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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
In a fascinating October 30 article published at Hieropraxis — a website about Christian apologetics and, more broadly, “literature and faith, truth and beauty” — creative writing teacher Garret Johnson, who works for both the University of Houston and Houston Baptist University, talks about the deep value of Lovecraftian cosmic horror for Christians. Specifically, he argues that many Christians and other theists may live with a too-thin view of the cosmos and the awesomeness of the powers and principles that exceed it and lie beyond the natural world of scientific investigation, and that cosmic horror of the kind represented most pointedly by Lovecraft may offer a necessary philosophical and even theological corrective.
It’s an excellent piece in its own right (despite its invocation of that damnable doppelgänger, Edgar Allen Poe, as well as a misspelling of Cthulhu), but it takes on added significance for Teeming Brain readers because of its direct resonance with the expansive conversation-slash-debate that exploded here recently when I wrote a critical response to Jonathan Ryan’s absorbing examination in Christianity Today of Lovecraft, Machen, and the tension between cosmic horror and sacred terror. See “Cosmic Horror, Sacred Terror, and the Nightside Transformation of Consciousness,” along with its raft of comments.
I heartily commend Johnson’s article to the attention of everybody involved, especially since it shows him claiming things about the fundamental import and impact of Lovecraft’s fiction that Ryan denies to Lovecraft and attributes instead to Machen. Here’s a taste, with emphases added by me:
Interestingly…for a materialist, Lovecraft seems to possess an unusual mistrust of the ultimate ends of “the sciences” and a profound lack of confidence in the autonomous human mind to either arrive at ultimate truths or to handle them once arrived at. This turns out to be a critical link between Christians and those who share such a vision of the universe as Lovecraft’s — particularly those who also flock to the unique realm of literature that is “Supernatural Horror.”
… I’m wondering if it’s as immediately odd to others as it is to me that an adamantly hard-nosed materialist not only attempted a serious treatise on “supernatural” literature but also specialized in writing it, himself. It’s true that, in Lovecraft’s mind, the beastly grotesqueries he depicted — variously referred to as the Old Ones, the Great Old Ones, the Elder Gods, etc — were meant to be phenomena of strictly natural origin. But he saw such an immense gulf between the far reaches of possibility in the natural order and the human capacity for understanding such possibilities that it made for a frightening contrast: the bigness and power of the universe against the smallness and ignorance of humanity.
… The thing that’s ferociously interesting about this is that Lovecraft recognizes, and articulates (in his fiction especially), certain realities more incisively than do many of us theists who profess doctrinal convictions about them: both the frightening reality (or possibility to Lovecraft) of sentient beings with great power that exist in the universe but are not human, and the relative ignorance of an often over-confident, hubristic human race in the face of such large forces. This latter reality is compounded by another: the inability of the human mind to fully comprehend the deep things of existence.
Another great commonality, then, between Christians and readers and writers of Horror (not the gore-fest kind, but this subtle, supernatural kind) is a deep sense of, and response to, the realities of things unseen, unknown, things of deep mystery.
— Garret Johnson, “HP Lovecraft and Christian Thought,” Hieropraxis, October 30, 2012
[Update March 5, 2018: The above link has been changed to an archived page at the Internet Archive, as the original page and site are no longer available.]
Image: “Age of Chaos” by Nick Keller from Desktop Nexus
What’s this? A discussion of current horror cinema that contrasts H. P. Lovecraft’s worldview of cosmic horror, pessimism, and despair with Arthur Machen’s worldview of redemptive sacred terror? And it’s published by — wait for it — Christianity Today magazine? The stars, it seems, are aligning.
One is rife with despair, the other clings to hope. The contrast between the two [authors] results in a remarkable tension found in the history of horror.
… Modern horror films have drunk deep from Lovecraft’s well, repeatedly depicting a dreary cycle of trying to escape the despair … Lovecraft, [Joss] Whedon [in Cabin in the Woods], and [Ridley] Scott [in Prometheus] fall into a deeper current of attempting to find meaning through horror. Whedon and Scott at least take it to the next level by asking deeper questions about how human beings find hope, but they fail because there is no way around Lovecraftian despair while playing under Lovecraft’s rules. A different playbook is needed, one written by Arthur Machen. Most modern horror filmmakers have long forgotten Machen, an under-appreciated legend.
