dolefully misanthropic by definition? Is Pat Robertson and his worldview not proof enough that your premise is beyond the realm of speculation? I suppose what I am really getting at is this: since cosmic horror does seem so readily apparent, why is it not more openly acknowledged by more people? Of course this sort of thinking is unpleasant, but pollution, climate change, and child slavery are also unpleasant, and we still talk about these things at least somewhat openly in society. Whence the difference?

Matt Cardin: Of course you're correct that the dark and horrific side of Christian theology and teleology, and also, I think, of world religion in general, is central to the whole thing. But as you also point out, it's not openly acknowledged by a lot of people. How come? I think it has something to do with the softening and sanitizing of the human race that has occurred during the past few centuries. The post-Enlightenment attitude and worldview based on universal rights and dignity and so on represents a brand new meme in human history. By the antiseptic standards of our current Western and Westernized nations, every civilization in history has been inconceivably violent, not just in act but in attitude, and this includes their religious conceptions. Today we denizens of Western consumer society have largely cut ourselves off from such things, although the worldwide resurgence of fundamentalism, and also the increasingly bloody and trippy nature of our mass entertainments, shows the same impulses reentering through the back door. As you point out, you can watch Robertson on The 700 Club or listen to any number of old-style fundamentalist Protestant preachers to get some of this classic vibe of divine terribleness.

But the cosmic horror I'm getting at in Dark Awakenings is something besides that. I'm interested in the idea of a cosmic horror that's absolute, that nobody could find comfort in or fit into a remotely palatable theological framework. The traditional bloody Judeo-Christian cosmology and anthropology have rested on the idea that somehow things are being "set right" on the planet and in the universe through all of this horror. Even the terror of the deity, which is so expertly evoked in a lot of biblical apocalypticism, is supposed to apply only, ultimately, to those who oppose him. The "winners," Yahweh's chosen ones, get to enjoy his everlasting beneficence in the end. That's where the whole idea of the felix culpa, the "happy fall" from divine grace, comes in. The bloody drama of human history is justified by the fact that it's somehow necessary to achieve God's blissfully perfect result. By contrast, what has long interested me is the speculation that maybe there's something fundamentally horrific about God or the Ground of Being from the human perspective, that cosmic horror is final and absolute, not provisional. Just this morning I finished reading John Keel's The Mothman Prophecies, which Keel concludes with a quote (incorrectly attributed to Charles Fort; it was actually penned by Damon Knight in his Fort bio) that gets at a major aspect of this idea with marvelous clarity: "If there is a universal mind, must it be sane?" I would add: or good or wholesome or reassuring? Could ultimate reality in its categorical essence be something noxious, toxic, nightmarish? Not even Pat Robertson wants to go there, voodoo quips notwithstanding.

LNN: What does this (cosmic horror) mean for us as a species from a biological/Darwinian perspective?

MC: I suppose it could mean we're the unluckiest beings on the planet, since our particular set of biological adaptations has resulted in the developmental of a nervous system capable of self-aware thought, which is now able to recognize with full, stark, staring horror the awfulness of our situation, cosmically and ontologically speaking. "Consciousness is a disease" and all that.

Note that whenever I talk about these things, I do so hypothetically, in a kind of philosophical hyperspace. I'm not saying I actually believe in this type of cosmic-horrific situation. But I'm not saying I don't, either. Just two days ago my nine-year-old niece asked me if I believe in ghosts. I tried to turn the question back at her, but she really wanted to hear my answer. If it's possible for a person to hem and haw in deeply philosophical language while trying to talk in terms that a nine year old can understand, then that's what I did. Do I believe in ghosts? How the hell do you even answer such a question when "I", "believe in," and "ghosts" are all terms that beg a thousand questions? The same kneejerk tendency to poke through spiritual claims in search of the assumptions behind them keeps my thoughts about cosmic horror floating in a safely hypothetical space. That said, the very idea of this kind of horror still feels connected to me in a deeply personal and existential fashion.

