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VINE VOICEon June 7, 2011
Half dark fiction, half academic musings on angels, demons, the dead, and monsters, Dark Awakenings, by Matt Cardin, is an exploration of the common religious goals of transcendence, rebirth, and salvation. So what makes this exploration dark? Cardin's twist of the knife comes from the enlightened observation that these sorts of religious ideals may have tragic, dire, or even horrific consequences if actually realized. What if the path the pious have been following towards enlightenment turns out to lead to death and destruction? Split into seven short stories and novellas and three academic papers, this book is a rather unique combination of fiction and non-fiction horror writing, and a veritable treasure chest of stories and musings for aficionados of the horror genre.

Cardin's style is often poetic and brooding, with dense descriptive passages and minimal dialogue, peppered with philosophical musings. His horror attitude is much like a cross between that of Edgar Allen Poe and H. P. Lovecraft--explorations of protagonists reaching for the meaning of life while struggling with inner turmoils, or faced with cosmic horrors. In "The Devil and One Lump," a macabre version of the Charlie Daniels song "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," the Devil himself describes of the protagonist, a writer, "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." In the fiction stories presented in Dark Awakenings, just so, Mr. Cardin, just so.

The results are quite satisfying for readers desiring stories of the scary and the weird, but those uncomfortable with a spot of blood or the spilling of an internal organ or two may wish to stick with lighter fare. The reader may also be left puzzling the dark religious implications of some of the stories. As with cosmic horror, in the vein of Algernon Blackwood, Sheridan Le Fanu, M. R. James, and H. P. Lovecraft, the horror in Dark Awakenings may not always follow a logical chain. Herein, dark dwarves who crouch low may spring forth at odd angles for cosmic reasons known not to the reader. This is not superficial horror, but horror with implications extending beyond the mundane and having dire ramifications for soul and sanity.

The non-fiction essays in Dark Awakenings are interesting, if academic, musings on the history of angels and demons in supernatural horror: a contemplative analysis of George Romero's Living Dead films, and an essay on how to read the Biblical book of Isaiah as a work of horror. All these articles shed new information and perspectives on these topics, and are complete with footnotes and suggested readings. For example, we learn about the evolution of the word "demons," from the historic meaning as being good and bad mediators between God and humans, to the modern interpretation of being the evil minions of the Devil.

In another essay, Cardin shows multiple lenses through which George Romero's Living Dead zombie films can be viewed. In one section he contrasts how zombies are viewed from a "Western" religious perspective, to how zombies can be viewed from an "Eastern" religious perspective. While thoroughly entertaining, one minor nit is his equivalence of "Western religions" to monotheistic Abrahamic religions imported from the Middle East. True Western religions are the polytheistic religions of the Indians of North and South America, the Norse, the Celts, and the Germani. But once it is clear he's really contrasting Middle Eastern religious perspectives to Eastern religious perspectives, his analysis of how zombies can be viewed differently based on one's religious background is informative and interesting.

Also of interest is his use of Roger Schlobin's three-part taxonomic tool from the essay "Prototypic Horror: The Genre of the Book of Job," which in Schlobin's article was used to judge whether or not a given text should be understood as a horror story. Cardin effectively uses this horror-evaluation framework to assess the horror potential of the Biblical book of Isaiah.

So, if you like your horror fiction cosmic and meaningful, or wish for scholarly insights into zombies, demons, and techniques for classifying stories as horror stories, then you will be entirely enchanted with Dark Awakenings. And if you want both your horror fiction and critical analysis in one book, then you will be absolutely thrilled with it.
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on September 9, 2012
It would be easy to describe Matt Cardin's work as "religious horror", but I feel that this label lends itself to a myriad of misconceptions and prejudices. Religion lies at the core of each of this book's pieces, but it's far removed from the usual supernatural fare that invokes such a broad topic.

H.P. Lovecraft wrote about the perils of science, and the potential utter disaster it could bring to the human race as it got closer and closer to unravelling the mysteries at the heart of it all. Cardin takes a similar approach to the concept of spiritual and/or philosophical enlightment: in the superb first story, 'Teeth', he asks "what if there is indeed a total perspective, but to gain and know it and identify with it is to invite your own deepest disaster?", and "what if reality itself is finally, fundamentally evil?". Parting from such a premise, Cardin, a religion scholar, uses his knowledge of western and eastern religions and philosophies as the foundation for this terrifying vision of existence, making it seem rather plausible even if you, like me, are not a religious person.

To me the highlight of the book is the novella-length story 'The God of Foulness'. It revolves around a reporter tasked with investigating a cult known as The Sick and Saved Movement, people with serious (often terminal) diseases that refuse to undergo any sort of treatment and, it seems, consider their disease to be something divine. It is an extremely evocative and visceral piece of work that mixes the above-mentioned religious concerns with pure, unadulterated body horror. The climax of the story is the stuff of nightmares.

Aside from the short fiction, the book includes three essays that further explores the link between religion and horror. I actually read these essays first, so when the time came to read the short stories I felt I was better prepared to absorb and understand them. So you could take a similar approach, maybe.

Fans of Lovecraft and Thomas Ligotti will find that Matt Cardin treads on similar dark paths. But while his work may seem like familiar territory, it never strikes you as a rehash or a mere derivative effort. He's a true practitioner of the horror genre with a vision and expertise that makes his stories unique and personal (see how he pokes at himself in 'The Devil and One Lump' for a humorous example of the latter). I'm clearly no authority in the horror genre, but, for whatever's worth, I believe that Cardin stands above most of his contemporaries. He's that good.
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on December 14, 2015
Great writing, really unique voice. Very Lovecraftian!
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on May 1, 2016
I love this book.
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