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: