Monday, October 25, 2010

The Kind of Face You SLASH!!! - Day 25: Who Knows the Stench of God?

Dark Awakenings by Matt Cardin is an unusual book. Not that I've read it all, but you can tell by the way its contents break down that it's not a typical horror collection. First off, you have your horror fiction, separated into a section called, appropriately enough, "Fictions". There are seven of these, including a novella called "The God of Foulness" (which I'm afraid I did not read for today, something I, having read the first few paragraphs, now rather regret), and they take up about 180 of the book's 300 pages. The remainder of the book is taken up with a series of academic essays by Cardin about the horror genre, and religion, and where the two converge in art and -- so I've gathered is the idea anyway -- in real life. Meanwhile, the dust jacket copy reads, in part:
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[A]uthor and scholar Matt Cardin explores this ancient intersection between religion and horror in seven stories and three academic papers that pose a series of disturbing questions: What if the spiritual awakening coveted by so many religious seekers is in fact the ultimate doom? What if the object of religious longing might prove to be the very heart of horror? Could salvation, liberation, enlightenment then be achieved only by identifying with that apotheosis of metaphysical loathing?
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Could be. All sorts of things are possible. But who can know? So that's Cardin's angle anyway, and I'm honestly quite intrigued. As it pertains to a real world philosophy, I believe Cardin is a bit, I don't know...fucked in the head, I think is the term, and more than likely doesn't even mean it, but as a literary philosophy to be applied to the writing of horror fiction, then okay, pal, let's have it. Plus, it's not hard to see from the above why Cardin -- whose second book this is, his first being the 84-page Divinations of the Deep, the contents of which I haven't been able to ascertain -- is often mentioned in the same breath as Thomas Ligotti (and also Reggie Oliver, although in that case the connection isn't as obvious. Anyway, I heard about Cardin in relation to Oliver, when horror critic Jim Rockhill said that Cardin and Ligotti were the only modern horror writers capable of writing at Oliver's level).
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For the record, the reason I now regret not reading "The God of Foulness" is because of the two Cardin stories I did read for today, one plays as a sort of declaration of intent, or as Cardin's personal horror manifesto, while the other seems to bear no clear relation to that manifesto, and is merely an excellent piece of horror writing (it's better than the manifesto, actually). "The God of Foulness", on the other hand, from my brief scan of its opening pages, is evidently about a religious cult who seeks out disease as a means of spiritual completion. So there you go, that probably would have been good to read, but no, I had to fuck it all up. But enough: let's get to what I actually did read, and see what shakes out.
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I'll begin with the manifesto, which is called "The Devil and One Lump". This is the story of a man named Evan, who was once "king of the mid-list horror writers", specializing in a brand of religious horror that sounds very much like the dust jacket flap of Dark Awakenings. As a character in the story describes it:
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You have created protagonists whose very search for salvation produces a backfire effect that damns them to a worse hell than they had ever imagined. You have speculated that the Bible contains a hidden subtext that runs between the actual printed lines and undermines the surface message at every turn. You have written of a narcissistic demiurge who is so enraptured by the beauty of his own creation that he represses the memory of his birth from a monstrous prior reality, so that when he is forcibly reawakened to this memory, he suffers a psychological breakdown that generates cataclysmic consequences both for himself and for the cosmos he created.
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This description of Evan's work is delivered by the Devil, and "The Devil and One Lump" is the sort of sardonic, one-room-setting, horror story version of movies like Bedazzled, where the Devil forces his point of view onto the misbegotten hero, and tests that hero's feeble philosophy, meanwhile revealing the Great Chess Match between Satan and God that uses folks like Evan as their pawn, and et cetera. Which means that "The Devil and One Lump" is sort of a comedy, and this is too bad. Though I hate this word, and am not in agreement with the philosophy, there is something truly subversive about "The Devil and One Lump" and the way it plays out, particularly the ending -- the material is here for a truly disquieting horror story. Unfortunately, the story takes place on two different planes of reality, and the connective tissue between the two is Evan's quest for his morning cup of coffee. This might put you in mind of the kind of mundanity mixed with cosmic absurdity for which Douglas Adams was so renowned, but "The Devil and One Lump" is minus all those pesky laughs Adams kept cramming in there.
