A newly published op-ed by Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty is well worth reading for its nuanced response to the current crisis of falling idols in the world of arts and entertainment. Given my personal literary leanings, I find McNulty’s points to be nicely applicable to the case of someone he doesn’t name: H. P. Lovecraft, the moral excoriation of whom has by this point become de rigeur in some wings of the speculative fiction community. Here are some high points of McNulty’s argument, decontextualized from the rich field of specific examples, both classic and contemporary, that he uses to illustrate his point:
I know that an artist is not identical with his or her masterpieces and that few human beings can live up to their greatest achievements. . . .
If a book or play speaks, it does so in a way that transcends the limitations, and imperfections of the author, a more elusive figure than the publishing industry (and identity politics hard-liners) would have us believe. I’m not so much of the school of literary critic Roland Barthes, who famously declared the death of the author, as of the school of Proust, who saw that a writer crystallizes the notion of a multiplicity of identities, the way each of us contains numerous selves, not all of them readily categorizable.
Anyone whose occupation is imagining the lives of others necessarily has a thronging inner world. The artist who creates beauty can contain a fair amount of ugliness. . . .
History is the ultimate arbiter of what endures. Moral verdicts on the author, the raison d’être of many biographies, is a secondary layer that can color the reception of an artist’s oeuvre but cannot nullify work that retains its expressive power. . . .
Some of the shock we’re experiencing right now about all these fallen idols stems from our mythologizing natures. We expect our heroes to be exemplary, yet (as Proust points out) human fallibility may be a necessary ingredient in creativity. Heinous crimes are another matter entirely, but as any reader of biography can attest, genius and pathology aren’t exactly strangers.
Booklist has weighed in with a starred review of my Horror Literature through History:
The fan and the scholar alike will find much of use in this fun, well-organized two-volume reference set. Cardin (Mummies around the World, 2014) looks at horror literature with the broadest lens possible, considering not just its history but also its influence on new media, other genres, and more, organizing it all into three distinct and meticulously researched sections. . . . Extremely informative in its content, easy to use, engaging in its writing style, Cardin’s comprehensive and inclusive reference work not only solidly makes the case for horror’s enduring importance in our lives, as humans, throughout history but also presents it in a package that is a pleasure to read.
This one-minute film by neophyte French filmmaker Gaspar Palacio is just brilliant. And I don’t use that word lightly. It’s like a master class in cinematic microfiction. Here’s how Palacio describes it at Vimeo:
The one minute tale of a survivalist. When the siren rings in the distance, a family has to get inside the shelter. Nothing will ever be the same again.
At Digg it’s described like this:
When the sirens started blaring, the survivalist was ready. He had been planning for this all along.
Of additional interest: The film’s writer, Robert J. Lee, runs a site titled Two Pages a Week, where he shares two-page film scripts that he began to produce weekly after someone challenged him to do so. The site currently features more than seventy of them.
Here’s the second and final part of my recent interview for the This Is Horror podcast. Co-hosts Michael David Wilson and Bob Pastorella conducted the whole thing skillfully, so hats off to them.
Readers who have followed the saga of the birth of Horror Literature through History may be especially interested to hear that I spent a few minutes in this interview talking about entries that did not get included in the encyclopedia, and about my regrets over this. Other topics are noted on the graphic above (but they’re not the only ones broached).
“Matt Cardin on Horror and Spirituality, Thomas Ligotti, and Alan Watts” – An interview for the This Is Horror podcast
I was recently interviewed by the good folks at This Is Horror for their popular podcast. Here’s the result, published today as the first of two parts.
The conversation with TIH mastermind Michael David Wilson and co-host Bob Pastorella turned out to be extremely wide-ranging. We talked about my Horror Literature through History encyclopedia plus many more things, including my childhood preoccupation with fantasy and science fiction that eventually shaded over into horror; my own horror fiction; the reality or unreality of God, the supernatural, and the paranormal; the work and philosophy of Robert Anton Wilson; my self-identification as a Zen Christian; the transformation of the world into a digital dystopia; the works of Thomas Ligotti and Jon Padgett; the books and spiritual philosophy of Alan Watts; my creativity ebook A Course in Demonic Creativity; and Patrick Harpur’s Daimonic Reality: A Field Guide to the Otherworld. Michael describes it this way: “It’s the first of our two-part conversation with Matt Cardin on the This Is Horror Podcast. We chat about philosophy, existentialism, spirituality, our perception of reality … we even talk a little bit about horror fiction.” Click the image to visit the site and access the podcast.