… While Lovecraft was an atheist, Machen fully embraced the doctrines of his Anglican faith. His horror contained the mystery of abandoned places, forgotten gods, and utter terror at the unknown, but also the possibility for humans to find hope beyond despair. Unlike Lovecraft, Machen pushed toward a more holy terror, a sacred fear that could prompt a person to kneel before God. Machen felt despair could be avoided by seeing the good God who ruled over the world “behind the veil.” A person could experience holy terror like the prophet Isaiah felt when he stood before the throne of God — or, to bring it back to movies, like Indiana Jones showed in Raiders of the Lost Ark (telling Marion to respect the ark’s power by not looking at it when it was opened) and The Last Crusade (when, to reach the Holy Grail, he had to navigate a treacherous maze requiring him to kneel, to spell God’s holy name, and then take a literal “leap of faith”). Machen uses sacred terror to not only scare us, but to push us deeper to think about “unseen realities.”
Teeming Brain founder/editor Matt Cardin was interviewed on the October 14, 2012 edition of the Expanding Mind Radio show, which is devoted to exploring “the cultures of consciousness.” The hour-long conversation with co-hosts Erik Davis and Maja D’Aoust delves into the deep psychological, philosophical, and spiritual underpinnings of the dark side of religious experience and explores the implications of the fact that this aspect of religion, which is so foreign to modern, mainstream Western ideas about religion’s nature and function, actually stands at the very center of what it has always been about for people around the world and throughout history.
The episode is titled “Daemonic Creativity” — indicating another subject that it explores at some length. You can download it from its main page or click to listen to it here with this streaming player:
Image courtesy of Victor Habbick / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Horror, religion, Lovecraft, sleep paralysis, fantasy, science fiction, consciousness, creativity, reality, the dystopian hazards of an uber-online lifestyle — these are all topics broached in an extensive new interview with Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin by fellow idea-driven horror writer Ted E. Grau at The Cosmicomicon. (Ted is also, of course, the author of The Extinction Papers for The Teeming Brain.)
The interview is extremely philosophical, personal, and lengthy. Here’s a taste:
As for why I ultimately started writing fiction, and why it has always been of the dark variety, I think interrogating the question itself shows that it is, at bottom, unanswerable. In fact, interrogating the question opens up a vast, murky, electrifying, terrifying realm of unknown and unknowable realities that hold all of us perpetually in their grip. This is along the lines of the thought experiment that Robert Anton Wilson recommends in, I think, Prometheus Rising, or maybe it’s in Quantum Psychology — and anyway, he borrowed it from Aleister Crowley, who said he got it from somebody else — where you stop, as in really and truly, for a long pause, and you engage in a deep questioning of the reasons for why you’re right there, in that location and circumstance, at that precise moment, doing what you’re doing and thinking what you’re thinking and feeling what you’re feeling. Keep pressing the question “Why, why, why?” to each and every answer that presents itself, and if you really dig down and follow this backward trail of causation and justification, eventually you’ll find, not just as an intellectual matter but as a startling existential realization, that you have absolutely no idea. You don’t know, ultimately, why you’re right there, right then, doing that. In a sense, everything about your life is just arbitrary, just happening by itself, and any story you tell yourself to explain why stands as more of a rationalization than an explanation.
What’s more, those unknowable reasons — which also, pointedly, include the reasons for why you are who you are — shade directly into the unknowable reasons behind everything else. The impenetrable mystery that lies behind the entire universe, and that makes it be what it is and do what it does, is not something you can write off as abstract and distant and unimportant for daily life, because it happens to be the mystery of your very own being as well.
I think the fact that I’m the type of person who instantly and helplessly goes for the über-philosophical end of things even when nobody’s asking for it — as in, you know, the way I’m going on and on right now in answer to your reasonable and straightforward question — is linked to why I write, and to why my writing always inhabits dark territory … Where do innate qualities ultimately come from? Instantly, the mystery of human personhood is all up in our face, and for me this leads to inevitable ruminations about the metaphysical and ontological origins of individual selfhood and consciousness, and the ancient idea of the genius daemon that makes each person’s life and self be what it is, and the Zen koan where the master orders the student, “Show me your original face, the one you had even before your parents were born.”
I could also mention the fact that I entered a very dark place late in college and an even darker one in the years following it, a development abetted by a kind of spontaneous initiatory experience into certain nightmarish things by the onset of sleep paralysis attacks that were accompanied by visionary attacks by a demonic-seeming entity. This permanently and profoundly altered me, and set the tone and direction for what I write. Or maybe it just realized what was always wanting to be written through me anyway.
