Category Archives: Arts & Entertainment

Philip Roth on the value of serious literature amid the hellscape of contemporary America

Philip Roth, 1973

Here’s Nathaniel Rich, writing for The New York Review of Books about Philip Roth’s Why Write?: Collected Nonfiction 1960–2013:

Between the interviews given in self-defense, the conversations with peers, and the exchanges with angry Jews, there emerges from Roth’s nonfiction a unified theory of the novel as a bulwark against the excesses of modern society. The assaults on the novelist come from two fronts. The first is the social chaos of a nation in political crisis and cultural decline. Roth began to speak about this danger in 1960:

The American writer in the middle of the twentieth century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.

This problem obsessed Saul Bellow too; it was the dominant subject of his nonfiction. “The noise of life is the great threat,” he wrote in 1970, “the sounds of the public sphere, the din of politics, the turbulence and agitation that set in about 1914 and have now reached an intolerable volume.” Bellow worried that the fervor of public life would destroy the private conditions necessary for the creation and appreciation of art. Roth, despite writing before the tumult of the Sixties, went farther, suggesting that a radically destabilized society had made it difficult to discriminate between reality and fiction. What was the point of writing or reading novels when reality was as fantastic as any fiction?

Such apprehensions may seem quaint when viewed from the comic-book hellscape of 2018, though it is perversely reassuring that life in 1960 felt as berserk as it does now. American reality continued to overwhelm the imagination during the Vietnam War, which Roth likened to “living on a steady diet of Dostoevsky,” and under the administration of the “grotesque” Richard Nixon, the subject of Our Gang. And in Reagan’s Eighties, dominated as they were by “a proliferation of . . . media stupidity and cynical commercialism — American-style philistinism run amok,” a time when, Roth complained, it became “easier for even the best-educated people” to discuss movies and television shows than literature.

The threat continued in the 1990s, when Roth bemoaned to Ivan Klíma the obliterating influence of “that trivializer of everything, commercial television”; during the administration of George W. Bush (“we are ambushed . . . by the unpredictability that is history”); and in the final years of the Obama administration: “Very little truthfulness anywhere, antagonism everywhere, so much calculated to disgust, the gigantic hypocrisies, no holding fierce passions at bay, the ordinary viciousness you can see just by pressing the remote, explosive weapons in the hands of creeps. . . .” This year, in an e-mail published in The New Yorker, Roth worried about the newest manifestation of this threat: “It isn’t Trump as a character, a human type — the real-estate type, the callow and callous killer capitalist — that outstrips the imagination. It is Trump as President of the United States.”

Toward the end of his career, in his novels and public statements, Roth began to prophesy the extinction of a literary culture — an age-old pastime for aging writers. But in his earlier critical essays, he described literature as not only immune to the incursions of the “mass electronically amplified philistine culture,” but its most powerful antidote. What better refuge from the simplifying influence of mass culture than the richness of great fiction, with its openhearted embrace of moral contradiction and emotional complexity? As the shrill hue increases to an insane volume, fiction’s value grows ever more precious. “Where the mass media inundate us with inane falsifications of human affairs,” Roth wrote in 1990, “serious literature is no less of a life preserver, even if the society is all but oblivious of it.” In the current deluge, we have more reason to cling to that preserver than ever before.

Full article: “Roth Agonistes

Photo by Nancy Crampton (ebay) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Kickstarter campaign for “Vastarien: A Literary Journal”

 

Some time ago here at The Teeming Brain, I announced the birth of a new literary journal titled Vastarien, to be edited by Jon Padgett and me, and to be framed as “a source of critical study and creative response to the corpus of Thomas Ligotti as well as associated authors and ideas.” We launched a website, www.vastarien-journal.com, where we published submission guidelines and started receiving stories, poems, articles, essays, and artwork. Jon and I then spent many months and countless hours responding to these submissions and crafting the first issue. Jon also retained the services of artist Dave Felton and designer Anna Trueman to create a stunning cover.

Yesterday we launched a Kickstarter campaign to cover the costs of the first three issues. It reached its funding goal today, in a total of 27 hours. In fact, we have now surpassed that funding goal, and we will soon be announcing some stretch goals. This is a wonderfully affirming response that shows what a high level of interest and excitement there really is for such a publication.

The Kickstarter campaign has nearly a month left. This means you can still become one of our backers. We have created an attractive set of rewards for different pledge levels. At the campaign page you can also read the full table of contents for Volume 1, Issue 1. Consider yourself invited:

 

Kickstarter – Vastarien: A Literary Journal

 

(BONUS NOTE: We’re also now accepting submissions for issues 2 and 3. The submission period will close on March 1.)

The centering power of reading in an age of mass distraction

If reading is not always an act of liberation, it is at least an act of self-definition. It is an experience of solitude in which we become unavailable to those immediately around us. Even when we read to someone else, usually a lover or a child, or have them read to us, the effect is to be pulled together into an orbit defined by the book. In reading we make a public space into something private, and find a way to be private in public. . . .

What’s more, we are never just reading: we are always reading in a specific place and time, in a certain chair, at the window or in the basement, hot or cold, sleepy or wide awake, alone or in a crowded room. In an essay on Ruskin, Proust writes that when we look back on our favorite childhood days of reading, what we remember is all the interruptions that kept us from the book — the family that was calling us to dinner, for example, the very dinner that was ruined because we spent the whole meal wishing we were still reading. But now the memory of the reading is riddled with all its interruptions, and we look back on them fondly as part of the same event.”

Maybe that also describes what it’s like to watch movies or television shows. I don’t think it describes what it’s like to use a phone. It could be that in ten or twenty years I will look back fondly on these nights on the couch, where I panic over the headlines, compulsively like photos on Instagram, check my email, and return to the headlines on the great hamster wheel of contemporary enervation. Is this reading? Will I recall the interruptions that wrench me away from the latest political disaster with fond nostalgia, the cries of the baby intermingled with tweets about sexual harassment and rising sea levels? What I know is that on the nights when I force myself to open a book, I feel like a person, an individual engaged in an activity at once secret and communal, rather than a receptacle of mass information.

Full text: “Reading in the Dark

A Golden Ghoul Award for “Horror Literature through History”

Dejan Ognjanovic, who runs the prominent Serbian horror blog The Cult of Ghoul, has given Horror Literature through History a 2018 Golden Ghoul Award for best non-fiction horror book of 2017. You can read the complete awards list (in Serbian) at the blog.

Do the moral failings of artists mean we have to reject their art?

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.

FULL TEXT: As Artists Fall into Disgrace, Must Their Art Be Consigned to Oblivion?“”

A starred review of “Horror Literature through History” from Booklist

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.

The encyclopedia is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the publisher. It’s also in libraries everywhere. If yours doesn’t have it, just ask.

Brilliant: This one-minute short film about a prepper’s dream coming true

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.

My interview for This Is Horror – Part Two

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.

 

Horror encyclopedia updates: An interview at Rue Morgue, a positive review from Kirkus

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.