Matt Cardin's Dark Awakenings Reviewed

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Religion is a potential birthplace for strange and fearful ideas, somewhere in our primal past, and its intersection with weird literature has always been noticed. No other writer today, however, plumbs the cryptic recesses linking supernatural fiction and spirituality like Matt Cardin. Longtime weird horror devotees, particularly fans of Thomas Ligotti, will recognize Cardin's name easily. For more than a decade, his stories, scholarship, and reviews have seared the pages of more than a dozen books and journals, as well as a debut short story collection, Divinations of the Deep. Now, Cardin has returned to the fiction scene with a new creation that is half stories and half scholarship, a thick volume from Mythos Books entitled Dark Awakenings.

For newcomers to Cardin's work, the six stories and single novella contained in Dark Awakenings are the main draw. As in Divinations of the Deep, distinctly Lovecraftian and Ligottian influences can be detected throughout all these tales, but heavily masked and reformed by Cardin's unique voice. His intense exploration of continent spanning theologies and their horrific philosophical implications continues, in a manner that often seems bleaker, but more wildly diverse than his first collection. Religion aside, Cardin also strikes out in a determined effort at probing liminal doorways between our flimsy, segregated realities. To him, the working world, academia, suburban life, and our very bodies and minds seem to neighbor some exceptionally dark places. Not every nightmarescape is explained to the same degree, but each is terrifying in its own right, however much Cardin chooses to bring each one into clarity.

"Teeth" opens the collection, and immediately tears open religious mysteries to reveal the blackness within. Knowing a little about Cardin's life almost makes it possible to see the student narrator as a proxy for himself, though it is highly unlikely he has ever befriended a supernaturally gifted scholar like Marco, who acts as the conduit for terror in this tale. The intricate mandala hidden in his notebook is but a doorway. The sanity killing vision housed within cannot be found in any particular holy book, but parts of it seem familiar. Cardin has effectively gone to town like a mad surgeon with his existential secret, gruesomely cutting and transplanting the most vivid hells of East and West. There is Christianity's gnashing of teeth, a whole lot of Buddhism's suffering, and fortunately, a springboard for an engaging story that is long on action and rich imagery.

Cardin, like Ligotti and H.P. Lovecraft, is a malevolent universe fearing author. While "Teeth" provides a razor sharp symbol of this attitude, it froths to the surface in other Dark Awakenings' pieces as well. "Desert Places" follows an embittered archeologist into an enduring love triangle with an ex-girlfriend and ex-friend. The bizarre healing ritual that reunites this unholy trinity unleashes not a new compact with life or friendship, but an unforeseen apocalypse within the narrator that is terrible to behold. If each story is a meditation of sorts--and there is more than a little evidence that they are--then consider this Cardin's exploration of barrenness. "Nightmares, Imported and Domestic" is another construct of strange relationships and emptiness. Cardin introduces a painter who frequently discusses his dreams with a girlfriend, dreams in which he lives as a suburban dullard. When a blood chilling accident befalls this simpleton, the artist finds the two are linked in ways he could never imagine. What begins as a curious bond between two opposites culminates in a tragedy that is as supernaturally deterministic as it is awful. This piece shatters the safety and comfort of fate in a universe that is a known quantity, replacing it with a completely hideous realm, even in its predictable qualities.

"The Stars Shine Without Me" and "Blackbrain Dwarf" strike similar veins, but in the most pervasive environment known to the chronically unwealthy: work. It should be no surprise that Matt Cardin's extensive time spent ruminating on Thomas Ligotti's fiction has left an impression on his own tales. These are fresh scripts for the corporate horror theater Ligotti famously built in My Work Is Not Yet Done and Teatro Grottesco, contributions that can stand on equal footing with Ligotti's.

"The Stars Shine Without Me" centers around a veteran employee at a company that specializes in an unknown service. The mission is equally ambiguous to Cardin's worker, who ends up doodling intricate designs at his desk day after day. This routine is shattered one day when he receives an invitation to meet with the elusive Mr. Brand, the demigod like master of the company. Unlike Ligotti's corporate horror, where the working world is a pit of inescapable despair symbolizing all life, Cardin's Viggo Brand is a stand in for a god that may offer some redemption, however fearful and mysterious. "Blackbrain Dwarf" is arguably Dark Awakenings' best short story. Matt Cardin takes the crazed, rampaging suburbanite into a darker place by introducing the shadow of a strange entity who revels in snapping our world's boundaries and lives. Cardin's alternating perspective pays high dividends in this tale, which balances sardonic horror and humor with a truly unearthly atmosphere.

On the whole, Dark Awakenings shows that Cardin has fully conquered the short form in fiendishly interesting ways. "The God of Foulness," a novella length story, tests whether or not his successes are sustainable in a longer narrative, and fortunately, the answer is yes. This tale centers around a reporter probing the secrets of a mysterious cult dedicated to decay. The Sick and Saved movement undergoes an incredible transition at Cardin's hands. Initially presented as a detestable villain, a long series of revelations shows that the secret society is far saner than many would guess, and their grotesque corpse god more merciful than most competing entities. "The God of Foulness" contains a purer weird element than any other Cardin piece, and warps both Eastern and Western creeds into completely new and horrific concepts. This is a rare sideshow that gets away from emphasizing only bodily desecration, as is the case in most media with zombies and ghouls, and instead illuminates diseased minds, corrupt ideas, and unholy logic.

As mentioned before, Dark Awakenings collects not just Cardin's newer fiction, but his recent scholarly essays as well. The three lengthy studies escape dry academia's tone, and instead present themselves as well thought observations that will appeal to many longtime horror fans. In "Icons of Supernatural Horror: A Brief History of the Angel and the Demon," readers experience a dizzying jaunt through centuries of spiritual history, but spend most of their time touring the more recent demonic renaissance in American culture and beyond. Cardin's focus on The Exorcist and other nightmarish media seeks an understanding from all angles, and his conclusions are as precise as they are thought provoking. "Loathsome Objects: George Romero's Living Dead Films as Contemplative Tools" is the scholarly contribution most likely to appeal to mainstream horror watchers. Here, the well known Living Dead film trilogy is autopsied for spiritual and philosophical shards. Cardin's vantage point is refreshing and unique, especially relative to the surplus of expired social commentary harvested from Romero's movies. Lastly, "Gods and Monsters, Worms and Fire: A Horrific Reading of Isaiah" is a careful look at Biblical scripture, where all appeals to be a sort of demonology. Although its strongest impact will be on Christians (or at least those versed in Christian texts), it is still surprisingly accessible and eerie to any with an interest in supernatural horror, whatever their religious leanings.

Dark Awakenings is a shadow delicacy, with an unconventional makeup that will satisfy the mind's literary and intellectual cravings. In fact, it offers to tickle the musical receiver as well, since ordering it direct from Mythos Books means that a CD of Cardin's instrumental music will arrive with the book. Divinations of the Deep was Matt Cardin's debut collection, but Dark Awakenings is the one that will fortify his literary stake in weird literature. Pick up this offering from a jack of many trades, but talented writer above all others, before one hell Cardin leaves unexplored--the out-of-print one--consumes his latest collection and any unlucky enough to miss a copy.

-Grim Blogger

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