— Ted E. Grau, “TC Blog Review & Interview: Matt Cardin Unleashes His Teeming Brain, Featuring New Monthly Column ‘The Extinction Papers,'” The Cosmicomicon, September 20, 2012
Image: “The Nightmare” (1781) by John Henry Fuseli, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
When the first of my sleep paralysis attacks occurred in the early 1990s, I had no idea that it was the onset of a period that I would later come to recognize or characterize as a spontaneous shamanic-type initiation via nightmare. I didn’t know that it would shatter the psychological, spiritual, ontological, metaphysical, and interpersonal assumptions that had undergirded my worldview and daily experience for so long that I had forgotten they were assumptions instead of givens. Terence McKenna, among others, has argued that, in accordance with the same principle that keeps a fish oblivious to the existence of water, the perturbation of consciousness is necessary for us even to become aware of the reality of consciousness as such. For me this was confirmed with lasting impact by the experience of waking up from a profoundly deep sleep to encounter a darkly luminous, vaguely man-shaped outline of a being that stood over me at the foot of the bed, and that shone with sizzling rays of shadow, and that represented a thunderous and sui generis — intended solely for me — black hole of a negative singularity, a presence whose entire reason for being was to draw me in and annihilate my essence. In the manner of dreams and daemons, the experience was as much cognitive and emotional as it was perceptual. There was no separation between these usually discrete categories. Nor was there a separation between the categories of self and other, between “me” and the assaulting presence. Horror was literally all there was, all that existed, all that was real — not as a reaction to an experience but as an organic and inevitable symmetry of being. I was not horrified. The experience was purely and simply horror.
When this proved to be not an isolated episode but an ongoing crisis spanning a period of months and years, and when the psychic effects began to leak into the daylight world and contaminate daily life with a distinct and inescapable background static of creeping nightmarishness, I knew something dire had happened. I had crossed some sort of threshold, and the most likely vocabulary for thinking and talking about it was the vocabulary of cosmic horror, which had been inculcated in me by years of obsessively reading Lovecraft, Lovecraft criticism, and the works of a whole host of associated authors. As explained previously, one of the results of this confluence was my horror novelette “Teeth.”
There was, however, another vocabulary I could have used, and it would have complemented the cosmic horrific one in mutually illuminating fashion. It was the vocabulary of consciousness change and high paranormal weirdness encoded in the idea of Chapel Perilous as explicated by Robert Anton Wilson. But this didn’t occur to me until much later.
Read the rest of this entry
(Liminalities, Cycle 1, Part 2)
In my novelette “Teeth” — first published at Thomas Ligotti Online, then in The Children of Cthulhu, and then in expanded form in my Dark Awakenings — there’s a scene where the narrator reads a notebook filled with ruminations on the convergence of philosophy and religion with cosmic horror, all interwoven with an examination of the same issues in the context of quantum physics. He’s a graduate student in philosophy, but the reading of these things initiates a transformative change in his psychic constitution and gives him a different sort of philosophical education than the one he had previously pursued.
He summarizes the notebook’s scientific content and import like this:
The mathematical work was beyond me, but from his text notes I could gather enough to grasp the bare essence of the matter, which had something to do with the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics. I read that the equations used in this science are straightforward and uncontested in terms of their practical applications, as attested by everything from television to the hydrogen bomb, but that no satisfactory explanation for their meaning, their overall implications at the macroscopic level of existence, had yet been established. On the subatomic level, I read, particles flash into and out of existence for no discernible reason, and the behavior of any single particle is apparently arbitrary and usually unpredictable. If there is a cause or “purpose” behind this behavior, then it is one that the human mind is, to all appearances, structurally prevented from comprehending. In other words, for all we know, the fundamental ruling principles at the most basic level of physical reality may well be what our minds and languages must necessarily label “chaos” and “madness.” 
When I first wrote those lines in the mid-1990s, I was enwrapped in a pattern of inner and outer events and circumstances — personal, professional, psychological, spiritual — that seemed either shriekingly meaningless or evilly intended, and I was utterly unable to decide which possibility, nihilism or a malevolent cosmos, seemed more likely, and also, pointedly, which one seemed worse. And amid the indecision, regardless of the causes, I was suffering.
