Religion and horror on their own, separate terms can be deeply moving, if not outright life-changing. When the two intersect, something new, poignant and powerful emerges. Author Matt Cardin, who has his PhD in leadership and a master’s in religious studies, recently published theological horror fiction collection To Rouse Leviathan, and he understands the importance and beauty of this intersection better than most.
Cardin is the founding editor and chief writer for The Teeming Brain, a blog revolving around religion, horror, creativity and several other topics, with an additional focus on how these areas intersect in the arts, media, psychology and other, similar fields. His previous work also includes Dark Awakenings (2010), Divinations of the Deep (2002) and A Course in Demonic Creativity. His editorial work has also included Horror Literature through History: An Encyclopedia of the Stories That Speak to Our Deepest Fears (2017) and Ghosts, Spirits, and Psychics: The Paranormal from Alchemy to Zombies (2015).
In To Rouse Leviathan, Cardin extensively explores how weird fiction, the supernatural and human psychology intersect. I had the chance to speak with him about his background, his process and faith and genre.
Laura Kemmerer: How did you become interested in theology? When did you realise that theology and horror intersect? Was there a specific instance that inspired this intersection of faith and genre?
Matt Cardin: I grew up in an intensely religious family. My parents, sister, and I all went to the same conservative Protestant evangelical church with my maternal grandparents, my aunts and uncles, and my cousins. My dad taught an adult Sunday School class, sang in the choir, and served as a deacon and later an elder. My grandfather was an elder and a board member. My great uncle was the song director and the high school Sunday School teacher. The majority of our social life was church. My sister and cousins and I were deeply involved in the youth group. I spent many summers at church camp. But even in the middle of all this, and for reasons unknown – because do any of us really know why we were born with certain specific leanings? – I took my inherited religion with an extra dose of intensity. I went through periods of constant, fervent Bible reading. I checked out books from the church library. I prayed and did the daily devotionals in the student literature we received each week. It’s not that nobody else did these things, but it all just seemed more pressingly and dramatically important to me in a way that it wasn’t for many of my peers. I sensed a real gravity in religion and spirituality. I was intensely interested in matters of theology. Beginning in my teens, I developed a craving to learn about other religions.
At the same time, I was always drawn to speculative fiction and film. In my younger years this meant a lot of fantasy and science fiction. I passionately loved Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, Terry Brooks’s Shannara novels, Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence, and of course Tolkien and Lewis. I read and reread Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels. Ray Bradbury was a god to me. I could name many more. This all began to turn toward horror in my teens when I discovered Lovecraft and started reading Stephen King. A bit before that, I was dazzled in elementary school when I first read Poe, or actually it was a book of children’s adaptations of Poe’s most famous stories. My school library had Wise and Fraser’s Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, and I checked that out repeatedly during my junior and senior years. Something clicked into place, and horror, especially the weird and supernatural kind, became my literary home.
As for the relationship between this and religion, there wasn’t a lightning-bolt moment when I first recognised a connection. I just began to realise, first in college and then decisively in my twenties, that what drew me to religion was the same thing that drew me to horror. They both inflamed my native philosophical and spiritual bent by generating a sense of the numinous (a word I only learned later, in grad school). When that hit me like an extended epiphany over the course of a decade, I [started] seeing all kinds of connections. I guess it actually was something like a lightning bolt when I realised that religion, and not just Christianity but other traditions as well, could inform supernatural horror in all kinds of fascinating ways, and that horror, especially the weird and cosmic kind, could reciprocally inform religion. This seemed like the most important thing in the world for a few years. I almost wanted to grab random people by the collar and shout, “Don’t you see this?” The sense of significance was linked to the fact that I went through a tremendously difficult spiritual and psychological crisis in my twenties, as abetted by the onset of sleep paralysis attacks and nocturnal episodes of what seemed like spiritual and demonic assault, none of which I had ever heard of before. My responsiveness to the horror of religion and the religion of horror was amplified a million times by this. It was as if a new and awful layer of reality was being revealed both to me and within me, and religion and cosmic horror fiction were both talking about it from complementary angles.
LK: How did you decide to structure To Rouse Leviathan? What informed your treatment of different elements (say the void as an abstract, corrupting element vs. something tangible like the ocean)?
MC: The structure of the book follows the structure of my publication history. The first and second sections contain the stories from my first and second horror collections, although some have been newly revised. The third section brings together previously uncollected work. My treatment of the various elements and themes simply follows the workings of my authorial heat sensor as I was chasing the dark flame of the ideas. A lot of it was also bound up with my ongoing interest in religion and philosophy. I wrote some of the stories while I was earning my master’s degree in religious studies, and elements from that ended up working their way into the plots and themes. A course I took on 2nd-century Gnosticism under Dr. Charles Hedrick, one of the leading scholars of Gnosticism and someone who worked directly with the Nag Hammadi manuscripts and helped to produce their English translations, may have been particularly influential. Other probable influences from those academic studies include John Hick on religious pluralism, Peter Berger on the “sacred canopy” of religious and cultural systems of meaning, certain ideas from Eastern Christian theology, Mircea Eliade on the myth of the eternal return, Jung’s masterful examination of God’s interaction with Job, and a dozen more ideas, thinkers, and books I could name. I was also carrying on a pretty heady course of extracurricular reading that fed into the same thing. Lovecraft’s letters, books on religion and philosophy by Huston Smith and Alan Watts, Robert Anton Wilson’s novels and nonfiction books (although can one really separate fiction from nonfiction in RAW’s body of work?), Ted Klein’s Dark Gods and The Ceremonies, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer, Douglas Harding, a whole lot of neo-advaita and Zen literature. I was positively soaking in all this, and it all interacted with that unfolding internal darkness from my spiritual and philosophical sickness. My discovery of Thomas Ligotti came late during this period. Reading him was like having a nuclear bomb set off in my psyche. I was also a church pianist throughout all this. Things were a bit strange.
