The past several years, in my readings of his work (both fiction and non) and through many epistolary back-and-forths with Matt Cardin, I've discovered that my opinion of this author, professor, essayist, philosophic alchemist, and thinker/dreamer falls into the trite, overused category of "brother from another mother." A far more intelligent mother. Our religious backgrounds, imaginative influences, and overall upbringing mirror each other closely, and our creative and philosophic destination points based on these formative factors is quite similar. Not to mention, we both have a thatch of often unruly brown hair. Maybe "another mother" is downplaying the connection a bit.
Now, I would never and could never compare myself to Matt in terms of accomplishment or output, and certainly not in terms of cranial capacity to store and disseminate learned knowledge, but I feel a kinship with this free-thinking Texan, and have closely read his fiction and essays whenever a spare minute presents itself.
As such, you can imagine my surprise and delight when he approached me this last spring and extended an invite to join his newly assembled Teem of writers that would help power his revamp of The Teeming Brain, Matt's megablog and discussion portal devoted to all manner of cool, shadowy, and esoteric matters, from cosmic horror to consciousness, religion, philosophy, pop culture, futurism, dark fantasy, cinema, apocalypse, current events, heretical history, science, sci-fi, culture, music, art, books... I think you get the vibe.
Now, my first love as a quillsman has always and will always be fiction, but I cut my professional teeth as a published columnist, humorist, and music journalist in my teens back on the High Plains. Essays are in my blood, and a large part of who I am as a writer and exasperated human being. I love commenting on the strange world around me, and with The Extinction Papers, I'm once again allowed to do just that, often adding in an echo of apocalyptic cynicism, old timey grumpiness, half cocked snark, and a bemused shrug at the often absurd nature of our reality.
A new chapter of "The Extinction Papers" comes out every third Wednesday at The Teeming Brain, which means my newest - Chapter Three, titled "Doom From Above: When the End Arrives, Will Anyone See it Coming?" - was released into the ether stream just yesterday. Do check it out, if you're keen.
In honor of "The Extinction Papers," the exciting expansion of The Teeming Brain, and the fascinating inner workings of Matt Cardin, please enjoy an extensive, wide ranging, and somewhat personal interview I conducted with the fine fellow over the past few weeks. Uncork something curious, sit back in your favorite easy chair, and take in what his teeming brain is kicking out in the latest The Cosmicomicon Review & Interview. Matt is an endlessly fascinating guy, and you owe it to yourself to climb inside his gourd.
Remember the movie Broadcast News? It starts by showing a few scenes of the main characters as children. Each kid displays a distinct set of personality traits and predispositions, and each scene concludes by announcing, with a freeze frame and a superimposed title card, which career the kid grew up to pursue as an adult. As I recall, the point was that people’s later lives really do “foreshadow certain ends,” as Dickens’s Scrooge would say.
I bring this up because it’s a shorthand way of answering your question about why I started writing fiction. One of my earliest expressed desires of the “What I want to be when I grow up” variety was “I want to be a writer,” and I had the innate set of childhood tendencies—I was verbally intelligent, a voracious reader, “gifted” (whatever that means), creatively agitated—to make good on that desire.
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. I could have just mentioned Broadcast News when it came to mind and then said a few things about my childhood tendencies and the way they foreshadowed my authorial leanings. But that kind of answer always strikes me as a begged question. I mean, okay, so you were a certain type of kid with certain interests and traits and talents. But why were you like that? 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.
|The Nightmare - Henry Fuseli|
The problem with trying to give any kind of reasonable or accurate answer here is that the question of “real” or “unreal” is embedded in a fog of assumptions that don’t necessarily apply to whatever “real reality” may be involved in the experiences I’m talking about. For the past couple of centuries, ever since the massive revolution in consciousness that was the Western Enlightenment, to ask if something is real has meant to ask if it’s real according to the standards of empirical measurement and evidence. In other words, it’s to ask it in terms of material science. This is the nature of the rhetorical-philosophical playing field these days, and it’s really deep-set, really dug in as a universal cultural and psychological orientation, to the point where even people who may consciously grasp the point when somebody explains it like I’m doing right now can remain unaware of just how deep its unconscious roots extend into their fundamental way of thinking about everything. In other words, for a lot of people, and for what’s come to stand as the mainstream view of reality, regardless of whether you classify yourself as a “skeptic” or a “believer,” the rules and boundaries of any conversation about the supernatural or paranormal, and therefore the basic direction the conversation will automatically take, are all set in psychic stone before you’ve even spoken a word or exchanged an idea.
But—and here’s the thing—what’s encountered in sleep paralysis or any other spiritual experience categorically eludes this whole philosophical gameboard. Or at least it calls it into question and underscores its limited and arbitrary boundaries. This is because entity encounters and many other paranormal, parapsychological, and supernatural experiences are bound up with the very subjectivity of the person who considers the question of their reality. Is it possible to set up cameras and instruments and conclude that a ghost did not actually appear in a supposedly haunted room, or that no demon-like entity approached me during the night? In point of fact, the answer is no. You can prove that nothing measurable, recordable, or empirically-materially provable showed up in a given room at a given time, but you can never prove that a person, or a dozen or a hundred people, did not in fact see or experience something that possessed some sort of reality whose nature just happens to transcend the physical entirely and exist on a level that’s not verifiable by any instrumental means. In other words, there may be things that objectively exist within subjectivity itself, and their reality may be just as existentially significant and pressing for us, and maybe even more so, than things “out there” that can be encountered and measured and proved or disproved in materiality.
When it comes right down to it, our modern categories of “real” and “unreal,” and also the subdivision of the unreal into “imaginary” and “hallucinated,” are essentially linguistic and conceptual political plays. They’re ways of policing consciousness by giving people ways to pigeonhole their experiences in prefabricated ontological slots. And—to grossly misquote Shakespeare—reality itself flows right through and past those slots, because there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our current flatland versions of philosophy and psychology. Fortunately, recent developments like the resurgence of psychedelic research and thought, the birth of the “paranthropology” movement as exemplified by Jack Hunter’s excellent journal of that title, and the serious philosophical attention being given to shamanism are all addressing the imperialism and shortcomings of the modern Western mindset.
So, was my demonic-seeming entity real? I have to answer that it was as real as I am, as real as the consciousness from which I’m giving you this semblance of an answer.
-- Give me a few writers/artist/philosophers and seminal works of fiction that may have inspired or affected your work.
I think my answer at the moment may go in directions it wouldn’t normally go, because during the past several weeks, for reasons I can’t figure out, I’ve found myself thinking about some of my favorite childhood authors. As I suspect was also the case for you, and as is probably the case for nearly everybody who reads The Cosmicomicon, I was entranced with books when I was young. I mean, I still am today, but the magnetic-hypnotic pull of books that voracious readers feel especially in their youth was definitely there for me from as far back as I can remember, and it shaped my inner world at a crucial age.
I devoured books by Ray Bradbury, Madeleine L’Engle, Lloyd Alexander, C. S. Lewis, Susan Cooper, and J. R. R. Tolkien all through school. Lots of science fiction and fantasy. I also read some of Lewis’s nonfiction work about Christianity and religion, and was very moved by it. As an adult I reread book four of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, titled Taran Wanderer, and discovered depths in it that I hadn’t been able to appreciate before. The same thing happened with Ms. L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door, two books that I credit with programming me at a young age to appreciate and resonate with stories that combine cosmic terror, horror, wonder, and awe, along with a taste for dystopian storytelling (think Camazotz, the dark planet in A Wrinkle in Time) and a fascination with the use of fantasy, science fiction, and horror for philosophical and spiritual exploration. They also gave me a taste for the positive deliciousness of scientific ideas as they relate to questions of cosmic reality and its human meanings.
Anne Rice knocked me for a serious loop when I was 16 and 17; the emotional, philosophical, historical, and stylistic depth and darkness and lushness of Interview with the Vampire and, especially, The Vampire Lestat marked me permanently, but I found with surprise that I just couldn’t read her later work, which struck me as irredeemably shitty.
I went nuts over Jack London in junior high and read White Fang and The Call of the Wild multiple times. Oddly, I remember reading an old novelization of the original King Kong movie over and over at around the same time. In my seventh grade English class, I wrote a short story sequel to The Call of the Wild that impressed the teacher so much, she submitted it to Stone Soup, the long-running literary magazine of stories by kids aged 8 to 13. (It was rejected.)
Throughout childhood, and actually into adulthood, I read any and all books about horror and science fiction movies that I could get my hands on. The same was true for books about the supernatural and paranormal, as in the many young adult books on those subjects by Daniel Cohen. I’m partly defined by the early memories of those books with their glorious pictures, mostly in black and white, of Count Orlock, Kong, Dr. Caligari, Cesar, Karloff’s Frankenstein, Karloff’s mummy, Lugosi’s Dracula, Christopher Lee’s Dracula, the Gill-Man, Godzilla, Klaatu, ghosts, Nessie, UFOs, and more. A lot of that was in pre-home video days, and cable television didn’t come to my neighborhood until I was in seventh grade, so for years I knew all of those movies only through the books with their loads of pictures and their sometimes inaccurate plot summaries. This generated a truly mythic sense of them that I wouldn’t exchange for the world. I remember Tom Ligotti once saying that he, too, first came to know The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari by reading about it, and even though he didn’t like the film when he finally saw it, he has always lived with a kind of mythic-perfect version of it existing in his head thanks to those gorgeous movie stills. That’s exactly what I’m talking about (although I like the actual Caligari film better than Tom does).
As for what has influenced me in a more adult vein, people who read my work, both fiction and nonfiction, are aware of the deep mark that Lovecraft and Ligotti have made on me, along with a roster of additional masters of weird fiction: Klein, Poe, and so on. My authorial sensibility is also shaped by, and is in fact inseparable from, my lifelong deep-reading of the Bible, Christian theology, Gnosticism, Zen Buddhism, Vedanta, world religions, and a host of philosophers and spiritual thinkers and teachers: Alan Watts, Eckhart Tolle, Douglas Harding, Robert Anton Wilson, Jung, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, William James, and others. A more recent addition to the pantheon is Patrick Harpur, author of Daimonic Reality and several other books that I will inevitably end up reading.
-- The movies of the mind are often better than those on the screen… Getting more specific, I read your short story “Teeth” a few years back and became an ardent fan. Due to the thematic elements in the piece - and not that this classifies or pigeonholes all of your work - but do you consider yourself a “Lovecraftian?” If so, what does being identified as such mean to you? If not, why not?
I’m a Lovecraftian by temperament but not by conscious intent. I’m no more or less of a Lovecraftian writer than I am a Ligottian writer, a Jungian writer, or an apocalyptic-esoteric-occult-paranormal-Zen-Christian-agnostic writer. “Teeth” was my first published work, both electronically and in print. It appeared first at Thomas Ligotti Online and then in Del Rey’s The Children of Cthulhu, and it quotes the first paragraph of “The Call of Cthulhu” in full, and mentions Lovecraft directly, and explicitly invokes his master themes of cosmic horror and cosmic monstrousness as illustrations or explanations of the narrator’s personal spiritual-philosophical destruction. So that established a Lovecraftian pedigree for it and for me right from the start of my publishing career. But I’m not at all interested in trying to write deliberately in a Lovecraftian vein, and especially not—Cthulhu save us—in a mythos vein. The Lovecraftian resonances in some of my stories are simply spontaneous reflections of the fact that Lovecraft, in his person and philosophy and writings—including his essays and letters as much as his stories—has become a part of my universe. I wanted to read him before I had ever heard of him, and when we finally met, it was like finding a lost part of myself. The same thing has happened with Ligotti and many of the other writers I was just talking about.
Steve Rasnic Tem said something in his contributor’s bio for The Children of Cthulhu that has always struck me as a neat explanation of what I’m getting at: “I’m not particularly interested in playing in other writers’ universes, but I am interested in what happens when my own particular obsessions encounter those of another writer.” Or actually, even that description goes too far for me. It’s not exactly that I’m interested in exploring how my particular obsessions interface with those of Lovecraft or any other writer, but simply that the organic expression of my own sensibility always turns out to involve a constellation of other writers, and also filmmakers and composers and musicians, whose ideas and emotions have become part of me. I read a cool recent interview with Woody Allen where the interviewer brought up one of Allen’s favorite novels and asked him, “How did it influence you?” And Allen just said, “It’s not that it influenced me; it resonated with me, in the same way as when I see movies by Ingmar Bergman. They mean something to me because of his preoccupations and his view of life. It rang a bell in me.” That’s what I’m talking about.
Or even shorter: In my 2006 Ligotti interview, when I asked Tom to talk about The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, he described the book as “a synthesis of ideas I’ve formed over my life and of other people’s ideas that rhyme with mine.” I find that beautiful and insightful, and am happy to steal it as a description of almost everything I’ve written.
-- “Resonance” instead of “influence.” I think that describes what many writers feel when they come across another scribe whose work jibes with what they personally do. It doesn’t necessarily alter the course of one’s fiction, but a previously unknown harmony is discovered, that could add more confidence and surety to a writer’s path, as they know they’re not working alone in the dark.
And I think that’s as valuable a thing as can happen to a writer, or to any person, really. It’s one of those deep mysteries of human life that our own most personal and fate-filled paths are often activated for us, or at least they’re called out and made more conscious for us, by coming into contact with and being influenced by other people. I’d also like to point out that this often works just as well when the reaction isn’t one of sympathetic resonance but of deep rejection. Your own path can be revealed and clarified quite well by coming up against that which you are most pointedly not.
-- I know a little about your background, and the religious underpinnings of your upbringing. But, I’ll ask anyway, as it seems to mirror some of my childhood experiences: What about a devout/strict Christian childhood leads one to develop a fascination with cosmic horror, or dark things in general?
In a way this brings me back to my questioning of the question, because I think people, including me, are not just products of their environment but bearers of an inbuilt disposition from birth. Environment and upbringing shape this disposition but they don’t create it. So my fascination with cosmic horror and dark things in general was, I think, part of the seed self, the “psychic acorn” James Hillman talked about, that was born with me.
But as for how a devout Christian upbringing like mine affected all of that, I can say that it certainly provided a rich trove of apocalyptic theological ideas. I grew up in a church that hovered somewhere between conservative evangelical and fundamentalist, but its basic moral and social environment fit hand-in-glove with the culture of the Missouri Ozarks at the time, so for most of my youth I was kind of like the fish that couldn’t become aware of the water around it. I didn’t know that my church was part of a very specific denominational movement within Protestant evangelicalism called the Independent Christian Church, which was and is one of those conservative restoration movements that view themselves as reviving primitive Christianity the way it was practiced in New Testament times. I didn’t know its theology and politics and social attitudes and puritanical morality fell mostly on the conservative, uptight, reactionary end of the spectrum. I didn’t even really understand that there was a spectrum. My religious environment, which was pretty much inseparable from my cultural and family environment, formed a totally enveloping backdrop to my view of the world for a huge portion of my youth.
|Dulle Griet (Mad Meg), 1562 - Pieter Bruegel the Elder|
So when I started to get disillusioned with a lot of that during my teens, the snapback was pretty severe. I didn’t realize until then—and it was a realization that kept growing for many years – that the same set of passions and inclinations that led me to take my religion so personally and seriously also accounted for my inbuilt fascination with supernatural horror. That’s why, when I dove into the serious reading and study of Lovecraft, I was completely bowled over by the spiritual, psychological, and metaphysical aspects of his thought world. In addition to his stories, I read his Supernatural Horror in Literature and found him saying that weird fiction involves “a psychological pattern or tradition as real and as deeply grounded in mental experience as any other pattern or tradition of mankind; coeval with the religious feeling and closely related to many aspects of it.” Much later, in grad school, I read Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy and found Otto linking the prehistoric origin of the human religious capacity and sensibility to a fear-response of “daemonic dread” and awed trembling before a great and fascinating cosmic mystery, and I saw him saying that this primal aspect of human psychology was culturally elaborated not only into religions but into the ancient tradition of stories about ghosts and other supernatural horrors. And all of this was like reading a deep analysis of my own inner world, written decades before I was even born.
-- More of that waiting resonance… You possess a Master’s in religion. This has already been touched upon above, but which came first, the MA or the horror writing? Meaning, did pursuing terrifying things lead you to explore the deeper mysteries of varied religions, or the other way around?
I wrote the first version of “Teeth” circa 1995. I started pursuing my master’s degree in religious studies in 1996. So the timing was right in line with that whole life entanglement between loving fantasy and horror fiction and being devoutly religious. The grad school career and the horror writing took off almost simultaneously.
They both augmented each other, too, because I wrote the stories that ended up in Divinations of the Deep while I was immersing myself in my grad studies, and lots of the ideas and emotions that went into them were caused by or involved with the stuff I was studying. Like I already said, I was introduced to Otto in grad school, and that was a flat-out game-changer. So was the time I spent studying Gnosticism under Dr. Charles Hedrick, one of the world’s leading scholars of the subject. Anybody who reads “An Abhorrence to All Flesh,” “Notes of a Mad Copyist,” or “Judas of the Infinite” in Divinations will instantly be able to spot my incorporation and reprocessing of lots of Gnostic themes in a supernatural horrific context—something that was helped along by the fact that if you study the second-century Gnostics, and also the older and wider tradition they’re a part of, you discover that some of them believed they were living in a supernaturally horrific cosmos already.
-- What do you see as the connective tissue between horror, religion, consciousness, spirituality, creativity, and enlightenment? Yes, I’m making your work for this answer.
Work, you say? Doesn’t everybody like to talk about these things?
