Following hot on the heels of the cosmic horror masters, from Chambers to Ligotti, To Rouse Leviathan, a collection of short fiction by Matt Cardin, is a solid contemporary entry into the corpus of cosmic horror, though it delivers moments of tonal inconsistency and some story entries that slightly weaken the structure of the work taken as a whole. Ligotti himself has praised this collection, writing “That the so-called reality we bump into on a daily basis should be seen as pure misconception is a fundamental assumption of Matt Cardin’s vision.”
The refreshing to be found in Cardin’s work was both the introduction of theological and occult ideas grounded in real-world practices, and the author’s knowledge of these practices. While cults certainly have appeared a number of times throughout the grotesque history of cosmic horror, Cardin’s knowledge gives the cult element the texture of authenticity, which remains present in the questions Cardin raises throughout his work, in its reinterpretive fashion. “What does Christ have to do with Cthulhu?”
The reader is immediately thrown into a maddening theological worldview that maintains that the predominant faiths as we know them – Christianity, Judaism, and others – have, in their ignorance of true reality, been working to keep the endless maw and terror of the Real at bay. Cardin certainly delivers on the cultist-gone-insane aspect of the subgenre, but in his work, we often find ourselves in the shoes of the person slipping. Protagonists’ flaws consistently act as the gateway for inner corruption to unleash reality-rending terror upon the world.
The first two stories – “An Abhorrence to All Flesh” and “Notes of a Mad Copyist” – immediately suggest that core corrupting worldview that serves as a central hub for the rest of the collection. While Abhorrence largely successfully introduces the reader to these concepts from the narrative angle of an old Christian cult, “Notes of a Mad Copyist” refocuses the lens to a monk serving as a scribe working on copying holy text when his personal brand of madness comes forth. These tendrils (tentacles, even) of implied connections whisper throughout Cardin’s collection, though the end manifestations are inconsistent, which ties in with the fact that these are, after all, individual, collected pieces.
While many of the stories are linked, at least in theme, there are a few that seemingly function more as thought experiments rather than stories, and what they discuss does not generally fall within the theological constructs that Cardin is suggesting. It feels that the presence of these stories, including “The Basement Theater,” functionally deteriorate the overall structure of the collection and what it is striving to accomplish. (“The Basement Theater” revolves around a protagonist who consistently revisits an old theater, but with each visit, things slip further into madness.) But the deterioration is only a touch moderate at worst.
Cardin’s strengths as an author seem to shine most in the longer short stories. (If you spot a 1. toward the beginning of a story, the reader can likely assume they are in for a good time.) Cardin’s writing style lends itself to focusing on the meat of the story, whether that means dialogue dissecting theological questions or human flaws and failures. “The God of Foulness,” for example, is a sprawling, diseased trek of a tale of a journalist with a religious background who goes to investigate a cult known as the Sick and Saved. By extension, Cardin’s writing also shines when focused on details – the mention of ideas behind certain philosophies, for example.
That said, there were at least a handful of instances where stories seemed to struggle to take off, along with somewhat hard to explain tonal inconsistencies in writing. In “The Devil and One Lump,” for example, a horror author comes face-to-face with an infernal figure in his living room who he refers to as “guy” or “a guy” repeatedly. “Blackbrain Dwarf” also struggled in its execution: A lawyer, set to meet a wealthy client, completely derails his life and career due to the influence of the titular figure. Throughout the rest of the book, the void is formless and faceless, and introducing a creature that can feasibly live within that space throws out the element of the corrupting abstract and makes the inclusion of the story a bit awkward.
Despite my own critiques, I maintain that the praise received by Ligotti for this work is well deserved. Paired with the occult and theological elements rooted in mastery of the material as well as existence in the real world, Cardin’s To Rouse Leviathan is a must-read for those who enjoy interrogating the shadow of faith.
Laura Kemmerer is an editor living in Pittsburgh. Find her on Twitter @hpbookcraft.