Today Rue Morgue magazine published an interview with me at their website. It basically serves as an online supplement to their recent feature story about Horror Literature through History in the print magazine. Here’s a taste:
What is the primary aim and purpose of this book?
To quote from the publisher’s description, which is of course based largely on text from the book proposal that I submitted to them over two and a half years ago, Horror Literature through History “shows 21st-century horror fans the literary sources of their favorite entertainment and the rich intrinsic value of horror literature in its own right.” In other words, it’s meant to serve as both a general reference work about the history of horror literature and a book that can educate people about the literary backgrounds of what might be called “screen horror”: horror movies, horror television, horror video games. Horror’s popularity right now is just off the charts. This seems likely to continue for a long time. And with the bulk of that popularity falling in the realm of screen horror, there’s something fundamental, something crucial, in the fact that there’s a literary background or precedent or forebear to virtually every monster, plot, theme, and idea that’s in play right now on screens everywhere, large and small. Plus, the literary side of horror itself is presently undergoing a kind of revolution. Weird fiction, for instance, has begun to evolve in striking new directions. The Internet has given rise to things like creepypastas. So the book is aimed at all of that. It aims to parse the state of horror right now by delving deeply into its literary history and tracing its evolutionary arc.
Full Interview: “Just Published: ‘Horror Literature through History'”
In related new, Kirkus Reviews has weighed in with an enthusiastically positive review of the encyclopedia. Here are selected highlights:
Matt Cardin’s new, fascinating two-volume reference [is] Horror Literature Through History. As someone wanting to learn more about the horror genre, this essential and comprehensive encyclopedia is a godsend. . . . These essays are interesting in their subject matter and pleasantly informative. The book’s contributors include seventy scholars and authors from around the world, giving the reader of Horror Literature Through History a new perspective on different aspects of horror that are as diverse as they are topical. Any reader would be hard-pressed not to add titles to their list of books they want to read. . . . Horror Literature Through History is an essential reference for horror fans that’s both entertaining and educational.
Full Review: “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Horror Fiction“
By way of reminder, the book is available from Amazon (which now has it back in stock after selling out), Barnes & Noble (which also sold out but now has more copies), and the publisher. It’s also available at libraries everywhere.
During the past couple of years, I haven’t had any time to pull together the expansive lists of links to recommended reading that I used to post here regularly. This situation may continue for some time. But in honor of the current Halloween holiday, here are some recently published items about horror pop culture, monsters, and the supernatural that are worth looking at.
These accidents of nature were known as “prodigies.” A non-exhaustive list might include floods; rains of blood or body parts; miscarriages, human and animal; volcanic eruptions and earthquakes; comets, eclipses, and conjunctions of the planets; apparitions of armies in the sky; and beached whales. What united this Borgesian collection was its strangeness. Each of these phenomena departed from the ‘norm’, but not enough to be considered a true miracle. They occupied a middle ground between natural and supernatural: the preternatural.
In theory, prodigies could be explained by natural causes. But in creating them, nature wasn’t tending to business as usual. This strange, quirky, slippery realm, the realm of the monstrous, fulfilled a human need to see the moral order reflected in the non-human domain. Prodigies allowed humans to see their own desires, fears and political judgments woven into the fabric of nature itself. In a secularised form, this impulse is still with us today.
One would like to believe that journalists have enough common sense not to believe in ghosts. But in the 1970s, American culture was awash in superstition. It was a time rather like our own, filled with economic and political instability. The Lutz family’s press conference took place 18 months after Watergate had forced Richard Nixon to resign the presidency and the onslaught of upsetting news had led everyone to question conventional facts and truth. It was unclear whether the stable laws of the universe still held.