I hope this makes sense: to be conscious, and especially to be self-aware in the singular way that appears to be exclusively or predominantly human, is to be, in principle, capable of horror. Horror is built into human consciousness. This is because we’re all ensconced or trapped—depending on how you spin it—in our subjective points of view. To say it another way, we are subjectivity. And this means there’s a kind of horizon to our experience, and beyond that there’s an outside reality that confronts us with the so-called “mystery of the other.” Each of us is confronted by, and situated at the subjective center of, the “outer world.” Both the structure of our consciousness and the cues from our cultures tell us what’s “natural,” how things are “supposed to be,” what the world and universe “really are.” And our sense of normalcy and cosmic security comes to rest on this. In other words, this really amounts to a personal “cosmos” for each individual, an ordering of experience and perceived reality with its own definite order and boundaries.
But sometimes something rips through what sociologist Peter Berger called the “sacred canopy” of our established understanding of the universe, and the result is pure horror. Not necessarily terror, which is something different, but horror, defined as a combination of fear and revulsion. Being physical assaulted, or having someone close to you die (even if peacefully, but especially if horribly), or having your entire sensibility overwhelmed like what happened on 9/11 or like what happens in the middle of a war, or being hideously injured and seeing your own innards, or having your deeply held moral view of things violated by things that “should not be”—these cause horror because they punch through that subjective-objective divide and threaten to assault us in our core. Whatever lies “outside” is potentially, and inherently, horrifying, which is why the Lovecraftian trope of cosmic outsideness represents a kind of apotheosis of horror as such.
But the thing is, religion and spirituality are likewise concerned with what lies outside or beyond the cosmic horizon. Their point is to reconnect with and, depending on your tradition, to identify with and/or be transformed by the reality beyond the veil: God, Buddha nature, Brahman, spirit, whatever. The same “place” where cosmic horror is “located” is the place where the object of religious and spiritual longing resides. And maybe, just maybe, both realities are really the same. From the human point of view we can’t really know. But we can suspect, and sometimes we can fall into heaven- or hell-realms of experience that seem to confirm one way or the other.
|Luigi Cherubini and the Muse of Lyric Poetry|
As for how this all relates to creativity, the creative process involves the unconscious mind, and when we talk about that we open a whole new can of horror, because when you really come to understand what the words “unconscious mind” mean, you see that they refer to an interior counterpart or analog to cosmic outsideness. In our ego selves we’re confronted from both in front and behind, above and below, by an ungovernable and dangerous realm of otherness. The unconscious mind is the source of dreaming, visions, creative inspiration, and, all of those innate passions and predispositions I was talking about a minute ago. And they’re beyond our conscious control. They’re part of us, but we experience them as autonomous and often dangerous and disturbing, as in complexes and schizophrenia and nightmares and—to mention something I’ve personally grappled with—experiences of hypnagogia during sleep paralysis where demonic-seeming stuff erupts into conscious experience. The recognition of all this is what led to my fascination with the ancient symbolic figures of the genius, the daemon, and the muse, because these refer to spiritual or psychic entities or intelligences that speak as independent beings from inside the psyche itself. And the potential for horror is therefore massive, although it’s balanced by an equal potential for enlightenment and awakening and spiritual communion of the blissful sort.
Spirituality, religion, creativity, enlightenment—these all open us up to what presents itself as something outside, something that exists beyond the horizon of our personal consciousness but is still somehow entangled with our identities, and this opens up the possibility of a truly uncanny experience of life that makes your it the existential equivalent of living in a weird supernatural horror story.
-- Among your many impressive accomplishments, one that ranks up there is actually more based on what you currently AREN’T doing than what you are, which is your bold move to unplug from Facebook and other mainstream bastions of social media. Or at least you were unplugged until recently, and you took five whole months off in 2011 as well. This shouldn’t be such a big deal, but based on the current climate of overall communication (both cyber and fleshy), and the means of marketing one’s work, it truly is, at least to me. What prompted this move? How has it affected your writing, your daily routine, and your overall endeavors?
I’ve gone through several cycles of energy, attitude, creativity, and overall outlook during my life online, which started in 1996. I’m convinced that the Internet has the potential for truly dystopian destruction on both a personal and a collective, societal level. I’m talking about authentic cultural collapse and a new dark age along the lines of Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World. At the same time, its valid uses and benefits are also clear. I really respect the opinions of Daniel Pinchbeck, and a couple of years ago in an opinion piece for Alternet he called the Internet “ground zero in the global consciousness revolution” since it decentralizes the hegemonic power that was formerly controlled by governments and corporations and allows grassroots communicating, organizing, learning, and intellectual enlightenment in an unprecedented way. But he also pointed out that Facebook, for instance, has as many inherent problems as benefits, but it’s somewhat inescapable if you want to reach anybody, because that’s where all of the people are. I resonate with this, as I do with the recent media pieces about Facebook’s 51st employee, Katherine Losse, who quit the company over dire concerns about what social media are doing to human relationships and societies, and moved to remote Marfa, Texas to write a book on the subject. After awhile she found that she just couldn’t keep her Facebook account turned off it she wanted to be viable in the current writing and publishing environment, so she reapproached it with a new wariness and determination to ride the Facebook railroad instead of letting it ride her.
In my own life, my publishing career and personal relationships have been enhanced by my online activities—my publishing career, in fact, grew directly out of my involvement in Usenet in the 1990s—but they’ve also been hindered by it, such as when I find that the cyberworld has become a psychic vampire that drains my time and creative energy, leaving me authentically anhedonic, or when I find that the endless parade of information and distractions, some of which is pure trash but some of which takes the form of validly worthwhile articles and films and so on, distracts me from the real world of family, friends, and coworkers around me. Neil Postman and Marshall McLuhan both talked about how technologies aren’t neutral, contrary to most people’s unreflective opinions. All technologies come with inbuilt “programs” for social change, such as the automobile, which ended up creating cities that are explicitly designed for cars instead of people. Communication technologies are the most insidious and profoundly impactful, because they directly affect how we even think and talk about their effects.
So that’s all a long-winded way of saying that I’ve unplugged for a couple of extended periods in order to regroup and recoup my attention, energy, and soul. Last year’s extended Internet sabbatical resulted in a significant upsurge in motivation and inspiration to write, and I found I was thinking more clearly and feeling more calm and centered. In fact, the overall sense of calm and peace I felt was positively blissful. I did an extra lot of meditation and mental/spiritual centering—something I’ve done off and on since my late teens—and reached some deeper levels than I’d ever encountered. That bled out into my personal daily interactions, too. There’s a passage from a book by Oliver Sacks—the author and neurologist played by Robin Williams in Awakenings—where Sacks talks about a kind of spiritual epiphany he experienced while recovering from a leg injury. What he describes is what I experienced for several months last year:
“After breakfast I wandered out—it was a particularly glorious September morning—and settled myself on a stone seat with a large view in all directions, and filled and lit my pipe. This was a new, or at least an almost-forgotten, experience. I had never had the leisure to light a pipe before, or not, it seemed to me, for fourteen years at least. Now, suddenly, I had an immense sense of leisure, an unhurriedness, a freedom I had almost forgotten—but which, now it had returned, seemed the most precious thing in life. There was an intense sense of stillness, peacefulness, joy, a pure delight in the ‘now,’ freed from drive or desire. I was intensely conscious of each leaf, autumn-tinted, on the ground; intensely conscious of the Eden around me. The world was motionless, frozen— everything concentrated in an intensity of sheer being. . . . Now, on this morning, as though on the first morning of Creation, I felt like Adam beholding a new world with wonder. I had not known, or had forgotten, that there could be such beauty, such completeness, in every moment. I had no sense at all of moments, of the serial, only of the perfection and beauty of the timeless now.”The first time I read that several years ago, I was already very familiar with the literature of awakening—I had read obsessively about Zen and such for many years—so this was just a particularly engaging and lovely description of things I had read about many times. But during last year’s serious Internet sabbatical, I fell into a state exactly like what Sacks describes, and it lasted several months. I figured my horror writing days were done, and I said that publicly at The Teeming Brain at one point. Then some inner motion kicked back in, and, well, here I am.
I find the whole “unplugging” movement that is now taking root to be fascinating. Currently Paul Miller, a tech writer for The Verge, is spending a year offline. Less than a week ago at the time I’m talking with you now, The Verge checked in with him, and he told them that the first two weeks were a Zen-like paradise of blissful peace and focus. And even now that the newness has worn off, he told them, “I have zero regrets about leaving the internet. I'm only three months in, and I can honestly say that this is turning into the best year of my life.” From my own experience, I can tell you that he’s not just blowing smoke.
-- Facebook stock just plummeted again… Tell me a bit about your music. How does it fit into your life, and your creative pursuits?
In the past few years the very act of playing the piano has become more and more central to my enjoyment of everyday life. On most evenings I spend at least a little time playing one or several of Bach’s two-part inventions, a little Beethoven, maybe some modern piano stuff along the lines of the Windham Hill albums, and maybe noodling around with improvisational stuff. I’m struck with a sense of time’s numinosity whenever I reflect on the fact that I’ve been playing piano and keyboards for over 30 years now. It’s just an integral part of living for me, and it has become a kind of discipline, or maybe a pressing need, or actually both, that helps to get me in the right inner state for writing, the state where I can actually hear and feel the promptings of my daemon muse and successfully get them into some tangible form. And of course the music itself has been the location of my creativity in the past, as when I spent three or four years obsessively creating the Daemonyx album. That whole thing just flooded out of me, from the same inner place where the content of Dark Awakenings came from, the same place that’s the source of my horror writing and my religious and spiritual turning. It’s all connected at the root.
Dark Awakenings a "thinking-man's book of the macabre" with "unusual philosophic depth." This is high praise for your most recent work. What is next for you in the realm of fiction?
I have a new story titled “Prometheus Possessed” that will appear in Dark Faith: Invocations from Apex Books this summer. It may already be out by the time this interview is published. It’s unlike anything I’ve written before, because it’s a hybrid of supernatural/spiritual horror and dystopian, post-apocalyptic science fiction. I’ll have a piece in the forthcoming anthology The Starry Wisdom Library that’s being edited by rare book expert Nate Pedersen for PS Publishing. Nate’s rather brilliant conceit for the project is to frame the book as a facsimile reproduction of the original 1877 “lost” auction catalogue for the library of occult books that Lovecraft described as residing in the abandoned Church of Starry Wisdom in “The Haunter of the Dark.” Each “story” is written in the form of a scholarly description of, and essay on, one of these fictitious texts. I wrote about the Daemonolorum, a tome of “nightmare arcana” invented by Robert Bloch for one of his stories. The book will be out in 2013 or 2014 and will feature an introduction by Joshi.
Perhaps most significantly, only a few days ago, thanks to some out-of-the-blue maneuverings by Wilum Pugmire—whom I already regarded as one of the most authentically nice, gentle, and gentlemanly people that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and knowing in my Lovecraftian and authorial lives—the very real likelihood of a paperback edition of my Dark Awakenings collection suddenly materialized. It will contain two or three previously uncollected stories, and maybe some new nonfiction, to add to the contents of the hardcover edition. The publisher is one that I’m positively thrilled to be associated with. I’m not in a position to divulge details, because it’s all still very new and unsigned, but the whole thing does seem solid enough to talk about publicly.
You didn’t ask about nonfiction, but I’ll mention that I recently signed a contract with ABC-CLIO to edit a book titled Mummies around the World: An Encyclopedia of Mummies in History, Religion, and Popular Culture. I’m also deep into book titled Daemonic Creativity: A Guide to the Inner Genius, which expands significantly on the free ebook A Course in Demonic Creativity that I published last year at Demon Muse.
-- Eight years elapsed between Divinations of the Deep (one of the best titles I’ve encountered, for my money) and Dark Awakenings. Why the relatively long span between books? If I’m prying too much about your creative process, tell me sod off.
I’ll answer by talking about other people. Victoria Nelson is the author of two of my favorite books. One is On Writer’s Block: A New Approach to Creativity, which entrances me with its blazingly lucid and lovely exposition of creativity as a relationship with the “other” of the unconscious mind. Her entire thesis is that deep creativity involves getting into rhythm and relationship with this other self, and letting its innate needs and movements shape the work. At one point she talks about the case of Joseph Joubert, the 18th and 19th century writer who produced brilliant aphorisms and journal entries but froze whenever he tried to write longer works or organize his thoughts into a book. His friends constantly encouraged him to apply himself to the creation of something that would last. But, says Nelson, in the end he realized that the aphorism was, in fact, the direction his native talent wanted to go. It was what he was meant to write. He published nothing in his lifetime, but his works were organized and published after his death.
Ms. Nelson also looks at the examples like that of Philip Larkin, who told the interviewer for The Paris Review that he only produced on average three poems a year. She mentions many such instances, and encourages slow writers to honor their native creative pace and refuse to punish themselves and their unconscious partner for not being what they are not able or intended to be.
Ms. Nelson herself bears witness to this wisdom. Her other book that has been so significant to me, The Secret Life of Puppets, is a brilliant, deep, complex examination of the way the irreducible Platonic/mystical impulse in the human psyche, which is repressed and expelled by the dominant scientific materialist cast of contemporary Western culture, has managed to creep back into our lives through the back door of popular culture, especially in the realms of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. She says wonderfully insightful things about Lovecraft, Bruno Schulz, Philip K. Dick, Freud, Jung, The Matrix, religion, psychology, occultism, esotericism, and more. And the book itself took her, basically, forever to write. In her acknowledgments at the end of it, she notes that it was seeded over the course of many separate essays, and she thanks her editor at Harvard University Press for her “long-term enthusiasm.” (She also refers at one point to “the Lovecraftian entity this book became”—something evocatively appropriate to cyclopean cycles of time.)
