The horror genre seems to attract two dominant personality types: those who love the emotional thrill of fear and shock for its own sake, and deep thinkers who enjoy musing over the alternative possibilities promised by the Unknown. On the latter score, some authors approach the ideas of life, death, and the great beyond with impressive sophistication and scholarly research that often supersedes their fictional imaginings. Stephen King’s non-fiction titles (Danse Macabre, On Writing) are seminal works of criticism. Anne Rice’s musings on the church are followed by many. Dean Koontz wrote the book on Writing Popular Fiction. China Mieville writes Marxist criticism. HP Lovecraft wrote a virtual bible for authors of the weird tale (no, not the Necronomicon; I’m talking about his essay, “The Supernatural in Horror Literature”). And, of course, Poe’s criticism is oft-cited in courses that study theories of the short story. The history of scary authorship almost requires a philosophical contemplation of the abyss. Call it a “dark theology.” It’s worth gazing into.
Two notable books in this subgenre were published in the independent press this year that strongly remind us of the serious business of horror and spirituality: Dark Awakenings by Matt Cardin and The Conspiracy Against the Human Race by Thomas Ligotti. The latter is a fantastically written philosophical treatise advocating pessimism about the human existence. With all the sophistication of a doctoral thesis in Philosophy, Ligotti argues, essentially, an idea he’s been employing in his scary fiction for many years: that man lies to himself about existence all the time, that other unseen and unknowable forces may be pulling our puppet strings, and that THOSE STRINGS might themselves be a construct of our imaginations, because our existence could be meaningless after all.
Reminiscent of Emil Cioran’s wonderfully depressing book of aphorisms, The Trouble With Being Born, Ligotti’s “Conspiracy” is a twisted celebration of pessimism — at times laugh-out-loud funny in its bold disregard for any hope for humanity and other times downright convincing in its unflinching suggestion that life is a “malignantly useless” enterprise, and that suffering is inherent to this existential condition. Ligotti’s philosophy is three levels beyond atheism, and requires a strong-minded reader to really accept his position. Yet I loved Ligotti’s book, because it so smartly builds an audacious case in support of the idea that human extinction might not be such a bad thing, and he does so in such an earnest and serious voice that the prose, simply, convinces. A downer on downers, a love letter to the suicidal, this book challenges our assumptions in a way that I wish more writers would try to do.
I won’t say more, because the book deserves a more thorough review than I can give here. Look it up at Hippocampus Press and see if, well, if you can handle it.
If so, don’t stop there. Pick up another book just as engaging, but whose net is more widely cast in its focus on belief and cosmic dread, called Dark Awakenings by Matt Cardin.
Cardin’s project as a writer is vast — and he seems just as interested in what it is that makes us monkeys squeal as he is in what lies beyond in the cosmos. It is rare to come across a writer as earnestly focused on this sort of thing as Matt Cardin (who, incidentally is also a scholar OF Ligotti — and in many ways follows in his shadows).
Dark Awakenings offers generous heapings of fiction and “dark theology”: there are seven high quality Weird Tales (in the proper sense of that phrase, as many of them are eldritch stories, directly or indirectly related to the Cthulhu Mythos) and three artful, multi-part works of literary criticism on the diverse religious and philosophical elements of supernatural tales (from the Bible to Romero films). My copy — which you can special-order from the quality publishers at Mythos Books — not only contained the 120,000 words of prose in a quality hardcover package, but also even came with an audio CD of dark music (much of it driven by creepy synthesizers and voice samples of creepy lines from various film and radio programs — ultimately sounding something like quotes from Aleister Crowley’s dream journal) composed by Cardin’s alter-ego, Daemonyx, called “Night of the Daemon.” I enjoyed this multigenre approach. You get a hefty bundle of “awakenings” that really reward the experience with a sustained study of the limits and hopes of religion, the phenomenological experience of dread, the undercurrent of primordial fear in everyday life, and the figurative and literal meanings of the supernatural.
In other words, you get entertainment with serious intellectual heft.
One might presume that a book should only come at you with one approach — i.e., that a reader can only hold a work of fiction, or one of non-fiction, in their hands at once. And it’s true that many lesser writers might produce something schizoid if they attempted this dual approach to dread. But the exact opposite is true in Cardin’s case: these two genres of writing inform each other in an interesting way, so that by the time you finish the stories and turn to the criticism, you are eager to learn more about the writer’s worldview; and when you get to the end, you’ve learned so much more that you want to turn right back to the beginning and start reading the fiction all over again. And it does reward a second read: Cardin is deft at writing in both genres, because he writes with such a centered focus.
Cardin’s writing is at once scholarly and imaginatively rich, but throughout this book you can’t help but pick up the author’s sense of conviction about the material and his respect for the gutsy legacy of the genre. It is not that he preaches about spirituality; instead, he reasons with his audience and appeals to their sense of wonder…and then leads us into a voluntary contemplation of the abyss. No, not a contemplation, that’s too weak a word for Cardin’s project. Instead, it is a full bore immersion into oblivion, where neither reason nor emotion can really save you, and you have to transcend or succumb to a larger, sublime reality.
Cardin, following in Lovecraft’s tradition, is more interested in crafting and musing over the cosmic horrors that threaten to render us insignificant…when they aren’t otherwise threatening to lash our heads off with a tentacled thwack. Rife with dream imagery, and one curious eye flittering about the liminal edge of the abyss, Cardin’s storytelling is effective in its tricky balancing act of spiritual curiosity and primordial dread. Some of it will be a bit philosophically pensive for some readers’ taste. This sort of writing may appeal mostly to fans who already share the author’s worldview. It’s somewhat telling, for example, that the opening story, “Teeth,” is written in first person from the perspective a grad student in philosophy. Not all readers will be able to identify with that sort of protagonist, who seems a modern echo of Lovecraft’s classic archetype of the scholar-driven-to-insanity-by-indulging-his-relentless-intellectual-curiosity. But then again, what reader can’t help but see himself mirrored by the narrator of “Teeth,” when he peers into a colleague’s notebook and finds himself pulled into the “obscene infinitude” of a mandala filled with “trillions of teeth” that begin to chew away at his mind? That’s >our< mind being consumed by the story as we read. And all the stories are engaging in this same manner.
While Cardin's fiction remains potent, the lengthy critical essays in this volume are really important contributions to horror scholarship, and are more grounded in literary history and criticism than Ligotti's book, which draws mostly from existential philosophers — some long forgotten. Cardin's first essay surveys a history of the angel and demon in canonical fiction, opening the reader's eyes to the precedents for these figures in contemporary literature, and revealing their meanings beyond the dominant Christian iconography we find all too familiar. An essay on George Romero's nihilistic Living Dead film series explores the way the cannibalistic zombie icon raises issues related to the body and spirit (and fans of Kim Paffenroth's Stoker-award winning book, Gospel of the Living Dead, will feel amply rewarded by Cardin’s essay). Cardin’s collection culminates with a close reading of the appearance of monstrous chaos — and the problem of “anti-closure” — in the biblical book of Isaiah. All three essays echo one another’s central theme, while illuminating the problems the horror genre has been posing to mankind and meaning alike for centuries, in the process.
Either of these two books would make great fodder in a course in the Philosophy of Horror and Belief. You don’t need a professor to give you the syllabus; enroll yourself in these books, and see what lessons their teeth have to teach you.
Find out more about Dark Awakenings on the author’s website:
Ligotti’s Conspiracy Against the Human Race: