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“
The Mask Behind the Face, the collection of metaphysical horror fiction by Teeming Brain contributor Stuart Young (see his column Sparking Neurones), was short-listed for the British Fantasy Award for Best Collection in 2006, and the title story — about brain disease, psychedelics, and the far outer and deep inner reaches of consciousness — ended up winning the award for Best Novella. Now its publisher, the UK-based Pendragon Press, is offering ten copies for free.
Here are the details:
Ten copies of Stuart Young’s The Mask Behind the Face up for grabs if you can answer the following question: who wrote the introduction to this collection?
First ten folk to join the Pendragon mailing list by this Friday and confirm their answer via email to Chris at pendragonpress dot net will receive a copy — unfortunately, I’ll have to invoice folk from overseas postage costs.
Note that the promotion launched just today, so “this Friday” means Friday, January 18. For the form to join Pendragon’s mailing list, visit the Pendragon Press site and see the right sidebar.
As for the novella that forms the book’s centerpiece, be advised that it’s a stellar piece of work offering a deeply personal and emotional take on its mind-bursting central subject. Here’s some enthusiastic praise from several people you’ve heard of:
“Emotional, brilliant and scary as hell.” – Brian Keene
“This is horror fiction as it should be: real, confrontational, yet simple, honest and intimate.” – Gary McMahon
“Wow, what an impressive story … ambitious, in fact downright audacious.” – T.E.D. Klein
“No one can accuse Stuart Young of avoiding the big issues — with insight and verve, he tackles head-on the existence of God, the mystery of human consciousness and the transformative effects of psychedelic drugs.” – Mark Chadbourn
Listen now (92 min.):
For alerts about future episodes, subscribe via RSS or email (see signup form in right sidebar).
Do nihilism and cosmic meaningfulness stand in fundamental tension with each other at the heart of the horror genre? Were Lovecraft and Machen getting at fundamentally different moral, aesthetic, and metaphysical points with their respective horror stories? Does the (possible) tension between Lovecraftian cosmic horror and Machenian sacred terror constitute a fault line running right through the center of the horror genre and impacting its literature and cinema today?
These are the questions driving this first-ever Teeming Brain podcast, which has been, if you count back to the blog’s original launch, six years in the making. More immediately, it was recorded between November 20 and 28, 2012. Its origin can be found in three items: first, an article titled “Meaning to the Madness” — about Lovecraft, Machen, and the moral and philosophical ideas playing out in the current horror movie scene — written by Christian horror novelist Jonathan Ryan and published in Christianity Today; second, a response to and rebuttal of Ryan’s argument by Teeming Brain founder Matt Cardin in “Cosmic Horror, Sacred Terror, and the Nightside Transformation of Consciousness“; and third, the vigorous conversation that grew up around that response both here and at Thomas Ligotti Online. There is also, fourth, John Morehead’s suggestion that this could all be turned into a stimulating podcast.
This debut episode presents a roundtable featuring eight authors and thinkers in the areas of horror, philosophy, and religion, all of whom engage the questions described above plus a whole lot more.
- Peter Bebergal, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and author of the widely praised memoir Too Much to Dream: A Psychedelic American Boyhood.
- Matt Cardin (host), founder and editor of The Teeming Brain and author of Dark Awakenings, Divinations of the Deep, and the forthcoming To Rouse Leviathan.
- Nicole Cushing, author of the forthcoming horror novella Children of No One and the trippy bizarro fiction collection How to Eat Fried Furries.
- Richard Gavin, author of the numinous horror collections At Fear’s Altar and The Darkly Splendid Realm and the Teeming Brain column Echoes from Hades.
- T. E. Grau, fiction editor at Strange Aeons, author of the Teeming Brain column The Extinction Papers, and co-author (with his wife, author/editor/screenwriter Ives Hovenessian) of the forthcoming horror fiction collection I Am Death, Cried the Vulture.
- John W. Morehead, Director of the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies, creator of the blog Theofantastique (“A meeting place for myth, imagination, and mystery in pop culture”), and co-editor of The Undead and Theology.
- W. Scott Poole, Associate Professor of History at the College of Charleston and author of Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunting.
- Jonathan Ryan, author of “Meaning to the Madness,” the highly praised supernatural/spiritual horror novel The Faithful (as Jonathan Weyer), and the forthcoming urban fantasy novel 3 Gates of the Dead.
Image via Tartarus Press, from “Arthur Machen vs. H.P. Lovecraft“
“The Next Big Thing” is a meme that asks authors to answer ten questions about their next project, after which they tag five additional authors to do the same a week later. Last week I was tagged in this regard by my friends, fellow authors, and fellow Teeming Brain writers Stuart Young and T. E. Grau, whose own contributions to the fray involved Stu’s description of his forthcoming horror collection Reflections in the Mind’s Eye and Ted’s description of his forthcoming horror collection (co-written with his spousal other half, Ives Hovanessian) I Am Death, Cried the Vulture.
So here, right on schedule, is my perpetuation of the Next Big Thing meme.
1) What is the working title of your next book?
“To Rouse Leviathan.” It may or may not come with the subtitle “A Book of Daemonic-Divine Horror.” Read the rest of this entry