Just a few months ago, ten years after The Secret Life of Puppets appeared, her new book finally came out: Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural.
I’ll simply say that I think my own creative cycle and my own unconscious partner, which I relate to as a genius daemon, operate on roughly the same schedule as Ms. Nelson’s.
-- Where do you see your place in the horror/speculative fiction scene, and where do you see yourself in ten years? How about thirty?
I really don’t expect my work to reach more than a few people in my lifetime, and I don’t know if it will be remembered when I’m gone. Something about the way I relate to life and people in my authorial capacity seems destined to make my work appeal to a very small crowd. I also identify deeply and completely with Lovecraft’s sense of repugnance and horror and paralysis at the very thought of doing what’s necessary to market oneself in a money-based culture. I don’t know why exactly this is the case, since I don’t’ share his faux aristocratic pose, although I do have very strong philosophical thoughts and feelings about the ugliness of money and its inbuilt program—like those embedded in technologies—to vampirize real value from art, goods, services, relationships, and life at large. Money isn’t something I’ve ever been able to attract in more than lower-middle to middle-middle class amounts, so I certainly won’t be remembered as a rich author, nor, I think, as a famous one.
Ten years from now? Maybe I’ll be publishing my next book and still speaking to that microscopic sliver of readers who know of and appreciate my work. Thirty years from now? Pretty much the same, although I feel no more confident of my projections about such a thing than I do of the government’s projections about the fate of Social Security or anything else three decades down the road. We all stand now at a technological, ecological, and civilizational inflection point, and things thirty years down the road are likely to look even more dramatically different—perhaps unrecognizably so—than today’s world looks compared to 1982.
So hey, maybe that’s what I’ll spend the next thirty years writing about.
-- Moving to The Teeming Brain, what is your goal with this incredibly varied website?
I created The Teeming Brain in 2006 as my personal blog, and I deliberately chose the name as a way of making it a legitimate outlet for all of my vastly varied thoughts and interests. With its remaking and relaunch this summer as a team-written blog of ideas in an age of apocalypse, my goal is to pursue many of the same subjects—horror and science fiction, religion, philosophy, spirituality, apocalypticism, the paranormal, the specter of economic, political, cultural, and/or ecological collapse—in a more focused format and with a team of top-notch writers and thinkers, including your own most worthy self, whose varied viewpoints and personal/professional networks will make the site an outlet and showcase for truly valuable thinking. I also have in mind some semi-vague but fully real notions of using it as an electronic manifestation of the “new monastic” option that Morris Berman recommends in The Twilight of American Culture as a worthwhile response to a collapsing civilization. In particular, one of the specific emphases of the site, its focus on parapsychology and the paranormal, seems set to “take off,” since this is currently a field that’s experiencing a fierce reawakening to mainstream respectability after a century-long slumber in realms of scorn and exclusion, and our team of writers, which is about to get bigger, is directly tapped into this area and its cousins in consciousness studies, dream studies, and more.
-- Any parting words from one of the most Teemingest Brains working all non-Euclidean angles of not just horror/speculative fiction, but total consciousness and philosophy today?
Apropos to what I said earlier about life online and offline, I’m thinking of adopting a new motto, which might make for a good bumper sticker: “Explore disconnection.” It has resonances beyond the issue of digitally interconnected existence, too. In our rage to be social and connected, disconnection becomes a romantic alternative. We’re all like Cypher in The Matrix, pining to be plugged into unreality because we think it’s better than the real world. Or maybe we can actually transform the virtual into the real instead of the opposite happening, an idea that was just about the only worthwhile thing to come out of the lamentable last film in the Matrix trilogy, which should never have gone past part one. Whatever the case, I shall now retreat into the sanctity (but not solitude, since there’s somebody in here with me) of my private thoughts, and I encourage anybody reading this to consider doing the same, as often as possible, exploring nominal disconnection and finding that it’s actually a more deep and intimate type of connection than what can be found through any computer network.
Do stop by The Teeming Brain on the daily, to get more of what Matt's always cooking, and to suck down your monthly dose of wonder-struck snark 'n awe in "The Extinction Papers." That pop and sizzle is the sound of synapses firing, and possibly a bit o' brain meat hitting the fajita pan. Don't worry, though, as both are incredibly good for you.