LNN: How do you feel about the transition of Lovecraft and his work from obscurity to a more mainstream, or at least more populous, status? And what does this say about contemporary culture?

MC: I'm still really pleased about Lovecraft's canonization. I have that dumb thing in me that feels disappointed whenever some obscure love of mine becomes widely popular, but Lovecraft's rising reputation hasn't managed to trip that alarm yet, since I still find that in my daily life nobody has heard of him. This is true even at the community college where I teach. Ask any ten faculty members in the English department about Lovecraft, and you might get one or two hits, if that. The rest are blank stares. Tom Ligotti is fond of saying, "There is no obscurity like minor renown." Lovecraft enjoyed this kind of renown for decades as a cult author. I've got to wonder how long it's going to take for him to break out of it, if indeed he ever will. I do think his movement into widespread mainstream consciousness may simply happen as a result of generational passings, since a lot of young fantasy and horror fans are hearing more about him all the time. The announced Lovecraft movie to be directed by Ron Howard will also probably make a considerable splash. How ironic it will be if Richie Cunningham does for Lovecraft what Peter Jackson did for Tolkien.

As for what his rising awareness says about contemporary culture, I think it just underscores the increasing tendency of marginal obsessions to go mainstream in our brave new world of 24/7 digital connectedness. I never thought the doomer meme -- peak oil, apocalyptic climate change, total economic collapse, etc. -- would move to the mainstream like it has, but now you can look anywhere and find Joe Sixpack, John Lawyer, and half a dozen network talking heads going on about it. Just in the past week I've been astonished to read about the inroads being made into popular mainstream awareness by the general idea of a 9/11 conspiracy. It's enough to make a person wonder just what's going to be left in the way of pleasantly private obsessions aren't defiled by the light of mass popular attention.

LNN: Depending on how pretentious we want to be, we could make the claim that life in a (post) post-modern world allows for one to embrace both cosmic horror and humanism simultaneously. This is something I believe is not discussed often enough when it comes to Lovecraft. I think our recent articles on Cthulhu Cakes and Plush Cthulhu are great examples. Beyond the simple pleasures of irony and the moral paradox of these items, could these not also be signifiers of an ability to produce a gleeful acceptance of one's lugubrious plight in a terrifying universe?

MC: Oh, certainly. But we could also argue that the act of portraying the high priest of the Old Ones in such cutesy-kitschy form represents an attempt to tame, defang, and neuter the shrieking horror of our plight instead of gleefully accepting it.

I'm personally fascinated by the whole idea of "quaffing the brew of nothingness," as somebody, I forget who, once said, and finding it invigorating instead of devastating, or maybe invigorating because devastating. Maybe in the current context that should be amended to read "quaffing the brew of horror." It would be great if glee, or at least equanimity, could coexist and maybe even be symbiotic with cosmic nightmarishness. But in my own experience, which has included recurrent bouts with successive explosions of existential horror, such a position isn't actually achievable. The horror really is unsupportable and absolutely corrosive. It eats right through all attempts to box it up in any sort of category that would make it manageable.

LNN: Robert Bloch thought that Lovecraft wrote about Supernatural Horror as a means to an end. He said,

Consider the phenomenon of exorcism, this time from the view-point of the artist rather than the audience. Most writers who chose to work within the horror genre do so to exorcise their own fears by exposing and expressing them to an audience. [. . .] Drawing upon a common heritage of myth, legend, and fairy tales, they employ a technique of conveying their visions in terms of convincing reality. [. . .] Lovecraft intended to present an explanation of why horror fiction appealed to certain types of readers. And in so doing he unconsciously revealed his own reasons for writing—as attempts to come to grips with a lifelong fear of the unknown.

Without worrying too much about the fallacy of authorial intent, do you agree with this, and would it be a stretch to say that you too are involved in a similar sort of process as you write?