Anger and fear were everywhere, and often enough, they bloomed into outright delusions. Couple that with the remnants of the New Age philosophies of the 1960s, shake in a little bit of good old American folklore, and you got something like what the Lutz family’s story would eventually be: The Amityville Horror, a story that would inspire several books and more than half a dozen films, spanning from the 1979 original blockbuster starring James Brolin and Margot Kidder, to the rather poorly-reviewed, middling effort released just this past October 12, called Amityville: The Awakening, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bella Thorne.
Though a lucrative and ubiquitous emblem of American mythology, it’s telling how dull the story actually is, when summarized . . .
2017: The Year That Horror Saved Hollywood (The Week)
Hollywood is facing crisis on multiple fronts: the allegations against Harvey Weinstein are shedding light on a trade plagued by sexual harassment and gender inequality, cord-cutting and streaming platforms are upsetting the regular order, and the movies are struggling through yet another dismal year at the box office. If there’s a silver lining in any of that for America’s film industry, it’s that the horror genre is still plugging merrily along, seemingly immune to the financial troubles that have befallen most studios. As the rest of Hollywood flounders in 2017, horror is in the midst of its highest-grossing year ever. On the backs of huge hits like It and Get Out, the horror genre has combined for a record $733.5 million in the US this year, according to box office data compiled by the New York Times. The year has proven that horror films are more than just cheaply made movies for niche audiences and can still cross into the mainstream to become bona fide successes.
How Horror TV Embraced Our Demons (The Week)
Where The Walking Dead does connect to Channel Zero and American Horror Story though is in its overriding sense of despair. Every time the heroes seem to be making progress, their egos lead them to blunder into some catastrophic error that destroys nearly everything they’ve built. This is a case of a long-form serialized TV show deriving a thematic angle from an economic necessity. To keep this successful show going, the story has to keep dead-ending and resetting. Fans waiting to see anything like hope in The Walking Dead are going to have to wait for viewership to completely crater. But while that nihilism can be unsatisfying to the audience, it’s also fascinating as a statement of where we are right now as a society. The phenomenal success of The Walking Dead and American Horror Story mean that week after week we’re gazing into an abyss, willingly. Perhaps we’re searching for clues to how to survive it.
Retro Retail: Classic Monsters of Marvel Comics (Inside the Magic) (This article is rather sumptuously illustrated with classic Marvel horror images)
While classic monsters may find their fame from films in the Universal Studios Classic Monster movies of the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s, they’ve also haunted the pages of the Marvel Comics universe. With revised backstories and sometimes intertwined story lines, these Marvel monsters made multiple appearances in the 1970’s, both under their own titles and as team-ups (or villains for) various Marvel super heroes.
Why We’ll Always Be Obsessed with — and Afraid of — Monsters (PBS News Hour)
Fear continues to saturate our lives: fear of nuclear destruction, fear of climate change, fear of the subversive, and fear of foreigners. But a Rolling Stone article about our “age of fear” notes that most Americans are living “in the safest place at the safest time in human history” . . . .
So why are we still so afraid? Emerging technology and media could play a role. But in a sense, these have always played a role. In the past, rumor and a rudimentary press coverage could fan the fires. Now, with the rise of social media, fears and fads and fancies race instantly through entire populations. Sometimes the specifics vanish almost as quickly as they arose, but the addiction to sensation, to fear and fantasy, persists, like a low-grade fever.
People often create symbols for that emotions are fleeting, abstract, and hard to describe. (Look no further than the recent rise of the emoji.) For over the last three centuries, Europeans and Americans, in particular, have shaped anxiety and paranoia into the mythic figure of the monster – the embodiment of fear, disorder and abnormality – a history that I detail in my new book, “Haunted” [from Yale University Pres, subtitled “On Ghosts, Witches, Vampires, Zombies, and Other Monsters of the Natural and Supernatural Earth”]. There are four main types of monsters. But a fifth — a nameless one — may best represent the anxieties of the 21st century.
