Tapping into darkness: MCC instructor finds niche in horror fiction

Matt Cardin, horror fiction author and MCC instructor, stands at the famous Oakwood Cemetery Cooper family monument, an ideal setting for a writer who interweaves religion into his tales of the supernatural. Location scouting by Harold Alexander.

Had he lived a century ago, Matt Cardin, author of “Dark Awakenings,” (Mythos Books, 2010) might have been a rival of horror/fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft, instead of his disciple.

Had he lived two centuries ago, Cardin might have been classified as a “mad genius,” haunted by a morose muse bent on his eventual despair.

Matt Cardin, horror fiction author and MCC instructor, stands at the famous Oakwood Cemetery Cooper family monument, an ideal setting for a writer who interweaves religion into his tales of the supernBut Cardin lives in 21st-century Waco, and he has found a home in some pop subcultures in his fascination with the sacred and profane mysteries of the supernatural.

The former religious studies student from southwest Missouri now tags himself an “agnostic Zen Christian, if that’s possible.” For a man with a decidedly bleak world view, he finds some comfort playing keyboard as a fill-in musician for a rural Baptist church.

It is his compulsion to write horror fiction and academic papers exploring the religious implications of horror and the horrific implications of religion that is forging his identity as a creator of weird tales.

The product of an evangelical Christian upbringing, Cardin said, he continues to be a student of metaphysics, history and theology, philosophy and world religions. These varied disciplines are where he draws the ideas for much of his fiction.

In “Notes of a Mad Copyist,” for example, a monk in a medieval monastery accidentally taps into a primordial force older than the God of his ancestors, a power more ancient than time itself.

Another story, “Teeth,” explores philosophy, comparative religion and even quantum mechanics through a mysterious mandala that seems to be the universal maw described by Lovecraft as the ancient and terrible Azathoth.

“I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Jungian,” Cardin said, alluding to the famed Swiss psychoanalyst who regarded human beings as essentially religious creatures, and who posited controversially that God had “an evil face” as well as a kindly visage.

McLennan Community College will play host this month to the second installment of “The Dark Mirror,” the Waco horror film festival he created a year ago with the help of Jim Kendrick, associate professor in the film and digital media division of the Department of Communication Studies at Baylor University.

“Our theme is horror and religion, Cardin noted. “Films will include ‘The Exorcist,’ “Session 9,’ ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ — lots of good stuff.”

For Cardin, “The tension between ‘life is a living nightmare’ and ‘life is wonderful’ is immensely compelling to me as a writer,” he said. “So my stories tend to explore this shadowy realm between existential dread and spiritual communion.”

He explored that in his first collection, “Divinations of the Deep” (Ash-Tree Press, 2002). “Dark Awakenings,” his second volume, keeps up the palpitations.

“This thinking-man’s book of the macabre,” as Publishers Weekly reviewed it earlier this year, offers a provocative mix of dystopian tales larded with unusual philosophic heft.

The author credits his own nightmares for pushing him into the field of horror fiction. Visions he suffered during sleep paralysis (in ancient times, a malady blamed on demonic creatures known as incubi and succubi) inform a lot of his fiction, Cardin said.

Cardin notes that he’s had to live and cope with repeated bouts of depression and “inner barrenness” over the years — but tempered as well with of intense energy, enthusiasm, inspiration and productivity. This prolific blogger, for example, muses frequently on MattCardin.com, TheTeemingBrain.wordpress.com and his blog of “daimonic creativity,” DemonMuse.com.

Last month Cardin released a 30,000-word free e-book on the DemonMuse.com blog. “A Course in Demonic Creativity” is a guide to the daimonic muse-based approach to writing and creativity.

Deamons or daimons are mythological supernatural beings identified over time through art and literature as fragments of the divine spark (those “flashes of inspiration”) much like the Muses of Greek mythology who personify the arts. They are credited with inspiring the creative process of artists, musicians, actors, singers and dancers.

A Cardin short story, “The New Pauline Corpus,” is featured in “Cthulhu’s Reign,” a collection of fanciful fiction about the Lord of Chaos envisioned by Lovecraft as a squid-headed monster. Cardin was asked to contribute to the anthology to find a way to reconcile Christian theology with Lovecraft’s “Old Ones.”

“The (Judeo-Christian) scriptures have always had a quasi-Lovecraftian horror encoded within them,” he contends.

Cardin cites numerous examples in the Old Testament of malevolent spirits, “terrifying” angels (“Why else are they always telling people to ‘Be not afraid’ of their appearance?”), strange creatures like Leviathan (a sea monster) and Behemoth, the enormous, horned beast said to be the largest animal of creation.

Then there’s the hybrid race of giants known as The Nephilim, offspring of the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men” found in Genesis 6:4. Perhaps fallen angels, perhaps aliens, these mysterious creatures appear periodically throughout the Hebrew writings.

He also notes biblical references to Tiamat, the Babylonian she-dragon; and Baal, the Canaanite deity often depicted as chief foe of the Hebrew god, Yahweh.

But for sheer human-on-human horror, he added, it is difficult to discount the slaughter of Canaanite civilians in the conquest of the Promised Land in the books of Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Readers are told that virgins were spared but all other women and all males were put to the sword for the glory of Israel’s God.

The most vile vignette of the Bible, Cardin contends, is found in Judges 19, when a Levite on a journey through a wild town turns his concubine out into the night to satisfy the lusts of the lawless townsmen. Her comatose body is found the next morning, and her master takes her home and cuts her up into 12 pieces, sending a hunk of flesh to each of the tribes to arouse their ire against the town of Gibaeh in Benjamin.

Cardin said he also has taught high school, sold pianos, specialized in corporate communications, and even directed videos for county music superstar Glen Campbell.

Since August 2008, though, Cardin has called Central Texas home, selecting Waco for the climate. His health demands a drier, hotter climate than he was finding in Missouri for the treatment of his rheumatism.

“Arizona was too expensive to live there, and I found a job here,” he explained.

Two years ago, he found full-time employment in the writing center of McLennan Community College, where he leads students through exercises to turn them into writers of myriad college term papers. Before then, he was a MCC adjunct instructor of developmental reading and writing.

One of his scholarly essays included in “Dark Awakenings” is “Gods and Monsters, Worms and Fire: A Horrific Reading of Isaiah.” In it Cardin ruminates on the recurring hints throughout the Hebrew scriptures that Yahweh, the God of Israel, is infinitely powerful, capricious and deeply terrifying.

“In Isaiah, Yahweh is perpetually threatening to destroy the world order because of human behavior that affronts his holy nature. The text is drenched in a sense of Yahweh’s transcendent otherness, as well as drenched in blood,” Cardin said. The final verse of the book, in fact, (Isaiah 66:24) is particularly gruesome: “And they shall go out and look at the dead bodies of the people who have rebelled against me; for their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”

“Even ancient readers didn’t want to end the book on that note,” he said. Ergo, for millennia in some Jewish circles, rabbis left instruction that whenever the final part of Isaiah was read aloud in the synagogue, it was to be followed by a repetition of the verse preceding it (“And it shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, and from one sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith the Lord”) to soften the blow of that celestial anger, he said.

Cinematic frights

The Dark Mirror horror film festival, created last year by Cardin and Baylor associate professor Jim Kendrick, will be at 7 p.m. Oct. 28-29 in MCC’s Lecture Hall. Call 299-8356 or email mcardin@mclennan.edu for more information.

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