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Brian McNaughton’s “lost” introduction to DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP

I just returned last night from attending the World Fantasy Convention in Austin, Texas. I’ll be posting a full report on my experiences there some time in the next week or so, but right now, in order to meet my self-imposed weekly blog deadline, I thought I’d go ahead and share something I’ve been planning to post here for awhile.

Back in 2001 and 2002 when my first book, a collection of cosmic/spiritual horror stories titled Divinations of the Deep, was in the works with Ash-Tree Press, Brian McNaughton wrote an introduction for it that was so enthusiastic that it still makes me warm whenever I reread it. I first met Brian in the late 1990s when I began participating in the newsgroup alt.horror.cthulhu, the venerable online forum centered around the discussion of all things Lovecraftian. I posted many a message exploring the philosophical underpinnings of Lovecraft’s fictional worlds and his deployment of certain techniques to create an effect of cosmic horror. Then when my story “Teeth” was published at Thomas Ligotti Online, Brian, whom I had never met before, read it and posted a rave review to the newsgroup. This led to an email exchange in which I thanked him for his kind words.

Confession time: I had never heard of him before this all happened, and I was a relative Internet newbie at the time, so I hadn’t yet attained that level of savvy which leads all of us netheads nowadays to do an online search whenever we meet somebody new in cyberspace, in order to gather a contextual background if possible. (Plus, this was back in pre-Google days, when we were stuck with the likes of HotBot, Altavista, and the original Yahoo! for performing our websearches.) Thus, a moment of embarrassment was inevitably in the offing.

It came after Brian and I had been in contact two or three times, when he made passing mention of a story he had recently written. I responded by saying, “Oh, are you a writer, too?” Now this was insanely stupid for at least two reasons. First, he had mentioned his status as an author, and in fact had given the title of one of his books, right there in that review of my story. But somehow, for some inexplicable reason, I was forgetting that.

Second, not only was he a writer, but he was a famous and well-established one at that. Earlier that very year, he had won the World Fantasy Award for his awesome cycle of dark fantasy stories, The Throne of Bones. Moreover, he had been writing and publishing since the 1970s (when I was just a young lad) and was presently being widely touted by various luminaries in the field, such as S. T. Joshi (who wrote an afterword for The Throne of Bones) and Alan Rodgers (who wrote a preface for the same book), as a writer of genius.

He didn’t tell me any of that in response to my dunderheaded query. Instead, he merely mentioned the title of his book again (since apparently the previous glaring reference to it had somehow escaped me) and left it to me to find out more if I wanted to. Which I did. The next time I wrote to him, I would have made prolific use of the “sheepish” emoticon if such a thing had existed.

We kept in touch after that, and when it became apparent that I was going to have a fiction collection published, I approached Brian to ask if he would write an introduction. He readily agreed. Unfortunately, what he wrote did not appear in the final published version, because the editors at Ash-Tree decided they liked the book better without it. So Brian’s contribution was shrunk to the level of a mere blurb (actually an excerpt from his introduction) that appeared inside the front cover flap. I have always been disappointed by this. I mean, it was Ash-Tree’s call, certainly, and I wasn’t about to argue with them, especially since it was quite a prestigious thing for me to have my first book published by such a prominent and well-respected publisher in the first place. But I knew Brian had labored hard on that introduction — surprisingly hard, he told me; it hadn’t come easy, and he wasn’t sure why — and I liked the way he had framed my stories in terms of a discussion of spiritual horror in general and Lovecraft and Ligotti in particular. He really seemed to understand what I was getting at in those stories, and I thought his introduction was quite illuminating.

That’s why I’ve decided, these four years later, to go ahead and publish it here instead of letting it molder in perpetual obscurity. The timing is particularly appropriate for this, by the way, since over the weekend at the World Fantasy Con I met Alan Rodgers for the first time. Brian gave me Alan’s email address in 2000 or 2001 and suggested that I contact him in order to see if Alan would be interested in helping some of my work find publication. Alan had been acting as Brian’s editor for a while, and I recognized his name when it was mentioned to me. But for some reason — maybe because I stumbled into the Ash-Tree deal; it’s been so long that I forget exactly why — I never did contact him. So when I looked at his name tag this past Saturday and saw who he was, I was thrilled to meet him. I introduced myself and mentioned the McNaughton connection, and this led us into a very nice conversation. Alan stressed to me that Brian’s praise of my work must have been absolutely sincere, because he (Brian) didn’t hesitate to lambast a person’s work if he thought poorly of it.