MC: I think Bloch pegged Lovecraft, and I think you've pegged me. Bloch's idea of authorial self-exorcism seems well conceived. It's also splendidly absorbing. But in my own case it's not so much fear of the unknown that drives me as it is a sense of numinous uncanniness, verging into Rudolf Otto's "daemonic dread," at the very fact of existence itself -- which, crucially, includes not just the disenchanted world of physical nature that's visible to empirical science but the world of immediate, first-person experience with all of its daimonic psychological oddities.

A procedural note about Bloch's diagnosis of Lovecraft: It wasn't just fear of the unknown that drove Lovecraft's authorial attempts. As Lovecraft made starkly and resonantly clear in his personal correspondence, and also in his "Notes on the Writing of Weird Fiction," he wrote horror fiction as a means of capturing and crystallizing his lifelong impressions of an infinite, transcendent reality that seemed to peer through the cracks of the world, which for him included skyscapes and vistas of architectural beauty. And his response to these transcendent intimations was deliciously paradoxical, for he was both enchanted and terrified by them. He passionately longed for an experience of boundlessness, of freedom from the restraints of physical reality, which he of course knew all too well, both materially, due to his increasing monetary poverty over time, and intellectually, with his vast knowledge of natural science as underwritten by a 19th-century mechanistic-materialistic viewpoint. He said over and over that his most powerful emotional experiences were explosions of infinite longing whenever he observed sunsets or contemplated scenic New England streets and buildings. But as everybody knows, he also experienced those same perceived gaps and that same perceived reality as horrifying, something he probably said most directly and powerfully in the introduction to Supernatural Horror in Literature. So his career as a horror writer wasn't motivated just by fear of the unknown but by a two-sided emotional coin that was fear on one side and exhilarated longing on the other.

And again, I find myself in kinship with him, because in my focus on religious, philosophical, and spiritual horror, I'm walking an analogous line between the paradisiacal potentials of these things and the nightmarish ones.

LNN: Along these lines, the French Lovecraft scholar Maurice Lévy echoed this sentiment when he wrote,

Lovecraft was, as we have seen, a man without hope. Unstable, sick, unhappy, obstinately rejecting what he considered the delusions of faith, fed on nihilistic philosophies, he had frequently thought of suicide. Only his dreams—his correspondence testifies to it—permitted him to overcome each crisis and to try once again to live. Did he not in dream find, in the blackest moments, the unexpected help of secret and vitalizing forces? We are then tempted to regard the Cthulhu Mythos, whose elaboration was slow, progressive, and continuous, as the adequate receptacle for the author’s anguish, where, in the waters of dream, it could ”precipitate,” form deposits in precise, horrible, monstrous shapes at the bottom of a structure ready to receive them and give them meaning. Driven by myth [. . .] horror can only be expressed by and in sacrilege: the impious cults, hideous ceremonies, blasphemous rites elsewhere mentioned, which tell a reverse history of salvation. It is at this deep level that the cure operates: because the sick man recognizes these images of horror as his own, he is in a position to assume them fully and thereby overcome them. To give a material representation to anguish is in itself to be freed from it. [. . . ] For we can never totally invent our monsters; they express our inner selves too much for that.

This quote reminds me of one of my favorite moments in your short story "Teeth" in which the protagonist starts to reevaluate the world after his own encounter with cosmic horror.

"The once-familiar moon was now the dead, decaying fetal carcass of some unimaginably monstrous creature, and as I looked on I saw it beginning to mutate into something more monstrous still."

Might Lévy and Bloch then be an answer to the question you once posed to Stuart Young: "Why should [horror] happen to engage my intellect and emotions with such intensity is anyone's guess. I've never been able to figure it out myself."