Last December, in one of those minor seasonal news-cycle events that the sober and/or cynical among us have come to greet with a yawn, various mainstream media outlets reported that, according to a new poll (or, more accurately, yet another new poll), a majority of Americans believe in angels. “Angels don’t just sing at Christmastime,’ reported CBS News. “For most Americans, they’re a year-round presence. A new Associated Press-GfK poll shows that 77 percent of adults believe these ethereal beings are real. Belief is primarily tied to religion … But belief in angels is fairly widespread even among the less religious. A majority of non-Christians think angels exist, as do more than 4 in 10 of those who never attend religious services” (“Poll: Nearly 8 in 10 Americans believe in angels,” December 23, 2011).
With a bit more gravity behind it — more gravity, I mean, than that of a poll conducted at Christmastime for the specific purpose of feeding the seasonally inflected media maw — the Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion famously found similar numbers in 2010. Time magazine quoted Randall Balmer, chairman of the religion department at New York’s Barnard College, who characterized the Baylor findings as “one in a periodic series of indications that ‘Americans live in an enchanted world,’ and engage in a kind of casual mysticism independent of established religious ritual, doctrine or theology. ‘There is,’ he says, a ‘much broader uncharted range of religious experience among the populace than we expect.'”
In thinking of this tantalizing “broader uncharted range of religious experience,” I have to wonder whether anybody in America’s angel-believing crowd ever gets down to the meat of things and really considers, or actually encounters, or otherwise comes up against angels in their more profound forms, angels of the ancient and terrible type, angels whose appearance entails more than glowing, feminine faces and fat, winged babies, and whose job description includes more than helping people avoid car wrecks and recover from heart surgery. I wonder, in short, whether that multitude of angelic believers is even aware that a more ancient and substantial figure lies behind and beneath the insipid cultural encrustations of 21st-century digital media culture.
Apex Publications announced yesterday that Dark Faith: Invocations, the sequel to their very well received Dark Faith anthology, is now available for preorder. As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m pleased to be back again for this second outing with a new story — part dystopian science fiction, part supernatural/spiritual horror — titled “Prometheus Possessed.”
I’m also pleased to announce that Apex has given all of the antho’s authors a way to offer readers a 10% discount on preorders. Just place your order at the publisher’s official Dark Faith: Invocations page and use the referral code DFCardin. (Yes, that’s my own personalized code, which means I get a referral fee when you use it.)
The first Dark Faith antho, containing my surreal ontological horror story “Chimeras & Grotesqueries,” was nominated for the Stoker and Black Quill Awards and widely reviewed with great enthusiasm. This second installment looks equally intense and excellent. See for yourself:
Religion, science, magic, love, family — everyone believes in something, and that faith pulls us through the darkness and the light. The second coming of Dark Faith cries from the depths with 26 stories of sacrifice and redemption.
Sublet an apartment inside God’s head. Hunt giant Buddhas in a post-apocalyptic future. Visit a city where an artist’s fantastic creations alter reality. Discover the deep cosmic purpose behind your office vending machine. Wield godlike powers and suffer the most heartbreaking of human limitations.
Join Max Allan Collins, Mike Resnick, Jay Lake, Jennifer Pelland, Laird Barron, Tom Piccirilli, Nisi Shawl, and a host of genre’s best writers for an exploration into the things we hold dear and the truths that shatter us.
Table of Contents:
“Subletting God’s Head” by Tom Piccirilli
“The Cancer Catechism” by Jay Lake
“The Big Blue Peacock” by Nick Mamatas
“Kill the Buddha” by Elizabeth Twist
“Robotnik” by Lavie Tidhar
“Prometheus Possessed” by Matt Cardin
“Night Train” by Alma Alexander
“The Sandfather” by Richard Wright
“Sacrifice” by Jennifer Pelland
“Thou Art God” by Tim Waggoner
“Wishflowers” by Tim Pratt
“Coin Drop” by Richard Dansky
“Starter Kit” by R.J. Sullivan
“A Little Faith” by Max Allan Collins and Matthew Clemens
“The Revealed Truth” by Mike Resnick
“God’s Dig” by Kelly Eiro
“The Divinity Boutique” by Brian J. Hatcher
“The Birth of Pegasus” by K. Tempest Bradford
“All This Pure Light Leaking In” by LaShawn M. Wanak
“Fin De Siècle” by Gemma Files
“The Angel Seems” by Jeffrey Ford
“Magdala Amygdala” by Lucy A. Snyder
“A Strange Form of Life” by Laird Barron
“In Blood and Song” by Nisi Shawl and Michael Ehart
“Little Lies, Dear Leader” by Kyle S. Johnson
“I Inhale the City, the City Exhales Me” by Douglas F. Warrick