“It was a small town by a small river and a small lake in a small northern part of a Midwest state.” The opening line of Ray Bradbury’s 1972 fantasy novel The Halloween Tree reads like the beginning of a good horror movie, and the film adaptation’s intro does little to quell this terrifying tone. With ominous music, a jack-o’-lantern title card, and Bradbury’s narration, the 1993 feature-length animated television movie produced by Hanna-Barbera seemingly set the stage for something sinister. And that’s how I remember my childhood viewing of this film, as one filled with my favorite holiday tropes. Upon revisiting it, I recognize the adaptation is much more faithful to Bradbury’s work than my younger self realized. That is to say, this is an extremely educational look at Halloween and how its tropes came to be, from witches to mummies and lots in between.
It’s hard not to relate The Halloween Tree to current juggernaut Stranger Things. Both quickly ask that viewers be emotionally attached to a young boy that has been whisked away on a journey that could determine whether he lives or dies. The characters left behind are so enamored with the boy that it makes it hard not to care, too . . .
Much to my surprise, a two-volume encyclopedia priced for institutional purchase by academic and public libraries has become a bestseller at Amazon. I don’t know the actual sales figures, and I’m sure they’re pretty small in terms of absolute numbers, since the book’s category (the history and criticism of horror and supernatural literature) is a rather narrow one. In other words, a book of this type probably doesn’t have to move many units in order to qualify as a bestseller. But for what it’s worth, for much of the past two weeks Horror Literature through History has hovered in the top ten books in that category, peaking at number six and then dropping much lower, but then spiking up again a few times. Amazon sold out of its original stock of the title and had to order more. A couple of days ago I saw that it was briefly flagged as the bestselling new encyclopedia of any kind. Currently those numbers have trailed off again.
In any event, I hadn’t expected so much interest from individual readers, given the book’s steep pricing. I’ve seen a couple of early readers among that crowd speaking glowingly of it in an online forum that I frequent, so that felt good. There’s a forthcoming interview with me about the project at a major horror website. I’m also slated to be interviewed on a major horror podcast a few days from now. I’ll post the links when they become available. In the meantime, if any of my Teeming Brain readers are among those who have purchased the encyclopedia, please know that I sincerely appreciate your interest and support, and I hope the book rewards your investment of time and money.
Update, October 17: The encyclopedia has also sold out at the website for Barnes & Noble.
At the beginning of each semester I tell my students the very thing that journalist Zat Rana gets at in a recent article for Quartz when I deliver a mini-sermon about my complete ban on phones — and also, for almost all purposes, laptops — in my classroom. A smartphone or almost any cell phone in your hand, on your desk, or even in your pocket as you’re trying to concentrate on important other things is a vampire demon powered by dystopian corporate overlords whose sole purpose is to suck your soul by siphoning away your attention and immersing you in a portable customized Matrix.
Or as Rana says, in less metaphorical language:
One of the biggest problems of our generation is that while the ability to manage our attention is becoming increasingly valuable, the world around us is being designed to steal away as much of it as possible….Companies like Google and Facebook aren’t just creating products anymore. They’re building ecosystems. And the most effective way to monetize an ecosystem is to begin with engagement. It’s by designing their features to ensure that we give up as much of our attention as possible.
Rana offers three pieces of sound advice for helping to reclaim your attention (which is the asset referred to in the title): mindfulness meditation, “ruthless single-tasking,” and regular periods of deliberate detachment from the digital world.
Interestingly, it looks like there’s a mini-wave of this type of awareness building in the mediasphere. Rana’s article for Quartz was published on October 2. Four days later The Guardian published a provocative and alarming piece with this teaser: “Google, Twitter and Facebook workers who helped make technology so addictive are disconnecting themselves from the internet. Paul Lewis reports on the Silicon Valley refuseniks alarmed by a race for human attention.” It’s a very long and in-depth article. Here’s a taste:
There is growing concern that as well as addicting users, technology is contributing toward so-called “continuous partial attention”, severely limiting people’s ability to focus, and possibly lowering IQ. One recent study showed that the mere presence of smartphones damages cognitive capacity — even when the device is turned off. “Everyone is distracted,” Rosenstein says. “All of the time.”
But those concerns are trivial compared with the devastating impact upon the political system that some of Rosenstein’s peers believe can be attributed to the rise of social media and the attention-based market that drives it. . . .
