Today the website Sublime Horror published an interview with me on the theological ideas that went into To Rouse Leviathan and the connections that I’ve long drawn between horror and religion:
The questions from interviewer Laura Kemmerer drew out some fairly personal information, including details about my evangelical upbringing, reminiscences of my young adult years when I transitioned to horror after having been more interested in fantasy and science fiction, and thoughts on the specific texts, authors, and ideas from my years as a graduate student in religious studies that have influenced my writing and thinking about the complementary nature and shared spiritual/philosophical DNA of religion and horror of the specifically weird and cosmic kind.
In 2017 I published an enthusiastic review of Jerry L. Martin’s God: An Autobiography here at The Teeming Brain, and also at Amazon. The book presents Martin’s account of being an atheist who was hit with an unexpected experience of what presented itself as divine communication. Over the course of about a year, he found himself involved in an ongoing dialogue with God (plus a couple of additional spiritual beings at one or two points) in which the nature of God, humans, life, death, and the universe itself were given decidedly unconventional expression. As I said in my review, these things are given added weight by the fact that Martin is no flaky peddler of New Age hype but a real philosopher whose resume gives him serious intellectual credibility. The first paragraph of his biographical entry at Wikipedia serves as handy evidence of this:
Jerry L. Martin is the author of God: An Autobiography, As Told to a Philosopher (godanautobiography.com), coordinator of the Theology Without Walls project at the American Academy of Religion and a contributor to The Good Men Project. From 1988 to 1995, Martin held senior positions at the National Endowment for the Humanities, including acting chairman. From 1967 until 1982, Martin was a tenured professor and chairman of the philosophy department at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he also served as the Director of the University’s Center for the Study of Values and Social Policy. He has testified before Congress and appeared on radio and television. Martin is chairman emeritus of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. He served as president of ACTA from its founding in 1995 as the National Alumni Forum until 2003, when he was succeeded by Anne D. Neal.
A few months after I wrote my review, Jerry — whom I knew on a first-name basis from having interacted with him online — interviewed me via Skype for one installment in a series of videos that he was putting together to dovetail with the themes in God: An Autobiography. The videos were to present conversations between him and some of the thinkers with whom he had come into contact via the book.
These are now being released. My own interview was published just yesterday. In it, I talk about my religious upbringing in a conservative evangelical church. I recall my early love for fantasy and horror fiction and film, with horror coming to take center stage in my late teens. I describe my sleep paralysis and nocturnal assault experiences and their formative role in darkening my philosophical worldview and emotional outlook and thus catalyzing my birth as a horror writer. I mull over the question of whether darkness or light is more fundamental as the spiritual or metaphysical ground of being. I describe my fascination with the subject of the muse, the daimon, the genius, and experiences of both divine communication and demonic possession. And I relate these things to the subject matter of God: An Autobiography. Along the way, I also recount how I first came into contact with Jerry Martin when the online excerpts from the God book that he shared prior to its publication came to my attention as I was conducting some of my perpetual research into inspired creativity and the experience of anomalous communication from a seemingly spiritual source.
Two necessary notes: First, an apology for the lousy sound quality in the video’s first few minutes. I can’t imagine why I wasn’t using earbuds or headphones. Second, when Jerry asked me at the end of the conversation to suggest a starting place for those who are interested in reading my books, I didn’t name To Rouse Leviathan because it was still in a questionable hyperspace at that time. Presently it’s set for publication next month. If the conversation were recorded today, that’s what I’d name.
To my own considerable surprise, Leviathan is finally on the way to being roused. After a six-year delay that was entirely my own creation, I can now announce that my third collection of horror fiction, To Rouse Leviathan, will soon become a reality. I recently submitted the final story — a comprehensive revision and expansion of a collaboration between Mark McLaughlin and me that was first published in the early aughts — to Hippocampus Press. Presently, I’m given to understand that cover art has already been developed and preorders will open soon. I’ll share information about both when it’s available.
Currently, you can read the collection’s table of contents at my author site. Be advised that the cover image there is just a mockup of my own creation. The contents themselves comprise the complete set of stories that made up my first collection, Divinations of the Deep (with one of them being substantially revised), the stories from my second collection, Dark Awakenings (but not the essays; see below), and a third section titled “Apocryphon” that brings together four previously uncollected stories.
There’s been some discussion about another collection to follow this one. It would bring together many of my nonfiction writings about the confluence of religion, horror, creativity, and related matters, including the essays/papers from Dark Awakenings and various uncollected items. I’ll say more when the time is right. For now, I’m just sitting here contemplating the unaccountable return of my fiction writer’s muse, who went into hibernation in 2013 due to various factors and then emerged late last year to enable completion of Leviathan. It’s a strange business, this discipline of living and communing with a demon muse.
Yes, of course, this is a topic that I have broached many times before. But this recent — and fantastically brilliant — video from The Onion brought it roaring back to the forefront of my thoughts. (Hat tip to J. F. Martel for alerting me to it.)
And of course that reminded me of — and may well have been partly inspired by — this, which remains one of the quintessential moments in my religious education and one of the most astonishing moments of divine truth ever to erupt into cinema:
Then there’s the essay by Barbara Ehrenreich about this very thing that I just stumbled across today at The Baffler. Like so many other people, I was surprised and fascinated last year by the revelations about Ms. Ehrenreich’s spontaneous mystical experiences and the accompanying shift in her general worldview and philosophical thinking. Now I find that she is actually deeply read in the science fiction and horror literature devoted to speculating about the horror of a monstrous God or gods, as evidenced by an essay in which she takes Ridley Scott’s Prometheus as a springboard to talk about the works of Philip Pullman, H. P. Lovecraft, Olaf Stapledon, Arthur C. Clarke, and Philip K. Dick, along with the ideas of the New Atheists and various prominent works of sociology and religious history. Says Ms. Ehrenreich,
[What Prometheus presents] is not atheism. It is a strand of religious dissidence that usually flies well under the radar of both philosophers and cultural critics. . . . Barred from more respectable realms of speculation, the idea of an un-good God has been pretty much left to propagate in the fertile wetlands of science fiction. One of the early sci-fi classics of the twentieth century, H. P. Lovecraft’s 1931 At the Mountains of Madness, offers a plotline that eerily prefigures Prometheus. . . . The idea of an un-good God, whether indifferent or actively sadistic, flies in the face of at least two thousand years of pro-God PR, much of it irrational and coming from professed “people of faith.”
. . . If God is an alternative life-form or member of an alien species, then we have no reason to believe that It is (or They are), in any humanly recognizable sense of the word, “good.” Human conceptions of morality almost all derive from the intensely social nature of the human species: our young require years of caretaking, and we have, over the course of evolution, depended on each other’s cooperation for mutual defense. Thus we have lived, for most of our existence as a species, in highly interdependent bands that have had good reasons to emphasize the values of loyalty and heroism, even altruism and compassion. But these virtues, if not unique to us, are far from universal in the animal world (or, of course, the human one). Why should a Being whose purview supposedly includes the entire universe share the tribal values of a particular group of terrestrial primates?
. . . [Philip K.] Dick may have been optimistic in suggesting that what the deity hungers for is “interspecies symbiosis.” Symbiosis is not the only possible long-term relationship between different species. Parasitism, as hideously displayed in Ridley Scott’s Alien series, must also be considered, along with its quicker-acting version, predation. In fact, if anything undermines the notion of a benevolent deity, it has to be the ubiquity of predation in the human and non-human animal worlds. Who would a “good” God favor—the antelope or the lion with hungry cubs waiting in its den, the hunter or the fawn? For Charles Darwin, the deal-breaker was the Ichneumon wasp, which stings its prey in order to paralyze them so that they may be eaten alive by the wasp’s larvae. “I cannot persuade myself,” wrote Darwin, “that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.” Or, as we may ask more generally: What is kindness or love in a biological world shaped by interspecies predation? “Morality is of the highest importance,” Albert Einstein once said, “but for us, not for God.”
. . . [C]ontra so many of the critics, we have learned an important lesson from the magnificent muddle of Prometheus: if you see something that looks like a god — say, something descending from the sky in a flaming chariot, accompanied by celestial choir sounds and trailing great clouds of star dust — do not assume that it is either a friend or a savior. Keep a wary eye on the intruder. By all means, do not fall down on your knees.
MORE: “The Missionary Position” by Barbara Ehrenreich
With my personal religious/spiritual status as a kind of nondual Protestant Christian influenced by equal amounts of Zen, Vedanta, Jungian psychology, Fortean trickster ontology, Robert Anton Wilsonian reality tunnel skepticism, and a few additional factors, all of them infused with and underlaid by intimations of deepest gloom emanating from the likes of Poe, Lovecraft, and Ligotti, I can honestly say that my immediate and heartfelt response to Ehrenreich’s words can be summed up in a single word: amen.
My online friend Rafael Melo has just published a new interview with me at his blog Cloudy Sky. Topics include my reasons for writing about horror and religion and such, my creative process, the centrality of depression and dread in my life as a writer, my favorite music and movies, the deep meaning of angels and demons, the current state of higher education, and more.
Here’s an excerpt where I get personal about my childhood anti-education in the realm of horror cinema:
RAFAEL: What are your main influences for writing about the horror genre?
MATT: My major horror influences include Lovecraft, Ligotti, Ted Klein, and a host of other writers in the weird fiction tradition and the wider tradition of supernatural horror in general. When I was young I read a lot of Poe’s and Bradbury’s horror stories, and this proved significant. So did a horror record that a friend played for me at his house one late summer afternoon. It featured some spooky sound effects plus a few readings of classic horror stories, including a deliriously unhinged performance of Poe’s “The Telltale Heart.” I can still hear the narrator’s voice as he goes for broke in an over-the-top reading of the final line: “Here! Here! It is the beating of his hideous heart!” That flat-out marked me, man.
Although I don’t usually name him in this regard, I suppose I ought to mention Stephen King, too, since I imbibed a large number of his books in my youth , along with the movies adapted from them, and this was influential. My parents didn’t let me watch scary stuff when I was young, so when the movie versions of Carrie and The Shining and the television miniseries of Salem’s Lot came out in the 1970s, I saw the ads but didn’t get to see the movies themselves, and my mind generated all kinds of vague expectations of the colossally frightening things that must be in them. The same thing happened with non-Stephen King movies, too, including Hell Night, Silent Scream, and several more. Whenever I accidentally caught the television advertisements, I was so frightened that I couldn’t stop seeing them in my mind’s eye for hours afterward. Quite seriously, these commercials filled me with a sense of terror and dread. But at the same time, I found them hypnotically fascinating.
I’ve realized in recent years that my parents did me a wonderful creative favor, albeit inadvertently, by forbidding me to watch such things, because this worked in tandem with a native bent in my personality to inculcate a deep and tantalizing sense of some elusive horror that’s loose in the world, and that can never really be seen or known directly, but that would absolutely fry you if you saw it face to face.
. . . When Lovecraft invokes the idea of unspeakable horrors and sanity-blasting cosmic gods and monsters, and when he says the fundamental supernatural horrific response is basically coeval with the ancient category of consciousness that we call “religious experience,” I hear him developing an eccentric version of negative/apophatic theology and helping to clarify the very thing that drives me personally.
FULL INTERVIEW: Matt Cardin — Life and Mind of a Teeming Brain
FYI, Rafael also runs the antinatalist blog The Last Page and has long been an active presence in the online community devoted to discussing antinatalism, including in the works of Thomas Ligotti. If you can read Portuguese, you can look up and read his book of antinatalist philosophy, A Última Filosofia: An Essay about Antinatalism.
The major theme that I have pursued in my books and other writings is the complementary nature of the divine and the demonic. Or rather, it’s the truth of the divine demonic or demonic divine, that searing fusion of the horrific with the beatific in a liminal zone where supernatural horror and religion are inextricably merged with each other, and where it’s not just the conventionally demonic that is the source of deepest dread and horror, but the very divine object itself: God, the One, the Ground of Being. If God is or can be the ultimate horror, then the experience of religious illumination or spiritual awakening is inherently dangerous, since it constitutes a true personal apocalypse, a removal of reality’s obscuring veil that can be experienced not just as a wonderful liberation but as an awe-ful nightmare. “It is a dreadful thing,” says the author of the biblical Book of Hebrews, “to fall into the hands of the living God,” who is “a consuming fire” and should be worshiped “with holy fear and awe” (Hebrews 10:31, 12:28-29). The experience of numinous horror thus reveals itself as a route to, and maybe a marker of, an authentic spiritual transformation, although of a sort whose unpleasant subjective aspects often call into question its fundamental desirability.
It has been one of my most passionate pleasures and obsessions in life to read and hear other people’s explorations of these things. This is why you’ve seen me refer so many times to, for instance, Rudolf Otto’s seminal formulation of the idea of the numinous and the mysterium tremendum and daemonic dread, and Lovecraft’s open recognition that the psychology of weird supernatural horror fiction and its basic emotional response is “coeval with the religious feeling and closely related to many aspects of it,” and William James’s assertion in The Varieties of Religious Experience that the “real core of the religious problem” lies in an experience of cosmic horror and despair at the fundamental hideousness of life.