MC: Indeed, I think whenever one experiences this kind of electric-magnetic attraction to any subject matter in the way that you and I -- not to mention Lovecraft, Bloch, and Lévy -- are attracted to horror, there's a deep psychological reason, and it has to do with the drive built into every organism to achieve comfort and equilibrium. As I mentioned above, with our exquisitely developed hyper-self-awareness -- not just vegetable or animal consciousness but the added faculty of self-consciousness -- we're constantly engaged in an astoundingly complex act of inner housekeeping, usually on a preconscious or unconscious level, and this surely relates to why Lovecraft wrote what he did, and why I write what I do, and why every other author and artist feels magically and helplessly bound to a specific subject or theme. Victoria Nelson argued in The Secret Life of Puppets that genre stories stoke or play on a type of compulsion neurosis among readers who don't want to confront a psychological reality directly but want to flirt with it again and again in formulaic stories that always bring them right up the point of confrontation and then shy away. She identified Lovecraft's work as being a veritably archetypal example. She also engaged in some subtle psychological analysis of the old gent. She may well be right.

On the other hand, in the past few years I've also grown increasingly attached to the daimonic theory of consciousness, which invokes in quasi-metaphorical fashion the ancient idea of the daimon or personal genius, the accompanying spirit that houses a person's deep character, life, pattern, and destiny. I'm inclined to refer to it in explanation of the overtly mythic cast which Lévy attributes -- correctly, I think -- to Lovecraft's and everybody else's deep psychic life, and also to our tendency to circle back to the same themes over and over.

LNN: The scholar and linguist Bradley Will claimed Lovecraft's depictions of cosmic horror could be called a “semiotic crisis.” Denying his characters an adequate system of signification suggests something “so far beyond the edges of our language, so far removed from our frame of reference, that it defeats the system. [. . .] Its only designation can be its lack of designation. It is, if you will, a blank spot. This ‘blank spot’—a signified with no signifier or a signifier with no signified—is a failure of the system of language.”

From the perspective of an author, how does this notion of the "semiotic crisis" fit into the writing process as you perceive and practice it?

MC: No amount of authorial work, no experience of blissful creative flow, and no inherent quality of intellectual or artistic genius will ever allow an author to really, truly capture the essence of the inspiration that drove him or her to write something. Language is necessarily a reduction. I forget which modern poet said "The poem is always perfect in the mind," but he was speaking truth. The very fact that actually committing words to paper will inevitably result in some quality of diminishment in the idea itself is probably what led Cioran to say, I think it was in The Trouble with Being Born, that as he grew older it became progressively more difficult for him to summon the motivation to blacken a page.

But fantasy fiction and, especially, horror fiction stand in an interesting relationship with this point, since they often deal in their direct subject matter with the idea of inexpressible truth. This makes horror fiction a choice literary vehicle for exploring the concept itself. Although all authorship is ultimately failure, as judged by its categorical inability to express the pure essence of an inspiration or idea, writing can sidestep and even subvert this inbuilt inability after a fashion by deliberately generating a sense that the words are reductions of awesome truths that loom behind them. Blackwood's success in achieving this feat in "The Willows" is legendary, and is what led Lovecraft to praise that story so highly. Lovecraft's success in achieving this in "The Call of Cthulhu," "The Music of Erich Zann," and several others is equally legendary, and largely accounts for his enduring audience. Ditto for the successes of -- to name two more authors in my personal pantheon -- Ted Klein and Tom Ligotti. Tom's direct dealing with this whole idea in, for instance, "Nethescurial" and "Vastarien" is maybe the quintessential example. The inherent artistic-ontological limitations of language and art can become a positive strength when they're incorporated into works that directly reference the inherent artistic-ontological limitations of language and art.

As for my own work, I've given up on far more stories than I've completed, often because of what we're talking about. William Stafford said in "A Way of Writing" that one of the tricks he employed to keep himself productive was to deliberately lower his standards during composition to the point where he could consider himself successful if he simply got something down on paper. I'm still learning the wisdom of that. When actually sitting down to write, forget all about the inherent semiotic crisis. Just cough up whatever wants to lodge on the page or screen.

LNN:  Thank you, Matt.  It has been an absolute pleasure, and we wish you the best with your book's release.

Learn more about Matt Cardin's Dark Awakenings here:

Cardin's Official Website:

Cardin's blog about artistic creativity:
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