Tech companies can exploit such vulnerabilities to keep people hooked; manipulating, for example, when people receive “likes” for their posts, ensuring they arrive when an individual is likely to feel vulnerable, or in need of approval, or maybe just bored. And the very same techniques can be sold to the highest bidder. . . .
“The dynamics of the attention economy are structurally set up to undermine the human will,” [ex-Google strategist James Williams] says. “If politics is an expression of our human will, on individual and collective levels, then the attention economy is directly undermining the assumptions that democracy rests on.” If Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat are gradually chipping away at our ability to control our own minds, could there come a point, I ask, at which democracy no longer functions?
“Will we be able to recognise it, if and when it happens?” Williams replies. “And if we can’t, then how do we know it hasn’t happened already?”
In the same vein, Nicholas Carr (no stranger to The Teeming Brain’s pages) published a similarly aimed — and even a similarly titled — essay in the Weekend Review section of The Wall Street Journal on the very day the Guardian article appeared (October 6). “Research suggests that as the brain grows dependent on phone technology, the intellect weakens,” says the teaser. Here’s a representative passage from the essay itself:
Scientists have long known that the brain is a monitoring system as well as a thinking system. Its attention is drawn toward any object in the environment that is new, intriguing or otherwise striking — that has, in the psychological jargon, “salience.” Media and communication devices, from telephones to TV sets, have always tapped into this instinct. Whether turned on or switched off, they promise an unending supply of information and experiences. By design, they grab and hold our attention in ways natural objects never could.
But even in the history of captivating media, the smartphone stands out. It’s an attention magnet unlike any our minds have had to grapple with before. Because the phone is packed with so many forms of information and so many useful and entertaining functions, it acts as what [Adrian] Ward calls a “supernormal stimulus,” one that can “hijack” attention whenever it’s part of the surroundings — which it always is. Imagine combining a mailbox, a newspaper, a TV, a radio, a photo album, a public library, and a boisterous party attended by everyone you know, and then compressing them all into a single, small, radiant object. That’s what a smartphone represents to us. No wonder we can’t take our minds off it.
Full Text: “How Smartphones Hijack Our Minds“
At his blog Carr noted the simultaneous appearance of his essay and the Guardian article on the same day. He also noted the striking coincidence of the similarity between the titles, calling it a “telling coincidence” and commenting:
It’s been clear for some time that smartphones and social-media apps are powerful distraction machines. They routinely divide our attention. But the “hijack” metaphor — I took it from Adrian Ward’s article “Supernormal” — implies a phenomenon greater and more insidious than distraction. To hijack something is to seize control of it from its rightful owner. What’s up for grabs is your mind.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about all of this is that John Carpenter warned us about it three decades ago, and not vaguely, but quite specifically and pointedly. The only difference is that the technology in his (quasi-)fictional presentation was television. Well, that, plus the fact that his evil overlords really were ill-intentioned, whereas ours may be in some cases as much victims of their own devices as we are. In any event:
There is a signal broadcast every second of every day through our television sets. Even when the set is turned off, the brain receives the input. . . . Our impulses are being redirected. We are living in an artificially induced state of consciousness that resembles sleep. . . . We have been lulled into a trance.
I’m confident that what follows is the best paragraph I’ll read this week. I daresay it may be the best one you’ll read, too. Unsurprisingly, it’s from James Howard Kunstler’s blog. For me, it provides both a substantively and a tonally accurate description of what I’ve been seeing, hearing, and experiencing around me in recent weeks and months (and years).
Poor old Karl Marx, tortured by boils and phantoms, was right about one thing: History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. Thus, I give you the Roman Empire and now the United States of America. Rome surrendered to time and entropy. Our method is to drive a gigantic clown car into a ditch.
BONUS ITEM: Here’s the best headline I’ve read in recent memory. The story itself resides behind a paywall at The Washington Post, so I don’t know what it actually says, but the headline alone probably says it all:
Rocket man and dotard go bonkers in toontown
I can’t help wondering if this headline might serve for future generations as some sort of quasi/crypto-Zen koan of esoteric fascination, in the same way that “No Wife, No Horse, No Mustache” worked for Robert Anton Wilson.