Right now I would like to call your attention to two items in this very vein that are distinctly separate in objective terms but intimately related in their articulation of the demonic divine conundrum. The first is a clip from the 1990 film Jacob’s Ladder. The second is an excerpt from an interview with contemporary spiritual author and teacher Richard Moss. Both of them articulate a very important truth: that one’s individual perspective and inner state at the moment of a supernatural parting of the veil is what determines whether the experience will tilt toward the divine or demonic. Read the rest of this entry
It’s an hour-long episode of the radio program Encounter that was broadcast just three days ago by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). Encounter “invites listeners to explore the connections between religion and life — intellectually, emotionally and intuitively — across a broad spectrum of topics.” Here’s the official description of this particular episode:
From the legends of Frankenstein and Dracula to films about zombies, witches and vampires, supernatural horror has always captured the popular imagination. Fictional horror scares us because it confronts us with our deepest fears about death and the unknown. It make us tremble, but it also acts as a catharsis. So it’s no wonder then that the horror genre often intersects with religion.
- Jana Riess, author of What Would Buffy Do: The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide
- Douglas E. Cowan, Professor of Religious Studies, Renison University College, University of Waterloo, Canada
- John Morehead, co-editor of The Undead and Theology and creator of website TheoFantastique
- Mike Duran, Christian novelist, California
- Ashley Moyse, Research Affiliate, Vancouver School of Theology, Canada
- Philip Johnson, Theologian
I simply can’t say enough good things about this presentation, which delves with unexpected depth into various important aspects of the relationship between religion and horror, including Rudolf Otto’s formulation of the seminal concepts of the numinous, daemonic dread, and the simultaneous attractive and repulsive power of the mysterium tremendum. The list of interviewees is particularly excellent. You’ll recall that John Morehead is a long-time Teeming Brain friend who was one of the panel participants on our podcast about Lovecraft, Machen, and the possible spiritual/philosophical divide between cosmic horror and sacred terror. (Interestingly, the exact same subject, minus any mention of Machen, is broached on this Encounter episode.) And Mike Duran and I have interacted on the issue of religion, horror, and apocalypse in the past.
Do yourself a favor and set aside an hour to listen with full attention. You won’t regret it.
What tangled web of eldritch synchronicities is this!?
- In 2006 I reviewed Richard Gavin’s strong first collection of supernatural/numinous horror fiction, Omens, for the journal Dead Reckonings.
- In the years after that, Richard and I forged a good online friendship. In 2011 he and I, and also our fellow horror scribe Simon Strantzas, roomed together in Tempe, Arizona as we attended, participated in, and spoke at MythosCon.
- Also leading up to 2011, I developed an online friendship with Texas horror scribe, Setian priest, occult philosopher, and writing teacher Don Webb. At the 2011 World Horror Convention, I chaired a panel about religion. Don was one of the panelists.
- In 2012 I became a columnist for Nam3less magazine. In 2012 Richard became a columnist here at The Teeming Brain. This past March, Richard used his column space to publish a fascinating interview with none other than Don: “Art, Mystery, and Magic: A Fireside Chat with Don Webb.”
- Now in 2013, Don has become a book reviewer for Nam3less magazine. And what does he go and do with this platform? He goes and publishes an outstanding review of Richard’s latest book, At Fear’s Altar!
Okay, okay, so maybe I’m reaching too hard for a sense of darkly numinous mystery and daimonic intrigue here. Or maybe, you know, not. After all, each of us and all of together are inspired and guided by obscure forces. Who says they couldn’t work through all of this recounted randomness and triviality to bring about obscurely meaningful-seeming configurations of circumstance and personal interconnection, purely for their own inscrutable amusement?
In any event, while you ruminate on the matter (or perhaps while it ruminates on you), why not go and read Don’s review? Then buy Richard’s book. You won’t be sorry, for reasons Don ably expounds.
Richard Gavin is probably the best horror writer in Canada. . . . Gavin is a well-known member of the Lovecraftian school — particularly the branch of Ramsey Campbell and Thomas Ligotti. His latest collection, At Fear’s Altar, will serve to further his reputation.
. . . The last story in the collection, the novella, “The Eldritch Faith,” is a tour de force telling of a young man coming of age (and driven by a taste for darkness and sexual need) and inventing his own bizarre rituals that take him into stranger and stranger (and darker and darker) worlds. We see him as a haunted child, a troubled adolescent, and a young man-thing, and finally a monster not entirely of our dimension. The first person narrative deals with fears, sexuality, and primal otherness in a vein similar to Machen’s “The White People.” In many ways, this is Lovecraftian horror at its best — with effects achieved through emotional details and sensory images rather than lists of books or beings with outlandish names.
COMPLETE REVIEW: “At Fear’s Altar by Richard Gavin“