Tangentially, my religion professors were kind enough to allow me to bring my horror interests into my scholarly work. One of my culminating projects was a paper on the possible use of George Romero’s Living Dead trilogy (the series only had three films at that time, circa 2002) as a tool for nondual spiritual awakening. Another was a paper offering a reading of the Book of Isaiah as a kind of Lovecraftian horror story. Both of these ended up in my second collection, Dark Awakenings, which contained both fiction and (putative) nonfiction.
LK: I genuinely enjoyed your take on cosmic horror. (Theology and horror intersecting is definitely a personal interest.) How do you think the cosmic horror subgenre has changed over time? What do you think it will address in the future?
MC: Some of the historic masters of the form who are commonly named, the Machens and Blackwoods and Hodgsons and Lovecrafts and so on, certainly helped to pull the whole thing together into a recognisable subgenre or subform. It all remained centered largely in the same tropes and themes, most of them bearing an overtly Lovecraftian stamp, until the late twentieth century and the turn of the new millennium. Then with the appearance of Ligotti, plus a number of additional new and noteworthy figures, all bets were off. I’ve not managed to fully keep up with what’s probably the most important recent development, which is of course the emergence of weird and cosmic horror as a popular form on a mass scale, as accompanied and exemplified by the rise of a new generation of writers, or sometimes the late-dawning recognition of some existing writers, who represent a variety of backgrounds and bring a new richness of perspective to the field. And this is to say nothing of the rise of genuinely weird and cosmic horror cinema in this age of “prestige horror,” nor anything about the sophisticated incorporation of such things into games and even children’s cartoons, as in “Gravity Falls.” I’m a very slow reader when it comes to fiction, and I have very limited options and opportunities for watching movies and television. Moreover, my time and energy are mostly spoken for on any given day, week, or year by family and professional responsibilities. So, like I said, I’ve not been able to keep pace with all this, other than to note that it’s happening and to recognise it as one of a handful of literary and entertainment shifts in recent memory that feels authentically epochal. I have no doubt that it will continue for a long time to come and will have a long-term defining impact on the field.
LK: What would you say are the core underpinning themes and ideas in your work?
MC: The horror of consciousness, and more specifically, self-awareness. Intimations or suspicions of something fundamentally grotesque and nightmarish at the core of existence itself. The inescapable sense of being drawn to find a metanarrative, a pattern, a God’ s-eye view and understanding of one’s experience and the world at large, and then of being horrified at the revelation that this overall pattern and meaning are actually hideous and unbearable. That life isn’t meaningless, it’s meaningful – and the meaning is awful. The fear that God by whatever name, under whatever cultural guise, may be monstrous. The sense not only of horror but of unbearable loss, grief, and despair that accompanies such a sense of things. The related fear or possibility that artistic and intellectual creativity carry profound dangers because they serve as portals to and for that nightmarish primal ontological reality to communicate itself and corrupt or destroy the artist.
I might pause to add that in my actual everyday existence I’m a living embodiment of Flaubert’s famous advice to “be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
LK: What would you say inspired you most for writing these stories? Any specific religious texts?
MC: I’ve been particularly drawn to noticing the dark flipside, so to speak, of biblical texts, particularly in the Old Testament/Hebrew scriptures but also in the New Testament. So much of what’s contained in those texts is utterly bizarre and, in very many ways, pointedly horrific by the standards of conventional post-Enlightenment attitudes. I’m not talking about things like all the violence and brutality, the animal sacrifices, the genocide, the incest, the patriarchal oppression of women, and so on. I’m talking about a darkness and weirdness that’s built right into the depiction of deity. I think most people in the West, regardless of whether or not they identify as religious themselves, are in effect prevented from noticing this facet of biblical theology through sheer force of familiarity, from having absorbed certain religious texts and terms and concepts and stories since childhood without having really reflected on their intrinsic strangeness and difficulty. Several stories in To Rouse Leviathan [I] draw directly on this legacy of nightmarish theological strangeness that’s located right there in the central religious text of Western culture, bringing it forward and making it central. Some of them also draw on the similar strangeness, the similar invocation of the dark numinous, that’s found in other religious texts and traditions, including Buddhism and Hinduism.
LK: What do you have planned for the future in terms of projects? Any plans to continue with the theme of religious cosmic horror?
MC: Hippocampus Press has indicated that after To Rouse Leviathan they’d like to publish a volume of my collected nonfiction. I’ve written a great many articles, essays, and papers over the years that deal not only with literary criticism in the horror field but with philosophical and religious ideas, with the issue of dystopian and apocalyptic cultural trends, with the idea of creativity as a collaboration between yourself a separate intelligence in the mold of a daemonic muse, and more. So I expect many of these will go in there. The project is just an idea at this point, though. I’m also incubating plans for what looks like it might be a novel-length project. For obvious reasons, I won’t say anything specific about that. But it looks like it may continue the theme of religious cosmic horror by enfolding and embedding it within a somewhat different narrative context from my previous stories. To Rouse Leviathan represents everything I’ve had to say on the subject in fictional form up to now, but I suspect the same theme will always remain part of my work on some level.
Laura Kemmerer is an editor living in Pittsburgh. Find her on Twitter @hpbookcraft.