You learn something new every day. In the case of today, it’s that multiple H.P. Lovecraft-themed parodies of Chick tracts exist. That probably shouldn’t have surprised me, though: when you’re dealing with cosmic horror, one of the expected elements is a sense that human religion is beside the point, that prayers and supplications will do no good in the face of some sort of limitless eldritch evil. Alternately: that theology and cosmic horror don’t mix.
What I learned from reading Matt Cardin’s collection To Rouse Leviathan is that they can, in fact, mix — and it’s incredibly unsettling when they do. The stories in this collection suggest that the only thing more terrifying than an absent deity is one whose motivations and goals are entirely alien to a human mind. What would it mean to worship such a being? How might humanity have gotten it all so deeply wrong?
“An Abhorrence to All Flesh” opens the collection with the narrator, Todd, reconnecting with an old friend, Darby. Darby invites Todd to a party and shares a story with him of a peculiar Christian sect — one which believed that “God created this world from chaos, created life from slime, and now He has to be kept separate from His creation in order for anything at all to survive.” And out of this ominous concept arises a tale of moral and physical decay that balances sinister and visceral imagery with even more unsettling concepts.
As befits the book’s concerns with both faith and horror, religious sects play a significant role in many of these stories. In “The God of Foulness,” a reporter explores a particular movement in which sickness is seen as a kind of divine grace. The narrative sprawls — it’s the collection’s longest story — and Cardin’s sense of detail gives the story a kind of timeless sensibility.
Gradually, To Rouse Leviathan moves from the visceral to the intellectual — to the point where a kind of emotional and psychic emptiness is seen as equivalent to more traditional horror story outcomes. It’s here that Cardin finds the most unsettling elements: a story like “Desert Places” has less overt horror than some of the others in the book, but in its summoning of the unspoken dynamic within a group of estranged friends, it’s apparent that this could curdle into something awful.
With these stories, Cardin finds interesting ways to make the familiar feel fresh. Given that his stories include a fair amount of rot, both metaphorically and literally, can seem like a terrible pun; I can only assure you that it’s not.
To Rouse Leviathan
by Matt Cardin (including two collaborations with Mark McLaughlin)
Hippocampus Press; 374 p.