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It's possible I'm being too harsh here -- "The Devil and One Lump" isn't written to be a romp -- but it's hard for me to take Cardin's approach to horror seriously when this is my first exposure to him. Possibly this is my fault, as I made the choice of where to begin, but all I'm getting here is an announcement hidden in a story, and one that's not particularly illustrative of Cardin's ideas. It's fairly explicit about those ideas, but that's not quite the same thing.
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One the other hand, we have "Blackbrain Dwarf", a story chosen by me because I thought that title was quite the grabber. As I mentioned before, this story is not especially in line, or not obviously in line, with Cardin's religion-horror philosophy, but that's only a problem for me, as far as writing this post goes, not for Cardin. Where's it written that you have to write the same kind of story all the time, even if you always wrote within one genre? And why exactly would you want to? If you're Robert Aickman, you can pull it off, but, as a matter of fact, if Thomas Ligotti has one serious problem as a writer -- and I'm an enormous admirer of his work -- it's that he's in danger becoming a bit of a self-parody. It's all strange towns with faceless citizens and psychotic businesses and mad art, and so on -- when he breaks out of it with a story like "Alice's Last Advenutre" or the deeply interesting and unnerving "Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story", it's jarring because I'm simply not used to it. So get it together, Thomas Ligotti. What the fuck. And good job Matt Cardin for mixing up your shit a little. Probably, I guess -- I've only read the two so far.
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So "Blackbrain Dwarf". This story is about Derek Warner, and the last day in which he experiences any moments of sanity. And there aren't many of those. Here's how it begins:
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But of course everything was all wrong. Derek knew it the minute he opened his eyes and perceived the vileness resounding from every angle and object in the room. Indeed, how could it be otherwise in a red-glowing world where the stench of blacksouls mounts to a deadening sky?
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When Derek's mind slips from our reality, it's signalled by those italics, and sudden Dark Ages/Lovecraftian bursts of thundering, blood-and-doom-soaked language. I have to say that "Blackbrain Dwarf" -- which is nothing to speak of as a plot, nor does it suffer for that -- is actually a pretty bracingly chilling story. The dwarf of the title is an evil little man who whispers the terrifying words into Derek's ear that lead to his total absorption into that fearsome world that keeps breaking into his daily reality as an unhappy lawyer in an unhappy marriage. The language of that other world has an awful poetry to it, and the idea that it didn't come from within Derek's mind, but was indeed from elsewhere, and was burrowing into Derek's mind made "Blackbrain Dwarf" all the more effective, as was the detail of a victim of Derek's late-story violent impulses repeatedly crying out "What's wrong!?", because their fear-blasted mind could find nothing else to say.
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So I was very impressed with "Blackbrain Dwarf", much less so with "The Devil and One Lump", but my only regret about this attempt to discuss the work of Matt Cardin is that there's a great deal of depth being implied in descriptions of what Dark Awakenings is, and what Matt Cardin is all about, and it may well all be true, but my choice of stories for today didn't really give me an opportunity to explore any of that. I read a couple of horror stories, as usual. But I don't think there's much that's usual about Cardin, for better or worse, so I'll keep reading.

6 comments:

John said...

I generally agree with your points about Aickman and Ligotti. Though I don't think it's true so much that Aickman's stories are similar in their details, but rather that his writing is so consistent in style and tone that they clearly belong to the same body of work. "The Medusa" is probably still my favorite Ligotti tale, and probably not coincidentally, it might be his closest in style and spirit to something Aickman might have written.

bill r. said...

I suppose you're probably right, regarding Ligotti (although he can recycle material, too). I'm just slightly down on him now because I recently read the two shorter stories from MY WORK IS NOT YET DONE, and they were both kind of a grind.

bill r. said...

Should have added that I haven't read "The Medusa", but will do so in the near future.

David Lee said...

I'm just dropping in to say how much I'm enjoying (and enjoyed last years) your daily reviews. I read this blog regularly but it's daily destination this month.

bill r. said...

Thank you very much, David!

John said...

Ah, I should have added, I wholly agree with you on Ligotti and his limitations as a writer, which make even most of his better stories something of a chore for me. I've been dipping into "Songs of a Dead Dreamer" again, from time to time, to see if my semi-lukewarm response on originally zipping through this book (because of strictly limited reading time) about 15 years ago still applies today. And so far, I would have to say yeah, it does.

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