Sadly, Brian died two years ago after a protracted battle with cancer. We had fallen out of touch for a year or more before that, and it was only when the word of his death began to circulate among the speculative fiction community that I realized why he had been unable to communicate. This led to one of the weirdest griefs I have ever experienced, since I had never met him in person, and yet I felt a sense of friendship, familiarity, and gratitude toward him that was at odds with that fact.

If you’re a fan of Brian’s work, and especially if you ever saw any of his online communications, then you’ll probably recognize his characteristic tone of voice in the introduction he wrote for my collection. I can only hope that he’d be happy to know his words are finally seeing the light of day.

* * * * *

Introduction to Matt Cardin’s Divinations of the Deep

by Brian McNaughton

I have never a been big fan of theological fantasies, grounded as they usually are in our preconceived notions of God, the Devil, and assorted angels, fallen or otherwise. Most of the author’s work has been done for him before he begins. The groundwork and the battle-plan exist in our minds, and we never doubt whom we should root for.

That doesn’t apply, of course, to John Milton: only the most perverse could cheer for such bores as Adam and God in preference to the flamboyant Satan. But it most certainly applies to almost all of those laboring in the lowly vineyard labeled “weird fiction.” Drawing their inspiration from such enormously successful potboilers as “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Exorcist,” they accept the standard as a framework on which to hang what Count Floyd would have called “really scarrrry stories, boys and girls.”

Well, they never scared me, perhaps because the authors don’t take religion seriously. As ostensible practitioners of horror-fiction, they are missing a bet. In all its forms, including its most modern manifestation as psychotherapy, religion is the only human institution that directly confronts fear, the deepest and darkest emotion, the one that imposes tyrannical limits on our brief lives. . . and that lies in wait, unknowable, beyond those limits.

Intellectuals (and by that I mean those whose principal activity is mental, at whatever level of accomplishment) have long discounted religion, so it’s no surprise that the likes of Blatty and Levin should fail to take it seriously. H.P. Lovecraft didn’t take it seriously, either, but he recognized its enormous power in the very area — cosmic horror — that he wanted to stake out as his own. So he invented a pandemonium of evil entities that evoked the sort of horror that Satan could no longer evoke for people of Lovecraft’s mind-set. We don’t know what’s going on, he implied, but there are Things Out There that do; and the last thing we want to do is attract their notice. He even referred to the Bible of his invented religion, “The Necronomicon,” and we all know what a powerful grip this fictitious book has held on generations of readers.

Matt Cardin, like most of us, was floored by Lovecraft as a youngster and made an intensive study of his work. It shows — not through imitation, not by lifting a few names or symbols, but by his thorough appreciation of what cosmic horror is all about. As the product of an evangelical upbringing who has made a serious study of religion, presently working on a master’s degree in religious studies, and who has been involved in evangelical settings throughout his life, he knows that the Bible staked out the territory long before Lovecraft came on the scene. You might even say that he saw where Lovecraft went off the tracks by dismissing the power of the pre-existing symbols. In these masterly tales, he has steered the train back onto the mainline of Western religion.

I don’t want to suggest that these stories are devout or uplifting, or that they follow the Christian party line. Far from it. The reputed consolations of faith are notably absent from Matt’s bleak universe. Stories like “An Abhorrence to All Flesh” and “Judas of the Infinite” might get him in hot water with his co-religionists if they ponder too long the horrific implications. If they hold to the view that the Bible is true in every word, they might get some very queasy feelings by mulling over the quotations Matt has selected brilliantly from that book to shore up his hair-raising thesis in “Abhorrence.” Not only the Devil, but also Matt Cardin can quote Scripture to his purposes.

In this tale, he avoids the familiarity of the Good versus Evil conflict by standing the whole thing on its head. We don’t know whom to root for. . . and maybe we shouldn’t, lest we should be overheard.

I’ve read this story two or three times, and each time it gets more disturbing, like one of those Thomas Ligotti tales that burrow their way into your soul and leave you with a far less comfortable view of human existence. Ligotti is another of Cardin’s masters, but Matt has at the very least equaled him in this exercise. “The Basement Theatre” perhaps comes closest to the Ligotti mode by transferring the logic of dreams to the real world.

God Himself gets His comeuppance in “Judas,” a tale of pure cosmic horror if ever there was one. And both Good and Evil are put in perspective in “Notes of a Mad Copyist” as Matt gives us a hint of the all-devouring void that lies behind them both.

Matt Cardin comes by his credentials as a horror-writer honestly: not by reading Stephen King with a felt marker in hand and one eye on the cash-register, but by suffering through a dark night of the soul that very nearly undid him. I doubt that he ever sets out deliberately to write a “really scarrrry story,” unlike all too many practitioners of weird fiction.

He merely writes what he knows. . . God help him.